“Yes?” Daddy asked. “Can I help you?”
“Your little girl isn’t wearing her seat belt,” the bodysnatcher told him. “What kind of parents are you?”
The man didn’t know what to make of this. His wife said, “The light’s changed,” nervously. She was smarter than he was. She knew you don’t stop and talk to strangers in the middle of a Jokertown street.
“It’s not just a good idea,” the bodysnatcher said. “It’s the law. Watch this.” She took the bottle of Drano out of the pocket of her trench coat, twisted off the cap, and drank.
The pain was a purifying fire inside her, burning out all the filth. She heard them gasp. When the bottle was empty, the bodysnatcher tossed it aside, wiped her lips, and smiled down at Daddy. She had to lean against the car to keep from falling. She would have said something, but her throat was too badly burned.
Daddy was staring up at her in horror, knuckles white where they gripped the steering wheel. The bodysnatcher blinked back tears, and jumped.
Inside the car, inside Daddy, he raised the power window and watched the face outside twist in sudden agony. Mommy was whimpering in the seat beside him. The bodysnatcher hit the accelerator, heard a thump as the body hit the street. The screams began before they were halfway across the intersection.
“Oh, God, oh, God,” the wife was saying. The Buick’s handling was flabby. The bodysnatcher turned a corner hard. “We have to call the police,” the wife finally managed. "Blueboy would like that,” the bodysnatcher told her.
The wife looked at him strangely. “John?” she said. She still didn’t get it. By then the bodysnatcher was turning into the alley, and it was too late. They went down past the dumpster, to the dead end way in back, under the fire escape. Blueboy and Vanilla and Molly Bolt were waiting there, in the shadows.
“No,” the wife said as they came toward the car. “No, no, no.” She locked all the doors, closed all the windows, frantic with fear. As if windows could stop a jumper.
Molly Bolt shook her head in disgust, and jumped.
Mommy sat back, adjusted her pantsuit. “Polyester,” she complained. “I hate polyester.” She looked over her shoulder at the girl in the backseat. “How you doing?”
“Motherfucker,” the little girl said, squirming. “The brat isn’t even toilet trained yet. This is disgusting.”
Outside, Molly and Blueboy had both collapsed. Vanilla carried them under the fire escape, and tied them at wrist and ankle in case they came to. It wouldn’t do for them to run off. Molly and Blueboy had a sentimental attachment to their original flesh. “Where to?” the bodysnatcher asked impatiently.
“The Empire State Building,” said Mommy, counting the money in her purse. “I think we got enough for lunch at Aces High.”
The world into which Wyungare plunged was dark.
The dull thudding of the drum was not what he remembered of the complex jazz rhythms. He didn’t know where he was.
Wyungare raised his right hand and snapped his fingers once, twice, and then on the third attempt, a flame sprang up on his palm. It was cool and blue and did not burn his flesh. Instead, the flickering illumination crept out around him until he could see that he stood on a springy carpet of dark moss in the midst of huge trees. The trunks of those trees descended into tangled puzzles of winding, interconnected roots.
The Aborigine turned until he saw an opening among the trees, a path that led through that gap. He began to follow it, his hand held in front of him like a torch.
He walked perhaps a quarter of a mile until he saw the path blocked by a hillock; more properly, it looked like the flank of a mountain. Bare of vegetation, the stony surface seemed to shine.
Wyungare blinked. The mountainside had now become the mouth of an enormous cavern. The top and bottom of the opening was lined with sharp, curving stalactites and stalagmites. The man couldn’t remember which of those was supposed to grow from the top down, and which from the bottom up. He supposed it didn’t matter, since the formations jutted everywhere around the opening.
And then the cave spoke. “So, my star-seeking cousin, you travel in company with unusual and fine drums.” The words vibrated low, shaking inside Wyungare like ocean tides sweeping up an estuary and into the coastal swamplands.
Wyungare stopped in his tracks and slowly began to grin. “Cousin Kurria, it is you? The crocodile guardian?”
“None other.” High on the flank of the “mountain,” two huge eyes abruptly blinked open. staring down at the man. “I watch over all such as the one you seek, even if their forms are a bit alien, something less sleek than the cousins in our home.”
“Then you know my mission.”
The laugh sounded like the toppling of tall trees. “I have spoken with Viracocha and others. I know of your need to encounter this one called Jack Robicheaux.”
“Will you aid me?”
“Come right on in.” The laughter rolled out again. “I will help you.”
Wyungare walked up to the huge spikes he now understood to be teeth. He slipped between two of the largest and sharpest. He climbed up into the jaw of Kurria. He stepped upon the resilient tongue and walked forward, toward the back of the guardian’s throat.
Then the jaws closed and there was utter darkness, save for the blue flame still flickering from Wyungare’s hand.
The man walked farther. He didn’t know how long he traveled, or how long it took. But finally, he found himself in a room darker than the passage through which he had come. He could feel impressions: sleep, hunger, pain. The walls around him pulsed. A pair of invisible eyes opened behind their armored, protective lids.
“Cousin,” said Wyungare. “Friend.”
Hunger, came the response.
Hunger can be fed. Wyungare projected the image of fish. Enough fish to sate.
Wyungare projected the image of the black cat, of Cordelia. He received back flickers of recognition, but still one overriding response.
Wyungare sighed. It looked to be a long, though not especially sophisticated conversation.
The hallway was narrow and filthy. The walls looked like they hadn’t been washed, let alone painted, in Ray’s lifetime. He couldn’t understand how anyone, particularly an ace, could live in such an environment.
He stopped before the warped door. Light spilled through the gaps in the frame from the apartment beyond. Ray paused, smelling the exotic fragrances wafting through the floor from the Chinese grocery below. A mysterious touch of the Orient, he thought, rapping authoritatively on the door. How appropriate.
There was silence, then he heard light footsteps.
“Yes?” It was a woman’s voice.
“I’m looking for Ben Choy,” Ray said.
The door opened. A dark-haired, dark-eyed Asian woman stood in the doorway. Ray glanced past her. The tiny apartment beyond was empty. It was, he noted in approval, spotlessly clean. He focused on the girl. She was young, maybe in her mid-twenties, cute without being beautiful, serious and somehow disapproving as she looked silently at Ray.
“You Choy’s girlfriend?”
“His sister,” she said. She looked like him, Ray thought.
“Where is he?”
