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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Wild Cards XI: Dealer's Choice

Book Three of the Rox Triad

Wild Cards (Volume 10)

George R. R. Martin

Tor Books

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FRIDAY MORNING

September 21, 1990


FRONTIER AIRLINES FLIGHT 8, Los Angeles to Newark, raced to beat the morning, to meet the sun. It would lose, but only slightly. At 39,000 feet, the sky was spangled with other suns. They twinkled significantly less than they would if seen from the ground.

The man in 14A pressed his broad forehead against the cold window. He could pick out no familiar constellation. He hadn’t expected to. Still, he missed the southern cross, as the Europeans called it. To him it was the great mirragen, the hunting cat with claws spread, leaping upon its prey.

Hunting … He wondered if his weapons were still intact in his checked bag, deep in the belly of the 747. It wasn’t as though he were smuggling a MAC-10 or an Ingram. If there were any questions, it would be easy to declare his weapons as art. He smiled. If a hollow-point slug split your heart or a nullanulla smashed your skull, you were just as dead. Art could be fatal.

He smiled grimly, fingering the rough-cut opal that hung from the leather thong circling his neck.

A patch of lights far below slowly moved past the craft and disappeared behind. The man wondered which city that had been. This was such a vast land, but then he was accustomed to vast lands. Still, two continents and a major sea in two days were a bit too much travel to absorb easily. He knew he would be joyous in the extreme when he was back on solid earth, land that didn’t vibrate to the marrow of his bones with the buzz of jet engines.

While the occasional distant lights beneath him clearly moved, relatively speaking, the stars above remained constant. He was glad for that.

Then the voice told him to sleep. He didn’t wish to, but the seductive whisper curled through the avenues of his skull and wrapped his brain in soothing warmth. He fought it. But he drifted, the voice gently reproaching him and reminding him of who he was … “You who returns to the stars, you are summoned.”

And Wyungare slept.

He descended toward the lower world, the place where he would meet and speak with the warreen, his animal guide. This time, he clambered along rocky ledges before finding the broken places where he could use handholds to lower himself to another tier of stone. This painful process went on for a long time, though the angle of sun to his right did not seem to change.

Finally he was among trees and the slope was gentler. The grass beneath his feet soothed his skin and began to heal the ragged places where the rough stone had abraded his soles. He heard a cry from overhead. Looking up, he saw the graceful ga-ra-gah. The blue crane rode the wind with indifferent ease.

“Welcome, Wyungare.”

The man looked down and saw the warreen. The lower half of the creature’s bulky body was wet with mud. It seemed recently to have visited the edge of a water hole or river.

“Hello, cousin,” said Wyungare. “I hope you are well.”

“As well as can be expected, all these evil things of late considered. Thank you for visiting.”

“There is little to do on the airplane. This is no sacrifice at all.”

“Hmph,” said the warreen. “You wouldn’t catch me up in a thing like that. Those wings are so little blessed with grace, it would appear to fly with no more ease than cousin dinewan.”

“Consider that a 747 is constructed to fly, and that cousin dinewan chose to fly no more.”

“So?” The warreen snorted. “Our cousin could soar again if he so wished.”

“Not for a long, long time. I fear his physical form has evolved to reflect his long-ago choice.”

The warreen shook himself. Drying mud flew. “I still say he could change his mind, emu or no.”

The two of them walked farther into Googoorewon, the place of trees. The sunlight was hot, and the dappled shadows cooling Wyungare’s skin felt good.

“The times are no better outside the dreamtime?”

Wyungare shook his head. “They are not.”

“Nor are they within the dreamtime,” said the warreen. “That maira, that paddy-melon of a fat boy, his vision keeps floating before me.”

“And that’s who I seek. If I find him in the land of Tya-America, I will speak with him.”

“And if that does nothing?” The warreen’s tone was edged. “You must kill him.”

“I would prefer not to.”

“I am aware of that desire,” said the warreen. “You are a healer, but a warrior too. If it demands a warrior’s task, then you must perform it.”

Wyungare nodded. “If it is necessary, then I shall. But if I can, I will make sure the task will not be necessary.”

“Good fortune,” the warreen said politely. Then he tipped his head back, muzzle indicating the sky. “I fear we are about to receive an object lesson in thinking to heal demons.”

The shadows gathered together on Wyungare’s skin. Clouds roiled, jostling for position, and masked the sun. A cold wind began to bend the trees.

The blue crane still soared far above. Her cry echoed across the Googoorewon.

The sky convulsed and lightning speared valleyward. A mallee exploded into a fountain of crackling sparks. Wyungare took a step backward. The burning scrub eucalyptus was only a score of paces distant. The wind curled and whipped dark smoke into his face and eyes.

More lightning pierced the earth. More trees became torches. The acrid scent filled Wyungare’s nostrils.

One bolt never reached the ground. Cousin ga-ra-rah shimmered with a nimbus of vibrating light. Then she exploded. Feathers of blue crane drifted down around Wyungare and the warreen like leaves before the winter season.

“And what will happen to her children?” the warreen asked somberly. “In Tya-America, where you go to visit, who will guard such as the millin-nulu-nubba?”

“They are called passenger pigeons,” said Wyungare. “I fear it is already too late in the waking world for them. I had no idea that this was the cause of the loss of their patron and guide.” He shrugged. “The evil can, of course, travel through waking time.”

A final feather landed desultorily at his feet. Both Wyungare and the warreen cried for their cousin. When they had grieved, the sky was bright again with sun.

“I’m going to go back up,” said the man. “I do not know when I’ll be back.”

“Sooner than you now suspect,” said the warreen. “The fat boy will make sure of that.”

“You make a prophecy?”

“No,” said the warreen sourly. “I need only look about me.”

Wyungare saw the flickering overlay on the Googoorewon: an island lapped with waves, a walled castle like the ones he’d seen in European movies, monsters.

“All right.” Wyungare shrugged. “I’ll be back.” The man lifted his palm in farewell and started up the mountainside.

“I think this will be difficult,” called the warreen after him. “All your cousins will be concerned. I will do what I can.”

“I know,” said the warreen, raising his voice to cover the widening distance. “I will show my appreciation when I can.”

“Just stop the depletion of the dreamtime,” said the warreen, voice fading out.

Just like the ozone layer, Wyungare said silently. Not humorous. Accurate. Damn the fat boy! Europeans seemed never to have the slightest cognizance of what they truly did to the world. Everything was now. Everything was me.

As he climbed higher on the rocky mountainside, ever closer to the newly mottled sky, Wyungare thought: Whether it comes from the muzzle of a gun or at the tip of a pointed bone, change will come. This is the single irrevocable law.

Billy Ray stood alone in the prow of the Coast Guard cutter, his face turned into the biting wind. He blinked involuntary tears from his eyes as the cutter sliced through the choppy waters of the Narrows, just south of New York Bay. The predawn wind was cold, but it felt good upon his face. It felt damn good to feel anything.

Ray hadn’t seen any real action since the fiasco at the Democratic National Convention when that ugly hunchbacked bastard with the buzz-saw hands had gutted him like a fish. It had taken long months of rehabilitation for his fingers and jaw to grow back and the flesh, muscle, sinew, and bone that Mackie Messer had cut apart to knit together again. During his time in the hospital he’d played the battle over and over again in his mind, still losing every time.

Ray heard soft footsteps on the deck behind him, and put up the hood on his black fighting suit before turning to face the Coast Guard captain who commanded the cutter. The fight with Messer had done even less good to Ray’s face than it had to his psyche. Messer had cut off half of Ray’s lower jaw. It had grown back unevenly, giving him a lopsided look that would’ve been comical if it weren’t so damn ugly.

“We’ve spotted the freighter, sir,” the captain said with more disdain than respect. Ray, after all, was only a civilian who had special orders that made him part of this operation. He was an ace, which gave him a certain cachet, but he was an ace who had gotten his ass kicked on national television.

Ray nodded. “Is the boarding squad ready?”

“Yes, sir,” the captain said. He sketched an unenthusiastic salute.

Ray looked back over the Narrows. He didn’t know who had dropped him into the middle of this smuggler interception, but he was grateful for the opportunity. Ray needed action as badly as an addict needed rapture. He could feel his heart already starting to race, the adrenaline coursing through his system as he spotted the target ship in the predawn darkness.

It was a tramp freighter illuminated only by lines of multicolored running lights. Flying the flag of some third-world country whose waters it had never even seen, it lumbered through the choppy waters south of the Narrows like a pregnant fat lady, leaving a spreading slick of waste oil in its wake. It had to be the ship their informant in the Twisted Fists had told them about.

The Twisted Fists were radical joker terrorists whose main targets were antijoker groups and governments in the Middle East. They were a studly bunch that Ray grudgingly admired. They took no shit from anyone, which was fine with Ray as long as they kept their asses out of America. Running guns to the rebellious jokers holed up on Ellis Island, however, was a definite breach of good sense.

Ray and the boarding crew climbed into the cutter’s launch and silently slipped away. They’d almost reached the freighter when, according to plan, the cutter put on its full display of lights and Klaxons. The captain hailed the freighter, ordering it to heave to just as they reached its bow.

“Up hooks,” Ray said quietly as the launch bobbed up and down next to the freighter. Two men in the bow stood on wide-braced legs and tossed grappling hooks over the ship’s rail thirty feet above their heads. Both caught on the first try, and Ray went up one of the trailing ropes like a starving monkey up a banana tree. He didn’t wait for the rest of the squad. He couldn’t hold himself back anymore.

Fighting was all that Ray lived for. He didn’t formulate policy or make decisions. He was a weapon, always primed and ready to explode. When pointed in the direction of a foe he’d erupt like a heat-seeking missile aimed at the sun and nothing could deter him from his course.

He hadn’t seen any real action since Messer had cut him so badly. He’d taken part in a raid the Secret Service had conducted on Long Island, but that hadn’t amounted to anything. Supposedly on the trail of hot computer criminals, they’d targeted a small outfit called Jack Stevenson Games that published kids’ role-playing games. Ray was among the agents who’d busted in with guns drawn and warrants flapping to find themselves in a room full of goofballs who had nothing more lethal than twenty-sided dice. The Secret Service had still hauled everything away, computers, files, dice, and all, and then Ray had spent more than a month wading through piles of game manuals filled with crap about dungeons and hit points and saving rolls only to discover that you committed computer crime in these games by rolling dice real well.

But this was the real thing, the first step on the road to redemption. Ray slipped silently over the rail and crouched on the deck in shadow. It was quiet, but huge pallets laden with tarp-covered bundles of freight blocked Ray’s vision in all directions. There could be an army of Fists lying in ambush among the twelve-foot-high freight bundles, though the only immediately visible men were aft, in the lighted bridgehouse.

So far the timing had been perfect. The Coast Guard had given the warning required by law and the assault team had gained the freighter’s deck without opposition. Now to see if the tub was carrying guns like their undercover man claimed, or just a shitload of cheap South Korean VCRs.

Ray gestured silently to the men who had clambered up the ropes after him. They dispersed, some heading aft to take control of the bridge, others following Ray among the freight toward the hatches leading down into the hold.

The central hatch swung open before they could reach it and a squat figure climbed out onto the deck and peered around in the darkness. A spotlight from the cutter speared him and he shrank back and threw up two pairs of arms to shield his eye.

It was a joker, Ray thought, and a damn ugly one, with half a dozen pairs of arms spouting from his rib cage and a huge central eye right smack over the bridge of his nose. But the fact that the freighter had a joker crewman meant nothing. It wasn’t illegal to be a joker. Not yet, anyway.

The joker squinted in the glare and screamed in a high-pitched whine that seemed inappropriate for his powerful-looking body. His lowest pair of arms brought up an assault rifle that had been dangling on a shoulder strap and he triggered a burst in the general direction of the Coast Guard cutter.

Ray’s uneven features split wide in a crazy grin. “Put down your weapon!” he shouted. “You’re under arrest!”

The joker whirled, his huge eye blinking blindly as he stared into the darkness where Ray stood. He fired at the sound of Ray’s voice, but Ray had already moved. The joker’s fusillade whined harmlessly over the freighter’s rail, and then the solitary gunman was cut down by a barrage of return fire that blew him out of the spotlight’s unmerciful glare.

“Told you to put the gun down,” Ray said. He glanced right and left at the others. “Let’s try to take the next alive, okay?”

The guardsmen were too disciplined to grumble, but Ray could almost feel their sarcastic glances. These men knew Ray’s reputation as a brutal brawler, and here he was chewing them out for taking out an armed and dangerous smuggler. They thought, maybe, that he’d gone soft. That Mackie Messer’s vibrating hands had cut something out of him. That the long, painful months in the hospital had leeched out his fire.

But they were wrong. Ray hadn’t gone soft. He just wanted all of the gun-running bastards for himself.

All the freighter’s lights and alarms were blaring by now, though there was still plenty of shadow left on the deck. The tub’s captain wasn’t following the orders to heave to and kill all engines. He was trying to make a run for it.

That was insane, Ray told himself as he skulked in shadow, making his way silently toward the bridge. They couldn’t expect to hide or receive sanctuary even if by some miracle they eluded the Coast Guard and reached Ellis Island.

Ray heard a whisper of movement in the shadows to his right, and his conscious mind clicked off. He moved without thinking, pivoting on his right foot and ducking low. Something big, flat, and pancake-shaped swooped down from a tarp-covered pile of freight behind him. If it had been the size of a normal human being it would have missed Ray. But it wasn’t, and it didn’t.

It slammed Ray to his knees, smothering him in a cloak of rubbery skin. Ray pistoned backward with both elbows, but they sank into yielding flesh without doing any apparent damage. For a moment he panicked. He imagined buzz-saw hands coming from out of the smothering darkness and carving off bits of his body. He fought to his feet with a wild surge of strength, still enveloped in the clinging folds of resilient flesh. He struck out blindly and felt his hand connect with something solid. There was the satisfying crack of snapping bone and his attacker pulled away.

He looked at the joker and laughed. “It’s Flying Squirrel Man,” Ray said as another jolt of adrenaline pushed through a nervous system already juiced to the max. He grinned without realizing it, a mad light dancing in his eyes.

The joker did look a little like a flying squirrel—if flying squirrels were seven feet tall with more muscles than the average linebacker. The smuggler was holding one arm pressed to his rib cage where Ray’s last blow had broken a rib or two.

“Where’s the moose, squirrel?” Ray asked.

The joker charged him with an angry growl, raising his arms above his head and spreading the mantle of skin that hung from his wrists to his ankles. He was big, strong, and pissed. Just the way Ray liked them.

Ray straightened out of his crouch and hammered the joker hard in the solar plexus. The smuggler went down and this time showed no inclination to get up.

“Come on,” Ray spit through clenched teeth, “come on you pussy bastard.”

The joker curled into a fetal ball, arms wrapped around his stomach. Ray snarled wordlessly. Some small part of his mind told him to slow down, but most of his consciousness was submerged in the powerful need to find another foe. This one had been too easy. Much too easy.

He reined in his savage disappointment and went down on one knee next to the joker. He rolled the Fist onto his face and pulled his thickly muscled arms away from his still-heaving stomach. The smuggler tried to resist and Ray put his knee in the small of his back and leaned down, hard. The joker went limp and Ray slipped a set of plastic cuffs on him. He started to get up, stopped, and added another pair. He patted the joker on the fanny. “Have a nice day,” he said, and left him bound on the deck.

The rest of the team had also met with opposition. Ray could hear gunfire popping around the bridgehouse like it was the first day of duck season. He moved toward the sound. The team seemed to be containing the smugglers. He passed one of the men guarding a handful of nat sailors who looked as if they wanted no part of the fight. Apparently simple hired hands, they didn’t have an ideological ax to grind like the Twisted Fists, and had decided to hang it up before someone got hurt.

The core of Fist resistance was centered around a group of shrouded pallets stacked in front of the bridgehouse. Ray found a member of the assault team huddled under cover provided by a freight gantry.

“There’s about half a dozen of ’em hiding around those bales,” the guardsman told Ray. “We can’t get at ’em without crossing open deck. And they don’t look like they’re about to come out. Hey—”

He was going to add “come back,” but Ray was already gone.

Ray covered the open space before most of the smugglers even knew he was there, but one managed to swing his machine pistol around and let loose a burst in Ray’s general direction. A slug clipped his upper thigh and another notched his rib cage, but the shallow wounds had already healed by the time Ray reached the startled joker.

He yanked the weapon from the joker’s hand and threw it back over his shoulder. There was no time for niceties of judgment. For Ray there rarely was. He hit the man hard, once, and moved on before the joker hit the deck.

There were three pallets of freight stacked nearly twelve feet high in front of the bridgehouse at the freighter’s stern. Behind each of the pallets were two other identical columns. The intersecting walkways between them formed a maze within which Fists were hiding like cornered rats.

The Fists shouted to each other. Two thought that someone had penetrated their cover. Two thought the others were nuts, that they’d seen shifting shadows. Another voice shouted that someone had tried to charge them but Fred had gotten him. At least he thought Fred had gotten him.

That voice was the closest, one stack to the right. When Ray reached him he was still calling out questioningly to the already unconscious Fred.

“Here I am,” Ray said quietly from behind. The smuggler whirled, finger tightening on the trigger of his Uzi.

But Ray had already closed the distance between them. He grabbed the smuggler’s gun wrist and twisted. The Uzi belched harmlessly at the sky. There was a sharp crack and the joker screamed in agony as Ray snapped his wrist. The smuggler dropped his weapon and Ray dropped him with an open-handed blow to the jaw, then moved on deeper into the maze.

Two jokers called out, the two who were convinced that someone was among them. They dropped their weapons and walked into the open, hands held over their heads.

The two left decided to play it cagey. They moved deeper into the maze, side by side, weapons out and covering opposite directions. There was only one way they weren’t looking.

Ray climbed one of the freight bundles. He waited patiently, watching the smugglers below him edging away—they thought—from the action, and dropped down on them like a sack of cement, smashing them to the deck. One hit facefirst and was instantly out of it. The other lasted long enough to throw a futile punch and take one of Ray’s that split his cheek halfway to his earhole. He bounced off the freight bundle and slumped over his comrade on the deck.

“I got ’em all,” Ray called. But he was wrong.

