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Hubbub in Outer Space

 

Hubbub

in Outer Space

by Dan Davies

Copyright © 2017 Dan Davies

All rights reserved.

To April

my first reader,

inspiration always

Thank you Charlotte

for all your generosity, your

fine heroic fortitude, patience

& all great laughs

.

Thank you Bill 

for your amazing stamina in

re-re-reading the work in progress

and for bringing your sharp

editorial focus to

the story

Contents

Part One  •  Part Two  •  Part Three

one

Doc tromped lightly up the hot hillside, taking a little more care now where she planted her feet. Moments ago, she’d set her boot down beside a small rattler sunning itself on a warm flat rock close by the trail—and then she was in the air, jazzed off her toes by the little serpent’s squeaky yet convincing alarm and flying a surprising number of feet up the trail. 

And several yards farther, springing bright-eyed and skittish over the tufts of dry grass that crowded the dusty track. Until the way widened onto a patch of stonier ground where she paused, breathless and grinning, and spun a nervous snake dance while her heart caught up with her.

The sun beat down and the overstuffed daypack sweated hot on her back. Hot against her neck chafed the frayed strap that supported a well-pummeled old white canvas satchel slung bandolier style from one shoulder. In its accustomed way, the old satchel swung and shifted and thumped her leg with every step, and now, after the sudden leap up the hill, the broad strap was riding high and biting into the floppy collar of her smooth-worn hempen shirt with the big faded print flowers.

While she caught her breath, she let fall the daypack and slung the canvas bag around to her other shoulder. She stretched, glad for a moment to let the shirt breathe a little in the heat. 

She glanced up the steepening slope. Already most of the way to the top of this hill. The path ahead seemed mostly to avoid the old gnarled trees that twisted out of the yellow hillside here and there, dry sparse-leaved scrub oaks that let as much sunlight as shade come down to speckle the ground beneath their low spreading branches. 

She hefted up the pack and pushed on, up toward the not so distant skyline, her breath mingling with the still, hot air.

Back behind the rising curve of the hill, the rattler’s shrill alarm was stuttering down as the little crawler gradually regained its calm. In Doc’s mind’s eye lingered the glimpse, caught as she flew, of the snake coiling at her ankle, lively and ablaze in the sunlight, a shifting pattern of gleaming gems on the hot yellow stone.

And now she too was starting to come off the buzz. Light-footed and alert to any fresh perils she might stir up under the bright October sky, Doc loped ahead unhurriedly, not wishing to disturb any further the quiet of the sunburnt hillside. She had plenty of time to get where she was going. 

The path took her over a slight rise, then the way flattened a little. The yellow grass loomed at her knees. There was not much in the way of wildlife to be seen or heard other than the furtive rustle and flutter of birds in the thickets beside the trail, startled up by her passing footsteps. Away back below, fading in the distance, still came fitful squeaks of residual terror emitted by the little rattler.

In a couple or three hours the sun would begin to sink behind the low coastal mountains and the heat would let up; cooler air would move into the Salinas⁠ Valley from Monterey and come breezing up these dry inland hillsides. She would be gone before then, of course. 

The hilltop rendezvous was supposedly a ten-minute walk from the tree she was looking for. And yes, a bit farther ahead was a large wide-spreading oak standing close beside the trail. It looked to be the one marked on the scribble of map they’d given her. The map was in a pocket of her daypack but she remembered its its essentials.

The tree, then, was where her route would angle off and take her toward the summit. Behind the scatter of its higher branches she made out a narrow track switch-backing out of the grassland and up over a crumble of rock below the hump of the hill. Up there the woods thickened. Somewhere up there she would find the meeting place marked on the map with an X.

And here was the tree. Doc halted and stood beside the heavy ground-hugging limb that circled the trunk of the old twisted oak. She swung down the daypack and lowered the white satchel, grateful for what meager shade she found under the scatter of leaves overhead. She leaned against the dusty, scabby-barked limb. At rest for the moment, she sighed with relief for how her legs stopped creaking when she stopped walking.

And this reminded her why she was up here on a steep hillside today: the “Urgent Request” she’d received, to once again step up in defense of the high-spirited but occasionally-beleaguered 9th Amendment Republic. The personal letter, hand-delivered, was persuasive not in its claim to urgency, since everything done in the name of the volunteer hordes was urgent, but by the unlikely force of the word ‘request’ used by the ever-cautious and respectful organizers. Volunteers habitually mocked any strong language inviting them to risk life and limb. Such language was absurd—there was never any lack of volunteers—and laughable when it occurred, for its archaic air of authority. ‘Request’ indeed.

Doc was thirty-two and battle worn. Retired, she had thought. Even though actual fighting was never a part of her job in the border skirmishes, she’d accumulated her share of bodily aches and irks from all the sprinting and dodging into so many battles, rescuing downed Flyers. Her job, drag them out and patch them up, get them back in the air. She’d certainly done her share of that over the past three or four years.

But now was this fresh state of urgency. Now she’d been asked to abandon her growing crop of clients in town for another stint in the field, for a short while give up her own urgent retirement from all of that and leave her cat and small subsistence garden in the care of neighbors.

Annoying, but small surprise, after all. For sure, there was an air of urgency going around lately. Clearly, the Uni hobgoblin was on the march again. In what guise this time? She snorted, only partly in amusement. A likely guess would be another ‘technical survey group’ or some such, armed to the teeth and ugly. And what made this occasion so special? She thought—wryly, and not for the first time ever—this is only the war that never ends, so what else can you do but join in.

So all right, she would go it again but only this one last time.

Standing in the old tree’s thin shade, Doc looked up the hill, gauged the climb ahead. A nice little stretch.

She turned and glanced back down the slope she’d come up, and from this angle had a clearer view of twin tire tracks worn into the side of the hill, the overgrown trail to here being a dirt road from the days of wheeled vehicles. In those days, a slow dusty rattle up and over the hill, going from nowhere to nothing. Doc knew with exactitude what had been the last possible day this country lane might have felt the bite of rubber treads.

She felt a survivor’s wry appreciation for such fading traces, relics of a gone age that ended half a dozen years back when Comet Lihtan swooped around the sun and splashed a close encounter with planet Earth. This passing glimpse of a grassy old backroad made her feel again the calamitous moment of the comet’s passing, the rising divergence of events that came after.

For those who remembered, survivors like herself, that was the moment when things of old began settling, sifting down a geologic layer, the old civilization’s quick crumble of weed-choked concrete tilting away under drifts of rust-flaked dust. There was unmistakable satisfaction in noting such last traces of a burdensome past. 

Now, six years forward of that moment, Doc’s little wheel track in the dirt seemed a mirage, a trite speculation on one possible history. Following its twisty way back down the hillside, her eyes crinkled in mild amusement as she recalled her own past epoch at the wheel. And all the rest of that. Memory of all that was fading into myth now, a dark myth happily revoked by cosmic happenstance. Doc Holiday, like all successful survivors of the catastrophe, certainly felt no regret over old busted myths.

And it would be a comet, wouldn’t it, she reflected, that brought such sudden change to Earth. What finer visitor from the outer spaces, planting a cool fluffy kiss of snow and a long lick of storm streaking a thousand miles up the edge of the continent.

She bent and grabbed up the satchel. Her hand went, with old familiarity, to the wide front flap, then stopped. No calls. The peculiar requirement that her phone be off for the duration of this mission must mean something. It would be about the Uni and their latest tricks, no doubt. She rummaged quickly past the bottles and vials that were her stock in trade and reached into the inner side pocket, where she found the phone. Let’s make a quick check here. The phone disk slid into her palm. Its battery, fully charged, was still, of course, taped securely to the back of it. Fine.

But no calls. She looked out beyond the lowest hump of the hill, back toward town and the fields she’d passed through an hour before, that spread across the north end of the Salinas Valley. Out there the tortuga teams floated, dipping and swaying down the long rows of tall-stemmed artichokes, whole families together aboard the hovering agri-tenders, working their fields. Close by, lounged the usual gathering of local co-op traders, picking over the best of the produce for nearby markets. As Doc watched, a couple of these swooped away northward piled with their modest cargo. Around the periphery of each field idled the wholesalers and exporters, picnicking in the shade of multi-ton lifters, waiting patiently for the late afternoon auction that would dispose of the bulk of the autumn crop.

Doc’s gaze ranged wider, taking in the expanse of blue above all this, where scattered puffs of opalescent clouds drifted in a sea of bright warm air over the valley between her and the coastal mountains not too many miles distant.

She sighed and turned to move on.

From out there somewhere something sparked, caught the corner of her eye. Reflexively she looked back. A ray of light reached out of the distance, for an instant flooding her vision, a beam thrown by a facet of some exotic gem of a hue never before seen. She blinked and it was gone. The dusty croplands below remained peaceful and pleasant as ever.

Ready now to face the last stretch, Doc hefted the pack to her shoulders and began edging around the tree to reach her path up the hill. 

She stepped forward. But here, impossibly bright and green, flourished a dense cluster of tall raspberry canes whose long stems, loaded with bright berries, wound up through the tree’s dry and dusty sparse-leaved branches. Her way was blocked.

Impossible of course, though not entirely unexpected. She thought, one surprise will get you another nowadays. She brushed a hand over the gritty bark of the old tree and smiled. Thousand-mile translocations of climate and latitude were not so very incongruous—even transplanted seasons—things like that happened all the time. For instance, there was that moment of dislocation she’d experienced one morning a few weeks back, when the spark reached out from some gleaming fixture in the bath. A moment later, when she turned the shower handle the small room filled with thunder, the deafening pressure of some mighty cataract falling who knew where. It ceased when she closed the spigot on it.

Today, this. Into the wilting afternoon heat the comet had sent raspberries. “Fresh samples!” she said. “Let’s see what we get when we do this.” She picked a handful of the fat red berries, popped them one at a time into her mouth. She gave each her full attention. This one was very tangy, the next one complex and sweet. Each excited her palate in its own way. Each added its own startling gamut of flavors. She looked thoughtfully up through the drab, bony tree and out to the hard blue sky. She took a deep breath. Here under the tree the air was unseasonably cool and filled with drifting particles of mist lit by the sun and lightly spiced with resin of fir, a scent that you really could not expect to encounter in this neighborhood.

Doc took a fresh glance into the bright green leaves, spotted a berry deeper within that tantalized her eye but was beyond easy reach. She had to have that one. She sent in her hand, and her head followed her shoulder into the cluster of rising stalks and the light shifted subtly, thinned to silvery tints suggesting higher latitudes. She withdrew the berry and popped it in her mouth and the raspberry bushes dimmed and departed, leaving behind only the tart burst of complex flavors on her tongue.

two

Doc unhitched the canteen from her belt and took a long swallow of water. Then, fresh raspberry fading from her palate, she stepped forward around the dusty tree and onto the narrow animal trail the map had shown as an s-shaped line of dots winding toward a stippling of trees at the top of the hill. Absent-mindedly humming her tuneless tune, she forgot about her legs and swung into the rhythm of the switchbacks.

Before long, the slope steepened and the path disappeared in a bare crumble of flat scaly stones. Then up a dozen sliding steps and a two-foot-high vein of rock cropped up before her, beyond which the slope rounded toward the top of the hill, where the trees began to gather. She dug the edges of her boots into the stratified rock and a moment later swung over the little ridge.

Thin grass and the pale earth dimmed in sun-speckled shade under the twisted oaks. Scattered rabbit trails wandered among the widely spaced trees. Doc drifted forward, not finding any particular route that didn’t involve lots of irksome noisy crunching through sticks and dead leaves.

This was, it turned out, a pretty big patch of trees. Doc went uncertainly on and the thick trunks closed in, drawing close overhead a canopy of gray-barked branches. Peering into the directionless haze of afternoon light filtering through the woods, she caught no glimmer of direct light from any far extent of the hilltop. The light in here was diffuse, dim, a little gloomy. The air sat motionless, slightly hazy, dry and hot. Doc slowed further, getting no sure sense of which direction was the right way to go. Here a tree was tilted, roots in the air threatening to catch her boot laces. She side-stepped it. And now a fallen tree, all spiky branches and roots. She crunched her way around it and now she was drifting off in some new direction. Dust puffed up underfoot.

Then she was scrambling at the edge of a sunken hole hidden under a drift of dead leaves suspended over unseen snags. The side of the hole collapsed under her and she slid down with the rustling leaves and ended up at the bottom, standing knee-deep in shifting dust. She paddled forward into a receding wall of silt. A cloud of the dust rose up and caught in her throat and stung her eyes. She coughed, stopped moving. She could drown in this teacup! She glimpsed a snag spiking out halfway up the side she’d been digging at. She caught hold and yanked herself out of there.

She crunched on over the dead forest floor. Not long and she knew she was off course and feeling a little foolish—she couldn’t be lost, could she, up here on the top of this little hill? How big could it be? She continued on, circling toward where she knew the summit had to be, and after a while arrived all dusty at the edge of a wide clear spot.

Hi-ho, thought Doc. Destination. Take a break.

She paused in the shadow of the nearest tree, listening into the stillness of the circular glade. The space was bare and featureless but for occasional clumps of invading yellow grass. Close by, a clump rustled slightly. She looked and instantly a small bird rocketed from there into the safety of the trees. Oh sorry, bird, she said silently, didn’t mean to scare you. She glanced more carefully around the clearing. At the far perimeter a small brown rabbit grazed in a shady spot. Doc nodded. So it’s just you and me now, rabbit.

And now for a good spot to rest up and wait. Stepping quietly at last on bare ground, she went around the edge of the clearing to a very large, grotesquely gnarled oak tree rooted around a stony outcrop and backed by a stiff cluster of red-barked manzanita. Below the tree, a comforting patch of thin afternoon shade fell into the clearing.

She scanned the jumble of rocks splitting out beneath the tree’s big roots for possible reptilian life, thumped her boots around the ground, but only startled a twitchy fence lizard. She shrugged out of the pack straps and thumped both pack and satchel down before the most inviting of the tree’s twisted roots. She sat, booted feet straddling her gear. She plucked at the sweat-soaked shirt full of dust and leaf litter. She unbuttoned it, shook out the big faded blue and green print of tropical flowers and let it billow from her shoulders in hopes of catching any slight breeze. She rolled up the sleeves and the cuffs flopped wide above her elbows.

She unlaced and shook out her boots and while what air there was cooled her feet, she stretched and leaned back into the curve of the scaly tree root and breathed a sigh at the tree-fringed circle of sky. She admired the single pearly puff of cloud that hung high in the still air above the clearing.

It was quiet and drowsy in here, the air was still. In the tree tops a faint breeze came, rattled the leaves and departed, a vague promise of cooler air later. A few small black-striped bumblebees made their lazy rounds in the sparse vegetation. The heat would lift when the sun fell over the mountains into the distant sea. Time passed and the big tree’s shadow crept farther into the clearing.

Doc came alert with the arrival of two noisy ravens swooping in low from out of the trees. Eyeballing the reclining woman beneath the tree, the birds veered to a landing near the rabbit, still at work near the forest’s edge. They settled just out of hopping distance to either side of the rabbit, strutted and croaked and shook their feathers at him, then hopped away chittering when the rabbit ambled a step toward one or the other. A couple of turns of this game of hazing the rabbit and suddenly the birds cocked their heads and bounded up and flapped noisily away into the shadowed understory of the woods. The rabbit vanished. Following the birds’ departure, Doc’s eyes darted to the treetops. She sat up, one ear angled to the sky.

“Ah-ha!” she said. “They’re here.”

three

In the next second three small aerial craft dove almost noiselessly over the treetops and into the clearing. Spiraling rapidly down, they split up and plummeted the last ten feet, two landing at strategic positions around the perimeter, one zigging swiftly past Doc’s position beneath the twisted tree. On touchdown the riders leaped and rolled, disappearing past the scruffy edge grass and into the trees.

The woods were silent for several long moments, giving Doc time to pull on her boots and button her shirt. Then she stood up and with a grin shouted into the clearing, “Ha! I bet you boys can dump your scooters quicker than that! Come on out and let’s try that drill again.”

The forest remained silent. She scanned the perimeter, whistling softly to herself. She tried to guess where the Flyers might pop up. Another moment passed and she shrugged, nudged with one booted toe the white canvas satchel laying on the ground before her. “Here’s that picnic I promised, packed it myself.” Then she added, “Kids, I walked this medikit containing my own patented package of panaceas all the way from—you know—High-weighty. If you don’t mind my—you know—admitting to that little indiscretion?”

Behind the big tree the bushes rustled busily and a gravelly voice from that general area replied, “You don’t say. Some folks, I’ve heard, by the way, like to walk.” More rustling followed and from behind the tree emerged a stocky, grizzle-bearded man of average height carrying a big wooden longbow tucked under one arm. In his free hand he carelessly twirled a bright metal rod or wand-like instrument. He strolled forward a trifle unevenly, flat though the ground was, a half dozen feet or so clear of the bushes, and faced Doc. He stood the bow up and leaned on it one-handed while he squinted at a gadget strapped to his wrist. “Surprise surprise,” he said, “nary a signal hereabouts. We find no microwave or infrared and no phone!” He glanced at Doc and went on, “nor any teensy whiff of wifi anywhere detected.” He gave her a satisfied smile and closed up the gleaming antenna and slid it down into a side pocket of his jumpsuit. “By the way, Doc Holiday, I don’t believe we’ve met. People call me Salmon Trout. The short for that moniker is Sam. Glad to meet ya.”

“Oh hello Salmon Trout! Call me Doc.”

“Yep. And right about now, Doc,” he went on, giving her a wry nod, “seeing as we’re pressed for time today, I bet you got something to show before we move along.” Without seeming to mean anything by it he reached up and scratched his neck. In doing so he pulled the collar of his shirt wide, revealing a tattoo that moved across his collar bone, a dark red octopus with glowing violet eyes, on its toes dancing a tango. 

“Of course,” Doc cheerfully replied. She freed up her shirt and pulled it back off her shoulder, turned so the bowman could see: centered on one shoulder blade her own tattoo, an artichoke in vibrant green and blue.

Salmon Trout chuckled and said “Yeah, that constellation’s the clincher, all right.”

“Constellation?” she said, buttoning up the shirt.

“The tattoo’s one thing, but the four moles spiraling off there, that’s what counts.”

“Figures,” she said. “Word gets around, huh?”

“Not so far as I know,” Salmon Trout said. “But now I know why Prokofiev mentioned it before he sent us out to collect you. Knowing where you keep your tattoo, I suppose. ‘Like four dark stars dancing with the comet.’ His very words, by the way. Poetic.”

“Well that’s him, all right,” Doc said, “always a tender regard for my feminine attributes. In fact, your mentioning him could explain one or two things. Like why I’ve been called up, again. On the other hand, he knows I’m pretty useless in the field, so there must be more to it than just my moles. . . okay, so tell me Sam, why are those boys still hiding out in the bushes?”

The bowman sighed and climbed, knees crackling, hand over hand down his heavy-limbed bow to squat on the forest floor. He studied the spot where the bow dug into the dirt. “Can’t be too careful with folk can’t get off the ground,” he said. “Specially not lately. Personators and the like.” He raised an arm and beckoned vaguely into the clearing.

Two figures emerged from hiding, shaking off leaf litter and any ants and spider webs they might have picked up under the trees.

Doc nodded. “I agree to that, Salmon Trout, though I’m not aware of what’s happened lately.”

She sat back down and placed her hands on her knees. Frowning a little, she observed him closely. Then she bent toward him and looked him in the eye. “Sam. I’ve seen that Flyer’s crouch before. I got real familiar with it myself. So, no offense, but I’m going to make just a guess here. If that’s the same leg pain so many of us are getting, then I’m sorry to have to suggest you follow the same doc’s orders that keep me grounded. Besides, you look a little tired today.”

“Tired?”

The crouching man looked up from his study of the earth, a fleeting look of alarm crossing his weathered face. The weariness Doc had sensed in him now appeared for a moment as undisguised misery, quickly hidden behind practiced stoic composure.

Salmon Trout rose out of his crouch much too quickly, side-stepped a little and instead of standing sat full on the ground. “Oof,” he said.

Doc straightened, looked up, and here was a second member of the team striding toward her across the clearing, a girl, dark-haired and tallish and armed with a bow that Doc’s eyes could scarcely make out. At first glance the bow seemed only a vague pearly smear slanting across the archer’s body. What Doc was certain of was the black arrow, green-feathered, nocked at the ready and pointing her way. And the three others like it that dangled between the archer’s fingers, ready in the space of a breath to spring to as many targets. Here was a rarity among archers, a speed shooter. Doc wondered if the girl, who looked to be in her early twenties, could hit anything with all those arrows. In the afternoon sunlight a fan of green feathers glowed bright behind the young archer’s shoulders.

Quickly the archer was in close and Doc was looking up into a pair of startling amber eyes that glittered in the sunlight, and were fixed unsympathetically upon her.

Doc froze like a pinned bug under the girl’s wide mocking stare.

The girl archer paused beside Salmon Trout, stood side-long at the ready, arrow pointing casually at Doc’s midriff, the very odd-looking bow gripped in a gloved fist. Doc made it out as short but wide-limbed, recurved to a surprising degree. Close as her view of it was, still the outlines of this bow remained vague and uncertain to the eye. It seemed a pale shifting iridescence riding the archer’s hand, impossible to bring to focus and scarcely distinguishable from the air around it. It evoked a quality rarely hinted in the world anymore but entirely familiar. . . waking Doc’s recollection of the great storm six years past, the terrible night when the comet came down and grazed the earth.

There was nothing unearthly about the short skinny carbon fiber arrow lightly grasped between two fingers and thumb, that rested seemingly on air over the glassy green bow handle. Smoothly, the girl archer stepped in past Salmon Trout.

“So did you get the password?” she said over her shoulder.

“More or less.” Benignly, Salmon Trout slanted an appraising look up at her.

Wary and suspicious as she seemed to be, the girl nevertheless spared a fraction of a second to cast an incredulous frown upon Salmon Trout sitting there on the forest floor. 

She scowled and shifted her aim. A slanting ray of sunlight caught the arrow’s wide fletching, the feathers flaring green against the young archer’s snug vest of faded gold silk. Doc got a deer’s-eye view of the broadhead, its twin cutting blades glinting not two yards from her neck. Lined up behind it, a glittering yellow eye.

“Jade, I want you to meet Doc Holiday.”

“Okay there, Doc Holiday, then let’s have that password again. I didn’t hear it.”

In the girl’s clipped officiousness Doc heard a clear strain of eager hostility. The eye behind the arrow blazed. The smile that played about her lips was not gentle.

“Sorry,” Doc said, cautiously looking past the arrow into the girl’s fixed stare, “but I never got the password. Or the counter password either.”

“Yeah, never mind, Jade,” said Salmon Trout. “We’re covered on the password.”

“Covered! Okay you—I’ve got you covered—who are you?”

“Jade, ease up now. It’s fine.” Salmon Trout raised a soothing hand.

“Okay-I-don’t-like-it.” Jade yanked the bow down. She yanked the bow back up. “Why do they give us passwords if we’re not going to use them?”

She glared at Salmon Trout. “Who is this person!”

Salmon Trout coughed. He tugged his beard. He said, “I’ve told you. You don’t believe me, then try a little interrogation. If she’s Uni it won’t take much to find that out. Ask her if she’s seen any little odd weather lately.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Another one of your rustic wisecracks? I came out here to shoot Uni, not play twenty questions.”

“Sure, and you’ll get your chance. But consider how a question might seem silly to us but perhaps in a revealing sort of way be unanswerable for someone fresh across the divide.”

“Huh. Uni.” Jade scowled and lasered in on Doc again. “Okay Doc Holiday, have you seen anything lately, something unusual, maybe?”

Doc Holiday glanced at Salmon Trout’s patient, slightly anxious smile. She addressed Jade, “That is a classic odd question in a neighborhood like this. I think I could answer it with a yes or a no and be equally convincing. What do you think?”

“See? Meaningless! Tell us the password!”

Salmon Trout said, “Well, maybe it’s the wrong question for you to be asking. You’re young, kid, maybe you don’t remember the way things were. In them olden days? Interrogator should have a handle on the subject, shouldn’t she? A little background. Otherwise she might commit a grievous error and never know.”

“Or care!”

“Look,” Doc said, “if Skimmer ever whispered any secret word in my ear it must’ve been drowned out in all his puffing and groaning. You know how it is. I can’t help you with the password. Be a honey and lower that fantastic bow of yours, would you—”

“If you know Skimmer that well then you can tell us all about his gnarly piercings. I’d like to—”

“Oh do you have to,” cut in Salmon Trout a bit testily.

Doc laughed. “I never talk about my clients.”

Jade lowered the bow, showed her teeth at Doc. She tucked the arrow deftly into the quiver at her shoulder. The three others spun between her fingers and also went to join their green-feathered mates.

“Yeah, forget it, Jade,” said Salmon Trout. “Point here would be, what could you know about that old sharpy that he doesn’t want the whole world to know or guess at? Not much, would be my first guess. There are other ways of identifying someone and a password is about the least reliable. I, by the way, can tell a lot about a person by what weather they—”

“Yeah okay, and I can spot a rampant Uni a mile off and none of your gassy guesses about it, either.”

“Then lighten up, Jade. Here be no Uni. Don’t be such a stickler. Could make you a better Flyer.”

“A better Flyer!” the girl squawked derisively. “I can outfly you or anybody.”

Doc said, “I think what he means is—”

“A tad more levity might unhinder you, darlin’,” a new voice drawled, slightly hesitant, from the near distance.

Jade jerked around to face the speaker. Reflexively, two fingers hooked up to the quiver at her shoulder and she half drew the one arrow not quite settled in with the others.

The third member of the party stood nearby in the clearing, grinning slightly behind his dark well-trimmed beard.

“I can outfly you too, fella, any day. Just get you off that fancy flier of yours and onto something more realistic.”

In response to this challenge there came a toothy intake of breath from this last member of the group. Doc looked past Jade, got him in focus. Evidently, during her introductions to Sam and Jade, this third party had patrolled unseen, silently guarding the area. Doc was sure she recognized him from someplace. 

Medium tall, he looked strong and fit. His short beard was darker than the longish hair that flew out over his ears. He wore a billowy long-sleeved shirt printed with a marbled black, white, and gray pattern that tried to merge, although not quite successfully, into the sun-dappled shade around the clearing. Strapped to his waist he wore a slim, medium-length sword in a black scabbard. Doc noticed the sword was fitted with the pronged Spanish grip favored by many combative Flyers, and a narrow, closely-fitted hand guard of woven black steel bands. He had on wide-legged iron-gray pants with lots of pockets, the legs tucked into lightweight split-leather boots. She noted the pair of blackened flat-handled dagger blades tucked into the boots and strapped snug below his knees.

Now a faint smile hovered on the swordsman’s face as his hands came up and, in a soothing gesture, he gently patted the air between himself and Jade. He shook his head, smiling more. “Jade,” he said, “that’s a day, a challenge I look forward to.”

Doc, no longer feeling pinned down, made this the occasion to stand up.

The swordsman looked at her and nodded, then glanced sharply back to Jade, eyebrows raised.

The archer whirled, spun in a half crouch to face Doc again.

Doc found herself again looking the length of the thin black green-feathered skewer, down into a wide, mocking amber eye. Rising and pushing forward a step, Jade emitted a threatening, open-mouthed hiss from the back of her throat, then paused, staring at Doc as though gauging her response. Then she grinned and with no fuss at all the arrow rejoined its flock and she folded up the weird bow and hooked it onto her belt.

“I know, I’m horrible,” she said. “Sorry. I call that scaring up a Uni. Sometimes they try to disguise themselves as human.”

She said to Salmon Trout, “I look at her and it just doesn’t pop out. And there isn’t any stink, either.”

“Nah,” said Salmon Trout. “Jade, much as I admire your spirit and unique talent, I wish you’d learn to be more deliberate about who you point your arrows at.”

“Do I scare you, Sam?” Jade leaned over Salmon Trout, still sitting cross-legged on the forest floor. She gave him a little frown. “Is the old man having a spell?” She gave him a playful shove then offered him a hand up. He took the hand but only gave it a pat on the back and then let go. He remained seated, slowly turning the end of his longbow in the dust between his knees.

Looking at him a little worried, Jade said, “All I can tell you is, my point was never on the Doc there. Close, sure, but not on. Off by a fraction. I could have pinned her shirt collar to that tree. Feel better?”

“You could learn to take my word for things. Some day you’re going to give me a heart attack, missy.” He added, “Anyway, you’ll get plenty of chances to level up tomorrow, I guarantee.”

“Ho-hum.” Jade turned away, shaking her head. Her gaze swept Doc as she went and their eyes met momentarily. Doc saw no further apology in those eyes for the scare she’d had, only forest highlights and a sharp feline humor. In the sharing of that glance Doc experienced an odd moment of vertigo.

A low whistle turned everyone’s attention to the swordsman, who had drifted noiselessly back across the clearing. He raised a hand and tapped his wrist and glanced at Salmon Trout. Then, looking intently at the man seated on the forest floor, he paused and changed course, veered in the direction of Salmon Trout’s flying machine laying at the edge of the clearing not far from Doc’s tree.

Jade walked briskly off toward the flier she’d ditched at the edge of the forest.

Doc took a deep breath. She bent and laced up her boots, then stood and tucked in the old flowered shirt. She looked at Salmon Trout and waited for the next thing to happen.

She said, “So what is it that Jade didn’t see? What is it I lack that makes me okay?”

“It’s her knack,” Salmon Trout said. “She has a knowing way with the Uni. With her, the sense is always active. It’s her certainty in it makes her careless about other things, Doc. For instance, Highway 80, was it?”

“That’s the password. Maybe you should tutor her on how I couldn’t be sure she was the real deal, when she didn’t get it conversationally.”

“Okay, a lesson time, then. Later we’ll see if she remembers.”

Doc wondered, could the feeling of being off balance that struck her with Jade’s passing glance be in any way a thing of a kind with her experience of the raspberries under the tree? Had the comet once again leaked a hint of experience yet to come, only this time without the usual preamble of an unlooked-for shard of gem light sparking somewhere in the world? If so then this ‘deja forward’, as she thought of such moments, had been pretty raw. Nevertheless, such comet showings were always unpredictable, happenstance, their meaning impossible to guess at. It was only afterward, in living the hinted event or sensation or mood, that she recognized what the comet had shown her. Plus, often enough when the event arrived, it might impinge so lightly on her awareness that she would scarcely recall it at all. That fat raspberry, thinking of it now, sparked again on her palate. Lively. What it was about, well, she would be sure to find out sometime, or simply happen to miss it when its moment came around.

She expelled a breath. Today now, all it took was a little brush-up with prickly Jade and the old zing of battle charged her spine again. We’re back in the wars for sure now, aren’t we! She couldn’t help giving herself a little grin. And had Jade seen what she clearly hoped to see, would this faded old flower-print now be harpooned to the tree, or. . . .

A ratcheting sound came from nearby. The swordsman was hunkered down at the parked flier, one forearm rattling around in the machine’s internal works. In a moment he finished up and had the metal side panel banged into place. He stood and rapped his wrench against the flier’s side a couple of times, again catching everyone’s attention. He again tapped his wrist and this time jerked a thumb at the sky. Time to go. He strode off across the clearing for his own machine.

“Time to go,” Salmon Trout said. “Doc, you’ll be riding with me.” He climbed back up his longbow and stretched mightily at the sky.

four

Salmon Trout came around and stepped aboard the flier. Doc swung her pack over her shoulders and straddled the side-seat, gripped the seat strap one-handed and wrassled up the white medikit bag. In the next moment they launched for the treetops. She whooped as they went over the top and slanted for the sky.

In a couple of seconds they were clear of the trees and turning eastward. Doc relished once again the freedom and rush of speedy flight. 

Too long, she thought, so many months since she’d allowed herself the exhilaration of running the sky, but the joy these days was equally accompanied with pain. It was all too clear that she’d used herself up in constant running and would never again be able to take the strain of it. The joy of dodging in and out of battle rescuing downed Flyers, that was for the old Doc Holiday, saving fighters right and left, a real hero. Now, all broke down, gone out too many times. And here was Salmon Trout, pretty much in the same boat, it looked like, a lot older than her yet still, she guessed, addicted to battle, still huffing at double-speed on the endless, merciless running belt. 

The wind blew, she raked the hair out of her eyes. Rolling hills of brushed gold drifted swiftly below. In minutes, the wide expanse of the central valley spread before them and Salmon Trout veered northeast, ran on toward the distant blue line of the Sierras, edge of the world.

If only this flying thing could be as easy for her as it once was. Treading at a useful speed was a lot of work, up-hill all the way. Anyhow, it was harder for some than for others. What she’d noticed from the beginning was the seeming oddity of how, from one Flyer to the next, an equal amount of effort didn’t always result in equal speed, agility in the air or distance traveled. And there were those who fell out. 

She watched Salmon Trout running beside her. He was clearly a veteran Flyer and for now still a strong runner, but the wearing effort was catching up with him. She knew the symptoms first-hand. Knew that she, sprightly Flyer though she once had been, was going to have to be a passenger like this, from now on.

It was her persisting concern with erratic flying ability, most dramatically suffered in the stress of battle as a total loss of levity, that in the end had brought Doc out for one last spin. It was, after all, her professional interest. There was something about it that never added up. If flying ability were only a matter of individual capacity or training, that would be one thing. But any Flyer might experience a slump, then later recover. Failure and recovery might happen in the space of a moment, sometimes be scarcely noticed at all. She thought it likely happened to everyone in the air at one time or another, an overlooked hazard with effects sometimes subtle and at other times, more rarely, catastrophic. Combative Flyers knew this all too well.

Because it seemed a simple proposition that physical effort amplified through a spinning inertial engine should make for a consistent result in human flight, some anxious Flyers voiced questions about quality control practices at the hidden factory that turned out the devices by the thousands each year. But no particular flying machine was ever shown to perform any better or worse than could be expected, in accord with the skill and experience of any particular operator.

The problem of unpredictable flyability had to be rooted in the source of the inertial engine’s power, Doc thought. The explanation for human-powered flight couldn’t be entirely dependent on mere mechanics, however exotic, because the new invention only worked in the zone of altered physics brought to ground by Comet Lihtan, six years back. Holding up against gravity relied more, she thought, on unexplained changes wrought within the geographic area under the comet’s track. There would be a human factor.

With the introduction four years ago, out of the blue it seemed, of the new factory-made flying machines, Doc became another among the often-seen volunteers of her local Occasional Militia. In her four years of flying, she dutifully participated in nearly all of the sporadic, usually small, confrontations with invading Uni in her range, customarily not more than a day’s flight across to the south Sierras. As many times as the Uni grounders marched over the hill for a little set-to, she would be in attendance, her tent pitched happily among the defenders.

Her job was dodging in and out of the fracas with the rescue teams, extracting the wounded and applying whatever aid was needed. Often enough, that meant running them out of harm’s way on her specially equipped flier, basically a stretcher mounted outrigger style beside the running belt.

Doc’s professional specialty in physical therapy enabled her to provide some benefit to many Flyers shook-up or bent askew in the brawl, but her skills did not extend to otherwise able-bodied Flyers who mysteriously fell out of the air and couldn’t get back up.

There were not a lot of these chance victims over all, but in Doc’s experience of better than a dozen battles, they added up as a distinct group she could do little to help. There never seemed to be any rhyme or reason for what ailed these Flyers. Together they comprised yet another among many cometary mysteries.

In time, the malady became the one thing, in the overall puzzle of odd effects under the comet, that she wanted to work out the answer to.

She took to carrying a thermos of strong coffee with her into the field, hoping the stimulant would jog her stunned patients back to functionality. This of course worked in the ordinary way, motivating her special subjects to run faster, but it didn’t get them off the ground, not by an inch. And too much of the brew was a drag on the system, ending up giving her patients a bad case of the jitters. So she turned to subtler methods for a solution. 

Starting with certain browsings of the internet, her studies quickly led to obscure elderly volumes that she eventually uncovered in the special books section at her local branch of the regional library. The trail then took her on to other sources, including tattered tomes fortuitously discovered in a musty old used-book store on a dust-blown street in some unnamed abandoned town, which led Doc Holiday to begin experiments based on the Hanuman Hypothesis: whereby she steeped her debilitated Flyers in toxins infinitely diluted, whose gross effects at full strength would be analogous to the symptoms she wished to counter, such symptoms particularly related to dyspnea with a sense of gravis, and oppressive mood. In her experimental nomenclature she dubbed these aggregated symptoms, gravitas.

With such novel blends she hoped to induce a cathartic response in her patients that might loft them back into the air.

But she discovered that conventional potions of this type had no effect against a malady unique to the comet zone, there being no substances that induced subjective symptoms similar to ‘fear of the open sky,’ nor any known to kindle such dreads as ‘getting blown sideways in the wind’ or ‘running headlong into the ground’; so she turned to the inertial engine itself for inspiration.

And somewhere found a rusty old discarded flier, clearly one of Flihtworks’ first, hammered out by hand in the company’s earliest years. The thing had been flown till the works ground to a halt. Disassembling it, Doc examined every part. A very early model. Still randomly orbiting the little engine a set of inertial clappers remained, much the worse for wear after countless hours snapping up energies out of the M-Field. Later models of the inertial engine no longer featured the noisy little clappers.

Going further into the engine Doc found, tucked into the core of the crude mechanism, a small metal cylinder. Once she hacksawed it open, she found nothing more than a stack of tiny steel washers filling the tube. Then, rattling up and down within the ring of washers, an even smaller cylinder. She went to work on it and inside she found, to her surprise, a glass capsule containing a soggy twist of paper, which she carefully extracted. Examining the narrow, inch-long rectangle of damp paper she found the legend, ‘Solute #1’ rubber-stamped on it in red ink. She touched it to her tongue and tasted once again the ice of space that years before had slushed the entire region west of the mountains, a thousand miles of it scraped off the comet.

Applying her Hanuman Hypothesis, Doc began the distilling and the diluting, the fractioning, the mixing of the fractions, the whole process of rationalizing and potentizing a subtle energy she supposed existing within Solute #1, slush of the comet. Her process led her down paths progressively more meditative as the experimental potion’s potency increased. Her natural musicality, her lifelong tune of endless tunes that flowed, rarely ever fully consciously through her days, flourished in ever-freer invention in contact with the slush. Ideas, notions, recollections drifted in mind, sparks of dream and dreamsong floated up, catalyzed in the sunshine over her steaming, long-necked retort atop the stove.

Eventually, Doc found a medicinal strength for Solute #1 at the10,000-fold dilution factor, where it brought sudden success to all who took her aptly named Remedy for Flyers. Flyers with all the levity shaken out of them now flew again. Here was strong evidence indeed that it was the cometary slush itself, by now long-since soaked-in, dissipated and gone from the world, that was the source of the strange altered physics affecting the comet-struck region. Doc kept her opinion on this to herself. After all, it was only one among many speculative notions. But practical evidence showed it had legs to stand on.

Following her discovery of Solute #1, Doc Holiday’s remedy over a year’s time quietly gained some fame and many adherents, not only among those cured of the malady but also with Flyers whose abilities were marginal to begin with. And with the growing need to push back Uni marauders crossing more and more often into regions west of the Sierra and Cascade ranges, demand for her potion grew widely in the zone. 

In fact, Doc’s potion came to be called her ‘low-runner special’ as it was favored among the ever-eager cadres of ground-hugging warriors who took it for the confidence it gave them. The sarcastic-sounding label started out as a joke among the zone’s more cavalier risk-takers, aerial duelists who mocked the skeptical flying style of low-altitude fighters. Proponents of low-altitude flight had a ready reply for such foolish aerobats however, declaring they would never ride higher than they could safely jump. From then on, they adopted proudly the appellation ‘low-runner.’

But among Flyers more widely, Doc Holiday’s Remedy for Flyers turned out to provide just the assurance any reasonably cautious runner would want. And unsurprisingly, those ardent aficionados of low-altitude flight, whether or not of combative temperament, seemed to require a great many maintenance dosages.

This season’s Remedy was better. She carried with her now an improved version she hoped would eliminate some puzzling effects some people were reporting about the previous batch. They’d liked it at first, but now they were saying it made them overexert and tire themselves to exhaustion. It was true that there’d been some energy elements added to the primary dilute batch last season, but nothing in there could affect people beyond their natural limits or inclinations.

Such a side-effect was a conundrum. Could it be that Solute #1, the Flyer’s catalyst, when amplified by dilution might itself interfere with other elements of the admixture? This would seem a far-flung speculation.

The whole point of the inertial engine was that it rotated through the synchronous M-Field, reclaiming energies sequestered within that unipolar field. Problems could arise when a Flyer fell into sync with the M-Field for whatever reason, and dropped through the shimmery tension of levity generated by the inertial engine. If swept into the droning monad of the M-Field for any time at all, the Flyer must surely fall out. But applying Doc’s Remedy showed how de-tuning Flyers off synchrony with the M-Field put them fully back into the fray. 

This was the straightforward explanation for what happened when the Remedy was taken. It worked every time and with no variation for as long as the potion remained effective, usually a couple of months before fading in following weeks. To Doc, it seemed unreasonable to consider the potion’s reliable primary ingredient in any way a cause for variable effects in one or another of the potion’s complementary ingredients. Could the exasperation Doc was hearing from some users be a result of some other kind of interference? A little matter worth tracking down.

To stay on the safe side, the new Remedy had no admixture of any kind. This time, Doc had simply run a ten-fold increased dilution over last season’s factor. Confident that this should quicken an even stronger, longer-lasting effect and enhance any Flyer’s stamina, she felt, almost, that she herself might. . .

But here was Salmon Trout. She should offer a vial of the bright tiny pearls to him. Soon, she felt it likely, he would need them.

five

The wind blew hard against her face, made her squint against fluttering eyelashes. They must be going sixty at least. Salmon Trout ran a relentless track across the sky. He seemed tireless and likely thought of himself that way. Doc was impressed with his swift, unflagging pace.

She called over the wind, “So tell me, Sam, about Jade. She seems maybe a little crazy.”

He turned his face toward her and his beard blew past his chin. He grinned. “Jade’s a handful, you notice. But you can’t fault her for having her heart in the right place.”

“I didn’t detect a lot of heart, Sam. She seems eager to shoot somebody.”

“A good fighter. Merciless in a melee. . . for good enough reason, by the way.” Sam’s voice came in rhythmic bursts as he trod through the air. “Uni thugs killed her folks. Both of ’em.”

His rapid tread on the running belt whirred them over sparse-topped trees and up the slope of a yellow grass valley, driving them easterly into rising foothills. They were already nearly across the central valley. “Thing is, though,” he said, “Jade likes to gloat. Killing Uni, for her, is uplifting, her heart’s delight. Take a glance at her bow handle sometime. Kill notches, lots. Scratched in with her mother’s diamond, she says. A hunger for vengeance, that one.”

“Not good, Sam. There’s no end of vengeance. She could carry that burden too far. I’ve seen it before and it becomes a liability. We don’t want to end up carrying her baggage.” Doc scanned the sky. “Look now, she’s lagging. Shouldn’t she be out front?”

“No doubt about it, Doc. Not much for teamwork, that gal. Don’t really know why she was assigned to me this time. But she’s good with that bow. Very good eye, a hunter. Kid comes alive in battle, you’ll see. She’s a legend up north. Plus, killing Uni is her fast track to resource credits. Needs a lot of cash for some kind of project she’s working on. So she racks up the points and has her fun. Her PubServe Gauge is sky high.”

He trod on. He said, “Anyhow, we need a few killers among us. Why she’s with us now, I suspect.”

“Yes,” said Doc, “there’s always that. That, and you’re keeping an eye on her.”

“Yup. But she’s no hindrance. My biggest drawback is me.”

“Salmon Trout, have you noticed your stride shortening?”

“Interesting you should mention that.” Salmon Trout huffed onward with increased vigor.

“The girl. Does she have any other family?”

“Don’t know.”

“Did you know her parents?”

“Never had the pleasure. Both were academics, astronomers, mathematicians or something. My gig’s catching fish. Up on the north coast.”

Salmon Trout’s pace on the running belt slackened a little and he leaned forward on the steering bar. He took a few deep breaths. He said, “Operatives got them both. Some disagreement about uh, . . . the Comet. Held views the Uni didn’t agree with.”

“The Hedlunds!”

“Really. Don’t tell anybody I said so,” he said. 

“But they were supposed to have left the country.”

“Not what Jade says. Kidnapped, murdered. Disappeared. Something.”

The air cooled as they gained altitude. The three small craft whirred speedily up steeper canyons and Doc could see early snow streaking the higher peaks not so very far ahead. 

“Why are we going this way?”

“Simple stratagem. They’ll spot the decoy while we go low the other way. We’ll be splitting up soon. Jade will be coming north with us, Bierce goes south.”

“Bierce?”

“um—That’s me,” came a cool, slightly hesitant voice from above, “from up—down, I mean, across the sea, folkses, and I’ll be taking the high road south, today.”

Doc craned her neck and saw the swordsman cruising nigh silently, not twenty feet above her. His feet did not pound the running belt in the expected way, rather he seemed to shuffle a casual soft-shoe, with little commotion.

“Glad to meet you, Doc.” Bierce gave her a polite wave.

Doc raised a hand in reply.

“I’m aware of your good work, Doc. The Flyers’ remedies.” Bierce had a reticent, almost hang-dog air about him and only a slight smile showed behind the trim dark beard. His brown eyes seemed a bit distant, disengaged.

“Glad to meet you, Bierce. So you’re in on this, too. I’m honored.”

“My job—job’s to drop in from time to time, help out some. This afternoon I’ll be your decoy,” he explained. The noncommittal eyes flicked up, taking in the rising landscape ahead. He said, “We’re near that junction now, Sam. Be taking my joy ride soon as we hit the cliffs.”

“Safe journey, Bierce,” said Salmon Trout. “By the way, when you get to Bakersfield give my little Chili Flower a hello from me, would you?”

“Sure thing. I’ll let her know you’re flying with a new gal.”

“No, don’t do that, Bierce, think of my retirement! Which may be coming sooner than I’d hoped.” Salmon Trout gusted a sigh and pantomimed a laborious struggle on his flying machine’s drive belt. 

“Worry not, amigo, I’ll give her your love and encouragement.”

“Not too much of my love, pal. And don’t encourage her, either.”

Bierce laughed quietly. “I’ll get in touch.” He glanced off into the near distance where Jade flew alone. He seemed about to depart then, but instead dropped his larger flier down alongside Sam and Doc. In a more chatty way he went on, “But look, Sam, I’ve been thinking. Just today. How’d you like to test a new flier, a prototype I’ve worked up? I tightened up your belt back there but it doesn’t really do the trick, does it. You’re an experienced Flyer. This new machine might put off that retirement a bit. If you’d like to try it out.”

“I guess I’ve been complaining about these boats long enough,” Salmon Trout replied. “You need a new test pilot, Bierce? All right, I’ll give it a try.”

“Good. Because this is it.” Gloved knuckles rapped the matte black carapace of Bierce’s flier. The sound it made was not the hollow clank of sheet metal. Blazoned large on the polished nose of the egg-shaped craft appeared the Flihtworks logo. “Here’s the last one of the first batch. I gotta have this one right now though, or I’d swap you for it. Something’s up in Bakersfield I have to get—get to in a hurry.” 

Salmon Trout’s bushy wind-swept eyebrows went up.

Bierce grinned slightly at Salmon Trout’s obvious interest. “So look,” he said, “you know the big house in Sonoma we’ve been using. Around Clear Lake? If you can lay up there till probably noon tomorrow, I’ll bring three of the new ones for you and your team.

Salmon Trout shrugged. “But—sure, I know the place real well. Thought it was in Lake County.”

“Wherever,” said Bierce. “It’s kind of a s-sudden detour, I know, humping it back across the valley. Sorry about that. But what’s an extra hundred miles in an afternoon, hey? And then we’ll be off to battle in good style. You want to give Prokofiev the word on this?”

“Okay, sure. And yeah, Bierce, what’s an extra hundred miles. Plan.”

“Good.” Bierce jabbed a gloved finger toward the approaching cliffs. “Oop, here we are then—I’m flyin’ high.” And pulling down oversized black-lensed goggles, he leaned without effort into the sky, angled steeply to the right and sped south. 

With the goggles on, Doc finally recognized him as the Bierce she’d seen now and again on the battlefield, always from a distance and when somebody pointed him out to her. He always seemed to be moving fast on the periphery of things. One time though, she recalled, she’d seen him in action, wielding his sword and pushing his flier into a handful of Uni who’d splintered off from the main group and started cutting down trees for some reason. Doc never saw, moving fast herself at the time, how that encounter ended.

six

Salmon Trout yanked the steering bar and the flier banked a sharp left away from the impending cliffs, angling west again and equally north. Doc Holiday craned her neck to follow Bierce’s flight, wondering at his speed. She watched him dwindle to a black dot against the sky above the towering Sierra peaks. From somewhere behind the nearest peak, two tiny blazes of light arced up, Uni rockets sent to chase Bierce. They zoomed after him, rapidly narrowing the gap until, as though meeting sudden resistance, they yanked sharply upward and spun a mad whirl off into the blue, trailing fragments of themselves as they went. In a moment, far up, two pinprick flashes opened, stretched into a pair of silvery reptilian eyes that smeared rapidly up in two columns of white smoke that quickly converged at the dizzy limits of the sky. Two distant pops came to Doc’s ears.

“Doc, report,” called Salmon Trout, laboring mightily to speed their way on to Clear Lake. 

“Decoy away, Sam. Two Uni rockets went up the flame right about where you’d expect. Always a pretty sight.”

The Uni had their forward launchers always at the ready. Shooting from the far side of the Sierras they seemed forever hopeful their missiles’ trajectories, erratic west of the divide, might lead to some actual damage. Small chance of that. The rockets flew straight and true, accelerated till they ‘hit the limit’ and went abruptly skyward. Similarly, the more powerful the explosive they carried, the narrower and more vertical the blast, as exploding gasses went straight up, in defiance of Earth’s gravity, with a velocity equal to their rate of expansion. Rocket bombs had to catch something directly above them when they exploded, in order to cause any harm. Such a hit was rare, but devastating when it did happen. Doc had seen the results of such lucky shots, fliers instantly vaporized, or cut in half.

Still, it was fun to watch bombs detonate into the sky. 

Doc stared into the featureless blue, her head tilted back so that the bright hills below slid by in the fringe of vision. There was a rhythm to their flight, Salmon Trout’s disciplined metronomic pace on the running board patting out a hypnotic beat over the whir of the running belt. Doc let her attention wander. For a little while, stray notions and fragments of notions flew up to populate the unfocussed sky.

She pictured again the two rockets hitting the wall and going up the flame. Marvelous. Some folks guessed this ‘hitting the wall’ effect was due to objects bouncing into a trampoline of dark matter laid down by the comet in the Fifth Dimension. Others proposed it was due to an ‘obscure force’ like dark energy waves expanding local space. And there were those theorists who looked to a quantum effect brought about by matter suddenly phobic to Earthly observation and speeding out of view. Then again, there was this obscure group who claimed it for evidence of a Spontaneous Litotic Improbability, a thing they were never able to describe exactly. Doc recalled the response to that one by some philosophers who, clenching atavistic paroxysms between verbal buttocks, as it seemed, proposed a gaseous ingress from vacuous pataphysical universes. She laughed quietly up at the sky. In the end, though, most conventional cosmological theorists tended to view the effect as positive evidence of stressed space-time, the fabric tattered and shredding into a roiling vacuum distended infinitely between ever-converging black holes proximate to Earth.

Ultimately all guesswork, speculation in good humor; the Holmesian dictum that once all possibilities are eliminated then whatever unlikelihood remaining must be true, fed endless discussion and argument. Doc never argued any pet theories herself, admitting she had no notion of what caused the flame effect that marked the anomalous speed limit in force along the comet’s track.

She glanced back along the scarp southward, but Bierce had long-since disappeared into the distance.

“And how about that flier of his?” she said.

“Yeah.” Salmon Trout huffed and thundered on the running belt. “How ’bout that? Bierce never lets on about it, he just flies it around. Prototype my butt.

“Ah well,” continued Salmon Trout, “could be now my retirement’s postponed, if what Bierce promised is true about that flier. I was starting to look forward to chasing the waves again. Time I got over chasing the joys of battle.” He paused, then said musingly, “I shore hope she’s willing to move up to the coast. Should have mentioned that to Bierce. Then she’d know I’m serious.”

They kept up speed, racing over the bounding yellow hills at treetop level, working their way northwest to the new destination. Jade made her own way, crossing their path from time to time as she scouted widely for possible ambush—or opportunity. Doc noted that when Sam veered cautiously wide around some approaching outcrop or forested area, Jade soon appeared there, circling low. She pointed this out to Sam.

“Sure, Jade’s on the team,” he said. “But too often a step behind. Or a step beside. That’s why she’s running me ragged. I gotta scamper around weather wraiths while she tags along for thrills.”

“Weather wraiths?”

“Yeah. All critters throw up sparks and vapors. Could be a cougar stalking deer or a shark prowling the tuna. Could be a badger digging a hole or just dogs chasing their tails, I can’t often tell, when things aren’t in line of sight. Here, could be Uni ’filtrators with a little more reach to them.”

“Aha. But Jade, she’s learning, right?”

“She’s had time for that. Jade has her motives—and merit badges don’t count for a lot with her, that’s all.”

“Just to let you know,” Salmon Trout said after a while, “we find Uni operators filtering in by way of Highway 80 through Truckee. They probably hope to capture Sacramento.” He shook his head skeptically. “Hard to say why they’d want to. But this time, I’m told, we’ll be hosting some kind of specialists, soldiers carrying extra baggage, according to the spotters. Privatized mercs, I’d say. Whatever they are, they’re still grounders and not much to be feared. Unless any get away and disperse into our towns. Then they’ll make trouble. And it’s a big group this time. We’ll be needing to have you forward in this one, but you won’t be asked to fly. So they tell me.”

“I see,” Doc replied. “A big fight. What do you think they have?”

“Besides bows and arrows and catapults they’ll have repeaters, javelin-throwing machines. Somebody suggested the javelins have electronic targeting. If so, there’ll be black boxes below, techs to take out. And yeah, grenade flingers. Those Uni persist in trying out fresh fireworks.”

“Well, we expect no better,” said Doc. “Blowing things up is the Uni’s only claim to fame, after all. But you know, they can fling but they can’t fly.”

“That’s right.”

“So Sam, do we think there’s anything more important about this invasion than nuisance value? We’ve pushed them back up that old road before.”

Sam trod on, another mile went beneath them, then he said, “I guess you should know they’re trying the same stunt in Oregon territory, down the Columbia Gorge and up-river from the sea. In Washington we see an offshore naval build-up outside the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Grays Harbor north of Grayland. Best guess for now is they’re trying to cut us up. We figure they’re setting up for a real invasion. From the sea, if they can get a beachhead, then fortifications along those lines. Like they imagine a control axis from Sacramento out to San Francisco Bay. Along the Columbia. Puget Sound. Like that. Here and there along these routes we get a few troop-carrying gliders diving in, launched from rocket sleds over there. A lot of those suckers go up the flame soon as they cross the divide.”

“Poor things should learn to slow down.”

“Yeah, well, the crackpots in charge sure keep us busy rounding up the survivors and marching them back.”

“Maybe they think they’re getting intelligence that way,” suggested Doc.

“If so, they never seem to understand what they learn.”

“Sam, if I was an old drunk bastard I’d be doing the same old stupid all over again, too. So I guess the tv is right, then, the celebrated talks have broken down?”

“More shouting than ever, is what I’ve heard. Uni don’t listen, they only make demands. And then pull a sneak attack when they feel meaner than usual. I guess it’s one of those we’re here to squash now.”

Salmon Trout trotted on a while and the wind blew past. Then he said, “Oh by the way, Doc, we’re going to do something about those lying tv sats. Something Bierce says he’s working on.”

“Ha!” Doc laughed into the wind. “Smirking chimps off the air!”

“You betcha.”

They came out over the valley beyond the foothills and Salmon Trout bent earnestly to straight-lining it back toward their new, unplanned port of call. He cast a long glance over his right shoulder to the mountains that would be tomorrow’s destination. He said, “I’m getting weird weather over where we’re going to be, Doc.”

No phones being the order of the day, the wayward Jade flew alone and incommunicado. She was never far distant but always out of earshot. The two fliers crossed a line of green in the yellow landscape, a river widening out of the hills behind them. For a moment down there Doc caught sight of Jade swooping into a thicket of trees, crouched on the nose of her flier, balanced with one foot extended onto the forward stabilizer. How did she do that, Doc wondered. She glimpsed the flash of green feathers beside Jade’s ear, an arrow drawn and tracking some unseen target below, then Jade plunged out of view into the trees.

There’s something I never saw before, Doc thought. Something wild in the deck.

seven

Bierce hurtled across the late afternoon sky far above the vast central valley, his flier a tiny projectile invisible from below. The rising mists of fog and dust greatly obscured his own view of details on the ground. At thirty-five hundred feet, he felt relatively safe in pushing this flier, unobserved, to the highest speed possible. 

Part of the feature set of this prototype design was optical camouflage; switched on now, the view of what was above the craft played out each passing moment on the skin of the hull. Today, only the sky would be mirrored and his passage might be seen on the ground below as no more than a slight transient blur in the dusty air.

He had an hour of flight time ahead of him. He thought he ought to test further the new limits he was establishing, velocities edging close on what he called the ‘liht limit’. This was a narrow threshold range starting at a fraction over a hundred miles per hour, through which the mysterious flame effect developed. It was this flame effect that he’d witnessed a short time ago when the two Uni missiles intended for him had accelerated through the threshold and hit the limit, from that point spiraling to the top of the sky. Up the flame they went—ejected straight off the planet. 

Bierce himself had discovered the threshold range through close observation, by accelerating various test objects into the flame effect at incrementally faster velocities closing upon the limit. The whirl, he thought, that could fling you into space if you weren’t careful. He eyed his air speed indicator.

He would be careful. Liht limit—a tag derived from Comet Lihtan, precursor of the effect—the chief limiting factor of his world. No object in the areas touched by the comet exceeded this velocity without then deflecting out from Earth’s center of gravity to zoom off into space, ripped apart in an ascending trail of wreckage. Items like aircraft, rockets or other projectiles, engine pistons, spinning rotors, or for that matter a rock falling off a high cliff, all were somehow diverted from their course and drawn or impelled upward, gyring a flamelike whirl off to some point in the sky. The falling rock simply accelerated into gravity and in a few seconds attained the speed limit, ‘bounced’ into the flame and got flung up to join all the rest, wherever that might be. 

The Uni were eager contributors to that space debris from the very beginning. They seemed compelled to serve from an endless supply of rockets and bombs, shooting them off at every opportunity. The result was endless nuisance attacks like the one this afternoon. The smoke trails streaking to the zenith were spectacular, but pretty as they were, they mostly reminded Bierce how he didn’t want to follow their example and get himself smeared into the sky too.

Yet he, for any number of reasons, had to uncover that path, find out where it went. Bierce was the one to do that if anyone was going to. In his speculative nightmare he pictured himself a kite rider aloft in slashing winds and lightning at the top of a storm. He imagined various catastrophes likely to ensue, particularly the one where he was struck by lightning then ripped to shreds in a whirling wind. But he hoped to avoid such maximal whammy, desiring only to understand his way around the big sparks, not go up in—up the flame. 

But never mind such primal terrors, he thought, that was all just his imagination worrying at the edges of the unknown; his course of exploration was mapped out for him like fate.

First of all, the experiments were his to do by the obligation incurred in his great success with the popular inertial engine. He had to make heads or tails of, to discover, put a name to the underlying principle of weird physics prevailing in the comet zone. That would make up for everything. Secondly, the personal attribute conferred on him by the comet gave him access to a never-before known sense, a perception of the shifting attractors winding through everything; he saw and felt the gravitational filaments connecting, relating thing to thing in the world. A sense that was his alone so far as he knew. His knack for navigating this shifting landscape would better his chances of slipping through this ‘storm’ he had to explore. 

It was inescapable. If anybody could survive a close squint into the flame effect, it would be him. And if anybody deserved the risk of trying it, Bierce felt he was it.

In recent months, in his private workshop in the old parking garage beneath the Flihtworks office tower in Bakersfield, Bierce had worked hard developing this present flier. It was the best one out of an assortment of prototypes he’d worked up on a new concept all his own.

He began the project in a way familiar to him, scavenging old aerospace technologies out of dust-blown factories in the crumbling suburbs of south California. For this project he first looked to salvage the cockpit of some high-altitude aircraft, airtight and whole, pressurizable, that would keep him alive far above Earth and most likely into outer space. He knew he was being optimistic but he had to start someplace. What he ended up finding was a very fussy technology involving high-speed compressors and blowers that would simply disintegrate, exceeding the liht limit as soon as he turned them on. He tried to cobble something functional out of available components but discovered that too many parts refused to fit together, even the ones that were supposed to. 

At any rate, salvage artist though he was, the founder and lead operator of Flihtworks was in the habit of thinking towards future production capability. Whether the old stuff worked or not, it was a limited resource and not reproducible. Resupply was out of the question, of course, so for his purpose all of this old tech had to be a dead end. But considering these old solutions to preserving life in the freezing vacuum a handful of miles overhead gave him much food for thought.

In the end, the thought hatched in his brain that it would be simpler and suit his purpose better if he utilized a glass shell, durable and airtight, into which he could install whatever equipment he needed. Following this new tack, he found an old industrial kiln and located a centrifuge from a derelict nose cone factory, and sneaked these items into the underground workshop when nobody was looking, and fired them up. 

After this, the work progressed quickly. He cast his first large glass sculpture, a bubble big enough to contain one or two persons seated, or himself and all his gear. When he finally rolled the heavy shell out of the centrifuge he found it had shaped up distinctly egg-like in form. The glass, four inches thick, was still very hot so he rolled his big glass egg onto the cement basement floor and left it for a few days to cool and toughen up.

When he came back to the slightly misshapen object laying on its side, cool and greenly transparent in the spotlights, he planned the finishing process. Simple. The narrow, more aerodynamic end of the egg would be the front of the new craft. 

Accordingly, marking a point at the apex of the five-foot-tall shell with a grease pencil, Bierce drew out the nose and business end of the new craft. With a diamond point he scored an elliptical section from the apex, down at a modest angle and forward to where the toes of his size 12s would rest at floor level when he was seated on the cushioned flight chair he’d reclaimed. He cut into the four-inch-thick glass. 

Days later, the nose section rolled aside, wobbled unsteadily, rocked for a while, then gently came to rest on the gritty cement floor.

While the nose section was spinning in the polisher, Bierce installed in the back half of the shell some deck flooring and accessory equipment, the oxygen tanks, the flight seat. He reserved various instruments and control features for installation in the nose section when it came out of the polisher. He hoped it would come out clear enough to see through and give him a nice undistorted panoramic view out the front of the new craft. If no, then he considered applying optical spot polishes here and there. However it worked out, at least he could always stare at the CCD monitor showing a nice electronic representation of the outside world in motion.

In a few days he had his first prototype. The nose section, mounted on rails, extended forward, unrolling four feet of steel mesh flooring from under the seat to the instrument panel mounted up front. Nose open, he could stand and lean against the back of the cockpit and see everything, and get lots of fresh air. The slope of the glass rising from the floor on either side made adequate foot guards at the entry. He’d had a concern about that because the roll-up steel mesh underfoot might tend to shift or sag a little at the edges where somebody could slip and fall out. Also, anyone climbing aboard might need a quick handhold some time or other. Such contingencies were common enough in Bierce’s experience with kit-built fliers that he’d run across in recent years, cobbled together by hobbyists. And finally, when the nose was retracted into its original position as part of the shell and securely latched into place, the glass cut-out was as snug and airtight as a frosted glass bottle stopper.

In all, he hoped, this thick-skinned bubble of glass possessed the strength and resilience needed to withstand forces he might encounter at the liht limit, forces he couldn’t guess much about before actually meeting them.

So far in his tests, this newest craft in the line-up that he was now flying handled extremely well, the pressurized cabin sustaining him comfortably in the gaspingly-thin atmosphere three miles up, and from there on out to the edge of space, where the blood did not boil out of his lungs and foam and freeze in vacuum.

Along the design path up to this half-dozenth glass flier, he was finding that an egg shape was the closest he could come to forming a spherical object. He did not want to blow his building to smithereens by running the centrifuge at full speed and up the flame. 

Necessarily then, no two eggs were quite the same. But that didn’t matter. He pictured the slogan: ‘Each copy!’ they would say in the advertising, ‘An original work of Art!’

The only major change he’d made so far in the design of the new craft was to swap the front of the flier to the wide end of the egg. This gave him a larger deck area and plenty of room for two people standing behind the wide windshield, and he could shoe-horn two reclining flight chairs into the narrow end, elbow-to-elbow. For marketing the product later on, he realized he still had to find some way of designing in ‘Roomy Comfort’ to the advantage of the customer. For now, this was still his ‘prototype.’ Further experimentation would show the way to further improvements. Hectic as his days often were, opportunities for making modifications and test flights usually occurred between one thing and another.

Right now, he had a call to make. Out at the big house at Clear Lake, Henderson had to know he was going to have visitors early this evening. Henderson was ex-Uni by family affiliation. This fact made him suspect in the minds of some who didn’t know him. True, Henderson still had informal ties to a few of his youthful compeers sitting comfy in the eastern gloomocracy, folks he wryly described as ‘unreliable elements.’ Though Henderson was no grounder, he seldom put on much of a show at Flying, pretty much happy at lower altitudes and moderate speeds. As an agriculturalist, he was a great innovator in his native grape-growing region, one of the earliest adopters of Bierce’s inertial engine, and co-designer with Flihtworks’ farm tools developers in coming up with novel floater tech.

Since earliest days after the comet, Henderson had transformed the whole upper floor of his mansion into a well-equipped medical facility, over time developing a special emphasis on repair and rehab of fighters laid low in Uni assaults. He could expect a surge of business in that line soon, Bierce knew. The house was a way station, a resource, and with Henderson’s frequent personal contact with his ‘elements’ over the hill, a center of intelligence. 

Bierce hoped the busy Henderson could shoe-horn in a visit from his soon-to-arrive crew. Salmon Trout would be no surprise to him and Salmon Trout would be hungry. Bierce hoped they could all enjoy some of Henderson’s great cookery. So he dawdled no further in giving his friend notice of their arrival. Bierce rummaged up his secure phone. . . .

eight

Bierce’s hand grasped the nose retraction lever. “Okay,” he said softly to no one in particular, “now for some fun.” He latched snug the nose cone.

This hurried but time-consuming trip to Flihtworks’ main facility made for a perfect opportunity to continue exploration of the liht limit. Bierce prepared for a foray up to the edge of speed.

Reclining comfortably in the single seat centered behind the elaborate deck of his personal prototype, this latest one-off of the series, Bierce was not now treading the trademark running belt common to all old-style fliers, yet he piloted his craft at probably half again the likely velocity achievable by most runners. He reached up to the overhead panel, gave the speed dial a twist and the flier jumped forward.

He sealed and pressurized the cabin. He strapped in and leaned back, let the impact cushions enfold him. At hand was the notebook in which he would record whatever results came in along this course and altitude, and at what velocity.

Moving along now just short of his first speed point, noted in earlier experiments as perturbed but stable, he reached out and turned the dial forward half a notch. Breathing lightly, he waited, aware that he didn’t know what the bounds were, only that overstepping them could wind him up the flame and eject him into space. And further consequences unknown. The slight increase in speed produced the expected results, which he noted down. As in past approaches, the flier nosed upward two degrees and the flier’s every visible surface took on a vague pearlescent glow—reminding him of the archer Jade, that translucent bow she sported. He held it there for a minute, noting again the invariant grip of the force that slewed the craft. Then he dialed back a full notch and the craft settled into normal flight.

Then came the puzzling aftereffect. This was the reverie that took him each time he returned to. . . normal physics?. . . and set him wandering down paths of memory and supposition, confusion, self-doubt. 

. . . here, for instance, appeared Jade, whom he had sought out but only met and recruited the day before—was she onto something with that bow? He hoped so. It was only natural to speculate. Flihtworks needed something new. The company’s gotten old, he thought, old and stodgy. Jade was onto something new. Strange, that bow, an unnatural wonder he’d glimpsed before, once or twice in battles with the Uni, and wondered at: a lead to some fundamental principle in the new physics? Bierce after all wasn’t the only one following the scatter of clues to what lay behind comet-deranged nature hereabouts. In the half dozen years since the comet, practically everybody in the zone had worked up some notion, opinion or theory on the topic. Many developed their hypotheticals earnestly, in hopes of achieving some practical end. . . .

. . . much as Bierce came to his own practical solution shortly after the flyby, but purely by accident. More accurately, by happenstance. It. . . sprang. . . from a notion he had no claim on, a found notion that somehow, despite its laughable fuzziness, somehow worked. But he knew better—’twas a metaphor merely, a chimerical combo of exotic notions. His inertial engine. People accepted that it worked, presupposed there was something going on as they spun up the running belt, lifted off and trod the air,—yee-ha! 

Bierce’s description of how it worked was good enough; he must be right because his machines most assuredly did flew! The package was a bum steer, though, founded on a faulty premise, , , which he could say no more about than simply point to the convenient circumstance that this here supposed cause came before that there indisputable effect: & such whereby!—waving a hand grandly—people could fly. And a lot more, besides. So Bierce rode his invention to big-time success. Success of the inertial engine tempted many an earnest loon down similar mistaken paths of pseudoscience, always to certain failure. . . . No. Uncomfortable, uncomfy this line of thought, as ever. So don’t think about it. . . .

Bierce groaned, shook his head in a quick, convulsive movement. Inability to come clean with the world was a constant knot of tension, a haunt.

Yeah but: not prepared at this time to disillusion anyone on that score. Not exactly yet. But soon. . . working on it. . . .

The big flier ripped on through the fading afternoon at an easy 96 miles per hour. Behind the bubble of greenish glass a moon-pale face stared out.

He blinked and sat up.

Bierce knew, sooner or later, that somebody would stumble on the right idea, get with the new physics. Let it be himself. He would recreate himself with a real discovery. For the immediate future though, he had an important plot to hatch.

Except that in Bakersfield, inconveniently, some other thing was already hatching! Unexpected, out of the blue, and real annoying, whatever it was, it had him in this rush to get there.

Was he moving too slow? All he could do was follow the leads, and he had a few. Doc Holiday with her potions, preposterous in that they actually worked in spite of faulty methodology; but who under the comet could really say? She was very skilled. And the perennial warrior Salmon Trout, always around when you needed him, him and his weather-eye a sure bet for a look ahead. And then this Jade, who had a couple of things going on. . . . These people who had something in common, skills of their own—not the same as Bierce, of course, thought Bierce, but like Bierce, and honestly come by. . . but clueless. . . .

Out of this anxty, amped-up reverie a glad rationalization flowered up. His brow unfurrowed, lips unpuckered into a smarmy smile. The haunt lifted. After all, only Good Things had come out of the cockamamie thing! The array of flying machines, in all their whizzical forms—bells and whistles on top of cogs and pulleys, ha—and but certainly the altogether liberating agricultural equipment. His gadget reclaimed the whole doomed region after the combustion engine died—all good! A fame and a fortune built on a mysterious gizmo. 

Which only he, after all, could produce.

. . . true, so true.

He put his hand to the dial. On to the next round. Up one notch and the flier shifted again, took on the pearly sheen. Half a notch more and now the torquing began. The nose rode higher than before and the craft yawed a few degrees. Bierce let it hang there, not really hearing the buffeting wind through four inches of glass, but feeling it. Air turbulence around the torqued hull had increased. The airspeed indicator fluttered, showing the variable resistance of random air pockets the flier passed through. With these tiny changes of velocity he felt the craft shimmy in and out of the first stage of the spiral course that could, might—would, when he was ready—take him up the flame. The flier rocked and twisted like a small boat angled into the wind against a choppy sea. The luminance that played across every surface flickered in response. 

There were larger pockets of sun-warmed air drafting up from a cluster of hills passing below. He hadn’t thought to consider geographic variables before starting the experiment and now, moving through larger pockets of less resistant air the craft began to rock more heartily into the torque, the nose rising more with each access to higher velocity. The air speed indicator flickered yellow-green, metering higher sub-decimal fractions of velocity, and broke past 100 and persisted, edging into yet more speed, more nines, in bursts and waves fluctuating out to the right of the decimal. Here he was then, shimmying on an edge sharper than any he’d yet dared explore. The new thing observable with each plunge into the threshold was how the gravitational filaments always visible to him flowed into the cockpit from a center point just over the prow and writhed like pulsing veins over the pearly sheen that glowed on every surface. And spread over himself as well. Enough.

Bierce notched back the dial and the flier settled at the safer speed. He leaned back and scribbled his notes in the lengthening rays of afternoon, now tending perceptibly toward shadow as they reached through the four-inch thick glass hull. Noted: He would have to plan for effects of local geography, also interpret local gravity.

Something new this time: irksome internal discomforts. His ribs hurt. Noted.

Again, his mind drifted. Risking—the ruminating began—himself in this way, cautiously, he hoped, and rationally, he could progress only slowly, it seemed. Slow progress put him on edge. He was used to getting results. Maybe too easily. Because he was a one-trick pony and always only got just the same good result? He enjoyed a little risk but in this effort the dangers were astronomical with each infinitesimal increment and it was hard to gauge progress. He wondered, did he have the quickness of judgment to back off at any crucial moment, or to hold steady if necessary, or even the presence of mind, moment by moment, to avoid a slip up? Today he’d slipped up. For all he knew, it could have been up the flame with him with just one more little puff of hotter air rising off one hill a little higher than the rest down there. Slipped up: He knew there were hills, bluffs, whole ranges of them down there in the San Joaquin.

Nerve. He could carry a full mug of coffee up a ladder to a catwalk, leaving it to whim whether to turn left or right, go backwards or forwards, and never spill a drop. But was it humanly possible to explore this path, narrow as it was, stalk the liht limit and not catch up with it—before intending to? Why risk it! Life was good, even for a mountebank like him.

. . . early days, lighter and simpler days, comparatively, before the flyby. The farm lad’s head filled with the warm, homey stench of the chicken coop. Sunlight shone between the wall boards, slant beams alight with the dust and dander of these six and twenty hens a-laying. That was just in this one coop, there were more yet to go. He was there to rob them of their eggs. Some days the girls laid eight dozen eggs. He crooned with them, gently calling each by name. . . many responding similarly to similar names.

Then out into the damp shadow of a passing rain cloud. Setting his two laden egg baskets down on some cool rained-freshened grass, he entered the barn through the side door. And as usual, found Uncle Phred in the machine shop, working on the twenty-or-thirtieth version of his inertial engine, the gadget that never worked. But Uncle Phred never lost hope for it. He had his theory, clear as mud or religion, a set of notions only Uncle Phred comprehended. He was in there, cheerful and confident as ever that this time he had hit the jackpot. This time the thing looked like a bicycle frame cut and twisted into shapes never meant to be. The clappers, as always, clattered and gyrated, snapping up random erg energy from the between spaces; hm-yeah. The young chicken farmer admired the new prototype and made encouraging sounds for as long as he could stand watching the thing leap and cavort, but it wasn’t long before he burst out of the barn to scream into the trailing mist, “You cannibalized my bike, you crazy old coot!”—and went and brought in the eggs. 

His mom was fatalistic about the bike, only mentioning that Uncle Phred had declared that it was old and too small even for his kid twin sisters to ride. She said they’d use some of the egg money to get a new one. Like eventually. It was an old ploy used too often to cover up Uncle Phred’s casual predations on valuable resources around the farm. When things went missing, they usually soon showed up in one of his gadgets and were rarely replaced. But this time. . . well, this was just this time. As there had been the electronics phase, when Uncle Phred tried to harness ‘vibrational frequencies’ and the old tv and radio disappeared. Tools and musical instruments went as well, and were later heard whanging and banging in the barn. Anything human made was grist for his theory of exceptional energy. Now he was looking into wheels. Something would have to be done to protect the truck! Also, his mom mentioned to him softly, he was nearly twenty now and might not have a lot of time for bike riding anymore for a while. A comment that sunk his boat.

But all of this was forgotten after the storm that came that night. Sudden and overwhelming, it came in the early hours and shocked the household awake with its savage ferocity. The youth ventured out into the chaos and watched while the sky ripped open in a full-on light show all aquake with monster reverb, sluicing a world-ending downsplash of opalescent slush all over everything. In the stunned silence afterward, fallen into bed he dreamed—in delirium, a nightmare—that the storm had grabbed him and sent him soaring around the pond and flung him over all the nearby hills.

Later, before dawn, awake but oddly aimless, he wandered the starry indigo night, drifted awestruck through a flickering landscape weirdly changed. He came to the old burnt-down homestead down close by the pond. And found himself standing at the top of the granite steps that went down to the old cellar, and was unsurprised on this strange night to see them lit in a soothing dance of aurorae. So he went on down and through the blasted-in doorway. . . .

The following day they discovered the world set back a century and more. Nothing was working. The sudden failure of the climate control system would have been catastrophic enough to the chicken ranch, but here was the ultimate calamity—the truck didn’t go. Nobody was going anywhere. The bike, already demolished.

Then, the cosmic happenstance. There were few elements left to reclaim in a world suddenly vacant of everyday technologies, but desperation focuses the mind, sometimes in imaginative ways. Under the influence of his uncle’s unflagging enthusiasms, the young man—skeptical but optimistic—in the days following the storm cheerfully attempted combining what elements there were. And it was the chance inclusion of the one element dumped in plenty by the passing storm, the gritty snowy slush, that gave him for no known reason an unexpected practical result.

The first accomplishment setting him on a career path he had no clue about at the time, he perpetrated on Uncle Phred’s latest invention lately fabricated out of bicycle parts and an old exercise machine. Early one morning, taking a side trip after collecting the eggs—by now he was getting royally tired of eggs for breakfast all the time—he dodged over to the barn to check that Uncle Phred was in there. You never knew. If so, it might be good to discover some news of gripping interest, before breakfast, about what success the old fellow might be having with the contraption. So he set the egg baskets to cool on a drift of the weirdly prismatic slush that still lingered in the shade of the barn. Then, turning to go into the barn, his heel slipped and he sprawled into the pile of cold slush. A few moments later, slapping his pants legs to get off the gritty slushy snow and the sensation of grit that it left on his hands, feeling damp and chilly he stepped into the warm, hay-scented air of the barn.

Uncle Phred was in the machine shop getting in some early hours on his invention when the lad wandered in, shaking crumbs of the glimmery slush out of the top of his jacket. Politely, the lad examined his uncle’s device in its latest mutation, bent over it and suddenly, without planning to, sneezed bounteously all over the rattle-trap gizmo. From that moment the heretofore impossible became a triumphant fact. Not knowing how he did it, or even that he had anything to do with it, the lad who would be called Bierce made the crazy invention work.

It is doubtful that anybody under the thousand-plus mile track laid down by the comet got a bigger snootful of cosmic downsplash than him. Or was so repeatedly soaked in it over the following months and years. The little chicken ranch on the Olympic Peninsula was precisely ground zero, the lowest point the comet came to reaching the ground before sliding away into space again, so at just that spot came to Earth the most abundant slushfall in all the whole range of the comet’s passage. Doubtful too, that anyone else had a trove so conveniently delivered for safekeeping as Bierce. Or could guess the value of the chilly but quick-evaporating substance early enough to retain much of it. There was certainly no larger cache of it so well preserved and hidden away.

He installed the first inertial engine in his mother’s useless pickup truck. The windshield stayed but he had to remove the roof of the cab since he would be upright, running on the exercise machine’s belt mounted sideways where the wide seat had been. He pounded into shape and clumsily re-mounted the blown-to-shreds lid over the shattered remnants of the old motor. It was a proud day when finally the truck was ready to roll once again. That it actually did roll forward under his thrashing feet was impressive enough to make everyone overlook the impossibility of it. It was, after all, only logical to accept the new cogs and pulleys on display as the impetus behind the locomotion that followed. Simply a new variation on the old and familiar cause and effect. Nobody noticed how light on its tires the old truck rolled. . . .

Brain whirling, Bierce squinted one eye open. There was a shooting pain in his gut, a stabbing pain in one kidney. A two-fisted marimba player was still wrenching his ribs in writhing rumba rhythms. Lying there in the padded pilot’s seat, his body felt stretched and twisted. These after-effects of his encounter with critical velocity were not good. Just as bad, he remained stuck in reverie.

. . . that old truck resumed its accustomed egg deliveries and among wheelless neighbors and farther-flung communities became the preferred express-delivery vehicle on the northern tier of the Olympic Peninsula and he ran himself ragged for many hours each day along Highway 101, east and west and south and north and made good money, but the dollar was losing ground fast to promissory notes and barter goods so he ended up hauling a lot of perishables out of people’s gardens.

As the only mechanized transport larger than a bicycle to be seen on the entire west coast, the truck attracted notice. It wasn’t many weeks into his new career as sole wheelman of the universe before the young Bierce had occasion to defend the truck, himself, and his family’s livelihood, alone and far from any help. Not the happiest recollection from those early days.

Bierce’s first run-in with some kind of outlaw happened one day when he paused for a break on his laborious rounds, dismounting the truck to enjoy the sea breeze coming up over a favorite rocky overlook near the highway. It was time for lunch. Then, the smiley man with the hard eyes appeared out of nowhere and pulled a gun on him. In reality, the gun itself was not a credible threat. To squeeze the trigger on a live shell would result in a shattered gun and gun hand. The little explosion going irresistibly vertical would yank parts of the weapon and a finger or two up the flame. In those early days lots of folks hadn’t yet adjusted to the new way of the world. But the intent to rob and kill was there and there was no way of knowing what might happen next. The man looked like he meant it. So a battered old farming implement, a sheath knife used mainly as a pry bar and for crimping fence wire, came into Bierce’s hand. With unfamiliar speed it reached and stabbed. The dull point found its mark once or twice, and the man fell. The odd thing was, in the desperate lunge forward, Bierce’s legs didn’t seem to contribute much to the effort. They dragged, while his body flew forward with some unreasonable, unexpected impetus.

Reliving it brought him to this again: What if the guy had fired off that grenade in his paw instead of, in fact, trying to hammer Bierce with it?

—but he didn’t shoot; question it no more.

Still, for all his evil looks, the guy sure was a lightweight when it came time to fling the body off the cliff. . . .

Annoyed at having to go around the question yet again after all these years, Bierce snorted. Coming after the terror and faltering madness of a gun assault you can do what you want with bothersome facts. . . .

But that was when Bierce first recognized the meshed and moving filaments, the connections ever in view, but not until that moment acknowledged. Since that time he rode the filaments, went with and upon and through them every waking moment. He had a knack.

He stirred, irritably coming out of the trance. The internal pains were fading, though his ribs still felt rhythmic. Something to puzzle out later.

By reflex he slapped about his person, making a quick check of the various weaponry he more or less habitually carried. After this, he broke out a mug of hot coffee. He looked out and saw the lights of Bakersfield distantly winding down off the darkening horizon. He watched the city approach and drank his coffee.

Coming into denser traffic he notched his speed back by half and the flier sagged to a crawl. He switched off the camouflage. The city rolled forward to meet him.

nine

Bierce entered Bakersfield at dusk, switched on his lights and dawdled on in at the more domestic speed. His course took him toward a great bright-lit spire rising now in the distance, striped with pulsing neon colors. This was the recently erected mooring tower above the new Flihtworks dirigible hangar, half a mile from the company’s head office.

Bierce drifted with the general flow of traffic, by custom following the earthbound streets and thoroughfares of former times. It was easy enough to follow the highway routes in and out of town at night. Down at ground level, low-runners occupied the accustomed lanes of old times, the antique headlights of their modified automobiles showing the way. These car hobbyists trod along just a few feet off the ground, not risking higher air. The low-runner crowd, since before Flihtworks existed, had always been Bierce’s biggest customers for inertial engine kits.

He switched on the transceiver, sent an encrypted radio blip indicating his arrival, then switched off. Quickly he received coded acknowledgment in the tower’s flowing neon patterns. He blipped a query and received a second response, brief pulses in urgent red neon verifying the reason he’d been recalled to company headquarters: Uni X 5.

What could it be about, this sudden delegation, Uni intruders marching in like they owned the place. How did they get here! What was he supposed to do with them, talk? No. Who would want that.

He slipped in low and fast beneath the spire of lights, zigged between rows of long factory sheds that comprised the Flihtworks complex and quickly reached the little stand of well-spaced evergreens surrounding the office tower the company now occupied. He dodged neatly between the trees to the building, then dived up the outside wall to the wide balcony of his office on the ninth-floor, where he settled the flier. He paused to stow his bulkier weapons and gear out of the way in a compartment of the flier.

He strode through the open balcony window into the darkened office, leaving behind the lighter shades of early evening. He left the lights off, made his way quickly to the ridiculously lavish retro-style executive washroom that was already installed when they moved into the building, and spent a minute in the shower. 

This was an unscheduled amenity Bierce couldn’t pass up. Four days among the rocks and trees and dust of that hot dry canyon, single-handedly prepping the defenders’ satellite media network and the hookups for the mana machines, all the setting up at the strategic site where hostilities were planned to begin no later than tomorrow—had meant living with plenty of sweat and grime out under the sun.

On top of that, the semi-secretive arrangements for the oncoming Battlefield Election had involved him in this afternoon’s side-trip, fetching the final member of his select team. Which was kind of fun anyway, since this diversion served him doubly—with him taking a public-spirited role in furthering the election proceedings, nobody would catch on that he was also collecting people for purposes of his own.

But none of that was at all connected to this morning’s urgent call from Flihtworks. The unavoidable consequence of today’s volunteer run to go collect Doc Holiday was that it put him half a day back in his response to this unexpected intrusion of Uni into his private space.

While the hot air blew him dry, he paused at the mirror and with a whirring spring-wound clipper took a few quick slashes at his damp beard. He went on to locate the fresh suit Flihtworks staff would have laid out. Finding a bow tie lying atop the shirt, he barked a laugh. It was Arba, of course, flitting in to apply her own light touch. She knew he hated ties. So, tieless, he glanced at a reflection of himself, finger-combed the damp hair back behind his ears—okay, good enough. He put on his best snarl, a finer finish to the impression he wished to make.

He stepped back to the unlit office and stood looking out the big window he’d come in by, breathing the city’s fresh night air. He admired the city lights, some of which belonged to him.

He tried to work up a feeling of polite regard for the concerns of the old empire over the hill. He really couldn’t. All he felt was annoyance that these Uni clowns thought they could skulk right into town and make trouble. Pointedly now, it seemed, trouble for him. 

His only experience with the Unitory crowd was on a battlefield or, rarely, out of some propaganda spew. The soldiers he encountered were mostly entirely ignorant of why they should be here and why they should leave, hapless youth conscripted out of poverty or prison—hard to tell the difference. All he’d ever heard them say amounted to slogans, fortified with trollish fault-finding and victimology—what they soaked up in lifetime absorption of industrial media content. All about nothing. Bierce could watch a tv sometimes after a couple of beers—just clowning around. He could do that for a little while, until the annoyance factor began testing his calm. But when he turned it off it went away.

Tonight Bierce had no notion of what might be coming at him out of that world. What kind of idjits would these ones be? He couldn’t imagine. Idjits in a scramble about something. 

Standing at the open window, frowning out into the warm darkening night, he shrugged. Worst case: They could easily be shipped home and be gone. No, fresh Uni audacity was not a problem.

He blew an exasperated sigh and turned to go, but from somewhere out in the city a spark of light caught the corner of his eye. He glanced back. The growl of an approaching diesel engine came roughly in through the open window, high and to his right. Compression brakes bellowed as the truck came barreling down the grade. . . . 

Irritably, Bierce went to shut the window against the noise. His thought, another heavy logger in a big fat hurry, put the quirk of a smile on his face. Ah. He paused, hand at rest on the door handle. He peered into the night, awaiting whatever next. His ears caught the sound of sifting snow near at hand and his gaze fell to the balcony floor. The tiles now were aglow with a whirling drift of the familiar grainy slush, forming up before him in an iridescent dune. The dune shifted, swirled, divided and became two mounds that spun and merged together again, then subsided into layered drifts that flowed away over the edge of the balcony. He shrugged. Something to ponder, if he cared to. Generally, he didn’t. He had no interest in hedging about in ambiguities, no need for a metaphoric joke tonight. The slush had language for others but it was usually just static to him. Smiling skeptically, he listened for the ancient diesel but of course it wasn’t there. Rather, a light silence hovered about him into which every tiny sound of the city beyond arrived with exquisite clarity. Nice. He stood for a moment and listened to himself breathe.

He left the window, turned back to the mundane room. His eyes flicked past the treadmill in the corner, a bit of business he worked at irregularly in support of his public image: Bierce, the tireless runner. Keeping the leg muscles inflated meant many strenuous minutes of rolling along, going nowhere fast.

He stepped forward, passed around the desk and continued out of the shadowed office.

Emerging into the hallway he felt his eyes darken down in the pointillistic illumination of LED-lit sconces lining the walls. These lights were brighter than the old flickery fluorescents replaced when the company moved into the building. Bierce only wished that whoever designed these fixtures might have extended the glass shades to better diffuse the eye stabbing ultra-brights. He went onward, watching the patterned rug roll by underfoot until it came to its end at the tall red cedar doors. Noting in himself a sense of light detachment nearly devoid of thought, he put his hand to the latch.

He pushed through the doors and there were the five.

ten

One was on the table, dead or nearly so.

Air sighed as the tall doors swung to, behind him the latch clicked.

The top of the big meeting table was streaked and smeared with blood not yet congealed. The body lay on its back, seemingly held together with tape and blood-soaked bandages. Its eyes stared straight up. A slow-forming stalactite of still-oozing blood dripped onto the plumb-colored carpet.

On the far side of the table, handcuffed and roped rigid into comfortable conference room chairs, four hard cases stared at him. 

Bierce walked along his side of the table and studied them. Four smartasses, hearty gamblers ready to go the next round. The one on the left wore a toothy grin and very quietly made a sound in his windpipe, like backward laughter.

Bierce glanced at Flihtworks’ chief of operations standing behind the detainees.

He looked back at the table. 

The room was full of the stink of Uni, disgusting, viscerally repugnant. 

A wave of nausea gripped him. He wanted out. He couldn’t breathe this air. He retched. He turned and stiffened one arm against the wall and waited while his guts heaved.

While his body learned to accept the stink of buckets of odorant saturating the five Uni and all the air around them, the thought arose: soldiers—why am I not surprised.

Flihtworks’ staff manager was at his side with a roll of paper towels and a pitcher of water.

Bierce took a drink, his throat burning up with stomach acid.

He whispered huskily, “Hickok, can’t we flush the stink out of here? Where’s the air?”

“Right. I guess we got used to it. Hang on.” Hickok shifted his shiny pate and scanned the wall. “Let me find the thing.” The long waxed tails of his fat mustache, sun-bleached and overhanging his lip, speared the air to either side of his red, close-shaved cheeks. “Here we are.” He stepped over to the thermostat and gave it a turn.

“ehh” rasped up out of Bierce’s gut.

So, one round to the Uni. The powerful odorant always featured big on the battlefield, but that was out of doors where air circulated. In here it sat heavy and the pall of stink had caught him unawares, made him dizzy. Let this and the dead body on the table be the worst surprises of the evening.

He got focussed, looked up again, and said painfully in his new hoarse voice, “Hickok, why’s this on my table?”

“He was alive an hour ago, Bierce, still conscious. The physician said before he had to go that the guy was more or less stable and we should just wait and see.” Hickok indicated the wheeled gurney and its dangling plasma bottle parked beside the table. The drip tube slanted to the table, still socketed in the dead man’s arm. 

“But he went into some kind of spasm. We shifted him to the table to give him room, we tried a few things but . . . he was a goner.”

