“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 mirror-shades. 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 flick 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 hail. 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.”
September 21, 1990
Using a few of the specialized tools that Travnicek had used to create him, working slowly and with great care, Modular Man managed to bend his fingers back into a shape that would work. But they didn’t work as well as they had, and the proportions were slightly different — just a little deformed. At least the plastic skin covering them hadn’t torn: the distortion wasn’t as noticeable as it would have been if the structural metal were peeking through.
Modular Man had been attending Columbia University for two semesters now, taking courses in advanced physics, metallurgy, and chemistry. He had been hoping to learn ways of repairing himself. He got his tuition free in return for allowing the professors to examine him.
He had learned a lot — he could memorize the textbooks in a single sitting — but he hadn’t learned much that could help him. Travnicek was a wild card genius, and no one could duplicate his work.
And Modular Man himself, despite all the facts he memorized, didn’t seem able to duplicate the work either. It appeared that the android wasn’t very creative.
He was trying to rewrite his programming slightly, hoping it would improve his creativity. He hadn’t had much luck with that either.
Travnicek had told him to fix himself, then wait. Having finished his repair job, Modular Man went to Travnicek’s room and waited.
He was used to waiting. Usually, to help time pass, he called up pleasant memories from his past and relived them in great detail.
This time he watched as Travnicek watched some of his least pleasant memories on his television. Travnicek was playing the recordings from the android’s visit to the Rox. He watched both the video portion and the radar image.
The old Travnicek hadn’t known how to read the radar images, or if he did, simply wasn’t interested. This one did. Maybe it was similar to one of the ways in which he now apprehended the universe.
Travnicek came to the part of the recording where the merman appeared out of the air in front of the android. Stray alarm programs flickered through the android’s circuits at the sight. Travnicek slowed the recording, ran it through the collision, then reversed it. He halted it at the instant in which the merman appeared.
“Toaster,” he said. “Do you have the time at which this happened?”
“11:16:31:14 Eastern Daylight Time,” the android said.
“Hah.” One of Travnicek’s trumpet-flowers gave an unpleasant laugh from the base of his featureless head. “I remember this happening then,” he said. “I remember the feeling of that thing coming into being. I sensed it on a southwesterly bearing from the balcony. It was… extraordinary.” Another nasty laugh. “Very pleasurable. And then only a few seconds later it just came to bits. Annihilated. And that didn’t feel so bad either. I’ve been feeling things like that ever since that castle got built. And the castle itself” Two of his sense organs, facing Modular Man, came erect. The android had the feeling they were peering at him. “That feeling was immense. That must be why God creates things. It feels so good.” Another laugh. “And why He destroys.”
Travnicek rose from the bed and turned off the video and recorder. “Let’s go,” he said.
“Where?” the android asked.
Travnicek headed out of the room. “The Rox,” he said. “We’re joining them. I want to feel the place firsthand.”
“Sir.” The android followed, his self-preservation programming shattering hopelessly against the overriding hardwired command to obey his creator. “Sir. Do you think that’s wise?”
“Fuck you, Toaster.” Walking rapidly through the living room. “I’ll decide what’s wise around here.”
“Sir. They think I’m an enemy. They’ll probably open fire the second they see me. And if I’m carrying you, you’ll be in danger. You could be —” One of those thoughts he wasn’t allowed to think shot through his circuits, then slammed to a halt against hardwired circuits. “You could be killed,” he said.
“We’ll do some fast talking.”
“Sir. Ellis Island is coming under heavy assault if they don’t surrender. If I’m damaged, you’ll never get off. I don’t think this is…”
“If you’re damaged, I’ll fix you.” Breezily. “Do as I say.”
There was no point, the android knew, in reminding Travnicek that he’d lost his abilities to repair his creation. Travnicek was obstinate in claiming that his second dose of the wild card had enhanced rather than diminished his capabilities.
“And you’ve got that Zapper’s battle plan,” Travnicek added. “Bloat would give a lot for that, I betcha.”
Travnicek stepped onto the balcony and raised his blue-skinned arms to the sun. “It’s a good day for flying,” he said.
Sometimes it pays to have a private office, however small. This was one of those times.
Ray sat down at his desk and took out the can of Glade — natural pine scent — that he kept in the upper right-hand drawer of his desk. He squirted the air, which was still contaminated by the smell of cigar smoke, burned flesh, and Bobby Joe Puckett. He wished the office had a window, but opening it would only have let in equally disgusting city odors. The air freshener smelled as much like real pine trees as anything from a test tube could, but it was hardly adequate.
He put the can away and flipped on his computer, asking it to search for the names “Bobby Joe Puckett” and “George G. Battle” among various law agency and newspaper files. He keyed in half a dozen databases, and then sat back to wait, memories of Puckett’s handshake rising unbidden in his mind.
If there was one thing Ray despised it was bullies. Puckett, Ray was sure, fit that category big time. He was begging for payback. Ray was just playing the opening sequences of such a confrontation in his mind when a line of words crawling across his computer screen brought him back to the here and now.
It was, he saw, the info he’d requested on Puckett. And it wasn’t good. Reading it first brought a sense of disbelief, then a frisson of fear. Something was wrong here. Definitely wrong.