A shadow fell over him, and he jerked around in time to see an astonishing sight. It was the moose he’d joked about earlier. Or an elk. Or some damn thing. Except it walked upright like a man. It was a man, a damn big man, maybe eight feet tall, with a rack of antlers that would do any buck proud. A lot of his height was in his hairy, satyrlike legs, but he also had a deep chest, broad shoulders, and well-muscled arms. A horn of some kind was slung around his neck, resting against his massive chest. The guy was not only big, he was smart. He’d kept his mouth shut when Ray had penetrated the Fists’ defenses.

As Ray watched, the joker plucked a huge bundle of freight from the nearest stack and threw it at him. Ray dived backward, tumbling into a group of onrushing guardsmen.

“What is it?” one of them asked as the bundle hit the deck, bounced, and skidded to a halt against the rail.

Ray shook his head. “One of the damnedest jokers I ever saw.”

“Let’s get—” one of the guardsmen started to say, then fell silent as they heard the eerie sound of a horn blowing, an ancient, shivery sound that seemed to belong to an earlier age when wild huntsmen roved forest and fen with packs of hounds slavering at their heels. It unnerved everyone, even Ray, and for a moment no one wanted to go back among the stacks of freight. And then it was too late.

The horned joker burst from cover upon the back of a magnificent black horse whose eyes glowed like green fire. Its sharp hooves kicked out and one of the guardsmen was catapulted backward, spraying blood all over his comrades.

The horse took three magnificent bounds and leapt over the rail.

“We’ve got him!” Ray shouted. There was no way a horse, no matter how big, beautiful, or mysterious, could outswim a Coast Guard cutter. They had the horny bastard.

But when Ray rushed to the side of the freighter and looked over the rail he didn’t see a floundering horse swimming in the bay. He saw a horse, as dark and majestic as an iron statue at midnight, running serenely across the tops of the waves, its hooves barely dipping into their crests. And on its back, turning to stare at them, waving a fist as a promise of retribution, was its antlered rider, his eyes glowing green with the fire of a demon.

The Outcast stood at the end of the cavern. Ahead, there was darkness and a cool wind that brushed back his long hair. The Outcast raised his staff above his head; the blazing amethyst at the knobby summit of the stick erupted with light.

The actinic light from the staff just touched the far side of a canyon, revealing that he stood on the brink of a dizzying precipice. Directly across from the Outcast, a large platform jutted out over emptiness. Leaning out, the Outcast could see nothing else—neither above, below, nor to the sides. The staff’s light faded away in all directions into blackness.

The Outcast grinned.

“You could use some light in this place, fat boy.” The voice came from behind him. The Outcast whirled, his cape flowing. A penguin in a funnel hat grinned at him. It wore ice skates on its pudgy feet, gliding toward him as if the broken, rocky floor of the corridor was glare ice.

“I was just about to add some of that,” the Outcast replied. He turned back toward the black canyon. “Now!” he said loudly.

A rumbling came from the emptiness below them, a roaring of torn, fractured rock rising in volume until the Outcast clapped his hands over his ears. Peering down, he saw glowing red cracks appear. Fountains of molten rock spewed from widening crevices on the distant floor, thick lava flowing out. The chill of the cavern vanished in a gust of coiling heat. Tornadoes of frantic air spun around the canyon walls.

The Outcast laughed, clenching his fist in triumph. “Yes!” he crowed. “Look!” he shouted to the penguin over the din. “Look what I can do!”

The penguin skated to the opening, spun once gracefully, and peeked gingerly over the edge.

Far, far below, molten rock collided and heaved in a sluggish, thick river. The fiery glow of lava washed the canyon cliffs with the hues of hell and brushed the distant roof of the cavern with crimson. The rift in the floor of the cave was a hundred feet across and twice that in depth, ripping through the earth like a raw knife wound. A narrow, crumbling ledge edged this side of it, following the lava-etched stone walls in either direction. The fissure angled away into deep perspective on either side, continuing into the unseen distances as it curved in a slow arc.

“You really need a railing,” the penguin observed. “You’re gonna get sued if some tourist falls.” The creature cackled, the funnel hat on its head nearly falling off with amusement. The Outcast, dressed in somber dark clothes with thigh-high leather boots and a wide, black leather hat, gave a brief chuckle.

“It is impressive, isn’t it?” he said. “Bloat’s Moat, they’re going to call it.” The heat had chased away all the coolness. The skin of his face tingled as he gazed down.

“It’s not my climate of choice, Your Bloatness Sir,” the penguin remarked. “But yes, very impressive. Why, you could probably build something half-decent if you really tried.”

Bloat—or rather, the dream-image of Bloat: the handsome raven-haired hero he thought of as the Outcast—scowled. “Damn it, why are you always criticizing me? Nothing I do is ever good enough.”

The penguin grinned up at him, though the glittering black eyes were expressionless. As with all his dream creatures, he was deaf to their thoughts. After a moment the Outcast sighed. He raised his staff once more. The amethyst flared again and rock flowed like pulled taffy from the end of the corridor, arching over the deep canyon in a thin bridge, the far end touching down on the platform across from them. Another cave entrance led out from the platform in the direction of Jersey City.

“There,” the Outcast said. “My little lava moat goes all around the Rox just behind and below the Wall. The passage over there”—he pointed across the bridge—“leads to another corridor circling just inside and well below the Wall. There are passages out from it and up into the Wall itself. I’ll send someone down to guide the jokers through the caverns; any intruders can simply get lost—and I’ve set some interesting hurdles for them.”

The satisfaction on the handsome face was open. He was almost smug. “I dreamed it all. I built every piece of it myself and the power grows stronger every day. Each day I can do more with it, and each day the fucking nats are getting more and more scared of me. I am the governor. The Rox is mine.”

“Not yours, bubba. Not entirely, anyway,” the penguin retorted. The creature was sweating; beads of moisture darkened the fur. “Man, some of the things I’ve seen down here don’t come from your mind, Your Overstuffedness. There’s a great big hairy spider, and a dog-faced griffin, and that Polynesian thing Tangaroa that ate three jokers yesterday … You want me to go on?”

The Outcast was scowling. “They come from my other dreams, the ones where I’m walking in someone else’s world. You know that. I’ve seen the spider there, and that Tangaroa thing. They leaked in. I’m sorry, okay? Quit complaining.”

“Everything’s connected, fat boy. When you realize that, I’ll quit complaining. You really think the nats are done with you? You really think that they’re just going to let the Rox keep growing and growing? Hell, they’re already howling about what you did to the goddamn Statue of Liberty, which by the way shows an abysmal lack of taste and sensitivity on your part; it looks like something you’d see in Penthouse. You think they’re just gonna keep doing nothing when the Wall hits Battery Park?” The penguin hawked and spat a gob of ugly green stuff on the floor. “You spend too much time dreaming and not enough thinking.”

“I’m powerful enough to stop them now. The jumpers are still here and since Blaise left and Molly took over, they’re more under my control than ever. The Rox is bigger than ever. We have hundred of jokers here and more come every day. I have more traps and barriers set up.”

“And the nats are more pissed than ever too.”

“I can handle them,” the Outcast said sullenly.

“Yeah. You and your fucking dreamstuff.”

You’re part of my dreamstuff, penguin.”

The creature made a rude noise. “That’s my burden and I have to bear it as best I can. If you really knew how to use your power, you’d set up shop somewhere else.”

“Sure. Like maybe Hawaii, huh?” The Outcast snorted. Below them, lava waves thrashed and broke against canyon walls. “The trouble with you is—”

The Outcast stopped, cocking his head as if listening to something only he could hear. “Whassa matter?” the penguin asked.

“Something going on out in the bay. Chickenhawk … the tower watch on the east side is all in an uproar … something about someone riding a horse out in the bay … C’mon.”

The Outcast rapped his staff against the rocky floor of the cavern. The amethyst blazed and they were suddenly no longer in the caverns but in Bloat’s Castle—the old Administration Building, now transformed into something from the land of Faerie. The Outcast could see the body of Bloat—his body—almost filling the huge lobby. High up on that vast mountain of pasty white flesh, stick-thin arms and shoulders sprouted along with a pimply, fat-cheeked boy’s sleeping head. PVC pipes jabbed into that mountain of flesh; stinking black mounds of waste lay along its flanks; the sides were streaked and stained with the tracks of the excrement. Yet despite the foulness of the body, the setting itself was splendid. The lobby sparkled like the interior of a lavish diamond. The columns supporting the distant roof were cut crystal, the walls were glass, the girders and supports silver and gold, the floor an intricate pattern of azure and ruby tole.

Dreamstuff, most of it, though the huge torch that sat just behind Bloat’s head and dominated the setting was real—having once graced the hand of Liberty. The Outcast surveyed his home with pleasure, not wanting to relinquish the dream and wake up once more as Bloat and knowing that he must.

As he hesitated, they heard a dull rattling like a stack of plates being jostled, and Kafka entered the lobby. The roach-like joker scuttled toward the sleeping Bloat.

“Governor! Wake up! Chickenhawk is claiming that one of your creatures is coming in over the bay. The Twisted Fists had a skirmish with the Coast Gu—” Kafka stopped, swiveling his stiff body to look at the archway where the penguin and the Outcast stood. The Outcast’s and Kafka’s gazes met. In his head, Kafka’s mindvoice was wondering who was with the penguin.

“You can see me? You really can?” the Outcast started to say, incredulous, and in that moment, his orientation shifted and he was suddenly Bloat, staring down at Kafka from atop the grotesque heights of his body. The penguin, alone now, waved at him from the archway and waddled away. Kafka’s thoughts were confused, wondering if he had actually seen anyone with the penguin at all, and then he dismissed the incident entirely.

Too damn many strange things around here …

“Did you hear me, Governor?”

“I heard you,” Bloat said, and his voice was no longer the Outcast’s mellifluous baritone but his own adolescent squeak. “Be quiet and let me listen a moment.” Bloat let the flood of voices in his head wash over him, picking out the mind of Chickenhawk in his high tower in the castle.

Strangest damn thing … a monster horse with glowing eyes and the guy with the antlers … riding on top of the damn waves …

“It’s not mine,” Bloat told Kafka. “Not outside the Wall. But it’s heading this way.”

“I’ll alert Molly and get a reception committee together.”

“Good. We’ll see what happens when it hits the Wall.”

Bloat closed his eyes again, waiting, listening to the eternal commentary inside. Closer, closer, and then he felt the mental push at the edges of his awareness. Prod, prod: the Wall pushed back against the will of the intruder. “It’s not mine,” Bloat said aloud to Kafka. “And there’s only one intelligence; the horse is an extension of his mind, somehow; they’re linked. Calls himself Herne the Huntsman … Ahh, there—he’s through. A strong desire to be here. Forget Molly, Kafka—you and Shroud go out with a party to meet him. Herne has some information for us.”

Bloat opened his eyes as Kafka nodded and relayed the instructions from a walkie-talkie around his neck.

Bloat twisted his atrophied shoulders so that he could look out from the glass-walled castle to the darkness of the Wall. “This should be interesting,” Bloat said. “Very interesting.”

The bodysnatcher woke up pissed.

She rolled off the futon onto the cold flagstone floor, and got to her feet, groggy and disoriented. It made her mad. This meat was as hard to start as an old car on a cold morning. She shook her head to clear the cobwebs away, and stumbled to the window. She made a fist, slammed it hard against the rough stone wall. Blood dripped from her knuckles. Somehow the red wash of pain made her feel stronger.

From the courtyard below, she heard the shouts of joker guards, the clatter of weaponry, the metallic clang of the portcullis as it fell. Her lancet window overlooked the battlements of the inner keep and the narrow stone causeway that connected the fortress to the outer wall, a good mile south across the vast salt expanse of the moat.

A man on horseback was thundering down the causeway.

The bodysnatcher watched him come. The causeway was barely wide enough for two men to walk abreast, a stone ribbon stretched over the deep black waters of the bay, but the rider came on at a hard gallop. His horse was gigantic, black as a starless night, its hooves striking sparks off the stone as it charged. The rider looked almost as huge.

A door banged open behind her. “What’s going on?” asked Blueboy. He came up beside her, a slender black kid no more than sixteen, naked under a torn policeman’s shirt that he wore unbuttoned like a cape. Blueboy liked to jump cops and appropriate their uniforms and badges. “Jesus,” he said as he stared out the window. “What the fuck is that?”

“A joker,” the bodysnatcher told him. Jokers disgusted her, but this one was magnificent. The rider’s eyes were glowing green, and his legs were the hindquarters of a stag. A huge rack of golden antlers grew from his forehead.

The rider drew up his horse before the gate. “Open,” he said. It wasn’t a request. His voice was a bass rumble. He was naked and golden, legs and chest covered with coarse red hair. A red-fawn mane grew halfway down his back. “Open!” he roared again.

There was no answer from inside the walls. The rider pulled on the horse’s braided mane. The stallion reared back, snorting, and brought its front hooves down hard on the portcullis. Wrought iron rang and bent. The jokers on the battlements flinched, and brought their guns to bear.

“Let him in,” the bodysnatcher called down to them.

“You gone crazy, Zelda?” Blueboy asked.

“Don’t call me Zelda,” she snapped. She’d killed Zelda herself, stuffing a sock in her mouth and pinching her nostrils shut until she suffocated, after she’d been left blind and crippled. Since then the bodysnatcher had stolen a half-dozen bodies, but even the ones that looked good from outside felt wrong on her. She never kept them long; they didn’t fit.

There was the sound of running footsteps in the courtyard below. A squad of armed jokers spread out across the cobblestones. Kafka was with them, rustling faintly as he ran. The little brown cockroach-man carried a walkie-talkie instead of a gun. “Governor says, open the gate,” he announced.

“That’s what I’ve been telling them,” she called down.

The portcullis got halfway up and stuck, bent hopelessly out of shape by the blow it had taken. The rider dismounted and left his horse outside as he entered the castle. He had to duck low to get his antlers under the portcullis.

Inside, surrounded by jokers clutching automatic weapons, he straightened to his full height, towering over all of them. With his antlers, he stood well over ten feet. Across his chest was slung a magnificent golden horn, carved in the shape of a dragon. Cloven hooves clattered on the cobblestones as he moved, and his genitalia swung heavily between his legs. There was no doubt that he was male. The bodysnatcher looked from the stag-man to Blueboy’s more modest equipment, and laughed. The other jumper flushed.

“Take me to your governor,” the rider commanded.

Kafka nodded. “Shroud, Mustelina, escort him to the throne room. Elmo, see to his horse.”

“What horse?” he asked. He threw back his head and laughed. His laughter was loud and deep as thunder.

The bodysnatcher glanced back beyond the gate. The huge black stallion had vanished as silently as smoke. There was nothing out there but night.

“Jesus,” Blueboy said, beside her. He shivered and wrapped the policeman’s shirt a little more tightly around his skinny chest. “What’s going on?”

“Go get Molly,” the bodysnatcher told him. “Tell her to meet me in the throne room.”

The rider had to duck again to pass through the archway. He was the most beautiful thing she had seen since her own body had been taken from her. She wanted him.

Kafka had lingered behind the rest, walkie-talkie crackling in his chitinous grasp. “Zelda!” he called up. “His name is Herne. He’s an ally. The governor says if you jump him, you die.”

Herne the Huntsman—who was sometimes Dylan Hardesty—was like every last joker who had ever come before him, the first thought Bloat caught from the man was pity laced with scorn.

Whoot a bloody ugly t’ing it be …

“A bloody ugly thing indeed, but jokers should be the last to worry about someone else’s appearance.”

Herne reacted very little. Maybe the frown deepened. “A person cannot stop his thoughts,” he said. The joker’s voice was as low as anything human could get, festooned with a cultured British accent quite unlike the one in his mind—something northern and low-class? Bloat wondered. “The Twisted Fists told me you could read minds.”

Bloat followed the elusive thought-threads and saw a shipment of guns; a battle on the water, death. None of it was very clear, but Bloat knew from long practice how to focus a person’s mind. “You were bringing guns,” he said, “and a warning.” As he’d known it would do, the words sent Herne back to the attack of minutes ago.

… the nats had Carnifex with them, Hartmann’s old goon … hate the feeling of running from the ass but the information is more important than the guns …

“How many jokers did you lose when the Coast Guard hit you?” Bloat asked. “How many did Carnifex kill?”

Herne’s huge eyes blinked. He seemed to appraise Bloat once more. The memory that Bloat could see was a raw, oozing wound, and the anger Herne radiated could almost be touched. “There were six of us, all of them my friends, and I will pay back Carnifex for what he did. As you said, we were bringing weapons to the Rox. We—I—also had more. They are going to hit the Rox, Governor. They are going to hit it hard.”

“Who told you this?”

“I can’t tell you that.” And in his mind:… Matt Wilhelm. Furs …

“You already have.” Bloat giggled, and Herne frowned at the screeching titter. Kafka sighed and rolled his eyes at Bloat, impatient as always.

“This isn’t a joke, Governor. I don’t care about your parlor tricks. Read my mind, that’s fine—go ahead. It saves me my breath. They are planning to strike. Hartmann’s been placed in charge. There are aces involved, as well as the military. This is entirely serious. What are you going to do about it?”

“Very little that I’m not already doing.” Most of Bloat wanted to deny everything that Hardesty was saying. That part of him was confident, almost arrogant. The nats had broken on the shore of the Rox twice now; the third time would be no different. Bloat was fairly certain that they wouldn’t even try. “Hartmann and some others are coming over today—a peace conference. We’ve already set it up. They’ve lost too many lives already. They won’t want to lose any more. This talk of an attack is a bluff, an empty threat.”

He listened as Hardesty mulled that over and heard the answer even before the man spoke the words. “Governor, maybe they think that if they don’t take the Rox, all those lives were wasted.”

“No,” Bloat said, but inside, the old frightened kid, the one who’d cowered before the neighborhood bullies, who’d been taunted and picked on and abused—that Teddy, he was scared. He remembered.

“… if they’d just leave Teddy alone … Yes … Well, thank you…”

His father hung up the phone. He shook his head at the overweight child hugging his knees to his belly on the sofa, the bloodstains from his nose dark on a torn T-shirt. “I just talked with Roger’s mother,” his dad said. “She said that she’d talk to the boy.”

The combined relief and anger in his father’s voice told Ted how nervous and timid his father had been making the call. Now he stood in front of Ted, still shaking his head. “Really, Teddy, I don’t know why you can’t simply avoid these children. It’s your fault, really. They can’t pick on you if you’re not there.”

