A moment ago they’d been congratulating themselves on a battle won. Now Modular Man had told them their victory was meaningless.
The android pressed his advantage. “I think you should call that 800 number and work out the best deal you can.”
’We have our governor,” Kafka said. “He gave us the Rox, and he’ll keep us safe.” He looked at his staff. “I’ll prove it to you,” he said. “Come with me. To the Great Hall.”
The jokers began filing out.
“Hold on!” Patchwork clapped a hand to her missing ear as if trying to hear better. “There’s something going on!”
For a few seconds the big reel-to-reel was the only thing moving in the room.
“It’s that Katzenback guy,” Patchwork said. “He’s talking about security breaches. Wondering about how we knew where so much of their equipment was parked…”
“Hide your eye,” Kafka said.
“I am. I’m just hearing this.”
“Katzenback, Horace.” One of the jokers read from computer printout. “Former AID official, now college professor, assigned to Zappa’s staff with the rank of--”
“Will you shut up!” Patchwork said. There were overtones of panic in her voice. Her head moved back and forth as if aiming her ears at a sound source. “Vidkunssen is agreeing. He’s wondering about whether their communications are se cure. Maybe somebody’s broken their cipher.” She took a breath. “Good,” she said. “that’s”
Her head jerked up. It was clear that someone else was talking. “Oh, shit,” she said. “Katzenback’s talking about bugs. And Zappa’s come out of his office. He’s listening. He’s — he’s going to call the techs for a sweep.”
“Good,” Kafka said. “They won’t spot you that way. You don’t transmit on FM.”
“Shit!” Patchwork screamed. “Katzenback’s telling everyone to give a visual search first!”
“Get your stuff out of the way,” Kafka said.
“It is, it is.” She put her hands over her invisible eyes. “But it’s just lying there on the top shelf, behind a stack of folders. My eye can roll around, but the ear…” Her voice trailed away. “Oh, shit, I can hear them moving stuff around. Zappa’s telling everyone to be thorough.”
Modular Man stepped to her couch, sat by her, and took Patchwork’s hand. She clutched at him. “I’m going to be blind,” she muttered. “Blind, with half the U.S. shooting at me. Shit!” Terror filled her face. “They found me! Oh, fuck…”
“Run for it!” Kafka urged.
“Eyeball’s rolling!” Patchwork shouted. “I’m off the shelf and trying to get under a desk!”
The android’s olfactory sensors could scent her terror. She seized his hand in both of hers.
“They’re jumping around and yelling! Oh, fuck. I hope I don’t get stepped on!” Her voice rose to a shriek. “Jesus they’re moving the desk they’re moving the desk…”
Her body swayed in a circle, imitating the frantic rolling of her eye. “I’m getting covered in dust, I can’t see. I’m rolling — oh fuck they shut the door!”
She shuddered. Her face showed total defeat. “Everything just went dark. They dropped something on me. A wastebasket or something.” Rivers of sweat poured from under her bandages. “I can still hear, though. Something’s touching my ear!” She gave a little wail. “Somebody get in there and get me!”
“I’ll go,” Modular Man tried to make his voice soothing. "Just keep listening and looking, and find out where they put you. Then I’ll see if I can get you out.”
“They dropped me!” Patchwork gulped air. “They dropped my ear into a container or something. I can feel cold, like glass or metal.” She bit her lip. “They’re all gathering around the… around my eye. I’m trying to creep the ear out while they’re not looking but it’s not working — the container’s too slick. Daylight!” Her voice rose to a shriek. “I’m rolling — oh, shit!” Her free hand pounced the sofa. “They’ve got me! They’ve got their fucking fingers on me!”
Modular Man kept up his reassuring tone. “I’ll get you loose.”
Patchwork’s voice changed. She stared defiantly into an empty space where she assumed Kafka and the jokers were. “I want the other eye now! There’s nothing going on at Aces High for me to see. I never should’ve let you make me blind in the first place.”
“I’ll get it,” Modular Man said. “But let’s see what they’re doing with your other eye and ear first.”
“I’m in a jar. There’s slime all over everything and it’s hard to see.” A spasm of disgust shuddered across her face. “It’s a peanut butter jar! And there’s still peanut butter in it!”
“What can you see?”
“Not much. I’m looking through peanut butter smears. Everyone’s staring at me. They’re passing me from hand to hand.”
“Just wait.” Modular Man stroked Patchwork’s arm. “They’ll have to put you somewhere. And once we figure out where that is, I’ll go get your eye and ear for you.”
Zappa’s staff searched his room and office for at least ten minutes. Then they stood around staring at the peanut butter jar for another few minutes, conversing in low tones so that Patchwork couldn’t hear.
“Somebody picked me up.” Her voice had grown calmer by now. “I’m being carried out the door. I think it’s that Katzenback guy. He’s walking down a corridor. We’re outside of the stadium — I see a burned-out tank. We’re walking up to one of those jeep things —”
“He just jammed me under the passenger seat. I can’t see anything.
“I’m gone.” Modular Man didn’t bother to stand up; he just levitated up and started moving for the door. He paused in front of Kafka.
“You’ve just lost your edge,” he said. “From now on, jokers die.”
And then he was out and up into the fog-strewn sky.
The corridor was natural rock, unimproved by human hands. The floor of beaten dirt was strewn with stones the size of pebbles to small boulders and was nearly blocked in places by rock-falls from the roof and walls. Some of the falls looked recent, perhaps caused by the explosion that had given them access to the corridor.
Black Shadow was a three-dimensional ink spot, the darkness that was part of him soaking up the beams from their flashlights. “Which way?” he asked, his whisper echoing eerily off the tunnel’s ceiling and walls.
The corridor ran due north and south from the point they’d broken into. As far as Ray could see it was dead-dark in both directions. Neither could he hear anything. Battle, however, didn’t hesitate. “North. If we go any farther south we’ll miss Ellis Island when we turn east toward the bay.”
Black Shadow nodded and moved silently off into the darkness. Ray let him get ten or fifteen yards ahead before following. Shadow was good, Ray thought. You could hardly hear him moving in the darkness that was his natural element.
Shadow suddenly hissed. Ray stopped and held out a palm to signal the others. He crept up to join Black Shadow and found him standing in front of a door set into the east wall of the corridor. Shadow had turned off his personal darkness, satisfied with the natural blackness that surrounded them all.
“What is it?” Ray whispered. Something in the tunnel’s atmosphere made him automatically lower his voice as he pointed at the door and the face carved into the rock beside it. The door was made of wooden planks banded with iron strips. The stone face had a certain rough-hewn majesty to it, but underneath it all it was just the face of a teenage boy.
“Bloat,” Shadow and Ray said in unison.
They looked at each other and nodded.
“I’ll get the others,” Ray said.
They inspected the door carefully, trying to decide what to do. Battle finally nodded at Puckett. “Pull it out of its frame,” he told the ace. “Shepherd and Ray, cover him.”
Ray nodded, but said, “Maybe you try the handle first. It might not be locked.”
“Not locked?” Battle said.
Ray shrugged. “Who knows? Have you got this Bloat character totally figured out?”
“No,” Battle admitted reluctantly.
Puckett looked at him and he nodded. The ace tried the handle, and the door creaked slowly forward, Puckett standing unconcernedly in the center of the entrance.
Ray heard a sound over their heads like stone grating against stone, and shouted, “Look out!”
But it was too late. A trapdoor opened and something red and viscous flowed out, totally enveloping Puckett, splashing on Danny and also on Ackroyd. Ray dodged the deluge as he tackled Danny, but was too late to pull her totally out of the way. The liquid coated the front of her right leg from the knee to the ankle, and also splattered her left leg. After a moment of stunned silence a white envelope fluttered down out of the trapdoor and landed right on Puckett’s head. It stuck there in the thick liquid. Puckett turned to look at the others, holding his hands up and out in a gesture that bespoke of his bewilderment.
“What the hell —” Ray began. He reached down and gingerly touched the liquid running down Danny’s calf. He rubbed his fingertips together. “Paint,” he said. “Red paint.”
“Give me that envelope,” Battle said angrily.
Puckett reached up with paint-soaked fingers and carefully took it from the top of his head. He handed it to Battle, who tore it open impatiently.
“‘I could have killed you just now,’” Battle read aloud, “‘but I didn’t. Remember that. Next time it won’t be for fun.’” Battle looked up, outraged. “He’s playing with me. The fat bastard thinks he’s playing with me!”
Ray looked at Danny, his face inches from hers, her hard body half under his.
“I think you can let me up now,” she said.
Ray scrambled to his feet, giving her a hand up. She thanked him.
It had really begun now. The score was Bloat 1, Battle 0, even though no one had been hurt. But that didn’t matter to Battle. Ray could see that he was seething. He wanted Bloat’s ass, if Bloat had an ass.
Still, no matter how pissed he was, Ray noted that he was careful to set Black Shadow ahead on point, put Ray second, and station himself, covered by a paint-soaked Crypt Kicker, well to the rear.
Modular Man was halfway to Brooklyn before he was out of the fog. The stuff was enveloping the entire city. He banked high and came down on Ebbets Field out of the sun. He could see Katzenback in a moving humvee — it looked as if it was heading for the Verrazano Narrows Bridge approaches.
Modular Man dropped out of the sky like a fighter ace, tucked, came down feet-first, landed neatly in the passenger seat.
Katzenback gave a yelp and sideswiped a cab. The taxi driver howled obscenities in Arabic and slammed on the brakes.
“Sorry, Horace,” Modular Man said. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
Katzenback pulled over into a loading zone. He recovered quickly, though he was still a bit wild-eyed. “What do you want?”
“Peanut butter jar.”
“Heh heh.” Katzenback grinned nervously. “What peanut butter jar?” Modular Man groped under the seat and pulled it out. Katzenback shrugged. “At least I tried.”
The Syrian taxi driver stepped up to his door and began shrieking abuse.
“I want you to know this isn’t my idea,” Modular Man said. “I’m obeying orders, same as you.”
The taxi driver kept screaming. Modular Man, without result, gestured for him to be quiet. “I can’t say. But switching sides wasn’t my idea. Please tell General Zappa.”
“You got jumped? Look, if you got jumped and are back now, we can work something…”
“Later. I hope.”
Modular Man rose into the sky and sped north, toward Aces High.
Even that didn’t make the taxi driver shut up.
Warm air caressed Ray’s face as he moved into the narrow corridor behind the door. He stopped and put his hand against one of the walls. The rock was warm to the touch when it should have been cool. He didn’t like the feel of it. He didn’t like the way the air smelled. It was hot and sweaty and tasted like fear.
He wondered if this was the result of the spell that Black Shadow had warned them about. He glanced back at the rest of the team. Despite the poor lighting, he could see the strain on the others’ faces. Strained expressions wouldn’t be totally unexpected under the circumstances, but was it natural stress, or was Bloat playing with their minds? Black Shadow might know. He’d been through it before.
Ray hurried up the corridor, catching up to the man in black.
“Shadow,” he hissed in a stage whisper. “Wait up, dude.”
The ace stopped and turned, his face shielded by the darkness that enveloped him like a mother’s arms.
“That fear you told us about,” Ray asked. “Can you feel it now?”
