/ Language: English / Genre:sf / Series: Wild Cards

Aces Abroad

George Martin


Aces Abroad

George R R Martin

THE TINT OF HATRED

Stephen Leigh

Prologue

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 27, 1986, WASHINGTON, DC:

The Sony threw flickering light over Sara's Thanksgiving feast: a Swanson turkey dinner steaming in foil on the coffee table. On the television screen a mob of misshapen jokers marched through a sweltering New York summer afternoon, their mouths moving in silent screams and curses. The grainy scene had the jerky look of an old newsreel, and suddenly the picture swung about to show a handsome man in his mid-thirties, his sleeves rolled up, his suit coat slung over a shoulder and his tie loose on his neck-Senator Gregg Hartmann, as he had been in 1976. Hartmann strode through the police lines blockading the jokers, shrugging away the security men who tried to hold him, shouting at the police himself. Alone, he stood between the authorities and the oncoming crowd of jokers, motioning them back.

Then the camera panned toward a disturbance within the ranks of jokers. The images were jumbled and out of focus: at the center was the ace/prostitute known as Succubus, her body seemingly made of quicksilver flesh, her appearance constantly shifting. The wild card had cursed her with sexual empathy. Succubus could take on whatever shape and form most pleased her clients, but that ability was now out of control. Around her, people responded to her power, grasping out for her with a strange lust on their faces. Her mouth was open in an imploring scream as the pursuing crowd, police and jokers both, bore her down. Her arms were stretched out in supplication, and as the camera panned back, there was Hartmann again, his jaw open in surprise as he gaped at Succubus. Her arms were reaching for him, her plea was for him. Then she was gone under the mob. For several seconds she was buried, lost. But then the crowd drew back in horror. The camera followed Hartmann closer: he shoved through those around Succubus, angrily pushed them away.

Sara reached for the VCR's remote switch. She touched the pause button, freezing the scene, a moment of time that had shaped her life. She could feel the hot tears streaking her face.

Succubus lay twisted in a pool of blood, her body mangled, her face turned upward as Hartmann stared at her, mirroring Sara's horror.

Sara knew the face that Succubus, whoever she might have really been, had found just before death. Those young features had haunted Sara since childhood-Succubus had taken on Andrea Whitman's face.

Sara's older sister's face. Andrea who, at thirteen, had been brutally murdered in 1950.

Sara knew who had kept that pubescent image of Andrea locked away in his mind for so many years. She knew who had placed Andrea's features on the infinitely malleable body of Succubus. She could imagine that face on Succubus as he lay with her, and that thought hurt Sara most of all.

"You bastard," Sara whispered to Senator Hartmann, her voice choking. "You goddamn bastard. You killed my sister and you couldn't even let her stay dead."

FROM THE JOURNAL OF XAVIER DESMOND

NOVEMBER 30/JOKERTOWN:

My name is Xavier Desmond, and I am a joker.

Jokers are always strangers, even on the street where they were born, and this one is about to visit a number of strange lands. In the next five months I will see veldts and mountains, Rio and Cairo, the Khvber Pass and the Straits of Gibraltar, the Outback and the Champs-Elysees-all very far from home for a man who has often been called the mayor of Jokertown. Jokertown, of course, has no mayor. It is a neighborhood, a ghetto neighborhood at that, and not a city. Jokertown is more than a place though. It is a condition, a state of mind. Perhaps in that sense my title is not undeserved.

I have been a joker since the beginning. Forty years ago, when Jetboy died in the skies over Manhattan and loosed the wild card upon the world, I was twenty-nine years of age, an investment banker with a lovely wife, a two-year-old daughter, and a bright future ahead of me. A month later, when I was finally released from the hospital, I was a monstrosity with a pink elephantine trunk growing from the center of my face where my nose had been. There are seven perfectly functional fingers at the end of my trunk, and over the years I have become quite adept with this "third hand." Were I suddenly restored to so-called normal humanity, I believe it would be as traumatic as if one of my limbs were amputated. With my trunk I am ironically somewhat more than human… and infinitely less.

My lovely wife left me within two weeks of my release from the hospital, at approximately the same time that Chase Manhattan informed me that my services would no longer be required. I moved to Jokertown nine months later, following my eviction from my Riverside Drive apartment for "health reasons." I last saw my daughter in 1948. She was married in June of 1964, divorced in 1969, remarried in June of

1972.

She has a fondness for June weddings, it seems. I was invited to neither of them. The private detective I hired informs me that she and her husband now live in Salem, Oregon, and that I have two grandchildren, a boy and a girl, one from each marriage. I sincerely doubt that either knows that their grandfather is the mayor of Jokertown.

I am the founder and president emeritus of the jokers' Anti-Defamation League, or JADL, the oldest and largest organization dedicated to the preservation of civil rights for the victims of the wild card virus. The JADL has had its failures, but overall it has accomplished great good. I am also a moderately successful businessman. I own one of New York's most storied and elegant nightclubs, the Funhouse, where jokers and nats and aces have enjoyed all the top joker cabaret acts for more than two decades. The Funhouse has been losing money steadily for the last five years, but no one knows that except me and my accountant. I keep it open because it is, after all, the Funhouse, and were it to close, Jokertown would seem a poorer place.

Next month I will be seventy years of age.

My doctor tells me that I will not live to be seventy-one. The cancer had already metastasized before it was diagnosed. Even jokers cling stubbornly to life, and I have been doing the chemotherapy and the radiation treatments for half a year now, but the cancer shows no sign of remission.

My doctor tells me the trip I am about to embark on will probably take months off my life. I have my prescriptions and will dutifully continue to take the pills, but when one is globe-hopping, radiation therapy must be forgone. I have accepted this.

Mary and I often talked of a trip around the world, in those days before the wild card when we were young and in love. I could never have dreamt that I would finally take that trip without her, in the twilight of my life, and at government expense, as a delegate on a fact-finding mission organized and funded by the Senate Committee on Ace Resources and Endeavors, under the official sponsorship of the United Nations and the World Health Organization. We will visit every continent but Antarctica and call upon thirty-nine different countries (some only for a few hours), and our official charge is to investigate the treatment of wild card victims in cultures around the world.

There are twenty-one delegates, only five of whom are jokers. I suppose my selection is a great honor, recognition of my achievements and my status as a community leader. I believe I have my good friend Dr. Tachyon to thank for it.

But then, I have my good friend Dr. Tachyon to thank for a great many things.

THE TINT OF HATRED

Part One

MONDAY, DECEMBER 1, 1986, SYRIA:

A chill, arid wind blew from the mountains of the Jabal Alawite across the lava rock and gravel desert of Badiyat Ash-sham. The wind snapped the canvas peaks of the tents huddled around the village. The gale made those in the market pull the sashes of their robes tighter against the cold. Under the beehive roof of the largest of the mud-brick buildings, a stray gust caused the flame to gutter against the bottom of an enameled teapot.

A small woman, swathed in the chador, the black Islamic garb, poured tea into two small cups. Except for a row of bright blue beads on the headpiece, she wore no ornamentation. She passed one of the cups to the other person in the room, a raven-haired man of medium height, whose skin glowed a shimmering, lambent emerald under a brocaded robe of azure. She could feel the warmth radiating from him.

"It will be colder for the next several days, Najib," she said as she sipped the piercingly sweet tea. "You'll be more comfortable at least."

Najib shrugged as if her words meant nothing. His lips tightened; his dark, intense gaze snared her. "It's Allah's presence that gleams," he said, his voice gruff with habitual arrogance. "You've never heard me complain, Misha, even in the heat of summer. Do you think me a woman, wailing my futile misery to the sky?"

Above the veils, Misha's eyes narrowed. "I am Kahina, the Seer, Najib," she answered, allowing a hint of defiance into her voice. "I know many hidden things. I know that when the heat ripples over the stones, my brother Najib wishes that he were not Nur al-Allah, the Light of Allah." Najib's sudden backhanded cuff caught his sister across the side of her face. Her head snapped sideways. Scalding hot tea burned her hand and wrist; the cup shattered on the rugs as she sprawled at his feet. His eyes, utter black against the luminescent face, glared at her as she raised her hand to her stinging cheek. She knew she dared say no more. On her knees she gathered up the shards of the teacup in silence, mopping at the puddle of tea with the hem of her robe.

"Sayyid came to me this morning," Najib said as he watched her. "He was complaining again. He says you are not a proper wife."

"Sayyid is a fatted pig," Misha answered, though she did not look . up.

"He says he must force himself on you."

"He doesn't need to do so for me."

Najib scowled, making a sound of disgust. "Pah! Sayyid leads my army. It is his strategy that will sweep the kafir back into the sea. Allah has given him the body of a god and the mind of a conqueror, and he is obedient to me. That's why I gave you to him. The Qur'an says it: `Men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the other. Good women are obedient.' You make -a mockery of Nur al-Allah's gift."

"Nur al-Allah shouldn't have given away that which completes him." Now her eyes came up, challenging him as her tiny hands closed over the pottery shards. "We were together in the womb, Brother. That's the way Allah made us. He touched you with His light and His voice, and He gave me the gift of His sight. You are His mouth, the prophet; I am your vision of the future. Don't be so foolish as to blind yourself. Your pride will defeat you."

"Then listen to the words of Allah and be humble. Be glad that Sayyid does not insist on purdah for you-he knows you're Kahina, so he doesn't force your seclusion. Our father should never have sent you to Damascus to be educated; the infection of the unbelievers is insidious. Misha, make Sayyid content because that will content me. My will is Allah's will."

"Only sometimes, Brother…" She paused. Her gaze went distant, her fingers clenched. She cried out as porcelain lacerated her palm. Blood drooled bright along the shallow cuts. Misha swayed, moaning, and then her gaze focused once more.

Najib moved a step closer to her. "What is it? What did you see?"

Misha cradled her injured hand to her breast, her pupils wide with pain. "All that ever matters is that which touches yourself, Najib. It doesn't matter that I hurt or that I hate my husband or that Najib and his sister Misha have been lost in Allah's roles for them. All that matters is what the Kahina can tell Nur al-Allah."

"Woman…" Najib began warningly. His voice had a compelling deepness now, a timbre that brought Misha's head up and made her open her mouth to begin to speak, to obey without thinking. She shivered as if the wind outside had touched her.

"Don't use the gift on me, Najib," she said gratingly. Her voice sounded harsh against that of her brother. "I'm not a supplicant. Compel me too often with Allah's tongue and you might one day find that Allah's eyes have been taken from you by my own hand."

"Then be Kahina, Sister," Najib answered, but it was only his own voice now. He watched as she went to an inlaid chest, took out a strip of cloth, and slowly wrapped her hand. "Tell me what you just saw. Was it the vision of the jihad? Did you see me holding the Caliph's scepter again?" Misha shut her eyes, bringing back the image of the quick waking dream. "No," she told him. "This was new. In the distance I saw a falcon against the sun. As the bird flew closer, I noticed that it held a hundred, people squirming in its talons. A giant stood below on a mountain, and the giant held a bow in his hands. He loosed an arrow at the bird, and the wounded falcon screamed in anger. The voices of those it held screamed also. The giant had nocked a second arrow, but now the bow began to twist in his hands, and the arrow instead struck the giant's own breast. I saw the giant fall…" Misha's eyes opened. "That's all."

Najib scowled. He passed a glowing hand over his eyes. "What does it mean?"

" I don't know what it means. Allah gives me the dreams, but not always the understanding. Perhaps the giant is Sayyid-"

"It was only your own dream, not Allah's." Najib stalked away from her, and she knew that he was angry. "I'm the falcon, holding the faithful," he said. "You are the giant, large because you belong to Sayyid, who is also large. Allah would remind you of the consequence of defiance." He faced away from Misha, closing the shutters of the window against the brilliant desert sun. Outside the muzzein called from the village mosque: "A shhadu allaa alaha illa llah"-Allah is great. I bear witness that there is no God but Allah.

"All you want is your conquest, the dream of the jihad. You want to be the new Muhammad," Misha answered spitefully. "You won't accept any other interpretation."

"In sha'allah," Najib answered: if Allah wills. He refused to face her. "Some people Allah has visited with His dreadful Scourge, showing their sins with their rotting, twisted flesh. Others, like Sayyid, Allah has favored, gifting them. Each has been given his due. He has chosen me to lead the faithful. I only do what I must do-I have Sayyid, who guides my armies, and I fight also with the hidden ones like alMuezzin. You lead too. You are Kahina, and you are also Fqihas, the one the women look to for guidance."

The Light of Allah turned back into the room. In the shuttered dimness he was a spectral presence. "And as I do Allah's will, you must do mine."

MONDAY, DECEMBER 1, 1986, NEW YORK:

The press reception was chaos.

Senator Gregg Hartmann finally escaped to an empty corner behind one of the Christmas trees, his wife Ellen and his aide John Werthen following. Gregg surveyed the room with a distinct frown. He shook his head toward the justice Department ace Billy Ray-Carnifex-and the government security man who tried to join them, waving them back.

Gregg had spent the last hour fending off reporters, smiling blankly for video cameras, and blinking into the constant storm lightning of electronic flashes. The room was noisy with shouted questions and the click-whirr of highspeed Nikons. Musak played seasonal tunes over the ceiling speakers.

The main press contigent was now gathered around Dr. Tachyon, Chrysalis, and Peregrine. Tachyon's scarlet hair gleamed like a beacon in the crowd; Peregrine and Chrysalis seemed to be competing to see who could pose most provocatively for the cameras. Nearby, Jack Braun-Golden Boy, the Judas Ace-was being pointedly ignored.

The mob had thinned a bit since Hiram Worchester's staff from the Aces High had set up the buffet tables; some of the press had staked permanent claims around the wellfreighted trays.

"Sorry, boss," John said at Gregg's elbow. Even in the cool room the aide was perspiring. Blinking Christmas lights reflected from his beaded forehead: red, then blue, then green. "Somebody on the airport staff dropped the ball. It wasn't supposed to be this kind of free-for-all. I told them I wanted the press escorted in after you guys were settled. They'd ask a few questions, then…" He shrugged. "I'll take the blame. I should have checked to make sure everything had been done."

Ellen gave John a withering glance but said nothing. "If John's apologizing, make him grovel first, Senator. What a mess." That last was a whisper in Gregg's ear-his other longtime aide, Amy Sorenson, was circulating through the crowd as one of the security personnel. Her two-way radio was linked directly to a wireless receiver in Gregg's ear. She fed him information, gave him names or details concerning the people he met. Gregg's own memory for names and faces was quite good, but Amy was an excellent backup. Between the two of them Gregg rarely missed giving those around him a personal greeting.

John's fear of Gregg's anger was a bright, pulsing purple amidst the jumble of his emotions. Gregg could feel Ellen's placid, dull acceptance, colored slightly with annoyance. "It's okay, John," Gregg said softly, though underneath he was seething. That part of him that he thought of as Puppetman squirmed restlessly, begging to be let loose to play with the cascading emotions in the room. Half of them are our puppets, controllable. Look, there's Father Squid over near the door, trying to get away from that woman reporter. Feel his scarlet distress even as he's smiling? He'd love to slither away and he's too polite to do it. We could fuel that frustration into rage, make him curse the woman. We could feed on that. All it would take is the smallest nudge…

But Gregg couldn't do that, not with the aces gathered here, the ones Gregg didn't dare take as puppets because they had mental abilities of their own, or because he simply felt the prospect too risky: Golden Boy, Fantasy, Mistral, Chrysalis. And the one he feared most of all: Tachyon. If they even had an inkling of Puppetman's existence, if they knew what I've done to feed him, Tachyon'd have them on me in a pack, the way he did with the Masons.

Gregg took a deep breath. The corner smelled overbearingly of pine. "Thanks, boss," John was saying. Already his lilac fear was receding. Across the room, Gregg saw Father Squid finally disengage himself from the reporter and shamble pitifully toward Hiram's buffet on his tentacles. The reporter saw Gregg at the same moment and gave him a strange, piercing glance. She strode toward him.

Amy had seen the movement as well. "Sara Morgenstern, Post correspondent," she whispered in Gregg's ear. "Pulitzer, '76, for her work on the Great Jokertown Riot. Cowrote the nasty article on SCARE in July's Newsweek. Just had a makeover too. Looks totally different."

Amy's warning startled Gregg-he hadn't recognized her. Gregg remembered the article; it had stopped just short of libel, intimating that Gregg and the SCARE aces had been involved in government suppression of facts concerning the Swarm Mother attack. He remembered Morgenstern from various press functions, always the one with the hardball questions, with a sharp edge to her voice. He might have taken her for a puppet, just for spite, but she had never come close to him. Whenever they had been at the same affairs, she had stayed well away.

Now, seeing her approach, he froze for an instant. She had indeed changed. Sara had always been slim, boyish. That was accentuated tonight; she wore tight, black slacks and a clinging blouse. She'd dyed her hair blond, and her makeup accentuated her cheekbones and large, faintly blue eyes. She looked distressingly familiar.

Gregg was suddenly cold and afraid.

Inside, Puppetman howled at a remembered loss. "Gregg, are you all right?" Ellen's hand touched his shoulder. Gregg shivered at his spouse's touch, shaking his head.

"I'm fine," he said brusquely. He put on his professional smile,. moving out from the corner. Alongside him Ellen and John flanked him in practiced choreography. "Ms. Morgenstern," Gregg said warmly, extending his hand and forcing his voice into a calmness he didn't feel. "I think you know John, but my wife Ellen…?"

Sara Morgenstern nodded perfunctorily toward Ellen, but her gaze stayed with Gregg. She had an odd, strained smile on her face that seemed half-challenge and half-invitation. "Senator," she said, " I hope you're looking forward to this trip as much as I am."

She took his proffered hand. Without volition, Puppetman used the moment of contact. As he had done with every new puppet, he traced the neural pathways back to the brain, opening the doors that would, later, allow him access from a distance. He found the locked gates of her emotions, the turbulent colors swirling behind, and he greedily, possessively, touched them. He unfastened the locks and pins, swung open the entrance.

The red-black loathing that spilled out from behind sent him reeling back. The abhorrence was directed toward him, all of it. Totally unexpected, the fury of the emotion was like nothing he'd experienced. Its intensity threatened to drown him, it drove him back. Puppetman gasped; Gregg forced himself to show nothing. He let his hand drop as Puppetman moaned in his head, and the fear that had touched him a moment ago redoubled.

She looks like Andrea, like Succubus-the resemblance is startling. And she detests me; God, how she hates. "Senator?" Sara repeated.

"Yes, I'm very much looking forward to this," he said automatically. "Our society's attitudes toward the victims of the wild card virus have changed for the worse in the last year. In some ways people like the Reverend Leo Barnett would have us regress to the oppression of the fifties. For less enlightened countries, the situation is far, far worse. We can offer them understanding, hope, and help. And we'll learn something ourselves. Dr. Tachyon and myself have great optimism for this trip, or we wouldn't have fought so hard to bring it about."

The words came with rehearsed smoothness while he recovered. He could hear the friendly casualness of his voice, felt his mouth pull into a proud half-smile. But none of it touched him. He could barely avoid staring rudely at Sara. At this woman who reminded him too much of Andrea Whitman, of Succubus.

I loved her. I couldn't save her.

Sara seemed to sense his fascination, for she cocked her head with that same odd challenge. "It's also an entertaining little junket, a three-month tour of the world at the taxpayer's expense. Your wife goes with you, your good friends like Dr. Tachyon and Hiram Worchester…"

At his side Gregg felt Ellen's irritation. She was too practiced a politician's wife to respond, but he could feel her sudden alertness, a jungle cat watching for a weakness in her prey. Off balance, Gregg frowned a moment too late. "I'm surprised a reporter of your experience would believe that, Ms. Morgenstern. This trip also means giving up the holiday season-normally, I go home after the congressional break. It means stops at places that aren't exactly on Fodor's recommended list. It means meetings, briefings, endless press conferences, and a ton of paperwork that I can certainly do without. I guarantee you this isn't a pleasure trip. IT have more to do than watch the proceedings and cable a thousand words back home every day."

He felt the black hatred swelling in her, and the power in him ached to be used. Let me take her. Let me dampen that fire. Take away that hatred and she'll tell you what she knows. Disarm her.

She's yours, he answered. Puppetman leapt out. Gregg had encountered hatreds before, a hundred times, but none had ever been focused on him. He found control of the emotion elusive and slippery; her loathing pushed at his control like a palpable, living entity, driving Puppetman back.

What the hell is she hiding? What caused this?

"You sound defensive, Senator," Sara said. "Still, a reporter cant help but think that the main purpose of the trip, especially for a potential '88 presidential candidate, might be to finally erase the memories of a decade ago."

Gregg could not help the intake of breath: Andrea, Succubus. Sara grinned: a predator's smile. He readied himself to assault her hatred again.

"I'd say the Great Jokertown Riot obsesses both of us, Senator," she continued, her voice deceivingly light. "I know it did when I wrote my piece on it. And your behavior after Succubus's death cost you the Democratic nomination that year. After all, she was only a whore-wasn't she, Senator? -and not worth your… your little breakdown." The reminder made him flush. "I'll wager we've both thought about that moment every day since then," Sara continued. "It's been ten years now, and I still remember."

Puppetman wailed, retreating. Gregg was startled into silence. My God, what does she know, what is she hinting at? He had no time to formulate a reply. Amy's voice spoke in his ear again. "Digger Downs is heading over at a trot; Senator. He's with Aces magazine-covers the entertainment types; a real sleazeball, if you ask me. Guess he saw Morgenstern and figured he'd listen in to a good reporter-"

"Hiya, folks," Downs's voice intruded before Amy had finished speaking. Gregg looked momentarily away from Sara to see a short, pallid young man. Downs fidgeted nervously, sniffing as if he had a head cold. "Mind another reporter's nosing in, Sara love?"

Downs was a maddening interruption, his manner rude and falsely familiar. He seemed to sense Gregg's turmoil. He grinned and looked from Sara to Gregg, ignoring Ellen and John.

" I think I've said all I want to-for the moment," Sara answered. Her pale aqua eyes were still locked on Gregg's; her face seemed childlike with feigned innocence. Then, with a lithe turn, she spun away from him, going toward Tachyon. Gregg stared after her.

"Chick's looking damn good these days, ain't she, Senator?" Downs grinned again. "Begging your pardon, of course, Mrs. Hartmann. Hey, let me introduce myself. I'm Digger Downs, with Aces magazine, and I'll be tagging along on this little venture. We'll be seeing a lot of each other."

Gregg, watching Sara disappear into the crowd around Tachyon, realized that Downs was staring at him strangely. With an effort he forced his attention away from Sara. "Pleased to meet you," he said to Downs.

His smile felt wooden. It made his cheeks ache.

FROM THE JOURNAL OF XAVIER DESMOND

DECEMBER 1/NEW YORK CITY:

The journey is off to an inauspicious start. For the last hour we have been holding on the runway at Tomlin International, waiting for clearance for takeoff. The problem, we are informed, is not here, but down in Havana. So we wait.

Our plane is a custom 747 that the press has dubbed the Stacked Deck. The entire central cabin has been converted to our requirements, the seats replaced with a small medical laboratory, a press room for the print journalists, and a miniature television 'studio for their electronic counterparts. The newsmen themselves have been segregated in the tail. Already they've made it their own. I was back there twenty minutes ago and found a poker game in progress. The businessclass cabin is full of aides, assistants, secretaries, publicists, and security personnel. First class is supposedly reserved exclusively for the delegates.

As there are only twenty-one delegates, we rattle around like peas in a pod. Even here the ghettoes persist jokers tend to sit with jokers, nats with nats, aces with aces.

Hartmann is the only man aboard who seems entirely comfortable with all three groups. He greeted me warmly at the press conference and sat with Howard and myself for a few moments after boarding, talking earnestly about his hopes for the trip. It is difficult not to like the senator. Jokertown has delivered him huge majorities in each of his campaigns as far back as his term as mayor, and no wonderno other politician has worked so long and hard to defend jokers' rights. Hartmann gives me hope; he's living proof that there can indeed be trust and mutual respect between joker and nat. He's a decent, honorable man, and in these days when fanatics such as Leo Barnett are inflaming the old hatreds and prejudices, jokers need all the friends they can get in the halls of power.

Dr. Tachyon and Senator Hartmann co-chair the delegation. Tachyon arrived dressed like a foreign correspondent from some film noir classic, in a trench coat covered with belts, buttons, and epaulettes, a snap-brim fedora rakishly tilted to one side. The fedora sports a foot-long red feather, however, and I cannot begin to imagine where one goes to purchase a powder-blue crushed-velvet trench coat. A pity that those foreign-correspondent films were all in black and white.

Tachyon would like to think that he shares Hartmann's lack of prejudice toward jokers, but that's not strictly true. He labors unceasingly in his clinic, and one cannot doubt that he cares, and cares deeply… many jokers think of him as a saint, a hero… yet, when one has known the doctor as long as I have, deeper truths become apparent. On some unspoken level he thinks of his good works in Jokertown as a penance. He does his best to hide it, but even after all these years you can see the revulsion in his eyes. Dr. Tachyon and I are "friends," we have known each other for decades now, and I believe with all my heart that he sincerely cares for me… but not for a second have I ever felt that he considers me an equal, as Hartmann does. The senator treats me like a man, even an important man, courting me as he might any political leader with votes to deliver. To Dr. Tachyon, I will always be a joker.

Is that his tragedy, or mine?

Tachyon knows nothing of the cancer. A symptom that our friendship is as diseased as my body? Perhaps. He has not been my personal physician for many years now. My doctor is a joker, as are my accountant, my attorney, my broker, and even my banker-the world has changed since the Chase dismissed me, and as mayor of Jokertown I am obliged to practice my own personal brand of affirmative action.

We have just been cleared for takeoff. The seat-hopping is over, people are belting themselves in. It seems I carry Jokertown with me wherever I go-Howard Mueller sits closest to me, his seat customized to accommodate his nine-foot tall form and the immense length of his arms. He's better known as Troll, and he works as chief of security at Tachyon's clinic, but I note that he does not sit with Tachyon among the aces. The other three joker delegates-Father Squid, Chrysalis, and the poet Dorian Wilde-are also here in the center section of first class. Is it coincidence, prejudice, or shame that puts us here, in the seats furthest from the windows? Being a joker makes one a tad paranoid about these things, I fear. The politicians, of both the domestic and UN varieties, have clustered to our right, the aces forward of us (aces up front, of course, of course) and to our left. Must stop now, the stewardess has asked me to put my tray table back up.

Airborne. New York and Robert Tomlin International Airport are far behind us, and Cuba waits ahead. From what I've heard, it will be an easy and pleasant first stop. Havana is almost as American as Las Vegas or Miami Beach, albeit considerably more decadent and wicked. I may actually have friends there some of the top joker entertainers go on to the Havana casinos after getting their starts in the Funhouse and the Chaos Club. I must remind myself to stay away from the gaming tables, however; joker luck is notoriously bad.

As soon as the seat belt sign went off, a number of the aces ascended to the first-class lounge. I can hear their laughter drifting down the spiral stairway-Peregrine, pretty young Mistral-who looks just like the college student she is when not in her flying gear-boisterous Hiram Worchester, and Asta Lenser, the ballerina from the ABT whose ace name is Fantasy. Already they are a tight little clique, a "fun bunch" for whom nothing could possibly go wrong. The golden people, and Tachyon very much in their midst. Is it the aces or the women that draw him? I wonder? Even my dear friend Angela, who still loves the man deeply after twenty-odd years, admits that Dr. Tachyon thinks mainly with his penis where women are concerned.

Yet even among the aces there are the odd men out. Jones, the black strongman from Harlem (like Troll and Hiram W and Peregrine, he requires a custom seat, in his case to support his extraordinary weight), is nursing a beer and reading a copy of Sports Illustrated. Radha O'Reilly is just as solitary, gazing out the window. She seems very quiet. Billy Ray and Joanne Jefferson, the two justice Department aces who head up our security contingent, are not delegates and thus are seated back in the second section.

And then there is Jack Braun. The tensions that swirl around him are almost palpable. Most of the other delegates are polite to him, but no one is truly friendly, and he's being openly shunned by some, such as Hiram Worchester. For Dr.

Tachyon, clearly Braun does not even exist. I wonder whose idea it was to bring him on this trip? Certainly not Tachyon's, and it seems too politically dangerous for Hartmann to be responsible. A gesture to appease the conservatives on SCARE perhaps? Or are there ramifications that I have not considered?

Braun glances up at the stairway from time to time, as if he would love nothing so much as to join the happy group upstairs, but remains firmly in his seat. It is hard to credit that this smooth-faced, blond-haired boy in the tailored safari jacket is really the notorious Judas Ace of the fifties. He's my age or close to it, but he looks barely twenty… the kind of boy who might have taken pretty young Mistral to her senior prom a few years back and gotten her home well before midnight.

One of the reporters, a man named Downs from Aces magazine, was up here earlier, trying to get Braun to consent to an interview. He was persistent, but Braun's refusal was firm, and Downs finally gave up. Instead he handed out copies of the latest issue of Aces and then sauntered up to the lounge, no doubt to pester someone else. I am not a regular reader of Aces, but I accepted a copy and suggested to Downs that his publisher consider a companion periodical, to be called jokers. He was not overly enthused about the idea.

The issue features a rather striking cover photograph of the Turtle's shell outlined against the oranges and reds of sunset, blurbed with "The Turtle Dead or Alive?" The Turtle has not been seen since Wild Card Day, back in September, when he was napalmed and crashed into the Hudson. Twisted and burnt pieces of his shell were found on the riverbed, though no body has ever been recovered. Several hundred people claim to have seen the Turtle near dawn the following day, flying an older shell in the sky over Jokertown, but since he has not reappeared since, some are putting that sighting down to hysteria and wishful thinking.

I have no opinion on the Turtle, though I would hate to think that he was truly dead. Many jokers believe that he is one of us, that his shell conceals some unspeakable joker deformity. Whether that is true or not, he has been a good friend to Jokertown for a long, long time.

There is, however, an aspect to this trip that no one ever speaks of, although Downs's article brings it to mind. Perhaps it falls to me to mention the unmentionable then. The truth is, all that laughter up in the lounge has a slightly nervous ring to it, and it is no coincidence that this junket, under discussion for so many years, was put together so swiftly in the past two months. They want to get us out of town for a while-not just the jokers, the aces too. The aces especially, one might even say.

This last Wild Card Day was a catastrophe for the city, and for every victim of the virus everywhere. The level of violence was shocking and made headlines across the nation. The still-unsolved murder of the Howler, the dismemberment of a child ace in the midst of a huge crowd at Jetboy's Tomb, the attack on Aces High, the destruction of the Turtle (or at least his shell), the wholesale slaughter at the Cloisters, where a dozen bodies were brought out in pieces, the predawn aerial battle that lit up the entire East Side… days and even weeks later the authorities were still not certain that they had an accurate death toll.

One old man was found literally embedded in a solid brick wall, and when they began to chip him out, they found they could not tell where his flesh ended and the wall began. The autopsy revealed a ghastly mess inside, where his internal organs were fused with the bricks that penetrated them. A Post photographer snapped a picture of that old man trapped in his wall. He looks so gentle and sweet. The police subsequently announced that the old man was an ace himself, and moreover a notorious criminal, 'that he was responsible for the murders of Kid Dinosaur and the Howler, the attempted murder of the Turtle, the attack on Aces High, the battle over the East River, the ghastly blood rites performed at the Cloisters, and a whole range of lesser crimes. A number of aces came forward to support this explanation, but the public does not seem convinced. According to the polls, more people believe the conspiracy theory put forward in the National Informer-that the killings were independent, caused by powerful aces known and unknown carrying out personal vendettas, using their powers in utter disregard for law and public safety, and that afterward those aces conspired with each other and the police to cover up their atrocities, blaming everything on one crippled old man who happened to be conveniently dead, clearly at the hands of some ace.

Already several books have been announced, each purporting to explain what really happened-the immoral opportunism of the publishing industry knows no bounds. Koch, ever aware of the prevailing winds, has ordered several cases re-opened and has instructed the IAD to investigate the police role.

Jokers are pitiful and loathed. Aces have great power, and for the first time in many years a sizable segment of the public has begun to distrust those aces and fear that power. No wonder that demagogues like Leo Barnett have swelled so vastly in the public mind of late.

So I'm convinced that our tour has a hidden agenda; to wash away the blood with some "good ink," as they say, to defuse the fear, to win back trust and take everyone's mind off Wild Card Day.

I admit to mixed feelings about aces, some of whom definitely do abuse their power. Nonetheless, as a joker, I find myself desperately hoping that we succeed… and desperately fearing the consequences if we do not.

BEASTS OF BURDEN

John J. Miller

"From envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness, Good Lord, deliver us."

– The Litany, Book of Comnwn Prayer

His rudimentary sexual organs were dysfunctional, but his mounts thought of him as masculine, perhaps because his stunted, wasted body looked more male than female. What he thought of himself was an unopened book. He never communicated about matters of that sort.

He had no name but that borrowed from folklore and given to him by his mounts-Ti Malice-and he didn't really care what they called him as long as they addressed him with respect. He liked the dark because his weak eyes were unduly sensitive to light. He never ate because he had no teeth to chew or tongue to taste. He never drank alcohol because the primitive sack that was his stomach couldn't digest it. Sex was out of the question.

But he still enjoyed gourmet foods and vintage wines and expensive liquors and all possible varieties of sexual experience. He had his mounts.

And he always was looking for more. i.

Chrysalis lived in the Jokertown slum where she owned a bar, so she was accustomed to viewing scenes of poverty and misery. But Jokertown was a slum in the most affluent country on the earth, and Bolosse, the slum district of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's sprawling waterfront capital city, was in one of the poorest.

From the outside the hospital looked like a set from a B-grade horror movie about an eighteenth-century insane asylum. The wall around it was crumbling stone, the sidewalk leading to it was rotting concrete, and the building itself was filthy from years of accumulated bird shit and grime. Inside, it was worse.

The walls were abstract designs of peeling paint and mildew. The bare wooden floors creaked ominously and once Mordecai Jones, the four-hundred-and-fifty-pound ace called the Harlem Hammer, stepped on a section that gave way. He would have fallen all the way through the floor if an alert Hiram Worchester hadn't quickly relieved him of nine tenths of his weight. The smell clinging to the corridors was indescribable, but was mostly compounded of the various odors of death.

But the very worst, thought Chrysalis, were the patients, especially the children. They lay uncomplainingly on filthy bare mattresses that reeked of sweat, urine, and mildew, their bodies racked by diseases banished long ago in America and wasted by the bloat of malnutrition. They watched their visitors troop by without curiosity or comprehension, serene hoplessness filling their eyes.

It was better being a joker, she thought, though she loathed what the wild card virus had done to her oncebeautiful body.

Chrysalis couldn't stand any more of the unrelievable suffering. She left the hospital after passing through the first ward and returned to the waiting motorcade. The driver of the jeep. she'd been assigned to looked at her curiously, but said nothing. He hummed a happy little tune while they waited for the others, occasionally singing a few off key phrases in Haitian Creole.

The tropical sun was hot. Chrysalis, bundled in an all-enveloping hood and cloak to protect her delicate flesh and skin from the sun's burning rays, watched a group of children playing across the street from the run-down hospital. Sweat trickling in tickling rivulets down her back, she almost envied the children in the cool freedom of their near nakedness. They seemed to be fishing for something in the depths of the storm drain that ran under the street. It took Chrysalis a moment to realize what they were doing, but when she did, all thoughts of envy disappeared. They were drawing water out of the drain and pouring it into battered, rusty pots and cans. Sometimes they stopped to drink a mouthful.

She looked away, wondering if joining Tachyon's little traveling show had been a mistake. It had sounded like a good idea when Tachyon had invited her. It was, after all, an opportunity to travel around the world at government expense while rubbing shoulders with a variety of important and influential people. There was no telling what interesting tidbits of information she would be able to pick up. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time…

"Well, my dear, if I hadn't actually seen it with my own eyes, I'd say you hadn't the stomach for this sort of thing." She smiled mirthlessly as Dorian Wilde heaved himself into the backseat of the jeep next to her. She wasn't in the mood for the poet's famous wit.

"I certainly wasn't expecting treatment like this," she said in her cultured British accent as Dr. Tachyon, Senator Hartmann, Hiram Worchester, and other important and influential politicians and aces streamed toward the limos waiting for them, while Chrysalis, Wilde, and the other obvious jokers on the tour had to make do with the dirty, dented jeeps clustered at the rear of the cavalcade.

"You should've," Wilde said. He was a large man whose delicate features were loosing their handsomeness to bloat. He wore an Edwardian outfit that was in desperate need of cleaning and pressing, and enough floral-scented body wash to make Chrysalis glad that they were in an open vehicle. He waved his left hand languorously as he talked and kept his right in the pocket of his jacket. "Jokers, after all, are the niggers. of the world." He pursed his lips and glanced at their driver, who, like ninety-five percent of Haiti's population, was black. "A statement not without irony on this island."

Chrysalis grabbed the back of the driver's seat as the jeep jounced away from the curb, following the rest of the cavalcade as it pulled away from the hospital. The air was cool against Chrysalis's face hidden deep within the folds of her hood, but the rest of her body was drenched with sweat. She fantasized about a long, cool drink and a slow, cool bath for the hour it took the motorcade to wend its way through Port-au-Prince's narrow, twisting streets. When they finally reached the Royal Haitian Hotel, she stepped down into the street almost before the jeep stopped, anxious for the waiting coolness of the lobby, and was instantly engulfed by a sea of beseeching faces, all babbling in Haitian Creole. She couldn't understand what the beggars were saying, but she didn't have to speak their language to understand the want and desperation in their eyes, tattered clothing, and brittle, emaciated bodies.

The press of imploring beggars pinned her against the side of the jeep, and the immediate rush of pity she'd felt for their obvious need was submerged in fear fueled by their piteously beseeching voices and the dozens of thin, sticklike arms thrust out at her.

The driver, before she could say or do anything, reached under the jeep's dashboard and grabbed a long, thin wooden rod that looked like a truncated broomstick, stood up, and began swinging it at the beggars while shouting rapid, harsh phrases in Creole.

Chrysalis heard, and saw, the skinny arm of a young boy snap at the first blow. The second opened the scalp of an old man, and the third missed as the intended victim managed to duck away.

The driver drew the weapon back to strike again. Chrysalis, her usually cautious reserve overcome by sudden outrage, turned to him and screamed, "Stop! Stop that!" and with the sudden movement the hood fell away from her face, revealing her features for the first time. Revealing, that is, what features she had.

Her skin and flesh were as clear as the finest blown glass, without flaw or bubble. Besides the muscles that clung to her skull and jaw, only the meat of her lips was visible. They were dark red pads on the gleaming expanse of her skull. Her eyes, floating in the depths of their naked sockets, were as blue as fragments of sky.

The driver gaped at her. The beggars, whose importunings had turned to wails of fear, all fell silent at once, as if an invisible octopus had simultaneously slapped a tentacle over each one's mouth. The silence dragged on for a half dozen heartbeats, and then one of the beggars whispered a name in a soft, awed voice.

"Madame Brigitte."

It passed among the beggars like a whispered invocation, until even those who had crowded around the other vehicles in the motorcade were craning their necks to get a glimpse of her. She pressed back against the jeep, the concentrated stares of the beggars, mixed fear and awe and wonder, frightening her. The tableau held for another moment until the driver spoke a harsh phrase and gestured with his stick. The crowd dispersed at once, but not, however, without some of the beggars shooting Chrysalis final glances of mingled awe and dread.

Chrysalis turned to the driver. He was a tall, thin black in a cheap, ill-fitting blue serge suit and an open-necked shirt. He looked back at her sullenly, but Chrysalis couldn't really read his expression because of the dark sunglasses he wore.

"Do you speak English?" she asked him.

"Oui. A little." Chrysalis could hear the harsh edge of fear in his voice, and she wondered what put it there. "Why did you strike them?"

He shrugged. "These beggars are peasants.. Scum from the country, come to Port-au-Prince to beg on the generousness of people as yourself. I tell them to go."

"Speak loudly and carry a big stick," Wilde said sardonically from his seat in the back of the jeep.

Chrysalis glared at him. "You were a big help."

He yawned. "I make it 'a habit never to brawl in the streets. It's so vulgar."

Chrysalis snorted, turned back to the driver. "Who," she asked, "is 'Madame Brigitte'?"

The driver shrugged in a particularly Gallic manner, illustrating again the cultural ties Haiti had to the country from which she'd been politically independent for nearly two hundred years. "She is a loa, the wife of Baron Samedi."

"Baron Samedi?"

"A most powerful loa. He is the lord and guardian of the cemetary. The keeper of the crossroads."

"What's a loa?"

He frowned, shrugged almost angrily. "A loa is a spirit, a part of God, very powerful and divine."

"And I resemble this Madame Brigitte?"

He said nothing, but continued to stare at her from behind his dark glasses, and despite the afternoon's tropical heat Chrysalis felt a shiver run down her spine. She felt naked, despite the voluminous cloak she wore. It wasn't a bodily nakedness. She was, in fact, accustomed to going half-naked in public as a private obscene gesture to the world, making sure that everyone saw what she had to see every time she looked in a mirror. It was a spiritual nakedness that she felt, as if everyone who was staring at her was trying to discover who she was, was trying to divine the precious secrets that were the only masks that she had. She felt a desperate need to get away from all the staring eyes, but she wouldn't let herself run from them. It took all her nerve, all the cool she could muster, but she managed to walk into the hotel lobby with precise, measured steps.

Inside it was cool and dark. Chrysalis leaned against a high-backed chair that looked as if it'd been made sometime in the last century and dusted sometime in the last decade. She took a deep, calming breath and let it out slowly.

"What was that all about?"

She looked over her shoulder to see Peregrine regarding her with concern. The winged woman had been in one of the limos at the head of the parade, but she'd obviously seen the byplay that had centered around Chrysalis's jeep. Peregrine's beautiful, satin-feathered wings only added a touch of the exotic to her lithe, tanned sensuality. She should be easy to resent, Chrysalis thought. Her affliction had brought her fame, notoriety, even her own television show. But she looked genuinely concerned, genuinely worried, and Chrysalis felt in need of sympathetic company.

But she couldn't explain something to Peregrine that she only half-understood herself. She shrugged. "Nothing." She looked around the lobby that was rapidly filling with tour personnel. "I could use a few moments of peace and quiet. And a drink."

"So could I," a masculine voice announced before Peregrine could speak. "Let's find the bar and I'll tell you some of the facts of. Haitian life."

Both women turned to look at the man who'd spoken. He was six feet tall, give or take, and strongly built. He wore a suit of white, tropical-weight linen that was immaculately clean and sharply creased. There was something odd about his face. His features didn't quite match. His chin was too long, his nose too broad. His eyes were misaligned and too bright. Chrysalis knew him only by reputation. He was a justice Department ace, part of the security contingent Washington had assigned to Tachyon's tour. His name was Billy Ray. Some wit at JD with a classical education had tagged him with the nickname Carnifex. He liked it. He was an authentic badass.

"What do you mean?" Chrysalis asked.

Ray looked around the lobby, his lips quirking. "Let's find the bar and talk things over. Privately."

Chrysalis glanced at Peregrine, and the winged woman read the appeal in her eyes.

"Mind if I tag along?" she asked.

"Hey, not at all." Ray frankly admired her lithe, tanned form, and the black-and-white-striped sundress that showed it o$: He licked his lips as Chrysalis and Peregrine exchanged unbelieving glances.

The hotel lounge was doing desultory afternoon business. They found an empty table surrounded by other empty tables and gave their orders to a red-uniformed waiter who couldn't decide whom to stare at, Peregrine or Chrysalis. They sat in silence until he'd returned with the drinks, and Chrysalis drank down the thimbleful of amaretto that he'd brought.

"The travel brochures all said that Haiti's supposed to be a bloody tropical paradise," she said in a tone that indicated she felt the brochures all lied.

"I'll take you to paradise, babe," Ray said.

Chrysalis liked it when men paid attention to her, sometimes too much. Sometimes, she realized, she conducted her affairs for all the wrong reasons. Even Brennan (Yeoman, she reminded herself, Yeoman. She had to remember that she wasn't supposed to know his real name) had become her lover because she'd forced herself on him. It was, she supposed, the sense of power that she liked, the control she had when she made men come to her. But making men make love to her body was also, she recognized with her habit of relentless self-scrutiny, another way to punish a revulsed world. But Brennan (Yeoman, damnit) had never been revulsed. He had never made her turn out the lights before kissing her, and he had always made love with his eyes open and watching her heart beat, her lungs bellow, her breath catch behind tightly clenched teeth…

Ray's foot moved under the table, touching hers, drawing her back from thoughts of the past, of what was over. She smiled a lazy smile at him, gleaming teeth set in a gleaming skull. There was something about Ray that was unsettling. He talked too loud, he smiled too much, and some part of him, his hands or his feet or his mouth, was always in motion. He had a reputation for violence. Not that she had anything against violence as long as it wasn't directed at her. For goodness's sake, even she'd lost track of all the men Yeoman had sent to their reward since, his arrival in the city. But, paradoxically, Brennan wasn't a violent man. Ray, according to his reputation, had a habit of running amuck. Compared to Brennan, he was a self-centered bore. She wondered if she'd be comparing all the men she would know to her archer, and she felt a rush of annoyance, and regret.

"I doubt that you'd have the skill to transport me to the dreariest shithole in the poorest part of Jokertown, dear boy, let alone paradise."

Peregrine squelched a twitchy smile and looked away. Chrysalis felt Billy's foot move away as he fixed her with a hard, dangerous stare. He was about to say something vicious when Dr. Tachyon interrupted by flopping into the empty chair next to Peregrine. Ray shot Chrysalis a look that told her the remark wouldn't be forgotten.

"My, dear." Tachyon bowed over Peregrine's hand, kissed it, and nodded greetings to everyone else. It was common knowledge that he was hot over the glamorous flyer, but then, Chrysalis reflected, most men were. Tachyon, however, was self-confident enough to be determined in his pursuit, and thickheaded enough not to call it off, even after numerous polite rebuffs on Peregrine's part.

"How was the meeting with Dr. Tessier?" Peregrine asked, removing her hand delicately from Tachyon's grasp when he showed no inclination of letting it go on his own.

Tachyon frowned, whether in disappointment at Peregrine's continuing coolness or in remembrance of his visit to the Haitian hospital, Chrysalis couldn't tell.

"Dreadful," he murmured, "simply dreadful." He caught the eye of a waiter and gestured him over. "Bring me something cool, with lots of rum in it." He looked around the table. "Anyone else?"

Chrysalis tinged a red-painted fingernail-it looked like a rose petal floating on bone against her empty cordial glass. "Yes. And more, um?"

"Amaretto."

"Amaretto for the lady there."

The waiter sidled up to Chrysalis and slipped the glass out from in front of her without making eye contact. She could feel his fear. It was funny, in a way, that someone could be afraid of her, but it angered her as well, almost as much as the guilt in Tachyon's eyes every time he looked at her. Tachyon ran his fingers dramatically through his long, curly red hair. "There wasn't much incidence of wild card virus that I could see." He fell silent, sighed gustily. "And Tessier himself wasn't overly concerned about it. But everyting else

… by the Ideal, everything else…"

"What do you mean?" Peregrine asked.

"You were there. That hospital was as crowded as a Jokertown bar on Saturday night and about as sanitary. Typhus patients were cheek to jowl with tuberculosis patients and elephantiasis patients and AIDS patients and patients suffering from half a hundred other diseases that have been eradicated everywhere else in the civilized world. As I was having a private chat with the hospital administrator, the electricity went out twice. I tried to call the hotel, but the phones weren't working. Dr. Tessier told me that they're low on blood, antibiotics, painkillers, and just about all medicinals. Fortunately, Tessier and many of the other doctors are masters at utilizing the medicinal properties of native Haitian flora. Tessier showed me a thing or two he's done with distillations from common weeds and such that was remarkable. In fact, someone should write an article on the drugs they've concocted. Some of their discoveries deserve widespread attention in the outside world. But for all their efforts, all their dedication, they're still losing the fight." The waiter brought Tachyon's drink in a tall slim glass garnished with slices of fresh fruit and a paper umbrella. Tachyon threw out the fruit and paper umbrella and swallowed half his drink in a single gulp. " I have never seen such misery and suffering."

"Welcome to the Third World," Ray said.

"Indeed." Tachyon finished off his drink and fixed Chrysalis with his lilac-colored eyes.

"Now, what was that disturbance in front of the hotel?" Chrysalis shrugged. "The driver started beating the beggars with a stick-"

"A cocomacaques."

"I beg your pardon?" Tachyon said, turning to Ray. "It's called a cocomacaques. It's a walking stick, polished with oil. Hard as an iron bar. A real nasty weapon." There was approval in Ray's voice. "The Tonton Macoute carry them."

"What?" three voices asked simultaneously.

Ray smiled a smile of superior knowledge. "Tonton Macoute. That's what the peasants call them. Essentially means `bogeyman.' Officially they're called the VSN, the Volontaires de la Securite Nationale." Ray had an atrocious accent. "They're Duvalier's secret police, headed by a man named Charlemagne Calixte. He's black as a coal mine at midnight and ugly as sin. Somebody tried to poison him once. He lived through it, but it scarred his face terribly. He's the only reason Baby Doc's still in power."

"Duvalier has his secret police acting as our chaffeurs?" Tachyon asked, astonished. "Whatever for?"

Ray looked at him as if he were a child. "So they can watch us. They watch everybody. It's their job." Ray laughed a sudden, barking laugh. "They're easy enough to spot. They all have dark sunglasses and wear blue suits. Sort of a badge of office. There's one over there."

Ray gestured to the far corner of the lounge. The Tonton Macoute sat at an otherwise empty table, a bottle of rum and half-filled glass in front of him. Even though the lounge was dimly lit, he had on dark glasses, and his blue suit was as unkempt as any of Dorian Wilde's.

"I'll see about this," Tachyon said, outrage in his voice. He started to stand, but settled back in his chair as a large, scowling man came into the lounge and strode straight toward their table.

"It's him," Ray whispered. "Charlemagne Calixte."

He didn't have to tell them. Calixte was a dark-skinned black, bigger and broader than most Haitians Chrysalis had seen so far, and uglier too. His short kinky hair was salted with white, his eyes were hidden behind dark glasses, and shriveled scar tissue crawled up the right side of his face. His manner and bearing radiated power, confidence, and ruthless efficiency.

"Bon jour." He bowed a precise little bow. His voice was a deep, hideous rasp, as if the poison that had eaten away the side of his face had also affected his tongue and palate.

"Bon jour," Tachyon replied for them all, bowing a precise millimeter less than Calixte had.

"My name is Charlemagne Calixte," he said in gravelly tones barely louder than a whisper. "President-for-Life Duvalier has charged me with seeing to your safety while you are visiting our island."

"Join us," Tachyon offered, indicating the final empty chair.

Calixte shook his head as precisely as he'd bowed. "Regretfully, Msie Tachyon, I cannot. I have an important appointment for the afternoon. I just stopped by to make sure everything is all right after that unfortunate incident in front of the hotel." As he spoke he looked directly at Chrysalis. "Everything's fine," Tachyon assured him before Chrysalis could speak. "What I want to know, though, is why the Tomtom-"

"Tonton," Ray said.

Tachyon glanced at him. "Of course. The Tonton whatevers, your men, that is, are watching us."

Calixte gave him a look of polite astonishment. "Why to protect you from that very sort of thing that happened earlier this afternoon."

"Protect me? He wasn't protecting me," Chrysalis said. "He was beating beggars."

Calixte stared at her. "They may have looked like beggars, but many undesirable elements have come into the city." He looked around the almost empty room, then husked in a barely intelligible whisper, "Communist elements, you know. They are unhappy with the progressive regime of President-for-Life Duvalier and have threatened to topple his government. No doubt these `beggars' were communist agitators trying to provoke an incident."

Chrysalis kept quiet, realizing nothing she could say would make any difference. Tachyon was also looking unhappy, but decided not to pursue the matter at this time. After all, they would only be in Haiti one more day before traveling to the Dominican Republic on the other side of the island. "Also," Calixte said with a smile as ugly as his scar, "I am to inform you that dinner tonight at the Palais National will be a formal affair."

"And after dinner?" Ray said, openly gauging Calixte with his frank stare.

"Excuse me?"

"Is anything planned for after dinner?"

"But of course. Several entertainments have been arranged. There is shopping at the Marche de Fer-the Iron Market-for locally produced handicrafts. The Musee National will stay open late for those who wish to explore our cultural heritage. You know," Calixte said, "we have on display the anchor from the Santa Maria, which ran aground on our shores during Columbus's first expedition to the New World. Also, of course, galas have been planned in several of our world-famous nightclubs. And for those interested in some of the more exotic local customs, a trip to a hounfour has been arranged."

"Hounfour?" Peregrine asked.

"Oui. A temple. A church. A voodoo church."

"Sounds interesting," Chrysalis said.

"It's got to be more interesting than looking at anchors," Ray said insouciantly.

Calixte smiled, his good humor going no farther than his lips. "As you wish, msie. I must go now."

"What about these policemen?" Tachyon asked.

"They will continue to protect you," Calixte said depreciatingly, and left.

"They're nothing to worry about," Ray said, "leastways while I'm around." He struck a consciously heroic pose and glanced at Peregrine, who looked down at her drink.

Chrysalis wished she could feel as confident as Ray. There was something unsettling about the Tonton Macoute sitting in the corner of the lounge, watching them from behind his dark glasses with the unblinking patience of a snake. Something malevolent. Chrysalis didn't believe that he was there to protect them. Not for one single, solitary second.

Ti Malice particularly liked the sensations associated with sex. When he was in the mood for such a sensation he'd usually mount a female, because, on the whole, females could maintain a state of pleasure, particularly those adept at self-arousal, much longer than his male mounts could. Of course, there were shades and nuances of sexual sensation, some as subtle as silk dragged across a sensitive nipple, some as blatant as an explosive orgasm ripped from a throttled man, and different mounts were adept at different practices.

This afternoon he wasn't in the mood for anything particularly exotic, so he'd attached himself to a young woman who had a particularly sensitive tactile sense and was enjoying it enjoying itself when his mount came in to report.

"They'll all be at the dinner tonight, and then the group will break up to attend various entertainments. It shouldn't be difficult to obtain one of them. Or more."

He could understand the mount's report well enough. It was, after all, their world, and he'd had to make some accommodations, like learning to associate meaning with the sounds that spilled from their lips. He couldn't reply verbally, of course, even if he'd wanted to. First, his mouth, tongue, and palate weren't shaped for it, and second, his mouth was, and always had to be, fastened to the side of his mount's neck, with the narrow, hollow tube of his tongue plunged into his mount's carotid artery.

But he knew his mounts well and he could read their needs easily. The mount who'd brought the report, for instance, had two. Its eyes were fastened on the lithe nakedness of the female as it pleasured itself, but it also had a need for his kiss.

He flapped a pale, skinny hand and the mount came forward eagerly, dropping its pants and climbing atop the woman. The female let out an explosive grunt as it entered.

He forced a stream. of spittle down his tongue and into his mount's carotid artery, sealing the breach in it, then gingerly climbed, like a frail, pallid monkey, to the male's back, gripped it around the shoulders, and plunged his tongue home just below the mass of scar tissue on the side of its neck.

The male grunted with more than sexual pleasure as he drove his tongue in, siphoning some of the mount's blood into his own body for the oxygen and nutrients he needed to live. He rode the man's back as the man rode the woman, and all three were bound in chains of inexpressible pleasure. And when the carotid of the female mount ruptured unexpectedly, as they sometimes did, spewing all three with pulsing showers of bright, warm, sticky blood, they continued on. It was a most exciting and pleasurable experience. When it was over, he realized that he would miss the female mount-it had had the most incredibly sensitive skin-but his sense of loss was lessened by anticipation.

Anticipation of new mounts, and the extraordinary abilities they would have. ii.

The Palais National dominated the north end of a large open square near the center of Port-au-Prince. Its architect had cribbed its design from the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., giving it the same colonnaded portico, long white facade, and central dome. Facing it on the south end of the square were what looked like, and in fact were, military barracks.

The inside of the Palais stood out in stark contrast to everything else Chrysalis had seen in Haiti. The only word to describe it was opulent. The carpets were deep-pile shags, the furniture and bric-a-brac along the hallway they were escorted down by ornately uniformed guards were all authentic antiques, the chandeliers hanging from the high vaulted ceilings were the finest cut crystal.

President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier, and his wife, Madame Michele Duvalier, were waiting in a receiving line with other Haitian dignitaries and functionaries. Baby Doc Duvalier, who'd inherited Haiti in 1971 when his father, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, had died, looked like a fat boy who'd outgrown his tight-fitting tuxedo. Chrysalis thought him more petulant-looking than intelligent, more greedy than cunning. It was difficult to imagine how he managed to hold power in a country that was obviously on the brink of utter ruin.

Tachyon, wearing an absurd peach-colored crushed-velvet tuxedo, was standing to his right, introducing Duvalier to the members of his tour. When it came Chrysalis's turn, Baby Doc took her hand and stared at her with the fascination of a young boy with a new toy. He murmured to her politely in French and continued to stare at her as Chrysalis moved down the line.

Michele Duvalier stood next to him. She had the cultivated, brittle look of a high-fashion model. She was tall and thin and very light-skinned. Her makeup was immaculate, her gown was the latest off-the-shoulder designer creation, and she wore lots of costly, gaudy jewelry at her ears, throat, and wrists. Chrysalis admired the expense with which she dressed, if not the taste.

She drew back a little as Chrysalis approached and nodded a cold, precise millimeter, without offering her hand. Chrysalis sketched an abbreviated curtsy and moved on herself, thinking, Bitch.

Calixte, showing the high status he enjoyed in the Duvalier regime, was next. He said nothng to her and did nothing to acknowledge her presence, but Chrysalis felt his stare boring into her all the way down the line. It was a most unsettling feeling and was, Chrysalis realized, a further sample of the charisma and power that Calixte wielded. She wondered why he allowed Duvalier to hang around as a figurehead.

The rest of the receiving line was a confused blur of faces and handshakes. It ended at the doorway leading into the cavernous dining room. The tablecloths on the long wooden table were linen, the place settings were silver, the centerpieces were fragrant sprays of orchid and rose. When she was escorted to her seat, Chrysalis found that she and the other jokers, Xavier Desmond, Father Squid, Troll, and Dorian Wilde, were stuck at the end of the table. Word was whispered that Madame Duvalier had had them seated as far away from her as possible so the sight of them wouldn't ruin her appetite.

However, as wine was being served with the fish course (Pwason rouj, the waiter had called it, red snapper served with fresh string beans and fried potatoes), Dorian Wilde stood and recited an extemporaneous, calculatedly overblown ode in praise of Madame Duvalier, all the while gesticulating with the twitching, wriggling, dripping mass of tentacles that was his right hand. Madame Duvalier turned a shade of green only slightly less bilious than that of the ooze that dripped from Wilde's tendrils and was seen to eat very little of the following courses. Gregg Hartmann, sitting near the Duvaliers with the other VIPs, dispatched his pet Doberman, Billy Ray, to escort Wilde back to his seat, and the dinner continued in a more subdued, less interesting manner.

As the last of the after-dinner liquors were served and the party started to break up into small conversational groups, Digger Downs approached Chrysalis and stuck his camera in her face.

"How about a smile, Chrysalis? Or should I say DebraJo? Perhaps you'd care to tell my readers why a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, speaks with a British accent."

Chrysalis smiled a brittle smile, keeping the shock and anger she felt off her face. He knew who she was! The man had pried into her past, had discovered her deepest, if not most vital, secret. How did he do it? she wondered, and what else did he know? She glanced around, but it seemed that no one else was paying them any attention. Billy Ray and Asta Lenser, the ballerina-ace called Fantasy, were closest to them, but they seemed absorbed in their own little confrontation. Billy had a hand on her skinny flank and was pulling her close. She was smiling a slow, enigmatic smile at him. Chrysalis turned back to Digger, somehow managing to keep the anger she felt out of her voice.

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

Digger smiled. He was a rumpled, sallow-looking man. Chrysalis had had dealings with him in the past, and she knew that he was an inveterate snooper who wouldn't let go of a story, especially if it had a juicy, sensational angle.

"Come, come, Miss Jory. It's all down in black and white on your passport application."

She could have sighed with relief, but kept her expression stonily hostile. The application had had her real name on it, but if that was as far as Digger had probed, she'd be safe.

Thoughts of her family raced poisonously through her mind. When she was a little girl, shed been their darling with long blond hair and a naive young smile. Nothing had been too good for her. Ponies and dolls and baton twirling and piano and dancing lessons, her father had bought them all for her with his Oklahoma oil money. Her mother had taken her everywhere, to recitals and to church meetings and to society teas. But when the virus had struck her at puberty and turned her skin and flesh invisible, making her a walking abomination, they shut her up in a wing of the ranch house, for her own good of course, and took away her ponies and her playmates and all contact with the outside world. For seven years she was shut up, seven years… '

Chrysalis shut off the hateful memories rushing through her mind. She was still, she realized, walking on tricky ground with Digger. She had to concentrate fully on him and forget the family that she'd robbed and fled from.

"That information is confidential," she told Digger coldly. He laughed aloud. "That's very funny, coming from you," he said, then suddenly sobered at her look of uncontainable fury. "Of course, perhaps the true story of your real past wouldn't be of much interest to my readers." He put a conciliatory expression on his pale face. "I know that you know everything that goes on in Jokertown. Maybe you know something interesting about him."

Digger gestured with his chin and let his eyes flicker in the direction of Senator Hartmann.

"What about him?" Hartmann was a powerful and influential politician who felt strongly about jokers' rights. He was one of the few politicians that Chrysalis supported financially because she liked his policies and not because she needed to keep the wheels greased.

"Let's go somewhere private and talk about it."

