martes, 24 de julio de 2018

JOKERTOWN 8

The psychologist stopped writing and looked up. “Are you telling me you used to be a woman?” He licked his lip, like the idea got him excited.
“What do you think, Doctor?” the bodysnatcher said. “I’d been in that hospital maybe a week. One night I was lying in my own shit, waiting for someone to come clean me up. Finally an orderly shows up. He wiped me off, changed the sheets. Then he spread my legs and raped me.” The bodysnatcher gave a savage smile. “I jumped while he was in me. No one had ever done a blind jump before, but he was close enough for government work.”
“I see,” said the shrink. “So this body originally belonged to the orderly.”
“Fuck no,” the bodysnatcher said. “That jelly-belly? His feet always hurt, I couldn’t stand it. I used him for a few days. Then I filled a tub, opened his wrists with a razor blade, and phoned 911. I jumped the first paramedic through the door. The meat arrived DOA.”
The psychologist sat very still after he had finished, then gave a nod. “I see. Very well. I think we’re just about through here.” He stood up. “If you’ll come with me.”
The bodysnatcher followed him downstairs, where the shrink turned him over to a nasty-looking old fuck who said his name was George Battle. Battle looked over his file, then escorted him to a small bare room in the lowest subbasement. There was nothing in it but a large glass window opening on another small room. On the far side of the glass an old man in a flannel shirt sat at a table, working a crossword.
“One final test,” Battle told him. “We’d like to see if you can jump that gentleman over there.”
The bodysnatcher looked through the glass at the geezer. He was about eighty. Loose skin dangled under his chin, and there were liver spots on the back of his hands. He didn’t seem aware that he was being watched.
“Why should I?” the bodysnatcher asked.
“A good soldier never asks why. He follows orders,” Battle said. “But I’ll tell you, this one time. We want to get a better understanding of how your jumping power works.”
“Why don’t I just jump you instead?” the bodysnatcher asked.
Battle was as cool as Prime used to be, he had to give him that. “I certainly can’t stop you, but it won’t establish anything. This experiment is designed to ascertain whether jumpers can use their powers on a visible target even if a physical barrier interposes. Like that window.”
“Windows can’t stop jumpers. Take my word for it.”
“I’d rather you show me. If you can.” Battle gestured.
The bodysnatcher moved to the window, studied the geezer lost in his crossword. He drew a fingernail down across the glass. The geezer looked straight up at the window, blinked. Not a television hookup, then. It had to be one-way glass.
The bodysnatcher turned. “Fuck you,” he said.
“Save the vulgarity,” Battle said. “I’ve heard it all before. If you’ll follow me, you can rejoin your friends.”

Wyungare knew he was still in the cold, drafty, starkly austere cell. No question about that. But he simultaneously knew he remained in the dreamtime. No discrepancy, there. You can be both a particle and a wave. No contradictions.
“Let me show you something,” he said to the Outcast.
The man looked uncomfortable.
“Is something wrong?” Wyungare said.
“I have to get back.” His voice shook a little.
You are back,” said Wyungare. “You don’t have the ground rules down yet. You’re still there as well as here. And here is taking virtually no time. It’s like Mr. H. G. Wells’ ‘The New Accelerator.’ The times are different, here and there.”
“I still don’t see,” Outcast muttered.
“Please trust me,” said Wyungare. “Now come on. I’ve something to show you.”
“More of this swamp?” said Outcast, more than the hint of a complaint in his voice.
“Not much more.” The pair came out from under what had seemed an endless canopy of overhanging tree branches, both broad-leafed and pine. They entered a clearing, a space where the scars of clearing were long since muted by time and the wear of human usage. The low frame house squatted at the edge of the water. A ragged curl of smoke drifted from a crooked, rusted vent pipe in the roof.
Wyungare whistled a few bars of “Blue Bayou.” Outcast didn’t seem to get it. The Aborigine stopped. “All right, we’re going visiting now. Just follow me and watch.” He glanced back at Outcast.
The man nodded. “Okay. But please make this quick. Back in … the real world… I’m sending people —” He hesitated.
“— out to die.” Wyungare finished the sentence for him. “I know. Don’t worry, you’ll send them all out in plenty of time for their respective appointments in Samarra.”
Outcast looked puzzled.
“Don’t worry,” said Wyungare. “I’ll explain someday. You need to read something more than game-playing novels.” He led the way around to the front of the house. The two men climbed rickety steps and crossed the sun-bleached plank porch. The door stood open.
They heard sounds of pain from within.
“After you,” said Wyungare. He motioned inward. Outcast went.
And stopped, dead in his tracks.
“Go ahead,” said Wyungare. Outcast resisted the urging. Wyungare gently pushed him forward anyway.
“Oh, no,” said Outcast. “Please, no. I don’t want to watch this.”
“I’m afraid you must,” said Wyungare. “Just a bit. Just enough to make an impression.”
They stood just outside the doorway into the small living room. "No,” said Outcast.
“I’m afraid so.” said Wyungare.
They saw a young boy tied facedown across a rough wooden table. His wrists were lashed with clothesline cord to the table legs at one end, his ankles secured to the wooden legs at the other side. His hair was very black. He rolled his head from side to side with pain. When he turned toward the pair in the doorway, they saw how dark his eyes were.
“That is Jack,” Wyungare said.
“Do I know him?” Outcast sounded puzzled.
“You’ve met.” The Aborigine chuckled. “You didn’t recognize him because his outer appearance has changed just a bit.”
On the table, the boy’s thighs were spread. A cloudy figure stood between the boy’s legs, pumping in a violent pounding rhythm.
“What’s that?” said Outcast, alarmed.
“Just what you think.” They heard the brutal sounds of flesh slapping flesh.
“But… who--”
“Someone you might have known well, at least in a slightly different context,” said Wyungare. “Recall your cousins. Think of their father.”
Outcast moaned. Then he rushed forward past Wyungare, striking out at the phantom figure pistoning between the imprisoned boy’s thighs.
Fingers through smoke.
It did no good. The rape continued.
“I commend your attempt,” said Wyungare quietly. “At least you tried to do something.” He took Outcast by the shoulders and steered him back toward the door. “Jack would thank you if he could.”
“Jack?” said Outcast. “That boy? Jack?”
“Indeed.
“But can’t —”
“— we help him?”
Outcast nodded frantically.
“Perhaps,” said Wyungare. “But there’s nothing we can do about the past. Jack found his own solution.” 
"What?” said Outcast, voice as desperate as a man trying to pull his feet out of quicksand. 
Wyungare said, “After a time, Jack killed him.” 
Outcast gasped. “Killed his daddy?” 
“Stepfather.” 
Outcast looked shocked and sober. “And then?” 
“Things just got worse,” said Wyungare. 
Outcast shuddered. “How could they?” 
“Take my word for it.” 
“Tell me.” 
“Prurient interest?” said Wyungare gently. 
Outcast said slowly, voice shaking, “I have to know.” 
“And why is that?” Outcast shook his head. “I can’t tell you. It’s… a family secret.” 
“I think I already know,” said Wyungare. 
Outcast began to cry.


