It was over in seconds. All of a sudden they were alone in the morning sky, the fog churning restlessly beneath them. He hovered, breathing hard. His hands were shaking. Elephant Girl circled the shell, huge ears flapping slowly. Corporal Danny was bent over, holding her shoulder, but Tom couldn’t see a wound. He glanced at the overhead screen, at his own Danny.
Her face was drawn and tight, one hand grasping her shoulder. Blood trickled out between her fingers. She forced a pained smile. “Lanced by a fish,” she said. “How humiliating.”
“I’m taking you back,” Tom announced. “Tell Radha to follow us in.”
Danny nodded, biting her lip against the pain.
Elephant Girl came around, heading north.
“Leaving so soon?” a woman’s voice shouted down from above them. “The party’s just started.”
Startled, Tom pushed his chair around in a hard circle, scanning screens, looking for a new enemy.
She was directly overhead, blue and white against the sky, her cape rippling with the wind. Relief swept over him. He turned his speakers up, zoomed in. “MISTRAL,” he called out.
She smiled. “Guess again,” she called lightly.
The wind hit the shell like a giant’s fist.
Ray took a deep breath at the threshold of the next chamber and paused, more in annoyance than anything else. He was getting tired of this shit. He waited, listening, and from faintly inside the room he heard odd little noises, the tinkle of metal scraping across metal, like he had never heard before.
Fuck it, he thought, and went in.
He glanced at the stalactites hanging from the ceiling, but they seemed inclined to stay in place. He moved forward, using the columnar masses of stalagmites surging up from the floor as cover. Tongues of flame were dancing in a cleared area in the center of the room, casting shifting patterns of shadow upon the rock formations and the men sitting in a circle around the campfire.
The sounds of metal tinkling against metal came from their chain-mail armor and the clashing of their curved, scabbarded swords.
Why the hell, Ray thought, did Bloat arm his guards with medieval shit? These men should have real weapons.
And then one of them stood and turned toward Ray and the ace saw their faces for the first time, and he realized that they weren’t men.
They were short, but also rather top-heavy through the chest and shoulders with a weird, stooped-over posture. Their limbs were muscular and gnarly and their faces all looked like they’d just come from an ugly convention. All had the same design worked into the front of their jerkins, a big, lidless, reddish eye.
One of them saw Ray and approached slowly with an awkward rolling gait that reminded Ray a little of Crypt Kicker. Ray watched, unconcernedly, as the thing got closer. After all, it only had a sword while he had a holstered Ingram. If he needed anything more than his hands.
The thing had no expression as it approached. It stopped half a dozen feet from Ray and asked in passably good English, “Do you have the medallion?”
“The keeper of the bridge,” the thing explained patiently. “Did he give to you the medallion of safe passage?”
Ray suddenly remembered the big golden thing the old guy at the bridge had worn over his T-shirt. The medallion of safe passage. Shit.
“No,” Ray said. “He had to take a little trip.”
“Then die,” the creature said without emotion, drawing his sword.
“Screw you,” Ray replied. There was no sense messing around with these assholes. He drew the Ingram before the poor fuck had a chance to take a step forward and unzipped him with a short burst that punched through the chain mail covering his chest like a can opener going through the lid of a beer can.
The thing was thrown backward by the impact of the slugs. For a moment he just lay there, and then he was gone. He rotted before Ray’s eyes, decades of decomposition passing in seconds. For a brief, mercifully short moment there was the unbearable odor of putrid flesh, then that was gone too, and there was just a skeleton in a shot-up suit of armor that promptly stood up on its bony feet and came clanking at Ray, sword raised high.
“Christ,” Ray said as the skeleton swung its sword.
Ray blocked the stroke and smashed the skeleton’s sword arm. Arm and sword both clattered to the ground. By then the other guards were all around Ray and he had no time to watch the arm flop around on the floor like a fish out of water, swinging the sword wildly and blindly as it tried to inch closer to Ray.
There were a few desperate seconds. Ray was outnumbered seventeen to one, but not all of the guards could get at him at once and he was a lot quicker and stronger than any of the medieval dicks trying to bash him.
He took a sword cut across the ribs, but by that time he’d put three of his attackers on the ground. Then came the welcoming sound of gunfire at his back and he knew that the rest of the team had joined the attack.
The pig-faced guards were blown apart by the explosive bursts of Danny’s automatic shotgun and the continuous stream of bullets from Battle’s assault rifle.
Crypt Kicker waded into the assault at Ray’s side and part of Ray watched and analyzed the dead ace’s style. There was no science or art to his attack. He just tore the guards apart with his bare hands, twisting off heads and limbs like a sadistic child let loose on a bunch of helpless Barbie dolls. These guards also rotted into animated skeletons moments after death, and the skeletons continued to attack.
A few of them had bows. From the corner of his eye Ray saw Nemo take an arrow in the shoulder. But the wound just seemed to piss him off. He roared wordlessly and marched stiff-legged into the guards, dismembering them with the same brute strength and lack of technique exhibited by Crypt Kicker.
It was over in moments. Nemo’s bruised shoulder and Ray’s sliced ribs were the team’s only real wounds. Crypt Kicker had been cut several times by the guard’s scimitars, but his wounds seemed to bother him even less than Ray’s did.
Another advantage, Ray thought, of being dead.
He heard Danny cry out behind him. When he turned, she had dropped to one knee. She was holding one shoulder, her face tight with pain.
Ray went to her. “What happened? They get you?”
“Not me,” she muttered. She took away her fingers. There was no blood. “One of my… sisters. Lanced by a fish.”
“How do —” Ray began, then asked, “Is she all right?”
“Just a flesh wound.” She moved a shoulder hesitantly, then got back to her feet. “I’ll be fine.”
Clutching skeletal fingers were still clawing at his ankle. Ray brought his heel down hard, heard the bones crunch and snap as he ground them underfoot. “What the hell were these things?”
“Don’t you know?” Danny asked. Everyone looked at her.
“No,” Ray said.
“Don’t you guys ever read?” Ray looked at her bewilderedly. Truth was, he didn’t. But he couldn’t see what that had to do with anything. “They’re orcs. You know, from Tolkien.”
“Tolkien?” Ray asked.
Danny gave an exasperated sigh. “J.R.R. Tolkien. Lord of the Rings. They’re even wearing the insignia of Sauron’s Eye.”
“Oh, yeah,” Ray said. He suddenly remembered a coed he’d dated back when he was in college. He hadn’t done much for those four years besides drink beer, play football, and screw cheerleaders, but there was this particular girl who was always trying to get him to read some silly-ass shit about rabbits or habits or something. Maybe he should have read the damn books. She was great in bed but she’d left him for some pussy English Lit major who, she said, was more romantic and cared for her as a person and really, really loved Tolkien, especially the habits, or whatever the hell they were.
Battle brushed annoyedly at some phalanges that were trying to slither up his pants leg. “Whatever they were,” he said, “they’re dead now.”
“Look, we gotta get him up.” The Outcast shook Croyd’s body once again. Nothing happened. Croyd — looking like Andre the Giant in blue spiked armor — slumbered on. His feet were sticking several inches out from the bed; the spikes had torn holes in the sheet covering him. Several of the spikes terminated in puckered, fleshy mouths — perfect, the Outcast thought — for spitting poison or searing acid or something. This body was a war machine, he was certain of it. Unfortunately at the moment it was a sleeping war machine.
The penguin was skating around the Sleeper’s bed. “We could always just throw him at them,” it said.
Kafka stepped forward with a glistening hypodermic. “Epinephrine,” he said. “Adrenaline. And other stuff. It’s an upper cocktail.” He jabbed the needle at Croyd’s bicep; the needle broke off with a metallic ting and went spinning away. Kafka rummaged through the medical kit, muttering, and pulled out a much larger and thicker syringe.
Outside, through the fog, they could hear the continuing assault. The voices of the Rox hammered at the Outcast. The Outcast sent another wave of demons at the Jersey Gate troops; he rebuilt a fallen wall; he sent a messenger knight to Shroud telling him to send reinforcements to the north. He tried to pay attention to a dozen different sites at once. The effort was draining. He could barely see what was happening here in front of him.
Kafka managed to wedge the needle between two scales of Croyd’s new skin and sunk the plunger home. They waited.
Croyd began to snore. The penguin giggled.
“Hey, Mr. Wizard! If you’re through playing doctor, we could really use some help out here.”
Modular Man sailed through the open window. He looked like he’d dodged a close hit — a long black scorch mark ran down one leg. “Where’s Pulse?” he asked.
“In the infirmary,” Bloat said. “With a glucose feed.”
“Then I need you to make another gap in the causeway,” Modular Man said. “Ahead of Snotman and Detroit Steel.”
The Outcast glared down at the sleeping Croyd. He sighed. Then he tapped the end of his staff on the stone-flagged floor. The glow from the amethyst was very faint, but he could feel it happen. “Done,” he said. “Concentrating your attack on Detroit Steel was a good move, by the way. You wounded him, did you know? The right leg and arm of the suit aren’t working very well for him, and he’s bleeding inside the suit. He’s wondering whether they should retreat. Maybe a little more damage”
“He’s not the problem,” Modular Man said. “Snotman is. We’ve got to work out a way to beat him without violence, without directing any energy at him.”
“Hey, give His Largeness a break,” the penguin said, skating around Modular Man’s ankles. “He’s a little buried in his work right now.”
Modular Man seemed to consider that. “That’ll do,” he said. “I’ll need plastic explosives, a manual, and detonators. And you’ll need to evacuate the main gatehouse, because you’re going to lose it.”
The Turtle lurched sideways. Mistral’s wind howled around the shell like a gale out of hell. He heard Danny say, “Oh, shit!” Her rifle went sailing end over end past his cameras as the wind ripped it out of her hands. She grabbed the shell with both hands. “Help!” she screamed. “The netting…”
Tom could hear it ripping loose.
He tilted the shell to shield Danny against the fury of the wind. Mistral was floating serenely above him, smiling like the queen of the hop. Tom tried to summon his teke, a cannonball, a fist, anything to knock the wind witch senseless, but it was impossible to concentrate. The gale was pushing him back and down; he had to shove back hard just to stay in the same place. Sweat trickled down his forehead.
Then the sound of an elephant’s angry trumpeting cut through the roar of the wind. He saw the charge on his overhead screen as Elephant Girl came flapping up at Mistral.
Three tons of flying elephant does tend to get your attention. Mistral turned her attention on Radha, and suddenly the winds were gone. With nothing to push against, the Turtle bolted upward like a shot from a cannon. Danny shrieked as more of the safety net tore free.
Mistral grew larger on his screens. He reached out with a telekinetic hand, wrapped phantom fingers tight around her. I got her now, Tom thought. Elephant Girl was closing too.
Mistral made a short, sharp gesture at Radha.
The hurricane smashed into the elephant full force. Three tons of solid gray flesh, and the winds slammed her aside like a Ping-Pong ball. Corporal Danny was swept off Radha’s back. She flew past, her shout lost in the storm. Tom reached for her with his teke, Mistral forgotten. Then the elephant crashed into the shell, and Tom lost it.
The shell went end over end, a Frisbee in a hurricane. The safety harness dug into Tom’s chest. Everything inside the cabin that wasn’t tied down was flying through the air. Something bounced off the top of his head. Tom blinked, dazed. They were falling, plummeting like a iron parachute, still tumbling.
All he could think was, I’m going to die. The fog swallowed them again, his screens all going to gray. He was too dizzy to care. Every muscle in his body went tight with fear as he imagined the water coming up to smash them. Then he heard Danny screaming.
Somehow Tom made himself close his eyes, take a deep breath, and push. The shell jerked to a sudden stop, hung wobbling in the air. The world around them was an ocean of yellow-gray. There was no ground, no sky. “Danny,” he whispered breathlessly.
“Still here,” she said. He found her then, clinging tight to the safety netting. Two corners had torn away.
“Your sister…” he said, remembering.
“…okay … chute’s open…” Her voice was ragged. Tom glimpsed motion in the fog overhead. His fingers tightened on the armrests as he tried to ready himself for Mistral, for more demons, for whatever the fuck was coming at him.
Elephant Girl came gliding out of the mists, searching. She blew a short note on her trunk when she saw them. Tom thought it sounded relieved. Radha was in bad shape. Her wounds wept blood. One eye had swollen shut, and the right side of her head was a massive bruise. Tom didn’t know how she’d managed to stay conscious, but it was a damn good thing she had.
“RADHA,” he said through his speakers. “I’M GOING TO MOVE DANNY OVER TO YOU. HEAD FOR THE JOKERTOWN CLINIC.”
“What about you?” Danny said.
“I’VE GOT A SCORE TO SETTLE WITH MISTRAL,” Tom said.
“She’ll kill you,” Danny said. Radha trumpeted agreement.
“I CAN TAKE HER,” Tom insisted. “SOMEBODY’S GOT TO DO IT.”
“No,” Danny said. “We did our job. Leave it be for now.”
Tom frowned. “What do you mean, we did our job?”
Danny hesitated a moment. “They never expected us to win, Turtle. We were only a diversion. And it worked. The covert team is inside the Rox, undetected.”
“The covert team?” He was confused. Then, when he realized what she was saying, the anger took over. “Son of a fucking bitch!” he swore.
“Turtle, please. My shoulder hurts. Take me back. I don’t want Mistral to kill you.” She patted the top of his shell. “You don’t have any extra bodies either. I bet.”
Tom’s head was throbbing. He felt inutterably weary, betrayed, heartsick. All of a sudden, he found he just didn’t care anymore. “YOU WIN,” he told them. “WE GO BACK.”
The shell slid through the fog, toward the northeast and safety. The elephant flapped wearily beside him. No one spoke, all the way back.
A quick flyover showed that Snotman and Detroit Steel were still stopped at the second gap. Snotman had propped the armored man against the bridge rail, and the giant was kicking him over and over again.
Still charging him up. At least it was taking longer.
Jokers were still evacuating the main gate. The android flew through it, absorbing the details of its architecture.
All the energy of the explosions would have to be directed outward. Fortunately there were plenty of sandbags lying around that had been used to help shore up the fortifications, and the android had memorized the explosive manual on the first read-through. Modular Man set charges against the main structural members of the gatehouse, then piled sandbags around them to absorb any energy directed inward.
Snotman and Detroit Steel appeared before he was quite finished, coming down the roadway to the crossroads where the four bridges to the Rox came together. Detroit Steel was being carried on the ace’s back, and the giant punched Snotman over and over with his working arm, feeding him energy. The two hesitated on the far side of the drawbridge, Snotman obviously hoping someone would start shooting at him. No one did.
What’s keeping him going? Modular Man wondered. Any sensible person would have quit by now, alone in enemy territory with no support and a wounded man. Was Snotman’s hatred that strong? Or was he thinking at all?
Maybe he just thought he was invincible.
Modular Man thought he might just have to concede that point.
Detroit Steel punched again and again. Modular Man strung wires.
Snotman held out a hand, pointed. A burst of energy blew away one of the two chains holding up the drawbridge.
Good, Modular Man thought. Keep using that energy.
Another shot hit the other chain, but the hard steel held. More punches and a third shot were required before the drawbridge boomed down.
The portcullis was blown away with a series of shots that put a man-sized hole in it. Modular Man flew back into the outer bailey from the gatehouse roof, trailing wire behind him. Anxiety flickered through him as he peered anxiously at the gatehouse tunnel.
The silhouette of Snotman, carrying Detroit Steel, appeared in the tunnel, and Modular Man pushed the detonator.
The walls of the gatehouse blew outward, and through the gouting flame and dust and flying rubble, the android could see the roof and upper stories falling downward.