Digger was obviously reluctant to discuss Hartmann openly. Intrigued, Chrysalis glanced at the antique brooch watch pinned above the bodice of her gown. "I have to leave in ten minutes." She grinned like a Halloween skeleton. "I'm going to see a voodoo ceremony. Perhaps if you care to come along, we might find time to discuss things and come to a mutual understanding about the newsworthiness of my background."

Digger smiled. "Sounds fine to me. Voodoo ceremony, huh? They going to stick pins in dolls and stuff? Maybe have some kind of sacrifice?"

Chrysalis shrugged. "I don't know. I've never been to one before."

"Think they'll mind if I take photos?"

Chrysalis smiled blandly, wishing she was on familiar turf, wishing that she had something to use on this gossipmonger, and wondering, underneath it all, why his interest in Gregg Hartmann?

In a fit of sentiment Ti Malice chose one of his oldest mounts, a male with a body almost as frail and withered as his own, to be his steed for the night. Even though the mount's flesh was ancient, the brain encased in it was still sharp, and more strong-willed than any other Ti Malice had ever encountered. It said, in fact, a lot for Ti Malice's own indominatable will that he was able to control the stubborn old steed. The mental fencing that accompanied riding it was a most pleasurable experience.

He chose the dungeon for the meeting place. It was a quiet, comfortable old room, full of pleasurable sights and smells and memories. The lighting was dim, the air was cool and moist. His favorite tools, along with the remains of his last few partners in experience, were scattered about in agreeable disarray. He had his mount pick up a bloodencrusted flaying knife and test it on its callused palm while he drifted in pleasant reminiscence until the snorting bellow in the corridor outside proclaimed Taureau's approach.

Taureau-trois-graines, as he had named this mount, was a huge male with a body that was thick with slabs of muscle. It had a long, bushy beard and tufts of coarse black hair peered through the tears in its sun-faded work shirt. It wore frayed, worn denim pants, and it had a huge, rampant erection pushing visibly at the fabric that covered its crotch. It always had.

" I have a task for you," Ti Malice told his mount to say, and Taureau bellowed and tossed its head and rubbed its crotch through the fabric of its pants. "Some new mounts will be awaiting you on the road to Petionville. Take a squad of zobops and bring them to me here."

"Women?" Taureau asked in a slobbering snort. "Perhaps," Ti Malice said through his mount, "but you are not to have them. Later, perhaps."

Taureau let out a disappointed bellow, but knew better than to argue.

"Be careful," Ti Malice warned. "Some of these mounts may have powers. They may be strong."

Taureau let out bray that rattled the tattered half-skeleton hanging in the wall niche next to it. "Not as strong as me!" It thumped its massive chest with a callused, horny hand.

"Maybe, maybe not. Just take care. I want them all." He paused to let his mount's words sink in. "Do not fail me. If you do, you will never know my kiss again."

Taureau howled like a steer being led to the slaughter block, backed out of the room, bowing furiously, and was gone.

Ti Malice and his mount waited.

In a moment a woman came into the room. Its skin was the color of coffee and milk mixed in equal amounts. Its hair, thick and wild, fell to its waist. It was barefooted and obviously wore nothing under its thin white dress. Its arms were slim, its breasts large, and its legs lithely muscled. Its eyes were black irises floating in pools of red. Ti Malice would have smiled at the sight of it, if he could, for it was his favorite steed.

"Ezili-je-rouge," he crooned through his mount, "you had to wait until Taureau left, for you couldn't share a room with the bull and live."

It smiled a smile with even, perfectly white teeth. "It might be an interesting way to die."

"It might," Ti Malice considered. He had never experienced death by means of intercourse before. "But I have other needs for you. The blancs that have come to visit us are rich and important. They live in America and, I'm sure, have access to many interesting sensations that are unavailable on our poor island."

Ezili nodded, licking red lips.

"I've set plans in motion to make some of these blancs mine, but to ensure my success, I want you to go to their hotel, take one of the others, and make it ready for my kiss. Choose one of the strong ones."

Ezili nodded. "Will you take me to America with you?" she asked nervously.

Ti Malice had his mount reach out an ancient, withered hand and caress Ezili's large, firm breasts. It shivered with delight at the touch of the mount's hand.

"Of course, my darling, of course." iii.

"A limousine?" Chrysalis said with an icy smile to the broadly grinning man wearing dark glasses who was holding the door for her. "How nice. I was expecting something with four-wheel drive."

She climbed into the backseat of the limo, and Digger followed her. " I wouldn't complain," he said. "They haven't let the press go anywhere. You should've seen what I had to go through to crash the dinner party. I don't think they like reporters much… here…"

His voice ran down as he flopped onto the rear seat next to Chrysalis and noted the expression on her face. She was staring at the facing seat, and the two men who occupied it.

One was Dorian Wilde. He was looking more than a little tipsy and fondling a cocomacaques similar to the one Chrysalis had seen that afternoon. The stick obviously belonged to the man who was sitting next to him and regarding Chrysalis with a horrible frozen grin that contorted his scarred face into a death mask.

"Chrysalis, my dear!" Wilde exclaimed as the limo pulled away into the night. "And the glorious fourth estate. Dug up any juicy gossip lately?" Digger looked from Chrysalis to Wilde to the man sitting next to him and decided that silence would be his most appropriate response. "How rude of me," Wilde continued. "I haven't introduced our host. This delightful man has the charming name of Charlemagne Calixte. I believe he's a policeman or something. He's going with us to the hounfour."

Digger nodded and Calixte inclined his head in a precise, nondeferential bow.

"Are you a devotee of voodoo, Monsieur Calixte?" Chrysalis asked.

"It is the superstition of peasants," he said in a raspy growl, thoughtfully fingering the scar tissue that crawled up the right side of his face. "Although seeing you would almost make one a believer."

"What do you mean?"

"You have the appearance of a loa. You could be Madame Brigitte, the wife of Baron Samedi."

"You don't believe that, do you?" Chrysalis asked. Calixte laughed. It was a gravelly, barking laugh-that was as pleasant as his smile. "Not I, but I am an educated man. It was the sickness that caused your appearance. I know. I have seen others."

"Other jokers?" Digger asked with, Chrysalis thought, his usual tact.

"I don't know what you mean. I have seen other unnatural deformities. A few."

"Where are they now?" Calixte only smiled.

No one felt much like talking. Digger kept shooting Chrysalis questioning glances, but she could tell him nothing, and even if she had a inkling of what was going on, she could hardly speak openly in front of Calixte. Wilde played with Calixte's swagger stick and cadged drinks from the bottle of clairin, cheap white rum, that the Haitian took frequent swallows from himself. Calixte drank over half the bottle in twenty minutes, and as he drank he stared at Chrysalis with intense, bloodshot eyes.

Chrysalis, in an effort to avoid Calixte's gaze, looked out the window and was astonished to see that they were no longer in the city, but were traveling down a road that seemed to cut through otherwise unbroken forest.

"Just where are we going?" she asked Calixte, striving to keep her voice level and unafraid.

He took the bottle of clairin from Wilde, gulped down a mouthful, and shrugged. "We are going to the hounfour. It is in Petionville, a small suburb just outside Port-au-Prince."

"Port-au-Prince has no hounfours of its own?"

Calixte smiled his blasted smile. "None that put on such a fine show"

Silence descended again. Chrysalis knew that they were in trouble, but she couldn't figure out exactly what Calixte wanted of them. She felt like a pawn in a game she didn't even know she'd been playing. She glanced at the others. Digger was looking confused as hell, and Wilde was drunk. Damn. She was more sorry than ever that she'd left familiar, comfortable Jokertown behind to follow Tachyon on his mad, worthless journey. As usual, she only had herself to depend on. It had always been like that, and always would. Part of her mind whispered that once there had been Brennan, but she refused to listen to it. Come to the test, he would have proved as untrustworthy as the rest. He would have.

The driver suddenly pulled the limo to the side of the road and killed the engine. She stared out the window, but could see little. It was dark and the roadside was lit only by infrequent glimpses of the half moon as it occasionally peered out from behind banks of thick clouds. It looked as if they had stopped beside a crossroad, a chance meeting of minor roads that ran blindly through the Haitian forest. Calixte opened the door on his side and climbed out of the limo smoothly and steadily in spite of the fact that he'd drunk most of a bottle of raw rum in less than half an hour. The driver got out too, leaned against the side of the limo, and began to beat a swift tattoo on a small, pointed-end drum that he'd produced from somewhere.

"What's going on?" Digger demanded.

"Engine trouble," Calixte said succinctly, throwing the empty rum bottle into the jungle.

"And the driver is calling the Haitian Automobile Club," Wilde, sprawled across the backseat, said with a giggle. Chrysalis poked Digger and gestured to him to move out. He obeyed, looking around bewilderedly, and she followed him. She didn't want to be trapped in the back of the limo during whatever it was that was going to happen. At least outside the car she had a chance to run for it, although she probably wouldn't be able to get very far in a floor-length gown and high heels. Through the jungle. On a dark night. "Say," Digger said in sudden comprehension. "We're being kidnapped. You can't do this. I'm a reporter."

Calixte reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a small, snub-nosed revolver. He pointed it negligently at Digger and said, "Shut up."

Downs wisely did.

They didn't have long to wait. From the road that intersected the one they'd been driving upon came the cadenced sound of marching feet. Chrysalis turned to stare down the road and saw what looked like a column of fireflies, bobbing up and down, coming in their direction. It took a moment, but she realized that it was actually a troop of marching men. They wore long, white robes whose hems brushed the roadtop. Each carried a long, skinny candle in his left hand and each was also crowned with a candle set on his forehead by a cloth circlet, producing the firefly effect. They wore masks. There were about fifteen of them.

Leading the column was an immense man who had a decidedly bovine look about him. He was dressed in the cheap, tattered clothes of a Haitian peasant. He was one of the largest men that Chrysalis had ever seen, and as soon as he spotted her he headed straight toward her. He stood before her drooling and rubbing his crotch, which, Chrysalis was surprised and not happy to see, was bulging outward and stretching the frayed fabric of his jeans.

"Jesus," Digger muttered. "We're in trouble now. He's an ace."

Chrysalis glanced at the reporter. "How do you know?"

"Well, ah, he looks like one, doesn't he?"

He looked like someone who'd been touched by the wild card virus, Chrysalis thought, but that didn't necessarily make him an ace. Before she could question Digger further, however, the bull-like man said something in Creole, and Calixte snapped off a guttural "Non" in answer.

The bull-man seemed momentarily ready to dispute Calixte's apparent order, but decided to back down. He continued to glower at Chrysalis and finger his erection as he spoke in turn to the strangely garbed men who had accompanied him.

Three of them came forward and dragged a protesting Dorian Wilde from the backseat of the limo. The poet looked around bewilderedly, fixed his bleary eyes on the bull-man, and giggled.

Calixte grimaced. He snatched his cocomacaques from Wilde and lashed out with it, spitting the word "Masisi" as he struck.

The blow landed where Wilde's neck curved into his shoulder, and the poet moaned and sagged. The three men supporting him couldn't hold him, and he fell to the ground just as all hell broke loose.

The snap, crack, and pop of small-arms fire sounded from the foliage bordering the roadside, and a couple of the men so strangely crowned by candles went down. A few others broke and ran for it, though most held their ground. The bull-man bellowed in rage and hurtled toward the undergrowth. Chrysalis, who'd dropped to the ground at the first sound of gunfire, saw him get hit in the upper body at least twice, but he didn't even stagger. He crashed into the underbrush and in a moment high-pitched screams mixed with his bellowing.

Calixte crouched behind the limo and calmly returned fire. Digger, like Chrysalis, was huddled on the ground, and Wilde just lay there moaning. Chrysalis decided that it was time to exercise the better part of valor. She crawled under the limo, cursing as she felt her expensive gown snag and tear.

Calixte dove after her. He snatched at her left foot, but only grabbed her shoe. She twisted her foot, the shoe came off, and she was free. She scrambled all the way under the limo, came out on the other side, and rolled into the jungle foliage lining the roadside.

She took a few moments to catch her breath, and then was up and running, staying low and keeping to cover as much as she could. Within moments she was away from the conflict, safe, alone, and, she quickly realized, totally, utterly lost.

She should have paralleled the road, she told herself, rather than taking off blindly into the forest. She should have done a lot of things, like spending the winter in New York and not on this insane tour. But it was too late to worry about any of that. Now all she could do was push ahead. Chrysalis never imagined that a tropical forest, a jungle, could be so desolate. She saw nothing move, other than tree branches in the night wind, and heard nothing other than the sounds made by that same wind. It was a lonely, frightening feeling, especially to someone used to having a city around them.

She'd lost her brooch watch when she'd scrambled under the limo, so she had no way of measuring time other than the increasing soreness in her body and dryness in her throat. Hours, certainly, had passed before, totally by accident, she stumbled upon a trail. It was rough, narrow, and uneven, obviously made by human feet, but finding it filled her with hope. It was a sign of habitation. It led to somewhere. All she had to do was follow it, and somewhere, sometime, she'd find help.

She started down the trail, too consumed by the exigencies of her immediate situation to worry any more about Calixte's motives in bringing her and the others to the crossroads, the identity of the strangely dressed men crowned with candles, or to even wonder about their mysterious rescuers, if, indeed, the band that had ambushed their kidnappers had meant to rescue them.

She walked through the darkness.

It was difficult going. Right at the start of her trek she'd taken off her right shoe to even her stride, and sometime soon afterward she'd lost it. The ground was not without sticks and stones and other sharp objects, and before long her feet hurt like hell. She cataloged her miseries minutely so she'd know exactly how much to take out of Tachyon's hide if she ever got back to Port-au-Prince.

Not if, she told herself repeatedly. When. When. When. She was chanting the word as a short, snappy little marching song when she suddenly realized that someone was walking toward her on the trail. It was difficult to say for sure in the uncertain light, but it looked like a man, a tall, frail man carrying a hoe or shovel or something over his shoulder. He was headed right toward her.

She stopped, leaned against a nearby tree, and let out a long, relieved sigh. The brief thought flashed through her mind that he might be a member of Calixte's odd gang, but from what she could discern, he was dressed like a peasant, and he was carrying some sort of farm implement. He was probably just a local out on a late errand. She had the sudden fear that her appearance might scare him away before she could ask for help, but quenched it with the realization that he had to have already seen her, and he was still steadily approaching.

"Bon jour," she called out, exhausting most of her French. But the man made no sign that he had heard. He kept on walking past the tree against which she leaned.

"Hey! Are you deaf?" she reached out and tugged at his arm as he passed by, and as she touched him, he stopped, turned, and fixed her with his gaze.

Chrysalis felt as if a slice of night had stabbed into her heart. She went cold and shivery and for a long moment couldn't catch her breath. She couldn't look away from his eyes.

They were open. They moved, they shifted focus, they even blinked slowly and ponderously, but they did not see. The face from which they peered was scarcely less skeletal than her own. The brow ridges, eye sockets, cheekbones, jaw, and chin stood out in minute detail, as if there were no flesh between the bone and the taut black skin that covered them. She could count the ribs underneath the ragged work shirt as easily as anyone could count her own. She stared at him as he looked toward her and her breath caught again when she realized that he wasn't breathing. She would have screamed or run or done something, but as she stared he took a long, shallow breath that barely inflated his sunken chest. She watched him closely, and twenty seconds passed before he took another.

She suddenly realized that she was still holding his ragged sleeve, and she released it. He continued to stare in her direction for a moment or two, then turned back the way he'd been headed and started walking away.

Chrysalis stared at his back for a moment, shivering, despite the warmth of the evening. She had just seen, talked to, and even touched, she realized, a zombi. As a resident of jokertown and a joker herself, she'd thought herself inured to strangeness, accustomed to the bizarre. But apparently she wasn't. She had never been so afraid in her life, not even when, as a girl barely out of her teens, she had broken into her father's safe to finance her escape from the prison that was her home.

She swallowed hard. Zombi or not, he had to be going somewhere. Somewhere where there might be other… real… people.

Timorously, because there was nothing else she could do, she began to follow him.

They didn't have far to go. He soon turned off onto a smaller, less-traveled side trail that wound down and around a steep hill. As they passed a sharp curve in the trail, Chrysalis noticed a light burning ahead.

He headed toward the light, and she followed him. It was a kerosene lantern, stuck on a pole in front of what looked like a small, ramshackle but clinging to the lower slopes of the precipitous hillside. A tiny garden was in front of the hut, and in front of the garden a woman was peering into the night.

She was the most prosperous looking Haitian that Chrysalis had yet seen outside of the Palais National. She was actually plump, her calico dress was fresh and new-looking, and she wore a bright orange madras bandanna wrapped around her head. The woman smiled as Chrysalis and the apparition she was following approached.

"Ah, Marcel, who has followed you home?" She chuckled. "Madame Brigitte herself, if I'm not mistaken." She sketched a curtsy that, despite her plumpness, was quite graceful. "Welcome to my home."

Marcel kept walking right on past her, ignoring her and heading for the rear of the hut. Chrysalis stopped before the woman, who was regarding her with an open, welcoming expression that contained a fair amount df good-natured curiosity in it.

"Thank you," Chrysalis said hesitantly. There were a thousand things she could have said, but the question burning in the forefront of her mind had to be answered. "I have to ask you… that is… about Marcel."

"Yes?"

"He's not actually a zombi, is he?"

"Of course he is, my child, of course he is. Come, come." She made gathering motions with her hands. "I must go inside and tell my man to call off the search."

Chrysalis hung back. "Search?"

"For you, my child, for you." The woman shook her head and made tsking sounds. "You shouldn't have run off like that. It caused quite a bit of trouble and worry for us. We thought that the zobop column might capture you again."

"Zobop? What's a zobop?" It sounded to Chrysalis like a term for some kind of jazz afficionado. It was all she could do to keep from laughing hysterically at the thought.

"Zobop are"-the woman gestured vaguely with her hands as if she were trying to describe an enormously complicated subject in simple words-"the assistants of a bokor-an evil sorcerer-who have sold themselves to the bokor for material riches. They follow his bidding in all things, often kidnaping victims chosen by the bokor."

"I… see… And who, if you don't mind my asking, are you?" The woman laughed good-humoredly. "No, child, I don't mind at all. It shows admirable caution on your part. I am Mambo Julia, priestess and premiere reine of the local Bizango chapter." She must have correctly read the baled look on Chrysalis's face, for she laughed aloud. "You blancs are so funny! You think you know everything. You come to Haiti in your great airplane, walk about for one day, and then dispense your magical advice that will cure all our ills. And not once do even one of you leave Port-au-Prince!" Mambo Julia laughed again, this time with some derision. "You know nothing of Haiti, the real Haiti. Port-au-Prince is a gigantic caricer that shelters the leeches that are sucking the juices from Haiti's body. But the countryside, ah, the countryside is Haiti's heart!"

"Well, my child, I shall tell you everything you need to know to begin to understand. Everything, and more, than you want to know. Come to my hut. Rest. Drink. Have a little something to eat. And listen."

Chrysalis considered the woman's offer. Right now she was more concerned about her own difficulties than Haiti's, but Mambo Julia's invitation sounded good. She wanted to rest her aching feet and drink something cold. The idea of food also sounded inviting. It seemed as if she'd last eaten years ago.

"All right," she said, following Mambo Julia toward the hut. Before they reached the door, a middle-aged man, thin, like most Haitians, with a shock of premature white hair, came around from the back.

"Baptiste!" Mambo Julia cried. "Have you fed the zombi?" The man nodded and bobbed a courteous bow in Chrysalis's direction. "Good. Tell the others that Madame Brigitte has found her own way home."

He bowed again, and Chrysalis and Mambo Julia went into the hut.

Inside, it was plainly, neatly, comfortably furnished. Mambo Julia ushered Chrysalis to a rough-hewn plank table and served her fresh water and a selection of fresh, succulent tropical fruits, most of which were unfamiliar, but tasty.

Outside, a drum began to beat a complicated rhythm to the night. Inside, Mambo Julia began to talk.

One of Ti Malice's mounts delivered Ezili's message at midnight. It had succeeded in the task he'd given it. A new mount was lying in drugged slumber at the Royal Haitian Hotel, awaiting its first kiss.

Excited as a child on Christmas morning, Ti Malice decided that he couldn't wait at the fortress for the mounts he'd sent Taureau after to be delivered. He wanted new blood, and he wanted it now.

He moved from his old favorite to a different mount, a girl not much bigger than he, that was already waiting in the special box that he'd had built for occasions when he had to move about in public. It was the size of a large suitcase and was cramped and uncomfortable, but it afforded the privacy he needed for his public excursions. It took a bit of caution, but Ti Malice was smuggled unseen to the third floor of the Royal Haitian Hotel where Ezili, naked and hair flying wild, let him into the room and stood back while the mount bearing him opened the lid and stepped from the box as he moved from the girl's chest to the more comfortable position upon its back and shoulders.

Ezili led him into the bedroom where his new mount was sleeping peacefully.

"He wanted me the moment he saw me," Ezili said. "It was easy to get him to bring me here, and easier yet to slip the draught into his drink after he had me." She pouted, fingering the large, dark nipple of her left breast. "He was a quick lover." she said with some disappointment.

"Later," Ti Malice said through his mount, "you shall be rewarded."

Ezili smiled happily as Ti Malice ordered his mount to bring him closer to the bed. The mount complied, bending over the sleeping man, and Ti Malice transferred himself quickly. He snuggled against the man's chest, nuzzling its neck. The man stirred, moaned a little in its drugged sleep. Ti Malice found the spot he needed, bit down with his single, sharp tooth, then drove his tongue home.

The new mount groaned and feebly reached for its neck. But Ti Malice was already firmly in place, mixing his saliva with his mount's blood, and the mount subsided like a grumpy child having a slightly bad dream. It settled down into deep sleep while Ti Malice made it his.

It was a splendid mount, powerful and strong. Its blood tasted wonderful. iv.

"There have always been two Haitis," Mambo Julia said. "There is the city, Port-au-Prince, where the government and its law rule. And there is the countryside, where the Bizango rules."

"You used that word before," Chrysalis said, wiping the sweet juices of a succulent tropical fruit off her chin. "What does it mean?"

"As your skeleton, which I can see so clearly, holds your body together, so the Bizango binds the people of the countryside. It is an organization, a society with a network of obligations and order. Not everyone belongs to it, but everyone has a place in it and all abide by its decisions. The Bizango settles disputes that would otherwise rip us apart. Sometimes it is easy. Sometimes, as when someone is sentenced to become a zombi, it is difficult."

"The Bizango sentenced Marcel to become a zombi?" Mambo Julia nodded. "He was a bad man. We in Haiti are more permissive about certain things than you Americans. Marcel liked girls. There is nothing wrong with that. Many men have several women. It is all right as long as they can support them and their children. But Marcel liked young girls. Very young girls. He couldn't stop, so the Bizango sat in judgment and sentenced him to become a zombi."

"They turned him into a zombi?"

"No, my dear. They judged him." Mambo Julia lost her air of convivial jollity. " I made him into what he is today, and keep him that way by the powders I feed him daily." Chrysalis placed the half-eaten fruit she was holding back upon its plate, having suddenly lost her appetite. "It is a most sensible solution. Marcel no longer harms young girls. He is instead a tireless worker for the good of the community."

"And he'll always be a zombi?"

"Well, there have been a few zombi savane, those who have been buried and brought back as zombis, then somehow managed to return to the state of the living." Mambo Julia plucked her chin thoughtfully. "But such have always remained somewhat… impaired."

Chrysalis swallowed hard. " I appreciate what you've done for me. I… I'm not sure what Calixte intended, but I'm sure he meant me harm. But now that I'm free, I'd like to return to Port-au-Prince."

"Of course you do, child. And you shall. In fact, we were planning on it."

Mambo Julia's words were welcome, but Chrysalis wasn't sure that she cared much for her tone. "What do you mean?" Mambo Julie looked at her seriously. "I'm not sure, either, what Calixte planned for you. I do know that he's been collecting people such as yourself. People who've been changed. I don't know what he does to them, but they become his. They do the dirty deeds that even the Tonton Macoute refuse. And he keeps them busy," she said with a clenched jaw.

"Charlemagne Calixte is our enemy. He is the power in Port-au-Prince. Jean-Claude Duvalier's father, Francois, was in his own way a great man. He was ruthless and ambitious. He found his way into power and held it for many years. He first organized the Tonton Macoute, and they helped him line his pockets with the wealth of an entire country."

"But Jean-Claude is unlike his father. He is foolish and weak-willed. He has allowed the real power to flow into Calixte's hands, and that devil is so greedy that he threatens to suck the life from us like a loup garou." She shook her head. "He must be stopped. His stranglehold must be loosened so the blood will flow through Haiti's veins again. But his power runs deeper than the guns of the Tonton Macoute. He is either a powerful bokor, or he has one working for him. The magic of this bokor is very strong. It has enabled Calixte to survive several assassination attempts. Though one of them, at least," she said with some satisfaction, "left its mark on him."

"What has all this to do with me?" Chrysalis asked. "You should go to the United Nations or the media. Let your story be known."

"The world knows our story," Mambo Julia said, "and doesn't care. We are beneath their notice, and perhaps it is best that we are left to work out our problems in our own way."

"How?" Chrysalis asked, not sure that she wanted to know the answer.

"The Bizango is stronger in the country than in the city, but we have our agents even in Port-au-Prince. We've been watching you blancs since your arrival, thinking that Calixte might be bold enough to somehow take advantage of your presence, perhaps even try to make one of you his agent. When you publicly defied the Tonton Macoute, we knew that Calixte would be driven to get even with you. We kept close watch over you and so were able to foil his attempt to kidnap you. But he did manage to take your friends."

"They're not my friends," Chrysalis said, starting to realize where Mambo Julia's argument was heading. "And even if they were, I couldn't help you rescue them." She held her hand up, a skeleton's hand with a network of cord and sinew and blood vessels woven around it. "This is what the wild card virus did to me. It didn't give me any special powers or abilities. You need someone like Billy Ray or Lady Black or Golden Boy to help you-"

Mambo Julia shook her head. "We need you. You are Madame Brigitte, the wife of Baron Samedi "

"You don't believe that."

"No," she said, "but the chasseurs and soldats who live in the small, scattered hamlets, who cannot read and who have never seen television, who know nothing of what you call the wild card virus, they may look upon you and take heart for the deeds they must do tonight. They may not totally believe either, but they will want to and will not think upon the impossibility of defeating the bokor and his powerful magic."

"Besides," she said with some finality, "you are the only one who can bait the trap. You are the only one who escaped the zobop column. You will be the only one who will be accepted into their stronghold."

Mambo Julia's words both chilled and angered Chrysalis. Chilled her, because she never even wanted to see Calixte again. She had no intention of putting herself in his power.

Angered her, because she didn't want to become mixed up in their problems, to die for something she knew virtually nothing about. She was a saloon keeper and information broker. She wasn't a meddling ace who stuck her nose in where it didn't belong. She wasn't an ace of any kind.

Chrysalis pushed her chair away from the table and stood up. "Well, I'm sorry, but I can't help you. Besides, I don't know where Calixte took Digger and Wilde any more than you do."

"But we do know where they are." Mambo Julia smiled a smile totally devoid of humor. "Though you eluded the chasseurs who were sent to rescue you, several of the zobop did not. It took some persuading, but one finally told us that Calixte's stronghold is Fort Mercredi, the ruined fortress overlooking Port-au-Prince. The center of his magic is there." Mambo Julia stood herself and went to open the door. A group of men stood in front of the hut. They all had the look of the country about them in their rough farm clothes, callused hands and feet, and lean, muscular bodies. "Tonight," Mambo Julia said, "the bokor dies once and for all."

Their voices rose in a murmur of surprise and awe when they saw Chrysalis. Most bowed in a gesture of respect and obeisance.

Mambo Julia cried out in Creole, gesturing at Chrysalis, and they answered her loudly, happily. After a few moments she closed the door, turned back to Chrysalis, and smiled.

Chrysalis sighed. It was foolish, she decided, to argue with a woman who had the demonstrated ability to create zombis. The feeling of helplessness that descended over her was an old feeling, a feeling from her youth. In New York she controlled everything. Here, it seemed, she was always controlled. She didn't like it, but there was nothing she could do but listen to Mambo Julia's plan.

It was a rather simple plan. Two Bizango chasseurs-men with the rank of hunter in the Bizango, Mambo Julia explained-would dress in the zobop robes and masks that they'd captured earlier that evening, bring Chrysalis to Calixte's fortress, and tell him that they tracked her down in the forest. When the opportunity presented itself (Chrysalis wasn't pleased with the plan's vagueness on this point, but thought it best to keep her mouth shut), they would let their comrades in and proceed to destroy Calixte and his henchmen.

Chrysalis didn't like it, even though Mambo Julia assured her airily that she would be perfectly safe, that the loa would watch over her. For further protection-unnecessary as it was, Mambo Julia said-the priestess gave her a small bundle wrapped in oilskin.

"This is a paquets congo," Mambo Julia told her. "I made it myself. It contains very strong magic that will protect you from evil. If you are threatened, open it and spread its contents all around you. But do not let any touch yourself! It is strong magic, very, very strong, and you can only use it in this simplest way."

With that, Mambo Julia sent her off with the chasseurs. There were ten or twelve of them, young to middle-aged.

Baptiste, Mambo Julia's man, was among them. They continually chattered and joked among themselves as if they were going on a picnic, and they treated Chrysalis with the utmost deference and respect, helping her over the rough spots on the trail. Two carried robes they had taken from the zobop column earlier that evening.

The foot-trail they followed led to a rough road where an ancient vehicle, a minibus or van of some kind, was parked. It hardly looked capable of moving, but the engine started right up after everyone had piled in. The trip was slow and bumpy, but they made better time when they eventually turned off onto a wider, graded road that eventually led back to Port-au-Prince.

The city was quiet, although they did occasionally pass other vehicles. It struck Chrysalis that they were traveling through familiar scenery, and she suddenly realized that they were in Bolosse, the slum section of Port-au-Prince where the hospital she'd visited that morning-it seemed like a thousand years ago-was located.

The men sang songs, chattered, laughed, and told jokes. It was hard to believe that they were planning to assassinate the most powerful man in the Haitian government, a man who was reputedly an evil sorcerer as well. They were acting more as if they were going to a ball game. It was either a remarkable display of bravado, or the calming effect of her presence as Madame Brigitte. Whatever caused their attitude, Chrysalis didn't share it. She was scared stiff.

The driver suddenly pulled over and silence fell as he parked the minibus on a narrow street of dilapidated buildings, pointed, and said something in Creole. The chasseurs began to disembark, and one courteously offered Chrysalis a hand down. For a moment she thought of running, but saw that Baptiste was keeping a wary, if inconspicuous, eye on her. She sighed to herself and joined the line of men as they walked quietly up the street.

It was a strenuous climb up a steep hill. After a moment Chrysalis realized that they were heading toward the ruins of a fort that she had first noticed when they'd passed through the area earlier in the day. Fort Mercredi, Mambo Julia had called it. It had looked picturesque in the morning. Now it was a dark, looming wreck with an aura of brooding menace about it. The column stopped in a small copse of trees clustered in front of the ruins, and two chasseurs, one of them Baptiste, changed into the zobop robes and masks. Baptiste courteously motioned Chrysalis forward, and she took a deep breath, willed her legs to stop trembling, and went on. Baptiste took her arm above her elbow, ostensibly to show that she was a prisoner, but she was grateful for the warmth of a human touch. The shaft o: night had returned to her heart, but it had grown, had spread until it felt like a dark, icy curtain that had totally enveloped her chest.

The fortress was encircled by a dry moat that had a dilapidated wooden bridge spanning it. They were challenged as they reached the bridge by a voice that shouted a question in Creole. Baptiste answered satisfactorily with a curt passwordmore information, Chrysalis guessed, wrenched from the unfortunate zobop who'd fallen into the hands of the Bizangoand they crossed the bridge.

Two men wearing the semiofficial blue suit of the Tonton Macoutes were lounging on the other side, their dark glasses resting in their breast pockets. Baptiste told them some long, involved story, and looking impressed, they passed them on through the outer defenses of the citadel. They were challenged again in the courtyard beyond, and again passed on this time led into the interior of the decrepit fort by one o the second pair of guards.

Chrysalis found it maddening not to understand what was being said around her. The tension was growing higher, her heart colder, as fear wound her tighter than a compressed spring. There was nothing she could do, though, but endure it, and hope, however hopelessly, for the best.

The interior of the fortress seemed to be in moderately good repair. It was lit, medievally enough, by infrequent torches in wall niches. The walls and flooring were stone, dry and cool to the touch. The corridor ended at a railless spiral staircase of crumbling stone. The Tonton Macoute led them downward.

Images of a dank dungeon began to dance in Chrysalis's mind. The air took on a damp feel and a mildewy smell. The staircase itself was slippery with unidentifiable ooze and difficult to negotiate in the sandals made from bits of old automobile tires that Mambo Julia had given her. Torches were infrequent, and the pools of light they threw didn't overlap, so they often had to pass through patches of total darkness.

The staircase ended in a large open space that had only a few uncomfortable-looking bits of wooden furniture in it. A series of chambers debouched off this area, and it was to one of these that they were led.

The room was twenty feet on a side and lit better than the corridors through which they'd just passed, but the ceiling, corners, and some spots along the back wall were all in darkness. The dancing light thrown by the torches made it difficult to discern details, and after her first glance inside the room, Chrysalis knew that was probably for the best.

It was a torture chamber, lined with antique devices that looked well cared for and recently used. An iron maiden lay half-open against one wall, the spikes in its interior coated by flakes of either rust or blood. A table loaded down with impedimenta such as pokers and cleavers and scalpels and thumb and foot screws stood next to what Chrysalis imagined was a rack. She didn't know for certain because she'd never seen one, never thought she would see one, never, ever, wanted to see one.

She looked away from the instruments of torture and focused on the group of half a dozen men clustered in the rear of the room. Two were Tonton Macoutes, enjoying the proceedings. The others were Digger Downs and Dorian Wilde, the bull-man who had led the zobop column, and Charlemagne Calixte. Downs was shackled in a wall niche next to a moldering skeleton. Wilde was the center of everyone's attention.

A stout, thick beam stuck out from the dungeon's rear wall, close to the ceiling, parallel to the floor. A block and tackle hung from the beam and a rope descended from the sharp, wicked-looking metal hook at the bottom of the block and tackle set. Dorian Wilde was dangling from the rope by his arms. He was trying to haul himself up, but lacked the muscular strength to do so. He couldn't even get a proper grip on the coarse hemp with the mass of tentacles that was his right hand. Sweating, wild-eyed, and straining, he swayed desperately while Calixte operated a ratcheted handcrank that lowered the rope until the bottoms of Wilde's naked feet were hanging just above a bed of hot glowing coals burning in a low brazier that had been placed below the gibbet. Wilde would desperately swing his feet away from the searing heat, Calixte would crank him up and give him a brief respite, then lower him again. He stopped when the bull-man glanced toward the front of the room, noticed Chrysalis, and let out a bellow.

Calixte looked at her and their eyes met. His expression was wildly exultant, and he was sweating profusely, though it was damply cool in the dungeon. He smiled and said some thing in Creole to the men in the background, who sprang forward and removed Wilde from the gibbet. He then spoke to Baptiste and the other chasseur Baptiste must have answered him satisfactorily, for he nodded, then dismissed them with a curt word and a gesture of his head.

They bowed and started to walk away. Chrysalis took a single instinctive step to follow them, and then the bull-man was before her, breathing heavily and eyeing her strangely. His erection, she noted sickly, was still rampant.

"Well," Calixte growled in English. "We are all together again." He came to Chrysalis, put a hand on the bull's shoulder, and pushed him away. "We were having a bit of amusement. The blanc offended me and I was teaching him some manners." He nodded at Wilde, who was huddled on the damp flagstone paving, heaving great shuddering breaths. Calixte never took his eyes off Chrysalis. They were bright and fevered, burning with unspeakable excitement and pleasure. "You also have been difficult." He plucked at the scar tissue that glinted glassily in the torchlight. He seemed deep in mad thought. "You need, I think, a lesson also." He seemed to make up his mind. "He'll have the others. I don't think he'd mind if we used you up. Taureau." He turned to the bull-man, spoke some words in Creole.

Chrysalis scarcely understood him, even though he spoke English. His words were thick and blurry, even more so than usual. He was either very drunk, very stoned, or very mad.

Perhaps, she realized, all three. She was frantic with terror. The chasseurs weren't supposed to leave, she thought wildly. They were supposed to kill Calixte! Her heart beat faster than the drums she'd heard sounding through the Haitian night. The dark fear centered in her chest threatened to flow out and overwhelm her entire being. For a moment she teetered on the thin edge of irrationality, and then Taureau came forward, snorting and drooling, one massive hand unbuttoning the fly of his jeans, and Chrysalis knew what she had to do.

She clutched the packet that Mambo Julia had given her and with frantic, shaking fingers pulled off the paper wrapping, exposing a small leather sack closed by a drawstring.

She ripped open the mouth of the sack and with trembling hands threw it and its contents at Taureau.

The sack hit him in the face and he walked right into a cloud of fine, grayish powder that billowed out from it. It coated his hands, arms, chest, and face. He stopped for a moment, snorted, shook his head, then kept right on coming. Chrysalis broke. She turned with a sob and started to run, thinking incoherently that she should have known better, that Mambo Julia was a conniving fraud, that what was about to happen was nothing compared to what she would experience in a lifetime of domination by Calixte, and then she heard a horrible, bellowing scream that froze every nerve, muscle, and sinew in her body.

She turned. Taureau was standing still, but shivering from head to toe as every massive muscle in his body spasmed. His eyes nearly bulged from his head as he stared at Chrysalis and screamed again, a horrible, drawn-out wail that wasn't even remotely human. His hands clenched and unclenched, and then he began to rake at his face, tearing long furrows of meat away from his cheeks with his thick, blunt fingernails, howling all the while like a damned soul burning.

A memory flashed through Chrysalis's mind, a terse recollection of a cool, dark bar, a delightful drink, and a short Tachyon speech on Haitian herbal medicine. Mambo Julia's paquets congo contained no magic powder, no concoction compounded during a fearful ritual and consecrated to the dark voodoo loa. It was simply some herbal preparation, a fast acting, topically effective neurotoxin of some kind. At least that's what she told herself, and almost believed.

The awful tableau held for a moment, and then Calixte barked a word to the Tonton Macoutes who were watching Taureau with astonished eyes. One stepped forward, put a hand on the bull-man's shoulder. Taureau turned with the speed of an adrenalized cat, grabbed the man by his wrist and shoulder, and ripped his arm from his body. The Tonton Macoute stared at Taureau for a moment with unbelieving eyes, and then, blood fountaining from his shoulder, he fell weeping to the floor, trying unsuccessfully to stanch the bleeding with his remaining hand.

Taureau brandished the arm above his head like a gory club, shaking it at Chrysalis. Blood splattered across her face and she choked back the bile that rose in her throat.

Calixte roared an order in Creole, whether at Taureau or his other man Chrysalis didn't know, but the Tonton Macoute ran from the chamber as Taureau whirled in a mad circle, trying to watch everyone at once from crazed, fear-distended eyes.

Calixte kept shouting at Taureau, who was shaking and trembling with terrible muscle spasms. His face was the face of a tortured lunatic, and his dark skin was turning darker. His lips were becoming distinctly blue. He shambled toward Calixte, screaming words that Chrysalis, even though she couldn't understand the language they were spoken in, knew were gibberish.

Calixte calmly drew his pistol. He pointed it at Taureau and spoke again. The joker continued to advance. Calixte squeezed off a shot that hit Taureau high in the left side of his chest, but he kept coming. Calixte shot three more times before the maddened bull covered the distance between them, and the last shot hit him right between the eyes.

But Taureau kept coming. He dropped the arm he'd been brandishing, grabbed Calixte, and with a final spasm of incredible strength, threw him at the chamber's rear wall.

Calixte screamed. He reached out to grasp the rope hanging from the gibbet, but he missed. He missed the rope, but not the meathook from which it hung.

The hook took him in the stomach, ripped up through his diaphragm, and skewered his right lung. He showered screams and blood as he kicked his legs and swung in counterpoint rhythm to the spasmodic jerking of his body.

Taureau staggered, clutching his shattered forehead, and fell onto the brazier of burning coals. After a moment he stopped bellowing and there came the crisp sizzle and sweet smell of burning flesh.

Chrysalis was violently sick. After she finished wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she looked up to see Dorian Wilde standing before the limp, swaying form of Charlemagne Calixte. He smiled and recited:

"It is sweet to dance to violins

When Love and Life are fair:

To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes

Is delicate and rare:

But it is not sweet with nimble feet

To dance upon the air!"

Digger Downs rattled his chains impotently. "Someone get me out of here," he pleaded.

Chrysalis heard the snap of small-arms fire in the upper reaches of the fortress, but the Bizango chasseurs were too late. The bokor, swaying from the meathook above the dungeon floor, was already dead.

It was hushed up, of course.

Senator Hartmann asked Chrysalis to be silent to help diffuse the fear of the wild card virus that was raging back home. He didn't even want there to be a hint of American jokers and aces mixing in foreign politics. She agreed for two reasons: First, she wanted him in her debt, and second, she always avoided personal publicity anyway. Not even Digger filed a story. He was recalcitrant at first, until Senator Hartmann had a private talk with him, a talk from which Downs emerged happy, smiling, and oddly closemouthed.

The death of Charlemagne Calixte was ascribed to a sudden, unexpected illness. The other dozen bodies found in Fort Mercredi were never mentioned, and the twoscore odd deaths and suicides among government officials over the next week or so were never even connected to Calixte's death.

Jean-Claude Duvalier, who suddenly found himself with a sullen, poverty-stricken country to run, was grateful for the lack of publicity, but there was something he discovered at the end of the affair, something puzzling and terrifying that he carefully kept secret.

Among the bodies recovered from Fort Mercredi was that of an old, old man. When Jean-Claude saw the body he blanched nearly white and had it interred in the Cimetiere Exterieur in haste, at night, without ceremony, before anyone else could recognize it and ask how it was that Francois Duvalier, supposedly dead for fifteen years, was, or had been until very recently, still alive.

The only one who could answer that question was no longer in Haiti. He was on his way to America where he anticipated a long, interesting, and productive search for new and exciting sensations.

FROM THE JOURNAL OF XAVIER DESMOND

DECEMBER 8, 1986/MEXICO CITY:

Another state dinner this evening, but I've begged off with a plea of illness. A few hours to relax in my hotel room and write in the journal are most welcome. And my regrets were anything but fabricated-the tight schedule and pressures of the trip have begun to take their toll, I fear. I have not been keeping down all of my meals, although I've done my utmost to see that my distress remains unnoticed. If Tachyon suspected, he would insist on an examination, and once the truth was discovered, I might be sent home.

I will not permit that. I wanted to see all the fabled, far-off lands that Mary and I had once dreamed of together, but already it is clear that what we are engaged in here is far more important than any pleasure trip. Cuba was no Miami Beach, not for anyone who cared to look outside Havana; there are more jokers dying in the cane fields than cavorting on cabaret stages. And Haiti and the Dominican Republic were infinitely worse, as I've already noted in these pages.

A joker presence, a strong joker voice-we desperately need these things if we are to accomplish any good at all. I will not allow myself to be disqualified on medical grounds.

Already our numbers are down by one-Dorian Wilde returned to New York rather than continue on to Mexico. I confess to mixed feelings about that. When we began, I had little respect for the 'poet laureate of Jokertown,' whose title is as dubious as my own mayoralty, though his Pulitzer is not. He seems to get a perverse glee from waving those wet, slimy tendrils of his in people's faces, flaunting his deformity in a deliberate attempt to draw a reaction. I suspect this aggressive nonchalance is in fact motivated by the same selfloathing that makes so many jokers take to masks, and a few sad cases actually attempt to amputate the deformed parts of their bodies. Also, he dresses almost as badly as Tachyon with his ridiculous Edwardian affectation, and his unstated preference for perfume over baths makes his company a trial to anyone with a sense of smell. Mine, alas, is quite acute.

Were it not for the legitimacy conferred on him by the Pulitzer, I doubt that he would ever have been named for this tour, but there are very few jokers who have achieved that kind of worldly recognition. I find precious little to admire in his poetry either, and much that is repugnant in his endless mincing recitations.

All that being said, I confess to a certain admiration for his impromptu performance before the Duvaliers. I suspect he received a severe dressing down from the politicians.

Hartmann had a long private conversation with "The Divine Wilde" as we were leaving Haiti, and after that Dorian seemed much subdued.

While I don't agree with much that Wilde has to say, I do nonetheless think he ought to have the right to say it. He will be missed. I wish I knew why he was leaving. I asked him that very question and tried to convince him to go on for the benefit of all his fellow jokers. His reply was an offensive suggestion about the sexual uses of my trunk, couched in the form of a vile little poem. A curious man.

With Wilde gone, Father Squid and myself are the only true representatives of the joker point of view, I feel. Howard M. (Troll, to the world) is an imposing presence, nine feet tall, incredibly strong, his green-tinged skin as tough and hard as horn, and I also know him to be a profoundly decent and competent man, and a very intelligent one, but… he is by nature a follower, not a leader, and there is a shyness in him, a reticence, that prevents him from speaking out. His height makes it impossible for him to blend with the crowd, but sometimes I think that is what he desires most profoundly.

As for Chrysalis, she is none of those things, and she has her own unique charisma. I cannot deny that she is a respected community leader, one of the most visible (no pun intended) and powerful of jokers. Yet I have never much liked Chrysalis. Perhaps this is my own prejudice and self-interest. The rise of the Crystal Palace has had much to do with the decline of the Funhouse. But there are deeper issues. Chrysalis wields considerable power in Jokertown, but she has never used it to benefit anyone but herself. She has been aggressively apolitical, carefully distancing herself from the JADL and all joker rights agitation. When the times called for passion and commitment, she remained cool and uninvolved, hidden behind her cigarette holders, liqueurs, and upperclass British accent.

Chrysalis speaks only for Chrysalis, and Troll seldom speaks at all, which leaves it to Father Squid and myself to speak for the jokers. I would do it gladly, but I am so tired…

I fell asleep early and was wakened by the sounds of my fellow delegates returning from the dinner. It went rather well, I understand. Excellent. We need some triumphs. Howard tells me that Hartmann gave a splendid speech and seemed to captivate President de la Madrid Hurtado throughout the meal. Peregrine captivated all the other males in the room, according to reports. I wonder if the other women are envious. Mistral is quite pretty, Fantasy is mesmerizing when she dances, and Radha O'Reilly is arresting, her mixed Irish and Indian heritage giving her features a truly exotic cast. But Peregrine overshadows all of them. What do they make of her?

The male aces certainly approve. The Stacked Deck is close quarters, and gossip travels quickly up and down the aisles. Word is that Dr. Tachyon and Jack Braun have both made passes and have been firmly rebuffed. If anything, Peregrine seems closest with her cameraman, a nat who travels back with the rest of the reporters. She's making a documentary of this trip.

Hiram is also close to Peregrine, but while there's a certain flirtatiousness to their constant banter, their friendship is more platonic in nature. Worchester has only one true love, and that's food. To that, his commitment is extraordinary. He seems to know all the best restaurants in every city we visit. His privacy is constantly being invaded by local chefs, who sneak up to his hotel room at all hours, carrying their specialties and begging for just a moment, just a taste, just a little approval. Far from objecting, Hiram delights in it.

In Haiti he found a cook he liked so much that he hired him on the spot and prevailed upon Hartmann to make a few calls to the INS and expedite the visa and work permit. We saw the man briefly at the Port-au-Prince airport, struggling with a huge trunk full of cast-iron cookware. Hiram made the trunk light enough for his new employee (who speaks no English, but Hiram insists that spices are a universal language) to carry on one shoulder. At tonight's dinner, Howard tells me, Worchester insisted on visiting the kitchen to get the chef's recipe for chicken mole, but while he was back there he concocted some sort of flaming dessert in honor of our hosts.

By rights I ought to object to Hiram Worchester, who revels in his acedom more than any other man I know, but I find it hard to dislike anyone who enjoys life so much and brings such enjoyment to those around him. Besides, I am well aware of his various anonymous charities in Jokertown, though he does his best to conceal them. Hiram is no more comfortable around my kind than Tachyon is, but his heart is as large as the rest of him.

Tomorrow the group will fragment yet again. Senators Hartmann and Lyons, Congressman Rabinowitz, and Ericsson from WHO will meet with the, leaders of the PRI, Mexico's ruling party, while Tachyon and our medical staff visit a clinic that has claimed extraordinary success in treating the virus with laetrile. Our aces are scheduled to lunch with three of their Mexican counterparts. I'm pleased to say that Troll has been invited to join them. In some quarters, at least, his superhuman strength and near invulnerability have qualified him as an ace. A small breakthrough, of course, but a breakthrough nonetheless.

The rest of us will be traveling down to Yucatan and the Quintana Roo to look at Mayan ruins and the sites of several reported antijoker atrocities. Rural Mexico, it seems, is not as enlightened as Mexico City. The others will join us in Chichen Itza the following day, and our last day in Mexico will be given over to tourism.

And then it will be on to Guatemala… perhaps. The daily press has been full of reports on an insurrection down there, an Indian uprising against the central government, and several of our journalists have gone ahead already, sensing a bigger story than this tour. If the situation seems too unstable, we may be forced to skip that stop.

THE TINT OF HATRED

Part Two

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 9, 1986, MEXICO:

" I stand in El Templo de los Jaguares, the Temple of the Jaguars, in Chicken Itza. Under the fierce Yucatan sun the archway is impressive, two thick columns carved in the likeness of gigantic snakes, their huge, stylized heads flanking the entrance, their linked tails supporting the lintel."

"A thousand years ago, the guide books tell us, Mayan priests cheered the players in El Juego de Pelota, the ball court twenty-five feet below. It was a game that would be familiar to any of us. The players struck a hard rubber ball with their knees, elbows, and hips, scoring as the ball caromed through rings set in the long stone walls flanking the narrow field. A simple game, played for the glory of the god Quetzalcoatl, or Kukulcan, as those here called him. As his reward, the captain of the victorious team would be carried to the temple. The losing captain would behead his opponent with an obsidian knife, sending him into a glorious afterlife. A bizarre reward for conquest, by our standards. "Too different to be comfortable.

"I look out on this ancient place, and the walls are still brown with blood; not of Mayans, but of jokers. The wild card plague struck here late and virulently. Some scientists have hypothesized that the mind-set of the victim influences the virus; thus, from a teenager fascinated by dinosaurs, you get Kid Dinosaur. From an obese master chef such as Hiram Worchester, you get someone who can control gravity. Dr. Tachyon, when asked, has been evasive on the subject, since it suggests that the deformed jokers have somehow punished themselves. That's just the kind of emotional fodder that reactionaries such as fundamentalist preacher Leo Barnett, or a fanatic `prophet' such as Nur al-Allah, would use for their own purposes."

"Still, perhaps it's not surprising that in the ancestral lands of the Mayans, there have been no less than a dozen plumed serpents over the years: images of Kukulcan himself."

And here in Mexico, if those of Indian blood had final say, perhaps even the jokers would be well-treated, for the Mayans considered the deformed blessed by the gods. But those of Mayan descent don't rule.

"In Chicken Itza, over fifty jokers were killed only a _year ago."

"Most of them (but not all) were followers of the new Mayan religion. These ruins were their place of worship. They thought that the virus was a sign to return to the old ways; they didn't think of themselves as victims. The gods had twisted their bodies and rendered them different and holy. "Their religion was a throwback to a violent past. And because they were so different, they were feared. The locals of Spanish and European descent hated them. There was gossip concerning animal and even human sacrifice,. of blood rites. It didn't matter if any of it was actually true; it never does. They were different. Their own neighbors banded together to rid themselves of this passive threat. They were dragged screaming from the surrounding villages.

"Bound, pleading for mercy, the jokers of Chicken Itza were laid here. Their throats were slit in brutal parody of Mayan rites splashing blood stained the carved serpents red. Their bodies were cast into the ball court below. Another atrocity, another `nat vs. joker' incident. Old prejudices amplifying the new."

"Still, what happened here-though horrible-is no worse than what has happened, is happening, to jokers at home. You who are reading this: You or someone you know has probably been guilty of the same prejudice that caused this massacre. We're no less susceptible to the fear of the different." Sara switched off the cassette recorder and laid it atop the serpent's head. Squinting into the brilliant sun, she could see the main group of delegates near the Temple of the Bearded Man; behind, the pyramid of Kukulcan threw a long shadow over the grass.

"A woman of such obvious compassion would keep an open mind, wouldn't she?"

Panic crawled her spine. Sara whirled about to see Senator Hartmann regarding her. It took a long moment to recover her composure. "You startled me, Senator. Where's the rest of the entourage?"

Hartmann smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry for sneaking up on you, Ms. Morgenstern. Scaring you wasn't my intention, believe me. As for the others-I told Hiram that I had private business to discuss with you. He's a good friend and helped me escape." He grinned softly as if at some inner amusement. " I couldn't quite get away from everyone. Billy Ray's down below, being the dutiful bodyguard."

Sara frowned into that smile. She picked up her recorder, placed it in her purse. "I don't think you and I have any `private business,' Senator. If you'll excuse me…"

She started to move past him toward the temple's entrance. She thought for a moment that he might make some move to detain her; she tensed, but he stepped aside politely.

"I meant what I said about compassion," he commented just before she reached the stairs. " I know why you dislike me. I know why you look so familiar. Andrea was your sister."

The words battered Sara like fists. She gasped at the pain.

"I also believe you're a fair person," Hartmann continued, and each word was another blow. " I think that if you were finally told the truth, you'd understand."

Sara gave a cry that was half-sob, unable to hold it back. She placed a hand on cool, rough stone and turned. The sympathy she saw in Hartmann's eyes frightened her.

"Just leave me alone, Senator."

"We're stuck together on this trip, Ms. Morgenstern. There's no sense in our being enemies, not when there isn't any reason."

His voice was gentle and persuasive. He sounded kind. It would have been easier if he'd been accusatory, if he'd tried, to bribe her or threaten her. Then she could have fought back easily, could have reveled in her fury. But Hartmann stood there, his hands at his sides, looking, of all things, sad. She'd imagined Hartmann many ways, but never like this. "How…" she began, and found her voice choked. "When did you find out about Andrea?"

"After our conversation at the press reception, I had my aide Amy run a background check. She found that you'd been born in Cincinnati, that your family name was Whitman. You lived two streets over from me, on Thornview. Andrea was what, seven or eight years older than you? You look a lot like her, like she might have grown up to be." He steepled his hands to his face, rubbing at the corners of his eyes with his forefingers. "I'm not very comfortable with lying or evasion, Ms. Morgenstern. That's not my style. I don't think you are either, not from the blunt articles you've written. I think I know why we've been at odds, and I also know it's a mistake."

"Which means that you think it's my fault."

"I've never attacked you in print."

"I don't lie in my articles, Senator. They're fair. If you have a problem with any of my facts, let me know and I'll give you verification."

"Ms. Morgenstern-" Hartmann began, a trace of irritation in his voice. Then, oddly, he leaned his head back and chuckled loudly. "God, there we go again," he said, and he sighed. "Really, I read your articles. I don't always agree with you, but I'll be the first to admit that they're well written and researched. I even think that I could like the person who wrote them, if ever we had the chance to talk and know each other." His gray-blue eyes caught hers. "What's between us is the ghost of your sister."

His last words took the breath from her. She couldn't believe that he'd said them; not so casually, not with that innocent smile, not after all those years. "You killed her," she breathed, and didn't realize that she'd spoken the words aloud until she saw the shock on Hartmann's face. He went white for an instant. His mouth opened, then clamped shut. He shook his head.

"You can't believe that," he said. "Roger Pellman killed her. There was no question at all about that. The poor retarded kid…" Hartmann shook his head. "How can I say it gently? He came out of the woods naked and howling like all the demons of hell were after him. Andrea's blood covered him. He admitted killing her."

Hartmann's face was still pale. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and his gaze was withdrawn. "Damnit, I was there, Ms. Morgenstern. I was standing outside in my front yard when Pellman came running up the street, gibbering. He ran into his house, the neighbors all around watching. We all heard his mother scream. Then the cops came, first to the Pellmans', then taking Roger into the woods with them. I saw them carry out the wrapped body. My mom had her arms around your mother. She was hysterical, wailing. It infected all of us. We were all crying, all of the kids, even though we really didn't understand what was going on. They handcuffed Roger, hauled him away…"

Sara stared, bewildered, at Hartmann's haunted face. His hands were clenched into fists at his side. "How can you say I killed her?" he asked softly. "Don't you realize that I was in love with her, as infatuated as an eleven-year-old kid can be. I would never have done anything to hurt Andrea. I had nightmares for months afterward. I was furious when they assigned Roger Pellman to Longview Psychiatric. I wanted him to hang for what he'd done; I wanted to be the one to pull the damn switch on him."

It can't be. The insistent denial pounded in her head. Yet she looked at Hartmann and knew, somehow, that she was wrong. Doubt had begun to dampen some of the fiery hatred.

"Succubus," she said, and found her throat dry. She licked her lips. "You were there, and she had Andrea's face." Hartmann took a gulping, deep breath. He looked away from her for a moment, toward the northern temple. Sara followed his gaze and saw that the tour group from the Stacked Deck had gone inside. The ball court was deserted, quiet. "I knew Succubus," Hartmann said at last, still looking away from her, and she could feel the trembling emotion in his voice. " I knew her at the end of her public career, and we still saw each other occasionally. I wasn't married then, and Succubus…" He turned around to Sara, and she was surprised to see his eyes bright with moisture. "Succubus could be anyone, you know. She was anyone's ideal lover. When she was with you, she was exactly what you wanted."

In that instant Sara knew what he was going to say. She had already begun to shake her head in denial.

"For me, quite often," Hartmann continued, "she was Andrea. You were right, you know, when you said we're both obsessed. We're obsessed by Andrea and her death. If that hadn't happened, I might have forgotten my crush on her six months later, like every pubescent fantasy. But what Roger Pellman did engraved Andrea in my mind. Succubus-she roamed in your head and used what she found there. Inside me, she found Andrea. So when she saw me during the riot, when she wanted me to save her from the violence of the mob, she took the face she had always shown to me: Andrea's."

" I didn't kill your sister, Ms. Morgenstern. I'll plead guilty to thinking of her as my fantasy lover, but that's all."

"Your sister was an ideal for me. I wouldn't have harmed her at all. I couldn't."

It can't be.

Sara remembered all the strange links she'd found in the months after she'd first seen the videotape of Succubus's death. Sara had thought that she'd escaped the cloying Andrea worship of her parents, that she'd left her murdered sister behind her for the rest of her life. Succubus's face had shattered all that. Even after she'd shakily written the article that would eventually win her the Pulitzer, she'd thought it had been a mistake, a cruel trick of fate. But Hartmann had been there. She'd known all along that the Senator was from Ohio. She discovered later that not only was he from Cincinnati, but he'd lived nearby, been a classmate of Andrea's. She'd done more research, suddenly suspicious. Mysterious deaths and violent acts seemed to plague Hartmann: in law school, as a New York City councilman, as mayor, as senator. None of them were ever Hartmann's fault. There was always someone else, someone with motive and desire. But still…

She dug further. She found that five-year-old Hartmann and his parents had been on vacation in New York the day Jetboy died and the virus was loosed on the unsuspecting world. They'd been among the lucky ones. None of them had ever shown any signs of having been infected. Still, if Hartmann were a hidden ace, "up the sleeve" in the vernacular…

It was circumstantial. It was flimsy. Her reporter's instinct had screamed "Objectivity!" at her emotions. That hadn't stopped her from hating him. There was always that gut feeling, the certainty that he was the one. Not Roger Pellman, not the others who had been convicted, but Hartmann. For the last nine years or more she'd believed that. Yet Hartmann didn't seem dangerous or malign now. He stood there patiently-a plain face, a high forehead threatening to recede and sweating from the fierce sun, a body soft around the waist from years of sitting behind administrative desks. He let her stare, let her search his gaze unflinchingly. Sara found that she couldn't imagine him killing or hurting. A person who enjoyed pain in the way she'd imagined would show it somewhere: in his body language, his eyes, his voice. There was none of it in Hartmann. He had a presence, yes, a charisma, but he didn't feel dangerous-

Would he have told you about Succubus if he hadn't cared? Would a murderer have opened himself that far to someone he didn't know, a hostile reporter? Doesn't violence follow everyone through life? Give him that much credit. "I… I have to think about this," she said.

"That's all I ask," he answered softly. He took a deep breath, looking around the sun-baked ruins. "I should get back to the others before everyone starts talking, I suppose. The way Downs is snooping around me, he'll have all sorts of rumors started." He smiled sadly.

Hartmann moved toward the temple stairs. Sara watched him, frowning at the contradictory thoughts swirling inside her. As the senator passed her, he stopped.

His hand touched her shoulder.

His touch was gentle, warm, and his face was full of sympathy. "I put Andrea's face on Succubus and I'm sorry that caused you anguish. It's also plagued me." His hand dropped; her shoulder was cool where he'd been. He glanced at the serpent's heads to either side. "Pellman killed Andrea. No one else. I'm just a person accidentally caught up in your story. I think we'd make better friends than enemies."

He seemed to hesitate for a moment, as if waiting for a reply. Sara was looking out to the pyramid, not trusting herself to say anything. All the conflicting emotions that were Andrea surged in her: outrage, an aching loss, bitterness, a thousand others. Sara kept her gaze averted from Hartmann, not wanting him to see.

When she was sure he was gone, she sank down, sitting with her back against a serpent column. Her head on her knees, she let the tears come.