SATURDAY MORNING

September 22, 1990

Bloat awoke back in Bloat’s body. Echoes of the dream still reverberated in his mind. Family secrets, yes… Teddy wasn’t sure who he hated most, Wyungare for dredging up those buried memories, or himself for letting the story pour out to the Aborigine. I’m sorry. I promised I’d never tell. I’m sorry… It was just that seeing that boy reminded me…
He made me do it, he wanted to add. But that wail was not only childish, it wasn’t true. Teddy hadn’t realized just how much he’d wanted to lance that particular mental wound.
He sat there for long minutes, mostly feeling sorry for himself. Now that he could use the Outcast’s body even while awake, it was quickly becoming home — that young, handsome figure was certainly more desirable than this, this enormous slab of immobile fat and skin, pinned like some gargantuan specimen to the floor of his castle and fed on shit and garbage.
He was tired, so tired. So sleepy.
The mindvoices of the Rox ebbed and flowed in his mind, a backdrop to his misery.
Kafka rattled in; evidently the guards had alerted him to the fact that the Bloat-body was awake again. “Governor?”
“I’m beat, Kafka. Leave me alone.”
“I thought… Excuse me, Governor, but I thought you would stay as the Outcast.” The rest of the sentence followed, unspoken …. why would you WANT to come back to this horror if you could get out?
I would if I could, believe me. But I always come back here when I’m tired. Always. I’m linked with this body.” His voice was so mournful that he ended up giggling harshly at himself. “We jokers are so damned ugly,” he said. “We don’t like the way we look any more than the fucking nats. Ain’t that a trip? If we could, we’d cover all the goddamn mirrors in the world.” Bloat yawned, the pimply fat cheeks stretching like uncooked dough. “I was inspecting the Wall emplacements. We’ve picked up a fair amount of stuff from the Jersey shore. There’s a couple radar units. We got anyone who knows how to use them?”
“I think so, Governor. I’ll find out and get them set up. We can certainly use them.”
Kafka’s voice sounded weary, and the roach-man’s thoughts were pessimistic. Maybe they’ll give us a few seconds warning before the missiles hit. Just long enough to scream…
Is it really that bad, Kafka?”
Kafka looked around. They were alone except for the ring of guards around the balcony and at each of the entrances into the main lobby of the castle — half of them jokers, half Boschian mermen seated on flying, armored fish. Outside, the Rox was slumbering as false dawn lightened the eastern sky. The towers of Manhattan shivered in the waters of the bay.
“I…” Kafka began. Stopped.
Kafka sighed, a high and thin wheezing. “I am worried, Governor. This time they won’t try a ground assault. If what you’re hearing from Patchwork is true, then it’s going to be a long-range bombardment. The New Jersey is stationed suspiciously close to the bay. Governor, a Tomahawk cruise missile comes in low and fast, maybe 500 mph — how quickly can we detect it, and can we respond to the attack in the four or five seconds we might have? A Lance missile moves at Mach 3, much faster than a Tomahawk. They have missiles that can be fired from Apache helicopters; some of the jets can fire from as far away as three miles and put a missile straight down a chimney… You want me to go on? Governor, they don’t have to commit any troops to this assault — not this time, not if they don’t want to. They can just bang away until there’s nothing left here but rubble.”
Kafka left one thought dangling, but Bloat heard it … and you’re the prime target, Governor. We already know that. What the hell chance do we have if you’re gone? If you’re dead, there’s no Wall, no caves, no fairyland castle, no demons from Bosch. There’s nothing but a bunch of jokers with stolen weapons and the jumpers. It isn’t going to be enough. The thoughts from the joker guards weren’t much better. More than one of them was thinking of that fucking 800 number and of the jokers who’d left yesterday under the amnesty. He knew he had to do something — talk like this would lead to flash-fire rumors, and he couldn’t afford that.
Bloat shook his head at Kafka. “You are about the most pessimistic roach I’ve ever seen.” Kafka glared up at Bloat at that. “No man, I mean it. You must think that every cloud is the bottom of a shoe. Look, everything you said is true. Okay, fine, it’s all true. But look at what we’ve got. Modular Man’s here, Molly’s in place, Croyd’s likely to wake up any minute, Hardesty’s banged up but he can call up the Hunt tonight if we need them. We have the caves and the Wall and a lot of goddamn equipment. We have a lot of jumpers. We have Patchwork’s eye and ear in Zappa’s goddamn headquarters, so we stand a good chance of knowing in advance every move he’s going to make. There’s a lot of protesters out there right now walking the streets in J-town and making noise about how Bush’s “kinder, gentler nation” is just a crock of bloatblack. Manhattan’s practically a ghost town, from what we’ve heard. Put enough pressure on Congress and they might demand that Zappa and his people get pulled back out. Half the aces they asked to join refused, didn’t they? — maybe they’ll even show up on our side if things get ugly. Maybe this Wyungare fellow can actually do something. If the military’s targeting buildings the way they are, then I can change them — every day if I need to — so their targeting systems are fouled up. We have some radar, we have some jokers with useful powers. C’mon, Kafka. Think. Give me advice, not sob stories. If you were me, what else would you do?”
Bloat’s shoulders sagged back against the rubbery skin of his body. The long speech had made him more tired than before, but he could hear the difference in the mindvoices. Even Kafka stood up a little straighter under his carapace.
“I’m sorry, Governor,” he said. “I —”
Bloat waved a weary arm. “What else would you do?” he repeated. He plucked the answer from Kafka’s mind before Kafka could speak it. “If all it takes is a little foul weather…” Bloat said.
Bloat giggled and looked out from the transparent walls of the castle. The sun was just rising over the bay. Deep black, long shadows crawled like ebony fingers over the lower buildings of Manhattan while bright sun was glinting from the upper windows. The moat between the Wall and Ellis was dark and still, with wisps of dawn steam rising from the surface of the water. Untroubled by Bloat’s Wall, a gull glided in over the Manhattan Gate, swooped low over the wavelets, and plunged into the cold water. It came out with silver wriggling in its beak. The gull raised its head and swallowed the fish whole.
It all looked so damned peaceful…
“Get me a phone,” Bloat said. Kafka snapped his fingers; one of the Boschian mermen leapt atop his fish-steed and left the room, returning a moment later with a cordless receiver. The merman glided up to Bloat’s head; hovering, he held the phone out to the boy. Bloat took it in his stick-thin hands and nearly dropped it. He giggled, then slowly and deliberately punched the buttons. “… I … Give … Up,” he said aloud, then cleared his throat.
“Joker amnesty,” said the voice at the other end. “Who are you and where and when can we pick you up?”
“You couldn’t pick me up with a fucking derrick,” Bloat shrieked. “This is Governor Bloat. Listen. I got a message for your goddamn General Zappa. Tell him that I figure the whole problem is that you nats hate the sight of us out in the bay. Well hell, I can fix that. Tell him to go look out his window.”
Bloat disconnected in the middle of the spluttering from the other end and let go of the receiver. The merman flicked the reins of its fish and did a power dive, scooping up the receiver just before it hit the floor. Around the room, Bloat’s guards applauded.
Bloat paid no attention. He had his eyes shut, humming to himself and imagining…
He visualized each of the hundreds of gargoyles he had so carefully placed along the roofs of the Rox — those leering, obscene little creatures. Then he thought of fog, a pea soup that London would have been proud of, a mist that might have wreathed the macintosh of Sherlock Holmes, one that would set the lighthouses along the Maine coast to wailing mournfully to unseen ships. Images of old horror movies came to mind: the Ripper stalking the streets of Whitechapel, bursting through ropes of fog to attack an unsuspecting woman of the streets; Frankenstein trudging stiff-legged through a smoky Bavarian village; Castle Dracula blanketed in stuff so thick it looked like coils of soiled cotton. He thought of fog so dense you could cut it and slice it and serve it for dinner.
He thought of that fog belching from the open mouths of all the gargoyles on all the rooftops and all the towers in his domain.
Bloat imagined it. He opened the gates and let the power flow through. It was so much easier now; if nothing else, Wyungare had done that for him. Now he knew where the power came from. He could find the path quickly, could tap the energy anytime he wanted. Voices from the dreamworld screamed at him in outrage as thick streams of cloud vomited from above.
Bloat opened his eyes. He chuckled. All around the Crystal Castle, from everywhere in the Rox, the wreaths and tendrils fell and spread, like thick gray velvet being pulled over the sun and sky. In moments, there was nothing outside the transparent walls of the castle except wisps of dark sullen cloud.
“So much for my great view,” he said. “This is really gonna cut down the value of the property.”
He yawned. A feeling of exhaustion overwhelmed him. Bloat slept.

