The Wye Oak


Michael Edwards

On a night with a ring of ice around the moon, a small horse-drawn wagon made its way across the Mississippi, going east from St. Louis into Illinois.  An old man guided the horse along the bridge, careful to keep as far to the right as possible: even at this hour there were innumerable cars, headed both ways at speeds that made horse and driver alike nervous.  This wasn't the main bridge crossing the great river: precisely for that reason it was chosen, in the hope of avoiding the worst of the traffic.  Horse-drawn vehicles were not only a hindrance to the flow of traffic, they were illegal on main thoroughfares, their drivers subject to a fine and possibly imprisonment.  There were no longer any routes across the Mississippi, at this point, that were not main thoroughfares, interstates, freeways, super highways.  To cross the Mississippi under the full moon was to break the law.

The ripples brought to the surface by the current, or in the wake of riverboats, or from the gathering north wind, shimmered beneath the crystalline moon almost as if it were sunlight.  The old man glanced from time to time between the silver gray crossbeams of the bridge to the river below.  "We'll soon be across," he said.  The horse nodded its head, as if it understood.  "We'll get there before anyone sees us," he added as if to reassure his horse.

The thick bushes on the east bank finally emerged out of a dark blur to assume their given shapes, gaining color, texture, definition with every hoof beat against the pavement.  The lights of East St. Louis up ahead were growing brighter than the moon above; presently it became the moon's turn to appear out of focus as the city lights had earlier.  Not that a skyline like that of its grand sister across the river rose up, only the brightness of street lamps and intersections, which eventually outshone the October moon.

At last the bridge came to an abrupt end in a sharp right turn over the land.  The water, which had seemed from the bridge like a majestic sea carved through a deep canyon, now gurgled barely a stone's throw beyond the railing as the highway followed a shallow inlet before turning again eastward.

The wagon pursued one after another roadway, as if trying each for size, going first left then right then straight ahead until finally settling on a narrow road free of traffic.  For nearly an hour the wagon crept along this tree lined road, where the houses were a hundred feet back and the light was dim enough to once again open the moon's rays.  It came to a clearing, a large open field traversed by a rough-hewn path.

"We'll stop here," the old man said as he directed his horse to the path.  Once safely off the main road, he brought the wagon to a halt.  He got down, unbridled his horse, set some grain for it, then disappeared through the rear door of the truck.

"I won't let 'em get you," he said in a voice muffled by the tiny space within.  Then he laid down beside a basket and fell asleep.

The sun had been up a couple hours when a knock on his door awoke the old man.  Still groggy, a panic gripped him.  "It's them," he whispered.

"Anybody here?" a voice outside called, followed a few seconds later by "Hello?  Anybody in there?"

"I've got to say something," the old man whispered and seemed to grow calmer, bolder, by his resolve.

"Just a minute!" he called back.  He hurriedly made himself presentable then swung the door open and climbed out of the wagon.

"Who are you?" a middle aged man asked.  "Why are you here?  Don't you know this is private property?"

"No, sir, I didn't know," the old man replied.  "It seems I was mis-led; I thought this was a public park: nice open space like this."

"I don't think you'll find this many tree stumps at a public park," the man indicated with a sweep of his arm.  "This lot's being cleared for houses."

"You own it?"

"I do.  I'm the builder.  You'll have to move on."

"How many houses can you get on a lot this size?" the old man idly asked.

"Eighteen," came the crisp reply.  The builder surveyed the wagon, its driver, the dappled gray horse lying a few feet away.  "I don't suppose you'd be in the market for one," he observed.

"No.  I'm headed west.  Going back to the Sierras."

"Wouldn't want to keep you," the builder prodded.

"Let me just hitch my horse, and I'll be on my way," the old man said.

Just then a sound came from the wagon.  "What you got in there?"

"My cat."

The builder listened a moment, but no more sounds ensued.  He shrugged and walked to another part of his lot, as if to make sure nobody else had trespassed during the night.  Meanwhile the old man readied his horse, climbed into the driver's seat and maneuvered his wagon out of the path and onto the main road.

He drove another couple hours until, coming to another clearing, he again pulled off, this time onto a paved parking lot on the outskirts of East St. Louis.  This was a run down area, sparsely populated, with ramshackle houses and boarded-up businesses separated by lots strewn with litter and broken concrete slabs.  A feeble looking cafe stood at the far end of the lot.  First the old man disappeared into his wagon; then, emerging half an hour later, made for the cafe.

The cafe was nearly full, all the tables taken and only two seats left at the counter.  After inquiring if either were taken and being assured they were not, the old man sat down and ordered.  A couple of teenagers came in as the waitress was pouring coffee; one sat down beside the old man, the other tapped him on the shoulder.

"You got my space," the young man said.  "I said: you got my space!" he repeated.

The old man took his coffee and retreated to a corner, where he stood sipping it until the rest of his order was ready.  The two teenagers were laughing.  A woman motioned him over to her table.

"Why don't you join us?" she invited him to an empty chair.  He sat down and thanked her, glancing at the man sitting opposite the woman to make sure it was alright with him too.  He acknowledged the inquiry with a nod.

"We don't come here often," the woman said.  "Some of those boys are just plain hoodlums.  Too bad they didn't know about that stuff back then."  The man made a face.  "He doesn't like the idea," she explained.

"Damn right I don't," the man said.  

"What are you going to do about kids like that?" she asked.

"You live with it.  Like people always have.  That's not the way to get people to behave."

"It's a lot cheaper than jails and police and courts and all those lawyers to pay.  Don't you think so?" she turned to the old man to ask.  By this time the waitress had brought his food and, with his mouth full, he indicated he could not answer.  "The ones coming up are so good, so well behaved.  They never bother anybody.  Never cause any trouble.  I don't see what's wrong with it."

"You have a right to be who you were born to be - good or bad," the man said.  "If you're bad, you've got to pay.  It's your choice, and your right."

"And all the innocent people who get hurt - what about them?  Don't they count for something too?"

"You can't make the world safe for everyone - that's all.  You just can't."

"But at least someone is trying to!"

The old man continued eating till his breakfast was done.  "Thank you for sharing your table," he said as he rose.  "I've got a long way to go.  I'm heading west."

"Hold up a second," the man said.  "We're done too, we'll walk out with you. "

The three paid the cashier then left.  Perceiving the old man headed for the odd looking wagon, the woman asked "Is that yours?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"How odd.  What kind of work do you do?  Are you a preacher?"

"No, ma'am.  I do odd jobs, a little carpentry, digging ditches, some plumbing - whatever I can get."

"'The World Will End in 2025,'" the man read the sign printed in big blue letters on the side of the wagon.  "That was twenty-five years ago!  Looks like you missed the boat!"

"I've thought about painting over it," the old man explained.  "But it's kinda catchy.  It gets noticed.  People stop and ask me about it; they get to talking; I ask if they need any work done around the house.  It's gotten me lots of jobs."

"But do you believe the world will end?" the woman asked.

"Some day, I guess.  See I bought the wagon from a man I knew back home.  He traveled all around.  Met up with him in St. Joe.  He believed the world was about to end.  The year kept changing though.  It started out saying 'The World Will End in 2000.'  He'd go around warning people about the coming catastrophe: that's all he ever did, just go around warning people.  When 2000 came and went he changed his sign to read '2001.'  Then he changed it again.  And again.  And kept changing it for twenty-five years.  You can see where it's been re-painted if you look close."

"So did he die before he got to see the end of the world?" the man asked.

"No, he just got tired of waiting.  He sold me his wagon and moved to Florida.  I've got to go now.  Got a long trip ahead of me.  I've enjoyed your company."

"Did he sell you the horse too?" the man asked.  "He looks like he's as old as the wagon.

"No, I got him separate."

"What's his name?"

"I call him Wildfire."

"Wildfire?" repeated the woman.  "What an odd name."

"I call him that after a song from when I was a boy.  I don't remember the words, only the tune, and the title."

The couple started to move away when a sound from the wagon stopped them.  "You have a baby in there?" the woman asked.

"Yes, ma'am," the old man answered reluctantly.  "My grandson.  I'm taking him with me."

"What about his parents?"

"They don't want him no more."

"Why did you leave him out here?" the woman asked.  "Aren't you afraid, with all the kidnapping?"

"No, he's alright.  I keep it locked.  He's alright."

"I guess he's safe here," the woman agreed.  "But be careful when you get across."


"To St. Louis.  That's where all the kidnapping's taking place.  Over a hundred babies.  Just disappeared.  Don't leave him unattended for a second."

"St. Louis?" the old man asked in a voice barely audible.  "Across?  St. Louis across?  It can't be.  I just come across, just last night."

"This is East St. Louis - this is Illinois," the woman said.

"You were headed the wrong way, pal," the man observed with a laugh.  "That is if you're headed west."

"To the Sierras.  Where I was born.  I want him to grow up looking up every day at the oldest trees in the world.  Right where Nevada and California meet.  The most beautiful place on earth.  What was I thinking - what was I thinking, to come this way?  I was so scared they'd get to him before I could get gone, I guess I wasn't even noticing which way I was going."  A look on the old man's face said he had revealed too much.

"Who?" the woman asked.  "The kidnappers?  You were afraid of them?"

"Or was it the teachers, and their stuff?" the man asked.  "You wanted to get your kid away before they filled his head full of God-knows what - was that it?"

"I - I've got to be going," was all the old man said.  He readied his horse, climbed into the driver's seat, took hold of the reins and, without another word, set off, in the direction he had come from.

The couple watched him leave, watched his rickety old wagon bounce its way down the road.  They also watched the sky a moment, watched the high cirrus clouds thicken into clumps that looked like shattered blocks of ice.

"Going to be cold tonight," the man said.  "Might even frost.  Going to be an early winter, and a hard one."

"It's not right, taking that boy away like that," the woman said as they got in their car, a small, inexpensive make found in legions in this part of Illinois, where the standard of living had not caught up to the rest of the state.  "He deserves a chance to be a good citizen."

Before the man could start his engine, the cafe door flew open and the two teenagers came running out, followed by a man dressed in white, crying "You punks didn't pay!  Don't ever come back or I'll call the cops!  You hear me?  If I ever see you around here again, you're going to jail!"

One of the young men pulled a knife and held it up for the cook to see.  The other unzipped his pants and urinated on the pavement.  "Why don't you lap that up?  It's better'n anything you serve!"

"I'm calling the cops!" the cook cried

The teenagers burst out laughing then took off running through the parking lot.  They ran up to the car the couple had just gotten into and began making faces at the windows, then pushing until the car rocked on its wheels.

"You're lucky we're in a hurry or we'd turn this tin can over!" said one.

"Yeah, we got us two hogs back there waitin' for us to stick it to 'em!" said the other.

Both boys unzipped their pants and exposed themselves, laughing like hyenas, then took off running again, past the lot, across the road, and into a thick stand of trees whose fading yellow and red and green leaves had begun falling already.

For a moment the couple just sat there.  Then the man shook his head and started the car.  The woman, in a trembling voice, said "I'm calling the police, the minute we get home."

"They'll never find them," the man countered.  "All those kids look alike.  You go to describe one, you've described a hundred."

"Not them," the woman replied in an irritated voice.  "I know it's too late for them.  They're beyond redemption."

"Then who?"

"That old man.  It's wrong what he's doing."

"Just leave it be.  It's his grandson.  You heard him say he's going west.  The kid'll never bother us."

"But he'll grow up to be a hoodlum - just like those two.  Maybe he won't torment us, but he'll torment some innocent person somewhere.  It's not right."

"Not every kid who doesn't get his head tapped turns out like that.  I didn't.  You didn't.  No one we know did.  Just leave it be."

"I'm calling!" the woman resolved.  "When we get home I'm calling, first thing.  Just because we turned out okay: we were lucky, we had good genes, a good upbringing.  What chance does that boy have?  You heard that old man say his parents don't want him.  An old man like that isn't fit to raise a child.  He deserves a chance, and I intend to see he gets it.  Anyway, it's the law."

"It's a bad law," the man rejoined.  "As bad a law as those two punks were bad - only worse, because everyone knows they're bad.  But if you feel you have to, there's nothing I can do to stop you."

"It's the only Christian thing to do.  In your heart you know that, as well as I do."

The man shook his head wearily, as if left speechless by a superior logic.  "I guess," was all he said.

The moment they arrived home the woman made good on her promise.  They had barely pulled to the curb when she leaped out and ran up the crumbling sidewalk that traversed a tiny, overgrown yard, then past the big holly bushes that straddled the front landing; fumbled a moment with her key; then unlocked the door and ran inside the little yellow frame house with its tarpaper roof.  She was on the phone before setting her purse down.

"I want to report someone in violation of the Education Code," she began in a strained voice interlaced with breaths of air, calming down only after the last bit of detail had been related.

"There," she said as she hung up, "I've done my duty."

The old man moved slowly.  He might have speeded his horse up; but, like the wagon and driver, it was closer to the end of its days than the beginning.  He stopped every few blocks to let his horse rest.  Sometimes he could only pull to the side of the road, and had to keep a watchful eye out for traffic.  A few places allowed him to pull off the road completely, unhitch his horse, feed it, give it water, then tend to his grandson and his own needs.  He had all day: he didn't dare cross the Mississippi again until nightfall.

He eventually came again to the plot of ground he had taken for a park early that morning.  It still looked like a park to him, even with all the tree stumps and tattered bushes.  No one seemed to be around, so he decided to once again pull off and rest till it was late enough to make for the bridge.  He fell asleep rocking his grandson to sleep.

Once again, a knock on the door awakened him.  He readied himself to be chastised by the owner again.  Swinging the door open, he saw, in the twilight, not the owner but someone else.

"Sorry to bother you," a somewhat shabbily dressed middle aged man said.   "But I couldn't help seeing your wagon.  It's the one they're looking for.  Not that I'm here to make a citizen's arrest.  I'm no citizen, believe me.  I'm a fugitive myself.  See, that's why I keep this police monitor, keep it with me anywhere I go.  That way I know if they're still looking for me."

"Who's looking for me?" the old man asked.

"The police.  They say you're a kidnapper.  That's why I'm warning you.  I'm a kidnapper too.  One of the kidnappers.  You heard about us.  All those babies."

The old man instinctively reached out and pushed the fugitive back.  "Don't come any closer!" he warned.

"I won't hurt you or that child - I promise!  I swear I won't!" the fugitive said.  "All I wanted to do is warn you: that's all!  That's all!  I won't hurt anyone, not ever again.  I just wanted to warn you.  And to try and talk you out of it.  It's wrong - it's wrong!  Don't do it!  No matter how much they say it's right: it's not right!  It's wrong!.  That's all.  Don't do it!  Don't take that child.  He'll come back to haunt you."

The man retreated across the field and soon disappeared into the darkness that was swallowing up the eastern horizon.  The old man hastily gathered his things, hitched his horse to his wagon and pulled back onto the road to begin the final leg of his journey across the Mississippi, retracing exactly the steps he had taken early that morning - except that now he had an even greater sense of urgency.  He made his horse go a little faster, reassuring him over and over that they'd rest once they were safe.

The traffic was heavier than before but still not so heavy as to impede a horse and wagon moving across the northwest corner of East St. Louis.  Cars were able to pass the wagon without too much difficulty; only occasionally did the drivers engage their horns.

"They always beep at us to move, Wildfire," the old man observed.  "Used to scare you so bad, didn't it?  We'll rest soon.  I promise you."

There had been no police cars on any of the roads the old man took.  He was nearing the bridge; he could see the outline its lights sculpted against the darkening western sky.  Just ahead was the sharp left turn leading onto the eastern ramp.  As he maneuvered into the turn he glanced to his left.  A police car sat in the half-hidden cul-de-sac at the apex of the turn.  A horse-drawn wagon cannot outrun a squad car; even so, the old man made his horse speed up.

"We've got to beat him to the bridge," the old man told his horse as he gently lashed it with the rein.  Wildfire speeded up.  "I won't let 'em get the boy!  We can't let 'em get him, to stick their stuff in his brain!"

The corner was rounded.  The solid clop of horse's hooves on firm ground suddenly gave way to the hollow, ghostly clop of those same hooves on suspended matter.  They had reached the bridge.  They were now in violation of the law.  They started across, appearing, disappearing, re-appearing in the cross-current of headlights, one minute silhouetted, the next absorbed into the bridge's red, blue, yellow lights, then highlighted like a prop on a stage.

The old man heard the siren behind him; he could make out the whirling flash of light in the windshields of oncoming cars.  "Old fool," he said to himself.  "Heading east to go west.  Old fool."

He was nearing the halfway point when the police car passed him and abruptly stopped, a couple hundred feet away, blocking his path.

"In a blizzard he was lost," the old man recited, having suddenly remembered a line from his horse's signature song.  He stopped his horse.  He could hear the river below.  Not the gurgling flow of an inlet.  Not the turbulent rush of a raging current.  He knew the Mississippi, he had lived around it half his life; he had never heard it like this.  It was a sound he had only heard once before, when he was a boy.  He had gone to Nevada; he was on the western shore of Pyramid Lake, where Smoke Creek empties into it; an earthquake hit the region; the shallow waters rose and fell, emitting a wail like something had taken hold and was clawing its way through.

"Put your hands on top of your head and don't move!" the policeman was approaching with his gun drawn when he suddenly lurched forward and fell to the pavement, his gun flying from his hand.  An unearthly scream arose from the pavement where the policeman landed.  Not the scream of a man: the scream of a thing.  The scream of asphalt ripping open.  Followed by an even greater scream.  The scream of metal girders being wrenched apart.

The bridge began collapsing around itself.  Rivets flew everywhere.  The old man ran to his wagon.  Girders leaped into the air.  Guy wires coiled and snapped like giant snakes.  The policeman folded into the slivered asphalt, disappearing through an opening.  Cars bounced back and forth like rubber balls.  People were screaming, climbing from their cars, running in front of other cars, driving blindly, wildly through a crumbling roadway, leaping over the sides of the bridge, rolling around, clawing at their faces, grabbing one another, falling to their knees, throwing their hands up.  Rivets pelted those who tried to escape, gouging their eyes out, ripping their scalps off, tearing into their bodes from a hundred points.  Guy wires sliced and severed and mangled anyone coming near the edge.  Girders crashed upon the people, crushed their skulls, tore through them like spears.

Till the bridge was reduced to its barest essentials: steel, mortar and concrete.  Till the bridge was no longer a bridge, no longer a built thing, no longer of this earth.  Till it lost its moorings, its hold on the land.

Then it fell.  Not piecemeal but all at once.  Its lights had gone out, but the lights of cars and the whirl of the police light remained, a hundred searchlights searching for a bridge that was no more.  The river grew closer and closer, the sky farther and farther.  Another ring of ice circled the full moon, which had just appeared as a layer of clouds thinned out.

The old man felt himself falling, saw his horse falling, saw the people's cars searching the horizon for a bridge, saw the cars exploding one by one as they crashed against each other and slammed into the river, saw burning bodies leap from their cars, heard the roar of the explosion, heard the screams of the people, heard the siren hiss to a stop.  Then heard the water, saw it surround everything, felt it surrounding him.  The bridge was sinking, taking everything with it.  The old man pushed his way through the opening behind the seat into the wagon.  Water was drawing the wagon deeper into the churning river.  Wildfire was gurgling as he drowned.

The old man waded through his wagon to where his grandson was lying in a cradle.  "You can't have him!" he cried to the rising waters.  He grabbed the cradle.  Holding it in his arms, above his head, he made for the rear door.  "You can't have him!  You can have me, you can have my horse, you can have us all - but not him!"  The water was up to his chin.  With his feet in front of him, as he sank beneath the water, he kicked the door open.  From beneath the surface he saw the cradle float out the door.

The current had resumed its normal flow.  The waters, snapped into a churning vortex then forced to an eerie stillness, began their regular movement again.  The cradle floated downstream, beyond the bridge, beyond the burning debris, beyond the little wagon proclaiming the end of the world, now covered in silt and leaves and twigs.

The baby slept, and woke, and drifted off to sleep again, lulled by the rhythmic motion of the current.  The moon kept disappearing then re-appearing as the clouds thickened and thinned, always accompanied by the same ring of ice, in turn revealing then obscuring the floating cradle.

Little by little the current guided the cradle to the western shoreline, gently floating it into a yacht basin just below where US Route 40 crossed the Mississippi, finally bringing it to rest between the bow of a boat and the dock.

No one noticed the tiny ark nestled against the yacht, or heard the crying of its tiny voyager.  It was a week night, a Wednesday, October the 19th: not a night for boating on the river or relaxing on deck with a drink.  The only people about were those who watched the boats and dock at night; and they were caught up in the strange happenings upstream - the rumbling and crashing of metal and concrete, the flare of exploding cars, the muffled splashing of water.

"What the hell is it?" a security guard demanded of a handyman.

"Big fire," came the definitive response.

"Chemical plant, you think?" another guard joined in.

"Not big enough for that," a deck hand leaped from the boat he was cleaning to render an opinion.

"Must be a riverboat," another deck hand suggested.

"The Mississippi Gambler?" a man who had been tending the steel fence separating the dock from the street asked in some alarm.  "I got friends work on that ship!  God damn it, I got friends on that one!  God damn it!"

"Ain't no boat," the first handyman assured everyone.  "Didn't you see the way those flames shot up?  No boat's that long."

"Then what?"

"Like I said: a big fire.  Something stretching all the way across the Mississippi.  Great big fire."

"Did anyone notice the bridge?" a man tinkering with the alarm system asked.

"What bridge?"

"Over there: Route 40."

"What about it?"

"It shook."

"I guess so: the whole bloody friggin' river goes up in flames, you'd shake too!"

"No, it was something else."


"Something else, that's all.  It shook before all those explosions - I guess they were explosions.  Before them!"

"Of course it shook first: that was way upstream.  Takes sound seven minutes to travel that far.  You'd see the bridge shake first, then you'd hear the explosion."

"Yeah, I guess.  It just felt weird, that's all.  Like...hell, I don't know what it felt like.  Just real weird."

The talk wound down, the men returned to their respective routines, the dock resumed its normal tenor; and still no one noticed the gift the river had bestowed upon the basin.  A couple hours more and everyone finished his assigned duties and left, except the guards, who gravitated to the boathouse to sit out their watch in comfort, going out to patrol the dock only every hour or so.

It began growing quite chilly; but the child in the cradle had been wrapped in a warm blanket; he felt no chill.  He awoke occasionally throughout the night, but each time the gentle ebb of the river rocked him quickly back to sleep.

Toward daybreak two men silhouetted against the marina strolled past one after another slip until coming to the biggest yacht in the basin.  One was the security guard, nearing the end of his night's watch; the other was the owner of the yacht.  The guard was tall, heavyset, an imposing man with a very dark complexion; his companion was of medium height and frame, with blonde hair made ashen by streaks of gray, and eyes a very pale blue, in narrow bands surrounding large pupils.

"You're sure there was no damage?" the yachtsman asked.

"No sir, Mr. Carter," the guard assured him.  "Nothing upstream came down this far.  Everything's fine.

"No debris?"

"No sir.  We looked it over from stem to stern.  It's just as you left it."

"You noticed nothing unusual?"

"No sir."

"And no one came around here who didn't belong?"

"No sir."

"Alright.  You can go now."

The guard turned to go.

"Hold it!  What's this?"


"This."  The yachtsman pointed to the small wooden box wedged between the bow of his yacht and the dock, the morning light still too dim to reveal its true identity, or its occupant.  From where the two men stood, it looked as much like a piece of driftwood as anything else - and the guard said as much.

"A little early in the season for dead wood," the yachtsman observed.  "But I guess that's what it is.  Better check it out anyway.  A bomb can wear an innocent face."

"Yes sir, I'll go have a look," the guard acceded to his boss' request, going to the maintenance shed beside the boathouse for a ladder, which he draped over the side of the dock.  He had barely taken a step when a sound from below stopped him.  He listened, heard nothing further, started back down, then heard it again, this time louder and continuously.

"Mr. Carter," he called, "I think it's -"

"I know what it is!" Carter cut him off.  "Get it out of here.  Take it wherever they take lost babies.  Just get it away from here.  On second thought, I'll do it.  This is not a security matter.  I'll take care of it, you go on home.  One more imposter, more or less, won't matter a damn."

The eagerness with which Carter descended the ladder, scooped up the cradle and carried it back to the dock belied the cynicism which prompted the action.  "One blonde baby boy with big blue eyes coming up," he announced as he loosened the brown woolen blanket to get a look.  "When are the bastards ever going to stop trying to palm their brats off as -"

He stopped before he could complete his question.  The pupils of his eyes grew so large they almost eclipsed the irises.  He reached down into the cradle, beneath the blanket, and gently lifted the baby to get a better look.

"My God," he muttered.  "You're not a look alike, an imposter, a plant, a trick.  Where's your blonde hair? your blue eyes? didn't they even bother reading his description before delivering you?  Unless -"

Holding the baby in one arm, he rummaged through the cradle in search of anything that might give a clue to who he was: a note, some piece of ID, something, anything; but found nothing.

"- Unless you came here on your own.  Came downstream.  Came from up there.  Nobody sent you to pose as Bradley, did they? you're not a pretender to the throne.  You're a survivor.  My God.  You lived through that.  You're blessed.  And I'm blessed.  I've been given another son - you are a boy, aren't you?  No, I don't even need to see: I know you are."

He drew the child very close, clinging to him as much as hugging him.  His pupils receded, but a flood of tears now hid the pale blue of his eyes.

"You will be my son," he declared as he loosened his hold to lift the baby up before him.  "You will be Bradley Jerome Carter the second, son to me and heir to everything I have.  If I can never love you as I would have loved him, that'll be known only to me.  You will never feel slighted or loved less: I will never offend the God who sent you to me by giving you less than your due.  I promise you that."

He replaced the blanket about the boy and situated him safely in his arms.  "We've got to get you fed, and cleaned up," he said.  "And take you to school to get smart," he added with a big smile.  "My son will be given every opportunity.  Just as he was.  Nothing will be left to chance.  I swear it.  On everything I've built: I swear it!"

The sun had risen above the horizon, its glistening reflection beginning to drift across the Mississippi, sending shimmering eddies into the yacht basin and into a hundred other openings along the shoreline.  For an instant it caught amidst the spray of a fountain in front of the old city hall, a gracious stone building chiseled nearly two hundred years ago from limestone, granite and marble, stretching between Clark and Market Streets, between Twelfth and Thirteenth, and displaying the porticoes, columns, cornices and other architectural manifestations typical of 19th century state houses and city halls.  It became a museum a quarter century ago, when the last council session abruptly ended and the mayor was dragged from his chambers and executed in the courtyard.  Its use now was purely ceremonial: special occasions, black tie affairs, civic rallies - anything that needed an official aura, a stamp of legitimacy.

The press was gathering in the gallery of the old council chamber for a briefing at 9 A.M.  They were told to be early.  Each reporter was separately briefed in a small room off the gallery by a security guard, who reminded each of his social responsibilities.

"Your job is to report the news," the guard reminded each separate reporter.  "Not to seek it, not to examine it, not to infer anything from it.  But to report it.  Social irresponsibility is, as you know, a capital offense.  Even in the span of your own career you can think of those who failed to fulfill their sacred duty to the public."

Everyone present had been briefed by the time the briefing began.  The reporters had their notepads and pencils ready.  The Authenticator stepped from a small alcove behind the table where the council used to meet, and began at once to inform the audience what had happened, introducing himself neither as Professor Gorham Kirkus nor as the Director of Educational Authenticity.  Everyone in St. Louis knew who he was; anyone who did not know him had no business in this city.

"The T-Men have claimed responsibility for the bombing of Eads Bridge," this tall, patrician man with dark thinning hair combed back from his high forehead announced.  "There are no survivors.  The river is being dredged for bodies.  Once they are counted, they will be cremated.  Their automobiles, along with whatever possessions of theirs not destroyed in the blast, will become public property.  We will offer whatever assistance is in our power to the nationwide search for the perpetrators of this latest act of terrorism.  As you know, they are wanted in every city within this nation.  For the purpose of bringing them to justice - and only for that purpose - we will temporarily set aside our mutual differences to work in unison so that our streets and sidewalks and structures can once again be safe for the citizens of our cities."

The speaker removed his glasses and adjusted his tie.  "We will now permit questions from the gallery," he said, immediately holding up his hand to signal a halt to the free-for-all that erupted the instant he opened the forum.  "We will only take questions in an orderly manner, and only those questions that reflect responsible journalism.  You may begin, one at a time."

A string of questions ensued, each pinpointing one or another aspect of what was said.  Most were about the T-Men and their responsibility for what happened; a few concerned the victims and their ultimate disposition.  Then came an unexpected question from a rookie reporter, a question out of sequence and out of sync.

"There has been talk about structural deficiencies, inferior materials being used, poor engineering, insufficient testing and other irresponsible activities associated with the renovation of this bridge.  Will there be an investigation?" the young reporter stood up to ask.

"The bridge passed every safety inspection instituted within this turfdom," the Director of Educational Authenticity responded.  "The builder was cited with no violations.  It was structurally sound."

Another reporter stood up. "What about rumors of an earthquake?" he boldly asked.

"There was some seismic activity recorded - as there is from time to time in the Mississippi valley; but nothing of any consequence.'

"Is it because this building is so vulnerable that the Tungs have never made it their headquarters?" a reporter near the front of the gallery asked, indicating the surrounding chambers.

"The Tungs are afraid of nothing," Kirkus emphatically stated.  "The building can easily be fortified.  But it represents, too much, the old ways.  They prefer their traditional headquarters, in the heart of their original turf.  This part of town was last to accept them; they haven't forgotten that."

No one else stood.  A dead silence befell the gallery in the wake of these inexplicable questions.  Kirkus waited a discreet moment then announced an end to the briefing, thanking the reporters for their civic responsibility.  On their way out, the three reporters who had asked the last three questions were detained by the security guards for a special de-briefing.  Taken to a small room in the basement, they were asked to draw straws.  The one who drew the shortest straw was strapped inside a stone slab.  A tiny pellet was placed in his mouth just under his tongue, a thin wire implanted in the pellet.  The guards stepped away, extending the wire to the far corner of the room, where it was attached to a small black box.  One of the guards pressed a button in the center of the box, sending an electrical impulse to the pellet.  The guards and the other two reporters heard a muffled explosion, and in time with it saw the reporters tongue fly from his mouth.

"It's important to know what is and what is not newsworthy," the guards completed their de-briefing and sent the two remaining reporters on their way, leaving the third flailing, gagging and making strange screeching sounds in the stone slab.

All during the day the clouds thickened, the air grew colder, all the signs pointed to an unusually early snowstorm - like the one a year ago, to the day.  Yet no one speculated on the weather, not even the official meteorologists.  "There'll be some clouds overnight," the weather reports all advised.  "Wear a jacket to work tomorrow, it may be a bit chilly."

"All this equipment," a weatherman on a local TV newscast mused to a technician, "and all we can do is call for clouds."

"It would be irresponsible to say anything that might keep people home on a work day," the technician reminded.

"I used to chase storms," the weatherman recalled.  "I thought it mattered to keep people informed.  I risked my life.  Now the only consideration is making sure everyone gets to work on time.  Productivity: the be all and end all."

"The economy's booming, man!  We've never had it so good.  Zero unemployment.  Dig it: zero unemployment.  The dream of the ages.  Per capita's the highest in history."

"Yeah, yeah, I know the drill.  But I love the weather.  I love what I know's going to happen - just because it's part of what does happen.  I love this equipment.  State of the art.  Except the only art is making something into nothing."

The weatherman told of clouds, but not of what his equipment showed.  The blizzard took the city completely by surprise.  Not only the earliest in St. Louis' history, but the strongest.  Something in the upper atmosphere sent a frigid air mass from northern Canada down the Mississippi Valley to congeal the moist gulf air that had seeped upstream into a blinding swirl of snow and ice and fifty mile an hour winds that did not let up till St. Louis lay buried six feet deep.  By nine o'clock Thursday night the city had come to a complete standstill.  Ninety percent of the city was without power.  Anyone trapped outside was buried alive; anyone trapped inside was trapped for good.

The weatherman was stranded, like everyone else; but, unlike most, he was not without power.  The TV station had a generator; it kept broadcasting sit-coms and movies and sporting events and public service announcements even if no one had power to receive it; and because it did, the weatherman kept his equipment going, kept watching the clouds swirl in red and green blotches across his monitor, back and forth, up and down, as moisture kept pumping up from the Gulf, cold kept flowing down from the Arctic Circle.  He could keep watching, as well, what was going on in other parts of the country, or anywhere in the world; but he watched alone: no one much cared what went on elsewhere, no one traveling on business considered weather a factor in his itinerary.  They listened to the weather report to hear how nice it would be on their way to work then went about their business.

"What you up to, Sandy?" the same technician who had spoken to the weatherman earlier again sought to converse.

The weatherman flinched.  "Trying to see the end of this," the weatherman replied.  "And please don't call me Sandy.  But there's no end in sight.  Now let's have a look at the Atlantic."

"Why?  It's a thousand miles away.  Why bother?"

"Because it's there."  He adjusted his monitor to pick up radar broadcasting from South Florida, explaining as he did that there was one last storm in the Atlantic: "a straggler, just cropped up out of nowhere.  It'll weaken soon - water's too cold; it'll head east north east; maybe end up in Newfoundland or the British Isles.  Too late in the season for anything - Jesus!  Jesus!  Holy friggin'!  Jesus Christ!  That thing's exploding - I mean exploding!  It's damn near halfway across the Atlantic!  What the hell!  That can't happen.  Not this time of year - not any time of year!  No meteorologist in his right mind would allow such a thing!  It's gonna wrap around and - Jesus Christ! it's gonna slam right into the Caribbean!   It's gonna gobble up half the West Indies!  And no one to warn them!  Damn those fools - damn them!  No one to warn anyone of anything!  All that equipment and the whole God-damn Caribbean's gonna blow!"

"Thought you said it was going north?"

"It is...sort of.  But it's so large - Jesus!  I's like...Jesus!  That can't be right!  Gotta be a fuck-up in the radar: it's gotta be!  No storm that ever was can go from a category one to a category five in less than one day - it can't!  The whole friggin' Atlantic's got to be boiling!  Not this time of year!  Oh my God!  Oh my God!"

"What's it doing now?"

"Not it.  Not it.  Oh my God!  They're picking up seismic activity - picking up a friggin' eight point earthquake in the middle of the Atlantic!  Eight?  Hell, it's past eight: it's off the God-damn scale!  It's gotta be spewing lava - hell, the whole ocean floor's probably alive with volcanic activity!  Of course: it's heating up the whole God-damn ocean!  It could have risen five - maybe ten - degrees in a few hours.  I mean: there's never been anything like this.  Never.  Not ever!  I gotta get out of here!"

"Ain't no one going nowhere man!  You think it'll reach here?  Hell, we could use a little lava right about now!  We're okay here, but my kid's all alone, probably freezing his balls off!"

"I don't mean now, tonight.  No, it won't reach here, don't worry.  You'll get to work on time.  I'm not talking about the blizzard, or the hurricane, or this city, or your kid freezing his balls off, or social responsibility, or only reporting  what's good for business.  None of that.  I've gotta get away, that's all.  I know what I've gotta do.  I can't be a weatherman in a place that censures the weather.  I see...I see it so clearly...what I've got to do.  I just see it, that's all."

None of what he saw affected his forecast: it was smooth, professional, restrained, with just the right patina of optimism and encouragement.  He read the script he was given exactly as it was written.  He showed his audience - what there was of it - the charts, the Doppler, the statistics, explaining away the worst of the readings as "ground clutter" or "echoes" or simply the erroneous readings of faulty radar.

"The official accumulation is eighteen inches.  In some places there could be drifts as high as several feet.  We urge you not to venture out till the road crews have cleared the highways.  Give them a chance to do what they have to do to re-open our city.  The snow is expected to taper off sometime after midnight.  The morning commute could be a little difficult, so be sure to allow extra time to get to work.  Looking at weather elsewhere in the world, there's a tropical disturbance in the Atlantic; meteorologists are keeping an eye on it.  This is Sanderson Spears, reporting the weather.  Back to you, Harley."

"Repeating our top story: dredging activities at the sight of last night's terrorist bombing have been called off due to poor visibility.  They are expected to resume tomorrow, however, and continue until all vehicles have been recovered."

Dredging did not resume, nor could it.  Besides the raging blizzard which reduced visibility to near zero, a new dredging crew was needed to replace the city's salvage crew, which, to a man, perished when the unexploded bomb, planted by the T-Men on a girder supporting the main span of the bridge, dislodged, floated to the surface, and was detonated by an acetylene torch being used to help sort through and untangle what was salvageable from the wreckage.  The bomb, according to a communiqué from the T-Men, had been set to explode Friday evening at rush hour, so that adequate warning could be given - the idea as much to disrupt the workday as to destroy the bridge.  Only the planting of the bomb, however, was reported - not the timing.  The torch short-circuited the detonator.  The bomb exploded with the force of several tons of TNT, sending a fiery spray of water two hundred feet into the air, a hellish backdrop against which, for an instant, was silhouetted dozens of body parts spiraling as if inside a tornado, the entire scene muffled by the blinding snow.  From even as close as a few hundred feet away, the blast looked like a peel of lightening, sounded like a giant clap of thunder, one peel, one clap, then the remains of forty men scattered about the hidden surface of the Mississippi to begin their final journey downstream.

In his mansion at the northwestern tip of St. Louis, industrialist Bradley Jerome Carter was only vaguely aware of what was happening outside.  He caught glimpses of the snow, saw a flash of light, heard an explosion, then rolled over to look at his new son again.  Ten - or twenty or thirty - feet of snow was nothing to a man who had the services of an entire city at his fingertips.  There was no power outage here.  He lay naked on a silken spread in the middle of his warm bedroom while the rest of the city shivered.  Beside him was the naked child he had found next to his yacht.  He took turns caressing the child and holding him close.

"I won't let you be hurt by what happened," Carter spoke softly to his new son.  "I won't leave your side till you know you're safe, and loved.  I'll get you through this.  I swear it."

The child fell asleep against his chest.  His wife entered the bedroom.  He motioned for her to come to his bedside.  "Lie down with us," he said.  She shook her head.

"I can't," she replied.  "Not yet.  It's too soon.  I'll be a good mother to him, but it'll be for your sake as much as his.  But I'm not ready to accept him yet."  She turned to go, then abruptly turned back.

"Why was there no ransom demand?" she echoed a question she and her husband and a hundred other couples had asked a thousand times before.  "They were all from wealthy families.  Not a single ransom note, for a single one of them.  Why?  Why?"

Her husband looked up at her with a hardness in his eyes.  "Bradley is no more," he said.  "I can't continue grieving for him."

"But don't you want to know what happened to him?"

"No, I don't want to know.  I refuse to think of him being torn apart by some crazed lunatic; or hacked to pieces as part of some Satanic ritual; or taken to another city by some rival gang to be made an example of, to have his eyes or his ears or his head returned to us in a box.  He is no more.  I am not with him.  I am here, with my son.  This is where I will remain - not out there, in some dungeon or some unmarked grave or some rubbish heap being eaten by rats and flies.  I am here, now.  That's all I will allow.  I'm sorry.  Carol!" he called to his wife as she was leaving.  "I am sorry.  It's only because I'm the way I am that I've accomplished as much as I have.  Our son is dead.  I can't dwell on him.  If I did, I could never close another business deal, or do what I need to do to keep the ones I already have profitable.  This city could not exist in its present form without me.  I'm sorry I wasn't a better father to your son."

"We can have another child.  You don't have to adopt someone else's child."

"No, we can't, we won't.  If I lose this child, as much as I love him, it won't be my own flesh and blood.  I will never put myself in a position to have that happen again."

"How can we have a marriage when there can never be a family?" his beautiful young wife asked.  Knowing he would not answer, she turned and left the room.

"Friday, October 22, 2050.  All employees are expected to be at work on time."  This was the message left on every call-in phone number of every business in St. Louis.  An entire world awaited the products St. Louis produced.  Ten feet of snow was not sufficient cause to keep that world waiting.

Friday morning the workforce of St. Louis tried every way possible to make it to work.  A few actually succeeded, only to be turned back at the door.  Power had not been restored; none of the factories had enough auxiliary power to begin operation.  Several hundred people died trying to get to work, or to get back home again.  Their bodies were bulldozed out of the way along with the snow they had died in.  Some were not yet dead; they screamed but their screams went unheard; they tried to move aside but the snow banks held them like quicksand; they were swept along in a ten foot mound of snow and dumped into the Mississippi, or else crushed beneath the giant treads of the bulldozers like they were twigs lying on the roadway.  The snows all over the city ran red with the blood of workers complying with their employers' requests.  The bulldozers, too, were splattered red; but, unlike the streets, they were hosed down then returned to their compound.

By mid-morning the sun reappeared; by mid-afternoon the temperature soared to ninety-six as an anomaly, as peculiarly unseasonable as the one that had brought the blizzard, allowed the hottest autumn air on record to drift northward, melting whatever snow had not been bulldozed into the Mississippi.  The streets of St. Louis began flooding as every alleyway, every sidewalk, every plot of grass and median strip began emptying its ten foot reservoir all at once.  The Mississippi, already on it way to cresting from the snow of dozens of towns and cities up and down stream being dumped into it, began, too, seeping its way into the shallower parts of town.

"Don't be surprised by an Indian Summer weekend," Sanderson Spears reported, as if he had no more noticed the heat on his equipment than the city fathers had in their official calculations.  Equally unnoticed were the violent thunderstorms on the horizon, translated for the general public into a "chance of a late evening shower."

"A chance?" Spears mocked his own forecast when it ended.  "Damn them all to hell for corrupting the beauty of what it took man ten thousand years to perfect!  We may as well go back to sacrificing our firstborn to the wind gods or the fire gods or the water gods.  Damn them all for undoing what science has done.  This was the last time I'll ever dishonor my equipment and everything it stands for: I swear it!"

He gathered up what he could carry and left the station.  He carefully put the equipment in his car, got in, and drove away.  He didn't go home first, he didn't gather up his clothes or toiletries or mementos: just his equipment.  The storm was already enveloping St. Louis.  The setting sun focused its last rays on the anvil top of the thunderhead before going completely dark.  Streaks of increasingly vibrant electricity shot across the clouds' bellies, turning black layers white and the gray outer rim a golden pink.

Sanderson Spears was just past the city line, heading northwest, when the deluge broke, from the southeast, fanning out to the north and west in a spray of hail followed by torrents of rain propelled by hundred mile an hour updrafts.  It rained all night, and into the morning, until ten inches of rain from the Gulf Stream became one with ten feet of melting snow from the Arctic to turn the Mississippi flood plain into a lake reaching five miles inland and standing five feet deep.

The magnificent yacht of Bradley Jerome Carter was lifted up along with a dozen lesser crafts and set on the dock, which gave way, causing all the boats in the marina to capsize.  His five acre compound in the center of Jefferson Park became a ten foot pond which swallowed up his bulldozers.  Even the first floor of his mansion was flooded.  And a bolt of lightening struck one of his factories, shorting a circuit, which started a chain reaction that didn't end until the factory blew sky high, lighting up the night like a thousand lightening bolts igniting at once.  Nearly a hundred people - everyone in the factory at the time - were killed in the blast. 

A thousand people perished in the storm and subsequent flooding, many of them on their way home from work Friday evening, some on their way to work Saturday morning, the rest simply unfortunate enough to be in low lying areas suddenly inundated by as much as ten feet of water.

A security team, at the recommendation of the Director of Educational Authenticity, was dispatched from the headquarters of the Tungs to the TV station in the north central part of town.  They broke in, demanding to speak to the weatherman.

"He's gone home," they were told.  They proceeded to his apartment, broke in, found no one, returned to headquarters, empty handed.

The Director of Educational Authenticity took to the airways with an urgent public announcement.  Every TV and radio program in the greater St. Louis area was interrupted.

"Every responsible citizen in St. Louis is asked to be on the lookout for Sanderson Spears, our local weatherman at station WRMC, a fugitive from the law.  Because he failed in his social responsibility to warn us that the Mississippi had crested and was nearing flood stage, he single handedly put the citizens of St. Louis in jeopardy.  He is directly responsible for the deaths of at least two dozen people, who died in the flooding.  He is considered armed and dangerous.  If you see him, call headquarters at once.  Do not attempt to subdue him.  Repeat: do not attempt to subdue him.  He must be made to pay for his crimes."

Spears had just passed through Kansas City when he heard the announcement.  He had been listening to a St. Louis radio station, to a broadcast of very old songs, some from a hundred years ago.  The song interrupted by the Authenticator's announcement was one called By the Time I Get to Phoenix.  The sound kept fading in and out, some of the words of the song were lost, but nothing of the announcement was lost, the power had been turned up so that everyone could hear, so that everyone could know that a good weatherman had gone bad.  Spears began crying.

"I didn't mean to leave my home forever," he spoke out loud.  "I just...I mean...I I can never go back.  Damn you!  Damn you, you bastard!  You're the one who dictates how we report everything, not us!  Not me!  Damn you!  Damn you!  May you burn in hell for all you've done!  Damn you!"

He was now in Kansas, another old song was playing, ironically one called You Can't Go Back to Kansas, but the static was so bad he switched to another station, a Kansas City Station, which was also playing old songs and which faded to a Topeka station, then a Denver station, a Salt Lake City station, finally a Reno, Nevada station.  No matter where he went, the old songs followed him; and no matter where he went, he was still a wanted man - though nowhere as wanted as in St. Louis.  No one was likely to pursue him to the high Sierras, least of all with winter not far off.  The power of the federal government and the corresponding central organization that could have once tracked a man anywhere had waned over time.  Localities took care of their own affairs; only when someone or something attained national infamy did the federal bureaucracy engage.  Sanderson Spears was not a national menace, not a threat to national security.  He could go about the business of watching the weather with impunity, so long as he kept his distance.

Bradley Jerome Carter was honored for his civic responsibility at a luncheon in St. Louis' Union Station, hosted by a member of the Tung ruling council, a short, very stocky middle aged man wearing an impeccably tailored suit ever so slightly corrupted by an insignia depicting a forest of leveled trees emblazoned on the breast pocket.  The city fathers wished to express their gratitude for the use of Carter's bulldozers in clearing the snow.

"It's always a pleasure to honor a business partner," the host acknowledged.  "It makes us proud of our role in local government to know that a man we backed not only has helped generate and fuel our city's phenomenal economic success but demonstrates such an outstanding sense of social responsibility as well.  We commend his construction crew as well - many of whom, as you may know, are themselves Tungs; so we're doubly proud of the fast and efficient removal of snow from our roadways.  Even as we speak, that same crew is working with flood control to re-open the few remaining streets still closed when the Mississippi overflowed its banks. And make no mistake: we will track down, we will find, and we will bring to justice the weatherman whose treachery left us defenseless before the floodwaters - just as we have already dealt with his technical crew, their families, and anyone else we suspect of being part of the conspiracy to interfere with our city's productivity.  Nothing and no one will be allowed to sabotage the economic miracle our stewardship has helped create.  Zero unemployment.  One hundred percent productivity.  It's men like Bradley Carter who've helped us achieve the perfect society.  Let's all rise and give him the round of applause he so richly deserves."

The applause rose to fill the grand hall.  Bradley Jerome Carter, after a discreet pause, arose from his seat to address his peers.  "It's an honor to be honored by the members of one's community, and I thank you, though I can only accept half your thanks.  The other half belongs to the leadership of the Tungs.  Their vision, their dedication, their absolute sense of social responsibility has been an inspiration to us all.  No one else is so uniquely qualified to run our great city.  The measure of our success is a reflection of their know-how, their efficiency.  To say I'm a business partner of theirs is the highest possible tribute anyone could pay me.  With the Tungs guiding our progress, nothing can stop us."  He turned to his host.  "Vladimir: we thank you."

Carter led the assembly in another round of applause.  The Tung thanked everyone, then looked at his watch and said "We wouldn't want to keep you good folks from your jobs."  Everyone had a good laugh at his subtle hint, then took the hint and left.  Carter remained behind.

"Has the council considered my request?" he asked.

"It's being reviewed," the Tung replied.

"I'm anxious to bid on this project," Carter noted.  "It'd be great for business, Vlad, great for the city.  No one else in the mid-west has the equipment or the resources I can muster."

"We'd have to make arrangements with Kansas City.  Right now it's a bit tricky."

"We can't afford to let time get away from us," Carter gently reminded.

"Zero unemployment: yes.  But don't be too eager to hook up with the Kansas City crowd," Vlad cautioned.  "It hasn't been that many years since we were in all out war with them.  Don't rush in.  And don't dare go behind our backs.  You don't want to pay that price."

Carter acknowledged the warning with a nod of his head.  Then he left Union Station.  The Tung summoned his bodyguards and left through a side door which led to an awaiting limousine.

"Zero unemployment: to die for," the infamous T-Men issued a communiqué through one of its umbrella groups, the Missouri Militia, when the snow had been cleared, the flood subsided, the clean-up begun, and the deadly damage unofficially assessed.  "More than seventeen hundred people died in a blizzard and storm, most of them at work or trying to get to work," the communiqué detailed the carnage.  "Don't look for them, though: their bodies were swept into the Mississippi like so much rubbish; they're probably washed ashore someplace in Louisiana by now.  We ask - for no one else will: what price full employment?"

Few saw the communiqué; fewer read it.  The only voice anyone listened for or heard was the official voice, which reported a handful of deaths - possibly fifty; a number of suspicious disappearances; and several hundred walk-offs, who would not be eligible for re-hire, despite the difficulty of replacing them.  "Zero unemployment" meant there was no one who didn't already have a job.  The only way of filling the vacancies was to try and attract workers from other cities.  Overtures were made to all the major cities within a five-hundred mile radius; but none responded: they, too, were in the middle of an economic boom; they, too, had zero unemployment; they, too, offered incentives for their workers to remain on the job.

"The others will have to pick up the slack," the ruling council determined, with a chorus of approval from the city fathers and business leaders.  "They'll have to work harder.  We didn't corner the market just to lose it because a few disgruntled workers decided to jump ship."

No one objected.  The work was re-distributed and life went on as usual.  Everyone left home a little earlier in the morning, got home a little later in the evening.  The economic miracle continued without a hitch.

The river finally receded enough from the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial for Bradley Jerome Carter to have his son christened in the Basilica of Saint Louis the King, the city's Old Cathedral, where his natural son had been christened.

"I want you to be there with me, Carol," Carter said to his wife the night before.  "I want you to stand beside me.  I know you resent him -"

"I don't resent him, Brad," Carol replied.  "He has no blame in any of this.  It isn't because I didn't give birth to him.  It's because our son is gone and I'm not ready to give him up for dead.  But I'll be there.  I haven't stopped loving you, Brad.  You know that."

"Sleep with me tonight," he said, not as a request or a demand but a simple expression of desire.

"And will we have to take precautions to make sure I don't get pregnant?" she asked.

He didn't answer.  He came to her, slipped her negligee from her shoulders and let it drop.

The Cathedral was empty.  It had been full the day Bradley Jerome Carter Junior was christened; every important person in St. Louis had been there.  No one had been invited to this christening.  The priest was there, Mr. and Mrs. Carter were there, the baby was there.  The ceremony had only religious, not social, significance, a grim acceptance of a child into God's fold, neither a celebration nor a welcoming.  The words the priest spoke reverberated like hollow discordant bells through the grand vaulted hall.  The drops of water spilling over the baby's forehead splashed like a dripping faucet into the baptismal fount.  A new little soul was offered up as heaven's newest servant.  The sun was bright, the air finally crisp and clean as an autumn day.

Emerging from the Cathedral, Carter asked his wife if she would go with him the rest of the way.

"You know how I feel about that place," she said.

"Thousands of kids have gone through there," he countered.  "Thousands.  No one has ever been hurt.  There's no reaction, no rejection, no infection.  No one has ever come out a monster.  The technique was perfected a decade ago.  You know that that had nothing to do with our son's disappearance - how could it have?"

"All I know is that on a Saturday morning we baptized him, Saturday afternoon we took him there.  A week later he was gone.  So were all the others.  Our son would have been smart enough - he would have had his father's brilliance.  He didn't need anything added to him.  No.  No, I'm sorry, Brad, I won't go there ever again.  Maybe it is just as well we'll never have another child.  You'd want to take him, I wouldn't let you.  It'd tear our lives apart.  I'm only sorry I don't feel enough for this child to try and stop you from taking him."

Carter decided to walk down Market Street to the Old Courthouse on Fourth Street.  His wife took the limousine home.  As the traffic rumbled overhead along the Mark Twain Expressway, Carter spoke to his new son about the glorious life awaiting him.

"This will all be yours one day, just as it's mine now.  I don't know where you're from or who your parents were, only that they're at the bottom of the Mississippi now.  Maybe you're already destined to be a genius.  But maybe not.  I can't take the chance you might not be able to keep what I've built.  You will be smart.  I'll see to that."

"The Little Red Schoolhouse" the Old Courthouse had been dubbed.   It wasn't red, nor had it ever been a schoolhouse; but in it was the office of the Director of Educational Authenticity.  This was where the best babies in the area were brought, the hub of a network of sub-stations scattered throughout the greater St. Louis metropolitan area, where babies from a hundred miles around were helped along their way.

"Be who God ordained you to be," a small bronze placard just inside the main entrance proclaimed.  The entrance, the foyer, the decor, everything about the building told of its past; parts of it were still a museum, though no longer open to the general public.  Only the city's elite ever came here; but it was not the building's past that drew them.  They were drawn by the future, which lay in a series of long forgotten courtrooms that had been carefully converted into a network of laboratories designed for style and comfort as well as science.

Bradley Jerome Carter made for a corridor to the right of the main courtroom.  He had been in the courtroom once, as a young man, to witness a trial.  A judge's ruling a few years earlier had stood as the Tung's last stumbling block; when they officially took control of the city they opened the Courthouse for one final trial.  The judge was pronounced guilty, sentenced to death, and executed in front of the bench as the audience looked on.  After that, all trials were held at the Tung headquarters on the Hill in South St. Louis.

The corridor ended in a door which opened to a brightly lit room vaguely like a doctor's office.  The floor was carpeted; the window draped; the walls a pale blue, void of decoration; the sole piece of furnishing was a clear plexiglas table in the center of the room, the top lit from underneath.  A young woman dressed in a white nurse's uniform entered through a door at the far end of the wall to the left.

"Good morning, Mr. Carter," she greeted her visitor.  "Professor Kirkus will be with you momentarily.  He's making sure the staff has everything in order."

Just then another woman burst into the room.  She was also dressed in white, but her uniform was wrinkled, stained, her blonde hair coarse and unkempt.  Instead of the first nurse's crisp, pleasant demeanor she presented an aspect almost as bizarre as the crazed, wild-eyed ranting and raving one never encountered anymore now that the streets had been cleared of vagrants and drug addicts and those who used to panhandle along the waterfront.

"Don't let them do this to him!" she practically screamed.  "Don't let them make a mistake again and have to correct it!  The Holy Innocents!  Don't let them take him!  Save him before it's too late!  The Holy Innocents!"

The first nurse discreetly summoned the security guards, who went up to the strange woman the instant they entered the room.  One took hold of her arm, the other grabbed the back of her neck.  "Come along now, Alice," they said as they led her from the room.

"What was that all about?" Carter asked.  "I recognize her.  She attended my son when he was here.  What did she mean about making a mistake?"

"I'm sure Professor Kirkus will explain everything," the nurse assured him.  "He'll be here momentarily."

"I shall be happy to explain," the Director of Educational Authenticity said as he entered the room.  "It's a simply enough matter: crazy Alice again."

"She didn't seem crazy three months ago," Carter observed.

"We only gradually became aware of the problem," Professor Kirkus explained.  "For a while she was able to function, then the dementia became all too evident.  We've tried keeping her on, to do simple chores; but it clearly hasn't worked."

"She seems to feel my son's in danger - why?"

"She has apparently fixated on those kidnappings.  She evidently recognized some of the names as being children she personally attended - such as yours.  It's quite common for a demented mind to see itself as the basis of everything that happens around it.  Doubtless she associates her attendance with their disappearance.  It's most unfortunate, but I'm afraid the time has come for crazy Alice to pursue another line of work.  She clearly cannot be allowed around helpless children any longer."

"Another line of work?  What job could she possibly hold down?  I wouldn't have someone like that in any of my enterprises."

"Ah, there's the rub," Kirkus acknowledged.  "There's really nothing she can do."

"What's going to happen to her?" asked Carter.

"There are still a few places left for people like her, who have outlived their productivity.  I'll see she's provided for."

"She seemed very certain what happened to my son.  I'd like to talk to her when she calms down - for my wife's sake."

"She may never calm down," Kirkus warned.  "As to any association with this place, or the procedure, all I can offer you is my own son.  He was treated the same day as your son; and he remains fine, no ill effects, no mysterious disappearance.  But then I'm not a wealthy man; it's unlikely anyone would kidnap my son."

"There have been no ransom demands - you know that," Carter reminded.

"Perhaps something went wrong.  Or perhaps it was Kansas City people, attempting to disrupt our economy.  There are any number of reasons why no ransom was demanded.  We can only try and piece it all together.  And pray for guidance.  And strength."

"I didn't think you were a praying man, Gorham."

"It is the function of an educator to understand the people he deals with," Kirkus observed.  "How else is he to educate them?"

The door opened again.  This time a man in a white lab coat entered the room.  "I believe you met Dr. Harvess the last time you were here," Kirkus introduced the man.

"Dr. Harvess," Carter acknowledged the introduction.

Harvess inclined his head, then turned to Professor Kirkus.  "Have you explained to Mr. Carter -"

Kirkus cut him short.  "I was just coming to that.  Brad, let me be perfectly candid with you.  This child you adopted is of uncertain heritage."

"He's my son now.  I want him made smart."

"And he will be, that was never in contention.  I simply want you to be aware that he's of the right age to have already received matter.  And since, quite clearly, he is not from any of the best families, he must be of ordinary parentage."

"Which is why I want him made smart."

"I understand that," Kirkus agreed.  "I thoroughly concur with your decision - it's the only right one under the circumstances.  I just want you to understand that if he has received matter already, it could not have been smart matter.  Given his social status, it would have to have been good matter."


"The first may very well neutralize the second.  Now, there is no danger to the child's health or mental stability.  It's not like the two will interact in such a way as to put him in jeopardy.  But good matter - while fully compatible with smart matter biochemically - tends to stimulate sections of the brain that inhibit intellectual development.  It won't necessarily make a bright child dull, but it most definitely will keep him from reaching his full potential - an unfortunate but necessary consequence of rendering him socially responsible.  We'll certainly give your son smart matter, but if he's been given good matter, he's already destined to grow up docile and self-effacing - highly desirable traits in the under classes, but not very useful to the upper classes."

"If you give him a double dose," Carter suggested.

Kirkus shook his head.  "It doesn't work that way.  Quantity is not a factor.  We could give ten times the amount and it wouldn't make a difference."

"Can't you X-Ray his skull or something to find out?"

"No, believe me: once the matter is delivered, it's virtually impossible to tell even a day later where the point of entry was.  And since these are molecularly identical to what's already present in the nervous system, they cannot be detected.  At this point, Brad, you simply have to to take your chances."

"Then that's what I'll do.  God would not have sent me a moron for a son.  Please proceed."

Dr. Harvess brought a syringe from his pocket and uncovered a needle so thin it was almost invisible.  Carter placed his son on the plexiglass table.  As the steady hand of the doctor approached, the light from below helped silhouette the needle.  Slowly, the doctor worked the needle into the child's skull just behind the right ear to a depth of two inches; then, working the syringe with his thumb and forefinger, released two cc of a clear liquid into the boy's brain.  The needle was then withdrawn.  Carter picked up his son and left.

The snow lay eight feet deep in Donner's Pass, where Sanderson Spears was holed up for the winter.  Like so many places both famous and infamous, Donner's Pass had, over the years, grown into a tourist attraction, something of a resort, with a bronze plaque commemorating its history.  Late fall, winter and early spring was the off-season; the skiing was better a couple miles to the south, at Squaw Valley; there were empty cabins nestled amidst pine forests, some with paved trails leading to the front door, most stocked with enough provisions for a dozen tourists.  All were locked up for the season - but a lock could be easily jimmied.  The weatherman from St. Louis, whose radar admitted him to every corner of the planet, though he himself had never left the state he was born and raised in, not even for a vacation, could have wintered in luxury in any of the tourist cabins.  Instead, he chose one of the most rustic and most isolated cabins in the Pass, one barely able to sustain human life.

Even before he reached the Sierras, he already knew of a little weather station to the northwest of Lake Tahoe, due west of the confluence of Interstate 80 and California State Roads 267 and 89.  He stopped there in the early afternoon the fourth, and final, day of his journey.  Spotting a man out back working with a primitive looking signaling device, he walked around the station seeking to engage him in conversation.

"I haven't seen one of those except in old videos," he said.  "I didn't think anyone used them anymore."

The man turned to him.  "That's because you can't get parts."

"Here, let me give you a hand," Spears offered his assistance.

"You can hold it steady while I try and bypass this busted circuit," the man said.

Spears held the tall silvery cylinder a moment; then, after watching the man struggle to re-route the electrical impulse, released it and said "I'll be right back."  He went to his car, got something from the store of equipment and gadgets in his truck; returned to the cabin; and, saying "This'll do it," proceeded to take over the task of repairing the broken circuit.

"Where'd you get that part?" the man asked.

"From one of these," he replied.

"You carry one with you?"


"You a meteorologist?"

"Yep, sure am," said Spears.  "Out of work right now."

"Aren't we all," the man added.  "Wish we could pay you and I'd ask you to stay."

"Could I stay anyway?"

"Man's got to eat, got to have a roof over his head.  Unless you're independently wealthy."

"A weatherman can always find food," Spears whimsically noted; "he knows better than a farmer when and where the climate's ripe for the growing.  He can always find shelter: he knows better than a park ranger when everyone else's packing up and heading south, or north, to get out of the cold, or the heat.  But he can't always find work.  Let me stay.  I know equipment, forward and backward.  I know the weather.  Or thought I did.  I've seen some strange things lately."

"And you can't tell anyone, for fear of making someone late for work.  Yeah, I know that one.  Sure: why not stay?  Help us out.  There aren't many of us left.  There no future in telling the weather, no one but ourselves left to tell it to.  I'm Jim.  Jim Jones.  Infamous name.  My dad read about some lunatic who went to South America and killed all his followers.  He always  said that was the kind of son he wanted: one who'd kill all his followers.  He hated followers, always said if it weren't for followers they'd be no evil because there'd be no leaders.  Anyway, I'm Jim Jones.  Princeton's my last name.  Jim Jones Princeton.  I follow no one.  I lead no one."

"Sanderson Spears," the weatherman from St. Louis introduced himself.  "I don't know how or why I got my name.  I don't know what my father thought about anything.  I don't remember him ever expressing an opinion about anything.  Then one day he had a stroke, and never spoke again for the rest of his life.  He died when I was eighteen.  Everyone said it was hard to tell much difference before he had the stroke and after.  But I could tell.  He taught me to use computers; from there I taught myself to use weather equipment.  I would have gone all over the country - I chased storms all over Missouri; but my mother was too afraid of losing her whole family, so I stayed.  Then she died, and then I became afraid of leaving.  I intended to spend the rest of my life reporting the weather in St. Louis.  I was going to die in my little apartment on Sixth Street and have my ashes scattered across the Mississippi."

"Now you're on the run," Jim Jones observed.

"Yeah.  On the run," Sanderson Spears freely admitted.

"You're safe here.  Long as you don't cross the Silvers - they're the ones who run Carson City - or the Spurs, over in Reno."

"Are they big enough cities to have their own gangs?" Spears asked.

"There are smaller towns than them that do.  Wherever people took drugs, they took root, then took over.  And ended the drug problem by killing anyone caught with drugs.  End of discussion.  You can stay with the wife and me till the season's over - or you can take your pick of the cabins in the pass: they're all empty now.  Or you can stay here: it'll be rough, though."

"I'd like to stay here," said Spears.

"Fair enough."

"And work with you."

"Welcome aboard.  Come on in, I'll show you around.  This place once belonged to the US Park Service till the feds stopped overseeing national parks and returned them all to the states.  So the Park Rangers were disbanded, their facilities put up for auction.  No one wanted this one - too rustic; it sat for twenty years till what was left of the National Weather Service took it over.

It was a log cabin, fifty feet long by thirty feet deep, with a loft in the center barely bigger than the gable which brought in the morning sun, and a nearly blackened brick chimney at the northern end extending the full height of the cabin.  Inside, it was as rough hewn as outside, with unfinished wood floors, wooden planks for wallboard, a high wood-beamed ceiling, and a high fireplace at one end.  Next to the fireplace was a separate room, a bathroom; and at the opposite end a pantry.  Otherwise the whole interior was one large room.  Almost every available inch of wall space was taken up in maps and charts or else equipment, either free-standing or sitting on an array of tables extending the entire distance of the two longer walls.  Wedged in between the fireplace and front wall was a large cot, covered with a gray woolen blanket.  Between two tables along the opposite wall was a refrigerator and a stove.  Scattered about was an assortment of chairs.

"As you can see, no one really lives here.  We just take turns looking after the place and monitoring the equipment during the winter - when we can get to it.  All year long, for that matter; but nothing much happens here till winter.  Maybe a storm, a mud slide, sometimes a brush fire.  Every year we think'll be our last.  But they haven't cut the forest down yet.  Just a matter of time though, now that the Pacific Northwest is just about out of timber.  So what do you think of your new home?"

Sanderson looked around, at the equipment, the walls, ceiling, loft - at everything; but especially the equipment.  "I love it," he said.

"This evening you'll meet the crew, they'll all be back from checking the perimeters, making sure everything we've set up still works.  It all seems to break down as fast as we can repair it.  It gets harder and harder to find parts.  But we make do.  We just don't seem to know what it's all for any more."

The evening was crisp and cool, not quite cold but almost.  Something was still left of the sunset, though all of its eastern sprays had turned gray; and much of the deep blue had bleached to a darkening white.  The smell of pine surrounded everything; taller mountains in the distance obscured the height of this plateau, making it feel like sea level.  Behind the weather station a campfire was burning; gathered around it were four men, two women, and two boys.

"Jim Jones is our unofficial leader," one of the women was saying.  "Not that he likes the term no matter how unofficial we make it.  But he's been at it longer, knows more.  Plus he can fix more equipment!"

"Don't let Winnell fool you," Jim Jones countered; "she can take apart any piece of equipment ever made!"

"But only you can put it back together again!" Winnell added.

"Pete here's the man with all the charts and maps you see on the wall - the man of thousand maps, we call him!" Jim Jones explained another associate's skills.

Pete had a crippling disorder which made his left leg shorter than the right, drew his right hand almost into a ball, and effected a permanent cock to his head.  "Well, the way I figure," he explained, "it'd take me ten lifetimes to cover the Sierras on foot.  So, whenever I can, I get a friend with a helicopter to take me up, and I can see it all.  There's Nevada, there's California, there's Tahoe, Yosemite.  But I don't think in terms of picture postcards; I see everything as points on a map.  You might point out it's already been mapped.  But I've discovered something: it's changing.  The whole landscape.  I can't explain it - none of us can -"

"I've got a geologist friend," added another of the men gathered around the fire.  "He can't explain it either -"

"- but it's changing.  It's all changing," Pete finished his thought.

"Joe almost became a geologist himself," Jim Jones said of the man with the geologist friend.  "Right, Joe?"

"Yep: almost.  Then one day I saw a hurricane - I'm from Florida.  I survived hurricane Elmo - category five storm everyone thought was going to be a dud.  That did it for geology.  Had to be meteorology, or nothing."

"How'd you get here?" Sanderson Spears asked.

"Same way you did - same way we all did," Joe replied.  "We got chased out.  Me, I reported one too many hurricanes: that was the year eight of them hit South Florida.  That was also the year we stopped naming hurricanes - and started pretending they didn't exist.  You don't tell people anything that's going to keep them home from work.  Not if you want to stay healthy.  So I left Miami and eventually worked my way here.  The rest is history."

A huge flock of birds flew across the clearing from one stand of trees to another, their rhythmic flow like a wave undulating out at sea, or a symphony given form.

"I've never seen birds flock like that this close to dusk," Spears observed.

"You see a lot of strange things anymore," said the other woman, Jim Jones' wife Betty, who had been silent up to then.  "It's almost like they don't know if it's safe to follow their normal route.  And they leave later and later each year to go south, like they're more afraid of what's out there than of the winter storms here."

"They know there's something coming," Jim Jones added.  "And because we're in the profession we're in, we know it too, kind of.  Only we cant relate it except among ourselves and whatever network of meteorologists we can reach."

"Like that hurricane a few days back," Spears said.

"What hurricane?" asked Pete.  "We didn't hear about any hurricane.  This time of year?  Couldn't have been much, could it?"

"I've never seen anything like it."

"How'd you see it?"

"Can't you pick up things from other stations?" Spears asked.

"If they're within a hundred mile radius, give or take," said Winnell Smith.

"Then you guys are in for a treat," Sanderson Spears promised.  "I'll begin setting up my equipment tomorrow.  We'll be able to tap into any radar, anywhere on the planet: across that hill, or on the other wide of the world - you name it!"

"Something told me it was going to be our lucky day when you showed up on our doorstep this afternoon," said Jim Jones.  "Welcome, Sanderson.  Sandy.  What do you like to be called?"


"Not Sandy?"

"No, not Sandy.  My dad hated nicknames.  I still feel uncomfortable with anything but the name he gave me, exactly as it was given."

The campfire began dying down.  The sky had turned almost black.  The stars came out all at once, as if a switch had been thrown.  The air grew cold.  The chirping of crickets in the background became an almost deafening roar, as if the insects had gradually surrounded the campfire and were now moving in for the attack.

The two boys had fallen asleep.  Betty picked up the smaller of them, Jim Jones the other.  "We'd better be going," he said.  The others seconded that motion.

"You have everything you need for the night?" Spears was asked, in varying forms, by each of the meteorologists before leaving.  He assured them he did.

When everyone else was gone, Spears went inside and lay down for a moment, intending to get back up and make a fire before turning in for the night.  He fell asleep almost the moment his head touched the pillow, and only roused toward midnight when the front door flew open and a figure silhouetted against the full moon stepped across the threshold.

"You're under arrest!" a voice crying out in the middle of the night cut through the darkness of the cabin.

The horizon was limitless, the helicopter high enough to admit four of the six states the project would span.  To the northwest, Colorado, trailing into the southeastern corner of Wyoming; eastward, Kansas; and to the northeast, the western most wedge of Nebraska.  Bradley Jerome Carter, with the help of the Tungs, who traded favors with the Kansas City Rollers who, in turn, agreed to cut a deal with the Denver Mountaineers, the Cheyenne Buckaroos and the Amarillo Cowboys, had won the contract he sought; his bid was neither lowest nor highest: it was the accepted bid.  He wanted to survey the site firsthand.

"I'm taking him with me," he told his wife as he dressed his son.

"I've never said I wouldn't watch him," Carol Carter pointed out.

"I know.  I want him to be there when I take my first look at the landscape.  I want to share it with him."

"What is this project?  And do you really need another business venture?"

"I want this one," Carter explained.  "I'm not really sure what it is.  I don't think I'm supposed to ever know entirely - but I will.  It's top secret.  No one even knows who's behind it.  Rumor has it it's the Feds."

"How can that be?  They haven't built anything in decades.  It's almost like they're not even there anymore."

"Oh, they're there alright," Carter assured his wife.  "This is going to be the biggest project in the history of the world.  When it's finished, it's going to reach from Wyoming all the way down to Texas.  No one else could possibly coordinate anything this massive.  No one else has the kind of resources it's going to take."

"But what is it?" Carol again asked.  "A dam?  Some new transportation system?  Something like the missile silos they once had?  Something underground?  What?"

"I don't know.  No one does.  All I know for certain is it's supposed to take almost two decades to complete.  I want to be part of it.  I'm a builder: I want to be there when they break ground for the biggest building project in human history.  But even more so, I want to see it before anything's done, to get a feel for the landscape.  And I want my son to be part of it too."

The ride took four hours, including a stop for refueling in Sterling, Colorado.  The sky over most of Kansas was dismal, cloud soaked; but near the border it cleared; a brilliant blue led the way through the foothills of eastern Colorado.  The cool air along the helicopter's path grew steadily colder as the vehicle descended; by the time it landed, the air was almost frigid.  The man who helped refuel said he'd never seen it so cold this early in the fall.

"Choppers get tricky when it gets this cold," the man cautioned.  "You've flown them a lot?"

Carter's pilot assured the man he had.  "No different from driving a bulldozer, except it's air you're pushing out of the way instead of trees and dirt or snow and debris.  Its all road kill, no matter how you look at it."  Something made him laugh.  "We had us a big snowstorm awhile back.  Lots of people got trapped out there in it.  When the Tungs say clear the roads, you clear the roads.  Bulldozed 'em right along with the snow.  They'd look up at me like they were pleading; I guess they were.  My job wasn't to pull deadbeats out of snow banks, it was to clear the roads.  By the time we got to the river it was mostly body parts.  Like I say: road kill."

Bradley Carter held his son to the window when they took off again.  "See down there?" he said.  "That's all going to be cleared.  And a trench a hundred yards wide's going to stretch five hundred miles, from southeast of Cheyenne to southeast of Amarillo.  And it's all going to depend on us to happen.  You're looking at the handiwork of the master builder of all time.  A thousand years from now they'll remember who I was.  That's my reward.  Immortality."

From Sterling they had flown northwest almost to the point where Wyoming and Nebraska meet; then they started back.  The sky, still blue to the west, was rapidly turning black to the southeast, making two in the afternoon seem like nightfall.

"We'd better take another route," the pilot called over the roar of the chopper blade to his passenger.  "There's an ice storm right in our path."

"I didn't get where I am by changing my course every time the wind blew," Carter called back.  "We came this way, we'll return this way.  If I have to, I'll fly this craft myself."

They were halfway between Smith Center and Lebanon, Kansas, flying just north of U.S. Route 36 - they had touched the geographical center of the continental United States - when a sudden burst of freezing rain forced them down.  Ice was forming faster on the blades than the friction of its turning could melt.  The helicopter began losing power.  The pilot had no choice but to land.  He looked over at his boss as if to say "I couldn't help it," then began looking all around as if instructions on what to do next had been written down somewhere.

The rain was smashing against the bubble top of the helicopter more like hail than sleet.  A chunk of something shattered the plexiglass into a network of fine lines.