At the bottom of the steps Gregg looked upward at the temple. A grim satisfaction filled him. Toward the end he had felt Sara's hatred dissipate like fog in sunlight, leaving behind only a faint trace of its presence. I did it without you, he said to the power inside him. Her hatred flung you away, but it didn't matter. She's Succubus, she's Andrea; I'll make her come to me by myself. She's mine. I don't need you to force her to me.

Puppetman was silent.

BLOOD RIGHTS

Leanne C. Harper

The young Lacandon Maya coughed as the smoke followed him across the newly cleared field. Someone had to stay and watch the brush they had cut reduce to the ashes they would use to feed the ground of the milpa. The fire was burning evenly so he moved back out of range of the smoke. Everyone else was at home asleep in the afternoon, and the humid warmth made him drowsy too. Smoothing down his long white robe over his bare legs, he ate the cold tamales that were his dinner.

Lying in the shade, he began to blink and fall under his dreams spell once more. His dreams had taken him to the realm of the gods ever since he had been a boy, but it was rare that he remembered what the gods had said or done. Jose, the old shaman, became so angry when all he could recall were feelings or useless details from his latest vision. The only hope in it all was that the dream became more and more clear each time he had it. He had been denying to Jose that the dream had returned, waiting for the time when he could remember enough to impress even Jose, but the shaman knew he lied.

The dream took him to Xibalba, the domain of Ah Puch, the Lord of Death. Xibalba always smelled of smoke and blood. He coughed as the atmosphere of death entered his lungs. The coughing awakened him, and it took him a moment to realize that he was no longer in the underworld. Eyes watering, he backed away from the fire, out of range of the smoke that the wind had sent to follow him. Maybe his ancestors were angry with him too.

He stared at the flames, now slowly dying down, and moved a little closer to the bonfire in the center of the milpa. Wild-eyed, he slid into a crouch before the fire and watched it closely. Jose had told him again and again to trust what he felt and go where his intuition led him. This time, frightened but glad there was no one to see him, he would do it.

With both hands he pushed his black hair back behind his ears and reached forward to pull a short leafy branch from the edge of the brush pile and put it on the ground before him. Slowly, left hand trembling slightly, he drew the machete from its stained leather scabbard at his side. Flexing – his right hand, he held it chest-high in front of him. He clenched his jaws and turned his head slightly up and away from looking at his hand. The sweat from his forehead fell into his eyes and dripped off his aristocratic nose as he brought the machete down across the palm of his right hand.

He made no sound. Nor did he move as the bright blood ran down his fingers to fall on the deep green of the leaves. Only his eyes narrowed and his chin lifted. When the branch was covered with his blood, he picked it up with his left hand and threw it into the flames. The air smelled of Xibalba again and of his ancestors' ancient rituals, and he returned to the underworld once more.

As always, a rabbit scribe greeted him, speaking in the ancient language of his people. Clutching the bark paper and brush to its furry chest, it told him in an odd, low voice to follow. Ahau Ah Puch awaited him.

The air was scented by burning blood.

The man and the rabbit had walked through a village of abandoned thatch huts, much like those of his own village. But here patches of thatch were missing from the roofs. The uncovered doorways gaped like the mouths of skulls, while the mud and grass of the walls fell away like the flesh from a decaying body.

The rabbit led him between the high, stone walls of a ball court with carved stone rings set on the walls above his head. He did not remember ever having been in a ball court before, but he knew he could play here, had played here, had scored here. He felt again the hard rubber ball strike the cotton padding on his elbow and arc toward the serpent's coils carved into the stone ring.

He drew his eyes back from the serpent to the face of the Lord of Death, seated on a reed mat on the dais in front of him at the end of the ball court. Ah Puch's eyes were black pits set in the white band across his skull. The Ahau's mouth and nose opened on eternity, and the smells of blood and rotting flesh were strong upon him.

"Hunapu. Ballplayer. You have returned to me."

The man knelt and put his forehead to the floor before Ah Puch, but he felt no fear. He felt nothing in this dream.

"Hunapu. Son." The man raised his head at the sound of the old woman's voice to his left. Ix Chel and her even older husband, Itzamna, sat cross-legged on reed mats attended by the rabbit scribe. Their dais was supported by twin, huge turtles whose intermittently blinking eyes were all that showed they lived.

"The cycle ends." The grandmother continued to speak. "Change comes for the hach winik. The white stickmen have created their own downfall. You, Hunapu, brother to Xbalanque, are the messenger. Go to Kaminaljuyu and meet your brother. Your path will become clear, ballplayer."

"Do not forget us, ballplayer." Ah Puch spoke and his voice was vicious and hollow as if he spoke through a mask. "Your blood is ours. Your enemies' blood is ours."

For the first time real fear broke through Hunapu's numbness. His hand throbbed in pain to the rhythm of Ah Puch's words, but despite his fear he rose from his kneeling position. His eyes met the endless black of Ah Puch's.

Before he could speak, a ball whose every edge was a razor-sharp blade cut through the air toward him. Then Xibalba was gone and he was back at the dead fire, hearing the old god speak but one word.

"Remember."

The stocky Mayan worker stood in the shadows of one of the work tents as he watched the last group of archaeological students and professors break up. As they wandered into their sleeping tents, he withdrew even farther into the protection of the tent. His classic Maya profile marked him as a pure-blood Indian, the lowest class in Guatemala's social hierarchy; but here among the blonde students, it marked him as a conquest. It was rare that a student of the past got to sleep with a living example of a race of priest-kings. The worker, dressed in overlarge blue jeans and a filthy University of Pennsylvania T-shirt, saw no reason to discourage this impression. But he made himself as unattractive as possible to watch their simultaneous desire and repulsion. He walked carefully down the short passage between the tents to the sheet-metal storage shed.

The Indian once again assured himself that there were no observers before grasping the padlock and thrusting his pick into the keyhole. Squinting against the flickering firelight, he probed a few times and the lock was open. He flashed bright teeth in a contemptuous look back at the professors' tent. Slipping the lock into a pocket of his jeans, he opened the door and eased himself sideways into the shed. Unlike the archaeologists, he didn't need to stoop.

He waited a moment for his eyes to adjust before tugging a flashlight from his back pocket. The end of the light was covered by a torn piece of cloth secured by a rubber band.

The dim circle of light roamed around the room almost at random until it froze on a shelf crowded with objects taken from the tombs and trenches dug around the city. The thief moved sideways along the narrow center aisle, careful not to disturb the pots, statues, and other partially cleaned artifacts on the shelves to either side. The small man pulled half a dozen small pots and miniature. statutes off the shelves. None were located at the front of a shelf nor were they the finest examples, but all were intact, if somewhat the worse for their long burial. He put them into a cotton drawstring sack.

Sneering at the rows of ceramics and jade carvings, he wondered why the norteamericanos could curse the graverobbers of the past when they were so efficient at the same thing. He sidled back up the aisle, catching a red-and-blackpainted pot as his movement caused it to rock dangerously near the edge. Quick hands picked up a battered jade earplug and he paused, running the flashlight beam around the narrow room once more. Two things caught his eyes, a stingray spine and a bottle of Tanqueray gin kept locked up away from the workers.

Clutching the bottle and the spine against his chest, he listened, head leaned against the door, for any stray noises. All he heard was the muffled sound of lovemaking from a nearby tent. It sounded like the tall redhead. Satisfied that no one would observe him, he slid outside and replaced the lock.

He waited to open the gin until he had climbed up one of the larger hills. The professors said the hills were all temples. He had seen their drawings of what this place had once been. He didn't believe what he had been shown: plazas and tall temples with roof combs, all painted in yellow and red. He especially didn't believe the tall, thin men who presided over the temples. They didn't look like him, anyone he knew, or even much like the murals painted on some of the temple walls, but the professors said that they were his ancestors. It was typical of the norteamericanos. But it meant that he was only stealing his inheritance.

Something poked his side as he leaned over to open the bottle. He pulled the stingray spine out of his pocket. One of the blondes, no, the redhead, had told him what the old kings had done. Guh-ross, she had said. He had privately agreed. The norteamericano women with whom he slept always asked lots of questions about the ways of the old ones. They seemed to think that he should have the knowledge of a brujo just because he was an Indian. Gringas. He learned more from them than anyone in his family. They had taught him what was valuable, and more important, what would be immediately missed. He had a nice little collection now. He would be rich after he sold them in Guatemala.

The gin was good. He leaned back against a convenient tree trunk and watched the moon. Ix Chel, the Old Woman, was the moon goddess. The old ones' gods were ugly, not like the Virgin Mary or Jesus or even God in the Church where he had been raised. He picked up the stingray spine. Someone had brought it long ago up to this city in the Highlands. It was carved with intricate designs along its entire length. He held it beside his leg, measuring it against his thigh. It ran the full length. All those stories. He. reached out for the gin bottle, but he missed and fell forward, catching himself with his free hand. He was drunk.

The moonlight shone off his sweating torso as he pulled off his T-shirt and folded it none too neatly into a pad. He put the shirt on his right shoulder. Closing his eyes, he weaved to the left and reopened them, blinking rapidly. He tried to pull his legs up into the position he had seen in so many paintings. It took maneuvering. He had to brace himself against the rock and hold his legs in place with his right hand. He secured the shirt with his jaw and his raised shoulder.

With a sureness that belied his intoxication, he brought up the spine and pierced his right ear.

He gasped and swore at the pain. It swept through him, driving out the alcohol and bringing on a euphoria as the blood flowed from his shredded earlobe and was absorbed by the T-shirt. The high made him tremble. It was better than the gin, better than the marijuana the graduate students had, better than the professor's cocaine he had once stolen and snorted.

Penetrating his shadowed mind was the impression that he was no longer alone on the temple. He opened his eyes, not realizing that he had closed them. For just a moment the temple as it had once stood glowed in the moonlight. The bright reds were muted by the dim light. His wife knelt before him with a rope oЂ thorns drawn through her tongue. Attendants surrounded them. His heavy ornamental headdress covered his eyes. He blinked.

The temple was a pile of stone covered by the jungle. There was no wife wearing jade, no attendants. He was wearing dirty jeans again. He shook his head sharply to clear away the last of the vision. That hurt, aiee, did it hurt. It must have been the gin and listening to those women. According to what they had said, he'd messed up the old rites anyway. The power was supposed to be in the burning blood.

The shirt had fallen from his shoulder. It was bright red and sodden with his blood. He thought about it a moment, then pulled out a cigarette lighter he had stolen from one of the professors and tried to burn the shirt. It was too wet; the flames kept going out. Instead he made a fire with some sticks he picked up off the ground. When he finally had a small fire going, he threw on the shirt. The burning blood gave off smoke and a stench that nearly made him sick. Mostly in jest he sat in front of the blaze and aped the cross-legged position he had seen on so many pots, one hand extended toward the flames. He was starting to get very tired and staring at the fire mesmerized him.

What little he knew of Xibalba led him to believe that it was a place of darkness and flames, like the hell the fathers warned him about as a child. It wasn't. It most resembled a remote village where they still lived by the old ways. No television antennas, no radios blaring the latest in rock and roll from Guatemala. All was silent. He saw no one as he walked about the small group of huts. The only movement he saw was a bat flying out of the low doorway of one of the thatch-roofed houses. The roofs were pitched like the ceilings of the temple rooms, high and narrow, rising almost to a point. He felt as if he were walking through a mural on a temple wall. It was all so familiar. He remembered that none of his usual drunken dreams had this clarity.

A rhythmic ga-pow, ga-pow brought him through the quiet to a ball court. Three human figures sat on the platform on top of the walls. He recognized them as Ah Puch, Itzamna, and Ix Chel-the Death God, the Old Man, and the Old Woman, supreme in the Mayan pantheon, or as supreme as any of the many deities were. The three were surrounded by animals who assisted them as scribes and servants. Drawing his gaze back down the stone walls to the packed-dirt court itself, he saw the source of the noise. Not deigning to notice him, a creature that was half-human, half-jaguar repeatedly attempted to knock a ball through one of the intricately carved stone hoops high on the walls of the court. The creature never used its paws. Instead it used head, hips, elbows, and knees to send the ball bouncing up the wall toward the ring. The jaguar-man and its fangs frightened him. Since the dream had begun, it was the first thing he had felt besides curiosity and wondering how he could steal those stone rings. He watched the muscles beneath the black spots bunch and release as he considered why none of this seemed strange in the least. He lifted his head and stared up at the watchers.

From one corner of his eye he saw the ball coming toward him. Moving in patterns that seemed as familiar as the village, he swung away from it before bringing his elbow up and under the ball and launching it toward the nearest ring. It arched through the goal without touching the stone. The watchers gasped and murmured to each other. He was just as surprised, but he decided that discretion was the best course here.

"Ai! Not bad!" He yelled up at them in Spanish. Lord Death shook his head and glared at the old couple. Itzamna spoke to him in pure Maya. Although he had never spoken the language before in his life, he recognized it and understood it.

"Welcome, Xbalanque, to Xibalba. You are as fine a ballplayer as your namesake."

"My name's not Xbalanque."

"From this time, it is." The black death-mask of Ah Puch glared down at him and he swallowed his next comment. "Si, this is a dream and I am Xbalanque." He spread his hands and nodded. "Whatever you say."

Ah Puch looked away.

"You are different; you have always known this." Ix Chel smiled down at him. It was the smile of a crocodile, not a grandmother. He grinned up at her, wishing he'd wake up. Now.

"You are a thief."

He began thinking about how he was going to get out of this dream. He had remembered the more troublesome parts of the ancient myths-the decapitations, the houses of multiple horrors…

"You should use your abilities to gain power. "

"Hey, I'll do that. You're right. No problem. Just as soon as I get back." One of the rabbits who was attending the three gods watched him intently with head canted to one side and nostrils twitching. Occasionally it wrote frantically on an odd, folded piece of paper with a brushlike pen. He was reminded of a comic book he had once read, Alice in Wonderland. There had been rabbits in her dream too. And he was getting hungry.

"Go to the city, Xbalanque." Itzamna's voice was squeaky, pitched even higher than his wife's.

"Hey, isn't there a brother in this somewhere?" He was remembering even more of the myth.

"You'll find him. Go." The ball court began to quiver in front of his eyes, and the jaguar's paw struck him in the back of the head.

Xbalanque grunted in pain as his head slid off the rock he had apparently been using as a pillow. He pulled himself upright, shoving his bare back against the rough limestone.

The dream was still with him, and he couldn't seem to focus on anything. The moon had gone down while he'd been passed out. It was very dark. The uncovered stones of the ruin glowed with their own light, like bones disturbed in a grave. The bones of his people's past glory.

He bent over to pick up his stolen treasures and fell to one knee. Unable to stop himself, he vomited the gin and tortillas he had eaten. Madre de Dios, he felt bad. Body empty and shaking, he staggered up again to begin the descent from the pyramid. Maybe that dream was right. He should leave, go to Guatemala City now. Take what he had. It was enough to let him live comfortably for a while.

Christ, his head hurt. Hungover and still drunk. It wasn't fair. The last thing he picked up was the stingray spine. Its barbs were still coated with his blood. Xbalanque reached up to touch his ear gingerly. He fingered the hole in the lobe with pain and disgust. His hand came away bloody. That was definitely not part of the dream. Swaying, he searched through his pockets until he found the earplug. He tried to insert it into his earlobe, but it hurt too much and the torn flesh would not support it. He was almost sick again.

Xbalanque tried to remember the strange dream. It was fading. For the moment all he recalled was that the dream recommended a retreat to the city. It still sounded like a good idea. As he alternately tripped and slid down the side of the hill, he decided to steal a jeep and go in style. Maybe they wouldn't miss it. He couldn't walk all the way with this headache anyway.

Inside the dark, smoke-filled thatch house Jose listened gravely to Hunapu's tale of his vision. The shaman nodded when Hunapu spoke of his audience with the gods. When he finished, he looked to the old man for interpretation and guidance.

"Your vision is a true one, Hunapu." He straightened up and slid from his hammock to the dirt floor. Standing before the crouching Hunapu, he threw copal incense on his fire. "You must do as the gods tell you or bring us all misfortune."

"But where am I to go? What is Kaminaljuyu?" Hunapu shrugged in his confusion. "I do not understand. I have no brother, only sisters. I do not play this ball game. Why me?"

"You have been chosen and touched by the gods. They see what we do not." Jose put his hand on the young man's shoulder. "It is very dangerous to question them. They anger easily."

"Kaminaljuyu is Guatemala City. That is where you must go. But first we must prepare you." The shaman looked past him. "Sleep tonight. Tomorrow you will go."

When he returned to the shaman's home in the morning, most of the village was there to share in the magical thing that had happened. When he left them, Jose walked with him into the rain forest, carrying a package. Out of sight of the village, the shaman wrapped Hunapu's elbows and knees with the cotton padding he had brought with him. The old man told him that this was how he had been dressed in Jose's dream the night before. It too was a sign that Hunapu's vision was true. Jose warned him to tell those he met of his quest only if they could be trusted and were Lacandones like himself. The Ladinos would try to stop him if they knew.

Xepon was small. Perhaps thirty multicolored houses clustered around the church on the square. Their pink, blue, and yellow paint was faded, and they looked as though they crouched with their backs to the rain that had begun earlier. As Xbalanque bounced down the mountain road into the village, he was happy to see the cantina. He had decided to take the most isolated roads he could find on the worn road map under the driver's seat to get into the city.

He started to park in front of the cantina, but instead decided to park around the side, away from curious eyes. He thought it was strange that he had seen no one since entering town, but the weather was fit for no one, especially him and his hangover. His Reeboks, another gift from the norteamericanos, flopped against the wet wood walkway that ran in front of the cantina before he entered the open doorway. It was a disconcerting sound amid a silence broken only by dripping water and the rain on the tin roofs. Even the dimness outside had not prepared him for the darkness within, or the years of tobacco smoke still trapped between the narrow walls. A few tattered and faded Feliz Navidad banners hung down from the gray ceiling.

"What do you want?" He was assaulted in Spanish from behind the long bar that lined the wall to his left. The force and hostility behind the question hurt his head. A stooped old Indian woman glared at him from behind the bar.

"Cerveza. "

Unconcerned for his preferences; she removed a bottle from the cooler behind the bar and flipped off the cap as he walked toward her. She set it on the stained and pitted wood of the bar. When Xbalanque reached for it, she put a small gnarled hand around the bottle and nodded her chin at him. He pulled some crumpled quetzals from his pocket and laid them on the bar. There was a crash of nearby thunder and they both tensed. He realized for the first time that the reason she was so hostile might not have anything to do with an early customer. She snatched the money off the bar as if to deny her fear and put it into the sash around her stained huipil.

"What do you have to eat?" Whatever was going on certainly had nothing to do with him. The beer tasted good, but it was not what he really needed.

"Black bean soup." The woman's answer was a statement, definitely not an invitation. It was accompanied by more thunder rolling up the valley.

"What else?" Looking around, Xbalanque belatedly realized that something was extremely wrong. Every cantina he had ever been in, no matter where or how large, had some old drunks sitting around waiting to try to pick up a free drink. And women, even old women such as this one, rarely worked in bars in these small villages.

"Nothing." Her face was closed to him as he looked for a clue to what was happening.

Another peal of thunder turned into the low growling of truck engines. Both their heads swung toward the door. Xbalanque stepped back from the bar and looked for a back way out. There was none. When he turned again to the old woman, she had her back to him. He ran for the door.

Green-clad soldiers piled off the backs of the two army transports parked in the middle of the square. The paths of the trucks were marked by the broken benches and shrubs they had run over on their way across the tiny park. As the soldiers hit the ground, they pulled their machine guns into firing position. Two-man teams immediately left the central area to search the houses lining the square. Other armed men moved out of the square through the rest of the village.

Palms spread against the plaster, Xbalanque slid along the outside wall of the cantina for the safety of the side street.

If he could get to the jeep, he had a chance to escape. He had made it to the corner of the building when one of the soldiers spotted him. At the soldier's order to halt, he jumped for the street, sliding in the mud, and dashed for the jeep.

Shots into the ground in front of him splashed him with mud. Xbalanque threw his hand up to protect his eyes and fell to his knees. Before he could get back up, a sullen-faced soldier grabbed his arm and hauled Xbalanque back to the square, his feet slipping in the thick mud as he scrambled to stand up and walk.

One of the young Ladino soldiers stood with his Uzi pointed at Xbalanque's head while he was shoved facedown in the mud and searched. Xbalanque had hidden the artifacts in the jeep, but the soldiers found the stash of quetzals in his Reeboks. One of them held the wad of money up to the army lieutenant in charge. The lieutenant looked disgusted at the condition of the bills, but he put them in his own pocket anyway. Xbalanque did not protest. Through the excruciating pain in his head that had begun when he fled the soldiers, he was trying to decide what he could say to get out of this. If they knew the jeep was stolen, he was dead.

The sound of more gunfire made him wince into the mud. He raised his head slightly, knocking it into the barrel of the gun above him. The soldier holding it pulled back enough for him to see another man being dragged from inside the dilapidated yellow school on the west side of the square. He heard children crying inside the small building. The second prisoner was also an Indian, tall with eyeglasses knocked askew on his narrow face. The two soldiers escorting him allowed him to regain his feet before presenting him to the lieutenant.

The schoolteacher straightened his glasses before staring directly into the lieutenant's mirrored sunglasses. Xbalanque knew he was in trouble; the schoolteacher was deliberately trying to anger the army officer. It could only result in worse consequences than they already faced.

The lieutenant brought up his swagger stick and knocked the teacher's glasses off his face. When the teacher bent down to pick them up, the officer struck him across the side of the head. With blood dripping down his face onto his white European shirt, the teacher replaced his glasses. The right lens was shattered. Xbalanque began looking for an escape route. He hoped that his guard might be sufficiently distracted. Looking sideways up at the young man with the Uzi, he saw that the boy had not taken his eyes off him.

"You are a communist." The lieutenant made it a statement, not a question, directed to the teacher. Before the teacher could reply, the officer glanced toward the school house with annoyance. The children inside were still crying. He swung his swagger stick toward the school and nodded at a soldier to his left. Without aiming, the soldier panned his machine gun across the building, breaking windows and pocking the plaster. A few screams erupted from inside, then silence.

"You are a traitor and an enemy to Guatemala." He brought the stick up across the other side of the teacher's head. There was more blood, and Xbalanque began to feel sick and somehow wrong.

"Where are the other traitors?"

"There are no other traitors." The teacher shrugged and smiled.

"Fernandez, the church." The lieutenant spoke to a soldier smoking a cigarette leaning against one of the trucks. Fernandez tossed away the cigarette and picked up the thick tube propped beside him against the truck. While he aimed, another of the men around the trucks shoved a rocket into the launcher.

Turning toward the old colonial church, Xbalanque saw, for the first time, the village priest standing outside arguing with one of the search teams as the soldiers stood there holding silver candlesticks. There was an explosion from the rocket launcher, followed a split second later by the blast as the church fell in on itself. The soldiers standing outside had seen it coming and fallen to the ground. The priest collapsed, from shock or injuries, Xbalanque could not tell. By now he was feeling the pain in every joint and muscle.

The rain mixed with the blood on the teacher's face and, as it dripped down, stained his shirt pink. Xbalanque didn't see any more. The pain had grown until he curled up in the mud, clutching his knees to his chest. Something was happening. It must be because he had never felt such fear before. He knew that he was going to die. The damned old gods had led him to this.

He barely heard the order given to move him up against the school wall with the teacher. The lieutenant didn't even care who he was. For some reason the fact that the officer hadn't even bothered to question him seemed the worst indignity of all.

Xbalanque shook as he stood with his back against the already bullet-marked wall. The soldiers left them there alone and backed off, out of the line of fire. The pain had begun to come in waves, driving out his fear, driving out everything except the enormous weight of the agony in his body. He stared through the soldiers gathering for the firing squad at the rainbow forming between the bright, jade green mountains as the sun finally came out. The teacher patted him on the shoulder.

"Are you all right?" His companion actually looked concerned. Xbalanque was silent as he gathered sufficient energy not to collapse to the ground.

"See, God has a sense of humor." The madman smiled at him as if at a crying child. Xbalanque cursed him in the language of his Quiche grandmother, a tongue he had not spoken before his dream of Xibalba.

"We die for the lives of our people." The schoolteacher lifted his head proudly and faced the soldiers' guns as they were raised to aim.

"No. Not again!" Xbalanque rushed the guns as they fired. His force knocked the other man to his knees. As he moved, Xbalanque realized in one small part of his brain that the exquisite agony had gone. As the bullets sped to meet his charge, he felt only stronger, more powerful than he ever had before. The bullets reached him.

Xbalanque hesitated as they struck. He waited an instant for the inevitable pain and final darkness. They didn't come. He looked at the soldiers; they stared back wide-eyed. Some ran for the trucks. Others dropped their guns and simply ran. A few held their ground and kept firing, looking to the lieutenant, who was backing up slowly toward the trucks and calling for Fernandez.

The warrior scooped up a brick from the street and, crying out his name in a mixture of fear and exhilaration, threw it with all his strength at one of the trucks. As it flew, it struck a soldier, crushing his head and splattering blood and brains across his fleeing companions before flying on toward the vehicle. The soldier had slowed its momentum. It was dropping as it streaked toward the truck. The brick struck the gas tank and the transport exploded.

Xbalanque stopped his rush toward the soldiers and stared at the fiery scene. Men in flames-soldiers who had made the shelter of the troop carrier-screamed. The scene was right out of one of the American movies he had watched in the city. But the movies hadn't had the smell of petrol, burning canvas and rubber, and underneath everything else the stench of burning flesh. He began backing away.

Remotely, as if through heavy padding, he felt someone grab his arm. Xbalanque turned to strike his enemy. The teacher was staring down at him through the shattered glasses.

"Se habla espanol?" The taller man was guiding him away from the square up a side street.

"St, si. " Xbalanque was beginning to have time to wonder what was happening. He knew he had never before been able to do anything such as this. Something was not right. What had that vision done to him? He was involuntarily relaxing and he felt the strength draining from him. He began to lean against the wall of a peeling pale-red house.

"Madre de Dios-we have to keep moving." The teacher hauled at him. "They'll bring up the artillery. You're good with bullets, but can you fend off rockets?"

"I don't know…" Xbalanque stopped to think about this for a moment.

"We'll figure it out later. Come on."

Xbalanque realized that the man was right, but it was so difficult. With the fear of death gone, he felt as though he had lost not only the new power but also his regular strength. He looked up the street toward the forested mountainside so far away above the houses. The trees were safety. The soldiers would never follow them into the forest where guerrillas could be waiting to ambush them. The- flat sound of a shot brought him back.

The teacher pulled him away from the house and, keeping his hand underneath Xbalanque's arm, steered him toward the green refuge ahead. They cut left between two small houses and moved sideways along the narrow, muddy alley that divided the clapboard and plaster buildings. Xbalanque was moving now, sliding and skidding in the slippery brown mud. Past rear gardens, the alley turned to a path leading up the steep hillside into the trees. The open ground was at least fifteen meters of utter exposure.

He ran into his compatriot as the other man stopped and peered around the corner of the house on the left.

"Clear." The teacher had not relinquished his grip on Xbalanque's arm. "Can you run?"

"St."

After a frightened dash Xbalanque collapsed a few yards into the forest. The rain forest was thick enough to prevent their being spotted if they stayed still and quiet. They heard the soldiers arguing below until a sergeant came by and ordered them back to the square. Someone in the village would die in their place. The teacher was sweating and nervous. Xbalanque wondered if it was for their unwitting victim or his own unexpected survival. A bullet in the back was not as romantic as a firing squad.

As they trudged deeper into the wet mountains seeking to avoid the soldiers, Xbalanque's companion introduced himself. The teacher was Esteban Akabal, a devoted communist and freedom fighter. Xbalanque listened without comment to a long lecture on the evils of the existing government and the coming revolution. He only wondered at where Akabal found the energy to go on. When Akabal at last slowed down, panting as they worked their way up a difficult trail, Xbalanque asked him why he worked with Ladinos.

"It is necessary to work together for the greater good. The divisions between Quiche and Ladino are created and encouraged by the repressive regime under which we labor. They are false and, once removed, will no longer hamper the worker's natural desire to join with his fellow worker." At a level section of the path both men paused to rest.

"The Ladinos will use us, but nothing will change their feelings or mine." Xbalanque shook his head. "I have no desire to join your workers army. How do I get a road to the city?"

"You can't take a main road. The soldiers will shoot you on sight." Akabal looked at the cuts and bruises Xbalanque had incurred on' their climb. "Your talent seems very selective."

"I don't think it's a talent." Xbalanque wiped off some of the dried blood on his jeans. "I had a dream about the gods."

They gave me my name and my powers. After the dream I could do-what I did 'in Xepon.

"The norteamericanos gave you your powers. You are what they call an ace." Akabal examined him closely. "I know of few others this far south of the United States."

"It's a disease actually. A red-haired alien from outer space brought it to Earth. Or so they claim, since biological warfare has been outlawed. Most of those who caught it died. Some were changed."

" I have seen them begging in the city. It was bad sometimes." Xbalanque shrugged. "But I'm not like that."

"A very few become something more than they were. The norteamericanos worship these aces." Akabal shook his head. "Typical exploitation of the masses by fascist media masters."

"You know, you could be very important to our fight." The schoolteacher leaned forward. "The mythic element, a tie to our people's past. It would be good, very good, for us."

"I don't think so. I'm going to the city." Chagrined, Xbalanque remembered the treasure he had left in the jeep. "After I return to Xepon."

"The people need you. You could be a great leader."

"I've heard this before." Xbalanque was uncertain. The offer was attractive, but he wanted to be more than the people's-army figurehead. With his power he wanted to do something, something with money in it. But first he had to get to Guatemala City.

"Let me help you." Akabal had that intense look of desire that the graduate students had when they wanted to sleep with the Mayan priest-king; or as one of them had said, a reasonable facsimile thereof. Combined with the blood now caked on his face, it made Akabal appear to be the devil himself. Xbalanque backed off a couple steps.

"No, thank you. I'm just going to go back to Xepon in the morning, get my jeep, and leave." He started back down the trail. Over his shoulder he spoke to Akabal. "Thanks for your help."

"Wait. It's getting dark. You'll never make it back down at night." The teacher sat back down on a rock beside the trail. "We're far enough in that, even with more men, they would not dare follow us. We'll stay here tonight, and tomorrow morning we'll start back for the village. It will be safe. It will take the lieutenant at least a day to explain the loss of his truck and get reinforcements."

Xbalanque stopped and turned back. "No more talk about armies?"

"No, I promise." Akabal smiled and gestured for Xbalanque to take another rock.

"Do you have anything to eat? I'm very hungry." Xbalanque could not remember ever having been this hungry, even in the worst parts of his childhood.

"No. But if we were in New York, you could go to a restaurant called Aces High. It is just for people like you… " As Akabal told him about life in the United States for the aces, Xbalanque gathered some branches to protect against the wet ground and lay down on them. He was asleep long before Akabal ended his speech.

In the morning before dawn they were on the trail back down. Akabal had found some nuts and edible plants for food, but Xbalanque remained ravenous and in pain. Still, they made it back to the village in much less time than it had taken them to toil up the trail the day before.

Hunapu found that wearing the heavy cotton padding while he was walking was clumsy and hot, so he wrapped it up and tied it to his back. He had walked a day and a night without sleep when he came to a small Indian village only slightly larger than his own. Hunapu stopped and wrapped the padding around himself as Jose had done it. The dress of a warrior and a ballplayer, he thought proudly, and held his head high. The people here were not Lacandones and they looked at him suspiciously as he entered with the sunrise.

An old man walked out into the main path that led between the thatched houses. He called out a greeting to Hunapu in a tongue that was similar but not quite the same as that of his people. Hunapu introduced himself to the t'o'ohil as he walked up to him. The village guardian stared at the young man for a full minute of contemplation before inviting him into his home, the largest house Hunapu had ever entered.

While most of the village waited outside for the guardian to tell them about this morning apparition, the two men spoke and drank coffee. It was a difficult conversation at first, but Hunapu soon understood the old man's pronunciations and was able to make himself and his mission known. When Hunapu was finished, the t'o'ohil sat back and called his three sons to him. They stood behind him and waited while he spoke to Hunapu.

"I believe that you are Hunapu returned to us. The end of the world comes soon, and the gods have sent messengers to us." The t'o'ohil gestured to one of his sons, a dwarf, to come forward. "Chan Vin will go with you. As you see, the gods touched him and he speaks to them directly for us. If you are hach, true, he will know it. If you are not, he will know that also."

The dwarf went to stand by Hunapu and looked back at his father and nodded.

"Bol will also go with you." At this, the youngest son started and glared down at his father. "He dislikes the old ways and he will not believe you. But he honors me and he will protect his brother in your travels. Boll get your gun and pack whatever you need. Chan Vin, I will speak to you. Stay." The old man put down his coffee and stood. " I will tell the village of your vision and your journey. There may be those who wish to accompany you."

Hunapu joined him outside and. stood silently while the t'o'ohil told his people that the young man followed a vision and was to be respected. Most of the people left after that, but a few remained and Hunapu spoke to them of his quest. Although they were Indian, he felt uncomfortable speaking to them because they wore pants and shirts like the Ladinos, not the long tunics of the Lacandones.

When Chan K'in and Boll dressed for travel in the village's traditional clothing and carrying supplies, came for him, only three men were left to hear him. Hunapu rose and the other men walked away, talking among themselves. Chan Vin was calm. His composed face showed nothing of what he felt or if he was reluctant to embark on a journey that would undoubtedly bring his twisted body pain. Boll though, showed his anger at his father's order. Hunapu wondered if the tall brother would simply shoot him in the back of the head at the first opportunity and return to his life. It did not matter. He had no choice; he had to continue on the path that the gods had chosen for him. He did feel a certain misgiving that the gods would have chosen him to have the company of such garishly dressed men. Used to the simple shifts of his people, he considered the bright red-and-purple embroidery and sashes of these men to be more like the clothing of the Ladinos than to be proper dress for real men. No doubt he would see much that he had not seen before on his travels to meet his brother. He hoped that his brother knew how to dress.

It took much less time to get out of the mountains than it had to climb up into them. A few hours walking that began at dawn brought Xbalanque and Akabal back into Xepon. This time the town was crowded with people. Looking at the remains of the truck in the square where most of the activity was centered made Xbalanque proud. Too late he began thinking about the price the town had paid for his escape. Perhaps these people would not be as impressed with him as Akabal. Akabal led him past the angry stares of some of the townsmen and the tearstained hate of many of the women. With so many people and Akabal's firm grip on his arm, he had no chance to make a break for the jeep and escape. They ended up back at the cantina, today the site of a town meeting.

Their entry caused an uproar as some of the men called for his death and others proclaimed him a hero. Xbalanque said nothing. He was afraid to open his mouth. He stood to one side, back against the hard wooden edge of the bar, as Akabal climbed up and began speaking to the groups of men circulating beneath him. It took several moments of mutual shouts and insults in Quiche and Spanish to gain the attention of all the men.

He was so busy watching the men watching him for signs of violence that it took a while for what Akabal was saying to make sense to him. Akabal was again mixing Maya and Spanish in a speech that centered on Xbalanque and his "mission." Akabal had taken what Xbalanque had said to him and linked it to a Christian second coming and the end of the world as prophesied by the ancient priests.

Xbalanque, the morning star, was the herald of a new age in which the Indians would take back their lands and become the rulers of their land as they had been centuries before. The coming doom was that of the Ladinos and norteamericanos, not the Maya, who would inherit the Earth. No longer should the Quiche follow the lead of outsiders, socialist, communist, or democratic. They had to follow their own or lose themselves forever. And Xbalanque was the sign.

He had been given his powers by the gods. Confused, Xbalanque remembered Akabal's explanation of his powers as the result of a disease. But even this son of a god could not win alone against the fascist invaders. He was sent here to gain followers, warriors who would fight at his side until they had taken back all that the Ladinos and the centuries had stolen from them.

When he had finished, Akabal hauled Xbalanque up onto the bar and jumped down, leaving the stocky man in filthy T-shirt and blue jeans alone above the packed room. Turning to face Xbalanque, Akabal raised his fist into the air. and began chanting Xbalanque's name over and over again. Slowly, and then with increasing fervor, every man in the room followed the teacher's lead, many raising their rifles in their fists.

Faced with a chant of his name that shook the room, Xbalanque swallowed nervously, his hunger forgotten. He almost wished that he had only the army to worry about. He was not yet ready to become the leader about which the gods had spoken to him. This was not at all how he had imagined it. He wasn't wearing the splendid uniform he had designed in his mind, and this was not the well trained and directed army that would bring him to power and the presidential palace. They were all staring at him with an expression in their faces that he had never seen before. It was worship and trust. Slowly, trembling, he raised his own fist and saluted them and the gods. He silently prayed to those gods that he would not screw the whole thing up.

A dirty little man, the nightmare of the Ladinos come to life, he knew that he was not what these people had seen in their dreams either. But he also knew that he was their only hope now. And whether he was the accidental creation of the norteamericanos' sickness or the child of the gods, he swore to all the deities he recognized, Mayan and European, Jesus, Mary, and Itzamna, that he would do everything he could for his people.

But his brother Hunapu had to be having an easier time than he was.

Just outside the village, as Hunapu had been removing his cotton armor, one of the men he had spoken to had joined them. Silently they walked on through the Peten forests, each man with his own thoughts. They moved slowly because of Chan K'in, but not as slowly as Hunapu had expected. The dwarf was clearly used to making his own way with little help from others. There had been no dwarves in Hunapu's village, but they were known to bring good luck and to be the voice of the gods. The little men were revered. Jose had often said that Hunapu was meant to be a dwarf since he had been touched by the gods. Hunapu looked forward to learning from Chan Vin.

At the height of the sun they took a break. Hunapu was staring at the sun, his namesake, at the center of the sky when Chan Vin hobbled over to him. The dwarf's face still showed nothing. They sat together in silence for some minutes before Chan Vin spoke.

"Tomorrow, at dawn, a sacrifice. The gods wish to make sure that you are worthy." Chan Vin's huge black eyes were turned on Hunapu, who nodded in agreement. Chan Vin stood up and walked back to sit by his brother. Bol still looked as if he wanted Hunapu dead.

It was a long, hot afternoon for walking. The insects were bad and nothing worked to keep them away. It was nearly dark by the time they had trudged to Yalpina. Chan Vin entered first and spoke to the village elders. When he had gained permission for them to enter, he sent a child out to the waiting party in the forest. Wearing his armor, Hunapu strode into the tiny town square. Everyone had gathered to hear Chan K'in and Hunapu speak. It was plain that they knew Chan Vin, and his reputation gave weight to Hunapu s claims. Until they were hushed by their mothers, the children giggled and made fun of Hunapu's cotton armor and bare legs. But when Hunapu began speaking of his quest to find his brother and join him in a revival of their. own Indian culture, the people fell under the spell of his dream. They had their own portents.

Fifteen years earlier a child had been born who had the brilliant feathers of a jungle bird. The girl was thrust forward through the crowd. She was beautiful, and the feathers that replaced her hair only made her more so. She said that she had been waiting for one to come and that Hunapu was surely the one. Hunapu took her hand and she stood at his side.

That night many of the people from the town came to the home of the girl's parents, where Hunapu and Chan K'in were staying, and spoke to them about the future. The girl, Maria, never left Hunapu. When the last villager had left and they curled up by the fire, Maria watched them sleep.

Before dawn Chan K'in woke Hunapu and they trekked out to the forest, leaving Maria behind to get ready to leave. Hunapu had only his machete, but Chan K'in had a slim European knife. Taking the dwarf's knife, Hunapu knelt, holding his hands out in front of him palm up. In the left was the knife. The right, already healed from the machete cut three days before, trembled in anticipation. Without flinching or hesitating Hunapu drove the knife through the palm of his right hand, holding it there while his head dropped back and his body quivered in ecstasy.

With no movement except for a momentary widening of his huge eyes, Chan Vin watched the other man gasping, blood dripping from his hand. He roused himself from his revery to put a piece of hand-loomed cotton cloth on the ground beneath Hunapu's hands. He moved to Hunapu's side and pulled his head over toward him, staring into Hunapu's open, blind eyes as if seeking to peer into his mind itself.

After several minutes Hunapu collapsed to the ground and Chan Vin snatched up the blood-drenched cloth. Using flint and steel, he lit a small fire. As Hunapu returned to consciousness, he threw the offering onto the fire. Hunapu crawled over and both men watched the smoke rise to heaven to meet the rising sun.

"What did you see?" Chan K'in spoke first, his immobile face giving no clue to his own thoughts.

"The gods are pleased with me, but we must move faster and gather more people. I think… I saw Xbalanque leading an army of people." Hunapu nodded to himself and clasped his hands. "That is what they want."

"It is beginning now. But we still have far to go and much to do before we succeed." Hunapu looked over at Chan Vin.

The dwarf sat with his' stunted legs spread out before him with his chin propped up on his hand.

"For now, we will go back to Yalpina and eat." He struggled to his feet. "I saw some trucks. We will take one and travel on the roads from now on."

Their discussion was interrupted by Maria, who ran into the clearing, panting.

"The cacique, he wants to speak to you now. A runner has come in from another village. The army is sweeping the area looking for rebels. You must leave at once." Her feathers shown in the early morning light as she looked at him in entreaty.

Hunapu nodded to her.

"I will meet you in the village. Prepare to go with us. You will be a sign to others." Hunapu turned back toward Chan K'in and closed his eyes in concentration. The trees in the background of the clearing began turning into the houses of Yalpina. The village seemed to grow toward him. The last thing he saw was Chan Vin's surprise and Maria falling to her knees.

By the time Chan Vin and Maria got back to Yalpina, transportation had been arranged. They had time for a quick breakfast, then Hunapu and his companions left in an old Ford pickup truck that carried them south on the road that connected with the capital. Maria joined them as well as half a dozen men from Yalpina. Others who had joined their cause were on their way to the other Indian villages in the Peten and north to Chiapas in Mexico, where tens of thousands of Indians driven from their homes by the Ladinos waited.

Xbalanque's army grew larger as he traveled down toward Guatemala City. So did the tales of his feats in Xepon. When he wanted to stop the stories, Akabal explained to him how important, it was for his people to believe the fantastic rumors. Reluctantly Xbalanque accepted Akabal's judgment. It seemed to him now that he was constantly accepting Akabal's decisions. Being a leader of his people was not what he had expected.

His jeep and his cache had been intact. He and Akabal rode at the front of the column of old and creaking vehicles of all kinds. By now they had collected several hundred followers, all of whom were armed and ready to fight. In Xepon they had given him the pants and shirt of their village, but each town they rode into had another style and design. When they gave him their own clothes along with their husbands and sons, he felt obligated to wear them.

There were women now. Most had come to follow their men and take care of them, but there were many who had come to fight. Xbalanque was not comfortable with this, but Akabal welcomed them. Most of Xbalanque's time was spent trying to feed his army or worrying about when the government would strike them. Both Xbalanque and Akabal agreed that they had come too far too easily.

Akabal had become obsessed with attempting to get television, radio, and newspaper reporters to join the march. Whenever they entered a town that had a telephone, Akabal began placing calls. As a result, the opposition press was sending out as many people as they could without arousing undue suspicion from the secret police. They counted on a few making it to Xbalanque without being arrested.

Outside Zacualpa that word came. A young boy told them that the army had set up a roadblock with two tanks and five armored troop carriers. Two hundred heavily armed soldiers stood ready to stop their advance with light artillery and rockets.

Xbalanque and Akabal called a meeting with the guerrilla leaders who had had combat experience. Their weapons, old rifles and shotguns, could not compete with the army's M-16's and rockets. Their only chance was to use the guerrilla experience they had to their advantage. Their troops were split up into teams and sent into the hills around Zacualpa. Messengers were sent to the town beyond Zacualpa in an effort to bring fighters in from behind the government army, but that would take time for the runners to take remote paths and circle back. Xbalanque would be the main defense and their inspiration. This would be his true test. If he won, he was suitable to be their leader. If he lost, he had led them only to death.

Xbalanque went back to his jeep and got the stingray spine out of the compartment under the driver's seat. Akabal tried to go with him into the jungle, but Xbalanque told him to stay. The soldiers could have snipers and both of them should not be at risk.

It was mainly an excuse. Xbalanque was terrified that the power would not return. He needed the time to sacrifice again, anything that might help him focus on the strength he had had before and had not felt since. He knew that Akabal would almost certainly have him followed, but he had to be alone.

Xbalanque found a tiny clearing formed by a circle of trees and sat down on the ground. He tried to regain the feeling he had had just before the other dream. He could not find a way to get even a bottle of beer out of the camp. What if being drunk was the key? It had to be the way the graduate students had explained it to him or everyone with him was dead. He had brought with him one of the white cotton shirts he had been given on the way. The intricate designs on it were done solely in bright red thread. It seemed appropriate. He put it on the dirt between his legs.

His ear had healed very quickly and he had been wearing the earplug for a couple of days. Where could he get blood this time? He mentally went through a list of the sacred sites on his body that were traditionally used. Yes, that would do well. He cleaned off the carved spine with the shirt and then pulled out his lower lip. Praying to every sacred name he could remember, he thrust the stingray spine down through his lip, brought it up part way, barbs tearing his flesh, and plunged it through again. Then he leaned over the shirt and let the blood course down the black spine onto the white shirt, making new designs as it flowed.

When only drops of his blood were falling onto the shirt, he pushed the spine all the way through and out of his body. The sickening, copper taste of the blood flooded into his mouth and he gagged. Closing his eyes and clenching his fists, he controlled himself and tried to close his throat to the blood in his mouth. Using the same lighter, he set fire to the shirt, starting flames from the four sides of the stained cloth packet.

There weren't any dreams of Xibalba this time. Or any dreams at all that he remembered. But the smoke and the loss of blood made him pass out again. When he awoke, the moon was high above and the night was more than half gone. This time he had no hangover, no pain as his muscles adjusted to forces they were not used to carrying. He felt good, he felt wonderful.

He got up and crossed the clearing to the largest tree and struck the trunk with his bare fist. It exploded, showering the ground with splinters and branches as it fell. He lifted his face to the stars and thanked the gods.

Xbalanque stopped on the trail back to the camp as a man stepped out from behind a tree onto the bare earth. For a moment he was afraid the army had found him, but the man bowed to him. Gun held high, the guard led Xbalanque back down to the others.

For the rest of the night the sounds of the soldiers' preparations kept all but the most experienced of his people awake. Akabal paced beside the jeep, listening to the roaring engines of the tanks as they shifted position or swung their guns to bear on another phantom target. The sounds echoed up into the mountains. Xbalanque watched him in silence for a while.

"I can take them. I feel it." Xbalanque tried to encourage Akabal. "All I have to do is hit them with the stones."

"You can't protect everyone. You probably can't even protect yourself. They've got rockets, lots of them. They have tanks. What are you going to do against a tank?"

"I am told that the treads are the point of weakness. So I will first destroy the treads." Xbalanque nodded at the teacher.

"Akabal, the gods are with us. I am with you."

"You are with us. Since when are you a god?" Akabal glared at the man leaning on the jeep's steering wheel.

"I think I always have known it. It's just taken some time for others to recognize my power." Xbalanque looked dreamily up at the sky. "The morning star. That's me, you know."

"Mary, Mother of God! You've gone mad!" Akabal stopped pacing long enough to shake his head at Xbalanque.

"I don't think any of us should say that anymore. It's not… proper. All things considered."

"All things considered? You-" They were interrupted by a runner coming in from the town and the sounds of more activity from below.

There was another quick consultation among the guerrilla leaders. Akabal went over Xbalanque's part in the plan.

"You're going to be followed up to the bridge by the empty trucks. They'll draw the army fire." The former schoolteacher stared down into the impassive and calm face before him. Xbalanque felt no fear. There was only a euphoria that masked any other emotion. "But after the first few moments they will need more active opposition. That's you. Your fire will protect our snipers in the hills."

His stones had been loaded onto rough sledges that he tied to the back of the jeep and the next truck back in line. As the campsite grew lighter, everyone went into position. The guerrilla drivers started their engines. Akabal walked up to the jeep.

"Try not to get yourself killed. We need you." He put out his hand in farewell.

"Stop worrying. I'll be fine." Xbalanque touched Akabal's shoulder. "Get into the hills."

Xbalanque's move forward was the signal for the column, single-wide on the narrow road, to begin its short journey. Rounding the corner, Xbalanque could see the bridge ahead and the tanks on either side with their guns pointed at him. As they fired, he jumped from the jeep, the increased weight of his body pounding dents into the pavement as he rolled away. The fragments of the jeep exploded toward him. He felt the power in every part of his body and the metal shrapnel bounced off. Still, he kept his head down as he scrambled for the sledge with his ammunition. Grabbing the first stone, he threw it into the air and batted it with his empty hand, sending it screaming through the air and into the hillside above the army. It threw dirt on the soldiers, but that was all. Better aim. The next rock was painstakingly aimed and it broke the tread on the left-hand tank. The one after jammed the turret so that it could not turn. The Indian fighters had started firing now, and the soldiers were beginning to fall. He threw more stones into the ranks of the army and saw men go down. There was blood, more blood thap he could ever give by himself. They brought up a rocket and he saw the man shot by an Indian sniper before the soldier could fire. He was throwing as fast and as hard as he could.

Bullets occasionally struck him, but they were stopped by his skin. Xbalanque grew more reckless and stood facing his enemy without taking cover. His missiles were causing some damage, but most of the deaths were from the Indians on the slopes above the soldiers. The men in charge had seen this and were directing most of their fire up the hillsides. Great holes were appearing in the forest where the tanks and rockets had reached. Despite his strength, Xbalanque could not stop the second tank. The angle was wrong. Nothing he threw could reach it.

A new sound entered the battle. A helicopter was coming. Xbalanque realized that it could give the army the aerial spotting advantage that could get his people killed. It came in low and fast above the battle. Xbalanque reached for a stone and found that only a few small pieces of rock were left. He searched the ground frantically for something to throw. Giving up, he tugged a piece of twisted metal from the wreckage of the jeep and sent it flying toward the chopper. The helicopter met the chunk of metal in midair and exploded. Both sides were hit with debris. The fireball that had been a machine fell into the ravine and flames shot up higher than the bridge.

The engine on the remaining tank revved up and it started to back up. Soldiers moved out of the way and began retreating as well. Xbalanque could now get clear aim at the troop carriers. Using more pieces of metal he tore from the jeep, he destroyed two of them. Then he saw something that stopped all his fantasies of being a great warrior. A boy leapt down off the mountain onto the retreating tank. He swung open the hatch from the outside, and before he was shot, dropped a grenade within. There was an instant before the tank blew when the boy's body was draped across the hatch's opening like a flag across a coffin. Then the flames engulfed them both.

As the fighting at the bridge died down with the soldiers' retreat, the Indians began coming down out of the forest and moving toward the bridge. It became quiet. The moaning of the wounded broke the silence and was joined by the sounds of the birds who returned to their nests with the peace.

Akabal leapt down the road cut to join Xbalanque. He was laughing.

"We won! It worked! You were magnificent." Akabal grabbed Xbalanque and tried to shake him, only to find that the smaller man was immovable.

"Too much blood." With the boy's death Xbalanque had lost his desire to celebrate their victory.

"But it was Ladino blood. That is what matters." One of their lieutenants had come up to join them.

"Not all of it."

"But enough of it." The lieutenant looked more closely at Xbalanque. "You have not seen anything like this before, have you? You must not let our people see you this way. You are a hero. That is your duty"

"The old gods will feed well today." Xbalanque stared across the expanse of the bridge to the bodies on the other side. "Perhaps that is all they were after."

Xbalanque was caught up in the rush across the bridge. He didn't have time to stop for the body of the boy who really had destroyed a tank. This time his people were taking him along.

The press found them before the army did. Hunapu, Chan Vin, and Bol stood outside their tent in the early morning chill and watched the two helicopters come in over the hills to the south. One landed in the open area where, last night, the dances and speeches had been held. The other set down near the horses. Hunapu had seen the occasional Ladino airplane, but never these strange machines. Another Ladino perversion of nature in an attempt to gain the level of gods.

Crowds began to gather around the two helicopters. The camp consisted of a few tents and some old and decrepit trucks, but there were now hundreds of people living there.

Most slept on the ground. Many of his people were godtouched and had to be helped to the groups by others. It was sad to see so much pain, but it was clear that the gods had begun taking a greater role in the people's lives even before he had been chosen. With so many who were so close to the gods accompanying him, he felt strong and determined. He had to be following the gods' ways.

Maria came up to him and laid her hand on his arm, the tiny feathers covering her brushing lightly against his skin.

"What do they want with us?" Maria was uneasy. She had seen the Ladino reaction to the god-touched before.

"They want to make us into one of their circuses, a show for their amusement," Chan K'in angrily replied. This intrusion into their march toward Kaminaljuyu was unwanted.

"We will find out what they want, Maria. Do not fear them. They are stickmen without strength or true souls." Hunapu stroked the woman's shoulder. "Stay here and help keep the people calm."

Hunapu and Chan Vin began walking toward the helicopter at the center of the encampment. Bol followed, as silent as usual, carrying his rifle and watching the men with cameras as they piled out of the helicopter and stood staring at the quiet mass of people who faced them. When the helicopter's blades swung to a halt, there was almost no noise.

The three men made their way through the crowd slowly. They were careful not to move forward more quickly than someone could get out of their way. Hands, paws, wings, twisted limbs reached out to Hunapu as he passed. He tried to touch them all, but he could not pause to speak or he knew he would never get to the helicopter.

When they reached the machine, painted with a large, hand-lettered PRESS on each side and the bottom, the reporters were huddled, against the helicopter. There was fear and revulsion in their eyes. When one of the godtouched moved forward, they all drew back. They did not understand that the god-touched were truer men than themselves. It was typical of the Ladinos to be so blind to the truth.

"I am Hunapu. Who are you and why have you come here?" Hunapu spoke first in Maya, then repeated his question in Spanish. He wore the cotton armor as he stood before the reporters and cameramen. The cameras had begun filming as soon as they could pick him out of the crowd.

"Christ, he really does think he's one of those Hero Twins." The comment in bad Spanish had come from one of the men in front of him. He looked across the huddled group.

Not even having the man they wanted in front of them lessened their uneasiness.

" I am Hunapu," he repeated.

"I'm Tom Peterson from NBC, Central American bureau. We've heard that you have a joker crusade out here. Well, jokers and Indians. That's obviously true." The tall, blond man looked over Hunapu's shoulder at the crowd. His Spanish had an odd accent. He spoke slowly and drawled in a way Hunapu had never heard before. "I take it you're in charge. We'd like to talk to you about your plans. Maybe there's someplace where it would be more quiet?"

"We will speak to you here." Chan K'in stared up at the man dressed in a white cotton European suit. Peterson had ignored the dwarf at Hunapu's side. Their eyes met and it was the blond man who backed down.

"Right. Here is just fine. Joe, make sure you get good sound on this." Another man moved between Peterson and Hunapu and held a microphone pointed at Peterson, waiting for his next words. But Hunapu s attention had been drawn away.

The reporters from the second helicopter had caught on to what was happening in the center and had begun shoving their way through the people to get to Hunapu.

He turned to the men and women holding their equipment up out of the reach of his people as if they were crossing a river.

"Stop." He spoke in Maya, but his voice caught the attention of the reporters as well as his own people. Everything halted and all eyes turned toward him. "Bol, bring them here."

Bol glanced down at his brother before starting for the reporters. The crowd parted for him as he moved forward and again as he brought the journalists to join their fellows. He motioned them to stay put with his rifle before returning to Hunapu and Chan Vin.

Peterson began his questions again. "What is your destination?"

"We go to Kaminaljuyu."

"That's right outside Guatemala City, isn't it? Why there?"

" I will meet my brother there."

"Well, what are you going to do when you meet your brother?"

Before Hunapu could answer the question, one of the women from the second helicopter interrupted.

"Maxine Chen, CBS. What are your feelings about your brother Xbalanque's victory over the soldiers sent to stop him?"

"Xbalanque is fighting the army?"

"You hadn't heard? He's coming through the Highlands and pulling in every Indian revolutionary group that exists. His army has defeated the government every time they've clashed. The Highlands are in a state of emergency and that hasn't even slowed Xbalanque down." The Oriental woman was no taller than Hunapu. She looked around at his followers.

"There's a rebel behind every tree in the Highlands, has been for years. Down here in the Peten, it's always been quiet. Before now. What's your goal?" Her attention shot back to him.

"When I see my brother Xbalanque, we will decide what we want."

"In the meantime, what do you plan to do about the army unit sent to stop you?"

Hunapu exchanged a glance with Chan K'in.

"Don't you know about that either? Jesus, they're just hours away. Why do you think all of us were so hot to get to you? You may not be here by sundown."

The dwarf began questioning Maxine Chen.

"How many and how far away?" Chan K'in fixed his impassive black eyes on hers.

"Maybe sixty men, a few more; they don't keep any real forces down here-"

"Maxine!" Peterson had lost his journalistic detachment. "Stay out of this, for God's sake. You'll get us all arrested."

"Stuff it, Peterson. You know as well as I do that they've been committing genocide here for years. These people are finally fighting back. Good for them." She knelt in the dirt and began drawing a map on the ground for Hunapu and Chan K'in.

"I'm getting out of here." Peterson waved his hand in the air and the helicopter's rotors began turning. The reporters and cameramen climbed back into the helicopter or began running for the one in the horse paddock.

Maxine looked up from the map toward her cameraman. "Robert, stay with me and we'll have an exclusive." The cameraman grabbed sound equipment off a technician ready to bolt and strapped it on.

"Maxine, you're gonna get me killed one day, and I'm gonna come back and haunt you."

Maxine was already back at the map.

"But not yet, Robert. Did you see any heavy artillery with the government troops?"

It had taken only a little while to get their people organized and to find out what weapons they had. There were some rifles and shotguns, nothing heavier. Most people had machetes. Hunapu called Chan K'in and Bol to him. Together they determined the best course of action. Bol led the discussion, and Hunapu was surprised at his expertise. Although they were facing only a few soldiers, they were at a disadvantage in weapons and experience. Bol recommended attacking the army troops when they came down from the canyons into the savanna. By splitting up their people into two groups, they could best use the terrain. Hunapu had begun to wonder where Bol had gained his knowledge. He suspected the tall, quiet man of having been a rebel.

After instructing his people in the planned defense, Hunapu left the drilling to Bol and made another blood sacrifice. He hoped the sincerity of his prayers would give him the strength he needed to use his god-given power and save his people. The gods would have to be on their side or they would all be destroyed.

When he returned to the camp, Hunapu found it broken down and the half of his warriors who would face the army already mounted. After he climbed up on his own horse, he swung Chan K'in up behind him. He spoke briefly to waiting Indian warriors, encouraging them and enjoining them to fight well for the gods.

Seeing the men on horseback riding toward them, the soldiers had stopped their trucks just outside the mouth of the canyon and unloaded. As the soldiers piled off the troop carrier and the jeeps preceding and following it, they were picked off by the snipers Bol had sent into the bush. Only a ragged line of men faced Hunapu's charge. They were distracted by their fellow soldiers falling to the left and right at the mercy of the snipers. A few of the older men ignored the deaths and stood their ground against the screaming men bearing down on them. The sergeant swore at them to hold ranks and fire at the filthy Indians.

Hunapu's horsemen were unused to firing from the moving animals and were barely able to hold on and shoot. They couldn't aim at the same time. Once the army men realized this, they began taking the horsemen down, one at a time. By now Hunapu was close enough to the soldiers to see the fear and confusion start to evaporate and discipline take over. One man stood up and followed Hunapu with his Uzi aimed squarely at the Lacandon's head. Chan K'in cried out a warning and Hunapu was gone. Chan K'in was alone on the horse, now uncontrolled, and facing the soldier's bullet. As the shot split Chan K'in's skull, Hunapu reappeared behind the soldier and slashed his throat with the obsidian blade, splashing blood over the soldier's companions before vanishing again.

Hunapu brought his rifle butt down on the helmet of a man with a rocket launcher before he could fire into the bush where the snipers hid. Before any of the other soldiers reacted, he reversed the rifle and shot him. Grabbing the rocket launcher, he disappeared and came back almost immediately, without the launcher. This time he killed the sergeant.

Covered with blood and vanishing almost as soon as he appeared, Hunapu was the devil to the soldiers. They could not fight this apparition. No matter where they aimed, he would be somewhere else. They turned their backs on Hunapu's warriors to try to kill Hunapu himself. It was useless. Praying to the Virgin Mary and the saints that they would not be next, the men threw down their guns and knelt on the ground. Not all the kicks and threats of the lieutenant could get them to keep fighting.

Hunapu took thirty-six prisoners, including the lieutenant. Twenty soldiers had been killed. He had lost seventeen men and Chan K'in. The Ladinos had been defeated. They were not invincible.

That night while his people celebrated their victory, Hunapu mourned Chan K'in. He was dressed again in the long white tunic of his Lacandon people. Bol had come to him to claim the body of his brother. The tall Indian told him that Chan K'in had seen his death in a vision and knew his fate. Chan K'in's body had been wrapped in white cloth that was now stained by the dwarf's blood. Bol stood holding the small bundle and stared at Hunapu's tired, saddened face across the fire.

"I will see you at Kaminaljuyu." Hunapu looked up in surprise. "My brother saw me there, but even if he had not, I would go. May both our journeys go their way in peace, or in death to our enemies."

Despite the early victories both brothers suffered many losses during the rest of the march to Guatemala City. Xbalanque had been wounded in an assassination attempt, but he had healed with supernatural speed. The attempt had killed two of the guerrilla leaders who had followed and taught him. Word had come down from the north that Guatemalan air force planes were strafing and bombing the lines of Indians who were leaving the refugee camps of Chiapas in Mexico to join their fellows in Guatemala City. Hundreds were reported killed, but thousands kept coming.