HOO-Ah! Stay the course, said one of the bound captives.

“Yeah,” said Hickok, “he mumbled something like that. I thought it was ‘splay the horse,’ like in a delirium. And then, off he went.”

Behind the prisoners, Flihtworks’ chief of operations, a man of moderate height and paunch, fidgeted absent-mindedly with a droopy length of rope slung over one shoulder. He said, “We caught ’em outside hangar two—last night—caught ’em in the lights, got ’em shurrounded but they wanted to fight. So we had to handle ’em, right? And here is what you see. These clowns stood not a chance but they just had to take a stab at us.”

Bierce hacked deep in his throat. He rasped, “Anybody else hurt?”

“Nah. Just this one guy. He was a he-ro. We had ’em all lassoed, netted nice and tight but this one cut through and climbed up the rope like a lizard. He assaulted our guy on the flier. So it was mano a mano—over the rail and blade to blade. It is all on video. No error.”

Bierce stepped nearer the table to examine the body. It looked much like the live ones roped down in the chairs. Its shaved head showed a week’s worth of stubble. It wore a bone in one ear. The rest of it was knobbed with muscle, over-fit from weight lifting. The hands thick and callused, broad nails close-trimmed. Even dead the big commando was a fearsome sight. Bierce counted three fresh stab wounds on the torso, X-ed over with tape. The collar bones were bloody with a cross-hatch of slashes, scabbed thick with applied coagulant. The eyeballs held steady, focussed at infinity. 

“Way it goes,” Bierce murmured, “in a knife fight.” 

Bierce took a last pull at the water then slammed the pitcher down onto a rivulet of blood. He glared at the chief of operations.

“Correction, Man- well, em- Emmers. Big error. This guy had no chance and our guy knew it. What was he going to do if he took the flier?”

“Fall twenty feet and break his neck, is what,” the chief of operations replied.

“Who doesn’t know that! The guy that did this is no hero, em, Emmers. He should have just cut the rope and not let the loon climb up. This was murder. Who hired that goofball, anyhow?”

“Come on now, this dead guy himself was a killer,” chief of operations Emmers protested. “Just like these other hombres we got tied up. I do not think any sympathy is—”

“No. Nobody cares about the guy, not even the guy himself or he wouldn’t be laying there. It’s how the situation is complexified that matters. See, let me guess, here’s this gang of unlawful combatants out for a nice evening’s technical exchange survey”—Bierce waved a satirically welcoming hand to all the captives, giving particular gracious attention to the motionless body on the table—“am I right, boys? Sort of like a polite visit to an aspirin factory in the dead of night?” To Emmers he said, “And now, for no good reason, we have blood on our hands. This makes us look weak! Get it? To Uni eyes this kind of over-reaction makes us look scared.”

He went on, “No, what we would have wanted was a nice clean capture, then send the bozos home all tied up in ribbons and our compliments to the bosses. That’s all. No provocation, no pitched battle or any cheap assassinations. Now look—recriminations! reprisals!”

Emmers sputtered a little. He said, “But how could, how could our boys know what was happening—what was going on! They got flustered. They did their best in the circumstance, captured all the rest!”

“One guy, Emmers. This is the end of our fake diplomatic standoff with the grounders. Provocation and murder is the Unitory way. With this,” he pointed to the corpse, “we’ve given them the excuse they asked for.”

“Oh ai! Then for myself,” Emmers stiffly replied, “if that’s all the excuse they need, then I give it to them gladly. Let them sneak in after dark. They will not see daylight again.”

“Okay fine, then we’re all Uni now. Might as well all run out and buy uniforms. Blood and war forevermore, Emmers. Not a world worth living in.”

“Even so, some of the boys can’t resist a little social combat when the chance affords.”

Bierce growled, “I want that guy off the night watch. He wants to cut things up then put him to work trimming hedges or something, out in the sunshine.”

“Sure.”

“Keep an eye on him, too. Watch and see if any of these guys that might still be wandering around wants to get even, pushes him out of a tree or something. If so, we’ll leave it at that. It’s that or a scorched earth evacuation of the entire region. At some point, anyway.” 

Emmers laughed. “Bierce, you exaggerate. We will always achieve the victory over these Uni clowns!”

Bierce jabbed a finger at the corpse. “Here is your real achiever, friend. He got what he came for. Now how soon do you think he’ll achieve room temperature?”

Emmers shrugged. “I would guess he’s already raised the mean room temperature a measurable amount—”

“He’s raised my mean temperature,” Bierce snapped. “You think like an engineer, Emmers. This is not about equalizing temperatures, or any little social combat, either. Him swapping out heat only puts us in the hot seat. He’s finished, but for us there’ll always be another twist of the knife. Count on it, they’ll be back and Flihtworks is the battleground.”

“It is true,” Emmers admitted, “they always have to come back for another jab into the zone. They are the sticky-footed fly that circles back. We have to swat them.”

“Swatting only encourages them, Emmers. If we give them any attention at all, they will only think we’re lonesome for their company. Then they’ll never go away.”

“That’s your fake diplomacy, Bierce, for lonesome flies. These Uni are scorpions! Motherless shwarms hatched out of the rocks. In the dead of night, so my sense tells me.”

“Aha. Your metaphoric sense, Emmers. Tell me, where are these rocks the Uni hatch from?”

“Dry gulches, desert wastes, fertilized by dust devils. See what they did here? For no reason they have made my shop floor a mine field. We have to inspect every inch of the place now, before any work can go on. It is for this annoyance and nothing more that your lonesome guy here gave up his life.

Bierce nodded. “All right, a stinging victory for him.”

Emmers said, “For this, the hatchling scorpion wailed alone in the dark those many terrible nights, while his mother smiled.”

“Sure, Emmers, I have about as much sympathy for them as you do. But now I want to hear the story. What happened?”

“This whole incident happened at shed two, last night. The blimp hangar. These jokers were caught sneakin’ out after planting charges in the overhead beam joints. Again, it is all on video, all upon the website now. We easily disarmed the bombsh and nothing happened. In my opinion, they had—”

“Wait a minute, Emmers. The explosives. Do you think they could’ve brought down the hangar?”

“The charges were artfully placed. They knew what the possibilities were.”

“Then they’ve been practicing.”

“That’s right. I’d say they had structural blueprints to guide them.”

“Huh. Let’s find out what these bucko’s have to say for themselves.”

“They have not said much so far.”

“Waiting for me, I guess.”

The four commandos looked at Bierce. The one on the left with the toothy grin nodded and laughed down his throat.

“Business first then,” said Bierce. “After that we’ll send out for the pizza and beer.”

eleven

“Introductions. I’m called Bierce. Who are you?” Bierce’s hand swept the table, paused before the prisoner who had already spoken up, the one sitting third from the left.

HOO-Ah! Check our tags, said the prisoner.

Emmers said, “They’re all captains. The names are all flakey sounding.”

“Ah. Captains. Certainly an unexpected honor. One could say.” Bierce frowned upon the row of silent grinning captives.

“Or, one could speculate. Maybe the Unitory Order is burdened with rank inflation nowadays. I wonder if that’s news anyone could use. Everybody’s a captain now.”

The captain bound to the fourth chair glared up at Bierce, his jaw set in an umbrageous scowl. The other soldiers looked alert.

“Okay,” said Bierce. “First question then, grounders, are we privateers or USG?”

What difference do you suppose that would make, said the captain sitting second from the left.

“Not a lot,” said Bierce. “Only, who takes delivery of this?” He thumped the table. “And who’s going to pay to get you back.”

We do not negotiate with ter-riss, the fourth captain growled out.

HOO-ah! That’s policy.

“That’s a good one,” Bierce said, “I think we’ve heard it before. But get this. We need to know who your co-conspirators are so we know who gets the credit for this chickenshit operation. If you’re USG it’ll mean a big open trial, we’ll peel some political noses raw in bad publicity. Replace a few half-wit appointees. On the other hand though, if you’re privatized we intend to bust your bosses financially, soak ’em for their last nickel, put ’em out of business. So we need to know, boys, where to begin the prosecution.

HOO-ah! Good luck with that.

Bierce went on, “You, then, at any rate, very shortly now will be more concerned with how life is lived in our fiendish prison. Talk now while you can still think straight. Understand that we, as ter-riss, have to be very punitive in our persuasion of those who choose the path of noncompliance. The path to credibility is narrow and steep. For a ter-ris. So how long you’ll be staying with us depends quite a bit on you. How about it?”

HOO-ah! Give it your best shot, A-HOLE. We got the goods. Mission accomplish. We already sent up our pics of your big old bomb in that hangar. The world will see your nuculer weapon ON TV!

That’s right. See, we also figure with all the attention coming your way now, you’ll want us to help sell the world a different ride on your nice new blimp. Percentages all around. The second left captain floated an engaging smile over the room.

Bierce said, “Oh, we don’t figure it that way, not even remotely. Your Unitory regime—your credibility with your own public is only eight or nine percent, max. That’s just a bad splice in the laugh track. You heard Emmers, your little caper is up on the web right now for all the world to see. Hangar two will be open to any—

Not! the way the world works, chum; spoke up the captain grinning in the first chair on the left. Incomprehensibly, a series of resonant, full-throated croaking sounds rattled the air from his general location, in an extraordinary rendition of alligator song.

—“oh hey?” said Bierce. “The hangar’s open to any tourist that may come for a visit—”

NO good. It’s our show now, see what I mean, and your blimp in the hangar is our prop. We say what the message is and the crowd buys the story. Then we say something new and they believe that, too. We are the actors here. We got the soap box. We got the sponsors.

“Shwamp water,” chief of operations Emmers said. “Psycho delusions like yours evaporate in thin air when the works come out on display. We’re hangin’ up the bunting and the floating dingbats right now. Company website steers all visitors into that hangar and plays your action video opposite your flapping lip right now, you—garbage eating dogs. By this time already, billions of the folk are hooting.”

“That’s the show biz side of things,” said Bierce. “We’re beyond show business here. Nobody’s forgetting you boys tried to blow us up. I’m wondering. Up until recent times, Unitory incursions have been more like a game, but lately something’s changed over there. I think we better get some talky-talky going with your bosses. Specifically, we want to look again at exactly how, realistically, they picture a conquest of the zone. I mean, it’s pre-gunpowder over here, practically stone age in terms of force multipliers. Brandishing sticks and thrashing the shrubbery is about the worst you guys can hope to accomplish in the zone. Your baddest explosives can’t devastate anything larger than a tea cup. You can’t even effectively deliver a bomb. Captains, I wish to speak with your supervisor. Tell us who’s your boss so we can get your process rolling.”

“Yeah, it has to be some private outfit,” Hickok the staff manager offered. “Governments don’t send squads of expensive captains out to get blown up together. You know? I’d say these are guys who got their rank adjusted and a commensurate boost in pay. Right? Am I right?” Benevolently, Hickok beamed down upon the captives.

Not commensurate, exactly.

Still, it looks better on the resume.

Yeah, HOO-ah. Don’t bust our mods, dude. We’re citizens and have a right to expan’ our portfolio. Shucks, it’s called free innerprize, innit?

BLACK*STAR™ GROUP.

These last words so filled the room with ominous portent that breathless the men all goggled eyes at each other.

“Aw crap. You guys are from BS,” said Bierce, “the nastiest gang of shysters ever to crawl the face of the Earth. To work with that outfit I hear you have to at least be paralegal, spend half your time roaming the courts. Got your own judges, your own journos. Got your own jury of congressmen working full time.”

He looked at Emmers. “I guess we better just cut ’em loose right now. What do you think?”

Emmers’s breath hissed in his teeth. The length of old rope draped over his shoulder suddenly came off, looped and stretched between his clenched fists. Stalking behind the captives, he twisted the doubled rope until it creaked, ominously. Only Bierce, across the table from him, witnessed the expression of overwrought anguish that played briefly across Emmers’s face. Emmers said, “Nope, I’m keepin’em tied up. In case, ah, maybe one of them might have some residual feeling toward this dead guy. Some o’that lost-buddy hysteria we hear about.”

Gawd, no. We’re pro—”

Speak not! to the vanity of the lord!

HOO-ah! That’s right, listen to the rev.

Over on he left a brief croaking sound, without warning or explanation, rattled the air—

Say there, rev, you got the team spirit. Tell us how our buddy got suckered up to heaven so quick like that. You might have talked him out of that suicidal stunt, talked him down. Odd to think how his last words were some of your favorites.

Hoo-ah! Me, I’ll admit I was glad to know my share of the victory bonus would be just that much more, him suddenly out of the picture. Doof was a video twitch anyhow. What happent was no surprise to me.

Our friend sought a special bonus. He has risen to meet his final bonus, and that is enough for mortal man to contemplate.

Wondering about that special bonus, preach. He have special needs?

We do not speak of—

“Shut UP you,” said Bierce, “you’re off topic. Sit quietly, be silent or I’ll have you gagged.” He squinted at Emmers, who nodded and leaned over the reverend captain’s shoulder and dangled the loop of shaggy old rope under the man’s long nose.

The man’s eyes popped. His jaw lanterned alarmingly.

“Okay, so it’s free enterprise then,” resumed Bierce, “with a little smoke and mirrors on the side.” He cast a warning glance at the cultist. “Come clean with us and life will be easier for everybody. Who do we send the bill to?”

We couldn’t guess. Our businesses are an endless shell game. Who knows what corporations own which, right?

All up and down the line.

Till you get to the offshore holding company.

And then some no-name foreign bank.

Where they’re all standing around with their pinkies up, balancing teacups and saucers and croaking up their sleeves.

“All right, all right. So you’re out here at the end of a long string and you don’t even know who’s pulling it. Somebody brought you in, though. How were you getting out?”

With the usual people in the usual way.

They’ll contact you.

In some unusual way. Hoo-ah!

Bierce said, “You guys don’t seem worried enough. Here you are, caught in the act of a capital crime, and captured, hostages to some unnamed company’s better behavior.”

Nah—hoo-ah! You’ll be paid.”

Emmers said, “Tell us about this ‘victory bonush.’ You lost your little gamble, you know. We caught you fair and square.”

Hickok said, “That’s right, you stinkers failed to kill our blimp.”

We didn’t fail. Think! Think how this affects you. The effect is what matters.

That’s right. A painful effect. Not quite ‘shock-n-awe,’ but—

See fellas, our methods are prescriptive, intellectual, knowing and precise. We follow an effects-based hypothesis of warfare where all we have to do is make you look pitiful and feel bad. We have your photos. These are the facts of the matter now, never mind your sorry protestations about some comical blimp. In other words, we act, we create new realities, then you react to that and that becomes history. When we got you there, that’s when we send in the lawyers to sort things out, sooth your feelings and mop up the profits. Play along! You’ll get your kick-back.

Our first try—HOO-ah!—showed you we can hit your stronghold anytime we like. Success!

Let’s don’t forget the glory side. No one dares speak against the rightness of our action when they see what we got on you. We were fully justified. Just look at the pictures. You have an atom bomb! Bringing that to bear—when we twitch, people will jump.

We’ll call it a dirty bomb. That’s a lot nastier than the sanitary bombs we use. The pictures we sent up to the satellite are already circulating in the industrial media and shall soon prove you a rogue state possessing powerful weapons of ill repute.

[[_  *  _]]

“What a crock,” said Bierce. “You tried to bomb my blimp and you failed. The whole world is laughing—Hickok, what do we hear from the nets? You can be sure there’s nobody crying over Captain Courageous here on the table.”

No, no, don’t you see it was a success! We threw up a big buzz with this one, the people will soon be more uncertain than ever, about everything. Gloebel News will get three days worth of good high-volume panic. It’s a win-win-win for us.

That’s the way we like to work.

Yep, HOO-ah! Scare the naders off the street.

Effects-based studies show that at any given moment only a scant majority can think past the game we deal. In any case, nobody escapes the message. Every way you turn, your eyes and ears pick up our story. You smell it in the air. Those who find it disagreeable can just stay home and mumble.

Hoo-ah! Make ’em mumble!

“Well well,” said Bierce. “That’s quite the spin you have going. How much longer do you think it’s going to last? I mean, nobody’s an idiot. You have only the gullible nine percent to balance out all those mumblers.”

Oh, that’s plenty enough. We don’t forget Lincoln’s famous adage—fool me once, and all that.

Heh yeah, he only forgot to add fool me enough. Nine percent is all we need, most of the time, to have our way just about all of the time. That, and a solid measure of doubt among all the rest.

Bierce said, “Enough of the people enough of the time, is that it?”

-at’s it, pal. HOO-ah!

“Keeps you busy, then,” said Bierce. “Flocking the sheeple is a full-time job.”

Hwah! Busy busy—that’s our bidness.

You know, you guys could be on the selling side, with us, help us out some. Shared interests and all that, right? You know that, don’t you?

“Sure, sure,” said Bierce. “Shared interests and all that. I can see why they made you captains. We could be your guys on the inside, grabbing our piece of the action—pow! mmm, so lucrative I can taste it now. Sorry, Linc, your offer makes me feel real tired. Besides, I need four fake captains hovering around like I need a fresh hole in my head. As I’m sure you’ll agree. So why don’t we stop wasting time breathing all this bad air you guys brought in and let’s get back to the body on the table.”

Look, they don’t want him back, he’s just a liability.

Hoon! It’s the insurance, dude.

Bierce looked annoyed, distractedly tugging at one earlobe. He said, “It’s the insurance. . . .”

That’s right. Without the body he’s still alive, his account open forever. So there’s no death benefit payable. You’ll find that in the fine print. Plus, there’s no provision in our contracts for the packing and transport of casualties.

“Not a problem,” Bierce said. “We can do the delivery. What do you say, Hickok?”

Staff manager Hickok nodded and shrugged.

No! a-HOO-um. It’s not our job. It goes against company policy.

Hickok seemed to perk up, his gleaming scalp shifted under the lights and his mustache twitched. He said, “No, you’re right. It’s our job.” He said eagerly to Bierce, “I’m wondering all of a sudden how airworthy the blimp is at this stage of development.”

“O-ho,” Bierce said. “She’ll float well enough and we can navigate reliably hereabouts. We still tend to roll more than I’d like. I think, though, Hickok, for the purpose you’ve suddenly brought to mind, we could pick a day when there’s a strong eastbound wind. Tie the rudder down and she ought to fly straight enough after crossing the divide.”

“Maybe,” Hickok added, “with the five bodies aboard for ballast, she won’t roll so much.”

“Experimental! Get me Engineering. I’ll consult Cobalt on the idea.”

Across the table, four sets of eyes blinked and widened like a silent clash of finger cymbals all in a row.

[[_  *  *  _]]

You don’t understand! They really don’t want any body. As far as the company is concerned, evidence of absence is all the evidence they need to deny a claim. The captain here will be penalized for absenteeism and the book stays open on his page till the penalties match his promised payout. This will take years.

“Aha. Still,—”

We bring him back, we’ll all be penalized for unauthorized transport. And on the hazardous material clause. Compounded penalties, see. They’re very strict about contractual limitations. The insurance company is a very important party in the BLACK[*STAR™ GROUP].

“Oh. Sorry, but so what?”

They’d have to pay off on the fatality claim.

“As they should.”

They spent the money before they had it! Parties! Palaces! Airplanes! They’ll take it out of our hides! It’s us that’ll be in debt the rest of our lives on the breach of contract penalties! They’ll just use us to pay him off.

“Oh. . . but why worry about that? You’ll be—”

C’mon, just dig him a hole and roll him in. Hoo-ah!

Behind him Emmers growled, “I will bring you the shovel.”

“But no,” Bierce said, “I think it’s you that’s in the hole, gents. No, I think Hickok’s blimp idea has far greater stupendousness than your explosive stunt effects. We’ll deliver you all up together. Kind of a flying piñata, a return of a gift. That will just about take care of everything, won’t it?”

Naw-w! You’re just punishing us!

He’s right! What about the company? They’re the ones that sent us here. We’re only following the program. And now they’ll just change the rules and deny everything—that’s the company’s first rule! We know it and you know it. So you gonna let them get away free?

“Not, I think,” said Bierce, “if we use our ‘dirty bomb’ to deliver four bad lawyers and a corpse into Uni gunsights. Cameras will be rolling even as they roll you out of the wreckage. What do you suggest otherwise? Be quick, I haven’t got all day.”

The captains frowned in thought. Pained expressions went fleeting across their faces. Their heads tilted, alert for ideas. One stared fervently at the ceiling, perhaps envisioning a firmament stern, snug and nigh, close beyond. The corpse lay on the table. A silence opened in the room.

Not long and the captains sagged in their bonds and looked glum, eyes on Bierce—all except the reverend captain, who sat stiffly in his ropes and glared.

Bierce bent his head low and scanned narrow-eyed the four faces lined up across the table. The beginning of a dangerous smile curled his lips. 

Something of the reverie returned, that one about the dead gunman, the look that he had. Bierce tried on the look; the grimace crawled out in the open, his lips curved and recurved in a complex way, the leer etched in memory from that ancient confrontation, wry, hungry, cruel. He went with it. His head went back and his eyes lidded down, amused, calculating—not unfriendly, but knowing—and it came to Bierce, at the edge of reverie, what the dry voice had uttered way back then. ‘This time I’m taking it all,’ words that prickled Bierce’s hide. The simp of the long-dead face settled on his own like it was only natural—could even become a habit.

So he wore it for this occasion, this moment of intimate collusion, a knowing affinity of torturer with. . . four victims this time.

Bierce savored his inner simian only a moment longer, then he shivered, pictured himself throwing the slimy scuzz off that cliff, way back then. The chimp didn’t know so much after all.

The four captains were watching him, bright-eyed.

“The fact is,” Bierce said in a dry voice, “company or no company, it’s you that came to do us harm. It’s you that’s responsible for the harm you intended. It’s you that will pay. There’ll be no bonus for failure. So, we move on to consequences. First of all,” Bierce rubbed his hands briskly together, “as we hadn’t expected your arrival today, I’m not sure what facilities are available.”

He addressed Emmers, “Do we have any cool dark cells vacant right now? Equipped?”

The soldiers grinned up at him. 

Bierce gave them a nod. “This is going to be fun.”

The soldiers grinned wider. They understood perfectly well what fun.

“I’m not certain what’s available,” Flihtworks’ chief of operations said. “Occupancy is high. I will look into it.”

Together, they all laughed. It was a giddy moment.

“This account receivable,” Bierce frowned at the corpse, “will go first into the freezer.”

We’ll be working on the contract angle, hoo-hm. Sir.

Bierce shook his head, heaved a sigh. He stepped back along the table, nearer to the tall double doors. “What we’re going to do this time is have you special-effects wizards negotiate your next passage with all of the wide world out there. That’s right, we’re throwing you into the fishbowl, boys. Fantasy role-play is over. From here it’s online full time, crowdstream time. The Worldwide Court of Fair Play will be looking in and some will wish to speak with you. Watch what you say, you’re about to be regulated. You may wish to review today’s shameful footage. Navigate, if you will, the worldwide current of opinion. Don’t forget to throw something useful to the wikis.

“Oh, you might consider an insanity plea. But you may have a contract fraud claim against your insane employer, too. We’ll set up an official Captive’s Blog linked to your dramatic scenes. Explain yourselves. Talk it up, you’ll have chatfans 24/7. Somebody out there will get a brilliant notion—what to do with a pack of sour chimps posing big in a small dim cell. If you behave yourselves you can hope for a speedy decision.”

At-trocious!—the reverend captain roared, all the pent up fury bursting out after such long forced silence —You would destroy our dignity as fighting men of the one true Uniteh! Yea: ’n cast us into notoriety amongst th’ sheep o’ th’ world! Ohh—the lambs will wander! ’n be not our food but that of the lions and the jackals and birds o’ prey—in the greener grasses without the fol-l-d! Cleave! cleave to our staff o’ stately rule, that in safety to us ye may graze the short grass. . . .

The reverend captain paused, the spittle dripped from beneath his beak and he gasped for air. He peered shiftily into the upper corners of the room.

He grabbed another lungful of air and launched off again.

BLACK*STAR™ GROUP’ll come slidin’ in on truth of arms—an’ oh yeah—wheeooh ptah owruh!—bring on the Arrmagedder-

ungg—he gurgled as Emmers’s rope came down.

“This is to settle your group,” Emmers explained.

twelve

From outside the kitchen came the jangle of electrified banjos riffing a sentimental country lament with heartfelt vocal accompaniment, dang dang-a-dang muh. . .

“Tail end of the daybreak variety show,” mused Bette Sue. She shut the cottage window, her face cooled by the delicious morning sea breeze pushing through the higher branches of the two giant redwoods supporting the treehouse. Up here in the ‘crow’s nest’ a hundred feet up in the lower branches and hundreds of feet more above the sea, atop the cliffs where the forest giants caught every morning mist, she always got the fresh edge of the new day’s weather coming in. This morning, the sky over the sea was crowding up with dark taut-bellied clouds soon to arrive onshore and already sending a few spits of rain slanting to the now closed window.

She turned to the hot stove. Coffee was ready, coffee and griddle crumpets for two. She poured two steaming mugfuls of brew and set them on the counter that divided the small kitchen from the larger living room. “Here we go,” she said.

Her housemate Travonica leaned over the counter on the living room side, close by the wide sliding glass door and the little cedarwood balcony beyond, her chin propped on the palm of one hand.

First in line for morning coffee, Travonica straightened to her full height, stretched and yawned and blinked, and then looked wryly down again at the sheaf of rumpled notebook pages she was sleepily but determinedly scribbling blue pencil corrections on.

“Ease up a little, Trav.” Bette Sue turned back for the tray of crumpets and butter and jam. She said, “See if you can tell what I mixed into the crumpet batter this time.”

Travonica’s eyebrows lifted her face slightly from the pile of ragged-edged papers. “mm, smells good,” she murmured, a vague smile dimpling the corners of her lips. She focussed once again on the clutch of homework she was correcting.

Morning rays filtered hazily between the very large trees neighboring the crow’s nest and glimmered through the sliding glass door at Travonica’s elbow. For a passing moment a few stray sunbeams broke through the haze and crowded in around her, gathered and sparked in the oversize cloud of black hair adorning her head and framed her lean dark face in a nimbus of soft early light. 

Bette Sue quirked a smile across the counter, reached forth a freckled, sturdy-looking hand bearing the tray of crumpets. She said, “Let’s go sit down and wake up. Let’s watch your Uniland news—psh.” They always watched the morning news show together and Bette Sue always disapproved.

“It’s already starting to rain,” announced Bette Sue. “No field trips today, school teacher.”

“Hup,” said Travonica, still muzzy with sleep so early before her first dose of coffee. Her taut, sinewy forearm swooped across the counter and she nabbed the glazed earthenware mug that had the likeness of Doctor Che Guevara stenciled in red on one side and the motto, “Never Be Defeated” stacked up on the other. She switched hands and drank out of the Che side of the mug, preferring not to look at the word Defeated every time she took a sip of life-giving coffee. To accept defeat so early in the morning could put a depressive spin on her day.

The two women settled in on the couch with their coffees, just as the Early Morning News came on.

For a moment the 86-inch screen image scrambled color pixels, accompanied by a vague ripping sound that could have been the sound of far-off machine guns combined with screams, remote and indistinct.

The women sat up straighter. 

North America filled their view, drifting majestically right to left, north side up, its multi-layered expanse littered with a bright golden scrim of headlines, charts and pointers, swatches of weather in green and blue, a scatter of pulsing hot spots in red, all amid the usual comforting parade of corporate logos.

—“And Now!” the sudden off-screen announcer articulates in a plumpish glandular voice: “The Pulse of the Homeland, with Wendy Alwood and Brad Hollering reporting. HEADLINE: West Coast Disaster Zone Heats Up!”

And the orchestra swells, bass viols throb low against the kettle drums. Distant trumpets tootle the show’s musical leitmotif, a muted two-note fanfare. 

A picture frame spins up from star-spangled outer space and zooms in on a sun-dappled satellite hovering beneath golden winglike solar panels high above Earth’s blue hemisphere. The picture swings beneath the solar wings and locks on beside the snout of a space camera aimed at the planet below, then flicks forward into early morning clouds gathered near the ground. The image scatters to pixels and the trumpets shout tee-dee!—then quickly resolves inside a television studio wherein perch the show’s alert anchor-heads, Wendy & Brad. The two are seated arm’s-length apart behind a long swoop of bright metal desk.

WENDY: Hello everybody and welcome to the show.

BRAD: Greetings from The News Desk at News Central.

WENDY: Brad, We’re all concerned here about the latest events in the ongoing coastal calamity challenging our nation. We have a report this morning of yet another violent turn executed by Pacific Standard Time Zone terrorists, this time in Bakersfield, California. Can you tell us more Brad about the recent events in the comet zone, the attack and massacre in the central valley city, of a team of our independent contractors in the early early hours? This morning? or yesterday.

BRAD: Wendy, it seems that once again a diminutive zoner force has misinterpreted the actions of one of our disaster relief outreach teams, a survey group, and attacked our young men and women with fatal consequences. Outreach commanders have urged all security personnel to retire to the safety of their staging bases behind the sierra.

WENDY: Brad, a wise decision. It’s becoming an ever-more savage world over there, primitive weaponry in the hands of ruthless warlords and the like.

BRAD: Wendy, our volunteer forces are brave beyond heroism, going forward in the face of such unreasoning terror. I thank the lord sometimes for the mountains that stand between us and the zone.

“Saponaceous, is that a word?” said Bette Sue. “That’s him. So what happened in Bakersfield yesterday? I didn’t hear—”

Shh! Nothing like they’re saying,” said Travonica. She was leaning forward, her angular face a study in rapt, wide-eyed glee.

Bette Sue looked at her friend and shook her head. She didn’t see what was so funny. It offended her that these tv people lied, made stuff up, flipped every story upside down and sideways no matter what it was about. And they do it badly too, she thought. She frowned at her cooling coffee and took a slurp—

WENDY: . . . other casualties besides the ones originally reported?

BRAD: Yes, Wendy. One or more apparent flying suiciders were brought down before they could fulfill their deadly mission, but these were then snatched away by their comrades before they could be captured. All, all of the members of our contributory force came away with scrapes and bruises. No serious injuries were reported in the aftermath of the attack, however. Wendy?

WENDY: Thanks, Brad. Earlier in the day, yesterday, our DC reporter was fortunate enough to speak with newly-elected Congressman Heil—

BRAD: It’s Hale. His preference. There’s a note here—

WENDY: Of course. Congressman Heil. Let’s go now to The Red Studio and hear the interview taped earlier.

The wall screen blinks, rematerializing in The Red Studio, vibrantly emergent out of black infinity. 

The camera tracks forward across a gleaming red floor toward a long blood-red swash of studio furniture where sit an interviewer and a congressman.

BRAD: (offscreen, tittering on an open mike) Third alternative, Wendy. He just doesn’t want to look like a heel.

WENDY: Brad—sh!

Pixels jitter and the screen blinks. Now the camera is tracking across the gleaming red floor for a second time, back again to The News Desk.

WENDY: In just a moment we’ll hear what Congressman h— Heel has to say—is that right, Brad? Let’s look now at some of the pictures brought back by our correspondent accompnying the relief effort. Here on-screen we have one of the aggressive flying machines skillfully brought down by dedicated components leading the survey team. Let’s zoom in for a close-up on this deadly contraption. Here it is, lying on its side with its primitive mechanical guts spilling out. And here the side panel is wrenched away and we see what’s left of the thing’s inner workings.

BRAD: A mosquito, Wendy. We’ve seen them before on this show, haven’t we. A crude device, the mosquito, like a jumble of bicycle parts I would say. But all the more remarkable for its knack of dodging around in the air. 

WENDY: I agree, Brad. Ingenious but pitiful. And dangerous in the wrong hands. We still don’t know how they work, do we?

BRAD: Wendy, let’s zoom in a bit more. Ordinarily you’ll find insignia painted on the sides of these mosquitos. Snakes and skulls and scavenger birds and the like. What do we find here?

WENDY: Why Brad, it seems to be an artichoke. Beautifully done, too, don’t you think? And look Brad, here’s this other one caught in the air. Goodness me, it’s a hummingbird, and isn’t it just gorgeous—looks hand-painted—let’s get in closer on this. Why, this is no factory decal, Brad. Somebody really. . .

BRAD: Wendy, you’ve gone off track. It’s a damned mosquito!

The picture shakes, pixels jitter; there is barking in the studio—

—The sudden voice of the adenoidal announcer cuts in: Now we break to a special presentation!—

Aside, more distant, the voice exclaims: YOU TWO ARE JUST ABOUT—and abruptly cuts off—

—to a sudden splash of cymbals over a groaning mass of cellos ramping up furious variations on the two-note fanfare—

. . . the off-studio mike is still open—

WENDY:  (in the background, whining): I CAN’T HELP IT, IT REALLY IS BEAUTIFUL. I LIKE HUMMINGBIRDS. . . .

—with accompanying menace from the bass section,—

ANNOUNCER (distant): YOU ARE ARGUING WITH ME, WENDY, STOP IT, I CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE! THIS SHOW WILL BE CANCELLED

—and snare drums marching up in sync with a quick collage of stern portraits, the pantheon of great Unitory figures down the ages,—

—CANCELLED! CANCELLED

BRAD: (in the background): PLEASE! WE’LL DO BETTER, I PROMISE! WENDY ? . . . .

—whose hooded carrion-bird eyes dart fear into the viscera of every tv viewer. . . .

ANNOUNCER (muted): AARR-H-H!—CUT THAT MICROPHONE!—LISTEN TO ME, YOU MORONS

The special presentation breaks sharply to a jouncy advertisement from the morning kid show yet to air: 

Tiddly Sweetz! Tiddly [_Flakez! _]

Tiddly Fizz is All it Takes!

—Yeah Sure! You Betcha!—

We’re Bringin’-it All-l-l Home To U! 

Now Try New Big Bangs! 

It’s Hot-Shok-o’latté ! m, m. . . .

For a while paralyzed in a kind of paroxysm, Travonica gasped finally, “They sure get it wrong when they get it wrong, don’t they? They’re falling apart over there! Where’s the discipline?”

“Their catapult is shooting wild again,” said Bette Sue.

“They can’t even pretend to put on a straight news show any more.”

“No accident when all you have are two giggle-heads up front and a goofish voice off camera. No credibility to start with. Come on, Trav, those two clowns were never supposed to be serious. This is the show where the Uni pretend to have their joke. This is to give morning commuters some hope that they aren’t crazy, a little lift before they hit the on-ramp.”

“Do they still have commuters over there? That really is crazy. We have computers.”

“Yeah, the commute is when they really get it, the hard harangue. Captive millions get their orders from behind the wheel, car radios ramping up the hour of rage and everybody getting grimmed up good for the rest of the day.”

“I remember. So you think this little studio breakdown was all a put-on?”

“Of course! The worst kind. First they infuriate everybody with some headline about how Uni service workers extend a helping hand and then get wiped out in zoner violence. Then somehow somebody forgets to remove contradictory evidence from the ‘report’ so you can hardly pick any believable element out of the original story. There’s no telling what happened in Bakersfield, if anything. Or when. It’s all just an impression without any substance to it, a lingering foulness. Then they take everybody’s mind off it by staging a hysterical breakdown in the studio. My eyes were absolutely riveted to the Tiddley Flakes follow-on. I want some of those. Where can we get ’em?”

“You go too far, Bette Sue! I’ll have your griddle cakes with pecan bits first, any old day.”

“Why do you watch that stuff, Travonica?”

“You watch it too!”

“Only because you have to. I can think of a thousand better things to do. In the morning.”

“In the morning? I’m better at night.”

“I know. It’s in my notes. Is it that trollop? Do you think she’s pretty?

“Bette Sue! How could you imagine such a thing? That sallow-cheeked Afghan hound?”

“I’m not suggesting anything, Trav. I just think all that fluff and twaddle has you hypnotized.”

“Like a morning commuter.”

“There you go.”

“Okay, all right, it’s childish I guess, but a stiff dose of good coffee along with the goony news puts me in an active frame for dealing with kids all the rest of the day. You sober academics get all offended when you see grown-ups behaving like children. I call it comic anticipation of the day ahead. Is there any more coffee?”

“I’m pretty sure there is. I just don’t like that back-stage loon telling me to shut up and listen. Listen to him, yet. I’m just not going to, I’m going to turn it off, it’s so unnecessary. Not funny.”

“Not funny?” From the kitchen Travonica cast a critical eye out at Bette Sue. “You’re feeling blue all of a sudden, toots.” She sighed loudly. “He wasn’t, after all, talking to you. It was those clowns of his.”

“It was a set-up. A distraction from the real story, which was how the Uni attacked and somebody was killed was actually false.”

Travonica said, “The Uni attacked and nobody was killed. Right?”

“Well, they say they came in peace and we know they attacked, which is more believable because why else are they here, but there may be no truth in any of it and we’re all just getting ’barted. Five minutes worth, by now!”

“I love those!” cackled Travonica. “A lie so preposterous it has to be true. And funny, too. A perfect set-up for the day. Which reminds me, I better scurry. Levity says I’ve got to feel light in the classroom if I’m to catch our little bug-outs when they grab their scooters and try to flit away. Plus, and anyway, I want to view this episode as a genuine, involuntary breakout of malfeasance on the part of the tv crew. Makes me feel less crazy that way. Now I gotta go commute a mile cross-country.”

Bette Sue sighed. “Skedaddle then,” she said, “be off. Only try not to remember all day long how those idiots reported a massacre, even though it didn’t happen. That it didn’t happen to some Uni A-Team they claim was not invading Bakersfield. Just take it as a pratfall and laugh it off as they suppose you will. Your high old humor only encourages the crime wave. Do you think these perps can stop themselves if we won’t? Stop them, I mean.”

“I can’t have this conversation now. I have to go teach.”

WENDY: And we’re back!

“Oh wait,” said Bette Sue, instantly forgetting her annoyance, “they’re back.” She beckoned Travonica back from the door and sat forward, clanking down Travonica’s steel insulated mug that she’d been drinking from, the one that had ‘Inkblot 9’ on the side, mashed into an ink blot.

Smiling a little, Travonica unshouldered her book bag and returned, stood close by the couch.

BRAD: Wendy, now we’re going to take a look at some of the families of our brave men and women in the defense and disaster programs.

WENDY: Hoo-ah! Brad, they are heroes, every last one. 

BRAD: Hoo-ah! Wendy, their team losses are ours as much as their victories. We honor them and every family that buys the armor and sends their kids into harm’s way.

WENDY: The priorities, Brad. The very best armor costs as much as a year’s tuition at any local college, plus textbooks.

Next up, illegal butterfly nets defy drone swarms in Texas. Wendy Alwood.

BRAD: As always, you’re in the box at News Central. Brad Hollering.

More, after this—

Travonica waved the screen off, cackled sarcastically, “Isn’t she the cute one, all pouty and demure.” 

Over-acting only slightly, Bette Sue mimicked Wendy Alwood’s flirty pout and allure, ‘I like hummingbirds. Hoo-ah’.

“I’ll hoo-ha you,” said Travonica. “Tiddlyflakes, I gotta go.” She turned and grabbed up her backpack and headed for the door.

“Hoo-ah!” cried Bette Sue, shooting up a four-limbed salute from the couch.

“Hoo.”

thirteen

Travonica was out the door so Bette Sue waved the screen back on and went in search of some real news. That fake tv crap made her mad. Just watching those clowns lying so cheerily in their little red studio hurt her feelings, as she would forever let Travonica know. It was so insulting, this all-day-long parade of bobbleheads gabbling, day after day after day, as if it meant something.

She did understand Travonica. It was only Travonica’s sense of comedy that drew her to the tube. It was a way for her to dissipate her natural anger. Travonica relished the earnest self-parody dependably enacted at any given moment by all those air-headed, stab-tongued Uni-puppets.

Well, whatever. Bette Sue liked it real. She stood before the big screen showing a list of net links. Should she go shopping? She scratched at the menu, checked her current resources. No, maybe later.

She went with Cometlog News Feed. She clicked through the usual short-form questionnaire. Did she wish to participate in this week’s paid marketing survey and share any new data about herself and her household today? Nope, she had no new needs she was aware of, no exotic cravings, still no fresh new diseases, nada.

Today’s Headlines :

— Rumble Over Rubble in San Fran: road-head diehards rip city council on zoning issue. Our crumbling streets: city gardens or paved walkways? MORE

— Flier Recycling Bonanza: re-customizing old roadent vehicles. MORE

— Squatters Take Flight: fake frontiersmen numerous and untidy in regional forests. MORE

URGENT: Volunteer Call-ups “HORDE-UP NOW!” Please contact your coordinators.

More UFO reports in Uniland. Squadrons of glowing squid haunt night sky over Phoenix. Enter Portal

—NEWS FLASH—Saboteurs Attack Flihtworks facility. Culprits apprehended: four captured, one dead, others sought. — Plus: UPDATE—Flihtworks web-cam video stream.

What! Bette Sue gasped. Who—it had to be Uni. The bastards that never quit being bastards. Why could they not learn to leave people alone!

She knuckled the link to the Flihtworks story.

The big wall screen filled with a view of a dark industrial interior, a look down a vast arching space. Curved steel uprights climbed the walls into darker shadows and merged high up with crossbeams under the high domed roof. The seemingly endless floor of the big hangar was bestrewn with dim, indeterminate shapes of machinery. Suspended between the floor and the metal roof, catwalks crossed in every direction. In the center of the vast floor loomed a gray monster blimp, partially inflated and sagging in the middle. Nothing seemed to be happening in this image, but superimposed on the screen, a bright circle of tiny red beads rotated around a spot at the foot of one wall. Bette Sue pressed her pinkie onto this circle. The image changed. Now she had a view along the wall, down the interior length of the metal building; and here something was happening. 

Plain as day, five ghosts blossomed individually out of the wall. Crouching low, the spectral figures crowded up behind a dumpster conveniently located near that spot. In a moment all were merged into one huddled blob of light between the dumpster and the wall. 

Bette Sue leaned into the screen, eyes wide. This was a good, high resolution infrared image. You could trust Flihtworks to be up with the latest imaging tech. A comforting thought. She smiled.

Now the five ghosts separated, drifted out from behind the dumpster into the wider hangar space. Bright lights stabbed from the intruders’ fists, poking jittery circles and ellipses over the floor, the wall behind them and all surfaces nearby.

The intruders had cut their way in through the wall. Bette Sue frowned at the hole in the wall near the dumpster. She snorted. Doesn’t Flihtworks bother to have people out there watching the place? Then she thought, why would they? Her imagination gave the answer in a flicker of televised images, the fire and smoke, the background sound of snapping guns. She shook her head, lips pursed with irritation—there she went again, calling up diseased images of fearful conflict straight out of Travonica’s laugh-a-minute tv show.

On-screen, the original scene of the hangar returned. Five bright shadows moved with casual speed, spreading out across the floor. Each figure was tagged with a bright blue dot following its movements. Bette Sue flicked the screen, tracking closely on one interloper then another—this one talking into a cell phone, this one holding up a long camera scope that he swept here and there, photographing everything. She pulled back to full screen and stood back to watch what came next. 

Shortly, the infiltrators tossed up some ropes and climbed rapidly hand over hand to one of the catwalks that crossed twenty feet overhead. They skulked along branching catwalks and climbed ladders, each eventually stopping below a spot where one of the uprights joined a crossbeam below the arching roof. Then they shrugged off their backpacks and kneeled down to rummage and fidget for a minute or two. Then, almost at the same moment, they stood, reached high and slapped the steel joint above. Thumbs up all around.

Like clockwork the intruders all sprinted back to the ropes, slid down fast and hot-footed it to the hole in the wall, where they hunkered out the same way they’d come in. 

Then the lights came on, washing out the infrared.

Why didn’t they just walk up the metal stairs, Bette Sue wondered. Might be too noisy. They might have thought there would be alarms. Or maybe this is just the way they do things.

Now, emerging from beneath the camera’s view, a number of figures ran forward into the building, waving their arms and pointing at the blimp. Watching them scurry, Bette Sue got a thrill when somebody pointed at a rope dangling from a catwalk, at which point most of the newcomers ran to the nearest metal stair or access ladder and barged on up into the rafters like nobody’s business. In another few moments they discovered the abandoned knapsacks under the uprights.

Bette Sue moved closer and cheered them on, nearly forgetting about the miscreants who’d put those knapsacks there.

The watch crew were now standing around, phones at their ears and looking at bright-screened devices, apparently in consultation about what they’d found. It was all over in about five minutes. After a little fidgeting of their own inside the knapsacks, the men reached up and peeled some flat shapeless things from beneath the crossbeams and booted them off the catwalks to the floor far below. 

Bette Sue was shocked. Those had been not just spies but saboteurs, for sure. They were going to bring down the building. After watching them nearly accomplish it, it looked like an easy thing to do. Bette Sue felt the anger bloom within her.

She glanced back at the circle of little red beads whirling around the hole in the wall. The hole in the wall itself was blinking blue. With angry haste Bette Sue lunged across the big screen and jabbed her nearest elbow at the spot.

OUTSIDE : a wide-angle aerial view drifting above a stark night-lit industrial park, a flier’s-eye view over a dark alley between two huge hangars. An alley narrowed all along by the cluttered detritus of the machine-age, to either side crowded with discarded mechanical parts, shipping crates, stacked-up pallets, old lawn mowers. Suddenly, halfway down the alley, light blazed out of a gap in the wall of one of the hangars. That’s when, Bette Sue realized, they turned on the inside lights.

Leaning close to Travonica’s big video screen, she watched a number of one-man fliers appear over that hangar, glimmed in motion under the west-hanging moon. They swooped silently down over the arching hump of the hangar and into the alley. Together, they headed for the bright spot in the wall. At the same time, a number of other fliers were coming up the alley from the dark far end. One or two more flew into the picture from behind the camera view, which tilted down and followed their descent into the gathering horde. All warily converged upon a group of figures on the ground that were milling around in the lit-up gap. The intruders.

Hemmed in by the gathering fliers, the intruders crouched low, got suddenly busy in a flurry of activity beside the hangar wall. One or two of them, she saw, were pointing urgently back into the hole in the wall.

Under the camera eye, the fliers jockeyed this way and that above the wash of light coming into the alley, then together started drifting closer around the men below. 

The men below raised long poles that had somehow sprung out of a big duffel bag lying beside the wall. These turned out to be long-bladed pikes and halberds with hooks and limb-loppers on the business ends, which the intruders brandished at the encroaching fliers. The fliers shied back out of reach, resumed weaving in the air overhead. 

Two of the invaders then turned their attention back to the gap in the wall, thrusting their poles again and again into the building. 

The footage was without sound so Bette Sue could only guess at the volume of shouting between parties down there. At last the people on the fliers started waving their arms like tomahawks, everyone at the same time chopping open-handed at the ground. Inches at a time, they closed down upon the pikemen. When they got within reach, the aggressors lunged again, poking and slicing the air, and Bette Sue saw one big pole-hook score a jagged gouge into the side of a flier. Then the nets came out.

“Outrageous!”

Bette Sue switched off. She huffed and stood up. She already knew more or less from the Cometlog news summary what was going to happen next and she didn’t want to see it. Trembling inside, she went and brewed more coffee.

fourteen

Late afternoon light was fading fast as the two fliers came up and over the low tree-dotted mountains east of the lake. They slid rapidly down the slope toward the big lake spread out below. Salmon Trout slacked his pace on the descent and took a pause to shake out his legs. He turned and gave Doc a tired grin. 

“We’ll be there before dark, Doc,” he said. The ground was coming up fast and he turned back to running again. He hollered over his shoulder, “in time for supper.”

She guessed for sure his knees must be plaguing him. Certainly the extra hundred miles today could not have done them any good.

They flew close above the old lakeshore road that wound among the steep hills edging the water. There was quite a bit of civilization around here, Doc realized. As the shadows of the mountains west of the lake lengthened, lights along the shore were just now beginning to spring up here and there, sparking across the water. There were fliers out and about, boats on the lake, houses passing below. Salmon Trout trod rapidly on, taking the road twisting below as a guide. Tired he might be, but he kept his measured pace. Presently, he slowed and veered sharply into a side road obscured in a tangle of scrubby brush. This old gravel road was wide enough, back in the day, to roll trucks up and down, and it cut straight into the dry hill, running up from the lake toward the top of the hill.

Partway along this road, Salmon Trout turned again, dodged tiredly through a pair of iron scrollwork gates that stood unevenly ajar at the entrance to a narrower road, a stone-paved driveway that wound more gently along the side of the hill. He slowed, following the narrow overgrown lane. Behind her, Doc heard a light flurry of feet sprinting on a running board and she turned to look. It was Jade back at the gate, bounding higher for a quick glance over the shrubbery. Then, silence on the running board as Jade’s flier whirred lightly back to ground level and she skipped it forward. Reasonably, in this strange new locale, Jade wanted to prowl a bit. She hung back, lurked among the shadows widening under the once-stately hedges that crowded the old lane.

Salmon Trout brought them up the darkening slope till they came to where the hill flattened out under an imposing three-story house built of green granite.

He made the final turn in to the front of the house just in time for Doc to catch the blaze of sunset sparking off the countless diamond facets of the mansion’s bulging corner windows, frosty and bright, that carried the icy glitter of the sun’s last rays up the forty-foot walls and then out with the rising shadows of early dusk.

In the quickly fading red of the setting sun, the scene of their arrival showed untended, scruffy and dry like the surrounding hills, though the expanse of dormant grass at the front of the building did look as though it might have been cut and cleared sometime in recent months.

“And here we are,” Salmon Trout growled. Unceremoniously he plowed the flier to a landing in the bristly lawn grass. Wearily, he rolled off the flier and without a further word flaked out on the ground, panting for air, blinking up at the darkening sky. The nosed-in flier beside him spun down to silence.

“Thanks, Sam, for the ride.” 

Doc Holiday pried herself off the flier’s narrow side-seat and tottered a few aimless steps toward the big house. She needed to get her circulation going again, give her legs a stretch. Being the long-haul passenger wasn’t all that easy. Now, at last moving on her own again, she crunched aimlessly across the grass, ended up standing under the pretty corner windows reflecting the last of the daylight.

She knew of this place, of course, having sent Flyers hurt or dispirited in battle here for repair and rehab, but she had never actually visited the place before. Curious now, she stood back and viewed the building. From here by the tall windows she could see the front nearly end on, and a similar view of the near side. The house was a portentous statement in granite, looking pale and green even in the fading light. More of a palace, she thought. A chateau in the vineyards. It wasn’t California style though; there wasn’t a crumb of stucco anywhere in sight.

The stonework was nothing rough-hewn or titanic and not laser-cut and mirror-polished either, but blocks nicely hewn with just a hint of rotundity, each a foot square. This was the work of skilled stoneworkers, each block chopped out by hand and carefully fitted into a forty-foot cliff face of stone and glass. There were lots of windows on the second and third floors, assemblages of square panes matching the square stone blocks. Far up at the very top of the building was a low parapet notched with little crenellations. That much at least was California. In the notches of the faux battlements, Doc could see the dark rising curve of what must be a big vaulted upper story receding away above.

Doc drifted back to Salmon Trout, still collapsed on the lawn. She bent over him, hands on her knees, and looked at him closely. He looked back.

“The place looks dark,” she said. “Who’s here?”

“Henderson. By the way, is Jade still with us?”

“Guess so.” Doc straightened, glanced around, scanned the weed-sprung driveway. She said, “So who’s Henderson?”

“uh. . . typically, the guy who lives here,” came Salmon Trout’s parched voice. He coughed.

Doc squinted at him. She said, “Rest up, Sam. Doc’s orders.”

“. . . ahhhgh. . . .”

She turned back to the flier and rummaged in the saddle bag, then the storage space, looking for water, ordinarily the best medicine for thirst. Here was something—

Jade drifted out of the gloom and her flier shushed down into the grass, where it lay without a sound, all four of its steering vanes fully extended. Doc knew minimalist flying when she saw it. She was not very good at it, being not much of an instinctual Flyer herself. Here Jade had drifted silently in on spent momentum, arriving lightly at her landing spot as would a bird to any chosen perch. Doc gave the girl archer an admiring nod.

“So this,” Jade said in a tired voice, “is the big house. I don’t like it. It stinks of Uni.”

“Certainly does,” said Doc. “Though I don’t see their colors raised anywhere or any insignia or anything. See any gaslight blue anywhere? Any Homelamps? Here, Jade, pass this bottle to Sam, would you?”

“The stinkers don’t have to advertise. The o-dor hit me when we came in the gate.” She shied away from the bottle Doc was reaching out to her. “What’s this?”

Doc waved the bottle. “I don’t know, it belongs to Sam. We already went through our gallon of water. If this is drinkable, it could be just what he needs.”

Jade accepted the green plastic bottle, eyeing it suspiciously. She took it over to Salmon Trout and crouched beside him. She sloshed the half-empty bottle and spoke to him in a low, questioning voice. Salmon Trout grunted, reached up and snatched the bottle from her. He rumbled, “Gotta hide this!” He twisted the bottle open and upended it over his bristling beard.

Jade stood back, looking on with disgust. 

Finishing off the bottle didn’t take long. “Arghh,” gasped Salmon Trout. He belched. “Henderson has wine better than this.” Hoarsely he yelled, “Somebody call Henderson!”

A big square man fat with muscle was, in fact, just now bounding off the big front porch onto the walkway. He shouted as he came, “Somebody called Henderson and here I are!” He came toward them beaming broadly, lighting his own way in the growing dusk with the brightness of his teeth.

Henderson boomed, “Salmon Trout, old friend, I’d know your voice anywhere, even in the dark.”

It wasn’t quite so dark that Doc couldn’t see Henderson rolling up in a pair of neat, seemingly fresh-creased dark trousers and a white shirt, open at the top. The floppy high collar would have looked funny without a tie except that Henderson was a big man with a muscular neck and the shirt was fitted exactly to contain him and a full breath of air, in perfect comfort. He arrived with a kind of natural dignity that somehow transformed the weedy neglect of his domestic front acre from a scene of humdrum decay into a charming garden of back-to-nature art. Conversely, looming behind his tailored bulk, the big house seemed less imposing. He had, Doc imagined, a kind of stewardly air about him.

Henderson was saying, “A dry voice, a thirsty voice.”

Doc noticed how Henderson’s shirt pocket bulged, overfilled with a collection of notes and folded papers clipped together, sticking out at every angle, along with two or three pens and an unraveling grease pencil arcing a smudge on the bright fabric. Up close, the heartily scuffed and scarred lug-soled boots seemed unlikely for a butlery type of guy, or even a major-domo. Henderson had a mixed air about him. Well, thought Doc, who doesn’t, anymore? She smiled. The slightly incongruous Henderson certainly fitted well into his scruffy domain. Say, was that the hint of a dimple there, at the chiseled point of his dewy, fresh-mown chin? How about that.

“But oh-ho, what have we here?” Henderson towered over the fallen Salmon Trout, who was now propped on one elbow. Henderson pointed a stern finger at the empty bottle lying on the grass. Salmon Trout looked worriedly from Henderson to where his finger was pointing.

“An empty,” Henderson said. “You didn’t drink it all and leave none for me!”

All furrowed was Salmon Trout’s brow as he replied, “Henderson old chum, my head is spinning with this thirst that’s come over me. I didn’t know what I was doing!”

Henderson looked doubtful. “I see,” he said.

“Okay,” said Salmon Trout, “I’ll be honest with you. That was just something I rescued off a gritty old shelf at some abandoned Giddy-Up store. But only because it had a bright label. I’ve been wondering how to get rid of it, ever since, all the while dreading that things would ever get bad enough I had to drink it. And now somebody hands it to me when I’m in this weakened condition and it was horrible stuff, Henderson. Had to spare you the embarrassment of, urp—you know, gagging to death—you would have drunk it just to be polite. Had to be disposed of!” He shuddered, trailed off, “. . . foul, carbonated swill. . . .” He retched convincingly. 

Henderson laughed. “That story rings true, Sam. Ahoy, I was forewarned at a good distance of the bottle’s fatal contents by the very same garish label. I am, Sam, overcome by your sacrifice in disposing of this rotgut, a gesture of true friendship, no doubt. Still, I’m puzzled, surprised to find you in possession of such polycarbonate popskull as this. My guess is, you’ve been away too long.” With the edge of his boot he chipped the offending bottle downslope a few yards into deeper grass. He lowered a thick arm and Salmon Trout pulled himself up. Salmon Trout was no lightweight; Henderson bent a little under the weight of the older man.

“Tell you what,” Henderson went on, “we’ll take another tour of my father’s notable cellar. The old Uni bastard was drinking scared at the end, but by the time he pulled his swollen dignity together and left here, there was still a plentitude of good vintages remaining. Still plenty left down in the cool dark catacombs.”

“The cure for what ails me,” said Salmon Trout, stamping and shaking off grass.

“The cure and the reward! Your heroic palate must be cleansed, my friend. So let’s all go in before it starts getting chilly out here.”

Gently, Henderson herded the three off the grass and toward the big front door. Once they were going the right way he said, “But tell me, commander, are these the ladies whose company we have so eagerly awaited these many long hours? They’re all strapped for battle, not the ballroom. Don’t tell me they’re going on with you?”

“They are. One’s a medic, that’s Doc Holiday. And here’s an even greater rarity, our current preeminent Uni killer, Jade. The medic is grounded, the killer flies, and a better Flyer than most, I’d say. I’ll need a barrel of one of your best reds to puzzle that out.”

“Grounded?” Kindly and good-humored a host though he clearly was, Henderson’s head nevertheless went slightly atilt and his smile faded a trifle.

“Health reasons,” said Doc. “Hello, Henderson, I’m Doc Holiday. Not strictly a medic, more your physical therapist and rescue Flyer with assorted remedies in tow. Don’t expect me to saw your leg off or anything.”

“Right. I’m in the same business, kind of. Part time.”

Doc shook his big warm hand.

“Doc Holiday. I keep hearing of you. You’re the one with the bag of tricks, getting stressed-out Flyers back in the air. Amazing results, they say. This is just very excellent, I’m glad to meet you. If we’re going to keep beating back the grounders we can’t lose that levity. . . .”

Doc waved a hand in no particular direction. “Right-ee-oh,” she said.

“Let us know if there’s anything we can do for those health concerns, Doc. We have a pretty-well-equipped clinic upstairs suited to our local needs. We call it the Triple-R Resort. Rest, Recreation & don’t forget the Rehab. Staff is pretty sparse hereabouts, folks rotating in and out. Battle-times, we also treat the wounded and weary. You might want to look in while you’re here.”

“Thanks. I will. In my case, though, it’s just wear and tear, too many runs in the field service.”

Henderson said cheerily, “Heal thyself, Doc.”

“Working on it, Henderson.”

“There are survivors upstairs who could use your assistance.”

“I’ll be glad to look in tomorrow, if there’s time. This is kind of an unplanned visit for us, you know. Where’s. . .” Doc looked around. Where had Jade got off to?

Not amenable to being herded, Jade had drifted out of the group and now occupied a flanking position slightly to Henderson’s rear and out of arm’s reach, tending to merge with the deepening shadows. Not too obtrusive at all was the phantom bow she had in hand, or the green-winged dart riding shadowed beneath her other forearm. The situation wasn’t feeling right to her. She wasn’t happy with the way Salmon Trout was letting himself be led and getting picked up off the ground tipsy with drink. She didn’t like all this boisterous familiarity with strangers. With this Uni guy.

True, she hadn’t actually smelled Uni hereabouts. If that had been true. . . but never mind. This Uni showed no sign.

She thumbed the concealed arrow, felt the notch, lined up, ready.

“Here, Henderson, here she is.”

Henderson paused to let Jade catch up. The others straggled on a step or two toward the house. Jade came up looking casual, but she had no spare hand to shake his with, if it came to that.

She said irritably, “All right all right.”

Henderson smiled benignly upon her. He stood there looking like some kind of big toy bear, only his eyes were not buttons. He looked like he was trying to think of something to say, but his attention stuck too long on her face and all he did was blink and flinch gently away from her stare.

Jade said suddenly, “Okay, I guess I won’t after all.”

In the next second it was obvious to everyone what Jade meant.

To her own evident surprise, Jade’s hidden hand came up with the arrow and flipped it and spun it into the quiver at her shoulder; a story told in reflex and muscle memory. For her, to think was to act. This time she had acted without thought.

Now, under the sour expressions of those looking on, she froze—a thing startling to see in the always confident huntress. Her eyes were on Henderson.

She closed her mouth then opened it again. “Sorry,” she said. “Sorry about that. Bad move. Can’t be too careful, all right? Hi, Henderson, hope you understand.” Showing him her empty palm and a grim unapologetic smile, she said in a voice low enough that Salmon Trout might not hear, “Don’t care if you do or don’t.”

Up three round-edged yellow stone steps at the middle of the house, the front door stood half open beneath a white dome held up by four slender, shapely columns. Rising behind the portico dome, a wide bank of square-paned windows stretched up several yards into the second story. Suspended in long upright sections, these windows stood pivoted slightly ajar to let the night air in. No light came from inside the house.

Salmon Trout was already at the steps under the portico, waiting for the rest to join him. He said, “Jade! No more monkey business. You’re way off course with that kind of skulduggery and there’s no need for it here, as you know full well. Henderson’s a friend.”

Jade came forward looking gritty and tired, as they all did. She must have felt, though she could not see, the swollen welts she’d picked up in those trees earlier in the day, lashmarks striped brightly down one side of her face and neck, that gave that side of her a tigerish aspect.

Doc said, “It’s just this place that bothers her. We’re all tired, let’s go in.”

Salmon Trout waited on the top step, squinting down at Jade. He looked angry. “You won’t take my word for anything, will you? When I tell you it’s fair weather, you foul it. That’s twice in one day! So maybe you’re a little impatient about this detour we took and you’re in a hurry about something. But if you’re going to be this way about it you’ll leave your weapons outside, here by the door. I want you to get some grub into you but after that you can camp outside tonight with the owls and coyotes if you want to. Tomorrow is your day, Jade. From now to then I want you to relax. Got it?”

“Got it. I’m not going to be that way.”

“Good deal. We’re all tired and hungry and some of us are feeling a little dizzy. So let’s easy up on the combatives, shall we? Let us relax, now, in the bountiful hospitality of my good friend and shipmate, Henderson the vintner.”

Henderson was at the door, smiling more by the tilt of his chin and raised furry eyebrows than with his eyes or mouth, while the three tired travelers shuffled past him.

Doc followed Henderson across the softly gleaming tiles of the foyer and on into a large dark hall. A step or two behind came Salmon Trout escorting Jade. In a moment they passed the foot of a wide stairway, similarly tiled, that curved away between plump railings of varnished gold-veined wood into shadows higher up. Henderson conducted them out into the hall onto a dark, silent Persian rug that also faded into shadow ahead.

There was light in here after all, Doc noticed, a murky green that seemed more a peculiar color of darkness than of illumination.

Salmon Trout stroked his grizzled beard and said to Jade, “Y’know, kid, Henderson’s story is almost as pretty as yours, if you get right down to it. But the main thing you need to know is, back four and more years ago when we fought the Uni on the ground, he was the young feller in charge of eats. That’s right. We played hard against the Uni, always a tough ground fight in those days. There weren’t any fliers then. But a lot of us came just to take a stab at the lamb shanks in garlic sauce or the roasted beets and spinach around a buffalo hump. Crunch down a Henderson salad. And drink his good and plentiful swill. 

“No, you never knew what Henderson had up his sleeve except that it was going to be worth risking your life for. He brought all his supplies out on wagons, always the three mule-drawn chuck wagons. We called it the Henderson Train. Once or twice we had to use them as barricades against the goons.

“He doesn’t have to do that any more, but you just wait and see, kiddie, how you may have come to anchor at just the right port. Goes for you too, Doc.”

Salmon Trout raised his shaggy chin and spoke into the air ahead, “Port?” he said.

Henderson glanced back nodding, “After supper.”

“And a cigar.”

“Ladies permitting.”

fifteen

Doc loped along behind Henderson, stepping out to match his stride. The muffled expanse of the great dim-lit hall seemed without limit, a space in which, she imagined, any two-story tract home with double garage would look like a dollhouse. She gazed far up into the high shadowy reaches, then down to the second-floor balcony and around the curve of the continuing fat gold-wood railing.

The second floor started higher than you would expect, she thought, probably fifteen feet above the ground floor. That was about half the distance to the broad-beamed ceiling above, that supported the third floor.

Up on the balcony behind the glossy railing, she glimpsed here and there a few small round marble-topped tables with twisted-metal legs and chairs to match. In the gloom behind the wide balcony, the walls were a muted sea-green scattered with small gold designs. Shadowy recesses appeared at intervals up there, likely entryways to apartments. 

At the far end of this great vault, probably fifty yards on to the back of the house, went up another set of tall windows. After sunset all these windows were dark too, so the only illumination came dimly from a double row of chandeliers chained to the heavy beams under the third floor, a long way up. These lights were old-fashioned glass-paned electric fixtures, hung alternately high and low. They threw down feeble yellow and green rays that made the whole place feel like it was underwater, a light refracted into the gloom from some distant source.

Weary though she was after the long day’s flight, her hours in the air gave Doc a buoyant feeling. Looking up into all that dim-lit space she felt she ought to be able to spring off her toes and sail without effort up into the cavernous heights and take a look around.

Henderson led the way down his Brobdingnagian hall, angling the group toward a closed door dimly visible near the far end. Out of the shadows down there beneath the far stairway came a clatter of shuffled cards and the clink of coins. Henderson raised his chin into the gloom, waved a hand toward the far end of the hall. Doc peered more carefully and saw four men down there, hunched in a circle around another one of the marble-topped tea tables, in an alcove tucked under another bright-railed stairway. The card players sat in dappled shadow under feeble yellow and green rays leaking out of a glass-paned sconce set into on the wall beside them.

They’d come past the foot of the stairway and out of sight of the card players on the other side of it and now came abreast of the door Henderson was reaching for. He pushed the heavy door open and led the way into a long room that took up the whole of the end of that side of the house, from the great hall out to the far side window. Here, the back of the house was all one windowed expanse, dark as the night outside, ranks and rows of foot-square panes lined up from the floor to the high ceiling. Centered in this array stood a pair of big glass doors, colorfully framed and wreathed in lacquered iron scrollwork, standing open to the evening air. In view outside the open doors was a patio of glazed Mexican tiles fading away into the dark. Inside, dimly reflected high in the windows, the now-familiar yellow and green of a row of chandeliers casting their gloom. Against the back wall opposite the windows stood a long ladder, a dust mop precariously balanced on one of its steps near halfway to the ceiling.

Entering this room, Doc felt, was like swimming from one underwater grotto to another. The main feature here was a long, black, ancient-looking table, a wide heavy plank laid across half a dozen rough-hewn cross-beam supports. It was a very strong-looking old museum piece, much scarred by knife and axe, thirty feet of old-style dining stretched beside the windows. Its width might be the length of a man’s besotted body dragged aboard, shoulders shins and ankles. On the stone block floor a couple of dozen equally ancient-seeming tall-backed chairs ringed the table.

Henderson said from the far end, “This room was built for this old table. They say it’s the table King Arthur swapped out for the round one. We call it the big board. I love sitting up here at the top end. It’s close to the kitchen.” He rumbled back the heavy throne-like chair at the head of the table and waved his guests on up. “Give it a try.”

A white table cloth stretched eight or nine feet down from Henderson’s end of the long long table. Partway up from the foot end of the cloth, assorted tablewares were gathered and stacked, gleaming softly under the wan lights. Afloat upon the snowy expanse, another ancient thing, a big carved wooden bowl, heaped up with all manner of fresh fruit.

A breath of tepid air wafted in through the open doors. Doc smelled grass and earth giving up the heat of the day. Then her attention went to the kitchen door, standing open. Intriguing odors of cookery came from there.

She realized how famished she really was, and really tired, too. A wave of dizziness passed over her. Not so good, she thought. . . used to have more stamina than this. Today she hadn’t even had to run the belt to get here, just perch beside Salmon Trout and let him do all the work while the world went by. Well, never mind, a couple of days and she’d be back in shape.

Henderson stood in the kitchen door and said, “Grab a seat, supper’s just ready. I’ll turn up the lights in here.” He went on into the kitchen.

Salmon Trout swung into the chair by the head of the table, facing the windows. The kitchen door stood open at his back.

Doc slid gratefully onto the chair beside him and let out a sigh. She said, “Well, Sam, I couldn’t have got here without you.”

“Long haul for anybody, Doc,” he said. “But you’ll find the eatables worth the effort.”

Jade must have missed the turn at the door and gone on out the back of the house and crossed the patio tiles, for now she came prowling in through the open glass door. She stood for a second looking skeptically around the room, her figure partly framed by the door’s colorful lacquered scrollwork. She slouched into the seat opposite Doc. She craned her head around the weird dining room. She bent under the table, looked long and suspiciously down the dark alley beneath. “Thought I saw somebody dodge behind a trestle down there.” She sat up and shrugged. The quiver of arrows rustled off her shoulder onto the table top. She placed her bow, reduced now to the size of a small compressed umbrella, near the edge, where it hid hardly visible behind her forearm.

“Gloominous,” she said. She palmed her eyes for a couple of seconds and when she looked up again her eyes were light brown, the yellow glitter gone. She blinked a few times.

Doc nodded. She yawned. “Certainly a place I’ve never been before,” she said.

Grinning indistinctly behind his bristling beard, Salmon Trout chuckled. “Bring up the lights, bring on the soup, it’s time to start the party.”

Doc reached into the vast fruit bowl and passed a fat, bright nectarine over to him. She raised a pink-tinged pear to her own lips and bit into it.

“Still warm out of the sun,” she said.

Jade sat askew, fidgeting. In the yellow green vagueness the welts that striped her face showed dark. She reached up a salad fork, started clinking it around on the array of bowls and plates and glasses.

“Musical wares,” she said. “Classy.”

She lifted the lid of a flat wooden box sitting unobtrusively next to the fruit bowl. She stabbed into the hot steaming towels it contained, forked one up. “Now that’s alright,” she said. She put down the fork and pressed the hot towel to her face. She held it there, breathing steam, then slowly put the towel aside. 

“I guess I can be here,” she said in a low voice. “The stink is old.”

“mm Jade, try one of these.” Doc held a big black plum perched on her fingertips. She plunked an elbow out on the table and reached her prize across to Jade. “I wonder where Henderson gets all these goodies at this time of year.”

Jade shrugged and took the offering. She propped her arms on the table and played at peeling the skin off the fruit with her teeth. Not real hungry.

Then the lights came up. The room came alive in a warm amber glow and the edges and corners of things gleamed bright emerald.

“Oho,” said Jade. “Lights. Somebody finally poured on the juice. I was beginning to think we were stuck in the city of noir here, forever and ever.” She set the half-skinned plum on the saucer under a porcelain tea cup nearby and sat up straighter.

Doc said, “I was thinking an underwater cavern. Of noir.”

“Those,” said Salmon Trout, “are your real old-time light bubs up there, by the way. Hot. They really suck up the juice. Henderson keeps them down most of the time, if not off altogether. Geothermal generators they have around here are running low these days.”

Jade jabbed a thumb toward the hall door all the way back beyond the end of the table. “I’d like to see that big empty space all lit up,” she said. “If it looks like this, then it could be we’ve stumbled into some kind of Oz.”

Henderson bustled out with a green bottle atilt in a towel. “Let’s see if this one’s as good as the one you drank up.” He gave Salmon Trout a severe look.

Wielding a small, silver-handled knife and a corkscrew he fussed over the bottle and got it uncorked, then slid some wine, dark red with emerald highlights, gently into Salmon Trout’s glass. 

“Hm.” Salmon Trout sampled the wine. He looked up thoughtfully. “Yoiks,” he said, his grizzled face full of joy. “Henderson! Why, this is even better. Pour it around, friend.” He waved his hand over the table. Henderson poured. 

Salmon Trout raised his glass. “Memory of a better day, fresh uncorked. A breezy day long gone that none of us was around to remember.”

Jade took a tiny sip. She considered. She said, “hm—” then raised the glass and finished it off in three swallows. Breathing deeply through her nose, she held the glass up, stared through it at the glowing panes of the lights above.

Doc took a sip. It was pleasant but she detected no evidence of the former breezy day. She tried it again.

Jade set her glass down and looked around the table, a little brighter of eye. The hard lines of her face softened, relaxed in a thoughtful, private smile.

“Real nice, Henderson.” she said. 

“Yes,” agreed Doc, thinking she must be missing something. She sipped again. No breezy day.

Henderson raised his glass. “To an unknown better day.” In a gentlemanly gesture, he followed Jade’s example, drank his down. He stood a moment gazing placidly at the far wall. His relaxed glance drifted down to meet Jade’s eyes watching him.

“Funny,” she said, “there’s fresh raspberry in it. Reminds me of when I was a kid, a hot waffle piled up with raspberries and a lot of whipped cream. Breakfast on a weekend. Me oh my, I thought I’d said goodbye to those days forever. I sure didn’t know wine could do that.”

Henderson nodded. “The complexities of the grape reflect our own,” he said. He looked at Salmon Trout. “When the vintage is true.”

“Luck of the bottle,” said Salmon Trout.

A satisfied sigh wafted across the table. Doc looked at Jade. 

“One memory gets you another,” Jade said. “There have been better days, haven’t there.”

“Sure,” said Doc. “Good to remember, hope they come around again.”

In a sudden ominous tone Jade muttered, “Then there are the ones we don’t—oh, never mind,” she trailed off, “I said I wasn’t going to. . . .”

Grabbing up the empty bottle, Henderson said, “Now that everybody’s feeling a little happy, would we like some supper?”

“I’m starving.” Doc looked hopefully at him.

“Yes please,” said Salmon Trout.

“I’ll bite,” said Jade.

“Okay, here comes the soup.” Henderson turned smartly and strode out. 

Jade could be seen studying him as he went. “Okay,” she said, “a nice enough guy, Henderson, nothing like your ordinary festering Uni carbuncle.” Her hand, ever seeking, found and reflexively thumb-checked the switch beside the notched handle of her bow. A flick and the weapon would spring to readiness. She slid it aside to join the clutch of arrows, far off at arm’s length.

“No, I think you’re right, Jade,” Doc said.

“For once, youngster, I’m happy to agree with you,” said Salmon Trout. “Actually twice, now. I like raspberries and cream too.” He drank the last of his wine.

Henderson soon returned with bowls of steaming soup on a tray and a couple of hot baguettes. He said, “We’ll start with our famous artichoke soup. It’s hot.”

“How very nice,” Doc said. 

They blew on their soup and crunched into the bread and for a while that was all anybody had to say. Henderson dawdled over the half-bowl of soup he’d served himself, sampling it and nodding.

Jade tilted the last spoonful out of her bowl and turned to Henderson. “That was tasty. I’d like to make that sometime. How long does it take to put together?”

“Not long,” said Henderson. If you have a nice garlic and chicken stock simmering to start with, and an hour ahead to trim and steam and chop finely the artichoke hearts. And one or two other things. All that was accomplished before you happily arrived.”

“You certainly have a good cook,” said Jade.

“Henderson is the good cook,” corrected Salmon Trout. “I thought I mentioned that.”

“Right,” said Doc. “The feller in charge of eats, you said.”

“Most important thing I’ve said today,” said Salmon Trout with hungry impatience. “Now, while I very much enjoy a Henderson choke soup, always a welcome warm-up after a long day on the trail, right now I’m ready for some real food. Whatcha got next for us, feller?”

Looking pleased and amused, Henderson took up the empty bowls and went back to the kitchen. A moment and a half later he returned, trolleying in broiled lamb chops with roasted beets and buttered yams and a pile of curried rice, with apple cranberry chutney in the company of some hot crackery things. He then brought up a big surprise swirl of ginger grilled sweet red onions. A crystal bowl appeared on the table with a mound of mint jelly that quaked and glowed in the emerald accents cast by the lights above.

“Save some for me,” he said and dodged out again. He came back with pitchers of cool yogurt drink, which Salmon Trout ended up depleting faster than the others could keep up with.

“Never go thirsty to a party,” he said with greedy satisfaction.

Then a light pile of chopped salad greens and more to drink.

After everyone had too much of everything, Henderson brought out a silver tray scattered with sweets, which he carelessly spun onto the table. “For any still feeling faint,” he said.

“Everybody get enough grub?” he said.

Jade favored him with a cheery view of all her teeth, lined up bright and neat.

In reply, he showed her his raised eyebrows over a half-smile.

Salmon Trout stretched and groaned. He gazed into the shadows near the ceiling above where Jade sat. It might have been that his eyes widened a trifle. He leaned his head around and gazed into the shadows behind Henderson. He came slowly out of his stretch and relaxed, looked studiously down at his empty plate. He thumbed his chin. “Huh,” he said to nobody in particular.

He looked up from his examination of the empty plate. He addressed the room. “I’ve had onions in garlic and lime butter sauce. That came with black beans and rice, as I recall. Right, Henderson? You did that crazy onion flower thing of course, and there was that time you caramelized the onions and threw them over bread pudding, as I recall. Of course, there’s nothing like a Henderson roasted onion floating next to a cheery bite of parsnip. Now here we have this ginger onion thingy sparking all over our taste buds. In coconut oil, is that right, Henderson? With this, wily chef, you have exceeded even my high expectations. Bravo.”

“Bravo,” agreed Doc. 

Jade gave Henderson a thoughtful nod.

“I’ll say again, compadre, as I’ve said before,” Salmon Trout continued, “whenever you might ever wish to retire from the burdens of intrigue and spycraft that seem to embroil you day by day, and you wish to escape to sea, there’s always a spot open on any of my boats for a cook that knows his onions. Any boat that I’m aboard, that is.”

Henderson laughed and bowed briefly over his own empty plate. “Thanks, Sam. We go back a long way, the onion and I. Glad it was a success.”

“I’ll say,” said Doc. Her weariness was rapidly progressing toward contented drowsiness. Her body told her this was just where the long day wanted to end. But nobody else seemed to be feeling that way.

Looking mighty pleased, Henderson bused the table, returned to his kitchen and came back half a moment later brandishing high a block of glowing gold, a squarish bottle with hardly any neck to it.

In fact, thought Doc, it looked like the party was just beginning.

“Who would like to try some of this ancient eau-de-vie I dug out of my ancient Uni father’s collection of oldies?”

“Oh yeah, over here,” said Salmon Trout. He beckoned. “And bring a funnel for that too, if you will, sir.”

“Sorry, friend.” Henderson shook his head sadly. “We don’t, in this establishment, funnel our drinks—still, we had been forewarned of the esteemed Salmon Trout’s immeasurable thirst, so I rummaged the house ahead of time and found the next best thing. Here it is, a fishbowl as wide and deep as the seven seas, yet as easy to navigate as though you’d never left shore.”

With a magician’s flourish of his barman’s towel, Henderson materialized from behind his back a gigantic, lampoon-sized brandy glass and set it ceremoniously on the table before Salmon Trout. 

It was a sturdy piece. There was thickness to the glass, Doc saw, reflecting gold and emerald highlights from its inner and outer surfaces. The lip was slightly wavy where the glass blower had cut it, in some distant age. The fat stem was carved in wide scallops to suit a hearty grip. She reached over and gave it a ping. A low bell-like tone rose and faded. A big bowl for a big drink at the big board, the glass fit perfectly with age-old traditions of Gargantuan appetite.

Henderson uncapped the ungainly bottle and upended it over the glassy globe, chugged it up nearly halfway with golden liquor. After that, about enough brandy remained in the bottle that the rest of them could get a reasonable sample. 

“You’ll be far into the deep blue sea if you ever finish that, you old sea dog. If your ship should founder, just tip the glass over your head and float back to shore.”

“Yo-ho!” Two-handed, Salmon Trout hoisted the fishbowl. “Here’s to joy,” he said, and began studiously absorbing the glowing contents through his beard.

Henderson went around to the others and poured out what remained in the bottle. He set it down empty on the table.

sixteen

Doc was feeling comfortable. The wine, the supper, and now the brandy warmed her. The glow of gold and emerald that suffused the room seemed softer, the spacious room itself more snug and apart from the world outside. The sense of dizzy exhaustion she’d brought with her to the table an hour ago was gone. Now relaxed and drowsy, she considered her dinner companions.

Jade seemed mellower now, in much the same happy haze as Doc herself. This was a switch from Doc’s limited experience with her today, and reassuring. Though if Jade became aware how far she had dropped her guard, Doc could only guess how alarmed she’d be, finding herself lounging so care-free in the heart of this old Uni stronghold. Doc would say nothing.

And here was Henderson, droning on about this and that, his soothing baritone putting her to sleep. He had fed them well, brought them powerful, insidious drinks. He was Sam’s old war buddy, and here was Sam beside her, soaking it up like it was the good old days.

“. . . and there’s a room full of gear across the hall there,” Henderson was saying. Angled back comfortably in his big chair., he smiled over at Doc. “If you’re short on anything. There’ll be plenty of wind up in the passes, so grab a jacket. Next door you’ll find the armory. Anything else you may need ought to be in there.”

Sleepily, Doc said, “I did come a little light. Maybe I’ll grab a windbreaker. You have any first-aid stuff? This time I only brought along my famous remedies.”

“There’s a good deal of medical supplies and so on,” Henderson said, “but teams have already pulled out what they expect to need. You, Doc, I think need only bring your remedial talents to the party, this time.”

“I hope so.” Doc tipped her head around to look at Salmon Trout. She said, “I won’t be up to any heroics. Also, I’m worried my remedial talents may not be working so well lately.”

“No?” Salmon Trout gave her a puzzled look. “That’s news to me.”

“A few complaints from customers, is all,” Doc replied. “Variable results. A kind of a mystery.”

“We have remedies here, Doc,” Henderson said engagingly. “There’s a plant extract I’m working on in the greenhouse out back. I think it might interest you at some point. I hope to introduce it soon.”

“Ah,” Doc nodded.

Henderson looked at Jade. “You can cut some fresh arrows if you need them, we have feathers and points, everything right here.”

Jade shrugged. “Got all I need. And no cover-ups for me, either. I work up a good head of steam chasing down pestilent Uni. Besides, I gotta feel the wind to do my job.” She gave Henderson a piercing look and added, “Gonna nail down some stripes tomorrow.”

He gave her a grin in reply. Then his eyes got stuck again, looking at her, and the grin melted to an appreciative smile. The fact was, the fine old brandy had imparted its restorative glow upon Jade, brightening the tiger stripes that slanted down her cheek. She could not be aware of how her new fiery markings improved her looks. Henderson blinked and his smile slid pleasantly off in another direction. He said, in the other direction, “Sam, how steady would I be, I wonder, on deck in a rolling sea?”

“You’ve been nipping at the cooking sherry again,” Salmon Trout suggested, “haven’t you, Henderson? Don’t worry, you will require much more before you get your sea legs. Watch how I do it.” He reached for the great glowing bowl before him.

Silence gathered snug and warm around the four at the table, soothing those who had spent the day tromping into the wind, alert to a thousand real and speculative dangers.

A limp autumn breeze wandered in through the double glass doors still ajar at the center of the expansive wall of night-black windows.

Jade twisted around and looked out the open doorway, scrutinized the tiles dimming away in the light from inside. She gazed into the darkness for a little while, then faced the table again. She jabbed a thumb over her shoulder. “Should that be open?” she said.

Doc looked past Jade’s shoulder into the quiet evening. The little breeze was okay with her.

With quizzical thoughtfulness, Henderson replied, “Good point, Jade, the possums might get in again.” He levered himself out of his chair, shimmied over to the door and closed it.

Salmon Trout carefully pushed aside his fishbowl of plenty and sat back, looking satisfied. He looked across at Jade and his eyes twinkled. Jade’s response was unexpectedly warm; on sudden impulse she raised her glass—probably less steadily than she imagined—and swooped it over the table in a grand salute.

“Here’s to Sam,” she said, “our great leader, speedy Flyer.” 

Everybody took her up on that.

Salmon Trout reached again for his enormous globe, replying, “And to Jade, also a great leader though still a bit hard to follow.”

“Um,” she said. Then she said, “Sam, you said Henderson has a story almost as pretty as mine. I’m curious to hear it. I mean, not to be rude or anything but, pleasantly snockered as I’m getting to be, I still smell a Uni.”

“No, you sure don’t, kid.” Salmon Trout growled. “Your nose is deranged—and I know you know better.” He harrumphed. “Jade, why not tell everybody what can of worms the comet opened for you. Henderson will certainly be interested to hear. He also has an open channel on the comet’s wavelength, whatever you call it, just like you. Of course, his talent works kind of the opposite way. He’s got a kind of golden touch or a green thumb or something. Around him, things always sort of work out best for everybody.”

“So? You have your weather eye, Sam. That’s always there for you, isn’t it? That’s why I figure you don’t really need me flying scout for you—specially not now that my nose is deranged.”

“You figure wrong, Jade. Me and my weather-eye, we’re two separate operations. I have to make the effort. Besides, not a lot of weather turns out very interesting. Plus, places I might not choose to cast a look-see won’t show anything beyond what the eye sees anyway. About which, I have to say I’ve got my weather-eye on you, kid.”

“Catching dreamlets,” Doc murmured.

“Eh?”

“Me. Like most people,” she replied.

“Ah. In early days, Jade, when the long ray caught me it was mostly showing sketches of nearby weather works. I’m out to sea a lot and it pays to watch the sky. So, in early days while the comet was passing out talents to all and sundry, this one came natural to me. Think of this, though. It would be a terrible thing if everywhere I looked the whole world bellied out full-sail like a circus tent in a wind storm. Think if the whole landscape was all one blaze of wild red electrical sprites and blue sparks whirling out of the clouds and more wind and lightning than you ever imagined possible. All that, jitterbugging twixt the water and the sky.”

“I didn’t know about any of that,” said Jade.

“Nope. I didn’t think to mention it. But look Jade, here’s a thing that makes me wonder. Your particular talent doesn’t seem quite so natural, this Uni-killer instinct you have. What’s your take on that? Some others might, you know, have suggested, one time or another, that you have a bad case of pre-emptive retaliationitis. What do you say?”

“That’s not it! You’re out to sea, Sam.”

“Oho! Not yet, missy. Listen to this’n.” Salmon Trout filled his lungs and hoarsely sang, “Swing out the jib and reef in the main, now fill the bilge with swill. When the north wind blows by the larboard bow, it’s time to drop your anchor. Drop and drag, drag and drop, no difference twixt the two, all go down when the north wind blow-w-w-s. . . 

“—and tiddily-diddily boo. There you go,” he said. “Words of the old mariner, advice to the seaworthy.” He tilted fondly toward the fishbowl again.

Jade rolled her eyes. “You do need another drink, after all—it only sort of rhymes yet, plus it makes no sense at all. Maybe find a nautical word that rhymes with anchor.” She looked to Henderson.

Henderson nodded and his eyes roved here and there over the long table, maybe skipping through a mental dictionary of nautical terms. In a second or two his eyebrows went up and for a moment it seemed he had found the rhyming word but then he closed his mouth and said nothing. Pokerfaced, he looked at Jade and shook his head.

She shrugged. “No?” she said. “Then Sam’s the sailor among us, it’s up to him.”

“Salmon Trout tugged at his ear a moment, then said, “Oop, that’s one discovery I’ll have to leave to Henderson.” He went on, “Jade, tell us about your talent.”

“Oh, tell you what, Sam, just to ease your anxious heart, there is no big mystery here, it’s perfectly logical cause and effect. It’s just the story of my life, is all.”

seventeen

“So we all remember how the comet came jittering in from outer space. At first, it was reported as the natural curiosity that comets always are when they become visible from Earth. But this one was huge and it came from outside the solar system beyond the hypothetical Oortcloud. And it behaved strangely, of course. It lurched toward our circle of planets in jumps a billion miles at a time. You guys remember how Lihtan would jump its orbit in the blink of an eye and then hang out on some new orbit for a while, then jump again. And when it got closer in, it started disappearing and taking a good while about reappearing in some new position. The thing was all over the sky but always nearer.

“So for months it was a happy part of every tv weatherman’s daily pitch. Mysterious space weather news. But those jolly folks began having a problem when the comet’s unexplained behavior more and more affected the superstitious among their viewers. 

“And then some loudmouth out there started a campaign against the mild-mannered science of meteorology, jeering at all weathermen and calling their performance a sham and a cover-up. Right away, how could you guess it, viewer hysteria frothed up against the poor broadcasters and they had to give up the comet jokes and start defending themselves against accusations of falsifying the weather.

“The clamor leaked into the weather room. The performers began arguing among themselves about the state of scientific knowledge. Most of them tried to drop the topic from their show altogether and disclaim all knowledge, arguing that of course they couldn’t say anything for certain about anything!

“But the scoffers demanded certainty. What about that comet! So it was time to consult the astronomers. But it was too late for sober experts to come in and describe fuzzy pixels on satellite scans of the star field. No good. Background starlight contaminating the image didn’t hold water. Dust on the digital image detector was only a cover-up.

“Then the neo-skeptics leaped into view. Remember them? The neo-skeps got their own tv shows, where they shouted down all of flaky science in general and posed all stiff-necked and stern against misleading astronomers, and they put on some of the best humbug pomposity you ever saw. They claimed they were a popular movement seeking only the truth. ‘We want the truth about this evil comet that threatens to destroy the universe by means mysterious and foul! Will it gobble up our world as well?’ They made it their business to create maximum confusion on a topic that nobody could be sure about, anyway. They dug deep into the past lives of the usual astronomers and faked up scathing critiques of their earlier works. They got a good two weeks worth of giggles with that stunt. But then, confronted with professional consensus among the same unlucky astronomers, who had actual facts and observations to show, the neo-skeptics threw up their hands and screamed accusations of lying, on claims of some rhetorical ‘fallacy of authority.’ And that was a good one, because the astronomers actually were the authorities on that topic.

“These nay-sayers had a field day nullifying the credibility of ‘blinkered science’ and all of that tedious evidence the astronomers kept mumbling about. So the louder view prevailed across all media and the experts went home. Now the world of worried-looking weather reporters really did look like people trying to cover something up.

“It all seemed funny to me and my parents. They were astronomers and so I was too. We were following the comet in the big reflector telescope we’d hand built and installed on the roof of the house. The comet was doing its jitterbug out there in the direction of the Lyre constellation, crossing a promising star field which was in fact the region of the sky my folks were studying at the time. Looking to see how many more earth-like planets there might be out there.

“Of course, those stars are a couple thousand light-years away and the comet was a lot closer than that. But on the satellite images it only registered as an optical smear. And it jumped down out of space into the solar system and appeared and disappeared on the scans. At the start, those images were all the weather reporters had to work with. This unpredictable, disappearing comet.

“So all that hopped-up worry on the tv galvanized a whole new industry in fright-mongery. Here came a sudden blizzard of neo-skep rumors and reports, hot out of the fringe. After that sudden high-energy spew, the neo-skeptics quickly faded from view. And right away, into the airy gap of pompous outrage the neo-skeps left open, stepped the ‘Essential Paranormalist’ metaphysicians. Following up on the neo-skep jumpstart, the EPs rode the high ratings and went on to make big business out of keeping up the frenzy. Comet Lihtan, horrible monster from outer space, look out!

“And it got weirder. More than one tv channel stayed on the story, never left the comet alone for a single moment. Where will the comet pop up next! It’ll be here any minute! People just knew the thing was bringing on the end of the world, the end of all good times—doom, doom.” Jade raised her hands and spookily wiggled her fingers. “We all remember that. And it did turn out to be the end for a lot of people, when their cars exploded and the electricity went out after Lihtan stormed overhead.”

Jade reached for the water pitcher and filled her glass again. She leaned forward and took a sip off the top. She sat back, dolefully shaking her head.

“Well, at some point the industrial media decided that all their watchers had to be doom freaks. Frosty-haired pundits came on, told us the world was now suddenly changed, ‘nothing’ll ever be the same after this,’ ‘things are different now.’ 