She shook her head. “He’s not here. I don’t know where he went.”
Ray nodded. Ben Choy, also known as Lazy Dragon, was an ace who frequently worked on the wrong side of the law. He wasn’t wanted for any specific crimes, but he’d been associated with the Shadow Fists when they were the preeminent criminal organization in New York City. But, as Dragon’s dossier indicated, he sometimes disappeared for long periods of time. This looked like one of those times.
“I’m from the government,” Ray told the girl. “Special Executive Task Force.” She looked at him blankly. He didn’t know what that meant either, but it sounded as impressive as hell. “It’d be to your brother’s advantage to get in touch with me. I’m prepared to offer him a full executive pardon for all crimes he may have committed.”
“Why?” the girl asked.
“What’s your name?” Ray asked, flashing his best lopsided smile.
“Well, Vivian, it’s a secret actually. A secret mission you might say.”
She nodded her head, apparently unconvinced. “A full pardon?”
Ray handed her his card. “That’s right. But there isn’t much time. He has to call tonight, before midnight.”
Vivian still looked doubtful.
“By the way,” Ray said, “you busy next Friday? The new Bruce Lee movie is opening. It’s supposed to be great.”
That she was busy she had no doubts at all.
Daddy’s body was flabby and out of shape, pale little gut pressing against the buttons of his shirt. The way the air felt against the bald head made the bodysnatcher feel vulnerable, and when he tried to move, he found he was slow and clumsy.
The restaurant pissed him off too. Aces High was supposed to be this high-class place, with four-star service and famous aces at every other table. It was all hype. They’d been hanging around for more than a hour, spending Daddy’s money, and the only thing scarcer than aces were waiters.
“Where’s the fat guy?” Molly-Mommy wanted to know. “This is his place. He’s supposed to be here.”
“Maybe he’ll come in later,” Bluebaby said in a little Shirley Temple voice.
The waiter finally appeared with their drinks. One Chivas straight up, one extra-dry martini, one tall glass of milk. “So where are all the aces?” Molly-Mommy asked him. “The guidebook says this place is always full of aces.”
“Some days are slow,” the waiter said, like he could give a shit. He nodded toward two men at the far end of the bar. “You got a couple right there.”
The bodysnatcher glanced over in that direction. The aces didn’t look like much. An average-looking white guy drinking beer, and a slender black guy in a gray suit and an orange domino mask. Except for the mask, they could have been a couple of insurance agents. “Are they famous?” the bodysnatcher asked.
The waiter shrugged. “This is New York. Everybody’s famous. That’s nine seventy-five.”
The bodysnatcher pulled a ten out of Daddy’s wallet and gave it to the waiter. “Keep the change.”
The waiter made a sour face and moved off. Molly-Mommy leaned across the table. “I think the white guy is Pulse.”
“So?” the bodysnatcher asked.
Bluebaby picked up the Chivas and took a sip. The tumbler looked huge in the tiny three-year-old hand. “Jesus, Zelda, don’t you know nothing? He was in the Swarm War, I read about him in Aces. Guy can turn himself into a fucking laser.”
“Even better than Hiram,” Molly-Mommy said. Her eyes sparkled. She took the olive out of her martini with her fingers and popped it into her mouth. “This is more like it.” She opened Mommy’s purse, took out one of Patchwork’s eyes, and dropped it into the martini in place of the olive.
The bodysnatcher sipped his milk. He had too much respect for the human body to pollute it with alcohol. He glanced over casually at the aces. “What about the other one?”
“Beats me,” Molly-Mommy said. She put the martini glass under the drooping leaves of a potted plant, where the busboy wouldn’t spot it. From there, Patchwork ought to have a good clear view of the whole room.
The bodysnatcher wiped milk off Daddy’s upper lip with the back of his hand. “I’ll find out,” he said, rising.
The aces were deep in conversation. Even up close, Pulse didn’t look like much. He had little love handles bulging out above his belt, and his dark hair was going gray.
“Sony to bother you, Mr. Pulse,” he said, “but we’re big fans, and well, we don’t get to New York real often, you know. My little girl would sure like your autograph.”
“No bother,” Pulse said, smiling. He put down his beer and scrawled a signature on a cocktail napkin.
“She’s just going to be thrilled,” the bodysnatcher said. He looked at the black man. “Say, don’t I know you too? You’re somebody famous, right?”
“Wall Walker,” the black man said. He had an accent. Jamaica, maybe.
“Really?” the bodysnatcher said. “And what do you do? If you don’t mind me asking?”
“I walk up de wall.” Wall Walker didn’t seem nearly as friendly as Pulse.
The bodysnatcher bobbed Daddy’s head up and down and grinned like an idiot. “This is terrific,” he said when Pulse handed him the cocktail napkin. “Say, I was wondering… would you mind posing for a picture with the wife?”
“Not at all,” Pulse said. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said to Wall Walker.
“Got to be going anyway,” Wall Walker replied. “Good luck, mon. By and by, you going to be needing it.” The black ace tossed some change on the bar and left.
“Why doesn’t he just walk down the side of the building?” the bodysnatcher asked Pulse.
“The Good Lord gave some of us super powers,” Pulse replied, “but He also gave us elevators.” The bodysnatcher decided he was really going to enjoy killing this asshole. He led him over to their table. “Honey, this is Mr. Pulse, the man we read about in Aces.”
Pulse extended a hand. “Cy.”
Molly-Mommy twinkled at him. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m sorry your friend had to leave.”
“That was Mr. Wall Walker,” the bodysnatcher told her. “He walks up walls. Sometimes. When there’s no elevator.” Everyone chuckled happily. It would have made a great Norman Rockwell scene, so long as he left out the eyeball in the martini glass.
“So where do you want to take this picture?” Pulse asked in a genial tone of voice.
“Let’s go outside,” Molly-Mommy suggested. “Then we can get the view.”
Aces High was eighty-six stories above the street. You could see all the way to the Rox. “Magnificent,” Molly-Mommy said when they stepped out onto the terrace.
“Jesus,” Bluebaby said as her hair whipped around her face. “What’s with this fucking wind?”
The bodysnatcher shot her a look, but Pulse didn’t seem to notice. He looked up, shaded his eyes, smiled. “You’re in luck, folks,” he said, pointing. “See there.”