The elite, highly trained police and military squads took a constant toll. Xbalanque was slowed, but the mass of people who followed him would not be stopped. At every firefight they took weapons from dead soldiers and armed themselves. Now they had rockets and even a tank, deserted by its frightened crew.

Hunapu fared less well. His people from the Peten had less experience. Many died in each clash with the army. After a battle in which neither side could actually claim a victory and ended only when he finally located the commander and could teleport in to kill him, Hunapu decided that it had become foolish to oppose the army and police directly. He dispersed his followers. They were to make their way singly or in small groups to Kaminaljuyu. Otherwise it seemed inevitable that the government would be able to muster sufficient forces to stop them.

Xbalanque arrived first. A truce had been declared as his army closed in on Guatemala City. Akabal had given interviews over and over again that declared their purpose was not to topple the Guatemalan government. Faced with questioning by the press and the imminent visit from the UN Wild Card tour, the general in charge ordered the army to escort Xbalanque and his followers but not to fire on them unless attacked. Xbalanque and Akabal made sure that the army had no excuses. The country's leader allowed Xbalanque access to Kaminaljuyu.

The ruins of Kaminaljuyu were filled with the followers of the brothers. They had put tents and rough shelters up on the low mounds. Looking over the soldiers, trucks, and tanks that guarded the perimeter of Kaminaljuyu, they could look down on the Guatemala City suburbs that surrounded them. The camp already held five thousand, and more were coming all the time. Besides the Guatemalan Mayas and the refugees from Mexico, others were traveling up from Honduras'and El Salvador.

The world was watching to see what would happen in Guatemala City this Christmas. Maxine Chen's coverage of the battle between Hunapu's Indian and joker followers and the Guatemalan army had been an hour-long special report on 60 Minutes. The meeting between the Hero Twins themselves was to be covered by all the major U.S. networks, cable, and European channels.

Hunapu had never before seen so many people together in one place. As he walked into the camp past the soldiers guarding the perimeter and then past the Maya sentries, he was amazed at the size of the gathering. He and Bol had taken a long and circuitous route to avoid trouble, and it had been a long walk. Unlike the people of the Peten, these followers of Xbalanque dressed in hundreds of different ways, all bright and festive. The atmosphere of celebration didn't seem proper to Hunapu. These people did not appear to be worshiping the gods who had prepared their way and led them here. They looked as though they were at a carnival-some of them looked as though they were the carnival.

Hunapu walked through a third of the crowded camp without being recognized. Sunlight glinting off opalescent feathers caught his eye just as Maria turned and saw him. She called out his name and ran to meet him. At the sound of the name of the other Hero Twin, people began to gather around him.

Maria took his hand and held it for a moment, smiling at him happily.

"I was so worried. I was afraid…" Maria looked down and away from Hunapu.

"The gods are not finished with us yet." Hunapu reached out to stroke the down on the side of her face. "And Bol came most of the way with me after getting back from his village."

Maria looked down at the hand she was clutching and released it in embarrassment.

"You will wish to see your brother. He has a house at the center of Kaminaljuyu. I would be honored to lead you there." She stepped back and gestured through the crowd down the rows of tents. Hunapu followed her as she parted the gathered people before him. As he passed, the Indians murmured his name and fell in behind him.

Within a few steps they were accosted by reporters. TV camera lights blazed on, and questions were shouted in English and Spanish. Hunapu glanced up at Bol, who began fending off those who came too close to his charge. They ignored the questions, and the camera crews withdrew after a few minutes of what Maxine called stock shots of Hunapu walking and occasionally greeting someone he recognized.

While most of the structures in Kaminaljuyu were tents or houses built out of whatever scrap material people could find, the large, twin wooden huts built on a plaza at the center of the ruins were impressive, permanent buildings. Their roofs were adorned with vertical roof combs like those on temple ruins, and banners and charms hung from these.

After they reached the open area of the plaza, the crowd stopped following him. Hunapu could hear the cameras and sense the shoving for position as he, Bol, and Maria walked alone to the house on the left. Before they reached it, a man dressed in a mix of red and purple Highland clothing stepped out. He was followed by a tall, thin Highland Maya wearing glasses and dressed in European clothing, except for the sash at his waist.

Hunapu recognized Xbalanque from his dreams of Xibalba, but he had looked younger in them. This man appeared more serious, but he noticed the expensive European watch on his wrist and the Ladino leather "running" shoes on his feet. It seemed a sharp contrast with the jade earplug he wore. Hunapu wondered about the earplug. Had the gods given it to him? Hunapu was caught in his examination of his brother by Xbalanque's companion. The other man took Hunapu by the shoulders and turned him toward the bank of cameras. Xbalanque rested his hand on Hunapu's left shoulder. In the Highland Maya that Hunapu loosely understood, Xbalanque spoke to him softly.

"The first thing we're going to do is get you some real clothes. Wave to the cameras." Xbalanque followed his own suggestion. "Then we have to work on ways to get more food into the camp."

Xbalanque turned him so that they faced each other and then clasped his hand.

"Hold that so they can get our profiles. You know, sun, I was beginning to get worried about you."

Hunapu looked into the eyes of the man across from him. For the first time since meeting this stranger who was his brother, he saw in Xbalanque's eyes the same shadows of Xibalba that he knew existed in his own. It was obvious that Xbalanque had much to learn about the proper worship of the gods, but it was also clear that he was chosen, like Hunapu, to speak for them.

"Come inside. Akabal will make his statement that our statement will be issued later. Ko'ox:" The last words Xbalanque spoke were in Lacandon Maya. Hunapu began to think that this Highland quetzal might be a worthy partner. Remembering Maria and Bol, he caught a glimpse of them melting into the crowd as he walked into Xbalanque's house. His brother seemed to catch his thought.

"She's beautiful and very devoted to you, isn't she? She'll take care of your bodyguard and keep the press away until he can get some rest. We've got plans to discuss. Akabal has some wonderful ideas for helping our people."

For the next several days the brothers held private conferences, lasting long after dark. But on the morning of the third day Esteban Akabal stepped outside to announce that a statement would be read at noon outside the compound where their prisoners were being held.

With the sun directly overhead, Xbalanque, Hunapu, and Akabal walked out of Xbalanque's but toward the prisoners' compound. As they moved, surrounded by their followers and the reporters, Hunapu's shoulders tensed when he heard the midday army flyover. The sound of the helicopters always made him nervous. Once there, they waited until the sound equipment was tested. Several of the technicians were wearing Hero Twin T-shirts. Akabal explained that the statement would be read in two parts, the first by Hunapu and the second by Xbalanque. They would speak in Maya and he, Akabal, would translate them into Spanish and English. Hunapu clutched his piece of paper nervously. Akabal had been aghast to learn that he couldn't read, so he had had to memorize the speech the teacher had written. He thanked the gods for Jose's training in remembering rituals and spells.

Hunapu stepped closer to his microphone and saw Maxine wave in encouragement. Mentally he asked the gods not to make him look foolish. When he began to speak, his nervousness vanished, drowned in his anger.

"Since the time of your first coming to our lands, you have murdered our children. You have sought to destroy our beliefs. You stole our land and our sacred objects. You enslaved us. You have allowed us no voice in the destruction of our homes. If we spoke out, you kidnapped us, tortured us, and killed us for being men and not the malleable children you wanted."

"It is now that the cycle ends. We hack winik, true men, will be free again to live as we wish to live. From the ice of the far north to the fire-lands of the south, we will see the coming of a new world in which all our people can be free."

"The gods are watching us now and they wish to be worshiped in the old, proper ways. In return they will give us the strength we need to overcome those who will try to defeat us again. My brother and I are the signs of this new world to come."

As he stepped back, Hunapu heard his name being cried out by the thousands of Maya in Kaminaljuyu. He looked over the ruined city in pride, soaking in the strength that his people's worship gave him. Maria had made it to the front of the gathered followers. She raised her arms to him in praise and hundreds of people around her did the same. The gesture spread through the crowd. When it seemed that everyone had lifted their hands to implore his help, Hunapu lifted his face and his arms toward heaven. The noise swelled until he dropped his hands and gazed over the people. Silence fell.

Xbalanque stepped forward.

"We are not Ladino. We do not want a war or more death. We seek only what is ours by right: a land, a country, that is ours. This land will be the homeland of any American Indian, no matter where in the Americas he was born. It is our intent to meet the WHO Wild Card delegation while it is in Guatemala City. We will ask for their aid and support in founding a hach winik homeland. The god-touched among our people are especially in need of immediate help."

"We do not ask now. We are telling you. Ko'ox! Let us go!"

Xbalanque raised his fist in the air and chanted the Lacandon phrase over and over until every Indian in the camp joined him. Hunapu joined the chant and felt the rush of power once again. Watching Xbalanque, he knew his brother felt it as well. It felt right. It was clear that the gods were with them.

Hunapu and Xbalanque flanked Akabal as he translated what they had said. The Hero Twins stood immobile and silent as the teacher refused to answer any other questions. Their people faced them, as silent and stoic now as themselves. When Akabal led the way back to their houses, where they would wait for word from the WHO delegation, their followers parted without a sound to allow them to pass, but closed in before the press could get through.

"Well, one can't accuse them of lacking political savvy." Senator Gregg Hartmann uncrossed his legs and got up out of the colonial reproduction chair to turn off the hotel room television set.

"A little chutzpah never hurts, Gregg." Hiram Worchester leaned his head on his hand and looked over at Hartmann. "But what do you think our response should be?"

"Response! What response can we possibly make?" Senator Lyons interrupted Hartmann's answer. "We are here to help the victims of the wild card virus. I see no connection whatsoever. These… revolutionaries or whatever they are are simply trying to use us. We have a responsibility to ignore them. We can hardly afford to become involved in some petty nationalistic squabble!"

Lyons crossed his arms and walked over to the window. Unobtrusively a young Indian maid was let into the room to pick up the remains of their room-service lunch. Head down, she glanced at each of them before silently carrying her heavily loaded tray out the door. Hartmann shook his head at Senator Lyons.

" I understand your point, but did you look at the people out there? A lot of the people who are following these `Hero Twins' are jokers. Don't we have a responsibility toward them?" Hartmann relaxed back into his chair and rolled his back in an attempt to get comfortable. "Besides, we can't afford to ignore them. It would compromise our own mission if we pretended they, and their problems, didn't exist. The world here is very different from what you're used to seeing, even on the reservations. There are different attitudes. The Indians have been suffering since the Conquest. They take the long view. To them the wild card virus is just another cross to bear."

"'Sides, Senator, you think those boys are aces, like the reporters say?" Mordecai Jones looked across the hotel room at the Wyoming senator. "Got to say, I've got some sympathy for what they're tryin' to do. Slavery, whatever they call it down here, ain't right."

"It's obvious that we are involved because of the wild card victims, if nothing else. If meeting with them will help them to get aid, we have a responsibility to do what we can." Tachyon spoke from his chair. "On the other hand, I hear lots of talk about homelands and I see very little commitment to working on practical problems. Problems such as the subsistence level of the victims here. You can see that they need medical help. What do you think, Hiram?"

"Gregg's right. We can't avoid a meeting. There's been too much publicity. Beyond that, we are here to see how jokers are treated in other countries. Judging by what we've seen, we could help out down here by leaning on the government a little. This would appear to be a good way to do it. We don't have to endorse their actions, just express our concern."

"That sounds reasonable. I'll let you deal with the politics. I need to get to that hospital tour." Tachyon massaged one temple. "I'm tired of talking to the government. I want to see what's going on."

The door to the sitting room opened and Billy Ray peered in. "The phones are ringing off the hooks, and we've got reporters coming up the fire stairs. What are we supposed to tell them?"

Hartmann nodded to Tachyon before answering. "Those of us who can spare the time from carefully timed schedules will see these `Hero Twins.' make it clear that we are doing this in the interests of the wild card victims, not for political reasons."

"Great. The Father, Chrysalis, and Xavier ought to be back soon They went out to see the camp and talk to the jokers there." Anticipating Tachyon's next question, he smiled at the doctor. "Your car's waiting downstairs. But the sooner you can give me an official statement for the press, the better."

"I'll have my people start drafting one immediately, Billy." Hartmann was obviously on familiar ground. "You'll have it within the hour."

In the morning everyone gathered, hungover and bleary from the previous night's celebrations, but ready to march off to see the United Nations tour. When Hunapu and Xbalanque came out of their houses, the crowd became quiet. Xbalanque looked out over the people and wished that it were possible to have them follow him into the city. It would look great on film, but Akabal was convinced that it might just be the excuse the government was looking for to open fire. He jumped up onto the hood of the bus that had been chosen to take them into the city. He spoke for almost half an hour before the people appeared to agree that they would stay in Kaminaljuyu.

They arrived at the Camino Real without incident. The only surprise had come from the crowds of Indians lining the streets as they passed. The watchers were silent and impassive, but both Hunapu and Xbalanque were strengthened by their presence. At the Camino Real they jumped down from the truck and were escorted within the building by two of their own guards and almost a score of UN security people.

Xbalanque and Hunapu wore their closest approximation of the dress of the ancient kings. Hair tied up in warrior's knots on top of their heads, they were dressed in cotton tunics and dyed-cotton wrapped skirts. Hunapu was used to wearing only his xikul, a knee-length tunic. He felt at home in the ancient style. Xbalanque had spent the early morning tugging on his skirt and feeling self-conscious about his exposed legs. As he looked curiously around the hotel, he saw himself in a wall mirror. He almost stopped in wonder at the vision of a Mayan warrior looking back at him. Xbalanque straightened and raised his head, showing off his jade earplug.

Hunapu's eyes darted from one side of the lobby to the other. He had never seen a building this big with so many strange decorations and oddly dressed people. A fat man in a shiny white shirt and brightly colored, flowered short pants stared at them. The tourist grabbed his wife, who wore a dress that was made on the same loom as the man's pants, by the arm and pointed at them. Catching a glimpse of Xbalanque walking proudly alongside steadied Hunapu.

But it was all he could do not to cry out prayers to the gods when they walked into a room slightly smaller than his family's house and the doors slid shut without a human touch. The room moved under him, and only Xbalanque's calm face kept him from believing he was about to die. He slid his glance toward Akabal. The Maya in Western dress was clenching and releasing his fists rhythmically. Hunapu wondered if he was praying too.

Despite his outward impassivity Xbalanque was the first one out the opening doors when the elevator reached its destination. The entire group walked down the carpeted hall to a door flanked by two more UN soldiers. There were a few moments of discussion before it was agreed that, once the Indian guards had inspected the meeting room, they would retire outside the door until the conference was over. The Hero Twins would be allowed to keep their ceremonial stone knives, however. During this, Xbalanque and Hunapu said nothing, allowing Akabal to make the arrangements. Hunapu watched everything while he attempted to look like a warrior-king. Being in these enclosed spaces made him nervous. He repeatedly looked to his brother for guidance.

Inside the hotel room, the WHO delegates waited for them. Akabal immediately noticed Peregrine's cameraman. "Out. No cameras, no tapes." The tall Indian turned to Hartmann. "It was agreed. At your insistence."

"Peregrine, the lady with the wings, is one of us. She is only interested in making a historical record-"

"Which you can edit to suit your own purposes. No." Hartmann smiled and shrugged at Peregrine. "Perhaps it would be better if…"

"Sure, no problem." She flapped her wings lazily and directed her cameraman to leave.

Xbalanque noted that Akabal seemed to be thrown off by the ease at which he had gotten his wish. He turned to look at his brother. Hunapu appeared to be communing directly with the gods. It was clear from looking at him that nothing here was of interest. Xbalanque tried to capture the same assurance.

"Good. Now, we are here to discuss-" Akabal began his prepared introduction, but was interrupted by Hartmann. "Let's be informal here. Everyone please have a seat. Mr. Akabal, why don't you sit beside me since I believe you'll be doing the translating here?" Hartmann sat down at the head of a table apparently brought into the room for the meeting since the furniture around it had been moved against the walls. "Do the other gentlemen speak English?" Xbalanque was about to reply when he caught Akabal's warning glance. Instead he guided Hunapu to a chair.

"No, I'll be translating for them as well."

Hunapu stared earnestly at the tentacled priest and the man with the nose like Chac, the long-nosed rain god. He was pleased that the god-touched would travel with this group. It was an auspicious sign. But he was also surprised to see a Father who was so blessed by the gods. Perhaps there was more to what the priests had tried to teach him than he had previously believed. He mentioned his thoughts to Akabal, who spoke in English to Hartmann.

"Among our people, the victims of the wild card virus are regarded as being favored by the gods. They are revered, not persecuted."

"And that's what we're here to talk about, isn't it? Your people.". Hartmann had not stopped smiling since they'd entered the room. Xbalanque did not trust a man who showed his teeth so much.

The man with the elephant's trunk spoke next. "This new country of yours, would it be open to all jokers?" Xbalanque pretended to listen to Akabal's translation. He replied in Maya, knowing that Akabal would change his words anyway.

"This homeland takes back only a tiny part of what has been stolen from us. It is for our people, whether godtouched or not. The god-touched of the Ladinos have other places to go for help."

"But why do you feel a separate nation is necessary? It seems to me that your show of political power would impress the Guatemalan government with your strength. They're bound to introduce the reforms you want." Hartmann brought the conversation back to Akabal, which didn't displease Hunapu. He could feel hostility in this room and a lack of understanding. Whatever else they were, they were also Ladinos. He looked over at Akabal as the man replied to one of the norteamericano's questions.

"You aren't listening. We don't want reforms. We want our land back. But only a small part of it, at that. Reforms have come and gone for four hundred years. We are tired of waiting." Akabal was vehement. "Do you know that to most Indians this wild card virus is just another smallpox? Another white disease brought to us to kill as many as possible."

"That's ridiculous!" Senator Lyons was enraged at the accusation. "Humans had nothing to do with the wild card virus."

"We came here to help you. That is our only purpose. In order to help we feel we have to have the cooperation of the government." Senator Lyons seemed to be on the defensive.

"We spoke to the general. He's planning to put clinics in the outlying provinces and to bring serious cases of the wild card outbreak here to the city for treatment."

The brothers exchanged glances. It was clear to each man that these strangers from the north were not about to do anything for them. Hunapu was getting impatient. There were too many things they could be doing in Kaminaljuyu. He wanted to start teaching the uninformed about the old gods and the means of worshiping them.

"We can't change the past. We both know that. So what's the point? Why are you here?" Hartmann had stopped smiling.

"We are going to form an Indian nation. But we will need help." Akabal spoke firmly. Xbalanque approved of his lack of tolerance for distraction, even though he wasn't altogether sure about Akabal's plans for a socialist government.

"Do you have no idea of what the United Nations is? Surely you cannot expect us to provide weapons for your war." Senator Lyons's mouth was ringed with white from his anger.

"No, no weapons. But if you had come out to see our followers, you would have seen how many have been untreated by the Ladino doctors in the hope that they would not survive. And yes, I know what the general told you. We will need much medical aid, initially, to care for these people. After that we will need aid for schools, roads, transportation, agriculture. All the things a real country must provide."

"You understand we're only on a fact-finding tour? We don't have any real authority with the UN or even with the U.S. government, for that matter." Hartmann leaned back in his seat and spread his hands. "Sympathy is about all we can offer at this time."

"We are not about to jeopardize our standing in the international community for your military adventures!" Senator Lyons's eyes swept the three Indians. Hunapu was not impressed. Women should stay out of serious decisions.

"This is a peaceful mission. There is nothing political about suffering, and I don't intend to see you try to make the wild card virus a pawn in your bid for attention," Lyons said.

"I doubt if the European Jews of the Holocaust would agree that suffering is apolitical, Senator." Akabal watched Lyons's expression change to chagrin. "The wild card virus has affected my people. That is a truth. My people face active genocide. That too is truth. If you don't want the wild card virus involved, that's nice, but it's not really possible, is it?"

"What do we want from you? Just two things. Humanitarian aid and recognition." For the first time Akabal looked a little unsure of himself. "Soon the Guatemalan government is going to try to destroy us. They'll wait until you are gone, you and the reporters following you. We don't intend to allow them to succeed. We have certain… advantages."

"They're aces, then?" Hartmann had grown suddenly quiet and introspective.

Some of the reporters had used that term and Akabal had mentioned it, but this was the first time Xbalanque felt that it would fit. He felt like an ace. He and his brother, the little Lacandon, could take anyone. They were the incarnations of the priest-kings of their fathers, favored by the gods or an alien disease. It didn't matter. They would lead their people to victory. He turned to Hunapu and saw that it was as if his brother shared his thoughts.

"To them, they have been called to serve the old gods and be the heralds of the new age, the beginning of the next cycle. By our calendar that will be in your year 2008. They are here to prepare the way over the next katun." Akabal looked back at the norteamericanos. "But yes, I believe that they are aces. The evidence fits. It is hardly unusual for an ace to exhibit powers that appear to be drawn from his cultural heritage, is it?"

There were three short raps on the door. Xbalanque saw the security chief, the one they called Carnifex, look in. He wondered for a moment if this was all an elaborate trap.

"The plane's ready and we need to leave within the next hour."

"Thanks." Hartmann put his hand under his chin in thought. "Speaking simply as a U.S. senator here, I'd like to see what we could work out, Mr. Akabal. Why don't we speak privately for a moment?"

Akabal nodded. "Perhaps the Father would like to talk to Xbalanque and Hunapu? The brothers speak Spanish, if there is a translator available."

When Hartmann and Akabal ended their huddle and rejoined them, Xbalanque was ready to leave. Listening to Hunapu, he was becoming afraid that his brother was going to demonstrate calling on the gods right then and there. He knew that wasn't a good idea.

Xbalanque was trying to explain this as Hartmann shook Akabal's hand in farewell. To Xbalanque it seemed as though he held onto the teacher's hand too long. North American customs. He went back to dissuading Hunapu from pulling his obsidian knife and began leading his brother out.

When they were back in the elevator, escorted again by the UN security people, Xbalanque asked Akabal in Maya what Hartmann had said.

"Nothing. He will `attempt' to set up a `committee' to `study' the matter. He talks like all the Yankees. At least they saw us. It gives us legitimacy in the eyes of the world. That much was useful."

"They do not believe that we serve the will of the gods, do they?" Hunapu was much more angry than he had allowed himself to show. Xbalanque watched him warily. He looked his brother in the eyes. "We will show them the power of the gods. They will learn."

Over the following twenty-four hours they lost half the journalists covering them as the reporters went on with the UN tour. And the army moved more units into place and, more ominously, began to evacuate the surrounding suburbs. Finally all travel into the camp was cut off. The peace from the anthropologists was welcome, but the intent was clear to everyone in Kaminaljuyu. No noncombatants in the camp.

At sunrise and noon for each of the three days since the visit to Hartmann and the tour, Hunapu had sacrificed his own blood on the highest of the temple mounds of the city.

Xbalanque had joined him at the last two sunrises. Akabal's pleas for common sense were ignored. As the tension within Kaminaljuyu increased, the brothers grew more insular. Discussing their plans only with each other, they ignored most of the planning sessions held by Akabal and the rebel leaders. Maria spent all her time at Hunapu's side when she was not preparing an altar for a sacrifice. Bol constantly drilled the warriors.

Xbalanque and Hunapu stood atop the ruined temple surrounded by their followers. It was nearly dawn on the fourth day. An ornate decorated bowl was held between them by Maria. Each man held his obsidian blade to the palm of his hand. At the rising of the sun they would cut their flesh and let the blood pour down and mix together in the bowl before they burned it on the altar Maria had arranged with effigies and flowers. The sun was still behind the eastern volcano that loomed over Guatemala City and puffed smoke into the air as if constantly offering sacred tobacco to the gods.

First light. Knives flashed black, shining. Blood flowed, mingled, filled the bowl. Hands, covered with red, lifted to the sun. Thousands of voices raised in a chant welcoming the day with a plea for mercy from the gods. Two thatched huts exploded as the rays of the sun touched them.

The dirt and debris rained down on the people. Those closest to the huts were the first to see that a government rocket had blown the shelters apart. The fighters ran for the perimeter to try to stop the invasion, while those who were unable to defend the camp drew together in a great mass at its center. The government rockets targeted the central plaza where several thousand people knelt and prayed or screamed as the rockets arced overhead to fall nearby.

Maxine Chen was one of the few top journalists left to cover the Hero Twins' crusade. She and her crew had taken shelter behind one of the temple mounds where Maxine taped an introduction to the attack. An Indian girl, seven- or eight-years-old, ran around the side of the mound and in front of Maxine's camera. Her face and her embroidered white huipil were covered with blood, and she was crying out in fear as she ran. Maxine tried to grab her but missed, and the girl was gone.

"Robert…" Maxine looked across at her cameraman. He ducked out from under his camera and shoved it at the sound man, who barely caught it. Then they were both running into the crowd, getting them up and moving toward the small shelter of the mounds.

On the edge of the ruins the Hero Twins' people were firing down into the soldiers, causing some confusion but not enough damage. The rockets were coming from well behind the front lines of the army. The tank engines rumbled, but they held their ground and fired into the defenders, killing some and destroying the ruins that were their protection.

Struggling against the flow of people into the center of Kaminaljuyu, Xbalanque and Hunapu managed to make their way to the front lines. They were cheered as their people spotted them. Standing out in the open, Xbalanque began throwing whatever he could get his hands on at the army. It had effect. The troops in front of his attack tried to move back, only to be stopped and ordered forward. Bullets ricocheted off his skin. The defending Indians saw this and drew strength from it. Aiming more carefully, they began to take a toll. But the rockets kept coming, and they could always hear the screams of the people trapped in the center of the camp.

Hunapu flipped back and forth, using his knife to slit the throats of the nearest soldiers before returning to his own place. He targeted officers, as Akabal had warned him to do. But with the press of men behind them, the frontline troops could not flee even when they wanted to escape the demon.

Xbalanque ran out of missiles and retired behind one of the mounds. He was joined by two of the experienced guerrilla leaders. They were frightened by the mass carnage.

It was different from a jungle war. When they saw Hunapu shift back, Xbalanque caught him before he could return. Hunapu's cotton armor was soaked with the soldiers' blood. The smell gagged even the rebels. The blood and the smoke from the guns took Xbalanque back to the first time he had experienced it.

"Xibalba." He spoke only to his brother.

"Yes." Hunapu nodded. "The gods have grown hungry. Our blood was not enough. They want more blood, blood with power. A king's blood."

"Do you think they would accept a general's blood? A war captain's?" Xbalanque looked over his shoulder at the army on the other side of the dirt mound.

The guerrillas were following the exchange closely, looking for a reason to hope for victory. Both nodded at the thought.

"If you can take the general, things will fall apart down the line. They're draftees out there, not volunteers." The man wiped dusty black hair out of his eyes and shrugged. "It's the best idea I've heard."

"Where is the war captain?" Hunapu's eyes fixed on a distant goal. "I will bring him back. It must be done correctly or the gods will not be pleased."

"He'll be in the rear. I saw a truck back there with lots of antennas, a communications center. Over to the east." Xbalanque looked at his brother uneasily. Something felt wrong about him. "Are you all right?"

"I serve my people and my gods." Hunapu walked a few steps away and vanished with a soft clok.

"I'm not so sure that this was a good idea." Xbalanque wondered what Hunapu had in mind.

"Got a better one? He'll be okay." The rebel started to shrug but was stopped with shoulders lifted by the sound of helicopters.

"Xbalanque, you've got to take them. If they can attack from the air, we're dead." Before the other man had finished, Xbalanque was running back toward the helicopters and the middle of Kaminaljuyu. As the brace of Hueys came into sight, he picked up a rock the size of his head and launched it. The helicopter to the left exploded in flames. Its companion pulled up and away from the camp. But Xbalanque hadn't realized the position of the helicopter he had destroyed. Burning debris fell on his huddled followers, causing as much death and pain as a government rocket.

Xbalanque turned away, cursing himself for being oblivious to his people, and saw Hunapu atop the tallest mound. His brother held a limp figure, half-sprawled on the ground, beside Maria's altar. Xbalanque ran toward the temple.

From the other side Akabal had seen Hunapu appear with his captive. Akabal had been separated from the Twins in the melee following the first mortar strike. Now he turned his back to the mass of followers jammed together around the central dirt mounds. Maxine Chen's tug on his arm stopped him. She joined him, her face filthy and sweating and her two-man crew looking haggard. Robert had reclaimed his camera and filmed everything he could get as he moved around Kaminaljuyu.

"What's going on?" She had to shout to be heard over the crowd and the guns. "Who's that with Hunapu? Is it Xbalanque?"

Akabal shook his head and kept moving, followed by Chen. When she saw that Akabal intended to climb the mound in the open, she and Robert hesitated and followed him. The sound man shook his head and crouched at the base of the temple. Xbalanque had been met by Maria, and they scrambled up the other side. The cameraman stepped back and began filming as soon as all six had made it to the top. Seeing Xbalanque, Hunapu lifted his face and began to chant to the sky. He no longer had his knife, and the dried blood that covered much of his face looked like ceremonial paint. Xbalanque listened for a moment and then shook his head. In an archaic Maya he argued with Hunapu, who continued his chant, oblivious to Xbalanque's interruption. Maxine asked Akabal what was happening, but he shook his head in confusion. Maria had hauled the Guatemalan general onto the earthen altar and began to strip off his uniform.

The guns ceased firing at the same moment Hunapu ended his chant and held out his hand to Xbalanque. In the silence Maxine put her hands to her ears. Maria knelt beside the general, holding the offering bowl in front of her. Xbalanque backed away, shaking his head. Hunapu sharply thrust his arm out at Xbalanque. Looking over Hunapu's shoulder, Xbalanque saw the government tanks roll forward, tearing apart the fence and crushing the Indians under their treads.

As Xbalanque hesitated, the general woke up. Finding himself stretched out on an altar, he cursed and tried to roll off. Maria shoved him back onto it. Noting her feathers, he held himself away from her as if he could be contaminated. He began haranguing Hunapu and Xbalanque in Spanish. "What the hell do you think you are doing? The Geneva convention clearly states that officer prisoners of war are to be treated with dignity and respect. Give me back my clothes!"

Xbalanque heard the tanks and screams behind him as the Guatemalan army officer cursed him. He tossed his obsidian knife to Hunapu and grabbed the general's flailing arms.

"Let me go. What do you savages think you're doing?" As Hunapu raised the knife, the man's eyes widened. "You can't do this! Please, this is 1986. You're all mad. Listen, I'll stop them; I'll call them off. Let me up. Please, Jesus, let me up!"

Xbalanque pinned the general back against the altar and looked up as Hunapu brought the knife down.

"Hail, Mary, full of g-"

The obsidian blade cut through flesh and cartilage, spraying the brothers and Maria with blood. Xbalanque watched in horrified fascination as Hunapu decapitated the general, bearing down with the knife against the spine and severing the final connections before lifting the Ladino's head to the sky.

Xbalanque released the dead man's arms and trembling, took the bowl filled with blood from Maria. Shoving the body off the altar, he set fire to the blood as Maria lit copal incense.

He threw back his head and called the names of his gods to the sky. His voice was echoed by his people, gathered below with arms thrust into the air toward the temple. Hunapu placed the head, its eyes open and staring into Xibalba, on the altar.

The tanks stopped their advance and began a lumbering retreat. The foot soldiers dropped their guns and ran. A few shot officers that tried to stop them, and the officers joined the flight. The government forces disbanded in chaos, scattering into the city, abandoning their equipment and weapons. Maxine had vomited at the sight of the sacrifice, but her cameraman had it all on tape. Shaking and pale, she asked Akabal what was happening. He looked down at her with wide eyes.

"It is the time of the Fourth Creation. The birth of Huracan, the heart of heaven, our home. The gods have returned to us! Death to the enemies of our people!" Akabal knelt and stretched his hands toward the Hero Twins. "Lead us to glory, favored of the gods."

In room 502 of the Camino Real a tourist in flowered shorts and a pale blue polyester shirt stuffed the last souvenir weaving into his suitcase. He looked around the room for his wife and saw her at the window.

"Next time, Martha, don't buy anything that won't fit into your suitcase." He leaned his considerable weight on the bag and slid the catches closed. "Where is that boy? We must have called half an hour ago. What's so interesting out there?"

"The people, Simon. It's some kind of procession. I wonder if it's a religious occasion."

"Is it a riot? With all this unrest we've been hearing about, the sooner we get out of here the better I'm going to feel."

"No, they just seem to be going somewhere." His wife continued to peer down at the streets filled with men, women, and children. "They're all Indians too. You can tell by the costumes."

"My god, we're going to miss our plane if they don't get a move on." He glared at his watch as if it was responsible. "Call again, will you? Where the hell can he be?"

FROM THE JOURNAL OF XAVIER DESMOND

DECEMBER 15, 1986/EN ROUTE TO LIMA, PERU:

I have been dilatory about keeping up my journal-no entry yesterday or the day before. I can only plead exhaustion and a certain amount of despondence.

Guatemala took its toll on my spirit, I'm afraid. We are, of course, stringently neutral, but when I saw the televised news reports of the insurrection and heard some of the rhetoric being attributed to the Mayan revolutionaries, I dared to hope. When we actually met with the Indian leaders, I was even briefly elated. They considered my presence in the room an honor, an auspicious omen, seemed to treat me with the same sort of respect (or lack of respect) they gave Hartmann and Tachyon, and the way they treated their own jokers gave me heart.

Well, I am an old man-an old joker in fact-and I tend to clutch at straws. Now the Mayan revolutionaries have proclaimed a new nation, an Amerindian homeland, where their jokers will be welcomed and honored. The rest of us need not apply. Not that I would care much to live in the jungles of Guatemala-even an autonomous joker homeland down here would scarcely cause a ripple in Jokertown, let alone any kind of significant exodus. Still, there are so few places in the world where jokers are welcome, where we can make our homes in peace… the more we travel on, the more we see, the more I am forced to conclude that Jokertown is the best place for us, our only true home. I cannot express how much that conclusion saddens and terrifies me.

Why must we draw these lines, these fine distinctions, these labels and barriers that set us apart? Ace and nat and joker, capitalist and communist, Catholic and Protestant, Arab and Jew, Indian and Ladino, and on and on everywhere, and of course true humanity is to be found only on our side of the line and we feel free to oppress and rape and kill the "other," whoever he might be.

There are those on the Stacked Deck who charge that the Guatemalans were engaged in conscious genocide against their own Indian populations, and who see this new nation as a very good thing. But I wonder.

The Mayas think jokers are touched by the gods, specially blessed. No doubt it is better to be honored than reviled for our various handicaps and deformities. No doubt. But…

We have the Islamic nations still ahead of us… a third of the world, someone told me. Some Moslems are more tolerant than others, but virtually all of them consider deformity a sign of Allah's displeasure. The attitudes of the true fanatics such as the Shiites in Iran and the Nur sect in Syria are terrifying, Hiderian. How many jokers were slaughtered when the Ayatollah displaced the Shah? To some Iranians the tolerance he extended to jokers and women was the Shah's greatest sin.

And are we so very much better in the enlightened USA, where fundamentalists like Leo Barnett preach that jokers are being punished for their sins? Oh, yes, there is a distinction, I must remember that. Barnett says he hates the sins but loves the sinners, and if we will only repent and have faith and love Jesus, surely we will be cured.

No,?'m afraid that ultimately Barnett and the Ayatollah and the Mayan priests are all preaching the same creedthat our bodies in some sense reflect our souls, that some divine being has taken a direct hand and twisted us into these shapes to signify his pleasure (the Mayas) or displeasure (Nur al-Allah, the Ayatollah, the Firebreather). Most of all, each of them is saying that jokers are different.

My own creed is distressingly simple -I believe that jokers and aces and nats are all just men and women and ought to be treated as such. During my dark nights of the soul I wonder if I am the only one left who still believes this.

Still brooding about Guatemala and the Mayas. A point I failed to make earlier-I could not help noticing that this glorious idealistic revolution of theirs was led by two aces and a nat. Even down here, where jokers are supposedly kissed by the gods, the aces lead and the jokers follow.

A few days ago-it was during our visit to the Panama Canal, I believe Digger Downs asked me if I thought the U.S. would ever have a joker president. I told him I'd settle for a joker congressman (I'm afraid Nathan Rabinowitz, whose district includes Jokertown, heard the comment and took it for some sort of criticism of his representation). Then Digger wanted to know if I thought an ace could be elected president. A more interesting question, I must admit. Downs always looks half asleep, but he is sharper than he appears, though not in a class with some of the other reporters aboard the Stacked Deck, like Herrmann of AP or Morgenstern of the Washington Post.

I told Downs that before this last Wild Card Day it might have been possible… barely. Certain aces, like the Turtle (still missing, the latest NY papers confirm), Peregrine, Cyclone, and a handful of others are first-rank celebrities, commanding considerable public affection. How much of that could translate to the public arena, and how well it might survive the rough give-and-take of a presidential campaign, that's a more difficult question. Heroism is a perishable commodity.

Jack Braun was standing close enough to hear Digger's question and my reply. Before I could conclude-I wanted to say that the whole equation had changed this September, that among the casualties of Wild Card Day was any faint chance that an ace might be a viable presidential candidate Braun interrupted. "They'd tear him apart," he told us.

What if it was someone they loved? Digger wanted to know. "They loved the Four Aces," Braun said.

Braun is no longer quite the exile he was at the beginning of the tour. Tachyon still refuses to acknowledge his existence and Hiram is barely polite, but the other aces don't seem to know or care who he is. In Panama he was often in Fantasy's company, squiring her here and there, and I've heard rumors of a liaison between Golden Boy and Senator Lyons's press secretary, an attractive young blonde. Undoubtedly, of the male aces, Braun is by far the most attractive in the conventional sense, although Mordecai Jones has a certain brooding presence. Downs has been struck by those two also. The next issue of Aces will feature a piece comparing Golden Boy and the Harlem Hammer, he informs me.

THE TINT O F HATRED

Part Three

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 23, 1986, RIO:

Sara detested Rio.

From her room in the Luxor Hotel on Atlantica, the city looked like a curving Miami Beach: a display of gleaming, white high-rise hotels arrayed before a wide beach and gentle blue-green surf, all fading into a sun-hazed distance on either side.

The majority of the junket had fulfilled their obligations quickly and were using the Rio stopover for R amp;R. After all, it was almost the holidays; a month on the tour had worn the idealism off most of them. Hiram Worchester had gone on a binge, eating and drinking his way through the city's myriad restaurante. The press had opted for the local cervezaria and were sampling the native beers. American dollars exchanged into handfuls of cruzados and prices were low. The wealthier of the contingent had invested in the Brazilian gem marketthere seemed to be a jewelry stall in every hotel.

And yet Sara was aware of the reality. The standard tourist warnings were indication enough: Don't wear any jewelry on the streets; don't get on the buses, don't trust the taxi drivers; be careful around children or any jokers; don't go out alone, especially if you're a woman; if you want to keep something, lock it up or stay with it. Beware. To Rio's multitudes of poor, any tourist was rich and the rich were fair game.

And reality intruded as, bored and restless, she left the hotel that afternoon, deciding to go see Tachyon at a local clinic. She hailed one of the ubiquitous black-and-yellow VW Beetle cabs. Two blocks in from the ocean, glittering Rio turned dark, mountainous, crowded, and miserable. Through the narrow alleys between buildings she could glimpse the old landmark, Corcovado, the gigantic statue of Christ the Redeemer atop a central peak of the city. Corcovado was a reminder of how the Wild Card had devastated this country. Rio had suffered a major outbreak in 1948. The city had always been wild and poor, with a downtrodden population simmering under the veneer. The virus had let loose months of panic and violence. No one knew which disgruntled ace was responsible for Corcovado. One morning the figure of Christ had simply "changed," as if the rising sun were melting a wax figurine. Christ the Redeemer became a joker, a misshapen, hunchbacked thing, one of his outstretched arms gone completely, the other twisted around to support the distorted body. Father Squid had celebrated a mass there yesterday; two hundred thousand people had prayed together under the deformed statue.

She'd told the taxi driver to take her to Santa Theresa, the old section of Rio. There, the jokers had gathered as they had gathered in New York's Jokertown, as if taking solace in their mutual afflictions in the shadow of Corcovado. Santa Theresa had been in the warnings too. Near Estrada de Redentor she tapped the driver on the shoulder. "Stop here," she said. The driver said something in rapid Portuguese, then shook his head and pulled over.

Sara found that this taxi driver was no different than the rest. She'd forgotten to insist that he turn on his meter when they'd left the hotel. "Quanto custa?" It was one of the few phrases she knew: How much? He insisted loudly that the fare was a thousand cruzados, forty dollars. Sara, exasperated and tired of constant small ripoffs, argued back in English. Finally she threw a hundred-cruzado bill at him, still far more than he should have received. He took it, then drove off with a screech of tires. "Feliz Natal!" he called sarcastically: Merry Christmas.

Sara flipped him the finger. It gave her little satisfaction. She began looking for the clinica.

It had rained that afternoon, the usual rainy-season squall that drenched the city for a few hours and then gave way to sunshine again. Even that hadn't managed to quell the stench of Rio's antiquated sewage system. Walking up the steeply inclined street, she was pursued by fetid oders. Like the others, she walked in the center of the narrow street, moving aside only if she heard a car. She quickly felt conspicuous as the sun began to fall behind the hills. Most of those around her were jokers or those too poor to live anywhere else. She saw none of the police patrols here that routinely swept the tourist streets. A fox-furred snout leered at her as someone jostled past, what looked to be a man-size snail slithered along the sidewalk to her right, a twin-headed prostitute loitered in a doorway. She'd sometimes felt paranoid in Jokertown, but the intensity was nothing like she felt here. In Jokertown she would have at least understood what the voices around her were saying, she would have known that two or three blocks over lay the relative security of Manhattan, she would have been able to call someone from a corner phone booth. Here there was nothing. She had only a vague notion of where she was. If she disappeared, it might be hours before anyone knew she was missing.

It was with distinct relief that she saw the clinic ahead and half ran to its open door.

The place hadn't changed since yesterday when the press corps had visited. It was a crowded, chaotic lunacy. The clinic smelled vile, a combination of antiseptics, disease, and human waste. The floors were filthy, the equipment antiquated, the beds mere cots packed together as closely as possible. Tachyon had howled at the appearance, then had immediately thrown himself into the fray.

He was still there, looking as if he'd never left. "Boatarde, Ms. Morgenstern," he said. His satin jacket missing, his shirt-sleeves rolled halfway up his lanky arms, he was drawing a blood sample from a comatose young girl whose skin was scaled like a lizard's. "Did you come to work or watch?"

"I thought it was a samba club."

That gained her a small, weary smile. "They can use help in back," he said. "Felicidades." Sara waved to Tachyon and slid between the rows of cots. Near the rear of the clinic she halted in surprise, frowning. Her breath caught.

Gregg Hartmann was crouched beside one of the cots. A joker sat there, bristling with stiff, barbed quills like those of a porcupine. A distinct animal musk came from the man. The Senator, in hospital blues, was carefully cleaning a wound on the joker's upper arm. Despite the odor, despite the patient's appearance, Sara could see only concern on his face as he worked. Hartmann saw Sara and smiled. "Ms. Morgenstern. Hello."

"Senator."

He shook his head. "You don't need to be so damn formal. It's Gregg. Please." She could see fatigue in the lines around his eyes, in the huskiness of his voice; he'd evidently been here for some time. Since Mexico, Sara had avoided situations that might leave the two of them alone. But she'd watched him, wishing she could sort out her feelings, wishing that she didn't feel a confused liking for the man. She'd observed how he interacted with others, how he responded to them, and she wondered. Her mind told her that she may have misjudged him; her emotions tore her in two directions at once.

He was looking at her, patient and genial. She ran her hand through her short hair and nodded. "Gregg, then. And I'm Sara. Tachyon sent me back here."

"Great. This is Mariu, who was on the wrong end of somebody's knife." Gregg indicated the joker, who stared at Sara with unblinking, feral intensity. His pupils were reddish, and his lips were drawn back in a snarl. The joker said nothing, either unwilling or unable to talk.

"I guess I should find something to do." Sara looked around, wanting to leave.

" I could use an extra pair of hands with Mariu here." No, she wanted to say. I don't want to know you. I don't want to have to say I was wrong. Belatedly Sara shook her head. "Umm, okay. Sure. What do you want me to do?" They worked together silently. The wound had been stitched earlier. Gregg cleaned it gently as Sara held the prickly barbs away. He smeared antibiotic ointment on the long wound, pressed gauze to it. Sara noticed most that his touch was gentle, if clumsy. He bound the dressing and stepped back. "Okay, you're done, Mariu." Gregg patted the joker carefully on the shoulder. The spiny face nodded slightly, then Mariu padded away without a word. Sara found Gregg looking at her, sweating in the heat of the clinic. "Thanks."

"You're welcome." She took a step back from him, uncomfortable. "You did a good job with Mariu."

Gregg laughed. He held out his hands, and Sara saw angry red scratches scattered over them. "Mariu gave me lots of problems until you showed up. I'm strictly amateur help here. We made a good team, though. Tachyon wanted me to unload supplies; want to give me a hand with that?"

There wasn't a graceful way to say no. They worked in silence for a time, restocking shelves. "I didn't expect to find you here," Sara commented as they wrestled a packing crate into a storage room.

Sara saw that he noted her unspoken words and hadn't taken offense. "Without making sure a video camera was recording my good works, you mean?" he said, smiling.

"Ellen was out shopping with Peregrine. John and Amy had a stack of paperwork this big they wanted me to tackle." Gregg held his hands two feet apart. "Coming here seemed a lot more useful. Besides, Tachyon's dedication can give you a guilt complex. I left a note for Security saying I was `going out.' I imagine Billy Ray's probably having a fit by now. Promise not to tell on me?"

His face was so innocently mischievous that she had to laugh with him. With the laughter a little more of the brittle hatred flaked away. "You're a constant surprise, Senator."

"Gregg, remember?" Softly.

"Sorry" Her smile faded. For a moment she felt a strong pull to him. She forced the feeling down, denied it. It's not what you want to feel. It's not real. If anything, it's a backlash reaction for having detested him for so long. She looked around at the barren, dusty shelves of the storeroom and viciously tore open the carton.

She could feel his eyes watching her. "You still don't believe what I said about Andrea." His voice wavered halfway between statement and question. His words, so close to what she'd been thinking, brought sudden heat to her face.

"I'm not sure about anything."

"And you still hate me."

"No," she said. She pulled Styrofoam packing from the box. And then, with sudden, impulsive honesty: "To me that's probably more scary."

The admission left her feeling vulnerable and open. Sara was glad that she couldn't see his face. She cursed herself for the confession. It implied attraction for Gregg; it suggested that, far from hating him, she'd come nearly full circle in her feelings, and that was simply something she didn't want him to know. Not yet. Not until she was certain.

The atmosphere between them was charged with tension. She searched for some way to blunt the effect. Gregg could wound her with a word, could make her bleed with a look.

What Gregg did then made Sara wish that she'd never seen Andrea's face on Succubus, that she hadn't spent years loathing the man.

He did nothing.

He reached over her shoulder and handed her a box of sterile bandages. "I think they go on the top shelf," he said. " I think they go on the top shelf."

Puppetman was screaming inside him, battering at the mindbars that held him in. The power ached to be loose, to tear into Sara's opened mind and feed there. The hatred that had rebuffed him in New York was gone, and he could see Sara's affection; he tasted it, like blood-salt. Radiant, warm vermilion.

So easy, Puppetman moaned. It would be easy. It's rich, full. We could make that an overwhelming tide. You could take her here. She would beg you for release, she would give you whatever you asked of her-pain, submission, anything, Please…

Gregg could barely hold back the power. He'd never felt it so needy, so frantic. He'd known this would be the danger of the trip. Puppetman, that power inside him, would have to feed, and Puppetman only fed on torment and suffering, all the black-red and angry emotions. In New York and Washington it was easy. There were always puppets there, minds he'd found and opened so that he could use them later. Cattle, fodder for the power. There it was easy to slip away unseen, to stalk carefully and then pounce.

Not here. Not on this trip. Absences were conspicuous and needed explanations. He had to be cautious; he had to let the power go hungry. He was used to feeding weekly; since the plane had left New York, he'd managed to feed only once: in Guatemala. Too long ago.

Puppetman was famished. His need could not be held back much longer.

Later, Gregg pleaded. Remember Mariu? Remember the rich potency we saw in him? We touched him, we opened him. Reach out now-see, you can still feel him, only a block away. A few hours and we feed. But not with Sara. I wouldn't let you have Andrea or Succubus; I won't let you have Sara. Do you think she'd love you if she knew? Puppetman mocked. Do you think she'd still feel affection if you told her? You think she would embrace you, kiss you, let you enter her warmth? If you really want her to love you for yourself, then tell her everything.

Shut up! Gregg screamed back. Shut up! You can have Mariu. Sara is mine.

He forced the power back down. He made himself smile. It was three hours before he found an excuse to leave; he was pleased when Sara decided to stay at the clinic. Shaking from the exertion of keeping Puppetman inside, he went into the night streets.

Santa Theresa, like Jokertown, was alive at night, still vibrant with dark life. Rio herself never seemed to sleep. He could look down into the city and see a deluge of lights flowing in the valleys between the sharp mountains and spilling halfway up the slopes. It was a sight to make one stop for a moment and ponder the small beauties that, unwittingly, a sprawling humanity had made.

Gregg hardly noticed it. The lashing power inside drove him. Mariu. Feel him. Find him.

The joker who had brought in the bleeding Mariu had spoken a little English. Gregg overheard the story he'd told Tachyon. Mariu was crazy, he said. Ever since Cara was nice to him, he'd been bothering her. Cara's husband, Joao, he told Mariu to stay away, told him he was just a fucking joker. Said he'd kill Marin if Mariu didn't leave Cara alone. Mariu wouldn't listen. He kept following Cara, scaring her. So Joao cut him.

Gregg had offered to dress Mariu's wound after Tachyon had stitched it up, feeling Puppetman yammering inside. He'd touched the loathsome Mariu, let the power open his mind to feel the raging boil of emotions. He'd known immediately-this would be the one.

He could sense the emanations of the open mind at the edge of his range, perhaps a half mile away. He moved through narrow, twisting streets, still dressed in the blues.

Some of his intensity must have shown for he wasn't bothered. Once a crowd of children surrounded him, pulling at his pockets, but he'd looked at them and they'd gone silent, scattering into darkness. He'd moved on, closer to Mariu, until he saw the joker.

Mariu was standing outside a ramshackle, three-story apartment building, watching a window on the second floor. Gregg felt the pulsing, black rage and knew Joao was there.

Mariu's feelings for Joao were simple, bestial; those for Cara were more complex-a shifting, metallic respect; an azure affection laced through with veins of repressed lust. With his barbed skin Mariu had probably never had a willing lover, Gregg knew, but he could sense the fantasies in his mind. Now, please. Gregg took a shuddering breath. He let down the barriers. Puppetman laughed.

He stroked the surface of Mariu's mind possessively, cooing softly to himself. He removed the few restraints an uncaring society and church had put on Mariu. Yes, be angry, he whispered to Mariu. Be full of devout rage. He keeps you from her. He insulted you. He hurt you. Let the fury come, let it blind you until you see nothing but its burning heat. Mariu was moving restlessly in the street, his arms waving as if to some inner debate. Gregg watched as Puppetman amplified the frustration, the hurt, the anger, until Marin screamed hoarsely and ran into the building. Gregg closed his eyes, leaning against a shadowed wall. Puppetman rode with Mariu, not seeing with Mariu's eyes but feeling with him. He heard shouts in angry Portuguese, the splintering of wood, and suddenly the rage flared up higher than before.

Puppetman was feeding now, taking sustenance from the rampant emotions. Mariu and Joao were struggling, for he could sense, deep underneath, a sensation of pain. He damped the pain down so Mariu would not notice it. The screams of a woman accompanied the shouts now, and from the twisting of Mariu's mind, Gregg knew that Cara was there too. Puppetman increased Mariu's anger until the glare of it nearly blinded him. He knew Mariu could feel nothing else now. The woman screamed louder; there was a distinct dull thud audible even in the street below. Gregg heard the sound of breaking glass and a wail: he opened his eyes to see a body strike the hood of a car and topple into the street. The body was bent at an obscene angle, the spine broken. Mariu was looking down from the window above.

Yes, that was good. That was tasty. This will taste good as well.

Puppetman let the rage slowly fade as Mariu ducked back inside. Now he toyed with the feelings for Cara. He diluted the binding respect, let the affection dim. You need her. You've always wanted her. You looked at those hidden breasts as she walked by and wondered how they would feel, all silken and warm. You wondered at the hidden place between her legs, how it would taste, how it would feel. You knew it would be hot, slick with desire. You'd stroke youself at night and think of her writhing underneath you, moaning as you thrust.

Now Puppetman turned derisive, mocking, modifying passion with the residue of Mariu's anger. And you knew that she'd never want you, not looking the way you do, not the joker with the needled quills. No. Her body couldn't be for you. She'd laugh about you, making coarse jokes. When Joao possessed her, he'd laugh and say, "This would never be Mariu; Mariu would never take pleasure from me."

Cara screamed. Gregg heard cloth tear and felt Mariu's uncontrolled lust. He could imagine it. He could imagine him bearing her down roughly, uncaring that his barbs gouged her unprotected skin, looking only for release and imagined vengeance in the violent, agonizing rape.

Enough, he thought, quietly. Let it be enough. But Puppetman only laughed, staying with Mariu until orgasm threw his mind into chaos. Then Puppetman, sated himself, withdrew. He laughed hilariously, letting Mariu's emotions drop to normal, let the joker look in horror at what he'd done.

Already there were more shouts from the building, and Gregg heard the sirens in the distance. He opened his eyes-gasping, blinking-and ran.

Inside, Puppetman eased himself into his accustomed place and quietly let Gregg place the bars around him. Satisfied, he slept.

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 26, 1986, SYRIA:

Misha sat bolt upright, sweat-drenched from the dream. She had evidently cried out in fear, for Sayyid was struggling to sit up in his own bed.

"Wallah, woman! What is it?" Sayyid was hewn from a heroic mold, fully ten foot tall and muscled like a god. In repose he was inspiring: a dark, Egyptian giant, a myth given life. Sayyid was the weapon in Nur al-Allah's hands; terrorists such as al-Muezzin were the hidden blades. When Sayyid stood before the faithful, towering over all, they could see in Nor al-Allah's general the visible symbol of Allah's protection.

In Sayyid's keen mind were the strategies that had defeated the better-armed and supplied Israeli troops in the Golan Heights, when the world had thought Nor al-Allah and his followers hopelessly outnumbered. He had orchestrated the rioting in Damascus when al-Assad's ruling Ba'th Party had tried to move away from Qu'ranic law, allowing the Nur sect to forge an alliance with the Sunni and Alawite sects. He craftily advised Nur al-Allah to send the faithful into Beirut when the Christian Druze leaders had threatened to overthrow the reigning Islamic party. When the Swarm Mother had sent her deadly offspring to Earth the year before, it was Sayyid who had protected Nor al-Allah and the faithful. In his mind was victory. For the jihad Allah had given Sayyid hikma, divine wisdom.

It was a well-kept secret that Sayyid's heroic appearance was also a curse. Nor al-Allah had decreed that jokers were sinners, branded by God. They had fallen from shari'a, the true path. They were destined to be slaves of the true faithful at best; at worst they would be exterminated. It would not have been wise for anyone to see that Nor al-Allah's brilliant strategist was nearly a cripple, that Sayyid's mighty, rippling thrws could barely support the crushing weight of his body. While his height had doubled, his mass had increased nearly fourfold.

Sayyid was always carefully posed. He moved slowly if at all. When he must go any distance, he rode.

Men who had seen Sayyid in the baths whispered that he was as heroically proportioned everywhere. Misha alone knew that his manhood was as crippled as the rest of him. For the failure of his appearance Sayyid could only blame Allah, and he did not dare. For his inability to stay aroused more than a few moments, he blamed Misha. Tonight, as often, her body bore the livid bruises of his heavy fists. But at least the beatings were quick. There were times when she thought his awful, suffocating weight would never rise from her.

"It is nothing," she whispered. "A dream. I didn't mean to wake you."

Sayyid rubbed at his eyes, staring groggily toward her. He had brought himself to a sitting position, and he panted from the effort. "A vision. Nur al-Allah has said-"

"My brother needs his sleep, as does his general. Please."

"Why must you always oppose me, woman?" Sayyid frowned, and Misha knew that he remembered his earlier embarrassment, when in frustration he had battered her, as if he could find release in her pain. "Tell me," he insisted. " I must know if it's something to tell the prophet."

I am Kahina, she wanted to say. I'm the one Allah has gifted. Why must you be the one to decide whether to wake Najib? It was not your vision. But she held back the words, knowing that they led to more pain. "It was confused," she told him. " I saw a man, a Russian by his dress" who handed Nur al-Allah many gifts. Then the Russian was gone, and another man-an American-came with more gifts and laid them at the prophet's feet." Misha licked dry lips, remembering the panic of the dream. "Then there was nothing but a feeling of terrible danger. He had gossamer strings knotted to his long fingers, and from each string dangled a person. One of his creatures came forward with a gift. The gift was for me, and yet I feared it" dreading to open the package. I ripped it open, and inside…" She shuddered. "I… I saw only myself. I know there was more to the dream, but I woke. Yet I know, I know the gift-bearer is coming. He will be here soon."

"An American?" Sayyid asked. "Yes."

"Then I know already. You dream of the plane carrying the Western infidels. The prophet will be ready for them: a month, perhaps more."

Misha nodded, pretending to be reassured, though the terror of. the dream still held her. He was coming, and he held out his gift for her, smiling.

"I'll tell Nur al-Allah in the morning," she said. "I'm sorry I disturbed your rest."

"There's more I would talk about," Sayyid answered. She knew. "Please. We're both tired."

"I'm entirely awake now"

"Sayyid, I wouldn't want to fail you again…"

She had hoped that would end it, yet had known it would not. Sayyid groaned to his feet. He said nothing; he never did. He lumbered across the room" breathing loudly at the exertion. She could see his huge bulk beside her bed, a darker shade against the night." He fell more than lowered himself atop her. "This time," he breathed. "This time."

It was not this time. Misha didn't need to be Kahina to know that it would never be.

FROM THE JOURNAL OF XAVIER DESMOND

DECEMBER 29, 1986/BUENOS AIRES:

Don't cry for Jack, Argentina…

Evita's bane has comes back to Buenos Aires. When the musical first played Broadway, I wondered what Jack Braun must have thought, listening to Lupone sing of the Four Aces. Now that question has even more poignance. Braun has been very calm, almost stoic, in the face of his reception here, but what must he be feeling inside?

Peron is dead, Evita even deader, even Isabel just a memory, but the Peronistas are still very much a part of the Argentine political scene. They have not forgotten. Everywhere the signs taunt Braun and invite him to go home. He is the ultimate gringo (do they use that word in Argentina, I wonder), the ugly but awesomely powerful American who came to the Argentine uninvited and toppled a sovereign government because he disapproved of its politics. The United States has been doing such things for as long as there has been a Latin America, and I have no doubt that these same resentments fester in many other places. The United States and even the dread "secret aces" of the CIA are abstract concepts, however, faceless and difficult to get a fix onGolden Boy is flesh and blood, very real and very visible, and here.

Someone inside the hotel leaked our room assignments, and when Jack stepped out onto his balcony the first day, he was showered with dung and rotten fruit. He has stayed inside ever since, except for official functions, but even there he is not safe. Last night as we stood in a receiving line at the Casa Rosada, the wife of a union official-a beautiful young woman, her small dark face framed by masses of lustrous black hair-stepped up to him with a sweet smile, looked straight into his eyes, and spit in his face.

It caused quite a stir, and Senators Hartmann and Lyons have filed some sort of protest, I believe. Braun himself was remarkably restrained, almost gallant. Digger was hounding him ruthlessly after the reception; he's cabling a write-up on the incident back to Aces and wanted a quote. Braun finally gave him something. "I've done things I'm not proud of," he said, "but getting rid of Juan Peron isn't one of them."

"Yeah, yeah," I heard Digger tell him, "but how did you feel when she spit on you?"

Jack just looked disgusted. " I don't hit women," he said. Then he walked off and sat by himself.

Downs turned to me when Braun was gone. "I don't hit women," he echoed in a singsong imitation of Golden Boy's voice, then added, "What a weenie…"

The world is too ready to read cowardice and betrayal into anything Jack Braun says and does, but the truth, I suspect, is more complex. Given his youthful appearance, it's hard to recall at times how old the Golden Boy really is-his formative _years were during the Depression and World War II, and he grew up listening to the NBC Blue Network, not MTV No wonder some of his values seem quaintly oldfashioned.

In many ways the Judas Ace seems almost an innocent, a bit lost in a world that has grown too complicated for him. I think he is more troubled than he admits by his reception here in Argentina. Braun is the last representative of a lost dream that flourished briefly in the aftermath of World War II and died in Korea and the HUAC hearings and the Cold War. They thought they could reshape the world, Archibald Holmes and his Four Aces. They had no doubts, no more than their country did. Power existed to be used, and they were supremely confident in their ability to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Their own democratic ideals and the shining purity of their intentions were all the justification they needed. For those few early aces it must have been a golden age, and how appropriate that a golden boy be at its center.

Golden ages give way to dark ages, as any student of history knows, and as all of us are currently finding out.

Braun and his colleagues could do things no one else had ever done-they could fly and lift tanks and absorb a man's mind and memories, and so they bought the illusion that they could make a real difference on a global scale, and when that illusion dissolved beneath them, they fell a very long way indeed. Since then no other ace has dared to dream as big.

Even in the face of imprisonment, despair, insanity, disgrace, and death, the Four Aces had triumphs to cling to, and Argentina was perhaps the brightest of those triumphs. What a bitter homecoming this must be for Jack Braun.