FBI records listed a Bobby Joe Puckett born June 5, 1959, in Cross Plains, Texas. He was arrested for car theft at fourteen. The case was dropped due to lack of evidence, but he’d been before the judge three more times in the next two years for car theft, again, and B and E. He spent seven months in a juvvie home, and three weeks after being released was arrested for armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon for pistol-whipping a 7-1l clerk. He’d spent the next three years in jail.
All of this was unremarkable and wouldn’t have deserved inclusion in a national data bank, except that it provided the backdrop for the next stage of Puckett’s career. He apparently drifted through the early 1980s, occasionally in trouble for more smalltime stuff, then the highlight of his life of crime came down in 1987.
Ray clenched his misshapen jaw as he read the details of a liquor-store robbery gone wrong. This time Puckett killed the clerk instead of only scarring her for life. The killing snapped something in Puckett and he took a deer rifle and .45 Magnum handgun to the top of a tower at the University of Texas in Austin and spent an afternoon sniping at passersby. He got twenty-six students and cops before the police charged his stronghold. To avoid capture he put his Magnum in his mouth and blew away the right side of his face. Shot himself as dead as any of his victims.
Only Puckett wasn’t dead. Ray had shaken hands with him just a few hours before and he could attest to the strength of the man’s grip. But, with a chill running down his spine, Ray remembered the odd, misshapen silhouette of the man’s face under his all-enveloping hood. Given the state of his own face, Ray hadn’t thought much about it then. But now
And the smell —
His file said Puckett was dead. Maybe, Ray thought, Puckett hadn’t really killed himself. Maybe, for some reason, he’d been brought into government service and the suicide story was leaked as cover. Ray could see why the government would want to recruit him. He was an ace, after all. But was he?
Ray stopped and reread the file. There was no indication that Puckett was anything other than another petty criminal whose stupidity had driven him to a horrible death.
But Ray had felt Puckett’s grip. Maybe he hadn’t been an ace before his purported death but he sure was one now. He’d been a scumbag then, and was one now. Except now he was a scumbag for the government.
And speaking of government scumbags, the file on Battle was coming online.
Ray studied it intently, but there were no hints of the bizarre like those that abounded in Puckett’s story.
Battle came from a prosperous family. He was now a lawyer, but he’d started out in the army. He’d been too young for World War II, but he hadn’t served active duty in Korea or Vietnam, either.
After graduating from law school, Battle had gone into government service rather than private practice. He started out in the FBI, but stayed there only into the early 1960s when he disappeared into a haze of agencies, committees, and staff positions that was enough to give a headache to anyone who tried to sort it all out. There was one agency that Ray was familiar with. Battle had been special counsel to CREEP — the Committee to Reelect the President — when Nixon was running for his second term. After that there seemed to be a gap in his career. His next official posting was in the middle 1970s, and he’d also served on both of Reagan’s election campaigns. Currently he was attached to something called the Special Executive Task Force headed by someone named Phillip Baron von Herzenhagen, which sounded like a Nazi name if anything did. The Task Force was headed by Dan Quayle.
Great, Ray thought. Just fucking great. It looked like wheels within wheels time. He thought about it for a second and then dumped the files. He went through his requests meticulously making sure that no trace of them survived in the computer system.
Ray usually didn’t worry about covering his ass, but very definitely something whacko was going on here. And he had put himself right in the middle of it.
He sat at his desk for a moment, thinking. He’d never paid too much attention to office-politics bullshit. His job had been guarding bodies and kicking ass, and he’d been good at it too, until the business with Hartmann.
The senator’s face suddenly filled Ray’s mind and he felt a flash of anger. All those years he’d spent with the bastard, and then the prick had never even come to see him in the hospital when he’d literally had his guts spilled trying to keep Messer from him.
Ray’d done everything he could for the senator, even turning his face the other way when the man had stepped out on his wife all those times, even acting as his personal messenger boy when the man wanted someone summoned to his presence. And then, the first time he failed him, Hartmann shut him off, just like that.
Ray still felt a sense of loss, a void that ached to be filled by the simple touch of Hartmann’s hand on his shoulder. But he hadn’t seen Hartmann since the day he’d been carried out on a stretcher from the Atlanta Convention Center trying to stuff his guts back into his stomach cavity. He’d heard nothing from the senator, no word, no visit, not even a lousy phone call or a stupid card.
Ray caught himself, realizing he was standing on the brink of a very treacherous abyss, and pulled himself back with great effort.
That was then, he thought. This is now. He had Battle to worry about, and their upcoming mission. He looked at his wristwatch. He just had time to head for the second place on the list before he was due to meet with Battle. It was someplace in Chinatown. Looked like an apartment address, belonging to a guy the name of Ben Choy.
Modular Man dived out of the sun with Travnicek in his arms. Wind whipped at Travnicek’s organ lei, and the organs folded in on themselves. The jokers at their posts down below didn’t see him. The lacy spires of the Rox waited ahead.
The android crossed over the outer wall. Travnicek suddenly clutched at him. “Wait!” he screamed. “Stop! Go back!” The words came from several trumpet-flowers at once with a curious harmony effect.
Relief flooded through the android. He began to slow. He’d head back up-sun and get away before anyone noticed him.
“No,” Travnicek said. “No, hold on here.” The panic faded from his voice. “Keep going.”
The android kept slowing. “Are you sure?”
“Yah. Just felt a little frightened there for a second. But I’m okay now.”