The darkness shifted, as if Shadow were looking about. “Yes.” His voice was deep and unshaken. “There it comes.” A hand pointed out of the blackness, up-tunnel where two figures were approaching. They were young men, probably in their teens, and even in the dim light Ray could see crazed expressions on their ugly, manic faces. One had a garrote dangling from his hands, the other carried a large, shiny knife upraised and poised to strike.
“Christ,” Ray said, “they’re ugly fuckers. No wonder they spooked you.”
“You can see them?” Shadow asked. “Last time only I could —”
He was turning, but it was too late. The schitzed-out one with the knife struck, plunging the weapon into Black Shadow’s back above the right shoulder blade. The ace screamed in pain, anger, and surprise. The maniac crooned in pleasure and pulled his knife out of Shadow’s back. He raised it above his head again, eyes gleaming brighter than the knife blade.
Shadow pivoted off his right foot, falling backward, and kicked with his left, catching his assailant in the stomach, but the maniac just bounced off the tunnel wall and came back after him.
Ray jumped between the two. The crazy guy with the knife seemed fixated on Shadow as Ray grabbed his knife wrist and broke it. The maniac dropped his blade and focused on Ray for the first time. Ray wasn’t taking any chances with this supposed phantom. He crushed the nut’s windpipe with a knife-hand blow, then kicked out both his kneecaps while he stood there wheezing.
Ray turned as his opponent collapsed. Shadow was a puddle of blackness against the tunnel wall, leaking red. The knife must have cut something important, maybe a lung. There were shouts of consternation and surprise coming from the other team members, but they were all too far away to help as the second nutcase leaned over Shadow with his garrote stretched tight, looking for a neck to twist it around.
Ray surged forward, kicking the apparition between the legs from behind. It was gratifying to discover that even apparitions had balls. The specter screamed and collapsed forward, falling unto Black Shadow. Ray went after him, but recoiled from the wave of killing cold that blasted out from the impenetrable blackness that was Shadow and the crazy guy.
Ray motioned the others away as they ran up, then he cautiously reached out to test the air temperature around Shadow and the supposed apparition. It had warmed up to the bone-chilling range.
“Shadow, you all right?” Ray asked cautiously.
“Been better,” came a weak voice from the darkness. The black dissipated slowly like squid ink in water, to reveal Black Shadow and the flash-frozen corpse of the second assailant. “Think he got a lung.”
Ray knelt down beside him. “Take it easy. We’ll get you back.”
Battle loomed over them, looking more annoyed than concerned. I thought you said these things were only immaterial manifestations.” He kicked the frozen corpse that lay next to Black Shadow. “This one feels pretty real to me.”
Puckett squatted by the one whose throat Ray had crushed. “This one’s real too. But he’s dead as shit now.”
Black Shadow shook his head, then closed his eyes in pain. “They were only ghosts the first time I was here.”
“Bloat must be getting stronger,” Danny said.
“How come these phantoms — or whatever they are — aren’t attacking us?” Cameo asked.
“Takes a while,” Shadow said through gritted teeth, “before they zero in on you. I been here before. I guess they were ready for me.”
“Right,” Battle said crisply. He looked at Ackroyd. “Send Shadow back to the mouth of the tunnel. He’s no more use here.”
Ackroyd looked at Battle, then Black Shadow, and wet his lips with his tongue.
“Well?” Battle said. “We don’t have all day. Get popping, man.”
Ackroyd smiled apologetically and shrugged. “I can’t.”
“What?” Battle said. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m not Jay Ackroyd.”
Ray closed his eyes and rocked back on his heels. “Jesus Christ,” he said in a low voice.
Battle blustered wordlessly. “Are you serious?” he finally spluttered. “If you’re lying to me”
“I’m not,” the ersatz Ackroyd said in the same quiet, apologetic tone. “Jay Ackroyd has disappeared. I’m also a detective. I’ve been trying to figure out what happened to him. I’m an ace too. I can change my appearance,” he explained unnecessarily.
“Jesus Christ,” Ray repeated.
“Who the hell are you?” Battle barked.
The Ackroyd-imposter shrugged. “I don’t think you need to know that. You can call me Nemo.”
“Can you do anything besides change the look of your face, or are you totally useless?” Battle asked.
“Look, I didn’t want to come along on this thing. You made me.” Nemo looked thoughtful for a moment. “But maybe I can come up with something useful.”
He frowned, concentrating, then everything went black. All their flashlights went dark and the fear crawling around the back of Ray’s head turned to panic. Then the lights came back on, dimly at first, then brighter.
“Shit,” Ray said in a low voice.
Battle, for once, was speechless.
The Frankenstein Monster stood before them. “How’s this?” it asked in a growling rumble.
“Right,” Battle said, unconvinced. He turned his attention back to Black Shadow. “Well, there’s nothing we can do for you.”
“We can’t just leave him,” Danny said.
Battle looked at her coldly. “We can’t take him with us and we can’t spare anyone to escort him back to our lines.”
“You’re all heart, man,” Shadow mumbled. He made a move to sit up. “Don’t worry. I can make it on my own.”
Battle nodded crisply. “Good.”
Danny looked at Ray, who slowly shook his head. As much as he hated to admit it, Battle was right. They couldn’t afford to weaken the team any further by having someone nursemaid Black Shadow, and they couldn’t wait for someone to escort him back and then return. They had to move on through this area before their fears ate them away mentally or, worse, came to life and ate them up physically.
“At least,” Danny said, kneeling down by Shadow, “let’s bandage his wound.” She shrugged off her backpack, cracked it open, and rummaged through it for the first-aid kit.
Battle sighed. “All right, but hurry up.”
“’Preciate it,” Shadow said.
Ray, who had a certain amount of practical knowledge about field-dressing wounds, helped Danny, half the time glancing over his shoulder for a glimpse of his own personal ghosts of fear and failure to come haunting. He didn’t know what form they would take. He didn’t want to know. Hartmann, maybe, whom he’d failed in Atlanta. Or maybe Hartmann’s wife who’d fallen down a stairway and lost their child after Ray’s desperate lunge missed her as she’d stumbled. He made himself look at the ugly wound they were bandaging, forcing himself not to think of the things that scared him so he wouldn’t give them shape and substance. It was hard, very hard.
Danny helped a shaky Black Shadow to his feet. The ace’s face was almost white with pain and shock.
“Can you make it?” Ray asked quietly.
“I’ll make it,” the ace said.
“Good luck,” Ray told him. Danny echoed the sentiment while Battle, Puckett, Nemo, and Cameo looked on as Shadow stumbled off, leaning heavily against the tunnel wall.
“All right,” Battle said crisply. He beckoned Ray to his side. “Good luck,” Battle repeated with a snort. “He’ll need it all right. I suppose it’ll just make it easier for the soldiers to handle him, if he even makes it back to their lines.”
“What do you mean?” Ray asked in a low voice. “You sound like you expect them to arrest him or something.”
“I do,” Battle said with one of his bright little smiles. “Indeed I do. He’s a wanted criminal, after all.”
“What about his pardon? The one signed by Bush and all?”
Battle looked at him. “Signed by Bush? Really now? Do you know what George Bush’s signature looks like?”
“You mean it was a fake?” Ray hissed.
Battle shrugged blandly. “Black Shadow is a wanted criminal. And after all, what good was he to us here? He got himself hurt at the first sign of danger and then limped off. I don’t think he fulfilled his part of the bargain, do you?”
Ray clamped his mouth shut so tight that his misshapen jaw ached. Bastard, he thought. Dirty, lying bastard.
Battle nodded. “With Shadow gone and Ackroyd, that is, Nemo…” he gestured helplessly, “you’ll have to take point.” Battle looked around at the others, his face sharp with what Ray recognized as worry and fear. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” he said. “We don’t have all day.”
What fears, Ray wondered as he set off at the head of the team, were nipping at George Battle’s ass?
Modular Man found it easy to get Patchwork’s second eye. He kicked his way through the balcony door of Aces High, found the eye behind the potted plant where it had been hidden, and — while buzzing alarms punished the air — ran some clean water from the bar tap and washed all Patchwork’s various parts.
He tried to be gentle. He knew the eyes were watching him. They were brown, with little gold and green flecks. The ear had a gold stud in the lobe and two delicate gold rings on the upper flange.
The android hoped the ear didn’t mind the alarm buzzer overmuch.
The eyes and ear were sealed in a plastic container meant for maraschino cherries. From midtown it took longer than the android expected to return to the Rox. The fog had covered the southern tip of Manhattan, and the Rox was absolutely lost in it. He triangulated off the tall buildings surrounding the harbor, then dropped down until ramparts and battlements became visible.
It occurred to him that if he could accomplish that, sooner or later so would the military. It didn’t improve his state of mind.
Patchwork was alone in her room high in the keep, sitting patiently on the swan couch. The maps and stacks of printout had been moved, leaving only the couch and an empty desk.
“They’re moving the intelligence center somewhere safer,” Patchwork said. “It occurred to them that a bomb could drop right through the ceiling and--”
“It occurred to me as well.”
He took her hand and put the plastic container into it. Eagerly she tore away the lid. Her two gleaming brown eyes stared at her.
Patchwork handled her parts with far less care than had Modular Man. The android cringed mentally at the sight of the way she jammed her eyes back into place, then poked and prodded till they were comfortable.
Despite how they got there, the eyes looked very nice once they were back where they belonged.
The ear, which contained the organs of the middle and outer ear in a kind of twisted tube, had to be sort of screwed back into the side of Patchwork’s head, with little noises that sounded like two blocks of Styrofoam being rubbed together.
Patchwork took the beret off her head, rearranged her brown hair, and looked up at Modular Man.
“Very attractive,” he said.
“Jesus. You must be the blind one.”
“What would have happened if I hadn’t got them back?”
“The detached parts die after a week or so. Then they’ll grow back, but that takes weeks. Months sometimes.”
“You sound as if it’s happened before.”
She just gave him a look. Then she stood, reached behind the swan couch, and pulled up a heavy pack, an M16 rifle, and a new military-issue Kevlar helmet. She put the helmet on, shouldered the rifle, and grinned bravely.
She was far too young, too pale, too thin, to make a convincing soldier.
“Now that my special functions are over,” she said, “I’m just another damn grunt-on-the-ramparts.” She shrugged. “At least I don’t need help to go to the toilet anymore.”
“Where are you stationed?”
“The Iron Tower. That’s the one on the south side that’s sort of rust-colored.”
“Shall I walk there with you?” He took her pack.
“Don’t you have something else to do?”
He ordered his face to assume a rueful grin. “If I don’t know I have something to do, Pat, then I don’t have to do it.”
Patchwork assessed this, then nodded. “You’re an old soldier, all right.”
He followed her out onto the battlements. The fog was dark and cold and slicked the walkway with wet. Their footsteps echoed in the mist.
Modular Man looked at the crenellations atop the walls, put a hand on their damp, cold surface. “Does this seem like the work of an idealist to you?” he asked.
Patchwork considered. “I wouldn’t know. Guess I haven’t met many idealists.”
“The thing that keeps occurring to me is how much of all this benefits the governor. He’s deformed, and unhappy, and maybe eighteen years old, and he can’t move easily from place to place — so he gets himself an island where he can live. All his rhetoric is about freedom and independence and so forth, but get down to the bedrock, it all seems to benefit him, to serve his needs. He needs a place to stay, so he takes the Rox. He wants to be king of his own kingdom, so he builds this.” He slapped the wet stone. “If he had any sense, he would have built a geodesic dome of battleship plate. But it had to be a castle. Because he’s got some adolescent notion of what being a hero and a leader is, and it’s all tied up with--” Words failed him.
