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

Wildcards

George Martin


Wildcards

George R R Martin

PROLOGUE

From Wild Times: An Oral History of the Postwar Years, by Studs Terkel (Pantheon, 1979).

Herbert L. Cranston

Years later, when I saw Michael Rennie come out of that flying saucer in The Day the Earth Stood Still, I leaned over to the wife and said, "Now that's the way an alien emissary ought to look." I've always suspected that it was Tachyons arrival that gave them the idea for that picture, but you know how Hollywood changes things around. I was there, so I know how it really was. For starts, he came down in White Sands, not in Washington. He didn't have a robot, and we didn't shoot him. Considering what happened, maybe we should have, eh?

His ship, well, it certainly wasn't a flying saucer, and it didn't look a damn thing like our captured V-2s or even the moon rockets on Werner's drawing boards. It violated every known law of aerodynamics and Einstein's special relativity too.

He came down at night, his ship all covered with lights, the prettiest thing I ever saw. It set down plunk in the middle of the proving range, without rockets, propellers, rotors, or any visible means of propulsion whatsoever. The outer skin looked like it was coral or some kind of porous rock, covered with whorls and spurs, like something you'd find in a limestone cavern or spot while deep-sea diving.

I was in the first jeep to reach it. By the time we got there, Tach was already outside. Michael Rennie, now, he looked right in that silvery-blue spacesuit of his, but

Tachyon looked like a cross between one of the Three Musketeers and some kind of circus performer. I don't mind telling you, all of us were pretty scared driving out, the rocketry boys and eggheads just as much as the GIs. I remembered that Mercury Theater broadcast back in '39, when Orson Welles fooled everybody into thinking that the Martians were invading New Jersey, and I couldn't help thinking maybe this time it was happening for real. But once the spotlights hit him, standing there in front of his ship, we all relaxed. He just wasn't scary.

He was short, maybe five three, five four, and to tell the truth, he looked more scared than us. He was wearing these green tights with the boots built right into them, and this orangy shirt with lace sissy ruffles at the wrists and collar, and some kind of silvery brocade vest, real tight. His coat was a lemon-yellow number, with a green cloak snapping around in the wind behind him and catching about his ankles. On top of his head he had this wide-brimmed hat, with a long red feather sticking out of it, except when I got closer, I saw it was really some weird spiky quill. His hair covered his shoulders; at first glance, I thought he was a girl. It was a peculiar sort of hair too, red and shiny, like thin copper wire.

I didn't know what to make of him, but I remember one of our Germans saying that he looked like a Frenchman.

No sooner had we arrived than he came slogging right over to the jeep, bold as you please, trudging through the sand with a big bag stuck up under one arm.

He started telling us his name, and he was still telling it to us while four other jeeps pulled up. He spoke better English than most of our Germans, despite having this weird accent, but it was hard to be sure at first when he spent ten minutes telling us his name.

I was the first human being to speak to him. That's God's truth, I don't care what anybody else tells you, it was me. I got out of the jeep and stuck out my hand and said, "Welcome to America." I started to introduce myself, but he interrupted me before I could get the words out.

"Herb Cranston of Cape May, New Jersey," he said. "A rocket scientist. Excellent. I am a scientist myself." He didn't look like any scientist I'd ever known, but I made allowances, since he came from outer space. I was more concerned about how he'd known my name. I asked him.

He waved his ruffles in the air, impatient. "I read your mind. That's unimportant. Time is short, Cranston. Their ship broke up." I thought he look more than a little sick when he said that; sad, you know, hurting, but scared too. And tired, very tired. Then he started talking about this globe. That was the globe with the wild card virus, of course, everyone knows that now, but back then I didn't know what the hell he was going on about. It was lost, he said, he needed to get it back, and he hoped for all our sakes it was still intact. He wanted to talk to our top leaders. He must have read their names in my mind, because he named Werner, and Einstein, and the President, except he called him "this President Harry S Truman of yours." Then he climbed right into the back of the jeep and sat down. "Take me to them," he said. "At once. "

Professor Lyle Crawford Kent

In a certain sense, it was I who coined his name. His real name, of course, his alien patronymic, was impossibly long. Several of us tried to shorten it, I recall, using this or that piece of it during our conferences, but evidently this was some sort of breach of etiquette on his home world, Takis. He continually corrected us, rather arrogantly I might say, like an elderly pedant lecturing a pack of schoolboys. Well, we needed to call him something. The title came first. We might have called him "Your Majesty" or some such, since he claimed to be a prince, but Americans are not comfortable with that sort of bowing and scraping. He also said he was a physician, although not in our sense of the word, and it must be admitted that he did seem to know a good deal of genetics and biochemistry, which seemed to be his area of expertise. Most of our team held advanced degrees, and we addressed each other accordingly, and so it was only natural that we fell to calling him "Doctor" as well.

The rocket scientists were obsessed with our visitor's ship, particularly with the theory of his faster-than-light propulsion system. Unfortunately, our Takisian friend bad burned out his ship's interstellar drive in his haste to arrive here before those relatives of his, and in any case he adamantly refused to let any of us, civilian or military, inspect the inside of his craft. Werner and his Germans were reduced to questioning the alien about the drive, rather compulsively I thought. As I understood it, theoretical physics and the technology of space travel were not disciplines in which our visitor was especially expert, so the answers he gave them were not very clear, but we did grasp that the drive made use of a hithertounknown particle that traveled faster than light.

The alien had a term for the particle, as unpronounceable as his name. Well, I had a certain grounding in classical Greek, like all educated men, and a flair for nomenclature if I do say so myself. I was the one who devised the coinage "tachyon." Somehow the GIs got things confused, and began referring to our visitor as "that tachyon fellow." The phrase caught on, and from there it was only a short step to Doctor Tachyon, the name by which he became generally known in the press.

Colonel Edward Reid, U.S. Army Intelligence (Ret.)

You want me to say it, right? Every damned reporter I've ever talked to wants me to say it. All right, here it is. We made a mistake. And we paid for it too. Do you know that afterwards they came within a hair of court-martialing all of us, the whole interrogation team? That's a fact. The hell of it is, I don't know how we could have been expected to do things any differently than we did. I was in charge of his interrogation. I ought to know. What did we really know about him? Nothing except what he told us himself. The eggheads were treating him like Baby Jesus, but military men have to be a little more cautious. If you want to understand, you have to put yourself in our shoes and remember how it was back then.

His story was utterly preposterous, and he couldn't prove a single damned thing.

Okay, he landed in this funny-looking rocket plane, except it didn't have rockets. That was impressive. Maybe that plane of his did come from outer space, like he said.

But maybe it didn't. Maybe it was one of those secret projects the Nazis had been working on, left over from the war. They'd had jets at the end, you know, and those V-2s, and they were even working on the atomic bomb. Maybe it was Russian. I don't know. If Tachyon had only let us examine his ship, our boys would have been able to figure out where it came from, I'm sure. But he wouldn't let anyone inside the damned thing, which struck me as more than a little suspicious. What was he trying to hide?

He said he came from the planet Talds. Well, I never heard of no goddamned planet Takis. Mars, Venus, Jupiter, sure. Even Mongo and Barsoom. But Takis? I called up a dozen top astronomers all around the country, even one guy over in England. Where's the planet Takis? I asked them. There is no planet Takis, they told me.

He was supposed to be an alien, right? We examined him. A complete physical, X rays, a battery of psychological tests, the works. He tested human. Every which way we turned him, he came up human. No extra organs, no green blood, five fingers, five toes, two balls, and one cock. The fucker was no different from you and me. He spoke English, for crissakes. But get this-he also spoke German. And Russian and French and a few other languages I've forgotten. I made wire recordings of a couple of my sessions with him, and played them for a linguist, who said the accent was Central European.

And the headshrinkers, whoa, you should have heard their reports. Classic paranoid, they said. Megalomania, they said. Schitzo, they said. All kinds of stuff. I mean, look, this guy claimed to be a prince from outer space with magic fucking powers who'd come here all alone to save our whole damned planet. Does that sound sane to you?

And let me say something about those damned magic powers of his. I'll admit it, that was the thing that bothered me the most. I mean, not only could Tachyon tell you what you were thinking, he could look at you funny and make you jump up on your desk and drop your pants, whether you wanted to or not. I spent hours with him every day, and he convinced me. The thing was, my reports didn't convince the brass back east. Some kind of trick, they thought, he was hypnotizing us, he was reading our body posture, using psychology to make us think he read minds. They were going to send out a stage hypnotist to figure out how he did it, but the shit hit the fan before they got around to it.

He didn't ask much. All he wanted was a meeting with the President so he could mobilize the entire American military to search for some crashed rocket ship.

Tachyon would be in command, of course, no one else was qualified. Our top scientists could be his assistants. He wanted radar and jets and submarines and bloodhounds and weird machines nobody had ever heard of. You name it, he wanted it. And he did not want to have to consult with anybody, either. This guy dressed like a fag hairdresser, if you want the truth, but the way he gave orders you would've thought he had three stars at least.

And why? Oh, yeah, his story, that sure was great. On this planet Takis, he said, a couple dozen big families ran the whole show, like royalty, except they all had magic powers, and they lorded it over everybody else who didn't have magic powers. These families spent most of their time feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys. His particular bunch had a secret weapon they'd been working on for a couple of centuries. A tailored artificial virus designed to interact with the genetic makeup of the host organism, he said. He'd been part of the research team.

Well, I was humoring him. What did this germ do? I asked him. Now get this-it did everything.

What it was supposed to do, according to Tachyon, was goose up these mind powers of theirs, maybe even give them some new powers, evolve 'em almost into gods, which would sure as hell give his kin the edge over the others. But it didn't always do that. Sometimes, yeah. Most often it killed the test subjects. He went on and on about how deadly this stuf was, and managed to give me the creeps. What were the symptoms? I asked. We knew about germ weapons back in 46; just in case he was telling the truth, I wanted us to know what to look for.

He couldn't tell me the symptoms. There were all kinds of symptoms. Everybody had different symptoms, every single person. You ever hear of a germ worked like that? Not me.

Then Tachyon said that sometimes it turned people into freaks instead of killing them. What kind of freaks? I asked. All kinds, he said. I admitted that it sounded pretty nasty, and asked him why his folks hadn't used this stuff on the other families. Because sometimes the virus worked, he said; it remade its victims, gave them powers. What kinds of powers? All kinds of powers, naturally.

So they had this stuff. They didn't want to use it on their enemies, and maybe give them powers. They didn't want to use it on themselves, and kill off half the family.

They weren't about to forget about it. They decided to test it on us. Why us? Because we were genetically identical to Takisians, he said, the only such race they knew of, and the bug was designed to work on the Takisian genotype. So why were we so lucky? Some of his people thought it was parallel evolution, others believed that Earth was a lost Takisian colony-he didn't know and didn't care.

He did care about the experiment. Thought it was "ignoble." He protested, he said, but they ignored him. The ship left. And Tachyon decided to stop them all by himself. He came after them in a smaller ship, burned out his damned tachyon drive getting here ahead of them. When he intercepted them, they told him to fuck of, even though he was family, and they had some kind of space battle. His ship was damaged, theirs was crippled, and they crashed. Somewhere back east, he said. He lost them, on account of the damage to his ship. So he landed at White Sands, where he thought he could get help.

I got down the whole story on my wire recorder. Afterwards, Army Intelligence contacted all sorts of experts: biochemists and doctors and germ-warfare guys, you name it. An alien virus, we told them, symptoms completely random and unpredictable. Impossible, they said. Utterly absurd. One of them gave me a whole lecture about how Earth germs could never affect Martians like in that H. G. Wells book, and Martian germs couldn't affect us, either. Everybody agreed that this random-symptom bit was a laugh. So what were we supposed to do? We all cracked jokes about the Martian flu and spaceman's fever. Somebody, I don't know who, called it the wild card virus in a report, and the rest of us picked up on the name, but nobody believed it for a second.

It was a bad situation, and Tachyon just made it worse when he tried to escape. He almost pulled it off, but like my old man always told me, "almost" only counts in horseshoes and grenades. The Pentagon had sent out their own man to question him, a bird colonel named Wayne, and Tachyon finally got fed up, I guess. He took control of Colonel Wayne, and together they just marched out of the building. Whenever they were challenged, Wayne snapped off the orders to let them pass, and rank does have its privileges. The cover story was that Wayne had orders to escort Tachyon back to Washington. They commandeered a jeep and got all the way back to the spaceship, but by then one of the sentries had checked with me, and my men were waiting for them, with direct orders to ignore anything Colonel Wayne might say. We took him back into custody and kept him there, under heavy guard. For all his magic powers, there wasn't much he could do about it. He could make one person do what he wanted, maybe three or four if he tried real hard, but not all of us, and by then we were wise to his tricks.

Maybe it was a bonehead maneuver, but his escape attempt did get him the date with Einstein he'd been badgering us for. The Pentagon kept telling us he was the world's geatest hypnotist, but I wasn't buying that anymore, and you should have heard what Colonel Wayne thought of the theory. The eggheads were getting agitated too. Anyway, together Wayne and I managed to wrangle authorization to fly the prisoner to Princeton. I figured a talk with Einstein couldn't do any harm, and might do some good. His ship was impounded, and we'd gotten all we were going to get from the man himself. Einstein was supposed to be the world's greatest brain, maybe he could figure the guy out, right?

There are still those who say that the military is to blame for everything that happened, but it's just not true. It's easy to be wise in hindsight, but I was there, and I'll maintain to my dying day that the steps we took were reasonable and prudent.

The thing that really burns me is when they talk about how we did nothing to track down that damned globe with the wild card spores. Maybe we made a mistake, yeah, but we weren't stupid, we were covering our asses. Every damned military installation in the country got a directive to be on the lookout for a crashed spaceship that looked something like a seashell with running lights. Is it my fucking fault that none of them took it seriously?

Give me credit for one thing, at least. When all hell broke loose, I had Tachyon jetting back toward New York within two hours. I was in the seat behind him. The redheaded wimp cried half the fucking way across the country. Me, I prayed for Jetboy.

THIRTY MINUTES OVER BROADWAY! JETBOY'S LAST ADVENTURE!

by Howard Waldrop

Bonham's Flying Service of Shantak, New Jersey, was socked in. The small searchlight on the tower barely pushed away the darkness of the swirling fog.

There was the sound of car tires on the wet pavement in front of Hangar 23. A car door opened, a moment later it closed. Footsteps came to the Employees Only door. It opened. Scoop Swanson came in, carrying his Kodak Autograph Mark II and a bag of flashbulbs and film.

Lincoln Traynor raised up from the engine of the surplus P-40 he was overhauling for an airline pilot who had got it at a voice-bid auction for $293. Judging from the shape of the engine, it must have been flown by the Flying Tigers in 1940. A ball game was on the workbench radio. Line turned it down. "'Lo, Line," said Scoop.

"'Lo."

"No word yet?"

"Don't expect any. The telegram he sent yesterday said he'd be in tonight. Good enough for me."

Scoop lit a Camel with a Three Torches box match from the workbench. He blew smoke toward the Absolutely No Smoking sign at the back of the hangar. "Hey, what's this?" He walked to the rear. Still in their packing cases were two long red wing extensions and two 300-gallon teardrop underwing tanks. "When these get here?"

"Air Corps shipped them yesterday from San Francisco. Another telegram came for him today. You might as well read it, you're doing the story." Line handed him the War Department orders.

TO: Jetboy (Tomlin, Robert NMI) HOR: Bonham's Flying Service Hangar 23, Shantak, New Jersey

1. Effective this date 1200Z hours 12 Aug '46, you are no longer on active duty, United States Army Air Force.

2. Your aircraft (model-experimental) (ser. no. JB-1) is hereby decommissioned from active status, United States Army Air Force, and reassigned you as private aircraft. No further materiel support from USAAF or War Department will be forthcoming.

3. Records, commendations, and awards forwarded under separate cover.

4. Our records show Tomlin, Robert NMI, has not obtained pilot's license. Please contact CAB for courses and certification.

5. Clear skies and tailwinds,

For Arnold, H. H. CofS, USAAF ref. Executive Order #2, 08 Dec '41

"What's this about him having no pilot's license?" asked the newspaperman. "I went through the morgue on him-his file's a foot thick. Hell, he must have flown faster and farther, shot down more planes than anyone-five hundred planes, fifty ships! He did it without a pilot's license?"

Line wiped grease from his mustache. "Yep. That was the most plane-crazy kid you ever saw. Back in '39, he couldn't have been more than twelve, he heard there was a job out here. He showed up at four A.M.-lammed out of the orphanage to do it. They came out to get him. But of course Professor Silverberg had hired him, squared it with them."

"Silverberg's the one the Nazis bumped off? The guy who made the jet?"

"Yep. Years ahead of everybody, but weird. I put together the plane for him, Bobby and I built it by hand. But Silverberg made the jets-damnedest engines you ever saw. The Nazis and Italians, and Whittle over in England, had started theirs. But the Germans found out something was happening here."

"How'd the kid learn to fly?"

"He always knew, I think," said Lincoln. "One day he's in here helping me bend metal. The next, him and the professor are flying around at four hundred miles per. In the dark, with those early engines."

"How'd they keep it a secret?"

"They didn't, very well. The spies came for Silverbergwanted him and the plane. Bobby was out with it. I think he and the prof knew something was up. Silverberg put up such a fight the Nazis killed him. Then, there was the diplomatic stink. In those days the JB-1 only had six. 30 cals on it-where the professor got them I don't know. But the kid took care of the car full of spies with it, and that speedboat on the Hudson full of embassy people. All on diplomatic visas."

"Just a sec," Linc stopped himself. "End of a doubleheader in Cleveland. On the Blue Network." He turned up the metal Philco radio that sat above the toolrack.

" Sanders to Papenfuss to Volstad, a double play. That does it. So the Sox drop two to Cleveland. We'll be right-" Linc turned it off. "There goes five bucks," he said. "Where was I?"

"The Krauts killed Silverberg, and Jetboy got even. He went to Canada, right?"

"Joined the RCAF, unofficially. Fought in the Battle of Britain, went to China against the Japs with the Tigers, was back in Britain for Pearl Harbor."

"And Roosevelt commissioned him?"

"Sort of. You know, funny thing about his whole career. He fights the whole war, longer than any other American-late '39 to '45-then right at the end, he gets lost in the Pacific, missing. We all think he's dead for a year. Then they find him on that desert island last month, and now he's coming home." There was a high, thin whine like a prop plane in a dive. It came from the foggy skies outside. Scoop put out his third Camel. "How can he land in this soup?"

"He's got an all-weather radar set-got it off a German night fighter back in '43. He could land that plane in a circus tent at midnight."

They went to the door. Two landing lights pierced the rolling mist. They lowered to the far end of the runway, turned, and came back on the taxi strip.

The red fuselage glowed in the gray-shrouded lights of the airstrip. The twin-engine high-wing plane turned toward them and rolled to a stop.

Linc Traynor put a set of double chocks under each of the two rear tricycle landing gears. Half the glass nose of the plane levered up and pulled back. The plane had four 20mm cannon snouts in the wing roots between the engines, and a 75mm gunport below and to the left of the cockpit rim.

It had a high thin rudder, and the rear elevators were shaped like the tail of a brook trout. Under each of the elevators was the muzzle of a rear-firing machine gun. The only markings on the plane were four nonstandard USAAF stars in a black roundel, and the serial number JB-1 on the top right and bottom left wings and beneath the rudder.

The radar antennae on the nose looked like something to roast weenies on.

A boy dressed in red pants, white shirt, and a blue helmet and goggles stepped out of the cockpit and onto the dropladder on the left side.

He was nineteen, maybe twenty. He took off his helmet and goggles. He had curly mousy brown hair, hazel eyes, and was short and chunky.

Linc," he said. He hugged the pudgy man to him, patted his back for a full minute. Scoop snapped off a shot. "Great to have you back, Bobby, said Linc. "Nobody's called me that in years," he said. "It sounds real good to hear it again."

"This is Scoop Swanson," said line. "He's gonna make you famous all over again."

"I'd rather be asleep." He shook the reporter's hand. "Any place around here we can get some ham and eggs?"

The launch pulled up to the dock in the fog. Out in the harbor a ship finished cleaning its bilges and was turning to steam back southward.

There were three men on the mooring: Fred and Ed and Filmore. One man stepped out of the launch with a suitcase in his hands. Filmore leaned down and gave the guy at the wheel of the motorboat a Lincoln and two Jacksons. Then he helped the guy with the suitcase.

"Welcome home, Dr. Tod."

"It's good to be back, Filmore." Tod was dressed in a baggy suit, and had on an overcoat even though it was August. He wore his hat pulled low over his face, and from it a glint of metal was reflected in the pale lights from a warehouse.

"This is Fred and this is Ed," said Filmore. "They're here just for the night."

"'Lo," said Fred. "'Lo," said Ed.

They walked back to the car, a '46 Merc that looked like a submarine. They climbed in, Fred and Ed watching the foggy alleys to each side. Then Fred got behind the wheel, and Ed rode shotgun. With a sawed-off ten-gauge.

"Nobody's expecting me. Nobody cares," said Dr. Tod. "Everybody who had something against me is either dead or went respectable during the war and made a mint. I'm an old man and I'm tired. I'm going out in the country and raise bees and play the horses and the market."

"Not planning anything, boss?"

"Not a thing."

He turned his head as they passed a streetlight. Half his face was gone, a smooth plate reaching from jaw to hatline, nostril to left ear.

"I can't shoot anymore, for one thing. My depth perception isn't what it used to be."

"I shouldn't wonder," said Filmore. "We heard something happened to you in '43."

"Was in a somewhat-profitable operation out of Egypt while the Afrika Korps was falling apart. Taking people in and out for a fee in a nominally neutral air fleet. Just a sideline. Then ran into that hotshot flier."

"Who?"

"Kid with the jet plane, before the Germans had them."

"Tell you the truth, boss, I didn't keep up with the war much. I take a long view on merely territorial conflicts."

"As I should have," said Dr. Tod. "We were flying out of Tunisia. Some important people were with us that trip. The pilot screamed. There was a tremendous explosion. Next thing, I came to, it was the next morning, and me and one other person are in a life raft in the middle of the Mediterranean. My face hurt. I lifted up. Something fell into the bottom of the raft. It was my left eyeball. It was looking up at me. I knew I was in trouble."

"You said it was a kid with a jet plane?" asked Ed. "Yes. We found out later they'd broken our code, and he'd flown six hundred miles to intercept us."

"You want to get even?" asked Filmore.

"No. That was so long ago I hardly remember that side of my face. It just taught me to be a little more cautious. I wrote it off as character building."

"So no plans, huh?"

"Not a single one," said Dr. Tod.

"That'll be nice for a change," said Filmore. They watched the lights of the city go by.

He knocked on the door, uncomfortable in his new brown suit and vest.

"Come on in, its open," said a woman's voice. Then it was muffled. "I'll be ready in just a minute."

Jetboy opened the oak hall door and stepped into the room, past the glass-brick room divider.

A beautiful woman stood in the middle of the room, a dress halfway over her arms and head. She wore a camisole, garter belt, and silk hose. She was pulling the dress down with one of her hands.

Jetboy turned his head away, blushing and taken aback. "Oh," said the woman. "Ohl I-who?"

"It's me, Belinda," he said. "Robert."

"Robert?"

"Bobby, Bobby Tomlin."

She stared at him a moment, her hands clasped over her front though she was fully dressed.

"Oh, Bobby," she said, and came to him and hugged him and gave him a big kiss right on the mouth.

It was what he had waited six years for.

"Bobby. It's great to see you. I-I was expecting someone else. Some-girlfriends. How did you find me?"

"Well, it wasn't easy"

She stepped back from him. "Let me look at you." He looked at her. The last time he had seen her she was fourteen, a tomboy, still at the orphanage. She had been a thin kid with mousy blond hair. Once, when she was eleven, she'd almost punched his lights out. She was a year older than he. Then he had gone away, to work at the airfield, then to fight with the Brits against Hitler. He had written her when he could all during the war, after America entered it. She had left the orphanage and been put in a foster home. In '44 one of his letters had come back from there marked 'Moved-No Forwarding Address.' Then he had been lost all during the last year.. "You've changed, too," he said.

"So have you."

"Uh."

"I followed the newspapers all during the war. I tried to write you but I don't guess the letters ever caught up with you. Then they said you were missing at sea, and I sort of gave up."

"Well, I was, but they found me. Now I'm back. How have you been?"

"Real good, once I ran away from the foster home," she said. A look of pain came across her face. "You don't know how glad I was to get away from there. Oh, Bobby," she said. "Oh, I wish things was different!" She started to cry a little.

"Hey," he said, holding her by the shoulders. "Sit down. I've got something for you."

"A present?"

"Yep." He handed her a grimy, oil-stained paper parcel. "I carried these with me the last two years of the war. They were in the plane with me on the island. Sorry I didn't have time to rewrap them."

She tore the English butcher paper. Inside were copies of The House at Pooh Corner and The Tale of the Fierce Bad Rabbit.

"Oh," said Belinda. "Thank you."

He remembered her dressed in the orphanage coveralls, just in, dusty and tired from a baseball game, lying on the reading-room floor with a Pooh book open before her.

"The Pooh book's signed by the real Christopher Robin," he said. "I found out he was an RAF officer at one of the bases in England. He said he usually didn't do this sort of thing, that he was just another airman. I told him I wouldn't tell anyone. I'd searched high and low to find a copy, and he knew that, though."

"This other one's got more of a story behind it. I was coming back near dusk, escorting some crippled B-17s. I looked up and saw two German night fighters coming in, probably setting up patrol, trying to catch some Lancasters before they went out over the Channel."

"To make a long story short, I shot down both of them; they packed in near a small village. But I had run out of fuel and had to set down. Saw a pretty flat sheep pasture with a lake at the far end of it, and went in. When I climbed out of the cockpit, I saw a lady and a sheepdog standing at the edge of the field. She had a shotgun. When she got close enough to see the engines and the decals, she said, "Good shooting! Won't you come in for a bite of supper and to use the telephone to call Fighter Command?" We could see the two ME-110s burning in the distance. `You're the very famous Jetboy.' she said, 'We have followed your exploits in the Sawrey paper. I'm Mrs. Heelis.' She held out her hand."

"I shook it. `Mrs. William Heelis? And this is Sawrey?' 'Yes,' she said."

"'You're Beatrix Potter!' I said."

"'I suppose I am,' she said."

"Belinda, she was this stout old lady in a raggedy sweater and a plain old dress. But when she smiled, I swear, all of England lit up!"

Belinda opened the book. On the flyleaf was written

To Jetboy's American Friend, Belinda, from Mrs. William Heelis ("Beatrix Potter")

12 April 1943

Jetboy drank the coffee Belinda made for him. "Where are your friends?" he asked.

"Well, he they should have been here by now. I was thinking of going down the hall to the phone and trying to call them. I can change, and we can sit around and talk about old times. I really can call."

"No," said Jetboy "Tell you what. I'll call you later on in the week; we can get together some night when you're not busy. That would be fun."

"Sure would." Jetboy got up to go.

"Thank you for the books, Bobby. They mean a lot to me, they really do."

"It's real good to see you again, Bee."

Thirty Minutes Over Broadway!

"Nobody's called me that since the orphanage. Call me real soon, will you?"

"Sure will." He leaned down and kissed her again.

He walked to the stairs. As he was going down, a guy in a modified zoot suit-pegged pants, long coat, watch chain, bow tie the size of a coat hanger, hair slicked back, reeking of Brylcreem and Old Spice-went up the stairs two at a time, whistling "It Ain't the Meat, It's the Motion."

Jetboy heard him knocking at Belinda's door. Outside, it had begun to rain.

"Great. Just like in a movie," said Jetboy.

The next night was quiet as a graveyard.

Then dogs all over the Pine Barrens started to bark. Cats screamed. Birds flew in panic from thousands of trees, circled, swooping this way and that in the dark night.

Static washed over every radio in the northeastern United States. New television sets flared out, volume doubling. People gathered around nine-inch Dumonts jumped back at the sudden noise and light, dazzled in their own living rooms and bars and sidewalks outside appliance stores all over the East Coast.

To those out in that hot August night it was even more spectacular. A thin line of light, high up, moved, brightened, still falling. Then it expanded, upping in brilliance, changed into a blue-green bolide, seemed to stop, then flew to a hundred falling sparks that slowly faded on the dark starlit sky. Some people said they saw another, smaller light a few minutes later. It seemed to hover, then sped off to the west, growing dimmer as it flew. The newspapers had been full of stories of the "ghost rockets" in Sweden all that summer. It was the silly season.

A few calls to the weather bureau or Army Air Force bases got the answer that it was probably a stray from the Delta Aquarid meteor shower.

Out in the Pine Barrens, somebody knew differently, though he wasn't in the mood to communicate it to anyone.

Jetboy, dressed in a loose pair of pants, a shirt, and a brown aviator's jacket, walked in through the doors of the Blackwell Printing Company. There was a bright red-and-blue sign above the door: Home of the Cosh Comics Company. He stopped at the receptionist's desk.

"Robert Tomlin to see Mr. Farrell."

The secretary, a thin blond job in glasses with swept-up rims that made it look like a bat was camping on her face, stared at him. "Mr. Farrell passed on in the winter of 1945. Were you in the service or something?"

"Something."

"Would you like to speak to Mr. Lowboy? He has Mr. Farrell's job now."

"Whoever's in charge of Jetboy Comics."

The whole place began shaking as printing presses cranked up in the back of the building. On the walls of the office were garish comic-book covers, promising things only they could deliver.

"Robert Tomlin," said the secretary to the intercom. "Scratch squawk never heard of him squich." "What was this about?" asked the secretary.

"Tell him Jetboy wants to see him."

"Oh," she said, looking at him. "I'm sorry. I didn't recognize you."

"Nobody ever does."

Lowboy looked like a gnome with all the blood sucked out. He was as pale as Harry Langdon must have been, like a weed grown under a burlap bag.

"Jetboy!" He held out a hand like a bunch of grub worms. "We all thought you'd died until we saw the papers last week. You're a real national hero, you know?"

"I don't feel like one."

"What can I do for you? Not that I'm not pleased to finally meet you. But you must be a busy man."

"Well, first, I found out none of the licensing and royalty checks had been deposited in my account since I was reported Missing and Presumed Dead last summer."

"What, really? The legal department must have put it in escrow or something until somebody came forward with a claim. I'll get them right on it."

"Well, I'd like the check now, before I leave," said Jetboy. "Huh? I don't know if they can do that. That sounds awfully abrupt."

Jetboy stared at him.

"Okay, okay, let me call Accounting." He yelled into the telephone.

"Oh," said Jetboy. "A friend's been collecting my copies. I checked the statement of ownership and circulation for the last two years. I know Jetboy Comics have been selling five hundred thousand copies an issue lately."

Lowboy yelled into the phone some more. He put it down. "It'll take 'em a little while. Anything else?"

"I don't like what's happening to the funny book," said Jetboy.

"What's not to like? It's selling a half a million copies a monthl"

"For one thing, the plane's getting to look more and more like a bullet. And the artists have swept back the wings, for Christ's sakesl"

"This is the Atomic Age, kid. Boys nowadays don't like a plane that looks like a red leg of lamb with coat hangers sticking out the front."

"Well, it's always looked like that. And another thing: Why's the damned plane blue in the last three issues?"

"Not mel I think red's fine. But Mr. Blackwell sent down a memo, said no more red except for blood. He's a big Legionnaire."

"Tell him the plane has to look right, and be the right color. Also, the combat reports were forwarded. When Farrell was sitting at your desk, the comic was about flying and combat, and cleaning up spy rings-real stuff. And there were never more than two ten-page Jetboy stories an issue."

"When Farrell was at this desk, the book was only selling a quarter-million copies a month," said Lowboy.

Robert stared at him again.

"I know the war's over, and everybody wants a new house and eye-bulging excitement," said Jetboy. "But look what I find in the last eighteen months."

"I never fought anyone like The Undertaker, anyplace called The Mountain of Doom. And come on! The Red Skeleton? Mr. Maggot? Professor Blooteaux? What is this with all the skulls and tentacles? I mean, evil twins named Sturm and Drang Hohenzollern? The Arthropod Ape, a gorilla with six sets of elbows? Where do you get all this stuff?"

"It's not me, it's the writers. They're a crazy bunch, always taking Benzedrine and stuff. Besides, it's what the kids want!"

"What about the flying features, and the articles on real aviation heroes? I thought my contract called for at least two features an issue on real events and people?"

"We'll have to look at it again. But I can tell you, kids don't want that kind of stuff anymore. They want monsters, spaceships, stuff that'll make 'em wet the bed. You remember? You were a kid once yourself!"

Jetboy picked up a pencil from the desk. "I was thirteen when the war started, fifteen when they bombed Pearl Harbor. I've been in combat for six years. Sometimes I don't think I was ever a kid."

Lowboy was quiet a moment.

"Tell you what you need to do," he said. "You need to write up all the stuff you don't like about the book and send it to us. I'll have the legal department go over it, and we'll try to do something, work things out. Of course, we print three issues ahead, so it'll be Thanksgiving before the new stuff shows up. Or later."

Jetboy sighed. "I understand."

"I sure do want you happy, 'cause Jetboy's my favorite comic. No, I really mean that. The others are just a job. My god, what a job: deadlines, working with drunks and worse, riding herd over printers-you can just imagine! But I like the work on Jetboy. It's special."

"Well, I'm glad."

"Sure, sure. Lowboy drummed his fingers on the desk. "Wonder what's taking them so long?"

"Probably getting out the other set of ledgers," said Jetboy.

"Hey, no! We're square here!" Lowboy came to his feet. "Just kidding."

"Oh. Say, the paper said you were, what, marooned on a desert island or something? Pretty tough?"

"Well, lonely. I got tired of catching and eating fish. Mostly it was boring, and I missed everything. I don't mean missed, I mean missed out. I was there from April twentyninth of '45 until last month."

"There were times when I thought I'd go nuts. I couldn't believe it one morning when I looked up, and there was the U. S. S. Reluctant anchored less than a mile offshore. I fired off a flare, and they picked me up. It's taken a month to get someplace to repair the plane, rest up, get home. I'm glad to be back."

"I can imagine. Hey, lots of dangerous animals on the island? I mean, lions and tigers and stuff?"

Jetboy laughed. "It was less than a mile wide, and a mile and a quarter long. There were birds and ats and some lizards."

"Lizards? Big lizards? Poisonous?"

"No. Small. I must have eaten half of them before I left. Got pretty good with a slingshot made out of an oxygen hose."

"Huhl I bet you did!"

The door opened, and a tall guy with an ink-smudged shirt came in.

"That him?" asked Lowboy.

"I only seen him once, but it looks like him," said the man. "Good enough for me!" said Lowboy.

"Not for me," said the accountant. "Show me some ID and sign this release."

Jetboy sighed and did. He looked at the amount on the check. It had far too few digits in front of the decimal. He folded it up and put it in his pocket.

"I'll leave my address for the next check with your secretary. And I'll send a letter with the objections this week."

"Do that. It's been a real pleasure meeting you. Let's hope we have a long and prosperous business together."

"Thanks, I guess," said Jetboy. He and the accountant left. Lowboy sat back down in his swivel chair. He put his hands behind his head and stared at the bookcase across the room.

Then he rocketed forward, jerked up the phone, and dialed nine to get out. He called up the chief writer for Jetboy Comics.

A muzzy, hung-over voice answered on the twelfth ring. "Clean the shit out of your head, this is Lowboy. Picture this: fifty-two-page special, single-story issue. Ready? Jetboy on Dinosaur Island! Got that? I see lots of cavemen, a broad, a what-you-call-it-king rex. What? Yeah, yeah, a tyrannosaur. Maybe a buncha holdout Jap soldiers. You know. Yeah, maybe even samurai. When? Blown off course in A. D. 1100? Christ. Whatever. You know exactly what we need."

"What's this? Tuesday. You got till five P M. Thursday, okay? Quit bitchin'. It's a hundred and a half fast bucksl See you then."

He hung up. Then he called up an artist and told him what he wanted for the cover.

Ed and Fred were coming back from a delivery in the Pine Barrens.

They were driving an eight-yard dump truck. In the back until a few minutes ago had been six cubic yards of new-set concrete. Eight hours before, it had been five and a half yards of water, sand, gravel, and cement and a secret ingredient.

The secret ingredient had broken three of the Five Unbreakable Rules for carrying on a tax-free, unincorporated business in the state.

He had been taken by other businessmen to a wholesale construction equipment center, and been shown how a cement mixer works, up close and personal.

Not that Ed and Fred had anything to do with that. They'd been called an hour ago and been asked if they could drive a dump truck through the woods for a couple of grand.

It was dark out in the woods, not too many miles from the city. It didn't look like they were within a hundred miles of a town over five-hundred population.

The headlights picked out ditches where everything from old airplanes to sulfuric-acid bottles lay in clogged heaps. Some of the dumpings were fresh. Smoke and fire played about a few. Others glowed without combustion. A pool of metal bubbled and popped as they ground by.

Then they were back into the deep pines again, jouncing from rut to rut.

"Hey!" yelled Ed. "Stop!"

Fred threw on the brakes, killing the engine. "Goddamn!" he said. "What the hell's the matter with you?"

"Back therel I swear I saw a guy pushing a neon cat's-eye marble the size of Cleveland!"

"I'm sure as hell not going back," said Fred.

"Nab! Come on! You don't see stuff like that every day."

"Shit, Ed! Someday you're gonna get us both killedl"

It wasn't a marble. They didn't need their flashlights to tell it wasn't a magnetic mine. It was a rounded canister that glowed on its own, with swirling colors on it. It hid the man pushing it.

"It looks like a rolled-up neon armadillo," said Fred, who'd been out west.

The man behind the thing blinked at them, unable to see past their flashlights. He was tattered and dirty, with a tobaccostained beard and wild, steel-wool hair.

They stepped closer.

"It's mine!" he said to them, stepping in front of the thing, holding his arms out across it.

Thirty Minutes Over Broadway!

"Easy, old-timer," said Ed. "What you got?"

"My ticket to easy street. You from the Air Corps?"

"Hell, no. Let's look at this."

The man picked up a rock. "Stay back! I found it where I found the plane crash. The Air Corps'll pay plenty to get this atomic bomb back!"

"That doesn't look like any atomic bomb I've ever seen," said Fred. "Look at the writing on the side. It ain't even English."

"Course it's not! It must be a secret weapon. That's why they dressed it up so weird."

"Who?"

"I told you more'n I meant to. Get outta my way." Fred looked at the old geezer. "You've piqued my interest," he said. "Tell me more."

"Outta my way, boyl I killed a man over a can of lye hominy once!"

Fred reached in his jacket. He came out with a pistol with a muzzle that looked like a drainpipe.

"It crashed last night," said the old man, eyes wild. "Woke me up. Lit up the whole sky. I looked for it all day today, figured the woods would be crawlin' with Air Corps people and state troopers, but nobody came."

"Found it just before dark tonight. Tore all hell up, it did. Knocked the wings completely off the thing when it crashed. All these weird-dressed people all scattered around. Women too." He lowered his head a minute, shame on his face. "Anyway, they was all dead. Must have been a jet plane, didn't find no propellers or nothing. And this here atomic bomb was just lying there in the wreck. I figured the Air Corps would ay real good to get it back. Friend of mine found a weather balloon once and they gave him a dollar and a quarter. I figure this is about a million times as important as that!"

Fred laughed. "A buck twenty-five, huh? I'll give you ten dollars for it."

"I can get a million!"

Fred pulled the hammer back on the revolver. "Fifty," said the old man.

"Twenty."

"It ain't fair. But I'll take it."

"What are you going to do with that?" asked Ed. "Take it to Dr. Tod," said Fred. "He'll know what to do with it. He's the scientific type."

"What if it is an A-bomb?"

"Well, I don't think A-bombs have spray nozzles on them. And the old man was right. The woods would have been crawling with Air Force people if they'd lost an atomic bomb."

"Hell, only five of them have ever been exploded. They can't have more than a dozen, and you better believe they know where every one of them is, all the time."

"Well, it ain't a mine," said Ed. "What do you think it is?"

"I don't care. If it's worth money, Doctor Tod'll split with us. He's a square guy."

"For a crook," said Ed.

They laughed and laughed, and the thing rattled around in the back of the dump truck.

The MPs brought the red-haired man into his office and introduced them.

"Please have a seat, Doctor," said A. E. He lit his pipe. The man seemed ill at ease, as he should have been after two days of questioning by Army Intelligence.

"They have told me what happened at White Sands, and that you won't talk to anyone but me," said A. E. "I understand they used sodium pentathol on you, and that it had no effect?"

"It made me drunk," said the man, whose hair in this light seemed orange and yellow.

"But you didn't talk?"

"I said things, but not what they wanted to hear."

"Very unusual."

"Blood chemistry."

A. E. sighed. He looked out the window of the Princeton office. "Very well, then. I will listen to your story. I am not saying I will believe it, but I will listen."

"All right," said the man, taking a deep breath. "Here goes. "

He began to talk, slowly at first, forming his words carefully, gaining confidence as he spoke. As he began to talk faster, his accent crept back in, one A. E. could not ace, something like a Fiji Islander who had learned English from a Swede. A. E. refilled his pipe twice, then left it unlit after filling it the third time. He sat slightly forward, occasionally nodding, his gray hair an aureole in the afternoon light.

The man finished.

A. E. remembered his pipe, found a match, lit it. He put his hands behind his head. There was a small hole in his sweater near the left elbow.

"They'll never believe any of that," he said.

"I don't care, as long as they do something!" said the man. "As long as I get it back."

A. E. looked at him. "If they did believe you, the implications of all this would overshadow the reason you're here. The fact that you are here, if you follow my meaning."

"Well, what can we do? If my ship were still operable, I'd be looking myself. I did the next best thing-landed somewhere that would be sure to attract attention, asked to speak to you. Perhaps other scientists, research institutes…"

A. E. laughed. "Forgive me. You don't realize how things are done here. We will need the military. We will have the military and the government whether we want them or not, so we might as well have them on the best possible terms, ours, from the first. The problem is that we have to think of something that is plausible to them, yet will still mobilize them in the search."

"I'll talk to the Army people about you, then make some calls to friends of mine. We have just finished a large global war, and many things had a way of escaping notice, or being lost in the shuffle. Perhaps we can work something from there."

"The only thing is, we had better do all this from a phone booth. The MPs will be along, so I will have to talk quietly. Tell me," he said, picking up his hat from the corner of a cluttered bookcase, "do you like ice cream?"

"Lactose and sugar solids congealed in a mixture kept just below the freezing point?" asked the man.

"I assure you," said A. E., "it is better than it sounds, and quite refreshing." Arm in arm, they went out the office door.

Jetboy patted the scarred side of his plane. He stood in Hangar 23. Linc came out of his office, wiping his hands on a greasy rag.

"Hey, how'd it go?" he asked.

"Great. They want the book of memoirs. Going to be their big Spring book, if I get it in on time, or so they say."

"You still bound and determined to sell the plane?" asked the mechanic. "Sure hate to see her go."

"Well, that part of my life's over. I feel like if I never fly again, even as an airline passenger, it'll be too soon."

"What do you want me to do?"

Jetboy looked at the plane.

"Tell you what. Put on the high-altitude wing extensions and the drop tanks. It looks bigger and shinier that way. Somebody from a museum will probably buy it, is what I figure-I'm offering it to museums first. If that doesn't work, I'll take out ads in the papers. We'll take the guns out later, if some private citizen buys it. Check everything to see it's tight. Shouldn't have shaken much on the hop from San Fr an, and they did a pretty good overhaul at Hickam Field. Whatever you think it needs."

"Sure thing."

"I'll call you tomorrow, unless something can't wait."

HISTORICAL AIRCRAFT FOR SALE: Jetboy's twin-engine jet. 2 x 1200 lb thrust engines, speed 600 mph at 25,000 ft, range 650 miles, 1000 w/drop tanks (tanks and wing exts. inc.) length 31 ft, w/s 33 ft (49 w exts.) Reasonable offers accepted. Must see to appreciate. On view at Hangar 23, Bonham's Flying Service, Shantak, New Jersey.

Jetboy stood in front of the bookstore window, looking at the pyramids of new titles there. You could tell paper rationing was off. Next year, his book would be one of them. Not just a comic book, but the story of his part in the war. He hoped it would be good enough so that it wouldn't be lost in the clutter. Seems like, in the words of someone, every goddamn barber and shoeshine boy who was drafted had written a book about how he won the war.

There were six books of war memoirs in one window, by everyone from a lieutenant colonel to a major general (maybe those PFC barbers didn't write that many books?).

Maybe they wrote some of the two dozen war novels that covered another window of the display.

There were two books near the door, piles of them in a window by themselves, runaway best-sellers, that weren't war novels or memoirs. One was called The Grass-Hopper Lies Heavy by someone named Abendsen (Hawthorne Abendsen, obviously a pen name). The other was a thick book called Growing Flowers by Candlelight in Hotel Rooms by someone so self-effacing she called herself "Mrs. Charles Fine Adams." It must be a book of unreadable poems that the public, in its craziness, had taken up. There was no accounting for taste.

Jetboy put his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket and walked to the nearest movie show.

Tod watched the smoke rising from the lab and waited for the phone to ring. People ran back and forth to the building a half-mile away.

There had been nothing for two weeks. Thorkeld, the scientist he'd hired to run the tests, had reported each day. The stuff didn't work on monkeys, dogs, rats, lizards, snakes, frogs, insects, or even on fish in suspension in water. Dr. Thorkeld was beginning to think Tod's men had paid twenty dollars for an inert gas in a fancy container.

A few moments ago there had been an explosion. Now he waited.

The phone rang.

"Tod-oh, god, this is Jones at the lab, its-" Static washed over the line. "Oh, sweet Jesus! Thorkeld's-they're all-" There was thumping near the phone receiver on the other end. "Oh, my…"

"Calm down," said Tod. "Is everyone outside the lab safe?"

"Yeah, yeah. The… oooh." The sound of vomiting came over the phone.

Tod waited.

"Sorry, Dr. Tod. The lab's still sealed off: The fire's-it's a small one on the grass outside. Somebody dropped a butt."

"Tell me what happened."

"I was outside for a smoke. Somebody in there must have messed up, dropped something. I-I don t know. Its-they're most of them dead, I think. I hope. I don't know. Something's-wait, wait. There's someone still moving in the office, I can see from here, there's-"

There was a click of someone picking up a receiver. The volume on the line dropped.

"Tog, Tog," said a voice, an approximation of a voice. "Who's there?"

"Torgk-"

"Thorkeld?"

"Guh. Hep. Hep. Guh."

There was a sound like a sack full of squids being dumped on a corrugated roof. "Hep." Then came the sound of jelly being emptied into a cluttered desk drawer.

There was a gunshot, and the receiver bounced off the desk.

"He-he shot-it-himself," said Jones. "I'll be right out," said Tod.

After the cleanup, Tod stood in his office again. It had not been pretty. The canister was still intact. Whatever the accident had been had been with a sample. The other animals were okay. It was only the people. Three were dead outright. One, Thorkeld, had killed himself. Two others he and Jones had had to kill. A seventh person was missing, but had not come out any of the doors or windows.

Tod sat down in his chair and thought a long, long time. Then he reached over and pushed the button on his desk. "Yeah, Doctor?" asked Filmore, stepping into the room with a batch of telegrams and brokerage orders under his arm. Dr. Tod opened the desk safe and began counting out bills. "Filmore. I'd like you to get down to Port Elizabeth, North Carolina, and buy me up five type B -limp balloons. Tell them I'm a car salesman. Arrange for one million cubic feet of helium to be delivered to the south Pennsy warehouse. Break out the hardware and give me a complete list of what we have-anything we need, we can get surplus. Get ahold of Captain Mack, see if he still has that cargo ship. We'll need new passports. Get me Cholley Sacks; I'll need a contact in Switzerland. I'll need a pilot with a lighter-than-air license. Some diving suits and oxygen. Shot ballast, couple of tons. A bombsight. Nautical charts. And bring me a cup of coffee."

"Fred has a lighter-than-air pilot's license," said Filmore. "Those two never cease to amaze me," said Dr. Tod.

"I thought we'd pulled our last caper, boss."

"Filmore," he said, and looked at the man he'd been friends with for twenty years, "Filmore, some capers you have to pull, whether you want to or not."

"Dewey was an Admiral at Manila Bay, Dewey was a candidate just the other day Dewey were her eyes when she said I do; Do we love each other? I should say we dol"

The kids in the courtyard of the apartment jumped rope. They'd started the second they got home from school.

At first it bothered Jetboy. He got up from the typewriter and went to the window. Instead of yelling, he watched. The writing wasn't going well, anyway. What had seemed like just the facts when he'd told them to the G-2 boys during the war looked like bragging on paper, once the words were down:

Three planes, two ME-109s and a TA-152, came out of the clouds at the crippled B-24. It had suffered heavy flak damage. Two props were feathered and the top turret was missing.

One of the 109s went into a shallow dive, probably going into a snap roll to fire up at the underside of the bomber.

I ease my plane in a long turn and fired a deflection shot while about 700 yards away and closing. I saw three hits, then the 109 disintegrated.

The TA-152 had seen me and dived to intercept. As the 109 blew up, I throttled back and hit my air brakes. The 152 flashed by less than 50 yards away. I saw the surprised look on the pilot's face. I fired one burst as he flashed by with my 20mms. Everything from his canopy back flew apart in a shower.

I pulled up. The last 109 was behind the Liberator. He was firing with his machine guns and cannon. He'd taken out the tail gunner, and the belly turret couldn't get enough elevation. The bomber pilot was wigwagging the tail so the waist gunners could get a shot, but only the left waist gun was working.

I was more than a mile away, but had turned above and to the right. I put the nose down and fired one round with the 75mm just before the gunsight ashed across the 109.

The whole middle of the fighter disappeared-I could see France through it. The only image I have is that I was looking down on top of an open umbrella and somebody folded it suddenly. The fighter looked like Christmas-tree tinsel as it fell.

Then the few gunners left on the B-24 opened up on me, not recognizing my plane. I flashed my IFF code, but their receiver must have have been out.

There were two German parachutes far below. The pilots of the first two fighters must have gotten out. I went back to my base.

When they ran maintenance, they found one of my 75mm rounds missing, and only twelve 20mm shells. I'd shot down three enemy planes.

I later learned the B-24 had crashed in the Channel and there were no survivors.

Who needs this stuff? Jetboy thought. The war's over. Does anybody really want to read The Jet-Propelled Boy when it's published? Does anybody except morons even want to read Jetboy Comics anymore?

I don't even think I'm needed. What can I do now? Fight crime? I can see strafing getaway cars full of bank robbers. That would be a real fair fight. Barnstorming? That went out with Hoover, and besides, I don't want to fly again. This year more people will fly on airliners on vacation than have been in the air all together in the last forty-three years, mail pilots, cropdusters, and wars included.

What can I do? Break up a trust? Prosecute wartime profiteers? There's a real dead-end job for you. Punish mean old men who are robbing the state blind running orphanages and starving and beating the kids? You don't need me for that, you need Spanky and Alfalfa and Buckwheat.

"A tisket, a tasket, Hitler's in a casket. Eenie-meenie-Mussolini, Six feet underground!" said the kids outside, now doing double-dutch, two ropes going opposite directions. Kids have too much energy, he thought. They hot-peppered a while, then slowed again.

"Down in the dungeon, twelve feet deep,

Where old Hitler lies asleep.

German boys, they tickle his feet,

Down in the dungeon, twelve feet deep!"

Jetboy turned away from the window. Maybe what I need is to go to the movies again.

Since his meeting with Belinda, he'd done nothing much but read, write, and go see movies. Before coming home, the last two movies he'd seen, in a crowded post auditorium in France in late '44, had been a cheesy double bill. That Nazty Nuisance, a United Artists film made in '43, with Bobby Watson as Hitler, and one of Jetboy's favorite character actors, Frank Faylen, had been the better of the two. The other was a PRC hunk of junk, jive junction, starring Dickie Moore, about a bunch of hepcats jitterbugging at the malt shop.

The first thing he'd done after getting his money and finding an apartment, was to find the nearest movie theater, where he'd seen Murder, He Says about a house full of hillbilly weird people, with Fred McMurray and Marjorie Main, and an actor named Porter Hall playing identical twin-brother murderers named Bert and Mert. "Which one's which?" asks McMurray, and Marjorie Main picked up an axe handle and hit one of them in the middle of the back, where he collapsed from the waist up in a distorted caricature of humanity, but stayed on his feet. "That there's Mert," says Main, throwing the axe handle on the woodpile. "He's got a trick back." There was radium and homicide galore, and Jetboy thought it was the funniest movie he had ever seen.

Since then he'd gone to the movies every day, sometimes going to three theaters and seeing from six to eight movies a day. He was adjusting to civilian life, like most soldiers and sailors had, by seeing films.

He had seen Lost Weekend with Ray Milland, and Frank Faylen again, this time as a male nurse in a psycho ward; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; The Thin Man Goes Home, with William Powell at his alcoholic best; Bring on the Girls; It's in the Bag with Fred Allen; Incendiary Blonde; The Story of G.I. Joe (Jetboy had been the subject of one of Pyle's columns back in '43); a horror film called Isle of the Dead with Boris Karloff; a new kind of Italian movie called Open City at an art house; and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

And there were other films, Monogram and PRC and Republic westerns and crime movies, pictures he'd seen in twenty-four-hour nabes, but had forgotten about ten minutes after leaving the theaters. By the lack of star names and the 4-F look of the leading men, they'd been the bottom halves of double bills made during the war, all clocking in at exactly fiftynine minutes running time.

Jetboy sighed. So many movies, so much of everything he'd missed during the war. He'd even missed V-E and V-J Days, stuck on that island, before he and his plane had been found by the crew of the U.S. S. Reluctant. The way the guys on the Reluctant talked, you'd have thought they missed most of the war and the movies, too.

He was looking forward to a lot of films this fall, and to seeing them when they came out, the way everybody else did, the way he'd used to do at the orphanage.

Jetboy sat back down at the typewriter. If I don't work, I'll never get this book done. I'll go to the movies tonight.

He began to type up all the exciting things he'd done on July 12,

1944.

In the courtyard, women were calling kids in for supper as their fathers came home from work. A topple of kids were still jumping rope out there, their voices thin in the afternoon air:

"Hitler, Hitler looks like this,

Mussolini bows like this,

Sonja Henie skates like this,

And Betty Grable misses like this!"

The Haberdasher in the White House was having a pissass of a day.

It had started with a phone call a little after six A. M.-the Nervous Nellies over at the State Department had some new hot rumors from Turkey. The Soviets were moving all their men around on that nation's edges.

"Well," the Plain-speaking Man from Missouri said, "call me when they cross the goddamn border and not until." Now this.

Independence's First Citizen watched the door close. The last thing he saw was Einstein's heel disappearing. It needed half-soling.

He sat back in his chair, lifted his thick glasses off his nose, rubbed vigorously. Then the President put his fingers together in a steeple, his elbows resting on his desk. He looked at the small model plow on the front of his desk (it had replaced the model of the M-1 Garand that had sat there from the day he took office until V-J Day). There were three books on the right corner of the desk-a Bible, a thumbed thesaurus, and a pictorial history of the United States. There were three buttons on his desk for calling various secretaries, but he never used them.

Now that peace has come, I'm fighting to keep ten wars from breaking out in twenty places, there's strikes looming in every industry and that's a damn shame, people are hollering for more cars and refrigerators, and they're as tired as I am of war and war's alarm.

And I have to kick the hornet's nest again, get everybody out looking for a damn germ bomb that might go off and infect the whole U. S. and kill half the people or more.

We'd have been better off still fighting with sticks and rocks.

The sooner I get my ass back to 219 North Delaware in Independence, the better off me and this whole damn country will be.

Unless that son of a bitch Dewey wants to run for President again. Like Lincoln said, I'd rather swallow a deerantler rocking chair than let that bastard be President.

That's the only thing that'll keep me here when I've finished out Mr. Roosevelt's term.

Sooner I get this snipe hunt under way, the faster we can put World War Number Two behind us.

He picked up the phone.

"Get me the Chiefs of Staff," he said. "Major Truman speaking."

"Major, this is the other Truman, your boss. Put General Ostrander on the horn, will you?"

While he was waiting he looked out past the window fan (he hated air-conditioning) into the trees. The sky was the kind of blue that quickly turns to brass in the summer.

He looked at the clock on the wall: 10:23 A.M., eastern daylight time. What a day. What a year. What a century. "General Ostrander here, sir."