The basement lounge was full of old people.
The bodysnatcher did a quick count while they locked the doors behind him. He saw three faces he knew, still wearing their own flesh, and fourteen geezers. Seventeen total, eighteen counting him. They’d started out with twenty-two jumpers.
The youngest geezer was maybe sixty. The oldest looked like he’d been embalmed a decade ago. A few seemed pretty spry, but one old fuck struggled with his walker, and there were a couple in wheelchairs.
The bodysnatcher studied the room. No windows, only the one door. A pair of television monitors were mounted high on the walls at either end. Sprinklers dotted the ceiling. A folding table had been set up, supporting a steel coffee urn and a dozen boxes of assorted donuts. Most of the donuts were gone. Not that he cared. Caffeine and sugar were poison.
“Zelda.” A hand clutched at his arm.
The bodysnatcher pulled away. “Don’t touch me.” He looked down at a cripple in a wheelchair. She was an ancient, withered stick of a woman whose ghastly blond wig couldn’t conceal almost total baldness.
“You didn’t jump,” the dried-up old cunt in the chair said in a high, quavery voice. She sounded like she was going to cry.
The bodysnatcher recognized her. Something about the way she whined. “Suzy?” she asked.
Suzy Creamcheese bobbed her head up and down. Her wig almost fell off.
“She’ll love your tits,” the bodysnatcher said. “Did you tell her about the herpes? I hope she has a warranty.”
Suzy blinked vague, watery eyes. “What do you mean?” She clutched at the bodysnatcher’s sleeve. “Why are they doing this? When will we get our bodies back?”
The bodysnatcher didn’t waste his breath answering. Behind them, the door opened. Juggler was ushered inside the room. They heard the door lock behind him. Juggler was still wearing his own body. The bodysnatcher went up to him. “Maybe you’re not as stupid as I thought.”
Juggler had a look of dismay and confusion on his face as he saw all the geezers. “It was one-way glass, wasn’t it?”
“One-way glass, one-way jumps.”
Suzy Creamcheese began to cry.
Juggler said, “They promised us amnesty.” He took the leaflet out of his back pocket, unfolded it.
“I take it back. You are as stupid as I thought.” The bodysnatcher looked around. “We’re three short. Who’s missing?”
“Gyro Gearloose, Hari-Kari, and Mam’selle,” Monkey-face put in. She hadn’t jumped either. She looked just like what she was, a frightened sixteen-year-old girl.
The bodysnatcher thought about the missing jumpers. Then it all made sense. Mam’selle was French. She spoke four languages fluently. Hari-Kari was a twelve-year-old nip who understood electronics better than Kafka. Both had IQs up in the genius range. Neither one was going to give anybody any trouble. And Gyro was a congressman’s son.
“This is bullshit,” Juggler told the geezers. “No way they can keep you in those bodies.” He held up the leaflet, shook it for emphasis. “We got amnesty in writing. If we need to, we can jump the guards, the doctors… whoever we have to, until we get our own bodies back.”
“You see anybody here but us chickens?” the bodysnatcher asked him.
Juggler glared at him. The bodysnatcher could see him struggling to come up with a nasty reply.
They all heard the sound at the same moment.
The bodysnatcher glanced up. Gas was hissing out of the overhead sprinklers. Someone screamed.
“Not very fucking original,” the bodysnatcher said. Then it was show-time. He went to his light-form.
They were four floors deep. It took him half of forever to bum his way back to the surface, and he felt weak as water before he finally got there, dangerously low on energy. He reverted to human form and hid in the bushes just inside the electric fence, naked and shivering. It was his own fault. He never should have stopped to kill the shrink.
By the time the guards came out of the building, the bodysnatcher had rested long enough. He lasered out of there at light-speed.

