martes, 24 de julio de 2018

JOKERTOWN 6

 “Funny about not thinking. Because that’s what people here have to do, so the governor can’t pick up our thoughts. We have to sort of keep our minds far off, way in the atmosphere like. Scramble up our thoughts. And even then we can’t know for sure if he can hear us.”
“Can Governor Bloat hear all of you all the time?”
“I think he can hear anything he really wants to. But it’s work for him, and usually he doesn’t want to bother. And when he sleeps — well, he sleeps a lot. But I don’t really know how it is with him. Or anybody.” She grinned faintly. “I got a better line to Zappa than to anybody here.”
“What do you think is going to happen?”
“What’s gonna happen?” She shrugged. “I don’t know, man. But I’ve been reeling off these statistics for the last few hours. Tanks and helicopters and fighter-attack squadrons and Hellfires and LAWs and 155s and 105s and 120s — all those numbers. And LCACs and AAVs and MLRs and ATACMS — initials, okay? Just like the numbers, only letters, and lots of them. A whole fuck of a lot of them. And the New Jersey, which I know is a battleship. A carrier task group built around the John F. Kennedy. And a Los Angeles submarine with cruise missiles. So —” She took a breath. “I have no idea what a 155 is, and I wouldn’t know an MLR if it bit me, but I have a feeling I’m gonna get bit pretty soon. We’re all gonna get bit. So all I can do is hope that the governor can do something brilliant, or that the phone lines stay open so that I can call that 800 number once things get serious.”
From having worked with the military in the past Modular Man knew what a lot of those numbers and letters meant, and he hadn’t seen anything here that could stop them from doing their work.
“I hope the lines stay open too,” he said.
Patchwork frowned a bit, as if concentrating. “I’m thinking dirty thoughts,” she said. “Real porn. It embarrasses the governor, you know — he’s just a kid.”
“You’re not so old yourself.”
Her concentrated look deepened. “I’m thinking about something really disgusting. I don’t want the governor listening in.”
“He’s probably more interested in Kafka talking about MLRs and 155s.”
“Yeah. Maybe.” She relaxed against the swan couch and put a hand over where her eyes had been. “No fucking eyes,” she said, “one ear. I can’t go to the toilet without someone leading me, and plumbing wasn’t one of the governor’s major concerns when he built this place so it’s a long goddamn walk from here, and when I get there there isn’t going to be any toilet paper.” She laughed again, cynically this time. “That’ll teach me to fall in love.”
“Are you in love?”
“I was. He’s dead.” She said it lightly, as if it didn’t matter. "I’m sorry.”
“I’m not.” Defiantly. “The bastard was stepping out on me when he got killed. Neck snapped and the body turned to a block of ice — him and the bitch both. They said Black Shadow did it. That cold bastard.”
“Ah.” Not certain what else to say.
“I met Black Shadow myself just a few weeks ago. Here on the Rox.” She shuddered. “He knocked my block off. And all because I fell in love.” She waved her hands. “I thought about it, you know. I mean, sometimes you fall in love with the person, and sometimes it’s just with the person’s style. And it was his style that I fell for.”
“Ah.”
“Diego was a jumper, right? And we were both gonna be jumpers together, and rich, and he’d have a black Ferrari and I’d have a red one, and we’d both have great clothes and drugs and parties, and we’d have adventures. But Diego got killed, and so did the Prime, so I never got made into a jumper. And now I’m sitting here in this tower and I haven’t got any eyes.” She reached up into her bandage and made swabbing motions with her fingers. “Still got tear ducts, though. Yep. Still do.” She shook her head, then looked up blindly. “How come I’m doing all the talking here?”
“Probably because I haven’t got a whole lot of news you haven’t already heard.”
“Oh. Okay.” She laughed again. “Just wanted to find out.” She paused, licked her lips. “Would you mind taking me to the toilet?”
“I’ll take you, I don’t know where it is.”
“I’ll give directions, you do the steering.” She put her feet on the floor and rose hesitantly. Modular Man stood and offered her an arm.
“Thank you,” she said. “Anything here we can use for toilet paper?”
“A spare roll of paper for the stenograph machine.”
“Great. That’ll do.”
Modular Man reached for the roll and handed it to her. “I’m glad the toilet paper shortage is one problem I’m not going to have to face,” he said. Patchwork laughed. He escorted her out the misshapen door and then down the black-and-white-tiled corridor. At the top of the stairs they turned onto a long balcony that overlooked the stairwell, then turned off onto the battlements.
The toilet was a little shed built onto the massive wall of the inner bailey, a two-holer that simply dropped waste out into the mile-wide moat. Patchwork said thank you, patted his arm, and disappeared inside, pulling the door shut after her.
Modular Man waited. Both his radar and his optics reported a lot of air traffic overhead.
The door opened and Patchwork reemerged. She stuffed the roll of paper into a pocket and held out her arm. Modular Man took it and led her carefully back inside.
“The governor can make all sorts of things appear,” she said, “but there are some necessities he can’t be bothered with. I’ve got a couple unused tampons I’m guarding with my life.”
A pair of young men dressed in a mix of military gear and black leather with zips were waiting just inside the keep. One had a buzz-cut and one didn’t. Both carried guns. One had a roll of computer printout under an arm. Apparently they were heading for the toilets.
“Yo, Pat,” buzz-cut said as he passed — he stuck out an arm and clothes-lined Patchwork with his forearm.
Electronic hash sizzled through the android’s macro-atomic circuits as Patchwork’s head came off and bounced. Her jaw came loose and skittered over the hard surface.
Patchwork’s body staggered, then recovered. Headless, it bent down carefully and began to search for its head with its hands.
Knocked my block off. Now Modular Man knew what she’d meant.
“I love it when that happens,” buzz-cut said.
“Don’t do it again,” said Modular Man. He picked up Patchwork’s head and handed it to her. With a practiced gesture she reattached it. Eye sockets gazed blankly from under the disarrayed bandage. The android retrieved the jaw — the tongue was still attached and flapped frantically — and gave it to Pat.
Don’t do it again?” buzz-cut smirked. “What happens if I do?”
Modular Man grabbed him by the throat and hung him out over the balcony.
“We find out if you can fly,” he said.
The boy’s arms and legs flopped wildly. His friend made a move, but Modular Man saw it on radar and the servomotors on his right shoulder swung his microwave laser up and pointed it straight between non-buzz-cut’s eyes.
Non-buzz-cut decided not to continue moving.
Buzz-cut was turning purple. Evidence of a savage effort showed in his face. He stared at Modular Man and narrowed his eyes menacingly.
“By the way.” the android said, “I can’t be jumped.”
Buzz-cut passed out.
The android hauled the boy in and lowered him to the floor. All through his movements, Modular Man’s laser remained focused on non-buzz-cut. Then he straightened and took Patchwork’s arm.
“As you were,” he said. “The toilet’s free.”
Though, judging from the smell, it was a little late for the toilet in buzz-cut’s case.
Modular Man led Patchwork back along the walk overlooking the main stairs. He glanced down and saw someone climbing it.
Astonishment didn’t come easily to him. He was a machine and for the most part he accepted the readings he got on reality. He’d seen some pretty strange things and accepted what he’d had to.
Still, seeing Pulse climbing the stairs was the cause of the first double take in his life.