"General, we just had another bale of hay dropped on us…"

A couple of weeks later, the note came:

Deposit 20 Million Dollars account # 43Z21, Credite Suisse, Berne, by 2300Z 14 Sept or lose a major city. You know of this weapon; your people have been searching for it. I have it; I will use half of it on the first city. The price goes to 30 Million Dollars to keep me from using it a second time. You have my word it will not be used if the first payment is made and instructions will be sent on where the weapon can be recovered.

The Plain-speaking Man from Missouri picked up the phone.

"Kick everything up to the top notch," he said. "Call the cabinet, get the joint Chiefs together. And Ostrander…"

"Yessir?"

"Better get ahold of that kid flier, what's his name?…"

"You mean Jetboy, sir? He's not on active duty anymore."

"The hell he's not. He is now!"

"Yessir."

It was 2:24 P. M. on the Tuesday of September 15, 1946, when the thing first showed up on the radar screens.

At 2:31 it was still moving slowly toward the city at an altitude of nearly sixty thousand feet.

At 2:41 they blew the first of the air-raid sirens, which had not been used in New York City since April of 1945 in a blackout drill.

By 2:48 there was panic.

Someone in the CD office hit the wrong set of switches. The power went off everywhere except hospitals and police and fire stations. Subways stopped. Things shut down, and traffic lights quit working. Half the emergency equipment, which hadn't been checked since the end of the war, failed to come up.

The streets were jammed with people. Cops rushed out to try to direct traffic. Some of the policemen panicked when they were issued gas masks. Telephones jammed. Fistfights broke out at intersections, people were trampled at subway exits and on the stairs of skyscrapers.

The bridges clogged up.

Conflicting orders came down. Get the people into bomb shelters. No, no, evacuate the island. Two cops on the same corner yelled conflicting orders at the crowds. Mostly people just stood around and looked.

Their attention was soon drawn to something in the southeastern sky. It was small and shiny.

Flak began to bloom ineffectually two miles below it. On and on it came.

When the guns over in Jersey began to fire, the panic really started.

It was 3 PM.

"It's really quite simple," said Dr. Tod. He looked down toward Manhattan, which lay before him like a treasure trove. He turned to Filmore and held up a long cylindrical device that looked like the offspring of a pipe bomb and a combination lock. "Should anything happen to me, simply insert this fuse in the holder in the explosives"-he indicated the taped-over portion with the opening in the canister covered with the Sanskrit-like lettering-"twist it to the number five hundred, then pull this lever." He indicated the bomb-bay door latch. "It'll fall of its own weight, and I was wrong about the bombsights. Pinpoint accuracy is not our goal."

He looked at Filmore through the grill of his diving helmet. They all wore diving suits with hoses leading back to a central oxygen supply.

"Make sure, of course, everyone's suited with their helmet on. Your blood would boil in this thin air. And these suits only have to hold pressure for the few seconds the bomb door's open."

"I don't expect no trouble, boss."

"Neither do I. After we bomb New York City, we go out to our rendezvous with the ship, rip the ballast, set down, and head for Europe. They'll be only too glad to pay us the money then. They have no way of knowing well be using the whole germ weapon. Seven million or so dead should quite convince them we mean business."

"Look at that," said Ed, from the copilot's seat. "Way down there. Flak("

"What's our altitude?" asked Dr. Tod.

"Right on fifty-eight thousand feet," said Fred. "Target?"

Ed sighted, checked a map. "Sixteen miles straight ahead. You sure called those wind currents just right, Dr. Tod."

They had sent him to an airfield outside Washington, D.C., to wait. That way he would be within range of most of the major East Coast cities.

He had spent part of the day reading, part asleep, and the rest of it talking over the war with some of the other pilots. Most of them, though, were too new to have fought in any but the closing days of the war.

Most of them were jet pilots, like him, who had done their training in P-59 Airacomets or P-80 Shooting Stars. A few of those in the ready room belonged to a P-51 prop-job squadron. There was a bit of tension between the blowtorch jockeys and the piston eaters.

All of them were a new breed, though. Already there was talk Truman was going to make the Army Air Force into a separate branch, just the Air Force, within the next year. Jetboy felt, at nineteen, that time had passed him by.

"They're working on something," said one of the pilots, "that'll go through the sonic wall. Bell's behind it."

"A friend of mine out at Muroc says wait till they get the Flying Wing in operation. They're already working on an alljet version of it. A bomber that can go thirteen thousand miles at five hundred per, carries a crew of thirteen, bunk beds for seven, can stay up for a day and a half!" said another. "Anybody know anything about this alert?" asked a very young, nervous guy with second-looie bars. "The Russians up to something?"

"I heard we were going to Greece," said someone. "Ouzo for me, gallons of it."

"More like Czech potato-peel vodka. We'll be lucky if we see Christmas."

Jetboy realized he missed ready-room banter more than he had thought.

The intercom hissed on and a klaxon began to wail. Jetboy looked at his watch. It was 2:25 B M.

He realized he missed something more than Air Corps badinage. That was flying. Now it all came back to him. When he had flown down to Washington the night before it had been just a routine hop.

Now was different. It was like wartime again. He had a vector. He had a target. He had a mission.

He also had on an experimental Navy T-2 pressure suit. It was a girdle manufacturer's dream, all rubber and laces, pressure bottles, and a real space helmet, like out of Planet Comics, over his head. They had fitted him for it the night before, when they saw his high-altitude wings and drop tanks on the plane.

"Wed better tailor this down for you," the flight sergeant had said.

"I've got a pressurized cabin," said Jetboy.

"Well, in case they need you, and in case something goes wrong, then."

The suit was still too tight, and it wasn't pressurized yet. The arms were built for a gorilla, and the chest for a chimpanzee. "You'll appreciate the extra room if that thing ever inflates in an emergency," said the sergeant.

"You're the boss," said Jetboy.

They'd even painted the torso white and the legs red to match his outfit. His blue helmet and goggles showed through the clear plastic bubble.

As he climbed with the rest of the squadron, he was glad now that he had the thing. His mission was to accompany the flight of P-80s in, and to engage only if needed. He had never exactly been a team player.

The sky ahead was blue as the background curtain in Bronzino's Venus, Cupid, FoUy and Time, with a two-fifths cloud to the north. The sun stood over his left shoulder. The squadron angled up. He wigwagged the wings. They spread out in a staggered box and cleared their guns.

Chunder chunder chunder chunder went his 20mm cannons.

Tracers arced out ahead from the six. 50 cals on each P-80. They left the prop planes far behind and pointed their noses toward Manhattan.

They looked like a bunch of angry bees circling under a hawk.

The sky was filled with jets and prop fighters climbing like the wall clouds of a hurricane.

Above was a lumpy object that hung and moved slowly on toward the city. Where the eye of the hurricane would be was a torrent of flak, thicker than Jetboy had ever seen over Europe or Japan.

It was bursting far too low, only at the level of the highest fighters.

Fighter Control called them. "Clark Gable Command to all squadrons. Target at five five zero… repeat, five five zero angels. Moving ENE at two five knots. Flak unable to reach."

"Call it off," said the squadron leader. "Well try to fly high enough for deflection shooting. Squadron Hodiak, follow me." Jetboy looked up into the high blue above. The object continued its slow track.

"What's it got?" he asked Clark Gable Command. "Command to Jetboy. Some type of bomb is what we've been told. It has to be a lighter-than-air craft of at least five hundred thousand cubic feet to reach that altitude. Over."

"I'm beginning a climb. If the other planes can't reach it, call them off, too."

There was silence on the radio, then, "Roger."

As the P-80s glinted like silver crucifixes above him, he eased the nose up.

"Come on, baby," he said. "Let's do some flying."

The Shooting Stars began to fall away, sideslipping in the thin air. Jetboy could hear only the sound of his own pressurebreathing in his ears, and the high thin whine of his engines. "Come on, girl," he said. "You can make itl"

The thing above him had resolved itself into a bastard aircraft: made of half a dozen blimps, with a gondola below it. The gondola looked as if it had once been a PT boat shell. That was all he could see. Beyond it, the air was purple and cold. Next stop, outer space.

The last of the P-80s slid sideways on the blue stairs of the sky. A few had made desultory firing runs, some snap-rolling as fighters used to do underneath bombers in the war. They fired as they nosed up. All their tracers fell away under the balloons. One of the P-80s fought for control, dropping two miles before leveling out.

Jetboy's plane protested, whining. It was hard to control. He eased the nose up again, had to fight it.

"Get everybody out of the way," he said to Clark Gable Command.

"Here's where we give you some fighting room," he said to his plane. He blew the drop tanks. They fell away like bombs behind him. He pushed his cannon button. Chunder chunder chunder chunder they went. Then again and again.

His tracers arced toward the target, then they too fell away. He fired four more bursts until his cannon ran dry. Then he cleaned out the twin fifties in the tail, but it didn't take long for all one hundred rounds to be spent.

He nosed over and went into a shallow dive, like a salmon sounding to throw a hook, gaining speed. A minute into the run he nosed up, putting the JB-1 into a long circling climb. "Feels better, huh?" he asked.

The engines bit into the air. The plane, relieved of the weight, lurched up and ahead.

Below him was Manhattan with its seven million people. They must be watching down there, knowing these might be the last things they ever saw. Maybe this is what living in the Atomic Age would be like, always be looking up and thinking, is this it?

Jetboy reached down with one of his boots and slammed a lever over. A 75mm cannon shell slid into the breech. He put his hand on the autoload bar, and pulled back a little more on the control wheel.

The red jet cut the air like a razor.

He was closer now, closer than the others had gotten, and still not close enough. He only had five rounds to do the job. The jet climbed, beginning to stagger in the thin air, as if it were some red animal clawing its way up a long blue tapestry that slipped a little each time the animal lurched.

He pointed the nose up. Everything seemed frozen, waiting.

A long thin line of machine-gun tracers reached out from the gondola for him like a lover.

He began to fire his cannon.

From the statement of Patrolman Francis V ("Francis the Talking Cop") O'Hooey, Sept. 15, 1946, 6:45 P M.

We was watching from the street over at Sixth Avenue, trying to get people from shoving each other in a panic. Then they calmed down as they was watching the dogfights and stuff up above.

Some birdwatcher had this pair of binocs, so I confiscated 'em. I watched pretty much the whole thing. Them jets wasn't having no luck, and the antiaircraft from over in the Bowery wasn't doing no good either. I still say the Army oughta be sued 'cause them Air Defense guys got so panicky they forgot to set the timers on them shells and I heard that some of them came down in the Bronx and blew up a whole block of apartments.

Anyway, this red plane, that is, Jetboy's plane, was climbing up and he fired all his bullets, I thought, without doing any damage to the balloon thing.

I was out on the street, and this fire truck pulls up with its sirens on, and the whole precinct and auxiliaries were on it, and the lieutenant was yelling for me to climb on, we'd been assigned to the west side to take care of a traffic smash-up and a riot.

So I jump on the truck, and I try to keep my eyes on what's happening up in the skies.

The riot was pretty much over. The air-raid sirens was still wailing, but everybody was just standing around gawking at what was happening up there.

The lieutenant yells to at least get the people in the buildings. I pushed a few in some doors, then I took another gander in the field glasses.

"I'll be damned if Jetboy hasn't shot up some of the balloons (I hear he used his howitzer on 'em) and the thing looks bigger-it's dropping some. But he's out of ammo and not as high as the thing is and he starts circlin'."

I forgot to say, all the time this blimp thing is got so many machine guns going it looks like a Fourth of July sparkler, and Jetboy's plane's taking these hits all the time.

Then he just takes his plane around and comes right back and crashes right into the what-you-call-it-the gondola, that's it, on the blimps. They just sort of merged together. He must have been going awful slow by then, like stalling, and the plane just sort of mashed into the side of the thing.

And the blimp deal looked like it was coming down a little, not a lot, just some. Then the lieutenant took the glasses away from me, and I shaded my eyes and watched as best I could.

There was this flare of light. I thought the whole thing had blown up at first, and I ducked up under a car. But when I looked up the blimps was still there.

"Look out! Get inside!" yelled the lieutenant. Everybody had another panic then, and was jumping under cars and around stuff and through windows. It looked like a regular Three Stooges for a minute or two.

A few minutes later, it rained red airplane parts all over the streets, and a bunch on the Hudson Terminal…

There was steam and fire all around. The cockpit cracked like an egg, and the wings folded up like a fan. Jetboy jerked as the capstans in the pressure suit inflated. He was curved into a circle, and must have looked like a frightened tomcat.

The gondola walls had parted like a curtain where the fighter's wings crumpled into it. A wave of frost formed over the shattered cockpit as oxygen blew out of the gondola.

Jetboy tore his hoses loose. His bailout bottle had five minutes of air in it. He grappled with the nose of the plane, like fighting against iron bands on his arms and legs. All you were supposed to be able to do in these suits was eject and pull the D-ring on your parachute.

The plane lurched like a freight elevator with a broken cable. Jetboy grabbed a radar antenna with one gloved hand, felt it snap away from the broken nose of the plane. He grabbed another.

The city was twelve miles below him, the buildings making the island look like a faraway porcupine. The left engine of his plane, crumpled and spewing fuel, tore loose and flew under the gondola. He watched it grow smaller.

The air was purple as a plum-the skin of the blimps brut as fire in the sunlight, and the sides of the gondola bent an torn like cheap cardboard.

The whole thing shuddered like a whale.

Somebody flew by over Jetboy's head through the hole in the metal, trailing hoses like the arms of an octopus. Debris followed through the air in the explosive decompression. The jet sagged.

Jetboy thrust his hand into the torn side of the gondola, found a strut.

He felt his parachute harness catch on the radar array. The plane twisted. He felt its weight.

He jerked his harness snap. His parachute packs were ripped away from him, tearing at his back and crotch.

His plane bent in the middle like a snake with a broken back, then dropped away, the wings coming up and touching above the shattered cockpit as if it were a dove trying to beat its pinions. Then it twisted sideways, falling to pieces.

Below it was the dot of the man who had fallen out of the gondola, spinning like a yard sprinkler toward the bright city below.

Jetboy saw the plane fall away beneath his feet. He hung in space twelve miles up by one hand.

He gripped his right wrist with his left hand, chinned himself up until he got a foot through the side, then punched his way in.

There were two people left inside. One was at the controls, the other stood in the center behind a large round thing. He was pushing a cylinder into a slot in it. There was a shattered machine-gun turret on one side of the gondola.

Jetboy reached for the service. 38 strapped across his chest. It was agony reaching for it, agony trying to run toward the guy with the fuse.

Thewore diving suits. The suits were inflated. They looked like ten or twelve beach balls stuffed into suits of long underwear. They were moving as slowly as he was.

Jetboy's hands closed in a claw over the handle of the. 38. He jerked it from its holster.

It flew out of his hand, bounced of the ceiling, and went out through the hole he had come in.

The guy at the controls got off one shot at him. He dived toward the other man, the one with the fuse.

His hand clamped on the diving-suited wrist of the other just as the man pushed the cylindrical fuse into the side of the round canister. Jetboy saw that the whole device sat on a hinged doorplate.

The man had only half a face-Jetboy saw smooth metal on one side through the grid-plated diving helmet.

The man twisted the fuse with both hands.

Through the torn ceiling of the pilothouse, Jetboy saw another blimp begin to deflate. There was a falling sensation. They were dropping toward the city.

Jetboy gripped the fuse with both hands. Their helmets clanged together as the ship lurched.

The guy at the controls was putting on a parachute harness and heading toward the rent in the wall.

Another shudder threw Jetboy and the man with the fuse together. The guy reached for the door lever behind him as best he could in the bulky suit.

Jetboy grabbed his hands and pulled him back.

They slammed together, draped over the canister, their hands entangled on each other's suits and the fuse to the bomb. The man tried again to reach the lever. Jetboy pulled him away. The canister rolled like a giant beach ball as the gondola listed.

He looked directly into the eye of the man in the diving suit. The man used his feet to push the canister back over the bomb door. His hand went for the lever again.

Jetboy gave the fuse a half-twist the other way.

The man in the diving suit reached behind him. He came up with a. 45 automatic. He jerked a heavy gloved hand away from the fuse, worked the slide. Jetboy saw the muzzle swing at him.

"Die, Jetboyl Diel" said the man. He pulled the trigger four times.

Statement of Patrolman Francis V O'Hooey, Sept. 15, 1946, 6:45 PM. (continued).

So when the pieces of metal quit falling, we all ran out and looked up.

I saw the white dot below the blimp thing. I grabbed the binocs away from the lieutenant.

Sure enough, it was a parachute. I hoped it was.

Jetboy had bailed out when his plane crashed into the thing.

I don't know much about such stuff, but I do know that you don't open a parachute that high up or you get in serious trouble.

Then, while I was watching, the blimps and stuff all blew up, all at once. Like they was there, then there was this explosion, and there was only smoke and stuff way up in the air.

Thepeople all around started cheering. The kid had done it he'd blown the thing up before it could drop the A-bomb on Manhattan Island.

Then the lieutenant said to get in the truck, we'd try to get the kid.

We jumped in and tried to figure out where he was gonna land. Everywhere we passed, people was standing in the middle of the car wrecks and fires and stuff, looking up and cheering the parachute.

I noticed the big smudge in the air after the explosion, when we'd been driving around for ten minutes. Them other jets that had been with Jetboy was back, flying all around trough the air, and some Mustangs and Thunderjugs, too. It was like a regular air show up there. Somehow we got out near the Bridge before anybody else did. Good thing, because when we got to the water, we saw this guy pile right in about twenty feet from shore. Went down like a rock. He was wearing this diving-suit thing, and we swam out and I grabbed part of the parachute and a fireman grabbed some of the hoses and we hauled him out onto shore.

Well, it wasn't Jetboy, it was the one we got the make on as Edward "Smooth Eddy" Shiloh, a real small-time operator.

And he was in bad shape, too. We got a wrench off the fire truck and popped his helmet, and he was purple as a turnip in there. It had taken him twenty-seven minutes to get to the ground. He'd passsed out of course with not enough air up there, and he was so frostbit I heard they had to take off one of his feet and all but the thumb on the left hand.

But he'd jumped out of the thing before it blew. We looked back up, hoping to see Jetboy's chute or something, but there wasn't one, just that misty big smudge up there, and all those planes zoomin' round.

Thirty Minutes Over Broadway!

We took Shiloh to the hospital. Tbat's my report.

Statement of Edward "Smooth Eddy" Shiloh, Sept. 16, 1946 (excerpt).

… all five shells into a couple of the gasbags. Then he crashed the plane right into us. The walls blew. Fred and Filmore were thrown out without their parachutes.

When the pressure dropped, I felt like I couldn't move, the suit got so tight. I tried to get my parachute. I see that Dr. Tod has the fuse and is making it to the bomb thing.

I felt the airplane fall off the side of the gondola.' Next thing I know, Jetboy's standing right in front of the hole his plane made.

I pull out my roscoe when I see he's packing heat. But he dropped his gat and he heads toward Tod. Stop him, stop himl" Tod's yelling over the suit radio. I get one clean shot, but I miss, then he's on top of Tod and the bomb, and right then I decide my job's been over about five minutes and I'm not getting paid any overtime."

So I head out, and all this gnashing and screaming's coming across the radio, and they're grappling around. Then Tod yells and pulls out his. 45 and I swear he put four shots in Jetboy from closer than I am to you. Then they fall back together, and I jumped out the hole in the side.

Only I was stupid, and I pulled my ripcord too soon, and my chute don't open right and got all twisted, and I started passing out. Just before I did, the whole thing blew up above me.

Next thing I know, I wake up here, and I got one shoe too many, know what I mean?…

… what did they say? Well, most of it was garbled. Let's. see. Tod says "Stop him, stop him," and I shot. Then I lammed for the hole. They were yelling. I could only hear Jetboy when their helmets slammed together, through Tod's suit radio. They must have crashed together a lot, 'cause I heard both of them breathing hard.

Then Tod got to the gun and shot Jetboy four times and said "Die, Jetboy! Die!" and I jumped and they must have fought a second, and I heard Jetboy say:

"I can't die yet. I haven't seen The Jolson Story."

It was eight years to the day after Thomas Wolfe died, but it was his kind of day. Across the whole of America and the northern hemisphere, it was one of those days when summer gives up its hold, when the weather comes from the poles and Canada again, rather than the Gulf and the Pacific.

They eventually built a monument to jetboy-"the kid that couldn't die yet." A battle-scarred veteran of nineteen had stopped a madman from blowing up Manhattan. After calmer heads prevailed, they realized that. But it took a while to remember that. And to get around to going back to college, or buying that new refrigerator. It took a long time for anybody to remember what anything was like before September 15,

1946.

When people in New York City looked up and saw Jetboy blowing up the attacking aircraft, they thought their troubles were over.

They were as wrong as snakes on an eight-lane highway.

– Daniel Deck GODOT IS MY CO-PILOT: A Life of Jetboy Lippincott,

1963

From high up in the sky the fine mist began to curve downward.

Part of it stretched itself out in the winds, as it went through the jet stream, toward the east.

Beneath those currents, the mist re-formed and hung like verga, settling slowly to the city below, streamers forming and re-forming, breaking like scud near a storm.

Wherever it came down, it made a sound like gentle autumn rain.

THE SLEEPER

by Roger Zelazny

I. The Long Walk Home

He was fourteen years old when sleep became his enemy, a dark and terrible thing he learned to fear as others feared death. It was not, however, a matter of neurosis in any of its more mysterious forms. A neurosis generally possesses irrational elements, while his fear proceeded from a specific cause and followed a course as logical as a geometrical theorem.

Not that there was no irrationality in his life. Quite the contrary. But this was a result, not the cause, of his condition. At least, this is what he told himself later.

Simply put, sleep was his bane, his nemesis. It was his hell on an installment plan.

Croyd Crenson had completed eight grades of school and didn't make it through the ninth. This was not because of any fault of his own. While not at the top of his class he was not at the bottom either. He was an average kid of average build, freckly-faced, with blue eyes and straight brown hair. He had liked to play war games with his friends until the real war ended; then they played cops and robbers more and more often. When it was war he had waited-not too patiently--for his chance to be the ace fighter pilot, Jetboy; after the war, in cops and robbers, he was usually a robber.

He'd started ninth grade, but like many others he never got through the first month: September 1946…

"What are you looking at?"

He remembered Miss Marston's question but not her expression, because he didn't turn away from the spectacle. It was not uncommon for kids in his class to glance out the window with increasing frequency once three o'clock came within believable distance. It was uncommon for them not to turn away quickly, though, when addressed, feigning a final bout of attention while awaiting the dismissal bell.

Instead, he had replied, "The blimps."

In that three other boys and two girls who also had a good line of sight were looking in the same direction, Miss Marston-her own curiosity aroused-crossed to the window. She halted there and stared.

They were quite high-five or six of them, it seemedtiny things at the end of an alleyway of cloud, moving as if linked together. And there was an airplane in the vicinity, making a rapid pass at them. Black-and-white memories of flashing newsreels, still fresh, came to mind. It actually looked as if the plane were attacking the silver minnows.

Miss Marston watched for several moments, then turned away.

"All right, class," she began. "It's only-"

Then the sirens sounded. Involuntarily, Miss Marston felt her shoulders rise and tighten.

"Air raid!" called a girl named Charlotte in the first row. "Is not," said Jimmy Walker, teeth braces flashing. "They don't have them anymore. The war's over."

"I know what they sound like," Charlotte said. "Every time there was a blackout-"

"But there's no more war," Bobby Tremson stated. "That will be enough, class," Miss Marston said. "Perhaps they're testing them."

But she looked back out the window and saw a small flash of fire in the sky before a reef of cloud blocked her view of the aerial conflict.

"Stay in your seats," she said then, as several students had risen and were moving toward the window. "I'm going to check in the office and see whether there's a drill that hadn't been announced. I'll be right back. You may talk if you do it quietly." She departed, banging the door behind her. Croyd continued to stare at the cloud screen, waiting for it to part again.

"It's Jetboy," he said to Bobby Tremson, across the aisle. "Aw, c'mon," Bobby said. "What would he be doing up there? The war's over."

"It's a jet plane. I've seen it in newsreels, and that's how it goes. And he's got the best one."

"You're just making that up," Liza called from the rear of the room.

Croyd shrugged.

"There's somebody bad up there, and he's fighting them," he said. "I saw the fire. There's shooting."

The sirens continued to wail. From the street outside came the sound of screeching brakes, followed by the brief hoot of an auto horn and the dull thud of collision.

"Accident!" Bobby called, and everyone was getting up and moving to the window.

Croyd rose then, not wanting his view blocked; and because he was near he found a good spot. He did not look at the accident, however, but continued to stare upward.

"Caved in his trunk," Joe Sarzanno said. "What?" a girl asked.

Croyd heard the distant booming sounds now. The plane was no longer in sight.

"What's the noise?" Bobby asked. "Antiaircraft fire," Croyd said. "You're nutsl"

"They're trying to shoot the things down, whatever they are."

"Yeah. Sure. Just like in the movies."

The clouds began to close again. But as they did, Croyd thought that he glimpsed the jet once more, sweeping in on a collision course with the blimps. His view was blocked then, before he could be sure.

"Damn!" he said. "Get 'em, Jetboy!"

Bobby laughed and Croyd shoved him, hard. "Hey! Watch who you're pushing!"

Croyd turned toward him, but Bobby did not seem to want to pursue the matter. He was looking out of the window again, pointing.

"Why are all those people running?"

"I don't know."

"Is it the accident?"

"Nave"

"Look! There's anotherl"

A blue Studebaker had swung rapidly about the corner, swerved to miss the two stopped vehicles, and clipped an oncoming Ford. Both cars were turned at an angle. Other vehicles braked and halted to avoid colliding with them.

Several horns began to sound. The muffled noises of antiaircraft fire continued within the wail of the sirens. People were rushing along the streets now, not even pausing to regard the accidents.

"Do you think the war started again?" Charlotte asked. "I don't know," Leo said.

The sound of a police siren was suddenly mixed with the other noises.

"Jeez!" Bobby said. "Here comes another!"

Before he finished speaking a Pontiac had run into the rear of one of the stopped vehicles. Three pairs of drivers confronted each other on foot; one couple angrily, the others simply talking and occasionally pointing upward. Shortly, they all departed and hurried off along the street.

"This is no drill," Joe said.

"I know," Croyd answered, staring at the area where a cloud had grown pink from the brightness it masked. "I think it's something real bad."

He moved back from the window. "I'm going home now," he said.

"You'll get in trouble," Charlotte told him. He glanced at the clock.

"I'll bet the bell rings before she gets back," he answered. "If you don't go now I don't think they'll let you go with whatever that is going on-and I want to go home."

He turned away and crossed to the door. "I'm going, too," Joe said.

"You'll both get in trouble."

They passed along the hallway. As they neared the front door an adult voice, masculine, called out from up the hall, "You two! Come back here!"

Croyd ran, shouldered open the big green door, and kept going. Joe was only a step behind him as he descended the steps. The street was full of stopped cars now, for as far as he could see in either direction. There were people on the tops of buildings and people at every window, most of them looking upward.

He rushed to the sidewalk and turned right. His home was six blocks to the south, in an anomalous group of row houses in the eighties. Joe's route took him half that way, then off to the east.

Before they reached the corner they were halted as a stream of people flowed from the side street to the right, cutting into their line of pedestrian traffic, some turning north and trying to push through, others heading south. The boys heard cursing and the sound of a fistfight from up ahead. Joe reached out and tugged at a man's sleeve. The man jerked his arm away, then looked down.

"What's happening?" Joe shouted.

"Some kind of bomb," the man answered. "Jetboy tried to stop the guys who had it. I think they were all blown up. The thing might go off any minute. Maybe atomic."

"Where'd it fall?" Croyd yelled. The man gestured to the northwest. "That way."

Then the man was gone, having seen an opening and pushed his way through.

"Croyd, we can get past on the street if we go over the hood of that car," Joe said.

Croyd nodded and followed the other boy across the stillwarm hood of a gray Dodge. The driver swore at them, but his door was blocked by the press of bodies and the door on the passenger side could only open a few inches before hitting the fender of a taxi. They made their way around the cab and passed through the intersection at its middle, traversing two more cars on the way.

Pedestrian traffic eased near to the center of the next block, and it looked as if there was a large open area ahead. They sprinted toward it, then halted abruptly.

A man lay upon the pavement. He was having convulsions. His head and hands had swollen enormously, and they were dark red, almost purple in color. Just as they caught sight of him, blood began to rush from his nose and mouth; it trickled from his ears, it oozed from his eyes and about his fingernails.

"Holy Maryl" Joe said, crossing himself as he drew back. "What's he got?"

"I don't know," Croyd answered. "Let's not get too close. Let's go over some more cars."

It took them ten minutes to reach the next corner. Somewhere along the way they noticed that the guns had been silent for a long time, though the air-raid sirens, police sirens, and auto horns maintained a steady din.

"I smell smoke," Croyd said.

"Me, too. If something's burning no fire truck's going to get to it."

"Whole damn town could burn down."

"Maybe it's not all like this."

"Bet it is."

They pushed ahead, were caught in a press of bodies and swept about the corner.

"We're not going this wayl" Croyd yelled.

But it did not matter, as the mass of people about them was halted seconds later.

"Think we can crawl through to the street and go over cars again?" Joe asked.

"Might as well try."

They made it. Only this time, as they worked their way back toward the corner it was slower, as others were taking the same route. Croyd saw a reptilian face through a windshield then, and scaly hands clutching at a steering wheel that had been torn loose from its column as the driver slowly slumped to the side. Looking away, he saw a rising tower of smoke from beyond buildings to the northeast.

When they reached the corner there was no place to descend. People stood packed and swaying. There were occasional screams. He wanted to cry, but he knew it would do no good. He clenched his teeth and shuddered.

"What're we going to do?" he called to Joe.

"If we're stuck here overnight we can bust the window on an empty car and sleep in it, I guess."

"I wart to go home!"

"Me, too. Let's try and keep going as far as we can." They inched their way down the street for the better part of an hour, but only made another block. Drivers howled and pounded on windows as they climbed over the roofs of their cars. Other cars were empty. A few others contained things they did not like to look at. Sidewalk traffic looked dangerous now. It was fast and loud, with brief fights, numerous screams, and a number of fallen bodies which had been pushed into doorways or off the curb into the street. There had been a few seconds' hesitation and silence when the sirens had stopped. Then came the sound of someone speaking over a bullhorn. But it was too far away. The words were not distinguishable, except for "bridges." The panic resumed.

He saw a woman fall from a building across the street and up ahead, and he looked away before she hit. The smell of smoke was still in the air, but there were yet no signs of fire in the vicinity. Ahead, he saw the crowd halt and draw back as a person-man or woman, he could not tell-burst into flames in its midst. He slid to the road between two cars and waited till his friend came up.

"Joe, I'm scared shitless," he said. "Maybe we should just crawl under a car and wait till it's all over."

"I've been thinking of that," the other boy replied. "But what if part of that burning building falls on a car and it catches fire?"

"What of it?"

"If it gets to the gas tank and it blows up they'll all go, this close together, like a string of firecrackers."

"Jesus!"

"We've got to keep going. You can come to my place if it seems easier."

Croyd saw a man perform a series of dancelike movements, tearing at his clothing. Then he began to change shape. Someone back up the road started howling. There came sounds of breaking glass.

During the next half-hour the sidewalk traffic thinned to what might, under other circumstances, be called normal. The people seemed either to have achieved their destinations or to have advanced their congestion to some other part of town. Those who passed now picked their way among corpses. Faces had vanished from behind windows. No one was in sight atop the buildings. The sounds of auto horns had diminished to sporadic outbursts. The boys stood on a corner. They had covered three blocks and crossed the street since they had left school.

"I turn here," Joe said. "You want to come with me or you going ahead?"

Croyd looked down the street.

"It looks better now. I think I can make it okay," he said. "I'll see you."

"Okay "

Joe hurried off to the left. Croyd watched him for a moment, then moved ahead. Far up the street, a man raced from a doorway screaming. He seemed to grow larger and his movements more erratic as he moved to the center of the street. Then he exploded. Croyd pressed his back against the brick wall to his left and stared, heart pounding, but there was no new disturbance. He heard the bullhorn again, from somewhere to the west, and this time its words were more clear: "… he bridges are closed to both auto and foot traffic. Do not attempt to use the bridges. Return to your homes. The bridges are closed…"

He moved ahead again. A single siren wailed somewhere to the east. A low-flying airplane passed overhead. There was a crumpled body in a doorway to his left; he looked away and quickened his pace. He saw smoke across the street, and he looked for the flames and saw then that it rose from the body of a woman seated on a doorstep, her head in her hands. She seemed to shrink as he watched, then fell to her left with a rattling sound. He clenched his fists and kept going.

An Army truck rolled from the side street at the corner ahead of him. He ran to it. A helmeted face turned toward him from the passenger side.

"Why are you out, son?" the man asked.

"I'm going home," he answered. "Where's that?"

He pointed ahead. "Two blocks," he said. "Go straight home," the man told him. "What's happening?"

"We're under martial law. Everybody's got to get indoors. Good idea to keep your windows closed, too."

"why?"

"It seems that was some kind of germ bomb that went off. Nobody knows for sure."

"Was is Jetboy that…?"

"Jetboy's dead. He tried to stop them." Croyd's eyes were suddenly brimming. "Go straight home."

The truck crossed the street and continued on to the west. Croyd ran across and slowed when he reached the sidewalk. He began to shake. He was suddenly aware of the pain in his knees, where he had scraped them in crawling over vehicles. He wiped his eyes. He felt terribly cold. He halted near the middle of the block and yawned several times. Tired. He was incredibly tired. He began moving. His feet felt heavier than he ever remembered. He halted again beneath a tree. There came a moaning from overhead.

When he looked up he realized that it was not a tree. It was tall and brown, rooted and spindly, but there was an enormously elongated human face near its top and it was from there that the moaning came. As he moved away one of the limbs plucked at his shoulder, but it was a weak thing and a few more steps bore him out of its reach. He whimpered. The corner seemed miles away, and then there was another block…

He had long yawning spells now, and the remade world had lost its ability to surprise him. So what if a man flew through the skies unaided? Or if a human-faced puddle lay in the gutter to his right? More bodies… n overturned car… pile of ashes… anging telephone lines.. He trudged on to the comer. He leaned against the lamppost, then slowly slid down and sat with his back to it. He wanted to close his eyes. But that was silly. He lived right over there. Just a bit more and he could sleep in his own bed.

He caught hold of the lamppost and dragged himself to his feet. One more crossing..

He made it onto his block, his vision swimming. Just a little farther. He could see the door..

He heard the sliding, grating sound of a window opening, heard his name called from overhead. He looked up. It was Ellen, the neighbors' little girl, looking down at him.

"I'm sorry your daddy's dead," she called.

He wanted to cry but he couldn't. The yawning took all of his strength. He leaned upon his door and rang the bell. The pocket with his key in it seemed so far away..

When his brother Carl opened the door, he fell at his feet and found that he could not rise.

"I'm so tired," he told him, and he closed his eyes.

II. The Killer at the Heart of the Dream

Croyd's childhood vanished while he slept, that first Wild Card Day. Nearly four weeks passed before he awoke, and he was changed, as was the world about him. It was not just that he was a half-foot taller, stronger than he had thought anyone could be, and covered with fine red hair. He quickly discovered, also, as he regarded himself in the bathroom mirror, that the hair possessed peculiar properties. Repelled by its appearance, he wished that it were not red. Immediately, it began to fade until it was pale blond in color, and he felt a notunpleasant tingling over the entire surface of his body.

Intrigued, he wished for it to turn green and it did. Again, the tingling, this time more like a wave of vibration sweeping over him. He willed himself black and he blackened. Then pale once more. Only this time he did not halt at light blond. Paler, paler; chalky, albino. Paler still… What was the limit? He began to fade from sight. He could see the tiled wall behind him now, through his faint outline in the mirror. Paler…

Gone.

He raised his hands before his face and saw nothing. He picked up his damp washcloth and held it to his chest. It, too, became transparent, was gone, though he still felt its wet presence.

He returned himself to pale blond. It seemed the most socially acceptable. Then he squeezed into what had been his loosest jeans and put on a green flannel shirt that he could not button all the way. The pants only reached to his shins now. Silently, he padded down the stairs on bare feet and made his way to the kitchen. He was ravenous. The hall clock told him that it was close to three. He had looked in on his mother, his brother, and his sister, but had not disturbed their slumber.

There was a half-loaf of bread in the breadbox and he tore it apart, stuffing great chunks into his mouth, barely chewing before he swallowed. He bit his finger at one point, which slowed him only slightly. He found a piece of meat and a wedge of cheese in the refrigerator and he ate them. He also drank a quart of milk. There were two apples on the countertop and he ate them as he searched the cupboards. A box of crackers. He munched them as he continued his search. Six cookies. He gulped them. A half-jar of peanut butter. He ate it with a spoon.

Nothing. He could find nothing more, and he was still terribly hungry.

Then the enormity of his feast struck him. There was no more food in the house. He remembered the mad afternoon of his return from school. What if there were a food shortage?

What if they were back on rationing? He had just eaten everyone's food.

He had to get more, for the others as well as for himself! He went to the front room and looked out the window. The street was deserted. He wondered about the martial law he had heard of on the way home from school-how long ago? How long had he slept, anyway? He'd a feeling it had been a long while.

He unlocked the door and felt the coolness of the night. One of the unbroken streetlights shone through the bare branches of a nearby tree. There had still been a few leaves on the roadside trees on the afternoon of the troubles. He removed the spare key from the table in the hall, stepped outside, and locked the door behind him. The steps, which he knew must be cold, did not feel particularly chill on his bare feet.

He halted then, retreated into shadow. It was frightening, not knowing what was out there.

He raised his hands and held them up to the streetlight. "Pale, pale, pale…"

They faded until the light shone through them. They continued to fade. His body tingled.

When they were gone, he lowered his eyes. Nothing of him seemed to remain but the tingle.

Then he hurried up the street, a feeling of enormous energy within him. The odd, treelike being was gone from the next block. The streets were clear for traffic now, though there was considerable debris in the gutters and almost every parked vehicle he saw had sustained some damage. It seemed that every building he passed had at least one window blocked with cardboard or wood. Several roadside trees were now splintered stumps, and the metal signpost at the next corner was bent far to one side. He hurried, surprised at the rapidity of his progress, and when he reached his school he saw that it remained intact, save for a few missing panes of glass. He passed on.

Three grocery stores he came to were boarded up and displayed CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE signs. He broke into the third one. The boards offered very little resistance when he pushed against them. He located a light switch and threw it. Seconds later, he flipped it off. The place was a shambles. It had been thoroughly looted.

He proceeded uptown, passing the shells of several burned-out buildings. He heard voices-one gruff, one high and fluting-from within one of these. Moments later, there came a flash of white light and a scream. Simultaneous with this, a portion of a brick wall collapsed, spilling across the sidewalk at his back. He saw no reason to investigate. It also seemed on occasion that he heard voices from beneath sewer gratings.

He wandered for miles that night, not becoming aware until he was nearing Times Square that he was being followed. At first he thought that it was simply a large dog moving in the same direction he was headed. But when it drew nearer and he noted the human lines to its features, he halted and faced it. It sat down at a distance of about ten feet and regarded him. "You're one, too," it growled.

"You can see me?"

"No. Smell."

"What do you want?"

"Food."

"Me, too."

"I'll show you where. For a cut."

"Okay. Show me."

It led him to a roped-off area where Army trucks were parked. Croyd counted ten of them. Uniformed figures stood or rested among them.

"What's going on?" Croyd asked.

"Talk later. Food packages in the four trucks to the left." It was no problem to pass the perimeter, enter the rear of a vehicle, gather an armload of packages, and withdraw in the other direction. He and the dog-man retreated to a doorway two blocks away. Croyd phased back to visibility and they proceeded to gorge themselves.

Afterward, his new acquaintance-who wished to be called Bentley-told him of the events during the weeks following Jetboy's death, while Croyd had slept. Croyd learned of the rush to Jersey, of the rioting, of the martial law, of the Takisians, and of the ten thousand deaths their virus had caused. And he heard of the transformed survivors-the lucky ones and the unlucky ones.

"You're a lucky one," Bentley concluded. "I don't feel lucky," Croyd said.

"At least you stayed human."

"So, have you been to see that Dr. Tachyon yet?"

"No. He's been so damn busy. I will, though."

"I should, too."

"Maybe."

"What do you mean, `maybe'?"

"Why should you want to change? You got it made. You can have whatever you want."

"You mean stealing?"

"Times are tough. You get by however you can."

"Maybe so."

"I can put you on to some clothes that will fit you."

"Where?"

"Just around the corner."

"Okay. "

It was not difficult for Croyd to break into the rear of the clothing store to which Bentley led him. He faded again after that and returned for another load of food parcels. Bentley padded beside him as he headed home.

"Mind if I keep you company?"

"No. "

"I want to see where you live. I can put you on to lots of good things."

"Yeah?"

"I'd like a friend who can keep me fed. Think we can work something out?"

"Yes."

In the days that followed Croyd became his family's provider. His older brother and sister did not ask whence he acquired the food or, finally, the money he obtained with seeming facility during his nightly absences. Neither did his mother, distracted in her grief over his father's death, think to inquire. Bentley-who slept somewhere in the neighborhood-became his guide and mentor in these enterprises, as well as his confidant in other matters.

"Maybe I should see that doctor you mentioned," Croyd said, lowering the case of canned goods he had removed from a warehouse and perching himself upon it.

"Tachyon?" Bentley asked, stretching himself in an undoglike fashion.

"Yeah."

"What's wrong?"

"I can't sleep. It's been five days since I woke up this way, and I haven't slept at all since then."

"So? What's wrong with that? More time to do what you want."

"But I'm finally starting to get tired and I still can't sleep."

"It'll catch up with you in time. Not worth bothering Tachyon over. Anyway, if he tries to cure you your chances are only like one in three or four."

"How do you know that?"

"I went to see him."

"Oh?"

Croyd ate an apple. Then, "You going to try it?" he asked. "If I can get up the nerve," Bentley answered. "Who wants to spend his life as a dog? And not a very good dog, at that. By the way, when we go past a pet shop I want you to break in and get me a flea collar."

"Sure. I wonder… If I do go to sleep, will I sleep a long time like before?"

Bentley tried to shrug, gave up. "Who knows?"

"Who'll take care of my family? Who'll take care of you?"

"I see the point. If you stop coming out nights, I guess I wait awhile and then go and try the cure. For your family, you'd better pick up a bunch of money. Things will loosen up again, and money always talks."

"You're right."

"You're damn strong. Think you could tear open a safe?"

"Maybe. I don't know."

"Well try one on the way home, too. I know a good place."

"Okay "

"… nd some flea powder."

It was getting on toward morning, as he sat reading and eating, that he began to yawn uncontrollably. When he rose there was a certain heaviness to his limbs that had not been present earlier. He climbed the stairs and entered Carl's room. He shook his brother by the shoulder until he awoke. "Whassamatter, Croyd?" he asked.

"I'm sleepy."

"So go to bed."

"It's been a long time. Maybe I'll sleep a long time again, too."

"Oh."

"So here's some money, to take care of everybody in case that's what happens."

He opened the top drawer of Carl's dresser and stuffed a huge wad of bills in under the socks.

"Uh, Croyd… Where'd you get all that money?"

"None of your business. Go back to sleep."

He made it to his room, undressed, and crawled into bed. He felt very cold.

When he awoke there was frost on the windowpanes. When he looked outside he saw that there was snow on the ground beneath a leaden sky. His hand on the sill was wide and swarthy, the fingers short and thick.

Examining himself in the bathroom, he discovered that he was about five and a half feet tall, powerfully built, with dark hair and eyes, and that he possessed hard scarlike ridges on the front of his legs, the outside of his arms, across his shoulders, down his back, and up his neck. It took him another fifteen minutes to learn that he could raise the temperature of his hand to the point where the towel he was holding caught fire. It was only a few more minutes before he discovered that he could generate heat all over, until his entire body glowedthough he felt badly about the footprint that had burned into the linoleum, and the hole his other foot made in the throw rug.

This time, there was plenty of food in the kitchen, and he ate steadily for over an hour before his hunger pangs were eased. He'd put on sweatpants and a sweatshirt, reflecting on the variety of clothing he would have to keep about if he were going to change in form each time that he slept.

There was no pressure on him this time to forage for food. The enormous number of deaths that had occurred following the release of the virus had resulted in a surplus in local warehouses, and the stores were open again with distribution routines back to normal.

His mother was spending most of her time in church, and Carl and Claudia were back in school, which had reopened recently. Croyd knew that he would not be returning to school himself. The money supply was still good, but on reflecting that he had slept nine days longer this time than he had on the previous occasion he felt it would be a good idea to have some extra cash on hand. He wondered whether he could heat a hand sufficiently to burn through the metal door of a safe. He had had a very hard time tearing open that one-had almost given up, actually-and Bentley had assured him that it was a "tin can." He went outside and practiced on a piece of galvanized pipe.

He tried to plan the job carefully, but his judgment was bad. He had to open eight safes that week before he obtained much in the way of money. Most of them just held papers. He knew that he set off alarms also, and this made him nervous; he hoped that his fingerprints changed too when he slept. He worked as quickly as he could and wished that Bentley were back. The dog-man would have known what to do, he felt. He bad hinted on several occasions that his normal occupation had involved something somewhat less than legal.

The days passed more quickly than he would have wished. He purchased a large, all-purpose wardrobe. Nights, he walked the city, observing the signs of damage that still remained and the progress of repair work. He caught up on the news, of the city, the world. It was not hard to believe in a man from outer space when the results of his virus were all about him. He asked a bullet-domed man with webbed fingers where he might find Dr. Tachyon. The man gave him an address and a phone number. He kept them in his wallet and did not call or visit. What if the doctor examined him, told him there was no problem, and cured him? Nobody else in the family was able to make a living at this point.

The day came when his appetite peaked again, which he felt might mean that his body was getting ready for another change. This time, he observed his feelings more carefully, for future reference. It took him the rest of that day and night and part of the next day before the chills came and the waves of drowsiness began. He left a note saying good night to the others, for they were out when the feeling began to overwhelm him. And this time he locked his bedroom door, for he had learned that they had observed him regularly as he slept, had even brought in a doctor at one point-a woman who had prudently recommended that they simply let him sleep, once she learned his case history. She had also suggested that he see Dr. Tachyon when he awoke, but his mother had misplaced the paper on which she had written this. Mrs. Crenson's mind seemed to wander often these days.

He had the dream again-and this time he realized that it was again-and this was the first time that he remembered it: The apprehension was reminiscent of his feelings on the day of his last return home from school. He was walking down what seemed an empty twilit street. Something stirred behind him and he turned and looked back. People were emerging from doorways, windows, automobiles, manholes, and all of them were staring at him, moving toward him. He continued on his way and there came something like a collective sigh at his back. When he looked again they were all hurrying after him in a menacing fashion, expressions of hatred on their faces. He began to run, with a certainty that they intended his destruction. They pursued him…

When he awoke he was hideous, and he had no special powers. He was hairless, snouted, and covered with graygreen scales; his fingers were elongated and possessed of extra joints, his eyes yellow and slitted; he developed pains in his thighs and lower back if he stood upright for too long. It was far easier to go about his room on all fours. When he exclaimed aloud over his condition there was a pronounced sibilance to his speech.

It was early evening, and he heard voices from downstairs. He opened the door and called out, and Claudia and Carl both hurried to his room. He opened the door the barest crack and remained behind it.

"Croyd! Are you all right?" Carl asked.

"Yes and no," he hissed. "I'll be okay. Right now I'm starving. Bring me food. Lots of it."

"What's the matter?" Claudia asked. "Why won't you come out?"

"Later! Talk later. Food nowl"

He refused to leave his room or to let his family see him. They brought him food, magazines, newspapers. He listened to the radio and paced, quadrupedally. This time, sleep was something to be courted rather than feared. He lay back on the bed, hoping it would come soon. But it was denied him for the better part of a week.

The next time he woke he found himself slightly over six feet tall, dark-haired, slim, and not unpleasantly featured. He was as strong as he had been on earlier occasions, but after a while he concluded that he possessed no special powers-until he slipped on the stair in his rush to the kitchen and saved himself by levitating.

Later, he noticed a note in Claudia's handwriting, tacked to his door. It gave a phone number and told him he could reach Bentley there. He put it in his wallet. He'd another call to make first.

Dr. Tachyon looked up at him and smiled faintly. "It could be worse," he said.

Croyd was almost amused at the judgment. "How?" he asked.

"Well, you could have drawn a joker."

"Just what did I draw, sir?"

"Yours is one of the most interesting cases I've seen so far. In all of the others it's simply run its course and either killed the person or changed him-for better or worse. With you well, the nearest analogy is an earth disease called malaria. The virus you harbor seems to reinfect you periodically."

"I drew a joker once…"

"Yes, and it could happen again. But unlike anyone else to whom it's happened, all you have to do is wait. You can sleep it off."

"I don't ever want to be a monster again. Is there some way you could change just that much of it?"

"I'm afraid not. It's part of your total syndrome. I can only go after the whole thing."

"And the odds against a cure are three or four to one?"

"Who told you that?"

"A joker named Bentley. He looked sort of like a dog."

"Bentley was one of my successes. He's back to normal now. Just left here fairly recently, in fact."

"Really! It's good to know that someone made it." Tachyon looked away.

"Yes, he answered, a moment later. "Tell me something.

"What?"

"If I only change when I sleep, then I could put off a change by staying awake right?"

"I see what you mean. Yes, a stimulant would put it off a bit. If you feel it coming on while you're out somewhere, the caffeine in a couple of cups of coffee would probably hold it off long enough for you to get back home."

"Isn't there something stronger? Something that would put it off for a longer time?"

"Yes, there are powerful stimulants-amphetamines, for example. But they can be dangerous if you take too many or take them for too long."

"In what ways are they dangerous?"

"Nervousness, irritability, combativeness. Later on" a toxic psychosis, with delusions, hallucinations, paranoia. "Crazy?"

"Yes."

"Well, you could just stop them if it gets near that point, couldn't you?"

"I don't believe it's that easy."

"I'd hate to be a monster again, or- You didn't say it, but isn't it possible that I could just die during one of the comas?"

"There is that possibility. It's a nasty virus. But you've come through several attacks now, which leads me to believe that your body knows what it is doing. I wouldn't worry myself unduly on that…"

"It's the joker part that really bothers me."

"That is a possibility you simply have to live with."

"All right. Thank you, Doctor."

"I wish you would come to Mt. Sinai the next time you feel it coming on. I'd really like to observe the process in you."

"I'd rather not."

Tachyon nodded.

"Or right away after you awaken…?"

"Maybe," Croyd said, and he shook his hand. "By the way, Doctor… How do you spell `amphetamine'?"

Croyd stopped by the Sarzannos' apartment later, for he had not seen Joe since that day in September when they had made their way home from school together, the exigencies of making a living have limited his spare time since then.

Mrs. Sarzanno opened the door a crack and stared at him. After he had identified himself and tried to explain his changed appearance, she still refused to open the door farther.

"My Joe, he is changed, too," she said. "Uh, how is he changed?" he asked. "Changed. That's all. Changed. Go away." She closed the door.

He knocked again, but there was no response.

Croyd went away then and ate three steaks, because there was nothing else he could do.

Croyd studied Bentley-a small foxy-featured man with dark hair and shifty eyes-feeling that his earlier transformation had actually been in keeping with his general demeanor.

Bentley returned the compliment for several seconds, then said, "That's really you, Croyd?"

"Yep. "

"Come on in. Sit down. Have a beer. We've got a lot to talk about.

"

He stepped aside, and Croyd entered the brightly furnished apartment.

"I got cured and I'm back in business. Business is lousy," Bentley said, after they had seated themselves. "What's your story?"

Croyd told him, of the changes and powers he'd experienced and of his talk with Tachyon. The one thing he never told him was his age, since all of his transformations bore the appearance of adulthood. He feared that Bentley might not trust him in the same fashion as he had if he knew otherwise. "You went about those other jobs wrong," the small man said, lighting a cigarette and coughing. "Hit or miss is never good. You want a little planning, and it should be tailored to whatever your special talent is, each time around. Now, you say that this time you can fly?"

"Yes."

"Okay. There are lots of places high up in skyscrapers that people think are pretty secure. This is the time we hit those. You know, you've got the best setup of anyone there is. Even if someone sees you, it don't matter. You're going to look different next time around…"

"And you'll get me the amphetamines?"

"All you want. You come back here tomorrow-same time, same station. Maybe I'll have a job worked out for us. And I'll have your pills for you."

"Thanks, Bentley."

"It's the least I can do. If we stick together we'll both get rich."

Bentley did plan a good job, and three days later Croyd brought home more money than he had ever held before. He took most of it to Carl, who had been handling the family's finances.

"Let's take a walk," Carl said, securing the money behind a row of books and glancing significantly toward the living room where their mother sat with Claudia.

Croyd nodded. "Sure."

"You seem a lot older these days," said Carl-who would be eighteen in a. few months-as soon as they were on the street.

"I feel a lot older."

"I don't know where you keep getting the money…"

"Better you don't."

"Okay. I can't complain, since I'm living off it, too. But I wanted you to know about Mom. She's getting worse. Seeing Dad torn apart that way… She's been slipping ever since."

"You missed the worst of it so far, the last time you were asleep. Three different nights she just got up and went outside in her nightgown-barefoot yet, in February, for crissake!-and she wandered around like she was looking for Dad. Fortunately, someone we knew spotted her each time and brought her back. She kept asking her-Mrs. Brandt-if she'd seen him. Anyhow, what I'm trying to say is she's getting worse. I've already talked to a couple of doctors. They think she should be in a rest home for a while. Claudia and I think so, too. We can't watch her all the time, and she might get hurt. Claudia's sixteen now. The two of us can run things while she's away. But it's going to be expensive."

"I can get more money," Croyd said.

When he finally got hold of Bentley the following day and told him that they had to do another job soon, the small man seemed pleased, for Croyd had not been eager for a quick follow-up to the last one.

"Give me a day or so to line something up and work out the details," Bentley said. "I'll get back to you."

"Right."

The next day Croyd's appetite began to mount, and he found himself yawning occasionally. So he took one of the pills. It worked well. Better than well, actually. It was a fine feeling that came over him. He could not recall the last time he'd felt quite that good. Everything seemed as if it were going right for a change. And all of his movements felt particularly fluid and graceful. He seemed more alert, more aware than usual, also. And, most importantly, he was not sleepy.

It was not until nighttime, after everyone else had retired, that these feelings began to wear off. He took another pill. When it began to work he felt so fine that he went outside and levitated high above the city, drifting in the cold March night between the bright constellations of the city and those far above, feeling as if he possessed a secret key to the inner meaning of it all. Briefly, he thought of Jetboy's battle in the sky, and he flew over the remains of the Hudson Terminal which had burned when pieces of Jetboy's plane fell upon it.

He had read of a plan to build a monument to him there. Was this how it felt when he fell?

He descended to swoop among buildings-sometimes resting atop one, leaping, falling, saving himself at the last moment. On one such occasion, he beheld two men watching him from a doorway. For some reason that he did not understand, this irritated him. He returned home then and began cleaning the house. He stacked old newspapers and magazines and tied them into bundles, he emptied wastebaskets, he swept and mopped, he washed all of the dishes in the sink. He flew four loads of trash out over the East River and dropped them in, trash collections still not being quite regular. He dusted everything, and dawn found him polishing the silverware. Later, he washed all of the windows.

It was quite sudden that he found himself weak and shaking. He realized what it was and he took another pill and set a pot of coffee to percolating. The minutes passed. It was hard to remain seated, to be comfortable in any position. He did not like the tingling in his hands. He washed them several times, but it would not go away. Finally, he took another pill. He watched the clock and listened to the sounds of the coffeepot. Just as the coffee became ready the tingling and the shaking began to subside. He felt much better. While he was drinking his coffee he thought again of the two men in the doorway. Had they been laughing at him? He felt a quick rush of anger, though he had not really seen their faces, known their expressions. Watching him! If they'd had more time they might have thrown a rock…

He shook his head. That was silly. They were just two guys. Suddenly, he wanted to run outside and walk all over the city, or perhaps fly again. But he might miss Bentley's call if he did. He began pacing. He tried to read but was unable to focus his attention as well as usual. Finally, he phoned Bentley. "Have you come up with anything yet?" he asked. "Not yet, Croyd.- What's the rush?"

"I'm starting to get sleepy. You know what I mean?"

"Uh-yeah. You take any of that shit yet?"

"Uh-huh. I had to."

"Okay. Look, go as light on it as possible. I'm working on a couple angles now. I'll try to have something lined up by tomorrow. If it's no go then, you stop taking the stuff and go to bed. We can do it next time. Got me?"

"I want to do it this time, Bentley."

"I'll talk to you tomorrow. You take it easy now."