"I'll go get help," the pilot half-heartedly suggested.

"You do that," said Carter.  "With any kind of luck, there may still be a job waiting for you when you return."

The pilot threw a poncho over his shoulders and leaped from the chopper.  He looked in all directions but found nothing to guide him.  He started eastward a few yards then let out a blood curdling scream.  His hands groped at his face as he staggered in a circular path.  As he turned toward the chopper, a crystalline dagger caught the reflected light from the bubble's interior.  This dagger was wedged in his right eye; blood gushed down his cheek and covered the front of his poncho as he struggled to pull the dagger from his eye socket.  Then another dagger plunged into the top of his head and he fell to the slippery ground.  A few moments of writhing on the ground screamingly trying to pull the daggers from his skull ended in a convulsive twitching of his whole body; then absolute stillness as one after another crystal dagger plunged into his lifeless body.

These same daggers were crashing against the helicopter with a force nearly equal to the bubble's resistance; in places the plexiglass was severed by the razor sharp blades, the tops protruding into the cabin.  Bradley Carter laid his son beneath the chopper's dashboard, for greater protection, then inched his way to where the daggers had pierced the bubble.  Holding his torchlight to one of the tears, he carefully reached up to touch the tip of the blade, only to have it disappear down his fingers.  The blade had turned to liquid.  The heat of his torchlight had melted the dagger.

"What the hell!" he exclaimed as he jumped back, his curiosity about the dagger evolving into a kind of terror at its melting.

He settled into the pilot's seat and began working the controls, the piercing screams of a dozen daggers raging just inches above his head.  "We've got to get the hell out of here! he vowed as he tried to lift the chopper off the ground.  He finally succeeded in lifting it a few feet, only to have it come crashing back down as the blade broke in half, sending pieces of blade and bits of shrapnel flying through the blackened rain.

The engine began smoking, slowing sending paper thin shafts of smoke into the cabin through the breaches in the bubble.  Remaining inside would soon no longer be an option.  Carter searched for something he could use to help shield himself and his son from the daggers.  A sudden gust of wind blew one of the doors open; he rushed to close it, his arm grazed by a dagger.

"The door!" he said.  "That's it: the door!"  He grabbed the toolbox and rummaged for a hammer, a chisel and a screwdriver, with which he managed to free the door from its hinges.  He wrapped his son in a thick blanket, placed a second blanket around his shoulders, and tied his son to his back, like a little papoose.  Then he lowered his head and asked God to protect both he and his son.  The instant the "Amen" passed his lips he ripped the door open.  In the same movement, he leaped from the chopper and lifted the door up over his head to shield him from the daggers that were still falling with a force almost great enough to knock him down.

He managed to keep his footing along the ice encrusted pasture that surrounded him.  He had already asked God to guide his steps, so he simply kept moving, without knowing where he was headed or why.  The shield he carried grew heavier with each step, his arms weaker.  He had been walking for nearly an hour, though he had not covered an hour's stretch of territory.  He nearly stumbled several times.

"I've got to lie down," he said to no one in particular.  "Try to get into a ball, so the door covers us both."  As he spoke, he struggled to effect the posture he proposed, finally managing to roll into a fetal ball, with his son strapped to his back, beneath the chopper door.  He shivered beneath his battered shield till he heard a sound.  He lifted the shield enough to identify it as the rumbling of an engine.  Then the slamming of doors.  Then the crunching of heavy boots over blades of ice.  Four pair of boots surrounded him.  Four pair of hands reached down to him, slowly lifting the shield from his body then helping to raise him to his feet while keeping the door over him like an umbrella.  Together they walked to a large brown truck.  He climbed up and got in the back.  The four who had helped him heaved the helicopter door and climbed in after him, shutting the truck door behind them.

In the half light of the truck bed Carter could make out the bearded features of four large men.  He briefly studied each face then addressed one of them.  "What was that?" he asked.

"Icicles," the man replied.

"What does that mean: icicles?"

"It means you survived an icicle storm."

"I've never heard of any such thing," Carter said in a tone of disbelief.

"I'm sure there's a lot you've never heard of," the man remarked.  "They're not allowed to report things like this - even here, which, for now, seems to be the only place they occur.  There are a lot of strange things going on no one's ever heard about.  The atmosphere is doing some pretty weird things.  You've probably never heard of fireballs either, have you?  Hailstones that are red hot and the size of grapefruit: they'll actually burn you, like dry ice; and they can also electrocute you, or ignite your clothes - just to name one thing.  It's because of the icicle storms we're here -"

"It rains icicles," Carter again expressed his disbelief.

"You just saw it.  They're still beating on the roof  - are you deaf as well as blind?" the man replied impatiently.  "We're here working with the locals.  See our suits?  These blankets?  Our men helped develop them: they're made of a metallic fiber that's strong enough, woven tightly enough, to keep the icicles from piercing through.  We might get a little bruised from the impact, but so far we haven't encountered one big enough to rip the fabric."

"So when does the project actually start?" Carter changed the subject.

"Project?  What project?  Our project's over, we've made the material, it's time to move on.  If we'd left a day earlier, there'd have been no one here to save you."

"I saved myself," Carter corrected the man.  "All you did was save me some steps - and I'm grateful to you for that.  So you're not connected to the project?"

"No, we're not."

"But you men are federal agents," Carter conjectured.

The four men burst out laughing.  When their laughter finally subsided, the man who had been talking apologized.  "Forgive our rudeness," he said, "but your characterization really is quite amusing - in light of who we are, that is.  Allow me to introduce myself: I'm Paris Commune, leader of the T-Men.  These are my lieutenants: Monte Carlo, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Sri Lanka."

"Do you have real names?" Carter asked in a disgusted tone.

"We did," Paris Commune admitted.  "But we learned - learned the hard way - all our members learned - that our real names put our families in jeopardy.  So we took pseudonyms: noms des plumes.  And you're Bradley Jerome Carter, who of course needs no introduction."

"Does this mean I'm your prisoner?"

"We take no prisoners," Said Paris.  "You're our guest.  We - we like to think - we saved you...and the child.  You save a man's life - or think you did - you're responsible for that life.  At least as far as the next town.  No harm will come to you, Mr. Carter - and certainly not to the child."

"Aren't you afraid I'll reveal your whereabouts?" Carter asked.

"By the time you did - if you did, which somehow I know you won't: oh, not because we rescued you, but simply because this whole incident is not important enough to you to bother with - but if you did, it wouldn't matter.  We'd be long gone by then.  You're not a threat to us; certainly the child isn't."

"You keep calling him 'the child'; he's not 'the child': he's my child!  My child.  My son."

"I thought you lost your son," Paris observed.

"And I found my son.  Not the son I lost, but one who was sent to me.  Washed up by the river."

"You found your son in the river?"


"Then we have something in common," said Paris.  "The great industrialist from St. Louis and the most wanted man in America: we both lost a son...we both found a son in the river.  I lost my son - one of my sons - because he was my son, his mother because she was my wife, his grandfather because he was my father: all murdered because my name was linked to them.  That's when I ceased being who I was, so that no one else would die for my sins.  I found a son the night I planted a bomb at the base of Eads Bridge.  Someone had thrown him in the Mississippi.  I swam to him before he could drown.  He has no name.  Nor will he have a name till he chooses one for himself.  The parallel ends there.  Your son will be able to take your name, mine will not.  Shall we make plans to meet a year hence - same time, same place - and trade 'daddy' stories?"

"I think not," Carter answered Paris' whimsical question literally.

"Nor do I," Paris agreed.  "I wish you could take a detour from your schedule long enough to see my son, though."

"I never take detours," Carter again responded absolutely literally.

"Take this one," Paris almost pleaded as a strange look came over his face.  "Please," he kept insisting.  "Please, take it.  You must see my son - you must.  I've never been so sure of anything in my life than I am that he's your son.  You must see him."

"Do you have any idea how many kids people have tried to palm off as my son?" Carter asked.

"I don't want to give this child up," Paris explained.  "I rescued him -"

"When you planted the bomb that sent me my son."

"That bomb did not destroy Eads Bridge.  We do not blow things up without warning people first.  But that's neither here nor there.  I don't want to turn this child over to you to be raised to become an oppressor; he deserves better.  But I know - I absolutely know, as if I had just read it on the wall of this truck - that he is your son.  You must come with us.  You must see him."

"You have the means to force me to do as you ask," Carter reminded his rescuer.

"But I won't - and you know I won't," Paris acknowledged.

"Then that ends the matter," said Carter.  "My son is dead.  Your certainty to the contrary is no match for my resolve."

"You won't even consider it?" Paris tried one last time, but Carter turned away and never looked back at him again.

The storm finally subsided as the truck drove down U.S. Route 36.  The driver stopped on the outskirts of Lebanon, Kansas, where a gas station allowed the industrialist from St. Louis to arrange for his return trip home.  When he and his son were safely accommodated, the truck headed north up State Route 191 toward Red Cloud, Nebraska.

Paris Commune, who had been absolutely stoic the day he discovered the bodies of his wife, son and father in the basement of their tract home; stoic when he laid them to rest; stoic when he handed his sole surviving son to someone else to raise, knowing he would never see his son again; stoic in all the ten years that had passed since he lost his family - Paris Commune, the leader of the greatest band of outlaws in human history, broke down and wept for the man who would not acknowledge his son's existence, and for the boy who, because of an irreversible decision, would never see his real father.

"I could always just show up on his doorstep with the boy," he muttered, half to himself.  "But even seeing his son, I don't think, would make him change his mind.  Being true to his decisions is all that really matters to him.  He sacrificed being a giant for the sake of having an empire.  He might have been the one to have finally lifted the yoke from the people's backs.  I didn't think anything could ever make me cry; but that has."

The same renegade band of clouds that hurled icicles at Bradley Jerome Carter and his son dumped a foot of rain as it rumbled through Kansas City; then, two days later, when it finally reached St. Louis, produced a gentle, soaking rain that brightened everyone's late autumn flower garden.  The Director of Educational Authenticity for Region Three glanced from his work occasionally to watch the raindrops striking the window of his third floor office in the Little Red Schoolhouse.  Professor Gorham Kirkus was setting up his region's master plan for the 2051 school year.  The curricula were being worked out by a bi-partisan committee of businessmen and political leaders, which Kirkus chaired.

"What the economy needs," he had stated the guiding principle of the committee's work, "is, has for the last hundred years been, and will continue into the foreseeable future to be, the sole determinant of what our children will be taught.  This is true not only for our Region but for all five Regions."

The Federal government managed the nation's educational system, the last stronghold of its power, through a series of compromises with the localities.  Kirkus and four other educators were given dominion over the fifty states - ten states apiece; his Region included Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado.  His primary responsibility was coordinating which type of children would be given a thorough education and which would be given only the basics.  There were smart children, who would be trained to assume positions of responsibility; and good children, who would be given training to hone the rudimentary skills they would need to perform the essentially menial tasks they would be assigned.

"And the special children," he mused as he worked.  A smile played at his lips.  "Stroke of genius, that one, if I say so myself.  A hundred years ago special meant retarded; now it means something else entirely.  We've done our job well.."

The phone rang.  "Hello," he answered.

"Professor Kirkus?" a crisp voice asked.

"Yes," Kirkus replied.

"Please hold for the Vice-President, sir," the voice announced, followed almost instantly by a big, booming voice the vocal equivalent of a slap on the back.

"Gorham: how in the world are you?  How's everything going?" the Vice-President of the United States asked.

"Going quite well, Mr. Vice-President."

"Now you gonna go and get formal on me, Gorham?" the Vice-President asked.

"No, Mitch, no such luck," Kirkus replied.  "It amuses my sense of nostalgia to accord you the kind of deference your predecessors took for granted."

"We're halfway to the 22nd century, don't forget.  The Pres - my boss, and yours - is no longer the main man.  Got a bunch of reformed hoodlums in every city that got religion when they got power running the show now, Gorham."

"Who think they do, Mr. Vice-Pres," Kirkus corrected the Vice-President.

"True.  They never quite got the grasp of what real power was, did they?  They still think it's based on brute force alone, don't they?"

"Guns and bombs and knives and whips and chains, oh my."

"How do we define it, Gorham?" the Vice-President asked.  "You're the man man there.  What's it all about?"

"It's about attitude, Mr. Vice-President.  It's a state of mind, and a state of being.  The hoods - the new warlords - don't genuinely see themselves as a separate class - a class above.  They're just regular guys who were able to extort more than most.  Real power is invisible, Mr. Vice-President.  Extrasensory.  Almost supernatural.  People know you have it."

"Leadership!  You're talking plain old leadership, Gorham."

"No, Mr. Vice-President, I'm not talking leadership any more than I am might.  I'm talking ruler ship.  Any barrel chested goon with a presence can be a leader - no offense -"

"- none taken."

"- but only the most exquisite people can truly rule.  It isn't enough to be willing to send millions to their death for a good - or bad - cause: power is the willingness to send them there simply to make a statement.  True power is not merely next to godliness: it is godliness, in human garb."

"Playing God, then that's it!"

"Being God: that's it."

"So now that we got that out of the way, how's the wife and kid?"

"They're fine, as always, Mitch.  Edwina is at home - waiting for her husband to get home so she can ask him how his day was."

"And little Reggie?"

"He is heir to what I've built.  He is a special child."

"Okay, Gorham, now that we've got the pleasantries out of the way, how's the project going?"

"As planned.  It's on schedule.  We're set to begin the middle of November," Professor Kirkus explained.

"Leg work's all done?" the Vice-President asked.

"Everything's in place.  All the contractors are lined up.  Ducks in a row."

"None of them are going to see the finished product?"

"Too risky, Mitch.  As each contractor's part is completed, he's no longer needed.  End of discussion."

"And the Tongs: you don't see them being a problem down the line?  They are bankrolling your general contractor, aren't they?"

"The Tungs - not the Tongs, Mr. Vice President: the Tungs -"

"You mean all this time I've been trading a U for an O - is that what you're saying?"

"I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings."

"One last question, Gorham: how's the weather?  On track?"

"The weather is behaving exactly as our forecast anticipated."

"Then we've got time to complete the project."

"We have a good two decades, probably longer. The project will be done in plenty of time.  It'll be there when we're ready for it.  Trust me on that."

"And will the Tongs - er, Tungs - be invited to join us?"

"I think not, Mitch.  They will be left to stew in their own juices.  Perhaps quite literally."

"I hear you, Gorham.  I definitely hear you.  So when it all hits the fan, we won't be singing The Gang's All Here, will we?"

"The gangs will be neither here nor there.  Just a stinking pile of rubble for the worms, should any worms remain."

"Big can of worms!  We'll see to it there's a big can of worms - just for them!"

"Amen to that, Mr. Vice-President."

Red Cloud was closed.  Every farmhouse, every tenant house, every home inside town limits was dark.  All the shops were closed and darkened.  The diner on the edge of town, the gas station across the street were closed.  It was a sign.  The people of Red Cloud were part of a vast network of outposts.  They believed in what the T-Men were doing; they had been helped by them and felt indebted, or else they remained neutral; either way, they kept vigil.  Activities out of the ordinary were report along a communications network reaching to the T-Men's headquarters in Wyoming.  A closed town along the way meant trouble ahead.  Federal agents had gotten a tip that a contingent of T-Men led by Paris Commune himself was in the area; they moved in.  They were waiting along Interstate 80 outside Grand Island, Nebraska, their cordon of men fanning out as far west as North Platte, as far east as Lincoln.  There was no way of evading capture this time.

The panel truck headed west along US Route 136 some twenty miles until it came to the town of Franklin.  There, it turned north, taking Nebraska State Route 10.  It passed the intersection with State Route 4; an hour later it crossed the junction of State Road 74 and US Route 6 at the town of Minden.  Within an hour it would intersect Interstate 80 at Kearney, Nebraska.

But it never got there.  No truck matching its description was seen anywhere along Interstate 80.  By midnight the Feds had commandeered every local law enforcement agency as far west as Salt Lake City, Utah, and as far east as Des Moines, Iowa; but the truck was never spotted.  For two days and two nights the Federal agents and their local allies kept vigil; then they cancelled the operation and went home.

Just south of Kearney was a state recreation area called Bassway Strip; on it, a camp ground; beyond the campground, a bluff.  Hidden by thick pine trees was an opening in the bluff; it looked like a small cave formed over the millennia by the action of wind and rain.  It was not a cave, however, but a man made opening, big enough to admit a vehicle the size of Paris Commune's panel truck, which entered at approximately eight P.M. and proceeded due north.

The Platte River stood between Bassway Strip and Interstate 80.  It was impossible to cross the river without encountering the Interstate.  Unless one went under the river, and under the Interstate.

The cave at Bassway Strip was but one of hundreds of openings along a network of tunnels running hundreds of miles beneath the Great Plains from as far north as Butte, Montana, to as far south as Santa Fe, New Mexico, as far east as Jefferson City, Missouri, and as far west as Boise, Idaho.

One of the T-Men, the newest member, the one calling himself Monte Carlo, expressed surprise at the sudden change of venue.  "Why we heading in here?" he asked.  "You expect one of those fireball storms?"

"No," answered Paris, "we expect an ambush.  Do you know where we are?"

"In a cave," answered Monte Carlo.

"We're in a tunnel," Paris corrected him, "fifty feet below the ground.  We won't see daylight again for another three days."

"I don't get it," Monte Carlo conceded.

"We're not wanton killers," Paris explained.  "But there is one thing we would kill for: to protect our escape route.  For a hundred years, silently, relentlessly, our people have burrowed beneath the Plains, constructing, foot by foot, mile by mile, the most extensive network of tunnels ever conceived.  For a hundred years we have kept our secret.  No one but us knows about it.  No one ever will.  Because if we even suspect someone of being a traitor, we kill him.  We could be wrong; there could be dozens - hundreds - of innocent men lying buried along these tunnels.  We don't dare take the chance.  This is our greatest resource, the most massive thing ever built by human beings.  Hundreds of miles in every direction, beneath rivers, beneath mountains, beneath towns and plains and forests.  I'm sorry: we cannot take the chance."

Paris took a 45 from his pocket, aimed it and, before Monte Carlo had time to react, pulled the trigger.  The bullet struck the suspected traitor between the eyes, killing him instantly.  The body was removed from the truck and buried in the tunnel; a few words were said, mostly prayers to be forgiven if he had been innocent; then the bloodstains were removed and the truck resumed its journey beneath the great plains, emerging from the tunnels just to the south of Ravenna, Nebraska, to continue the journey above ground, eastward one hundred seventy miles on State Route 2 to where it intersected US Route 385 at the town of Alliance.  From there, it was due north into southwestern South Dakota until US Route 18 headed west from Hot Spring, South Dakota, forty miles into Wyoming.  Then it was US 85, again due north, till US 16 took a northwestern path from New Castle, Wyoming, to continue a few miles more to their headquarters outside the small hamlet of Recluse, Wyoming.

Nothing was said the rest of the trip regarding the new member left behind in the tunnel.  Upon their return, however, the Council was summoned for a special session; Paris Commune, their leader, presided over it.  There, the matter was discussed.

"We have to assess the chances he informed the Feds of our headquarters," Paris addressed the council.

"Wouldn't they already be here if he did?" a Council member asked.

"More than likely not," Paris responded.  "They know wherever we're headquartered is an armed camp.  A direct assault would be unthinkable.  They'd wait till our guard was down -"

"Our guard is never down," a senior member reminded his leader.

"But they don't know that.  Our discussion here, tonight, is whether to establish a new headquarters or remain here.  Even if we double our vigil, we couldn't anticipate their movements more than, realistically, a few hours ahead.  We've been here five years now.  It may be time to move on."


"That's the second thing we have to decide.  We could return to one of our former sites, or seek a new one."

"I say let's put it to a vote here and now," Paris' second in command, a very tall, thin man calling himself Mount Everest, suggested.

"Alright," agreed Paris.  "Shall we re-locate?"  All in favor."

A show of hands indicated a clear majority supporting the motion.  "Opposed?"

Of of fifteen Council members seated around the room, only four signaled their opposition.  "Then it's decided," Paris made the motion official.  "We re-locate.  Now we have to decide where."

"I say let's go back to Butte," offered one of the members.  "It's been twenty-five years since we left Montana - very few of us were even T-Men then.  They won't look for us there."

"That's precisely where they will look," another member countered.

"There's some truth to that," Paris agreed.  "The Feds are not very imaginative.  When they finally get here and find it empty, their first response will be to check out every place they've know us to be headquartered.  I say Montana is out.  Idaho is out.  Eastern Washington is out.  The Western Dakotas are out."

"I say let's head west," Mount Everest put forth.  "California.  The Sierras.  We know we'll be safe half the year there."

The ensuing discussion indicated a general support for the notion of moving to California.  "Then it's settled?" asked Mount Everest.

A round of "Yea's" was followed by one very loud, very clear "Nay."  Paris Commune alone spoke against the move.

"No," he said, "it's not settled.  It's far from settled.  We cannot afford to isolate ourselves for half the year from the very people we're committed to freeing from government tyranny.  We can't allow a safe haven to limit our range of activities.  If the Feds can't come to us, we can't go to them either."

"We don't have to go to the very summit of the peaks," Mount Everest reminded.  "We can settle in the foothills, make sure we allow ourselves access to the roadways; but still be high enough to be relatively inaccessible."

"I have a better idea," Paris countered.  "Go east, young man.  Go east."

"East?" the entire council repeated the word as if it were a dreaded curse hurled at them.

"That's right," Paris repeated.  "East."

"You can't be serious," a senior member observed.

"I can indeed.  We have great support in parts of the east - not as great maybe as out here, but more than enough to establish a communications network.  Plus, the Feds would never think to look for almost on their doorstep.  We could go perhaps years with a minimum of our resources devoted to keeping the Feds at bay.  We could devote more of our energies to getting the job we've undertaken done."

"What about our tunnels?  We don't have tunnels back east.  We have no escape route."

"We have no tunnels in California either," Paris reminded everyone.

"But we wouldn't be as far from where they are.  The possibility of extending the tunnels exists.  But across the Mississippi?  It's impossible."

"Nothing's impossible.  Including getting along without the tunnels.  It sickens me every time we have to take someone's life to protect the tunnels.  I don't want to have to ever do it again.  I genuinely liked the man whose life I took a few days ago."

"But where?  Where back east?" someone asked.  "We don't know the terrain.  We'll be like fish out of water."

"If the fish had not come out of the water a million years ago," said Paris, "we wouldn't be having this discussion right now."

"How will we find the right place?" someone else asked.

"The same way people have been finding their way from place to place for thousands of years: with a map.  I suggest we send a scouting party to evaluate the possible sites.  I'll lead that party myself.  When we've found the best place, then we can decide once and for all which direction we'll go.  All in favor?"

All were in favor.  "Then I move we begin our search at once, before the winter sets in: it'll come early this year."

When the meeting adjourned, Paris went to see his son.  As he watched the baby sleeping, he spoke softly about the man he had met.

"I'll always keep trying to return you to your father; but I know I'll fail each time.  It shouldn't matter, but it does and it will.  I'll never be a real father to you, because he'll always be there.  When I found you I thought you were mine; now I know you're not and can never be.  Damn him, I can't take what isn't mine.  I'll give you all I can, and pray it'll be enough - though I don't know who it is I'll be praying to.  He's so sure of his God: he'd have no trouble teaching you to believe.  But I can't.  I'm sorry, my little swimmer.  So very sorry."

He kissed his son goodbye the next morning and set off with three others to find a new home.  "You look after my son," he told one of his lieutenants, named Stone Creek; "he seems more comfortable with you and Mount Everest than anyone else.  And I've got to have Mount Everest with me.  So you get to play nurse-maid."

Paris and his men expected their search to take several weeks.  They concentrated their search on two areas: the extreme northeast, from Lake Ontario, along the St. Lawrence River, through upstate New York into New England; and the Appalachian Mountains, from West Virginia westward into the Tennessee-North Carolina panhandle.

They worked their way down the Appalachian Trail to the Great Smoky Mountains, ending up on Clingman's Dome, just over the border from North Carolina.  Below them flowed Little River; Paris led the party to a clearing in the forest of trees covering the mountain where they could look down onto the sparkling water.

"This is the highest point in Tennessee," he announced.  Then he took them to the other wide of the mountain, where an enormous tree stood in a clearing, surrounded by a few scraggly saplings whose growth was stunted from being in their parent's overpowering shadow.

"I grew up around here," Paris said.  "See that?" he pointed to a bronze marker of the kind used to note unusual historical objects.  "The irony of it never fails to move me.  I've stood here and laughed at that tree; I've fallen to my knees in tears; once I even prayed to it.  This is the most sacred spot on the face of the earth.  All your Mecca's, your Jerusalem's, your Machu Picchu's, your walled cities, your temples, your palaces - all your national treasures pale in comparison.  This is where we will build our headquarters.  Not right here: I wouldn't desecrate this spot by putting anything manmade on it.  But farther down, in the shadow of this tree."                                            

The full moon dwarfed the man in the doorway.  The night air robbed his voice of authority.  "You're under arrest!" came out more a request than an order.  A small hand fumbled for a light switch, finally finding one; but the impact of the sudden light almost blinded the arresting officer.

"Don't move!" he said as he recovered his eyesight.  "Alright, now you can get up," he changed his order.  "I'm taking you in.  Don't try to get away."

Sanderson Spears arose from his bed and faced his arrester, almost towering over him.  "Aren't you going to read me my rights?" he asked.

"You have no rights," came the reply.  "You killed my father.  So I'm making a citizen's arrest.  I'm taking you back to St. Louis with me."

"I didn't kill your father," Spears said.  "I've never killed anyone.  I don't think I could kill anyone."

"You're lying.  I heard them say you were responsible for my father's death, and that they'd make you pay."

"Who is your father?" Spears asked.

"He worked for you - at your station.  His name was Joe -"

"- Joe Matthews?"

"Yeah, that's it."

"My God!  He's dead?  He was the best technician I've ever worked with.  He didn't know the first thing about weather, but there was nothing about running a TV station he didn't know.  He's dead?  How?"

"You should know that."

"Where were you when you heard someone say I killed him?"

"I was hiding.  He made me hide.  He said don't come out till everyone's gone.  So I hid.  I heard the men come in.  They asked him about you.  I heard my father say he didn't know anything about anything you did.  Then they asked where I was.  He said he didn't know.  Then I heard a gunshot - I guess that's when you came in and shot him.  Then the men said you had killed him.  "We'll find him - both of them," I heard them say.  Then they left, so I came out.  And I tracked you, all the way here.  Now I'm placing you under arrest."

"How could you possibly have tracked me?"

"It was easy.  I knew who you were and what you looked like - I even had a picture of you from the TV magazine.  I figured you'd come west, so I came west too."

"I did not kill your father - I swear it!  I would never kill the best technician in Missouri!"

"Then why did they say you did?"

"They blamed me for the Mississippi overflowing too: do you think I caused that?"


"Why did they say I did, then?" Spears asked.

"To make you look guilty?"

"Maybe that's why they said I killed your father, too.  Who knows?  Maybe they knew you were listening, and said it deliberately to make you think it."

"They didn't know I was there.  They don't like you, maybe."

"No, they don't - no maybe about it."


"I'm very sorry about your father."

"I am too."

"How old are you?  And what's your name?"

"I'm almost fourteen," the boy said.  "My name is Joey."

"Are you hungry, Joey?"

"Maybe a little?"

"Then let me fix you something.  I promise I won't try to escape."

"Okay.  I trust you."

Spears proceeded to the other end of the cabin, followed by Joey.  "How about a sandwich?" Spears asked.


"When the sandwich was fixed and eaten and the boy no longer hungry, Spears proposed a compromise.  "Why don't you place me under house arrest.  That way you don't have to be afraid I'll escape.  How does that sound to you?"

Joey thought a moment before responding.  "If I fall asleep, you might kill me, too.  I should tie you up first."

"I promise I won't kill you if you fall asleep."

"And you won't run away?"

"I promise I won't."

"Okay," the boy relented.  "I trust you."

"First I'm going to make a fire," said Spears, "then we're going to bed."  He proceeded to place logs in the fireplace; managed to get them started; stoked the fire to keep it going; then motioned for the boy to come to bed with him.

"You want me to sleep in the same bed with you?" the boy asked hesitantly.

"You see any other bed?"

"I'd rather sleep on the floor," said Joey.

"There's only one set of covers, and it's going to get cold in here, even with the fire.  You're sleeping right next to me."

"Will it hurt?" Joey asked when the lights were out and they had gotten under the covers.

"Will what hurt?"

"When you have sex with me."

"What?  Have sex with you?  What the hell you talking about?" Spears demanded.

"My dad said you were queer for that equipment of yours," Joey explained.  "I know what queer means.  It means having sex with boys.  Forcing them to do things -"

"First of all, I'm not queer," Spears told the boy.  "Secondly, I have no earthly interest in you whatsoever; and, thirdly, I'm under house arrest, don't forget."

"Even in prison they rape boys," Joey countered.

"I'm not going to rape you, I promise, so go to sleep."

"I can't sleep, there are too many things on my mind.  I feel like talking - it helps to talk about things that bother you."

"I don't want to hear anything you have to say: you got that, kid?"

"Okay, I see.  You're into S  and M - I know what S and M's all about: the guys at school told me all about it.  I like to talk, you force me to shut up.  Then that's supposed to excite us so much that we -"

"I get the picture," Spears interrupted Joey's explanation.

"I'm not into S and M, but if it's what you want, I'll do it.  I'll shut up."

"Thank you Jesus!" Spears exclaimed.

"Amen," said the boy.  Then they both fell silent.  Within seconds Joey was asleep; a few minutes later Spears, too, had fallen asleep.  Before sunrise the fire had all but died; the autumn chill seeped into the cabin from every crevice.  The weatherman and his technician's son huddled, half asleep, for warmth.  The very earliest rays of sunlight prompted the weatherman from the comfort of his bed, to go build another fire.  Then he got back into bed next to his shivering bed mate and fell asleep a second time, holding the boy in his arms till he stopped shivering.

The sky first turned a deep crimson, close to the horizon; the two windows at the back looked like twin paintings.  Then, as the depth of color welled up toward the zenith, golds and purples diluted the red to a delicate pink fanning the awakening western recess.  Inside the cabin, the weatherman got up first, threw a couple more logs on the fire, then proceeded to the other side to brew some coffee and fix breakfast.

The smell of the food roused the boy.  When he got up, however, it wasn't to eat.  "I've got to go to the bathroom," he said.  "Do I have to go outside?" he asked.

"You sure do," Spears replied, then stopped the boy before he got to the door.  "No, you don't have to go outside.  There's the bathroom."

"Then why did you say I had to go outside?"  The boy looked genuinely puzzled.

"I lied."

"Did you also lie when you said you didn't kill my father?" Joey asked.

"Oh brother!" Spears muttered.  "You take things very literally, don't you?" he noted.

"I believe what people tell me, if that's what you mean."

Spears shook his head.  "Just go pee."

"I've got to do the other too," Joey said in the tone of a supplicant.

"Alright.  I amend my first literal statement: go pee and shit, wash up, and then report for breakfast.  Have I covered everything?  Oh," he added as an afterthought, "if you need to do any boy stuff while you're in there, feel free.  Okay?"

"I know what 'boy stuff' is," Joey said, almost as a boast.  "But I don't need to do it."

"You are a walking miracle!"

After breakfast, Spears set the tone for the day's activities.  "The first thing you've got to decide is who you're going to believe: me, that I'm innocent; or them, that I'm guilty."

"I don't know," Joey admitted.  "I wish I could believe both of you."

"Well, you can't.  What I say and what they say cannot both be true.  Think very carefully about it, because you can't go back.  The people you wish you could believe would kill you just like they killed your father: it's guilt through association with them."

"The Tungs, you men?"

"Them, and all the other gangs that have taken over every city in this country.  Your father was killed because he worked with me.  If your father hadn't told you to hide, they would have killed you too.  So you can never go back.  What I need to know is if you're likely to turn me in someday; because if you're still not sure who to believe, then I've got to leave this area, and it has to be today."

"I could always track you again," Joey boasted.

"No, you couldn't," Spears countered.  "Because I know how to use the weather to cover my trail.  I can literally disappear into a puff of smoke.  The only reason you found me is because I didn't know you were following me.  This time I will know - if I have to leave.  So you tell me - because I'll believe you: is it safe for me to stay here?"

Joey thought for a moment.  "If I can't go home," he concluded, "then I have to stay here, with you.  If I make you have to leave, then I'll be alone.  That is, if I can stay here with you."

"You can stay - for as long as you want.  So the only question remaining is if I can stay."

"You can stay, too," Joey decided.  "I won't turn you in."


"I did lie to you once though," Joey admitted.  "When I said I knew what boy stuff was."

"You'll go straight to hell," Spears warned.

"You think I will?" Joey asked as a troubled look enveloped his face.

"Yep.  And when you arrive, I'll give you a great big kiss on the lips so Satan thinks you're a queer as well as a liar!"

The boy smiled, finally realizing Spears was joking.  Then he shrugged, as if joining in the fun, and said "I'll probably end up there anyway!"  But there was no hint of playfulness on his face.

As the day wore on, Spears became so involved in setting up his equipment that, when the others arrived and began asking who the boy loitering about watching the weatherman was, he had to stop and think who they were talking about.

"Ah: him!" Spears suddenly remembered.  "He's another victim of mob rule.  His father worked for me; when they decided I was to blame for the Mississippi flooding they went after anyone close to me.  They killed my chief technician.  Joey here was hiding or he'd have gotten it too."

"You brought him with you?" asked Jim Jones Princeton.

"Why didn't you introduce us last night?" Joe Riegen asked.

"He followed me," Spears explained.  "Showed up on my doorstep - no: in my doorway - around midnight."

"Where's he going to go now?" asked Winnell Smith.

"Nowhere: he's got to stay here.  He has no home."

"What about relatives?" asked Pete Hence.

"Hey Joey!" Spears called.  "Come and meet the meteorologists who set this place up."  The introductions complete, the boy was then asked if he had relatives anywhere.

"Yeah," he reluctantly admitted, "I've got relatives.  Some in St. Louis.  Some in Kansas City.  I don't see them too much  But I guess I could go live with them if you want me to leave."

"No one wants you to leave," said Spears.  "It's too dangerous," he said to the others.  "He has to stay here.  We can teach him to help set up equipment.  I have a responsibility to him: if I hadn't conjured up the river demons his father would still be alive.  I have to watch after him."

"It's okay by me," said Jim Jones.  The others agreed, too, that the boy should stay.

"Only thing is," Spears acknowledged, "I don't even know if he's interested in the weather."

"I am," Joey assured everyone.  "I like the weather okay - even if it did kill my dad."

"Good," said Spears.  "And with any kind of luck," he added, "you inherited your dad's skills."

The rest of the day was spent setting up equipment, the primary goal of gathering local data almost overshadowed by the secondary goal of exchanging data with other stations throughout the country.

"It's like starting from scratch," Jim Jones observed.  "For nearly twenty years the weather's been left simmering - no: make that smoldering - on the back burner.  It's like rediscovering all the technology.  Like some archeological dig."

"You can't help but be a little afraid, though," Pete Hence confessed.  "You start seeing too much, you might start telling others what you've seen.  A blizzard, or a hurricane, or a flash flood could put you on the most wanted list.  All the mobsters and gang lords'll be looking for you if so much as an hour's productivity is lost."

"We used to be the best friends communities had," Joe Riegen mused.  "Now we've their worst enemies - and for exactly the same reason we were their best friends."

A thud interrupted their talk.  They looked around to find Joey standing over a tri-pod and monitor which had fallen to the ground.

"You idiot!" Spears angrily addressed the boy.  "What the hell were you doing?"

"I just wanted to see how it worked," Joey answered.

"You won't be able to do that now, will you!" Spears retorted.

"I'm sorry."

"This equipment's valuable, it's not easily replaced," Spears sternly advised the boy.  "Be careful with it."

"I will," Joey promised.

Later, in private, Jim Jones admitted to Spears that he "kind of felt sorry" for the boy.

"This equipment - and what it enables us to do - is my whole life: you've got to understand that, Jim.  I won't have some idiot kid I didn't even want here in the first place breaking any of it.  I just - I won't have it, that's all."

They worked every day, sometimes from sunup, which came later each day, to sunrise, which came earlier each day, struggling to get the mountain terrain to accept the wires they planted deep enough to run beneath the Sierra winters; the bracing for their monitors, chronometers, barometers and other above ground equipment; and the casings for their radar dishes.  The mountain slopes fought them every inch of the way; the Sierras gave no ground.  Sometimes on a whim they broke a cable strong enough to withstand a hurricane: cold and hot and cold and hot and wet and dry all in the span of a few hours, weakening the cable to where the falling limb of a dying tree snapped it like a toothpick.  Or else a wind so dry and strong  - of the kind that never used to descend the eastern slopes - sent a spray of topsoil into the delicate diodes of a device set in a sheltered recess to protect it from ice and snow, jamming its intricate movements.

The mountains fought hard, but the meteorologists found harder, forcing the Sierras to a fragile truce that both sides knew would be broken at the first opportunity.

On the last warm day of the season, Sanderson Spears discovered a treasure.  He had driven southward along State Route 89, looking for a secluded, well protected site below Lake Tahoe to set up a remote monitor.  He came to a peak called Monitor Pass, just south of the town of Markleeville and some fifty miles southwest of Donner's Pass.  The name struck his fancy, so he stopped and searched the pass for a site.  He found his site - the perfect site - just above the base of the peak.  It was a cavern.  Just inside was something beyond his wildest dreams.  Someone, sometime, for some reason, had built a cabin, far enough into the cavern it could not be seen from the mouth, yet enough light filtered in to allow Spears to inspect it.  "This is going to be mine!" he vowed.  "My own station.  However long it takes to get going.  My own station - that only I know about."  He set up his monitor before leaving - "The first piece of equipment for my new station!" he reverently announced; then returned to Donner's Pass.

The relay was complete before winter set in.  To celebrate, the meteorologists gathered one last time around the campfire.  "We won't be gathering like this again till next May," Jim Jones reminded everyone.  "We did ourselves proud," he expressed his satisfaction with their work.  "We did one hell of a job."

"It too bad we can't share it beyond this circle," his wife Betty added.

"All this work; all this equipment," said Pete Hence.  "It's a little like getting all dressed up with nowhere to go."

"It took us almost a month to do what this equipment would have done in an afternoon," Winnell Smith noted.  "And now all of us can sit around a monitor and watch what's happening.  But there was a time when anyone could sit in front of their TV anytime of the day or night and see everything we can see."

"It's not for want of technology either," said Joe Riegen.  "Technology's kept pace, we haven't gone back to the cathode tube and transistor."

"It's for want of a will," Sanderson Spears pointed out.  "They don't want to know.  It's inconceivable to me.  But they don't want to know."

A smell interrupted their discourse - the odor of burning meat.  Everyone turned to the open pit where the food was being prepared.  A couple steaks were being charred almost to a cinder.

Spears, who was nearest, went over to the pit.  He grabbed the fork from Joey, who had asked to do the cooking.  "Can't you watch what you're doing!" he chastised the boy.

"I was thinking about my dad," Joey explained.  "He used to cook out all the time - even in the middle of winter.  He'd always let me help."

"Did you burn his food too?"

"No, I don't think so."

"Here: let me finish.  You go over there and daydream or something."

Later, when the fire was dying down, and it would soon be time to end this last get together of the year, Jim Jones managed to speak to Spears away from the others.

"I don't know if you've ever seen winters like we have here in the Sierras," Jim Jones told him.  "When the snows start, they don't let up till the Spring thaw.  You and Joey had better be able to get along, or you'll end up killing each other.  The only way out of that cabin is what you can shovel.  You might be stuck there for days - even weeks - at a time before you can even open the door.  You've got provisions to last all winter, you and Joey won't starve - or freeze.  But you're going to get cabin fever before the winter's over -"

"I'll be too busy," Spears assured him.  "I can spend twenty-four hours, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year - and still not have enough time:  You don't need to worry about cabin fever."

"And what about Joey?"

"Joey'll do alright.  He just has to learn to do things the right way.  He'll be okay."

"What if he doesn't learn - what if he can't learn? what if he's slow: what then?"

"Then he can do the shoveling!"  The next afternoon a cordon of low gray clouds overtook the mountains; by evening the first snow of the season began, by midnight half a foot had fallen.  Another nine inches fell overnight, then the clouds rolled away and the mid-morning sun turned untold millions of snow crystals into fields of fake diamonds.  Three days later another set of clouds rolled over the Sierras, leaving another six inches of snow in their wake.  A week later a foot fell.  Then, the day before Thanksgiving, the thickest, grayest clouds anyone could recall ever seeing in these parts funneled between Lola Mountain and Donner's Summit and fell three thousand feet into the clearing where the weather station stood.  I was dusk.  Pieces of cloud draped over the roof of the station and hung from the gable.  Softly, almost invisibly, it began to snow.  Three days later it let up.  Eight feet of snow lay on the ground; a howling wind piled fifteen feet drifts against the northwest corner of the station.

Bradley Jerome Carter celebrated his son's first birthday on the anniversary of the day he discovered the child against the hull of his yacht.

"When he was born is totally irrelevant," he told his wife.  "He is a year old today.  His becoming my son supersedes every event that preceded it."

"It isn't wise to discount those who gave him life," Carol cautioned.  "You dishonor their memory by setting your name so much higher than the gifts they gave him."

"They didn't have the will to survive," said Carter.  "Without that, nothing is of any real value."

"How could they have survived that disaster?" Carol asked.

"He did: my son did," Carter replied.

The Carters invited a select group of Missouri businessmen and women to join them at their lodge in the Ozarks to help celebrate little Bradley's birthday.  Each guest represented an interest Bradley Carter wished to secure for his newest business venture.  They came from all over the state - from Kansas City, St. Joseph, from Joplin, Springfield, from Jefferson City, Columbia - all eager to get in on the enterprise they had heard rumors about.

The day was unusually warm and humid for mid-October.  A canvas canopy had been hastily erected to protect the celebrants from the mid-day sun on the west lawn, where the festivities were scheduled to take place at four P.M.  Tables and chairs were set beneath the canopy; a counter for the buffet extended the entire width of the covered area, at the northernmost end.  And in the very center a pedestal sat waiting for the birthday cake.

In the distance, to the northwest, between Pineville to the east and Lanagan to the immediate north, half hidden in the purple haze of Indian Summer, was the Ozark Wonder Cave.  Carter planned to take his guests there before the party began, to give thanks to God at the foot of a natural altar formed of limestone deposits collected over the centuries in countless droplets of water.

"It may storm," Carol observed as the finishing touches were being placed about the pavilion.

"And?" Bradley Carter inquired.

"Maybe you should skip going to the cave."

"My son's birthday will not be observed till we've given thanks for God's blessings," Carter pointed out.

"Couldn't you do that here?"

"It has to be done where God wills it to be done."

By two o'clock the guests had all arrived.  Once they had been greeted and given a chance to freshen up, Bradley Jerome Carter announced the afternoon's itinerary.

"I'd like as many of you as care to do so, to join me in a little pilgrimage to the cavern you see over that way," he pointed northwest as he spoke.  "I'd like us to give thanks for all our heavenly Father has bestowed upon us.  I had hoped we could walk, but since it's a bit uncomfortable, and the weather does look a little threatening, we'd better drive.  The children will stay here, as will my son, along with my wife and whomever else wishes to remain behind.  So, if you're ready, let's be on our way.

All the men, and all but a few of the women, headed for their cars.  Momentarily, thirty five cars, in a procession headed by Bradley Carter's Rolls Royce, pulled out onto a spur of State Road 90, which, after a brief ride, led into US Route 71 and an almost immediate right turn into the grounds surrounding the Ozark Wonder Cave.  They stopped, got out, assembled for the final trek to the cave.

The clouds had overtaken them.  It began raining before they made it to the cave - not a downpour, but hard enough to require umbrellas.  In the distance, lightening flashed inside a pearlescent cloud; the very faintest traces of thunder could be heard.  The procession reached the mouth of the cave just as the rain began pounding everything in sight.

The darkness of the cave was broken by torches along the wall, which ran from the entrance to a vaulted room a hundred yards into the cave.  The procession followed the light to an altar four feet high, some ten feet wide, and a couple feet deep, the ceiling above it reaching so high the torches could not detect its presence.

"Come," offered Bradley Jerome Carter, "kneel with me before the handiwork of our Father.  Join me in giving silent thanks."

The party fanned out as it approached; each person knelt on the cavern floor before the altar.  Outside, the storm grew closer, the lightening fiercer, the thunder louder.  Flashes lit up the interior of the wonder cave as far back as the altar, every few flashes bringing one bright enough to lift its luminescence to the very ceiling of the vault.

Presently the prayers were done.  The pilgrims arose, proceeded back to the mouth of the cave, where a sudden wind extinguished the torches, but not the brightness, the lightening having already diminished the flames to barely a flicker in comparison.

"We'll wait out the storm here," Carter advised.

"About this project," one of the party breached the topic that had brought them all together.

Carter held up his hand.  "Not here, not now," he said.  "Business is best discussed over a cognac, after one has dined.  The storm'll soon pass: they come up quickly here, they pass by just as quickly."

As if responding to a pre-arranged cue, the storm began to quiet down almost the moment Carter's prediction crossed his lips.  Even the rain slacked up.  Everyone stood ready to return to their cars when, suddenly, they all saw something unlike anything they had ever seen in their lives.

"Look at that!" someone said.

"My God!  I've never seen anything like it!"

"That's the most magnificent thing I've ever seen."

"My God!  A sunset!  A sunset, in mid-afternoon, and coming from the east!"

"Who would have imagined anything like that could happen!"

They were all awe struck.  Except Bradley Carter.

"Stay here!" he ordered.  "Stay right here - you'll be safe!  Stay here till it passes!"

Even as he spoke he ran from the cave, his words trailing behind him like a shifting aura in an expanding universe.  He ran to his car, jumped in, started off - not over the road but down the ridge below the road, across an open field, heading back to his lodge at full throttle, every few seconds looking up through his windshield or, as he veered right or left to avoid an obstacle, out his side window, so as not to let whatever he was pursuing out of his sight for an instant.

He was pursuing the sunset.  The storm cloud, as it moved away to the east, broke in half - literally broke in two - revealing a blazing crimson band above the horizon.  Bradley Carter knew what it was - and what it was not.  It was not the most magnificent sunset anyone had ever seen, as his guests all thought.  It was a cloud on fire.

He raced across the open field, through ditches and streams created by the storm clouds, over mounds and bushes, past trees, and through fences, his car battered and scarred by forced impact with unfinished terrain.  A tire blew; he veered sharply, but quickly righted the car and kept going, his speed intact, his eyes never leaving the fiery cloud for more than a few seconds, as if his gaze could hold it at bay.

The cloud was east of his lodge, heading west.  Carter's aim was not to outrace it but to reach the lodge before it did.  Finally he reached the lawn where the pavilion stood awaiting the day's events.  He drove to the tent, where, huddled in the center, were all the children and the few women who stayed behind to watch them.  With them were his wife and son.

Everyone stared in amazement as the car they had been intently watching pulled beneath the tent.  They could hear a strange, crackling sound coming from somewhere above, but they couldn't see the tent beginning to catch fire, or the red hot balls pelting the canopy.  Till they began to look around, and saw the balls falling everywhere beyond the pavilion.  They children began to scream.

"Get in!" Bradley Carter ordered.  At first no one moved, as if transfixed by the fire balls.  "Get in!" he cried again, this time reaching out as he spoke.  But not reaching at random.

He had fixed his attention on his wife and son; he was reaching through the others gathered around his car to grab hold of them.  The fire covered the entire tent; it was seconds away from burning through.  Carter grabbed his son from his wife's arms, pulled the boy into the car; then grabbed his wife and pulled her inside.  All the while the frightened children were being pushed into the back seat by the women.

When the burning tent fell, Bradley Carter drove forward with such sudden impact that all four doors slammed shut.  Three women and three children were left standing in the blazing canvas, their screams disappearing in a deafening volley of fireballs.  They ran blindly seeking a way out.  They ran till the flames forced them to the ground and finished eating them.

The fireballs continued to pelt the car for another few minutes, then the cloud moved away, over the field, which became a solid sheet of fire, and toward the Ozark Wonder Cave, where Bradley Carter's guests were safely hidden.

The fireballs fell all around the mouth of the cave, but could not get inside.  The  cloud sat perfectly still, as if waiting for something to expose more victims.  Suddenly the ground rumbled and shook; stones began tumbling inside and outside the cave.  Even with chunks of rock dropping from the ceiling and walls, Bradley Carter's guests felt safe.  The stones began falling faster, whole slabs ripped away from the walls of the cave; the guests had to keep moving from one point to the next to avoid being struck.  They worked their way to the vault that housed the altar they had prayed before barely half an hour earlier.

The ground shook again.  The whole ceiling fell, trapping or killing outright everyone of the pilgrims.  Those who were killed did not feel the fireballs, which had finally found a way in; those who were trapped did.  They could not move, they could not free themselves.  All they could do was lie there under a heap of rocks and burn to death.  Their screams could be heard from the lodge, which was also in ruins.  It had withstood the fireballs, but not the earthquake.  The same rumbling that had torn the roof off Bradley Carter's chapel brought the walls of his lodge down, killing his entire staff of servants.  Only the women and children in his car were saved.  The rest of his party had perished.  There was almost no one left to celebrate his son's birthday.

Carter stopped long enough to change the tire that had burst, then he drove back to St. Louis, without stopping again.  When he reached his mansion he instructed his staff to attend to the passengers piled into his Rolls; the women and children were still in shock and still in the same positions they had assumed when they jumped in.  Carter took his wife and son upstairs.

"I'll help you get him ready for bed," he told his wife.

"Brad," she asked, "what was that?"

"Some weather phenomenon," he casually replied.  "They call it 'fireballs.'"

"You've seen it before?" asked Carol.

"I've heard of it.  Now I've seen it.  End of discussion."

"Brad, we've got to warn people.  If it's happened before, it's not something isolated.  You've got to warn people."

"Carol, I'm not a weatherman.  It's not my job to tell people to come in out of the rain!"

"But they could be killed!"

"I've got a business to run," Carter pointed out.  "I can't run a business if everyone who works for me calls out sick every time there's a sunrise!"

"But, my God, Brad, all of you are always talking about social responsibility!  There is no greater social responsibility than to let people know what's out there!"

"What they don't know can't affect their ability to perform.  We cannot afford a workforce that spends half its time worrying about the weather.  Now I don't want to discuss this anymore.  I've got work to do.  I've got to line up another entire group of sub-contractors.  Good night.  I love you, Carol; but good night."

It took a year to replace the entrepreneurs killed at the Wonder Cave.  Each of them had been backed by the ruling bodies of their respective cities, just as Bradley Jerome Carter was backed by the Tungs; each had built up a vast network of supplies, suppliers and clients that no one else could simply move in and take over.  The project Carter longed to begin had to wait.

"For obvious reasons," Professor Kirkus told him, "we don't want to go out of state.  The Tungs exercise tremendous influence here; but outside Missouri they're just another big city mob.  They have ties, yes; they can make deals, of course; but they can't maintain the kind of control elsewhere that they have within these borders.  For all their sound and fury they're pretty small potatoes, in the final analysis."

"You talk pretty freely," Carter observed.  "Aren't you afraid the walls might have ears?"

"Afraid? of the Tungs?" Kirkus mused.  "The only person on this planet I'd be afraid of would be someone who has a better understanding of what it's all about than I do."

"And what is it all about?" Carter asked.

"That famous 'position' everyone jockey's for.  Most people imagine you have to be in the driver's seat to hold the reins.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The Tungs see me as 'their man in Washington.'  They've discussed 'getting rid' of me; and, each time, they decide it's still in their interest to keep me around a little longer.  And yet, at the snap of my finger, they'd be history.  Afraid they're listening?  I'm the one who's listening.  It would never occur to them to spy on 'their man.'  It looks for the world like symbiosis, when it's actually predation."

"I don't care about any of that," said Carter.  "Let everyone else jockey for position - just keep the hell out of my way while they're doing it.  God put me here to build: to do and to build, because to do is to build.  This world is inhabitable not because of those who seek ways to rule it but because of those who, like me, take what it offers and turn it into something people can use.  I understand keeping the project close to the Tungs: the more hands we keep out of it the better chance of getting it done right.  But if their sphere of influence isn't wide enough to get me what I need, I'll look elsewhere."

"I wouldn't underestimate their priorities," Kirkus warned.  "It may look for all the world like their fortunes rest on your shoulders; they may risk losing everything by sabotaging their relationship with you - but don't doubt for one second that they'll do anything they have to to maintain their authority.  Even you are expendable."

"Like I said: I don't care about any of that."

The official ground breaking ceremony was held one week before the real one.  The Tungs being instrumental in getting the project started, they insisted the first ground be broken within their sphere of greatest influence: the greater St. Louis metropolitan area.  They made it clear to Professor Kirkus that it made no difference to them that the project would not even touch Missouri, let alone St. Louis.

"This is where we are," a fat, bald headed man in a five-thousand dollar suit told Kirkus.  "This is where the ceremony will be.  It's the ritual that counts, not where the thing'll actually be built.  We've decided the Merrimac Caverns would be perfect.  Arrange it."

"The leadership will all be there?" Kirkus asked.

"All of us, yes," the fat man replied.

It rained during the entire ceremony.  A canopy was hastily erected over the platform where the guests of honor, the fifteen member ruling council of the Tungs, sat listening to one after another testimonial to their social responsibility and civic mindedness.

Official representatives from all the major Missouri cities were there, though not among the speakers.  Civic leaders, officials of various charitable organizations, heads of foundations, plus a contingent from the federal government, headed by the Vice President, spoke glowingly of the many good works the Tungs had over the years taken credit for, the ceremony culminating in the Vice President's speech.

"The President has asked me to convey both his thanks and his congratulations for a job well done," the Vice President began, and ended five minutes later by taking up the golden ceremonial shovel the Tungs had had cast for the occasion.  A big man, husky, tall, with the face and bearing of a prize fighter, the Vice President underestimated his own strength, overestimated the tensile strength of the shovel; when he went to upturn the clod of earth, the shovel snapped as if it were a twig.  He stared a moment at the broken instrument, glancing from the handle, in his hand, to the blade, in the ground, and back.  An unearthly stillness had fallen.  The dignitaries looked first to their hosts for some cue how to react, then looked away.  The Tungs all had the same look of having been insulted.

"My apologies," said the Vice President.  "I keep forgetting," he quipped, "it's diamond that's the hardest substance - not gold!"  A few perfunctory chuckles greeted his quip, then the same deathly silence settled back over the gathering.

Professor Kirkus took over the dais.  "We thank all of you here for sharing this special occasion with us - an occasion that transcends the events surrounding it.  What's a little rain? what is the autumn chill? what is a broken shovel in comparison to the extraordinary achievements we have come here to honor?  The image we shall all take away with us is the image of fifteen noble citizens - the first citizens of St. Louis - seated by our sides in solemn dignity.  Let us all stand up and, by inclining our heads, direct our gratitude to our guests of honor - the ones who made all of this possible."

Everyone stood, everyone inclined their heads; then everyone walked to their cars, got in, and left, some headed northeast on Interstate 44 to St. Louis; some southwest to Springfield; others making their way to US 50, to Jefferson City and Kansas City - the Vice President in the latter group, his limousine heading for Jefferson City.  "Step on it," he told his driver, "I have a three o'clock meeting with the governor."

One week later, and by chance on the second anniversary of Bradley Jerome Carter's finding his new son, the real ground breaking ceremony was held, at the site where the project would actually begin: the point where Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska touched - a point southeast of Cheyenne, northeast of Denver, northwest of Sterling - where Kimball County, Nebraska, Weld County, Colorado and Laramie County, Wyoming met.  The dignitaries were all helicoptered in; no road abutted the bluff where the dais was set up.

The President of the United States attended the ceremony; the Tungs did not.  The governors of the six states the project would touch attended; the ruling bodies of the cities nearest the project did not.  This was a national, not a regional, and decidedly not a local, event.  The guests had been carefully chosen by Professor Kirkus to reflect the true scope of the project.

This time it didn't rain; this time the shovel didn't break.  This time it went without a hitch: a smooth, clean ceremony.

"Not to diminish the important contribution made by the Tungs and all the other city leaders," the President said as a kind of after note when his dedication was nearly complete, "but not to overstate it either.  This was conceived to be; is; and will continue to be a national undertaking.  We welcome - indeed: we invite - local participation; but the ultimate control is in our hands.  This is our project.  Begun this the nineteenth day of October in the year of our lord 2052."

Here the President, tall and regal, took the spade and, with it, turned up the symbolic clod of earth.  Everyone applauded.

"Thank you Mr. President," said Gorham Kirkus.  "And thank all of you for attending this ceremony.  And each one of you here: please accept my invitation to join us eighteen years hence, to celebrate the completion of what began today."

Everyone returned to their respective helicopters to be taken back home, or wherever they needed to be next.  The President's helicopter headed due north; he had a meeting in Regina, Saskatchewan with the Canadian Prime Minister, to discuss certain unusual weather disturbances, associated with the Aurora Borealis, first noticed in the Northwestern Territory.  Nothing, of course, had been reported on any American or Canadian television or radio newscast; but the phenomenon had caught the attention of certain very high public officials on either side of the border.

The President's helicopter touched down at Ellsworth Air Force Base just outside Rapid City, South Dakota, where his official airplane was waiting to take him the rest of the way.  An hour and a half later, the plane crossed the border just a few miles northwest of the Montana-North Dakota boundary; minutes later it crossed tiny Couteau Lakes, just inside the Canadian border, which was shrouded in a dense fog.  Regina was no more than half an hour away.  The fog over Couteau grew brighter, as if an array of spotlights covered the surface.  The President commented on it to his Chief of Staff.  The plane encountered the same kind of fog a few minutes later; this time, instead of looking down on it, the plane was surrounded by it.  It grew brighter, exactly as the other fog had: as if lights had been turned on one by one.

"Is it a storm?" the President wondered aloud.  But there was neither lightening nor thunder, just a sense of something vaguely electrical, as if whatever was brightening the sky ought to be flashing and exploding.  Suddenly the President's plane lost all power, as if somehow short-circuited.  The engines stopped dead in mid-air.  The plane began losing altitude, at first slowly then rapidly.  Within seconds it crash landed on a plain between the Moose Jaw and Souris River just north of the town of Yellow Grass.  It didn't explode, it didn't crack up; it remained largely intact.  Inside, everyone was dead.

A party of teenagers out boating on Couteau Lakes was dead.  A group of hikers along Moose Jaw River, where the cloud that enveloped the President's plane descended, was dead.  The entire population of the town of Yellow Grass was dead.  Anyone the fog or the cloud touched before dissipating was dead.  In the span of fifteen minutes nearly four hundred people perished, all of them electrocuted.

"Absolutely unmistakable," the coroner who examined the bodies assured the Prime Minister of Canada.  "Every one of these people died as a result of electrocution."

A plane was summoned to return the body of the President to the States.  The medical officer on board confirmed the coroner's preliminary findings.  The plane left, heading south.  The Prime Minister's private jet left also, heading east to Ottawa.  Deep in the horizon, from nearly a thousand miles north, the unearthly shimmer of an Aurora Borealis could be seen from the height the jet was flying.  The Prime Minister shuddered as he pulled the curtain across the window.  "This can't be," he mumbled as he sat there with his chin resting on his hand and his head shaking slowly from side to side.

"My fellow Americans," the Vice President, that very evening, went on television to address the nation, "it is with great sadness that I announce to you the death of the President of the United States.  He died less than two hours ago in a plane crash outside of Omaha, Nebraska, as he was returning from a vacation in the Rocky Mountains.  It is therefore with the utmost seriousness that I must also inform you that, as prescribed by law, I was given the oath of office by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court twenty minutes ago in the Oval Office of the White House.  Even as I am speaking to you, plans for the President's funeral are being formalized.  You will be kept informed of the arrangements, as well as of any developments as they occur.  Good night, and may God bless and keep us."

The body of the President lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda for three days.  During that time the new President had a special task force review his predecessor's private papers, and another task force assess the state of the nation.  The morning of the funeral he called Professor Kirkus.

"This is the first chance I had to call you," he almost apologized.

"I understand," said Kirkus.  "The demands of the office are enormous.  A call to St. Louis cannot be the first order of business."

"True," the President agreed.  "But it may be the most important.  Gorham: I have a favor to ask - a very big favor."

"If I can be of any service -" Kirkus let his voice trail off.

"You can: to me and to this nation.  Gorham: I'd like you to be my Vice-President.  I need a man with your skills, your polish.  You're good at handling people - my predecessor was too: that's why he was chosen.  What do you say?"

"I'm honored by your request, Mr. President.  But I have to decline."

"I wish you'd reconsider."

"I prefer to be heard and not seen, Mr. President."

"Well, as long as I can count on your help and support," the new President reluctantly accepted Kirkus' decision.

"Absolutely," Kirkus assured him.

"It's a mess out there, Gorham.  The stiff's not even in the ground - you are coming to the funeral this afternoon, aren't you?"

"God willing."

"Good.  If I can swing it, I'd like to meet with you.  Four o'clock he goes in the hole: not even buried yet and the rumors are flying!  The T-Men are already calling it a cover-up - a God damn conspiracy!"

"That's good," Kirkus mused.

"You don't understand," the President countered.  "They're all but saying he was murdered - God damn the bastards!  That's the first thing I do - my first official act: I round their asses up!"

"If I may be so bold, Mr. President," Kirkus hesitated politely as he spoke; "you have a great deal to learn.  One T-Man on the loose is worth more to us than a thousand T-Men behind bars.  Let the rumors fly.  It's good for business.  Conspiracy?  Murdering the President?  Let them think it - better still: encourage them to think it.  It enhances our authority.  It puts the fear of Jesus in the masses."

"I do have a lot to learn, don't I?" the President admitted.

"Leave the past behind you," Kirkus advised.  "Your 'family' is not on the run, it isn't the outlaw any longer, hasn't been for two decades.  You're part of the ruling class now.  Act like it.  Accept insults and accusations gracefully.  You'll be amazed how easily and quickly they roll right off your back."

"Will you help me get the hang of running the country?"

"I'd be honored."

The President had unwittingly played into the T-Men's hands: they were planning to hijack his predecessor's plane at Omaha.  He could not have picked a worse spot to fake the plane's crash: the T-Men knew the plane could not have crashed at Omaha because they were there waiting for it.  What neither the T-Men nor the Vice-President knew was that Gorham Kirkus had learned of the kidnapping plot and, on the strength of it, had declined the President's offer to accompany him to Canada then back to St. Louis, by way of Omaha.  It was Kirkus who recommended the strategy of staging the plane crash at Omaha, thereby setting the 'conspiracy' in motion.  He sat back in his overstuffed leather chair in the Little Red Schoolhouse and smiled.  Then he called for his limousine to take him to the airport.

"I'll stop at the hospital first," he told the driver.

His wife had given birth early that morning.  Mother and daughter were reported to be doing well.  "I can only stay a moment," he told his wife.  "Have you decided what to name her?"

"I wish you'd decide with me," his wife said.

"She's a girl.  It's best if her mother names her.  She'll grow up to be smart - not special, like her brother, but smart.  An intelligent name would be in order.  A cute name, a precious name, a pretty little name wouldn't quite do.  Avoid the Mary's, the Betsy's, the Judy's, the Sally's.  Best to stay away, too, from the Regina's, the Victoria's: the special names.   Something like Dianne perhaps.  Or Leah.  Or maybe Darlene.  I'm sure you'll come up with something appropriate to her station in life."

Three hours later Professor Kirkus was being ushered into the White House.  After freshening up, he was invited to meet with the new President in the Oval Office.

"Exactly what way are the T-Men useful to us?" the President followed up his earlier conversation.

"There must be enemies of the State, at all times," Kirkus explained.

"Isn't there a danger they might eventually overthrow the government?"

"The trick is to choose your enemies carefully.  Real enemies, who might one day overpower you, you either absorb into your hierarchy or get rid of.  Paper tigers - like the T-Men, who'll never entirely win the sympathies of the masses - you allow to flourish.  We want the public to think we're truly a force to be reckoned with -"

"We are!" the new President emphatically proclaimed.

"There is no such thing," Kirkus corrected him.  "It's an illusion - all power is.  We stand with a spotlight positioned to magnify our image.  The trick is to get the public to accept the image as the man.  They must be made to fear us, on some fundamental level; yet need us, to protect them from the boogey man.  A very old game, exposed every generation since it began, yet still going strong.  Once the dynamic has been set in motion, it generates its own reason for being.  All you have to do is just keep stoking the engine."

"I've got to give them somebody's head on a platter, to let them know straight out I'm tough!" the President insisted.

"Of course you do - and you will," Kirkus promised.  "Omaha is unique, therefore ideal.  It has two rival gangs seeking to run the city.  Nowhere else has there been a stalemate going on so long.  What you have to do is choose one side over the other - it doesn't matter which.  Implicate one side in the conspiracy the T-Men invented.  Help the other side round them up and destroy them.  Once they're all destroyed, link them to the T-Men, undercut their credibility.  Works like a charm - believe me it does - every time."

The funeral ceremony was as brief as it was solemn.  A longer ceremony had been planned, but the body had started decomposing.  The same phenomenon that electrocuted the President so disrupted his cellular structure that the elastic tissue holding him together started disintegrating.  By the time the procession reached the cemetery an odor emanating from the coffin made it only too clear what was happening inside.  A few words were said by the White House Chaplain, then the coffin was lowered and, even as the guests were leaving, dirt was being thrown over it.  A representative of the T-Men was secretly in attendance.  "Either they killed him in such a way that the embalmers couldn't slow the decomposition," he wrote in a notebook, "or else he'd been dead a lot longer than anyone let on."  Professor Kirkus alone knew the man taking notes was not a reporter, as everyone else assumed, but a terrorist gathering evidence to be used against the Feds - the real "T-Men," whose name the terrorists had taken a century ago.  The trip back to St. Louis was extremely satisfying for the Director of Educational Authenticity.

The man whose sense of smell told him a conspiracy was afoot was the newest member of the T-Men, a man calling himself Ginger Bread, a small, wiry man with a complexion so swarthy he was often mistaken for an Indian or Pakistani.

"Did anyone follow you?" he was grilled upon his return to the Smoky Mountain retreat the T-Men had carefully, stealthfully established in the  shadow of the tree its leader remembered revering as a boy.

"No," he answered, positing the same answer to several follow-up questions.

"You're absolutely sure?" Paris Commune brought the round robin to a close.

"I'm absolutely sure," Ginger Bread swore.

"Okay," the leadership finally relented.  "What did you find out?"

Ginger Bread took out his notebook and, with the deliberate effort of someone who wishes to report his findings exactly, read the note he had made.  "Either they killed him in such a way that the embalmers couldn't slow the decomposition, or else he'd been dead a lot longer than anyone let on."

"What prompted that idea?" Paris asked.

"It doesn't say," he replied, then seemed to realize the absurdity of his reply and tried to work his way around it.  "I mean, it doesn't have to say: I was there as well as my notebook.  I mean, it was me writing.  What I mean is, the coffin gave off an odor.  I've never smelled it before, but I knew it was the smell of death, the smell of decomposing flesh: that's something you just know instinctively.  He couldn't have been dead only three days and smelled like that - even if he had not been embalmed at all.  Or else they killed him with something that cause his body to rot prematurely."

"What do you recommend?" Paris asked, in the manner of a teacher quizzing a student.

"We should open the coffin and exhume the body and take some tissue to examine," Ginger Bread suggested.

"We may have to," Paris agreed.  "In the meantime, go on in the compound.  We'll meet you later."

When Ginger Bread was out of earshot, Paris asked the other Council members for their opinion.  "Do you believe him?"  Each one said yes, they did.  "You don't think he would betray us?"  They said they did not.  "Good: he can live.  But we'll keep an eye on him.  The Louisiana militia has a history of sending us recruits who turn out to be traitors.  We'll keep an eye on him for awhile.  His foreign looks make him potentially worth his weight in gold to us.  I hope he works out.  But if not, there's a bullet in here with his name on it."

Each state had a militia; some states tolerated these private para-military organizations whose roots extended back at least a hundred years; some stated outlawed them; some actually tracked down and killed their members.  All of them had in time become affiliated with and, consequently, under the influence of the T-Men, the only militia of national stature, the only militia hunted by federal as well as state law officers. 

"The T-Men hunted us," the official literature told.  "Now they've changed their names, they've become Educational Enforcers.  So we've taken their name, and hunt them now.  They've killed more of us than we have them - but we're gaining ground.  Time is on our side.  More and more of the people are with us every year."

Each state militia was required by their affiliation to provide the T-Men, as a form of tribute, a certain number of recruits each year.  The death toll among new recruits was extremely high, partly because they were sent on the most dangerous missions, partly because they were always under a cloud of suspicion: at the least suggestion of treachery they were killed.  It was an arrangement wholly disagreeable to the militias, but one they accepted for the sake of the protection and unity the T-Men afforded.

"We couldn't get their number one man," Paris Commune announced to the Council at an impromptu meeting, "so we'll get their number two man."

"The VP: the new President?" someone asked.

"No, not the mobster," Paris answered.  "The Director of Educational Authenticity."

"But which one?" someone else asked.  "There are five."

"There's really just one," Paris explained.  "The whole thing is Kirkus' brainchild.  The others are just along for the ride.  But we'll get them all - the whole educational establishment of this nation.  They're going to be at the National Educational Center next month, where they'll unveil their latest testing strategy."

"My God!" Mount Everest exclaimed.  "How can there possibly be any other way left to test people?  They're tested forward and backward and upside-down and then rightside-up again!  Tested for every damn thing you can think of: are they smart enough? are they productive enough? are they cooperative enough? obedient enough? dedicated enough? competitive enough?  What else is there to test?"

"It has to do with DNA."

"They already do that: to see if you're diseased or not."

"No, this is something else.  They've developed a way to measure your degree of social responsibility - or so they claim."

"They've already got more personality tests than anyone can ever evaluate!"

"They wanted something new.  They always want some new way to get the same old result.  The new and improved model, the latest and greatest: you know the pitch.  We've learned a lot from their mistakes.  When we finally take over, we'll have a pretty clear picture of how not to run the country.  Once we have Kirkus we'll take a lot of the wind out of their sails."

"Paris: we could have gotten him anytime we wanted," another Council member reminded.                                                                    

"Oh no.  No, indeed.  The Tungs watch him like a flock of hawks.  He's 'their man' but they don't trust him.  They never let him get more than a few feet or a couple hours out of their sight.  But they won't be in Reston, Virginia.  Security will be at a minimum.  We'll get them - him.  We'll set the course of education back twenty years!"

A cheer arose among the Council.

"They've made education a dirty word," Paris asserted.  "We'll clean it up.  They've made it just another cog in the great production machine this nation's become.  They've taken learning out of a man's soul and put in in his job description.  We need to take it out of the schools and put it back where it belongs.  We used to think corporal punishment was the worst thing that happened to our children in the schoolroom; the mere act of being taught now wears that mantle.  The schools have become factories where worker bees are fashioned.  Kirkus didn't start all that, it's been that way longer than he's been around.  He only perfected it.  People never pay attention to titles or they'd realize what he's all about.  He has exactly one more month to authenticate the education of America - then he's history."

"Why kidnap them?" Mount Everest asked.  "Why not just kill them and be done with it?"

"We can always kill them later," Paris pointed out.  "First we have to get them."

"We can always kill them later," Professor Kirkus repeated Paris Commune's words - words reported to him through his network of spies.  He knew, in detail, what the T-Men were planning, when it would take place, where, and even how it was to be accomplished.

"The trick," he told the FBI Director, "is to not let them know I know.  The strategy is to be rescued at the very last minute."

"You can't seriously be planning to go to the conference?" the Director asked in disbelief.

"Wouldn't miss it for the world," Kirkus replied.  "More to the point, I would not for the world do anything to tip my hand.  If I don't go, I run the risk of blowing my cover, so to speak.  I have to be there.  You have to see to it I'm not taken captive."

"Let's just round these clowns up, once and for all!" the Director declared."

"No, we can't: we won't.  You forget: all the bad guys your organization was created to fight and you've fought ever since its creation have now become the good guys.  The crime syndicate runs the country, more or less; they've become legitimate; the drug lords run the cities: they too bear the stamp of legitimacy; only the states are a throw-back to the way it used to be, a kind of no-man's land that still exist only from custom - the same bunch of crooks who always ran them still cling to the helm by a thumbnail.  There have to be bad guys running around out there, to make it all look good.  Their existence authenticates the apparatus of state.  I'm amazed how often I have to keep reminding others what power is all about.  We don't round up those whose actions justify ours.  I'd sooner take my chance of being kidnapped than risk being found out.  Wouldn't you?"

The day of the conference was cold and damp, with a bone-chilling breeze from the northeast.  The conferees hurried into the low brown brick building that looked like almost every other building in Reston; and made their way to the main hall, a kind of overgrown classroom with chalkboards and wooden folding chairs lined up in a series of rows facing the slightly raised platform where the guests of honor would momentarily position themselves.

When everyone in attendance was seated, five individuals - four men and one woman - entered from a sliding door to the left of the platform and took their places.  Professor Gorham Kirkus, remaining seated, began the conference.

"It isn't to stress informality that I didn't arise but rather to indicate that this is to be a working conference, in which we all participate equally - and all are expected to participate.  The five of us are each merely one of many.  We've set the agenda, true; but haven't set it in concrete: it's subject to change.  The important thing is neither agenda nor arrangement - and most certainly not ceremony - but education.  And, as time has shown again and again, the working dynamic that drives education is testing.  Learning, as we all know, is one of the prime social responsibilities - but without adequate testing to ensure compliance, it becomes just so much empty air.  We're not here just to discuss and design testing strategies and paradigms - there's much more to address as well - but it's number one on our list of priorities.  What new methods and technologies are available to us, and how might we best incorporate them into the ongoing goal of getting and keeping the most productive workforce anywhere in the world: that might not be the entire task but it's the greatest task facing us."

Dozens of methods of testing the populace were put forth during the next two days.  Some were taken under consideration; most were rejected as either unworkable or too expensive; but a few were adopted.  Chief among those adopted was a plan to use DNA to help police the workplace.  Anti-social behavior had been linked to certain banding along the DNA spectrum.  They would look for that banding among the workers; upon finding it, appropriate action would be taken.