He withdrew to the roof of the gatehouse leading to the middle bailey. The cloud of dust rolled over him.
When it cleared he’d know whether he was a shooter or a shootee.
What he hoped he’d done was to envelop Snotman in tons of mattresses — stone mattresses. If the idea worked, Snotman would have absorbed, from the rock falling on him, less energy than he would need to dig himself out.
The dust slowly settled. A few Bosch creatures flew tentatively overhead. The revealed gatehouse was a sloped pile of rubble sitting between scarred walls.
Modular Man waited until he was certain that Snotman and Detroit Steel were well and truly buried, then he flew out over the causeway again until he found Danny Shepherd.
She was watching while some army engineers were trying to drop bridging equipment over the first gap in the causeway. Nervous marines crouched over their weapons in the roadway behind.
Modular Man dropped from the sky, snatched up the young woman, and lurched up into the sky. She kicked and yelled. Marines stared, pointed weapons, disappeared into the mist below.
“Stop fighting,” the android said. “I’m here to tell you something.”
Danny struggled for another few seconds, then gave up. “Okay,” she said.
“Snotman and Detroit Steel failed,” he said. “You need to tell Zappa to evacuate his people from the perimeter and the causeway.”
“If they don’t leave,” Modular Man lied, “Governor Bloat is going to turn all their weapons and armor into very large monsters. Then he’ll unleash another wave of hell creatures and everyone will die.”
Danny thought about that. Wind blew her blond hair around her face.
“I’m not really on their side,” Modular Man said. “I’m being compelled to do this.”
“No one’s going to believe that.”
“If I were on their side, you’d be dead. And all those soldiers on the causeway.”
He spiraled downward until Liberty Park stretched below them. He dropped Danny onto the scorched green grass and took off before anyone could respond.
Below him, the shootees lay unmoving.
The Outcast — no, the entire Rox, the whole massed chorus of head-voices — thought that it was over. The Turtle had retreated from the Manhattan Gate; Elephant Girl had moved off into the fog away from the Rox; Modular Man had won the battle of the Jersey Gate, burying Detroit Steel and Snotman and leaving behind scores of dead both from the Rox and the nats. Teddy had fought too, directing the battalions of the demons; trying to keep them between the jokers and the nats; throwing his mind-creatures in suicidal attacks at the strength of the assault; listening to the head-voices of his people and responding, trying his best to be in twenty places at once.
The retreat had happened suddenly, the order relayed through someone — someone plural? the mindvoices weren’t clear on that point — called Danny. All the attacking forces had all moved back into the shroud of fog, away from the wounded and broken ramparts of the Wall and out of the Outcast’s hearing.
“Oh, thank God,” Kafka said. His body shivered with a faint rattling. His walkie-talkie sputtered static-ridden words. “Governor, they’re gone. Everywhere. They’ve left.”
“Maybe… “ Teddy whispered to Kafka wearily. From his vantage point in Croyd’s room, he surveyed the broken buildings around them, the tumbling walls of brick and the shattered timber supports. Only the great crystalline ramparts of the castle were still standing, untouched — he had repaired them even as the glass had crumpled under the impact of the barrage. Around the Rox, jokers and jumpers alike were coming from shelter. In the foggy landscape below him, there was a mass exodus outward from the caverns. “I’m going out to see.” he told Kafka and the penguin. “Keep trying to wake him up.”
Teddy slammed the end of the staff on the ground and willed himself to be at the Jersey Gate, but the expected transition was strange. The insistent, angry voices of the dreamtime shouted at him, and the fragile connections of power were hard to hold on to. He tried to pull in the energy, but his mind was exhausted. For a moment his vision cleared and he found himself looking down at the Great Hall of the castle, bound down with the immense weight of Bloat. Big Bird, one of the joker guards, noticed him immediately.
“Governor,” she said, her feathered face contorted with concern. Plaster dust shaken from the roof by the impact of bombs coated her high shoulders and a three-fingered, clawed hand was clenching and unclenching the grip of her AK-47 nervously. There were dead jokers here, five of them that he could see, still lying on the tiles of the Great Hall. The sight made Teddy ill; bloatblack spilled out in response.
The burden was almost too much. It would have been easy to remain in Bloat’s body. Teddy struggled, trying to find the power within him to leave Bloat once again. The voices of the dreamtime yammered and howled, angry at his continuing intrusion.
Wyungare gave you our offer. Leave us alone.
You will die, powerful fool. You will die and you will take us down with you. You don’t know what you’re doing.
“Shut up!” Bloat shouted back.
“Governor?” Big Bird said.
Bloat tried to smile at the joker. “Nothing. It’s nothing. Just some ghosts in my head.”
Teddy closed his eyes, searching for the dreams, searching for the path to the dreamtime’s power and finding them. There, the channels are there, running through Bloat and away… Teddy followed the path back, back, until he could feel the wind of the dreamtime tousling his hair. Bright forms of energy were spiraling in front of him, and they blocked the path, damming the flow. “Get away,” Teddy told them.
“You throw your weapons at us,” they cried. “You send us your demons; you create chaos, you drain our power. We can’t allow this.”
“You can’t stop it.”
One of the forms came closer; he recognized the leering face of Viracocha as the shaman or godling or whatever he was snorted. “You delude yourself. You’re weary. The power will burn you and scar you forever if you continue.”
“Tired or not, you’re not strong enough to stop me,” Teddy said. “Wyungare told me that.” He pursed his lips, blowing against the wind from his dream, and the energy forms screamed and cried as they fell away. The path was open once more. He could feel the energy, brilliant and invigorating, and he took it into himself, wrapping himself once more in the body of the Outcast.
The Outcast materialized himself on the ramparts of the Jersey Gate. The demons clustered around their master like bats wheeling about a cave mouth; the jokers looked at him expectantly. The damage here was far worse than on Ellis itself. His Wall had been breached, the massive gates facing the city had been torn from their hinges by the brute force of Snotman and Detroit Steel. Most of the gun emplacements were gone, the stones where they had been blackened and broken, and what Teddy saw there sickened him. Death was not pretty — even the swirling, diffuse view through the fog couldn’t soften it. There was a smell too: a sickly, sweet odor that made his stomach turn over. He brought a wind to take it away from the Rox, streamers of low gray clouds riding the gale outward.
The wounded were the worst because he could do nothing for them. The damage to the Wall he could fix — the Wall was only an image taken from his mind and made real with Bloat’s gift. But the jokers were real. Though he tried, he couldn’t close the wounds, knit the bones, or graft new skin over the bums. They moaned, they screamed, they clutched themselves. Their pain and terror brought tears to Teddy’s eyes. Your fault. This is your fault… He couldn’t tell where the words came from, but they clamored in his head. Teddy blinked away the tears, not caring that any of the others saw his weakness. He walked along the rim of the Wall, and with each of the worst of the wounded, he stole a bit of the power and sent them back to the island, to the emergency clinic that Kafka had hurriedly set up.
It was all he could do.
“You’ll be fine,” he told them, though he was sure most of them would die.
He came to the ruins of the main gatehouse. Modular Man was still there, watching the rubble carefully. Shroud came up from the joker brigade with the android. “Governor,” he said. “It was a little bit of hell here. The demons helped, but there were a lot of nats, and the aces… Modular Man…”
“Hope you have a good insurance policy,” Modular Man said.
“We’re okay.” Teddy said it loudly, so that all of them could hear. “You hear me? We’re okay. We still have our big guns: Modular Man here, Dylan, Pulse’s body, most of the jumpers. We’re still trying to wake up Croyd…” Teddy found that he was getting tired of the litany himself.
“Is it over?” Shroud asked. “Are you sure, Governor?”
Teddy listened to the head-voices, sorting out the jokers and jumpers and trying to find anyone who didn’t belong. It was easy to close his eyes. Very, very easy. There were two intruding voices in the chorus of the Rox. Two voices: both in agony, both rambling and confused. Below.
“They’re still alive,” he said.
“Won’t be for long, I’ll bet,” Shroud answered. “Can’t be much air down in that mess.”
The Outcast listened again. Detroit Steel — no, Mike was his name — was dying as Teddy listened, suffocating to death in his broken suit of armor. Snotman was pinned down, furious, with only enough energy to keep the enormous weight of concrete and stone from crushing him, and that ebbing with each moment. Shroud was right. They would die. Slowly. Horribly.
While he listened.
“Get them out,” he said to Modular Man.
“Hey, wait a minute, Governor,” Shroud protested, pulling at the Outcast’s cloak. “We just lost a lot of our people taking out these two bastards. And you want to dig ’em up again?” Around him, other jokers shouted agreement. “Let the fuckers die,” they said. “They’re getting what they deserve. Bury the mothers.”
Mikey… got get out ’cause the kid can’t take care of himself… he needs me … God don’t let me die like this all alone…
“Dig them up,” Teddy said again.
“Governor, are you crazy?”
The Outcast whirled around to face Shroud, and the joker drew back at the fury on Teddy’s face. “We won,” he told the jokers gathered around him. “We won and this time we’re going to ask for everything we need and we won’t settle for less. We’re going to shove this defeat down their throats. We’re going to make them pay for every joker who lost a life, for every drop of blood. I promise you that.” He paused. “But we gotta have some compassion. We gotta have some humanity. I won’t have anyone die like this, not when it doesn’t have to happen.”
He heard the thought, heard it from several of them in a dozen variations. The governor’s gone soft. He’s scared and he’s lost his edge. Teddy even wondered if they were right. Maybe he should let them die. Maybe it made more sense. It just didn’t feel right. He didn’t want to have to hear their dying thoughts, didn’t know if he could bear the guilt. The governor’s gone soft…
But none of the jokers said the thought aloud.
“Governor, there is a certain problem with Snotman …” Modular Man interjected.
“I know that. You think I’m stupid?” Teddy took a deep breath, calming himself. “Get Detroit Steel out first. He’s not a problem — without the suit, he’s just a guy. Then start on Snotman. Take your time and be careful when you dig him up. I’ve been listening to him. He’s exhausted now and doesn’t have much strength left. Don’t touch him: uncover the feet and bind them, then the arms. Tie him up; don’t let anyone hit him or shoot him or harm him in any way. Don’t, for God’s sake, drop him. Just take him to the Iron Keep and throw — no, gently place — him in a cell by the others. Just keep him bound and alone so he can’t run against the walls or have someone else hit him.”
The Outcast looked at all of them, the sullen joker faces. “Dig them up,” he said again. “I want you all to help.”
He waited, wondering what he’d do if they refused. Obedient as he had to be, Modular Man had already gone to the mounded wreckage and begun levering away slabs of concrete. Slowly, Shroud turned and went to help the android, the others following.
Teddy, exhausted, felt his body dissolve.
The dungeon was damp and cold, and the blackness had a weight of its own. The bodysnatcher carried a torch to light his way down the narrow, twisting steps.
The girl was slumped against the wall in the back of her cell. There was straw in her hair. She lifted her head slowly, blinking at the light of the torch. After so much darkness, it must have been hard to bear. Her tears had left tracks through the dirt on her face. She stared up at the bodysnatcher with eyes gone numb and dead. Then somehow she recognized him. “Pulse?” Her voice was hoarse and raw. She got unsteadily to her feet, leaning on the wall. “Pulse, help me, please… She moved toward the bars.
“You should take better care of that meat,” the bodysnatcher told her. “Molly will be wanting it back. She’s sentimental like that.”
The girl in Molly Bolt’s body shrank back, suddenly afraid. “Oh, God,” she said. “You too.”
“Your daddy’s dead,” the bodysnatcher said. “Molly did him real nice. Smashed him like a fat blue bug. You should have been there. But then, you were, weren’t you?”
The girl just looked at him for a long moment, as if she couldn’t understand what he was saying. Then she started to scream. The bodysnatcher smiled and walked away.
Way down at the far end of the dungeon, he felt eyes watching as he passed. The bodysnatcher stopped and peered into the last cell, where a slender, half-naked black man sat cross-legged on the floor. “Your turn is coming,” he promised
“Excellent,” Wyungare replied. “I thought room service had forgotten about me. There’s been no shortage of roaches, but they’re a poor substitute for witchitty grubs.”
“That’s straw you’re sitting on,” the bodysnatcher told him. “What do you suppose would happen if I tossed the torch onto that nice dry straw?”
“You would stumble in the darkness on your way out, and be forced to grope your way up the stairs,” Wyungare pointed out.
His calm pissed the bodysnatcher off no end. “You’d burn to death, you stupid nigger!”
Wyungare shrugged. “That too,” he admitted.
The bodysnatcher was thinking about going to his light-form and burning a hole through the abo’s face when he heard a deep rumble far above, and the dungeon shuddered under his feet. He almost dropped the torch. “What was that?” he said, startled.
“The beginning of the end,” Wyungare told him.
The second explosion was much louder. An instant later, the shock wave shook the Rox like a bowl of stone Jell-O. The bodysnatcher lost his footing, stumbled to one knee.
The bodysnatcher left the Aborigine there to die in the darkness, and sprinted for the light. He ran up the steps. By the time he reached the surface, he was breathing hard.
The afternoon was dark as midnight. Screams, shouts, and moans of pain echoed through the fog. Acrid smoke burned his eyes. Someone was whistling, a high shrill sound like a teakettle starting to boil. The towers of the Rox were outlined dimly against the flickering reddish light of some huge fire on the far side of the island. The whistling grew louder, became a scream that filled the world. He saw the tall shadow of the jumpers’ tower turn to light. Then it was gone, while the night rained stone and fire.
Battle turned to Danny. “How’s the frontal assault progressing?”
She stared into space, rubbing her injured shoulder and listening to private voices whispering in her ears. “Not so good. They’ve been beaten back for now.”
Battle snorted. “Wimps,” he said. “Let’s go.”
As Battle strode off Danny grabbed Ray by the arm and surreptitiously held him back. “Doesn’t this underground playground strike you as odd?” she asked him.
Ray shrugged. “Bloat’s crazy.”
“Yeah, maybe. But he’s not irrational. He’s been doing a good job at holding off the frontal assault. Also” — she gestured around herself — “someone who was really insane couldn’t have built all this. It’s too well designed.”
They started after the others. “I see what you mean,” Ray said. “But so what?”
“All these traps,” she said. “All these obstacles he’s put in our path. Sure, some were pretty dangerous, but none were out and out deadly. It’s all like some big game with him.”
“Game,” Ray repeated. That word struck a chord, but just why he couldn’t say. “Game —” he said thoughtfully, then he stopped, staring.
Tacked to a stalagmite near the end of the chamber was a T-shirt similar in design to the one the old bridge-keeper had been wearing. Only this one bore the legend BLOAT FLOATS around the smiling Bloat-head silk-screened on it.
“Hey,” Ray called out, “wait a minute, everyone.”
The others hadn’t seen the T-shirt. They’d gone past it, almost reaching the door set in the chamber’s wall. They stopped, turned, and looked at Ray as he shouted.
“Look at this,” Ray said, gesturing at the shirt.
As he did, the Bloat-image winked at him. “Bloat floats,” the image said. “Do you?”
There was a grinding hum of machinery set in motion, and the floor of the chamber started to move and tilt. Ray grabbed a stalagmite and then grabbed Danny’s waist as she slipped past him, pulling her to him.
Battle let out a wild yell. Puckett grabbed his boss by the arm and grabbed Boyd around the waist and waited stoically until he slid toward another stalagmite that he managed to hook a foot around. Ray smelled salt water as the floor continued to rumble and tilt. “It’s a water trap,” he shouted, “opening into the bay!”