As if this was not enough, our mail caught up with us just before we left Brazil, and the pouch included a dozen copies of the new issue of Aces with Digger's promised feature story. The cover has Jack Braun and Mordecai Jones in profile, scowling at each other (All cleverly doctored, of course. I don't believe the two had ever met before we all got together at Tomlin) over a blurb that reads, "The Strongest Man in the World."

The article itself is a lengthy discussion of the two men and their public careers, enlivened by numerous anecdotes about their feats of strength and much speculation about which of the two is, indeed, the strongest man in the world.

Both of the principals seem embarrassed by the piece, Braun perhaps more acutely. Neither much wants to discuss it, and they certainly don't seem likely to settle the matter anytime soon. I understand that there has been considerable argument and even wagering back in the press compartment since Digger's piece came out (for once, Downs seems to have had an impact on his journalistic colleagues), but the bets are likely to remain unresolved for a long time to come.

I told Downs that the story was spurious and offensive as soon as I read it. He seemed startled. "I don't get it," he said to me. "What's your beef?"

My beef, as I explained to him, was simple. Braun and Jones are scarcely the only people to manifest superhuman strength since the advent of the wild card; in fact, that particular power is a fairly common one, ranking close behind telekinesis and telepathy in Tachyon's incidence-of-occurrence charts. It has something to do with maximizing the contractile strength of the muscles, I believe. My point is, a number of prominent jokers display augmented strength as well just off the top of my head, I cited Elmo (the dwarf bouncer at the Crystal Palace), Ernie of Ernie's Bar amp; Grill, the Oddity, Quasiman… and, most notably, Howard Mueller. The Troll's strength does not perhaps equal that of Golden Boy and the Harlem Hammer, but assuredly it approaches it. None of these jokers were so much as mentioned in passing in Digger's story, although the names of a dozen other superstrong aces were dropped here and there. Why was that? I wanted to know.

I can't claim to have made much of an impression unfortunately. When I was through, Downs simply rolled his eyes and said, "You people are so damned touchy." He tried to be accommodating by telling me that if this story went over big, maybe he'd write up a sequel on the strongest joker in the world, and he couldn't comprehend why that "concession" made me even angrier. And they wonder why we people are touchy…

Howard thought the whole argument was vastly amusing. Sometimes I wonder about him.

Actually my fit of pique was nothing compared to the reaction the magazine drew from Billy Ray, our security chief. Ray was one of the other aces mentioned in passing, his strength dismissed as not being truly "major league." Afterward he could be heard the length of the plane, suggesting that maybe Downs would like to step outside with him, seeing as how he was so minor league. Digger declined the offer. From the smile on his face I doubt that Carnifex will be getting any good press in Aces anytime soon.

Since then, Ray has been grousing about the story to anyone who will listen. The crux of his argument is that strength isn't everything; he may not be as strong as Braun or Jones, but he's strong enough to take either of them in a fight, and he'd be glad to put his money where his mouth is.

Personally I have gotten a certain perverse satisfaction out of this tempest in a 'teapot. The irony is, they are arguing about who has the most of what is essentially a minor power.

I seem to recall that there was some sort of demonstration in the early seventies, when the battleship New Jersey was being refitted at the Bayonne Naval Supply Center over in New Jersey. The Turtle lifted the battleship telekinetically, got it out of the water by several feet, and held it there for almost half a minute. Braun and Jones lift tanks and toss automobiles about, but neither could come remotely close to what the Turtle did that day.

The simple truth is, the contractile strength of the human musculature can be increased only so much. Physical limits apply. Dr. Tachyon says there may also be limits to what the human mind can accomplish, but so far they have not been reached.

If the Turtle is indeed a joker, as many believe, I would find this irony especially satisfying.

I suppose I am, at base, as small a man as any.

THE TINT OF HATRED

Part Four

THURSDAY, JANUARY 1, 1987, SOUTH AFRICA:

The evening was cool. Beyond the hotel's wide veranda, the crumpled landscape of the Bushveld Basin seemed pastoral. The last light of the day edged grassy hills with lavender and burnt orange; in the valley the sluggish Olifants's brown waters were touched with gold. Among the stand of acacias lining the river monkeys settled to sleep with occasional hooting calls.

Sara looked at it and felt nausea. It was so damn beautiful, and it hid such a sickness.

There had been enough trouble even keeping the delegation together in the country. The planned New Year's celebration had been wrecked by jet lag and the hassles of getting into South Africa. When Father Squid, Xavier Desmond, and Troll had tried to eat with the others in Pretoria, the head waiter had refused to seat them, pointing to a sign in both English and Afrikaans: WHITES ONLY. "We don't serve blacks, coloreds, or jokers," he insisted.

Hartmann, Tachyon, and several of the other high-ranking members of the delegation had immediately protested to the Botha government; a compromise had been reached. The delegation was given the run of a small hotel on the Loskop Game Preserve; isolated, they could intermingle if they wished. The government had let it be known that they also found the idea distasteful.

When they had finally popped the champagne corks, the wine had tasted sour in all their mouths.

The junket had spent the afternoon at a ramshackle kraal, actually little more than a shantytown. There they'd seen firsthand the double-edged sword of prejudice: the new apartheid. Once it had been a two-sided struggle, the Afrikaners and the English against the blacks, the colored, and the Asians. Now the jokers were the new Uitlanders, and both white and black spat upon them. Tachyon had looked at the filth and squalor of this jokertown, and Sara had seen his noble, sculptured face go white with rage; Gregg had looked ill. The entire delegation had turned on the National Party officials who had accompanied them from Pretoria and begun to rail at the conditions here.

The officials spouted the approved line. This is why we have the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, they said, pointedly ignoring the jokers among the group. Without strict separation of the races we will only produce more jokers, more colored, and we're sure none of you want that. This is why there's an Immorality Act, a Prohibition of Political Interference Act. Let us do things our way, and we will take care of our own problems. Conditions are bad, yes, but they are getting better. You've been swayed by the African/jokers National Congress. The AJNC is outlawed, their leader Mandela is nothing more than a fanatic, a troublemaker. The AJNC has steered you to the worst encampment they could find-if the doctor, the senators, and their colleagues had only stayed with our itinerary, you would have seen the other side of the coin.

All in all, the year had begun like hell.

Sara put a foot up on the railing, lowered her head until it rested on her hands, and stared at the sunset. Everywhere. Here you can see the problems so easily, but it's not really different. It's been horrible everywhere whenever you look past the surface.

She heard footsteps, but didn't turn around. The railing shuddered as someone stood next to her. "Ironic, isn't it, how lovely this land can be." Gregg's voice.

"Just what I was thinking," Sara said. She glanced at him, and he was staring out at the hills. The only other person on the veranda was Billy Ray, reclining against the railing a discreet distance away.

"There are times when I wish the virus were more deadly, that it had simply wiped the planet clean of us and started over," Gregg said. "That town today…" He shook his head. "I read the transcript you phoned in. It brought back everything. I started to get furious all over again. You've a gift for making people respond to what you're feeling, Sara. You'll do more in the long run that I will. Maybe you can do something to stop prejudice; here, and with people like Leo Barnett back home."

"Thanks." His hand was very near hers. She touched it softly with her own; his fingers snared hers and didn't let her go. The emotions of the day, of the entire trip, were threatening to overwhelm her; her eyes stung with tears. "Gregg," she said very softly, "I'm not sure I like the way I feel."

"About today? The jokers?"

She took a breath. The failing sun was warm on her face. "That, yes." She paused, wondering if she should say more. "And about you too," she added at last.

He didn't say anything. He waited, holding her hand and watching the nightfall. "It's changed so fast, the way I've seen you," Sara continued after a time. "When I thought that you and Andrea…" She paused, her breath trembling. "You care, you hurt when you see the way people are treated. God, I used to detest you. I saw everything that Senator Hartmann did in that light. I saw you as false and empty of compassion. Now that's gone, and I watch your face when you talk about the jokers and what we have to do to change things, and…"

She pulled him around so that they faced each other. She looked up at him, not caring that he'd see that she'd been crying. "I'm not used to holding things inside. I like it when everything's out in the open, so forgive me if this isn't something I should say. Where you're concerned, I think I'm very vulnerable, Gregg, and I'm afraid of that."

"I don't intend to hurt you, Sara." His hand came up to her face. Softly he brushed moisture from the corner of her eyes." Then tell me where we're heading, you and I. I need to know what the rules are."

"I…" He stopped. Sara, watching his face, saw an inner conflict. His head came down; she felt his warm, sweet breath on her cheek. His hand cupped her chin. She let him lift her face up, her eyes closing.

The kiss was soft and very gentle. Fragile. Sara turned her face away, and he brought her to him, pressing her body to his. "Ellen.. ." Sara began.

"She knows," Gregg whispered. His fingers brushed her hair. "I've told her. She doesn't mind."

"I didn't want this to happen."

"It did. It's okay," he told her.

She pushed away from him and was glad when he simply let her go. "So what do we do about it?"

The sun had gone behind the hills; Gregg was only a shadow, his features barely visible to her. "It's your decision, Sara. Ellen and I always take a double suite; I use the second room as my office. I'm going there now. If you want, Billy will bring you up. You can trust him, no matter what anyone's told you about him. He knows how to be discreet."

For a moment, his hand stroked her cheek. Then he turned, walking quickly away. Sara watched him speak briefly to Ray, and then he went through the doors into the hotel's lobby. Ray remained outside.

Sara waited until full darkness had settled over the valley and the air had begun to cool from the day's heat, knowing that she'd already made the decision but not certain she wanted to follow it through. She waited, half looking for some sign in the African night. Then she went to Ray. His green eyes, set disturbingly off-line in an oddly mismatched face, seemed to look at her appraisingly.

"I'd like to go upstairs," she said.

FROM THE JOURNAL OF XAVIER DESMOND

JANUARY 16/ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA:

A hard day in a stricken land. The local Red Cross representatives took some of us out to see some of their famine relief efforts. Of course we'd all been aware of the drought and the starvation long before we got here, but seeing it on television is one thing, and being here amidst it is quite another.

A day like this makes me acutely aware of my own failures and shortcomings. Since the cancer took hold of me, I've lost a good deal of weight (some unsuspecting friends have even told me how good I look), but moving among these people made me very self-conscious of the small paunch that remains. They were starving before my eyes, while our plane waited to take us back to Addis Ababa… to our hotel, another reception, and no doubt a gourmet Ethiopian meal. The guilt was overwhelming, as was the sense of helplessness.

I believe we all felt it. I cannot conceive of how Hiram Worchester must have felt. To his credit he looked sick as he moved among the victims, and at one point he was trembling so badly he had to sit in the shade for a while by himself. The sweat was just pouring off him. But he got up again afterward, his face white and grim, and used his gravity power to help them unload the relief provisions we had brought with us.

So many people have contributed so much and worked so hard for the relief effort, but here it seems like nothing. The only realities in the relief camps are the skeletal bodies with their massive swollen bellies, the dead eyes of the children, and the endless heat pouring down from above onto this baked, parched landscape.

Parts of this day will linger in my memory for a long time-or at least as long a time as I have left to me. Father Squid gave the last rites to a dying woman who had a Coptic cross around her neck. Peregrine and her cameraman recorded much of the scene on film for her documentary, but after a short time she had had enough and returned to the plane to wait for us. I've heard that she was so sick she lost her breakfast.

And there was a young mother, no more than seventeen or eighteen surely, so gaunt that you could count every rib, with eyes incredibly ancient. She was holding her baby to a withered, empty breast. The child had been dead long enough to begin to smell, but she would not let them take it from her. Dr. Tacbyon took control of her mind and held her still while he gently pried the child's body from her grasp and carried it away. He handed it to one of the relief workers and then sat on the ground and began to weep, his body shaking with each sob.

Mistral ended the day in tears as well. En route to the refugee camp, she had changed into her blue-and-white flying costume. The girl is young, an ace, and a powerful one; no doubt she thought she could help. When she called the winds to her, the huge cape she wears fastened at wrist and ankle ballooned out like a parachute and pulled her up into the sky. Even the strangeness of the jokers walking between them had not awakened much interest in the inward-looking eyes of the refugees, but when Mistral took flight, most of them-not, all, but most-turned to watch, and their gaze followed her upward into that high, hot blueness until finally they sank back into the lethargy of despair. I think Mistral had dreamed that somehow her wind powers could push the clouds around and make the rains come to heal this land. And what a beautiful, vainglorious dream it was…

She flew for almost two hours, sometimes so high and far that she vanished from our sight, but for all her ace powers, all she could raise was a dust devil. When she gave up at last, she was exhausted, her sweet young face grimy with dust and sand, her eyes red and swollen.

Just before we left, an atrocity underscored the depth of the despair here. A tall youth with acne scars on his cheeks attacked a fellow refugee-went berserk, gouged out a woman's eye, and actually ate it while the people watched without comprehension. Ironically we'd met the boy briefly when we'd first arrived-he'd spent a year in a Christian school and had a few words of English. He seemed stronger and healthier than most of the others we saw. When Mistral flew, he jumped to his feet and called out after her. "Jetboy!" he said in a very clear, strong voice. Father Squid and Senator Hartmann tried to talk to him, but his English-language skills were limited to a few nouns, including "chocolate,"

"television," and "Jesus Christ." Still, the boy was more alive than mosthis eyes went wide at Father Squid, and he put out a hand and touched his facial tendrils wonderingly and actually smiled when the senator patted his shoulder and told him that we were here to help, though I don't think he understood a word. We were all shocked when we saw them carrying him away, still screaming, those gaunt brown cheeks smeared with blood.

A hideous day all around. This evening back in Addis Ababa our driver swung us by the docks, where relief shipment stand two stories high in some places. Hartmann was in a cold rage. If anyone can make this criminal government take action and feed its starving people, he is the one. I pray for him, or would, if I believed in a god… but what kind of god would permit the obscenities we have seen on this trip…

Africa is as beautiful a land as any on the face of the earth. I should write of all the beauty we have seen this past month. Victoria Falls, the snows of Kilimanjaro, a thousand zebra moving through the tall grass as if the wind had stripes. I've walked among the ruins of proud ancient kingdoms whose very names were unknown to me, held pygmy artifacts in my hand, seen the face of a bushman light up with curiosity instead of horror when he beheld me for the first time. Once during a visit to a game preserve I woke early, and when I looked out of my window at the dawn, I saw that two huge African elephants had come to the very building, and Radha stood between them, naked in the early morning light, while they touched her with their trunks. I turned away then; it seemed somehow a private moment.

Beauty, yes, in the land and in so many of the people, whose faces are full of warmth and compassion.

Still, for all that beauty, Africa has depressed and saddened me considerably, and I will be glad to leave. The camp was only part of it. Before Ethiopia there was Kenya and South Africa. It is the wrong time of year for Thanksgiving, but the scenes we have witnessed these past few weeks have put me more in the mood for giving thanks than I've ever felt during America's smug November celebration of football and gluttony. Even jokers have things to give thanks for. I knew that already, but Africa has brought it home to me forcefully.

South Africa was a grim way to begin this leg of the trip. The same hatreds and prejudices exist at home of course, but whatever our faults we are at least civilized enough to maintain a facade of tolerance, brotherhood, and equality under the law. Once I might have called that mere sophistry, but that was before I tasted the reality of Capetown and Pretoria, where all the ugliness is out in the open, enshrined by law, enforced by an iron fist whose velvet glove has grown thin and worn indeed. It is argued that at least South Africa hates openly, while America hides behind a hypocritical facade. Perhaps, perhaps… but if so, I will take the hypocrisy and thank you for it.

I suppose that was Africa's first lesson, that there are worse places in the world than Jokertown. The second was that there are worse things than repression, and Kenya taught us that.

Like most of the other nations of Central and East Africa, Kenya was spared the worst of the wild card. Some spores would have reached these lands through airborne diffusion, more through the seaports, arriving via contaminated cargo in holds that had been poorly sterilized or never sterilized at all. CARE packages are looked on with deep suspicion in much of the world, and with good reason, and many captains have become quite adept at concealing the fact that their last port of call was New York City.

When one moves inland, wild card cases become almost nonexistent. There are those who say that the late Idi Amin was some kind of insane joker-ace, with strength as great as Troll or the Harlem Hammer, and the ability to transform into some kind of were-creature, a leopard or a lion or a hawk. Amin himself claimed to be able to ferret out his enemies telepathically, and those few enemies who survived say that he was a cannibal who felt human flesh was necessary to maintain his powers. All this is the stuff of rumor and propaganda, however, and whether Amin was a joker, an ace, or a pathetically deluded nat madman, he is assuredly dead, and in this corner of the world, documented cases of the wild card virus are vanishingly hard to locate.

But Kenya and the surrounding nations have their own viral nightmare. If the wild card is a chimera here, AIDS is an epidemic. While the president was hosting Senator Hartmann and most of the tour, a few of us were on an exhausting visit to a half-dozen clinics in rural Kenya, hopping from one village to another by helicopter. They assigned us only one battered chopper, and that at Tachyon s insistence. The government would have much preferred that we spend our time lecturing at the university, meeting with educators and political leaders, touring game preserves and museums.

Most of my fellow delegates were only too glad to comply. The wild card is forty years old, and we have grown used to it-but AIDS, that is a new terror in the world, and one that we have only begun to understand. At home it is thought of as a homosexual affliction, and I confess that I am guilty of thinking of it that way myself, but here in Africa, that belief is given the lie. Already there are more AIDS victims on this continent alone than have ever been infected by the Takisian xenovirus since its release over Manhattan forty years ago.

And AIDS seems a crueler demon somehow. The wild card kills ninety percent of those who draw it, often in ways that are terrible and painful, but the distance between ninety percent and one hundred is not insignificant if you are among the ten who live. It is the distance between life and death, between hope and despair. Some claim that it's better to die than to live as a joker, but you will not find me among their number. If my own life has not always been happy, nonetheless I have memories I cherish and accomplishments I am proud of. I am glad to have lived, and I do not want to die. I've accepted my death, but that does not mean I welcome it. I have too much unfinished business. Like Robert Tomlin, I have not yet seen The Jolson Story. None of us have.

In Kenya we saw whole villages that are dying. Alive, smiling, talking, capable of eating and defecating and making love and even babies, alive to all practical purposes-and yet dead. Those who draw the Black Queen may die in the agony of unspeakable transformations, but there are drugs for pain, and at least they die quickly. AIDS is less merciful.

We have much in common, jokers and AIDS victims.

Before I left Jokertown, we had been planning for a JADL fund-raising benefit at the Funhouse in late May-a major event with as much big-name entertainment as we could book. After Kenya I cabled instructions back to New York to arrange for the proceeds of the benefit to be split with a suitable AIDS victims' group. We pariahs need to stick together. Perhaps I can still erect a few necessary bridges before my own Black Queen lies face up on the table.

DOWN BY THE NILE

Gail Gerstner-Miller

The torches in the temple burned slowly, steadily, occasionally flickering when someone passed by. Their light illuminated the faces of the people gathered in a small antechamber off the main hall. They were all present, those who looked like ordinary people, and the others who were extraordinary: the cat woman, the jackal-headed man, those with wings, crocodile skin, and bird heads.

Osiris the far-seer spoke. "The winged one comes."

"Is she one of us?"

"Will she help us?"

"Not directly," Osiris answered. "But within her is that which will have the power to do great things. For now we must wait."

"We have waited a very long time," said Anubis the jackal. "A little longer will not make a difference."

The others murmured in agreement. The living gods settled back to patiently wait.

The room in Luxor's Winter Palace Hotel was sweltering, and it was still only morning. The ceiling fan stirred the sluggish air tiredly and sweat ran in tickling rivulets over Peregrine's rib cage and breasts as she lay propped up in bed, watching josh McCoy slip a new film cassette into his camera. He looked at her and smiled.

"We'd better get going," he said.

She' smiled back lazily from the bed, her wings moving gently, bringing more coolness into the room than the slowmoving fan.

"If you say so." She stood, stretched lithely, and watched McCoy watch her. She walked by him, dancing out of his way as he reached for her. "Haven't you had enough yet?" she asked teasingly as she took a clean pair of jeans from her suitcase. She wiggled into them, batting her wings to keep her balance. "The hotel laundry must have washed these in boiling water." She took a deep breath and pulled on the stubborn zipper. "There."

"They look great, though," McCoy said. He put his arms around her from behind, and Peregrine shivered as he kissed the back of her neck and caressed her breasts, still sensitive from their morning lovemaking.

"I thought you said we had to get going." She settled back against him.

McCoy sighed and pulled away reluctantly. "We do. We have to meet the others in"-he checked his wristwatch"three minutes."

"Too bad," Peregrine said, smiling mischievously. " I think I could be coaxed into spending all day in bed."

"Work awaits," McCoy said, rummaging for his clothes as Peregrine put on a tank top. "And I'm anxious to see if these self-proclaimed living gods can do all they claim."

She watched him as he dressed, admiring his lean, muscular body. He was blond and fit, a documentary filmmaker and cameraman, and a wonderful lover.

"Got everything? Don't forget your hat. The sun's fierce, even if it is winter."

"I've got everything I need," Peregrine said with a sidelong glance. "Let's go."

McCoy turned the DO NOT DISTURB sign hanging on the door handle to the other side, then closed and locked the door. The hotel corridor was quiet and deserted. Tachyon must have heard their muffled footsteps, because he poked his head out as they passed his room.

"Morning, Tachy," Peregrine said. "Josh, Father Squid, Hiram, and I are going to catch the afternoon ceremony at the Temple of the Living Gods. Want to come along?"

"Good morning, my dear." Tachyon, looking resplendent in a white brocade dressing gown, nodded distantly to McCoy. "No, thank you. IT see everything I need to see at the meeting tonight. Right now it's much too hot to venture out." Tachyon looked closely at her. "Are you feeling all right? You look pale."

" I think the heat's getting to me too," Peregrine replied. "That and the food and water. Or rather the microbes that live in them."

"We don't need you getting sick," Tachyon said seriously. "Come in and let me do a quick examination." He fanned his face. "We'll find out what's bothering you, and it will give me something useful to do with my day."

"We don't have the time right now. The others are waiting for us-"

"Peri," McCoy interrupted, a concerned look on his face, "it'll only take a few minutes. I'll go downstairs and tell Hiram and Father Squid you've been delayed." She hesitated. "Please," he added.

"Oh, all right." She smiled at him. "I'll see you downstairs. " McCoy nodded and continued down the hallway as Peregrine followed Tachyon into his ornately appointed suite. The sitting room was spacious, and much cooler than the room she shared with McCoy. Of course, she reflected, they had generated a lot of heat themselves that morning.

"Wow," she commented, glancing around the luxuriously decorated room. "I must have gotten the servants' quarters."

"It's really something, isn't it? I especially like the bed." Tachyon pointed to a large four-poster draped with white netting that was visible through the bedroom's open door. "You have to climb steps to get into it."

"What fun!"

He glanced at her mischievously. "Want to try it out?"

"No, thanks. I've already had my morning sex."

"Peri," Tachyon complained in a teasing tone, "I don't understand why you're attracted to that man." He retrieved his red leather medical bag from the closet. "Sit there," he said, indicating a plush velvet wingback chair, "and open your mouth. Say ahhh."

"Ahh," Peregrine repeated obediently after seating herself. Tachyon peered down her throat. "Well, that looks nice and healthy." He swiftly examined her ears and looked into her eyes. "Seems okay. Tell me about your symptoms." He removed his stethoscope from his bag. "Nausea, vomiting, dizziness?"

"Some nausea and vomiting."

"When? After you eat?"

"No, not really. Anytime."

"Do you get sick every day?"

"No. Maybe a couple times a week."

"Hmmmm." He lifted her shirt up and held his stethoscope against her left breast. She jumped at the touch of cold steel against her warm flesh. "Sorry… heartbeat is strong and regular. How long has this vomiting been occurring?"

"A couple of months, I guess. Since before the tour started. I thought it was stress related."

He frowned. "You've been vomiting for a couple of months, and you didn't see fit to consult me? I am your doctor."

She squirmed uncomfortably. "Tachy, you've been so busy. I didn't want to bother you. I think it's all the traveling, the food, different water, different standards of hygiene."

"Allow me to make the diagnosis, if you please, young lady. Are you getting enough sleep, or is your new boyfriend keeping you up all hours?"

"I'm getting to bed early every night," she assured him. "I'm certain you are," he said drily. "But that wasn't what I asked. Are you getting enough sleep?"

Peregrine blushed. "Of course I am."

Tachyon replaced his equipment in his bag. "How's your menstrual cycle? Any problems?"

"Well, I haven't had a period in a while, but that's not unusual, even though I'm on the pill."

"Peri, please try to be a little more precise. How long is `a while'?"

She bit her lip and waved her wings gently. " I don't know, a couple of months, I guess."

"Hmmmmm. Come here." He led her into his bedroom, and her wings instinctively curled over her body. The air conditioner was going full blast and it felt about twenty degrees cooler. Tachyon gestured at the bed. "Take off your jeans and lie down."

"Are you sure this is a medical examination?" she asked him teasingly.

"Do you want me to call a chaperon?"

"Don't be silly. I trust you!"

"You shouldn't," Tachyon leered. He raised an eyebrow as Peregrine kicked off her Nikes and peeled off her jeans. "Don't you wear underwear?"

"Never. It gets in the way. Do you want me to take off my shirt too?"

"If you do, you may never leave this room!" Tachyon threatened.

She laughed and kissed his cheek. "What's the big deal? You've examined me a million times."

"In the proper surroundings, with you in a medical gown and a nurse in the room," he retorted. "Never with you naked, almost naked," he corrected, "in my bedroom." He tossed her a towel. "Here, cover yourself."

Tachyon admired her long, tanned legs and shapely buttocks as she arranged herself on his bed, draping the towel discreetly over her hips. The blast of refrigerated air coming from the laboring air conditioner raised goosebumps all over her, but Tachyon ignored them.

"Your hands better be warm," Peregrine warned as he knelt next to her.

"Just like my heart," Tachyon said, palpating her stomach. "Does this hurt?"

"No."

"Here? Here?"

She shook her head.

"Don't move," he ordered. "I need my stethoscope." This time he warmed the metal head with his hand before placing it on her stomach. "Have you had much indigestion?"

"Some."

A strange expression crossed Tachyon's foxy face as he assisted her off the bed. "Get your jeans on. I'll take a blood sample, and then you can go play tourist with the others."

He got the syringe ready while she finished tying her track shoes. Peregrine held out her arm, winced as he expertly raised the vein, swabbed the skin above it, inserted the syringe, and withdrew the blood. She watched in fascination and suddenly realized that the sight of blood was making her ill.

"Shit." She ran into the bedroom, leaving behind a flurry of feathers, and leaned over the toilet vomiting up her room service breakfast and what was left of last night's dinner and champagne.

Tachyon held her shoulders while she was sick, and as she sagged against the tub, exhausted, wiped her face with a warm, wet washcloth.

"Are you all right?"

"I think so." He helped her to her feet. "It was the blood. Although the sight of blood has never bothered me before."

"Peregrine, I don't think that you should go sight-seeing this morning. The place for you is bed, alone, with a cup of hot tea."

"No," she protested. "I'm fine. It's just all this traveling. If I feel sick, josh will bring me back here."

"I'll never understand women." He shook his head sadly. "To prefer a mere human when you could have me. Come here and I'll bandage that hole I put in your arm." He busied himself with sterile gauze and tape.

Peregrine smiled gently. "You're sweet, Doctor, but your heart is buried in the past. I'm getting to the point now that I'm ready for a permanent relationship, and I don't think you would give me that."

"And he can?"

She shrugged, her wings moving with her shoulders. "I hope so. We'll see, won't we?"

She picked up her bag and hat from the chair and walked to the door.

"Peri, I wish you would reconsider."

"What? Sleeping with you or sight-seeing?"

"Sight-seeing, wicked one."

"I'm fine now. Please stop worrying. Honestly, I've never had so many people worrying about me as on this trip."

"That's because, my dear, under your New York glamour, you're incredibly vulnerable. You make people want to protect you." He opened the door for her. "Be careful with McCoy, Peri. I don't want you to get hurt."

She kissed him as she left the room. Her wings brushed the doorway and a flurry of fine feathers fell to the floor. "Damn," she said, stooping and picking one up. "I seem to be losing a lot of these lately."

"Indeed?" Tachyon looked curious. "No, don't bother with them. The maid will clean them up."

"Okay. Good-bye. Have fun with your tests."

Tachyon's eyes were worried as they followed Peregrine's graceful body down the hallway. He closed the door, one of her feathers in his hand.

"This doesn't look good," he said aloud as he tickled his chin with her feather. "Not good at all."

Peregrine spotted McCoy in the lobby talking to a stocky, dark man in a white uniform. Her two other companions were lounging nearby. Hiram Worchester, she reflected, was looking a little haggard. Hiram, one of Peregrine's oldest and dearest friends, was dressed in one of his custom-made tropical-weight suits, but it hung loosely on him, almost as if he had lost some of his three hundred plus pounds. Perhaps he was feeling the strain of constant traveling as much as she was. Father Squid, the kindly pastor of the Church of Jesus Christ, joker, made Hiram look almost svelte. He was as tall as a normal man and twice as broad. His face was round and gray, his eyes were covered by nictitating membranes, and a cluster of tentacles hung down over his mouth like a constantly twitching mustache. He always reminded her of one of Lovecraft's fictional Deep Ones, but he was actually much nicer.

"Peri," said McCoy. "This is Mr. Ahmed. He's with the Tourist Police. Mr. Ahmed, this is Peregrine."

"This is a pleasure," said the guide, bending to kiss her hand.

Peregrine responded with a smile and then greeted Hiram and the priest. She turned to josh, who was watching her closely. "You okay?" Josh asked. "You look awful. What did Tachyon do, take a quart of blood?"

"Of course not. I'm fine," she said, following Ahmed and the others to the waiting limo. And if I keep saying that, she said to herself, maybe I'll even believe it.

"What on earth?" exclaimed Peregrine as they stopped in front of a metal-and-glass guard station. There were two heavily armed men inside the box, which stood next to a high wall that surrounded several acres of desert that was the Temple of the Living Gods. The whitewashed wall was topped with strands of barbed wire and patrolled by men dressed in blue and armed with machine guns.. Video cameras tirelessly surveyed the perimeter. The effect of the pure white wall against the shining sand and bright blue Egyptian sky was dazzling.

"Because of the Nur," explained Ahmed, pointing to the line of tourists waiting to enter the temple grounds, "everyone has to pass through two detectors, one for metal and the other for nitrates. These fanatics are determined to destroy the temple and the gods. They have already made several attacks against the temple, but so far they've been stopped before doing much damage."

"Who are the Nur?" Father Squid asked.

"They are the followers of Nur al-Allah, a false prophet determined to unite all Islamic sects under himself," Ahmed said. "He has decided that Allah desires the destruction of all those deformed by the wild card virus, and so the Temple of the Living Gods has become one of his sect's targets."

"Do we have to wait in line with the tourists?" Hiram broke in peevishly. "After all, we are here by special invitation."

"Oh, no, Mr. Worchester," Ahmed hurriedly answered. "The VIP gate is this way. You will go right through. If you please…"

As they lined up behind Ahmed, McCoy whispered to Peregrine, "I've never been through a VIP gate, only press gates."

"Stick with me," she promised. "I'll take you lots of places you've never been before."

"You already have."

The VIP gate had its own metal and nitrate detectors. They passed through, watched closely by security guards dressed in the blue robes worn by adherents of the living gods, who thoroughly examined Peregrine's bag and McCoy's camera. An elderly man approached as McCoy's equipment was being returned. He was short, deeply tanned and healthy looking, with gray eyes, white hair, and a magnificant white beard that contrasted nicely with his flowing blue robes.

"I am Opet Kemel," he announced. His voice was deep, mellifluous, and he knew how to use it to demand attention and respect. " I am the head priest of the Temple of the Living Gods. We are gratifed that you could grace us with your presence." He looked from Father Squid to Peregrine, Hiram, and McCoy, and then back to Peregrine. "Yes, my children will be glad that you have come."

"Do you mind if we film the ceremony?" asked Peregrine. "Not at all." He gestured expansively. "Come this way and I'll show you the best seats in the house."

"Can you give us some background on the temple?" Peregrine asked.

"Certainly," Kemel replied as they followed him. "The Port Said wild card epidemic of 1948 caused many `mutations,' I believe they're called, among them of course, the celebrated Nasr-Al Haziz, Khof and other great heroes of past years. Many men of Luxor were working on the Said docks at the time and were also affected by the virus. Some passed it on to their children and grandchildren."

"The true meaning of these mutations struck me over a decade ago when I saw a young boy make clouds drop much-needed rain over his father's fields. I realized that he was an incarnation of Min, the ancient god of crops, and that his presence was a harbinger of the old religion."

"I was an archaeologist then and had just discovered an intact temple complex"-he pointed at their feet "beneath the ground right where we stand. I convinced Min of his destiny and found others to join us: Osiris, a man pronounced dead who returned to life with visions of the future; Anubis, Taurt, Thoth… Through the years they have all come to the Temple of the Living Gods to listen to the prayers of their petitioners and perform miracles."

"Exactly what kind of miracles?" Peregrine asked. "Many kinds. For example, if a woman with child is having a difficult time, she will pray to Taurt, goddess of pregnancy and childbirth. Taurt will assure that all will be fine. And it will be. Thoth settles disputes, knowing who tells the truth and who lies. Min, as I have said, can make it rain. Osiris sees bits of the future. It's all quite simple."

"I see." Kernel's claims seemed reasonable, given the abilities that Peregrine knew the virus could waken in people. "How many gods are there?"

"Perhaps twenty-five. Some cannot really do anything, Kemel said in confiding tones. "They are what you call jokers. However, they look like the old gods-Bast, for example, is covered with fur and has claws-and they give great comfort to the people who come to pray to them. But see for yourselves. The ceremony is almost ready to begin. He led them past groups of tourists posing next to statues of the gods, booths that sold everything from Kodak film, key rings, and Coca-Cola to replicas of antique jewelry and little statuettes of the gods themselves. They went past the booths, through a narrow doorway into a sandstone block wall set flush against a cliff face, and then down worn stone steps. Goosebumps rose on Peregrine's skin. It was cool inside the structure, which was lit by electric lights that resembled flickering torches. The stairwell was beautifully decorated with bas-relief carvings of everyday life in ancient Egypt, intricately detailed hieroglyphic inscriptions, and representations of animals, birds, gods, and goddesses.

"What a wonderful job of restoration!" Peregrine exclaimed, enchanted by the beautiful freshness of the reliefs they passed.

"Actually," Kernel explained, "everything here is just as it was when I discovered it twenty years ago. We added some modern conveniences, like the electricity, of course." He smiled.

They entered a large chamber, an amphitheater with a stage faced by banked stone benches. The walls of the chamber were lined with glass cases displaying artifacts that, Kemel said, had been discovered in the temple.

McCoy meticulously recorded them, shooting several minutes of footage of painted wooden statues that looked as fresh as if they had been painted the day before, necklaces, collars, and pectorals of lapis lazuli, emerald, and gold, chalices carved of translucent alabaster, unguent jars of jade intricately carved in the shapes of animals, elaborately inlaid tiny chests, and gaming boards, and chairs

… The exquisite treasures of a dead civilization were displayed before them, a civilization that, Peregrine reflected, Opet Kemel seemed, with his Temple of the Living Gods, to restore.

"Here we are." Kemel indicated a group of benches at the front of the amphitheater close to the stage, bowed slightly, and departed.

It didn't take long for the amphitheater to fill. The lights dimmed and the theater became silent. A spotlight shone on the stage, strange music that sounded as old and eerie as the temple itself softly played, and the procession of the living gods began. There was Osiris, the god of death and resurrection, and his consort Isis. Behind him came Hapi, carrying a golden standard. Thoth, the ibis-headed judge, followed with his pet baboon. Shu and Tefnut, brother and sister, god and goddess of the air, floated above the floor. Sobek followed them with his dark, cracked crocodile skin and snoutlike mouth. Hathor, the great mother, had the horns of a cow. Bast, the cat-goddess, moved delicately, her face and body covered with tawny fur, claws protruding from her fingers. Min looked like an ordinary man, but a small cloud hovered above him, following him like an obedient puppy wherever he went. Bes, the handsome dwarf, did cartwheels and walked on his hands. Anubis, the god of the underworld, had the head of a jackal. Horus had falconlike wings…

On and on they came, crossing the stage slowly and then seating themselves on gilded thrones as they were presented to the audience in English, French, and Arabic.

After the introductions the gods began to demonstrate their abilities. Shu and Tefnut were gliding in the air, playing tag with Min's cloud, when the unexpected, deafening sound of gunfire shattered the peaceful scene, evoking screams of terror from the spectators trapped in the amphitheater. Hundreds of tourists leapt up and milled about like terrified cattle. Some bolted for the doors at the back, and the stairways soon became clogged by panicked, shrieking people. McCoy, who had pushed Peregrine to the ground and covered her with his body at the first sound of gunfire, dragged her behind one of the large, elaborately carved stone pillars flanking the stage.

"You okay?" he gasped, peering around the column at the sounds of madness and destruction, his camera whirring. "Uh-huh. What is it?"

"Three guys with machine guns." His hands were steady and there was an edge of excitement in his voice. "They don t seem to be shooting at the people, just the walls."

A bullet whined off the pillar. The sound of shattering glass filled the air as the terrorists destroyed the cases filled with the priceless artifacts and raked the beautifully carved walls with machine-gun fire.

The living gods had fled when the first shot sounded. Only one remained behind, the man who had been introduced as Min. As Peregrine peeked around the pillar, a cloud appeared from nowhere to hang over the terrorists' heads. It started to rain torrents upon them, and slipping and sliding on the wet stone floor, they scattered, trying to find cover from the blinding cloudburst. Peregrine, digging in her bag for her metal talons, noticed Hiram Worchester standing alone, a look of fierce concentration on his face. One of the attackers gave a distressed shout as his gun slipped from his hands and landed on his foot. He collapsed, screaming, blood spattering from his shattered limb. Hiram turned his gaze to the second terrorist as Peregrine pulled on her guantlets.

"I'm going to try to get above them," she told McCoy. "Be careful," he said, intent on filming the action.

She flexed her fingers, now encased in leather gauntlets tipped with razor-edged titanium claws. Her wings quivered in anticipation as she took a half-dozen running steps, then beat thunderously as she hurled herself forward and launched herself into the air-and fell jarringly to the floor.

She caught herself on her hands and knees, skinning her palms on the rough stones and banging her left knee so hard that it went numb after an initial stab of excruciatingly sharp pain.

For a long second Peregrine refused to believe what had happened. She crouched on the floor, bullets whining around her, then sood and beat her wings again, hard. But nothing happpened. She couldn't fly. She stood in the middle of the floor, ignoring the gunfire around her, trying to figure out what was happening, what she was doing wrong.

"Peregrine," McCoy shouted, "get down!" The third terrorist aimed at her, screaming incoherently. A look of horror suddenly contorted his face and he swooped toward the ceiling. His gun slipped out of his hand and smashed to the floor. Hiram casually let the man drop thirty feet as the other terrorists were clubbed to the floor by temple security guards. Kemel bustled up, a look of incredulous horror on his face.

"Thank the Merciful Ones you weren't injured!" he cried, rushing to Peregrine, who was still dazed and confused at what had hapened to her.

"Yeah," she said distantly, then her eyes focused on the walls of the chamber. "But look at all the damage!"

A small wooden statue, gilded and inlaid with faience and precious stones, lay in fragments at Peregrine's feet. She stopped and picked it up gently, but the fragile wood turned to dust at her touch, leaving behind a twisted shell of gold and jewels. "It survived for so long, only to be destroyed by this madness…" she murmured softly.

"Ah, yes." Kemel shrugged. "Well, the walls can be restored, and we have more artifacts to put into display cases."

"Who were those people?" Father Squid asked, imperturbably brushing dust off of his cassock.

"The Nor," Kemel said. He spat on the floor. "Fanatics!" McCoy rushed up to them, his camera slung over his shoulder. "I thought I told you to be careful," he reproached Peregrine. "Standing in the middle of a room with idiots blazing away with machine guns is not my idea of careful! Thank God that Hiram was watching that guy."

"I know," Peregrine said, "but it shouldn't have happened that way. I was trying to get airborne, but I couldn't. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. It's strange:" She pushed her long hair out of her eyes, looking troubled. "I don't know what it is."

The chamber was still in turmoil. The terrorists could have slaughtered hundreds if they had chosen to shoot people rather than the symbols of the old religion, but as it was, several score of tourists had been hit by stray bullets or injured themselves trying to escape. Temple security guards were trying to help those who were hurt, but there were so many of them lying crumpled on the stone benches, wailing, crying, screaming, bleeding…

Peregrine turned from McCoy and the others, nauseated to the point of vomiting, but there was nothing in her stomach to throw up. McCoy held her as she was racked by dry heaves. When she stopped shuddering, she leaned against him gratefully.

He took her hand gently. "We'd better get you to Dr. Tachyon."

On the way back to the Winter Palace Hotel, McCoy put his arm around her and drew her to him. "Everything is going to be okay," he soothed. "You're probably just tired."

"What if it isn't that? What if something is really wrong with me? What," she asked in a horror-striken whisper, "if I'll never fly again?" She buried her face against McCoy's shoulder as the others looked on in mute sympathy. Her tears soaked through his shirt as he stroked her long brown hair. "Everything will be all right, Peri. I promise."

"Hmmm, I should have expected that," Tachyon said as Peregrine tearfully told him her story.

"What do you mean?" asked McCoy. "What's wrong with her?"

Tachyon eyed josh McCoy coldly. "It's rather private. Between a woman and her physician. So…"

"Anything that concerns Peri concerns me."

"It's that way, is it?" Tachyon looked at McCoy hostilely. "It's all right, josh," said Peregrine. She hugged him. "If that's the way you want it." McCoy turned to go. "I'll wait for you in the bar."

Tachyon closed the door behind him. "Now, sit down and wipe your eyes. It's nothing serious, really. You're losing your feathers because of hormonal changes. Your mind has recognized your condition and has blocked your power as a means of protection."

"Condition? Protection? What's wrong with me?" Peregrine perched on the edge of the sofa. Tachyon sat next to her and took her cold hands in his.

"It's nothing that won't be cleared up in a few months."

His lilac eyes looked straight into her blue ones. "You're pregnant."

"What!" Peregrine sank back against the sofa cushions. "That's impossible! How can I be pregnant? I've been on the pill forever!" She sat up again. "What will NBC say? I wonder if this is covered in my contract?"

"I suggest you stop taking the pill and all other drugs, including alcohol. After all, you want a happy, healthy baby."

"Tachy, this is ridiculous! I can't be pregnant! Are you sure?"

"Quite. And judging from your symptoms, I'd say you were about four months along." He nodded at the door. "How will your lover feel about being a father?"

"Josh isn't the father. We've only been together for a couple of weeks." Her mouth dropped open. "Oh, my God!"

"What is it?" Tachyon asked, concern in his voice and on his face.

She got off the sofa and began walking around the room, her wings fluttering absently. "Doctor, what would happen to the baby if both parents carried the wild card? Joker mother, ace father, that sort of thing?" She stopped by the marble mantel and fiddled with the dusty knickknacks set on it. "Why?" Tachyon asked suspiciously. "If McCoy isn't the father, who is? An ace?"

"Yeah."

"Who?"

She sighed and put aside the figurine she was playing with. " I don't think it really matters. I'll never see him again. It was just one night." She smiled in recollection. "What a night!"

Tachyon suddenly remembered the dinner at Aces High on Wild Card Day. Peregrine had left the restaurant with"Fortunato?" he shouted. "Fortunato's the father? You went to bed with that, that pimp? Have you no taste? You won't sleep with me, but you'll lay with him!" He stopped shouting and took several deep breaths. He walked to the room's bar and poured himself a brandy. Peregrine looked at him in amazement.

"I cannot believe it," Tachyon repeated, swallowing most of the glass. " I have so much more to offer."

Right, she thought. Another notch on your bedpost. But then maybe I was just that for Fortunato too.

"Let's face it, Doctor," Peregrine said flippantly, angered by his self-centeredness. "He's the only man I've ever screwed that made me glow. It was absolutely incredible." She smiled inside at the furious look on Tachyon's face. "But that's not important now. What about the baby?"

A multitude of thoughts dashed through her mind. I'll have to redo my apartment, she thought. I hope they've fixed the roof. A baby can't live in a house without a roof. Maybe I should move upstate. That would probably be better for a child. She smiled to herself. A big house with a large lawn, trees, and a garden. And dogs. I never thought about having a baby. Will I be a good mother? This is a good time to find out. I'm thirty-two and the old biological clock is ticking away.

But how did it happen? The pill had always worked before. Fortunato's powers, she realized, are based on his potent sexuality. Perhaps they somehow circumvented the contraceptives. Fortunato… and josh! How would he react to the news? What would he think?

Tachyon's voice broke into her reverie. "Have you heard a word I've said?" he demanded.

Peregrine blushed. "I'm sorry. I was thinking about being a mother."

He groaned. "Peri, it's not that simple," he said gently. "Why not?"

"Both you and that man have the wild card. Therefore the child will have a ninety percent chance of dying before or at birth. A nine percent chance of being a joker, and one percent, one percent," he emphasized, "of being an ace." He drank more brandy. "The odds are terrible, terrible. The child has no chance. None at all."

Peregrine began pacing back and forth. "Is there something you can do, some sort of test, that can tell if the baby is all right now?"

"Well, yes, I can do an ultrasound: It's abysmally primitive, but it'll tell if the child is developing normally or not. If the baby is not, I suggest-no, I urge you, very strongly, to have an abortion. There are already enough jokers in this world," he said bitterly.

"And if the baby is normal?"

Tachyon -sighed. "The virus often doesn't express itself until birth. If the child survives the birth trauma without the virus manifesting, then you wait. Wait and wonder what will happen, and when it will happen. Peregrine, if you allow the child to be born, you will spend your whole life in agony, worrying and trying to protect it from everything. Consider the stresses of childhood and adolescence, any one of which might trigger the virus. Is that fair to you? To your child? To the man waiting for you downstairs? Providing," Tachyon added coldly, "he still wants to be a part of your life when he learns of this."

"I'll have to take my chances with josh," she said swiftly, coming again to the thought that dominated her mind. "Can you do the ultrasound soon?"

"I'll see if I can make arrangements at the hospital. If we can't do it in Luxor, then you'll have to wait until we get back to Cairo. If the child is abnormal, you must consider an abortion. Actually you should have an abortion, regardless." She stared at him. "Destroy what may be a healthy human being? It might be like me," she argued. "Or Fortunato."

"Peri, you don't know how good the virus was to you. You've parlayed your wings into fame and financial success. You are one of the fortunate few."

"Of course I am. I mean, I'm pretty, but nothing special. Pretty girls are a dime a dozen. Actually I have you to thank for my success."

"This is the first time anyone has thanked me for helping to destroy the lives of millions of people," Tachyon said grimly.

"You tried to stop it," she said reassuringly. "It's not your fault Jetboy screwed up."

"Peri, Tachyon said grimly, changing the subject as if the failures of the past were too painful to dwell upon, "if you don't terminate the pregnancy, you'll be showing very shortly.

"You'd better start thinking about what you're going to tell people."

"Why, the truth of course. That I'm going to have a baby."

"What if they ask about the father?"

"That's nobody's business but mine!"

"And, I would submit," Tachyon said, "McCoy's."

"I guess you're right. But the world doesn't have to know about Fortunato. Please don't tell anyone. I'd hate for him to read it in the papers. I'd rather tell him myself." If I ever see him again, she added silently. "Please?"

"It is not my place to inform him," Tachyon said coldly. "But he must be told. It is his right." He frowned. " I don't know what you saw in that man. If it had been me, this would have never happened."

"You've said that before," Peregrine said, annoyance showing on her face. "But it's a little too late for might-havebeens. Eventually everything will be fine."

"Everything is not going to be fine," said Tachyon firmly. "The odds are the child will die or be a joker, and I don t think that you're strong enough to deal with either of those possibilities."

"I'll have to wait and see," Peregrine said pragmatically. She turned to leave. "I guess I'd better break the news to josh. He'll be glad it's nothing serious."

"And that you're carrying the child of another man?" asked Tachyon. "If you can maintain your relationship through this, then McCoy is a very unusual man."

"He is, Doctor," she assured him, and herself. "He is."

Peregrine walked slowly to the bar, remembering the day she and McCoy had met. He had made his interest in her evident from the very first when they were introduced at the NBC offices in November. A talented cameraman and freelance documentary maker, he had jumped at the chance to film the tour, and as he later confessed to Peregrine, the opportunity to meet her up close and personal. Peregrine was almost over her obsession with Fortunato and McCoy's attentions had helped. They had teased and tantalized each other until they finally ended up in bed together in Argentina. They'd shared a room ever since.

But McCoy couldn't arouse in her the sexual passion that Fortunato had. She doubted if any man could. Peregrine had wanted him again after that wild night they'd had together. He was like a drug she craved. Every time the phone had rung or there was a knock at the door, she'd hoped it was Fortunato. But he'd never come back. With Chrysalis's help she had found his mother and learned that the ace had left New York and was somewhere in the Orient, probably Japan.

The realization that he had left her so casually helped her get over him, but now he rushed back into her mind. She wondered how he would feel about her pregnancy, about being a father. Would he ever even know? She sighed.

Josh McCoy, she told herself sternly, is a wonderful man, and you love him. Don't blow it over a man you'll probably never see again. But if I did see him again, what would it be like? For the millionth time she relived her hours with Fortunato. Just thinking about it made her want him. Or McCoy.

Josh was drinking a Stella beer. As he saw her, he signaled the waiter and they arrived at his table together. "I'll have another beer," McCoy told the waiter. "Some wine, Peri?"

"Uh, no thanks. Do you have any bottled water?" she asked the waiter.

"Certainly, madam. We have Perrier."

"That'll be fine."

"Well?" McCoy asked. "What did Tachyon have to say? Are you okay?"

I'm not as brave about telling him this as I thought I'd be, Peregrine said to herself. What if he can't deal with it? It was best, she decided, to simply tell him the truth.

"There's nothing wrong with me. Nothing that time won't cure." She took a sip of the drink the waiter placed in front of her and murmured, "I'm going to have a baby."

"What?" McCoy almost dropped his beer. "A baby?" She nodded, looking at him directly for the first time since she had sat down. I really love you, she said silently. Please don't make this any harder on me than it already is. "Mine?" he inquired calmly.

This was going to be the hard part. "No," she admitted. Josh downed the rest of his beer and picked up the second bottle. "If I'm not the father, who is? Bruce Willis?" Peregrine made a face. "Keith Hernandez? Bob Weir? Senator Hartmann? Who?"

She arched an eyebrow at him. "Regardless of what the supermarket tabloids, and apparently you, think, I do not sleep with every man my name is linked with." She drank some Perrier. "In fact, I happen to be rather particular about choosing bedmates." She grinned mischievously. "I picked you, after all."

"Don't try to change the subject," he warned. "Who's the father?"

"Do you really want to know?" Josh nodded curtly.

"Why?"

"Because," he sighed, "I happen to love you and I think it's important that I know who is the father of your baby. Does he know yet?"

"How can he? I just found out myself."

"Do you love him?" McCoy asked, frowning. "Why did you break off your relationship? Was it him?"

"Josh," Peregrine explained patiently. "There was no relationship. It was one night. I met this man, we went to bed. I never saw him again." Although not, she silently added, for lack of trying.

McCoy's frown deepened. "Are you in the habit of going to bed with anybody who catches your fancy?"

Peregrine flushed. "No. I just told you I'm not." She laid her hand on his. "Please understand. I had no idea you were in my future when I met him. You knew you weren't my first the first time we made love, and after all," she challenged, "I'm surely not the first woman you've slept with, am I?"

"No, but I was hoping you'd be the last." McCoy ran his hand through his hair. "This really puts a cramp into my plans."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, what about the father? Is he going to just stand quietly by while I marry the mother of his kid?"

"You want to marry me?" For the first time Peregrine felt that everything would work out right.

"Yeah, I do! What's so strange about that? Is this guy going to be a problem? Who is it anyhow?"

"It's an ace," she said slowly. "Who?" McCoy insisted.

Oh, hell, she thought. Josh knows a lot about the New York scene. He's sure to have heard of Fortunato. What if he has the same attitude Tachyon has? Maybe I shouldn't tell him, but maybe he has the right to know. "His name's Fortunato-"

"Fortunato!" exploded McCoy. "That guy with all the hookers? Geishas, he calls them! You slept with him!" He gulped down more beer.

"I really don't see that it matters now. It happened. And if you must know, he's very charming."

"Okay, okay." McCoy glowered.

"If you're going to be jealous of every man I ever slept with, then I don't give us very much of a chance. And marriage is out of the question."

"Come on, Peri, give me a break. This is kind of unexpected."

"Well, it's a shock to me too. This morning I thought I was tired. This afternoon I find out I'm pregnant."

A shadow fell over their table. It was Tachyon in a lilac silk suit that matched his eyes. "Do you mind if I join you?" He pulled out a chair without awaiting a reply. "Brandy," he snapped to the waiter, who was hovering nearby. They all stared at each other until the waiter made a precise little bow and left. "I've spoken to the local hospital," Tachyon said finally. "We can do the test tomorrow morning."

"What test?" McCoy asked, looking from Peregrine to Tachyon.

"Did you tell him?" Tachyon asked.

"I didn't have a chance to tell him about the virus," Peregrine said in a barely audible whisper.

"Virus?"

"Because both Peregrine and For-the father, that is-carry the wild card, the child will have it," Tachyon said crisply. "An ultrasound must be performed as soon as possible to determine the status of the fetus. If the child is developing abnormally, Peregrine must have an abortion. If the child is growing normally, I still advise termination, but that will, of course, be her decision."

McCoy stared at Peregrine. "You didn't tell me that!"

"I didn't have a chance," she said defensively.

"There is a one in one hundred chance that the child will be an ace, but a nine in one hundred chance that it will be a joker," added Tachyon relentlessly.

"A joker! You mean like one of those awful things that lives in Jokertown, something horrible, an atrocity?"

"My dear young man," began Tachyon angrily, "not all jokers-"

"Josh," Peregrine interrupted softly, "I'm a joker."

Both men turned to her. "I am," she insisted. "Jokers have physical deformities." Her wings fluttered. "Like these. I'm a joker."

"This discussion is getting us nowhere," said Tachyon after a long silence. "Peri, I'll see you tonight." He walked away without touching his brandy.

"Well," said McCoy. "Tachyon's little piece of news certainly puts a different light on the subject."

"What do you mean," she asked, a chill seizing her.

"I hate jokers," McCoy burst out. "They give me the creeps!" His knuckles were white on the beer bottle. "Look, I can't go on with this. I'll call New York and tell them to send you another cameraman. I'll get my gear out of your room."

"You're leaving?" Peregrine asked, stunned.

"Yeah. Look, it's been a lot of fun," he said deliberately, "and I've really enjoyed you. But I'll be damned if I'm going to spend my life raising some pimp's bastard! Especially," he added as an afterthought, "one that's going to develop into some kind of monster!"

Peregrine winced as if she'd been slapped. "I thought you loved me," she said, her voice and wings quivering. "You just asked me to marry you!"

"I guess I was wrong." He finished his beer and stood up. "Bye, Peri."

Peregrine couldn't face him as he left. She stared down at the table, cold and shaken, and didn't notice the intense, lingering look McCoy gave her as he left the bar.

"Ahem."

Hiram Worchester seated himself across from her in the chair McCoy had just vacated. Peregrine shuddered. It's true, he's gone, she thought. I will never, never, she told herself fiercely, get involved with another man. Never!

"Where's McCoy? Father Squid and I want to know if the two of you will join us for dinner. Of course," he added when she didn't respond, "if you have other plans… "

"No," she said dully, "no other plans. It will be just me, I'm afraid. Josh is, ahhh, out filming some local color." She wondered why she lied to one of her oldest friends.

"Of course." Hiram beamed. "Let's get Father Squid and retire to the dining room. Using my power always makes me hungry" He stood and pulled out her chair.

Dinner was excellent, but she hardly tasted it. Hiram wolfed down huge portions and waxed poetical about the batarikh-Egyptian caviar-and lamb shish kebab served with a wine called rubis d'Egypte. He loudly urged Tachyon to try some when he joined them, but Tachyon declined with a shake of his head.

"Are you ready for the meeting?" he asked Peregrine. "Where's McCoy?"

"Out filming," answered Hiram. "I suggest we go without him."

Peregrine murmured her agreement.

"He wasn't invited anyway," Tachyon sniped.

Dr. Tachyon, Hiram Worchester, Father Squid, and Peregrine met with Opet Kemel in a small antechamber off the amphitheater that had been so severely damaged in the terrorist attack earlier that day.

"There must be Nur spies among us," Kernel exclaimed, glancing around the room. "That is the only way those dogs could have gotten through security. Or else they bribed one of my people. We are trying to ferret out the traitor now. The three assassins killed themselves after they were captured," Kernel said, the hatred in his voice making Peregrine doubt the strict truth of his words. "They are now Shahid, martyrs for Allah at the instigation of that madman, Nur al-Allah, may he die a most painful and lingering death." Kernel turned to Tachyon. "You see, Doctor, that is why we need your assistance to protect ourselves…"

His voice dragged on and on. Occasionally Peregrine heard Hiram or Father Squid or Tachyon chime in, but she wasn't really listening. She knew the expression on her face was polite and inquisitive. It was the face she wore when she had boring guests on her show who blathered on and on about nothing. She wondered how Letterman was doing with Peregrine's Perch. Probably fine. Her mind refused to stay on unimportant topics and wandered back to josh McCoy. What could she have done to make him stay? Nothing. Perhaps it was better that he left if that was his real attitude toward those stricken with the wild card. She thought back to Argentina, their first night together. She had summoned up her courage, put on her sexiest dress, and gone to his room with a bottle of champagne. McCoy had been occupied with a woman he'd picked up in the hotel bar. Peregrine, extremely embarrassed, had slunk back to her room and begun drinking the champagne. Fifteen minutes later McCoy had appeared. It had taken so long, he explained, because he had to get rid of the woman.

Peregrine was impressed by his supreme confidence. He was the first man she'd been with since Fortunato, and his touch was wonderful. They'd spent every night since then together, making love at least once a day. Tonight she'd be alone. He hates you, she told herself, because you're a joker. She placed her left hand across her abdomen. We don't need him, Peregrine told the baby. We don't need anyone.

Tachyon's voice broke through her reverie. "I'll report this to Senator Hartmann, the Red Cross, and the UN. I'm sure we can assist you somehow"

"Thank you, thank you!" Kernel reached across the table to take Tachyon's hands in gratitude. "Now," he said, smiling at the others, "perhaps you would like to meet my children?"

"They have expressed a desire to talk to you all, especially you." He directed his penetrating stare at Peregrine. "Me?"

Kemel nodded and stood. "Come this way."

They passed between the long golden curtains that separated the antechamber from the auditorium, and Kernel led them to another room where the living gods were waiting for them.

Min was there, and bearded Osiris, bird-headed Thoth, and the floating brother and sister, as were Anubis and Isis and a dozen others whose names Peregrine couldn't remember. They immediately surrounded the Americans and Dr. Tachyon, everyone talking at once. Peregrine found herself face-to-face with a large woman who smiled and spoke to her in Arabic.

"I'm sorry," Peregrine said, smiling back. "I don't understand."

The woman gestured to the bird-headed man standing close by, who immediately joined them.

"I am Thoth," he said in English, his beak giving him a strange clacking accent. "Taurt has asked me to tell you that the son you bear will be born strong and healthy."

Peregrine looked from one to the other, incredulity on her face. "How did you know I'm pregnant?" she demanded. "Ah, we have known since we heard you were coming to the temple."

"But this trip was decided upon months ago!"

"Yes. Osiris is cursed by knowing pieces of the future. Your future, your child, was in one of those pieces."

Taurt said something and Thoth smiled. "She says not to worry. You will be a very good mother."

"I will?"

Taurt handed her a small linen pouch with hieroglyphs embroidered on it. Peregrine opened it and found a small amulet made of red stone. She examined it curiously.

"It is an achet," Thoth clacked. "It represents the sun rising in the east. It will give you the strength and power of Ra the Great. It is for the child. Keep it until the boy is old enough to wear it."

"Thank you. I will." She impulsively hugged Taurt, who returned the gesture and then disappeared into the crowded room.

"Come now," said Thoth, "the others wish to meet you." As Peregrine and Thoth circulated among the gods, she was greeted with great affection by each.

"Why are they acting like this?" she asked after a particularly bone-crushing embrace from Hapi, the bull.

"They are happy for you," Thoth told her. "The birth of a child is a wonderous thing. Especially to one with wings."

" I see," she said, though she didn't. She had the feeling that Thoth was holding something back, but the bird-headed man slipped back into the crowd before she could question him.

Amid the greetings and extemporaneous speeches she suddenly realized that she was exhausted. Peregrine caught Tachyon's eye where he stood conversing with Anubis. She pointed to her watch and Tachyon beckoned to her. As she joined them, she heard him ask Anubis about the threat of the Nur. Father Squid was close by, discussing theology with Osiris.

"The gods will protect us," replied Anubis, lifting his eyes upward. "And from what I understand, security around the temple has been strengthened."

"Excuse me for interrupting," Peregrine apologized, addressing Tachyon, "but don't we have that appointment early tomorrow morning?"

"Burning sky, I'd almost forgotten. What time is it?" He lifted his eyebrows when he saw it was after one. "We'd best go. It will take us an hour to get back to Luxor, and you, young lady, need your sleep."

Peregrine entered her room at the Winter Palace Hotel with apprehension. McCoy's things were gone. She sank into a large armchair, and the tears that had been threatening all night came. She cried until she had no more tears left and her head ached with the strain. Go to bed, she told herself. It's been a long day. Someone tries to shoot you, you find out you're pregnant, and the man you love leaves you. Next you'll find out that NBC's canceled Peregrine's Perch. At least you know your baby is going to be all right, she thought as she undressed. She turned off the light and slipped into the lonely double bed.