He went out and walked. It was a cloudy day, with patches of snow and ice upon the ground. He realized suddenly that he had not eaten since the day before. That had to be bad, when he considered what had become his normal appetite. It must be the pills' doing, he concluded. He sought a diner, determined to force himself to eat something. As he walked, it occurred to him that he did not care to sit down in a crowd of people and eat. The thought of having all of them around him was unsettling. No, he would get a carryout order…

As he headed toward a diner he was halted by a voice from a doorway. He turned so quickly that the man who had addressed him raised an arm and drew back.

"Don't…" the man protested. Croyd took a step back. "Sorry," he mumbled.

The man had on a brown coat, its collar turned all the way up. He wore a hat, its brim drawn about as low as it would go and still permit vision. He kept his head inclined forward. Nevertheless, Croyd discerned a hooked beak, glittering eyes, an unnaturally shiny complexion.

"Would you do me a favor, sir?" the man asked in a clipped, piping voice.

"What do you want?"

"Food. "

Automatically, Croyd reached for his pocket.

"No. I got money. You don't understand. I can't go in that place and get served, looking like I do. I'll pay you to go in and get me a couple hamburgers, bring them out."

"I was going in anyway."

Later, Croyd sat with the man on a bench, eating. He was fascinated by jokers. Because he knew he was partly one himself. He began wondering where he would eat if he ever woke up in bad shape and there was nobody home.

"I don't usually come this far uptown anymore," the other told him. "But I had an errand."

"Where do you guys usually hang out?"

"There's a number of us down on the Bowery. Nobody bothers us there. There's places you get served and nobody cares what you look like. Nobody gives a damn."

"You mean people might attack you?" The man uttered a brief, shrill laugh.

"People ain't real nice, kid. Not when you really get to know 'em."

"I'll walk you back," Croyd said. "You might be taking a chance."

"'That's okay."

It was down in the forties that three men on a bench stared at them as they passed. Croyd had just taken two more pills a few blocks back. (Was it only a few blocks back?) He hadn't wanted the jitters again while talking with his new friend John-at least, that's what he'd said to call him-so he'd taken two more to ease him over the next hump, in case one was due soon, and he knew right away when he saw the two men that they were planning something bad for him and John, and the muscles in his shoulders tightened and he rolled his hands into fists within his pockets.

"Cock-a-doodle-doo," said one of the men, and Croyd started to turn, but John put his hand on his arm and said, "Come on."

They walked on. The men rose and fell into step behind them.

"Kirkiriki," said one of the men. "Squak, squak," said another.

Shortly, a cigarette butt sailed over Croyd's head and landed in front of him.

"Hey, freak lover!"

A hand fell upon his shoulder.

He reached up, took hold of the hand, and squeezed. Bones made little popping noises within it as the man began to scream. The screaming stopped abruptly when Croyd released the hand and slapped the man across the face, knocking him into the street. The next man threw a punch at his face and Croyd knocked the arm aside with a flick of his hand that spun the man full-face toward him. He reached out then with his left hand, caught hold of both the other's lapels, bunching them, twisting them, and raised the man two feet into the air. He slammed him back against the brick wall near which they stood and released him. The man slumped to the ground and did not move.

The final man had drawn a knife and was swearing at him through clenched teeth. Croyd waited until he was almost upon him, and then levitated four feet and kicked him in the face. The man went over backward onto the sidewalk. Croyd drifted into position above him then and dropped, landing upon his midsection. He kicked the fallen knife into the gutter, turned away, and walked on with John.

"You're an ace," the smaller man said after a while. "Not always," Croyd replied. "Sometimes I'm a joker. I change every time I sleep."

"You didn't have to be that rough on them."

"Right. I could have been a lot rougher. If it's really going to be like this we should take care of each other."

"Yeah. Thanks."

"Listen, I want you to show me the places on the Bowery where you say nobody bothers us. I may have to go there someday."

"Sure. I'll do that."

"Croyd Crenson. C-r-e-n-s-o-n. Remember it, okay? If you see me again I'll look different, that's why."

"I'll remember."

John took him to several dives and pointed out places where some of them stayed. He introduced him to six jokers they encountered, all of them savagely deformed. Remembering his lizard phase, Croyd shook appendages with all of them and asked if there was anything they needed. But they shook their heads and stared. He knew that his appearance was against him.

"Good evening," he said, and he flew away.

His fear that the uninfected survivors were watching him, waiting to jump him, grew as he flew up along the course of the East River. Even now, someone with a rifle with telescopic sights might be taking aim.

He moved faster. On one level, he knew that his fear was ridiculous. But he felt it too strongly to put it aside. He landed on the corner, ran to his front door, and let himself in. He hurried upstairs and locked himself in his bedroom.

He stared at the bed. He wanted to stretch out on it. But what if he slept? It would be all over. The world would end for him. He turned on the radio and began to pace. It was going to be a long night..

When Bentley called the next day and said that he had a hot one but that it was a little risky, Croyd said he didn't care. He would have to carry explosives-which meant he would have to learn to use them between now and then-because this safe would be too tough even for his enhanced strength. Also, there was the possibility of an armed guard…

He didn't mean to kill the guard, but the man had frightened him when he came in with a drawn gun that way. And he must have miscalculated on the fuse, because the thing blew before it should have, which is how the piece of flying metal took off the first two fingers of his left; hand. But he wrapped the hand in his handkerchief and got the money and got out.

He seemed to remember Bentley's saying, "For crissake, kidl Go home and sleep it off!" right after they split the take. He levitated then and headed in the proper direction, but he had to descend and break into a bakery where he ate three loaves of bread before he could continue, his mind reeling. There were more pills in his pocket, but the thought of them tied his stomach into a knot.

He slid open his bedroom window, which he had left unlatched, and crawled inside. He staggered up the hall to Carl's room and dumped the sack of money onto his sleeping form. Shaking then, he returned to his own room and locked the door. He switched on the radio. He wanted to wash his injured hand in the bathroom, but it just seemed too far away. He collapsed onto the bed and did not rise.

He was walking down what seemed an empty twilit street. Something stirred behind him and he turned and looked back. People were emerging from doorways, windows, automobiles, manholes, and all of them were staring at him, moving toward him. He continued on his way and there came something like a collective sigh at his back. When he looked again they were all hurrying after him, expressions of hatred on their faces. He turned upon them, seized hold of the nearest man and strangled him. The others halted, drew back. He crushed another man's head. The crowd turned, began to flee. He pursued…

III. Day of the Gargoyle

Croyd awoke in June, to discover that his mother was in a sanatorium, his brother had graduated high school, his sister was engaged, and he had the power to modulate his voice in such a fashion as to shatter or disrupt virtually anything once he had determined the proper frequency by a kind of resonant feedback that he lacked the vocabulary to explain. Also, he was tall, thin, dark-haired, sallow, and had regrown his missing fingers.

Foreseeing the day when he would be alone, he spoke with Bentley once again, to line up one big job for this waking period, and to get it over with quickly, before the weariness overcame him. He had resolved not to take the pills again, as he had thought back over the nightmare quality of his final days the last time around.

This time he paid even more attention to the planning and he asked better questions as Bentley chain-smoked his way through a series of details. The loss of both his parents and his sisters impending marriage had led him to reflect upon the impermanence of human relationships, with the realization that Bentley might not always be around.

He was able to disrupt the alarm system and damage the door to the bank's vault sufficiently to gain entrance, though he had not counted on shattering all of the windows in a threeblock area while seeking the proper frequencies. Still, he was able to make good his escape with a large quantity of cash. This time he rented a safe-deposit box in a bank across town, where he left the larger portion of his share. He had been somewhat bothered by the fact that his brother was driving a new car.

He rented rooms in the Village, Midtown, Morningside Heights, the Upper East Side, and on the Bowery, paying all of the rents for a year in advance. He wore the keys on a chain around his neck, along with the one for his safe-deposit box. He wanted places he could reach quickly no matter where he was when the sleep came for him. Two of the apartments were furnished; the other four he equipped with mattresses and radios. He was in a hurry and could take care of amenities later. He had awakened with an awareness of several events that had transpired during his most recent sleep, and he could only attribute it to an unconscious apprehension of news broadcasts from the radio he had left playing this last time. He resolved to continue the practice.

It took him three days to locate, rent, and equip his new retreats. In that his place on the Bowery was his last one, he looked up John, identified himself, and had dinner with him. The stories he heard then of a gang of joker-bashers depressed him, and when the hunger and the chill and the drowsiness came upon him that evening he took a pill so as to stay awake and patrol the area. Just one or two, he decided, would hardly matter.

The bashers did not show up that night, but Croyd was depressed by the possibility that he might awaken as a joker the next time around. So he took two more pills with his breakfast to put things off a bit, and he decided to furnish his local quarters in the fit of energy that followed. That evening he took three more for a last night on the town, and the song he sang as he walked along Forty-second Street, shattering windows building by building, caused dogs to howl for several miles around and awakened two jokers and an ace equipped with UHF hearing. Bat-ears Brannigan-who expired two weeks later beneath a falling statue thrown by Muscles Vincenzi the day he was gunned down by the NYPD-sought him out to pound on him in payment for his headache and wound up buying him several drinks and requesting a soft UHF version of "Galway Bay."

The following afternoon on Broadway, Croyd responded to a taxi driver's curse by running his vehicle through a series of vibrations until it fell apart. Then, while he was about it, he turned the force upon all of those others who had proven themselves enemies by blowing their horns. It was only when the ensuing traffic snarl reminded him of the one outside his school on that first Wild Card Day that he turned and fled.

He awoke in early August in his Morningside Heights apartment, recalling slowly how he had gotten there and promising himself he would not take any more pills this time.

When he looked at the tumors on his twisted arm he knew that the promise would not be hard to keep. This time he wanted to return to sleep as quickly as possible. Looking out the window, he was grateful that it was night, since it was a long way to the Bowery.

On a Wednesday in mid-September he woke to find himself dark blond, of medium height, build, and complexion, and possessed of no visible marks of his wild card syndrome.

He ran himself through a variety of simple tests that experience had taught him were likely to reveal his hidden ability. Nothing in the way of a special power came to light.

Puzzled, he dressed himself in the best-fitting clothing he had on hand and went out for his usual breakfast. He picked up several newspapers along the way and read them while he devoured plate after plate of scrambled eggs, waffles, pancakes. It had been a chill morning when he'd entered the street. When he left the diner it was near to ten o'clock and balmy.

He rode the subways to midtown, where he entered the first decent-looking clothing store he saw and completely refitted himself. He bought a pair of hot dogs from a street vendor and ate them as he walked to the subway station.

He got off in the seventies, walked to the nearest delicatessen, and ate two corned beef sandwiches with potato pancakes. Was he stalling? he asked himself then. He knew that he could sit here all day and eat. He could feel the process of digestion going on like a blast furnace in his midsection. He rose, paid, and departed. He would walk the rest of the way. How many months had it been? he wondered, scratching his forehead. It was time to check in with Carl and Claudia. Time to see how Mom was doing. To see whether anybody needed any money.

When Croyd came to his front door he halted, key in his hand. He returned the key to his pocket and knocked. Moments later, Carl opened the door.

"Yes?" he said. "It's me. Croyd."

"Croyd! Jeez! Come in! I didn't recognize you. How long's it been?"

"Pretty long." Croyd entered. "How is everybody?" he asked.

"Mom's still the same. But you know they told us not to get our hopes up."

"Yeah. Need any money for her?"

"Not till next month. But a couple of grand would come in handy then."

Croyd passed him an envelope.

"I'd probably just confuse her if I went to see her, looking this different."

Carl shook his head.

"She'd be confused even if you looked the same as you did, Croyd."

"Oh."

"Want something to eat?"

"Yeah. Sure."

His brother led him to the kitchen.

"Lots of roast beef here. Makes a good sandwich."

"Great. How's business?"

"Oh, I'm getting established now. It's better than it was at first."

"Good. And Claudia?"

"It's good you turned up when you did. She didn't know where to send the invitation."

"What invitation?"

"She's getting married Saturday."

"That guy from jersey?"

"Yeah. Sam. The one she was engaged to. He manages a family business. Makes pretty good money."

"Where'll the wedding be?"

"In Ridgewood. You come with me for it. I'm driving over."

"Okay. I wonder what kind of present they'd like?"

"They've got this list. I'll find it."

"Good."

Croyd went out that afternoon and bought a Dumont television set with a sixteen-inch screen, paid cash, and arranged for its delivery to Ridgewood. He visited with Bentley then, but declined a somewhat-risky-sounding job because of his apparent lack of special talent this time around. Actually, it was a good excuse. He didn't really want to work anyway, to take a chance on getting screwed up-physically or with the law-this close to the wedding.

He had dinner with Bentley in an Italian restaurant, and they sat for several hours afterward over a bottle of Chianti, talking shop and looking ahead as Bentley tried to explain to him the value of long-range solvency and getting respectable one day-a thing he'd never quite managed himself.

He walked most of the night after that, to practice studying buildings for their weak points, to think about his changed family. Sometime after midnight, as he was passing up Central Park West, a strong itching sensation began on his chest and spread about his entire body. After a minute, he had to halt and scratch himself violently. Allergies were becoming very fashionable about this time, and he wondered whether his new incarnation had brought him a sensitivity to something in the park.

He turned west at the first opportunity and left the area as quickly as possible. After about ten minutes the itching waned. Within a half-hour it had vanished completely. His hands and face felt as if they were chapped, however.

At about four in the morning he stopped in an all-night diner off Times Square, where he ate slowly and steadily and read a copy of Time magazine which someone had left in a booth. It's medical section contained an article on suicide among jokers, which depressed him considerably. The quotations it contained reminded him of things he had heard said by many people with whom he was acquainted, causing him to wonder whether any of them were among the interviewees. He understood the feelings too well, though he could not share them fully, knowing that no matter what he drew he would always be dealt a new wild card the next time aroundand that more often than not it was an ace.

All of his joints creaked when he rose, and he felt a sharp pain between his shoulder blades. His feet felt swollen, also. He returned home before daybreak, feeling feverish. In the bathroom, he soaked a washcloth to hold against his forehead. He noted in the mirror that his face seemed swollen. He sat in the easy chair in his bedroom until he heard Carl and Claudia moving about. When he rose to join them for breakfast his limbs felt leaden, and his joints creaked again as he descended the stairway.

Claudia, slim and blond, embraced him when he entered the kitchen. Then she studied his new face.

"You look tired, Croyd," she said.

"Don't say that," he responded. "I can't get tired this soon. It's two days till your wedding, and I'm going to make it."

"You can rest without sleeping, though, can't you?" He nodded.

"Then, take it easy. I know it must be hard… Come on, let's eat."

As they were sipping their coffee, Carl asked, "You want to come into the office with me, see the setup I've got now?"

"Another time," Croyd answered. "I've got some errands."

"Sure. Maybe tomorrow"

"Maybe so."

Carl left shortly after that. Claudia refilled Croyd's cup. "We hardly see you anymore," she said.

"Yeah. Well, you know how it is. I sleep-sometimes months. When I wake up I'm not always real pretty. Other times, I have to hustle to pay the bills."

"We've appreciated it," she said. "It's hard to understand. You're the baby, but you look like a grown man. You act like one. You didn't get your full share of being a kid."

He smiled.

"So what are you-an old lady? Here you are just seventeen, and you're getting married."

She smiled back.

"He's a nice guy, Croyd. I know we're going to be happy."

"Good. I hope so. Listen, if you ever want to reach me I'm going to give you the name of a place where you can leave a message. I can't always be prompt, though."

"I understand. What is it that you do, anyway?"

"I've been in and out of a lot of different businesses. Right now I'm between jobs. I'm taking it easy this time, for your wedding. What's he like, anyhow?"

"Oh, very respectable and proper. Went to Princeton. Was a captain in the Army."

"Europe? The Pacific?"

"Washington."

"Oh. Well-connected." She nodded.

"Old family," she said.

"Well… Good," he said. "You know I wish you happiness."

She rose and embraced him again. "I've missed you," she said.

"Me, too."

"I've got errands to run, too, now. I'll see you later."

"Yes."

"You take it easy today."

When she left he stretched his arms as far as they would go, trying to relieve the ache in his shoulders. His shirt tore down the back as he did this. He looked in the hall mirror. His shoulders were wider today than they had been yesterday. In fact, his entire body looked wider, huskier. He returned to his room and stripped. Most of his torso was covered with a red rash. Just looking at it made him want to scratch, but he restrained himself. Instead, he filled the bathtub and soaked in it for a long while. The water level had lowered itself visibly by the time he got out. When he studied himself in the bathroom mirror he seemed even larger. Could he have absorbed some of the water through his skin? At any rate, the inflammation seemed to have vanished, though his skin was still rough in those areas where it had been prominent.

He dressed himself in clothing he had left from an earlier time when he had been larger. Then he went out and rode the subways to the clothing store he had visited the previous day.

There, he re-outfitted himself completely and rode back, feeling vaguely nauseous as the car jounced and swayed. He noted that his hands looked dry and rough. When he rubbed them, flakes of dead skin fell off like dandruff.

After he left the subway he walked on until he came to the Sarzannos' apartment building. The woman who opened the door was not Joe's mother, Rose, however.

"What do you want?" she asked.

"I'm looking for Joe Sarzanno," he said.

"Nobody here by that name. Must be someone who moved out before we moved in."

"So you wouldn't know where they went?"

"No. Ask the manager. Maybe he knows." She closed the door.

He tried the manager's apartment, but there was no answer. So he made his way home, feeling heavy and bloated. The second time that he yawned he was abruptly fearful. It seemed too soon to be going back to sleep. This transformation was more puzzling than usual.

He put a fresh pot of coffee on the stove and paced while he waited for it to percolate. While there was no certainty that he would awaken with a special power on each occasion, the one thing that had been constant was change. He thought back over all of the changes he had undergone since he had been infected. This was the only one where he had seemed neither joker nor ace, but normal. Still…

When the coffee was ready, he sat down with a cup and became aware that he had been scratching his right thigh, halfconsciously. He rubbed his hands together and more dry skin flaked off. He considered his increased girth. He thought of all the little twinges and creaks, of the fatigue. It was obvious that he was not completely normal this time, but as to what his abnormality actually constituted, he was uncertain. Could Dr. Tachyon help him? he wondered. Or at least give him some idea as to what was going on?

He called the number that he had committed to memory. A woman with a cheerful voice told him that Tachyon was out but would be back that afternoon. She took Croyd's name, seemed to recognize it, and told him to come in at three. He finished the pot of coffee; the itching had increased steadily all over his body as he sat drinking the final cup. He went upstairs and ran the water in the bathtub again. While the tub was filling he undressed and studied his body. All of his skin now had the dry, flaky appearance of his hands. Wherever he brushed himself a small flurry occurred.

He soaked for a long while. The warmth and the wetness felt good. After a time he leaned back and closed his eyes. Very good…

He sat up with a start. He had begun dozing. He had almost drifted off to sleep just then. He seized the washcloth and began rubbing himself vigorously, not only to remove all of the detritus. When he had finished he toweled himself briskly as the tub drained, then rushed to his room. He located the pills at the back of a clothing drawer and took two of them. Whatever games his body was playing, sleep was very much his enemy now.

He returned to the bathroom, cleaned the tub, dressed. It would feel good to stretch out on his bed for a time. To rest, as Claudia had suggested. But he knew that he couldn't.

Tachyon took a blood sample and fed it to his machine. On his first attempt, the needle had only gone in a short distance and stopped. The third needle, backed with considerable force, penetrated a subdermal layer of resistance and the blood was drawn.

While awaiting the machine's findings, Tachyon conducted a gross examination.

"Were your incisors that long when you awoke?" he asked, peering into Croyd's mouth.

"They looked normal when I brushed them," Croyd replied. "Have they gown?"

"Take a look."

Tachyon held up a small mirror. Croyd stared. The teeth were an inch long, and sharp looking.

"That's a new development," he stated. "I don't know when it happened."

Tachyon moved Croyd's left arm up behind his back in a gentle hammerlock, then pushed his fingers beneath the protruding scapula. Croyd screamed.

"That bad, is it?" Tachyon asked.

"My God!" Croyd said. "What is it? Is something broken back there?"

The doctor shook his head. He examined some of the skin flakes under a miscroscope. He studied Croyd's feet next. "Were they this wide when you woke up?" he asked. "No. What the hell is happening, Doc?"

"Let's wait another minute or so for my machine to finish with your blood. You've been here three or four times in the past…"

"Yes," Croyd said.

"Fortunately, you came in once right after you woke up. Another time, you were in about six hours after you awoke. On the former occasion you possessed a high level of a very peculiar hormone which I thought at the time might be associated with the change process itself. The other time six hours after awakening-you still had traces of the hormone, but at a very low level. Those were the only two times it was evident."

"So?"

"The main test in which I am interested right now is a check for its presence in your blood. Ah! I believe we have something now."

A series of strange symbols flashed upon the screen of the small unit.

"Yes. Yes, indeed," he said, studying them. "You have a high level of the substance in your blood-higher even than it was right after awakening. Hm. You've been taking amphetamines again, too."

"I had to. I was starting to get sleepy, and I've got to make it to Saturday. Tell me in plain words what this damn hormone means."

"It means that the process of change is still going on within you. For some reason you awoke before it was completed. There seems to be a regular cycle of it, but this time it was interrupted."

"Why?"

Tachyon shrugged, a movement he seemed to have learned since the last time Croyd had seen him.

"Any of a whole constellation of possible biochemical events triggered by the change itself. I think you probably received some brain stimulation as a side effect of another change that was in progress at the time you were aroused. Whatever that particular change was, it is completed-but the rest of the process isn't. So your body is now trying to put you back to sleep until it finishes its business."

"In other words, I woke up too soon?"

"Yes."

"What should I do?"

"Stop taking the drugs immediately. Sleep. Let it run its course."

"I can't. I have to stay awake for two more days-a day and a half will do, actually."

"I suspect your body will fight this, and as I said once before, it seems to know what it's doing. I think you would be taking a chance to keep yourself awake much longer."

"What kind of chance? Do you mean it might kill me-or will it just make me uncomfortable?"

"Croyd, I simply do not know. Your condition is unique. Each change takes a different course. The only thing we can trust is whatever accommodation your body has made to the virus-whatever it is within you that brings you through each bout safely. If you try to stay awake by unnatural means now, this is the very thing that you will be fighting."

"I've put off sleep lots of times with amphetamines."

"Yes, but those times you were merely postponing the onset of the process. It doesn't normally begin until your brain chemistry registers a sleep state. But now it is already under way, and the presence of the hormone indicates its continuance. I don't know what will happen. You may turn an ace phase into a joker phase. You may lapse into a really lengthy coma. I simply have no way of telling."

Croyd reached for his shirt.

"I'll let you know how it all turns out," he said.

Croyd did not feel like walking as much as he usually did. He rode the subway again. His nausea returned and this time brought with it a headache. And his shoulders were still hurting badly. He visited the drugstore near his subway stop and bought a bottle of aspirins.

He stopped by the apartment building where the Sarzannos had formerly resided, before he headed home. This time the manager was in. He was unable to help him, however, for Joe's family had left no forwarding address when they departed. Croyd glanced in the mirror beside the man's door as he left, and he was shocked at the puffiness of his eyes, at the deep circles beneath them. They were beginning to ache now, he noted.

He returned home. He had promised to take Claudia and Carl to a good restaurant for dinner, and he wanted to be in the best shape he could for the occasion. He returned to the bathroom and stripped again. He was huge, bloated-looking. He realized then that with all of his other symptoms, he had forgotten to tell Tachyon that he had not relieved himself at all since awakening. His body must be finding some use for everything that he ate or drank. He stepped on the scale, but it only went up to three hundred and he was over that. He took three aspirins and hoped that they would work soon. He scratched his arm and a long strip of flesh came away, painlessly and without bleeding. He scratched more gently in other areas and the flaking continued. He took a shower and brushed his fangs. He combed his hair and big patches of it came out. He stopped combing. For a moment he wanted to cry, but he was distracted by a yawning jag. He went to his room and took two more amphetamines. Then he recalled having heard somewhere that body mass had to be taken into account in calculating doses of medication. So he took another one, just to be safe.

Croyd found a dark restaurant and he slipped the waiter something to put them in a booth toward the rear, out of sight of most of the other diners.

"Croyd, you're really looking-unwell," Claudia had said when she'd returned earlier.

"I know," he replied. "I went to see my doctor this afternoon."

"What did he say?"

"I'm going to need a lot of sleep, starting right after the wedding."

"Croyd, if you want to skip it, I'll understand. Your health comes first. "

"I don't want to skip it. I'll be okay."

How could he say it to her when he did not fully understand it himself? Say that it was more than his favorite relative's wedding?-that the occasion represented the final rending of his home and that it was unlikely he would ever have another? Say that this was the end of a phase of his existence and the beginning of a big unknown?

Instead, he ate. His appetite was undiminished and the food was particularly good. Carl watched with the fascination of a voyeur, long after he had finished his own meal, as Croyd put away two more chateaubriands-for-two, pausing only to call for extra baskets of rolls.

When they finally rose Croyd's joints were creaking again. He sat on his bed later that evening, aching. The aspirins weren't helping. He had removed his clothing because all of his garments were feeling tight again. Whenever he scratched himself now, his skin did more than flake. Big pieces of it came away, but they were dry and pale with no signs of blood. No wonder I look pasty-faced, he decided. At the bottom of one particularly large rent in his chest he saw something gray and hard. He could not figure what it was, but its presence frightened him.

Finally, despite the hour, he phoned Bentley. He had to talk to someone who knew his condition. And Bentley usually gave good advice.

After many rings Bentley answered, and Croyd told him his story.

"You know what I think, kid?" Bentley said at last. "You ought to do what the doctor said. Sleep it off."

"I can't. Not yet. I just need a little over a day. Then I'll be all right. I can keep awake that long, but I hurt so damn much and my appearance-"

"Okay, okay. Here's what we'll do. You come by about ten in the morning. I can't do anything for you now. But I'll talk to a man I know first thing, and we'll get you a really strong painkiller. And I want to have a look at you. Maybe there's some way of playing down your appearance a bit."

"Okay. Thanks, Bentley. I appreciate it."

"It's all right. I understand. It was no fun being a dog either. G'night."

"'Night."

Two hours later, Croyd was stricken with severe cramps followed by diarrhea; also, his bladder felt as if it were bursting. This continued through the night. When he weighed himself at three-thirty he was down to 276. By six o'clock he weighed 242 pounds. He gurgled constantly. Its only benefit, he reflected, was that it kept his mind off the itching and the aches in his shoulders and joints. Also, it was sufficient to keep him awake without additional amphetamines.

By eight o'clock he weighed 216 and he realized-when Carl called him-that he had finally lost his appetite. Strangely, his girth had not decreased at all. His general body structure was unaltered from the previous day, though he was pale now to the point of albinism-and this, combined with his prominent teeth, gave him the look of a fat vampire.

At nine o'clock he called Bentley because he was still gurgling and running to the john. He explained that he had the shits and couldn't come for the medicine. Bentley said that he'd bring it by himself as soon as the man dropped it off. Carl and Claudia had already left for the day. Croyd had avoided them this morning, claiming an upset stomach. He now weighed 198.

It was near eleven o'clock when Bentley came by. Croyd had lost another twenty pounds by then and had scratched off a large flap of skin from his lower abdomen. The area of exposed tissue beneath it was gray and scaly.

"My God!" Bentley said when he saw him. "Yeah."

"You've got big bald patches."

"Right."

"I'll get you a hairpiece. Also, I'll talk to a lady I know. She's a beautician. We'll get you some kind of cream to rub in. Give you some normal color. I think you'd better wear dark glasses, too, when you go to the wedding. Tell 'em you got drops in your eyes. You're getting hunchbacked, too. When'd that happen?"

"I didn't even notice. I've been-occupied."

Bentley patted the lump between his shoulders and Croyd screamed.

"Sorry. Maybe you'd better take a pill right away."

"Yeah."

"You're going to need to wear a big overcoat, too. What size do you take?"

"I don't know-now"

"That's okay. I know someone's got a warehouse full. We'll send you a dozen."

"I've got to run, Bentley. I'm gurgling again."

"Yeah. Take your medicine and try to rest."

By two o'clock, Croyd weighed 155. The painkiller had worked fine, and he was without aches for the first time in a long while. Unfortunately, it had also made him sleepy and he had had to take amphetamines again. On the plus side, this combination gave him his first good feeling since the whole business had started, even though he knew it was fake.

When the load of coats was delivered at three-thirty he was down to 132 pounds and felt very light on his feet. Somewhere deep within him his blood seemed to be singing. He found a coat that fit him perfectly and took it back to his room, leaving the others on the sofa. The beautician-a tall, lacquered blonde who chewed gum-came by at four o'clock. She combed out most of his hair, shaved the rest, and fitted him with a hairpiece. She made up his face then, instructing him in the use of the cosmetics as she went along. She also advised him to keep his mouth closed as much as possible to hide his fangs. He was pleased with the results and gave her a hundred dollars. She observed then that there were other services she might perform for him, but he was gurgling again and had to bid her a good afternoon.

By six o'clock his guts began to ease up on him. He was down to 116 by then and still feeling very good. The itching had finally stopped also, though he had scratched more skin from his thorax, forearms, and thighs.

When Carl came in, he yelled upstairs, "What the hell are all these coats doing here?"

"It's a long story," Croyd answered. "You can have them if you want."

"Hey, they're cashmere!"

"Yeah."

"This one's my size."

"So take it."

"How you feeling?"

"Better, thanks."

That evening he felt his strength returning, and he took one of his long walks. He raised the front end of a parked car high into the air to test it. Yes, he seemed to be recovering now. With the hair and the makeup he looked like a gardenvariety fat man, so long as he kept his mouth closed. If only he'd had a little more time he'd have sought a dentist to do something about the fangs. He did not eat anything that night or in the morning. He did feel a peculiar pressure on the sides of his head, but he took another pill and it did not turn to pain.

Before he and Carl left for Ridgewood, Croyd had indulged in another soak. More of his skin had come away, but that was all right. His clothes would cover his patchwork body. His face, at least, had remained intact. He applied his makeup carefully and adjusted the hairpiece. When he was fully dressed and had put on a pair of sunglasses, he thought that he looked fully presentable. And the overcoat did minimize the bulging of his back somewhat.

The morning was brisk and overcast. His intestinal problem seemed ended. He took another pill as a prophylactic, not knowing whether there was really any remaining pain to be masked. This necessitated another amphetamine. But that was all right. He felt fine, if a bit nervous.

As they were passing through the tunnel he found himself rubbing his hands. To his dismay, a large flap of skin came loose on the back of his left hand. But even that was all right. He had remembered to bring gloves.

He did not know whether it was the pressure in the tunnel, but his head was beginning to throb again. It was not a painful sensation, merely a vicinity of heavy pressure in his ears and temples. His upper back also throbbed, and there was a movement within it. He bit his lip and a piece of it came loose. He cursed.

"What's the matter?" his brother asked. "Nothing. "

At least it wasn't bleeding.

"If you're still sick, I can take you back. Hate to have you get ill at the wedding. Especially with a stodgy bunch like Sam's gang."

"I'll be okay."

He felt light. He felt the pressure at many points within his body. The sense of strength from the drug overlaid his genuine strength. Everything seemed to be flowing perfectly. He hummed a tune and tapped his fingers on his knee.

"… oats must be worth quite a bit," Carl was saying. "They're all new."

"Sell 'em somewhere and keep the money," he heard himself saying.

"They hot?"

"Probably"

"You in the rackets, Croyd?"

"No, but I know people."

"I'll keep quiet."

"Good."

"You sort of look the part, though, you know? With that black coat and the glasses…"

Croyd did not answer him. He was listening to his body, which was telling him that something was coming free in his back. He rubbed his shoulders against the back of the seat. This made him feel better.

When he was introduced to Sam's parents, William and Marcia Kendall-a rugged-looking gray-haired man gone slightly to fat, and a well-preserved blond woman-Croyd remembered to smile without opening his mouth and to make his few comments through barely moving lips. They seemed to study him carefully, and he felt certain they would have had more to say, save that there were others waiting to be greeted.

"I want to talk to you at the reception," were William's final words.

Croyd sighed as he moved away. He'd passed. He had no intention of attending the reception. He'd be in a taxi heading back to Manhattan as soon as the service ended, be sleeping in a matter of hours. Sam and Claudia would probably be in the Bahamas before he awoke.

He saw his cousin Michael from Newark and almost approached him. The hell with it. He'd have to explain his appearance then and it wasn't worth it. He entered the church and was shown to a pew in the front, to the right. Carl would be giving Claudia away. At least he had awakened too late to be impressed as an usher himself. There was that much to be said for his timing.

As he sat waiting for the ceremony to begin he regarded the altar decorations, the stained-glass windows at either hand, the arrangements of flowers. Other people entered and were seated. He realized that he was sweating. He glanced about. He was the only one wearing an overcoat. He wondered whether the others would think that strange. He wondered whether the perspiration was causing his makeup to run. He unbuttoned his coat, let it hang open.

The sweating continued, and his feet began to hurt. Finally, he leaned forward and loosened the shoelaces. As he did, he heard his shirt tear across his back. Something also seemed to have loosened even further in the vicinity of his shoulders. Another flap of skin, he supposed. When he straightened he felt a sharp pain. He could not lean all the way back in the pew. His hump seemed to have grown, and any pressure on it was painful. So he assumed a position partway forward, bowed slightly as if in prayer. The organist began playing. More people entered and were seated. An usher conducted an elderly couple past his row and gave him a strange look as he went by.

Soon everyone was seated, and Croyd continued to sweat. It ran down his sides and his legs, was absorbed by his clothing which became blotchy, then drenched. He decided that it might be a bit cooler if he slipped his arms out of the coat's sleeves and just let it hang about his shoulders. This was a mistake, for as he struggled to free his arms he heard his garments tear in several more places. His left shoe burst suddenly, and his toes protruded grayly from its sides. A number of people glanced his way as these sounds occurred. He was grateful that he was incapable of blushing.

He did not know whether it was the heat or something psychological that set off the itching again. Not that it mattered. It was a real itch, whatever had brought it on. He had painkillers and amphetamines in his pocket, but nothing for skin irritation. He clasped his hands tightly, not to pray but to keep from scratching-though he threw in a prayer too, since the circumstances seemed about as appropriate as they came. It didn't work.

Through perspiration-beaded lashes he saw the priest enter. He wondered why the man was staring at him so. It was as if he did not approve of non-Episcopalians sweating in his church. Croyd clenched his teeth. If only he still had the power to make himself invisible, he mused. He'd fade for a few minutes, scratch like mad, then phase back and sit quietly.

By dint of sheer will he was able to hold himself steady through Mendelssohn's "March." He was unable to focus on what the priest was saying after that, but he was now certain that he was not going to be able to remain seated through the entire ceremony. He wondered what would happen if he left right then. Would Claudia be embarrassed? On the other hand, if he stayed, he was certain that she would be. He must look ill enough to justify it. Still, would it become one of those incidents that people would talk about for years afterward? ("Her brother walked out…") Perhaps he could stay a little longer.

There was movement on his back. He felt his coat stirring. He heard female gasps from behind him. Now he was afraid to move, but the itching became overpowering. He unclasped his hands to scratch, but in a final act of resistance he seized hold of the back of the pew before him. To his horror, there came a loud cracking noise as the wood splintered within his grip. There followed a long moment of silence.

The priest was staring at him. Claudia and Sam had both turned to stare at him, where he sat clutching a six-foot length of broken pew-back and knowing that he couldn't even smile or his fangs would show.

He dropped the wood and clasped himself with both arms. There were exclamations from behind as his coat slipped away. With his full strength he dug his fingers into his sides and scratched cross-body.

He heard his clothes tear and felt his skin rip all the way up to the top of his head. He saw the hairpiece fall away to his right. He threw down the clothing and the skin and scratched again, hard. He heard a scream from the rear and he knew that he would never forget the look on Claudia's face as she began to cry. But he could no longer stop. Not until his great batlike wings were unfurled, the high, pointed vanes of his ears freed, and the last remnants of clothing and flesh removed from his dark, scaled frame.

The priest began speaking again, something that sounded like an exorcism. There came shrieks and the sounds of rapid footfalls. He knew that he couldn't exit through the door where everyone else was headed, so he leapt into the air, circled several times to get a feeling of his new limbs, then covered his eyes with his left forearm and crashed out through the stainedglass window to his right.

As he beat his way back toward Manhattan he felt that it would be a long time before he saw the in-laws again. He hoped that Carl wouldn't be getting married for a while. He wondered then whether he'd ever meet the right girl himself…

Catching an updraft he soared, the breezes sobbing about him. The church looked like a disturbed anthill when he glanced back. He flew on.

WITNESS

by Walter Jon Williams

When Jetboy died I was watching a matinee of The Jolson Story. I wanted to see Larry Parks's performance, which everyone said was so remarkable. I studied it carefully and made mental notes.

Young actors do things like that.

The picture ended, but I was feeling comfortable and had no plans for the next few hours, and I wanted to see Larry Parks again. I watched the movie a second time. Halfway through, I fell asleep, and when I woke the titles were scrolling up. I was alone in the theater.

When I stepped into the lobby the usherettes were gone and the doors were locked. They'd run for it and forgotten to tell the projectionist. I let myself out into a bright, pleasant autumn afternoon and saw that Second Avenue was empty. Second Avenue is never empty.

The newsstands were closed. The few cars I could see were parked. The theater marquee had been turned off: I could hear angry auto horns some distance off, and over it the rumble of high-powered airplane engines. There was a bad smell from somewhere.

New York had the eerie feeling that towns sometimes got during an air raid, deserted and waiting and nervous. I'd been in air raids during the war, usually on the receiving end, and I didn't like the feeling at all. I began walking for my apartment, just a block and a half away.

In the first hundred feet I saw what had been making the bad smell. It came from a reddish-pink puddle that looked like several gallons of oddly colored ice cream melting on the sidewalk and oozing down the gutter.

I looked closer. There were a few bones inside the puddle. A human jawbone, part of a tibia, an eye socket. They were dissolving into a light pink froth.

There were clothes beneath the puddle. An usherette's uniform. Her flashlight had rolled into the gutter and the metal parts of it were dissolving along with her bones.

My stomach turned over as adrenaline slammed into my system. I started to run.

By the time I got to my apartment I figured there had to be some kind of emergency going on, and I turned on the radio to get information. While I was waiting for the Philco to warm up I went to check the canned food in the cupboard-a couple cans of Campbell's was all I could find. My hands were shaking so much I knocked one of the cans out of the cupboard, and it rolled off the sideboard behind the icebox. I pushed against the side of the icebox to get at the can, and suddenly it seemed like there was a shift in the light and the icebox flew halfway across the room and damn near went through the wall. The pan I had underneath to catch the ice-melt slopped over onto the floor.

I got the can of soup. My hands were still trembling. I moved the icebox back, and it was light as a feather. The light kept doing weird shifts. I could pick up the box with one hand.

The radio warmed finally and I learned about the virus. People who felt sick were to report to emergency tent hospitals set up by the National Guard all over the city. There was one in Washington Square Park, near where I was living. I didn't feel sick, but on the other hand I could juggle the icebox, which was not exactly normal behavior. I walked to Washington Square Park. There were casualties everywhere some were just lying in the street. I couldn't look at a lot of it. It was worse than anything I'd seen in the war. I knew that as long as I was healthy and mobile the doctors would put me low on the list for treatment, and it would be days before I'd get any help, so I walked up to someone in charge, told him I used to be in the Army, and asked what I could do to help. I figured if I started to die I'd at least be near the hospital.

The doctors asked me to help set up a kitchen. People were screaming and dying and changing before the doctors' eyes, and the medics couldn't do anything about it. Feeding the casualties was all they could think to do.

I went to a National Guard deuce-and-a-half and started picking up crates of food. Each weighed about fifty pounds, and I stacked six of them on top of each other and carried them off the truck in one arm. My perception of the light kept changing in odd ways. I emptied the truck in about two minutes. Another truck had gotten bogged down in mud when it tried to cross the park, so I picked up the whole truck and carried it to where it was supposed to be, and then I unloaded it and asked the doctors if they needed me for anything else.

I had this strange glow around me. People told me that when I did one of my stunts I glowed, that a bright golden aura surrounded my body. My looking at the world through my own radiance made the light appear to change.

I didn't think much about it. The scene around me was overwhelming, and it went on for days. People were drawing the black queen or the joker, turning into monsters, dying, transforming. Martial law had slammed down on the city-it was just like wartime. After the first riots on the bridges there were no disturbances. The city had lived with blackouts and curfews and patrols for four years, and the people just slipped back into wartime patterns. The rumors were insane-a Martian attack, accidental release of poison gas, bacteria released by Nazis or by Stalin. To top it all off, several thousand people swore they saw Jetboy's ghost flying, without his plane, over the streets of Manhattan. I went on working at the hospital, moving heavy loads. That's where I met Tachyon.

He came by to deliver some experimental serum he was hoping might be able to relieve some symptoms, and at first I thought, Oh, Christ, here's some fruitbar got past the guards with a potion his Aunt Nelly gave him. He was a weedy guy with long metallic red hair past his shoulders, and I knew it couldn't be a natural color. He dressed as if he got his clothes from a Salvation Army in the theater district, wearing a bright orange jacket like a bandleader might wear, a red Harvard sweater, a Robin Hood hat with a feather, plus-fours with argyle socks, and two-tone shoes that would have looked out of place on a pimp. He was moving from bed to bed with a tray full of hypos, observing each patient and sticking the needles in people's arms. I put down the X-ray machine I was carrying and ran to stop him before he could do any harm.

And then I noticed that the people following him included a three-star general, the National Guard bird colonel who ran the hospital, and Mr. Archibald Holmes, who was one of F.D.R.'s old crowd at Agriculture, and who I recognized right away. He'd been in charge of a big relief agency in Europe following the war, but Truman had sent him to New York as soon as the plague hit. I sidled up behind one of the nurses and asked her what was going on.

"That's a new kind of treatment," she said. "That Dr. Tacks-something brought it."

"It's his treatment?" I asked.

"Yeah." She looked at him with a frown. "He's from another planet."

I looked at the plus-fours and Robin Hood hat. "No kidding," I said.

"No. Really. He is."

Closer up, you could see the dark circles under his weird purple eyes, the strain that showed on his face. He'd been pushing himself hard since the catastrophe, like all the doctors here-like everyone except me. I felt full of energy in spite of only getting a few hours' sleep each night.

The bird colonel from the National Guard looked at me. "Here's another case," he said. "This is Jack Braun." Tachyon looked up at me. "Your symptoms?" he asked. He had a deep voice, a vaguely mid-European accent. "I'm strong. I can pick up trucks. I glow gold when I do it."

He seemed excited. "A biological force field. Interesting. I'd like to examine you later. After the"-an expression of distaste crossed his face-"present crisis is over."

"Sure, Doc. Whatever you like."

He moved on to the next bed. Mr. Holmes, the relief man, didn't follow. He just stayed and watched me, fiddling with his cigarette holder.

I stuck my thumbs in my belt and tried to look useful. "Can I help you with something, Mr. Holmes?" I asked. He seemed mildly surprise. "You know my name?" he said.

"I remember you coming to Fayette, North Dakota, back in '33," I said. "Just after the New Deal came in. You were at Agriculture then."

"A long time ago. What are you doing in New York, Mr. Braun?"

"I was an actor till the theaters shut down."

"Ah." He nodded. "We'll have the theaters running again soon. Dr. Tachyon tells us the virus isn't contagious."

"That'll ease some minds."

He glanced at the entrance to the tent. "Let's go outside and have a smoke."

"Suits me." After I followed him out I dusted off my hands and accepted a custom-blended cigarette from his silver case. He lit our cigarettes and looked at me over the match.

"After the emergency's over, I'd like to run some more tests with you," he said. "Just see what it is that you can do." I shrugged. "Sure, Mr. Holmes," I said. "Any particular reason?"

"Maybe I can give you a job," he said. "On the world stage. "

Something passed between me and the sun. I looked up, and a cold finger touched my neck.

The ghost of Jetboy was flying black against the sky, his white pilot's scarf fluttering in the wind.

I'd grown up in North Dakota. I was born in 1924, into hard times. There was trouble with the banks, trouble with the farm surpluses that were keeping prices down. When the Depression hit, things went from bad to worse. Grain prices were so low that some farmers literally had to pay people to haul the stuff away. Farm auctions were held almost every week at the courthouse-farms worth fifty thousand dollars were selling for a few hundred. Half Main Street was boarded up:

Those were the days of the Farm Holidays, the farmers withholding grain to make the prices rise. I'd get up in the middle of the night to bring coffee and food to my father and cousins, who were patrolling the roads to make sure nobody sold grain behind their backs. If someone came by with grain, they'd seize the truck and dump it; if a cattle truck came by, they'd shoot the cattle and toss them on the roadside to rot. Some of the local bigwigs who were making a fortune buying underpriced wheat sent the American Legion to break the farm strike, carrying axe handles and wearing their little hats-and the whole district rose, gave the legionnaires the beating of their lives, and sent them scampering back to the city.

Suddenly a bunch of conservative German farmers were talking and acting like radicals. F. D. R. was the first Democrat my family ever voted for.

I was eleven years old when I first saw Archibald Holmes. He was working as a troubleshooter for Mr. Henry Wallace in the Department of Agriculture, and he came to Fayette to consult with the farmers about something or other-price control or production control, probably, or conservation, the New Deal agenda that kept our farm off the auction block. He gave a little speech on the courthouse steps on his arrival, and for some reason I didn't forget it.

He was an impressive man even then. Well-dressed, grayhaired even though he wasn't yet forty, smoked a cigarette in a holder like F D. R. He had a Tidewater way of talking, which sounded strange to my ear, as if there was something slightly vulgar about pronouncing one's R's. Soon after his visit, things started getting better.

Years later, after I got to know him well, he was always Mr. Holmes. I never could see myself calling him by his first name.

Maybe I can trace my wanderlust to Mr. Holmes's visit. I felt there had to be something outside Fayette, something outside the North Dakota way of looking at things. The way my family saw it, I was going to get my own farm, marry a local girl, produce lots of kids, and spend my Sundays listening to the parson talk about Hell and my weekdays working in the fields for the benefit of the bank.

I resented the notion that this was all there was. I knew, perhaps only by instinct, that there was another kind of existence out there, and I wanted to get my share of it.

I grew up tall and broad-shouldered and blond, with big hands that were comfortable around a football and what my publicity agent later called "rugged good looks." I played football and played it well, dozed through school, and during the long dark winters I played in community theater and pageants. There was quite a circuit for amateur theater in both English and German, and I did both. I played mainly Victorian melodramas and historical spectaculars, and I got good notices, too.

Girls liked me. I was good-looking and a regular guy and they all thought I'd be just the farmer for them. I was careful never to have anyone special. I carried rubbers in my watch pocket and tried to keep at least three or four girls in the air at once. I wasn't falling into the trap that all my elders seemed to have planned for me.

We all grew up patriotic. It was a natural thing in that part of the world: there is a strong love of country that comes with punishing climates. It wasn't anything to make a fuss over, patriotism was just there, part of everything else.

The local football team did well, and I began to see a way out of North Dakota. At the end of my senior season, I was offered a scholarship to the University of Minnesota.

I never made it. Instead, the day after graduation in May of 1942, I marched to the recruiter and volunteered for the infantry.

No big deal. Every boy in my class marched with me. I ended up with the 5th Division in Italy, and had an awful infantryman's war. It rained all the time, there was never proper shelter, every move we made was in full view of invisible Germans sitting on the next hill with zeiss binoculars glued to their eyes, to be followed inevitably by that horrific zooming sound of an 88 coming down… I was scared all the time, and I was a hero some of the time, but most of the time I was hiding with my mouth in the dirt while the shells came whizzing down, and after a few months of it I knew I wasn't coming back in one piece, and chances were I wasn't coming back at all. There were no tours, like in Vietnam; a rifleman just stayed on the line until the war was over, or until he died, or until he was so shot up he couldn't go back. I accepted these facts and went on with what I had to do. I got promoted to master sergeant and eventually got a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts, but medals and promotions never meant as much to me as where the next pair of dry socks was coming from.

One of my buddies was a man named Martin Kozokowski, whose father was a minor theatrical producer in New York. One evening we were sharing a bottle of awful red wine and a cigarette smoking was something else the Army taught me and I mentioned my acting career back in North Dakota, and in a gush of inebriated goodwill he said, "Hell, come to New York after the war, and me and my dad will put you on the stage." It was a pointless fantasy, since at that point none of us really thought we were coming back, but it stuck, and we talked about it afterward, and by and by, as some dreams have a way of doing, it came true.

After V-E Day I went to New York and Kozokowski the elder got me a few parts while I worked an assortment of parttime jobs, all of which were easy compared to farming and the war. Theater circles were full of intense, intellectual girls who didn't wear lipstick-not wearing lipstick was supposed to be sort of daring-and they would take you home with them if you listened to them talk about Anouilh or Pirandello or their psychoanalysis, and the best thing about them was that they didn't want to get married and make little farmers. Peacetime reflexes began to come back. North Dakota started to fade away, and after a while I began to wonder if maybe the war didn't have its consolations after all.

An illusion, of course. Because some nights I'd still wake up with the 88s whistling in my ears, terror squirming in my guts, the old wound in my calf throbbing, and I'd remember lying on my back in a shellhole with mud creeping down my neck, waiting for the morphine to hit while I looked up into the sky to see a flight of silver Thunderbolts with the sun gleaming off their stubby wings, the planes hopping the mountains with more ease than I could hop out of a jeep. And I'd remember what it was like to lie there furious with jealousy that the fighter jocks were in their untroubled sky while I bled into my field dressing and waited for morphine and plasma, and I'd think, If I ever catch one of those bastards on the ground, I'm going to make him pay for this…

When Mr. Holmes started his tests he proved exactly how strong I was, which was stronger than anyone had ever seen, or even imagined. Provided I was braced well enough, I could lift up to forty tons. Machine-gun slugs would flatten themselves on my chest. Armor-piercing 20mm cannon shells would knock me down with their transferred energy, but I'd jump back up undamaged.

They were scared to try anything bigger than a 20mm on their tests. So was I. If I were hit with a real cannon, instead of just a big machine gun, I'd probably be oatmeal.

I had my limits. After a few hours of it I'd begin to get tired. I would weaken. Bullets began to hurt. I'd have to go off and rest.

Tachyon had guessed right when he talked about a biological force field. When I was in action it surrounded me like a golden halo. I didn't exactly control it-if someone shot a bullet into my back by surprise, the force field would turn on all by itself. When I started to get tired the glow would begin to fade.

I never got tired enough for it to fade entirely, not when I wanted it on. I was scared of what would happen then, and I always took care to make sure I got my rest when I needed it.

When the test results came in, Mr. Holmes called me in to his apartment on Park Avenue South. It was a big place, the entire fifth floor, but a lot of the rooms had that unused smell to them. His wife had died of pancreatic cancer back in '40, and since then he'd given up most of his social life. His daughter was off at school.

Mr. Holmes gave me a drink and a cigarette and asked me what I thought about fascism, and what I thought I could do about it. I remembered all those stiff-necked SS officers and Luftwaffe paratroops and considered what I could do about them now that I was the strongest thing on the planet.

" I imagine that now I'd make a pretty good soldier," I said.

He gave me a thin smile. "Would you like to be a soldier again, Mr. Braun?"

I saw right away what he was driving at. There was an emergency going on. Evil lived in the world. It was possible I could do something about it. And here was a man who had sat at the right hand of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who in turn sat at the right hand of God, as far as I was concerned, and he was asking me to do something about it.

Of course I volunteered. It probably took me all of three seconds.

Mr. Holmes shook my hand. Then he asked me another question. "How do you feel about working with a colored man?"

I shrugged.

He smiled. "Good," he said. "In that case, I'll have to introduce you to Jetboy's ghost."

I must have stared. His smile broadened. "Actually, his name is Earl Sanderson. He's quite a fellow."

Oddly enough, I knew the name. "The Sanderson who used to play ball for Rutgers? Hell of an athlete."

Mr. Holmes seemed startled. Maybe he didn't follow sports. "Oh," he said. "I think you'll find he's a little more than that. "

Earl Sanderson, Jr., was born into a life far different from mine, in Harlem, New York City. He was eleven years older than I, and maybe I never caught up to him.

Earl, Sr., was a railway car porter, a smart man, selfeducated, an admirer of Fredrick Douglass and Du Bois. He was a charter member of the Niagara Movement-which became the NAACP-and later of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. A tough, smart man, thoroughly at home in the combustive Harlem of the time.

Earl, Jr., was a brilliant youth, and his father urged him not to waste it. In high school he was outstanding as a scholar and athlete, and when he followed Paul Robeson's footsteps to Rutgers in 1930 he had his choice of scholarships.

Two years into college, he joined the Communist party. When I knew him later, he made it sound like the only reasonable choice.

"The Depression was only getting worse," he told me. "The cops were shooting union organizers all over the country, and white people were finding out what it was like to be as poor as the colored. All we got out of Russia at the time were pictures of factories working at full capacity, and here in the States the factories were closed and the workers were starving. I thought it was only a matter of time before the revolution. The CP were the only people working for the unions who were also working for equality. They had a slogan, `Black and white, unite and fight,' and that sounded right to me. They didn't give a damn about the color bar-they'd look you in the eye and call you `comrade.' Which was more than I ever got from anyone else."

He had all the good reasons in the world for joining the CP in 1931. Later all those good reasons would rise up and wreck us all.

I'm not sure why Earl Sanderson married Lillian, but I understand well enough why Lillian chased Earl for all those years. "Jack," she told me, "he just glowed."

Lillian Abbott met Earl when he was a junior in high school. After that first meeting, she spent every spare minute with him. Bought his newspapers, paid his way into the theaters with her pocket change, attended radical meetings. Cheered him at sporting events. She joined the CP a month after he did. And a few weeks after he left Rutgers, summa cum laude, she married him.

"I didn't give Earl any choice," she said. "The only way he'd ever get me to be quiet about it was to marry me." Neither of them knew what they were getting into, of course. Earl was wrapped up in issues that were larger than himself, in the revolution he thought was coming, and maybe he thought Lillian deserved a little happiness in this time of bitterness. It didn't cost him anything to say yes.

It cost Lillian just about everything.

Two months after his marriage Earl was on a boat to the Soviet Union, to study at Lenin University for a year, learning to be a proper agent of the Comintern. Lillian stayed at home, working in her mother's shop, attending party meetings that seemed a little lackluster without Earl. Learning, without any great enthusiasm for the task, how to be a revolutionary's wife.

After a year in Russia, Earl went to Columbia for his law degree. Lillian supported him until he graduated and went to work as counsel for A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, one of the most radical unions in America. Earl, Sr., must have been proud.

As the Depression eased, Earl's commitment to the CP waned-maybe the revolution wasn't coming, after all. The GM strike was solved in favor of the CIO when Earl was learning to be a revolutionary in Russia. The Brotherhood won its recognition from the Pullman Company in 1938, and Randolph finally started drawing a salary-he'd worked all those years for free. The union and Randolph were taking up a lot of Earl's time, and his attendance at party meetings began to slide.

When the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed, Earl resigned from the CP in anger. Accommodation with the fascists was not his style.

Earl told me that after Pearl Harbor, the Depression ended for white people when the hiring at defense plants started, but few blacks were given jobs. Randolph and his people finally had enough. Randolph threatened a railway strike right in the middle of wartime-that was to be combined with a march on Washington. E D. R. sent his troubleshooter, Archibald Holmes, to work out a settlement. It resulted in Executive Order 8802, in which government contractors were forbidden to discriminate on account of race. It was one of the landmark pieces of legislation in the history of civil rights, and one of the greatest successes in Earl's career. Earl always spoke of it as one of his proudest accomplishments.

The week after Order 8802, Earl's draft classification was changed to 1-A. His work with the rail union wasn't going to protect him. The government was taking its revenge.

Earl decided to volunteer for the Air Corps. He'd always wanted to fly.

Earl was old for a pilot, but he was still an athlete and his conditioning got him past the physical. His record was labeled PAF, meaning Premature Anti-Fascist, which was the official designation for anyone who was unreliable enough not to like Hitler prior to 1941.

He was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group, an all-black unit. The screening process for the black fliers was so severe that the unit ended up full of professors, ministers, doctors, lawyers-and all these bright people demonstrated first-rate pilots' reflexes as well. Because none of the air groups overseas wanted black pilots, the group remained at Tuskegee for months and months of training. Eventually they received three times as much training as the average group, and when they were finally moved, to bases in Italy, the group known as "the Lonely Eagles" exploded over the European Theater.