“Dungeons and Dragons , I guess,” Patchwork finished. “Or Tolkien. But I’ve never read that kind of stuff, so I don’t know.”
“I’ve not, either. But the Rox — somehow it doesn’t seem to me like a real castle. Why a mile-wide circular moat? Everyone on the outer Wall is out of support of the main structure — they’re all alone out there. It’s like an idea of a castle from someone who’s never actually seen one.”
“I wouldn’t know. I haven’t seen one either.”
“Bloat talks about giving people a refuge from oppression, but he let the jumpers in. The jumpers weren’t oppressed, they were criminals. But they were rich criminals, with access to things Bloat needed, and their presence here enhanced his power, so he let them in. And the jumpers have brought their victims with them, like Pulse, and he lets those in too.
“And now Bloat’s taking on the entire U.S. military. It’s not possible for him to win. It’s just not. But he’s going ahead with it, even though it doesn’t make any sense. And why” He searched for words carefully, found them. “Why does this suggest to me that the governor has a way out of here? That if he doesn’t win and become the king of New York Harbor, that there’ll still be a Bloat out there somewhere
Patchwork looked at him in surprise. “How?” she said. “Bloat’s here with the rest of us.”
“What seems to be characteristic of the governor is that he wants it both ways. He wants to be a noble idealist fighting for his freedom, and at the same time acquire money and power through the most vicious means. He wants to have slaves and be a freedom fighter. He wants us to feel sorry for the jokers but not think about the people the jumpers have killed. He wants to live in a castle and have fantasy servants but he doesn’t want to think about who the country under this domain actually belongs to. And he wants to be Bloat and the Outcast both.”
Patchwork stared at him. “The Outcast? You think--”
“The Outcast could put on a suit of normal clothes and walk right out at any time.”
“My impression is that the governor’s emanations can’t cross the Wall.”
“Maybe I’m wrong. I’m not reasoning from knowledge. I’m only saying that Bloat’s behavior would be consistent if he had some kind of escape hatch. Maybe it’s the Outcast, maybe not.” Patchwork thought about it. The Iron Tower loomed ahead.
Something flashed in the distant periphery of the android’s radio consciousness.
He picked up Patchwork in his arms and flew at top speed to the Iron Tower, then down the spiral stairs to the dank thick-walled room beneath.
The shells began landing a scant few seconds later.
It began as a whisper… Jesus, there’s something on the screen —
…shifted to a shout… Hey! Someone’s —
…and ended in a roaring conflagration. They’re firing! Oh, shit, they’re really…!
With the first tentative hint, the Outcast had slammed the end of his staff down on the tiles and disappeared in a gout of smoke. All over the Rox, from the thousand open throats of the gargoyles perched on every roof, came the ululating wall of alarm. The Outcast appeared in rapid succession to Travnicek and Modular Man, to Zelda in Pulse’s body. and to Kafka. To each of them, he had said only one word: “Showtime!” and was gone. He spent no more than ten seconds in doing that. Even so, the first barrage hit as he materialized on the Wall facing out into the bay.
Something brilliant and glowing white slashed through the fog several meters from the Outcast and then disappeared again. He heard it twice, once with the dull concussion as it slammed into earth behind him, then again in his head — in the mindvoices of the Rox.
The Outcast heard pain and loss and death. He heard wordless screaming and pleading; he glimpsed bloody images that he knew he could never again forget.
…omigodomigodomigod where’s my leg where is it why can’t I feel it please let it be there please oh please…
…Jesus so much blood it can’t be mine can’t be…
…Tom please Tom don’t be dead answer me love please get up oh God get up…
The Outcast screamed with them, raising his staff high. The crystal blazed like a nova. Reality shifted around him dizzily, everything slowing down. He opened the channels of power wide within Bloat, drawing at the power deeper than he had ever dared before. Dreamtime voices screamed at him in outrage, battering him with words of power. The blows were like the fists of a child against a parent. Teddy laughed at them; they annoyed, but they didn’t hurt.
Thief! they shouted. Fool! Idiot! Teddy giggled. “Fuck off,” he answered back and drew the power into him. What happened then was something new.
He was no longer Teddy or the Outcast or Bloat. He was, instead, everything that he had ever made here on the Rox. He was Crystal Castle and minaret towers, penguin and demon, underground caverns and Wall. The energy coursed within him and he was no longer a flesh-and-blood body living within the confines of the Rox. The Rox was him; there was no difference. Teddy could feel the incoming missiles like needle pricks in an immense skin, and he stretched forth fingers shaped of wild energy to pluck them out.
He could not catch the quicksilver things. Inside him, more jokers died.
Raging, he did with them what he’d done with Modular Man — interposed Boschian apparitions between the missiles and the Rox.
The missiles went through them like paper, their courses altered from the collisions but too little. Inside, more death and a burning conflagration.
Thief! Fool! Idiot! “Shut up!” he screamed at the voices of the dreams. “Shut up!”
Desperate now, he could think of only one thing to do. He snatched at the power, holding the sizzling, burning threads in the hands of his mind, and cast them to the sky. Where they struck the Wall of the world, sparking, he willed small openings to appear, ugly holes between the realities. He could not hold the gateway open long, could not enlarge them much at all.
But they were large enough. The incoming bombardment fell through. For an instant, in this slowed and distorted space-time he inhabited, he thought he saw the warheads and shells changing as they passed the boundaries of the dreamtime, becoming strange war-birds or immense blue lightnings or writhing monsters consumed in flame.
Then they were gone.
He was exhausted from the exertion. So tired. Other than the wordless cry of the gargoyles, there was a strange waiting silence over the Rox. A quiet everywhere…
The figure of the Outcast wavered, then solidified. Back in the dreamtime.
“Guess what?” said the Outcast.
“Even here in the dreamtime,” said Wyungare, “there may be no time for twenty questions.” The two men stood in the shadows of a bayou glade. Herons flapped and cried out behind them. Through the thick canopy, Wyungare sensed the flickering uncertainty of clouds rushing in ranks across the southern sky.
The Outcast’s heroic features frowned in what — for a moment — looked like a small boy’s grimace of displeasure. And for just a split second, Wyungare thought, perhaps fear. “All right,” he said patiently, regardless of the flash of impatience he felt. “What?”
The Outcast took a deep breath. “Peace is out,” he said. “So’s compromise. Sorry, healer-man.”
The Outcast started to explain about the reports of the jumper massacre back across the river.
“No,” said Wyungare. “that one I can figure out. Tell me why you’re sorry that the peaceful way seems impossible. Or was that mere politeness?”
The Outcast looked startled. He appeared to concentrate, gathering his thoughts.
Good, thought the Aborigine, finally an apparent brain activity.
“Okay,” the Outcast said. “I was being a smartass. I guess I’ve never really thought that anything else except combat’s going to settle this.”
The cries of the herons rose in intensity. Wyungare ignored them. “Perhaps you’re right. But battles can still be picked — or declined.”
The Outcast shook his head. “I don’t think so — not anymore. Up until now, I figured we could hold our own. I was strong enough. Now… it’s like a do-or-die thing, you know? They’re gonna kill us all if they can.”
Wyungare nodded. “It’s probably good that you’ve begun to register that harsh reality.” He smiled. “So tell me, what isn’t this like?”
“Isn’t?” The Outcast thought about that one for a long while. Finally he said hesitantly, “It isn’t a game anymore.”
“Good,” said Wyungare. “Extend that thought.”
The Outcast stared down at the water’s edge. Ripples formed as though rain were beginning to sprinkle onto the bayou. “Okay,” he said. “I know what you’re getting at. Life isn’t a game where things come about because of a roll of the dice.”
“You’ve got it,” said Wyungare. “What happens in your reality happens because you — and all around you — take hold of responsibilities. Virtue’s not going to work miracles. Luck’s just about as undependable. What you accomplish, you’ll achieve because you do it.”
“You’re sounding like my uncle from Maine,” said the Outcast.
“Sorry,” said Wyungare. “I don’t mean to sound like a sermonizing Yankee uncle.”
“I liked him.”
“Good,” said the Aborigine. “Then listen to his memory.”
“Listen,” said the Outcast. “There’s something else.”
Wyungare looked at him expectantly.
“I know it’s no game. I’m sending my friends out to die, some of them. Maybe all of them. It’s not like a videotape where I can rewind it.” His voice was sad. “I don’t want to think about that.”
Something whistled overhead like a banshee. Both men looked up. Blood burst across the sky in a spray of crimson droplets. As the dispersal sank in a rippling curtain toward the earth, the color muted to brown, then to a dirty black.
“Is that what I think it is?” said Wyungare. He had a feeling he knew already.
Something new burst. Bits of flesh, stinking of corruption, rained down. A third umbrella of light, then — excrement, brown and redolent, sank toward the swamp surrounding the two men.
The Outcast nodded. “I guess so. I didn’t know what they would do.”
“They can do much more,” said Wyungare. “But for now, ignore them.”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“It always does.” Wyungare shaded his eyes, staring up at the proliferating air bursts of translated missiles. He shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” said the Outcast. “I thought better they should come here than kill more of my people.” He hung his head.
“All right,” said Wyungare, “then let me give you something to distract you.” He reached over and passed his right hand across the Outcast’s eyes.
“I don’t think I’m going to like this,” said the Outcast glumly.
They stood in the dimly lit tiled hallway of a hospital. All in white, two nurses and a doctor bustled past them without a glance. The medical personnel pushed hurriedly through a pair of swinging wooden doors.
“What’s this?” said the Outcast. “I already know it’s a hospital.”
“Specifically it’s Atelier Community Hospital.” said Wyungare. “We’re in Jack’s province of the dreamtime, remember. Follow me.” He led the Outcast toward the swinging doors.
“Shouldn’t we stay out of there?” said the Outcast nervously.
“It’s the emergency room,” said Wyungare, “but we are effectively ghosts. Come along.” They passed a boy sitting miserably on the bench outside the double doors.
“It’s Jack,” said the Outcast.
“Stay close to me,” said Wyungare. The wooden door felt hot against his fingertips, as though the pores of the wood itself were sweating.
The young girl’s scream stopped the Outcast dead in his tracks. He halted just inside the emergency room’s doors and stared. Then he looked away. “What is this?” he said. “She’s so young.”
“Eleven,” agreed Wyungare. “Not even a teen and she is bearing a child herself.”
The girl lay with the sheet across her chest, one nurse holding her right hand tightly. Her sticklike legs were spread wide, and there was a dark tide of blood.
“Who is she?” said the Outcast, looking back at the girl, then glancing quickly away.
“Jack is her older brother, but not much older. Considering that their stepfather sired the child, I have no idea what that turns Jack’s relationship to her baby into.”
More piping screams from the soon-to-be mother ripped through their ears. The Outcast looked back toward the table and shook,
“Hemorrhage,” said Wyungare neutrally. “There are complications. She was beaten. This is a small hospital with a competent staff, but I’m afraid”
The wail from the table was echoed by the cry from out in the hallway. The boy’s sorrow continued. His sister’s did not.