“Remember that sour pasty-faced old ass-crack shaking his wattles and talking doom all over the public spectrum? ‘Hysterical measures! Vatch vhat you say-y-y’—like some old movie vampire. The safety of every believer, he claimed, the ongoing pressurization of civilian life itself, required that every person’s words and actions must now be monitored and recorded, and kept for use later. Until, you know, after the end of the world.

“So there we were, early on the night of Lihtan’s big swoop, happy little family at home, flipping around the channels for any fresh comedy about the impending event, or non-event. We knew there was only a remote chance that anything important would happen. Still, nobody really could say whether the giant comet would hit the Earth or just fly past the Moon. All we found worth watching was just Freddy Goo, his famous Last Man on the Spot show. That night, sobbing into his camera, the steaming cry-baby told his viewers to get used to crawling in the dark after the comet came and ate the world.

“Goo was fun for a minute. And then he was a bore. So we switched that last jackass off and went out to the roof and had a look in the telescope, our hobby scope. It was better to keep an eye on the comet in person. I was always eager to watch the thing come skipping in. At any time it could fade almost to nothing or get even brighter. Sometimes we would have to go back to the satellite pics and hunt down where it had jumped to, some entirely new position in the sky.

“And there it was in the eyepiece, huge and bright and scary. Even at that late moment there was still plenty of uncertainty how close it would in fact approach the Earth. It might easily perform another one of its crazy jumps.

“Well, it was that night that we got our visit from the Uni.”

Jade took a long breath and let it out slowly between tight lips.

“So, we hear the front door get hammered in and we run down the stairs and look in the window and the house is full of Uni. Actually only two of them but they took up a lot of space and made a lot of noise. A pair of fat bursting-at-the-seams alcoholics in full fume and bluster throwing themselves around the living room. My dad said stay put, so I stayed outside and watched.

“Heard them hollering. ‘You have to watch what you say! If you won’t we will! Show us your porch light. Why don’t you have one! Don’t tell us you don’t have your certified Unity Blue HomeLamp! Look, here’s one we brought for you. Easy monthly payments. Hologram! It’s regulation!’ 

“The goons kept on shouting and pushing and they got louder and more excited and they shoved and dragged my parents out the front door for a porch light demonstration.

“I ran around to the front and hid behind a tree and watched the whole thing. Nothing I could do about what was happening, just nothing.

“So there’s your picture. A kid—I was sixteen then—the kid watches her parents murdered with enhanced brutality and then the kid is on the run. That was the night before Day One.

“Looking back on all that, you could only guess the how or why of it after it happened. Who could expect a crime spree like that. Shoulda been on guard.

“And when the comet finally swooped over later that night I was hiding out in a storm drain. I nearly drowned in the flash flood of slush coming down. I didn’t fight it much. My parents were dead, it was the end of the world, and I didn’t exist anymore. That’s how I remember it.

“Sometime in the early morning I dragged up soaked and shaking. I wandered around, squishing through all the gritty slush that covered everything. When the sun came up I found my way home, hardly knowing who or where I was.”

Jade halted, stared slack-faced at the table for a long, long moment. Then her head jerked up and she was back. “When I came out of that storm drain all I had going on was the endless replay, stark black and white of every detail of what happened the night before.

“So there it is. Since then, your precious Uni appear to me just how they showed that night, all the ugliness and the stink. And they are a weird attractor for my arrows. I can’t miss ’em. I know them when I see them and I can tell when they’re around. For instance, I know they’ve been around here.”

Jade turned Henderson a look of open-mouthed horror.

He blinked at her, looked surprised.

She shot him a toothy grin and reached again for the water pitcher. Studiously, she filled her glass.

Doc said, “How do you know that you know them, Jade? What if one of them isn’t?”

“Ha, Doc, I scared you today. That’s my job! Look, sometimes they pretend to relax and show a better side of themselves. You catch them alone and they lay it on smooth, all nicey-nice. In a confrontation there’s never any doubt. They can’t help it, they show.

“. . . anyway, it’s not true, Sam, I don’t have retaliationitis. I’m no crazed Uni killer. I got the ones that got my folks. That score is settled pretty much. For the rest, it’s just business. I’ll admit, a satisfying business and no qualms. Look at what they get up to.

“So it’s very simple. All this exciting warfare funds a good part of my real interests. Here’s what I mean.” Jade snatched up the folded weapon and pressed the switch—

“Jade. . . .” Salmon Trout half rose from his seat.

The bow’s limbs, softly opalescent in the green-sparked light, unfurled with a faint, almost paperlike rustling sound in the quiet air of Henderson’s banquet room. With dexterous fingers Jade flicked the bow into the air and caught it balanced on her thumb. She let it hang there, above her planted elbow, a pearly cupid’s smile floating over the table. “This is what I’m proud of,” she said. “It’s technical. Got nothing to do with the unitory crime wave.

“You should see how I make this stuff. I call it my meta-material and it probably shouldn’t exist. I twirl it out of a drum, like cotton candy. Up she whirls, way too close to the speed limit. Spins right out of the flame. It’s sure to be the start of some great new developments I have in mind, crazy fun. This can be a bow, an umbrella, a tent, a city floating with the clouds. It could be anything you like, on the ground or in the air.”

“What’s it made from,” asked Doc.

“Um, an amorphous amalgam? That’s all I want to say right now. Still in development, of course. It’s the new physics. A whizbang of entangled particles forming up into a stretchy glass, like you see here. Almost an aerofoam.” She refolded the bow and dropped it over the quiver of arrows.

“Raw materials for this project cost money. I always need Trade Bucks. I need Flihtworks dollars. Co-op coupons. I need every titanium nickel I can get, worth a dollar apiece. And today—I mean tomorrow, Sam—I go earn some fresh Public Points. Gotta have ’em. Being Jade is an exciting sideline, serves the public interest while I profit off the deaths of a few posturing chimps.”

“I like it, Jade,” said Doc. “Got your cake and eat it too.”

“Sure, all right. I may be the very first person in this grunge war that gave as good as I got from Day One. Still, even enhanced by the comet, it’s a risky business.”

“It is.” Doc said, “I can’t tell you how many Flyers I’ve had to scrape up off the ground and fly out, over these past few years. So tell me then, what did happen on Day One?”

“The individuals that murdered my mom and dad? They were easy. They returned to the scene of the crime.

“I was home again, foolishly of course, drying out and getting fresh clothes, forcing myself to eat something, restringing my favorite bow. Packing up a few things. I knew I had to get out quick.

“But then they came, talking loud, worn out from too much walking—after the slush no cars ran anymore—the same two beery slobs hulked in, bulking through the door they’d busted in the night before. Those boys had one last chore in mind.

“They staggered in and they found me, all right. It was about then that the ray reached across the room, sparking off the brass door latch dangling on a screw there, and there they showed, all gory in my new sight and my nose filled with the stink of them. It was dumb of me to be there for them but what did I know? 

“Then the three of us got down to business and we found out real quick that they were too slow and I was killing them, right up close with my old blunt target-shooting arrows. In school, you know, I took every blue ribbon in archery. Aptitude. Or application. Even so, that moment was a very personal and intense learning experience for me.”

“I’ll bet that’s so,” interrupted Salmon Trout. He looked up from his golden lagoon. “Report how it went, Jade.”

“Oh, the first one was easy. He barged in and saw what he was looking for and didn’t bother to notice I was fitting an arrow for him. I gave it to him and he wandered off choking and knocking things over.

“The nose job guy was a little different. I was in a hurry and my first shot was weak. He swatted the arrow away and kept on toward me. He was mad. But my second shot hit him in the face. It slid up the tape bandaging what was left of his nose and went into his eye socket. That made him throw his head back and his arms went up and he started bleating. So while he stood there it was a clear throat shot, and that took care of his blather. 

“I grabbed up most of my stuff and staggered out the back door. Had to leave the telescope. . . .”

After a moment, Doc said, “That is astonishing, Jade. Congratulations. Two down, all in one go. You’re lucky you came through it alive.”

“Yeah. I was rigid when it was over. I didn’t quite know what it was I’d done or how it happened.”

“But look, you haven’t said why they came to your house in the first place. It couldn’t have been just the HomeLamp dealie. . . .”

“That was the pretext, you bet. You know the Uni. It’s all make-believe with them. They make stuff up. And they hated my parents for being scientific types that contradicted their made-up stuff. So this time they thought they’d badger us for not showing enough porch light patriotism. An easy excuse, and all they needed.

“It wasn’t any coincidence though,” Jade said, “that the night of the comet was the very night the Uni cracked down on us. The comet was about to arrive, or not, as the case might be, and the difference of opinion between astronomers and the official views of Unitory neo-science was hot on the neo side. I guess I’ll say now that the two astronomers who first spotted the comet and, with some help from me at the telescope upstairs, tracked its weird course all the way to Earth, were my folks. You remember the tv debates. That was them getting socked around on the ‘Science Debunker’ show. You know, that horrible woman, Professor. . . what’s her name.”

Henderson said gently, “She’s still on the tube, Jade. Now they call it the ‘Investigating Science with Professor Flebrin’ show.”

“Is that right. So that was my parents on that show, six years ago. They got invited back more and more as the comet got closer. The way it came lurching and spiraling down out of space made its progress impossible to predict.

“But then it swung wide around the sun and made a quick right turn past Mercury. It catapulted straight toward us and that’s when all the stops came out. Now, official Uni neo-scientists were all over it, making ominous predictions and dire promises and defying myopic science to contradict the Essential Paranormalist view. Such a comet, they said, pushing forward from the outer spaces in sidelong leaps and hidden evasions, approached Earth only as would some questing beast of malevolent purpose!—woo-woo

“The argumentiveness got hotter. Sitting there on the Debunker stage, my dad graciously accepted the intuitions of the paranormals as evidence for their claims, while valiantly trying to draw them back to the bounds of testable fact. He gently suggested that the comet’s apparent disappearances were simply an illusion caused by drastic changes in its brightness. He said satellite observations were subject to digital dropouts under such conditions. That computer algorithms analyzing such thin data slices from orbiting telescopes, would simply ignore phenomena present but not defined as objects of interest. Such visual elements, he said, must inevitably slip between the pixels and never appear in the analysis. 

“A wider view was needed, Dad said. He admitted he was inclined—speculatively—to take the less extreme Emergent Paranormalist position, in general. 

“He pointed to the always-mysterious Bigfoot phenomenon so intriguing to any thoughtful paranormalist. In his easy-going way, my dad suggested that the reason the monster was never clearly pictured slouching across the forest glade was the very same reason no other paranormal phenomena were ever clearly documented. He said a blurry picture is the best and most positive proof of any claim of paranormal phenomena, because it is easy to take sharp photos, but no such thin mechanical slice of a moment can show much contextual truth, which takes a while to develop. He said no snapshot of such mysterious subjects as Bigfoot can ever tell you much, except that there is much more there unseen. Bigfoot might well be some emergent reflection out of time, he suggested, a living image darkly separated from its subject, near but far, perhaps even a showing of some future evolution of mankind.

“Dad got a scatter of handclaps out of the studio audience for this line of reasoning, but earned only a short fluster of hissy sounds from the tight coterie of neo-skepticals huddled under the cameras with the Professor.” Jade grinned. “They were just jealous.”

She slurped some more water and went on, “But, you know, famous sky-gazer though he was, dad took care to note how thousands of amateur astronomers around the world had all along diligently tracked Comet Lihtan. Under their close scrutiny, he reported, they never lost sight of it except when it jumped, however much it varied in brightness. My own observations verify this. I never lost sight of it as long as it stayed on track, except those times I got to the scope and found it gone. Then I’d have to wait for new pics. One time it jumped and I was the first comet hunter to spot the new position against the sky chart, and so I got to tell everybody where they could find it. But all observers agreed there was no evidence of any mysterious disappearances. Therefore, dad was inclined to believe there were none.

“As to the comet’s eccentric jumps through the solar system, he only suggested that for all its great size it could very well be an object of slight mass, easily diverted perhaps, by sonic impulses booming across the interstellar medium, or other unobserved influences.”

Jade grinned around the table. Nobody was asleep yet.

She went on. “The neo-scientists cluttering the stage jumped quick to sneer at the notion of the comet’s variable brightness. Who are these amateur astronomers, they hollered, who intercept shapes and images cast adrift in space! Such shapes that must float into their dreaming eyes when they fall asleep behind their telescopes late at night. Who could believe them! Clearly, the monster had powers of invisibility as it stalked the planets. Leaping out, pouncing and eating planetary orbs on its way toward Earth! Everyone knew how insatiable was the hunger of the demon Morbflock! That was some demon of untold terrors they were shouting about at the time. Haven’t heard a peep out of old Morbflock since that last week.

“So, all my dad could do was keep to his even strain of moderate, diplomatic exploration of the evidence as it came in, and try to not get ahead of the facts as they became known.

“When mom was on the show as the other member of the team, something she would do only rarely since she had approximately zero patience for nonsense, she gave no ground to superstition. Her line was, ‘No matter how hard you look, if there’s nothing there YOU won’t find it.’ Naturally, she got shouted down again and again by other guests on the show and mocked as anti-neo-science by the Professor.”

Jade shifted in her chair and looked at the ceiling. She snickered. “Hohum, we know any staunch Uni can get up in the chilly morning and lunge for the thermostat, toddle to the fridge for some pre-sweetened breakfast chunks and throw them into the microwave, then go drive their cacotechy cars down the rinky-dink traffic lanes catching up on drivetime radio on the way to some aerated office building, and not once leave the neanderthalithic world of myths and monsters they really live in.

“Anyhow, the odder the comet’s behavior appeared to be, the more the superstitionoids swarmed around horrible Flebrin, science debunker and mistress of the paranormal. 

“The excitement around the show got so intense that she had to jump in with a big personal commitment to an end of the world soon to arrive, featuring supernatural demons and hell on Earth and so on. A risky prediction, but her television ratings went stratospheric.

“So, the punchline for my parents was like this. They, working with other observers, had estimated the probability of the comet’s closest approach to earth. Its mass was uncertain, its speed was variable and it wobbled around a lot. So the best prediction they could come up with was only a guestimate. If they didn’t lose track of it again, the comet could come real close on any one of three particular days. This prediction incited further commotion among the neo-scientists working the debunker show. Scientific uncertainty infuriated them as much as it did their sponsors. They wanted what they wanted. They demanded to know why science wouldn’t deliver.

“They brought their own augurs onstage and things started looking even worse for them. The best predictions for paranormality on those three days also showed an inconvenient spread of fateful possibilities. The numerologists couldn’t agree with the star chart operators and neither of them agreed with the card readers. According to these diviners, one of the possible days was a good fortune day. The other two were bad fortune days and one of those was an end of the world day when comets come crashing to Earth. But they couldn’t agree on which days were which. 

“The coin flippers came in and after nine flips the problem was solved by handshakes all around. Still, the best this army of clear-seers could show was only a one in three chance that the world might really end. Might really.

“A ‘brief announcement’ came on, firmly stating that the show’s metaphysicians of commercial scheduling wanted better odds than that for an end of the world scenario. They demanded an astronomical re-evaluation. 

“Then the numerologists offered a solution. They said that for old science to march ahead hand in hand with neo-science, it was only required that all the 8’s in the calculations be laid on their backs 90 degrees.

“Professor Flebrin herself made the phone call. I heard the uproar from the other room and when I came in to see what the ruckus was about, there were mom and dad in stitches, practically rolling on the floor. My mom’s hand shook so bad laughing that she accidentally ruined the painting she was working on, one that showed the glimmer of salty seas on some distant exoplanet. Now she’d accidentally slashed a green Saturn’s ring across the front of it. That calmed her down. Then they told me about Flebrin’s call. It was funny all right all right, but they didn’t realize what such a call might. . . well, neither did I. Who could have?

“The Science Debunker claimed they were meddling with forces they could not understand. That in the matter of this comet, trusting the vagaries of chance just wasn’t good enough! Things have a fixed destiny and she knew that they, as scientists, were defying the will of the heavenly orbs. Therefore she demanded that they stop interfering and pick which day the comet visitation would occur. In this way they could make amends for all their troublemaking. It didn’t matter, she said, whether their guess was right or wrong. Because if right, then uttermost proof of their interference. If wrong, then proof that her prognostications were in the right—since only by their scientific interference could the comet be diverted from its fated arrival, even if they only managed to force it onto the lesser bad fortune day. Regardless of how they placed their bet, she said, she would be proved right, specially if the comet came on the best of all bad fortune days, the end of the world day. If they would only choose, then a new world would take shape, free of confusion and disorder.

“She promised that whatever the outcome, the scientists would be forgiven their meddling. They just had to pick a day, any day, and so bash to ground the false mystique of science forever and smooth the way to a new unitorious order. . . for out of the ended world would rise the new, . . .and blah blah blah.”

Jade threw up her hands.

“Well, they thanked her for her offer of forgiveness but said they couldn’t play superstitious shell games. My dad told the professor that the best he could do was promise a likelihood of a near miss, depending on how you defined the word ‘near.’ He said, by the time the comet was due by, it could likely be inside the Moon’s mean orbital distance from Earth. This distance is a quarter of a million miles. A spherical volume of space inscribed by the moon with earth at the center would be nearly fifty quadrillion miles of big empty, wandering around the sun. And so, as the thickness of Earth is only 7,000 plus a few miles, and the Moon only some 2,000, such tiny orbs twiddling around a space so incomprehensibly yooj could fairly be said to hardly exist at all. Hard to hit, even if you were trying. He said he would accept the lunar orbital distance as ‘near.’ So there was no relenting on the science.”

Jade paused, gulped some more water and wiped her mouth, hiding a sneer.

“So nope,” she went on, “things didn’t work out at all well when the goons paid us the visit that evening. You could expect a visit in those days, if you didn’t have your ‘official’ Unity™ HomeLamp™ BLUE AFID SECUR™ lit up on the porch, right? Even so, you know, I think if that woman had not been there in the Uni car that night, with her scrawny red tv face poking out under the blinking blue lights, those goons would have only staged some noisy grandstanding for the neighbors’ benefit.

“I mean, tithing up to buy and show off a Unity™ HomeLamp™ BLUE AFID SECUR™ on the porch wasn’t exactly a legal requirement, ever. All the harsh-sounding admonitions performed by Homeplace™ Advisory personnel warning urging everybody to have their Uni gaslight fired up, really only counted as suggestions. A sudden city ordinance coming into effect simply permitted such a thing, if it weren’t a fire hazard. Like if ignited propane canisters knocking around the front door were not a danger, see. The goony sales enforcers weren’t exactly legal, either. Those idiots would not take no for an answer.”

Henderson gave a low chuckle. “They live for their commissions,” he said. “A very competitive racket all around.”

“Anyhow, there she was, the Science Debunker herself, staring out that car window under the blue blinkers like she was behind studio glass or something. The goons probably thought she was grabbing video of their heroic actions. They just couldn’t resist letting loose their felonious best for her.

“When the bodies of my parents were dragged to the back of the car she was staring out the car window looking like she was about to howl. Her whole face was one big red 0.

“Her moment of victory—

“I remember—I remember on the show, how she complained a lot that my parents were operating the comet against her, in defiance of fifth-dimension commandments to bring upon the world a blesséd day of doom. I remember she swore by her Mystiqualian Revelation, that the celestial intruder was to be the First Servant of the Koch-Makoch, sent to gobble up the Earth. Is that amazing, or what?

“But without the scientists relenting, thereby closing the door on mere chance for an arrival date of the comet, or non arrival, even the most confident metaphysicians got worried. How could they guide us all to a harmonious end of the world if there were no concordance among pundits?

“Well, they worked that one out, didn’t they? Eliminate discordant pundits. But only a few days before they murdered my parents, the professor was already starting to back-track her claims, relocating her prophecies to the sixth dimension, ‘where all our wishes come true.’

“She got her wish. And I got a wish for her. She’s responsible for the atrocity show on that night. I’d like to. . .

“But never mind. That was all then. Not a memory we want to distill in a bottle for any future generation.”

Jade let out a breath. “Is that pretty enough for you, Sam?”

eighteen

Salmon Trout sighed. He said, “Pretty enough, I guess, Jade. Of course, a lot of that background stuff we already know. Thing is, I think you omitted the prettiest part.”

“Honestly, Sam, I didn’t want to spoil the supper.”

“ ’preciate that, Jade. I guess it’s nobody’s business, really.”

Henderson spoke up. He said, “Thanks, Jade. Here I can’t help but notice you gave us a pretty broad hint to your identity just now. I have to mention it so I can assure you your confidence will not be betrayed. Not by me or anybody. And this is the first I’d heard about the fate of the disappeared astronomers, apart from old rumors, of course. It’s a sorry, sordid tale.” His beefy body seemed to shrink a little on the tall-backed chair.

“Yeah? So let’s hear yours,” she said.

“Mine.” Henderson hesitated. “Are we still on the topic of cometary afflictions or is it something else?” He looked at the table. In a gloomy-sounding voice he said to the table top, “I’ll just say, however it pains me to admit it, that when the comet’s long ray comes my way it more often shows up with a cartoon, some old-time fairy tale I was told as a child. Then again—and this must come from my space alien ancestry—sometimes it’ll be a featureless void that forms right up against the old eyeballs, a kind of colossal nothing. I could tip forward into that and disappear into the gulfs of outer space, go right out of existence.” He looked around the table. “Anybody else get that? No? I guess it’s just a relic of my alien heritage. Anyway, on this side of the gulf those little fairytale featurettes help fill that gap and that’s the main thing they do. Distracting figments. I try not to make much of them.”

“Fairy tales!” laughed Salmon Trout heartily. “You never said anything about that before.”

Henderson coughed, “How embarrassing do you suppose it is, Sam, having to work in a cloud of make-believe all the time? Here’s an example. Today when you arrived and we were all out in the front yard, I caught the ray off the side of a leaf fluttering in the weeds, a color never before seen. Up pops a cyclops and walks across the grass, about four feet tall. Traipsed right past you, Jade. It stopped and goggled at me, rolled its one big eyeball, and went on. I ignored it, of course. It passed out of view and that was all.”

“. . . ’at’s a good one,” Doc said sleepily. “It rolled its eye. You get a feeling it was trying to tell you something?”

“Nothing much, just a prankster out for a stroll.”

“Any expression on its face or. . .”

“Well no, Doc, I didn’t pay that much attention to it. It was a hallucination.”

“I suppose,” Doc said, “a monster so droll can’t be all bad. I used to get treacle trucks inching along the horizon. That was annoying.” She covered her mouth and yawned. “It’s never the same thing twice.” She blinked across at Jade, who was trying to look serious.

“No,” agreed Henderson, “never the same thing twice. But it’s still trolls and imps and all that.”

eep,” weakly cried Doc, trying to startle her drooping eyes awake, “trolls and shrimps. . .”

“Nasty trolls, tricksy shrimps,” Henderson laughed. “I have a whole menagerie of such things.” He looked up into the shadows beyond the golden chandeliers. Dolefully he shook his head and moaned, “Oh, we’ll never be free from the fairies and the gnomes and the elves and the dragons, and the hairy old king and the princess with bling—bahumba!” He frowned at Salmon Trout’s bright eye peering over the tilting horizon of fire water glowing within his lampoon of plenty.

“No, that can’t be fun,” Salmon Trout mused. He poked his nose briefly into swirling vapors. “All this is very amusing, but I think the wind blew us off course again. There’s a bit more than just background stuff brought out by that comet.” He speared two fingers into the air between Henderson and Jade. “You two oughta compare notes. Jade, you still haven’t told us about your particular bogey. It’s a doozy. Would ya?”

“I guess,” she quirked a lip at Henderson, “if you’ve got trolls. . . . Well, like I said, I can spot a Uni. Sam wants me to tell how I do that. How it is they show me their true face. And the stink—”

“Yeah, they all stink,” Henderson said. 

“What is that stink?”

“Dog stink. The stink they know themselves by,” he said.

“The stink I know them by,” Jade put a hand to her throat and gagged, silently.

“Stench of dead flesh mainly,” said Henderson, “but also powerfully mixed with the aroma of stale unused cash. It is, in fact, a miasma with drug effect, taken many times a day, worn on the body. Gravitas trademarked. Our friends the Uni slather on the self-approving stink and wear it proud, irritable and snappish as dogs.”

Jade said, “Stench of the slaughterhouse, huh? Sounds about right.” Rudely, she pushed down her upper lip and flared her nostrils at him and sniffed sharply. “You’d be one to know.”

“Yes,” he said ruefully, “indeed I would be. It’s like this—”

“Never mind all that now, Henderson,” Salmon Trout said, “Go on, continue, Jade.”

“Okay-okay, since you insist. It’s simply this. Your friends the Uni show me their true face. Noseless, and their noseless holes all bloody. There you go, how do you like it? And don’t forget the stench.”

Doc’s brain buzzed, dragging her up out of encroaching sleep. Here was something new. Something disgusting.

Salmon Trout said, “And you don’t get any sparks or liht rays or any of that. That’s the part that interests me.”

“Right. They are what they are. So I kill ’em.”

“Wait a minute,” interrupted Doc. “Where would you get such an image, this noseless thing? What’s the connection?”

“From when my mom bit the nose off the Uni tough guy just before he bashed her to the ground.”

“No! That’s horrible.”

Jade laughed. “You mean horrible for him. Once he clubbed her down she was out like a light. But he thought he could manhandle her.” Jade’s next laugh was a shriek. “You should have seen the lowlife prance, screaming up and down and raging at his deity or whatever for just one more special exemption so then he’d be good. ‘Give it back! Give me my nose!’ ” Jade gasped, tears flashing on her cheeks. “Ah, me. Those dumb asses get real surprised when somebody steals their act—who did he think he was, the fat stink. She showed him—made him gibber and dance like the chimp he was.”

She snorted, choked a little. “And whew, they get sweaty on top of that stink they wear. I got a special blast of that the next day when they came to get me. Told you about all that. . . .

Jade waved a hand in front of her face. “Whew, they all stink but not every soldier shows sign, not even very many. It’s those with the shiny black stripes that show the starkest mask. And stink the foulest. All strong contenders for a shot in the neck or up the snoot. Otherwise, most of the rest are just kids stuck in a hard spot in a camo costume. Okay? All they can afford to believe in is the growl of an empty belly. So, like anybody, I’m always happy to give them a pass. Well, they hardly ever fling sticks at us in a meaningful way, do they.”

“Right,” said Salmon Trout. “Okay, I knew that about you, anyway. Sorry, Jade. Still, there are moments you scare me. We just don’t need any accidents, is all.” He gazed deeper into the amber fluid hovering at his lips. 

Jade sighed and stretched, smiled across the table at Salmon Trout. “Thank the comet for my infallible enemy detection kit.”

And Doc, drooping between wakefulness and dream, in Jade’s smile caught an impression of the girl’s face as must have been, before assault and tragedy and all that followed; younger, softer, a quieter face, a mild quirk of something skeptical about the mouth, a face yet unhardened by ordeal and ferocity of battle. And so it went for all of them, no doubt, Doc thought. Impressions of a better day.

“You were just a kid, then,” she said. 

“Sure,” Jade replied. “But let’s not dwell on it. Tomorrow we push ’em back one more time and then we can all go home to our real lives. Now I want to hear more from this Henderson guy. Mr. nearly-not-Uni. He’s busted, you know. I do detect the stink.”

Henderson was at Jade’s elbow, tipping the last of the brandy into her glass. There were just the few drops settled in the bottle, but they were for her.

She raised the glass, tilted it this way and that in the glow of the lights. After a moment she said, “Tell me, Henderson, how do you bastards live with yourselves?”

“Oh, we don’t,” said Henderson lightly. “Don’t even try to.” He took a half-step back and grinned down at her.

“What it is,” he said, “is we compartmentalize. It’s the pay scale that does it for us, and the perks, naturally. Prosperity, we say, is next to godliness. The pay and perks are the proof, there to salve any pangs of conscience, should any arise in the course of business. In any case, tradition says let the lawyers be your conscience. See, we love a package deal.

“As for me, I was born into the package. In my family we never knew any way different. All things nice, buttoned down tight like an old-fashioned television family, our lives impeccable, never a ruffle in the breeze. Why not? We owned The Breeze.”

He sat again at his place at the head of the table.

“Name of a newspaper,” he said, “one of our many holdings. Motto: Never a discouraging word in the breeze.”

“Except one,” said Jade.

Henderson thumped a meaty hand on the table. “Courage,” he boomed, “is what it takes, courage to hold on, courage to hold out for that hypothetical future value! The price of gravel must not decline, so long as the pile I have gathered grows!”

“What happens when the price goes down?”

“Why, sell gravel to the grannies! They’ll buy any pie in the sky. Any future looks good to them. Still, a man has to eat, put food on his—well, truth be told, most ambitions fail on the basis of an insufficiently stuffed belly. Most sell out long before they’re gripped in the pangs of starvation, but still end up getting less than they paid in. End up owing the banks, trying to buy politicians. Becoming politicians! This package deal, as you can imagine, Jade, works out a whole lot better than most of us could get doing honest work. The pay, the perks. I have to admit it, men of low price are we.” He said, “We call it a nation!”

“Your nation,” said Jade.

“Nah. All that was an accident. At some point my youthful world got suddenly filled with thunder and distractions, the house filled up with an army of furious hormone-deficient men hooting and shouting and waving their arms. Trying out their politics. It became an ongoing series of performances I found hard to escape or repel. The old man was a drunk, standards declining, you know, and he didn’t have grandad’s belly for sticking to his guns and using them. So the door to the house stayed open to any circus act that wandered in, any angry blowhard with a disaster to sell, and it took me a little while to mount my defense.” Henderson gave a tight, wry smile.

“So, Jade, I carry my unfortunate association with the Unitory crowd very, very lightly. Oh sure, I certainly have seen the inside of the madness. Ewton Bellicus himself used to come by the house, workshopping his media spin of the moment. Him, the voice of bouncy indignation, right here at the big board. He and his entourage—well, kitchen staff took to rolling out butcher paper to cover the table whenever they dropped in for lunch.”

Henderson’s hand wandered to the table’s edge and as if illustrating the point he flipped up the corner of the snowy table cloth now stretched across the board. Jade glanced at the lace-edged fabric that slipped between his fingers and she almost smiled.

“The Junior Board, now, they infested the place,” he went on, “assuming that I, same age as them and the son of a wealthy supporter, must reflect their views. Oho! What a prize! I had a name with panache, credibility in the ranks. The nasty dogs wanted to rub some off on themselves.

“So, for a while they had the run of the house. No fault of mine. But they got my easy-going self all gussied up in their snaps and zippers, buckles and flaps, all keen on strapping me into the uniform so tight I could hardly breathe in it. I pleased them mightily with my sneers. I could work up a good sneer. All I needed was to catch the costumed buffoon in any mirror, window or picture frame—supposedly me!—another big fruit in shiny boots. 

“All that was needed to snuff life completely out was the miasma of that Àblüt® stuff cloyed around me—pheww-aghh! Trust me, friends, they brought in gallons of it. All complimentary from the manufacturer, a patriotic brand at the core of the movement.” Henderson paused, not breathing, stared aghast into the room’s farthest corner. He looked at Jade. “So you’re telling me there’s still a toxic molecule of the stuff lurking about.” He shook his head. “I honestly thought I’d vanquished it at last—expunged the past. It’s the rot that persists beyond reason!” He swapped a satirical sneer with Jade’s malevolent one.

She said, “One molecule is all it takes and I’ve got you nailed.”

Henderson’s eyes widened. “I’m impressed. It pleases me a lot more, though, that you caught the high note of raspberry in the wine, earlier.” He leaned a little toward her. “You might help me track down that molecule. It’s probably wafting out of my little Uni museum in the attic. Bottles and bottles of eau d’Àblüt® !”

“echh”

“Oh, the Uni boys thought they had me, just their age and in the know, all eager to hitch up with the Contractor Management Training Unit. The good old CMTU. But it was all just good manners on my part. These beer droolers were the Juniors of my father’s associates. And associated yoyo’s. Squatters in my home.

“From the youth group I learned the hard way how if you go along with a scam just a little, whatever reservations you may have or even if you don’t know any better at the time, the scammers will be quick to claim you in it always. That’s the way it was here. ‘Your Unit Needs You Now & Forever!’—oh yeah, a song to belong you to. You may be invited into the Unit but it’s only for ever. You can never invite yourself out again.

“It was all very odd, this home invasion. The boys stood strong on Unitory ideology, slogans and ideals. To hear them talk, all the Uni movement amounted to was a list of complaints spun up daily by Ewton Bellicus, tv preach-a-mentater. ‘Welcome back to the better way!’ was how he began his show. So in conversation, the boys would say, ‘Welcome back!’ when anybody said anything they could agree with, that Ewton had told them. 

“I can hear the voice of Ewton Bellicus now, ‘What a day ahead! Did you hear the latest?’ And then he would launch off with the latest outrage happening in the world. If people weren’t actually dying on any particular day, he would sneer at those who weren’t doing enough killing. ‘Now this is what’s going wrong! We need a new generation free in allegiance to our Brand, under God. That’s right, bargain shoppers, the new covenant! Compliant to the demands of our shared national debt.’ This was the Ewtonian chant, again and again, a senseless foundation for everything, all his daily listings of civilization’s failures, the woeful fall from the ideal state.

“These Fans of Ewton sucked up all the blames and belittlements emitted by their priestling of gas and felt it was their duty to deliver the perky package to the wider world, onward to all the damnéd. I soon found that I had better ape the Ewton line right here in my own house where I lived, or it would all come down in suffocating buckets from my new true friends. With them it was a constant jostle, each Junior one-upping the other with the most latest buzz out of Ewton Bellicus.

“Early on, I didn’t fully realize that all the energy behind their arguments was only a forced simmer-up emulating of Ewton’s line, his grab-bag of peremptory demands for relief from persecution. And the shaky pause for breath to get in some soppy moralizing about a tragic malaise among youth formerly supposed born to serve the nation. So that, conversationally I might, for example, ask the Juniors what the great man’s latest thoughts were on the topic of education. The quick Ewton response would be that all public school teachers should be shot, along with all librarians, but not before the scientists. Beyond hotly listing more who should be shot, further discussion only lapsed into recruitment numbers and head shaking over weak policy decisions by divisive elements in the government. After that, further talk only embarrassed the fellows. Embarrassed about what, exactly, they wouldn’t say. They’d only take a fresh breath and the topic would switch over real quick to Spornts & Beer.”

“Hops are good for you, by the way,” said Salmon Trout.

Henderson chuckled. “Right, and alcohol is the perfect antidote for hops. And that’s the way it was with these guys. If I persisted, experimentally thinking out loud on any topic not on today’s program, one of the fellas might trip himself and roll down the stairs sideways, ‘wo-wo-wo-wo!’ Or somebody’s pistol might accidentally go off into the floorboards—a guaranteed distraction provoking much tender examination of safe ‘gun handling’ strategies, and some hushed review of your deepest warrior wisdoms from ancient days. There are a few desperate bullet holes like that around the house. 

“Much worse, though, if I went on talking after one of these junior-grade coups, one and another of the boys would explode in outrage, and the insults and name-calling would fly, all in brilliant capital letters distilled out of the latest Ewton show. Like, WHAT KIND OF A IDIOT WOULD SAY SOMETHING AS STUPID AS WHATEVER IT WAS U JUST SAID!”

Henderson continued, “Sometimes one amazes oneself by the sheer breadth and extent of one’s patience. With all these goofs hanging around I could feel my life leaking away, just trickling out in streams of boredom. The whole thing a plain irritating pointless waste.

“Still, I remained civil as long as I could. But their poor brains were knotted up tight and all they had for comfort was the guru Ewton’s daily template. The complaints, the magical gun stunts, the permission to act ugly. Closed for business.

“So it was a long time, weeks! before I finally had enough. Then the Junior Board had to go. I told them to scram. They went into a rage—the last and bestest argument they had available. They screamed, ‘You can’t back out on us now!’ 

“That’s when I decided to get mad. I yanked off my comical chest strap and whipped them down the stairs and out the door. And that’s all that whole thing came down to.”

Henderson’s laughter boomed off the tabletop, echoed from the far ceiling. “They ran yelping, literally peeing a new stripe in their khaki’s.”

Jade guffawed. “There’s your answer, Henderson. Not all your trolls are hallucinations.”

“You can be sure of that, Jade. There’s more and uglier to tell, but not tonight.”

“That’s right,” said Salmon Trout. “Say Henderson, earlier on you mentioned your alien heritage. Is that something you’d like to share with us tonight? I always enjoy hearing your family history. It’s been a while, too.”

“Oh that.” Henderson chuckled. “Don’t you get tired of hearing all that, Sam?”

“Not really. Maybe a little. But not my new crew. They haven’t heard it yet. When will they ever have a better chance?”

“Well shucks, that’s a whole different mood, Sam. My voice is getting dry.”

“C’mon, Henderson. You’re wined up plenty good for one more spin. Or run out and take a fresh nip at the kitchen bottle and come back.”

Henderson said, “The story is a bit different this time.”

“Better yet. You know you like to tell it. C’mon.”

nineteen

“I should begin this,” began Henderson, “by airing a suspicion many have expressed—a suspicion I have never denied the truth of, of course—that I am, that we who stand behind the Uni regime, are all space aliens. It’s true, we are.

“As such, you should know that I have a strong thirst for power, whatever you want to call that. We call it appetite. Alien as such, naturally my sexual appetite for earth women is boundless. And as such I gamble hugely, impelled to take on any risk that is great enough to stir me from my dozy boredom. This impulse—to risk without limit all resources, properties, futures, thousands of lives on a roll of the dice or available equivalent—simply delicious! . . . always. . . .

“Unsurprisingly on the other hand, alien as such, I’m incapable of operating earthly mechanisms, I can’t puzzle out any sort of machine more complex than a cork screw. I can’t fumble coins into vending machines or by myself handle currency. I never step out to the shopping spree wielding more than a gaudy clown hand to point at what I want. So you’ll understand how I am forever confused by the conventions and complexities of the check-out station. Plastic? I don’t know what plastic does for, or to, peoples. It is enough that I own plastic.

“All this is true enough and well known, though by ordinary earthling experience such admissions must seem odd or bizarre. Incredible, maybe dangerous. Probably stupid. But you would laugh out loud if you knew how indeed important I am—ha-ha ha-ha-ha! Me!

“But let’s look back, earthlings. I want to share some recollections and make my excuses. See, it’s been a tough go for us aliens here in this new universe. When we arrived at Earth it was just a hot polypoid of a planet. A blank slate waiting for improvement. We added water, plenty of it, and waited for it to warm. Then we settled in for a good soak, replenished our blasted jelly tissues. Gradually, eking along through the millions of years, we remade the raw oceans into the perfect fluid we all know today.”

Jade leaned forward hands on knees, elbows out. She gaped wide-eyed across the table at Salmon Trout. “Sam,” she interposed, “your friend Henderson is talking funny. Should we be worried?”

“Absolutely,” Salmon Trout replied. “Keep going, Henderson. This could be getting good. A polypoid planet you say?”

Jade glanced over at Doc resting her head on one arm stretched across the table, blinking sideways at the world. Doc said nothing. Jade settled back rolling her eyes.

“Yeah,” Henderson said, “a kind of modular world. Now Jade,” his big voice boomed, “because we know you have a keen sense of all that is Unitory, and I know you made me for a Uni at first sight this evening, I guess I might as well come clean with you. The fact is, it is we space aliens who control the Uni movement. I said it before. You need to know more about us, why you should shoot more.”

“Psh,” said Jade. “I got all I can handle.”

Henderson laughed. “There’ll never be a shortage of aliens to shoot. In fact, if we were to look at the history in detail, this could be a lo-o-ng story. Sam wants to hear it again, though, so I’ll tell it briefly.

“See, we came here and adapted this earth for our own survival, way far back before there was a hint of history or even much in the way of native microbial life on the planet. We salted the place with our DNA, nearly our whole catalog of genes and so forth. We added sugar and stirred.

“The important thing is, the old universe we came from is probably entirely dead now, we hope. The question about that is, can we really be sure?

“But Sam,” Henderson interrupted himself, “time is skipping by, it’s going to get late!” He looked apologetically around the table. “I have to run to the kitchen and bring out one last thing. Might be worth a bite. I have the whole story here, if you want to sync to my specs.” 

Henderson rummaged in his overstuffed shirt pocket and pulled up a pair of extremely flat spectacles, which he unfolded. He set them down on the table, flicked a thumb nail across one ear piece. A tiny green LED sparked up, its light fanning out across the white table cloth and adding its own little wink to the emerald highlights that gleamed from every reflective surface in the room. Then he stood and with put-on ponderosity announced, “Click here to go read my outline of an alien species’ struggle for power and sex; of the risks we took; and how the ghost of retribution comes a-walking in the stars.” He went out again to his kitchen.

Jade guffawed, went ahead and reached around to the pouch she carried at her belt.

Doc yawned, rummaged sleepily through the satchel on the chair beside her. Henderson’s wonderful voice was good just to listen to, his soothing baritone putting her right in the pocket of much-needed sleep. But here again she was dragged awake, this time to follow up on the story he was putting her to sleep with. But it seemed all right that she should wish to humor him. Or maybe it was Salmon Trout she was humoring. Or everybody. Or was it just the grogginess making her go through the motions. As she emerged into full wakefulness, the soft echoes of gently howling musical saws faded, went back into the place dreams came from. She sighed and slipped on her TeslaCoil EyePops view frame. She wondered how, without him narrating it, Henderson’s bizarre little history would read.

She was a quick reader. She finished the pages and offered Salmon Trout the EyePops. He took it, toothily grinning behind his grizzled beard. He looked at her closely and said, “So far as he went with it, I liked this version of his family history better than the one about the troglodytes. That one gave me claustrophobia.”

Doc nodded. “This one might give you nausea. Go on from the third page or thereabouts. Give it a try.”

“ _][_In _][_the _][_final _][_epoch

of _][_our _][_universe there were but few of us willing to risk all in the attempt to escape from a dying cosmos. Only a few unwilling to stick around for the long count down to oblivion, to remain, clustered up with all the rest of our kind.

Entropy in our universe was far gone into the cold and stillness when we stole away, all a silent vacancy heavy with the soot of dead cosmic processes—dark matter through and through.

The very habits of nature were by then attenuated, vague, virtually a null set of flickering question marks. Our colossal machines ran through space vacuuming up stray particles of light and lesser energies, reactive particles, shreds of depleted wavelength, anything with a spark in it. But the returns, by our time, were diminished to a scarcely detectable increment. Light itself, what there was left of it, had got tired and slow, clotted and red. By the time we left, so little live energy remained, so vastly had our vacuums pumped and sampled all of space, that a question arose: did our sweeps move through the void or did the void move through the sweeps? Had we expanded to fill the universe, or did we now entirely contain the universe?

It’s been a couple or three billion earth years since we squirmed through the tatters in the fabric of space into this bright new cosmos, so by now that old universe should be a cold, still void—yet, when we departed a little time remained, time enough, we calculate, for a pursuit party to form up. A few of us have always feared the possibility that some last Thing survived and now comes on behind us. If so—and I for one don’t believe in it—then we have an account yet to settle with the old ones. You earthlings must become part of that, should ill chance befall us.

It is the big question, after all!

Anyway, at the last, we saw the old place reduced to a known finitude of Planck Units where our calculations of remaining time, remaining energy, remaining coherence, trickled down like streams of sand onto a dead beach. We saw our old cosmos in final gloom, the once vibrant greens gone to black splotched with faintest, deadest red. Our ancient soaking pools cooled by measured degrees, down the implacable count to zero. The elder jellies quivered, their once-proud sails deflated and drooping to the waterline.

But we found, in a M-brane stretched taut in the flume of one of our older vacuum sweeps, a fleecy vein of dimensional decay—and from this we heard the bubbling of particle drifts to elsewhere. It was a sad distorted note to hear, a final cosmic flatus like some giant kelp-weed bladder blowing out on a distant empty shore.

We were eighty-four sail at the start. Before us gleamed new and brighter colors rippling in the tattered veil at the verge of another universe. This universe. We clustered, jostling at the brink. Our sails were up but now we experienced something new to us, we longtime masters of a universe now defunct. This was the terror of sudden extinction. But pressing behind weighed the long-known, pre-calculated schedule for the zeroing-out of all accounts. It was that dreary, suffocating mortality we refused.

Hi-ho, sails up so forward go! We jumped! Those of us in the lead tilted forward, flagellae bunched tight beneath our sails, quantae of energy boiling in our guts. That’s the way we went out. Together we thrashed and shimmied the dimensional flux and passed into a strange new dynamic that assaulted our tenuous, venomous flesh.

That’s how we came in, blew right through the permeable brane into the thunder and brightness of this local galaxy. Our new home the Milky Way.

None got through unscathed, I can tell you. Many came to sudden ends. Polyp clusters burst asunder! I saw the discorporate organs of many of our companions adrift in space around me, shredded flagellae that in passing scourged me with piquant yellow-green neurotoxin—poor things, they couldn’t help it!—and the burst stomachs and sex organs spilling whirls of luminescence into the void. Most pitiful of all and inevitable in the carnage, the sight of immortal sails ripped and deflated, blasted somehow to smithereens! A dozen compadres tilting to the same wind as I—now hissing their last frail consciousness, then dead!

In the end we counted seventy-two survivors of that initial shock. We swarmed en masse and went on into the brightness.

Terrifying as all this was beforehand and during, and hazardous as our forced adaptation to the new verities of this cosmos had to be, in hindsight our flight into the unknown and our ultimate success here seemed just too easy. That’s what we knew, how we felt about it. None we had left behind could know the odds for, or against, our great gamble, only that we had risked it. And those we left behind were no risk takers. 

Yet the example had been set. There might be those who would follow. There might be one of our own group turned coward at the last moment then captured or, equally bad, turned spy for the old Ergonons hidden in their dark overheated pools. A single twistsail now set to lead reprisals against us, coward or spy, equivalent result. Such a thing was not likely, but it. . . could be.

For we had liberated resources, precious ergons that certainly belonged to us, but we never asked for the permission to do it. We knew, as night flows on to oblivion, that this would enrage ErgAcc, the ancient and shrill flageolet of Ergic Accountasy, that ministerial pretense whose very name takes more energy to express than is economically advisable. ErgAcc kept accounts on every portion and particle down to the 372nd decimal of pi, and meant it. ErgAcc strove to approach zero tilt-of-sail in the ergic balance. So, you can see how we would worry. . . even into the next universe, where all bets are, or reasonably should be, off.

But I always ask, when the question comes up, who besides us would abandon the 30-billion-year habits of our One Cosmos only to dare the infinite risks of a Nature unknown and entirely different?

*

We left them, the old ones, lounging in their pools half-conscious and futile, all-knowing and lackluster, hoarding the accumulated ergs of energy stacked up since the state of final depletion of our universe was calculated, more than a billion years before.

The thing is, we took some of that energy with us. We each filled up with what we individually considered the necessary sustenance for our daring escape from oblivion. What we took was ours, unarguably, but the taking was never agreed to by all those who wished to stay with the erg-hoard and count it down to the end. Especially not agreed to by the oldest and disagreeablest, tucked away in darker pools, their jellies scarcely distinguishable from the fluid in which they reposed. Normally, for these implacable calculators, the prospect of compounding interest to the 372nd decimal of pi on our risky ‘borrowings’ against decelerating cosmic time—a flexy epoch in which the principal would be extracted from the hoard, interest adjusted and unparticularized surcharges added on—would be regarded as an accounting thrill ride. But the decision was unanimous against us. A few of these old wizards, enraged at the very thought of splitting the hoard, renounced erg rights and so died, willing that should ever such offense occur, then vengeful accounting must follow and never cease before Time’s Last Moment.

Of course, we could see their point of view. Therefore some of us said we should take it all, zero out the erg-hoard now and abscond, a simple, unassailable leverage against payback. We could later loan it back at a better rate than we owed, should it chance that we must return. Others among us thought there could still be some chance in chaos for those we left behind to make up the difference and pursue a remedy of their own. Therefore, they cautioned, the immense likelihood that we would fail and have to return should moderate our scorn for those who would not take the dare. They might, after all, be right.

Still, in the end we were successful and here we are, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in this young, new-discovered universe. Quintillions over there probably exist no more. Cessation of all existence is the likeliest case. I’m betting on that.

Still, though. Some of us have always feared that the old ones may have succeeded in a last evolution, a thing discussed eons before we departed: Conglomeration, a matter of forming all into a single unitory Jel. Remaining energies to be no longer hoarded and parceled out to sole polyp-clusters, but metabolized within a mighty corporate Being. An ultimate economy. Of scale, as you chimps would say. But such a Thing our group viewed as, for us, malevolent, for we didn’t wish to share in such an irreversible twilight, a stale dwindling consciousness—on the countdown to zip, zero, nada, and then to be no more.

We knew, too, that if such a conglomerated Jel came to be, even in our absence it would retain memory of that portion of erg energy appropriated by us in our desperate gamble. Such memory it would not ever relinquish until that calculated instant of zip zero nada. 

Now we fear that if this evolution has actually occurred and somehow escaped the scheduled extinction of that universe, then there exists an eternal grudge, a motive that will draw the Jel to find us in this universe at some inopportune moment. 

Problem. Who can fight a fearsome jellyfish—even if it’s only one of us on this tiny sphere? How far, far worse a mighty Jel at large in the cosmos!

So some of us live in terror that just one ever-so-sensitive tentacle shall have inevitably felt out the hidden shreds of decay in the fabric of the old universe, there in that old vacuum flume, and come through! If the Jel guesses how we wriggled a way into this bright, bespangled universe, it will surely follow. It will find us and hold us to account. We’ll be absorbed! And so will every living thing that shares our DNA, all beings nurtured in the fluid of our Earthly seas.

It’s been tough. We had our adventures and fatalities in getting accustomed to high energies, speedy whirls of matter and such winds and pressures as were outside our experience. Those that survived the break-in soaked up every flowing erg and grew stronger. 

Once we nudged the Earth to a warm and comfy orbit around the sun, we reached into the chill spaces between stars and brought in water-bearing comets to fill our pools. We went further and made nearly the entire surface of the planet into a warm and sloshy bath so that, over time, in the perfected fluid of Earth’s steamy seas, we had ourselves a home.

Comfort. Coming after that eternity of cold impoverishment, it took a billion years of regeneration before any of us woke again to renewed and vigorous life.

Stray bits of DNA took to nibbling at us. This is what woke us up. Predation was not at all a familiar sensation to a genre of beings that had no experience with the practice, at least not from species other than our own. Here, arising from parallel evolutions of their own, were self-starters eking out their own survival. 

Some of us decided to go topside and take a look around.

Others said, why bother, and stayed in the deeps, content to swap DNA around, amused to see what might happen next, keeping alert for novel strategies of predation and countermeasures we might utilize against the Great Jel if it came. Delightful forms of needled fang and deceiving fishy lamplight materialized in earth’s stygian deeps, attributes as might well be of good use to us in the dark of space.

Now, we hadn’t thought of this in desperate early times, but we’d finagled our way into a universe possessing its own components of life, its own DNA and other encodings. These things we understood but failed to consider, since the universe left behind was as sterile as the void between galaxies.

So coming up, drifting into brighter, shallower waters, we were surprised to find ourselves strangely adapted. For, lounging so long in Earth’s warm bath, we had gone native. We were different now. And at first we were shocked, fearful. In the long sleep could we have lost our excellence, possibly become deranged by who-knows-what chaotic influence of this unaccounted planet?

We fell into acute self-examination, a period of rigorous accountasy, a process of a hundred years and more involving accuratizing redundancies and error-correction procedures that took us far into pi. The result was, we found that our charts, our graphs, had gone all squiggly in spots though still, overall, conforming to the expected pattern. We were different now. At the same time remaining whom we’d always been. The difference wasn’t so bad, we felt, not bad at all in this universe of strange new variables. We laughed. And that was a new sound. We liked it.

But we feared. We could not escape the fear. Retribution. Payback. A menace distant by only the width of a thought, present always in nightmare. The laughing stopped, sails drooped.

We began to consider some practical defense against the Great Jel, if it came. To be absorbed into the mass of that vengeful being would amount to the same pitiful fate we had dared so greatly to avoid. True, the Jel might account our desperate gamble an act of supreme courage leading to the salvation of our kind, a feat worthy of commemoration with a line entered into the Repository of Recollection—but writ in the very moment we were to be dragged squirming into the great mass—then to forget, in the next moment, all about it. Many of us were surprised that nobody was surprised when one of us said that it wouldn’t be fair for our new universe to be absorbed just because of us. We’d come that far along the path to feeling natural to this universe. We resolved to fight to the finish.

We pressed ourselves at haphazard speed, juggling and aligning the gene packets, and so quickly evolved to terrestrial forms. We added stiffener to our limbs so that we could stand higher than the trees we saw ashore. Then we stepped out of the sea. 

We found the dinosaurs chomping up the landscape and each other. They were cute little animals, most of them, bright of feather and bloody of tooth and claw. They took after us in some ways, notably in the robustness of their appetites. But they were primitive. They lacked sensibility. About the only thing that seemed to mean anything to them was where and how to grab the next mouthful of salad or of flesh. They didn’t care how they got it. It was all an orgy of feeding. We looked into them and found that they liked only one thing, the sensation of swallowing big. They liked feeling the big chunks of this and that dropping into their furnace-hot stomachs. The anguished obsession of every dinosaur: to damp the unquenchable fires burning in their bellies.

For us, whose DNA these happenstance evolvers shared, the whole scene was gross. Economy was out the window. The creatures consumed everything, devoured and shat each other out with a fury that only grew with every feast. Naturally, we admired their appetite. But they weren’t going anywhere with it, only noisily spinning up a stinking cloud of gases, largely methane.

Somebody pointed out how the bigger a dino grew the more he consumed, and the more mountainous the piles of excrement he left behind him. These piles bred insects, which hatched out big and hungry in numbers great enough to suck the juices out of even the most monstrous dinosaur. We were happy to realize that this meant the most terrible of dinosaurs could never grow to be the size of the entire world, seemingly the only thing the creatures were designed to accomplish: a one last hungry dinosaur high-stepping across a planet of cretaceous dung.

We stood around for a while discussing whether these extremophages might in any way be useful or adaptable to our purposes. We agreed that while we admired their universal appetite for more, it wasn’t a talent that had much of a future. For though they could energetically chow down and excrete organic molecules in gargantuan quantity, they hadn’t really evolved any functions we could use.

Too soon we found that some of these eaters were extremely nimble. They discovered us and flocked hungrily nigh, claiming many bites at our ankles. At that time we were not equipped for evasive prancing so we were easy prey to the little dinos’ lunging fangs. They began ripping bites out of us in a way we didn’t appreciate and rapidly became a nuisance. 

Quickly, we decided the matter. 

To eliminate one kind meant eliminating them all. We swarmed up, stretched forth as we hadn’t stretched in so very long a time, and nabbed a big rock we found wobbling in a gravity pocket close by the Earth. A little tug and down it hurled and whacked the ground. This shook the greedy sauruses off their feet and in a moment they were gone, fallen back into the mulch they sprang from.

When this was done we trudged back into the sea, there to cluster in certain volcanic pools with all our kind. We conferred. Swiftly, the conclusion was reached that if we were to accomplish our single irreducible task then we should never again leave evolution to chance.

Some of us thought all of this was not so important a matter after all, suggesting that it was our own consuming appetite coded into strands of wild DNA that stirred up an evolution of dinosaurs in the first place. Saying, in other words, that the joke was on us; to further our aims we should be more mellow.

Easier said than done with so many of us fearing the imminent Arrival. Nevertheless, it was agreed that some degree of equanimity was required of creatures whose purpose would be to work up a defense against the Great Jel, should it at last come a-walking. We needed handlers at our disposal able to wield the power of bursting stars against the enemy, eager to build and deploy such weapons in our far-flung defense. We needed starship captains policing the void, pushing ever-forward our defenses. For it wouldn’t do to explode stars in our own neighborhood, no, not good. At this point in our discussions someone thought of sending hungry dinosaurs to do the work required. Our newfound laughter shook the seas.

This project was something entirely new to us. We never had so much material and biological potential to work with in the old stripped-down universe we’d escaped from, where such ambitious plans would be inconceivable. There, to implement such plans would only rush forward the erg-count to the last frozen zero. We were coming from ten billion years of calculation, constriction, inaction.

So it was a wonderful thing to fiddle around with coding the gene pool, splicing, building and destroying then trying again. We occupied ourselves with prototypes and variants for probably sixty-four million Earth years until, about six thousand years ago, give or take a Tuesday, we introduced our best design.

First, then, we flooded the place to clear out any accumulated genetic debris, though we kept a handful of the more pleasing and tractable pleistocene creatures such as Elephants and Giraffes and Rhinoceroses. Lions to keep all the rest in line. And the great Roc for air support. Crocodiles too, with their teeth hanging out. We like those. Then we planted our chimp, fresh and new.

The mankind. Things looked pretty good, our new selection happily situated in a rich and interesting ecology. We let them settle in, get the lay of the land. 

After a bit we gave them the motivator we hoped would set them on the path: a terror to match our own.

It was strong. Some of our mankind curled up and died, fatally depressed by the Great Stink of Gloom we had impressed upon the cells of their amygdalae. Others contrarily went mad, slaying and devouring one another. We held fast to our intent. Didn’t let up. The survivors soon enough adapted, skillfully separating the great cloying Gloom into figurements of imagination, which they shared with one another.

They were as artful as we! In fireside tales, they spun the Gloom off to haunt fanciful realms nigh over the tree tops. They counted off special days dedicated to the overwhelming Stink. In these ways they cleverly compartmentalized the yelping of their amygdalae and achieved a compromise between terror and lassitude. Active and obedient, they were dancing well to our tune. We were proud of them. It was good.

Now and again, clearly, it becomes necessary to bleed the flocks when they grow too prosperous. They start thinking for themselves and go so far, from time to time, as to question our hurried and impulsive style of overlordship. At such times we say they’ve lost their edge. At such times it’s necessary to give them a little firm correction. We created our little peeps for a purpose, after all, so on these occasions we step up the discipline. Thin them out, get them marching straight again, they look a lot better after a little endless warfare. Plus, the wagering is intense on these occasions! That’s how we keep our edge.

Besides, our peoples need a tradition of enduring murder if in the end they are to carry forth our star-bursters, should ever the. . . .

In all, it’s all been a great success! After only a few thousand years of insult and punishment, humanity settled into a comfortable state of moderate but unceasing gloom, every family, clan, and lineage bent and broke a thousand similar ways. 

We had our human kind disciplined and ready for use. The spring was wound tight.

Time now, we said, for us to get the project started. Time for us to become human, ourselves.

We swapped in the simian DNA and came ashore one last time.

  • * *

Henderson returned to the table bearing an immense steaming bread pudding perched on a silver salver whose gleaming surface crawled with graven grape vines and tentacular scrollwork. “The raisins have seeds in them,” he said, “so the pudding will be a little crunchy. Very good for you, though.”

He began slicing up the pudding and passing dishes around.

Jade looked over the top of her stylish Pixx Frame and tilted it off her nose. “Okay,” she said, “I read it, Henderson. What I suggest is, space aliens go home!”

“Oh, if it were only that simple,” Henderson said. “If that ghost comes a-walkin’ then we got no home to run to.”

“Yeah. Never tangle with a jellyfish. Is this one of your fairy tales, Henderson?”

“Just my morbid unitary imagination. But I’m no jellyfish.”

“It’s a relief to know that for sure!”

“On the other hand, I do have tentacles. Old acquaintances near forgot. We talk. The agglomeration is over there in Uni land, no mistake, trying to push tentacles back into the zone. But as the Great Jel might say, the wind’s against them and so’s the tide. My sources over there tell me the ranks of the Uni are thinning fast, from the white-collar managers to the camo-hat brigades.

“There have been debtors’ work camp uprisings. Prison laborers have refused their twenty-five cents a day. 

“The greenback has evaporated into the towering war debt. Last week, I’m told, a nickel box of macaroni and cheese was a bargain at ten bucks. It’s rationing, privatized. The price of everything goes up and up.”

“So tell me, Henderson,” Jade frowned at him. “if the price of macaroni is so high, who exactly is it that can buy all the stuff being produced?”

“The aliens, of course. In vast underground shopping malls. It’s a big-box looting spree.”

“They’re looting the entire planet, aren’t they.”

“Looting planets. What else can aliens do! When we got here we were dead broke and starving. Look, earthling, we’re living by our wits here. We do one thing and then we do another and we create our own world. We create your little world. You earthlings are only catching on to us now because we’re speeding up the process. You’re starting to recognize our moves. It’s never anything new. Still, all you can do is puzzle it out, our next scatter-brained swindle, after it happens. There’s no catching up.”

“So you are aware of what you’re doing, then,” said Jade.

“We deny that! You verge on judgmentalism with that kind of talk, earthling. We just call it a healthy appetite. Pay no attention to us.”

“Got it. So tell us how the current harshness is working out for you.”

“Discipline is a bear over there, they’re melting down. Folks are less afraid to be angry, tsk-tsk. But our project is near completion. Peak growth of our ownership society may be frazzling around the edges but we push it all the faster so the quicker we own it all. Nothing can stop our nickel once we shove it down the slot.”

“Except our high-tech stone age over here is standing in your way.”

“That’s right. We’re tripped up in the zone but we just can’t stop. Can’t stop without stopping. Have fun with it, Jade, while it lasts. It’s all good clean sport. Only just, you know. . . ” He flapped his elbows.

“Move fast and keep to the air, I know. Most of those goons are pretty slow-moving. Fighting by the numbers, I guess.”

“They watch a lot of tv, which clocks a real slow pixel refresh rate. Bumfight fans unconsciously emulate that somnambulist brain wave, right down to how fast they can do the old knee jerk.”

“Huh.”

Jade was grinning at him. Henderson plowed on with good cheer. “But here, since the world permits it, I maintain the Triple-R Resort. Incidentally, in this outfit we always need a little extra help.” He glanced at Doc but she was leaning back against the tall chair, eyes closed. Salmon Trout remained upright, eyes closed, smiling in his beard. His burly arms lay straight out on the table before him. Silently, Henderson pointed out these facts to Jade. In reply, Jade snapped a finger on the rim of her wine glass. It rang like a bell. Doc opened her eyes. 

Henderson went on, booming a little more softly, “And I’m prouder than anything of all the plants, the edibles, the herbs and a few exotic things coming along in the greenhouse out back. Horticulture’s a lot of fun, I should show you around.”

“Sure.” Jade noisily pushed back her chair. “Tomorrow.”

Sam snorted awake, looked around, saw Doc nodding. “It’s getting way too late,” he said. “Where’ll we flake out tonight?”

Henderson got up. “Sorry I put you all to sleep,” he said. “When you’re ready, I’ll show you what we have. He turned to Jade and said earnestly, “Your mom?—with that goon unit, she did the only reasonable thing—took that fucker down the straight path.”

Jade gave him a brief upward nod along with a wan smile. 

Henderson blinked and turned, wandered off down the length of the table. He reached the hall door and sort of stood there, waiting.

Jade got up slowly. “At least somebody around here gets it,” she muttered.

Salmon Trout raised himself out of his chair, braced himself upright against the table. “Doc, here’s your viewer.” He reached the device across to her. He sighed and rummaged in a pocket, pulled out a phone. “It’s getting to be about that time,” he said. “I gotta check in with our poetic friend before too late. You got anything for Prokofiev?”

“Um, not on an open line.”

twenty

Morning sunlight shone bright and green on rows of tomatoes and beans, cabbages & squash. Other vegetables crowded wide grow-boxes along the glass windows of the expansive greenhouse. Jade paused a step or two inside its wide double doors carelessly open to the greenstone walkway behind Henderson’s big house. The air in the high arching greenhouse was warm, moist and lush with scents and odors of things growing. Unlike the thin tang of dew fleeting off the dead yellow grass in the bright morning outside, the hothouse air circulated slow, a wafting blend of exudations, a darkly mysterious mixture of earth and greenery.

Henderson was already moving ahead, on into a maze of trellises overgrown with dark vines. Under the broad leaves Jade glimpsed fat gleaming clusters of oddly bright, blue-looking grapes.

Stands of fruit trees flourished down the green distance. Farther still in the bright warm mist, the arcing structure of the greenhouse widened, rose into a high dome of square glass panes through which warmth and light bloomed into the greenery below. From the morning side of the huge faceted dome, bright rays of early sunlight bent all the way back to where Jade stood.

She moved to follow Henderson then paused again, bemused. He had disappeared. But no, she was looking the wrong way. Only a step and already she was half-lost in a stand of fragrant hemp trees, their slender branches and nettle-like leaves veiling Henderson from view.

She pushed through the sticky leaves, came on in to join him. He was talking.

“. . . used to be full of flowers, dear old mom’s main preoccupation for years and years. Up along there are the last of her orchids, the yellows and greens—favorite colors of hers you’ll see all over the house. I kept them for sentimental reasons. Also as a guide to conditions in here. I didn’t know much about the uses of the greenhouse when I started. The first thing was, I planted a bunch of garden veggies and tried to keep them healthy and productive. That worked out pretty well. They’re still the mainstay, of course. 

“But now we have several climatic zones set up. We’re not quite a self-sustaining permaculture in here but we circulate water, air and heat, and adjust the light according to what various plant groups need. There’s a nice little lily pond partitioned off down there. You can hear the frogs. Up here nearest the house it’s cooler. We’re keeping it tropical out there under the big dome. Bananas, guavas, mangos, all that good stuff.” He pointed into the greenly distance. “The dome is a later addition. I’m running some hydroponics in there, not too successful sometimes. Right now I’m trying out a batch of Zanzibar periwinkle. That’s what I think Doc might be interested in adding to her collection of remedies.”

“Periwinkle,” said Jade. “You’re growing ground cover in a tank?” She passed him the pipe.

“If it works out we’ll have a crop we can extract medicine from, for some of our friends upstairs. Getting knocked out of the sky is often a brain-jarring experience, you know.

“It’s a plant full of alkaloids. The one I’m interested in is helpful in regulating cerebral blood flow. Can’t get it dependably anymore, what with the Uni embargo. It’s not wise to buy anything that’s been sitting in a hot car in the Nevada desert for a week and then shaken up by donkeys crossing the divide. And we still only get a vague simulation of the real thing from across the Pacific. So we plan to extract it from plants we grow ourselves.”

“Sure. I know about vinca.”

“We still have a supply of the healthy, western-made commercial supplement of the metabolite, but we need to make our own. A little ZP extract would provide some protection ahead of time for every combative Flyer.” 

He paused and relit the pipe, blew a fragrant plume, then inhaled the next one. He passed the pipe to her.

“Look, I see Snowdrops here.” Jade pointed to a cascade of little white flowers spilling over the edge of a planter. “Autumn blooms. My mom the exobiologist used to spin up a smoothie in the morning full of a whole variety of such things, roots and berries and flowers and leaves. She called it her astrogator power-up.” She looked up at his earnest face. “You’re sort of sifting out agreeable metabolites in here, aren’t you?

“Look, Henderson,” she said, “we had periwinkle growing around the house. One thing I can tell you is that periwinkle likes dry soil. So you may want to rethink trying to grow it in a tank.”

“Hm. I’ll throw in a little sand. Ours is a mutant strain with high alkaloid content. I have hopes for it.”

Jade said, “Your front yard would be perfect. You could grow a ton. Bees would love it.”

“You think? I’ve sort of neglected that side of the house. It irritates me. Something to do with stuff that happened there. In before times. Okay, maybe now’s the time to plant something. Anyhow, the reason this whole subject comes up is because I’ve seen it help some of the boys and girls upstairs. And I’m pretty sure the supplement will help while you’re jocking around the sky pulling G’s. May sharpen your ears, too. Maybe steady your aim.”

“Steady my—” she gave him an incredulous frown, “tsk-tsk, Henderson, you just don’t get it. The Uni attract my arrows to them. It’s like dowsing for villains. It’s easy, it’s my package deal with the comet. Shoot ’em in my sleep.”

“You dream about shooting?”

“Actually, I don’t. Not anymore.”

Jade laughed. “Still, nobody’s perfect. I feel sometimes I’m shooting a little slow, dragging behind the attractor. Yo hey, Henderson, I don’t want a single scab itch out there to miss his chance—I aim to please ’em!”

She flashed him a wolfish grin. “Targets and targets coming up. I have to be just in time for each of them.” She slouched into a Flyer’s shooting stance, eyes narrowed at the far dome. She stretched it out, breath hissing in her teeth. The grim smile Henderson had seen directed at him the evening before played about her lips.

Jade held the pipe at arm’s length, bowl crooked in her thumb, its twisted glass stem aimed to blow out one of the far dome windows. In taut concentration she held the pose a moment longer. Then her light brown eyes widened, looking gold in the warm green light. Her face turned a trifle toward Henderson.

Watching her. Henderson’s teeth glinted a little. 

He reached for the pipe.

She released her breath, lowering the pipe out of his reach, easily just in time. She looked at him, amused.

“Never mind the marijuana, Henderson.” She set down the pipe on the edge of a wide redwood planter near to hand. “It’ll be right here when we come back for it.”

He bent to retrieve his pipe anyway, but she stepped forward and hooked his reaching arm in her elbow, pushed past and tugged him around, leaning back some to shift his weight. She got him turned and, switching arms, now her arm was in his. She waved her free hand into the far green space ahead.

She pulled him forward. “I’m more interested in what we might find in this direction. I like this greenhouse. It’s like a world outside the world.”

“Exactly. I always enjoy my time in this world.”

“But you know what, Henderson? I missed a little sleep last night. There’s a residuum of some disagreeable world, the world outside, inside your house. I was bothered by one or two molecules of that foul Uni ‘blooter’ stuff in the air. Are you sure you don’t have visitors?”

He looked at her, shook his head once. “Those visitors? Why no, Jade. Not since they all cleared out, years ago.”

“Well, they left something behind. But in here the air is clean.”

“Oughta be.”

She turned, pressing his arm aside, and faced him, on her lips the alarming smile that told Henderson he’d better not move. Now she had hold of his wrist. She came close and sampled the air about him, intently. Her breath wafted up in the warm air.

Tall, wide, a solid boy, Henderson. Jade paused a long time sampling the air below his dewy chin. A hint of a dimple there. There were always beards around, and those men that didn’t wear them mostly just hacked at their whiskers every few days and called it good enough. But Henderson was a smooth boy and didn’t hide his smile, his honest but uncertain smile hovering at the moment so near Jade’s own, that gave back a subtle response to any tilt of Jade’s head or any little puff of breath or flick of her eyelashes when she glanced up, made him blink. . . .

The scary, very interesting young woman with the light brown eyes looked up and met Henderson’s gaze. . . the alarming smile, now very close. . . breath mingling with his own. . . and her eyes glittered. Henderson stopped breathing. He stood there, ready to dodge in any direction. . . .

“And you’re clean,” she said. She took a half-step back. “It’s in the house. Kept me up.”

“Sorry,” said Henderson. He resumed breathing. “Well, if it were anybody else saying so. . . Jade, it must be in the attic with all that old stuff I mentioned.” Looking a little distressed, he said, “It’s up there, a whole museum of Unitory follies. Or felonies, as the case may be.”

“Get rid of it.”

“Aw, Jade, when you’re curator of a roadside attraction like that snake pit at the top of the stairs, you keep the bad along with the goony and together they tell the tale. I’m sorry you had to lose sleep over some leaky bottle of Àblüt®. I’ll track it down.”

She still hadn’t let go of his arm. 

He said, “You could help me with that?”

“Sure. It’s all right, Henderson. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

His eyes blinked and roved about her so-near face. His furry eyebrows went up. His mouth opened a little. It seemed he’d spotted something in her hair. His free arm lifting, Jade accepted the big hand moving up to touch her.

“Is this yours?” Henderson asked. It was a leaf from the hemp forest come afloat on her dark hair, a slim serrated blade of green, sticky with plant resin. Henderson twirled it on its stem for her to see.

“Thought I felt something there,” she said. She let go of his wrist and took the little leaf from between his fingers. She licked the leaf and smoothed it flat across her upper lip. She pooched out her lips below the green mustache and tilted him a look. She said, “Do you think it looks better like this?”

“Ahh, perfect.”

Below the light irises of her eyes that in the greenhouse glow really did insist on showing gold, Henderson saw the whites of her eyes. And there was the leaf at play on her lip. “Huh,” he said.

“Huh,” said Jade. Her face tilted up more. Tiger stripes fading away down one cheek.

Knowing what was required of him, still he hesitated, held her gaze a moment longer. His hand found hers. “Let me just show you some of our uh, more exotic hothouse experiments. Further along here. . . .”

They dawdled, he guiding her among the climatic variants and the plant life he had induced to thrive in them. By and by they arrived at a subtropic of mango and papaya, pausing at a circle of trees clustered about a tiny glade of soft grass that drew them irresistibly. . . so they stretched out there and—he pointing out lastly that the fragrant grass contained an obscure nitrogenous organic compound (she in reply murmuring, “always willing to sample a new metabolite”)—there they lingered all through the middle part of the morning.

twenty-one

Doc gave the patient one last knuckle jab. The man on the table groaned with relief and relaxed even more. Suddenly he craned up off the massage table, wide-eyed, pointing at the floor-to-ceiling windows that let in all the morning sunlight. “See that!” he said.

“I sure did,” said Doc. “That’ll be my ride. It means I’ll be in the thick of it soon.” She gave her patient’s toweled rump a hearty thwack. “You take it easy now, compadre, and get better. Looks like I’m outta here.”

What had flown past the windows was indeed something odd, four brightly-colored egg-shaped fliers in a row, end-to-end like ducklings—except the last three had no riders. Piloting the lead craft stood Bierce in black-lensed goggles and floppy shirt, leaning forward over the flier’s wide transparent nosecone that showed a big Flihworks logo across the front.

Doc followed the flight of ducklings as they turned the corner of the third floor and dived steeply to the wide parched lawn at the back of the big house. Bierce had arrived, a bit earlier than he’d suggested.

Doc turned and grabbed up her bag.

“Sorry to see you go,” said the patient. “I was starting to enjoy all the pummeling.”

Striding toward the door, Doc grinned back at him. “We’ll do it again another time. See ya.”

“It’s a date. Be safe out there.”

A scatter of voices in the sunlit ward rumbled agreement.

Moving quickly, Doc waved to the room as she nimbly threaded a path through the obstacle course of therapeutic equipment scattered across the polished floor. She skipped out through the open doorway to the corridor beyond and there was the little elevator that smelled of oiled wood, its sliding gate standing open just the way she’d left it an hour ago.

“How do, Bierce,” said Doc, coming up to join him on the bristly yellow lawn. “Saw you fly in.” She pointed at the row of fliers parked end-to-end behind the Henderson residence, almost under the receding morning shadow of the enormous greenhouse. “Tell me, how do you get three unmanned fliers to follow you around like that?” 

She marveled at the odd-looking, egg-shaped craft parked all in a line across the dry grass. Each was generally similar to but not quite the same as the next. The colorful ducklings she’d glimpsed flying past the upstairs windows now appeared drab, a glassy indeterminate hue, all but their transparent noses skinned with a granular surface that winked subdued hints of color, like gem dust suggesting an infinity of tints and hues. The bright displays she’d seen from upstairs were absent. She looked inside an open cockpit. There was the control bar, as you’d expect, but everything else seemed new and unfamiliar.

She grinned hopefully at Bierce.

He was looking tired. His trademark oversize black goggles dangled askew around his neck and he looked pinched around the eyes. The dark hair above his ears bunched out at odd angles.

“New model,” he said. “This is the end of the line in fliers, Doc. Top of the line.” He sounded weary. He waved a dismissive hand at his line-up. “After this, it’s all accessories and add-ons. Third-party paint jobs and the like. Apart from that—” 

He paused, cleared his throat and glanced away, irritation fleeting across his face, then said with a kind of distant enthusiasm, “I can give you the sales pitch, if you like.” He reached up and squared the drooping goggles under his chin and took a reluctant breath.

“Like this: With our new line of nav-gear options you’ll not only fly faster and in better style, anywhere in the Zone. Now you can find your way with pinpoint accuracy. Flihtworks’ new Panther180 offers tinted glass, um fac-factory air, your choice of sound-around systems and a total range of cabin furnishings. Design a lifestyle in the air! View your exciting world through our wide-vista floor-to-ceiling panorama Vision Port; something like that. Safety features! Comfort! And say YES to our new Mystery Molecule! Plus a whole raft of new design fea—”

“Please Bierce, please!” said Doc. “Spare me the features. That feat of piloting is what interests me. Just tell me how you did that.”

“Yeah,” said Bierce, “it’s hard to sneak up on a castle full of windows. Should have rang the door bell. Or better, here’s a feature I didn’t mention,”—his face slanted into a lop-sided leer—“these babies have camo capabilities ideal for those occasions when you wish to. . . fly incognito.”

“I saw them. So tell me,” Doc insisted, “do they fly all by themselves, or what?” Bierce, she thought, besides looking frazzled, seemed distracted, maybe a little worried. He seemed agitated. Yesterday he’d been more the silent type. Now, this unexpected burst of talkative salesmanship, however offhand in its delivery, seemed more a symptom of stress than of any desire to communicate. Was he always this shifty-eyed? She’d only seen him up close once, yesterday, and then he’d seemed calm enough. Was something wrong?

But Doc didn’t care to dwell on this line of thought. Bierce was, after all, a personage, a famous person one accepted on his known merits, not one to be scrutinized or second-guessed. Well fine, she trusted his fliers as much as anybody. And if he seemed to mock his Panther180, make light of his own accomplishment with all this diversionary sales banter, well, maybe he was just feeling bashful. She only really needed to know this: here were four new and unfamiliar machines. If one of them was intended for her, could she fly it—with or without a sense-yr-ass sound system—or was she still going to have to be a passenger?

“Doc,” he said. “Like I said, this is the end of the line for personal fliers from Flihtworks.” His gaze swept the ground between them. He sighed. “You get tired of playing the upgrade game all the time. The time is right for us to move on to other things. Anyhow, I’m sure you’ll be pleased to be off the ground and back in the sky and not be wrenching your legs out of their sockets. Anymore. For now, please don’t be looking into things too closely. Never fear, don’t worry, I’ll get you up to speed.”

Mystified, Doc agreed. “All right, I guess,” she said. His refusal to clarify only put a spotlight on some discomfort of his, made a mystery out of it. Bierce himself flying incognito. “You don’t have to talk about it, of course. Just want you to know I’m not in the market for another bone-grinder treadmill.”

She looked around toward the house. The others should be here.

Salmon Trout was already emerging from the house. “Ahoy!” he called from the wide, slender-pillared porch. “Special delivery for old Sam?” He was ready for travel, his unstrung longbow under one arm and a clutch of fat-looking arrows bundled across his back. He hefted a lumpy, loosely stuffed duffel bag.

“Here you are, chief,” Bierce replied, “your new flier, delivered as promised. Come on down and we’ll get everybody checked out on their new rides. There’ll be a few new things you need to know.” He glanced around. “Can we get the others?”

Here came Jade and Henderson, just now emerging from the immense greenhouse, the gleaming planet of a structure that had intrigued Doc from her first stunned view of it this morning out of the Triple-R Resort’s upper story windows. She waved the two of them over. They came forward, drifting a little apart, hands unclasping, and Doc turned back to Bierce, a smile on her lips she tried to keep inscrutable.

Salmon Trout nodded and stroked his beard, scrutably impassive. He turned a skeptical eye on the new flying machines lying on the grass. The two latecomers strolled up and he said, “Okay, here we are. Tell us about these new toys, Bierce.”

“Hey okay, Salmon Trout,” Bierce began. “Now first of all, regard these as prototypes. As such, they fly different. You still have your steering bar as usual, mostly because you expect to find one in a flier, but a lot of maneuvering can be done with footwork. Also, very important, these fliers are not limited for speed, have no governing devices of any kind. That’s important because—well, you’ll see. Doc doesn’t want to hear the features list and you can discover most of that stuff on your own. But you really,” he looked a bit dismayed all of a sudden, “really don’t want to accidentally go up the flame. You know the limit and what happens when you reach it.

“You’ll find, and I won’t explain why because it would only confuse you—and it’s proprietary technology anyway, but there’s not a lot of striding out to do with these. What we have now is more like a trackpad for your feet. Get it? No more belt drive, no more hyperventilating.” He looked at Salmon Trout. “No more painful knees. This’ll be more like shuffling the old soft-shoe on the isometric foot board. It’s a different kind of strain than before, easier on the joints. You’ll get the hang of it. Just slide your feet whichever way you want to go. Trackpad’s a bit wider than your standard belt, too. Push harder to get more speed and a quicker response.

“But again,” Bierce continued, “again, if you don’t watch your speed these fliers will take you past the liht limit real quick and then it’s up the flame with you, trust me on that. I’ve been working around the edges of that, myself. It happens fast. So go easy at first, watch that speed indicator. I’ll show you how I set a limit for myself. Um, that’s right, that should be standard, shouldn’t it. Let me make a note of that.” He grabbed a notepad out of one of his cargo pockets.

“Bierce, hang on. You said something—” Somehow, the typically impeccable Henderson had arrived barefoot and stood now shifting slowly from one foot to the other on the prickly dry grass. His face wore a look of surprised incredulity.

“What.” said Bierce.

“That these new fliers have no governing devices, no speed limit. Say more.”

“That’s right, and that’s why,” Bierce said quickly, with a flicker of irritation, “I’m going to set you an auto-limit on each of these fliers.” He was rummaging his pockets. He pulled out a thin metal scribe. “Come look.” He turned away to one of the fliers and beckoned them forward.

“Um.” Salmon Trout hadn’t moved.

Henderson stepped forward. “Logically,” he said, “I guess I have to ask—so the old ones do, then?”

“No, well yes, well that’s neither here nor there,” said Bierce, seeming to cringe a little with each word. “Sorry I mentioned it. Here we go.” He beckoned the group closer. He reached into the cockpit of the flier and pointed. So all could see, with the sharp metal scribe he scratched a bright line at the top of the speed dial. “Auto-suggestion,” he muttered. “Works for me.”

Doc looked from one member of the group to another. They all looked at her. They looked at each other. Henderson was right. Here was a question that needed answering. The possible implications of it flicked through Doc’s mind. Dangerous speed without effort was only the opener. She said, “Bierce, don’t tell me. . . track pads, you say, no more running belts. I have to ask: How does that work? How do you rotate the inertial engine through the M-Field, then?”

twenty-two

Bierce nodded, the lop-sided grin again drooping across his face. He blinked past Henderson. “The M-Field. Right. These prototypes now pretty much set the standard for all future fliers. I built that one,” he pointed at his personal flier, which looked much like the others, “and I realized this was the next step, the last step, the furthest I could go in flier technology.” Bierce pulled up the black goggles and adjusted them over his face. In a sudden gust of sales brio he resumed the company pitch: “We’ve got airbags, heated seats, gyro stabilizer-assist, everything. And more, a whole raft of—at this very moment Flihtworks is gearing up for a total replacement of the line. These ones are just the first off my assembly floor.” He stepped back and waved grandly at the four-flier line-up parked on Henderson’s dead grass. “Lots of new capabilities to check out now, so why don’t we all grab one.”

He lunged briskly into the cockpit of his machine.

Before anyone followed his example, Doc spoke. “Are we finished with the sales pitch, Bierce? I don’t think we’re any less in the—”

“—I really want to hear more,” interrupted Henderson, “how this dramatic speed bump came about. Something bothers me there.” His puzzled frown deepened. His eyes flinched, blinking at Bierce posing defensively on the deck of his flier.

Jade pushed around in front of Henderson and said fiercely, “Yeah, Bierce. I’ve never been on a flier that didn’t drag like a bag of slag every step of the way. What’s with these new speedy numbers?” Somehow she, in fastening her vest, had put the buttons in the wrong holes, top to bottom. “I remember you laughed at my flying yesterday. Remember what I said? How about it? I’ll take you on, Bierce. Answer Henderson’s question.”

“Yeah. Um.” Salmon Trout sighed, looking slightly downtrodden. He sneaked a weather eye to the sky, started tapping a thumb on the handle of his longbow.

Reluctantly, Bierce pushed the black goggles up onto his forehead. He gave them all a tired look. He appeared to sober up. “I guess this has to happen,” he said.

“Well, look. It’s the new physics. We’ve only been at this for a few years, right? We have to feel our way along with a lot of care. At any rate, lest you start having second thoughts about any little thing, my first concern has always been safety. We know the liht limit. There’s no telling where stuff goes when it goes up the flame. You could be stretched out in a long string of entrails, as we have all seen it happen, just snapped out into space like a rubber band. For all anybody knows. You want to chance it, Henderson? Jade, I’d hate to see you go up the flame.”

“Glad to hear that,” said Henderson. “Go on.”

“So, there you go. You guys are the first to know about this technology and here’s why. I’m taking on the exploration of the liht limit. I designed this new craft for that purpose. For half a year now I’ve looted designs and materials from some of the old aerospace industries up and down the coast. I’m pretty sure I spun all the bubbles out of the glass so your fliers should take you into vacuum, safely up to orbital altitudes. My main reason for putting this stuff together was so I might have some chance of surviving the flame effect. Lately, I’m not so sure about that.” Unconsciously, Bierce pushed the palms of his hands against his ribs.

“But anyhow, if I don’t make it then this is what I leave you with.” He rapped his knuckles against the hull. “Make of it what you will.”

He laughed, a little madly Doc thought.

He said, “I went a tad overboard adding cool stuff. And why not? We have here the new standard for efficient comfort and safety, fresh from fri-fl-ff- Flihtworks.”

“You still didn’t answer the question,” said Jade. She looked at Doc.

Doc shrugged. “I’m out of it. I already agreed not to pry.”

“Oh really?” said Jade.

“I already asked,” said Doc.

“Okay, well, look,” said Bierce, resignation coloring his voice, “Cogs and pulleys, people. You want ’em, you got ’em. Giving you what you want was all I ever tried to get away with. If you’re asking how it works, well, it’s not magic. It’s just super-science. It’s the M-Field!” He gave an unconvincing laugh.

“I know,” he said, “you guys are the wrong crew to fool around with. That’s why I got you all together. Anyhow, we’re still debugging the new features. So you never know. You just never know.”

“Come on, Bierce, let’s get going.” Salmon Trout glanced high along another tangent.

“Come on, out with it,” said Jade. “Let’s answer this. How does the inertial engine work now, without the belt to crank it through the M-Field and gather energy? Do you have rodents running around in there or what?”

“Ah, that darned M-Field. It’s some kind of a field, isn’t it? There are ways of dealing with fields. Sometimes you just cancel them out in another field, by some other theory. Hey?” Bierce shook his head convulsively. “Don’t worry about cranking the engine anymore. That’s all taken care of. No longer a concern. You knew I couldn’t let it spin up too fast. See what I mean?”

“No more than you, I guess,” said Henderson, “So you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ll accept that. You might have said as much from the get-go.”

“Bierce!” Doc exclaimed, bringing to a sudden halt this disturbing byplay; “your timing is perfect on this! I’m eager to get going again. Don’t tell us how it works, just show us how to make it go.”

“Right, Doc,” Bierce responded brightly. “That’s the right angle! Everybody piles on when they don’t know the score.” A little defiantly, he added, “The liht limit was no d-decision of mine.”

“Yeah,” said Henderson. “Not a business decision.”

“Come on!” said Doc.

Bierce, pressing one hand flat atop his head said, now a little plaintively, “No, nobody knows what they’re doing at the start of things. Learn as we go.”

“Right. Sure.”

Bierce thrust out his arms beseechingly. “Now here’s a thing that’s different. Night before last we had a break-in at Flihtworks, Uni saboteurs got in.”

‘No!” Everyone gasped.

“Then now,” Salmon Trout said, “we’re back on course. It’s war and we have a wrangle ahead of us. This time we have speed boats with new hazards, over the speed limit and so on.” He tossed his duffel bag aboard the flier he had selected for himself and got set to mount up.“Got it,” he said, “Let’s go.”

“Hold on.” Bierce raised a hand, spoke in a more businesslike tone, “Flihtworks needs volunteer test pilots for these new craft. You’re all qualified for the job so there’s just one more thing. Flihtworks requires nondisclosure of all that follows. You have to agree not to disclose to anyone this next thing I have to say. A proprietary secret, you understand, along with everything else I told you.”

Everybody grinned skeptically.

“I don’t think you told us a thing, yet,” said Doc.

Bierce looked at Doc intently for a moment then said, “Oh, cogs and pulleys, Doc. I think I gave you a big enough hint. If not, just wait a bit.”

“I want fresh secrets,” said Jade.

“Yes. Agree then, please.”

Skeptically they all uttered sounds of reluctant agreement.

“Okay. This is the price of progress,” said Bierce. “For Flihtworks to stay profitable and also be as helpful as possible in support of counterinsurgency efforts, we’ve decided to commoditize our flier production. Like this. The price of our units will remain the same while flight capabilities go to the limit. This means we’ll be out of the flier business just as soon as everybody gets one of the new ones. We have, however, developed a compensatory mechanism, a conceptual way of limiting optimal flier capability. Here’s what it is. Each unit ships with a shredder slot on the dashboard into which the owner will often feel it advantageous to insert one of these.”

He held up a small packet, glossy and expensive looking, flipped it open and revealed a sheaf of small rectangular tissues, crisp, glittery-gold papers emblazoned with the jaunty sky-blue Flihtworks logo and the catch-phrase, [_‘to the limit.’ _]He passed this around so everyone could take a look.

“These are called ‘Turbo Papers’ and customers will have reason to believe they are necessary for the maximal functioning of their machines. Just between you and me, they are not. Turbo Papers will cost money, they’re moderately expensive. And that’s where Flihtworks will be getting our profit. No one’s flier will fail due to a lack of Turbo Papers, people will simply miss out on all the blinking lights and power-up sounds triggered by inserting one of these—he waved one glittering leaf—into this slot when they want to go ‘to the limit’. 

“Subjectively, marketing says, missing out on these desirable signals will impart a vague sense of disentitlement and be marginally disheartening to many Flyers, so performance will seem to lag, marginally. Get it? I’m telling it to you straight, so it sounds silly, I know. 

“Our promotions outfit assures us that notions presented as new, unprecedented, revolutionary and expensive, seem credible to customers. Specially true when sweetened up with lots of glitter. Promotions will be fawning all over this new package in a matter of weeks. So, the new bottom line: you want the Turbo Performance, you gotta get the Turbo Papers—With Mystery Molecule! Everybody comes out ahead.”

“Such malarky,” boomed Henderson admiringly. “But folks’ll believe it coming from you, right Bierce?”

“They’ll want to believe! It’s no worse than the slogan ‘all natural’ on your genuine modified breakfast flake ‘with added genes!’ That’s where the money is. A pricey option, your choice. I’m just a businessman, is all, an old-fashioned chicken farmer with a new kind of bird.”

“Uni racketeer,” sneered Jade. She tilted her nose toward him, sniffed at him suspiciously.

“Look,” Bierce said, “part of the deal we’re making here is this. I want you to make frequent public use of the Turbo Papers and when you do, tear loose with the flier, you know, fishtail out ahead of everybody while the racket goes on. We want people to get the right idea as quickly as possible.”

Studying Bierce in this new light, Doc tried to guess what more he wasn’t telling. Nobody’d mentioned, all had apparently forgotten, the startling sight of three unmanned fliers following Bierce across the sky this morning. Maybe she was the only one who’d seen his arrival. She felt she should understand more than she did. He’d said, ‘cogs and pulleys, you want ’em you got ’em’ and ‘here are your machines.’ Now this Turbo thing—an outright scam. She would corner him for a little chat sometime soon, pry loose a few more hints about these self-propelled fliers.