They flew their Thunderbolts over Germany and the Balkan countries, including the toughest targets. They flew over fifteen thousand sorties and, during that time, not a single escorted bomber was lost to the Luftwaffe. After word got out, bomber groups began asking specifically for the 332nd to escort their planes.

One of their top fliers was Earl Sanderson, who ended the war with fifty-three "unconfirmed" kills. The kills were unconfirmed because records were not kept for the black squadrons-the military was afraid the black pilots might get larger totals than the whites. Their fear was justified-that number put Earl above every American pilot but Jetboy, who was another powerful exception to a lot of rules.

On the day Jetboy died, Earl had come home from work with what he thought was a bad case of the flu, and the next day he woke up a black ace.

He could fly, apparently by an act of will, up to five hundred miles per hour. Tachyon called it "projection telekinesis."

Earl was pretty tough, too, though not as tough as I waslike me, bullets bounced off him. But cannon rounds could hurt him, and I know he dreaded the possibility of midair collision with a plane.

And he could project a wall of force in front of him, a kind of traveling shock wave that could sweep anything out of his path. Men, vehicles, walls. A sound like a clap of thunder and they'd be thrown a hundred feet.

Earl spent a couple weeks testing his talents before letting the world knowing about them, flying over the city in his pilot's helmet, black leather flying jacket, and boots. When he finally let people know, Mr. Holmes was one of the first to call.

I met Earl the day after I'd signed on with Mr. Holmes. By then I'd moved into one of Mr. Holmes's spare rooms and had been given a key to the apartment. I was moving up in the world.

I recognized him right away. "Earl Sanderson," I said, before Mr. Holmes could introduce us. I shook his hand. "I remember reading about you when you played for Rutgers."

Earl took that in stride. "You have a good memory," he said.

We sat down, and Mr. Holmes explained formally what he wanted with us, and with others he hoped to recruit later. Earl felt strongly about the term "ace," meaning someone with useful abilities, as opposed to "joker," meaning someone who was badly disfigured by the virus-Earl felt the terms imposed a class system on those who got the wild card, and didn't want to set us at the top of some kind of social pyramid. Mr. Holmes officially named our team the Exotics for Democracy. We were to become visible symbols of American postwar ideals, to lend credit to the American attempt to rebuild Europe and Asia, to continue the fight against fascism and intolerance.

The U.S. was going to create a postwar Golden Age, and was going to share it with the rest of the world. We were going to be its symbol.

It sounded great. I wanted in.

With Earl the decision came a little harder. Holmes had talked to him before and had asked him to make the same kind of deal that Branch Rickey later asked of Jackie Robinson: Earl had to stay out of domestic politics. He had to announce that he'd broken with Stalin and Marxism, that he was committed to peaceful change. He was asked to keep his temper under control, to absorb the inevitable anger, racism, and condescension, and to do it without retaliation.

Earl told me later how he struggled with himself. He knew his powers by then, and he knew he could change things simply by being present where important things were going on. Southern cops wouldn't be able to smash up integration meetings if someone present could flatten whole companies of state troopers. Strikebreakers would go flying before his wave of force. If he decided to integrate somebody's restaurant, the entire Marine Corps couldn't throw him out-not without destroying the building, anyway.

But Mr. Holmes had pointed out that if he used his powers in that way, it wouldn't be Earl Sanderson who would pay the penalty. If Earl Sanderson were seen reacting violently to provocation, innocent blacks would be strung from oak limbs throughout the country.

Earl gave Mr. Holmes the assurance he wanted. Starting the very next day, the two of us went on to make a lot of history.

The EFD was never a part of the U.S. government. Mr. Holmes consulted with the State Department, but he paid Earl and me out of his own pocket and I lived in his apartment.

The first thing was to deal with Peron. He'd gotten himself elected President of Argentina in a rigged election, and was in the process of turning himself into a South American version of Mussolini and Argentina into a refuge for fascists and war criminals. The Exotics for Democracy flew south to see what we could do about it.

Looking back on things, I'm amazed at our assumptions. We were bent on overthrowing the constitutional government of a large foreign nation, and we didn't think anything about it… Even Earl went along without a second thought. We'd just spent years fighting fascists in Europe, and we didn't see anything remarkably different in moving south and smashing them up there.

When we left, we had another man with us. David Harstein just seemed to talk himself aboard the plane. Here he was, a Jewish chess hustler from Brooklyn, one of those fasttalking curly-haired young guys that you saw all over New York selling flood insurance or used auto tires or custom suits made of some new miracle fiber that was just as good as cashmere, and suddenly he was a member of EFD and calling a lot of the shots. You couldn't help but like him. You couldn't help but agree with him.

He was an exotic, all right. He exuded pheromones that made you feel friendly with him and with the world, that created an atmosphere of bonhomie and suggestibility. He could talk an Albanian Stalinist into standing on his head and singing "The Star-Spangled Banner"-at least, as long as he and his pheromones were in the room. Afterward, when our Albanian Stalinist returned to his senses, he'd promptly denounce himself and have himself shot.

We decided to keep David's powers a secret. We spread a story that he was some kind of sneaky superman, like The Shadow on radio, and that he was our scout. Actually he'd just get into conferences with people and make them agree with us. It worked pretty well.

Peron hadn't consolidated his power yet, having only been in office four months. It took us two weeks to organize the coup that got rid of him. Harstein and Mr. Holmes would go into meetings with army officers, and before they were done the colonels would be swearing to have Peron's head on a plate, and even after they began to think better of things, their sense of honor wouldn't let them back down on their promises.

On the morning before the coup, I found out some of my limitations. I'd read the comics when I was in the Army, and I'd seen how, when the bad guys were trying to speed away in their cars, Superman would jump in front of the car, and the car would bounce off him.

I tried that in Argentina. There was a Peronist major who had to be kept from getting to his command post, and I jumped in front of his Mercedes and got knocked two hundred feet into a statue of Juan E himself.

The problem was, I wasn't heavier than the car. When things collide, it's the object with the least momentum that gives way, and weight is a component of momentum. It doesn'tmatter how strong the lighter object is.

I got smarter after that. I knocked the statue of Peron off its perch and threw it at the car. That took care of things. There are a few other things about the ace business that you can't learn from reading comic books. I remember comic aces gabbing the barrels of tank guns and turning them into pretzels.

It is in fact possible to do that, but you have to have the leverage to do it. You've got to plant your feet on something solid in order to have something to push against. It was far easier for me to dive under the tank and knock it off its treads. Then I'd run around to the other side and put my arms around the gun barrel, with my shoulder under the barrel, and then yank down. I'd use my shoulder as the fulcrum of a lever and bend the barrel around myself.

That's what I'd do if I was in a hurry. If I had time, I'd punch my way through the bottom of the tank and rip it apart from the inside.

But I digress. Back to Peron.

There were a couple critical things that had to be done. Some loyal Peronists couldn't be gotten to, and one of them was the head of an armored battalion quartered in a walled compound on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. On the night of the coup, I picked up one of the tanks and dropped it on its side in front of the gate, and then I just braced my shoulder against it and held it in place while the other tanks battered themselves into junk trying to move it.

Earl immobilized Peron's air force. He just flew behind the planes on the runway and tore off the stabilizers. Democracy was victorious. Peron and his blond hooker took off for Portugal.

I gave myself a few hours off. While triumphant middleclass mobs poured into the street to celebrate, I was in a hotel room with the daughter of the French ambassador. Listening to the chanting mob through the window, the taste of champagne and Nicolette on my tongue, I concluded this was better than flying.

Our image got fashioned in that campaign. I was wearing old Army fatigues most of the time, and that's the view of me most people remember. Earl was wearing tan Air Force officer's fatigues with the insignia taken off, boots, helmet, goggles, scarf, and his old leather flying jacket with the 332nd patch on the shoulder. When he wasn't flying he'd take the helmet off and put on an old black beret he kept in his hip pocket. Often, when we were asked to make personal appearances, Earl and I were asked to dress in our fatigues so everyone would know us. The public never seemed to realize that most of the time we wore suits and ties, just like everyone else.

When Earl and I were together, it was often in a combat situation, and for that reason we became best friends… people in combat become close very quickly. I talked about my life, my war, about women. He was a little more guardedmaybe he wasn't sure how I'd take hearing his exploits with white girls-but eventually, one night when we were in northern Italy looking for Bormann, I heard all about Orlena Goldoni.

"I used to have to paint her stockings on in the morning," Earl said. "I'd have to make up her legs, so it would look like she had silk stockings. And I'd have to paint the seam down the back in eyeliner." He smiled. "That was a paint job I always enjoying doing."

"Why didn't you just give her some stockings?" I asked.

They were easy enough to come by. GIs wrote to their friends and relatives in the States to send them.

"I gave her lots of pairs," Earl shrugged, "but Lena'd give 'em away to the comrades."

Earl hadn't kept a picture of Lena, not where Lillian could find it, but I saw her in the pictures later, when she was billed as Europe's answer to Veronica Lake. Tousled blond hair, broad shoulders, a husky voice. Lake's screen persona was cool, but Goldoni's was hot. The silk stockings were real in the pictures, but so were the legs under them, and the picture celebrated Lena's legs as often as the director thought he could get away with it. I remember thinking how much fun Earl must have had painting her.

She was a cabaret singer in Naples when they met, in one of the few clubs where black soldiers were allowed. She was eighteen and a black marketeer and a former courier for the Italian Communists. Earl took one look at her and threw caution to the winds. It was maybe the one time in his entire life that he indulged himself. He started taking chances. Slipping off the field at night, dodging MP patrols to be with her, sneaking back early in the morning and being on the flight line ready to take off for Bucharest or Ploesti…

"We knew it wasn't forever," Earl said. "We knew the war would end sooner or later." There was a kind of distance in his eyes, the memory of a hurt, and I could see how much leaving Lena had cost him. "We were grownups about it." A long sigh. "So we said good-bye. I got discharged and went back to work for the union. And we haven't seen each other since." He shook his head. "Now she's in the pictures. I haven't seen any of them."

The next day, we got Bormann. I held him by his monk's cowl and shook him till his teeth rattled. We turned him over to the representative of the Allied War Crimes Tribunal and gave ourselves a few days' leave.

Earl seemed more nervous than I'd ever seen him. He kept disappearing to make phone calls. The press always followed us around, and Earl jumped every time a camera bulb went off. The first night, he disappeared from our hotel room, and I didn't see him for three days.

Usually I was the one exhibiting this kind of behavior, always sneaking off to spend some time with a woman. Earl's doing it caught me by surprise.

He'd spent the weekend with Lena, in a little hotel north of Rome. I saw their pictures together in the Italian papers on Monday morning-somehow the press found out about it. I wondered whether Lillian had heard, what she was thinking. Earl showed up, scowling, around noon on Monday, just in time for his flight to India: He was going to Calcutta to see Gandhi. Earl wound up stepping between the Mahatma and the bullets that some fanatic fired at him on the steps of the temple-and all of a sudden the papers were full of India, with what had just happened in Italy forgotten. I don't know how Earl explained it to Lillian.

Whatever it was he said, I suppose Lillian believed him. She always did.

Glory years, these. With the fascist escape route to South America cut, the Nazis were forced to stay in Europe where it was easier to find them. After Earl and I dug Bormann out of his monastery, we plucked Mengele from a farm attic in Bavaria and we got so close to Eichmann in Austria that he panicked and ran out into the arms of a Soviet patrol, and the Russians shot him out of hand. David Harstein walked into the Escorial on a diplomatic passport and talked Franco into making a live radio address in which he resigned and called for elections, and then David stayed with him on the plane all the way to Switzerland. Portugal called for elections right afterward, and Peron had to find a new home in Nanking, where he became a military adviser to the generalissimo. Nazis were bailing out of Iberia by the dozen, and the Nazi hunters caught a lot of them.

I was making a lot of money. Mr. Holmes wasn't paying me much in the way of wages, but I got a lot for making the Chesterfield endorsement and for selling my story to Life, and I had a lot of paid speaking engagements-Mr. Holmes hired me a speechwriter. My half of the Park Avenue apartment was free, and I never had to pay for a meal if I didn't want to. I got large sums for articles that were written over my name, things like "Why I Believe in Tolerance" and "What America Means to Me," and "Why We Need the U. N." Hollywood scouts were making incredible offers for long-term contracts, but I wasn't interested just yet. I was seeing the world.

So many girls were visiting me in my room that the tenants' association talked about installing a revolving door. The papers started calling Earl "the Black Eagle," from the 332nd's nickname, "the Lonely Eagles." He didn't like the name much. David Harstein, by those few who knew of his talent, was "the Envoy." I was "Golden Boy," of course. I didn't mind.

EFD got another member in Blythe Stanhope van Renssaeler, who the papers started calling "Brain Trust." She was a petite, proper upper-crust Boston lady, high-strung as a thoroughbred, married to a scumbag New York congressman by whom she'd had three kids. She had the kind of beauty that took a while for you to notice, and then you wondered why you hadn't seen it before. I don't think she ever knew how lovely she really was.

She could absorb minds. Memories, abilities, everything. Blythe was older than me by about ten years, but that didn't bother me, and before long I started flirting with her. I had plenty of other female companionship, and everyone knew that, so if she knew anything about me at all-and maybe she didn't, because my mind wasn't important enough to absorbshe didn't take me seriously.

Eventually her awful husband, Henry, threw her out, and she came by our apartment to look for a place to stay. Mr. Holmes was gone, and I was feeling no pain after a few shots of his twenty-year-old brandy, and I offered her a bed to stay inmine, in fact. She blew up at me, which I deserved, and stormed out.

Hell, I hadn't intended her to take the offer as a permanent one. She should have known better.

So, for that matter, should I. Back in '47, most people would rather marry than burn. I was an exception. And Blythe was too high-strung to fool with-she was on the edge of nervous collapse half the time, with all the knowledge in her head, and one thing she didn't need was a Dakota farm boy pawing at her on the night her marriage ended.

Soon Blythe and Tachyon were together. It didn't do my self-esteem any good to be turned down for a being from another planet, but I'd gotten to know Tachyon fairly well, and I'd decided he was okay in spite of his liking for brocade and satin. If he made Blythe happy, that was fine with me. I figured he had to have something right with him to persuade a bluestocking like Blythe to actually live in sin.

The term "ace" caught on just after Blythe joined the EFD, so suddenly we were the Four Aces. Mr. Holmes was Democracy's Ace in the Hole, or the Fifth Ace. We were good guys, and everyone knew it.

It was amazing, the amount of adulation we received. The public simply wouldn't allow us to do anything wrong. Even die-hard bigots referred to Earl Sanderson as "our colored flyboy" When he spoke out on segregation, or Mr. Holmes on populism, people listened.

Earl was consciously manipulating his image, I think. He was smart, and he knew how the machinery of the press worked. The promise he'd given with such struggle to Mr. Holmes was fully justified by events. He was consciously molding himself into a black hero, an untarnished figure of aspiration. Athlete, scholar, union leader, war hero, faithful husband, ace. He was the first black man on the cover of Time, the first on Life. He had replaced Robeson as the foremost black ideal, as Robeson wryly acknowledged when he said, "I can't fly, but then Earl Sanderson can't sing."

Robeson was wrong, by the way.

Earl was flying higher than he ever had. He hadn't realized what happens to idols when people find out about their feet of clay.

The Four Aces' failures came the next year, in '48. When the Communists were on the verge of taking over in Czechoslovakia we flew to Germany in a big rush, and then the whole thing was called off. Someone at the State Department had decided the situation was too complicated for us to fix, and he'd asked Mr. Holmes not to intervene. I heard a rumor later that the government had been recruiting some ace talents of their own for covert work, and that they'd been sent in and made a bungle of it. I don't know if that's true or not.

Then, two months after the Czechoslovakian fiasco, we were sent into China to save a billion-odd people for democracy.

It was not apparent at the time, but our side had already lost. On paper, things seemed retrievable-the generalissimos Kuomintang still held all the major cities, their armies were well equipped, compared to Mao and his forces, and it was well known that the generalissimo was a genius. If he weren't, why had Mr. Luce made him Time's Man of the Year twice?

On the other hand, the Communists were marching south at a steady rate of twenty-three point five miles per day, rain or shine, summer or winter, redistributing land as they went. Nothing could stop them-certainly not the generalissimo. By the time we were called in, the generalissimo had resigned-he did that from time to time, just to prove to everyone that he was indispensable. So the Four Aces met with the new KMT president, a man named Chen who was always looking over his shoulder lest he be replaced once the Great Man decided to make another dramatic entrance to save the country.

The U.S. position, by then, was prepared to concede north China and Manchuria, which the KMT had already lost barring the big cities. The idea was to save the south for the generalissimo by partitioning the country. The Kuomintang would get a chance to establish itself in the south while they organized for an eventual reconquest, and the Communists would get the northern cities without having to fight for them.

We were all there, the Four Aces and Holmes-Blythe was included as a scientific adviser and ended up giving little speeches about sanitation, irrigation, and inoculation. Mao was there, and Zhou En-lai, and President Chen. The generalissimo was off in Canton sulking in his tent, and the People's Liberation Army was laying seige to Mukden in Manchuria and otherwise marching steadily south, twentythree point five miles per day, under Lin Biao.

Earl and I didn't have much to do. We were observers, and mostly what we observed were the delegates. The KMT people were astonishingly polite, they dressed well, they had uniformed servants who scuttled about on their errands. Their interaction with one another looked like a minuet.

The PLA people looked like soldiers. They were smart, proud, military in the way that real soldiers are military, without all the white-glove prissy formality of the KMT The PLA had been to war, and they weren't used to losing. I could tell that at a glance.

It was a shock. All I knew about China was what I'd read in Pearl Buck. That, and the certified genius of the generalissimo.

"These guys are fighting those guys?" I asked Earl. "Those guys" -Earl was indicating the KMT crowd- "aren't fighting anyone. They're ducking for cover and running away. That's part of the problem."

"I don't like the looks of this," I said.

Earl seemed a little sad. "I don't, either," he said. He spat. "The KMT officials have been stealing land from the peasants. The Communists are giving the land back, and that means they've got popular support. But once they've won the war they'll take it back, just like Stalin did."

Earl knew his history. Me, I just read the papers. Over a period of two weeks Mr. Holmes worked out a basis for negotiation, and then David Harstein came into the room and soon Chen and Mao were grinning at each other like old school buddies at a reunion, and in a marathon negotiating session China was formally partitioned. The KNIT and the PLA were ordered to be friends and lay down their arms.

It all fell apart within days. The generalissimo, who had no doubt been told of our perfidy by ex-Colonel Peron, denounced the agreement and returned to save China. Lin Biao never stopped marching south. And after a series of colossal battles, the certified genius of the generalissimo ended up on an island guarded by the U.S. fleet-along with Juan Peron and his blond hooker, who had to move again.

Mr. Holmes told me that when he flew back across the Pacific with the partition in his pocket, while the agreement unraveled behind him and the cheering crowds in Hong Kong and Manila and Oahu and San Francisco grew ever smaller, he kept remembering Neville Chamberlain and his little piece of paper, and how Chamberlain's "peace in Europe" turned into conflagration, and Chamberlain into history's dupe, the sad example of a man who meant well but who had too much hope, and trusted too much in men more experienced in treachery than he.

Mr. Holmes was no different. He didn't realize that while he'd gone on living and working for the same ideals, for democracy and liberalism and fairness and integration, the world was changing around him, and that because he didn't change with the world the world was going to hammer him into the dust.

At this point the public were still inclined to forgive us, but they remembered that we'd disappointed them. Their enthusiasm was a little lessened.

And maybe the time for the Four Aces had passed. The big war criminals had been caught, fascism was on the run, and we had discovered our limitations in Czechoslovakia and China.

When Stalin blockaded Berlin, Earl and I flew in. I was in my combat fatigues again, Earl in his leather jacket. He flew patrols over the Russian wire, and the Army gave me a jeep and a driver to play with. Eventually Stalin backed down.

But our activities were shifting toward the personal. Blythe was going off to scientific conferences all over the world, and spent most of the rest of her time with Tachyon.

Earl was marching in civil rights demonstrations and speaking all over the country. Mr. Holmes and David Harstein went to work, in that election year, for the candidacy of Henry Wallace.

I spoke alongside Earl at Urban League meetings, and to help out Mr. Holmes I said a few nice things for Mr. Wallace, and I got paid a lot of money for driving the latest-model Chrysler and for talking about Americanism.

After the election I went to Hollywood to work for Louis Mayer. The money was more incredible than anything I'd ever dreamed, and I was getting bored with kicking around Mr.

Holmess apartment. I left most of my stuff in the apartment, figuring it wouldn't be long before I'd be back.

I was pulling down ten thousand per week, and I'd acquired an agent and an accountant and a secretary to answer the phone and someone to handle my publicity; all I had to do at this point was take acting and dance lessons. I didn't actually have to work yet, because they were having script problems with my picture. They'd never had to write a screenplay around a blond superman before.

The script they eventually came up with was based loosely on our adventures in Argentina, and it was called Golden Boy. They paid Clifford Odets a lot of money to use that title, and considering what happened to Odets and me later, that linking had a certain irony.

When they gave the script to me, I didn't care for it. I was the hero, which was just fine with me. They actually called me "John Brown." But the Harstein character had been turned into a minister's son from Montana, and the Archibald Holmes character, instead of being a politician from Virginia, had become an FBI agent. The worst part was the Earl Sanderson character-he'd become a cipher, a black flunky who was only in a few scenes, and then only to take orders from John Brown and reply with a crisp, "Yes, sir," and a salute. I called up the studio to talk about this.

"We can't put him in too many scenes," I was told. "Otherwise we can't cut him out for the Southern version." I asked my executive producer what he was talking about. "If we release a picture in the South, we can't have colored people in it, or the exhibitors won't show it. We write the scenes so that we can release a Southern version by cutting out all the scenes with niggers."

I was astonished. I never knew they did things like that. "Look," I said. "I've made speeches in front of the NAACP and Urban League. I was in Newsweek with Mary McLeod Bethune. I can't be seen to be a party to this."

The voice coming over the phone turned nasty. "Look at your contract, Mr. Braun. You don't have script approval."

"I don't want to approve the script. I just want a script that recognizes certain facts about my life. If I do this script, my credibility will be gone. You're fucking with my image, here!" After that it turned unpleasant. I made certain threats and the executive producer made certain threats. I got a call from my accountant telling me what would happen if the ten grand per week stopped coming, and my agent told me I had no legal right to object to any of this.

Finally I called Earl and told him what was going on. "What did you say they were paying you?" he asked.

I told him again.

"Look," he said. "What you do in Hollywood is your business. But you're new there, and you're an unknown commodity to them. You want to stand up for the right, that's good. But if you walk, you won't do me or the Urban League any good. Stay in the business and get some clout, then use it. And if you feel guilty, the NAACP can always use some of that ten grand per week."

So there it was. My agent patched up an understanding with the studio to the effect that I was to be consulted on script changes. I succeeded in getting the FBI dropped from the script, leaving the Holmes character without any set governmental affiliation, and I tried to make the Sanderson character a little more interesting.

I watched the rushes, and they were good. I liked my acting-it was relaxed, anyway, and I even got to step in front of a speeding Mercedes and watch it bounce off my chest. It was done with special effects.

The picture went into the can, and I went from a threemartini lunch into the wrap party without stopping to sober up. Three days later I woke up in Tijuana with a splitting headache and a suspicion that I'd just done something foolish. The pretty little blonde sharing the pillow told me what it was. We'd just got married. When she was in the bath I had to look at the marriage license to find out her name was Kim Wolfe.

She was a minor starlet from Georgia who'd been scuffling around Hollywood for six years.

After some aspirin and a few belts of tequila, marriage didn't seem like a half-bad idea. Maybe it was time, with my new career and all, that I settled down.

I bought Ronald Colman's old pseudo-English country house on Summit Drive in Beverly Hills, and I moved in with Kim, and our two secretaries, Kim's hairdresser, our two chauffeurs, our two live-in maids… suddenly I had all these people on salary, and I wasn't quite sure where they came from.

The next picture was The Rickenbacker Story. Victor Fleming was going to direct, with Fredric March as Pershing and June Allyson as the nurse I was supposed to fall in love with. Dewey Martin, of all people, was to play Richthofen, whose Teutonic breast I was going to shoot full of American lead-never mind that the real Richthofen was shot down by someone else. The picture was going to be filmed in Ireland, with an enormous budget and hundreds of extras. I insisted on learning how to fly, so I could do some of the stunts myself. I called Earl long-distance about that.

"Hey," I said. "I finally learned how to fly."

"Some farm boys," he said, "just take a while."

"Victor Fleming's gonna make me an ace."

"Jack." His voice was amused. "You're already an ace." Which stopped me up short, because somehow in all the activity I'd forgotten that it wasn't MGM who made me a star. "You've got a point, there," I said.

"You should come to New York a little more often," Earl said. "Figure out what's happening in the real world."

"Yeah. I'll do that. We'll talk about flying."

"We'll do that."

I stopped by New York for three days on my way to Ireland. Kim wasn't with me she'd gotten work, thanks to me, and had been loaned to Warner Brothers for a picture. She was very Southern anyway, and the one time she'd been with Earl she'd been very uncomfortable, and so I didn't mind she wasn't there.

I was in Ireland for seven months-the weather was so bad the shooting took forever. I met Kim in London twice, for a week each time, but the rest of the time I was on my own. I was faithful, after my fashion, which meant that I didn't sleep with any one girl more than twice in a row. I became a good enough pilot so that the stunt pilots actually complimented me a few times.

When I got back to California, I spent two weeks at Palm Springs with Kim. Golden Boy was going to premiere in two months. On my last day at the Springs, I'd just climbed out of the swimming pool when a congressional aide, sweating in a suit and tie, walked up to me and handed me a pink slip. It was subpoena. I was to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities bright and early on Tuesday. The very next day.

I was more annoyed than anything. I figured they obviously had the wrong Jack Braun. I called up Metro and talked to someone in the legal department. He surprised me by saying, "Oh, we thought you'd get the subpoena sometime soon."

"Wait a minute. How'd you know?"

There was a second's uncomfortable silence. "Our policy is to cooperate with the FBI. Look, we'll have one of our attorneys meet you in Washington. Just tell the committee what you know and you can be back in California next week."

"Hey," I said. "What's the FBI got to do with it? And why didn't you tell me this was coming? And what the hell does the committee think I know, anyway?"

"Something about China," the man said. "That was-what the investigators were asking us about, anyway."

I slammed the phone down and called Mr. Holmes. He and Earl and David had gotten their subpoenas earlier in the day and had been trying to reach me ever since, but couldn't get ahold of me in Palm Springs.

"They're going to try to break the Aces, farm boy," Earl said. "You'd better get the first flight east. We've got to talk." I made arrangements, and then Kim walked in, dressed in her tennis whites, just back from her lesson. She looked better in sweat than any woman I'd ever known.

"What's wrong?" she said. I Just pointed at the pink slip. Kim's reaction was fast, and it surprised me. "Don't do what the Ten did," she said quickly. "They consulted with each other and took a hard-line defense, and none of them have worked since." She reached for the phone. "Let me call the studio. We've got to get you a lawyer."

I watched her as she picked up the phone and began to dial. A chill hand touched the back of my neck.

"I wish I knew what was going on," I said.

But I knew. I knew even then, and my knowledge had a precision and a clarity that was terrifying. All I could think about was how I wished I couldn't see the choices quite so clearly.

To me, the Fear had come late. HUAC first went after Hollywood in '47, with the Hollywood Ten. Supposedly the committee was investigating Communist infiltration of the film industry-a ridiculous notion on the face of it, since no Communists were going to get any propaganda in the pictures without the express knowledge and permission of people like Mr. Mayer and the Brothers Warner. The Ten were all current or former Communists, and they and their lawyers agreed on a defense based on the First Amendment rights of free speech and association.

The committee rode over them like a herd of buffalo over a bed of daisies. The Ten were given contempt-of-Congress citations for their refusal to cooperate, and after their appeals ran out years later, they ended up in prison.

The Ten had figured the First Amendment would protect them, that the contempt citations would be thrown out of court within a few weeks at the most. Instead the appeals went on for years, and the Ten went to the slammer, and during that time none of them could find a job.

The blacklist came into existence. My old friends, the American Legion, who had learned somewhat more subtle tactics since going after the Holiday Association with axe handles, published a list of known or suspected Communists so that no one employer had any excuse for hiring anyone on the list. If he hired someone, he became suspect himself, and his name could be added to the list.

None of those called before HUAC had ever committed a crime, as defined by law, nor were they ever accused of crimes. They were not being investigated for criminal activity, but for associations. HUAC had no constitutional mandate to investigate these people, the blacklist was illegal, the evidence introduced at the committee sessions was largely hearsay and inadmissible in a court of law… none of it mattered. It happened anyway.

HUAC had been silent for a while, partly because their chairman, Parnell, had gotten tossed into the slammer for padding his payroll, partly because the Hollywood Ten appeals were still going through the court. But they'd gotten hungry for all that great publicity they'd gotten when they went after Hollywood, and the public had been whipped into a frenzy with the Rosenberg trials and the Alger Hiss case, so they concluded that the time was right for another splashy investigation.

HUAC's new chairman, John S. Wood of Georgia, decided to go after the biggest game on the planet.

Us.

My MGM attorney met me at the Washington airport. "I'd advise you not to talk with Mr. Holmes or Mr. Sanderson," he said.

"Don't be ridiculous."

"They're going to try to get you to take a First or Fifth Amendment defense," the lawyer said. "The First Amendment defense won't work-it's been turned down on every appeal. The Fifth is a defense against self-incrimination, and unless you've actually done something illegal, you can't use it unless you want to appear guilty."

"And you won't work, jack," Kim said. "Metro won't even release your pictures. The American Legion would picket them all over the country."

"How do I know that I'll work if I talk?" I said. "All you have to do to get on the blacklist is be called, for crissake."

"I've been authorized to tell you from Mr. Mayer," the lawyer said, "that you will remain in his employ if you cooperate with the committee."

I shook my head. "I'm talking with Mr. Holmes tonight." I grinned at them. "We're the Aces, for heaven's sake. If we can't beat some hick congressman from Georgia, we don't deserve to work."

So I met Mr. Holmes, Earl, and David at the Statler. Kim said I was being unreasonable and stayed away.

There was a disagreement right from the start. Earl said that the committee had no right to call us in the first place, and that we should simply refuse to cooperate. Mr. Holmes said that we couldn't just concede the fight then and there, that we should defend ourselves in front of the committee-that we had nothing to hide. Earl told him that a kangaroo court was no place to conduct a reasoned defense. David just wanted to give his pheromones a crack at the committee. "The hell with it," I said. "I'll take the First. Free speech and association is something every American understands."

Which I didn't believe for a second, by the way. I just felt that I had to say something optimistic.

I wasn't called that first day-I loitered with David and Earl in the lobby, pacing and gnawing my knuckles, while Mr. Holmes and his attorney played Canute and tried to keep the acid, evil tide from eating the flesh from their bones. David kept trying to talk his way past the guards, but he didn't have any luck-the guards outside were willing to let him come in, but the ones inside the committee room weren't exposed to his pheromones and kept shutting him out.

The media were allowed in, of course. HUAC liked to parade its virtue before the newsreel cameras, and the newsreels gave the circus full play.

I didn't know what was going on inside until Mr. Holmes came out. He walked like a man who had a stroke, one foot carefully in front of the other. He was gray. His hands trembled, and he leaned on the arm of his attorney. He looked as if he'd aged twenty years in just a few hours. Earl and David ran up to him, but all I could do was stare in terror as the others helped him down the corridor.

The Fear had me by the neck.

Earl and Blythe put Mr. Holmes in his car, and then Earl waited for my MGM limousine to drive up, and he got into the back with us. Kim looked pouty, squeezed into the corner so he wouldn't touch her, and refused even to say hello.

"Well, I was right," he said. "We shouldn't have cooperated with those bastards at all."

I was still stunned from what I'd seen in the corridor. "I can't figure out why the hell they're doing this."

He fixed me with an amused glance. "Farm boys," he said, a resigned comment on the universe, and then shook his head. "You've got to hit them over the head with a shovel to get them to pay attention."

Kim sniffed. Earl didn't give any indication he'd heard. "They're power-hungry, farm boy," he said. And they've been kept out of power by Roosevelt and Truman for a lot of years. They're going to get it back, and they're drumming up this hysteria to do it. Look at the Four Aces and what do you see? A Negro Communist, a Jewish liberal, an F D.R. liberal, a woman living in sin. Add Tachyon and you've got an alien who's subverting not just the country but our chromosomes. There are probably others as powerful that nobody knows about. And they've all got unearthly powers, so who knows what they're up to? And they're not controlled by the government, they're following some kind of liberal political agenda, so that threatens the power base of most of the people on the committee right there.

"The way I figure it, the government has their own ace talents by now, people we haven't heard ou That means we can be done without-we're too independent and we're politically unsound. China and Czechoslovakia and the names of the other aces-that's an excuse. The point is that if they can break us right in public, they prove they can break anybody. It'll be a reign of terror that will last a generation. Not anyone, not even the President, will be immune."

I shook my head. I had heard the words, but my brain wouldn't accept them. "What can we do about it?" I asked. Earl's gaze held my eyes. "Not a damn thing, farm boy." I turned away.

My MGM attorney played a recording of the Holmes hearing for me that night. Mr. Holmes and his attorney, an old Virginia family friend named Cranmer, were used to the ways of Washington and the ways of law. They expected an orderly proceeding, the gentlemen of the committee asking polite questions of the gentlemen witnesses.

The plan had no relation to reality. The committee barely let Mr. Holmes talk-instead they screamed at him, rants full of vicious innuendo and hearsay, and he was never allowed to reply.

I was given a copy of the transcript. Part of it reads like this:

MR. RANKIN: When I look at this disgusting New Deal man who sits before the committee, with his smarty-pants manners and Bond Street clothes and his effete cigarette holder, everything that is American and Christian in me revolts at the sight. The New Deal man! That damned New Deal permeates him like a cancer, and I want to scream, "You're everything that's wrong with America. Get out and go back to Red China where you belong, you New Deal socialist! In China they'll welcome you and your treachery."

CHAIRMAN: The honorable member's time has expired.

MR. RANKIN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

CHAIRMAN: Mr. Nixon?

MR. NIXON: What were the names of those people in the State Department who you consulted with prior to your journey to China?

WITNESS: May I remind the committee that those with whom I dealt were American public servants acting in good faith…

MR. NIXON: The committee is not interested in their records. Just their names.

The transcript goes on and on, eighty pages of it altogether. Mr. Holmes had, it appeared, stabbed the generalissimo in the back and lost China to the Reds. He was accused of being soft on communism, just like that parlor-pink Henry Wallace, who he supported for the presidency. John Rankin of Mississippi-probably the weirdest voice on the committee accused Mr. Holmes of being part of the Jewish-Red conspiracy that had crucified Our Savior. Richard Nixon of California kept asking after names-he wanted to know the people Mr. Holmes consulted with in the State Department so that he could do to them what he'd already done to Alger Hiss. Mr. Holmes didn't give any names and pleaded the First Amendment. That's when the committee really rose to its feet in righteous indignation: they mauled him for hours, and the next day they sent down an indictment for contempt of Congress. Mr. Holmes was on his way to the penitentiary.

He was going to prison, and he hadn't committed a single crime.

"Jesus Christ. I've got to talk to Earl and David."

"I've already advised you against that, Mr. Braun."

"The hell with that. We've got to make plans."

"Listen to him, honey."

"The hell with that." The sound of a bottle clinking against a glass. "There's got to be a way out of this."

When I got to Mr. Holmes's suite, he'd been given a sedative and put to bed. Earl told me that Blythe and Tachyon had gotten their subpoenas and would arrive the next day. We couldn't understand why. Blythe never had any part in the political decisions, and Tachyon hadn't had anything to do with China or American politics at all.

David was called the next morning. He was grinning as he went in. He was going to get even for all of us.

MR. RANKIN: I would like to assure the Jewish gentleman from New York that he will encounter no bias on account of his race. Any man who believes in the fundamental principles of Christianity and lives up to them, whether he is Catholic or Protestant, has my respect and confidence.

WITNESS: May I say to the committee that I object to the characterization of "Jewish gentleman."

MR. RANKIN: Do you object to being called a Jew or being called a gentleman? What are you kicking about?

After that rocky start, David's pheromones began to infiltrate the room, and though he didn't quite have the committee dancing in a circle and singing "Hava Nagila," he did have them genially agreeing to cancel the subpoenas, call off the hearings, draft a resolution praising the Aces as patriots, send a letter to Mr. Holmes apologizing for their conduct, revoke the contempt of Congress citations for the Hollywood Ten, and in general make fools out of themselves for several hours, right in front of the newsreel cameras. John Rankin called David "America's little Hebe friend," high praise from him. David waltzed out, we saw that ear-to-ear grin, and we pounded him on the back and headed back to the Statler for a celebration.

We had opened the third bottle of champagne when the hotel dick opened the door and congressional aides delivered a new round of subpoenas. We turned on the radio and heard Chairman John Wood give a live address about how David had used mind control of the type practiced in the Pavlov Institute in Communist Russia; and that this deadly form of attack would be investigated in full.

I sat down on the bed and stared at the bubbles rising in my champagne glass.

The Fear had come again.

Blythe went in the next morning. Her hands were trembling. David was turned away by hall guards wearing gas masks.

There were trucks with chemical-warfare symbols out front. I found out later that if we tried to fight our way out, they were going to use phosgene on us.

They were constructing a glass booth in the hearing room. David would testify in isolation, through a microphone. The control of the mike was in John Wood's hands.

Apparently HUAC were as shaken as we, because their questioning was a little disjointed. They asked her about China, and since she'd gone in a scientific capacity she didn't have any answers for them about the political decisions. Then they asked her about the nature of her power, how exactly she absorbed minds and what she did with them. It was all fairly polite. Henry van Renssaeler was still a congressman, after all, and professional courtesy dictated they not suggest his wife ran his mind for him.

They sent Blythe out and called in Tachyon. He was dressed in a peach-colored coat and Hessian boots with tassels. He'd been ignoring his attorney's advice all along-he went in with the attitude of an aristocrat whose reluctant duty was to correct the misapprehensions of the mob.

He outsmarted himself completely, and the committee ripped him to shreds. They nailed him for being an illegal alien, then stomped over him for being responsible for releasing the wild card virus, and to top it all of they demanded the names of the aces he'd treated, just in case some of them happened to be evil infiltrators influencing the minds of America at the behest of Uncle Joe Stalin. Tachyon refused.

They deported him.

Harstein went in the next day, accompanied by a file of Marines dressed for chemical warfare. Once they had him in the glass booth they tore into him just as they had Mr. Holmes.

John Wood held the button on the mike and would never let him talk, not even to answer when Rankin called him a slimy kike, right there in public. When he finally got his chance to speak, David denounced the committee as a bunch of Nazis. That sounded to Mr. Wood like contempt of Congress.

By the end of the hearing, David was going to prison, too. Congress adjourned for the weekend. Earl and I were going before the committee on Monday next.

We sat in Mr. Holmes's suite Friday night and listened to the radio, and it was all bad. The American Legion was organizing demonstrations in support of the committee all around the country. There were rounds of subpoenas going out to people over the country who were known to have ace abilities-no deformed jokers got called, because they'd look bad on camera. My agent had left a message telling me that Chrysler wanted their car back, and that the Chesterfield people had called and were worried.

I drank a bottle of scotch. Blythe and Tachyon were in hiding somewhere. David and Mr. Holmes were zombies, sitting in the corner, their eyes sunken, turned inward to their own personal agony. None of us had anything to say, except Earl. "I'll take the First Amendment, and damn them all," he said. "If they put me in prison, I'll fly to Switzerland."

I gazed into my drink. "I can't fly, Earl," I said. "Sure you can, farm boy," he said. "You told me yourself." "I can't fly, dammit! Leave me alone."

I couldn't stand it anymore, and took another bottle with me and went to bed. Kim wanted to talk and I just turned my back and pretended to be asleep.

"Yes, Mr. Mayer."

"Jack? This is terrible, Jack, just terrible."

"Yes, it is. These bastards, Mr. Mayer. They're going to wreck us."

"Just do what the lawyer says, Jack. You'll be fine. Do the brave thing."

"Brave?" Laughter. "Brave?"

"It's the right thing, Jack. You're a hero. They can't touch you. Just tell them what you know, and America will love you for it."

"You want me to be a rat."

"Jack, Jack. Don't use those kind of words. It's a patriotic thing I want you to do. The right thing. I want you to be a hero. And I want you to know there's always a place at Metro for a hero."

"How many people are gonna buy tickets to see a rat, Mr. Mayer? How many?"

"Give the phone to the lawyer, Jack. I want to talk to him. You be a good boy and do what he says."

"The hell I will. "

"Jack. What can I do with you? Let me talk to the lawyer."

Earl was floating outside my window. Raindrops sparkled on the goggles perched atop his flying helmet. Kim glared at him and left the room. I got out of bed and went to the window and opened it. He flew in, dropped his boots onto the carpet, and lit a smoke.

"You don't look so good, Jack."

"I have a hangover, Earl."

He pulled a folded Washington Star out of his pocket. "I have something here that'll sober you up. Have you seen the paper?"

"No. I haven't seen a damn thing."

He opened it. The headline read: STALIN ANNOUNCES SUPPORT FOR

ACES.

I sat on the bed and reached for the bottle. "Jesus." Earl threw the paper down. "He wants us to go down. We kept him out of Berlin, for god's sake. He has no reason to love us. He's persecuting his own wild card talents over there."

"The bastard, the bastard." I closed my eyes. Colors throbbed on the backs of my lids. "Got a butt?" I asked. He gave me one, and a light from his wartime Zippo. I leaned back in bed and rubbed the bristles on my chin.

"The way I see it," Earl said, "we're going to have ten bad years. Maybe we'll even have to leave the country." He shook his head. "And then well be heroes again. It'll take at least that long."

"You sure know how to cheer a guy up."

He laughed. The cigarette tasted vile. I washed the taste away with scotch.

The smile left Earl's face, and he shook his head. "It's the people that are going to be called after us-those are the ones I'm sorry for. There's going to be a witch hunt in this country for years to come." He shook his head. "The NAACP is paying for my lawyer. I just might give him back. I don't want any organization associated with me. It'll just make it harder for them later."

"Mayer's been on the phone."

"Mayer." He grimaced. "If only those guys who run the studios had stood up when the Ten went before the committee. If they'd shown some guts none of this would ever have happened." He gave me a look. "You'd better get a new lawyer. Unless you take the Fifth." He frowned. "The Fifth is quicker. They just ask you your name, you say you won't answer, then it's over."

"What difference does the lawyer make, then?"

"You've got a point there." He gave me a ragged grin. "It really isn't going to make any difference, is it? Whatever we say or do. The committee will do what they want, either way."

"Yeah. It's over."

His grin turned, as he looked at me, to a soft smile. For a moment, I saw the glow that Lillian had said surrounded him. Here he was, on the verge of losing everything he'd worked for, about to be used as a weapon that would cudgel the civil rights movement and anti-fascism and anti-imperialism and labor and everything else that mattered to him, knowing that his name would be anathema, that anyone he'd ever associated with would soon be facing the same treatment… and he'd accepted it all somehow, saddened of course, but still solid within himself. The Fear hadn't even come close to touching him. He wasn't afraid of the committee, of disgrace, of the loss of his position and standing. He didn't regret an instant of his life, a moment's dedication to his beliefs.

"It's over?" he said. There was a fire in his eyes. "Hell, Jack," he laughed, "it's not over. One committee hearing ain't the war. Were aces. They can't take that away. Right?"

"Yeah. I guess."

"I better leave you to fix your hangover." He went to the window. "Time for my morning constitutional, anyway."

"See you later."

He gave me the thumbs-up sign as he threw a leg over the sill. "Take care, farm boy."

"You too."

I got out of bed to close the window just as the drizzle turned to downpour. I looked outside into the street. People were running for cover.

"Earl really was a Communist, Jack. He belonged to the party for years, he went to Moscow to study. Listen, darling"-imploring now-"you can't help him. He's going to get crucified no matter what you do."

"I can show him he ain't alone on the cross."

"Swell. Just swell. I'm married to a martyr. Just tell me, how are you helping your friends by taking the Fifth? Holmes isn't coming back to public life. David's hustled himself right into prison. Tachyons being deported. And Earl's doomed, sure as anything. You can't even carry their cross for them."

"Now who's being sarcastic?"

Screaming now. "Will you put down that bottle and listen to me? This is something your country wants you to do! It's the right thing!"

I couldn't stand it anymore, so I went for a walk in the cold February afternoon. I hadn't eaten all day and I had a bottle of whiskey in me, and the traffic kept hissing past as I walked, the rain drizzling in my face, soaking through my light California jacket, and I didn't notice any of it. I just thought of those faces, Wood and Rankin and Francis Case, the faces and the hateful eyes and the parade of constant insinuations, and then I started running for the Capitol. I was going to find the committee and smash them, bang heads together, make them run gabbling in fear. I'd brought democracy to Argentina, for crissake, and I could bring it to Washington the same way.

The Capitol windows were dark. Cold rain gleamed on the marble. No one was there. I prowled around looking for an open door, and then finally I bashed through a side entrance and headed straight for the committee room. I yanked the door open and stepped inside.

It was empty, of course. I don't know why I was so surprised. There were only a few spotlights on. David's glass booth gleamed in the soft light like a piece of fine crystal.

Camera and radio equipment sat in its place. The chairman's gavel glowed with brass and polish. Somehow, as I stood like an imbecile in the hushed silence of the room, the anger went out of me.

I sat down in one of the chairs and tried to remember what I was doing here. It was clear the Four Aces were doomed. We were bound by the law and by decency, and the committee was not. The only way we could fight them was to break the law, to rise up in their smug faces and smash the committee room to bits, laughing as the congressmen dived for cover beneath their desks. And if we did that we'd become what we fought, an extralegal force for terror and violence. We'd become what the committee claimed we were. And that would only make things worse.

The Aces were going down, and nothing could stop it. As I came down the Capitol steps, I felt perfectly sober. No matter how much I'd had to drink, the booze couldn't stop me from knowing what I knew, from seeing the situation in all its appalling, overwhelming clarity.

I knew, I'd known all along, and I couldn't pretend that I didn't.

I walked into the lobby next morning with Kim on one side and the lawyer on the other. Earl was in the lobby, with Lillian standing there clutching her purse.

I couldn't look at them. I walked past them, and the Marines in their gas masks opened the door, and I walked into the hearing room and announced my intention to testify before the committee as a friendly witness.

Later, the committee developed a procedure for friendly witnesses. There would be a closed session first, just the witness and the committee, a sort of dress rehearsal so that everyone would know what they were going to talk about and what information was going to be developed, so things would go smoothly in public session. That procedure hadn't been developed when I testified, so everything went a little roughly.

I sweated under the spotlights, so terrified I could barely speak-all I could see were those nine sets of evil little eyes staring at me from across the room, and all I could hear were their voices, booming at me from the loudspeakers like the voice of God.

Wood started o$; asking me the opening questions: who I was, where I lived, what I did for a living. Then he started going into my associations, starting with Earl. His time ran out and he turned me over to Kearney.

"Are you aware that Mr. Sanderson was once a member of the Communist party?"

I didn't even hear the question. Kearney had to repeat it. "Huh? Oh. He told me, yes."

"Do you know if he is currently a member?"

"I believe he split with the party after the Nazi-Soviet thing."

"In 1939."

"If that's what, when, the Nazi-Soviet thing happened. '39. I guess." I'd forgotten every piece of stagecraft I'd never known. I was fumbling with my tie, mumbling into the mike, sweating. Trying not to look into those nine sets of eyes.

"Are you aware of any Communist affiliations maintained by Mr. Sanderson subsequent to the Nazi-Soviet pact?"

"No."

Then it came. "He has mentioned to you no names belonging to Communist or Communist-affiliated groups?" I said the first thing that came into my head. Not even thinking. "There was some girl, I think, in Italy. That he knew during the war. I think her name was Lena Goldoni. She's an actress now."

Those sets of eyes didn't even blink. But I could see little smiles on their faces. And I could see the reporters out of the corner of my eye, bending suddenly over their notepads. "Could you spell the name, please?"

So there was the spike in Earl's coffin. Whatever could have been said about Earl up to then, it would have at least revealed himself true to his principles. The betrayal of Lillian implied other betrayals, perhaps of his country. I'd destroyed him with just a few words, and at the time I didn't even know what it was I was doing.

I babbled on. In a sweat to get it over, I said anything that came into my head. I talked about loving America, and about how I just said those nice things about Henry Wallace to please Mr. Holmes, and I'm sure it was a foolish thing to have done. I didn't want to change the Southern way of life, the Southern way of life was a fine way of life. I saw Gone With the Wind twice, a great picture. Mrs. Bethune was just a friend of Earl's I got photographed with. Velde took over the questioning.

"Are you aware of the names of any so-called aces who may be living in this country today?"

"No. None, I mean, besides those who have already been given subpoenas by the committee."

"Do you know if Earl Sanderson knows any such names?"

"No."

"He has not confided to you in any way?"

I took a drink of water. How many times could they repeat this? "If he knows the names of any aces, he has not mentioned them in my presence."

"Do you know if Mr. Harstein knows of any such names?" On and on. "No."

"Do you believe that Dr. Tachyon knows any such names?"

They'd already dealt with this. I was just confirming what they knew. "He's treated many people afflicted by the virus. I assume he knows their names. But he has never mentioned any names to me."

"Does Mrs. van Renssaeler know the existence of any other aces?"

I started to shake my head, then a thought hit me, and I stammered out, "No. Not in herself, no."

Velde plodded on. "Does Mr. Holmes-" he started, and then Nixon sensed something here, in the way I'd just answered the question, and he asked Velde's permission to interrupt. Nixon was the smart one, no doubt. His eager, young chipmunk face looked at me intently over his microphone.

"May I request the witness to clarify that statement?"

I was horrified. I took another drink of water and tried to think of a way out of this. I couldn't. I asked Nixon to repeat the question. He did. My answer came out before he finished.

"Mrs. van Renssaeler has absorbed the mind of Dr. Tachyon. She would know any names that he would know." The strange thing was, they hadn't figured it out about Blythe and Tachyon up till then. They had to have the big jock from Dakota come in and put the pieces together for them. I should have just taken a gun and shot her. It would have been quicker.

Chairman Wood thanked me at the end of my testimony. When the chairman of HUAC said thank you, it meant you were okay as far as they were concerned, and other people could associate with you without fear of being branded a pariah. It meant you could have a job in the United States of America.

I walked out of the hearing room with my lawyer on one side and Kim on the other. I didn't meet the eyes of my friends. Within an hour I was on a plane back to California.

The house on Summit was full of congratulatory bouquets from friends I'd made in the picture business. There were telegrams from all over the country about how brave I'd been, about what a patriot I was. The American Legion was strongly represented.

Back in Washington, Earl was taking the Fifth. He announced that he'd simply paraphrased the Fifth and would continue to refuse any answer, they cited him for contempt.

He was going to join Mr. Holmes and David in prison. People from the NAACP met with him that night. They told him to disassociate himself from the civil rights movement. He'd set the cause back fifty years. He was to stay clear in the future.

The idol had fallen. He'd molded his image into that of a superman, a hero without flaw, and once I'd mentioned Lena the populace suddenly realized that Earl Sanderson was human. They blamed him for it, for their own naivete in believing in him and for their own sudden loss of faith, and in olden times they might have stoned him or hanged him from the nearest apple tree, but in the end what they did was worse.

They let him live.

Earl knew he was finished, was a walking dead man, that he'd given them a weapon that was used to crush him and everything he believed in, that had destroyed the heroic image he'd so carefully crafted, that he'd crushed the hopes of everyone who'd believed in him… e carried the knowledge with him to his dying day, and it paralyzed him. He was still young, but he was crippled, and he never flew as high again, or as far.

The next day HUAC called Blythe. I don't even want to think about what happened then.

They didn't just listen to the Fifth and then let him go. They asked him one insinuating question after another, and made him take the Fifth to each. Are you a Communist? Earl answered with the Fifth. Are you an agent of the Soviet government? The Fifth. Do you associate with Soviet spies? The Fifth. Do you know Lena Goldoni? The Fifth. Was Lena Goldoni your mistress? The Fifth. Was Lena Goldoni a Soviet agent? The Fifth.

Lillian was seated in a chair right behind. Sitting mute, clutching her bag, as Lena's name came up again and again. And finally Earl had had enough. He leaned forward, his face taut with anger.

"I have better things to do than incriminate myself in front of a bunch of fascists!" he barked, and they promptly ruled he'd waived the Fifth by speaking out, and they asked him the questions all over again. When, trembling with rage,

Golden Boy opened two months after the hearings. I sat next to Kim at the premiere, and from the moment the film began I realized it had gone terribly wrong.

The Earl Sanderson character was gone, just sliced out of the film. The Archibald Holmes character wasn't FBI, but he wasn't independent either, he belonged to that new organization, the CIA. Someone had shot a lot of new footage. The fascist regime in South America had been changed to a Communist regime in Eastern Europe, all run by oliveskinned men with Spanish accents. Every time one of the characters said "Nazi," it was dubbed in "Commie," and the dubbing was loud and bad and unconvincing.

I wandered in a daze through the reception afterward. Everyone kept telling me what a great actor I was, what a great picture it was. The film poster said Jack Braun -A Hero America Can Trust! I wanted to vomit.

I left early and went to bed.

I went on collecting ten grand per week while the picture bombed at the box office. I was told the Rickenbacker picture was going to be a big hit, but right now they were having script problems with my next picture. The first two screenwriters had been called up before the committee and ended up on the blacklist because they wouldn't name names. It made me want to weep.

After the Hollywood Ten appeals ran out, the next actor they called was Larry Parks, the man I'd been watching when the virus hit New York. He named names, but he didn't name them willingly enough, and his career was over.

I couldn't seem to get away from the thing. Some people wouldn't talk to me at parties. Sometimes I'd overhear bits of conversation. "Judas Ace."

"Golden Rat."

"Friendly Witness," said like it was a name, or title.

I bought a Jaguar to make myself feel better.

In the meantime, the North Koreans charged across the 38th Parallel and the U.S. forces were getting crunched at Taejon. I wasn't doing anything other than taking acting lessons a couple times each week.

I called Washington direct. They gave me a lieutenant colonel's rank and flew me out on a special plane.

Metro thought it was a great publicity stunt.

I was given a special helicopter, one of those early Bells, with a pilot from the swamps of Louisiana who exhibited a decided death wish. There was a cartoon of me on the side panels, with one knee up and one arm up high, like I was Superman flying.

I'd get taken behind North Korean lines and then I'd kick ass. It was very simple.

I'd demolish entire tank columns. Any artillery that got spotted by our side were turned into pretzels. I made four North Korean generals prisoner and rescued General Dean from the Koreans that had captured him. I pushed entire supply convoys off the sides of mountains. I was grim and determined and angry, and I was saving American lives, and I was very good at it.

There is a picture of me that got on the cover of Life. It shows me with this tight Clint Eastwood smile, holding a T-34 over my head. There is a very surprised North Korean in the turret. I'm glowing like a meteor. The picture was titled Superstar of Pusan, "superstar" being a new word back then.

I was very proud of what I was doing.

Back in the States, Rickenbacker was a hit. Not as big a hit as everyone expected, but it was spectacular and it made quite a bit of money. Audiences seemed to be a bit ambivalent in their reactions to the star. Even with me on the cover of Life, there were some people who couldn't quite see me as a hero. Metro re-released Golden Boy. It flopped again.

I didn't much care. I was holding the Pusan Perimeter. I was right there with the GIs, under fire half the time, sleeping in a tent, eating out of cans and looking like someone out of a Bill Mauldin cartoon. I think it was fairly unique behavior for a light colonel. The other officers hated it, but General Dean supported me-at one point he was shooting at tanks with a bazooka himself-and I was a hit with the soldiers.

They flew me to Wake Island so that Truman could give me the Medal of Honor, and MacArthur flew out on the same plane. He seemed preoccupied the whole time, didn't waste any time in conversation with me. He looked incredibly old, on his last legs. I don't think he liked me.

A week later, we broke out of Pusan and MacArthur landed X Corps at Inchon. The North Koreans ran for it. Five days later, I was back in California. The Army told me, quite curtly, that my services were no longer necessary. I'm fairly certain it was MacArthur's doing. He wanted to be the superstar of Korea, and he didn't want to share any of the honors. And there were probably other aces-nice, quiet, anonymous aces-working for the U.S. by then.

I didn't want to leave. For a while, particularly after MacArthur got crushed by the Chinese, I kept phoning Washington with new ideas about how to be useful. I could raid the airfields in Manchuria that were giving us such trouble. Or I could be the point man for a breakthrough. The authorities were very polite, but it was clear they didn't want me.