“The baby is dead as well,” said Wyungare quietly. “Come.” He took the Outcast’s arm firmly and steered him toward the door. In the hail, they passed unnoticed by the boy. He looked suddenly as though he carried the weight of mountains on his back.
“What… happened?” said the Outcast.
“Before now? Simply the sort of family violence you know in your own fashion.”
“And what’s going to happen next?”
“Jack has no magic sword,” said Wyungare. “He will fight his demons inside himself. He will blame himself for the rest of his life, unless”
The Outcast looked over at the Aborigine with sudden hope. “Unless what?”
Wyungare stared back for a long moment. “Unless there is a gesture of healing.”
“Empathy,” said Wyungare. “Like to like.”
The Outcast stared, mute. The surface of his eyes glistened.
“Think about it,” said the shaman.
“Empathy … Think about it …” The echo of Wyungare’s voice drifted through Teddy’s thoughts, relentless.
“I don’t want to think about it,” Bloat wailed. “I don’t want to remember any of it. Stop making me.”
He suddenly realized that he was back in the throne room, that he was Bloat once more. It was difficult to keep his eyes open — a sapping weariness held him, made it nearly impossible to concentrate or move. Something was going on — jokers were scurrying across the mosaicked tiles of the floor like ants whose nest had been stirred with a stick. Kafka was directing traffic under the stained-glass central dome. The mindvoices of the Rox were yammering and shouting; Bloat was too exhausted to even try to sort them out.
Kafka had stopped waving his arms to glance up at Bloat. Under the carapace, his eyes glistened. “Governor?”
“I’m going back to sleep, Kafka,” Bloat said. “I don’t want to have to think about it, okay? I need… need to find the Outcast…” Bloat’s eyes closed, but he kept mumbling, not quiet sure what he was saying. “Don’t want to go back with Wyungare again… need to find something pleasant… something of mine…”
He realized that he wasn’t in the throne room anymore.
He fell into memory…
“I’ll… I’ll tell my dad,” Teddy said. “Really. He’ll do something about it.” Teddy didn’t know what his dad would really do. Actually, he couldn’t imagine his father doing anything, not really, especially not standing up to Uncle Alan, who looked like the brawny steelworker he was. Teddy’s father looked like, well, Teddy; soft, overweight, and not very brave.
Teddy just wished he were back home. He wished he’d never come to stay overnight with his cousin.
“No!” Rob half shrieked, half whispered in the warm darkness under the covers. His voice sounded like Jack’s. Teddy hoped desperately that his uncle and aunt didn’t hear them. “If you tell, then your dad’ll say somethin’ to mine, and he’ll just make it worse for me. So shut up, Teddy.”
“Rob —” The image came back to Teddy, the quick frightful glimpse of Rob’s tear-streaked face crushed against the bed, of his uncle… I should have said something but you never say anything to grownups. They can do whatever they want. That’s why I just went back downstairs to the porch and waited until I saw Uncle Alan come downstairs buckling his pants. I didn’t mean to see it. I didn’t want to see it.
“Just shut up, I said. There’s nothin’ you can do about it. Nothin’. Don’t your dad never hurt you?”
“Yeah, I guess. He’s spanked me before.”
“Well, what would your dad do if my dad told him to stop spankin’ you?”
Teddy knew the answer to that. His dad would give that stupid, nervous half laugh and say “Sure” because he wouldn’t want to fight, but it wouldn’t change anything. “Nothing much.”
“Yeah. Right.” Rob huddled in a fetal crouch under the covers, hugging himself. “So don’t you say nothin’, you hear? Never.”
Teddy heard. And he never said nothin’, even though he somehow knew he should and even though the guilt gnawed at him and even though it was awfully hard to joke with Uncle Alan the way he used to. He stopped asking to see Rob. He never asked Rob to spend the night with him, not after that night. After a few years, when Uncle Alan and Aunt Eileen and Rob moved away, Teddy even believed he’d forgotten the entire incident. Damn Wyungare. Damn him for making me remember. Damn him for expecting me to do something.
There was a continuous roar from the Jersey Gate. Things sounded pretty bad there.
But still the bombardment was not as effective as it might have been. Patchwork’s prediction of shoot-and-scoot tactics had been correct: each battery fired no more than five shots per barrel before shifting position. And the fire hadn’t been terribly accurate — the fog and the radar spoofing had diminished accuracy considerably.
Travnicek was on top of his tower, enjoying the show. Fog and spoofing didn’t seem to affect his perceptions much.
Modular Man stood with Travnicek. Waiting for orders.
The android’s radar detected more shells arcing toward the Rox, saw a discontinuity appear, a strange little gap in the world that gave off radio emissions rather than let them pass.
So far Bloat hadn’t been so busy that his abilities were in danger of being swamped.
Pulse zipped overhead, burning a few shells that the Outcast missed. So far the job hadn’t required a dangerous amount of energy.
But despite all efforts a few shells got through. The ramparts shook; battlements crumbled; a few people died or bled.
Still, no damage was critical. So far, despite the trickle of injured to the hospital tunnels, the Rox was perfectly secure.
Travnicek’s neck organs shifted, as if scenting a new breeze. “I think we’re being painted with a laser,” he said. “The fog’s diffusing it, but there’ll be missiles any second.”
His neck organs gave a little twitch, and then Travnicek flung himself on the floor. Modular Man thought that was a good idea and imitated it.
Hellfires shrieked overhead, slammed into battlements. The android could hear screams.
“More coming,” said Travnicek.
The air cracked as Pulse lasered through it. Missiles detonated in his wake. Several still hit the outer wall. A mortar bomb, unnoticed in the tension, dropped into the middle bailey and briefly turned the fog red.
“More coming,” said Travnicek.
The attackers turned out to be a flight of helicopters firing full loads of sixteen missiles each. One of the outer towers took a pair of missiles that punched through the stonework and sprayed white-hot superheated metal through the interior. Another three slammed harmlessly into the wall of the inner bailey, and one hit the Crystal Keep itself, turning one of the upper rooms into an inferno.
Travnicek rose, walked toward the hole in the floor. “Chubs and Pulse are getting tired. Life gets dangerous from this point on.” He turned to Modular Man. “Go to the slug. Find out what he wants and do it.”
It was all he could say.
Bloat was going to turn him into a shooter again.
The tunnel was hotter. Sweat ran down Ray’s forehead and into his eyes, making them sting. There was a distinct smell of sulfur to the musty-tasting air. Where the hell, Ray wondered, was the tunnel taking them?
He stopped in front of a huge open archway that looked like it’d been taken from some old church. It was backlit in dramatic fashion by a lurid, ruddy glow that cast flickering shadows on the leering gargoyles clinging to the niches within the archway’s elaborate fluting. Ray watched the carved stone figures for a long time before he was convinced that they were only carved stone figures, and even then moved quickly through the arch lest one of them suddenly pounce on him.
Clinging to the shadows, Ray found himself at the edge of a large platform jutting over an abyss that went way, way down like a knife wound in the flesh of the earth. Running in the wound was a river of molten lava, red and shining and damn hot. All around the side of the canyon was a stone ledge. It wound off north and south into darkness. It looked rather narrow and crumbly.
Running east, spanning the chasm, was a narrow stone bridge that arched high over the glowing river. There was a man standing in front of the bridge, wooden staff in hand. He was an old joker, with a seamed and wrinkled face and a wild mane of crazed white hair. He had two pairs of skinny, veined arms and he was wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed I SAW THE BIG BLOAT MOAT. Hanging over the T-shirt was a big, shiny gold medallion like the ones Wayne Newton wore in Vegas. Ray watched the old man closely. He didn’t move much, except to pick his nose and then wipe the booger on his tattered cloak. That convinced Ray that the geezer wasn’t one of Bloat’s apparitions. He was real.
Ray withdrew to where the others were hidden in shadow.
Battle looked at him impatiently. “He doesn’t appear to be much of a threat, but there’s no way to sneak up on him now that Black Shadow is gone and Ackroyd turned out to be an imposter.” He spared Nemo a bitter glance. “If he’s not a construct, then Bloat can detect us through his mind. It’s time for a diversion.” Battle turned to Danny. “Tell your sisters to go.”
“Go,” Danny whispered urgently. Somewhere off in the fog, a church bell was tolling the hour.
Tom pushed off with his mind. The shell lifted and slid silently out of the ferry slip where they’d lain concealed. Not that they needed much concealment. Not in this fog. The Staten Island Ferry could have been twenty feet in front of him, coming dead on. and Tom wouldn’t have had a clue.
The Turtle moved out low and fast, like a stone skimming across the waves. A bare foot below him rolled the cold green waters of New York Bay. On his rear screens, Battery Park and the ferry terminal vanished in the fog. Then his cameras showed nothing but the strange, cold, gray-green fog that had swallowed them… and Danny, stretched out on her stomach atop his shell.
She was still pissed. “Go” was the first word she’d spoken to him since they left Ebbets Field an hour ago. Nothing Tom said got past her icy silence.
Somewhere off in this too-dark morning, the rest of the assault force was moving in simultaneously. Back at Ebbets Field, Zappa or von Herzenhagen had given the order to the pregnant Danny, and her sisters had all whispered “Go.”
Punk Danny had whispered it to Detroit Steel and the Reflector, in Liberty Park over in Jersey. Now they were charging the Jersey Gate, while a detachment of heavy armor provided supporting fire.
Starlet Danny had whispered it to Mistral and Cyclone in the old fort on Governor’s Island, and watched their capes fill out like parachutes as they summoned the winds, and flew.
Corporal Danny had whispered it to the elephant perched atop the Stock Exchange. And Radha had leapt off the roof, flapped huge gray ears, and began to climb, spiraling up above the fog, above Bloat’s Wall of fear.
“Danny,” Tom said. The volume on his speakers was turned way down, but in the eerie silence of the fog the word rang.
“Not now,” Danny said, her voice soft but urgent. She had traded her baseball cap for a helmet and infrared goggles that made her look like some strange species of insect. The Army had welded brackets on top of the shell. A net of canvas webbing strapped Danny in place, for safety during violent maneuvering. But just in case, she was wearing a parachute. Her hands were tight around the stock of her M-16.
Tom sighed, turned. His screens were empty. There was nothing to see but Danny’s face. The wall of fog receded before them and closed in behind. It was like being in a small gray-green room. Without the water sliding by beneath them, even the sense of motion would be lost.
The Rox was out here somewhere. Tom checked the compass, consulted a harbor map. He veered off toward the southwest. “Hurry,” Danny urged him. “Steel and Snot just hit the Jersey Gate. They’re under fire.”
Tom pushed harder, driving silently into the fog.
“Radha’s still climbing,” Danny whispered. The elephant made a slow, cumbersome flyer, and they had to reach two thousand feet, to come in over Bloat’s Wall of fear. “Mistral and Cyc are circling, whipping up the tornado. C’mon.”
The fog seemed darker in front of them, as if hinting at some looming presence just out of sight. Then the gray-green curtain tore, and there it was.
The Wall rose out of the bay like some vast cliff, a massive construction of dark stone that towered a hundred feet above the waves. The fog took away all sense of scale; the Wall seemed immense, impregnable, endless. Up top, Tom knew, wary jokers waited behind well-oiled machine guns in the watchtowers and nightmares out of Bosch prowled the ramparts. But the top of the Wall was lost in fog now, the enemy as blind as they were.