It wasn’t until he was almost back at the junkyard, coming in low and fast through the fog, that Tom finally lost it. He tried to concentrate, but it was no use. The shell slid downward. He felt faint.
The shell plowed into the wall of junkers along the shore, crunched through them, slewed heavily to the right, and crashed. Tom was slammed forward violently by the impact. He must have blacked out. When he came to, the shell was canted at a sixty-degree angle, and he was suspended in his chair. He knew he’d have bruises across his chest where the seat harness had caught him.
Tom freed himself, dropped two feet to the floor. His hands fumbled as he punched the hatch controls. There was a hiss as the hatch unsealed. He crawled out into the night, left the shell half-buried in rust and iron, and limped back to the shack.
Inside it was dim and still. The severed head of the first Modular Man sat on the television, staring at him. The dead eyes seemed to follow him across the room. “Stop looking at me that way,” he told it.
Exhaustion weighed heavily on him. The dull throbbing behind his eyes wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. He had flown sixty miles up the Hudson before finally dropping Hartmann off at a hospital. Even that far upstate might not be safe. The trip home had been endless. He’d had to detour around the Rox to get to Bayonne, and the fog was getting so thick that he almost overflew the junkyard.
When he was running before the Hunt, there hadn’t been time to be afraid. But the fear had found him now. He could still see the jaws of the hellhound as it slammed up against his shell. He could feel the impact as the Huntsman’s spear punched through his battleship plate. Another foot to the side and…
Tom didn’t want to think about that.
He hadn’t dared look at the Brooklyn Bridge on the way back. When he closed his eyes, he saw them tumbling…
In almost twenty-seven years as an active ace, the Turtle had never killed anyone. Until now.
Maybe they weren’t real , Tom thought. The hounds didn’t bleed, he remembered. When they died, there were no bodies. They just vanished. Maybe it was the same with the horses and the hunters who rode them. Not people, just demons off the Rox, like the mermen and the knights on the flying fish.
Only Bloat’s demons couldn’t go beyond the Wall, and the Wild Hunt had ridden through deepest Flatbush. And he’d seen some of those jokers out at the peace conference. The antlered man had even spoken.
Tom buried his face in his hands. His head was pounding.
Was this what war was like?
He needed to talk to someone. But Joey was in North Carolina, Tachyon was on his way to another planet, and Barbara had cried at his funeral, years ago.
They hadn’t given him any choice, Tom told himself. The hounds were ripping men apart. Hartmann’s hand had looked like something pulled from a meat-grinder. At least he had been able to lead the Hunt away from Ebbets Field, maybe that had saved a few lives, maybe he’d helped protect Danny and the rest.
He went to the medicine chest, dry-swallowed four aspirin. Then he turned on the shower. He stood under the spray for a long time, soaped and scrubbed until his skin was raw. It didn’t make him feel any cleaner.