Sparkly paper and a ‘mystery molecule’ explained nothing. All chicanery and spin wrapped around the unknown physics wrought by the comet. It came to mind that this chiseling Turbo nonsense was a merchandizing game for old end-of-the-line monopolies—accessorizing, mythologizing, recycling tired illusions like it all still meant something. Vampire economics sucking out the last nickel. He’d said this was the end of the line. Could that really mean the inertial engine was played out, already obsolete. . . .

“So then,” said Bierce, in his new tone of exasperation. “Let’s try them out. You’ll find they’re pretty much like older fliers—only just lean into it, don’t run. And the view through four inches of glass hull is a little obscure so be aware of that when you close the hatch. And watch your airspeed, don’t even try to bounce off that notch, go slow, slow down.”

Somewhere in his pants a rooster crowed, followed by the sounds of a henhouse in a ruckus. He slapped a pocket and grabbed the phone.

twenty-three

“. . . Emmers,” said Bierce. “There’s news? So one of them cracked—good, what’d you find out. . . . Ah. Hold on a second, Emmers, I got some people here I want to hear this.”

Bierce looked around the group and tapped his ear. They were already rummaging, fishing through their pockets.

Bierce looked at Doc and then at Salmon Trout, then he pointed at her and cupped his ear in Salmon Trout’s direction.

The three phone disks emerged and Bierce waved his phone at them and synced them up. 

“No fears,” Bierce said, “all encrypted and anonymized.” 

Doc leaned closer to Salmon Trout and got set to listen in.

Bierce said to his phone, “Okay Emmers, back. Tell us the news.”

—Okay. Captain Hoo-bah was not very happy naked in a cold dark cell all night. Time came for our hoshpitable cold morning gruel,—we found some daddy longlegs and things to mix in it—he was in some kind of hurry to talk. We heard about his mission and he told us about some men outside Flihtworks, who we already rounded up. We told him about that and he seemed disappointed that his info wasn’t impressively so. But we got him a mug of hot coffee and he relaxed a little and let on about some new weapon they are about to deploy. Captain Hoo-bah didn’t really know a thing about it, he said, he knew only what he had heard. He called it the Daisy Chain. A sput rocket, he said. Whatever that is, it jibes, doesn’t it, with what we heard before.”

Bierce nodded at Henderson. Henderson raised an eyebrow.

“I didn’t know cold gruel with daddy longlegs could be so intimidating,” said Bierce. “Do you think he regarded it as cruel and impersonal?”

—Oh, it was personal. I don’t like people who sneak up behind me and try to blow up my hangar. Or your blimp, either.

“I couldn’t agree more, Emmers. Those idiots don’t play square. They should expect no better.”

—They don’t. They will all be talkin’ soon. ’Cause they’re expecting what they’d expect to get from their own side if they were prisoners over there.

Jade gave Bierce a scowling thumbs up on that.

“Okay,” said Bierce. “I’ll pass the word on. Sput rockets, hey? When it comes to harms, we can be sure their finest minds are hard at work, as ever. Anyhow, maybe next time try a nice hot cheeseburger with the guy, see what else you can get from him.”

Bierce added, “Say, Emmers, is this going to be your moniker from here on out? That was just the first name I could think of last night, in those ah, trying circumstances.”

—Might as well be. So long as there are spies and invaders roaming around. I should mention that the captains were bugged.

“Okay. Good to double-up on your anonymity, then. What bugs did you find?”

AFID chips, Bierce. Hidden where the sun don’t shine.

AFIDs, natch. That’s about their speed. Did you cook ’em?”

—Popped ’em all into the old microwave. Look, Bierce, one last thing. We think there is a flier gone missing. One of the new ones.

“I took three out of the shop this morning. Plus mine, of course. You mean there’s another one gone?”

—Ezactamente.

“Not good, not after what’s happened. Let that be our next thing, Emmers. Track that missing flier.

—Agreed.

“Okay, bye.”

“All right, you heard.” Urgently, Bierce said, “Enough time wasted, we’re leaving now. I’ll explain some more as we go. Let’s stay off the phones, and no GPS. Shut ’em down.”

Doc and Jade sprinted for the house to grab their gear.

They were going in the door when Henderson bellowed after them, “Don’t forget lunch! On the table.”

Then he snapped his fingers and followed them at a run.

Salmon Trout checked out his new flier, poked at the new control cluster.

“Hey Bierce,” he hollered. “How do you work this thing? I need a bullhorn.”

Following Bierce’s simple instructions, Salmon Trout pulled back a trifle on the steering bar, took a half-step back and bent his knees, heels raised. The nose of the flier went up and he was airborne. When he could see down into the house through the tall third-floor windows, he put his heels down and the flier stopped rising. He stabbed a button on the dashboard and said, “Where’s my crew?” His amplified voice crackled across space to the house and bounced sharply back. “Hey,” he said to every ear within half a mile’s distance, “this is a pretty spiffy megaphone. I think, while my crew is getting their ARSES IN GEAR, this’ll be a good opportunity for me to QUICKLY NOW, as WE’RE LEAVING, sing my rendition of Bill Grogan’s Goat, a classic old folky tune from the age of steam engines.”

He began humming thunderously up and down as though searching for the right note to start from.

The door boomed open and the crew came running, Doc juggling her medikit and overstuffed daypack and Jade bristling with green-feathered arrows and lugging one end of a big something-or-other down the steps. Henderson came along behind bearing up the other end.

Doc looked up at the hovering Salmon Trout. She yelled, “Arses?”

He grinned down at her. “Thought I’d give it a try since I have this megaphone handy. Some chat thread I caught a link to a while back, some Brit insisted we got it all wrong and the proper term is arses, not asses. Asses are donkeys.”

Doc called up the forty feet to the hovering Salmon Trout. “Sounds funny from here. I met an Englishman once who said ahses. Of course, he had atrophy of the R muscle most of the time.”

Salmon Trout punched up the loud-hailer again and told the world, “Now move those ARSES!” Gingerly he piloted his new boat back to the ground and waited for the others to get settled in theirs.

They stowed their gear and the food Henderson had packed, and when they’d all mounted up, Bierce hurriedly gave them a few necessary instructions on operating the new craft.

Jade’s flier hovered an inch above the dry grass while she studied the new control layout. Drifting idly, the craft edged slowly over the grass, came alongside the barefooted Henderson. Jade’s boots fidgeted on the floor board, twitched lightly this way and that. The craft swiveled, drifted crossways.

Bierce stood his flier a few dozen feet aloft. “It’ll take a lot less thrashing around now to maneuver these,” he called down to his three test pilots. “So you should go easy at first.”

Salmon Trout’s flier erupted with sound. A loud airy whine climbed up the scale, accompanied by the roar of a powerful jet engine that snapped and howled and swamped all other sounds in the near vicinity. His loud-hailer was still on. The skin of his craft streamed with lashing, colorful flame FX. Ratcheting sounds and dinging bells came amplified to all ears as Salmon Trout fought his flier around and crawled slowly away from the ground. 

The racket ceased as the Turbo Paper Salmon Trout had slotted into the dashboard reached the end of its useful life. The flier now perched precariously in the air beside Bierce. 

Bierce grinned encouragingly.

Salmon Trout shook his head and laughed.

Jade glanced up from her study of the new control panel, noticed Henderson standing beside her. She gave him a long serious look, then in a low voice she said, “You have to go easy at first.”

Henderson looked at her in some surprise. He said, “I thought I did.”

“Oh did you?” Dangling off a hand-loop near the open hatchway, she lunged out from behind the windshield and slashed him across the mouth with her tongue. Then, pushing forward, a backslash slow and wet. She fixed him with a mad hungry look and hissed him her Uni-scare. He fell away before the onslaught. Jade jerked back the steering bar and stomped the foot pad. She soared upward. “Don’t be so namby-pamby, you!” she yelled. “Next time I’m going to eat you alive!”

“Okay-okay,” he whispered, “next time. . . .”

He looked at his feet and saw they were aimed at the sky. He followed the direction his toes pointed and there were the four fliers milling around, nine or a dozen yards overhead.

“You bushwhacked me!” he roared at the nearest one, fast escaping. He elbowed himself up off the prickly grass. “Come back here, you!”

They were already departing. Her voice came back, “Jade takes no prisoners.”

twenty-four

They flew in a cluster—Doc Holiday, Salmon Trout, Bierce and sometimes Jade—eastward to the Sierras. Bierce coached his team in the ways of his new fliers, instructing and encouraging them over the short-range speakerphone. Proudly, he clued them to his new camo cams and in a short time had the whole group flying undetected beneath the sky. Anyone on the ground would perceive little more than passing ripples in the air as the four egg-shaped glass fliers whooshed by overhead. Birds however, Doc noticed, avoided them. She pointed this out to Bierce when a flock of starlings burst out of some trees ahead of them.

“Curses, foiled again,” he said with a shrug. “Birds are everybody’s early warning system. They see the world in different wavelengths.”

Jade said, “I feel kind of birdlike myself, flying this new gadget. I wonder what the world looks like to a bird.” She pulled ahead, then dove to treetop level, rolling the flier to cruise upside down for a while.

When she was out of speaker range, Salmon Trout mentioned, “She’s feeling happy today.”

“Sure,” replied Doc. “Henderson’s quite the plum.”

Salmon Trout squinted across the little distance between himself and Doc. He said, “I’m glad she knows it. The two of them had weather happening right off. Could have gone a couple of different ways.”

“It sure seemed that way. But you would really have to work at it not to like him. A happy discovery.” Doc squinted back at Salmon Trout. “And I guess we all learned something more about each other on this visit, too.”

Salmon Trout let out a gusty sigh. “I’m missing that punchbowl already.”

They meandered low across the great valley, not traveling fast. The new method of shuffling on the foot pad was a novelty Bierce’s new pilots had to adapt to. They would stray off course now and again and Bierce would be there, rounding them up and guiding them patiently onward.

For all his years treading air, Salmon Trout was having difficulty adjusting to this new mode of flying. Standing flatfooted, chin down and frozen in place, he looked like a bearded statue. He said he felt like a statue, all swaddled up and stifled, not really flying at all. His timing was off, he said. “Those birds,” he said, “give it everything they’ve got for every inch they fly, just like I’m used to doing. This shuffle board business makes me feel like a jellyfish in a fish tank, drifting all over the place but not getting anywhere.”

“I see your point,” said Bierce. “Kind of reminds me of some yahoos I met up with yesterday, fish out of some other kind of tank—woops, look out, Sam, you’re veering off! When you turn your head to look at something don’t let it torque your whole body—I mean, these special-effects wizards I met last night, sending mixed signals and getting slipshod results. The thing is to relax, Sam, wing it with intention. Destination in mind and you won’t crash and burn. You’re a sea-faring man, maybe just skip from wave to wave.”

“All right, I’m a flying fish now.” Salmon Trout stopped frowning and took his hands off the control bar, let his arms open out a little. He goggled his eyes at the world and began doing some heel and toe work.

Jade, after a while flying upside down chasing birds out of the treetops, abruptly stood her flier on its tail and went for some quick altitude. Risking G forces in the outside loop, she swooped upright and came back over the others. A little past the rear of the group, she dove into a reverse Immelmann turn and nudged her flier into position among them.

“Pretty cute stunt,” said Bierce, giving Jade an admiring nod. 

“I think,” said Jade, “that with this flier I can just about take on the whole Unitory rebellion.” Her face was flushed after the aerobatic maneuver. She said, “Say, Bierce, on the phone you guys mentioned you have some kind of blimp—oh rats, I lost a contact.” She brushed at her face briefly then bent to rummage in her small satchel, muttering things about dry eye and wind sheer. She straightened again and said, “So will these track pads also be the modus for the blimp? The first inertial blimp?”

“Oh, well, the loons we caught last night came close to blowing up our new blimp under construction. I was hoping to make it a surprise for everybody but I guess it’s not going to be a surprise anymore. And yes, it was designed to operate the same way as these new fliers.”

“Balloons are good,” Jade said, “They can carry lots of cargo and plenty of passengers. A new inertial blimp like that would be less wearing on the passengers, nobody would have to run the belt.”

“My thought exactly. No belt.”

“Well look,” Jade said, “you know how it is in the zone. After the comet we find all sorts of odd possibilities cropping up, what with the new physics and all. So I’ve been puttering, if you want to call it that, working up materials like this bow here. It only looks like a three-dimensional object, you know. Just one useful outcome I spun out of the flame. I have a notion to use the stuff to make an air ship bigger than any blimp. A ship you could live inside of.”

“Really. Look, Jade, before I forget it, I wanted to mention. A number of our watchmen at Flihtworks swear by your regular bows.”

“That’s nice. Crafting bows keeps me busy but it’s more of a side line, like bagging Uni, you know.”

“Nice bows, they say. Quick shooters. I was thinking of asking you to build one for me, when you have time. I’m not much of an archer. But, you know, it’s cool to have one of yours.”

“Sure, Bierce. We’ll get your measurements. We’ll make an archer of you before you know it. You want a target scope or sight pins?”

“What are you using?”

“I have a little pin set at thirty yards, but I don’t rely on it much. Only sometimes, like when I’m lying in wait for some half-wild were-hound snuffling around the fence line scouting a new way to dig under. Can’t have dogs getting in, that’s pure havoc on the livestock. And I’m tired of fixing that fence all the time, too. So anyhow, in battle I have no use for all this aiming finagle people get into. All this distance and elevation. Windage. I just lean into the wind and let fly as the Uni whirl by. Like shooting ducks, only I’m the one that’s flying. It’s what I call my no-time shooting technique. And it’s not rocket science, I’m an instinct shooter. So Bierce, you never know. You’ll want to practice up some, see what kind of action you’re best at.”

“Me, I like to aim,” Salmon Trout announced over the speakerphone. “Like to stand back and zero in.”

“And you’re a superb shot,” Jade said. “I saw that thing you did in Oregon. I was off to the side with the Myrmidons then and we were all watching. Remember? Storyman called the shot and you were what, about two hundred yards out behind the trees and—” she laughed, “you nailed that cud-chewing sentry skulking behind the gate there, right between the slats. I could never do that. I gotta get up close.”

“You better keep moving fast then, kiddie, is all I can say,” said Salmon Trout.

“Yeah. I do. Sam, it’s exhilaratin’. I’m in before they know it and gone before they regret my absence.” Jade blew a sigh, with relish. “I only have to be sure they do regret me, every last time.”

“By the way,” said Salmon Trout, “I didn’t enjoy doing that. But it was what we had to do at the time. It was a good shot though, wasn’t it? But basically simple. I found my point-on range for the heavy-weight arrow—gives a good high trajectory, you know, for shooting over the trees. Trudged around up there till I found my one right spot where I could see down through there.” He pointed vaguely into the distance. “So there he was, straight along the arrow. Let her go and up she bounds, over the treetops and down where I pointed. And that’s your famous shot.”

“That’s right,” said Jade. “Trudging, as you say, to and fro a hundred feet up in the drizzle, looking for a clear spot in the clouds. The spot opened up and you were ready. There was your no-time moment, Sam. All in one motion behind that big bow, I know it only looked simple. The beauty of that shot. . . .”

“If you think about it,” Doc mused, “it is rocket science, what Jade does. Objects in motion, wind speed and inertia, ranging the moving target and all, while at the same time dodging through all varieties of terrain. Actually—what you do is beyond rocket science. Those guys have to think way ahead of their game, itineraries mapped out years in advance. You have more unpredictables to deal with than rocket geniuses could contend with. Let’s put them on scooters and see how they fly.”

“See what you mean, Doc,” said Salmon Trout. “We go without the luxury of a flight plan.”

Jade laughed. “Flight plan! You’ll find my flight plan recorded on every [*AFID *]chip you dig out of their putrid dead asses. Arses. My targets tend to move around a lot. They pretend to avoid meeting me but they keep showing up at the party.

“Anyhow, Bierce, I’m working on a new architecture, that’s my thing—you know, back in life. Wanted to talk to you about it. I got a handle on this new material that’s going to be perfect for building airframes around large spaces. Aerial architecture. Super light and strong, real flexy like this dart flinger here. I’m working up a design for a prototype, my first try at dealing with twist and distortion in all weather. Looking at frictionless cables and pulleys for stability in wind and cross-currents. You know, just picture rubber bands connecting clusters of soap bubbles. I think I’ll call it my Jellyfish Transport. I could show you a couple of concept drawings I’ve worked up. Also there’s an aerial bungalow I hope to build someday.”

While Jade talked, Bierce’s flier had come about sideways to the general drift of his crew. He leaned out and called across to her, “I knew you had something going on, Jade! It’s been my intention to ask about it, but now you beat me to it. I’ll be happy to look at your designs. What sort of craft do you envision?”

Jade’s flier surged out of the line-up and with minimal clumsiness she maneuvered along side Bierce. The two fliers floated sideways across the valley. “I have a passenger liner,” said Jade, “and a cargo ship, powered by your inertial engine. I picture a large torus, a donut-shaped float ship, and passengers and cargo coming aboard various decks by elevators up a central mooring mast. Once on board, my passengers can wander the levels and find every possible amenity, such as restaurants, theaters, shops, private rooms when they want them. A whole gamut of village life. I see open balconies where people can get out into the weather. In the end, I want to engineer living spaces that never touch ground, structures never subject to the compression of gravity. Floating landscapes.”

“Islands in the sky.”

“There you go,” she said.

Bierce chuckled. “Fantastic notion. So maybe that pack of scoundrels that attacked Flihtworks had the right idea after all, sneaking in at night to bomb us out. I’m already forgetting about gasbag dirigibles, Ms. Jade, or however you call yourself back in real life. I’m for floating landscapes now. If you can design, we can build. You lead Flihtworks’ new Float division.”

“Float! Excellent! Fire up your forge, Mr. Bierce. I have a pile of nickels that want to become wind stabilizers and tension buckles. I hope you can do titanium foil, that’s essential.”

“Flihtworks needs a new challenge. Your idea could be the one that’ll take the world on a whole new ride, Jade. Let’s definitely talk more later.”

Chatter dropped off while the three new pilots practiced more with Bierce’s new fliers. Doc worked on difficult landings, practiced quick dives onto tiny clear spots along the old roads that crossed the valley. Jade spent her time dropping into treetops, threading through them at speed, steering mainly by footwork, bow in hand. With practice she began shredding fewer branches as she sent the heavy glass flier ripping down through the upper stories to ground level. Salmon Trout, however, seemed content with quick ups and downs and fast wide turns, and the classic deceptive maneuvers used in dive-bombing that he already knew were going to work just fine. As they went along, all three Flyers fiddled with their new adaptive camouflage capability.

The closer they got to the canyon where the volunteer hordes were gathering, the faster they flew. Doc looked forward to all the high-spirited ruckus sure to be surging around Senator Prokofiev’s Tent of War.

Doc asked, “Do we have any idea what this reputed daisy chain weapon may be?”

“Nope,” said Bierce. “We can only guess.”

“The Unilaterals certainly do keep trying. We know how frustrated they are with the failure of percussive technology in the zone. What is a sput rocket? Do you think, Bierce, they might have come up with some way of going over the speed limit?”

“That’s not possible. The new physics laid down by Comet Lihtan has a lock on a thousand miles of the land west of the coastal mountain ranges, and out to the continental shelf. When it grazed the Earth the comet etched something of itself deep into the structure of things. Even our DNA was affected. Kids born since then are showing up with some oddball aptitudes, some offbeat styles of intellectual independence, even though they didn’t technically exist at the time of the big bounce. By all reports, we’re breeding some wild talent here in the zone. Those who got out afterwards must have also been affected and I imagine their kids are different, too.”

“Interesting topic, that,” said Doc. “You have kids?”

“Might’ve had.” Bierce went on, “But we never see anyone displaced by the comet ever returning to the zone.”

“I wonder why that is,” said Doc.

“Maybe for the same reason they ran from the zone in the first place. Askeered. Lost their bang. The stone age isn’t for everybody, you know. Suddenly disadvantaged, suddenly helpless.”

“I can help them,” said Jade. “When the grounders come here to make bad company I show them the nearest door out.”

Salmon Trout said, “That’s right, Jade. They’re lonesome and want company. Nobody ever invites them anywhere except back out the door they broke in through.”

“There’s a problem with their brains.”

Doc said, “Well, they may have a new brain child in this daisy chain we heard about. Are we taking it seriously?”

“What I’ve been wondering is where they might test such things,” said Bierce. “I haven’t heard of any captive territory over here where they could do that.”

“Yeah,” said Salmon Trout. “Could be this is the occasion for testing whatever it is.”

“They’re a bunch of losers,” said Jade. “If they can’t have their blow-ups they haven’t got anything going for them. If they try it this time, let’s lay ’em all out flat and then we can all go home and enjoy life some more.”

“I like the cut of your jib, kidlet,” said Salmon Trout. “Let me remind you again, however, that we don’t want to kill too many. We just want to chase them home. Right? They have their views and if they could only keep themselves to themselves, we wouldn’t object.”

“That’s right,” said Bierce. “If only they’d stop trying to s-steal all the cookies. We can stomp the invader anytime they show up, but we prefer they stay home, drink their beer, bark at their dogs and keep to themselves.”

“Yes, yes, and they do go,” said Doc, “with a little active persuasion. Sadly, they just don’t seem able to learn from experience.”

Jade’s fervent rancor flew across the air. “The stripes I meet up with stay right where I nail them down.”

Salmon Trout sighed, “Their mothers cry when you do that, Jade.”

Doc tapped her toe on the footpad, edged her flier nearer Jade’s and gave the girl a close look. The fighting glare was back on. One of her eyes glinted sharp highlights of amber; the other, equally angry, showed soft light brown. Something glimmered yellow in her dark hair. Doc said, “Hold still for a second, Jade.” She reached across the space between their fliers and plucked the wayward contact lens free and handed it over.

“My RaptorEye. Thanks,” Jade said. “You can tell those mothers, Sam, they picked the wrong side when they came to pick on me and mine.”

twenty-five

They heard the massed fighters before they saw them. Ahead, muffled sounds of partying thumped and squalled out of a haze of campfire smoke upwelling from the canyon ahead. The noise and wood smoke flowed together over a notch in the canyon’s high ridge and down into the steep-sided arroyo up which the four fliers ascended.

They came to the crest of the ridge and the cacophony of shouts and cheers and electrified music struck much louder. Any clear view of the encampment was obscured by the smoke. Bullhorns barked back and forth, competing for attention. The top end of the canyon rocked to the screams of an electric guitar backed by an orchestral suite of raucous saxophones and drums. Fliers whooshed up into the sunlight and dived back under the dense haze.

Doc laughed. Coming suddenly upon this spectacle gave her the giddy feeling that she had arrived home after a long time away. It was a war party. It could last for days. Her first impulse was to hit the running belt and dive down into the thick of the crowd. Her excitement was up, now was the right time for a good sprint. But, of course, with this new flier she couldn’t let herself out, there was no running board. She got it now, how confined Salmon Trout felt. 

Every such gathering had this feeling, energy lasting days until too many people got hurt in battle or even killed, sometimes, and the battle fatigue set in. Then was when Doc Holiday’s business got to be intense.

Now, though, she intended to enjoy the tribal hootenanny spread up and down the canyon. The additional items Henderson had packed for her and each of the others would certainly enhance the experience for a good while. She had to first find her old gang, the Artichoke Bombarderos. Salty Chuck might be here. Just the man to share a pipe with, always a tale to tell, or two, or three. She glanced around the present group and saw that each was grinning, reflecting their own anticipation and relishing the prospect of victory to come.

Oh yeah, she thought, we all like a good battle. Because we always win. The generally lackluster Uni troops seldom perpetrated any meaningful assault that could detract much from the party atmosphere of these gatherings. Despite Salmon Trout’s dire hints the day before concerning heavily armed combatants, and the worrisome report from Flihtworks this morning, Doc expected this occasion to be more the usual recreational risk-taking than outright warfare. There would always be heroes, of course. And many brutal grudge matches acted out on the field. But there hadn’t been any pitched battles against the Uni for a couple of years, now. She indulged a skeptical smile.

Her personal ambition was pretty modest too, a fresh opportunity to test her new Doc Holiday’s Remedy for Flyers. Though now that Bierce was around, had put her into a new flier with odd properties that seemed to defy at least one key assumption on which his flier technology was founded, her old notion surfaced again—she really wished she could get her hands on a meaningful sample of the cometary effusion, the slush. If she only had something more than the diluted wisps of recycled remnants she used in her potions, she could explore its qualities and attributes, delve into the nature of the slush more directly.

With a little sideways shuffle and a tap of her toe, Doc evaded a flier wavering drunkenly across her path. The party was on! Just now was not the time for contemplating the slush.

Bierce prompted them to switch off their passthrough cams, and together they all dove, happily visible again, into the partying melee. 

While three went eastward up the canyon toward the noisy sound stage, where they were sure to find many senior fighters as well as government observers and media, Doc Holiday slanted off to the west, scanning the crowded canyon for sight of old compadres of battles past.

In particular, she was looking for tall mounds of long-stemmed artichokes that she expected to find piled up against the steep canyon slopes. These were the missiles her hometown gang traditionally hailed down upon Unitory violators. The thistle barrage was a tactical art that, when skillfully applied, could always swing a battle in any desired direction. In no battle that Doc had ever attended had she seen greater masters of this amusing effect than her own Artichoke Bombarderos. Doc knew they had to be here somewhere. Down the widening canyon she flew, passing every possible type of flier, from one-man scooters to commodious cargo carriers you wouldn’t want to be under, when the dumping began.

It was no surprise that in any volunteer contingent a large proportion of fliers were commercial Flihtworks models thoughtfully engineered to offer some practical protection from shooters on the ground. But there were always plenty of Flyers who purchased inertial engine kits from Flihtworks and took pride in their own creations, freeform constructions in every imaginable form, from old-time auto bodies reclaimed and repurposed, to fantastical assemblages weaponized for only these occasions.

Down there she saw the old beat-up red Chrysler convertible with the fins intact but all the window glass long gone, that rocked through every battle Doc had taken part in. She waved at the bearded owner, who shook his fist at her and laughed. He was loading up sand and rubble that he would dump at the right moment to choke and annoy the grounders.

Here and there were classic two-seaters gleaming bright with chrome, original paint jobs carefully preserved but where seats had once been they had stylish running boards installed to power the little inertial engines under the hoods.

Yonder was a new addition she had never before seen, a monster of an old metal-skinned Bluebird school bus with a big wooden sign laid out flat on its roof that said Quinault Salmon Works. Drawn by the ineffable odor of grilled salmon and fry bread rising up from down there, Doc circled closer. Those Quinault folks were a long way from home. Stretched between twelve-foot poles beside the school bus flew a big Postal Service video flag. Below this, a hungry crowd of customers sat at rustic bench tables watching the world’s latest developments and getting their fill of red fish and hot bread. Doc almost decided to join in the gourmandizing down there, but her gang was more important at the moment so on she went. Scouting low over the canyon, she noticed how her new flier attracted curious looks from those below who happened to look up and catch sight of the odd, egg-shaped flier.

As the canyon widened out, she passed by larger groups gathered in their own camps.

And there they were, her Bombarderos. Must have been a huge crop this year; the artichokes were banked up in one immense drift along the canyon wall. Doc whooped and circled joyfully down.

twenty-six

“Is my hair great? Is my hair great!”

Senator Prokofiev’s hair flowed in disciplined array suggestive of the pomp of yesteryear, yet alive with the artful sensibility of windblown, sun-streaked purposefulness. From the makeshift bandstand of bright boards roped together and propped up on a large rock near the top of the canyon, he stood behind the polished dark wood podium and addressed the crowd. The band was silent.

“That’s why I’m here today, to show you a Senator who can stand out of the wind, pose with dignity under perfect swept hair and tell you what you think. See the beauty of proper alignment. My hair is great because I pay attention to detail. I comb each strand personally, each one styled by your vote. Can you see a single wild hair gone adrift on the wind? I stay out of the wind.

“It is a senator’s job to assemble, assimilate and reflect the will of the voters and everybody. We have to get it right! Do we get it right? Representatives of every district keep us busy getting it right. They hear the issues and get out the vote, tally the result and pass it our way. Then we Senators make our best guess! Do we get it right? When the issues are clear the mandate of the voters comes clear, most of the time. My job is easy, most of the time. That’s why I like it. Look at my hair. The hair tells the story.

“Why must a Senator’s hair be great? It is our emblem of allegiance to the will of all the people, our coxcomb of proud adherence to the law as it stands at any given moment. No wild hair is to be trusted nor tolerated to sprout from a Senatorial scalp, as this would suggest a streak of willfulness or a departure of imagination from the vision of the day. As interpreters of your wishes, this hair is our discipline, our badge of compliance, our pride in service to the will of the voters and everybody. Dreams and nightmares disturb not the equanimity of our coiffure, ever aligned with the past and the present. The future, if any, is up to you.

“We Senators remember, we collate and ponder, and the sum of our cogitations comprises our best-guess mandate of what’s to do. And so it comes to pass today we call for an urgent, unscheduled election. We have a decision to make, I have a job to do. Let’s see how it goes.

“So now, to our long-established policy, upon which we need no longer vote: We’re gonna chase away this Unitory battalion as gently as our better natures irritated will allow. Give the soldiers a welcome they won’t forget! Wish them well, see them off, hand them a little cash as they go.

“Consider them ghosts of time-worn habit, tired re-enactors of recycled ambitions. 

“Conditions in Uniland never change but for the worse, and it’s always new groups of boys and girls made poor, too ill-educated to argue with the bosses, pitiful armies of the hungry called up on a temporary basis. So we know they need that subsidy! And give to each a fat dictionary! Our time-honored strategy in this endless war. No, it’s no surprise to anyone and it comforts every heart when a skinny, sweating soldier lifts a finger in farewell. On the battlefield, of course, tactics may vary and these will be addressed by others.

“Now, all of that, gentle citizens, is understood in the normal course of events. This time, however, there’s more to be said. A bigger picture unfolds! There is urgent reason why today we’re called to vote.

“Yes, you have your ways and I have mine, together we can all agree on old Amendment Nine.

“This is not a public stunt. Today’s the day we swear ourselves a fresh new president.

“The panic story offered can’t carry the only resolution, there’s no need to stampede.

“Before shots are exchanged,

“We don’t want ignorant fuckers pretending to run things.

“Los Angeles County psychiatric mobile response team

“Now, will our local Representative bring forward the count of today’s voting.

“Not yet?

“Then, while we wait for the result, I’m thinking about the vote and why we think we need a president today. Maybe we can sing a little, while we wait. 

“How about let’s indulge in a rousing round of ‘Old Amendment Nine.’ Could we have some music, please.”

The band got cooking in double-time and for half a minute the canyon rocked to the anthem,

[You have your ways and I have mine,
together we can all agree on old
_ Amendment Nine._]

Looking a trifle breathless, Senator Prokofiev stopped snapping his fingers and resumed talking. He said, “Today’s task may seem not controversial, not worth discussion, a simple matter of brushing back another infestation of militant middlemen that we’ll take in hand and expel from our land. This time, I’m told, our lawless invader styles himself a survey group. That is, he’s come to check the lay of the land and see what faults may have fractured the earth’s crust since the last time he busted in here. He will find, I trust, our crust is firm.”

Someone came pushing forward through the crowd, holding high a blue and green envelope. Senator Prokofiev strode briskly across the creaking boards.

“At last!” he articulated, “I see an envelope coming this way.” He bent forward over the edge of the stage. His snowy cuff shot out under the dramatic chalk-stripes of the senatorial jacket sleeve as he reached for the oncoming envelope. “The vote is in! An envelope here, green and blue. The people’s choice, I wonder who? Where’s someone to open it for me—there’s Sam. Come on up, Salmon Trout, let’s find out what the people have in mind for today.”

Salmon Trout grunted good-humoredly, pulled in his legs and rose from the unsteady folding chair he occupied down in the first row.

“Now, while Salmon Trout climbs up onto our rickety stage,” Senator Prokofiev said confidentially to the crowd, “let me remind all the world, in the usual way, there’s no delay in reporting the results of our proceedings today. Get it live, on our Site. Call our Librarian for worldwide translations. Catch any Postal Flag in the zone for a live feed of what’s flying.”

Salmon Trout stumped up the clattering wood steps of the temporary platform and stood beside Prokofiev. He wove back a little as the poet Senator flailed forth the green and blue envelope, then he gingerly stretched out a hand and tugged the envelope out of the Senator’s reluctant hand.

“Open it, open it! ’Tis the will of the people on a hot dry day.”

Salmon Trout tore off the green end of the envelope, clawed out the folded paper within and handed it over to Prokofiev.

Prokofiev snatched the paper open and waved it victoriously in view of the cameras focussed on his hair, then prestidigitated a pair of spectacles from an inside pocket and put them on with decorous solemnity.

He read the note silently, looked closer, paused a moment longer then looked up and swept the waiting crowd with eyes full of meaning and a jaw set hard.

“Salmon Trout!” he cried. “You will be our new president, War Chief for the duration! Take the mike, Sam, say a few words, swear yourself in. We got—”

“Now wait a minute. . .” said Salmon Trout. 

Prokofiev halted, his ever-flapping tongue stilled. He regarded Salmon Trout attentively, arm out with the microphone. Behind them the drums simmered breathlessly. 

“I didn’t—I mean, what bogus—” The drum set sizzled up, cooked off a couple of rim shots into the silence onstage. Salmon Trout glanced back at the drummer with a look of irritation. One last faint syncopated thump and the drums left off.

“Okay,” said Salmon Trout, “the candidate never knows, right? All right. I’m a voter and sometimes folks agree with me and sometimes not. Let’s see. . . Hey, I didn’t get a chance to vote this time.”

“Say somethin’, prez!” hollered a voice from the horde. 

Salmon Trout accepted the microphone. 

“Somethin’. Okay, Salmon Trout, that’s the moniker, that’s me. I do a lot of fishing off the north coast, ah, when I’m not battling, I guess, lancing boils in the neck of the public interest and so on. Ack. Now people are going to be calling me ‘Prez’ forever.” He shook his head.

Prokofiev shouted, “Duly elected, one of the finest defenders who ever served our Ninth Amendment Republic, it’s war-president-elect Salmon Trout!”

Hesitantly, Salmon Trout nodded and said, “Custom is we say a few elevating words, am I right? I recall one electee telling about how grateful he felt giving up his homesteader ways and moving into unencumbered power. ‘A peon no more,’ he said. As I recall, he got voted out again shortly after. I don’t feel his way about it, since though I like sailing out in the weather a lot I also like to get back on land and under a roof in a storm. Or whatever.

“Another electee I recall went on about her moving experiences with UFOs. Personally, I never pay much attention to those. We all know how the Comet dissolved a lot of old crap that used to be true about the world. And a lot that wasn’t. Enough flaky stuff floating around to suit anybody. Identify it as you will. Although, fair warning, ages ago I did see a six-foot rabbit standing along a highway in Nevada. But that was Nevada and it was three o’clock in the morning. And some other stuff besides. But no, voters and everybody, I guess my elevating thought for the day will be the weather.”

Nervously, he chuckled. “Oh, and by the way, it just now occurs to me, you were all voting while I was off fetching Doc Holiday—is that how you got away with it? A clever deception, folks, steering the candidate out of the way. Doc Holiday, by the way, brought with her a batch of her new Flyer’s Remedy. And I want you to know I got a real fine supper out of that trip and too little sleep. Met up with an old friend, found a couple of new friends as a matter of fact. In fact, why not let’s consider the executive team already picked and assembled, since now my new friends have to take orders from me. In their various capacities. Nice, the way things work out sometimes.”

Polite applause rippled up and down the canyon. 

“Anyhow, one night a while back I was out on deck catching the air and there was the moon, glimmering in the swells. Farther out, just beyond some patchy clouds, there it all was, the scattered Milky Way galaxy. More billions of stars than I could even see, and millions of years far gone.

“But close at hand, tangled in the clouds, hovered a couple or three of our brighter planets, neighbors only minutes away. It was Mars and Jupiter for sure, probably Saturn if I could have made out the rings whirring in the clouds. The evening star was long gone under the horizon.

“It struck me then, how in Earth’s night sky I could picture all those images I’d seen of our nearby planets and what they have of weather. Weather is what they have, I realized, just like Earth. Look at a planet and you’ll see its weather. That’s the main thing happening out there. Rocks don’t have weather, weather is what happens to them. So there’s Mars with its dust storms and wintery ice caps, its eroding canyons and dusty sea bottoms, and here’s Jupiter with that big red storm eye churning around year after year. And Saturn and the rest, all the same kind of thing, big slurries of weather, something always happening. Our planets are alive with weather.

“I thought, What is weather? Weather is complicated. Whirling energies, sparks and wind. That night at sea, on Earth, the weather was calm and I could see out through the skimpy couple or three miles of breathable air we have here, only a casual hour’s hike if you happened to be walking straight up. I pictured the Earth from space, as we’ve all seen it many times, and I realized that we are the weather. Little gyrating steam pockets, whirligigs of wind, that’s us. Made entirely out of clouds and wheezes and nourished by sloshing buckets of water. How about that?”

Salmon Trout paused, looked out over the crowd. The crowd gave out a swelling murmur in response. He squinted up toward the horizon.

“So I thought, looking off there at the planets, did I think I might find green Martians out there? Likely not. More likely on that particular rock, just dry dust devils spinning in and out of focus. They might have something to say. And we might not understand it. So what critters might you find on the other planets? Just whatever the weather scurries up. There’s your fat old slush-heavy Jupiter. And frosty blue Neptune. Pressure cooker Venus all one hot sulfuric cloud, right? Out there with the moon that night I felt like I was at home, right here on my own steamy blue planet. Doesn’t it seem like home? A home a long way from anywhere.

“These other places may feel like home to somebody, but not us. Those other folk couldn’t stand it here, either. So there you have it, citizens, welcome to Earth weather, you’re it! Whirl on till you dry up and blow away. There’s always something new spinning up out of the storm.”

Somebody out there got a tambourine started up and began a spinning dance. A fleeting look of concern crossed Salmon Trout’s face and he hurried on.

“Some day we might meet up in outer space, you know, with those critters blowing out of different planets. Everybody comfy inside their own weather balloon, and all orbiting each others’ worlds. Talking it up and seeing the sights. Playing cards through the night. And that’s a little thought that lightened my load one time, out there on the sea above the stars.”

Polite applause rustled up and down the canyon.

“There’s a cosmic twister!” someone shouted.

“Twist me up another wheeze” someone else replied.

Somebody set off a string of whistle-poppers.

“So,” said president-elect Salmon Trout, “that’s the report from Triton. Now to the business at hand, people. We have three Uni attacks now in progress up and down the zone, not only here above Sacramento, but also, I hear, down into the green side of Oregon and soggy old Washington. All this is unusual, to say the least. Therefore now, depending on how things go day by day in all these places, we think we might have some traveling to do.”

There was some cheering and some grumbling down the canyon. Hundreds of pale screens flashed on upturned palms under the evergreen trees, as the many fighters consulted their calendars.

Prokofiev nodded enthusiastically, leaned back and looked admiringly upon the new president. He said, “We have a steamy little planet here, you say. Appropriately, we have a storm roiling up next door, sending a wash of Uni flooding down the next canyon, isn’t that so, Mr. president”

“Yep. It looks a lot like what we’ve seen so often before.”

“The likes of which we’ve seen before, and conquered!” said Prokofiev. “And we’re going to do it again. Only before we do that, president-elect Salmon Trout, if you will—swear yourself in!”

“Okay, I’ll do it. I swear to uphold the Constitution as freshened by the Ninth Amendment, according to our usage hereabouts nowadays. And no less the spirit of the thing, for all its vagueness concerning political unforeseeables, which I take simply to be the open door to our natural wily freedom and imagination, day by day. I admire the document’s historic internal battle, how it recognizes that the people’s whims command me. So long as I, we government employees, can stay on the beat, let this be our one and only moment, our moment of urgent service, always subject to happy referendum, under the ninth. I like the idea of wielding power on loan from the voters and everybody, just for the day when they think they need me, so that on some tomorrow, soon, I’ll be free to set the obligation aside. The wielding, I mean. After this I’ll still talk and be a voter. Gonna be on my boat and gone fishing a lot, I hope. But further, as president I will energetically encourage our customary state of seething political flux, and support a new revolution every day, all day long. That way our revolutions will be modest and no great inconvenience to the voters and everybody. Let me mention the Ninth Amendment again. Okay, I’m done.”

“Well done.”

The roar of the crowd nearly floated the two men off the stage. Salmon Trout bent slightly, absent-mindedly massaged one knee while the noise went on.

“Fine, that’ll do,” said Prokofiev, taking back the microphone.”

The crowd laughed and went back to picnicking. Prokofiev said, “How do you like that power, Sam? Do you feel it? When they do that I feel strong and wise and sexy. Student of history that I am, I am always aware that the feeling is a pitiful delusion, but I like it! Watch out for that, Mr. president. It comes on strong when people start asking you about things you know nothing about and you find them accepting your bullshit answers as truths of the universe. Some people are like that, Sam. Advice to a newbie: when you notice you’re blowing heat out of every orifice, it’s only borrowed energy from people like that.

“Look at my hair! They make it up different every day. That’s my steal on the energy going around. It was yesterday, in the heat of the afternoon, those battle-hardened women gave me eagle wings along the sides here. But they also cut the back real short. I thought I would be in pain from that shearing, but no, it’s a lot cooler this way. See? Here we are at war and here’s where I wear my hair.”

Prokofiev walked across the rattletrap stage. “People! The way you style me shows our style. Today it’s wings and a buzz cut!”

Prokofiev hollered at the crowd, “How’s my hair!”

He gave them his profile, gave them a rear view of his buzz cut.

They gave him hoots and whistles and rattles and drums.

“See? I feel strong. I’m happy we left the pomp on top.”

Salmon Trout grinned. “Magnifies your cranial capacity, huh?”

“Shows we have room to grow. I get a lot of experience with people smarter than me and it makes me feel smarter every minute.” Senator Prokofiev nodded his pomp at the crowd.

“That’s why I vote for you, pal,” replied Salmon Trout. “Finger on the pulse, and all that. But I’m no politician. Why’d you let them elect me?”

“Let them? I couldn’t stop them. Especially after I reminded them of all your fine prior service and how your knees hurt.”

Salmon Trout gave him a startled glance.

“You have been a great defender of our little republic from the humblest beginnings of it all, Salmon Trout. You know the ropes and people listen to you. And as you also know, the current situation is a little worse than usual.”

“All right,” Salmon Trout replied in a regretful tone. “True enough.” He looked out down the canyon filled with rowdy men and women getting worked up for tomorrow’s battle.

“Oh come on, Sam. You’ve been threatening to retire for months now. And there’s always a new call-up, isn’t there? It’s a hard decision to make, so we made it for you.”

“Huh. Then it’s one last hurrah for old Salmon Trout.”

“Be happy.”

A long, low rumble of drums filled the canyon.

Somebody out there picked up a mike and said, “North Coast University would like to be first to offer a place of honor in our historical museum, Sam, for that far-shooter of yours, should you ever really consider retiring from the field. And a clutch of those ballistic arrows too, if you would.”

President Salmon Trout breathed a long sigh. “I guess I’m done for,” he said. “Sunk.”

“That’s showing how they feel.”

Salmon Trout said, “Okay, I appreciate how you feel, you fighters. I’m honored to serve as captain for the duration of this. I hope nobody’s thinking to give me any haircuts, though, I’m too unruly for that. 

“But I feel kind of odd about it. I feel like reminding everybody it’s not always necessary to have a president hanging around, not for most purposes. No, all we need is someone now and again to coordinate some big project at hand, a cool voice to bring us back to focus when our attention wanders. I’ll do it this time. But in between times we want to let the place air out a good long while. Just as we will let this overpopulated canyon air out and recover after we take care of this business tomorrow. 

“Which is, that we are going to conduct the Uni trespassers quickly back to their homeplace, politely if possible and with minimum fuss. Then we’ll come back here and lick our wounds, if there are any, and party party party! 

“Then, looking ahead after that, as we straggle out of here, let’s be sure we take out with us all that we brought in. Don’t make me have to follow after you, picking up the trash.”

Prokofiev gently took hold of the mike. Every perfect hair on his head beamed and gleamed and smiled as he leaned into the crowd and said, “My friends, today we have elected a leader. A man many of us know personally, whom all at least have heard of, a man of wide experience in these onerous campaigns against the Uni invader. Today he was elected without his knowledge to the awesome responsibility of directing our fate in battle against a merciless foe. The heaviest of burdens for any citizen. 

“But we have just now seen how quickly the shock wore off, the shock of his sudden elevation, if that’s what it is, and how well he thinks on his feet. Most important of all, he has chosen to serve for the duration of our need. This tells all. 

“So now let’s take note of our new president’s notion of leadership. Namely that, as we are confident we have the energy and the will to do great things, we also know how side issues too often distract us from a decided purpose. Therefore, making us too scatter-brained to operate effectively. Focus! he said. A steady voice reminding us what we’re up to. 

“We need somebody up front! And we have chosen our leader. Today we have our war president, SALMON TROUT!”

twenty-seven

Doc hung motionless in the moonlit tree tops, keeping a close watch on the Uni camp. She stayed below the top branches to avoid being silhouetted in the bright moonlight slanting into the canyon from high in the west. Less than fifty yards away the stream splashed down the rocky canyon, glimmered under the slightly gibbous moon’s spectral illumination. Nearly invisible in the shadows along the wider bank below, she saw ranks and rows of oblong sleeping bags stretched out. 

At this hour, stoves and camp fires were extinguished; no smoke betrayed the presence of a large body of men. What did betray their presence was the silence. No frog sang in the eddies of the stream. No owl hooted from any treetop, and any coyotes that remained in this stretch of their territory kept silent and well away. In the past half hour Doc had heard nothing but cool air wafting from canyon heights through the tall conifers, heard no faint rustling of nesting birds, nor glimpsed the silent flight of bug-hunting bats.

Her mission tonight was to spy out evidence of unusual weaponry in the camp, specifically any Uni rockets such as what Bierce’s captive commando had rumored. If these were revealed to her in any way she would guide Jade and Bierce, out there circling the sky, down to the spot.

A shorter distance from the stream, over on the other side, president Salmon Trout waited too, alert for any activity in the Uni camp. Armed with his longbow he was in range to let loose flares or smoke or other missiles, if it became necessary to support any action taken by the others. Though he was the elected war president and should not risk being captured, it was also true that there was no one else who could operate Bierce’s new flier, whose special capabilities of silence and invisibility were essential to this night mission.

Much the same was true for Doc, of course. She knew she had no business being in a combative situation, but here she was. There was no denying the excitement of being so close to danger, lurking here in the tree tops, but her long experience picking up the pieces of personal disasters around many past battles seriously dampened any enthusiasm she might otherwise have felt for the risk she was taking.

Salmon Trout hadn’t called in. If there was some kind of a ‘daisy chain’ weapon it was well concealed, possibly already deployed around the camp. So far she had seen no evidence of rockets, or of launchers, or any other suspicious machinery. 

However, the oncoming maneuver had to spook the Uni into some kind of action. If they had something new, they would likely show it.

Now, from her vantage point in the tree tops, Doc caught the first flicker of movement in the night sky, away to her left, a quarter mile or so down the canyon. Streaming over the southern ridge, well and plainly silhouetted against the moon, two dozen of her compadres, the Artichoke Bombarderos, began their feint. Flying slowly, not more than a couple of hundred feet above the canyon floor, the band of Flyers drifted up the canyon in a loose cluster. Casual-like, they shifted and dodged here and there, giving the appearance of a careless, perhaps drunken, search party. Moonlight shone bright upon the well-polished chrome of the craft slowly closing on the Uni encampment.

One of the Flyers shouted. Another laughed. Then, converging at a point not too near the Uni camp, the Bombarderos hovered a short time, weaving and jockeying and chattering back and forth, as though unsure in which direction they should go next; whereupon, like a seething horde of gnats they veered north and crossed the ridge into the next canyon and drifted out of view. 

Doc grinned. Those clowns were kick tossing a bright-lit kick-ball back and forth. It was a game of flying agility she never played with them any more, because they never let her win. Long ago Diego, the best of them, thought he could afford to let her win a round, probably hoping he would earn a smooch from her for his gallantry. He never got what he wanted and he never lived that down with the other players. Tonight, no doubt, it was still smooches they lobbed at him, the inevitable fate of a romantic in a crowd like that. She shouldn’t have let him down that time. Maybe.

Nothing at first seemed to happen down on the ground. Maybe the Uni were all deep sleepers. But when the last of the fliers disappeared over the north wall of the canyon, Doc’s console monitor flared blue, displaying multiple microwave transmission sources in the vicinity. They were talking it up down there. Oho, she thought, let’s see what the Bombarderos kicked up this time. Some way or other the Uni must respond to the challenge; they couldn’t just lay low and hope that the fliers wouldn’t return, or that more weren’t on the way.

No surprise then when there came a flurry of action in the camp. 

Doc edged forward, the night video scope Bierce had provided pressed to one eye. She added the microwave sources into the mix. The camera’s output signal interfaced with Bierce’s wireless network, boosted over the canyon wall by relay transmitters in the trees and at high points along the ridge. Everything the camera grabbed was viewed by hundreds of defenders, those in the sky and those lying in wait in the next canyon. The sensitive microphone pulled giga-samples of audio out of the air, at better resolution than the sharpest human ear. All her signals would be sampled and archived and broadcast more widely. She held steady, scanning the Uni camp.

A low voice in her ear, Salmon Trout: “Doc, get back a few yards, there’s a couple soldiers coming your way.”

She looked down. There they were, two guys, one carrying a load. She drifted back. Trees got in front of her and now she could see very little of what the two ground lizards were up to. She needed a clearer view. She drifted sideways and down behind a shaggy old ponderosa pine. Without a sound she soft-shoed Bierce’s prototype carefully around the tree, feeling awed and grateful that she could maneuver in this subtle way. Now well concealed, Doc leaned her body out as far as she dared, to get the view she needed. 

Good, she had them in the scope. 

The two soldiers stopped in a clear spot, nearly at the foot of her tree, and began setting up some kind of equipment, a low-slung tripod thing. Why, these guys look like a pair of everybody’s favorite midnight ‘surveyors’. The two men were mumbling down there but she couldn’t make out what they were saying. That would emerge later in audio processing.

Next, a device mounted atop the tripod emitted a narrow beam of blue light that hovered about four feet above the ground, aligned to the center of the encampment. Another voice in her ear: “Hold that view, Doc. Sam’s getting another setup like it over on the other side. Don’t know what it is, but we think this could be the action we’re looking for. Reminding you to be careful, Doc. Don’t hesitate to jump out of there if things start getting too real. Nobody wants to see you in a fight.”

Doc whispered, “Gotcha. So far so good.”

She closed the eye jammed into the scope and opened her other eye, which she’d kept squeezed shut all this time, and looked at the scene afresh with a retina undazzled by the amplified light of the scope. Without the video enhancement, the two soldiers were now indistinct shadows on the forest floor. More importantly, without the scope, the blue beam of light had disappeared from view. She reported this, adding, “Carefully, carefully, folks, they’ll be using scopes of their own down there.”

Sure enough, when she went back to the enhanced view she saw one of the ‘surveyors’ put on some headgear and crouch down behind the apparatus. He appeared to sight along the beam. He twiddled a couple of knobs then straightened up. The two men then walked back to camp. 

When they’d gone, Doc drifted higher yet, circling to the right, seeking another view point upstream. A quarter way around the encampment, she saw more Uni activity down in a rocky patch near the water, where the trees were sparser. Here, too, a two-man team sighted in yet another tripod-mounted laser. 

These two trotted back to camp and Doc took the opportunity to drift down close to the gadget. She took a look along the beam. The scope showed her the glimmer of half a dozen other blue beams, all converging to the same point.

All of a sudden the camp was in an uproar. Doc froze, held her breath. Out of the darkness rose an irritated whine. Someone had a complaint.

“We were going to test it later-r!”

“I know that, Rundle,” a commanding voice replied. “Keep your voice down. What’s the trouble?”

“It’s the moon—the moo-o-n! It’s washing out my vid-e-o. This isn’t right! It won’t be a optimal demo of the equip-me-unt!”

“Yeah?” said the second voice. “That’s too effin bad, Rundle. We need that rig up and running now. What’s the problem with the video?”

“These are not the right condishi-ens! Look at my chronometer—look at the phase of the moo-o-n! The demo’s supposed to be in the dark so our buyers can see the laser lines better. On 3D darklight vid-e-o! The moon is all over the skyy!”

“The moon covers less than half a degree up there—a speck, like your dick Rundle. Do your documentary and what you can’t get now, splice in later.”

“No-o-o! They ditten give me a budget for the-at!”

“Fine, good. Right now we’re going to find out if the thing works at all, so you get us under that umbrella. That’s an order.”

“I object! The company will sue!”

“Okay, cover your dim ass. We’ll note for the record that the experiment was conducted under less than ideal field conditions and without the approval of the company representative. Now get to work.”

Rundle’s voice trailed off, “Not fair-r. Not legal.”

Doc shook her head, muttered, “Oh, go ahead and give it a whirl, Rundle.” In a slightly louder voice, she said, “You getting this?”

“Yes,” came the voice in her ear. “Keep quiet and get back upstairs. Up, up in the trees, Doc. One of them idjits could nab you down there. Sam’s view shows a vertical beam. Do you see that?”

“No.” She drifted higher. “Ah. There it is, right in the center of the camp.” 

Something further of interest was occurring. She heard, from the center of the camp, a metallic clinking sound, like the sound of metal stakes being driven into the ground. In a few more seconds she saw a thin glittering pole rise into the sky, telescoping up in line with the vertical beam of blue light. The pole swayed into the air some forty or fifty feet, trailing clusters of thin cables, which were quickly separated, pulled taut and staked down.

It didn’t take long for the picture to emerge. With the pole in position, the horizontal beams converged on its glittering surface, splitting off smaller beams in all directions. The pole swayed off vertical for a moment. The array went out of focus and disappeared for several seconds. There was a bit of a fuss below as cables were adjusted. 

Doc’s impression was that this might be some kind of proximity detector, some kind of warning system. Okay, yet she wondered why they hadn’t set it up earlier, perhaps at sundown rather than waiting until after the alarm. The petty squabble that she’d just witnessed, between Rundle and the boss, somehow didn’t seem to fit that speculation, though. She watched uneasily, recording and transmitting everything, wishing she had a tripod herself to hold the camera steady.

Down there, people were rummaging with cables and boxes, computer screens were lighting up around the foot of the pole, and—she caught her breath—clusters of narrow tubes appeared out of the dark, each one of the tubes about two feet long. Rockets.

The tall spire was up and steady now. Points of laser light began crawling up and down it and it began to rotate, glittering blue. In the air all around the spire an intersecting lattice of rotating lobes opened to the sky, like a huge blue night-blossoming flower, an assemblage of shifting angles under the black sky.

Doc blinked. A bright speckle of laser light flicked across the scope. A reflected beam.

Another and another point of light hit her. She aimed the scope down and saw that her torso and the flier under her were crawling with blue specks. They began to cluster, multiplying quickly. She opened her non-scope eye, pre-adapted to darkness behind the closed eyelid, and saw nothing of all this. Then she understood. 

“Bierce! Jade! Now!” she said, instinctively covering her mouth to stifle the sound. Those two were out there somewhere, awaiting their cue for action, whatever it had to be.

“Take out that pole! It’s an aiming device for rockets! The rocket tubes are down there on the ground. Get ’em!”

The device had to be destroyed before the Uni armed it, before the system traced out a scan of everything in its range. Any living thing that moved into or over the canyon would be killed without thought. If the machine wasn’t destroyed now. . . well, who would volunteer to be first to fly into its web?

Not that anybody would have to, she reminded herself. Still, this was an ugly bit of business that must be discouraged. A vicious trap. If left standing tonight, deadly for any Flyer that might wander into its kill zone. Or any other creature, for that matter.

Moonlight descended into the still forest. It flooded a little more brightly over the Uni invaders, the way the sky lightens after a cloud passes by. The light brightened even more than that and still it went unnoticed.

By the time any of the soldiers understood what their eyes told them, an over-bright moon had descended close upon them then split in two, and it was too late.

It was close, though—Bierce switched off the two fliers’ moonlight displays, handling Jade’s remotely, so as the fliers separated they went dark against the sky—but in Doc’s viewfinder, already points of light converged from the rotating spire onto the two fliers, tracing a grid of points and lines across their hulls even as they dove upon the camp.

There came shouts from Uni techs gawking up from their jumble of black boxes, faces starkly side-lit by computer screens clustered around the base of the fast-revolving spire.

Before any response could be brought to bear, however, Jade was into them, in her fist an iridescent arc, shifting, busy. With breath-taking rapidity she slew half a dozen of the Uni techs, arrows seeming merely to flick away, one and one and one and one, each to its target.

Dying techs kicked and writhed, clutching green-feathers at their throats while Jade wheeled closer, shooting with continued deadly effect upon any enemy that raised head or hand. In seconds she had cleared the way for Bierce, who swooped in, skidding down the air behind her to hammer the base of the spire under his thick glass hull. 

The impact bent the spire askew and Bierce dropped a well-placed incendiary at its foot. He rebounded away in a splash of fire. 

Doc’s viewfinder bloomed white in the glare, then cleared.

The job was done. The two fliers kicked high into the air and were gone from sight before most of the invaders had even glimpsed the source of their destruction.

Things on the ground began to get complex. Doc kept her scope on the growing commotion as best she could. In the moments following the attack, a rash of fizzes and fwupps burst out of the blaze Bierce had ignited at camp center. Dozens of little rockets set loose in the flames flared alight. Some exploded like grenades spouting sharp vertical blasts, killing anybody close at hand, at the same time setting off strings of further explosions. Scattered in the bursts, others ignited, surged and bounced around the camp, dragging behind them sparking razor-edged chains that whipped through every living thing in their paths. Lunging from one hot target to the next, these missiles were not quick. They sputtered fitfully, their bright exhaust trails angling this way and that as they maneuvered, spewing hot gasses up the flame. Doc saw the micro thrusters glowing on and off, enabling the rockets’ oddly thoughtful progress. To Doc they seemed almost alive, winding slow deceptive paths only just a little too quick for any of the soldiers they targeted to dodge. She watched many of them home in and splash their glittering whips into the bodies and limbs of hapless soldiers. The screams came to her ears full of outrage and blame. 

Cleverly, the algorithm driving these sput rockets must calculate not only velocity and elevation and sideways motion, but also the twist-action of the whips—for best effect against a chosen target. A whole team of cold-blooded savants had to be bunkered up someplace working this stuff out.

It was horrible. Yet, fascinated by the spectacle she had unwittingly unleashed, Doc was riveted to the bloody process seething below; the daisy chain apparatus, undirected, nevertheless sought out and found what meat it could, to fulfill its logical purpose.

Or, maybe it only took one savant. Rundle?

Her camera hand shook. She’d never seen this kind of action. Those first moments, the Bombarderos’ aerial feint, the mysterious tower of laser light, then the impeccable, brilliant speed of the moonlight assault, all of that was thrilling. But now the grim follow on that went on and on—the fires, the rockets, the hard dying of the stricken. . . all a bloody horror. In her trembling grasp the night scope clicked and zip-zipped as it tried to adjust to each flaring ignition. The temps were dying for real down there.

It wasn’t over yet. Sparks drifted up from the fires and fell everywhere along the banks of the stream. Rockets bounced up, saw heat in the trees and flew up to add more to the blazes. The alarming realization that there might soon be a fire in this mountain canyon, consuming everything from one end to the other and spreading farther, surged briefly in Doc’s imagination. But more immediate was the bright mayhem of rockets romping through the camp, slashing up every living thing they touched. 

One of the rockets broke loose from the party. It zoomed toward her. She’d thought she would be out of range back here in the cool forest. Was this rocket defective? Or was it different from the rest? Perhaps it was hunting something other than hot blood.

Doc shut off the camera and its network signal died. The oncoming rocket shifted, began nosing a spiral seek pattern, still coming on but not so directly.

So this is what it’s like to be hunted by a sput rocket. Interesting. This one was set up to sniff out and kill wireless communications, an automated news hound. Here it came, poking its nose around a tree. It didn’t move at all fast. She heard its little jets stuttering, shifting course, compensating. What a marvel.

The sputtering rocket came on, then veered against a tree close by and spun about, its chain suddenly fouled in the branches. It flailed the air, jets swiveling it this way and that, blowing heat and smoke in her face. The jets fanned wide, corkscrewed, then narrowed for a fast spinning surge. There were eight little nozzles in there, lighting up in quick patterns, attempting valiant logical solutions to shake the thing loose, but its chain was only getting locked into the branches tighter. So that was it for this rocket. Doc was off the hook. She felt she’d dodged one.

Her body began to shake. She’d been so engrossed in all that was happening out there that she hadn’t thought to escape a rocket coming to kill her. She growled. How stupid that she’d fallen into the spectacle like it was some kind of movie. 

Fiercely, Doc turned the camera back on. She circled away from the still-sputtering rocket and took cover behind another tree. She put her eye back to the firey lens and recorded every agony till the last rocket cut up its last victim.

  • * *

Salmon Trout descended out of the dark and touched Doc on the shoulder. “Come on, let’s go,” he said. “This is not a good neighborhood to be in.”

Doc let her arms fall creakily away from their frozen position propping up the night scope. The scope fell from her numbed hand. Without thought or word she relinquished her post and followed Salmon Trout away.

  • * *

A short while later, four unusually bright-lit fliers descended over the ridge to be greeted by much banging and hooting and applause echoing up and down the defenders’ canyon. Every participant in the War Party had watched the events in the neighboring canyon and the team’s achievement, on phone screens and at every one of the Postal Flags installed throughout the camp.

So that, thought Doc, is that, for the daisy chain. She was shaky still, but buoyed by the cheers they were getting. It struck her how strange this felt, how reversed. This was her first exploit in battle and she wasn’t used to being greeted this way. In all times past it would be her adding a voice to the cheering crowd.

“Hey Bierce,” she said in a voice that quavered, “we ought to thank your informant for the intel. Show him the video, see what he has to say about it.”

Bierce replied, “Pretty horrible, all right. But it only shows the Uni they can’t up the ante without paying the price. Maybe I will make that phone call, Doc. What say we reprogram the fool’s AFID arsechip? Load the whole battle video and send him on home for his debriefing. Wouldn’t matter, though. The whole twenty minutes is already streaming out to the world.”

“Twenty minutes?”

“Why not? Your pal Diego and his compadres should get their props.”

“For sure.” 

Wearily, Doc shook her head. Twenty minutes, then. She recalled only the blazing moment, the fury, the terror. All of what went into that moment was yet to settle in memory; it went on, her retinas still streaming images of what she’d seen, the lash and twitch and flare of the rockets. In her ears still echoed the screams of living flesh undergoing the horrors of mutilation. While overhead, treetops crackling up in flames.

Jade said, “Somebody’s got to get back in there quick and chase the stink out before they annoy us with something else.” The words were harsh but her voice sounded tired, not quite fully in character with her glowering red NightEyes. She rode close in with Doc and Salmon Trout and Bierce. She said to Doc, “You okay? Your video was pretty shaky there at the end.”

Salmon Trout pretended to be miffed about how he hadn’t had a chance to “do anything” but only lurk in the trees and shoot home movies. Doc reminded him he was the president and that it wasn’t daylight yet and there would be plenty more action when the sun came up.

“They’re trying to retire me. That’s what that’s all about,” he grumbled.

The four settled their fliers near the stage and dismounted amid victorious acclaim.

twenty-eight

“Punish them again!” A broad-shouldered low-runner swung his bottle of high-count Sacramento-style ale up high and chugged the last half down his gullet. Predictably this gave rise to a belch both ferocious and prolonged and the man glared a challenge at everyone standing around the salad bar in Prokofiev’s Senatorial pavilion, now the Tent of War. “Punish them some more!”

“That’ll happen,” said Salmon Trout. He was standing calmly in the center of the big open tent, surrounded by angry, disappointed combatants. 

The low-runner frowned like thunder. He growled through his bushy beard. The bullwhip wrapped about his body creaked as he twisted back around to the salad bar. He grabbed a handful of carrot sticks off the tray. He paused, still leaning back, and sneered at the bowl of herb sauce. He glanced at the one with the mayonnaise in it and gave that one an affronted look. He shook his head and glared around at Salmon Trout. “Chase them down and give them a stern rebuke!” He crunched fiercely into the carrots.

“They came in peace,” said president Salmon Trout. “They marched over the hill armed with strange weapons, but such is merely their defensive posture. Let’s don’t forget they’re idiots for truth-telling.”

Another low-runner spoke. “They knew what they were going to do with those rockets. If atrocity is what they want, they can crawl home across sharp-edged mirror shards!” He heaved a bag off the floor that clattered with the sound of broken glass. 

“That’s right! Teach them the lesson about impertinence,” said a woman at his side who wore a skull and bones across the back of her black leather jacket. Geronimo! was stenciled across the shoulders. “Let’s just agree we’re completely out of patience with these brats. Let’s be quick about it, too. I have to get back to Kiddie Academy by noon tomorrow.” She banged the floor with the blunt end of a trident grasped in her fist. “I promised the kids a field trip weeks ago, and I never let them down on field trip days.”

“Ah? Where are you taking them?” asked the man with the bullwhip, facing her across the salad table. The peppermint-striped braided paper tassel-end of his bullwhip, threaded up under the gleaming leather wound about him, dangled cheerily from the vicinity of his shirt collar. Munching down the last of his carrots, he grabbed up a handful of cauliflower. 

“We’re flying out to the tide pools in the coastal restoration zone. There’ll be a lot of octopus this time of year. Those are always fun for the kiddies.” She pointed out a small bowl on the table. “Cauliflower’s good with dill weed.”

“Eh? I know how to eat cauliflower! I like it with salt and pepper if you don’t mind too much.” The whip man got his scowl back and turned away, resolutely ignoring the dill sauce. Loudly, he said, “Are we gonna punish them or what?”

“Now, boys and girls,” said Salmon Trout, “don’t let’s play into the Uni game plan. The low-runner teams will get their fun time. In these fracases there’s always plenty of Uni chuckleheads to knock around, so rest easy on that score. What I think’s more important is not to overdo it this time. As we’ve seen tonight, the guys commanding that army over there are seriously working toward atrocities. They want more than anything to turn these little skirmishes into a big war. Uni war profiteers over there are screaming for fresh opportunities to open up on us. Big time. And, by the way, Uni politicians are always eager to hear any excuse for war. So I have to say it, confounding as this must be to your high-spirited sense of fair play, we can’t give them that excuse.”

“But they perpetrated on us tonight!” said the man with the bag of glass. 

“You saw the video. They perpetrated on themselves more than anything,” said Salmon Trout. “We don’t know how many were injured or killed by those rockets. So, impatient as many of you may be, please remember that most of them aren’t Martians, most of those kids are conscripts one way or another. Besides, survivors make good public relations for us. Survivors know the score.”

“Yeah? What score is that? I don’t think I’m getting it.”

“Why, they know we could destroy them, of course, but we don’t want to. We don’t snipe at them night and day, and so forth. Fact is, we help them out some. Rule of engagement number one: send them home on the same feet that brought them here. As much as possible, anyway.”

“Crap, crap, all crap!” said a fiery voice from somewhere in the shadows at the edge of the tent. “The only message they’ll understand is if we eradicate them. Yeah, and pretend it never happened, too, just like they did that village a ways north of here.”

“Three canyons over, to be exact,” observed a man bearing a cudgel in either hand. “They poisoned the water supply and killed everybody. Moved on in like it was business as usual.” Thoughtfully, he juggled his two cudgels. “I was there. We cut their reinforcements down at the pass and chain-linked the assassins solid into that dead town.”

Salmon Trout groaned. “Nobody’s forgetting,” he said. “But those guys are stuck there, aren’t they. There’s your message in that. Assassins trapped in the crime scene, practically eating each other to survive. And so they shall remain, cameras on them night and day. But that’s just about where the line is, far as I’m concerned. Those killers are prime bait for counter-retaliation. We’ve seen how they bring out the sharks, it’s like casting chum on the water. There’s a fishing man talkin’. Personally, I have better things to—”

“—Oh, right,” blustered the fiery-voiced man. “What are we, some kinda soldiers? Or not!”

“Well, we’re not. Like our anxious school teacher here, we have lives to get back to. Livelihoods. As for me, now they’ve retired me to the executive branch, I’ll have to get back to thinning out the mackerel swarming the sea. A nice fish chowder, anybody? How about a halibut steak? I can get you a sardine! We run surpluses all the time. But today I’ve got to be here, see what I mean? Let’s don’t let the Uni consume our lives. Let them remain a passing nuisance.”

“They’re a nuisance full-time!”

“Okay, go east, young man,” Salmon Trout advised. “What’s your time worth to you? Invest in guns, buy into rockets and tanks and those nu-clear submarines, and grab a handful of busy drones while you’re at it. It’s crappy over there. We’ve seen what kind of crap these soldiers eat. Fish out of cans from who knows what stinking factory fish farm. Cook it up in your formaldehyde trailer. Keep your eyes to the sky and shout when the UFOs come. It’s only your vitamin deficiency kicking in. No merit in it anywhere. But go ahead, young fella, buy the whole package.”

“Enough banter!” thundered the bullwhip man. “Are we gonna give the scum a tongue-lashing or what?” He thumped his chest with a clenched fist, briefly showed white teeth behind his fearsome beard, then turned his attention back to the salad table and pondered his choices there. He winked at the teacher. Absent-mindedly, she brandished her trident at him. His eye went to the bok choy platter. His hand twitched. Aside, to the cudgelman, he mentioned, “y’know, those Uni eat a lot of wheat, their heads are full of brain fuzz.”

Salmon Trout nodded soberly into the hubbub of voices. He spoke slowly, considering deeply. “I think your idea, whip man, is the right way to go. After their losses tonight, a few well-chosen words should suffice. You must have read my mind to come up with that.”

“Or been and gone around this corner once before,” the man said around a mouthful of cabbage.

The low-runner with the bag full of glass shards howled. “No! Not again! You’re gonna showboat those gangsters back over the border—you’re going to sing them a song! I want to hear them sing!”

“A stern lecture will suffice,” said Salmon Trout. “If anyone sings it will be them. You’ll set the rhythm with cudgels and thumps, the clash of spears and rattle of arrows and all like that, and they can holler up the melody in fits. I can just about hear it now! The cries and groans of stragglers bashed and beaten! Pinioned and punctured by trident—wielded by your charming wife, shardsman. And my own secret weapon—a phalanx of accordionists pulling up the rear, polkas played with brisk vibrato. If they can’t sing over that, they’ll scream all the way to the top of the hill.

“Oh, and by the way, friend,” Salmon Trout said confidentially to the shardsman, “your sharp glass treatment I doubt anybody will think much of. It would only make more lamers than necessary, more for the rest to carry up the hill. We want them out of here fast, right? Plus, think of other creatures stepping or kneeling onto any of that, in months to come.” Sadly, he shook his head.

“True, now you mention it.” The low-runner clashed his bag of glass on the floor one last time then forlornly dragged it into the corner. “Festerin’ puncture wounds!” he cried. To his trident-bearing spouse he said, “Sadie, looks like I’m gonna need that little spare fork of yours. You brought it along, didn’t you?”

twenty-nine

Far down the canyon, where it widened before merging into rolling hills beyond, Doc Holiday lay stretched out on her belly across the wide, foot-sensitive floor pad behind the open nosecone of her flier. Her head leaned out over the glass rim of the hatchway and in her hands she held a set of binoculars propped up between wide-spread elbows. Looking intently, she shifted the lenses here and there, sweeping the landscape of rocks and gullies far below. Behind her across the little cabin, her bare ankles shifted this way and that in the open air of the far hatchway, balancing her movements in the chilly morning breeze.

Shortly before daybreak a lone scout had spotted what might have been a small party on foot sneaking down the canyon. Doc’s job now was to help find and round up any such fugitives. A couple of hundred feet below her roving eye, a party of Flyers combed the weathered landscape of tumbled rock spread across the canyon.

This past night she’d spent a sleepless four hours huddled under Prokofiev’s protective arm. On returning from the mayhem at the Uni camp, the moment she stepped off the flier he was there. He swooped her up, gathered her to him and brought her to his Senatorial yurt. He fed her and did all his best to bring her down off the fevered, distracted reliving of everything she’d seen, her telling him again and again what he and the world had seen already over the video feeds—till, hours later, she once again became aware of her surroundings and found herself swaddled up warm in his vast Senatorial bed. He sang her a lullaby:

[_Meandering moonbeams _
light the one I love,]

[_dreaming of _
_Neanderthal feathers _
_   gently falling _]. . .

He crooned well in a kindly baritone, but his outré ad libs scarcely took the edge off the horror, the lingering desolation.

Her body twitched and turned, relived the flame and fright of the rocket attack. Her memory looped, replaying the moonlit skirmish in tortured detail, grinding through the countless ways things might have gone. She heard again the horrific screams and groans of the Uni soldiers. Slipping in and out of nightmare, she burned beneath the covers.

If there was anything to learn, any accommodation to the insanity she’d witnessed, it must all be examined, again and again—relived. . . . 

What got her up before dawn was realizing that this was nothing new. Nothing to learn here. It was just them marching their history forward another step. No surprise. Not news. The nausea got her out of bed.

She left the cozy yurt, left Prokofiev breathing quietly on the big bed. She felt jumpy, hollow, muscles and joints gritty with exhaustion.

She wandered barefoot through the chilly silent camp, wrapped in a hefty, garishly-patterned dressing gow of Prokofiev’s, a garment she’d laughed at in times past. But he’d put it out for her and now she appreciated its fluffy warmth.

Aimlessly, Doc picked her way through the sleeping camp. People slept where they’d fallen after all the partying that followed the recent exploit in the neighboring canyon. She stepped around a couple wrapped in a mound of blankets, and as she passed the woman awoke, momentarily eyed her then rolled back, stretching her arms more tightly around her softly-snoring man. Morning tinged the sky. Sounds of near-by activity came to her ears.

She happened across the search party just as they were preparing to leave and she instantly volunteered to join them. So, robe flapping around her bare heels she ran to her flier and, not forgetting the agreement with Bierce, fed a sheet of his ridiculous Turbo Paper into its slot and launched to catch up with the searchers. She flew over the camp cringing in embarrassment as Bierce’s prototype performed its whiz-bang startup routine over the heads of hundreds of suddenly awakening and possibly awestruck fighters.

Last night’s adventure had certainly established a fame for the stealth capabilities of Bierce’s new fliers. Doc’s dramatic early-morning departure was a long ways from stealthy, nevertheless Bierce’s marketing guys would get their quota of wonder and awe. She got away as quickly as she could.

Now, idly drifting a hundred yards aloft, lying on her belly across the flier’s deck, she helped coordinate the search along the rocky, burbling stream.

She leaned out farther to scan some new terrain and as she did so Prokofiev’s robe stretched tight beneath her ribs and she felt something dig into her armpit. She hitched onto her side and felt within the gaudy robe and from an inner pocket withdrew the offending object, a slim dagger in a long black sheath. She raised up on one elbow and a silky belt unfurled from around the flat, smooth sheath and floated through her fingers. Ribbons of the same gossamer fabric extended from the pointed end of the sheath, where it was loosely knotted through a small loop there. Doc sat up. 

Cross-legged on the deck floor, Doc examined the flat knife in its pliant sheath trailing ribbons of insubstantial black fabric. The impression she got was that this item was intended to be worn unobtrusively, strapped to a person’s leg perhaps, or hung under the shoulder or down a sleeve. Really, rigged to be worn at any angle, any place out of sight, beneath even the lightest clothing. 

Very nice, she thought, if you like that sort of thing. A little surprising, though. She’d never known Prokofiev to carry a blade. An energetic swordsman always, but. . . .

But what to make of this? The handle slid into her grasp, fit her hand perfectly, flat against the palm and snug beneath her thumb. Her fingers curled around it in the most natural way and there the knife floated, nigh weightless and ready for business. She opened her fingers and looked at the handle more closely. It was some sort of green-hued wood carved in flat relief with a woven-leaf pattern. The pommel widened against her palm, the flower of an artichoke in muted blue that tucked nicely behind her little finger. This item had been fitted for her hand, meant for her.

What to make of it? What with this and that and the unforeseeable horror of last night’s battle, perhaps he had not quite found the opportunity to make a present of it, and so put the thing where she would discover it. Perhaps it was only a trinket, an amusing novelty. Or maybe, knowing she was disinclined toward combatives, he’d had second thoughts about making it a gift. She pulled the sheath off the blade.

The cool brightness of the morning sun gleamed along the center spine of a graceful leaf of light-gray steel, about half a foot long. Doc looked at it skeptically. Slim, where her thumb rested behind the narrow guard, the double-edged blade subtly widened for two-thirds of its length and from there its razor edges curved forward to a needle point.

Whew. When might she need a thing like this? It was too specialized. It had no heft for chopping and the double edges made it useless at the cutting board for bearing down two-handed on a stubborn cabbage. It was just the thing, though, for puncturing plastic moon pods.

She flipped the knife over to her other hand and nearly dropped it when the blade seemed to disappear, became a flat, matte-surfaced mottled gray. Now, nothing floated there, balanced between finger and thumb. This other side of the blade made it a dull thing you’d hardly notice if you weren’t looking straight at it.

Okay. She held the knife stealth side up. Her arm rose, extended, apparently of its own volition. The blade floated light and agile before her.

Blast Prokofiev. This nasty little item must have cost a small fortune. Surely not out of public funds! No. Such a folly could get him dis-elected right quick and everyone knew how much Prokofiev loved his job. She would say nothing of it.

Still, Prokofiev frequently knew things others didn’t, or at least he knew them first. Uneasily, Doc felt that maybe just such a bit of troubling knowledge had been imparted, unspoken, to her now. All right, let it be that way. He was worried about her. After this battle was over they’d party and that’s when she’d ask him about it. Dutifully then, and gingerly, she re-sheathed the blade and rolled it up in its ribbons. She raised herself up on one knee and rummaged around the control deck looking for a place to secure this dubious item. She soon found that when she lifted up the drink holder there was a dark vertical slot inside there, where the plastic parts did not fit perfectly. That was perfect.

She picked up the binoculars and stretched out again across the floor of the flier and went back to scanning the terrain below. Morning was coming on brighter and a little warmer and she felt more wakeful, yet the sleepless hours just past still fringed her awareness. Relaxed, horizontal on the flier’s deck and adrift in the quiet air above the searchers’ distant chatter, Doc now and again caught herself sliding away on the edge of some dream billowing up behind the lenses of her binoculars.

The walkie-talkie they’d handed her squawked. There was a report concerning a small recent rockslide spotted farther downstream. Would she check it out?

Glad for the chance of something new to do, Doc nudged palm and elbow on the foot pad. She dropped a few yards for a closer view of the terrain, shifted course and wandered on down the canyon. Now the sun warmed her back.

The sun was a little higher over the peaks and illuminated the lower reaches more directly now and revealed a fork in the stream below. This appeared to be the result of some past collapse of the canyon wall, which had partially blocked the stream, causing it to branch. A sizable trickle headed off on a twisty, hesitant route along one side of the canyon. New green shrubs and a few sapling trees sprouted among the rocks beside this busy rivulet. As a possible alternate route down the canyon, Doc felt this bore looking into.

Doc lifted her arm and touched the control bar and the craft descended, veered minutely onto the new tack. She would have to compliment Bierce for the exquisite maneuverability of this new flier. She yawned, drifted slowly on down the new branch. She would follow its course until it rejoined the main stream. She put away the binoculars. If there was any fresh fall of rock on this side she would spot it, as well as any footprints left by parties unknown.

At times the streamlet disappeared, its submerged presence only indicated by sparse vegetation sprouting from gravel beds and crumbled rock it seeped beneath. It seemed unlikely for there to be any sizable niche in all this rubble that could serve as a hideout for renegades, but wanting to be sure about that, Doc continued her exploration.

The stream came brightly into the open when it ran through a tumble-down of big rocks where the slope plunged sharply. It was still early enough that the boulders’ shade dappled the water light and dark as the stream flowed among them. From somewhere down there came the continuous splash of falling water, but from here there was nothing to be seen of its source. It was a small sound in a small stream so there couldn’t be much to it, but curious to see if there might be a hidey-hole of some sort down there, Doc dipped closer for a look.

She inched her way into a dark patch between rocks and came out over a bright shallow pan of rippling water not more than an arm’s reach in width. The ripples ran backwards, she noticed, in relation to the direction the water flowed, and she saw why when she looked closer. The little bit of water coming through here spread out on the flat rock, emptying out the far side over a wide lip of stone nearly at the same level that it came in. The water, spread across the lip of stone, lapped and overflowed and ebbed, little quick gulps that bounced back as ripples with each tiny release. 

Doc paused, marveling at the silent but busy play of surface tension on this tiny stretch of water. She let her eyes be drawn to following the endless procession of little waves. 

Her attention skipped out of the waves. She shifted forward, went on to locate the busy little cataract that by now ought to be close at hand.

Over the lip and into the pool. That’s where the water went. It was quite a step down from the ripple pond to the pool, at least three feet. Doc drifted down, almost unconsciously angling her flier so she could follow the lapping wavelets more closely down the face of the tiny cliff. Before her eyes they spread out and thinned, soaking into the grain of the rock. So the little rivulet came only this far this morning, seeped out to nothing down the damp face of the rock before it ever reached the pool.

The pool was a different matter. The slight amount of water soaking down from the pond above was nothing compared to what swelled forth out of the pool. The pool was a spring. It was narrow and dark and in the shade, so there was no seeing far into it. As with the tiny pond above, the spring flowed out across a shelf of stone widening between the larger rocks. She drifted backward, following the stream. And here, over the edge of the shelf came the energetic little cataract she’d come here to discover.

The cataract fell another long step, down to fill a bubbling bowl at its foot. This was where all the noise came from. The broken rocks around the bubbling bowl formed a half-grotto that opened out onto the brighter-lit canyonscape beyond.

Here Doc paused again. Just inches below her eyes flourished an unsuspected world tucked neatly around the scurry of tumbling water.

Here was a half-circle of beach, fine sand lapped by fresh-water wavelets pushed out by the waterfall. At the outer edge of the tiny beach a meadow of slender elfin grasses climbed the mild slope to the foot of craggy rocks. Here and there, minuscule yellow flowers brightened the small expanse. A small glossy beetle browsed in the new morning sunshine, its jerky limbs slow-stepping over the short blades of grass.

A pocket universe, Doc felt, all a harmony of form and scale that, within the scope of what her eyes and ears gathered, inches above it all, might constitute a whole world, scarcely a step distant from this one.

An enchanted world. She, of course, remained a giant unable to set foot there. Can’t get there from here. With that thought, she drifted back to watchfulness. Still, for a moment, enchantment was all hers.

Aware once again of her voice humming her tuneless tune, the quiet muse that accompanied her more or less always, though not always noticed, Doc turned the flier about and went on, happy not to have run onto any boot tracks crossing the little shangri-la.

The field of smaller rocks strewn across the canyon thinned out and the streamlet went on more directly below Doc’s flier. The little rush of water faded to a murmur behind her.

Ahead, the little stream veered toward the last one of the big rocks, beyond which the landscape widened out to become foothills rolling down to the central valley. Soon she would rejoin the main stream. 

Doc drifted on till she came up under the big rock, where she paused to reconnoiter. Not far beyond she saw a small tree. Beneath the tree beside the rill someone stood, motionless and squinty-eyed and robed in black, and looking her way.

Doc surged up onto one knee and snatched at the control bar. Even as she did so the flier tilted violently, nearly throwing her off. She scrambled to get up, turned—

thirty

The stars faded in the night sky. Dawn edged the eastern peaks, filtered across the treetops above the Uni encampment. Hundreds of pale leaflets dropped in the night littered the shadows still glooming the banks of the rushing mountain stream.

Here and there across the cleared space, burnt equipment smoldered, the sour smoke mixing with the fragrance of charred shrubbery and still-glowing tree branches. Spent rockets lay about, trailing bloody razor chains, caught down in mid-lash at the ends of gory paths they’d sliced, tugged, yanked through the Unitory army the night before.

The cold still mountain air clung to the ground, tainted by the stink of last night’s barbecue and zesty with the fragrant residue of rocket exhaust. In the dark, soldiers hunched in scattered clumps along the stream, skimpy blankets wound tight about their shoulders.

They had left plenty of space around a white walk-in tent backed against some rocks near the edge of the stream. Before the tent a long row of bodies, laid out, bagged up. Outside the tent, half illuminated in light seeping from its interior, a man lay propped on his forearms coughing into the dust; wetly, tediously, exhausted and slack, bubbling “hyoobmh, hubrisss; hubris; hubris” out of bleeding lungs. His expressionless eyes stared down at the red-flecked gold chronometer linked around his wrist.

At the first hint of daylight the Flyers began assembling overhead. Their numbers increased, the soft thud of feet on running belts grew, became a constant thunder in the sky. Not long and the slow-wheeling column of fighters extended a thousand feet over the canyon floor, all the way up where bright sunlight sparked off their machines. From up there not much could be seen down in the camp, but everyone had seen the videos of what transpired in the night and knew what sights full daylight below would reveal.

At ground level, low-runners edged up the dark banks of the stream and filtered in through the still-shadowed trees, keeping for the moment out of range of Uni archers and catapults.

Under pressure of the increasingly audible horde of defenders circling beneath the last fading stars, the Uni troopers unwound from their blankets and shouted themselves into formations, haggard behind plastic shields. Spears rattled but none flew. There was much shouting back and forth, commands and acknowledgment—hoarse voices bellowing about ‘one o’clock’ and ‘nine o’clock’. The order, “Squad Rhino two o’clock—HOO-AH!” received a scatter of “hoo-ah’s” in response and the Rhinos lined up, arrows bristling into that empty quadrant, their bowstrings squeaking around the cold wheels of their E-Z-SHOTN (™) compound bows.

Catapult teams watched the paling sky, shouted back and forth—“Three o’clock high! HOO-BAH!”—and swiveled their contraptions threateningly this way and that, each flinger fully loaded and clattering with Kwik-Stryk-JAV Serial-Launch Side-Rack javelin munitions, 30mm.

‘Three o’clock’—virtually up the canyon into the oncoming sunrise—was the one direction from which the invaders would encounter no resistance from the defenders.

Time passed, the defenders spun across the sky, the sun sparked between the highest peaks.

High above the shouting soldiers an airy, wheezy chime commenced and lingered, warbled melodiously around the sky. At first, this seemed to go unnoticed on the ground. The chime got louder. Wheeling Flyers intermixed whatever onboard speakers they had with the signal source and output their complement of audio into the air. The chime acquired harmonic dimension, grew with each new contribution, filled out and hung there sustained and amplified across the sky. The wheel went around, each source blending into a vast doppler echo—now a frightful swarming harmony that filled the whole world.

The soldiers below shouted more fiercely than ever. But before long, many reeled and dropped slowly to the ground. Shouts of HOO-AH became scarcer, more shrill.

The awesome resonance filled the world, then stopped. 

A giddy vacuum of silence ensued that seemed to rise up out of the ground. The dizziness even seemed to affect some of the Flyers gyrating overhead. A fair number veered, swung wide. With raucous laughter they quickly caught their stride and jockeyed back in to rejoin the spinning horde.

On the ground, Uni soldiers, hoarse and breathless, had been outshouted. Once again the proud myth that NOBODY outshouts a Unitory battalion, dispelled.

A good part of the silence that now settled over the forest was in fact electronically generated white noise emitted from the thousand amplified speakers gyring above the Uni encampment. This created a soothing, dampening blanket of featureless sound.

Nothing seemed to be happening. Many of the soldiers sat on the ground, grinning and gawking. Some of them got busy polishing their boots.

Then off went the speakers and the thunder of thousands of unpolished boots stamping endless running belts at howling speed, now freed from the obscurity of the white noise, bore down into the clearing.

Now, down through the center of the whirl, calmly descended three oddly egg-shaped craft. Two of them were lit up bright enough to illuminate the ground below. The third seemed oddly sketchy, as across its hull drifted colorful patterns, squiggles, fragments of image, abstractions that wandered into view at one place along the hull and faded out someplace else.

Salmon Trout stood with one boot up, like George Washington on the boat. A light morning up-canyon breeze fluttered his untrimmed beard in the direction of three o’clock. Unlike bold General Washington romantically at war, Salmon Trout slumped, impassively watching the far canyon wall rise before him. He looked more like someone resigned to an unpleasant fate. In fact, he was wondering what he could come up with to say this time that would work better than any of the lip-flaping preliminaries he’d heard so many times before, on these occasions; something he might say that would convince these Uni heroes that they had no chance of getting past his opposing force and had best be gone.

The three came to hover over the tree tops, barely outside effective bowshot range of the ground. A few yards off president Salmon Trout’s port side, hovered Bierce behind his active camo display, diligently recording the scene, muttering intently into various communication devices, broadcasting the heads-up on the situation and attending to feedback from all interested parties.

Jade didn’t stay with the others but continued on down to prowl the space below, the scant buffer zone between them and the ground. Raptor-eyed, she policed the ground, set to suppress any outbreak of hostilities. In the fashion that was her trademark in battle, she bore an over-abundance of arrows fanned out behind her shoulders, forming a green-feathered blaze of menace. Knowing eyes on the ground below followed her movements, eyes that shifted above noseless bloody visages only she could see—and saw her own gaze upon them. Targeted.

It took no time at all for her to detect the hot spots among the slightly disoriented troops. There were plenty of agitators in there. Inflamed. So she put them on notice; darting across the field, slip-sliding high, low, up, away, she wove a deceptive path from one clot to the next.

Ordinary soldiers must have admired the dare-devil flying with only mild trepidation, as the crazy mosquito flitted about the camp, ignoring them entirely. Anyway, they had no orders. And it was the loudmouth agitators the Flyer most favored to visit. It was funny anyway to watch her slide down close and stare the squawkers down.

Only the bosses saw her cold, perfect reflection of malice—it was personal.

“Do I have your attention,” stated Salmon Trout into the loud hailer. “Today let’s have a little confab. Ordinarily, at this point in the proceedings, we would unleash a ton of shit on you. I mean that literally, by the way, in case you hadn’t heard about that item on our menu. Look up and you may spot our team of recyclers, volunteers like all of us here, and see their old rusted-out VW camper van loaded with approximately one ton of dried-out horse shit. When that goes up your nose and down your shirt collar I guarantee you will run to get out from under. The direction you want to run is that-a-way.”

He pointed up the canyon.

“This shit, now, like all our agricultural products, is entirely organic and no horses were harmed in the making of our H-bomb. It could come upon you at any time—hopefully not while I’m down here—but if anyone on that recycling team should get the idea, then you asked for it. And that’s what we have for starters, gents. Now—”

—From the ground below came a loud and prolonged farting sound, followed by titters here and there among the troops. 

Jade edged her flier toward the outburst. It came out of one of the noisier groups.

“Okay, thanks,” continued Salmon Trout, “well done. I agree, it’s a load of crap and might not mean much to you who eat crap every day. But today, out of respect for your woeful losses last night,” he waved his arm at the row of bodies, “we offer you the chance to retreat without further trouble. It should be an easy choice. I doubt many of you give a rip about whatever line of bull you heard that brought you here in the first place.

“Decide quickly. I wish you all good health but today we aim to send you home.

“Now,” he continued, “be advised that it is the will of the people, and it’s not a stale vote. Just this morning we agreed again that you must be gone before sundown.”

A great shout and much thumping came from the sky.

“There you go. So let’s see some action down there, kiddies. Pack ’em up and move ’em out.”

“You total idiot! You don’t vote on us. You’re dealing with a Unity-Corporate Armed Force here, you brainer.” The loudmouthed soldier shook his halberd in the air. “U-C-A-F! HOO-AH! You better watch what you say. Watch your tongue or you can watch us shoot ya down, ya pitiful nitwit.”