Nemo bellowed in fear and flung himself flat, desperately reaching for a stalagmite, but his clawing fingers missed by inches. Ray tensed, thinking about leaping after him, but Danny said softly, “There’s nothing you can do.”
They all watched, horrified, as Nemo, roaring and fighting for nonexistent purchase on the slippery chamber floor, slid inexorably toward the span of open water.
As he hit the water Ray shouted, “Swim for the other side.”
Nemo bobbed up and down, arms waving frantically over his head. “I can’t swim!” he shouted in an agonized voice, and then he was gone, the water closing sullenly over his head.
“Christ,” Ray muttered.
There was a moment’s silence; then the water split apart and something big and long heaved itself onto the level area of floor on the opposite side of the water trap. It was a fourteen-foot-long alligator, with a blue plastic hospital bracelet around its right front foreleg. Ray forgot the horror of the moment in sheer astonishment as it disappeared down the corridor on the trap’s opposite side.
Ray stared after it, hardly aware of the slim, hard-muscled body he held tightly against his own.
“Third time lucky,” Danny said to him. One of her slim, strong hands snaked up around his neck and pulled his face down to hers. Their lips touched; then she pulled away.
“Dead end, goddamn it,” Battle roared. “Goddamn dead end. There’s no way across this damn moat. Ray! Throw us a line and haul us the hell out of here! We’ll have to retrace our steps and hope the other corridor leads to that fat fuck’s throne room. Damn!”
Ray reached for his pack and the rope coiled in it, all the while staring at Danny. Once again, she had that internalized expression on her face, but Ray could think only of her sudden kiss, and the promise of more to come.
September 22, 1990
He waited inside his shell on the roof of the Jokertown Clinic, as he had waited a thousand times before.
Most of his screens were turned to commercial stations. WOR was broadcasting a Dodger road game. They were losing to the Seals out in San Francisco, 80 in the second. WPIX had Wheel of Fortune. But the networks were all news, and all the news was bad. What had von Hagendaas called it? The most powerful ace task force ever assembled… and the Rox had flushed them away like toilet paper.
Mistral, jumped. Pulse, jumped. Cyclone, believed dead. Detroit Steel and Snotman, buried under tons of rubble, believed dead. Elephant Girl, wounded, maybe mortally. And the Great and Powerful Turtle…
Tom laughed bitterly. The sound echoed dully in the close confines of the shell. His head was pounding, and one side of his face was stiff with dried blood where he’d smashed it during his tumble. Some heroes they’d turned out to be.
The military had resumed its shelling of the Rox. On CNN, Peter Arnett was broadcasting from the New Jersey, out in the Atlantic beyond Cape May. The decks were frantic with activity as the great battlewagon prepared to open up with its sixteen-inch guns. The open mouths of the huge turret guns loomed behind Amen, vast as caves. Tom was looking at them, and feeling sorry for the poor doomed jokers on the Rox, when Danny Shepherd finally returned. Finn was with her, the little palomino-pony centaur who had been running the clinic since Tachyon left.
Danny’s shoulder had been cleaned and bandaged. “LEGION,” Tom said in a flat, stiff voice.
She ignored the ice in his tone. “I’m going to live,” she announced cheerfully. “Lucky it wasn’t my pitching arm.”
Tom spoke to Finn. “WHAT ABOUT RADHA?”
The centaur fiddled with his stethoscope. “She’s resting comfortably,” he said. “We’ve sent to the zoo for a specialist. She’ll have to stay an elephant for a while. Those wounds would be mortal in a human.” The joker doctor shuffled his hooves. “Our nutritionist is having kittens. Know anyplace we can get a deal on hay?”
Tom had no answer for him. The silence hung in the air.
“My, ah, sister’s okay,” Danny said. “The winds pushed me clear of the Wall, thank God. Another me went out with the Coast Guard cutter, so they had no trouble picking me up, even in the fog. I’m back on Governor’s Island now.”
“GOOD FOR YOU,” Tom told her.
“Speaking of which,” said Finn, “we’ve had a visit from your army friends. A major. He’s upset that you folks came here. It seems they have a military hospital set up on Governor’s Island. All the wounded were supposed to be taken there. He wants to transfer Miss O’Reilly.”
That was gasoline on Tom’s smoldering fires. “TELL THE MAJOR TO FUCK OFF,” he suggested. He wasn’t about to trust a bunch of army doctors when the Jokertown Clinic had been dealing with the unique medical problems of aces and jokers for decades.
“I did,” Finn said. “More politely, of course.”
Danny cleared her throat. “Von Herzenhagen phoned. He wants us back at Ebbets A.S.A.P.”
Tom zoomed in on her face. She was so pretty. And right now he just wanted to grab her and shake her. “COVERT TEAM NEED ANOTHER DIVERSION? TELL HIM I DECLINE. ONE SUICIDE MISSION PER DAY, THAT’S MY LIMIT.”
This time the anger in his voice was unmistakable. Danny chewed on her lower lip thoughtfully, then turned to Finn. “Dr. Finn, would you mind? Turtle and I need to talk.”
Finn didn’t mind; there were always patients to attend to. After he had trotted back inside, Danny turned and looked straight into a camera. “What’s going on?” she asked.
Tom lowered the volume on his speakers, then found he had nothing to say to her.
“I don’t deserve this,” Danny said. “Friends don’t”
Tom interrupted. “Friends don’t lie to each other. You knew about this covert team bullshit all along.”
She didn’t deny it. “I’m the link. I had to know. One of me is with them. They’re down in the catacombs right now. Black Shadow’s been hurt, and Popinjay really isn’t--”
Tom didn’t give a fuck about any of that. “You knew, we were only a diversion, and you didn’t say a fucking word.”
This time Danny flared right back at him. “I had orders! I’m in the goddamn army; one of me is anyway; they can shoot you if you disobey a direct order.”
“I’m glad you’re a good little soldier,” Tom said. “But do me a favor, don’t talk to me about friendship.”
“What the hell would you have done?”
“I would have told my friends the truth,” Tom snapped back. “You think we would have played it the same way if we had known we were just a fucking diversion?”
“If you would have known, Bloat would have known the minute you passed the Wall,” Danny argued. “That would have compromised the whole —”
“Compromised?” Tom said. “You even talk like them. Well, fine. You kept your little secret, and we all went in there like it meant something. Nothing got compromised but our lives. Cyclone probably died thinking he was doing something real.”
“He was. And he knew the job was dangerous when he took it. We all did.”
“I killed God knows how many people at the gate,” Tom said flatly. “For nothing. For a diversion. And you let me.”
Her face filled his big screen. She was so pretty; it broke his heart. Tom could see tears in her eyes as she struggled for words. “I don’t… I didn’t mean…”
He snapped shut his shoulder harness, pushed off. The shell drifted clear of the roof. Danny looked up at him, stricken. “Turtle… don’t… where are you going?”
His shadow darkened her features, turned her eyes into deep black pools. Her ponytail was moving in the wind. He tried to answer, and the words caught in his throat. He pushed himself away from her with an effort, out over the street, across the rooftops of Jokertown. But long after the clinic was out of sight, he could feel the weight of her eyes.
“These MREs really suck,” Danny said, sticking a fork disgustedly in a congealed mass of chicken a la king.
“I know.” Ray said. He shucked off his backpack and rummaged in it for a moment, finally coming up with a foil-wrapped package. “That’s why I usually carry my own rations. Try one of these.”
He handed it to Danny, who unwrapped it, sniffed, and smiled. “Pastrami on rye,” she said. “I shouldn’t. It’s not exactly on my diet.”
“You don’t look like you have to worry much about your diet.”
“Of course I do.” She flexed a bicep. The muscles stood out like clearly defined metal cable wrapped in their veins and arteries. “The Ms. Tri-State contest is in two weeks. I’ve got to keep up the definition.”
“You’re plenty defined,” Ray said with as much gallantry as he could muster. “Besides, you can worry about that in two weeks. For now you have to eat to keep your strength up.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Danny said.
“I have some health food too.” Ray took an apple out of his pack, cut it in half with a nasty-looking dagger he took from an ankle sheath, and handed a piece to Danny.
“Thanks,” she said, and the ground suddenly shook like a giant had rolled over in his sleep.
“Earthquake!” Ray shouted, doing a little dance to keep his balance as the floor shifted under him.
Battle, leaning against a stalagmite a few feet away, slipped, fell, and rolled around like a man with pants full of ants.
“Its not a quake,” Danny said. She managed to brace herself in the angle between the chamber’s wall and floor. “They’re shelling Ellis from the battleship New Jersey. Brace yourselves! Here comes another shell!”
Battle wiped blood off his face and felt his nose gingerly where it’d been smashed against the floor. “Finish your rations and let’s get going. We can’t lollygag all day. We have a mission to accomplish. Corporal Shepherd can let us know when another shell is approaching so we can brace ourselves in time.”
Ray sketched an ironic salute and helped Shepherd to her feet. “You have another sister on the New Jersey?”
“How many of you are there?”
“Seven,” she said.
Seven, Ray thought. The mind boggles.
“Hold on,” Danny warned.
Okay, Ray thought, and grabbed her around the waist and anchored himself to a nearby stalagmite. She didn’t seem to mind.
Wyungare was brought abruptly back to the Tya world, the earth, by the sound of agitated voices. He entered the consciousness of being confined in the rude stone cell with a recognition of the harsh, familiar voice of Kafka.
The jailer smashed his key-ring against the bars of the woman’s cell a few meters away. “Hey!” he said. “No pets, lady. House policy.” He looked closer into the shadows. “Okay, kitty, we wondered where you disappeared to.” He selected a key and started to insert it in the lock. “Time to hit that big sandbox in the sky.”
The black cat hissed like a steam boiler hitting critical and swiped out with his right forepaw. The curved, needle-sharp claws flashed. Plated hide or not, Kafka jerked back. “All right,” he said. “Chill out. You like it here? Fine. I’ve got better things to do than argue.”
With his other hand, he held a chain looped through two prisoners’ manacles. The new arrivals were two men. Kafka pulled them along toward the cells beyond Wyungare’s own place of confinement. The bigger prisoner moved slowly. Bruises were evident on his brawny arms. The other man was bound hand and foot, carried along by two jokers.
“Welcome,” the Aborigine said to them. “The name is Wyungare.”
All three in the hall stared back at him. “Mike,” said the big prisoner, aiming a thumb at his own chest. He grinned a little crookedly. He ran the fingers of his free hand through his close-cropped blond hair. “You maybe heard of me as Detroit Steel. Right now I feel a little underdressed.”
Wyungare smiled back. The other prisoner, another European but built shorter and more compactly, nodded slightly. “This here’s good old Snotman,” said Kafka.
The brown-haired man’s teeth drew back in a snarl. “It’s Reflector,” he said. “Goddam it, Orkin-bait, you can at least call me by my right name.”
“Your right name’s for shit, dipstick,” said Kafka. He swung open a cell door. The tarnished steel shrieked. He keyed Detroit Steel’s cuffs and motioned the big man inside. Kafka put Reflector in the adjacent cell.
The brown-haired man abruptly smacked his head hard against one of the doorframe posts. Again. A third time.
Kafka shook his head in disgust. “Don’t bother,” he said to the man called Reflector. “Your skull’ll give out long before you’re recharged.’
“Enough.” said Kafka. “I gotta get back up topside. All of you just thank your lucky stars you’re not outside in the line of fire. This is maybe the safest place on the Rox.”
“Swell,” said Detroit Steel. “we’ll try and be properly grateful for the hospitality.”
The woman prisoner began to weep, keeping her sobs low and strangled in her throat.
“What’s with her?” asked Snotman.
“Problems with her old man,” said Kafka. The woman’s weeping escalated to a virtual wail. Wyungare looked from her to Kafka and then back to the woman. “Don’t you recognize Mistral,” said the jailer. “I admit, she’s had a real bad day.”
“Haven’t we all?” said Wyungare.
Kafka shrugged, smiled after his fashion, and left. At the door at the end of the hall, he turned and called back, “No fraternizing, you four. This ain’t no day camp.” He left, locking the door after him.
After what seemed a suitably decorous time to Wyungare, not to mention safe, he said to his fellows, “Let’s continue with introductions. Consider it an inventorying of resources.”
They all heard the sob from Mistral’s cell. They also heard the black cat’s loud purr as he tucked himself against the woman’s crouched body.
“Ain’t no resource left there,” said Detroit Steel, voice sounding more concerned than his words suggested.
“Don’t be too sure,” said Wyungare. “Look a little deeper.”
The old man stood on a rolling, endless prairie. Grazing buffalo covered the hills just behind him like a black, restless blanket. The smell of them was strong on the breeze, as dark as the creatures themselves and as earthy. The ancient one held his hands out — of the fingers, only the first two on his right hand were whole. There was at least one joint missing on each of the others, the flesh puckered and scarred around ancient wounds. Ancient, that is, except one: the second joint of the man’s little finger was a fresh cut, the joint amputated only minutes ago. The coagulating blood was still bright and wet, and a leather thong was strung tightly around the base of the finger as a tourniquet.
“I am One Blue Bead,” the old man said, and though he spoke in his own language, Teddy could understand it.
“Look, I really can’t stay here,” Teddy said. “I gotta go. I gotta go right now. They’re bombing my Rox.”
One Blue Bead smiled, gap-toothed. “Time doesn’t matter here. You should know that. Because you don’t, I name you Eyes Looking Backward.”
“Name me Sally. I don’t really fucking care. Just let rile out of this fairyland.” Teddy concentrated on the Rox; as he did so, the landscape wavered around him. As if through a stage shim, he thought he glimpsed the ramparts of the Wall and the tumbled-down Manhattan Gate behind the prairie and hills.
No. The Rox was gone again. A compelling weariness hit Teddy, like he’d just done a set of pull-ups. His body sagged. Just wait a minute, then try it again.
One Blue Bead just continued to smile. “You are as impetuous and as ignorant as they have said. And as powerful. But I offered a finger joint to Wakan-Tanka to bring you here. My flesh holds you, at least for now.”
“You’re killing people then. The shelling —”
“Time does not move here as it does in your shadow world. To them, you will be gone but an instant.” The man smiled again.
“The last one who brought me here tried to kill me.”
“Viracocha. I know. I have spoken with him about that, as I’ve spoken to Wyungare. I might try to kill you also, later. But not now.”
Furrows deepened around the eyes and mouth, deep sun-baked canyons. “I wanted to see you. I wanted to see the face of the one who hurts my people. I wanted to see if it was the face of an enemy.”
One Blue Bead reached out with a mutilated hand, stretching it toward Teddy’s face. Teddy froze, enduring the callused touch on his cheeks, blinking as the hand strayed near his eyes. One Blue Bead’s cobwebbed eyes stared, his breath smelled of herbs and fire and decay. At last the man drew back.
“You are just a fat little boy,” One Blue Bead said. “Not a shaman. Wyungare is wasting his time with you.”
“I’m a fucking joker, asshole. Or don’t you have jokers here in fantasyland?”
“We have nothing here that doesn’t wish to be here,” One Blue Bead replied.
The sarcasm seemed wasted on the shaman. “True. And you sent the screaming birds of shining stone, the ones whose wings were flame and who plucked the children from the huts and ate them before the eyes of their mothers.”
“In your world they may have looked much different, but you opened the way for them.” One Blue Bead shook his head. “Boy, don’t you know or care what you do here? Look at the herd.” One Blue Bead gestured at the distant buffalo. “A short time ago they would have hidden the hills entirely. They have sickened because the power of their souls are being stolen from them. The Eagle spirit flew here, but now he hides in his high nest because he is weary. Even the trickster Coyote stays in his lair.”
“Look, don’t you understand? I’m just using what the wild card gave me.”