Bodysnatcher was performing a relentless series of pushups. The Outcast could hear the steady counting inside his head: … seventy-six … seventy-seven … He could also tell that bodysnatcher was as disappointed in this body as with any other, finding it soft and flabby in comparison with his old body, the one the aces had destroyed …. Seventy-eight.. … seventy-nine.. … eighty…
The right arm spasmed and went out from under him. He slammed hard onto the wooden floor. “You’d never have made a hundred anyway,” the Outcast said. The penguin appeared alongside him. It was doing curls with a set of tiny barbells as it skated around the Outcast’s feet.
“Jesus” The rage inside bodysnatcher’s head went to sudden fright and then cold. He rolled to a fighting crouch, sweat raining on the floor. His eyes narrowed but hands relaxed. “You’re the one Juggler was talking about. The Outcast. You really the governor?”
“You really Zelda?”
“Zelda died, motherfucker.”
The Outcast ignored that. “Oh, he’s the gov, all right,” the penguin told her. “Same old weenie, different package. Like YOU.”
“Shut up,” they both told the penguin at the same time. It shrugged, doffed its funnel hat, and skated out the door, still doing reps. “Juggler’s going to surrender,” the Outcast said to bodysnatcher.
“Thought you had talked him out of it with those fancy pyrotechnics, Governor.” Bodysnatcher managed to put an edge on the word as he went over to a bench press, grabbed a towel, and started to dry off.
“I did, for a while. I didn’t think it’d last and it hasn’t. Juggler’s talked several of them into it: Creamcheese, Porker, Rain Man, the twins, some others. I can’t really say I blame them.”
“Yeah? So what do you want me to do? Go give them another goddamn pep talk? Let the little fucks surrender. We don’t need ’em.”
The Outcast smiled. “No,” he said. “I’ve said that I’d never hold anyone here who didn’t want to be here, and I meant that. I don’t keep slaves. If they want to go, I’m not going to let anyone stop them. But… I’ve been thinking about it. What do you think the Combine’s going to do with the jumpers when they give themselves up?”
Bodysnatcher shrugged, but the Outcast heard the sudden curiosity the question aroused. “I don’t know,” he started to say, then he — almost — grinned. “You’re thinking that maybe we should find out.”
The Outcast allowed himself another smile. “Exactly.”
“Then send Needles up here,” Bodysnatcher said.
“Why?”
“I want to look nice for the man when I surrender,” he said.

“So,” Battle said after Ray summarized his meetings with Ackroyd and Vivian Choy, “I think we can count on Ackroyd. You did a good job there.” He hmmmed for a moment. “I guess we can forget about Lazy Dragon. I don’t think he’ll call. That’s all right. We should have enough muscle for anything that freak Bloat might throw at us.”
“That’s it then?” Ray asked.
“Not quite,” Battle said. “We still have one more visit tonight. To Our Lady of Perpetual Misery.”
“The Church of Jesus Christ, Joker?” Ray asked.
“Not the church. The graveyard.”
Ray looked at him. “Christ. Not another deader.”
“How’s that?” Battle asked.
Ray was being as subtle as he could. “Well, Puckett’s dead, isn’t he? And he’s on the roster.”
Puckett was waiting outside Ray’s office, ostensibly because Ray said there wasn’t room for the three of them inside, but really because Ray couldn’t stand the sight or smell of him. The government ace acquiesced easily enough and Battle didn’t seem to be missing his company either.
“Puckett is a special case,” Battle said slowly. “And I see you’ve been checking on us.”
“Not really,” Ray lied. “I just recognized the name. It took me a little while to remember where I’d heard it. The Texas sniping incident.”
Battle nodded. “We should really use Puckett’s code name, Crypt Kicker. And you’re quite right. He’s dead.”
Somehow hearing Battle say that in such calm, reasoned tones made it seem even worse. “I didn’t know tower snipers were usually recruited into government service,” Ray said with distaste.
“They’re not,” Battle explained, “but Puckett, as I’ve said, is a special case. Oh, he’s had his problems with the law in the past. Haven’t we all?” Battle asked. “But Bobby Joe has seriously repented for his wrongdoings. When he — well — woke up, he knew that the Lord had given him a second chance to do right with his life. He accepted Jesus as his personal savior and decided to devote the rest of his life — or whatever — to upholding the law.”
“Christ!” Ray said.
“Exactly.”
This was getting too weird. “Just where did he ’wake up’?”
“In the potters field where he’d been buried by the state. It seems the grounds had also been used as a toxic waste dump. PCBs, insecticides, industrial acids, light radioactives. That sort of thing,” Battle said, leaning forward with a tight little smile. “And Puckett — that is, Crypt Kicker — found that he’d absorbed the toxic wastes into his body and that he can now secrete them. Couple this with the fact that he’s also extremely strong and extremely hard to hurt — he is dead, after all — and extremely, extremely loyal to the government and its properly appointed representatives, and you can see that he makes the perfect soldier.”
“Too bad he smells so damn bad.”
“Well, almost perfect.”
Ray nodded. This was all as crazy as he had feared. Worse even. “What about this graveyard stuff? Are we counting on another convenient resurrection?”
“Oh,” Battle said, a twinkle in his eye, “in a way.” He stood and checked his watch. “I’ve got to be going, but I’ll meet you at the graveyard in six hours. And bring a shovel, will you?”