The bodysnatcher looked up, glimpsed a parachute falling toward them, white against the deep blue sky. But it was moving wrong, circling the building in a graceful spiral instead of coming straight down. Then he realized it wasn’t a parachute at all. It was a woman, dressed all in blue, riding the winds on a huge white cape.
“Mistral,” Pulse told them as she glided down toward the terrace. “Beautiful, isn’t she? Sweet girl.”
Mommy and Daddy exchanged glances. “We’ll have to get a picture of her too,” said Mommy.
There were no rumors on the Rox. Not, at least, for
Bloat. No gossip, no secrets. Bloat knew.
In a perverse way, it was mildly interesting to listen to the jumpers’ sinking confidence. That damned 1-800-I-GIVE-UP number kept flitting through their minds like a mantra for AT&T executives. Most of the jumpers — nearly a hundred of them — had gathered in one of the halls across the island. Without the strong leadership of Molly and Bodysnatcher, the impromptu strategy meeting was turning into a rout. It was an ugly scratch on the surface of the Rox’s thoughts.
“You’d really let them go, wouldn’t you?” The penguin was gazing up at Bloat as it skated in nonchalant circles around the lobby floor. Outside, the sun was lowering itself gingerly onto the spires of his Wall.
“Anyone who wants to throw themselves on the mercy of Hartmann and the nats can go ahead. I’m not keeping anyone here against their will. That’s not why I created the Rox.”
“Uh-huh.” The penguin did a quick twirl and a high leap, landing gracefully just below Bloat’s head and shoulders and then skiing down the steep slope of his body to the floor once more. The joker guards stationed around the balcony applauded: the penguin gave a grinning bow. “Good ol’ kindly Bloat. Compassionate Governor Bloat. Doesn’t want anyone to get hurt.”
“All I’ve ever wanted is a joker homeland,” he told the penguin. “That’s all. A place where we can be whatever it is we need to be. The nats can have the rest.”
“That ain’t gonna happen, Your Immensitude,” the penguin cackled. “I’ve told you that a hundred times before.” The penguin canted its head and the funnel hat tilted dangerously to one side. “You stay here and you’re gonna haveta fight.”
“So what are you saying?”
“Don’t stay here. I should think that’s obvious.”
“Right. Excuse me. I’ve been so stupid. I’ll just get up and walk away.” Bloat giggled; on cue, so did the guards who had been half listening to the conversation. The penguin put on an aggrieved look and pouted.
“Tell me, Gov, why is it that idiot nats with paranoia complexes use every last ounce of power they got, and a joker with more ability than ten aces put together just sits here and waits for them to take potshots at him? I swear I don’t understand it. Can’t you feel it, fat boy? All that power . The penguin sighed. Flippers folded behind its back, it skated off down one of the side corridors. Bloat watched his creature leave, pondering as he listened to the continuing disagreements in the joker compound. He could feel the degeneration of the Rox’s morale; more with each passing hour, it seemed.
The answer came to him suddenly.
This morning, Kafka looking at the side corridor where the penguin and the Outcast stood and seeing them… The way his voice had sounded during the meeting with Hartmann’s delegation…
He could walk away. He actually could.
With the thought, his vision shimmered. Bloat yawned; his body began to tremble and the odor of bloatblack arose. As his mind relaxed and Bloat began to slumber, a surging violet tendril fanned up from somewhere deep within him, turning and sparking, dividing and dividing again.
The Outcast laughed. He knew this feeling: the power of dreams. He took the electric force and shaped it. He shaped it, he put himself into the vessel of energy and told it where to carry him.
The transformation didn’t happen immediately. For several moments he felt himself lost in some limbo. Pulsing cords of self led back to Bloat, drawing sustenance from that immense form and keeping him irrevocably tethered to it. There was a sensation of falling. A fierce brightness made him shade his eyes with his hands. He was in the dream-world again. He saw creatures of all kinds in a landscape like a Chinese brush painting, skeletal trees and steep round hills. A slavering ogre lurched by with a struggling young girl flung over its hunched back. A naked young boy waggled his newly severed, bloody foreskin before the Outcast’s face. An androgynous, six-armed figure in a headdress danced by. A lion strutted past, bearing a man holding a glowing orb that was as bright as the sun.
Voices assailed his ears as the sights invaded his eyes, alternately pleading and threatening …. go back!… Don’t you know what you’re doing? … You have no understanding. None…
The Outcast pulled power from Bloat and from the dream-world itself. He willed himself to return to reality. The Rox snapped into existence around him.
“.…I say we leave.”
“You do, Juggler? Why? Are you frightened of nats?”
The jumper named Juggler had literally leapt into the air at the unexpected voice behind his back. “Who the fuck are you?” he snarled, his hands fisted. At the same time, the Outcast heard the thought… jump the mother… and felt the force of the boy’s mind recoil off the perfect alabaster shield of his own ego.
“No, I can’t be jumped,” he told Juggler and the others. Captain Chaos took the challenge; she failed. So did Iceman, then Suzy Creamcheese. The Outcast smiled. “You already know me,” he told them. “Just not in this form. I’m your governor, after all.”
“Governor Bloat?” Juggler snorted. “Fuck, man, you sure as hell lost some weight. You on Nutrisystem?”
“Yeah,” Alvin said from farther back in the room. “This guy could be one of the aces Modman says Hartmann’s got.”
“No.” The Outcast smiled, and he let the power of his presence leap out. “I am Bloat,” he said to them, encasing the words within his power. “In this form, you can call me the Outcast. Like you. Like all of us cast from society by the wild card.” The energy touched each of them, calming and soothing them, dampening their skepticism. “And you still haven’t answered my question. Why are you so frightened? There’s no reason for it. None at all. Let me show you.”
He rapped his long wooden staff against the floor. The amethyst flared.
They were all crowded on the ledge near Bloat’s Moat. The heat from the rushing lava far below made the jumpers gasp; the ruddy light rendered the Outcast’s features fierce and stern. “I built the Rox. I shaped it. Did you think I would make it easy for them?”
The Outcast slammed the base of his staff against the rocks. They were now arrayed along the north side of the Wall facing Manhattan. The glass eyes of the skyscrapers glittered at them mockingly; behind, the Disney-meets-Escher fairyland of the new Rox stuck out spired tongues in return. “This is our land,” the Outcast told them. “It grows every day in size and strength. Just as the Wall’s now visible, so is my power. You see it in what I’ve done with the Rox. You see it in the demons and strange things that walk in the caverns. And — I promise you this — you’ll see it if the nats are foolish enough to attack.”