"We need something uniform," a consensus regarding the proposed action was reached.  "We can't let each municipality dispose of its anti-social workers in its own way.  This is too important to leave in local hands.  We don't want one person boiled in oil over here and another frozen in a block of ice over there.  It's up to us to set the standard, and then compel everyone's acceptance of it.  Education is our specialty, our stronghold; we cannot allow local mentality to prevail."

The third, and final, day of the conference ended with a formal dinner at six in the evening.  All the conferees attended.  All the men were in tuxedos, the women in evening gowns.  At six-thirty the caterers came in.  At six forty-five their throats were slit in the kitchen and their clothes stripped from their bodies.  At seven the new caterers entered the dining hall, each brandishing an automatic gun under his apron.  At a signal from Paris, dressed as the head chef, the aprons were thrown aside, the weapons taken up.

"Everyone here," Paris announced: "You are all our prisoners.  Do not move, do not speak, or you will be killed."

Several of the women started screaming, several men tried to make it to the door: all were gunned down.

"I warned you," said Paris.  "Now I'm warning you again: do not move, do not speak, or you will be killed."

This time everyone complied.  "Take your hands out of your pocket - slowly!" Paris ordered Professor Kirkus, who removed his hands.  But it was already too late.  His index finger had already tripped the pager the Director of the FBI was carrying  Within second the building was completely surrounded.  Through a megaphone the Director ordered the T-Men to surrender.

"Throw down your weapons and come out with your hands on top of your heads!" he hollered into the phone.  As he spoke, Professor Kirkus counted silently, his lips moving ever so faintly with each number.  When he got to ten, he slipped almost unnoticed through an open doorway he had been standing directly in front of.  And as he did, the FBI agents stormed the dining hall.  A volley of shots rang out.  A third of the T-Men, half of the agents, and two-thirds of the conferees were wounded or killed in the exchange of gunfire, which lasted for ten minutes before the remaining T-Men, led by Paris Commune, escaped through the same door Kirkus had earlier used to make his escape.  And, like him, they quickly disappeared into the night.

While the other four Authenticators had been killed in the skirmish with the FBI, Professor Kirkus was driven to safety in the car waiting for him outside.  As the T-Men made their way to their truck, which had been left half a mile beyond the Center, they saw the car speeding away.

"He knew," Mount Everest concluded as the truck drove out of Reston onto the Dulles Airport road.  "Kirkus knew we were coming."

Paris shook his head.  "He wouldn't have been there if he'd known," he countered.  "But clearly someone knew," he added.  "Someone whose job it is to pry information out of traitors."

"You know who the traitor is?" Mount Everest asked.

"Has to be the new man."

The truck drove all night.  There was very little conversation.  Mount Everest asked why the caterers' throats had been slit.  "We never killed innocent bystanders before," he pointed out.  "Why this time?"

"They were serving our enemies - the enemies of the people.  They were no longer innocent."

"Everyone serves the enemy - in one way or another," Mount Everest observed.

"Then perhaps everyone's throat should be slit!" Paris suggested.

As dawn broke, the truck arrived at the Great Smoky Mountains.  The wind had picked up from the southwest, making the spruce and oaks sloped along the foothills look like they were shadow boxing against the rising sun.  Just outside Waynesville, North Carolina, the truck left Interstate 40 for US 19, continuing westward to the Cherokee Indian Reservation, where it picked up US 441, than a series of narrow winding back roads leading eventually to Clingman's Dome.

"Send him out," was all Paris said when he and the other survivors emerged from the truck.

The new recruit from Louisiana - Ginger Bread - appeared momentarily.  He approached at first eagerly; then, as if something suddenly told him of danger, he slowed his pace almost to a standstill.  Paris approached him.

"I think you know what I have to do," Paris said as he pulled out his revolver.

"But why?" the new recruit, whose face had suddenly gone as sallow as a corpse's, cried out.  "I didn't do anything!  I swear it!"

"I have no way of knowing that," Paris said as he raised the gun.

"Please!  Dear God, please!  I'm innocent!  I didn't do anything!  As God is my witness -"

The word "witness" was his last.  The bullet struck him in the middle of the forehead.  He reeled.  He was so close to the edge of the north face of Clingman's dome that he lost his balance and fell back.  His hand reached instinctively, grabbing a branch of a tree which was itself barely clinging to the side of the mountain.  In death his hand clung like a vise to the spindly needled branch; it had to be pried loose so that his body could be buried.

"Do you think he told them about our hideout?" Paris was asked.

"We'll give it a couple weeks, we'll watch, see what develops.  This is my home, but if we start to feel like we're being observed we'll pack up and go."

Within a week something happened that convinced Paris and his followers to stay.  Their old hideout near the town of Recluse in Wyoming was destroyed.  A small armada of planes flew overhead in the middle of the night, releasing a volley of bombs that set everything within a mile's radius of the hideout ablaze.  The fire burned uncontrollably for two days before it was finally contained.  When the embers had cooled sufficiently to allow a rescue team to enter what was once the main compound, all they found was a few dozen tiny mounds of charred bones scattered about.  The bodies had been burned beyond all possible recognition.

Every newspaper in the nation carried the same headline: "Headquarters of T-Men burns to the ground.  No survivors."

"No one could have survived that inferno," the coroner pronounced.  "We will never know for sure how many perished in the blaze.  All we can say is that the bones are human.  There is a point, however, beyond which all identification is impossible.  No one will ever know whose bones they are."

The head of the Educational Enforcers, a former hit man for the Chicago syndicate, a man hand picked by the Director of Educational Authenticity, was asked if the entire leadership of the T-Men could be presumed dead.  "As far as we're concerned, they can.  That doesn't mean we can relegate the organization itself to the historical dust bin just yet.  Like the Hydra, new heads can and very well may spring up to replace the old."

The T-Men, from their new hideout in Tennessee, reading every paper they could get their hands on, listening to every report their radios and televisions could pick up, were more astounded by the news than anyone else in the nation - not only because they were hearing and reading of their own demise but because they had no idea how human bones came to be in their old hideout or whose bones they could possibly be.

"You don't suppose the local militia moved in?" one of the Council members asked at an informal gathering.

"No," the one man in the organization who had expressed the least surprise at the bizarre turn of events replied, "it wasn't them."

"Then who could it have been?"


"What kind of transients?" another Council member asked.

"The compound was turned into a homeless shelter," Paris Commune explained.  "All the bodies were nameless, faceless beings clinging to our castoffs."

Mount Everest, taking in the conversation from an easy chair in front of a bay window where he sat smoking his pipe and looking out at the night sky, shook his head wearily, as if finally it had all fallen into place and now made some sense.  "Of course," he said.  "What is it they say about the good deed never going unpunished?"

"To the contrary," Paris interjected.  "This particular deed was very well rewarded indeed."

Mount Everest looked at his leader strangely, as if trying to make a connection between the two disparate pieces of conversation.

"You're puzzled," Paris observed.  "It's very simple: we got to kill two birds with one stone - a handful of bombs in this case.  If the Feds attacked, as we knew they would eventually, there'd be a body count, which satisfies their requirements.  Even if they knew it wasn't us, they'd say it was.  As it turns out, they can say it without the slightest fear of contradiction.  Plus, a wretched, miserable, disgusting herd of worthless human garbage was disposed of.  There is no place in a decent society - and, make no mistake, there will be no place in our society - for those who refuse to carry their own weight.  The homeless, the shiftless - the vermin of this earth - will not be welcome in the world we help create.  They're of no earthly value to anyone on this planet - just a worthless pile of bones moving from place to place feeding on other's labors.  They've stopped moving now - a few of them at least.  Where in life they sucked the very air from our lungs, in death they afford us some room to breathe a little more freely.  Not a bad trade-off."

"I don't know you anymore," Mount Everest muttered under his breath as he returned to his pipe, his chair, his unobstructed view of the heavens.

The assassin smeared the blood of his victims across his forehead before returning to his cave.  He saw ten million people die that day.  He plotted his revenge meticulously, laying out every step of the way on a big grid.  He hadn't planned on watching ten million die, but he did, barely an hour before carrying out his own plan.  On a small screen he watched the beast slowly inch its way toward its victims; they never knew what hit them.  They were expecting a gentle monsoon as they always did this time of year; instead they got a monster, a super cyclone, a beast that stalked the Indian Ocean.  It started as a howling storm off the coast of Antarctica, then slowly pushed its way northward to tropical waters, where it stalled long enough to gain strength before beginning its murderous journey to the Indian subcontinent.  A giant blob with a tiny hole in its center swam up the Bay of Bengal like a great white shark chasing its own tailfin.  It carried winds of two hundred miles an hour beneath its billowing lid.  Then all at once it lunged onto the land, covering in an instant everything from Calcutta to Rangoon.  By the time its southernmost winds reached shore it had murdered ten million people.  Then it moved to the Himalayas, where it clung to the slopes long enough to dump fifty feet of snow and ice before disappearing in a whiff of smoke.

The tornado had been thwarted though, its path blocked by human intelligence.  "You may not have these victims!" it was told by those who watched it develop then trailed it from its lair to the schoolhouse.  "You may not take these children!" the gauntlet was thrown in its path.  No one can stop a tornado, but in clearing its path they can remove its victims from its clutches.

Eight feet of snow surrounding his cabin could not keep Sanderson Spears from wetting his finger to feel the wind's direction.  No one saw him and his young companion for four and a half months.  No one could get near the weather station; neither Spears nor Joey could roam beyond the length of the giant pine trees' shadows.  Joey did his best to keep a tiny trail open from the cabin to a small lookout where he could go, and stand, and look around, and clear his mind when the loneliness of his apprenticeship to this man totally immersed in his work overwhelmed him.

"What do you do out there?" Spears asked him once.  "Boy stuff?"

"I didn't think you ever noticed I was gone," Joey replied.

"I've got eyes in the back of my head, kid."

"Do you think I'll ever learn this weather stuff?" Joey asked.

Spears shook his head.  "No," he answered.  "But keep trying."

"I wish I were smart," Joey said.

"So do I.  It's a shame they didn't have that smart stuff back when you were born."

"What's that?"

"It's some kind of biological concoction they inject into your brain to make you smart."

"Is that what you have?" Joey asked.

"No, they didn't have it then.  Now they do.  Smart matter.  And good matter, for the masses -"

"That's what I have!" said Joey.

"What?  You have good matter?"

"Yeah, my dad told me they gave me that.  It was brand new.  To make kids good."

"Did it work?" Spears asked.

"I guess," Said Joey.  "I think I was a good kid growing up.  Just not too smart - but neither were any of the other kids I grew up with, so it didn't matter.  And at school they didn't expect a whole lot.  Just to learn a trade so I'd be productive when I grew up.  I never cared that I wasn't smart - not till now.  I wish now they had given me smart matter so I could learn the things you're trying to teach me, so I could be your assistant.  I wonder who they do give smart matter to?"

"Rich kids!"

"Yeah, I guess they do have to be smart," Joey acknowledged.

"There's supposed to be a third one, too," Spears mentioned.  "But no one talks about it, or knows anything about it, or what it does, or who it's for.  Special matter, for special kids.  Oh well, let them stuff anything into their babies heads they want; just leave me the hell alone to watch the weather take shape."

Only rarely did the boy shed tears.  Sometimes at night he thought of his father, and cried.  Sanderson Spears could hear him, a few feet away, in the cot Jim Jones had brought to the cabin for him, but never went to him.  Sometimes the angry words of his mentor reduced him to tears, and he would go outside to his lookout and let the icy Sierra wind dry his tears.  Once Spears followed him, stood at a distance watching him cry, but never went to him.

"You stupid idiot!" was a daily taunt as one thing after another Spears asked the boy to do went awry.

"Just don't ever go near any of my equipment again - you hear me?" Spears raged after the boy had dropped and nearly ruined a delicate computer hook up.  "And if I'm ever stupid enough to ask you to, kick me in the balls and spit in my eyes: you got that?  Huh?  Answer me: you got that?"

The boy could barely speak.  "Yes," he managed somehow to get out before turning to run out of the cabin.

"One day you're going to push him too far, you God-damn ass-hole!" Spears scolded himself.  "And you'll never see him again - which is exactly what you deserve, you fucking idiot!  He can't help being stupid: they made him stupid, the filthy shit-eating sons of whores!  They took a decent, normal kid and made him stupid, so he'd be more manageable.  Damn them all to hell - damn their stinking souls to the deepest, darkest, dirtiest pit in hell!"

On a late afternoon in April, as the spring thaw was setting in, a sunset that cast a reddish golden glow across the entire horizon and shot flaming shafts up to the mid heaven drew the boy and the weatherman to the lookout.  Both stood in awe of the sky.

"This is how I know there's a God," said Joey.

"This is how I know there isn't," said Spears.

"Do you remember when I thought you were queer?" asked Joey.  "And I offered to let you use me for sex?  I knew God would condemn me to hell if I did it, but at the same time He would know it was right for me to do it.  God loves us, but He will send us to hell if He has to."

"God sucks."

"That's blasphemy," Joey warned.

"No, it's not.  Anyone who would condemn someone whose heart is that pure deserves only contempt."

"I don't want you to go to hell, Sandy - I know you hate the name Sandy, and I'll never call you that again.  But I just had to call you that, just this once."

The sunset began turning gray, all at once, till it nearly vanished in a zigzag of clouds layered across the horizon.  Joey turned to go back to the cabin.  "You coming?" he asked the weatherman.

"In a minute," Spears replied.  "You go ahead.  Remember: to a weatherman these gray clouds are every bit as beautiful as the sunset."

When the boy was out of earshot, Spears whispered "You can call me Sandy anytime you want.  And I'll follow you anywhere," he added as an ironic grin contorted his mouth.

For the next three winters the same scene played out, as Joey grew from a teen to a young man and Sanderson Spears became more and more obsessed with his equipment and his weather.  Each winter the other members of the weather station said good-bye; each spring they returned to reestablish the link the snows had temporarily broken.  Ten feet of snow ushered in the second winter; the boy had to shovel twice as hard to make it to his lookout.  Six feet the next winter.  And eight feet again the fourth winter.

"This is where I came in," seventeen year old Joey quipped as he measured the first snowfall of the season.

"Joey: you should go stay with one of the guys," Spears suggested.  "They've all said you could.  That way you'll be around people.  You'd meet girls.  You need that.  What do you say?"

"If you tell me to go, I'll go.  If you give me a choice, I'll stay."

When the spring came and the snow thawed and the mountain passes began opening up, something happened that had never happened there before.  Sanderson Spears saw it first.  The moment the others arrived he told them of it, promising to show them the next time it happened.  Barely a week had gone by when it happened again.

Everyone in the weather station stared in awe at the series of screens before them.  Hence, Riegen, Smith, Jim Jones Princeton - even Betty Princeton and the two boys - all acted as if in the presence of a new life form.  "Look but do not touch" was the essence of their mesmerism.

"We don't get that weather pattern here," Jim Jones said in utter disbelief.

"To get here," Pete Hence speculated, reaching for a map of the States as if to support his claim, "anything from the Gulf of Mexico would have to cross hundreds of miles of semi-arid land plus the Rocky Mountains.  And the Gulf of California isn't big enough to generate that kind of weather system."

"Besides which," added Joe Riegen "the Sierras would tear it to pieces before anything from the north or west could reach it."

"The storms that blow in off the Gulf have almost doubled their intensity," Sanderson Spears announced in the manner of revealing a trump card.  "Even as spotty as the network of radar's become, I've seen storms tear through Tornado Alley that I know had to spawn dozens - maybe hundreds - of twisters.  And I've seen storms rip through Mexico, cross the Sierra Madres and come up the Arizona desert."

Jonas and Jimmie Princeton turned to their father.  "Are we going to have a tornado?" they each asked in turn, their excitement growing with every subsequent question they asked.  "Will it tear the roof off the schoolhouse and the shopping mall?  Will we all have to climb down into the cellar?  Can we watch it?  Will it pick up cattle, and bears, and dogs and cats?"

"I don't know," was all Jim Jones could say.  "We'll just have to wait and see."

"Is it likely?" Betty asked her husband, who turned to Spears as if for some kind of definitive answer.

"Is it likely?" Spears pondered the question a moment.  "I would say it's inevitable."

"But how would a tornado set in these mountain passes?" Winnell Smith interjected.  "They're not its natural habitat.  It could only touch down then dissipate almost immediately.  Would it be long enough to do any major damage, do you think?"

"That would all depend where it hits," Jim Jones pointed out.

The evening of April 15th witnessed an outbreak of tornadoes throughout the central plains that dwarfed anything in anyone's memory or anything in the record books.  Over two hundred separate tornadoes were registered on Sanderson Spears' equipment.  The meteorologists stared in disbelief as one after another cropped up on the radar that relayed them almost instantly to Spears' terminals.  What the radar did not pick up or relay was the patch of destruction wrought by each storm.  Even so, Spears had become so adept at extrapolating effects from their causes, his instinct so attuned to the interplay of weather and landscape, that just by watching the swirls and squiggles of varying color intensities he could pinpoint to within half a mile the site and to within a few percentage points the degree of destruction.

"There goes the Veterans Hospital in Topeka!" a deep red flash prompted him to say, followed a few seconds later with "Say goodbye to the Experimental Farm at Alliance, Nebraska!", then "Kiss Texarkana goodbye!"

"Isn't anybody warning them?" Betty Princeton asked.

"Probably not," her husband replied.


"Because it isn't safe to warn anybody of anything," Jim Jones reminded his wife.  "You know: the one about the messenger being blamed for the bad news."

"What if it happens here, like Sanderson says it will?" Betty then asked.  "Would we warn people?"

Everyone looked back and forth at each other, as if hoping someone else would speak.  "We would, wouldn't we?" Betty insisted to know.

"It's a decision we're not likely ever to have to make," Jim Jones said.

'But you just heard what Sanderson said!  Jim: we have two sons!  Would we want someone who knew they were in danger to just sit there and do nothing?"

"If there is a tornado - and yes, I do think Sanderson's right: there almost certainly will be - even if there's a thousand, it make no difference.  We have no mechanism for warning anyone."

"He's right, Betty," Winnell Smith added.  "It's not like the mid-west, where they have - or had, and hopefully still have the remnants of - a tornado warning system.  We have nothing here but word of mouth.  And when you have only minutes before it hits, it's impossible to get the word out."

Pete Hence and Joe Riegen each added his own variant of what they all clearly saw as a way out of a dilemma.  "That's true," Pete offered, "we don't have any way to get the warning out quickly enough."  "We'd need to be in the right place literally at the right time and we'd need something of the equivalent decibel level of a siren."

"If nothing else we could use the telephone," Betty half-heartedly suggested - a suggestion the two boys immediately picked up on.

"I could dial - I'm real fast - aren't I?  I can dial all ten numbers in about three seconds!" Jonas boasted.

"And I can talk really loud into a phone - isn't that what you always tell me: I could wake up the dead?" Jimmie maintained.

"Hey, slow down, guys," said Jim Jones. "As fast - and as loud - as you guys are, you couldn't get to everyone in time to warn them."

"So we just do nothing?" Betty again asked.

"There are options," Sanderson Spears finally spoke up.  "Not ideal ones, but possibilities."  Everyone turned to him.

"Like what?" they prompted.

"The factories all have the old-fashioned kind of public address systems - they're practically antiques; except that they've computerized their timing and messaging mechanisms.  A whistle blows when the workday begins, then again at lunch, then when the day ends.  I can break in, anytime of the day."

"With a warning siren, you mean?" Pete Hence asked.

"That too," Spears acknowledged.  "Except they wouldn't know what it meant.  Instead of that, just break in with a verbal announcement.  I could also jam the airwaves - TV or radio.  That's another option."

"How?" asked Joe Riegen.

"I have the equipment I need."

"How'd you get it?" Jim Jones asked.  "And where?  And when?"

"A little at a time," Spears explained.  "Whenever I could, any way I could."

"So that means we can warn people!" Betty eagerly concluded.

"Which puts us right back where we started," Jim Jones concluded.

A week later it happened - the inevitability Spears alluded to.  The mountain air was unusually warm for this time of year, and unusually humid.  From the western slopes the white band of a cold front crept slowly along the spine of the mountain peaks, one by one blanketing each peak it passed over.  By mid-morning a strong breeze from the south began coughing up dried pine needles and the myriad twigs that had blown loose during the long winter; in ravines and narrow valleys nearly choking the air with debris.  By mid-day the slow ridge of frigid air completely engulfed the Sierras and began to descend into the mountain passes.

A tiny spark, which opened a path to a jolt of electricity, marked the first volley in a war for control of the region.  The warm Gulf air had laid claim to it but the clouds of ice wanted it back, so they faced off and began their deadly combat, all the while the desert wind silently circling the combatants in ever narrowing bands.

Sanderson Spears watched the battle take shape on his monitors until he could stand it no longer.  He summoned the other meteorologists.  When they arrived, and before he could say a word, the giant anvil cloud stretching from Squaw Valley eastward into Lake Tahoe, and ringed with lightening, told them why they were here.

"Before the afternoon's over," said Spears, "at least one tornado will have touched down.  We've got to be absolutely precise as to where, and whether it threatens any inhabited areas.  It's no longer a question of if we should issue a warning but when and to whom."

For over an hour they watched the storm grow in size and intensity as it slowly continued across Lake Tahoe.  When it reached the eastern shore, and appeared to be headed straight for Carson City, it veered slightly north, cutting a path over Washoe Lake.  From there it kept its northeasterly course, its true target at last revealed.

"All we need now," Spears announced to his fellow meteorologists, "is to determine which part of town it's most like to hit.  You guys know what to look for.  Don't take your eyes off your monitor.  We'll have - if we're lucky - ten, maybe fifteen, minutes to get the word out."

They no sooner returned to the task of monitoring the storm than a sudden burst of color on each screen simultaneously pinpointed the vortex within the thunderhead that would become tornadic.

"What's over there?" Joey, who had been observing what the others were doing, asked.

"A school," Spears answered.

"Not 'a' school," Jim Jones corrected him: "'the' school!  The olive branch, the peace offering, between the Spurs and the Silvers."

"What do you mean?" Spears asked.

"The two gangs fought for years, then finally made a truce and built a school in Virginia City - roughly halfway between Reno and Carson City - where the children of both cities go."

"Jim: you call the school," Spears ordered.  "Joe: you make the announcement on the radio - I'll give you the word when I'm ready to jam their signal.  Pete: you'll make the announcement over the PA Systems once I'm ready with that."

"Sanderson," Jim Jones suggested as he dialed, "let's just leave it at calling the school.  Evacuate the kids.  That's all we need to do."

Momentarily Jim Jones was on the phone with the principal of the school warning him of the impending danger.  "Take the kids away from the school.  There's a ravine a couple hundred yards behind the school: take them all there.  Keep them as low to the ground as you can.  Do it now, this instant!"

As he was hanging up he heard Joe Riegen and Pete Hence making the announcements Spears had ordered them to make.  When the announcements had been made and the jamming signals ended, he repeated his earlier concern.

"We're just asking for trouble, doing more than we need to," Jim Jones said.  "I just hope and pray there are no repercussions."

"People have buried their heads in the sand long enough," Spears retorted.  "It's time to wake them up.  Oh my God!  There it goes!  There it goes!"

Every monitor in the room showed the same thing, from the varying angles indicated by the radar which fed into each.  A tornado touched down, in the exact spot the meteorologists predicted.  Their warning had been heeded; the school had been emptied in time.  All the children, as well as the teachers and staff, had been saved.  The school was a jumble of smashed windows, caved-in roofs, fallen walls, twisted girders and splintered desks.  But the children of Reno and Carson City were safe.  For one moment in time the meteorologists were heroes.  A week later they were dead.

April 15, 2054 became known as Windy Wednesday - not as facetious or sardonic understatement, but as the only official designation allowed.  The more than two hundred tornadoes that ripped a path from eastern New Mexico to central Wisconsin left the Plains so devastated that it never recovered.  Places like Texarkana were never rebuilt; bodies were left in the rubble.  For days cries for help were heard throughout the Mid-West.  Some were attended to and victims trapped in fallen buildings were rescued; most were ignored, and the victims eventually died.  Some of the victims were not yet dead when clean-up operations began; they were bulldozed or swept up with the debris, the need to clear the land as quickly as possible the only consideration.                                                                            

The elegant Central West End of St. Louis was devastated by a monstrous tornado that swept through Forest Park, zigzagged along Kingshighway Boulevard, careened across the Private Streets District then returned to its hiding place in a thick gray cloud which transported it to Peoria, Illinois, where it played havoc before going back into hiding.  It missed Bradley Jerome Carter's home by barely a hundred yards.  He knew nothing of his home and his family's close call, however; he was on his way to one of his factories, at the southernmost tip of the city, near the suburb of LeMay.  He had gotten word of its having been hit by a small tornado.  Damage was minimal, but the wing that housed the administrative offices had been ripped apart.  The entire management staff was believed to have been killed.  He could not afford to let his workers go unsupervised; they were in the midst of a major order, it had to get out by the end of the week.

When he arrived, he found the power out, and the workers huddled beside the fence that surrounded the factory.  He called the Chairman of the Missouri Power Company and demanded a crew be sent immediately to restore power to his factory.  Then he proceeded to his workers.

"Power will be restored within the hour," he informed them.  "I want every one of you at his workstation and ready to begin the moment the power comes on.  Anyone who's not, will answer to me.  Now move it, all of you."

"We're afraid it might come back," one of the workers said.

"Then I suggest you work twice as fast and get the work I pay you for finished before it does!" Carter retorted.

Half an hour later the factory was again in full operation.  Under Carter's personal and unwavering supervision the crew worked feverishly through the night to make up for lost time: time lost literally, because of the tornado, compounded by the loss of the management team, whose expertise drove the whole operation.

At six A.M. Carter, satisfied with the progress made during the night, allowed the whistle signaling the end of the shift to be blown.  "You may leave now," he announced over the PA.  "I expect all of you back here at three P.M. to begin your regular shift.

During the night Carter had assembled another management team.  It would arrive at eight A.M., in concert with the first shift of the day.  He planed to return to the factory in the early afternoon, following a meeting with his new subcontractors on the Mid-West project - a meeting scheduled for six-thirty A.M., across town.  He got in his car and sped away; and, as he did, he heard a loud screeching noise, like the sound of sheet metal being twisted in a vise.  He looked in his rear view mirror and saw cars being tossed in the air like rubber balls.  He stopped, backed up to get a better view, saw that the cars had stopped moving and settled into various postures.  Cries for help reaching beyond the compound gate made it clear that at least some of the cars had pinned some of his workers to the ground when they settled in.  Then, as quickly as it began, the screeching and the movement stopped.  When Carter had assured himself there was no damage to the factory, he turned once again to the road and sped away.

Everyone was assembled and waiting in the conference room of the Majestic Hotel.  Carter realized long before he reached the ten-hundred block of Pine Street that he was running ten minutes late.  The twister that tossed his workers' cars around had also thrown debris in the roadway, necessitating a detour, which added ten minutes to his trip.  He apologized for being late.  From all around the room came expressions of understanding.

"Tornado notwithstanding," he said, "it's unacceptable being late for an appointment.

Ten minutes later Professor Gorham Kirkus, who had called the meeting, entered the conference room.  "Thank you for coming," he greeted his guests.  "We have important work to do here this morning, so let me get right to the point: we're falling behind schedule.  Gentlemen, ladies: let me make one thing absolutely clear: this is not - repeat: not - a 'cost-overrun' situation, where we milk the public cow for all we can get out of her.  Nor is this a 'make-work' project calculated to satisfy some bureaucratic budgetary requirement.  Neither is it the pet project of some political leader eager to capture the hearts, minds and votes of the populace.  It was not conceived to enhance anything ancillary to itself.  It is that rarest of the rare: a thing entirely in and of and for itself.  The irreducible primary; that beyond which you cannot go.  You were chosen for your ability to get things done; had we wanted anything less, we would not have farmed it beyond our own ranks.  But you're not getting things done.  Why?"

Carter looked around the room at his subcontractors, stopping a moment at each separate face.  "I second that opinion," he announced.  "I too want to know why we're falling behind schedule.  I've secured the financing, I've cut away the red tape.  All the rest of you have to do is do the job you were contracted to do.  Why haven't you?"

"There've been unforeseen problems," someone suggested.

"There always are," Carter countered.  "If there weren't, any Joe off the street corner could manage it."

"These are not normal problems," someone else offered.  "We can deal with equipment failure, with illness, with topographical and geological anomalies - even with excessive rain, or dryness, or heat or cold.  Discontented workers, threatened strikes, boycotts: we know how to handle them.  But these things - my God: these things!"

"I've had men's skulls pierced by hailstones."  "I've had whole crews burned to death and pieces of equipment almost melted by some kind of lightening."  "I've had bulldozers picked up and tossed around like they were child's toys - and nobody sees what's doing it!  It's not a tornado: I don't know what it is!"  "We dig a trench, next thing we know we're burying our workers in it!"

Each contractor had his own horror story to tell.  Carter and Kirkus listened to the tales before dismissing them.

"I've seen these things," Carter said.  "I've been in them, I've come through them.  And I can tell you this much: there is no obstacle nature can set in your path that a man determined to do his job can't find a way around.  We don't want and won't accept excuses.  We want men who can get the job done, and we're willing to pay them whatever it takes."

"We pay them top dollar already," one of the contractors pointed out.  "This is not about money.  Word has begun to spread among the men who do the kind of work we need done.  They think it's jinxed.  They're afraid to go near the Project.  They talk about aliens, and poltergeists -"

"What in hell has the world come to," Carter asked, "that grown men entertain such lunacy?  Aliens? poltergeists?  If you have to get an exorcise to accompany your crews and hold their hands, then get one!"

"We need to give them incentives," Kirkus interjected.

"But we already pay them top dollar!" someone reiterated.

"Not that kind of incentive," Kirkus replied.  "This is perhaps a time and place for negative reinforcement: not what we'll do for them if they go, but what we'll do to them if they don't.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is the perfect time to cash in our chips.  We have sat by for a quarter century while the punks and the gangs and the drug pushers took over one after another city.  Besides the efficiency and convenience, we knew the day would come - indeed, it's come many times - when we'd need their expertise - their special touch - to get us through a difficult situation.  Now is such a time.  Scared? you say they were scared of poltergeists?  I want them so scared of the Tungs and all the other city fathers that they'll gladly and willingly fling themselves into the arms of the poltergeists, or climb aboard the first alien spaceship they see rather than face the wrath of their civic leaders - or put their loved ones in harm's way.  We could always call out the military, declare marshal law, round up all the workers and make them work.  But we prefer to remain the good guys and let someone else do the dirty work.  So we're all agreed, I take it: it's time for dirty work to be done.  I want us back on schedule this time next month.  Any questions?"

There were none. "Good," Kirkus noted.  "I'll leave it to you ladies and gentlemen to work out the details.  One month, and the Project must be on schedule."

The rest of the day was spent ironing out the particulars of the plan Kirkus had put forth.  It was late when Bradley Carter arrived home.  He was surprised to find his wife waiting for him.

"You didn't need to wait up," he told her.

"I just wanted to see for myself you were alright," she said.

"Why wouldn't I be?"

"That twister this morning," Carol explained, "or whatever it was - they're not sure, they've never seen anything like it.  I was so worried.  I wish you had called, to let me know you were alright."

"A phone call does not change reality," Carter observed.

"But it reassures people."

"Coming through the front door, as I just did, reassures every bit as well," Carter pointed out.

"They said it picked up cars and then dropped them down again -"

"That's what a tornado does."

"- but only cars.  Not people.  They said workers at your factory were crushed by their cars.  As many as ten were killed when the cars fell.  For all I knew you were one of them."

"I had a meeting to attend.  I had just left the compound when all the activity occurred."

"You saw it?" Carol asked.

"In my rear view mirror as I was leaving," Carter replied.

"You didn't stop, and help anyone?"

"As I said: I had a meeting to attend.  If I stopped, if I'd stayed there and played the hero - though to what avail I'm not sure since I'm neither physician nor paramedic - the wheels of the machine I've built might have stopped too.  Then everyone would have suffered; they might have all been out of a job.  Doing what I'm here to do is infinitely more valuable than some grand heroic gesture which accomplishes nothing except wasting my time.  What I'm working on - what I had to leave the injured to those who are paid to treat injuries for - will guarantee a livelihood to as many workers as we can find.  Bandaging someone's head pales in comparison.  Good night, Carol."

Within a month the Project was back on track, lost time had been made up, enough workers had been recruited to bring the work to where it needed to be.  The word had gone out to every city in the nation: construction workers wanted, no questions asked.  Word of the dozens of missing children who turned up dead a day or two later had also gone out to all the workers.  Negative reinforcement had once again saved the day.

When Bradley Jerome Carter II turned five, he was sent to school.  As a child he showed great physical agility, great skill at sports - and very little interest in anything else.  The tests given him indicated a potential brilliance, almost bordering on genius; but he demonstrated no inclination for academic subjects.

"Normally," his father was told in consultation, "we encourage an interest in sports: it's something a leader of others needs.  In your son's case, however, we see this interest as an obstacle to his intellectual development.  We strongly recommend actively discouraging his participation in sports.  It's in his best interest - and certainly in the best interest of society.  Do you agree to work with us?"

"It's your job to make your students want to learn, not to force them to by denying them physical activity," Carter replied.

"It is also our job to apply negative reinforcement where it would be most useful," he was told.

"That is a term," Carter said as he arose to leave the meeting, "that I never want to hear again in reference to my son."

Professor Kirkus' son, on the other hand, loved intellectual activity, and excelled at it; but had no interest whatever in athletics - a trait his father actively sought to overcome.

"You will never rule," Kirkus told his son, "unless you discover what motivates those you would rule.  There is no better place than in the arena to discover that."

From that day on, Reginald Kirkus actively pursued every sport, but never mastered any.  He played, not to win, but to watch others trying to win, as his father taught him to do.  He and Brad Carter became rivals on the school grounds.  Reggie sought at every opportunity to lead the other students; but they always resisted.  Brad, however, while seeking to lead no one, was sought out by his fellow students in almost every situation.

"What does he have that I don't?" Reggie would occasionally ask certain of the other students, always to receive the same answer: "He cares about us.  We trust him to lead us."

"Trust will gain only a limited audience," Professor Kirkus assured his son.  "Fear is the stuff of real power.  The great leaders throughout history have always know this.  You, too, will discover it in time."

Reggie discovered fairly quickly the fine art of helping other students in their intellectual pursuits: giving advice with homework and essays, which they actively sought once they realized he was smarter than they were, even allowing them to copy his answers on exams, then offering vague hints of exposing their shortcomings.  By the end of the fifth grade he had as many followers as his rival.  He had taken his first step toward using human nature to his own ends.

"You've gone right to the heart of the matter," his father congratulated him.  "Amateurs spend their entire careers turning one man against another and reaping the meager rewards; whereas the pros learn early on to turn men against themselves and thereby reap the greatest rewards possible."

While Professor Kirkus instructed his son in the subtleties of power, Bradley Jerome Carter attended to his son's spiritual development.  Not the skills to capture the hearts, minds and souls of others but the faith to commend his own heart, mind and soul to God drove Carter's parenting of young Bradley Jerome.  Not to be the object of others' devotion but the subject and driving force of his own devotion was Carter's legacy to his son.

Sundays the Carters attended services at St. Louis Cathedral - still called the "New Cathedral."  They walked the ten blocks from the Carter mansion to Lindell and Newstead.  Even as an infant, Brad seemed aware of the mosaics that covered the walls and ceiling; he would reach out to the saints, the apostles, sometimes address them as if they were real and could respond.

"Is God going to be here today?" he asked when he was five.

"He's here every day," his father answered.



"Was He here last week?"

"Yes, He was."

"I didn't see Him," the boy said.  "Maybe I'll see Him this time."

"Not if you're looking for Him you won't," Carter explained.  "Just pray, and tell Him you love Him, and He'll show Himself to you when He's ready for you to see Him."

"Oh," said the boy.

"Do you believe in God?" Brad asked Reginald Kirkus one day at school.

"Of course I do," Reggie replied.


"It's to my advantage to believe," Reggie answered.

"In what way?" Brad asked.  "Because of your immortal soul?"

"Because the masses believe, so their rulers have to believe too."

"Oh," said Brad.

In Bible class he asked the teacher if God loved rich people more than poor people.  The teacher responded that God had entrusted greater responsibility to the rich and powerful, so their rewards were correspondingly greater.

"They make life possible for those less fortunate," Brad was told.

"How do they do that?" the boy asked.

"By giving them jobs."

Bradley remembered hearing about workers in his father's factories and construction crews who had been killed or who died from being exposed to toxic substances.

"But if they die on the job," he asked, "does that mean the rich aren't doing the work God wants them to do?"

"No," replied the teacher.  "It means those workers didn't follow the safety precautions set up for their protection."

Brad also remembered hearing about workers who had been executed by the Tungs for trying to make the munitions factories safer.  He mentioned this to the teacher, who reminded him that only managers could improve the working conditions because only they understood what was needed and that for the workers themselves to attempt it would jeopardize everyone's safety.

"Anyone who would try to improve things without understanding all the ramifications is the same as someone who collaborates with the enemy in time of war.  We all know what happens to traitors," the teacher pointed out.  "Why should it be any different with workers who try to subvert and sabotage the rules set up to protect them?  They're jeopardizing everyone's lives.  God will always intercede on behalf of His children, whom He dearly loves."

"Oh," said Brad as he looked around the room at his classmates, who seemed to be hanging on their teacher's every word.

The Tungs worked very hard to make the annual field trips they sponsored a special day of the children.  This was the tenth year the fifth graders of St. Louis were bussed to the Tungs headquarters in South St. Louis on South Kingshighway.  They spared no expense.

The five story stone structure, all that remained of a row of warehouses destroyed thirty years ago in a fiery shootout with the police, had been sandblasted and re-faced; the woodwork and security bars freshly painted; the windows cleaned inside and out; the brass doorknob and golden placard polished; the grass in front neatly mowed; the shrubs carefully pruned and shaped; the sidewalk, steps and portico hosed down.  The various rooms the guided tour would take the children through had been gone over with a fine tooth comb, cleaned and spit-shined.  The displays had been carefully arranged to underscore the tour guide's descriptions, explanations and historical presentations.  A video and slide show had been professionally prepared.  Refreshments were laid out on a side bar in the Council Chamber at the very center of the building.  The ruling Council assembled on the front steps to welcome their guests, as their security guards watched from either end of the building and from peep holes on the second floor.

Ten middle-aged, pot-bellied, balding men wearing expensive dark silk suits with the same appliqué emblazoned on the breast pocket greeted the children as they arrived.  Bradley Jerome Carter II and Reginald Kirkus were among the visitors.

"Welcome," the Council president, the vice-president, the secretary, the treasurer, the chief enforcer and the five other voting members took turns addressing the assembled group, as if they constituted a formal reception line.  Then they motioned the children into the building.

The entrance foyer was just large enough to accommodate the children; it had been designed that way when the field trips first began: walls had been knocked down, the rooms they formed made part of the entrance.  It was elegant but austere, ivory the predominant color, with touches of blue and gold; everything ornamental was angular, no curves or warm colors softened the effect.

"We'll begin the tour here," the Council president announced once the children were settled.  "Mr. Caverall, our public relations director, will conduct the tour.  The rest of us will accompany you, should you have any questions.  Mr. Caverall: you may begin."

The children were led first through a series of rooms, each serving some kind of bureaucratic function; a brief explanation of each function was given as the children filed through.  Then they were taken upstairs to a large, colorful room filled with rows of chairs.  They were asked to seat themselves in an orderly fashion.

"We will see a video now," the guide said.  "This will give you some idea of our background."

The video began with an enormous explosion which leveled and blackened an entire forest.  The voice over explained that "This was where it all began.  Our name, our logo, our entire reason for being.  This was the Tunguska Blast of 1908.  No one knows for sure what caused it.  When we banded together and formed our group, here in South St. Louis, seventy-five years ago, we chose explosives as our weapon - a revolutionary concept back then: most groups still relied on knives or guns exclusively.  Life was not easy for us in the early years.  The reactionary forces that controlled the city persecuted us.  They hunted us like dogs.  Two-thirds of our members were killed in the first ten years of our existence.  We were unsophisticated, unprepared to wrest power from the corrupt officials who ruled the city.  We didn't call ourselves anything in those early years; the officials called us 'The Blowhardts.'  Then we saw the connection between what we did to help rid St. Louis of corruption and what happened in Siberia.  That was when we adopted the fallen trees as our logo and took our present name, the Tungs.  Gradually our fortunes changed.  The turning point came thirty years ago, in this very room.  The forces of repression mounted a full-scale assault on our compound, which at that time consisted of this entire block.  Fifteen buildings stood side by side.  During the attack the buildings on either side of this one caught fire and burned to the ground; but this one remained standing.  This room was our arsenal; all our explosives were stored here.  We waited till just the right moment, when our attackers thought they had won and were coming out from their cover to finish us off.  Then we unleashed an attack that wiped them out, to a man.  Within five years we had driven the oppressors out and taken control of the city, to begin what has come to be known as the most productive years in St. Louis' history."

The narrative was embellished with a montage of historical film, still shots, computer graphics and drawings.  After the video, a series of slides of the various projects the Tungs had been instrumental in either initiating or bringing to fruition was shown.

Next the children were led to the basement, a laboratory where the real work of the Tungs was done.  Here the research to refine and improve the explosives the Tungs had taken as their trademark was conducted.

"It was in this laboratory," the guide explained, "that our researchers perfected our crowning achievement.  Limited nuclear technology.  You see those pellets over there, behind that window?  They are explosives - as powerful as bombs but with a very limited range.  We've development some small enough to slip beneath a fingernail; and when it's detonated, the fingernail is blown off, but nothing else is harmed.  These are excellent tools for getting criminals and the socially irresponsible to confess to their crimes and their anti-social or counter-productive behavior.  Thanks to these, the good citizens of St. Louis can sleep a little easier at night."

Finally, they were brought to the Council Chamber, in the center of the building on the first floor, where refreshments were waiting.  The President of the Council stepped to the fore this time, to personally address the children.

"Before we eat," he said in a voice gruff but pleasant, "let me take a moment to reiterate how fortunate you boys and girls are to live in a city where explosives are used to maintain social order.  Each city has its own ruling body.  Each city's ruling body has its own weaponry, its own way of enforcing its rules and disposing of its enemies.  The others seem quite primitive by comparison.  Kansas City, for example, where the Rollers use some kind of blowtorch: very primitive, very twentieth century.  And in Los Angeles, the Cripps still use knives: their preferred method is to slit the throats of their enemies.  In Chicago, the Bloods use guns: they are, as you can plainly see, unscientific, throwbacks to a more primitive era.  In Philadelphia, the Liberties bludgeon their victims.  In New York, the Jets do it with music: they've developed metronomes that emit a series of piercing sounds that short-circuit and cause massive hemorrhaging of their victims' brains.  But that's enough of other city fathers: you get the picture.  About the only thing we have in common with them is our overriding concern with security.  That's always been a top priority of ours.  But, ever since that terrible incident a few years back when the city fathers of two western cities were wiped out in a single afternoon, security has been our number one priority - and the number one priority of the ruling council of every city in America.  Because, I'm sorry to report, the madman who committed that unspeakable atrocity is still at large, still spewing his venomous lies over the airways.  He's eluded justice so far, but he'll be caught, and dealt with.  The day will come - mark my words - when he'll be torn limb from limb for his vile crimes against humanity!  Rest assured of that.  In the meantime, please help yourselves to the goodies we've set out for you."

Enveloped in a silver-blue haze that seemed to be drawn from the farthest reaches of the afternoon sky, the Great Smoky Mountains expressed the purest essence of the name they had been given; and made it clear that the names of all natural formations should derive from their particular identities rather than from somebody's claim to their ownership.  The sun was already behind Clingman's Dome when Paris Commune led his six year old son up a narrow winding path to the promontory overhanging their encampment.  Before they even reached the massive rock protruding straight out from the side of the mountain, the afternoon sun, no longer hidden, struck them with a white hot glare that made them both turn away until their eyes adjusted and they could resume their climb.

"We'll be leaving this place soon," Paris told the boy.

"Why, father?" the boy asked.

"It's time for us to move on," Paris explained.  "We've been here longer than at any other place.  We've been fortunate, but our good fortune can't last.  You must never forget who we are: we're wanted men.  Outlaws.  We're migrants, in the truest sense of the word.  Our chosen path is one of constant movement.  We have to always stay ahead of our enemies.  I wanted to show you this place before we left, just as my father showed it to me when I was a boy.  I didn't show it to you sooner because I didn't want you ever to think of it as an ordinary place, where anyone could come to walk or play or just be there.  I know you've wondered about this.  I've watched you looking up, I could tell you were wondering why I never brought you here."

They walked a few more steps.  "Can you tell where we're headed?" Paris asked.  The boy pointed slightly to the left of where they were.  "That's right," said Paris.

A hundred yards ahead was a tree, a single tree, not part of a forest but standing off by itself, a huge tree, an oak, not only tall but enormously spreading.  The man the the boy slowly approached.  The tree grew larger with every step.  Its branches reached to the sky and to all four points of the earth.  In front of it, lost in a deep shadow cast by the tree, was a plaque on a stand set into the ground.  The man read it aloud.

"The Wye Oak," he read the first line, etched in larger print, like a title.  Then he read the body of the message.  "Named for a very old tree on Maryland's Eastern Shore, a tree I saw as a boy, but a tree no longer standing.  A tree finally felled by the wind on June 6th, 2002.  This tree resembles it most of any I have ever encountered.  I hope no one will be offended that I have named it after another.  I pray it will stand as long as its namesake.  I beg humanity never to harm it."

"Who wrote that, father?" the boy asked.

"No one knows, no one will ever know.  He had the grace to leave himself out of his tribute."

Paris led his son to the base of the tree.  He motioned for the boy to set his hands on the trunk, as he himself did.  They stood motionless, leaning into the tree.

"Nothing must ever happen to this tree," Paris instructed his son.  "It must never be cut down, no matter what.  No one must ever be allowed to harm it.  A human life is precious, and must not be wantonly taken; but I would take the life of my own son if he should ever attempt to cut this tree down. Nothing must ever destroy it."

"What would happen?" the boy asked.

"The world would end.  All life would be over.  There would be nothing left on this planet but bare rock and endless stretches of sand.  As long as this tree remains there is hope.  No matter what happens, there will always be hope.  I swore when I was a boy that I would defend this tree to the death."

"I swear that I will, too, father," the boy looked up into the thick branches and said.

Then they both turned and left, retracing their steps along the perilous path that had led them here.

Within a week, the T-Men had packed up and gone, never to return to this camp again.

"Are we going to Maryland now?" Paris' son asked.

"No," Paris replied.

"They have beautiful trees in Maryland, don't they?"

"They have beautiful trees everywhere."

"What is Maryland?" the boy persisted.

"It's a small eastern state.  But we're going west," Paris told his son.

"Back where you found me?" the boy asked.

"Farther than that."

The Council agreed with Paris that six years was long enough to remain in any one place; and that, even though there had been no hint of trouble, nor the slightest indication of their being detected, it was time to move on.  Mount Everest alone voiced any objection to moving.

"We've never had so long a period of tranquility," he pointed out.  "For six years our lives have been almost normal.  For six years it felt like what we're supposed to be all about, and what we're fighting to bring to our fellow countrymen.  A quiet, peaceful life, free of the madness our unbridled productivity has generated.  But then, again, it's made me think too much of my wife and my children -" A strange look came over his face.   "- Not that I want to forget them, or what the Feds did to them.  So I guess it is best to move on.  Living a normal life is only a dream for men whose lives have been ripped apart.  Still, it was nice to work the earth and watch it give back a thousand fold what I put into it.  But I'm not a farmer; I'm a fighter. A killer.  So: where to next?  Have we decided that?"

A broad grin enlightening Paris Commune's face told the Council that yes, that had been decided.  Everyone turned to Paris and waited.

"You can't go home," he half-spoke, half-recited.  "At least, no one will expect you to.  It's the last place anyone would look for you.  Not that we've ever had a 'home,' per se.  Not a literal home anyway.  But a spiritual home.  A place utterly destroyed and therefore a part of the supernatural: something like Plato's Idea: an Idea of a Home, simply because it exists only in the realm of Mind.  We're going back to Wyoming."

"Recluse?" someone asked.  Paris nodded in affirmation.

"We'd have to build from scratch," said another Council member.

"Build on the rubble of our old camp?"

"Exactly," said Paris.

"And the bones of those who were sacrificed," Mount Everest pronounced ominously.

"The rubble of our old camp," Paris echoed an earlier sentiment.

"Mark my words, all of you:" said Mount Everest, "we will seal our doom if we commit this blasphemy.  Those are the bones of our surrogates, who died in our place.  Leave them in peace."

"He's right," first one then another Council member agreed.  "It would be inviting disaster to go back.  Even you said it was no longer a literal place but supernatural.  Maybe it really will come back to haunt us."

A lengthy debate ensued; but, in the end, Paris Commune won over the Council.  They agreed to his proposal.  Mount Everest, too, went along with the majority.

"For my part, it doesn't trouble me that I'm shortening my life," Mount Everest acknowledged, "only that I'll be living out my days in another man's grave."

Everything was gathered and packed onto a small convoy of trucks, just as it had been when they left Wyoming to head east.  The trucks all bore commercial logos so that nothing would appear out of the ordinary.

"I like the irony," Paris had noted each time the T-Men formed their convoy.  "We hide under the banner of that which we're fighting to destroy."

"Trucks are bad?" asked Paris' son, perceiving at once what his father's words referred to.

"No, son, they're not bad.  They're noble, useful tools when used with reason, for man's benefit.  They're only bad when they become an end in themselves - a symbol for the misuse of commercial might.  A truck should never be used as a steam-roller.  Or a bulldozer as a hearse."

Four days after leaving Clingman's Dome the convoy arrived at Recluse, Wyoming, without incident, having stuck closely to the major interstates, beginning with Interstate 40 out of Knoxville, Tennessee, all the way to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where it picked up Interstate 25 to Buffalo, Wyoming, backtracking eastward along Interstate 90 to US Route 14/16, then to a series of smaller roads leading to the burned out campsite.  It was evening when they arrived; the sun had already set, leaving only shadows behind.  Everything was a shadow: what was left of the trees, spindly misshapen husks bending toward the sunset; and what remained of the compound, a few stone fireplaces and blackened chimneys, hollowed out foundations filled with charred splinters and a putrid black liquid.

The T-Men stared in disbelief.  They had seen devastation before; they had caused devastation.  They had seen this very spot burned and destroyed - on television. Then television moved on, as the T-Men themselves had always moved on past the destruction they had wrought.  But they had never witnessed the aftermath of devastation, the disgusting accumulation of detritus, the ravaged landscape, the air of death enveloping a whole mountainside.

For awhile they wandered about the ruins as if in a daze.  Then Paris' son calmly walked to one of the burned out buildings, knelt down, reached his hand into the thick black muck that had collected in a pool and, raising his hand as if from the dead, smeared the black stuff across his forehead.  He then stood up and calmly rejoined the others.

"Why did you do that, boy?" asked Mount Everest.

"It's the mark of Cain," he answered.

No one questioned him further; no one asked how he had come by that expression; no one sought his meaning.  He refused to wash the smear from his forehead; it became like a badge of honor, or a tribal marking which, in time, faded as the air, the rain, the simple act of rolling over at night in his sleep gradually wore it away.

"Maybe that's the name I'll chose, father," he told Paris.  "Cain.  You said I could choose any name I want when I become a man.  Maybe I'll choose Cain."

It took six months of steady work to rebuild the compound, the T-Men living out of tents the whole time.  They had arrived after the spring thaw, the rain their only obstacle, or the occasional wind storms.  By winter their compound was complete.

"Should we call it Phoenix?" some members jokingly asked.

Mount Everest took exception to their levity.  "This is not a rising out of the ashes," he said.  "It may look like it, but it isn't.  It's beating the ashes until they themselves rise to assume a new shape: not the new from the old but the old disguised as something new."

Of all the people living in the compound, only Paris' son took Mount Everest's words seriously.  He often sought out his opinion.  "You believe what we're doing is wrong?" he would ask, or some variant thereof.

"Yes, I do," Mount Everest would honestly reply.

"So do I," the boy would agree.  "But I'm glad we're doing it.  You have to do what's wrong sometimes to be strong.  A leader has to lead his people in every direction to test their loyalty."

"Your father told you this?"

"No, I just know it."

"But you're a boy: you're not even ten years old!  You're not even eight!  How could you know these things?  Or even know to think about them?"

"I just do," the boy would reply.  "They're in me.  I can see them.  I don't need father to tell me.  I just know."

"So Paris is preparing you to be his successor," Mount Everest observed.

The boy smiled, a smile as innocent as his eyes, the color of the sky half-hidden behind cirrus clouds, or his hair, the color and texture of corn silk.  "Father doesn't know yet," he said, then moved on, leaving his innocence to torment his father's second-in-command.

The first order of business was planning to sabotage the massive government project - a project so secret the T-Men had only learned of it that year, though it had been in the works a full five years.  And only by accident had they learned of it at all.

A stretch of excavation unearthed a spur of the vast tunnel system the T-Men had dug over the past hundred years.  It ran from beneath the town of Lamar in Eastern Colorado southeastward to the town of Kendall in Western Kansas.  It was supposed to push as far as Dodge City, but a thousand more pressing matters kept postponing it until it was virtually forgotten.  It had never been used as a getaway, and only a few times as an execution chamber and graveyard for some new member whose loyalty had been compromised.

On a foray into Pueblo, Colorado, to disrupt the catalogue arm of the Department of Consumer Affairs, which was planning to update its annual listing of all the groups in the nation suspected of being aligned with or fronts for the T-Men, Paris Commune had an almost overpowering feeling that the Agency had been tipped off.  On the strength of that impulse, he ordered a last minute change in their plan.  Instead of hitting at eleven P.M., when the second shift was ending and the third shift beginning, and the area was most vulnerable, the contingent hit at nine P.M., going right to the thick of a production schedule.  Two of his men were killed, but the plan was executed essentially intact.  The presses were blown apart; over a hundred workers, managers and security guards were killed; thousands of pamphlets littered the rubble.  Then the T-Men left as suddenly as they had arrived; but instead of leaving the area entirely, they remained hidden, just beyond the plant, till eleven, when, just as Paris intuited, a contingent of Federal agents arrived and began quietly surrounding the plant.  At that point Paris signaled his men to leave.

A new member had accompanied Paris' men, sent from a militia in upstate Michigan.  On the pretext of making their escape, the contingent made for Lamar, some eighty miles east of Pueblo, and the tunnel.  A quarter of a mile into the tunnel, the van stopped.  Paris pulled out his gun, raised it, and, without a word, shot the traitor between the eyes.  They were in the process of digging his grave when something with the feel and sound of an earthquake shattered their grave digging.

Barely half a mile ahead, the tunnel had suddenly caved in.  Instead of rocks and debris, however, what fell from above were bulldozers and men.  Paris reacted instantly, ordering the lights of the van turned off, the digging halted, and the body returned to the van.  When everyone was in, he heaped into the driver's seat and backed the van, in total darkness, to the tunnel entrance.  It took over an hour.  Once out of the tunnel, he proceeded, over land, in the direction of the cave in.  On a bluff overlooking the area, he and his men saw dozens of pieces of equipment lining a deep trench several hundred feet wide; easily three times as many men as equipment; and, to either side of the trench, enormous mounds of earth.  The trench ended where the tunnel intersected, but stretched as far to the northwest as the eye could see.

"My God," said Paris.  "Have we been blind that we haven't seen this before?" he asked.  "We've come this way before: look how far that extends.  We're bound to have crossed right over it!  Are we fools not to see what's in our own back yard?  What the hell is it?  What in God's name is it?"

Paris' question went unanswered.  Nothing the T-Men did brought them any closer to learning what it was.  Their rudimentary network of espionage proved woefully inadequate to that task.  They were primarily men of action; their existence was tied to planning and executing acts of sabotage against the Federal bureaucracy - not information gathering.  All they were able to learn was what their common sense already told them: this was a Federal project, as far reaching and massive as anything ever undertaken.  To which their innate distrust of the government added that it was something they must stop at all costs.

One after another plan was made, only to have them all thwarted at the moment of execution.  The mechanism sabotaging them was always the same: the force guarding the Project, every inch of its way, far exceeded anything the T-Men had ever encountered or anticipated.  No matter where they chose to strike, or when, the security at that particular worksite - and the work seemed to be round the clock - was too great to overcome.  They dared not attack; their losses would be too great: not merely the loss of men, but the even greater loss of credibility.  They had never failed, never been defeated; an air of invincibility and invulnerability surrounded them: they could not jeopardize that, even if it meant standing aside while the enemy's Project slowly progressed.

"Someone is betraying us," Paris told the Council at a special meeting he called.  "Someone who knows our every plan, our every move.  One of us in this room is a spy.  I'll find him, rest assured.  It'll come to me, as it always does.  He won't continue giving our plans to the enemy.  He'll pay."

As Paris was speaking, Mount Everest arose from his seat, towering above the other council members.  When Paris finished, Mount Everest spoke.

"It's me," he said, in the manner of making a proclamation.  "I'm the one. The spy.  The betrayer.  The man who's been sabotaging your plans."

Without a word, Paris withdrew his gun, raised it, and aimed; then lowered his arm.  He shook his head as he addressed his first lieutenant.

"You would have let me shoot: why?" he asked.

"Because I'm guilty," Mount Everest replied.

Paris motioned for the other Council members to leave.  He watched until the last one had left and the door had been shut behind them.  Then he turned back to his lieutenant.

"Charles," he addressed Mount Everest by his real name, "there is no one on this planet I trust half as much as you.  I would sooner betray the cause myself than you.  Why would you offer yourself as our betrayer?"

Following Paris' lead, Mount Everest addressed him by his real name.  "John," he said, "I can't bear watching you take another innocent life.  Those you killed may have been guilty, but they were never proven guilty, so they died innocent men.  I'd just as soon you take my life as put me through that again.  I wouldn't lift a finger to stop you, you know that, because you're our chosen leader, and we stand behind you or we'll all perish.  But I can't bear the thought of another innocent man's blood on your hands."

"Charles: I'm not a wanton killer.  I've never taken a human life just for the sport of it, or because I knew I had that life in the palm of my hands.  Everyone I've killed has been absolutely, unquestionably guilty or he'd be alive today.  I knew, Charles - in my mind I was absolutely certain - that they were guilty, ever last one of them."

"John: listen to yourself!  Listen to what you're saying.  You're equating what goes on inside your head with what happens out there, in the real world.  That's a madman's view of reality.  To be guilty in your mind is not the same as being guilty in reality."

"Of course it is: it's exactly the same thing," said Paris Commune.  "Charles, you were not born, nor will you ever become, a philosopher, for all your depth of thought.  Or you'd understand.  Reality and mind are one.  Not the literal 'mind,' true; but that literal mind is only a reflection of the universal mind.  Thoughts are truths.  Every man I killed was proven guilty by the fact that I thought him guilty.  Nothing on this earth, or anywhere in this universe, could ever prompt me to think you guilty.  I could sooner put a bullet through my own head than yours.  I'm sorry, Charles, but when I find the man who's been thwarting our plans, I will kill him.  And anyone who stands between us."

The eminent Dr. Immanek Douglas, arguably the world's most renowned anthropologist, lamented the loss of the bones found at the cave-in.  "Colorado Man," he had whimsically dubbed the bones.  At a press conference in New York, where he had flown directly from Pueblo, Colorado, upon learning of the disappearance of the bones, Dr. Douglas assured the world that "a preliminary assessment convinced me that what we had here was proof positive of Pre-Pleistocene settlements on the North American continent.  Indeed, had we been able to carbon date them, I would not have been at all surprised to find those relics among the oldest known extant remains of Homo-Erectus.  Sadly, they've disappeared.  I'm told certain Native Americans believed them to have been from the Anasazi, an early tribe of Indians utterly vanished in time.  I can state categorically they were not Anasazi bones.  I can only hope they will be returned to science, their rightful custodian.  If they are not, I doubt we will ever quite overcome the loss of so valuable an anthropological find.  We, of course, intend to fully explore the ancient caverns where the bones were discovered.  I have no doubt it will yield a veritable gold mine of scientific data."

"Where, exactly, is this cavern?" a reporter asked.

"It would not be advisable, at this time, to reveal its location," Dr. Douglas responded.  "We don't want a bunch of amateurs and sightseers tramping around down there, possibly making off with priceless artifacts or, at the very least, disturbing the site and hampering the work of science."

"But is was near Pueblo, Colorado, was it not?" the reporter persisted.

"I'm not at liberty to say anything further.  Thank you all for attending this conference.  I shall keep the press posted of any further finds or the recovery of the missing bones.  Thank you."

Dr. Douglas never returned to his dig.  He became inexplicably convinced it had all been a hoax.  Not wishing to say so publicly, he eagerly accepted a government grant to go study fossils in Africa, where he contracted a mysterious ailment and died, just days before the Great Rift nearly split the continent in two.

Immediately upon removing the bulldozers and men that had fallen into the cavern, the site was cordoned off.  Twelve workers had been crushed to death beneath the falling equipment; four bulldozers had been damaged.  All work within a one mile radius was halted.  Word had leaked out; the scientific community had gotten wind of the cavern; pressure was brought to bear upon the Federal government to allow a team of scientists to visit the site.  Dr. Douglas headed that team.

"Get them out of there, Gorham" Bradley Carter demanded.  "My men are standing around playing with themselves when they need to be repairing the damage, sealing that cave shut, and finishing the trench!"

"I haven't forgotten the deadline," Professor Kirkus assured Carter.  "I hasn't changed.  Your men will have to work twice as hard to make up for this divertissement.  Be that as it may, these are influential people, we need them on our side, we can't ignore their requests.  Let them sniff around a few days.  When they find nothing they'll move on, and that'll be the end of it.  A couple weeks lost, the scientific community assuaged, then it's back to business as usual."

A "couple weeks" soon became a couple months, then half a year, as the scientific team slowly, painstakingly sifted through the sediment on the cavern floor, inch by inch, until at last they struck pay dirt.

"Over here!" a pasty faced young man excitedly cried.  "I found something!"

Dr. Douglas, who happened to be there on that occasion, came running.  He knelt down, reached down into the reddish-brown dirt, felt what his young protégé had discovered.  Everyone had gathered around.  "It's a bone," he pronounced as he looked up at the others.  "I've found a bone."

It took six weeks to uncover the entire set of bones, which was finally revealed to be the skeleton of a human.  Euphoria greeted the revelation.  The world was at once apprised of the discovery, though cautioned that possibly another year remained before the skeleton could be fully identified and catalogued.  "It won't even be moved for another three to four months," Dr. Douglas informed the scientific community which, in turn, carried the word to the general public.

There ensued all manner of speculation as to its origin, and its clearly ceremonial burial, its arms carefully arranged over its chest, its hands folded as in prayer.  Some said it was an Indian, possibly of the lost Anasazi tribe.  Others pegged it for a Spaniard, perhaps even Hernando de Soto.  Still others maintained it to be much older.  Some said it was a new species; some that it was the "Missing Link" or even an alien - all of which speculation Dr. Douglas took into consideration but refused to be swayed by.

Before long, the element of superstition crept in to sit beside the scientific method.  Among the workers, specifically, superstition took hold, in light of the inexplicable occurrences that had plagued the Project since its inception.  Many threatened to leave, to go home, even though they were being paid during the work stoppage as if they were still working.  Word got out of their discontent, their threats.  Federal troops were sent in, stationed the entire length of the trench, to make sure no one walked off the job.

Bradley Carter had had enough.  One night, very late, when the scientific team returned to their campsite, he crept into the deserted cavern and, carrying a black plastic body bag, made his way to the great anthropological discovery.  He gathered up the skeleton and heaved it into the body bag, zipped up the bag and drug it out.  He piled it into the trunk of his Jaguar and drove to an abandoned quarry, where he dumped the bones into the acrid smelling lake that had formed from rainfall and run-off.  He watched under the light of a half moon as it slowly sank beneath the surface.

"Homo obstructus: get thee behind me!" he quipped.  Then he turned and left.  "A hundred years from now," he mused, "another ass-hole will come along and claim him for science all over again.  Till then, may he rest in peace."

Almost immediately, every strange occurrence happening anywhere along the trench was ascribed to the stolen bones.  The workers became more convinced than ever that they would be plagued as long as work continued: not only had the ancient grave been disturbed, the skeleton unearthed, now it had been removed entirely.  Some even came to believe it had gotten up and, of its own volition, stolen away from its desecrated resting place.

When Dr. Douglas became aware of these superstitious notions, he expressed concern that the whole site could be in jeopardy; he demanded an armed guard be posted around the clock to prevent further looting.

"You've got to get that fool out of there!" Bradley Carter insisted.  This time Professor Kirkus was in complete agreement.

"He has taken up too much of our time, you're quite right," Kirkus asserted.  "I've orchestrated an anthropological expedition to the heart of the African Veldt.  Vague rumors of yet another oldest set of bones ever discovered.  Somewhere between the Rift Valley and the slopes of the Ruwenzoris.  That should keep them looking for the next twenty years.  There is a price, of course, for the grant: his disclaimer of the Colorado site - and since the body's gone (can't imagine who took it!), there's nothing in it for him any longer, so he'll readily agree that Colorado Man was all a great big hoax.  By next Monday the site will be up and running.  Just make sure your men aren't 'up and running.'"

"If I have to stand there, with a machine gun pointed at my crew, I will!" Carter assured Kirkus.  "If they think a pile of old bones is a threat to their well being, wait till they see the guards open fire the first time someone walks off the job!"

Guards were posted every ten feet.  Their orders were to shoot to kill any construction worker caught leaving his worksite before the end of the day.  First they cried "Halt!"; followed by "Return to your workstation at once!"' followed, if the worker still kept going, by a volley of gunfire.  Before long, what had been an almost daily occurrence became first a weekly then a monthly occurrence, then occurred no more at all as the men gradually resigned themselves to their work schedule.  The superstition remained; the strange weather disturbances continued happening; men kept dying in bizarre ways; but no one tried to escape.

"We might be burned alive, or stabbed by an icicle, or carried off in a twister, or electrocuted by a cloud - but at least we won't be shot in the back.  A possible death is better than a certain one any day!" the general consensus went.  "Besides: whatever's out there'll get the guards same as us!"

The night of January 10th, in the year 2059, long after the cave in eastern Colorado has been shored up, allowing the trench to once again continue its way toward Texas, a blizzard hit the newest worksite, some twenty miles east of Elkhart, Kansas, on the Kansas-Oklahoma border, due north of the town of Hough, Oklahoma.  The workday had ended, most of the workers had gone to their tents; about half the guards and a few overseers remained at the site.

All at once, as if from nowhere, a blinding snow surrounded the trench to about a hundred yards on either side.  None of the guards, overseers or workers trapped at the site could see far enough ahead to move more than a step or two, the blowing snow as thick as gruel; so they stood where they were, perfectly still, as if to avoid detection, while the raging snow enveloped them.

From the tents, just beyond the trench's periphery, the sleeping workers, unaware of the storm, were awakened by cries in the night, which grew louder and more horrifying with each passing moment, until they were an almost deafening din of shrieks.  The workers bolted from their tents and ran toward the screams; then stopped dead in their tracks.  The clouds had parted, the moon shone through, revealing the blizzard's remains.

"My God!  What is it?" the workers began asking among themselves.  "What is it?  God in heaven what is it?"  They began backing away, as if from a beast set to spring upon them.  "What in hell?  What kind of monstrosity is that?"

They stood vigil the rest of the night, transfixed before this thing engulfing the trench.  Then the sun finally came up, and brought it into clear focus.  "Oh my God!" they almost all said in unison. 

Standing before them was an iceberg.  A solid block of ice some seven hundred yards wide, as many yards long, and perhaps a hundred feet high, opaque like an iceberg, but with a rough, sandy texture instead of the smooth, glassy look of an iceberg.  Coming closer, the men could see an infinity of tiny white particles frozen in suspension.  Coming closer still, the block of ice dissembled before them to a block of snow, so densely packed it had turned solid, admitted only slivers of light, and revealed the tiniest bits of color within.

As the sun rose in the sky the block of snow began to melt.  Flakes began spewing, as if driven by a tremendous centrifugal force.  The faster the flakes flew the quicker the block disintegrated, until finally nothing was left of it.  All the snow melted, and as it did it released, one by one, the men trapped inside.  The bodies fell in a heap, blood spewing from every pore.  The men had been crushed to death within a matter of minutes as the snow froze solid around them, the pressure so intense that not even a drop of blood could escape until the meltdown; then it all spewed at once and flowed into the trench as the workers stood watching, unable to believe their own eyes.

"We saved their kids!  Whatever else happened: we saved their kids!  That's all that matters!  Hell, if anything, they'll make heroes of us, give a parade in our honor - maybe even thank us by helping the weather station!"

Jim Jones Princeton smiled, but cocked his head to one side at the same time.  "I hope you're right, Sanderson," he cautiously stated.  "There's a madness out there.  It was there in my father's time, and his father's time.  Productivity is everything; we can't get enough.  Nothing else matters.  It's gone beyond obsession: it's madness, pure and simple."

"Jim: that's tomorrow's workers - tomorrow's productivity!" Sanderson Spears reminded his colleague.  "Even if they didn't care about them as kids, they can't be so short-sighted not to see what losing that many potential workers would do to their economy: it would be devastating."

"I hope you're right - we all do," Jim Jones said.  "It's just...I don't know...everything you say makes a sensible world.  We offer facts - truth, in all its glory, with all its warts.  I hope you're right, Sanderson."

"Trust me, I am.  I guarantee it."

The weathermen went about their business in the days following the tornado exactly as they had in the days preceding it, their main task, as always, to monitor the equipment they had set up in the Sierras.  While Spears seemed as concerned about what was happening on the other side of the world as what went on here, and devoted as much time and energy to keeping the relay equipment he had set up at various points, up to two hundred miles away, to intercept radar signals from the outside, in good working order as to inspecting the local set-up, the others spent their time closer to home, both in their actions and their focus.

On Saturday of that week, early in the day, when the others had just arrived at the station, Sanderson Spears announced that he was going to Boundary Peak, the highest point in Nevada, some hundred and fifty miles south-southeast of Lake Tahoe, to set up a new relay station.

"I'll be gone till at least tomorrow afternoon, possibly longer," he said.  "Joey'll be okay here overnight."

"You're not taking him?" Jim Jones asked.

"No, he'll just be in the way," said Spears.  Oblivious to the look of disappointment on the boy's face - a look the others clearly caught - Spears added that he'd given up expecting anything out of him.  "He's a good kid, I guess.  Maybe to some that would make up for him being an idiot.  Who knows?  It takes all kinds."

Unnoticed by his mentor, Joey slipped out of the cabin and made for his lookout.  Jim Jones and the others took that opportunity to try and dissuade their colleague.

"Why can't you take him with you?" Winnell Smith asked.

"He needs a change of scenery, he's been cooped up here too long," Pete Hence said.

"It'll be like a field trip - every kid needs a field trip now and again," Joe Riegen added.

"Take him along, Sanderson," Jim Jones rounded out the quartet pleading Joey's case.  "You're all he's got.  He looks up to you."

"Which is no reason to risk his ruining yet another piece of equipment!" Spears retorted.

"Just take him," Jim Jones summed up the argument.  "It'll work out for the best - mark my words: come Sunday, you'll be glad you took him.  You'll see."

"Oh, the hell with it, I'll take him," Spears conceded.  "Come to think of it, he's just dumb enough to screw up our whole operation."  Spears looked around.  "Joey?" he called, followed by "Where the hell is he now?"

"Out there," Jim Jones said.

Spears went almost automatically to the lookout.  "Joey," he said, "I've changed my mind.  I want you to go with me, so go get your overnight things and we'll be on our way."

Joey looked up at him.  "You don't have to," he said.  "I'll be alright - honest.  And I won't bother anything - I promise."

"All the same, I think it's best if you go."

"Are you sure it's okay?"

"Yeah, I'm sure."

Three and a half hours later they were hiking up Boundary Peak, each carrying a backpack full of weather equipment and overnight gear.  The path Spears chose was treacherous, but they made it to the point he had mapped out without incident.  It was barely halfway up; nevertheless, it afforded an ideal location for the equipment Spears intended setting up.

As Spears had feared, Joey managed to lose his grip on a circuit he was helping maneuver into place.  It fell down the mountainside.  "Idiot!" the weatherman stormed.  "God damn idiot!  I should never have let them talk me into letting you come along!  But never mind...just...never mind.  I can work my way around it for now.  Next time I'm here I can re-do it.  Alone!"

It started getting dark, so they set up the small tent they had brought; built a fire; ate supper; sat around awhile, neither saying a word; then got out their sleeping bags and crawled in, insulated from the cold night air.  Once they were bedded down for the night, in the darkness Joey worked up enough nerve to speak.

"I'm sorry," he said softly.  "I'd give anything if I could do something right.  I try not to do stupid things - I swear to God I do.  I pray - all the time I pray - that God will help me learn how to do things the right way.  I know He's listening; and I know He'll show me the way.  He knows I love you, and He won't let me keep disappointing you forever."

Spears had fallen asleep the moment he sealed his sleeping bag around himself; he slept so quietly Joey didn't realize he was already asleep.  After awhile, when it became obvious to Joey his mentor was not going to acknowledge anything he had said, he shut his eyes, wondering how it would feel when he finally shut his eyes for good - not wishing it, but just wondering about it.

The next morning Spears returned to his relay to finish setting it up.  He neither invited Joey along nor ordered him to keep away.  Not knowing what was expected of him, Joey sat for a long time on his sleeping bag.  Then he got up, folded the bags, struck the tent, put their gear into the car, and fixed breakfast.  By that time Spears had returned.  They ate breakfast, again without a word; finished packing; and left.  It was late afternoon when they arrived back at Donner's Pass.  Except for Jim Jones, everyone seemed to still be at the weather station: Winnell's pick-up, Joe's motorcycle, Pete's specially equipped roadster were all parked out front.

"That's odd," Spears muttered to himself.  "They don't usually hang around Sunday evening."

Joey entered the station first.  "Take this in," Spears had ordered as he handed his assistant some left-over cable.  Momentarily the boy returned, still clutching the cable, his face as pale as a ghost.  He went over to Spears and began tugging at his sleeve, to get his attention.