The Outcast was wrenched from dreams by the thundering of the Rox’s thoughts. He found himself standing in the Great Hall, under Liberty’s torch, below the slumbering Bloat.
Pulse — bodysnatcher — kept throwing images of Bloat at him: Bloat skewered, great gobbets of Bloat-meat cooked by Pulse’s laser. Bloat chopped and diced and dead. The Outcast rubbed the smooth facets of the amethyst on his staff, looking up at the sleeping, pimply face of Bloat far above them. He stroked the monstrous flanks of Bloat’s body affectionately.
Outside, there was nothing. Just the fog.
“They fucking offed all the jumpers,” Zelda raged, stalking up and down the lobby. The others in the room watched him, silent, though their head-voices shouted in the Outcast’s mind. “They played with them, tricked them into jumping some fucking old codgers, and then gassed them all. That’s the kind of goddamn amnesty they’re offering the Rox. Anyone else feel like calling that fucking number now?”
“We’ll contact the media and let them know what happened,” Dylan said. “Enough bad press and they’ll be forced to call off the assault.”
Zelda snorted. “Call the reporters in and Battle will parade out all the nice teenage bodies his friends are now in, and they’ll answer all the questions just the way they were briefed, and all the controversy turns into more propaganda against the nasty old Rox. It’s almost beautiful the way he set it up. He’s got the jumper bodies for the old folks, and the jumpers themselves are dead. One less threat. That fucking stupid Juggler.”
They were all a little frightened: Kafka, Shroud, Dylan, most of the rest. There were images: images of war that looked like they’d been pulled from old pictures from Korea or Vietnam, the most graphic images from Shroud, who had been in the Joker Brigades in Nam. Kafka had even scarier scenes in his head — missiles streaking over the Wall and into the fog, disappearing down the flues and spires of the fantasyland he’d made here, buildings exploding one after another and the jokers running screaming with blood-streaked bodies…
“We could just leave,” the penguin said. No one paid any attention.
“Kafka?” the Outcast said.
“I’m worried, Governor. I didn’t think…” Kafka shivered, sending a dull ringing through the vast crystalline hall. “They’re going to land on us with both feet. I don’t even know if we can rule out a tactical nuke at this point — a ‘clean’ weapon that could take out the Rox, delivered in one of a hundred ways. Maybe they’d even dare the outrage that would cause. They want us dead.”
Kafka’s words fell into brooding silence. Even the head-voices went still for a moment. Shroud was remembering Nam: a village still smoldering from a direct napalm hit, a buzzing cloud of black flies rising from distended bodies strewn like broken dolls across the open space between the huts.
“I will not let this happen to the Rox,” the Outcast declared. “I hear what you’re all thinking. I will not let that happen.”
“How you gonna stop it, Bloat — oh, excuse me, Outcast?” Zelda asked. “You gonna turn all the missiles into pretty little flowers like that trick you pulled last night with the jumpers? You gonna bring on enough demon armies to take out the whole frigging Marine Corps? C’mon, Bloat, can you think at transsonic speeds! — ’cause that’s how fast they’re gonna be comin’ in.”
“I can’t promise that there won’t be deaths here,” the Outcast said. “I ain’t stupid, bodysnatcher. Yes, jumpers are going to die; jokers are going to spill their blood on our soil.”
“Great. A bloody campaign speech,” Dylan muttered. The Outcast ignored him.
A hero could make them believe… He didn’t know where the voice came from, but the words lingered long after the voice had faded, and he realized that it was true. A touch, just a touch, of the Outcast’s power, of the dreamtime’s energy… His staff began to glow faintly. The purple radiance glimmered from the crystalline walls, touched the edges of the fog with color.
“All that happened the last time too. Yes, they’re going to throw everything they have at us this time. But I’m far, far stronger now. Then I couldn’t project myself out of that ugly body” — he pointed to the Bloat-mountain behind him — “then I didn’t have the power to transform the Rox, as I have since. We didn’t have the physical Wall, the fog, or anywhere near as many caverns. We didn’t have the Jersey shore or Liberty Island. We didn’t have the weaponry that the Twisted Fists have brought in, we didn’t have Modular Man, Pulse, Herne, or the Sleeper.”
“If he wakes up,” Shroud muttered.
No. When the Sleeper wakes,” the Outcast answered. "Croyd is stirring already, showing signs that soon he’ll rise and join us. We have power. We have more power than even we believe or understand or can use.”
The Outcast listened to the mindvoices and realized that his words were beginning to weave a kind of spell. Even Zelda was listening, and the angry doubt in Pulse’s mind was slowly dissolving under the tidal impact of his speech. The Outcast found the power, followed the thread of it back into the world of dreams, and widened the channel, so that the energy poured through like molten gold. The penguin had stopped skating around and between the others and was standing watching him. He clenched his staff tightly, and the amethyst arced and flared, holding all of those gathered before him in a globe of light.
“There’s no need for this dissension,” the Outcast told them, and each word seemed to explode from the air. “Our bickering is exactly what they want. I am telling you as your governor, as the creator of the Rox: We are stronger than they are. We have the power of my magic, we have the power of the wild card, and we have the power that comes from being right. What we do here in the next day or so will be heroic, and we will prevail. We will keep the Rox as a homeland for all oppressed people; we will grow despite everything they do against us.
They. Cannot. Win.”
The Outcast emphasized the last three words, slamming the end of his staff down on the tiles with each one, and with each, the staff sent out streamers of light that pierced the thick fog gathered around the castle, illuminating the roiling cloud with sapphire, ruby, and then coruscating emerald hues.
“Now go,” he spoke. “Go and get your people ready. I’ll be sending defensive plans to each of you in the next few hours. We’re going to hit everything we can before they use it against us. I need Pulse, bodysnatcher; I’ll need Modular Man too. I’ll have to have joker and jumper volunteers to go outside the Wall through the caverns. Kafka, send Wyungare to me as soon as you can, would you? We’re going to hit them first this time.”
They nodded. The spell slowly faded as the intense hues faded in the fog, but they remembered. One by one, they nodded to the Outcast and left the Crystal Castle. Even Zelda’s mind was cleansed of violent, sick images for a moment, and he shaped Pulse’s body into light and sped away like a lightning bolt. The Outcast smiled grimly.
“Not a bad little speech.” The Outcast glanced up at Bloat’s body. The penguin had somehow moved from the floor to the sleeping Bloat’s shoulder. “Jim Bowie to the troops at the Alamo, wasn’t it? Just wait until ol’ Santa Anna opens fire.”
The penguin cackled and skied away down the far side of Bloat.

Distant concussions battered the windows of the Rox. Kafka’s strike teams were hitting at Zappa’s supplies.
Modular Man, waiting for news in Patchwork’s high room, tried to stand out of the way of the crowd of jokers who’d shown up and ended up being shoved back behind the map-boards.
The big reel-to-reel rolled on, recording all for posterity.
“News coming in,” Patchwork said. “Somebody’s reporting jumpers hitting sentries at Prospect Park. The ammo dump at Clove Lakes has just gone up.”
“We can hear that,” said one of the jumper aides.
Patchwork’s chin lifted in the strange way that blind people had, as if she was trying to perceive the world with her chin.
“Just got another report. Somebody’s firing self-propelled grenades into the battery set up at Newark International.”
“That’s Giles Goat-Boy,” the joker said smugly. “Three jumpers on that team — nobody’s gonna stop ’em.”
“That got Zappa out of his office,” Patchwork said. There were cheers from the jokers. “He’s on the phone to… somebody named Ferguson?”
Jokers flipped through computer printout that listed military units and their officers. “I think this is him,” one said. “Colonel, U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, last stationed at Fort McPherson, Georgia…”
“Got another Ferguson here,” said another. “He’s a brigadier in the Marines.”
Hold it! Hold it!” Patchwork said. “We’ve got a request from something called Oscar Red to commence hostilities.”
“Oscar Red.” Kafka jabbed at a map. “That’s the rocket battery set up down at Ft. Lee on Sandy Hook. MLRS.”
“Zappa’s thinking about it,” Patchwork said.
There was a respectful silence. Kafka had impressed everyone with the capabilities of the Multiple-Launch Rocket System, capable of saturating an area the size of the Rox with no less than 8000 sub-munitions — nasty little exploding bombs — in less than a minute. The location of any MLRS unit was one datum that Kafka insisted be reported before anything else.
“Permission denied,” Patchwork reported. Her voice had taken on a slight Zappa inflection. “Our ammunition reserves are too depleted on the Jersey side to he certain of sustained action.”
There was a collective sigh of relief. A big joker bit the top off a can of Spam and began squeezing the contents into his mouth as if it were toothpaste.
“We don’t have anyone near that unit.” Kafka was still looking at the map. “Modular Man.” His eyes swung, in their chitinous sockets, to the android. “Zappa might change his mind. I want you to take that battery out. That one and the other MLRS unit we know about.”
“Very well,” Modular Man said.
There wasn’t much else he could say.