As he spoke the words, a flare shot from across the bay, near where the Wall touched the Jersey shore. It quickly resolved into a cylinder trailing a line of billowing smoke. The weapon shot directly toward them at immense speed. The jumpers cried out, but the Outcast laughed. In the instant before the glowing missile would have struck them, he waved his staff, the stone at its summit glaring, and the jumpers were showered with pink and white petals.
“In this world, things are as I wish them to be.” The Outcast laughed and flung his arms wide.
They were back in the hall once more. The Outcast brushed bright petals from his shoulders and folded his hands across the top of his staff, resting his chin atop his hands as he gazed at the jumpers, a hint of a smile on his lips. “I know you’re worried. I understand that. If any of you want to leave, no one here will stop you. You’re free to go if you think that’s what you should do — I’ve told you that before. But I want you to know how much we need you. I’m Bloat, your governor. I’m also the Outcast, the one who calls demons and who builds the Rox. Molly and Bodysnatcher will be back soon with more aces. Croyd will wake up any moment, and his form is very, very promising. But all that’s not enough. I need all of you. The Rox is your land; I’m asking you to stay with me to help protect it. It’s up to you.”
“The governor says he’s ready.” Kafka gazed at Travnicek from his insect face. His expression was unreadable, but the rest of his body radiated disapproval. “All you have to do is visualize what you want.”
Travnicek leaned back and threw out his arms. “All right, fat maggot!” he said. “You listening?” Kafka quivered in anger. Jumpers, standing in the courtyard, snickered among themselves.
Kafka and Travnicek and Modular Man stood in the inner bailey, facing the semitransparent inner wall of the Crystal Keep with its delicate gingerbread balconies and stained-glass eyes. Mortar crews, lounging around their pits, watched from behind sandbags.
Modular Man’s eyes focused on the inner keep wall. Something was happening there.
Even replaying the event later he found it difficult to follow. Something shadowlike crawled up the inner wall, something silent and purposeful. One second there was nothing on radar, the next there was. But what it was wasn’t clear until a few seconds later, until it firmed from the ground up like a tree growing in fast motion.
Travnicek gave a high cackling laugh. All the clustered organs around his neck were swollen and erect.
“Jesus,” one of the mortar jokers said. “Never saw a neck get a hard-on before!”
Bloat’s creation stood clear in the light of day. “Hey!” the mortar joker said. “Another goddamn boner!”
“Not bad, eh?” Travnicek gloated. “Home away from home.”
What it looked like was a thick tube welded to the inner wall of the keep. The tube thickened as it approached the ground, like a bulbous plant, disappeared below ground level, and on top blossomed into an armored, conical roof.
Travnicek looked at Kafka. “Thank the Stinkworm for me. will you?” he said, then walked toward the tower. He planted a foot on its vertical surface, tested it, then began walking up the outside of the tower. His body was reflected in its glassine surface. He paused partway up and turned to Modular Man. “Come with me,” he said. “I want you to know how this works.”
The android floated up next to him as Travnicek finished his climb, then slid through one of the upper story’s armored shutters. Modular Man followed, floating through the window feet first. The upper story consisted of a floor with a hole near the wall that led down into the tower. The heavy metal shutters could be dropped into place at the touch of a lever. Travnicek threw out his arms. “Great!” he said. “I can feel everything from here! Right to the horizon!”
He moved to the hole in the floor and sat in it, then planted his feet against the wall again and began walking down. His voice came hollow from the hole.
Modular Man floated down the hole. Daylight shining through the semitransparent tower wall provided enough light to see.
“No stairs, see?” Travnicek said. “Nobody’s gonna follow me down here.”
The tower seemed to extend some distance below ground level, where the walls became opaque black stone. The floor was bare flags. On the inner wall was a heavy metal hatch with a wheel in the center, like something from a submarine. Travnicek spun the wheel and swung the door open.
Inside was a room about twenty feet square. There were shelves with canned goods, plastic bottles of water, candles and matches, fantastic Rox furniture, all carved baroque dragons with lolling tongues, including a bed with a headboard made of carved intertwining monsters. Even a chemical toilet behind an oriental screen. Travnicek had visualized things pretty thoroughly.
“I can stay down here forever,” Travnicek gloated.
The android let his boots touch the soft carpet on the floor. He glanced around. Calculations sped through his brain, slammed up against one of his hardwired imperatives.
“Sir?” he said. “Is that door airtight?”
“Air and watertight!” Travnicek said. “Nothing’s getting in here I don’t want in.”
“Is there concealed ventilation?” Modular Man asked. “Because if there isn’t, you’ll smother in here. More quickly if you light any of those candles.”
Travnicek stiffened. “Good you thought of that,” he said.
The android really hadn’t had any choice. The welfare of his creator was his highest priority. He couldn’t not try to preserve Travnicek’s life.
Travnicek stood stock-still, concentrating.
The walls shimmered. Ventilation shafts appeared at head-level, leading up to the tower’s exterior.
Travnicek cackled. “Thanks, big maggot.”
The ventilation shafts were another problem, the android realized, another way to get in. But he didn’t think there was an alternative, and anything coming down the shafts would have to be very small.
“Sir?” Modular Man asked. “How long are we going to stay here? You don’t actually think the governor is going to win, do you?”
“I don’t much care who wins, toaster,” Travnicek said. “And as for how long we’ll stay” He gave one of his little laughs. “We’ll stay till it’s over. Till Bloat’s dead and can’t do these interesting things anymore.”
“But if Bloat’s dead”
“When Bloat’s dead, you get me out,” Travnicek said. “Nobody has to know I’ve ever been here.”
“They’ll know I’ve been here.’
Travnicek turned. “That’s something else I don’t care about,” he said.
The tape ended.
Wyungare was jerked back from the dark world, from the swamp, from the inside of the crocodile guardian’s head, from the company of Jack the alligator. He opened his eyes, blinked, looked up into the concerned faces of Cordelia and Troll.
“How do you feel?” said the security man.
“Like that chap in My Dinner With Andre,” said Wyungare, “except I was attempting to converse with a reptile, and a famished one at that.”
“The patient’s received plenty of nutrients.”
“He wants meat,” said Wyungare. “I tried to bargain on that basis.”
