It was enormous, complex, beautiful, alive. It was longer than a city block and almost as wide as the four lane street that served as the parade route. Its base level was ten feet off the road, but some years its highest points soared as much as sixty feet in the air. It was pulled by a squadron of eight massive tractors. And no matter who you were, it showed you something better than you deserved. Exactly forty-four actors rode on the float, playing out their elaborate roles and improvising ways to shoot candy and extra-large Gilbert Travel Agency hockey jerseys into the ecstatic crowd. If you wanted to be an actor on the float, you had to audition two years in advance, and if you made the cut, you constructed the float and rehearsed in seclusion, cut off from the world, right up until the day of your single performance.
The float had to be seen in person. It resisted photography, like the Great Wall of China does, like the
Every Founder’s Day, after all the other instantly forgotten floats had rolled down the straight, six mile parade route, the massive doors of the Inception Hangar would rumble open and the Gilbert Travel Agency Float would emerge. It would creep out into the daylight and the crowd nearest the hangar would roar and throw marigold petals into the street. The roar would run the entire length of the route, marigold petals filling the air, and by the time the float passed the first of the spectators, the pennants were snapping in the wind, the actors were moving, singing, leaping, the volcanoes were erupting, the streams were sparkling, the waterfalls were crashing, the trained birds were swooping around in formation, and the candy and hockey jerseys were raining down on the reaching, pleading crowd. Just over an hour later, it was all over. The float would roll into the Cessation Hangar, the massive doors would rumble closed, and the dazed crowd would disperse, sucking their candy or saving it as each saw fit.
But this year there was a problem.
Channing Gilbert crouched inside one of the bamboo huts near the center of the float and peeked out through a low window. He watched a group of actors perform a stately march while an old man in flowing green robes delivered a monologue about the first time he had opened his suitcase in a foreign country and discovered that his familiar clothes, razor, and alarm clock had been fundamentally changed as a result of their role in the trip. There was a tiny microphone tucked in the elderly actor’s beard and his words were projected out over the cheering crowd by means of speakers hidden in the flowering bushes at the edge of the float. Channing didn’t notice anything suspicious in the behavior of these actors, but if the traitor had made it this far, if he had made it through the audition, the background checks, the psychological examinations, the two years of rehearsal, and everything else, didn’t that mean he was an expert, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on not arousing suspicion?
Channing’s father was Winslow Gilbert, founder and CEO of Gilbert Travel Agency. Just six days ago, Winslow had received an anonymous note stating that one of the male actors was a fake, a traitor, a Judas, a saboteur. All efforts to flush the traitor out before the day of the parade had been unsuccessful, and that morning, before the sun had risen, Winslow had called Channing into his office and assigned him the task of riding on the float, finding the traitor, and pushing him into the street.
“But I’m not supposed to be on the float,” Channing said. “I didn’t audition.” He was smashed into a chair that had been custom made for him when he was twelve. His name was embroidered on the seat.
“These are emergency circumstances,” said Winslow, smoothing a white eyebrow. “It’s for the good of the float.”
“Can’t the float take care of itself?” asked Channing.
“Yes,” said Winslow. “Through you.” He pointed to a spot in the air where Channing’s head would be if he stood up and said, “As soon as you climb aboard, you will be the hand of the float.”
“What if I disturb the performance?”
“You won’t,” said Winslow. “The actors are trained to only notice certain things. You’re not among those things. Now go find that filthy traitor and shove him off our float.”
Channing had been hiding in the hut for hours, hoping the traitor would show himself before the parade started, but now they were fifteen minutes underway and he realized he was going to have to leave the hut and search the float on foot if he intended to prevent whatever sabotage the traitor had planned. Channing climbed out of the window of the hut and set off through the underbrush, following a saltwater stream full of crabs toward the back end of the float.
The actors that Channing passed as he walked paid him no attention. He moved among them like a phantom, looking each one in the eye for a glint of duplicity as they slathered sunscreen on each others’ well-toned bodies and shouted conversational Chinese at animatronic pandas. When his search took him near the edge of the float, he glanced down at the upturned faces of the crowd, saw their hands grasping at the air, their mouths opening wider and wider. The closest of them were less than fifteen feet away, but Channing could barely hear them. He pulled a bucket of candy out of a hatch in a hollow boulder and tossed its contents over the side. Then Channing followed the stream back toward the center of the float, into a grove of artificial Black Poplars, through a garden of statues depicting brave cruise ship captains, and by then he could no longer see the crowd.
The traitor pronounced his lines in a crisp, clear voice and, though the bellowing of the crowd made him sick to his stomach, his face was a perfect picture of what the script had described as “blossoming wanderlust.” He raced from informational placard to informational placard, reading them aloud in what the script had described as a “tone of blissful reverence.” “On this spot in the year 1219, an army of teenagers was swallowed by a rift in the Earth! On this spot in the year 1934, an election was decided by just two votes, one of them fraudulent!” All the while, a child actor in a miniature hot air balloon tethered to a diamond encrusted post by an eight-foot cord pretended to take notes on everything the traitor read, punctuating each line with exclamations of “fascinating!” There were no other actors around.
The traitor estimated that the float would reach the end of the parade route in less than thirty minutes. It was time to act. While the child actor was engaged with his notepad, the traitor rushed over to the jeweled post and yanked it out of the float’s artificial turf. The child actor had no time to react before he was floating away, the post glittering in the sunlight as it dangled by the cord beneath the balloon. Surprised at his own calm, the traitor ran to the base of
The traitor unscrewed the gas cap on the side of the generator and dropped it to the floor. Then he peeled his shirt over his head and plucked underneath his left armpit with two fingers, extracting a single strike-anywhere match from a pocket of fake, plastic flesh. He was about to light the match and drop it into the generator’s gas tank when Channing Gilbert yanked open the service door behind him. The traitor turned, the match still pinched between his thumb and index finger.
“I saw the balloon,” said Channing. He took a step toward the traitor.
“Who are you?” asked the traitor. “You didn’t audition. You don’t belong here.”
“Winslow Gilbert is my father,” said Channing, his hands raised in front of him, ready to grapple. “I’m on a special assignment.”
“You think that matters?” asked the traitor. “You think heritage matters? You think can just bypass procedure whenever you decide your assignment is special?”
“You’re trying to destroy the float,” said Channing, his voice quavering.
“So, what?” said the traitor. “I auditioned, I made the cut, I rehearsed for two years. I committed!”
Channing lunged forward, driving his shoulder into the traitor’s bare chest.
“I’m trying to find my cousin,” said
“Don’t bother,” said Art. “He could be anywhere. Better off just enjoying the float. Maybe you’ll get a hockey jersey.” He pointed at the jersey he was wearing. “This is the one from fourteen years ago. I was fifty pounds lighter then and it still fits easy. That’s the beauty of the extra large.”
“Why is it so crazy here?” asked
“The float!” said Art. “You know!”
“Not really,” said
“I haven’t,” said Art, sneering.
Then the Inception Hangar’s doors had opened several miles up the street and everything since had been chaos.
Now the float was most of the way past the point where
As an especially impressive mountain, tall and vibrating from within, came past Austin’s spot in the crowd, two men, one of them stripped to the waist, burst through the thin, fiberglass side of the mountain and crashed down to the street, sprawling on the crushed marigold petals on the pavement. Hands reached out and grabbed the men, dragging them into the crowd where the frenzied citizens of Bintford searched them for candy and, when they found none, began to kick and trample them.
“What’s happening?” shouted
“The float denied them!” shouted Art as he tried to push through the mob to get a piece of the action. “They were cast off!”
Art was too busy stomping on the shirtless man’s left arm to listen.