"What is it now?" Spears snapped as he turned.  The look on Joey's face softened his manner.  "What is it?" he asked.  Joey could not manage to form any words, so he motioned for Spears to follow him.  This time he wouldn't enter; he stood aside.

"Oh my God!" Spears exclaimed, over and over, as he looked around the room.  All three - Winnell Smith, Joe Riegen, Pete Hence - lay face down on the floor, in a pool of blood, each with a gaping hole in the back of their head, Winnell at the west end of the cabin, Joe at the east, Pete in the center.

As if acting out a ritual play, Spears went to each body to feel its pulse.  "You guys are now officially dead," he pronounced.  Then he noticed something: beside each head was a silver dollar with a bullet hole in the center.  "It's their trademark," he said as he picked first one then another off the floor.  "The Silvers.  Carson City's finest.  They'll pay - they'll pay, I swear it!"

Then he went to the door and called Joey.  "Get in here!" he ordered.  "We gotta bury them.  You gotta help me carry them out of here.  At least, it's something you can't hurt if you drop!"

Joey looked around the room.  The color was beginning to return to his face.  "I guess you wish for sure you'd left me behind now," he said in a broken voice.

With the back of his hand, with a violence and a suddenness that threw the boy off his balance, Spears lashed out and struck Joey across the face.  Blood gushed from his mouth as he flew to the floor.

Spears pointed a trembling finger at him.  His knuckles were bruised, his skin torn.  "You ever say something like that again and I swear by that fiend you pray to I'll kill you myself!  So help me I'll kill you!" he raged.  "Oh Christ!" he cried in a voice suddenly filled with panic.  "Oh shit!  Oh Christ!  Oh shit!  Jim Jones: I've got to warn him!  Forget these guys: we'll bury them later.  Come on!"

"I'll stay here," Joey said.  "I'll only get in your way."

Spears reached down, took hold of Joey's hand, and pulled him to his feet.  "You go where I go, punk!  I'm not letting you out of my sight - not ever: not ever!  No one's gonna do to you what those bastards did to these guys!  Now come on: move it!"

Spears took every back road he could: the back roads were deserted, he could drive as fast as his car would go.  In less than half an hour he was there.  He slammed on the brakes, jumped out, ran to the house and knocked.  And knocked again.

"Jim!  Jim Jones!" he called.  "Open up!"  Their car was in the driveway; they had to be home.  He knocked again, called again.  Still no answer.  He reached out to the doorknob.  His hand trembled so much he had to steady it with his other hand as he tried the knob.  It gave no resistance.  The door opened.  The weatherman crossed the threshold.

"Don't let it be.  Please, please don't let it be," he muttered.  He walked through the house, eventually coming to the family room.  He entered.  He stared around the room then raised his head and wailed - not a scream, not a cry, but a wail.  In the family room lay the family - Jim Jones, Betty, Jonas and Jimmie; all four Princetons lay side by side face down in a pool of blood, a gaping hole in the back of each one's head.  Beside each head was an ornamental rhinestone spur.

"The Spurs have it," he said as he reached down to feel each body's pulse.  "Mr. Lincoln, two hundred years back, said 'The Nays Have it.'  I say the Spurs have it.  They have an appointment with death - and I'll see they keep it, I swear I will.  The Spurs and the Silvers: I swear on...on..." he fumbled for something to take an oath on, something he believed in.  "...on Joey's life - the only life in the universe worth a damn - I swear on his life I'll take theirs.  I swear it!"

When the dead were buried - the weatherman and his apprentice turned gravedigger for the night, knowing that if they didn't bury their colleagues quickly they would lose the chance forever, gathered the Princetons, took them to the weather station, and buried all six bodies somewhere deep in Donner's Pass: when the funeral was over, the oath Spears took began moving its tortuous way toward realization.  He planned every detail, charted every movement, calibrated each separate dynamic.  He worked for six months, setting it all in place as if revenge were nothing more than a jigsaw puzzle whose final piece, when laid in place, would trigger the act itself.        

He left the weather station every day - his new station, the one he had secretly set up in the cabin he found at the mouth of a cave at Monitor Pass: there was no going back to Donner's Pass, he and Joey gathered what equipment they could and left it forever - every day he went into Reno and Carson City, ordering his assistant to stay put.  He spent half the day, every day, in those two cities taking note of everything.  The surface of his mind became a map, with two focal points about which everything else configured: the headquarters of the Silvers in Carson City, and of the Spurs in Reno.  He drew a tight cordon around these two points on his map.  Every street, every building, every alleyway and storm drain was noted and rated as a possible conduit to and from the focus of his stake-out.

He quickly learned the power of regularity.  At first his trips drew attention, suspicion; then, as days went by and he appeared again and again, at the same exact time, people grew so accustomed to his being there that he became a part of the daily routine, virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the community.  No disguise could have accorded him greater cover.

"You're going to kill them, aren't you?" Joey asked one day.

"You going to warn them?" Spears, in turn, asked.

"No: they'd kill you if I did.  And you'd die with evil intentions in your heart.  Your soul would be lost forever."

"Oh.  So if I were good and had only good intentions, it'd be alright to kill me," Spears presented the boy a dilemma.  "Only as a bad guy am I worthy of being spared."

Above all else, Spears sought to learn their routine, so that he could find the weakest link in their security system.  As he came and went each day, he observed the comings and goings at their respective headquarters.  Right around noon both the Silvers and the Spurs seemed most vulnerable, this window appearing to reach forty-five minutes into the noon hour.  He practiced traversing the thirty-some miles between Reno and Carson City until he was sure he could make it in twenty minutes.  Then, as a final test, he entered each headquarters at the times he designated, to assess their vulnerability from within.  Finally satisfied that it could be done, all he waited for was the right moment.

It wasn't a sign he wanted: how could a man who believed in nothing look for a sign?  But it was a sign he got.  From a storm he had tracked from the Antarctic coast to the Bay of Bengal, where it slowly, inexorably metamorphosized, exactly as an earlier storm had, into a monster set to devour ten million unsuspecting people.  Monday, October 19, 2054: a day set aside by nature as a day of death.  The time was right.  The weatherman readied himself and the automatic weapon he had procured in Virginia City.

"Nature calls," he said as he left his cave and headed north, first going east on California Route 89 to US Route 395, then due north to Carson City, where he parked six blocks away from the old State Capitol Building and walked to his appointment.

Black gulls from Lake Tahoe flew overhead, squawking as if to warn the townspeople.  Everyone was watching the birds: they had never come here before; no one was paying any attention to the man with the odd shaped package tucked under his arm.  He moved unnoticed along the city streets.  The gulls circled, in ever narrowing bands like the isobars of clashing weather systems.

"Good morning!" Spears began addressing the people he passed.  He had never spoken to anyone before; today he spoke to nearly everyone he passed, as if deliberately seeking their attention.  

"Good morning!" he altered the cadence of his voice to the level of their preoccupation with the gulls.  "We've never met, but I've seen you so often I feel I've known you all my life!" he would add now and again as he marched toward the Capitol.

Then, a little farther along, "Good morning!  I'm Sandy!  I'm new to these parts" - sometimes eliciting a response, sometimes a nod or a smile in passing.

Until finally he made it to the Capitol.  The black gulls circled directly above its flattened gray dome.  He looked up once, gave them the thumbs-up, then ascended the granite steps and went in through a thick bronze door.  He casually worked his way along a steely corridor to the Silvers' council chamber, the old State Senate Chamber, where they always met this time of day; where he knew they would be meeting now.  He opened the gray metal door, stepped in, shut the door behind him, took a few steps, and stood there, twenty-five yards from the gathering, on a terrace looking down.

"Excuse us!" someone called up to him from the center of the council table that graced the front of the Chamber.  "We're in here!  Please leave!"  It looked like an orchestra pit from where Spears stood motionless.  "Did you hear me?" the man repeated in a louder voice.

Spears nodded.  "Actually, I was looking for the city morgue anyway.  But since I'm here, I'd like to leave something with you," he said as he removed the package from under his arm.

"He's got a bomb!" someone yelled.  The fourteen men leaped to their feet.

"Wrong!" Spears yelled back as he pulled the gun from the sack and began firing around the room.  He unfurled a hundred rounds in the space of a couple minutes, back and forth in a steady rhythmic motion calculated to hit everything in his path.  His calculation was flawless.  Presently, all the mad scurrying to get away ceased.  Nothing stirred.  Fourteen blood soaked bodies lay huddled around the marble chamber floor.

"It's a gun," he corrected the Councilman's evaluation of his parcel as he slipped it back in the sack and made for a side door.  He stopped beside a Silver chieftain long enough to swipe his index finger through one of the wounds and rub the blood across his forehead.  Then, still unnoticed, he left the Chamber, exited the Capitol, and casually headed back to his car.  The gulls had gone, the sky was quiet, the only noise was here on the ground.

"What's all the excitement?" he asked some people who came running past him.

"Someone heard gunshots!" came the reply.

"Hey, this is the wild west!" he quipped as he glided down the sidewalk.  Occasionally someone would stop and point to his forehead.  "An old war wound," he would say.  "Got it at the Battle of Truth.  You wouldn't believe the carnage they left behind!"

Within ten minutes, he was in his car again, heading north to Reno on US Route 395, which became South Virginia Street inside the city limits.  Halfway through the city, at California Avenue, he parked and walked the remaining six blocks to the old Court House, now the Spurs' headquarters, where he repeated, almost step for step and word for word, his earlier adventure - with one slight variation.  There were no gulls overhead to compete for the people's attention; his "Good mornings" were spoken head on and eye to eye.

"It's afternoon," someone pointed out.

"It still feels like morning," he explained.  "Ever had that kind of day?"

"What's that on your forehead?" someone else asked.

"Must be blood," he replied.

"You okay?"

"So far." 

"You ought to see a doctor."

"I am a doctor.  I replace eyes: you know: an eye for an eye."

The courthouse was small, a brick facade, a flat roof.  He went in through a small green side door.  Momentarily, he was standing in the old Courthouse where the Spurs met to conduct the city's business.  He looked around.  There were polished wooden planks behind the conference table, dark wooden beams overhead, a small windows with bars along the Eastern wall.  The council members, seated at an oaken table, seemed unaware of his presence though he was only thirty feet away.

"Excuse me," he called.  "Am I in the right place?  Is this where the bodies are?"

The twelve Councilmen looked at him, twelve balding middle aged men in expensive silk suits.  "What bodies?" one of them asked.  The heat came on, the compressed air buzzing into the room like a big fly.

Spears took out his gun.  All twelve men jumped up.  "Yours," he answered as he pointed the gun and began firing in the same rhythmic motion he had earlier used, a motion that mowed all twelve men to the floor.  When all movement ceased, except the spurting of blood from their wounds, he went to the nearest body, dipped his finger in a small pool that had formed in the chest cavity, and smeared it across his forehead, just above the other mark.  Then he replaced his gun and made for the small green door.

Coming out of the Courthouse, he encountered two policemen.  "There's been some trouble in there: they need help!" he reported.

"Looks like you need help yourself!" one of the cops said.

"I'm okay: I got out in time," Spears replied.  "Better hurry though.  They need you!"

"Thanks!" the cops said as they ran inside.

Spears watched the cops disappear through the same green door he had just come out of.  He shook his head and smiled as he walked away.  A siren rang out, disturbing some pigeons roosting in a cornice of the Courthouse.  He noticed where the sidewalk was cracked in places just beyond the Courthouse.  He struggled a moment trying to pry a concrete chip loose, but couldn't, so he moved on.  "Wish I had a friggin' souvenir," he muttered.

He made it to his car without incident.  He continued north on Virginia Street until coming to Interstate 80, where he turned left, heading west, into California, to just south of Donner's Pass.  He paused a moment and bowed his head before picking up Route 89 South, completing the loop back to Monitor Pass.

Returning to his cave, he threw his gun down.  Joey looked at him, at the blood on his forehead.  "The mark of Cain," the boy said.

"You gonna arrest me?" Spears asked.

The boy shook his head.  "They'd kill you," he said.  "And you'd be damned.  I'd never see you again for all eternity."

"How 'bout that!" Spears mused.  "So what's for dinner?" he then asked.  "I feel like celebrating."

"There'll be more," Professor Kirkus assured Bradley Carter.

"How do you know?  And if you know, why didn't you let me know?  I had geological surveys done: they didn't reveal that cavern or any other."

"They're not geological formations," said Kirkus.  "They have nothing to do with the topography of the region.  They're man-made.  We knew you'd encounter two; I had every intention of letting you know in plenty of time to deal with them.  The truth is, the one you encountered was unknown to us.  It's never been mapped.  I didn't think it had ever been used; although it must have, at some time, for the bones to have been there.  These are not caverns; they're tunnels.  Part of an elaborate escape route.  The T-Men have built a vast network of inter-connecting tunnels criss-crossing the plains.  Actually, an astounding feat; there's really been nothing like it in the history of the human race.  It even dwarfs our project.  Of course, it was constructed over a period of a hundred years, give or take.  Needless to say, the T-Men have no idea we know about it - which is just the way we want to keep it.  I'm told they've killed hundreds of their own members in order to keep us from learning about it - an irony I find rather scintillating.  The bones of Colorado Man were nothing more than the remains of a dead outlaw.  Only a self-promoting fool like Immanek Douglas could have ever thought otherwise!"

"As long as there are no more surprises awaiting my men, I could care less who's built what where or how!" Carter dismissed the tunnels and their builders.

"Oh, I assure you the landscape from here on out will be exactly as it appears, allowing for the two more tunnels you'll encounter along the way," said Kirkus.  "My one and only goal is to make sure you stay on schedule.  There is no other motive directing me."

"I hope not," Carter replied in a half threatening tone.

It was only after the boys' rescue that Kirkus' daughter Andrea took notice of Bradley Jerome Carter II.  She had seen him often in school; she knew he was her brother's rival; her friends in the fourth grade were crazy about him.  "He's the cutest boy in the sixth grade!" they all assured her.  Yet she saw nothing to set him apart from any of the other boys.

"It's not that unusual to be cute," she told her friends.  "Most of the boys here are cute, most of the girls pretty.  It's the homely ones who really stand out."

"Oooh!" the other girls declared with tremendous disdain.  "Who wants to be ugly?"

"Reggie does," Andrea noted.  "He says a leader should be unique."

"That's not the same thing as being ugly," her friends pointed out.

"Oh yes it is," she insisted.  "People want to be unique just about as much as they want to be ugly."

"Then you must think your brother's a doll!" they teased.

"I didn't say he was unique - only that he wants to be," Andrea countered.  "If you have to want to be, then you'll never be."

"Maybe Bradley's unique - and cute!"

"No, just cute.  With his big black eyes, and his jet black hair.  Just cute, that's all."

"It's not all," one of the girls taunted.  "My brother says he's got a big you-know-what, that boys have - that makes him unique!"

Andrea joined the other girls in wicked laughter.  "Now I know everything there is to know about him!" she quipped.

The sixth grade took a field trip in May to Meramec Caverns.  As with the fifth graders' annual field trip to the Tung's headquarters in South St. Louis, only representative students from each school were chosen.  Three busses were filled; at nine A.M. sharp they took off from three different points within the city, all three converging outside of Webster Groves for the hour's ride along Interstate 44 southwest to the town of Stanton.  The kids talked and sang and moved around on the bus, much to the annoyance of the drivers; but since these were special children, of some of the first families of St. Louis, they were not reprimanded by their chaperones.

Both Bradley Carter II and Reginald Kirkus were among the children chosen to make the field trip.  Neither joined the other children's activities during the ride; Reggie got up once, while the others were frolicking, and moved to the seat next to Brad.

"Why aren't you playing?" he asked.

"It makes the driver's job more difficult," Brad answered.

"These are all your followers: make them stop!" Reggie goaded.

"I don't want to control them," Brad explained.  "If they really got out of hand, to where our safety was jeopardized, I'd ask them to stop."

"Would they?"

"Some would."

"But not everyone?" Reggie observed.

"Why should everyone obey someone else's command?" Brad asked.

"Because that's what power is," Reggie boasted.


The three buses arrived within minutes of each other.  The passengers disembarked.  The teachers who chaperoned the outing assembled the children in the parking lot, then led them through the Visitor Center to begin the tour.  There was a slight rumbling far underground.

"Nothing to worry about," the tour guide assured the children and their chaperones.  "We get these small tremors this time of year.  It's all part of the Spring thaw.  Come back in July and I guarantee you they'll be gone!"

The rumblings continued intermittently throughout the tour.  It had nearly come to an end when Reggie proposed that he and Brad go off on their own to explore the cave.

"They don't show us half of it," he said in a lowered voice.  "They don't even let us near any of the stalactites: they're afraid we might get hurt and sue them!  Come on, let's go!"

"Just the two of us?" Brad asked.

"If you have to have your lieutenants along, I guess it's okay - but no more than one or two!" Reggie insisted.

"No, I don't want to get anyone else in trouble.  If I go, it'll just be me."


"Let me think about it."

"I knew you wouldn't do it!" Reggie expressed in a triumphant tone.  "You're scared to go against those in power.  You're just an ordinary, everyday Joe, scared of his own shadow."

"I don't mind going off to explore," Brad replied in a calm, reasoned tone.  "I don't really see a reason to - I don't really care what else is in here; but if you want, I'm up for it."

The two boys set off, first escaping the group by falling to the rear of the line, then slipping behind a formation till the others had moved on.  They wandered from room to room within the vast underground network, each room, as they drew farther and deeper into the cavern, growing colder, clammier than the last, though they never strayed entirely from the ring of lights set up to illuminate the natural wonders on display, interspersed with man-made adornments, such as the Jesse James gang.  When they had gotten as far from the lighted areas as they dared, the light so distant and dim they could barely see the huge jagged icicles clinging to the mossy ceiling above and rising from the slimy floor below, they started back.

"We could go farther," Reggie said.  "I've got a flashlight.  See?"  He triggered the light, which reflected off a sea of stalactites and stalagmites only a few feet ahead in a nearly blinding diffraction.

"This is far enough," said Brad, who moved ahead to where the light shone and just stood there, staring, reaching out to run his hand up and down the giant icicles.

"I've been here before," he said.  "Or somewhere just like this.  But I was being lifted, I wasn't walking."

"Maybe there were icicles in the river when your dad found you," Reggie suggested in a taunting voice.  "You know you're a foundling, don't you?  Otherwise you'd never have been made smart.  They'd have made you a good little citizen, who does everything he's supposed to.  Instead they made you smart - but I'm special!  Any rich kid can be smart but only one in a million can be special - and I'm that one!  They only give it to the chosen ones.  And if the wrong snot-nosed little brat gets the special stuff by mistake - even if he's a rich snot-nosed brat! - they take him out and drown him like a stray kitten!  They throw him in the river!"

"Is that what they did to me?" Brad asked.  "Did I get the wrong stuff by mistake?"

"No!  The mistakes were all made before you came along, so don't imagine you're special!  Those brats are all at the bottom of the Mississippi!"

"Where was God?" Brad posed a rhetorical question in a voice so low his companion failed to hear the question.

The light continued to shine into the icicles.  Brad continued stroking them, with both hands now, as if he were searching for something, trying first one then another until he found it, his search taking him deeper into this ever tightening ice menagerie. 

Suddenly the light flickered and the ground rumbled.  The light had loosened from Reggie's hand and fell to the floor, still aimed into the icicles.  Brad turned back toward the light.  The ground rumbled again.  A deafening roar began deep within the chamber, moving nearer the boys, the nearer it grew the more definite its cadence.  It was like the shattering of glass.  Brad began running toward the light, away from the approaching din.  Almost to the shore of his icicle sea, a third rumbling knocked him to the ground.  The sound pursuing him finally caught him.  The last stalactites clinging to the ceiling were wrenched loose and came crashing down around him.  Slivers of the shattered growths tore at his arms and legs, barely drawing blood.  He tried to crawl away, then stopped.

"What?" he said, turning as if responding to a call from within the chamber of broken icicles.

At that instant, a final stalactite broke free and fell, its jagged tip piercing Brad's chest.  Blood spurted from the wound onto the crystalline stone.  The light from the shore shone deep into the crystal now slowly turning red.  Brad raised his head and stared into the obelisk standing over him.  He began reciting a prayer.

"Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.  Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven."

Then he stopped reciting.  "I can't lie here praying and waiting for God to come save me," he muttered, his voice strained, his words garbled.  "God can't save anyone, ever again, just as He could not save my father's son from being drowned like a stray kitten.  I see so clearly, in the shaft of this weapon.  I can never again believe.  The God my father worships - the God I loved as a reflection of my father: He is no more."

Brad closed his tear filled eyes and, with a sudden violent lurch that forced a gasp from his throat, arose from the ground.  He managed to steady himself and, re-opening his eyes, to guide his steps back into the light, one hand grasping at anything sturdy - the wall, a column of stone, one formation after another - to keep himself upright; the other hand holding the crystal protruding from his chest, as if it were a treasure too precious to let go.

He left Reggie's flashlight where it was, but maneuvered it around with his foot so it shone away from the chamber, lighting his way through the maze of stalactites and stalagmites too large to have been shattered by the earthquake, until he came to the recessed lights marking the boundary of the claimed caverns.  From this boundary on, his path was unimpeded by nature, the debris millions of years had left behind had been cleared by man.  He finally emerged, from the half hidden recess he and Reggie had gone to explore, into the main chamber, where the tour was just finishing. 

The other students, the chaperones, the tour guide all looked at him at first as if he were one of the animated displays; then, as it registered that he was one of them, and wounded, they ran to him.  Two of the chaperones took hold of him, one on each side; Reggie Kirkus came over and skillfully maneuvered himself in the place of one of them.

"I can manage," he told the chaperone he displaced.  "He's my friend."

Brad was led out, in a daze, and taken in an ambulance to the local hospital; from there, once he was stabilized, he was transferred to St. Louis for emergency surgery to remove the stalactite and repair his chest.        

Every newscast in St. Louis on the night of October 29, 2062, began with the same headline.  "It is with great sadness that we report the death of Joseph Manseur, President of the City Council.  Mr. Manseur died after a brief illness."  Variations of the highlights of his life followed the lead in.  "He was an integral part of our community for the past thirty-seven years, an innovator who took civic responsibility to new heights.  He and the civic organization he led turned our economy into the envy of the nation.  Under his leadership unemployment has remained at zero percent; productivity has risen at a steady rate of three percent per year; inflation bottomed out at one half of one percent per year, then disappeared for good.  As President of the Tung ruling body he forged alliances with every sector of the business and labor community.  A patron of the arts; the head of numerous charitable foundations; a staunch supporter of quality public education, Mr. Manseur truly represented all that is good and noble in our community - and he will be greatly missed."

The entire St. Louis aristocracy, as well as State and Federal officials up to the Vice-President of the United States, attended his funeral.  Inside a cast iron casket specially designed to resemble a bomb, Manseur was laid out against a red satin lining wearing his favorite turtleneck, a thick white one, and the traditional dark blue silk suit bearing the Tung's emblem on the breast pocket.  He was lad to rest in peace, following a brief eulogy by his second in command on a foggy gray day in early November.  When the funeral ended and everyone left, the gravediggers came and lowered the casket into the ground and filled the hole.  From a distance, a middle aged woman with wild, staring eyes, unkempt grayish blonde hair, and a jagged scar across her throat  watched the ceremony, watched the lowering of the casket, watched the dirt filling the grave.  When the gravediggers left she approached.  She took a blood-stained knife from her purse and thrust it into the soft moist earth.

"Knowledge is power," she said in a deep, rasping voice.  "You didn't know why you did it: you just did it.  But I knew exactly why I did it.  That's why you're a mere butcher while I'm an angel of vengeance."  Then she turned and walked away.

"Aim first," Paris Commune had always told his son.  "Take careful aim.  That's the only way to learn.  Until it comes to you so naturally you need only lift your weapon and fire, you must hold it up almost to your eyes.  Squint your eyes at first, to better focus; then learn to focus without squinting.  Then, in time, learn to focus with your hand - let your hand become an extension of your eyes."

They boy was four the first time Paris took him to the firing range.  By the time he was twelve he had become a marksman whose expertise was second only to his father.  Having mastered the skill, he seemed to lose interest.  He came to the firing range less frequently; and, then, only when his father insisted.

"What's wrong?" Paris asked the boy.  "You used to love to shoot.  Now you only shoot when I make you.  Why?"

"When can I go with you on a mission?" the boy asked.  "I'm tired of shooting at targets.  I want to shoot at people.  I want to kill the enemy.  Why won't you let me go?  You say I'm an expert: no one's going to shoot me first, I can outshoot anyone but you."

"I forget sometimes you're still a boy," Paris explained.  "It's when you say something like that I'm reminded.  Our aim is not to kill people.  Each mission has an objective.  People are killed only if they get in the way of that objective.  We're here to disrupt an evil, totalitarian bureaucracy that has ignored the rights and freedoms the American people fought and died for.  As for out-shooting the enemy, that's not what it's about: that's only a small part of it.  Our job is to outsmart the enemy: that's how we stay alive.  You will almost never stand face to face with your enemy, as you and I are now standing.  His goal is to surprise you, yours to keep from being surprised.  If you think of him as a target, he'll get you first every time.  You must learn to think of him as an abstraction - a possibility - something that could appear at any moment, from any angle.  You must regard him as a phantom.  He doesn't exist until he suddenly appears from nowhere.  Then you have to instantly assess what he will do.  Only then can you ever think about shooting.  So long as he remains a phantom, your shots will stray from the mark, every time you fire.  Wait for that split second when he becomes a concrete reality.  Then fire."

Paris paused a moment.  "You know," he continued, "as I was explaining this to you, I thought of something useful.  I was trying to picture some training exercise, something you could watch on television.  I know I've spoken against that medium, and haven't allowed you to watch.  Now I want you to start watching.  You're right: you don't need to keep shooting at targets; once or twice a week should keep your skills sharp.  There's a series of programs - very, very old.  I watched them when I was a boy, and they were old then; I'd forgotten about them till just now, talking to you.  My father had given them to me to watch.  It occurred to me how much they taught me.  They're still around.  I'm going to get as many videos of as many episodes as I can find.  The series was called Star Trek.  I can't think of anything better to teach you this idea of something intangible suddenly becoming a reality so overwhelming you must deal with it immediately or perish.  These are life or death situations in which literally split-second decisions have to be made.  I don't want you to watch the shows for their entertainment value - ignore the costumes, the spaceships, the alien creatures, the ray-guns.  Focus only on the plot, and its resolution.  Look beyond the superficial paraphernalia to the essence of what is actually happening.  By this time next week I'll have those videos for you.  You have my word on that."

From the first moment of the first episode he watched, exactly one week from the day his father promised him the videos, the boy became totally engrossed in the events depicted, totally immersed in the world these events circumscribed.  Gradually, episode after episode, over and over, day in and day out, as he sat on a wooden chair in his small room, darkened by drawn curtains, watching the small screen a few feet in front of him, he came to understand what his father had tried to explain.  And when he went to the target range - every day he went now, no matter what the weather - he acted out the dynamic he was beginning to see as the essence of all human encounters.

"Father," he said one evening over supper as the two sat at a small wooden table in a small, bare room admitting the last light of the day through a yellowed, curtainless window, "the term you use: second nature: I'm beginning to understand it.  Not fully yet; but I know in time the things I'll need to do will be second nature to me.  Thank you, father, for those videos.  When I think of all you know, I'm proud to be your son, no matter what I might have to do when the time comes.  I love, father.  And I honor you."

"I love you, son," Paris, in turn, said.  "And I'm proud to be your father - whatever circumstances might require of me some day.

In reconstructing the compound at Recluse from the ashes of their old headquarters, the T-Men had endeavored to follow the original design as closely as possible; this was especially true of the room where the ruling Council met.  The new chamber, like the old, followed an A-frame, forty feet long, twenty feet wide, with a ten foot high wood beamed ceiling.  There were no windows, and only one door, heavy, dark and rustic.  The walls were stone, the floor wooden planks.  A table and ten chairs stood at the far end, opposite the door.  An American flag stretched against the wall overlooking the council table.

There was considerable discussion in the council chamber regarding the recent death of the Tung leader.  He and his organization were well known to the T-Men, who kept close tabs on the ruling bodies of all the major cities.

"He never owned a turtleneck in his life," Mount Everest mentioned.  "Yet he was buried in his 'favorite' one."

"He died 'after a brief illness,'" one of the other members observed.

"We're going to exhume his body," Paris Commune brought forth.

"Why?  Logic already says he was probably murdered!" a member declared.

"Or hung himself," another member added.

"It isn't to satisfy our curiosity," said Paris.  "It's to show the people what really happened."

"What makes you think they care what really happened?" several members agreed.

"It's to let them know they were lied to," Paris explained.

"Don't you think they already know how often they're lied to," Mount Everest posed a rhetorical question.  "They've long since abandoned any concern for truth they might have once had."

"What are you saying: we should give up?" Paris countered with another rhetorical question.

"No," Mount Everest recanted.  "Our course is worth whatever we need to do.  For my part, I've long since given up fighting for the sake of the people, that's all.  I've become a true revolutionary: all that matters is my cause.  All substance and no talk.  The truth is, freedom would be a hindrance to most people.  It would cost them, literally cost them, to be free.  They're already free enough, for their purposes.  When we come riding in our shining white horses to set them free from tyranny, they'll all be there cheering us.  And, all the while, cursing us under their breath for disrupting their comfortable existence just to set them free.  I have no more faith in the people than I do in their God.  And the only faith I have left in my cause is that I know, in an ideal world, it could help usher in the Millennium.  I'm willing to sacrifice that which is for the sake of that which can never be.  That makes me an absolute fool.  Yet when I look around at the options, weigh the alternatives, being a fool doesn't look half bad to me.  But digging up a corpse simply to rub people's noses in it: it makes no sense - even to an acknowledged fool."

"Nevertheless," said Paris, "it's what we're going to do.  Or, let me say: it's what I'm going to do.  Anyone is free to accompany me or not, as he sees fit.  For all I know, Kirkus is behind this.  If so, and if I can put a wedge between him and his operatives, I'll gladly dig up a thousand corpses and lay them at his feet!"

"So when are you going to rob Manseur's grave?" Mount Everest asked.

"I'll do that first," Paris answered.  "I want that behind me when I meet with the weatherman."

"Who?" several asked.

"That's all anyone knows him by: the weatherman.  He's formed his own militia - well, not exactly a militia; I'm just used to using that word.  He calls his group 'The Weathermen.'  All they do is report the weather - twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  The real weather.  Not this bogus crap you get in the papers and on television."

"Then he's the one who -" someone started to ask.

"He's the one!" Paris cut him short.  "A living legend.  And I want him on our team.  That'd be one huge feather in our cap, getting the man who single-handedly wiped out the ruling bodies of two separate gangs, even if they were two small, rather insignificant gangs.  I've arranged to meet with him next month.  Next week, I go dirty my hands in the Tungs' back yard before shaking his hand next month.  Anyone with me?"

The Council was not only a collective body, it was an amalgam of separate forces, each with its own leader who sat on the Council.  Had the other members not agreed to Paris' plan, he would have been limited to his own personal contingent and his own resources.  By voicing their agreement, as they did, the other nine members put the men and resources each represented at Paris' disposal.  He acknowledged their support, stipulating only that he wanted no new members this time.

"I want this to go without a hitch," he said.  "Only members whose loyalty has been proven need apply."

The little graveyard off South Kingshighway where the Tungs had been buried for three generations was surrounded by a ten foot high wrought iron fence, which the full moon twisted into an eerie shadow that stretched across the graves like the fingers of a skeleton trying to dig up corpses.  The nearest street light cast a garbled orange glare eaten up by the moon's light.  Five men dressed in black scaled the fence and jumped into the graveyard, each casting a long thin shadow that moved quickly to the center, where a new headstone had been installed over a freshly dug grave.  Within an hour the body of Joseph Manseur was inside a black plastic bag being carried across the fence to an awaiting van.

Inside the van, the body was removed from the bag and stripped, first of its silk jacket then its "favorite" turtleneck, revealing a jagged scar, reaching from ear to ear, carefully sown shut.  The body was returned to the bag; the van sped away.  It was approaching eleven o'clock.

"Do you know where your leader is?" Paris Commune quipped.

Ten minutes later the van stopped, in front of a local television station.  The five men in the van put on ski masks, gathered up the corpse, and made for the station, staying close to the shadows of shrubs along the front of the one story brownstone building.  They worked their way around to the side, coming to a metal door, which they pried open, and went in.  Through the darkness of deserted offices and storage spaces they slowly moved to a brightly lit area filled with cameras and other equipment all focused on a set in the center of the room.  Just ahead was the eleven o'clock news.  A woman and three men were strategically seated behind a long arch-shaped desk.

The five men and their cargo moved unseen and unheard to the back of the set.  At a signal from their leader they took out guns and burst all of a sudden through a backdrop of the Gateway Arch onto the set.  The woman screamed once; the three men arose as if to scatter but were convinced by guns pointed at their heads to return to their seats.

Two of the men wearing masks brought the black bag to the desk.  An empty chair to the left of the woman was placed in the center of the table.  The bag was seated in the empty chair.  The leader moved directly behind it.

"We have a present for the citizens of St. Louis," he said; and, as he spoke, pulled the black bag from around the corpse.  There were gasps around the desk and in the dark recess where the equipment was.  Suddenly all the red lights facing the set went out; the monitor went black.  The leader raised his gun and pulled the trigger.

"We're not alone," he said.  "This studio is completely surrounded.  The cameras go back on or the cameramen die.  The show must go on, gentlemen."  The red lights returned, the monitor once again displayed the newsroom.

A man who had been waiting in the wings came forward.  "You've taken my chair," he said.  Then, as he moved closer, five guns pointing at him, he addressed the leader directly.  "You may as well take your mask off," he told him; "I recognize your voice."

"We meet again, Mr. Carter," the leader said.  "I take it you were here to be interviewed.  I wouldn't wish to deprive your audience of their...other...special guest.  So please proceed.  With one change in the script: I'll be conducting the interview.  First question, sir: what is the secret project you're working on?"

"Next question," Bradley Jerome Carter prompted.  Paris raised his gun and pointed it.  "I repeat: next question," Carter said.

"Actually," said Paris, "we have to be going."  Then he drew very close to Carter and whispered in his ear.  "It's not too late to reclaim your son."

"The moment it happened it was too late," Carter replied back in a stage whisper.

Paris signaled to his men.  As quickly, as silently as they had arrived, they left the station, proceeded to their van, and sped away.  In less than an hour, they were headed west along Interstate 70 to Columbia, where they took a northern turn on US Route 63, which they followed to Ottumwa, Iowa, then headed west again, along US Route 34, into Nebraska, to the Bassway Strip.  There they disappeared underground.

A party of three men and two women paid an early evening visit to Bradley Jerome Carter's mansion in the Private Streets District of the West End.  A tall man dressed in a priest's black frock and white collar rang the doorbell.  He handed the servant who answered the door an embossed card. 

"Please announce us to Mr. Carter," he said.  "It's very urgent that we see him."

Presently the party was admitted to the formal sitting room just off the main foyer, the three gentlemen offered easy chairs, the ladies a divan.  Once they were seated, the man of the house entered.  The gentlemen arose; the ladies nodded.

"Please be seated," Carter said to the gentlemen after acknowledging the ladies.  "Father Rosten, you're always a welcome guest in my home," he addressed the one visitor he knew.  "Can I offer you something?" he asked.

"No," replied the priest gravely.  "This is, sadly, not a social call.  We bring very bad news, sir - and bad news is best offered swiftly, and with the greatest possible compassion.  I wish there were some other way to say this, but there isn't: something terrible has happened to your son.  We tried desperately to save him, but it was too late; there was nothing we could do.  We lost him, sir, despite all our efforts to save him."

"Lost him?" Carter repeated as if doubting which words he heard.  "What do you mean 'Lost him?'  Lost him how?"

"In times like this, our heavenly Father - and He alone - can give us the strength we need to get through our trials and tribulations.  We are prepared to offer a novena, and have petitioned the Bishop of St. Louis to include him in a special mass."

"That's all well and good," Carter impatiently interrupted, "but please just get to the point.  What happened to my son?"

"He was in school, in Bible class, when it happened."  The priest pointed to the man seated next to him and to the lady farthest from their host.  "Mr. Morne and Mrs. Leakin here were conducting a question and answer session -"

"Are you telling me something happened in school?"

"Yes, sir, I am.  But let me let Mr. Morne and Mrs. Leakin tell you in their own words," the Priest deferred to the man next to him first.

"I had just presented my students with the classic dilemma," Mr. Morne began relating the incident, his little mouth opening and closing like a fish sucking in water.  "'Can God make a stone so heavy He cannot lift it?'  I had gotten several attempts at answers - all quite off the mark, as you might imagine - when I perceived Master Bradley holding his hands palm up as if weighing some evidence, one part against another.  So I called upon him to share his thoughts with the class.  That was when it happened.  Mrs. Leakin," Morne deferred to the lady.

"At first Bradley said nothing," she resumed the story.  "Then he spoke up.  We were all so taken aback and horrified by what he said I asked him to please repeat himself.  'I no longer believe in God,' he said yet a second time.  'So I'm unable to address the matter of the stone you proposed.'  Mr. Morne and I stood there, transfixed, neither of us knowing what to do for the boy."

"That's when they called me," Father Rosten took over the narrative again, "knowing I was his parish priest.  I, of course, dropped everything and hurried right over.  Something told me I'd need all the help I could get, so I called Dr. Jurgens and Dr. Marsen on the parish car phone and asked them to meet me there.  They're both Christian child psychologists."

"That's correct," the second man down from Rosten said.  "Dr. Marsen and I deal every day with boys and girls in danger of losing their way.  Neither of us had ever encountered anything quite like this - do I speak correctly for you, Dr. Marsen?"

The other woman on the divan nodded her assent.  "The boy was quite recalcitrant," she added her assessment.  "We tried everything to get him to recant, but he steadfastly refused.  We asked him to join us in prayer, but he declined."

"He's suffering the symptoms of a classic unconversion syndrome," Dr. Jurgens explained.  "It's a very rare disorder, usually brought on by some traumatic event, such as the loss of a parent.  I've never seen so severe a case."

"Nor have I," Dr. Marsen assured her host.

"Unconversion?" Bradley Carter sought verification of what he had heard.

"It really goes back to very ancient folklore," Dr. Marsen pointed out.  "The story of the Prodigal Son.  In some ways the story of Cain also.  Even parts of the Lucifer allegory."

"It's a disorder most difficult to treat," Father Rosten again reclaimed the floor.

"What do you recommend?" Carter asked.

"First and foremost," Rosten offered, "he must be removed completely from exposure to any and all non-Christian influences or stimuli, no matter how innocuous they may seem.  There can be no pagan art, such as African statuettes depicting naked women; no erotic or suggestive poetry; no atheistic literature of any sort; absolutely no science-fiction; no music employing any strong percussion; no electronic or video games not sanctioned by the Church.  He may engage freely in all non-contact sports, but must not wear athletic attire which fits too tightly.  Needless to say, he must never be left alone with a member of the opposite sex - especially one who might assume the role of the temptress."

"Forgive my bluntness, Father," Carter observed, "but all your suggestions relate almost entirely to physical matters.  Isn't it his soul we're concerned with rather than his body?"

"The body is the vehicle of the soul," Rosten reminded his host.  "Set the body on the right path and the soul will follow."

Carter thanked his guests for their concerns as well as their suggestions.  He assured them he would do everything necessary to return his son to the fold.  He then bid them a good evening.  By the time they had descended the front steps and walked to Rosten's black sedan, Carter had formulated his plan.  When they were gone, he stepped outside and, looking up at the stars in the night sky, promised God he would deliver his son to Him or forfeit his own life trying.

At their next meeting, two days after the visit, Carter set down the terms of the rest of his son's boyhood.  They met in the formal study, which served as Carter's office away from his office.  The mahogany desk, the various mahogany side pieces, the green leather chair, the dark green rug and drapes, all flawlessly set beneath a flood of white light, conspired to wring all familiarity from the father-son dynamic, leaving only its most primitive manifestation: an open display of power.

The boy sat facing his father, who sat behind his desk in a chair larger and higher than the others.  At first Bradley Carter said nothing.  He just stared at his son, as if witnessing an imposter's charade.

"Perhaps you're wondering why I've called you here," he finally said when the tension had built sufficiently to make them both uncomfortable.  "Starting tomorrow you will no longer participate in scholastic sporting events.  I am taking that from you.  You will, however, attend every event that you would have otherwise participated in.  You will spend your leisure hours watching others do what you no longer can.  In case you wonder if this is punishment: it is.  You're being punished for turning away from God.  But it's not just punishment: it's an attempt to make you see the folly of your course.  Society has no more room for atheists than heaven does.  I intend to deprive you of everything that gives you joy, starting with the thing that gives you the greatest joy.  Once you see - really, truly see - what your life is like without the benefits society imparts to those who abide by its rules, you may - I hope, I pray you will - begin to understand what eternity would be like without the blessings heaven bestows on the faithful.  I have no other aim but teaching you; no other concern in this but your immortal soul.  I want you to be with me in heaven.  I can't imagine spending eternity without my son by my side.  I will do anything I have to to insure your salvation."

Young Bradley focused his deep black eyes on his father as he spoke.  "This is not a decision I chose to make," he said.  "I would never choose to give up my belief, it meant too much to me.  Yes, I love sports, father - more than anything; yes, I'll miss them, more than I can ever say.  But there's nothing you or anyone else can take from me that I'll miss half as much as I miss believing in God.  Every time I walk past the Cathedral - and I try to go that way every day - it's all I can do to keep from crying, I want so much to be a part of it again.  But I can't.  I saw it too clearly to deny it.  There is no God.  Nothing that's ever happened to me has ever been so clear.  I can't believe any longer, no matter what it costs me.  And I can't pretend to believe just to keep from losing the things I love: it's too important, I won't demean it by faking it.  You want me to believe again: I won't, father, not ever.  You want my soul to be saved: there is no salvation."

"There are no sports either," Bradley Carter reinforced his decision.

"Don't you miss playing?" Andrea Kirkus asked Brad at an inter-scholastic football tournament.  "You were so good.  A much better quarterback than the one we have now."

The statewide Junior High competition was being held at St. Joseph.  The best teams from each city had competed throughout the season, eventually narrowing down to two: St. Louis' Forest Park and St. Joseph's Corby Grove Middle School.  Forest Park was Bradley Carter's school.  He had been its team's quarterback throughout most of the season, helping his school win a trip to the final play-off.  This was the first game since his father's edict.

"Sure, I miss it," he replied to Andrea's question.  She had arranged to meet him in the stands at the Albrecht Art Gly Athletic Field, just below the Interstate 29 overpass, where the game was being played.  Ever since Brad's fall from grace, Professor Kirkus had discouraged his daughter from being seen in his company, so she met him on the sly.  "I would kill to be on that field," he added.  "The irony is, if I were poor I'd be there: my father's objections would carry no weight with the school board."

It was an unusually warm evening for late fall - particularly since the day had been cold.  Snow had fallen; by mid-afternoon the football field was covered.  Then suddenly it began warming up, the snow melted, the field became soggy.  The stands were packed, the spectators had tracked mud on their way to their seats.  Some carried blankets or heavy coats, in case it got cold again; most came only wearing the shirts or blouses on their backs.  The sun had just set when the game began: it had been scheduled earlier than normal to allow the St. Louis team and their fans time for the three hundred mile trip home.  Dark black clouds began spilling across the horizon, choking off the last remaining light.

Brad and Andrea had taken their seats on the front row, at the fifty-yard line, just in time for the kick-off.  The first quarter moved slowly; St. Joseph made a touchdown in the final seconds of the quarter.  By contrast, the second quarter moved swiftly.  St. Louis made a touchdown the very first play, followed by three field goals for St. Joseph, then a second touchdown for St. Louis and a touchdown for St. Joseph, putting the score at fourteen to twenty-three.  Half-time, the air began growing colder; the heavy black clouds sped out of Kansas toward the Missouri River like a runaway freight train.  Some of the spectators, watching the clouds, began singing a very old song, Ghost Riders In The Sky.

A howling wind accompanied the start of the third quarter.  Several attempted passes were foiled by it, the football blown not only over the head of the receiver but out of bounds entirely - twice ending up in the bleachers.  "It's starting to look like a baseball game!" one of the announcers for the station televising the game quipped.  Then, from nowhere, a blinding rain from the southeast swept across the field into the stands.  Blankets were hastily thrown over the few spectators who had brought them but were grabbed up by the wind as if they were fallen leaves and blown out of the stands and onto the bypass hundreds of feet to the northwest.  Nobody heard the cloud roll in.

It came as if on the twentieth century poet Carl Sandburg's "Little Cat's Paws."  It was nothing more than a passing cloud, very low to the ground, like a big thick fog that silently rolled in.  Had it not been a night game on a football field, no one would have known what was inside; the cloud would have done what it came to do unseen as well as unheard.  But the floodlights caught it.  Beaming from one end to the other, thousands of watts of luminescence burned an image in the night as surely as if a shutter had exposed an emulsion of silver nitrate.

Inside the cloud was a huge black swirl rolling with thunderous ferocity as the cloud slowly swept across the football field.  The boys on the field couldn't see it; only the spectators, from their illuminated vantage point, could, as well as the viewers watching at home on their televisions.  To the boys it still looked like fog as, one by one, it began sucking them in while they played out their final play of the game.

The spectators were screaming.  The boys still left on the field did not realize what was happening to their team mates, only that they were lost in a dense fog, which drew ever nearer.  Everyone watched in horror as the floodlights lit up bodies being torn apart inside a churning black vortex.

Bradley Carter jumped from his seat and ran, as fast as he could, onto the playing field, screaming at the top of his lungs to the boys still left "Get off the field!  Get off the field!"  None of them moved.  He kept screaming at them, running toward them.  They were in the middle of a scrimmage.  No one had ever told them they would one day have to abandon the configuration their coaches had put them in.  They wouldn't move.  The cloud kept rolling over them, one by one, drawing them up into the vortex.

Tears were streaming down Bradley Carter's face; he could barely see.  The cloud was almost on him.  He couldn't hear it, or see it; but he felt it drawing nearer.  As it reached out to him he made a running tackle, pushing himself and one other boy to the sidelines, just inches away from the cloud.  He had no idea who lay beneath him; he could feel a body struggling to free itself from his iron grip, that was all.

Then the cloud passed beyond the field and over Noyes Street, to the immediate west, carrying the disembodied boys toward the Missouri.  In its wake were two boys, lying just outside the ten yard line.  Slowly they got up and looked around.

"Where'd they go?" the boy Brad had tackled asked.  "Where are they?"  He began to panic as he sensed something terrible had happened.  He began running, away from Brad, to the other end of the field, calling then crying out then screaming the names of his team mates.  "Where are you guys?  Where are you?"

Brad walked across the field to the stands.  When he reached his seat, he touched Andrea's cheek with this palm.  "It might have turned," he said.  "I didn't think.  It might have turned and gotten you and I wouldn't have been there.  I'll never leave you like that again, I swear it."

Andrea looked into his eyes.  "You saved a boy's life," she said.  "If you had stayed behind to protect me he would have died with the others."  Brad put his arm around her and led her away.

"I never saw the ugly side of sports before," he said, tearfully.  "Where they do exactly as they're told, and stay their ground, no matter what, till someone in authority comes to relieve them.  Andrea, I loved those guys.  They were my buddies.  I loved them.  We were a team.  They died because they were a team, waiting for the leader to come save them.  Only there was no leader.  And now everyone will think they've gone to heaven and they'll see them again one day.  Except me.  And they think it's easy, not believing in God - just something a two-bit rich punk does for a lark!  I'd give anything if I could see those guys again.  It hurts so much knowing I never will.  I loved them so much.  But I love you more, Andrea.  So much more."

"I always knew you would, when you were ready to," Andrea said.    

"It's a new kind of tornado," Sanderson Spears explained the strange markings on his radar to Joey.  Hidden away in his cave in the side of Monitor Pass, he could only see and experience the strange weather around him through his network of electronic sensors, as if he were a paraplegic totally dependent on machines to make his way through life.  "Maybe some day I'll see one for real," he added, almost longingly.

"New in what way?" Joey asked.

The cabin was smaller than the weather station at Donner's Pass - barely half its size.  But the cave was big enough to accommodate a building the size of a football field; and, sheltered from all but the fiercest winter storms, it allowed for a multitude of possible living arrangements.  In the summer, on all but the coolest nights, Spears and his assistant slept in the open, behind the cabin, in a fenced in compound meant to keep the occasional bear, cougar or wolf from disturbing their sleep.  When the weather grew colder, they pitched tents inside a ring of fire.  Only on the very coldest nights, when blizzards crept up the mountainside, tree by tree, boulder by boulder, catching in the crevices and onto the ledges then all at once leaping inside the cave as if sucked into a vacuum, did they sleep in the cabin, and even then primarily to make sure the equipment kept working.

"This tornado never touches down," Spears explained.  "It never takes a vertical turn - it remains horizontal.  There are both updrafts and downdrafts in the cell; somehow they're held in perfect equilibrium.  The tornado never becomes a cloud.  It rolls, at the same speed as a regular tornado, inside this deceptively innocent looking cloud.  How much damage it does depends entirely on how low the cell is to the ground.  This one touched down just east of the Missouri River, probably right in the center of St. Joe.  Right near Route 29."

"How can you know that?" Joey asked.

"Because I'm the best there is," Spears replied.  "That's not saying much though, considering how few of us there are.  A hundred years ago you would have expected to see giants in the year 2060 - meteorologists who could almost create magic.  Then about thirty years ago, or thereabouts, it came to a screeching halt."


The marks on the screen conveyed by Spears' radar faded over the thin jagged line representing the Missouri.  What was left of Bradley Carter's team mates and their opponents fell from the sky into the cold dark waters and washed downstream.

"They realized what I've come to realize," Spears said.  "The world is coming to an end.  Not the world for good; but the world as we know it; the world human civilization was created in; the world people have managed to survive in.  It's coming to an end.  And the weather, as always, is the harbinger of what's to come.  Don't report it, it'll go away.  What we haven't named cannot exist.  What you don't know can't hurt you.  Oh, by the way: pack a bag, we're headed for Carson City tomorrow."

A strange look came over Joey's face, one of fear and at the same time relief.  Tears welled up in his eyes.  "It's for the best," he said, "turning yourself in.  I'll stand by you, no matter what.  And if they want to try me as an accessory, that's okay too."

Sanderson Spears looked at the boy and burst out laughing.  "That's why I love you, kid!" he exclaimed.  "You're a treasure!  That wonderful naiveté of yours is a never ending source of amusement!  Turn myself in?  For what?  For serving the cause of justice?  For righting a wrong?  For doing unto others as they did unto those I love?  No, kid, sorry to disappoint that two-bit morality of yours, but I won't be turning myself in.  Not tomorrow, not ever.  The only thing you'll be an accessory to is my meeting with the leader of the T-Men."

"Why Carson City?  Why there?" Joey asked.

"The scene of my triumph - one of the scenes, one of my triumphs.  That's why he wants to meet me.  In one afternoon I've done more to buck the system than he has in a lifetime - and surrounded by a small army to boot!  He wants to join forces.  Read: he wants the added prestige of having me in his back pocket.  That's okay with me, so long as I get what I want in exchange.  I'll be his poster boy - just as long as he provides me the resources I need to get my job done.  See, we're two of a kind, Paris Commune and me.  He doesn't trust me to meet him at his hideout; I don't trust him to meet me here.  So we agreed on a neutral ground."

The next morning, very early, Spears and Joey started out.  They headed north from Monitor Pass on California Route 89, skirting the western edge of Lake Tahoe.  Joey asked if US 395 wouldn't have been a more direct route.

"Sure would," Spears replied.  "Except we're taking a little detour through Donner's Pass.  I don't meet the T-Men till two o'clock.  That gives me plenty of time to set things up."

It was only when they pulled up in front of the old, abandoned weather station that Joey asked what things had to be set up - and why there.  "When we leave our meeting, this is where we're going," Spears explained.  "I want him to think this is my hideout, so I've got to give it that 'lived-in' look."

"Why?  I don't understand."

"Because as sure as the sun will set this evening that SOB'll have me followed," Spears explained.  "I do not - repeat: do not - intend letting him know my true location.  He's got to think this is the center of my operations.  Now, let's get to it.  We've got a lot to do."

For the first time, ever, Joey was not a hindrance.  Rather, he moved about and handled the equipment with the skill and agility of a trained acrobat.  Everything he did was letter perfect.  When the job was done and Spears was satisfied that the station looked the way it should, he commented on Joey's performance.

"What's wrong with you, kid?" he asked good naturedly.  "The one time I'm asking you to do something deceptive you're as smooth as silk.  You found your niche in life?"

Joey smiled, lighting up his whole face.  "It feels so good being here again," he said.  "The terrible thing that happened is gone; only the good memories are still here.  I loved it here."

"You'd have loved it more if I had treated you better," Spears noted.  "I'm sorry.  I'll never say that again, I'm sure you know, and I know I'll go right back to mistreating you.  But I truly am sorry.  You deserve so much more than the hand you were dealt."

"I wouldn't want more," Joey said.  "This is where God wants me.  And this is where I want to be."

"And you always will - I promise you that," Spears assured the boy; "as long as you want.  As long as I'm alive.  But I keep forgetting: you're not a kid anymore.  You're going to want to be starting your own life."

"This is my life.  I'm your assistant.  I could never be anything but an assistant - you've got to be smart for that, and I'm not smart.  I'd rather be your assistant than someone else's."

"We'd better get going," Spears said as he looked at his watch.  "Just remember: you don't say a word about Monitor Pass.  I have to ask you to lie for me."

"I won't be lying," Joey assured Spears.  "This weather station - this one, right here - is our home.  This is where we live and work; it still has the feel of those days.  This will always be our home, no matter what.  I won't be lying."

Spears took Interstate 80 east to Truckee, then California Route 267 south to Lake Tahoe, where he picked up Route 28 around Tahoe's northeast rim and on into Carson City.  When Paris Commune, Mount Everest and four of their lieutenants arrived at the old State Capitol Building, Spears and Joey were waiting on the front steps to meet them.  Spears led them inside and down the same steely corridor to the same council chamber he had entered the time he had business here, except that there was no meeting in progress this time: the Silvers, what was left of them, never quite regained their prominence within the community.  Carson City was absorbed, along with Reno, into the Nevada State bureaucracy.  The old State Capitol Building became a museum.

Spears and his guests seated themselves at the same table the Silvers used to sit at.  Paris looked around the room, saying "I like your style" to Spears.  "I like boldness."

"I like irony," Spears responded.  "And I like anonymity."

"For a man who jams the airwaves seven days a week, that's quite a paradox," Paris observed.

"It's the weather - the real, true, honest to God weather, uncut, uncensored, unadulterated - I ram down their throats.  Not me or my personality or my ego.  My job is to give the weather, not to win popularity polls."

Incredibly, no one had thought to replace the carpet; traces of the stains Spears' vengeance had fixed to the floor still remained, six years later.  Mount Everest noticed the stains the moment he entered the room.  "A measure of their worth," he mused.

"How's that?" asked Paris.

"Once they fell from power," Mount Everest explained, "no one cared if their defeat became public property.  No one came to clean up after them.  There's a lesson there for all of us," he added pointedly.

Spears and Joey sat on one side of the table; Paris and his men on the other.  For a moment nothing further was said, as if everyone at the table had suddenly remembered that a thing called etiquette still existed; but no one remembered quite how it worked.  Spears, noticing Paris and, particularly Mount Everest, staring at Joey as if trying to place him, attempted an awkward introduction of his assistant - awkward because he knew precisely what his guests took their relationship to be, and didn't wish to dignify their conclusion by offering anything beyond the boy's name.  The introduction was acknowledged, followed by another pause, which Paris attempted to smooth over with small talk of a sort.

"Your friends were lucky," he told Spears.  "This is still the wild west, where executions are still done the old fashioned way: a bullet to the back of the head."

"Lucky?" Spears asked, as if he hadn't quite understood which term Paris had used.

"There are worse ways to die - believe me," Paris said.  "Execution has become a major art form - especially in the older, more 'civilized' cities.  In Pittsburgh - Pig Town - they cover you from head to toe with flame retardant then slowly lower you into a vat of molten steel.  Across the state, in Philly, they haul out Old Liberty; set you under it; surround it with electronic hammers; and keep pounding away till you're dead.  I'm told it sometimes takes days.  Or New Orleans: the City of Masks.  They've created delicate ceramic masks which they carefully slip over your head.  The mask covers your whole head, like a ski mask.  It has an opening at the top, into which they pour boiling hot Jambalaya.  Even death is the plaything of fortune: your friends died quickly, for no other reason than that they were where they happened to be.  But enough small talk: that's not why we're here, is it?"

"No, it isn't," Spears agreed.

The two men squared off; it was as if everyone else had vanished into the walls.  The entire time they spoke Mount Everest stared at Joey, as if still trying to place him.  It'll come to me some day, he said to himself.

Spears and Paris got down to business.  "Join us," said Paris.  "The T-Men can use a good weatherman.  We're a loose-knit organization: I suspect that's to your liking.  We don't tell you how to run your own organization: you're pretty much on your own.  There is one stipulation: we require each organization that joins forces with us to provide us a body - a living body, of course.  One of your members has to be given to us, to be trained by us and used in our operations.  It assures us adequate manpower.  I'll be perfectly frank with you: it's a form of tribute, it's your acknowledgment of our supremacy.  Are you uncomfortable with that concept?" Paris asked.

Spears focused for a second on the stains at his feet before answering.  "I'm uncomfortable," he said, "with anything that interferes with my job."

"Granted you're a small organization, but I'm sure you have someone you can spare."

"I have one assistant: Joey.  And I can't spare him."

"There must be others - you can't possibly run a network like yours alone," Paris speculated.

"Want to try me?" Spears retorted.  "I'm a one man show.  Oh, I've thought about joining forces with other weathermen; I know they're out there: real weathermen, who love the science more than the show.  But I've learned the hard way that having associates makes you too vulnerable.  I work alone.  With one assistant."

"I can give you one of my men in trade -"

"Forget it!  I don't trade assistants."

"We have a lot to offer you, Spears - I think you know that, or you wouldn't be here.  Our resources are considerable.  But we have to have something in exchange, or there can be no deal."

"I need my assistant," Spears said as he arose from the table.  "I'll have to pass on your offer."

Paris arose too.  "It may be possible to reach a compromise," he said.  "Give us your assistant half the year."

"There's weather year round," Spears pointed out.

"With our help you can redesign your network to where you won't need him all year long," Paris offered.

"Besides," Spears explained, drawing Paris aside, "I don't want this kid to become a killer.  I don't want him trained to shoot or stab or bludgeon or choke or smother another human being.  It would destroy him - assuming you could get him to go against his own conscience.  You must need cooks or janitors or something like that."

Paris shook his head.  "We all do those things."

"Then, I'm sorry.  No deal."  Spears turned to go.

"I could use a tutor for my son," Paris called after him.

"He's not that bright - he couldn't tutor anyone.  Besides, he hasn't even been in a schoolroom since he was twelve."

"He doesn't have to be a great tutor.  Half a year, to teach my son.  In  exchange for all we have to offer.  Is it a deal?"

"You promise he won't become part of some para-military operation?" Spears asked.

"I swear, on the boy I saved from the Mississippi, the boy I love as a son, that your assistant will not be sent on any dangerous assignment," Paris promised.

Spears looked around the chamber.  He looked over at Joey, who had been quietly sitting at the table.  Then he looked into Paris' eyes.  "Alright," he said.  "It's a deal."  The two men shook hands.

When they all left the old State Capitol, and as they were heading for their vehicles - Spears his car, the T-Men their van - Spears took Joey aside and told him of the arrangement.  "I want you to go with them," he said.  "In six months you'll return."  Joey nodded his acceptance of the arrangement and started to speak but was cut short by his mentor.

"I know, I know," said Spears.  "God must want you someplace else for the next six months.  You just keep telling yourself that.  I don't suppose there's the slightest chance you'd curse me for trading you for a piece of equipment, is there?" Spears asked.

Joey shook his head.  "No," he whispered.

"Remember this, kid, and remember it well: what I did here, and in Reno, pales in comparison to what I'll do to this bunch of goons if so much as a single hair on your head is damaged: you got that?  And you don't want my soul blackened more than it already is, because of you - now do you?  So don't go playing the martyr just because you think it's what God wants.  Because I'll kill them - every last one of them!  Boiling Jambalaya?  They think Jambalaya's a hard way to go?  They ain't seen nothing till they've seen my vengeance if they hurt you!  Six months from now I better see your ass right back where it belongs or they'll be hell to pay!  Holy mother fuckin' hell!  Now go."

Joey turned, walked to the van, and got in.  Spears got in his car and waited till the T-Men drove away before leaving.  He returned to the abandoned weather station and, just as he predicted, the T-Men followed, at a distance, leaving only when they were satisfied this was his hideout.            

As Unit 739 was being lowered into place, the thick steel cable supporting it from the two cranes straddling the trench snapped and it came crashing down, crushing the ten workers steering it with guy wires onto the concrete slab it was meant to rest on, and cracking open like a giant eggshell.  News of the accident was immediately relayed to Bradley Jerome Carter, who stormed out of his annual stockholders' meeting and summoned a helicopter to take him to the site.

Five hours later Carter was in the trench assessing the damage, one foot in Colorado, the other in Kansas, at the exact spot where a small stream running west to east across the border - the Ladder - had been filled in to accommodate the trench.

While in transit he called ahead to Denver, summoning his top metallurgists to meet him there.  They were already at the site, already inspecting the large, roughly dome-shaped object lying askance on the concrete slab, when he arrived.

"How did this happen?" he asked.  The foreman, also present, began speculating on the cable, the wear, the undue strain its having to be strung from one crane to the other might have caused.

"Forget the cable," Carter held up his hand signaling the foreman to be silent.  "I want to know why this cracked - that's all I care about," he addressed the four metallurgists gather around the object.  Unit 739 was approximately one hundred feet across, slightly less from front to back; thirty feet high at the center, tapering to twenty at the sides; a blend of circular and angular shapes, the former predominating; looking like a cross between an egg and a crown.  It was metallic, but without the silvery patina of ordinary metals, such as steel or aluminum; or the rusty sheen of copper alloys.  Vaguely, it hinted of violet, but with a preponderance of greenish undertones, as if several layers of almost translucent matter had been forged together.  The crack in it ran like a jagged lightening bolt the entire circumference.

Carter and his men walked several times around the Unit, at various points stepping over bloodied legs protruding from beneath it.  "We've got to get this raised," Carter ordered.  "The son of a bitch better be cracked all to hell on the bottom or I'm calling for a full scale investigation - and a halt to the project.  Because if it's not cracked down there, yet cracked up here, that means something's wrong in its construction or its design."

"Precisely," the team of experts agreed.

"And it makes all the others suspect," Carter added as he pointed north, to a row of these same dome-shaped objects, each sitting a couple hundred feet from the others, all lined up in the trench as far as the eye could see.  Each unit had been hauled over land by specially designed trucks, accompanied by a full military escort; each had been hoisted by the cranes over the trench; each had been lowered onto a concrete slab with the same six-inch wide cable.  Unit 739 was the first to suffer any damage.

An hour later a replacement cable had been strung from the cranes and re-attached to the Unit.  The weather that day had gone from cold, in the morning; to hot, by early afternoon; back to cold mid-afternoon; and now, late afternoon, to blistering heat, as one after another blast of air passed through, first from one direction then another - an almost daily occurrence on the plains.  There seemed to be no pattern or order, no regularity; everything was random, every front of equal strength, as if whatever forces once held the weather in equilibrium had disappeared from the earth.

The question on everyone's mind as the order to hoist the unit was given was "Will we get a tornado or won't we?"  No one knew what signs to look for anymore.  Each morning the workers struck a lottery amongst themselves: of the four categories - wind, earth, fire, water - which would come to claim a life before the day was out.

The cable began lifting the cracked structure, releasing the dead bodies to burst open and spew their contents over the broken slab; only the ten sets of relatively intact clothes identified the seeping objects as human.

Bradley Carter positioned himself directly beneath the ascending object.  He watched as it rose, carefully inspecting the bottom for signs of trauma.  There were none.  As he stood watching, the greenish sphere towering over him began to stir.  An enormous gust of wind took hold of it, initiating a forward thrust that, once the wind had passed, incited a backward thrust of equal force.  Unit 739 became a pendulum, swinging out of control over the Kansas-Colorado border, passing, with each swing, to within inches of the cranes on either side of the trench.  Though no one at the site was an expert in physics, everyone agreed there was no impetus inherent in the object to halt its motion.

"Just let it keep swinging till it stops," the metallurgists advised.

Carter disagreed.  "I want this to stop - and I want it to stop now," he insisted.  "There's too much to do to be kept waiting by a puff of wind.  I want guy wires all around.  You - you - and you!" he pointed to three of his foremen.  "Come with me!"  The four men grabbed a guy wire and ascended the cranes, two on each crane.  Once at the top, Carter motioned the others to follow his lead as he crawled along the crossbeam to a point just beyond where the cable was strung.  They each hung their guy wire, then let it drop the the ground.

"You, down there:" Carter called to his men, "grab hold and pull the wires as taut as you can.  Start at its arc and work your way toward the center.  It's now four twenty-eight.  I want this thing stopped by five o'clock!"

The men on the ground did as instructed.  Four men took hold of each guy wire and began trying to slow the sphere's momentum by first intercepting its path then gradually narrowing that path.  They strained as hard as they could to keep the guy wires tautly positioned against the circular mass swinging between the cranes. The first fifteen minutes of Carter's timetable was spent aligning the wires to the sphere.  When that was accomplished, the men concentrated on narrowing its arc, the two sets in Colorado moving closer by degrees to the two in Kansas, as the sphere bulged first against the wires on one side then against the wires on the other side.  Another ten minutes showed signs of its slowing.  The men speeded up the operation, the four sets moving more rapidly toward one another as the pendulum's force diminished.  Even so, they could not keep to the schedule.  Five o'clock came and went and the sphere still swung well over fifty feet east to west.  Fifteen minutes later its arc lessened to thirty feet; by five-thirty to less than twenty.  Another fifteen minutes would have done it.

But something that felt tight and scratchy on the men's exposed skin had descended all of a sudden from somewhere above the cranes.  A greenish violet arc the size of a small rainbow appeared directly overhead, barely visible against the waning horizon.  The men's watches stopped then began going backwards.  Suddenly the time said five o'clock all over again, then four twenty-eight, then four o'clock.  Their skin felt like a plaster cast filled with ants.  The men on the ground, the men on the crane all felt the same crawling tightness.  The coins in their pockets began clanking, hitting one another as if flung into a moving fan; the belt buckles of the four men on the cranes stuck fast to the crossbeams they were lying on.  A greenish violet glow played about the jagged crack that wound around the sphere, seeping in and out and in again with the scraping sound of sandpaper.  The sphere began to vibrate; the guy wires stuck to it; the cable it hung by began to twist and unravel as if pulled by equal force toward each crane.

The sphere started spinning, taking the men on the ground, who didn't realize what was happening in time to release the guy wires, around with it.  They flew so fast through the air they dared not let go.  All the while it spun, the sphere vibrated ever more fitfully, the greenish violet glow pulsating like an electric arc.  For five minutes this continued as, one by one, the men were flung loose, crashing against the cranes or being hurled to the ground.  The whole time, the crack in the base of the sphere widened, imparting a series of smaller cracks from the base to the top which, in turn, widened, emitting the same greenish violet glow.  Then, all of a sudden, as the last man was hurled against the thick reddish brown dirt forming the side of the trench, the sphere burst apart, sending a mangled spray of slivers and shards in all directions.  The sharp splintered metal covered the men on the ground like broken glass, some of the pieces just piercing their skin, some burrowing deep into their flesh.  Eyes, ears, noses, mouths, hands, necks, faces became a menagerie of slices, cuts, tears and stabs.  Blood seeped or poured from every inch of exposed body; larger pieces of metal protruded from the covered parts of their bodies as well as the exposed parts.  The sixteen men on the ground writhed where they lay or else, if they could get up, ran wildly trying to escape.  Above, the four men on the crossbeams had been spared the worst of the injuries; but had not entirely escaped the exploding sphere.

The crossbeams were not thick enough to shield their bodies completely; they, too, were covered in splinters; their hands especially, hugging the underside of the crossbeam, were torn and bleeding.  Shards protruded from their legs and sides.  Bradley Carter stood up on the crossbeam and walked to the other three men.  He helped each man up then led them to the body of the crane; still following his lead, they climbed down.  Carter summoned help on his phone.

"You three: take charge!" he ordered.  "Do what you can for the others till help arrives.  I have more important things to do."  With this, he made for his truck, which was parked just beyond the western perimeter of the trench.  He drove to Cheyenne Wells, Colorado, where his helicopter was waiting.

During the flight back to St. Louis, Carter took out the first aid kit and began tending his wounds, first pulling as many slivers of metal as he could from his hands and forearms then wiping the wounded areas with antiseptic.  He had already removed the larger pieces, which had pierced his sides and his thighs.  Once his hands were relatively free of debris he soaked bandages with antiseptic and, removing his shirt and pants, applied the bandages to the gaping wounds.  The pilot asked if he should stop at one of the cities along the way for medical help.  He was told no.

Five hours later Carter was back in St. Louis.  He called his doctor and told him to meet him at the Little Red Schoolhouse with a supply of antibiotics.

"You need more than antibiotics," his doctor took one look at his hands and said.  "What the hell happened?"

"That's what I'm here to find out," Carter replied.

"You belong in the hospital," his doctor insisted.  "Will you please go?"

"When I'm done here," Carter agreed.

"I'll wait."

Carter went in.  He went straight to the office of the Director of Educational Authenticity in the center of the building: as late as it was, the mere fact there were lights on meant Kirkus was still there.  Carter knocked once and entered.  Kirkus had a visitor: his son, Reginald, age fourteen.

"I need to speak to you," Carter addressed the Professor.  His tone emphasized the urgency of the matter.

"Wait in the other room, Kirkus told his son, who left by the rear door.

"The news of your exploit - as always - precedes you," Kirkus said. 

"Good," said Carter.  "Spares me the details.  I can get right to the point.  I thought I was building something meant to last indefinitely -"

"Indeed, you are," Kirkus assured him.

"Then why did it crack like an eggshell?" Carter asked.

"I'm told there was a magnetic storm."

"I don't know what the hell it was -"

"But I do," said Kirkus.  "It's one of the - shall we say - precipitating factors which led to the inception of the Project.  I quite assure you it was the storm - one of the phenomena we've been studying for some time now - that ripped the unit apart."

"Not good enough," Carter objected.  "I don't give a damn about any phenomena, nor how many people take it seriously.  It was no magnetic storm that caused that pod to crack - my men are calling them 'pods': I like the term; it was inferior material and workmanship that caused it to crack!  When it hit the concrete, the bottom of it, if anything, should have cracked - not around the middle.  I'm a builder, I know materials, I know how they behave; I've seen accidents before, I know what the result should be.  I've seen shoddy workmanship before, too.  That crack, in that location, without it being the direct result of the bottom breaking up, tells me there's a major structural defect.  That's the seven hundred thirty-ninth pod.  Your plan calls for two thousand.  What happened to that pod makes every single one suspect.  As far as I'm concerned, every pod we've already installed, every one waiting to be completed, has to be tested and, if found deficient, replaced.  I will not knowingly use substandard material."

Kirkus sat back in his chair and arched his fingers.  "I haven't as yet seen fit to inform you what these 'pods' are to be used for," he began.

"I don't care what they're made for," Carter interrupted.  "I care only what they're made of."

"You need to start caring what they're for," Kirkus pointed out, adding for emphasis "You need to care very much.  Because time - that one commodity man has always thought he had plenty, if not to say too much, of - is running out.  I presented you a timetable for completion of the Project.  This was not a whim on anyone's part - a mere bureaucratic pin blindly stuck in a calendar.  These weather phenomena you so cavalierly dismiss are about to spell the end of human civilization - at least, as we have seen it evolve over the course of human history.  Make no mistake: our way of life will end.  Our cities will become ghost towns, if the structures survive at all; the people will not.  In a very short while - a mere matter of years - this planet will become virtually uninhabitable.  Not because of anything man has done - and that's the great irony in this - but because the planet itself is evolving.  We avoided the long nuclear night; we stopped short of turning the earth into a greenhouse.  No comet came for us, no asteroid had our name on it.  No death plague was unwittingly unleashed.  We took great pains to preserve our natural environment - and it's still going to be our undoing.  Things are going to happen which will result in mass destruction on a scale unimaginable even to the doomsayers who helped usher in the new millennium.  You've seen signs of what's coming.  You've lost business associates and workers.  What you've seen is only a preview of coming attractions.  It will rain fire, ice, lightening, magnetism, electricity - on every continent, every island, every mountaintop, every seashore.  The earth will quake as it never has before.  Islands will sink into the ocean, tidal waves will sweep hundreds of miles inland.  All the fanciful stuff you've ever heard: our geologists, our meteorologists, our scientific experts have all confirmed they will happen, and happen within a decade."

Kirkus paused, as if to allow his predictions to maneuver his audience to a more strategic perspective.  Then he continued.

"These 'pods' - I, too, like the term, though I shall never use it outside this room - are all that will be left of thousands of years of human industry.  You're not satisfied they're up to par: get satisfied, and quickly; because these are our last and only hope.  They're made of space-age materials.  Their tensile strength may be less than ideal; but they were designed and tested to withstand a whole range of natural disasters.  By the end of the decade two thousand of them will be completed and set into place."

"I take it," Carter commented on Kirkus' scenario, "you don't intend to save the whole human race."

"Just a very small portion thereof," Kirkus admitted.  "Two thousand of the best families in the nation will be admitted.  There's one with your name on it."

"I trust it isn't Unit 739!" Carter observed.  "But what the hell - why not?  I have no intention of climbing into one of those things to live out my days anyway."

"I didn't think you would," Kirkus said.  "Believe me: I and my family will take up residence in one of those pods, to stay as long as necessary.  I have no intention of living out my days in substandard housing.  Quality control is absolutely paramount.  The material - a legacy of our defunct space program - will withstand temperatures as high as five thousand degrees Fahrenheit, as low as minus fifty; and pressures as great as 10 G's.  It's almost impervious to the elements; it will stand up to any kind of energy nature is capable of.  The crack you encountered in 739 was a freak occurrence.  I can assure you the unit, if it had been properly set in place and once it would have been readied for human habitation, would have met every specification.  Rest assured, the units are safe for human habitation."