“And?” said Cordelia. “You really contacted him? How is he?” "He is an alligator,” said Wyungare. “There is very little of the human aspect of your uncle at home on that side. But I believe we have come to something of an agreement.”
“Good,” said Troll, “because he’s starting to come awake. Time for me to go invisible again. I don’t know anything of what’s happening. Remember that.”
“That’s Dr. Finn’s line,” said Cordelia.
Troll smiled. “You’re right. Actually, I’ve got an appointment.” He started for the door. “Good luck, you two.” His tone got serious. “Don’t let him hurt anyone.” He indicated the alligator. “Except maybe Dr. Bob, that kraut son of a bitch. And don’t let him hurt himself. Please?”
“We shall do our best,” said Wyungare.
“I love him,” said Cordelia.
Troll looked at them a moment longer, then turned and was gone.
“Now what?” said Cordelia.
Wyungare looked down at the outside window. He smiled. “The clinic deals with laundry several times a day.”
“The clean comes in, the dirty goes out, so?”
“There is a truck downstairs now, apparently loading soiled laundry.”
“So?” Cordelia said. “You proposing to smuggle Uncle Jack out in a laundry hamper? That’s another movie I’ve seen more than once.”
“I think not. He’s just a little large for a hamper.” The alligator was beginning to writhe on the bed platform. The black cat jumped onto the chair at the platform’s head and stared at the alligator, nose to snout. “We are on the third floor,” said Wyungare. “We have to get past the second to the ground floor. I saw some reconstruction going on — on the second level. We have to get Jack down there.” He quickly outlined the rest of his plans to Cordelia. “I’ll accompany you for a ways, then I will go down to the ground floor and maneuver the truck in place.”
The Aborigine went to the alligator, whose eyes were now fully open. Fetid breath whistled in and out of the powerful jaws. Wyungare placed the heel of his hand on the reptile’s forehead. His palm seemed dwarfed by the armored plates. He concentrated for a few seconds. “All right,” he said, “let us go.”
“Thank God,” said Cordelia, once they were out in the corridor. Jack took up a considerable amount of that corridor. Wyungare looked at her questioningly. “I’m afraid there’ll be more witnesses a floor down,” she said. “The elevator?”
Wyungare shook his head. “I don’t think so. Your uncle’s flexible, but I don’t think he’ll bend that much.” They came to the door to the stairwell and the Aborigine pulled it open. He held it for the others.
“We could just walk all the way down to the first floor,” said Cordelia.
“There are many more people there,” said Wyungare. “Our answer is a floor above them.”
“You’re the shaman,” said Cordelia, flashing him a brilliant smile. She went ahead, the cat bounding down the steps as though on point. The alligator wheezed and cantilevered his body down the concrete flight. Wyungare followed.
The mid-floor landing was a squeeze, but the alligator got around it. The party approached the second-floor access door. Cordelia slipped it open a few inches, looked out, turned, and motioned the rest to follow. She opened the door as far as it would go. The doorway was close to the juncture of two main halls.
“To the right,” said Wyungare, “to the renovation work.”
“Ssh,” said Cordelia.
The alligator’s short legs pumped and the reptile squeezed into the hallway. The other hallway led to the physicians’ office wing. The elevator bank was about halfway to the offices where they had searched in vain for Finn.
A bell chimed and elevator doors hissed open.
“Oh, shit,” said Cordelia.
Three people exited the car and turned toward the offices, and away from the escape party. One of them was Finn, prancing a little as his hooves clattered on the tile. One was Troll. The other was Dr. Bob Mengele.
Troll ushered the party along the hall, away from the escapees. Finn carefully kept his eyes to the fore. Wyungare couldn’t see Dr. Bob’s face, but it sounded as though he was talking through clenched teeth.
“Tonight,” said Dr. Bob. “I will disassemble our Cajun friend tonight. There is no question of ethical ambiguity here. I will be vivisecting only an alligator, not a human being. I will find things out. The gay community will thank me. I may, as well, discover things of great importance to the joker community as well.”
“I don’t think this will be possible,” Finn said.
“It will be possible,” said Dr. Bob tightly. “Trust me.”
The doctors and the security man reached an office door at the end of the hail. Finn and Dr. Bob went first. Wyungare was sure he saw a flash of one huge Troll eye winking back at him. Then the door closed.
He started, realizing the explosive rush of fetid air beside him was because the alligator had been holding his breath too.
“You can take Jack the rest of the way,” said Wyungare. “I will find another stairwell and go to the ground. Wait for my signal.”
Cordelia nodded. She looked appraisingly at the alligator and then kissed Wyungare. “Hurry,” she said.
The Aborigine sprinted down to the end of the corridor, noting with approval the placement of the mouth of the waste chute to the street. He found the stairwell access and sped down the concrete steps silently.
On the ground floor, he found the street exit. Outside, the laundry truck was still there, and only a few yards from the spot he wanted. Wyungare sprang into the back and started throwing armloads of dirty linens out onto the street. He had a small mountain of soiled laundry piled up when the driver came out of the clinic.
“Hey, muthuh!” he yelled. The driver was short and spindly, skin looking like it had been crisped in a waffle iron.
Wyungare grunted and tossed another armload of sheets out the back. “Please leave me alone,” he grunted. He fixed the driver’s eyes and grinned in what he hoped was a maniacal way.
“Urn, sure, man,” said the driver. “Take all the filthy sheets you want. No problem.” He turned and walked toward the clinic door. “Honk when you’re done. I’m gonna shoot up some Java.”
Wyungare was done. He glanced up at the second floor, then reached forward past the driver’s seat and punched the horn rim three times. Then he got out and waited.
Like many other buildings renovating on the cheap in Manhattan, the builders used a simple plank-and-timber chute to convey all the broken wallboard and plaster and scrap down to the street, where it could be carted off.
Wyungare saw the snout of the alligator first, then the rest of him as he wiggled into the chute and started to flow downward like a mossy, green tidal wave. The alligator hit the mounded laundry with an audible whoof and an impact that shook the sidewalk.
The Aborigine saw Cordelia staring down from a window. He motioned to her. Then he stood clear as the large reptile whipped his tail back and forth, struggling free of the sheets and towels.
“Let’s go, my cousin,” said Wyungare. He glanced about, getting his bearings. He knew which way was the Rox.
Cordelia and the black cat burst out through the door of the clinic and followed after them, on the run. Wyungare was trotting now. “Uncle Jack can really motor,” gasped Cordelia, catching up.