Just wait, the android thought, till the fish-things come at you with lances.
But in that he was disappointed.
They were back in Jack Robicheaux’s clinic room. Cordelia’s nails were buried in Wyungare’s upper arm nearly to the point of drawing blood.
“Mon dieu,” she said shakily, “what happened?”
The Aborigine turned toward her and gently disengaged her fingers. He enfolded her into his arms. Just above her head, he said, “That was only a taste of the madness.”
She tilted her head back so she could look at him. “Whose madness? Bloat?”
“At one time, I would have said yes. Now… “ He shook his head. “There is a contagion, and it is spreading like a physical disease, except this one’s not — it’s psychic.”
The black cat whined from beside Jack’s bed. Cordelia suddenly shook her head violently. “Jack! The boy — where is he?” She stared about the room.
“Calm yourself,” said Wyungare, stroking her hair. “He’s still inside there.” He gestured with his chin toward the bed where the great reptile wheezed ponderously and the massaging rollers moved endlessly up and down the mottled body. “We got him out of his initial captivity, but he is still there in the upper world. I don’t think there’s a way to manifest him back here in this physical reality.”
Cordelia looked stricken. Her dark eyes started to glisten. She pulled free of Wyungare’s hands and moved toward the bed, bending down and taking hold of the black cat’s head with her fingers. The cat meowed deep in his throat. “Can’t we do something?”
“We can go back,” said the man. “But we must first have a council. We need to sort things out.”
“The madness,” said Cordelia, not yet turning to look back. “What did you mean by that?”
“The boy Bloat is powerful. On the psychic plane, in the dreamtime, whatever you want to call it, his power has obeyed no rules, confined itself to no boundaries.”
Cordelia nodded silently.
“There’s something you have to understand,” said Wyungare. “In this world there are many, many cultures who have a greater appreciation of these things than do most of the Europeans. With my people, the dreamtime is not just a part of reality, it is reality.” The man hesitated. “Imagine a group of villagers spending most of their lives living in a delicate, balanced environment like a grove of trees and flowers, with a crystalline stream running past their homes. Imagine that one day, without warning, an enormous steel bulldozer bursts through the brush and cuts a swath of destruction through all the green things and through the houses. It pushes all manner of debris into the stream. The shock to the people who live here is incalculable. They can no longer reach what they know is their reality. Some are maddened. Some are hurt in lesser ways. But no one is left unaffected.”
Cordelia continued unconsciously stroking the cat, her face averted toward Wyungare. “Bloat is doing all that?” Wyungare nodded soberly. “He is not simply giving scattered sleepers nightmares. He’s destroying them — he’s blasting their realities.”
“Whole peoples?” Cordelia whispered.
“He has to be stopped. If he can be healed, then that will happen. If not…” Wyungare spread his hands in a universal gesture.
“You can do this?”
The Aborigine chewed his lip. “Perhaps. I have some allies. There is a Peruvian holy man named Viracocha. I hope to draw aid from Buddy Holley here in your country. There are others. It is possible I — we — can help the boy.”
“And heal the dreamtime,” said Cordelia. The cat had started to relax, butting his black snout into her hand.
Wyungare nodded. “To attempt this, I need to meet with the boy in person.”
“You can’t just, uh, call him up on the psychic telephone, you know, find him there in the dreamtime?”
“Remember the interference,” said Wyungare. “It’s something like sunspots and radio broadcasts. I need to be close to him physically.”
“That won’t be easy. There’s a wall. CNN’s been carrying it all morning. You can’t get through.”
“It’s fundamentally a psychic barrier,” said Wyungare. “I’ve got a plan I’ve stolen from Homer. It worked for the noble Odysseus; I think it will work for me. But I’m going to need your uncle.”
Cordelia stood up, shocked. “You’re going to manifest him in this world?”
Wyungare shook his head violently. “No! I thought of this while we were inside him, within the dreamtime. For this, I need him in his alligator form. I must get him to the water.”
Cordelia stared, at first as though her lover were utterly demented, and then as a grin started to quirk around the corners of her mouth. She began to giggle, then to laugh outright. “You’re crazy too,” she said. “I saw that movie. Circe’s island. The hero was tied to the mast, and the crew put wax in their ears.” She shook her head and wiped away tears. "Just like the movie,” said Wyungare. “Jack won’t need wax in his ears.”
“Good!” said Cordelia. “I wouldn’t relish trying to put it there. How are we going to get him to the bay?”
Wyungare shrugged. “Walk him. Wake him up and point him in the right direction. Alligators can move rather fast when they wish to.”
Cordelia giggled again, a little hysterically. “How are you going to steer him, dangle a poodle in front of his snout?”
The Aborigine shook his head quite seriously. “Just as I contacted his human self, I can do the same with his reptile brain.” He looked down. The black cat had ambled over in front of the man and sat down on his haunches. He looked up expectantly at Wyungare. “Our friend here will help, I think. He has a bit of a bond with your uncle.”
“Rub-a-dub-dub,” said Cordelia, cracking up again. “Three men in a tub. No, one man, a gator, and a pussycat. But no owl…”
“An owl would be handy,” said Wyungare. “But first we must get the alligator to the shore.”
“I think not,” said a new voice. Both Wyungare and Cordelia turned. The black cat hissed and showed his claws, the fur rising up along his tail.