"I'm not convinced," said Carter.  "I want my metallurgists given all the data the builders have.  I want to hear it from their mouths that the units are everything you say they are."

"And you shall," Kirkus agreed.  "I'll have all the data to you by noon tomorrow."

"I'll be waiting."

When Carter had gone, Reggie returned to his father's office.  "That guy's an idiot - just like his son!" he observed.

"He's good at what he does," Kirkus pointed out to his son.  "He cannot conceive of a situation he can do absolutely nothing about - an attitude that makes him a first rate worker and overseer.  I know of no one else as capable of completing the Project.  In time you'll learn that all men can be of use to you.  You just have to know which buttons to push - and which not to push - to get the maximum benefit from your association with them."

"He's arrogant, just like his son," Reggie insisted.  "They both need to be put in their place.  Work animals should be in a harness!"

"Oh, he is," the Director of Educational Authenticity assured his son.  "I've got him harnessed.  It'll be up to you to get his son harnessed.  You might try maneuvering your sister toward that end - I understand Andrea and young Brad are very much an 'item' these days."

"She's a fool," said Reggie.  "She'd never agree to work against him."

"The last thing in the world you want is anyone's agreement," Kirkus informed his son.  "For one thing, it's unreliable.  Today's agreement can easily become tomorrow's disagreement.  You want to let people do what they want - what they freely choose to do; then find a way to turn that choice to your advantage.  It's the most difficult task a ruler faces - which is precisely why most resort to brute force.  But if you can find a way to have everyone's choices serve your ambitions, you can rule the world.  Always study the consequences of what people choose to do - the things that come about unintended and unanticipated: the host of minor things everyone else ignores.  That's the key to gaining and holding power.  Someone enters a room: pay no attention; but observe and categorize everything that happens as a result of his entry.  Now run along home.  I'll be there shortly."

When his son had gone, Professor Kirkus picked up the phone and dialed.  "Mr. President," he spoke momentarily, "I hope I'm not getting you at a bad time."

"There is no bad time," the President elect replied.  "You wouldn't call unless you had something worth saying."

"And so it is now," Kirkus agreed.  "We may have to move up our timetable a bit."

"My God!" the President exclaimed.  "Some new weather phenomenon?"

"Oh no - not that part of the timetable," Kirkus assured him.  "We still have several more years - enough time to set everything up.  No, I'm thinking more in terms of our builder.  He's going to prove to be more of a problem than he's worth.  We may have to deal with him sooner than we anticipated.  We can't allow him to discover that the first thousand units are inferior to the second thousand."

"Just tell him straight out there wasn't enough material for all two thousand," the President suggested.  "It's not like they're plastic or paper."

"True, Mr. President.  They have a high enough concentration of the key elements to stand up to almost anything.  Unfortunately, I would never succeed in convincing him of that.  We've almost - not quite, but almost - reached a point where a lesser entity could complete the work.  I'm just afraid, Mr. President, he's almost outlived his usefulness.  The law of diminishing returns.  It's unfortunate: he's a decent, honorable man - the very kind the world's always clamoring for.  But a liability.  Better to be rid of him before the Project's complete rather than after."

"Well, whatever you think best," the President resolved.  "You know you have my complete support.  And I'm sure you'll handle it in a manner that casts no doubt this way."

"Absolutely, Mr. President."                                            

Crazy Alice stormed into the Carter mansion.  For weeks she had cased the place, waiting for just the right moment to break in, as her associates had cased the homes of the other families whose babies had disappeared fifteen years ago.  Her appearance said she didn't belong here, in the Private Streets District of the Central West End of St. Louis, just as the others' appearances betrayed them as aliens on the streets they were casing; yet no one stopped her or questioned her.  The reason was simple: no panhandlers were allowed in the city; if they were caught, they were used as subjects in the testing of new explosive devices the Tungs were developing.  Everyone who saw Alice knew she would be dealt with in time, so they left her alone.

No one was home when she jimmied a window on the first floor with her knife.  She gave herself five minutes to accomplish her mission.  The window she climbed through opened into the formal study.  From there she made her way upstairs, searching room by room till she found the right one.  She took a doll from a dirty sack she carried and laid it on a satin pillow at the head of a small cradle in the center of the room; then brought forth a placard and set it in the doll's tiny hand.  The moment her task was completed she left.  She was three blocks away when the police arrived.

The family was immediately notified of the burglary.  Carol Carter rushed home from the hospital, where her mother lay dying.  The police asked her to assess her jewelry and other valuables.

"I don't care about that," she told them.  "Was anyone home?  Was anyone hurt?"

"We didn't see anyone," the police informed her.  "You think one of the servants might have been involved?  Or even your son - sometimes it happens!" they hastened to add.

"No, I don't think that," she answered.  "I just want to make sure my son's alright."

A few minutes later young Bradley came home, just as the police were leaving.  "Don't leave town," they advised him.  "We may need to question you."

"I was planning to go to Mars tomorrow," he quipped, "but I can put it off."

The policemen shook their heads as they left.  One of them remarked that "That's what happens when you turn away from God."

"Is anything missing?" Brad asked his mother.

"No, it doesn't seem so," she replied.  "I guess they didn't have time to get anything."

"You don't think they're still here, hiding somewhere, do you?" Brad speculated.

"The police looked pretty thoroughly."

"I'll look around anyway," Brad decided.  A few minutes later he returned.  "Didn't see anything," he said.  "I closed the door to Bradley Junior's room.  I know you don't like it left open, even a little ways."

"The police weren't in there," said Carol.  "I asked them not to."

"Someone was."

Together they went upstairs and entered the nursery, which had been preserved exactly as it was.  They saw the doll.

"Where did that come from?" Carol wondered aloud.  "And what's that it's holding?"  She took the card and read it.  "'Compliments of the Society of the Infanticides.'"   She began to cry.  "Does someone think we killed our own son?" she asked.

"Ill find out who did this, mother," Brad promised.

"No, it's not worth it.  Besides, whoever could do something like this could be dangerous."

"I'll be careful - I promise."

"You don't have to do this, Brad."

"Yes, I do."

"I've got to find these people," Brad told Andrea the next day at school.

"They really upset your mother?" Andrea asked.

"Kind of - but that's not why.  They may know something about what happened to Bradley."

"I thought you said he was thrown in the river?"

"I did - because of something your brother said.  These people may know who did it.  I don't think they were accusing his parents of anything.  I intend to find them."

Brad's search took him, almost instinctively, to the less glamorous parts of St. Louis, where old frame buildings showed signs of decay and neglect and litter lay strewn in back alleys.  There were no slums, as such, since officially there were no poor, no unemployed, no social outcasts - no one who did not take an active role in keeping the community clean, safe and viable.  Nevertheless, there were areas of the city in desperate need of renovation, areas passed over in the never-ending race to keep the economy on track, areas whose contribution to an ever increasing productivity was too minor to justify sending any surplus wealth their way.

On a Saturday evening he was wandering through a sparsely populated area north of The Levee, between Laclede's Landing and the Mound City Docks.  Turning a corner, he caught sight of one of the massive spires of Eads Bridge still standing.  It was like a giant rising out of the Mississippi, silhouetted against the huge full moon just risen out of the lights of East St. Louis.  Brad stood there, transfixed by the sight.  For a split second the image of an old man appeared before him.  Then he felt a pressure at the back of his neck.

"Don't move!" a gruff voice ordered.  "There's a gun pointed at the back of your head, and my finger's on the trigger.  Try anything and I'll blow your head off!"

"What is it you want?" Brad calmly asked.

"Your money!" came the reply.  "Then me and my buddies are going to have some fun with you - and, if you're lucky, we may let you live."

Brad was about to turn around and try getting the weapon away when a second voice from behind stopped him.

"Drop the gun or I'll slit your throat like a pig!" a woman who had silently approached the assailant spoke softly into his ear as she held a butcher knife to his throat.  He began trembling, almost uncontrollably.  He dropped his gun.

"Please don't - please!" he begged.

"I'll leave it up to this young man," the woman said.

"Let him go," said Brad, who picked up the gun.  The woman released the assailant.  He ran into the darkness beyond.

"Thanks," said Brad.

"What are you doing in a place like this?" the woman asked.  It was Crazy Alice.

"I'm looking for someone, who can tell me what happened to my parent's real son."

"Perhaps I can tell you," Alice whispered.

"He was thrown into the river, wasn't he?" Brad asked.

"Why would you think that?"

"Because of something someone at school said."


"Reggie -" Brad started to say.

"Professor Kirkus' son?" Alice cut him off.

"You know him?"

"I worked for his father.  I helped kill those babies, without even realizing it."

"But you didn't throw them -"

"No.  Others were hired.  I prepared the wrong batch.  They were given what only a few were supposed to have.  Men were found willing to kidnap them.  They didn't know until it was too late what the babies were kidnapped for.  All of them were thrown into the Mississippi from just over there.  They all drowned.  The kidnappers and me formed a society here in the shadow of our evil."

"The Society of the Infanticides," Brad interjected.

Alice shook her head.  "We want people to know - but only if they want to know.  We've put out the word to every family that lost a child that night.  You're the only one who's come looking for us so far."

Six months quickly turned into a year, and no one came for him.  There were lines of communication; and a continual supply of electronic equipment, delivered as instructed to the weather station at Donner's Pass.  But Joey remained with the T-Men at their compound in Recluse, unable to return to the Sierras.

"The agreement was, he comes for you," Paris Commune told Joey.  "We made the overtures, we went to him, we supplied him with everything he asked for, now it's his turn to take the initiative.  We don't want you to be our prisoner, Joey, but you will not leave here until he personally comes to get you."

"He will, when he's ready," Joey confidently stated.  "I can imagine how busy he's been, setting up all that equipment.  Don't worry: he'll be here, soon enough."

Joey was given a small room near the center of the compound, not far from Paris' son's room.  In it was a cot, a chair and an old bookcase filled with the books Paris wanted used in his son's tutoring.  From the very first day, Joey diligently studied the books, hoping to acquire enough of an understanding of their contents to convey the ideas to the boy.  Most of their sessions ended up reversing the student-teacher roles, however, with the boy explaining to Joey the significance of the ideas he brought into the makeshift classroom set up in a vacant storeroom next to the Council Chamber.

"You're a grown man," the boy said one day; "I don't understand why you remained with the weatherman so long, instead of starting your own life.  Is he like a father to you?"

"No," Joey answered.  "I never thought of him that way."

"Did he molest you when you were a boy, and that's why you stay?"

"No, he never did anything like that.  I thought he would," Joey admitted, "because I misunderstood something my father said about him.  But he didn't."

"Then what is it?" the boy asked.

"I work for him," Joey explained.  "He's spent all these years trying to teach me what he knows.  It's hard for me to understand things.  He gets mad at me; but then he always goes back to trying to teach me.  I'd never be able to keep a job half that good anywhere else."

When Joey asked Paris Commune why his son had no name, he was told that the boy was a foundling.  "I wouldn't give him my name anyway," Paris explained.  "Nor is it that I don't know his real name, because I do: I know who his father is, but I haven't told him, and won't.  He's the son of Bradley Jerome Carter - I presume he's a 'Junior.'  But that's irrelevant.  He must choose his own name."

"Shouldn't you contact his real father?" Joey asked.

"He knows about the boy," Paris replied.  "He's chosen to ignore that knowledge."

"But to go through life not knowing who he is," Joey attempted to point out.

"He knows who he is - he doesn't need a name for that.  He knows very well who he is - same as you or I."

A strange look came over Joey's face.  Tears welled up in his eyes.  "I just realized," he said, more to himself than to Paris: "I've almost forgotten my last name.  I shouldn't have.  I was almost thirteen when my father died.  But I barely remember my name."

At all their meetings, Paris attempted to gain as much information about Sanderson Spears from Joey as he could - no matter what the conversation, he would always work around to that one subject.  Then, a year and a half into Joey's stay, Paris finally discovered what was inevitable: that the weather station at Donner's Pass was a ruse.  One too many times his men returned with the message that Spears had not been at the cabin to accept their delivery.  Paris sent two men to spy on the station, twenty-four hours a day.  During their vigil three separate deliveries were made; each time, someone other than Spears came and picked up the equipment and supplies.

"Where is your home?" Paris demanded of Joey.

"Here," Joey replied.

"I mean, your real home - the one you shared with the weatherman?"

"At Donner's Pass."

"You're lying!" Paris insisted.

"No," Joey said, "I'm telling the truth.  Our home was, and is, and always will be the weather station at Donner's Pass.  I swear on everything I believe in and hold dear that that's our home."

When Joey had left the Council Chamber, Mount Everest entered.  He walked to the center of the room, deliberately letting his nearly seven feet height tower over the lesser figure of his leader.

"I know that look," he said in a voice almost threatening.  "From this day on you'll be looking for any excuse to kill Joey.  The first time one of our missions goes sour you'll accuse him of being a traitor."

"If he betrays us, he'll die - you know the rule!" Paris answered back.

"You know, I know - everyone in this Council, everyone in this compound knows: Joey could no more betray us than he could burrow his way to the Mississippi," Mount Everest offered in evidence.

"It's just a matter of time till he does," Paris countered.  "And when he does, he'll be returned to his boss in a pine box.  He's one traitor who won't be buried in the tunnels.  I want the weatherman to know what's happened to him."

"Power is all that matters to you anymore, isn't it?" Mount Everest asked rhetorically.  "My God.  That all your dreams and hopes and plans and all your suffering and bravery should come to this.  What a waste of a life.  Mark my words: if you kill that boy, you will set in motion something that will destroy us all and everything we believe in."

"Are you going to warn him?" Paris asked.

Mount Everest shook his head.  "No - God help me - I can't," he said; and, as he said it, though he hadn't moved, or stooped down, he no longer towered over this man ten inches beneath him.  But I know I know him, Mount Everest told himself.  Soon it'll come to me.  And when it does -  He let his thought trail off, because it ended there; it had no corresponding action.

Paris' son learned of his father's intention.  More exactly, once he learned from Joey the ambiguity concerning the weatherman's whereabouts, and knowing how his father operated, he set about confirming his suspicion.  On a Thursday evening, after class, and after making certain no one was within earshot, the boy issued his teacher a warning.

"You must leave," he told Joey.

"Your father wants me to go?" Joey asked.

"My father is planning to kill you."

"What?  He thinks I've hurt you in some way?  My God, what have I done to make him think I could ever hurt you?  If he thinks that of me, then I deserve to die!"

"Joey: it has nothing to do with me," the boy assured him.

"Then what?"

"Just trust me -"

'You know I trust you - I'd trust you with my life!" Joey said.

"Then trust me enough to leave this place now, and never come back."

"No," Joey told him.  "I can't come between you and your father."

"Listen to me," the boy said as if issuing a command: "when I become leader, I'll need someone I can trust absolutely.  That's you.  You would never betray me, would you?"

"I swear, in the name of God, I would never betray you," Joey solemnly pronounced.

"Then I must save your life, even if that sets me against my own father - do you understand?"

Joey seemed confused.  He was unable to answer.

"Joey," the boy said, "my whole life is dedicated to the day when I assume leadership.  Everything I do is toward that end.  God said to render unto Caesar that which is his.  Your loyalty is the greatest asset I have.  Without it, my leadership will always be in jeopardy.  Do you think father would remain leader a single day without the absolute loyalty of Mount Everest?  You are no good to me dead, Joey.  It's time to stop thinking of me as my father's son.  I'm going to tell you something no one else knows - and no one else will know, until the time is right.  You've always wished I had a name you could call me by.  I do have a name.  I chose it long ago.  My name is Kirk.  If you die, that name will die with you, because I will never share it with another.  Leave, Joey.  Leave, now.  You must survive, for my sake if not your own."

"Alright," Joey finally agreed, "I will.  I'll do as you say."

Kirk led the way to a special storeroom, making sure no one was around.  He grabbed a parcel from a long row of shelves, where dozens of similar parcels were lined up, then led Joey to another room, where he handed him the parcel.

"This is a week's supply of food and water, and a flashlight," Kirk explained.  "The men take them whenever they go on a mission, in case they get stranded."

"Will I need it?" Joey asked.

"Yes, you will.  Because the way you'll be going - the only way you can go without being spotted - you risk getting lost, without access to anyone or anything."

Kirk sat down at a small wooden table and drew a map, which he then explained as he handed it to Joey.  "This is where we are, just north of Recluse.  Ten miles due east is Route 59.  A mile beyond that is the Little Powder - follow it downstream another mile, then cross it, where you see a high bluff on the other side.  A few hundred feet around the bluff, to the southeast, you'll come to a small opening.  That leads to a series of tunnels: that's where you'll need the supplies.  You should be able to make it to the tunnels before anyone discovers you're gone - I'll show you a secret way out of here.  Once you're in the tunnels, you're on your own.  I've only been there once, and only through a small part of them, so I can't map it for you.  No one could: no one here has ever seen all the tunnels, and no one's ever made a map, for fear our enemies might get hold of it.  You'll have to find your own way out, otherwise you could wander down there till you die.  My father says these tunnels extend hundreds of miles under the Plains from Montana to the Mississippi; no one even knows if they're all interconnected.  It's your only hope of getting away, but it could be a deathtrap.  Joey, I don't want you to end your life all alone down there.  But in order to save your life you have to take that chance."

"I will," Joey resolved.  "If God wants me to survive, I'll survive.  But if I don't, I promise you, Kirk: I will not curse your name for sending me there - any more than I would curse God's name for not saving him."

Kirk then led Joey to a secret passage below the main wing of the compound, which opened, a hundred yards beyond the compound wall, at the base of the bluff where the compound set, to a small forest of spruce trees.  Before they parted, Kirk removed a small locket on a silver chain from around his neck.  Under a clear dome was a tiny splinter of wood.

"This is from a sacred tree," Kirk said as he handed Joey the locket.  "It's not a lucky charm or anything like that," he added, "but its something I relish.  And I want you to have it, to keep till the next time we meet."

Joey thanked him as he accepted the offering, putting it around his neck and tucking the locket under his shirt.  They shook hands and Joey turned toward the east.  Unbeknownst to either of them, Mount Everest had watched the escape, nodding his head as Joey disappeared into the twilight.  Now I know, he whispered as he turned back toward the compound.            

Joey moved quickly, covering the first ten miles in less than three hours.  Route 59 was little more than a country road, barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass one another.  He encountered no traffic; there were no signs of human habitation along this stretch of road.  Having no reason to linger, he made for the Little Powder, followed it downstream to the bluff Kirk had mentioned, then crossed over, located the opening, and entered the tunnel.

Soon after he entered, before he had gotten far enough to be insulated from the outside, he heard what sounded like thunder, followed by a splash.  He felt a spray against his face.  He returned to the entrance to witness a smoldering bolder sinking into the little stream.  Everything around the stream was as wet as if it had just rained.

"Can't be a meteor," he mused.  "A stone that big would have done more damage."

Then he turned again and began his journey through the tunnel.  He used his flashlight sparingly, so as to preserve the batteries, pointing it straight ahead long enough to get a fix on the next hundred or so yards before using it again.  In some places the tunnel narrowed to where he nearly touched the sides as he passed; in other places tree roots covered with moss protruded from the walls into the tunnel; or else rocks littered the ground, making it treacherous to continue walking.

When he grew tired, he left his flashlight on long enough to find a place suitable for sitting down and leaning against the wall.  When he became too tired to simply rest awhile, he sought out as clean and dry a spot as he could to lie down and sleep.

He encountered no animals, though occasionally he heard the gnawing and scurrying characteristic of a rat; but he never saw anything when he turned his flashlight toward the sounds.  Once in a while he would feel something like an insect crawling on him; he would try to locate and remove it.

"It's like camping," he reminded himself.  "Just without the stars overhead."

He used his supplies sparingly: a week's worth of food and water lasted two weeks.  He had no way of telling how far he had traveled in that time, only that he had been on the move most of the day, stopping only to rest, to eat, to accommodate bodily needs, and to sleep.  He pursued countless passages; some led to other passages, some proved dead ends which he had to retrace.  Dozens - for all he knew, maybe hundreds - of times he saw what he took for light in the distance, only to have it dissipate in the interminable darkness surrounding him.

He could feel himself growing weaker as he neared the end of his supplies and tried to stretch them still farther.  He had begun talking out loud to himself, almost incessantly, his every thought a spoken word; then his mouth would become dry, almost raw, and he had to take a sip of water, which made him resolve not to waste another ounce of energy or a drop of water on the sound of his own voice.  He would continue in silence awhile; then, without realizing it, begin talking all over again.

"I'm here now," he might say.  "Was I here before?  It feels familiar.  How could it not feel familiar, it's all the same?  Maybe I haven't moved a step yet!  A journey of a thousand miles beings with one step: have I taken that step?  I've gone a thousand miles, but taken no step.  Where am I?  Am I under Donner's Pass?  Is he so busy with his monitors he doesn't see me down here?  Why doesn't he have a relay down here to pick up my movements?  Aren't they almost as important as those of a wind?  Maybe if I holler."

Then he would try to holler, but his voice could barely rise above a whisper.  "Why don't I show up on his radar?" he would ask.  "If only I were a storm, or a cloud, or a sunbeam: he'd come save me.  Maybe I wanted him to molest me - maybe that's why I'm being punished.  Maybe I wanted him to see me...doing boy stuff.  Maybe I wanted to see him...doing man stuff.  Maybe I wanted to teach Kirk...from my body and not from my books.  If only I could see something, maybe I would know.  My flashlight!"

He would push the switch but no light came on.  "Did I drop it and break it?  Huh?  You stupid little punk did you break this too - the only light you have?  Oh God.  Why must I be so stupid?  Is that why God abandoned me?  Because even He couldn't tolerate my stupidity any longer?  Instead of glorifying Him with beautiful prayers I disgust Him by breaking everything that's given to me.  This light was Kirk's.  I love Kirk, and broke his light.  No wonder God washed His hands of me.  No wonder."

His food and water had run out three days earlier.  He was tired, so tired he only wanted to lie down and sleep.  Had the way out been ten feet in front of him, he would not have moved to it, he was too tired.

He closed his eyes and began dreaming.  He was bathing in a frozen stream.  A shadow appeared on the shoreline.  He looked up, thinking it was God.  It wasn't.  It was the weatherman, standing there with the sun at his back watching him bathe.  "This God of yours," the weatherman said: "He deceives you.  That's why you always get lost in the woods.  You follow your instincts - and always end up going the wrong way.  Whatever way you want to go, go the opposite way.  God can't help you.  Only disobeying the directions He gives you can help you find your way."

Joey awoke in a cold sweat.  He quickly got up, as if he wanted to run away and hide.  He looked all around him, as if somehow it were possible to see anything. 

"I can't disobey God!" he cried.  "I can't - not even to save myself!  I won't!  God is telling me to go to my right up ahead: I can almost hear Him!  I won't go the opposite way - I can't!  I'll stay here and die.  I will not go against God's word!  I will die first!  If it's His will, then let it be."

As he stood there, resolved not to take another step, something lightly brushed against his chest.  "Let it stay," he said.  "Soon enough I'll be food for the worms anyway."  Then he remembered something: a boy placing something in his hand.  It wasn't an insect he felt on his chest but the locket Kirk had given him.  "He relishes this and gave it to me!  I owe him!  I can't die: I owe it to him to live!  Oh God!  Oh my God!  I don't want to disobey you, but I have to return this to him - I have to!  Help me, someone: please: help me!"

He fell to his knees and buried his face in his hands; the muffled sounds of his weeping seeped like tears through his clenched fingers.  He wept for a long time.  When he stopped, he got up and slowly groped his way to the point, a dozen yards ahead, where a passage intersected the one he was in.  He knew it would be there - he had come to understand the tunnels well enough to sense the slight shift in the air flow such a juncture always produced.  When he reached the intersection, he felt the same wish to go one way that had guided his every step.

"For you, Kirk, and for this piece of wood you relish, I will condemn my soul to hell.  I will go against what God is telling me."

Joey turned to the left and began following the passage, coming to another, where he also took the opposite direction from the way he wanted to go; then to another, then another, till, finally, he saw a light up ahead which, as he approached, instead of dissipating into the darkness, grew larger and brighter.

Although it was twilight, the sky hurt his eyes so much he had to close them.  He sat down and leaned against the rocky surface of the opening until the sky almost turned to night, then he opened his eyes again.  Even the stars hurt for a few moments, till his eyes gradually re-accustomed to the light.

As he looked up at the stars, his whole face brightened.  The terrible pain that had almost visibly disfigured him disappeared.  He sought out the brightest star in the sky and held it in his sight.

"You sent him to me," he said.  "Not to test me, or to make me disobey you, but to tell me I was wrong.  You let him show me the way out.  And you've shown me something more even than that: you've shown me you haven't abandoned him.  There's still hope for his soul.  If it took my suffering for me to see that, then I'm glad for having suffered.  Sandy's not lost.  Thank you, God, for showing me that."

He had no idea where he was, only that he had not ended up where he started.  There was a bluff where the tunnel opened, just as there had been outside of Recluse; and a stream beside it.  But a different bluff, beside a different stream.  He walked to the stream, bent down with the cup he had carried for three weeks, and drank the clear, cold water, cup after cup until he could hold no more.  Then after looking around to see if there were any lights, and finding none, he returned to the tunnel, but just inside, just enough to keep warm for the night.

In the morning, after letting his eyes slowly adjust to the pale blue spreading upward from the eastern horizon, he set out to find food.  He had camped enough to know how to find it.  He observed where animals had been.  Berries, roots, wild varieties of garden plants: very quickly he found enough to satisfy what little hunger he felt.  Several days passed before his appetite returned completely.

He needed to find shelter beyond what the mouth of the tunnel offered; so he needed to find work.  No one was going to feed, clothe and shelter him any longer; he had survived beneath the world, now for the first time in his life he had to figure out how to survive in it.

"I've got to leave the security of this tunnel behind," he resolved as he set out to find other people.  "I know it's wilderness, but there has to be someone nearby.  If only I knew where I was."

He decided to follow the stream - it was called the Cheyenne, though he had no way of knowing that - to follow it southward - at least, it seemed to have a north-south flow.  In less than a day he came to a road, South Dakota State Road 40, which he followed to a small hamlet called Red Shirt, on the western fringe of the Badlands National Monument.  He was within a few hundred yards of a series of buildings scattered about what seemed to be a town square when he turned back.

"Not yet," he said as he headed north again to the tunnel.  He wasn't afraid to go among people, but he wasn't ready.  First he had to wash his clothes.

Although it was late spring, this was far enough north to still be too cold for clothes to dry in the sun.  He had bathed, where the sun hit a part of the stream shallow enough to be warmed by mid-afternoon; then dried himself with bits of moss and dead grass.  But he had not been able to wash his clothes; and dared not go among people seeking work until he had: to present himself as a drifter was risky enough, but a dirty, ill smelling drifter would have reduced his chances of finding work to zero.

Another two weeks went by till a day warm enough to do his laundry came.  Mid-morning he undressed and washed everything but his shoes, laying each piece on a rock in the sun to dry.  As he bent over the water to wash his clothes, he noticed his reflection.  It hadn't occurred to him till then that he was starting to grow a beard, or even that he could.  He reached up and stroked it, running his hand back and forth over the still prickly growth.

"I like it," he pronounced.  Then an image came to him which shamed him so much he resolved to shave it as soon as he could and never grow it again: a picture of Jesus he had seen - actually, every picture of Jesus he had ever seen.  Jesus was always depicted as a soft-looking young man with gentle brown eyes and a flowing beard.  Joey was a soft-looking young man with gentle brown eyes; and he despaired that people might think he was trying to look like Jesus if he let his beard grow.

"The sooner I get work and can shave, the better!" he decided then and there.  The moment his clothes were dry he got dressed and headed south again, realizing before he traveled five miles that his timing was bad: his preoccupation with what people would think of him had cloaked his judgment; it would be the middle of the night when he arrived.

"Wait till morning," he resolved - but kept going just the same.  Something was driving him onward - something other than the image of Jesus.  He had no idea what it was, but he kept glancing up at the sky, as if the answer lay overhead, in the thick dark clouds spreading in from the southeast.  His pace quickened the nearer he got to the little town; his strength, during the two weeks since he had been here, had nearly returned to what it had been before his ordeal in the tunnels.  What took him almost a full day two weeks ago had taken him little more than half a day this time.

He stopped dead in his tracks; his eye caught a gleam of red in the midst of the tightly compressing fold of clouds settling above the arc of buildings whose lights he could see through a sudden clearing.  He began running toward the lights.  He was a mile away.  The clouds folded and folded one over the other.  Then he was half a mile away.  The reddish glow piercing the clouds like a blood soaked eye grew wider, brighter.  Then he was where he had turned back two weeks ago.  The glow was breaking up into a thousand burning embers.

A hand reached up as if from a grave and grabbed Joey's foot.  He fell to the ground, crying "Let go of me!  Let go of me!  I've got to warn them!  Let go!"

He struggled, but he was pinned to the ground and a thick, musty smelling blanket was thrown over him.  "I've got to warn them!" he still attempted to say, nearly gagging on every word.  Then he felt a searing heat surrounding him, nearly choking him as he gasped for air.  For what seemed like hours but was really only minutes he lay there, unable to move, imagining himself burned beyond recognition.

"Won't matter now if I do grow a beard," he muttered aloud, as barely a whisper.  The smell from the blanket finally caused him to vomit.

Slowly the blanket was removed and he was helped to his feet.  On either side of him stood a tall, burly man, one his age, the other almost fifty.

"What the hell were you doing?" the older man asked.  "You damn fool, you nearly got my son and me killed trying to save you!"

Joey looked from one to the other.  "I'm sorry," he said.  "But I had to try and warn those people.  I've seen that before."

"Then you know better!" the younger man said.

"I don't mean I've really seen it, like this time," Joey tried to explain.  "I've only seen it on radar, and monitors.  But I knew what it was."

The two men were looking at him like he was from outer space - or, worse, like he had just escaped from an asylum.

"I studied weather," Joey said.  "You have to warn people - no matter what happens!" he added.  "Even if," he faltered, "even if you die trying."

The men's features softened.  They shook their heads, but smiled; each one slapped Joey on the shoulder.  "You're a strange one," the father said.  "But as fearless as anyone I've seen.  How'd you come to be here?  You studying the weather in these parts?"

"No," Joey answered.  "I'm looking for work though.  Anything - even working with this stuff," he pointed to the blanket, the top of which was singed but otherwise undamaged.  "It made me sick, but I'll get used to it if it's all you've got for me to do.  What is it, anyway?"

"It's just a regular old Army blanket," the father said.  "It's what's on it that's special.  It's why our houses aren't all burned up - and why you didn't need to risk your life warning us.  But you didn't know that.  Thank God it came up fast as it did or me and my son wouldn't have been caught out in it - and you'd be a pile of cinders right now.  We've learned not to go far from our homes without having a tarp like this with us.  The T-Men gave us this.  It stinks, like it sat in an old cellar a hundred years, it makes you wish you was dead - but it keeps you alive when the fire balls start falling."

"The T-Men?" Joey asked, his voice cracking.

"I know - I know," the man said, "you've heard terrible things about 'em.  And they've done some terrible things - but, on the whole, a hell of a lot more good than bad!"

"I know," Joey agreed.  "It's isn't right I should be saved by something they made."

"Are you crazy?  Why not?" the younger man asked.

Tears filled Joey's eyes.  "They think I betrayed them," he explained.

"No they don't," the father retorted.

"No, honest: they did think that - and they were going to -"

"I know!" the man cut Joey short.  "They were going to kill you - the new recruit; and - God bless you, son! - you got away!  I told you they did some terrible things.  See, they've got this...I guess you'd call it ritual: the militia, or whatever group, sends someone to work with them - in this case you.  The militia does something that angers the Council; they come up with some trumped-up charge and kill the poor dumb slob the militia sent."

"I'm not from any militia - or any group at all!" Joey protested.  "It's just me and the man I work for - that's it: just us two!"

"Of course!  Of course!  The weather: I should have known!" the man slapped Joey on the back.  "You're with that fella who mowed down two whole gangs in one afternoon!"

"He didn't know what he was doing!" Joey insisted.

"Way I hear, he planned it for months!" the young man said.

"But he didn't know what he was doing!  He's not a cold-blooded murderer!  He could have killed me: I came to arrest him because I thought he killed my dad, but he didn't.  He's not a murderer!"

"Son," the older man said, "there are plenty of us see him as a hero.  You don't have to make excuses for someone killing these gangs.  Not to folks like us you don't.  We've all seen what these gangs that run every town in the country do.  Your boss ain't no murderer.  Not in our eyes!"

"He's not a hero either," Joey said.  "He's my friend, and I love him, but he's not a hero for what he did."

The older man looked at Joey and smiled.  "You're a religious man, aren't you?" he observed.

"Why do you say that?"

"I can tell.  You've got the look of a man that gives his whole heart and soul to the Lord - and I respect you for that.  That's probably why you were so quick to risk your life for us.  But don't let it blind you to the truth we have to live in down here every day of our lives.  Not everything's either good or bad.  Some things just ought to happen - and there's no more to it than that."

Joey remained in Red Shirt for six months, working at odd jobs, staying with whomever had a spare bed for the night.  The people of the town came to accept him as if he had lived there all his life.  He attended church with them every Sunday - something he hadn't done since his boyhood.  They wanted him to settle in their town; they offered to help him build a place of his own.

"What do you say?" the pastor asked him on behalf of the townspeople.

"I love this town," Joey answered.  "You're all special to me - and I'd gladly give my life for you."

"We're not asking you to give your life for us," the pastor said, "but to live your life with us."

"The whole time I've been here," Joey explained, "I've had a thought in the back of my mind: the tunnels, that brought me to you.  They run for hundreds of miles under the plains.  I want to map them."

"Why?" the pastor asked.  "What possible reason could there be?"

"The way I first came into your town, Bill Evans and his son saved me by throwing a tarp over me," Joey tried to make it clear why the tunnels were so important.  "You've got other things the T-Men helped make too to protect you from the weather.  But there are things out there nothing you can spray on or paint on or throw over you can protect you from.  When they come - and they will, just like the fireballs did or the icicles or the electricity - the only safe place will be underground.  For these people here - my friends - and for all the people of all the towns on the plains, I have to do whatever I can to help you find the shelter you'll need when the time comes.  I've got to map the tunnels: where they are, what towns they're under, where they lead, how to find your way back out once you're inside."

"How are you going to do that?  You'll get lost - and even if you don't, it'll take the rest of your life!"

"I won't get lost," Joey said.  "I remembered something from reading some old books when I was tutoring Paris' son: I'll use string, just like Theseus did.  I figure if it's thin enough I can haul around maybe a couple miles of it in a cart small enough I can pull behind me.  But I can't let it take the rest of my life: there won't be that much time till the other things - the silent tornadoes and things like that - start hitting everywhere, all the time.  That's why I have to start as soon as I finish making my cart and getting the string I need."

Two weeks later Joey said "Good-bye" to the people of Red Shirt and, dragging a small wooden cart filled with supplies and a preposterous mound of string behind him, set off for the Cheyenne, to follow the stream northward to the tunnel he had emerged from six months earlier.  He put off entering the tunnel for another day and a half as he tried to come up with some strategy for realizing his ambition; but he was unsuccessful: every plan he devised depended on his already knowing his way around - and he didn't.  So there was nothing but his giant ball of string to help him find his way.

At first, his task seemed almost overwhelming, as he painstakingly unfurled the string, step by slow step, his entire roll running out in just a couple hours, requiring him to retrace his steps five or ten times and mark his path till he finally came to another tunnel entrance, which he then pinpointed in reference to the surrounding terrain - towns, streams, roads, any territorial markings he could map.  At the end of a month he had mapped his way from the Badlands to the Black Hills - a grand total of some fifty miles, out of hundreds or even thousands of miles of tunneling.

He came close to abandoning his project several times during and after that first month, cursing himself for imagining he was capable of undertaking such a monumental task.  But he kept at it until, a few more weeks into his venture, he made an astounding discovery which convinced him to keep going.  He discovered a pattern to the lay-out of the tunnels.

Every tunnel entrance he had located so far was on the southern side of a bluff beside a stream.  But even more significant was his realization that the entrance was always on the eastern bank of the stream, and that, just prior to the point of entry, the tunnel always ran beneath the stream.  These were shallow streams; the tunnels did not have to burrow very far beneath them.  Nevertheless, there was a noticeable incline in the tunneling at the point where it crossed below the stream; and a dampness not evident elsewhere along the walls and floor of the tunnel.

Again and again, Joey tested the pattern; and, every time, it held true.  Three months after he began, he abandoned his ball of string in one of the tunnels.  Six months after he began, he had mapped almost five hundred miles of tunneling snaking its way beneath six states.  After nine months, he had added a second five hundred miles, stretching from the Little Bighorn in Montana to the Bear in southeastern Idaho; from the Willow in eastern Utah to the Rattlesnake in central Kansas.  When his first year was up, nearly two thousand miles of tunnel had been mapped, extending as far south as Texas, as far east as Missouri, as far west as Idaho, as far north as North Dakota.

He had only run into dead ends six times, and had to retrace his steps.  As he sat one day on a high bluff near Black Mesa, Oklahoma, beneath the hot summer sun, looking over his series of maps, which he had superimposed over maps of the United States and the individual states of the great Plains, he noticed a pattern even to the dead ends.  They were all situated along an imaginary line that ran from central Colorado to the Texas Panhandle.  He decided to investigate the terrain where he had encountered these dead ends, to see if there were something above ground affecting them all or if each was entirely separate from the others.                                    

Toward evening, when it cooled down, he set out for Colorado, where three of the dead ends had been mapped.  He treated himself to a luxury he almost never availed himself of during his year on the Plains: he hitched a ride along US 287/385 to Lamar, Colorado, the closest town to where the first dead end was located.

It was late when he was let out on the outskirts of Lamar.  He walked in an east-south-easterly direction until he came to the spot where his map indicated the tunnel beneath the ground had abruptly ended.  He looked around, but saw nothing unusual about the landscape.

"I'll look tomorrow," he decided.  "Maybe in the light I'll see something I've missed."  He kept going in the direction he was headed; under the half-moon, he could see it was more wooded, and higher in elevation: a better place to camp for the night.  The sky began to cloud over.  The clouds gave off a pinkish hue up ahead.  Joey found himself wondering what it was; it was unlike anything he had ever seen.  What strange weather phenomenon was he about to encounter this time? he wondered.  He made his way to the summit of the bluff where he had decided to set up camp.  He looked up into a sky full of pink clouds.  A fleeting image appeared in his mind then quickly disappeared; but he knew what it was, this image: it was the night sky over St. Louis filled with low clouds that glowed with a pink luminescence from the city's reflection.  But there was no city here.  This was the middle of nowhere.

Joey came to a clearing.  His mouth flew open, as if he were gasping for air; and his eyes grew big, as if the whites were swallowing up the irises.  He stood up as straight as he could.  A shiver ran down his spine, as if someone had caressed him.  He couldn't speak at first, then finally released an almost soundless "My God!"

Below him was a city.  As far as his eye could see, going north; as far south as he could see.  A city.  Unlike any he had ever seen.  A narrow band, less than a quarter mile wide, filling an open trench some ten feet below the ground, reaching deep into the dark oblivion of a sunless horizon, lights stretching until light could no longer be seen.  Strange round houses surrounded by arc lights and connected by walkways to one another.  Hundreds of houses; thousands of lights.  And a pink glow thrown up to the sky overhead.

Slowly, as his eyes flitted back and forth between the sky and the city it reflected, other, less fabulous objects began filtering through the unearthly scene to capture some small part of his attention.  There were people standing about, like guards stationed at the turrets of a medieval castle; they all held objects which, though too small from the perspective of the bluff to identify for certain, looked to be guns.  It was impossible to tell how many men there were: like the houses and lights, they trailed off into the darkness.  There could have been dozens, there could have been hundreds.  Joey focused on two.

A shadow moving along the ledge overlooking the city caught his attention.  Then another shadow crept to where the first had momentarily paused.  Then both descended into the trench and vanished beneath the glaring lights.  In place of the shadows now were two boys - two teenagers - stealing along the floor of the trench.  It was only then that Joey noticed the big signs, posted every few feet along the ledge, that read "No Trespassing."

"You boys'll spend the night in jail for sure," he mused as he shook his head.  "There: those two guards see you guys.  I wish I could warn you, but it's too late.  Your parents are going to be getting a call from the police before the night's over!"

"Halt!" sounded from below.  But the boys kept going.  Two shots rang out.  The boys fell.  Joey leaped up, unable to believe the guards had actually fired to hit them.  The guards came over to where the boys were squirming on the ground, trying to get away.  Both guards lowered their guns.  They were grinning.  The two boys were begging the guards not to shoot.  The guards set the barrels of their guns flat against the screaming mouths and shot the boys point blank in the face.  Blood splattered everywhere.  The two young bodies convulsed a moment then became as rigid as stone.  Joey cried out "No!  No!"  The guards turned, pointed to him, and took off running toward the bluff.  Joey also began running, down the bluff and through a wooded area toward a tiny, almost dried up stream.  He knew exactly where he was and where he was headed.

The guards never lost sight of him.  They saw him disappear into the side of a small bluff.  They began laughing as they followed him into the tunnel with their flashlights.

"We got him now!" one said.

"He don't know it dead ends up ahead.  Get your gun ready!" said the other.

They reached the dead end.  But he wasn't there.  "Where'd he go?" they asked one another, frantically retracing their steps to where they entered.  Only then did they see there was another passage, going the opposite way from the one that abruptly ended.

"We can't let him get away!" they both resolved as they followed the other passage.  Joey was already out of the tunnel, above ground, seated on a tree stump, still trembling from what he had witnessed.  He stayed in that area another few weeks.  He knew the guards would get lost.  He planned on somehow showing them the way out, even though it occurred to him that they deserved to stay down there till they died; but it wasn't his place to extract retribution, only God's.

Three weeks, to the day, after the guards killed the two boys and chased Joey into the tunnel, two shots were fired.  Joey heard them, pinpointed them, took a flashlight and entered the tunnel.  An hour later he came upon two headless corpses sprawled on the tunnel floor.  The guards, out of desperation, had pointed their guns at their own heads and pulled the triggers.  Joey went to look for a shovel; when he found one, he returned the bury the guards in the tunnel.  Then, returning from the tunnel, he collected his backpack, filled with maps and his meager store of clothes, and set out for St. Louis.

It was the same thing all over again.  Except that, instead of happening along the Kansas-Colorado border, south of US Route 40 where a stream called the Ladder had been filled in to accommodate the trench as it neared the halfway mark, it happened on the Texas-Oklahoma border, north of Interstate 40, where a stream called the Kiowa had been filled in to accommodate the trench as it neared its end in King County, Texas, five miles east of the junction of US Routes 82 and 83 at the town of Guthrie.  The Project was eighty percent complete; it was on schedule.  The five hundred mile long trench which, when complete, would hold the two thousand pods that constituted the Project, intersected so many major highways and lay beneath so many airline corridors that maintaining its secrecy became itself a monumental undertaking.  Highways were re-routed, re-designed, or else fitted with fifteen feet high barriers to keep motorists from looking down.  Air traffic was either re-routed north of the Wyoming-Colorado-Nebraska border and south of the Texas panhandle or else ordered to fly above twenty thousand feet.

It was not so much to oversee the on-going placement of the pods onto their concrete slabs as it was to monitor the "Veil," as the process of obscuring the Project from travelers came to be known, that Bradley Jerome Carter happened to be at the precise place and time when Unit 1739 was being lowered by two giant cranes straddling either side of the trench.  With him were his son, Brad, and Andrea Kirkus.

Carter had asked his son to accompany him; Brad had insisted that Andrea be invited along.  "Make sure you get her father's permission," Carter told his son; "I won't have her along without it."

"If he objects," Brad countered, "then I'm sorry, I'll have to decline too."

"You can't be away from her that long?" Carter asked.

"I don't want to," Brad answered.

"Yes," Professor Kirkus readily agreed, "Andrea is free to go with you."

"Thank you, sir," said Brad.

"Just make sure the two of you are careful," Kirkus cautioned.  "Your father has quite a knack for getting in the middle of uncomfortable situations."

Brad promised they would be careful.  When he had gone, Kirkus' son Reggie came in from the next room, where he had overheard the conversation.  "Why'd you agree?" Reggie asked.

"There've been no weather disturbances, or earthquakes, or the like in that area," Kirkus explained.  "If anything, it's safer there than it is here."

"But the impropriety," Reggie insisted.  "They're still teenagers - still in high school.  They shouldn't be going off together.  Suppose they engage in too intimate behavior?  I wouldn't exactly recommend Brad's father as a chaperone!"

"They won't," Professor Kirkus assured his son.

"How can you be so sure?" Reggie asked.

"I know Andrea," the Professor replied.  "We don't give annual physicals just to weed out unhealthy workers.  There's a whole range of things we're checking for: substance abuse, illicit sexual behavior - just to name two.  Andrea knows Brad would be charged with sexual misconduct if she allows too much.  She would never allow that."

"I still think it's a mistake," Reggie maintained.  "Someone like Brad is a dangerous influence.  Too many people look up to him.  It's not healthy for society."

"As long as they're in your debt - and make damn sure they are - it doesn't matter in the least who people look up to.  When push comes to shove, they'll follow the one they need before the one they respect."

"I still don't trust him."

"Then you need to work harder to turn the others against him," Kirkus advised his son.

"Oh, I will," Reggie promised.  "Rest assured of that.  There can only be one person in charge - and that's me.  I'm the one who'll fill the void when you're gone - not Brad."

"Don't bury me just yet, son," Kirkus said good naturedly.  "Besides, your rival will not be a resident of our new city when it's completed.  He will not be among the survivors when the world ends."


Carter, his son Brad and Andrea Kirkus were flown by helicopter from St. Louis to Perryton, near the northeastern corner of the Texas Panhandle.  From there they proceeded in a rented car to the border separating Texas from the Oklahoma Panhandle.

"We won't spend much time in the field," Carter said as he sped along State Road 15 to the town of Darrouzett, five miles southeast of the worksite.  "We've got a major Interstate and five heavily traveled US Routes to deal with before we finish."

"Why spend so much energy trying to keep the Project hidden when everyone seems to already know about it anyway?" Andrea asked.

"What everyone 'knows' is hearsay," Carter pointed out.  "No doubt some people have actually seen it, despite our tight security.  Most have just heard rumors though: rumors aren't a problem.  It isn't that the government doesn't want anyone to know about it: they don't want anyone to know exactly what it is.  So long as everyone thinks it's just another secret government project, there's no harm.  The people who conceived it have this absurd notion the world's coming to an end - so they're all going to move in: you, too, Andrea.  And since they actually believe their own nonsense about the end of the world, they're afraid the masses would panic - maybe even destroy the whole country - if they found out their leaders were building a haven for themselves for when the world 'ends.'  It's kind of like the Gorgon: if the masses look directly upon it they'll turn - no, let's say their hearts will turn - to stone.  But, enough nonsense: there's work to be done.  Pod City awaits!"

The same workers who had dubbed the spherical structures being lower into place along the trench "pods" had dubbed the whole five hundred miles of trench "Pod City."  Some workers had even erected signs saying "Pod City" when the security guards were not watching.  The signs never remained up longer than a day or two till the guards discovered and removed them.  There was no official name for this enterprise; none had been deemed suitable.  Many were considered - Utopia, Shangri-La, El Dorado, Atlantis - but all were dismissed as too idealistic.  It was decided not to name the city at all, or to even think of it in terms that had evolved from normal human activity.  Pod City was not a city, it was simply a place on a map.

The site where the two panhandles touched was virtually identical to every other point of the Project.  The particular route had been chosen precisely for the consistency of the terrain: a broad, flat plain allowing for an even placement of houses, lights and walkways above ground, conduits for wires, fuel and plumbing as well as common areas, banquet halls and ballrooms below ground.  Seen in the daylight, up close, Pod City, while still an unusual sight, appeared quite ordinary, its endless symmetry a monotonous, prosaic repetition of a single theme.

Brad and Andrea both hated it.  As they walked from the car, Brad resolved not to let Andrea be brought here.  "If we have to, we'll run away - just the two of us!" he proposed.

"They'll find us," Andrea countered.

"No, they wouldn't.  We could disappear - like the T-Men."

"The T-Men?  Brad: don't you realize my father's people know where the T-Men are every minute of every day?" Andrea asked.

"Then why do they always get away?" Brad, in turn, asked.

"Because they're allowed to get away.  Trust me, Brad: there's no alternative to it.  I must come here when the time comes.  Then, when nothing happens, and the people here realize how foolish they were, they'll come up out of their pods and return to the real world.  We can stand to be apart that long."

"Andrea: I don't want us to be apart - not even one minute, let alone till your father and the others come to their senses.  You forget: my father's a very influential man in his own right."

"Don't depend on that," Andrea warned.

"What do you mean?"

"Nothing.  Just things I've overheard.  And things Reggie's told me."

"Who listens to Reggie?" Brad observed.

"You'd do well to, Brad.  He doesn't make things up - he's not that original.  He only reports what he hears father say.  Just be careful.  He's a lot more dangerous than you realize."

The two of them walked along the embankment overlooking the trench as they talked; then climbed down the bank to the floor of the trench.  "Brad, are you going to mention to your father about that couple you saw on TV?" Andrea asked.

"I want to," Brad answered.  "I know father well enough to know what his response will be.  He won't understand why I would waste my time -"

"But if they really are your parents?"

"He still wouldn't understand.  But I want to ask him.  I don't want to go see them without his knowing it."

A week earlier, one of the local television stations had aired a public forum on the state of American society; various people - some dignitaries, some local celebrities, some ordinary citizens - were encouraged to offer their opinions.  A middle-aged couple, after stating they were from the north St. Louis suburb of Normandy, somewhat reluctantly expressed the view that "No one really cares what happens to people."

Asked to expand on that view, the two took turns elaborating what they meant by it, each seeking confirmation from the other as they spoke, and, at the same time, encouraging the other to add to what was just said.  So perfectly did their narrative mesh that, by the time their story was told, it was nearly impossible to remember who had said what.

"Life is comfortable, and secure, and peaceful - and we're grateful for that.  Everything rolls along smoothly.  But if anything happens to you, everything just keeps right on moving as if nothing happened.  The energy our society generates seems to have a life of its own; it's indifferent to those whose collective energies went into making it.  We lost our son, many years ago.  He was a baby.  He was scheduled to come into St. Louis and receive the enzyme - or whatever it is - they give to help our kids be good.  It doesn't harm the children: we've seen our neighbors' kids growing up to be respectful, well-behaved boys and girls.  But the boy's grandfather took it into his head his grandson would be harmed somehow; so he took our son one night while we were sleeping and set out for God only knows where.  He ended up on Eads Bridge the night the T-Men blew it up.  His body washed up onto the shore; so did the horse's body: he was riding in a horse drawn wagon.  Even the wagon was retrieved.  But no one ever found our son - or even looked.  No one made any effort to find him.  We begged and begged the authorities; but they refused to help us.  They said the probability of finding a baby's body was too small to warrant the time and expense.  They reminded us of those babies who were kidnapped around the same time and their bodies were never found either.  What could we say?  So many others had lost their sons - and they were rich and powerful.  Who were we to insist that our son be brought to us so we could lay him to rest?  It's not that we're bitter, but we haven't gotten over losing him.  When we read about tragedies that happened in our nation's past, what stands out is how much effort went into recovering the bodies.  Almost literally, no stone was left unturned.  Now, everyone's just too busy to take the time.  It makes you sad to think that the people who used to live in the towns we now live in would probably still be looking for our son.  It's almost as if, to everyone around us, he wasn't ours anyway - just some foundling we were asked to take care of.  So why should we care if he's found or not?"

Tears welled up in Brad's eyes as he sat watching the couple working together so intimately to relate their story - not because of the poignancy of the tale, not even because their son's disappearance mirrored so closely his own emergence into Bradley Jerome Carter's life; but because, as the camera panned back and forth from the husband to the wife, Brad saw so much of himself in their gestures and expressions and especially in their eyes as they spoke.  And because their story dredged up from his deepest memories the image of a huge grayish animal that snorted and made a shrill laughing sound and smelled like a warm oven full of overcooked bread.  And, alongside that creature, the image of an old man who smelled of tobacco and musty brown clothes and damp shoe leather.  And a brown basket smelling of wool and talcum and seaweed.

Unit 1739 was poised twenty feet above the concrete slab that lay on the floor of the trench.  The same steel cables that had lowered every sphere into place held it taut between two huge cranes straddling the unit.  The motors of the cranes began generating the power needed to lower the unit.  Slowly the process began.

The unit descended the first five feet with the same smooth precision that had set all but one of its predecessors into place.  Then the wind picked up.  The sphere began to stir, but the guy wires, skillfully maneuvered from below, quickly restored proper balance.  The wind died down and the cranes resumed lowering the sphere.  Suddenly the stillness was shattered by a fierce, howling wind that blew up, from nowhere, in an instant.  The sphere was sent hurtling back and forth.  One of the workers was thrown off balance by the wind and fell to the ground, releasing his guy wire.

Brad and Andrea had been watching the unit being lowered from a few yards away.  When Brad saw the guy wire snap out of the fallen worker's hands he ran to it and grabbed hold, immediately assuming the rhythm and thrust needed to synchronize his efforts with those of the other nine workers.

At almost the same instant that Brad joined the work crew, his father, who had been consulting with the engineers, became aware of what was happening and ran to where the workers were struggling to hold the sphere in place.  A second worker - right next to where Brad had taken over from the first - lost his footing and was thrown to the ground by the momentum the sphere sent beating down the guy wires.  Carter immediately cornered the flapping wire and assumed the worker's place beside his son.

The wind finally weakened and the sphere began slowing down.  From the ground, still holding his guy wire, Carter signaled the crane operator to resume lowering the sphere.  Suddenly one of the cables snapped, throwing the sphere off balance.  The crew on the ground readied themselves for another sudden jolt of their wires; they pulled them as taut, and held them as fast, as they could.  Instead of hurtling away from the broken cable, as everyone expected, the sphere began spinning in place, enough of its earlier momentum remaining to offset that caused by the breaking of the cable.

As it spun, it carried the men on the ground with it, like a merry-go-round; they had to keep moving faster and faster around it in order not to be thrown free.

Suddenly the second cable snapped.  In the split second before it broke completely Brad realized what was happening and reacted.  Releasing his guy wire, he reached over and grabbed his father's arm; in almost the same motion, he leaped back, taking his father with him, just as the sphere crashed onto the concrete slab where they were standing a second earlier.  Four of the men were crushed to death instantly; four others had their legs pinned beneath the sphere, and lay there, trapped, screaming for help.  Only Brad and his father were unharmed.  They immediately got up.

Carter summoned help for his injured workers then went to the sphere to inspect it.  He walked all the way around it, stepping over the injured men as he felt the sides for signs of damage.  Then he proceeded to where he had left his engineers, ordering them to have a complete inspection of the structure in his hands with twenty-four hours.

Andrea had gone to Brad the instant he and his father hit the ground.  She waited till they both got up and Carter walked away before speaking.  "Does it bother you your father didn't thank you for saving his life?" she asked.

Brad shook his head.  "I didn't do it for that reason," he answered.  "If it had been someone else instead, I would have done the same."

"But still -"

"No: please don't think that way where he's concerned," Brad cut short any further discussion.  "If it had been him who saved me, he wouldn't have expected an acknowledgment.  It's just his way.  You do what you have to do - for no other reason than that.  I wonder what he's looking for," he mused as he watched his father feeling the sides of the sphere.

"For any damage?" Andrea speculated.

"That's what he has his engineers for," Brad pointed out.  "It's more than just damage.  It's almost like something personal.  It doesn't feel right.  It's weird, Andrea, but I'm more scared watching him inspect that pod than I was when it fell.  Something's not right."

No mention was made of the incident during the flight back to St. Louis, nor of the fact that the trip had been cut short because of it.  Carter was uncharacteristically idle, as if something internal had been allowed precedence over the external events around him, as reflected in the papers spread before him, which he reviewed in the most perfunctory manner.  Brad took this opportunity to breach the subjects of his real parents, telling Carter about the couple he had seen on TV.

"They lost their son in the Eads Bridge incident," Brad said.  "His body was never found.  It was the very next morning you found me.  Maybe these are my real parents."

Carter looked at him as if from a great distance.  "So what if they are?" he asked.  "That was eighteen years ago.  I lost my son the same year, just weeks before I found you: do you think I gave it another thought?  There's too much to be done to let yourself be distracted by things you can't do anything about.  I don't understand how you can be so short-sighted as to let your focus be shifted every time the wind blows."

"It matters who my parents are!" Brad insisted.

"The only thing that matters is your objective," Carter, in turn, insisted.  "God put us here to fulfill a certain purpose.  If He chooses to separate us from our families in order to better fulfill His purpose, it's not our place to second-guess Him, or to neglect our duty while we go searching the earth over for what He's taken from us."

"Would you prefer I didn't see them?" Brad asked.

"What I would prefer, Brad, is that you didn't find it necessary to want to see them.  But if you feel you must, I have no right to stop you.  Do what you must.  But if God wills otherwise, then you won't get to see them, no matter how much you may want to."

The following morning Brad set out for Normandy.  This time Andrea was not with him: he wanted to meet the couple alone.  He drove a red sports car his father had gotten him for his sixteenth birthday.

"I thought you didn't like that car?" Carol Carter said to him.

"I don't," Brad replied.  "It seems pretentious - but I want them to see me in it."


"I want them to know I'm rich, so they won't think I'm just out to get what they have, pretending to be their son."

"And if you really are their son - what then?" Carol asked.

"I don't know," Brad admitted.  "I guess I'll play it by ear."

Brad knew their name, from the documentary; he looked up their address in a phone book at a convenience store on the outskirts of Normandy, then proceeded to their house.  When he arrived, he found their block cordoned off by police tape, and three squad cars parked at the end of their street.  He parked in the next block, got out, and walked to the squad car, asking what had happened.

"House fire," one of the policeman told him.  "Number five fourteen: burned to the ground, early this morning."

Brad turned pale as a ghost.  "Five fourteen?" he muttered.  "Was anyone hurt?"

"No one could have escaped that inferno," a second policeman said.

"Nice folks too," a third one added.  "Such a shame."

"They were in there?"  Brad faintly asked.  "They were killed?"

"I'm afraid so."

"Have they been...identified?"

"There's not much left to identify, son.  Firemen who got here said they'd never seen a blaze so hot.  The neighbors say the whole house went up in smoke, all at once.  Just: poof.  Sad.  Real sad."

"So they're dead," Brad stated as if it finally sunk in.  "I waited too long.  I should have come the next day."

"Next day?  What does that mean?" the first policeman asked, suddenly curious.

"They were on TV a couple weeks ago," Brad explained.  "They were talking about their son, who they lost when Eads Bridge blew up.  My father found me the next day, downstream.  I just wanted to see if maybe I was their son.  I should have come sooner."

"If you had, son, the coroner might be sifting through your ashes along with theirs right now, looking for teeth to identify you by: look at it that way.  Maybe it's a blessing you didn't come sooner."

"Is it okay if I hang around awhile?" Brad asked.  "I promise I won't go anyplace you say not to.  I'd just like to maybe get a chance to talk to their neighbors, find out a little about them.  Can I?"

"Sure.  But don't go beyond that second line of tape up there.  The fire marshal still has to look it over before we close the books on it.  And don't bother anyone who might not want to talk to you."

Brad agreed to their terms and was let past the first line of tape.  He walked as close to the smoldering remains as he could.  Even now, hours after the blaze, and a couple hundred feet away, the heat was as intense as an oven; Brad began sweating.

Presently some children and their parents came along, the children stopping almost beside Brad while their parents caught up.  "Wow!  That's hot!" one ten year old boy exclaimed.  Then he turned to his playmate.  "When it cools down we'll go see if those pellets are still there."

"I bet they got burned," the other boy speculated.

"No - no - I bet they didn't!  They were neat!"

The children started to move on when Brad, on a sudden impulse, began questioning them.  "Pellets?" he asked.  "What kind of pellets?"

"Just pellets," the ten year old answered.  "Some guys were putting them all around the home last night, sticking them everywhere they could.   And stringing wires from them.  I saw them with my binoculars -"

"No you didn't!" the boy's father, who had caught up to him and overheard the conversation, emphatically stated.  "You didn't see anything!"

"But dad: I did!"

The man grabbed the boy by the collar.  "You didn't see anything - not anything!" the man shouted at his son.

"But what about the pellets?" Brad interrupted.

"There were no pellets!  Do you see any pellets on the ground?  These are kids - they make things up!  Now leave us alone!"

With this, the entire group hastily moved on.  The policemen noticed the incident; two officers came over to Brad.  "What was that all about?" one asked.

"I guess I inadvertently upset that man, so I'll move on," Brad said.

"Upset him?  How?" the other officer asked.

"His kid was telling some crazy story about pellets or something.  I guess I sort of encouraged him: his tall tale took my mind off what happened here.  But, I can understand: his father didn't want him making things up.  So he was a little upset.  I'll go now."

"Yeah, I think it's best if you do," the first officer agreed.  "We wouldn't want no tall tales to get started around here.  We're a peaceful community; we aim to keep it that way."

Brad walked calmly to his car.  Nothing in his movements gave away the rage building up inside him.  When he drove off, that too was deceptively calm.  He waited till he was outside the town limits, on Interstate 70, to rev up the engine of his red sports car.  Within seconds, he went from forty to eighty miles per hour.  He turned off 70 onto Interstate 270 at Bridgeton; then off 270 onto Interstate 44 at Osage Hill, heading west southwest until he came to Stanton, where he left the Interstate.  A few minutes later he was entering Merrimac Caverns.  He wandered the caverns for hours, working his way eventually to the room filled with stalactites, where he lost his faith in God.  He moved away the broken blades of ice, as if searching for some trace of someone or something; he shook his head resignedly as he turned and left the room.  He walked through the caverns a while longer then emerged at dusk to return to St. Louis.

He didn't go home, however: he went to the same run-down area north of the Levee where he had earlier sought some kind of answer - the place he had found Crazy Alice.  It was dark already, but it was overcast, so the sky had a pinkish glow where the clouds drew nearest the city.  There was no moon to silhouette the spires of Eads Bridge.  There was no reverie on Brad's part, no gun at the back of his head.  But there was a tall, unkempt woman approaching from the shadows of an open alleyway.

"You came back to our domain," Crazy Alice greeted the boy.

"All day I've been trying to decide what to do," Brad explained.

"And what have you decided?" Alice asked.

"To leave.  To just go, and never come back," Brad replied.  "If I stay, I'll kill them - some of them, maybe all of them, I don't know.  But if I get caught, they'll kill my family, I know they will.  I'm going to ask her to go with me - Kirkus' daughter.  She says they can find us anywhere - but I don't believe that: they're not that powerful."

"They are that powerful," Alice corrected him.  "The only reason they haven't found me is because they think I'm dead.  Even so, if I had something they wanted back, they'd upturn every gravestone till they found me.  If you take his daughter, they'll find you."

"I just wish I could kill the Tungs!" Brad cried out, fighting back a sudden rush of tears.  "They killed the couple I believe were my real parents.  They blew their house up.  All they did not complain that no one looked for their son's body after Eads Bridge blew up."

"That was more than enough to get them killed," Alice concluded.  "You go on, get your young lady, go as far away from here as you can.  Leave the Tungs to us."

"No!" Brad protested.  "I didn't come here to get you to do my dirty work!  I swear I didn't!  It's something I have to do - but I can't!  I can't jeopardize my family!  In a way it's because of me my real parents died.  I don't want to be the cause of my adopted parents' death too!"

"Please understand," said Alice, "the Tungs are our enemies too.  They didn't just try and kill me.  It was some of their men who killed all those babies we delivered to them.  We will take care of them, one by one.  We won't be doing your dirty work, or anyone else's.  Only our own."

Brad said nothing to his father, but he did tell his mother what he had decided, and why.

"You can't think your father had anything to do with this?" Carol Carter demanded to know.

"No, I know he didn't," Brad assured her.  "He would sooner die than do something like that.  And I don't hold him to blame just because he associates with the Tungs.  I'm not leaving to get away from him, or you: I love you both, and always will.  But I can't stay.  I know he won't understand my leaving: he'll think it's cowardly.  I regret that, but I can't let his opinion of me stand in my way.  This is the right thing to do."

"Then tell him: you owe him that much," Carol told her son.

"What I owe him, mother, is to leave rather than jeopardize his life," said Brad.  "That takes precedence over everything.  Besides, he'd think it's foolish of me to waste my time avenging their deaths.  Good-bye mother.  I don't know if I'll ever see you again."

"You will," said Carol.  "I know that as surely as if it already happened."

Brad passed through his father's study before leaving.  "I'll miss you," he said, picturing his father seated behind his desk.  "May your God bless and keep you."  Then he left.

It surprised him how easily he convinced Andrea to go with him.  "You expected me to refuse," she observed his reaction.  "You're not a fugitive, Brad.  You're not wanted for anything; you haven't done anything.  I'm not afraid for you, like I would be if I went with you when it was time for us to move to Pod City.  They'll find us, Brad: this is my chance to prove that to you without risking your life.  All they'll do is bring us back.  That's all."

It was after midnight when they left.  "I know it's foolish to take this, the way it stands out," Brad explained as they were getting into his red sports car.  "We can sell it along the way maybe."

"There's no reason to," Andrea offered.  "If they want to find us, it won't matter what we're in."

The car turned onto Kingshighway Boulevard, heading south.  It sped past the junction with US Route 40, past the junction with Interstate 44, proceeding due south until it came to Interstate 55.  There it left St. Louis to proceed south-southeast.

"I thought you'd head west," Andrea observed.  "Maybe work your way to Wyoming - to Recluse - to join the T-Men."

"No," Brad replied.  "I believe you when you say your father knows where they're holed up.  Anyway, I don't believe in what they stand for.  Although, if they hadn't blown up Eads Bridge, you and I might never have met."

"Where are you headed, then?" Andrea asked.

"The other place you mentioned.  Remember?  Where they were holed up before returning to Wyoming?"

"You mean Tennessee?"

"Uh-huh.  Tennessee.  Clingman's Dome.  I figure whatever encampment they had is still standing.  We'll stay there."

"How long?"

"I don't know," Brad admitted.  "Until I can decide what I need to do.  Father says nothing is more important than your objective.  I can't accept that - not with you sitting beside me.  Andrea: I'm not running away from life.  I'm not going to Tennessee to hide.  Just to think."

They drove through the night, till Brad was too tired to drive any farther.  They had just crossed the Arkansas border when he announced he would have to stop and rest.  A couple miles more brought them to the town of Blytheville, a moderately sized town along the Interstate 55 corridor.  They stopped at a small rest area; it was nearly sun-up.  They both quickly fell asleep, missing both the first rays of the sun and the tremor which shook the car for a few seconds before subsiding.

By mid-morning they were awake and, after getting gas for the car and breakfast for themselves, on their way south again.  An hour later they had crossed the Mississippi into Memphis, Tennessee, where they picked up Interstate 40 heading east-northeast to Nashville then due east to Knoxville.  From there, they took US 441 southeast almost to the North Carolina border.

A day and a half after they left the Private Streets section of St. Louis they arrived at Clingman's Dome.  They searched the area until, at the southeastern corner, halfway to the summit, they found the deserted compound, intact but overgrown with vines, shrubs and saplings.  They moved in.

The spring passed into early summer; and, though both knew they had to be going soon, neither wanted to leave.  The reality of the place had not yet stripped away its idyllic mask; Clingman's Dome in late May was paradise.  There was plenty to eat, plenty to do to get and keep their new home livable; there was a never-ending kaleidoscope of natural beauty spread all around them; there were days warm enough to stroll about naked, nights cool enough to huddle beneath a blanket.  They had no reason to set foot of the mountain.  Their only contact with the outside world was the radio in Brad's car, which he tuned in each morning to hear what was happening elsewhere.  He wanted to know if Crazy Alice had set about doing what he dared not: he half hoped she had, half hoped she hadn't.  In the back of his mind was the thought: leave some for me.

"They'll know - won't they?" he asked Andrea one night when he felt as if his whole body would burst open if he could not do the one thing he was not allowed to do.

"They'll accuse you of raping me," she said.

"Then let them!" he vowed.

In a morning mist that seemed to transport the mountains of southeastern Tennessee to the ancient-most recesses of the Appalachians, as the light of an early summer sun began filtering through this blue-gray cocoon wound like wet beads of time around Clingman's Dome, a cry rang out so deep, so anguished it penetrated the muffling clouds and caught on overhanging branches of the highest trees along the eastern slopes, echoing out across the valley below to the border of North Carolina.  A solitary figure draped in mist ran wildly along the edge of the mountain, as if any second it would leap to its doom.

The morning after Brad's departure from St. Louis, Reggie, at breakfast, eagerly informed Professor Kirkus of his discovery.  "Andrea's gone!" he exclaimed.

"So she is," Kirkus replied.

"I'll find out what happened to her," Reggie promised.

"You might start with her having left with Brad Carter at twelve twenty-four this morning," the Professor suggested.

"What?  She left with him - in the middle of the night?" Reggie exclaimed.  "We've got to go get her!"

"It may be best to let this thing play out," Kirkus recommended.  "I'm interested in why he left.  His father has demanded to meet with me first thing this morning."

"Who is he to demand?  He's nothing but a handyman!" Reggie exclaimed.

"And I'm just a poor old teacher, trying to make his way in the world!" Kirkus quipped.

At ten A.M. Bradley Jerome Carter stormed into Professor Kirkus' office in the recesses of the Little Red Schoolhouse for the last time.

"I'm going public with this!" he opened the meeting with a threat.

"Public?" Professor Kirkus echoed.  "Something warrants such a drastic step?"

"Gorham: I warned you already what would happen if I found the materials you provided me shoddy," Carter reminded Kirkus.  "You assured me all the units were the same: they're not.  Either you lied or were deceived by your supplier.  Either way, it violates our contract."

"What does it matter?" Kirkus asked.  "You've already said you'll never move in.  You've made it clear you think we're all fools imagining the world's coming to an end.  Maybe the units aren't all the same -"

"They're not!" Carter interrupted.  "My engineers went over the unit that crashed last week - crashed but didn't crack, like the other one.  They compared it - microscopically, chemically, every other way - to Unit 739, the one that did crack.  They're not structurally equal."

"They all met the specifications," Kirkus explained.  "Obviously some exceeded it.  That's to be expected: manufacturing has never been an exact science.  Even in the glory days of space exploration, not all rockets were created equal: the name 'Challenger' comes to mind.  It's no reflection on you."

"But it is," Carter objected. "And that's why I'm here.  I'm the builder.  I'm the one whose reputation is on the line.  I'm the one history will call to task for allowing the Project to deteriorate.  It's my name that'll become a synonym for inferior workmanship if I don't speak out.  If Unit 1739 had not crashed, I might never have known.  But I do know.  I can't ignore it - not something that important."

"Give me one month," Kirkus pleaded.  "Let me look into it.  Let me work out a strategy for continuing on.  Whatever you say in public runs the risk of generating so intense a scrutiny that the whole Project could be jeopardized.  Remember: there are those of us who believe in this."

"But not enough to establish the proper quality control."

"Our primary focus throughout has been damage control," Kirkus admitted.  "Give us a chance to take that one step farther.  One month: that's all I'm asking."

"Alright," Carter reluctantly agreed.  "I'll give you one month."

"That should be enough time to set in motion what has to be done.  Thank you, Brad."

"But I'm finished with the Project," Carter said.  "I wash my hands of Pod City for good."

"Understood," Kirkus agreed.

The moment Carter left, Professor Kirkus picked up the phone and called the White House.  "Mr. President," he spoke into the received, "the matter we spoke of some time ago has come to a head.  The time is now.  You've got to set things in motion.  We have less than a month to put the plan we worked out in place."

"I'll get right on it," the President promised.

The President's operatives began constructing a trail of evidence calculated to weave its way around Bradley Jerome Carter as tightly as a snapped noose.  They forged documents, edited conversations, re-touched photographs - all designed to convince the Tungs that their city's leading industrialist had violated their prime directive: had gone behind their back to deal with the Councils of other cities - most notably that of Kansas City, their bitterest rival.

Three weeks, to the day, after Carter met with Professor Kirkus, a young man who had come to work for the Carters at their mansion in the West Central District two weeks earlier came to the door.

"We're here to arrest Bradley Jerome Carter!" a burly man with deep scars on his face and almost no hair on his head announced in an imperious tone.  As he spoke, he and five others, similar in appearance and wearing the same appliqué on their jackets - the fallen trees of the Tunguska - pushed their way past the young man and made for the study.

Like a light, the young doorman ran up the steps and burst into Carol Carter's room.

"Don't say a word," he ordered in a tone barely above a whisper.  "There are men downstairs come to arrest your husband.  If I know them they'll come for you, too.  You have to leave, immediately.  We'll take the back stairs.  I can come back later for whatever you need."

Carol resisted.  "I can't abandon him," she said.  "I won't.  He's my husband."

"You can go to him later," the young man countered.  "But you must leave now or you'll have no chance to decide."

"I've already decided," she insisted.

"Where are you going?" Carter's voice rang out from below.

"Your wife, your son: they're ours!"

"You can't have them, you filth!" Carter cried out.

The three men who had gone to the staircase laughed.  "You going to stop us?" they paused to taunt their prisoner before continuing upstairs.  "Before the week's out there won't be enough of you left to feed the flies!  Your wife'll be all ours, to do with as we please before we kill her too!  And your son'll watch himself being castrated before he dies!"  They laughed some more before reaching the upstairs landing.  They went from room to room kicking in the door of each.  All the rooms were empty.  Carol and Joey were nowhere to be found.                                                                                

Bradley Jerome Carter was taken to a small holding cell in the basement of the old City Hall on Clark Avenue to await execution.  There was no trial: there was no need for a trial.  Collaborating with the Tungs' rivals was an automatic capital offense; nothing more than their approval was needed to sentence a prisoner to death.  Carter's execution was scheduled for ten A.M. Friday, the eighth of June in the year 2068, at the Memorial Plaza.  The six block area, bounded by Olive Street on the north, Market on the south, 16th on the west and 14th on the east, was being made ready to accommodate the spectators expected to witness the event.  The Tungs spared no expense getting the Plaza ready; they even installed a special enclosed gallery for visiting dignitaries.