A flurry of loud ‘U-C-A-F!’s and ‘HOO-AH!’s bore up the lone halberdsman’s spirited invective.

Jade tilted down, flew to within arm’s reach of the loud halberdsman and paused, eyeballing him. She reached out in a friendly-seeming way and with gloved fingers gave his nose a painful twist, then circled back up to rejoin Salmon Trout and Bierce.

There was a moment of noisy protest in the camp, and scattered laughter. Whistles and cheers came down from above.

“Can I shoot him?” Jade asked president Salmon Trout. “He’s got his clownface on tight.”

Salmon Trout shook his head.

The president quickly fumbled his mike switch and addressed the Uni soldiers. “Keep in mind there are individuals among us would just as soon kill you all, and they only refrain from doing that because they respect the will of the people. Up to a point. About to the point where half the people agree with them. Raise further harms against us and we will drag you down the chute screaming, like cattle to the slaughter. By the way, where’s your commanding officer?”

“Dead! You killed him,” shouted the enraged soldier. “There will be consequensuss!”

“Too bad about that. But he had no more business here than you do. So now all of you have to listen to me. As duly elected War President for the duration of this hostility, I’ll be your decider from here on. Very simply, I have decided you must pack up and go.”

Salmon Trout paused, saw no encouraging movement below and blew into his mike and gave it a few taps. “Come on, you heard. Let’s go. Wrap it up and get outa here. Now.”

“You moron!” shouted the soldier. “There’s no such thing as a war presnit and nobody here voted for your ass anyways. And this ain’t no hostility! We got a mission! We go forward!” He gave his swelling chest a thump. “You be informed, old geez, it’s our job to survey this canyon and secure it. We got propity rights around here and construction crews coming in. Gonna see three gondola cables riding folks into the NuWave Commercial Green Zone out there in the valley beyond. Big brands lined up around the parking lot.” He raised his elbows, pumped his hips once and farted. “Company incentive! I’m gonna get m’franchise!”

Salmon Trout sighed. “Ah well. Before you go forward then, you have to eat the manure. If you come out of that cloud marching the wrong way, a second appetizer will befall you. The voters in a neighboring region have offered to serve up a vegetable soup. They tell me October’s artichokes came in with a big surplus this year, so that will be the flavor of the day. Air soup with body, spine and some edge to it. You’ll enjoy it, I’m sure. After that, if it’s not enough for you, we move on to dishes even more striking. You will be pulped without end by falling objects, poked and harried by our valiant low-runners.”

“Bull Crap!” hollered the lone voice below.

A hearty chorus of HOO-AHs followed.

Salmon Trout’s amplified groan filled the air. “Here we go again.”

Bierce’s voice broke in. “On a different note, girls and boys,” he said, “here’s something to consider. We know a good number of you signed up just to avoid being sent to a debtors work camp far from home. We see that a lot. You borrowed a couple hundred bucks against payday at some point and never could pay the interest on the loan. It kept ballooning, didn’t it? Now you owe thousands on that nothing you borrowed and the court gladly sends you off to the work camp. Once inside, you never will get free. That’s your Uniform Man Hour Theory of employment, indenture and/or conscription. They get you to pretend you have only one way out of the fix they put you in, and you went along with it, and here you are.

So here’s what I have to offer. If that’s the score for any of you and you want your life back, a bunch of us have come up with a partial solution to the problem. Let me suggest that as you hike back up the hill, you keep a sharp eye out for a little shady pavilion our engineers are right now setting up for you. Look for the sign that says, ‘Get It Back.’ That’s where you’ll find our mana machines. People there will make phone calls, deal you some green. Could be a pretty good exit strategy for a lot of you. Just remember, we can get you in the clear only this once. Don’t come back a second time.”

Bierce went silent. Below, the general level of agitation abated, except for a couple of hot spots. Jade gave these some additional suppressive attention. 

In response to Bierce’s offer, a spate of chatter broke out in clumps here and there among the Uni soldiers.

—The skeeter crowd wants ta help us out! Can you credit that? They’re the disaster victims, not us!

—Doesn’t matter. I serve my company true. They promise quarterly benefits.

—Barring layoffs. . . .

—Yeah, it’s wise to expect a Christmas layoff and no bonus. Me, I’m hoping to work into a better position with the company. Besides, with the payroll reduction plan, I see where I’m going to be able to pay back that loan in not too many years.

—Bud, it’s best to keep your nose clean and keep your fingers crossed. The bank owns the company and the company owns your job, and both their management runs the town. It’s God’s way.

—That makes sense. But I mean, check out what the man said. Too good, huh?

—Forget it. I would never accept stolen money.

“You a-holes are totally illegal! Unconsatutional! We demand our rights of free passage!”

Salmon Trout said, “Nah. You don’t have any rights like that. Not when free passage means free pillage. You remind me of the time a band of investors blundered over here, claiming they wanted to establish a tourist resort beside one of our more picturesque rivers. They planned on putting in a dam to make a lake for watersports. The wacky part, I thought, was how they would put a meter on the dam and charge access fees for water going to the folks downstream.

“I told them they would have to take out a loan from the Republic mint in the amount they wished to invest in the enterprise, in our local titanium coinage. Or industrial ingots, if they preferred. They seemed puzzled when I mentioned how they would have to return the money in the same coin and in a timely manner and pay interest to those affected by the operation, equal to the inconvenience. Reservoirs downstream, I reminded the speculators, would need the same water next year as they did this year.

“The young fellas started gasping for air when I mentioned they’d have to pay up front for a detailed assessment of wildlife and plant and fish populations, and the frogs too, and the ducks, every living thing present in the affected area. And if the operation looked like it might disturb these local citizens, the lads would have to compensate ahead for any messed up habitats. And adjust for the ongoing needs of all wild residents, who have squatter’s rights going back umpteen thousand years. Something you already know, I’m sure.”

“I sure don’t!” yelled the halberdsman. “Bambi can just move over while we roll on through.”

“Bambi can scamper,” said Salmon Trout, “but what about the frogs, sir?”

“We blow them up with dynamite!”

“Is that what dynamite is for!” exclaimed Salmon Trout.

“It sure as hell is,” snarled the halberdsman. He jammed the butt of his pole-ax into the sandy loam at his feet, twisted it down so it stood up on its own. Then, cupping both hands beside his mouth he uttered an atrocious sound, something between a squealing pig and a turkey choking on its gobble, a sound like a barnyard massacre that went on and on.

In the calm chilly air fifty feet up, Salmon Trout tilted a look at the thundering rush of eager defenders under the brightening sky. He let out a steamy breath. Then, noticing Jade suddenly at his side and looking intently at him, he shook his head and went on with his rumination, “I remember,” he said, “that the gentlemen offered me a percentage if I went along with their scheme and helped them skip some of that detail work. They kept upping the percentage while we escorted them out. In the end I got 100%—and no dam. Pleasant folks, young lawyers on the make. Very confused, though, about local sovereignty. They thought it was some kind of negotiable commodity. We got enough dams.”

“HOO-AH NO! There ain’t no negotiatin’ about it! And we ain’t offern’ any percentages, either, you crooked bastard. Company bought up this lan’ fair and square!”

“HOO-AH!”

“Got title to that whole valley out there. Titles and deeds and writs and warrants. Got liens!” The halberdsman raised a fist and shook a sheaf of imaginary papers. “Big contracts! I saw one once. Plus, nobody’s takin’ out any loans on your trinket money that ain’t even paper anyhoo.”

“HOO-AH!”

“So get lost! And take your ‘umpteen years’ back to the stone age with you when you go, you old crock!”

“HOO-AH HOO-AH!”

Salmon Trout said, “As to that, once you’ve tasted the stone age you never want to lose it, not ever again. Millions died of thirst and starvation when your civilization collapsed. We survived it. You weren’t even here. I guarantee none of you could ever make it in the zone. So try to understand how I’m trying to save your lives here, boyo’s. We’ll survive you easy enough this morning, and remain snug and cozy here in our little Ninth Amendment Republic, and never think of you again.”

“Bull! Shit! There ain’t no ninth amenmen. You just invented that, you liar! A ink blot off a fucken piece a paper. You are a stone-age gasbag!” The lone halberdsman leaned back and cackled theatrically, earning himself a big round of HOO-AH.

The camp began to seethe. Cries of ‘stop talken ’n start fighten’ rose into the brisk morning air, which in the slight mountain breeze still carried a thin taint of cooked flesh. Ordnance rattled impatiently. 

Resignedly, Salmon Trout let his eyes wander along the top of the canyon ridge. Nothing more would come of talk except more abuse and mockery, then the ineludible mayhem. He’d known better all along, of course. Still, president Salmon Trout continued talking.

“Okay, buddy,” he said, “we understand how a little inkblot on that old piece of paper would confuse you. That’s only because it’s too simple for you to accept. Here’s how it works for us. Say, for instance, that something crazy happens and you and everybody you know goes sliding down a ramp to chaos. Everything’s gone haywire. What can you do about it? Well, you follow the given example as far as that takes you. The way things were. But maybe, under the circumstances, the old ways trip you up too much. You’re slogging through mud, sinking in quicksand. So you take things in hand, rebuild the stage and all the props and you go on, and you’re making it all up on the fly. There’s no standing still, you’re voting on every concern, day by day. And so we forget the old ways. Here, we make our own possibilities.

“Now you soldiers down there, one possibility you face today is annihilation. Or not! It’s your choice.”

“Anarchiss! What is yoor name. Where do yoo live. You buncha bomb-throwin’ torturers and assassins! Primitives in the stone age! Tellin’ ya, you got a enhanced adjustment coming your way, that’s for sure. Put you in a shoe box like a varmint! Practice my surgical strikes—but looky here, mister geez, I’ll give you a heads-up on a tv show that’ll steer you right, if you have only half your brains left. It’s the ‘Ewton Bellicus One Nation in The Bag’ show—on Paychannel! HOO-AH!”

“HOO-AH! HOO-AH!”

“Thanks. I’ll be sure to tune in. Now, let’s get back to the important topic here. You kids got a bum steer getting sent over here. It’s not altogether your fault you cut yourselves up last night. We’re a little sympath—”

“—It wasn’t us! It was you that did it! You hate us!”

“HOO-AH! HOO-AH!” Now more than the bold few joined the commotion.

Bierce directed his amplified voice into the shouting below, “If that’s what you think, you should check out the video,” he said. “See what we saw. Pamphlets you will find scattered around down there show you where you can find our page. Watch that, then see what you think. What I think, your sput rocket act was a dud, a very poor performance, a pitiful effect. But we’ll let the world net viewers be the judge of that.”

War president Salmon Trout cranked up the loud hailer: “Right now, the dumping is long overdue. We all want to go home. You will stop talkin’ and start walkin’. NOW.”

A clamor of yells and whoops and the rattle of drumming came down from the sky, reinforcing the president’s command.

“Don’t talk to us about your damned world judging us!” the hatchling leader screamed up at the wheeling horde of flyers jeering overhead. “We got the whole pie! Full-Spectrum Dominion! F-D-S-! We’re not afraid of your damned horse turds! And not your flying assassins either, you dim-witted old farb!” He howled, “We abolish you! dang-a-dang-dang HOO-AH brang-it-own!” He hopped, stiff-legged, and flang an imaginary ball into the sky.

“HOO-AH! HOO-AH! F-D-S-!” thundered the gaggle of opinion leaders clustered behind the halberdsman. “HOO-AH! HOO-AH! F-D-S-!” More soldiers picked it up and the chant began to swell. 

Jade laughed—stomped the foot pad and jabbed the control bar, sent her flier cornering down in a steep dive. She whooped an earsplitting “HOO-AH!” into the flier’s loud-hailer and arced across the camp, trading glares with angry eyes below, and flew, threw, projected herself upon that braying yahoo—too fast!—she arrived a bit ahead of herself and too low and had to dance her boat on its side, heeling over so she sailed in nearly horizontal with the ground, bow and arrow tracking the target straight down—and the arrow chose its moment—&—down the loudmouth’s gullet midshout, from zero range. The skid carried her onward, the keel of the flier striking through the chorus of cheerleaders at about knee-height, sending their bodies flying, smashed and broken. With the impact, Jade’s craft rolled and righted itself—then up! and out of there—

—in the next instant she was back with Salmon Trout and Bierce, breathing hard and ready for battle. Another arrow, nocked and at her eye, traced a deadly track through the startled men below. A half-dozen now lay in a scatter, one of them quits for sure. Arrayed between the fingers of Jade’s gloved bow hand now projected another half-dozen arrows at the ready.

Over the link, Bierce chuckled. “Did you really have to do that?” he said.

“He said ‘bring it on,’ didn’t he?”

“Yes, but Jade!” Bierce raised his goggles, looked across at her, “How many was that?”

“Enough to quell a minor rebellion.” She flashed him a wolfish grin, then lowering her bow she gave the side of her flier an affectionate thump. “I’m still getting the hang of this thing,” she said.

This exchange was heard by everyone, not excluding any of the Uni soldiers, through Jade’s open mike. A cheer roared down from the heights while on the ground a catapult triggered a volley. Several heavy javelins whistled upward. One shattered against the hull of Jade’s flier, bursting splinters past her face.

“Up!” The presidential delegation dodged into the sky, out of range.

Then the shit fell and the shooting stopped.

Down inside the fragrant cloud of enzymatically modified grass particles there was a lot of choking and hacking, while in the sky there was much laughter.

thirty-one

—a wire-thin man wearing billowy parachute cloth camo pants lunged forward and caught Doc’s arm before she could fall away from the flier. He spun her around to face him.

“Thanks—I. . .” With her free arm Doc pulled Prokofiev’s garish robe closer about her neck. Where had this fellow come from? He must have stepped aboard as she passed under the big rock.

She became aware of the long knife gripped high beside his cheekbone, elbow raised, the thick blade slanting down in line with his forearm. It hovered there poised for a piston blow through her left eye socket.

Surprised, speechless, Doc was falling behind events, still gathering impressions of what apparently had already happened: a bad joke—no. The knife—why?—She attempted to rise and the snaky arm attached to the knobbed fist that had hold of her jerked her off balance—“well, what!” she said. The pale face wove before her, the point of the blade tracking the point of his gaze. She tried to jerk away but the grip on her arm was like an iron claw and she gasped, wilting under the pain of it.

He jerked her upright, bringing them toe-to-toe. The stink hit her then and all was crystal clear.

This was the skulker everyone was looking to capture. He had captured her.

He was young. He wore his hair cropped upright, a shoe-brush bristle across the top of his square head that gave him a slightly monstrous appearance. He stared with eyes that were pale, washed-out, and glittered oddly. There was a stubble of lip hair and under that was a red mouth set in a fruity smile. Dog tags dangled on his wiry shirtless torso, bright anodized blue, stamped with the Unitory pentangle.

Too close, he was standing too close—Doc retched. It was the heavy chemical simulation of decayed flora favored by members of the Unitory crowd. It struck like a blow, a ghastly impact that dragged her down a cloying undertow, with base note of animal putrefaction that brought her gorge right up and choked her.

He propped her up on the narrow deck. 

“Nice dress you’re wearing,” he said. “What brings you here?”

“Let go.” Doc tried again to twist her arm free but he only tightened more painfully and gave her a shake. He thrust her backward against the control panel. Her weight depressed the control bar. The drifting flier nosed sharply down and the deck tilted. The Uni soldier stepped forward, collided with her. 

The soldier stepped forward and the knife hand came down, forward, and crossed under Doc’s chin. The butt-end of the knife thumped into the control panel beside her head. Somehow the blade, quickly reversed in the soldier’s hand, now lined up under his veiny forearm, flat and cold under her jaw. The image flickered out of memory, of Jade skulking behind Henderson, palming the arrow unseen behind her forearm.

Doc flinched away growling and her own arm came up between them and pushed at the knobby elbow near her face. She arched forward, attempting to relieve the pressure on the control bar.

“Get off me! We’ll crash!”

Instantly the stinking assailant pushed away, crouched back an arm’s length and watched Doc struggle upright. The control bar, free of her weight, swung of its own accord back to level and the craft righted itself.

A near thing. Doc glanced with horror at the stony landscape drifting inches below the flier. The impact of colliding with anything out there, she was certain, would have driven the blade into her throat. 

“The fuck,” said the Uni soldier. “Can’t lose the ride. But you, I think, we don’t need.” He gave her a calculating look. “This isn’t the ride we were expecting, is it.”

“I don’t suppose.”

The knife point once again lined up with Doc’s left eye. The Uni reached out, snatched open the front of Prokofiev’s colorful robe. He stared. “Well she-it, a nekkid lady, huh? So what happened, y’dint have time to get dressed this mornin’?” He leered appreciatively for a moment and some of the cold went out of his eyes. He frowned and tilted his head. “You’re no fighter,” he said. “Here you go, cover up.” He flipped the edge of the robe across her and watched her wrap up tight and double-tie the striped orange and black sash.

The stink rolled off him like death and clung wherever he had touched her, sickly, debilitating.

She glared at him. “That’s right, I’m not fighting anybody.” Which was, she realized, exactly how she’d got into this fix. “Now get off my boat,” she said.

The Uni jabbed a finger at her. He said, “You just hold on there. First we’re gonna find out what you’re up to. You got any ID? It may be you’re a tourist.” He sheathed the blade. “Looking for the local hot springs and took a wrong turn, is that it? And came straight to us, all by yourself. Thinkin’ a tourist wouldn’t be that lucky, huh?” He shook his head. “And you’re alone, aren’t you? Could be your biggest mistake. Unless we’re expecting you. Be consequences for sure.”

He gave her a warning look. “See, far as I’m concerned you’re a unauthorized combatitant.” He pointed emphatically at the flier’s deck. “At the very least I got you on transport of tactical uh ordanunce—uhuh, this here engine of mass destruction and all that. So you do as I say or you’ll be dead.”

Doc exhaled into the stink and nodded.

“Good.” The soldier grinned. “I got me a capture! This’ll do wonders for my ops score and not to mention my credit rating. Now turn around.” He circled a finger at her.

Doc faced forward.

“Take us down over there.” The Uni’s finger shot past her ear, aimed at the person garbed in black waiting beside the tree.

She did what he said.

The craft that was no longer hers went forward. How many more Uni were out here? Here was danger. The morning began to go a little dark.

The black-robed figure ahead stood motionless, pointing at the ground before him. The soldier’s fist pressed into her back. His finger pointed at the same spot.

“Come on, git on over there.”

Inside her came a cold bleak weight bearing down, bearing her down. . . while up out of nowhere swelled the echo of a great gong that sang doom through her entire body. . . .

What had she done!

The craft sussed down into the sand by the little stream.

Somebody. . . maybe, stood at the helm of a beached flier in the sand by a little stream, somewhere. . . all still, all closed down in darkness, not aware even that she still breathed.

Distant voices:

“Who Is This?” A voice ponderous, resonant with authority.

“Who knows, Adjustor Mitchum, Padré, Commander sir? She just came floating down the creek.”

“Indeed. She seems to be in a State of Shock. What Use is That to Us? What did you do, Georgie.”

“Nothing, sir. She’s just scared. But that don’t matter. We don’t need the prisoner, we got the boat. Now we can fly out of here just like any a them fucken mosquitos.”

“Should God So Dispose or The Underwriter Allow. To be sure, our awaited Transport is Late. For this, of course, we cannot be held Liable, nor either, Heaven Preserve Us, for our chance acquisition of This. In the first place. Now Contemplate. Has the Deity left us in this Desolation Bereft? Are we to scuttle among the Rocks like Lowly Things? This Vehicle, then, may be God Sent. If we take it, however, will we have Indemnity for such Forced Conveyance of Property? Assessment: We cannot know the Outcome. Proceed with Care.”

“Okay, sir, let’s get her offa there, see how we can fly this thing.”

Hard hands yanked Doc off the flier. She tottered, barefoot, started to walk.

“Stop Her.”

Another voice, female: “I’ll take care of it, Field Adjustor Mitchum.”

Lighter hands snatched hold and steered Doc a few steps to the tree, pushed her down to sit with her back against it. A face tilted into view at the end of the long, dark tunnel. Pinched and harsh. Again the charnel stink assaulted Doc’s nostrils, this time overtopped by a penetrating note of mock citrus.

Nausea. Doc closed her eyes. Footsteps, miasma fading. Distant voices, busy sounds. Doc froze against the tree, all still and full of darkness.

Fright—sudden and electric—cold! It was water, filling her nostrils and flooding her throat. Her eyes flew open and saw nothing. Blind! All a stinking blackness. Frozen breathless blind her body plunged in every direction to get away but she could not turn, not without hands or feet at all. What—how why who where! She tried sitting up. That didn’t work. She couldn’t breathe! She could move her head, but not out of the flood that kept on coming. Drowning! She tried stretching her way out. No good. Her heart went mad. Thundering desperation drove her to try another way out, and another and yet another thing—until bright nothing—nothing changed anything ANYTHING! and that was her last moment of awareness; and that moment passed and she was gone, body and mind ablaze in one frenzied last tumult.

Somebody giggled.

“Do that again!”

“No, let her Rest for A Minute. She needs to Answer a few Questions before The Lord takes her.”

Air wheezed painfully into a constricted throat. A face, stifled, cold, wrapped all up in a sopping hood that stank indescribably. She lay on her back on a bed of wet gravel and her arms were immobilized, roped across her belly. Her legs were roped together tight. Cold. She was shivering.

Alarmingly, a hand came to rest on her shoulder. She lunged and twisted and struggled to get a bite into the hand. No good.

“Don’t get excited, dearie.” It was the woman speaking. “We just wish to talk. There are certain matters we need to explore with you. Things we need to know—unknowns, if you will, that you might illuminate for us.”

“That’s right,” came the soldier’s angry voice, “like how do you get that fucken flying machine started up!”

Voices she knew. Like old friends, almost. I’m back in the world, thought Doc. A wrong world though, dark and cold. She shivered and listened.

“Yes indeed,” came the woman’s brisk voice. “We need your help on that. It’s very important that you tell us how to operate the flying machine. You must do that! For all our sakes. The success of our mission depends on that one thing.”

The soldier was walking away. The delicious sound of crunching gravel. Don’t go! Talk some more.

“Even so,” continued the woman, “we know the answer to that question will be simple enough. We’ll deal with it shortly. But we can’t get by with answering just the easy question, without first touching on matters of much larger import. Don’t you think that’s right, dearie? Can you guess what I’m referring to? Weighty matters. It’s too bad we have so little time. Because today is our golden opportunity and we mustn’t pass it up. Don’t you agree?”

Doc heard the rustle of paper above her, the sound of a pen scratching.

“It’s not nice, is it dearie?” The woman’s voice lilted with sympathetic feeling. “The drowning. We can stop that any time we like.”

“Hurry up with That Bucket, Georgie!” It was the Field Adjustor, Padré, Commander, whatever he was—portentous, impatient.

And what a voice he had—rich in timbre, authoritative, full of promise. A voice you could believe in. Doc felt hope. But hope sent her straight back to cold fear. Why the hope? He was calling for a bucket.

The woman spoke again. “While we wait for the bucket, dearie, you want to begin thinking about things we need to know in order to ensure the success of our mission. It’s a mission of trust, you know, vouchsafed to us by God and the Insurance Company. There’s so much, though, now that we can talk with you, that we wish to know, that it would help us to know. Will you help us? Will you?”

Boots crunched in gravel. Water sloshed in a bucket.

“It’s a skinny little stream,” came Georgie’s voice. “Don’t give much water all at once.”

“Do the Best You Can. You did Well to find such a Bucket in this Forsaken Canyon.”

The bucket handle creaked and rattled.

“Now I’m going to splash you again! After that you’re gonna tell how we operate that fancy-dan skeeter! Tellin’ ya I lassoed one of them things once and I made it go. Came with a bottle of them flyers pills and I took three of ’em. Listen.” Something rattled lightly close to Doc’s ear. That would be her small-sized bottle. Georgie went on, “Does that make sense to you? But then the dang thing crashed and its rinky-dink guts spilled out. And now, the one you brought us don’t have a runner on it and it won’t go at all. So look, I don’t want to hurt you, lady, but I will if you make me. We just need the ride! We’ll probly just cut you loose and fly the heck outa here. Don’t you want that? Say g’bye? Just tell me how I get off the ground!”

Doc coughed and got her voice creaking. She said, “The short answer is, you don’t. You can’t.” She added, “I’d like to ask, though, how close to the zone were you when the comet flew by?”

“Oh you just shut the heck up! I wan’t anywhere near here. Now you are gonna talk and talk fast.”

This time it wasn’t so much a splash as it was a long thin stream that followed her twisting head inside the hood. The soldier was a bit sloppy in the application. There were moments she was able to slip out of the stream. The soldier was not well-practiced, it seemed to her. Maybe he was nervous. Depleted breath exploding in her chest, Doc experienced a moment of hope that she might beat him at this game!

The water ran out.

Overhead, paper rustled, the pen scratched.

“The water will find you whichever way you turn, dearie. This is something we know and that you are to learn.”

The pen tapped peremptorily.

“Criminal! Spy! Terrorist! Dearie, we have compiled a very long list of crimes for you. Years of close confinement await you, depending on how we fit these crimes to your case. The best hope I see for you is that you’ll serve out the penalties concurrently rather than on a consecutive schedule. We’ll see how our judge tailors the orange jumpsuit.

“But honestly, you seem very young. Maybe it won’t have to be so bad for you. Maybe it’s not in your stars. I think—it might be, you know, just possible that you are only a young, simple person, woefully misinformed, misguided! by more clever and ruthless criminals? Tell me you are misguided, led down the wrong path. Don’t speak! Listen.

“I can be your teacher, if you will, a guide along the path that could be a long stretch for you, or a short one. It’s up to you! How does that sound? Shush!

“The path starts at the beginning, just right here, dearie. If you want to learn! First, you must learn the value of a breath of fresh air. Simple as that! Your first important lesson on the path is so simple. But difficult, difficult for a despicable, ungrateful person such as you have been, who takes every breath for granted—am I right?

“Your first lesson is this: there is a price for every breath. A price you owe to us. Tell me, what is the value of one simple breath?

“Once you learn what is owed, I promise you can make it up to us. You will be allowed to teach us what we need to know. We might even let you fly us around on your little mosquito. But for now, you have not earned the right to speak.

“I worry, dearie, will you learn in time? We risk our lives here to save yours. Will you save our lives? Please?”

Overhead, briskly, a dry page turned. For a moment the pen tapped. Briefly it scribbled.

“Now you want to tell us the important things you know. In particular, any little thing that comes to mind, even if it doesn’t seem important to you. Because, you know, sometimes there are things we know that we don’t know we know, things we should know or should have known better, things like ways to save our skins. Tell us the right thing and you could save all of us, especially you.”

An edge of hysteria sharpened her voice—“Here comes Georgie with the bucket!”

Doc shouted with all her diminished strength, “I can tell you you are in no danger. Don’t worry, searchers will find you and guide you safely home.”

The bucket handle creaked and the water came down, this time with particles of silt and grains of sand that washed, agonizingly, under her eyelids; but she’d had forewarning this time so she simply held her breath and shivered.

The woman’s voice lilted on, “Let me give you an example. Sometimes things we know are things we wish we didn’t know. So we don’t think about them and they remain unknown. Unknown knowns, by my book here. Isn’t that right. For instance, I’m going to point out that you know you deserve punishment. You deserve nothing else!”

“I deserve nothing of the kind!”

“Shush! You’re caught, you’re busted! It’s up to you now to know your guilt and accept your punishment. Think of the torments coming to you, the pain, the umm, the bindings. We have scarcely begun with you, dearie. Think of release!—just when you choose it—the thrill! It’s,”—the woman’s voice caught, then she went on, “how far you wish to prolong the torment, that is the question. How far you can explore my universe.”

“I’ve had enough now. Cut me loose.”

“You refuse compliance! Demon of obstinacy, I am a scientist! My Doctrine of Strictures was published in all the best journals! My Doctrine of Strictures encompasses the best understanding of the universe yet conceived! Revealing the secret of its founding in majestic necro-hoardings of past ages. The scope, the awesomeness, the bondage, yes! then the release. And again! All existence tied up in strings, then exploded forth to harvest great profit in the free market! The Doctrine is my cracking open of the everlasting dunes of the pharaohs, rolling out five thousand years worth of mummies—millennia of gains!”

“Roll ’em out,” said Doc. “Dead pharaohs like cigar butts in your cosmic ashtray. I have a new scientific concept for you. Crack me out of this genius rope.”

“Time is short!” the scientist barked. “We cannot draw this out much longer. You must know that it is in your bindings, and not from us, that you will find your proper release. It is you that must save yourself! Is it not so?”

“No!”

“Then will you help us!”

“You behave yourself! Is this how you spend your lives? Torturing each other with lies? Don’t expect me to join you. The help you need is on the way.”

Rumbled the voice of the Adjustor, close at hand: “Then, the Teaching, that all men are Scumbags. If This is what you mean to Imply, it Avails you Nothing, for do not the Patriarchs Themselves nobly Exemplify this? You are No Better.”

“Yes, dearie, just say it because it’s true, honestly admit that captivity is your comfort, that in custody you feel complete. That you are a non-player character, a simple bot eager to jump to just any whim. Say it! Hurry now, quickly-quickly!”

The Adjustor then gave vent, his booming voice filling all space outside the black sopping hood that covered Doc’s face. He said: “God and the Insurance Company are Offended. Continued Intransigence on your part, young woman, can only result in Waste of a perfectly Usable Life! Oh, be not—be not uncompliant, little Lamb. If you, in all Humility, perform as We Wish, I see the Possibility of a small stipend coming your way. I see Blessings, Gratitude, and most of all, Security.”

Under the soggy cloth Doc snorted.

“You don’t wish to help us!” the female shrilled. “By now you should be weeping in gratitude—you burning demon out of hell!”

“Hosanna!” snarled the Adjustor, “We’re going by the Book here. Restrain Yourselve.”

“But this Contractor’s Field Manual is full of crap! It doesn’t work on these demons! Unbelievers! Adjustor Mitchum can’t you understand that? When I get online I’m going straight to the Amygdala Network and give this book a sound critiquing! My followers will take care of those involved.”

Hosanna shrieked at the captive, “You devil’s minion! I see you, you and all, all! all! your kind! I SEE your evil flesh enrobed in hell flames, oh yes! flames that only I can see! You can’t fool me!”

A heavy thump on the ground gave Doc a momentary fright. She heard the rattle and slide of pages close by her head. Field Manual? Well gosh, she thought. As the torture victim she should read the Manual too. How did they suppose she could play her part without reading the script?

“Alas, this is Not Going Well,” stated the Adjustor. “I don’t understand Why you are Upset, Hosanna. But let’s pick it up now, get some results. You’re supposed to be our top scientist, Hosanna, reason with the creature.”

It began again. The sound of the bucket rattling in the stream. The drowning. The wheedling. No longer working under the guidance of the Contractor’s Field Manual, for a while Hosanna assumed a formal, clinical air. She interviewed the captive with the same distant scientific objectivity as any scientist poking a stick at a lab rat.

splash

Hosanna shrieked—“There! We quench your flames! Now quick about the flying thing! Tell us how we make it work!” She gave the captive a stimulative poke.

A moment’s silence, then, “You don’t,” came Doc’s soggy, muffled voice. “What are these flames you’re quenching? More crazy delusion?”

Of all the wrong things she could have said—

“Demon of flame—demon of delusion!” spat the scientist. Then, in a sudden frenzy, “I have the sight! The power to SEE! Heaven-sent as we crossed the mountains into this Gog & Magog hell world. I SEE the hell flames that protect you interlopers. I SEE through your lies, oh ye hell-begot—splash her!” 

“Wait, hold up for a second. You never saw such illusions before you came into the zone?”

“No illusion, demon, when your whirling fire-spitting creatures of darkness emerged from the witchy moon last night! And again this morning, fire demons searching, turning over every rock to uncover us! And now! And, now you answer to me! And to God and the Underwriters sponsoring our mission. Quick! About that flying machine!”

“You’ll never learn to fly.” Doc said, “But I’m curious. You were here when the comet came?”

“Here! Why mention that? Oh, I get it, you’d like to think I’m one of you, is that it? Does one demon recognize another? Tell! Are there any flames about me!”

“Not that I can see.” Doc puffed air and a little water out through the cloth covering her face.

“No! I fled the hellfires on that day of evil, never tempted from my Deity and the Unitory Way! Splash-splash! Give her double!”

splash-splash

Georgie was not getting any better at it.

Doc said, “With that kind of attitude, Hosanna, it’s dead certain you’ll never fly. You say you’re some kind of scientist?”

“This subject is hopeless!” Hosanna screeched. “God-Damn-You-Georgie give me that bucket of piss!”

Her voice whistled in Doc’s ear, “I’ll douse your demon flames forever! Then we’ll see.”

“There is No more Time for Theatrics,” announced the Adjustor. “If this Mission is to continue at all we must leave Very Soon.”

“Where the heck is that other ride we expected?”

“Deviltry begets Deviltry. Circumstances are what Men Make of Them.”

The two men crunched away, back toward the flier, the departing Adjustor muttering, “. . . must Work with That we’ve Got.”

Things quieted down. Vague knocking and shifting sounds came from the vicinity of the glass flier. Hosanna crouched over Doc, methodically dampening demon flames, chasing the shivers that wracked Doc’s body.

After a while the method went to ritual, Hosanna’s actions slowed and she began softly crooning over Doc’s stiffening form. Doc’s awareness shifted location, a little to one side and above her cold body. In this detached state she felt neither cold nor damp but she could acutely hear through the obscuring hood that covered her face. 

The woman’s voice went on murmuring and cawing softly over the bound captive under the little tree. Little flicks of water punctuated each poisonous vocalization. In these hypnotic mutterings Doc gathered hints that the woman imagined the drowned captive to represent some ‘suffering oracle’ by whose misery one might divine the flights of birds, or what weather might pass beneath the firmament of fixed stars.

Some such loopiness. Doc’s point of view snapped back behind her eyes and she pictured no more of the oracular proceedings, but only lay on the soggy ground and shivered. Under the sopping hood she shook her head. Possibly the deranged woman wished to consult star charts lodged in Doc’s brain? Sadly, Doc had none installed.

Though Doc could not join effectively in the woman’s trance, this torment was easier to bear, almost restful. She lay on the damp gravel, quietly enduring waves of shivers, but not at all wishing to disturb the slow dementia of the moment. The morning sun warmed slightly the water-soaked cloth covering her face but there was little comfort in it. The squelchy cotton robe weighed about her and sucked away all body heat. Why couldn’t Prokofiev have chosen wool? Nice, soft, warm soggy wool. . . .

Deep in oracular misery, she fell into a light doze wherein she re-experienced the scent and surprising infinity of flavors of wild raspberry. Complex flavors revisited her palate, modified and replaced the deadly stench still cloying the fabric covering her face. In all the happenings of these past couple of days, that earlier startling moment—the raspberry tree she thought of it as, was nothing big. But getting it back now, she breathed easier behind the hood.

With the sense of revisiting the moment came a feeling of reach. This was new. It wasn’t clear to her whether that little deja forward was a moment that reached back through time to show itself to her, or whether the reach between moments was herself stretching out, bringing in or bringing forth somehow, the forms and sensations of some future time. Of some possibility waiting out there. So far, though, her little sporadic comet-inspired views always did match up with some future event, not usually important, just something there, waiting for her to arrive. Here by the stream, at the extremity of captivity and doom, this fragrant reminder: a moment of a future she. . . assumed she would be present in.

Doc realized, too, that she somehow oddly knew the where and when of each little ritual splash of water cast her way by this Hosanna person. Was it simply the predictable behavior of the woman’s demented state? No, it was odder than that. It was this new feeling of reach, the awareness of events just as they began to happen. In fact, masked and tied up on the ground though she was, it was a while now since she’d snuffled any water up her nose at all.

What was it? Was it the Uni scientist’s intention reaching out of the moment ahead that allowed Doc to avoid the next sprinkle? Or did she herself reach a little forward and create the near miss, a moment before the water flew? Would this reach thing stay with her? Or was it just for now, in this extremity? However it worked, it seemed a finer wrinkle on the future-glimpsing attribute bestowed by the comet, since day one.

All of a sudden, Doc Holiday relaxed into the damp cold. Life looked to be happening again.

She had to get out of this fix she was in, though.

Without particularly thinking about it she shifted a trifle, and under the hood her cold cheek intercepted a well-aimed splash meant to go up her nose. She said, between chattering teeth, “You know you’re being very careless, Hosanna. I won’t be able to help you if I’m dead.”

Hosanna replied softly, “But your flames are not quenched, my dear. They are flickering but not quite out yet. You could never help us until you cease to burn.”

“When the flames go out I’ll be finished. No help to you then.”

Hosanna hissed softly, “Our quest is of so much greater importance than the life of one demon. No demon would willingly help us in this. We seek the metal, you see.”

Doc felt her eyebrows go up. “Oh dear,” she said. “The metal. That’s something new. What metal is that?”

Quickly flew a double handful of water—and by now it was only natural that it missed the mark.

“Look, Hosanna, in a little while you will be found out,” Doc said. “You will all be sent back. Your important mission will be failed. That should please your underwriters a lot.”

“Oh? Are you trying to be sly, demon?” Hosanna laughed, “That won’t save you. Let me tell you why—

“Once was the time of unified creation, the age of Imperious Doctrine standing graciously atop all of humanity. This is a bed time story we tell our children. Prophets of that ancient timeless time shared, by dint of parabolic allegations, the Doctrine Earnest, by which they conveyed every lowly lamb—each and every—into the hidden veils, where dwelt they in bankable, trammel-net tribulation, forever. Perfect then was the order of the days, that each fell by like clockwork. On the scale of measures, that which fell light on the one side was ever balanced by more to the other.”

“Marvelous,” said Doc. “Those had to be the good days. How long did they last?”

“I’ll hear no reproaches of our ideal! It is a story that commiserates our eternal struggle for the great Unity, the entrainment of purpose to the goal, which is that high pinnacle of order atop which we stand, the doctrine pure unsullied by truths untold, as so mumbled in their fatted beards the deities. I can show you a thousand proofs of concept that have come and gone, some lasting many weeks at a stretch! And we come much closer now. We are satisfied our principle works.”

“So much for doctrine, then. Why doesn’t it work?”

Doc easily evaded a perfectly aimed hit of silt dredged out of the bottom of the bucket.

“Demon of disorder! You should know—despite your discordian delusions. Yes!—once we have the perfect metal, the Essence, we shall have the means to fully engage the high digital doom. No! with the metal entrained we take the direct route to everlasting peace, so delicious, an act with no blowback, and put to an end our age-old travails. Yes! In the metallic Essence shall we concatenate all synapses worldwide! All in one Rubescent Night, our final celebration of the one invariant terror. Yes! No! Yes! Rejoice! The pyramid goes up! On this basis we shall raise a city, lit up on a hillside—we could pull your plug. . . .

Close above Doc, a sharp intake of breath and Hosanna went silent.

“Oh,” Doc said, chewing at the soggy cloth covering her face. “Visionary. So what about this metal? It’s not clear what you mean. Does it have an ordinary name? Does it by any chance have flames shooting out of it?”

!

Doc could not see the fury directed at her but she heard the woman winding up, the breath whistling in her throat.

“Honestly,” Doc said.

“It does not!” the scientist shrieked. Then, oddly, the expected bloow-up abated. Breathing heavily, Hosanna went on, low and intense as perhaps addressing the oracle. She panted phrases: “It is the perfect metal, more perfect than gold, which is the perfect metal. Purer even than gold, unwrapped of all properties, discorporate body and soul, dissolved to its perfect form, the nonmetallic homogeneous water, quintessence of the One Thing—the perfect metal possesses all qualities of all metals, is thereby repellent to all metals, and is a metal of all colors. The metal is impossibly rare. The metal is unnatural. It is the zero at the end of the string. It is the true mana. It, perfection, cannot exist in life, nor life in perfection. Therefore the metal, coming through life to achieve death, is not merely lifeless but is perfectly dead. It is the Essence, the Essence of Death itself. It is this substance that our science wishes to possess. . . .”

The two men came crunching through the gravel.

“What Luck Have We, Hosanna?” came the voice of the Adjustor.

“None at all. Are we ready to move forward?”

“We Cannot Go Forward.”

“Nope,” said Georgie. “All we can do is roll that skeeter into a crevice and throw the prisoner in behind. Under it. Then we gotta hassle our way back.”

The Adjustor growled, “To Try Again Another Day.” He sounded worse than irritated.

“But the metal!” cried the scientist. “We’ll have to continue on foot.”

“It’s hunderts of miles where we’re going and there’s mountains in the way. We’re not prepped for that kinda mission, Ma’am.”

“No!” the scientist cried in anguish. “We’ve scarcely begun the journey and we’re already dragging our feet through the dismal swamp!” She paused, then more calmly went on, “It’s true then, Georgie, isn’t it? With no means of transport we really have no choice. We’ll have to skip this then and move on to the greater mission that awaits us.”

“Indeed, we have Waited Too Long, Already.”

“Very well, go. Georgie, find the crevice and do the deed. Then we return.”

“I already saw the crevice, it’s where the bucket, and that made me think, just in case we. . . .”

They stood around silent for a little while, probably looking at the captive. Or not looking at the captive, Doc realized.

She realized it was time to do something. They really would kill her, of course. Murder was very important to the Uni culties, was always implicit in everything they said or did. Murder, she thought, was the one thing that built solidarity among them and gave them credibility far and wide.

So far, though, they hadn’t quite decided it was right for her.

The command came. “Georgie.”

The bucket rattled, the soldier crunched away toward the stream.

Doc pulled in a big breath, slowly so the water stayed out. She thought, ‘where there’s life there’s action!’

“You tin-pots keep forgetting,” she said, “that I’m the only one here who can fly the skeeter.” She blew drips of water from the corners of her mouth and added, “I think I’m compliant enough now so you can rely on me.”

“Praises,” whispered the Adjustor.

The hood came off and it was daylight again! The world around, to eyes fresh-uncovered from gloom, was all glowing gems and air of smoothest velvet, each new breath the freshest and easiest, free beyond imagining. For a moment all the world gleamed bright and welcoming, delightful.

“Praises!” exclaimed the large man in the black robe Doc saw looming over her. It was the Adjustor, operative of ‘god and the insurance company.’ With ponderous solemnity he went on, “At Last you have come to your Senses. We were Fearful the Beneficent Deity would not Show you The Way.”

Hands clasped before him, he squinted down at Doc, lips stretched in a thin smile, jutting eyebrows retracted in an expression of merciful gratitude.

Doc’s hands were clasped too, cold, paralyzed, bound with wet rope.

“Child, child,” quavered Adjustor Mitchum’s rich voice. He bent, cut her bonds with a straight razor that disappeared back under his robe almost faster than he’d drawn it forth. “You’ll Help us Now. . . Won’t You, Poor Lamb.”

Doc nodded, soggy, shivering, grinning up past his new-looking combat boots.

“Goo-o-d.” As though soothingly, Adjustor Mitchum intoned, “Little Lamb. Lamby, lamby, lamb. Now you’re With Us. We’re your People now. We shall pray Thanks, all together, just as soon as you get us into the air.”

“Quickly now,” said the woman. She wore a bright white smock that covered her down to the tops of her combat boots, whose mirror polish sparkled in the cool morning sunlight with beaded droplets of water. “Get up, and then we’ll go.” She tilted bright scrutiny upon Doc, smiling with deep, synthetic concern. She made no move to help Doc to her feet.

The soldier stood by with the bucket, this time better than half full and seeping water down a rusty crack in its side. “That’s right,” he said.

Doc sat up. “Get me something dry to put on. I’m freezing.”

“No time for that, No Time.” The Adjustor beckoned: Come. The kindly gaze he’d adopted for Doc’s unveiling shifted out of focus. Something akin to Wrath now suffused his fleshy face.

The woman lunged forward and shrieked, “Get up and do as you’re told! I have not spent the whole morning quenching your flames, demon, only to be disobeyed at the last moment.”

Doc got her feet under her in the muddy sand. She stood. She tried to relax against the cold, but now she was out of the small warm spot her body had created on the wet ground and the shivering became uncontrollable. Her teeth chattered. She shrugged one arm out of the sodden robe and held the clammy thing in front of her, draped loosely over the arm still in its sleeve. Her frozen hands were in agony as feeling gradually returned to them. She hugged them to her chest, gently rubbing together the inert wrists, then massaging the pitiful fingers as they burned slowly back to life. The morning breeze came down the canyon, cool but dry. The sun might warm her after the breeze dried her off. She took a deep breath of fresh mountain air in which she caught the odor of wood smoke from up the canyon. A faint tang of horse manure. This meant Doc got to grin extra wide at these murderous buffoons.

She faced the woman and opened her mouth to speak but instead fell into a fit of coughing. A particle of air ordnance had tickled her tonsils. Catching her breath, she said, “It sorrows me to have to tell you this after your heartwarming welcome just now, but you people will only be screwing yourselves if you toss me off the flier while we’re in the air. We’ll all fall together, it’s just that simple. Not that it makes much difference to me, at this point.”

The slap was coming. Was it the slap called for by her mild sarcasm or was it the slap her new sense of reach informed her of? Impossible to say. As a matter of course, Doc’s arm went out, crossed wrists with the incoming arm and caught the roundhouse slap to her face before it arrived. Then, as the woman yanked back her arm, Doc rode with it, allowing her assailant to power Doc’s own brisk backhander. The woman tottered back, uttering shrill cries.

Doc laughed, stepped a half-step back and let Georgie’s predictable water toss sail across in front of her and splash all over the ankles and shiny high tops of the Adjustor’s boots. 

Adjustor Mitchum glared at the soldier. He stomped water off his boots. He speared a finger at the soldier and shouted “Indignity! Therefore, Penitence! Do you piss on the meat at the meat market? No. Then how mightily much more must you respect the Body of the Patriarchs? You will Pray over these boots, Georgie. Make them shine!” He glanced in Doc’s direction. Her delighted grin gave pause to his righteous Wrath and diverted his attention to her. Looking at her with deep disapproval, he said thoughtfully, “But all in good time: All In Good Time. Now We Must Go.”

Doc raised a hand and said, “Listen up, you silly fools—ow! ⁠

She hadn’t been paying attention. Georgie’s hand caught her hair, twisting his fingers in tight, and his face twisted in mingled fury and sorrow. As though it was her fault he’d peed on the patriarch, he sputtered in her face, “Penta-pentinance, did you hear that? I had a bonus capture on you! But you made me screw up again anyways! They’ll take away my Bronze Card this time. But I—I will send you to your Damnation!”

“You better listen to what I have to say, Georgie,” Doc said.

Trembling and breathing hard, the Uni tightened his grip, pulled her closer to his upraised fist. He raised an anxious glance to his superior.

He was looking out for himself in the wrong direction. Doc dropped Prokofiev’s wet robe and jabbed up under the soldier’s arm, delivering a cluster of clawed fingers into his eyes just as hard as she could make it. One finger squished straight into an eye socket and she felt the eyeball jumble around.

The Uni jerked back clutching his face, pie-hole agape screaming inarticulate threats.

“ E-NOUGH ! ”

Adjustor Mitchum stepped between the combatants and faced Doc. “Young Woman,” he began, a dangerous buzz coming into his voice, “you don’t seem to Realize the Gravity of your Situation. You have wreaked a Vengeance upon a person duly Authorized by Myself to serve as God’s and the Insurance Company’s sanctified Deputy. Assault Without Grounds! You said you were going to be Compliant!”

“But I am compliant!” Doc protested. “Ask your scientist here. For every action there must be an equal and opposite! Did I hesitate to respond to any of these assaults? Not at all.” Doc leveled her eyes at Hosanna. “You got exactly what you asked for, quickly and with no hesitation on my part.”

“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” 

The scrawny red-faced woman rushed forward, raking the air with firey-hued fingernails. “You have not earned the right to speak!” she screamed. “Eyes aflame! Enrobed in fire! Lies! Lies!” She lunged, arms outstretched.

Quickly, Doc side-stepped. Her heel came down on a stiff twig, which she had to ignore as the woman’s expensive-looking fingernails flashed narrowly past. The woman spun about, screeching inarticulate hate. Doc readied herself for another assault, acutely aware that she was, for the moment, all bare skin.

“Hosanna! Calm yourself,” spake Adjustor Mitchum. “Although your Passion is Commendable, this is not the Homeland Pure where Godly Zeal is condoned. We deal here with one of a lower order. Assuredly, we will get what we require. Be at Peace, Hosanna, as His Righteous Tool.”

Hosanna, though submissive to the Adjustor’s unassailable assurance, was not at peace. She bellowed with all her force, “You will not foil my mission!” She flung out an arm toward Doc’s flier, “Go gack-hack gar!”

Doc lifted her foot, thumbed the heel gingerly. She studied the red-faced frazzle. “All right, let’s go. Let’s go get your crazy metal. If you move quick we just might make it out of the canyon before people catch up with us. Get me some clothes to put on.”

Adjustor Mitchum pointed. “Hosanna, we have all suffered enough humiliation at the hands of this evildoer. Get something to cover it up.”

Mitchum then stepped briskly behind the little tree and in a moment came back around shrugging into a heavy black vestment, a seriously bulky garment, Doc thought, the wide sleeves bulging low and swaying as Mitchum adjusted internal straps.

Vestments rigged satisfactorily, the heavily-robed man huffed sonorously through his nose, squinted at Doc. His hands came together beneath his chin. His feet fidgeted, scuffling him around a tight circle in the sand. He scanned the sky muttering “whores & vagabonds, whores & vagabonds,” his eyebrows going high then low, up then down. His lips stretched in a grim smile. He stopped circling.

“No Time,” he said. He pointed at Doc. “No more time to dispute your lies. The transport we expected. . . never mind. YOU will pilot the craft. Georgie, load the gear and let’s roll.”

“Fucken-A ! ”

Hosanna threw a pair of gray-tone camo pants at Doc’s feet, along with a jacket of leafy-orange camo. In Doc’s weakened state, the Uni stench that came with the garments made her feel sick, but she quickly put them on.

“You’re sticking with me.” Deftly, the Adjustor roped Doc’s wrists again, this time with a couple of feet of slack between them, then knotted the end of a second rope in the middle. He tied the other end of that rope into a sturdy slipknot, which he tightened around his own forearm. He shoved her toward the flier.

thirty-two

High above the fray, Prez for Life Salmon Trout shook his head with disgust. The Uni had made their choice and now were finding out the hard way about ignominious defeat. As president, he was in command of every little thing if he had to be, and now, after having done his bit of negotiating and surprising no one with his failure to shake Uni intransigence, all that remained to do was just good old business as usual, and that was something everyone already understood.

Competitive dumping was in progress on selected targets below, while at the fringes of the lingering shit cloud low-runner hordes barged around on sledges and rams. They chased, prodded, goaded and generally joyously abused any soldiers still pushing forward.

Jade desperately wanted to indulge her hobby of artful assassination but Salmon Trout, experienced hand and war president, considered that she was already a sought-after target and would be safer at his side.

He said, “I’ll see to it you get credit for all half-dozen you took out this morning, Jade, even though you didn’t shoot but one of them. Besides, look at your good work last night. All in all, what do you think? Probably a dozen in just this one fracas.”

“If you count those five wounded, then I count fourteen in all.”

“Anyway, it’s unstrategic to kill off the entire leadership! Somebody’s got to be alive on the ground to point ’em in the right direction when it comes time to give up and go.”

Circling near at hand, Bierce continued commentary and video coverage, taking suggestions from viewers afar who desired closer observation of particular persons or events. He directed a party of daredevil camera operators flying rapid forays into the action below. Distant mothers wanted to see their sons and daughters in action, and not just from the the kids’ shaky phone shots. Likewise, youngsters wanted to admire their parents’ and older siblings’ exploits. News organizations across the world queued up online to get Bierce’s on-demand realtime footage of the event.

The battle ebbed and flowed but it wasn’t much more than an hour before Unitory Command gave the inevitable order to retreat, grotesquely amplified: urrgh urrgh, urrgh urrgh. Thereafter, jeers and whistling were all that fell upon the beaten soldiers. Soldiers that could walk staggered away supporting those that couldn’t, while low-runners beset and pestered the rearmost, encouraging a speedy departure.

A call came in on the president’s special frequency. The leader of a search party was inquiring about the whereabouts of Doc Holiday, asking if she had come up to join the battle. She hadn’t checked in and nobody knew her phone number.

“Here, talk to Bierce.” Salmon Trout switched the call over, his Commander in Chief priority interrupting whatever business Bierce might be engaged in.

Then Salmon Trout switched on his Public Announcement override and made a statement to the world at large. 

“Kiddies, this is the Chief,” he said. “If anybody sees Doc Holiday, tell her we’re out looking for her. I’m kind of responsible for bringing her into this action, so I have decided it is my highest priority at this time, to help find her and make sure she’s all right.

“For now, in case I’m late for the party afterward, let me advise you all that supervising this heroic and historic battle has been a proud moment for me. As always, it’s an honor to serve, and personally I’m gratified by your confidence that I wouldn’t interfere too much in the natural course of events. So far, up here elevated above all the fun, I see you have all been admirable in your diligence and restraint. That’s worth celebrating as much as any victory. Let me just remind you all once again that our assignment today is to drive out this Unitory crew, but not punish them unnecessarily.

“Let me add, in this particular action they have already done themselves more than enough harm to satisfy me. So let any further resistance be rewarded with just a poke or two. Another thing to remember: any diehards that keep on fighting are fighting for the wrong reasons, which they would abandon if they knew any better. Have mercy.

“So I leave you to it, with this reminder: just line ’em up and march ’em out quick with their dead and wounded—and by the way, make them pick up all the trash they’ve strewn around our beautiful canyon. That’s all for now. Party on! I go.”

President Salmon Trout’s flier drifted up out of the center of the melee and departed.

HAIL TO THE CHIEF! came the great shout all across the battleground. Hundreds of hands waved acknowledgment to this day’s great leader.

The mopping-up continued, low-runners lurching over the rocks and blundering between the trees, cudgels and sharp sticks at the ready. For the next hour, the victors generally applied much storm and stress to keep the defeated army motivated and struggling back up the hill. Around the mana machines, lines of soldiers lengthened. These noncombatant types were left in peace, eventually to straggle up behind the defeated.

thirty-three

Three fliers flitted unseen a few hundred feet above the canyon floor, each an indistinct, moving patch of morning sky above the canyon’s rugged terrain. Had anyone on the ground below looked up, they might have spotted the dark flying hair and staring black goggles of one rider who, leaning out beyond the camouflaged skin of his craft, glared down with urgent intensity on the moving scape below. From another of the unseen craft they might have caught a momentary glint of late morning sunlight off the wide lenses of a large binocular scope.

There were few enough searchers scattered about and only one rowdy low-runner team below who might have glimpsed them had they looked, but none did. So Bierce, Jade, and president Salmon Trout slammed past unseen, headed down the canyon.

Bierce led, scouting the landmarks below while keeping an eye on the coordinates brightly projected on the back of one goggle lens.

“Got it. Her nav locator shows she’s on the ground.” He pointed obliquely down past a tumble of large boulders near one side of the canyon. He jabbed a finger. The flier was down there.

Bierce nosed down, began cautiously descending toward the source of the signal.

Salmon Trout gave Bierce a thumbs-up. He put away the presidential binoculars and began circling, flying a wide surveillance sweep of the area.

Jade, on the other hand, took the express elevator.

Jade dropped out of sight and Bierce cringed. He leaned out and eyed her descent. He could only hope she stayed under the liht limit notched on her flier’s dial. Would she even look at it? He glanced at his altimeter as she fell away. About three hundred feet. The notch on the dial was, after all, only a subjective guide, merely a suggestion he’d reinforced as best he could in the minds of his new test pilots. If she let it go into free-fall she’d bounce up the flame after 300 or so feet, in just a few seconds. . .

—but no. . . ha! Controlled flight at the freakin’ limit. That’s Jade for you, he thought. He watched her pull up, go in flat over the rocks. He shook his head, let out his breath.

In four seconds Jade was among the rocks, eyes peeled for any glimpse of Doc Holiday or her flier. 

And there was the flier and some people milling around it. Speaking quietly, she reported back: “See that tree? She’s there. And there’s company. I count four all together.”

“Okay, Jade. Glad you’re still in one piece,” said Bierce. “Don’t let them see you. Let me put a scope on them. Want to make sure we have them all.”

“Good thinking,” said Salmon Trout. “From up here, so far, everything looks quiet in the neighborhood. The only weather I see is clustered up beneath that little tree.”

There was a moment of silence. Then Bierce said, “Scopewise, we have Doc and three others, one of them female with a lighter shade of hair, wearing a white trench coat or smock, and shorter than Doc.”

He said, “There’s a large dude all dressed in black. He’s tying up Doc’s hands right now. Putting her on a leash!”

Then he said, “They’re up to something. Doc’s dressed up in Uni garb. . . the big leafy camo style, stands out real good. Autumn in Vermont, you know. She’s barefoot.

“Let me check something. Yep, in ultraviolet they all show bright as snowflakes. Laundry brighteners could only mean Uni. So that makes three hostiles and one Doc Holiday. Let’s go get ’em.”

“How the heck did she get involved with this gang of warthogs, anyhow?” said Jade.

“Dunno. We’ll ask her in a couple of minutes.” said Bierce.

Salmon Trout said, “Hold on a second, let’s think about this.”

“Think about what?” said Jade.

“The hostage situation.”

“We have a hostage situation?”

Bierce sighed, “Yeah.” His fingers drummed the side of his flier. “She’s leashed to the big guy now. And they’re too near each other for me to. . . .”

Jade whispered fiercely, “They’re loading up the flier right now. We have to do something!”

Salmon Trout said, “If we jump down there and capture them all and rescue Doc, that would be just very excellent. But they’re Uni and will have no compunction about murdering Doc if she doesn’t make a good hostage. It’s pre-programmed. One of them will do it with his last conscious twitch. Besides, my weather eye sees an unhappy knot of storm winds down there. They’re jumpy.

“So let’s just kill two of them, then,” said Jade. “I can do that pretty quick. I’ve got all three noseless wonders in sight right now. Tell me which.”

“I know, Jade. I really wish I could let you have the joy of it. But they’re holding Doc too close. We’re going to have to negotiate.”

“Negotiate! Uni don’t negotiate, they just play on our weakness, Sam. So let’s not have a weakness this time. Let’s kick their heartless arses and be done with it.”

“The point is,” said Bierce sadly, “these particular Uni need to see a way out of the situation they’ve achieved here, or without a doubt one of them will kill her.”

“Then they’ll die. I’ll see to it,” Jade reassured him.

“And that’s what they know,” said Bierce. “And that’s how they have the edge on us, because in their imagination when they die they ride straight on to some kind of supernatural vacation land. It’s their little bit of silliness, but there it is, all down through the ages. They like to think dying doesn’t matter so long as they wreck something before they go.”

“Brainers!”

“ ’fraid so, kid. Shambling zombies,” said Bierce.

President Salmon Trout said, “We’re not going to risk losing Doc to your zombos.”

Bierce said, “If they let her go, they can shuffle back on their own.”

“Right.”

“If they don’t?”

“Then,” said the president, “we follow whither they lead us. They’ll find themselves hostage to her well-being, in that case. Hostage-taking works both ways, see.”

“What can these fools want? They don’t look like just any Green Zone bandits. What are they up to?”

“Your president suggests we go down and find out,” said Salmon Trout.

“You go talk!” On the ground, Doc Holiday slanted an inquiring glance in the direction of Jade’s not visible, but not so distant craft.

“I will. Who’s coming along?”

“Me,” Bierce said.

“. . . yeah, alright, come on down.”

thirty-four

Switching out of invisibility mode, the three slowly drifted forward, in plain view of the busy group around Doc’s flier. Bierce circled slowly overhead, keeping an eye on the surrounding scrubby landscape.

The first to notice them was the skittish-looking female. She squawked in alarm and pointed at the three fliers’ sudden appearance only yards away.

As Salmon Trout’s guided his flier nearer the ground, the skinny soldier dropped the load he was carrying to Doc’s flier by the stream. He sprang forward, drawing a big knife from a sheath that dangled from his ballooning camo pants. He took a stance in the pebbles beside the stream, squinting red and swollen eyes uncertainly between his party and the encroaching fliers.

The woman hopped close to the black-robed man, who was just then lashing the rope looped between Doc’s wrists to the flier’s forward tie-down, well out of reach of the flier’s controls.

Glancing after the shirtless soldier, the robed man stepped hastily behind Doc, putting her between himself and the newcomers. With a hasty jerk he tightened the knot that held her to the flier. The white-coated woman stayed close, clutching his voluminous sleeve.

Jade pushed ahead of Salmon Trout. At near ground level her flier drifted, deceptively switching across all parties’ fields of view. She lurked forward a few feet more, then came slowly about, broadside to the tableau of kidnappers and their captive. She’d found her range. The point of a green-feathered arrow nocked to the bowstring drooped politely toward the ground. Two or three others dangled between the fingers of her bow hand.

One or two of the nearby rocks might be large enough for a man to hide behind, or in the shadow of. Jade looked up at Bierce, pointed her chin at the rocks. He waved ‘all clear.’

Poised a dozen feet overhead, Salmon Trout spoke: “Good morning, people, we’ve been looking all over for you. Glad we found you and I hope all is well.” Seemingly exercising the same open-handed approach that hadn’t worked earlier in the morning, he went on, “Coincidentally, it happens that we’ve also had an eye out for that person you have tied up to the flier.” His arm went out in a wide palm-up gesture, taking in the flier, Doc and her captors. “We thank you for capturing her for us. We hope she hasn’t caused you too much trouble. But now we’ll be happy to take her into custody and escort all of you back up the hill. With gratitude.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction he intended to escort them.

He waved cheerily at Doc and said, “Doc, I didn’t know you were into that S&M stuff. Bondage is it now?—on top of everything else? And look at you in that eastern getup. Even I am surprised. But now isn’t, by the way, exactly the right moment to indulge your private urges. Let’s get your friends to untie you and then you and them can chat while we all move back, without any trouble at all, up the canyon. Up there the party’s about over so your friends’ people can safely welcome them back.”

Doc laughed ruefully. She twisted her head and spoke to the man hiding behind her. He shook his head.

She called out, “Good try, Sam, but these dogs won’t play. They are taking themselves very seriously and claim to have a weighty mission underway.”

The man in black clamped her shoulder in his big fist and spoke in her ear. His muttered growl rolled out to the ears of Doc’s rescuers.

Salmon Trout said, with eager interest, “A mission! Well then, Doc, perhaps we could help them along on that mission, if they were to release you into our custody. No reason we couldn’t let them take a little detour on their way home. And certainly we’re in a position to make their journey safe, if any difficulties should arise. Did they mention where they wish to go?”

The man blackly attired opened his mouth as if to speak.

Salmon Trout continued, “All in all, it would be just as well if they released you now.”

Unfolding from out of the individual’s ponderous black vestment, the straight razor appeared and its edge glittered in the morning sunlight as he held it to Doc’s throat.

In round, fulsome tone the enunciation came: “Leave us Now, or the Trollop Dies.”

“Let’s think about that, sir,” rejoined war president Salmon Trout. “Would you rather all die here miserably and not complete your mission, whatever that may be? Why not go away now and try again another day?”

“But no!” The skinny soldier sprang into action. “No, let’s be friends instead.” He hopped bobbing and weaving over the pebbles toward Jade. He addressed her: “I’m your friend, let’s be friends,” and he waved an arm back toward Doc. “Me and that slut over there are real good friends by now.” He continued the assault, grinning lopsided like a naughty cowboy. “You and me can be just as good a friends as that!”

Jade grinned back at him, slightly dropping one shoulder so the point of her arrow drifted a little more in line with the shirtless target he offered. He kept coming forward and she let her craft edge back a little, and she bent her raptor-eyed gaze upon him—

“Forbear!” the great voice boomed. “Georgie! Penitent Supplications—This: Very: Instant.”

The soldier halted. He half-turned, looked back at his robed senior. He lowered his head, seemingly guilty of something terrible. He slowly sheathed his blade and slumped. His knees crunched into the damp sand and gravel by the stream bed. Palms together, he stared at the ground and went into a quick mumble.

Low and intent and at double speed the young soldier mouthed a recitation, a long list of phrases that flowed and ebbed and flowed forth, taking any number of breaths to repeat. Enough of this and his voice strengthened and he raised his head and looked out at the bright star of day skating above the canyon on this cool autumn morning, and he commenced to glow with some ardent sweaty passion. The look of shame and guilt he’d started with was gone. He raised one knee out of the grit.

Jade said, “Success. Your mask is on tight. If you’re looking to take that ride now, buster, I’ll be happy to punch your ticket.”

“Look out down there, Jade,” called Salmon Trout. “Keep your eye on that monk. I’ve seen his kind of sparks before.”

The point of Jade’s arrow shifted slightly. Her look of distaste switched to impatience. She opened her mouth to speak again.

Then the monk stepped out from behind Doc, leaving his razor hand at rest upon her shoulder. He adopted a sidelong pose from which he cast a disapproving look upon the scene. He frowned at his soldier, kneeling there bogged down beside the stream. He glanced at Jade floating almost within the soldier’s reach. He jabbed a finger at the soldier.

“Full Faith and Credit, Georgie!” the black-garbed man bellowed. “All Rescinded! Who veers from the Straight Course casts away All Profit. Assessment: You must Begin Again, a New Account.”

The penitent’s eyes flew wide. His face lost its glow, paled and writhed with some unspeakable affliction of feeling. His skinny knees shifted, sank back, sank farther into the damp sand. He breathed the word ‘rescinded’ as though it contained all the anguish in the world. He bent over into the gravel, breathing rapidly. He emitted a brief high piercing whine and his head jerked up, inflamed eyes wildly searching.

Jade lowered her steel-tipped skewer and a look of amazement brightened her face. “Now the mask is slipping, guy,” she said.

Anger. Guilt. Despair. All these feelings mingled in a twisted face and sudden tears and the young soldier’s chest heaved.

Jade’s mouth tightened and she glared, bright morning sunlight off the surrounding rocks flaming yellow in her eyes.

rrech,” she said. “Baby-sitting is not my job. I’m not going to waste my time watching a grown man blubber.”

Sunk deeper into the damp sand, the youth shuddered a sigh and looked at her. He eyed the shaft poised between Jade’s callused fingers. That was meant for him. His eyes flicked across the array of green feathers fanned out behind her shoulders and he gave her a crooked smile and trembled.

“I can’t live anymore.” His voice broke. “All the promises, again and again and again and again. There’s no pleasin’ ’em nohow! My soul is all corroded.” His eyes wandered, red and angry, taking in the arid, hopeless landscape.

“You have a soul, then,” said Jade in a resigned tone. “What’s that like?”

“Oh, who knows any more,” he said. “It’s a special suffering, I guess. People have to suffer. Suffering makes us good people!”

“Despite whatever wickedness,” Jade suggested.

“Or, it’s like conscience.” Almost thoughtfully he added, “must be something else than just conscience though, ’cause you give that up when you sign up.”

Jade said, “That makes sense. Your ilk don’t show a lot of conscience.”

He tipped his head in Doc’s direction, “She learned that.”

“Our friend. Do you think your making her suffer makes her a better person? Why don’t you go over there and set her loose?”

His red mouth stretched wide. He bawled, “Aw, it’s all shit! Nothing’s any good on this earth! I’m just waiting t’get t’heaven somehow.”

“Sure, it’s a quandary sometimes,” said Jade. “Earning your way into heaven by killing families and kidnapping friends. Where’s the joy in that?”

“Huh? I’ll get all the joy I want when I get t’heaven. That’s all I know.”

“When will you be leaving? And what are you crying about?”

“They’re takin’ it from me! Everybody knows you can’t get inta heaven without good credit, and all premiums paid! That’s the measure of goodliness. ‘In debt to the lord unto the last nickel, less and ye shall not arrive’.”

Jade laughed. “That’s right, no more faith and credit for you. Why don’t you just get on your feet and take a hike, get your stinkin’ butt away from here. It was very foolish of you to step out into the open like this.” She unstringed the arrow and rapped it against her bow handle, rasped it suggestively across the notches carved there.

“Can’t go back. Then I’d be a unlawful non-combater. I got a contract, even despite all of this.”

“I won’t shoot you in your present frame of mind, buddy boy. You’re unhinged. Seems like that last big pray didn’t push back your feelings enough. No more special exemption for you, am I right?”

“Hell on Earth, you damned zoner! I got no credit! You heard him. All rescinded! No credit, no confidence. I gotta own something to give up, to get that back. It’s a ownership society and I can’t own if I can’t owe.”

“That’s what you’re blubbering about? Well-well, trot over there and set our friend loose and I promise I won’t shoot you. You have nothing to lose anyway. You don’t even own your own freakish life.”

“Can’t.”

“Do it!”

Tears trickled down. “My life is more than worthless now,” he choked bitterly. “My family will suffer. . . .”

“You little pustule. You’re out here gangstering and you have a family at home you care about?”

He slumped farther into the grit, presenting the image of soul-suffering. He raised his head. “All I got’s the insurance,” he said.

“The insurance?” said Jade.

“The life insurance. Eleven thousand if I should fall. My kid should get something out of this. And his mother, a couple or three month’s rent.”

“Eleven thousand is all you’re worth?”

“I guess. Adjusted for inflation.” He came slowly to his feet and scritched a couple of steps over the gravel, in her direction. “Maybe. It’s in the contract.”

“Okay, stop there.” She backed the flier off a bit.

He didn’t stop but slogged ahead after her, up into the dry crumble below the canyon wall.

“Mercy,” he muttered. He picked his way into the larger rocks, gradually backing her into steeper terrain. He lifted an arm in a half-hearted attempt to get a grip on the flier but he had no luck with that as Jade retreated steadily before his shambling assault.

She stretched forward and whooped the arrow past his face then restrung it on her bow.

Come to teeter on one of the larger rocks, the pursuer gave a shaky laugh and said, “oh.” With studious care he drew out the blade and waved it at her.

She shot him through the heart.

Only formerly now a naughty cowboy, the scrawny youth stepped off the rock and sank again to his knees, gently this time, while his pierced heart fluttered and poured out within. He looked up at her briefly.

“Pity,” said Jade.

It didn’t take long and he fell forward onto the stony ground.

The Uni female plunged forward through the shifting pebbles, white lab coat flapping behind her, and knelt beside the fallen soldier. She plucked at the steel arrowhead sprouting out of his back. “Georgie?” she said. Her mouth opened, a long narrow zero. “Georgie!” she said.

—and the man in black raiment stepped out into the clear. Once again his bushy eyebrows retracted, steepling up in grief at what his eyes beheld. Slowly he assumed a wide stance, gently twisted his boots into the sand and brought up his hands in the prayer position. . .

The woman stared blindly up at Jade, apparently unaware that the next arrow was for her. “He prayed! oh. . . he prayed. . . .”

“Is that what that’s called? He was trying to get back with the program. But he didn’t have it in him any more and he stopped doing it. Isn’t that right, Flebrin.”

The crouched woman jerked. She focussed more sharply on Jade. The puzzlement on her face grew rapidly into an expression of incredulity and then horror.

“Who. . . ? Do I. . .”

“Yes, that’s you, all right. Out from under the studio lights you look more like a damp salad shrimp, Flebrin, but I’d know you anywhere. Murdered any astronomers lately, have you?”

“You!”

With the recognition, Hosanna Flebrin’s face contorted through a number of hideous expressions. She fell back off of Georgie, who moved no more. Wild-eyed, she crouched beneath Jade’s dart, this time aimed not for the heart but for Jade’s preferred, more thought-provoking throat shot.

In the distance, Doc yelled, “Jade—look out!”

Doc lunged against the rope that restrained her, trying to tackle the somber-robed man. She kicked out, flew to the extent of the short tether and fell to the ground, unable to reach him.

At first she hadn’t heard the thin squealing sound of a charging capacitor ramping up within the Adjustor’s low-hanging raiment. Then another started whistling up, combining in dissonance with the first. Something was about to happen, she didn’t know what.

The Adjustor bellowed, “Now Hear The Word!” with such grating authority that all eyes turned to him. 

Doc yelled again and Jade moved, took the elevator up a couple floors for a better view. But there was only the fellow standing there with his hands together, praying for the fallen. She zigged and zagged back toward the ground.

“Please Jade! Get back! Git!”

Jade, though, wasn’t going anywhere when clearly she was most needed here. Instead, she gyred a sharp turn to achieve a better shooting angle and gestured sharply in Doc’s direction, a vehement palm thrust at the ground.

sfut!—white smoke billowed out of a coal-black sleeve.

Even as Jade’s arrow flew in response, the tiny rocket flitted up to meet the flier.

In the same instant, Jade stood the flier on end and dived for the sky.

There was a bang. Someone on the ground screamed. The flier yawed violently, rolled—

—one long step over the gunwale as the craft turned over, and for a moment Jade balanced on the inverted hull, but—with nowhere to go from there she stepped away, leaned back into space.

thirty-five

At the sight of Adjustor Mitchum lying on the ground, Hosanna Flebrin cried out. She sprang toward the unmoving Adjustor, but tripped and sprawled, clattering into the rocks. For a moment she seemed lost, rattling around in a sea of sharp points and edges.

Then, wide-eyed, meeping and chittering, she scuffled back to crouch at dead Georgie’s side.

She pushed at the corpse, pulled it over onto its back. She stared into its eyes and spoke, then paused, head tilted, listening.

Her hand went out, fumbled up Georgie’s big knife where he’d finally dropped it.

Her eyes darted everywhere at once. Nothing was stopping her. She scuttled forward, red-faced and foaming obscenities, toward the downed archer lying motionless on the nearby slope.

Bierce was on his way as quickly as he could, but so unexpected was Jade’s disaster that he was caught flatfooted, being at the moment on the phone calling up reinforcements and at the same time reprogramming his flier’s optical skin to flash a beacon of bright moving colors—or maybe let’s try this pointillistic mode, instead—that might look cool—to guide them. Thus he arrived a second or two late.

Hosanna Flebrin reached her quarry at the same moment Bierce lurched down upon her, sword outstretched.

Grasping the knife handle in both hands, she fell upon her victim, stabbing the blade into the chest of the one person in this diabolical hell world who knew—this foul demon!—who knew her from of old. Plus who, moments ago had martyred poor Georgie!

Bierce tilted past above and put a couple of inches of steel into the back of Flebrin’s leg.

The assassin leaped away with a piercing screech and skittered off down the crumbling slope.

“Adjustor Mitchum! Reverent Mitchum!” Trailing not much blood but squawking ear-piercing lamentations, Flebrin crawled and hitched her way back to her man in black, who was now just part of the pile of junk her expedition of three had become, all piled under the little tree beside the skimpy creek.

Bierce and Salmon Trout crouched over Jade’s still form. The light armor of her vest, laminations of lacquered silk quilted into layers of compressed felt, was capable of stopping or turning aside most hand-flung missiles but had done little more than slow the knife point borne down by the weight of her attacker. On removing the vest carefully from around the blade stuck in her chest, they found that there wasn’t much outward bleeding but they estimated the wide blade was in at least three inches and therefore penetrated the lung. Moreover, Jade was unresponsive, not conscious.

She could quickly drown in her own blood from internal bleeding.

Worse, Jade wasn’t breathing at all. Who could say what the fall had done to her?

A commotion in the distance. Cries of grief and anguish. And Doc hollering yet another urgent warning.

Bierce looked up and saw that the black coat on the ground was stirring. The man was sitting up! 

Up he came. In one hand he clutched Jade’s arrow. He looked at Bierce and ran a finger around the puce-colored straight-edged collar that stiffened his neck. He clacked knuckles against his hardened chest and grinned. His eyes danced whitely, bright with murder.

Bierce turned back to Jade, urgently. Behind him, Adjustor Mitchum Reverent Mitchum address his remaining cohort with unimpaired sonority, “Professor Flebrin, we have Work to do in this Blighted Land. Come. Your Science Awaits. You are not, I trust,” he said smug and pompous, “Martyred beyond Further Utility?”

With glad sobbing cries Flebrin scooted on toward Doc’s flier, dragging her agonized limb.

Adjustor Mitchum pushed Doc onto the flier and stepped aboard himself. Hosanna Flebrin clambered to the side whimpering and was yanked aboard. She found space for herself curled on the small cabin floor at the feet of the others.

Mitchum leaned back against the rim of the open cockpit, straddling, in his spreading raiment, nearly the entire width of the flier. He scowled down at his wounded companion. “Buck up, Hosanna, the Mission is still On. You Know what Lies Ahead.”

Doc stood at the controls of the craft. Mitchum gave her a poke. He grumbled something and pointed forward, away, out of the canyon.

Doc twisted back toward the scene of havoc, sending a last look filled with horror and grief and goodbye. She earned a fist in the ribs for this, and another growl.

Hunched over her hurting ribs and gasping for air, she turned forward, started the flier moving in the direction indicated.

Hovering over Jade’s body, Bierce started showing symptoms. He dithered and twitched aimlessly. His breath came out forced between clenched lips, his hands opened and closed and clenched until his arms froze. He stared blankly at Sam, then back to Jade on the ground. Not this, not supposed to be like this. He heard the monk’s loud grumble and his head jerked around and there was Doc, straining against ropes and looking his way. His head dropped. 

Salmon Trout reached across Jade’s motionless body and put a hand on Bierce’s shoulder.

“Ill fortune of war, Bierce,” he said in a hoarse voice. “Who could have supposed the fat man had rockets.”

“Yes.”

“Don’t kick yourself, you did okay.”

“No.”

Together they two men packed coagulant around the wound and taped it up. They tried breathing for her, hoping she would start up again on her own. But quickly it became clear there was nothing more they could do.

“Sam. Heart’s pumping but that’s not good enough. We have to get her out of here now. She’s dying.”

“I agree. Onto my flier, then,” Salmon Trout said. His face was frozen tight, his grizzled mouth stretched in a grin of controlled fury. With care he grasped Jade under the shoulders, while Bierce supported the rest of her. They lifted.

“She’ll be with the medics in about a minute. You call ahead, tell them the score.”

“Okay.”

“Bierce, listen up. I gotta go be president now. I want you to follow them. Rescue Doc.”

“Right.”

Jade was on the flier, secured tight.

“Don’t waste a minute on those two—bounce them to Saturn, be my guest.”

Bierce nodded, stepped clear of the flier. His breath still came and went. His arm stretched across the bow of Salmon Trout’s flier, pointed high across the canyon.

The flier rose gently, turning in the direction Bierce indicated, then arced swiftly up to the far canyon ridge.

Bierce stepped to his own flier, reached inside and keyed the override and croaked out his message. The medics would be standing by when the war president arrived with his casualty of war.

Bierce glanced at the console and confirmed that the locator signal that had found Doc in the first place still functioned. Continued air pursuit would be a simple enough matter.

He took a last look around. The Uni soldier—Bierce spared a moment for a closer look. “Chimp, you will trouble us no more,” he said.

By the tree, a few steps from where Doc’s flier had been and gone, lay a small pile of equipment the kidnappers had left behind. Cold weather gear, sleeping bags, drinking water too. Good. If somehow he didn’t catch up with them right away they would have to stop somewhere to get water. And then they’d go for food. Doc would help them there. She knew where to go. So did Bierce.

A thought came to mind: three was a crowd on a flier; the dead soldier would have made an impossible fourth. Bierce frowned. What exactly had happened here? None of this had seemed necessary.

He trudged up the hillside to Jade’s flier. It lay on its side, skidded partway down the scree slope. A little blast mark scalloped the glass on one side at the rear of the craft, but otherwise the hull seemed intact. Just the nudge was all the rocket had in it. Jade, of course, was not strapped in at the time but that shouldn’t have made any difference, if only she knew what he. . . didn’t want to think about right now. 

He cast about the area, retrieving Jade’s scattered weapons. The bow was a little hard to spot among the tumble of rocks, but it was a thing that particularly interested Bierce so he persisted for some minutes till he found it hiding in plain sight in a place he was sure he’d already looked. It was this bow that had interested him in Jade to begin with. The thing itself and, of course, the skillful way she handled it. 

Not plastic exactly, or glass, he thought, except for the solid ladylike hand grip, and not metallic either, this bow. The glass grip seemed the only part that had any heft to it at all. And look at the string. It was not a separate item but a stretchy narrow extension of the bow itself. Bierce tested the pull. Scarcely a thirty-pound draw, he guessed, but at maximum pull the tension faded to approximately nothing. 

“Oh-ho,” quietly he said. He shook his head admiringly. No cogs and pulleys here. A mystery more admirable than. . . than his own nonsensical whats-it. 

He really needed to know how Jade had accomplished this. How would he find out if she died of her wounds? He wouldn’t deserve to know.

And here were the fine, closely spaced notches frosted into the bow’s green handle. He raised an incredulous eyebrow. Too many to count, just now. It was true enough, Jade was a terror. And here was the switch that folded and unfolded the bow. Bierce tested that function a couple of times, then rolled the bow carefully into the terrible fan of green-feathered arrows he’d reassembled for her. He was sure Jade would want them all back.

She had another notch to carve, no? There was, though, something odd about that last kill. She hadn’t seemed to relish it. He knew she passed over perfectly good targets all the time. But it was strange how she hemmed and hawed over that particular silly-arse soldier. Was he that pretty? Not. So what was it that brought her down? Just a rocket.

Bierce groaned.

He stepped aboard his flier and began hiccuping. He leaned forward, elbows on the console housing made from a salvaged piece of red cedar blown down in that long ago storm, a gnarl of wood out of the forest that fringed the old homestead, that he’d shaped and polished and lacquered till it suited him, his own whimsical bit of forest scrimshaw.

For a long moment he stood like that, hiccuping, if that’s what it was, hands cupped over his eyes. In the dark, rockets and fire bombs and bright chains whipping trails of blood in the moonlight.

Things had fallen apart; his team, finagled together in the sneakiest way he knew how, now gone, just like that. He knew why. It was because he hadn’t—because of circumstances beyond anyone’s control, that’s why.

Abruptly he straightened. The hiccups were gone. He scanned the empty sky and a brief, bitter laugh escaped him. He snatched a bandana from one of his many pockets and wiped his face. He strapped on the goggles.

Eyeing his air-speed indicator, Bierce raised a heel over the foot pad and trod heavily upon it.

The craft shot off the ground and, once into the sky, disappeared.

thirty-six

“A perfect mushroom cloud!” chortled Travonica.

Bette Sue glanced over her shoulder into the adjoining living room. She shook her head at her high-spirited roommate sitting on one haunch atop the armrest of the couch, which for the moment angled across the floor, offering equal oblique views of the grand vista of giant trees outside the picture window or of the newly installed television flashing images at the far end of the room. Travonica perched at the tv end, banging her heel against the furniture and baring her teeth victoriously at a scene of explosive carnage displayed on the giant screen. The sound of a thousand circling fliers thundered from the speakers. Choking roars of outrage rose up out of the center of the cloud.

Bette Sue growled, “A mushroom cloud. Seen ’em before.”

“Sure, but not a humungous cloud of crap like that!” 

Bette Sue sighed and turned back to the sink now just about filled with steaming soapy water. She put her hand to the old porcelain faucet handle and closed the spigot on the stream of sun-heated water. The bulbous old bronze and porcelain sink fixture and the cracked sink it belonged to were among those very few things at all that had remained with her down the years, a relic of kitchens past and already ancient before she was born. Simply having this here, seeing it every day and using it, was a comfort rooted in her earliest memories and made this place home. She noticed it now because the place was not feeling like home just now. Travonica had a new tv and it was a 164-inch fire-breather that took up nearly the entire far wall of the treehouse the two women shared. Bette Sue frowned. She squeaked the hot water on again full throttle, then off. Fire-breather quenched.

Drying her hands, Bette Sue looked away, out the open-shuttered kitchen window a hundred and some feet above the shadowy forest floor. Right now, the early afternoon sunlight was lighting the higher branches of the surrounding redwood forest, up another hundred feet or more above this cozy crow’s nest that swung suspended between two of the giant trees. Way up there steamed the hot water barrel, forever filled by frequent north coast rains and heated by treetop sunlight.

Bette Sue looked up through the treetops and saw the sky out there darkening up with more clouds arriving off the sea. Under her bare feet the treehouse subtly shifted. The onshore breeze was picking up. It felt like rain, again. For sure the rainy season was on, pushing moisture into the Klamath Mountains, saturating everything and swelling the streams. Not long and the inland peaks would be covered in snow. She pictured her wooly slippers. Even down here near sea level the treehouse would be getting a little chilly.

Bette Sue turned and stepped to the varnished wood counter that stood between the little kitchen and the larger, plank-walled living room. Travonica was leaning back in the couch now, ooh-ing and ah-ing her gleeful disgust at the new monster screen. The huge screen had been installed just yesterday and it occupied one whole side of the non-bedroom half of the house. It glowed too bright and it thundered too loud, making the formerly comfy room seem small and over-lit and filled with flash bang boom urgency, a real audio-visual battlefield.

Bette Sue was staying out of that tortured space. She stood at the counter, on the kitchen side, elbows planted on the polished wood, cheekbones resting on her fists. Still frowning, she said, “The finer points of dumping horse manure escape me, Travonica.”

“They’ve perfected it, the shit toss. Here, watch this clip. See how it spirals down, the huge mushroom cloud billowing up and spreading over the ground. Not one miscreant Uni dodged it that time.”

“Yeah, what a gas.” Bette Sue glowered across the room at the big screen. “Miscreant. You talk like a school teacher.”

Travonica laughed. “Come on, Bette Sue, it’s all good fun. It’s not like nerve gas or something.”

“Sure, or radium bullets.”

Travonica looked away from her new Hi-Rez Ultra-Wide Mhz Show Machine—“Your Window in the World!” She focussed on Bette Sue. “Something’s eating you, babe. Why so down in the mouth?”

“Well, what’s the point, anyway! Why bother going on in this universe where the only important thing is how successful the latest shit bomb worked against the bad neighbor?”

“We have bad neighbors? I thought this was all fun and games.”

“That’s right. Like it’s the only game people know and they go on and on with it till it’s giving me nightmares.”

“Bette Sue, you think about things too much. Of course it’s the same old game. Can you imagine anything different?”

“Lots of people try to. And if we can’t it’s because we’re mired down in old crap! That’s my point. Here we are, still prancing around like dumb-asses out of history. The department has me doing three lectures a week this quarter and I’m tired of talking about how the one chimp didn’t like the way the other chimp flapped his lip, and so they took their villages to war. Now here we are, watching it all go around again. As if men leaping on each other with sharp sticks was a law of nature or something.”

“I thought it was.”

“Somehow I always hoped people would learn something, or at least get bored when they see the same old story come around again. But they don’t. They only go at it faster.”

“Ah toots, there’s your mistake. Didn’t the ancient Frenchman say something about the way nothing ever changes? War is nature’s law! An old habit, anyway. We’re just lucky to be here in the zone, we get to watch and laugh.”

“I’m not laughing. But I am watching. The Uni are adapting weaponry to fit the zone.”

“Don’t fret, we’ll chase ’em off. In the meantime, enjoy the show. That’s why I went out and got the big screen.”

“I’m not impressed. Seen all it has to show. Nothing new there.” Bette Sue added, “It’s too loud, please.”

Travonica reduced the volume a couple notches.

“I mean,” said Bette Sue, “what if I said I don’t wish to partake of the bounteous world of unitory commerce and conflict? Is that not allowed? Where’s the fair in that?”

“Oh well goodness me. When did fairness sneak into the history lesson? They say they’re at the pinnacle of some global cloud cluster, and that’s where history ends. You can relax now, Bette Sue.”

“Pinnacle of an iceberg. The story doesn’t end on some cloud 9, Travonica, it only flips and goes around again. The only prospect I see is that your little kiddie-graders will grow up to be shit flingers. My older ones will teach them how, from the history I taught them. What else will they ever need to know?”

“Not much.” Travonica turned back to the gently thundering screen. She said, “They say there’s still one iceberg bobbing around Greenland somewhere.”

“Really? Then somebody ought to sink it. I’m tired of teaching history. What’s the point?”

“It’s unsinkable. So here we are, professor—our students are young, for them what’s old and tired is ever new and fresh. They have a whole lifetime of ancient and well-practiced bullshit to catch up on, and if they survive it then maybe they’ll be qualified to look around for some other story to tell themselves.”

“They should never have to! History texts give way too much respect to venomous old loudmouths of the past. Classic gift-wrapped garbage. I say let history die out with the last geezer’s last inflamed fantasy. Commemorate nothing! Let all causes and effects cancel out and be forgotten.”

“There was the other bon mot about forgetting history and being doomed?”

psh! Spare me your history on a platitude, I teach the stuff. People! If they are going to anyway, they might as well do it over again fresh, without the burden of following a thousand prior bad examples.”

“Can’t argue with you, Bette Sue. Clearly, human kind has been going down the drain since they built a second stone-ass pyramid, follow-up to the first pointless wonder. But this is now. We hope for something new.”

“No,” Bette Sue moaned, “won’t happen. We might as well just teach our poor doomed students how to chip flint and dig up roots. Let them start over from the good old days, the lazy days in the sunshine, picking the lice off each other beside the crocodile pond. This history thing really is a bad habit, it can only pull them backward, backward, back. They never get a chance to resume going forward.”

“Okay, then let’s start them over again, a little bit forward. Sharpening up the old croc stick is one thing, but don’t you think flint chipping alone would make for a pretty poor start in life? Don’t you think our kids deserve a bit more?”

“Nah! It’s fight time all the time with these hyperactive killers forever circling like snapping dogs. No, the kids’ll be devolving now, growing up in packs, just hyperactive circus chimps forevermore. Not long and their only best achievement will be—”

“Bette Sue! What on earth ails you? Such morbid talk. Things are just not that bad. Look, darlin’, have you had your bots checked lately? There was a report of a bot flu going around. That could—”

“My biobots are just fine, thank you! Check your own genome why don’tcha, you’re so giddy all the time—and turn off that tv!”

“Aw, sweetie, let’s not fight.” Travonica quickly turned the screams and thunder all the way down. She said, “I know how you feel about the ongoing tv, I mean rebellion—the bellicosity. Mostly I agree with you, you know I do, although I also think the Uni serve our kids real well as just the finest possible bad example.”

“I’m mad!!”

Travonica looked startled. Then, soothingly, she said, “You’re right, Bette Sue, surely there’s just no excuse for these Uni. They shouldn’t exist, not at all. Let’s go on, move forward with our hypothetical re-set of history. Maybe we can arrange it so our kids will never make the mistakes of the ancestors. I think—don’t you think they’ll need more than just stone-age skills, so they can avoid some of the more tragic errors? Why did the ancients make so many memorable mistakes?”

“No! Their mistakes were not memorable, not beyond the lifetimes of the survivors. They were memorialized. It’s only traumatized children and a few jaded killers with lamb fat in their beards that carried the delusion forward, the tradition of robbery and mass murder. The thing we do is this, we jump our kids over ten thousand years of sordid, compounding error, clip that filthy dragging tail, all the bloody fantasies and superstition.”

Bette Sue whirled back to the kitchen sink and waggled her fingers in the soapy, still-steaming water. She grabbed the sponge and began thrashing dishes out of the pre-soaked pile of suds on one side, through the cold rinse and out into a bright new stack.

Travonica rose from the couch and went over to lean on the counter and watch the kitchen action. She said, “How shall we start them off?”

“We have about five hundred years behind us now, trying to look at the world straight. It’s been a steep struggle all along, out of the morass of ancient dooms. Here’s what we do. We keep all we’ve learned, dump everything else and move on. We know how the world works, now. Kids won’t need any rancid old philosopher twisting and backflipping around the old delusions. Nobody even needs to ask what makes a philosopher work so hard at all his rationalizing. Nah. By now, we know how we operate. Biobots keep us healthy. We’ve even rediscovered the antique values of fresh air, fresh water, fresh food. In the zone we have universal communication and when we feel like it we fly by any route to any destination. For sure the kids can start something cool over again with all that!”