Dr. Bob stepped all the way into the room. He wasn’t smiling. “Rounds bring me back every once in a while,” he said, “and sometimes my timing seems to work out.” He smiled again, but managed to make the expression look disapproving in the extreme.
“You might knock,” said Cordelia.
“This is a hospital,” said Dr. Bob. “I am a physician. Normal rules are, shall we say, a bit suspended.”
“What happened to Troll?” Cordelia looked puzzled, realizing that the head of security should have kept Dr. Bob out.
“There was a code zero,” said the doctor. “Our lumpen green friend’s services were required in matters of more urgency.”
“Granted,” said Wyungare. “Could you excuse us, please?”
“You mean, would I leave?” The doctor shook his head. “Under the circumstances, assuming I heard correctly, that would seem to be unadvisable.”
The three of them stared at each other.
“We seem to be in a bit of stalemate.” said Wyungare finally. He smiled humorlessly. “Time is wasting. I suspect I could settle this matter quickly by taking up my nulla nulla and cracking your skull smartly, Dr. Mengele.” The physician seemed to take an unconscious step back. “But we should probably pursue a more civilized course.”
“You want me to hit him?” said Cordelia.
Wyungare shook his head. “Channels. To ensure peace and good karma, as you say here, I think we shall consult the good doctor’s superior. Let’s go.”
“Fine,” said Dr. Bob. “Let’s.”
On the physician’s way out the door, the black cat hissed and lightly struck with his forepaw. The claws ripped through Dr. Bob’s expensive slacks and the man recoiled.
He bent and probed his ankle with a forefinger. “I do believe,” he said mildly, “our friend drew blood.”
They traipsed down a floor to Dr. Finn’s disarranged office. There was no one there. Cordelia picked up a phone and had the doctor paged. In about thirty seconds, an answer came back.
“Up,” said Cordelia. She gestured with her index finger. Her look at Dr. Bob suggested a wish to use a very different digit.
In the elevator, the woman punched the button marked ROOF. Wyungare looked questioningly at her.
“I should have thought,” said Dr. Bob, “it’s our administrator’s exercise hour.”
“What about the code zero?” said Cordelia. “Don’t those emergencies draw on everyone?”
“Perhaps,” said Dr. Bob, “I exaggerated a bit.”
“Perhaps,” said Wyungare, “you lied altogether.”
The car chimed, the door drew back, and the three stepped out. They walked through an open doorway and found an exercise track laid out crudely on the clinic roof. Finn loped around the nearest turn and drew up, chuffing loudly, in front of them. The doctor was holding a stopwatch.
“Not bad,” he said. “Not Derby quality, but pretty good for a man of my age.” Finn grinned and snorted. He picked up a white towel from the graveled roof and wiped at the profuse sweat. “Frankly, I just don’t give a damn about the Triple Crown anymore.” He glanced at the three. “Let me guess. Problems?”
Dr. Bob explained the problems.
Then Wyungare and Cordelia told their side of it.
Finn stood silently, taking it all in. At the end, Finn uttered a sigh. He said, “Obviously we cannot lightly discharge a patient in Mr. Robicheaux’s condition.”
Dr. Bob nodded vigorously and smirked.
“He is in no condition to leave the clinic without a thorough set of evaluations,” added Finn.
“Absolutely,” said Dr. Bob.
“Perhaps you can now excuse us,” said Finn to Dr. Bob, “while I explain certain facts of medical life to our guests.”
Dr. Bob frowned, looking quickly at his superior. Then he offered his unctuous smile and nodded. As he turned to leave, he winked at Cordelia. The young woman balled her fists, but said and did nothing.
After the elevator door had sucked shut after Dr. Bob, Finn cleared his throat. “Listen up, you two. I’ve got a clinic to run and I need the confidence of my staff. But I am not blind. I’ll say this just once. Give it a rest for a time, perhaps an hour. Exactly — an hour. I will make sure Dr. Bob Mengele is occupied. It will be up to you two to finesse the smuggling of a fourteen-foot alligator from his room. I don’t know anything about this.”
Wyungare said gravely, “We shall do our best.”
Cordelia said, “We’ll have to wake him up.”
“It can be done,” said Finn. “Remember something: I can’t give you permission. But I can give you one shot at the gold ring.” He smiled.
“Good,” said Cordelia. “I wasn’t looking forward to buying every Mylar helium balloon in the gift shop, tying them on, and floating him out like a zeppelin.”
Even Wyungare cracked a smile.
It all went very smoothly. Modular Man didn’t know whether to be pleased by that or not.
He hadn’t known that Bloat could read the minds of people inside his domain. Bloat had read Travnicek as soon as Modular Man had carried him across the outer wall — read his intentions, and called off the castle’s defenders.
“I want some things,” Travnicek said. He stood, blue-skinned and featureless, below the vast creature that was Bloat, pale body pulsing beneath the broken arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty. Armored mermen stood guard, lances at rest. The giant carp on which they rode were propped on the floor on splayed fins. Marble columns rose on high.
“I want a place of my own,” Travnicek said. “A tower, so I can get up and down when I want, arranged to my specifications. You can built it the way I want, yah?”
“Just visualize it,” Bloat said, “and I’ll try to put it somewhere.” His voice was high-pitched and adolescent.