The military was deploying again, and Patchwork was busy reeling off their movements to the crew of the Joker Situation Room. The Rox, however, was making its own preparations.
Cruise missiles, for example, were supposed to be incredibly accurate, but they guided themselves to the target through a radar image of the target locked into their guidance systems.
So, with Modular Man’s help, the Rox was changing its radar profile.
Bloat was creating rafts with radar reflectors. Building them out of thin air so that jokers in rubber boats could tow them out into the bay and anchor them there. Some of the reflectors were hollow masts filled with lead foil, some were odd structures that looked like step pyramids covered with aluminum.
“Right angles,” Kafka kept saying. “We want lots of right angles.”
Modular Man’s radar had several times picked up the New Jersey offshore. The funny step pyramids and hollow masts gave off radar profiles almost as large as the battleship.
High above the Rox, looking at its reflection in his radar image, he was certainly confused.
He could only hope it would confuse the cruise missiles.

As the skies had darkened in the west above New Jersey, the pair with the black cat and alligator in tow felt more confident about crossing the financial district and the southern tip of Manhattan to Battery Park.
The small groups of humans and beasts continued to attract little attention. The onset of night helped. The major exception was an elderly lady walking her two poodles. As Wyungare and the others crossed Chambers, the old woman, apparently noticing them from a block away, pointedly crossed to the other side of Park Row. Once there, she ignored them as she tottered abreast of the fugitives. Both dogs, attired in matching red sweaters, yapped as they pulled at their leashes. The old woman jerked them back into line, eyes still fixed straight ahead. Jack started to veer into the street. Wyungare set his hand on the gator’s snout and the reptile returned to his original course.
“I think he’s hungry,” said Cordelia.
“We’ll be at the water soon.”
I’d never eat anything from that cesspool.”
“You’re not an alligator with a four-meter metabolism.” Wyungare paused thoughtfully. “Come to think of it, I could do with a snack myself.”
“I thought you people could trek for weeks without eating,” said Cordelia.
“’You people’?” said Wyungare. He reached and lightly touched her hip with his index finger. “Perhaps you might try that regimen yourself, Euro-girl.”
Cordelia slapped the finger away. “You weren’t complaining earlier.”
White teeth, major grin. “I must admit I enjoy some meat on a woman.”
Cordelia matched his smile tooth for tooth. “Me too, love, depending on whose meat it is.”
Wyungare, a bit embarrassed, let his hands swing at his sides. “Ah, look, our destination.” They could see the elms of Battery Park.
“Listen, mon cherie,” said Cordelia, “I have a question.”
Wyungare looked at her quizzically. Beside them, the paws of the black cat padded steadily; the alligator grunted in hoarse accompaniment.
“I’m helping the three of you make a break and embark on this fantastic voyage to the Rox. For whatever good it will do, you know? I hope you’ll accomplish some good. But the question I still have is, what about Uncle Jack?”
Wyungare said. “I will continue searching him out. I shall talk with him.”
“So?” said Cordelia. “That sounds like the same sort of rigmarole I got from the clinic staff. At least Dr. Bob Mengele, asshole that he is, actually tried to do something.” The grit in her voice edged her words. “I know you’re not just bullshitting me, love; if you were, that would be it for us. So just tell me what you think you can do. Please.” The metal in her voice dulled. Wyungare saw tears in her eyes.
He stopped and gripped her shoulders, confronting her face-to-face. Wyungare carefully side-kicked the alligator; Jack whuffled and looked around confusedly, but stopped too. The black cat turned his head and burred curiously from deep in his throat.
“Cordie, it’s not that I won’t tell you my plan, it’s that I cannot. There’s a fundamental principle that says that now is the moment of power. Not yesterday, not tomorrow. Now. I am not planning a long-term strategy because, simply, I cannot.”
He hesitated and, for the first time, avoided her look. “What?” she said. “What’s wrong?”
“The tuckonies taught me something.” Wyungare shook his head. “The tree-spirits, the spirits of growth,” he said by way of explanation. “I assume you have your own definition of karma?”
Cordelia looked puzzled. “What goes ’round… All that kind of thing?”
Wyungare nodded slowly. “Most Europeans see it as a function of the distant past. Sins of your childhood come back to haunt you as an adult.”
Cordelia nodded.
“Try it this way,” said her lover. “You, me, all of us, represent a huge gene pool, both physically and psychically. Our resources span an enormous inventory. Karma’s not some ancient instrument of vengeance. It is now. Each moment we recreate who we are and what we do.” He gently raised his hands to her face, cradling her chin between thumb and forefinger. “Perhaps this is all simply an elaborate way of saying that karma is the ongoing process of winging it.”
Cordelia smiled. “I don’t think that’s what a lot of the sensitive New Age folk want to hear. What you just said means that we all bear a burden of responsibility for our actions.”
“See, young missy?” said Wyungare. “An easy lesson to comprehend.” "But hard to carry out.” Cordelia shook her head. “Karma is now.”
“The past distances things. People let that soften their responsibilities.”
She took his hands into hers and dug in her nails. “So connect this with Uncle Jack.”
He didn’t flinch. “I believe I have three tasks to perform within a day. The first is to speak with the boy, Bloat, and help him pass from warrior to magician. The second is to draw upon mana, to help Jack Robicheaux draw strength from the power within, and to define a condition of healing. The third —” His voice dropped off and he shook his head. “The third I must not speak of now.”
She regarded him puzzledly. “Does it have anything to do with us?”
Wyungare dropped his head so that his chin tucked into his chest. He was quiet for a moment. Then he looked straight at her again. “Whatever happens, Cordie, remember this: I feel a great amount of affection for you.”
Merde,” she said, eyes flashing dangerously. “Guys are such wimps, even if they’re revolutionaries and shamans” She leaned toward him, up on her toes, face close to his. “So do you love me?”
Wyungare regarded her gravely. Then he smiled. It was as though a gate had opened. “Yes,” he said. “Yes. Very much. I love you.”
“Then that’s enough.” She drew his lips down to hers. Parting from his mouth at last, she said, “I will love you always.” The seriousness in her voice suddenly moderated. “This is no teen crush, wombat-boy.” She grinned. He kissed her again.
The black cat rubbed around their legs, purring. Then Jack rushed past them, reptilian patience apparently at an end.
“Boat’s leaving,” said Cordelia. “Wait, Uncle Jack!” she called. They both followed.
The cat bounded ahead, as though acting as a forward observer. He yowled triumphantly and cut right, past some anonymous statue covered with pigeon droppings, then in front of a phalanx of empty green benches. He bounced almost as stiff-legged as a kitten through some brush and then they were at the water’s edge. Wyungare set a restraining hand on the alligator’s head. He was no physical match for Jack’s reptile avatar, but he directed a sensation of soothing wellbeing into the creature’s soul. That should last just long enough, he thought.
Gray water lapped unappetizingly against the ornamental rocks. Directly ahead they could see the dark wall that surrounded the Rox.
Cordelia stooped and touched the water with one finger. Then she rubbed it vigorously on her denim-clad hip. “Yuck. Bad stuff. Are you sure you can’t just translate out there through the dreamtime?”
Wyungare shook his head. “Interference from the boy is making that too chancy. Believe me, I’d rather fly than swim.”
Cordelia took his hand and held it as though it were a direct line to sanity. “Is there any way we can communicate while you’re out there? I’d like to try.”
The Aborigine shrugged. “Perhaps in the dreamtime. You’ve had a bit of experience now in getting there. Just be cautious. The worlds are not altogether safe.”
“I’ll be careful.” she said.
“We must leave.” Wyungare disengaged himself. The alligator roared, a cry of challenge, of hunger and impatience. He shuffled forward into the water, looking suddenly like a huge, rough-barked log floating low in the Upper Bay.
The black cat rubbed against Cordelia’s calf and then leapt onto the alligator’s back. He stalked along the ridge of the reptile and settled himself on Jack’s armored skull. The cat sat on his haunches and regarded the distant view of New Jersey. The alligator didn’t seem to mind.
“My turn,” said Wyungare. He gave Cordelia a sudden, fierce hug.
“Come back to me,” said the young woman.
“One way or another.”
“What?” she said, confused.
He kissed her a final time. “Remember me.” Then he turned and stepped onto the back of the gator as though boarding a gangplank. Balancing, he strode forward and then settled himself astraddle the alligator’s midsection with both brown legs trailing into the disgusting bay water. He ran his fingers along Jack’s dorsal line.
“I feel like I should be tying you to the mast,” said Cordelia, “and stuffing beeswax in your ears.”
Wyungare turned back toward her. “Just like Odysseus.” He tapped the fingers of his right hand against Jack’s armored hide. “That’s your uncle’s job. He’s not human now. He can get me through the barrier.”
Like a warship pulling away from its dock, the alligator smoothly and sinuously launched himself toward the deeper water.
Wyungare again turned and saw Cordelia standing on the shore watching them. He felt a sudden empathic flash. To Cordelia, the image of her three friends leaving the land was weirdly reminiscent of Gilbert Stuart’s famous iconographic American painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware.
She wishes she had a camera, Wyungare thought. But she has her memory. That will be enough.
But before turning back to their course and the waiting Wall, Wyungare couldn’t help himself. Silly, maybe: melodramatic, definitely. He waved.
And Cordelia waved back.