Ted tried to argue—he told his dad how they’d corner him in the lunchroom or the playground, how they’d wait for him on the walk home from school, how anytime he stepped outside the brownstone stoop they’d BE there. The arguments didn’t do any good. They never did.

The next day, Roger and his friends waited for Ted after the last bell. “You got me in trouble,” Roger said. “You’re gonna pay, asshole.” Ted limped home with a torn jacket and pants, another bloodied nose, a black eye, and a chipped tooth.

Ted understood revenge. Oh, yes. He understood it very well.

“No,” Bloat said again. “There’s no reason for us to get panicked about the situation.”

In his mind, he heard the myriad voices of the Rox awakening, many wondering about the arrival of Herne. Molly Bolt was already heading for the castle from the jumpers’ tower on the other side of the island. “But I suppose we need to let people know,” he continued reluctantly. “You certainly don’t make it easy to keep things quiet. Kafka—if you’d arrange things. You know who we’ll need.”

The junkers were stacked eight high along the Jersey shore: a wall of rust, broken glass, twisted metal. The car on top was a DeLorean. The morning sun still glittered off the brushed stainless-steel finish, but the frame had been twisted so badly that the gull-wing doors would never close again. It looked like a silver bird trying to take flight.

Up on the hood, high atop his junkyard battlement, Tom Tudbury stared through a pair of binoculars. The Rox was a good five miles northeast across the bay, but even at this distance, its towers were plainly visible, etched against the pink glow of the dawn. Its southern wall had engulfed the Statue of Liberty, her green copper flesh fusing seamlessly with the stone. Only the familiar crowned head remained the same. Below the neck, Liberty was nude and voluptuous. She had a huge oak-and-iron gate between her legs.

Something about it suggested the witch’s castle from The Wizard of Oz. There were shapes wheeling about some of the towers that reminded Tom uncomfortably of the flying monkeys that had terrified him when he was six.

It was the last place in the world he ever wanted to visit. He had been there once; that was enough. But in a few hours, he was going back. “Damn Hartmann,” he muttered aloud.

Tom lowered the binoculars and clambered down, careful to watch his footing as he stepped from car to car, the metal shifting ever so slightly beneath his sneakers. He walked back through the junkyard with his hands shoved deep in his pockets. The place hadn’t changed much since he was a kid, coming here to visit his friend Joey DiAngelis.

It was hard to believe Joey was gone now. He’d moved his family clear down to North Carolina two weeks ago. Tom couldn’t blame him. Not after last month. Corpses were still washing up on the Jersey shore, features bloated beyond all recognition, faces half-eaten by eels, with only their dog tags to say who’d they been. Joey had Gina and the kids to think about, and Bayonne was just too damn close to the Rox.

On the news the other night, they said two million people had moved out of the New York metropolitan area since the last census. Most of them in the last four years. Manhattan real estate was selling like waterfront lots along the Love Canal.

The dogs started barking as he neared the house. Tom had gotten them from the pound after he and Joey and Dr. Tachyon had faked his death a few years back. It was lonely being dead, and the dogs gave him plenty of warning whenever a stranger approached the junkyard.

He paused on the steps to scratch Jetboy under the chin, then went inside. The shack looked run-down and abandoned from the outside, the porch sagging, the windows boarded up. But Tom had spent a lot of time and money fixing up the interior.

A big-screen television dominated one wall. Tom had left it on when he went outside. CNN was rerunning its interview with Gregg Hartmann again. Tom fixed himself a mug of coffee and sat down to watch the broadcast once more.

This was a national emergency, Hartmann told Wolf Blitzer. He quoted John Kennedy and Tom Paine. Many of his ace friends had come forward already; he hoped others would volunteer to help out in this crisis. “With great power comes great responsibility,” he said. They wanted Starshine, Modular Man, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Water Lily, Chimera …

They already had the Great and Powerful Turtle.

Tom sipped at his coffee. It was too hot. He blew on it to cool it down.

“This afternoon’s meeting will be our last best hope for a peaceful solution,” Hartmann told Blitzer. He asked everyone listening to pray for their success.

It was smart of them to use Hartmann. Tom didn’t trust politicians, least of all George Bush and his right-wing friends. But Gregg Hartmann was different. Tom had believed in Gregg Hartmann. When the senator had his nervous breakdown in Atlanta in 1988, and lost his hard-won presidential nomination, it had almost broken his heart.

Tom had witnessed the carnage last month, when the military tried to take the Rox. Hartmann was right; they had to make Bloat and his followers listen to reason. If not …

He didn’t want to think about it. Hartmann would negotiate a settlement, he told himself. He had to.

Joey had a spare room down in North Carolina. He had urged Tom to move down with them, before the shithammer came down. “This is where I belong,” Tom said simply.

He turned off the television. In the silence of the morning, he felt utterly alone. Joey and Gina moved down to Charlotte. Tachyon gone to the stars, back to his homeworld Takis, no telling if he’d ever be back. That was most of the people who knew he was alive right there. Dead men don’t make a whole lot of friends.

But it was only Tom Tudbury who was dead. The Turtle still had miles to go before he slept.

He finished his coffee, and went to get his shell.

Travnicek was facing south again. He had been doing that a lot lately, just standing there in the still light of dawn, motionless on his terrace above the park. His organ cluster, which looked like a lei made from H. R. Giger flowers, had blossomed around the featureless blue dome of his head. Petals, tentacles, sensors—whatever they were—had come erect and were tracking south like some kind of organic radar.

Modular Man did not think this was a good sign. Travnicek’s obsessions were rarely healthy.

“Sir,” he said, “do you still want me to join the government aces at Ebbets Field?”

He spoke from the shelter of the penthouse door; where neighbors in the surrounding buildings couldn’t see him. Normally he flew in and out only at night, but he’d been delayed by the necessity of sorting the 65,000-odd dollars he had stolen, on Travnicek’s orders, from a Brink’s truck while its drivers were drinking coffee in a Roy Rogers.

Travnicek had an uncanny ability to detect money—not that it required much skill in the case of a Brink’s truck. And Modular Man was very good with locks, particularly the electronic kind.

Modular Man was wired to obey his creator and to protect him. He didn’t have any choice in the matter.

“Sir?” he prompted. “Ebbets Field? Senator Hartmann’s request to help him in the battle against the Rox?”

If he was lucky, he thought, Travnicek would order him to steal something else.

“The Rox?” Maxim Travnicek didn’t have to turn around to address his creation—the mitteleuropean accent came out of a trumpet-shaped blossom on the back of Travnicek’s lei. “So go,” he said. “I want to see recordings of that place. It’s … interesting.

If he were human, the android thought, he would have shuddered at the tone of that interesting. “Sir?” he ventured. “There is probably going to be a fight. I might get injured.”

“I built you twice, toaster,” Travnicek said. “If you get blown up again, I’ll build another one.”

There was no point, the android knew, in pointing out that since Travnicek had become a joker he’d lost his ability to construct much of anything. Travnicek would just deny it, then order him to do something humiliating.

“If you’re sure, sir,” Modular Man said. “If you’ve got enough money to—”

“Go!” The blue-skinned joker waved an arm. “And fuck you!”

“May I take my guns first?”

“Take whatever you want. Just stop bothering me.”

Modular Man took the microwave laser and the .30-caliber Browning.

It looked like it was shaping up to be that kind of day.

The potpourri of thoughts around Bloat were amusing in their diversity.

Kafka was radiating his usual sour paranoia and annoyance with the “juvenile behavior” of his compatriots; Zelda (who these days insisted on being called Bodysnatcher) was wondering whether she’d done a hundred bench presses this morning or just ninety. That was just mind-static: she’d been trying different strategies to keep him from reading her thoughts for the last few weeks. Shroud was gazing at his hand and wondering whether it was a little more translucent today than yesterday; Video was replaying the arrival of Herne a few hours ago; Molly was staring at Herne and speculating graphically about what she’d like to do with him (and whether it would be physically possible—evidently she’d seen some of the porno films in which he’d starred). Herne had become more his daytime personality of Dylan Hardesty; Hardesty was guiltily remembering an earlier Hunt and how good it had felt to kill the victim …

And the penguin, as usual, was mind-silent—like all of Bloat’s creations. The penguin was staring at him, but he could sense no thoughts at all behind the blank gaze.

None of them were particularly thinking about the subject at hand. Bloat blinked and cleared his throat.

“Look, people, you’ve all heard Hardesty’s information from the Twisted Fists,” Bloat said loudly. Thoughts shattered and refocused on the sound; Bloat grinned in quick amusement. “So who here thinks we got something to worry about?”

Molly sniffed. The bodysnatcher crossed her arms across the middle-aged woman’s body she was wearing and scowled. Video silently, emptily recorded. Shroud grumbled inwardly. Hardesty looked at the others expectantly.

“I do, Governor,” Kafka said. His carapace rattled like a child’s toy as he shifted position. “I’ve been telling you this since the last time, sir; they aren’t just going to leave us alone. They never do.” Dark images of the aces’ raid on the Cloisters ran unbidden in his head. Kafka rattled his carapace gloomily. “Bush is a hardass when it comes to confrontations—he’s shown that abroad and he’s shown it with anti-joker legislation.”

“We have a conference with Hartmann today,” Bloat reminded him. “A peace conference.”

“The Japanese were negotiating with Washington when they attacked Pearl Harbor too,” Kafka said. “This time they’ll use the aces to help. Pulse, Mistral, the Turtle … The fact that Hartmann’s involved cinches it—they want him because he knows the government aces best, through SCARE. This time they’ll use the aces to help.”

“Aces can be jumped,” Bloat answered, taking the words that Molly was about to speak and smiling at the annoyance on the young woman’s face. “If they’re jumped, they’re ours. Aces will also hit the Wall and not be able to get through, just like nats. My dream creatures will eat them, just like with the nats. The jokers here are well armed.”

“Governor, that’s all true, I suppose, but—”

“We’re fine here,” Bloat interrupted. “I don’t see what we got to be worried about. Hey, you should see what I’ve done with the caverns.”

“Shit.” The bodysnatcher stretched like a tawny lioness. “Dreams ain’t gonna keep the fuckers out.” Then, a moment too late: “Governor.”

Bloat managed to smile at the woman. The image of her mind was Bloat-As-Weenie, impaled on a stick and roasting over a fire. He was making tiny little squealing sounds as the fat hissed and the skin bubbled.

“Governor,” Hardesty interjected, driving away the vision. “You want to believe that they won’t hit you. It’s not realistic. I say you can’t afford to be complacent, and it’s not enough just to strengthen your defenses here. Hit them first. Hit them before they’re ready. I, for one, will help—I’ve a score to settle with Carnifex.” With the last statement, Bloat could feel a fountaining of heat in Hardesty’s mind and, behind it, the raging power of the Wild Hunt.

“Listen, we have enough firepower of our own,” Bloat insisted. “There are—what, Molly—almost a hundred jumpers here? Each one of them can give us an ace. We have my Wall to send back at least part of any invading force; I can also summon the demons from my dreams, and they turned the last attack into a rout—those abilities seem to be growing every day. We have a few aces of our own, like Croyd.”

“Who’s asleep in the east tower, who we can’t wake up, and who knows what abilities he might have when he does.” The penguin grinned wide-mouthed up at Bloat. “Hey, just being fair, your Prodigiousness,” it said. “I still think you should just walk away from the whole thing.” It cackled.

Bloat tried to shrug and failed, his emaciated shoulders drooping. What was left of his human body in the gargantuan bulk of Bloat was slowly deteriorating. He shook his head instead, and flakes of dandruff in the wispy hair fell like snow. “Croyd will wake up or we’ll find a way to get him awake if we need him. We also have people like Shroud, who can hide and attack unseen. The Twisted Fists have given us modern weapons—we’re better armed now than a month ago. We have the caverns underneath in which to hide, food stores to last for a few weeks, and since the Wall has reached the Jersey shore, we’ve better supply lines. The nats’ll settle this politically. Through negotiation, not fighting.”

“Great, Bloat.” Molly Bolt scowled. The young girl leaned against one of the crystalline pillars, her arms folded over her leather jacket. “You make it sound so damn easy. But what if you’re wrong? What happens to the caves if you get taken out, huh? What happens to the Wall or your demons? I think Mr. Well Hung here’s got the right idea. Let’s take the offensive.”

No.” Bloat’s voice broke with the word. It came out half-strangled and more bleat than shout.

“Why ever not?” demanded Hardesty. “I should think you’d stand a better chance picking your own time and place to fight.”

“Don’t you see?” Bloat asked. He realized his voice sounded almost desperate and tried to slow down, to lower the pitch.… if only I could call up the Outcast. They’d listen to the Outcast … “It’s one thing to defend yourself. It’s another to attack first. If we make the first move, we’re not any better than they are. Especially when we haven’t even talked to them yet.”

Zelda guffawed loudly; Molly frowned. “Look at us,” Molly said. “Look around you. They are better than us. I say kick their butts first, before they gear up to do the same. Nothing’s gonna change the way they feel about us—they hate our fucking guts.”

“Molly, I’ve shored up the defenses,” Bloat insisted. “Go down in the caverns and look. We have the bay as a moat, we now have a lava moat in the lower sections. We’re safe here. I’m getting more powerful; hey, we’re more powerful. Don’t you see,” he continued, as loudly as he could. “Don’t any of you see? They want us to attack. They want an excuse to come in with everything and take us out. I say that we shouldn’t provide them the reason.”

“You want us to stand here and wait to be hit,” Bodysnatcher said.

“I say we should leave,” the penguin muttered. Bloat ignored it.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying, Zelda,” he answered. “I’m the governor here.”

“I knew that was coming,” the penguin said. It skated away to the back of the crowd. Hardesty watched it, a puzzled look on his face.

The bodysnatcher snorted. “So much for democracy in action. Why’d you even bother to call us here, Governor? You already knew what you were going to do.”

“I needed to tell you how important all of this is,” Bloat told her. “Hey, I’m the one who can read minds, after all. I knew what you were thinking. I needed you to hear it so that none of you go off and do anything stupid.”

From Zelda, there was a sudden, desperate counting in her mind, masking whatever her thoughts might have been. A grudging acceptance radiated from Hardesty and Molly, though Bloat knew they remained unconvinced. Shroud and Kafka also had their doubts, but Bloat knew that they’d follow, whatever he ordered.

“For the time being,” Bloat said, “I’ll have jokers manning the Wall towers to keep a lookout. I’ll continue to build the defenses around the Rox. We’ll wait until we hear what Hartmann has to say. In the meantime, Shroud can go over to J-town with Charon and contact the Twisted Fists—you can tell them what’s happened and get any new information they have. And the rest of you can wait.”

Bloat glanced at each of them in turn. Only Zelda held his eyes, and in her mind there was the flak of surface thoughts.… hate you … The phrase leaked out from underneath, contemptuous and sinister.

“This is the Rox,” he told them. His hand waved awkwardly at the Statue of Liberty’s torch on the wall behind him. “Our land and our country. I won’t let them take it away from us. I promise that.”

Bloat wished he were as confident as he tried to sound.

Ebbets Field had been sealed off and surrounded by troops. The curb was lined with jeeps, supply trucks, and staff cars. A tank squatted right in front of the ballpark.

The shell left a long shadow on the pavement as it floated silently up the street, past the police barricades. Snug in its claustrophobic interior, Tom swiveled slowly, scanning each of the television screens that lined the curving walls. The soldiers on the street below were pointing and gesticulating. One of them produced a camera and took a few snapshots. Tom figured he must be from out-of-town.

He pushed up. The shell rose another fifty feet into the air, moved slowly over the ballpark. Sentries had been posted on the scoreboard. The dugouts were full of sandbags and machine guns. Uniformed men were bustling all over the outfield.

A miniature Rox had risen on the infield.

The castle sat on top of the pitcher’s mound. The curtain wall bisected home plate and circled the bases. Everything had been duplicated in astonishing detail. Teams of enlisted men were putting the finishing touches on the huge tactical model, under the supervision of junior officers.

Near the Dodger dugout, a man in a blue-and-white costume was arguing with General Zappa and a couple of his aides. Even from this height Tom recognized Cyclone. His jumpsuit was shiny sky-blue Kevlar, accented by an oversize snow-white cape that fastened at wrist, ankle, and throat and drooped down behind him. Tom zoomed in. Exterior mikes tracked, locked.

“… making this much more complicated than it needs to be, General,” Cyclone was saying. “These amateurs are just going to compromise the operation.”

The general was taller than the ace, dark and saturnine, with a black mustache. “As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Carlysle, all of you civilians are amateurs.”

“I don’t consider myself a civilian,” Cyclone said. “I had a special Air Force commission during Nam. General Westmoreland—”

“General Westmoreland isn’t running this operation, I am,” Zappa interrupted. He was wearing an Arab headdress, for some reason.

Tom smiled. Zappa was all right. For a general, anyway. He turned on his microphones. The voice of the Turtle, amplified and distorted by his speakers, boomed down over the infield. “NICE MODEL, GENERAL.”

Vidkunssen, the big blond major in mirrorshades and Air Force blue, glanced up and said, “Soviet satellite reconnaissance. Got to give it to the Russkis, they didn’t miss a thing.”

That was swell, Tom thought, but he had the uneasy feeling that Bloat could change the physical layout of the Rox anytime the big boy put his mind to it. In which case, your Soviet satellite reconnaissance and a dime still wouldn’t get you a cup of borscht.

He floated to hover above the field. “WHERE’S HARTMANN?”

“On his way,” Zappa said. “With another volunteer.”

“Another unnecessary volunteer,” Cyclone said. His real name, Tom knew, was Vernon Henry Carlysle. He was about fifty, just a shade under six feet, with the same coloring as his daughter Mistral—fair skin, hazel eyes, light brown hair that moved easily in the wind. The hair had started to recede, but his flier’s body was still taut and well muscled. “My daughter and I can handle this situation alone, I tell you. They’re only a bunch of jokers. There’s no need to put anyone else at risk.”

“NO NEED TO PUT ANYONE AT RISK,” the Turtle announced. “WE’RE GOING TO WORK OUT A PEACEFUL SOLUTION.”

“We all hope you’re right,” General Zappa said. Cyclone did not look convinced.

“Of course, we do need to plan for contingencies, in case Senator Hartmann’s mission should fail,” a new voice put in. A plump civilian stepped from the dugout tunnel. He smiled at everyone and gestured up with the pipe he was smoking. “You must be the Great and Powerful Turtle.”