“Fine. So long as they have paper towels and peroxide.”

“Okay, all right. But forget geosynchronous satellites. Nobody needs any boring global village. If the kids want sameness all the time, let them stay home. Otherwise, they can pack a lunch and go visiting.”

“But what about culture? All the valuable art? Are the kids going to lose all of that?”

“Why yes, Travonica. Especially all the old historical crap. All of that pomp and posturing was commissioned under patronage of robbers and slavers and hypnotists. That whole bunch of sentimental postcard images, the gloomy architectures and faked-up allegories, all nothing but indoctrination in artificial conflict. Look close and you’ll find only a lone Uni lurking down that dark, gory alley. We level it all to the ground. Our kids get to be free from all that. Art? Burn it. Nobody’s going winnowing through an infinity of old crap looking for maybe just one arty effort that’s not a false spin, that isn’t just some faked-up sentiment to warm a clingy saccharine heart.”

“A clingy saccharine heart. You’ll replace all the sentiment with. . . .”

“The kids will replace it with! Ha, for all we know, Travonica, your little students might find all posturing putterers and daubers in ‘art’ to be self-indulgent egotists. If so, they’ll never be subject to some trivial jerk’s miasma of diseased imagination. Our fresh new people, carrying nobody’s baggage, might be quite swift to express some effortless qualia of feeling, unfold some finer private delights that we ancients got crushed out of us under ten thousand years of accumulated crap. How could we possibly know?”

“How? I have a gang of little kids who’re just now working up a happy chimera, a bio-beasty with red feathers and little rattly hoofs that flies, very cute. It quacks when it turns the wrong way and when it wants another stick of millet seed. All assembled out of organic parts run off the printer they ordinarily use to make flowers and bird claws with. A little messy, but still, go ahead and burn the art, Bette Sue. I’ll just be keeping my little artisans.”

“Okay, a neo-neolithic age. Let’s call it evolutionary bounce-back. Who can guess the pleasing whimsies of our planetary pumpkins. . . .”

Bette Sue uncorked the sink and the water swirled gurgling down the pipe. It echoed down and down the hundred-and-some-foot descent, into the tank under the roots of the house trees. She dried her hands.

Travonica said, “I like it. Planetary pumpkins, that’s how they start out to be.”

“Edzacly. Where you find one, you’ll find a million more. They deserve their chance out of history, and the way I’ve got it planned they’ll never have to know just how much they deserve the chance.”

“Are we still going to teach them flint knapping?”

“Certainly,” said Bette Sue. “That, and how to pick weeds out of the garden.”

“Springtime of the Innocents,” Travonica mused.

“You catch on,” Bette Sue nodded. “It’s way past time we had one.”

The two women drifted back into the living room and sat on the couch. On the unceasing wallscreen, over-bright images jumped and crawled without sound. Travonica aimed the clicker.

Bette Sue grabbed Travonica’s clicker hand and pulled, swiveled her friend away from the tv to face her. She said, “Look, I’m fighting something here, Trav. I really had a nightmare. It woke me up early, after I’d stayed up till all hours watching the feeds from all these battles going on.”

“Really? A nightmare. I hardly ever remember a nightmare. Tell me about it.”

“It was horrible. It was these little electric men, sneaking out of the blue-striped shadows to invade our homes. They were poisoners coming out of the dark to get us. Us in particular, Trav, and your little school kids.” Bette Sue shuddered. “Skinny, lantern-jawed little bozos rolling up on skates and glowing in the dark. They circled us while we slept and threw whispers at us.”

“What did they say!”

“Crazy jibber-jabber. Like steam particles pouring in our ears. They said, ‘six and seven, nine and ten, sacrifice is certain.’ They loomed up while we slept and whispered like far-off train whistles, ‘slip repeaters in their ears ears ears,’ and they glowed up bright blue and then they all faded. The last I heard from the little creeps was them gabbling in the distance, ‘it’s in the numbers, numbers, numbers’.”

“Crazy bizarre! Skinny blue men on skates? Sounds like sick bots, to me.”

“No it doesn’t! What it sounds like is how my synapses got all fused, staring at the all-night horror show.”

“Sick robots crowding out your better dreams.”

“No! Then they came back! Only this time I wasn’t asleep. In the dream. I had to chase the bozos around and around in blue shadows that froze and shriveled our house trees. I never could catch up with the little bastards. It was all desperate and horrible. They skated up close and fluttered their fingers over their eyes and said stuff like, ‘positions are open, a lock on your pain!’ They scorched me with clouds of buzzing electrons. They giggled, ‘a-sneakums-no-see-ums!’ Off they went, a flurry of blue paper cut-outs twisting away in the electric hum.”

“Whoa dolly! You’re on a roll today, Bette Sue. This is your gothicky-est gloom yet. A cabal of electric phantoms in the night!”

“It just shows how the situation has gone from stupid down the chute to outrageous! Look what’s happening. All these Uni assaults coming at us from every direction. Watch the news! Rockets in the south and that covert Flihtworks invasion, and more armies sneaking out of the east along the Columbia River. An armada cooking up off the coast of Washington territory. Are things starting to get serious? They’re pushing the nightmare double-speed!”

“Coming at us again, are they? It’s got to you.”

Bette Sue shivered. “I decided I’m going to step up.”

“Volunteer! You? On account of a bad dream. . . .”

“It’s real enough, Trav. The dream is me, an old-fashioned telegram sent from me to me. It shows me what I’m up against. You could say it’s just some lame symptom reaching out of the media machine, but my nightmare is my own show, and I’m my own audience of one. I’ve gotta go out, find out something—Why do they fight!

“Well, that’s a silly question. After what we just talked about.”

“I’m going to ask ’em. I’ll bring back a report on that silly question. Call it field work, a singular moment in history, you know. Gotta do something to stop my neurons from freezing up. Go out and get some history on the fly. Find out why they do it.”

Travonica stared. “Is it me? Did I do something?”

Bette Sue shook her head.

“When will you. . . ?”

“Today.” Bette Sue glanced out the picture window, studied the quiet mist of rain sifting down from the tree tops far above.

“How long?”

“Couple or three days is all. Gonna head north.”

Into the gap of silence that lapsed between the two women, the tv audio boomed up, for whatever reason of its own, to fill the air once again, now with a herky-jerky jingle. Travonica’s Hi-Rez Ultra-Wide Mhz Show Machine—“Your Window in the World!” displayed a troupe of dancing piglets all agiggle on a glo-green lawnscape backed with paper cutout trees, and shrieking, like piglets do, when they realize they’re about to be slaughtered.

Over this shocking intrusion Travonica yelled, “Then what about your moniker! Have you come up with one!”

Flinching against the noise, Bette Sue hollered across the whole two feet of couch space from her knees to Travonica’s, “Not yet! You pick one!”

“Hoke-ay! How about this, then! Sunny Fling! That’s you—at the beach! Remember when—”

“Hoo! Hot and bothered under a sun bonnet—wonder what ever happened to that old flier!”

“Dunno! We gave the noisy old thing away.”

“How touching. Then Sunny Fling it is! That’ll be me, for the nonce. Yippee! Battle moniker me!”

The piglets disappeared and programming resumed. The sound faded back to a low, but clearly audible level.

“Yeah,” Travonica said at lower volume, “just be sure you bring it back. I have a proprietary interest in that moniker. Also, just so you know, ‘for the nonce’ is real professory-type talk.”

thirty-seven

The sleek, egg-shaped craft vectored along the track blipped across the sky by Doc’s flier signal. Bierce sat hunched on the narrow seat, frowning at the toes of his boots, talking on the phone.

“That’s right,” he said, “everything’s fallen to crap. I guess we move on to Plan B. But there is no Plan B, Emmers. Just send Cobalt out to pick up the flier. Let him take a look at it. I doubt there’ll be any significant damage. It didn’t fall from any height. . . .

“No, that squirrel-tailed rocket didn’t amount to much, only had enough oomph to knock the flier out from under Jade’s feet. So, probably replace the damaged LED modules later.”

In a lighter tone he added, “though Jade might like the looks of a blast mark across the tail.” He paused, then less brightly went on, “here’s your location.” He rummaged the flier’s interface, reached through the communication layer and spun back the timeline. He pinched up the coordinates and the Flihtworks logo flashed acknowledgment of the data transfer. 

“He’ll find it there,” he said.

“And Emmers, did you ever locate that missing flier? Nope? Maybe ask the captains. They pretend to be know-it-alls. Be about their speed to steal something useless to them, just to be annoying. Find out where they dragged it off to. . . .

“. . . Now look, Emmers, these are dangerous criminals. I have the villains in sight and I can’t talk more. I should be redirecting my reinforcements—”

Bierce pocketed the phone and stood. Letting the wind buffet him in the open cockpit, he leaned higher into the sky and sped up some. In talking with Emmers he had drifted, lagged a little. Now he wanted an update on what was happening aboard the hijacked flier.

He quickly overtook the quarry. He cruised high above the runaway flier, training his binoculars on the two Uni and their captive, the three of them crowded precariously on the flier’s deck.

His first hope for an easy rescue was unreasonable, it seemed. Close scrutiny brought a sneer to his face. A tangle of ropes bound Doc to the flier and tethered her to the big rocketeer lounging behind her. Where one went the other must also go. 

The Uni had an affinity for ropes and bindings. This was one of their typical tricks, one Bierce himself had witnessed on another occasion when cornered Uni had lashed themselves to multiple hostages and attempted to bluster their way out of a crime scene. Bondage, one way and another, as sure as eggs a Unitory instinct.

Tied together as they were, he could not simply dive upon the flier and shove the man in black off it. Nor could he reach down and snatch Doc away, to leave the others in free fall and take the bounce to Saturn or wherever. What their fate would be had to be as much Doc’s decision as his own. Anyway, too, he didn’t want to risk losing the flier.

The woman who’d knifed Jade lay secured to the meager deck, curled up at Doc’s feet. Bierce studied her through the glass. Her leg was bandaged now and he saw no sign of excessive bleeding there. Good, disabled but not in immediate danger. But her face looked inflamed and she stared out into space, eyes fixed on some line well below the path of Bierce’s lurking, less than visible flier. Her lips writhed, foam gathered at the corners of her mouth. Clearly not a happy camper. She would give little further resistance, he thought, when it came to the showdown, however that might work out. If she did, he would not spare her a second time.

The ringleader leaned his bulk against the thick glass rim of the cockpit, feet planted wide on the cushions of the two pilot seats cramped in behind the overcrowded deck. 

Doc stood unmoving at the console, seemingly calm. She piloted the craft at a moderate speed, moving steadily northward. 

Bierce considered his options. Nothing seemed to be happening here. He supposed the Uni operators imagined they were making a clean get-away. The important thing was that that rocketeer down there couldn’t have a lot of shots to fire. If surrounded, he would have to surrender. It was probably about time to notify the reinforcements which way they had to come in order to help put an end to this. 

Bierce, for a while longer, continued closely observing the fugitives. The flier below drifted on up the Sacramento Valley, making no attempt to run back into the mountains toward Uniland. On a course to somewhere—wait!—

—the rocketeer lunged forward and struck Doc in the back.

Instantly, the stolen flier lurched forward at high speed, the impetus throwing the rocketeer back against the narrow edge of the open cockpit. Across the distance, Bierce heard him howl.

For some reason, Doc didn’t press the advantage gained in throwing the lunatic off balance. She didn’t even look back but simply slowed the craft a little and went on, facing straight forward.

“You’ll pay for that one,” Bierce muttered. Then he thought, Aw, Doc, the swine has you buffaloed. Well, we’ll take care of him in due time. You were never the combative sort, after all.

Gonna have a word with that jackass! Bierce reached for the speakerphone switch—

—but stopped. In the binocs he observed the black-robed perp lurch forward and grab Doc by the hair, bellying up close behind her. He bent her back. He twisted her head sideways and pushed his mouth down close to her ear.

—chickenshit!—

Without intending to, Bierce entirely forgot that he hoped for a safe, peaceable resolution to the present crisis. But this final contemptible act consumed the last of his patience in a blaze that burned away all his better thought processes and left him nothing to work with but the imperative need to defend and destroy.

He plummeted, sword in hand, upon the enemy. 

Unseen above him, a piece of blue peeled off the sky and quickly followed.

thirty-eight

“Faster!” Mitchum commanded. “We must depart the scene quickly.”

Adjustor Mitchum craned his neck, robe flapping wildly out over the top of the flier, and glared back into the rapidly diminishing canyon. 

Doc Holiday stood facing the controls, lashed in tight by Mitchum’s hasty but expert rope work. He still had her leashed to him, this time by a longer rope. One end of this he’d tied under his own arms, leaving the middle part draped in loops over one shoulder, playing it loose or tight like a lasso to control her movements. He had left her one free arm to steer the flier with.

Hosanna Flebrin lay curled at Doc’s feet, mewling, drooling, not twitching much. Her limbs too were wound up in a tangle of rope.

Blankly, Doc stared forward. It did not at all occur to her to wonder why there should be so many people tied up with ropes in her flier.

Closed down in gloom, Doc knew nothing, only that as bad as things had gotten they weren’t getting any better.

Reaching forward, Mitchum gave her another poke in the ribs. “Do as I say!”

But Doc was exhausted. She felt adrift, unable to focus. All the shock and desolation of capture and torture, the insanity beside the stream, her captors’ vileness, the putrescent stink that caught in her throat. . . and before all that, the hideous mayhem of moonlit rockets and the sleepless hours that followed, all bore down, cloaking her in ever-darkening gloom.

What motivated these people? She saw no rhyme or reason for what they’d done; none of it seemed any more sensible than the tantrums of petulant two-year-olds. What was it they thought they wanted?

The cold soaking she’d endured in the chill morning air hadn’t done her a bit of good. Her ears rang. She felt weak. Her breath, faint and rapid, came in almost imperceptible gasps.

Nausea. The heavier freight, the trouble she’d brought upon her friends. And Jade!—of all people to be shot down by an assassin’s toy rocket. 

She stared straight ahead, frozen in the ropes that bound her, dogged by remorse for what her carelessness had brought on. . . .

Conscience circled, narrowed down pitiful dark pathways. Mood and thought spiraled, seeking some kind of equilibrium, looping backward and forward through bewilderment and shame and grief. . . all hopeless anyway. . . .

Abandoned, of course. There would be no rescue from this. Everyone must be so horrified at her failure they had to just let her go, shrug her off. Might as well—she might as well be Uni. Or be dead. That was the Unitory motto, wasn’t it? It applied to her now.

Detached, empty of thought, given up, Doc Holiday flew on, unseeing.

The flier dragged.

“Can’t you keep this thing up to speed!” demanded the Adjustor. He lurched forward and growled and administered another savage punch to her ribs.

Paralyzed, gasping in pain, Doc’s rope-trussed body fell forward and collided with the control bar. The flier leaped forward.

Behind her, voluminous robes crackled in the sudden force of wind. Faintly Doc heard a cry. “Slow it down! We’ll all suffocate in this wind! Awp! I’m going over!”

Always complaining, never happy. 

Doc sent her free arm up, sluggishly fumbled the control bar and the flier slowed. There came sounds behind her of huffing and thrashing. She didn’t care to look.

The stockyard stench caught her. He was right behind her. 

Sudden sharp pain behind her ear made her cry out. Her body flinched yet was unable to move away from the thumb and fore-knuckle jerking at her hair. He pulled her head back—eep, there was his eye.

In his lowest growl the Adjustor said, “You had best be showing a more menial attitude, missy. Listen to me. You don’t kiss up, I’ll kick you down.” The hand at the nape of her neck shook then yanked sharply, painfully tilting her head farther and exposing her throat to his vulturish breath.

“Ow!” said Doc.

He released her. “Get this contraption going!”

“I’m trying!” she yelped. “Which way? Where to!”

“I’ll tell you where to. Go!”

This time, ire sparked in deepest gloom, uncurdled out of Doc’s internal dark energy never-yet-seen. Anger trembled into the light of day. Weak at first and vague, the anger demanded forceful action, yet what action could she take?

She glanced down at the wounded woman who mumbled and foamed underfoot. Hosanna Flebrin was gripped in some sort of tooth-grinding delirium. Flebrin lay wrapped in ropes hastily looped around the two narrow seats tucked behind the little flight deck. She clutched to her chest a black satchel, which the dead Georgie must have tossed aboard back in the canyon before the arrival of Doc’s rescuers.

Time to get free from these fools. If nothing matters then it doesn’t matter how I do it, Doc thought. She took her first breath, full and intentional, since forever. She realized that, more than actually breathing, she’d been holding her breath since they left the canyon. No, since she’d seen Jade’s body thump the steep hillside and slide down on an avalanche of loose stone and Hosanna Flebrin stabbed her. No reason now, Doc knew, to hold her breath for anything.

The new fresh-lit anger burned some light into the malaise. All this hopelessness, she thought—pah! That’s just hope flipped over—hope and despair—two words for the same weak feeling, a sickly surrender to misery. 

I’ve had, she thought, my portion of that. No more treacly moping!

Back by the little stream, when she chose to not die of the water torture, she had proved to herself the right way out: ‘while there’s life there’s action!’ and she’d acted in a way that seemed right at the time. Now was no different.

Now, though, there was a difference. She’d never before let herself go with anger, a scary feeling that could easily degenerate into pointless fury, as she’d witnessed so many times in battles with the Uni. But now she had it on—anger, bright and pure.

And she got it; she pictured Jade diving into the trees, arrow drawn back for a kill. Now there was[_ anger_] in flight.

Now Doc took a ride with anger. Her unfree arm, roped across her middle, flexed against the restraint, her hand clawed and twisted, working to loosen the coils. And she kept that image in mind and she grinned. . . it’s about time we lightened up this boat some. . . .

And Mitchum had left her one free arm, after all, with which to navigate. 

Doc Holiday fought the lashings that kept her facing forward, twisted against the ropes until she got half-turned, then glared across her shoulder at the bulky Adjustor all aswirl in his flapping raiment. Still on his perch there at the lip of the open cockpit.

He met her angry eyes with smug amusement, a cherubic smile lifting the corners of his mouth. He raised a threatening hand. “You want more, do you? You didn’t listen!”

She held his eyes, reached for his telling move, and breathed and breathed, poised to take her chance. 

Mitchum was always breathing, he breathed as if he owned all the air in the world. 

Now the air whistled in his nostrils and he glared hard. 

Doc grabbed for the hand strap by the flier’s hatchway and slid her wrist into the loop.

The meaty hand stretched toward her, followed by the Adjustor’s face, now tight-lipped and scowly.

Oh my: The Wrath, guessed Doc. She jerked the loop a double turn tighter around her wrist and his eyes flicked to follow the movement. 

Her bound arm had an elbow. With this she nudged the control bar and turned the flier on its side.

Mitchum tottered, the threatening hand went sideways as his feet flew from the seat cushions, he fell clank-a-clunk to the side of the boat. This unexpected change of perch between earth and sky only made him really angry. Clinging one-handed to the metal seat strut near the doorsill, he jerked his other far-flung arm back aboard the flier and grasped a handful of Flebrin’s ropes. Heaving his bulk against the pull of gravity, he unlimbered a florid litany of coarse Latinate blasphemes, savage threats of unending doom that flew like darts to Doc’s funny bone. 

Doc laughed and began the fierce struggle out of the bondage. In order to get her bound hand free, she had to twist and pull against constricting turns of rope that wound also around her body and held her, ultimately, again tethered to Mitchum the Adjustor. In a brief but desperate effort, she pulled just enough slack in Mitchum’s hasty knotwork to wrench her hand free, though the consequence was a wrist scraped raw.

Mitchum roared and puffed and pushed himself up, preparing to make a grab at her, but with her newly freed hand she put the boat nose-up and gave it a turn. This flung him completely off into the wind where he dangled five or six feet offboard, twirling madly at the end of his rope.

The wounded Flebrin swung half on and half off the flier, rolling in her ropes and emitting thin, breathless screams, “eee eek!”

Doc now hung in the air, stretched painfully by the tether binding her to the Adjustor, who weighed at least a ton. He swayed and spun, suspended four hundred feet above the ground. 

Her one-handed grasp on the strap could not support herself and the Adjustor’s bulk for more than a few seconds. Plus, how long could the skimpy hand strap hold their combined weight? With her other hand now free, she tried pulling in the rope. The effort accomplished nothing, though she imagined she got some relief from the tightening constriction around her middle.

But too little. Alarmingly, the rope tethering her to Mitchum bit more into her body, promising a quick blackout and death if she didn’t act fast. She raised her feet, tied together at the ankles, up to the control bar and righted the craft. 

Now she stood precariously on the deck, bare feet sliding against Mitchum’s still-dragging weight on the rope crimped over the side. She tripped over Flebrin’s lolling, inert form. 

Again she nudged the control bar, tilting the craft farther against the pull of Mitchum’s tether. Outside, Mitchum’s body swung in, collided with the underside of the flier’s glass hull, now sideways to the sky. The rope slid across the back of the cabin, found its lowest point and ended up crimped tight over the doorsill. The strain of holding the Adjustor’s bulk slackened immediately. He sprawled against the glass hull of the craft, an indistinct squirming shadow scrabbling for a handhold on the slick surface.

She dare not let go the hand strap. Any second now, Mitchum would find the rope and start pulling himself back in. Then she would have to turn the boat again and his weight would drag her in some new direction. They could both at any instant be pulled away into space. She slipped her other wrist into the loop and, gasping for air, held on with both hands for a second or two. The strap was stretching, she saw, pulling away from its little rivet in the hull. What now—what could she do now! He wasn’t ever ever coming back aboard this boat—and that meant only one thing.

Would he let go? Doc was sure he had a slip knot or something, for quick escapes. Surely he had to realize that if he dragged her down, there would be nobody piloting the flier. Hosanna Flebrin would go too, all three together, bounced up the flame. 

“Mitchum! Let! Go!”

She got no reply.

“We’ll all go down if you don’t!”

“Explain Your Actions! This Lawless Behavior Shall Not Go Unexamined! Reel Me In.”

Oh, reel me in. 

Doc had an idea. She stretched her bound feet over the deck, reaching back to the flight seat. And there was the little steel seatbelt tab, of course, not quite obscured behind the folds of mesh webbing. She rummaged a bit and was quickly able to grasp the tab between opposing toes and draw it up, unwinding the seatbelt. She pulled it close enough for a quick one-handed grab. Now, if the belt were only long enough.

It was, plenty long enough. She drew it out at least six feet before it stopped. Doc pictured an oversize pilot wearing a pneumatic flight suit, all strapped in. Now she had lots of room to play.

Fat fingers were coming over the doorsill.

One-handed, Doc fought the seatbelt up through the loops of rope that bound her torso, that tethered her to Mitchum. She wound the belt around herself and knotted it firmly. Now, for good or ill, they were both anchored to the flier.

Slowly, Doc released her grip on the strap, let her hand slide out of the loop. She snatched for the seatbelt with that hand, but her new tether to the boat seemed to hold. Now she swung low, at seatbelt level. And now she had two hands to work with and less certainty of being dragged overboard.

She gave the control bar a quick churn. The hands coming over the edge slipped away and through the glass hull Doc saw the Adjustor again spinning in space. He roared. As before, his weight on the rope constricted her, though she wasn’t getting stretched out so much.

Again, she put the flier on its side, brought Mitchum to a hard landing on the hull. And again, the pull on the rope slackened.

Now she scrambled and pulled herself up the tether rope to where it crimped over the flier’s doorsill. She peered over the edge and there he was, a roaring sack of potatoes thumping around outside. She tried pulling some slack in the rope so she might get a loop around the floor level tie-down cleat just behind the doorsill. But it was no go. That sack was heavy, even just rolling around on the side of the boat. She would never have the strength to shift the squirming weight of an Adjustor fully loaded, like this one, armed with rockets and who knew what else.

So she reached back to the control bar and gave it a sharp push, dropping the craft into free-fall.

Woop!” bellowed the Adjustor.

Two or three seconds was long enough for her to yank in a couple of feet of the rope attached to the now-weightless Adjustor descending with the craft, and wind it tight around the cleat.

Good so far. Now to free herself. She steadied the craft. The Adjustor dangled, turning in space, supported now solely by his own rope cinched to the cleat.

Doc Holiday stood upright on the skimpy deck. With her ankles tied together she wasn’t sure of keeping her balance and so once again she raised her numbed and aching arm and groped for the hand strap. With her other hand she rummaged and found Prokofiev’s knife, still hidden under the cup holder where she’d earlier stashed it. She shook it loose from the slim, silky belt and, holding the sheath in her teeth, pulled out the blade.

She cut herself free of the ropes. It was too easy. The blade was very sharp, the taut strands parted like ribs of lettuce under a salad chopper. Unraveling rope ends dropped to the deck. The seatbelt retracted gracefully into its socket. She shrugged away the limp coils still clinging to her body.

And paused to catch her breath.

Not finished yet, though. When she felt strong enough, she stepped over to where Mitchum’s rope bent over the side of the boat. The blade flashed in her hand. She shouted furiously down, “Yo bozo below! I decided it’s time to cut you loose.”

In response, The Word roared up from below: “All Offers Withdrawn! No Indemnity! Nothing Can Save You Now, Missy. Expect A Fitting Punishment!” The Wrath buzzed out of his nose, rising up from every point below the flier as the rope slowly unwound him the other way, around and around.

Doc crouched, set the knife edge against the rope.

“If we had Known you had Friends Earlier, we would have Treated you Differently!” 

Could Mitchum be sampling a different tune now? What of it?

thirty-nine

CLUNK. Something struck Bierce’s flier. Whatever it was grated sharply along the side with a wrenching impact that shoved Bierce off his deadly course and rattled him around in the little cabin.

Looking wildly in every direction for the cause of the collision, Bierce quickly spotted, moving in space not ten feet before him, a pair of bright cantaloupe-colored flying goggles under a tight-fitting aviator’s cap, set above a wide, anxious-looking face. 

Staring incredulously, Bierce saw a green and white striped shirt stretched comfortably over a healthy paunch. No legs were visible since the front of the interloper’s flier was blue like the sky, entirely invisible to the unpracticed eye. Anxiously grinning, the goggled man hovered well out of reach of Bierce’s blade.

The orange-goggled man said, “Much as I’d like to, Bierce, I can’t let you do it.”

Bierce jockeyed clear of the interloper, quickly making out the egg-shaped form of one of his new-model fliers.

But Bierce, already hot for a fight, heeled his own craft over, putting its hull between himself and the other. Then, taking a cue from Jade’s experimental outside loop of the day before, he arced upward sideways, shielded by the underside of his craft. From his new elevation he snapped his nose down and dove, bracing himself for impact with this new enemy.

The other swerved barely in time to avoid the collision. The rider called out, “Bierce, wait! I want to talk! Not fight.”

Talk? Bierce laughed insanely. Hovering close but out of fighting distance, he flourished his blade, airily dissecting his foe.

He circled the intruder who, waving empty-hands, refused to return with an attack of his own, instead taking a flat, uncomplicated course in pursuit of the fleeing Uni. The stranger pointed at the other flier then beckoned Bierce to approach him.

Bierce glanced quickly at Doc’s flier. Doc stood at the controls, guiding her flier steadily along.

He rounded in, still furious but puzzled now, unsure what treachery this interference meant. Frustration and fear and anger clustered around Bierce like flies and he wanted to break free of it all and fight a fight he could win, get something right for a change.

Bierce’s woes had been adding up. First, the invasion at Flihtworks headquarters that yanked him away from his well-laid plans, just so he could interview the half-wits responsible; then the theft of a flier from his own private facility, probably this flier; then the shootdown of Jade—on one of his new machines—and his own pitiful delay in intercepting the Uni woman’s murderous knife assault on Jade. And then the intolerable hubris of these arrogant Uni perps, kidnapping Doc on yet another of his best fliers. His whole team was busted up. Now, infuriatingly, at the very moment he’d picked to fulfill his presidential commission to kill or capture the Uni bastard punk murderer kidnapper and thief—suddenly here was that other thief that had sneaked off from Flihtworks with the prototype! 

Sparks drifted before his eyes. [Who! _]. . .[ he couldn’t be Uni._]

“Identify yourself!” Bierce snarled. 

“It’s me! um, Emmers—you know!” called the other, holding his course and keeping empty hands in sight. “Come on, Bierce, let’s parley. Please.”

Please?” Bierce’s brain re-engaged, marginally—he had to laugh. Nobody lately was trying to please him so very much. Okay, but this was Emmers. There must really be something up, to get the paunchy old guy to fly so far out of town.

He lowered his blade, and drifted his boat into talking range.

“Emmers! What’s the deal? We were just on the phone. I thought you were at Flihtworks.”

“It’s a long story and not a happy one, Bierce. I’m in a bind with these people. It kind of looks like you and I might have to be adversaries right now.”

Bierce sheathed his blade. “You’re kidding.”

“There is no kidding about it. I had to stop you just now because the last thing in the world I need is to see that bastard operator down there go up the flame. The one wearing the cape.”

Bierce studied Emmers flying beside him. The man seemed edgy and worn down to a degree Bierce had never seen, even in those sometimes frazzled times early on at Flihtworks when Manuel, ‘el tapón’ as many called him, just lately remonikered ‘Emmers’ by Bierce himself, alone oversaw the transport and distribution of fliers and other equipment throughout the zone. What Emmers had just told him was approximately the last thing in the world Bierce would ever expect to hear from his more experienced partner, prime mover of materials and merchandise for the company and lately, chief of operations.

“All right, old friend,” said Bierce, “clue me—”

—at that moment the flier below rocked violently, and people began falling out.

Emmers was already streaking to intercept the kidnappers.

Bierce’s communicator pinged and Emmers’s voice said, “I’ll get below them.”

“Good,” Bierce replied, and dived in pursuit. He quickly overtook Emmers, pushing the speed limit till he felt the familiar edge of flame licking at his vitals. In a few seconds, decelerating sharply, he matched speed above the quarry and took in the situation.

Doc’s flier had come aright and there was Doc on deck, scrambling with ropes but seemingly in no immediate danger; and there was the female kidnapper flopping over the edge, coming loose, it looked like, from her own moorings.

Bierce closed the remaining distance, opened his mouth to hail, but Doc’s flier unexpectedly dropped away beneath him.

Emmers then arrived, speeding on a collision course with the falling flier. Bierce flinched, expecting disaster. But Emmers evaded a crackup by sheer good luck and his own bad timing: hurriedly mis-estimating the angle of his dive, he had overshot his mark by a good thirty yards, crossed the other flier’s downward path and arrived to hover beside the dangling Adjustor, just as the black robe settled askew. To an outside observer it might have seemed that Emmers had anticipated the other flier’s unpredictable shift in altitude. Now, like magic, he was there, suddenly materialized beside the sleaze operator rotating at the end of the rope.

Bierce groaned. Nothing was safe with all these impulsive fliers in the air. No telling when somebody might decide to just drop like a stone or throw themselves into some hare-brained trajectory they couldn’t correct. Only he could see the tangential lines curving away moment by moment, gravitational branchings he sensed in every vagary of direction, mass and velocity. He slid down a tangent and arrived close above and beside Doc’s flier.

Doc was busy. Bierce looked on anxiously, waited while she crimped down a loop of the rope she’d artfully snagged out of the air, then cut herself free of it. 

Bierce sighed, started to relax.

But then Doc was crouching at the entryway and the dangling captive was bellowing, and before Bierce could speak she’d set the edge of her blade to the rope.

Bierce switched off his blue-sky disguise and hailed her.

“Ahoy there. Hi Doc,” he called. “Need any help with anything?”

She looked up, paused, gave a slight nod and said his name, then flinched away from his worried look and went back to the knife in her hand. “Surprised to see you,” she muttered.

“Surprised.” His boat came down level with hers. He looked at her with careful concern. “Well, um Doc, I’ve been watching over you ever since the canyon. Waiting for reinforcements.”

“Likely,” she said to the rope under her hand. She leaned over the side, looked at the Adjustor at the other end. The Adjustor had suddenly stopped his bellowing and was now staring gray-faced up at Bierce, who saw him looking and drew his own blade, unmistakably blocking any ambitions the robed man might be harboring to ascend the rope and regain the deck.

“Looks like you took that rascal down a peg.”

“That’s right,” she said flatly, “I want you to know I have two condemned prisoners here.”

“You sure do,” said Bierce. “Congratulations! You got yourself out of a bad pickle. What do you plan to do with your prisoners?”

She glanced across at him with a look of fierce irritation and replied, “I’d say, pick a good place to dump some garbage and be rid of them.”

“President Salmon Trout had an idea resembling that,” said Bierce.

“I thought,” Doc said in a low voice, “you were just going to let them go.”

“No! No, Doc, never. I’ve been here all along, figuring some way to cut you loose from these fools! But now look, you went and rescued yourself, instead!”

“Sure. But now that I’m back in the land of the living, that’s when you show up. Back off, Bierce. If you don’t mind, I’m gonna make things right and send these—”

“No! That’s not, not the way it is! Oh Doc, these scumbags have sure pulled a number on you. Look, there is no line we wouldn’t cross to get you back. And they are doomed, you can count on that.”

Bierce paused while Doc stared at him. He groaned, then went on, “And, and ordinarily I’d be all for sending them up right now, except—except this has become not an ordinary situation. I’m not liking to say this, Doc, but there may be some little discussion about the status of these here prisoners of yours.”

In a dangerous voice Doc replied, “I don’t know what you mean, Bierce.”

“Complic-complications have arisen. Somebody else might also have a claim on these two. So can we maybe wait a bit on the dumping?”

Her tired eyes flamed up at him. Bierce knew she was going to be very, very unhappy.

He said sadly, “Wait here, Doc, I gotta go below, talk to our new partner.” 

He went.

She shouted after him, “New partner! What are you now, Bierce? Working with the enemy? Is that why you’re here now?” She screamed, “Did you show up just so you could rescue that bozo! That festering stink-rocket!”

“No! None of the above,” he hollered back as he sank out of view.

He took some of her fury with him as he came below to join Emmers and the festering stink-rocket; once in reach of Mitchum’s face his elbow flew out on its own initiative and struck him between the eyes. With a cry Mitchum flew back gushing blood from a broken nose, thrashing at rope’s end. To the sputtering, gyrating thing Bierce said, “Now you look more like I picture.”

Emmers gasped. He looked like he was about to remonstrate.

“Got a comment, Emmers?” said Bierce. “He had it coming.”

“Sure, but. . .” said Emmers.

“I’m working with you on this, Emmers, but nobody said it has to be pretty. That’s dead meat hanging before you, friend. Doc Holiday’s up there mad as a hornet and with a sharp blade in hand, still deciding whether to cut this lowlife loose. It won’t hurt my feelings any if she does.”

Above, Doc Holiday carefully re-sheathed Prokofiev’s fascinatingly keen blade then tied the fabric belt ends together in a square knot anchored with a couple of tight slipknots. The light fabric had a lot of tooth to it, so the knots ought to hold for a while. She slung the rig over one shoulder bandolier style and tucked the knife securely under the waistband of the stinking Uni camo pants.

Now things began looking different. She could feel herself slowing down after all of that and all of that and all of that. Bierce and his ‘new partner’ suddenly there helping him wrangle Mitchum, could have them both. So long as she never saw them again. Her eyes veered away from the spectacle of Hosanna Flebrin curled up on the deck, still lost in feverish delirium.

Tired of all that. 

She peered again over the doorsill. Bierce and his sudden reinforcement looked like they were having a good time down there, disarming the Adjustor Mitchum. Okay then, leave them to it.

Doc thought of Prokofiev and she smiled for the first time all day. He’d saved her life after all.

She took a quick scrutiny of Flebrin. Out-of-action and by all appearances out of her mind. Was the scientist armed? Probably. Doc pried the black bag out of the woman’s clawed hands and went through it. Instruments, hey? And some glassware, that was all. Aha: this telephone goes overboard.

Now, now where is that white canvas satchel of mine? She found it under the Uni stinking camping gear jammed in behind the seats. Faintly humming her tuneless tune, Doc set to work. Wounds of my own, wounds of my own to heal.

Together they disarmed the man in black. Each worked from his own flier while the captive dangled suspended in space beneath Doc’s flier. They cut away the heavy, apparently fireproof enrobements, uncovering a rig for launching up to half a dozen small rockets like the one he’d shot at Jade. They found little rockets cached here and there in zipper pockets, and buttoned under loop straps, and hidden behind snap flaps.

They gave themselves and the man no longer in robes some amusement by tossing the rockets away into surrounding space so he could watch them fall the three hundred or so feet, four seconds of free fall to reach the liht limit, where they’d bounce and whiz up into the blue, trailing a flamelike whirl of disintegrating parts till gone from sight.

While they worked, Bierce said, “The president has made it clear as regards these criminals. I’m to free the hostage and stop this crime wave any way I have to.”

“Right,” said Emmers. “Then you are a sworn public servant now.”

“Yup. Swearing every minute.”

“Here, you want to try out this last one of his rockets?”

“Last one? You don’t know it’s the last one yet. Tuck it under his belt or get rid of it. Gotta dump it before he sets it off somehow.”

“How are we going to work this?” said Emmers. “You have freed your hostage from this kidnapper. Now I have to take her place.”

Carefully, Bierce and Emmers worked their way through the dangling captive’s ordnance. They removed the rocket launcher. Its harness, they discovered, was balanced by a side-load of six bottles of a better quality brand of hooch and a bandolier of fat cigars in metal tubes, all of which they sent up the flame.

Up went the praying-hand guidance modules for the launcher.

Rummaging the pockets of the roomy black business attire that came into view with the removal of the outer panoply revealed that the cursing bloody-nosed man had an arsenal of hidden small arms, including whips and chains, handcuffs, cans of gas, three kinds of grenades, a couple of electric stun guns and a miniature wind-up crossbow with fourteen darts, along with a clutch of little spikes, a hoard of thumb screws, and even more strange and unidentifiable items, all sewn into the seams of the jacket. Up the flame.

“I think,” said Bierce, “you be the chaperone for this one. Doc can manage the woman on her flier. If that’s agreeable to her.”

The stun guns flew up buzzing and snapping.

And the fone, like a shooting star.

“Quite the conquistador,” Bierce said, “You should thank us for lightening your load, numbskull.”

The captive panted “phugg-yew,” scarcely able to articulate around the bloody and swelling nose.

“If only,” Emmers said thoughtfully, “we could lighten up his bad attitude.”

“Look into it,” said Bierce. “They say if you drop something it becomes weightless and flies away to outer space.”

Emmers nodded. “I will keep the notion in mind, maybe for later.” He looked at the prisoner in a sidelong way and shrugged.

Much reduced in girth and slightly less formidable looking, the bloody-faced man snarled. “So? Phug-new.” He mumbled around the clotting blood, “Kidnappign ad torture. Udnaccebtable biolatiodn ub idterddatiodnl law.”

“The question then would be,” Bierce continued, “did you lighten the object or lighten the world it left behind?”

Doc’s face appeared scowling over the side of her flier. “Howza boy?” she called.

“Just about finished here,” returned Bierce. “We’ll be up in a second.”

He addressed the bedraggled captive. “As for you, you can thank Emmers you’re alive. Be aware that his say-so and continued well-being are your only assurance of continuing existence. Got?”

“Circubstadnces bake the bad. Ub course I agree.”

“Is that so. Hm. Okay, swing him aboard your flier, Emmers, he’s all yours.”

Then Bierce grinned at Emmers. “Now let’s all go up and we’ll have introductions and then a confab with Doc Holiday. She’s just dying to see her bungee-jumping friend’s new make-over.”

“Phuck awvh.”

forty

Flebrin was now strapped into one of the two narrow seats in Doc’s flier and Adjustor Mitchum was secured in another skimpy seat tucked into the rear portion of Emmers’s similarly egg-shaped flier.

“This one is Hosanna Flebrin, said Doc, a kidnapper, torturer, murderer and Uni scientist on the loose.”

“None of your false allegations will stick, dearie,” muttered Flebrin in a thin, frail-sounding voice. “I am a celebrity, a personality. My thoughts, dearie, are repeated a billion times a day. My voice alone debunks your pitiful, poisonous words.”

“Precious. And this one is Mitchum. I don’t know his first name but he is a nonstop liability. Watch your step.”

“His name is Reverent Mitchum!” weakly cried Hosanna Flebrin. “The Adjustor embodies the almighty powers of god and the insurance company. You shall not disrespect him.”

“Okay. Also a kidnapper, torturer, murderer, thief and loud mouth.”

Bierce laughed. “You made quite a haul today, Doc.”

“A public service,” she replied.

In the seat behind Emmers, Mitchum snuffled and snorkeled around his bleeding nose. The blood flowed off his chin and smeared from his hands onto his shirt.

Bierce said, “All right, let’s get these crackpots turned around and headed back to the political asylum they came from.”

“Wrogn. We move od to Oregodn,” the command resonated nasally from the back of Emmers’s flier. Mitchum craned his neck forward, stared out at Bierce, frowning and intense.

“Sure, sure, buddy,” Bierce said, looking disgusted.“I think,” he said, “from here on out, for your own sake Reverent Mitchum, you’ll want to keep quiet. Everyone here’s got better things to do than listen to you mouth off.”

Emmers said, “Bierce.”

“Yeah?”

“Gotta talk, amigo.”

“Okay yeah, you said you were in bad with this rocket master, somehow or other.”

“Somehow or other, Bierce. Because, you know, you stepped into a Uni plot I am involved in. The Uni, they are holding my family hostage. The ones in Arizona, where I come from originally. They threaten to sell all of my family members into the NS47 work camps forever, if I don’t help out this gentleman who is now your prisoner. It is a valid threat. They know all their names, their emails, who they talk to, where they go, the whole metadata on everybody. Everything. Where the kids go to school. There is no way out of this for me. I can’t let my dear ones fall to the 47 percenter diet.” Emmers’s voice quavered, “and all bloated up on sugary syrups and starch.”

Bierce heard his friend’s intolerable plight and scowled. He tilted his head for a better view into the rear of Emmers’s flier, and sneered a long look at the shadowed figure stuffed in back there. He said at last, “Malfeasant Intelligence, is that the game? I got you on the spies and lies already, bucko. I’ll bet it was you that sent the wrecking crew to Flihtworks, wasn’t it? Add conspiracy and attempted sabotage. Theft of this flier. Then the attempted murder this morning. And robbery. Now you’re in for multiple kidnappings and extortion. The counts keep rolling in.”

“I’m not on trial here!” bellowed the Adjustor. “YOU ARE!” He snarled, “You will do as I say or by Heaven, or by whatever pretext, we will have you. . .” 

Bierce shoved away from Emmers’s flier, putting a sword’s length of distance between himself and Mitchum.

Spoke Mitchum now slowly, with somber deliberation. The flier’s microphone would be sure to carry his words to the scientist strapped down in Doc’s flier. “Professor Flebrin, due to the Injurious Depredations of these Ignorant Honyoks, we must Forego our explorations at Shasta. The difficulties our charts show there would prove much too Stressful for your wounded leg to Sustain. On the brighter side, however: This change of plan will Afford us a more Leisurely Time in the less-explored Caverns of Oregon.”

  • * *

Flebrin was stirring. Webbed tight into the skimpy seat behind the short and narrow rope-littered deck of Doc’s flier, Flebrin had again collapsed following Mitchum’s pompous brief on ways and means, and not spoken a word since. But now, it seemed the woman might be getting less feeble. Doc, standing at the control deck resting her elbows on the frosted lip of the flier’s glass cockpit, began hearing little gasps now and again, little sounds of exasperation, plaintive mewings from back there, and sounds of Flebrin shifting to and fro. To all this Doc paid no heed, for the unwelcome passenger was unarmed and securely harnessed.

Over the speakerphone, Bierce broke the long silence and spoke to the others. “I’ve been on the horn with Salmon Trout,” he reported. He wants us all to know the Uni stooges are on their way out of the canyon, with the jocular assistance of our low-runner gangs.”

“Business as usual,” commented Doc.

Emmers’s voice came on, “Kicking their asses at every step, I hope.”

“Yes. He said that, but used the proper term for what’s getting kicked.

“hmh.” Emmers said.

Bierce went on, “And he reports that the medics stabilized Jade pretty well and sent her on to the Triple-R for repairs. They’re saying she might feel, um, a little. . . uh dizzy. For a time.”

“Oh, no.” Doc’s head fell to rest on the cool rim of glass above the flier’s controls. She stared far into the unfocussed light refracted through the thick glass nose cone. She felt her face go all screwy and the glassy light rippled and flowed and she couldn’t blink it clear.

Jade was brain damaged.

It was me, she thought. I’m the one responsible. It was me that made all this happen. A danger to my friends. I have to go now. The only thing to do is get out, get away, before I bring on something more horrible.

She came about and locked eyes with Hosanna Flebrin. Flebrin paused in mid-squirm and looked up, defiant, wearing a bright-eyed smirk.

“All right, you hateful thing.”

Bierce was saying, “. . . very relieved that Doc is back and all in one piece. . .”

It was a step and a half and she was kneeling on the creature, crushing down between the ribs. The thing opened its mouth to squawk but could make no sound. Quickly, Doc ripped away the mesh harness that confined Hosanna Flebrin.

Bierce’s voice continued on, “. . . that the Uni assaults farther north are looking more serious than anyone had thought.”

“Here we go,” said Doc, “let’s be going overboard, you [_disease. _]It’s up the flame with you now.” She hauled at Flebrin—wrassled her up—and her voice choked with fury as she said, “get off my boat.”

Bierce mentioned, “. . . that as our president he wants us to get up there and help out. . .”

Doc’s flier wallowed through a pocket of cooler, downward drafting air—

—and Flebrin lurched free from Doc’s grip. Panting noisily, she clung, gathered herself tight in a tangle of the straps that formerly restrained her. She shrilled, “Flames rend your demon flesh! Devour you! Burn!”

“. . . I told them we—what’s going on over there, Doc?”

Doc said in a flat, matter-of-fact tone, “I’m going home. First, I’m dumping this garbage.” She gave Flebrin another yank, then heaved. One leg went over the edge, then the other.

“No!” It was Emmers. His flier was alongside Doc’s. He crouched in the hatchway. He reached out a clutching hand. “I need this one alive! If she dies I can never save my family from the indefinite detention. Doc Holiday, you don’t have to stick around for what I have to do, Bierce will agree. Right, Bierce? But I have to escort these gangsters someplace, and then they go free.”

Doc grasped Flebrin, all set to launch her into space.

Out of the back of Emmers’s flier, slightly muffled, bellowed the Adjustor. “Young Woman, you’re making the Wrong Kind of Difference here! You are At Fault, Missy! Forget Not the Promise I hinted at. Preserve our Covenant!”

Drifting near but keeping a polite distance, Bierce said, “Emmers might be right, Doc. I don’t know what his story is yet, we haven’t heard what he has to say. Why he showed up in the middle of this. It’s your prisoner fair and square, but can you wait a bit on the disposal?”

More loudly, he said, “Emmers, come on now, spill it.”

As he spoke, Bierce punched two-fingered at his keyboard. 

A text message formed on Doc’s monitor, blinking in large red characters: Doc! Stay don’t go. Importnt biz 4 you. Ignor thes ppl. Have explains – wait plees wait.

The message repeated and repeated, stacked up and scrolled redly up her screen.

forty-one

From any of the fliers’ speakers you could hear Emmers taking a deep breath.

“Okay. First of all,” he said, “I would love to watch you toss these monsters up the flame, not only for what they did back there in the canyon—there was more to that that you didn’t see, Bierce.” He said, “Doc Holiday, I saw what they did to you and there was nothing I could do to stop them. I was not in time. I was nearly delivering this flier to them, but then you appeared. After that, I couldn’t move on them or even call for help. I couldn’t give them the way out, to bring them this flier, it would have meant your life.

“So,” over the air Emmers heaved a sigh, “this is the way it is. I’m supposed to fly these wingless wonders to some destination or other and after that help them cross back over the sierra. In exchange, so I am to believe, nobody will ever know the difference.”

“Outrageous!” Doc growled savagely, “Your family is hostage and they’re not to know the threat they’re under!”

“That is right. See the bind I’m in? If I don’t make these Uni happy they can just reach out and. . . .”

“Got it,” said Bierce. “They’re a cute bunch, these Uni. Creative in their primitive way. How in the world did they finger you, Emmers?”

“There is no telling. Somebody must have said something. All this was agreed a while back. I didn’t mention it before, because there seemed no point to it, then.”

“No point in asking? For help, I mean.”

“I had to go along with it, do what they said no matter what anybody thought about it. So why trouble folks with my problem? You know.”

“Sure I do,” Bierce replied. He said, “That’s a feeling I know very well.” He said through gritted teeth, “Don’t sweat it, compadre.”

“And that is how we meet up today, Bierce. I had the obligation to deliver a flier to this lowlife cabrón you have captured. I have done that much, so far.”

Bierce didn’t ask Emmers if he had known in advance about the attack on the blimp at Flihtworks. It wouldn’t be fair to all that he knew of the man, or to their friendship, for him to voice needless suspicions.

“So can we all agree here?” said Emmers anxiously. “We help these goat suckers but for only a little while—”

“So long as they stay out of trouble,” said Bierce.

“And when their demand on me is met, then we set them loose?”

In a warning tone, quickly Doc said, “You better keep him tied down over there, Emmers, or I’ll set him loose the way he’s earned!”

“Look Emmers,” Bierce said briskly, “we’re not going to take all day about this. I estimate we can be somewhere in Oregon by afternoon, satisfy the curiosity of Uni science in a couple of hours and then set the loons loose somewhere near the edge of the zone before nightfall. To keep things optimistic, we should get going now.

Bierce poked his head into Emmers’s flier. He looked at Mitchum. “¡Cabrón!” he said. “Our women can beat you anytime, you hair-pullin’ sissy. Now you ride with Emmers and you can hope that he will protect you from Doc Holiday. Tell us where you want to go.”

Forcefully the Adjustor intoned, “You, have Interfered with, Our First Mission. And You, Have, Wounded, my Scientist. Because of, all of this, we shall miss Shasta. Therefore, We Continue On, into Southern Oregon; there to explore Caverns, More, Remote. Follow my coordinates.”

“So give me the coordinates,” said Bierce. “Arse’ole.”

Bierce drifted near to Doc’s flier. He flipped a couple of switches on his console. His voice came quietly across the air between fliers, “Anyway Doc, it’s only an evil coincidence we had to run into these goony birds at all. Please don’t leave us when we need you the most. It’s important, a matter much bigger than all this. I meant to tell you and Jade and Salmon Trout about it, all of you together, but. . . things kept happening. And here, I. . . well, I can’t talk about it here, either. ” He looked at Flebrin, still panting on the brink. “Is that okay? Doc? Will you stick with me? Please.”

He flipped the switches again, winked at her and said, for all to hear, “Or, if it makes you feel better, you can go ahead and toss your captive scientist overboard. I’ll catch up with her before she reaches velocity and after that she can ride with me.” His flier dipped and disappeared below.

Doc’s fury abated. She couldn’t sustain it, she was all played out. Hollow-voiced, she said to Flebrin, “All right, fine. I don’t care anymore. You wanna go ride with him?” Her toe nudged the terrified scientist.“Be honest about it. Do ya? Yes or no.”

  • * *

Doc was knocked out, asleep behind the closed nose cone of the big glass flier. Bierce had earlier reminded her that he could pilot the craft remotely while she rested. So, unconscious in the early afternoon warmth, she was unaware when a couple of dozen volunteers from Flihtworks, treading sky over the central valley, converged to join with Bierce’s little group. Zipping along northward, all wore variously-colored light-weight windbreakers emblazoned with the Flihtworks logo above a motto, “The Roaring Crew.” Most of them carried weapons of various sorts. All wielded insults and raucous cries upon learning from Bierce that he had a pair of Uni captives. The Flihtworks gang milled about for a time as the two groups traveled together, trading news. When the volunteers learned from Bierce what president Salmon Trout had told him about the massive Uni incursions at the Columbia River and farther north at Puget Sound, all agreed to overheat their running boards and blast on north to help push back the ‘square butts’—their chosen epithet for this campaign. Finally, with Bierce’s assurance that his little group could continue their mission alone and that all who went on to the battles would get a hazard pay bonus from the company, they parted and went their separate ways.

forty-two

Caw-w-w-w ! ”

Doc jolted awake. The first thing that met her eyes was the carrion-bird stare—way too close!—of the red-faced torturer, Hosanna Flebrin. Pinned! Doc stared in horror, open-mouthed, at the mad visage of the Uni scientist hovering over her.

Her instinct, at the ragged-edge of sleep, was to flinch away in fear of getting her eyes pecked out. But she held the glare and spoke.

“What are you doing up, Flebrin? You should be resting that leg.”

The creature cawed again, this time with an air of coquettish triumph. It spoke.

“You are a demon! My demon, now.”

Uh-oh. Doc’s next instinct was to give the deranged scientist another stiff backhander across the snout, as she’d done earlier in the day. 

For some reason the woman’s eyes widened and she reared back.

That was good; after so vile an awakening from much-needed sleep, Doc didn’t feel, just yet, up to any role-playing games with this brain case.

But Doc had little choice right now in dealing with the mad Uni scientist. She couldn’t legitimately throw her off the flier now, no matter how clearly she pictured herself doing so and feeling no loss for it. She had agreed to follow through on Bierce’s accommodation with Emmers. And then accompany Bierce northward? For now, it was her job to humor this murderous nitwit and her cohort, ‘Adjustor’ Mitchum, on the off-chance they would make good on their promise to Emmers. Better for now, dismal thought, to just go along. 

Resignedly, she said, “I can be a demon. Perhaps you should be more careful about sneaking up on a demon.”

“You are my captive demon! I have your true name, revealed to us by that Bierce! You are the demon Doc Holiday and one way or the other, tied by ropes or bound by the will of the sorcerer Bierce, you are destined to serve me. Demon flames blaze about you. You are having a flare-up now!” Flebrin flinched back. Flebrin leaned close. She crooned soothingly, “You are not like other demons, no, but you are my demon now.”

“How so?”

“Don’t pretend you forgot! I quenched your flames in streams of water. You I have vanquished, and so now to be bound to my wishes!”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right at that. Quenched me cold.” Doc shivered. She thought it counter-productive to remind Flebrin how, after the ‘quenching’, she’d kicked Flebrin’s silly arse a bit.

“That is correct. So try none of your wily lies with me, demon. I know the rules of the supernatural. You are now my helper.”

“Okay. What’ll you have? Breakfast in bed?”

“It’s too late for breakfast. No, something more important. Fix my leg!”

“Ah. Well, there’s the rub. You lose all the power if I do that. Supernatural rule number one. All your power is in that wounded leg. I could fix it but then I’d be free to toss you up the flame afterward. Into the flames, I mean. See?”

“You lie! I overthrew the guardian. My power is the greater!”

“Well then, fix your own leg. You’re the master supernaturalist.”

“You refuse! Pretender! I threw open the gate, defeated the guardian, quenched your flames—I have a destiny in this accurséd land! You are doomed to serve me till I have wrested the secret of the metal from your lying grasp.”

“All this may be true, Flebrin, but stop breathing on me, will you? You stink.”

“Mine is the odor of stanktity, it can- not be otherwise. It is you that stinks! All you demons, you stink of hellfires! and broccoli.”

Doc gagged. She made to sit up but Flebrin lunged closer, swamping Doc under the Uni miasma.

Flebrin whispered, trembling, “When we get to the caves—the fearful caves—you must accompany me therein.”

“Sure. Now stand back! I’m feeling a surge of demon power that could blast you, rules or no rules.”

Hosanna Flebrin shied away and crab-scuttled back to her seat. She squeaked harshly, “I have your promise, demon. With your help I will find what I seek, the metal.”

“You’re the boss. Now, while I rebind that rotting leg, tell me what these caves are that you’re raving about. Hold still! Wounds from demon blades are often fatal. Look around you, I’m sure there’s an asp around here someplace. Asp Rin, my little healing asp. Magical, you know. Curled up in a small bottle.”

forty-three

With coordinates supplied by the Adjustor, Bierce guided the three fliers north and westward. Snow-capped Shasta loomed high on their right, following the three small craft like a vast moon trailing streamers of ice. The titanic flanks of the great stratovolcano tilted away unseen, concealed under dark wind-etched clouds of storm. Off to the left, not too many miles distant, another snowy peak drifted away behind. Ahead of them, the Sacramento valley dissolved into rising mountains. The fliers gained altitude. Veering now more to the west, Bierce began threading his little group between the forested peaks of the Klamath Mountains.

In the small cabin of Doc’s flier it was starting to feel too cozy. She let the hatch open a crack, admitting a refreshing breeze. At these mile-high altitudes the early afternoon air was thin and considerably cooler than in the Sacramento Valley. For a while, the wintry air sharpened her senses. But with the speed they wound through the frost-streaked wilderness, the jet of cold air lowered cabin temperature quickly, past cool to brisk and then to chilly. It wasn’t long before Doc closed the nose cone tight and began experimenting with Bierce’s various atmosphere controls, trying to get some temperature out of the assemblage of vents and blowers he had no doubt transplanted from who knew what old car carcasses. Not knowing quite how she did it, she at last got a light drift of cold air moving through the flier.

The peaks tilted past. The fliers crossed the gorge of the Klamath River and drifted more directly north. Soon crossing into Oregon, they turned west again toward the Pacific coast.

Sometime in the second hour of the flight Bierce announced, “We’re here.” His flier dropped from Doc’s sight and a moment later her flier followed his, diving down a tight spiral to a quick halt, inches from the face of a grimy, pitted marble cliff on the south flank of an unnamed peak.

Doc had scarcely glimpsed the pale swelling on the mountainside before the sudden descent. From a distance it had looked like nothing more than a steep, thousand-foot expanse of dirty snow on a mountainside that, like any other of the nearby peaks, otherwise showed no trace of snow. Now, the three fliers hovered nose-in before a pale, knobby wall of rock.

Flebrin was out of her harness and fussing, “my instruments, where are they!” She scrambled around her feet and between the seats and then plopped back, the black bag she kept always within reach clutched to her belly.

The three fliers drifted slowly down the cliff face. Descending fifty or a hundred feet, they arrived at a narrow ledge that slanted across the dingy rock face. Bierce brought them around to line up end-to-end along the ledge and they halted.

The skimpy ledge sloped up gently, smooth and round-shouldered and a little damp after some recent rain, crossing the pale face of the cliff till it reached the foot of a tall, shallow notch creased vertically into the rock. The ledge ended there, at a flat spot nearly wide enough for two boots to stand side by side facing outward, heels against the sunlit stone. This minimal platform was littered with bright sand and a crumble of decayed rock weathered down out of the notch stretching up behind. Perilously rooted at the edge of the crumble, a skinny evergreen spar tilted forward into bright mid-afternoon space. Behind the meager tree, at the back of the sunlit nook, stood a surprising slice of hard, plutonic blackness.

Doc opened the hatch and Flebrin was up, rummaging around the space behind the seats. She turned up a fat coil of rope and two water bottles. She rummaged more. At last she paused, buttoned the white smock up to her neck and eased gingerly off Doc’s flier, scooched herself across to sit on the tiny ledge. She had the rope slung around her neck and the water bottles crooked in her elbow. Two of the white spelunking helmets loaded aboard by the now-dead soldier Georgie, dangled off her wrist. Around her neck, too, the black satchel hung on its strap.

Mitchum rapidly freed himself from the confining seat belts and stood. He bent his scabbed and swollen face over the void below, looked impassively down the hundreds of feet of dirty white rock.

Flebrin experimentally inched herself sideways up the narrow ledge toward Emmers’s flier.

Emmers said, scowling at the Adjustor, “You’re off this boat. Go.”

Mitchum slid one boot onto the ledge and the boat rocked a little.

“Here’s the way it’s going to be,” said Bierce. “If you’re not back out of there before dark, we’ll be happy to believe you didn’t make it and we’ll be gone from here. Your one flight out leaves promptly at sundown. Hop to it.”

“He comes with us,” said the Adjustor, pointing at Emmers. “That’s how it’s going to be.”

“Oh no you don’t,” laughed Emmers. “I’ve done my job. I got you here and I will be more than eager to fly you out again. But that’s all there is to the deal.”

The finger jabbed at Emmers’s face. “You don’t want to be uncooperative with me,” said the Adjustor. “You’re coming along.”

“Un- you say uncooperative?” 

“That’s right. Now here’s the Word you hadn’t heard. You may or not trust me on the one thing we agreed to, but you can trust me on this. That if you don’t do as I say then all your service to us up to now will have been for nothing. Nothing! Time to get real, fellow. We may need you in there. See, you do need to complete the whole bargain. I alone can sign the release on your family members. Call this our mutual indemnity pact.”

The two men stared at each other.

The blood-caked face of the Uni Adjustor hovered like stone before Emmers, the eyes squinty as a basilisk in the sunshine.

Doc marveled at the desperado hubris of the man, demanding that his enemy follow and serve.

Hosanna Flebrin hitched her fanny up the slanted rock ledge, finally arriving alongside Emmers’s flier. She handed off the rope and a water bottle to Mitchum. She leaned forward, elbows against the flier, and regarded Emmers, her eyes wide, mocking.

“Flames all low, all twisty and blue,” she murmured. “Oh, I think I see a new kind of terror.” She grinned, she pointed a finger at Emmers, thumb up. She dropped the hammer. “pk-eww. . . .”

Doc pitied Emmers. The single card in play, now face up on the table—their proven capacity, from past to present and any future you could imagine, for enduring wickedness.

Finally Emmers, his face gray with suppressed rage, addressed Mitchum. He growled, “You cut a fine line, hombre. You go in there first. If I have to drag you out. I will use your teeth for skids. You will be much. More ugly to look at than you are now, but I. Promise you will be still breathing.”

Flebrin twisted on her perch, glared back at Doc. “Come.”

Doc said, “You’ll be going on without me.”

“I command you!” shrieked Flebrin. “Demon slave come!”

Doc laughed. “Let’s not play that game any more, Flebrin. There aren’t any demons. All your demon flames are purely mental, or an effect of the comet, more likely. Here in the zone such talents are not unexpected. Look in a mirror sometime, Flebrin. What would you see, I wonder?”

Doc glanced over at Bierce. “She was here for the comet. She was one of those able to get out.”

“I was never here! I was with my astrologer,” shouted Flebrin. “Near the marina, safe! and out of this world. We had potent diagrams guarding us. I was myself shielded behind a lavish spread of ancient star charts. We sang the safe readings, evocations wherewith such accursét comets were banished!”

Flebrin cast an anxious look at the Adjustor, then turned furiously on Doc. “Demon!” she shrieked, “You promised to accompany!”

“I lied. As a demon I could do that. Now don’t waste any more of your limited time.” Doc made a shooing gesture toward the narrow gap in the cliff. “Go now.”

“The Adjustor will rescind your policy! Just like he did poor Georgie.”

“The only one with a policy here, I’m afraid,” said Doc, “is our unfortunate friend Emmers. Looks like your company took advantage of his pre-existing condition and signed him up without notice.”

Bierce chuckled. “That’s right. You’re pre-adjusted, Emmers, a free service of the company. Once again the Uni are full of cute tricks. But look, compadre, we’re un-adjusted to that way of doing business. You and I have worked together building Flihtworks for a good long while. We’ll be back at it before long. And look, it turns out you have company insurance with Flihtworks that we never discussed. After all, who could have known we’d come to this pass? So now let’s say that if you’re stuck going in with them, then we’re sticking around for you. Or at least I am,” he amended. He looked uncertainly in Doc’s direction. He went on, “The deal is, if you aren’t the first one that climbs out of that cave, then I leave these troglodytes here eating the guano of cave bats forever.” He gave Mitchum a nod. “The bats are in there waiting for you.”

Flebrin squeaked and shuddered.

Emmers said, “I don’t even know how they got my real name and connected it to my family. Somebody must’ve talked.”

“That’s right. Somebody.” Sounding pleased with himself, the Adjustor said, “People always talk. I like to say, circumstances make the man. Now you, mister ‘Emmers’, it’s time you got off that flier.” He finished his step from the boat to the ledge and looked down at Emmers. Then, with a sharp gesture at Flebrin still seated on the ledge, he said, “Hosanna! Let’s go. We have little time. Bring your instruments. Be confident. I will support you on your injured leg. Emmers, help her up.” He edged toward the cleft in the rock wall.

Emmers looked at Bierce, tapped a knuckle on the open hatch of his flier. “The flier?”

“Just leave it switched on. If need be, I’ll tether it to something.”

“Won’t you please come,” Flebrin wheedled Doc. “This will be the Terrible Caves! I know it’s my destiny in this land of evil to go in there, but it makes me scared. . . .”

“Think of the metal,” said Doc. “What you plan to use it for.” She swung her flier out from the cliff and came up alongside Emmers. She reached the remaining spelunking helmet across to him. “You’ll be needing this, “she said. “And here, take this canteen.” Then, the heavy bag of caving gear that Flebrin had left on the seat.

Shuffling along the minuscule ledge, the Adjustor paused and craned his head around. He jabbed a finger at Bierce. “As for you. Your goose is cooked and you don’t even know it.”

Bierce’s eyebrows went up. He gasped. He grinned. His boat floated out from the cliffside and wheeled, nosing down angle-on to Mitchum, settling scarcely a foot out of sword’s reach of him. From this new perch Bierce leaned forward and said, “Goose? No more Golden Eggs? No golden fleece? Where’s my parachute—I think I’m getting vertigo. I know what, maybe it’s time I started paying into your policy! But here’s a second thought, mister man, methinks you talk through your arse. Pal, I sincerely hope you cook your own goose today.” He sighted up his index finger at the mid-afternoon sun, then rotated his thumb to the horizon. Then he settled back, foot propped against the thick glass rim of his flier’s extended nose cone.

The Adjustor squeezed sideways through the crack in the pale, shabby-looking rock. Flebrin followed him, wrenching the ever-present black satchel in behind her.

No wonder, thought Doc, that the place was unknown to casual explorers. The skinny gap was a thousand vertical feet below the top of the mountain, itself a tree-covered prominence of no particular distinction as far as she could tell, except for this one stretch of bare cliff on the south slope. The notch through which the spelunkers entered was equally far from the tumbled wilderness at the mountain’s foot and forever invisible except by close observation from the air.

Emmers was the last to disappear into the rock.

“Good luck,” Bierce called.

forty-four

Doc said, “I’m truly sorry about all of this, Bierce.”

“You’re sorry!” he said. “I’m the one that’s sorry. You have no idea. Doc, you don’t want to blame yourself for what’s been happening here.”

“Yes, if I—”

“No way, Doc. I’m the guy who knows where the faults lie and they don’t come anywhere near you. You’ve done exceptional work today. You would have brought those two rotten eggs back on your own! Or sent them up the flame as they well deserve. But I—I had no business putting you in the position you were in. Not today and not last night with those rockets nosing around the forest. Doc, I’ve got excuses, but they don’t add up to all of this. You just don’t know it yet.”

“Still, Bierce, look what happened when I let myself get captured by those maniacs. The risk I put you to, all of you. And Jade wounded so bad. And there was me, all set to go out of existence at least a couple of times, there. You had noth—”

“Wrong,” Bierce interrupted her. “It’s all on me. I’m a s-slob and I let you down, all of you, right from the moment we m-met up on top of that hill a couple days back. That’s when I could have said something. But no, I was in a hurry right then. It was me that got us into this whole mess—except for Emmers, who wasn’t in my plans at all. It has to be embarrassing for him, having us meddle in his troubles like this. But maybe things’ll work out for him. Hope so.”

Bierce stretched and groaned and shrugged his shoulders.

He went on, “But I was optimistic, see. Before Jade—got shot down. And then you, kidnapped by that scum. And Emmers showing up. And the rockets last night—no, let me finish!”

Doc hadn’t been about to say anything. She looked at him a little puzzled.

Bierce rushed on, “I should have told you what I was intending before we ever left Henderson’s! But I put it off. I shirked. I cringed. What it is, it’s the, it’s embarrassment for starting something so late that should have been done long since, tell ya what I gotta tell ya. I thought I could take care of everything.”

“Well, you have.”

“No,” Bierce moaned, “just picking up the pieces after things fell apart.”

“How do you mean?”

Bierce put on a sardonic grin and nodded his head this way and that. “How do I mean?” He snorted. “How do I—” comically, he waved his arms. He looked at Doc’s worried face and the grin faded.

He said, “Time to stop kidding around. I’ll show you wh-what I mean. Watch this.” He spoke breathlessly, “You’re as ready now as you’ll ever be. Never mind a long string of talk. It’s way past time, anyway.

“Now, okay now, let’s say I’m of a mind to go up and take a look around,” he said. “Show you what I. . . now don’t be too surprised at this, Doc.”

His lower lip came up in a rueful smile. Bright-eyed, he held Doc’s gaze while he slowly stepped off his flier. He stood in the air, one hand on the sill of the flier’s hatchway. Then he drifted away from the flier, left it hovering there while he floated in space beside it.

“Up to take a look around,” he stated.

Bierce drifted up the thousand and more feet to the chilly summit of the unnamed mountain, paused there for a moment taking in the view, then sauntered back down the air to rejoin Doc. He paused beside her flier, casually put one boot up on the door sill.

Awed, Doc said, “I don’t understand what you just did, Bierce, but I have the feeling it will explain a lot.”

“A lot more than you think, probably, Doc. Whenever you heard me say I was going to explain things, that was it.”

“Is this what you meant when you texted me today?”

“Yes Doc, partly. I need your help in a couple of critical schemes I’m hatching. Flying without the inertial engine is one reason I recruited you and the rest of the team, especially you. If I’d spoken up about it sooner, as I’d planned to, you wouldn’t have been captured this morning. And Jade didn’t have to fall when the rocket knocked her flier out from under her. It’s why I’m to blame for all of this, not telling you when I should have, right away.

“But also, there’s the Uni to deal with, this three-prong military push into the zone. They’re coming after the slush and we can’t let ’em have it. At least not before we. . . ” his voice trailed off. His eyes shifted back and forth, he looked down the steepness of the mountainside. He took a long breath and raised his eyes again. He looked sick.

Doc’s heart thumped once or twice, three times. He did have it! Then, her notion about the slush. . .

Grinning uncertainly back at him, she said, “Slush? It’s been years since anybody’s seen any of that.” Or any more of it, she thought, than the rare diluted wisps of long-gone comet fall she’d reclaimed from old rusted-out fliers. Their inertial engines.

Bierce nodded, watching her dawning comprehension. He said, “Slush of the comet? Huh. Well, that was going to be a topic for later. I had hoped, you see, that we could all sneak away after the joy and confusion of the border skirmish back there, and indulge in a secret confab. You and me and Jade and Salmon Trout. Remember the story of the Trojan Horse?”

“Sure,” Doc said. “A great stunt. But why not talk a little more about the slush? Bierce, I’m putting two and two together here. For the longest time there has been no sign of any slush remaining anywhere in the zone. People have looked high and low for it. And now we’re fighting a war over it? With the Uni? And here you are, gadding about in the air without the benefit of your own inertial engine? Somehow I’m starting to feel a little disillusioned— You wouldn’t happen to be hiding an Achilles heel or two, would you?”

“No, just the one, bad timing. But that’s got dimension to it. For instance, the Trojan Horse scheme I mentioned is a thing I planned for the Uni that’s gotten rushed ahead of schedule by all this aggression up and down the zone. I’ve been wanting to present them something special, where I’ll be the wooden horse. I think it’s worth the risk to my sorry hide to go over there. Don’t want to get lit up in a bonfire over it, though. For this stunt to work, Doc, I need you-your extraordinary talent. That’s the key.”

“I have an extraordinary talent?”

“Oh yeah, no doubt about it. Just so you know, that’s why I took the precaution of insisting you stay off the line for the duration of, of what I had planned.”

“You don’t want to be seen with me, on the phone.”

“That’s not it! You don’t want to be seen with me. Look, Doc, my secure phone?—I don’t trust the thing any farther than I can throw it. So, for sure we don’t want them—Uni satellites, tracking you in my vicinity. But anyhow look, I think it’s probably time you took your first solo flight.” Smiling brightly, Bierce reached out a palm. “I’ll help you up.”

Skeptically, Doc grasped his callused and work-hardened, battle-scarred hand. And floated up out of her boat.

“Up-up,” said Bierce. “Relax.”

Doc tried to relax. Bierce was beaming up at her, nodding, grinning like a silly ass, while her guts turned over at the imminent prospect of a thousand-foot fall to the bottom of the mountain.

“Soon as you’re sure, go ahead and take your hand away,” he said. “Further discussion will follow. It’s simple.”

So she lifted; their fingers separated and she went for just a little drift across the air. She stuck close to the ledge, taking care not to look down much into the rocky gorge falling away under her feet. She felt more solid studying the face of the neighboring peak, looming huge and near.

She drifted farther, let her fingertips brush along the cliff face.

“Wow,” she said, balancing on air.

Bierce called out, “There’s your proof of concept, Doc. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could do that? I want you to consider your newest Doc Holiday’s Remedy for Flyers.”

forty-five

Doc wandered back to where the fliers were parked and perched gracefully on the narrow ledge.

“So now,” Bierce went on, “we come to a certain little personal matter I need you to help me in. Help me out of.”

Bierce was standing there beside his flier, looking earnest.

Doc sat on the ledge, ankles crossed and floating in the slight breeze that drifted up the cliff face. She said, “You’re asking me to put you out of the flier business.”

Bierce said, “That’s about the size of it. I should be obsolete, long since. You’re the one that can make that happen. Before that happens, though, I hope to enlist you in the wooden horse plot, haha, a far less ignoble scheme.”

“Ignoble? Why do you put yourself down, Bierce?”

“Well, today’s spate of madness with our fine-feathered malefactors we could just call bad luck. Bad timing. But it all brings out how I’ve been a total fraud and how I’m gonna have to go hide out somewhere after we fix things. I’ve held stuff back and that’s caused a lot of pain. Salmon Trout’s knees. . . .”

“And sore legs all around.”

“And more and more. I mean to make things right, but I have to be sneaky about it because I also want to skate out blameless! That’s where you come in, and the others too, see? Special talents.”

“ ’fraid I don’t understand, Bierce.”

“Well, I’m hoping you will cover my arse with a new special edition Remedy for Flyers that gives everyone confidence to do what you just did. A fresh elixir that makes me obsolete, jobless, outsourced, displaced and out of fashion, and for that I will thank you very much. Another side of that too, much more important than me, is that we don’t want to crash the zone economy with dramatic revelations, the blames and recriminations that might ruin Flihtworks and devalue all Flihtworks bux in circulation.

“These glass fliers are transitional, you see. So, everybody gets aboard the new model and stays in the market for Turbo Papers. Later on, when the time is right, you can break the news about your new ground-breaking elixir. A new label ought to do the trick. You just set the example and people’s confidence in the Doc Holiday brand will lift all Flyers into the sky.” Bierce swept his arm forward, illustrating Doc seated on the ledge. “In no time, the glass flier will have become a luxury item, a pricey style accessory that many will want for its wind and rain protective qualities and so on. So Flihtworks stays solvent, no boom, no bust. And me, I’m outa here. Outmoded, defunct, innocent of any wrong-doing. That’s my one plan, Doc. To save Bierce’s bacon.”

With a hopeful, sheepish grin, Bierce floated near and held out a hand. “Deal?”

So, thought Doc, this was Bierce’s late-in-the-game reveal. A man of unsuspected deeps and shallows, Bierce. She also thought, what of that? He only wanted to remedy his failings and at the same time not take the rap for coming up short on some imagined scale of ethical excellence. Fine. Also, of course, he was passing the con-job on—transitionally of course—to her and her elixir. Well, maybe some. . . degree of transitional prosperity would be nice, all in a good cause.

She grinned and shook on it. “I hope you don’t expect me to keep selling your fake ‘miracle molecule’ after you get all this to market,” she said. “Lighting up my ‘engine’ with Turbo Papers really would be taking things too far. Remember, we’re letting go of the inertial engine here. I won’t be forgetting that my remedy is the real deal. We’ll keep our businesses separate.”

He nodded.

“But I think I understand you, Bierce, you want to save Flihtworks and what it stands for.”

He nodded again.

“Okay. You get a big plus for this, Bierce. No one shall ever know of your sacrifice.”

“Thanks,” he said. “Thank you, Doc.” Looking relieved and grateful, he reached for her hand again and when she gave it he gave her back a brief two-handed squeeze.

He said, “It’s really a load off me to have this business settled, Doc. I only wish now we could have had the strategy session about the Trojan Horse venture when we were all together at Henderson’s. I’d planned that for later but when later came it was different than I’d planned for. And here we are now.”

“Yep.” Thoughtfully, she said, “Say Bierce, what do you think Mitchum meant, your goose is cooked?”

“Well, as to that, my best guess is that some folks will say any little thing to throw a doubt into you, break you down and give you a scare. It’s amusing watching them work at it, as if it really meant something. That fool Uni is too used to threatening people and getting away with it. But jerk that he is, he can’t stand being laughed at. So I took the opportunity to fluster his bluff with a little nonsense. I’ll say this, though, if he’d said my hen was in the roasting pan, I’d suspect I might be in trouble.”

“You do like chickens, I’ve noticed.”

He laughed. “Chickens are my life. You know, Doc, things would have been different if I’d only stayed with the chickens. I’ll introduce you to them tomorrow.”

“I like chickens,” said Doc. “They eat the bugs in my garden. So now what? What if those two idiots do find something in the cave, ‘metal’ or slush?”

“Oh, what if they do? They’re grounders. They think like grounders. To them it’s a tool for use. They’ll just rush home with the loot, like they promised Emmers. Might even honor their promise to him.”

Doc said, “Earlier, Flebrin boasted how she intends to weaponize her ‘metal’ in some bizarre and sinister way. Coming from her that’s a credible threat. She would if she could.”

“What of it? I don’t think there’s any weapon in it. They’ll have to make the world suffer some other way.”

“If there’s any in the cave she’s sure to find it, with or without her detector devices. She’ll recognize it. She’s got a comet-effect sight of some kind.”

“Ah,” he nodded. “Too bad you clued her to that.”

“It is too bad. She’s crazy but not dim. She has unhealthy ideas.”

“Well, if they find any, they won’t know what they’re dealing with. Those bad old Uni are working on old bad assumptions. First, they’ll want a flying war machine, since that’s—oh what now. . . .”

Erupting gently out of Bierce’s right pants leg the sounds of nesting hens softly sang and chirped in warm maternal contentment. He slapped hurriedly among his several pockets.

“Hi ma, meant to call you.”

While Bierce talked to his ma, Doc pushed off from her cliff-side perch and floated across the air to her flier, where she rummaged up her ditty bag and spare set of duds from under a tangle of stinking Uni camping gear in the cargo space behind the seats. Everything tainted with Uni trademark stink she tossed overboard. Then, gingerly, she sidled around the far side of the flier and drifted there for a second or two, got her legs working and practiced her new way of walking.

Looking down past her toes made her queasy. It was a far drop, a long way to the bottom. Softly, she took her first step, an easy step onto an invisible stair. And she landed on it all right, accompanied by a sense of some odd scurrying underfoot, just where her foot wanted to settle, and yes, it was the step she had intended. So that was one down. Okay—

And continue. She visualized the stairway taking her down the rocky gorge between the mountain peaks. The silent scurry underfoot went on, as though many small birds of wind wove nests beneath her feet. And she stepped softly down the air, her bare feet moccasined in unseen billows. The buoyancy she’d felt while pondering the high shadows of the Henderson house a day ago now balanced the weight of her body, and her muse accompanied, lightly sketching in some new harmonies. . . and she imagined, picturing clearly that if she so desired she might otherwise try sliding down the air, or even throw herself in great arcs to her destination. That would be something she might try on the way back up to the cliff face. For now, a nice walk was a good first step. She would simply stroll on down to the tall trees far below, where she could count on finding a stream of fresh water.

  • * *

“Doc!” Bierce nearly shouted when she reappeared wearing her own clothes, skipping up the mountainside in her old canvas camp sneakers. “We’ve got to get Emmers out of there quick and be on our way. We’re heading north.”

“How come?”

“The Uni are using nukes now.”

“What!”

“There’s a nuclear aircraft carrier arriving at Puget Sound. The thing is swarming with soldiers and spear launchers and it’s already too close to where I live! We knew they were coming, but not like that.”

“A nuke! Don’t they know that idiotic boiler will blow up in the zone!”

“No, maybe it won’t. Remember what happened after the comet? All the nukes in the zone went foof, straight up the flame when the cooling pumps flew apart and the fuel rods caught fire. This cooker must be damped down tight. One fuel rod to boil up the water, make the steam and turn the prop real slow. A big slow troop carrier now. Now think of thousands of delinquents on the loose, all set to spread misery like pickle relish on a rhubarb pie, not to mention eat us out of house and home. We have to get up there and stop them.”

“Well yes, let’s go! Puget Sound is up by Canada, isn’t it? Hundreds of miles from here.”

“Right. And Doc, those two cavers may be traveling with us a bit farther.”

“Them!” Doc slammed her ditty bag back behind her seat. “I wouldn’t fly—you have no idea, Bierce!—with that stink. Not now that I’m all cleaned up.”

“Okay, I hear that. But it looks like Mr. Adjustor did tip his hand some when he mentioned the cooked goose.”

“Oh? And what do you suppose that stinkin’ crime boss has to say about anything?”

“Sorry, Doc. Those two Uni may have some intel up their sleeves. Their presence here may not be the coincidence it appears to be. I gotta find that out.”

“By coincidence I take it you mean happenstance? It was my impression that Emmers’s problem was about something unrelated.”

“On that, I never had a clue.”

“All right. Well, you can sweat their intels on the way out of the cave. I’ll bring up Emmers, if he needs help. He can be my first student in the art of—I don’t know, ‘float’ something or other.”

“Aha. Flihtworks Float Division is standing by. When Jade comes back. Doc, I can really guess how you feel about traveling with those bad characters, but there’s more afoot than I’ve told you about so far. My colleague and friend Emmers isn’t part of that. There’s a lot more at stake.”

“So I have gathered. But I doubt Emmers will fly with your big stakeholders any more than I will. Try and fit three in your boat.”

“. . . all right. To me, these operators panning for slush here prove to me once again the Uni interest. Mitchum’s cooked goose tells me why they’re parading a nuclear showboat a bowshot from my house—it’s a smash and grab operation! I guess we can forget about that Trojan Horse, now.”

“Oh-ho-ho.” Doc shook her head. “Guess I don’t need to guess the specifics on what’s there to grab, hey Bierce?”

Bierce snorted. “Guess not,” he said. He glared at the hard rock wall, white and blank, that hung behind the three parked fliers. “First we pull our friend out of the mountain and then we go and save my chickens.”

forty-six

Hurriedly they moored the fliers to the bedraggled spar at the entrance to the cave, then squeezed through the narrow gap into cool mineral twilight.

Doc said, “They should be easy enough to follow. Look, they left a glow worm over there.”

They made their way cautiously across the tilted floor, crunching softly over a carpet of small bones and dry guano.

Stepping past the first glowing signpost left by the preceding group, they walked around a jutting shoulder of pale marble stone into the deeper shadow of a second gallery that slanted away into opaque darkness. Here the air was cooler, the only sound the crunching underfoot.

Bierce pulled his ever-present black goggles from around his forehead and moved them down around his neck, close under his chin. In the darkening gloom, tiny lights sparked beside each lens, winking amber and red. As the two moved on into the second gallery he produced a hefty-looking flashlight and flicked it on. He twisted the beam to a wide-angle view.

Behind Bierce, Doc’s beam came on, went swooping into darker corners ahead.

The stone floor slanted sharply off to the right and the pale ceiling came down at a steeper angle, converging down to a dark corner hidden behind a cluster of stalactites grown down to the floor. The detritus underfoot was scattered more thinly now.

Down among the stalactites they spotted the second glow worm. They crouched forward across smooth stone, cautious of the lowering ceiling.

They crawled on hands and knees, threading carefully through the slender stalactites, which without much effort could break away and cause some injury. The damp odor of dissolving rock filled their nostrils. Then, skidding slowly down a ramp of slick damp stone, they arrived at the edge of a sudden cleft where the cavern floor dropped out of sight.

A little breathless after the long skid, they played their lights over the rim and saw only a muddle of bony knobs and smooth-worn bulges, indefinite forms falling away, grooved and water-carved out of the pale marble. It did not look like much of a passageway. From what they could see, it seemed that if there were any descent possible here, it would be one better suited to a contortionist. But rising out of there came a faint vibration of distant sound.

Bierce zeroed his light at the spot where the sound seemed to come from.

“Do you think that’s them?”

They listened.

“I don’t get any voices. But look, they left a rope for us.” Doc tugged gently at a narrow gauge line spiked into the rock, that dropped away out of sight.

“You ever do this sort of work before, Doc?”

“A tiny bit, a good while back. Enough to know that each cave has its own set of problems.”

“Huh. I guess if they went this way, so can we.”

“Follow the rope, yes,” said Doc. She sat on the lip of stone, paused for a moment and snugged up her shoe laces.

“Or not.”

“Do you think we should just holler for them?”

“Maybe?” said Bierce. “We don’t know what we’re getting into here.”

They both laughed, he with a little less gusto.

“Anyhow,” Doc said, “they’re following a chart. They’re down there and we can find them with or without any stinking rope.”

“So true. . . .”

Doc moved forward.

Bierce hung back. “Wish we had hard hats.”

“Don’t be chicken, follow me.” Doc slithered in, began worming her way down.

“That’s not fair,” Bierce protested. “Chickens are very brave.”

“Foolhardy sometimes, I’ve heard,” she replied, her voice already muffled in the rock.

“That’s you talkin’.” He watched Doc’s pale rubber soles disappear around a turn in the rock that he couldn’t see. Her light dimmed away. He scrambled after her more slowly.

And more slowly. A sharp turning, then down, down. The rope ended. 

The mountain, of course, had been here a long, long time. For sure it wouldn’t collapse today just because a crowd of people happened to intrude into its stony silence. Still, there was activity here, the rock interior observably melting to new forms, like this winding drain etched down through the rock to the center of the earth.

Time’s liquid processes gave a sense of things happening. The surrounding rock dripped and bulged, showing at this tectonic moment how the mountain’s insides dissolved, flowed and evaporated, the mineral-saturated air itself a lighter medium of rock weightier than the air outside. The rock moved, morphed, flowed, proceeded at its own pace down the ramp to decay and collapse. In time, out of the decay livelier things would spring up.

Bierce didn’t want to spring out of the rock later. But now the knobby and contorted narrowness rushed in on him and everything went out of focus. Suddenly it was hard to breathe and he didn’t know which way to move. His attention shifted, and the blind spots of his eyes stepped up that perception which was his, and he saw the filaments and winding coils of gravity that bound the immensity of rock in which his tiny body moved and breathed. And he was drawn, pulled, stretched down the lines of force anchored deep in the planet, and his awareness uncurled ever more narrowly into Earth’s ever tighter complexities. And all seemed frozen in mid-surge of some monstrous writhing.

It writhed now. Bierce slowed further, his body stiffened, subsiding into the mountain. Immeasurable planetary force wound taut through his body and he felt the incremental shift pulling the rock even closer, intent on filling the soft space he occupied.

He fell into a kind of resistant paralysis and ceased to move. Now, imminent cataclysmic transformation pressed close; his presence here could be the nudge that would tilt the tenuous balance of ever-shifting masses. His least motion now would surely distort the lines of gravity flowing through the mile-high structure crushing down at geologic speed. Catastrophe awaited only his instigation. 

Motionless, unwilling to risk anything, Bierce fossilized into the cool, silent rock.

One thought before he turned to stone: Doc at least should be quick enough to escape the fast-approaching collapse, get out and grab a flier and carry on without him. . . if only he just didn’t move at all. . . .

  • * *

Doc eeled her body around knobs and projections, slanted sideways into crevices beyond which were more obstacles she had to oof and grunt around in order to reach yet farther downward twists and turns. Engrossed in the physical challenge and glad of her light’s wide-angle beam, Doc inched along until she came to a sharp drop that would take her downward another ten or a dozen feet, all in one go. She paused for breath and to consider. It was natural to carefully study such a long drop from which, however she landed, she wasn’t equipped for an easy return.

It was odd, looking down the narrow tube. She remembered the sensation, a couple of days ago, looking into the high shadows of Henderson’s big house. Then she’d felt she should just push off and float on up and take a look around. Now she really would do that, only this time she’d float gently down the slick rock channel. 

She thought of Bierce. She hadn’t heard from him lately. But how long ago was ‘lately,’ she wondered. She had no way of guessing how much or how little time had passed, how far she’d worked her way toward the center of the mountain. It didn’t seem like a long time yet. 

For a moment she lost her bearing on where up and down were located, a scary but interesting sensation that resolved when she focussed on the sharp turn before her. Here, practically under her chin, lay one of Flebrin’s fiery fingernails, broken off where she’d clutched at the rim. Yes, that would be the down side.

Down. Now how would she gauge her speed on the drop? Bierce should be here. He would shout, she assumed, if he got into trouble, as would she. She beamed her light back and forth down the tube. Hey Bierce! She paused, listened to the mild susurrus of air drifting up from the mountain’s interior, and it sounded more insistent than before, now a bit like distant thunder. Otherwise, she heard nothing. But, had she called him? She decided no, only hearing a mental echo, the rehearsal of calling.

She skid-floated slowly down the damp slick rock on her palms and landed gently at a wide spot which, she saw, was the heel of an L-bend. The L was lying on its back, she had come down its foot. The long leg of the L extended away, a slanting tube that in her wide beam faded away to a blank haze of mist eight or ten yards ahead.

Here at the heel of the L-bend, the distant thunder was not so distant. There was a waterfall out there, a big one, a full-throated torrent in the dark, gouging out some rocky chamber that boomed and echoed. Was it only the air that shook or did the solid rock against which she crouched also vibrate to the enormous bellowing of a monster cataract?

She crept forward down the hard slick surface, her light pushing into the haze ahead less and less as she progressed. Inches above, the knobby ceiling dripped. Her shirt was soaked. Then, a sudden downward turning and a sharp descent and Doc was scrambling for a handhold. The rock flowed past her fingers, there was nothing to grab onto and she started picking up speed, hydroplaning inches per second headfirst into a white-lit whirling mist. Her light, strapped to her trailing arm, bounced and clattered behind her.

She splayed her feet, pushed her ankles tight against the sides of the tube. Her canvas shoes rode the irregular surface and her descent slowed. Then the instep of one shoe skidded and hung uncertainly around a ripple in the wet rock and that was sufficient to stop the slide. Now she hung by an ankle, face-down over a space, an alcove lit indirectly by the reflected beam of her flashlight, a tiny space alive with flying water and enormous turmoil. She raised her head and just outside the alcove the thing was right there, wielding a thunder that struck like a blow to her heart. 

Overcome by the fury churning around her, Doc could only ride the shuddering stone, while voices shouting out of the giant cataract boisterously urged her body to slip free and come on down and dance into the maelstrom, add her one more voice to the booming throng. 

Her heart jumped and her lungs filled with the shooting backwash. This was bad and all too sudden. Peril romped and reveled out there, scarcely out of arm’s reach. 

Stay out of reach. Focus down and concentrate, move just one muscle at a time. . . .

She pressed her hands into the slick rock. With infinite testing and care she gradually fed her weight back up her supporting leg, retracting, bending the knee while keeping that ankle froze tight on the little groove in the rock that supported all of her.

A pause for breath against the tumult. . . and seized and pummeled and plucked off the rock and swept away. . . wait, wait. Why don’t I just float back out of this—

—oh. okay, safe. . . .

At last out of the spume and coughing out lungsful of mineral-laden water, she huddled close into the rock.

A few feet now lay between her and the entrance to whatever great unlit space was there. She turned on her side, lay her head on her arm, face to the wall. She would rest up, wait for Bierce. Where was he?