FRIDAY NIGHT

September 21, 1990
The bodysnatcher waited by the Jersey Gate with the cowards and weak sisters. A fog was rolling in off the bay. The light from the setting sun brushed a hundred-odd silent, frightened faces as the small clot of jokers and jumpers waited.
A few stragglers were still crossing the causeway, lugging whatever they could lug. Most had bedrolls or blankets. A few were carrying their pathetic little sacks with all their worldly possessions. No one had any weapons. Bloat’s joker guards had relieved them of guns and knives. They could leave if they wanted to, but the guns stayed behind to defend the Rox.
Pulse’s body was all the weapon the bodysnatcher needed. No one dared to say a word to him.
He looked at the crowd around him. A bare hundred jokers had shown up, out of the thousands on the Rox. Old women, the sick and feeble, a few mothers with small children. Nobody who’d be missed.
The jumpers were clustered together under the watchful eyes of Bloat’s demon guards. The bodysnatcher counted them twice, and came up with twenty-one. Twenty-two counting him. The world’s only middle-aged jumper.
He was taking a risk. Someone might recognize the Pulse body. But the bodysnatcher had made it hard for them.
He’d shaved his head, plastered tattoo transfers over his face. A death’s head moth spread its wings around his eyes. He was wearing a filthy pair of denims and a leather vest. Under the vest he was bare-chested. There was a safety pin through his right cheek, and another in his left tit. His nipple leaked blood like a mother leaking milk. That was all right. The pain kept him sharp. He didn’t think anyone would want to look at him too long.
Finally the huge gate swung open. Jokers on the walls stared down with contempt as they raised the portcullis. Outside, the bodysnatcher glimpsed men in uniform, trucks, a yellow school bus.
For a long moment, no one moved.
Then Juggler took a step forward. He was carrying a beat-up old suitcase in one hand, and the amnesty leaflet in the other. He looked back over his shoulder. “Let’s go,” he said.
The parade of cowards shuffled slowly out through the castle gate. Up on the ramparts, one of the guards unzipped and began to piss down on them as they passed, moving the stream back and forth as jokers and jumpers tried to scramble out of the way.
The bodysnatcher waited until almost the end, when the guard had run out of piss. Then he mixed in with a sorry bunch of jokers. Outside the gate a grizzled sergeant was directing traffic. “Jumpers left, jokers right,” he droned, over and over.
The trucks were parked to the right, military troop carriers, a double row of them. Uniformed soldiers were helping the jokers up inside. Father Squid was there too, tending to his flock. There were way too many trucks. The Combine had grossly overestimated the coward count. Off to the left, the jumpers were boarding a battered yellow school bus. The bodysnatcher studied the setup for a beat, then decided to go right, with the jokers.
He hadn’t taken more than three steps when two soldiers fell in beside him. One put a hand on his arm. “Excuse me, sir,” he said. “I think you want to go that way.” He pointed.
The bodysnatcher imagined all the ways he could kill him. “Where are you taking us?” he asked.
“Routine debriefing,” the soldier said.
The bodysnatcher went to join the other bozos on the bus.

The Outcast had orders for Modular Man. The Outcast was supposed to be Bloat in another form.
Which was certainly on a par with all the surrealism Modular Man had seen so far.
“We need to get some messages out,” the Outcast said. He held an amethyst-headed staff with the same casual, elegant sense of power with which a king held his scepter. “There are teams of jumpers and jokers we have waiting in the city and in Jersey. The only secure method of communications is by messenger.”
“The orders are important,” Kafka said. “We want you to carry them for us.” His mouth parts worked. “The governor has decided we need to take political action.”
“Political action?”
The Outcast gave an apologetic giggle that completely undermined his nonchalant air of authority. “Hey,” he said, “we’re gonna blow things up. Okay?”

“You’re certain?” Herne asked. “I mean, this is something you really want me to do, Governor?” His voice was eager, as were his thoughts — this was Herne the Huntsman speaking, not the daylight personality of Hardesty. The inner transformation had already begun.
“Yes,” the Outcast replied. He looked at the jokers gathered in the courtyard in front of the Crystal Castle. Bloat’s white body, snared in a web of spotlights, could be seen sleeping there, guarded as always by a few dozen jokers and a squadron of fish-knights. In the gathering darkness, the lights of the skyscrapers shone beyond the ebony stones of the Wall out in the bay. The Outcast raised his staff as if in benediction, the glittering rays from the amethyst touching the faces: Mustelina, Andiron, One-Eye, Squirt, Bumbilino, a handful more — all of their minds set and firm.
Angry.
Anxious.