No shit, Sherlock, Tom thought, but he said, “GUILTY. THEY TOLD ME IT WAS BAT DAY. I GUESS I WAS MISINFORMED.”

The civilian smiled. “Nonetheless, we’re pleased to have you with us. I am Phillip Baron von Herzenhagen of the Special Executive Task Force.”

Tom didn’t have the vaguest notion what the fuck the Special Executive Task Force was supposed to be. And right now, he didn’t especially care. A girl had emerged from the dugout shadows to stand beside von Hergenbergen or whatever his name was.

She looked all of eighteen, her blond hair knotted in a ponytail, a black-and-orange Minnesota Giants baseball cap shading bright blue eyes. Great, Tom thought, the army brought cheerleaders. Only this cheerleader was wearing a Kevlar-armored vest and cradling an M-16 instead of a baton.

“This lovely young thing,” von Hagendaas began, “is—”

The girl stepped out onto the field. “Danielle Shepherd.”

“Legion,” von Harglebargle finished.

“Danny,” she insisted. She pushed back the Giants cap and flashed an engaging, lopsided smile at his cameras.

“Miss Shepherd is an ace as well,” von Handydandy added.

Tom looked at her again. She was very cute, but even with the bulletproof vest and the M-16 she looked like she’d be more at home in a girls’ softball championship than in combat.

“GREAT. TERRIFIC.” Tom didn’t know what else to say. Forty-six years old, and he still got awkward around pretty girls.

Von Herglebergle smiled. “And if you’d care to turn around…” Tom caught a flicker of motion in the corner of his eye, off one of the screens behind him. He spun his chair around 180 degrees.

In deep center field, beside a weathered advertisement that promised Abe Stark would give a free suit to any batter hitting this sign, a wide double gate opened slowly. Sunlight shimmered blindingly off polished chrome armor as a massive metallic shape lumbered onto the field. It looked like a tank on legs.

“Detroit Steel,” von Herzenberzen pronounced.

Detroit Steel was seven feet tall and four across. He must have weighed as much as the Turtle’s shell; with each step, his feet sank a good ten inches into the soft outfield turf, leaving elephant-sized potholes to drive the Dodger groundskeepers crazy. He looked like he was moving in stop-motion animation.

Danny Shepherd might be a new one on Tom, but he knew all about Detroit Steel from Aces magazine. It wasn’t a robot. There was a man inside that armor, an unemployed Detroit autoworker who had tinkered together the suit in his spare time to become Motown’s foremost public ace. His exoskeleton gave him strength to rival Golden Boy’s. Supposedly he’d built the whole thing out of scrap metal and old auto parts.

Detroit Steel came to a stop beneath him. The reflection off the chrome was blinding. A single cyclopean headlight was mounted in the helmet above the tinted eye slit, and a whole bank of them across the massive chest. Vintage Caddy tailfins decorated shoulders and helmet. A radio antenna telescoped out from behind one ear. All it needed was a set of fuzzy dice.

“Yo, Turtle,” Detroit Steel said, his voice boisterous, hearty, and full of static. “Good to be working with you. My kid’s a big fan.”

“THANKS,” Tom said, uncertainly. The feds were bringing in aces from all over the country. Cyclone operated out of San Francisco. Detroit Steel was from Michigan. He didn’t know about Danny Shepherd, but the Minnesota Giants cap might be a clue. The local heavyweights had already been lined up: Mistral, Pulse, Modular Man, Elephant Girl.

“This will be the most powerful ace strike team ever assembled,” von Hergenbergen promised. “One of my aides is in Japan right now, talking with Fortunato. We’re also following up leads on Chimera, Manta Ray, and Starshine. We’ve offered pardons to the Sleeper and Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”

Fat chance, Tom thought. Starshine and J.J. Flash were both “friends” of Cap’n Trips, currently off in space somewhere with Dr. Tachyon and the private detective Jay Ackroyd. The last time Tom saw the captain, he’d been climbing into a spaceship, waving like it was the Queen Margaret and he was off to cruise the Virgin Islands.

“Going to kick some serious ass,” Detroit Steel said. Tom wished he were as sure.

Ebbets Field seemed empty even though there were a lot of people present—the absence of crowds in the old wooden grandstand, and the lack of anything so interesting as a ball game to attract attention, made the huge field seem like a vast, obscure memorial to a cause long forgotten. A few soldiers ran about the bright green infield stringing wire, putting up antennae, testing a sound system.… Someone was noodling around on the club organ, trying to hunt-and-peck his way through “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” There was a huge model of the Rox built on and around the pitcher’s mound. Armed sentries were posted at intervals around the park’s perimeter, and both dugouts had been turned into sandbagged machine-gun posts.

Modular Man had been here twice before. He recognized Cyclone standing by the Dodger dugout. Near him were a number of people in uniform and a huge robot seemingly assembled out of junkyard spare parts. The Turtle floated enigmatically overhead.

The android landed nearby, beside a lean man in uniform who wore an Arab headdress.

“General Zappa?” Modular Man said.

“Call me Frank.” The mildly southern voice issued from beneath a clipped military mustache. Zappa nodded toward the other man, who wore an Air Force uniform blouse unbuttoned over a Judas Priest T-shirt. “This is Major Vidkunssen. Big Swede.”

Modular Man shook hands with the major. Words flashed across the electronic scoreboard. U.S. SIGNAL CORPS KICKS ASS.

The robot—or was it a suit of armor?—gave a brief hiss of hydraulics. Oiled pistons slid in their sleeves, and little servomotors whined as it extended one paw.

“Detroit Steel,” he said. “Made in America.”

Modular Man gazed upward at the behemoth’s metal face and shook his head. He noticed that Detroit Steel had old auto fins on his shoulders and that the headlight on his helmet seemed to have come from a 1957 Chevrolet. There was a Lincoln hood ornament screwed to the top of his head.

“Perhaps you’re long-lost cousins,” suggested Cyclone, “if not twins, separated at birth.”

For the robot’s sake, Modular Man hoped not.

Cyclone introduced Modular Man to a young blond woman named Danny Shepherd, who seemed rather small and fragile to be wearing a uniform and carrying a gun.

“Could I speak to you privately?” Zappa asked Modular Man. He led the android out to the pitcher’s mound, where a ghetto blaster on top of a miniature battlement was blaring Middle Eastern music. Vidkunssen followed them.

“What I’d like to ask you to do,” Zappa said, “is take a flight over Ellis Island, drop some leaflets, and scope out the defenses at the same time. Think you could do that?”

“I suppose.”

“There’s supposed to be this kind of mental field around the castle so that people don’t want to get inside. But you’re a robot, right?”

“An android.”

“Android. Sorry. Anyway, the mental field shouldn’t be a problem. Will it?”

“I don’t know. I’ll try.”

AIR FARCE ARE WIMPS, said the scoreboard.

“And you seem to have enough firepower to keep the demons away.” Zappa’s eyes narrowed. “Where’d you get that machine gun, exactly?”

Modular Man had stolen it, actually, from a National Guard warehouse. “I’d rather not say,” he said.

Zappa and Vidkunssen exchanged looks. Someone on the organ was trying to play “96 Tears.”

“You fought with the army during the Swarm invasion,” Zappa said. “You have an idea of the kind of information we’d be interested in, right?”

“I suppose.”

Zappa looked down at the huge model. “The problem is that our military reconnaissance satellites aren’t set up to cover the East Coast. NASA has been trying to get a Delta launch ready, but there are storms over Cape Canaveral right now and they’ve scrubbed the mission till Monday at the earliest. We’ve been buying intelligence data from the Russians, and we can overfly the Rox with a reconnaissance plane, but in each case it takes time to get the pictures to my office.

“We’d also like to know where Governor Bloat is. Where he is physically.”

“If we can neutralize him,” Vidkunssen said, “most of our problems vanish.”

“The others might surrender without him,” Zappa said. “That would be a good thing.”

Vidkunssen looked up. “Limo coming, Frank.”

“The draft evader or his emissary. Better change the channel.”

Vidkunssen grinned. “Makes you want to shoot quail, don’t it?”

He pressed a button on the boom box and the Arab music was replaced by the sounds of John Philip Sousa. He buttoned up his blouse over the Judas Priest T-shirt, then tossed an army cap to Zappa, who put it on in place of his Arab headdress.

Modular Man turned to see a black limousine driving slowly from a gate off in left field. Plainclothes security men hung on it or trotted alongside.

A plump, red-faced civilian was walking toward the limo from the Dodgers dugout.

“Hey, it’s the man himself!” Zappa had altered his voice to sound like an overeager deejay. “Here with his backup band, it’s the King of the Links, the Sultan of Suave, the Man a Heartbeat Away from the Oval Office Itself—here they are—Danny and the Dynamos!”

The car came to a halt and one of the security men opened the rear door. The vice president stepped out and smiled. Zappa and Vidkunssen drew themselves up and saluted. Dan Quayle returned the salute and smiled again.

“Stars and stripes forever,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” said Zappa. “I agree with your sentiments, actually, but I think it’s ‘American Eagle March.’”

ITS’ THE VEEP, said the scoreboard. The letters, including the misplaced apostrophe, flashed brightly. There was scattered cheering from the bleachers.

Quayle turned to Modular Man and offered his hand. “Glad you’re with us,” he said.

Modular Man wasn’t quite certain how to respond to this. “Good,” seemed appropriate enough.

The plump, pink-faced civilian arrived.

“Mr. von Herzenhagen,” Vidkunssen said. “Special Executive Task Unit.”

Modular Man shook hands. Von Herzenhagen addressed Quayle. “I’ve just been on the SCARE hotline. Senator Hartmann’s coming out with a new recruit.”

WHERE’S GEORGE??? said the scoreboard. Zappa turned to Vidkunssen. “Gunnar,” he said, “would you go up to whoever’s running the scoreboard and tell him I’m going to rip his arms off if he doesn’t knock it off?”

“No problem,” said Vidkunssen. He trotted away.

Zappa looked at von Herzenhagen, then at the Rox model. “I was just going to ask Modular Man to take a flight over the Ro—over Ellis Island, and drop some leaflets.”

Von Herzenhagen gave the android a fatherly look. “Good,” he said. “Anything we can do to convince those people to give themselves up.”

A small military helicopter arrived over the stadium and drowned out any further conversation. It circled the stadium twice and then flared and came to a landing near second base.

Modular Man noticed that when the aircraft came near, some men appeared from the dugouts with shoulder-fired rockets. Just in case, he assumed, the craft turned hostile.

You never knew with jumpers.

The rotors began to slow. Gregg Hartmann got out, followed by a lean man in civilian clothes. Afterward, moving slowly on account of arm and leg shackles, was a strikingly handsome dark-haired man in plain civilian dress.

Snotman.

Cold dismay rolled through the android’s circuitry.

Snotman, weighed down by the shackles, shuffled toward the pitcher’s mound under the guidance of the civilian. Gregg Hartmann came ahead and shook hands with the group.

“General Zappa?” The thin man held up an ID case with a badge. “I’m Gregory, U.S. Marshal. I’m to release this man into your parole. Sign here.”

Snotman looked up at Modular Man. The look was not friendly.

Zappa signed the forms that Gregory held out, then undid the arm and leg shackles. Zappa offered to shake his hand, but Snotman chose instead to rub his chafed wrists.

“I’m General Zappa. This is Mr. von Herzenhagen, Vice President Quayle, and Modular Man.”

Snotman’s cold blue eyes stared at the android. “We’ve met,” he said.

Gregory got into the helicopter, and it lifted off into the sky.

“I’m glad you’re on our team,” said Quayle. Snotman didn’t answer. Von Herzenhagen whispered into Quayle’s ear. Quayle seemed surprised.

“You’re ah—” he said.

“The Reflector. Call me Reflector.”

Quayle grinned in relief. “I suspected something—frankly—far more disgusting. I thought you were a joker that dripped, uh, mucus and—”

Quayle’s speech faded beneath Snotman’s frigid glare. Quayle swallowed, then said, “We’re glad you’ve chosen this means to redeem your debt to society.”

Snotman’s answer was simple. “I’ll kill any freak you like if it gets me out of Leavenworth. Not that Leavenworth is that bad, mind you, for someone like me.” He gave a thin smile. “I sort of run the place, actually. And the food’s better than what I’m used to.”

Quayle paused. “Well,” he said, “I think it’s particularly good of you, considering you’re a joker.”

“I’m not a joker.” The voice was sharp. “I used to be a joker. Croyd changed me, and now I’m the Reflector.”

Von Herzenhagen stepped closer. His look seemed quite sincere. “We’re glad you’re with us, Reflector.”

“I hate jokers,” Snotman continued. “I’ve got a lot of scores to settle with jokers. They gave me a lot more shit than the nats ever did.”

“Whatever the reason,” von Herzenhagen said.

Zappa looked from one to the next. “One big happy family,” he said.

Tom had heard enough. He was getting queasy feelings about the company he was keeping. Von Hagendaas was bad enough, but now that Dan Fucking Quayle had showed up, he had to say something.

“YOU GUYS SOUND LIKE YOU JUST CAN’T WAIT TO GET IN THERE AND START A WAR,” Tom said. “DAMN IT, SENATOR HARTMANN IS TRYING TO SETTLE THIS PEACEFULLY, REMEMBER?”

“Of course we do,” Vice President Quayle offered. “But if his mission should fail, we have to be prepared to—”

Tom was out of patience. “TO WHAT?” he interrupted. “TO START KILLING JOKERS? WHY? ELLIS FUCKING ISLAND IS A GODDAMN RUIN BUILT ON TOP OF SHIP BALLAST. NOBODY GAVE TWO SHITS ABOUT IT UNTIL THE JOKERS MADE IT THEIR OWN.”

“Turtle has a point,” Danny Shepherd said quietly.

“Ellis Island is a national monument,” Quayle said. “It belongs to the people of the United States, not a gang of joker terrorists. Uh, and the Statue of Liberty too. Even more so.”

“Let me remind you that Bloat and his people have formally seceded from the United States,” von Hegenberg said stiffly. “That constitutes treason.”

“No one has more sympathy for the jokers than I do,” Cyclone said, “but that doesn’t excuse terrorism.”

Snotman glared up at the Turtle with open hostility. “Five will get you ten he’s a joker himself inside that tin can.”

“Hey,” Detroit Steel put in. “Jokers, blacks, aliens, it don’t make no difference to me. This is America. But the law’s the law, right? And they been killing people, right?”

“We lost almost six hundred men last month,” General Zappa said softly. “Good men. Brave soldiers.”

“I SAW THE BODIES,” Tom said. “I SAW PLENTY OF DEAD JOKERS TOO. LET’S NOT FORGET WHO INVADED WHO. YOU GUYS HAVE HIT THE ROX TWICE, WITH NOTHING TO SHOW FOR IT BUT CASUALTY LISTS. NOW YOU WANT US TO DO YOUR DIRTY WORK FOR YOU. ACES AGAINST JOKERS. MORE BLOOD, MORE KILLING. WELL, FUCK THAT SHIT.”

Tom realized that most of the enlisted men in the ballpark had stopped whatever they were doing. Everyone was watching the little drama down on the infield.

“Turtle,” Gregg Hartmann said quietly, “you’re right, the jokers out there are victims. I know what they’ve suffered. But this isn’t the way. You know it, I know it, Bloat probably knows it too. He can’t win. Bush will never back down now. He’s too afraid he’d be perceived as a wimp.”

Dan Quayle gave Hartmann a startled look. “You can’t—”

Hartmann ignored him. “Those are political realities, whether we like them or not,” he continued. “The country is afraid. The jumpers terrify them, and intelligence claims there are more than a hundred jumpers out on the Rox. And Bloat … that castle, of his … the Wall … armies of demons out of Hieronymus Bosch … all of a sudden, no one seems to know the limits of Bloat’s powers, or what he might do next.”

Inside his shell, Tom shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “You can’t argue with that kind of fear,” Hartmann was saying. “The Rox is going to fall. Bush will use everything he has to bring it down, up to and including nuclear weapons. That’s why this afternoon is so important. We must convince Bloat that he cannot win. And for that, I need your help.”

“I’M ALL FOR TALKING WITH BLOAT,” Tom said. “BUT WHAT IF HE WON’T LISTEN?”

Hartmann sighed. “Then each of us will have to search his own conscience, and do what we must. But I tell you this—the Rox is a wild card problem. Wild cards should clean it up. There’s too much fear and hatred in this country already. The nation needs to see that not all wild cards are terrorists and killers. They need to be reminded that some of you are heroes.”

Hartmann’s familiar eloquence hadn’t left him when his political career came crashing down in Atlanta. He was as persuasive as ever. “ALL RIGHT,” Tom said. “I’M IN.”

Von Hagendaas smiled. “Of course you are,” he said. “I never doubted it. We’re offering them amnesty, you know. You can’t get more fair than that.”

“They don’t deserve amnesty,” Snotman said angrily. “I deserve amnesty. They deserve punishment. Humiliation. Pain. Everything they gave me. Doubled.”

“That kind of attitude won’t do anybody any good,” Danny Shepherd told him sharply.

“I think…” Modular Man began.

Snotman turned on him. “You’re a machine. Nobody gives a damn what you think. We might as well ask the jeep its opinion.”

The android gave him an apprehensive look, and fell quiet.

General Zappa said, “I saw the body bags at Fort Dix after last month’s try for the Rox. If there’s one chance in the million that talking will save that from happening to my command, I’m taking that chance.” He turned to Gregg Hartmann. “You’ve got the ball, Senator. Just put it right over the plate.”

Building things was one of the Outcast’s favorite pleasures. Adding to the maze of caverns underneath the Rox was bliss. The Outcast grinned as he worked. Anymore, he could actually feel the energy coursing through him. The channel in which the power ran was almost visible, leading from his mind to the sleeping vastness of his Bloat-body—the engine driving the fantasy of the Rox. The governor’s body was a deep well and the Outcast drank deeply from his other self.

Every day his surging will was stronger. Every day he could do more, as Bloat gorged himself on the waste products of the Rox. Every day he could spend more time dreaming himself as the Outcast, no longer trapped in Bloat.

Ahh, my dear Kelly/Tachyon. I wish you were here. I wish you could be with me now. I could love you the way you deserved to be loved, you and little Illyana …

That was the only sadness in him at all. The Outcast hummed tunelessly as he worked, and he smiled.