Man, woman, alligator, and cat, they escaped together. Nobody seemed to notice.
After all, this was Jokertown.
And it was New York.
Do whatever the Great White Worm wants, Travnicek had said. Just check with me every couple hours.
What the Great White Worm wanted was information.
“Your memory is very detailed, yes?” Kafka leaned forward to peer at Modular Man from only a few inches away. The android had noticed that Kafka kept his distance from everyone else but didn’t seem to mind getting close to him. Maybe he liked machines, Modular Man thought. Or disliked people.
“Yes,” Modular Man said. “My memory is very detailed, though I frequently edit unimportant parts to save space.”
“And you’ve been in Zappa’s headquarters.”
“Did you see the maps?”
“I wasn’t paying any particular attention to them.”
“But the memories are very detailed. Pay attention to them.”
“I will.” He brought the images scrolling out of his memory banks. “I don’t know what most of the symbols mean,” he added.
“That doesn’t matter. We do.”
Modular Man, since the rout of the peace mission, had spent most of the afternoon being debriefed by Bloat’s assistants. Zappa’s plans for overwhelming the Rox with a barrage of missiles had both impressed and angered them. It appeared they had been expecting another attack by ground troops, much like the last.
“Come with me,” Kafka said. “I’ll show you our maps.”
Kafka led Modular Man up several flights of stairs, into a part of the castle made of gray stone instead of glass, and then down a long corridor tiled in black-and-white slate. Graceful Romanesque window arches were supported by columns painted in spirals of white and blue. Stained-glass windows showed heroic, legendary scenes, identified in strong Roman letters: LOHENGRIN DISPLAYS THE GRAIL, YSVELT MOVRNS FOR TRISTRAM, THEODEN DEFEATS THE ORCS OF SARVMAN. The panicked, screaming ores all looked like jokers in armor. Kafka didn’t seem to notice.
The end of the corridor was less impressive — the bare stone was fused and scabbed, as if it had been melted, and a misshapen door was set into it. Apparently Bloat hadn’t thought out this part of the building very thoroughly. Kafka led Modular Man inside. Inside, high in a tower, was what looked like a medieval version of Zappa’s headquarters. Communications equipment was stacked on shelves; maps were pinned to the wall; a large reel-to-reel tape recorder spun on a desktop; an intent four-eyed joker worked a court reporter’s stenography machine; a legless joker in a wheelchair frowned at pins in a map. Light was provided by fluorescents and cross-shaped arrow slits.
In the center of the room was a thin young woman, maybe eighteen, lying on a couch. The arms of the couch were carved to look like swans. The woman wore combat fatigues, a wide cloth band across her eyes, and a floppy black beret down over one ear. As the door opened her head turned toward the sound.
“It’s Kafka, Patchwork,” the joker said. “I’ve got Modular Man with me.”
The woman gave a thin smile. Modular Man noticed a spray of freckles across her nose. She held out her hand, not toward Modular Man but in his direction. She was blind.
“Hello,” she said. “I’m Modular Woman.”
The android didn’t quite know what to make of this. He took the hand. “Hello,” he said.
“Call me Pat.”
She turned toward the stenographer and tilted her head back. “I just heard about the location of another platoon of 155s. Inside the perimeter of Newark International, northeast corner. They’re digging them in.”
“Mobile or towed?”
A hesitation. “Towed. I think.”
A labeled pin went into the map. Kafka turned to Modular Man. “Patchwork can’t get a full view of a lot of the maps,” he said. “She’s vague on some of her information. But if your data can be cross-referenced with hers, we can get a pretty good view of Zappa’s dispositions.”
The android looked at Patchwork. “How are you getting this?” he asked.
Patchwork lifted the bandage covering her empty eye sockets, and the beret covering another socket where her ear should be. “One of my eyes and my missing ear are sitting on a shelf in Zappa’s communications center. One of our people put them there.”
“Modular Woman.” The android nodded. “I get it now.”
Patchwork slid the bandage down over her sockets again. “The other eye isn’t getting much,” she said. “Not since Pulse and Mistral left. Maybe you could send somebody to get it back?”
Kafka made an agitated movement. “Let’s get this debriefing over with,” he said. “We’ve all got plans to make.”
Not quite, the android thought.
Everyone was making plans but him. And he didn’t have any choice but to try to fit into whatever plans were made.
Detroit Steel’s armor stood in center field like Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still, but it didn’t look like anyone was home. None of the other aces were in evidence.
“WHERE IS EVERYBODY?” Tom asked one of the officers working on the Rox model.
“General Zappa’s down in command HQ with his staff,” a captain told him. “Some of the aces went out to get dinner.”
There was nothing to do for it but wait. Tom drifted out over the outfield and set the shell down on the grass beside Detroit Steel. He popped his seat belt and stretched. It felt good to relax. He could feel a mother of a headache coming on. Sometimes that happened when he overdid the telekinesis for a long period of time.
He turned off his cameras to let darkness fill the shell. There was a can of Schaefer in his miniature fridge. He washed down two aspirin with a swallow of beer. Then he reclined his seat all the way, and stared at the darkness. Sleep would have been nice, but there was no way. He wished Dr. Tachyon hadn’t run off to the stars. Bloat respected Tachyon; he might have listened to him. As it was, the jokers had left them with damn little choice.
It was easy to lose track of time as he lay there in the dark, sipping his can of beer and thinking. The sound of someone knocking on his shell brought him out of his reverie.
Tom sat up, turned on the nearest camera. A bald woman was outside, leaning into his lens, a little white cardboard container in one hand. The only hair on her shaved head was a buzz-cut purple lightning bolt right down the center. Her skintight red leather jumpsuit glittered with golden studs, and she wore a tiny gold skull in her right nostril.
For one awful second Tom thought the jumpers had found him. Then he realized that the girl was Danny Shepherd.
It was the smile that gave her away. The hair, the clothes, everything was different, but her smile was the same. Tom pressed a button to turn on his exterior mikes.
one home?” She glanced over her shoulder at a man standing behind her. “I don’t think he’s in there, Mike.”
“I’M HERE,” Tom boomed. Danny winced. Tom twisted a dial to lower the volume. “I was, ah, resting,” he explained.
Danny waved the cardboard container. “We went over to Chinatown, got some Chinese food. Come on out and join us.”