Professor Kirkus visited Carter in his cell two days before the execution.  "This is most regrettable," he said.  "I sincerely wish this could have been avoided, but you left us no option.  I trust you realize that."

"What I do or don't realize is no one's concern but mine," Carter replied.

"But you do know why you're here," Kirkus suggested.  Carter looked at him blankly.  "You really don't know," Kirkus observed.  "Don't you even want to know?"

"My knowing why won't change what's going to happen," Carter said as he walked to the other side of his cell, indicating that the conversation had ended.

Professor Kirkus seemed more unnerved by the meeting than the prisoner.  When he left, to return to the Old Courthouse - his Little Red Schoolhouse - he summoned a government car instead of walking the six blocks, as he had coming to his meeting.  He looked out the window every few seconds instead of staring straight ahead, as he normally did.  When the car arrived, barely ten minutes later, he got out immediately and hurried into the building, making for his office with the same haste, as if he were being pursued.  He seemed relieved, upon entering his office, to find his son Reggie seated behind his desk.

"I could get used to this," Reggie observed as he slowly relinquished his father's place.

"A couple more years and this will all be a memory," Kirkus reminded his son.  "Like your mother, I'm afraid, will soon be."

"It would have been a little crowded with her, when it's time to move in," Reggie said.

Kirkus stared at his son with an odd, menacing look that made Reggie turn away.  "True," he finally agreed.  "The time draws nearer every day.  Soon you'll have to retrieve your sister.  Doubtless they've gone west - perhaps to Wyoming.  This Carter thing, of course, expands the equation: his wife has escaped, his son is at large.  We'll leave Mrs. Carter to the Tungs.  The boy, however, is yours.  He'll have to be rounded up and brought back - as they say out west 'dead or alive.'  Are you up to the task?"

"Is the sky blue!" Reggie quipped.

"Less and less so," Kirkus sardonically retorted.  "How are you going to approach the matter?"

"In pursuit of a kidnapper and rapist," Reggie replied.  "I don't expect it to take long - Brad is very impulsive, very hot-headed: very easy prey for someone - like me - who knows what he's after and why and how to get it.  But, should it take longer than I anticipate, I'll carry a pager, so you can alert me when it's time."

"Good luck," Kirkus said.

"I won't need it," said Reggie.  "But thanks: it's the thought that counts!"

"I assume you'll wait till after the execution to round him up?"

Reggie laughed.  "Wouldn't miss it for the world.  One less handyman to deal with!"

Joey had gotten a job as a handyman at the Carter mansion just two weeks prior to Carter's arrest.  His seeking work there was not a coincidence: he knew from his conversations with Paris Commune that Bradley and Carol Carter were almost certainly the boy Kirk's parents.  He had grown to love the boy and wanted to somehow reunite him with his parents.  He had been waiting for the right moment to approach them; now it looked as if that moment would never appear.

He had been back in St. Louis several weeks before going to the Carter's place; he wanted to reacquaint himself with his old neighborhood, the school he attended, the house he grew up in.  He knew better than to look for his father's grave: he knew there wouldn't be one.  He did, however, go to the TV station where his father and Sanderson Spears worked; then to the small apartment where Spears had lived.

"I'm sorry," he apologized to the occupants of the apartment, "someone told me this might be for rent."

"They told you wrong!" said the man, the woman beside him nodding in agreement.  Then the door was slammed in his face.  Serves me right, he thought to himself, for lying to them.

"I don't belong here anymore," Joey told himself late that evening as he was walking through the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.  He remembered walking here as a boy with his father, and looking up into the Gateway Arch, which he decided was the gate to heaven, if only people knew how to enter it the right way.  He found himself drawn to the massive spire of Eads Bridge, silhouetted against the full moon which had just risen.

A strange looking woman stepped from the shadows of the Old Cathedral.  "Only the dead belong here now," she said in a deep, hoarse voice.  The woman, who had been watching Joey for some time, was Crazy Alice.  "They say the world will end soon," she said after a long pause.

"That's what my friend says, too," Joey replied.  "He studies the weather.  He says...he says terrible things are coming."

"More terrible than us?  I don't think so," the woman countered.  "You shouldn't be here after dark," she said suddenly.  "It isn't safe anymore.  It's too far off the beaten path."

"I'm not afraid," said Joey.  "But I'll go, because I'm intruding.  I have somewhere important to be tomorrow."

"Where do you live?" Alice asked.

"I don't live anywhere," Joey told her.  "I work odd jobs at night so I can sleep during the day.  No one notices you if you sleep on a park bench in daylight."

The woman motioned for Joey to follow her; he did.  She led him to an old building near Laclede's Landing, led him inside, up two flights of stairs, into a big room with a vaulted ceiling and an odd assortment of furniture.

"You can sleep here tonight," she said.  He thanked her and laid down on the mattress on the floor she pointed to.  She pulled a butcher knife from her purse and held it up to the light streaming in the window.

"Aren't you afraid I'll slit your throat while you're sleeping?" she asked in a taunting voice.

Joey smiled up at her and rolled over onto his side, making a point of loosening his collar as he did.  Almost instantly he was asleep.  Alice kept vigil over him all night, her knife on her lap the whole time he slept.  In the morning, when he awoke, he thanked her for her hospitality and left.

Bradley Jerome Carter hired him on the spot.  When his wife asked him why, he explained that he knew good workers and could spot the the real thing a mile away.

"I could give that man the combination to my safe - and not give it another thought," he said.

Joey was given a room at the back of the house.  The moment he met Carter, and looked into his eyes, he knew for certain this was Kirk's father.  The first thing he did when shown to his room was get down on his knees and thank God for bringing him here.

"Please give me a sign when the time is right to tell him about his son," Joey prayed.

Now, the night before the execution, Joey was back at Crazy Alice's hideout.  He had managed to get Carol out of the city.  They made their way to Central Kansas, where Joey showed, and explained to Carol, the system of tunnels he had discovered and mapped.

"I know this is horrible for you," he said.  "I have to ask you to trust me though.  I want you to stay here till I return.  You don't have to stay in the tunnel; just stay near enough that you can hide there if you have to.  As long as you remember the pattern, you won't get lost.  I promise you I'll return on Saturday."

"Alright," Carol agreed.  "Are you going back to watch -"

"To try and save him," Joey cut her question short.  "I'll pray to God to show me a way.

No way was shown to him.  He slept Thursday night under the watchful eye of Crazy Alice.  He thanked her and left Friday morning, early, to try and get inside City Hall, where Carter was being held; but he was unable to.  All he could do was wait till the hour of ten and pray something miraculous would happen.

There was a flurry of activity all through Memorial Plaza, as everyone jockeyed for the best place to watch.  People talked and laughed; some even carried small picnic baskets and blankets.  By nine forty-five all the dignitaries had filed into their gallery.  Five minutes later an armored truck drove up 13th Street, past the Soldiers Memorial Building, turned left on Pine Street, and stopped.

Five burly men got out, went around to the back of the truck, opened the doors, brought the prisoner out, and led him to the execution post.  As they were walking him, a man of medium height, with thick chestnut hair almost to his shoulders, soft brown eyes, a broad face with high cheekbones, a long thin mouth and a somewhat recessed chin ran up to him and, before the guards could react, whispered to him "She's safe."  In a split second Carter had asked "And my son?"  Joey nodded.  "Safe too," he said, then he was brushed aside by the guards.

"No talking to the prisoner!" the Captain of the guards pronounced with icy formality.  Joey hurried back into the crowd and disappeared.

When they reached the execution post, the guards stripped the prisoner of all his clothes.  He stood there as calm and dignified as if he were simply preparing to take a shower in the privacy of his own home.  Then, after chaining his arms and legs to the post, they took out a handful of reddish looking pellets and began inserting them into every opening in his body.  He made no effort to resist.  When all the pellets were inserted, a network of thin wires was attached, one wire to each pellet.  The wires all ran into one long wire, which was stretched out a hundred feet to just beyond the velvet ropes separating the execution area from the crowd, and attached to a device which looked something like a small computer terminal.  At a signal from the new leader of the Tungs, who was inside the enclosed gallery, the Captain of the guards pressed a red button at the top of the device.  A series of amber lights flashed from left to right; then one green light, at the end of the series, flashed.  And, as it did, a sound rocked the Plaza.  The sound of an explosion.  Everyone jumped back.  No one wanted to be splattered.

In the blink of an eye the execution post was gone.  When the smoke and debris settled, it was seen how well the execution had been carried out: everything lay within the velvet ropes.  The city Coroner stepped to the edge of the execution area, surveying the area, then nodding his head to officially pronouncing the prisoner dead.  Amid the cheers and applause no one noticed Joey's scream of anguish - except for one person, who had seen him in the crowd and gradually worked her way to him.  She took hold of his shoulder.  He turned abruptly.

"Why are you here?" he asked, almost accusingly.

"I killed his son!" the woman replied.  "I had to come."  She turned to go.

"No!  You didn't!" Joey ran in front of her to say.  "His son's not dead.  I've seen him.  Alice: I've looked into his eyes, I know.  He's alive.  He was taken from the river by the leader of the T-Men.  I've seen him, Alice.  I've seen his eyes - his father's eyes.  Right at the end - right before they took his father to be executed, he acknowledged him.  Paris said he turned his back on his son - but he didn't!  He acknowledged him.  I have to let him know.  His name is Kirk.  I traveled a thousand miles in his honor, and someday I'll go back to work for him."

"Perhaps I'll go with you," Alice said.  "Renew old...acquaintances perhaps."

The next day, Joey returned to the tunnel in Central Kansas, as he promised.  The look in his eyes told Carol everything that happened.

"He looked more at ease than anyone else there," Joey said.

"Of course: that was his strength," Carol said.  "And his weakness.  He didn't know how to be petty or treacherous, so he couldn't deal with those who were - or defend himself against them.  The day I married him I knew I'd be a widow; but it didn't matter to me as long as I had some time with him.  I just wish our son had lived."

"He did," said Joey.  "Your son is alive - I've seen him."

Carol smiled.  "I love him as if he were my own," she said.  "But my husband found him, floating, in a basket, in the river."

"But he has your husband's eyes," Joey insisted.

"His eyes are almost black; Brad's were as blue as the sky -"

"So are his.  Carol," Joey suddenly realized something that gave him a cold chill, "we're not talking about the same boy, are we?  You son - your natural born son - is safe, in Wyoming.  Your other son - with the black eyes: where is he, Carol?  Neither of you ever spoke of him; I didn't know.  I lied to your husband.  I didn't know.  This boy's in danger: if they find him they'll kill him!  My God, Carol, where is he?"

"I don't know," said Carol.

"I've got to go back to St. Louis!" Joey vowed.  "I've got to warn him - to be there if he returns!  But first I have to get you to where you'll be safe."

"I'll be safe where you are."

"No: I can't let you come with me!"

"Joseph: he's my son.  The only reason I agreed to leave...I couldn't be in that that time.  Now it's over.  I can return."

Saturday morning Brad kissed Andrea on the forehead as she slept and climbed out of bed.  He put on a pair of jeans, slipped on his shoes, and went out to his car.  As a boy he used to watch his father read the newspaper every morning before breakfast; every morning since he and Andrea had been here he went to his car before breakfast and listened to the morning news on the radio.  There was a chill in the air, driven by the early morning mist that had settled on the mountain.  The leather seat of his car felt cold against the bare skin of his back, but he endured it for the sake of his morning ritual.

One or two items of world news were quickly followed by several reports out of Washington, then the local news.  He was about to turn the radio off; his hand was on the dial, when he stopped dead.

"Industrialist Bradley Jerome Carter was executed yesterday in St. Louis."

Brad leaped out of the car, as if his hand had been holding a venomous snake.  He slowly backed away, shaking his head back and forth, mumbling softly "No.  No.  No, it's not.  He's not.  He's not.  No."  Then he threw his head back and let out a piercing cry.  He began looking all around him, as if he had dropped something of unearthly significance and had to find it at all costs.  Then he took off running, wildly, like a panic stricken animal, moving in a vaguely upward spiral along the edge of the mountain.  He ran through thick underbrush, his chest, sides and back torn by brambles and thorns.  He brushed against trees, bruising his skin.  Occasionally he cried out, not from his injuries but from something much deeper.

Eventually he could go no higher.  He stood at the summit.  Ahead of him was the giant oak he had often come to sit beneath and contemplate about life and dream of the future.  He ran to it, grabbed hold of it, the full breadth of his arms barely halfway around it, as if embracing it.  He dug his bleeding fingers into the bark and began tugging, with all his strength, lifting, trying to uproot it, screaming and grunting, desperately trying to pull it straight up out of the earth, holding so tight his whole body felt like wood, his skin like bark, pulling and tugging and crying out, and bleeding, and howling, as the sun's rays rammed through the mist and into the branches and down onto the boy.  Then, all of a sudden, he released his grip and slowly sank to his knees, then to the ground, where he lay, sobbing, at the base of the tree, in the shadow of the morning sun, till his body finally grew still and his eyes opened and his voice returned.

Slowly, he lifted himself  from the ground, to his knees, then, steadying himself against the tree, to his feet.  His whole body felt as if it had been trampled by a giant.  He took a step, followed by another hesitant step, then another - like a child just learning to walk, or an old man who had forgotten how.  As he grew more confident, his motion increased, till he returned to his own place and time of life.

Brad worked his way back to the compound.  Andrea was up, and dressed, and fixing breakfast when she turned and saw him, and nearly fell back onto the stove.  It took her a moment to regain her balance.  Then she went to him and began running her hands across his wounds, as if to make them go away.  She leaned over his neck and shoulders and began licking the drops of blood that had collected.  She would have worked her way down his chest but he gently took hold of her and raised her back up.

"I have to return home," he told her.  "I can't ask you to come with me, or to stay here.  I can't ask anything.  I'm going back to murder those who killed my father.  But first, to make sure my mother's safe, if it's not already too late - if they haven't already gotten her.  Whether they've gotten her or not, I can only kill them once.  I wish..." he fought back some tears that had remained behind when the others fell at the base of the tree.  "...I wish I could take my father's advice, do as he would do."

"You're not your father," Andrea said.

"I know," Brad agreed.  "He'd forget about it in a minute and move on.  I can't.  I don't want to step over it or go around it.  What I really want - more than to take revenge - more than anything - all I want is to bury myself in your arms and cry till there are no more tears.  But I can't.  I have to go home.  At the moment I leave, I'd give anything to see you standing here and know you'll be waiting here for me when I return.  But I don't know if I will return.  This may cost me my life.  Then I would wish I had you with me, right up to the end.  But that can't be either."

"Brad: there's nothing that can't be," Andrea said softly.  "There's nothing you can or can't ask of me.  I know what I have to do.  I'll be here when you return - if we return together, and only then.  There's no reason for me to do anything that doesn't involve you - unless doing it would jeopardize you."

They cleaned Brad's wounds, packed what few things they had managed to accumulate, and left Clingman's Dome early Saturday afternoon, retracing their route as far as Nashville.  There, instead of remaining on Interstate 40 to Memphis, they headed northwest on Interstate 24, a deviation calculated to save almost two hundred miles.  On their way from St. Louis, they had the luxury of time; now they didn't: every second they were on the road put Brad's mother in greater jeopardy.                                        

Interstate 24, which took them through the western tip of Kentucky, was absorbed into Interstate 57 in Southern Illinois.  They stayed on 57 until it intersected Interstate 64 which, pointing them directly at St. Louis again, brought them to its shores at midnight.  The lights of East St. Louis barely rose up before them till they were extinguished within the greater glare of its grander sister across the Mississippi.

Not wanting to take the heavily traveled bridge which funneled all the major arteries entering St. Louis from the east, Brad veered south along US 50 to the McArthur Bridge.  There was very little traffic on it; even so, he approached and crossed it cautiously, not wanting to call attention to himself. 

Andrea noticed, halfway across, and mused aloud, that the water below had grown suddenly calm and very quiet.  Without knowing why, Brad gunned the engine and sped the rest of the way across, passing every other vehicle.  He was within inches of the western shore of the Mississippi when the bridge collapsed.  The forward thrust of his red sports car momentarily exceeded the sudden pull of gravity; it stood suspended for a split-second as it hurtled westward a few final feet before crashing.

The bridge had broken cleanly, just at the shoreline; the elevated highway extending the bridge into St. Louis over the Wharf Line, over Interstate 55 and into 7th Boulevard had stood.  When Brad's car crashed, it cleared the collapsed bridge; the impact was absorbed by the soft silt and mud of the shoreline.  Brad and Andrea both remained conscious, both emerged unharmed from the car, both hurried away from the crash site.  Only when they were beyond the car, which had begun spurting smoke into the air, did they look back to the bridge slowly sinking into the Mississippi.  Suddenly Brad's car exploded, setting a wall of flame between them and the shoreline.  As they looked out over the water, the light from the torch Brad's car had become shone like a beacon, but showed nothing stirring, no one signaling for help, no one swimming in the Mississippi; so they turned and walked away.

The epicenter of the earthquake that split the McArthur Bridge was under the town of Blytheville, Arkansas.  Blytheville was obliterated, as were most of the small towns in a twenty mile radius.  The quake caused a tidal surge in the Mississippi that flooded downtown Memphis, Tennessee, inundating Mud Island and drowning six bus loads of tourists visiting the Mud Island Amphitheater.  The water table along the entire course of the river from Memphis southward rose enough to flood parts of Greenville, Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi; send water pouring through downtown Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and turn the French Quarter of New Orleans into a shallow pond.  Cities as far north as Quincy, Illinois and Keokuk, Iowa felt the aftershocks; poorly constructed buildings and bridges either collapsed outright or were heavily damaged.

"A slight tremor, measuring 3.2, was felt last night in the Mid-West," was how the news reported the incident, emphasizing over and over its relative strength.  No mention was made of the damage or the flooding.

Except for McArthur Bridge, and a few ramshackle buildings in the older parts of the city, St. Louis escaped major damage.  The quake did, however, open a path for Brad and Andrea.  Local police were on the lookout for them, having been alerted by Reggie Kirkus, who was put in charge of the manhunt; the damage caused by the quake distracted the police long enough for the fugitives to move, undetected, through the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial to The Levee and Laclede's Landing, where Brad hoped to run into Crazy Alice.  He and Andrea wandered the dark alleys and shadowy streets less than an hour before hitting pay dirt.

Turning a corner, he saw someone silhouetted against an old brick wall who, from the shape, could only have been Alice.  He and Andrea approached.  The shadow disappeared, only to re-appear behind him.

"I've been waiting for you," Alice's voice cut through the thin river mist.  "Follow me," she motioned.

When they were safely out of sight, she approached.  "I knew you'd come.  I'm sorry about your father.  Your mother's safe, though: she and the young man left for Kansas.  Bleeding Kansas.  Soon everywhere will bleed."

"Kansas?  Young man: what young man?" Brad asked.

"All I know is he got her out of here," Alice explained.  "And risked his life telling your father before they killed him that she was safe.  He kept talking about your father's son - the one I thought I killed.  He said the boy's alive - in Wyoming."

Brad shook his head.  "My father didn't believe that story when it was told to him, and I don't believe it now," he said.

"Your father believed it at the end; and now that young man's determined to take your mother to him," Alice revealed.

"Then they're headed for Recluse," Brad mused.

"They can be found there," Andrea added to the conversation.  "So they're not really safe."

"They'll be safe enough till I can finish what I have to do here," Brad decided.

"What might that be?" Alice asked, already knowing the answer.

"They're going to pay for this with their own lives," Brad answered.

"Be careful you don't pull a Spears and kill off all the Tungs," Alice cautioned, adding "Leave some for the Society to take care of."

"He's all yours," Professor Kirkus told his son.

"Why are you letting me take care of this?" Reggie asked.

"It seems fitting," was the reply.  "You and he are contemporaries.  You know him better than I.  You need practice at out-maneuvering your prey.  This'll be the perfect place to start.  He's too young, too hot-headed to pose any real threat.  Yet he can't be allowed to run free any longer.  Of course, the Tungs are quite capable of rounding him up if he returns to St. Louis.  But if, as I suspect, he takes flight - as he seems to have already done - then he's out of their jurisdiction.  And into Federal jurisdiction.  I'll see that you get all the resources you need.  So how do you think you'll handle it?  Do you have a strategy in mind yet?"

Reggie thought a moment, letting his gangly frame sag into a posture of contemplation.  He seemed to be weighing his options, cocking his head first one way then the other.  "It's only here he can be arrested simply for being related to a felon.  Outside the cities the old ways still prevail.  The Feds still need evidence of wrongdoing to apprehend someone.  Best to go with the obvious: charge him with kidnapping and rape - both capital offenses -"

"In certain circumstances," Kirkus qualified his son's statement.  "I'm afraid you'd never get your sister to testify against him."

"To save his life she would," Reggie speculated.  "As part of a deal."

"Excellent!" Kirkus congratulated his son.

"Of course, I'd rather have him executed," Reggie admitted.  "You got the father, I'd like to do the same for the son."

"Don't be too eager: that could be your downfall," Professor Kirkus warned.  "Approach it as an exercise of power - a political science take-home exam.  Do only what you must - never indulge your personal appetite.  I would have vastly preferred letting Carter live, but he left me no choice.  Were the project not so close to completion, I would have had to let him live no matter how great a threat he might have posed.  Only a fool uses power wantonly.  Use it judiciously, and sparingly, and it'll serve you well.  Harm no one unless it's absolutely necessary - then do it quickly and thoroughly.  And leave no trail."

Bradley Jerome Carter II carefully planned his first execution.  His target was the Captain of the Guards who had pressed the red button triggering the explosives.  Alice agreed to let Andrea stay with her while Brad cased the Captain's quarters inside the Tungs' headquarters.  He remembered from his fifth grade field trip the layout of the building; Alice had already learned who among the Tung hierarchy actually lived there and who lived away from the headquarters on the Hill.  The Captain of the Guards was one of only a handful who, having no family, chose to keep constant vigil.

While Brad was away - the very next evening after returning - his mother and Joey entered St. Louis from the west, in the same pickup truck they had left the city in - a pickup Joey had bought with the earnings from the odd-jobs he worked at.  First they parked on the outskirts of the Private Streets District and worked their way to the Carter mansion, to see if Brad had come home.  It was clear to them he had not.  Then, on a hunch, Joey drove across town to Laclede's Landing, parking along the old causeway leading to Eads Bridge - except for the massive spire marking its western terminus, the only part of the bridge still standing.  Carol and Joey went looking for Crazy Alice.

Though Joey knew where she lived, his unfamiliarity with the area hampered his finding her.  Eventually he remembered enough markings and signposts to work his way there.  At eleven-thirty Monday night he knocked on her door.  She opened the door at once and pulled he and Carol in.

"You're being followed," she said.

"We were careful," Joey explained.  "I'm sure no one followed us.  You saw someone?"

"I didn't have to see anyone," Alice told him, "I felt someone, lurking in the shadows.  Stay here, with my guest, while I take care of the intruder."

In the dim light of the room, neither Carol nor Joey had noticed Andrea, though she recognized Carol immediately, and now came forward.

"Andrea!" Carol exclaimed.  "If you're here, where's Brad?"

"He'll be here shortly," Andrea replied.  "We thought you were in Kansas, safe.  We just got back yesterday."

Carol explained why they returned.  Andrea then explained what they were doing here.

"You can't let him do this," Joey said to both women.

"It's too dangerous," Carol agreed.  "He could be killed."

"He knows," said Andrea.  "But it's his choice."

"No," Joey disagreed, "we have no such choice: only God does."

"He doesn't believe in God," Andrea explained.

"Whether he does or not doesn't change the way it is.  Your soul can be damned by a God you don't believe in as surely as by one you do.  I know I have no right in any of this," Joey apologized.  "But a very dear friend has damned his soul to hell by taking revenge.  You can't let it happen to Brad - not if you love him!  Please, please: talk him out of it!"

"Out of what?" a man's voice asked.  Brad had returned and, sensing there were others present besides Andrea, had entered unnoticed and unheard, catching the tail end of Joey's comment.  Before he could get a response, he saw who the visitor standing between Andrea and the man he had overheard was.

"Mother!" he said as he went to embrace her.  Then, backing away a step, asked "What are you doing here?  You're supposed to be in Kansas!"

"And you're supposed to be in Wyoming," Carol replied.  "But I knew you weren't.  You've come back for revenge, haven't you?" she asked.

"I came back for you," Brad told her.  "Once I was satisfied you were safe, then, yes, I am here for revenge."

"No: you mustn't!" Joey interjected.

"Who are you?" Brad asked.  "And what concern is it of yours?"

"This is Joseph," Carol answered for him.  "His concern is that he saved my life, then risked his own to tell your father I was safe."

"He then asked me if you were safe," Joey continued.  "But I didn't understand his question, and told him you were, without knowing.  Now I'm obligated to help keep you safe."

"How are you obligated?" Brad asked.

"I assured a dying man his son was safe," Joey tried to explain.  "If I don't do all I can to keep you safe, then I lied to your father.  But it's your soul I care most about.  I've seen what revenge can do, what it can make you become, how it damns a man's soul.  In the Sierras.  Donner's Pass.  A man I know, and care more for than almost anyone else on earth, took the lives of more than fifty people, in Carson City, and Reno -"

"The weatherman?" Brad asked.  "Are you talking about him?"  Joey acknowledged with a nod that he was.  "It's not the same thing: I'm making those who killed my father pay for their crime; he's a madman who went on a rampage!"

"No," Joey shook his head.  "That's what they say about him, but it's not true.  He was avenging the deaths of people he loved.  They saved the lives of the schoolchildren - warned them about a tornado.  But they caused people to miss a day's work - to leave their jobs and go to their children.  He and I were away, setting up equipment, when they came - the Spurs and the Silvers.  They killed all of them, even the two young boys - Jimmie and Jonas: they'd be about your age now.  They were good people, kind, and generous.  They took Sandy in when he had no one, just as he took me in.  He thought he had to avenge their deaths."

"He was right," Brad said.  "I hope I can meet him some day, to tell him I'm sorry I believed the lies about him."

"There's nothing I can say to stop you?" Joey asked.

"No, there isn't," Brad replied.

"Then I'll help you," Joey said.

"Then your soul will be damned too," Brad pointed out.

"It doesn't matter.  If I can't save the soul I was sent here to save, I'm not worthy of salvation myself.  I'll burn in hell with you: at least I can offer your father that much!"

"I can't let you, Joseph," Brad insisted.

"You can't stop me," Joey countered.

"Then we'll get started tomorrow."

South Kingshighway was heavily traveled, the guards who patrolled it heavily armed.  Gravois Avenue, Grand Boulevard, Broadway, and Jefferson Avenue - all leading to South St. Louis from the northeast - were patrolled also, but not so heavily.  It was generally believed that the recent attacks on the Tungs had come from the area between the Wharf Line and the Mount City Docks.  They had grown more frequent in the last few weeks; and until their origin could be pinpointed, the roads leading into the Hill were monitored around the clock.  The ruling Council was considering a proposition that if the attackers could not be located within the next few days, all the buildings between Lucas Avenue and Biddle Street would be fire bombed.

Crazy Alice had furnished Brad and Joey with automatic weapons and a butcher knife apiece.  At her insistence, even though Brad had already mapped out a route, they took Interstate 55 to Bella Villa, just south of the city line; then back into the city on Morgan Ford Road.

"It surprised me, Brad, that you gave into Alice so quickly," Joey observed as the car Alice had gotten them sped down 55.

"She has a sixth sense about things," Brad explained.  "Joseph," he said after another silence, "if you have any doubt that you'll be able to do what has to be done, or if you even think you might freeze up, then I want you to stay in the car."

"There's not a doubt in my mind, Brad: I'll do whatever you tell me to do, or whatever I have to do to protect you," Joey assured him.  "I saw something once, Brad, a place out in the middle of nowhere.  I couldn't even begin to describe it.  It was like a city, yet it wasn't.  As I watched, two teenage boys tried to sneak in.  The guards shot and wounded them.  The boys were lying on the ground, helpless, and the guards came up, stood over them, and shot them, point blank, in the face.  I realized in that moment that I could kill.  Until then I never thought I could."

Nothing further was said.  Evening was rapidly settling over St. Louis.  Alice's car had left the Interstate and was making its way back into the city.  As the sky grew darker it grew lighter, but only in places, a greenish-purple light that had the jagged intensity of lightening rather than the swirling subtlety of a sunset.  Brad and Joey both saw the slender currents of light reach up toward the overhead sky, but neither commented on it: their lives might end before the night was out, or else they might come away wanton killers: the condition of the sky paled in comparison.                                                    

When they were within sight of the Tungs' headquarters, the car pulled to the curb; Brad and Joey got out and walked the rest of the way, carrying their automatic weapons in a paper sack and their butcher knives in a sheath tucked in their socks.

The pigeons that nested on the roof of the big stone building and would normally be settled in for the night were in a state of perpetual motion, leaping from alcove to chimney to vent and from nest to nest, as if they were migratory birds and had stayed too late to escape the oncoming winter.  That, too, Brad and Joey noticed but said nothing about it.

In staking out the headquarters the evening before, Brad had found a door at the rear of the building that had been left open between eight and eight-thirty.  Sometime during that half-hour a delivery truck had arrived and dropped off a parcel; then the delivery man had closed and locked the door.  If the door were again open, Brad's plan was to get inside before the delivery truck arrived, then somehow work his way to where the Tungs were - not a well thought out plan, since the field trip and tour Brad remembered never included this part of the building.

As the green-purple currents grew closer they became disorganized, the long jagged streamers breaking into hundred of small jolts that seemed to pulsate like glow worms.  The pigeons grew more frantic, some flying to nearby trees to hide in the branches, some pecking the panes of glass nearest their nests.

Brad and Joey ducked into the building through the open door.  A dim light overhead revealed a small storage area with a door opposite the entrance and a row of shelves on either side; all the shelves were empty.  A noise outside indicated the approach of the delivery truck.  Brad hurried to the center of the room and, reaching as high as he could, unscrewed the naked light bulb from the overhead fixture.  Then he and Joey crouched in the far corner.

The delivery man came in, turned the light switch on and off and on again; then, cursing the darkness, made his way to the other end of the room to set the parcel on the shelf nearest the inside door, after which he left, locked the outside door, and returned to his truck.  As he drove off a sudden draft swept under the door to the storeroom, strong enough to rattle the steel shelves and brush up against Brad and Joey, still at the far end of the room, making their skin crawl, as if something alive had touched them.  Their weapons, which they had stood against the wall, fell over and scooted halfway across the room.  Then everything was quiet again, the draft died down as suddenly as it had begun.

When the air grew still, there was a loud crash outside, followed by an explosion.  Flames, and a searing heat, for a split-second, shot under the door, followed by screams from outside, and the odor of burning flesh.  Before they could get to the door to see what had happened, Brad and Joey heard footsteps on the driveway.  Then voices.

"I know what I saw!" a gruff voice insisted.  "That truck was two stories in the air!"

"Sal: you been at the bottle too long!" another gruff voice put forth.  "Trucks don't fly in the air!  That's what airplanes are for!"

"I know what I saw!"

"Just shut up you two!" a third voice rang out.

"Yeah!" agreed a fourth.  "We gotta see did he make his delivery before his truck blew up or was it the pellets caused it to blow!"

"So lets get in there and see!" a fifth voice ordered.

Five sets of steps headed for the storeroom, growing louder and closer every second.  Brad and Joey retrieved their guns, took them out of the sacks. stood poised at the door.  On a signal from Joey, Brad threw open the door and leaped through the doorway, followed by Joey.  Their guns were cocked, their fingers on the triggers, fifty rounds ready to be fired.

The five Tungs in the driveway lifted their automatic weapons the instant the door began opening, their fingers readying their hundred rounds of ammunition.  Before Brad made it through the door one of the Tungs opened fire - his gun flying out of his hands the split-second it was engaged, still firing its rounds as it ascended and began whirling in the vortex of wind that had sprung from nowhere.  All the guns flew from all the hands; but only the one had been activated.  Only the one was firing live ammo, its sputtering rounds drowning out the crackling in the air as the greenish-purple streaks overhead pulsated like the flickering lights of a marquee.

The wind began to die down.  The whirling guns began shifting their aim from the sky to the ground.  Joey grabbed Brad and pulled him back through the open doorway and threw him on the floor, throwing himself on top of him.  The five men trapped outside ran for cover, but the only cover was the smoldering truck with the charred remains of the driver.  They could not outrun their automatic weapon.  On its whirling descent it shot each retreating Tung at least half a dozen times.

When everything grew quiet again, and the pulsating crackles dissipated along with the wind into the night sky, all five Tungs lay dead on the pavement, covered with blood.  Inside the storeroom, near the door, Joey lay wounded on top of Brad, blood seeping from his thigh.

Slowly they both got up and assessed the damage.  Brad didn't realize Joey was hit until, as he made for the open doorway to see what became of the Tungs, he noticed the blood on his own pants.  Knowing he had not been hit, he turned to Joey and asked "Are you hurt?"

"I...I don't think so," Joey fumbled for words.  "I don't know.  My leg, maybe...I don't know."

In pulling Joey closer to the door, and the light from outside, Brad saw the blood soaked pants leg.  He didn't wait for Joey to show him the wound; he unbuckled Joey's pants and let them drop to his knees.  Then he took his own shirt and tied it as tightly as he could around Joey's thigh, just above the wound.  The blood was not spurting, it was flowing gently; the tourniquet nearly stopped it.  Brad felt the back of Joey's thigh for another wound: an entry or an exit wound.  There was one; the bullet had not lodged inside Joey's leg.

"We've got to get help for you!" Brad said as Joey pulled his pants back up.

"No," Joey resisted.  "We've got to finish what we came here for."

Brad shook his head.  "Another time," he said as he took Joey by the arm.  Again Joey resisted.

"This won't wait," he said.  "I'll be alright.  We have to do this.  We have to finish what we started."

"I thought you're the one who was supposed to talk me out of killing?" Brad observed.  "Now it's the other way around."

"They have to die," said Joey.  "When I heard them talk about pellets, my heart turned cold, and I turned away from God.  They have to die!"

"Are you sure you're up to it?" Brad asked.  "Because if you pass out, or even get disoriented, we could both end up dying."

"I'm sure, Brad.  I won't become an obstacle," Joey promised.

They went back outside and retrieved their guns, then came through the storeroom, and through the door that led to the rest of the headquarters.  Slowly, carefully, they made their way throughout the building, checking every room.  Half an hour later they were back at the storeroom.  The place was empty, except for the two of them.  Anyone else who might have been here had gone.  There was no one to kill.

They stopped in the storeroom long enough to get the package the deliveryman had left, then made their way back to Alice's car, Brad helping Joey along.  As they retraced their route to Laclede's Landing, Brad thanked Joey for caring enough about his parents to risk his life - and his soul.

"I guess mother told you," he concluded.

"Your parents?  I don't understand," said Joey.

"My real parents," Brad explained.  "They died when their house burned a few weeks ago.  The Tungs had set some of those same pellets around."

"Brad: I didn't know till this minute about them.  Did you get to talk to them?"

"They died before I could, but I know they were my parents.  They lost their son the night before my father found me in the water - a month after his own son was kidnapped."

"I've seen him, Brad," Joey insisted.

"I know you think it was him," said Brad, "but it wasn't.  The leader of the T-Men was mistaken.  The child he found wasn't him.  But if mother didn't tell you, how'd you know about the pellets?  You said it was hearing the Tungs talk about the pellets that made you want to kill them: who told you about the pellets?"

Joey turned away.  His eyes began to water.  He was silent for a long while, then turned back to Brad.

"I was there," he said.  "In the Plaza.  I was in the crowd.  I watched but couldn't help him.  They put the pellets...around him...then ran wires...then pressed a button.  And there was nothing left.  It was as if he vanished into thin air, all at once.  I wanted so much to reunite him with Kirk -"

"Kirk?" Brad asked.

"The boy Paris Commune found.  Then he could decide for himself if Kirk was his real son or not.  One day, Brad: one day I'll work for him.  He sees his father's mistakes; when he becomes the new leader he'll try to avoid those mistakes.  But he'll need someone by his side to keep reminding him, or else he'll slip back into those same ways.  There's something so remarkable about him - a potential that's almost too rare to believe or even imagine.  But he may never reach it.  Seeing his real father would have given him the inspiration he needs.  I don't know.  I just don't know, Brad.  I've never been afraid of anything; now I am.  I'm afraid God will never again show me the way, as He always has."

"I think if this God you love so much abandoned you, He would undo everything He's ever done," Brad told Joey.  "Creation would cease to be."

Brad stopped the car a few blocks from Alice's place.  He helped Joey the rest of the way there.  Alice got a doctor for Joey; when his wound was tended to, he lay down on the cot and fell asleep.

The next morning, Brad took out the pellets, laid them on the counter in Alice's kitchen, and began studying them.  Joey had just gotten up and staggered into the kitchen when he saw Brad grab up the pellets and hurl them, with a cry almost like a shriek, across the room.  His eyes were filled with a rage almost greater than he could bear.  By the time Joey made it across the room and reached out to him, his eyes had grown calm again.

"What is it?" Joey put his hands on Brad's shoulders and asked, sensing that this was something beyond the death of his parents.

"The pellets have a name imprinted on them," Brad replied.  "They were made at one of my father's companies.  I'm sure he had no idea what was being made or why.  But I'm equally sure he wouldn't have cared, or stopped their production simply because of what they were used for.  His job was to produce.  God put him here to do his work.  And his work destroyed everything he ever touched.  Joseph: I had sworn revenge; I was resolved to spend the rest of my life killing the Tungs, if that's what it took; or to die trying.  Now it's gone.  If I take my revenge, I'll come to hate my father.  I won't do that, Joseph: he paid for his mistakes - they weren't sins, they were mistakes.  I would sooner choke on my hatred for the Tungs than let them bring me to hate him.  I'm ready to leave this place, and go with Andrea, and you and mother and anyone else who's finished with everything here."

Brad went to tell Andrea of his decision.  Joey retrieved the pellets from the floor and held them in his hand a moment.  "God used you to save Brad from himself," he whispered, as if talking to the pellets.  Then, on an impulse, he put them in his pocket.                                        

It was a cold day; the wind whipped along the mountain passes like an invisible roller coaster, and the mouth of his cave was packed with snow that clung to the rocks and boulders as if it were a suckling pig.  The windows of his cabin were steamed: the dew point was unusually high for so cold a time.  And Sanderson Spears, who couldn't see out, felt the world might end any minute now: it'd be nice to have some company to usher in nirvana.  He looked around and, for the first time in two years, noticed that Joey was missing.  He struggled to the door, opened it, and called into the icy howl filling the cave "You out there?"

"Wasn't those sons of bitches supposed to send that little punk back to me in six months?" he angrily asked as he slammed the door.  "What: does he like it so well there with that pack of thieves and cutthroats he no longer gives a damn about me, or the work we're doing?  I taught that little bastard everything he knew, damn his sorry ass!  I want him back, God damn them!  A deal's a God-damn deal, you pig fuckers!  I want my assistant back: he's my God-damn assistant - not theirs!  God damn them, he's mine!  He belongs to me, the little ingrate!  I'm about out of wood, my generator's on its last leg, my equipment's that close to going off-line: God damn it I need him!"

Sanderson Spears stood as upright as he could and, making a fist, vowed they would pay for this insult.  His vow done, he returned to his normal stance.  He had become noticeably stoop-shouldered and cross-eyed from looking down at his monitors almost continuously for the past two years.  He moved with a slight limp and his hands were beginning to draw up.  His sandy blonde hair was showing signs of gray; his eyebrows were becoming bushy; his eyelids developing a permanent droop.  He had grown thinner, from constantly forgetting to eat; and his clothes, which he rarely changed, hung over his frame like bedclothes on a drying rack.

"Come look!" he said many times during the past two years, only to move on to the next monitor before checking to see if anyone responded.  Time and again he failed to notice his assistant's absence while he watched empires rise and fall, on his monitor, through the medium of natural phenomena and global weather, as a typhoon or an earthquake or a tornado or a volcano or a drought or a blizzard, at a critical moment, left one people vulnerable, to be overthrown by another, who seized the moment to ascend the seat of power, only to be overthrown in turn by someone else as another natural disaster wrenched the power they had won from their hands and left them too at the mercy of other empire builders.  It was as if Spears were watching the history of the world unfold before him, bit by bit, without props or costumes or sets; swirls, squiggles, isobars, Doppler effects and a host of other meteorological designs painted a picture of human activity as true and enduring as a Matthew Brady still.

He watched an island explode in the Timor Sea - not as big as Krakatau, not felt 'round the world, but felt from Australia to Cambodia.  "Son of a bitch!" he exclaimed.  "Tsunami's headed northeast!  Hope you guys in Timor and Borneo and all the little Indonesiacs in between feel properly honored: the sucker defied the laws of nature to zap you!  Should have headed southwest.  Damn: there go the Lesser Sunda Islands!  Just missed Bali - whew! close one!  Goodbye Kangean Island!  Hello Banjarsin in the beautiful South of Borneo!  Hey kid: come look!" 

He detected an earthquake in the Balkan Peninsula, just northwest of Macedonia, where the Vardao and Bregalnica Rivers met.  Towns and cities as far away as Sofia, Bulgaria; Tirana, Albania; Thessaloniki, Greece; and Sarajevo, Bosnia were left in ruins.  "Damn them - damn them all to hell with their recalibrated Richter Scale!  Turd fuckin' bastards!  I have no program to convert their stinking recalibrated readings to the real ones.  I have to take precious time from my work to manually compute it just so I can go behind the bastards with the true figures - as if anyone wants the true figures; but, damn them, I'll shove 'em down their sorry ass throats anyway!  Where the hell did I put that God damn formula?  Oh, piss on it: it was a monster quake the bastards are trying to palm off as a 4.0!  Wait a minute: I remember.  The old brain cells are still faster than the hand-eye mis-coordination.  Anything under seven is recalculated to 46.4%.  Above seven is 52.7%.  So take 4.0, divide by 46.4% then by 52.7%  Got to be the 52.7: otherwise it's off the God damn scale!  So, 4.0, by 52.7 actually becomes 7.6 - holy shit! a 7.6! damn near the top.  I can just see the Serbs now, trooping into every other part of the Balkans, under the pretext of giving aid and comfort to the injured and dying!  Come look, kid!  Se for yourself if you don't believe me!"

Everything he saw, he reported to the American people, on his private radio station, which transmitted, from a tower the T-Men had built in Wyoming, and stood guard over, to every part of the country.  Everything he reported was dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic.

A typhoon began on a lazy Wednesday afternoon in August north northwest of Christmas Island in the Central Pacific, on the 150th parallel, just above the equator.  From the start Spears began issuing warnings, hoping they might find their way, in translation, to the Asian continent.  All the signs pointed to a rapid, intense development.  By Thursday evening it was a category 3 storm sending wind and surf across Wake Island.  The next morning it devastated Iwo Jima with winds of 160 MPH.  All day and all night Sanderson Spears broadcast his warnings; all day and all night they were ignored.  Saturday afternoon, after stalling nearly twelve hours along the northernmost edge of the Philippine Sea as it intensified to a category 5 storm with sustained winds of 240 MPH, it began its final run for the mainland, veering north just enough to miss hitting Taiwan directly.  Saturday evening at 9:27 P.M. it slammed into the Chinese coast just south of Shanghai; then veered sharply northeast and plowed through the Yellow Sea to Korea.  When it could do no further damage to the Korean peninsula, it entered the Sea of Japan, sent twenty foot high waves to Vladivostok, and ripped the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido to pieces, moving a day and a half later across Kamchatka Peninsula to the cold waters of the Bering Sea, where its winds finally quieted down to gale force.

Official estimates put the death toll at ten thousand when, in fact, as many as twenty-five million perished, and another fifteen million were never seen or heard from again.

"Come look!" Spears beckoned his assistant dozens of times during the storm's trek but never waited for him to respond before returning to his monitors.

"My work is the most important work being done anywhere on this planet," he mused when the typhoon died and he shut his eyes to catch a couple hours sleep.  "Millions of lives are saved every day because I watch and report what I see."  As he spoke, a flood of tears scalded his red, puffy eyes and ran down his cheeks.  "If only they would listen.  If only I hadn't murdered all those murderers, maybe then they'd take me seriously.  In avenging six deaths I sent untold millions to their graves.  I'm a fool!  The biggest fool who ever lived!"  Then he fell asleep.  When he awoke, he was back at his monitors, watching a tornado creep silently through Central America, a volcano erupt in the Caribbean, a tremor shake the African Veldt to its foundation.  And he was back on the air, warning the world of impending doom, knowing that, while they couldn't help hearing him because he jammed the airwaves and interrupted what they were listening to, they could and did ignore what they heard.

Not everything showed up distinctly enough on his monitor for him to identify the phenomenon involved.  He knew something was happening in the atmosphere, in certain places - in Northern Canada, in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, in Greenland, and the northernmost regions of the Scandinavian Peninsula - and that it was slowly moving its way southward; but its exact nature eluded him.  He heard reports, though, which confirmed his suspicion that it was electrical in nature, whatever it was - reports sent to him from Recluse, Wyoming: reports of whole towns being wiped out in a matter of minutes, of people and animals being electrocuted by some sort of vapor.  He concluded it to be somehow related to the Aurora Borealis and its southern hemisphere counterpart, the Aurora Australis.  Somehow, he conjectured, energy was being drawn directly from the ionosphere.

He noticed, also, increased seismic activity in the upper plains, but different from the kind associated with fault lines.  It seemed to radiate from a central focal point - a point that made his blood run cold and made him uneasy almost to the point of panic when he finally realized his assistant had not returned from Wyoming.

"If that bunch of cutthroats think they're going to get me in their clutches by holding that idiot, they can think again!" he raged as he studied the seismic reports coming from Montana and Wyoming.  "It'll be a colder day in hell than it is in Monitor Pass when I let them get the better of me!  They can cut off his balls and stuff 'em up his nose first!  No way in hell am I going to any Recluse, Wyoming!  The whole fucking state can blow to kingdom come - and him with it, the ungrateful little bastard!"

When he calmed down somewhat he got an idea.  "Maybe I'll take a little trip to Salt Lake City - I could use a nice vacation!  I wouldn't mind seeing the Mormon Temple - I'm really a religious guy at heart - but that's as close to Wyoming as I get!  Maybe the Grand Tetons - maybe, just maybe, I'll go that far; but maybe not, it's a good ways from Salt Lake City - where I'm going for my God-damn vacation!  But maybe.  But if those ass-holes think they can lure me into their compound, no matter what they use for bait, they're crazy!"

The next day he dug his way out of his cave and made his way down the mountain pass to the main road, half expecting to find it impassable - but it was clear; he got to where he kept his pickup truck without any difficulty.  When he got the truck started, he managed to plow his way through the snow to Route 89.  In less than an hour he reached US Route 395 and was on his way, passing through Carson City and Reno to pick up Interstate 80 the rest of the way to Salt Lake City.  Five hundred twenty-three miles and eight hours later he pulled up to Temple Square, stopped a moment in a No-Parking Zone, and looked up at the Temple.  He gave it the thumbs-up.  "Good work, guys!" he said.  Then he drove on, finding his way back to Interstate 80 around, and out of, Salt Lake City.

"Wonderful vacation spot!" he remarked.  "Feel like a new man.  Have to bring the wife and kids here sometime when I can stay longer!"

He stopped for the night at a campsite near the town of Castle Rock, some fifty miles east-northeast of Salt Lake City; then, the next morning, continued on Interstate 80 into Wyoming as far as US 189; and on 189 almost due north till it vanished into US 89, which took him the rest of the way to the Grand Tetons.  He took a quick drive through the Tetons and pronounced them "Very nice."  Then continued on US 89 up into Yellowstone.  "You're gonna blow kid-o!" he said as he made his way around Yellowstone Lake to US 14, leading eastward toward Sheridan, Wyoming.

"I've always wanted to see Sheridan," he insisted.  "Who wouldn't want to see a place named after a great Civil War General - oh wait, that was Sherman; no, there was a Sheridan too.  Damn it, Lincoln, did you really two Generals so God damn much alike?   I can take a day trip to the Big Horn National Forest.  I can see Kearney Lake - or maybe even Elk Lake: hey, how about that?  Then there's Shell Lakes, Lake Helen: oh man, this is paradise!"

It took Spears about four and a half hours to reach Sheridan; it took him about four and a half minutes to see it.

"Highly overrated," he noted.  "What I really need to do is get to South Dakota," he admitted; "the quicker the better.  Yellowstone's going to blow any minute.  Love to stay in Wyoming, but I really can't.  Gotta keep moving - like the old time song says 'Gotta Travel On!'"

Instead of Interstate 90, which would have been a direct route to South Dakota, he stayed on US 14, which led him to Spotted Horse, sixty or so miles east of Sheridan, where he stopped for the night.  The next morning, though he was up early, he hung around Spotted Horse.  "Nice town," he told everyone he encountered.  "I'm thinking of moving here when I retire."

Mid-day he set out again.  He kept on US 14 for about 10 more miles, then headed north onto a small local road.  When he had gone a couple miles, he pulled off the road into an open field, stopped his car, got out and began walking.                                                                                

"Sons of bitches!" he muttered as he trekked across an open field and through a thick forest.  "You ass-holes think you've got the upper hand, don't you?  But I'll show you who's the boss, who's in command of the situation, who's got the upper hand on whom!  That damn punk, it's all his fault!  I should have plugged him in his little boy-stuff butt the first time he stuck it in my face and sent him on his merry way - then I wouldn't be in this mess now, taking valuable time from my work when the whole God-damn world could end any second just so I can retrieve him from these devils' clutches before he gets blown to kingdom come or washed away in a flood of lava, or some such shit!  He's gonna here it - oh man is he ever gonna hear it!"

Ahead, on a high bluff, hidden by tall pine trees, was the T-Men's compound at Recluse.  Spears caught a glimpse of it through the thick branches enfolding it.  "You can't hide from me, you God-damn pig fuckers!" he said.  Slowly, carefully, he made for it.  "Just remember, ass-holes: I took care of the Spurs and the Silvers, I can take care of you too!"

A few more steps brought him face to face with three men carrying automatic weapons.

"Halt!" the men ordered, pointing their guns directly at Spears.  One of the three came up and frisked him.

"He clean!" he called to the others.  "Move!" the man, pointing in the direction of the compound, ordered Spears.  "I said move!  Now!"

Spears stood there, defying the men and their orders.  The man who had frisked him raised his gun and cocked it, his finger on the trigger.  Spears stared at him with an icy gray resolve that made him flinch and momentarily turn away; then said, in an imperious tome that sent a shiver down all three men's spines, "Take me to your leader!"

The weatherman was led to the compound; from there straight to the Council Chamber, where the high Council was in session, presided over by the young leader of the T-Men.

Reginald Kirkus never looked down on St. Louis from his office on the top floor of its tallest building: the panoramic view his office afforded meant nothing to him; all that mattered was that no one was elevated above him and that he could look down anytime he chose to.  He persuaded his father that, since he was in charge of capturing Brad Carter and returning his sister to her home, he needed a command center from which to oversee the operation; and that it should be separate from his father's office in the Little Red Schoolhouse.  Professor Kirkus made a few calls, and it was done; Reggie was installed in a high-rise on Delmar Boulevard at Twelfth Street.

He was having trouble locating his quarry, however; he quickly discovered that a command post was useless without a competent network of intelligence.  None of his men in the field seemed to know where Brad and Andrea had gone; they were mostly federal agents, assigned to Reggie through his father's influence.  They hunted Brad the same way they tracked the T-Men and other fugitives: they waited till something happened, some kind of terrorist act; then they moved in, gathered information, interviewed witnesses, thereby constructing a trail from the event to its perpetrators.  The problem was, nothing happened, there were no clues to follow.

Then, all of a sudden, Brad seemed to have re-surfaced in St. Louis; witnesses had seen someone fitting his description leaving the Tungs' headquarters in South St. Louis the night five Tungs were mowed down in cold blood.  The get away vehicle was traced to an abandoned auto salvage yard in the town of Defiance, across the Missouri River in St. Charles County.  It was dusted for fingerprints; the only one found was the thumb-print of a woman who had disappeared almost eighteen years ago.  It was tested for blood and DNA; the only sample recovered was from a boy who also disappeared eighteen years ago.

"Brad is a murderer as well as a kidnapper and rapist," Reggie told his father, despite the lack of evidence.

"Now you're catching on," Professor Kirkus encouraged his son.  "The bullets that killed the Tungs were from one of their own guns - all five killed by the same gun.  The odds of Brad Carter actually being the killer are miniscule - all the more reason to charge him with it.  Puts him on the defensive, helps set him up as an enemy of the people, someone to be feared, hated.  Besides which, it's sometimes infinitely easier to prove an innocent man guilty than a guilty man.  Excellent strategy!"

"You don't think he's the murderer?" Reggie asked, surprised by his father's reasoning.

"Frankly, if he were, he wouldn't be much use to us," Kirkus replied.  "A murderer is a closed book, a fait accompli: not much mileage in a closed book.  Sanderson Spears is a good example.  It's because he reports the weather - the real weather - that he's dangerous, and useful as a scapegoat - not because he murdered the Silvers and the Spurs: that made him a folk hero to the militias, and a fugitive in Nevada, but nothing particularly useful to us.  He knows he killed them - he can't be rattled with accusations; it's a waste of our time to even pursue it.  You stick with it, Reggie; you'll get the hang of it."

"You'll be the one hanging, old man," Reggie said as he sat alone in his office going over the day's events.  "Not yet, though: I still need you.  Once we're safely in Unit 1901, though, you, too, will die mysteriously - like mother's getting ready to.  Curare leaves no traces.  The perfect plan: if anyone suspects foul play - and I'll make sure they do - they'll have the perfect suspect: you took Andrea from her lover, she took your life in revenge.  And how can I be sure she'll be there with us, when the idiots I have looking for her can't seem to even find their own shadows?  Oh, she'll come running when she hears mother's dying - and I'll make sure she hears it.  Killing three birds with one stone.  Unit 1901 ain't big enough for the four of us: I'll make sure there's only one of us left.  I've got to find a way to get Brad too, to make it all complete: that's the only part of the equation I haven't worked out yet.  Somehow Andrea has to stay in touch with him, without father being aware of it - otherwise he might interfere with her communication.  Eventually he'll show, and I'll be waiting.  Then I can turn my attentions to Mister President, who'll be living next door in 1900.  Those of us in Pod City will be the only people still alive on this planet - and I'll be their ruler.  The first man in human history to actually rule the world and not merely in name only.  Keep thinking small, father, and your death'll be an insignificant footnote to the exercise of power.  Whereas my life will be its crowning glory."

Reggie's operative got out the word that his mother was dying of some mysterious illness.  Exactly as he planned, Andrea came to her mother's deathbed.  Mrs. Kirkus had slipped into a deep coma; her doctors saw no chance of her coming out of it.

"I've got to go to her," Andrea told Brad.

"I know you do," Brad agreed, "though I wish you didn't have to.  There's no way they'll let you leave again.  Unless I come and get you!"

"No, Brad," Andrea insisted.  "We've been through this.  It has to be this way - we both knew I'd have to return eventually.  It has to be played out as they've written it.  It has to, Brad.  We have to follow their script or they'll see to it that you die."

"If it turns out they're right about the end of the world, Andrea, then I'll come for you," Brad swore.  "I know how to get inside those pods.  I don't care if it costs me my life: I won't give up the right to see you one last time."

"If they're right," Andrea, in turn, swore, "and if all the things they predict do come to pass, you won't have to come to me, Brad: I'll go to you.  I won't stay locked away in some abominable survivalist dream house with a pack of fools trying to cheat fate when you're out here facing the end of the world.  I'll face it with you.  Let them inherit the earth: they're welcome to it."

They embraced one last time then Andrea left.  When she came to her mother's room, in the hospital, she found her father there.  He noted the look of surprise on her face and smiled ironically, as if that look mirrored the entire history of his family.

"I've always loved your mother," Professor Kirkus said.  "She was never merely a beautiful accessory...not to me.  I don't understand, and the doctors have no idea, why she's dying.  I've been here, by her bedside, ever since she went into a coma...and I'll remain here till the end.  I'm so sorry you never understood how much she meant to me.  It was because of her I worked so hard to get this Project started, and completed.  For decades we've known what lay ahead, even if the exact course it would take remained - and still largely remains - a mystery.  I couldn't bear the thought of watching her perish in some final catastrophe.  I actually imagined I could hold the entire world at bay - and almost succeeded.  But I hadn't allowed for something within doing what I could keep everything out there from doing.  The enemy's always right there beside you, the whole time you're busily setting traps for it.  I still intend to go to Pod City, Andrea - and take you and Reggie with me.  I know you'll find a way to keep in touch with Brad; and I know some day he'll come for you.  Perhaps to take you back to Tennessee.  I don't know what I'll do when that moment comes.  How can I deny you the same happiness I had with your mother?  Yet how can I let Brad in? or you out?  I have no idea what I'll do."

"Has Reggie been here?" Andrea asked, as much to change the subject as to find out about her brother.

Kirkus smiled.  "You still don't trust me, do you?  You think I'm fishing for information I can use against Brad.  To answer your question, yes, he was here earlier.  He seemed very uneasy.  Maybe I misjudged him.  Maybe he's more sensitive than I thought.  Maybe he actually cares for his mother, and can't bear seeing her like this.  Or maybe my being here unnerved him.  I know everything there is to know about human relationships, about what motivates people, what they respond to, and why.  But the human heart is as much a mystery to me as it is to everyone else."

Later that night Isabelle Kirkus died, her husband and daughter at her bedside.  Three days later she was buried, in a private ceremony attended only by her immediate family.  The day after the funeral a series of small earthquakes in the center of Hudson Bay caused James Bay at its southeastern tip to overflow its banks, which in turn caused the Abilibi, the Nottaway, the Broadback, the Missinaibi and the Harricana Rivers that emptied into the Bay to flood their banks.  The water overriding the land reacted with something just beneath the topsoil to create a super-charged field that drew electricity directly from the sky.  Hundreds, possibly thousands, who lived in northeastern Ontario and northwestern Quebec were electrocuted where they sat or stood or moved or lay.  The following day a similar series of earthquakes along the western shores of Lake Superior sent Chequamegon Bay streaming into a number of small streams in north central Wisconsin, generating the same electrical field and drawing the same charged particles from the upper atmosphere.  Everyone in a fifteen mile radius was electrocuted.

A week later three monsters joined forces off the Carolinas.  One - the largest, most powerful of the three - was born off the west coast of Africa.  The upper atmosphere was not conducive to organization; it should have been sheared apart.  But it wasn't.  It slowly grew, slowly crept across the Atlantic.  A second storm began, almost unnoticed, off the northeastern coast of Venezuela, showing every sign of being driven due north, away from the Caribbean; then it veered sharply westward to the Gulf of Honduras, where it gathered strength and changed course again, heading due north, across Cuba and straight for the Florida Keys.  The third developed within the encircling arm of the Lesser Antilles, where it grew quickly to category 3 strength, pounded Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, then set a direct course for the mainland.

The first hurricane of the season became a category 5 halfway across the Atlantic; by the time it grazed Bermuda, its winds exceeded 225 MPH.  The second, moving back and forth between category 4 and 5 strength, nearly leveled Havana; completely flooded the Keys; shot across south Florida, killing thousands along the corridor from Miami to West Palm Beach; finally emerging in the Atlantic heading almost due north.  The third, a category 5 with winds close to 200 MPH, began to veer slightly to the northeast after passing over the Bahamas but was caught, as was the second storm, in the vortex of the first and pulled westward along a trajectory determined a thousand miles away.

In a matter of minutes, on a Monday morning in late June of the year 2070, the Barrier Islands ceased to exist.  Cape Hatteras disappeared forever.  Pamlico Sound was sucked up into the triple eyed beast to mix with the Gulf Stream waters waiting to be spit out with the force of a dam breaking open.

The storms hit land near the town of Swanquarter in Hyde County, North Carolina, bringing a thirty foot high surge that flooded everything as far west as Greenville, as far north as the Albemarle Sound.  The two lesser storms finally managed to free themselves from their more powerful cousin, which never left its due west course; together they emerged at Norfolk, Virginia, to continue their northwest trek across open waters to New England, where, still together, they ripped through Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts to get to Massachusetts Bay and the open Atlantic again.

Professor Kirkus picked up his phone and dialed.  "Mr. President," he spoke into the receiver, "the time is now."  That was the signal to begin the final march of humanity to its new, and perhaps ultimate, home, where the best of mankind would survive the coming holocaust to repopulate the earth, in time, from superior stock.  The ones chosen for this most challenging enterprise were notified, according to a pre-arranged plan, and told to begin their exodus from the crumbling world around them - discretion and secrecy, as always, their sole guide.

"No one must know you're gone," they had all been carefully briefed during the final phases of construction.  "Make it look like a vacation, or a business trip.  And, just as you moved your belongings into your new home so gradually no one noticed what was going on, you must now move your family with an equal subtlety."

Over the course of a week, two thousand families fanned out along the five hundred mile corridor reaching from Wyoming to Texas, each making for its assigned unit.  The entrance to each was at the top, reached by means of a walkway from the edge of the trench, and a stairway leading down into the unit.  Each unit held two floors of living space, laid out according to each family's specifications.  Covered walkways linked each unit to its neighbors.  At several points there were huge underground vaults - meeting rooms, storage areas, places of recreation.  Arc lights stood every few feet, on either side of the trench, creating the illusion of a normal city above ground and open to the sky.  A clear canopy over the walkways permitted residents, as they strolled, to look out at the city lights, or at the sky, without fear of what lay beyond.

Brad kept his distance as he followed the Kirkus' to their unit, but kept close enough to be able to see Andrea every step of the way, if only through field glasses.  He watched from just outside the town of Canadian, Texas, as Professor Kirkus, then Reggie, then Andrea disappeared into pod number 1901.  He saw the entrance close up behind them.

Joey and his mother accompanied him, but they remained back while he watched the pod absorb his love.  He neither despaired nor raged; he watched as dispassionately as if it were only a motion picture.  And when the movie was over, he got up and left.

"Why Recluse?" he asked Joey, who had recommended that destination.

"You and Carol will be safe there," Joey replied.

"Safety is of no particular concern to me," Brad observed.  "But if mother'll be safe there, then I guess it's worth the trip.  Though I won't stay: this is where I belong, till they come to their senses."

"You keep talking about Brad's and my safety, Joseph - but what about you?" Carol asked.  "You know everything about us, but we know nothing about you.  Will you find safety there too?"

"It's a place I have to go to," was all Joey said in response.

Andrea felt a cold chill run down her spine as the door sealed shut above her.  She stood there, on the spiral staircase, looking at her new home.  It looked like a garden, with rooms off of each end.  She had had no hand in its design, and had no idea this is how it would look.  She expected - and almost hoped - to find the interior as cold and drab as the exterior; but it wasn't.  There were plants - they appeared to be real and gave off the aroma of evergreen and honeysuckle and lilac.  There was a mosaic walkway of red and gray design; a fountain with a gentle spray of water; lighting that gave the illusion of daylight; even patio furniture; and what felt like a cool breeze rustling the leaves.

She descended the staircase.  Her father was waiting to show her to her room; her brother had already gone to his.

"I doubt if you want the grand tour just yet," Professor Kirkus said as he led her to the far end of the atrium, where a glass sliding door was open.  "This is your room," he said.  "It's not what you expected, is it?" he asked.

"No," Andrea admitted.  "It's beautiful."

Kirkus laughed.  "You say that as if it's a condemnation."

"I'm sure you mean well, father," Andrea said; "but this is not where we belong.  We belong out there."

"I'm afraid, all too quickly, you'll be forced to change your mind," Kirkus advised.                                                                    

Alice almost drowned in the Mississippi; she didn't go to it, as close as she was to its banks, though: it came to her, late one night, three months after the exodus.  She and her fellow members of the Society of the Infanticides were still engaged in their war with the Tungs.  She had promised Brad, Joey and Carol that she would join them in Wyoming - and fully intended to, once her vendetta was complete.

The rushing waters of the Mississippi came crashing through the window of her second floor bedroom; broke over her bed; and washed her away, the walls of the old frame building she lived in collapsing around her.  The river had spilled over its banks where St. Louis juts out just north of the Mound City Docks, at Brooklyn, Mound and Mullanphy Streets.  It cut a path deep into the heart of the city before spending itself out.

Alice grabbed hold of her bedroom door which, as its hinges tore from the jamb, fell flat onto the water, like a raft.  She managed to climb onto the door and ride it to safety, coming to rest finally in the parking lot of the old Busch Memorial Stadium.

An earthquake that measured 3.9 on the recalibrated Richter Scale had struck just below Davenport, Iowa, sending shock waves and a wall of water downstream as far as St. Louis.

By morning, crews were already out, plowing the dead and the dying into the river.  Alice staggered out of the way of one of the plows just in time.  As her ordeal of the night before began to lose its grip on her, she trailed behind the plow, watching and waiting, following everywhere it went.  She took out her knife, which never left her side, even in sleep.  When she saw her chance and knew her strength had returned, she leaped through the open door into the cabin of the plow and, before the driver could react, slit his throat and pushed him out; then drove the plot straight for, and into, the river, leaping from the cabin just before it left the shoreline.  Meanwhile another plow came by and swept the dying driver into the water.

Alice returned to where she used to live.  The stone foundation, the basement, part of one wall and a fireplace were all that remained.  She found a few of her things, gathered up a change of clothes and a small metal box containing the names of the babies who had been killed.  A few of her fellow Infanticides, who lived nearby, appeared from amidst the ruins.  She beckoned them closer.

"I can't offer you shelter," they all said.  "My place is gone too."

"We don't need shelter for what's next," she told them.  "Contact as many of the others as you can.  It's maybe nine o'clock.  Have everyone assembled here by noon, for one final assault - do or die.  Anyone who's left is free: we can't go on forever.  We'll take out as many as we can."

"Who we need to get is old man Kirkus and string him up by his eye sockets!"

"He's no longer here," said Alice.  "We couldn't anyway.  I've met his daughter: I can't kill her father now that I've met her."

"We haven't met her!  We can kill him!" the others swore.

"After I've said not to?" Alice asked as she slowly, deliberately stared at each man.  They all looked away.

"It's just talk, Alice, you know, that's all it is: just talk," one of the men responded for all the men.  "We wouldn't disobey you."

"I don't ask for obedience," Alice said.  "I only want you to understand that killing is the greatest evil.  If you choose to do it, it has to be cold and impersonal.  You can't know your victim, or care about anyone his death would hurt.  Now go find the others and meet me back here at noon."

On his eighteenth birthday, Kirk stripped away all his clothes and put on the para-military uniform his father had given him.  His body was naturally muscular, he did nothing to enhance his strength or his appearance; he took himself exactly as he was.  Had he been paunchy, or short, or slight of build, or ugly or deformed he would have accepted that self no less than he did his real self.  He was a leader; everything else about him was totally irrelevant.  That everyone who saw him was awed by his appearance meant absolutely nothing to him.  He could lead just as well without arms, legs, a face or masculine parts: it was his sole purpose in life, his entire reason for being, to lead.

The olive green uniform fit perfectly, though he had never tried it on before or taken pains to insure its fit.  Had it been so loose he looked like a clown or so tight he looked like a gigolo, he would have worn it just the same: his father had given it to him, he honored it accordingly; it was the only uniform he would ever wear.  He tucked his golden blonde hair under the cap and and gestured a salute.

"I salute you, father," he said as he looked at himself in the mirror.  "No son could ever love or honor a father more."

Then he turned and left his room at the far end of the compound.  He walked across the compound yard to the main building on the other side.  He slipped into the building and walked down a long, dark corridor until coming to a gray metal door.  He opened it and entered the Council Chamber.

It began as a routine mission to blow up the Mackinac Bridge connecting the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the rest of the state.  The idea was to embarrass, and flush out a unit from, Camp Grayling, one hundred miles to the south, home of the Michigan National Guard, which had recently rounded up the leaders of the Michigan Militia and turned them over to the Detroit Automen, who loaded them onto an automobile assembly line and set the robots, with their rivets and bolts and welds, upon them.  They were barely recognizable as human when they came off the assembly line.

Paris Commune personally led the small contingent, Mount Everest second in command, leaving a Council member named Stone Creek in charge of the compound at Recluse.  The bombing went off without a hitch.  While Mount Everest and three others stood watch in their boat in the Strait of Mackinac, Paris and five of his men entered the cold headwaters of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron to set the charges.  They normally issued a warning, to keep people away from their target; but not this time.  The hideous manner of the Militiamen's deaths turned their hearts against all the citizens of Michigan.

At precisely nine P.M. Thursday, April 28th, 2067, the charges went off.  Instantly, the nearly five miles of bridge dropped with a monstrous roar into the Lake, creating a wave that completely inundated Mackinac City at the southern end of the bridge and flooded much of St. Ignace at the northern end.  Paris and his men watched from their boat safely moored at the southeastern tip of Mackinac Island, due east of St. Ignace.  They intended to engage the National Guard, which they knew would be called out; but the unit never arrived.

"We'll give it another half hour," Paris said when two and a half hours had gone by.  The half hour quickly passed, and still no sight of the Guard.

"What now?" Mount Everest asked.

"I can understand their being cautious," Paris conjectured; "but not their failure to appear.  Something's gone wrong.  Start the engine.  We'll work our way to Little Traverse Bay.  From there, we proceed over land.  Radio the Militia: tell them to have a truck waiting for us at Conway."

The boat moved quickly and quietly past the fallen bridge, maneuvering through the debris of twisted automobiles and bloated bodies.  At two thirty A.M. they reached the rendezvous point on the Lake Michigan side of the lower Peninsula, transferred their weapons and gear to the awaiting truck; and proceeded inland.  Paris intended taking US 31 to the 131 split at Petoskey, then 131 South, then State Road 32 eastward to Gaylord, where they would pick up Interstate 75 southward to Camp Grayling.  The moment he got on the road, however, he was seized by an overpowering urge to go east on State Road 68 out of Conway.  Barely half an hour later they drove around the southern end of Burt Lake.  At the southernmost tip they came upon a camp ground.

"Turn in here!" Paris Commune ordered the driver.  They had not even gotten to the campsite before they were surrounded by evidence of a recent catastrophe.  The grounds around the entrance were covered with dead rabbits, squirrels and birds.  Driving a little farther in, they encountered an occasional deer sprawled out, unmoving, on the ground.  A little farther brought them to the campsite.  They stopped and got out.  In the shadows created by the stand of trees scattered through the campground they noticed nothing at first; then, as their eyes accustomed, they began to see forms lying about.  Closer inspection revealed these forms to be human.

Paris and his men fanned out to investigate the campers and tents.  There were no sounds anywhere.  Every camper, every tent, contained at least one corpse.  When they had seen inside all the sites, they gathered at the western end of the campground.  Mount Everest all of a sudden pointed due north.  The others turned and saw what he saw: a couple hundred yards ahead was a cordon of military vehicles.  The T-Men readied their weapons and proceeded north.  They met no resistance.  Every vehicle contained at least two corpses.  Farther ahead, at the edge of the woods, were yet more bodies, in positions suggesting they had been in various phases of flight when struck down.

There was no blood, no gore, no evidence of foul play anywhere - yet upwards of a hundred people were dead.  Thinking perhaps a magnetic storm had passed over Burt Lake - even though these storms had never been fatal before - Paris ordered his men to test everything metallic they had on them against any metal objects at the campsite.  No evidence of magnetism could be found.  Yet, in testing, each man received a small electrical shock every time he touched one of the metallic objects.

"My God!" Paris muttered.  "I've heard about these - up in Canada.  Aurora clouds: ion storms.  Somehow something happens either to reach up and tap into the ionosphere, or else to bring an electrical field down to the ground.  They kill everything they touch.  All these people, all the animals we saw: they were all electrocuted.  Whatever it is it's come down from Canada.  It's no longer just another phenomenon: it's in our own back yard; it's real now.  We've got to come up with something - something to shield people.  We've got to get our people working - day and night.  They've got to come up with something.  Gentlemen," Paris announced to his men, "we're headed for Eau Claire, Wisconsin - home of the big cheeses!  And the last real laboratory in the country: our laboratory.  May God be on our side."

The dead were left where they lay.  Paris Commune and his men returned to their truck; the truck returned to their boat; the boat proceeded back to the Upper Peninsula, where it came from, mooring at the northern tip of St. Martin Bay.  There, they uncovered the truck they had driven from Recluse and set out for West Central Wisconsin.  US Route 2 took them almost into Wisconsin, where just south of Iron Mountain they transferred to US Route 8 until, just north of Eau Claire, and four hundred fifty miles later, they caught US 53.

A couple miles northeast of Eau Claire, just below Lake Wissota, was a three hundred acre farm, ostensibly a dairy farm, which the T-Men, working through the Wisconsin Militia, had purchased.  They had converted all the farm buildings into the most extensive research facility in the country for the study of weather phenomena.  This was where they developed the cloth Paris and his men wore when they rescued Bradley Jerome Carter and his son from the icicle storm; where they created a fire-resistant tarp like the one the farmer in South Dakota used to shield Joey from the fireballs.  They had worked for twenty years to help protect the people from each new weather phenomenon.  None of their products were ever put on the market: what did a populace that denied the existence of the phenomena these products were designed to counter need with them?  They were given instead to the men and women who lived and worked on the lands of the Great Plains, where the phenomena regularly occurred.

Paris entered the main laboratory; his men waited outside.  He went directly to the chief of research and told him what was needed.  The scientist assured Paris they already knew of the phenomenon and had been trying to develop something for several years.

"Then where is it?" Paris asked.

"It has eluded us," the scientist said.  "Each time we think we've almost got it, some new element comes into play and we're right back where we started."

"It's essentially electricity, isn't it?" asked Paris.  "That should be easy enough."

"It is.  We've had that for years.  It's a bit cumbersome, almost like medieval armor.  A walking Faraday Cage.  We've managed to streamline it somewhat, reduce its overall weight and bulk.  The problem is, it's not just electricity we're dealing with.  It's electricity in a different form.  It's like a mist.  It seeps right through everything.  We haven't found anything impervious to it."

"Now you've got to," said Paris.  "It's come to us now.  Time is no longer with us.  This kills everything it comes in contact with.  And it's here, in the lower forty-eight.  Practically in our own back yard.  You have to drop everything else you're working on.  Find something that works.  You've got to."