Travnicek turned to Modular Man. “This is the damn life, right?” he said. “I think it, and White, Fat, and Ugly here builds it.”
A joker named Kafka made an angry, chittering sound, but Bloat only giggled.
“You don’t care what people think, do you?” he asked.
Travnicek’s voice was defiant. “Why should I?”
Bloat looked down on him. There was a touch of sadness in his tone. “Welcome to the Rox,” he said, “I think you’ll fit right in.”
“Of course I have a plan,” said Wyungare. “Do you think I’m bluffing?”
Cordelia raised her eyes ceiling-ward. They stood again in room 228, Jack’s room. “Give me patience, Lord.” The black cat moved restlessly about their feet, stalking fluidly between their legs in a slalom pattern.
“I need to borrow your Walkman,” said the Aborigine. “Please.”
Cordelia looked curious, but extracted the small black box from her handbag. “You want some tunes to go with it?”
“I have my own, thank you.” He dug into his dilly bag and took out a tape cassette.
“So what are you going to do?”
“I’ll take a quick journey into your uncle’s reptile mind and attempt to establish some communication. This will be quick and dirty, no time for ceremony.”
“You’re not going to strip?”
He shook his head. “No time.”
“Good,” said Troll. “Aesthetics are important here.”
Cordelia jerked around. “None of you ever knocks.”
“Sorry. I’m used to just barging in. Besides, as I gather your Australian friend was saying, we don’t have a lot of time for social niceties. Dr. Finn really cannot afford to be seen helping you. I can.”
“So what’s the tape?” said Cordelia as Wyungare clicked it into the Walkman.
He adjusted the ear-buds and handed her the box.
“Gene Krupa? Cool. Not exactly traditional,” she said.
“I’m not going to bother with my own drumming,” said Wyungare. “I need what’s called a sonic driver. This will do admirably. I find Mr. Krupa’s approach to rhythm quite impressive.”
“I’ll go ahead and disconnect the sleep probes,” said Troll. “The moment the voltage stops going into the alligator’s brain, he should start to wake up.” He set the medical case down on a chair. “I’ve got some stimulants that should help accelerate the process.”
“You know how to do all this?” Cordelia shook her head. “Gator uppers.”
“Precisely.” Troll hesitated. “Hang around this place long enough and you either have to learn something or go bug-fuck. I sure don’t have an M.D., but please trust me anyway.” Cordelia laughed. “You sound like a doctor.”
Wyungare sat down cross-legged. “Carry on,” he said to the two. “I’ll be back with you soon.” He punched the tape player’s ON button and closed his eyes.
Bloat’s Wall towered a hundred feet high. Brokers on Wall Street could look out their office windows and count the demons on its ramparts. The Staten Island Ferry passed right under its battlements, or had before service was suspended.
But above the physical barrier was another wall. Invisible. Intangible. A wall of fear. A wall of loathing cold as stone, of hatred hard as iron. The wall of terror had the same boundaries as the other, but it was higher, much higher. To get to the Rox took courage and a strong stomach. Most people didn’t have either.
The previous month, when the Turtle had tried to take Dr. Tachyon out to the Rox in search of his stolen body, the stone wall hadn’t been there, but the invisible wall had stopped him dead. On the second try, Tom had discovered a very important fact: the wall ended around two thousand feet.
This time he came in high, and it was candy.
The powers-that-be had decided it would be undignified for the rest of the peace delegation to sit on top of his shell. The vice president had volunteered his limousine. Tom couldn’t help notice that he hadn’t volunteered himself.
The limo floated under the shell, gripped tight by Tom’s telekinesis, the two moving as one. It was long and black and bulletproof. A little flag emblazoned with the vice presidential seal flew from one fender, a miniature stars and stripes from the other. The delegates sat in back. Nobody sat in front. The Great and Powerful Turtle was all the driver they needed.
The demons moved in as they passed over Bloat’s Wall.
Tom watched them approach on his screens. Mermen riding on flying fish, carrying lances shaped like swordfish. They took up positions around the shell, and escorted him in, surreal outriders in a procession out of nightmare. The Rox grew stranger the closer they got. Inside the Wall was more bay. Slender stone causeways connected the castle with its outer defenses. On Ellis itself, the castle bulked huge as Gormenghast. Tom glimpsed stone walls twenty feet thick, a confusion of towers and turrets and courtyards, crystalline fairy bridges delicate as spun sugar, onion domes carved in obsidian and ruby, black iron portcullises, huge wooden doors banded in steel, and in the center of it all a high golden dome as wide across as three football fields.
When they got above it, Tom saw that the golden dome was fashioned in the shape of a tremendous face, staring up at the sky. The eyes were skylights, but they seemed to follow them as they approached. One of the mermen dipped his spear. Tom understood the gesture. Down.
He thought of falling leaves.
The shell and the limo drifted downward. The face swelled larger and larger on his screens. When they were almost on top of it, the mouth opened wide, swallowing the limo. Tom followed.
He found himself in a vast, airy chamber full of golden light and jokers. There were hundreds of them, maybe thousands, staring up at the peacemakers as they descended. And from the middle of that human sea rose a mountain of pale flesh.
The governor was even bigger than Tom remembered. Still growing, it seemed. The chubby, boyish face and the two small arms that grew from the top of his monstrous body looked like flyspecks. Tom pressed a button: his cameras tracked and zoomed in. Bloat’s features filled his screens. The boy governor was smiling.