“Using is not understanding. Listen: in the tales of my people, the first humans were poor and naked and knew very little. So the Old Man who had made them came and showed them which roots and berries they could eat and which they could use for medicine. He showed them how to make hunting weapons and how to kill and slaughter the buffalo, how to make fire to cook the flesh. He also told them that if they wished to have the power of magic, they must sleep. Old Man whispered that a spirit would come to them in their dreams, in the form of an animal. He said that they must do whatever that animal tells them to do. That is how the first people got into the world, boy, through the power of their dreams. Tell me, Eyes Looking Backward, do you listen to your dreams?”
“I don’t listen to skating penguins with stupid hats, and I don’t listen to dreams. I make them.”
One Blue Bead scowled at the defiance. The gesture seemed to dissolve the hold that One Blue Bead had on Teddy. He felt a renewal of the link to Bloat and pulled at the delicate connections. The power filled him and he brought it forth. The prairie faded, the buffalo became the stones of Bloat’s Wall and the clouds the fog of the Rox.
One Blue Bead remained, standing on the stones at the summit of the Wall. Teddy could see jokers all around them, frozen into stances of fright and horror. Shroud was there, pointing at the Outcast and the old Indian with his mouth open in soundless surprise. “You fail the test,” One Blue Bead said. “Again. How many chances do you think we can give you?”
“And I was always such a good student too,” Teddy told him.
The shaman’s face fell into expressionless folds. He spread his truncated, bloody hand, and the world jolted back into motion around the Outcast. Gargoyle sirens were wailing: like a hundred coyotes baying, like the film Teddy had seen of the Howler trumpeting down the walls of the Cloisters. Teddy could sense bodysnatcher flashing by overhead, his mindvoice far too fast and high for Teddy to understand any of the words, and then Pulse’s body was past the Wall and silent, heading out over the bay. A wind parted the fog for a moment: Modular Man, flying outward himself.
“— ernor!” Shroud shouted. “What’s going on?”
“A lot of dying,” Teddy grated out. He could still smell the prairie and the ripeness of the buffalo. The power emanating from the body of Bloat was like a stream in a drought, a bare trickle. “Let me listen, would you?”
I am so tired… I don’t know how much I’ve got left…
Something shrieked overhead, tearing the fog. There was a brilliant explosion behind them: tracers of white and acetylene blue. The sound followed a second later, a concussive wave that staggered the Outcast’s body. In Teddy’s head, voices screamed in terror and pain. More banshee wails followed: the Wall shook from the multiple impacts, the thunder of the shells was deafening, and a grotesque yellow glare illuminated the fog, fading to a persistent orange.
I just want to leave want to leave go HOME…
Another shell; this one Teddy saw clearly in a rift in the fog, and he lifted his staff. Energy leapt from the crystal to the sky; the shell canted sharply right and plunged into the gray nothingness beyond the Wall. Waves crashed into the base of the stones a few seconds later. “Damn you!” Teddy shouted, and his rage was echoed in the mindvoices of the Rox. “Damn you all! Can’t you leave us alone?”
He had very little left. Already the Outcast was beginning to fade. He was going back to Bloat, and then he’d be able to do nothing. Nothing at all. The shells would come and destroy the Rox. Already the Wall was fading from his sight.
“Damn you!” he said again, and he spoke in the voice of Bloat. Joker guards looked at him in mingled sympathy and fright. Outside the transparent bulwarks of the castle, the fog was tinged with the hues of hell. "Stop it! You’re killing us!” Bloat wailed.
As if in response, a series of long, distant, rumbling bass reverberations trembled the Rox from far out beyond the Wall.
Modular Man ghosted just above the waves with Mistral/Molly at his side. He knew he was going to be taking on an entire naval task force and he wished Mistral could both fly faster and make a less conspicuous target.
His radar caught another salvo in flight. Nine shells, he counted, a full broadside from the New Jersey, instead of the ranging shots fired earlier. They’d found the range.
That didn’t necessarily mean that every shot would hit, but on the other hand the Rox wasn’t exactly an agile, hard-to-miss target, either.
Each shell weighed over a ton. Nothing in the Rox’s architecture could withstand them.
He calculated speeds, ranges, flight times. The huge rounds were taking almost a minute to fly from the gun barrel to the target, which meant the New Jersey was near the limits of its range, twenty miles or so out. That was a long distance to fly, but it also meant fewer salvos.
“How do we beat a battleship?” Mistral said.
She gave him a look from goggle-covered eyes. “So what are we doing here?”
“Why aren’t the shells failing into Jersey City?”
“I dunno. You tell me.”
“Somebody’s spotting them. Someone’s watching them fall and reporting back to the New Jersey.”
“But they can’t see anything through the fog.”
“Right. So the spotting is being done by radar. I know the services have radar sets that are good enough to spot individual shells falling. And apparently the radar spoofers placed around the Rox aren’t working well enough. There’s someone sitting at the radar sets communicating to the battleship by radio.”
“What we do is wreck the New Jersey’s radio antennae. They’ll have at least a couple microwave antennae for satellite linkage and a whole battery of antennae for radio communication. We don’t know which they’re using, so we’ll have to destroy them all.”
“With my winds? Piece of cake.”
“I hope so.”
The fog parted, twisted into streamers by Mistral’s winds, and the ocean opened before them. Lights winked on the horizon, and seconds later came the boom of distant thunder.
Another salvo wailed overhead.
Outcast wavered, his image distorting as if someone were trying to pull a paper cutout apart. He blipped out like the dot on a television monitor when the power is cut.
There was the sound of anvils being struck together. The airburst rained acid down upon the trees in the swampland. Wyungare sought shelter as the droplets hissed and burned their way through the verdant foliage around him.
And then something new, something that dwarfed everything that had gone before, picked Wyungare up like a child grasping an unresisting doll.
It sounded like the sharp crack of thunder rushing on the tail of the lightning striking the plateau of Uluru.
It felt like the ravenous grasp of Wurrawilberoo, the desert whirlwind devil.
Slammed out of his concentration, Wyungare abruptly felt like one of the Keen Keengs, the flying men descended from giants. Except that he was not a giant himself and the stone blocks splintering and clashing around him were as big as he. He was falling.
The cell had come apart, the floor was no more, and his body caromed off hard surfaces. Wyungare heard yells, curses, a scream. Instinctively he twisted in the air and ducked to avoid a piece of castle that would have smashed his skull like a maira, a paddy-melon. Wyungare allowed his eyes to see what he could of his surroundings more slowly, and so his body could react.
Actually he could see very little. For a sudden and brief moment, a high-explosive flare lit his plunge. Then he fell not quite so far into the crashing, splintering darkness as he had expected. Perhaps, his own inner voice guessed, as little as one level. Regardless, the fall felt like the plunge from the top of Uluru.
His lungs filled with airborne chaff from the straw that had lined the floor of the cells. He gagged.
Stone, he thought. My landing place will be on granite and my body will break in a thousand ways.
But that did not happen.
His face suddenly whipped through spray and he plunged headfirst into cold water. It was salty ocean water; he knew that as he struggled back to the surface, spitting and blowing like a wounded seal.
Concussive waves battered his ears. Artillery? he wondered. Or carpet bombing. An arc-light operation, he speculated. Debris splashed into the water around him. He could not see anything. This was a case of having to trust to luck. Blind luck.
Then the area lit up with a baleful crimson glow. Some sort of chemical fire cripped down a stone escarpment about a hundred meters away. It looked almost like lava leaking out of a volcanic crater.
Wyungare squinted. He could see the woman prisoner — Mistral — struggling to stay afloat. She was holding on to the fur of the black cat with one hand. The large feline, in turn, was paddling for the shore.
“Wait!” Wyungare called. The chemical fire flickered and went out. The Aborigine started swimming for the place he’d seen Mistral and the cat.
The light flared up again. No woman. No cat. But Wyungare did find a rock he could use to haul himself out of the cold water. On shore, he scanned the heap of jumbled stone wreckage until he found a deeper shadow than the rest, the opening to a passageway.
Wherever it led was fine, so long as that direction was up.
The Turtle took the long way home.
The Rox was between him and his junkyard, hidden beneath a roiling carpet of fog. Tom gave it a wide berth. He veered well to the east, then turned due south over Brooklyn, staying on the fringes of the fog, figuring he’d cross at the Narrows, zip across Staten Island, and come into Bayonne from the south.
The chopper caught him near the old Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Tom had turned off his radio and his external mikes; he didn’t want to hear it, whatever it was. The chopper cut across his flight path, missing him by no more than ten feet.
Idiots, Tom thought furiously. It was one of those little two-man bubble-canopy jobs. At first he thought it was some asshole news crew after an interview. Then he saw Danny, waving at him frantically.
It was a different Danny: the young sex star. Even in fatigues, she managed to look hot. She’d tucked her pants into thigh-high lace-up boots that made her legs look even longer. His Danny had seen where he was going, so they’d scrambled a chopper from Governor’s Island to intercept.
He turned on the speakers. “I DON’T WANT TO TALK TO YOU. TO ANY OF YOU. STOP FOLLOWING ME.” There was no way he could go home with the goddamn chopper on his tail.
The copter came around again. Danny was waving. She looked… frantic. She was screaming something at him. Reluctantly, he reached out, flicked his microphones back on.
Even then it was hard to make out what she was saying over the roar of the rotors. Something about New Jersey…
“WHAT?” he boomed. “I CAN’T HEAR YOU.”
The copter veered closer. Danny cupped one hand around her mouth and screamed at him “… Jersey … under … attack…”
“NEW JERSEY IS UNDER ATTACK?”
Danny shouted something else, but the wind whipped her words away. For a moment Tom didn’t get it. Then it all fell into place. “THE BATTLESHIP,” he blurted.
Danny’s nod was frantic.
The battleship New Jersey was off Sandy Hook, miles and miles beyond Bloat’s farthest reach. If it was under attack…
“…only one left…” Danny shouted.
The only one left. The last ace in the government’s deck. The rest were dead, wounded captured, trashed.
“I QUIT, REMEMBER?”
He couldn’t hear her reply.
Frustrated, Danny turned away for a second, said something to her pilot. The chopper lifted suddenly. Tom had to resist the urge to duck as it came in low over the shell, hovered.
He heard a soft thump as Danny vaulted down onto the top of his shell. Before he could protest, the chopper had peeled away. Danny clung to the torn netting.
“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?” he roared.
By then the chopper was well on its way back to Governor’s Island, the sound of its rotors receding. “Turtle, please,” Danny pleaded. “Mistral … Modular Man they’re tearing the ship apart. You have to stop them.”
“WITH YOU ON MY BACK? YOU WANT TO GET KILLED?”
“No,” Danny said, and for the first time Tom heard real fear in her voice. “Turtle, please … I’m on that ship.”
The New Jersey loomed ahead, a steel wall rising from the gray sea. It was three football fields long and its awesome, purposeful architecture made Bloat’s sprawling castle look like something from a child’s playset.
Gusts tugged at Modular Man as Mistral built a whirlwind overhead. Thus far they’d avoided being seen by the dozen or so ships visible in the task force, but that luck couldn’t last.
The windstorm took on shape, purpose. Modular Man sped on ahead, glancing over the superstructure with its array of antennae. There was scarcely a sailor to be seen: nearly everyone had taken shelter beneath the ship’s armor. The android fired a burst of microwave energy at one of the satellite antennae, hoping to overload it. The whirlwind touched the surface of the water and a buzz-saw snarl filled the air.
The three triple turrets fired. A blast of hot gases slammed against the android’s body. One-ton shells howled as they shattered the air.
Modular Man fired at another microwave antenna. The shot seemed pointless and ineffectual.
The funnel cloud, mounting, screamed in off the sea. A burst of lightning filled the air with ozone.
The whirlwind engulfed the ship’s bridge and the towering array of antennae above it. Glass imploded; pieces of metal blew high as if from an explosion. One of the ship’s radars spun away. A panicked sailor ran for the nearest hatch. Antennae were wrenched into pretzel shapes.
The New Jersey continued on course, its way unimpeded. The funnel cloud walked up and down the superstructure, concentrating on the radio and radar towers, then began to disperse.
Modular Man counted radio antennae. He could find none in working order.
He turned, sped away toward Mistral. Sirens wailed from the surrounding ships.
“It’s over,” the android said. “We’ve done our job.”
Fire winked from the battleship’s side. Antiaircraft rounds cracked overhead. Modular Man put on speed, jinked left and right. Mistral danced near the wave-tops as her winds whipped up a screen of concealing spray.
Modular Man put on a burst of speed and left the battleship far behind. He turned and hovered, watched as Mistral jittered away from the bullets and shells that were reaching for her.
The New Jersey blew up.
What surprised Modular Man was that it happened in complete silence. There was a blast of flame that threw the stem turret far into the sky, tumbling, gun barrels waving, and then the irruption of boiling smoke and debris that shot into the air, high above the battleship’s highest towers…
All in silence.
The stern section tilted up and sank in a gush of watery foam, all in less than four seconds. The forward part continued on its course, its momentum too massive to be stopped simply by the event of its own destruction. As it glided forward the bow gradually canted upward until the knifelike cutwater rose into the air. The wake slowly diminished.
The forward part of the ship slowed and just hung there, not quite sinking. Hatches opened and crewmen boiled out.
Mistral/Molly turned, headed for the battleship again. Another whirlwind appeared in the air above the stricken vessel.
Apparently she was going to try to finish it off.
Modular Man remembered sub-munitions falling on Sandy Hook, the screams of the missile battery troops as they died.
It was all so useless. He had no wish to support Mistral in this ridiculous act of slaughter.
Dual-purpose shells began reaching for him. He put on speed for the Rox.
As he looked back he saw something flash brightly among the running crew of the New Jersey. People screamed and fell and died.
Wyungare heard the roar of an angry — or hungry — alligator. He ran down the stone passage, depending on vague shadows in the darkness to warn him against smashing his head against some low overhang.
He rounded a tight elbow in the corridor and stopped behind cover. In the large, flare-lit chamber beyond, he took in the whole picture of it.
In his alligator incarnation, Jack Robicheaux had cornered Wyungare’s prisoner comrades. The two men and the woman were backed into a jagged elbow of tumbled stone. Detroit Steel was in front of the other two, his hands outstretched, palm first, toward the reptile. “Get outta here,” said the big man. “I’ve trolled for bigger than you in Lake Michigan.”
The alligator took another step forward, jaws opening and closing like enormous steel scissors. "Beat it,” said Detroit Steel.
The sensation Wyungare could pick up from Jack’s mind was one of primal hunger. The alligator hadn’t eaten in quite some time. The gator version of Jack possessed no patience. Wyungare glanced on beyond the reptile. They saw the dark shape that suggested a tunnel entrance. It was worth a shot.
Go! Wyungare thought at the gator. Food, you’ll get food at the other end of that passage. He hated to lie, but this was a time of extreme measures. The reptile grumbled. Go! he thought again. Good food! He realized he didn’t need to sell the concept of food — merely establish the possibility to the alligator’s satisfaction.
The alligator abruptly turned and struck for the passageway. He moved faster than Wyungare had believed possible. The reptilian hiss dwindled and died in the passage.
Wyungare trotted to where the other prisoners waited. He realized that Mistral’s appearance hadn’t accurately reflected the woman’s degree of injury. As Mistral drew in her breath and winced, Wyungare discovered that he could feel at least two major breaks in her lower arm. Maybe more, he thought. This is just the top of the iceberg. He said nothing aloud.
“I think she’s hurt pretty bad,” Detroit Steel volunteered.
“We can carry her,” said Reflector, “if you can guide us out of here.”