It took a year of continuous effort, teams of researchers working around the clock.  Paris, Mount Everest and the eight other men never left the farm the whole time.  Till, finally, something was created that seemed to work.  "In the laboratory!" the chief researcher repeatedly qualified the results.  "It works in the laboratory, in a controlled environment, where all the variables are eliminated.  Theoretically, yes, it'll work; the fabric will protect people from the aurora.  But it has to be tested under actual conditions - which we don't have the power to summon at our convenience.  We've done all we can do here."

Paris acknowledged that the rest was up to him.  Sufficient quantity of the fabric was woven to make suits for Pars and his men, plus a number of blankets - although they were cautioned that the blankets would only protect from the aurora if they completely enveloped the person: simply to throw the blanket over someone would not be enough to keep the mist from seeping in.

Paris and his men set out to find an auroral cloud.  Since it was Michigan where they first saw evidence of such a cloud, they concentrated their efforts on the states bordering the Great Lakes.  For three months they wandered through Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan - even the northeastern corner of Illinois, the northwestern corner of Indiana, and around the Toledo, Ohio area.  All to no avail.

For the past twenty-five years Paris Commune had devoted himself and the resources of his organization to protecting people from the ravages of an atmosphere gone mad.  Now he was in the ironic position of wishing that madness upon some hapless region so he could test his means of salvation.  But it wouldn't come.

"We're heading up north," he announced to his men on a hot July afternoon in Duluth, Minnesota.  "We can't wait any longer for the cloud to come to us.  We'll go to it."

They set out on US Route 2, due west, to Grand Forks, North Dakota, where they headed due north on Interstate 29, straight for Winnipeg, Manitoba.  They spent another month and a half around Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg, and still nothing; so they headed west again, into Saskatchewan.

"We'll go as far as Regina," Paris told his men.  "Then we'll work our way back to Wyoming.  October fifteenth my son turns eighteen; he selects his name.  I intend to be there - or die trying!"

Canada's Route 6 went due south from Regina to become Montana Route 16 just beyond the border town of Regway.  Paris' truck, containing his men and the fabric developed at Eau Claire, had almost gotten to Regway when Mount Everest, who was driving, veered sharply to the left, leaving the road and coming to a sudden halt in an open field.  The men in the back drew their guns.  Paris, in the passenger seat, looked around for border guards.  Seeing none, he asked why the truck was stopped.  Mount Everest pointed off to the east, toward a tiny lake - one of the twin lakes named Coteau.  A bright cloud had settled over the lake.

Paris quickly put on his suit and ran for the lake, ordering his men to follow in fifteen minutes.  The moment he got there the cloud dissipated.

"We'll camp here for the next three weeks," Paris said.  "We will all remain in these suits, day and night.  I intend to be ready when it comes again."

Three weeks came, and went; but the cloud did not return.  The moment the three weeks was up, Paris and his men left Coteau Lakes and headed south, into Montana.  Forty miles down State Route 16 they passed the little town of Medicine Lake; a few minutes later, they passed the lake after which the town was named.  This time it was Paris who drove off the road and into a field.  This time everyone already had their suits on.  Paris grabbed one of the blankets and ran for the lake, his men a few hundred yards behind him and moving at a normal gait.

Slowly approaching Medicine Lake from the northeast, congealing into a thick mist that grew brighter as it approached, was the same kind of cloud that had eluded the T-Men at Coteau Lakes.  On his way into the cloud Paris stopped and turned to his right.  He had caught something out of the corner of his eye: a movement.  He readied his blanket to throw it over the animal - then realized it wasn't an animal but a man, who had stood up and was aiming a gun at him.  Then a second person, a woman, stood up and stood beside the man.  All the while the cloud was inching its way across the lake toward them.

"Don't come any closer!" the man shouted as he cocked his rifle.  "I said don't come any closer!"

"I'm here to help you!" Paris shouted back.  "That cloud: you've got to get away from here!  Hurry!  Now!"

"One more step and you're dead!" the man cried out.  Then he looked up and saw the other nine men approaching, all dressed in the same strange outfits.  The man was in the act of pulling the trigger when the cloud overtook him and the woman beside him.  They both fell to the ground; the gun crackled and sparked and went off, but the bullet shot straight into the air.  Then Paris heard something, just below where the man and woman lay.  He looked, and saw a small object a few hundred feet away, lying on the ground.

"My God!" he cried as he ran for it.  It was a baby on a blanket.  He reached it just ahead of the mist, grabbed the baby and wrapped it in the blanket he was carrying.  The mist spilled over him like a searchlight.  His suit gave off sparks, as did the blanket holding the child.  For twenty minutes the mist poured down from across the lake, covering everything.  Then it retreated, as if it were a fog being sucked back into dry, cold air.

All ten men were still alive.  Paris could tell from the squirming in his arms that the baby was alive too.  When he was sure it was safe, he unwrapped the child and hurried back to the truck with it.  He quickly removed his suit then held the baby to him.  His men buried the baby's parents after searching for some identification.  They were from the town of Homestead, along the Big Muddy, just west of Route 16.

The T-men took the baby home, only to find the town deserted.  As Paris and his men wandered about, they noticed something at the river's edge.  Coming closer, they saw the residents of Homestead, lying dead.  They had been rounded up, led to the river, and shot.  They had been identified as belonging to the Montana militia; a swat team of Federal agents had gone in.  The family Paris encountered at Medicine Lake had alone managed to escape.  There was no one to leave the baby with.

Paris found some provisions for the child, fed and changed him; then, as they were leaving, announced to his men "My son has a new baby brother!"

"You're keeping him?" Mount Everest asked.

"Who would you have me leave him with?" Paris, in turn, asked.

"He must have relatives elsewhere," Mount Everest suggested.

"I'm sure he does - but I can't go all around Montana looking for them, now could I?" Paris countered.

The sound of the opening door creaking called the Council's attention to the front of the Chamber.  The members watched as Paris Commune's son entered.  He wore the same uniform they wore.  The room was rustic, as the original Chamber had been - the one destroyed fifteen years ago when the compound burned.  The walls and floor were grayish wooden planks, the ceiling beamed and also wooden.  The room contained three long tables, the center table parallel to the far wall, the other two angled out from it along the sides; behind the tables were chairs sufficient for seating the Council members.  An American flag nearly covered the back wall.  Three large chandeliers in the shape of wagon wheels provided the only light; there were no windows.

Paris' son walked to the center of the room, acknowledging no one but his father, straight ahead, at the center table.

"You have a brother," Paris told his son.  "He was given to me by fate, just as you were.  Should anything happen to me, I expect you to care for him as if he were your own son."

The boy inclined his head to indicate his assent.  Then he looked his father straight in the eye.

"Father," he said, "I turn eighteen today.  I have chosen a name.  My name is Kirk.  It is a name worthy of a leader.  Father, I have no defense for what I must do other than that I must do it.  There is no envy or hatred in my heart, only the absolute certainty of what must be."

When he finished speaking, he took his gun from the holster strapped over his shoulder.  He slowly raised it.  When it was at the precise height and angle, he pulled the trigger.  The bullet hit Paris Commune right between the eyes, killing him instantly.  He slumped over to one side, his head coming to rest on the shoulder of his second in command, Mount Everest.

In a flash Kirk whirled first to his left then to his right, firing one bullet in each direction, killing the two men on either side of him who had drawn their guns.  He stood poised, his eyes once again squarely on his father but ready for any sudden movement.  When he spoke again, he seemed to be addressing his father only.

"I am now your leader," he said in a calm, controlled voice.  "Anyone who challenges my leadership will be killed."

"Kirk," Mount Everest, still holding the lifeless body of Paris Commune, called to his new leader, "what makes you think the whole organization won't turn against you?  You can't kill everyone."

"They won't," Kirk replied.

"How can you be so sure?" Mount Everest asked.

"Because I'm their leader," Kirk answered.

"They feel no loyalty toward you."

"They will in time, when they've come to trust me," Kirk said.  "I must earn their loyalty and respect.  Their allegiance is all I have a right to demand."

"Kirk: one last question: aren't you afraid someone here might kill you one night while you sleep?:

"The only thing I fear is dishonoring my father by denying my birthright," Kirk answered Mount Everest's question.

Still facing his father, Kirk announced to the Council that the meeting was adjourned and that they would re-convene in two days to formally appoint him their leader.  Then he raised his gun one more time, pointing it directly at Mount Everest."

"Will you be as loyal to me, your new leader, as you were to my father?" he asked, as his finger played with the trigger.

"You already know the answer, Kirk," Mount Everest replied without hesitation.  "I will obey you; but, no, I will never extend you the same loyalty as I did your father."

Kirk acknowledged Mount Everest's reply, lowered his gun, and, turning his back to the Council, slowly walked to the door and out the Chamber.  Mount Everest gently lowered his friend onto the table and followed his friend's killer into the corridor.

"Kirk," he called.  "Please accept that I will never again take the liberty of following you like this after a Council meeting to speak to you in private as I did your father.  But I must know: why did you not pull the trigger?"

"If you had lied," Kirk explained.  "If you had said your loyalty to me would be as great as it was to my father - I would have.  Loyalty like that can only come from one person.  I have a second in command.  What I need from you is honesty."

"And you shall have it," Mount Everest promised.  "It's a lesser quality, but I give it completely."

The intruder was brought before the Council.  "He asked for you," one of the guards told Kirk.

"Correction," Spears interjected, "I asked for their leader.  I must speak to your father."

Kirk motioned for the guards to release the weatherman.  "My father is no longer our leader," he said.  "I am.  Whatever business you have here, you have with me."

"Good," said Spears.  "Perhaps you'll be easier to deal with - and, hopefully, better able to honor an agreement.  I came for my assistant.  If you'll be so gracious as to notify him I'm here, we'll be going."

Kirk shook his head.  "Joey isn't here.  Nor is he your assistant any longer: he will be my right hand man when he returns."

"I repeat: I came for my assistant," Spears reiterated.  "Our agreement specifically prohibited sending him on any mission.  I'll wait for his return - or else, better still, tell me where he is and I'll go there and get him!  He was not to stay here beyond six months.  So please tell me: where is he?"

"I don't know where he is," Kirk replied.

"What: a dangerous mission that could force him to betray all his beliefs and become a cold-blooded killer's not enough?  It's a secret mission to boot?"

"He's not on a mission," said Kirk.

"Then where the hell is he?" Spears demanded, growing more agitated by the minute.  "I want to see him now - right now!"

"You will not address the leader of this organization in such a manner," Kirk said in a calm voice.

"You, sir, are not my leader," Spears replied in an icy voice that made even Kirk flinch.  "And may I suggest you check with your father as to the exact nature of our association.  I am not a rank and file member of your organization.  I am a free agent, I offer no allegiance to any man alive.  I come and go on my own terms: period!  Still, I apologize for my behavior.  You deserve to be addressed with respect.  Please be assured I don't hold your youth against you.  My assistant was much younger than you when he first came to me - and I treated him with the utmost respect.  I've always treated him that way.  Anything less would be an abomination.  So let me ask you again, as politely as possible: where is Joey?"

Kirk looked Spears in the eye.  "I don't know," he said calmly, but with an intensity that made it clear this was more than simply an exchange concerning somebody's whereabouts.  "I know he got safely away, and I know he'll return.  That's all I can tell you."

"Got away?  From what?" Spears struggled desperately to retain a civil tone.

"My father was going to kill him, so I sent him away," Kirk explained.

"Kill him!" Spears raged.  "Kill Joey?  Your father was going to kill Joey?  Where is he?  Where is he?  Kill?  I'll show him kill!  I'll kill the bastard with my bare hands!  Kill Joey?  Joey?  Joey's a saint - a saint! - a God damn saint!  He's the closest thing to a saint this world'll ever see!  What kind of devil would kill him?  Where is your father?  Where the hell is he?"

"My father is dead," Kirk, who had come around in front of the table to stand closer to Spears, said.

"Then I can't kill him," Spears half muttered to himself.

"Were it not for Joey," said Kirk, "you, too, would be dead right now, dishonoring my father the way you did.  But Joey would accuse me of sending your soul straight to hell."

"He need never know," Spears replied.  "I wouldn't tell him.  It's for damn sure his God wouldn't!"

"But I would," Kirk retorted.

"You can't have him," Spears said more softly.  "He's my assistant.  He's the only one left who understands my work.  Weather is his life - his whole life.  You have an army to choose from.  I have no one but him.  I won't let you keep him.  Not as long as I'm alive."

"The decision will be Joey's - not yours or mine, but his alone," Kirk told his rival.

"I'm the only one he needs to save from eternal damnation," Spears taunted.  "So you know who he'll choose."

"Don't be so sure," said Kirk.  "There's room in hell for more than one."  

The stars sparkled for one hour before being re-absorbed into the pinkish glare.  Andrea Kirkus leaned back against the railing that ran along the side of the covered walkway and looked up at the sky.  Living most of her life in St. Louis, she had never paid much attention to the stars, except occasionally, and almost by chance rather than design, during family vacations to Kentucky when she was a girl.  It was as if she discovered stars for the first time on Clingman's Dome.  Every night she and Brad spent hours either walking under the stars or lying on the ground looking up at them.  Not even the rain, or the clouds that obscured the sky, could keep them indoors, so much a part of their lives had the stars become.

For one hour each evening, the lights of Pod City grew dim so that its residents could stroll along its walkways and enjoy the night sky.  The overhead canopy was something like Plexiglas, only much stronger, more impervious to the weather phenomena the residents had come here to escape.  Then, at the end of the hour, the lights brightened and the sky vanished again.

There were no guards patrolling the grounds, as there had been the night Joey came upon Pod City.  There was, however, continual electronic surveillance; and a sophisticated security system designed to discourage intruders with varying degrees of electrical current at key points throughout the complex.

Andrea had been in constant communication with Brad.  They had arranged to encounter each other at random intervals, she within the walkway when the lights were dimmed, he on the outside.  She had found a way to turn off the current feeding the security devices.

Brad would come to the edge of the trench the moment the lights went down and the stars appeared overhead.  He crawled along the walkway leading to the unit, then worked his way over to the covered walkway, which stood ten feet above the ground.  He would get a firm grip on a metal bar built into the top of the canopy - the very device intended to keep him away - and lower himself just enough to meet Andrea at face level, his lips and hers pressed against the canopy.  Then, after a few moments together, he would let go, jump down to the bottom of the trench, and make his way out.

There was an unseen force at work, watching, waiting, for the right moment.  Reggie knew that his sister switched off the power driving the security system when Brad came around - not merely turned a switch but found a way to re-route the power so that no alarm was triggered.  Over the period of months since the residents of Pod City had sealed themselves from the outside world, and Brad started visiting Andrea, Reggie had been seeking a way to circumvent the mechanism Andrea had put into play, his aim to send a sudden surge of electricity through the metal bar Brad hung from - not enough to kill him, just enough to stun him till the lights came back up.  Not that Reggie expected or wanted anyone to go out and apprehend him, least of all to kill him; he simply wanted Brad to be seen, so that when it came time to dispose of his father, the blame would fall to his sister, for driving her lover away.

The evening Reggie finally discovered the mechanism, and figured out a way around it, there were clouds in the distance, not quite thunderbolts but something similar.  Reggie did not expect Brad to show; but he did.  He came as always, waited for the lights to lower, then made his way to the covered walkway, an electronic eye on him every step of the way.  Reggie watched every movement.

"A few more minutes," he muttered to himself.  "Not quite yet.  A little too soon.  Don't want you getting up in the dark."

As Reggie watched the time, Brad whispered into the canopy, not knowing if his words got through or not.  Andrea whispered back at him from the other side, not knowing either if he heard.  As Brad pulled his body close to the canopy and Andrea caressed his image, a reflection caught his eye.  In the same instant Andrea looked beyond him to a point in the sky almost directly overhead.  Brad tightened his grip on the bar; then, releasing his right hand, motioned for Andrea to get back, out of the walkway, into the pod.

"Go!" he screamed into the canopy.  She backed away and began retreating.  When he saw her nearing the pod, and the glowing red reflection was directly above, he let go of the bar and leaped to the ground, rolling beneath the walkway just as a shower of fireballs rained down on the canopy and covered the ground.  Had there been grass or weeds growing on the floor of the trench, Brad would have been surrounded by an inferno that would have inched its way toward him; but there was only the dried and parched dirt the workmen had left in the wake of their digging.  The fireballs landed and quickly burned themselves out.  Brad's jeans and shirt were singed, but otherwise he was unharmed.

The instant the fires ceased, he hurried to the rim of the trench and across to the canopy.  The walkway was hot, but not enough to burn the soles of his shoes.  The metal bar was too hot to touch; he took off his shirt, wound it around his hands, and lowered himself.  Andrea returned to him.  They only had a few more minutes before the lights came back up.  Brad saw that the canopy had not been damaged - but that there were marks where the fireballs had seared it.  He pressed his lips to it, even though it burned to do so; and he pressed his body against it.  Then he released his grip, dropped to the ground, and climbed out of the trench.

When the lights came up, and Andrea returned to the pod, Reggie ran to the walkway, looking down, almost frantically.  "Where the hell is he?" he demanded to know.  "Where is he?"

This time it was Reggie who was being watched from within.  Professor Kirkus had gone behind him and killed the current intended for Brad.  "I won't deny my daughter her chance for happiness," he said.  "I don't know how, but somehow...they'll find a way.  Somehow."

Brad returned to the cabin where he, his mother and Joey were staying - to find it engulfed in flames.  It was too late to get near it; he could only hope they had escaped.  He was about to leave the site and head for the small town of Canadian, where he assumed they had gone, when he saw something out of the corner of his eye that sent a shiver down his spine.

"Oh no!" he moaned as he drew near what appeared to be two bodies lying beneath a tarp.  "Oh no, I've killed them.  My selfishness killed them.  Just because I wanted to be near her."

He was slowly making his way toward the heap on the ground when he detected some slight movement beneath the blanket.  He rushed to it, threw it back, and sank to his knees.

"You're not burned," he muttered in disbelief.

His mother and Joey both turned to look up at him.  "No," they both said.  They got up, and helped Brad to his feet.

"This is a fabric the T-Men made," Joey told him.  "They've saved hundreds of lives on the Plains.  The fireballs won't burn it.  A farmer in South Dakota gave it to me.  I keep my maps in it, so if something happens to me they'll survive."

Joey picked up his back pack, which he had been lying on top of; he took out his maps and carefully folded the blanket around them then returned it to the pack.

"I'll visit Andrea one more time," Brad said.  "I'll tell her I'm leaving.  I can't stay any longer.  I won't put you two in jeopardy like this ever again."

"Brad," answered Joey, "the danger is everywhere, not just here.  This is no escape.  Any moment could be our last, or anyone's."

"We could have moved on without you," Carol added.  "We chose not to.  I don't want to lose you, too.  But I don't want to be the cause of your leaving here.  I'm willing to go now without you."

Brad shook his head.  "No," he resolved.  "I can't continue devoting my life to a few moments each day, hanging from a bar against a sheet of Plexiglas.  All I'm doing, hanging there, is admitting there's nothing I can do - and I won't admit that, I'll never admit that.  She's safe here, inside the pod.  These things that happen: they'll go away.  Then she'll come out: what I need to do is find somewhere safe to take her when she does.  Joey: wherever you want us to go.  If it's Wyoming, then that's where we'll go.  The day after tomorrow.

Andrea knew the moment she saw Brad that this would be their last encounter - that he had made a decision that would alter her life for as long as she remained here.  When he drew near and looked in her eyes, the problem he had struggled all day trying to resolve - getting his message to her - vanished in a puff of air.  Neither of them attempted to say anything; they spent their hour together looking into one another's eyes.  Then, as a hundred times before, Brad leaped down to the ground, climbed up the embankment, and disappeared into the Texas panhandle.  The lights camp up and Andrea returned to her pod, neither she nor Brad aware that, once again, they had been watched; once again, Reggie had tried to re-activate the metal bar; once again, Professor Kirkus had intervened.

The truck Alice had gotten Brad had not been damaged when the fireballs attacked the cabin he, his mother and Joey had rented.  All they had left, besides the clothes on their backs, were the things they had left in the truck, and the maps in Joey back pack.  They set out on US Route 83 due north, out of Texas, through the Oklahoma panhandle, and three quarters of the way into Kansas, before heading west on Interstate 70 just beyond the town of Oakley in the northeastern corner of Logan County.  They took 70 into Colorado, as far as Denver, where they again turned north, on Interstate 25, to Wyoming, through Cheyenne, past Casper, and on into Buffalo, switching to US Route 16 which, along with US 14, made an arc from Buffalo to Gilette, some sixty miles away, the road to Recluse just beyond its zenith.

It was past midnight when they arrived at the base of the bluff where the compound stood.  "I'll go ahead," Joey told his traveling companions, pointing up through the thick woods reaching from the ground halfway up the bluff.  "Just to make sure its safe," he added.  "Wait here for me."

Something in his voice prompted both Brad and Carol, almost in unison, to reject his offer.  "We're all three going together, or not at all," Brad objected.

"Joseph," Carol asked, "you're not telling us everything that happened, are you?  You kept saying we'd be safe here, but you couldn't assure us you'd be safe.  If these people have done - or might do - something to you, then I want no part of them."

"You saved my life," Brad said.  "Do you think for a minute I could sit by while you walk into a lion's den?"

"Enough time has passed that the leader - Paris - will have gotten over whatever it was that turned him against me," Joey tried to explain.  "I have to take the chance.  We need the kind of protection he can offer if we have any hope of surviving.  There is no other place.  At least - no: there is nowhere else to go."

"At least what?" Brad asked.

"There is another place you'd be safe," Joey answered.  "But I can't take you there - not without asking first.  Besides, there's something I have to do here.  Please understand: I have to.  I promised Kirk.  He warned me.  He helped me escape - he risked himself to save me.  I have to go up there, no matter what happens.  It's too important.  These maps I carry: I spent almost two years mapping the tunnels the T-Men built over the years.  They'll need those tunnels."

"They don't have maps already?" Carol asked.

"No, they don't," said Joey.  "They know where the entrances are - at least, to some of them.  But they don't know how to move through the whole system - they don't even know the whole system's connected!  They use them as escape routes, but not as a means of transportation.  The day's going to come when they're not going to be able to use highways to get around the country."

"What?  You believe all that nonsense?" Brad asked.

Before Joey could answer, a sound burst from the trees - the sharp click of guns being cocked.  Ten men stepped from the woods, each with a gun pointed at the intruders.

"Drop your weapons!" one of the men ordered.

"We have no weapons," Brad replied.

"Then come with us," the man said.  "You're our prisoners.  One false move and you'll be shot."

Two of the men got in front of the prisoners, pointing themselves toward the woods.  "Get behind them," Brad, Carol and Joey were told, "three across."  The other eight men fell in behind the prisoners.  There was a rustling in the woods to the right of the guards.  One of them fired into the woods.  A rabbit came scurrying out.  They proceeded on, through the trees to a hidden opening in the side of the bluff, which led them down a long, winding tunnel - the same tunnel through which Joey had left the compound two years earlier.  One of the men radioed ahead.

The tunnel led to a small room with earthen walls just below the main wing of the compound; at the far end was a wooden ladder.  The entire procession ascended the ladder, one at a time; the first man up pushed open a trap door leading to a small corridor behind the Council Chamber.  The light was dim in the corridor and dimmer still when they entered the Chamber through a narrow door at the rear.  A moment later the door at the front of the Chamber opened and a man, silhouetted by the light in the hall outside, stood in the doorway.  He took a step into the room and reached for the light switch.  Before he could engage it, a shadow stole upon him, an arm reached around his neck, and a knife was thrust against his throat.

"Let them go!" a woman's deep voice demanded.  "Let them go or you die."

"Release the prisoners," the young leader of the T-Men said in a calm, firm voice, "and you will answer to me - or to my successor."

"You want us to shoot them?" one of the guards asked.

"No, I want you to question them," Kirk replied.  "Find out why they're here."

Crazy Alice, who had followed the guards and their prisoners through the tunnel, into the corridor, and around to the front of the Chamber, pressed the knife tighter against Kirk's throat.

"Let them go or you will die!" Alice warned.

"Do what you must," Kirk told her.  "My men have their orders."

"You are your father's son," Alice whispered in Kirk's ear as she let the knife drop from her hand.  Kirk whirled around, drew his pistol and pointed it.

"Kirk!" a voice from the other end of the room called.  "Let her live - please!  She's saved our lives more than once.  Let her live."

Kirk lowered his gun and turned on the overhead lights.  His eyes immediately went to Joey's.

"She didn't know we were safe here," Joey explained.

Kirk reached down, picked up the knife, handed it to Alice; she took it and put it away. 

"I had to know what you would do," Alice said.

"You thought I would relinquish my authority to save my life?" Kirk asked.

"Not everyone who leads is worthy to," Alice replied.  "You honor your father."  She turned to face Joey.  "Would you have let me kill him?" she taunted.

"Rather than interfere with his authority: yes, I would have," Joey replied.

"You can't mean that, Joseph," Carol insisted.

"I do though," Joey assured her, his eyes on Kirk as he spoke.  "It's better for a leader to die than be humiliated by his own followers," Joey said.

"You're a different man in this place," Carol observed.

The prisoners were transformed into guests.  Each was given a room - Joey his old room from when he was here before.  Brad and Carol were shown where the bathrooms, kitchen and dining hall were.  It was past two in the morning when they retired to their rooms.  As Joey started to get undressed he remembered the locket Kirk had given him.  At first he was going to wait till the morning, then he decided to return it now, if Kirk were still awake.

He knew the way, even in the dim light.  When he reached Kirk's room, he saw a light under the door.  He gently knocked, got no response, then knocked again a bit louder.

"Who is it?" a voice within asked.

"It's Joey."

"Come in," said Kirk.

Joey entered the room, to find Kirk already in bed.  "I'm sorry," he said.  "I saw your light and didn't realize you might be in bed.  I wanted to return this," he said as he took the locket from around his neck and walked across the room.  He handed it to Kirk, who immediately put it around his own neck and let it drape against his chest.

"I want you for my second in command," Kirk said.  "You knew that already."

"It's what I want, too," Joey responded.

Sensing Joey's hesitation, Kirk told him "Your mentor was here."

"Spears?  He was here?" Joey asked.

"Yes - only a week ago," Kirk replied.  "He was looking for you.  And reminding me of his agreement with my father.  If not for you I would have killed him for dishonoring my father.  If you see him again, make it clear to him I will not tolerate that a second time."

"You sent him away?" Joey asked.

"No," replied Kirk.  "He left of his own free will.  To find a helicopter."

"What for?"

"He believes his own propaganda," Kirk conjectured.  "He thinks the world is coming to an end -"

"- And he can escape it in a helicopter? -"

"- Just California," said Kirk.  "He thinks California's going to break off.  He also thinks Yellowstone's going to erupt.  He gave me a whole battery of signs to watch for - none of which has, or will, occur.  The ground shaking: it hasn't.  The fog that sometimes covers the bluff becoming acrid, like smoke: it hasn't either.  Steam rising from holes in the ground: no.  Or the ground turning to quicksand.  Or burning boulders rising up from the bottom of streams: another one that hasn't happened."

"It has," Joey corrected his leader, remembering the strange sight he encountered two years ago at the Little Powder.

"Joey," Kirk said after a long pause, "as much as I want you for my right-hand man, I can't ask you to stay just yet.  I have to honor the agreement.  I want you to return to wherever Spears' hideout is.  Then it's up to you who you stay with.  Your friends can stay here if they want; or they're free to go if they choose."

Joey inclined his head.  "I'll do as you say," he promised.  "Let me just ask one favor: speak to Carol, in private."

Kirk agreed to speak to her in the morning.  Joey thanked him and returned to his own room.  When he laid down to go to sleep, his eyes filled with tears.  

Brad was awakened just before dawn by a loud rumbling outside his window.  His room was at the northwestern corner of the compound; beyond it was an open field leading to a thick forest.  He jumped out of bed and ran to the window; it was too dark outside to see anything.  He stared out at the sky a moment before returning to bed.  He no sooner pulled the blanket around him than he heard the sound again, only it was beneath him now, not outside.  He got out of bed again and fumbled for his pants; but before he could finish getting dressed he felt himself falling.  He reached to grab hold of something then realized it was not him falling but the room itself.

The wing of the compound where Brad's room was situated had split and was sliding down an embankment where, a moment before, had been solid ground.  At the bottom of this newly created pit was a deep gurgling, out of which arose a sporadic hissing.  A red hot rock suddenly smashed through Brad's window and landed at his feet; a jet of steam shot through the broken window, and the gurgling grew louder.

Brad managed to pull his pants on then ran out of his room just as the bed burst into flames.  He ran to each door along the corridor and threw it open, crying "Get out of here!  Now!" to anyone he saw or heard.  He worked his way to his mother's room, farther inside the compound.  She was already up  and dressed.

"Come on!" he said.  "We've got to leave!  The place is on fire!"  Together they ran from door to door sounding the alarm.  Carol made it to Joey's room at the same time Brad reached Kirk's room.

"Joseph!" Carol called.  "Get up!  There's a fire!"

Brad called through the door to Kirk's room.  "Your compound's on fire!"

Kirk leaped out of bed and put his uniform on.  He ran past Brad, who was alerting anyone else he could find, and out into the courtyard, where he pressed a button to sound the alarm.  Within minutes twenty of his men assembled in the courtyard beside him.

"Each of you go to your stations!" Kirk ordered.  The men proceeded to the far side of the courtyard, where the equipment they had accumulated to combat such a disaster was stored.  As Kirk watched his men getting their equipment, a look of horror touched his eyes for a split-second; then he leaped headlong through a window back into the compound.  The whole courtyard turned into a gurgling, hissing cauldron of boiling mud and rising steam into which the twenty men had been sucked all at once, despite their efforts to escape, their screams ending only when their mouths filled with the scalding mud, the absolute terror in their eyes burned away as the mud finally engulfed them.

Kirk watched through the broken window that had saved his life.  In less than three minutes his men disappeared into the pool of mud.  He brushed the broken glass from his clothes and hurried down the corridor, to a small room attached to his quarters.  He threw the door open but found only an empty cradle.

"Mount Everest has him," he concluded as he hurried off to get his men out of here.  Every few minutes the entire compound swayed, as if it were a barge floating on an open sea.  Every few minutes it sank a little deeper into its foundation, almost imperceptibly at first; then, as the minutes flew by and its boards began to moan and shriek, its descent grew noticeably measurable against the reddening skyline behind the bluff and the trees rising up in front of it.

Mount Everest collected a bundle from a storeroom at the extreme northeastern corner of the compound - a bundle so big only a man of his size could manage it.  He drug it behind him as he made his way down a long corridor, stopping only once, beside a window.  Looking out, he saw the twenty men being pulled into a mass bubbling graveyard.  He saw also a baby, across the courtyard, being lowered from a window.  He threw down his bundle and started running, but stopped, returned for the bundle, then proceeded on again.

"It's too late to save him," he whispered through a flood of tears.  "Little Paris: you were all that was left.  Oh if only I could perish too.  But they need these."  So he kept dragging the heavy bundle behind him.

Crazy Alice had found the baby.  Through all the rumbling, creaking, gurgling, hissing and screaming, she - and she alone - heard a faint cry coming from behind a closed door.  She opened it, went in, heard and saw the infant, grabbed it up, took it with her to a remote part of the compound, which everyone else had already abandoned.

"They won't get you this time," she promised the child.  "I won't let them do to you what they did to the others!  I won't let them get you.  They'll never drown you like a kitten!"

Alice removed the blanket from around the child.  She then hastily undressed him and walked to the window.  She opened it.  Then she held the child in her hands and lifted him to the window.

"You'll be safe," she said.  "I'll make you safe."

She took hold of his legs with one hand.  Slowly she thrust him through the open window.  She looked down.  The boiling mud was just below the window ledge.

"I baptize thee in the name of the sun, the moon and the stars!" she pronounced as she lowered him to the courtyard.

The door flew open.  Joey and Carol came in.  They had not been looking for Alice or the baby, only for stragglers who might still be sleeping.  They saw Alice reaching through the window - then saw what it was in her hand.

"No!" cried Joey.  "In the name of God, no!  Don't do this!"  Though he cried out he did not move to the window for fear of bringing about what he sought to prevent.

"I'm showing him the world he must grow up in," said Alice.  "This mist will give him strength.  He must be baptized!"

As she spoke, she suddenly lowered him to the mud - and just as suddenly pulled him back up and inside the room again.

"Now he'll be safe," she said as she carried him to Joey's arms.  "The end of the world will pass him by - and whoever he's with.  His soul is one with the elements.  They will not harm their brother.  Take him, nourish him.  No one alive can give him as much as you.  He is now yours, just as he is of the elements.  Teach him to love this planet though it destroys everything around him - even the ground beneath him."

The very tip of the baby's head was scalded, his hair singed; but there were no blisters, the skin had not peeled, the child did not cry.  Joey held him tightly and wrapped the blanket around him.

"Come," said Alice as she led them from the room and back to the front of the compound.  By the time they reached the front, the room they had been in was starting to fill as the mud spilled over the window sill and crept down the wall, setting the boards on fire.

Brad saw the eastern wing break apart, as the northwestern corner had broken earlier, leaving a tall man dragging a huge bundle stranded.  He ran to the very edge of the rift and called to the man that he'd go get help.

"I'll get you out of there!" he promised as he went for help.  He encountered Kirk along the way.  "There's a man stranded!" he explained.  "We've got to help him!  I don't know if the two of us can do it -" he looked around, saw no one else - "but come on!" he ordered.  "We don't have time to get anyone else!"

The two of them hurried back to the rift.  The side that broke off was slowly sinking, from the rear of the wing forward, like a ship going down stern first, the part nearest the rift rising up as the northernmost end sank, leaving a chasm ten feet across and widening proportionately as the wing slowly submerged into the thick bubbling mud.

"We need a rope," Brad said as he assessed the situation.

"The ropes are over there," said Kirk, pointing across the chasm.  "Get a rope!" he called to Mount Everest, who had already anticipated the need and gotten a thick rope reinforced with strands of steel wire from the storeroom.

"I have it!" Mount Everest called back.  He proceeded to throw one end of it across.  Brad caught it.  He then tied his end of the rope to the bundle he was dragging.  "It's ready!" he called.  "Pull fast - before it hits the mud!"

Brad shook his head.  "It's you we're here to help!" he called.  "Not that bundle!  Tie the rope to something secure!" Brad ordered.

"You must have these things if you're to survive out there!" Mount Everest addressed his leader.  "Take them!  I swear on your father's grave, if you try and save me first, before these things, I'll throw myself into the mud.  Now take them!"

Together, Kirk and Brad took hold of the rope and, on a signal from each, pulled back and swung it to the left with one violent snap that sent the bundle sailing across the chasm and onto the floor just inches from the edge.  Brad quickly pulled the bundle back, untied the rope, and tossed it back across, once again ordering Mount Everest to tie it to something secure.

While Mount Everest was tying his end to the knob of a metal door, Brad tied the other end to a joist the rift had exposed along the corridor wall.  Each side signaled the other when the rope was secure.  Mount Everest proceeded to the edge of the broken northeastern wing, which was twelve feet away from the other side but nearly ten feet above it.  Without a word being spoken, he knew what he must now do: take hold of the rope and climb across, hand over hand, as his body dangled just inches from the mud.  He was about to take hold when the wing gave a sudden lurch upward, throwing him back against the wall just as the metal door the rope was tied to came hurtling off its hinges.  It flew past him, striking him on the temple just above his left ear, and wedged between the two walls of the corridor inches from the edge.

Brad immediately took hold of the rope and began climbing across, hand over hand, exactly as Mount Everest had meant to do.  He quickly reached the other side and went to Mount Everest just as he was regaining consciousness.

"Can you make it across?" Brad demanded to know.

"I'll try," Mount Everest answered.

They went to the edge and started to reach for the rope only to have it pulled from their grasp as the wing lurched again, this time freeing the metal door from its perch.  They watched it drop ten feet onto the mud.  It landed flat, and set there, on the mud, like a barge.

"I'll go first," said Brad as he leapt from the edge onto the door.  The door wobbled, Brad nearly lost his balance; then it grew calm.  He motioned for Mount Everest to follow his lead.

"I'm not afraid to jump," Mount Everest called to him.  "Only that I might knock you off."

"Jump!" Brad ordered.  Mount Everest obeyed.  He landed with a thud that nearly tipped the door to one side; but Brad shifted his weight enough to offset the impact.

When both were ready, Kirk began pulling the rope as hard as he could to help steer the door to his side.  The door was growing hotter by the second, but remained afloat till it reached the other side and its passengers climbed to safety.

The wing they had barely escaped from lurched one last time; as it did, the walls crumbled and the ceiling caved in, leaving a flattened mass of wood, metal and tile sinking into the mud at an almost perpendicular angle.  They watched for an instant then hurried off to complete the evacuation of the compound.

Mount Everest dragged his bundle through the remaining wing to the main entrance.  Seeing that the southern side of the bluff had not yet turned to mud, he hurried down the winding path to the bottom, where, along a paved roadway, the vans and trucks the T-Men used to carry out their missions were parked.  There was already a large group assembled there, awaiting word from their leader on when and how and where to go.  Mount Everest threw the bundle - which contained the tarps and blankets and suits created to withstand a host of weather phenomena - onto the van he and the other members of the Council rode in; then he made his way back up the hill to the compound, to tell Kirk about the the baby.

The first person he encountered was Joey, who asked him where Kirk was.  Before he could answer, he saw Carol, carrying the baby he thought had been hurled into the mud.

"She didn't kill him," he observed.  "Go now, while the path is still safe!" he told Carol and Joey.

"You go," Joey, in turn, told Carol.  "I'll make sure Brad and Kirk get out safe."

Carol took the baby and made it to the roadway.  Joey and Mount Everest went to find Brad and Kirk.  As they made their way along the main corridor, they felt themselves beginning to sway.  The boards beneath them began to creak.  They worked their way to the Council Chamber, at the southeastern corner, checking each room along the way; the Chamber, like all the other rooms, was empty.  They were about to leave when they heard footsteps running toward them, and a deep rumbling where the steps were coming from.

Kirk and Brad ran into the Chamber.  "Everyone else is out," said Kirk.  "We can't take the main entrance," he told Joey and Mount Everest.

"It's already started crumbling," added Brad.

"We have to take the secret passage," Kirk ordered.

All four hurried to the passage.  As they made their descent through the very ground that was slowly becoming a deathtrap, they could hear the compound falling apart above them.  And they could feel the ground growing hot and moist around them.  Minutes after they cleared the opening at the base of the passage and reached the road, a soft bubbling mud came oozing out of the passageway.

Kirk ordered everyone into the vehicles.  When they were ready, he led the way, from the compound to the southeast, as fast as the vehicles would go.  In his rearview mirror he saw, against the burning horizon, the last of the compound crumble into ruin then go up in flames.

"Your mentor overestimated the strength of Yellowstone," Kirk casually observed to Joey, who rode beside him in his vehicle.  "Otherwise we would not be having this conversation."

Alice had gone northwest.  She made her escape after baptizing the baby and giving him to Joey.  She climbed out one of the windows still overlooking solid ground; crept along a narrow path hugging the southwestern side of the compound; made her way down the bluff, through the trees, and to her car, which she had left a mile south of the compound, in a clearing off the main road.  She sped around the western side of the bluff and headed north, stopping a couple miles beyond to watch what the others, too, were watching, except that her perspective was far greater: while Kirk and the others saw the compound crumble and burn, she saw the bluff itself crumble and ignite as if it were lava spewed from a volcano.  It flowed several miles, almost to the Montana border, before cooling.

Before she started up again, she took out a mobile phone she had stolen from the Little Red Schoolhouse before leaving St. Louis.  She dialed a number in California, surprised it still worked.

"Leave a message," the gruff voice on the answering machine said.

"This is Alice," she spoke into the receiver.  "I'm at Recluse, Wyoming.  There has been unusual activity.  The bluff holding the T-Men's compound has turned to boiling mud."

"Alice!" the same gruff voice cried out.  "Are you still there?"

"I'm here," she replied.  She was part of a network that compiled information, and periodically left messages, for Sanderson Spears.  She had never personally spoken to him before.  While he held her on the line, he trained his equipment, and his monitors, exclusively on that region of the country.

"Yes," he exclaimed, almost with glee, as if saying "I told you so!"  He checked his data as he talked.  "It happened just as I thought.  That entire part of the Rocky Mountain basin's connected to Yellowstone.  Nobody believed me that there's only a thin mantle separating that whole area from the magma below.  So tell me - not that I care one way or the other: did the T-Men get away?" Spears asked.

"Yes," answered Alice.  "They're all safe.  I found a magic child, and gave him to Joey.  As long as he's with them -"

"Joey?"  Spears interrupted.  "Who's Joey?  There's no Joey there!"

"He arrived the night it happened," Alice explained.  "He knew the place; he'd been there before."

"Is he safe?" Spears practically screamed into the phone.  "Did he escape?  Is he alright?"

"Nothing will happen to Joey," Alice assured him.  "He's safe."

"Not that he deserves to be, the little punk!" Spears said.  "Is he with you?"

"No: he and Kirk and the others went the opposite way.  I'm going to Yellowstone.  All my life I've wanted to see Old Faithful.  Now I will."

"Just see it and go!" Spears warned.  "That whole thing's going to blow - it's closer than anyone knows.  You don't know where Joey's gone, then, do you?"

"To the caves, I imagine," said Alice.  "He alone knows his way below the ground."

"Caves!  If it's caves he wants, he's got one right here!" Spears exclaimed mockingly when he had hung up.  "He'd better get his ass back here where it belongs if he knows what's good for him!  So he wants to be a daddy, does he - to a magic child no less!  It's about time he showed some responsibility about something, the selfish little bastard!"

For the next six months, every single day, Spears took precious time from his equipment to perfect his skill at navigating the helicopter he had gotten.  It was a huge chopper, much bigger than he wanted - practically the size of a troop transport.  But it was all he could find.

"Next time I hear your God-damn name," he swore, "I'm off to get you.  You're my apprentice, God damn you!  You're going to fulfill your obligations!  Instead of drooling all over some punk-ass kid who would be king!"

Golden white light drawn from a high vaulted ceiling enveloped the guests.  Six huge crystal chandeliers hung above the ballroom, splattering the light of a hundred bulbs so evenly that everyone received an equal portion.  The floor of oaken parquet was polished to a glittering precision that reflected the inverted light above.  The ivory walls were inlaid with gold and blue mosaics.

"The President of the United States of America requests the pleasure of your company at a formal reception in the Maryland Room Saturday evening from 8 P.M. till midnight," the invitations read.  They were sent to all the residents of Pod City.  Not all were expected to attend the reception, owing to the distance and the limited space in the Maryland Room.  Closed circuit monitors were set up in each of the other forty-nine meeting rooms along the five hundred mile corridor, allowing everyone to share the festivities without having to travel more than five miles.  A team of residents - there were no workers at Pod City: the poor had not been admitted - prepared the hall for the event, marking the first anniversary of their arrival here; the team was headed by Reggie Kirkus, who had volunteered to oversee preparations.

Professor Kirkus was surprised by his son's eagerness to assume what, in effect, was no more than manual labor - but kept his surprise to himself.  "He's up to something," he mused.

He was no less surprised when his daughter agreed to attend.  "I didn't think you would," he remarked.

"I have no reason not to," Andrea pointed out.  "Besides, it's something to do."

"You hate it here, don't you?" Kirkus asked.

"Not quite yet," Andrea replied.  "But I'm beginning to wonder if perhaps some of your dire predictions might not be more prophetic than I allowed.  If the world really is coming to an end, then, yes, I will hate it here."

"What if Brad were here?"

"He wouldn't be - not even if he were invited," said Andrea.

"He's rather perish?" Kirkus asked.

"He'd rather die trying to save the world than abandon it just to save himself."

"So like his father," Kirkus mused.  "He won't have a chance to be great like his father, though."

The night of the ball Professor Kirkus became ill, but he got ready and went just the same.  He moved more slowly than usual, with a vaguely unsteady gait; and his face was unusually pale, almost chalky.

"Are you alright?" Andrea asked as they traversed the walkway leading from their unit to the President's.

"Just a little - shall we say - under the weather," Kirkus replied.

Professor Kirkus and his daughter were invited to join the President and his family for a cocktail before the reception, the President's oldest son, said to be slightly retarded, ogling Andrea the whole time.  Reggie was already at the ballroom overseeing last minute preparations.  At eight o'clock the President, his family and his guests descended the stairway leading to the Maryland room, which was located directly beneath his unit.  All the other guests had come by way of an underground walkway that extended the entire length of Pod City; they had already arrived and been seated.  The closed circuit camera had just been turned on.  At the President's entrance, the guests politely stood up and greeted him; after acknowledging their greeting, he motioned them to be seated, as he and his personal guests proceeded to the table of honor, his twenty-four year old son still ogling Andrea every step of the way.  She had been promised to him by his father; this justified his scrutiny.

"You look good in white," he awkwardly told her, his intended compliment turned to an insult by his presumptuous glances.  She had chosen her gown for its simplicity, without realizing that that quality only enhanced her sensuality.  Her brown hair, which had grown shoulder length, rather than obscuring, drew attention to her bare shoulders.  The President's son took every opportunity to brush against her.  She said nothing - not out of any sense of decorum but because she simply didn't notice what he was doing.

Reggie came over to the President's table.  He and the President's son were the best of friends, each according to his own ulterior motive.  Reggie wanted a freer access to the President than his father's association alone could provide; the President's son - named Lorenzo, after his great grandfather, a notorious mobster - wanted freer access to Andrea than the infrequent social events she attended could provide.

"Mr. President," Reggie graciously addressed his host, "everything is ready for your address at nine P.M."

"Excellent," the President commended his young impresario.  "Why don't you go over there and announce the buffet," he pointed to the dais at the far end of the room.

An awkward look came over Reggie's face; an awkward pause ensued.  Then Reggie countered the President's suggestion with one of his own.  "It might be more discreet, Mr. President, if you and your party simply set the example for the others by going to the buffet table."

The President inclined his head in acceptance.  As he and the others at his table arose to begin the buffet line, he remarked to Professor Kirkus that Reggie was quite a natural at arranging formal gatherings.

"Pity we couldn't bring the working class," the President mused at the buffet table.  "Ideally, this should be a sit-down dinner, of course.  Survival, alas, requires compromise."

The conversation at the President's table centered on the coming events "out there."  "Aren't you the least bit worried," the President addressed Professor Kirkus, "that, once it all starts happening, and the last vestiges of order disappear, the masses may come at us with tanks or planes or bulldozers?"

"Undoubtedly they will," Kirkus agreed.  "It's a game of roulette, Mr. President.  That's why the units farther north are more conspicuous, less camouflaged, more accessible - and somewhat flimsier.  We have to be, at all times, realists.  If someone's to be gotten, it's best to do all you can beforehand to ensure it's someone other than yourself."

"Bravo, Professor!" Lorenzo exclaimed.  "Someone else, and not us: I like your style!"

At nine P.M., the President, on a cue from Reggie, arose and proceeded to the dais.  He stepped up to the microphone.  Everyone finished what they were saying, doing or eating and gave their full attention to their leader.  A parallel dynamic played out in each of the other meeting rooms.  All eyes were on the President as he reached out to test the microphone.  He took hold of it and brought his mouth near.  His hand twitched.  His mouth dropped.  His eyes grew big.  Then his whole body convulsed as he stood there, unable to let go.  A jagged blue line surged from the microphone into his mouth.  A spew of saliva and mucous ran down his chin onto the microphone.  His eyes rolled back.  The flesh of his hand turned red then brown.  His body grew rigid.  He fell forward, off the dais, onto the microphone stand; the microphone lodged in his throat.

Everyone gasped, in all fifty rooms.  "The President is dead!" the cry went up from somewhere in the ballroom.  Several men ran forward to confirm - or deny - the proclamation.  "Turn this off!" someone cried, pointing to the microphone.  "Kill the power!"  Reggie and two of his assistants ran to locate the circuit breaker; moments later they returned, announcing the power off.  Someone chanced to feel the President's pulse: there was none.

"What's happening?" Lorenzo asked in a frightened tone.  Someone came over to the President's table.

"Your father is dead," the man reported.  "Electrocuted, apparently."

"Dead?" Lorenzo asked in disbelief.  "He's dead?  He's the President!  He can't be dead!"  He looked at Andrea, his eyes those of a man who sees his ship setting sail without him.  "But he promised!" he cried.  "He promised!"  Then he broke down and cried, muttering, through his tears, those same words over and over.  "He promised.  He promised."

His friend Reggie came and led him back upstairs, to his father's unit.  Reggie put his hand on his friend's shoulder.

"Now you'll never have her," he whispered into his friend's ear.

"But he promised!" Lorenzo pleaded.

"He can't deliver," Reggie countered.  "You'll have to move now," Reggie told him.

"Move?  Where?" Lorenzo asked.

"Out there," Reggie vaguely pointed to beyond the unit, beyond Pod City.

"No - no!  They can't do that!"

"They have no choice now."

"I won't go!  They can't make me!" Lorenzo insisted.

"But they can - and will," Reggie assured him.

"What can I do?" Lorenzo begged.  "I'll die out there!"

"Not if you died in here first, before they sent you away.  At least then they'd have to bury you in here," Reggie offered.

"But how?" 

"I have some rope.  There's the staircase."

"Hang myself?" Lorenzo asked in horror.  "Will it hurt?  It'll hurt, won't it?"

"No," Reggie promised.  "You won't feel a thing.  It'll be quick and peaceful, like falling asleep."  Reggie took out a long thick strand of rope and handed it to Lorenzo, then led him up the staircase toward the entrance to the pod.  "Tie it here," he said softly.  Lorenzo tied the rope to the wrought iron banister.  Reggie helped him make a noose of the other end.  Lorenzo put it around his neck.  Reggie tightened it.  "Just take one small step," Reggie lovingly goaded his friend on.  "Otherwise, they'll send you out there, to be torn apart by the masses.  Just one small step."  Lorenzo obeyed, stepped from the landing, fell, and was caught by the rope, which tightened around his neck but did not snap it.  He dangled in mid-air, slowly gagged by the noose, unable to free himself, his feet kicking at thin air, his hands trying desperately to loosen the rope, his voice squealing and gurgling, his tongue growing big, his eyes bugging out of their sockets , his face turning red, then purple, as he awaited the peaceful death his friend had promised him.  Reggie waved to him from the main foyer before disappearing through an open door.

"Two down, one to go," he mused as he descended back into the Maryland Room.

When he returned, he found the panic replaced by calm, the disarray by order, the horror of what had happened by the resolve to move past it.  The mechanism of state, which had been brought from the outside world, was already coming into play.  Without a Vice President or Cabinet or Congress or Court - all of which had been left behind to maintain the illusion of normalcy when the world began crumbling - the order of succession had swiftly and smoothly been set in motion.  Just as Reggie had imagined, the gathering, turned by tragedy into an assembly, had chosen Professor Kirkus, pale and weak and, with the help of his son, closer to death each day, as the new leader of Pod City.

Reggie went over and congratulated his father.  "How's Lorenzo?" Kirkus asked, an ever so slight hint of irony in his voice.

"He's very distraught," Reggie admitted.  "I didn't want to leave him, but he insisted."

"Doubtless he had something important to take care of," Kirkus observed with the same hint of irony.                                                                

It had already started, as if responding to a cue from the world's leaders, who knew beforehand what to expect and when - and who, almost without exception, had sought some kind of shelter while their people went about their lives oblivious to everything but the splendid economic miracle the 21st Century had wrought.  "The poor will always be among you," the world constantly reminded itself to help discount the millions dying of starvation and neglect in the nether regions of the "Third World."  "Their lot is the legacy of their unwillingness to take responsibility for their own lives," the world had long since concluded.  "We're living proof of the value of responsibility, initiative, productivity and industry.  Instead of passively accepting the world as we found it, we took hold of it and turned it to our own advantage; we made it not merely a place we could grow and prosper in: we made it a paradise.  We owe nothing to those who wallowed in their own ignorance.  Amen."

Andrea would walk along the covered walkway, looking up at what used to be the night sky.  Some evenings it was still as it always was; most evenings it glowed a strange greenish purple glow or hurled jagged chunks of ice or spewed fireballs or else, as happened more and more often, was filled with never-ending streaks of lightening, as if one of the upper layers of atmosphere had descended to within a few hundreds yards of the ground.

Brad lived most of his days and almost all of his nights in the tunnels, along with the surviving T-Men.  For a while they existed as guests of the state militias they had once dominated and organized into a vast network whose sole purpose in life was fighting the government.  Before long, it became too dangerous to remain above ground for any length of time, so they stopped wandering from state to state and settled in the tunnels, offering shelter to any of the militias who wanted it.  Some members of some militias joined them; most did not: so long as there was even the remnants of a government left anywhere in the country, they vowed to keep fighting.

"The fight is no longer with tyrannical institutions," Kirk tried to tell the militias.  "It's with the world itself.  Our goal is not to dominate but to survive.  People are dying by the thousands.  Soon it may be by the millions.  We have no choice but to turn our backs on them, or their sheer numbers will destroy our habitats.  We offer you shelter - but only those of you who have stood by us."

Every day Brad took in someone who he found wandering in the vanguard of some or another gathering catastrophe, desperately seeking shelter.  Every time he did, he was confronted by Kirk, who made it clear he would not tolerate putting his followers in jeopardy.

"These tunnels will become overrun with people if I allow you to continue bringing in stragglers," Kirk told him.  "I am the leader, and I know what's best for my followers - and I expect to be obeyed by everyone under my authority."

"I won't stand by and ignore cries for help," Brad responded to Kirk's edicts.  "There's nothing left to do on the planet but save people from certain doom.  And I indend to do just that."

"You do it at your own peril," warned Kirk.

"Is he so wrong?" Joey asked his leader.  "He's doing God's work."

"He doesn't even believe in God," Kirk reminded his second-in-command.

"But God believes in him, and that's all that matters," Joey replied.

"I don't relish the thought of letting people die on my doorstop," Kirk explained.  "But my responsibility is to my followers.  If there were enough to share with everyone, I would.  But we barely have supplies to keep ourselves alive."

"God will provide for us," Joey said.

"Why aren't you out there helping Brad overpopulate our tunnels if that's how you feel?" Kirk asked.

"Because you're my leader," Joey replied.  "And I will not go against your orders."

"Even for your God's commandments?" Kirk asked, not to taunt his lieutenant or to test his loyalty but out of simple curiosity.

"God has given me to you," Joey answered.  "He expects me to trust your judgment."

People pounded on the pods, begging for help.  All along the five hundred miles, all hours of the day and night, they pleaded to be admitted.  Thousands perished in the trench that ran from Wyoming to Texas and lay there rotting.  But the people inside could smell nothing, and chose to see nothing.  Even the pods that held the cryogenics - ten pods out of two thousand - were pounded and beaten upon; but no one heard, they were sleeping the peaceful sleep of those expecting to awaken to a better world some day.

Andrea alone stood vigil.  She walked along the same walkway she had walked every night.  She saw the bodies piling up - not as many, in this more discreet part of Pod City, as farther north, but still dozens, maybe hundreds.  Sometimes whole families would come seeking shelter, pursued by lightening or fire or ice, and she'd have to turn away and go back inside, unable to watch.

"Survival is the most horrible torture anyone could ever devise," she concluded.  "If it weren't that he might still be alive, and might come for me some day, I'd gladly trade places with any one of them out there.  To survive at such a cost: you have to be mad to want it - totally, totally mad!"

Alice was neither in the tunnels, with the T-Men, nor out on the plains, with those nature was assaulting.  She had found a place to call home - not the place she sought, but the place she found.

There were two Bald Mountains in North Central Colorado: the taller of the two halfway between the towns of Webster, along US Route 285, and Breckenridge, on State Highway 9; the other, more obscure, just north of State Highway 14 and closer to the Wyoming border.

After almost skirting the Montana border when she left Recluse, she headed south, to Interstate 25, which, following a brief easterly track out of Casper, Wyoming, plunged her due south into Colorado.  She meant to make her way to the Mesa Verde in Southwestern Colorado - not to stay there: it was not a place she felt someone of her ancestry had a right to seek shelter in; but only to see it then move on.  Instead, she left Interstate 25 at Fort Collins and headed due west on Highway 14.

An unearthly cloud appeared directly over the town of Timnath, along I-25 just south of 14.  It tore the town to pieces then headed north, just as Alice was coming south.  It grabbed one after another vehicle from the Interstate and hurled them to the left or right.  Seconds before it got hers, Alice veered onto the Highway 14 ramp heading west.  She drove along 14, past Laporte, past Bellevue, past Poudre Park and into Rustic.  The cloud continued north a few more miles before dissipating as suddenly as it had formed.  Alice saw a peak in the distance, to the northwest.  She asked someone how she could get to it.  "I have to be there!" she said.

"Take that side road to Log Cabin, then go west, past Red Feather Lakes, and you're almost on its doorstep," she was told.

"What's it called?" she asked.

"Bald Mountain," her guide answered.

Alice laughed.  "A night on Bald Mountain," she observed.

She knew before she arrived that she'd find something there.  She went around to the southern face of the mountain, the face she had seen from Rustic.  She looked up, and as she did a shaft of light from a break in the clouds pierced through the underbrush to reveal a dark spot a few hundred feet up.  She climbed to the spot.  It was a cave.  She went in.  She set her few possessions and provisions against a wall near the mouth and went to explore the cave.  The beam of her torchlight never touched solid rock, no matter how deep into the cave she went.

"This should shield me from anything," she concluded as she returned to the mouth of the cave.  Gathering her things, she moved farther back into the cave; then, spreading a blanket on the ground, lay down and fell asleep.

She awoke to the eerie first light of day, which had crept almost to where she lay sleeping.  When she opened her eyes, even before the light, she saw a set of fangs and two emerald eyes staring down at her, inches away from her face; and she felt the hot breath of a gaping mouth.  Slowly she raised her hands to her breast and unbuttoned the high collar of her jacket, throwing it open.  Arching her neck, she thrust her exposed throat almost into the fangs, and said, in a firm voice, "Put up or shut up!"

For several moments nothing happened.  Then, slowly, the massive jaws spread around her throat; and she felt something warm, wet and rough.  Then the jaws relaxed and pulled away; the tongue retreated into the cavity of a cavernous mouth.  Then the whisper of four nearly soundless feet running deeper into the cave grew fainter until it vanished.

The next night she slept in the same place; the next morning the same fangs and glowing emerald eyes reappeared.  The same scene was played out, followed by the same whispering retreat.  And the next night, and next, until, one morning, the scene changed.  Instead of retreating, the cougar roared, almost in Alice's face.  Then lay down beside her.  After weeks in each other's company, Alice reached out and put her hand in the cougar's mouth.  It licked her hand then released it.

"I know the moment your prey is exhausted, you'll turn on me," Alice spoke to the cougar.  "There's no reason not to.  It'll be as natural for you to eat me then as for you to lie down beside me now."

There were nights when the cougar did not go out to hunt, but went deep into the cave instead.  Alice knew it meant something was wrong outside, so she followed the cougar to the farthest recesses of its lair.  Occasionally, as if it were more afraid of what was outside than wary of this intruder within, it would come and lie its head in Alice's lap until the thing outside had passed. Then it would arise and head for the mouth of the cave, as if Alice were no longer there.

Late one night three men came inside the cave, seeking shelter.  They came upon Alice asleep.  They shone a light on her face, rousing her.  One of the men held a knife to her throat.

"Anyone else here?" he asked.

"Only me," she replied.

"Good, then we only have one person to kill!" the man said.  "You boys hold her while I cut her open!" he told the other two men, who came and took hold of her.  Suddenly there was a rustling at the mouth of the cave.

"What was that?" one of the men asked.

"You said no one else was here!" the man with the knife said to Alice.

Before she could answer, a roar rang through the cave and the cougar leapt upon the man with the knife, ripping his throat open.  The other two men ran for the mouth of the cave, Alice, who had pulled the knife from the third man's hand, in close pursuit.  She caught up to the slower of the two and brought her hand around him so swiftly his throat was slit while he was still moving.  The other one paused an instant when he heard the thud of the body falling.  An instant was all Alice needed to finish the job.

Both men lay dead at the mouth of the cave; the third lay dead deeper inside.  Alice removed all three bodies.  The cougar watched from within; when the bodies were gone, it ran out and hid in the bushes, then leaped on an overhanging ledge and scurried up the mountain.  It never returned to the cave.  Alice would see it from time to time, on the higher slopes, where it had found another cave; but it would not come back to her.  One day, looking up at it, she waved her arm and cried "Farewell my friend!  It's time for me to move on too.  I have the end of the world to bear witness to.  But I'll return: we have a dinner date - remember?  I'll try to remain healthy, so I won't poison you!  Till next we meet!"

Alice picked up her cell phone, which she had left in her car - not knowing if either still worked.  First she tried the phone, by calling the weatherman.  He answered.

"I feel a rumbling in my soul," Alice told him.  "It won't be long now."

Spears knew who it was, so he wasted no time on amenities.  "The ground is rumbling beneath the Great Lakes and all around Yellowstone," Spears replied.  "Whoever has survived so far won't have long to wait."        

Getting supplies was becoming more difficult every day.  There were fewer opportunities all the time for creating their own supplies, as the T-Men had always done for the past hundred years.  And the state militias they dealt with - whose ranks were constantly dwindling because of natural attrition, coupled with an inability to attract new members, but especially a dramatic increase in the number and ferocity of attacks by local, state and even federal agents - had become an unreliable pipeline for securing food and clothing.

The loss of a stable environment their compound at Recluse provided, plus the increasing unpredictability of the weather - both conditions mandating a migratory existence, as much below as above ground - made it next to impossible to grow their own food.  They were reduced to hunting, gathering and scavenging food.

As much as a third of the people on the Plains had already died; circumstances made the T-Men looters of their goods.  Foraging parties were sent out almost daily to seek supplies - the parties instructed never to range beyond a five mile radius of the tunnels.  Joey's maps were reproduced a dozen-fold and distributed to key members of the organization and to each designated leader of a search party; each party was given a certain area to forage.

They kept clear of the cities on the Plains.  They had heard stories of mass deaths, of entire cities wiped out by the kind of clouds that had killed the people Homestead, Montana, where the boy Paris Commune rescued was from.  They had also heard of cities turned into places of madness, where all, in essence, declared war on all; where whoever remained sought to gain dominion over whatever was left of the city; where murder and atrocity reigned supreme; where cannibalism had ceased being a necessity of survival and had become a way of life.  They heard of horrible contagion, as bodies were left to decay in the streets.  They were forbidden by their leader to go anywhere near a town having more than a couple thousand inhabitants - and absolutely forbidden, under pain of death, to cause any harm whatsoever to anybody still living.  Anyone caught stealing - not looting: looting was taking from the dead, but stealing from the living - was shot on the spot.

"Offer whatever help you can to the survivors," Kirk ordered his men at a formal Council meeting.  "Give them the opportunity of joining us - it makes no difference if it overtaxes our resources now: we will not leave people to die who we could take in ad feed - since it's now the food of their friends and neighbors that sustains us.  The only deaths justified are of those out there who attack us, and of those within our ranks who disobey my orders.  If the world ends, it ends; if we perish, we perish; but we will neither betray nor abandon our principles.  We exist solely to create a better society.  That goal will be no less worthy when the last T-Man dies than it was on the day the first T-Men made it their goal."

Joey managed to speak to Kirk in private when the Council adjourned.  "I don't wish to appear to be questioning your decisions," he told his leader, "and I'm relieved you've come to see the wisdom of offering shelter to anyone seeking it.  But I can't help wondering why you've changed your mind, when you were so emphatic about not taking in more people."

"It's exactly as you said," Kirk replied: "I have come to see the wisdom in what Brad is doing.  There cannot be two voices in one organization, however.  One or the other must be silenced.  In taking Brad's position, I silence him.  It won't always be so easy, or so painless, to reassert my authority.  I don't look forward to that day, Joey.  But I know it's inevitable.  You keep saying he's my brother.  I don't doubt you believe it; but it has no bearing on what I must do when the time comes."

"Will you speak to Carol?" Joey asked.  "Please, Kirk: I know she's your mother.  You keep putting it off.  Please speak to her."

"Arrange it," Kirk told his second-in-command.

Joey set up a private meeting between Kirk and Carol.  Had they still been at the compound, it would have been a simple matter; but here, in the tunnels, there were no private rooms, only times when certain areas were relatively, occasionally even totally, free of people.  Joey found such a time and place and brought mother and son together.

"Joey tells me you're my son," said Carol as she studied Kirk's features.  "I don't know if I see so very much of myself in you; but I see too much of your father not to believe I'm your mother."

"You may very well be," Kirk replied.  "And, if so, I respect you accordingly.  I'll see that you're given a place of honor within this organization.  But you must understand: a mother does not enter into my overall strategy.  I have certain responsibilities as leader of these men that takes precedence over personal considerations.  I have absolutely no bitterness over anything that may have happened when I was a child; nor do I have any sense of abandonment.  My childhood is simply irrelevant to my station in life.  It isn't that I have no feelings, or want none.  I know what it is to love, and to want to be near someone.  But all that pales alongside my duties.  Nothing can be allowed to interfere with my leadership.  Absolutely nothing."

Carol was never able to convey her certainty that Kirk was her son to her other son.  Brad steadfastly maintained what his father had maintained to the end of his life: that it was all a mistake, that Carter's first son - his real son - had died at the hands of a kidnapper nearly twenty years ago.

"I respect Kirk," Brad told his mother.  "And I try to respect his authority.  But I know in my heart the day will come when it'll be him or me.  When that day comes, mother, I won't be swayed by your conviction that he's your son.  I'll do what I have to do."

Tuesday, June 23rd of the year 2071, at 1:07 P.M., the Upper Mississippi basin was ripped apart by an earthquake measuring 4.2 on the newly re-formulated Richter Scale.  At l:09, everything between Chicago, in the east, and Davenport in the west; between Indianapolis and Hannibal; between Louisville and St. Louis; between Nashville and Memphis; between Montgomery and Vicksburg sank into a gigantic sink hole some two hundred fifty miles wide that stretched from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi Delta.  In some places the ground disappeared completely, while in others it fell barely five feet; most of the ground along the rift sank deep enough that only the tops of buildings remained visible along the horizon.  Ninety percent of the people along the corridor perished.  Three days later the other ten percent joined them.

Sanderson Spears caught it all on tape.  Not the destruction, not the devastation, not the catastrophe - none of the sights, sounds, smells or tastes the sudden end of an entire region leaves in its wake.  He caught only the waves of energy - the phenomenon driving it and, in turn, created and driven by it.  He caught squiggles and isobars and gradients and a dozen other things his equipment could compact to the scope and range of his monitors.  He caught the whole event in miniature, in the abstract, without the screams of people shorn apart by their own houses, crushed beneath buildings, trampled by one another and by trees sent reeling across fields and through gardens.  The only red he saw was the bubbling of radar images; he missed the blood oozing from severed limbs and crushed skulls, the gore from bellies ripped open, the splattered gray that could no longer hold a thought or a belief or a wish.

He never moved a muscle.  For three days he sat as if in a trance before his monitors.  He knew what was coming next, and wanted to be there to witness it in person.

"Nature abhors a vacuum," Spears remarked idly to himself; "and fills a void.  Where there's a hole the size of a small continent, there will be floodwaters pouring in from somewhere and everywhere and nowhere!  Correction: scratch the 'nowhere.'  Scratch the 'everywhere' as well.  Leave the 'somewhere' be." 

Friday, June 26th, between two and four in the afternoon, while Spears sat counting down the hours and minutes as if waiting for a rocket ship to blast off, the islands around the North Magnetic Pole - Canada's Perry Islands, Bathurst Island, Cornwallis Island, Prince Patrick Island, Mackenzie King Island and the Grinnell Peninsula of Devon Island, plus a number of smaller nameless islands - all suddenly and mysteriously, as if responding to a cue from the glowing, pulsating aurora filling the sky from horizon to zenith, sank into the waters - the various sounds and straits - between Baffin Bay in the East and the Beaufort Sea in the West.  Though these waters were not deep, nor the currents strong, the force of so much land sinking all at once created a tidal surge that rose a hundred feet and headed south with the speed of a freight train, tearing across the Eastern third of Victoria Island, completely inundating King William Island, crossing the District of Keewatin in the Northwest Territory and, finally, flooding shallow Hudson Bay from Chesterfield Inlet, Wager Bay and Roes Welcome Sound at its northwestern tip.

Hudson Bay, in the space of a few hours, doubled its volume, spilling its banks with almost the same force as the wave that hit it from the north, a force whose impetus continued the flood southward, across Ontario, turning every river, stream, estuary and creek into conduits carrying the waters of the North Pole straight for Lakes Superior and Huron.

Five days earlier, Joey, Carol and Brad accompanied a small search party, headed by Kirk, on a foray deep into Missouri.  One of the tunnels mapped by Joey extended as far eastward as Jefferson City.  Though they drove, they never strayed beyond the five mile radius from the tunnel system Joey had mapped, so as to be able to seek shelter if they perceived any danger approaching.  Central Missouri, the party discovered, had not fared as badly as the Central Plains; the death and destruction wrought by the magnetic storms, ice storms, fire storms and charged clouds was still minimal.  Whole communities had been wiped out; mile after mile of houses and farms and businesses had been abandoned as people sought shelter farther to the east, imagining they could outrun nature's wrath; but the area remained largely intact nonetheless.  Supplies abounded - good, clean supplies untainted by the slow decay overtaking the Mid-West.  Kirk began to regret his decision to keep this party small: a year's supplies might have been collected had he taken Brad's advice.

"I should have listened to him," Kirk told Joey.  "I chose discretion over logistics: moving undetected through the area over getting the most out of our foray."

"You couldn't have known so many people had left the area," Joey reminded his leader.  "Kirk," he said after a pause, "there's something I have to ask - to ask your permission."

"What is it?"

"Brad, Carol and I wish to go on to St. Louis," Joey said.  "For personal reasons," he added.

"Absolutely not!" Kirk emphatically replied.  "No one goes beyond the five mile radius.  Jefferson City is as far east as any of us go.  I will not allow the safety of any of my followers to be jeopardized - not in securing provisions and most definitely not for any personal reason!"

"Kirk, you're forgetting: not everyone is as focused and committed to the objectives of the organization as you are," Joey pointed out.

"That's why I'm their leader," Kirk rejoined.  "If everyone were free to make their own decision, each would go his own way to pursue some personal goal and we'd all perish."

When they rejoined the rest of the party, Kirk went to work out a plan for gathering supplies.  Joey took Brad and Carol aside to explain Kirk's decision.

"Joey," Brad, in turn, explained, "getting permission was your idea.  I need no one's permission.  I intend to go to St. Louis - period.  I understand the danger, so I'll go alone."

"I intend to go too," said Carol.  "None of us will ever see St. Louis again.  I grew up there.  I intend to see it one last time."

"It isn't just the sky that's falling," Joey tried to dissuade them; "everything is crumbling: the city, the people, the way of life we were born into.  What the Tungs haven't destroyed, the people they rule will.  Kirk is right.  Maybe we shouldn't see it."

Brad put his hands on Joey's shoulders, as if he were about to shake him.  "Don't let your regard for him blind you to what's important," Brad told him.  "We can't let survival destroy everything else in our lives.  We're not machines; we need more than just hiding in tunnels and searching for food.  If we can't do something foolish - something that could risk everything we're working for - then we might as well be locked away in Pod City!"

Brad's eyes suddenly flooded with tears.  For almost a year he had managed to ignore his pain at leaving Andrea behind; now it caught up to him all at once.  He had no power to hold it off any longer.  His whole body shook from the agony.  He no longer held onto Joey to give support but to keep standing himself.  He buried his face against Joey's chest and wept with absolute abandon.

When he finally stopped shaking, he raised his head and looked up into Joey's eyes.  "Nothing can stop me from going home," he said softly, but with a resolve as powerful as his expression of grief had been.

Now Joey's eyes filled with tears.  "I'll go with you," he promised, the disloyalty to his leader inherent in his decision almost as painful to him as the loss of Andrea was to Brad.  "Let me speak to him first," he said as he went to find Kirk.

This time he didn't ask for permission; he told Kirk that he and Brad were leaving for St. Louis. 

"I can't let you go," Kirk said, his voice as calm as if this were a casual conversation.

"Then you'll have two dead followers to bury before leaving Missouri, Joey replied.

"Why would you of all people defy me?" Kirk asked.

Joey responded the only way he knew.  "I swear before God," he said, "that I would sooner die than do anything to belittle you or subvert your authority.  But I know in my soul that Brad needs this more than anything all the rest of us together need.  His life depends on it.  If we don't go, he'll return to Pod City - I know he will.  And he'll die.  I can't let that happen, Kirk - as much as I..." Joey hesitated, as if searching for the right word, " much as I respect your leadership, I won't stand by and watch his life come to an end.  My love for God won't let me: it's greater than..." again Joey hesitated, "'s greater than anything.  I'm sorry, Kirk.  I'm no longer worthy to be your right hand man."

"You are if I make the decision to go," said Kirk.  "This is twice Brad's challenged my authority.  As much as I need you, Joey, you will not come between us a third time.  Please understand that.  I won't hesitate to sacrifice you if you take his side again.  Let the rest of the party know: we leave for St. Louis tomorrow morning."

The distance between Jefferson City and St. Louis was one hundred twenty-seven miles.  By car or truck, it would take approximately two hours and forty minutes.  The T-Men still possessed and maintained the vans they left Recluse in; they only used them, however, owing to the scarcity of fuel, on long trips such as this one to Central Missouri.  Two vans had been allotted to Kirk's mission, in order to accommodate the search party and the supplies; the party itself was small enough to travel in one van, however, so the other was left hidden in the tunnel outside Jefferson City, with the supplies they had gathered so far, when they set out for St. Louis just before sun-up Monday, June 22nd.

They arrived, via US Route 50, which joined Interstate 44 just beyond the town of Union, in the westernmost district of St. Louis at quarter till eight.  They got off I-44 at Arsenal Street, which took them past Tower Grove Park and on over to Broadway, traversing the eastern edge of the city parallel the Mississippi until coming to Washington Avenue.  There, they turned eastward and stopped abruptly, just short of the remains of Eads Bridge.