It was the face of the golden dome, Tom realized.
The torch from the Statue of Liberty stood behind Bloat’s throne, mounted on an iron frame. In front of him, a landing area had been cordoned off with velvet ropes. Tom teked the limo down to a gentle landing, and hovered ten feet above it.
A handful of VIPs had been allowed inside the ropes. Tom swung some cameras toward them. A humanoid cockroach stood protectively in front of Bloat, a penguin at his side. A magnificent antlered joker towered over both of them, shaking out a red-gold mane as he watched the limo. On the fringes stood groups of normal-looking teenagers who had to be jumpers.
The penguin skated forward and opened the back door of the limousine. Senator Gregg Hartmann stepped out, looked around for a hand to shake, found none offered, and cleared his throat. Father Squid squeezed out after him, struggling with his bulk and the folds of his cassock.
High above them, Bloat giggled. “Welcome to the Rox.”
“Governor,” Hartmann said politely. “Thank you for seeing us. We’ve come in the name of peace.”
“Peace?” the stagman said. He had a deep voice and a British accent. “You mean surrender.”
“…My children…” Father Squid began, spreading his hands.
The stagman moved forward, cloven hooves ringing on stone. “Bugger that,” he interrupted. “We’re not your bloody children.”
Father Squid’s voice was drowned out in a chorus of obscenities.
Hartmann appealed to Bloat. “You agreed to this peace conference, Governor. The least you can do is hear us out.”
The cockroach stepped toward the senator. “The governor knows everything you have to say. You can’t lie to him. You can’t keep secrets.”
Bloat giggled. “Yes, Senator,” he said to Hartmann, “the smell in here is appalling. Even in my throne room, there’s no escaping bloatblack. Especially in my throne room.”
The shell had its own air-conditioning. Tom couldn’t smell a thing. But Hartmann paled and hesitated for a moment.
“Go on,” Bloat urged. “Wrinkle your nose, you want to. Use your handkerchief if you must. Silk, isn’t it?”
Hartmann had actually started to pull out the handkerchief tucked in his breast pocket, but now he froze. Tom heard scattered laughter at the senator’s discomfiture. “Governor,” Father Squid said, “think of your people. Of the price they’ll pay if this mission fails.”
Hartmann tried to recover himself. He took out the handkerchief after all, mopped at his forehead. “You may know what we’re going to say,” he said loudly to Bloat. He looked around the vast room at the sea of joker faces. “But your people have the right to hear our terms for themselves. Don’t they?”
One of the jumpers spoke up. “You’re offering amnesty?”
“Full and unconditional,” Hartmann replied. He tried to tuck the handkerchief back into his breast pocket, and missed. It fluttered lightly to the floor. Hartmann ignored it. “Forgiveness for all past crimes, regardless.”
’You guarantee it?” another jumper asked.
“You have my word, and the solemn pledge of the United States government,” Hartmann declared.
Several of the jumpers exchanged glances.
Bloat tittered. “Oh, that’s good, Senator. That’s very good.” He giggled again. “So your government will forgive us all for being criminals. Well, that’s fine for our jumper friends. But tell me. Senator. My people would like to know.” He took a long dramatic pause. “Who’s going to forgive us for being jokers?”
The silence in the hail was profound.
“Yeah,” Bloat said smugly. “That’s what I thought.”
Tom could feel the tension in the pit of his stomach. He turned his exterior volume all the way up. But Bloat spoke up before Tom could find the words. “The man in the can’s got something to say,” he announced.
Tom pushed with his teke, floating up, until he was higher than Bloat, higher than the balconies, higher than the torch, commanding the whole room. He wanted them to look up at him. “THIS ISN’T A FUCKING GAME. IF YOU DON’T SURRENDER, THEY’LL KILL YOU.”
“They’ve tried to kill us before,” Bloat said.
“LISTEN TO ME. YOU ONLY HAVE TILL SUNSET…”
“Then we all turn into pumpkins, right?” a jumper put in.
“Then they send more soldiers,” the stagman said.
“NOT JUST SOLDIERS,” promised the Turtle. He had to make them understand. “THE AIR FORCE AND THE NAVY WILL HIT YOU FROM BEYOND THE WALL WITH EVERYTHING THEY’VE GOT.”
“Let them try,” the antlered joker said, “we’ll hit them back.” He stepped toward Hartmann and Father Squid, bent suddenly, scooped up the senator’s fallen hankie. He clenched it in his fist, raised it high over his head like a banner. “Five for one!” he shouted, his deep voice ringing off the rafters.
“Go on,” Bloat said, giggling. “Tell us about the aces.”
He’s reading my mind, Tom realized in panic. He’d known Bloat was a telepath, but knowing it and experiencing it were two different things. “THEY’RE RECRUITING ACES TOO. YOU HAVE NO IDEA THE KIND OF POWER YOU’LL BE FACING. CYCLONE AND MISTRAL, DETROIT STEEL, PULSE, ELEPHANT GIRL.” He was blanking. He licked his lips. “FORTUNATO.” He couldn’t think of anyone else. He lied. “J.J. FLASH, STARSHINE…”
“Flash and Starshine,” Bloat said merrily. “I can’t wait to see that.”