Tom stayed low over the water, and followed the curve of the Wall toward the west. It would be easy enough for him to fly above it, but those weren’t the orders. The idea was for him to make as much commotion as possible at the North Gate, like Detroit Steel and Snotman were doing at the Jersey Gate, like Mistral and Cyclone would be doing when their tornado blew apart the East Wall. Meanwhile, Elephant Girl could reach the Rox undetected, and with luck Corporal Danny would put a rocket right down the throat of the big bloatface atop the golden dome.
“There,” Danny whispered urgently.
On Tom’s forward screens, the barbican took shape out of the fog. The gate was fifty feet high, deep-set in stone, heavy dark wood banded by black iron. He could see guards watching through the slit windows of the gatehouse.
He thought of a battering ram.
Except for the continuous booming at the Jersey Gate, quiet fell over the Rox. Bloat’s staff moved restlessly beneath his pulsing form. Miss Liberty’s torch hung over them all like the Sword of Damocles.
“The Jersey Gate’s getting pasted,” Kafka was reporting. “They’re taking serious casualties. The bastions are starting to crumble under shellfire, and I don’t know if the gatehouse will hold. If we don’t get someone there to knock out those tanks and rocket launchers…” He looked at Modular Man, and the android felt his heart sink.
“Lemme get my breath back,” Pulse said. “I’ll handle it.”
“Wait.” Bloat’s head jerked upright. “Something’s going on … all the gates are being attacked!” He spun toward Kafka. “Pulse to the Jersey Gate!” He pointed at Modular Man. “Something’s going on at the East Gate — I can’t tell what. Defend it!”
Modular Man’s response was inevitable. He glanced upward into the murk.
He’d been right. It was shooter time.
He had finally found the energy to become the Outcast once more when it began again.
Mental voices began shouting for the governor: there was an assault at the East Gate; at the Jersey Gate, Snotman and another ace like a gigantic robot were approaching; someone had spotted Elephant Girl through the tendrils of high drifting fog, climbing far above the Rox; now the Turtle was hitting the North Gate as well.
Teddy was suddenly reliving the tenor of a few months ago when the nats first assaulted the Rox, when he wasn’t sure of himself or his power. He remembered the fright and the feeling of utter helplessness. This was just like that; no … this was far worse. This time he knew his power and its limits, and he was very afraid that it wasn’t anywhere near enough for this.
“Oh, piss,” the Outcast said. It sounded very unwizardly and the words dissolved the link. Exhausted, he fell back into himself. Teddy felt dislocated, torn apart. He didn’t know if he was Teddy or Bloat or the Outcast. Governor!
The power was still there, but it was simply the old channel he had always used before, and he did with it what he’d always done. He called the demons up from his subconscious, had them strike the Jersey Gate in a massive suicidal wave to bury the aces there; he imagined the Manhattan Gate closing, closing, becoming a structure of thick steel and impregnable stone despite the horrible battering it was taking from the Turtle. He caused new fogs to belch from the gargoyles’ straining mouths. He let the lava river underneath the Rox surge with newfound force against any possible attack from that area.
Even that, which was too little for the Rox, was too much for him.
There were so many places to watch, so many locations under attack. Teddy felt schizophrenic, his attention scattered. A thousand mindvoices screamed at him.
The Outcast screamed back wordlessly, a paean of anguish. He rapped his staff against the flagons and left the ramparts.
There was a howling at the Brooklyn Gate. The fog twisted and roiled as if it were alive. Even the light seemed effected by whatever was going on — the darkness was pierced with strange flashes of green.
Modular Man followed the thin ribbon of causeway leading from the castle to the Brooklyn Gate. The radar image ahead was confused, giving him an impression of turbulence without any clear indication of what was causing it.
He knew he was approaching the gatehouse with its four round bastions, and he dropped his speed. He didn’t want to get into trouble before he had some idea of what the trouble was.
There was another brief green flash. Something boomed ahead, a sound like lightning.
The fog was torn apart. A buzz-saw roar filled the air, and Modular Man burned energy as wind gusts buffeted him. The air was a sickly green and filled with a furious, fine salt spray.
Two pillars of water hovered over the gatehouse, coiling and bending like snakes. Waterspouts. Lightning crackled around and through them. Spray and white water boiled over the ramparts. Bloat’s fish-knights circled furiously over the gatehouse, unable to cross the Wall to get at their attackers. No other defenders were visible, though some abandoned weapons were scattered on the battlements.
Above and far away, hovering in the air, were two bright figures.
Cyclone and Mistral. They were living up to Cyclone’s name.
One waterspout was nearer the gatehouse than the other, and seemed larger and more powerful. The other waterspout was thin by comparison and hovered uncertainly behind. Perhaps, the android reasoned, Mistral hadn’t had as much practice as her father.
The first waterspout screamed as it lurched over the gatehouse. Debris spun upward as one of the covered bastions imploded. Water spilled over the walls. Several of the fish-knights disappeared into the funnel or were flung into the water with backbreaking force. One of the giant carp flopped in the moat, apparently drowning in its own element.
Modular Man rose, his weapons tracking on the nearer figure. The radar image was confused but he had a decent optical track. His microwave laser pulsed. A line of steam lanced toward Cyclone as the fine sea spray vaporized in the ionized air.
Lightning flashed from the funnel. Modular Man felt air sizzle against his plastic flesh. He wondered if his laser had somehow triggered it.
The laser burst didn’t seem to affect Cyclone. Modular Man had fired a microwave laser — a maser, actually — tuned to one of the water frequencies. In the Columbia physics department they called it the “chicken band,” because it was used in microwave ovens.
All of the beam’s energy had gone into vaporizing the mist. Not enough had remained to impact on the target.
Modular Man was going to have to get closer. He rose, trying to stay inside the Wall till he was at Cyclone’s altitude.
One wall of the gatehouse crumbled. The gate itself had been reduced to kindling — foaming water surged right through the gatehouse tunnel. One joker ran madly on four centaur legs from the gatehouse onto the walls and was swept away. Cyclone began to dance through the sky, cape billowing. Clearly evasive action.
That jetting spear of steam, or maybe the impact of the remaining microwave energy on Cyclone’s armor, had given the android’s attack away.
The funnel cloud veered for Modular Man, howling like a chain saw and spitting debris. It was an awkward weapon. Energy surged from the android’s flux generators and he easily avoided the waterspout as he spiraled higher. He fired a short burst from the Browning just to distract Cyclone, but the bullets were torn away by the furious wind.
The funnel cloud seemed to lose energy; then a torrential wall of wind smashed into Modular Man from above. His flight path staggered downward. Saint Elmo’s fire played around his figure as energy surged through his generators. He fought the wind shear, reeled upward, then realized that there had to be a better way to do this.
He ceased struggling against the wind and, tumbling, allowed it to cast him downward. He flailed with hands and feet. He hoped he would look completely out of control. Trajectory calculations flashed through his macro-atomic mind. The gray surge of the moat spun nearer. Spray leapt up as the wind struck the water. The android called on his flux generators to sideslip him out of the grasp of the wind shear, then called on his full energies to stop his descent. Gravity tugged at him as his descent slowed. Spray filled the air. The android streamlined his weapons over his back and gave himself maximum lateral thrust. He shot out of the wind shear’s grasp like an orange pip squeezed between finger and thumb.
With any luck Cyclone thought he’d been smashed into the moat — the spray might have concealed his escape. Modular Man raced back into the fog bank, then sped north at wave-top height, following the curve of the outer curtain wall. Once he was thoroughly hidden in the fog, he rose, skimmed over the wall, and began a long ascending curve toward the Brooklyn shore.
He should be well behind Cyclone now. He shot straight up into sunlight, seeing the boiling fog below, the waterspouts dancing over the water, the ruined gatehouse. Cyclone and Mistral were facing away from him. He rose above Mistral in a curving are, calculations flashing through his mind.
He was in the perfect bounce position, above and behind the two aces. He was dropping out of the sun and their billowing cloaks prevented them from checking their six o’clock.
He couldn’t lose. Mistral was going to fall, then Cyclone.
This was going to be murder.
He reached the top of his arc, began to descend. Deployed the laser.
He didn’t have a choice.
He’d been ordered to defend the gate.
He couldn’t think of a way to do that without killing Cyclone and his daughter.
He remembered how he’d fought against the Swarm alongside Mistral, the way she’d hovered over the scenes of the worst disaster, her wind power tearing at the invaders.
He thought of what the microwave laser would do, stimulate the water content of Mistral’s body until her flesh exploded in a blast of steam.
He didn’t want to do this.
And then the rearmost of the two waterspouts, the one that hadn’t hit the Wall yet, lurched forward.
Heading straight for Cyclone.
There was a lengthy moment when Modular Man couldn’t comprehend what his sensory apparatus was telling him.
The funnel took Cyclone from behind and swallowed him. There was a brief impression of arms and legs spinning, of fragments of costume being torn away.
Modular Man hovered, undecided.
The funnel spat Cyclone out and began to disperse. Cyclone tumbled, his famous cloak in rags. His arms and legs fluttered in air.
Then a wind picked him up, buoyed him slightly, altered his trajectory. His arms and legs moved feebly, as if he was trying to move — or perhaps that was just the wind.
The wind increased in velocity. Cyclone began to tumble. He picked up speed very rapidly.
The wind smashed him against the outer curtain Wall of the Rox. Modular Man almost winced at the force of the impact. Cyclone slid off the Wall into the angry, wind-whipped sea. It swallowed him instantly.
The two waterspouts faded. The fog began to roll in again.
Mistral began to fly toward the Rox. Modular Man was still high and behind her, undetected.
Jumped, Modular Man thought.
Mistral penetrated Bloat’s Wall without hesitation and Bloat’s remaining fish-knights parted to allow her to pass.
Modular Man followed her all the way to where the governor waited.
The huge wooden gate grew stronger by the moment.
Inside the barbican, jokers were jeering at him through the slit windows. Tom ignored the taunts, summoned his telekinetic battering ram once more, and hit the gate again.
The crunch of impact echoed through the tog. On his screens, he saw the center of the gate give under the blow. The cracks in the wood widened visibly. Another dozen hits and he’d smash through… except…
The gate was healing itself. Tom watched it happen. Wood reached out to wood; the great, gaping cracks narrowed, faded, and were gone. He zoomed in tight, saw black iron veins creeping slowly through the grain, groping toward each other, thickening. Veins of metal deep in the wood.
“HE’S TURNING THE WHOLE THING TO IRON,” he told Danny through his speakers, his voice thick with frustration.
He heard the voices jeering down from fog-shrouded parapets above, glimpsed joker faces peering out through the slit windows. Someone tossed a Molotov cocktail down out of the fog, but the shell was too far back. He watched it arc out and hit a good ten yards shy. A fireball blossomed briefly on the water.
“The Jersey Gate is down,” Danny told him. “Detroit Steel’s inside the gatehouse. Snot took a direct hit with an armor-piercing shell. You ought to see him now. So are we going to the dance or what?”
A machine gun opened up somewhere above them, firing blindly through the fog. Danny swore and returned fire. Tom frowned, tightened his grip on the arms of his chair, and hit the gate again. The crash sounded more metallic than wooden this time. Again the gate gave a little, then held.