The PATH station on the Jersey side of the bay was deserted except for a squad of pokerfaced soldiers. No one wanted to go into Manhattan today, what with last night’s series of unexplained disasters.
One of the soldiers saluted as Ray approached. “Mr. Battle is waiting downstairs, sir.”
“We taking the subway to Ellis Island?” Ray asked. "I don’t know, sir,” the soldier said, deadpan.
Ray nodded and went down the stairs. The vacant subway platform struck Ray as vaguely creepy. There was something about the vast, echoing expanse of concrete overlooking a silent tunnel that made Ray feel like he was in some cheesy post-holocaust sci-fi flick where a mutant form of the wild card virus had killed everyone or turned them into vampires or something.
The platform was not entirely deserted, however. A single soldier stood at its edge, looking down the silent tunnel, ignoring the people clustered around the battered vending machines and neighboring concrete benches.
Battle was wearing Kevlar armor and full battle regalia, shadowed, as always, by his evil-smelling henchman. Cameo, also in Kevlar and with a backpack at her feet, was speaking very earnestly to him. He seemed to be impatiently ignoring her. A dejected-looking Jay Ackroyd was sitting with his gear piled around his feet, sipping vending-machine coffee from a plastic cup. Ray guessed that he had put the fear of God into the P.I. the day before. He didn’t know whether to be happy or sorry.
He started to go over to join the group, then stopped to stare at the final team member sitting by herself on the second concrete bench.
She had blond hair and blue eyes and skin that was tanned a deep, flawless bronze. Her black sleeveless T-shirt bared arms with muscles like bundled wires that bunched and coiled with her every move. Ray unconsciously licked his lips as he watched her buffing the stock of the gun she held in her lap.
“Nice rifle,” he said as he approached.
She looked up at him for the first time, regarded him closely with penetrating blue eyes. “You don’t know much about guns, do you?” she asked.
Ray shrugged, knowing that he’d fucked up again. “I know which end to point. I carry one,” he said, slapping the Ingram pistol holstered at his side, “but I never need it much.”
She nodded. “I know. You’re Billy Ray.” Ray grinned his crooked grin. She knew who he was. “I thought you were dead,” she added. “That Mackie Messer fellow sure messed you up in Atlanta. I saw it on TV.”
Ray’s smile froze in place, becoming more of a grimace. The girl didn’t seem to notice. She went back to polishing her gun, whatever the hell it was.
“Took a lot of guts, the way you kept coming after him, I mean, after he sliced off your fingers and the bottom part of your face and all.” She looked back up at him. “I see everything grew back.”
“Yeah,” Ray said.
She stood up gracefully, the muscles in her arms rippling as she moved. Her breasts were small, but their large nipples stood upright against the soft fabric of her black T-shirt.
“My name’s Danny. Danny Shepherd. This isn’t a rifle. It’s a shotgun.” She held it out for Ray to inspect. Ray took his eyes off her long enough to glance at it. Now that he looked closely at it, he could see it wasn’t an assault rifle. There were a few differences. It was longer than an M16, and its magazine box was also longer and wider. Overall it looked sleeker than an assault rifle.
“It’s a Smith & Wesson AS-3 automatic combat shotgun,” Danny explained. “It fires ammo cartridges with flechette, high explosive, and armor-piercing rounds. I didn’t have time for a lot of weapons training before this expedition. The armorer thought I’d be more likely to hit something with this than an automatic rifle. Pretty sexy, isn’t it?”
“Not as sexy as you,” Ray said.
She looked him over with a lazy smile. “Not many men like women with muscles.”
“I’m not like many men,” Ray said. “Maybe we could pump some iron together sometime.”
“Maybe.”
Slow down, Ray told himself. He nodded. “Sure. Anytime. When we get done with this little job.” He hesitated. She’d been in Battle’s book, but she’d looked different. Not as lean or as hard-edged as she looked in person.
“What’s your role on the team?” he asked.
“Communications.”
Ray frowned, but before he could question her further a curtain of blackness suddenly descended over them. Ray panicked for a moment, imagining scything hands coming out of the blackness to cut him to shreds, but then he realized what was happening as Battle called out, “All right, Black Shadow, you can cut the cheap theatrics.”
“I’ll cut the theatrics, Battle, when I see my pardon.” The voice was that of a black man. It was deep, vibrant, and cultured.
“Cautious, aren’t we?” Battle said dryly.
“I’ve got reason to be.”
“I suppose you do. Well, turn on some kind of light so I can find the damn thing.”
The darkness shrank, contracting until it became an inky bloat that coalesced into a tall, well-built man in a tight-fitting suit, black cape, and domino mask.
“Here it is,” Battle said, holding out a sheaf of papers to the vigilante.
Black Shadow took the papers from Battle, unfolded them, and quickly read them.
“Satisfactory?” Battle asked.
Shadow nodded.
“Signed by George Bush and everything,” Battle said with something of a smirk. He turned and looked at the others. “I suppose that everyone has heard about the events of last night, the attack on the command post at Ebbets Field, the attempted assassination of Senator Hartmann, the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge?”
Ray, like the others, nodded. It had been an eventful evening.
“The peace initiative has failed,” Battle said. If it was possible to be grim and happy at the same time, Battle managed. “The mutant-coddlers have left the field. Its up to us to clean out that nest of vipers on Ellis Island.” Battle now unquestioningly looked very, very happy. “It’s time to go kick mutant ass.”
Ray took a deep breath to calm his racing nerves. He was ready. And so, as best they could be, were the others.
It was time to party.