Fuck, Tom thought wildly. You can’t bluff a telepath. Another name came to him. “MODULAR MAN,” he blurted.
The whole Great Hall erupted into laughter.
Bloat jiggled and rumbled, pipe-stem arms slapping helplessly against his sides in a paroxysm of hilarity. The stagman was laughing thunderclaps. Jokers and jumpers on all sides were roaring and falling down. The penguin was twirling figure-eights in the air. Even the human cockroach looked like he was smiling. The dome overhead rang with laughter.
Tom’s eyes went wildly from screen to screen to screen. They were all laughing, everyone but Hartmann and Father Squid, who looked as baffled as he was. He didn’t get it.
“WHAT THE FUCK IS SO GODDAMN FUNNY?” he asked.
The laughter died away slowly, like the ebbing of a great tide. Out from behind Bloat’s immensity stepped a solitary, sheepish figure. A handsome man in a blue jumpsuit, with guns mounted on his shoulders. “Excuse me,” Modular Man said. “Senator, Father, Turtle.” He sounded as embarrassed as an android could sound. “I don’t know how to tell you this but, well… I met the enemy, and he is me.”
The jokers laughed at the Turtle, Father Squid, and Hartmann’s discomfiture; Modular Man looked as bemused and uncomfortable as an android could. Bloat made no effort to cut them off. He stared at the peace delegation and grimaced. Hypocrites, every last one of them — and one of them especially.
Bloat knew about Hartmann — he’d figured out months ago that the senator must be a hidden ace. Several of the jokers on the Rox carried painful memories of actions that were entirely out of character for them; old, loyal Peanut most prominent among them. And like Peanut, most of those jokers had associations with Hartmann; as with Peanut, the circumstantial evidence indicated that someone had manipulated them, had taken control of their actions for a brief time.
The information Black Shadow had given him a few months ago had confirmed that suspicion in Bloat’s mind. Bloat figured Hartmann was an ace “up the sleeve.” He also suspected that the ace had much to do with Tachyon’s betrayal of the senator at the Democratic National Convention. It all made sense. Bloat knew, but he’d never met the man, never had the opportunity to prowl through his thoughts.
What Bloat had found in the last hour was a stench worse than bloatblack, a deformity uglier than any joker’s.
Hartmann had been paranoid from the moment he entered the Rox’s boundaries, knowing Bloat’s reputation as a mind reader. The fear had made it difficult for the senator to pass the psychic barrier of Bloat’s Wall. Once forced through, his mind sagged open like a rotten fruit.
… can’t even think about Puppetman … he’ll know … can’t even think about it at all… but of course that only opened the gates of Hartmann’s memory. Through all the talk, through all the nice little speeches about how he had the best interests of everyone at heart, through all the entreaties for reasonableness, Bloat listened to that interior voice, those old memories.
A sickness, a charnel house of putrefaction, spilled out. Bloat had gagged at the taste of it in his head, unbelieving. This was Senator Hartmann, the hero of Jokertown, the almost-president, the friend of the jokers? This thing?
Any optimism that Bloat had harbored concerning this meeting dissolved under the barrage. Hartmann was not a good man, a compassionate one, or even a misguided one. Jokers were human beings whose bodies were twisted by the wild card into something inhuman. Hartmann was a joker in reverse — a normal form with something horribly inhuman inside.
The realization made Bloat angry. The deceit of all of them made him furious.
“You’re all liars,” he said suddenly, and the hilarity around him ended as if it had been cut off by a switch. The anger in him made his body writhe around the inlet pipes that impaled him like a mounted insect. Bloatblack oozed from the scabrous pores and the miasma of raw sewage filled the room. The inhabitants of the Rox might be used to the stench; the thoughts of the others were quite expressive.
“Don’t you like Eau de Bloat?” He giggled, and then frowned. “Can’t you taste the shit that’s coming out of your own mouths? God, such a fine trio of hypocrites. I listened to all this crap and there’s nothing in your words. Nothing at all.”
Father Squid gaped, his tentacles wriggling over his open mouth; inside the shell of the Turtle, Bloat could hear Tudbury gasp as if struck; Hartmann looked like he wanted to run. Around the room, automatic rifle bolts clicked back; Kafka waved angrily at the joker guards.
“GOVERNOR,” the Turtle began. He’d turned up the volume on his speakers, trying to gain in decibels what he couldn’t in fervor. Bloat could hear the turmoil and sudden guilt in the man-boy’s mind. “PLEASE…”
“I hear you,” Bloat interrupted, waving his helpless stick arms. “I hear the thoughts, not the words. I know all your secrets. I know your name. Oh Great and Powerful Turtle. You can’t hide from me behind the shell, and you can’t hide from the world in it, either. You don’t really like what your side is doing in this, do you? That’s an armored shell you ride, not a fucking white horse. Your own little Wall, and you the Bloat behind it.”
Bloat’s gaze went to the priest. “And you, Father Squid? Are you a saint?”
“I’m at peace with myself,” the large joker answered, but Bloat could hear the skittering memories inside. Bloat followed their sounds into dark places.
“No, you’re not at peace, Father,” he cackled. “Not when you spend some nights kneeling by the bed asking God for forgiveness — and you still have those nights, don’t you, Father? Don’t the faces of the ones you killed with your own hands haunt your dreams? You protest that you were young then and caught up in something you’ve since found to be wrong, but don’t you still find that you look the other way when violence just happens to benefit your side, even now? You want the names. Father? You want the dates and places? I can get them for you. I can tell everyone, just like I could tell everyone the Turtle’s real name.”