I did hear from the CIA, though. After Dien Bien Phu, they wanted to send me into Indochina to get rid of Bao Dai. The plan seemed half-assed-they had no idea who or what they wanted to put in Bao Dai's place, for one thing; they just expected "native anticommunist liberal forces" to rise and take command-and the guy in charge of the operation kept using Madison Avenue jargon to disguise the fact he knew nothing about Vietnam or any of the people he was supposed to be dealing with.

I turned them down. After that, my sole involvement with the federal government was to pay my taxes every April.

While I was in Korea, the Hollywood Ten appeals ran out. David and Mr. Holmes went to prison. David served three years. Mr. Holmes served only six months and then was released on account of his health. Everyone knows what happened to Blythe.

Earl flew to Europe and appeared in Switzerland, where he renounced his U.S. citizenship and became a citizen of the world. A month later, he was living with Orlena Goldoni in her Paris apartment. She'd become a big star by then. I suppose he decided that since there was no point in concealing their relationship anymore, he'd flaunt it.

Lillian stayed in New York. Maybe Earl sent her money. I don't know.

Peron came back to Argentina in the mid-1950s, along with his peroxide chippie. The Fear moving south.

I made pictures, but somehow none of them was the success that was expected. Metro kept muttering about my image problem.

People couldn't believe I was a hero. I couldn't believe it either, and it affected my acting. In Rickenbacker, I'd had conviction. After that, nothing.

Kim had her career going by now. I didn't see her much. Eventually her detective got a picture of me in bed with the girl dermatologist who came over lo apply her makeup every morning, and Kim got the house on Summit Drive, with the maids and gardener and chauffeurs and most of my money, and I ended up in a small beach house in Malibu with the Jaguar in the garage. Sometimes my parties would last weeks.

There were two marriages after that, and the longest lasted only eight months. They cost me the rest of the money I'd made. Metro let me go, and I worked for Warner. The pictures got worse and worse. I made the same western about six times over.

Eventually I bit the bullet. My picture career had died years ago and I was broke. I went to NBC with an idea for a television series.

Tarzan of the Apes ran for four years. I was executive producer, and on the screen I played second banana to a chimp. I was the first and only blond Tarzan. I had a lot of points and the series set me up for life.

After that I did what every ex-Hollywood actor does. I went into real estate. I sold actors' homes in California for a while, and then I put a company together and started building apartments and shopping centers. I always used other people's money-I wasn't taking a chance on going broke again. I put up shopping centers in half the small towns in the Midwest.

I made a fortune. Even after I didn't need the money any more, I kept at it. I didn't have much else to do.

When Nixon got elected I felt ill. I couldn't understand how people could believe that man.

After Mr. Holmes got out of prison he went to work as editor of the New Republic. He died in 1955, lung cancer. His daughter inherited the family money. I suppose my clothes were still in his closets.

Two weeks after Earl flew the country, Paul Robeson and W E. B. Du Bois joined the CPUSA, receiving their party cards in a public ceremony in Herald Square. They announced they were joining the protest of Earl's treatment before HUAC.

HUAC called a lot of blacks into their committee room. Even Jackie Robinson was summoned and appeared as a friendly witness. Unlike the white witnesses, the blacks were never asked to name names. HUAC didn't want to create any more black martyrs. Instead the witnesses were asked to denounce the views of Sanderson, Robeson, and Du Bois. Most of them obliged.

Through the 1950s and most of the 1960s, it was difficult to get a grasp on what Earl was doing. He lived quietly with Lena Goldoni in Paris and Rome. She was a big star, active politically, but Earl wasn't seen much.

He wasn't hiding, I think. Just keeping out of sight. There's a difference.

There were rumors, though. That he was seen in Africa during various wars for independence. That he fought in Algeria against the French and the Secret Army. When asked,

Earl refused to confirm or deny his activities. He was courted by left-wing individuals and causes, but rarely committed himself publicly. I think, like me, he didn't want to be used again. But I also think he was afraid that he'd do damage to a cause by associating himself with it.

Eventually the reign of terror ended, just as Earl said it would. While I was swinging on jungle vines as Tarzan, John and Robert Kennedy killed the blacklist by marching past an American Legion picket line to see Spartacus, a film written by one of the Hollywood Ten.

Aces began coming out of hiding, entering public life. But now they wore masks and used made-up names, just like the comics rd read in the war and thought were so silly. It wasn't silly now. They were taking no chances. The Fear might one day return.

Books were written about us. I declined all interviews. Sometimes the question came up in public, and I'd just turn cold and say, "I decline to talk about that at this time. My own Fifth Amendment."

In the 1960s, when the civil rights movement began to heat up in this country, Earl came to Toronto and perched on the border. He met with black leaders and journalists, talked only about civil rights.

But Earl was, by that time, irrelevant. The new generation of black leaders invoked his memory and quoted his speeches, and the Panthers copied his leather jacket, boots, and beret, but the fact of his continuing existence, as a human being rather than a symbol, was a bit disturbing. The movement would have preferred a dead martyr, whose image could have been used for any purpose, rather than a live, passionate man who said his own opinions loud and clear.

Maybe he sensed this when he was asked to come south. The immigration people would probably have allowed it. But he hesitated too long, and then Nixon was President. Earl wouldn't enter a country run by a former member of HUAC. By the 1970s, Earl settled permanently into Lena's apartment in Paris. Panther exiles like Cleaver tried to make common cause with him and failed.

Lena died in 1975 in a train crash. She left Earl her money.

He'd give interviews from time to time. I tracked them down and read them. According to one interviewer, one of the conditions of the interview was that he wouldn't be asked about me. Maybe he wanted certain memories to die a natural death. I wanted to thank him for that.

There's a story, a legend almost, spread by those who marched on Selma in '65 during the voting rights crusade… that when the cops charged in with their tear gas, clubs, and dogs, and the marchers began to fall before the wave of white troopers, some of the marchers swore that they looked skyward and saw a man flying there, a straight black figure in a flying jacket and helmet, but that the man just hovered there and then was gone, unable to act, unable to decide whether the use of his powers would have aided his cause or worked against it. The magic hadn't come back, not even at such a pivotal moment, and after that there was nothing in his life but the chair in the cafe, the pipe, the paper, and the cerebral hemorrhage that finally took him into whatever it is that waits in the sky.

Every so often, I begin to wonder if it's over, if people have really forgotten. But aces are a part of life now, a part of the background, and the whole world is raised on ace mythology, on the story of the Four Aces and their betrayer. Everyone knows the Judas Ace, and what he looks like. During one of my periods of optimism I found myself in New York on business. I went to Aces High, the restaurant in the Empire State Building where the new breed of ace hangs out. I was met at the door by Hiram, the ace who used to call himself Fatman until word of his real identity got out, and I could tell right away that he recognized me and that I was making a big mistake.

He was polite enough, I'll give him that, but his smile cost him a certain amount of effort. He seated me in a dark corner, where people wouldn't see me. I ordered a drink and the salmon steak.

When the plate came, the steak was surrounded with a neat circle of dimes. I counted them. Thirty pieces of silver. I got up and left. I could feel Hiram's eyes on me the whole time. I never came back.

I couldn't blame him at all.

When I was making Tarzan, people were calling me wellpreserved. After, when I was selling real estate and building developments, everyone told me how much the job must be agreeing with me. I looked so young.

If I look in the mirror now, I see the same young guy who was scuffling the New York streets going to auditions. Time hasn't added a line; hasn't changed me physically in any way.

I'm fifty-five now, and I look twenty-two. Maybe I won't ever grow old.

I still feel like a rat. But I only did what my country told me.

Maybe I'll be the Judas Ace forever.

Sometimes I wonder about becoming an ace again, putting on a mask and costume so that no one will recognize me. Call myself Muscle Man or Beach Boy or Blond Giant or something. Go out and save the world, or at least a little piece of it.

But then I think, No. I had my time, and it's gone. And when I had the chance, I couldn't even save my own integrity. Or Earl. Or anybody.

I should have kept the dimes. I earned them, after all.

DEGRADATION RITES

by Melinda M. Snodgrass

A page of newsprint blew across the withered grass of the postage-stamp-sized park in Neuilly, and came to rest against the base of an bronze statue of Admiral D'Estaing. It flapped fitfully, like an exhausted animal pausing for breath; then the icy December wind caught it once more, and sent it skittering on its way.

The man who slumped on an iron bench in the center of the park eyed the approaching paper with the air of a person facing a monumental decision. Then, with the exaggerated care of the longtime drunk, he reached out with his foot and captured it.

As he bent down for the tattered scrap, a stream of red wine from the bottle nestled between his thighs poured down his leg. A string of curses, comprised of several different European languages, and punctuated every now and then by an odd, singsong word, poured from his lips. Capping the bottle, he mopped at the spreading stain with a large purple handkerchief, and collected the paper, the Paris edition of the Herald Tribune, and began to read. His pale lilac eyes flicked from column to column as he devoured the words.

J. Robert Oppenheimer has been charged with having Communist sympathies and with possible treason. Sources close to the Atomic Energy Commission confirm that steps are being taken to rescind his security clearance, and to remove him from the chairmanship of the commission.

Convulsively, the man crumpled the paper, leaned against the back of the bench, and closed his eyes.

"Damn them, God damn them all," he whispered in English.

As if in answer his stomach let out a loud rumble. He frowned peevishly, and took a long pull at the cheap red wine. It flowed sourly over his tongue, and exploded with burning warmth in his empty stomach. The rumblings subsided, and he sighed.

A voluminous overcoat of pale peach adorned with enormous brass buttons and several shoulder capes was thrown over his shoulders like a cloak. Beneath this he wore a sky-blue jacket, and tight blue pants which were tucked into worn, knee-high leather boots. The vest was of darker blue than either coat or pants, embroidered with fanciful designs in gold and silver thread. All of the clothing was stained and wrinkled, and there were patches on his white silk shirt. A violin and bow lay next to him on the bench, and the instrument's case (pointedly open) was on the ground at his feet. A battered suitcase was shoved beneath the bench, and a red leather shoulder bag embossed in gold leaf with a frond, two moons and a star, and a slender scalpel arranged in graceful harmony in the center lay next to it.

The wind returned, rattling the branches of the trees and ruffling his tangled, shoulder-length curls. The hair and brows were a metallic red, and the stubble which shadowed his cheeks and chin was the same unusual shade. The page of newsprint fluttered beneath his hand, and he opened his eyes and regarded it. Curiosity won out over outrage, and with a snap he shook open the paper, and resumed.

BRAIN TRUST DIES

Blythe van Renssaeler, aka Brain Trust, died yesterday at the Wittier Sanatorium. A member of the infamous Four Aces, she was committed to the Wittier Sanatorium by her husband, Henry van Renssaeler, shortly after her appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities…

The print blurred as tears filled his eyes. Slowly the moisture gathered until one tear spilled over and ran swiftly down the bridge of his long, narrow nose. It hung ludicrously on the tip, but he made no move to brush it away. He was frozen, held in an awful stasis that had nothing to do with pain. That would come later; all he felt now was a great emptiness.

I should have known, should have sensed, he thought. He laid the paper on his knee, and gently stroked the article with one slender forefinger the way a man would caress the cheek of his lover. He noticed in a rather abstract way that there was more, facts about China, about Archibald, about the Four Aces, and the virus.

And all of it wrong! he thought savagely, and his hand tightened spasmodically on the page.

He quickly straightened the paper, and resumed his stroking. He wondered if her passing had been easy. If they had removed her from that grimy cubicle, and taken her to the hospital…

The room stank of sweat and fear, and feces, and the sickly sweet odor of putrefaction, and over all floated the pungent scent of antiseptic. Much of the sweat and the fear was being generated by three young residents who huddled like lost sheep in the center of the ward. Against the south wall a screen shielded a bed from the rest of the patients, but it could not block the inhuman grunting sounds that emerged from behind this flimsy barrier.

Nearby, a middle-aged woman bent over her breviary reading the vespers service. A mother-of-pearl rosary hung from her thin fingers, and periodically drops of blood spattered on the pages. Each time it happened, her lips moved in quick prayer, and she would wipe away the gore. If her constant bIeeding had been limited to a true stigmata she might have been canonized, but she bled from every available orifice. Blood ran from her ears, matting her hair and staining the shoulders of her gown, from mouth, nose, eyes, rectum, everywhere. A worn-out doctor had dubbed her Sister Mary Hemorrhage in the lounge one night, and the resultant hilarity could only be excused on grounds of mind-numbing exhaustion. Every health-care professional in the Manhattan area had been on almost constant call since Wild Card Day, September 15, 1946, and five months of unremitting work was taking its toll.

Next was a once-handsome black man who floated in a saline bath. Two days ago he had started to shed again, and now only remnants of skin remained. His muscles gleamed raw and infected, and Tachyon had ordered he be treated like a burn victim. He had survived one such molting. It was questionable if he would survive another.

Tachyon was leading a grim procession of physicians toward the screen.

"Are you going to join us, gentlemen?" he called in his soft, deep voice, overlaid with a lilting, musical accent that was rather reminiscent of central Europe or Scandinavia. The residents shuffled reluctantly forward.

An impassive nurse pulled back the screen, revealing an emaciated old man. His eyes gazed desperately up at the doctors, and horrible muffled sounds emerged from his lips.

"An interesting case, this," said Mandel, lifting the file. "For some bizarre reason the virus is causing every cavity in this man's body to grow closed. Within a few days his lungs will be unable to pull air, nor will there be room for the proper functioning of his heart…"

"So why not end it?" Tachyon took the man's hand, noting the assenting squeeze that answered his words.

"What are you suggesting?" Mandel lowered his voice to an urgent hiss.

Tachyon enunciated each word clearly. "Nothing can be done. Would it not be kinder to spare him this lingering death?"

"I don't know what passes for medicine on your world-or maybe I do, judging from this Hell-born virus you createdbut on this world we do not murder our patients."

Tach felt the hinges of his jaw tighten in anger. "You'll put a dog or cat down mercifully, but you deny your people the only drug known to truly alleviate pain, and you force people into agonizing death. Oh… be damned to you!"

He threw back his white coat, revealing a gorgeous outfit of dull gold brocade, and seated himself on the edge of the bed. The man reached desperately up, and Tachyon gripped his hands. It was an easy matter to enter his mind.

Die, let me die, came the thought tinged with the flavor of pain and fear, and yet there was a calm certainty in the man's request.

I cannot. They will not permit it, but I can give you dreams. He moved swiftly, blocking the pain and the reasoning centers of the man's mind. In his own mind he visualized it as a literal wall built of glowing silver-white blocks of power. He gave a boost to the man's pleasure centers, allowing him to drift away in dreams of his own concocting. What he had built was temporary, it would last only a few days, but that would be long enough-before then this joker would have died.

He rose, and looked down at the man's peaceful face. "What did you do?" demanded Mandel.

He raked the other doctor with an imperious glance. "Just a bit more Hell-born Takisian magic."

With a lordly nod to the residents, he left the ward. Out in the hall, beds lined the walls, and an orderly was picking his way carefully down the passage. Shirley Dashette beckoned to him from the nurses' station. They had spent several pleasant evenings together exploring the differences and similarities between Takisian and human lovemaking, but tonight he could manage no more than a smile, and the lack of a physical response alarmed him. Maybe it was time to take a rest. "Yes?"

"Dr. Bonners would like to consult with you. The patient's in shock, and occasionally lapses into hysterics, but there's nothing physically wrong with her, and he thought-"

"That she might be one of mine." Oh God, don't let her be another joker, he groaned inwardly. I don't think I can face another monstrosity. "Where is she?"

"Room 223."

He could feel exhaustion shivering along his muscles and licking at the nerves. And close on the heels of the exhaustion came despair and self-pity. With a muttered curse he drove his fist into the top of the desk, and Shirley drew back.

"Tach? Are you all right?" Her hand was cool against his cheek.

"Yes. Of course." He forced his shoulders back and a spring into his step, and headed off down the hall. Bonners was huddled with another doctor when Tachyon pushed open the door. Bonners frowned, but seemed more than willing to allow him to take charge when the woman in the bed let out a piercing scream and arched against the restraints. Tach leaped to her side, laid a gentle hand on her forehead, and joined with her mind.

OH GOD! The election, would Riley come through? God knows he'd paid enough for it. He'd buy a victory, but he was damned if he'd buy a landslide… Mama, I'm frightened… The bite of a winter morning, and the hiss of a skate blade cutting across the ice… A hand, gripping hers… wrong hand. Where was Henry? To leave her now… how many more hours… he should be here… Another contraction coming. NO. She couldn't hear it. Mama… Henry… PAIN!

He reeled back, and came up panting against the dresser.

"Good Lord, Doctor Tachyon, are you all right?" Bonners's hand was on his arm.

"No… yes… by the Ideal." He pulled himself carefully upright. His body still ached in sympathetic memory of the woman's first anguished labor. But where in the hell had that second personality come from, that cold, hard-edged man?

Shaking off Bonners's hand, he returned to the woman and seated himself on the edge of the bed. More cautious this time, he ran swiftly through some calming and strengthening exercises, and struck out with his full psi powers. Her fragile mental defenses fell before the onslaught, and before she could sweep him up in her mental maelstrom he gripped her mind.

Like a blossom, delicate velvet trembling in a breeze with just a hint…

He forced himself out of the almost-sensual enjoyment of the mental sharing, and back to the task at hand. Now fully in command, he quickly sifted through her head. What he found added a new wrinkle to the saga of the wild card.

In the early days of the virus they had seen mostly death. Close to twenty thousand of them in the Manhattan area. Ten thousand due to the effects of the virus, another ten due to the rioting, looting, and the National Guard. Then there were the jokers: hideous monsters created from a union of the virus and their own mental constructs. And finally there were the aces. He had seen about thirty of them. Fascinating people with exotic powers-the living proof that the experiment was a success. They had created, despite the terrible toll, superbeings. And now here was a new one with a power unique among the other aces.

He withdrew, leaving only a single tendril of control like reins in the hands of an accomplished horseman. "Yes, you were quite correct, Doctor, she's one of mine."

Bonners waggled his hands in a gesture of absolute and total confusion. "But how… I mean, don't you usually… do tests?" he finished lamely.

Tach relaxed, and grinned at his colleague's confusion. "I just did. And it's the most remarkable thing; this woman has somehow managed to absorb all of her husband's knowledge and memories." His smile died as a new thought intruded. "I suppose we really ought to send someone to their home to see if poor old Henry is a mindless hulk shambling around the bedroom. For all we know she may have sucked him dry. Mentally speaking, of course."

Bonners looked decidedly queasy, and went. The other doctor left with him.

Tachyon dismissed them, and the fate of Henry van Renssaeler, from his thoughts, and concentrated on the woman on the bed. Her mind and psyche were fissured like rotten ice, and some very quick repair work would have to be done lest the personality shatter under the stress and she descend into madness. Later he would try for a more permanent construct, but it would be patchwork at best. His father would be perfect for this, the repair of broken minds being his gift. But since he was far away on Takis, she would have to depend on Tach's lesser abilities.

"There, my dear," he murmured as he began to work at the knotted sheets that kept her tied to the bed. "Let's make you a bit more comfortable, and then I'll begin teaching you some mental disciplines to keep you from going totally crazy." He reentered the full mindlink. Her mind fluttered beneath his, confused, unable to understand the magnitude of the change that had come over her.

I'm mad… it couldn't have happened… gone mad.

No, the virus…

He's really there… can't bear it.

Then don't. See, here and here, reroute and place him deep below.

NO! Take him out, away!

Not possible; control the only answer.

The ward sprang into life like a point of incandescent fire, and drew its intricate cage about "Henry."

There was a sense of wonder and peace, but he knew they were only halfway there. The ward stood because of his power, not because of any real understanding on her part; if she were to keep her sanity she would have to learn to create it herself. He withdrew. The rigidity had passed out of her body, and her breathing had become more regular. Tach returned to the task of freeing her, whistling a lilting dance tune through his teeth.

For the first time since being summoned to the room he was at leisure to look, really look, at his patient. Her mind had already delighted him, and her body set his pulse to hammering. Shoulder-length sable hair cascaded across the pillow onto the woman's breast, a perfect counterpoint to the champagne colored satin of her thin nightgown and the alabaster quality of her skin. Long, sooty lashes fluttered on her cheeks, then lifted, revealing eyes of a profound midnight blue.

She regarded him thoughtfully for a few seconds, then asked, "I know you, or do I? I don't know your face, but… feel you." Her eyes closed again, as if the confusion was too much for her.

Stroking the hair off her forehead, he replied, "I'm Doctor Tachyon, and yes, you do know me. We've shared mind."

"Mind… mind. I touched Henry's mind, but it was awful, awful!" She jerked upright, and sat quivering like some small frightened animal. "He's done such terrible, dishonorable things, I had no idea, and I thought he was-" She bit off the flow of words, and grasped for his arm. "I have to live with him now. Never be free of him. People should be more careful when they choose… it's better, I think, not to know what's behind their eyes." Her eyes closed briefly, and her brow furrowed. Suddenly the lashes were lifted, and her nails bit deep into his bicep. "I liked your mind," she announced.

"Thank you. I believe I can say with some accuracy that I have an extraordinary mind. Far and away the best you're ever likely to meet."

She chuckled, a deep, husky sound strangely at odds with her delicate looks. He laughed with her, pleased to see the color returning to her cheeks.

"Only one I'm likely to meet. Do people find you vain?" she continued in a more conversational tone, and she settled back against the pillows.

"No, not vain. Arrogant, sometimes overbearing, but never vain. You see, my face won't carry it."

"Oh, I don't know" She reached up, and drew her fingers softly down his cheek. "I think it's a nice face." He pulled prudently back although it cost him to do so. She looked hurt, and shrank in upon herself.

"Blythe, I've sent someone to check on your husband." She turned her face away, nuzzling her cheek into the pillow. "I know you feel sullied by what you've learned of him, but we have to make certain he's all right." He rose from the bed, and her hands reached out for him. He caught them, and chafed the slender fingers between his.

"I can't go back to him, I can't!"

"You can make those kind of decisions in the morning," he said soothingly. "Right now I want you to get some sleep."

"You saved my sanity."

"It was my pleasure." He gave her his best bow, and pressed the soft skin of her inner wrist to his lips. It was unconscionable behavior, but he felt pleased by his selfcontrol.

"Please come back tomorrow."

"I'll bring you breakfast in bed, and personally spoon-feed you the disgusting mess that passes for hot cereal in this establishment. You can tell me more about my wonderful mind and nice face."

"Only if you promise to reciprocate."

"You have nothing to fear on that score."

They floated in a silvery white sea held by the lightest of mental touches. It was warm and maternal and sensual all at the same time, and he was dimly aware of his body responding to the first true sharing he had experienced in months. He forced his attention back to the session. The ward hung between them like a peripatetic firefly.

Again. Can't. Hard. Necessary. Now again.

The firefly resumed its erratic course, tracing out the complex lines and whorls of a mentatic ward. There was a bulge of darkness, like a tide of stinking mud, and the ward shattered. Tachyon snapped back to his body just in time to catch Blythe as she pitched face first toward the concrete of the rooftop terrace.

His mind was aching with strain. "You must hold him."

"I can't. He hates me, and wants to destroy me." Sobs punctuated the words.

"We'll try again. "

"No!"

He gripped her, one arm about her shoulders, the other holding her slender hands. "I'll be with you. I won't let him hurt you."

She sucked in a breath, and gave a sharp nod. "Okay, I'm ready."

They began again. This time he stayed in closer link. Suddenly he became aware of a whirlpool of power sucking at his mind, his identity, drawing him ever deeper into her.

There was a feeling of rape, of violation, of loss. He broke contact, and went staggering across the roof. When he returned to a sense of his surroundings he found himself in intimate embrace with a small willow tree drooping sadly out of a concrete planter, and Blythe was sobbing miserably into her hands.

She looked absurdly young and vulnerable in her Dior coat of black wool and fur collar. The severity of the color heightened the pallor of her skin, and the tight high-standing collar made her look like a lost Russian princess. His feeling of violation dwindled in the face of her obvious distress.

"I'm sorry, so sorry. I didn't mean to. I just wanted to be closer to you."

"Never mind." He dropped a few pecking kisses onto her cheek. "We're both tired. We'll try again tomorrow."

And so they did; working day after day until by the end of the week she had solid control over her unwelcome mental passenger. Henry van Renssaeler had yet to put in a physical appearance at the hospital; instead, a discreet black maid had brought Blythe her clothes. It suited Tachyon just as well. He was pleased that the man had come through his experience unharmed, but close contact with Representative van Renssaeler's mind had brought little enjoyment, and in truth he was jealous of the man. He had a right to Blythe, mind, body, and soul, and Tachyon craved that position. He would have made her his genamiri with all honor and love, and kept her safe and protected, but such dreams were fruitless. She belonged to another man.

One evening he came late to her room to find her in bed reading. In his arms he carried thirty long-stemmed pink roses, and while she laughed and protested he began to cover her with the fragrant blossoms. Once the flower coverlet was complete he stretched out beside her.

"You devil! If you poke me with thorns…"

"I pulled them all off. "

"You're crazy. How long did that take?"

"Hours."

"And didn't you have anything better to do with your time?"

He rolled over, wrapping his arms around her. "I didn't stint my patients, I promise. I did it at weird o'clock this morning." He nuzzled her ear, and when she didn't push him away he switched to her mouth. His lips played over hers, tasting the sweetness and the promise, and excitement coursed through him when her arms tightened about his neck.

"Will you make love with me?" he whispered against her mouth.

"Is that how you ask all the girls?"

"No," he cried, stung by the laughter in her voice. He sat up, and brushed petals from his coat of dull rose.

She stripped petals from several roses. "You have quite a reputation. According to Dr. Bonners you've slept with every nurse on this floor."

"Bonners is an old busybody, and besides, some of them aren't pretty enough."

"Then you admit it." She used the denuded stem as a pointer.

"I admit I like to sleep with girls, but with you it would be different. "

She lay back, a hand over her eyes. "Oh, spare me, Lord, I've heard these words before."

"Where?" he asked, suddenly curious, for he sensed she wasn't talking about Henry.

"On the Riviera, when I was much younger and a good deal more foolish."

He cuddled in close. "Oh, tell me."

A rose slapped him on the nose. "No, you tell me about seduction on Takis."

"I prefer to do my flirting while dancing."

"Why dancing?"

"Because it's vastly romantic."

The covers were flung aside, and she began shrugging into an amber peignoir. "Show me," she commanded, opening her arms.

He slipped his arm around her waist, and took her right hand in his left. "I'll teach you Temptation. It's a very pretty waltz."

"Does it live up to its name?"

"Let's try it, and you tell me."

He alternated between humming in his light baritone and calling out instructions as they walked through the intricacies of the dance.

"My! Are all your dances so complicated?"

"Yes, it shows off what clever, graceful fellows we are."

"Let's do it again, and this time just hum. I think I've got the basic steps, and you can just shove me when I get off." "I will guide you as befits a man with his lady."

He was turning her under one arm, gazing down into her laughing blue eyes, when an outraged "hrrmph" broke the moment. Blythe gasped, and seemed to realize what a scandalous picture she presented; her feet bare, unbound hair rippling across her shoulders, her filmy lace peignoir revealing far too much of her decolletage. She scurried back to bed, and pulled the covers up to her chin.

"Archibald," she squeaked.

"Mr. Holmes," said Tachyon, recovering himself and holding out his hand.

The Virginian ignored it, and stared at the alien from beneath knotted brows. The man had been assigned by President Truman to coordinate the relief efforts in Manhattan, and they had shared podium space during several frantic press conferences in the weeks immediately following the catastrophe. He looked a lot less friendly now.

He stepped to the bed and dropped a fatherly kiss on the top of Blythe's head. "I've been out of town, and returned to find you've been ill. Nothing serious, I hope?"

"No." She laughed. It was a little too high and a little too tight. "I've become an ace. Isn't that remarkable?"

"An ace! What are your abilities-" He broke off abruptly, and stared at Tachyon. "If you'll excuse us, I'd like to speak with my goddaughter alone."

"Of course. Blythe, I'll see you in the morning."

When he returned, seven hours later, she was gone. Checked out, the desk said; an old friend of the family, Archibald Holmes, had picked her up about an hour before. For a moment he considered stopping by her penthouse, but decided it could only lead to trouble. She was Henry van Renssaeler's wife, and nothing could change that. He tried to tell himself it didn't matter, and returned to his pursuit of a young nurse up in the maternity ward.

He tried to put Blythe from his mind, but at the oddest moments he would find himself recalling the brush of her fingers across his cheek, the deep blue of her eyes, the scent of her perfume, and most of all, her mind. That memory of beauty and gentleness haunted him, for here among the psiblind he felt very isolated. One simply didn't join in telepathic communication with everyone one met, and hers had been his first real contact since his arrival on earth. He sighed and wished he could see her again.

He had rented an apartment in a converted brownstone near Central Park. It was a sultry Sunday afternoon in August 1947, and he was wandering around the single room in a silk shirt and boxer shorts. Every window stood open in the hope of catching a breeze, his teakettle was whistling shrilly on the stove, and Verdi's La Traviata blared from the phonograph. The extreme decibel level was dictated by his neighbor one floor down who was addicted to Bing Crosby albums, and who had been listening over and over again to "Moonlight Becomes You." Tachyon wished Jerry had met his current girlfriend in sunlight on Coney Island; his musical selections seemed dictated by the times and places where he met his inamoratas.

The alien had just picked up a gardenia and was debating how best to place it in the glass flower bowl when there was a knock.

"Okay, Jerry," he bellowed, lunging to the door. "I'll turn it down, but only if you agree to bury Bing. Why don't we have a truce and try something nonvocal? Glenn Miller or somebody. Just don't make me listen to that harelip anymore."

He yanked open the door, and felt his jaw drop. "I think it would be a good idea if you did turn it down," said Blythe van Renssaeler.

He stared at her for several seconds, then reached down and gave the tail of his shirt a discreet tug. She smiled, and he noticed that she had dimples. How had he missed that before? He had thought her face was indelibly printed on his mind. She waved a hand in front of his face.

"Hello, remember me?" She tried to keep her tone light, but there was a fearful intensity about her.

"Of… of course. Come in."

She didn't move. "I've got a suitcase."

"So I see."

"I've been thrown out."

"You can still come in… suitcase and all."

"I don't want you to feel… well, trapped."

He tucked the gardenia behind her ear, removed the case from her hand, and pulled her in. The flounces of her pale, peach-colored silk dress brushed against his legs, pulling the hair upright at the electric contact. Women's fashion was a pet hobby with Tachyon, and he noticed that the dress was a Dior original, the ankle-length skirt held out by a number of chiffon petticoats. He realized he could probably span her waist with his hands. The bodice was supported by two thin straps, leaving most of her back bare. He liked the way her shoulder blades moved beneath the white skin. There was an answering movement from within his jockey shorts.

Embarrassed, he darted for the closet. "Let me put on some pants. Water's ready for tea, and turn down that record."

"Do you take milk or lemon in your tea?"

"Neither. I take it over ice. I'm about to die." He padded across the room, tucking in the shirt.

"It's a lovely day."

"It's a lovely hot day. My planet is a good deal cooler than yours. "

Her eyes flickered away, and she plucked at a wisp of hair. "I know you're an alien, but it seems strange to talk about it."

"Then we won't." He busied himself with the tea while studying her surreptitiously from the corner of one eye. "You seem very composed for a woman who's just been thrown out," he finally remarked.

"I had my hoo in the back of a taxi." She smiled sadly. "Poor man, he thought he had a real nut on his hands. Especially since-" She cut off abruptly, using the acceptance of the cup as a way to avoid his searching gaze.

"Not complaining, mind you, but why did you… r.."

"Come to you?" She drifted across the room and turned down the phonograph. "This is a very sad part." He forced his attention back to the music and realized it was the farewell scene between Violetta and Alfredo. "Uh… yes, it is."

She spun to face him and her eyes were haunted. "I came to you because Earl is too absorbed with his causes and marches and strikes and actions, and David, poor boy, would have been terrified at the thought of acquiring a hysterical older woman. Archibald would have urged me to patch things up and stay with Henry-fortunately, he wasn't home when I went by, but Jack was and he wanted me… well, far too badly."

He shook his head like a stallion bedeviled by gnats. "Blythe, who are these people?"

"How can you be so ill-informed," she teased, and struck a dramatic pose-so dramatic that it made a mockery of the words. "We are the Four Aces." Suddenly she began to shake, sending tea sloshing over the rim of the cup.

Tach crossed to her, took the cup, and held her against his chest. Her tears formed a warm, wet patch on his shirt, and he reached out for her mind, but she seemed to sense his intent, and pushed him violently away.

"No, don't, not until I explain what I've done. Otherwise you're likely to get a terrific shock." He waited while she removed an embroidered handkerchief from her purse, gave her nose a resolute blow, and patted at her eyes. When she again raised her head she was calm, and he admired her dignity and control. "You must think me a typical scatterbrained female. Well, I won't bore you anymore. I'll start at the beginning and be quite logical."

"You left without saying good-bye," he broke in. "Archibald thought it best, and when he's being fatherly and commanding, I've never been able to say no to him." Her mouth worked. "Not about anything. When he learned what I could do, he told me that I had a great gift. That I could preserve priceless knowledge. He urged me to join his group." He snapped his fingers. "Earl Sanderson, and Jack Braun. "

"That's right."

He bounded up and paced the room. "They were involved in something down in Argentina, and in capturing Mengele and Eichmann, but four?"

"David Harstein, otherwise known as the Envoy-"

"I know him, I treated him only a few… never mind, go on."

"And me." She smiled with a little girl's embarrassment. "Brain Trust."

He sank back down on the couch, and stared at her. "What has he.. what have you done."

"Used my talent the way Archibald advised. Want to know anything about relativity, rocket technology, nuclear physics, biochemistry?"

"He's been sending you around the country absorbing minds," he said. Then he exploded. "Who in the hell do you have in your head?"

She joined him on the sofa. "Einstein, Salk, Von Braun, Oppenheimer, Teller, and Henry of course, but I'd like to forget about that." She smiled. "And that's the crux of the problem. Henry didn't take kindly to a wife with several Nobel prizewinners in her head, much less a wife who knew where all his skeletons were buried, so this morning he threw me out. I wouldn't mind so much if it weren't for the children. I don't know what he's going to tell them about their mother, and-oh damn," she whispered, banging her fists on her knees. "I will not start crying again."

"Anyway, I was trying to think of what to do. I had just wrestled free from Jack, and was bawling in the back of a taxi, when I thought of you." Suddenly Tachyon became aware that she was speaking German. He bit down hard, forcing his tongue against the roof of his mouth to hold back nausea. "It's silly, but in some ways I feel closer to you than I do to anyone else in the world; which is strange when you consider that you're not even from this world."

Her smile was half siren, half Mona Lisa, but there was no answering physical and emotional response. He was too sickened and angry. "Sometimes I don't understand you people at all! Have you no conception of the dangers inherent in this virus?"

"No, how can I?" she interrupted. "Henry took us out of the city within hours of the crisis, and we didn't return until he thought the danger was past." She was back to English again. "Well, he was wrong, wasn't he!"

"Yes, but that's not my fault!"

"I'm not saying it is!"

"Then what are you so angry about?"

"Holmes," he ejected. "You called him fatherly, but if he had had any affection for you at all, he would not have encouraged you in this mad course."

"What is so mad about it? I'm young, many of these men are old. I'm preserving priceless knowledge."

"At the risk of your own sanity."

"You taught me-"

"You're a humanl You're not trained to handle the stress of high-level mentatics. The techniques I taught you in the hospital to keep your personality separate from your husband's were inadequate, nowhere near strong enough."

"Then teach me what I need to know. Or cure me." The challenge brought him up short. "I can't… at least not yet. The virus is hellishly complex, working out a counter strain to nullify…" He shrugged. "To trump the wild card, if you will, may take me years. I'm one man working alone."

"Then I'll go back to Jack." She picked up the case, and lurched toward the door. It was an oddly compelling mixture of dignity and farce as the heavy bag pulled her off balance. "And if I should go mad, perhaps Archibald will find me a good psychiatrist. After all, I am one of the Four Aces."

"Wait… you can't just go."

"Then you'll teach me?"

He dug thumb and middle finger into the corners of his eyes, and gave the bridge of his nose a hard squeeze. "I'll try." The case hit the floor, and she slowly approached him. He warded her off with his free hand. "One last thing. I'm not a saint, nor one of your human monks." He gestured toward the curtained alcove that held his bed. "Someday I'll want you."

"So what's wrong with now?" She pushed aside the restraining hand, and molded her body to his. It was not a particularly lush body. In fact, it could have been described as meager, but any fault he might have found vanished as her hands cupped his face and pulled his lips down to meet hers.

"A lovely day." Tachyon sighed with satisfaction, scrubbed at his face with his hand, and stripped off his socks and underwear.

Blythe smiled at him from the bathroom mirror where she stood creaming her face. "Any earth male who heard you say that would decide you were certifiably insane. A day spent in the company of an eight-year-old, a five-year-old, and a threeyear-old is not held to be a high treat by most men."

"Your men are stupid." He stared off into space, for a moment remembering the feel of sticky hands in his pockets as a bevy of tiny cousins searched for the treats he carried there, the press of a soft, plump baby cheek against his when he went away promising most faithfully to come again soon and play. He pushed back the past, and found her intently regarding him. "Homesick?"

"Thinking."

"Homesick."

"Children are a joy and a delight," he said hurriedly before she could reopen their ongoing argument. Picking up a brush, he pulled it through his long hair. "In fact, I've often wondered if yours aren't changlings or if you cuckolded old Henry from the beginning."

Six months ago, when Blythe had been thrown from the house, van Renssaeler had instructed the servants to refuse entrance to his estranged wife, thus barring her from her children. Tach had quickly remedied that situation. Every week, when they knew the representative was away from home, they went to the penthouse apartment, Tachyon mindcontrolled the servants, and they'd spend several hours playing with Henry Jr., Brandon, and Fleur. He'd then instruct the nurse and housekeeper to forget the visit. It gave him great satisfaction to thumb his nose at the hated Henry, though for real vengeance the man should have been aware of their challenge to his authority.

Tossing the brush aside, he gathered up the evening paper and crawled into bed. On the front page was a picture of Earl receiving a medal for having saved Gandhi. Jack and Holmes stood in the background, the older man looking smug, while Jack looked ill at ease. "Here's a picture from the banquet tonight," he added. "But I still don't see why all the fuss. It was only an attempt."

"We don't share your callous attitude toward assassination." Her voice was muffled by the folds of her flannel nightgown as she pulled it over her head.

"I know, and it still seems strange." He rolled over on his side propped up on one elbow. "Do you know that until I came to earth I had never gone anywhere without bodyguards?"

The old bed squeaked a bit as she settled in. "That's terrible."

"We're accustomed to it. Assassination is a way of life among my class. It's how the families jockey for position. By the time I was twenty I had lost fourteen members of my immediate family to assassination."

"How immediate is immediate?"

"My mother… I think. I was only four when she was found at the bottom of the stairs near the women's quarters. I've always suspected my Aunt Sabina was behind it, but there was no proof."

"Poor little boy." Her hand cupped his cheek. "Do you remember her at all?"

"Just flashes. The rustle of silk and lace and the smell of her perfume mostly. And her hair, like a golden cloud." She rolled over and snuggled close, her buttocks pressing into his groin. "What else is so different between Takis and earth?" It was an obvious attempt to change the subject, and he was grateful to her. Talking about the family he had abandoned always made him sad and homesick.

"Women, for one thing."

"Are we better or worse?"

"Just different. You wander about free after you reach childbearing age. We would never allow that. A successful attack against a pregnant woman could wipe out years of careful planning."

"I think that's horrible too."

"We also don't equate sex with sin. A sin to us is casual reproduction which could upset the plan. But pleasure, now, that's another matter. For example, we take attractive young men and women from the lower class-the non-psi people and train them to service the men and women of the great households."

"Don't you ever see the women of your own class?"

"Of course. Until age thirty we grow up together, train and study together. It's only when a woman reaches childbearing years that she is secluded to keep her safe. And we still get together for family functions: balls, hunts, picnics, but all within the walls of the estate."

"How long are the little boys left with their mothers in the women's quarters?"

"All children are left until they're thirteen."

"Do they ever see each other again?"

"Of course, they're our mothers!"

"Don't be defensive. It's just very alien to me."

"So to speak," he said, snagging the gown and running his hand up her leg.

"So you have sex toys," she mused while his hands explored her body, and she fondled his stiffening penis. "Sounds like a nice idea."

"Want to be my sex toy?"

"I thought I already was."

It was a chill that brought him awake. He sat up to find Blythe gone, and the covers trailing across the floor. He became aware of voices from beyond the beaded curtain. The wind was gusting about the building, setting up a keening howl as it sought out the cracks and crevices in the windows. The hair on the back of his neck was rising, but it had nothing to do with the cold. It was those deep guttural voices from behind the curtain, reminding him of children's boogy stories of unquiet ancestor ghosts possessing the living bodies of direct descendants. He shivered, and thrust through the beads. They fell tinkling behind him, and he saw Blythe standing in the center of the room carrying on a spirited argument with herself.

"I tell you, Oppie, we must develop-"

"No! We've been over this before, our first priority is the device. We can't be sidetracked with this hydrogen bomb right now."

For a long moment Tachyon stood frozen with horror. Such things had happened before, when she was tired or under stress, but never to such an extent. He knew he had to find her quickly if she was not to be lost, and he forced himself to move. In two strides he was at her side, gripping her close, reaching for her mind. And he almost retreated in terror, for inside was a nightmarish whirlpool of conflicting personalities, all battling for supremacy while Blythe spun helplessly in the center. He plunged toward her only to be blocked by Henry. Furiously Tachyon thrust him aside, and gathered her within the protective ward of his mind. The other six personalities orbited around them, fighting the ward. Blythe's strength combined with his, and they banished Teller to his compartment, and Oppenheimer to his; Einstein retreated mumbling while Salk just seemed bemused.

Blythe slumped against him, and the sudden weight was too much for his exhausted body. His knees gave way, and he sat down hard on the wood floor, Blythe cradled in his lap. Out in the street he could hear the milkman making his deliveries, and he realized it had taken hours to restore her balance. "God damn you, Archibald," he muttered, but it seemed inadequate, as inadequate as his ability to help.

"You don't want to do that," murmured David Harstein. Tack's hand froze. "The knight would be better." The Takisian nodded, and quickly moved the chess piece. His jaw dropped as he contemplated the move.

"You cheat! Why, you miserable cheat!"

Harstein spread his hands in a helpless, placating gesture. "It was just a suggestion." The young man's tone was soft and aggrieved, but his dark brown eyes were alight with amusement.

Tachyon grunted, and wriggled back until he could lean against the sofa. "I find it rather alarming that a person of your position would stoop to using your gifts in such a despicable manner. You should be setting an example for the other aces." David grinned, and reached for his drink. "That's the public face. Surely with my creator I can fall back into my lazy, bohemian ways."

"Don't."

There was a moment of strained silence while Tach stared inward at pictures he would rather forget, and David with elaborate concentration gave the pocket pegboard chess set an infinitesimal shift to the left.

"I'm sorry."

"It's all right." He gave the younger man a soothing smile. "Let's go on with the game."

David nodded, and bent his wiry dark head over the board. Tach took a sip of his Irish coffee, and allowed the warmth to fill his mouth before swallowing. He was ashamed of his overreaction to the teasing remark. After all, the boy had meant no harm.

He had met David in the hospital in early 1947. On the Wild Card Day, Harstein had been playing chess at a sidewalk cafe. No symptoms had manifested themselves then, but months later he had been brought writhing and convulsing into the hospital. Tach had feared that this intense, handsome man would be yet another faceless victim, but against all expectations he had recovered. They had tested: David's body exuded powerful pheromones, pheromones that made him hard to resist on any level. He was recruited by Archibald Holmes, dubbed the Envoy by a fascinated press, and proceeded to use his awesome charisma to settle strikes, negotiate treaties, and mediate with world leaders.

Of the other male Aces he was Tachyon's favorite, and under David's tutelage he had learned to play chess. It was a testimonial both to his own growing abilities and to David's teaching skills that he had resorted to his powers in an effort to keep the game from Tach. The alien smiled, and decided to repay the other man for his interference.

He carefully sent out a probe, slipped beneath David's defenses, and watched as that fine mind weighed and evaluated possible moves. The decision was reached, but before Harstein could act upon it Tach gave a sharp twist, erasing the decision, and substituting another in its place.

"Check."

David stared down at the board, then flipped it onto the floor with a howl while Tach climbed onto the couch, buried his head in a pillow, and laughed.

"Talk about me cheating. I can't control my power, but you! Reach into a man's head and…"

A key scraped in the lock, and Blythe called out, "Children, children, what are you battling about now?"

"He cheats," the two men called in chorus, pointing at one another.

Tach gathered her into his arms. "You're freezing. Let me fix you some tea. How was the conference?"

"Not bad." She removed her fur hat, and shook snow from the silver-tipped ends. "With Werner down with the croup they were grateful to have my input." She leaned forward, and pressed a soft kiss on David's darkly shadowed cheek. "Hello, dear, bow was Russia?"

"Bleak." He began collecting the scattered chessmen. "You know, it doesn't seem fair."

"What?" Tossing her coat onto the sofa, she pulled off her muddy boots, and curled up against the pillows with her feet tucked snugly beneath the silver fox fur.

"Earl gets to snatch Bormann out of Italy and save Gandhi from a Hindu fanatic, and you get to sit in a sleazy motel and attend a rocketry conference."

"They also serve who only sit and talk. As you should well know. Besides, you've gotten your fair share of the glory. What about Argentina?"

"That was more than a year ago, and all I did was talk to the Peronists while Earl and jack intimidated the jackboots in the street. Now, who do you think the press noticed? Us? Not likely. You've got to have flash to get noticed in this business."

"And just what is this business?" interjected Tachyon, pressing a mug of steaming tea into Blythe's hands.

David hunched forward, his head thrusting out from his stooped shoulders like an inquisitive bird. "Salvaging something out of the disaster. Using these gifts to improve the human condition."

"That's how it starts, but will it end there? My experience with super-races-being a member of one myself-is that we take what we want, and the devil take anyone else. When a tiny minority of people on Takis began to develop mental powers, they quickly began interbreeding to make certain no one else would get a chance at the powers. It gave us a planet to rule, and we're only eight percent of the population."

"We'll be different." Harstein's wry laugh made a mockery of the statement.

"I hope so. But I'm more comforted by the knowledge that there are only a few dozen of you aces, and that Archibald hasn't welded all of you into this great force for Democracy." His thin lips twisted a bit on the final words.

Blythe reached out, and pushed his bangs off his forehead. "You disapprove?"

"I worry."

"Why?"

"I think you and David should be grateful that you're out of the public eye. The rage of the have-nots against the haves is never pretty, and your race has a tradition of suspicion and hostility toward the stranger. You aces are surpassing strange. What is it one of your holy books says? Suffer not the witch?"

"But we're just people," Blythe objected.

"No, you're not… not anymore, and the others won't forget it. I know of thirty-seven of you, there may be more, and you're undetectable-not like the jokers. National hysteria is a particularly virulent and fast-growing weed. People are seeing Communists everywhere, and it probably wouldn't take much to transfer that distrust to some other terrifying minority-like an unseen, secret, awesomely powered group of people."

"I think you're overreacting."

"Am I? Take these HUAC hearings." He gestured toward a pile of newspapers. "And two days ago a federal jury indicted Alger Hiss for perjury. These are not the actions of a sane and stable nation. And this during your month of joy and rebirth."

"No, that's Easter. This is the first birth." David's weak joke sank into the heavy silence that washed through the room, broken only by the hiss of wind driven snow against the windows.

Harstein sighed and stretched. "What a gloomy bunch we are. What say we get some dinner, and find a concert? Satchmo is playing uptown.

"

Tach shook his head. "I have to go back to the hospital."

"Now?" wailed Blythe.

"My darling, I must."

"Then I'll go with you."

"No, that's silly. Let David take you to dinner."

"No." Her lips had tightened into a mulish line. "If you won't let me help, I can at least keep you company."

He sighed and rolled his eyes as she pulled on her boots. "Stubborn lady," David remarked from beneath the coffee table, where he was scrabbling after the scattered chess pieces. "We've all discovered that it does no good to argue with her."

"You should try living with her."

The delicate pillbox hat warped beneath the sudden tightening of her fingers. "Believe me, we can solve that problem."

"Don't start," Tach said warningly.

"And don't take that disapproving-father tone with me! I'm not a child, nor one of your secluded Takisian ladies."

"If you were, you'd behave better; and as for being a child, you're certainly acting like one-and a spoiled one at that. We've had this discussion before, and I'm not going to do what you want."

"We have not had a discussion. You have constantly closed me off, changed the subject, refused to discuss the matter-"

"I'm due at the hospital." He started for the door. "You see?" she shot at the uncomfortable Harstein. "Has he cut me off, or has he cut me off?"

The young man shrugged, and crammed the chess set into the pocket of his shapeless corduroy jacket. For once, he seemed at a loss for words.

"David, kindly take my genamiri to dinner, and try to return her to me in a somewhat better frame of mind." Blythe cast Harstein a pleading look, while Tachyon stared with regal disdain at the far wall.

"Hey, folks. I think you ought to take a nice romantic walk in the snow, talk things over, have a late supper, make love and quit bickering. Whatever it is, it can't be that big of a problem."

"You're right," murmured Blythe, the rigidity passing from her body under the relaxing wash of pheromones. David placed a hand in Tach's back, and urged him out the door. Lifting Blythe's hand, he placed it firmly in Tachyon's, and made a vague gesture of benediction over their heads. "Now go, my children, and sin no more." He followed them down the stairs and into the streets, then bolted for the subway before the pacifying effects of his power could wear off.

"Now do you see why I don't want you working with me?" The moon had managed to slip beneath the skirt of the clouds, and the pale silver light streaming across the snow made the city look almost clean. They stood on the edge of Central Park, breath mingling in soft white puffs as she stared seriously up into his face.

"I see that you're trying to protect and shelter me, but I don't think it's necessary and after watching you tonight…" She hesitated, searching for a way to soften her next words. "I think I can deal with it better than you can. You care for your patients, Tach, but their deformities and insanities.. well, they disgust you too."

He flinched. "Blythe, I'm so ashamed. Do you think they know, can they sense?"

"No, no, love." Her hand stroked his hair, soothing him as she would one of her young children. "I see it only because I'm so close to you. They see only the compassion."

"The Ideal knows I've tried to suppress it, but I've never seen such horrors." He jerked away from her comforting arms, and paced the sidewalk. "We don't tolerate deformity. Among the great houses such creatures are destroyed." There was a faint noise, and he turned back to face her. One gloved hand was pressed to her mouth, and her eyes were wide, glittering pits in the glow from a nearby streetlight. "And now you know I'm a monster."

"I think your culture is monstrous. Every child is precious no matter what its disabilities."

"So my sister thought, and our monstrous culture destroyed her too."

"Tell me."

He began drawing random patterns on a snow-covered park bench. "She was the eldest, some thirty years my senior, but we were very close. She was married outside the house during one of those rare family truces. Her first child was defective and put down, and Jadlan never recovered. She killed herself several months later." His hand swept across the bench, obliterating the drawings. Blythe lifted his hand, and chafed the chilled fingers between her gloved hands. "It started me thinking about the whole structure of my society. Then came the decision to field-test the virus on earth, and that was the end. I couldn't sit by any longer."

"Your sister must have been special, different, like you."

"My cousin says it's the Sennari line that we carry. It's a throwback recessive that-according to him, anyway-should never have been permitted to continue. But I'm losing you with all this talk of pedigree, and your teeth are rattling in your head. Let's get home and get you warm."

"No, not until we settle this." He didn't pretend not to understand. "I can help you, and I insist that you let me share this with you. Give me your mind."

"No, that would be eight personalities. It's too many."

"Let me be the judge of that. I'm managing just fine with seven."

He made a rude noise, and she stiffened with outrage. "Like you managed in February when I found Teller and Oppenheimer battling over the hydrogen bomb, while you stood like a zombie in the center of the room?"

"This will be different. You're beloved to me, your mind will not harm me. And beyond the work… when I have your memories and knowledge you won't be lonely anymore."

"I haven't been lonely, not since you came."

"Liar. I've seen the way you gaze off into the distance, and the sad music you pull out of that violin when you think I'm not listening. Let me be there to provide you with a small part of home." She placed a hand across his mouth. "Don't argue." So he didn't, and he allowed himself to be convinced. More out of love for her than any real acceptance of her arguments. And late that night, as her legs tightened about his waist, and her nails raked down his sweat-slick back, and he came in violent release, she reached out, and sucked in his mind as well.

There was a terrible, gut-wrenching moment of violation, theft, loss, then it was over, and from the mirror of her mind came back two images. The beloved, lady-soft, gentle touch that was Blythe, and a frighteningly familiar and equally beloved image that was him.

"Damn them all!" Tachyon raged the length of the small antechamber, spun, and fixed Prescott Quinn with an outthrust forefinger. "It is outrageous, unconscionable, to summon us in this manner. How dare they-and by what right do they-pull us from our home, and send us haring off to Washington on two hours'-two hours'-notice?"

Quinn sucked noisily on the stem of his pipe. "By the right of law and custom. They're members of Congress, and this committee is empowered to call and examine witnesses." He was a burly old man with an impressive gut that stretched his watch chain, complete with Phi Beta Kappa key, across the severe black of his waistcoat.

"Then call us in to witness-though God knows to whatand have an end to this. We came tumbling down here last night only to be told the hearing had been postponed, and now they keep us cooling our heels for three hours."

Quinn grunted, and rubbed at his bushy white eyebrows. "If you think this is much of a wait, young man, you've a lot to learn about the federal government."

"Tack, sit down, have some coffee," murmured Blythe, looking pale but composed in a black knit dress, veiled hat, and gloves.

David Harstein came mooching into the antechamber, and the two Marine guards at the chamber door stiffened and eyed him warily. "Thank God, a touch of sanity in the midst of madness and nightmares."

"Oh, David, darling." Blythe's hands clutched feverishly at his shoulders. "Are you all right? Was it terrible yesterday?"

"No, it was great… all except being continually referred to as the `Jewish gentleman from New York' by that Nazi Rankin. They questioned me about China: I told them we had done everything possible to negotiate a settlement between Mao and Chiang. They of course concurred. I then suggested that they disband these hearings, and they agreed amid much joy and applause, and-"

"And then you left the room," interrupted Tach. "Yes." His dark head drooped and he contemplated his clasped hands. "They're constructing a glass booth now, and I'll be recalled. Damn them anyway!"

A supercilious page entered and called for Mrs. Blythe van Renssaeler. She started, her purse falling to the floor. Tach recovered it, and pressed his cheek against hers.

"Peace, beloved. You're more than a match for them alone, much less with all the rest of you along. And don't forget, I'm with you." She smiled faintly. Quinn took her arm, and escorted her into the hearing room. Tachyon had a brief glimpse of backs, cameras, and a jumble of tables all washed in a fierce white light from the television spots. Then the door closed with a dull thud.

"Game?" asked David. "Sure, why not."

"I'm not imposing? Would you rather prepare your testimony?"

"What testimony? I don't know anything about China."

"When did they get you?" His deft hands flew, setting up the board.

"Yesterday afternoon about one."

"It's all such a crock," the Envoy said with a marked lack of diplomacy, and viciously jammed in a pawn at Queen's pawn four.

They were still at the game when Blythe and Quinn returned. The board went flying with the alien's precipitous leap, but David didn't remonstrate with him. Blythe was as pale as death, and shaking.

"What did they do?" demanded Tach, the words harsh in his throat. She didn't answer, merely shivered within the circle of his arms like a wounded animal.

"Dr. Tachyon, this is going a bit beyond China. We must talk."

"A moment." He bent to her, and pressed his lips against her temple. He could feel the pulse beating there. Quickly he slipped beneath her defense, and sent a calming tide flowing through her mind. With a final shudder she relaxed, and loosened her grip on the lapel of his pale peach coat. "Sit with David, love. I have to talk to Mr. Quinn." He knew he was talking down to her, but stress could warp the fragile structure she had constructed to keep her divergent personalities separated, and what he had found in that brief incursion had been an eroding edifice.

The lawyer drew him aside. "China was the excuse, Doctor. The issue now is this virus. I think this committee has gotten the idea that the aces are a subversive force, and they may reflect the mood in the country at large."

"Dr. Tachyon," called the page. Quinn waved him back with an abrupt slash.

"Absurd!"

"Nonetheless, I now understand why you're here. My advice to you is to take the Fifth."

"Which means?"

"You refuse to answer all and any questions. That includes your name. Such a response has been construed as a waiver of the Fifth."