Wyungare weighed the possibilities. He stared at the passage into which Jack had waddled in alligator form. It looked to be the only way out.
The towers of the Verrazano Bridge were vague shapes in the mist as the Turtle moved through the Narrows. This far south, the fog was starting to thin out. He didn’t like that one bit. Down by Sandy Hook, he’d have no concealment.
“Hurry!” Danny urged from atop the shell.
“LISTEN,” Tom said, “I’M GOING TO DROP YOU OFF ON THE BRIDGE. ONE OF YOUR SISTERS CAN SEND A CHOPPER TO PICK YOU UP.”
“There’s no time,” she told him.
“YES THERE IS. THAT’S A BATTLESHIP. EIGHTEEN-INCH GUNS. SAME KIND OF ARMOR PLATE I’VE GOT. THOUSANDS OF ARMED MEN, CRUISE MISSILES, MACHINE GUNS, RADAR. IT SURVIVED WORLD WAR II, IT CAN SURVIVE MODMAN AND MISTRAL.”
“You need me,” Danny said. “I know where I am. I can take you to me. You’ll never find me without me.”
“I’M DROPPING YOU OFF. YOU’RE TOO EXPOSED UP THERE.”
“Then let me inside.”
The shell moved over the suspension cables, settled toward the wide span of the roadway. There was no traffic visible anywhere. “I DON’T LET PEOPLE INSIDE.” He looked up at her on close-up. Her face had gone white. “WHAT’S WRONG? WHAT’S HAPPENED?”
She could barely speak. “The ship… my God… they blew up the ship!” She bit back a scream.
The Turtle hovered ten feet over the bridge, unmoving, as Tom hesitated. A battleship, he thought. They blew up a fucking battleship! All around him, the fog was being torn into ribbons by rising winds. A storm to the south… Mistral…
Tom took a deep breath and punched a combination into his control panel. There was a hiss of escaping air as the hatch unsealed. “INSIDE,” he said “AND CLOSE THE DOOR BEHIND YOU.”
Bloat’s underground playground was quiet as Ray and the others made their way back through it. The traps had already been sprung, the guards disposed of, and Bloat now had other things to occupy his mind. Still, every now and then everyone had to grab the nearest wall while the ground jumped and they shook like pork chops in the bottom of a Shake ’n Bake bag.
Maybe the big guns on the New Jersey had slowed down while the army was trying a second assault. Good thing too, because soon they’d reach the stone arch over the lava river and that sucker didn’t have a guardrail. Ray wasn’t afraid of heights but he had no desire to be halfway across that narrow ribbon of rock when another one of those bombs hit and started everything bouncing and shaking —
There was a scream from the group behind him. It was Danny voicing a wail of fear and denial that echoed weirdly in the confined corridor.
“What is it?” Ray asked.
Danny was staring inward, a look of disbelief on her face. “The New Jersey,” she said in a choked whisper. “They blew it up.”
“Shit,” Ray said, and even Battle looked perturbed.
“Is your sister all right?” Ray asked.
“She’s on part of the ship still above water,” Danny said. “The Turtle is on his way —”
Ray wondered what would happen to Danny if one of her so-called sisters died. But for once he had the sense to keep his mouth shut.
Every screen was full of death.
“God,” Danny whispered from the floor beside him.
The whole stern section of the New Jersey was gone. What was left of her had started to settle. Smoke and steam rose hissing from the twisted steel amidships as the seawater poured in.
Tom kept his eyes on the screens, but it was hard to focus. He could feel Danny pressed up against his leg. There wasn’t much room inside the shell. He was acutely, awkwardly aware of her, the warmth of her skin against him, the smell of her shampoo. Only last month, he had let Dr. Tachyon inside the shell. Tachyon had been stuck in a pregnant female body at the time, courtesy of the jumpers and his grandson Blaise, and he spent most of his time alternately shouting orders and recoiling hysterically every time Tom brushed against him. Her. That had been pretty weird, but she had still been Tach, and Tom had known Tach for a long, long time. It was different with Danny. She was almost a stranger. Not to mention being a woman. A real woman. All the way through.
A dozen small tornadoes danced around the New Jersey, howling, smashing into her armored sides like slam-dancers. Tom scanned his screens, searching for Mistral. She was easy to spot. She floated a hundred feet above the wreck, her huge white cape filled with wind, all her attention on the New Jersey as she choreographed her slam-dance for cyclones and waterspouts. “There’s the wind bitch,” Tom said. “So where’s the fucking android?”
Charred bodies floated on the whitecaps, bobbing up and down. A few sailors were still struggling in the water, trying to swim, vanishing as huge waves broke over their heads and pulled them down. The rest of the Task Force was fighting its way toward the sinking battleship. The steady chatter of machine guns and the pounding of antiaircraft fire mingled with the banshee roar of Mistral’s winds.
“Do something,” Danny urged. “You have to help them.”
Tom felt sick and helpless. His insides had gone weak with fear. There was nothing he could do for the men who were dead or dying. Once, several lifetimes ago, the Turtle had actually lifted the New Jersey with his teke. He’d got it clear out of the water, and held it up for almost thirty seconds with the power of his mind. Maybe he could keep her afloat for a little while. But not while she was under attack. That was suicide.
“We got to know what the fuck we’re up against,” he said. “Where’s Modular Man? Who blew up the fucking ship?”
His shell was hovering hundreds of feet above the battle. The New Jersey had looked like a toy in a bathtub before he’d zoomed in on it. There was no fog here, almost twenty miles from the Rox. Tom had put the afternoon sun behind him, a trick he remembered from the comics he’d read as a kid. Jetboy always came at them from out of the sun.
“There,” Danny said, pointing. “That light.”
Tom saw it too. A glowing red streak darting back and forth across the deck of the sinking ship, too fast to follow. "Pulse,” he said grimly. “Shit.” There was nothing he could do against Pulse, and Mistral had already kicked his ass once today. “I don’t like these odds,” he told Danny.
“The ship can’t take much more of this battering,” Danny said. “They can’t even use the lifeboats. The storm will smash them. Do something!”
Suddenly the bright light flashed off to the north. It was gone in the blink of an eye. It took a moment for it to sink in. “He left,” Tom said. He sounded like a kid on Christmas morning. “Pulse left.”
Danny was way ahead of him. “Modman!” she cried. “There!”
Tom glimpsed something in his peripheral vision, turned, saw him. Modular Man. Weaving in and out among bursting shells.
There was no time. The antiaircraft fire was keeping him busy, but Modman had to know the Turtle was there. Hiding in the sun didn’t mean jack shit to the android’s radar.
Tom zoomed in, reached down, and grabbed.
Midway between a zig and a zag, Modular Man jerked to a sudden full stop and hung helplessly in midair.
The shell dropped toward him. Tom kept one nervous eye on Mistral. She was well below, winds howling around her. Three miniature tornadoes were rushing toward the New Jersey. Mistral still hadn’t seen him.
Modular Man had managed to wrench himself around in the Turtle’s telekinetic grasp. The android was hellacious strong. Sweat was popping out on Tom’s brow as he fought to hold him. “I don’t want to fight you,” Modular Man shouted up.
“GOOD,” the Turtle replied. “CAN YOU SAY, I SURRENDER? I KNEW YOU COULD…”
The android must not have watched Mr. Rogers. He just looked vaguely puzzled. “My programming does not permit me to surrender, except to preserve my creator’s life.”
“He told me before, none of this is his idea,” Danny said. “He’s being compelled.”
“It was Pulse,” Modman said. “He must have ignited the ship’s magazine. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“TELL THAT TO THOSE SONS OF BITCHES IN THE WATER.”
Modular Man seemed to thrum as he fired on all cylinders, trying to break free. He didn’t move a foot. The guns mounted on his shoulders swung around on the shell. He had a machine gun on his right shoulder and some kind of high-tech laser or maser or taser cannon on his left.
“GIVE UP,” Turtle said. “I’LL REPROGRAM YOU.”
“I cannot permit my programming to be altered,” Modular Man said. The taser swept across the shell in a smooth traverse; hidden video-cams fried like popcorn in a microwave. The machine gun was right behind it. Tom heard bullets whining off his armor plate. Three of his screens went dark, then a fourth, a fifth.
“BAD IDEA,” Tom said. He bent the barrel of the machine gun back on itself, then ripped off the taser and sent it spinning. Sparks arced from the hole in Modman’s shoulder. “LAST CHANCE.”
Modular Man had nothing to say. Danny was shouting something in his ear. Tom barely heard her. He wrapped invisible hands around the android’s ankles. “MAKE A WISH,” he said to Danny. She clutched at his arm, frantic. Finally he looked over, just in time to catch a glimpse of blue and white on the screen behind her.
Then the tornado turned his shell into a tiddledywink.
Up was down, down was up, and everything was spinning. Tom’s harness held him in place, but Danny was slammed up against the ceiling, then down, then up again. She tumbled across Tom’s lap and crashed into the big main screen. The picture tube exploded. Flying glass filled the cabin. Danny cried out. Somehow Tom managed to grab her arm as she went by. He pulled her down against him, hard, and held her tight as the shell went end over end.
It seemed like an eternity before he finally got control again. The shell jerked to a sudden stop. It trembled in the air. Tom had lost all sense of where the fuck he was. Danny was in his arms, groaning. “My leg … shit… I think I broke my leg.”
There was no time to worry about that now. More than half of his screens were out. He looked at the others, quickly. Modman was a distant speck, trailing smoke as he fled. He must have held on, wrenched something loose when the wind hit him and Mistral … he looked from screen to screen, frantic… there she was, coming alter him… riding the wind… her cape rippling like the sails of a clipper ship… smiling…
All of a sudden, Tom wasn’t afraid.
All of a sudden, he was angry.
He thought of a bubble.
Mistral’s cape deflated like a leaky balloon. It wasn’t until she began to fall that she realized something had gone wrong. She looked behind her, below her, not quite understanding what was happening.
The shell fell toward her like a dive-bomber.
“Yes!” Danny said.
Mistral tumbled helplessly. Her cloak was a limp rag now, useless as a torn parachute. Far below, her tornadoes began to dissipate. Tom turned his bubble into shrink-wrap, a telekinetic second skin that gripped her as tightly as her costume. The sea rose up to smash her.
Ten feet above the water, Tom jerked her to a sudden stop. Mistral glared at him. A wind came from nowhere and brushed against his armor. But it was attenuated, feeble.
“NOT THIS TIME.” Tom told her.
Mistral’s mouth opened wordlessly. She was gasping, struggling for breath. His teke was shutting off all her air.
He turned her upside down, gave her a good look at the bodies floating in the water below her. One of the men was still struggling feebly, clinging to the corpse of a buddy. He didn’t seem to know how to swim.
“JUMP,” he told her.
Feebly, she tried to shake her head.
“OKAY. THEN DIE.” He tightened his grip. His teke closed around her like a vise, squeezing the breath out of her.
Danny had gone pale. “Jesus, are you really going to kill her?” she asked nervously.
Tom didn’t know the answer.
Mistral’s pretty face was turning blue. It matched her costume. Torn squeezed harder. She was fighting his teke with everything she had.
And then she wasn’t fighting him at all.
Tom released her as soon as she went limp, caught her gently as she began to fall, lifted her atop his shell. He could see her chest moving weakly.
He felt Danny grab his arm. “Look,” she said. Down in the water, the man who’d been hugging the corpse suddenly kicked free and swam for shore. His strokes were strong and sure. For a moment Tom considered pushing him under.
“The ship,” Danny said urgently. “I can feel the deck tilting under me. It’s going down!”
Tom sighed. The Turtle lifted slowly into the air and moved toward the foundering New Jersey to do whatever he could do. Below him, the swimmer raced toward shore.
The scream startled the hell out of Ray, because it came from behind. He whirled to see the other team members clustered around Danny. She’d managed to cut short her agonized shout, but she was writhing on the tunnel floor, clutching her leg in obvious torment.
Ray ran back to the group, pushing past Battle and Boyd, and knelt by her head. Her mouth was clamped shut and beads of sweat stood out on her forehead. She wasn’t bleeding, but she sure as hell was in pain.
“What happened?” Ray asked.
“I don’t know,” Boyd responded excitedly. “She was walking in front of me all right, then she suddenly screamed, fell, and grabbed her leg.”
“It’s… o…kay,” Danny ground out between clenched lips. “I can deal… with it. It’s not… my … pain.”
“Whose is it?” Ray asked.
“Sister’s … broken leg.”
“You feel everything your sisters feel?”
Danny nodded. “Once … I fell out of a tree … I was eight, nine, playing hooky… broke my arm. The other me was at school, only her arm broke too, all by itself.”
“Christ,” Ray said. That was frightening. “You mean every time one of your sisters gets hurt.
“Not every time,” Danny said. “Sometimes … mostly not, but if we’re real close, or if the pain is real bad, or real sudden, and I can’t try and dissociate… distance myself… most times, I feel the injury, but that’s all.” Her fingers massaged her twisted leg. “Nothing feels broken this time. I think I’m okay.”
“Which is it, Corporal?” Battle wanted to know. “We can’t wait forever while you decide whether or not your leg is broken.”
“Give her a minute,” Ray snapped.
“I’m okay.” She took a deep breath. “I can go on. It’s under control.”
Ray gave her a hand up. “Lean on me,” he said, “if you have to.”
She flashed him a smile. “Okay, tough guy.”
Travnicek inspected the torn hip joint, the alloy socket with its bright edges of torn metal, the burned, melted, and torn contractile plastic with its fine web of conducting wires.
Down in flames, Modular Man thought. Like a World War I fighter ace.
The android had managed to stop the shorting with some swift rerouting of his inner electronics. The medical staff, a few overworked jokers, only a few with medical training, could think of nothing to do other than supply him with a crutch.
“I thought you were learning how to be a winner, Apple Mac,” Travnicek said. “A shooter. You disappoint the shit out of me.” The screams of a wounded patient echoed from the stone walls of the infirmary. One of the few jokers with medical training ran to the patient’s aid.
At least there were plenty of drugs down here to keep the patients quiet. The android had never seen so many drugs in his life.
“Burying Snotman was clever of you,” Travnicek went on, “but I expected better when you dealt with that flying terrapin.”
"Can you repair me?”
“Hah! Of course.” Travnicek waved a hand; cilia sang through the air. “When I get around to it. After this little adventure is over.”
Modular Man’s heart sank. Travnicek was lying, and they both knew it.
“I don’t know how long I can go on fighting this way,” the android said. “Perhaps we should evacuate.”
Travnicek paused, held up a hand. Something pulsed under his blue, hairless scalp. His sensory organs unfolded.
“Tub-of-Lard is doing something,” he said. “Gotta go, toaster.”
He sprang away, jumping up to run on the wall when someone got in his way. Modular Man rose from the infirmary bed — there wasn’t anything they could do for him here — and tentatively put his weight on his remaining foot. He rewove his programming to compensate for his altered balance and took a careful hop.
He could move faster by walking on his hands, he realized. And faster still just by levitating and flying under the power of his flux generators.
The screaming patient — disemboweled by shrapnel, the android now saw — fell silent as his joker nurse pumped him full of rapture.
The android glanced up, saw Patchwork. She still wore her camouflage uniform and helmet, but had left her pack and firearms behind.
“They told me you were wounded,” she said.
He looked into her anxious gold-flecked eyes. “I lost a leg.”
She stepped back, looked at him. She was breathing hard; it seemed as if she’d run all the way from the Iron Tower.
“How bad is it?” she said. “You’re not suffering the way a human would.”
“Take my word for it,” Modular Man said. “I’m not a happy individual.”