The sound of rushing water rolled over her. Out of the packed spectrum of sound winding up the stone tube, voices came, plucking at her awareness. All sorts of voices out of the world, pulling and stretching, streamers of recollection threaded out of the rush of sound. 

Why the voices, she wondered. Why not the warm, welcome and meaningful rattle and steely tink-tink of a jack hammer in the street? Or, a refreshing revisit of the near-forgotten banshee scream of a jet engine. She felt that if she had to listen in with the cataract then she should have more engaging hallucinations than just the ancient moans and cries of opera singers, the muffled pressure of old tv clogging up the background. No need to reprise such tedious utterance. She craved a rhythmic round of the ka-chunk of a pile driver under a bridge. How about it, she asked herself, let’s unravel some sense out of this tangle of noise. Bird song would be nicer.

But faintly intruding, a dismal minor theme that quickly grew insistent in all the thunder: a giant sucking sound spiraling hypnotically in from the fringes of the maelstrom, a hungry guttural that grieved and yearned to engulf all sensibility. Doc squirmed fitfully against the nightmare sound, shied away from the dim-pictured horror it evoked; a fast-moving whirlpool out to a far gray horizon that surged and gulped and fed a vast and starving maw beneath.

Eyes closed, she turned face-in to the damp rock wall, and her arm came up and covered her head.

Heartbeats echoed against the pressing roar. A muffled clunk far within the mountain, a distant grinding sound and then another much nearer clank resonated in the rock. 

Her brain buzzed. Doc swam up irritably into lighter fringes of awareness.

Not long and she woke fully, all the nightmare slept out. Here she was now, clear-headed but not at all eager to face the real terrors of the real cataract. No way was she going to risk getting sucked down the drain out there. She lay drenched in flying mineral water, eyes closed against the drifting spray, and thought about it. Where was Bierce, ⁠anyway?

  • * *

. . . but, frozen in stone though he was, Bierce’s memory didn’t lie down in petrified silence. He saw himself entering into the cool mountain, squeezing through the narrow gap that scraped all the sunlight off him and left him cloaked in shadows, and he recollected crunching softly over the dim carpet of small bones. Bones of creatures that had no part to play in geologic processes, critters that came and went with the seasons and whose bones quickly recycled in eddies of dust kicked up by the morning breeze and the wing beats of bats after sundown. Bones of bats that came and went. He recognized that he was a bat too, here and gone; alive at a speed the mountain could safely ignore. Like the stunted, persistent twig sprouting outside the cave’s entrance. A short-timer.

He tried breathing again, heaved a deep sigh and snorted dust. Creakily, he pried himself up out of the rock.

He found Doc huddled in the tube.

“Oh here you are,” he said. “Found you.”

He looked at her closely. It seemed that she dozed, huddled here in all this noise, tight against the rock wall. Not far beyond, water roared in blackness.

Bierce gave her a gentle nudge.

She opened her eyes. She raised her head, rolled to a semi-sitting position. The roiling mist came out in her breath, “Hey, Bierce. I don’t think I can go any farther. That’s bad news out there.” She pointed into the dark.

He squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. Loudly over the riotous turmoil, he said, “Pretty scary. I had a scare, too. Here, want some water?”

Although saturated by the whirling spray erupting from below, Doc splashed a little water from Bierce’s canteen across her mouth. It tasted bright and fresh.

“Okay, good,” he said. “Look, I’ll follow the trail a ways farther, all right? See what there is ahead of us. Be right back.” He shifted past her in the narrow tube, drifted forward into the scurry of the alcove and floated on down to the edge of doom.

forty-seven

At first, Bierce was flummoxed at the stupendous event in progress before him. His light at maximum brightness shone like daylight into an immense marble hall of mounds and pillars. Arcing out from the pale wall that curved away beside him, a giant black column of water fell across the front of the alcove, so close that Bierce imagined he could reach out and grab a handful. The column descended maybe a hundred feet to the floor of the cavern and showed scarcely a ripple on its surface all the way down. It came to its crashing end far below, in a frothing chute that fed its endless tons of water moment by moment into the floor of the cavern and through, on deeper into the mountain. The endless moment of impact down there was where all the thunder came from. Out of the leaping chaos arose the whirling mist that filled the air Bierce breathed and scattered the beam of his light out into obscurity at the cavern’s farther limits. The alcove was near enough the top that he could see the domelike ceiling arcing away close above, hung with fat stalactites flowing with condensation. The most massive of these descended as knobbed and twisted pillars down to the pale uneven floor and stood footed in spreading rings of flowstone.

Bierce regarded the seemingly motionless arc of water standing before him. In the special perception conferred on him by the comet, the weave of filaments and tendrils shaping and guiding the torrent made it seem less a substance and more a flow of energies moving along a necessary course.

Bierce was a long time out of sight. Doc rolled over and crept back down to the alcove. She peered into the spray-filled space and her light showed Bierce there, leaning against the rock rim, staring out into the greater dark. Carefully, she drifted on down to join him at the quaking brink. She poked her head out past him into the vast and noisy space beyond.

“Howdy,” Bierce shouted. “Chase away those frights?” He pointed out into the shifting dark. “Take a look at this one.” He directed his light onto the vast arc of falling water.

Doc stared. The monster was too close. Gleaming in their lights it looked like a massive extrusion of volcanic obsidian just leaning against the wall, not ten feet away. She hollered, “Why is it just standing there?”

“That is a standing wave,” Bierce hollered back grandly. “Inertia, surface tension, gravity, all balanced in one thing.” He pointed. “See the lines of force, the filaments?”

“No.” Doc shook her head.

Bierce nodded and shouted, “There are any number of paths that column of water could split off to. I’ve never seen such a tight flow all going the same way.”

“See what you mean,” Doc responded at the top of her voice. “There’s no scatter, all the way down. Then it hits the rocks down there and bounces all the way back to here. What do you make of it?”

Bierce shrugged. “Another clue to the odd physics in the zone.”

“Right.” Doc noticed, about shoulder height beside her on the wall, a rope anchored to an eyebolt pounded into the rock. The rope descended into the roil below. She said, “Have we spotted our friends?”

“I haven’t really looked for them. This is more interesting, anyway. Was waiting for you, Doc. Are you up to going on?”

She laughed. “Yeah, I’m back. Fantastic place, isn’t it?”

He nodded and grinned, “It’s not every day you get a clue.”

“Well, come on, we’re in a hurry I think,” said Doc. She sat and draped her legs over the lip of the alcove. She reached for the rope.

“Hold on, Doc. You’re right, things are urgent. We want to get Emmers back and then blast out of here. But we better take it easy, we don’t know what’s ahead. I’m not for rushing around in a place like this.”

They drifted down the streaming rock face, guided by the rope left by the preceding party. They came to the more or less level surface of water-furrowed and pitted marble not far from the foot of the cataract. There they found another glow worm wrapped around a short stalagmite.

“They got this far.”

No ear could hear her speak down here, so close to where immeasurable tons of water drilled into the floor of the cavern. Not so many steps beyond the green glow worm stood the drill itself, twisting its way to the center of the Earth down a chute of bone-pale stone.

A short shuffle across water rippled rock and they faced the great spume and churn, wary now of gusty air currents that pushed and tugged and if they weren’t alert might snatch them dangerously close to the chaotic plumes of flying water. Keeping their lights aimed low on the surging streams of icy splash that flowed across the marble floor, they soon discovered that the visitors ahead of them had tacked down another slender line that showed the route they had taken.

Following the given route, Doc and Bierce came into the jets of spray bursting out of the cauldron. Leaping tongues of icy water dragged at them, soaked them through from every side. This was a monster too big, too insistent. Instinct took over and they went to hands and knees and fought their way past the great sucking gulf. They hugged the slanting floor in a way that surprised them both. This was one obstacle they could not pass above nor dance lightly past. The rope was there; Mitchum had pounded the nails in, Flebrin had crept along or been dragged behind. Then Emmers.

Finally, Doc and Bierce staggered up out of the pounding roar and found shelter behind a wet marble outcrop tilting up on the far side of the cauldron. Here, they paused for breath. In their shifting beams they watched condensation glisten and flow down the slant back of the outcrop. They looked at each other’s cold and soggy state and together they laughed. Funny to think if the guide rope had ended up a frayed tassel at the edge of the churning vortex. Doc peeked around the edge of the outcrop and glimpsed again the fury they’d squeaked so narrowly by.

Now, turning to the enveloping darkness of this quieter area screened from the turmoil of flying water, they played their lights about a much wider space. They were standing on a broad, smooth sheet of water that was scarcely deep enough to wet the ends of Doc’s fingers, as she found when she crouched for a moment to give her legs a rest and felt the water ripple gently around her fingertips. The smooth sheet of water was a broad, slow-moving stream spread across dozens of yards. It flowed out of the dark beyond the outcrop and went past, continuing on to the cauldron where it converged around a flat semicircle of stone and placidly trickled over the scalloped edge. 

Bierce wandered to and fro across this stream, exploring the possibilities.

“Flat as a ballroom floor.” He aimed his light in the direction the water flowed from. The view faded in hovering mist. “What do you think?”

Doc clapped a hand onto the streaming floor. “It’s warm,” she said.

They walked up the warm flat stream, progressing side by side over the featureless floor into featureless darkness. The noise receding behind them remained their only guide for a return voyage. They moved slowly on into the constant obscuring mist. 

Then, between one step and the next, overhead their lights showed an enormous width of pale rock coming down, descending hugely from invisible heights. Twenty feet from the floor, this stony brow humped inward and became a ceiling high enough that giants might confidently stride beneath. Doc and Bierce marched on. Soon they were immersed in a whole new texture of sounds and echoes that seemed to originate somewhere in the damp air below the ceiling, a slurpy nattering of slow drips and streaming bubbles that suggested dialog; perhaps the gurgling of shaggy-toed apostrophilic giants conversing in the space overhead. 

The noise of the maelstrom behind soon faded, became just one whisper among many, and the silent rippling of the stream against their toes was their only compass.

Very quickly, the water polished stone closed in on either side and the ceiling crowded down overhead. Not long and the stream became the floor of a narrow gallery roofed with tilted, fractured strata that dripped water that fell warm on their necks. A press of air filtered around them, warm on their faces. The toes of their shoes were splashing now in the narrower, faster-moving stream.

Just ahead, a glittering veil of stalactites descended into their beams. Continuing forward, they saw behind these many more, no end of them, a deadly gnash of dripping spikes, floor to ceiling. They paused. 

Just here, the gallery widened out abruptly, presenting the spikes in a broad array, while the dripping ceiling they sprouted from flew off unseen into darkness overhead.

“Do you think they really went this way?”

“Let’s turn off our lights for a minute.”

They waited for their eyes to adjust. Then indeed, seven or eight yards into the stony maze and at the level of the cavern floor, a glimmer of green showed between the spikes.

Lights back on, they studied a way to reach the glow worm. 

The upper limit of the widening space ahead was hidden in mist and darkness out of which the stalactites descended, varying deceptively in length and needley sharpness. Many of those that didn’t reach the floor came low enough that their stony points could scrape or split the skull of an unwary visitor. Any of them could break away, fall and skewer anything alive.

With extra care, Doc and Bierce threaded their way in. Each stalactite illuminated in their flashlight beams hid one or more behind it, invisible in black shadow. They inched past the glow worm wrapped around a fat stalagmite sprouting from the floor, and went on.

“Hold up for a second.” Doc carefully reached out a restraining arm. 

They both sensed the change of air, even warmer, heavy with moisture. They’d come into a new space. The forest of stalactites thinned away ahead. Out there, the tapering columns grew fatter and more widely spaced on much wider ground.

“All right,” Bierce whispered, “turn off our lights. Let’s go with this, now.” He rummaged up his phone and, crouching down, balanced it on his knee. Closely shielding the phone’s sudden brightness under his palm, he swiftly spun up an app and the screen shone softly blue. It pulsed slowly; brighter, dimmer, then black, then in increments brightened again.

Behind the wide, hazy blue spread of varying illumination, they crept forward still more slowly.

It was a wider space and a much higher space. The walls curved away, rounded upward to either side and disappeared into blackness. They were entering what appeared to be a high-domed grotto, more or less circular, where the atmosphere was warm, oppressively humid. The only sound that came to their ears was the patter of water droplets echoing from distant unseen sources.

The pale wet floor was becoming very slick underfoot. Shallow pools rippled here and there, forever brimming with the water that sweated off the heavy stone columns that speared down out of the opaque darkness. Dominating the flat wet floor of the grotto was a wide pool that rounded away and disappeared into the same far obscurity.

“Look,” whispered Doc, pointing up at the dim-lit wall widening out around them. “Cave paintings!”

The sound of voices came from a little distance ahead.

Bierce waved Doc behind a nearby cluster of squat, mushroom-like dripstones. He crouched on one knee beside her, thumbed his phone to sleep and slid it back into his leg pocket. His body shifted a little, close in the newly freshened gloom, and Doc heard a faint note of steel scraping against the stony floor.

Doc’s eyes adapted quickly and now the pure blackness was sparked by two lights switching about here and there around the far corner of the big pool. Out there, over the center of the pool hung a massive rock column, wetly reflecting every glancing ray from the twitching beams. It was a monstrous girth of knobby stone funneling down out of the dark, that narrowed to a vanishing point precisely at the water’s rippling surface. The lights coming around the pool flicked repeatedly at that vanishing point, as though drawn to the unspeakable potential of its shifting even the tiniest fraction of an inch.

Stalagmites here and there across the floor flickered, silhouetted in the beams of the two men coming around the pool. Their lights lanced off the water, gleamed off the damp stone columns, went visiting into every shadow for yards around and, coming forward, stabbed now and again into the hiding place of the two new arrivals.

Following Bierce’s example, Doc rummaged beneath her shirt and made ready if need be to draw her own slim blade. It didn’t take any deep thought to know that simple precaution was the wisest course here. There were no unknowns in dealing with these Uni. They’d already chewed her up once. She’d clawed them back some, too. Could again if necessary. Blade in hand then, when it would be needed.

“What next?” she whispered.

“Listen.”

forty-eight

It was Emmers’s voice: “. . . the sticky-footed fly that steps on everything! You’re a new kind of maggot I have not seen before, Mitchum. I told you before that you walk the fine line. Now you have crossed it.”

Mitchum spoke, evenly and with none of the bluster and bombast that Doc might expect. “There is no line, chum,” he said. “There’s only what’s good for the company. The company I keep, anyway. And god, of course. We want your know-how, Emmers, you’re too valuable to lose. You can help us make flying machines that work for us in the zone. You can be rich. So here’s the way it wants to go. We get out of here and we—”

“I don’t know how to make flying machines, you fool. That’s not my department.” 

Mitchum said, “No?—but you know Flitworks. You can get us close to the power source that puts them in the air.”

Emmers stopped walking. He palmed a line of sweat off his brow. The two were close enough now that Doc could see that they were both sweating heavily in the heat and humidity. 

Emmers said sarcastically, “You keep grubbing around down here, maybe you will find some of that comet residue. But even if you find it you will still need the inertial engine technology to activate it and I know nothing about that. I don’t even know where the parts come from. Nobody does. There is nothing that I can do for you.”

Mitchum’s dripping eyebrows went up and down. “You’re lying. You know everything. You’ve been working with that Bierce guy for years. It’s too bad we can’t get any leverage on him, but you will do. You have to come back with me, Emmers. Let’s call it a matter of national security. All kinds of perks await us on the other side.”

“Forget it.”

“You listen up, pal. The sooner you get used to the idea—Look, here’s what’s going to happen. We get back upstairs, kill the two smarmy constitutionalists out there, and you fly us out. It’ll be okay, nobody will ever find out about it. Let the vultures pick their bones.”

“No chance! Not a chance in the world, Mitchum. I’ll push you down that whirlpool, first.”

“Come on, Emmers, they’re pussycats. You and me together can take them out real easy. You take Bierce, you’re the guy that can get close to him. I’ll take on Doc Holiday. She and I go way back. How’s it sound, amigo? We’ll be back on my side of the fence in a couple of hours and then it’s all gravy.”

“I’ve had it with you, you sleaze, you bag of scum. Go and find your so-called scientist. I want to get out of here.”

“I bet you do, Emmers. There’s not a lot I can do to stop you going. In fact, I want to help you. I want you to consider the deal we made.”

“You’re getting what you want.”

“Oh, we are. But you don’t seem to understand what the deal is. See, you’re coming back with us.”

“What! Again? That was never the deal.”

“The deal is for you to help us get out after you got us in. That means you’re coming along that far. You come that far, what the heck, you might as well come all the way over. That’s the deal I always had in mind for you.”

Liar! That was never the deal. You’re very close to being a dead man, Mitchum.”

“And you’re very close to being very, very rich. Come in with me.”

Emmers had his blade in hand, held low and edge up.

Mitchum persisted, “Look at it this way. You come over and you’ll be well compensated for all your grief on this side. If not, you won’t, and grief is all you’ll get on every side. [_Come on, _]don’t make me unhappy here. I personally guarantee you’ll get at least eleven thousand.”

“I will scoop your guts into that pond, scum.”

Mitchum had his helmet off. His face streamed with newly-freed sweat. He gripped the helmet by its strap, held it close to his belly. “Sure,” he said. “If you succeed in offing me down here, Emmers, realize this, that our little Miss Tuffet dipping test tubes in the dark back there isn’t in on this deal. She can return to civilization with all the stuff in the world but if I’m not around to tell what a good boy you are, who’s to know? She doesn’t know who made you the deal, how to redeem your claim. By the time the thing gets straightened out, if ever, it’ll be too late. Rules is rules, credibility must be maintained. Means if I’m not there to hand you your check then your fine buxom sisters and their little chinchillas are in the desert milking cactuses forever, like they never existed in the free world.”

Emmers was having a hard time breathing. He said, “Then what about her?”

“Miss Tuffet? No prob, she’ll tell no one about our crimes. In fact, I bet she trips and falls down the drain out there, woopsie! There are other scientists, ones that won’t need a video adjust to look presentable on television.” Mitchum chuckled good-humoredly. A thin trickle of blood started leaking out of his right nostril. He snorted and snuffled, palmed his lip, looked at his hand and scowled.

Emmers slowly let the knife hand fall, his face all ridged and furrowed in the uncertain light. He choked on his voice for a while and the blade jerked up and down, not going anywhere. Then he growled, “You do them and I do the other.”

Come on, you just made me happy!” Mitchum’s voice boomed in the moist still air of the grotto. “See, that’s what’s so sweet about you unbelievers. You have life, you have love, you value it all too highly. Comes to the crunch, you’ve simply got nowhere to go.” He gave his nose another swipe and clapped his caving helmet back on his head.

Mitchum’s voice quieted some and he said, “But don’t worry about it, friend. I had to give someone up at one point and it hurt. It really hurt. But they’re in a better place now, I know it.”

“I know it too,” said Emmers. “A world with you in it would not be worth. . .  ai Mitchum—that hazard you mention—I myself might, by accident, slip and fall in.”

“No, won’t help you, now you mention it. You know the program. It’s called insurance. No indemnity offered or paid for accident, suicide, acts of god or the enemy, radiation, or unexpected needs arising from unforeseen innovations that may obviate actuarial expectations, or bad weather or a broken clock. Plus, in the event of noncompliance for any reason or because I say so, you’d be doomed to a cubicle in hell, eternal and everlasting. An example to believers everywhere. Like how I pulled the plug on our little soldier—”

“I have the boon!” Out of misted shadows behind a thin veil of stalactites on the far side of the grotto, Hosanna Flebrin shrilled, “I have the boon! The great fish of the pool bestowed on us a boon!”

Flebrin limped rapidly out of the dark recesses, holding high two long-necked lab flasks filled to the stoppers with soft luminescence. She still wore the formerly white lab coat, now flapping torn and bedraggled-looking under the jittering beam of her headlamp. She scuttled forward trailing droplets of cloudy liquid, which fell to iridescent spatters in the dark behind her.

Coming into the shifting rays of light surrounding the two men, the glow of the flasks appeared more subdued. Flebrin thrust the containers of pale fluid toward Mitchum. His light showed that Flebrin’s face too ran with condensation. Fumbling his flashlight over to her, he graciously accepted her proud offerings.

“You have acquired the substance we seek!” quoth the Adjustor, lifting the milky flasks high into Flebrin’s unsteady illumination.

“We have it now, my Knight, the mystery elixir in which to dissolve the souls of all demonic monsters.” Flebrin danced, gimping around the two men, her elation transcending the pain of her wound. Clearly filled with pride in her victory, Flebrin failed to notice or acknowledge the expressions of annoyance that showed on their faces.

“Great works are afoot!” bellowed the Adjustor. “Your instruments have confirmed?” he said.

She nodded happily. “Oh yes!”

“Then this changes everything! It is a glorious day! We must be off.” The Adjustor tipped his head at Emmers, opened his arms wide. “Now we need you more than ever,” he said. He waved the bottles high. “We’ll frack this heap and suck out every last drop of whatever this is. We’ll need your fliers all around to lay the charges. A done deal! God approves. Expect a Generous Payout.”

In a doubtful tone Emmers muttered, “A great fish? In the pool?”

“Yes indeed, Hosanna!” said the Adjustor, “Tell us about the fish.”

Flebrin’s voice quavered now with relief and exhaustion and triumph. She sobbed, “The great, the great blind fish of the glowing pool, he opened his mouth and, and the bottles filled. It is a great boon.”

“Yes, a Boon!” the Adjustor shouted. “We always Welcome a Boon from a Fish! Come, let’s all be going now.” Smiling wide, Adjustor Mitchum draped an arm, bottle in hand, over Emmers’s shoulder and nudged him heartily toward the exit.

“We heard what they said. We have to stop them,” whispered Doc.

“Sh sh. We will,” Bierce replied. He shifted in the darkness, grasped now a blackened dagger blade in each fist. What were his options: chancy heroics in an honest duel, one against two, versus the simple efficiency of an aerial assault and quick execution. Maybe he would have liked to talk, but this was no occasion for chitchat. Anyway, he was in a rush to get to a far bigger battle, far away. Emmers’s quandary was insoluble, he’d made his choice between the bad and the worse, he was a ruined man, there was no way he could back out of the rigged game.

And consider Doc’s safety. She had risked quite enough already on account of these Uni buffoons. So no drama, then. A direct assault without word play was the best bet. Poor Emmers would be first to go, quickly and no nonsense. 

When it was over they would extract the crazy scientist out of here and call it good enough. She might know something useful or she might not. Once he got her back to where she belonged she could tell the tale. First she would have to see the video of what transpired around the pool. She would, if the black goggles snug around Bierce’s neck were as waterproof as they were supposed to be.

The Adjustor cheerily ushered his two associates on ahead to light the way. He ambled along behind, letting them limp and stumble forward to the way out, where the two armed Flyers lay in wait.

Emmers pointed out the glow worm and changed course, leading Flebrin along while she kept up a gleeful line of chatter. Above them in the dark, a great eyeless fish as pale as the rock wall beside which it hovered, left off resembling a cave painting of ancient days and darted down. Indistinct, faintly luminescent, it flicked like a ribbon through the air, came silently up behind the Adjustor, and with the feelers that ringed its mouth delicately tasted his neck.

The Adjustor’s hand jerked back in reflex to the touch, the flask of glowing fluid flailing the dark behind his hunched shoulder. The translucent cave fish rippled, faded back a little, deciding whether it liked the flavor of this prey. In a moment it decided.

At ten feet in length, a foot and a half high and narrow, the blind cave fish showed how far it could open its mouth. This was about a yard-high stretch. So what happened next didn’t seem unreasonable to those watching from the shadows of the stalactite forest. Mouth open wide, the fish lunged forward and struck the Adjustor. On contact the jaw snapped shut, neatly removing the Adjustor’s head from his shoulders.

At first, neither of the Adjustor’s companions seemed to notice his mishap as they continued on a step or two. The sound of a fish biting off a man’s head is not a sound that figures into anyone’s daily experience, so at the moment it happened it might have seemed to Flebrin and Emmers no more than a uniquely rude sound emitted by the Adjustor; no big surprise, just something different. 

The double pop and tinkle of breaking glass that came with Flebrin’s flasks’ sudden meeting with the stone floor brought them around in a hurry.

Flebrin was quick to respond to her champion’s misfortune. With the splashing impact of the flasks onto the floor and the heavy slump of the body, she twisted her head around and looked back, already crying out. Then she whirled and fell upon the Adjustor’s headless bulk, screeching peals of grief and shrill threats against whoever had done him in. She pounded the floor with her flashlight again and again, then again when the light went out.

Doc stared past the little tableau of horror shifting under Emmers’s lone flashlight beam and looked farther into the inky blackness. Where had the monster fish gone to? Were there more of them out there circling in the dark? There had to be. Through what sensitivity evolved of ages in the dark had the blind grotto fish developed its weird knowledge of its environs? Did they have radar? Sonar? Some ultra-fine sense of the tastes and odors wafting in the warm, super-saturated air?

There was no time to speculate, as from the hazy opalescent pool farther back in even warmer reaches of the grotto, the mate of the first fish splashed massively out of water and into air equally warm, heavy and humid, and rippled through the lacy veil of stalactites that guarded her nursery. She surged forward.

“Manuel! Look out behind you!” It was Bierce, on his feet, shouting. His wide beam lit up the grotto. But his friend never had a fighting chance against the thing that happened next.

Emmers was caught bending over the two figures lying on the stony floor when the second fish swerved off from a wide-mouthed lunge at the noisy Flebrin and struck him instead, taking his head and upper torso into its gullet. He leaped, flailed his forearms to either side without effect as the fish engulfed him, his shouts muffled within it. He took a few wandering steps in several directions and the fish’s tail yawed and swayed up into the dark. Then, as the fish finally gulped him in as far as the knees, he collapsed. The fish righted itself and drifted away, twitching and jerking while its prey struggled ever more feebly in the last throes.

“Flebrin, come. Crawl this way.”

“The boon, the boon, I lost the boon.”

“Quickly-quickly or the big fish will get you!”

forty-nine

They at last fell out of the cave into the open air and lesser darkness of night, and crawled aboard the fliers, dragging with them the whimpering horror that was Hosanna Flebrin, inflamed, raving and again gone limp. She they had prodded and dragged and ultimately carried out, through the stalactites, around the whirlpool and past the waterfall, then up the tube, and finally secured in Doc’s flier. 

Doc finally collapsed in her seat, popping under her tongue a 10,000LM-potency dose of Flyer’s Remedy, from her personal reserve. But drifted straight off to sleep as soon as the flier swung into the air—not exactly what she intended. Her new normal state of perpetual emergency, double-clocked to act, to do the next necessary thing, sleepy and no phone, and trailing after some ambition not her own— She dreamed, she struggled for air, drowning in murder; then remembering more urgently, went out to check the garden and found her little chickens pecking up echoes of old thunder sparks, no! and they flew off with the cat who smelled the fish and bit its metal, head, right, off, again and again. . . . . . . . then silent the flow of water off the tip of a mountain upended deep in the dark. . . . . . . . . . [because treading sunlit air, _]soaring leaps in great far steps awayward, and the flier parked someplace behind—gone up in clunky wooden horse parts drifting. . . . . . . . _drifts of silky sand between her toes. . . . . . . . and whirled up with a cloud of happy clapping cave bats. Now here the boon! the old baboon; just a smelly stink wrath for a silly-gone-dark-in-the-stone cave fish-h-h. . . . . . . .

Warm and out of the wind and snug behind the flier’s thick glass canopy, Doc was out for an hour.

  • * *

Doc blinked awake, clear-headed, feeling light as a feather, her mind a blank.

The dark glass canopy close overhead reflected the multi-colored glow of dials and points of light from the control panel. The slightly misshapen dome above Doc’s head duplicated the display below, but stretched and incomplete, smearing slightly across the underside of the glass as though leaking through some vague, time-stretched view from a far-off scatter of stars. Inches of glass insulated the cabin from any rush of sound outside. It was only the light buffeting of the craft through the air that told Doc it was on the move.

Bits and pieces of recent memory gathered, ruffling her placid mind with recollections, questions. Where she was now, where she had been, where was she going. The why of any of it was far from clear. She stared up into the dome of lights. It was all quite a pile to assemble and loomed large. . . .

The day—the day had been a nightmare.

She turned her head and saw in the indirect shadow of the cabin lights: Flebrin, quiescent, in the seat beside her. Now the night was a nightmare, the same nightmare, still on. Here the baggage of the day, unclaimed, forwarded in her care and still undelivered, lay beside her.

Quiescent? Flebrin, buckled down tight, slowly writhed, in delirium twisting around her stiff wounded leg.

There was one good thing about the situation, Doc thought without a shred of kindly feeling, and that was the happy fact that repeated soakings in the mineral-heavy cavern water had left Flebrin stripped of her favored stench, her imitation citrus variant of the Àblüt. Now she smelled like something between a mud wrestler and a cement mixer. And that makes two of us, Doc realized.

Doc leaned forward intending to turn down the heat a few notches but instead, in the dark her finger nudged the speakerphone switch.

“Yes, Doc?” Bierce.

“Oh hi. Didn’t mean to hit the mike. Just turning down the heat a little.”

“Well, you’re awake at last. Had a good nap?”

“Very good. I think I’m just about recovered from yesterday.”

“It isn’t tomorrow yet.”

“Where are we, then?”

“Coos Bay, North Bend, just about. You can see their lights up ahead, off to your right.”

“We’re not so very far along.”

“We’re in a hurry, yes, but recon is part of the job. Want to try and spot what may be sailing at us out of the horizon. Since they put a nuke in our back yard, I want to see what more crap like that might be on the way up the coast.”

“See anything?”

“Nope. It’s dark and there’s weather coming in. If they’re out there, they’re motoring outside the zone, beyond the continental shelf.

“In the meantime,” he went on, “I keep scanning commercial radio and tv, hoping to hear some hint of things to come. If you’re interested in a little entertainment, you might try tuning in the channels. There’s a real blitz coming down. We have Uni propaganda overriding every signal along the coast.”

“That’s sort of new.”

“They’ve got some monster satellite they’re broadcasting from, likely a spy platform they shifted over, just outside the zone so they can, you know, beam down the word.” He chuckled. “Any homebody running a dish down there is getting quite the media barrage, on every frequency. I checked my phone. Uni ads are crawling all over the screen, over-running my ad-blocker big time.”

“Fun. I’ll tune in.”

There was indeed a great deal of high anticipation coming down the Uni-Channel. In between commercials, the evening’s format was ‘News & Views’ featuring a grab bag of chatty opinioneers.

‘Catapulting the News!’ was the tagline, repeated every thirty seconds with trumpets and drums. The flier’s little tv pictured a ‘panel’ of energetic pundits, each one twitching, shifting and vibrating, having a spasm when any other of them opened their mouths to speak, and each one had a flying elbow. The excited moderator mentioned the topic, ‘the current crisis’, and from the very start their elbows were up, brandishing interruptions at a rising pitch. Once or twice, one or another pundit came nearly unglued from their seat, almost nearly. 

To Doc, these excitable personages seemed masters of their medium. They never quite got loud enough to blow out their mikes, yet time after time, together they reached a pinnacle of disagreement impeccably timed with the show’s over-heated moderator flipping on the kettle drums to launch another sponsor’s intriguing message. Not one of the pundits came even close to making a cogent point about the ‘current crisis’.

For a while all this escalating urgency of feeling was a thrill to hear and watch. It wasn’t often she ever tuned in to a broadcast. So she let the canned production go around a couple of times, believing less and less the promise of news to come. She even started feeling hyperactive herself, almost wanted to shout like a pundit. She was nearly convinced it really was The End of The World!

A sudden jangle of church bells made Doc flinch. And now, a massed chorus of mixed voices beginning an angry hymn, the bellowing and shrieking in triple-time, all in remarkable professional synchrony. Doc shook her head in wonder. She flipped Off. She sat for a while, listening to her ears ring.

“Well,” she reported, back on the speaker with Bierce, “the rocketeer crowd do all seem agreed that Uni forces have to defend their homeland. If they don’t fight us over here then they’ll have to fight us over there.”

Bierce said, “That one works every time. Public eats it up.”

Doc said, “I guess. Though I heard somewhere that the Uni don’t believe there’s any such thing as a public.”

“Ah? Then who is it they’re shouting at all the time?”

“Yeah. Anyhow, with all the weeping and gnashing of teeth on the public-owned frequencies tonight, there’s no mention of what force they’re sending, by land or by sea. You spot anything out there?”

“Nope. I’ve got my window open and there’s a lot of diesel smoke coming in along here. Certainly an olfactory treat we’ve missed out on all these years. Smells like pretzels in some odd way. Right now, a thousand feet up, our visible horizon is about forty miles. Would be, if there weren’t all those clouds coming in. I see no lights out there.

Doc said, “If they’re out there they know they can’t reach land directly. Not unless they row the last fifteen miles.”

“They have electric motors,” said Bierce.

“m? Those would not be much use when they can’t let the propellers spin up. No good against currents and tides.”

“Okay, I’m not forgetting—just thinking like a Uni. . . . Now I’m thinking of balloons drifting in on the breeze.”

Doc laughed, “How many propeller-heads can hang from a balloon?”

“Um, what else, then. Frogmen!”

“How many frogmen do you see leaping from the balloon? You know what I think, Bierce? You want to waste time imagining Uni frogmen hopping up on Oregon beaches because you’re scared to picture them where you know they are already, just bounding across your own front porch a long way from here.”

“Yes-yes, I hear you, Doc, I’m reasonably scared, but we’ll get to where we’re going. I’m aiming for about sunrise. It’s, I’m trying to get some kind of a picture out here, if there is one to get. Anyhow, I need to take a nap, myself. Now it’s your watch.”

“Okay. Do I juggle the fliers while you’re out? Or what.”

Bierce didn’t say. Over the speakerphone Doc heard him sigh back into his seat. After that, silence. The com channel, however, stayed open.

She shrugged and looked out through the polished glass. She saw his running lights not far off. Straggling behind came Emmers’s empty flier, similarly lit. Onshore to her right there was not much to see but village lights drifting by. Drifting by, too, was a night sky scattered with fliers high up and at every elevation, headlights all showing the way to battle.

Doc switched on the radio and, setting it to low volume, resumed listening to the Uni signal. There was scarcely ever a break in the hysteria that any fresh news might leak through. Deep under all the trumpet fanfares and the rumble of drums, and cymbals swelling over the rattle of machine guns, the distant crawling roar of a thermonuclear explosion stretched through the entire show. Urgent voices of men and women leaped in at the least threat of silence in the track, pushing back the bomb to chatter out staccato news bulletins, tired variants of earlier fulminations. Actual reporters were out there, she presumed, clambering around the fringes of events and wanting to say something true, maybe even unofficial. Doc let the show natter in the background, on the off chance that some useful fact might slip through a microphone somewhere.

The three egg-shaped fliers flew on, the lights of Oregon’s seaside towns passing below. At the speed they traveled, they easily outdistanced the bright specks of hundreds of other fliers running to the fight.

As they zipped along, Doc watched the towns and villages passing by below. Formerly old-time logging camps at river ends where trees were sawed up and shipped out, Oregon’s major coastal towns were situated in the fractally repeating turns of Oregon’s geologically self-similar coastline. Most of the towns were similar in layout, tucked prettily below similar coastal hills and built up around comfy little coves protecting fleets of fishing boats. Spanning every busy river, old deco-style highway bridges happily remained, brightly strung now with lights for the safety of passing fliers.

Doc noted approvingly that the old coast highway tying those towns together was well lit by low-runners moving north. Easily visible along this stretch were hundreds of yellow glowing antique headlights sparking between the trees that encroached on either side of the roadway. She estimated that before daybreak thousands of antique automobiles would have converged over the old highway, adding their numbers to the hordes now gathering to battle the Uni at the Columbia River and beyond.

For a while mesmerized by the endless car lights dropping away behind her, Doc ruminated on the odd folkways of the low-runners in general, and what might become of them when the time came that they had to abandon their illusory tie to the Biercian engine.

Low-runners tended to be sentimental about their rides; most of their fliers were relics, automobiles a half-century old or older, including many survivals from the fondly mythologized beginnings of the automobile age. For many, the older the car the better they liked it. Doc herself did not indulge such nostalgia for the machine age. As far as she was concerned, rust was a good thing. 

Doc felt that low-runner sentimentality over old-timey mechanisms had more to do with not trusting their ability to soar, taking a skeptical comfort in well-worn adages about safe landings from reasonable heights, and trading lore about gruesome high-flying accidents and how to prevent them.

Low-runner hobbyists took loving care of the old tin cans. Many there were who took pride in preserving ancient white-wall tires, taking extraordinary measures to keep them pressurized rather than simply stuffing them with straw.

Road worthiness, of course, was no more a practical concern for the low-runners than for anyone else, as every Flyer in the zone relied on the belts and pulleys of Flihtworks ‘technology’ to get off the ground, whatever their sense of style. 

Below, a high rugged point of land was sketched bright under the moon floating over the sea. The road twisted and swooped around the headland and the stream of lights swerved with it. There went a tight cluster of lights weaving madly around the tight curves in the road, a mob of inertialized motorcycles clinging to the rising cliffs hundreds of feet above the rocky shoreline. Pushing along behind them came a vehicle taking up nearly the entire width of the road, lit up like an extraterrestrial vehicle. Somebody’s self-built battle wagon.

Doc was sure the old 101, like every highway in the zone, must now feature innumerable small trees and shrubby weeds sprouting up from ever-widening cracks in the crumbling hard top. Watching the line of vehicles sticking tight to the narrow land route, it struck her how, as the roads decayed and the little trees grew taller and more numerous, all those low-runners would inevitably have to adapt and ride higher, or else go in for futile rounds of road repair.

There was a lot of Doc Holiday’s Remedy for Flyers being consumed down on the old highway tonight. Always her best customers, the low-runners. So what if they remained a little backward, faithful to the needs of the machine? Well, they might be a difficult sell for her new potion, the one that would free them forever from that attachment.

fifty

Hosanna Flebrin, semiconscious and looking feverish, shifted and twisted in the confining straps that bound her tight into the flight seat beside Doc. The Uni scientist had not rested well this past hour and now showed even more activity, evidence of a growing awareness of her confinement. She moaned, she grated her teeth, grinding and grinding, loud and alarming in the small glass-enclosed cabin. Flebrin’s red face scowled, her eyes roved madly behind closed lids. She squirmed, strained languorously against the web restraints; she grunted, pressing into their embrace till her forced flesh swelled between. She growled.

Annoyed and on edge, Doc sat upright on the edge of her own cramped flight seat beside the prisoner, face forward, as still as a cat. She had no wish to awaken the Uni scientist and so invite a ruckus in the small space they shared—a horrid prospect, like rousing a vampire lying on the next narrow slab, a vampire that had already taken a number of vicious nips out of her. The ‘Catapult Show’ was down to a whisper. Doc reached forward and flicked it off entirely.

The cabin air was a little warm. She reached up and cranked the flier’s nose open a crack, let in a little fresh diesel smoke—mm, savory. The effluent caught in her throat. She thought, maybe a little delirious herself by now, that no matter how wonderful the cigar, it was still, at any distance, a red-hot radiator. She coughed and retracted the glass nose cone, shut out the soot.

It was good that Bierce had installed air filters, effectively preventing accumulation of stale, tired air in the flier’s closed space. There were a lot of things Bierce thought of, lots of little extras he seemed proud of and happy to share. This new flier of his seemed like a self-contained little space ship, at the moment a little too little.

But sometimes it was good to have a change of atmosphere anyway, in order to stay awake. Let the diesel bite her nostrils. Doc reached up and again cracked the hatch a tiny bit and let in a whisper of cool evening air.

“Where are we! Where are you taking me!” Flebrin was wide awake.

Doc levered herself quickly out of the narrow seat and moved forward, stood beside the control deck. Her hand went out and grabbed the hand strap beside the hatchway and she turned to face the vampire.

“Are we awake then, Flebrin?” she said.

“I’m thirsty.”

Oh [_it’s thirsty _]now. “Sorry, Flebrin, I swallowed up all the water this morning, remember that?”

“Oh heavens to betsy, you aren’t holding that against me, are you? We need to move forward. I’m prepared to buy what I need. So now, the water. What brands do you have?”

“Brands?”

“I like Dipsee-oh™. Do you have that? I prefer Dipsee-oh-oh Xtreemz!™

“You just lie back and be quiet, Flebrin. I’ll get you an aspirin to chew on. I think that dipsyo might be a little strong for you.”

“What do you mean? It’s just water.”

“m-hm. Heard all about it on the Catapult Show. Are you requesting the New Refreshend CreekzWater? [‘Glacier-Crisp from our pipes to yours’ _]? Even safer and more effective when used before manufacturer’s recommended expiration date, or as directed. In three exciting new styles? Is that it? And you want the _extreem.”

“That’s it, in the swirla-sens plasti-bulb. I bought a cluster four days ago and it cost two bucks thirty-nine for each 10.64-ounce bulb retail incl. sales tax. I’ll give you four for two of them. Or, whatever you have, I’ll buy it.”

“Bad luck, Flebrin, here there is no water of any brand. And a good thing, too, since what with advertising costs and the price of diesel, all prices probably went up another .028 since the last time you bought any.”

Flebrin writhed in her bonds, pushed her swollen flesh further into the gaps between the straps and moaned in a rage, “. . . thirstyy!—you must have water, aren’t you ever thirsty? Come, demon, despite our differences surely we can do business. It’s the free market, after all.”

“No got.”

“You always say that! Don’t you soulless unbelievers even believe in the marketplace?[_ _]All I want is a drink of water. I don’t care what the price, I’m a stockholder! All we need is an agreeable transaction here.”

“We don’t trade for water much, in the zone. How much did you want?”

“Demon of drouth! I’m thirsty!”

“Ain’t got no.”

“You have water! *gasp*. . . I need it. Look, there is plenty of wild water down there on the ground! That’s why we love the zone. All you have to do is go and get it.”

“Really? I have to? That wild water must be caught and tamed. Bottled up for sale, right? In your free market there’s commissions, percentages, packaging, advertising, shipping, distribution, and taxes every step of the way. Where’s my profit in all that? Where’s mine, Flebrin! No. We’re simply not, right now, going to divert course and jump down and lasso a jug of water from yon distant misty mountains. That costs time and a little effort, and guess what? You have cost me plenty of both already.”

“mh! mh!” Flebrin was coming through the straps.

“How very rude, Flebrin, and how annoying you are. You shorten my life with your bizarre demands. Tell you what. You can hop out here and go get your own water. That’s all you have to do. Free of charge, never been branded. If you want to run it through a pipe first, suit yourself. Or use a bucket. You know how to use a bucket.”

Flebrin wrinkled her brow. “Oh, I get it now. You are feeling anger-y. Look at the flames come winding up your arms, the blue and green all tighter than tight, just like. . . that guardian. . . the Arch-demon I vanquished. Anger-y! Anger-y! Well, I can’t help that. I’m still thirsty. You—you just wait. Now tell me, you demon of bile, you spleen! where are you taking me.”

“Let’s not be foolish, Flebrin, superstitious pretenses won’t get you off the hook. The only demon on this boat is you. We know who you are. Jade told us all about you. To you, she would be, I guess, Miss Hedlund, the girl your stooges missed the night they murdered her parents. Plain as day, this morning she called you out.”

“Nonsense! That was just wrong! I never met the little witch!”

“Sure, that had to be quite the moment for you. Suddenly you had a job to finish you started years ago. Even more important than Mitchum, laid out with an arrow in his neck, isn’t that right? You lowlife, you had to stab her. If it was up to me alone, I’d toss you. Up the flame with you!”

Doc let go the hand strap and bent toward Flebrin.

“But no, I guess Bierce has some purpose in mind for you, so you get to ride for a while. In the meantime, sit your demon arse tight in that chair and wait for it. Remain silent, don’t try to move around. Try and find your comfort in captivity.”

“Will you tell me where I am.”

“Over the sea. Good place to jump if you want water. I’ll help you. Imagine an absent abscess. That could be you.” Doc pushed the lever and the nose slid all the way forward and the cold sea air came roaring in.

The eighty-mile-an-hour wind ripped and shuddered through the small cockpit and Flebrin screeched, “The creature threatens me! You don’t dare! Where are you taking me! I demand to know!”

Doc pulled the lever, closed the nose cone tight, and in the gale-freshened silence looked down at the captive strapped into the narrow flight chair. The red face all tight in a bunch, the distended nostrils dragging in more air, the winding up against the straps, the tantrum arriving in another second.

“We won’t be having any of that,” said Doc. She jammed the lever forward again and once again the wind howled in. She crouched over the captive torturer. With the wind gusting into the speeding craft, Doc’s hair roped over her face, jerked free and lashed into the black void outside. She bent low, extended a clawed hand. “Hey you!” she yelled.

Flebrin froze, held her breath and returned Doc’s glare. 

Doc stabbed her fingers toward Flebrin’s face and shouted, “Mitchum plotted with Emmers to throw you down the drain back there in the cave.” She pointed to the windy exit behind her. “And I have another method of disposal right here. Will you contain yourself!” She stayed that way, pointing fiercely into the shuddering night, until Flebrin, pouting, looked away.

fifty-one

The nose cone stayed open. Doc let the cold wind beat up on the both of them while she stood, holding onto the hand strap, looking out at the drifting lights of a seaside village passing below, could be Myrtle Rock. She turned and looked to seaward, checked Bierce’s running lights tracking along out there in the dark, with the lights of Emmers’s empty flier following close behind.

The wind whipped around the cockpit, preemptively muting any further static the prisoner might unleash, and Doc stood a while considering the humanitarian options. 

Anger-y, huh. Well, murder was the kind of talk these Uni understood. A habit of threat made credible by, for instance, the Adjustor guy, now happily departed.

Doc almost laughed. She, of course, had no such credibility. Recent events had introduced her to some of the grosser points of murder, mayhem, extortion and betrayal. She’d had her frantic bout with ropes and torture, and survived. By now, dealing with Uni rebels was all in a day’s crime wave. She was getting the hang of it. Credibility? She took a deep breath. I got some counter-creds, she thought.

Back in the windy shadows, Flebrin sneezed.

At any rate, humanitarian was too big a word to apply here. It would only mean preserving the prisoner in a more or less alive condition, as convenience might allow.

She closed the hatch.

The Uni scientist stopped gasping against the wind. “What do you mean!” she said. “What you said about Adjustor Mitchum, you demon of lies?”

“Meant just what I said.”

“You did not. I know Adjustor Mitchum would never, ever plot against me. You have never known such a man as Reverent Mitchum, so sharp, so alert to his own best self-interest. He was a rational man, objective in all things. He would have nothing to gain in betraying me. Always, my success was his success. And we were victorious, we found the metal! Therefore you lie!”

“While you were out communing with the cave fish, Hosanna, I heard him talking with Emmers. Mitchum thought he had more to gain out of Emmers’s knowledge of flier tech, if it turned out you had no success with the slush, the metal. But you did find some, so the deal they made shifted a little, I think. But they were planning to kill us, Bierce and me. And Emmers insisted that you had to go too, because he didn’t want you to be witness to the crimes. Your Reverent Mitchum agreed to that.” Doc grinned at the petulant captive. “But then he lost all that objectivity and self-interest you admire so much, when he lost his head. I almost laughed my own head off at the sight of that.”

“You mock his death! Reverent Mitchum, the most devoted of all to our dream of a world at peace. A world of pigeons dancing the skinner box, the lights, the loudspeaker, the trough and lever, all the world conditioned to the greater profit of a Unitory Order.” 

Softly, Flebrin moaned, “Oh, he wished to see a world poised on the knife-edge of blazing commerce, working out the deep, harsh discipline of the next main chance. Yet his favored venue was the high windowed office, somber and hushed, sleepy, calm, restful, unperturbed.”

Hushed, as though she were in the office now, Flebrin went on, “And always the phone, and the papers close at hand on which lesser wizards had neatly assembled all the capital letters. And his favorite pen to sign with.”

“Phone and pen. Is that the heights for you? I would take a closer look at your dancing pigeon, Flebrin—that wasn’t ever your Mitchum at the office. Your success meant a lot less to him, once he saw his way clear to get his own. He would have stabbed you with the pen, jammed the phone down your throat for a joke. You should be grateful he’s gone.”

“You knew him, demon! You felt his gravitas. What a marvelous self-centered man he was! A virtuous man, so high in self-regard. You knew, demon, what feats he was capable of, calmly furthering our goal. A hero!—my very own hero for oh, these many years. Since after that unhallowed comet came and went. Now he’s gone, gone! and I can’t believe it— 

“No!—I won’t believe he would betray me! By your flames I see. . . whatever. But you will not!” Flebrin’s voice began riding the higher registers, “NOT disrespect Adjustor Mitchum! Alive or dead! Seated ever nearer the unearthly throne!”

“All right, Flibbits, simmer down, now. Relax.”

“I won’t relax and neither will you! If only you’d had the metal administered at birth. A single programmed particle would have perfected you. You would be a useful, tractable beast of any burden, you could have been a solid stakeholder in the immaculate marketplace. No demon out of chaos like you are now! You would be balanced, anti-depressed, all reflexes compliant to follow the suggestion of the day. Just think of it, serotonin flowing by the gallon all day long and a wee dram of whinnyhorse to soothe your rages. Stepping high, nose clean, a contented mammal. No more nasty cuddles in your in-crowd!” Flebrin sneered, “Oxy-toxy, we don’t have that, you don’t need it. In following generations my medicine, the metal, will solve that problem. Plus, the morning session of jocular-style hate radio should inspire a productive mood!”

Doc said, “Quite the bouncy lifestyle. You still have your supply of meds with you, Flebrin? No thanks, don’t offer.”

Flebrin said, “But you still haven’t learned! Have you received our signal at all, you demon of ingratitude? Why do I bother talking to you. Without the metal how could you possibly know anything? Ah, and now the flames. I see what’s in you, you weak, weepy, creepy, scatter-brained primitive. Don’t dare deny it! But we can fix that. Yes we can! Listen to this, ‘The Word Above Resounds Below!’ He came up with that one, my Adjustor, Reverent Mitchum. Isn’t it mysterious? And so true! Focus, listen, I’ll give it again. ‘The Word Above Resounds Below.’ Now you have something. So very real. With that you could ride the wild bronc of market forces, steer with confidence upon the heaving swells of capital, slash through whirling currencies under lightning gutted skies. Get cash in a flash! Could you, demon of ignorance, sign on with us and become the pure fulfillment of potential, ride astride the distribution wave, self-singular and sharp like a diamond? Bright nickels come pouring in! Would you attain the position unassailable atop our newest risk-adjusted pyramid? Unitoria!—nigh under heaven. No, not you, I do not think.”

Flebrin paused for breath.

“Ah well, no, not me,” Doc said lightly. “I’ve never been fond of flying into inversion layers. The static makes my skin prickle. But how do you think this metal you’re looking for will further your ambitions? Isn’t it just supposed to kill everybody?”

“Oh—ho? Why no—who have you been talking to? The metal carries first the potential of catalytic heat death revised into the body. After receiving your particle of the metal, what you are then told will energize the Master Word in this application. This is what you have to listen for. Of course, your responsivity will require a bitsy understanding of the power of our Ancient Ord.”

“Oh! Yeah? But I mean,” said Doc with feigned interest, “how ancient is this Ord?”

“The Ord,” exclaimed Flebrin, “is as ancient as the word, the sword, the point of sharp new beginnings! Ordinate, subordinate, as old as can be. The origin of all psychoto-linguistic doctrines, the Ord is our star, it is the One, the ordinal First. It is the prominence down which roll orders, ordainments, ordinances.” Solemnly, Hosanna Flebrin intertwined her fingers knuckle to knuckle and pressed her thumbs into a steeple. She looked sternly at Doc. “All opposing the Word go to chaos, sunk in ordure.”

Doc shook her head, marveling. So now we’re deep in the paranormal. Mysteries and mottos and psychoto-linguistic doctrines, whee. Hand signals. She shrugged, resigned to a never-ending role-play with this high-strung personage, for as long as one of them was captive of the other. 

“That about says it all, Hosanna. Though ordure would be more entropic, don’t you think, not chaotic. Are we sure we have our facts straight on that one?”

You are chaos! You make me tired. You never listen. Adjustor Mitchum practiced all the time on his special articulation of the Master Word. Because the time approaches when everyone will know that with this Word we can kill. Terror enough to discipline anybody. The billions.”

“Mitchum kept promising a word but I never actually heard him say it,” said Doc.

“It is the presentation, the force of intention that does the trick. The actual word is a 64-bit PIN number that any device would understand.” Flebrin shuddered with some kind of chilly anticipation. “All set to go public just as soon as we get that metal! And we know you have it. Metal of transformation. When we get ahold of that, then the conditioning begins, the Promise of the Word, the fattening of the amygdalae, your organs of fear. Then and then! the glorious application.”

“The Rubescent thing.”

“You remembered! We instill the perfect metal into every body and the simple promise of the Word will be all it takes to achieve high yields of compliance anxiety. Then, a new trouble-free Order at last, lashing the world on to its true highest speed, while wizards juggle.”

“And swells heave.”

“Exactly,” Flebrin cried. “It will take nerves of steel to sustain our universal market through every turbulatory whimsy.”

“I see! And scaring everybody to death should make that a lot easier.”

“Whatever it takes—” Flebrin slipped her arms out of the straps and embraced the air above. “—we will keep the cards of destiny afloat, edge to edge, corners aligned and steady in the high winds of adjusted risk!”

“And all it takes,” said Doc sympathetically, “is a little metal.”

“A single particle! Each tiny mote programmed at any distribution point in the world net. A catalyst to concatenate your synapses. You simply pass through any phone’s carrier signal and the network makes the match. *BLACK[*STAR™ GROUP *]satellites are standing by.

“Registration is automatic. Once in the system, the amygdalae of your brain are configured to your very own personal digital Word. And now you’re in the Unerty™ cloud bank and you are secured. Then, if and when the signal comes down, you will feel your brain freeze and you’re out—a digital panacea! See? It’s a doom you can believe in.”

“I’m impressed.”

“We don’t care what you think or what you have to say about it. That’s all a bunch of static and we don’t want to hear it anymore. So tiresome, having to cajole and sell and threaten. All that ends. You just do as you’re told and keep your smart mouth shut. Isn’t that a lot easier?”

“I’m very impressed.”

“Yes, well, we’re still working out delivery systems. Metal inoculation is my favorite, since by now people are widely conditioned with fears of pandemic. And we can have the particles distributed in selected beverages, popular brands rotating through the market. Aerosols too, you know. Skin contact with paper and plastic goods and of course all factory foods. We have many options in play.”

Doc nodded, seriously considering. “It’s what you need, all right, a real smokin’ turnkey solution.”

“Yes, demon. But I see your flames are crawling in a sour and sickly way. It won’t be so bad. Be happy. It’s not as if we intend to poison your entire lives, for goodness sakes. 

“There are things I’d rather do anyway, than go on playing Mistress of the Paranormal. Doing the television show is a lot of work. But never mind all that laborious thought control, why bother with that? If you must think, then think of US. Otherwise, we don’t need you thinking at all. Thought leads to action, we see this again and again. Wasteful unmonetized activity, and all out of our pockets. Soon, there’ll be no more of that. Soon, with the help of the particle, all in one lesson we’ll educate you people in the purest self interest. Be alive or go out of existence. Why not just forget you’re alive at all! So that at last we can rest, pleasantly assured that your utterances mean less than the barking of dogs.”

fifty-two

Doc Holiday slouched against the glass side of the flier, tight-lipped and disgusted, warily glad that the raving Flebrin had wound down. This business of humoring a demented captive was doubly a burden. She’d thought to be rid of Uni altogether, much earlier than this, and safely home again. But now here she was, going along with Bierce, obliged for less than perfectly clear reasons to help him in one or two of his maybe skittish side schemes. Having gone along this far, there seemed little she could do about it. Bierce should ride with the monster, not her. Mistrusting the silence, Doc waited, edgy, vigilant. The flier cruised steadily on through the dark.

She shifted her attention away from gloomy thoughts, looked away to the moon-dark coastline drifting by on the right. There were still clusters of lights down there, villages moving by and the highway full of spirited low-runners determined to join the battles ahead. She hadn’t been up this way in quite a while. It was good to see how civilization still thrived, that the lights were still on. After a while the tension in her jaw abated, she relaxed a little and began to enjoy the spectacle of thousands of the zone’s fiercest warriors pushing ahead, keeping it civil as they jockeyed along the skimpy roadway. She’d been there herself before, on other roads, attending furious hordes into past battles. Watching them now put a grin on her face. The sense of participation in all of that returned and she felt better.

But then, again, inevitably, from the shadows behind her, came the voice of Hosanna Flebrin. “Your flames,” Flebrin cooed, “waft more lightly now, more pearly and less blue. You are feeling relaxed, I see. Are you feeling happy? Not like your poor friend Emmers, whose fires crawled and twisted down in that eternal cavern. I always liked Emmers. I had hopes he would come over to us with gladness in his heart. But the terrible fish took him before he could make his plea.”

“Oh really? Maybe Emmers just got careless. Maybe he just gave up.”

“That’s it! Sudden conversion. Given over. Now all that was his is mine! It must be so. . . his flames so low, so muddled, curdled and slow, so wound so tight, so—”

“So thoroughly quenched, eh Flebrin?”

“They consumed him! All his money and all his property, all mine now. Emmers, the willing sacrifice! He sits beside my dear fragrant lord this very moment, exactly where he can best help me fulfill. . .”

“That’s right, Hosanna Flebrin, ‘your destiny’.”

“Yes! Emmers has suffered his Ordeal and may now worthily supplicate the deity in my behalf. In solemn compact with my one true Knight, Reverent Mitchum.” Flebrin sighed. “Ah, my Knight. Such a real man is hard to find. He just never. . . so tell me, demon, about the sorcerer Bierce. Is he for real, do you think?”

“Real enough, I guess. I haven’t thought otherwise.”

“I wonder. . . a sorcerer. It fits the gameplay. My destined endgame? Tell me, then. Where are you taking me?”

“Oh, northly.”

“To the sorcerer’s trove!”

Doc pushed away from the side of the flier and twisted around, stared at Hosanna Flebrin. 

Flebrin’s eyes bulged. She struggled to sit up on the flight chair. She bounced against the straps. She hooted triumphantly: “Hoo-ah! Ah-oogah! Holy Magonia! I have you now!”

“Wha-a-t?” Doc’s astonished imagination flew to Bierce’s secret stash—but no, that wasn’t possible. She herself hadn’t suspected Bierce’s secret cache of slush until just hours ago, when he’d suggested what it was the Uni were after. His best-kept secret. It had taken an aircraft carrier in his back yard to shake the hint out of him. But Flebrin couldn’t mean Bierce’s private hoard—whew! no. . . could she? 

Still—a Uni warship heaving up off the horizon just a bowshot, Bierce had said, from where he lived. . . .

Somebody, Doc thought, was just imagining things. Knowing a secret or suspecting a secret, suddenly everybody suspected everybody of being in on the secret—

Madly, Flebrin laughed. “Oh oh oh? Sparks O’ confusion? I read you like a book, demon. We are not stupid, you know. Our litigant lambs have charted his social networks and uncovered the trail of his funding and supply line. Right back to the source! We know all about it. The metal of transformation is ours!” Flebrin pursed her lips decisively. She flounced her head. “Take me there.” She hitched herself irritably this way and that on the narrow seat.

“Well. Goodness me,” said Doc. Uncertain how to respond to this apparent reversal of intelligence, uncertain whether it meant anything really, she said aimlessly, “Bizarre line of talk from somebody we just dragged out of a dark cave. Are you feeling all right, dearie? You haven’t taken your aspirin yet, it could reduce some of that brain swelling.”

Flebrin made crazy eyes. She crowed, “Demon of doubts! Adjustor Mitchum and the *BLACK[*STAR™ GROUP *]covered our bets fourteen ways from Tuesday. The Black Star sees everything. He knew. He planned it all. He told me, ‘If one thing doesn’t work out then another thing will.’ Maybe it would be Georgie on the running belt or Emmers as pilot or even you, demon, but after exploring that accurséd mountain we were moving north in any event. Oh northly, indeed! to join our forces there.”

Flebrin shivered, collapsed back clenching and unclenching her fists. “Oh, I do grieve the tragic path of my destiny. To have received the boon and lost it, at such cost. Oh woe, but I understand the Passage of the Terrible Cave. The Unexpected Setback. The Heroic Failure Along the Way! Woe oh woe, we lost a Knight. We lost a Pawn. The Boon! And now this Desperate Flight into Darkness! But at first move I vanquished that damnéd Guardian! . . .and turned the last spade over a sorry old story there, too. . . .” Flebrin raised her arms, fending off some unseen adversary. “But now forward!—trample over and never look back, that’s how destiny plays. There’s no returning.”

Hosanna Flebrin strained forward, boosted herself into the straps some more and said “chash” and clawed at her thighs. “But not one of our failures matters now. We move forward to our backup plan.”

“Oh boy—you sure you want to go to that plan?”

“Of a certainty! Plan 17. A cakewalk. Are we running behind? We’ll be late for the fireworks. By the time we get to the sorcerer’s trove the fighting will be over. But they’ll wait for me. I will simply walk in and verify the metal and then, in very short order this Bierce and you, and all you soulless squatters, will be finished. The weapon will be ours! Then let the markets prevail!”

“Weapon, the weapon, there is no weapon. Your degree of silliness is flabbergasting,” said Doc. “No weapon, Flebrin. But why would you want it anyway, even if there was such a thing?”

“Why? Why! You ask for a reason? Oh la-de-da, that I should attempt reason with you. Demon of contention, I could tell you, but you don’t meet the metric, the baseline of worth. I’ll just say National Security and be done with you. Don’t trouble me to reason, I rely for that on paid subscriptions to trusted newsletters.”

“What do they tell you?”

“Where’s my lash! The leasty-est wisp of that knowledge costs more than you will ever be worth, the expensive subscriptions and all the effort of reading up on current precepts. But because we’re friends, demon, and I’m feeling happy all of a sudden, I will tell you this. Life is so-o-o boring when you have to hassle it. Therefore, as we seek fulfillment and peace, so the weapon must be ours!  Precept 72.”

fifty-three

By the time the lights of Tillamook Bay hove into view below, it became evident that the weather Bierce had mentioned earlier was coming ashore. The three fliers began running into crosswinds and flurries of rain off the sea. 

Doc found the windshield wiper and switched it on. Looking down at the village lights, she imagined times past when storms lashed the rocky coastline and blew all boats ashore, stormed in over the bay and saturated inland pastures with the abundance of rain that fed the lush grass this region’s countless dairy cattle munched on. She pictured the old Tillamook Clipper’s bright sails tilting out to sea, valiantly carrying cargoes of rich cheeses to all the world.

The weather intensified. In another hour, when they reached Astoria on the Columbia River, they were flying practically blind into a storm raging at a furious pitch. 

Oddly, it seemed to Doc, in such weather and so late at night, the steep hillsides of the river town were lit up bright when her party came on scene. From the air, the bright streets seemed to waver, drowned under sheets of horizontal rain slamming up the river on ferocious gusts of wind. Doc glanced at the barometer. Yep, it was storming out there. 

A quick scatter of high-speed raindrops beat a loud stitch along the side of the flier. Doc turned to see what could have made such a rattle through four inches of solid glass. A driving wall of wind struck the craft broadside and Doc’s feet left the floor. She flung out an arm. But rather than be smashed against the inside wall, her new Flyer’s instinct kicked in and she let herself float with the relatively unmoving air within the cabin. The flier veered and her body went with it, with scarcely a flutter. A very Jade-like maneuver, Doc thought proudly, if Jade had ever been clued to the possibility of it. But then, likely enough, Jade wouldn’t have needed a clue. Doc turned to see if the suddenly squalling Flebrin had noticed the floaty maneuver. No, the Uni scientist was noisily recovering from the shake-up, yawping and cringing and glaring with terror, clinging tighter than ever to the mesh harness that secured her.

Then there’s Bierce, thought Doc. Who’s running this boat anyway, him or me? Time to take a hand in this storm flying business. It wasn’t getting any tamer out there.

And Bierce’s voice came in over the speaker. He sounded cheerful. “Home again home again. Ain’t this the welcomest weather? Doc, I’m going down to consult the locals. Won’t be long.”

Bierce zagged and zigged down through the storm and flew on into town. Doc watched him drop to a landing near a longish one-story building close by the river. The building stood nearly under the monumental spiral ramp up to the startlingly long bridge stretching away into the storm over the river. Miles long, the bridge looked like, judging by the line of low-runner taillights streaming bumper to bumper as far as the eye could see. Only they didn’t seem to be moving. Doc drifted down for a closer look.

The highway below was stacking up with low-runner vehicles, northbound, but nobody going there. What could be the hold up? Could it be the local fishermen or balky bridge vendors obstructing progress, refusing to shift their stands off the bridge? It would be no wonder if established eateries and book store owners, all the sellers of tools, kitchen wares and the daily catch, tended to resist relocating, just to make way for a horde of ground-huggers, albeit these ground fighters were the zone’s proudest and fiercest defenders. Was that all it was about? Ordinarily, the low-runners had efficient ways of taking care of business. Arriving in such great numbers, they could simply buy everybody out and clear the bridge and move forward. Accommodation of that sort was pretty much the expected course in the frequently embattled zone. So why the hold-up?

Bierce pulled up beside her. He nosed his flier up close and gave Doc a wave. Energetic scurries of rain danced in their headlights. “Here’s the news the Webfoots tell me,” he reported. “All afternoon, Uni operators have been rowing inflatable rafts piled up with explosives as close as they could get to the bridge. A couple of miles out in midstream. Then the storm got worse and they had a hard time holding their position. A few of the inflatables got swamped and washed back out to sea. But tonight, just a couple of hours ago, they pushed through the fish nets strewn about and made it in under the storm. They blew a fifty-foot chunk of bridge up the flame. Nobody is guessing why they’re doing it. They think maybe it’s to clear a patch for some barge carrying troops and catapults. Maybe it’s for the larger inflatable troop rafts they also have coming. There’s a cluster with sails on them struggling up the middle of that monster current right now. Everyone here agrees it’s idiotic. Taking bets on how long they’ll last before the wind flips them over.”

“What are these idiots, sending frogmen to fight the world’s biggest river? Upstream in a storm?”

“That’s exactly right, Doc. Fact is, I know what the Uni are up to. I know because I know where the main battle has to be, and that’s where we’re headed. Take a look down there, Doc. There’s your proof that Unitories can have strategery. They’re halting the low-runners’ advance!”

“Oho, so that’s the hold up,” said Doc. “How about that.”

Behind her, clutched tight in the seat straps, a slightly subdued Hosanna Flebrin emitted a thin mocking caw.

“Our friends in town were thinking the Uni meant to grab the waterway and what a pointless effort it was, a real head-shaker. Nobody could guess the real reason for this action unless they knew what nobody knows. And for reasons only you and I know, I couldn’t tell them.”

Doc sighed into her microphone.

“That’s right,” he said. “So I said that all this had to be a feint, a time waster, a spectator sport for the Oregonians’ benefit to keep them frozen in place along the river and out of action elsewhere. I suggested they keep a skeleton crew here to manage a few teams of low-runners in defending the town and otherwise to forget this particular Uni madness and go north.”

“But what about the rest of the low-runners!” Doc stared down through the streaming glass at the endless jam-up on the highway.

Bierce said, “I don’t know. Maybe they can patch the bridge or something. Uni won’t be able to hold the gap for a minute once somebody decides to sink them. Inflatables, you know, under oar and sail.” He laughed. Then, sounding regretful, he went on, “The only other bridge over the Columbia is better than half a hundred miles upriver, and it’s a twisty road to get there. And there’s the Gnat Hatchery to get past. Hours away, the way our guys hug the ground. We need these great fighters. It’s a shame they have to flinch at such a small obstacle.”

Doc said, “A shortcoming they take pride in. Down-to-earth folks, a salty crew. You know what, Bierce? I want to go out to the bridge. I want to take a look at the situation.”

“We don’t have time for much sight-seeing, Doc. It’s best we keep moving if we’re going to get up the coast and around the peninsula to Port Townsend before daybreak. We’ll see what it looks like on our way across the river.”

  • * *

They paused over the bridge, looked down through the splintered steel and concrete to the deep dark water bulging below. The enormous flood had only a dozen miles to go before it reached the sea, accumulated pressure of mountains driving it on. Low-runners crowded the bridge, drivers and passengers out in the wind and the rain, milling about uncertainly at the broken edge. It was only about a twenty-foot drop to the water, but the gap in the road was at least fifty feet wide. It was this empty space that was holding up the works. Though most of these fierce ground fighters saw the lateral discontinuity as insurmountable, a few dared to make the jump, raucously exhorting others to follow. Most of these daredevils veered to a triumphant landing on the other side; but they weren’t enough. The road was at a standstill, thousands of old vehicles backed up for miles along highway 101.

“Now Bierce,” said Doc Holiday, “I have an idea. I think we can get all these people over the bridge and on to the battle where they belong to be.”

“Really? That would be some trick, if we could pull it off.”

“Yes. I have just now devised a special Doc Holiday’s Remedy, perfect for this occasion. I think I want to get some pumps out here. I mean to make these people jumpworthy.”

“Aha,” said Bierce. “What do you have in mind?”

“I learned what Salmon Trout might have meant when he said he felt like a statue, not really flying at all on the new flier. As if the flier is stationary, it’s the world that moves. But Salmon Trout wouldn’t have thought he was a statue if the weather hadn’t been so fine just then. Tonight, a few minutes ago, I discovered that levity isn’t the only thing to think about in this new game of flying you taught me. Another thing is, it’s helpful to hold steady amid the vagaries of wind. Sort of keep an internal bubble of stability? For us, knowing we are not dependent on the machine to carry us around, that’s easy. We travel in our own relative space and wear our fliers like a suit of clothes.”

“Good, you discovered that. Only bear in mind, Doc, that our inertial freedom has a speed limit around here. Remember, never lead a fast wind. Regarding which, have you developed any new insights on what happens when things go up the flame?”

“Beats me. I’m just following my senses in the storm at hand. Now, let’s be low-runners. If those folks could just ignore whatever feeling it is that worries them—uprootedness? vertigo? guts dropping out when the ground falls away?—and get them to look only to their destination, why, they could see where they wanted to go and hop straight to it. Wearing their old cars around them like cocoons. Ride like somebody else is driving.”

“And you have a potion for that?”

“The notion is the potion.”

“Yeah! Now you’re talkin’. What would you like me to do?”

“Make a speech. Talk up the situation, put the Uni in their place. And rave about Doc Holiday’s new elixir. I’m going to need your stage presence and salesmanship for this stunt. You give them the pitch and then I’ll step in and knock it out of the park for them. Our low-runners will be flying right behind.”

“Really. This is gonna be good. So what are we selling, Doc? Axel grease? Just tell me what lies I have to tell.”

“Mainly, just the one nice story about Doc Holiday’s incredibly credible remedies. I’ll take it from there. First, let’s get those pumps in place.”

“Okay, I’m on it. Gotta talk to the mayor of the city, I’m putting in the call right now. Doc Holiday is here to save the day! This is gonna be fun. How can we possibly fail?”

“Any number of ways, I suspect,” said Doc. “Which makes me think. . . . Bierce, we need Hosanna Flebrin out of sight for this one.”

“Yeah. If only not to be seen traveling with.”

There was no shortage of bilge pumps to be found in and around the Port of Astoria, pumps of every size and configuration, from old engine-driven gushers to sealed electric pleasure-boat units operable at reduced speed, and there was no lack of hand or foot-powered pumps for kayak and canoe. At Bierce’s insistence a gaggle of volunteers flew off and quickly improvised a cluster of pumps and tubes that would pull river water up the twenty feet to a big tank balanced beside the roadbed. The outflow from that went through an array of common garden hoses with nozzles and lawn sprinklers attached. 

While all this was being assembled, a rumor went out that everybody’s favorite potion master Doc Holiday was on hand and might have something surprising to say.

And the moment came. Three dazzling bright and oddly-shaped fliers swooped along the bridge, then slowed and lined up across the fifty-foot breach. Even as they arrayed themselves over the gap they began projecting the words of the mayor of the city. In a huge storm-busting voice powered to startling strength by the three fliers’ networked loud-hailers, the mayor’s voice crackled down the bridge and he addressed the occasion of war and weather and fluster and bluster, then went on to make the ceremonious introductions. Here were two well-known citizens arrived fresh on-scene. And they were bringing a special message for all who were stuck at the bridge. The city extended hereby a warm welcome to famed industrialist Bierce of Flihtworks, and all eagerly awaited some words from the great Doc Holiday on this unexpectedly disastrous and stormy night.

At mention of Doc Holiday, a wave of cheers and whistles rose up from the great many regular users of Doc Holiday’s Remedy for Flyers who for hours unending had squatted all rain-soaked and pent-up and cranky along the bridge.

The egg-shaped fliers hovered mysteriously steady against the gale that ripped and blasted through the jagged gap below them. Equally mysteriously, together the three fliers lit up in a whirl of bright pixels that scattered from one to the next in an attention-getting display of the well-known Flihtworks logo. Now, across the broad expanse of the middle flier swelled a video image of Bierce’s head in side view, turning hugely toward the bridge crowd below. 

Bierce of Flihtworks overlooked the storm-tossed crowd, looked beyond the rain-soaked bridge. The ever-present oversize black goggles gazed high into far vistas, surmounting in every sense the familiar Biercian self-mocking smile. His looming visage overrode the grandiose Flihtworks logo blazoned across his flier’s bow, scattering pixels where the images merged. And the same dramatic imagery flew, flowed and moved across the two fliers poised at either side.

“It appears we have a problem with the bridge tonight,” began Bierce at storm-busting strength. “A problem that appears to be insurmountable. And, reasonable people might assume, that reasonable people like us, when faced with such an obstacle calculated by our despicable foe to shock us numb and shatter our resolve, that—that we might accept it at face-value and take such outrageous prankster hoaxery as a certainty. After all then, what could we do about it. Stop everything? Buckle under? Faint dead away in compliance with such false fabrications of defeat?

“Wrong! We don’t think like the Uni. These blustery invaders wish us to accept their intentions against us as somehow an accomplished fact. But they have accomplished nothing here! The Uni have failed again! Once again, they have mistook their pitiful wishes for what it is we firmly intend. It is our intention to cross this bridge and go forth to battle.

A few voices rose out of the crowd in response to this: — Tell it, Bierce!Hear-Hear!Get to the point, Bierce!

“I’m saying, just let me say that, the only effect these saboteurs have created on this bridge is to make us mock them all the more! It’s only business as usual, folks. They can fool themselves but not us. 

“Now, look at this blasted ruin, this stormy gap in our bridge. Is this the obstacle calculated to stop us? No, my friends, all we see here is an empty spot in the road, about the size of the empty space between their pointy Uni ears!”

Appreciative laughter rippled back along the bridge.

Bierce pushed on. “So! Do we stand idly at the brink of glorious conflict and fall for this miscalculated scare tactic? Say no!”

The crowd’s vast ‘No!’ crawled down the bridge like thunder after lightning.

“Do we allow uncertainty into our warlike hearts and buckle under to cheap special effects?”

[_‘NO! NO! NO!’ _]All warlike hearts occupying the bridge and many thousands more on down the highway, sent up an explosion of sound that put a pause in the raging storm that had, all day long, been soaking them to the bone.

“No? I didn’t think so. That’s not for us.”

Now Bierce’s easy, confident chuckle roared monstrously out of the high-powered speakers of the three bright ships floating above the bridge, and he went on, “And here’s why. Tonight I have great news! You know, there are all sorts of brave folks in this world and one of the bravest is our well-known potion monger, Doc Holiday! I use her nostrums myself, more often than I would ordinarily admit to, if you must know the truth, and tonight we have brought her in, especially for this. And she’s here! Doc’s here with the goods. So we’re going forward, friends, getting over it, over the gap. Here she is, folks, just now alighting from one of Flihtworks’ great, new, revolutionary new fliers we’ve developed, our new Panther180[_, _]that will be shipping very soon, and available only in the zone. Here’s Doc.”

Doc opened the nose cone and stepped down to the well-lighted roadbed, wearing a broad grin of her own after Bierce’s little speech. The wind hit her teeth first, then whipped and shoved the rest of her, and it became her first bit of business to stand upright against all of its violent whims. But, seeming casual about it, she stepped forward, floated against the blast until she arrived at the broken edge, where only a trickle of the most daring low-runners flew past her, wobbling on the wind. The ankle-length rain slicker the Mayor had presented her earlier, snapped and billowed around her. The hood flew off the second she’d poked her head out of the flier, so her face was plastered with rain and her hair blew out in rain-soaked streamers. She should have cut her hair short as she usually did before leaving home for the wars. She was already a matted tangle, but with this hurricane whirling its own knots into the tangle, she knew it would never comb out.

So much for optimism, she thought, standing there waving at the crowd of wiser, better-covered heads fifty feet across the hole in the bridge.

She pulled the mike out of her pocket, slung it neatly around her neck. She said, “Thank you, Bierce.” Her words crackled through the storm. “I want to say, the new flier you lent me is just the thing for a stormy night. I hardly knew there was any weather at all out here until I stepped onto the bridge. It’s a comfy ride. And fast, too. I feel it’s been a privilege, Bierce, flying with you through this storm to help span the gap in this beautiful bridge.

“But tonight, it’s the best place I could ever be! I have something new for all Flyers. A lot of you take my Doc Holiday’s Remedy for Flyers and you know how helpful that can be. You also know each batch is an improvement on earlier ones, and the batches keep flying out with every improvement. The brew I have prepared this time is different. We’re not so much flying, now, as leaping. Yep, that’s what I said, our safety issue is no longer a concern at all since what we’ll be doing is fully controlled, an easy-going hop from point-to-point. Even better, I have formulated this as a quick surface treatment for our vehicles and the effect is stronger than ever. I may as well admit it, you road runners, I have made some strides myself in potion building lately. A potion now so reliable that I’m ready to give it an entirely new name. I call it Wings at Your Heels! How does that sound to you? Doc Holiday’s Wings at Your Heels!”

There was a stir in the crowd, a certain amount of hooting and horns bleating far back down the dismal storm-lashed road. High-beams sparkled off the thrashing rain.

Doc thumbed her volume control up the last notch. “So let’s go!” she said, “we’re all survivors here, let’s give this a go. I have arranged a novel method of applying Wings at Your Heels to every ride on the bridge. Just for this special effort so we can foil the Uni obstructionists and give everybody a goose across this impossible gap!

“Let’s get started. After you pass through the sprayers you’re all set for the leap. Instantly, your vehicle will be catalyzed and all you need do is fix your glare on your chosen destination and give your running board a good stomp. Wings at Your Heels will waft you lightly across the fifty foot gap in the bridge or just as easily fifty miles, just as long as you have your destination in view. Look and stomp. Look and stomp. You don’t have to think about what happens in between.

“Now we win this battle at the bridge! We’ll all be at the main battle before we know it and we’ll win that one, too. See you there!”

Doc strode confidently back to her flier and climbed aboard. She hopped it forward across the break in the bridge and stepped out again with a fist-sized dark blue bottle she held carefully with both hands. She held the bottle up before the crowd, then ever-so-carefully unstoppered it and pulled out an eye dropper.

“Three drops! That’s all it takes to catalyze this big tank full of water you see here. Anything going through is transformed instantly, and it’s Wings at Your Heels every moment you need it! We’re going to spray every car, every battle wagon and scooter that comes past. Anything with an inertial engine on board.”

Doc raised the eye-dropper, shielding it from the wind, above the water-filled tank.

“Here goes. One drop to say what we mean. A second drop to mean what we say. And a third for the Comet that flew away. Hippity-hoppity off we go. Come on, let’s put Wings at our Heels!”

The pumpers started cranking and river water flew in the storm.

“I’m on board for the first leap; where’s my ride?” Doc got in with a rowdy crew in a big, ancient and dented camper van crowded with an overlarge early-model kit-built inertial engine and bolted-to-the-floor dual tandem-length running boards. With air horns blasting they made the leap.

It wasn’t long before traffic began flowing again just as if no gap had ever existed.

fifty-four

The three fliers slipped away from the spectacle of the bridge-leapers, angled across the river to the Washington side and shortly descended a mile or so upriver at Dismal Nitch, where the Chinooks made their headquarters. Here, sheltered from the worst of the wind behind the big tree-grown rock that stood over the river, they came down on a flat patch of rain-soaked gravel. Bierce went off into the rain to speak to whomever and report the new situation at the bridge. 

Doc grabbed some extra rain gear and went over to extract Hosanna Flebrin from the forced isolation of Emmers’s flier, where she’d endured not being the center of attention for the past half hour.

They crunched across wet gravel, Doc escorting the hobbling captive through brisk flurries of rain. Lights mounted overhead on tall poles shook in wayward gusts of wind and gave a jittery strobe-like illumination to the rain-soaked meeting ground at Dismal Nitch. Clutching her satchel, Flebrin picked splashily around toe-deep puddles and followed Doc toward a pair of connected yurts. The larger yurt sported a sign drooping over its wide entrance, that said CO-OP: Hot Food & Drink.

Flebrin gimped sideways out of a shallow puddle. She wailed into the wind, “Where’s the guard shack? You people have no security at all! Where’s the checkpoint? No guards posted, no barricades, no fence, no towers! No electronics too, I’m willing to bet. What’s to stop just anybody from walking in here and stabbing us in the back?”

“We’re plenty secure. Anyone arriving by air would be a friend,” replied Doc, “except for you, stuck to my shoe. Are you looking for uniforms, Flebrin? Nobody here wears clone garb or a fancy hat unless they want to be laughed at. Besides, we’re all mammals here, we care about each other.”

“Mammals! Primitive!”

“Yeah. Gamer bots we are not. No, we’re a little too hazy around the edges to qualify as cartoon characters like you think. Not the convenient NPC’s you can stab in the back for points. The security you seek is all fake, Flebrin. You show me a special deputy spy credential and I’ll show you a rat. That’s a different kind of mammal. Stay alert, professor sneakums, people around here are sharp to mind their own business.”

“Hell spawn! You are so disagreeable. When I get online, my critique will be devastating.”

“Really, Flebrin. Do you honestly think anybody follows your crappy mental process online?”

“My enemies do. The things you say, demon, spell it out clearly. In [_Battle Consortium _]your game score is zero.”

They reached the largest of the yurts.

“I’m starving!”

Doc said, “Here we are then, dearie, welcome to the co-op. Smells good, doesn’t it? As a scientist you may critique it as you will, but you won’t find a particle of FDA in any of the goodies here. Come on. Let’s get in out of this.”

“I have money. . . .” The Uni scientist brandished a wad of cash.

“Oh wow, skins of the reptoid, let me see. Yeah, these ones look kind of scorched on one side,” said Doc. “Cooked pink from ripping through your high-speed printer?” Doc skirted the deepening puddle formed in front of the broad awning that sagged and dripped under a treacherous collection of rain water. Hoping the wind didn’t kick up at just that moment, Doc reached for the tent flap. “If you want to contribute something, try a song and dance on the little stage they’ll have set up for public use. Maybe give us a Uni harangue. That would whet everyone’s appetite. Otherwise, don’t be flashing those greenbacks around. You’ll make the diners choke. It’s hard to laugh and chew at the same time, you know.”

Flebrin stopped and grabbed Doc’s arm. “Then what’ll I use for—?”

“Oh, shut up. C’mon, let’s see what our friendly locals have cooked up today.” Doc threw up the flap and they entered. “mmm. . . .” she said, beaming happily around the bright steamy interior. “Good eats are at hand!”

  • * *

Bierce loomed up outside the flier, hat pulled low against the slashing wind and rain. He rapped his knuckles against the glass. Doc opened the hatch and he leaned his tired face into the cabin, bringing with him brisk swirls of rainy air. “Hi, Doc,” he said. “Did you eat?”

She nodded happily. But seeing that weary look about him, she knew she too must look as haggard as she felt. Careworn then, she smiled.

With Bierce’s rain-drenched intrusion into the limited space of the flier, Hosanna Flebrin shied farther back into her seat uttering disapproving sounds, “ph! whew! ick!”

He grinned at Doc. “She’s back,” he said. “Say, did you try the oyster stew? Home made, just the way we like it. Sticks to your ribs.” He switched over to Flebrin and said, “Professor, how would you like to ride with me for a while? There’s something I want to discuss with you. Call it a matter of mission.”

“I have a mission,” said Flebrin in a crisp voice. “Do you have a mission? psh!”

“I think so. Can we talk?”

phew! I don’t know about that, but I might be glad to get away from this bad-tempered demon.”

“There’s always the other flier,” Bierce replied.

“Safer with one of you. You might crash me, otherwise.”

“Oh fine, fine. I think you’ll be more comfortable in my boat, anyway. Let me help you out of that skimpy chair. I do want to ask one thing, though. I wish, if you travel with me, that if at any point you get the urge, you will refrain from spouting doleful doctrines or any stone-age doggerel that may leap to mind. At least not so I have to hear it. Any of that sort of stuff sorely interferes with my ability to pilot the flying machine. I could get lost or drift into a mountain or something.”

“Then that shall be my power over you, devil spawn!”

“That’s exactly what I mean.” Bierce spoke firmly, “If you wish to come aboard and hear what I have in mind, or even if you don’t, then please refrain from any talk of devils or other airless phenomena.” He paused and gave her a severe look. “Would that be all right with you, professor.”

Flebrin scowled and lifted her chin sharply. “eh.”

Bierce’s own chin went up, then he nodded. His mouth smiled. With grave seriousness he went on, “As a scientist, you know,” and in a deeper voice, “try experimentally to suspend your beliefs for a minute or two. Be less agitated. I sincerely do hope you’ll take an interest in my ideas.” He looked away from the red, volatile face.

“Very well,” she said. She sniffed.

While Flebrin composed herself and rummaged for the satchel full of instruments that was her only remaining baggage, Bierce leaned farther into the cabin and let his arm wander absent-mindedly across the flier’s control board. He said, “Guess what, Doc. They tell me the low-runners are calling that little hop over the bridge, ‘Doc Holiday’s Leap’.”

“Aw shucks, people, I’m glad it worked out. But I guess now a thousand phones are out there talking it up about how Bierce and Doc Holiday are in cahoots. Just what you didn’t want.”

“Tsk, yeah,” Bierce replied, “roaming the world, solving every little problem. . . .” Absently, his voice trailed off. His finger paused over one of the panel switches. He glanced soberly at Doc, then flipped the switch. He had turned off the speakerphone’s transmitter. But not its receiver, which remained live and would bring to Doc’s ears anything said in his own craft.

She watched him with interest. He turned, eyelids half lowered as he shifted his attention back to Flebrin, and under one lid Doc caught the glimmer of an eye.

fifty-five

Out of the lashing storm and back in the air! Doc lounged in glorious solitude beneath the flier’s night-dark canopy. Looking up from where she sprawled on the skimpy seat, all there was to see were the reflections of the cabin lights on the thick dome of glass overhead, and inches beyond that the silent rain smearing darkly past outside. The storm was winding away behind, far to the south now, and as the flier moved briskly through the comparative calm of a rainy night, Doc felt grateful for this rare moment of peace.

Now the last of her torturers was gone, or at least absent, the Hosanna Flebrin handed-off to Bierce. Doc began to feel that being alive was almost worthwhile again. Looking out along the curving nosecone, she followed the rivulets of rain speeding back into the dark. She sat up cross-legged, tired but alert and at the same time snug in the warm little ship and able to breathe easy for a change. She let her thoughts drift. Her eyes wandered, she took in the interior of this flier in which so much had happened to her. Calmly she contemplated what a battleground this flier had become for her these past two days. The travails imposed on her by the invaders. . . her eyes settled on the control bar. She tried viewing it with the same casual practicality as she naturally would have before dead Georgie pushed her down on it with his knife at her throat. And there, the sturdy hand strap from which she’d dangled in her mutiny against the vicious Adjustor. Her shoulder answered that recollection with a vicious twinge of its own. Lucky to be alive. She noticed a fray of rope still twined around the seat post of the too-close flight chair beside her. Flebrin overboard! Doc grinned a sickly grin. Frights and horrors, gone by. But haunting her nostrils still, a stench of Mitchum remained, some revenant ectoplasm of the dead Adjustor, repellent. Doc coughed.

She opened the hatch and aired the place out for a few seconds, let more purifying rain in to settle the dust of this bad day.

She began to relax, the good co-op food warm in her belly. At least she’d gotten another good meal out of all of this. She felt drowsy.

She turned off all lights, subsided back into her seat. Behind closed eyelids she floated, weightless. A little melody came to mind and whispered faintly between her lips.

She thought of home. She wondered if the cat was getting enough mice while she was away. She thought of her garden; her two chickens patrolling for bugs, fertilizing as they went. She missed their chirpy greetings when she came near. And those leeks had to be covered before they went to seed. She pictured a row of tall stalks topped with pink flower clusters. Oh well. There was still time.

Riding swift and alone through outer space, Doc’s thoughts came back around to wondering how all this Uni madness would end up. But she’d long since learned not to dwell on the topic unnecessarily, realizing that no matter what the twists and turns, there would always be some new form of Uni crawling up under the horizon. So, again, she put aside that particular source of irritation.

She was just getting used again to this musing kind of space when an electric edge of shrill burst into her quiet technicolor dreamscape. The strident screech that dragged her up to full awareness and a sudden state of intolerable annoyance was Flebrin’s voice in the speaker. Bierce must have just now switched it on at his console. What fresh horror. . .

····· •

“—where you’re taking me and I know why! You go to your hidden trove of the metal. Once there, you will deliver it over to me. You cannot wish it otherwise!”

“Whoa—metal?” came Bierce’s voice from the blackness of space. “You’re way ahead of me, professor. Aren’t we guessing a bit far afield? I am unsure about this metal you refer to.”

“Guessing? Me? Then let me ask, what’s your hurry about this trip to the soggy north? Is something worrying you, sorcerer? I can put two and two together, you know. Now you try it. Had you heard about any little incursions lately, perhaps a major military action approaching your obsidian towers of evil? Guess why!”

“All right, professor, I give up. You put your finger right on it. You people have forced my hand, militarily speaking, in the matter of this metal. Slush of the comet. But listen, there’s something I want to say. Things are not at all as they may seem to you. Not nearly so tooth and claw. Military action may not be necessary.”

“In righteousness it always works!”

“But you don’t need it this time. You see, though I may not share your superstitions about the metal, it is I, nevertheless, who have always been a force working against the evil and the wickedness that have overtaken us here in the zone. I only want a chance to explain.”

•·····

Doc almost felt like laughing. The evil and the wickedness both! With these, Bierce couldn’t help but tweak Flebrin’s pleasure principle. Doc’s transmitter was off but now that she was actively eavesdropping, as Bierce must have intended, she instinctively kept her silence and only let herself grin. A specially bright image popped out of her freshly interrupted contemplations, a picture of sharp, carrion bird eyes that must this moment be zeroing-in on Bierce.

····· •

“Right now,” Bierce went on in quiet confidence, “you should know that all I want is to protect the profitability of my enterprises. I have benefitted greatly all the years since the catastrophe, from use of the metal in these fliers. It’s what makes them go. You understand, professor? Sorcerer or not, I’m a big wheel around here. Take my word for it, the occasional Uni incursion over the mountains is always good for my businesses. Let me assure you, for all such opportunities that serve to expand my line, I thank the Unitory regime. No hard feelings here, on that score. 

“But now you have me worried. Massive armies and armadas only look to mess up the local economy and disrupt my bottom line. That’s what concerns me now. You should have told me you were coming! Then I could have geared up for the party. But as things stand right now, professor, we should deal, not fight.”

huff! I like a businesslike attitude,” said Flebrin. “But what sort of deal can you make? What do you have to discuss?”