Tendrils of purple-blue light splashed from his fingertips and from the stone set in the knob of his staff, leaping out into the darkness of the cavern far under New York Bay. He wove the light like a fabric, fashioning it.

“Let me guess: a dragon.”

“Right,” the Outcast said, not looking at the penguin. The voice was enough to tell him who it was. “Every good dungeon needs a dragon.”

“Y’know, fat boy, for someone with a half-decent imagination, sometimes you ain’t as creative as you could be. I mean, c’mon, a dragon’s such a cliché. A standard, overused icon like a unicorn. You read too much Tolkien as a kid, y’know that? I think—hey! Whassa matter?”

The lines of force composing the Outcast’s blossoming dragon form snarled and twisted, the solidity of the contours fading. “I don’t know…” he said. He raised his staff higher, straining to pull more energy from Bloat’s reserves. Something drained the energy from him, pulling it away. As the Outcast struggled to retain control, a huge, glowing white sword materialized. Swinging through the darkness with an audible whuff, the weapon sliced the birthing dragon in half and then shattered into a hundred streaming meteors. The penguin made a sound like a strangling cat. Pumping furiously with its tiny legs, it skated away over the rocky ground, its funnel hat askew. The Outcast reverted to Teddy behavior at the magical assault, burying his head in his hands as streamers of burning phosphorus hissed past him.

“This isn’t the way,” a voice said. Teddy (No, he told himself, I am the Outcast. Not Bloat, and especially not Teddy…) peeked through his fingers. An ancient, olive-skinned man in a brightly colored serape was staring back at him. The old one’s face was leathery and almost flat. It had an Indian look to it, alloyed perhaps with Spanish blood, like pictures Teddy/Bloat/Outcast had seen of native South Americans.

“You have interfered too many times. You ignore all the signs, and you’re utterly ignorant of what you’re doing,” the old man said. “I can no longer tolerate this. You make the Old Ones angry. They curse me.” Muscles wobbled in an empty bag of skin as the old one flung his arm out. “I brought you here to deal with you.”

For the first time, the Outcast noticed his surroundings. He was no longer in the Rox’s caverns but on a lonely peak in the midst of a tall range of mountains. A cold mountain wind scoured his face. To breathe the frozen, rich air was both painful and exhilarating all at once.

“Hey, man, I don’t have no quarrel with you,” the Outcast said. He tapped his staff on the ice-glazed rocks so that the amethyst glowed warningly. “Just leave me alone.”

Bloat had two types of dreams. Lately, he was most often wandering the Rox as it truly was, usually as the Outcast and often in the company of the penguin. But the initial dreams, the ones that had first hinted at the power, in those dreams he walked in a surreal world, one littered with symbols and images and strange landscapes, a world that shifted under his feet and where things of myth and legend and tales lived all jumbled together. That strange place had always seemed real too. Still, he’d never had both dreams together. It had always been one or the other. This was the first time one had blended into the other.

He willed himself to wake up, to be Bloat again, sitting in his fantasy castle in his fantasyland.

He remained where he was.

“You are Bloat,” the old man said. “Teddy.”

“I’m the Outcast, not Bloat. And Teddy died years ago.”

The leathery face cracked and folded under the freight of a brief smile, yet the lips were the only part that moved. The eyes—dark and brown like plowed earth—had no amusement in them at all. Instead, they were sad, gathering with tears. “A name means nothing and everything.” Then the smile vanished, as if it had never been there. There was only the quiet sadness and behind it, like a thundercloud, a lurking violence.

“Yeah. So who the fuck are you? Are you someone else I dreamed up?”

The Outcast knew that his defiance stemmed at least partly from the ignominy of having cowered like poor Teddy during those first few seconds of contact. He stiffened his full lips, let his muscular chest widen and fill. He could see the sinews rippling in his forearm as he gripped his staff. He looked fierce and wise. He looked good.

The old man barked laughter. “I’m nothing of yours,” he answered softly. “Do you really have such an inflated sense of your own worth that you think you can rule this place?” The man spat; the globule hit the rocks and froze instantly. “You may call me Viracocha.”

“Great. Viracocha. You dragged me to this damn mountaintop?”

Viracocha nodded. He spread his hands wide as if in benediction; at the same moment the sun broke through the cloud cover. Great columns of dusty yellow shot down from the sky, touching the blue spines of the mountain range. “This is my land, a vast place, but only a small part of the greater vista beyond.”

“Very pretty. You probably do a great business with picture postcards.”

“You mock me.”

“You were first in your class, weren’t you?”

Viracocha hissed, a sound like that of a thousand writhing vipers. The sibilance echoed from the stone cliffs surrounding them. “You are an abomination, Teddy,” Viracocha shouted. “You steal from all of us. You send your creatures to walk here where they don’t belong. I listen to the whispers in the winds; I’m not alone in my anger. They all talk of you, those who may walk here, and they spit when they say your name. I tell you, Outcast or Bloat or Teddy—you don’t know with what you play.”

“I play with my own power.”

“No.” The infinite sadness in the old, rheumy eyes hardened. “You have no conception of what it is you do or how you do it or why.”

“Tell it to the fucking nats,” the Outcast shot back. “I handled them. I built a whole place all my own. I’m the governor. I’m the Outcast. I’m the one who built caverns, who gave life to dream creatures, who built a wall and palaces and gardens on a barren island. I did that, man. I got too many real things to worry about than dreams like you.”

The Outcast could feel his power returning and settling in his bones. He could sense the link to the sleeping Bloat-body, stretched across some intangible mind-barrier he’d never felt before. He could move his will back along the lines of power to that division and push; he could open a rift in the dream and find his way back. The realization calmed him. His breathing slowed.

“Look at you,” Viracocha said. “You’ve become so full of yourself. The others—they said that you’d learn, that you just needed help like any fledgling. ‘We should be patient,’ they said. They dismissed my warnings, saying that you’d lose your ability to interfere with us or that your own kind would take care of you finally. But none of that has happened. You’ve grown from an irritating scratch to a gaping wound in our land. I say it is time to stop the bleeding and close that wound.”

“Right,” the Outcast said. “I get it now. You’re from my subconscious, aren’t you?—like all those things that Kelly”—he stopped himself—“Tachyon said. You’re all the fears I’ve had of the Rox failing.”

“You still do not see it, Teddy.” Viracocha had on his sad gaze again; no, he was actually weeping, the old fart. The white-haired head shook dolefully. “Look!” he cried aloud, lifting his hands to the sky again, his gaze there now, not at the Outcast. “You see! It is as I told you—he does not comprehend. He is hopeless.”

The ground rumbled underneath the Outcast’s feet. Stones slithered from the heights and crashed nearby. The grating dull thuds echoed through the misty landscape as if in answer to Viracocha’s words.

The old man’s gaze fell upon the Outcast like a bludgeon. The eyes were dry now, and malevolent. His stare burned the Outcast like the heat from a fire. “You must die,” the old man whispered. “All heroes die.” Each word was like a knife thrust, and the Outcast’s body staggered with the impact of them as if they were physical blows. “Die now, Teddy,” Viracocha said again. The Outcast had gone to his knees, breathless, his heart pounding against the cage of his ribs. The world spun softly around him at Viracocha’s invocation. He thought he heard laughter.

The Outcast’s breath was leaving him. Through the swirling dark, Teddy heard the taunting voice of Roger, his old neighborhood tormentor, he heard his parents, who had abandoned the child tainted by the wild card virus.

Damn you!” Teddy growled deep in his throat. The anger lent him the strength to rise to his feet again, taking on the Outcast aspect once more. He could feel the knobby wood of the staff in his hand, and its purple brilliance caressed his face. He pulled himself up the length of the wood.

Damn you!” he said to Viracocha, whose stare was now touched by fear. The Outcast rapped the bottom of his staff on the cold stones of the peak. He felt the power surging, moving from Bloat to himself, filling him. He pointed his staff at Viracocha like a weapon. The old man lifted his chin, and his gaze went hard and unreadable. “That’s right, you old fucker. I can roast you right where you stand and there ain’t a goddamn thing you can do about it.”

“But you will not,” Viracocha declared. “I know you, Teddy.”

“Damn it, I told you that I’m the fucking Outcast!” His staff trembled in his hands. The power spat and crackled, leaping from the end of the staff. He could barely hold it back.

“I could have killed you,” Viracocha said. “I will yet, if I can. But you…” Viracocha sighed. “Go home, Teddy,” he said. “Use your precious power and leave me.”

The Outcast didn’t know how to answer. The dream-energy of Bloat hissed like static in his ears and he couldn’t think. He exhaled, harshly, wordlessly, then spun around. He released the surging power and it screamed from his staff like a banshee, a whirlwind dervish that enveloped him, swept him up and dizzily away.

When it set him down again, he was back in Bloat’s body. Bloatblack was rippling and sliding down his sides.

The man called Gary Wanatanabise cleared customs easily, the one complication coming when the uniformed officer stumbled over the name on the forged passport. “Listen, how the hell do you say this, sir?”

“Wah-na-tah-na-vee-say.” What he didn’t say was that the “Gary” was from his true name; the other was effectively a joke stolen from a television commercial created by the imperalist AT&T. Wyungare had seen it on a bootleg tape of Twin Peaks smuggled into Western Australia.

“So what’s it mean?” said the customs man a bit imperiously.

“Sweet land of boundless opportunity.”

“Oh, yeah?” The officer even smiled. “That’s real nice.”

Wyungare picked up his unopened bag off the carpeted table.

The officer looked away toward the next haggard traveler. “Have a nice day.”

A little ragged from lack of sleep, Wyungare wanted to say, Thanks, but I’ve got other plans. He restrained the impulse. It would most likely be a very long day. He didn’t want to spend a large portion of it in a steel cage.

He took the bus into the city and wondered at the skyline growing larger before his eyes. Then the road dipped into the Holland Tunnel and Wyungare felt the pressure of the river running overhead. It was not a comfortable feeling. He sensed a certain amount of filth in the water.

After disembarking at the Port Authority Terminal, he checked a map posted under graffiti-defaced plastic and ventured into the gray morning outside. The moment he cleared the door, he was rushed by a half-dozen beings he took to be Manhattan jokers.

“You wanna cab?” said a man with his face cracked like the bottom of a river in high-summer drought.

“Hey! I getcha one with the lowest fare you can imagine. Where you goin’?” It was a woman with a bright pink face and her lips turned vertical rather than horizontal.

“Uptown, sir? I can get you a good one. Real fast!”

“Me! Pick me!”

“No, don’t listen. I get you something special.”

“Thank you all, but no thank you.” Wyungare pushed his way through without actually touching any of them. “Sorry, friends.” Nor did they touch each other. It was a complex choreography of desperation. All the jokers were physically large, whether male or female. The Aborigine supposed they would have to be, if they were to earn a living acting as gladiators for incoming travelers in need of a cab.

He found a subway stairs and descended from the imminent sunrise. Wyungare had been provided with transit tokens as well as cash. Though he’d never been in a subway station before, he’d seen them in plenty of films. With confidence, he dropped a token into the turnstile slot and pushed through. One gate over, a small gang of four Asian teenagers hopped fluidly over the turnstile as if they were a closely spaced line of English jumpers. They ignored an outraged yell from the change booth.

Wyungare glanced up to make sure he was on the downtown side of the tracks. At the same time, he felt the ghost wind that he guessed meant that a train was approaching from up the tunnel. He turned and saw the wavering light.

The train rattled and hissed into the station. Wyungare, keeping tight hold of his bag, boarded a middle car.

He got off at 14th Street and walked across town. It didn’t take all that long, and it was good to stretch his legs. They had been cramped on the airplane.

The city was starting to come to life. Not that New York City ever truly slept—Wyungare remembered Cordelia’s opining that. This morning, the atmosphere seemed shot through with tension. The Aborigine could pick that up without any need of special powers. Something was indeed in the air. Or maybe it was simply the daily index of paranoid urban tension building up.

When he encountered the water, he turned south. Eventually he reached South Street, and the aging waterfront building bearing the sign Wyungare sought: the Blythe van Renssaeler Memorial Clinic. He knew he was in Jokertown; the people passing him on the street proved that. This was the Jokertown Clinic.

He didn’t hesitate. Right through the front door and past the reception desk. He was travelworn but presentable enough especially for Jokertown. As long as he appeared to know what he was about, Wyungare didn’t anticipate being challenged.

There was no percentage, though, in pushing his luck. He found the door to the stairs and went up to the second floor. Wyungare stepped briskly down the dingy corridor. He glanced curiously to either side. Some of the doors were open. It was like walking through a huge Advent calendar of misery.

A scream issued from the doorway to his right. Wyungare saw what appeared to be a nat—a man, with the exception of his face. His head cradled on an oversize pillow, he stared at the Aborigine and screamed again. His features looked as though they were formed of melting wax; they appeared to be slowly running down the side of his head. Only his bright blue eyes were still in their proper locations.

Wyungare looked through other open doors. He remembered the ancient print he’d seen of Horrors of the Wax Museum. He approached the end of the corridor. Around the corner, he thought. He’d been counting room numbers. Two doors down.

The fluorescent illumination seemed dimmer here. There were no outside windows in this section of the hallway. Doorways loomed like dark gaps in a jaw full of diseased teeth.

The door to room 228 was closed.

Wyungare slipped it open, moved inside, stared around the room. One dim lamp illuminated some sort of bed; actually more of a padded, contoured table. The alligator was cradled in that bed. Wyungare detected movement. A set of rollers moved beneath the fabric under the alligator’s belly. The mechanism that activated them hummed, clicked, and then the rollers recycled, starting their massaging movement again.

“Magic fingers,” Wyungare muttered. The perfect alligator tranquilizer. He heard a questioning miaow. He looked down and saw a large black cat looking up at him. They stared at each other for a few seconds. Then Wyungare slowly hunkered down and ran his fingers firmly across the feline head and down its neck. The cat purred, the sound something like that of a bus idling.

“Cousin mirragen, I know you, even though I’ve not seen you before. Cordelia told me of you and your mate. You are a friend of the one called Bagabond, true?”

The cat continued to purr. He was about twenty-five pounds and solid black, though his fur was beginning to grizzle. He pushed himself against Wyungare’s lower leg. The man looked at the feline’s coat and guessed him to be at least twenty years old. The cat was still solidly muscled. He was missing a small notch from his right ear.

Wyungare stood and turned to the recumbent alligator. Twelve or fourteen feet long, the reptile breathed regularly, but otherwise displayed no signs of life. “And this is your friend?” he said to the cat. “Jack Robicheaux? Cordelia’s uncle.” He nodded with satisfaction. “He sleeps. Perhaps he dreams. We’ll find out.” The black cat yowled. “Yes, cousin, your friend actually lies far from here. Let me find out how far.”

The Aborigine again hunkered and unzipped the cheap, floral-print suitcase. He took out a candle and firestone, a small drum with the stick slipped into the lacing, and an abbreviated loincloth. With a sigh of relieved comfort, he slipped off the European clothes and donned the cloth. He used the firestone to light the candle, then dripped enough warm wax on the end of the table by the alligator’s snout to serve as a candleholder. Then he turned off the lamp.

The cat watched interestedly as Wyungare settled himself on the floor and set the drum between his knees. The man picked out a basic rhythm, the beat of the river, let it repeat, worked a variation, settled into the sound.

He was still aware of being in the hospital room; but he was simultaneously aware of walking through a thick pine forest. The humidity was high and his skin felt sticky. It was hard to see the sun. He looked up and saw intermittent flashes of hazy light.

The man entered a clearing and passed a decrepit frame house. Time had not spared the boards; they possessed a soft gray shine. Before he rounded the front corner, Wyungare heard a small sound. A whimper. He stopped and looked carefully beyond the juncture, the side of his face pressed comfortably against the gray clapboard.

He saw a humped shape pinned beneath the rectangular shroud of a screen door. Wyungare carefully approached. He found the body of a young boy lying on his belly, the screen door over him. Someone had staked the door to the earth with long, rusted spikes. The boy’s body filled out the pliable screening as though it had been molded there. The wire over the boy’s buttocks was wet, rusty with blood. He whimpered. His fingers twitched at the rough mesh.

The young Jack? Wyungare thought. He knew that Jack Robicheaux had been reared in a rural southern Louisiana parish back in the time of Earl Long. His niece Cordelia Chaisson had told Wyungare that. When he contracted the wild card virus, Jack had imprinted on the pervasive bayou image of the alligator. That reptile had become the alter ego of his shape-changing ability. Now doubly cursed and dying of AIDS, Jack Robicheaux’s human avatar apparently lay very far indeed from the waking world.

Who did this? Wyungare wondered to himself. Which monster? He was afraid he knew. “Do you wish release?” he asked aloud. He thought he already knew the answer.

The boy turned his head slightly to the side and looked into Wyungare’s eyes. The boy’s eyes were dark and liquid, echoing the black, tangled hair.

“I should not interfere,” the man said, “but I think there’s not enough time for you to solve your own lesson.” He touched one of the steel spikes and tried to wiggle it back and forth. It was solidly driven into the ground.

He heard the sound.

Wyungare started to turn, to look over his shoulder. In the other world, the waking place, he was aware that someone had opened the door to Jack’s room, had paused in the halo of outside light, was looking around, reacting—

He felt the force slam into his head and start to shut down all his autonomic systems. His heart, his lungs—He could see the shadowed eyes of the intruder and knew he was being killed by a woman.

Something dark and heavy streaked through the black room and slammed into the woman’s back. She tumbled forward onto her face on the cool tile floor, the breath going out of her with a whoof. Her chin led and her teeth clicked together. The woman lay still for a moment, seemingly stunned.

The killing pressure left his mind.

With apologies, Wyungare abandoned the imprisoned child and returned to the waking world. He shook his head and blinked a few times.

The black cat was purring and licking the woman’s cheek with his rough wet tongue. She groaned and tried to raise her head. The cat nuzzled her face and she recoiled. “Stop it!”

Wyungare walked over to her and bent down. The woman’s long, curly hair was soft and just as black as had been the boy’s in the other world. “You okay?”

The woman pushed the cat firmly away and tilted her face toward his. Her eyes matched the color of her hair. “You?” she said, sounding shocked.

“It ain’t Mel Gibson, young missy,” Wyungare said. “It is memorable to see you, Cordelia.” He reached to help her up.

Cordelia sat up without any aid. She grabbed Wyungare’s proffered hands and pulled the man down beside her. “You son of a bitch,” she said. “You self-centered political asshole.”