“You want to know about Hartmann?” the Outcast said, and he let his power bleed into the words so that they sparked in the minds of the listeners. “You want to hear what I’ve heard in his mind? Let me tell you. Hartmann’s an ace, or he once was. A powerful ace and an evil one. He could make you dance to the strings of the power in his mind, and he used that power. He used it to get his kicks, to take pleasure from the pain of the jokers he controlled. He used us, his own little pet slaves. He used us to kill and maim and torment, and he let us be blamed for the things he made us do. Oh, Hartmann deserves this. Believe me.”
Herne pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. An ornate “H” was stitched on the cloth. He tossed it on the ground.
“Now,” the Outcast said to Herne.
This was a power the Outcast had never felt before. Most aces seemed to have powers that affected only their own bodies, made them stronger or faster or able to project energy in some way. Like Bloat himself. Hardesty/Herne affected the very shape of reality around him. As it had with so many others, the wild card had taken something from Hardesty’s mind and given it form. In the dark of night, Hardesty could become a figure from Celtic mythology: Herne, the leader of the Wild Hunt.
Herne took the battered silver horn that hung around his huge chest and inhaled deeply. He lifted the horn to his lips and winded the instrument. The note that emerged was pure and crystalline in the night air; as the sound lingered, storm clouds began to gather far above. A wind rose from the east, and the horn shimmered in the joker’s hand, the patina changing from tarnished silver to rich, polished gold, the dings and dents filling in until the surface gleamed and threw back the lights of the Crystal Castle. The Outcast’s skin prickled, the hair on his forearms lifting as if with static electricity. The long call continued to sound, impossibly loud and vast, like a celestial horn calling the end of the world.
But the world didn’t end. Instead, the heavens answered with a barrage of lightnings. As the mournful sound faded, it was replaced by thunder and wind and the wild howling of dogs. A mist rose around the courtyard, incandescent with its own light. The Outcast shivered, but Herne laughed, deep and resonant.
They came, the Hunt.
The mist coiled and folded; from the tendrils issued the shape of the Gabriel Hounds, fierce and glowing-eyed. Herne reached down and plucked the handkerchief from the ground. He threw the cloth toward the pack, and they pounced on it, sniffing and tearing, howling all the while. A lightning flash momentarily blinded the Outcast — when he could see again, Herne was leaping astride an enormous black stallion, and a herd of like beasts paced alongside.
Andiron clashed his steely fists like a gong against his chest and clambered onto the nearest steed, the other jokers alighting a few moments later. “Away!” Herne shouted. The hounds leapt and growled in response, the stallion reared underneath him. The others in the courtyard shouted with the Huntsman, and the Outcast heard his own voice join with them.
A great power here, one that tugs at you like an addiction.
The mindvoices raged like the storm, a cyclone of rage and fury and blood lust, all linked to the madness of Herne. The jokers, the jumpers — they howled like Herne’s beasts; they shouted and raised fists.
“Ride!” exclaimed Herne.
“Ride!” echoed the Rox, and dug their heels into the sides of their horses.
“Ride for Hartmann!” Herne exclaimed. His stallion screamed, the hounds bayed; like an onrushing stormfront, the Wild Hunt tore from the gates of the Crystal Castle, leaving the sleeping Bloat and the Outcast behind.
“Wait!” the Outcast cried, knowing he was snared in the web of fury that Herne spun but finding himself helpless to resist it. He wanted to be with them, he had to be with them.
“I’m coming too. Wait!”
The Outcast spoke a word of power and became lightning himself, streaking above the Hunt as they pounded from the shore of the Rox onto the frothing water of the bay, the mounts and hounds riding over the waves as if they were nothing more than rolling, transient hills. The Outcast followed, his breath fast, the wind of his passage ruffling his hair and making him squint. In a few minutes they came to the stone edifice of the Wall itself. Herne looked up, and the Outcast grinned back. He sent his power down to the Wall and opened the great gates facing Manhattan, letting the immense doors of oak and steel swing out to loose the Hunt. He flung himself forward to keep pace, crying as Herne sounded the horn again.
And he found that he could go no farther. The air became a solid fist and pushed back at him. He could not pass his own boundary. His world would not let him go.
“No!” the Outcast wailed, almost weeping. “Please!”
But the lust was already fading, his mind emerging from the spell of the Hunt as it moved farther and farther away from him. He could feel the strings that bound him eternally to the great form of Bloat. Those bonds were far, far stronger.
He could not ride with the Hunt. He was a prisoner in the Rox, confined to his own land.
The Outcast materialized on the top of the nearest tower. He pounded his fists on the stones there — they seemed substantial enough, cutting his flesh so that he bled and cried out. There, his hands gripping the cold blocks of granite, he watched the green fire and the blue lightnings of the Hunt recede over the bay, the turbulent cloud of death riding toward the city.
He found that he was crying, and there were too many reasons for the sorrow for him to sort out why.