Tach drew himself up to his full, unimpressive height. "I do not fear these men, Mr. Quinn, nor will I sit and condemn myself by silence. We will stop this foolishness now!"

The room was an obstacle course of lights, chairs, tables, people, and the snaking cables. Once he caught his heel, stumbled, pulling himself up with a muttered curse. For an instant the room faded, and he saw the parqueted, chandelierlit expanse of the Ilkazam ballroom and heard the titters of family and friends as he had stood lost in the midst of the intricacies of Princes Baffled. Because of his error the dance had come to a grinding, stumbling halt, and over the music he could hear his cousin Zabb's nasal voice describing in ruthless detail precisely which step he had missed. Hot blood rushed to his cheeks, and brought a line of sweat to his upper lip. Removing a handkerchief he dabbed at the moisture, then noticed that his discomfort was not entirely due to his memories; because of the television lights the room was broiling.

As he settled himself on the hard, straight-backed wooden chair, Tach noted the skeletal frame of the glass box that was being built to house David. It seemed somehow ominous, like a half-finished scaffold, and he quickly switched his gaze to the nine men who dared to sit in judgment on him and his genamiri. They were remarkable only for their expressions of grim portentousness. Otherwise they were merely a collection of middle-aged to elderly men dressed in ill-fitting dark suits. An expression of regal disdain settled over his features, and he lounged back in the chair, his very relaxation making a mockery of their power.

"Wish you had heeded me on the matter of your dress," murmured Quinn as he opened his briefcase.

"You told me to dress well. I did."

Quinn eyed the swallow-tailed coat and pants of pale peach, the vest embroidered in shades of green and gold, and the high soft boots with their gold tassels. "Black would have been better."

"I'm not a common laborer."

"Would you state your name for the committee," said Chairman Wood, without looking up from his papers.

He leaned in to the microphone. "I am known on your world as Dr. Tachyon."

"Your full and real name."

"You're quite certain you want that?"

"Would I ask it otherwise?" Wood grunted testily.

"As you wish." Smiling faintly, the alien launched into a recitation of his complete pedigree. "Tisianne brant Ts'ara sek Halima sek Ragnar sek Omian. So ends my mother's line,"

"Omian being a relative newcomer to the Ilkazam clan having married in from the Zaghloul. My maternal grandfather was Taj brant Parada sek Amurath sek Ledaa sek Shahriar sek Naxina. His sire was Bakonur brant Sennari-"

"Thank you," Wood said hurriedly. He glanced down the table at his colleagues. "Perhaps for the purposes of this hearing we can make do with his nom de plume?"

"De guerre," he corrected sweetly, and enjoyed Wood's flush of irritation.

There followed several pointless and meandering questions about where he lived and worked; then John Rankin of Mississippi leaned in. "Now as I understand it, Dr. Tachyon, you are not a citizen of the United States of America."

Tach shot Quinn an incredulous glance. There were titters from the assembled journalists, and Rankin glared.

"No, sir."

"Then you are an alien." Satisfaction laced the words. "Undeniably," he drawled. Leaning nonchalantly back in the chair, he began to play with the folds of his cravat. Case of South Dakota stepped in. "And did you or did you not enter this country illegally?"

"There didn't seem to be an immigration center at White Sands, on the other hand I didn't ask, being concerned with more pressing matters at the time."

"But you have at no time during the intervening years applied for American citizenship?"

The chair scraped back and Tach was on his feet. "The Ideal grant me patience. This is absurd. I have no desire to become a citizen of your country. Your world I find compelling, and even if my ship were capable of hyperspatial travel I would remain because I have patients who need me. What I do not have is either the time or the inclination to bark and caper for the amusement of this ignorant tribunal. Please, carry on with your little games, but leave me to my work-"

Quinn pulled him bodily down into the chair, and laid a hand over the mike. "Just keep it up, and you'll be surveying this world from behind the walls of a federal penitentiary," he hissed. "Accept it now! These men have power over you and the means to exercise it. Now apologize, and let's see what we can salvage from this mess."

He did so, but with poor grace, and the questioning continued. It was Nixon of California who brought them to the heart of the matter.

"As I understand it, Doctor, it was your family who developed this virus that has cost so many people their lives. Is that correct?"

"Yes."

"I beg your pardon?"

He cleared his throat, and said more audibly this time, "Yes."

"And so you came-"

"To try and prevent its release."

"And what corroboration do you have for this claim, Tachyon?" granted Rankin.

"My ship's logs detailing my exchange with the crew of the other ship."

"And can you obtain these logs?" Nixon again. "They're on my ship."

An aide skittered up onto the platform, and there was a hurried conference. "Reports indicate that your ship has resisted all efforts to enter."

"It was so ordered."

"Will you arrange to open it, and allow the Air Force to remove the logs?"

"No." They regarded each other for a long moment. "Will you return my ship, and then I'll bring you the logs?"

"No."

He fell back once more in the chair and shrugged. "Well, they wouldn't have done you much good anyway; we weren't speaking English."

"And what about these other aliens? Can we question them?" Rankin's mouth twisted as if he were regarding something peculiarly unpleasant and slimy.

"I'm afraid they're all dead." His voice dropped as he again struggled with the guilt the memories still brought. "I misjudged their determination. They fought the grappler beam, and broke up in the atmosphere."

"Very convenient. So convenient that I wonder if it wasn't planned that way?"

"It was Jetboy's failure that released the virus."

"Do not sully the name of that great American hero with your slanderous lies!" Rankin shouted, winding up into his full Southern-preacher mode. "I submit to this committee and to the nation that you have remained on this world to study the effects of your evil experiment. That those other aliens were acting as kamikazes ready to die so that you might appear a hero, and live among us accepted and revered, but that in fact you are an alien subversive seekin' to undermine this great nation by the use of these dangerous wild elements."

"No!" He was on his feet, hands braced on the table, leaning in on his inquisitors. "No one regrets the events of '46 more than I. Yes, I failed… failed to stop the ship, failed to locate the globe, failed to convince the authorities of the danger, failed to help Jetboy, and I must live with that failure for the rest of my life! All I can do is offer myself… my talents, my experience working with this virus, to undo what I have created-I'm sorry… sorry." He broke off, choked, and sipped gratefully at the water offered by Quinn.

The heat was like a tangible thing, coiling about his body, stealing the breath from his lungs, and leaving him lightheaded. He willed himself not to faint, and pulling the handkerchief from his pocket he wiped at his eyes, and knew he had made another mistake. Males in this culture were trained to suppress emotion. He had just violated another of their taboos. He dropped heavily back into the chair.

"If you are indeed repentant, Dr. Tachyon, then demonstrate it to this committee. What I require from you is a complete list of all the so-called 'aces' you have ever treated or heard about. Names… addresses if possible, and-"

"No."

"You would be assistin' your country."

"It's not my country, and I won't help you in your witchhunts."

"You are in this country illegally, Doctor. Could be that it's in the best interests of this nation if you were deported. So I'd think over your answer very carefully if I were you."

"it requires no further thought… I will not betray my patients."

"Then the committee has no further questions of this witness. "

At the front doors of the Capitol they walked full into a pale, sharp-featured man.

A tiny sound escaped Blythe, and she clutched at Tach's arm.

"Afternoon, Henry," grunted Quinn, and the alien realized that this was the husband of the woman who had shared his bed and his life for two and a half years.

He seemed familiar. Tach had been contending with this persona every time he joined with Blythe in telepathic or physical union. Granted, Henry had been relegated to an unused corner of her mind like discarded lumber in a dusty attic, but the mind was there, and it wasn't a very nice mind. "Blythe."

"Henry."

He raked Tachyon with a cold glance. "If you would excuse us, I'd like to talk to my wife."

"No, please, don't leave me." Her fingers plucked at his coat, and he carefully freed them before she could utterly ruin the crease, and clasped her hand warmly in his.

"I think not."

The congressman gripped his shoulder, and shoved. It was an error in judgment. Small he might be, but Tachyon had studied with one of the finest personal-defense masters on Takis, and his response was almost more reflexive than conscious. He didn't bother with martial arts subtlety, just brought his knee up, nailing van Renssaeler in the nuts, and as the other man folded, his fist took him in the face. The congressman hit the ground like he'd been poleaxed, and Tach sucked at his knuckles.

Blythe's blue eyes were unfocused, staring wildly down at her husband, and Quinn was frowning like a white-haired Zeus. Several people came running to assist the fallen politician, and Quinn, recovering himself quickly, herded them down the steps.

"That was a pretty dirty blow," he rumbled as he waved down a passing taxi. "It's not very sporting to kick a man in the balls."

"I'm not interested in sporting. You fight to win, and failing that you die."

"Mighty strange world you come from if that's the code you're taught." He grunted again. "And, as if you don't have troubles enough, I can guarantee that Henry will sue for assault and battery."

"Consider yourself retained, Prescott," Blythe said, raising her head from Tach's shoulder. She was wedged tightly between the two men in the taxi, and Tach could feel the faint shivering that was still running through her body.

"Might be you should consider filing for divorce. Can't imagine why you didn't before now. "

"The children. I knew I'd never see them if I divorced Henry."

"Well, think about it."

"Where are we going?"

"The Mayflower. Nice hotel, you'll like it."

"I want to go to the station. We're going home."

"Wouldn't advise that. My gut is telling me this isn't over yet, and my belly is an infallible indicator."

"We've given our testimony."

"But Jack and Earl are still to come, Harstein has to testify again, and there might be something that would require you to be recalled. Let's just stick until the final hurrah. It'll save you a trip back if I'm right."

Tach grudgingly agreed, sinking back against the cushions to watch the city go by.

By Sunday night he was heartily sick of Washington, D.C., heartily sick of the Mayflower, and heartily sick of Quinn's doom and gloom prophecies. Blythe had tried to maintain the fantasy that they were having a lovely little vacation, and had dragged him about the city to gaze at marble buildings and meaningless statuary, but her dream world was shattered late Friday, when David was held to be in contempt of Congress and the case remanded to a grand jury.

The boy had huddled in their suite alternating between wild confidence that no indictment would be issued and fear that he would be convicted and imprisoned. The latter seemed the most likely, for he had been horribly abusive to the committee during that final day of testimony, even going so far as to compare them to Hitler's ruling elite. The climate was not forgiving. Tachyon had been driven nearly to distraction trying to suppress David's more vengeful plans against the committee, and trying to soothe Blythe, who seemed to have completely lost English as a first language, and spoke almost exclusively in German.

His efforts were not aided by the fact that they were under virtual siege in the room; surrounded and badgered by swarming reporters who were undeterred even after Blythe emptied a pot of hot coffee over one who had tried to enter while posing as room service. Only Quinn was permitted within their fortress, and he was so uniformly pessimistic that Tach was ready to pitch him out a window.

Now, as dawn was tinting the eastern sky, Tach lay listening to the even beating of Blythe's heart and the soft whisper of her breathing as she lay snuggled against his side.

Their lovemaking had been long and frenzied, as if she feared to lose contact with him. It had also been disturbing, for he had found a large amount of leak between the various personalities. He had tried to make her concentrate on a new construct, but she had been too emotionally fragmented to make it work. Only rest and a respite from the stress would restore the balance, and Tach vowed that committee or no committee they were leaving Washington that day.

A furious hammering on the door of their suite brought him plunging out of the bed at one that afternoon. Befuddled, he didn't even think of his dressing gown, but instead wrapped the bedspread about his waist and blundered to the door. It was Quinn, and the look on his face drove the last vestige of sleep from his mind.

"What? What's happened?"

"The worst. Braun's ruined you all."

"Huh?"

"Friendly witness. He's thrown you all to the wolyes to save himself." Tach sank into a chair. "That's not all, they're recalling Blythe."

"When? Why?"

"Tomorrow, right after Earl. Jack very generously volunteered the information that in addition to Von Braun and Einstein and all the rest of the eggheads, she also has your thoughts and memories. They want the names of those other aces, and if they can't get them from you, they'll get them from her."

"She'll refuse."

"She could go to jail."

"No… they wouldn't… not a woman." The attorney just shook his head.

"Do something. You're the lawyer. I refused first, let them send me to jail."

"There is another option."

"What?"

"Give them what they want."

"No, that is not an option. You must keep her out of that hearing room."

The old man gusted a sigh, and scratched furiously at his head until his hair stood out from his head like the quills on an outraged porcupine. "Okay, I'll see what I can do."

It hadn't been enough, and on Tuesday morning they were back at the Capitol. Earl had marched in, taken the Fifth, and marched back out with an expression of utter contempt and disdain. He had expected nothing from the white man's government, and it hadn't disappointed him. Now it was Blythe's turn. At the door, two young Marine guards had tried to hold him back. He knew he was being unfair, lashing out at the wrong people, but their attempt to separate him from Blythe shattered his control, and he had brutally mindcontrolled them both. He had ordered them to sleep, and they were snoring by the time they hit the floor. That display of his power had a strong effect on several observers, and they quickly found a seat for him in the back of the room among the press corps. He had tried to remonstrate, wanting to be with Blythe, but this time it was Quinn who demurred.

"No, you sitting up there with her would be like a red flag to a bull. I'll take care of her."

"It's not just the legal thing. Her mind… it's very fragile right now." He jerked his head toward Rankin. "Don't let them hammer at her."

"I'll try."

"My darling." Her shoulders felt thin and bony beneath his hands, and when she raised her face to his, her eyes were like two darkened bruises in her white face. "Remember, their freedom and safety is riding on you. Please don't say anything."

"Don't worry, I won't," she said with a flash of her old spirit. "They're my patients too."

He watched her walk away, a hand resting lightly on Quinn's arm, and terror seized him. He wanted to rush after her, and hold her one more time. He wondered if the feeling was his errant precognition kicking in, or just a disordered mind?

"Now, Mrs. van Renssaeler, let's get the chronology set in all our minds, shall we?" said Rankin.

"All right."

"Now, when did you first discover you had this power?"

"February 1947."

"And when did you walk out on your husband, Congressman Henry van Renssaeler?" He hit the word Congressman hard, glancing quickly to the left and right to see how his colleagues took it.

"I didn't, he threw me out."

"And was that maybe because he had found out you were fooling around with another man, a man who isn't even human?"

"No!" cried Blythe.

"Objection!" shouted Quinn in the same breath. "This is not a divorce proceeding-"

"You have no grounds upon which to object, Mr. Quinn, and may I remind you that this committee has sometimes found it necessary to investigate the backgrounds of attorneys. One has to wonder why you fellows would choose to represent enemies of this nation."

"Because it is a tenet of Anglo-American law that a defendant have someone to shield him from the awesome might of the federal government-"

"Thank you, Mr. Quinn, but I don't think we need instruction in jurisprudence," broke in Representative Wood. "You may continue, Mr. Rankin."

"I thank you, sir. We'll leave that for the moment. Now, when did you become one of the so-called Four Aces?"

"I think it was in March."

"Of '47?"

"Yes. Archibald had shown me how I could use my power to preserve priceless knowledge, and had contacted several of the scientists. They agreed, and I-"

"Began to suck out their minds."

"It isn't like that."

"Don't you find it sort of disgustin', almost vampirelike, the way you eat a man's knowledge and abilities? It's a cheat, too. You weren't born with a great mind, nor did you study and work to gain your position. You just steal others'."

"They were willing. I would never do it without permission. "

"And had Congressman van Renssaeler given you his permission?"

Tachyon could hear the tears thickening her voice. "That was different. I didn't understand… I couldn't control." She dropped her face into her gloved hands.

"So let's move on. We're up to the time when you abandoned your husband and children." He added in a more conversational tone, obviously for the benefit of the other committee members, "I also find it incredible that a woman would leave her natural role, and strut herself in this fashion. Well, that's neither here nor there-"

"I didn't abandon them," Blythe interrupted.

He brushed aside her remark. "Semantics. Now, when was that?"

Blythe slumped hopelessly back in her chair. "August the twenty-third, 1947."

"And where have you been living since August twentythird, 1947?" She sat silently. "Come, come, Mrs. van Renssaeler. You have consented to answer questions before this committee. You can't withdraw that consent now."

"At one seventeen Central Park West."

"And whose apartment is that?"

"Dr. Tachyon's," she whispered. There was a stir at this from the press corps, for they had kept a very low profile. Only the other three Aces and Archibald had known of their living arrangement.

"So, after violating your husband and stealing his mind you then walk out, and live in sin with an inhuman from another planet who created the virus that gave you this power."

"There's somethin' fairly convenient in all this." He leaned forward over the desk, and bellowed down at her. "Now you listen, madam, and you better answer because you stand in a great deal of danger. Did you take this Tachyon's mind and memories?"

"Y-yes."

"And have you worked with him?"

"Yes." Her replies were scarcely audible.

"And do you acknowledge that Archibald Holmes formed the Four Aces as a subversive element designed to undermine loyal allies of the United States?"

Blythe had swung around in the chair, her hands gripping the top rung with a desperate intensity, her eyes darting vaguely about the crowded room. Her face seemed to be writhing, trying to rearrange itself into different visages, and there was an almost psychic white noise coming off her mind. It drilled into Tachyon's head, and his shields snapped into place.

"Are you listening, Mrs. van Renssaeler? Because you better be. I'm beginnin' to think you and your bloodsucking power are a danger to this country. Maybe it's better you do go to jail before you take your ill-gotten knowledge and sell it to the enemies of this country."

Blythe was shaking so hard that it seemed unlikely she could remain upright in the chair, and tears were streaming down her face. Tach came to his feet, and began pushing through the mob that separated them. "No, no, please… don't. Leave me alone." She wrapped her arms protectively about her body, and rocked back and forth.

"Then give me those names!"

"All right… all right." Rankin sank back from the microphone, his pen tapping out a satisfied little rhythm on the pad before him. "There's Croyd…"

For Tachyon, time seemed to distend, stretch, almost stand still. Several rows of people still separated him from Blythe, and in that eon-long moment he made his decision.

His mind lanced out, pinning her like a butterfly. Her voice choked off, and she emitted a funny little acking noise. For him it was akin to holding a snowflake, or some particularly delicate form of glass sculpture. Under his grip he felt the entire structure of her mind fragment, and Blythe went spinning away and down into some dark and fearsome cavern of the soul. Freed, the other seven ran rampant. Giggling, lecturing, posturing, ranting, they seemed to race along her central nervous system, setting her body to twitching like a maddened puppet. Words exploded from her: formulae, lectures in German, ongoing arguments between Teller and Oppenheimer, campaign speeches, and Takisian all jumbled in a swirling broth.

The instant he felt her mind give way he released her, but it was too late. Chairs and people were shoved ruthlessly aside as he fought his way to her side and gathered her in his arms.

The chamber was in complete disorder with Wood hammering away with his gavel, reporters shouting and jostling, and over all Blythe's manic monologue. He seized her, reached out again with the coercive power of his mind, and carried her down into oblivion. She slumped in his arms, and an eerie silence fell over the chamber.

"I take it the committee has no further questions of this witness?" The words came grating out, and his hatred beat from him like a tangible force. The nine men shifted uncomfortably, then Nixon murmured in a voice that was scarcely audible,

"No, no more questions."

Hours later he sat at the apartment rocking her in his lap, and crooning as he would have to one of his tiny cousins back home on Takis. His brain felt battered by his struggle to recall her to sanity; none of his efforts had shown the smallest success. He felt young and helpless; he wanted to drum his heels on the rug, and howl like a four-year-old. Images of his father rose up to taunt him; big, solid, and powerful, he had both the training and the natural talent to deal with such mental illness. But he was hundreds of light-years away, and had no idea where his errant son and heir had gotten to. There was a preemptory knock on the door. Shifting his limp, unresisting burden into his left arm, he staggered to the door, and took a step back as his burning eyes focused on the two policemen and the bundled figure behind them. Henry van Renssaeler lifted his bruised face and stared at Tachyon. "… ave here a commitment order for my wife. Kindly hand her over."

"No… no, you don't understand. Only I can help her. I don't have the construct yet, but I'll get it. It'll just take a little work. "

The burly officers stepped forward, and gently but inexorably pried her from his encircling arms. He stumbled after them as they headed down the stairs, Blythe lolling in one of the policeman's arms. Van Renssaeler had made no move to touch her.

"Only a little time." He was crying. "Please, just give me a little time."

He slumped down, clinging to the bottom banister post as the outer door fell shut behind them.

He had seen her only once after her commitment. The appeal of his deportation order was grinding through the courts, and seeing the end coming, he had driven to the private sanatorium in upstate New York.

They wouldn't let him in the room. He could have overriden that decision with mind control, but ever since that hideous day he had been unable to use his power. So he had peered through a small window in the heavy door, looking at a woman he no longer knew. Her hair hung in matted witchlocks about her twisted face as she prowled the tiny room lecturing to an unseen audience. Her voice was low and rasping; obviously her vocal cords were being damaged by her constant attempts to maintain a male tone.

Unable to stop himself, he had reached out telepathically, but the chaos of her mind sent him reeling back. Worse had been the infinitesimal flicker of Blythe crying for help from some deep and hidden source. So intense was his guilt that he spent several minutes in the bathroom vomiting, as if that could somehow cleanse his soul.

Five weeks later he had been put aboard a ship sailing for Liverpool.

"Le pauvre." A large matronly woman with two small girls at her side stood looking down at the slumped figure on the bench. She rummaged through her purse, and withdrew a coin. It fell with a dull clink into the violin case. Gathering her children to her she moved on, and Tachyon retrieved the coin with two grimy fingers. It wasn't much, but it would buy another bottle of wine, and another night of forgetfulness.

Rising, he packed away the instrument, gathered up his medical bag, and thrust the folded page of newsprint into his shirt. Later, during the night, it would shield him from the cold. He took a few weaving steps, then stumbled to a swaying halt. Juggling the two cases in one hand, he extracted the page, and took a final look at the headline. The cold east wind was back, tugging urgently at the paper. He released it, and it went skirring away. He walked on, not pausing to look back to where it hung, flapping forlornly, against the iron legs of the bench. Cold it might be, but he would trust to the wine to insulate him.

Interlude One

From "Red Aces, Black Years," by Elizabeth H. Crofton, New Republic, May 1977.

From the moment in 1950 when he declared in his famous Wheeling, West Virginia, speech that "… ave here in my hand a list of fifty-seven wild cards known to be living and working secretly in the United States today," there was little doubt that Senator Joseph R. McCarthy had replaced the faceless members of HUAC as the leader of the anti-wild card hysteria that swept across the nation in the early

50s.

Certainly, HUAC could claim credit for discrediting and destroying Archibald Holmes's Exotics for Democracy, the "Four Aces" of the halcyon postwar years and the most visible living symbols of the havoc the wild card virus had wrought upon the nation (to be sure, there were ten jokers for every ace, but like blacks, homosexuals, and freaks, the jokers were invisible men throughout this period, steadfastly ignored by a society that would have preferred they not exist). When the Four Aces fell, many felt the circus had ended. They were wrong. It was just beginning, and Joe McCarthy was its ringmaster.

The hunt for 'Red Aces' that McCarthy instigated and fronted produced no single, spectacular victory to rival HUAC's, but ultimately McCarthy's work affected many more people, and proved lasting where HUAC's triumph had been ephemeral. The Senate Committee on Ace Resources and Endeavors (SCARE) was birthed in 1952 as the forum for McCarthy's ace-hunts, but ultimately became a permanent part of the Senate's committee structure. In time SCARE, like HUAC, would become a mere ghost of its former self, and decades later, under the chairmanship of men like Hubert Humphrey, Joseph Montoya, and Gregg Hartmann, it would evolve into an entirely different sort of legislative animal, but McCarthy's SCARE was everything its acronym implied. Between 1952 and 1956, more than two hundred men and women were served with subpoenas by SCARE, often on no more substantial grounds than reports by anonymous informants that they had on some occasion displayed wild card powers.

It was a true modern witch-hunt, and like their spiritual ancestors at Salem, those hauled before TailGunner Joe for the non-crime of being an ace had a hard time proving their innocence. How do you prove that you can't 8y? None of SCARE's victims ever answered that question satisfactorily. And the blacklist was always waiting for those whose testimony was considered unsatisfactory.

The most tragic fates were suffered by those who actually were wild card victims, and admitted their ace powers openly before the committee. Of those cases, none was more poignant than that of Timothy Wiggins, or "Mr. Rainbow," as he was billed when performing. "If I'm an ace, I'd hate to see a deuce," Wiggins told McCarthy when summoned in 1953, and from that moment onward "deuce" entered the language as the term for an ace whose wild card powers are trivial or useless. Such was certainly the case with Wiggins, a plump, nearsighted, forty-eight-year-old entertainer whose wild card power, the ability to change the color of his skin, had propelled him to the dizzy heights of second billing in the smaller Catskill resort hotels, where his act consisted of strumming a ukulele and singing wobbly falsetto versions of songs like "Red, Red Robin,"

"Yellow Rose of Texas," and "Wild Card Blues," accompanying each rendition with appropriate color changes. Ace or deuce, Mr. Rainbow received no mercy from McCarthy or SCARE. Blacklisted and unable to secure bookings, Wiggins hanged himself in his daughter's Bronx apartment less than fourteen months after his testimony.

Other victims saw their lives blighted and destroyed in only slightly less dramatic ways: they lost jobs and careers to the blacklist, lost friends and spouses, inevitably lost custody of their children in the all-too-frequent divorces. At least twenty-two aces were uncovered during SCARE's investigatory heyday (McCarthy himself often claimed credit for having "exposed" twice that many, but included in his totals numerous cases where the accused's "powers" were established only by hearsay and circumstantial evidence, without a shred of actual documentation), including such dangerous criminals as a Queens housewife who levitated when asleep, a longshoreman who could plunge his hand into a bathtub and bring the water to a boil in just under seven minutes, an amphibious Philadelphia schoolteacher (she kept her gills concealed beneath her clothing, until the day she unwisely gave herself away by saving a drowning child), and even a potbellied Italian greengrocer who displayed an astonishing ability to grow hair at will.

Shuffling through so many wild cards, SCARE inevitably turned up some genuine aces among the deuces, including Lawrence Hague, the telepathic stockbroker whose confession triggered a panic on Wall Street, and the so-called "panther woman" of Weehawken whose metamorphosis before the newsreel cameras horrified theatergoers from coast to coast. Even that paled beside the case of the mystery man apprehended while looting New York's diamond center, his pockets bulging with gemstones and amphetamines. This unknown ace displayed reflexes four times as fast as those of a normal man, as well as astonishing strength and a seeming immunity to handgun fire. After flinging a police car the length of the block and hospitalizing a dozen policemen, he was finally subdued with tear gas. SCARE immediately issued a subpoena, but the unidentified man lapsed into a deep, comalike sleep before he could take the stand. To McCarthy's disgust, the man could not be roused-until the day, eight months later, when his specially reinforced maximum-security cell was suddenly and mysteriously found empty. A startled trusty swore that he had seen the man walk through the wall, but the description he gave did not match that of the vanished prisoner.

McCarthy's most lasting achievement, if it may be termed an achievement, came with the passage of the socalled "Wild Card Acts." The Exotic Powers Control Act, enacted in 1954, was the first. It required any person exhibiting wild card powers to register immediately with the federal government; failure to register was punishable by prison terms of up to ten years. This was followed by the Special Conscription Act, granting the Selective Service Bureau the power to induct registered aces into government service for indefinite terms of service. Rumors persist that a number of aces, complying with the new laws, were indeed inducted into (variously) the Army, the FBI, and the Secret Service during the late fifties, but if true the agencies employing their services kept the names, powers, and very existence of these operatives a closely held secret.

In fact, only two men were ever openly drafted under the Special Conscription Act during the entire twenty-two years that the statute remained on the books: Lawrence Hague, who vanished into government service after the stock manipulation charges against him were dropped, and an even more celebrated ace whose case made headlines all over the nation. David "Envoy" Harstein, the charismatic negotiator of the Four Aces, was slapped with an induction notice less than a year after his release from prison, where HUAC had confined him for contempt of Congress. Harstein never reported for conscription. Instead he vanished totally from public life in early 1955, and even the FBI's nationwide manhunt failed to turn up any trace of the man whom McCarthy himself dubbed "the most dangerous pink in America."

The Wild Card Acts were McCarthy's greatest triumph, but ironically enough their passage sowed the seed of his undoing. When those widely publicized statutes were finally signed into law, the mood of the nation seemed to change. Over and over again McCarthy had told the public that the laws were needed to deal with hidden aces undermining the nation. Well, the nation now replied, the laws are passed, the problem is solved, and we've had enough of all this.

The next year, McCarthy introduced the Alien Disease Containment Bill, which would have mandated compulsory sterilization for all wild card victims, jokers as well as aces. That was too much for even his staunchest supporters. The bill went down to crashing defeat in both House and Senate. In an effort to recoup and recapture the headlines, McCarthy launched an ill-advised SCARE investigation of the Army, determined to ferret out the "aces in the hole" that rumor insisted had been secretly recruited years before the Special Conscription Act. But public opinion swung dramatically against him during the Army-McCarthy hearings, which culminated in his censure by the Senate.

In early 1955, many had thought McCarthy might be strong enough to wrest the 1956 Republican presidential nomination from Eisenhower, but by the time of the 1956 election, the political climate had changed so markedly that he was hardly a factor.

On April 28, 1957, he was admitted to the Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Maryland, a broken man who talked incessantly about those who he felt had betrayed him. In his last days, he insisted that his fall was all Harstein's fault, that the Envoy was out there somewhere, crisscrossing the country, poisoning the people against McCarthy with sinister alien mind control.

Joe McCarthy died on May 2, and the nation shrugged. Yet his legacy survived him: SCARE, the Wild Card Acts, an atmosphere of fear. If Harstein was out there, he did not come forward to gloat. Like many other aces of his time, he remained in hiding.

SHELL GAMES

by George R. R. Martin

When he'd moved into the dorm back in September, the first thing that Thomas Tudbury had done was tack up his signed photograph of President Kennedy, and the tattered 1944 Time cover with Jetboy as Man of the Year.

By November, the picture of Kennedy was riddled with holes from Rodneys darts. Rod had decorated his side of the room with a Confederate flag and a dozen Playboy centerfolds.

He hated Jews, niggers, jokers, and Kennedy, and didn't like Tom much either. All through the fall semester, he had fun; covering Tom's bed with shaving cream, short-sheeting him, hiding his eyeglasses, filling his desk drawer with dog turds.

On the day that Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Tom came back to his room fighting to hold the tears. Rod had left him a present. He'd used a red pen. The whole top of Kennedy's head was dripping blood now, and over his eyes Rod had drawn little red X's. His tongue was sticking out of the corner of his mouth.

Thomas Tudbury stared at that for a long, long time. He did not cry; he would not allow himself to cry. He began to pack his suitcases.

The freshman parking lot was halfway across campus. The trunk on his '54 Mercury had a broken lock, so he tossed the bags into the backseat. He let the car warm up for a long time in the November chill. He must have looked funny sitting there; a short, overweight guy with a crewcut and horn-rim glasses, pressing his head against the top of the steering wheel like he was going to be sick.

As he was driving out of the lot, he spied Rodney's shiny new Olds Cutlass.

Tom shifted to neutral and idled for a moment, considering. He looked around. There was no one in sight; everybody was inside watching the news. He licked his lips nervously, then looked back at the Oldsmobile. His knuckles whitened around the wheel. He stared hard, furrowed his brow, and squeezed.

The door panels gave first, bending inward slowly under the pressure. The headlights exploded with small pops, one after the other. Chrome trim clattered to the ground, and the rear windshield shattered suddenly, glass flying everywhere. Fenders buckled and collapsed, metal squealing in protest. Both rear tires blew at once, the side panels caved in, then the hood; the windshield disintegrated entirely. The crankcase gave, and then the walls of the gas tank; oil, gasoline, and transmission fluid pooled under the car. By then Tom Tudbury was more confident, and that made it easier. He imagined he had the Olds caught in a huge invisible fist, a strong fist, and he squeezed all the harder. The crunch of breaking glass and the scream of tortured metal filled the parking lot, but there was no one to hear. He methodically mashed the Oldsmobile into a ball of crushed metal.

When it was over, he shifted into gear and left college, Rodney, and childhood behind forever.

Somewhere a giant was crying.

Tachyon woke disoriented and sick, his hangover throbbing in time to the mammoth sobs. The shapes in the dark room were strange and unfamiliar. Had the assassins come in the night again, was the family under attack? He had to find his father. He lurched dizzily to his feet, head swimming, and put a hand against the wall to steady himself.

The wall was too close. These weren't his chambers, this was all wrong, the smell… and then the memories came back. He would have preferred the assassins.

He had dreamed of Takis again, he realized. His head hurt, and his throat was raw and dry. Fumbling in the darkness, he found the chain-pull for the overhead light. The bulb swung wildly when he yanked, making the shadows dance. He closed his eyes to still the lurching in his gut. There was a foul taste at the back of his mouth. His hair was matted and filthy, his clothing rumpled. And worst of all, the bottle was empty. Tachyon looked around helplessly. A six-by-ten room on the second floor of a lodging house named ROOMS, on a street called the Bowery. Confusingly, the surrounding neighborhood had once been called the Bowery too-Angelface had told him that. But that was before; the area had a different name now. He went to the window, pulling up the shade. The yellow light of a streetlamp filled the room. Across the street, the giant was reaching for the moon, and weeping because he could not grasp it.

Tiny, they called him. Tachyon supposed that was human wit. Tiny would have been fourteen feet tall if only he could stand up. His face was unlined and innocent, crowned with a tangle of soft dark hair. His legs were slender, and perfectly proportioned. And that was the joke: slender, perfectly proportioned legs could not begin to support the weight of a fourteen-foot-tall man. Tiny sat in a wooden wheelchair, a great mechanized thing that rolled through the streets of Jokertown on four bald tires from a wrecked semi. When he saw Tach in the window, he screamed incoherently, almost as though he recognized him. Tachyon turned away from the window, shaking. It was another Jokertown night. He needed a drink.

His room smelled of mildew and vomit, and it was very cold. ROOMS was not as well heated as the hotels he had frequented in the old days. Unbidden, he remembered the Mayflower down in Washington, where he and Blythe… but no, better not to think of that. What time was it anyway? Late enough. The sun was down, and Jokertown came to life at night.

He plucked his overcoat from the floor and slipped it on. Soiled as it was, it was still a marvelous coat, a lovely rich rose color, with fringed golden epaulets on the shoulders and loops of golden braid to fasten the long row of buttons. A musician's coat, the man at the Goodwill had told him. He sat on the edge of his sagging mattress to pull on his boots.

The washroom was down at the end of the hall. Steam rose from his urine as it splashed against the rim of the toilet; his hands shook so badly that he couldn't even aim right. He slapped cold, rust-colored water on his face, and dried his hands on a filthy towel.

Outside, Tach stood for a moment beneath the creaking ROOMS sign, staring at Tiny. He felt bitter and ashamed. And much too sober. There was nothing to be done about Tiny, but he could deal with his sobriety. He turned his back on the weeping giant, slid his hands deep into the pockets of his coat, and walked off briskly down the Bowery.

In the alleys, jokers and winos passed brown paper bags from hand to hand, and stared with dull eyes at the passersby. Taverns, pawnbrokers, and mask shops were all doing a brisk trade. The Famous Bowery Wild Card Dime Museum (they still called it that, but admission was a quarter now) was closing for the day. Tachyon had gone through it once, two years ago, on a day when he was feeling especially guilt-ridden; along with a half-dozen particularly freakish jokers, twenty jars of "monstrous joker babies" floating in formaldehyde, and a sensational little newsreel about the Day of the Wild Card, the museum had a waxworks display whose dioramas featured Jetboy, the Four Aces, a Jokertown Orgy… and him.

A tour bus rolled past, pink faces pressed to the windows. Beneath the neon light of a neighborhood pizza parlor, four youths in black leather jackets and rubber facemasks eyed Tachyon with open hostility. They made him uneasy. He averted his eyes and dipped into the mind of the nearest: mincing pansy looka that hair dye job fershure thinks he's inna marching band like to beat his fuckin' drums but no wait shit there's better we'U find us a good one tonight yeah wanna get one that squishes when we hit it. Tach broke the contact with distaste and hurried on. It was old news, and a new sport: come down to the Bowery, buy some masks, beat up a joker. The police didn't seem to care.

The Chaos Club and its famous All-Joker Revue had the usual big crowd. As Tachyon approached, a long gray limo pulled up to the curb. The doorman, wearing a black tuxedo over luxuriant white fur, opened the door with his tail and helped out a fat man in a dinner jacket. His date was a buxom teenager in a strapless evening gown and pearls, her blond hair piled high in a bouffant hairdo.

A block farther on, a snake-lady called out a proposition from the top of a nearby stoop. Her scales were rainbowcolored, glistening. "Don't be scared, Red," she said, "it's still soft inside." He shook his head.

The Funhouse was housed in a long building with giant picture windows fronting the street, but the glass had been replaced with one-way mirrors. Randall stood out front, shivering in tails and domino. He looked perfectly normaluntil you noticed that he never took his right hand out of his pocket. "Hey, Tacky," he called out. "Whattaya make of Ruby?"

"Sorry, I don't know her," Tachyon said.

Randall scowled. "No, the guy who killed Oswald."

"Oswald?" Tach said, confused. "Oswald who?"

"Lee Oswald, the guy who shot Kennedy. He got killed on TV this afternoon."

"Kennedy's dead?" Tachyon said. It was Kennedy who'd permitted his return to the United States, and Tach admired the Kennedys; they seemed almost Takisian. But assassination was part of leadership. "His brothers will avenge him," he said. Then he recalled that they didn't do things that way on earth, and besides, this man Ruby had already avenged him, it seemed. How strange that he had dreamed of assassins.

"They got Ruby in jail," Randall was saying. "If it was me, I'd give the fucker a medal." He paused. "He shook my hand once," he added. "When he was running against Nixon, he came through to give a speech at the Chaos Club. Afterward, when he was leaving, he was shaking hands with everybody." The doorman took his right hand out of his pocket. It was hard and chitinous, insectile, and in the middle was a cluster of swollen blind eyes. "He didn't even flinch," Randall said. "Smiled and said he hoped I'd remember to vote."

Tachyon had known Randall for a year, but he had never seen his hand before. He wanted to do what Kennedy had done, to grasp that twisted claw, embrace it, shake it. He tried to slide his hand out of the pocket of his coat, but the bile rose in the back of his throat, and somehow all he could do was look away, and say, "He was a good man."

Randall hid his hand again. "Go on inside, Tacky," he said, not unkindly. "Angelface had to go and see a man, but she told Des to keep your table open."

Tachyon nodded and let Randall open the door for him. Inside, he gave his coat and shoes to the girl in the checkroom, a joker with a trim little body whose feathered owl mask concealed whatever the wild card had done to her face. Then he pushed through the interior doors, his stockinged feet sliding with smooth familiarity over the mirrored floor. When he looked down, another Tachyon was staring back up at him, framed by his feet; a grossly fat Tachyon with a head like a beachball.

Suspended from the mirrored ceiling, a crystal chandelier glittered with a hundred pinpoint lights, its reflections sparkling of the floor tiles and walls and mirrored alcoves, the silvered goblets and mugs, and even the waiters' trays. Some of the mirrors reflected true; the others were distorting mirrors, funhouse mirrors. When you looked over your shoulder in the Funhouse, you could never tell what you'd find looking back. It was the only establishment in Jokertown that attracted jokers and normals in equal numbers. In the Funhouse the normals could see themselves twisted and malformed, and giggle, and play at being jokers; and a joker, if he was very lucky, might glance in the right mirror and see himself as he once had been.

"Your booth is waiting, Doctor Tachyon," said Desmond, the maitre d'. Des was a large, florid man; his thick trunk, pink and wrinkled, curled around a wine list. He lifted it, and beckoned for Tachyon to follow with one of the fingers that dangled from its end. "Will you be having your usual brand of cognac tonight?"

"Yes," Tach said, wishing he had some money for a tip. That night he had his first drink for Blythe, as always, but his second was for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

The rest were for himself.

At the end of Hook Road, past the abandoned refinery and the import/export warehouses, past the railroad sidings with their forlorn red boxcars, beneath the highway underpass, past the empty lots full of weeds and garbage, past the huge soybean-oil tanks, Tom found his refuge. It was almost dark by the time he arrived, and the engine in the Mere was thumping ominously. But Joey would know what to do about that.

The junkyard stood hard on the oily polluted waters of New York Bay. Behind a ten-foot-high chain link fence topped with three curly strands of barbed wire, a pack of junkyard dogs kept pace with his car, barking a raucous welcome that would have terrified anyone who knew the dogs less well. The sunset gave a strange bronze cast to the mountains of shattered, twisted, rusted automobiles, the acres of scrap metal, the hills and valleys of junk and trash. Finally Tom came to the wide double gate. On one side a metal sign warned TRESPASSERS KEEP OUT, on the other side another sign told them to BEWARE OF THE DOGS. The gate was chained and locked.

Tom stopped and honked his horn.

Just beyond the fence he could see the four-room shack that Joey called home. A huge sign was mounted on top of the corrugated tin roof, with yellow spotlights stuck up there to illuminate the letters. It said DI ANGELIS SCRAP METAL amp; AUTO PARTS. The paint was faded and blistered by two decades of sun and rain; the wood itself had cracked, and one of the spots had burned out. Next to the house was parked an ancient yellow dump truck, a tow truck, and Joey's pride and joy, a blood-red 1959 Cadillac coupe with tail fins like a shark and a monster of a hopped-up engine poking right up through its cutaway hood.

Tom honked again. This time he gave it their special signal, tooting out the Here-he-comes-to-save-the-daaaay! theme from the Mighty Mouse cartoons they'd watched as kids.

A square of yellow light spilled across the junkyard as Joey came out with a beer in either hand.

They were nothing alike, him and Joey. They came from different stock, lived in different worlds, but they'd been best friends since the day of the third-grade pet show. That was the day he'd found out that turtles couldn't fly; the day he realized what he was, and what he could do.

Stevie Bruder and Josh Jones had caught him out in the schoolyard. They played catch with his turtles, tossing them back and forth while Tommy ran between them, red-faced and crying. When they got bored, they bounced them off the punchball square chalked on the wall. Stevie's German shepherd ate one. When Tommy tried to grab the dog, Stevie laid into him and left him on the ground with broken glasses and a split lip.

They would have done worse, except for Junkyard Joey, a scrawny kid with shaggy black hair, two years older than his classmates, but he'd already been left back twice, couldn't hardly read, and they always said he smelled bad on account of his father, Dom, owned the junkyard. Joey wasn't as big as Stevie Bruder, but he didn't care, that day or any day. He just grabbed Stevie by the back of his shirt and yanked him around and kicked him in the balls. Then he kicked the dog too, and he would have kicked Josh Jones, except josh ran away. As he fled, a dead turtle floated off the ground and flew across the schoolyard to smack him in the back of his fat red neck.

Joey had seen it happen. "How'd you do that?" he said, astonished. Until that moment, even Tommy hadn't realized that he was the reason his turtles could fly.

It became their shared secret, the glue that held their odd friendship together. Tommy helped Joey with his homework and quizzed him for tests. Joey became Tommy's protector against the random brutality of playground and schoolyard. Tommy read comic books to Joey, until Joey's own reading got so much better that he didn't need Tommy. Dom, a grizzled man with salt-and-pepper hair, a beer belly, and a gentle heart, was proud of that; he couldn't read himself, not even Italian. The friendship lasted through grammar school and high school and Joey's dropping out. It survived their discovery of girls, weathered the death of Dom DiAngelis and Toms family moving off to Perth Amboy. Joey DiAngelis was still the only one who knew what Tom was.

Joey popped the cap on another Rheingold with the church key that hung around his neck. Under his sleeveless white undershirt a beer belly like his father's was growing. "You're too fucking smart to be doing shitwork in a TV repair shop," he was saying.

"It's a job," Tom said. "I did it last summer, I can do it full time. It's not important what kind of job I have. What's important is what I do with my, uh, talent."

"Talent?" Joey mocked.

"You know what I mean, you dumb wop." Tom set his empty bottle down on the top of the orange crate next to the armchair. Most of Joey's furnishings weren't what you'd call lavish; he scavenged them from the junkyard. "I been thinking about what Jetboy said at the end, trying to think what it meant. I figure he was saying that there were things he hadn't done yet. Well, shit, I haven't done anything. All the way back I asked what I could do for the country, y 'know? Well, fuck, we both know the answer to that one."

Joey rocked back in his chair, sucking on his Rheingold and shaking his head. Behind him, the wall was lined with the bookshelves that Dom had built for the kids almost ten years ago. The bottom row was all men's magazines. The rest were comic books. Their comic books. Supermans and Batmans, Action Comics and Detective, the Classics Illustrateds that Joey had mined for all his book reports, horror comics and crime comics and air-war comics, and best of all, their treasure-an almost complete run of Jetboy Comics.

Joey saw what he was looking at. "Don't even think it," he said, "you're no fuckin' Jetboy, Tuds."

"No," said Tom, "I'm more than he was. I'm-"

"A dork," Joey suggested.

"An ace," he said gravely. "Like the Four Aces."

"They were a colored doo-wop group, weren't they?" Tom flushed. "You dump wop, they weren't singers, they-"

Joey cut him of with a sharp gesture. "I know who the fuck they were, Tuds. Gimme a break. They were dumb shits, like you. They all went to jail or got shot or something, didn't they? Except for the fuckin' snitch, whatsisname." He snapped his fingers. "You know, the guy in Tarzan."

"Jack Braun," Tom said. He'd done a term paper on the Four Aces once. "And I bet there are others, hiding out there. Like me. I've been hiding. But no more."

"So you figure you're going to go to the Bayonne Times and give a fucking show? You asshole. You might as well tell em you're a commie. They'll make you move to Jokertown and they'll break all the goddamned windows in your dad's house. They might even draft you, asswipe."

"No," said Tom. "I've got it scoped out. The Four Aces were easy targets. I'm not going to let them know who I am or where I live." He used the beer bottle in his hand to gesture vaguely at the bookshelves. "I'm going to keep my name secret. Like in the comics."

Joey laughed out loud. "Fuckin' A. You gonna wear longjohns too, you dumb shit?"

"God damn it," Tom said. He was getting pissed of. "Shut the fuck up." Joey just sat there, rocking and laughing. "Come on, big mouth," Tom snapped, rising. "Get of your fat ass and come outside, and I'll show just how dumb I am. C'mon, you know so damned much."

Joey DiAngelis got to his feet. "This I gotta see." Outside, Tom waited impatiently, shifting his weight from foot to foot, breath steaming in the cold November air, while Joey went to the big metal box on the side of the house and threw a switch. High atop their poles, the junkyard lights blazed to life. The dogs gathered around, sniffing, and followed them when they began to walk. Joey had a beer bottle poking out of a pocket of his black leather jacket.

It was only a junkyard, full of garbage and scrap metal and wrecked cars, but tonight it seemed as magical as when Tommy was ten. On a rise overlooking the black waters of New York Bay, an ancient white Packard loomed like a ghostly fort. That was just what it had been, when Joey and he had been kids; their sanctum, their stronghold, their cavalry outpost and space station and castle rolled all in one. It shone in the moonlight, and the waters beyond were full of promise as they lapped against the shore. Darkness and shadows lay heavy in the yard, changing the piles of trash and metal into mysterious black hills, with a maze of gray alleys between them. Tom led them into that labyrinth, past the big trash heap where they'd played king-of-the-mountain and dueled with scrapiron swords, past the treasure troves where they'd found so many busted toys and hunks of colored glass and deposit bottles, and once even a whole cardboard carton full of comic books.

They walked between rows of twisted, rusty cars stacked one on another; Fords and Chevys, Hudsons and DeSotos, a Corvette with a shattered accordion hood, a litter of dead Beetles, a dignified black hearse as dead as the passengers it had carried. Tom looked at them all carefully. Finally he stopped. "That one," he said, pointing to the remains of a gutted old Studebaker Hawk. Its engine was gone, as were its tires; the windshield was a spiderweb of broken glass, and even in the darkness they could see where rust had chewed away at the fenders and side panels. "Not worth anything, right?"

Joey opened his beer. "Go ahead, it's all yours."

Tom took a deep breath and faced the car. His hands became fists at his side. He stared hard, concentrating. The car rocked slightly. Its front grill lifted an unsteady couple of inches from the ground.

"Whooo-eeee," Joey said derisively, punching Tom lightly in the shoulder. The Studebaker dropped with a clang, and a bumper fell off. "Shit, I'm impressed,". Joey said.

"Damn it, keep quiet and leave me alone," Tom said. "I can do it, I'll show you, just shut your fuckin' mouth for a minute. I've been practicing. You don't know the things I can do."

"Won't say a fuckin' word," Joey promised, grinning. He took a swig of his beer.

Tom turned back to the Studebaker. He tried to blot out everything, forget about Joey, the dogs, the junkyard; the Studebaker filled his world. His stomach was a hard little ball. He told it to relax, took several deep breaths, let his fists uncurl. Come on, come on, take it easy, don't get upset, do it, you've done more than this, this is easy, easy.

The car rose slowly, drifting upward in a shower of rust. Tom turned it around and around, faster and faster. Then, with a triumphant smile, Tom threw it fifty feet across the junkyard.

It crashed into a stack of dead Chevys and brought the whole thing down in an avalanche of metal.

Joey finished his Rheingold. "Not bad. A few years ago, you could barely lift me over a fence."

"I'm getting stronger all the time," Tom said.

Joey DiAngelis nodded, and tossed his empty bottle to the side. "Good" he said, "then you won't have any problem with me, willya?" He gave Tom a hard push with both hands.

Tom staggered back a step, frowning. "Cut it out, Joey."

"Make me," Joey said. He shoved him again, harder. This time Tom almost lost his footing.

"Damn it, stop it," Tom said. "It's not funny, Joey."

"No?" Joey said. He grinned. "I think it's fuckin' hilarious. But hey, you can stop me, can't you? Use your damn power." He moved right up in Tom's face and slapped him lightly across the cheek. "Stop me, ace," he said. He slapped him harder. "C'mon, Jetboy, stop me." The third slap was the hardest yet. "Let's go, supes, whatcha waitin' for?" The fourth blow had a sharp sting; the fifth snapped Tom's head half around. Joey stopped smiling; Tom could smell the beer on his breath. Tom tried to grab his hand, but Joey was too strong, too fast; he evaded Tom's grasp and landed another slap. "You wanna box, ace? I'll turn you into fuckin' dogmeat. Dork. Asshole." The slap almost tore Tom's head off, and brought stinging tears to his eyes. "Stop me, jagoff," Joey screamed. He closed his hand, and buried his fist in Tom's stomach so hard it doubled him over and took his breath away.

Tom tried to summon his concentration, to grab and push, but it was the schoolyard all over again, Joey was everywhere, fists raining down on him, and it was all he could to do get his hands up and try to block the blows, and it was no good anyway, Joey was much stronger, he pounded him, pushed him, screaming all the while, and Tom couldn't think, couldn't focus, couldn't do anything but hurt, and he was retreating, staggering back, and Joey came after him, fists cocked, and caught him with an uppercut that landed right on his mouth with a crack that made his teeth hurt. All of a sudden Tom was lying on his back on the ground, with a mouth full of blood.

Joey stood over him frowning. "Fuck," he said. "I didn't mean to bust your lip." He reached down, took Tom by the hand, and yanked him roughly to his feet.

Tom wiped blood from his lip with the back of his hand. There was blood on the front of his shirt too. "Look at me, I'm all messed up," he said with disgust. He glared at Joey. "That wasn't fair. You can't expect me to do anything when you're pounding on me, damn it."

"Uh-huh," Joey said. "And while you're concentrating and squinting your eyes, you figure the fuckin' bad guys are just gonna leave you alone, right?" He clapped Tom across the back. "They'll knock out all your fuckin' teeth. That's if you're lucky, if they don't just shoot you. You ain't no Jetboy, Tuds." He shivered. "C'mon. It's fuckin' cold out here."

When he woke in warm darkness, Tach remembered only a little of the binge, but that was how he liked it. He struggled to sit up. The sheets he was lying on were satin, smooth and sensual, and beneath the odor of stale vomit he could still smell a faint trace of some flowery perfume.

Unsteady, he tossed off the bedclothes and pulled himself to the edge of the four-poster bed. The floor beneath his bare feet was carpeted. He was naked, the air uncomfortably warm on his bare skin. He reached out a hand, found the light switch, and whimpered a little at the brightness. The room was pink-and-white clutter with Victorian furnishings and thick, soundproofed walls. An oil painting of John R Kennedy smiled down from above the hearth; in one corner stood a three-foot-tall plaster statue of the Virgin Mary.

Angelface was seated in a pink wingback chair by the cold fireplace, blinking at him sleepily and covering her yawn with the back of her hand.

Tach felt sick and ashamed. "I put you out of your own bed again, didn't I?" he said.

"It's all right," she replied. Her feet were resting on a tiny footstool. Her soles were ugly and bruised, black and swollen despite the special padded shoes she wore. Otherwise she was lovely. Unbound, her black hair fell to her waist, and her skin had a flushed, radiant quality to it, a warm glow of life. Her eyes were dark and liquid, but the most amazing thing, the thing that never failed to astonish Tachyon, was the warmth in them, the affection he felt so unworthy of. With all he had done to her, and to all the rest of them, somehow this woman called Angelface forgave, and cared.

Tach raised a hand to his temple. Someone with a buzzsaw was trying to remove the back of his skull. "My head," he groaned. "At your prices, the least you could do is take the resins and poisons out of the drinks you sell. On Takis, we-"

"I know," Angelface said. "On Takis you've bred hangovers out of your wines. You told me that one already." Tachyon gave her a weary smile. She looked impossibly fresh, wearing nothing but a short satin tunic that left her legs bare to the thigh. It was a deep, wine red, lovely against her skin. But when she rose, he glimpsed the side of her face, where her cheek had rested against the chair as she slept. The bruise was darkening already, a purple blossom on her cheek. "Angel.." he began.

"It's nothing," she said. She pushed her hair forward to cover the blemish. "Your clothes were filthy. Mal took them out to be cleaned. So you're my prisoner for a while."

"How long have I slept?" Tachyon asked.

"All day," Angelface replied. "Don't worry about it. Once I had a customer get so drunk he slept for five months." She sat down at her dressing table, lifted a phone, and ordered breakfast: toast and tea for herself, eggs and bacon and strong cofee with brandy for Tachyon. With aspirin on the side. "No," he protested. "All that food. I'll get sick."

"You have to eat. Even spacemen can't live on cognac alone."

"Please…"

"If you want to drink, you'll eat," she said brusquely. "That's the deal, remember?"

The deal, yes. He remembered. Angelface provided him with rent money, food, and an unlimited bar tab, as much drink as he'd ever need to wash away his memories. All he had to do was eat and tell her stories. She loved to listen to him talk. He told her family anecdotes, lectured about Takisian customs, filled her with history and legends and romances, with tales of balls and intrigues and beauty far removed from the squalor of Jokertown.

Sometimes, after closing, he would dance for her, tracing the ancient, intricate pavanes of Takis across the nightclub's mirrored floors while she watched and urged him on. Once, when both of them had drunk far too much wine, she talked him into demonstrating the Wedding Pattern, an erotic ballet that most Takisians danced but once, on their wedding night. That was the only time she had ever danced with him, echoing the steps, hesitantly at first, and then faster and faster, swaying and spinning across the floor until her bare feet were raw and cracked and left wet red smears upon the mirror tiles. In the Wedding Pattern, the dancing couple came together at the end, collapsing into a long triumphant embrace. But that was on Takis; here, when the moment came, she broke the pattern and shied away from him, and he was reminded once again that Takis was far away.

Two years before, Desmond had found him unconscious and naked in a Jokertown alley. Someone had stolen his clothing while he slept, and he was fevered and delirious. Des had summoned help to carry him to the Funhouse. When he came to, he was lying on a cot in a back room, surrounded by beer kegs and wine racks. "Do you know what you were drinking?" Angelface had asked him when they'd brought him to her office. He hadn't known; all he recalled was that he'd needed a drink so badly it was an ache inside him, and the old black man in the alley had generously offered to share. "It's called Sterno," Angelface told him. She had Des bring in a bottle of her finest brandy. "If a man wants to drink, that's his business, but at least you can kill yourself with a little class. The brandy spread thin tendrils of warmth through his chest and stopped his hands from shaking. When he'd emptied the snifter, Tach had thanked her effusively, but she drew back when he tried to touch her. He asked her why. "I'll show you, she had said, offering her hand. "Lightly," she told him. His kiss had been the merest brush of his lips, not on the back of her hand but against the inside of her wrist, to feel her pulse, the life current inside her, because she was so very lovely, and kind, and because he wanted her.

A moment later he'd watched with sick dismay as her skin darkened to purple and then black. Another one of mine, he'd thought.