Wyungare said, “Cordie—”

“Don’t ‘Cordie’ me,” Cordelia snapped. “It’s been four years since you saved my life in the Outback. Four years since we were lovers and we fought the spider-woman and—” She shook her head violently. “Not a letter, not a call, not even a damned card at Christmas, love.”

“I—”

Cordelia ignored his attempt to say something. “I know, Wyungare. You were busy being a revolutionary and I was just a kid.” She punched him in the shoulder with the heel of her hand. “Dickhead! Just like a guy.”

“Cordelia,” he said, “I’m sorry.”

And she laughed. “You’re lucky I’ve lived in New York for a while. I can take this shit.” Cordelia wrapped her arms around him. “It is you. I can’t believe it. What are you doing here?”

“I called your apartment. Your roommate said you were running peculiar early errands and planned to visit your uncle before you went to your job. When I rang up the clinic, they said Jack Robicheaux could have no visitors, but I was able to get his room number when I told them I wished to leave you a message when you arrived. I thought I would find you here.”

“That’s not exactly what I meant,” said Cordelia. She traced a fingertip across his face as though recapturing a route on a forgotten map. “I mean, why are you here in New York instead of eating grubs in the middle of Australia?”

“I heard Manhattan had many good restaurants.”

“Smartass,” she said.

“I couldn’t exactly telephone ahead.”

“Tell me all about it later.”

“What are you doing?” It occurred to him that there was some mild shock in his voice. Her hand traced his body lower. The waist-cloth was little protection. He was hard now, very erect indeed.

“Excuse me,” said Cordelia. She stood and Wyungare heard the sounds of whispering fabric. Then she was back down where he was, straddling him, gently moving so that he slid up into her. He moved easily.

“Cordelia—”

“Ssh. Later we’ll talk, mi chér…”

But later wasn’t much later. The door swung open with a crash. Wyungare looked up and saw a hybrid of man and horse filling the doorway with arms folded. He wore a brilliant white coat that matched the albedo of his lush mane and had a stethoscope around his neck.

The joker doctor squinted and said to someone Wyungare couldn’t see, “Well, Troll, it looks as if we’ll have to start enforcing visiting hours. If Cody were around, she’d have both our hides.”

Ray stopped in front of the door to his office, his nose twitching suspiciously. An unfamiliar stench was coming through the closed door. Ray actually wasn’t high enough in the bureaucratic scheme of things to rate a private office, but when none of the other agents’ personal standards of cleanliness could match his, Ray had made such a fuss that the powers-that-be had bent the rules in the interest of peace, and given him his own room.

It wasn’t much. It was just big enough for a spotlessly clean desk, two chairs, and a meticulously organized file cabinet. But it was Ray’s own. And he didn’t care for anyone to stink it up.

Ray opened the door. A man was sitting in his chair, behind his desk, smoking a cigar while leafing through his private files. The enormity of the outrage left Ray speechless.

The cigar was bad enough, but it was playing only a minor role in the symphony of stenches assaulting Ray’s nostrils. A host of other horrible smells emanated from the guy standing behind the man sitting at Ray’s desk.

The man slouching against Ray’s file cabinet was dressed in a black skintight fighting suit much like Ray’s own, except the hood covered his entire face—mouth, nose, eyes, and all. The left eye was covered by a polarized lens that allowed him to see out, but no one to see in. The right eye, though, was covered by black cloth embossed with a small scarlet cross. The cross was the only touch of color about the man.

He was taller than Ray, and broader-built, though he carried no extra flesh on a body that was all taut muscle and prominent bone. He smelled bad, as if he never bathed. He also smelled as if he’d just drunk his breakfast out of a whiskey bottle. The distillery odor mixed with his pungent body odor, and something else, some smell that was unidentifiable but disgusting.

The man sitting at the desk looked up, smiled, and stood. He was short and slimly built with a suggestion of a certain amount of wiry strength. His dark hair was receding from his broad, lined forehead and a thick, carefully groomed mustache covered his upper lip. His eyes were large and animated. He smiled a quick, incandescent smile and held out his right hand.

“Agent Ray, glad to finally meet you.”

Ray looked at the man’s right hand, then to his left where he held the cigar. An inch of dark, fine ash disintegrated from the cigar’s tip and drifted into a little pile beside the blotter set in the precise center of Ray’s desk.

“Who,” Ray said between clenched teeth, “the hell are you?”

“Ah.” The man took his right hand away, dipped into the inside pocket of his expensively tailored suit, and took out an ID wallet. He flashed it at Ray. “Special Agent George G. Battle,” he said.

Ray studied the ID. He’d never seen one like it before.

“Special duty,” Battle said. “Attached to the White House.”

Ray nodded slowly and Battle’s grin flashed again across his face.

“Have a seat,” the special agent said, gesturing expansively as he sat down again behind Ray’s desk. Ray remained standing, staring at Battle unblinkingly. After a moment Battle stood again. “Oh, I get it.” He sidled out of the chair, around the edge of the desk, between the desk and filing cabinet. The man dressed in black followed him, always remaining at his back. “You want your own chair. I like that. I like a man who knows what he wants and refuses anything less.”

He sat cheerfully in the visitor’s chair while Ray took the one behind his desk, glancing distastefully at the ashes beside his blotter. Battle didn’t seem to notice.

“All right,” the special agent said. “Let’s get right to the point.” He leaned forward conspiratorily. “I like a man I can afford to be blunt with,” Battle said, “and I like you. I’ve had an eye on you for quite a while now. You’re a good soldier, Ray. You follow orders well. You’re not afraid to obey your superiors. I can use a man with that attitude.”

Ray leaned back warily in his chair. He disliked Battle instinctively. He disliked effusive men, and Battle couldn’t seem to sit still. He gestured animatedly when he talked, uncaringly flicking cigar ash all over Ray’s carpet.

“How’d you like that little piece of action this morning?” Battle asked suddenly.

“It was…” Ray was taken aback by the direct question. He started to answer, but then thought better of it. It had been fun. He had felt alive for the first time in months. But he knew that if he said that to Battle he’d only get a weird look. Others rarely understood him.

“Exhilarating!” Battle said suddenly. He locked eyes with Ray and Ray found himself slowly nodding. “Invigorating,” Battle added, and Ray nodded again. The special agent’s voice dropped again to a conspiratorial whisper. “It was fun.”

Ray only nodded again, surprised.

“Well,” Battle said. “You have me to thank for it. I pulled some strings to get you there.”

“Why?” Ray asked. He certainly appreciated it, but he wasn’t used to strangers doing nice things for him.

Battle leaned back in his chair and to Ray’s irritation took a long pull on his cigar. “Call it a test. You’d been badly hurt. You hadn’t seen any combat in months. Sometimes that takes it out of a man.”

“And did I pass the test?” Ray asked tightly.

Battle waved his cigar, dropping more ash on the floor. “Most certainly. I thought you would. I know you’re one of the toughest sons of bitches in government service. But I had to make sure. You know how it is.”

Ray found himself nodding despite himself, and he felt a sudden warmth at Battle’s unexpected praise.

“And it wasn’t only a test. Call it”—and Battle’s voice dropped an octave—“an introduction to the worst menace facing the nation today: the radicals who have taken over Ellis Island, defied the government, killed and maimed our brave soldiers, and had the actual unmitigated gall to declare themselves independent from our holy union.”

“I didn’t realize they posed that great a threat,” Ray said.

“Few have!” Battle exclaimed. “Few have. But thank God the few that have are in a position to do something about it.”

“The military’s already tried—” Ray started, but Battle interrupted him.

“They tried, and failed. But they’ll try again. This time with some special help.” Ray remained silent. He could see that Battle was getting himself worked up. The agent’s breathing was agitated. He fidgeted in the chair as if something in it were continually goosing him. “Forces in the media—and even some within the government—have been urging special treatment for those radicals on Ellis Island. But Bloat and his scum are criminal dirt, pure and simple, and the U.S. is about to get out the broom and sweep them into the sea, joker trash and jumper hoodlums alike.”

“But what about the peace conference that’s been scheduled for today? Surely—”

“You really expect it to resolve anything?” Battle asked.

Ray considered, then shook his head. “Probably not,” he said slowly.

“Of course it won’t. That scum understands only force,” Battle said, leaning so far forward that he almost toppled out of his chair. “I’ve put together a team of aces to clean out that rats’ nest.”

Ray pulled at his uneven chin. “And you want me for this team?”

Battle nodded.

“Who else do you have?”

Battle held up a hand without looking back and the guy in black reached down to a briefcase at his feet. He fumbled with it for a moment and finally handed Battle a three-ring binder. Battle opened it to the first page and flopped it down on Ray’s desk, facing him.

Ray looked down. The first page was a glossy eight by ten candid shot of a black guy in a cape clinging to a wall. Ray flipped the photo over and read the info on its back and nodded. Then his eye was caught by the photo of a very attractive blonde on the next page. She was young and very cute. He turned the page to read the stats on the photo’s back, and saw the picture of another attractive girl. He checked her vitals. “Cameo,” he said aloud. “Never heard of her.”

“She’s new,” Battle said, “but we’ve had our eye on her for a while. Not much gets past us.”

Ray nodded and flipped by an unimpressive-looking Asian guy, then stopped at the photo of the man in black standing beside Battle. The only information on the back of the picture was the name “Bobby Joe Puckett: Crypt Kicker.”

“Ah,” Battle said. “You can meet one of the team right now. This is Special Agent Bobby Joe Puckett. Shake hands with the man, Bobby Joe. Leave your glove on.”

Puckett … the name was familiar, Ray thought as the agent slowly put his hand out. Ray took it cautiously. The smelly guy had a strong grip, but Ray did too. He put a little more into his handshake and Puckett answered right back. Ray fought to keep the surprise and pain off his face. He put all the strength he had into his grip, but Puckett, seemingly unimpressed, bore down on his hand with overwhelming pressure. Ray clenched his jaw, determined not to give in, but knowing that this guy was way stronger than him. What would happen, Ray wondered, if I kicked the stinking bastard in the face?

“Now, Bobby Joe,” Battle intervened, “don’t hurt the man. He’s going to be working with us.”

Puckett let go instantly and Ray took his hand back, determined not to rub it. “He’s strong all right,” Ray said. “But can he fight?”

Battle laughed. “Oh, that he can, can’t you, Bobby Joe?”

“That’s right, Mr. Battle, with the strength of the Lord.” Puckett’s voice was slurred, difficult to understand. He spoke with a southern drawl, but also had a bad speech impediment. It was as if he’d had a stroke or a wound that had damaged his throat.

“So who’s leading the team?” Ray asked, making a surreptitious fist in an attempt to get some blood back in his hand.

“I am,” Battle said.

Ray looked at him carefully. “Are you an ace?”

Battle drew back with a look of distaste. “I don’t need twisted genes to fight that scum. I have something they don’t.”

Battle didn’t seem aware that he’d just insulted someone he was trying to recruit for a dangerous mission, but Ray couldn’t resist asking, “What’s that?”

Battle pointed a finger at his temple. “Superior intellect backed by an unbreakable will.” He saw the skepticism that flashed across Ray’s face and smiled a narrow little smile. “You don’t believe me?”

“Well—”

Battle’s smile fixed and he pulled back the sleeve of his suit coat to show an expensive watch and a muscular forearm splashed by a number of pale circular scars.

“Watch,” Battle said. His smile still in place, he puffed at his cigar until the tip glowed a bright red. Then he jabbed it right into his forearm, still smiling.

Ray watched in horrified fascination as the flesh on Battle’s arm blistered, blackened, and puckered into a raw circular crater under the cigar tip. The stench of seared meat speared the air and Ray sat back in his seat. Battle removed the cigar tip from his forearm and proudly displayed the wound to Ray. He held his arm steady and his voice was unshaken. “Will,” he said. “That is all a man needs to survive, not an unclean genetic heritage.”

Battle, Ray thought, is deranged.

Battle’s smile turned to something of a grimace as he wrapped his handkerchief around the fresh burn on his forearm and pulled the sleeve of his jacket over it. “I’ll have that attended to later,” Battle said. He caught Ray’s gaze with his own. “Are you in or out?”

Ray hesitated. The guy was a geek. No normal person hurt themselves like that just to impress someone. He looked at Battle. “I’m in,” he said, unable to deny the overwhelming need for action that drove him every minute of his life.

Battle smiled and shot to his feet. “Good! I knew I could count on you. Let’s get going.”

“Where to?” Ray asked.

“You have some recruiting to do. Two of my prospects haven’t committed themselves firmly to the team yet.” Battle flipped through the book until he came to the picture of the Asian guy. “Him,” Battle said, stabbing the picture with his forefinger. Then he turned to the back of the book and a photo Ray hadn’t noticed before. “And him. I want you to have a word or two with both and convince them of the desirability of joining our group.”

Ray glanced down at the second photo and barely repressed a groan. It was that smartass P.I., Jay Ackroyd.

“All the information you need is in the book,” Battle said. He stood and strode from the office, Puckett lumbering after him.

Ray sat at his desk, watching them leave, realizing suddenly that he’d never, ever be able to eradicate the stench of burnt flesh from his office.

Wyungare had been rather impressed by Cordelia’s coolness under fire. It wasn’t every European woman who could have gathered her self-possession and her clothing after being caught naked and impassioned, astraddle her Aboriginal lover, by the doctor. Wyungare wasn’t even sure that a woman of the People would have remained so calm under the circumstances.

The lights were on now, and Dr. Finn fussed about the ’gator avatar of Jack Robicheaux. Troll, the clinic’s head of security, hulked against the wall just inside the door and looked vaguely embarrassed. Cordelia and Wyungare stood by the head of Jack’s bed; the black cat rubbed against their ankles. Their clothed ankles.

Finn glanced at Cordelia and smiled faintly. “Your uncle does need his rest, you know.”

Cordelia winced. “Okay, I deserve that. Now let’s get back to the point here. Wyungare went directly into Uncle Jack’s mind. He found my uncle staked out on the ground. That was when the cavalry came in with all four feet.”

“Now—” Finn started to say, shaking his mane indignantly. His palomino colors seemed to shimmer iridescently.

“Okay, Doctor Cavalry,” said Cordelia. “Christ, you spend a couple hundred thou in medical school and you think you deserve respect.”

“Just settle down,” said Finn evenly. “Is your Australian, um, friend there a trained psychotherapist?”

Cordelia’s voice turned fierce and Wyungare smiled. “He’s spent the better part of his young life in the dreamtime, you know? He’s lived in other people’s heads. He can navigate the brain like you can find your way uptown on the A train.”

Finn’s eyes narrowed. He opened his mouth, but whatever he was going to say was aborted as another doctor entered the increasingly crowded room. This one was male, short, and bland-looking. It seemed to Wyungare that the physician’s short blond hair must be prematurely thinning. There were no wrinkles on the man’s face.

The new doctor glanced from face to face, frowning a little. Then he turned to the bed. “So, how’s my patient today?” he said to the large reptile. Jack the Gator slumbered restlessly on. The doctor glanced at the digital readouts, tapping one meter when he apparently didn’t get the numbers he wanted at first.

He said to Cordelia, “Looking good, girl. He’s floating perhaps a bit too close to the surface, but I’ll up the sleepytime doses.”

“You do,” said Cordelia, “and they’ll find you with one of those telemetry gadgets up your ass, and another one square in the center of the dent in your skull that killed you.”

The doctor grinned at her.

Wyungare stared. He didn’t remember Cordelia ever displaying this much open hostility.

The physician nodded to Finn. “Doctor.” He held out his hand to Wyungare. “You would be a friend of the patient, or perhaps of the patient’s niece? My name is Mengele, Dr. Bob Mengele. You can call me Dr. Bob.”

Wyungare shook his hand. It felt like grabbing a piece of dry, white bone.

“And no,” said Dr. Bob, as though answering an expected but unasked question, “no relation. Just a coincidence in names.”

“I’m not so sure,” said Cordelia nastily. “I’ll bet you sing German camp songs in your sleep.”

“Cordelia,” said Finn, “that kind of remark is out of line. It’s beneath you. Dr. Mengele is a first-rate physician. His work here at the clinic has been above reproach.”

Dr. Bob smirked.

“He’s a fucking butcher,” said Cordelia. “If I’d let him, he’d vivisect Uncle Jack. As it is, he’s done his best to exterminate Jack’s humanity.”

Dr. Bob said, “My girl—”

Cordelia’s voice rose to something approaching an enraged shriek. “I’m not yours, and I am not a girl!”

She looked like she might physically attack Dr. Bob. Wyungare took her arm. He could feel the tension tautening the muscles. “I am not entirely sure I understand why you both act like mortal enemies.”

“I’m not an enemy,” said Dr. Bob. “I’m only here to help.”

“The check’s in the mail,” said Cordelia venomously. “I won’t come in your mouth.”

“Cordelia,” said Finn. He looked as close to embarrassed as Wyungare guessed a centaur could look. His hooves clicked on tile, as he shifted his weight.

“All right, then,” said Wyungare. “Tell me the issue.”

“Are you related to the patient?” Dr. Bob inspected Wyungare with a merry grin. “I should guess not. Friend of the family?”

“Yes.”

“And how conversant are you with this case?” There was an unpleasantly smug arrogance in Dr. Bob’s words.

“I am aware that Jack Robicheaux is an AIDS sufferer. I know that he is under treatment here at this clinic.”

“You know,” said Dr. Bob, “that AIDS is invariably fatal.”

Wyungare nodded. “Would that it were not.”

“But it is,” Dr. Bob said briskly. “Mr. Robicheaux was dying.”

Is dying,” said Cordelia, voice dropping and wavering a little.

“We all are dying,” said Dr. Bob, “in one way or another.” He reached out and patted Jack’s snout. “Mr. Robicheaux is now dying rather more slowly than he was previously.”

“You tricked me into granting consent,” said Cordelia.

“You were miserable with grief,” said Dr. Bob matter-of-factly, brutally. “You agreed because you know I hold the only possibility for his continued existence.”

“But he’s continuing as an alligator,” said Cordelia.

“Give me a translation, please,” said Wyungare.

“Heavy drugs,” said Cordelia. “Mengele used psychosurgical techniques. He screwed around with my uncle’s reptile brain.”

Dr. Bob said, “The patient was dying with AIDS. He was shuttling back and forth between the reptile state and the human. To oversimplify, when he was in human form, the AIDS virus was fatal, but that virus meant nothing to the reptile form.”