“Radha’s high enough,” Danny reported. “She’s moving in. The windy twins have a nice tornado going in the east, that ought to hold Bloat’s attention awhile.”
On screen, Tom watched random fire kick up the water of the bay. Another Molotov cocktail came spinning out from the gatehouse. The iron snakes were melting into each other, mating, becoming solid metal bars.
Shots went pinging off the steel plate.
“Shit!” Danny cried out in alarm. “Too damn close!”
“YOU ALL RIGHT?” Tom asked.
“For now,” she said. “How long you planning to park here? Not that I’m complaining, but one of us isn’t wrapped in armor plate, remember?”
Tom grimaced. He could smash the fucking gate. He knew it, even if the jokers inside did not. He could imagine what it would be like. It left a bad taste in his mouth. He twisted the volume of his speakers up to maximum. “LISTEN UP IN THERE. YOU GUYS IN THE GATEHOUSE. ANYONE UP ON THE WALLS. GET OUT OF THERE. NOW.”
Hoots and catcalls were all the reply he got. The gate was almost whole now, solid iron fifty feet high.
“That scared ’em,” Danny offered. “Good idea, they’re laughing too hard to shoot.”
“I MEAN IT,” the Turtle insisted. “YOU ASSHOLES WANT TO LIVE, GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE.”
“Look at the third-floor window, over on the right,” Danny said. “I think they’re trying to tell us something.”
Tom zoomed in on the window. One of the joker guards was mooning them. The window was very narrow. Fortunately, so was the joker’s ass. “Just hold that pose,” Danny said. She aimed and squeezed off a careful round. The joker in the window shrieked, and suddenly vanished.
“Good news and bad news from Jersey,” Danny told him, a little breathlessly. “The good news is, Pulse just showed up.”
“About time,” Tom said, relieved.
“The bad news is, he’s on their side. He’s fighting the Reflector. You ought to see it. It looks like Snot’s inside a cage of light, wrestling with a hundred glowing snakes. His clothes are on fire. I think he’s pissed.”
Tom sighed. All right, enough. “Hang on,” he told Danny. “I’M THROUGH PLAYING AROUND HERE,” he warned the defenders. “NO MORE KNOCK-KNOCK ON THE GATE. THIS TIME, I’M BRINGING IT DOWN.”
“Tell them you’ll huff and you’ll puff and you’ll blow their house down,” Danny suggested. “Or is that Cyclone’s department?”
It was all an adventure to her, Tom realized. Suddenly his anger flared. He turned down his speakers to a whisper so only Danny could hear. “What the hell do you think this is, a Rambo movie?” he barked at her angrily.
She looked down at his camera. “What are you so upset about?” She sounded puzzled.
“Those are people in there, and if I hit that wall as hard as I hit the bridge, they’re going to die. You ever seen anyone die? Ever killed anyone?”
“No.” Her voice was smaller, subdued.
“They don’t have any spare bodies,” he told her. Then he turned away, disgusted at his anger, at her, at the whole situation.
“Turtle,” she said softly. He looked back up at the overhead screen. The infrared goggles hid her eyes, but Tom could see that he’d hurt her. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
She was. Tom could see it in her face. “Me too,” he said gruffly, feeling awkward. He wrenched his attention back to the gatehouse, twisted his speakers back to full volume. “ALL RIGHT,” he announced. “NO MORE MISTER NICE GUY.”
He forgot about the battering ram.
He thought of a freight train.
He laid the tracks with his mind, straight across the water, running dead on into the gatehouse. Not at the gate. The gate was solid iron now. At the stone wall just to the right of it. He closed his eyes, summoned an invisible train twice as big as any real train had ever been, sent it hurtling forward. For a moment he could see it in his mind’s eyes, hear the iron thunder of its wheels against the rails, the doomsday wail of its steam whistle.
But it was all teke. The enemy couldn’t see a thing. The defenders were still jeering and hooting when the train crashed head-on against the base of the gatehouse.
The whole barbican shook with the force of the impact. The entire bottom half of the gatehouse collapsed inward. Huge stones came tumbling off the parapets to crash into the bay. Tom heard screaming. The immense iron gate still stood, but now there was nothing to anchor it on the right. Tom grabbed it with his mind and pulled. He heard the shriek of tortured metal. The gate resisted, twisted slowly, then gave all at once, ripping free of the stone in an explosion of dust and rubble. He flung it backward; it arced over the shell and splashed down in the waters of the hay behind them.
Through the huge gap he’d torn, Tom glimpsed deep water, a long stone causeway stretching back to the Rox.
But only for an instant.
Then the gatehouse fell in on itself, and a whole section of Bloat’s Wall came crashing down.
“Jesus Christ,” Danny said softly from atop the shell. Tom lifted the shell higher. It was raining stone and bodies. An immense chunk of masonry hit the bay and sent up a sheet of water twenty feet high.
Tom felt sick at heart. It was an effort to push the shell forward. Now the hard part… he had to punch through the second Wall, the invisible Wall, before the fear got hold of him and made him turn back. Maybe if he built up enough speed…
“Turtle,” Danny screaming in warning. Tom could hear the sudden fear in her voice. “Demons!”
He scanned his screens quickly, saw nothing. “Where? I don’t —”
Danny shook her head violently, jerked a thumb upward. “Not here. It’s Radha. She’s in trouble.”
Tom hesitated only a second, then pushed hard with his mind. The Turtle shot upward.
Ray frowned. “We still have to deal with the geezer without letting Bloat know we’re here.”
“Of course,” Battle said. He turned to Cameo. “Here’s where you start earning your pay.” Cameo nodded. She took her pack off and set it at her feet. She rummaged in it for a moment, then removed a small package that she unwrapped to retrieve Blockhead’s ring. She slipped it on the middle finger of her right hand. It was as simple as that.
She changed instantly. She drew up, backing away from the others. Her eyes grew large and tinged with fear. Her mouth clamped shut and she carried on a whispered, one-sided conversation with herself.
“What am I doing here? I don’t want — no. No, I said!” Her voice rose as she continued to speak aloud. It was her voice, yet it wasn’t. It had the same pitch, but the patterns and inflections were those of a dead man: Brian Boyd, a.k.a. Blockhead. It took a while, but Cameo finally managed to convince him to cooperate. “Okay, if you say so.”
“Blockhead?” Battle asked.
Cameo’s face stiffened into a frown. “I detest that name,” the ace said. “My name is Brian Boyd. You may call me Brian, or you may call me Boyd. But do not use that awful sobriquet again.”
“Fine,” Battle said. “How do you feel, Boyd?”
“How do I feel? Why, imagine”
“I can’t,” Battle said. “I mean, are your powers functioning?”
Boyd looked outraged, then calmed down as if he were listening to some soothing inner monologue. “All right,” he said to himself. “All right. Yes. Certainly.” He took a deep breath and shut his eyes. After a moment he nodded. “Yes. The mind shield is up.”
“Excellent. Ray, take the joker.”
Ray looked at Battle. “That’s not much of a plan. I could be in trouble if the geezer’s some kind of ace.”
“You’re paid to face danger,” Battle reminded him. “And Bloat doesn’t have many aces in his entourage. Not yet, anyway.” Battle fixed Cameo with his hard stare. “Make sure you maintain the mind shield over Ray and that joker.”
Cameo — or Boyd — nodded. Ray moved off into the shadow, and then simply stood and walked out onto the middle of the path leading to the bridge. The geezer had fallen asleep while leaning on his staff. He was snoring gently to himself. Ray, irritated, woke him up.
“Hey, Gramps, which way to Bloat?”
The guardian of the bridge snorted, started, then regarded Ray with a bright, old man’s stare. “To cross the bridge and enter Bloat’s domain,” he intoned in a low, cackling voice, “you must be prepared to answer the question perilous.”
Ray frowned. “All right,” he said in an uncertain voice.
The old man leaned forward and pointed with his staff. His voice was deep with authority and expectation as he intoned, “What’s your favorite color?”
Ray was struck not only by a sense of total bewilderment, but also of déjà vu. This all seemed somehow familiar to him.
“Uh, white,” he said.
“Wrong!” the old man cackled, showing his snaggled teeth in a wide, triumphant smile. Ray just stared back at him in bewilderment and the old man pulled himself up with a gruff frown. “Well, what do you want then?” he asked grumpily.
Ray shook his head, as if to clear it. “I told you. I, um, have to see Bloat.”
The old man sighed. “Half a mo’, then. Let me check in with the guvnor.” He fell silent, frowning in concentration. His frown deepened. “Something’s wrong. I can’t seem to contact him.” He reached down to his side and came up with a walkie-talkie that was hanging from a strap around his neck. “I’ll try with this.”
Ray lunged, grabbing it from the old man and pulling it away before he could make contact. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Ray said.
He turned and waved an arm vigorously over his head and the others arose from the shadows and joined them at the threshold of the bridge.
“It’s an invasion,” the old man yelped.
“Did he get through to Bloat?” Battle asked.
Ray shook his head. “The shield held. He was going to call someone on this” — he held up the walkie-talkie — “but I got it away from him in time.”
“Good work,” Battle said. He turned to the old man. “Which way to the tunnels leading to Ellis Island?” The old man drew himself up defiantly. “I’m not telling. And there’s no way you can make me.”
“You’re probably right,” Battle said. He looked at Puckett.
The ace lumbered forward, grabbed a fistful of the old man’s I SAW THE BIG BLOAT MOAT T-shirt, and yanked him up off his feet. He tossed him over the edge of the chasm, down screaming into the lava river below.
“Hey!” Danny said.
Battle turned his narrow gaze on her. “This is war, Corporal. Or do I have to remind you? We couldn’t leave him behind and let him alert Bloat and we couldn’t take him with us.”
“We could have knocked him out —”
“And taken the chance that he’d wake up at any time and betray us?” Battle shook his head. “I think not.”
“Let’s go, Corporal Shepherd,” Battle said coldly.
Ray stepped between them, facing Danny. He shook his head and she subsided when she saw the closed, set look on his face. “Not now,” he said quietly. He turned back to Battle. “I suppose you want me on point again?”
“Right you are, Agent Ray,” Battle said, cheerful again, a false twinkle in his cold, cold eyes.
“My ass,” Ray muttered to himself as he made his way carefully onto the naked rock span. He looked over the edge in the glowing, sputtering lava, and was glad that he wasn’t afraid of heights.
The Outcast materialized in Wyungare’s cell. First, a roaring, spitting fireball flared like an exploding sun on the back wall of the room, then the Outcast stepped through the aching white glare like a movie wizard.
“Great special effects, huh?” He grinned, and snapped his fingers. The nova shrunk to nothing and popped out of existence with a sound like a light bulb exploding. The Outcast brushed flecks of clinging radiance motes from his cloak to expire on the stone-flagged floor. “I always did love a good entrance.”
The Aborigine stared at him with wide, veined, coffee-brown eyes. The gaze was appraising, but whatever Wyungare was thinking was shut away behind the ebony shield of his mind. Wyungare said nothing. He just stared. The steady, critical gaze made the Outcast uncomfortable and the head-silence was perturbing. Suddenly it was very difficult to pretend nonchalance. Suddenly it was difficult to joke. His false humor fell from him like a cloak.
“You have to help me,” the Outcast admitted at last. His body sagged, the shoulders slumped and defeated.
“Mate, you look horrible.”