Yet somehow they had become friends. Not lovers, of course, except sometimes in his dreams; her capillaries ruptured at the slightest pressure, and to her hypersensitive nervous system even the lightest touch was painful. A gentle caress turned her black and blue; lovemaking would probably kill her. But friends, yes. She never asked him for anything he could not give, and so he could never fail her.

Breakfast was served by a hunchbacked black woman named Ruth who had pale blue feathers instead of hair. "The man brought this for you this morning," she told Angelface after she'd set the table, handing across a thick, square packet wrapped in brown paper. Angelface accepted it without comment while Tachyon drank his brandy-laced coffee and lifted knife and fork to stare with sick dismay at the implacable bacon and eggs.

"Don't look so stricken," Angelface said.

"I don't think I've told you about the time the Network starship came to Takis, and what my great-grandmother Amurath had to say to the Ly'bahr envoy," he began.

"No," she said. "Go on. I like your great-grandmother."

"That's one of us. She terrifies me," Tachyon said, and launched into the story.

Tom woke well before dawn, while Joey was snoring in the back room. He brewed a pot of coffee in a battered percolator and popped a Thomas English muffin into the toaster. While the coffee perked, he folded the hide-a-bed back into a couch. He covered his muffins with butter and strawberry preserves, and looked around for something to read. The comics beckoned.

He remembered the day they'd saved them. Most had been his, originally, including the run ofJetboy he got from his dad. He'd loved those comics. And then one day in 1954 he'd come home from school and found them gone, a full bookcase and two orange crates of funny books vanished. His mother said some women from the PTA had come by to tell her what awful things comic books were. They'd shown her a copy of a book by a Dr. Wertham about how comics turned kids into juvenile delinquents and homos, and how they glorified aces and jokers, and so his mother had let them take Tom's collection. He screamed and yelled and threw a tantrum, but it did no good.

The PTA had gathered up comic books from every kid in school. They were going to burn them all Saturday, in the schoolyard. It was happening all over the country; there was even talk of a law banning comic books, or at least the kinds about horror and crime and people with strange powers. Wertham and the PTA turned out to be right: that Friday night, on account of comic books, Tommy Tudbury and Joey DiAngelis became criminals.

Tom was nine; Joey was eleven, but he'd been driving his pop's truck since he was seven. In the middle of the night, he swiped the truck and Tom snuck out to meet him. When they got to the school, Joey jimmied open a window, and Tom climbed on his shoulders and looked into the dark classroom and concentrated and grabbed the carton with his collection in it and lifted it up and floated it out into the bed of the truck. Then he snatched four or five other cartons for good measure.

The PTA never noticed; they still had plenty to burn. If Dom DiAngelis wondered where all the comics had come from, he never said a word; he just built the shelves to hold them, proud as punch of his son who could read. From that day on, it was their collection, jointly.

Setting his coffee and muffin on the orange crate, Tom went to the bookcase and took down a couple of issues of Jetboy Comics. He reread them as he ate, Jetboy on Dinosaur Island, Jetboy and the Fourth Reich, and his favorite, the final issue, the true one, Jetboy and the Aliens. Inside the cover, the title was "Thirty Minutes Over Broadway." Tom read it twice as he sipped his cooling coffee. He lingered over some of the best panels. On the last page, they had a picture of the alien, Tachyon, weeping. Tom didn't know if that had happened or not. He closed the comic book and finished his English muffin. For a long time he sat there thinking.

Jetboy was a hero. And what was he? Nothing. A wimp, a chickenshit. A fuck of a lot of good his wild card power did anybody. It was useless, just like him.

Dispiritedly, he shrugged into his coat and went outside. The junkyard looked raw and ugly in the dawn, and a cold wind was blowing. A few hundred yards to the east, the bay was green and choppy. Tom climbed up to the old Packard on its little hill. The door creaked when he yanked it open. Inside, the seats were cracked and smelled of rot, but at least he was out of that wind. Tom slouched back with his knees up against the dash, staring out at sunrise. He sat unmoving for a long time; across the yard, hubcaps and old tires floated up in the air and went screaming off to splash into the choppy green waters of New York Bay. He could see the Statue of Liberty on her island, and the hazy outlines of the towers of Manhattan off to the northeast.

It was nearly seven-thirty, his limbs were stiff, and he'd lost count of the number of hubcaps he'd flung, when Tom Tudbury sat up with a strange expression on his face. The icebox he'd been juggling forty feet from the ground came down with a crash. He ran his fingers through his hair and lifted the icebox again, moved it over twenty yards or so, and dropped it right on Joey's corrugated tin roof. Then he did the same with a tire, a twisted bicycle, six hubcaps, and a little red wagon.

The door to the house flew open with a bang, and Joey came charging out into the cold wearing nothing but boxer shorts and a sleeveless undershirt. He looked real pissed. Tom snatched his bare feet, pulled them out from under him, and dumped him on his butt, hard. Joey cursed.

Tom grabbed him and yanked him into the air, upside down. "Where the fuck are you, Tudbury?" Joey screamed. "Cut it out, you dork. Lemme down."

Tom imagined two huge invisible hands, and tossed Joey from one to the other. "When I get down, I'm going to punch you so fuckin' hard you'll eat through a straw for the rest of your life," Joey promised.

The crank was stiff from years of disuse, but Tom finally managed to roll down the Packard's window. He stuck his head out. "Hiya kids, hiya, hiya, hiya," he croaked, chortling.

Suspended twelve feet from the ground, Joey dangled and made a fist. "I'll pluck your fuckin' magic twanger, shithead," he shouted. Tom yanked off his boxer shorts and hung them from a telephone pole. "You're gonna die, Tudbury" Joey said.

Tom took a big breath and set Joey on the ground, very gently. The moment of truth. Joey came running at him, screaming obscenities. Tom closed his eyes, put his hands on the steering wheel, and lifted. The Packard shifted beneath him. Sweat dotted his brow. He shut out the world, concentrated, counted to ten, slowly, backward.

When he finally opened his eyes, half expecting to see Joey's fist smashing into his nose, there was nothing to behold but a seagull perched on the hood of the Packard, its head cocked as it peered through the cracked windshield. He was floating. He was flying.

Tom stuck his head out of the window. Joey stood twenty feet below him, glaring, hands on his hips and a disgusted look on his face. "Now," Tom yelled down, smiling, "what was it you were saying last night?"

"I hope you can stay up there all day, you son of a bitch," Joey said. He made an ineffectual fist, and waved it. Lank black hair fell across his eyes. "Ah, shit, what does this prove? If I had a gun, you'd still be dead meat."

"If you had a gun, I wouldn't be sticking my head out the window," Tom said. "In fact, it'd be better if I didn't have a window." He considered that for a second, but it was hard to think while he was up here. The Packard was heavy. "I'm coming down," he said to Joey. "You, uh, you calmed down?" Joey grinned. "Try me and see, Tuds."

"Move out of the way. I don't want to squash you with this damn thing."

Joey shuffled to one side, bare-ass and goose-pimpled, and Tom let the Packard settle as gently as an autumn leaf on a still day. He had the door half open when Joey reached in, grabbed him, yanked him up, and pushed him back against the side of the car, his other hand cocked into a fist. "I oughtta-" he began. Then he shook his head, snorted, and punched Tom lightly in the shoulder. "Gimme back my fuckin drawers, ace," he said.

Back inside the house, Tom reheated the leftover coffee. "I'll need you to do the work," he said as he made himself some scrambled eggs and ham and a couple more English muffins. Using his teke always gave him quite an appetite. "You took auto shop and welding and all that shit. I'll do the wiring. "

"Wiring?" Joey said, warming his hands over his cup. "What the fuck for?"

"The lights and the TV cameras. I don't want any windows people can shoot through. I know where we can get some cameras cheap, and you got lots of old sets around here, I'll just fix them up." He sat down and attacked his eggs wolfishly. "I'll need loudspeakers too. Some kind of PA system. A generator. Wonder if I'll have room for a refrigerator in there?"

"That Packard's a big motherfucker," Joey said. "Take out the seats and you'll have room for three of the fuckers."

"Not the Packard," Tom said. "I'll find a lighter car. We can cover up the windows with old body panels or something." Joey pushed hair out of his eyes. "Fuck the body panels. I got armor plate. From the war. They scrapped a bunch of ships at the Navy base in '46 and '47, and Dom put in a bid for the metal, and bought us twenty goddamn tons. Fuckin' waste a money-who the fuck wants to buy battleship armor? I still got it all, sitting way out back rusting. You need a fuckin' sixteeninch gun to punch through that shit, Tuds. You'll be safe asfuck, I dunno. Safe, anyhow."

Tom knew. "Safe," he said loudly, "as a turtle in its shell!"

Only ten shopping days were left until Christmas, and Tach sat in one of the window alcoves, nursing an Irish coffee against the December cold and gazing through the one-way glass at the Bowery. The Funhouse wouldn't open for another hour yet, but the back door was always unlocked for Angelface's friends. Up on stage, a pair of joker jugglers who called themselves Cosmos and Chaos were tossing bowling balls around. Cosmos floated three feet above the stage in the lotus position, his eyeless face serene. He was totally blind, but he never missed a beat or dropped a ball. His partner, six-armed Chaos, capered around like a lunatic, chortling and telling bad jokes and keeping a cascade of flaming clubs going behind his back with two arms while the other four flung bowling balls at Cosmos. Tach spared them only a glance. As talented as they were, their deformities pained him.

Mal slid into his booth. "How many of those you had?" the bouncer demanded, glaring at the Irish coffee. The tendrils that hung from his lower lip expanded and contracted in a blind wormlike pulsing, and his huge, malformed blue-black jaw gave his face a look of belligerent contempt.

"I don't see that it's any of your business."

"You're no damn use at all, are you?"

"I never claimed I was."

Mal grunted. "You're worth 'bout as much as a sack of shit. I don't see why the hell Angel needs no damn pantywaist spaceman hanging 'round the place sopping up her booze…"

"She doesn't. I told her that."

"You can't tell that woman nothin'," Mal agreed. He made a fist. A very large fist. Before the Day of the Wild Card, he'd been the eighth-ranked heavyweight contender. Afterward, he had climbed as high as third… until they'd banned wild cards from professional sports, and wiped out his dreams in a stroke. The measure was aimed at aces, they said, to keep the games competitive, but there had been no exceptions made for jokers. Mal was older now, sparse hair turned iron gray, but he still looked strong enough to break Floyd Patterson over his knee and mean enough to stare down Sonny Liston. "Look at that," he growled in disgust, glaring out the window. Tiny was outside in his chair. "What the hell is he doing here? I told him not to come by here no more." Mal started for the door.

"Can't you just leave him alone?" Tachyon called after him. "He's harmless."

"Harmless?" Mal rounded on him. "His screamin' scares of all the fuckin' tourists, and who the hell's gonna pay for all your free booze?"

But then the door pushed open, and Desmond stood there, overcoat folded over one arm, his trunk half-raised.

"Let him be, Mal," the maitre d' said wearily. "Go on, now." Muttering, Mal stalked off. Desmond came over and seated himself in Tachyon's booth. "Good morning, Doctor," he said.

Tachyon nodded and finished his drink. The whiskey had all gone to the bottom of the cup, and it warmed him on the way down. He found himself staring at the face in the mirrored tabletop: a worn, dissipated, coarse face, eyes reddened and puffy, long red hair tangled and greasy, features distorted by alcoholic bloat. That wasn't him, that couldn't be him, he was handsome, clean-featured, distinguished, his face was Desmond's trunk snaked out, its fingers locking around his wrist roughly, yanking him forward. "You haven't heard a word I've said, have you?" Des said, his voice low and urgent with anger. Blearily, Tach realized that Desmond had been talking to him. He began to mutter apologies.

"Never mind about that," Des said, releasing his grip. "Listen to me. I was asking for your help, Doctor. I may be a joker, but I'm not an uneducated man. I've read about you. You have certain-abilities, let us say."

"No," Tach interrupted. "Not the way you're thinking."

"Your powers are quite well documented," Des said. "I don't…" Tach began awkwardly. He spread his hands. "That was then. I've lost-I mean, I can't, not anymore." He stared down at his own wasted features, wanting to look Des in the eye, to make him understand, but unable to bear the sight of the joker's deformity.

"You mean you won't," Des said. He stood up. "I thought that if I spoke to you before we opened, I might actually find you sober. I see I was mistaken. Forget everything I said."

"I'd help you if I could," Tach began to say.

"I wasn't asking for me," Des said sharply.

When he was gone, Tachyon went to the long silverchrome bar and got down a full bottle of cognac. The first glass made him feel better; the second stopped his hands from shaking. By the third he had begun to weep. Mal came over and looked down at him in disgust. "Never knew no man cried as much as you do," he said, thrusting a dirty handkerchief at Tachyon roughly before he left; to help them open.

He had been aloft for four and a half hours when the news of the fire came crackling over the police-band radio down by his right foot. Not very far aloft, true, only about six feet from the ground, but that was enough-six feet or sixty, it didn't make all that much difference, Tom had found. Four and a half hours, and he didn't feel the least bit tired yet. In fact, he felt sensational.

He was strapped securely into a bucket seat Joey had pulled from a mashed-up Triumph TR-3 and mounted on a low pivot right in the center of the VW The only light was the wan phosphor glow from an array of mismatched television screens that surrounded him on all sides. Between the cameras and their tracking motors, the generator, the ventilation system, the sound equipment, the control panels, the spare box of vacuum tubes, and the little refrigerator, he hardly had space to swing around. But that was okay. Tom was more a claustrophile than a claustrophobe anyway; he liked it in here. Around the exterior of the gutted Beetle, Joey had mounted two overlapping layers of thick battleship armor. It was better than a goddamned tank. Joey had already pinged a few shots off it with the Luger that Dom had taken off a German officer during the war. A lucky shot might be able to take out one of his cameras or lights, but there was no way to get to Tom himself inside the shell. He was better than safe, he was invulnerable, and when he felt this secure and sure of himself, there was no limit on what he might be able to do.

The shell was heavier than the Packard by the time they'd gotten finished with it, but it didn't seem to matter. Four and a half hours, never touching ground, sliding around silently and almost effortlessly through the junkyard, and Tom hadn't even worked up a sweat.

When he heard the report over the radio, a jolt of excitement went through him. This is it! he thought. He ought to wait for Joey, but Joey had driven to Pompeii Pizza to pick up dinner (pepperoni, onion, and extra cheese) and there was no time to waste, this was his chance.

The ring of lights on the bottom of the shell threw stark shadows over the hills of twisted metal and trash as Tom pushed the shell higher into the air, eight feet up, ten, twelve.

His eyes flicked nervously from one screen to the next, watching the ground recede. One set, its picture tube filched from an old Sylvania, began a slow vertical roll. Tom played with a knob and stopped it. His palms were sweaty. Fifteen feet up, he began to creep forward, until the shell reached the shoreline. In front of him was darkness; it was too thick a night to see New York, but he knew it was there, if he could reach it. On his small black-and-white screens, the waters of New York Bay seemed even darker than usual, an endless choppy ocean of ink looming before him. He'd have to grope his way across, until the city lights came into sight. And if he lost it out there, over the water, he'd be joining Jetboy and J. F K. a lot sooner than he planned; even if he could unscrew the hatch quick enough to avoid drowning, he couldn't swim.

But he wasn't going to lose it, Tom thought suddenly. Why the fuck was he hesitating? He wasn't going to lose it ever again, was he? He had to believe that.

He pressed his lips together, pushed off with his mind, and the shell slid smoothly out over the water. The salt waves beneath him rose and fell. He'd never had to push against water before; it felt different. Tom had an instant of panic; the shell rocked and dropped three feet before he caught hold of himself and adjusted. He calmed himself with an effort, shoved upward, and rose. High, he thought, he'd come in high, he'd fly in, like Jetboy, like Black Eagle, like a fucking ace. The shell moved out, faster and faster, gliding across the bay with swift serenity as Tom gained confidence. He'd had never felt so incredibly powerful, so good, so goddamned right.

The compass worked fine; in less than ten minutes, the lights of the Battery and the Wall Street district loomed up before him. Tom pushed still higher, and floated uptown, hugging the shoreline of the Hudson. Jetboy's Tomb came and went beneath him. He'd stood in front of it a dozen times, gazing up at the face of the big metal statue out front. He wondered what that statue might think if it could look up and see him tonight.

He had a New York street map, but tonight he didn't need it; the flames could be seen almost a mile off. Even inside his armor Tom could feel the heat waves licking up at him when he made a pass overhead. He carefully began a descent. His fans whirred, and his cameras tracked at his command; below was chaos and cacophony, sirens and shouting, the crowd, the hurrying firemen, the police barricades and the ambulances, big hook-and-ladder trucks spraying water into the inferno. At first no one noticed him, hovering fifty feet above the sidewalk-until he came in low enough for his lights to play on the walls of the building. Then he saw them looking up, pointing; he felt giddy with excitement.

But he had only an instant to relish the feeling. Then, from the corner of an eye, he saw her in one of his screens. She appeared suddenly in a fifth-floor window, bent over and coughing, her dress already afire. Before he could act, the flames licked at her; she screamed and jumped.

He caught her in midair, without thinking, without hesitating, without wondering whether he could do it. He just did it, caught her and held her and lowered her gently to the ground. The firemen surrounded her, put out her dress, and hustled her into an ambulance. And now, Tom saw, everyone was looking up at him, at the strange dark shape floating high in the night, with its ring of shining lights. The police band was crackling; they were reporting him as a flying saucer, he heard. He grinned.

A cop climbed up on top of his police car, holding a bullhorn, and began to hail him. Tom turned off the radio to hear better over the roar of the flames. He was telling Tom to land and identify himself, asking who he was, what he was. That was easy. Tom turned on his microphone. "I'm the Turtle," he said. The VW had no tires; in the wheel wells, Joey had rigged the most humongous speakers they could find, powered by the largest amp on the market. For the first time, the voice of the Turtle was heard in the land a booming "I'M THE TURTLE" echoing down the streets and alleys, a rolling thunder crackling with distortion. Except what he said didn't sound quite right. Tom cranked the volume up even higher, injected a little more bass into his voice. "I AM THE GREAT AND POWERFUL TURTLE," he announced to them all.

Then he flew a block west, to the dark polluted waters of the Hudson, and imagined two huge invisible hands forty feet across. He lowered them into the river, cupped them full, and lifted. Rivulets of water dribbled to the street all the way back. When he dropped the first cascade on the flames, a ragged cheering went up from the crowd below.

"Merry Christmas," Tach declared drunkenly when the clock struck midnight and the record Christmas Eve crowd began to whoop and shout and pound on the tables. On stage,

Humphrey Bogart cracked a lame joke in an unfamiliar voice. All the lights in the house dimmed briefly; when they came back up, Bogart had been replaced by a portly, round-faced man with a red nose. "Who is he now?" Tach asked the twin on his left.

"W C. Fields," she whispered. She slid her tongue around the inside of his ear. The twin on the right was doing something even more interesting under the table, where her hand had somehow found a way into his trousers. The twins were his Christmas gift from Angelface. "You can pretend they're me," she'd told him, though of course they were nothing like her. Nice kids, both of them, buxom and cheerful and absolutely uninhibited, if a bit simpleminded; they reminded him of Takisian sex toys. The one on the right had drawn the wild card, but she wore her cat mask even in bed, and there was no visible deformity to disturb the sweet pleasure of his erection.

W C. Fields, whoever he was, ofered some cynical observations about Christmas and small children. The crowd hooted him off the stage. The Projectionist had an astonishing array of faces, but he couldn't tell a joke. Tach didn't mind; he had all the diversion he needed.

"Paper, Doe?" The vendor thrust a copy of the Herald Tribune across the table with a thick three-fingered hand. His flesh was blue-black and oily looking. "All the Christmas news," he said, shifting the clumsy stack of papers under his arm. Two small curving tusks protruded from the corners of his wide, grinning mouth. Beneath a porkpie hat, the great bulge of his skull was covered with tufts of bristly red hair. On the streets they called him the Walrus.

"No thank you, Jube," Tach said with drunken dignity. "I have no desire to wallow in human folly tonight."

"Hey, look," said the twin on the right. "The Turtle!" Tachyon looked around, momentarily befuddled, wondering how that huge armored shell could possibly have gotten inside the Funhouse, but of course she was referring to the newspaper.

"You better buy it for her, Tacky," the twin on the left said, giggling. "If you don't she'll pout."

Tachyon sighed. "I'll take one. But only if I don't have to listen to any of your jokes, Jube."

"Heard a new one about a joker, a Polack, and an Irishman stuck on a desert island, but just for that I'm not going to tell it," the Walrus replied with a rubbery grin.

Tachyon dug for some coins, found nothing in his pockets but a small, feminine hand. Jube winked. "I'll get it from Des," he said. Tachyon spread the newspaper out on the table, while the club erupted in applause as Cosmos and Chaos made their entrance.

A grainy photograph of the Turtle was spread across two columns. Tachyon thought it looked like a flying pickle, a big lumpy dill covered with little bumps. The Turtle had apprehended a hit-and-run driver who had killed a nine-year-old boy in Harlem, intercepting his flight and lifting the car twenty feet off the ground, where it floated with its engine roaring and its tires spinning madly until the police finally caught up. In a related sidebar, the rumor that the shell was an experimental robot flying tank had been denied by an Air Force spokesman.

"You'd think they'd have found something more important to write about by now," Tachyon said. It was the third big story about the Turtle this week. The letter columns, the editorial pages, everything was Turtle, Turtle, Turtle. Even television was rabid with Turtle speculation. Who was he? What was he? How did he do it?

One reporter had even sought out Tach to ask that question. "Telekinesis," Tachyon told him. "It's nothing new. Almost common, in fact." Teke had been the single ability most frequently manifested by virus victims back in '46. He'd seen a dozen patients who could move paper clips and pencils, and one women who could lift her own body weight for ten minutes at a time. Even Earl Sanderson's flight had been telekinetic in origin. What he did not tell them was that teke on this scale was unprecedented. Of course, when the story ran, they got half of it wrong.

"He's a joker, you know," whispered the twin on the right, the one in the silver-gray cat mask. She was leaning against his shoulder, reading about the Turtle.

"A joker?" Tach said.

"He hides inside a shell, doesn't he? Why would he do that unless he was really awful to look at?" She had taken her hand out of his trousers. "Could I have that paper?"

Tach pushed it toward her. "They're cheering him now," he said sharply. "They cheered the Four Aces too."

"That was a colored group, right?" she said, turning her attention to the headlines.

"She's keeping a scrapbook," her sister said. "All the jokers think he's one of them. Stupid, huh? I bet its just a machine, some kind of Air Force flying saucer."

"He is not," her twin said. "It says so right here." She pointed to the sidebar with a long, red-painted nail. "Never mind about her," the twin on the left said. She moved closer to Tachyon, nibbling on his neck as her hand went under the table. "Hey, what's wrong? You're all soft."

"My pardons," Tachyon said gloomily. Cosmos and Chaos were flinging axes, machetes, and knives across the stage, the glittering cascade multiplied into infinity by the mirrors around them. He had a bottle of fine cognac at hand, and lovely, willing women on either side of him, but suddenly, for some reason he could not have named, it did not feel like such a good night after all. He filled his glass almost to the brim and inhaled the heady alcoholic fumes. "Merry Christmas," he muttered to no one in particular.

Consciousness returned with the angry tones of Mal's voice. Tach lifted his head groggily from the mirrored tabletop, blinking down at his puffy red reflection. The jugglers, the twins, and the crowd were long gone. His cheek was sticky from lying in a puddle of spilled liquor. The twins had jollied him and fondled him and one of them had even gone under the table, for all the good it did. Then Angelface had come to the tableside and sent them away. "Go to sleep, Tacky," she'd said. Mal had come up to ask if he should lug him back to bed. "Not today," she'd said, "you know what day this is. Let him sleep it off here." He couldn't recall when he'd gone to sleep.

His head was about to explode, and Mal's shouting wasn't making things any better. "I don't give a flyin' fuck what you were promised, scumbag, you're not seeing her," the bouncer yelled. A softer voice said something in reply. "You'll get your fuckin money, but that's all you'll get," Mal snapped.

Tach raised his eyes. In the mirrors he saw their reflections darkly: odd twisted shapes outlined in the wan dawn light, reflections of reflections, hundreds of them, beautiful, monstrous, uncountable, his children, his heirs, the offspring of his failures, a living sea of jokers. The soft voice said something else. "Ah, kiss my joker ass," Mal said. He had a body like a twisted stick and a head like a pumpkin; it made Tach smile. Mal shoved someone and reached behind his back, groping for his gun.

The reflections and the reflections of the reflections, the gaunt shadows and the bloated ones, the round-faced ones and the knife-thin ones, the black and the white, they moved all at once, filling the club with noise; a hoarse shout from Mal, the crack of gunfire. Instinctively Tach dove for cover, cracking his forehead hard on the edge of the table as he slid down. He blinked back tears of pain and lay curled up on the floor, peering out at the reflections of feet while the world disintegrated into a sharp-edged cacophony. Glass was shattering and falling, mirrors breaking on all sides, silvered knives flying through the air, too many for even Cosmos and Chaos to catch, dark splinters eating into the reflections, taking bites out of all the twisted shadow-shapes, blood spattering against the cracked mirrors.

It ended as suddenly as it had begun. The soft voice said something and there was the sound of footsteps, the crunch of glass underfoot. A moment later, a muffled scream from off behind him. Tach lay under the table, drunk and terrified. His finger hurt: bleeding, he saw, sliced open by a sliver of mirror. All he could think of were the stupid human superstitions about broken mirrors and bad luck. He cradled his head in his arms so the awful nightmare would go away.

When he woke again, a policeman was shaking him roughly.

Mal was dead, one detective told him; they showed him a morgue photo of the bouncer lying in a pool of blood and a welter of broken glass. Ruth was dead too, and one of the janitors, a dim-witted cyclops who had never hurt anyone. They showed him a newspaper. The Santa Claus Slaughter, that was what they called it, and the lead was about three jokers who'd found death waiting under the tree on Christmas morning.

Miss Fascetti was gone, the other detective told him, did he know anything about that? Did he think she was involved? Was she a culprit or a victim? What could he tell them about her? He said he didn't know any such person, until they explained that they were asking about Angela Fascetti and maybe he knew her better as Angelface. She was gone and Mal was shot dead, and the most frightening thing of all was that Tach did not know where his next drink was coming from.

They held him for four days, questioning him relentlessly, going over the same ground again and again, until Tachyon was screaming at them, pleading with them, demanding his rights, demanding a lawyer, demanding a drink. They gave him only the lawyer. The lawyer said they couldn't hold him without charging him, so they charged him with being a material witness, with vagrancy, with resisting arrest, and questioned him again.

By the third day, his hands were shaking and he was having waking hallucinations. One of the detectives, the kindly one, promised him a bottle in return for his cooperation, but somehow his answers never quite satisfied them, and the bottle was not forthcoming. The bad-tempered one threatened to hold him forever unless he told the truth. I thought it was a nightmare, Tach told him, weeping. I was drunk, I'd been asleep. No, I couldn't see them, just the reflections, distorted, multiplied. I don't know how many there were. I don't know what it was about. No, she had no enemies, everyone loved Angelface. No, she didn't kill Mal, that didn't make sense, Mal loved her. One of them had a soft voice. No, I don't know which one. No, I can't remember what they said. No, I don't know if they were jokers or not, they looked like jokers, but the mirrors distort, some of them, not all of them, don't you see? No, I couldn't possibly pick them out of a lineup, I never really saw them. I had to hide under the table, don t you see, the assassins had come, that's what my father always told me, there wasn't anything I could do.

When they realized that he was telling them all he knew, they dropped the charges and released him. To the dark streets of Jokertown and the cold of the night.

He walked down the Bowery alone, shivering. The Walrus was hawking the evening papers from his newsstand on the corner of Hester. "Read all about it," he called out. "Turtle Terror in Jokertown." Tachyon paused to stare dully at the headlines. POLICE SEEK TURTLE, the Post reported. TURTLE CHARGED WITH ASSAULT, announced the World-Telegram. So the cheering had stopped already. He glanced at the text. The Turtle had been prowling Jokertown the past two nights, lifting people a hundred feet in the air to question them, threatening to drop them if he didn't like their answers. When police tried to make an arrest last night, the Turtle had deposited two of their black-and-whites on the roof of Freakers at Chatham Square. CURB THE TURTLE, the editorial in the WorldTelegram said.

"You all right, Doc?" the Walrus asked.

"No," said Tachyon, putting down the paper. He couldn't afford to pay for it anyway.

Police barriers blocked the entrance to the Funhouse, and a padlock secured the door. CLOSED INDEFINITELY, the sign said. He needed a drink, but the pockets of his bandleader's coat were empty. He thought of Des and Randall, and realized that he had no idea where they lived, or what their last names might be.

Trudging back to ROOMS, Tach climbed wearily up the stairs. When he stepped into the darkness, he had just enough time to notice that the room was frigidly cold; the window was open and a bitter wind was scouring out the old smells of urine, mildew, and drink. Had he done that? Confused, he stepped toward it, and someone came out from behind the door and grabbed him.

It happened so fast he scarcely had time to react. The forearm across his windpipe was an iron bar, choking off his scream, and a hand wrenched his right arm up behind his back, hard. He was choking, his arm close to breaking, and then he was being shoved toward the o en window, running at it, and Tachyon could only thrash feebly in a grip much stronger than his own. The windowsill caught him square in the stomach, knocking the last of his breath right out of him, and suddenly he was falling, head over heels, locked helplessly in the steel embrace of his attacker, both of them plunging toward the sidewalk below.

They jerked to a stop five feet above the cement, with a wrench that elicited a grunt from the man behind him. Tach had closed his eyes before the instant of impact. He opened them as they began to float upward. Above the yellow halo of the streetlamp was a ring of much brighter lights, set in a hovering darkness that blotted out the winter stars.

The arm across his throat had loosened enough for Tachyon to groan. "You," he said hoarsely, as they curved around the shell and came to rest gently on top of it. The metal was icy cold, its chill biting right through the fabric of Tachyon's pants. As the Turtle began to rise straight up into the night, Tachyon's captor released him. He drew in a shuddering breath of cold air, and rolled over to face a man in a zippered leather jacket, black dungarees, and a rubbery green frog mask. "Who…?" he gasped.

"I'm the Great and Powerful Turtle's mean-ass sidekick," the man in the frog mask said, rather cheerfully. "DOCTOR TACHYON, I PRESUME," boomed the shell's speakers, far above the alleys of Jokertown. "I'VE

ALWAYS WANTED TO MEET YOU. I READ ABOUT YOU WHEN I WAS JUST A KID."

"Turn it down," Tach croaked weakly.

"OH. SURE. Is that better?" The volume diminished sharply. "It's noisy in here, and behind all this armor I can't always tell how loud I sound. I'm sorry if we scared you, but re couldn't take the chance of you saying no. We need you."

Tach stayed just where he was, shivering, shaken. "What do you want?" he asked wearily.

"Help," the Turtle declared. They were still rising; the lights of Manhattan spread out all around them, and the spires of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building rose uptown. They were higher than either. The wind was cold and gusting; Tach clung to the shell for dear life.

"Leave me alone," Tachyon said. "I have no help to give you. I have no help to give anybody."

"Fuck, he's crying," the man in the frog mask said. "You don't understand," the Turtle said. The shell began to drift west, its motion silent and steady. There was something awesome and eerie about the flight. "You have to help. I've tried on my own, but I'm getting nowhere. But you, your powers, they can make the difference."

Tachyon was lost in his own self-pity, too cold and exhausted and despairing to reply. "I want a drink," he said. "Fuck it," said frog-face. "Dumbo was right about this guy, he's nothing but a goddamned wino."

"He doesn't understand," said the Turtle. "Once we explain, he'll come around. Doctor Tachyon, we're talking about your friend Angelface."

He needed a drink so badly it hurt. "She was good to me," he said, remembering the sweet perfume of her satin sheets, and her bloody footprints on the mirror tiles. "But there's nothing I can do. I told the police everything I know."

"Chickenshit asshole," said frog-face.

"When I was a kid, I read about you in Jetboy Comics," the Turtle said. "`Thirty Minutes Over Broadway,' remember? You were supposed to be as smart as Einstein. I might be able to save your friend Angelface, but I can't without your powers. "

"I don't do that any longer. I can't. There was someone I hurt, someone I cared for, but I seized her mind, just for an'' instant, for a good reason, or at least I thought it was for a good reason, but it… destroyed her. I can't do it again."

"Boo hoo," said frog-face mockingly. "Let's toss 'im, Turtle, he's not worth a bucket of warm piss." He took something out of one of the pockets of his leather jacket; Tach was astonished to see that it was a bottle of beer.

"Please," Tachyon said, as the man popped off the cap with a bottle-opener hung round his neck… ip, Tach said.

"Just a sip." He hated the taste of beer, but he needed something, anything. It had been days. "Please."

"Fuck off," frog-face said.

"Tachyon," said the Turtle, "you can make him."

"No I can't," Tach said. The man raised the bottle up to green rubber lips. "I can't," Tach repeated. Frog-face continued to drink. "No." He could hear it gurgling.

"Please, just a little."

The man lowered the beer bottle, sloshed it thoughtfully. "Just a swallow left," he said.

"Please." He reached out, hands trembling.

"Nah," said frog-face. He began to turn the bottle upside down. "'Course, if you're really thirsty, you could just grab my mind, right? Make me give you the fuckin' bottle." He tipped the bottle a little more. "Go on, I dare ya, try it."

Tach watched the last mouthful of beer dribble down onto the Turtle's shell and run off into empty air.

"Fuck," said the man in the frog mask. "You got it bad, don't you?" He pulled another bottle from his pocket, opened it, and handed it across. Tach cradled it with both hands. The beer was cold and sour, but he had never tasted anything half so sweet. He drained it all in one long swallow.

"Got any other smart ideas?" frog-face asked the Turtle. Ahead of them was the blackness of the Hudson River, the lights of Jersey off to the west. They were descending. Beneath them, overlooking the Hudson, was a sprawling edifice of steel and glass and marble that Tachyon suddenly recognized, though he had never set foot inside it: Jetboy's Tomb. "Where are we going?" he asked.

"We're going to see a man about a rescue," the Turtle said. Jetboy's Tomb filled the entire block, on the site where the pieces of his plane had come raining down. It filled Tom's screens too, as he sat in the warm darkness of his shell, bathed in a phosphor glow. Motors whirred as the cameras moved in their tracks. The huge flanged wings of the tomb curved upward, as if the building itself was about to take flight. Through tall, narrow windows, he could see glimpses of the full-size replica of the JB-1 suspended from the ceiling, its scarlet flanks aglow from hidden lights. Above the doors, the hero's last words had been carved, each letter chiseled into the black Italian marble and filled in stainless steel. The metal flashed as the shell's white-hot spots slid across the legend:

I CAN'T DIE YET, I HAVEN'T SEEN THE JOLSON STORY

Tom brought the shell down in front of the monument, to hover five feet above the broad marble plaza at the top of the stairs. Nearby, a twenty-foot-tall steel Jetboy looked out over the West Side Highway and the Hudson beyond, his fists cocked. The metal used for the sculpture had come from the wreckage of crashed planes, Tom knew. He knew that statue's face better than he knew his father's.

The man they'd come to meet emerged from the shadows at the base of the statue, a chunky dark shape huddled in a thick overcoat, hands shoved deep into his pockets. Tom shone a light on him; a camera tracked to give him a better view. The joker was a portly man, round-shouldered and well-dressed. His coat had a fur collar and his fedora was pulled low. Instead of a nose, he had an elephant's trunk in the middle of his face. The end of it was fringed with fingers, snug in a little leather glove.

Dr. Tachyon slid off the top of the shell, lost his footing and landed on his ass. Tom heard Joey laugh. Then Joey jumped down too, and pulled Tachyon to his feet.

The joker glanced down at the alien. "So you convinced him to come after all. I'm surprised."

"We were real fuckin' persuasive," Joey said.

"Des," Tachyon said, sounding confused. "What are you doing here? Do you know these people?"

Elephant-face twitched his trunk. "Since the day before yesterday, yes, in a manner of speaking. They came to me. The hour was late, but a phone call from the Great and Powerful Turtle does pique one's interest. He offered his help, and I accepted. I even told them where you lived."

Tachyon ran a hand through his tangled, filthy hair. "I'm sorry about Mal. Do you know anything about Angelface? You know how much she meant to me."

"In dollars and cents, I know quite precisely," Des said. Tachyon's mouth gaped open. He looked hurt. Tom felt sorry for him. "I wanted to go to you," he said. "I didn't know where to find you."

Joey laughed. "He's listed in the fuckin' phone book, dork. Ain't that many guys named Xavier Desmond." He looked at the shell. "How the fuck is he gonna find the lady if he couldn't even find his buddy here?"

Desmond nodded. "An excellent point. This isn't going to work. Just look at him!" His trunk pointed. "What good is he? We're wasting precious time."

"We did it your way," Tom replied. "We're getting nowhere. No one's talking. He can get the information we need. "

"I don't understand any of this," Tachyon interrupted. Joey made a disgusted sound. He had found a beer somewhere and was cracking the cap.

"What's happening?" Tach asked.

"If you had been the least bit interested in anything besides cognac and cheap tarts, you might know," Des said icily.

"Tell him what you told us," Tom commanded. When he knew, Tachyon would surely help, he thought. He had to. Des gave a heavy sigh. "Angelface had a heroin habit. She hurt, you know. Perhaps you noticed that from time to time, Doctor? The drug was the only thing that got her through the day. Without it, the pain would have driven her insane. Nor was hers an ordinary junkie's habit. She used uncut heroin in quantities that would have killed any normal user. You saw how minimally it affected her. The joker metabolism is a curious thing. Do you have any idea how expensive heroin is, Doctor Tachyon? Never mind, I see that you don't. Angelface made quite a bit of money from the Funhouse, but it was never enough. Her source gave her credit until she was in far over her head, then demanded… call it a promissory note. Or a Christmas present. She had no choice. It was that or be cut off. She hoped to come up with the money, being an eternal optimist. She failed. On Christmas morning her source came by to collect. Mal wasn't about to let them have her. They insisted."

Tachyon was squinting in the glare of the lights. His image began to roll upward. "Why didn't she tell me?" he said. "I suppose she didn't want to burden you, Doctor. It might have taken the fun out of your self-pitying binges."

"Have you told the police?"

"The police? Ah, yes. New York's finest. The ones who seem so curiously uninterested whenever a joker is beaten or killed, yet ever so diligent if a tourist is robbed. The ones who so regularly arrest, harass, and brutalize any joker who has the poor taste to live anywhere outside of Jokertown. Perhaps we might consult the officer who commented that, raping a joker woman is more a lapse in taste than a crime." Des snorted. "Doctor Tachyon, where do you think Angelface bought her drugs? Do you think any ordinary street pusher would have access to uncut heroin in the quantities she needed? The police were her source. The head of the Jokertown narcotics squad, if you care to be precise. Oh, I'll grant you that it's unlikely the whole department is involved. Homicide may be conducting a legitimate investigation. What do you think they'd say if we told them that Bannister was the murderer? You think they'd arrest one of their own? On the strength of my testimony, or the testimony of any joker?"

"We'll make good her note," Tachyon blurted. "We'll give this man his money or the Funhouse or whatever it is he wants."

"The promissory note," Desmond said wearily, "was not for the Funhouse."

"Whatever it was, give it to him!"

"She promised him the only thing she still had that he wanted," Desmond said. "Herself. Her beauty and her pain. The word's out on the street, if you know how to listen. There's going to be a very special New Year's Eve party somewhere in the city. Invitation only. Expensive. A unique thrill. Bannister will have her first. He's wanted that for a long time. But the other guests will have their turn. Jokertown hospitality."

Tachyon's mouth worked soundlessly for a moment. "The police?" he finally managed. He looked as shocked as Tom had been when Desmond told him and Joey.

"Do you think they love us, Doctor? We're freaks. We're diseased. Jokertown is a hell, a dead end, and the Jokertown police are the most brutal, corrupt, and incompetent in the city. I don't think anyone planned what happened at the Funhouse, but it happened, and Angelface knows too much. They can't let her live, so they're going to have some fun with the joker cunt."

Tom Tudbury leaned toward his microphone. "I can rescue her," he said. "These fuckers haven't seen anything like the Great and Powerful Turtle. But I can't find her."

Des said, "She has a lot of friends. But none of us can read minds, or make a man do something he doesn't want to." "I can't," Tachyon protested. He seemed to shrink into himself, to edge away from them, and for an instant Tom thought the little man was going to run away. "You don't understand. "

"What a fuckin' candy-ass," Joey said loudly.

Watching Tachyon crumble on his screens, Tom Tudbury finally ran out of patience. "If you fail, you fail," he said. "And if you don't try, you fail too, so what the fuck difference does it make? Jetboy failed, but at least he tried. He wasn't an ace, he wasn't a goddamned Takisian, he was just a guy with a jet, but he did what he could."

"I want to…. just… can't."

Des trumpeted his disgust. Joey shrugged.

Inside his shell, Tom sat in stunned disbelief. He wasn't going to help. He hadn't believed it, not really. Joey had warned him, Desmond too, but Tom had insisted, he'd been sure, this was Doctor Tachyon, of course he'd help, maybe he was having some problems, but once they explained the situation to him, once they made it clear what was at stake and how much they needed him-he had to help. But he was saying no. It was the last goddamned straw.

He twisted the volume knob up all the way. "YOU SON OF A BITCH," he boomed, and the sound hammered out over the plaza. Tachyon flinched away. "YOU NO-GOOD FUCKING LITTLE ALIEN CHICKENSHIT!" Tachyon stumbled backward down the stairs, but the Turtle drifted after him, loudspeakers blaring. "IT WAS ALL A LIE, WASN'T IT? EVERYTHING IN THE

COMIC BOOKS, EVERYTHING IN THE PAPERS, IT WAS ALL A STUPID LIE. ALL MY

LIFE THEY BEAT ME UP AND THEY CALLED ME A FUCKING WIMP AND A COWARD

BUT YOU'RE THE COWARD, YOU ASSHOLE, YOU SHITTY LITTLE WHINER, YOU

WON'T EVEN TRY, YOU DON'T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT ANYBODY, ABOUT YOUR FRIEND

ANGELFACE OR ABOUT KENNEDY OR JETBOY OR ANYBODY, YOU HAVE ALL THESE

FUCKING POWERS AND YOU'RE NOTHING, YOU WON'T DO ANYTHING, YOU'RE WORSE

THAN OSWALD OR BRAUN OR ANY OF THEM." Tachyon staggered down the steps, hands over his ears, shouting something unintelligible, but Tom was past listening. His anger had a life of its own now. He lashed out, and the alien's head snapped around and reddened with the force of the slap. "ASSHOLE!" Tom was shrieking. "YOU'RE THE ONE IN A SHELL." Invisible blows rained down on Tachyon in a fury. He reeled, fell, rolled a third of the way down the stairs, tried to get back to his feet, was bowled over again, and bounced down to the street head over heels. "ASSHOLE!" the Turtle thundered. "RUN, YOU SHITHEAD. GET

OUT OF HERE, OR I'LL THROW YOU IN THE DAMNED RIVER! RUN, YOU LITTLE

WIMP, BEFORE THE GREAT AND POWERFUL TURTLE REALLY GETS UPSET! RUN,

DAMN IT! YOU'RE THE ONE IN THE SHELL! YOU'RE THE ONE IN THE SHELL!"

And he ran, dashing blindly from one streetlight to the next, until he was lost in the shadows. Tom Tudbury watched him vanish on the shell's array of television screens. He felt sick and beaten. His head was throbbing. He needed a beer, or an aspirin, or both. When he heard the sirens coming, he scooped up Joey and Desmond and set them on top of his shell, killed his lights, and rose straight up into the night, high, high up, into darkness and cold and silence.

That night Tach slept the sleep of the damned, thrashing about like a man in a fever dream, crying out, weeping, waking again and again from nightmares, only to drift back into them.

He dreamt he was back on Takis, and his hated cousin Zabb was boasting about a new sex toy, but when he brought her out it was Blythe, and he raped her right there in front of him. Tach watched it all, powerless to intervene; her body writhed beneath his and blood flowed from her mouth and ears and vagina. She began to change, into a thousand joker shapes each more horrible than the last, and Zabb went right on, raping them all as they screamed and struggled. But afterward, when Zabb rose from the corpse covered with blood, it wasn't his cousin's face at all, it was his own, worn and dissipated, a coarse face, eyes reddened and puffy; long red hair tangled and greasy, features distorted by alcoholic bloat or perhaps by a Funhouse mirror.

He woke around noon, to the terrible sound of Tiny weeping outside his window. It was more than he could stand. It was all more than he could stand. He stumbled to the window and threw it open and screamed at the giant to be quiet, to stop, to leave him alone, to give him peace, please, but Tiny went on and on, so much pain, so much guilt, so much shame, why couldn't they let him be, he couldn't take it anymore, no, shut up, shut up, please shut up, and suddenly Tach shrieked and reached out with his mind and plunged into Tiny's head and shut him up.

The silence was thunderous.

The nearest phone booth was in a candy store a block down. Vandals had ripped the phone book to shreds. He dialed information and got the listing for Xavier Desmond on Christie Street, only a short walk away. The apartment was a fourthfloor walk-up above a mask shop. Tachyon was out of breath by the time he got to the top.

Des opened the door on the fifth knock. "You," he said. "The Turtle," Tach said. His throat was dry. "Did he get anything last night?"

"No," Desmond replied. His trunk twitched. "The same story as before. They're wise to him now, they know he won't really drop them. They call his bluff. Short of actually killing someone, there's nothing to do."

"Tell me who to ask," Tack said. "You?" Des said.

Tach could not look the joker in the eye. He nodded. "Let me get my coat," Des said. He emerged from the apartment bundled up for the cold, carrying a fur cap and a frayed beige raincoat. "Put your hair up in the hat," he told Tachyon, "and leave that ridiculous coat here. You don't want to be recognized." Tach did as he said. On the way out, Des went into the mask shop for the final touch.

"A chicken?" Tach said when Des handed him the mask. It had bright yellow feathers, a prominent orange beak, a floppy red coxcomb on top.

"I saw it and I knew it was you," said Des. "Put it on." A large crane was moving into position at Chatham Square, to get the police cars off Freakers roof. The club was open. The doorman was a seven-foot-tall hairless joker with fangs. He grabbed Des by the arm as they tried to pass under the neon thighs of the six-breasted dancer who writhed on the marquee. "No jokers allowed," he said brusquely. "Get lost, Tusker."

Reach out and grab his mind, Tachyon thought. Once, before Blythe, he would have done it instinctively. But now he hesitated, and hesitating, he was lost.

Des reached into his back pocket, pulled out a wallet, extracted a fifty-dollar bill. "You were watching them lower the police cars," he said. "You never saw me pass."

"Oh, yeah," the doorman said. The bill vanished in a clawed hand. "Real interesting, them cranes."

"Sometimes money is the most potent power of all," Des said as they walked into the cavernous dimness within. A sparse noontime crowd sat eating the free lunch and watching a stripper gyrate down a long runway behind a barbed-wire barrier. She was covered with silky gray hair, except for her breasts, which had been shaved bare. Desmond scanned the booths along the far wall. He took Tach's elbow and led him to a dark corner, where a man in a peacoat was sitting with a stein of beer. "They lettin' jokers in here now?" the man asked gruffly as they approached. He was saturnine and pockmarked.

Tack went into his mind. Fuck what's this now the elephant man's from the Funhouse who's the other one damned jokers anyhow gotta gotta nerve

"Where's Bannister keeping Angelface?" Des asked. "Angelface is the slit at the Funhouse, right? Don't know no Bannister. Is this a game? Fuck off, joker, I ain't playing." In his thoughts, images came tumbling: Tack saw mirrors shattering, silver knives flying through the air, felt Mat's shove and saw him reach back for a gun, watched him shudder and spin as the bullets hit, heard Bannister's soft voice as he told them to kill Ruth, saw the warehouse over on the Hudson where they were keeping her, the livid bruises on her arm when they'd grabbed her, tasted the man's fear, fear of jokers, fear of discovery, fear of Bannister, the fear of them. Tach reached out and squeezed Desmond's arm.

Des turned to go. "Hey, hold it right there," the man with the pockmarked face said. He flashed a badge as he unfolded from the booth. "Undercover narcotics," he said, "and you been using, mister, asking asshole junkie questions like that." Des stood still as the man frisked him down. "Well, looka this," he said, producing a bag of white powder from one of Desmond's pockets. "Wonder what this is? You're under arrest, freak-face. "

"That's not mine," Desmond said calmly.

"The hell it ain't," the man said, and in his mind the thoughts ran one after another little accident resisting arrest what could i do huh? jokers'll scream but who listens to a fuckin' joker only whatymi gonna do with the other one? and he glanced at Tachyon. Jeez looka the chickenman's shaking maybe the fucker IS using that'd be great.

Trembling, Tach realized the moment of truth was at hand.

He was not sure he could do it. It was different than with Tiny; that had been blind instinct, but he was awake now, and he knew what he was doing. It had been so easy once, as easy as using his hands. But now those hands trembled, and there was blood on them, and on his mind as well… he thought of Blythe and the way her mind had shattered under his touch, like the mirrors in the Funhouse, and for a terrible, long second nothing happened, until the fear was rank in his throat, and the familiar taste of failure filled his mouth.

Then the pockfaced man smiled an idiot's smile, sat back down in his booth, laid his head on the table, and went to sleep as sweetly as a child.

Des took it in stride. "Your doing?" Tachyon nodded.

"You're shaking," Des asked. "Are you all right, Doctor?"

"I think so," Tachyon said. The policeman had begun to snore loudly. "I think maybe I am all right, Des. For the first time in years." He looked at the joker's face, looked past the deformity to the man beneath. "I know where she is," he said. They started toward the exit. In the cage, a full-breasted, bearded hermaphrodite had started into a bump-and-grind. "We have to move quickly."

"In an hour I can get together twenty men."

"No," Tachyon said. "The place they're holding her isn't in Jokertown."

Des stopped with his hand on the door. "I see," he said. "And outside of Jokertown, jokers and masked men are rather conspicuous, aren't they?"

"Exactly," Tach said. He did not voice his other fear, of the retribution that would surely be enacted should jokers dare to confront police, even police as corrupt as Bannister and his cohorts. He would take the risk himself, he had nothing left to lose, but he could not permit them to take it. "Can you reach the Turtle?" he asked.

"I can take you to him," Des replied. "When?"

"Now," Tach said. In an hour or two, the sleeping policeman would awaken and go straight to Bannister. And say what? That Des and a man in a chicken mask had been asking questions, that he'd been about to arrest them but suddenly he'd gotten very sleepy? Would he dare admit to that? If so, what would Bannister make of it? Enough to move Angelface? Enough to kill her? They could not chance it.

When they emerged from the dimness of Freakers, the crane had just lowered the second police car to the sidewalk. A cold wind was blowing, but behind his chicken feathers, Doctor Tachyon had begun to sweat.

Tom Tudbury woke to the dim, muffled sound of someone pounding on his shell.

He pushed aside the frayed blanket, and bashed his head sitting up. "Ow, goddamn it," he cursed, fumbling in the darkness until he found the map light. The pounding continued, a hollow boom boom boom against the armor, echoing. Tom felt a stab of panic. The police, he thought, they've found me, they've come to drag me out and haul me up on charges. His head hurt. It was cold and stuffy in here. He turned on the space heater, the fans, the cameras. His screens came to life.

Outside was a bright cold December day, the sunlight painting every grimy brick with stark clarity. Joey had taken the train back to Bayonne, but Tom had remained; they were running out of time, he had no other choice. Des found him a safe place, an interior courtyard in the depths of Jokertown, surrounded by decaying five-story tenements, its cobblestones redolent with the smell of sewage, wholly hidden from the street. When he'd landed, just before dawn, lights had blinked on in a few of the dark windows, and faces had come to peer cautiously around the shades; wary, frightened, not-quitehuman faces, briefly seen and gone as quickly, when they decided that the thing outside was none of their concern.

Yawning, Tom pulled himself into his seat and panned his cameras until he found the source of the commotion. Des was standing by an open cellar door, arms crossed, while Doctor Tachyon hammered on the shell with a length of broom handle.

Astonished, Tom flipped open his microphones. "YOU." Tachyon winced. "Please."

He lowered the volume. "Sorry. You took me by surprise. I never expected to see you again. After last night, I mean. I didn't hurt you, did I? I didn't mean to, I just-"

"I understand," Tachyon said. "But we've got no time for recriminations or apologies now."

Des began to roll upward. Damn that vertical hold. "We know where they have her," the joker said as his image flipped. "That is, if Doctor Tachyon can indeed read minds as advertised."

"Where?" Tom said. Des continued to flip, flip, flip. "A warehouse on the Hudson," Tachyon replied. "Near the foot of a pier. I can't tell you an address, but I saw it clearly in his thoughts. I'll recognize it."

"Great!" Tom enthused. He gave up on his efforts to adjust the vertical hold and whapped the screen. The picture steadied. "Then we've got them. Let's go." The look on Tachyon's face took him aback. "You are coming, aren't you?" Tachyon swallowed. "Yes," he said. He had a mask in his hand. He slipped it on.

That was a relief, Tom thought; for a second there, he'd thought he'd have to go it alone. "Climb on," he said. With a deep sigh of resignation, the alien scrambled on top of the shell, his boots scrabbling at the armor. Tom gripped his armrests tightly and pushed up. The shell rose as easily as a soap bubble. He felt elated. This was what he was meant to do, Tom thought; Jetboy must have felt like this.

Joey had installed a monster of a horn in the shell. Tom let it rip as they floated clear of the rooftops, startling a coop of pigeons, a few winos, and Tachyon with the distinctive blare of Here-l-come-to-save-the-daaaaaay.

"It might be wise to be a bit more subtle about this," Tachyon said diplomatically.

Tom laughed. "… don't believe it, I got a man from outer space who mostly dresses like Pinky Lee riding on my back, and he's telling me I ought to be subtle." He laughed again as the streets of Jokertown spread out all around them.

They made their final approach through a maze of waterfront alleys. The last was a dead end, terminating in a brick wall scrawled over with the names of gangs and young lovers. The Turtle rose above it, and they emerged in the loading area behind the warehouse. A man in a short leather jacket sat on the edge of the loading dock. He jumped to his feet when they hove into view. His jump took him a lot higher than he'd anticipated, about ten feet higher. He opened his mouth, but before he could shout, Tach had him; he went to sleep in midair. The Turtle stashed him atop a nearby roof.

Four wide loading bays opened onto the dock, all chained and padlocked, their corrugated metal doors marked with wide brown streaks of rust. TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED said the lettering on the narrow door to the side.

Tach hopped down, landing easily on the balls of his feet, his nerves tingling. "I'll go through," he told the Turtle. "Give me a minute, and then follow."

"A minute," the speakers said. "You got it."

Tach pulled off his boots, opened the door just a crack, and slid into the warehouse on purple-stockinged feet, summoning up all the stealth and fluid grace they'd once taught him on Takis. Inside, bales of shredded paper, bound tightly in thin wire, were stacked twenty and thirty feet high. Tachyon crept down a crooked aisle toward the sound of voices. A huge yellow forklift blocked his path. He dropped flat and squirmed underneath it, to peer around one massive tire.

He counted five altogether. Two of them were playing cards, sitting in folding chairs and using a stack of coverless paperbacks for a table. A grossly fat man was adjusting a gigantic paper-shredding machine against the far wall. The last two stood over a long table, bags of white powder piled in neat rows in front of them. The tall man in the flannel shirt was weighing something on a small set of scales. Next to him, supervising, was a slender balding man in an expensive raincoat. He had a cigarette in his hand, and his voice was smooth and soft. Tachyon couldn't quite make out what he was saying. There was no sign of Angelface.

He dipped into the sewer that was Bannister's mind, and saw her. Between the shredder and the baling machine. He couldn't see it from under the forklift, the machinery blocked the line of sight, but she was there. A filthy mattress had been tossed on the concrete floor, and she lay atop it, her ankles swollen and raw where the handcuffs chafed against her skin.

".. fifty-eight hippopotami, fifty-nine hippopotami, sixty hippopotami," Tom counted.

The loading bays were big enough. He squeezed, and the padlock disintegrated into shards of rust and twisted metal. The chains came clanking down, and the door rattled upward, rusty tracks screeching protest. Tom turned on all his lights as the shell slid forward. Inside, towering stacks of paper blocked his way. There wasn't room to go between them. He shoved them, hard, but even as they started to collapse, it occurred to him that he could go above them. He pushed up toward the ceiling.

"What the fuck," one of the cardplayers said, when they heard the loading gate screech open.