Von Herzenhagen was pontificating. “This creature, this Bloat, is twisting the fabric of reality. No one knows the limits of this power. The danger he poses is immeasurable, unthinkable. If he can transform the Rox, what happens when he turns his attention to Manhattan… or even the world?”
There was a huge helicopter in center field. The soldiers were loading it with corpses as the briefing began. Last night’s assault had left twenty-six dead. The body bags were laid out in orderly rows across the outfield grass.
Zappa stood near the center of the miniature Rox. The castle was as tall as he was. “We’ve seen Bloat’s reply to our peace offer.” The general used his map pointer to gesture at the bodies in the outfield. “I have twenty-six families to phone. Twenty-six grieving mothers to talk to. I’d choose combat any day.”
Tom looked at the body bags. Maybe he should offer to swap assignments. Zappa hadn’t seen the hellhounds. Tom would take the grieving mothers every time. But he said nothing.
“We’re going to soften them up first,” Vidkunssen said. “Air strikes, missiles, artillery. It won’t be as surgical as we’d hoped, so long as this fog lasts. Our optical guidance systems are useless in that soup, and it even seems to be fucking up our radar. But we can still get their attention.”
“Then we hand off to you,” Zappa said.
“About time,” Cyclone said.
“Yes!” yelled the Reflector, punching the air.
“No one expects you to conquer the entire Rox,” Zappa said. “All you have to do is break through the Wall, brush aside any defenders that may confront you, and proceed to the castle to deal with Bloat. We’ll do the rest.”
“Terminate his rule,” said Phillip Baron von Herzenhagen. He took his pipe out of his mouth. “With extreme prejudice.”
There was a long silence.
“I’M NOT A KILLER.” Tom’s words echoed off the grandstands.
Zappa nodded as if he understood. “No,” he said gently. “But last night you proved you were a soldier.” Tom fell quiet, weighing Zappa’s words. Maybe he was right. Somehow the thought made him feel a little better. If this was war…if he was a soldier.
“What about the jumpers?” Corporal Danny asked.
Von Herzenhagen fielded that one. “Twenty-two jumpers surrendered last night at the Jersey Gate. According to our best intelligence, that should leave no more than a hundred on the island, possibly as few as eighty or ninety. I don’t need to tell you how dangerous their power makes them. However.." He paused, flashed them a broad, chubby smile, and gestured happily with his pipe. “The jumpers can only switch bodies with those they can see. The Turtle in his shell and Detroit Steel in his armor ought to be proof against their power.
“Intelligence tells us that one jumper died when he tried to take the Oddity, and become trapped inside that creature’s multiple mind. Another girl jumped a polar bear. The bear turned into a bar of soap and the jumper died. That should give them second thoughts about jumping Elephant Girl, wouldn’t you say? And if one of them should attempt to jump Legion…”
I’ve still got six bodies to spare,” said the punk Danny in red leathers.
Tom sat up. “WHAT IF THEY GET ALL SIX OF HER?”
“There’s no risk of that,” General Zappa said.
“I’ve been assigned here to headquarters,” the pregnant Danny explained.
“And I’m being flown out to the New Jersey,” the yuppie version added. She was dressed in a jumpsuit and bulletproof vest today, but she still wore her Rolex.
That wasn’t enough for Tom. “SO SHE ONLY LOSES THREE OR FOUR BODIES. WHAT EFFECT WILL THAT HAVE?”
“I’ll risk it,” Danny said. The one with the baseball cap and the ponytail.
“DANNY, LISTEN TO ME,” Tom said urgently. “THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF YOU GET JUMPED. YOU’VE ONLY GOT ONE MIND. YOU COULD WIND UP WITH SOME MANIAC IN YOUR HEAD FOREVER. YOU COULD WIND UP INSANE. EVER HEAR OF BRAIN TRUST?”
Danny looked annoyed. All six of her. They frowned in an eerie unison. “I didn’t ask for a history lesson.”
Tom appealed to von Herzenhagen and Zappa. “THIS IS NUTS. SHE’S A KID. YOU THINK SIX GIRLS WITH GUNS ARE GOING TO MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE? SHE’LL GET IN THE WAY, WE’LL HAVE TO PROTECT HER”
You asshole!” three of the Dannys said in perfect chorus.
“Come on out of that iron cat-box and I’ll show you what six girls with guns can do,” Corporal Danny added in counterpoint.
Everybody started talking at once. Von Herzenhagen winced and raised his hand. “Please,” he said. “These factors have all been considered. Agreed, Legion adds little to the team’s offensive capability. Her primary function is communications.”
“I’LL GET YOU A GOOD DEAL ON SOME RADIOS,” Tom argued.
"Radio transmissions can be intercepted. Legion is the perfect communicator. Every one of her is instantaneously aware of what all the others are seeing, hearing, and experiencing.”
“Bloat’s a telepath,” Mistral pointed out. “He’ll know —”
“Nothing,” said von Herzenhagen. “Legion has frustrated our best government peeps. This isn’t ordinary telepathy. Legion cannot be jammed, cannot be scrambled, cannot be intercepted”
“SHE CAN BE KILLED,” Tom insisted.
Von Herzenhagen’s plump round face went cold. “The decision had been made,” he said flatly. He turned to Zappa. “General.”
Zappa lifted his pointer. “We’ll hit them simultaneously at three gates.” He pointed. “Here, here, and there. One Legion with each squad…”
Out in center field, the last of the body bags was being loaded into the waiting chopper. Tom watched them sling it aboard, then looked back at Danny, surrounded by her sisters.

Ray didn’t care for the smell of oil and machinery compounded by garbage and must that permeated the subway tunnel. Puckett’s presence wasn’t helping. Danny hung back once the group was well into the tunnel and said to Ray, “What’s with that guy dressed in black? He smells funny and he never says anything.”
“He’s dead,” Ray said. He felt it best not to elaborate.
Danny looked at him as if she were trying to decide if he was making fun of her, then shook her head and moved up next to Cameo.
They marched through darkness lit only by their flashlights, hiking down a curved section of tunnel that opened up onto an area illuminated by portable spotlights. A dozen soldiers moved in and out of the light beams like gigantic khaki-colored moths.
A sentry called out a challenge and Battle responded. He must have gotten the password right because they were waved forward.
“This the place?” Battle asked.
A soldier with captain’s bars nodded. “Our instruments indicate a corridor parallel with the subway tunnel right beyond that wall.” He pointed to a section of wall on which shaped gelignite charges clung like gray leeches.
“Blow it,” Battle said.
“Yes, sir.”
One of the soldiers shepherded them back down the tunnel. The explosion wasn’t nearly as impressive as Ray had imagined it would be. There was a muffled thunk, and that was it. They went back around the bend and saw that the spotlights trained on the wall were now illuminating a nearly circular hole about two feet off the ground and six feet or so in diameter. Half a dozen soldiers surrounded the hole, automatic weapons pointed at it, ready for just about anything to come charging through. The dust stirred up by the explosion was still settling. Everything else was quiet and calm. "Kill those lights,” Battle snapped at the captain. “Do you want every damned mutant on Ellis Island to know we’re coming?”
“No, sir.” He gestured, and the spots were turned off. The corridor was now eerily illuminated only by the flashlights carried by a few of the soldiers.
Battle nodded. “All right. Shadow, you’ve been here before. What can we expect?”
“Right off,” the ace answered, “fear.”
Battle frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Bloat’s got some kind of spell”
“Spell!” Battle scoffed.
“Call it what you want,” Shadow said defensively. “It’s like a watchdog. After a while, it knows you’re there. It goes into your mind and finds what you fear the most. Then it shows it to you — but only as images, as phantoms that have no physical presence. They can’t hurt you, but if you don’t know what’s coming they can scare the Jesus out of you.”
All right, Ray said to himself. Phantoms. Images. Buzz-saw hands that can’t hurt… I can deal with it.
Battle nodded. “Right. Here’s the marching order. Black Shadow, you go first. Ray, you follow Shadow. I shall bring up the rear with Legion, Popinjay, and Cameo. Crypt Kicker will cover our backs. All right?” Everyone nodded. “Then let’s go!”
Black Shadow nodded again and, darkness draping him like a cloak, stepped through the hole in the Wall that led to Bloat’s domain.