But her brain woundn't turn off. What if Taurt is wrong? What if the ultrasound reveals a deformity? I'll have to have an abortion. I don't want one, but I can't bring another joker into the world. Abortion is against everything I was brought up to believe.

But do you want to spend the rest of your life taking care of a monster? Can you take the life of a baby, even if it's a joker?

Back and forth she went, until she finally dropped off to sleep. Her last coherent thought was of Fortunato. What would he want, she wondered?

She was awakened by Tachyon banging at her door. "Peregrine," she foggily heard him call. "Are you there? It's seven-thirty."

She rolled out of bed, wrapped herself in the sheet, and opened the locked door. Tachyon stood there, annoyance written all over his face.

He glared at her. "Do you know what time it is? You were supposed to meet me downstairs a half hour ago."

"I know, I know. Yell at me while I get dressed."

She picked up her clothes and headed toward the bathroom. Tachyon closed the door behind him and eyed her sheet-clad body appreciatively.

"What happened here?" he asked. "Where's your paramour?"

Peregrine poked her head around the bathroom door and spoke around her toothbrush. "Gone."

"Do you want to tell me about it?"

"No!" She glanced in the mirror as she quickly brushed her hair and frowned at her exhausted face and swollen, red eyes. You look like hell, she told herself. She pulled on her clothes, pushed her feet into a pair of sandals, grabbed her bag, and joined Tachyon, who was waiting by the door. "I'm sorry I overslept," she apologized as they hurried through the lobby and to the waiting cab. "It took me forever to fall asleep."

Tachyon watched her intently as he helped her into the cab. They rode in silence, her mind full of the baby, McCoy, Fortunato, motherhood, her career. Suddenly she asked, "If the baby… if the test…" She took a deep breath and began again. "If the test shows that there is some abnormality, will they be able to do the abortion today?"

Tachyon took her cold hands in his. "Yes."

Please, she prayed, please don't let anything be wrong with my baby. Tachyon's voice broke into her thoughts. "What?"

"Peri, what happened with McCoy?"

She stared out the window and withdrew her hand from Tachyon's. "He's gone," she said dully, twisting her fingers together. " I guess he went back to New York." She blinked away tears. "Everything seemed okay, I mean, about my being pregnant and Fortunato and all. But after he heard that if the baby lived, it would probably be a joker, well…" Her tears began again. Tachyon handed her his lace-trimmed silk handkerchief. Peregrine took it and wiped her eyes. "Well," she said, continuing her story, "when Josh heard that, he decided he didn't want to have anything to do with me or the baby. So he left." She rolled Tachyon's handkerchief into a small, damp ball.

"You truly love him, don't you?" Tachyon asked gently. Peregrine nodded and pushed away more tears.

"If you have an abortion, will he come back?"

"I don't know and I don't care," she flared. "If he can't accept me the way I am, then I don't want him."

Tachyon shook his head. "Poor Peri," he said softly. "McCoy is a jackass."

It seemed like an eternity before the cab rolled up in front of the hospital. As Tachyon went to consult with the receptionist, Peregrine leaned against the cool, white wall of the waiting room and shut her eyes. She tried to make her mind go blank, but she couldn't stop thinking about McCoy. If he did come to you, you'd take him back, she accused herself. You know you would. He won't, though, not with me carrying Fortunato's child. She opened her eyes as someone touched her arm.

"Are you sure you're all right?" Tachyon asked. "Just tired." She tried to smile.

"Scared?" he asked.

"Yes," she admitted. "I'd never really thought about having children, but now that I'm pregnant, I want to have a baby more than anything." Peregrine sighed and folded her arms protectively over her abdomen. "But I hope that the baby is all right."

"They're paging the doctor who'll perform the procedure," Tachyon said. "I hope you're thirsty. You have to drink several quarts of water." He removed a pitcher and a glass from a tray held by the nurse standing beside him. "You can start now." Peregrine began drinking. She'd finished six glasses before a short man in a white coat hurried up to them.

"Dr. Tachyon?" he asked, grasping Tachyon's hand. "I am Dr. Ali. It is a great pleasure to meet you and welcome you to my hospital." He turned to Peregrine. "Is this the patient?" Tachyon performed the introductions.

Dr. Ali rubbed his hands together. "Let's get on with it," he said, and they followed him to the OB-GYN section of the hospital.

"You, young lady, into that room." He pointed. "Remove all your clothing and put on the gown you'll find there. Keep drinking water. When you've changed, come back here and we'll perform the sonography."

When Peregrine rejoined Tachyon, now wearing a white coat over his silken finery, and Dr. Ali, she was told to lie on an examining table. She followed their directions, clutching Taurt's amulet in her hand. A nurse raised the robe up and rubbed a clear gel on Peregrine's stomach.

"Conductive jelly," Tachyon explained. "It helps carry the sound waves."

The nurse began to move a small instrument that looked like a microphone over Peregrine's belly.

"The transducer," said Tachyon as he and Ali studied the image on the video screen in front of them.

"Well, what do you see?" Peregrine demanded. "A moment, Peri."

Tachyon and Ali conferred in low tones.

"Can you print that?" Peregrine heard Tachyon ask. Dr. Ali gave the nurse instructions in Arabic, and very shortly a computer printout of the image appeared.

"You can climb down now," said Tachyon. "We've seen everything there is to see."

"Well?" Peregrine asked anxiously.

"Everything looks fine… so far," said Tachyon slowly. "The child appears to be developing normally."

"That's wonderful!" She hugged him as he helped her down from the table.

"If you intend to go through with this pregnancy, I insist on an ultrasound every four to five weeks to monitor the baby's growth."

Peregrine nodded. "These sound waves won't hurt the baby, will they?"

"No," said Tachyon. "The only thing that can injure the child already exists within it."

Peregrine looked at Tachyon. "I know you feel you have to keep telling me that; but the baby is going to be just fine, I know it."

"Peregrine, this is not a fairy tale! You are not going to live happily ever after! This could ruin your life!"

"Growing wings when I was thirteen could have ruined my life, but it didn't. This isn't going to either."

Tachyon sighed. "There is no reasoning with you. Go put your clothes on. It's time we got back to Cairo."

Tachyon was waiting for her outside the dressing room. "Where's Dr. Ali?" she asked, looking around. "I wanted to thank him."

"He had other patients to attend to." Tachyon steered her down the corridor with his arm around her shoulders. "Let's get back…" his voice broke off. Coming down the hallway toward them was josh McCoy. Peregrine was pleased to see that he looked as awful as she felt. He must not have gotten much sleep eitheir. He stopped in front of them.

"Peri," he began, "I've been thinking-"

"Good for you," Peregrine said crisply. "Now if you will excuse us-"

McCoy reached out and grabbed her upper arm. "No. I want to talk to you and I intend to do it now" He pulled her away from Tachyon.

She had to talk to him, she told herself. Maybe everything could be straightened out. She hoped.

"It's all right," she said shakily to Tachyon. "Let's get this over with."

Tachyon's voice followed them. "McCoy. You are undoubtedly a fool. And I warn you, if you harm her-in any way-you will regret it for a very long time."

McCoy ignored him and continued to pull Peregrine down the hall, opening doors until he found an empty room. He dragged her in and slammed the door behind them. He let go of her arm and began pacing back and forth.

Peregrine stood against the wall, rubbing her arm where the marks of his fingers were visible.

McCoy stopped pacing and stared at her. "I'm sorry if I hurt you."

"I think it's going to bruise," she said, inspecting her arm.

"We can't have that," McCoy said mockingly. "Bruises on America's sex symbol!"

"That's pretty rotten," she said, her voice dangerously quiet.

"True, though," he shot back. "You are a sex symbol. There's your Playboy centerfold, that nude ice sculpture of you at Aces High. And what about that naked poster, 'Fallen Angel,' that Warhol did?"

"There's nothing wrong with posing nude! I'm not ashamed to show my body or to have other people look at it."

"No kidding! You strip for anyone who asks you!"

She went white with fury. "Yes, I do! Including you!" She slapped McCoy's face and turned to the door, her wings quivering. " I don't have to stand here and take any more abuse from you."

She reached for the door handle, but McCoy shoved in front of her and held it closed. "No. I need to talk to you."

"You're not talking, you're being abusive," Peregrine retorted, "and I don't like it one bit."

"You don't know what abuse is," he told her, brown eyes glittering angrily. "Why don't you scream? Tachyon's probably right outside. He'd love to rush in and rescue you. You could fuck him in gratitude."

"How dare you?" Peregrine shouted. "I don't need him to protect me! Him or you or anyone! Let me go!" she demanded angrily.

"No." He pressed her body to the wall. She felt like a butterfly pinned on velvet. She could feel his heavy warmth against her. "Is this what it's going to be like," he raged,

"men always wanting to protect you? Men wanting to fuck you just because you're Peregrine? I don't want anyone else touching you. No one but me."

"Peri, " he said more gently. "Look at me." When she refused, he forced her chin up until she looked him in the eyes, tears rolling down her cheeks. "Peri, I'm sorry for everything I said yesterday. And for everything I said just now. I didn't intend to lose my temper, but when I saw that overdressed quiche-eater with his hands on you, I just lost it. The thought of anyone but me touching you makes me furious." The fingers on her chin tightened. "Yesterday when you said that Fortunato was the baby's father, all I could see was him in bed with you, holding you, loving you." He let her go and walked to the window of the small room, staring out unseeing, his hands clenching and unclenching. "It was then," he continued, "that I realized exactly what I was up against. You're famous and beautiful and sexy and everyone wants you. I don't want to be Mr. Peregrine. I don't want to compete with your past. I want your future."

"What I said yesterday about jokers wasn't true. It was the first excuse that I could think of. I wanted to hurt you as bad as I was hurting." He ran a hand through his blond hair.

"It really hurt me when you told me about the baby, because it's not mine. I don't hate jokers. I like kids and I'll love yours and try to be a good father. If Fortunato shows up, well, I'll deal with it the best I can. Hell, Peri, I love you. Last night without you was terrible. It showed me what the future would be like if I let you go. I love you," he repeated, "and I want you to be my life."

Peregrine put her arms around him and leaned against his back. "I love you too. Last night was about the worst night of my life. I realized what you meant to me, and also what this baby means. If I can only have one of you, I want my baby. I'm sorry to say that, but I had to tell you. But I want you too."

McCoy turned and took her hands. He kissed them. "You sound awfully determined."

"I am."

McCoy laughed. "No matter what happens when the baby is born, we'll do the best we can." He smiled down at her. "I have a bunch of nieces and nephews, so I even know how to change diapers."

"Good. You can teach me."

"I will," he promised, his lips touching hers as he pulled her closer.

The door opened. A white-clad figure looked at them disapprovingly. After a moment Doctor Tachyon peered in. "Are you quite finished?" he asked icily. "They need this room."

"We're done with the room, but we're not finished. We're just starting," Peregrine said, smiling radiantly.

"Well, as long as you're happy," Tachyon said slowly. " I am," she assured him.

They left the hospital with Tachyon. He got into a cab by himself, while McCoy and Peregrine settled into the horsedrawn carriage waiting at the curb behind the taxi.

"We have to get back to the hotel," Peregrine said. "Are you propositioning me?"

"Of course not. I have to pack so we can rejoin the tour in Cairo."

"Today?"

"Yes."

"Then we'd better hurry"

"Why?"

"Why?" McCoy trailed kisses over her face and neck. "We have to make up for last night, of course."

"Oh." Peregrine spoke to the driver and the carriage picked up speed. "We don't want to waste any more time."

"Enough has already been wasted," McCoy agreed. "Are you happy?" he asked softly as she settled in his arms, her head on his chest.

"Happier than I've ever been!" But a little voice in the back of her mind kept reminding her of Fortunato.

His arms tightened around her. "I love you."

FROM THE JOURNAL OF XAVIER DESMOND

JANUARY 30/JERUSALEM:

The open city of Jerusalem, they call it. An international metropolis, jointly governed by commissioners from Israel, Jordan, Palestine, and Great Britain under a United Nations mandate, sacred to three of the world's great religions.

Alas, the apt phrase is not "open city" but "open sore." Jerusalem bleeds as it has for almost four decades. If this city is sacred, I should hate to visit one that was profane.

Senators Hartmann and Lyons and the other political delegates lunched with the city commissioners today, but the rest of us spent the afternoon touring this free international city in closed limousines with bulletproof windshields and special underbody armor to withstand bomb blasts. Jerusalem, it seems, likes to welcome distinguished international visitors by blowing them up. It does not seem to matter who the visitors are, where they come from, what religion they practice, how their politics lean-there are enough factions in this city so that everyone can count on being hated by someone.

Two days ago we were in Beirut. From Beirut to Jerusalem, that is a voyage from day to night. Lebanon is a beautiful country, and Beirut is so lovely and peaceful it seems almost serene. Its various religions appear to have solved the problem of living in comparative harmony, although there are of course incidents-nowhere in the Middle East (or the world, for that matter) is completely safe.

But Jerusalem-the outbreaks of violence have been endemic for thirty years, each worse than the one before. Entire blocks resemble nothing so much as London during the Blitz, and the population that remains has grown so used to the distant sound of machine-gun fire that they scarcely seem to pay it any mind.

We stopped briefly at what remains of the Wailing Wall (largely destroyed in 1967 by Palestinian terrorists in reprisal for the assassination of al-Haziz by Israeli terrorists the year before) and actually dared to get out of our vehicles. Hiram looked around fiercely and made a fist, as if daring anyone to start trouble. He has been in a strange state of late; irritable, quick to anger, moody. The things we witnessed in Africa have affected us all, however. One shard of the wall is still fairly imposing. I touched it and tried to feel the history. Instead I felt the pocks left in the stone by bullets.

Most of our party returned to the hotel afterward, but Father Squid and I took a detour to visit the Jokers' Quarter. I'm told that it is the second-largest joker community in the world, after Jokertown itself… a distant second, but second nonetheless. It does not surprise me. Islam does not view my people kindly, and so jokers come here from all over the Middle East for whatever meager protection is offered by UN sovereignty and a small, outmanned, outgunned, and demoralized international peacekeeping force.

The Quarter is unspeakably squalid, and the weight of human misery within its walls is almost palpable. Yet ironically the streets of the Quarter are reputed safer than any other place in Jerusalem. The Quarter has its own walls, built in living memory, originally to spare the feelings of decent people by hiding we living obscenities from their sight, but those same walls have given a measure of security to those who dwell within. Once inside I saw no nats at all, only jokers jokers of all races and religions, all living in relative peace. Once they might have been Muslims or Jews or Christians, zealots or Zionists or followers of the Nur, but after their hand had been dealt, they were only jokers. The joker is the great equalizer, cutting through all other hatreds and prejudices, uniting all mankind in a new brotherhood of pain. A joker is a joker is a joker, and anything else he is, is unimportant.

Would that it worked the same way with aces.

The sect of Jesus Christ, joker has a church in Jerusalem, and Father Squid took me there. The building looked more like a mosque than a Christian church, at least on the outside, but inside it was not so terribly different from the church I'd visited in Jokertown, though much older and in greater disrepair. Father Squid lit a candle and said a prayer, and then we went back to the cramped, tumbledown rectory where Father Squid conversed with the pastor in halting Latin while we shared a bottle of sour red wine. As they were talking, I heard the sound of automatic weaponry chattering off in the night somewhere a few blocks away. A typical Jerusalem evening, I suppose.

No one will read this book until after my death, by which time I will be safely immune from prosecution. I've thought long and hard about whether or not I should record what happened tonight, and finally decided that I should. The world needs to remember the lessons of 1976 and be reminded from time to time that the JADL does not speak for all jokers.

An old joker woman pressed a note into my hand as Father Squid and I were leaving the church. I suppose someone recognized me.

When I read the note, I begged off the official reception, pleading illness once again, but this time it was a ruse. I dined in my room with a wanted criminal, a man I can only describe as a notorious international joker terrorist, although he is a hero inside the Jokers' Quarter. I will not give his real name, even in these pages, since I understand that he still visits his family in Tel Aviv from time to time. He wears a black canine mask on his "missions" and to the press, Interpol, and the sundry factions that police Jerusalem, he is variously known as the Black Dog and the Hound of Hell. Tonight he wore a completely different mask, a butterfly-shaped hood covered with silver glitter, and had no problem crossing the city.

"What you've got to remember," he told me, "is that nats are fundamentally stupid. You wear the same mask twice and let your picture get taken with it, and they start thinking it's your face."

The Hound, as I'll call him, was born in Brooklyn but emigrated to Israel with his family at age nine and became an Israeli citizen. He was twenty when he became a joker. " I traveled halfway around the world to draw the wild card," he told me. "I could have stayed in Brooklyn."

We spent several hours discussing Jerusalem, the Middle East, and the politics of the wild card. The Hound heads what honesty forces me to call a joker terrorist organization, the Twisted Fists. They are illegal in both Israel and Palestine, no mean trick. He was evasive about how many members they had, but not at all shy about confessing that virtually all of their financial support comes from New York's Jokertown.

"You may not like us, Mr. Mayor," the Hound told me, "but your people do." He even hinted slyly that one of the joker delegates on our tour was among their supporters, although of course he refused to supply a name.

The Hound is convinced that war is coming to the Middle East, and soon. "It's overdue," he said. "Neither Israel or Palestine have ever had defensible borders, and neither one is an economically viable nation. Each is convinced that the other one is guilty of all sorts of terrorist atrocities, and they're both right. Israel wants the Negev and the West Bank, Palestine wants a port on the Mediterranean, and both countries are still full of refugees from the 1948 partition who want their homes back. Everyone wants Jerusalem except the UN, which has it. Shit, they need a good war. The Israelis looked like they were winning in '48 until the Nasr kicked their asses. I know that Bernadotte won the Nobel Peace Prize for the Treaty of Jerusalem, but just between you and me, it might have been better if they'd fought it out to the bitter end… any kind of end."

I asked him about all the people who would have died, but he just shrugged. "They'd be dead. But maybe if it was over, really over, some of the wounds would start to heal. Instead we got two pissed-off half-countries that share the same little desert and won't even recognize each other, we've got four decades of hatred and terrorism and fear, and we're still going to get the war, and soon. It beats me how Bernadotte pulled off the Peace of Jerusalem anyway, though I'm not surprised that he got assassinated for his troubles. The only ones who hate the terms worse than the Israelis are the Palestinians."

I pointed out that, unpopular as it might be, the Peace of Jerusalem had lasted almost forty years. He dismissed that as "a forty-year stalemate, not real peace. Mutual fear was what made it work. The Israelis have always had military superiority. But the Arabs had the Port Said aces, and you think the Israelis don't remember? Every time the Arabs put up a memorial to the Nasr anywhere from Baghdad to Marrakesh, the Israelis blow it up. Believe me, they remember. Only now the whole thing's coming unbalanced. I got sources say Israel has been running its own wild card experiments on volunteers from their armed forces, and they've come up with a few aces of their own. Now that's fanaticism for you, to volunteer for the wild card. And on the Arab side, you've got Nur al-Allah, who calls Israel a `bastard joker nation' and has vowed to destroy it utterly. The Port Said aces were pussycats compared to his bunch, even old Khof. No, it's coming, and soon."

"And when it comes?" I asked him.

He was carrying a gun, some kind of small semiautomatic machine pistol with a long Russian name. He took it out and laid it on the table between us. "When it comes," he said, "they can kill each other all they want, but they damn well better leave the Quarter alone, or they'll have us to deal with. We've already given the Nur a few lessons. Every time they kill a joker, we kill five of them. You'd think they'd get the idea, but the Nur's a slow learner."

I told him that Senator Hartmann was hoping to set up a meeting with the Nur al-Allah to begin discussions that might lead to a peaceful solution to this areas problems. He laughed.

We talked for a long time, about jokers and aces and nats, and violence and nonviolence and war and peace, about brotherhood and revenge and turning the other cheek and taking care of your own, and in the end we settled nothing. "Why did you come?" I finally asked him.

"I thought we should meet. We could use your help. Your knowledge of Jokertown, your contacts in nat society, the money you could raise."

"You won't get my help," I told him. "I've seen where your road leads. Tom Miller walked that road ten years ago."

"Gimli?" He shrugged. "First, Gimli was crazy as a bedbug. I'm not. Gimli wants the world to kiss it and make it all better. I just fight to protect my own. To protect you, Des. Pray that your Jokertown never needs the Twisted Fists, but if you do, we'll be there. I read Time's cover story on Leo Barnett. Could be the Nur isn't the only slow learner. If that's how it is, maybe the Black Dog will go home and find that tree that grows in Brooklyn, right? I haven't been to a Dodger game since I was eight."

My heart stopped in my throat as I looked at the gun on the table, but I reached out and put my hand on the phone. "I could call down to our security right now and make certain that won't happen, that you won't kill any more innocent people."

"But you won't," the Hound said. "Because we have so much in common."

I told him we had nothing in common.

"We're both jokers," he said. "What else matters?" Then he holstered his gun, adjusted his mask, and walked calmly from my room.

And God help me, I sat there alone for several endless minutes, until I heard the elevator doors open down the hall-and finally took my hand off the phone.

THE TINT OF HATRED

Part Five

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 1987, THE SYRIAN DESERT:

Najib struck her down with one quick blow, but Misha persisted. "He's coming," Misha said. "Allah's dreams tell me that I must go to Damascus to meet him."

In the darkness of the mosque Najib glowed like a green beacon from near the mihrab, the jeweled prayer niche. It was at night that Nur al-Allah was the most impressive, a fiery vision of a prophet, gleaming with Allah's own fury. He said nothing to Misha's pronouncement, looking first at Sayyid, resting his great bulk against one of the tiled pillars.

"No," Sayyid grumbled. "No, Nur al-Allah." He looked at Misha, kneeling in supplication before her brother, and his eyes were full of a smoldering rage because she would not submit to her brother's will or Sayyid's suggestions. "You've often said that the abominations are to be killed. You've said that the only way to negotiate with the unbeliever is with the edge of a sword. Let me fulfill those words for you. The entire Ba'th government can do nothing to stop us; al-Assad trembles when Nur al-Allah speaks. I'll take some of the faithful to Damascus. We'll cleanse the abominations and those who bring them with purifying fire."

Najib's skin flared for a moment, as if Sayyid's advice had excited him. His lips had pulled back in a fierce grimace. Misha shook her head. "Brother," she implored. "Listen also to Kahina. I've had the same dream for three nights. I see the two of us with the Americans. I see the gifts. I see a new, untrodden path."

"Also tell Nur al-Allah that you woke screaming from the dream, that you felt the gifts were dangerous, that this Hartmann had more than one face in your dreams."

Misha looked back at her husband. "A new way is always dangerous. Gifts always obligate the one who receives them. Will you tell the Nur al-Allah that there's no danger in your way, the way of violence? Is Nur al-Allah so strong already that he can defeat the entire West? The Soviets wont help in this; they'll want their hands to be clean."

"Jihad is struggle," Sayyid grated out.

Najib nodded his head. He raised a brilliant hand before his face, turning it as if marveling at the soft light it radiated. "Allah smote the unbelievers with His hand," he agreed. "Why shouldn't I do the same?"

"Because of Allah's dream," Misha insisted.

"Allah's dream or yours, woman?" Sayyid asked. "What will the infidels do if Nur al-Allah does as I've asked? The West has done nothing about the hostages Islam has taken, they've done nothing about other killings. Will they complain to Damascus and al-Assad? Nur al-Allah rules Syria in all but title; Nur al-Allah has united half of all Islam behind him. They'll complain, they'll bluster. They'll cry and moan, but they won't interfere. What will they do-refuse to trade with us? Ptah!" Sayyid spat on the intricate tiles at his feet. "They will hear Allah's laughter in the wind."

"These Americans have their own guards," Misha countered. "They have the ones they call aces."

"We have Allah. His strength is all we need. Any of my people would be honored to become shahid, a martyr for Allah."

Misha turned to Najib, still looking at his hand as Sayyid and Misha argued. "Brother, what Sayyid asks ignores the gifts that Allah has given us. His way ignores the gift of dreams, and it ignores kuwwa nuriyah, the power of light."

"What do you mean?" Najib's hand fell.

"Allah's power is in your voice, your presence. If you meet with these people, they would be swayed the way the faithful are swayed when you speak. Any of Allah's people could kill them, but only Nur al-Allah can actually bring the infidels to the faith of Allah. Which of the two is the greater honor to Allah?"

Najib didn't answer. She could see his luminescent face furrowed in a deep frown, and he turned to walk away a few paces. She knew then that she had won. Praise Allah! Sayyid will beat me again for this, but it's worth it. Her cheek throbbed where Najib had struck her, but she ignored the pain.

"Sayyid?" Najib asked. He looked from a slitted window to the village. Faint voices hailed the glowing visage.

"It is Nur al-Allah's decision. He knows my counsel;" Sayyid said. "I'm not a kahin. My foresight is limited to war. Nur al-Allah is strong-I think we should demonstrate that strength."

Najib came back to the mihrab. "Sayyid, will you allow the Kahina to go to Damascus and meet with the Americans?"

"If that's what Nur al-Allah wishes," Sayyid answered stiffly.

"It is," Najib said. "Misha, go back to your husband's house and make yourself ready to travel. You'll meet this delegation, and you'll tell me of them. Then Nur al-Allah will decide how to deal with them."

Misha bowed, her head to the cool tiles. She kept her eyes down, feeling the heat of Sayyid's gaze as she passed him.

When she had gone, Najib shook his head at Sayyid's sullen posture. "You think I ignore you for yur wife, my friend? Are you insulted?"

"She is your sister, and she is Kahina," Sayyid replied, his voice neutral.

Najib smiled, and the darkness of his mouth was like a hole in his bright face. "Let me ask you, Sayyid, are we truly strong enough to do as you suggested?"

"In sha'Allah, of course, but I wouldn't have said so if I didn't think it true."

"And would your plan be easier to execute in Damascus, or here-in our own place, at our own time?" Comprehension made Sayyid grin. "Why, here, of course, Nur al-Allah. Here."

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 3, 1987, DAMASCUS:

The hotel was near the Suq al-Hamidiyah. Even through the chatter of the air conditioner's ancient compressor, Gregg could hear the market's boisterous energy. The suq was swirling with a thousand brightly hued djellaba, interspersed with the dull black of the chador. The crowds filled the narrow lanes between the stalls' colorful awnings and spilled out into the streets. On the nearest corner a water-seller called his wares: "Atchen, taa saubi!"-if you thirst, come to me.

Everywhere there were crowds, from the suq to the white minarets of 1200-year-old Umayyad Mosque. "You'd think the wild card never existed. Or the twentieth century, for that matter," Gregg commented.

"That's because Nur al-Allah has made sure that no joker dares to walk the streets. They kill jokers here." Sara, on the bed, laid her orange on the peels littering the copy of al Ba'th, the official Syrian newspaper. "I remember one tale we got from the Post stringer here. A joker had the misfortune of being caught stealing food in the suq. They buried him in the sand so that only his head showed, then they stoned him to death. The judge-who belonged to the Nur sect, by the way-insisted that only small stones be thrown, so the joker would have sufficient time to contemplate his many sins before he died."

Gregg laced his fingers in her tousled hair, gently pulled her head back, and kissed her deeply. "That's why we're here," he said. "That's why I hope to meet this Light of Allah."

"You've been edgy since Egypt."

"I think this is an important stop."

"Because the Middle East is going to be one of the main concerns of the next president?"

"You're an impertinent little bitch."

"I'll take the `little' as a compliment. A `bitch,' though, is a female dog, you sexist pig. And I can smell a story" She wrinkled her nose up at him.

"Does that mean I get your vote?"

"It depends." Sara threw back the sheet, scattering al-Ba'th, orange, and peels to the floor, and took Gregg's hand. She kissed his fingers lightly and then moved his hand lower on her body. "What kind of incentives were you thinking of offering?" she asked.

"I'll do whatever I have to do." And that's true. Puppetman stirred slightly, impatient. If I make Nur al-Allah a puppet, I influence his action. I can sit down at the table with him and get him to sign whatever I want: Hartmann the Great Negotiator, the world's humanitarian. Nur al-Allah is the key to this region. With him and a few other leaders… The thought made him smile. Sara laughed throatily..

"No sacrifice is too great, huh?" She laughed again and pulled him on top of her. "I like a man with a sense of duty. Well, start earning your vote, Senator. And this time, you get the wet spot."

A few hours later there was a discreet knock on the outer door. Gregg was standing by the window,- knotting his tie as he looked out on the city. "Yes?"

"It's Billy, Senator. Kahina and her group are here. I've told the others. Should I send her on to the conference room?"

"Just a second."

Sara called quietly from the open door of the bathroom, "I'll go down to my own room."

"You might as well stay here for a bit. Billy will make sure no one sees you leave. There'll be a press conference after, so you might want to head down in half an hour." Gregg went to the door, opened it slightly, and spoke to Billy. Then he stepped quickly to the door leading to the adjoining suite and knocked. "Ellen? Kahina's on her way."

Ellen came in as Gregg was putting on his jacket; Sara was brushing her hair. Ellen smiled automatically at Sara, nodding. Gregg could feel a mild annoyance in his wife, a glimmer of jealousy; he let Puppetman smooth that roughness, lathing it with cold blue. He needed very little effort; she had had no delusions about their marriage from the start-they had married because she was a Bonestell, and the New England Bonestells had always been involved in politics in one way or another. She understood how to play the supportive spouse: when to stand beside him; what to say and how to say it. She accepted that "men had needs" and didn't care as long as Gregg didn't flaunt it in public or stop her from having her own affairs. Ellen was among the most pliable of his puppets.

Deliberately, just for the small pleasure that Ellen's hidden distaste would give him, he hugged Sara. He could feel Sara holding back in Ellen's presence. I can change that,

Puppetman murmured in his head. See, there's so much affection in her. Just a twist, and I could…

No! The depth of his response surprised Gregg. We don't force her. We never touched Succubus; we won't touch Sara. Ellen watched the embrace blandly, and the smile never left her lips. "The two of you slept well, I hope." There was nothing in the tone beyond the mere words. Glacial, distant, her gaze left Sara; she smiled at Gregg. "Darling, we should go. And I want to talk to you about that reporter Downs-he's been asking me the strangest questions, and he's talking to Chrysalis as well…"

The meeting wasn't what he'd expected, though John Werthen had briefed him on the necessary protocol. The Arab guards along the wall, armed with a mixture of Uzis and Soviet-made automatic weapons, were unnerving. Billy Ray had carefully beefed up their own security. Gregg, Tachyon, and the other political members of the junket were in attendance. The aces and (especially) jokers were elsewhere in Damascus, as President al-Assad toured the city with them.

Kahina herself was a surprise. She was a small, petite woman. The ebony eyes above the veils were bright, inquisitive, and searching; her dress was plain except for a line of turquoise beads above her forehead. Translators accompanied her. In addition, a trio of burly men in bedouin dress sat nearby, watching.

"Kahina's a woman in a very conservative Islamic society, Senator," John had said. "I cant stress that enough. Her even being here is a break with tradition, allowed only because she's the prophet-twin of her brother and because they think she has magic, sihr. She's married to Sayyid, the general who masterminded Nur al-Allah's military victories. She might be the Kahina, and she's had a liberal education, but she's not a Westerner. Be careful. These people are quick to be insulted and very long on holding a grudge. And-Jesus, Senator-tell Tachyon to tone it down."

Gregg waved to Tachyon, dressed outrageously as usual, but with a new twist. Tachyon had abandoned the satins, too hot for him in this climate. Instead he looked as if he'd raided a bazaar in the suq, emerging as a movie-cliche vision of a sheikh: red, baggy silk trousers, a loose linen shirt and jacket with intricate brocade, bead and bangles jingling everywhere. His hair was hidden under an elaborate headdress; the long toes of his slippers turned up and curled back. Gregg decided not to comment. He shook hands with the others and seated Ellen as everyone found chairs. He nodded to Kahina and her entourage, who tore their gazes away from Tachyon.

"Marhala," Gregg said: "greetings."

Her eyes gleamed. She inclined her head. " I speak only a little English," she said slowly in a heavily accented, quiet voice. "It will be easier if my translator, Rashid, speaks for me."

Headsets had been provided; Gregg put his on. "We're delighted that Kahina would come to make arrangements for us to meet with Nur al-Allah. This is more honor than we deserve."

Her translator was speaking softly into his headset. Kahina nodded. She spoke in a stream of rapid Arabic. "The honor is that you have even gotten this close to meeting him, Senator," Rashid's husky voice translated. "The Qur'an says: `For those who disbelieve in Allah and His apostle. We have prepared a blazing fire."'

Gregg glanced. toward Tachyon, who raised his eyebrows slightly under the headdress and shrugged. "We'd like to believe that we share a vision of peace with Nur al-Allah," Gregg answered slowly.

Kahina seemed almost amused by that. "Nur al-Allah, for this once, has chosen my vision. On his own, he might have stayed in the desert until you were gone…" Kahina was still speaking, but Rashid's voice had trailed into silence. Kahina glared at the man, saying something that made him grimace. One of the men with Kahina gestured harshly; Rashid cleared his throat and resumed.

"Or… or perhaps Nur al-Allah might have followed the advice of Sayyid and slain you and the abominations you bring with you."

Tachyon pressed back in his chair in shock; Lyons, the Republican senator, blustered, leaning over to Gregg to whisper, "And I thought Barnett was sick."

Inside Gregg, Puppetman stirred hungrily. Even without a direct mindlink, the surging emotions could be felt. Kahina's attendants were frowning, obviously upset by her candor but afraid to interfere with someone who was, after all, part of the twinned prophet. The guards around the wall tensed. The UN and Red Cross representatives consulted in whispers.

Kahina sat calmly in the middle of the turmoil, her hands folded on the tabletop, her regard on Gregg. The intensity of her stare was unnerving; he found himself struggling not to look away.

Tachyon leaned forward, his long fingers interlaced. "The `abominations' are blameless," he said bluntly. "If anything, the responsibility should be laid at my feet. Your people would better serve the jokers with kindness than scorn and brutality. They were infected by a blind, horrible, and undiscriminating disease. So were you; you were simply lucky."

Her attendants muttered at that, darting angry stares at the alien, but Kahina answered calmly, "Allah is supreme. The virus might be blind, but Allah is not. Those who are worthy, He rewards. Those who are not, He strikes down.' 'And what of the aces we brought with us, who worship another version of God, or perhaps none at all?" Tachyon persisted. "What of the aces in other countries who worship Buddha or Amaterasu or a Plumed Serpent or no gods at all?"

"The ways of Allah are subtle. I know that what He has spoken in the Qur'an is truth. I know that the visions He grants me contain truth. I know that when Nur al-Allah speaks in His voice, it is truth. Beyond that, it's folly to claim to understand Allah." Her voice now held an undertone of irritation, and Gregg knew Tachyon had hit a nerve with her. Tachyon shook his head. "And I would claim that the ultimate folly is attempting to understand humans, who have made these gods," he retorted.

Gregg had listened to the exchange with growing excitement. To have Kahina for a puppet: she might be nearly as useful to him as Nur al-Allah himself. Until now he had dismissed Kahina's influence. He'd thought that a woman within this fundamentalist Islamic movement could wield no real power. Now he saw that his evaluation might have been wrong.

Kahina and Tachyon had locked gazes. Gregg held up his hand, making his voice reasonable, soothing.

"Please. Doctor, let me answer. Kahina, none of us have any intention of insulting your beliefs. We're here only to help your government deal with the problems of the wild card virus. My country has had to cope with the virus for the longest time; we've had the largest affected population. We're also here to learn, to see other techniques and resolutions. We can do that best by meeting with those who have the most influence. Throughout the Middle East we have heard that this person is Nur al-Allah. No one holds more power than he."

Kahina's gaze now flicked back to Gregg. The resentment had still not left the mahogany pupils. "You were in Allah's dreams," she said. "I saw you. Strings ran from your fingertips. As you tugged, the people held at the other ends moved."

My God! The shock and panic almost brought Gregg out of his seat. Puppetman snarled like a cornered dog in his head. His pulse pounded against his temples, and he could feel heat on his cheeks. How could she know…?

Gregg made himself laugh, forced a smile to his lips. "That's a common dream of politicians," he said, as if she'd made a joke. "I was probably trying to make the voters check the right box on the ballot." There were chuckles around his side of the table at that. Gregg let his voice drift back to seriousness. "If I could control people, aside from being president already, I'd be pulling those strings that would make your brother meet with us. Could that be the meaning of your dream?"

Unblinking, she looked at him. "Allah is subtle."

You must take her. No matter that Tachyon is here or that it's dangerous because she's an ace. You must take her because of what she might say. You must take her because you may never meet Nur al-Allah. She is here, now.

The power in Gregg was impatient, eager; he forced it back down. "What will convince Nur al-Allah, Kahina?"

A burst of Arabic; Rashid's voice spoke in Gregg's ear. "Allah will convince him."

"And you. You're his adviser too. What will you tell him?"

"We argued when I said Allah's dreams told me to come to Damascus." Her escorts were muttering again. One of them touched her shoulder and whispered into her ear fiercely. Kahina shook her head. "I will tell my brother what Allah's dreams tell me to say. Nothing more. My own words have no weight."

Tachyon pushed his chair back. "Senator, I suggest that we waste no further time with this. I want to see the few clinics the Syrian government has bothered to set up. Maybe there I can accomplish something."

Gregg looked around the table; the others were nodding. Kahina's own people looked impatient. Gregg rose. "Then we'll wait for word from you, Kahina. Please, I beg you, tell your brother that sometimes when you know an enemy, you find that he is no enemy at all. We're here to help. That's all." As Kahina stood, taking off her headset, Gregg casually held out his hand to her, ignoring the contempt the gesture elicited from her escorts. When Kahina didn't respond by taking his hand, he kept his hand extended. "We have a saying that, in Rome, one is supposed to act Roman," he commented, hoping she would understand the words or that Rashid would translate. "Still, the first step in understanding someone is to know their customs. One of ours is that peers shake hands to show understanding."

He thought for a moment that the ploy had failed, that the opportunity would pass. He was almost glad. Opening the mind and will of an ace who had already terrified him with her unknowing perception, and doing so with Tachyon standing alongside him, watching…

Then her hand, surprisingly white against the midnight darkness of her robes, brushed against his fingers.

You must…

Gregg slid along the curving, branching tendrils of the nervous system, watching for blocks and traps, watching especially for any sign of awareness of his presence. Had he felt that, he would have fled as quickly as he'd entered. He'd always been extremely cautious with aces, even with those who he knew had no mental powers. Kahina seemed unaware of his penetration.

He opend her, setting up the entrances he would use later. Puppetman sighed at the swirling maelstrom of emotion he found there. Kahina was rich, complicated. The hues of her mind were saturated and strong. He could sense her attitude toward him: a brilliant gold-green hope, the ocher of suspicion, a vein of marbled pity/disgust for his world. And yet there was glimmering envy underneath as well, and a yearning that seemed tied to her feelings for her brother.

He followed that trail backward and was surprised at the pure, bitter gall he found there. It had been carefully concealed, layered under safer, more benign emotions and sealed with respect for Allah's favoring of Nur al-Allah, but it was there. It throbbed at his touch, alive.

It took only a moment. Her hand had already withdrawn, but the contact was established. He stayed with her for a few more seconds to be sure, and then he came back to himself.

Gregg smiled. It was done, and he was still safe. Kahina hadn't noticed; Tachyon hadn't suspected.

"We're all grateful for your presence," Gregg said. "Tell Nur al-Allah that all we wish is understanding. Doesn't the Qur'an itself begin with the exordium 'in the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful'? We've come out of a sense of that same compassion."

"Is that the gift you bring, Senator?" she asked in English, and Gregg could feel the wistfulness surging from her opened mind.

"I think," he told her, "it's the same gift you would give yourself."

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 4, 1987, DAMASCUS:

The knock on her hotel door woke Sara from sleep. Groggy, she glanced first at her travel clock: 1:35 A.M. local time-it felt much later. Still jet lagged. Too early for Gregg, though.

She put a robe on, rubbing her eyes as she went to the door. The security people had been very definite about the risks here in Damascus. She didn't stand directly in front of the door, but leaned over toward the central peephole. Glancing through, she saw the distorted face of an Arabic woman, swathed in the chador. The eyes, the fine structure of the face were familiar, as were the sea-blue beads sewn in the chador's headpiece. "Kahina?" she queried.

"Yes," came the muffled voice from the hallway. "Please. I would talk."

"Just a minute." Sara ran a hand through her hair. She exchanged the thin, lacy robe shed put on for a heavier, more concealing one. She unchained the door, opened it a crack.

A heavy hand threw the door entirely open, and Sara stifled a shout. A burly man scowled at her, a handgun gripped in his large fist. He ignored Sara after an initial glance and prowled through her room, opening the closet door, peering into the bathroom. He grunted, then went back to the door. He spoke something in Arabic, and then Kahina entered. Her bodyguard shut the door behind her and stationed himself near it.

"I'm sorry," Kahina said. Her voice struggled with the English, but her eyes seemed kind. She gestured in the direction of the guard. "In our society, a woman…"

"I think I understand," Sara said. The man was staring rudely at her; Sara tightened the robe's sash and tugged the neckline higher. Involuntarily she yawned. Kahina seemed to smile under her veil.

"Again I am sorry I woke you, but the dream…" She shrugged. "May I sit?"

"Please." Sara waved toward two chairs by the window. The guard grunted. He spoke in rapid-fire syllables. "He says not by the window," Kahina translated. "Too unsafe." Sara dragged the chairs to the center of the room; that seemed to satisfy the guard, who leaned back against the wall. Kahina took one of the chairs, the dark cloth of her robes rustling. Sara seated herself carefully on the other. "You were at the meeting?" Kahina asked when they were settled.

"At the press conference afterward, you mean? Yes." Kahina nodded. "I saw you there. I knew your face from Allah's dreams. I come here now because of tonight's dream."

"You say my face was in your dreams?"

Kahina nodded. Sara found that the chador made it nearly impossible to read the hidden face. There were only Kahina's piercing eyes above the veils. Yet there seemed to be a deep kindness in them, an empathy. Sara felt herself warming to the woman. 'At the… conference"-Kahina stumbled over the word-"I said that Nur al-Allah waited to hear of my dreams before he would decide to meet with your people. I've just had his dream.'

"Then why come to me instead of your brother?" "Because in the dream -I was told to come to you." Sara shook her head. "I don't understand. We don't know each other; I was just one of a dozen or more reporters there."

"You're in love with him."

She knew who Kahina meant. She knew, but the protest was automatic. "Him?"

"The one with a double face. The one with strings. Hartmann." When Sara didn't answer, Kahina reached cut and touched her hand gently. The gesture was sisterly and strangely knowing. "You love the one you once hated," Kahina said. Her hand had not left Sara's:

Sara found that she could not lie, not to Kahina's open, vulnerable eyes. "I suppose so. You're the Seer; can you tell me how it turns out?" Sara said it jokingly, but Kahina either missed the inflection or chose to ignore it.

"You are happy for the moment, even though you are not his wife, even though you sin. I understand that." Kahina's fingers pressed against Sara's. "I understand how hate can be a blunted sword, how it can be beat upon until you begin to think it something else."

"You're confusing me, Kahina." Sara sat back, wishing she were completely awake, wishing that Gregg were there. Kahina withdrew her hand.

"Let me tell the dream." Kahina closed her eyes. She folded her hands in her lap. " I… I saw Hartmann, with his two faces, one pleasant to see, the other twisted like an abomination of Allah. You were beside him, not his wife, and the face that was pleasant smiled. I could see your feelings for him, how your hatred had been turned. My brother and I were there also, and my brother pointed to the abomination within Hartmann. The abomination spat, and the spittle fell upon me. I saw myself, and my face was yours. And I saw that I too had another face within my veils, an abominationface ugly with spite. Hartmann reached out and twisted my head until only the abomination could be seen."

"For a time the images of the dream were confused. I thought I saw a knife, and I saw Sayyid, my husband, struggling with me. Then the images cleared, and I saw a dwarf, and the dwarf spoke. He said: "Tell her that underneath the hate still lives. Tell her to remember that. The hate will protect you.' The dwarf laughed, and his laugh was evil. I did not like him.

Her eyes opened, and there was a distant terror in them. Sara started to speak, stopped, began again. "I… Kahina, I don't know what any of that means. It's just random images, no better than the dreams I have myself. Does it mean something to you?"

"It's Allah's dream," Kahina insisted, her voice harsh with intensity. " I could feel His power in it. I understand this: My brother will meet with your people."

"Gregg-Senator Hartmann-and the others will be glad to know that. Believe me, we mean only to help your people."

"Then why is the dream so fearful?"

"Maybe because there's always fear in change."

Kahina blinked. Suddenly the openness was gone. She was isolated, as hidden as her face behind the veils. " I said something very like that to Nur al-Allah once. He did not like the thought any more than I do now" She rose swiftly to her feet. The guard came to attention by the door. " I am glad we met," she said. " I will see you again in the desert." She went to the door.

"Kahina-"

She turned, waiting.

"Was that all you wanted to tell me."

The shadow of her veils hid her eyes. "I wanted to tell you one thing only," she said. "I wore your face in the dream. I think we are very alike; I feel we are… like kin. What this man you love would do to me, he might also do to you."

She nodded to the guard. They stepped quickly into the hallway and were gone.

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 4, 1987, IN THE SYRIAN DESERT:

It was the most barren landscape Gregg had ever seen. The windows were thick with grime kicked up by the 'copter's blades. Below them, the land was desolate. The vegetation was sparse and dry, clinging to life in the volcanic rock of the desert plateau. The land around the coast had been relatively lush, but. the date palms and arable farmland had given way to pines as the trio of helicopters left the mountains of Jabal Duriz. Then there were only hawthorns and bristly scrub. The only life they saw was in the occasional settlement, where robed and turbaned men looked up from goat herds with suspicious eyes.

The ride was long, noisy, and distinctly uncomfortable. The air was turbulent, and the faces around Gregg were sour. He glanced back at Sara; she gave him a halfhearted smile and shrug. The choppers began to descend toward a small town that seemed under siege by brightly colored tents, set in the folds of a prehistoric river valley. The sun was setting behind the barren, purpled hills; the lights of campfires dotted the area.

Billy Ray came back as the helicopter threw swirling gales of dust through the canvas. "Joanne said it's okay to land, Senator," Billy half-shouted through the clamor of the engines, cupping his mouth. "I want you to know that I still don't like it."

"We're safe enough, Billy," Gregg shouted back. "The man would have to be crazy to do anything to us."

Billy gave him a sidelong look. "Uh-huh. He's a fanatic. The Nur sect has been linked to terrorism everywhere in the Middle East. Going to his headquarters, at his beck and call, and with the limited resources I have is cutting Security's throat."

He sounded more excited than worried-Carnifex enjoyed fighting-but Gregg could feel a faint, cold undercurrent of fear under Ray's swelling anticipation. He reached into Billy's mind and tweaked that fear, enjoying the sensation as the feeling heightened. Gregg told himself that it wasn't simply for enjoyment, but because paranoia would make Ray even more effective if there was trouble. "I appreciate your concerns, Billy," he said. "But we're here. Let's see what we can do."

The 'copters landed in a central square near the mosque. They filed out, all but Tachyon shivering in the evening chill. Only a portion of the delegation had taken the flight from Damascus. Nur al-Allah had forbidden any 'loathsome abominations' to come to this place; the list had excluded all obvious jokers such as Father Squid or Chrysalis; Radha and Fantasy had decided on their own to remain in Damascus. Most of the spouses and much of the scientific team had remained behind as well. The haughtiness of Nur al-Allah's 'invitation' had angered many of the contingent; there had been a bitter debate over whether they should go at all. Gregg's insistence had finally won out.

"Look, I find his demands as distasteful as anyone. But the man's a legitimate force here. He rules Syria and a good portion of Jordan and Saudi as well. It doesn't matter who the elected leaders are-Nur al-Allah has united the sects. I don't like his teachings or his methods, but I can't deny his power. If we turn our backs on him, we change nothing. His prejudice, his violence, his hatred will continue to spread. If we do meet him, well, at least there's a chance we can get him to temper his harshness."

He'd laughed self-deprecatingly, shaking his head at his own argument. " I don't think we have a prayer, really. Still… it's something we're going to face, if not with Nur al-Allah, then back home with fundamentalists such as Leo Barnett. Prejudice isn't going to go away because we ignore it."

Puppetman, reaching out, had made certain that Hiram, Peregrine, and the others open to him murmured agreement. The rest had reluctantly withdrawn their objections, even if most decided to remain behind in protest.

In the end the aces willing to meet with Nur al-Allah had been Hiram, Peregrine, Braun, and Jones. Senator Lyons had decided to go at the last minute. Tachyon, to Gregg's dismay, insisted on being included. Reporters and security people swelled the ranks further.

Kahina stepped out from the mosque as the chuff of the blades slowed and the steps were let down from the doors of the helicopters. She bowed to them as they disembarked.

"Nur al-Allah bids you welcome," she said. "Please, follow "

Gregg heard Peregrine's sudden intake of breath as Kahina motioned to them. In the same moment he felt a surge of indignation and panic. He glanced over his shoulder to see Peregrine's wings folded protectively around herself, her gaze fixed on the ground near the mosque. He followed her stare.

A fire had flared up between the buildings. In its flickering light they could all see three flyblown bodies crumpled against the wall, rocks scattered around them. The nearest body was unmistakably a joker, the face elongated into a furry snout and the hands hornlike claws. The smell hit them then, ripe and foul; Gregg could feel the swelling of shock and disgust. Lyons was being desperately and loudly sick; Jack Braun muttered a curse. Inside, Puppetman grinned gleefully while Gregg frowned.

"What is this outrage?" Tachyon demanded of Kahina. Gregg let himself drift into her mind and found shifting hues of confusion. She'd looked back at the bodies herself, and Gregg felt the quick stab of betrayal within her. Yet when Kahina looked back; she'd covered it with the placid emerald of faith, and her voice was a careful monotone, her gaze flat. "They were… abominations. Allah placed the mark of their unworthiness on them, and their death is nothing. That is what Nur al-Allah has decreed."

"Senator, we are leaving," Tachyon declared. "This is an intolerable insult. Kahina, tell Nur al-Allah that we will protest most strongly to your government." His aristocratic face was tight with controlled fury, his hands clenched at his sides. But before any of them could move, Nur al-Allah stepped from the arched entrance to the mosque.

Gregg had no doubt that Nur al-Allah had chosen the time to best display himself. In the darkening night he appeared like a medieval painting of Christ, a holy radiance speading out from him. He wore a thin djellaba through which his skin gleamed, his beard and hair dark against the glow. "Nur al-Allah is Allah's prophet," he said in accented English. "If Allah would let you go, you may go. If He would bid you stay, you will stay."

Nur al-Allah's voice was a cello-a glorious, rich instrument. Gregg knew that he should answer, but couldn't. Everyone in the party was silent; Tachyon froze halfway in his turn back to the helicopters. Gregg had to fight to make his mouth work. His mind was filled with cobwebs, and it was only Puppetman's strength that allowed him to break those bonds. When he did reply, his own voice sounded thin and harsh. "Nur al-Allah allows the murder of innocents."

"Nur al-Allah allows the murder of innocents. That's not the power of Allah. That's only the failing of a man," Gregg rasped.

Sara wanted to shout agreement, but her voice wouldn't obey. Everyone stood as if stunned. Alongside Sara, Digger Downs had been scribbling frantically in his notebook; he'd stopped, the pencil forgotten in his hand.

Sara felt quick fright for herself, for Gregg, for everyone. We shouldn't have come. That voice… They'd known Nur al-Allah was an accomplished orator; they'd even suspected that some ace power rode in it, but no reports had said that it was this powerful.

"Man fails when he fails Allah," Nur al-Allah answered placidly. His voice wove a soft spell, a blanketing numbness. When he spoke, his words seemed filled with truth. "You think me deranged; I'm not. You think me a threat; I threaten only Allah's enemies. You think me harsh and cruel; if that's so, then it's only because Allah is harsh with sinners. Follow me."

He turned, walking quickly back into the mosque. Peregrine and Hiram were already moving to follow; Jack Braun looked dazed as he strode after the prophet; Downs brushed past Sara. Sara fought the compulsion, but her legs were possessed. She shambled forward with the rest. Of the party, only Tachyon was immune to Nur al-Allah's power. His features strained, he stood stiffly immobile in the middle of the court. As Sara passed him, he looked back at the helicopters; then, with a glare, let himself be drawn with her into the interior of the mosque.

Oil lamps lit shadowed recesses among the pillars. In the front, Nur al-Allah stood on the dais of the minbar, the pulpit. Kahina stood at his right hand, and Sara recognized the gargantuan figure of Sayyid at his left. Guards with automatic weapons moved to stations around the room as Sara and the others milled around the minbar in confusion.

"Hear the words of Allah," Nur al-Allah intoned. It was as if some deity were speaking, for his voice thundered and roared. Its fury and scorn made them tremble, wondering that the very stones of the mosque didn't fall as the power throbbed. "'As for the unbelievers, because of their misdeeds, ill fortune shall not cease to afflict them or crouch at their very doorstep.' And He also says: `Woe to the lying sinner! He heard the revelations of Allah recited to Him and then, as though he never heard them, persists in scorn. Those that deride Our revelations when they have scarcely heard them shall be put to a shameful punishment. Those that deny the revelations of their Lord shall suffer the torment of a hideous scourge."'

Sara found unbidden tears streaking down her cheeks. The quotations seemed to burn, etching her soul like acid. Though a part of her struggled, she wanted to shout Nur al-Allah and beg him for forgiveness. She looked for Gregg and saw him near the minbar. Tendons corded in his neck; he seemed to be reaching out for Nur al-Allah, and there was no repentance in his face. Can't you see? she wanted to say. Can't you see how wrong we've been?

And then, though Nur al-Allah's voice was still deep and resonant, the energy was gone from it. Sara wiped away tears angrily as his bright, sardonic face smiled. "You see? You feel the power of Allah. You came here to know your enemythen know that he is strong. His strength is God's, and you could no more defeat that than you could crack the spine of the world itself." He lifted his hand, fisted it before them. "Allah's power is here. With it I will sweep all unbelievers from this land. Do you think I need guards to hold you?" Nur al-Allah spat. "Ptah! My voice alone is your prison; should I want you to die, I'll simply command it of you and you'll place the barrel in your own mouth. I'll raze Israel to the very ground; I will take the ones marked by the Scourge of Allah and make them slaves; those with power that refuse to give themselves to Allah I will kill. That is what I offer to you. No parley, no compromise, only the fist of Allah."

"And that we cannot allow" The voice was Tachyon's, from the back of the mosque. Sara allowed herself to feel a desperate hope.

"And that we cannot allow" Gregg heard the words as his fingers strained toward Nur al-Allah's sandals. Puppetman added his strength, but it was as if Nur al-Allah stood atop a mountain and Gregg were reaching vainly up from the foot. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead. Sayyid glanced down scornfully, not even deigning to kick Gregg's hand away from his master.

Nur al-Allah laughed at Tachyon's words. "You'd challenge me, you who do not believe in Allah? I can feel you, Dr. Tachyon. I can feel your power prying at my mind. You believe that my mind can be broken the way you might break the mind of one of your companions. That's not so. Allah protects me, and Allah will punish those who attack him."

Yet even as he spoke, Gregg saw the strain on Nur al-Allah's face. His radiance seemed to dim, and the barriers holding Gregg loosened. Whatever the prophet's boast,

Tachyon's mental attack was getting through. Gregg felt a quick hope.

At that moment, with Nur al-Allah's attention on Tachyon, Gregg managed to touch the shimmering flesh of the prophet's foot. The emerald radiance burned hot; he ignored it. Puppetman shouted in triumph.

And then quickly recoiled. Nur al-Allah was there. He was aware, and Gregg could sense Tachyon's presence as well. Too dangerous, Puppetman cried. He knows, he knows.

From behind, there was a thud and strangled cry, and Gregg looked back over his shoulder at the doctor.

One of the guards had come up behind Tachyon, clubbing the alien on the head with the butt-of his Uzi. Tachyon was on his knees, his hands covering his head, moaning. He struggled to rise, but the guard struck him down brutally. Tachyon lay unconcious on the tiled mosaic of the floor, his breathing labored.

Nur al-Allah laughed. He looked down at Gregg, whose hand still reached futilely toward the foot of the prophet. "There, you see? I am protected: by Allah, by my people."

"What about you, Senator Hartmann, you with Kahina's strings? Do you still want me now? Perhaps I should show you the strings of Allah and make you dance for His pleasure. Kahina said you are a danger, and Sayyid wants you killed. So perhaps you should be the first sacrifice. How would your people react if they saw you confess your crimes and then, begging Allah's forgiveness, kill yourself? Would that be effective, do you think?"

Nur al-Allah pointed a finger at Gregg. "Yes," he said. "I think it would."

Puppetman yammered in fear.

"Yes, I think it would."

Misha listened to her brother's words with unease. Everything he had done was a slap in her face: the flaunting of the stoned jokers, the attack on Tachyon, his haughty threats now. Najib betrayed her with every word.

Najib had used her and lied to her, he and Sayyid. He'd let her go to Damascus thinking that she was representing them, that if she brought the Americans, there might be a chance of some agreement. But Najib hadn't cared. He hadn't listened to her warnings that he overreached himself. A slow festering rose inside her, leaching away her faith. Allah. I believe in Your voice within Najib. But now he shows his own second face. Is it Yours, as well?

The doubt diluted the magic of Najib's voice, and she dared to speak and interrupt him.

"You move too fast, Najib," she hissed. "Don't destroy us with your pride."

His glowing face contorted, his speech halting in midsentence. "I am the Prophet," he snapped. "Not you."

"Then at least listen to me, who sees our future. This is a mistake, Najib. This way leads away from Allah."

"Be silentl" he roared, and his fist lashed out. A red-hued dizziness blinded her. In that moment, with Najib's voice dulled by pain, something in her mind gave way, some barrier that had been holding back all the venom. This fury was cold and deadly, poisonous with every insult and abuse Najib had given her over the years, laced with frustration and denial and subjugation. Najib had turned away from her, expecting her obedience. He resumed his tirade, the power of the voice coiling out over the crowd once more.

It could not touch her, not through what spilled from the bitter pool.

She saw the knife in his sash and knew what she had to do. The compulsion was too great for her to resist. She leapt at Najib, screaming wordlessly.

Sara saw Nur al-Allah point his glowing finger toward Gregg. Yet in following that gesture, her attention was snagged by Kahina. Sara frowned even under the spell of Nur al-Allah's words, for Kahina was trembling-she stared at her brother and there was nothing in her eyes but acid. She shouted something to him in Arabic, and he swung around to her, still pulsing with flaring power. They exchanged words; he struck her.

It was as if that blow had driven her into a divine madness. Kahina leapt at Nur al-Allah like some predatory cat, screaming as she clawed at him with bare hands. Dark rivulets of blood dimmed the moon of his face. She tugged at the long, curved knife in his sash, pulling it from the bejeweled scabbard. In the same motion she slashed across his throat with the keen edge. Nur al-Allah clutched at his neck, blood pouring between his fingers as a strangled, wet gasping came from him. He toppled backward.

For a moment the horror held everyone in suspension, then the room erupted into shouts. Kahina was standing in shock above Nur al-Allah, the knife dangling from white fingers. Sayyid bellowed in disbelief, swinging a huge arm that sent Kahina tumbling to the floor. Sayyid took a clumsy step forward-Sara realized with a start that the giant was a cripple. Two of the guards seized Kahina, dragging her to her feet as She struggled. Other men crouched beside the stricken Nur al-Allah, trying to stanch the flow of blood.

Sayyid had reached Kahina. He picked up the dagger she'd dropped, staring at the dark stains on it. He wailed, his eyes raised to heaven, and then drew the blade back to stab her.

But he moaned, the blade still raised. He sagged, his knees buckling as if some great weight were pressing down on him from above, crushing him. Sayyid screamed in agony, dropping the weapon. His massive body collapsed in on itself, the skeleton no longer able to support the flesh. Everyone heard the dry, sickening crack of snapping bones. Sara glanced around and saw Hiram sweating, his right fist squeezing into a white-knuckled fist.

Sayyid whimpered, a shapeless mass on the tiles. The guards let go of Kahina in confusion.

Kahina ran. One of the guards brought his Uzi to bear, but he was slammed against the wall by Mordecai Jones. Jack Braun, glowing golden, picked up another of the Nur alAllah's guards and tossed him bodily across the room. Peregrine, her feathers molting, was unable to take to the air. Still, she slipped on her taloned gloves and slashed at a guard. Billy Ray, with an exultant whoop, spun and kicked the knees of the gunman alongside him.

Kahina ducked through an archway and was gone.

Sara found Gregg in the confusion. He was safe; a wave of relief flooded through her. She began to run toward him, and the relief turned frigid.

There was no more fright on his face, no concern at all. He seemed calm. He almost seemed to smile.

Sara gaped. She felt nothing but a yawning emptiness. "No," she whispered to herself.

What he would do to me, he would also do to you. "No," she insisted. "That can't be."

Nur al-Allah had pointed his accusing finger at Gregg, and Gregg had known that his only hope lay in the bitterness within Kahina. Nur al-Allah was beyond his control, he knew now, but Kahina was his. Gregg's rape of her mind was brutal and ruthless. He'd stripped everything from her but that underlying hate, letting it flood and swell. It had worked beyond his expectations.