A heartbeat later, they were all moving. Both cardplayers scrambled to their feet; one of them produced a gun. The man in the flannel shirt looked up from his scales. The fat man turned away from the shredder, shouting something, but it was impossible to make out what he was saying. Against the far wall, bales of paper came crashing down, knocking into neighboring stacks and sending them down too, in a chain reaction that spread across the warehouse.

Without an instant's hesitation, Bannister went for Angelface. Tach took his mind and stopped him in mid-stride, with his revolver half-drawn.

And then a dozen bales of shredded paper slammed down against the rear of the forklift. The vehicle shifted, just a little, crushing Tachyon's left hand under a huge black tire. He cried out in shock and pain, and lost Bannister.

Down below, two little men were shooting at him. The first shot startled him so badly that Tom lost his concentration for a split second, and the shell dropped four feet before he got it back. Then the bullets were pinging harmlessly off his armor and ricocheting around the warehouse. Tom smiled. "I AM THE GREAT AND POWERFUL TURTLE," he announced at full volume, as stacks of paper crashed down all around. "YOU ASSHOLES ARE UP SHIT CREEK. SURRENDER NOW"

The nearest asshole didn't surrender. He fired again, and one of Tom's screens went black. "OH, FUCK," Tom said, forgetting to kill his mike. He grabbed the guy's arm and pulled the gun away, and from the way the jerk screamed he'd probably dislocated his shoulder too, goddammit. He'd have to watch that. The other guy started running, jumping over a collapsed pile of paper. Tom caught him in mid-jump, took him straight up to the ceiling, and hung him from a rafter. His eyes flicked from screen to screen, but one screen was dark now and the damned vertical hold had gone again on the one next to it, so he couldn't make out a fucking thing to that side. He didn't have time to fix it. Some guy in a flannel shirt was loading bags into a suitcase, he saw on the big screen, and from the corner of his eye, he spied a fat guy climbing into a forklift…

His hand crushed beneath the tire, Tachyon writhed in excruciating pain and tried not to scream. Bannister-had to stop Bannister before he got to Angelface. He ground his teeth together and tried to will away the pain, to gather it into a ball and push it from him the way he'd been taught, but it was hard, he'd lost the discipline, he could feel the shattered bones in his hand, his eyes were blurry with tears, and then he heard the forklift's motor turn over, and suddenly it was surging forward, rolling right up his arm, coming straight at his head, the tread of the massive tire a black wall of death rushing toward him… and passing an inch over the top of his skull, as it took to the air.

The forklift flew nicely across the warehouse and embedded itself in the far wall, with a little push from the Great and Powerful Turtle. The fat man dove off in midair and landed on a pile of coverless paperbacks. It wasn't until then that Tom happened to notice Tachyon lying on the floor under the place the forklift had been. He was holding his hand funny and his chicken mask was all smashed up and dirty, Tom saw, and as he staggered to his feet he was shouting something. He went running across the floor, reeling, unsteady. Where the fuck was he going in such a hurry?

Frowning, Tom smacked the malfunctioning screen with the back of his hand, and the vertical roll stopped suddenly. For an instant, the image on the television was clear and sharp. A man in a raincoat stood over a woman on a mattress. She was real pretty, and there was a funny smile on her face, sad but almost accepting, as he pressed the revolver right up to her forehead.

Tach came reeling around the shredding machine, his ankles all rubber, the world a red blur, his shattered bones jabbing against each other with every step, and found them there, Bannister touching her lightly with his pistol, her skin already darkening where the bullet would go in, and through his tears and his fears and a haze of pain, he reached out for Bannister's mind and seized it… just in time to feel him squeeze the trigger, and wince as the gun kicked back in his mind. He heard the explosion from two sets of ears.

"Noooooooooooooooooo!" he shrieked. He closed his eyes, sunk to his knees. He made Bannister fling the gun away, for what good it would do, none at all, too late, again he'd come too late, failed, failed, again, Angelface, Blythe, his sister, everyone he loved, all of them gone. He doubled over on the floor, and his mind filled with images of broken mirrors, of the Wedding Pattern danced in blood and pain, and that was the last thing he knew before the darkness took him.

He woke to the astringent smell of a hospital room and the feel of a pillow under his head, the pillowcase crisp with starch. He opened his eyes. "Des," he said weakly. He tried to sit, but he was bound up somehow. The world was blurry and unfocused.

"You're in traction, Doctor," Des said. "Your right arm was broken in two places, and your hand is worse than that."

"I'm sorry," Tach said. He would have wept, but he had run out of tears. "I'm so sorry. We tried,… I'm so sorry, I-"

"Tacky," she said in that soft, husky voice.

And she was there, standing over him, dressed in a hospital gown, black hair framing a wry smile. She had combed it forward to cover her forehead; beneath her bangs was a hideous purple-green bruise, and the skin around her eyes was red and raw. For a moment he thought he was dead, or mad, or dreaming. "It's all right, Tacky. I'm okay. I'm here."

He stared up at her numbly. "You're dead," he said dully. "I was too late. I heard the shot, I had him by then but it was too late, I felt the gun recoil in his hand."

"Did you feel it jerk?" she asked him. "Jerk?"

"A couple of inches, no more. Just as he fired. Just enough. I got some nasty powder burns, but the bullet went into the mattress a foot from my head."

"The Turtle," Tach said hoarsely.

She nodded. "He pushed aside the gun just as Bannister squeezed the trigger. And you made the son of a bitch throw away the revolver before he could get off a second shot."

"You got them," Des said. "A couple of men escaped in the confusion, but the Turtle delivered three of them, including Bannister. Plus a suitcase packed with twenty pounds of pure heroin. And it turns out that warehouse is owned by the Mafia."

"The Mafia?" Tachyon said.

"The mob," Des explained. "Criminals, Doctor Tachyon."

"One of the men captured in the warehouse has already turned state's evidence," Angelface said. "He'll testify to everything-the bribes, the drug operation, the murders at the Funhouse."

"Maybe we'll even get some decent police in Jokertown," Des added.

The feelings that rushed through Tachyon went far beyond relief. He wanted to thank them, wanted to cry for them, but neither the tears nor the words would come. He was weak and happy. "I didn't fail," he managed at last.

"No," Angelface said. She looked at Des. "Would you wait outside?" When they were alone, she sat on the edge of the bed. "I want to show you something. Something I wish I'd shown you a long time ago." She held it up in front of him. It was a gold locket. "Open it."

It was hard to do with only one hand, but he managed. Inside was a small round photograph of an elderly woman in bed. Her limbs were skeletal and withered, sticks draped in mottled flesh, and her face was horribly twisted. "What's wrong with her?" Tach asked, afraid of the answer. Another joker, he thought, another victim of his failures.

Angelface looked down at the twisted old woman, sighed, and closed the locket with a snap. "When she was four, in Little Italy, she was run over while playing in the street. A horse stepped on her face, and the wagon wheel crushed her spine. That was in, oh, 1886. She was completely paralyzed, but she lived. If you could call it living. That little girl spent the next sixty years in a bed, being fed, washed, and read to, with no company except the holy sisters. Sometimes all she wanted was to die. She dreamed about what it would be like to be beautiful, to be loved and desired, to be able to dance, to be able to feel things. Oh, how she wanted to feel things." She smiled. "I should have said thank you long ago, Tacky, but its hard for me to show that picture to anyone. But I am grateful, and now I owe you doubly. You'll never pay for a drink at the Funhouse."

He stared at her. "I don't want a drink," he said. "No more. That's done." And it was, he knew; if she could live with her pain, what excuse could he possibly have to waste his life and talents? "Angelface," he said suddenly, "I can make you something better than heroin. I was… I am a biochemist, there are drugs on Takis, I can synthesize them, painkillers, nerve blocks. If you'll let me run some tests on you, maybe I can tailor something to your metabolism. I'll need a lab, of course. Setting things up will be expensive, but the drug could be made for pennies."

"I'll have some money," she said. "I'm selling the Funhouse to Des. But what you're talking about is illegal."

"To hell with their stupid laws," Tach blazed. "I won't tell if you won't." Then words came tumbling out one after the other, a torrent: plans, dreams, hopes, all of the things he'd lost or drowned in cognac and Sterno, and Angelface was looking at him, astonished, smiling, and when the drugs they had given him finally began to wear off, and his arm began to throb again, Doctor Tachyon remembered the old disciplines and sent the pain away, and somehow it seemed as though part of his guilt and his grief went with it, and he was whole again, and alive.

The headline said TURTLE, TACHYON SMASH HEROIN RING. Tom was gluing the article into the scrapbook when Joey returned with the beers. "They left out the Great and Powerful part," Joey observed, setting down a bottle by Tom's elbow. "At least I got first billing," Tom said. He wiped thick white paste off his fingers with a napkin, and shoved the scrapbook aside. Underneath were some crude drawings he'd made of the shell. "Now," he said, "where the fuck are we going to put the record player, huh?"

Interlude Two

From The New York Times, September 1, 1966.

JOKERTOWN CLINIC TO OPEN ON WILD CARD DAY

The opening of a privately funded research hospital specializing in the treatment of the Takisian wild card virus was announced yesterday by Dr. Tachyon, the alien scientist who helped to develop the virus. Dr. Tachyon will serve as chief of staff at the new institution, to be located on South Street, overlooking the East River.

The facility will be known as the Blythe van Renssaeler Memorial Clinic in honor of the late Mrs. Blythe Stanhope van Renssaeler. Mrs. van Renssaeler, a member of the Exotics for Democracy from 1947 to 1950, died in 1953 in Wittier Sanatorium. She was better known as "Brain Trust."

The Van Renssaeler Clinic will open its doors to the public on September 15th, the twentieth anniversary of the release of the wild card virus over Manhattan. Emergency room service and outpatient psychological care will be provided by the 196-bed hospital. "We're here to serve the neighborhood and the city," Dr. Tachyon said in an afternoon press conference on the steps of Jetboy's Tomb, "but our first priority is going to be the treatment of those who have too long gone untreated, the jokers whose unique and often desperate medical needs have been largely ignored by existing hospitals. The wild card was played twenty years ago, and this continued willful ignorance about the virus is criminal and inexcusable." Dr. Tachyon said that he hoped the Van Renssaeler Clinic might become the world's leading center for wildcard research, and spearhead efforts to perfect the cure for wild card, the so-called "trump" virus.

The clinic will be housed in a historic waterfront building originally constructed in 1874. The building was a hotel, known as the Seaman's Haven, from 1888 through 1913. From 1913 through 1942 it was the Sacred Heart Home for Wayward Girls, after which it served as an inexpensive lodging house.

Dr. Tachyon announced that the purchase of the building and a complete interior renovation had been funded by a grant from the Stanhope Foundation of Boston, headed by Mr. George C. Stanhope. Mr.. Stanhope is the father of Mrs. van Renssaeler. "If Blythe were alive today, I know she'd want nothing more than to work at Dr. Tachyon's side," Mr. Stanhope said.

Initially the work at the clinic will be funded by fees and private donations, but Dr. Tachyon admitted that he had recently returned from Washington, where he conferred with Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. Sources close to the Vice President indicate that the administration is considering partial funding of the jokertown clinic through the offices of the Senate Committee on Ace Resources and Endeavors (SCARE).

A crowd of approximately five hundred, many of them obvious victims of the wild card virus, greeted Dr. Tachyon's announcement with enthusiastic applause.

THE LONG, DARK NIGHT OF FORTUNATO

by Lewis Shiner

All he could think about was how beautiful she'd been when she was alive.

"I got to ask you can you identify the remains," the coroner's man said.

"It's her," Fortunato said. "Name?"

"Erika Naylor. Erika with a K."

"Address?"

"Sixteen Park Avenue."

The man whistled. "High class. Next of kin?"

"I don't know. She was from Minneapolis."

"Right. That's where they all come from. You'd think they had a hooker academy there or something."

Fortunato looked up from the long, horrible wound in the girl's throat and let the coroner's man see his eyes. "She wasn't a hooker," he said.

"Sure," the man said, but he took a step backward and looked down at his clipboard. "I'll put down 'model.'" Geisha, Fortunato thought. She had been one of his geishas. Bright, funny, beautiful, a chef and a masseuse and an unlicensed psychologist, imaginative and sensual in bed. She was the third of his girls in the last year to be neatly sliced to pieces.

He stepped out onto the street, knowing how bad he looked. He was six foot four and methedrine thin, and when he slumped his chest seemed to disappear into his spine. Lenore had been waiting for him, huddled in her black fake-fur jacket, even though the sun had finally come out. When she saw him she put him straight into a cab and gave the driver her address on West 19th.

Fortunato stared out the window at the long-haired girls in embroidered denim, at the black-light posters in the store windows, at the bright chalk scrawled over all the sidewalks. It was nearly Easter, two winters past the Summer of Love, but the idea of spring left: him as cold as the morgue's tile floor. Lenore took his hand and squeezed it, and Fortunato leaned back in the seat and closed his eyes.

She was new. One of his girls had rescued her from a Brooklyn pimp named Ballpeen Willie, and Fortunato had paid five thousand dollars for her "contract." It was well known on the street that if Willie had objected, Fortunato would have spent the five thousand to have Willie hit, that being the current market value of a human life.

Willie worked for the Gambione Family and Fortunato had knocked heads with them more than once. Being blackhalf black, anyway-and independent gave Fortunato a feature part in Don Carlo's paranoid fantasies. The only thing Don Carlo hated worse were the jokers.

Fortunato wouldn't have put the killings past the old man except for one thing: he coveted Fortunato's operation too much to tamper with the women themselves.

Lenore came from a hick town in the mountains of Virginia where the old people still talked Elizabethan. Willie had been running her less than a month, not long enough to grind off the edges of her beauty. She had dark red hair to her waist, neon-green eyes, and a small, almost dainty mouth. She never wore anything but black and she believed she was a witch.

When Fortunato had auditioned her he'd been moved by her abandon, her complete absorption in carnality, so much at odds with her cool, sophisticated looks. He'd accepted her for training and she'd been at it now for three weeks, turning only an occasional trick, making the transition from gifted call girl to apprentice geisha that would take at least two years.

She led him up to her apartment and stopped with the key in the lock. "Uh, I hope its not too weird for you." He stood in the doorway while she walked through the room, lighting candles. The windows were heavily draped and he didn't see any appliances except a telephone-no TV, no clocks, not even a toaster. In the barren center of the room she'd painted a huge, five-pointed star surrounded by a circle, right onto the hardwood floor. Behind the sensual smells of incense and musk was the faint sulfurous tang of a chemistry lab.

He locked the front door and followed her into the bedroom. The apartment was thick with sexuality. He could barely move his feet through the heavy, wine-colored carpet; the bed was canopied, with red velvet curtains, and so high off the floor it had stairs leading up to it.

She found a joint in the nightstand, lit it, and handed it to Fortunato. "I'll be back in a second," she said.

He took his clothes off and lay down with his hands behind his head, the joint hanging out of his mouth. He took a lungful of smoke and watched his toes uncurl. The ceiling overhead was deep blue, with constellations dabbed on in phosphorescent yellow-green. Signs of the zodiac, as far as he could tell. Magic and astrology and gurus were very hip right now. People at trendy Village parties were always asking each other what sign they were and talking about karma. For himself, he thought the Aquarian Age was just so much wishful thinking. Nixon was in the White House, kids were getting their asses shot off in Southeast Asia, and he still heard the word "nigger" every day. But he had clients who would love this place.

If the psycho with the knife didn't put him out of business. Lenore knelt beside him on the bed, naked. "You have such beautiful skin." She ran fingertips over his chest, raising gooseflesh. "I've never seen a color like this before." When he didn't answer she said, "Your mother is Japanese, they told me:"

"And my father was a Harlem pimp."

"You're really fucked up about this, aren't you."

"I loved those girls. I love all of you. You're more important to me than money or family or… or anything."

"And?"

He didn't think he had anything else to say until the words started coming out. "I feel so… so goddamned helpless. Some twisted son of a bitch is killing my girls and there's nothing I can do about it."

"Maybe," she said. "Maybe not." Her fingers tangled in his pubic hair. "Sex is power, Fortunato. It's the most powerful thing in the universe. Don't ever forget that."

She took his penis in her mouth, working it gently with her tongue like a piece of candy. It stiffened instantly and Fortunato felt sweat break on his forehead. He put out the joint with a wet fingertip and dropped it over the edge of the bed. His heels skidded on the icy slickness of the sheets and his nose filled with Lenore's perfume. He thought of Erika, dead, and it made him want to fuck Lenore hard and long.

"No," she said, taking his hand from her breast. "You brought me in off the streets, you're teaching me what you know. Now its my turn."

She pushed him down flat on his back, his arms over his head, and ran her black-polished fingernails down the tender skin over his ribs. Then she began to move over his body, touching him with her lips, her breasts, the ends of her hair, until his skin felt hot enough to glow in the dark. Then, finally, she straddled him and took him into her.

Being inside her gave him a rush like a junkie's. He pumped his hips and she leaned into it, taking her weight on her arms, her hair waterfalling around her head. Then, slowly, she lifted her eyes and stared at him.

"I am Shakti," she said. "I am the goddess. I am the power." She smiled when she said it, and instead of sounding crazy it just made him want her even more. Then her voice broke into short, rattling breaths as she came, shuddering, throwing her head back and rocking hard against him. Fortunato tried to turn her over and finish it but she was stronger than he would have believed possible, digging her fingers into his shoulders until he relaxed, then caressing him again with aching slowness.

She came twice more before everything turned red and he knew he couldn't hold back any longer. But she sensed it too, and before he knew what was happening she had pulled away and reached down between his legs, pushing one finger hard into the root of his penis. It was too late to stop and the orgasm took him so hard that it lifted his buttocks completely off the bed. She pushed his chest down with her left hand and held on with her right, cutting off the sperm before it could shoot out, forcing it back inside him.

She's killed me, he thought as he felt liquid fire roar back into his groin, burning all the way through to his spinal cord and then lighting it like a fuse.

"Kundalini," she whispered, her face sweating and intent. "Feel the power."

The spark rocketed up his backbone and exploded in his brain.

Eventually he opened his eyes again. Time had come out of the sprockets of the projector and he saw everything in single, unrelated frames. Lenore had both arms around him. Tears ran out of her eyes and down his chest.

"I was floating," he said, when he finally thought to use his voice. "Up around the ceiling."

"I thought you were dead," Lenore said.

"I could see the two of us. Everything looked like it was made out of light. The room was white, and it seemed like it went on forever. There were lines and ripples everywhere." He felt a little like he'd had too much cocaine, a little like he had his fingers in a socket. "What did you do to me?"

"Tantric yoga. It's supposed to… I don't know. Give you a charge. I never heard of it taking anybody so hard before." She turned her face up to him. "Did you really get out? Out of your body?"

"I guess." He could smell the peppermint shampoo she used on her hair. He took her face in both his hands and kissed her. Her mouth was soft and wet and her tongue flickered against his teeth. He was still diamond-hard and he started to shake with wanting her.

He rolled onto her and she guided him inside where he could feel her burning for him. "Fortunato," she whispered, her lips still so close that they brushed his when they moved,

"if you finish, you'll lose it. You'll be so weak you can barely move. "

"Baby, I don't give a shit. I never wanted anybody this much." He pushed himself up on his forearms so he could see her, his hips thrusting frantically. Every nerve in his body was alive, and he could feel the power surging through them, then slowly drawing back, massing somewhere at the center of his body, ready to roar out of him, to pump him dry, leave him weak, helpless, drained…

He pulled away from her, rolled to the end of the bed, and bent double, clutching his knees. "Jesus!" he screamed. "What the fuck is happening to me?"

She wanted to stay with him, but he sent her to geisha class anyway. He would be here, he promised, when she got home.

The apartment seemed vast and empty without her, and he had a sudden, chilling vision of Lenore alone on the street, with Erika's killer still loose.

No, he told himself. It wouldn't happen again, not this soon.

He found a gaudy oriental robe in her closet and put it on, and then he walked back and forth through the apartment, pacing out the inaudible hum in his nervous system. Finally he stopped in front of the bookcase in the living room.

Kundalini, she'd said. He'd heard the name before and when he saw a book called The Rising Serpent he made the connection. He took it down and started to read.

He read about the Great White Brotherhood of Ultima Thule, located somewhere in Tartary. The lost Book of Dyzan and the vama chara, the lefthand path. The kali yuga, the final, most corrupt of ages, now upon us. "Do whatever you desire, for in this way you please the goddess." Shakti. Semen as the rasa, the juice, of power: the yod. Sodomy that revived the dead. Shape shifters, astral bodies, implanted obsessions leading to suicide. Paracelsus, Aleister Crowley, Mehmet Karagoz, L. Ron Hubbard.

Fortunato's concentration was absolute. He absorbed every word, every diagram, flipped back and forth to make comparisons, to study the illustrations. When he finished he saw that twenty-three minutes had passed since Lenore walked out the door.

The trembling in his chest was fear.

In the middle of the night he reached out to touch Lenore's cheek and his fingers came away wet. "Are you awake?" he said.

She rolled over and huddled tight against him. The warmth of her naked skin electrified and soothed him at the same time, like the taste of expensive whiskey. He combed through her hair with his fingers and kissed her fragrant neck. "What are you crying for?" he said.

"It's stupid," she said. "What?"

"I really believe in that stuff. Magick. The Great Work, Crowley calls it." She pronounced magic with a long a and Crowley with a long o like the bird. "I did the Yoga and learned the Qabalah and the Tarot and the Enochian system. I fasted and did the Bornless Ritual and studied Abramelin. But nothing ever happened."

"What were you trying for?"

"I don't know. A vision. Samadhi. I wanted to see something besides a goddamned Greyhound stop in Virginia where they try to lynch kids for growing out their hair. I wanted out of myself. I wanted what happened to you this afternoon. And it happened to you and you don't even want it."

"I read some of your books tonight," he said. In fact he'd read two dozen of them, nearly half of her collection. "I don't know what's going on, but I don't think it's magic. Not like that guy Crowleys magic. What you did to me set it off, but I think it was something already inside. me."

"You mean that spore thing, don't you? That wild card virus?" She had tensed up involuntarily, just at the mention of it.

"I can't think of anything else it could be."

"There's that Dr. Whatsisname. He could check you out. He could probably even fix you back, if that was what you wanted."

"No," he said. "You don't understand. When I read those books I could feel all those powers they talked about. Like if you were a high diver and you read about some complicated dive you'd never done, but you knew you could do it if you practiced on it. You said I didn't want this, and maybe I didn't, not right at first. But now I do." There was one picture, among the giant sex organs and impossible contortions of a Japanese pillow book: the Tantric magician, forehead swollen with the power of his retained sperm, fingers twisted in mudras of power. He had stared at it until his eyes burned. "Now I want it," he said.

"You've definitely drawn a wild card," the little man said. "An ace, I'd say."

Fortunato had nothing in particular against white people, but he couldn't stand their slang. "Could you put that in plain English?"

"Your genetics have been rewritten by the Takisian virus. Apparently it was dormant in your central nervous system, probably in the spine. The intromission apparently gave you quite a jolt, enough to activate the virus."

"So now what happens?"

"The way I see it, you've got two choices." The little man hopped up onto the examining table across from Fortunato and brushed long red hair back over his ears. He looked like he should be in a rock band or working in a record store. He didn't make a convincing doctor. "I can try to reverse the effects of the virus. No guarantees there-I've got about a thirty-percent success rate. Every once in a while people end up worse than before."

"Or?"

"Or you can learn to live with your power. You wouldn't be alone. I can put you in touch with other people in your situation. "

"Yeah? Like the 'Great and Powerful Turtle'? So I can fly around and pull people out of wrecked cars? I don't think so."

"What you did with your abilities would be up to you."

"What kind of 'abilities' are we talking about?"

"I can't say for sure. It looks like they're still coming on. The EEG shows strong telekinesis. The Kirilian chromatograph shows a very powerful astral body that I expect you can manipulate. "

"Magic, is what you're saying."

"No, not really. But it's a funny thing about the wild card. Sometimes it requires a very specific mechanism to bring it under conscious control. I wouldn't be surprised if you need this Tantric ritual to make it work for you."

Fortunato stood up and peeled a hundred from the roll in his front pocket. "For the clinic," he said.

The little man looked at the money for a long time, and then he stuffed it in his Sgt. Pepper jacket. "Thank you," he said, like it hurt him to get the words out. "Remember what I said. You can call me anytime."

Fortunato nodded and walked out to look at the freaks of Jokertown.

He'd been six years old when Jetboy exploded over Manhattan, had grown up with the fear of the virus, the memory of the ten thousand who'd died on the first day of the new world. His father had been one of them, lying in bed while his skin split open and healed itself over and over again, the whole cycle not taking more than a minute or two. Until one of the cracks opened through his heart, spewing blood all over their Harlem apartment. And even while the old man lay in his coffin, waiting his turn for a two-minute funeral and a mass grave, he kept splitting open and healing, splitting and healing.

The memory never faded, but in time it got pushed aside by newer ones. Gradually Fortunato came to believe that nothing was going to happen to him. For those the virus didn't touch, life went on the way it always had.

He realized early on that he was going to have to make his own way. From listening to his mother complain about American women he came up with the idea of the prostitute as geisha; at age fourteen he brought home a stunning Puerto Rican girl from his high school for his mother to train. That had been the beginning.

He looked up and saw that night had fallen while he'd been walking aimlessly through Jokertown. The grays and pastels had turned to neon, street clothes to paisley and leopard prints. Just ahead of him demonstrators had blocked off the street with a flatbed truck. There were drums and amps and guitars up there and a couple of heavy-duty extension cords running in through the open door of the Chaos Club.

At the moment the stage was empty except for a woman with long red curly hair and an acoustic guitar. A banner behind her read S.N.C.C. Fortunato had no idea what the letters stood for. She had the audience singing along with some folk song or other. They all went through the chorus a couple of times without the guitar, and then she took a bow and they clapped and she got down off the back of the truck.

She wasn't beautiful in the way Lenore was; her nose was a little large, her skin was not that good. She was in the radical uniform of blue jeans and work shirt that didn't do anything for her. But she had an aura of energy he could see without even wanting to.

Women were Fortunato's weakness. He was like a deer in their headlights. Even as low as he felt he couldn't help but stop and look at her, and before he knew it she was standing next to him, shaking a coffee can with a few coins in the bottom.

"Hey, man, how about a donation?"

"Not today," Fortunato said. "I don't have a lot of politics.' "You're black, Nixon's president" and you don't have any politics? Brother, have I got news for you."

"Is all this about being black?" Fortunato didn't see another black face in the crowd.

"No, man, it's about jokers. Whoa, did I strike a nerve or something?" When Fortunato didn't answer she went on anyway. "You know how long the average life expectancy of a joker in 'Nam is? Less than two months. If you take the percentage of jokers in the U.S. population and divide it by the percentage of jokers in 'Nam, you know what you get? You get about a hundred times too many jokers over there. A hundred times, man!"

"Yeah" okay" so what do you want me to do about it?"

"Make a donation. We're going to get lawyers on this and stop it. It's the FBI, man. The FBI and SCARE. It's like McCarthy all over again. They've got lists of all the jokers and they're drafting them on purpose. If they can walk and hold a gun, they're not even getting a real physical" it's off to Saigon. It's genocide" pure and simple."

"Yeah, okay." He dug out a twenty and dropped it in the can.

"You know what I wish?" She hadn't even noticed the size of the bill. "I wish those fucking aces would do something about their own, you know? What would it take for Cyclone, or one of those other assholes" to wipe out those files? Nothing" man, nothing at all, but they're too busy getting headlines." She started to walk away and then she looked in the can. "Hey, thanks, man. You're okay. Listen, here's a flyer. If you want to do some more, call us."

"Sure," Fortunato said. "What's your name?"

"They call me C.C.," she said. "C. C. Ryder."

"Is it the same C. C. as up there?" He pointed to the S.N.C.C. banner.

C.C. shook her head. "You're funny, man" she said" and smiled once and faded into the crowd.

He folded up the flyer and stuck it in his pocket and turned off the Bowery. All the talk about jokers had left him feeling disconnected. Just down the street was a mirror-walled club called the Funhouse, owned by a guy named Desmond who had a trunk instead of a nose. He was one of Fortunato's customers, always wanting a geisha with finer skin or darker hair or a sweeter face than Fortunato could find for him. Fortunato could not stand the thought of seeing him just then.

On the side streets hardly anyone wore masks anymore" and eyes stared back defiantly at him from upside-down faces or heads the size of cantaloupes. Your new brothers and sisters" he told himself. For every ace there were ten of these, lurking in alleys while the lucky ones put on capes and talked their lame jargon and jetted around fighting each other. The aces had the headlines and the talk shows, and the freaks and cripples had Jokertown. Jokertown and the jungles of Vietnam, if C. C.'s story was right.

But the only place Fortunato wanted to be was back in Lenore's apartment, making love to her. And this time he would let go, and if it made him weak it wouldn't matter, and things would go back to the way they always had been.

Except that sooner or later the killer was going to move again. Vietnam was halfway around the world, but the killer was right here, maybe in this very block.

He stopped walking, looked up, and saw that his subconscious had brought him right to the alley where they told him they'd found Erika.

He thought about what C.C. had said. Using power to take care of your own.

When Lenore had jolted him out of his body he'd seen things he'd never seen before, swirls and patterns ou energy that he had no name for. If he could get out again he might see something the cops had missed.

A wino in a long, filthy overcoat started at him. It took Fortunato a second to realize the man had long, floppy, basset ears and a moist, black nose. Fortunato ignored him, shutting his eyes and trying to remember the feeling.

He might as well have been trying to think himself to the moon. He needed Lenore but he was afraid to bring her here. Could he do it at her place, then fly back here? Would he be able to keep it going that long? What would happen to his physical body if he did?

Too many questions. He called her from a pay phone and told her where to meet him.

"Do you have a gun?" he asked. "Yes. Ever since… you know."

"Bring it."

"Fortunato? Are you in trouble?"

"Not yet," he said.

By the time he got back to the alley with Lenore he'd drawn a crowd. They all wore Salvation Army leftovers: baggy pants, ripped and stained flannel shirts, jackets the color of dried grease. One short old woman looked like a wax museum statue that had started to melt. Off to her right was a teenaged boy, standing next to a rack of garbage cans, vibrating. When the vibrations got to a certain pitch the cans would bang together like a spastic cymbal section and the woman would turn on them in a fury and kick at them. The others were less obviously deformed: a man with suckers on the ends of his fingers, a girl whose features had been squared off with ridges of hardened skin.

Lenore held onto Fortunato's arm. "What now?" she whispered.

Fortunato kissed her. She tried to pull away when the audience of freaks started to snicker, but Fortunato was insistent, opening her lips with his tongue, moving his hands over the small of her back, and finally she began to breathe heavily and he felt the power stirring at the base of his spine. He moved his lips down Lenore's shoulder, her long fingernails digging into his neck, and then he raised his eyes until he was looking at the dog-man. He felt the power flow into his eyes and voice and said, quietly, "Go away."

The dog-man turned and walked out of the alley. One at a time he ordered the others away and then he said, "Now," and guided her hand into his trousers. "Do it to me, what you did before." He slid his hands up under her sweater and moved them slowly over her breasts. Her right hand closed over him and her left went around his waist, comforting him with the weight of her S amp;W. 32. He closed his eyes as the heat began to build, letting the brick wall behind him take his weight. In seconds he was ready to come, his astral body bobbling like a loosely held balloon.

And then, like stepping sideways out of a moving car, he slipped free.

Every brick and candy wrapper glistened with clarity. As he concentrated, the rumble of traffic slowed and deepened until it was barely audible.

They'd found Erika in a doorway deep in the alley, severed arms and legs stacked like firewood in her lap, head attached by less than half the thickness of her neck. Fortunato could see the stains of her blood deep within the molecules of the concrete, still glowing faintly with her life essence. The wood of the doorframe still held a trace of her perfume and a single thread of ash-blond hair.

The baritone murmur of the street dropped to a vibration so low that Fortunato could feel the individual wave peaks pass through him. Now he could see the indentation Erika's body had made in the concrete stoop, the infinitesimal trace her shoes had pressed into the asphalt. And beside them the footprints of her killer.

They led from the street to Erika's body and back again, and at the curb they met the imprint of a car. He had no idea what kind of a car it had been, but he could see the tracks it had left, thick and black and fibrous, as if it had been burning rubber the entire way.

He stopped for an instant and looked back at his material body frozen in Lenore's arms. Then he let the tracks of the car pull him out into the street, across to Second Avenue" then south to Delancey. He felt himself gradually weakening, his vision clouding up and the background noises of the city starting to shake the edge of his hearing. He concentrated harder" pulling the last reserves of strength out of his physical body.

The car turned north on the Bowery and paused in front of a shabby gray warehouse. Fortunato bore down on the sidewalk, saw the footprints as they crossed from the car to the building's front door.

He followed them upstairs. He felt as if he'd been tied to a giant elastic band and run to its limit. Each stair took more out of him than the last. Finally the footprints disappeared at the entrance to a loft, and he knew he was finished.

The traffic noise spun up to speed around him and he shot backward the way he'd come" drawn irresistibly home to his body. Blissful, exhausted" as if he'd drained himself in sex, he fell into it like a diver into a pool. Lenore staggered under his sudden dead weight and then he slid down into unconsciousness.

"No," she said, and rolled away from him. "I can't." She had purple circles under her eyes and her body was limp with exhaustion. Fortunato wondered how she'd been able to get him into a taxi and help him up the stairs to her apartment.

"I don't understand," he said.

"You build up a charge, and then sex burns it off. You see? The power, the shakti. Except with tantric magick you absorb the energy back into you. Not just yours, but whatever energy I give up to you."

"So when you come, you give up this shakti." "Right. "

"And you've given me all you have."

"That's right, big guy. I'm all fucked out." Fortunato reached for the phone.

"What are you doing?"

"I know where the killer is," he said, dialing. "If you can't give me the strength to take him, I'll have to get it somewhere else." He didn't like the way it came out but he was too tired right then to care. Tired and something else. His brain hummed with the knowledge of his power, and he felt it changing him, taking control.

The phone rang at the other end and then he heard Miranda answer it. He covered the mouthpiece with his hand and turned back to Lenore. "Will you help?"

She closed her eyes and did something with her mouth that was almost a smile. "I guess a hooker should know better than to be jealous."

"Geisha," Fortunato said.

"All right," Lenore said. "I'll show her what to do."

They had a line each of cocaine and some intense Vietnamese pot. Lenore swore it would only help tune them into each other. Miranda, tall, black-haired, lush, the most physically adept of his women, stripped slowly to garter belt, stockings, and a black brassiere so thin he could see the dark ovals of her nipples.

Forty minutes later Lenore had passed out across the foot of the bed. Miranda, her head hanging down over the edge, arms spread in a mock crucifix, shut her eyes. "That's it," she whispered. "I can't come any more. I may never come again." Fortunato pushed himself up onto his knees. He was covered with an even sheen of sweat and he thought he could see a golden light radiating from underneath his skin. He saw himself in the mirror over Lenore's dresser and wasn't alarmed or even surprised when he saw that his forehead had begun to swell with power.

He was ready.

The cab let him off two blocks away on Delancey. He had Lenore's. 32 shoved in the back of his pants for insurance, hidden by his black linen jacket. But if he could, he would do the job with his own hands. Either way, the cops were not going to get a chance to put the killer back on the streets. His eyes wouldn't quite focus and he had to keep his hands in his pockets because he didn't trust them. For some reason he was not afraid at all. He felt fifteen again, like he'd felt when he started making it with the girls his mother trained. For months he'd been afraid to try because of what his mother might say or do; once he gave in he no longer cared.

It was the same now. He was reckless, charged with the dark scent and hot, moist pressure of sex, barely functioning in the real world at all. I'm going to face a killer, he told himself, but they were only words. In his guts he knew he was going to protect his women, and that was all that mattered.

He climbed the stairs to the loft. It was after midnight, but he could hear the stereo blasting the Rolling Stones' "Street-Fighting Man" through the steel door. He pounded on it with the bottoms of his fists.

He swallowed hard and his throat turned cold. The door opened.

On the other side was a boy of seventeen or eighteen, pale, thin, but well-muscled. He had long blond hair and a face that might have been beautiful except for an eruption of pimples around the chin, clumsily hidden with makeup. He wore a yellow shirt with black polka dots and faded denim bellbottoms.

"You want something?" he finally asked.

"To talk to you," Fortunato said. His mouth was dry and his eyes were still not focusing right.

"What about?"

"Erika Naylor." The boy had no reaction. "Never heard of her."

"I think you do."

"You a cop?" Fortunato didn't answer. "Then fuck off." He started to close the door. Fortunato remembered the alley, ordering the jokers away. "No," he said, staring hard into the boy's colorless eyes. "Let me in."

The boy hesitated, looking stunned, but not giving in. Fortunato hit the door with his shoulder, knocking the boy all the way back into the loft and onto the floor.

The room was dark and the music deafening. Fortunato found an overhead light switch and flipped it on, then took an involuntary step back as his brain registered what he saw.

It was Lenore's apartment twisted into perversion, the hip, sexy fashion of occultism taken all the way into torture and murder and rape. As in Lenore's apartment there was a fivepointed star on the floor, but this one was hasty, uneven, scratched into the boards with something sharp and then splattered with blood. Instead of velvet and candles and exotic wood, there was a gray-striped mattress in one corner, a pile of dirty clothes, and a dozen or more Polaroid pictures tacked to the wall with a staplegun.

He knew what he was going to find, but he walked over to the wall anyway. Of the fourteen nude, dismembered women he recognized three. The latest, in the lower righthand corner, was Erika.

He couldn't think with the music blaring at him. He looked around for the record player and saw the blond boy get up onto shaky legs and stumble toward the door. "Stop!"

Fortunato shouted, but without eye contact it didn't mean anything.

Enraged and panicking, Fortunato charged. He caught the boy around the waist and drove him into the bare plasterboard wall.

And then suddenly he was trying to hold on to a raging animal, all knees and fingernails and teeth. Fortunato pulled away instinctively and watched the razor edge of an enormous switchblade flash between them, slicing through his jacket and his shirt and his skin, coming away outlined in red.

I'm going to die, Fortunato thought. The gun was stuck in the back of his pants, too far away to reach before the blade came around again, cutting deeper, sliding all the way in. Killing him.

He looked at the blade. Before he knew what he was doing he was staring hard at it, concentrating, the way he had when he read the books in Lenore's apartment, the way he had in the Jokertown alley.

And time slowed.

He could see not only his own blood on the knife, but the blood of the others, of Erika and all the other women in the photographs, washed away, but still held in the memory of the metal.

He backed away from the insane blond boy, moving with dream slowness through thickened air, but still moving faster than the boy or his knife. He reached behind him, felt the slick grips of the gun under his fingers. The Rolling Stones had slowed to a dirge as he brought the gun around, pointed it at the boy, saw the pale eyes go wide.

Don't kill him, he thought suddenly. Not until you know why. He shifted the barrel until it pointed at the boy's right shoulder, and pulled the trigger.

The noise started as a vibration in Fortunato's hand, accelerated like a rocket, became a roar, a short bang of thunder, and then time was rolling again, the boy rocking back with the impact of the bullet but his eyes not showing it, scooping the knife out of his useless right hand with his left and lurching forward again.

Possessed, Fortunato thought with horror, and shot him through the heart.

Staggering back, Fortunato pulled his shirt open and saw that the long, shallow cut across his chest had already stopped bleeding, would not even need stitches. He slammed the door to the hallway and walked across the room to kick out the plug of the phonograph. And then, in the strangled silence, he turned to face the dead boy.

The power rippled and surged inside him. He could see the blood of the women on the dead boy's hands, see the trail of blood that led from the crude pentagram on the floor, see the tracks where the boy had stood, the shadows where the women had died, and there, faintly, as if it had been somehow erased, the marks left by something else.

Lines of power still lingered inside the pentagram, like heat waves shimmering off a highway in the desert. Fortunato ground his hands into fists, felt cool sweat trickle down his chest. What had really happened here? Had the boy somehow conjured a demon? Or had the boy's madness just been a tool in something vastly larger, something infinitely worse than a few random killings?

The boy could have told him, but the boy was dead. Fortunato went to the door, put his hand on the knob. He closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the cold metal. Think, he told himself.

He wiped his fingerprints off the pistol and threw it next to the body. Let the cops draw their own conclusions. The Polaroids should give them plenty to think about.

He turned to go again, and again he couldn't leave the room.

You have the power, he told himself. Can you walk away from here, knowing you have the power, refusing to use it? Sweat ran down his face and arms.

The power was in the yod, the rasa, the sperm. Incredible power, more than he knew how to control yet. Enough to bring the dead back to life.

No, he thought. I can't do it. Not just because the thought made him sick to his stomach, but because he knew it would change him. It would be the point of no return, the point where he gave up being completely human.

But the power had already changed him. He had already seen things that those without it would never understand. Power corrupts, he'd been told, but now he saw how naive that was. Power enlightens. Power transforms.

He unfastened the dead boy's belt, unzipped the bellbottomed jeans, and pulled them of. The boy had craped and pissed in them when he died, and the smell made Fortunato wince. He threw the jeans in a corner and rolled the dead boy onto his stomach.

I can't do this, Fortunato thought. But he was already hard, and the tears rolled down his face as he knelt between the dead boy's legs.

He came almost immediately. It left him weak, weaker than he'd thought possible. He crawled away, pulling his pants back up, sick and disgusted and exhausted.

The dead boy began to twitch.

Fortunato got to the wall, pulled himself onto his feet. He was dizzy and his head throbbed with pain. He saw something on the floor, something that had fallen out of the dead boy's pants. It was a coin, an eighteenth-century penny, so fresh that it looked reddish in the harsh light of the loft. He put the penny in his pocket in case it meant something later.

"Look at me," he said to the dead boy.

The dead boy's hands clawed at the floor, gouging out bloody splinters. Slowly he pulled himself onto his hands and knees, and then lurched clumsily onto his feet. He turned and looked at Fortunato with empty eyes.

The eyes were horrible. They said that death was nothingness, that even a few seconds of it had been too much. "Talk to me," Fortunato said. Not anger anymore, but the memory of anger, kept him going. "Goddamn your white ass, talk to me. Tell me what this means. Tell me why."

The dead boy stared at Fortunato. For an instant something flickered there, and the dead boy said, "TIAMAT " The word was whispered, but perfectly clear. Then the dead boy smiled. With both hands he reached up to his own throat and ripped it bloodily out through the skin of his neck and then, while Fortunato watched, tore it in half.

Lenore was asleep. Fortunato threw his clothes into the garbage and stood in the shower for thirty minutes, until the hot water ran out. Then he sat by candlelight in Lenore's living room and read.

He found the name TIAMAT in a text on the Sumerian elements of Crowley's magick. The serpent, Leviathan, KUTULU. Monstrous, evil.

He knew beyond question that he had found only a single tentacle of something that defied his comprehension. Eventually he slept.

He woke up to the sound of Lenore closing the latches on her suitcase.

"Don't you see?" she tried to explain. "I'm just like a-a wall outlet that you come home to plug into to recharge. How can I live like that? You got what I always wanted, real power to do real magick. And you lucked into it, without even wanting it. And all the study and practice and work I did all my life doesn't mean shit because I didn't catch some fucking alien virus."

"I love you," Fortunato said. "Don't go."

She told him to keep the books, to keep the apartment too if he wanted. She told him she would write, but he didn't need magick to know she was lying.

And then she was gone.

He slept for two days, and on the third Miranda found him and they made love until he was strong enough to tell her what happened.

"As long as he's dead," Miranda said. "The rest I don't care about."

When she left him that night for her client, he sat in the living room for over an hour, unable to move. Soon, he knew, he would have to start looking for the other being whose traces he'd seen in the dead boy's loft. Even the thought of it paralyzed him with loathing.

Finally he reached for Crowley's Magick and opened it to Chapter V "Sooner or later," Crowley said, "the gentle, natural growth is succeeded by depression-the Dark Night of the Soul, an infinite weariness and detestation of the work."

But eventually would come a "new and superior condition, a condition only rendered possible by the process of death." Fortunato closed the book. Crowley knew, but Crowley was dead. He felt like the last human on a barren rock of a planet.

But he wasn't the last human. He was one of the first of something new, something that had the potential to be better than human.

That woman at the demonstration, C.C. She'd said you should take care of your own. What would it cost him to save hundreds of jokers from dying in the heat and rotting dampness of Vietnam? Not very much. Not very much at all.

He found the flyer in the pocket of his jacket. Slowly, with growing conviction, he dialed the numbers.

TRANSFIGURATIONS

by Victor Milan

November night wind whipped his trousers, stinging skinny legs like triffid tendrils as he shoehorned himself into a small club not far from campus. The murk throbbed like a wound, pulsing red and blue and noise. He stopped, hovering there in the door with the lumpy orange-and-green plaid coat in which his mother had packed him off to MIT three years before hanging on his narrow shoulders like a dead dwarf. Don't be such a coward, Mark, he told himself. This is for science.

The band lunged at "Crown of Creation" and wrestled it to the floor as he instinctively sought the darkest corner, teacup in hand-he'd learned how unhip it was to order Coke or coffee, at least.

Other than that he'd learned none of the moves in weeks of research. The way he was dressed, in his high-water pants and pastel polyester shirt of the sort that always pouched out at the sides like a sail in the wind, he might've been in danger of being taken for a narc-this was the fall that followed Woodstock, the year Gordon Liddy invented the DEA to give Nixon an issue to distract attention from the war-but Berkeley and San Francisco were hip towns, university towns; they knew a science student when they saw one.

The Glass Onion had no dance floor as such; bodies swayed in crepuscular crimson and indigo glow between tables or crowded into a clear space before the tiny stage, with a whisper of beads and buckskin fringe and the occasional dull glint of Indian jewelry. He kept as far from the action's center as he could, but being Mark he inevitably bumped into everyone he passed, leaving a wake of glares and thin embarrassed "excuse me's" behind him. His prominent ears burning, he had almost reached his goal, the little rickety table made out of a Ma Bell cable spool with a single dented green auditorium chair beside it and an unlit candle in an empty peanut butter jar plunked down on it, when he ran smack into somebody.

The first thing that happened was that his massive hornrim glasses slid down the ramp of his nose and disappeared in the dark. Next he grabbed the person he'd bumped with both hands as his balance went. The teacup hit the floor with a crash and a clatter. "Oh, dear, oh, please excuse me, I'm sorry…" tumbled from his mouth like gumballs from a broken machine.

He realized there was a certain softness of the person his skinny hands were clinging to so fervently, and a smell of musk and patchouli detached itself from the general miasma and drilled its way right up into his sensorium. He cursed himself: You had to go and run over a beautiful woman. At least she smelled beautiful.

Then she was patting him on the arm, murmuring that she was sorry, and they both bent down to the floor together in search of teacup and glasses while the bodies went round and round around them, and they bumped heads and recoiled amid apologies, and Mark's fevered fingers found his glasses, miraculously intact, and fit them back in front of his eyes, and he blinked and found himself staring from a distance of five inches into the face of Kimberly Ann Cordayne.

Kimberly Ann Cordayne: the girl, yes, of his dreams. Childhood sweetheart, unrequited, from the moment he'd first beheld her, pinafored and five, riding her trike down the modest suburban SoCal street where they both lived. He'd been so entranced by her Hallmark Card perfection that the raspberry scoop fell off his ice cream cone to hot doom on the sidewalk and he never noticed. She pedaled over his bare toes and cruised on with her pert nose in the air, never acknowledging his existence. From that day his heart had been lost.

Hope and despair surged up like surf within him. He straightened, his tongue too tied to produce words. And she yelled, "Mark! Mark Meadows! Fuck, but it's good to see you." And hugged him.

He stood there blinking like an idiot. No female who wasn't a relative had ever hugged him before. He swallowed spastically. What if I get an erection? Belatedly, he made feeble patting gestures at the small of her back.

She pushed away, held him at arm's length. "Let me look at you, brother. Why, you haven't changed a bit."

He winced. The taunting would begin now, for his skinniness, his clumsiness, his crew cut, the pimples still sprinkled across scrawny, allegedly postadolescent features and his most recent, most aggravating deficit, his utter and complete inability to be anywhere near With It. In high school, Kimberly Ann had evolved from indifference into his foremost tormentor-or, rather, a succession of jocks on whose overelaborated biceps she hung, cooing encouragements, had assumed the role.

But here she was tugging him toward that corner table. "Come on, man. Let's talk about the bad old days."

It was an opportunity for which he'd hopelessly hoped three quarters of his life. Face-to-face with his paragon of love and beauty while the band on stage assaulted the Beatles'

"Blackbird"-and he couldn't think of one damned thing to say. But Kimberly Ann was more than happy to do the talking. About the changes she'd been through since good old Rexford Tugwell High. About the far-out people she'd met at Whittier College, how they turned her on and opened her eyes. How she'd dropped out midway through her senior year and come here, the Bay Area, the bright mecca of Movement. How she'd been finding herself ever since.

Perhaps he hadn't changed, but she most definitely had. Gone was the straight black ponytail, pleated skirts, pastel lipstick and nail polish, the prim stewardess perfection of an up-and-coming Bank of America executive's one daughter. Kimberly's hair had grown long, hanging down well past her shoulders in a great kinky cloudy Yoko Ono mane. She wore a frilly peasant blouse embroidered with mushrooms and planets, a voluminous skirt tie-dyed into what reminded Mark of nothing so much as fireworks displays in Disneyland. He knew her feet were bare, from having stepped on one. She looked more beautiful than he ever could have imagined.

And those pale eyes, winter-sky eyes, that had so often frozen him in the past, were glowing at him with such warmth he could barely stand to look at them. It was heaven, but somehow he couldn't buy it. Being Mark, he had to question. "Kimberly-" he began.

She held up two fingers. "Hold it right there, dude. I left that name behind me with my bourgeois ways. I'm Sunflower now."

He bobbed his head and his Adam's apple. "OkaySunflower."

"So what brings you here, man?"

"It's an experiment."

She eyed him across the rim of her jelly jar wineglass, suddenly wary.

"I just finished my undergrad work at MIT," he explained in a rush. "Now I'm here to get my doctorate in biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley."

"So what's that got to do with this scene?"

"Well, what I've been working on is figuring out just how DNA encodes genetic information. I published some papers, stuff like that." At MIT they'd compared him to Einstein, as a matter of fact, but you'd never catch him saying that. "But this summer I found something that interests me a lot more. The chemistry of mind."

Blue blankness, her eyes.

"Psychedelics. Psychoactive drugs. I read all the material-Leary, Alpert, the Solomon collection. It really-what's the expression? Really turned me on." He leaned forward, fingers plucking unconsciously at the felt-tip pens nestled in their plastic protector in his breast pocket. In his excitement he sprinkled the spool tabletop with unconscious spittle. "It's a really vital area of research. I think it might lead to answering the really important questions-who we are, and how, and why."

She looked at him with half a frown and half a smile. "I still don't get it."

"I'm doing fieldwork to establish a context for my research. On the drug culture-the, uh, the counterculture. Trying to get an angle on how hallucinogen use affects people's outlook. "

He moistened his lips. "It's really exciting. There's a whole world I never knew existed-here." A nervous tic encompassed the Onion's smoky confines. "But somehow I can't really, well, make contact. I've bought all the Grateful Dead records, but I still feel like an outsider. I-I almost feel I'd like to be part of this whole hippie thing."

"Hippie?" she said with a patrician snort. "Mark, where've you been? It's 1969. The hippie movement's been dead for two years." She shook her head. "Have you actually done any of these drugs you're trying to study?"

He flushed. "No…. uh-I'm not ready to get to that stage. "

"Poor Mark. You're so uptight. Looks as if I'm going to have my work cut out for me, trying to show you what it is that's happening, Mr. Jones."

The reference skimmed his flattop, but suddenly his face brightened and his nose and cheekbones and whatnot went in happy directions, and he showed his horsy teeth. "You mean you'll help me?" He grabbed her hand, snatched his fingers away as if afraid they'd leave marks. "You'll show me around?" She nodded.

"Great!" He picked up the teacup, clinked it against an upper tooth, realized it was empty and clacked it down again. "I've been wondering why-that is, I-well, you've never, ah, talked to me like this before."

She took one of his hands in both of hers and he thought his heart would stop. "Oh, Mark," she said, tenderly, even. "Always the analytical one. It's just that since my eyes have been opened, I've realized that everyone's beautiful in his own way, except the pigs who oppress the people. And I see youstill straight. But you haven't sold out, man. I can tell; I can read it in your aura. You're still the same old Mark."

His head whirled like a carousel out of control. Cynical, his left brain tossed up the hypothesis that she was homesick, that he was part of a childhood and past she had cut herself off from, perhaps, too completely. He brushed it aside. She was Kimberly Ann, invulnerable, unapproachable. Any minute now she'd recognize him for the impostor he was.

She didn't. They talked on into the night-or rather, she talked and he listened, wanting to believe but still unable to. When the band took a long-overdue break, somebody cued up side one of Destiny's new album on the sound system. The gestalt burned itself irrevocably in: darkness and colored lights playing in the hair and face of the most beautiful woman in his world, and behind it the husky baritone of Tom Marion Douglas singing of love and death and dislocation, of elder gods and destinies best not hinted at. It changed him, that night. But he didn't know yet.

He was almost too surfeited with wonder to be elated or even surprised when, halfway through the band's exiguous second set, Kimberly stood up suddenly, clutching his hand.

"This is getting to be a drag. These guys don't know where it's at. Why don't you come over to my pad, drink a little wine, get a little high?" Her eyes challenged, and there was a bit of that old haughtiness, the old ice, as she pulled on waffle-stomper boots with red laces. "Or are you too straight for that?"

He felt as if he had a cotton ball sitting in the middle of his tongue. "Ah, I-no. I'd be more than happy to."

"Far out. There's hope for you yet."

In a daze Mark followed her out of the club, to a liquor store with a massive sliding San Quentin grating over the windows, where a balding pasty-faced proprietor sold them a bottle of Ripple under a gaze of fish-eyed distaste. Mark was a virgin. He had his fantasies, the Playboy magazines with their pages stuck together stacked among the scientific papers under the tumbledown bed in his apartment on the fringes of Chinatown. But not even in fantasy did he ever dare to imagine himself coupled with the resplendent Kimberly Ann. And now-he drifted the streets as if weightless, barely noticing the freaks and street people who exchanged greetings with Sunflower as they passed.

And he barely noticed on the rickety backstairs when Sunflower said, "… eet my old man. You'll love him; he's a really heavy dude."

Then the words crunched into his brain like a lead mallet. He stumbled. Kimberly caught him by the arm, laughing. "Poor Mark. Always so uptight. Come on, we're almost there."

So he wound up in this little one-lung apartment with a hot plate and a leaky faucet in the bathroom. By one wall a salvaged mattress with a madras-print coverlet rested on a door propped on cinder blocks. Crosslegged on the spread beneath a giant poster of the beatified Che sat Philip, Sunflower's Old Man. He was dark-eyed and intense, a black tee shirt stretched over his brawny chest with a blood-red fist and the word Huelga lettered under it. He was watching clips of a demonstration on a little rumpsprung portable TV with a coat-hanger aerial.

"Right on," he was saying as they came in. "The Lizard King has his head together. These clean-for-Gene work-withinthe-system aces like Turtle don't know what it's all about: confrontation with fascist Amerika. Who the fuck are you?" After Sunflower took him off to one corner and explained to him in a fierce whisper that Mark was not a police spy but an old, old friend, and don't embarrass me, asshole, he consented to shake Mark's hand. Mark craned past him at the TV; the bearded face of the man now being interviewed looked familiar somehow.

"Who's that?" he asked.

Philip lifted a lip corner. "Tom Douglas, of course. Lead singer for Destiny. The Lizard King." He scanned Mark from flattop to penny loafers. "Or maybe you've never heard of him."

Mark blinked, said nothing. He knew of Destiny and Douglas-as research he'd just bought their new album, Black Sunday, plain maroon cover dominated by a huge black sun. He was too embarrassed to say so.

Sunflower's eyes went faraway. "You should have seen him today at the demonstration. Facing down the pigs as the Lizard King. Truly far out."

Amenities out of the way, the two of them broke out a contrivance of glass and rubber tubing, tamped its bowl full of dope, and lit up. Had Sunflower by herself offered Mark the grass, he would have accepted. But now he was feeling strange and alien again, as if his skin didn't fit him right, and he refused. He slouched in the corner next to a pile of Daily Workers while his host and hostess sat on the bed and smoked dope and stocky intense Philip lectured him about the Necessity for Armed Struggle until he thought his head was going to fall off, and he drank the whole bottle of sickly sweet wine by himself-he didn't drink, either-and finally Kimberly began to snuggle up close to her Old Man and