Once, almost in another lifetime, it seemed, Wyungare had visited Outback-Disneyland. The experience, business aside, had been horrifying. It all came back. The stately voyage to the Rox rapidly evolved into Mr. Goanna’s Wild Flume Ride.
First, there was the environment. The skies, what he could see of them through the swirls of fog, were ablaze with lights, most of them moving at speed. No missiles, heavy shells, or other bombardment, at least. But glowing streaks of exhaust that might be reconnaissance craft. There was a lot of air traffic behind him over Manhattan. Many helicopter landings. A couple of times he saw what looked like human figures moving through the air rapidly, without benefit of craft.
Then all hell burst loose as a sudden thunderstorm seemed to brew over the approaching island. Wyungare blinked and averted his face as lightning forked and linked sky and earth. It looked like a radiant vision tree impressed on his retinas. The thunder rolled past a fractional second later, the concussion shoving the air before it like the blow of a nulla nulla.
Wyungare thought he heard howling, as though from rather larger predatory throats than he cared to encounter in the middle of the Upper Bay. Madhi? he wondered. Perhaps extremely large dingos. Lightning blazed again.
Further speculation was lost as the alligator dipped his snout like a diving plane and water sheeted across Wyungare’s fourteen-foot reptilian vessel. The black cat leapt backward and the Aborigine found himself with nearly two stone of soaked cat wound around his chest.
Does this reptile fear thunder and lightning? he wondered. It couldn’t be.
It wasn’t.
Jack’s massive jaws opened and closed like a medieval portcullis. The webbed, slightly glowing tail of some unknown fish flopped frantically outside of the teeth. The alligator gulped and the tail disappeared within.
Ah, thought Wyungare. Supper. Jack was a mighty engine that needed fuel. Feeding could not easily be denied.
The alligator jigged through the bay waves with remarkable agility considering his size. Jaws opened. Jaws closed. Some of the prey screamed.
The Aborigine tried to hook his strong toes around the curve of the reptile’s body. He leaned forward, keeping his center of gravity as low as he could, attempting not to be thrown loose into the frigid water. Crushed between Wyungare’s and Jack’s rough hide, the black cat wailed.
Then Jack’s particular feeding frenzy ceased. His teeth clicked together decisively a few more times as he turned his snout back toward the Rox.
Wyungare tried to let communication sink from his fingertips into the armor protecting Jack’s head. You’re doing fine, he wanted to say. Now let us make land. It will aid your digestion. And mine, he thought.
The feeling of approaching Bloat’s psychic barrier crossed a spectrum of apprehension. It’s like — Wyungare thought a bit fuzzily — it’s like approaching a glass wall at speed in a Land Rover. He thought of insects squashed on windscreens. He felt an unaccustomed dread, and then a sudden terror, the abrupt image of shattering glass smashing around him. He felt as though he were breathing in a cloud of microscopic shards. They stung like ice, like invisible razors, like venomous, stinging mites. Wundas. Evil spirits.
The Wall was closer than it had looked. Suddenly it loomed directly in front, the waves slapping against the peculiarly textured gray stone blocks. The Aborigine’s head cleared.
Wyungare touched the alligator and suggested that he follow the curve of the Wall in the direction the Aborigine believed a gate to be.
Indeed, the Aborigine, gator, and cat arrived at the gate after the voyage of only another hundred yards. Jack docked as smoothly as the Staten Island Ferry pulling into its slip. The side of the alligator bumped up against what appeared to be oaken beams, but sounded more like heavy steel ringing like a gong.
Wyungare gingerly rapped his fist against the door. It did feel like metal. And it rang like metal. His head throbbed. He pounded harder.
With a rusty creak, the gate swung inward.
Wyungare said to the darkness, “Thank you, I was afraid I was going to have to bloody my knuckles.”
Light grew within the gateway. The entrance was lined with truly grotesque Boschian creatures. Beside them, the intermixed jokers looked like matinee idols.
“You a nat or what?” said one of the jokers.
“What,” said Wyungare. He motioned. “This is an alligator. That’s a cat.”
“I know the nursery rhyme,” said the joker. “So where’s the owl?”
Wyungare stopped, bewildered for a moment.
“Don’t worry, you’ll catch on,” said the roller-skating penguin, suddenly weaving its way through the crowd of guards. “So. You have business with his Bloatitude? Or just another version of the Circle Line cruise way off course.”
“That is correct,” said Wyungare. “The first hypothesis. I have important business with the one called Bloat.” 
"Well, he’s pretty busy,” said the penguin. “The war and all. Could you perhaps come back tomorrow?”
Wyungare felt like he was in Lewis Carroll Land. “Tomorrow, no. It is essential I see your… governor now.”
The penguin spun on the tip of one skate. “It helps me concentrate,” he said once he’d stopped. “All right, then. It’s off to the castle with you.”
Wyungare stepped into the gateway.
“Them too,” said the penguin, dipping its beak toward the cat and the alligator.
The guards, joker and simulacra alike, drew back when Jack hauled his long, armored body out of the bay and into the opening in the Wall.
Suddenly the cat sprung from Jack’s back and grabbed the penguin in his paws. Bird and beast rolled over and over as the guards glanced at one another.
Wyungare shook his head. “They are just playing,” he said reassuringly.
The penguin sat up, laughing uproariously. The cat purred and rubbed against the penguin’s feathered haunches.
“Perhaps we should go,” said Wyungare. “We’re off to see the wizard.”