“I’m losing people out there.” A basso rumble shook dust from the ceilings and shivered the floor. A second concussion followed the first. “My head hurts. I’m being pulled apart.”
“I’m sorry.” Wyungare glanced up at the Outcast from the corner of his cell. His nut-brown skin was difficult to see in the gloom. All Teddy could see were the moist highlights of the eyes.
“You’re sorry? That’s it?”
“What do you want me to do? I don’t have your powers. That’s not how I can help you.”
Another explosion rumbled through the ground, vibrating underfoot. The Outcast heard a chorus of screams in his head, and he wanted to scream with them. Instead, he sobbed. The crying hit him hard — great, gulping gasps of it. He could no longer feel the staff in his hand, and through the tears he could no longer see the Outcast’s trim, muscular body. He was simply Teddy. Just Teddy. Just an overweight adolescent. “I’m wiped. I hurt and I’m tired and I can’t be tired. Not now. They’re screaming and dying and in pain and I can’t get rid of the voices.”
Wyungare had risen silently to his feet. Teddy felt the man’s hand on his shoulder, and then he was hugging Wyungare fiercely, clinging to him like a child to his father — no, for he’d never embraced his father in that way. Never.
Sniffing, Teddy pulled away. He wrapped the Outcast’s body back around him like a cloak as the noisy clamor of the Rox came back into his head. Kafka was calling him; the jumpers were in chaos; at the gates, the jokers were overmatched. “If you won’t help me, I have to go. I can’t stay.”
“You won’t let me help you.”
"When have you tried?”
“I’ve told you. You haven’t listened. You are the one with the power, why do you stay here and let them hurt you?”
“You and the penguin … Where am I supposed to go? Hawaii?”
“To the dreamtime. To the place that feeds you,” Wyungare answered.
Irritation flooded through Ted with that. “Yeah, great. Even if I could do that, then what have I accomplished? Damn it, this is our world too. Why should the nats be able to run us off just because we were unlucky enough to be infected by that damn virus? Why should we have to run away with our tails between our legs.” The image made him laugh sarcastically. “And some of us even have the tails to do that, don’t we? Listen, you can keep your damn advice, okay? I can beat these assholes. I don’t care if I have to pull every last fucking erg of energy from your precious dreamtime or break all the barriers between that world and this. I don’t care what leaks out or what happens. I’ll do it.”
“Always the hero,” Wyungare said softly.
“You’re damned right.” The Outcast took a deep breath. With it he pulled in power, feeling the energy course from the shadow world to Bloat’s body to him. With the power came the cacophony of the Rox — the pleading, the terror, the anger.
The sons of bitches — I’ll kill them! I’ll kill them all!
That fucking Snotman just tore the gates down…
Where the hell’s the governor? Where’s the demons? I need help…
“I have to leave,” the Outcast said. “Thanks for nothing.”
“You don’t have to be Bloat forever, you know. The way I see it, you have three choices.” Softly again. Quietly. The Outcast stared at him. “With the help of the others like me, you could sever the link. All of us together could do it. You could stay as you are right now — in that form, but without the power. You’d be a nat. Normal.”
The Outcast blinked. “Or… ?”
“Or we could move you fully into the dreamtime — the entire Rox. It would take all of us, each of us calling on the powers of our own portion of the dreamtime, but we could take the Rox and move it away from this shadow plane and take you to the source of your power.”
“Where you can deal with me on your terms? Where I can be handled? Where I wouldn’t be stealing power from your precious dreamtime — in either scenario: me as nat or me in the dreamtime?”
“All of that’s true,” Wyungare admitted. “And there’s another sacrifice to that. It’s going to take you, as well. You won’t be the Outcast in the dreamtime, or even Bloat.”
“What will I be?”
“You will be. That’s all.”
Teddy could read nothing in those mahogany eyes, nothing at all. He strained to hear Wyungare’s thoughts in the maelstrom of the Rox: silence.
“What’s the third alternative?”
“Don’t do anything. Stay here and let them bomb you to hell.”
Teddy snorted laughter. “I’ve already met one of your shamans; he tried to kill me. Why would Viracocha and the rest of your friends turn around and help me? The Rox and me seemed to be a threat to you just like I am to the nat world — why should I think you’re going to deal with me any differently?”
“Maybe you shouldn’t. I don’t come with guarantees, mate.”
“Then why the hell did you come?”
“I told you. Because the dreamtime brought me here.” Wyungare sighed and squatted down again in the corner of the cell. “We can give you the body you want at the cost of your power, or we can take you to safety in the dreamtime, or you can stay here and let them kill you — at which point you won’t hurt the dreamtime anymore. Make your choice.”
“Why are you telling me all this? Why now?”
“Every hero has to have a temptation.”
The Outcast laughed. “Fuck you. Fuck all of you shadow-walkers.” Another explosion rocked the caverns; the Outcast broke his gaze away from Wyungare. “I can’t waste any more time with you,” he said. “I have to go.”
The Outcast left in a gout of purple flame.
“The Jersey Gate is down,” the Outcast said. His face showed the strain of trying to comprehend the fight everywhere at once. “And the Turtle’s just smashed the North Gate. Molly” This to Mistral. “I need you there right now.”
Mistral/Molly nodded. Winds filled her cloak and she rose into the darkening mist.
There was a burning in the misty air. Pulse materialized, his face pale. He fell to one knee.
“We’re fucked,” he said.
“All my Bosch creatures have been killed,” the Outcast said. “I don’t know what’s happening out there. I can’t read the man who’s killing them.”
Pulse gasped in air. “I’ve been trying to burn the guy, but nothing works. He’s killing everyone. Blew up our tanks, wiped out the troops.” He waved an ineffective fist. “It’s just one man!”
The Outcast turned to Modular Man. “Get to the Jersey Gate. Try to retrieve the situation.”
The android turned to Pulse. “Who is it?”
He was afraid he already knew.
“I dunno, man,” Pulse gasped. “He’s young — brown hair, not even carrying a gun. We’ve been throwing everything at him and--”
“Snotman,” Modular Man said. Despair roiled through him.
“And a big robot.”
“The Army’s moving into Liberty Park,” the Outcast said. “I can feel the minds of their tank drivers. They’re going over the rubble of the gate. And a lot of men are following. The Wall’s not turning enough of them back.”
Modular Man turned to Bloat. “Surrender,” he said. “Now. While you can still cut a deal, possibly get an amnesty for some of your people.”
“I don’t believe I’m hearing this shit,” Pulse said. “I should burn your fucking tin head off.” The android turned to him.
“You’re our most powerful ace,” he said. “You couldn’t stop him. Every time you hit him, you just made him more powerful. Snotman absorbs energy! Then he fires it back. I barely escaped him in the past.”
“But you defeated him,” the Outcast said.
“It wasn’t me. It was a joker named Gravemold who was able to suck the energy out of him. And Gravemold isn’t here, is he?”
A wry smile twitched at the Outcast’s lips. “No. He was here, but he wasn’t on our side. And his name wasn’t Gravemold, he was —”
There was an explosion from the direction of the Jersey Gate. The Outcast’s head swiveled up. “We’ve got to stop him.”
“There’s got to be a way. Think.”
Modular Man did so. It was, after all, an order.
“Order your people to stop firing,” he said. “All you’re doing is feeding him energy.”
The Outcast gave the order. Kafka relayed it to the troops.
“I’m in Detroit Steel’s head,” the Outcast said. “I’m right behind Snotman. They’re jogging up the bridge. Maybe a third of the way across. They have a young woman with them, lagging behind. Her name is Danny, but I can’t read her. All the Dannys are too strong for me.”
Modular Man decided to ignore this enigmatic remark. “Have you still got enough energy to control matter inside the Wall?”
“Dematerialize part of the causeway ahead of them. That may slow them down.”
The Outcast closed his eyes, raised his staff, bit his lip with the effort. The amethyst glowed feebly.
He opened his eyes. “Done,” he said. “What now?”
“That was it,” Modular Man said. “That was my idea.”
The Outcast shrugged. “Well. At least you bought us some time till we think of something else.”
“I should consult my creator. Perhaps he’ll know what to do.”
Perhaps, the android thought, he’d know it was time to leave.
There was always a hope.
The corridor ended in another arched doorway. This one had Bloat’s head carved in the center of its lintel. Ray regarded the door suspiciously, but couldn’t detect any trapdoors in the ceiling or floor. No obvious ones, anyway. He stepped toward the doorway and stopped when the carved Bloat-head spoke.
“You’ve been warned,” it said in a voice too high-pitched to be stern. “Please. If you go back now you won’t be hurt.”
“Tell it to Black Shadow,” Ray snarled, but he had to admit that they’d been let off pretty light so far. This crazy underground maze could be a killing field. Instead, it seemed to be stocked with weirdos playing games. He took a deep breath and entered the chamber beyond the doorway, looked around, and stopped.
It was a goddamn underground fairy land. The chamber was lit by some kind of natural phosphorescence in half a dozen muted pastel shades of pink and green. It was at least fifty feet tall and more than twice as long. Its walls were multicolored flowstone. Huge stalactites bigger around than Ray could reach flowed down from the ceiling. The ones in the center of the chamber met their opposite numbers, equally impressive stalagmites, in solid masses of living rock. Interspersed around the giants hanging from the ceiling were hundreds of smaller stalactites, little rock icicles dangling like frozen rain on Christmas day. Bats wheeled around the formations near the ceiling, casting darting, silent shadows that were difficult to distinguish from the animals themselves.
Ray’s powerful flashlight cut through the shadows as he cast its beam carefully about the columnar rock formations sprouting from floor and ceiling. As far as he could tell there were no traps, nor were any of Bloat’s minions lurking in ambush. He turned back toward the party and waved them forward.
“It’s beautiful,” Danny said.
“Yes,” Battle replied, unimpressed. “It’s odd, though.” He reached out and touched a ribbon of flowstone. “These rock formations appear natural, but they would have needed thousands of years to form. These caverns haven’t even been here for months.”
“Bloat’s power” Ray began, and interrupted himself with a wordless shout.
He hurtled toward Danny, leapt, and swung out with his arm above her head. Flesh hit stone, and he absorbed the pain and minor bruising without even changing expression as he batted away the small stalactite so that it fell harmlessly to the floor. If he hadn’t blocked it, it would have hit Danny right on the head.
“That would have speared me for sure,” she said.
Ray felt himself smiling at her, then he whirled at Nemo’s startled cry. The Monster was pointing at the stalactite that Ray had knocked aside. For a moment it blurred as it lay there on the ground; then it shifted shape, changing into a naked, nasty-looking gray creature that seemed to be all teeth and claws.
Everyone watched, startled, as the creature leapt to its feet, snarled, and threw itself at Puckett. It fastened itself on Puckett’s leg and took a big bite.
The dead ace never changed expression. He just reached down and pulled the thing off his leg. It smoked from the acid he exuded from his palms as he twisted its ugly little head right off.
“What the hell” Battle said, then another stalactite fell from the ceiling and landed right by him. Within seconds it too turned into a twisted, gray gargoyle with slavering fangs and a nasty disposition. It leapt at Battle, who jumped backward, shouting for Puckett.
The ace was slow to react. The gargoyle would have had Battle if the agent hadn’t dodged behind a thick stalagmite. Danny put her shotgun to her hip and let loose a three-round blast and the gargoyle disappeared in a splatter of bloodless gray flesh.