Father Squid was silent, clutching the crucifix of Christ the Joker to his huge chests. He made soft, wet sounds deep in his throat, as if he were sobbing.
“And you, Senator. …”
Hartmann visibly startled. He looked old suddenly, and frail. He wiped sweat off his brow with the back of his hand.
“Governor,” he said pleadingly.
Bloat guffawed. “Wow, the great senator wants a little goddamn compassion. C’mon, Senator, you’re the sickest one of all. Sure, I can see that in your mind as clearly as you can. You even agree with me. The great friend of Jokertown certainly did love the jokers, didn’t he?”
The ugly pores along Bloat’s flanks flexed and pouted like circular mouths, great turds of bloatblack emerged from them, sliding down the stained hills of his flesh. His body was trembling again, as it had when the Temptation of St. Anthony had been destroyed and he’d first brought forth the demons from his mind. Bloat forced the energy back down, tried to still the turmoil inside the vastness of his form. Bloat looked around the room. He could feel the rising enmity against the delegation. The torrent of voices inside his head made him grin. Their massed support sparked the dream-energy inside him. He could feel it rising once more, chaotic, and he reached out with mental hands to channel that vitality. For a moment as he first grasped the power, there was a whirling disorientation — like he remembered as a kid, spinning with arms outspread in the living room until the room danced around him. In that split second, he thought he could hear angry voices calling him … Teddy … and there was a wisp of cold mountain air; an impression of a flat, dark-skinned, wide-nosed face; a sense of outraged invasion from watching minds.
Then he was back. The cold air was only the warm stink of his own bloatblack and he was speaking with the resonant, compelling tones of the Outcast, causing everyone to look up at him in astonishment.
“You don’t want to help me, Senator,” he said, banishing the residual dizziness. “You don’t care about the jokers at all. You don’t give a shit about the Rox or what we’ve done here. None of you really do.”
From around the room came shouts of agreement, loud enough that the huge torch on the wall behind him rattled in sympathy. Father Squid and Hartmann had moved back close to the Turtle and the limousine, and their mindvoices chattered in panic. “All the three of you want to do is save yourselves the guilt of having to fight with the nats against your own kind, and you don’t care that you sell out the Rox and all the people here to do it.” More shouting: jokers and jumpers alike added their voices. But when he spoke, the Outcast’s voice sent them all silent again.
“You can tell Bush and General Zappa this. If anyone wants to leave here, he or she can do so. Governor Bloat doesn’t chain his people up against their will — hey, I’ve got Liberty’s torch right behind me, after all. But all I’m hearing is the same old shit from you. All I hear is that… that those who the wild card touched are lepers: diseased people to be shut away, sterilized, and kept watch over. Man, I didn’t choose to be this way. It ain’t my fucking fault. I didn’t want to put up the Wall — it’s just there and I can’t turn it on and off at will. All I’m doing is using what I was given in the best way I know. That’s all any of us here are doing, and I think we’re beginning to make progress. I think we’re beginning to put something together for jokers.”
More shouts. Bloat laughed, and this time it wasn’t his adolescent, shrill giggle, but something deep-throated and full. “But you don’t care. Huh-uh. We’re just pieces of bloatblack to you, to be disposed of or put somewhere out of sight.”
More cries erupted around them. Captain Chaos, standing next to Bloat, reached down and plucked one of the pieces of bloatblack from the floor. She flung it; the fecal blob bounced off Hartmann’s shoulder and left a brown stain on his gray suit coat. Hartman flinched back, startled. “Here’s an answer to take back with you,” Chaos said, and suddenly several of the jokers in the hail were running to Bloat’s side, grasping the filth there and flinging it at the delegation.
Bloat laughed. Hartmann and Father Squid scrambled into the limousine for shelter. The jokers ran to the car and began rocking it side to side. The suspension squealed in protest; the tires sagged like the waists of tired old men. “GET BACK!” the Turtle roared, and lifted the limousine straight up. Bloatblack missiles thudded dully against the bottom of the car and the Turtle’s shell.
“GOVERNOR…” ….the Turtle began, then the speakers crackled and went silent. Bloat could hear the man’s thoughts racing, trying to find words and coming up with nothing that seemed appropriate. Finally, the ace gave up. Hartmann stared at Bloat from the window of the car… ugly little thing. If! had Puppetman… Father Squid looked down from the opposite side.
“I understand,” the priest said softly, and the faint smell of the sea came to Bloat. “I really do.”
Then the Turtle and his burden moved softly away as the Bloatblack barrage continued. To the jeers of the Rox, the Turtle and the limo left through the open mouth of the Bloat-face in the ceiling of the Great Hall.
The light was red.
The Buick idled in the middle of the Jokertown intersection. The bodysnatcher tapped on the driver’s window. The man inside looked at her, hesitated. He must have decided she looked harmless enough. The window came rolling down. Power window. Very nice.
There was a family inside. Daddy was tall and balding, wearing a gray suit. His wife was a plump woman in a polyester pants suit. In back was an ugly little girl in blue jeans and Smurfs T-shirt, maybe three.