But he'd wanted Kahina dead. He'd wanted her silenced. It must have been Hiram that had stopped Sayyidtoo chivalrous to give Kahina to Islamic justice and strangely brutal with his power. Gregg berated himself for not having foreseen that; he could have controlled Hiram, long a puppet, even with the strange hues he'd seen in the man lately. Now the moment was gone, the spell broken with the loss of Nur al-Allah's voice. Gregg let himself touch Hiram's mind and saw that faint, odd coloring there again. He had no time to muse on it.

People were shouting. An Uzi chattered, deafening.

In the midst of chaos Gregg felt Sara. He swung about to find her staring at him. Emotions were shifting wildly inside her. Her love was tattered, stretched thin under swelling ocher suspicion. "Sara," he called, and her gaze slid sharply away, looking at the press of people around Nur al-Allah. There was fighting all around him. He thought he saw Billy, glee on his face, dive bodily at a guard.

Let me have Sara or you've lost her. Puppetman sounded oddly sad. There's nothing you can say to undo the damage. She's all you can salvage from this. Give her to me, or she's gone too.

No, she can't know. It's not possible that she knows. Gregg protested, but he knew that he was wrong. He could see the damage in her mind. No lie could repair that.

Grieving, he entered her mind and caressed the torn azure fabric of her affection. Gregg watched as-slowly, carefullyPuppetman buried her distrust under bright and soft ribbons of false love.

He hugged her quickly. "Come on," he said gruffly. "We're leaving."

Out in the room Billy Ray stood over an unconscious guard. His strident voice ordered his security people into position. "Move! You-get the doctor. Senator Hartmann now! Let's get out of here!" There was still some resistance on the floor, but Nur al-Allah's people were in shock. Most knelt around Nur al-Allah's prone body. The prophet was still alive: Gregg could sense his fright, his pain. Gregg wanted Nur al-Allah dead, too, but there was no opportunity for that.

Gunfire erupted near Gregg. Braun, glowing intensely now, stepped in front of the hidden gunman; they could hear the whine of the slugs ricocheting from his body. Gregg grunted in shock even as Braun tore the weapon away from the man. A lancing fire slammed into his shoulder, the impact staggering him. "Gregg!" he heard Sara cry.

On his knees, he groaned. He pulled his hand away from his shoulder and saw his fingers bright with blood. The room spun around him; Puppetman cowered.

"Joanne, get 'em out! The Senator's hit!" Billy Ray moved Sara aside and crouched beside Gregg. He carefully stripped the bloodstained jacket from the senator to examine the wound. Gregg could feel relief flood through the man. "You'll be okay-a good, long graze, that's all. Let me give you a hand-"

"I can make it," he grated through clenched teeth, struggling to his feet. Sara took his good arm, helping him up. He gulped air-there was violence all around him, and Puppetman was too dazed to even feed. He forced himself to think, to ignore the throbbing pain. "Billy, go on. Get the others." There was little to do. The remainder of Nur alAllah's people were tending to their prophet; Peregrine had slipped outside; Jones and Braun were shepherding Lyons and the other dignitaries. Hiram had turned Tachyon nearly weightless and was assisting him outside as the doctor shook his head groggily. No one resisted their retreat.

Sara let Gregg lean against her as they fled. As they tumbled into seats in the helicopter, she hugged him softly. "I'm glad you're safe," she whispered. She took his hand as the chopper's blades tore the night air.

It was as if Gregg grasped a doll's wooden hand. It meant nothing. Nothing at all.

FROM THE JOURNAL OF XAVIER DESMOND

FEBRUARY 7/KABUL, AFGHANISTAN:

I am in a good deal of pain today. Most of the delegates have gone on a day trip to various historic sights, but I elected to stay at the hotel once again.

Our tour… what can I say? Syria has made headlines around the world. Our press contingent has doubled in size, all of them eager to get the inside story of what happened out in the desert. For once, I am not unhappy to have been excluded. Peri has told me what it was like…

Syria has touched all of us, myself included. Not all of my pain is caused by the cancer. There are times when I grow profoundly weary, looking back over my life and wondering whether I have done any good at all, or if all my life's work has been for nothing. I have tried to speak out on behalf of my people, to appeal to reason and decency and the common humanity that unites us all, and I have always been convinced that quiet strength, perseverance, and nonviolence would get us further in the long run. Syria makes me wonder… how do you reason with a man like the Nur al-Allah, compromise with him, talk to him? How do you appeal to his humanity when he does not consider you human at all? If there is a God, I pray that he forgives me, but I find myself wishing they had killed the Nur.

Hiram has left the tour, albeit temporarily. He promises to rejoin us in India, but by now he is back in New York City, after jetting from Damascus to Rome and then catching a Concorde back to America. He told us that an emergency had arisen at Aces High that demanded his personal attention, but I suspect the truth is that Syria shook him more than he cared to admit. The rumor has swept round the plane that Hiram lost control in the desert, that he hit General Sayyid with far more weight than was necessary to stop him. Billy Ray, of'course, doesn't think Hiram went far enough. "If it'd been me, I would have piled it on till he was just a brown and red stain on the floor," he told me.

Worchester himself refused to talk about it and insisted that he was taking this brief leave of us simply because he was "sick unto death of stuffed grape leaves," but even as he made the joke, I noticed beads of sweat on his broad, bald forehead and a slight tremor in his hand. I hope a short respite restores him; the more we have traveled together, the more I have to come to respect Hiram Worchester.

If clouds do indeed have a silver lining, however, then perhaps one good did come out of the monstrous incident in Syria: Gregg Hartmann's stature seems to have been vastly enhanced by his near brush with death. For a decade now his political fortunes have been haunted by the specter of the Great Jokertown Riot in 1976, when he "lost his head" in public. To me his reaction was only human-he had just witnessed a woman being torn to pieces by a mob, after all. But presidential candidates are not allowed to weep or grieve or rage like the rest of us, as Muskie proved in 72 and Hartmann confirmed in '76.

Syria may finally have put that tragic incident to rest. Everyone who was there agrees that Hartmann's behavior was exemplary-he was firm, cool-headed, courageous, a pillar of strength in the face of the Nur's barbarous threats. Every paper in America has run the AP photo that was taken as they pulled out: Hiram helping Tachyon into the helicopter in the background, while in the foreground Senator Hartmann waited, his face streaked with dust, yet still grim and strong, his blood soaking through the sleeve of his white shirt.

Gregg still claims that he is not going to be a presidential candidate in 1988, and indeed all the polls show that Gary Hart has an overwhelming lead for the Democratic nomination, but Syria and the photograph will surely do wonders for his name recognition and his standing. I find myself desperately hoping that he will reconsider. I have nothing against Gary Hart, but Gregg Hartmann is something special, and perhaps for those of us touched by the wild card, he is our last best hope.

If Hartmann fails, all my hopes fail with him, and then what choice will we have but to turn to the Black Dog?

I suppose I should write something about Afghanistan, but there is little to record. I don't have the strength to see what sights Kabul has to offer. The Soviets are much in evidence here, but they are being very correct and courteous. The war is being kept at arm's length for the duration of our short stopover. Two Afghan jokers have been produced for our approval, both of whom swear (through Soviet interpreters) that a joker's life is idyllic here. Somehow I am not convinced. If I understand correctly, they are the only two jokers in all of Afghanistan.

The Stacked Deck flew directly from Baghdad to Kabul. Iran was out of the question. The Ayatollah shares many of the Nur's views on wild cards, and he rules his nation in name as well as fact, so even the UN could not secure us permission to land. At least the Ayatollah makes no distinctions between aces and jokers-we are all the demon children of the Great Satan, according to him. Obviously he has not forgotten Jimmy Carter's ill-fated attempt to free the hostages, when a half-dozen government aces were sent in on a secret mission that turned into a horrid botch. The rumor is that Carnifex was one of the aces involved, but Billy Ray emphatically denies it. "If I'd been along, we would have gotten our people out and kicked the old man's ass for good measure," he says. His colleague from justice, Lady Black, just pulls her black cloak more tightly about herself and smiles enigmatically. Mistral's father, Cyclone, has often been linked to that doomed mission as well, but it's not something she'll talk about.

Tomorrow morning we'll fly over the Khyber Pass and cross into India, a different world' entirely, a whole sprawling subcontinent, with the largest joker population anywhere outside the United States.

FEBRUARY 12/CALCUTTA:

India is as strange and fabulous a land as any we have seen on this trip… if indeed it is correct to call it a land at all. It seems more like a hundred lands in one. I find it hard to connect the Himalayas and the palaces of the Moguls to the slums of Calcutta and Bengali jungles. The Indians themselves live in a dozen different worlds, from the aging Britishers who try to pretend that the Viceroy still rules in their little enclaves of the Raj, to the maharajas and nawabs who are kings in all but name, to the beggars on the streets of this sprawling filthy city.

There is so much of India.

In Calcutta you see jokers on the streets everywhere you go. They are as common as beggars, naked children, and corpses, and too frequently one and the same. In this quasi-nation of Hindu and Moslem and Sikh, the vast majority of jokers seem to be Hindu, but given Islam's attitudes, that can hardly be a surprise. The orthodox Hindu has invented a new caste for the joker, far below even the untouchable, but at least they are allowed to live.

Interestingly enough, we have found no jokertowns in India. This culture is sharply divided along racial and ethnic grounds, and the enmities run very deep, as was clearly shown in the Calcutta wild card riots of 1947, and the wholesale nationwide carnage that accompanied the partition of the subcontinent that same year. Despite that, today you find Hindu and Muslim and Sikh living side by side on the same street, and jokers and nats and even a few pathetic deuces sharing the same hideous slums. It does not seem to have made them love each other any more, alas.

India also boasts a number of native aces, including a few of considerable power. Digger is having a grand time dashing about the country interviewing them all, or as many as will consent to meet with him.

Radha O'Reilly, on the other hand, is obviously very unhappy here. She is Indian royalty herself, it appears, at least on her mother's side… her father was some sort of Irish adventurer. Her people practice a variety of Hinduism built around Gonesh, the elephant god, and the black mother Kali, and to them her wild card ability makes her the destined bride of Gonesh, or something along those lines. At any rate she seems firmly convinced that she is in imminent danger of being kidnapped and forcibly returned to her homeland, so except for the official receptions in New Delhi and Bombay, she has remained closely closeted in the various hotels, with Carnifex, Lady Black, and the rest of our security close at hand. I believe she will be very happy to leave India once again.

Dr. Tachyon, Peregrine, Mistral, Fantasy, Troll, and the Harlem Hammer have just returned from a tiger hunt in the Bengal. Their 'host was one of the Indian aces, a maharaja blessed with a form of the midas touch. I understand that the gold he creates -is inherently unstable and reverts to its original state within twenty-four hours, although the process of transmutation is still sufficient to kill any living thing he touches. Still, his palace is reputed to be quite a spectacular place. He's solved the traditional mythic dilemma by having his servants feed him.

Tachyon returned from the expedition in as good a spirit as I've seen him since Syria, wearing-a golden nehru jacket and matching turban, fastened by a ruby the size of my thumb. The maharaja was lavish with his gifts, it seems. Even the prospect of the jacket and turban reverting to common cloth in a few hours does not seem to have dampened our alien's enthusiasm for the day's activities. The glittering pageant of the hunt, the splendors of the palace, and the maharaja's harem all seem to have reminded Tach of the pleasures and prerogatives he once enjoyed as a prince of the Ilkazam on his home world. He admitted that even on Takis there was no sight to compare to the end of the hunt, when the maneater had been brought to bay and the maharaja calmly approached it, removed one golden glove, and transmuted the huge beast to solid gold with a touch.

While our aces were accepting their presents of fairy gold and hunting tigers, I spent the day in humbler pursuits, in the unexpected company of Jack Braun, who was invited to the hunt with the others but declined. Instead Braun and I made our way across Calcutta to visit the monument the Indians erected to Earl Sanderson on the site where he saved Mahatma Gandhi from assassination.

The memorial resembles a Hindu temple and the statue inside looks more like some minor Indian deity than an American black who played football for Rutgers, but still…

Sanderson has indeed. become some sort of god to these people; various offerings left by worshipers were strewn about the feet of his statue. It was very crowded, and we had to wait for a long time before we were admitted. The Mahatma is still universally revered in India, and some of his popularity seems to have rubbed off on the memory of the American ace who stepped between him and an assassin's bullet.

Braun said very little when we were inside, just stared up at the statue as if somehow willing it to come to life. It was a moving visit, but not entirely a comfortable one. My obvious deformity drew hard looks from some of the highercaste Hindus in the press of the people. And whenever someone brushed against Braun too tightly-as happened frequently among such a tightly packed mass of people-his biological force field would begin to shimmer, surrounding him with a ghostly golden glow. I'm afraid my nervousness got the better of me, and I interrupted Braun's reveries and got us out of there hastily. Perhaps I overreacted, but if even one person in that crowd had realized who Jack Braun was, it might have triggered a vastly ugly scene. Braun was very moody and quiet on the way back to our hotel.

Gandhi is a personal hero of mine, and for all my mixed feelings about aces I must admit that I am grateful to Earl Sanderson for the intervention that saved Gandhi's life. For the great prophet of nonviolence to die by an assassin's bullet would have been too grotesque, and I think India would have torn itself apart in the wake of such a death, in a fratricidal bloodbath the likes of which the world has never seen.

If Gandhi had not lived to lead the reunification of the subcontinent after the death of Jinnah in 1948, would that strange two-headed nation called Pakistan actually have endured? Would the All-India Congress have displaced all the petty rulers and absorbed their domains, as it threatened to do? The very shape of this decentralized, endlessly diverse patchwork country is an expression of the Mahatma's dreams. I find it inconceivable to imagine what course Indian history might have taken without him. So in that respect, at least, the Four Aces left a real mark on the world and perhaps demonstrated that one determined man can indeed change the course of history for the better.

I pointed all this out to Jack Braun on our ride home, when he seemed so withdrawn. I'm afraid it did not help much. He listened to me patiently and when I was finished, he said, "It was Earl who saved him, not me," and lapsed back into silence.

True to his promise, Hiram Worchester returned to the tour today, via Concorde from London. His brief sojourn in New York seems to have done him a world of good. His old ebullience was back, and he promptly convinced Tachyon, Mordecai Jones, and Fantasy to join him on an expedition to find the hottest vindaloo in Calcutta. He pressed Peregrine to join the foraging party as well, but the thought seemed to make her turn green.

Tomorrow morning Father Squid, Troll, and I will visit the Ganges, where legend has it a joker can bathe in the sacred waters and be cured of his afflictions. Our guides tell us there are hundreds of documented cases, but I am frankly dubious, although Father Squid insists that there have been miraculous joker cures in Lourdes as well. Perhaps I shall succumb and leap into the sacred waters after all. A man dying of cancer can ill afford the luxury of skepticism, I suppose.

Chrysalis was invited to join us, but declined. These days she seems most comfortable in the hotel bars, drinking amaretto and playing endless games of solitaire. She has become quite friendly with two of our reporters, Sara Morgenstern and the ubiquitous Digger Downs, and I've even heard talk that she and Digger are sleeping together.

Back from the Ganges. I must make my confession. I took off my shoe and sock, rolled up my pants legs, and put my foot in the sacred waters. Afterward, I was still a joker, alas… a joker with a wet foot.

The sacred waters are filthy, by the way, and while I wag fishing for my miracle, someone stole my shoe.

THE TEARDROP OF INDIA

Walton Simons

The people of Colombo had been waiting for the ape since early morning, and the police were having trouble keeping them away from the docks. A few were getting past the wooden barricades, only to, be quickly caught and hustled into the bright yellow police vans. Some sat on parked cars; others had children perched on their shoulders. Most were content to stand behind the cordons, craning their necks for a look at what the local press called "the great American monster."

Two massive cranes lifted the giant ape slowly off the barge. It hung bound and limp, dark fur poking out from inside the steel mesh. The only indication of life was the slow rising and falling of its fifteen-foot-wide chest. There was a grinding squeal as the cranes pivoted together, swinging the ape sideways until it was over the freshly painted, green railway car. The flatcar groaned as the ape settled onto its broad steel bed. There was scattered cheering and clapping from the crowd.

It was the same as the vision he'd had only a few months ago-the crowd, the calm sea, and clear sky, the sweat on the back of his neck-all the same. The visions never lied. He knew exactly what would happen for the next fifteen minutes or so; after that he could go back to living again.

He adjusted the collar of his nehru shirt and flashed his government ID card to the policeman nearest him. The officer nodded and stepped out of his way. He was a special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior, which gave him a particularly wide range of responsibilities. Sometimes what he did was little more than nursemaid rich, visiting foreigners. But it was preferable to the twenty-plus years he'd spent in embassies overseas.

There was a group of twenty or thirty Americans around the train. Most wore light gray security uniforms and were busy chaining the beast down to the railway car. They kept an eye on the ape while going about their business but didn't act afraid. A tall man in a Hawaiian print shirt and plaid Bermuda shorts was standing well away, talking to a girl in a light blue cotton sundress. They were both wearing red and black "King Pongo" visors.

He walked over to the tall man and tapped him on the shoulder.

"Not now" The man didn't even bother to turn and look at him.

"Mr. Danforth?" He tapped him on the shoulder again, harder. "Welcome to Sri Lanka. I'm G. C. Jayewardene. You telephoned me last month about your film." Jayewardene spoke English, Sinhalese, Tamil, and Dutch. His position in the government required it.

The film producer turned, his face blank. "Jayewardene? Oh, right. The government guy. Nice to meet you." Danforth grabbed his hand and pumped it a few times. "We're real busy right now. Guess you can see that."

"Of course. If it's not too much trouble, I'd like to ride along while you're transporting the ape." Jayewardene could not help but be impressed with its size. The monster was even taller than the forty-foot Aukana Buddha. "It seems much larger when you see it up close."

"No joke. But it'll be worth all the blood, sweat, and tears it took to get it here when the film comes out." He jerked his thumb toward the monster. "That baby is great pub."

Jayewardene put his hand over his mouth, trying to hide his puzzled expression.

"Publicity" Danforth smiled. "Have to watch the industry slang, I guess. Sure, G. C., you can ride in the VIP car with us. It's the one in front of our hairy friend."

"Thank you."

The giant ape exhaled, stirring the dust and dirt by its open mouth into a small cloud.

"Great pub," said Jayewardene.

The rhythmic clacking of the train's wheels on the old railway track relaxed him. Jayewardene had ridden the island trains on countless trips in the forty-odd years since he'd boarded one for the first time as a boy. The girl in the blue dress, who'd finally introduced herself as Paula Curtis, was staring out the window at the terraced tea fields. Danforth was working over a map with a red felt-tip pen.

"Okay," he said, putting the handle end of the pen to his lips. "We take the train to the end of the line, which is around the headwaters of the Kalu Ganga." He flattened the map onto his knees and pointed to the spot with his pen. "That puts us at the edge of the Udu Walawe National Park, and Roger has supposedly scouted out some great locations for us there. Right?"

"Right," Paula answered. "If you trust Roger."

"He's s the director, my dear. We have to trust him. Too bad we couldn't afford somebody decent, but the effects are going to take up most of the budget."

A steward walked over to them, carrying a tray with plates of curried rice and string hoppers,- small steamed strands of rice flour dough. Jayewardene took a plate and smiled. "Es-thu-ti," he said, thanking the young steward. The boy had a round face and broad nose, obviously Sinhalese like himself.

Paula turned from the window long enough to take a plate. Danforth waved the boy away.

"I'm not sure I understand." Jayewardene took a mouthful of the rice, chewed briefly, and swallowed. There was too little cinnamon in the curry for his taste. "Why spend money on special effects when you have a fifty' -foot ape?"

"Like I said earlier, the monsters great pub. But it would be hell trying to get the thing to perform on cue. Not to mention being prohibitively dangerous to everyone around him. Oh, we may use him in a couple of shots, and definitely for sound effects, but most of the stuff will be done with miniatures." Danforth grabbed a fingerful of rice from Paula's plate and dropped it into his mouth, then shrugged. "Then, when the movie opens, the critics will say they can't tell the real ape from the model, and people take that as a challenge, see. Figure they can be the one to spot it. It sells tickets."

"Surely the publicity value is less than the money it took to get the beast from the City of New York and bring it halfway around the world." Jayewardene dabbed at the corner of his mouth with a cloth napkin.

Danforth looked up, grinning. "Actually we got the ape for nothing. See, it gets loose every now and then and starts tearing things up. The city is up to its ass in lawsuits every time that happens. If it's not in New York, it can't do any damage. They almost paid us to take the thing off their hands. Of course we have to make sure nothing happens to it, or the zoo would lose one of its main attractions. That's what those boys in gray are for."

"And if the ape escapes here, your film company will be liable." Jayewardene took another bite.

"We've got it doped up all the time. And frankly it doesn't seem much interested in anything."

"Except blond women." Paula pointed to her short, brown hair. "Lucky for me." She looked back out the window. "What's that mountain?"

"Sri Pada. Adam's Peak. There is a footprint at the top said to be made by the Buddha himself. It is a very holy place." Jayewardene made the pilgrimage to the top every year. He planned to do so in the near future, as soon as his schedule allowed it. This time with hopes of cleansing himself spiritually so that there were no more visions.

"No kidding." Paula elbowed Danforth. "We going to have time to do any sight-seeing?"

"We'll see," Danforth said, reaching over for more rice. Jayewardene set his plate down. "Excuse me." He got up and walked to the rear of the car, slid the door open, and stepped out onto the platform.

The giant ape's head was only about twelve feet from where he stood. Its eyes fluttered, then stared up at the rounded top of Adam's Peak. The ape opened its mouth; lips pulled back, revealing the huge yellow-white teeth. There was a rumble, louder than the train engine, from the back of the monster's throat.

"It's waking up," he yelled at the security men riding at the back of the flatcar.

They walked forward carefully, steadying themselves on the car's side railing, avoiding the ape's manacled hands. One watched the monster, rifle centered on its head. The other changed the plastic bottle hooked up to the IV in the ape's arm.

"`Thanks." One of the guards waved at Jayewardene. "It'll be okay now. This stuff will put him out for hours."

The ape twisted its head and looked directly at him, then turned back to Adam's Peak. It sighed and closed its eyes. There was something in the monster's brown eyes that he couldn't identify. He paused, then went back into the car. The curry aftertaste was sour in the back of his throat.

They reached the camp at dusk. Actually it was more of a hastily thrown together city of tents and portable buildings. There was less activity than Jayewardene had expected. Most of the crew sat around talking or playing cards. Only the zoo security people were busy, carefully unloading the ape onto a broadbed truck. It was still unconscious from the drug.

Danforth told Paula to introduce Jayewardene around. The director, Roger Winters, was busy making changes in the shooting script. He wore a Frank S. Buck outfit, complete with pith helmet to hide his thinning hair. Paula guided Jayewardene away from the director.

"You wouldn't like him," she said. "Nobody does. At least nobody I know. But he can bring them in on schedule. Here's somebody you'll be more interested in. You're not married, are you?"

"Widowed."

"Oh, sorry" She waved at a blond woman sitting on the bare wooden steps of the camp's main building. The woman wore a black and red "King Pongo" T-shirt, tight blue jeans, and leather walking boots.

"Hi, Paula," said the blonde, tossing her hair. "Who's your friend?"

"Robyn Symmes, meet Mr. G. C. Jayewardene," Paula said. Robyn extended her hand. Jayewardene lightly shook it. "Nice to meet you, Miss Symmes." Jayewardene bowed, embarrassingly aware of the tightness of his shirt across his oversize stomach. He was flattered to be in the company of the only two women he'd seen in the camp. They were both attractive, in a foreign way. He wiped the sweat from his brow and wondered how they would look in saris.

"Look, I have to go settle Danforth in. Why don't you two entertain each other for a while." Paula was walking away before either of them had time to answer.

"Your name is Jayewardene? Any relation to President Junius Jayewardene?"

"No. It's a common name. How do you like it here?" He sat down next to her. The steps were uncomfortably hot. "Well, I've only been here a few days, but it's a beautiful place. A bit too hot for my taste, but I'm from North Dakota."

He nodded. "We have every kind of beauty imaginable here. Beaches, mountains, jungle, cities. Something for everyone. Except cold weather of course."

There was a pause. "So." Robyn slapped her hands on her thighs. "What is it you do that your government decided to stick you out here with us?"

"I'm a diplomat of sorts. My job is to make foreign visitors happy here. Or at least to try. We like to maintain a reputation as a friendly country"

"Well, I sure haven't seen anything to contradict that. The people I've met practically kill you with kindness." She pointed to the line of trees at the edge of the camp. "The animals are something again, though. You know what they found this morning?"

He shrugged.

A cobra. Right over there. Uffda. That's something that you definitely don't get in North Dakota." She shuddered. Most animals I can handle, but snakes… " She made a face.

"Nature is complete and harmonious here." He smiled. "But I must be boring you."

"No. Not really. You're certainly more interesting than Roger, or the gaffers and grips. How long will you be here? I mean, with the film company."

"Off and on for your entire stay, although I'll be going back to Colombo tomorrow for a few days. Dr. Tachyon, the alien, and a large party from your country will be arriving here then. To study the effect of the virus in my country" A shiver eased up his spine.

"You are a busy little bee, aren't you?" She looked up. The light was beginning to dim around the swaying treetops. "I'm going to go get some sleep. You might want to do the same. Paula will show you where. She knows everything. Danforth wouldn't ever finish a film without her." Jayewardene watched her walk away, sighing at the. memory of pleasure he thought best forgotten, then got up and headed in the direction Paula had gone. He would need sleep to be fresh for the trip back tomorrow. But sleep never came easily to him. And he was afraid to dream. He'd learned to be afraid.

He woke up biting his right hand hard enough to draw blood. His breathing was ragged and his nightshirt was bathed in sweat. The world around him shimmered and then came into focus. Another vision, snatched from the future.

They were happening more and more often in spite of his prayers and meditation. It was only a small comfort that this one wasn't about him. Not directly anyway.

He pulled on his pants and shoes, unzipped his tent, and stepped outside. Jayewardene walked quietly toward the truck where the ape was chained. Two men were on guard.

One was leaning against the cab; the other was sitting with his back to one of the huge, mud-covered tires. Both had rifles and lit cigarettes. They were speaking softly to each other.

"What's up?" asked the man by the cab as Jayewardene approached. He didn't bother to raise his rifle.

" I wanted to look at the ape again."

"In the middle of the night? You'll see more tomorrow morning when it's light."

" I couldn't sleep. And I'll be returning to Colombo tomorrow" He walked up next to the monster. "When did the ape first appear?"

"Blackout of '65 in New York City," said the seated man. "Showed up in the middle of Manhattan. Nobody knows where it came from, though. Probably had something to do with the wild card. At least that's what people say."

Jayewardene nodded. "I'm going to walk around to the other side. To look at his face."

"Just don't put your head in its mouth." The guard flicked his cigarette butt onto the ground. Jayewardene crushed it out with his shoe as he walked past.

The ape's breath was hot, organic, but not foul. Jayewardene waited, hoping that the beast would open its eyes again. The vision had told him what was behind them, but he wanted another look. The dreams had never been wrong before, but his reputation would be destroyed if he went to the authorities with this story and it proved wrong. And there would be questions about how he could have known. He would have to answer them without revealing his unusual abilities. Not an easy problem to solve in so little time.

The ape's eyes stayed shut.

The jungle's night sounds were more distant than usual. The animals were staying far away from the camp. Jayewardene hoped it was because they sensed the ape. Sensed the wrongness about it. He glanced at his watch. It would be dawn in a couple of hours. He would speak to Danforth first thing in the morning, then go back to Colombo. Dr. Tachyon had the reputation of being able to work wonders. It would be his task to transform the ape. The vision made that very clear. Perhaps the alien could even help him. If his pilgrimage failed.

He walked back to his tent and spent the next few hours praying to the Buddha for a little less enlightenment.

It was past nine o'clock when Danforth emerged, blearyeyed, from the main portable building. Jayewardene was on his second cup of tea but was still moving slowly, as if his body were encased in mud.

"Mr. Danforth. I must speak to you before leaving this morning."

Danforth yawned and nodded. "Fine. Look, before you get away, I want to take some pictures. You know, the entire crew and the ape. Something to give to the wire services. I'd appreciate it if you'd be in it too." Danforth yawned again, even wider. "God, got to get some coffee in me. The boys are supposed to have everything set up by now. I'll be free for a few minutes after that, and we can talk about it then."

"I think it would be best to discuss it now, privately." He looked out into the jungle. "Perhaps take a walk away from the camp."

"In the jungle? I heard they killed a cobra yesterday. No way." Danforth backed away. "I'll talk to you after we get our publicity shots done, not before."

Jayewardene took another sip of tea and walked over to the truck. He wasn't surprised or disgusted at Danforth's attitude. The man had the weight of a multimillion dollar project on his shoulders. That kind of pressure could skew anyone's values; make him fear the wrong things.

Most of the crew were already assembled in front of the giant ape. Paula was sitting in front, chewing on her fingernails while looking over the production schedule. He knelt down next to her.

" I see his majesty hooked you into doing this just like the rest of us," Paula said without looking up.

"I'm afraid so. You don't look like you slept very well."

"It's not that I didn't sleep well. I didn't sleep period. I was up with Roger and Mr. D. all last night. But it comes with the territory" She leaned her head back and rotated it in a slow, circular motion. "Well, as soon as Roger, Robyn, and the boss get here, we can get this fun over with."

Jayewardene downed the rest of his tea. Later in the day a busload of extras, most Sinhalese with a few Tamils and Muslims, was scheduled to arrive. All those selected to be in the film spoke English, which was not uncommon, given the island's history of British involvement.

Danforth showed up with Roger in tow. The producer looked at the group and squinted. "The ape's facing the wrong way. Somebody get that truck turned around."

A gray-clad guard waved, jumped up into the cab, and started the truck up.

"Okay. Everybody out of the way so we can get this done quickly." Danforth motioned them toward him.

Somebody whistled and Jayewardene turned. Robyn was walking toward the group. She was wearing a long, skintight silver dress. She wasn't smiling.

"Why do I have to wear this now? It's going to be bad enough during shooting. I'll probably get heat stroke." Robyn put her hands on her hips and frowned.

Danforth shrugged. "Jungle shooting is a pain in the butt. You knew that when you took the part."

Robyn pressed her lips tightly together and was quiet. The truck backed into position and Danforth clapped his hands. "-rill right. Everybody back where you were before. We'll get this over as quickly as possible."

One of the guards walked over to Danforth. Jayewardene moved in close enough to hear.

" I think we woke it up when we moved the truck, sir. Want me to dope him up again before you take your pictures?"

"No. It'll look better if there's a little life in the damned thing." Danforth stroked his chin. "And feed it when we're done. Then you can knock it out again."

"Right, sir."

Jayewardene took his place in front of the truck. The ape's breathing was irregular. He turned. The ape's eyes fluttered and opened. Its pupils were dilated. The eyes moved about slowly, looked at the cameras, and stopped at Robyn. They became bright and purposeful. Jayewardene felt his skin go cold.

The ape took a deep breath and roared, a sound like a hundred lions. Jayewardene started to run but tripped over somebody who'd reacted away from the ape and into him.

The ape was rocking back and forth on the truck. One of the tires blew out. The monster continued to roar and pull at the chains. Jayewardene struggled to his feet. He heard the high-pitched squeal of metal straining against metal, then a loud pinging noise as the chains snapped. Steel shrapnel from the broken chains flew in all directions. One piece hit a guard. The man fell, screaming. Jayewardene ran to the man and helped him to his feet. The ground was shaking right behind them. He turned to look back, but the ape was already past them. Jayewardene turned to the injured man.

"Broken rib, I think. Maybe two," said the guard through gritted teeth. "I'll be okay."

A woman screamed. Jayewardene left the man and rushed ahead. He could see most of the ape over the tin tops of the portable buildings. It bent down and picked up something in its right hand. It was Robyn. He heard a gunshot and tried to move faster. His sides ached already.

The ape snatched up a tent and threw it at one of the guards, whose rifle was raised for another shot. The canvas drifted down over the man, spoiling his aim.

"No. No," Jayewardene yelled. "You might hit the woman." The monster looked over the camp briefly, then waved its free arm disdainfully at the humans and shouldered into the jungle. Robyn Symmes was limp and pale against the huge darkness of its chest.

Danforth sat on the ground, head in hands. "Oh, shit. What the hell do we do now. This wasn't supposed to happen. Those chains were made of titanium steel. It can't be happening."

Jayewardene put his hand on the producer's shoulder. "Mr. Danforth, I'll need your fastest car and your best driver. And it might be better if you came along with us."

Danforth looked up. "Where are we going?"

"Back to Colombo. A group of your aces is arriving there in a few hours." He smiled thinly. "Long ago our island was called Serendib. The land of fortunate coincidence."

"Thank god. There's a chance then." He stood up, the color returning to his face. "I'll get things moving."

"Need any help?" Paula dabbed at a cut over her eye with her shirtsleeve.

"Only all I can get," Danforth said.

The ape roared again. It already seemed impossibly far away.

The car sped along down the road, jolting them at every bump and pothole. They were still a few miles outside Ratnapura. Jayewardene was in the front seat, directing the driver. Paula and Danforth sat silently in the back. As they rounded a corner, he saw several saffron-robed Buddhist priests ahead. "Stop," he yelled as the driver braked the car. They went into a skid and off the road, sliding to a stop. The priests, who had been working on the dirt road with shovels, stood to one side and motioned them through.

"Who are they?" asked Paula.

"Priests. Members of an appropriate technologist group," Jayewardene said as the driver pulled back onto the road. He bowed to the priests as he went past. "Much of their time is spent doing such work."

He planned to call ahead from Ratnapura. Let the government know the situation and discourage the military from attacking the creature. That would be difficult, given the amount of damage it could cause. Tachyon and the aces would be the answer. They had to be. His stomach burned. It was dangerous to hinge his plans on people he'd never met, but he had no other choice.

"I wonder what set him off?" Danforth asked, his voice almost too soft to hear.

"Well"-Jayewardene turned to speak to them-"he looked at the cameras, then at Miss Symmes. It was as if something clicked in his brain, brought him right out of the stupor."

"If anything happens to her, it'll be my fault." Danforth looked at the muddy floorboard. "My fault."

"Then we'll all have to work hard to make sure nothing does happen to her," Paula said. "Okay?"

"Right," Danforth said weakly.

"Remember," she said, patting his shoulder. "It's beauty that kills the beast. Not the other way around."

"Hopefully we can resolve the situation and keep both beauty and beast alive." Jayewardene turned to look back at the road. He spotted the buildings of Ratnapura ahead. "Slow down when you get to town. I'll direct you where we need to go." He intended to inform the military of the situation and then return to Colombo. Jayewardene sank back into the car seat. He wished he had slept better the night before. Today's work was going to spill into tomorrow and maybe even the next day.

They arrived back in Colombo a little after noon and went directly to Jayewardene's home. It was a large white stucco residence with a red-tfled roof. Even when his wife had been alive, it had been more space than they needed. Now he rattled around in it like a coconut in an empty boxcar. He called his office and found out the American delegation of aces had arrived and was staying at the Galadari Meridien Hotel. After settling Danforth and Paula in, he went to his garden shrine and reaffirmed his pledge of the Five Precepts.

Afterward he hurriedly put on a clean white shirt and pair of pants and ate a few fingerfuls of cold rice.

"Where are you going now?" Paula asked as he opened the door to leave.

"To speak to Dr. Tachyon and the Americans about the ape." He shook his head as she got up off the couch. "It would be better for you to rest now. Whatever develops, I'll call you."

"Okay."

"Is it all right if we get something to eat?" Danforth already had the refrigerator door open.

"Certainly. Help yourselves."

Traffic was heavy, even on the Sea Beach Road, which Jayewardene had instructed the driver to take. The car's air conditioner was broken and his clean clothes were soaked with sweat before they were even halfway to the hotel.

The film company driver, his name was Saul, was slowing to stop in front of the Galadari Meridien when the engine died. He turned the key several times, but there was only a clicking sound.

"Look." Jayewardene pointed toward the hotel entrance. People were scattering around the main doorway as something rose into the air. Jayewardene shaded his eyes as they flew over. One was a full-grown Indian elephant. A common enough sight, but this one was flying. Seated on its back was a well-muscled man. The elephant's ears were extended and appeared to help the creature steer while flying.

"Elephant Girl," said Saul. Crowds stopped up and down the street, pointing in silence as the aces flew by overhead.

"Do what you can with the car," he-told Saul, who already had the hood up.

Jayewardene walked quickly to the hotel's main entrance. He pushed past the doorman, who was sitting on the sidewalk shaking his head, and into the darkness inside. Hotel employees were busy lighting candles and reassuring the guests in the bar and restaurant.

"Waiter, get those drinks over here." The male voice came from the bar. He spoke English with an American accent.

Jayewardene let his eyes adjust to the dim lighting, then made his way carefully into the bar. The bartender was setting lamps up next to the mirror behind the bar. Jayewardene pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his sweaty forehead. They were seated together in a booth. There was a large man with a dark spade-shaped beard, wearing a tailored blue three-piece suit. Across from him was another man. He was middle-aged, but trim, and sat in the booth as if it were a throne. Although he thought he knew the men, the woman sitting between them was instantly recognizable. She was wearing a low-cut, shoulderless black dress, trimmed with sequins. Her skin was transparent. He quickly looked away from her. Her bone and muscles reflected the light in a disturbing manner.

"Pardon me," he said, walking over to them. "My name is Jayewardene. I'm with the Department of the Interior."

"And what do you want?" The large man took a skewered cherry from his drink and rolled it between his manicured thumb and forefinger. The other man stood, smiled, and shook Jayewardene s hand. The gesture was studied, a political greeting refined by years of practice. "I'm Senator Gregg Hartmann. Pleased to meet you."

"Thank you, Senator. I hope your shoulder is better." Jayewardene had read about the incident in the newspapers. "It wasn't as bad as the press made it sound." Hartmann looked at the other end of the booth. "The man torturing that cherry is Hiram Worchester. And the lady is Chrysalis."

"I believe." Jayewardene bowed. "May I join you."

"Certainly," Hartmann said. "Is there something we can do for you?"

Jayewardene sat down next to Hiram, whose bulk partially obscured Chrysalis. He found her profoundly disturbing to look at. "Several things perhaps. Where were Elephant Girl and that man going just now?"

"To catch the ape, of course." Hiram looked at him as one might at an embarrassing relative. "And rescue the girl. We just found out about it. Catching the beast is something of a tradition." He paused. "For aces."

"Is that possible? I don't think Elephant Girl and one man can manage that." Jayewardene turned to Hartmann. "The man with her was Jack Braun," Chrysalis said. Her accent was more British than American. "Golden Boy. He can handle almost anything, up to and including the giant ape. Although he hasn't been getting his rest lately. His glow's been a little on the feeble side." She nudged Hiram. "Don't you think?"

"Personally I don't really care what happens to Mr. Braun." Hiram twirled the small, red plastic sword from his drink. "And I think the feeling's mutual."

Hartmann coughed. "At the very least they should be able to rescue the actress. That should simplify matters for your government."

"Yes. One would hope." Jayewardene folded and unfolded a cloth napkin. "But such a rescue should be carefully planned out."

"Yes, they did rather fly off the handle," Chrysalis said, taking a sip of brandy.

Jayewardene thought he caught a glint of mischief in Hartmann's eyes, but dismissed it as the lighting. "Could you tell me where to find Dr. Tachyon?"

Hiram and Chrysalis both laughed. Hartmann maintained his poise and gave them a disapproving look. "He's unavailable right now"

Chrysalis motioned to the waiter and pointed to her glass. "Which one of the stewardesses is he trying this time?"

"Upstairs, trapped in the darkness together. If anything will help Tachy get over his problem, this is it. The doctor's not to be disturbed right now." Hiram held the plastic sword above the table and made a fist with his other hand. The sword fell and stuck in the tabletop. "Get the point?"

"Could we give him a message for you?" Hartmann asked, ignoring Hiram.

Jayewardene pulled out his snakeskin wallet and handed Hartmann one of his business cards. "Please have him contact me as soon as possible. I may be busy the rest of the afternoon, but he can reach me at my home. It's the bottom number."

"I'll do what I can," Hartmann said, standing to shake hands again. "I hope we see you again before we leave."

"Nice meeting you, Mr. Jayewardene," Chrysalis said. He thought perhaps she was smiling, but couldn't be sure. Jayewardene turned to leave but stopped short as two people entered the bar. One was a man whom Jayewardene judged to be in his late thirties. He was tall and muscular with blond hair and a camera slung over his shoulder. The woman with him was as stunningly beautiful as any of the photographs Jayewardene had seen of her. Even without the wings she would have attracted attention.

Peregrine was a vision he would willingly linger on. Jayewardene stepped out of their way as they joined the others in the booth.

They were still lighting candles and lamps in the lobby when he left.

It was hard to arrange for a helicopter with the ape on the loose, but the base commander owed him more than one favor. The pilot, headgear under his arm, was waiting for Jayewardene at the chopper. He was dark-skinned, a Tamil, part of the military's new plan to try to integrate the armed forces. The aircraft itself was a large, outdated model, lacking the sleek aerodynamics of the newer attack ships. Olive paint was peeling from the chopper's metal skin and the tires were balding.

Jayewardene nodded to the pilot and spoke to him in Tamil. "I had requested a bullhorn be put on board."

"Already done, sir." The pilot opened the door and crawled up into the cockpit. Jayewardene followed.

The young Tamil was going through a checklist, flipping switches, examining gauges.

"I've never been in a helicopter before," Jayewardene said, buckling his seat belt. He pulled against the belt, testing it, not exactly happy that it was fraying around the edges.

The pilot shrugged and put on his helmet, then cranked the engine, took the stick, and engaged the rotor. The blades whopped noisily and the helicopter lifted slowly into the sky. "Where are we going, sir."

"Let's head down toward Ratnapura and Adam's Peak." He coughed. "We'll be looking for a man on a flying elephant. American aces."

"Do you want to engage them, sir?" The pilot's tone was cool and professional.

"No. No, nothing like that. Just observe them. They're after the ape that escaped."

The pilot took a deep breath and nodded, then flipped on the radio and picked up the mouthpiece. "Lion base, this is Shadow One. Can you give us any information on a flying elephant? Over."

There was a pause and crackle of static before the base answered. "Your target reported heading due east from Colombo. Approximate speed one five zero kilometers per hour. Over."

"Acknowledged. Over and out." The pilot checked his compass and adjusted his course.

"Hopefully we can find them before they locate the ape. I don't think they have any real idea where to look, but the country isn't that large." Jayewardene pointed to dark clouds ahead. As he did there was a flash of lightning. "Are we safe from bad weather?"

"Fairly safe. Do you think these Americans would be stupid enough to fly into a storm?" He pointed the chopper toward a thin spot in the wall of clouds.

"Hard to say. I don't know these people. They've handled the creature before, though." Jayewardene looked down. The land beneath was rising steadily upward. The jungle was broken here and there with tea and rice fields or water reservoirs. From the air the flooded rice paddies looked like the shards of a broken mirror, the pieces reassembled so that they almost touched each other.

"Something ahead, sir." The pilot reached under his seat and handed over a pair of binoculars. Jayewardene took them, wiped off the lenses with the tail of his shirt, and looked in the direction the pilot was pointing. There was something. He rotated the adjusting knob and brought it into focus. The man on the elephant was pointing toward the ground.

"It's them," Jayewardene said, setting the binoculars on his lap. "Get in close enough for this to be heard." He raised the bullhorn.

"Yes, sir."

Jayewardene's mouth and throat were dry. He opened his window as they got closer in. The aces didn't seem to have noticed them yet. He switched on the bullhorn and set the volume control near the top. He saw the ape's shoulders and head above the treetops and knew why the Americans were paying no attention to the helicopter.

He stuck the bullhorn out the window as the chopper moved in. "Elephant Girl. Mr. Braun." Jayewardene thought Golden Boy was inappropriate for a grown man. "My name is Jayewardene. I'm an official with the Sri Lankan government. Do you understand what I am saying?" He spoke each word slowly and carefully. The bullhorn vibrated in his sweaty hand.

Jack Braun waved and nodded. The monster had stopped to look up and bare its teeth. It stripped the foliage off the top of a tree and set Robyn in a crook between two bare branches.

"Rescue the woman if you can, but do not harm the ape." Jayewardene's voice sounded almost unintelligible from inside the helicopter, but Braun made a thumbs-up signal to show he understood. "We'll stand by," Jayewardene said.

The ape reached down, scooped up a handful of dirt, and crushed the contents down with its palms. The creature roared and threw the dirtball at the aces. The flying elephant dropped out of its path. The missile continued upward. Jayewardene saw it was going to hit the chopper and gripped the seat as tightly as possible. The earth thudded against the side of the aircraft. The helicopter began to spin, but the pilot quickly brought it back under control and pulled up sharply.

"Better keep a safe distance," the pilot said, making sure the ape stayed in view. "If the momentum hadn't been spent on that, I don't think we'd still be in the air."

"Right." Jayewardene slowly exhaled and wiped his brow. A few scattered raindrops began to dot the windshield.

The Elephant Girl had moved about fifty yards away from the ape and down to treetop level. Braun jumped off her and disappeared into the undergrowth. The elephant gained height again and trumpeted, moving back toward the monster. The ape snarled and beat its chest, the sound like an explosion underground.

The standoff lasted a minute or two, then the ape rocked backward, catching its balance just at the point of falling over. Elephant Girl swooped down quickly toward the woman in the tree. The ape swung his arms at her. The flying elephant banked away, wobbling a bit.

"Did it hit her?" Jayewardene turned to the pilot. "Should we move in and try to help?"

"I don't think there's much we can do. Possibly distract it. But that could get us knocked down." The pilot put the stick between his knees and wiped the sweat from his palms.

The ape roared and reached down to pick up something. Jack Braun struggled in the creature's hand, trying to push the giant fingers open. The ape lifted him up to its open mouth.

"No," Jayewardene said, turning his head away.

The beast roared again and Jayewardene looked back. The monster rubbed its mouth with its free hand. Braun, apparently unhurt, was bracing his back against the ape's fingers and pushing the thumb open. The monster flipped its arm like a baseball pitcher, sending Braun cartwheeling through the air. He came down in heavy jungle several seconds and several hundred yards away.

The Tamil sat with his mouth slightly open, then put the helicopter into a turn toward the spot where Braun had disappeared into the trees. "It tried to eat him, but he wouldn't go down. I think he broke one of the devil's teeth." The Elephant Girl followed behind them. The ape picked Robyn out of the tree and after a final triumphant roar, began wading through the jungle again. Jayewardene bit his lip and looked at the treetops for broken limbs to show where Braun had fallen through.

The rain grew heavier and the pilot switched on the wipers. "There he is," the Tamil said, slowing to a hover. Braun was climbing up a large coconut palm tree. His clothes were in tatters, but he didn't appear hurt. Elephant Girl moved in, curled her trunk around his waist, and lifted him onto her back. Braun bent over and held on to her ears.

"Follow us," Jayewardene said, using the bullhorn again. "We'll lead you back to the airbase. Are you all right, Mr. Braun?"

The golden ace made a thumbs-up again, this time without looking at them.

Jayewardene said nothing for several minutes. Perhaps his vision had been wrong. The beast appeared so vicious. A normal person would have been crushed to a paste between the monster's teeth. No. The dream had to be true. He couldn't allow any self-doubt, or the ape would have no chance at all. They outraced the storm back to Colombo.

Jayewardene paused outside Tachyon's door. He'd been sleeping when the alien called. Tachyon had apologized for taking so long to get back to him and began listing the reasons. Jayewardene had interrupted and asked if he could come over immediately. The doctor had said yes with little enthusiasm.

He knocked and waited, then raised his hand again before he heard footfalls from the other side. Tachyon opened the door, wearing a puffy-sleeved white shirt and blue velvet pants sashed with a large red scarf. "Mr. Jayewardene? Please come in." Jayewardene bowed and went in.

Tachyon sat down on the bed, underneath an oil painting of Dunhinda Falls. A scarlet-plumed hat and a partially eaten plate of rice were on the bedside table. "You are the same Mr. Jayewardene from the helicopter? The one Radha told me about."

"Yes." Jayewardene lowered himself into the lounger next to the bed. "I hope Mr. Braun wasn't injured."

"Only his already battered pride." Tachyon closed his eyes for a moment, as if trying to gather strength, then reopened them. "Please tell me how I can help you, Mr. Jayewardene."

"The military is planning on attacking the ape tomorrow. We must stop them and subdue the creature ourselves." Jayewardene rubbed his eyes. "But I'm not starting at the beginning. The military deals with harsh reality. But you, Doctor, work in the context of the extraordinary on a daily basis. I don't know you, but I am in a position of needing to trust you."

Tachyon placed his dangling feet firmly on the floor and straightened his shoulders. "I've spent most of my life here trying to live up to the trust of others. I only wish I could believe the trust was warranted. But you say we must stop the military and subdue the ape ourselves. Why? Surely they're better equipped-"

Jayewardene interrupted. "The virus doesn't affect animals, if I understand correctly."

"I know the virus doesn't affect animals," Tachyon replied with a shake of his curly, red hair. "I helped develop the virus. Every child knows…" He covered his mouth. "Ancestors forgive me." He slid off the bed and walked to the window. "For twenty years it's been staring me in the face, and I missed it. By my own blind stupidity I've sentenced some individual to a living hell. I've failed one of mine again. The trust isn't warranted." Tachyon pressed his fists against his temples and continued berating himself.

"Your pardon, Doctor," Jayewardene said. "I think your energies would be more beneficial if we applied them to the problem at hand." Tachyon turned, a pained expression on his face. "I meant no offense, Doctor," he added, sensing the depth of the alien's guilt.

"No. No, of course not. Mr. Jayewardene, how did you know?"

"Not many of our people have been touched by the virus. I'm one of the very few. I suppose I should be grateful to be alive and whole, but it's in our nature to complain. My ability gives me visions of the future. Always about someone or some place I know, usually myself. And so detailed and vivid." He shook his head. "My most recent one showed me the ape's true nature."

Tachyon sat back down on the bed, tapping his fingertips together. "What I don't understand is the primitive behavior exhibited by the creature."

"I'm sure that most of our questions can be answered once he's a man again."

"Of course. Of course." Tachyon popped up off the bed again. "And your ability. Temporal displacement of the cognitive self during dreamstate. This was what my family had in mind when they created the virus. Something that transcends known physical values. Amazing."

Jayewardene shrugged. "Yes, amazing. But it's a burden I would gladly give up. I want to view the future from its proper perspective, the here and now. This-power-destroys the natural flow of life. After the ape is restored, I plan to make my pilgrimage to Sri Pada. Perhaps through spiritual purity I may be rid of it."

"I've had some success reversing the effects at my clinic." Tachyon twisted his sash. "Of course the success rate isn't what I'd hoped. And the risk would be yours to take."

"We must deal with the ape first. After that my path may become more clear."

"If only we had more time here," Tachyon complained. "The tour is supposed to leave for Thailand day after tomorrow. That leaves us little margin for error. And we can't all go chasing out after the creature."

"I don't think the government would allow it in any case. Not after today. The fewer of your people we involve, the better."

"Agreed. I can't believe the others went off like that. Sometimes I think we're all suffering from some kind of creeping insanity. Hiram especially." Tachyon walked to the window and opened the mini-blinds. Lightning flashed on the horizon, briefly silhouetting the wall of towering thunderclouds. "Obviously I must be included in this little adventure. Radha can give me maneuverability. She's half-Indian. There have been problems between your country and India lately, I believe?"

"Sadly, yes. The Indians support the Tamils, since they have the same cultural heritage. The Sinhalese majority looks at this as support for the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist group."

Jayewardene looked down at the floor. "It is a conflict with no winners and too many victims."

"So we must have a cover story. That Radha was hiding out, afraid for her life. She might present the answer to some other problems." Tachyon closed the blinds. "What weaponry will be used against the ape?"

"Two waves of helicopters. The first will move in with steel nets. The second, if needed, will be fully armed attack ships."

"Could you slip us onto their base before the second wave gets off the ground?" Tachyon rubbed his palms together. "Possibly. Yes, I think I could."

"Good." The alien smiled. "And Mr. Jayewardene, in my own defense, there's been so much in my life, the founding of the clinic, unrest in Jokertown, the Swarm invasion-"

Jayewardene cut him off. "Doctor, you owe me no explanation."

"But I will owe him one."

They'd stopped the car a couple of miles from the gate to put Radha into the trunk. Jayewardene took a sip of tea from his Styrofoam cup. It was thick, coppery, and hot enough to help ward off the predawn chill. Since the road to the air base was bumpy, he had only partially filled his cup. There was a cold ache inside him that even the tea could not reach. Even in his best case scenario he would be forced to resign his post. He was overstepping his authority in an unforgivable manner. But he couldn't worry about what might happen to him; the ape was his first concern. He and Tachyon had stayed up most of the night, trying to cover all the things that might go wrong and what to do if the worst happened.

Jayewardene was in the front seat with Saul. Tachyon was in back between Danforth and Paula. No one spoke. Jayewardene reached for his government ID as they approached the well-lit front gate.

The gate guard was a young Sinhalese. His shoulders were as straight as the creases in his khaki uniform. His eyes were bright and he moved with measured steps to Jayewardene's side of the car.

Jayewardene rolled down his window and handed the guard his ID. "We wish to speak with General Dissanayake. Dr. Tachyon and two representatives of the American film company are in our party as well as myself."

The guard looked at the ID, then at the people in the car. "One moment," he said, then headed over to the small booth beside the gate and picked up the phone. After speaking for a few moments he walked back and handed the ID back with five laminated visitor badges. "The general will see you. He's in his office. Do you know the way, sir?"

"Yes, thank you," Jayewardene said, rolling his window back up and clipping one of the badges onto his shirt pocket. The guard opened the gate and motioned them past with his red-tipped flashlight. Jayewardene sighed as they drove through and the gate closed behind them. He directed Saul to the officers' complex and patted the driver on the shoulder. "You know what to do?"

Saul eased the car to a stop between two faded yellow stripes and removed the keys, holding them between his thumb and forefinger. "As long as the trunk opens, you don't have to worry about my screwing up."

They got out of the car and walked down the sidewalk toward the building. Jayewardene heard helicopter rotors cutting the air overhead. Once inside, Tachyon stayed at Jayewardene's side as he guided them down the linoleum hallways. The alien was fussing with the cuffs of his coral-pink shirt. Paula and Danforth followed closely behind them, whispering to each other.

The corporal in the general's outer' office looked up from his cup of tea and waved them in. The general was sitting behind his desk in a large swivel chair. He was a man of average height and compact build with dark, deep-set eyes and an expression that seldom changed. Some in the military community felt that, at fifty-four, Dissanayake was too young to be a general. But he had been both firm and controlled in his dealing with the Tamil Tigers, a militant separatist group. He had managed to avoid a bloodbath without appearing weak. Jayewardene respected him. The general nodded as they entered, pointing to the group of chairs opposite his cluttered desk.

"Please, sit down," Dissanayake said, tightening his lips into a half-smile. His English was not as good as Jayewardene s, but was still easily understandable. "Always a pleasure to see you, Mr. Jayewardene. And of course to welcome our other distinguished visitors."

"Thank you, General." Jayewardene waited for the others to seat themselves before continuing. "We know that you're quite busy now and appreciate your time."

Dissanayake looked at his gold watch and nodded. "Yes, I'm supposed to be up at operations right now. The first wave is scheduled to be taking off as we speak. So," he said, clasping his hands, "if you could be as brief as possible."

"We don't think you should attack the ape," Tachyon said. "To my knowledge it's never harmed anyone. Are there any reports of casualties so far?"

"None have been reported, Doctor." Dissanayake leaned back in his chair. "But the monster is headed for Adam's Peak. If unchecked, there will almost certainly be fatalities."

"But what about Robyn?" Paula said. "You go after the ape with attack choppers and she's likely to be killed."

"And if we do nothing, hundreds could be killed. Possibly thousands if it reaches a city." Dissanayake bit his lip. "It is my duty to prevent that from happening. I do understand what it means to have a friend in danger. And be assured, we will do everything possible to rescue Miss Symmes. My men will sacrifice their own lives to save hers, if need be. But to me her safety is ho more important than the others who are threatened. Please, try to understand my position."

"And. nothing we can say will persuade you even to postpone the attack?" Tachyon hand-combed his hair back out of his eyes.

"The ape is very near to Adam's Peak. There are many pilgrims at this time of year, and there is no time for a successful evacuation. Delay will almost certainly cost lives." Dissanayake stood and picked up his cap from the desktop. "And now I must see to my duties. You're welcome to monitor the operation from here if you like."

Jayewardene shook his head. "No, thank you. We do appreciate your taking time to see us."

The general extended his palms. "I wish I could have been more helpful. Good luck to us all, even the ape." The sky was beginning to brighten when they got back to the car. Saul was leaning against the door, an unlit cigarette in his mouth. Tachyon and Jayewardene walked over to him as Danforth and Paula got into the car.

"Everything proceeding according to plan?" Jayewardene asked.

"She's out and hidden. Nobody seems to have noticed a thing." Saul pulled out a plastic lighter. "Now?"

"Now or never," said Tachyon, sliding into the backseat. Saul flicked the lighter and stared a moment at the flame before starting up his cigarette. "Let's get the hell out of Dodge."

"Five minutes," said Jayewardene, walking quickly to the other side of the car.

They pulled up next to the front gate. The guard walked slowly over and extended his hand. "Your badges, please." Jayewardene unclipped his and handed it over as the guard collected them.

"Shit," said Danforth. " I dropped the damn thing." Saul flipped on the car's interior lights. Jayewardene glanced at his watch. They didn't have time for this. Danforth reached into the crack between the edge of the seat and the door, made a face, and pulled out the badge. He handed it quickly to the guard, who took the badges back to his post before swinging the gate open.

The gate creaked closed behind them with less than two minutes left. Saul pushed the accelerator quickly up to fifty, doing his best to avoid the larger potholes.

" I hope Radha can manage this. She's never extended her powers over such a large area before." Tachyon drummed his fingers on the vinyl car seat. He turned to look back. "We're far enough away, I think. Stop here."

Saul pulled over and they all got out and looked back toward the base.

"I don't get it." Danforth crouched down next to the rear of the car. "I mean, all she can do is turn into an elephant. I don't see where this gets us."

"Yes, but the mass has to come from somewhere, Mr. Danforth. And electrical energy is the most easily convertible source." Tachyon looked at his watch. "Twenty seconds."

"You know, if you could make your movies this exciting, Mr D…" Paula shook her head. "Come on, Radha."

The entire base went silently dark. "Hot damn." Danforth popped up and bounced on his toes. "She did it." Jayewardene looked at the gray sky above the horizon. A dark shape lifted itself up out of the larger blackness and moved toward them, throwing off occasional blue sparks. "I think she may be a bit overcharged," said Tachyon. "But no gunfire. I'm sure they don't know what hit them."

"That's fine," said Danforth. "Because I'm not really sure what did either."

"What I understand," said Saul, leaning into the front seat and starting up the car, "is that no more choppers are taking off from there for a while. And Miss Elephant Girl owes me a new battery from yesterday."

Radha flew in and landed next to the car, sparks igniting from each foot as she touched the ground. Jayewardene thought she looked a little bigger than she had the day before. Tachyon walked over and stepped onto her front leg, his hair standing out like a clown's wig as he touched her. Radha lifted him up onto her back.

"We'll see you soon, with luck," the alien said, waving. Jayewardene nodded. "The drive to Adam's Peak should take us about an hour from here. Fly northwest as quickly as you can."

The elephant rose noiselessly into the air and they were gone before anything else could be said.

The road was narrow. Dense trees grew to its edge and stretched ahead endlessly. They had been alone except for a bus and a few horse-drawn carts. Jayewardene explained to them what the ape really was and how he had come by the knowledge. Discussing his ace ability passed the time during the drive. Saul was pushing as hard as he could on the mud-slicked roads, making better time than Jayewardene had thought possible.

"I don't understand one thing, though," said Paula, leaning forward from the backseat to put her head next to his.

"If these visions are always true, why are you working so hard to see that things turnout?"

"For myself there is no choice," Jayewardene said. "I cannot let the visions dictate how I lead my life, so I try to act as I would have without such knowledge. And a little knowledge of the future is very dangerous. The final outcome is not my only concern. What happens in the interim is equally as important. If anyone was killed by the ape because I knew it would ultimately have its humanity restored, I would be guilty of having caused that death."

"I think you're being a little hard on yourself." Paula gave his shoulder a light squeeze. "There's only so much anyone can do."

"Those are my beliefs." Jayewardene turned around and looked into her eyes. She returned the look for an instant, then sank back next to Danforth.

"Something going on up ahead," Saul said in a level, almost disinterested tone.

They were at the top of a hill. The trees had been cleared away from the roadside for a hundred yards or so on either side, giving them an unobstructed view.

Sri Pada's peak was still shrouded in the early morning mist. Helicopters circled something unseen near the base of the mountain.

"Think it's our boy they're after?" asked Danforth. "Almost certainly." Jayewardene wished he had brought along field glasses. One of the circling shapes might be Radha and Tachyon, but from this distance there was no way to tell. The clearing ended, and they were again surrounded by jungle.

"Want me to jack it up a little?" Saul crushed out his cigarette in the ashtray.

"As long as we get there alive," Paula said, fastening her seat belt.

Saul pushed the accelerator down a little farther, leaving a spray of mud behind them.

They parked behind a pair of abandoned buses that blocked off the road. No one was visible other than the beast and its attackers. The pilgrims had either fled up the mountain or back down the road into the valley. Jayewardene walked as quickly as he could up the stone steps, the others following behind him. The helicopters had kept the ape from making it very far up the mountain.

"Any sign of our elephant?" asked Danforth.

"Can't see them from here." Jayewardene's sides already hurt from the exertion. He paused to rest a moment and looked up as one of the choppers dropped a steel net. There was an answering roar, but they couldn't tell if the net had found its target.