Shooter or shootee? The android didn’t want to make the choice.
Using the Army’s lost plastic explosives, hoping to destroy equipment and not people, Modular, Man succeeded in mining the third tracked MLRS vehicle before a sentry spotted him. There was a shout and shots. Modular Man accelerated straight up.
Below him, below the arcing tracer rounds trying to find him in the night sky, the first vehicle blew up. An instant later one of the missiles ignited and blasted loose from the launcher. It hadn’t received any computer guidance and went straight up, its rocket flaming, before beginning to corkscrew wildly across the night sky.
Another rocket flamed upward, took a wild yaw, dropped into the Atlantic, and detonated. Seawater, carried by the brisk offshore wind, spattered over the sand spit.
The second vehicle exploded and all the rockets went off at once, not firing, just blowing up. A wave of pressure and heat swept through the android’s sensory scans. Sub-munitions lofted high, thousands of them, and fell to earth.
From above it looked like many strings of firecrackers going off at once. Firecrackers that killed.
Sand blew high, masking the target. Beneath the cloud, things kept blowing up, the cascade of concussion obliterating the sound of screams.
Modular Man headed for the second battery he’d been told to eliminate.
He didn’t want to think about what that was going to be like.
The second missile battery had moved by the time Modular Man got to its location. Probably just a random shift, unconnected to the Rox’s preemptive strike, but lucky for the crew in any case.
The horrid memory of Sandy Hook floated through the android’s mind. He couldn’t think of any way he could have kept the casualties down.
He’d become a shooter without ever meaning to.
He didn’t spend much time searching for the battery. Instead he returned to the Rox.
Once there he found out his tasks weren’t over. One of the strike groups was pinned down in Grand Army Plaza, after having attempted an attack on an ammo dump and instead having walked into a Special Forces ambush.
The battle was garish and weird, fought in an environment illuminated by searchlights, flares, and twisting spirals of tear gas, and filled with joker bodies sprawled beneath old, green statues of Civil War heroes. The android managed to extract the remnants of the team, he hoped without killing anyone himself.
It was, he suspected, just a matter of time.
There were other missions on Modular Man’s agenda, first an attack on a division of Apache helicopters parked at Teterboro Airport. He blew them up without being seen, and without (he thought) any casualties among the crews, who were sleeping under tents off at the far edge of the field.
He blew up more helicopters at the Coast Guard heliport in Jamaica Bay, then was ordered into an attack on the missile battery again, in what Kafka thought was its new location in Great Kills Harbor. Instead Modular Man found Great Kills Park filled with the ballooning plastic tents of a field hospital. He thought of sub-munitions cascading down on the hospital as they had on Ft. Hancock.
He couldn’t find the missile battery. He was happy to leave the hospital alone.
By that time it was dawn. An aerial view of the Greater New York Area showed, on all points around the vast foggy murk expanding from the Rox, towering plumes of smoke from fires still burning.
He thought of the massive U.S. war machine he’d witnessed in combat against the Swarm. He measured the damage done by Governor Bloat’s strikes against the military that he knew could be brought to bear.
Almost zero. A company or two of helicopters wrecked — there were battalions more. A few dozen missiles destroyed — there were thousands in inventory. A few ammo dumps blown up — millions of shells remaining. Maybe a few hundred Americans had been killed.
There were 250 million more.

Modular Man dropped onto the Rox, reported to Travnicek, was told to make himself scarce. He went to the intelligence group, where Patchwork and Kafka were still gathering information. Kafka was as far away from everyone as he could get in the small room. Patchwork, seen even through the bandages, was completely exhausted.
“The brass are really pissed,” Patchwork reported. "Zappa’s delayed any action until the ammunition from Clove Lakes can be replaced.”
The jokers seemed pleased. “We’ve shown ’em,” someone said.
“He’s talking about something called ‘shoot-and-scoot’ tactics.”
Kafka saw Modular Man and scuttled closer to him. “That could be a problem,” he said. “The artillery batteries set up, fire a few rounds apiece, then pull out and set up somewhere else. That means we can’t preempt them, because we won’t know where they’re going to be. And we’ll have a hard time retaliating, because they’re running away before we can get a fix.”
“Not fast enough for Pulse and Modular Man,” said one joker. He was grinning hugely with three rows of pointed teeth. “Am I right?”
Eyes turned toward Modular Man. “You’re going to lose,” he said.
There was a long moment of silence. Patchwork lifted her chin toward Modular Man, as if once again sniffing for his presence.
“I’ll do what I can,” the android said. “We caught them by surprise last night — they weren’t expecting you to have so many of their units located. But they’ll get better. Your strike teams are going to get killed or go to ground or get arrested. There’s only one of me, and one of Pulse, and Pulse’s energy is limited — during the Swarm invasion he ended up in a near coma with a glucose feed in his arm because he’d burned himself out fighting. My energy is limited as well, and I can’t be everywhere, and in any case Snotman can beat both of us with one hand tied behind him.”
The others looked at Kafka. “We’re working out every contingency.” the roach said.
“Up to and including getting everyone killed? Because there are over a million soldiers under arms right now, and lots of wild cards out there who will fight for the government, and — how many do you have here? A few thousand, and you’re all concentrated on a very small target?”
We’ve got the fog, and the radar spoofers, and--” 
"How many million rounds of artillery ammunition do you have? How many rockets? How many fuel-air bombs? One fuel-air bomb could kill everyone here! That’s what Zappa told me, and he’s right. You can’t hide underground — a fuel-air bomb will suck the air right out of the caverns. Everyone below ground will asphyxiate, everyone in the open will bum to death. And if that doesn’t work there’s nerve gas, and even tactical nuclear weapons…"
“We’ve got Herne and the Wild Hunt,” one joker said.
“We can kill anyone…”
How well did that work with Hartmann?”

“Enough,” said Kafka. “We’re planning for everything.” But the other jokers in the room looked stricken.

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