Tom found himself staring at the skull in her nose. He felt like Rip Van Winkle. When had Danny found time to get her nose pierced? Never mind getting a haircut and a new leather wardrobe. He’d only been gone a few hours. “I, uh, don’t do that,” he said.
“You don’t do what?” Danny asked. “You don’t come out? Or you don’t eat Chinese food?”
“I don’t come out,” Tom explained.
“Ever?” said the man behind her. He was a big guy about Cyclone’s age, with close-cropped blond hair and a beer gut. His arms were full of brown paper sacks. “That’s no way to live. I ought to know.”
Tom got it. “You’re Detroit Steel.”
“Mike Tsakos,” he said. “That’s Detroit Steel.” With both hands full, he had to use his chin to gesture toward the armored suit. “I got to put this stuff down,” he said, moving off camera.
“You sure you’re not hungry?” Danny asked. “We’ve got a real Chinese feast here. Egg rolls, pot-stickers, moo shu pork, lemon duck, hot shredded Hunan beef, three-flavor shrimp, fried rice…” She looked behind her. “What am I leaving out, Mike?”
“Chicken chow mein,” Mike Tsakos called out.
Danny made a face. “Right. I was trying to forget.”
“General Tso’s chicken,” a woman’s voice called. “Extra hot.” It sounded like Danny.
But Danny was right there in front of Tom’s camera. “Just who is this General Tso, I wonder, and why are we eating his chicken?” she said lightly.
Suddenly Tom was very confused. He threw a row of switches, one after the other, turning on the rest of his cameras. His screens blinked on, giving him a 360-degree view.
On the other side of the shell, in the shadow of Detroit Steel, Mike Tsakos and Danny Shepherd were laying out cartons of Chinese food while two other women spread a picnic blanket on the outfield grass. Startled, Tom looked from Danny in red leather to Danny with the ponytail and the baseball cap, and back again. Twins, he thought, for at least a moment… until it dawned on him that the two other women were also Danny Shepherd.
One was in uniform, with her black hair cropped short and a corporal’s stripes on her sleeve. The other one looked like a yuppie: business suit, big round glasses, carefully styled hair, gold Rolex. But the faces were the same.
“Danny,” Tom said. All four looked toward the shell. “What the fuck is going on here? Are these your sisters, or what?”
“Sisters,” said punk Danny. “That’s good. I like that.”
Ponytail Danny stood up. “I should have introduced you,” she said. “This is my sister Danny, and my other sister Danny, and my other sister Danny. My sister Danny would have been here too, but she had to pick up my sister Danny at the airport.” She grinned.
“They’re all the same girl,” Mike Tsakos added.
“Von Herzenhagen told you I was an ace,” punk Danny said.
“Wait a minute,” Tom objected. “You weren’t even there.” "We were all there,” Corporal Danny said.
“Her name is Legion,” Mike Tsakos put in.
Ponytail Danny stuck out her tongue at him. “Her name is Danny,” she said. “Is anyone going to eat this Chinese food before it gets cold?”
Tsakos started filling a paper plate with chicken chow mein. The other Dannys all moved in too. When they were close together like that, you could see they were more than twins. Something about their movements, their conversation, the way each one seemed to know exactly what the others were doing. And yet they were less than twins too, Tom thought as he watched them. Maybe it was just their clothes, but Corporal Danny looked at least two inches taller than the others, and yuppie Danny definitely had larger breasts.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come out?” ponytail Danny asked him. Her plate was heavily laden with shredded beef, moo shu pork, and General Tso’s chicken. “It’s going to be a long night. You must be hungry.”
“I’m fine,” Tom said. “I’ve got food in here.” There was half a bag of nacho-flavored Doritos around somewhere, he knew. His stomach growled at him. Fortunately, the microphones didn’t pick it up.
“Okay,” two Dannys said in chorus.
Tom sat inside his shell, watching Mike Tsakos and the four girls put away a ton of Chinese food. They seemed to be having a great time. He got hungrier and hungrier.
After a while, the rest of the team began to drift in. The Reflector came up out of the dugout from command HQ, and looked at the picnic in confusion. Punk Danny rolled him a moo shu pork burrito. He accepted the plate, stared at it suspiciously for a moment, then ate it with his fingers. Tom had to make a conscious effort not to think of him as Snotman.
Two more Dannys joined them a little later. One was a young starlet with a cascade of honey-blond hair that fell past her waist, long slender legs in tight jeans, a low-cut lace blouse that hinted at breasts most Playmates would kill for. The other one was pregnant. She wore a blue maternity dress and a gold wedding band, and looked like she was ready to give birth any moment now. Both of them talked like Danny, moved like Danny, smiled like Danny.
The food was pretty well gone by the time Zappa, Hartmann, and von Herzenhagen emerged from command HQ to start the briefing. With them came a gaggle of brass in assorted uniforms, Cyclone and his daughter Mistral in matching blue-and-white flying suits and a slight, green-eyed, Irish-Indian woman named Radha Valeria O’Reilly. Radha had a strange beauty: deep auburn hair, dark lashes, skin like burnished gold. She wore a green, spangled acrobat’s costume and a caste mark in the center of her forehead.
“All of you know Elephant Girl, I believe,” Hartmann began. “Once Pulse arrives, our team will be in place.” He glanced at his watch and frowned. “He should have been here by now. It’s not like Cyril to be late.”
“I saw him at Aces High an hour ago,” Mistral said. She had her helmet cradled under one arm. A light wind riffled through her hair. She’d dyed a bright blue streak down one side, to match her costume. “He was having pictures taken with some tourists.”
“Just mark him tardy and get on with it,” Cyclone said irritably. He didn’t look nearly as good in his cape and Kevlar as his daughter did in hers.
Zappa agreed. “Major Vidkunssen, perhaps you’d care to go over the layout of the Rox with the team?”
“WHAT ABOUT MODULAR MAN?” Tom wanted to know.
Von Herzenhagen took a puff. “What about him?”
“HE’S CHANGED SIDES,” Tom pointed out.
“Unfortunate,” von Herzenhagen said, “but hardly a fatal blow. If he gets in our way, we’ll simply have to destroy him. It’s not as if it hasn’t been done before.”
“Leave him to Detroit Steel,” Mike Tsakos put in cheerfully. “I got no use for turncoats.”
“Get in line, tin man,” Snotman snapped. “I trashed him before. I can trash him again.”