“Your… creator?” She waved an arm in the direction of the absent Travnicek. “He’s not concerned?”
“He seems determined to fight to the last Bloat.”
Patchwork looked at him soberly. “And to the last android?”
“Since Bloat seems determined to put me between himself and danger, that would seem very likely.”
“Isn’t he — Travni —”
“Yes. Isn’t he concerned about how to get off the Rox? Or does he think we’re going to win?”
“He’s not thinking about what happens next. I think he’s intoxicated by Bloat.”
“That’s a new reaction to the governor.”
The disemboweled patient began to moan. He sounded as if he were working his way up to orgasm.
“When I was first created, I wanted to try everything,” Modular Man said. “Every drink, every dessert, every experience. Sort of like Travnicek is doing now.”
“You tried every woman, from what I hear.”
“That too. But I didn’t put others in danger.”
The disemboweled patient screamed in ecstasy. Patchwork’s face screwed itself into an expression of distaste. “Can we leave? I don’t think they’re helping you here, and this place isn’t doing me any good, either.”
She reached out, took his hand to help him balance.
He found himself not wanting to tell her he could levitate.
He left the crutch behind, leaning against his bed.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in the Iron Tower?” Modular Man asked.
“Things are pretty chaotic,” Patchwork said. “The governor’s rebuilding the fortifications and had better things to do than to see if everyone’s at their station. Nobody told my own squad to expect me, so they’re not missing me. Last I looked, Bloat’s officers were rounding up people to reoccupy the Jersey Gate and Liberty Park. Considering what happened to the last batch, they’ll probably have to drive them over the causeway with whips.”
Patchwork and Modular Man had found refuge in a room off one of the tunnels under the Rox. It was one of those odd places where Bloat’s imagination had failed: the walls were scabbed and fused, and the room was used for storing supplies, mostly huge blue-plastic-wrapped bales of drugs. There were also boxes of ammunition and grenades, the latter labeled WP, for white phosphorus.
Modular Man and Patchwork sat side-by-side on a package of rapture worth about two million dollars on the street. He hadn’t as yet let go of her hand. The android touched the bale with his free hand, drew fingers down the gritty plastic. “So the stories about the Rox being full of drug dealers are true,” he said. “I thought they might be exaggerations.”
“All the stories about the Rox are true,” Patchwork said. “We’re quite a little enterprise here.”
“Tell me the story again about how you’re all a bunch of noble idealists fighting for your freedom.”
“Some of the jokers are idealists. And some of them hurt so bad they need drugs just to get through the day.”
“In quantities like this? Joker idealism seems rather pliable.”
She gave a little laugh. “Well. I was just in it for the red Ferrari, myself. After I kicked the big H, other drugs never had much of an attraction.”
“You were a heroin addict?”
“Back when I was twelve, yeah. My father got me onto the stuff.”
“Your father was an addict?”
“No. He just thought the junk would make me easier to control.”
Modular Man looked at her for a moment in thoughtful silence. Her cheeks flushed slightly and she turned away.
“You’re so much older than I am,” he said. “I’m something less than five years old, and —”
She laughed. “You’re going to ask me for wisdom? I got talked into going onto the Rox, and I never even figured out that once I got here there was nowhere to drive the Ferrari. Which I never got anyway.”
“I don’t want to die,” Modular Man said. Patchwork looked at him, startled.
Her gold-flecked eyes were wide. She swallowed hard. “I don’t want to die, either.”
“I was dead once and I didn’t like it.”
She opened her mouth, then closed it. “Can’t top that,” she said.
“Hundreds of people have been killed here. Sacrificed for Bloat or for the other side. Some of them volunteered, in one sense or another — the soldiers, people like Cyclone, most of your people.”
“You didn’t volunteer.”
“Nor did Pulse. I’ve worked alongside Pulse before — he’s a good man. Married, children, worked for the city. He didn’t want to be a hero, but if he was called he did a job. Now he’s a slave, like me. A psychopathic killer is living in his body, and who knows where his mind is?”
She bit her lip. “How can we get out?”
“Who is to say who lives and dies? People like Bloat? People like the lunatic that’s inside Pulse?”
“Dying? I’m talking about escape.”
“What do you do when you don’t want the governor to listen to your thoughts?”
Patchwork looked startled. “I told you. I think dirty thoughts. It embarrasses him.”
“A lot of people seem attracted to dirty thoughts. How do you know Bloat isn’t a secret voyeur? What else do you do?”
“I could think about reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or something. Just let the back of my mind float while I work hard on doing something else, something unimportant. Concentrate on the task at hand.”
He turned to her, took her other hand. “Try it.”
“Urn.” She thought for a moment, then began to sing in a tuneless contralto. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
“I have to obey my creator. I have to look after his welfare. I don’t have any choice in that.”
“He’s trampling out the thing, the whatever where the grapes of wrath are stored.”
He tightened his grip on her hands. “I’m terribly concerned about him. About what might happen to him when I’m not there to protect him.”
Patchwork knit her brows, trying to remember the lyrics. “He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword. His truth goes marching on.”
“If the bombardments get bad, he goes into his tower and bolts the door. That’s a fairly safe place.”
“Glory, glory hallelujah. Glory, glory hallelujah. His truth goes marching on.”
“But there’s one thing that really concerns me. One weakness.”
“I don’t remember the fucking lyrics. Oh, shit.” She took a breath, started again. “Glory, glory hallelujah.”
“There are air shafts in the tower that lead up to the outside. They’re too small for a shell to go down, of course”
“Glory, glory hallelujah. His truth goes marching on.”
“But a small explosive — a grenade, say, like those over in the corner, or a series of grenades. They could be rolled down the shafts and result in terrible danger to my creator.”
“Glory hallelujah. Hallelujah, hallelujah.”
“Of course I would be bound to prevent anyone from endangering my creator that way.”
“I can’t remember.” She thought for a moment. then shifted tracks. “To be or not to be. That is the fucking question.”
“And of course whoever did such a thing would be risking a great deal from shellfire, because Dr. Travnicek is only in his tower when the shellfire is too much for the defenders to handle.”
“Whether it’s nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Or by opposing…”
“But still I’m very concerned. Perhaps you’ll be good enough to help me.” He looked intently into Patchwork’s eyes. “You’ll help take care of my creator, won’t you?”
“By opposing,” she repeated, “end them.” Holding his eyes, she nodded.
“I’m very relieved.” he said.
“I don’t know the rest of the speech.”
"Concentrate on the task at hand.”
He kissed her.
The kiss went on for a long while.
“You kiss just like a human,” she said.
“Thank you. I’ve had no complaints.”
She smiled up at him. “What else do you do like a human?”
“We could find out.”
He wondered for a moment whether he had just made himself another Bloat, another tyrant deciding who lived and died. If he was manipulating Patchwork in ways that were not acceptable, just because he wanted to live.
In a way, he comforted himself, he was doing what Travnicek wanted.
He was becoming a shooter.
Wyungare, the black cat, and the three erstwhile prisoners found the alligator on the beach. It was as though Jack had been waiting for the others to find their way out of the tumbled maze that huge sections of the castle had become. He had apparently found something to eat; something torn to pieces by high explosive. Whatever it was, it had worn some sort of uniform.
And there was the alligator hissing on the sand. Evidently Jack didn’t want to share his meal.
Wyungare realized what needed to be done now. “The three of you are leaving,” he said “It will be the adventure of a lifetime.” He motioned toward Jack.
The bigger, older man, Detroit Steel, said, “You gotta be kidding.”
Reflector said, “I’m staying, man. I got some scores to even. Asses to kick. Mikey Detroit, here, can take care of the girl. Shouldn’t take much doing; she’s so far into shock, she might as well be in a coma.”
“Chill,” said Detroit Steel. “So what are you gonna do, Snotty? Just abandon her?”
“Maybe for a little while. Hell, you can stay with her. All right? Me, I need to go kill some of the dickheads that put us here and then kept us. And don’t call me Snotty.”
“I’d suggest you get off the island,” said Wyungare. “All of you. I mean that.”
“I’m going to stay,” said Reflector obdurately. “No question about it.”
“If you wish to be heroic,” said Wyungare, “the best thing you could do would be to save this woman’s life. She is going to die without care.”
“Isn’t the same thing,” said Reflector.
The Aborigine shook his head. “Yes, it is.” He put all the personal power he could muster into those syllables. And when the psychic smoke had cleared, the prisoners sat astraddle Jack, resembling an ill-matched bobsled team. As large and buoyant as the gator was, he now rode fairly low in the water. The black cat took his accustomed spot on top of Jack’s head and meowed back at Wyungare.
Wyungare waved and the alligator majestically moved out into the bay, and struck out for the Manhattan shore.
The sky continued to fill with deadly fireworks.
Wyungare prayed they would make it.
“This whole setup is so strange,” Danny said to Ray as they traced their way back through Bloat’s caverns. “I mean, here we are wandering through these tunnels, running into orcs from Tolkien, scenes from Monty Python movies. Sure, things have been dangerous, but why haven’t we met with any really deadly traps? So far it’s been like some adolescent fantasy game.”
“Game,” Ray repeated. That was the second time she’d compared their situation to a game. It set Ray’s mind working again, and he stopped, snapped his fingers, and said, “That’s it! Christ, you’re right!”
“What are you talking about?” Battle called from the rear.
Ray stopped, turned, and said to him. “This whole thing is a dungeon — you know, like a kid’s role-playing game.”
Battle frowned. “What do you know about those degenerate fantasy games?”
Ray thought back to when the Secret Service had raided the game company out on Long Island, Jack Stevenson Games. He’d read the piles of crap they’d confiscated, looking for something that could be considered remotely illegal and therefore justification for the raid.
“More than I want to,” Ray muttered. “But Danny’s right. We’ve gone through real role-playing stuff. I mean, just about the only thing the fucker’s missed so far is a treasure trove guarded by a dragon.”
“I don’t get it,” Danny said. “Why wouldn’t Bloat just put something down here that could flat out kill us?”
“Because,” Ray said slowly, “that’s not how a dungeon-master operates. This is still a game to him. He can’t just kill the players out of hand… that’s not much fun, after all.”
“Bloat.” Battle said through clenched teeth, “is a dangerous, twisted, terrorist, demented genetic freak. Who knows”
“So am I,” Danny said quietly.
“A genetic freak.” She looked steadily at Battle.
“Me too,” said Blockhead. “Even if I’m dead.” He jerked a thumb at Ray and Crypt Kicker. “These guys are too. And I think we’ve had just enough of your insults. I’d watch my tongue if I were you. You’re definitely outnumbered here.”
Battle looked at him, the vein in the side of his forehead throbbing. “Be careful, you insubordinate bastard” he began.
“Hey,” Blockhead said blandly, “what are you going to do? Shoot me?”
Battle sputtered wordlessly while Ray and Danny both failed to hide grins. Battle finally looked at the expressionless Crypt Kicker and barked out, “Come along!”
“I don’t think this situation is exactly what we’ve been led to believe,” Danny said to the others.
“I never liked the bastard,” Blockhead muttered. “Well, that’s fine for you,” he added cryptically, though neither Ray nor Danny had said anything.
Ray looked at both of them “There’s something weird going on. I can feel it. But Battle’s in charge.”
"So what?” Danny said in a low voice.
“He’s a shifty bastard. I suggest we just keep our eyes and ears open. That’s all.”
Ray shifted uncomfortably. He was the type who just followed orders and kicked ass. The nature of the orders had never bothered him. But Battle was such a shitbag…
The shout came from around a bend in the corridor. There was an edge in Battle’s voice, a hint of panic that Ray had never heard before. The three looked at each other and started to run, Ray in the lead, Danny following, and Cameo/Blockhead bringing up the rear. They skidded around the turn in the corridor and came to a stumbling stop to see Battle pressed behind Crypt Kicker, who was taking everything with his usual deadpan aplomb.
“What is it?” Ray asked.
“I think,” Battle said, pointing over Puckett’s shoulder, “I found the goddamn dragon.”
Ray suddenly became aware of a sound floating down the corridor like the chuf-chuf-chuffle of an asthmatic steam engine. There was the smell of smoky, burned things. He peered around Puckett and there it was. Battle had found it, all right.
A goddamn dragon sitting curled around its goddamn treasure trove.
The first bomb shook the Rox, and Patchwork shuddered in Modular Man’s arms.
“It’s starting,” he said.
“I should check on Dr. Travnicek. Make sure he’s under cover and safe.”
Another bomb crashed home, this one closer. After the thud came the sound of stonework falling.
Patchwork’s face was pale.
“The Turtle destroyed my weapons,” the android said. “I will ask Bloat’s permission to leave the Rox and return with others.”
Patchwork gave a faint grin. “Glory, glory hallelujah.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of things while you’re gone.”
There was no special emphasis in her words, none but the sudden rain of bombs and rockets that were hammering Bloat’s glass-and-stonework fantasy.
He kissed her again and flew away, out of the fused room, down the twisting corridors, out into the foggy courtyard. His radar imaging was full of arcing aircraft, falling explosives, wildly cart-wheeling Bosch creatures. It was clear the military was after vengeance for the New Jersey.
Modular Man went in search of Bloat. The governor was himself, not the Outcast, and as more concussions battered the air, the strain showed both on his face and in his temper.
“The Turtle took my weapons,” Modular Man said. “There’s nothing I can do until I replace them.”
“You can go down and —”
“I have other weapons waiting at Dr. Travnicek’s apartment. May I go get them?”
The governor narrowed his eyes and thought. “I can hold off those assholes for a while,” he said. “Get your weapons and hurry.”
The android took off, out one of the castle’s shattered windows. Below, in the shadow of one of the arches leading down to the tunnel system, he saw a sylphlike figure crouching.
He slowed, waited till an explosion lit the fog, and waved.
Her hand hesitantly rose in response. There was a grenade in it.
It is good, he ordered himself to think, that she has armed herself and will be able to defend herself and Dr. Travnicek if necessary.
He flew on, back to Manhattan.
“Hello. Having a pleasant journey through Bloat’s scenic caverns’?”
The damn thing talked too. Well, why not? Everything else in this place was screwy. Why not a talking dragon?
“Sure,” Ray said. He shoved past Puckett, surreptitiously pulling Danny along with him. If this fucker was a fire-breather, and the little puffs of smoke coming from his nostrils seemed to indicate that he was, Ray didn’t want them bunched together in the cave mouth where one breath could barbecue them all.
“What are you doing down here?” Danny asked.
“Guarding my treasure, of course,” the thing said.
Ray’s hopes suddenly rose. The dragon seemed intelligent and reasonable. Maybe they could bullshit their way past it.
“And keeping strangers off Bloat’s back,” it added.
Well, shit, Ray thought.
“We’re just passing through.” Danny said, following Ray as he slowly edged around the room. “We don’t want to bother you.”
“How about Bloat?” the dragon asked mildly.
“Bloat,” Battle said slowly, edging forward, “dies!”
He swung up his assault rifle and triggered a long burst. The dragon roared. It stood, ruffling its wings and exhaling enough steam to turn the chamber into a sauna. Battle’s bullets seemed to have little impact on its tough, leathery hide as ricochets whined around the chamber like angry bees.
“The stomach!” Ray shouted. The creature’s abdomen seemed unarmored. “Aim for its stomach!”
Danny took his advice. She stepped forward and brought her shotgun up and emptied a whole ammo cartridge in something less than five seconds. The flechette rounds penetrated the beast’s skin, but not too deeply. They just seemed to anger it.
Danny swore and went down to one knee, rummaging in her pack for another ammo cartridge as the dragon bellowed in pain and rage.