“I think I’m seeing your meaning,” said Wyungare.

Dr. Bob nodded violently and triumphantly. “It was a simple stroke of genius. I’m ensuring his life by giving him a permanent form that is safe from viral predators.”

Cordelia said, “You’re ensuring a life where he’ll be murdered as a human being. He’ll spend the rest of his born life as a reptile.”

“But he will live.”

“At such a cost,” murmured Finn.

“There has to be another way,” said Cordelia stubbornly.

“Acupuncture?” mocked Dr. Bob. “Peach pits? Positive imaging? No, girl, this is the only viable alternative. And in another few days, the process will be permanent. Irreversible.”

Cordelia stared back silently. Tears started to well. Finn trotted forward and extracted a Kleenex from his lab coat.

“The human being is still there,” said Wyungare. “But he is deep inside. He is a passenger in the alligator’s being.”

Cordelia honked into the tissue. “There has to be a way to get him back.”

“But he will die,” said Dr. Bob, as though belaboring the obvious to an audience of simpletons.

“There’s got to be something,” said Cordelia. She added forlornly, “Maybe Uncle Jack wouldn’t want to go on living this way.”

“Easy enough for the young to say,” said Dr. Bob.

For a while they all stared at each other silently or at the floor. The great bulk of the alligator on the table shifted uneasily from time to time. The reptile breathed with an open-mouthed snoring sound.

“You can go inside his head?” said Finn, inclining his chin at Jack.

Wyungare nodded.

“And deep?”

The Aborigine nodded again.

“Are you a shaman?” said Finn.

“That’s a label for others to assign,” said Wyungare.

“Then I suspect you are,” said Finn. He looked contemplative for a few moments. Then, apparently making up his mind, he said, “I think we all ought to adjourn to the cafeteria. I’ve got an idea.” He turned to Dr. Bob. “And you, I believe, have rounds to complete.”

“Oh, I can take a break,” said Dr. Bob, grinning.

“You have rounds,” said Finn firmly. He led Cordelia and Wyungare through the outside hall. The centaur followed up at the rear of the small procession. The black cat had stayed with his friend Jack. There could be no more faithful guardian, Wyungare thought.

“Do you know of Bloat?” Finn said over his shoulder to Wyungare.

“The fat boy?”

“Succinct.” Finn uttered a short laugh. “Yes, the fat boy. Think you could visit his head?”

Wyungare said, “I think I must.”

“Then yes,” said Finn, “we really do all need to talk.”

Zappa, the Turtle, and Hartmann were conferring on the first base line. Snotman stood with the other aces near the dugout and regarded Modular Man with wary intensity.

The Turtle and Hartmann would be paying a final visit to the Rox in a few hours to present an ultimatum and talk Governor Bloat and his people into surrendering. If they failed, the rest of the aces would be going in with the armed forces. Cyclone turned to Modular Man. “At least we’ve got a deadline now. They surrender by sundown or we take care of them.”

“Do you think they stand a chance?” the android asked.

“Against me they don’t stand a chance. Against all of this…?” He grinned. “No jungle to hide in. No international borders to hide behind. No hostages. No chickenshit politicians on their side—even Hartmann’s more worried about the political consequences of the Joker Republic than over the fate of these particular jokers themselves. And castles couldn’t stand up to artillery even in the Middle Ages, they’re not likely to start now, and in any case it’s not going to stand up to me. They may have a few surprises to throw our way, but it’s still going to be very one-sided.”

“I hope so.”

Cyclone looked over his shoulder at General Zappa. “That weirdo, though … I wonder why they picked him? He was with the Joker Brigade at Firebase Reynolds, and he said some things afterward … I got the impression he likes jokers too much.”

“General Zappa’s father,” said a voice, “died of the wild card.”

Cyclone was startled. Modular Man, however, had seen von Herzenhagen’s quiet approach on his radar.

Cyclone nodded. “So he’s got a grudge, then?”

“That might be inferred,” said von Herzenhagen. “Though of course the general has not confided in me.” His face held an expression of polite attention.

“Modular Man? May I see you?”

The speaker was Zappa, calling from home plate. Modular Man excused himself and followed Zappa and Vidkunssen down a tunnel under the old grandstand and then into the owners’ offices. The elegant affect of the plush, tasteful furnishings, the soft carpet, and the rows of pennants and trophies was subverted by military accretions: maps and photographs, communications apparatus, metal shelves holding equipment. A short, powerfully built, red-faced man in the uniform of a lieutenant colonel was scowling at a young officer.

“I did not find that salute sufficient, soldier!” he said. His rural Deep South accent was thick as molasses. “I found it careless and negligent in the extreme! I will ask you to repeat it!”

“Knock it off, cracker,” Zappa said. “Come with me.”

“I’m still waiting for my salute.”

The young officer clenched his teeth and raised his hand in a picture-perfect salute. The red-faced man grinned and returned it.

“I love this chickenshit Army,” he said.

Zappa led the colonel and Modular Man into an inner office, then sat with relief behind the owner’s massive desk. There was a thin civilian already in the room. He wore black-rimmed glasses and a necklace of what seemed to be baby teeth. He carried a miniature poodle whose hair was dyed a pastel blue.

“Big Swede,” Zappa said, “get me some mineral water. Anybody else want anything?”

“Pepsi,” said the civilian.

“Bourbon on the rocks,” said the colonel.

Vidkunssen went to the wet bar and opened a commodious refrigerator. It seemed well stocked.

Zappa waved a hand. “Pepsi over there is Horace Katzenback,” he said. “I met him in the Nam, when he was with AID. He’s my adviser.”

“Token intellectual is what he means,” said Katzenback.

Modular Man shook his hand.

“Bourbon on the rocks over there is Sgt. Goode, my stepfather,” Zappa said.

Modular Man looked at the colonel’s uniform. “Sergeant?” he said.

“U.S.M.C.,” said Goode. “Retired.”

“I got him a light colonel’s commission,” Zappa said. “If I’m going to have to make a landing on an island, I want to have someone around who was in the first wave on Tarawa and Saipan.”

Goode grinned. “I get to make them all salute me. It’s quite a change.” He looked at Zappa. “Even if I am in the wrong fucking branch of service.”

Vidkunssen handed everyone their drinks. Zappa took a sip of mineral water, then said, “Let’s have some music.”

Vidkunssen punched a button on the boom box and Arab music began to wail. Zappa grinned. “The opposition might be listening,” he said. “Or our own side. You never know.” He looked up at Katzenback. “You’ve had time to poke around. What do you make of Phillip Baron von Herzenhagen?”

The thin man twitched a smile. “Spook City. I was around enough of them in the Nam. I’ve got the smell of them by now.”

“Von Herzenhagen himself.”

“The people around him sure as hell are. The baron himself—” He shrugged. “Hard to say.”

“We’re ordered to turn any prisoners over to his unit.”

“Well, he’s a bigwig with the Red Cross, right? So that sort of makes sense. But those guys around him sure as hell aren’t Clara Barton.”

Zappa gnawed his mustache. “I don’t like the vibe. I was with von Herzenhagen when he interrogated Tachyon, and he damn near tore the girl apart. He’s either a pro, or he’s crazy.”

“I don’t like the vibe either.”

“But the fewer jumpers my men have to handle themselves, the better.”

“My guess is that a whole lot of our prisoners are gonna end up working for the spooks.”

“If we take any prisoners, that is. If they don’t give up, I don’t hold out a lot of hope.” Zappa leaned forward and put his elbows on the desk. “Anybody here think they’re going to listen to Hartmann’s appeal?”

There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Katzenback finally spoke. “We’ll probably get a few of the more unmotivated types. The ones that wouldn’t give us much grief anyway.”

Zappa looked up at Modular Man.

“I’ve assessed the previous assaults,” he said, “both in light of my own experience and that of”—nodded at Goode—“the Georgia cracker here. I have no intention of repeating previous mistakes. In the past the goal of the military was to retrieve a national monument without damaging it in any significant way.”

“That led to a lot of restraint,” Goode said. “And a lot of dead marines.”

“But now,” Zappa continued, “the national monument simply doesn’t exist anymore, and nobody in their right mind wants to protect that freaky castle. I have the authority to use any means necessary to deal with this emergency.”

“The island’s too fucking small for a landing,” Goode added. “You can’t put enough soldiers in, and you can’t use heavy weapons for fear you’ll hit your own people. And that outer wall—well, if we got people on it, we could use them as artillery spotters. But that’s about all.”

“Therefore,” Zappa said, “I’m not putting any more troops on that island until resistance is over. Not until I can get my men onto the Rox by walking there on a bridge of spent shell casings.

“They say that Bloat can change physical reality. My bet is that he’s not going to be able to change the five hundred artillery and mortar shells I can drop on the Rox every single minute. Or what the Air Force can do to him. Or Tomahawk missiles dropping cluster bombs. One lousy fuel-air bomb will suck the oxygen right out of the defenders’ lungs and pulverize their fortifications at the same time. So that means they surrender before sunset or get bombed until there’s no one left.”

There was another long moment of silence. This was the man, Modular Man thought, who Cyclone thought liked jokers too much.

Zappa looked up at Modular Man. “If I commit the forces available to me, there’s going to be a massacre that will make Wounded Knee look like a cotillion. I’d rather not be the man who goes down in history as giving that kind of order.”

“Shit,” said Katzenback. “A lot of them are just kids. Governor Bloat is just a kid.”

“He’s a kid who can change physical reality,” Goode said. “A kid who killed a lot of police and marines.”

“He’s dangerous. I fought alongside the Joker Brigade—I know how formidable jokers can be when they’re properly motivated, and when they’ve got a chance to come to grips. I’m not going to come to grips. I don’t want to hold back when the time comes—that’ll just get more of my own men killed. So my men are just going to sit someplace safe and bomb that place till it sinks into New York harbor.

“I want them to surrender before I have to give any kind of final order. There are still phone lines to and from the Rox. They haven’t been cut because our intelligence people figure they can learn things listening in. So the leaflets I’m going to ask you to drop over there will contain a toll-free number that Bloat and his buddies can call when they want to surrender. It’s 1-800-I-GIVE-UP.” Zappa smiled. “My little contribution to communications history. We’ve got leaflets printed up, but they don’t mention the deadline, so we’re having more printed off now. Once they’re finished, I’ll ask you to fly over there.”

“Very well,” said Modular Man.

“I think the best way would be a low approach over Jersey City,” Vidkunssen said. “That’s what the Air Force will use on their bombing runs. Your radar profile is going to be lost in the ground clutter of the city buildings, and if you miscalculate your bomb release point the weapons will either fall in the harbor or onto the part of New Jersey that’s now occupied by the Rox.…” He fell silent for a moment as he realized what he’d just said, then laughed. “I guess with you the bomb release point isn’t going to matter much, is it?”

“Is my radar profile?”

“Maybe.” Modular Man felt dismay filter through his mind. Vidkunssen’s voice was apologetic. “They captured some radars when the Rox expanded onto New Jersey soil.”

“How many?”

Zappa spoke up. “Three, along with three complete Vulcan 20-mike-mike antiaircraft systems, four 60mm lightweight company mortars, two .50-caliber heavy machine guns, and a pair of Bradley fighting vehicles. Ammunition for the above, plus assorted small arms. Also some bridging equipment, boats, and plastic explosive.”

“Plastic explosive?” the android wondered. “What was plastic explosive doing there?”

“There was an engineer company present, trying to figure out a way to get onto the island. The explosive and the bridging equipment was part of their TO&E. When the castle’s curtain wall expanded onto the mainland at Liberty State Park, all the soldiers abandoned their gear and ran for it.”

“Do the jokers know how to operate any of this equipment?”

“It’s safe to assume that there are a few veterans among them. Pehaps”—he looked troubled—“some of those I knew from the Nam. And they captured maintenance and instruction manuals and the like. We know they’ve been trying to use the radars because we’ve picked up their signals.”

“What if they try and shoot at me with any of these weapons?”

Zappa frowned up at him. “Take them out. Take out anything that’s threatening you. I won’t tell my people not to defend themselves just because it isn’t in somebody’s op plan.”

“Thank you.”

“Our last photos, taken earlier this morning, show the Bradleys, the fifties, and one of the Vulcans dug in behind the Jersey Gate, with the rest moved to the island. But if you can update that picture we’d appreciate it.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” It should be easy enough, the android thought, to use his radar to spot the point of origin of all the bullets coming at him.

“Any questions?” Zappa asked.

Modular Man tried to think. “I suppose not. It seems straightforward enough.”

Zappa turned to Vidkunssen. “Give Modular Man the photo file and an interpreter to tell him what he’s looking at.”

There was a knock on the door, and an aide reported that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Powell was calling from the Pentagon.

The conference seemed to be over.

“It’s insane,” Cordelia had flatly said. They were sitting in the clinic cafeteria, sipping tea and contemplating the green and orange institutional walls. Finn had left them and gone about his business. Wyungare and Cordelia had been allowed space to contemplate their plan of action.

“That’s the point,” said Wyungare. “It’s not insane. It may well be that a healer can help.”

“You ought to hear the rumors out there,” said Cordelia. “I think something big is going down, huge trouble. More trouble than an army of healers could cope with.”

Wyungare shrugged. “No shame in trying, even if failure follows.”

Cordelia giggled. “That sounds like a fortune cookie.”

“It is. I received it at a Chinese restaurant in Sydney the night before I left for America.”

The woman reached across the table and took his hand tightly. “Understand something, ma chér. I know how well you can handle yourself. I haven’t forgotten Uluru and our little adventure with Murga-Muggai. You’re so damned competent. But you’re a healer, and I suspect there’s going to be a lot of firepower cut loose if you end up trying to contact Bloat out at the Rox.”

Wyungare wrapped her hands in his. “I am more than a healer,” he said. “I am a warrior and a magician. I’ve got some resources I can draw upon.”

“I know,” she said. “But I just don’t want you to die.”

“And neither do I wish that.” He deliberately smiled at her, trying to relax the tension he felt in her muscles and saw in her face. “Trust me to know what I’m doing.”

“And do you?” she said unexpectedly.

He was honest. “No.” He added, “But I can vamp like crazy.”

That made her laugh. The laughter trailed off uncertainly and died. “Is your mission worth death or worse?”

“Worse?”

“I think there are fates even more terrible.”

“I think you’re right,” said Wyungare. “And my answer is yes.”

She put his hand to her lips and lightly kissed it.

“Do you want to get some idea why?”

Cordelia looked at him questioningly, then said firmly, “Yes.”

“And, if all goes well, would you like to visit your uncle?”

“You mean back at the room?”

“I mean your uncle Jack—not his avatar.”

“Yes,” Cordelia said. “Please. Yes.” Her fingers squeezed like steel.

Jay Ackroyd’s office was a fourth-floor walk-up on 42nd Street, half a block off Broadway in a sleazy section of town that matched, Ray reflected, the P.I.’s personality perfectly.

There were a couple of derelicts hanging around the building’s entrance, but they took one look at Ray’s snarling countenance and decamped without begging for change. Ray stepped over the snoring pile of rags in the foyer and went up the steps grumbling to himself. He didn’t mind the fact that there was no elevator, but he wished that the stairway wasn’t so damn filthy. He could hardly wait for the splendor of Ackroyd’s office.

The frosted glass on the top half of the office door said JAY ACKROYD in a solid, block-letter arc. Spelled out below that in slightly smaller but just as solid letters was DISCREET INVESTIGATIONS.

Ray opened the door, and stopped, surprised.

The reception room was small, but since there was little furniture, it wasn’t exactly cramped. An almost bare desk sat next to one wall. There was a telephone answering machine on its freshly dusted surface. Sitting in a chair behind the desk was a blond, inflated plastic doll with a round, puckered mouth. Peculiar, Ray thought, but then Ackroyd was a peculiar fellow. A plastic blow-up toy seemed to be just his style. The reception room, much to Ray’s surprise—and approval—was spotless. There was no dust on the furniture, no cobwebs in the corners, no grime on the one window that looked out on the grimy street below.

Ray crossed the small reception room and knocked lightly on the door separating it from Ackroyd’s sanctum. When there was no answer, he pushed it open.

Ackroyd was sitting behind his desk, his feet resting propped on its spotlessly polished surface, reading a magazine. The P.I. was wearing headphones to drown out the city drone coming from the open window that was letting in the warm late-morning breeze.

“Ackroyd,” Ray said, but there was no response. He took two steps into the tiny room, which put him right in front of the desk, and rapped twice on the desktop next to Ackroyd’s crossed ankles.

The P.I. looked up, startled, almost dropping his magazine. The alarmed look in Ackroyd’s eyes vanished, replaced by one of polite questioning. He uncrossed his ankles and took his feet off the desk. “Yes?” he asked in the too-loud voice of those wearing headphones.

Ray grimly tapped his right ear, and Ackroyd nodded. “Oh, right.” He took the headphones off. “What can I do for you?”

Ray choked back a snarl. This had to be another one of Ackroyd’s asshole flights of comedy. The two had crossed paths more than once. Ray knew that his face had been messed up badly by Mackie Messer, but there was no way that Ackroyd didn’t recognize him.

“It’s Ray,” he said sarcastically. “Or do I have to show you my ID?”

“Um, no,” Ackroyd said, putting his magazine down on the desk. It was the latest issue of Aces. “How’ve you been?”

“How’ve I been?” Ray repeated, outraged. I’ve been in the hospital for eight goddamn months, you asshole, he wanted to shout. But he knew that Ackroyd was only trying to set him off. “Fine,” he said between gritted teeth. “Just fucking fine.”

“Great,” Ackroyd said without conviction, staring at the ruin of Ray’s face. “Why don’t you sit down?”

“No thanks,” Ray spit out. “This isn’t a social call.”

“Business?”

“Business.” He paused to gather his self-control. “Listen, gumshoe, this isn’t my idea, but the man I’m working for thinks he needs you for a job.”

“What kind of job?” Ackroyd asked eagerly.

Now he goes into his eager-beaver act, Ray thought. He leaned forward, put his hands palm down on Ackroyd’s desktop. Ray was not one to dissemble. He gave it to him straight. “He’s leading a covert assault team onto Ellis Island.”

“Ellis Island?” Ackroyd repeated. He shook his head. “You must be from Battle. I’ve already told him that this isn’t my kind of thing.”

“You don’t get it,” Ray said coldly. “I’m not asking your opinion. You’ve been drafted.”