They worked their way up the steps for several hundred yards, passing through an empty but undamaged rest station. The helicopters were still pressing their attack, although they appeared to be fewer in number now. Jayewardene slipped on one of the wet flagstones and smashed his knee against a step edge. Saul grabbed him by the armpits and lifted him up. "I'm all right," he said, painfully straightening his leg. "Let's keep on."

An elephant trumpeted in the distance. "Hurry" said Paula, taking the stairs in twos. Jayewardene and the others trotted up after her. After another hundred-yard climb he stopped them. "We have to cut across the mountain's face here. The footing is very dangerous. Hold on to the trees when you can." He stepped out onto the moist soil and steadied himself against a coconut palm, then began working slowly toward the direction of the battle.

They were slightly higher than the ape when they got close enough to see what was going on. The monster had a steel. net in one hand and a stripped tree in the other. It was holding Radha and the two remaining helicopters at bay like a gladiator with a net and trident. Jayewardene couldn't see Robyn but assumed that the beast had her in the top of a tree again.

"Well, now that we're here, what the hell do we do?" Danforth leaned against a jak tree, breathing hard.

"We go get Robyn." Paula wiped her muddy hands on her shorts and took a step toward the ape.

"Wait." Danforth grabbed her hand. " I can't afford to lose you too. Let's see what Tachyon can do."

"No," Paula said, twisting away. "We have to get her out while the ape's distracted."

The pair stared hard at each other for a moment, then Jayewardene came between them. "Let's get a bit closer and see what's possible."

They half-slid, half-walked down the slope, then hit a ledge that was deep mud. Jayewardene felt it slip uncomfortably into his shoes. Robyn was still nowhere in sight, but the ape hadn't noticed them.

The last helicopter moved into position over the ape and dropped its net. The ape caught it on the end of the tree and deflected it to one side, then tossed the tree at the retreating chopper, which had to bank away sharply to avoid being hit. The ape beat its chest and roared.

Radha and Tachyon moved in from behind at treetop level. The ape reached down, picked up one of the steel nets, and swung it in a blur of motion. There was a pinging thwack as the edge of the net caught Radha on the foreleg. Tachyon slipped off her back and was left dangling from her ear. Radha gained height and pulled Tachyon back up onto her shoulders.

The ape pounded the earth and bared its teeth, then stood there clutching and unclutching its huge, black hands. "I don't see what they can do," said Danforth. "That thing is just too strong."

"We shall see," Jayewardene said.

Tachyon leaned in close to one of Radha's immense ears. The elephant dropped down like a stone for a distance, then began circling rapidly around the ape's head. The ape lifted its arms and twisted around, trying to keep its enemy in sight. After a few moments the creature was half a turn behind the elephant. Radha dove directly for the ape's back. Tachyon jumped onto the ape's neck, and the flying elephant moved away quickly to a safe distance. The ape hunched down, then reached back for Tachyon, who was clinging to the thick fur on its shoulder. The beast plucked the alien off easily and held him up for inspection, then roared and brought Tachyon toward its mouth.

"Holy shit," said Danforth, restraining Paula.

The monster had Tachyon almost into its mouth when it froze, jerked convulsively for a moment, and toppled over backward. The impact jarred water from the trees, streaking the mud on the faces of Jayewardene and his companions. Jayewardene hurried downhill toward the ape, trying to ignore the pain in his knee.

Tachyon was squirming out of the ape's rigid fingers when they arrived at the creature's side. He slid down quickly off the giant body and steadied himself against Jayewardene.

"Burning sky! You were right, Mr. Jayewardene." He took several deep breaths. "There is a man inside the beast."

"How did you stop it?" Danforth asked, staying a few steps farther away than the others. "And where's Robyn?"

"Headed back to North Dakota," came a weak voice from a nearby treetop. Robyn waved and began picking her way down.

"I'll see if she's okay," Paula said, running over.

"To answer your first question, Mr. Danforth," Tachyon said, counting the missing buttons on his shirt, "the main portion of the brain is simian and consists mostly of an old black-and-white film. But there is also a human personality, completely subordinate to the ape mentality. I have temporarily given them equal control, thus providing a stasis that has paralyzed it."

Danforth nodded uncomprehendingly. "So what do we do now?"

"Dr. Tachyon will now restore the ape to human form." Jayewardene rubbed his leg. "The military isn't likely to stay away for long. There isn't much time to do what must be done." As if to punctuate his remark, one of the helicopters appeared and hovered over them for a moment before turning away.

Tachyon nodded and looked at Jayewardene. "You saw the transformation in your vision. Was I injured? Just out of curiosity"

Jayewardene shrugged. "Would it matter?"

"No. I suppose not." Tachyon chewed on a fingernail. "Matter. That's the real problem. When we restore the human mind to dominance, he'll shed all that excess matter as energy. Anyone near, including myself, is likely to be killed."

Jayewardene pointed to Radha, who was helping Robyn down out of the tree. "Perhaps if you were held in the air, ungrounded so to speak, the danger would be minimized."

"And if the energy was channeled into something like a lightning bolt…" Jayewardene looked up at the overcast sky. "Yes. That idea has possibilities."

Tachyon nodded and yelled to Radha. "Don't change back yet."

A few minutes later everyone was in position. Jayewardene sat next to Paula, who held Robyn's head in her lap. Saul and Danforth stood a few yards away. Radha, some ten feet off the ground, held Tachyon in her trunk a few feet from the ape's head. Saul had torn his shirt into blindfolds for Elephant Girl and Tachyon. They could hear the beast's labored breathing from where they sat.

"You'd better close your eyes or turn away," said Jayewardene. They did as he suggested.

The vision took over and Jayewardene felt all the air go out of him. He smelled the damp jungle. Heard birds singing and the faraway flap of helicopter rotors. The sun went behind a cloud. An ant crawled up his leg. He shut his eyes. Even through his closed lids the flash was magnesium bright. There was a single deafening boom of thunder. He jumped involuntarily, then waited a moment and opened his eyes.

Through the white streak in his vision caused by the flash, he saw Tachyon kneeling next to a thin, naked, Caucasian man. Radha was stomping out small fires that had broken out in a circle around them.

"How am I going to explain this to the Central Park Zoo?" asked Danforth, his expression dazed.

"Oh, I don't know," said Jayewardene, moving slowly back down the mountainside toward Tachyon. "It sounds like great pub to me."

Tachyon helped the naked man to his feet. He was of average height with plain features. He moved his mouth but made no sound.

"I think he's come through it intact," said Tachyon, getting his shoulder under the man's armpit. "Thanks to you."

Jayewardene shook his head and pulled three identical envelopes out of his pants pocket. "What happened had to happen. When the military shows up, and they will, I want you to deliver these to them. Say they are from me. One goes to the president, one the Minister of State, the last to the Minister of the Interior. It is my letter of resignation."

Tachyon took the envelopes and tucked them away. "I see."

As for me, I intend to make the pilgrimage to the top of Sri Pada. Perhaps it will help me achieve my goal. To be rid of these visions. Jayewardene headed back toward the stone steps.

"Mr. Jayewardene," Tachyon said. "If your pilgrimage is not successful, I would be willing to do anything possible to help you. Perhaps try to put some mental damper to keep you out of touch with your ability. We leave tomorrow. I suspect your government will be glad to see us go. But you'd be more than welcome to come with us."

Jayewardene bowed and moved over toward Paula and Robyn.

"Mr. Jayewardene," Robyn said in a rasping voice. Her blond hair was tangled and matted with mud. Her clothes were in shreds. Jayewardene tried not to look. "Thank you for helping save me."

"You're most welcome. But you should be gotten to a hospital as soon as possible. Just for observation." He turned to Paula. "I plan to make the pilgrimage up the mountain now, if you'd like to come."

"I don't know," said Paula, looking down at Robyn. "Go ahead," Robyn said. "I'll be fine."

Paula smiled and looked back at Jayewardene. "I'd love to."

The multicolored neon reflects brokenly from the wet pavement. The Japanese are all around us, mostly men. They stare at Peregrine, who has her beautiful, banded wings folded tight around her. She looks ahead, ignoring them.

We have been walking a long way. My sides burn and my feet ache. She stops at an alleyway and turns to me. I nod. She walks slowly into the darkness. I follow, afraid of making a noise that will attract attention. I feel useless, like a shadow. Peregrine stretches her wings. They almost touch the cold stone on either side of the alleyway. She folds them back.

A door opens and the alley is filled with light. A man steps out. He is thin, tall, with dark skin, almond eyes, and a high forehead. He cranes his head forward to look at us. "Fortunato?" she asks.

Jayewardene crouched next to the dying embers of the campfire. A few other pilgrims sat wordlessly next to him. The vision had awakened him: Even here there was no escape. Although the pilgrimage was not officially complete until he returned home, he knew that the visions would continue. He was tainted with the wild card virus, perhaps tainted by the years he'd spent in foreign countries. Spiritual purity and completeness was impossible to attain. At least for the present.

Paula came up behind him and put her hands lightly on his shoulders. "It's beautiful up here, really."

The others around the campfire looked up at her suspiciously. Jayewardene guided her away. They stood at the edge of the peak, staring out into the dark mist down the mountain.

"Each religion had its own belief about the footprint," he said. "We believe it was made by Buddha. The Hindus say it was made by Shiva. Moslems argue that it is where Adam stood for a thousand years, atoning for the loss of paradise."

"Whoever it was, they had a big foot," Paula said. "That print was three feet long."

The sun came up over the horizon, slowly bringing light to the swirling mists below them. Their shadows grew huge in the grayness. Jayewardene caught his breath. "The Specter of the Brocken," he said, closing his eyes in prayer.

"Wow," said Paula. "I guess it's my week for things giant."

Jayewardene opened his eyes and sighed. His fantasies about Paula had been as unrealistic as those about his hope of destroying his power through the pilgrimage. They were like two wheels in a clockwork whose teeth meshed but whose centers forever remained at a distance. "What you have seen is the rarest of wonders here. One can come here every day for a year and not witness what we have."

Paula yawned, then smiled weakly. "Sounds like it's time to go down."

"Yes. It's time."

Danforth and Paula met him at the airport. Danforth was shaved and in clean clothes, almost the same cocksure producer he'd met only a few days ago. Paula wore shorts and a tight, white T-shirt. She seemed ready to get on with her life. Jayewardene envied her.

"How's Miss Symmes?" he asked.

Danforth rolled his eyes. "Well enough to have called her lawyer three times in the last twelve hours. I'm really in the soup now. I'll be lucky to stay in the business at all."

"Offer her a five-picture deal and plenty of points," said Jayewardene, cramming his entire knowledge of film jargon into one sentence.

"Sign this guy up, Mr. D." Paula grinned and took Jayewardene by the arm. "He might be able to get you out of some jams even I couldn't."

Danforth stuck his thumbs through his belt loops and rocked back and forth. "That's really not a bad idea. Not bad at all." He took Jayewardene's hand and shook it. "I really don't know what we would have done without you."

"Gone right down the drain." Paula gave Jayewardene a one-shoulder hug. "I guess this is where we have to say good-bye."

"Mr. Jayewardene." A young government courier shouldered his way through the crowd to their side. He was breathing hard, but took time to straighten his uniform before handing Jayewardene an envelope. It bore the presidential seal.

"Thank you," he said, popping it open with his thumb. He read it silently.

Paula leaned in to look, but the writing was Sinhalese. "What does it say?"

"That my resignation has not been accepted and I am considered to be on an extended leave of absence. Not exactly the safest thing he could have done, but much appreciated." He bowed to Danforth and Paula. "I'll look for the film when it comes out."

"King Pongo," Danforth said. "It'll be a monster hit for sure."

The plane was more crowded than he had expected. People had been wandering around since after takeoff, chatting, complaining, getting drunk. Peregrine was standing in the aisle, talking to the tall, blond man who'd been with her in in the bar. They were keeping their voices low, but Jayewardene could tell from the looks on their faces that it was not a pleasant conversation. Peregrine turned away from the man, took a deep breath, and walked over to Jayewardene.

"May I sit next to you?" she asked. "I know everyone else on this plane. Some considerably better than I'd like."

"I'm flattered and delighted," he said. And it was true. Her features and fragrance were beautiful but intimidating. Even to him.

She smiled, her lips curving in an almost inhumanly attractive manner. "That man you and Tach saved. He's sitting right over there." She indicated him with the arch of an eyebrow. "His name's Jeremiah Strauss. Used to be a minor league ace named the Projectionist. I guess we're all bozos on this bus. Ah, here he comes now"

Strauss wandered over, his hands clutching the backs of seats as he went. He was pale and afraid. "Mr. Jayewardene?" He said it as if he'd been practicing the pronunciation for the last ten minutes. "My name is Strauss. I've been told all that you did for me. And I want you to know that I never forget a favor. If you need a job when we get to New York, U Thant's a friend of the family. We'll work something out."

"That's very kind of you, Mr. Strauss, but I would have done it in any case." Jayewardene reached up and shook his hand.

Stiauss smiled, straightened his shoulders, and clutched his way back to his seat.

"I'd say he's going to need quite a while to readjust," Peregrine said in a whisper. "Twenty-plus years is a lot to lose."

" I can only wish him a speedy recovery. It's difficult to feel sorry for myself considering his circumstances."

"Feeling sorry for oneself is an inalienable right." She yawned. "I can't believe how much I'm sleeping. Should have time for a nice long nap before we get to Thailand. Do you mind if I use your shoulder?"

"No. Please think of it as your own." He looked out the window. "Australia. Then where?"

She rested her head against him and closed her eyes. "Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, China, Japan. Fortunato." She said the last word almost too quietly for him to hear. "I doubt we'll be running into him."

"But you will." He said it hoping to please her, but she looked at him as if she'd caught him going through her underwear.

"You know this? You've had one of those visions about me?" Someone had obviously told her about his power.

"Yes. I'm sorry. I really have no control over them." He looked back out the window, feeling ashamed.

She rested her head back onto his shoulder. "It's not your fault. Don't worry. I'm sure Tach will be able to do something for you."

"I hope so."

She'd been asleep for over an hour. He'd eaten onehanded to keep from waking her up. The roast beef he'd had was like a ball of lead in his stomach. He knew he would survive Western food at least until they reached Japan. The air was a low rumble as it rushed by the plane's metal skin. Peregrine breathed softly next to his ear. Jayewardene closed his eyes and prayed for dreamless sleep.

DOWN IN THE DREAMTIME

Edward Bryant

Cordelia Chaisson had dreamed about the murder less frequently during the month past. It surprised her she still thought of it even that much; after all, she had seen far worse. Work consumed her; the job with Global Fun amp; Games sufficiently exhausted her days; laboring on the AIDS/WCV benefit to be held in May at Xavier Desmond's Jokertown Funhouse took up much of the nights. Most evenings she went to sleep long after the eleven o'clock news. Five in the morning came all too early. There was little time for diversion.

But there were still the occasional bad nights of dreaming: -Coming up out of the Fourteenth Street station, heels clicking smartly on the dirty concrete, traffic muttering down from above. Hearing the voice a few steps up at street level saying, "Just give us the purse, bitch!" Hesitating, then going ahead anyway. Fearing, but-

She heard the second voice, the Aussie accent: "G'day, mates. Some problem here?"

Cordelia emerged from the stairwell into the sweltering night. She saw the instant tableau of two unshaven white punks backing a middle-aged woman into the space between the short row of phone carrels and the plywood butt of a shuttered newsstand. The woman had tight hold of both a yapping black poodle and her handbag.

Sun-burnt and rangy, the man Cordelia assumed was an Aussie faced down the two youths. He wore a sand-colored outfit that looked like a rougher, more authentic version of a Banana Republic ensemble. There was a bright, well-caredfor knife in one hand.

"A problem, sonny?" he repeated.

"No, no problem, dick-head," said one of the punks. He pulled out a short-barreled pistol from his jacket and shot the Aussie in the face.

It simply happened too quickly for Cordelia to react. As the man fell to the sidewalk, the assailants ran. The woman with the poodle screamed, momentarily harmonizing with the cries of the dog.

Cordelia ran to the man and knelt beside him. She felt for the pulse in his neck. Almost imperceptible. It was probably too late for CPR. She averted her gaze from the blood pooling beneath the man's head. The hot metallic smell of blood nauseated her. A siren wailed up the scale less than a block away.

"I've still got my purse!" the woman cried.

The man's face twitched. He died. "Shit," said Cordelia softly, helplessly. There wasn't a damned thing she could do.

Some kind of trouble now, Cordelia thought, as a darksuited man she didn't recognize waved her into one of GF amp;G's executive offices. Deep shit, maybe. The two women standing by the desk examined a stack of printouts. Red-haired and tough, Polly Rettig was marketing chief for the GF amp;G satellite service. She was Cordelia's immediate boss. The other woman was Luz Alcala, vice president for programming and Rettig's boss. Neither Rettig nor Alcala smiled as they usually did. The man in black stepped back by the door and stood there with his arms folded. Security? Cordelia speculated. "Good morning, Cordelia," Rettig said. "Please have a seat. We'll be with you in just a moment." She turned her attention back to Alcala and pointed out something on the sheet in her hand.

Luz Alcala slowly nodded. "Either we buy it first, or we're dead in the water. Maybe hire someone good-"

"Don't even think it," said Rettig, frowning slightly. "It might become necessary," Alcala said. "He's dangerous." Cordelia tried to keep the bewildered look off her face. "He's also too powerful." Folding her hands, Rettig turned toward Cordelia. "Tell me what you know about Australia."

"I've seen everything Peter Weir ever directed," Cordelia said, momentarily hesitating. What was going on here? "You've never been there?"

"New York is the farthest I've ever been from home." Home was Atelier Parish, Louisiana. Home was a place she'd rather not think about. In most respects it didn't exist.

Rettig was looking at Alcala. "What do you think?"

"I think yes." The older woman picked up a thick envelope and handed it across the desk to Cordelia. "Open it, please." She found a passport, a sheaf of airline tickets, an American Express card, and a hefty folder of traveler's checks. "You'll need to sign those." Alcala indicated the checks and the credit card.

Cordelia looked silently up from the smiling image affixed to the first page of the passport. "Nice photo," she said. "I. don't remember applying."

"There was little time," said Polly Rettig apologetically. "We took liberties."

"The point is," said Alcala, "you're leaving this afternoon for the other side of the world."

Cordelia felt stunned, then recognized the excitement growing. "All the way to Australia?"

"Commercial flight," said Alcala. "Brief stops for fuel in L.A., Honolulu, and Auckland. In Sydney you'll catch an Ansett flight to Melbourne and another plane up to Alice Springs. Then you'll rent a Land-Rover and drive to Madhi Gap. You're going to have a full day," she added dryly.

A thousand things crowded into Cordelia's mind. "But what about my job here? And I can't just abandon the benefit-I want to go to New Jersey this weekend to check out Buddy Holley."

"He can wait till you're back. The whole benefit can wait," said Rettig firmly. "PR is fine, but the JADL and the Manhattan AIDS Project don't pay your salary. This is Global Fun amp; Games business."

"But-"

"It is important." Voice smoothly modulated, Alcala made it sound like a pronouncement.

"But what is it?" She felt as if she were listening to Auntie Alice on Radio Wonderland. "What's all this about?" Alcala seemed to be picking her words carefully. "You've seen the PR flacking GF amp;G's plan to inaugurate a worldwide entertainment service via satellite."

Cordelia nodded. " I thought that was years down the road."

"It was. The. only thing holding back the plan was the investment capital."

"We've got the money," Rettig said. "We have the help of allied investors. Now we need the satellite time and the ground stations to pipe our programming down to the earth."

"Unfortunately," said Alcala, "we have sudden competition for securing the services of the commercial facility in the telecommunications complex in Madhi Gap. A man named Leo Barnett."

"The TV evangelist?" Alcala nodded.

"The ace-baiting, intolerant, psychotic, species-chauvinist son of a bitch," said Rettig with sudden passion. "That TV evangelist. Fire-breather, some call him."

"And you're sending me to Madhi Gap?" said Cordelia excitedly. Incredible, she thought. It was too good to be true. "Thank you! Thank you very much. I'll do a terrific job."

Rettig and Alcala glanced at each other. "Hold on," said Alcala. "You're going along to assist, but you're not going to be negotiating."

It was too good to be true. Shit, she thought. "Meet Mr. Carlucci," said Alcala.

"Marry," said a nasal voice from behind Cordelia. "Mr. Carlucci," Alcala repeated.

Cordelia turned and took another, closer look at the man she had dismissed as some kind of hired help. Medium height, compact build, styled black hair. Carlucci smiled. He looked like a thug. An amiable one, but still a thug. His suit didn't look as if it had come off the rack. Now that she looked more closely, the coat looked expensively tailored to a T

Carlucci extended his hand. "It's Marty," he said. "We got to spend a day and a night on a plane, we might as well be friendly about it, you know?"

Cordelia sensed disapproval from the two older women. She took Carlucci's hand. She was no jock, but she knew she had a firm grip. Cordelia felt that the man could have squeezed her fingers a lot harder had he wished to. Behind his smile, she sensed a glint of something feral. Not a man to cross.

"Mr. Carlucci," said Alcala, "represents a large investors' group that has entered into partnership with us in the matter of acquiring a major share in global satellite entertainment. They are providing a portion of the capital with which we expect to set up the initial satellite net."

"A lot of bucks," said Carlucci. "But we'll all make it back and probably ten times as much in about five years. With our resources and your ability to"-he grinned-"acquire talent, I figure there's no way we can lose. Everybody makes out."

"But we do wish to saturate the Australian market," said Alcala, "and the ground station is already in place. All we need is a signed letter of intent to sell."

" I can be very persuasive." Carlucci grinned again. To Cordelia the expression looked like a barracuda showing its teeth. Or maybe a wolf. Something predatory. And definitely persuasive.

"You'd better go pack, dear," said Alcala. "Try for one carry-on bag. Enough clothes to last a week. One sophisticated outfit; a more comfortable one for the outback. Anything else you need you can buy there. Alice Springs is isolated, but it is not an uncivilized place."

"It ain't Brooklyn," said Carlucci. "No," said Alcala. "No, it isn't."

"Be at Tomlin," said Rettig, "by four."

Cordelia glanced from Carlucci to Rettig to Alcala. " I meant it before. Thank you. I'll do a good job."

"I know you will, dear," said Alcala, her dark eyes suddenly looking tired.

"I hope so," Rettig said.

Cordelia knew she was dismissed. She turned and headed for the door.

"See you on the plane," said Carlucci. "First class all the way. Hope you don't mind smoking."

She hesitated only momentarily, then said firmly, "I do." For the first time Carlucci frowned. Polly Rettig grinned. Even Luz Alcala smiled.

Cordelia lived in an apartment with a single roommate in a high rise on Maiden Lane near the Woolworth Building and Jetboy's Tomb. Veronica wasn't home, so Cordelia scrawled a brief note. It took her about ten minutes to pack what she thought she'd need on the trip. Then she called Uncle Jack and asked whether he could meet her before she hopped the Tomlin Express. He could. It was one of his days off.

Jack Robicheaux was waiting for her in the diner when she entered from the avenue. No surprise. He knew the transit system below Manhattan better than anyone else.

Every time Cordelia saw her uncle, she felt as if she were looking into a mirror. True, he was male, twenty-five years older, sixty pounds heavier. But the dark hair and eyes were the same. So were the cheekbones. The family resemblance was undeniable. And then there was the less tangible similarity. Both had despaired of any kind of normal growing up in Louisiana; each in young adulthood had fled Cajun country and run away to New York City.

"Hey, Cordie." Jack rose to his feet when he saw her, gave her a firm hug and a kiss on the cheek.

"I'm going to Australia, Uncle Jack." She hadn't meant to give away the surprise, but it burst out anyway.

"No kidding." Jack grinned. "When?"

"Today."

"Yeah?" Jack sat down and leaned back in the green Naugahyde seat. "How come?"

She told him about the meeting.

Jack frowned at the mention of Carlucci. "You know what I think? Suzanne-Bagabond-has been hanging around Rosemary and the DAs office, feeding me a little spare-time work. I don't hear everything, but I catch enough. I think maybe we're talking about Gambione cash here."

"GF amp;G wouldn't go for that," said Cordelia. "They're legitimate, even if they do funnel money from the skin mags."

"Desperation breeds a special blindness. Especially if the money's been laundered through Havana. I know Rosemary's been trying to steer the Gambiones into legitimate enterprise. I guess satellite TV qualifies."

"That's my job you're talking about," said Cordelia. "Better than hooking for the big E"

Cordelia knew her cheeks were coloring. Jack looked repentant. "Sorry," he said. " I wasn't trying to be bitchy."

"Listen, this was really a big day for me. I just wanted to share it."

"I appreciate that." Jack leaned across the Formica table. " I know you're gonna do just fine down under. But if you need any help, if you need anything at all, just call."

"Halfway around the world?"

He nodded. "Doesn't matter how far. If I can't be there in person, maybe I can suggest something. And if you really need a fourteen-foot 'gator in the flesh"-he grinned-"give me about eighteen hours. I know you can hold any fort that long."

She knew he meant it. That was why Jack was the only person in the Robicheaux clan who meant anything at all to her. "I'll be okay. It's going to be terrific." She got up from the booth.

"No coffee?"

"No time." She hefted the soft leather carry-on case. "I need the next train to Tomlin. Please tell C.C. good-bye for me. Bagabond and the cats too."

Jack nodded. "Still want the kitten?"

"You better believe it."

"I'll walk you to the station." Jack got up and took her case. She resisted only a moment before smiling and allowing him.

"There's something I want you to remember," said Jack. "Don't talk to strangers? Take my pill? Eat green vegetables?"

"Shut up," he said fondly. "Your power and mine, they may be related, but they're still different."

"I'm not as likely to get turned into a suitcase," said Cordelia.

He ignored her. "You've used the reptile level in your brain to control some pretty violent situations. You killed folks to protect yourself. Don't forget you can use the power for life too."

Cordelia felt bewildered. "I don't know how. It scares me. I just would rather ignore it."

"But you can't. Remember what I'm saying." Braving cabs, they crossed the avenue to the subway entrance. "Ever see much Nicolas Roeg?" Cordelia said. "Everything," said Jack.

"Maybe this will be my `walkabout."' "Just make it back in one piece."

She smiled. "If I can deal with a bull alligator here, I figure I can handle a bunch of crocodiles in Australia just fine."

Jack smiled too. It was a warm, friendly expression. But it showed all his teeth. Jack was a shape-shifter and Cordelia wasn't, but the family resemblance was unmistakable.

When she found Marty Carlucci at the United terminal at Tomlin, Cordelia discovered the man was carrying an expensive alligator overnight bag and a similarly appointed attache case. She was less than pleased, but there wasn't much she could say.

The woman working the computer at the ticketing counter gave them seats one row apart in first class smoking and nonsmoking. Cordelia suspected it wouldn't make much of a difference to her lungs, but felt she had won a moral decision. Also she suspected she'd feel more comfortable not having to sit with her shoulder rubbing up against his.

A good deal of the excitement of travel had worn off by the time the 747 set down at LAX. Cordelia spent much of the next two hours looking out at the early evening darkness and wondering if she'd ever get to see the La Brea Tar Pits, Watts Towers, Disneyland, Giant Insect National Monument, the Universal tour. She bought some paperbacks in the gift shop. Finally Carlucci and she were called for the Air New Zealand flight. As with the first leg, they had requested first-class seats on either side of the terminator dividing active smoke from passive.

Carlucci snored much of the way to Honolulu. Cordelia couldn't sleep at all. She divided her time between the new Jim Thompson mystery and staring out the window at the moonlit Pacific thirty-six thousand feet below.

Both Carlucci and she converted some of their traveler's checks into Australian dollars on the concourse in Honolulu. "The numbers are good." Carlucci gestured at the conversion chart taped to the window of the change booth. " I checked the paper before we left the States."

"We're still in the States." He ignored her.

Just to make conversation, she said, "You know a lot about finance?"

Pride filled his voice. "Wharton School of Finance and Commerce. Full ride. Family paid for it."

"You've got rich parents?" He ignored her.

The Air New Zealand jumbo loaded and took off, and the stewards fed the passengers one last time in preparation for tucking into the long night to Auckland. Cordelia switched on her reading light when the cabin illumination dimmed. Finally she heard Carlucci grumble from the row ahead, "Get some sleep, kiddo. jet lag's gonna be bad enough. You got a lotta Pacific to cross yet."

Cordelia realized the man had a valid point. She waited a few more minutes so that it would look more like it was her own idea, then switched off the light. She pulled the blanket tight around her and scrunched into the seat so she could look out the port. The travel excitement was almost all gone now. She realized she was indeed exhausted.

She saw no clouds. Just the shining ocean. She found it astonishing that anything could be so apparently endless. So enigmatic. It occurred to her that the Pacific could swallow up a 747 without more than the tiniest ripple.

Eer-moonans!

The words meant nothing to her. Eer-moonans.

The phrase was so soft it could have been a whisper in her mind.

Cordelia's eyes clicked open. Something was very wrong. The reassuring vibration of the jumbo's engines was somehow distorted, blended with the sigh of a rising wind. She tried to throw the suddenly strangling blanket away and clawed her way up the back of the seat ahead, nails biting into the cool leather.

When she looked down the other side, Cordelia sharply drew in her breath. She was staring into the wide, surprised, dead eyes of Marty Carlucci. His body still faced forward.

But his head had been screwed around 180 degrees. Viscid blood slowly dripped from his ears, his mouth. It had pooled at the bottom of his eyes and was oozing down over his cheekbones.

The sound of her scream closed in around Cordelia's head. It was like crying out in a barrel. She finally struggled free of the blanket and stared unbelievingly down the aisle.

She still stood in the Air New Zealand 747. And she stood in the desert. One was overlaid on the other. She moved her feet and felt the gritty texture of the sand, heard its rasp. The aisle was dotted with scrubby plants moving as the wind continued to rise.

The jumbo's cabin stretched into a distance her eye couldn't quite follow, diminishing endlessly into perspective as it approached the tail section. Cordelia saw no one moving.

"Uncle Jack!" she cried out. There was, of course, no answer.

Then she heard the howling. It was a hollow ululation rising and falling, gaining in volume. Far down the cabin, in the tunnel that was also the desert, she saw the shapes leaping toward her. The creatures bounded like wolves, first in the aisle, then scrambling across the tops of the seats. Cordelia smelled a rank, decaying odor. She scrambled into the aisle, recoiling until her spine was flush against the forward bulkhead.

The creatures were indistinct in the half-light. She couldn't even be sure of their numbers. They were like wolves, claws clicking and tearing on the seats, but their heads were all wrong. The snouts were blunted off, truncated. Ruffs of shining spines ringed their necks. Their eyes were flat black holes deeper than the surrounding night.

Cordelia stared at the teeth. There were just too many long needle fangs to fit comfortably into those mouths. Teeth that champed and clashed, throwing out a spray of dark saliva.

The teeth reached for her.

Move, goddamnit! The voice was in her head. It was her own voice. Move!

– as teeth and claws sought her throat.

Cordelia hurled herself to the side. The lead wolfcreature smashed into the steel bulkhead, howled in pain, staggered upright confusedly as the second leaping monster rammed into its ribs. Cordelia scrambled past the confusion of horrors into the narrow galleyway.

Focus! Cordelia knew what she had to do. She wasn't Chuck Norris nor did she have an Uzi at hand. In her instant of respite as the wolf-creatures snarled and spat at one another, she wished again that Jack were here. But he wasn't. Concentrate, she told herself.

One of the blunted muzzles poked around the corner of the galley. Cordelia stared into the pair of deadly matte-black eyes. "Die, you son of a bitch," she cried aloud. She sensed the power uncoiling from the reptile level of her brain, felt the force flow into the alien mind of the monster, striking directly for the brain stem. She shut off its heart and respiration. The creature struggled toward her, then collapsed forward on its clawed paws.

The next monster appeared around the corner. How many of them were there? She tried to think. Six, eight, she wasn't sure. Another blunt muzzle protruded. Another set of claws. More gleaming teeth. Die! She felt the power draining from her. This was no feeling she'd known before. It was like trying to jog in quicksand.

The bodies of the wolf-creatures piled up. The surviving monsters scrambled over the barrier, lunging at her. The final one made it all the way into the galley.

Cordelia tried to shut down its brain, felt the power waning as the creature launched itself down the heap of corpses. As the toothy jaws reached for her throat, she swung a double fist and tried to smash them aside. One of the spines from the thing's ruff slid into the back of her left hand. Steaming spittle spattered her face.

She felt the staccato rhythm of the wolf-creature's breathing hesitate and cease as its body slumped onto her feet. But now she felt a chill spreading across her hand and up her arm. Cordelia grasped the spine with her right hand and wrenched it free. The shaft came loose and she hurled it from her, but the coldness didn't abate.

It'll reach my heart, she thought, and that was the last thing that passed through her mind. Cordelia felt herself collapsing, falling across the crazy-quilt arrangement of monstrous bodies. The wind filled up her ears; the darkness took her eyes.

"Hey! You okay, kid? Whattsa matter?" The accent was all New York. It was Marty Carlucci's voice. Cordelia struggled to open her eyes. The man bent over her, breath minty with recent toothpaste. He grasped her shoulders and shook her slightly.

"Eer-moonans," Cordelia said weakly. "Huh?" Carlucci looked baffled. "You're… dead."

"Damn straight," he said. "I don't know how many hours I slept, but I feel like shit. How about you?"

Memories of the night slammed back. "What's going on?" Cordelia said.

"We're landing. Plane's about half an hour out of Auckland. You wanna use the can, get cleaned up and all, you better do it quick." He took his fingers away from her shoulders. "Okay?"

"Okay." Cordelia sat up shakily. Her head felt as if it were stuffed with sodden cotton. "Everybody's okay? The plane isn't full of monsters?"

Carlucci stared at her. "Just tourists. Hey, you have some bad dreams? Want some coffee?"

"Coffee. Thanks." She grabbed her bag and struggled past him into the aisle. "Right. Nightmares. Bad ones."

In the restroom she alternated splashing cold and hot water on her face. Brushing her teeth helped. She slugged down three Midol and unsnarled her hair. Cordelia did her best with makeup. Finally she stared at herself in the mirror and shook her head. "Shit," she told herself, "you look thirty"

Her left hand itched. She raised it in front of her face and stared at the inflamed puncture wound. Maybe she had caught her hand on something when she'd moved in her sleep, and that had translated into the dream. Perhaps it was stigmata. Either story sounded equally implausible. Maybe this was some weird new menstrual side effect. Cordelia shook her head. Nothing made sense. Weakness flooded over her and she had to sit down on the lid of the toilet. The inside of her skull felt scoured. Maybe she had spent much of the night battling monsters.

Cordelia realized someone was knocking on the door of the restroom. Others wanted to get ready for New Zealand. So long as they weren't wolf-creatures…

The morning was sunny. The North Island of New Zealand was intensely green. The 747 touched down with scarcely a bump and then sat at the end of the runway for twenty minutes until the agriculture people climbed on board. Cordelia hadn't expected that. She watched bemusedly as the smiling young men in their crisp uniforms walked down the aisles, an aerosol jet of pest-killer fogging from the can in each hand. Something about this reminded her perversely of what she'd read of the final moments of Jetboy.

Carlucci must have been thinking something similar. Having promised not to smoke, he'd moved into the seat beside her. "Sure hope it's pesticide," he said. "Be a really nasty joke if it was the wild card virus."

After the passengers had murmured, griped, wheezed, and coughed, the jumbo taxied to the terminal and everyone debarked. The pilot told them they had two hours before the plane left on the thousand-mile leg to Sydney.

"Just time to stretch our legs, buy some cards, make some phone calls," said Carlucci. Cordelia welcomed the thought of getting some exercise.

In the main terminal Carlucci went off to place his trans-Pacific calls. The terminal seemed extraordinarily crowded. Cordelia saw camera crews in the distance. She headed for the doors to the outside.

From behind her she heard, "Cordelia! Ms. Chaisson!" The voice wasn't Carlucci's. Who the hell? She turned and saw a vision of flowing red hair framing a face that looked vaguely like Errol Flynn's in Captain Blood. But Flynn had never worn such bright clothing, not even in the colorized Adventures of Captain Fabian.

Cordelia stopped and smiled. "So," she said. "Do you like new wave music any better these days?"

"No," said Dr. Tachyon. "No, I'm afraid I do not."

"I fear," said the tall, winged woman standing beside Tachyon, "that our good Tacky will never progress much beyond Tony Bennett." A simply cut, voluminous blue silk dress whispered softly around her. Cordelia blinked. Peregrine was hard to mistake.

"Unfair, my dear." Tachyon smiled at his companion. "I have my favorites among contemporary performers. I'm rather fond of Placido Domingo." He turned back toward Cordelia.

"I'm forgetting my manners. Cordelia, have you formally met Peregrine?"

Cordelia took the proffered hand. "I've had a call in to your agent for weeks now. Nice to see you." Shut up, she said to herself. Don't be rude.

Peregrine's dazzling blue eyes regarded her. "I'm sorry," she said. "Is this about the benefit at Dez's club? I'm afraid I've been incredibly busy tidying up other projects in the midst of getting ready for this trip."

"Peregrine," said Tachyon, "this young woman is Cordelia Chaisson. We know each other from the clinic. She's come frequently with friends to visit C.C. Ryder."

"C. C.'s going to be able to do the Funhouse," said Cordelia.

"That would be fabulous," said Peregrine. "I've admired her work for a long time."

"Perhaps we could all sit down over a drink," said Tachyon. He smiled at Cordelia. "There has been a delay with arranging the senator's ground transport into Auckland. I'm afraid were stranded at the airport for a bit." The man glanced back over his shoulder. "As well, I'm afraid we are trying to avoid the rest of the party. The aircraft does get a bit close."

Cordelia felt the tempting proximity of fresh air starting to drift away. "I've got just about two hours," she said, hesitating. "Okay, let's have a drink." As they walked toward the restaurant, Cordelia didn't see Carlucci. He could get along fine by himself. What she did notice was the number of stares following them. No doubt some of the attention was being paid to Tachyon-his hair and wardrobe always ensured that. But mostly people were looking at Peregrine. Probably the New Zealanders weren't all that accustomed to seeing a tall, gorgeous woman with functional wings folded against her back. She was spectacular, Cordelia admitted to herself. It would be great to have the looks, the stature, the presence. At once Cordelia felt very young. Almost like a kid. Inadequate. Damn it.

Cordelia ordinarily took her coffee with milk. But if black would help clear her head, then she'd give it a try. She insisted that the three of them wait for a window table. If she wasn't going to breathe the outside air, at least she could sit within inches of it. The colors of the unfamiliar trees reminded her of photos she'd seen of the Monterey Peninsula.

"So," she said after they'd given orders to the waitress, " I guess I should say something about a small world. How's the junket? I saw some pictures of the Great Ape on the eleven o'clock news before I left."

Tachyon rambled on about Senator Hartmann's roundthe-world tour. Cordelia remembered reading about it interminably in the Post on the subway, but had been so busy with the Funhouse benefit, she hadn't paid much attention. "Sounds like a backbreaker," she said when Tachyon finished his gloss.

Peregrine smiled wanly. "It hasn't exactly been a vacation. I think Guatemala was my favorite. Have your people thought of climaxing the benefit with a human sacrifice?"

Cordelia shook her head. " I think we're going for a little more festive tone, even considering the occasion."

"Listen," Peregrine said. "I'll do what I can with my agent. In the meantime maybe I can introduce you to a few folks who'll do you some good. Do you know Radha O'Reilly? Elephant Girl?" At Cordelia's head shake she continued, "when she turns into a flying elephant, it's smoother than anything Doug Henning's dreamed of. You ought to talk to Fantasy too. You could use a dancer like her."

"That'd be terrific," Cordelia said. "Thank you." She felt the frustration of wanting to do everything herself-showing everyone and yet knowing when to accept the aid that was being graciously extended.

"So," Tachyon said, breaking in on her thoughts. "And what are you doing here so far from home?" His expression looked expectant; his eyes gleamed with honest curiosity. Cordelia knew she couldn't get away with claiming she'd won the trip for selling Girl Scout cookies. She opted for honesty. "I'm going to Australia with a guy from GF amp;G to try and buy a. satellite ground station before it gets scarfed up by a TV preacher." said Tachyon. "Would that evangelist be Leo Barnett, by chance?"

Cordelia nodded.

"I hope you succeed." Tachyon frowned. "Our friend Fire-breather's power is growing at a dangerously exponential rate. I, for one, would prefer to see the growth of his media empire retarded."

"Just yesterday," said Peregrine, "I heard from Chrysalis that some of Barnett's youth-group thugs are hanging out in the Village and beating the stuffing out of anybody they think is both a joker and vulnerable."

"Die Juden," Tachyon murmured. The two women glanced questioningly at him. "History." He sighed, then said to Cordelia, "Whatever help you need in competing with Barnett, let us know. I think you'll find a great deal of support from both aces and jokers."

"Hey," said an overly familiar voice from behind Cordelia's scapula. "What's happening?"

Without looking around Cordelia said, "Marty Carlucci, meet Dr. Tachyon and Peregrine." To the latter she said, "Marty's my chaperon."

"Hiya." Carlucci took the fourth chair. "Yeah, I know you," he said to Tachyon. He stared at Peregrine, frankly surveying her. All of her. "You I've seen a lot. I got tapes of every show you've done for years." His eyes narrowed. "Say, you pregnant?"

"Thank you," said Peregrine. "Yes." She stared him down.

"Uh, right," said Carlucci. He turned to Cordelia. "Kid, come on. We gotta get back on the plane." More firmly, "Now!"

Good-byes were said. Tachyon volunteered to pay for the coffee. "Good luck," Peregrine said, aimed specifically at Cordelia. Carlucci seemed preoccupied, not noticing.

As the two of them walked toward the boarding gate, he said, "Dumb fuckin' bitch."

Cordelia stopped dead still. "What?"

"Not you." Carlucci took her elbow roughly and propelled her toward the security checkpoint. "That joker who sells info-Chrysalis. I ran into her by the phones. I figured I'd save the price of a call."

"So?" said Cordelia.

"One of these days she's gonna get her invisible tits caught in the wringer and there's going to be real bright blood all over the laundry room wall. I told New York that too."

Cordelia waited, but he didn't elaborate. "So?" she said again.

"What did you tell those two geeks?" said Carlucci. His voice sounded dangerous.

"Nothing," said Cordelia, listening to the internal warning bells. "Nothing at all."

"Good." Carlucci grimaced. He mumbled, "She's gonna be fish food, I swear it."

Cordelia stared at Carlucci. The sheer conviction in his voice kept him from appearing a comic-opera gangster. She thought he meant what he was saying. He reminded her of the wolf-creatures in last night's maybe-dream. All that was missing was the dark spittle.

Carlucci's mood didn't improve on the flight to Australia. In Sydney they cleared customs and transferred to an A-300 Airbus. In Melbourne, Cordelia finally got to stick her head out of doors for a few minutes. The air smelled fresh. She admired the DC-3 suspended from a cable in front of the terminal. Then her companion fussed at her to get to the proper Ansett gate. This time they were seated on a 727. Cordelia was glad she wasn't trusting her bag to checked luggage. Part of Marty Carlucci's gloom involved speculation that his checked bag was going to get missent to Fiji or some other improper destination.

"So why didn't you carry everything on?" Cordelia had said.

"There's some stuff you can't carry on."

The 727 droned north, away from the coastal greenery. Cordelia had the window seat. She stared down at the apparently unending desert. She squinted, looking for roads, railroad tracks, any other sign of human intervention. Nothing. The flat brownish-tan wasteland was dotted with cloud shadows.

When word crackled over the cabin speakers that the plane was approaching Alice Springs, Cordelia realized only after she'd performed the actions that she had stowed the tray table, cinched her seat belt, and shoved her bag back under the seat ahead. It had all become utterly automatic.

The airport was busier than she'd expected. Somehow she had anticipated a single dusty runway with a galvanized tin shack beside it. A TAA flight had landed minutes before and the terminal was crowded with people who clearly resembled tourists.

"We rent the Land-Rover now?" she asked Carlucci. The man was leaning impatiently over the luggage belt. "Uh-uh. We go into town. I've got us reservations at the Stuart Arms. We're both getting a good night's sleep. I don't want to be any nastier than I have to be tomorrow at the meeting. It's all set up for three o'clock," he added as an apparent afterthought. "The lag's gonna catch up with us real fast. I suggest you get a good supper with me when we get to Alice. Then it's beddy-bye till ten or eleven tomorrow morning. If we pick up the rental and get out of Alice by noon, we should hit the Gap in plenty of time. There, you son of a bitch!" He grabbed his alligator case from the conveyor. "Okay, let's go."

They took an Ansett coach into Alice. It was half an hour into town and the air-conditioning labored hard against the baking heat outside. Cordelia stared out the window as the bus approached downtown Alice Springs. At first glance it didn't look terribly different from a small, arid American city. Certainly Baton Rouge was more alien than this, Cordelia thought. It didn't look at all as she'd expected from seeing both versions of A Town Like Alice.

The air transit terminal turned out to be across the street from the turn-of-the-century architecture of the Stuart Arms, a fact for which Cordelia was grateful. It was getting dark as the passengers climbed down to the pavement and claimed their bags. Cordelia glanced at her watch. The numbers meant absolutely nothing. She needed to reset to local time. And change the date as well, she reminded herself. She wasn't even sure what day of the week it was now. Her head had started to throb when she plunged into the heat that lingered even while the dark was falling. She thought longingly of being able to lie straight, stretched out on clean sheets. After she'd had a long bath. She checked that. The bath could wait until she'd slept for twenty or thirty hours. At least.

"Okay, kiddo," said Carlucci. They were standing in front of the antique registration desk. "Here's your key." He paused. "Sure you wouldn't like to shave expenses for GF amp;G and stay in my room?" Cordelia didn't have the energy to smile wanly. "Nope," she said, taking the key from his hand.

"You wanna know something? You're not on this picnic just because the Fortunato broads think you're such hot shit." What was he talking about? She used enough energy to glance at him.

"I've seen you around the GF amp;G offices. I liked what I saw. I put in the word."

Cordelia sighed. Aloud.

"Okay," he said. "Hey, no offense. I'm bushed too." Carlucci picked up the alligator bag. "Let's get the stuff stowed and catch supper." There was a LIFT OUT OF ORDER sign on the elevator. He turned wearily toward the staircase.

"Second floor," said Carlucci. "At least that's a goddamn blessing." They passed a mimeographed poster in the stairwell advertising a band called Gondwanaland. "Maybe after we eat, you wanna go dancing?" Even he didn't sound all that enthusiastic.

Cordelia didn't bother to reply.

The landing opened out into a hallway lined with dark wood trim and some unobtrusive glass cases containing aboriginal artifacts. Cordelia glanced at the boomerangs and bull roarers. Doubtless she'd be able to work up a little more interest tomorrow.

Carlucci looked at his key. "The rooms are next to each other. God, I'm looking forward to bagging it. I really am dead."

A door slammed open behind them. Cordelia caught a quick flash of two dark figures leaping. They were monsters. Later she decided they must have been wearing masks. Ugly masks.

Tired as she was, her reflexes still worked. She'd started to duck to the side when a stiffened forearm caught her across the chest and drove her into one of the glass cases. Glass shattered, shards spraying. Cordelia flailed her arms, trying to keep her equilibrium, as someone or something tried to grapple with her. She thought she heard Marty Carlucci screaming.

Her fingers closed on something hard-the end of a boomerang-as she sensed rather than saw her assailant spin around and spring for her again. She brought the boomerang forward in a whistling arc. Instinct. All instinct. Shit, she thought. I'm going to die.

The sharp edge of the boomerang sliced into the face of her attacker with the sound of a carving knife slicing into a watermelon. Outstretched fingers slapped her neck and dropped away. A body rolled to the floor.

Carlucci! Cordelia turned and saw a dark figure crouched over her colleague. It straightened, stood, started for her, and she realized it was a man. But now she had a little time.

Think! she said to herself. Think think think. Focus. It was as though the power had been blanketed by the smothering layers of fatigue. But it was still there. She concentrated, felt the lowest level of her brain engage and strike out.

Stop, goddamn you!

The figure stopped, staggered, started forward again. And fell. Cordelia knew she'd shut down everything in his autonomic system. The smell as his bowels released made it even worse.

She edged around him and knelt down by Marty Carlucci. He lay on his stomach, looking upward. His head had been screwed around completely, just as it had been in the maybedream. Slightly walleyed, his dead eyes stared past her.

Cordelia rocked back on her heels against the wall, putting her fists to her mouth, feeling her incisors bite into the knuckles. She felt the epinephrine still prickling in her arms and legs. Every nerve seemed raw.

Christ! she thought. What am I gonna do? She looked both ways along the hall. There were no more attackers, no witnesses. She could call Uncle Jack in New York. Or Alcalaor Rettig. She could even try to find Fortunato in Japan. If the number she had was still good. She could attempt to locate Tachyon in Auckland. It came home to her. She was many thousands of miles from anyone she trusted, anyone she even knew.

"What am I gonna do?" This time she muttered it aloud. She scrambled over to Carlucci's alligator case and clicked the catches open. The man had affected an icy calm at customs. She had no doubt there was a reason. Cordelia tore through the clothing, searching for the weapon she knew had to be there. She opened the case marked "shaver and converter set." The gun was blued steel and ugly, some kind of snubbed-off, scaled-down automatic weapon. It felt reassuringly heavy in her hand.

Floorboards creaked down in the stairwell. On some level Cordelia caught the scattered words: "… by now he and the bitch should both be dead…"

She forced herself to get up and step over Marty Carlucci's corpse. Then she ran.

At the end of the hallway farthest from the main staircase, a window overlooked a fire-stairs. Cordelia slid it open, softly cajoling the window when the pane momentarily stuck in the casement. She skinned through, then turned to shut the window after her. She saw shadows writhing at the other end of the hall. Cordelia ducked and scuttled crabwise to the steps down.

She momentarily wished she'd grabbed her overnight bag. At least she had the passport case with the Amex card and traveler's checks in the small handbag slung around her shoulder. Cordelia realized she still had the room key clutched in her left hand. She maneuvered it in her fist so that the key thrust out from between her index and middle fingers.

The steps were metal, but they were old and they creaked. Quick and stealthy, Cordelia discovered, were mutually contradictory here.

She saw she was descending into an alley. The noise from the street, about twenty yards distant, was loud and boisterous. At first she thought it sounded like a party. Then she detected undercurrents of anger and pain. The crowd noise rose. Cordelia heard the flat sounds of what she guessed were fists on flesh.

"Terrific," she muttered. Then it occurred to her that a riot would provide good cover for her escape. She had already started mulling contingency plans. First, stay alive.

Get out of here. Then call Rettig or Alcala and let them know what had happened. They would send someone to replace Carlucci while she stayed out of sight. Wonderful. A brandnew guy in a tailored suit to sign his company's name on a contract. What was so difficult about that? She could do it. But not if she was dead.

With both key and gun at the ready Cordelia eased down from the bottom step of the fire-stairs and started toward the mouth of the alley. Then she froze. She knew someone was standing directly behind her.

She whirled, driving her left hand forward, aiming the key at a spot she hoped would be right beneath the intruder's chin. Someone was indeed there. Strong fingers clamped around her wrist, easily soaking up all the forward momentum of her thrust.

The figure pulled her forward into what little light spilled down from the Stuart Arms through the stair gratings. Cordelia brought the gun up and stuck the barrel into her assailant's belly. It didn't go far. She pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

She caught a glimpse of dark eyes catching hers. The figure reached forward with its free hand and clicked something on the side of the weapon. A male voice said, "Here, little missy, you left on the safety. Now it will work."

Cordelia was too astonished to. pull the trigger. "Okay, I get the point. Who are you, and can we get out of here?"

"You can call me Warreen." Sudden light flooded down from above them, bursting through the gratings, painting quagga stripes of illumination.

Cordelia stared at the bars of light falling across the man's face. She registered the wild, curly black hair, the hooded eyes as dark as hers, the broad flat nose, the high, sharp cheekbones, the strong lips. He was, her mama would have called him, a man of some color. He was, she also realized, the most striking man she had ever seen. Her daddy would have whipped her for that thought alone.

Footsteps clattered down the fire-stairs.

"Now we get out of here," Warreen said, steering her toward the alley mouth.

Naturally it wasn't as easy as that. "There are men there," said Cordelia. She saw an indeterminate number of men holding what seemed to be sticks. They were waiting, silhouetted against the light from the street.

"So there are." Warreen grinned and Cordelia caught the flash of white teeth. "Shoot at them, little missy."

Sounds good to me, Cordelia thought, bringing up the weapon in her right hand. When she pulled the trigger, there was a sound like ripping canvas and bullets screamed off brick. The ragged muzzle flash showed her the men in the alley were now flat in the dirt. She didn't think she had hit any of them.

"Later we worry about marksmanship," said Warreen. "Now we go." He enclosed her left hand in his right, not seeming to notice the key still in place in her fist.

She wondered if they were going to jump from back to back of the prostrate men like Tarzan hopscotching crocodiles in lieu of stepping stones.

They didn't go anywhere.

Something akin to heat washed over her. It felt like energy flooding through Warreen's fingers and into her body. The heat seared from the inside out-just like, she thought, a microwave oven.

The world seemed to move sharply two feet to the left and then drop a foot more. The air rotated around her. The night funneled into a blazing speck centered in her chest. Then it was no longer night.

Warreen and she stood on a reddish-brown plain that joined the distant sky in a far, flat horizon. There were occasional hardy-looking plants and a bit of. a breeze. The wind was hot and it eddied the dust.

She realized this was the same plain that had overlaid the cabin of the Air New Zealand jumbo in her nightmare between Honolulu and Auckland.

Cordelia staggered slightly and Warreen caught her arm. "I've seen this place before," she said. "Will the wolf-creatures come?"

"Wolf-creatures?" Warreen looked momentarily puzzled. "Ah, little missy, you mean the Eer-moonans, the longtoothed ones from the shadows."

"I guess so. Lots of teeth? Run in packs? They've got rows of quills around their necks." Holding the gun loosely, Cordelia massaged the inflamed place on the back of her left hand.

Warreen frowned and examined the wound. "Pierced by a quill? You're very fortunate. Their venom is usually fatal."

"Maybe us 'gator types have natural immunity," Cordelia said, smiling wanly. Warreen looked politely puzzled. "Never mind. I guess I'm just lucky."

He nodded. "Indeed so, little missy."

"What's this `little missy' crap?" Cordelia said. " I didn't want to take time to ask back in the alley."

Warreen looked startled, then grinned widely. "The European ladies seem to like it. It feeds those delicious colonial impulses, you know? Sometimes I still talk like I'm a guide."

"I'm not European," said Cordelia. "I'm a Cajun, an American."

"Same thing to us." Warreen continued to grin. "Yank's same as a European. No difference. You're all tourists here. So what should I call you?"

"Cordelia."

His expression became serious as he leaned forward and took the gun from her hand. He examined it closely, gingerly working the action, then clicking the safety back on. "Scaled down H and K full auto. Pretty expensive hardware, Cordelia. Going shooting dingos?" He gave her back the weapon.

She let it dangle from her hand. "It belonged to the guy I came to Alice Springs with. He's dead."

"At the hotel?" said Warreen. "The minions of the Murgamuggai? Word was out, she was going to ice the agent of the evangelist."

"Who?"

"The trap-door spider woman. Not a nice lady. She's tried to kill me for years. Since I was a kid." He said it matter-of-factly. Cordelia thought he still looked like a kid.

"Why?" she said, involuntarily shivering. If she had any phobia, it was spiders. She coughed as the wind kicked red dust up into her face.

"Started as clan vengeance. Now it's something else." Warreen seemed to reflect, then added, "She and I both have some powers. I think she feels there is space in the outback for only one such. Very shortsighted."

"What kind of powers?" said Cordelia.

"You are full of questions. So am I. Perhaps we can trade knowledge on our walk."

"Walk?" said Cordelia a bit stupidly. Once again events threatened to outstrip her ability to comprehend them. "Where?"

"Uluru."

"Where's that?"

"There." Warreen pointed toward the horizon.

The sun was directly overhead. Cordelia had no idea which compass direction was indicated. "There's nothing there. Just a lot of countryside that looks like where they shot Road Warrior."

"There will be." Warreen had started walking. He was already a dozen paces away. His voice drifted back on the wind. "Shake a pretty leg, little missy."

Deciding she had little choice, Cordelia followed. "Agent of the evangelist?" she muttered. That wasn't Marty. Somebody had made a bad mistake.

"Where are we?" said Cordelia. The sky was dotted with small cumulus, but none of the cloud-shadows ever seemed to shade her. She wished mightily that they did.

"The world," said Warreen. "It's not my world."

"The desert, then."

" I know it's the desert," said Cordelia. "I can see it's the desert. I can feel it. The heat's a dead giveaway. But what desert is it?"

"It is the land of Baiame," said Warreen. "This is the great Nullarbor Plain."

"Are you sure?" Cordelia scrubbed sweat from her forehead with the strip of fabric she had carefully torn away from the hem of her Banana Republic skirt. " I looked at the map on the plane all the way up from Melbourne. The distances don't make sense. Shouldn't this be the Simpson Desert?"

"Distances are different in the Dreamtime," Warreen said simply.

"The Dreamtime?" What am I in, a Peter Weir movie? she thought. "As in the myth?"

"No myth," said her companion. "We are now where reality was, is, and will be. We are in the origin of all things."

"Right." I am dreaming, Cordelia thought. I'm dreamingor I'm dead and this is the last thing my brain cells are creating before everything flares and goes black.

": All things in the shadow world were created here first," said Warreen. "Birds, creatures, grass, the ways of doing things, the taboos that must be observed."

Cordelia looked around her. There was little to see. "These are the originals?" she said. "I've only seen the copies before?"

He nodded vigorously.

" I don't see any dune buggies," she said a bit petulantly, feeling the heat. " I don't see any airliners or vending machines full of ice-cold Diet Pepsi."

He answered her seriously. "Those are only variations. Here is where everything begins."

I'm dead, she thought glumly. "I'm hot," she said. "I'm tired. How far do we have to walk?"

"A distance." Warreen kept striding along effortlessly. Cordelia stopped and set hands to hips. "Why should I go along?"

"If you don't," Warreen said back over his shoulder, "then you shall die."

"Oh." Cordelia started walking again, having to run a few steps in order to catch up with the man. The image she couldn't get out of her head was that of cold cans of soda, the moisture beading on the aluminum outsides. She ached to hear the click and hiss as the tabs peeled back. And the bubbles, the taste…

"Keep walking," said Warreen.

"How long have we been walking?" said Cordelia. She glanced up and shaded her eyes. The sun was measurably closer to the horizon. Shadows stretched in back of Warreen and her.

"Are you tired?" said her companion. "I'm exhausted."

"Do you need to test?"

She thought about that. Her own conclusion surprised her. "No. No, I don't think I do. Not yet, anyway." Where was the energy coming from? She was exhausted-and yet strength seemed to rise up into her, as though she were a plant taking nourishment from the earth. "This place is magical."

Warreen nodded matter-of-factly. "Yes, it is."

"However," she said, " I am hungry"

"You don't need food, but I'll see to it."

Cordelia heard a sound apart from the wind and the padding of her own feet on the dusty soil. She turned and saw a brownish-gray kangaroo hopping along, easily pacing them. "I'm hungry enough to eat one of those," she said.

The kangaroo stared at her from huge chocolate eyes. "I should hope not," it said.

Cordelia closed her mouth with a click. She stared back. Warreen smiled at the kangaroo and said courteously,

"Good afternoon, Mirram. Will we shortly find shade and water?"

"Yes," said the kangaroo. "Sadly, the hospitality is being hoarded by a cousin of the Gurangatch."

"At least," said Warreen, "it is not a bunyip."

"That is true," agreed the kangaroo.

"Will I find weapons?"

"Beneath the tree," said the kangaroo.

"Good," Warreen said with relief. " I wouldn't relish wrestling a monster with only my hands and teeth."

" I wish you well," said the kangaroo. "And you," it said to Cordelia, "be at peace." The creature turned at right angles to their path and bounded into the desert where it soon was lost to sight.

"Talking kangaroos?" said Cordelia. "Bunyips? Gurnagatches?"

"Gurangatch," Warreen corrected her. "Something of both lizard and fish. It is, of course, a monster."

She was mentally fitting pieces together. "And it's hogging an oasis."

"Spot on."

"Couldn't we avoid it?"

"No matter what trail we follow," Warreen said, " I think it will encounter us." He shrugged. "It's just a monster."

"Right." Cordelia was glad she still had tight hold of the H and K mini. The steel was hot and slippery in her hand. "Just a monster," she mumbled through dry lips.

Cordelia had no idea how Warreen found the pond and the tree. So far as she could tell, they followed a perfectly straight path. A dot appeared in the sunset distance. It grew as they approached it. Cordelia saw a tough-looking desert oak streaked with charcoal stripes. It seemed to have been struck by lightning more than once and looked as if it had occupied this patch of hardscrabble soil for centuries. A belt of grass surrounded the tree. A gentle slope led down to reeds and then the edge of a pool about thirty feet across. "Where's the monster?" said Cordelia.

"Hush." Warreen strode up to the tree and began to strip. His muscles were lean and beautifully defined. His skin shimmered with sweat, glowing almost a dark blue in the dusk. When he skinned out of the jeans, Cordelia at first turned away, then decided this was not an occasion for politeness, whether false or otherwise.

God, she thought. He's gorgeous. Depending on gender, her kin would have been either scandalized or triggered to a lynching impulse. Even though she had been reared to abhor such a thought, she wanted to reach and lightly touch him. This, she abruptly realized, was not like her at all. Although she was surrounded in New York by people of other colors, they still made her nervous. Warreen was engendering that reaction, yet it