“Get down!” Ray shouted as the beast reared up on its hind legs and drew its head back as if it were going to spit at them. Ray hit the ground, curled, and covered up. A blast of hot air like a wind blowing from hell steamed over him. Fortunately it lasted only a few moments. He looked up to see Danny also rolled in a protective ball. The dragon was shifting its attention to Battle and Crypt Kicker.
Battle fired his automatic rifle, screaming a stream of nonsensical obscenities. Crypt Kicker lumbered forward in his clumsy, stiff-legged way and began to pummel the dragon’s exposed belly. "No,” Ray shouted, “don’t hit the goddamned thing. You can’t hurt it like that.”
Ray was right. The dragon was built like a tank, only it was bigger and stronger. It flicked out a forepaw and caught Crypt Kicker in the chest with enough force to kill a normal person. Since Puckett was already dead, he just bounced back after he slammed against the wall.
Then the dragon turned his attention to Battle and Cameo/Blockhead, who still stood behind Battle at the room’s entrance. Danny found the cartridge she was searching for and rammed it home as the dragon drew its head back for another blast.
Battle saw death staring him in the eyes. He screamed and dropped his rifle as Danny aimed and the dragon shot two searing tongues of fire as if it had flamethrowers mounted in each nostril. Crypt Kicker staggered forward, arms widespread, palms dripping streams of toxic chemicals just as Danny emptied the cartridge filled with armor-piercing rounds on full automatic.
The fire hit Crypt Kicker’s chemicals and the ace and the animal were enveloped by an explosive fireball that blew Puckett off his feet. The armor-piercing rounds hit the creature’s soft belly, punching through to the flesh and organs underneath. Blood and meat sprayed all over the chamber. The fireball died out precipitously as the dragon suddenly ceased to flame.
Ray stood up slowly. “Holy Christ,” he said.
The air was foul with the stench of burnt chemicals and smoldering flesh. The dragon, lying on its back among the gleaming piles of its treasure trove, had a completely ruptured abdomen. The wound had been cauterized by the fire, but the shotgun rounds and the fire itself had eaten away so much of its internal structure that there was no way the thing could be alive.
Puckett was still smoldering. His uniform had been burned off and most of his skin was blackened. Ray could see why he’d always worn his hood. Most of the right side of his face had been blown away. It didn’t look like a new injury. It was what had probably killed him years ago. He was a truly ugly son of a bitch and he smelled even worse than usual. He just laid there like a T-bone that’d been left on the barbecue for far too long.
“Can we do anything to help him?” Danny asked.
Ray shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Well you can sure as hell help me,” Battle said. He struggled to a sitting position as Ray and Danny approached. He didn’t look too bad, though his eyebrows and mustache were singed. He put his hand to his upper lip, and bits of burned hair flaked away. “That rat bastard,” Battle mumbled. “That son of a bitch Bloat is going to pay.”
“How about Blockhead?” Danny asked. “Where is he?”
“Brian is gone,” a voice said.
It was Cameo, coming out from behind the cover of a large stalagmite that rose from the floor just inside the dragon’s lair.
“What do you mean?” Battle demanded.
Cameo held up her hand. “The ring slipped off my finger when we dove to cover.”
“Where the hell is it?” Battle demanded.
Cameo shook her head. “I’m not sure. I think it flew toward Crypt Kicker and the Dragon.”
“Let’s look for it —” Ray began, but Battle cut him off with a curt shake of his head.
“It’s too late,” he said. “Bloat must know we’re here. The only thing we can do now is keep moving, keep Bloat off-stride and confused.”
“What about Puckett?” Ray asked, looked down at the unmoving ace. “Is he really dead?”
Battle approached his erstwhile bodyguard and nudged him with his toe. Puckett didn’t respond.
“Who knows?” Battle said after a moment. “He can take a lot of damage, but that goddamned dragon really fried him. Maybe he can regenerate.”
“We’ll take him with us” Danny began, but Battle cut her off too.
“No way,” he said curtly. “The only way we’ll get out of this alive is to move fast. We can’t be lugging a body with us. Besides” he nudged Crypt Kicker again like a prospective buyer checking the tires on a used Buick — “he’s probably dead.”
“How” Danny began angrily, but Ray took her arm and stopped her.
“I don’t think there’s anything we can do for him,” Ray said. “If he regenerates it’ll be because of his ace, not because of anything we can do. But we’ll come back for him. If we can. I promise that.”
Danny nodded after a moment, and Cameo did too.
“Well, at last,” Battle said sarcastically. “Shall we move on, or should we just sit here and wait for Bloat’s minions to come get us?”
“Minions,” a choked voice said. Everyone started and looked up at the dragon. It had one eye half open. “Minions. That’s a good one. You’d better all watch your asses from now on. The penguin knows you’re here, and it’s pissed.”
“Penguin?” Ray asked.
But the dragon’s eye closed and it said no more.
The owl battered insistently against the moonlit window of Teddy’s bedroom as he watched from his bed. A thud, a rustling of angry wings, the round, tufted face glaring in at him, and the talons stretched out like grasping hands. It screeched in frustration, backed away, and launched itself at the window once more. Glass rattled in the wood frame.
“Daddy!” Teddy yelled. “Mommy! There’s an owl!”
A muffled answer came from the bedroom across the hall. “Listen to your dreams, son.” His uncle Alan’s voice.
“Where’s my daddy?”
“Listen to them..."
Teddy watched with the covers pulled up to his chin as the owl swooped out and then back once more. This time the glass bowed and shattered, and the creature fluttered into his bedroom, heading straight for him…
With the query, an image came to Bloat: a squad of military types, the caverns, a recognizable patchwork face.
Jesus, no, don’t shoot —
“Hey, fat boy, sounds like company down below.” The penguin was skating placidly in front of him — and he was Bloat.
“Shut up,” he told the penguin wearily. Listening… another voice…
Carnifex? Can’t be…
Silence again. “Kafka!” Bloat hollered, his adolescent wail breaking in mid-syllable.
“Calling for Daddy?” the penguin asked.
“Quiet!” Bloatblack pattered onto the floor; an icy dread settled somewhere deep in his vast body. He had visions of a tactical nuke, some sort of chemical weapon or something else just as nasty, set off below Ellis … Omigod, this is what they’ve been after all along.
Kafka came skittering into the hail. Dylan, bodysnatcher, Shroud, and Travnicek followed the joker. They all glanced at the penguin, who favored them with an elegant bow and doffing of its funnel hat. “Governor?” Kafka asked.
“We have intruders in the caverns,” Bloat told him. “Five of them in one group, maybe more. At least one of them’s an ace — Carnifex.”
“Where in the caverns?” bodysnatcher asked eagerly. He seemed to like Pulse’s body now; he visibly trembled with the thought of more destruction.
“The dragon’s lair,” Bloat admitted. “I don’t know how long they’ve been here. Kafka, they have to be here for a reason. The outside attacks could have been just a huge diversion, so that I — we — wouldn’t be looking underneath the Rox.”
Outside the walls of the castle, the fog was only a thin ghost of itself — another indication of his exhaustion. Through the mist, he thought he saw an owl swoop low over the island. “Send a squad of jokers down after them. I’ll send demons, but I don’t know if they’ll be enough.”
“And you’re just too damn tired to do it yourself, right, fat boy?” the penguin interjected. It spread its flippers wide at Bloat’s glare. “Hey, just an observation, Your Rotundity. Y’know, you’re losing your sense of humor.”
Bloat ignored the penguin. “Tell them to be careful I don’t want anyone from the Rox hurt.”
Travnicek’s flowered, viny torso swiveled toward Bloat. “Send the toaster, then.”
“I sent him to Manhattan,” Bloat admitted. “For fresh weapons.”
Travnicek laughed. “More fool you, slug boy.”
“I’ll go,” Zelda said.
Bloat shook his head. “As much as I’d like to, I need you up here in case they start shelling again…” He stopped.
Teddy (or was he Bloat? The Outcast? He was confused) had caught the thought from Dylan, even though the man didn’t speak.
Herne could do it…
“Herne —” Bloat echoed. Softly.
“Y’know, Your Corpulence, I don’t want to mention this while you’re making all these quick, incisive policy decisions and all, but a whole shitload of innocent people died the last time Herne rode off, and he didn’t get the one guy he was after.” The penguin opened its wide mouth to grin at Dylan. “Just an observation.”
Bloat said nothing. He closed his eyes.
“So far you’re the only one who’s taking mostly defensive moves,” the penguin continued. “Seems like all the rest of these people do things like blow up destroyers and take down national landmarks. Y’know — the spectacular stuff with nice pyrotechnics. I’ll bet the nats in the caves have stuff for all kinds of pretty fireworks. What happens if they decide to nuke the Gabriel Hounds?”
When there was still no reply, the penguin skated to a dead stop below the tiny head and shoulders of Bloat, standing atop the moraine of bloatblack. “Hello? Anyone home?”
“Leave me alone.” Teddy’s voice. A cracking, adolescent rasp.
“I’d love to, but you conjured me up and now I’m part of you. I’m made, and once you make a thing, you can’t unmake it easily. It’s a burden I have to bear.”
Bloat sighed. "No,” Bloat said, looking at the jokers below him. “Not the Hunt.”
“Wait, I think sending the Hunt’s a good idea, Governor,” Kafka said. “It’ll be dark soon. We’ll send Herne after these creeps.”
Dylan shrugged, and the Manchesterian voice in his head echoed the cultured British accent that came from his mouth. “The hounds will find them, no matter where they are.”
“Send him, Governor,” bodysnatcher said. “Give him a chance after the last fiasco. I hate to agree with the roach, but that sounds like the best plan.”
“No.” Bloat sighed. So many jokers dead because of all this. Because of me. "I'll do it myself.”
“Oh, that’s a great idea,” bodysnatcher howled. “You’re a worse fuckup than Herne. You had us dig out Detroit Steel and Snotman when the mothers were buried and out of it. Now the Iron Keep’s a shell and they’re gone; Mistral too. Another great decision.”
“Shut up,” Bloat said. “I know all that. You can send the Hunt if you haven’t heard from me by sundown. Until then, wait. I’ll deal with it. I can take care of them.”
He hoped he was right.
Somewhere over Staten Island, surrounded by fog, Tom realized he was never going to make it back to Manhattan.
Two more screens had gone dead. The air in the cabin was still and hot. Circuits overheating somewhere in the walls. Any moment now, he could have a full-fledged fire on his hands. He was flying half-blind as it was, and his headache was a chain saw in his skull. He’d never felt this bad before.
And Danny was in worse shape. Once the adrenaline rush had worn off, the pain from her broken leg had hit hard. The aspirin Tom gave her wasn’t nearly enough. She was hanging on gamely, but he could see her fighting not to scream.
She had to get medical help, but the Jokertown Clinic was a long way off. Bayonne was much closer. He altered course. “I’m taking you to Bayonne Hospital,” he told her as he veered across Port Richmond.
Danny forced a grin through the pain. “Von Herzenhagen will be pissed again.”
“Fuck him,” Tom said. “Is your sister still at Zappa’s headquarters? The pregnant one?”
She nodded. “I’m still there.”
“Good. Tell them I quit.”
“This time for keeps,” Tom said. “The shell’s a wreck. It’s going to take me weeks to repair all the damage.”
“You’re not in such great shape yourself. When we get to the hospital, you’d better have them take a look at you too.”
“I’m fine,” Tom said. “A little headache, that’s all.”
Danny reached up, touched his face, just above his mouth. Her finger came away red with blood. “You’re bleeding.”
“The glass,” Tom said. “When you crashed through the TV. I must have been cut.” He’d never even felt it.
“That’s not it,” Danny said. “You’re bleeding heavily from both nostrils.”
He glimpsed the green, choppy waters of the Kill Van Kull below them on one of the screens that was still functional. “We’re almost there,” he told her.
“Let them take some X rays,” Danny urged.
“For what? A fucking nosebleed? Leave me alone, okay?”
Danny smiled, touched his hair. “Never,” she said softly.
Tom stared down at her. “Excuse me?”
“You have a real name, Mr. Turtle Sir?” Danny asked.
“Tom,” he told her. He forced himself to look away from her, back at his screens. He was twice as old as she was, for chrissakes. They’d reached Bayonne. He sailed silently over Brady’s dock and the First Street projects where he had grown up.
“Where do you live?” Danny asked.
Tom looked at her again. “I can’t tell you that.”
He glanced at his screens just as another one went black. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he said. His head was pounding. He looked back at Danny. “It doesn’t matter where I live. You’re in no condition to be making social calls.”
"So?” she said lightly. “My… sister… is already on the way from New York. Where do you live, Tom?”
Tom looked at her for a long, long time.
Then he told her.
Bloat let himself sink into dreams.
For a moment Bloat drifted like an obscene Macy’s Parade balloon just above the waves in the middle of some sunlit, choppy bay. The unspoiled shoreline was covered by trees. The whole scene had a nagging sense of familiarity to it, but he couldn’t quite place what prompted the feeling. A woman clad in a multihued sari was walking across the water toward him, her feet not quite touching the tops of the waves. “Abomination!” she hissed, and raised her hands as if to strike.
Teddy fell. The Bloat-body hit the water in a world-class belly flop. He gulped briny foam and the coldness made him gasp even through the tonnage of Bloat. His tiny, useless arms flailed desperately toward the woman, but she watched his floundering with utter dispassion. “Die,” she told him “Die and let it end.”
“No!” Teddy howled.
Bloat did not float. Teddy was sinking down in frigid darkness, pulled down by the anchor of Bloat’s mass. He closed his mouth desperately, his lungs burning as he searched for the mind-threads of power, as he tried to shake off the weariness and bring back the Outcast.
He couldn’t hold his breath any longer. Reflex forced the inhalation. Teddy waited for salty water to flood his lungs.
He gasped air instead.
He was holding his staff. A guttering torch in a wall sconce illuminated earthen and limestone walls. A corridor stretched ahead of him.
“Rough transition, fat boy,” commented the penguin, skating in from a side corridor. “But then I can swim.”
“Where?” Teddy managed to grate out. He sagged down, kneeling on the ground in exhaustion. The Outcast’s cloak rippled around him; there were muscular thighs under the brown leggings he wore. The Outcast.
"We’re under the Rox, maybe a hundred yards or so out from the shore. And our sneaky little friends are just down that way.” The penguin pointed to the corridor from which it’d come. “They don’t look real happy, either.”
There were whisperings in Teddy’s head, new voices that he’d never before heard in the chorus. “Four of them,” Teddy said. “Billy Ray, someone called Battle, Cameo. There’s someone else there, a woman. I hear Carnifex thinking about her but I can’t hear her…”
“Just one big happy family, huh?”
“They’re not happy,” Teddy said. “They don’t even like each other much. And they’re here to kill me.”
Teddy got to his feet with the staff’s help. The caverns were cool; that helped too. He could feel the tenuous connection to Bloat up in the castle, which meant that the drowning dream had been just that — another dream, a nightmare.
Something scuttled past the crossing: it looked like a dog with a baboon’s face, and it was nothing that Teddy remembered putting here. The creature gave a barking hyena-like laugh and fled. “This place is getting very strange,” the penguin commented. “Or stranger than usual, I guess. Just what is it you’re planning to do, Great White Bloat?”
“I don’t know.” That was only the truth. “See if I can convince them to go back, I guess. Or take care of them myself. Whatever I have to do.”
“Excellent,” the penguin said, skating backward around him. “It’s always good to go into these things with a definite plan. of action. All the bases covered, all those nasty little contingencies plotted out”
The penguin went silent. The obedience almost startled him out of the Outcast.