“I don’t know how I do it,” Danny told him. “I mean, I do know, but there’s no good way to put it into words.”
She was perched on Detroit Steel’s right shoulder, legs crossed, Giants cap pulled low, looking down on Tom in his shell. They were alone with the empty armor. The soldiers had turned on the floodlights, and the outfield grass was a deep, rich green.
Zappa and von Herzenhagen had been taken off by helicopter, to supervise the surrender at the Jersey Gate. Pulse still hadn’t shown. The other aces had gone inside to get some rest. No one was saying when they’d be sent into action. There way no way Tom could get his shell down the narrow tunnel under the grandstands, so he’d been left behind to guard center field. The ponytail Danny had stayed to keep him company. "There’s six of you, right?” Torn said.
“There’s one of me,” Danny corrected him, “in a bunch of different bodies.”
“So,” Tom said, “so one of you is in New York, and three are in Minneapolis, and one’s in Chicago, and.…I mean, you’re in six different places at once. Doing six different things at the same time. Seeing different things. Feeling different things. I mean, how do you make sense of it?”
Danny pushed back her Giants cap, shrugged. “You ever eat and watch TV at the same time?” she asked. “Well, how do you do that? I mean, you’re doing two things at once, right? Doesn’t it get confusing?”
Tom thought about that for a moment. “I see what you’re getting at,” he said. “Have you always had six bodies?”
“Remind me never to introduce you to my mother. Giving birth to one baby was distasteful enough to hear her tell it. She’d be mortified at the suggestion that she popped a litter.” She grinned. “There was only one of me at first. I hardly remember what that was like. I drew my wild card when I was three. They thought I was going to die. I got very sick, and very big. You should see the pictures. I looked like Bloat’s little sister. Then I started to split. Mom was set to have kittens. The family wasn’t ready for a Siamese twin. When I turned into two perfect little girls, the relief almost killed her.”
“Only two?” Tom said.
“At first,” Danny said. “Would you believe it, they made both of us go to school. What’s the use of being two people if both of them are stuck in Miss Rooney’s class reciting the multiplication tables? My parents even named the other me. Michelle. I never paid any attention. I knew both of us were Danielle, even if nobody else did.”
“And your other, ah, sisters? When did they —?”
“When I hit puberty, I hated myself. I wanted to be taller. With beautiful long dark hair. No freckles. And boobs. I was thirteen and neither of me had any boobs at all.”
She had boobs now, Tom reflected silently as he watched her on her screens. They were right there under her shirt, giving a hint of curve to the bulletproof vest. "Next thing I knew,” Danny said, “one of me was getting big again. The splits take about a month. Fortunately, there was another me to go to school, so I didn’t miss anything.”
“Did you get, ah… everything you wanted?” Tom asked delicately. He couldn’t quite bring himself to say “boobs.” All of a sudden he felt strangely shy.
Danny grinned. “Oh, yeah. No freckles at all. Or were you thinking of something else?”
Inside the shell, Tom found himself blushing.
“You should have seen me in a bikini,” Danny said. “After that, it was easy. My dad tried to pretend we were triplets, but I’d started to see the possibilities. One of me kept on with school, one took up dance fulltime, and one helped out down at Dad’s store. After a while, I decided the world was too big for three of me to handle, and I split again. For a few years there, I gave myself a new body every year for my birthday. I stopped when I hit my lucky number.”
“Six,” Tom said thoughtfully. “Do all of your bodies split off the original?”
Danny polished Detroit Steel’s tailfin idly with her sleeve. “Nah,” she said. “Any of me can make a new me.”
“Which one of you is the original?”
“That would be telling,” Danny said coyly. “Besides, I’m not sure I remember. It was a long time ago.”
“How old are you anyway?”
“Free, white, and twenty-one,” she replied cheerfully.
“You don’t look more than nineteen.”
“Tell me about it. I still get carded everywhere I go.” She made a disgusted face.
Tom remembered when he’d been twenty-one, half a lifetime ago. Even then, he didn’t have a fraction of Danny’s energy or optimism. All of a sudden, he felt old, tired, and depressed.
“So there you have it, Mr. Turtle Sir,” she was saying, “the story of my life.” She flashed a crooked grin. “Your turn.”
That took Tom aback for a moment. Then he laughed. “Nice try,” he said, “but no way.”
“No fair,” Danny protested. “I showed you mine.” Tom was glad she couldn’t see him. He was blushing again. Forty-six years old, and all of a sudden he felt like he was in high school again. “I prefer to remain an enigma,” he said. “Don’t you read Aces? Mystery is the Turtle’s middle name.”
“And what are the Turtle’s first and last names?”
Tom laughed again. But Danny made a short, sharp gesture with her hand, cutting him off. Her head was cocked to one side, listening. “What’s wrong?” he asked her.
“Do you hear that?” she asked.
Tom couldn’t hear a thing. He turned a dial, boosting the volume on his exterior mikes, filling the shell with the familiar sounds of the Brooklyn night: a distant roar of traffic, a horn blaring, the rumble of a tank.
Then he heard it.
Far off and small, yet somehow it cut through the street noise to bring a chill to the blood. A baying, as of..
“Dogs.” Tom said. “A lot of dogs.”
“Hounds,” Danny said. Suddenly she was all business. She jumped down off Detroit Steel, landing with catlike grace on the balls of her feet and snatching up her M16. “I grew up in the north woods. I know the sound of a hunting pack.”
High, high overhead, a lightning bolt crashed across a clear sky. The thunderclap came an instant later.
It was warm and close in the steel confines of his shell. But Tom Tudbury shivered.