“We both know what you’re after, and you can’t get it without my help. That’s the first thing.”

“But it’s my destiny! At any rate, I know some people. I talk with corporate directors all the time. If I felt like it, you could talk to me. In fact, I am Director of Neo-science Research and Exploitation in the zone. My mission for the consortium is discovery and acquisition of all the metal there is. So I would be the person you’d have to talk to.”

“Yes, I’m sure of it. We may work together.”

Flebrin laughed. “I don’t know about that. Our program is set. All we do is wrest from your sorcerer’s grasp your not-so-secret cache of the metal and then, shortly after that, operation Rubescent Night!”

“Rubescent Night?” said Bierce. “I like fireworks. That’s my kind of party! Might I be invited?” He went on, earnestly, “You will have noticed, professor, that I show none of those flames that denote evil thought and feeling, which your special Sight reveals about every soul you encounter in this accurséd land.”

“—whooh!

“Yikes!” 

•·····

Doc threw a quick glance into the darkness outside and with horror observed Bierce’s running lights streaking nearly vertically towards the unseen ground below. She lunged closer to the glass to watch what seemed about to occur, at the same time veering her craft down a steep spiral, hoping to catch up. She had it in mind that she might dive below the plunging flier and slow it or soften its impact with the ground.

Then she heard horns and whistles, clacking and hissing over the speakerphone, the turbine spinning-up sound, the whole gamut of ratchety-bang sound effects resulting from a Turbo Paper start-up sequence. 

Bierce leveled off, over-bright lights strobing urgent patterns the length of his flier as Doc came alongside. She looked in but Bierce didn’t glance her way. His face looked serious. What in the world?

His flier began climbing again.

····· •

Flebrin cried, “What was that?”

“Sorry, sorry. The flier fell out for a second. I said a bad word. Anyhow, Hosanna, I see all the flames too. I’ve met no one else who can see them, or who could understand the meaning of them. None but you. I believe this to be a sign.”

“Think so? Demon thoughts flame around all demons of the zone, like whirlwinds, like peacock feathers. It is the quintessence of evil, so easy to interpret. And so yes, Bierce, it is true, such light flambeau as flutter from your fingertips are unique. The palette of your thought and feeling have piqued my interest.”

“It stands to reason, professor. I have tried to resist the influence of the metal.”

Flebrin huffed again.

“Don’t doubt me, please. The evidence of your Sight is real enough. But if you need more tangible proof, ask how I could have earned the economic dominance I have achieved in just the few years since the disaster. Impossible, if I had succumbed too much to passing thrills or given over to slap-happy communityism like you see all over the place around here. Success itself is proof of a dominant will.

“So listen. First of all, professor Flebrin, time is short. What you should know is, I wish to help you, so far as it benefits myself. It seems to me your destined victory should be achieved in the next day or so, and since we share similar interests I think we two should join forces. That way, we easily achieve what armies cannot. Indeed, professor, my sorcery can safeguard the treasure from any force of arms the world may mount, should I so desire it—though, I don’t hesitate to admit, at some inconvenient expense. But we don’t need to think of that. More important than anything, I am desperate to escape these hordes of occluded and degenerate minds that surround me here, marooned under the shadow of evil. Bring me to civilization at last, professor, and all I have can be yours!”

“This is how you think? How refreshingly uncontroversial your views really are, Mr. Bierce.”

“We’ll forge an agreement. Now for the second par- part. But should I go on, professor?”

“Please do.”

“Today we have a chance we shouldn’t miss. With my knowledge and assistance our next few steps can be made easy. Things will happen as quick as a wink and then we’ll be out of here, all our better interests roundly served. So long as we agree that I take a share in your victory, make some gains of my own, then I will play a constructive role and join in the larger Unitory enterprise. Unlike all these,” he said in a sneering tone, “I look to the future.”

•·····

Over the speaker, silence, then a long exhalation. Despite herself, Doc wondered how much of what Bierce was saying could be true.

····· •

In a low incredulous tone Flebrin replied, “You do. You will. Maybe.”

“Yes. Look, Hosanna, yesterday I had to stop you killing that guardian—while inflicting the least possible injury on yourself, of course. At that time, the possibility of our working together was not in the cards. But now look. You’re getting better already. I watched, observed the way you. . . um, made your way, uh,”—Bierce’s voice sounded a little stressed, up from his gut—“you walked, earlier tonight, outside the co-op, with the rain slicker blowing around you like that. I. . . owe you something for that wound.”

•·····

Doc laughed out loud. You sure throw yourself into your part, Bierce. She snorted. Here was a side of Bierce she hadn’t yet seen. It better be only an act, not some kind of a double play. All this flattering of the Flebrin. Was he just trying to put the make on her? Doc frowned. Nah. She’d seen his stricken face staring up as he crouched over Jade, while she herself was being dragged off by the Uni kidnappers. This very floozy. Kidnapper, torturer, murderer, robber, passer of fake money, that he was laying it on thick for.

····· •

“I won’t hold it against you,” Hosanna Flebrin said, with the light dishonesty of someone who didn’t honestly expect to be believed.

“Thanks,” Bierce chuckled.

“I want to see some quid pro quo, then. To start with, you can teach me how to fly this infernal machine.”

“So I shall. The skill could become essential for you very soon, if things go the way I imagine in coming hours. I don’t believe the accurséd knowledge—”

“—whoop! Stop doing that, Bierce! You’re flipping my. . .”

Bierce uttered a sound of exasperation—

•·····

This time, Doc was watching. There he went, lunging across Flebrin, reaching for the starter button. Doc grabbed the packet of Turbo Papers from its recessed dispenser above the shredder slot in her own flier and pulled out one of the golden glittery things. Grinning a little, she fanned her cheek with it. In a moment Bierce’s startup sequence came again from the speaker.

····· •

“Sorry,” Bierce said. “Um, a firm knowledge of demonic flight will not disturb your virtual integrity, not in any meaningful way, Hosanna—for all things are permitted in the good cause. Am I right?”

“Why, yes. How would you know that? I didn’t know that was public knowledge.”

“Hosanna, I can learn by example. I have learned from you. You yourself are an example of the world order state of mind soon to be perfected. You’re a scientist, a highly regarded spokesperson. I’ve seen you on the tv. As for me, I just hope to serve and reap the benefit.”

“Yes, Bierce. I think I understand you now. I’m beginning to think it was fate that brought us together. Don’t you think? You are wiser than I thought. I see you now as The Unexpected Helper that arrives just in time!”

“We can help each other, that much is certain. I guess you can show me the right way going forward.”

“I can. The way is already clear. Fresh clues to my destiny here have been clicking along for days now. And you, Bierce, will be a key ally.”

“But Hosanna, can I trust you to help me? I will be helpless, except for what I know about the zone, when we get over to the other side.”

“If you make good on your claims, Bierce, then I will count you my new Knight. Then, a new chapter will unfold for the two of us. Losing Adjustor Reverent Mitchum, I have gained Sorcerer Bierce!”

“Then it’s a done deal! Let’s see how it goes.”

“First I want you to initial this. I will read it:

11.3N: IN PARTICULAR, BIGGLE, ITS SUBSIDIARIES AND AFFILIATES, ITS LICENSORS AND ASSIGNS, DO NOT REPRESENT OR WARRANT TO “YOU” (SUCH PERSON DEFINED SOLELY AS “SIGNOR TO THIS AGREEMENT:) THAT:

(A) THIS OFFER OF PATRONAGE WILL MEET YOUR REQUIREMENTS,

(B) YOUR USE OF THE SERVICES WILL BE UNINTERCEPTED, TIMELY, SECURE OR FREE FROM DURESS,

( C ) ANY GUIDANCE OBTAINED BY YOU AS A RESULT OF YOUR USE OF THE PATRONAGE WILL BE ETHICAL OR FREE OF LIABILITY, OR

(D) THAT DEFECTS IN THE INSTRUMENTALITIES OR IN ANY OPERATIONS OR FUNCTIONALITIES THEREOF PROVIDED TO YOU AS PART OF THE PATRONAGE WILL BE CORRECTED.

(E)OR, THAT ANY OR ALL POWERS AND AUTHORITIES ASSERTED BY BIGGLE SHALL BE UNDERSTOOD TO COMPRISE MORE[+ ][+OR][+ ][+LESS][+ ][+ANY][+ ][+OTHER][+ ][+THAN] ANY SUCH POWERS AND AUTHORITIES POSSESSED AMONG [T]HE SALARIED CLERK WHO ACCEPTED FILING FEE AND AND STAMPED OUR PAPERS OF INCORPORATION IN SOME STATE AT SOME EARLIER DATE.

•·····

WTF thought Doc. ‘Kiss my arse’ the creature says, in so many words.

····· •

“Excellent; thank you,” Flebrin concluded. There came a sound like papers rustling into somebody’s tight pocket. “Now that’s out of the way,” she said.

Bierce said, “Now let’s get started. Avoiding all supernatural supplications while directing the craft, please remember. We could fall right out of the air if you do that.”

“I see. When you said that before, before I came on board your flier. . . I was so offended. But now I understand.”

“This flying is an accurséd art,—”

Damn you, Bierce—urrp!—Now it was me—Sorry-e-e-e!.”

•·····

Again the flier plunged, and again still more steeply the flier dove, saved doubly this time in a doubly noisy start-up sequence. Doc had the glittery slip of paper still in hand and for a moment she felt an urge to join in the childish frolic. Wryly, she eyed the narrow gold-trimmed shredder slot in the console.

····· •

“As I say, professor, inopportune supplications only burden and weaken us and tend to bring us down. I should remind you I’m not such a capable aeronaut after all. We have a very informal contract with unnatural forces, hereabouts. Here in the zone, there are no boundaries between the notion and the deed. Matters of weight, substance and sway are just baggage here. So, step lightly or you will be let to fall with all you carry. This is the tightrope I walk, professor. And now you, too. Understand?”

“I understand what a difficult position you must be in.”

“It’s true. Come close now, you take the tiller. I’ve turned the autopilot off. Are you”—and the gutsy sound was in his voice again—” are you warm enough, Hosanna? Leg hurting?”

Bierce said, “Let me show you through some of the simplicities of demonic flight. . . .

“. . .hn, good. . . that’s the way. Firmly, now. You can steer with your thumb, see? Stay my course and get used to the feeling, how it responds to your every impulse.”

Flebrin crowed, “Bierce, I’m really doing it! What diabolical fun it is!”

“You’re doing well, Hosanna. Hold on tight, don’t let it wobble. Keep it up like that. . . very nice.”

•·····

Don’t let it wobble, Doc chortled. As if it took a death grip to steer the thing. No, but what with the perceptible increase in breathing coming over the speakerphone, those two seemed to be in a state of high energy over there. It seemed Flebrin was getting hyper-oxygenated with all the transgressive excitement of flying the sorcerer’s own skeeter machine. In the good cause.

It was the same joke he’d played on everyone in the zone from the very beginning. This time, Doc knew it was the right thing, to play ‘let’s pretend a flying machine’ with the Uni operative. Indeed, playing Flebrin for a patsy—an amusing and worthwhile feat in itself.

But how could he even breathe in that confined space? What a thought: Bierce all a-jostle in a loop-de-doop with the Fleb? It must be just icky over there. But was it even possible, gagsome thought, to embarrass oneself with a wackadoodle Uni? Doc shook her head.

Still, it’s odd though, how. . . for whatever reason, he’s wanting to start something with the vicious-minded scientist. Something a bit more sticky than good old trust and confidence. A relationship. That didn’t seem right. Unsafe.

fifty-six

“It won’t be long now, Hosanna. We’re nearing the crunch. For us, success depends on a clockwork op, keeping one step ahead of any counterplot that may eventuate. We must agree that the purity of our purpose can be our only safeguard against perdition, yes?”

“Then let’s throw the dice and turn up our cards, Sir Bierce.”

“Here it is, then. It’s simple. You are going to steal it. The slush, the metal, is safely hidden. Yet it is easily accessible and transportable. To- together, we two will liberate the world’s only known supply of this substance, rescue it from this backwater trading post and deliver it over to global free markets. And we shall both profit, big-time. My task is to assure your successful acquisition of the metal and your quick escape back to the strong sweaty arms of the—the Homeland.”

“You’re going to hand it over to me.”

“On a platter, so to speak, if you will. Now I’m going to tell you where it is. It’s in the cellar of the old burnt-out house, down by the pond. You follow the path and walk right in. It’ll be there, you can’t miss it.”

“All of it is there?”

“Yes, but I’ll trust you to only take the half. I will bring over the other half myself, once you are reinstated. After that, there’ll be no more than what’s ours together.”

“Reasonable. Also safer that way. Good, Sir Bierce! Let’s get down to details. What’s the caper?”

“It’s like this. I will effect changes in certain sorceries which I control, and so attenuate security at the location. This will make anything possible, for the short time you’ll need to make the grab and skedaddle. While you’re inside, I’m outside standing watch. Be prepared for my signal—like this—and be quick! Grab this flier and get to safety and the job is done.

“Also, reminding you that I myself must not be seen to assist. I have to reinitialize the safeguards before anyone notices the diversion of forces. After that, it will be some time before my people discover that any metal has gone missing. You will be long gone by that time. And then, as soon as your armies leave and ours disperse, I grab my half and come across and meet you. Where shall that be, Hosanna?”

“I’ll make the arrangements over there. In the meantime, I’ll need your secure cell number. It will be so exciting texting with you!” Hosanna Flebrin gasped and cawed, softly. . . .

“It would be simpler if we just grabbed it all and flew!”

“It would seem so, Hosanna. But first of all, a quick, undetected fait accompli will save lives on both sides. Also spare damage to property, and I like that. If I go missing or am seen crossing over Uni lines, in the present context of conflict and battle, there will be trouble. Interceptions, rescue attempts, confrontations, the long grind of occupation. And I lose everything. Ships will be sunk, houses burned to the ground. And you would be in jeopardy. You can never tell who might come out of it alive, or ripped up, or dead. On the other hand, there is at least the hope that when you have possession of your portion of the metal, you can persuade the Unitory forces to depart in victorious haste. With my promise to deliver all the remaining metal, and myself as well.

“And a second thing is, and this is only a thought, Hosanna, a possibility we can work together on, I am hoping you will soon find a way to neutralize that substance of evil, the effects of which have devastated real estate development, export markets and import retail profits all these years, and then deliver the solution to me quickly—so that I, working the sales side, can bring back the glorious old order, re-establish all forms of leadership over this barbaric mobocracy.”

“You have a good spirit, Bierce. I will do that, yes. On our side, we’re well on the way to accomplishing an agreeably like-minded goal, as a matter of fact. Did I mention Rubescent Night? I’ll let you in on that later. It shouldn’t take long to program and deploy the metal. And then, if all happens here as you describe, you will be a hero of the newborn Unitoria. You will reap full insurance and unlimited credit, I can promise you! Up to Palladium rank! You will be detained without charges! You can forget a trial. Though, even you will have to experience a ton of solitary penitence to make up for the terrible transgression of surviving here so long.”

“I know. Thank you, professor Hosanna. I am eager to start on my long road back. After that Night you mention I shall be like the phoenix! Springing back in diverse revenue streams to even greater prosperity.”

“Bierce, you will occupy the top tier of custody! with clearances!” Flebrin must have shifted closer to the pinhole microphone, for her next words bloomed loud and fuzzy from Doc’s speaker, “We may be neighbors.”

Ahhh,” quickly and with deep gusto Bierce replied, “the good life.” His voice, too, bloomed close in the speaker. He coughed delicately then, and said, “I would say that good times are coming, professor, after this. With you at my side, now is my main chance to deliver back the comet-struck zone, bring it out of disorder and evildoing. Free it up from such demons as. . . . No, really, Hosanna, it’s as I always intended. If heaven will only believe.”

“Heaven will!” Flebrin breathed into the mike. “If not in this lifetime then in the hereafter, certainly.”

“Yeh’uh.”

•·····

In the silent dark of space Doc rolled her eyes. She could feel the two of them hovering close, conspiring hotly over the microphone. It wasn’t difficult to imagine a naughty Flebrin. Bierce was almost good looking and a whole lot younger, healthy and a little sweaty in the close quarters over there, plus he was trying to say the right words. Besides, in the grievous absence of Reverent Mitchum’s overbearing personality, it might be guessed that Flebrin. . . .

Doc shook her head. She muttered, “I hope you know what you’re doing there, Bierce. That woman will stab you in the back first chance she gets. I know I’m not buying any of your horse pucky.”

Feeling a little anxious and fidgety all of a sudden, Doc decided to take an interest in the many still-unfamiliar sections of the little ship’s elaborate control panel. She leaned over the array, located one switch that had a luminous dot on it and turned on the overhead brights. There were a number of features built in here that she had no prior experience with, since ordinarily fliers were pretty much barebones in their operation. But not here. She found a whole cluster of atmospheric controls involving air pressure, temperature, mixture. Mixture? Proportions of this and that, she guessed. But of what? She knew that people in orbiting space craft liked to mix helium or something with their oxygen. She looked around for the altimeter. She found three of them, lined up in a row. Altitude upon altitude, hm? So, she mused, maybe this gizmo really is a space ship. She looked closer. The first altimeter was a depth gauge. And a submarine, too. Bierce had told them back at Henderson’s that this model was his top number, the end of the line. So not just a flier in the usual sense. Plenty was going on with Mr. Bierce that he hadn’t yet busted loose on the world.

····· •

Flebrin’s voice again, agitated and shrill. “Bierce! What about that woman, that demon of storms? Is she still out there?”

“Don’t worry about her,” said Bierce. “She’s not part of this, she knows nothing. She will be no problem at all.”

“I know she’s got it in for me, dear Bierce. She’s only biding her time about it.”

“Mnh. Sure, very intelligent, that one, accurséd!—

“Yar!” the flier plunged from the night sky.

“—as she may be,” Bierce resumed. “And she’s powerful too. This is a matter I hadn’t mentioned as yet.” Bierce gave a sinister-sounding grunt, “But as I said, she knows nothing. That’s all that’s important.”

“Powerful? She’s your servant. What can she do?”

“Ser- servant? No. Doc Holiday is a free agent, like anybody. And potentially dangerous to our enterprise if she only knew how. But we won’t be letting on about it, will we? So we may discount any possibility of interference from her.”

•·····

Oh great, thought Doc. Nice touch there, Bierce, throwing red meat to that vulture. What could he be thinking. Oh, let’s get demon Doc Holiday to bollix up the plot. Did he imagine he could put the woman off with such tantalizing incitement? The torture-tolerant Flebrin was just the one for stewing on old business, why did he need to stir the pot?

Doc’s hand slid to the hilt of Prokofiev’s slim dagger, still hanging under her shirt bandolier-style and tucked under her belt. She unsheathed the blade and took a fresh look at the thing. It snuggled weightless in her hand, bright side up. Surely not going to be needed. But until Flebrin was out of sight and Doc beyond her reach, Doc had to consider the purpose-wrought blade an essential tool. Already, it was beginning to feel familiar to her hand. 

Maybe the unthinking Bierce hadn’t considered the possibility that a murderer, especially one with a ‘destiny,’ might easily expect a new ally to back her up on any leasty-est whim. She might demand a sacrifice. Bierce might just now have unbalanced his plot with Flebrin, given her ideas she shouldn’t have. How could he be so foolish?

Doc stopped admiring the steel sculpture lying across her palm and carefully re-sheathed it. Not going to need it. Going to keep Flebrin away from it.

She switched on the flier’s highbeams and looked out ahead. The lights showed the low-hanging clouds of cool early morning close overhead. Streamers of rain and mist falling out below the clouds smeared the glass as she passed beneath. Unseen on her left, the sea lay in darkness. She looked to the right. She knew the frosty Olympic Mountains flew their snowy peaks somewhere not far off to the east. Nothing there. So far, no sign of dawn. She scanned the near proximity for the other two fliers. Above the black void of the sea she spotted two sets of running lights. From the crowded cabin of the lead flier, lights blazed. Emmers’s flier, following as though on a tether, showed empty and dark.

  • * *

Flebrin: “I don’t trust that demon. I should be forewarned of anything she might attempt! What are her crimes! What should I fear from—”

“Nothing! I’ve already said! Do I have to explain every little thing to you?”

A sharp tone, it seemed, was a thing Flebrin didn’t like to hear, as very coldly she replied, “Yes, sorcerer Bierce, I think you’d better do just that.”

“Oh, go easy, professor Flebrin,” Bierce bleated placatingly, “it’s just hard to explain, is all.” He emitted a quavering sigh. “Hosanna, there simply isn’t a lot of time left before we must act. I’ll only say that Doc Holiday is a potion maker who believes in some element that counters the symptoms of a malady that plagues a few of these accurs- um Flyers.”

“Yes? What element.”

“The metal.”

“Oh? She seeks the metal, then.”

“Yes, it’s true. But it’s only a hunch, it’s all superstition with her. She doesn’t know what she seeks.”

“You have allowed that demon to—”

That’s the least of our worries. I didn’t mention it because it’s only a slight risk. It’s only important that she not suspect in any way what we’re about to do. Otherwise, as I say, she could, potentially, foil this op. We have to be careful, that’s all.

“No, please don’t look at me that way, Hosanna, it’s not my fault! Doc Holiday inveigles her way into any setting or circumstance she imagines will serve her purposes. It is a way she has that subtly corrupts the mind and virtue of all with whom she comes in contact. She uses demon spells and such.”

Flebrin’s response was brisk. “Then give me my phone. I’ll want to adapt my Risk Benefit app, install a new facet on the Dice of Ill Chance. We’ll spin it, and let us pray this [_Demon of Deceit _]does not rise to view.”

“Upph, Doc Holiday took your phone didn’t she?”

Now Flebrin growled, a sound like a wolverine caught in a trap. Savagely she said, “Then don’t you have demon spells, sorcerer Bierce? What if she catches on? What do you suggest for a quick counter spell should such unpremonitored eventuality arise?”

Bierce blew an exasperated puff of air into the hidden microphone, a double puff that might almost convey amusement to someone on the receiving end. “I ask myself why,” he complained, “why, why she should show up now, at this awkward historic moment, and I don’t know. I suspect she guesses the guy who makes the fliers must have a source of the slush, the metal, the subaqueous particle brought in by the comet. 

“Maybe she guesses right, but it doesn’t matter. She has this unscientific attitude, you see. Her theory of potion making is all wrong. She hopes to apply a correspondence to a similitude, swap a symptom for a metaphor and get real results. Eat your symptom, that’s her theory. All she does is, she throws a wish into the wind and calls it her similar-feeling remedy.

“And it works, yes it works, but only for similar wishful folks. Which may be no small thing in itself since we all wish for something. Wish a lot of things. But with her sensitive Flyer folk the wishing goes on and on, and the potion fades, and following potions only get more complicated and burdensome. She’s like an astrologer, it’s always something she’ll think of tomorrow that accounts for what happened today.

“You see, Hosanna, it is her practice, not her faulty theory, that does the trick. It is her unintended rapport with the particle that activates the potions. And this she does not suspect. See? Hopeless.

“But give her the slightest hint of that little fact and we’ll have a problem. Her being so close to all the metal could ruin everything we’re working so hard to achieve. I don’t know how it happened.”

“Then let’s ditch her!” Flebrin screeched. “Send her spinning to the ground. You could do that.”

“Hosanna! You think I haven’t thought of it? That one, single-handed, has brought down dozens of brave men who fought to defend their honor and their lives. I know this by, why, oh goodness, by the very many brave Flyers reported fallen in her vicinity. Why is she always there when they fall! It’s not a risk I wish to take. 

“Nor should you, Hosanna. Quick and subtle, the demon bides her time. You saw how she defeated Mitchum, and he was a tough nut to crack! It’s a good thing I arrived at the scene when I did, too. She was about to cut his rope and pfft, up the flame with him.”

“Oh!” gasped Flebrin, “My Knight that was.”

“I’m your Knight now! And you’re here for me too, now, so this is my main chance out of this hell-world!—

“—hyoobhh. . .” a sound like sudden nausea exploded from Bierce’s gut as the flier took a sudden descent.

•·····

For a second time, Doc felt like following them down, running a start-up sequence of her own, only this time it wasn’t a joke. She felt like diving after Bierce and ramming a wad of his fake ‘turbo papers’ down his throat. 

Wishes! Unscientific? He’d called her an astrologer! How could he say that stuff? She got great results, the potion worked! People were in the air that wouldn’t be. What could the despicable fraud be trying to peddle here? And what had happened to the Trojan Horse gambit he’d devised to foil the Uni attempt to take over the world? Maybe that was a lie, too.

Still, he had said one or two puzzling things that were not exactly abusive. She thought about them. He’d said it was ‘her practice, not her faulty theory.’ He’d said she had ‘rapport with the particle’. If the one thing was true, then the other would follow right along. Practice? Plenty. If the Hanuman Hypothesis was faulty, then what else was going on? Some kind of harmonious affinity, an empathy, a rapport with this particle of his? Well. Something to think about, anyway. Bierce, of course, knew a thing or two about the slush that nobody else did. That much was certain. But why was he giving it all away to that screeching barn owl!

fifty-seven

“And you! You know nothing of Astrology so don’t talk nonsense. My chart showed something of all this before we ever came to this dam[_nee-e ! _]— zone of horrors.”

“Oh. Sorry I said. But Hosanna, this demon! Doc Holiday! that demon stays down in the dark at all costs, yes. If she were to catch wind of our agreement it is certain she would bend her will against us. No, don’t talk, listen. Listen! Doc Holiday! The woman possesses a power that I have not seen before. I only fear that she may weary of all that wishing and any minute now discover her talent for direct action.

“Professor, you have the sight that reveals the flames of demonic thought, as have I. Such effects are only a sideshow, fringe benefits of that infinite iota brought in around some illogical twist of conjectural Strings, by that comet. The danger we face is this: Doc Holiday is different. By simply thinking about it, she can induce the metal to undertake transformations that affect us all. 

“She doesn’t know how to think about it, though. I’ve heard her call the metal an anti-graviton. She still thinks her potion-making is all about resisting gravity. That is her narrow interest. So for her, this imagined resistance is the particle’s primary action. But her own experiments disprove this. Her remedies fade. They need revision and maintenance. I ask you, why would an antigravity force fade in a gravity field? Why would the same Flyer’s Remedy potion work better for one person than for another? Would you expect such unreliability from a dedicated one-note anti-graviton particle?”

“Anti-graviton!” laughed Hosanna Flebrin. “How very silly. Gravity is the source of all stability. There is nothing but Gravity. Gravity is what holds the universe down.”

•·····

Doc shrugged. She’d never said anything about any anti-graviton. If anything, her speculations ran to remedying her clients’ metabolic resistance to the slush, her Remedy for Flyers a catalyst, like a vitamin, sparking up her customers’ sensitivity to slush-powered flight. Still and all, Bierce was right, her potions work focussed entirely on de-synching Flyers from the M-Field and keeping them up, afloat on the levity layer.

····· •

Across the way in outer space, Bierce talked on. “But the metal is not an anti-graviton. It is a massless frictionless mathematical consequence, smaller than anything ever theorized, never predicted in a cosmological model. Here in the zone it overlays the landscape, fused invisibly into the very structure of matter by comet Lihtan.”

“The Doomsday Comet.”

“Which leapt forth, we suppose, from behind some wrinkled cosmic Membrane beyond the universe we know.”

“That’s no explanation!” Flebrin laughed with genuine amusement, full-throated and musical, untrammeled by sarcasm or malice. She said, “You talk like some old-fashioned cosmologist spinning yarns, sorcerer Bierce. Next thing, you’ll be hopping up and down about clashing Membranes and other simingularities. I don’t have time for such nonsense.”

“Fairy tales, for sure,” Bierce agreed. “Keeping in mind, of course, that nobody has yet disproved the existence of Fairyland.”

“But who can prove existence in the first place! Have you uncovered evidence for existence, sorcerer Bierce?”

“Well, as to that, professor Flebrin, I would say imagining a troll under the little stone bridge ahead would best be proved out by going up and taking a look.”

“A troll,” said Flebrin in a darker tone, “always a troll.” Her voice came to Doc’s ear sounding disturbed, choked with alarm. “Bierce. Are you trollerxt33n23? Then YOU are a troll!”

“No, not, but, be that as, as it may,” Bierce replied, “Doc Holiday’s own experiments hint at what the particle may be. What a danger Doc Holiday would be to our scheme if she were to catch– catch on.

“It is the particle of divergence. I have been studying it for years, now. I call it the leviton for its vital role in the levitation of all fliers in the zone and also for its rascally waywardness. It seems to have no arbitrary constants in its actions. It behaves whimsically, unlike for instance the photon, which just blunders forward along the straightest track, smearing forward the present moment of time as if that were the only important thing for a particle to do. Or gravity, which sucks equally in all directions. 

“Before the fly-by, there might have been a leviton or two dancing around planet Earth, moving into and amplifying the next newest thing. But that’s just me guessing about a possibility of leakage from a neighboring universe.”

“Are you seeing double, Bierce? There is but one universe. And that’s ruled by gravity. Therefore your silly levitoon is a hallucination.”

“Oh? I thought you were a believer, Hosanna. In the multiverse.”

“The multiverse is our proof, Bierce, that of all imaginable possibilities we find only one universe that is uniquely ours. The multiverse is a domain where nothing agrees with anything, nothing is necessary or even meaningful. Can you not grasp the impossibility of leakage of any such particle as you describe?”

“Well, wherever it comes from, it’s got to be about something, professor, doesn’t it, after all? Otherwise how would you interpret the particle’s effects? By my observations, the leviton has a tendency to move toward complexity. By necessity it jumps, entirely without resistance, to the next nearest attractor, and that would be any fresh process or novel event. While there, it lends its energy, amplifies or augments the new discovery for as long as there is no new attractor. Levitons are easily diverted and they rarely stand still. When they do come to a halt, it’s only because that’s different from whatever they were doing the moment before. Always something different. I call this the leviton’s Tendency to Digression.

“So now we come to what it’s good for. Since brains comprise the most complex processes that exist,—anyway, that’s what the brains say—you will see swarms of tiny levitons clustering up in the vicinity of our synaptic processes, drawn in by our every fresh notion. Right there in the synaptic gap, the interface of energy and matter. A seething quantum space where we are neither here nor there. See, professor? Right there, where we start to get motivated.”

“All right, Bierce, let’s just have the nutshell version.”

“Sure. Say for instance there’s an octopus feeling like it wants to smooth out its spots or stripes in some entirely new patterns and colors. Levitons will come flocking in and augment the action. It’s where the party’s at. Octopuses and squid in the zone come up with some spectacular displays. Here in the zone, our frictionless particle takes a spin around every brainy thought bubble and gets involved in every forming impulse. We dream something up and the slush, the metal, responds. The effect of that is sort of a spontaneous effusion of intentionality.

“As you yourself have experienced, professor, perceiving the flaming aura of demonic emotion. You may have wished at some point to see such an aura. So, on that impulse, particles that had been clustering among your synapses might well jump to a second location, directed to complexities of thought and feeling in the mind of another. Then, resonating in some immaterial timeless domain, the particles picture for you the information you desired. Such a picture could vary in accord with your expectation, in compliance with how you are predisposed to view it. You could see anything! I would say you have already achieved—”

“Wrong, wrong, wrong! You make no sense at all! The Sight I am blessed with is of angelic origin, not some delusion spun off that comet of evil. You are so stupid, Bierce. The closest you come to truth is that yes, it has been my wish forever to see the aura of souls. Other than that, I can only guess that somehow, around some corner of benighted logic, your false mechanistic view has brought you to a chance convolvulation of mind elements, as conferred from the sixth dimension.”

“Really?” Bierce sounded amazed. “I thought it was just about thinking up something different.”

“Pitiful! For the best-modeled view of the forces at play in the ten dimensions, Bierce, I wish you would depend on trained experts from here on, will you?”

“Okay. With Doc Holiday it’s much different, anyway. In her experiments with potions diluted down to zero leviton content she displays a unique ability to spin all levitons everywhere to her will—that is, she gives the slush, the metal, an attitude all its own, without her ever being in contact with it. So far, she simply wants a remedy for Flyers, and that’s always a fine ambition. I’ll say this though, it’s a good thing that demon woman hasn’t yet shown any interest in directing the metal to harms.

“Why Hosanna, if she so much as knew where the metal is cached, it’s conceivable she could throw a whammy right from here that would spin every frictionless muon of the stuff into a whirl and send it forth to foment accurséd wild pandemonium—oops—irreversible!

—ough!

•·····

By now, Doc was hovering close, staring through the rain-smeared glass into Bierce’s flier, watching him over Flebrin’s shoulder. Bierce swiveled in Doc’s direction and grabbed the packet of Turbo Papers. . . and through the glass he caught her eye and threw her a grin as he dove the flier out of sight. The startup sequence began all over again. Doc darted away.

····· •

Bierce exclaimed, “Can you imagine it, Hosanna! a state of levity with the whole world whizzing everywhere in total fearless discourse—worse than anything you’ve ever heard of or could even imagine! I mean, how could you assure the flow of easy monthly payments in such a pandemonium as that?”

“Fearless discord,” came the whispered reply. “Dreadful.”

“She could do it—!”

“But so long as she’s—not aware of this capability. . . .”

Bierce exploded in mocking laughter. “For now, Doc Holiday is mired in her little pills and potions. Some day she may find a way out of that dead end. Not with any help from me! Some day her bulb will light up and then it’ll be all over, wham. I’ll have to leave town. But no, no, yes, we can relax for now. She has no idea where the stuff is hidden. She knows nothing about the two flagons of slush or metal as the case may be, one for you and one for me.”

“How can we be sure she has no suspicions? She’s following us too close. How do we keep her away from the metal?”

“Hosanna, she follows me because I am her leader. Naturally, she suspects nothing of me. It will take nothing at all to distract her, when our moment for action comes. So you and I, we march forward.”

“I’ll take your word for all that, sorcerer Bierce.” Flebrin sniffed. “I don’t want this to be a surprise to you, but I have my own uses for the metal. Anti-gravity is not one of them. There’s a family of rats in a cage awaiting my call. You just create my opportunity and I’ll run with it and steal that metal away.”

“Plan!”

“And so we further my destiny. This is a marvelous play to victory, Bierce. We are the subtle and the quick!”

“You betcha.”

fifty-eight

Doc leaned forward on her fists and stared out over the nose of her craft into the passing wisps of cloud. Her face felt hot, the palms of her hands were damp. Her breath came out in little puffs of exasperation. Okay thanks, Bierce, for all of that. Tears startled up and caught in her lashes. She brushed them away. All was now abundantly clear. The whole Doc Holiday enterprise, a sham. And always was. A pack of flimsy Turbo Papers!

All her effort came to nothing. All that busy optimism, making Doc Holiday’s Remedy for Flyers better, all one long slog into perplexity. But it was true, as Bierce had said, that the formula for her potions kept changing, complexifying, had become one long series of adjustments. Adjusting for error, chasing piffle after nonsense, as she now understood it, all the way down the line. Add a little more of this and take some of that out, then mix it all together and shake it all about.

All except for her latest, the simplest and most rarefied yet, and that might have told her something. Probably would have. But she understood it now. Bierce had described the error in her intuition about the slush, the faulty assumption for which he—him and his energetic engine—was answerable.

All this barking up the wrong tree, the years of useless effort—no, not useless, it was practice! All that effort wasted on the assumption, faulty, that the slush was a remedy, that its spicy edge of energy was a catalyst untangling a weakened Flyer from the synchronous M-Field. Achieving thus, somehow, anti-gravity!

Yes, all the measuring and diluting, the mortar and pestle-ing, the provings, the succussing of the dilutions, the eyedropper doping of each little sugar pill, the three times a day under the tongue, all a lot of hooey. All time spent simply ‘wishing’—and it was only her wishing that improved the batch. The slush responded to that and, as long as the wishes stayed fresh, it lightened up disabled Flyers. But that wasn’t what the slush was about.

Nope. That wasn’t the thing. According to Bierce, the slush was no passive catalyst, nor any counter-agent against gravity in particular. Instead, it was the active agent of levity itself, a force of nature dynamically drawn to the next interesting thing, and that not usually a gravitational field. So no, there wasn’t any need for any mythical M-Field hanging around. That was just Bierce selling his mystery machine. More of his quackology.

It wasn’t for any mundane astronomical reason that the comet happened to leap out of space and throw a big wet smooch across the Earth. It was blazing a trail to some weird attractor. And something of that could be found on Earth, all the sizzling complexity emerging in thought and imagination. That’s what reeled it in. Thought and feeling were its own catalyst for zingy action.

And down here in the comet zone it was Doc’s single-minded absorption in the substance of the comet itself that sparked it to her purposes, drew its energy to her slushy dilutions and admixtures.

So, all the intricate fractionation process, the long sessions potentizing the potion, the whole unending chase to a more perfect elixir of buoyancy was, Doc now understood, a mere formality, a kind of ritual activity around which her wish for a Remedy concentrated— 

All a whirl of gathering thought and feeling; and all the while, she dutifully splashed around in the slush melodically conveying her wishes in wayward musings and countless wisps of bright dream images—the whole grab bag of interesting stuff dancing around her synapses. In free inventions of her endless tune, Doc’s wishes wafted into potion, an incidental side-note unheard but active in the little medicinal beads.

So for a while, weaker Flyers might fly better.

Okay, fine. So Doc had lots of practice. She frowned. 

Unknowingly drawing the slush to a point of fascination in her deepest distillations, that was one thing. But almost accidental, it seemed, that her wayward splashings had so unwittingly engaged the comet’s insatiable mood for variation and novelty and in fact achieved the effect she intended.

So however ill-conceived her assumptions, thank you Bierce, it was, in the end, her long-focussed desire, fine-tuned over time, that shaped a style of action for this protean whirl—call it a cloud of Biercian particles or her own rising turn of mist—the frictionless energy that flew to any newest thing.

In her own way, then, she had created complexities of thought and feeling the slush would whirl with, stirring up the levity until some more captivating diversion came along. About then, she now knew, was when it became time to revise her Flyer’s Remedy.

Now here she was, flying along humming her tuneless tune, harmoniously adrift in endless new and borrowed phrasings, ever-digressing riffs wandering rhythmically amid wayward changes in key and tonality.

Doc had built a relationship with the slush. Now it was time to do something intentional with that. She understood her special talent.

She understood Bierce. His problem wasn’t the inertial engine, it was just plain inertia. He couldn’t move off his titanium nickel till the time was right. Well, she thought, briskly knuckling her eyelashes straight again, the time was ripe.

What she had to do now, for Bierce and the zone and at the same time for many more, was stop Hosanna Flebrin and her Rubescent Night.

The storm clouds scattered away behind them and ahead the sky opened up under the west-hanging moon. The dark craggy brow of a great head of land towered just ahead. Out there beyond it, down close to the water, Doc saw the flash of a lighthouse. They were making progress. There was going to be a sharp right turn hereabouts, coming up soon.

She glanced seaward and there were Bierce’s lights diving into another plunge. Doing his best to amuse Hosanna Flebrin.

Her own craft tilted. She felt a gentle tug and she was diving after them.

Bierce took them low. Flying scarcely higher than the vast swells pushing in from the Pacific, the fliers swept around a monumental stand of rock pillars that loomed too close in the headlights, then they sped on into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, bound eastward. Doc watched a low cloud of mist dissolve over the nose of her craft and stream back overhead.

She cranked the hatch open and stood a moment letting the rainy wind buffet her face and torso. Then she turned and cast a last glance back out to sea. She saw, three or four miles out where the continent dropped away into the deeps of the Pacific, hundreds of lights bouncing on the waves. These must be the source of the air pollution they’d followed up the coast, the whole furtive Uni armada.

Time to quell the fast-encroaching Unitory rebellion. Discover some way to impart her will directly to Bierce’s subaqueous levitons, gluons, kleptons, bozons, screw-ons—put on some. . . sorcery. Stir up a whirligig swirl of slush particles all dancing to her tune.

If her unique relationship with the comet really made direct action on all of the slush possible, as Bierce claimed, then throwing the right snappy thoughts into the old synaptic gap really might sweeten the whole existing slush-fall everywhere at once. Just as soon as Bierce brought her to his hoard of the stuff. Or, possibly, even now! 

Doc’s faint melodic humming broke off. Why not?

But how exactly, she thought, do I do that little thing?

fifty-nine

With the right-hand swoop into the Strait, conversation lapsed to weary silence. Bierce guided the three craft eastward over the moonlit waterway and picked up more speed. They blew through the scatter of low-hanging clouds. Streaks of mist trailed behind them. The dark rainforested slopes of the peninsula rolled by on their right.

In about an hour, Bierce announced that Port Townsend would shortly be coming up over the water. And there, in the distance off to the right, a haze of rain-scattered light brightened the night horizon. In less than a minute the glow of a major town rolled forward. Its lights covered the shoreline and spread up inland, then scattered away into the hilly backdrop of dark, moonlit forest. 

The fliers descended and angled toward the shore. Along the town’s waterfront, hundreds of sailing vessels were visible, all with sails raised and set in readiness to catch any next breeze. An especially unexpected sight at such an early hour, the white sheets spread starkly lit in the eye-piercing blaze of ultra-bright lights lined up a quarter of a mile offshore.

The lights formed a tight-knit parallelogram sketching the perimeter of what looked to be an airport standing out in the deeper waters of the Strait.

Aircraft carrier.

Doc hadn’t realized the horror, the humiliation she would experience at sight of the gigantic killing machine snuck into this offshore parking space in her zone. It had to be, she felt, her own failures as a human being, failures many and grave, that made necessary the deployment of this menacing slab of ordnance against her, and anyone like her. The unitized society over the hill must have found her out, discovered deficiencies so urgently disagreeable that in order to remediate her condition all they could do was send out this brutal force, a force of farting bull chimps hooting raw belligerence at all the world, to make their position clear. What could she do about it, though? She might rally a force of Flyers to help her sink the thing, but then it would sit on the bottom, festering out contaminations of every description, killing the water, the ancient clans of sea lions on every rock and headland, and the fish, shellfish and crab, and forever seeping radiation into every current that flowed. And a navigation hazard, too. She would not expect the burger eaters on board to do anything about it. They were there to serve and be served, proud to grease the gears and adjust unstable fuel rods, grateful to suck down vanilla milkshakes and munch on fracas fries. They went where the machine took them and questioned nothing. After all, who could bear to look too close at such a vast insult to life itself—not only, Doc thought, to her own life, but to so many others, collaterally.

Doc felt a sudden impulse, unfamiliar, unexplainable: she had to, right now, go hunt down a double cheeseburger. And fries would be good to have with that, she thought, and some kind of icy sugar drink.

Then she noticed how even at this early hour, into her flier came seeping the odor of fry grease discharged out of the vents down there.

Bierce swung wide around the monster carrier. Local fliers were circling in and out of the low clouds that hung over the waterway. A ragged formation of what seemed to be giant white-painted kayaks came in over the Strait, headed inland. Recycled pontoons, Bierce explained with evident familiarity, that were salvaged off old sea planes. Inertial engine kit jobs, most of them nicely kept up with original aviation stripes and decals.

Below, the monstrous ship of war stretched longer than the width of the town’s overlit waterfront. At its stern a giant paddle wheel taller than the world’s tallest Ferris wheel dipped slowly into the sea, nudging the beast forward a final few yards before it came abreast of the town. All around the ship the calm waters of the Strait were crowded with inflatables full of men and equipment already coming ashore.

The three fliers veered around, descended. Three frazzled faces gazed through rain-streaked glass nosecones at the flat square bow of the aircraft carrier swooping up, now within a hundred feet. Below the heavy glass fuselage of their fliers they beheld ranks and rows of javelin launchers arrayed all down the vast, seemingly endless deck. Swarms of loading attendants and trigger-men scurried this way and that.

Bierce said, “Watch this, Doc. I’m going to try something.”

He guided the three fliers around and they crossed over the carrier deck. Down below, crewmen scattered, pointing to the sky and opening their mouths. 

“You’d think their radar would have seen us,” said Doc. 

“Maybe. But we’re kind of transparent. Just more bogies in the clouds. Here we go.”

Emmers’s empty flier dipped, darted forward and left the little group. It dove swiftly down toward the bright-lit warship. Bierce cued up a musical selection, punched up the swift-moving flier’s loud-hailer to max. “A little mood music for the man-in-charge,” he said. “It ain’t the heavy metal, but I don’t juke in the Uni style anyway.”

Emmers’s flier sailed in, emitting a ringing aeolian tintinnabulation closely resembling the dopplering chime generated by the zoner whirl over the battleground the day before. The flier’s trajectory flattened as it closed with the target and it sped over the ship’s deck, causing men in sailor hats to scatter and dive for cover as the weird UFOlian harmonies sang past. 

Then the flier struck and skidded, bounded up and spun forward end over end, clipping through one of the auto-flingers, shattering it and scattering javelins into the air.

A circular installation on the bright-lit deck swiveled, lined up on the speeding flier and sent out a swarm of pale discs that rapidly closed on it. One or two of the pursuing disks caught up and glanced off the flier, sending up glittering plumes of fractured glass into the night-time glare.

The flier swerved and served another javelin launcher as before. The heavy glass flier rolled and whirled down the thousand-foot-long deck, all the way out to the far end, then boomeranged back to continue its course of ruination against every structure not welded to the deck. It took out the discus thrower. Flebrin yelped.

Spinning up behind the tumbling flier, a rooster tail of debris shot into the air.

A few more seconds more and Bierce sent his heavy missile darting up to smash the hardened windows slanting under the beetling brows of the command deck.

Doc wondered if she should feel stunned by this spectacle of force. Bierce was showing a lot more power than what she imagined it took to guide a string of happy ducklings through a storm. She said, “I didn’t know you could do all that.”

“Take a hint, Doc. Gravity assist, it’s all in the wrist. That’s all I’m using here. Everything clumps up, you know. That’s what gravity is, the tendency to clump up. That flier has a built-in tendency to clump with the nearest clumpage. It’s a tradition of solid matter that I call primitive aggregation. But nothing says a thing has to clump straight into the nearest big pile. So with a little imagination and the help of zillions of energetic levitons, when I need to I can reroute this clump off its default trajectory and set it sailing along any available vector that’s more to my liking. That’s my relationship with the comet.”

“Amazing,” said Doc. “How exactly does that work, Bierce?”

“I get to see the gravity connections between things and among things. You know, primitive aggregation starts small, very tenuous out there in the calm stretches of space between galaxies. Out there, once in a while you might get a ripple and a spark. These will clump up in further time, become something new. What we call matter.

“So for me, it’s—did I ever mention that as a kid I was a whizz at playing marbles? Years and years. There’s lots of angles and ups and downs, ramps and troughs to shoot up and around. And airies over. And any number of kinds of marbles to shoot, all over my endless domain out here where we are headed this morning. And always edging the marbles around little chicken craps on the ground. Mines. I even ran a few rocks through the old rock polisher and came up with a giant gongoozler. Not perfectly round, but it dozed through whole populations of small fry winnings. So maybe that was the attractor for me. Maybe the comet found a connection with all that marbles practice, my sense of trajectory and momentum. That would make an easy path to my special talent. But anyhow, since the comet set me up to see all the clumpage going on, all this tangle of gravity filaments, tendrils, ropes and cables, I get to inspire the slushy levitons that hang out in my thought process and send them out for a little spin action when I intend shifting some clump. I see all the many ways a thing might want to go and then pick the way that suits me. And away leaps a stream of levitons and gives the thing a tickle and a little tilt along whatever branching filaments I choose. I give the levitons their excuse to do their natural thing—well, you already said it the best, Doc. For me we’ll say it’s ‘the notion is the motion’. And that’s how I’m flinging that flier around.”

“Gravity filaments in a tangle,” said Doc. “How can you see the world in the midst of all that?”

“Oh, in the beginning it took a while before I ever realized I had such a knack, because the sly comet installed this oddball perception in the blind spots of my eyes. The filaments are always there, but regular eyeball activity sketches them over. Until I give it some attention, it’s a tangle of tilts that’s easy to ignore.”

Hosanna Flebrin gave her opinion. “I wish you would ignore it now, sorcerer Bierce. How long will you keep that glass hulk bouncing around and destroying valuable property on board that fine ship?”

“Emmers’s flier will settle, after a while, into the mulch of its own destruction, but I can keep juggling it up and down the ramps of inertia for a good long while.”

“How far can you juggle, do you imagine?”

“Oh, you know, around the curl of the comet’s tail.”

“Which tracks back to wherever.”

“That’s right. The comet’s tail is a long plume of particles trailing back and back and also forward to where the comet is now. Not being a physicist, Doc, I will speculate from what I’ve seen of it that the comet’s tail is kind of a seething hologram of the comet’s history, whirling along through space. Each particle flies entangled with each and every other, and all over the place wherever the comet goes. ”

“That’s one far tangle.”

“It’s a sure bet that our various talents and offbeat perceptions here in the zone are all tied in, all connected, reflecting places and events and who knows what dimensions grazed by the comet. And on it goes.”

Doc could not repress a yawn. Musing, she said, “Its entire history traveling along in outer space. Been and gone and here and now and on its way. I could speculate too, from occasional glimpses I’ve had. There’s a powerful element of time sliding backward and forward along our comet’s tail. A wavelength of memory, maybe. Maybe something to do with that ripple and a spark you mentioned.”

Bierce looked at Flebrin and nodded. He said, “That there’s a question for you, Doc, since you’re the one asking it. Your own personal connection is unique and suits you best. If you ever happened to meet up with any slush, Doc, you might get a better notion of what’s possible with it. Your—thing that you do with the slush that’s dif—”

“Don’t tell her! Don’t say another word about it! Damn you Bierce, you talk too—ee-e-e-p !”

“I hope you’re sorry, Hosanna. Are we on our toes? I’m not done yet with that big tub of lard below. Look out.”

Emmers’s flier shook itself free from the steel window frame and dropped to the deck. It bounced once, shedding window glass. Then it arced low over the flat top. Loud aeolian harmonies still shivered the air. The flier’s fractured bulk dropped into the ship’s cavernous hangar where warplanes should be stacked up like titanium origami.

Drifting overhead, the three looked down into the hangar. It was filled with men and discus throwers and stacks of rocket tubes resembling those in the canyon the night before. No planes in there now.

“It’ll be tumbling around in there, breaking things,” Bierce said. “Let’s be gone from this giant pile of debbris.”

“You lawless twirp! How dare you set loose your drone on us,” Hosanna Flebrin lashed out. “Crime! Crime! This will not stand!”

“It’s not so bad, Hosanna” Bierce said, “the flier is just rumbling around, making people dodge. Only a nuisance is all. Zoners’ll love hearing about this. Anyhow, it’ll stop doing it whenever I forget about it.”

Bierce led the way over the bright sails in the harbor. He took a steep jog to the right and went up and over the cliff behind the town’s narrow waterfront. Following along behind, on Bierce’s suggestion Doc switched on her flier’s ultraviolet viewer. She peered down into the tree-lined streets of the occupied town. It seemed there were hundreds of Uni squads milling around down there, each squad shifting about on-screen like a flurry of bright snowflakes.

Continuing overland scouting out the Uni, Bierce led swiftly on over the tall forest that crowded the southbound highway. Uni soldiers were down there, Doc saw, slogging it along the decayed pavement and slumped roadside gravel. Not far out of town they flew over a first defensive obstacle set to slow down the besetting squads. In a low spot between two hilly humps in the road, some local defenders had piled dozens of old vehicle tires and ignited them. They were burning well when Doc flew over, throwing off nasty waves of heat and oozing black clots of choking smoke. Under sporadic drifts of light rain, red flames licked out under the pall of low-hanging soot that smeared the ground. Below, bright snowflakes dithered at the fringe of this firey roadblock. Then Doc was on by, noticing as she went how the stream of snowflakes climbing out the other side of the scorcher must have been well-smoked and sullied, since they weren’t showing so bright in ultraviolet anymore.

Farther along the highway gauntlet, jeering gangs of defenders launched unlit but weighty car tires, truck tires, giant tractor tires from the treetops. The tires bounced into the road and rolled and bowled over everything in their path. Pretty grim party, Doc thought, slowing down the squads. Probably the best use, though, for whatever ancient and irremediable tire dump.

Another twenty minutes’ flight time and a dozen miles farther on, the road, often blocked by spiky-limbed trees of the surrounding forest chopped down by the defenders, jogged a left turn eastward through a pleasant-looking village, its few streets wandering out of the forest to meet the highway. Around the left turn, the highway intersected a secondary route that resumed going north and south. Here at the crossroads the Uni soldiers were massing up, erecting a tent city that spilled out of the little town and into the fields beyond.

Bierce laughed. “And that’s as far as they come down this road,” he said. “Look up ahead.”

Beyond the crossroads, the road ahead was crowded with car lights. The first of the low-runners were arriving. Doc opened the hatch and let in a little rain and listened to the war whoops, the rattle of battle rising from hordes of fighters milling about and impatient to begin. She smiled and shook her head. She was feeling some of that, too. This was going to be a big one.

Bierce turned right to go south, but quickly swerved off that course and led Doc up a hundred feet, circling back toward a line of dark forested hills not half a mile distant, that loomed along southbound in parallel with the road.

“Things’ll be getting interesting soon,” Bierce said in a low voice. “Keeping a sharp eye on developments over on this side of things.” He drifted higher, took them slowly to the hilltops.

The half-gibbous moon hung low over the western skyline. Up here, Doc could see out across a flat narrow valley bordered along its east side by a similar line of tree-covered hills, darkly underscored by the wavering valley road. Closely bounded by the two ranges of hills, the valley was scarcely more than half a mile across at any point. In the colorless light of the moon, Doc saw drifting below her flier a spectral array of fields and pastures that stepped neatly up the little valley like a row on a checkerboard.

Moving along above the moonlit hilltops, Bierce and company looked down through puffs of low cloud afloat over the valley and saw much warlike activity in the fields. Fliers flitted in every direction, running boards thumping under the tread of their riders and their shifting spotlights swooped out of the low clouds, showing Uni advance guard units busily breaking fences and erecting razor wire barriers against the aerial defenders, all in preparation for the upcoming dawn assault.

Bierce phoned in their arrival, putting in a request for medical assistance for his prisoner. Very quickly, out of a low drift of cloud a white pontoon emerged and fell in close behind. Together, the three fliers sailed along the hilltops, en route to Bierce’s well-known undisclosed ⁠destination⁠.

sixty

“Apart from that aircraft carrier, presiden Trout, which they suddenly paddled into the Strait at high speed yesterday, we’ve had plenty of notice on this one. People coming in from everywhere, a couple of days now. Out at the Pacific, a contingent from the Canadian side is helping out at Neah Bay, keeping eyes open for further attacks from the high seas. Locals have been trailing small boat swarms that have been advancing for days now but there’s been very little physical action. Just a few feints here and there against small villages on shore. There was one aggressive swarm of inflatables that ran against somebody’s private dock. But nobody’s been sunk yet. Right now we have a lot of brave Flyers out there treading sky around that nu-clear carrier. All together, it’s shaping up to be quite a gaggle of folks. We got ’em coming in from Tijuana to Ketchikan and all points between, all set to kick Uni ass in the big joust ahead.”

“Arse.”

“What’s that, mister presiden?”

“Kick arse. That’s our newly discovered correct manner of speech, president Suttle. Apparently the Americanism is too prudish and weak. What we have kicked and will continue to kick is gonna be called Uni arse from now on.”

“All right, if that’s the way you want it, mister presiden. Might as well point out, we’re both war presidens today, aren’t we? They elected me to hold down the fort here, while you and your hordes have been hot-footin’ it up the coast the last couple of days with the same objective in mind. What do we presidens think about that?”

“Both fighting the same fight makes us two vice presidents is the way I’m looking at it.”

“Good. I’m agreeable. You know what? The air’s gettin’ kind of thin up here. Shall we descend?”

“Thin? We’re only a dozen feet off the ground, sir.”

“I get vertigo. Let’s go down.”

“You sure do chug hard on that running belt, Mr. vice president.”

“I get breathless. Anyhoo, would you agree that it’s good to be a short-timer in this office?”

“I never wanted the job. All it does is retire me from active swashbuckling. I keep mulling on that. Come to think of rowdyism, by the way, one part of the job I have to think of is that once we get that plug-ugly boat loaded up with soldiers and turned around and pushed back out to sea, there’s bound to be some partying afterward. A little adult supervision may likely be required, Mr. vice president.”

“Yeah, oh yeah. We’ll both be busy. We should face the inevitable now, I suppose. The partying will be hearty. I’ll beef up the civil patrols. Should I round up a court and jury for us all or will you tend to your own?

Salmon Trout said, “I think, if it’s not too much burden on the community, let’s let local justice prevail. See what I’m saying? Keeps folks aware of where and who they are. And who they aren’t. A little perspective for all parties, and so forth. We’ll get a collection going to cover costs.”

“Agreed.”

“Before the victory party we’ll need hospitals, usually. It would be good for our field teams to know where the facilities are.”

“I think they’re already in contact. We have the white pontoons, my company flotilla, now all on ambulance duty. Each one in the contingent flies with a crew of two. They have room for a couple of passengers or injured parties. I think we’re prepared to cover any eventuality.”

“That is reassuring. Anyhow, we’ll have our ongoing collection effort for medical services, as well.”

“Of course. Now, vice presiden Trout, I’d like to ask what this special mission you mentioned earlier is all about. Is it anything we can help you with?”

“Oh, that. What it is, you see, is that our good friend and yours, Bierce of Flihtworks, says he wants a special escort for a particular flier that will be departing his property at some unknown moment later today or this morning. We’re to basically cover the subject in our usual pyramid formation and see to it the flier gets through enemy lines and off and away. Bierce thinks this emissary of his holds a key bit of information that could end the impending fracas before it begins.”

“Before it begins in earnest, you mean.”

“That’s what I mean. I do mean that.”

“Is there anything you could tell me about why Port Townsend and the Chimicum area seems to be the focus of this invasion? Did you notice, by any chance, one of the bigger Uni flattops parked offshore?”

“Yep. Nope, about the reason for the invasion I know as little as anybody.”

“And Bierce, as he’s called nowadays, and his whole family live just over there, up the valley a ways. A little chicken ranch, only a couple or three hours’ hike for these Uni grounders now offloading from the carrier.”

“That’s what I was told.”

“Isn’t it odd.”

A whiff of ozone drifted to Salmon Trout’s nostrils. He saw a sparking in the man’s beard, a subtle nimbus of lightnings.

Vice president Salmon Trout said, “Bierce has done us some good turns in the southerly zone. He’s fought heartily when things got thick. Knows how to kick Uni arse without mercy. I have no reason to doubt him. We are prepared to do as he asks. By the way, vice president Suttle, I’ll be heading up that honor guard for this emissary of his.”

“Sure, sure, Sam. I’m sure we have no doubt about Bierce’s motives, exactly. And when all is said and done, or also, at the end of the day—people say that too, don’t they? Do you say that?”

“Nah. End of the day sounds dumb. That’s a day never ends. You were saying motives?”

“Well, there’s no doubt Bierce has done one or two noteworthy things. This world of ours wouldn’t be the same without him bringing out the inertial engine technology, however it was that he managed to do it. The little chicken rancher, see what I mean, who made good in the wider world.”

“Yes? Well,” responded Salmon Trout, “I’m a four-boat fisherman with a little battle-field experience and now happen to be a vice president representing folks in a time of war. What do you do, by the way?”

“As it happens, I work in the inertial transport industry, around Puget Sound and up the Passage into Canada. Out the Strait and into the Pacific. My expertise takes me into areas of automation solutions for materials transport.

“Sounds a lot like Latin, to me.”

“Think of cargo from the mainland carried out to international shipping on the high seas. Then think of a rowboat. We’re working on a scheme to convey local goods in quantities larger than our string of rowboats can handle. A commercial interface, see, between two incompossible domains.”

“Right. I seldom sail out to the line anymore. The fishing’s gotten better in coastal waters since Day One. Outsiders don’t try to get in, either. Engineless ships will go adrift. I do see old-time sailing ships at work, but that’s nineteenth-century slow and no freezers aboard. Sometimes we trade but almost nobody here wants to bother with fish salted and dried any more.”

“True, true,” Suttle replied. “What I’m saying, Salmon, is, everything we try turns buggy. Nobody knows how that blasted inertial engine works and Bierce ain’t telling. I turn it this way and that and it only adds up to a big fat zero. You know, some around here would say Bierce’s past achievements are inconsistent, a lot of ups and downs, before the comet. More downs, fewer ups.”

“Ah. The chicken rancher. Okay, so Bierce seems a little flaky to you. Be that as it may, young Bierce has put his discovery to good use. His own uses, you may say. But a lot of folks have benefited. He runs a solid company. You can’t deny Flihtworks scrip is like gold in the pocket. Solid. You know, Suttle, it doesn’t hurt my feelings any to point out how nobody’s banking on my four boats that only usually bring back such a solid catch. Is that a down for me or a modest up, as I see it to be.”

“Bierce has done well, I shouldn’t criticize. But that’s neither here nor there right now. The question that comes up is whether somebody should be concerned about any little slip-ups with this flight out that you mention. Some risk, maybe, of a little accidental export of technology to the other side. Any ideas?” 

Narrow-eyed, Salmon Trout slowly shook his head.

sixty-one

Doc once again felt the gentle tug of Bierce’s guiding influence on her craft. In a moment, the two egg-shaped fliers turned left, began a wide circling descent off the hilltops and out toward the moonlit valley. The white pontoon craft followed them down.

They skirted the flattened top of a modest stump of a hill slightly offset below the main line of hills and came tightly around a bright-lit two-story farmhouse situated there. From its lower elevation the house looked out over the dim spread of pastures and farmlands on the floor of the valley, the nearest of them well within shouting distance of the front yard. Beside the house and occupying the greater part of the hilltop, spread a flat half-acre expanse with a large single-story structure at its center, a building wider and longer than the house itself. Around back of the farmhouse stood a modest slant-roofed barn amid a cluster of smaller outbuildings.

A quick circuit of the low hilltop and Bierce continued on over the barn and back toward a dark forested notch not quite hidden in the shadow of the taller hills he’d just flown from. He descended into the notch. In the notch lay a big black pond with the bright moon swimming at the bottom, all ringed around by wavering reflections of silhouetted treetops.

“There it is!” shrieked Hosanna Flebrin. “Rising up beside us! The sorcerer’s obsidian tower, his dark sorcery of the night—see the moon ensnared in its shimmering battlements! Ohh, I won’t forget this, Bierce.”

She sounded delighted.

“How about that,” said Bierce. “I never would have thought you had it in you to see such a sight, Hosanna. Anyhow,” he said, briskly canting the fliers across the shimmery pond, “just ahead here on our left is the foundation of the original house I mentioned, burnt down years ago.” The ground rose beneath the fliers and leveled out a dozen and a half feet above the pond where a large black square patch was visible, shadowed on its far side under two tall wide-spreading trees. The trees stood bare-branched over a pale, moon-speckled carpet of fallen autumn leaves.

He dropped low over the square patch and passed under the two trees, then jogged left again and slowed, taking the fliers gliding gently up a narrow footpath now visible in their headlights. The shrubby untended path wandered through a forest of fragrant evergreen trees all shedding droplets from a recent rain, and climbed on back toward the top of the hill.

Nearing the top, the path curved right and here they were, coming up on the rear of the white-painted two-story farmhouse. Bierce took them drifting up across the side of the house, passing under the eaves of the steep roof and out under a few leafless shade trees in the front yard. Doc noticed how even at this early hour it seemed that every window of the house was lit up inside. Bierce circled his way again around the hilltop property, completing a brief close inspection of his vast ‘chicken palace’ and other buildings.

After this, he brought the two fliers around the house again and down onto a well-raked circle of bright gravel facing the over-lit front corner of the house. The white pontoon craft with medic aboard settled at the edge of the gravel landing pad, a slight distance from the two egg-shaped fliers. Behind the parked fliers, an overgrown country lane trailed off in a wash of spectral moonbeams toward the darker farmlands below. 

Bierce gallantly offloaded Flebrin to a secure footing on the gravel patch and they waited while a burly fellow in a white tunic disembarked from the pontoon. The medic, sporting the bright blue armband with the red M patch, solicitously took Flebrin in hand. Bierce waved them forward, let them get a step ahead of him. He went past Doc and gave her a grin. He motioned for her to wait right there.

Doc stood by her flier while the three crunched toward the house, crossed the wide leaf-strewn yard surrounding the front porch and ran the gauntlet past a battered old truck-tire swing that hung from a bare limb too near the house. The tire dangled motionless on its rope, just out of reach of the porch steps. The porch light lit up every corner of the yard.

Bierce strode past the hobbling Flebrin and bounded up the steps. He pulled open the screen door and waited for the others to catch up. Flebrin reached the first porch step and Doc’s eyes went to the heavy tire hanging there. She pictured herself giving the tire a hearty shove in the right direction. It might just reach. But the medic was already helping his patient stiff-leggedly mount the stairs. And there went, thought Doc with mild regret, a perfect opportunity wasted. Flebrin and medic tottered on up to the porch.

“And here we are,” said Bierce. “Let’s all go in and see what good eats mom and the twins left for us. Didn’t see any fliers laying around, so it looks like they’re all out flying eggs and plucked chickens down to the co-ops.” Then he muttered, “They could have turned off the lights before they left.”

Bierce leaned in past the screen door and bellowed, “Anybody home? Got visitors.” Then, waving the two on in behind him, he entered. “I smell food,” he said, and disappeared into the house.

But Flebrin hung in the doorway, not going in. Bierce returned and said to her, “We’re plenty early, Hosanna, there’s no rush. You get that wound taped up and then you can stretch out a while, uncramp your leg on the couch over there. It looks like everybody’s down at the staging area so let me see what kind of breakfast I can scramble up for us all. I see donuts over there under that glass bowl on the table. They appear to be the same ones I saw there a week ago.”

Flebrin edged suspiciously over the doorsill into the house. 

Doc stood beside her flier, stretching her own cramped legs, happy to be a spectator—since she had to be that much, at least—in Flebrin’s game of woes. And here it came, Flebrin’s loud complaint, “I don’t like it! I won’t let this shaggy barber touch me with his filthy demon hands!”

The burly fellow supporting Flebrin stopped, hesitated behind her in the doorway and half-turned, glanced back over the porch toward the white pontoon craft laying there ready to fly. He stood there uncertainly, flicking his fingers as though shaking off fleas or something, then spread his hands palms up for a scowling inspection. He looked spooked, thought Doc, and small wonder. He spotted Doc watching the doorway drama. Doc looked on, head tilted against one up-stretched knee while she uncramped her leg against the side of the flier. The unsettled fellow gave her an irritated shrug. Doc let her foot drop to the ground and she grinned at the medic and shooed him gently on back into the house.

The screen door banged shut. Doc heard Bierce’s fading voice within, “Come on Hosanna, you wouldn’t go to battle with an untaped hangnail, would you? There’s one more battle ahead. Just let him take a. . . .”

The early air was chilly and fresh with straying droplets of past rain falling out of the branches overhead. One or two landed lightly on Doc’s wrist and cheek. She stepped back into the flier and rummaged under the seat for the light fleecy jacket she’d grabbed out of Henderson’s supply room the other morning. Then she went exploring.

Bierce’s chicken ranch appeared to be ringed on three sides by tall, high-branched evergreen trees. The house, set back a couple dozen steps from the fence at the edge of he hill, overlooked the valley, which at this hour of fading moonlight showed only vague patches and outlines of nearby fields below. Off to the side of the house stood the low rectangular barn-like building they’d flown over, centered in its expanse of treeless ground. A big chicken yard for Bierce’s big chicken palace. Doc nosed along the side of the house toward the back, and saw back there the shadowy rows of cultivated plants, a vegetable garden looking wilted and tired at this late season. No doubt still to be harvested, as in her own garden far to the south, were some root vegetables like carrots, beets and parsnips, potatoes.

A light tinkle of chimes brought her back to the front of the house. The wind chime on the porch swung lazily, not certain whether there was wind or no wind.

She returned to the flier and reached in, switched on the radio. She considered the propaganda platform orbiting overhead and shrugged and began blipping the frequencies. Give this a try, anyway. Soon, surprisingly, she found a local station struggling against the current from outer space. A voice faded up, pushing through the wall of static. “ - - weath- -nd late-breaking - - ” Doc leaned in to pick up what she could from the rising and falling signal “ - - first, the wea- - cloudy with mod - - sunshine  - - expect varia - - and rain.” Okay, rain was in the forecast. Suddenly the radio signal came together. Somebody at the transmitter must have poured on the juice. Loud and clear, the voice went on, “This is Wally K. Neelan with the news. And the latest from the battle front. Late reports from all over agree on heretofore never seen phenomena. We have low-runners pouring in, should I say hopping mad, from Astoria, following Uni sabotage and a major traffic jam over the Columbia River. Reports have it that low-runner reinforcements arriving out of the south have learned a new way of flying. And we hear they are leaping great distances! All across coastal Washington, the hordes are hopping leaping just bounding into the peninsula. And have been arriving in great numbers the last hour to join local defenders at Port Townsend and the Chimicum area. More later, Wally K with the news. Now, the weather - - expect cool autumn temps - - ”

Bierce returned to the porch. He strode briskly down the steps, motioning Doc to accompany him. He switched on his flashlight and went on around the corner of the house.

Doc followed Bierce’s light along the footpath they’d flown up a bit ago, down the slope toward the old burnt relic above the pond. Happy to let Bierce show the way while she enjoyed a pleasant walk in the fragrant dark, Doc followed along, drinking it all in. Each breath of cool predawn air seemed to lighten and dispel the suffocating weight heaped upon her in past days’ travails, miseries, outrages. Moving through the gentle green-scented darkness, she let herself feel pleased again simply to be alive.

They came to a divergence in the path, a boggy spot where a narrow side branch angled off more steeply down the slope toward the pond and its tangle of surrounding thickets. Bierce stepped hurriedly past where the trail sagged, only twitching his light beam across the muddy patch behind his heels a couple of times to show Doc the spot while he led on down the trail. Doc lagged a little, happily brushing past green-smelling rain-damp ferns overhanging the path. A bright spark moved in the high branches and she glanced up. A star up there. Then, with no warning at all, the soft heel of her shoe slid jarringly along an unseen tree root lying slick in the mud. Arms flailing, she staggered sideways and nearly sprawled into the surrounding wet greenery; then recovered, grinning, and went on, stepping now a bit more lightly down the slope.

It wasn’t long before the path widened, flattened out in a litter of damp autumn leaves. They had arrived beneath the two old trees standing over the dark square of foundation stones they’d flown past earlier. Doc came up beside Bierce and together they rustled softly through damp ankle-deep leaves toward the fire-blackened stonework. Bierce’s flashlight beam flicked out past the old home site and on down toward the bottom of the slope. He held it steady on the gathering of trees down there that merged into thick forest rising beyond.

“Coyote country down there,” Bierce said. “They like to come up here and snatch chickens. It’s a constant battle.”

He led onward to a narrow slant-roofed shed that stood atop the old ruin, partway along the near margin. His flitting light skipped out over the square of dark rubble behind the shed. Amid the sparse ferns and nettles beaded with recent rain that sprouted there, Doc glimpsed a scatter of wild-growing fungi, large and bizarrely-shaped, that in the brief play of light showed a startling array of colors. Somewhere nearby, a frog barked loud.

Hastily, Bierce rattled the latch of the shed door. He said, “After the comet slushed us, we installed this shack over the stairs to the basement, and that’s about all that’s left of the old homestead. These steps will take you down to bedrock, where things stay cool.” He swung open the door. “You can leave this unlocked for Flebrin, when she comes by.”

He stood aside and waved Doc in. “See you later,” he said. He turned and went in long strides back the way they had come.

She descended the granite steps and entered the cool dark space below. The earthy mineral odor stolidly filled her nostrils. As her eyes got used to the deeper darkness she began to sense that the space around her was lit after all, somehow indirectly. The darkness seemed suffused with a vague warm glow, arriving like streams of lustrous pearl dust flowing in from the outer fringe of vision. She turned to locate a source for the lighting but there was nothing at all to be seen in the dark. The glow seemed more an impression of light than actual illumination. She had only the sense of big timbers crossing overhead, raised on massive rough-hewn sawlog supports. It seemed that the ceiling, the walls and floor together, all were luminiferous but unilluminating. If there were furnishings of any kind in this space anywhere, they were entirely eclipsed in pitchy darkness, while glowing dust of pearl streamed and overflowed her optics.

But it was familiar. Except that here, in this place, it flowed without limit, dream light a million times stronger than all the wispy glims conveyed on vapors rising from her stovetop retort. The years of practice, she thought wryly, years of distilled musings that only faintly conveyed her images, songs and wishes into potion.

Now, brilliant images formed up against the darkness. They came to focus here and there in the broad low space; recollections of recent days. Up the far wall, sunset sparked red from the Henderson mansion’s tall corner windows and below that, four men obscured in green shadows sat around playing cards. She heard the cards rattle and snap. Out of the timbers overhead, Jade dove into a copse of dry trees. Beneath the trees trickled a bright stream that gathered in a tiny grotto, a mossy pond rippling just at Doc’s feet. A fiery sput rocket seeking her—lashed its razor-edged chain into the branches of the little tree. In another direction, in slanted perspective, drooped the rain-pelted yurt at Dismal Nitch with the sign over the door flap that said Good Eats. Is that what she remembered? And again, tilting out of another corner was the swift turn past the jumble of rocks and giant surf less than two hours ago at Cape Flattery, as they zoomed into the Strait. A recollection so fresh she could still taste the salt spray that hung in the air. She heard the rattling of the bucket. “Here comes Georgie!”

She turned, and behind her emerging out of the dark yet another apparition took her far back to beginnings: kids piling up armloads of a morning’s sudden damp snowfall and making a snowman that laughed, all that gritty snow that chilled her neck.

Delightful. But there wasn’t time to revisit further such moments offered up out of her funhouse of recollections. Time was short. She saw where to go—you can’t miss it, Bierce had told Flebrin.

At the far side of the big low-ceilinged room a door stood partly open and behind it flared scintilla-sparked iridescence, a billowing haze that could have only one source. And this brought her back to the night of the comet storm all over again.

She slid through the doorway. It was just here that the comet had ended its long plunge to the bottom of the air, and from here caromed away on the next leg of its journey through limitless space. Doc pictured one enormous glowball of slush whirling straight in through the door. What lay soaked in here below ground held a latent power vastly greater than all the pitiful dilutions she had used in potion making. 

She stepped forward and her hand went up, reflexively shading her eyes from the moonstone brilliance, but there was no point to doing that in here.

She was lit all through, sketched in veins of pearl dust amid the welcoming billows, and somehow, with no transition, came afloat in the shifting tints. It seemed she was weightless.

Somewhere at her core a thread of bright fire ignited, a silvery encircling trace that widened, progressing outward through shape and form, expanding to fill the volume of her body, and in a few moments surfaced at fingertips, ends of toes, and the live root of every least hair. Now she was one among the billows.

She imagined she took a deep breath, maybe she did in fact. Swelling waves sighed like breath, a motion filling all space, a motion not formed, yet, to any purpose. Billows gathered, poised on the flickering edge of novelty, yet without volition of their own. Doc among them, alone had that; an invitation to action she would release very soon now, all lit up and moving in the medium of her songs, her wishes, that she hoped would carry forth her intention—a notion sparking now, like all her best ideas, out of the circumstances at hand. . . .

The billows gathered and clung, impatient for her next interesting thing!

A scintillant spark drifted near. It seemed to gain in size, a red spinning sequin. Now larger, glowing lustrous in shifting reds, now ponderous, rotating, it came colossally on and flipped unhurriedly through Doc’s mist-defined presence. What image, sensation, time and place it conveyed came not from here but from afar, distant, far indeed, the vast sequin facets harking from some far-flung else. Going on, it passed through the moment, leaving some reds in exchange for blues and greens, tendencies of nuance and feeling shared from some where. ⁠Muffled echoes, distant mooings. The sculpted disk rolled on, diminished, spun away tinged with new colors. A sense of smiles among the billows, a little toothy in this now-modified present. 

Okay, thought Doc Holiday as the moment waned, stray visitors merging through was an adventure, but now wasn’t the time for playing around in the comet’s tail, not when right here were two bottles high on the shelf. A little tooth showed in her own smile. Flagons.

In the unearthly bright their essential presence was limned among the billows and she knew what mischief those bottles contained. She was here now to devise a remedy for that. All she needed was the right way to frame it. 

Doc Holiday, with eyes of flame, went to her task.

sixty-two

Far off, hoots and whistles of pre-battle agitation wafted out of the night. Through the open window came a rattle and a swoosh not quite so distant. A phone chirped. Bierce answered the call, listened and said, “Absolutely. Ten? Fifteen.” He cut the call. He shrugged. He did not look at Hosanna Flebrin sitting across from him at the kitchen table.

Flebrin stood up from the table. Her face was flushed. She said, “Thank you so much, Bierce, for such a fine omelet and toast and coffee.” She sidled to the end of the table and turned toward the door. “It only lacked a bowl of bacon to make it perfect. But look, I think I hear company coming. I want to take a look outside.” She froze, eyes on Bierce who just that moment commenced to yawn. His face stretched, creased in a horrid grin showing a mouthful of teeth. The gloaty look on Flebrin’s face wilted a little while she waited for Bierce to recover.

Regaining his equipoise, Bierce gave Flebrin a decisive nod. She held her glare on him a moment longer. He waggled his eyebrows encouragingly. He said, “I’ll be with you, dear professor, in a moment.”

Hiding a horrid grin of her own, Flebrin scurried forward out the door.

Doc was up from the table and skulking after her.

“Doc, Doc,” said Bierce softly. “Stay, please.”

“I have to see that she doesn’t—”

“It’s okay, this is her moment. I’ll be with her so don’t worry, she can’t do any more harm than our villainous plot calls for.”

“And you’re really going to let her make off with all the slush in the world.”

“She gets only half the slush. Just wait. We’re almost there.”

Doc slumped back into her seat. “All right,” she said. She palmed her eyes and muttered, “I know, its perfectly safe. That was just my anti-Flebrin reflex kicking in.”

Another spasmodic yawn seized Bierce. He rumbled, “We’re both getting too tired to function. But this is almost over.” He scraped his chair back and cranked himself up from the table and followed after Flebrin.

Doc’s eyes drifted. There, gently swinging from the back post of Bierce’s vacated chair were his big black goggles. Sleepily amused, she thought ‘home is where you hang your goggles’.

Hosanna Flebrin limped quickly down the narrow dark path, peering narrowly forward into the gloom that veiled the old ruin beside the black pond. The new tape around her leg pinched. She came to a spot where the trail widened a little and she stopped. Everything was silent—some cold thing—she flinched. A damp leaf had brushed her wrist. She held her breath and looked around. There! Standing at the far side of the pond loomed a giant tree nettle, tall like a man and spiky-clawed, a silhouette among the brambles, spooky. She stepped toward it. . . sentient, dangerous-looking. She stared into the scramble of vines fringing the black water. Down there, shards of moonlight rippled the surface. There might be anything squirming in that pool. Wide-eyed, Hosanna moved forward. Deep in the pool, the moon moved with her. Its glassy reflection pulled her gaze down, down. . . above her, hellish flames towered.

Bierce caught up with her. He had a light. He led her back to the main path.

They came out of the dark edge of forest and into a storm of dead leaves beneath two spreading, claw-branched trees. Those bare branches. Did they move? Beside the looming trees squatted the black square of charred foundation stones. Flebrin shivered. It looked like a bottomless hole in the ground.

And here a small dilapidated shed stood, a lone sentry box on a pile of black rubble. The door of the shed had a crescent moon carved in the middle of it. Hastily, sorcerer Bierce fumbled the latch and they crowded into the narrow space.

Hosanna Flebrin peered down the stony stairway tilting away into pitchy darkness. She stared up at the sorcerer.

“Fear nothing, Hosanna Flebrin,” said sorcerer Bierce. “Destiny itself has brought you this far. Courage will take you the rest of the way. We have a schedule to keep.”

She followed him down into dark obscurity, cold, damp and airless. Her boots scraped on a stone floor. The faint sharp odor of charred wood clung in the air. Bierce flicked his flashlight around. The broad floor above didn’t look like it would collapse anytime soon, no obvious cracks showed between the scorch-blackened timbers overhead, no pale roots dangled between them. In Bierce’s sketchy illumination, Flebrin glimpsed no light fixtures or other amenities, only a raw vacancy of burnt wood and stone. Yet another cavern she had to traverse.

Her eyes were not entirely adjusted to this new subterranean darkness but, looking past Bierce silhouetted in his roaming beam of light, Flebrin saw a doorway just ahead, a half-closed door beyond which flickered a metallic glow. This was It! She knew it for a certainty. With a sob she pushed forward, crowding Bierce’s heels. He wasn’t in a big enough hurry. She went around him.

But ahead of her the low-ceilinged basement stretched a good ten yards farther. Without transition and in a most natural way, she now trod the gray-carpeted floor of an office hallway. The earthy smells were forgotten. A vague shudder of air conditioning now gave accompaniment to her limping progress—the comforting sound of breath itself. Hosanna Flebrin paid no heed to the rows of potted plants bordering the strip of gray carpet or the soothing, abstractly-patterned fabric that lined the walls, all putting her unconsciously in mind of the corporate home offices of BiggyPlex Meta, with all their dynamic sense of hushed repose.

Bierce walked, two of him, one following Hosanna Flebrin down the center of the carpet flanked by plants and patterned wallpaper, and the other tilted and offset a few feet in the electric darkness beyond. Together, they ushered Hosanna Flebrin toward the lit-up doorway still a dozen paces ahead.

Flebrin dashed forward and stood in the doorway to a little room not any bigger than a supply closet. A cry of triumph escaped her lips. In here the air was cold and smelled of snow. The small room glowed with a metallic sheen, floor to ceiling, bright to the eye yet oddly conveying nothing to vision. She grabbed Bierce’s flashlight, spun it around the little space. She spotted the metal. It gleamed, frosty and contained, high up on a shelf.

“Particle or wave,” Flebrin murmured, “the master conundrum.”

“We call this the tool closet,” said Bierce, some distance behind her.

“After the fire,” he said, standing just beside her, “this is all that was left of the old house. When the comet came we got a direct hit—the biggest snowball you ever saw blew straight in the basement door and packed in right here.”

“Is this place safe?”

“I closed it all up just the way you see it here, soon after I discovered what the slush could do. What hadn’t evaporated or soaked into the walls, I preserved in these two bottles.” Bierce pointed to the two containers on their shelf, one a hammered-copper flagon with a tall glass stopper and curly metal handle, the other a wide stainless steel thermos with a black plastic screw top. “Very little is needed for my purposes, anymore.”

“Is it safe to be in here is what I’m asking,” Flebrin said, her voice rising in pitch. “I feel spooky in here!”

“Perfectly safe. What um, spells ordinarily safeguard this place I have rendered harmless, for now. The um, energies they require have been diverted to the battleground for the time being, but they must very shortly return to force here, just where you stand.”

“Your voice sounds muffled. I can hardly hear you. Stop muffling your voice!”

The sorcerer Bierce knelt beside her, regarding her with knitted brow. He addressed her as from far away and his eyes brimmed with molten metal. “Be brave, Hosanna Flebrin. You have almost attained the goal. Be patient a little longer. Look.” He pointed.

“The metal!”

“Two flagons, the only remnant known to exist, apart from what you discovered at the Oregon cave. Pick which one you wish to steal. We must do it quickly so it will not appear that I helped you in any way. I know you understand.”

Flebrin lunged forward, arms up to capture both flagons.

Bierce quickly stood and swiveled to face her, gently blocking her arms.

“Not all,” he whispered in her ear. “You would be pursued and swiftly captured! I would be compromised! Trust me, this is the moment we’ve worked for, Hosanna. In a few minutes you will have what I promised. I promise you.”

Flebrin gasped. She yelped, “You were supposed to be outside standing guard!”

“I am,” came his muffled voice.

“The Essence is before me. It calls to me. I’ve changed my mind. I will have it all now! Get out of my way!” She made another grab at the shelf where perched the two vessels of slush. The flagon of hammered copper tilted forward at the touch of her hand and its stopper flew out. A slosh of the contained liquid arced down and poured neatly down her gullet. Flebrin gasped with surprise, then froze in horror.

Bierce seized both her elbows. “We’ll be caught! And it will be bad news when we are, Hosanna.” Now there was a whine in his voice. “Do you think that raw-bearded ruffian Salmon Trout, who led us to your hiding place in the canyon, will hesitate to have our heads? He’s the president! Make him the least bit unhappy and on his brutal whim we will wake up some night very soon in a kennel box, with his soundless whirling blades tickling our necks. Just the thought of it makes me afraid to live. Patience, professor! Please.”

wailed Hosanna Flebrin. She trembled, stared madly into the eyes of sorcerer Bierce.

“Don’t be silly,” Bierce said. “You don’t feel anything of the sort.”

“I do feel weird.”

“Okay, look, here’s your flagon. It’s time to grab it and go.”

“I don’t want this one. I want the other one.”

“That one’s the weird one. With this one you have already achieved rapport. Here’s your stopper.”

Moments later, Hosanna Flebrin, ire flashing in her eyes, burst out into the silvery pre-dawn night grasping in her fist the narrow neck of the bright copper flagon. She marched furiously, slightly hobble-legged, back up the path toward the farmhouse, passing under a little rain cloud caught in some nearby treetops. A few droplets drifted out of the cloud and chilled the back of her neck.

Bierce was behind her. He played his flashlight over the path ahead. He lied, “You’re the best, professor. You’re going to carry off the prize because it is your destiny alone. Only let me guarantee your safety, that’s all I ask. We need to divert the hostilities taking shape in yonder fields and pastures, move all combatants from your line of flight. Let’s not forget our Uni wire-heads are bringing up those daisy chain rockets. You do not want to get hit by one of those. Am I right?”

“I really wish you would stop saying ‘Uni’! We are Unified Security Global, servitors of the Eternal Ord. Where is your education, Bierce! Everybody has a seat at our table. Welcome, zoners, like it or not. It’s prosperity and peace by any means. Agreed?”

“Well, I—”

“I already read you our terms. You’re one of us now,—aren’t you?”

“Yes! Yes, of course, Hosanna. It’s just the old habit. I will undergo appropriate re-education after all this is done. Today I play the double role and I best not hesitate over political identity.”

They walked a few steps in silence, making the turn in the path that led back to the house.

“Oh, of course you are correct, young Bierce. It just makes me so mad! Wait till the flag flies again over this nest of malfeasant hooliganism, then we’ll get some respect!”

“I vote for that! In the meantime, let’s go over our strategy once again, shall we?”

“Why? Has anything changed?”

“No, but our situation is unique. We should review our plan of action. The air is full of fliers, the ground is crawling with soldiers and I saw low-runners lurking in the trees up both sides of the valley. So we have to be bold and not seem suspicious to any party. You want to seem to be one of us, Hosanna. Fly like I taught you. Give everybody a happy wave and nobody will bother you here. Follow the line of the hills out toward the city lights. Stick to the hilltops and you shouldn’t get any hassle from either side. Then you’ll see the water. You’ll see the big ship, you know it’s lights. By then, I will have my special diversion in play. Once you get over the city, flip on the camouflage and nobody will see you. Find a good landing spot and walk on in. You don’t want to be seen near a flier. Pull rank or whatever and find your likeliest Leader. Show ’em what you got and that’ll be the end of the battle, we hope, and we’ve saved a lot of good folks a lot of trouble.”

Bierce moved up a little closer behind Hosanna Flebrin, brushed a wayward pine needle off her shoulder. “After that,” he said close in her ear, “as soon as things quiet down, we can work out our business, just you and me, all the quicker.”

“A cakewalk.”

“Sure. Whatever that is. Above all, let’s don’t fly directly to the ship. That would be suicide after what I did earlier. Those boys will shoot at anything they see, anything in the air. Likely you and the metal would be splattered all over the landscape.”

“What if zoner Security catches up with me? That’s something we haven’t discussed.”

“Oh, if anybody questions you, just tell them you’re working with Bierce. That, and my flier with the Flihtworks insignia should just about give you free play in the air, or anywhere at all among the friendlies.”

“You make it sound easy. I may need a weapon.”

“You won’t need a weapon.”

sixty-three

Bright sparks ran circles out over the valley, night sentries on the job. Their roving beams of light pinned the locations of any clumps of Uni combatants still mooching forward to the expected dawn assault on Bierce’s chicken and egg empire.

The moon now hung low over the hills, sketchily lighting the well-kept fields and pastures stretched out below.

Doc wearily rested her arms on the split-rail fence that ran along the verge of the hill ten or a dozen yards in front of the house. Beside her stood Bierce, keeping himself upright with a two-handed grip on the top rail. 

Blinking away waves of fatigue, Doc gazed down the valley toward the not-yet visible Uni invaders. Out of the dark echoed distant shouts of a growing ⁠struggle. There wasn’t much sense to be made of it just now, she felt. Her eyes wandered and her attention caught on a couple of tendrils of rising mist coming afloat off the damp forested slope over the valley. The wispy threads of mist merged and became a thin cloud that went slowly drifting off the treetops and out into the valley. Her drowsing eyes blinked and next she caught sight of the mist falling back out of the low-hanging cloud into the fields, further softening a landscape already vague in the fading moonlight. Nearer by, opposite her perch at the edge of Bierce’s front yard, she glimpsed faint morning shadows beginning to show under the dawn-fringed eastern slopes.

The sky overhead was clear all the way to the stars.

“Waiting for our moment,” Bierce tiredly said. “Our professor is awaiting my signal, impatiently, Doc, as you can imagine. Let the action begin. Any second now. . . .”

Umf,” Doc sleepily replied. Her main concern at the moment was keeping her head balanced on the point of her chin, nestled in the crook of her thumb atop the fence post.

Bierce consulted his phone, entered a word or two of text.

The stench of rotting meat was strong, rich beneath the bright cool stars. The invaders moved cautiously up the margins of the fields below the rising woodlands. The open pastures were in motion with small herds of tousle-headed dairy bison that rumbled about, annoyed at the Uni’s shambling night advance. Already loosed into the fields and sensing every disturbance, shadow flocks of flightless, razor-beaked emu raced through the dark.

From their overlook, Doc and Bierce watched the Uni soldiers progress up the valley, creeping ever closer to the Bierce homestead. The line of assault along the edges of pastures verging the forest was probably the wisest course for men on foot, presenting less risk of unduly agitating the families of 2000-pound buffalo. On the other hand, the tactic only increased the danger of assault from low-runners set to lunge down the forested slopes. So constrained, Uni movement was slow, forcing hundreds of suffering, belligerent faces low to the muddy ground. Doc saw low-runner headlights blink on and off among the rain-soaked trees, accompanied by raucous shouted challenges and percussive rattling of weapons and the tootling of car horns.

Then, a hundred yards off, the sound of fighting broke out. A horde of well-lit aerial fighters swarmed down on a grounder unit that dared stand up and start a shouting match. Mocking jeers flew out of the dark sky in reply. And, from the thumps and sounds of shattering below, clearly some defenders had begun dropping the expected defunct auto parts, farming implements and barrowloads of ever-plentiful manure. Even sharper insults could be heard rising to meet the air defenses. The two observers on the hilltop heard not too many anguished screams.

Sudden headlights blazed a wall of light out of the trees and countless blunderous low-runner craft lunged forward down out of the forest. Hoarse low-runner battle cries filled the air. Wielding their traditional instruments of persuasion, they came on with whirling clubs, thrusting tridents, long-poled raspers, even one deadly line-up of pikemen. Led by the hard momentum of armored battle sledges catapulting sand bags, rattling hordes of lustrous chromed and waxed car bodies advanced, goggling their high-beams into the eyes of the enemy.

The low-runner shock troops crushed easily every grounder attempt to adva