“Look out!” Boyd called.
Ray glanced upward. It was raining the goddamn things. Stalactites were falling from the ceiling like icicles knocked off a roof edge by a bored kid. And when they hit the ground they all turned into the gray little creatures whose only purpose in life seemed to be to bite.
“Let’s get the hell out of here!” Ray shouted, and they all began to run.
Ray took a glancing blow to his shoulder that scoured off a patch of flesh. Puckett took a direct hit to the head, but it didn’t seem to bother him any. One of the advantages, Ray thought, of being dead. Battle and Danny also took a couple of glancing blows, but their Kevlar armor protected them from any serious damage.
The gargoyles the stalactites turned into, however, were something else indeed.
Within moments there were two score of the things, nipping and biting at their heels. Nemo, trying to run, tripped and fell, and half a dozen of the things swarmed him. Ray dived in, kicking and punching at the little bastards as fast as he could. Fortunately, they broke easily. Unfortunately, they could bite like pit-bulls, and as Ray found out when one fastened onto his right calf, their slobber burned like acid.
“Shit!” He pulled Nemo to his feet. “You okay?”
The Monster was bitten about the left arm and right thigh, but he nodded. Ray turned to face more of their tiny assailants, snarling, and drew the Ingram machine pistol he had holstered at his hip. He let go a long burst that cut the little creatures down like a scythe through a wheat field. Danny joined them, her automatic shotgun sweeping a clear swath through them, and they put themselves back to back, with Nemo towering above them in the middle.
Ray risked a glance at Boyd. She — or he — had been remarkably untouched so far. He wondered if being the center of the mind shield was protecting her from the little bastards.
“Make for the other side of the chamber,” Ray shouted above the blasting, echoing roars of gunfire. He — or she — nodded, and started off. Battle and Puckett had also gone back to back, Battle beating off the waves of attacking gargoyles with bursts from his assault rifle, Puckett using his hands to mangle them, his acid to burn them.
It seemed like hours but couldn’t have been more than a few minutes before they fought their way to the door at the end of the chamber and collapsed outside the room where the beasts were unwilling, or unable, to follow.
“All right!” Ray shouted. He was still jazzed from the fight and the adrenaline running through his system. He stopped and shook his fist at the group of slavering gargoyles crowded around the doorway, unable to pass through it. They immediately turned back to stone. “Ugly little bastards,” Ray sniffed.
Battle was breathing heavily. “Let’s tend our wounds,” he said, shrugging out of his pack and rummaging through it for his first-aid kit. He paused to snarl, “That fat freak bastard is going to pay for this.”
“Pay?” Danny said.
“Pay the ultimate price.” Battle glared at her, glared at everyone. “He’s dead, stinking meat, and he doesn’t even know it.”
“I thought we were supposed to capture him,” Danny said.
“And then do what with him?” Battle sneered. “Haul him off to jail? His fat carcass is too big for any cell. Plus he’s much too powerful to keep under lock and key. Look around yourself.” Battle gestured at the caverns. “How could we imprison a mind capable of doing all this?” He shook his head. “No. The freak has to die.”
As if to emphasize his point he rammed a fresh magazine into his assault rifle and stared at the team as if daring anyone to contradict him.
“All this ridiculous fighting isn’t as interesting as watching Bloat do things,” Travnicek said. “I’m damned near getting bored.” He was reclining on the fantastic winged-dragon couch that Bloat had provided for his bunker room.
Modular Man didn’t want to know. “Snotman is getting close,” he said.
“Snotman!” Travnicek sprang up from the couch, waved his arms, the cilia at the ends of his hands waving. The android was surprised by the vehemence of Travnicek’s reaction.
“He’s broken in at the Jersey Gate. He’s destroyed everything in his path, and I don’t think he can be stopped. Bloat’s too tired to do anything. Perhaps it’s time to leave.”
“Run from that little fuck? Never!” Agitated, Travnicek jumped up onto the ceiling and began pacing back and forth.
“Sir. I can’t stop him.”
“You know what that bastard did. He helped Typhoid Croyd try to assassinate me!”
‘But you didn’t die.” Modular Man spoke rapidly. “You evolved…” Carefully. “To this higher form.”
“No thanks to him,” Travnicek said. He seemed disinclined to follow Modular Man’s desperate logic and insincere flattery. He jabbed an arm at Modular Man, and the cilia writhed into a pointing-finger shape. “Dispose of Snotman. That’s an order.”
The android knew he was dead.
“How?” he said. “He’s immune to any form of attack I can launch.”
“Use your imagination.”
“I don’t have an imagination.”
“Hah. You got that right, toaster.” Travnicek paused. “He eats energy, right? So don’t give him any.”
“How do I fight him without —”
Travnicek, still on the ceiling, leaned closer to the android. His voice was harsh. “Are you a shooter or a shootee, toaster? A winner or loser? That’s what you gotta decide.’ He waved a hand. “Now go do your job.”
Modular Man turned about and left through the hatch, and Travnicek dogged it shut behind him.
He tried to think about running away. His programming wouldn’t let the thoughts progress very far.
He flew out of the tower, then began heading toward the Jersey Gate.
He swung wide of the causeway for the present, and swept over the gate, moving quickly so that no one would get off a shot. The gatehouse was rubble, with armored vehicles roaring as they climbed over the pile of stone and brick. The two fighting vehicles captured by the jokers were smoldering wrecks. The smell of burning flesh mingled with the smell of hot metal and rose into the sky over the gate.
Shootees lay scattered under the rubble, sprawled in little clumps through Liberty Park and under the treads of the vehicles. Soldier shootees lay outside in the street.
Modular Man, floating high in the fog, soared along the causeway. The military, sensibly, had declined to follow Snotman up the long, narrow causeway, designed as a death trap for advancing troops. Still keeping high in the fog, Modular Man moved along until he came to the fifty-foot gap in the causeway that Bloat had created. Snotman, Detroit Steel, and Danny Shepherd were standing uncertainly at the end of it.
Go home, the android mentally urged. Go back and get a boat and let me think.
Instead Detroit Steel turned toward Snotman and began hitting him. Strong piston-powered punches, hammer blows, vicious uppercuts, all rained on Snotman’s unaffected body. The young man remained motionless, not reacting in any way, absorbing energy.
The android tried to think of what to do. Rush down, push Snotman into the water?
Useless. He wouldn’t be pushed: he’d just suck the energy off the shove and shoot it back at him.
Snotman gave a signal, and Detroit Steel stopped hitting. Snotman bent and, as effortlessly as if he were picking up an inflated punching bag, lifted Detroit Steel from the ground.
The android stared.
Snotman held Detroit Steel over his head as if the armored giant were a medicine ball.
And threw him.
Detroit Steel arrowed through the fog like the heaviest, clumsiest flying ace in history. He landed with a clang in the middle of the roadway ten feet beyond the gap.
Detroit Steel had been providing Snotman’s energy. The two were now apart.
Modular Man took instant advantage.
He dove on Detroit Steel, both weapons firing, before the giant could rise to his feet. A blizzard of sparks flew from Detroit Steel’s armor as bullets and the maser struck home. The android kept his attention on Snotman and calculated the ace’s response — when the timing seemed right Modular Man added lateral power and commenced evasive maneuvers. Bolts of energy sizzled close to him.
The android arced up into the fog, swept around to a new quarter, descended on Detroit Steel again. The giant had risen to one knee. Bullets flailed the roadway around him, precise bursts of microwave energy scorched the reflective armor. Snotman fired another blast, failed to hit his fast-moving target.
Snotman was powerful, but he was firing by eye, without any advanced targeting systems.
Shooter or shootee, the android thought.
He rose up, rolled, came again. His fire hammered Detroit Steel to the ground. Some part of the giant exploded in a burst of vaporized hydraulic fluid.
Snotman didn’t bother to fire; instead he trotted back a distance down the causeway, sprinted to the gap, and flung himself across.
His aim wasn’t as good this time: he dropped too fast and slammed into a bridge abutment beneath the broken causeway. He dug fingers into the stonework, the gray rock crumbling away under his energy-charged fingers, then began hauling himself up to the causeway.
Danny Shepherd was left behind, on the wrong side of the gap.
During that time the android continued a rain of fire on Detroit Steel. Danny tried a few shots with her rifle, but Modular Man easily evaded them.
When Snotman’s head appeared above the edge of the broken causeway, Modular Man rose into the air and disappeared.
He hadn’t hurt Snotman at all. Even trying to hurt him would be a bad idea.
The last time they had met, Modular Man fought him with the exact same tactics, ignoring Snotman as much as possible and concentrating his attack on Croyd. But at that time Mr. Gravemold had been available to fight Snotman, and with a power that was effective against Snotman’s ability to absorb and convert energy.
Somehow Modular Man was going to have to come up with an equivalent of Mr. Gravemold. He was going to have to stop Snotman nonviolently.
He pictured joker commandos rushing Snotman and smothering him in a pile of mattresses. The picture did not convince.
Smothering wasn’t a bad idea, though. Especially when you considered that the alternative was to become a shootee.
The Turtle came hurtling up out of the fog, and almost ran into the flying elephant.
The green steel curve of his shell broke the surface of Bloat’s pea soup like a submarine breaking surface, and Elephant Girl was careening down at him, gray ears flapping wildly. She loomed up like an oncoming bus in his forward screens, and Tom had to bank the shell hard to avoid the collision. Up on top, he heard Danny yelp, but the safety net held her securely in place. The elephant vanished into the fog below him.
The demons were hot on Radha’s tail.
There must have twenty of them. Tom didn’t have the time to count. A dozen armored mermen rode on giant carp, the tips of their swordfish lances red with blood. Other monstrosities out of Bosch flew with them: a toad with long clawed legs, a cat-demon, a thing half dinosaur and half unicorn, a naked featherless bird. They cried out to each other in high, thin, inhuman voices.
They’re not real, Tom told himself. They’re not human. It made all the difference.
He thought of a hand, reached out, grabbed the foremost merman, and squeezed. The creature seemed to implode. Scales, fish guts, and black ichor oozed between Tom’s imaginary fingers. Green fire flared, and suddenly the thing was gone, as if it had never been. He grabbed another.
Danny was firing. Torn heard the steady chatter of her M-16, saw the head of the cat-demon explode. But there were too damn many of the things, closing in from all sides now. Tom felt panic stirring in his guts.
Then Elephant Girl burst up out of the sea of fog, right among the demons.
A lance was embedded in her throat, and blood ran sluggishly from a dozen deep slashes in her thick gray skin. The wounds just seemed to make her mad. On her back, Corporal Danny blazed away freely with a side arm.
Radha crashed through the charging mermen. A toss of her head sent a tusk right through the featherless bird. Her charge unseated two fish-knights. As they fell, she lifted her trunk and trumpeted her rage.
The toad-man leapt off his carp onto the elephant’s head, but no sooner did he land than Radha had him with her trunk. She flung him down into the fog, and Tom heard his high, shrill scream for long seconds after he was lost to sight.
After that, he was too busy with his own demons to pay attention. They came to him from all sides, but inside his shell he was untouchable. He crushed them with his teke, knocked them off their fish, ripped them in half. It was the Swarm War all over again. Their lances shattered harmlessly against his armor; their necks snapped like twigs between his invisible fingers.