“Croyd, wake up, would you?” The Outcast shook the form on the bed. The bedsprings rattled, but Croyd continued to snore. From the doorway, the two guards that Kafka had set to watch the Sleeper stared silently.
“Bet if he got those adenoids fixed, he wouldn’t snore like that.” The Outcast turned to see the penguin, doing tight little figure eights on the ledge of the high tower window. The guards grinned; the penguin waved back at them.
The Outcast sighed and straightened up. He exhaled loudly. “He’s gotta wake up,” he said. “We need him.” He gestured at Croyd. “Look at that body. Those orifices have to do something.”
Well, I have other visitors for you, Your Largeness. They came to help.”
“More aces?” the Outcast said, suddenly eager. “Who?”
“An alligator, a cat, and an aborigine.”
"Oh, them. I heard. Thought there was supposed to be an owl along with that.”
“So they didn’t quite get it right. Are you perfect?” The Penguin attempted a triple axel, failed, and did a pratfall to the floor. It grinned up at the Outcast. “So you coming or not?”
“I’ll be there in a moment.” The Outcast looked down again at Croyd and sighed once more.
The penguin clucked at him. “You might try an alarm clock. Hey, okay, I’m going, I’m going.”

Tom’s fingers tightened on the armrests of his chair. He pushed with his mind. The shell rose slowly off the ground.
There was another flash of lightning. He heard rolling thunder. Then the baying came again, louder this time, closer. There was something terrifying about the sound. The way it lingered on the wind and chilled the soul. It was a dark, primal sound. It turned his bowels to water.
Tom turned up his speakers to drown out the distant hounds. “GET TO HQ,” he told Danny. “WARN HARTMANN AND THE OTHERS.” She didn’t move. She stood there listening, cradling her M-16. “NOW!” Tom thundered. “WE DON’T HAVE MUCH TIME.”
Danny turned her head slightly, looked up at him. The wind was rising. Her baseball cap went sailing off her head. “I’ve told them already,” she said. “They’re on their way up.,’
Her sisters, Tom remembered. Before he could reflect on it, the others came boiling out of the tunnel beneath the grandstands. Cyclone and Mistral in their fighting suits. Snotman in army fatigues, Mike Tsakos in his skivvies, Radha O’Reilly in a sari, a bunch of Dannys and a larger bunch of uniforms. Hartmann stopped by the dugout. He looked scared. Somewhere off to the west, thunder rumbled, and they heard the stutter of machinegun fire.
The Turtle crossed the infield, his shadow rippling across the model Rox, the rising winds buffeting his shell. “WE’RE UNDER ATTACK,” he told them. He wasn’t sure how he knew, but he did.
A grizzled, red-faced old man in a lieutenant colonel’s uniform was the first to gather his wits. “Cyclone, Mistral, do something about this wind,” he ordered in a southern accent so thick you could cut it with a knife. “Tsakos, get your skinny butt in those iron long johns and go reinforce the main gate.” Tsakos went running off toward center field. “We need to find out what’s happening out there. Turtle, you-”
Dear God,” Hartmann interrupted, his voice shrill with sudden fear. He looked around wildly. “They’re after me.”
A lightning bolt crackled toward the west, underlining his words. The call of a hunting horn shuddered through the night, faint but distinctive.
“We don’t know who they’re after,” Vidkunssen began.
“Can’t you hear it?” Hartmann screeched. “Dear God.” He sounded close to hysteria.
The thunder was louder, the lightning flashing all around. But under it, you could hear the eerie baying of hounds, coming closer and closer.
“Corporal Shepherd,” the lieutenant colonel drawled in his grits-and-bourbon tones, “the senator’s a little upset. Escort him back to headquarters and get him a warm glass of milk.” He looked around at the aces. “You, Booger —”

“My name is Reflector,” Snotman insisted.

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