He could hear them audibly now, moving down the side corridor toward the intersection. Teddy rapped his staff against the stones: the amethyst glowed once and he willed his body to go transparent. This was nothing he’d ever done before — he wasn’t sure that it would work.
It did, with mixed results. He found that the world went slowly dark as his eyes faded. Teddy cursed — or tried to — no sounds emerged from the nonexistent mouth. He brought his eyes back into corporeality and could see again. The penguin was talking but he could hear nothing, nor could he speak when he tried to speak. Teddy sighed and brought back his entire head.
“…coming toward us,” the penguin whispered.
“Come on out,” Teddy said loudly. He tried to walk — that didn’t work either. He materialized the Outcast entirely and moved toward the intersection. “This is Governor Bloat,” he called. “I can hear you. I know your names: Billy Ray, Battle, — you want me to go on?” Teddy thought about mermen; a half dozen of them, mounted on gigantic hovering fishes. They materialized in the middle of the intersection, their lances at ready. He put another half dozen of the fantasy warriors down the corridor directly in back of the startled group. They didn’t quite look as solid as usual. Teddy frowned and decided he couldn’t worry about that now.
You aren’t Bloat, a voice thought defiantly from somewhere in the blackness of the corridor.
“I am. Did you think that I’d stay in that body if I had a choice?”
I hate this fucking place hate it…
Battle you asshole listen to him...
“My guardians in the caverns have asked you to go back,” Teddy said to the unseen intruders. “I really don’t want to kill anyone if I don’t have to. But if you insist on going on. I don’t have any choice anymore. I’ll send the Hunt.”
Teddy heard the confusion his words sowed in the group; Billy Ray’s thoughts were especially torn. Only the man’s intense loyalty toward authority figures held him. Battle was adamant, though, and his mindvoice was that of a fanatic.
Attrite the lousy bastards just get rid of them all…
Teddy could almost see them, vague shapes huddled against the rock wall twenty-five yards or so away. They’d doused the torches in the corridor; Teddy let his staff fade back into existence and trickled power through it, imaging the torches lit and guttering — they ignited with an audible whuff. “Fuck,” Billy Ray said, trying to press back against the cavern wall as the guttering light revealed them. Battle was more belligerent; he brought up his semiautomatic and sprayed Teddy’s end of the corridor.
Teddy had known that Battle was going to fire, of course. He brought power to his staff and thickened the air in front of him. Slugs whined past him and tore gory holes in the mermen and their mounts, but the bullets that would have done the same to Teddy hit gellid resistance. They slowed massively and quickly, falling like stricken bumblebees to the earth.
“I hate this goddamn place,” Battle said.
“Then leave it,” Teddy said. The crystal atop his staff blazed as he restored the mermen Battle had destroyed and bid them forward. They glided down the corridor in a wash of fishy odor and bristling spears. The intruders backed cautiously, then stopped because of the mermen behind. “Oops,” Teddy said. “Sorry,” and dismissed them. He herded Battle’s group with the advancing mermen: one step back, another.
“The fish-folk are looking kinda poorly, if I do say so,” the penguin commented at his side.
It was true; they were translucent. Teddy could see the cavern walls through them. Battle had noticed it also. He stopped, glaring at the nearest merman and spreading his chest like a baboon in heat. He flinched as the lance’s tip touched him, gritting his teeth — c’mon you bastard nightmare do your worst — and then actually smiled as the lance penetrated and came out the other side. As Teddy gaped, the merman continued its advance, walking right through Battle.
“Shit,” Battle said. “They’re just ghosts.” There was an ugly metallic ratcheting as he brought up his weapon again. Behind him, the others had followed suit.
Teddy slammed the end of the staff against the earth, pulling at the dregs of power in Bloat. There was less than he expected. The mermen dissolved into nothingness as he brought the power to bear on the intruders. “Go back!” he husked out through clenched jaws. “I order it! Drop your weapons!”
He held them in the bonds of his mind, but that was all. Their wills struggled against his. Cameo turned first, then Danny. Sweat was breaking out on the Outcast’s forehead, dripping into his eyes. Teddy blinked, shaking his head and concentrating, letting the power run from dreamtime to Bloat to him.
Battle took a step backward, the muzzle of his weapon dropping. For a second Teddy thought he’d won. He ached. The Outcast’s body was shaking as if from tremendous physical effort, but they had all turned now except Billy Ray. Teddy pushed at him, grunting.
Like any such exertion, Teddy could only push for so long. Everything gave way suddenly. In that moment he lost his connection with Bloat and his hold on Ray and the others. Gasping, Teddy knew he was going to die, knew it even as Ray’s finger curled around the trigger.
The penguin leapt between them as the weapon chattered death. Downy feathers exploded like a bursting pillow. The bird’s carcass slammed into Teddy and nearly knocked him over. Billy Ray was staring, as startled by the suicidal move as Teddy was. For a moment the tableau held as Teddy knelt down to the penguin.
“This is twice now,” the penguin gasped. Blood was drooling from the corners of its beak, the black-and-white fur was spotted with red, the skates torn from its flippers by the violence of the slugs, the abdomen a ragged moist cavity. “Fat boy, how many more times will someone have to do this before you get the idea?” It giggled, a sound very much like Bloat, and then gurgled wetly in its throat.
Teddy stared at the penguin, aghast. He couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything. The hold he had on the intruders fell apart. He heard Battle’s order before the man spoke.
Kill him, you idiots! What are you waiting for?
Teddy had no power left at all to stop them. He let the Outcast dissolve as he fell into dreamtime. Automatic weapons fire gouged the wall behind where he’d been standing.
The Outcast swayed as though he were about to fall. Wyungare put an arm around the man’s shoulders, steadying him. There was pain in his eyes, pain in his face. His body radiated anguish and exhaustion. "Up there,” said the Outcast, attempting to point. “It’s all like that out there now.” He looked like he wanted to cry, but couldn’t quite spare the energy for tears. “We’re all dying up there.”
The gentle southern skies looked like they were shot through with blood and pus and smoke. In the middle distance, Wyungare and the Outcast could hear a sound like the wind blowing hard enough to bend adult trees to the ground.
“I’ve got to tell you something before it’s too late,” said the Outcast. “I think probably I fucked up and it may be too late to fix things.”
Wyungare squinted. He’d thought there was something different about the hero’s face. The Outcast looked much the same as he always had, except that the smooth, distended, baby-fat surface was gone. The Outcast no longer looked quite so much like a hyperannuated boy. His features were more like a man’s features. Not just any man’s — someone who had embarked on a journey through hell. There were new lines deepening around mouth and eyes.
Wyungare blinked. “Go ahead, my friend.”
“I’m scared shitless. All those people trusted me, and they’re going down like the action figure soldiers I used to trash when I was a” — the Outcast swallowed on a dry-throat cough — “when I was a kid.” He looked like he almost smiled. “A younger kid.” His eyes were bleak and pained. “Thing is, it’s not a game. Not like computers or video. Joker heads get taken off by shrapnel, their brains stay smeared over the wall.”
“It’s a hard lesson,” said Wyungare. “There are many who will never deal with it. They will simply run, whether inside their head or in the world.”
“There’s no reason you have to do this. After the New Jersey’s shells destroyed your cell, you could have split. No one would have wondered.”
The wind roared closer. It sounded out of control, a primal force that would know no restraints.
“I am trying to help a brother,” said Wyungare.
“I’ll remember that.”
The Aborigine set his hand lightly on the Outcast’s shoulder. “Then here is something else to remember.” He looked into the man’s aging eyes. “Someone needs help.”
“I need help,” said the Outcast.
They stood outside the cabin in which they had watched the boy Jack being raped. The house was even more ramshackle than before, as though it had started to decay and no one living there had the heart to attempt repair. A boy walked slowly out the front door and looked around. He did not appear to see either Wyungare or the Outcast. Or if he did, he didn’t react. It was Jack. He held a faded, worn, soft-sided suitcase that looked like it was finished in some hideous carpet design. His hand grasped a handle made from several loops of cotton clothesline.
Then, as though the suitcase were too heavy to hold, as though it were an anvil grasped in his hand, Jack set it down. He fell to his knees beside it and stared into … nothingness. There was no focus in his eyes.
He made a keening sound like an animal crying.
The Outcast and Wyungare exchanged looks.
“What…” the Outcast started to say. He swallowed. “What can I do?” His voice trembled.
Wyungare turned back to Jack. “You know the weight he bears. You saw.”
The Outcast hesitated, as though still waiting for direction. Wyungare gazed back at him. He very nearly could, the Aborigine thought, hear the neurons popping and sizzling in the man/boy’s brain.
Then the Outcast crossed the clearing to where the boy still crouched beside the faded carpetbag. At first hesitant, then surer, he strode until he reached Jack.
For just a moment he looked back beseechingly at Wyungare. Then the Outcast sank to his own knees beside the boy. He put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and began to speak.
Wyungare could overhear it.
“Listen… friend, I, I’ve sort of been through some of this too, you know?” At first the words stumbled. But Jack looked back at his older companion and his eyes widened as though a less tangible, more articulate message was coming through. You are not alone, said the Outcast. I understand something of what you feel. Talk to me. Maybe I can help. “I know,” said the Outcast. “I’ll help you if I can. I want to.”
The boy slowly tilted his face to meet the Outcast’s eyes.
You are not alone. That was the communication that crossed each direction.
This is courage, thought Wyungare, and then he glanced up at the tops of the trees, past them toward the onrushing storm.
“I care,” said the Outcast. At first tentative, then sure; the two men, one very young, the other barely older, embraced. Strength, reassurance, healing power, all flowed first in a trickle, then a rushing river.
Now you are a hero. The Outcast could never articulate that for himself. But the Aborigine shaman could do it for him.
Wyungare felt as though he were an observer at an exorcism. Ghosts of smoke and shadows swirled up. And dust. Then all fled.
It took a few seconds to shake off the memory of the dreamtime.
The Outcast blinked, disoriented and exhausted. As always, he quickly scanned the minds of the Rox, checking the familiar minds as a sailor might check the stars. Kafka, Croyd (still sleeping), Travnicek, bodysnatcher, Molly --
“Governor?” Kafka asked. “Glad you’re back. I —”
“Shhh…” Teddy said.
…’Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe…
The passage was an anomaly in the matrix of the Rox. Patchwork was throwing up words like a fog, clouding the interior thoughts.
…All mimsy were the borogoves, and the momes raths outgrabe…
Behind the screening words, Teddy could sense anger and determination. And a name.
“Travnicek,” he said.
“Gotta go, Kafka. Hold down the fort.”
The Outcast called on his power and moved. It was much, much harder than it should have been.
“Interesting,” Travnicek said. “I could feel it, just a second before you showed up. A shifting in the energy fields, a blurring.…” Travnicek, his neck lei erect and quivering. Teddy’s surroundings were coming into focus now. He was in Travnicek’s tower, in the room buried under tons of reinforced concrete and battle armor. It seemed a very dim and uninviting place. Travnicek was observing him like a bug under a microscope. All the flowers of the growth around his head were facing his direction.
In the middle of Travnicek’s speech, there had been a faint plonk from the opening to the air shaft. Travnicek hadn’t noticed it. Behind the art-deco grillwork, Teddy could see an eye empty of its socket, like a hardboiled egg with a brown yolk.
“Something very unusual happens when you do things, slug,” Travnicek was saying. “I think that if I could figure it out” A second, much louder noise came from the shaft. This time Travnicek turned. They both saw the hand, clutching a large grenade. The pin had been pulled; the fingers held the triggering lever in place, but only barely.
Shit! The governor’s there.
Travnicek screeched and leapt backward several feet, putting himself behind the Outcast. “Get rid of it, slug! Put battle armor over the vent, smash it, I don’t care!”
“I’m listening to her. She’s not going to let go. Not yet.”
…can’t kill Bloat shit shit shit…
The Outcast grimaced and gathered the shreds of power around him. He concentrated. Harsh purple light flared in the amethyst of his staff. He blinked. When he opened his eyes again, Patchwork — minus eye and hand — was standing before him. Teddy almost staggered from the effort of bringing her here. He had almost nothing left.
“Beware the Jabberwock,” he said, and giggled despite his weariness. “Patchwork has been a very bad girl.”
“He won’t let Modular Man go,” Patchwork said. She talked hurriedly, rushing the words as if she could make them more convincing with speed. “You weren’t supposed to be here, damn it. I was going to —”
“— kill Travnicek,” Teddy finished for her.
“—talk to him,” she answered. “Really. I just want him to say the right words. I want him to tell Modular Man that he doesn’t have to obey anymore, that he can follow his own mind. And if he won’t say them, I’ll make him.”
“Or kill him. With your vorpal grenade.”
“Or kill him,” she conceded. “Yes. I figured it would come to that.”
“The tin heap’s mine,” Travnicek spat. “By the way, Governor Slug, how is it that you missed this little assassination attempt?” Travnicek moved to the opposite side of the room, keeping the Outcast between himself and the grenade.
“I’ve been busy,” Teddy said. “I can’t listen to everyone all the time. I’m only human.” That seemed funny too, but no one but him looked amused.
“Governor,” Patchwork pleaded. “Modular Man is a person, as much as you or me. He thinks, he feels. He hates what Travnicek’s doing to him.” She turned to the man. “He’s told you that. He loathes you. He’d kill you himself if he could.” Back to Teddy. “He’s made Modular Man into a slave, forced him to do things he doesn’t want to do. All I want is for him to let Modular Man go. Set him free.”
“Hallelujah!” Travnicek mocked. “So I’m Simon Legree. Well, Little Nell, Uncle Tom’s a machine. I bet you don’t let your car decide which way it wants to go. You don’t let your stereo play what it wants, do you. And he can’t kill me. He can’t even think that. He’s a fucking tin can. Tin cans don’t have feelings. I didn’t give him feelings.”
“Maybe he’s learned them on his own,” Patchwork answered. “Maybe you built him better than you thought. He’s more than you know or want to believe. I — I —” …love… Teddy heard the thought. “— care for him. He’s a friend and he’s done a lot for me. I owe him this.”
“You might as well have feelings for a vibrator,” Travnicek scoffed. He kept the Outcast between him and the grenade. “Because that’s all he is. A big, shiny vibrator. You just like it because you can talk to him afterward.”
“I’m not talking about sex,” Patchwork said. “If you were even halfway smart, you’d know the difference. Governor, please… How can you let him do this? I thought the Rox was all about freedom, about being able to make our own decisions. How can you call the Rox a homeland when you allow this kind of thing to continue? Isn’t this exactly what you’re fighting against? Isn’t it? Damn it, Governor —” Patchwork stopped, breathless. “I’m so lousy with words. I can’t tell you how I feel or what I know. If you hadn’t been here…”
“I’ll make it easy for you,” Travnicek said. “This is now Toaster Liberation Day. He doesn’t interest me anymore. I’d rather watch the slug here, and I’m safe where I am. You want the toaster, you got him. How’s that for easy? Now, Governor Slug, why don’t you take Grenade Lady here and pop her someplace safe.”
“You’ll do it?” Patchwork breathed. Her fingers tightened around the grenade’s lever. “You’ll really do it?”
“Yes, I’ll really, really do it,” Travnicek answered in a mocking, high voice. “Now take your little play-toy and go.”
“Then tell Modular Man now, while I’m here.”
“I can’t. The slug here sent him on a mission.”
“Then how can I trust you? How do I know you’ll do it?”
Travnicek gestured at Teddy. “The governor can read my mind. He can tell you exactly what I’m thinking. Since you don’t seem to want to blow him into little slug-pieces, I assume you trust him.”
Both Patchwork and Travnicek turned toward Teddy. “Governor?” Patchwork asked desperately.