“Drafted? I’m too old.”

“None of your fucking wisecracks,” Ray exploded. “Battle wants you on the team. You’re going.”

“I’m a private citizen—” Ackroyd protested.

“Look,” Ray said, “I’m just a messenger. As far as I’m concerned, we need you like I need a pimple on my ass, but if the man wants you, you’re going. And he’s connected. Heavily. You decide you don’t want to go on this jaunt and we’ll have your ticket pulled faster than you can say ‘unemployment line.’ You got me?”

“You can’t be serious,” Ackroyd protested. “You can’t take away my license.”

“Try me,” Ray said.

He glared at Ackroyd, who glared back. The standoff might have held for eternity except for the quiet knock on the open door to Ackroyd’s inner office.

Both men turned, stared, and barked out, “What?”

It was an old woman in a domestic’s outfit. She looked startled. “All right if I clean now, Mr. Ackroyd? I can come back later if you want.”

“It’s okay, Consuela,” Ackroyd said, still glaring. “Ray here was just leaving. He’s got to go polish his medals.”

“Polish my medals. Christ, you’re slipping, Ackroyd.” Ray reached into his pocket, pulled out a card, and dropped it onto the P.I.’s desk. “Be at that address, tomorrow, at six A.M. Or be ready to find a real job.”

He waited a moment for Ackroyd’s rebuttal, but none came. He left the office muttering to himself and shaking his head.

This time the rite was safe from interruption. Troll stood outside the door, arms folded, daring any intern to attempt to enter Jack Robicheaux’s room. He looked like his namesake. Nine feet tall and green-skinned, his appearance was not such that even Dr. Bob would try to move him. Which was good, because he had said things that suggested the blood between Troll and Dr. Bob was bad indeed.

In fact, Dr. Bob Mengele had indeed rushed up to the room when he had somehow found out that Wyungare and Cordelia planned to do something unorthodox with Jack Robicheaux.

“Relax, Doctor,” Wyungare said. “It’s only a trip the little missy and I are taking. I will perform no unauthorized therapy. All right?” Then he had firmly shut the door on Dr. Bob’s dumbfounded face.

He repeated the minor ritual he had set up earlier and alone. Wyungare set the single candle on the head of the bedtable. He changed into his waist-cloth.

“Should I undress?” said Cordelia.

“It would just distract me,” said Wyungare. “Actually, you can wear whatever will make you the most comfortable.”

Cordelia took off her shoes.

Wyungare hunkered over the skin drum and began to tap out a steady rhythm.

“What do I do?” said Cordelia, hovering close to him.

“Listen to the drum. Watch the candle. Concentrate on your uncle. Remember him as you love him.”

Cordelia looked uncertain as she stared at the wavering candle flame. “Le bon temps…” she whispered.

And then, somewhere in the middle of what she was saying to herself, both Wyungare and she were somewhere else. She stared around them both at the rough stone pillars reaching toward a slate sky.

“Where are we? Are we in Jack’s head?”

“We are in the middle world,” said Wyungare. “This time we have to climb. Good healthy exercise.”

“Wonderful,” Cordelia muttered. “I wish I could have dreamed myself a fitter body.”

“I think it’s plenty fit enough,” said her lover.

Cordelia smiled. “You’re sweet.”

The pair clambered up an increasingly steep slope.

“Can’t you dream us a giant eagle to act as a magic elevator and get us up the mountainside?”

Whatever he was about to answer was lost as the reality fabric tore across like ripping silk. The noise echoed in her head, traveled in directly to the core of her bones, started to feel as though someone were scraping the marrow out with a dull metal blade. Cordelia saw something that looked like the squiggle lines when a TV’s not on cable and the reception keeps going in and out.

She squinted, concentrated. The picture got a little better, but not much. A buzz-saw whine assaulted her ears and started to cut an entry directly into her brain.

Wyungare knew what she was feeling and thinking. He took her hand. “Come on,” he said.

“What is it?” Her voice rose a little. “What’s going on?”

“It’s like interference,” he said. “The signal’s scrambling.”

She stumbled on the path, her ankle turning as her foot came down on a stone she had somehow not seen. She involuntarily whimpered with the abrupt pain.

“Are you hurt?”

“No!” she said. “Just tripped. Clumsy.”

The skies cleared. The metallic whine diminished and then dissipated.

“Better than it sometimes is,” said Wyungare. “Let’s make time, just in case it returns.”

“It?”

“Him,” said Wyungare. “He. The boy.”

“I don’t like what he does.” Cordelia still limped.

“This is a minor manifestation.”

“What’s major?”

“I don’t think you truly wish to know,” said Wyungare.

“Don’t be so sure. Tell me.”

They had somehow climbed much farther than the apparent elapsed time could allow for. The two of them were close to the top of the climb. More trees, soft green shade, lush grass awaited as they reached the summit.

“It’s paradise,” said Cordelia. Their surroundings flickered, somehow rearranged themselves, settled into permanence. Cordelia and Wyungare walked under a thick canopy of twisted tree branches. They skirted a brackish pool. Something surfaced in the center of the water, then went down as fast as it had come up.

The air stifled. It was hot and filled with moisture. Heavy. Wyungare felt like he was trying to breathe underwater without any gear.

“This is Louisiana,” said Cordelia, apparently revising her first judgment. “It feels like our parish down south.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Wyungare, “considering the nature of our host.”

They crossed through more thick trees and came upon the sun-grayed frame house. “We used to live here,” Cordelia said wonderingly. “Uncle Jack’s folks had it before us.” She reached out, almost fearfully, and touched her fingertips to the mold-burred wood.

Wyungare listened attentively to something. “Around the corner,” he said. “Someone’s waiting for us.”

They rounded the end of the house. Wyungare saw what he had encountered on the previous trip. He glanced at Cordelia. The young woman obviously was sharing the same construction.

Ahead of them, the young boy struggled weakly with the staked-down screen door pressed tightly over him.

“Move it,” Cordelia said, reaching toward the door. “We need to free him.”

“Don’t be too hasty,” said Wyungare. But Cordelia had already bent to one of the steel spikes and had started to prise it loose from the soft earth.

“Well? Don’t just stand there,” said Cordelia, waving the spike triumphantly. “Dig in. There’s plenty for everyone.”

Indeed there was. Wyungare pushed and pulled a spike until the head was covered with blood from the Aborigine’s abraded fingertips. But finally the spikes were all removed, and together, the pair pulled the screen door loose.

The young boy—perhaps eight—glanced up at them. His eyes were dark and very serious. He shook his head and tried to sit up. At first his arms would not support him. He took a deep breath and started over. Finally he was upright. He toed the somewhat battered screen door.

“Uncle … Jack?” said Cordelia. “Are you okay? I mean, is there anything we can get for you?”

The very young Jack Robicheaux said nothing. He cast his vision down, looked up at them from beneath unkempt curly hair.

“Do you recognize me?”

He apparently did not.

“Will you come with us?” said Wyungare.

The boy stared at him for a long time. Then, hesitantly, he reached toward the Aborigine’s hand.

But he still said nothing.

Cordelia stared down at him, a trace of tears moistening the skin beneath her eyes.

And that’s when the chain-saw howl started to disembowel the world.

Modular Man caught occasional glimpses of the gray towers of the Rox as he flashed above the sweating streets of Jersey City. He increased speed, popped up above street level at the last second as the curtain wall and the bastions of the Jersey Gate came up like an anvil trying to squash him.… He soared up above the bastion and emptied one of his two bags of leaflets at the top of his climb. The wind scattered them like a bomb burst as the android dropped down over Liberty Park, then flew at wavetop level for the Mad Ludwig spires of the Rox.

The Bradley fighting vehicles were still in place, he noted. So was the Vulcan. He had observed the barrel of one of the fifties thrust from a cross-shaped slit on the northernmost tower of the Jersey Gate bastion.…

A mile-long bridge arched between a huge gatehouse and the mainland. Armored knights, riding flying fish, floated overhead as a kind of combat air patrol. Modular Man crossed under the bridge to help conceal his approach and then popped up again.

A few jokers gaped upward at him, but the rest seemed unaware of his presence. The fish-knights seemed now to be observing him, and they were turning their steeds into slow turns. The android opened his second pack of leaflets.

“I come in peace!” he yelled, and flung a handful of leaflets to the wind. “I’m carrying a message!”

No one seemed to be listening.

Bloat was pissed.

“Damn it, can’t anyone shoot him down?” he raged at Kafka. “I want him in little tiny pieces, do you hear me!”

The appearance of Modular Man in the sky above the Rox and the rain of leaflets he’d released had stirred Bloat’s kingdom like a stick poked into a mound of fire ants. The mindvoices buzzed with it …

… can’t be jumped. It ain’t no ace, just a machine …

… fucking Bloat can’t keep Modular Man out …

… what if those were goddamn bombs and not just pieces of paper? We’d be dead every last one of us …

… Shit, I’m calling that damn number …

Bloat could see Modular Man through the walls of the castle, leaflets fluttering in his wake.

“Governor, we’ve tried everything. The Vulcans can’t seem to track him. He’s too fast and too well armored for small-arms fire.” Kafka was shaking with fury. His chitinous plates rattled like crockery in an earthquake. Around the room, Bloat’s joker guards were clutching automatic weapons at ready, nervous. “Every minute he’s here he does more harm to the morale of the Rox than a dozen rumors about the coming attack.”

“I know that. I’m hearing it, believe me.” Bloat watched Modular Man appear over a pair of delicate minarets and then glide behind the thorny spires of the transformed hospital. He glared, listening again to the Rox and knowing that Kafka was right. “Must I always do everything myself?” he sighed. “All right. I’ll take care of him.”

He hoped that he could.

One of the armored knights sped at Modular Man couching a swordfish as a lance. The android added a little lateral impulse, sidestepped the thrust, and stuck a leaflet on the end of the lance as the knight passed by. A gust of foul air, like a million dead fish, followed in the fish-man’s wake.

“Don’t shoot!” he yelled as a Vulcan mounted on the keep began to track toward him. “I’m not attacking!” He flung more leaflets to the breeze.

The 60mm mortars, he observed, were emplaced inside the inner bailey.

There was a rush of flame and a hissing noise as a shoulder-fired antiaircraft rocket lanced upward from the ground.

“Don’t shoot!” Modular Man screamed. He added another burst of lateral energy and sidestepped the rocket. The rocket weaved for a moment, then reacquired one of the fish-men and blew it out of the sky in a surprisingly violent burst of smoke and flame.

“Now look what you’ve done!” The Vulcan seemed to be getting a bead on him. Modular Man swung down into the outer bailey, where the 20mms couldn’t track, and dumped another bunch of leaflets.

The fish-men began diving on him in a complex pattern that required a lot of twisting flight before he could avoid them. Bursts of small-arms fire crackled out. One of them splashed another fish-man. More fish-men appeared overhead, quite literally out of nowhere. The defenses seemed to be getting much better coordinated. Nobody seemed to be reading the leaflets.

Maybe it was time to go.

Bloat closed his eyes. He brought back the image of Bosch’s Temptation of St. Anthony, of the writhing, martial deformities that had been on the now-destroyed panels of the triptych, and he reached into that part of him where he dreamed. He opened his eyes again, looking out from the transparent walls to the sky, searching for Modular Man. He found him, a speck racing across the sky, moving closer to the castle and still releasing his propaganda.

“I have you,” Bloat whispered.

He brought them forth.

They appeared in the air alongside Modular Man: a squadron of mermen soldiers riding flying fishes. What the android did then startled Bloat. Modular Man performed an astonishing bank and dive, turning acrobatically left and below. The move would have been impossible for a human—the G-forces must have been incredible. The turn would have ripped the wings from a plane.

Bloat, cursing and tracking Modular Man with his eyes, made his dream creatures dart after the android. For several seconds there was a wild aerial dogfight, then Modular Man came to a sudden halt like someone had turned off a motion picture projector; Bloat’s gaze went helplessly past for a second, then back. Laser fire raked Bloat’s creatures. Several of the fish-mounted knights plummeted to the earth, vanishing before they hit. Then Modular Man streaked off again, scattering more leaflets.

“Damn it,” Bloat said. “If I can’t catch him, I’ll just ram the bastard.”

Bloat materialized another merman directly in front of Modular Man. The android was moving far too fast to evade. From the Great Hall, they could all see the tremendous midair collision. Modular Man tumbled and fell end over end, slamming into one of the stone walls of the towers in a cascade of granite chips. The android caromed out of sight; it didn’t appear that it was still functioning.

Kafka let out a shout. All around the Great Hall, jokers cheered. The mindvoices of the Rox cried in victory. Bloat grinned.

“We’ve won another skirmish,” he exulted. “You see, Kafka? They can’t touch us. They ain’t ever going to touch us.”

The android dived down into the inner bailey. The last of the leaflets trailed behind him. He shot across the courtyard, leaving baffled fish-knights in his wake, then climbed again.

One of the fish-men materialized out of thin air right in front of him. Modular Man was going 150 miles per hour and there was no way to avoid a collision.

There was an alloy-twisting crash. Jarred circuits staggered. The knight, the fish, and the android tumbled. The knight’s armor was crushed; the limp body vanished in a puff of brimstone before it hit the pavement.

Modular Man slammed into the castle wall, but managed to avoid sliding to the pavement below. Stunned circuits were bypassed or came back on line. The world swayed, then stabilized. Modular Man took off again, popped over the outer wall, then dropped to wavetop level again.

Three fingers on his right hand were twisted into spiral ruin. It was clearly time to leave.

He had accelerated to over 600 miles per hour by the time he reached Manhattan.

He’d talk to Travnicek again.

If he showed Travnicek that he was damaged, perhaps Travnicek would order him to stay out of trouble.

A slim hope, perhaps, but the only one he had.

“I got a real bad feeling about this,” Molly Bolt said. She was a slender girl, shaggy hair streaked in a half-dozen colors, inverted cross dangling from one ear.

The bodysnatcher leaned against the back wall, sucking absentmindedly on a bloody knuckle. Molly had gathered forty jumpers in the onion dome atop the Red Tower. There were 116 jumpers on the Rox the last time anyone had counted, but these were ones who mattered.

Juggler held up one of the leaflets that Modular Man had been handing out. 1-800-I-GIVE-UP. “Amnesty,” he read. “It says they’ll give us amnesty.” He really could juggle pretty good, at least when he was wearing his own body. Other than that, he was a useless little weasel, as far the bodysnatcher was concerned.

“How do we know it’s true?” Suzy Creamcheese asked nervously. She was a nervous little fifteen-year-old, no more than five feet tall, but the boys loved her. For two good reasons, at least forty inches of them, barely restrained now in a narrow halter top, fat nipples pushing against the fabric.

“We don’t know it’s true,” Molly told her bluntly. “This is the Combine. The Combine will fuck you every time.”

The Combine. That was K. C. Strange talk. She got it out of some book she read. K. C. Strange had been one of the first jumpers. She was dead now. So many dead or gone: David, Blaise, even Prime, who’d created them all. That was Zelda’s fault. Zelda had been Prime’s bodyguard. It had been her job to keep him safe, and she’d fucked it. Zelda had deserved to die.

With Prime dead and buried, there would be no new jumpers. They were the last.

“They won’t dare attack the Rox again,” Porker said. He’d squealed like a pig when Prime had fucked him up the ass. “Not after last time. It’s just a bluff.”

“Maybe,” Molly Bolt said. “Maybe not.”

“So what if it isn’t?” Alvin the Chipmunk said, smiling. “So we’ll do it to them again. Fun and games.” Alvin had killed both his parents, slitting their throats with his father’s straight razor while they slept. Blaise had read about him in the paper and decided Alvin was his kind of guy. They’d sprung him, brought him to the Rox, and Prime had done the rest.

“It’s not like last time,” Juggler insisted. He rattled the paper. “Amnesty … maybe we ought to…”

“Send them home in little pieces,” Alvin said, smiling.

“Bloat’s not going anywhere,” Blueboy said. He’d put on some pants and buttoned up the cop shirt. A half-dozen badges were pinned to his chest, polished until they were as shiny as his mirrorshades. A captain’s hat, a size too large, was tilted at a rakish angle across his brow. “So everything’s copacetic.”

“If you trust Bloat,” said Captain Chaos, an anorexic fourteen-year-old with a crazy glint in her eyes.

“We’re on the same side,” Porker said.

“He’s a joker,” the Iceman pointed out.

“Joker poker,” echoed Captain Chaos. “Freak city express.”

Juggler glanced behind him nervously. “Don’t talk like that,” he whispered. “He might be listening.”

“Of course he’s listening,” Molly Bolt said. “He can’t help but listen. He hears what we think, he doesn’t give a fuck what we say.” She looked around the room. “Zelda, what do you think?”

The bodysnatcher moved away from the wall. Everyone stopped talking. She knew they were all afraid of her. They thought she’d gone as psycho as Blaise. The bodysnatcher didn’t care.

“Zelda’s dead,” she said loudly. “A lot of you are going to be dead too before this is over.”

Suzy Creamcheese looked like she was going to cry. Juggler started reading his paper again, all about amnesty.

“Maybe not,” a new voice said. “Bloat wants volunteers.”

Patchwork stood in the door to the long hall. She was brown-haired, slender, freckled. Older than most of the jumpers, twenty at least, the same age Zelda had been before the aces had gotten to her. Patchwork wasn’t a jumper, and she wasn’t really a joker either, but both factions on the Rox seemed to trust her.

“Volunteers for what?” Molly Bolt asked her.

Patchwork walked toward her, boots ringing on the stone floor. “To even the odds. He figures, the robot scoped us out, maybe we should do a little recon of our own.”

“I’ll go,” the bodysnatcher said. She’d been itching to get back to Manhattan. And of course it had to be jumpers. Bloat’s freaks were too conspicuous for this kind of work.

“Okay,” Molly Bolt said. “I’m with you.” She looked around the room. “Vanilla, Blueboy, you’ll come too. Four ought to be enough.”

“Here,” Patchwork said, “I’ve got something for you.” She dug her fingers into her eye. There was a soft squelchy sound, a trickle of blood, and the eyeball popped out of the socket. Patchwork handed it to Molly Bolt. Then she popped out the other eye, ripped off her left ear, and handed those across as well. “Better put a move on it,” she said. “Charon is waiting, and you know how surly he gets.”


Copyright © 1992 by George R. R. Martin and the Wild Cards Trust