Tom was aghast. “A COUPLE OF HOURS AGO, HE WAS ONE OF US.”
“He made his choice,” von Herzenhagen said. “Now I’m afraid he’ll have to live — or die — with the consequences.” He waved his pipe at Tsakos and Snotman. “Gentlemen, we appreciate your eagerness to get in there and grapple with the enemy, but we don’t want to distract ourselves with personal vendettas. Let’s just leave Modular Man to Pulse, shall we? He should be able to burn through that cheap plastic skin just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “You can’t dance with a laser. The robot won’t even see it coming.”
“Poor Mod Man,” the pregnant Danny said.
Time had stopped.
The bodysnatcher rose through a silent sunlit sky. He had no body now. He was fire, he was light. He was a burning arrow, ascending. It seemed as though he were moving in slow motion. But around him, nothing else moved at all.
The towers of Manhattan dwindled beneath him. Everything was strangely distorted. Objects seemed to stretch away, receding into infinity when he looked at them. Ahead of him, everything was tinted blue; behind, the world was awash with sunset, as if seen through a red filter. His passage etched a burning line through the sky, like a tracer frozen in flight.
The endless music of the streets was gone now. There was no wind, no words, no sound at all. The silence was endless. There was no sense of movement. No sensation at all.
Below, stretched and reddened, were the shoreline of the Battery, the waters of the bay, the twisted towers of the Rox, small as a child’s toys. Indigo clouds appeared above him. He knifed through them. For an instant he felt a vague heat. Around him, the cloud stuff turned red and orange. It was over so fast it was almost subliminal. Then the bodysnatcher was above the clouds.
He saw a jet high against the blue, its fuselage as long as a freight train, stretching back to infinity. Slowly, ever so slowly, he drifted up toward it. The jet hung dead still in the sky, frozen in space and time, a big 747 with KLM markings. Pale round faces peered out of the windows, little Norman Rockwell faces looking down on the city. The bodysnatcher wondered what they’d think when they saw him, realized that he’d never know. He’d be a hundred thousand miles into space before their vapid little mouths began to open in surprise. He’d be past the moon before the pilot could turn to the copilot to say, “What the fuck was that?”
This was what it was like to move at the speed of light.
Intoxicated, the bodysnatcher rose higher and higher. He could see all of Manhattan and Staten Island now, and most of Long Island. The sky was growing darker, and the stars were coming out. Maybe he would go to the moon, he thought.
Except… it seemed he was rising so slowly … time turned subjective when you moved at light-speed… a laser might reach the moon in minutes… seconds… but it would seem like weeks to him. And if he got tired… how long could the Pulse body stay in its light-form before it ran out of energy?
The bodysnatcher felt a twinge of sudden panic. He was high enough now to see the curve of the earth. He would have flailed his hands against the empty air, if he’d had hands to flail. How does a laser turn, he thought wildly.
And as he thought it, it happened.
He curved downward, watched the line of his ascension grow into a glowing arc, a rainbow painted in a single color. The colors all shifted around him. Now the earth below was blue, the sky a red sea above him. He fell as slowly as he’d climbed. He willed himself to veer right, then left, then right again. It happened. His ascent had been straight as a ruler; his fall was frozen lightning, jagged and bright.
A hundred feet above the Rox, a sea gull was frozen in time, white against the dark water. The bodysnatcher altered course. He went through the bird’s head. The heat was sudden and intense, scalding water on bare skin, gone as quickly as it came. For an instant he was surrounded by walls of flesh and blood and bone. He saw them blacken and burn around him. Then he was gone.
By the time the gull began its fall, the bodysnatcher had burned through the eye of the dome’s great golden face into the throne room, and willed himself back to human flesh.
That was the hardest part. He fell the last five feet and bloodied his knee on the rough stone floor. The world came crashing in around him: noise, smells, pain. He realized he was naked. The smell of bloatblack was enough to gag him. His legs trembled as he got to his feet beneath the looming torch.
“Zelda?” Bloat squeaked in astonishment. His joker guards swung their weapons to bear. Kafka gaped at him. Only the penguin seemed unperturbed.
“The bitch is dead,” the bodysnatcher said, laughing. “Leave her rot. I’m Pulse now.”
Kafka asked, “What about Molly and —”
Bloat took the answer out of his head. “Vanilla and Blueboy are bringing back her body,” he told Kafka. “Her guest may be conscious by the time Charon comes in. Take her down to the dungeon. We may need a hostage or two to bargain with.”
The bodysnatcher looked up at Bloat, and pictured himself turning to light, burning into the governor’s mountainous flesh, lancing through him again and again, until blood and pus and bloatblack oozed from a hundred smoking holes. He savored the thought, turning it over and over in his mind to give the governor a good long look. For once, the fat boy had nothing to say.
The bodysnatcher laughed hysterically. Let them come. The nats with their guns. the aces with their powers. Let them all come. He would be waiting for them.
The bodysnatcher finally had a body he liked.
“There’s no more information coming in,” Patchwork said. “Everything seems to be in place or nearly. All Zappa’s people are eating pizza. I think we can take a break.”
Kafka looked at the maps; his chitin made a scraping sound. “I should talk to the governor and the others. Decisions have to be made.” He turned to the other jokers..” Help me carry these maps.”
The jokers carried the maps away, leaving Modular Man with the blind woman. Modular Man turned to her. “What are they going to do?”
“I don’t know. They don’t tell me much.” She leaned her head in the direction of the big reel-to-reel. “Would you mind turning that off?”
Modular Man snapped off the recorder. Patchwork leaned back on her swan-necked sofa.
“They don’t tell me much because I don’t think Bloat believes I’m loyal.”
She smiled vaguely. “Some things I’m loyal to, some things I’m not.” She gave her head a toss. “1-800-I-GIVE-UP. Was that serious? Can we really surrender?”
“So far as I understand.”
“Because I’ve never done anything criminal other than be here, y’know? But if I give up” She gestured toward the band across her face. “How do I get my eyes and ear back?”
“I don’t know.”
She drew up her legs. “I’m not normally blind and I have a hard time tracking people. Would you mind sitting down? That way I’d know where you were.”
He settled onto a cushion. “As I understand it,” Patchwork said. “you’re not here voluntarily.”
“But you just can’t fly away.”
Modular Man hesitated — a human mannerism he’d picked up. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t explained this before. “I can’t even think about flying away. I have to obey my creator.”