Everyone got out of the van except Kirk, who, guided by Brad, had driven into St. Louis, driven through its streets, driven up to the massive spire standing vigil over the Mississippi, where he slammed on the brakes.  As the others approached the bridge, which had become a kind of rallying point for those who opposed the Tungs, a symbol of everything the cool efficiency of the thugs could not quite destroy, Kirk remained behind the wheel, gripping it with all his might, as if to keep the van from losing control.  His whole body was trembling, his face had grown pale, sweat was dripping from his forehead and temples, his mouth was open as if he were about to cry out.  He shut his eyes, the veins in his neck nearly bursting from the effort it took to force his eyelids down.  He began gulping for air; then, more slowly, taking one after another deep breath until finally he grew calm again.  Then he, too, got out of the van, staggering at first then returning to a more normal gait, his eyes absolutely fixed on the ground beneath him.  Little by little he forced his gaze upward, until the spire was once more ahead of him.  He turned quickly away; then tried several more times to look up at the spire; but finally gave up.  When the others returned, he asked Joey to drive; he climbed in next to Joey and leaned back in the seat.

Joey had to take a cloth and dry the steering wheel.  "Are you alright?" he asked.

"I know you were watching me," Kirk said in reply.  "I could feel your eyes on me: if I hadn't had that to focus on, I don't know if I could have gotten through it.  I can't explain what happened.  I've never been terrified before in my life -"

"Except when you were here last," Joey conjectured.

"It doesn't matter."

"Kirk: it matters!"

"No - because I won't let it matter!" Kirk swore.  "I'll come here again, one more time, before we leave.  Then I'll be free of it."

From the Levee, they drove through the center of St. Louis, down Washington Street, onto Lindell Boulevard, to the Private Streets District just north of Forest Park.  The city seemed relatively calm; the only real indication that anything was wrong in the world was the scarcity of pedestrians along the sidewalks.  Everyone was either in a vehicle or indoors.  No one paid any attention to the van with Wyoming license plates carrying fugitives and terrorists.

Joey drove to within a block of the Carter mansion.  There were no lights, no activity, no indication of residency.  The house had simply been left as it was.  As casually as if coming home from an outing, the search party walked through the front gate, up the driveway, and into the mansion, intending to spend the night.  Everyone camped out in the living room, except Carol, who went to her room; Brad, who went to his; and Kirk, who made his way to an unused room furnished with a crib, a bassinette, an armoire and a rocking chair.  Kirk laid down on the floor, beside the crib, and fell asleep.

The next morning, everyone was up before sunrise.  Kirk sought to maintain the form, if not the substance, of his authority.  He summoned the members of his party for a meeting in the study.

"We're all here," one of his men pointed out, referring to the living room.  "Why not just meet here?"

"We'll assemble in the study," Kirk reiterated.

Once assembled, the only order of business was to set the day's itinerary.  For that, Kirk had to defer to Joey, who, in turn, asked Brad.

"Since they denied my father the dignity of a burial," Brad said, "I want to go to the place where he died.  Joey: you were there.  Will you take me to the exact spot they killed him in?  I couldn't go there till now; I was too afraid.  Will you show me?"

Joey nodded, then looked over to Kirk to confirm his decision.  Kirk, too, nodded his assent.

"We'll all go," Kirk said.  "All of us here will honor Brad's father."  His words sent a shudder through Carol; Brad went to her, to help steady her.

"You don't have to come, mother," he said.

"I do, Brad," Carol replied.  "Just like you, I've been afraid to look.  Now I have to."

They made for Memorial Plaza, retracing their route from The Levee to the Carter mansion: Lindell Boulevard to Washington Avenue.  The traffic was light for a workday, at rush hour.  They reached 17th Street in less than twenty minutes; turned right; drove another block and a half; and parked on 17th, just above Olive Street.  The western end of Memorial Plaza was one block east, on Olive.  There appeared to be considerable activity around the Plaza.

"Is this normal, for this time of day?" Kirk asked.

"No," answered Brad.  "Something's wrong."

Joey came over to Brad and told him in a low voice straining to sound calm, that this was how it was the day his father was executed.  On the strength of that, Brad stopped the next passer-by he encountered.

"What's going on?  I thought it was tomorrow!" Brad said in the tone of someone who nearly missed an important engagement.

"Tomorrow?" the passer-by retorted.  "Tomorrow they'll be sweeping up the pieces into a doggie bag!  The execution's today!"

"Damn!" said Brad.  "I almost missed it!"

"My advice, pal," said the passer-by, "get yourself a calendar.  June 23rd, 2071 - a day to remember!  Got that?"

"Got it."  The next passer-by, Brad asked "It's still on for noon - right?"

"Noon?" the second passer-by retorted.  "Those bums'll be a puff of radiation on their way to the north pole by noon!  It's ten o'clock!  Where you been?"

"Asleep," Brad admitted.  When the passer-by had gone, he turned to Joey.  "The only thing we don't know is who's being executed.  That's alright.  They can tell us who they are after we've saved them."

Kirk had overheard Brad's comment.  He came up to him.  "There will be no rescue," he said.  "We came here to let you and Carol say good-bye to this city.  We've put ourselves enough at risk just being here.  We will not further jeopardize our lives or our mission to interfere with what's going on here."

Joey had never spoken angrily to anyone in his life, till now.  He brushed Brad aside and came face to face with Kirk, taking hold of his arm.

"I swore to God I'd never defy you again as long as I live!" he said in a voice forbidding interruption.  "I meant it - I swear I meant it! - but I was here!  I was here!  I stood there - right over there!  I watched them strip away his clothes and put those things - those monstrous, hideous pellets in his mouth, in this ears, his nose, up his anus, even inside the tip of his penis!  I stood there - and watched - and could do nothing!  I could do nothing to save him!  Nothing!  Nothing!  Then they attached wires!  And a man approached a little black box, and reached out, and pressed a tiny green button - and all I could do was stand there, and try to keep from cursing God: God, who is everything, all life, all death, all goodness: everything!  I don't know if I cried out.  I know my soul did.  I don't ever want any human being alive to feel as worthless, as helpless, as meaningless, as I felt when the smoke cleared and there was nothing there - not even a single drop of blood!  Nothing was left!  And I could do nothing to stop it!  Now I can do something.  Because I'm not alone, I can do something.  You will not take that from me, Kirk.  Destroy me when it's over for defying you - banish me from your group: do whatever you will, I submit totally to any retribution my defiance warrants; but you will not deny me a chance to make even this small amends for what I witnessed and was powerless to stop."

Before Kirk could respond, a voice called out from amidst the crowd assembling to watch the execution.  "These are my people!" the voice said.  "Do not abandon them."

Brad, Carol and Joey recognized the voice even before Alice stepped from the crowd to confront them.

"They're the Infanticides - like me," she said, addressing only Kirk.  "And, like me, they deserve their fate.  But not at the hands of the Tungs.  We came out of our shadows," Alice explained.  "Before I left - and followed my destiny to the glowing muck of your compound - I assembled my fellow killers for one last assault.  Some of us died, some of them died.  Nothing was accomplished beyond the skirmish itself.  I slit no throats that day.  I stabbed one Tung in the right eye - he had a patch over his left eye; another in the back of the head; a third in the middle of his chest.  Hardly worth the effort.  So I left, releasing my fellow killers from our oath to destroy the Tungs.  They've been pursued ever since.  I knew - from my cave in Colorado I knew - something was wrong.  So I came back.  They're your killers, Kirk - the ones who handed you over to the Tungs to be thrown in the Mississippi: you have no choice but to save them.  Only our killers are we obliged to save.  You have no choice, Kirk, but to end what was begun twenty years ago.  Only you have the power to do it."

Kirk said nothing, but he inclined his head to Alice to indicate his assent.

"You need not formulate a plan," Alice told him.  "The plan will formulate you.  You will know at the exact moment what must be done.  You have a powerful ally, Kirk: the ground beneath your feet.  Do you feel it?  It is about to speak.  When it clears its throat in preparation: that's when you will act."

Alice led the way to the place of execution.  As it neared ten o'clock, the prisoners were brought, in a truck, up 13th Street, past the Soldier's Memorial Building, onto Pine Street.  At gunpoint, six men were led from the truck the rest of the way to where six posts stood waiting.  One by one, they were stationed in front of the posts.  Six men came forward to chain the prisoners to the posts, as the other six stood guard.

"Don't they strip them first?" Joey asked someone in the crowd.

"Not common criminals," came the reply.  "They just put a big pellet in their mouths and blow their heads off.  You haven't seen this before?"

"No," said Joey.

"You're in for a treat!"

Three minutes before ten, just as the pellets were being placed in the prisoners' mouths, the ground shook - exactly as Alice had foretold.  Kirk, who had carefully studied the scene before him as the prisoners were readied, silently motioned his men in various directions.  The men knew what each motion meant, and acted accordingly.  All around, people were beginning to panic.  The guards were distracted.  One set of Kirk's men made for the guards beside the VIP stand; a second set took the guards across the Plaza; a third set went for the guards along Chestnut Street.  Kirk, Brad, Joey, Carol and Alice ambushed the guards nearest the prisoners.

Neither Joey nor Carol had weapons.  Kirk and Alice pulled the guns from the first guards to fall and tossed them to their unarmed companions.  By the time the other guards reacted to the sudden assault, it was too late; they, too, were killed: three more each by Kirk and Alice, three by Brad, and one by Carol.  Joey alone had not fired a round; he stood poised as a back-up, watching to make sure the others were not attacked.

In less than six minutes the operation was complete.  The prisoners were freed; together with their rescuers, they fled the Plaza, heading east along Pine Street, then up 10th, east again on Washington, and north at 7th, to the Convention Center, where a trade show was being held.  They decided to go in; to get lost in the crowd until the activity at Memorial Plaza had died down; then to come out again when people began dispersing for lunch, to return to their van via Franklin Avenue to 17th Street.

They stood out in the crowd.  They were dressed differently, they had a different look: even though they stashed their guns before going in, they had the look of people carrying weapons - and they made the vendors nervous.  Around twelve-thirty, the majority of visitors began breaking for lunch.  They followed them out, glancing around for signs of police activity.  The coast looked clear.  After discreetly retrieving their weapons, they headed west on Franklin, carefully monitoring each block they traveled and, especially, each intersection.

Nine blocks brought them to 17th Street, where they turned southward for the final five and a half blocks to their van.  They passed Delmar Boulevard without incident; then Lucas Avenue; Washington Avenue; St. Charles Street.  Ahead was Locust Street - the last intersection they had to cross.  As they neared the intersection, Alice stopped and began looking all around: ahead on 17th; back on 17th; around the corner, first left then right; up the sides of the buildings, then back down; along the sidewalk; up to the sky and back down.

"You see something?" one of her fellow Infanticides asked.

"An ambush?" another asked.

"No," she answered, continuing to look.  "Something's on its way - not the Tungs, or the police, or the Feds, or the people, who think it's alright to blow people's heads off for their amusement; but something great and wondrous.  Something that'll send us back a thousand years."

The time was one o-five P.M.  Alice crossed Locust Street; the others followed her.  The snipers readied their weapons.

The van with the Wyoming tags had been spotted soon after the rescue.  It was pegged first as suspicious; then, as "the getaway car."  Police sharpshooters were brought in and positioned atop the buildings on either side of 17th Street.  They saw their prey the moment they turned the corner of 17th and Franklin.  Poised and ready, they patiently waited till the fugitives were beside the van, about to get in.  It was now one o-seven.

All the guns of all the snipers fired simultaneously.  All the buildings on 17th Street swayed.  All the bullets went astray.  Some of the snipers were thrown back, some were thrown forward; some were hurled from the buildings onto the sidewalk; some went crashing through the ceilings as the beams supporting the roofs buckled and collapsed.

Throughout St. Louis the buildings swayed.  Some collapsed completely, some collapsed partially; most remained intact.  Two minutes later an enormous thud filled the air; the ground shook again, though not as fiercely - as if it were the noise itself causing the earth to shake.

The van was damaged.  A cornice from the building it was parked in front of ripped loose and came crashing down, right where Brad was standing.  Kirk sensed as much as saw the chunk of cement fall.  He tackled Brad, throwing him out of the way just as the cornice landed.  It hit the hood, smashing the metal like it was a cardboard box, and crushing the engine block.  It also cracked the sidewalk where Brad had been standing.

Brad and Kirk helped each other up.  "You saved my life," Brad said.

"It's my job," Kirk replied.

Alice had gone at once to the front of the van to assess its damage.  When she came back around to where Kirk and Brad were she informed them it was "totaled."

"Can it be repaired?" Kirk asked.

"No," she replied.  "It needs a new engine."

"Then we walk," said Kirk.  "The sooner we get started the better."

"There's another way," Alice offered.  "I can always get another vehicle.  It'll take a couple days though."

Kirk weighed the advantage of having a vehicle against the risk of remaining in St. Louis.  "If this block is any indication," he noted, "there has to be damage throughout the city.  Their hands'll be full; they won't have the time or the manpower to hunt for us.  Alright," he told Alice, "we'll stay until you have another vehicle."

Both Brad and Carol suggested they hide out at the Carter mansion; Alice recommended her old haunt, near the Levee.  Again Kirk weighed the options: had Brad or Carol been recognized? had the quake flooded the Mississippi shoreline?  Would the police be waiting at the mansion?  Would the buildings near the Levee be destroyed?

"We don't have time to send a search party to check out either," he said.  "Without transportation, we can't risk going almost three miles.  We have to head east and hope it's not flooded."

Still conscious of the possibility of ambush, despite the destruction and chaos, the party headed east along Locust Street, cautiously approaching all fourteen intersections leading to Memorial Drive and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.  They stopped a moment to look at the Gateway Arch, then headed north along Memorial Drive.

"I know my house won't be there," Alice told Carol as they went.  "The last quake washed it away.  But there will be a place for us.  An old stone house.  We'll be safe there."

"How do you know these things?" Carol asked.  "You seem so sure.  How?"

"I've just always known," Alice said.  "All my life.  That's why I knew when I saw the Tungs following me they were coming to slit my throat.  So I stayed very still - inside, so the blood wouldn't all escape.  I barely breathed.  I could feel my pulse drop.  My heart almost stood still.  They had every reason to think I was dead.  The only time my gift failed me was when they killed those babies.  I didn't see that.  That's what drove me crazy: always knowing things but not knowing that - the one thing that mattered!  I could have saved all those innocent lives...but it failed me when I needed it most.  It's a selfish gift: it only works to save my life.  I don't relish it.  At least, your son was saved.  But for what reason I'm not sure."

"It was pure chance, Alice," Carol concluded.  "It could have been any one of those babies that man saved."

At the corner of O'Fallon and First, a few blocks northeast of the Convention Center, stood an old abandoned stone house.  Alice led the others inside.  The windows were gone, from the same flood that destroyed her house; there was considerable debris on the first floor, but the second and third floors were fairly clean.  When the party had settled in, Alice and two of her fellow Infanticides left to go find a van.

"We'll be back in two days," Alice said on her way out.

St. Louis was already beginning to get back to normal when Alice and her accomplices returned on Thursday, June 25th, at seven P.M.  They returned on foot.

"Maybe they parked a few blocks away to be safe," Carol suggested to Joey.  He shook his head.

"I don't think so," he said.  The two of them went downstairs, just as Alice was entering the house.

"The van will be ready Saturday morning," Alice explained.  "But we have to go to it: it belongs to the Tungs; it can't be brought into the city.  It'll be waiting for us across the Missouri at Defiance.  We can leave tomorrow night, after dark, and make our way there by morning."

When Kirk heard the plan, he expressed concern that, as St. Louis returned to normal, the effort to find them would resume.  "It's dangerous remaining here even one more day."

"It's more dangerous out there," Alice countered.  "Remember: even small towns have their own gangs, even if they have no names.  Anyone they don't recognize is presumed from another gang.  They don't ask questions first.  It's more dangerous to be there two hours than two days here."

Kirk agreed to remain in St. Louis.

"Besides," Alice added, "something's coming downstream.  I don't have a clear picture of it yet; but it's something that'll give us all the time we need."

In the middle of the night Alice woke up, filled with a vision of doom.  It was three A.M. Friday morning.  She ran to the window and looked out.  She saw nothing but still cried out "The sky is falling!"  Her cry woke the others up.

Everyone scrambled to a window to see what it was, expecting to find fireballs, or falling ice, or a greenish purple glow, or even the whole sky filled with lightening from horizon to nadir.  But there was nothing.  Everyone went back to sleep, except Alice, who kept vigil the rest of the night.

The town of Marathon, on the Canadian side of Lake Superior, radioed a warning at eleven A.M. to Marquette, Michigan, on the southern side of Superior, just before Hudson Bay inundated it.  There was no time to evacuate Marquette, or Sault St. Marie, or any of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.  The waters of Superior rose a hundred feet in an hour and a half and spilled across the Peninsula into Lake Michigan just as Lake Huron hurled itself through Saginaw Bay diagonally across Michigan's Lower Peninsula toward Lake Michigan, to meet Superior just east of Milwaukee at two-thirty P.M.  By three, Chicago lay under a hundred feet of water; only its tallest skyscrapers remaining above water, and only until the steel girders holding them upright succumbed to the impact, falling, weakened and twisted, one by one until nothing was standing.

The waters went straight for the rift the quake had opened between the Mississippi and the Wabash three days earlier, plunging like a waterfall through the burrowed cities and towns that had fallen into the pit, killing anyone who had survived the fall, its spray its only warning that it was coming - a spray that could be felt a hundred miles ahead of it.

They were sitting down to dinner when Alice, still watching from her window, felt the tiniest, gentlest droplet of water against her cheek.  Only someone looking for a sign would have seen anything in that drop.

"It's coming," she said to herself.  "The parted waters are closing."  She couldn't see the spires of Eads Bridge from her window, but she could feel it, beckoning, like a Siren.

She calmly went to the others and, after apologizing for interrupting their meal, invited them to join her for a sightseeing excursion to Eads Bridge.  From the look in her eyes, no one took her literally.

"What do you see?" Carol asked.

"I don't see anything," Alice answered.  "I look out on a puddle, but see nothing.  If we don't go now, the nothing I see will hold us as well.  We must go to Eads Bridge."

Everyone got up to go, except Kirk.  "I won't ask anyone to stay with me," he said.  "But I won't go there."

"You must," said Alice.

Kirk shook his head.  "No," he replied.  "I wish all of you well, no matter what happens."

As everyone prepared to leave, Joey came over to Kirk, who had remained seated at the dining room table, and sat down as well.

"I'm staying here," he told Kirk.

"I want you to go, Joey," said Kirk.  "If not for your sake, then for the sake of the child Alice charged you to care for."

"Carol can look after him," said Joey.  "He needs a name: give him a name, Kirk - don't let him wait till he's grown to be named."

Kirk agreed.  "I name him Paris," he said.

"I'll tell Carol," Joey said as he got up.

"I can't let you stay, Joey."

"Kirk," Joey knelt before his leader to explain, not wanting to tower over him where he sat.  "I've defied you too many times in life - I've made myself unworthy to be your second-in-command.  I won't defy you in death.  As God is my witness, I will lay down my life for you, to regain my right to serve you.  I will not go, Kirk.  My place is here, beside you."

"What about your friend?"

"As much as I love him, I can't let him keep me from my duty," Joey said as he rose from his knees.  "I'll go tell Carol."

"You know, Joey: she may really be my mother," Kirk tried once more to convince him; "and I think I know enough about people to see that she loves you -"

"She loves only your father," Joey interrupted.

"She loves you too," Kirk continued.  "Consider her before you so easily abandon life to die with me."

Joey went to the others - most had already left, some were just starting out, the last few were waiting to see who else was leaving.  He told Carol of his decision.

"Let me speak to him alone," she said, as she headed for the dining room.

Kirk had arisen from his seat.  Carol stood facing him.

"You're frightened of that bridge," she said, "so frightened you'd rather die than climb it.  A true leader would never put his own fear above the good of his people."

"If I stay here and die," Kirk explained as matter-of-factly as if giving directions to a new scavenging site, " - assuming there's merit to Alice's vision - the final image anyone sees of me is a calm, rational man making a conscious decision.  If I go, and freeze, and cower before that bridge, I undo everything I've worked all my life to accomplish.  I don't wish to survive as a coward, defeated by something I can't even see or name or remember.  My people deserve a whole leader, not one torn apart by something as insignificant as whatever happened to him before he even knew who he was.  I won't let them see me like that."

"Then hide your fear," Carol prompted.

"I don't know if I can: I've never known fear.  I haven't built any mechanism to fight it with," Kirk explained.

"Something may happen to give you what you need," said Carol.  "Take the chance.  Kirk: think what you'll be giving your people if you triumph over this thing you're so afraid of.  Isn't that worth the risk of being humiliated in front of them?  Don't you owe it to them - and to all you've become - to take this final, greatest risk any man can take?"

Kirk's hands trembled; and his lips twitched, as if he were desperately fighting an urge to cry out.  Slowly he nodded his head.

"You're right," he was forced to admit.  "If I think only of myself - or of myself first - then I'm not worthy to be anyone's leader.  I'll go.  If I destroy everything I've built, then I'll die, alone and frightened, and humiliated, in the shadow of that bridge, while everyone watches.  If I can't rise above my own fear, I deserve to be humiliated.  So I'll go."

It was nine P.M. when the last of the party reached the remains of Eads Bridge.  The concrete and steel, left on the Levee when the causeway continuing Washington Street into the bridge's roadway collapsed, along with the main span of the bridge, on October 19, 2050, had been removed long ago.  The debris scattered along the Levee had washed in from the towns and cities destroyed upstream three days ago; it was scheduled for removal Saturday.  The sky was still light, and the moon had begun rising from the northeast, casting faint shadows along the Levee.  To the south, the Gateway Arch stood in grand relief against the gathering night, its powerful lights reducing the moon's glow to a mere flicker.

The spires left behind when Eads Bridge tumbled into the Mississippi stood just beyond the Levee, almost to the water's edge, buried deep in the mud and silt, reaching down to the bare rock basin.  The two huge cement pillars holding the last remaining crossbeam stood some fifty feet apart, like a colossus straddling the river's bank.  Broken cables and guy wires dangled from the crossbeam; steel beams sheared by the sudden collapse of the roadway thrust themselves jagged edged into the night.

The inside of the pillars was textured, almost like a lattice.  The followers of Kirk climbed up the lattices and raised themselves onto the crossbeam, the climb dangerous and exhausting, a chance of losing one's footing or grip every step of the way.  The ground at the base of the spires was moist and soft, but not enough to cushion a fall from anywhere near the top.

Some of Kirk's men questioned the wisdom of climbing up this remnant of a bridge when, barely three blocks away, was another bridge - Veteran's Bridge - a whole bridge.  Alice advised them against it.

"That bridge will carry anyone on it to their death!" she warned.  She didn't know that the other end of the bridge stood on a mere sliver of land, only feet from the rift the earthquake created; or that East St. Louis had vanished, except for the strip along the riverbank: her sight did not extend across the river.  But she knew Veteran's Bridge was a deathtrap.

Kirk refused to order his men onto Eads Bridge.  "They're free to go where the wish," he said in as calm a voice as he could manage.  He never once looked up at the massive spires, or at the people climbing them.

Three of his men headed for Veteran's Bridge.  There was very little traffic; they had no trouble getting onto the tiny walkway at the side of the road.

Only Kirk remained at the base of the bridge.  "I'm glad I'm here," he muttered to himself to tray and hold his panic at bay.  "It would have been even more cowardly to stay behind, and try to hid my cowardice.  At least here I'll die honestly.  At least I can give them that much."

As he mused, he heard a muffled thud.  He turned to look, then rushed over to the base of one of the pillars.  Carol had lost her footing about a third of the way up and fallen.  Kirk only noticed now that all the others were already on top of the crossbeam.  He forced himself to look up, to assure himself that his mother's fall had been witnessed and that someone - Brad or Joey or both - had started down to help her.

In the distance - from the direction of the Gateway Arch - were sounds, sharp, crackling, and steady.  Kirk helped Carol to her feet: there was no time to assess her injuries, he had to have her ready when they descended for her.

From the northeast came another sound: a roar, that grew louder by the minute.  And a steady spray of water that obscured the moon.  Kirk looked up into the spray.  He thought he saw a gleam of light against something dark that seemed to be filling the whole sky in the distance.

"Hurry!" he cried to Brad and Joey or whoever it was coming to get Carol.  They were not even halfway down.  "Hurry!" he cried again, then he grabbed her around the waist and began helping her climb the lattice, taking one tiny step up for every step she took so he could steady her and keep her from falling back down again.  She pulled herself as she stepped; he matched her movements, pull for pull, step for step, ascending the pillar with her as rapidly as the two of them could.  They were halfway up when they met Brad and Joey descending.

Neither Brad nor Joey took over the task of helping Carol climb; they merely climbed alongside the other two, Brad beside Carol, Joey beside Kirk.

Alice had seen, from higher up, the same gleam Kirk had seen from below, the same dark mass rising up to fill the sky.  She stood on the edge of the crossbeam, her arm extended, her knife raised high above her head, as if trying to detain the dark growing mass a moment longer.

The climbers had just reached the top when the wall of water came crashing against the pillars of Eads Bridge.  The wall reached more than halfway to the top, splashing all the way to the crossbeam, drenching everyone there with the cold waters of the North. 

Alice held her position.  She remained standing on the edge of the crossbeam holding her knife to the sky, as if commanding the waters to spare this bridge.  Far to the north, the horizon began to grow red, as if the sun itself had changed course and was about to rise, or set again, in a different place.  Alice stood silhouetted against the glowing horizon looking up at the moon, which had reappeared in the wake of the flood.

To the left of Eads Bridge a sudden wrenching cry arose to drown the roar of the rushing waters, followed by a massive tug of war between steel and concrete, on one side, and crumbling earth on the other.  The earth won.  Veteran's Bridge lost.  It was pulled apart as its eastern mooring gave way.  It fell in a shuddering heap upon the waters that, in the space of a single evening, had widened the Mississippi a hundred-fold; and then slowly sank in the cold, dark turbulence.  The screeching of car wheels, the screams of doomed humans were too faint to rise above the sounds the mechanics of destruction created.  Then it was gone, the bridge, together with its death rattle.

To the right, the silence filling the void of collapsed steel and stone ended in another, deeper, louder screech - not as near as the sound signaling the end of Veteran's Bridge, but near enough to capture the night. 

The Gateway Arch had become a final refuge to a people who had no other place to flee.  The Tungs had advance warning of what was coming, and when it would arrive.  Still, there wasn't time for all the Tungs to leave the city - even if there had been, there was nowhere to go without trespassing on someone else's turf; and they were unprepared to do battle for territory, in the wake of the damage and clean-up of three days ago.  The ones who fled St. Louis did so as thieves in the night.  Those who remained considered all the structures within their city, and chose the Arch as the strongest, safest spot to withstand the flood.

When they had installed themselves inside the Arch, they set up vigil at the observation room.  When they saw others seeking refuge in their Arch, they opened fire, killing or wounding anyone approaching its base.  When the waters came, the intruders were swept away.  The Arch held as firm as anything along the Mississippi; the waters parted to go around its twin base.

Unlike Eads Bridge, however, it had not been built to sit on the riverbed or to hold a span across the river.  It was a land structure, built to sit on firm, dry land.  So, while the floodwaters could not directly attack it, its base was slowly loosened from the ground it set in, as the soil washed from around it.  When enough soil had turned to sediment, the base gave way, and it toppled, like a boulder in a mudslide, backward into the Mississippi, trapping the Tungs inside until the waters slowly filled the entire Arch and flushed them out.

For a moment, standing on the crossbeam, drenched and fully aware of his surroundings, Kirk began to cry; then he quickly focused all his attention on his mother.  He joined Brad and Joey in attending to her.  The cold waters dripping from his brow obscured the tears still streaming from his eyes; but Carol saw, and knew; and, under the pretext of thanking him for saving her, held him in her arms.

The whole sky was glowing from a strange, reddish lightening that flashed continuously, streak after streak after streak, from the horizon halfway to the zenith.  The knife Alice still held aloft flashed a silvery-red gleam across the waters surrounding the bridge.  The others gathered around her, as if expecting a ship to appear below, to take them away to dry land.  But her beacon drew nothing, except the endless reflections of lightening.                        

For one whole day they remained stranded on the crossbeam, as the waters surrounding them receded a few inches.  The daylight had reduced the painted lightening to a series of thin cracks in the sky, but it was still there, and returned again to its full luminescence as the sun went down.  It seemed to be closer than the night before, and spreading all the way across the sky.

"We can't stay here any longer," Kirk concluded.  "Tomorrow we have to plan our escape.  Somehow - even if we have to swim - we have to be gone before another nightfall."  Though everyone wondered how they could leave, no one doubted that it had to be done.

At daybreak of their second full day, they began planning their escape, looking for anything they might be able to use for a raft or a boat.  The water was filled with debris, but so far nothing big enough to use had floated anywhere near the bridge.  Kirk resolved to have two or three of them - the best swimmers - go first to search for bigger bits of flotsam; if they found something, to bring it back; if not, to send some kind of signal.

"We'll wait till two o'clock," Kirk said.  "If you haven't signaled or returned, the rest of us will start out."

Three swimmers - Brad and two of the T-Men - climbed down to the water and dove in.  The water was cold, but not frigid.  They began swimming, toward the heart of St. Louis, in search of something transformed by the flood from a shelter to a ship.

The morning wore on.  It became noon, then one o'clock.  "In one hour we leave - the same way they did," Kirk told the others.

Though the sun was bright and, as before, nearly washed the incessant lightening from the sky, Kirk and the others - especially Alice - could tell it was growing stronger, and coming nearer.  They could even hear it, where before it was perfectly silent.  They strained to listen, to determine if it was still coming closer.  Suddenly it was drowned out by another sound, a sound growing louder by the second.  They looked in the direction of the sound, and saw something approaching out of the sky.  A few minutes more and they realized what it was: a helicopter, heading toward them from the east.

Kirk reacted out of instinct based on years of watching his father's men trying the outmaneuver the Feds.  "Out of sight - everyone!" he ordered.  There was no time to climb onto the pillars; all they could do was lie down flat and hope they would not be seen.

The helicopter veered sharply to the right and headed southward.  Seeing their chance of rescue disappearing, two of Kirk's men disobeyed his order and stood up, waving their arms and yelling for help.  The helicopter swung around, moved in closer, and began firing.  The two men tumbled into the water, leaving a trail of blood on the crossbeam.  Then the gunners saw the others, lying off to the side.  The helicopter was angled to where the guns could be aimed directly downward.  There was no time for anyone to climb down or even to dive into the water.

Kirk threw himself on top of his mother, to shield her.  Joey threw himself on top of Kirk, to shield him.  The other T-Men laid there covering their heads. Alice stood up, holding her knife up to the sky one last time.

The blade stopped turning.  Though the chopper hovered low to the bridge, it was high enough to draw a bolt of lightening from above.  The lightening short-circuited the engine; the chopper lost power.  It drifted aimlessly a moment then plunged into the Mississippi, bursting into a wall of flame that slowly extinguished as it sank.

The helicopter was part of a flotilla sent out by the Federal government to look for survivors of the flood - not to rescue them, but to kill them. The leadership left behind when the President moved to Pod City had decided that the rest of the country must not learn what had happened here, in the Mississippi Valley.  There could be no witnesses left alive anywhere from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.  The flotilla was sent out at daybreak to complete its mission.  Of a hundred helicopters, only twelve came back.  The rest were destroyed by the lightening, which the daylight had concealed but not driven away.

For weeks on end the lightening remained, filling the entire sky over the Central Plains, from Illinois westward to Nebraska, from Minnesota southward to Missouri.  It flashed and flickered incessantly, alternating in intensity from the yellow-white of normal lightening to the deep red of a sunset.  The sounds it made oscillated, too, between a low hiss, as of snakes crawling across the sky, and the full booming clap of thunder.  Occasionally, a stray flash struck a building or a tree, or a person or a vehicle, short-circuiting whatever it touched; but for the most part the lightening stayed within a celestial arch - not cloud to cloud though: this was not lightening generated within clouds, it was something, set in motion within the higher reaches of the atmosphere, which descended to within a few hundred miles of earth's surface.

On a very clear night, under a new moon, when the street lamps went dim, Andrea, looking up into the sky, could see faint traces of red glowing far to the north and east.  She wondered if the earth were ablaze, the sky mirroring what it saw below; or if the fireballs were on the move again.  Every minute of every day she thought of Brad; it amazed, frightened and saddened her that she could function so normally without him.

"Every minute out there is occupied just in surviving," she mused as she moved along a Plexiglas walkway beneath a Plexiglas canopy beneath the night sky.  "He has no time for despair.  I have nothing but time, yet I don't despair.  It isn't because I know I'll be with him again that I don't despair.  It isn't that.  I don't know what it is, but I know that if he died tomorrow, I still wouldn't despair: I'd grieve, then go on.  Yet I know he would die without me.  Fools!  Fools!  Idiots!  They destroy everything they touch to attain power!  If only they knew how monstrous, how horrible beyond words, real power is!  That I could continue living, without him, but he couldn't without me: there is no greater power - and no more hideous beast imaginable!  I don't want that power - I'd give anything not to have it!  But it's there; it'll always be there, a demon, laughing at every caress, mocking every tender word: 'Yes, you say you love him - but would you die without him?'  No wonder insanity and power go hand in hand: only a maniac would want it!"

Reggie took over more and more of his father's day to day responsibilities as Professor Kirkus grew weaker and less able to concentrate on his duties as President, let alone execute them.  Reggie was always there to assist, to help make life a little easier, for his ailing father.  Every chance he could, he issued edicts in his father's name, making a host of subtle demands on the populace - nothing overt, nothing they would rail against, just little annoyances they were willing to accept as the price of maintaining order and harmony within their society.

Reggie - on his father's behalf - wanted to be notified when anyone visited another pod - ostensibly, so as to better monitor the air quality along the walkways and in the underground tunnels: a reasonable enough request.  Or to be sent a copy of any communication between individuals, in order to make sure the electronic highway linking all two thousand families was working properly - a sensible precaution, given the vast distance from one end of the city to the other.  And a hundred other insignificant, easily acquiesced requests which slowly, inexorably tightened his grip on Pod City.

"It was all my idea," Professor Kirkus explained one rainy afternoon to Andrea, in response to a question regarding his title and position in St. Louis.  "Education is a kind thing, benign, generally loved.  You should always attach your agenda to kind things.  You can get so much closer to your objective if you call yourself a teacher than if you call yourself a king.  Not that I would be king.  I never sought power for power's sake.  The key to what it was I sought lies in the seemingly ridiculous concept I created: educational authenticity; and the equally ridiculous title I chose for myself: Director of Educational Authenticity.  It's something beyond the age-old notion of educating the masses to believe, accept, adhere to and apply the ideas needed to keep them in line and yourself in power.  Well beyond that.  It's more a state of being I was interested in, not a process; a permanent state of flux, so that the kind of rigid dogmatic institutional bureaucracy every society eventually evolves into could be avoided.  It sounds absurd even to me now that my feeble brain tries to express it.  But it was everything, this notion of authenticating the education of a people: the every changing conditions facing man become the only proper medium for accomplishing that end.  As conditions change, the process of educating a people changes accordingly.  I sought, above all, to defeat the Hegelian dialectic: the old 'Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis' mechanism that destroyed every empire since time began: to defeat it by making it the cornerstone of authority.  By creating an artificial dialectic as a subterfuge.  A little like the ancients calling their children ugly and stupid and weak so the gods wouldn't come and take them.  A little like that.  Always having an enemy, and always keeping it at arm's length, so that no real enemy could get a toehold."

"And that other thing," Andrea then asked, "that 'matter': good matter, smart matter, special matter?  How does it fit?"

"Actually quite well," Kirkus admitted.  "Another absurd idea I set into motion.  Some traveling scientist tried to sell me the enzymes he'd synthesized.  I saw the potential; but it was never a top priority.  It wasn't so important who got what - or even if any of it made a difference in the behavior of children, as its inventor insisted; only that people were willing to submit their children to us.  Again, under the auspices of 'education.'  A large, rich, unwieldy society like ours can only be ruled if the people willingly let themselves be ruled.  Force only works on a small scale and is only necessary where there's no surplus.  Give people an economic incentive and they'll gladly give up their freedom, or their first born, or anything else.  Property is the greatest ally power has.  It's the greatest hallucinogenic."

"So those babies who disappeared?" Andrea asked, letting her question trail off.

"More form than substance," Kirkus explained.  "More a matter of bookkeeping.  Too many get our top of the line - our 'special matter': an accounting nightmare.  It's really quite humorous if you look past what happened to them.  I never meant for them to die; I thought they would just be shipped off somewhere; but the Tungs somehow got into it, and saw them as some kind of threat to their authority - the Holy Innocents all over again.  And there I was on the horns of a dilemma: I couldn't save the babies without tipping my hand.  I wasn't prepared to admit the 'matter' was more hoax than holy grail, so I had to sacrifice the babies.  We didn't really know - or particularly care - if the stuff was worth a damn or not: its worth was as a tool for social control, not as a biochemical agent.  Does 'good matter' make people good?  Sure: if they're good to start with.  Does 'smart matter' make them smart?  If they're not dumb: sure it will.  And 'special matter': will it produce a superior leader, full of ambition and drive and a lust for power?  Probably not, unless he's that way to start with.  But it's all part of a gestalt we've built up for maintaining order.  As long as people believe in what we're doing, we're good to go.  And 'go' is exactly what we did, leaving society in the lurch: the greatest irony of all.  Our mechanisms remain - people still summarily bring their kids to be 'tested': bring them through fire and ice and flood and gloom of night - but we're no longer there to reap the reward.  No other dynamic but irony drives human history, in the final analysis.  And now I'm dying, and the best physicians our society had can't find anything wrong with me - just as they could not find anything wrong with your mother."

"The same thing happened to her?" Andrea asked, unaware till now of the connection.

"More or less the same," Kirkus answered.

"Have they tested you for toxins, poisons - anything like that?"

"No one else in Pod City has the same symptoms: it can't be related to anything in the environment," Kirkus pointed out.

Reggie befriended the son of the chief architect of the environmental systems; through his new friend, he learned how to manipulate the air, water, electricity and communications.  He was able to pinpoint a single pod and disrupt its environment.  He chose one at random to test it on - a pod close enough to his headquarters in the President's pod to allow him to view the results first hand.  He shut off the air and sealed every door except the main hatch through which the pod was initially entered.  A couple hours later the hatch opened, and the residents of pod number 1932 climbed out, gasping for air.  When they were out, he sealed the hatch again, leaving them stranded in the outside world.  They climbed down, and ran along the trench banging on every pod; but no one would admit them: they had joined the ranks of the Bangers, as the people outside Pod City were called by its residents.  Suddenly an icicle storm came up and they were all impaled.

"Anyone who cannot be ruled will be evicted," Reggie mused as he watched the former residents of 1932 scurrying about wildly trying to dodge the icicles.  "Nothing personal," Reggie feigned telling the five people being sliced to pieces by falling ice.  "Just a little experiment.  All for a good cause."                

Two days later a second helicopter flew over Eads Bridge.  The bridge was empty; no one was on the crossbeam.  The water had receded still further, to less than halfway to the top.  Debris clung like moss to the huge stone pillars rising out of the water.

Sanderson Spears had been drawn to the bridge.  He had come halfway across the country to see it - though it wasn't really Eads Bridge that took him away from his monitors; drove him sixty miles to the town of Hawthorne, Nevada, where the helicopter he had gotten was kept; sent him aloft with just enough fuel to reach Grand Junction, Colorado, where his contacts told him he could refuel; carried him to Fort Scott, Kansas, for a final refueling; and, from there, to the Mississippi.  Rather, it was the little pictures he had seen on his monitor, together with the squiggles and curlicues and colored markings, that drew him from his lair.  It was the things that happened around and to Eads Bridge that brought him to St. Louis.

But it was the sight of Eads Bridge that made him waste precious fuel hovering for nearly an hour.  Nothing else rose above the waterline; for as far as he could see from this perspective, upstream or downstream, only the spires of Eads Bridge showed; all else was submerged in a murky sea full of silt and debris.

"You started it all," he reported to the bridge.  "The day you fell the end began.  And now only you remain.  All the people, all the buildings, all the cars and buses and trains: all buried beneath the North Pole.  Where I used to live and where I used to work are somewhere down there.  Where Joey grew up, and first did his 'boy things.'  Oh God I miss him!  A fool and his greatest treasure are soon parted!  All that's stopping me from plunging into these waters or ascending to the new troposphere to be electrocuted is Yellowstone.  I saw the country split in two, right down the Mississippi.  I want to see Wyoming turn inside out.  And maybe the Pacific at my front door.  Then I can finally lay me down to sleep.  I'm so tired."

Spears had flown right over Joey on his way to the Mississippi but didn't know it; he was too far up to notice the small party making its way along the Missouri on a raft.  The town of Defiance, on the western banks of the Missouri - the town where Alice had arranged for a van to be delivered - was under ten feet of water; the van had floated away.  The raft that carried Joey and the others from Eads Bridge was almost to the shoreline.

Spears surveyed some more of the new Mississippi then turned west and headed back to Fort Scott.  He would have gone due north - to the Great Lakes, now an inland sea, and on past Hudson Bay to the magnetic North Pole, where the flood began - but his fuel would not hold out, and there would be nowhere along the way to stop and refuel.  So, a second time, he flew over Joey and failed to recognize him.  There were lots of rafts along the Missouri, lots of people with nothing else to do but follow the river until they came to dry land - people from the towns surrounding St. Louis, which had been flooded but not buried under the floodwaters.  From the air, if they could be detected at all, they were indistinguishable from one another.  Sanderson Spears' treasure stood out no more than a heap of iron pyrites.

"The deal was, if they didn't return by the summer solstice, we were to presume them dead, and I was to assume the leadership of the organization till a new leader could be chosen.  Today is that day and they're still not back.  My first official act as your interim leader is to form a search party to go find them.  I am not willing to give up so easily on Paris Commune's son, or to usurp his rightful place.  I will not commit Kirk and the others to their graves until every effort to locate them has been exhausted."

Mount Everest paused and looked at the men gathered around him inside their new headquarters at Bassway Strip, southeast of the town of Kearney, Nebraska, on the Platte River.  This portion of tunneling had been chosen as the T-Men's new headquarters precisely because of its size - it was the biggest and broadest stretch of tunnel in the entire system; its location - far enough from northwestern Wyoming, should Yellowstone blow, as predicted, to be out of harm's way, yet central enough to permit access to the rest of the tunnels; and its relative lack of gravesites: fewer apprentices were executed here than elsewhere.  It was also unique, as Joey discovered when mapping the tunnels, in being the sole stretch of tunnel deviating from the pattern: its entrance was not on the eastern bank of a small stream but the southern bank of a major river - one flowing directly into the Missouri.

"I'm asking for four volunteers," Mount Everest continued.  "I would prefer a contingent of twenty, but I can't spare that many men.  Five of us - myself and four others - is all this mission warrants.  There's too much else that needs to be attended to.  I'd like to start immediately.  We know their destination was Central Missouri.  We know Jefferson City was the farthest point they intended to go.  We'll take 80 to 29 to 70.  When we're past Kansas City we'll play it by ear.  Who's with me?"

Every one of the T-Men volunteered.  Mount Everest chose four from among them, leaving the next highest ranking T-Man, Stone Creek, in charge.  A van - one of six remaining - was readied.  Three o'clock in the afternoon on a hot, dry summer day they set out from Bassway Strip to find their leader.  They drove all evening and into the night, stopping just before sunup where the Missouri River runs under Interstate 70 west of Columbus.

Driving on the Interstate was like driving on an unpaved country road, so much of the roadway had been torn up by the growing number of storms that came through.  Road signs were toppled, interchanges impassable, and in places cars and trucks had been abandoned on the roadway.  Occasionally, but not often, the van had to swerve to avoid a body lying in the road.  In ten hours on the roads there had been no sign of Kirk or any of his party.  After resting a couple hours, the men decided to head south along US 63 to Jefferson City.  The trip took a little over an hour, still without any sign that Kirk's men had passed this way.  When they reached Jefferson City, the men asked Mount Everest if this were the end of the line.

"We'll stay in this area till sundown," he told them.  "Then I'll decide if we start back or keep going."

"But this is as far as they were going," the men reminded their new leader.

"I haven't been in this area in years," Mount Everest answered.  "Nor do I have any ties here.  Even so, I feel the pull of St. Louis, and the Mississippi.  How much more they must have felt it.  What I have to decide is if they could have resisted."

They skirted Jefferson City, more in the manner of an animal surveying changes in its environment than of fugitives avoiding confrontation.  "There's something peculiar here," Mount Everest noted.  "Something's happened.  Look how many buildings are damaged.  And yet, the damage isn't what we've seen on the Plains after the storms hit.  It's more like the aftermath of an earthquake.  There are tunnels around here somewhere."

Mount Everest got out a copy of Joey's map and, following it, found the tunnel - and the van left behind.

"This means they're here," one of his men concluded.

"It only means they were here," Mount Everest pointed out.  "I still have to decide if they headed east or stayed here."

By nightfall, he had made his decision.  He collected his men and announced that at the first light of day they would continue eastward, to St. Louis.

"But not along the Interstate," he said.  "We'll follow the Missouri.  We'll take 94.  We'll take it very slow.  We'll find them.  This river will lead us to them.  And lead them back to safety."

The time was 9:35 P.M. Friday, June 26th, in the year 2071.  Mount Everest and his men camped along the southern bank of the Missouri at Riverside Park, in the shadows of the Missouri State Penitentiary, instead of at the tunnel, which was too far west of their intended route.  At sunup they planned to take High Street to US 54, cross the Missouri, and get on State Road 94, which paralleled the river, to St. Louis.

The water began rising, slowly, almost imperceptibly, at first; then more rapidly.  Two of the men had already gone to sleep, inside the van.  Mount Everest and the other two had walked along High Street to the Penitentiary and were on their way back when the river spilled over its banks in a torrent and flooded Riverside Park, washing the van away.  The two men inside the van awoke, and tried to get out; but it was too late.  The river sent the van crashing into the stone wall of the Penitentiary; it exploded, trapping the men in a raging inferno that slowly extinguished as the van sank into the murky waters, drowning the burning men with it.

The river stopped rising as quickly as it had started, as if its only purpose in flooding had been to destroy the van and its two passengers.  Mount Everest turned to the two men with him.

"We'll go on," he said.  "Now we need to be found by Kirk's party as much as we need to find them."

"We have their van," one of the men pointed out.

Mount Everest shook his head.  "We'll only take it as a last resort - only if we can't find an abandoned vehicle.  It's there for a reason, we'll leave it there if we can."

At sunup, as planned, they started crossing the Route 54 bridge, on foot, then turning eastward along Route 94, which had been flooded and carried no traffic, though the water had already receded.  At the small town of Wainwright, a couple miles past Jefferson City, they managed to secure a car abandoned when the Missouri overflowed its banks and drove the residents from their homes.  They hot-wired it and began the trip to St. Louis.  It was slow-going, the three-hour drive taking more than five hours: the closer they got to St. Louis, the more flooded the roadway became until, at the town of Marthasville, halfway there, they were forced to abandon 94 altogether and take State Road 47.  They could have gone south, to US 50 - the more direct route; but, on an impulse, Mount Everest went north, to pick up Interstate 70.  Had they gone south, they would have entered a vast flood plain extending from the Mississippi through St. Louis County well into Franklin County.  The northern route they took, through Warner and St. Charles Counties, while also flooded, was passable as far as the Missouri's final leg up to the Mississippi.  They got as far as the city of St. Charles, ten miles northwest of St. Louis, but no farther.  From the I-70 bridge over the Missouri, which should have raised twenty feet above the river but, instead, sat on the water's surface, they could see nothing but water, as if they had come upon a lake or an inland sea.

"Gentlemen," Mount Everest announced, "we're going to make a raft.  And it just so happens I spent my youth white-water rafting in West Virginia.  I've repaired more rafts than most people have even seen; and I've built nearly as many.  I can build a raft out of almost anything.  So let's get started - and make it big enough for Kirk and his men."

They worked the rest of the day and into the night, first securing the materials they needed from a lumberyard closed by the flood, and from abandoned houses and businesses; then piecing it all together.  When they were finished, they moved the raft against the bridge and lay down on it to rest for the night, marveling at the strange red glow streaking across the sky.  As many phenomena as they had seen, this was something entirely new to them.  They wondered if they would see daybreak.

At sunup they released the raft, took hold of the steering rods, and began floating upstream, letting the current of the Missouri - which still flowed through the lake - guide them to where the downstream current of the Mississippi re-directed them toward St. Louis.

They could still see very faint traces of the reddish streaks that had filled the night sky.  They had no point of reference other than the current driving their raft, which told them they were floating above the Mississippi and, therefore, above St. Louis.  They had been on the raft, floating, for nearly ten hours when they finally caught sight of a landmark - the remains of a bridge: Eads Bridge.  They began steering directly for it, speeding their raft along as much as they could.  When they were within a couple miles, they heard a rumbling; looking up, they saw a helicopter hovering above the bridge, then heard shots and saw two bodies tumble from the giant crossbeam.  Then a very faint streak flashed against the blade, as the helicopter attempted to maneuver itself around.  The blade stopped turning; the chopper plunged into the water and burst into flames.  The raft came alongside the huge pillars of the bridge a few minutes later, as the flames were dying down.  They had been spotted by a solitary figure atop the bridge, which had arisen seconds before the chopper went down.

Alice recognized Mount Everest at once, and called to the others, who were just getting up.  They all ran to the edge of the crossbeam to get his attention.  One by one they climbed down to the raft, Carol the only one who needed help negotiating the latticework: she had sprained both ankles, both wrists, and dislocated her right shoulder, but no bones were broken, no internal organs were damaged.  Joey and Brad helped her climb down.  Kirk was last to descend the lattice - not out of fear, but out of a sense of duty.  In the day and a half his party was stranded, he had managed to subdue his fear of the bridge and the water surrounding it.

"Thank you for ignoring my directive to presume us dead," Kirk said to Mount Everest.

"To the contrary," Mount Everest replied, "I declared myself your successor four days after the solstice.  Finding you was my first - and last - official act.  However, owing to my being an expert raft man, I shall not relinquish command of this vessel so long as it's needed."

Mount Everest had observed each member of the party as they came down the pillar.  "This is not everyone," he said to Kirk.  "I saw two men fall from the bridge.  That still leaves six unaccounted for."

"Three are dead," Kirk explained.  "They chose another route - and I let them.  I allowed them to go to their deaths in a moment of weakness.  The other three have gone for help; we have to find them."

"The boy who saved my life at the compound: is he among the ones we must find?" Mount Everest asked.

"He is," answered Kirk.  Mount Everest acknowledged the reply with a nod and a smile of relief.

They could no longer use the current to guide the raft.  Instead, they guided it themselves, using the rods Mount Everest had fashioned to head westward, to the heart of St. Louis.  A few skyscrapers downtown remained standing, though submerged in twenty feet of water: the Old Post Office, the Wright Building, the Paul Brown Building, all between what used to be Olive and Pine.  The raft was steered toward each, on the assumption that the three swimmers would have stopped there to look for something they could use as a makeshift raft.  But there was no sign of anyone, so they moved farther into the city, to the Continental Building on Grand Avenue, still standing but creaking desperately and as empty as the others had been.  They could see below, in the water, the roofs of one story buildings, and the shattered remains of skyscrapers which had fallen victim to the flood.  For a while they rafted aimlessly above St. Louis, as if trying as long as possible to put off abandoning the search.

Joey, who had been sitting beside Carol, suddenly stood up and pointed to the northwest.  The others looked too.  Rising up out of the waters was the dome of a church: the New Cathedral of St. Louis had survived the torrent and stood, in the waning light of early evening, like a vaulted beacon guiding wanderers across the water.

"God has given us a sign," Joey told the others.  "He wants us to give Him thanks.  Then He'll show us where they are."

Alice seconded Joey's observation, though from a different perspective.  "I feel them close by," she said.  "If we don't ring the church bell we'll lose them forever."

The great Romanesque and Byzantine Cathedral, between Lidell and Pine, three blocks from Forest Park, stood alone in the West End of St. Louis; everything else had either been submerged outright or else had crumbled as its foundation finally gave way to the relentless erosion of the ground it was moored in.  The base of the Cathedral was also shifting; and though its massive walls had held against the assault, it was just a matter of time till it, too, was forced to submit to the water.

The three swimmers realized too late that they had attempted too much.  The distance was nothing for accomplished swimmers, one end of St. Louis to the other; but the cold northern water sapped the heat from their bodies faster than the summer sun could replenish it.  None of the buildings downtown, or even midtown, had what they were searching for.  Anything that could be easily dismantled had been carried off by the flood; all that remained were concrete slabs or steel beams or marble floors.  When they headed west, they had no clear goal in sight: nothing was visible above the waterline.  They swam on impulse.  When, finally, after being in the water nearly four hours, they saw the dome of the New Cathedral, they had no choice but to make for it, their aim no longer to find a suitable raft but to lift themselves out of the water and into the sun.  They managed to gain a foothold and hoist themselves to a set of stained glass windows high up, near the dome.  From there, they ascended the rest of the way, to lie flat on the circular roof, gasping for warmth.  They would have stripped, to let their clothes and their skin dry out, but they knew there wasn't enough time: they had stopped here for survival, not comfort; they still had a raft to secure before it got too dark to guide it back to Eads Bridge.

When they had regained enough strength to continue their search, one of them - Brad - climbed as high as he could and surveyed the surrounding area.  Even from this vantage point, he could see nothing standing.  He returned to the others to tell them they had to find what they sought here.

"How do we even get in?" one of the others asked.

"We'll have to break out a window," Brad replied.

"But it's the house of the Lord," both of the others protested.  "We can't just break in."

"We'll knock first," said Brad.  "If there's no answer, we'll do what we have to do."

Brad swung down to one of the windows and tapped on it, making sure the others saw and heard what he was doing.  He gave it a minute, tapped a second time, waited again; then tapped a third time, after which he took his foot and kicked the pane of stained glass out, motioning to the others to follow him inside.

They climbed through the window and dropped onto the floor of the bell tower; it was dry, and warm inside, but not hot.  They could hear water rustling below them, in the main hall of the cathedral; and there was a low but constant creaking as the walls and foundation kept settling in the continually shifting ground.  They began searching for anything they could use: doors, floorboards, ceiling beams, anything wooden, anything that might float.  They pried and pulled and broke and ripped the interior of the bell tower, finally settling on a large door, which they managed to unhinge.  The next hurdle facing them was getting the door out, onto the water.

None of the windows in the bell tower were big enough to get the door through; nor could they break out the section of wall between the windows.  The stairway leading to the tower was too narrow and winding to maneuver the door through.  Their only course was to try and pry enough of the floorboards loose, and hope that the sub-flooring was thin enough, or weakened enough, to allow the door to crash through into the main hall without it being damaged in the process; then to float the door out the main entrance.

The floorboards were loosened without much difficulty; what they revealed was a thick concrete floor underneath, impossible to break through.

"We've got to go down into the church itself," Brad told the other two.  "We've got to find something there."

The water was almost halfway up the stairwell.  The only way to negotiate the stairs was to descend halfway on foot then swim, underwater, the rest of the way down, however far that might be; then find an opening and re-surface.  The only alternative would be to go back out the way they came in, dive down and try to find a door they could open or a window they could break; then continue underwater till they could re-surface.  The risk seemed greater this way, so they decided on the stairway.

"I'll go first," said Brad.  "I'll find a way to signal you.  If you don't hear anything, you'll know I didn't make it.  So you'll have no choice but to leave and look elsewhere - but not till morning.  It's already too late in the day to be in this water more than an hour.  And there's no way of knowing how far you'll have to go to find another building still standing.  I'm sorry my coming back home one last time caused so much pain for people I love.  If I don't make it, please tell the others how much I regret hurting them.  And tell Joey to say goodbye to Andrea if he ever sees her again.  I wish it were possible to tell Kirk how much I care for him and respect his leadership - but he's not able to see me as anything but a rival.  If only I still believed, then I could say 'God be with you.'  I'm sorry I can't give you even that."

Brad started down the stairway, came to a bend and disappeared around a corner.  A few more steps brought him to the water.  First he knelt down to test it; it was colder than the water outside; the thick masonry had kept the cathedral cool; its design siphoned off interior heat; the water, without sunlight to warm it, stayed as cold as when it first arrived.

Brad took a deep breath and plunged headlong into the water, avoiding both the staircase and the winding stairwell.  A moment later he came to the bottom of the stairway.  The door separating it from the rest of the church was closed but not locked; he pried it open, swam a few more feet and, looking up into the faint light filtering through the water from the stained glass window, shot straight up, gasping for breath the instant he broke the surface.

When he refilled his lungs, he looked around for some way to signal the other two swimmers.  It suddenly occurred to him that he might not be able to: the bell tower would have been designed so as to block sound from descending into the main hall, and the water would muffle any sound he made.  He tried banging on the walls with candle holders; he tried shouting; he even attempted to hurl artifacts at the ceiling.  But nothing he did elicited a response or brought the other two down the stairwell.

"If they can't come to me," he resolved, "I'll go to them.  I'll find a raft then find a way out; then either take the raft to the bell tower or go get them to help me."

He might have simply gone back up the stairway, gotten the other two, and returned.  But unless there was something here they could use, that would have been a waste of time and energy.  So he looked for a door or something else big enough to hold the search party yet able to be wrenched loose from wherever it was attached.

While he looked, he was being pronounced dead.  The other two swimmers, unable to detect any signal from him, took him at his word: he didn't make it.  They knelt and said a prayer for his soul.  When they arose they resolved to follow Brad's orders to the letter: to wait out the night here then start out at the first light of day to find another building still standing.

The sun was beginning to set as the raft pulled alongside the cathedral.  The sky behind the towers and spires glowed a brilliant red; then layers of clouds overhead caught the light as deep pink; between the two were degrees of red and pink interspersed with gold.  The raft was led around the church, slowly, its occupants looking for signs of life.

"There!"  Alice, first to see the broken window, pointed.

The raft was brought close to the wall.  Several of the men began hollering; and, as they hollered, the rods used to guide the raft were beaten against the unbroken windows.  Two faces appeared, cautiously, at the window.  Seeing it was the rest of their search party, they acknowledged the greeting, climbed through the broken window, and lowered themselves onto the raft.

"Where's Brad?" Kirk asked the instant their feet touched the raft.  They looked at each other, looked at Carol and, drawing Kirk as far to the other side as possible, told him that Brad was dead.

"How?" Kirk asked, and was told he drowned.

"Where?" Kirk demanded.  Both men pointed.

"In there," they said, almost as one voice.

"Show me," said Kirk.  "I want to see his body."

Again the two men looked at one another, and tried to explain where the body was and why they could not retrieve it.

Kirk motioned the two men to follow him as he climbed up and through the window.  Inside the bell tower, they led Kirk to the stairway and explained what had happened, why it had happened, and how they had waited in vain for a signal.

"Look around you," said Kirk.  "This room is built to absorb sound, not amplify it.  You couldn't have heard him, no matter what."

"Then why didn't he come back up the way he went down?" the men asked in bewilderment.

"Because he's Brad," said Kirk with a hint of anger in his voice.  "He doesn't wait for help to arrive - he leaps in head first!  If he didn't drown, or get injured, he's probably down there right now looking for something he can use for a raft.  I'm going down there, after him."

Kirk went back to the window and called Joey to come to the bell tower.  When Joey had climbed through the window, Kirk explained what had happened and what he intended doing.

"No one is to come after me," he ordered.  "I will not allow more than one man to risk his life looking for Brad.  I'm the one who must go.  Wait no more than an hour, then leave - all of you."

Joey started to protest.  Kirk stopped him.  "You swore you would never again defy me.  Live up to your promise."

Reluctantly, Joey agreed.  "One hour," Kirk repeated.  Joey acknowledged the order.

Kirk stripped naked.  He carefully folded his uniform and handed it to Joey.  "If I don't return, bury this.  It doesn't matter where.  None of you will ever get to Tennessee, to our old compound on Clingman's Dome, to the giant oak whose shadow I grew up in.  So bury it anywhere."

Kirk started down the stairs.  When he got to the water, his whole body shivered; but he leaped in and swam down the winding stairwell and through the open door into the main hall of the church; then, just as Brad had done three hours earlier, swam to the surface, taking huge gulps of air in rapid succession.  When his lungs had filled, he looked around; but it was growing dark inside the Cathedral, so he was unable to see anything more clearly than as an outline or a shadow.  He called out to Brad, but got no response.

Although he had acclimated somewhat to the water and had stopped shivering, he could sense the heat being drawn from his body into the cold water surrounding him.  He began swimming, as much to keep warm as to search for Brad.  He knew his time was running out; he knew that even before his hour was up it would be too dark to search any longer.  The sunset had been replaced by the red streaks of lightening.  All of a sudden a brilliant flash lit the interior of the church for a split-second.  By chance Kirk was facing the altar; something caught his eye.  He quickly swam toward it.

There, at the altar, holding on with one hand, was Brad, barely conscious.  Kirk swam to him, put his arm around him, pried his hand loose from the altar, then swam away, holding Brad as tightly in his arm as he could.  His sense of direction had not been disoriented by the cold.  He swam, not back toward the stairwell, but to where the raft was moored outside the church.  The water had not equalized; it was deeper outside than inside.  The huge stained glass windows, partly above the waterline inside the Cathedral, were entirely below it outside.  When Kirk had gotten to the window nearest the raft, he reached down and removed Brad's shoe.  Taking the shoe in his free hand, he repeatedly smashed it as hard as he could against the window until, finally, the glass shattered enough that the next try broke through the pane.

Still holding Brad, he quickly moved out of the way as the water from outside rushed through the broken window, quickly filling the hall to the top of the windows.  When the torrent had subsided, Kirk made his final move.

He shifted his grip from around Brad's waist to his upper body, holding him in such a way as to to cover his nose and mouth with his hand.  Then, taking a deep breath, he began swimming, through the window and, once clear of it, up to the surface.

The raft was no more than a hundred yards away.  They saw him and quickly maneuvered to where he had surfaced, first lifting Brad onto the raft then him.

Kirk immediately stripped Brad of his clothes, calling to Joey to bring him his uniform, which he wrapped as tightly around Brad as he could.  Then he ordered the others to bring whatever of their clothes they could spare to be piled on top of Brad.  While he worked, desperately attempting to revive Brad, Joey came and put his shirt around Kirk's shoulders.

"You're turning blue," he whispered to explain his action.

Brad began to regain consciousness.  Kirk, exhausted and suddenly shivering so badly he could barely stand upright, was led to a dry spot.  This time it was Joey who stripped, piling the rest of his clothes on his leader and asking anyone who wasn't attending to Brad to huddle with him around Kirk so as to help warm him.

Slowly, both Kirk and Brad's body heat returned to normal.  Brad was fully conscious.  Kirk's strength returned.  Their mother, who had had to stand by and watch while others brought them back to life, at last relaxed and let the rest she desperately sought spread over her.  Mount Everest stood at the helm, Alice at the keel.  The air was warm, but a chill from the water reached up to shroud the sinking Cathedral in mist.  Beneath a bright summer moon showing through layers of flashing red streaks, the raft set out, to find the Missouri and ride against its current back to dry land.                                            

Sanderson Spears flew over Pod City but the whirling of his blade gave him away.  People looked through their clear canopies as they took their nightly stroll, pointing up at him.  He had stopped to spy on them; now they were spying on him.  He waved down at them; some waved back.

"If I had a bomb for each of your," he said, "you'd know what it was like to be duped by someone you trust.  You create a way of life then walk away from it.  But I know something you don't: it's coming, and nothing you can do can stop it.  You can't engineer your way out of it.  So I'll be going; but, mark my words, I'll return some day - maybe sooner than you think.  You created your own hell.  Till me meet again: farewell, gentle people, farewell!"

He had flown over on his way to the Mississippi; but it had been noon then, and even a wondrous shining new city seemed blighted and humdrum under the mid-day sun.  This time, on his way back, the sun had left the sky, the lights of the city were up, the pods offered a dazzling symmetry  extending as far as the eye could see.  This time, too, there were living beings moving about; the corpses strewn beside every pod looked like a mosaic from the air.

Without knowing it, Spears had hovered over the exact spot, just to the east of Lamar, Colorado, where Joey had witnessed two boys being murdered two years earlier.  All he knew was that the sight of these people strolling along star-gazing while bodies piled up all around them filled him with a hatred so intense he would have destroyed everything in the universe to make them pay.

He landed, as he had on his way out, at Grand Junction to refuel.  He asked the man refueling his chopper how there still happened to be fuel available, and how long there would be.

"They keep on refining," the man replied, "just like nothing's happening around them.  Industry just keeps on plugging away, the wheels keep turning.  It's like they can't stop.  They've been productive so long, it's second nature.  They don't have homes to live in, or cars to drive; but they keep producing things to fill houses and to power vehicles.  I guess, if they're doomed anyway, what does it hurt to keep doing what they've always done?  I mean: what would you - or should you - be doing if it really is the end of the world?"

"Oh, it is," Spears assured the man.

"What'll you be doing?" the man asked.

"I'll be doing what I've always done," said Spears.  "Watching it all unfold - and telling everyone I told them so."

"Suppose they had listened - heeded your warning?" the man asked.  "Would it have made a difference?"

Spears had no answer, on the ground; but when he went aloft he spoke volumes on the subject.

"Damn right it would have made a difference!" he concluded.  "Damn right!"

He flew straight home, leaving his chopper at Hawthorne, driving the rest of the way to Monitor Pass.  The moment he got in his cave, he went to his work station and slipped in front of his monitors, his gauges, his diodes, his instruments, to keep vigil till the time came to return to Pod City.

He thought of Joey again.  "I love that kid," he said as his Doppler came up and the image of the boy who had come to arrest him twenty-one years ago faded into red and green and blue and yellow graphics representing the world's weather.

Late at night, while he dozed at his station, a powerful storm swept in from the Pacific just above San Francisco, carrying unusually warm air, which quickly spread inward toward the Sierras.  A dry desert wind raced across the Mojave south to north along the eastern flank of the Sierras.  They met northeast of Yosemite, just as a cold wind descended from Alberta.

Spears was awakened by a loud roar outside his cave.  He glanced at his Doppler then got up and hurried from his cabin to the mouth of his cave, limping slightly as he went.  It was almost morning, but still too dark to see anything not illuminated by lightening.  He knew what had come calling and how close it was, even if he could not see it clearly.

"You're going to invite yourself in?" the weatherman asked the cyclone.  "I don't think so, sir," he answered his own question.  "Not today, anyway.  If only Joey were here to share you with.  But he isn't - so what's the point of seeing you first hand?"

With this question, he returned to his cabin and finished watching the cyclone on his monitor.  "Won't be long," he mused, "till the Pacific's knocking at my back door.  The Isle of California: the new Atlantis.  I just wish to hell it would hurry up and end!"

Andrea spent most of her time attending to her father.  Professor Kirkus had grown steadily weaker.  Some days he didn't have enough energy even to eat.  Once he went almost a week without eating, his son showing an unusual solicitude.

"You've got to eat!" Reggie insisted.  "You'll never get better if you don't eat!  You've got to!  You owe it to your people: I can't take care of all that needs to be done.  You've got to eat!"

Amazingly, instead of growing weaker after his period of fasting, Kirkus seemed stronger, more alert than before. His appetite returned; he ate a hearty meal - and grew noticeably weaker the next day.  It was clear to Andrea there was something about the food, or its preparation, that affected her father - and only him.  She decided he should only eat every two or three days until she could trace the problem.  On the days he didn't eat, he grew stronger; when he did eat, he lost what he had gained in fasting.

"Are you trying to starve him to death?" Reggie angrily asked when he discovered what was happening.  "Maybe that's been his problem all along: you're trying to starve your own father!  I'm going to monitor his meals," Reggie warned, "and if he doesn't start eating regularly again, I'll personally supervise his feeding - and you'll have some serious questions to answer."

Andrea tried to make sense of her brother's attitude.  He had never shown the slightest concern for anyone in his family.  She knew him well enough to know it wasn't fear of losing his father that motivated him: he had some ulterior motive.  Maybe it was his new found prominence within the community he feared losing if Professor Kirkus died: that had to be it.  Kirkus' death would pass the mantle of authority to another pod, another family.  That must be it.  And yet: the thought kept returning, like a tune that wouldn't entirely leave her mind, that this wasn't it either.

Rarely did she go out anymore.  As much as she missed looking up at the sky - her only contact with the outside world - she felt she had no right to ever see it again.  She was beginning to think she would never leave this place - that she was evolving into one of the survivors who had come here to escape the world's fate.  As long as she felt an alien trapped in Pod City she could walk beneath the canopy; the moment she started feeling like a resident she forfeited that right.

"When father dies," she reasoned, "Reggie will make sure I remain here - his last bargaining chip.  If I'm to leave, it has to be before father dies.  Yet I can't just walk away and leave him.  So I'm here forever.  I'll miss the end of the world, when I want so badly to be a part of it.  Let others survive, for whatever their reason.  Let them imagine they can ever return to it - that the world can end today, then tomorrow it'll be back again, waiting for them.  Let them believe living in a hole in the ground is better than perishing.  But at least they've carried those beliefs with them.  I'm here with nothing - a living testament to irony!"

For three days the raft floated through the lake formed from the waters of the new Mississippi, searching for the Missouri, whose current lay buried beneath twenty feet of new water.  The shortest route would have been almost due north, to St. Charles, where it began its journey; but that would also have been harder to keep, without a compass or sextant.  Mount Everest chose to head due west, toward Creve Coeur, for the simplest of reasons: the sun.  It was easier to sail, literally, into the sunset than toward an imaginary point to the north.

"Why the Missouri?" Mount Everest was asked.

"As obscure as it is, there's still a current," he explained.

"But you said yourself the current heads east - not west!"

"Meaning more work for us, yes," he admitted.  "But it gives us something to follow: resistance: the current's resistance.  We follow that.  Otherwise we'd be floating endlessly in circles till we all died."

"What about at night?  At night we'll do just that!"

"Then in the morning we'll start all over again, till we learn to hold our position," Mount Everest said.  "There is no other way."

Though undisputed Captain of this vessel, he nonetheless turned to Kirk for the final word on the matter.  Kirk turned to his men.

"There is no authority here but his," Kirk told them.  "No one - myself included - shall challenge his decisions."

A trip of less than twenty miles took as long on this raft as a trip of a hundred miles on foot.  They continually lost ground at night and had to reorient the raft to the morning sun; till, finally, on the morning of July 2nd - the start of the fourth day after leaving the Cathedral of St. Louis - they felt a faint resistance beneath their feet and against their hands as they steered the raft.

"We're home!" Mount Everest declared.  "Now the work really begins.  We found our course - now we must keep it.  Every second of every hour we have to know exactly where the current is.  If we stray even an inch from it we could lose it altogether.  I don't know how far inland the lake extends - we didn't come this way, it's as uncharted to me as it is to the rest of you.  All I know is we have to follow it, however long it takes till we come to the river again."

Keeping pace with the Missouri was a task so grueling, so exhausting, a task requiring so intense a concentration, that the crew was rotated every two hours.  There were fifteen people on board.  Mount Everest split them into three sets of five crewmembers each, working around the clock to stay the course he had set.  The provisions he had brought, together with those Kirk's party had carried to Eads Bridge, were all but gone.  At night the red streaks hovered overhead, filling the sky with a low hissing that occasionally erupted into a loud clap as a streak sparked open and jabbed in something nearby.

In the middle of the night on July 4th, under a waning but still bright moon, the crew saw something that made all five members cry out to the others.

"Land!" they cried.  "Land!  Up ahead: land!  Land Ho!"

In an instant everyone was awake.  Mount Everest ran to the helm.  Ahead, somewhere between one and three miles, was a break in the feathery sparkle the light of the moon filtering through streaks of lightening cast across the lake.  By itself it might have meant something other than land - a somber possibility Mount Everest was about to throw at the others when he spied something else - something his crew had missed - something that convinced him they had indeed come to the end of the lake: the sparkle did not abruptly end, as it first appeared.  Rather, it continued on well into the horizon - but continued as a thin ribbon running through the void where there appeared to be nothing.  A thin ribbon running through the land: a river, sparkling where the light touched it.  The Missouri, unburdened at last, free from the smothering waters of the Mississippi.

Mount Everest stood at the helm, nodding his head up and down and muttering "Uh-huh.  It's there alright.  We're home."  Alice came up to stand beside him.  She took out her knife, nicked her thumb, and hurled drops of blood onto the waters ahead of the raft. 

"I am now immortal," she said.  "My blood will join that of everyone who drowned in this new sea."

"Immortality through the dead?" Mount Everest questioned her fanciful notion.

"The dead will come one day to save the living," Alice answered.  "Not you or I perhaps, but someone."

For the first time since discovering the Missouri's current two days earlier, the crew was able to simply let the raft float along, guiding it only enough to keep it from following the current back toward the Mississippi.  In less than an hour the raft struck land.  Everyone but Mount Everest and the two men who had helped him build the raft leaped onto the shore; the three left on board slowly worked their way off the raft, pulling it behind them until it, too, was safely on shore.

The lake extended halfway across Franklin County; it ended just to the east of the town of Washington.  Because their eyes had spent the night tracking the Missouri, the crew of Mount Everest's raft had no trouble making out the shapes of buildings in the distance.  There were no lights anywhere, as far as they could see; and since the sky was clear, and filled with red streaks, there was no possibility of catching the telltale pinkish glow of a city or even a small town if the lights were still on.

"We will camp here, beside the lake," said Kirk.  "It's too risky to go farther till daylight."

"If I could make one suggestion," Mount Everest interjected.  "We don't know what caused the flood, or if another one's waiting in the wings.  Let's camp on the raft - just in case."

Kirk accepted Mount Everest's suggestion with a nod.  The party huddled on the raft till daybreak, some sleeping soundly, some lightly, one or two remaining awake all night - not by anyone's decree, but simply by choice.

When the light broke across the horizon, everyone got up to begin surveying the landscape.  The crew remained together, rather than splitting into smaller bands, when they started out, the sole exception being that two were to be posted at the raft at all times.  The closest place was Washington; it proved to be as deserted as the darkened buildings in the night suggested.  Though it seemed to be the largest of the towns of Franklin County, it didn't have what the party sought.  There were very few provisions, and no vehicles large enough to accommodate fifteen people.  Its evacuation seemed to have been not only orderly but well planned and thorough.

"Do you think they went east, or west," some of the party wondered aloud.

"Let's hope west," everyone agreed.

In the course of the day they entered, searched and left several towns of Franklin County: Campbellton, Detmold, Casco, Jeffriesburg, half submerged in the lake, and Beaufort - none of which had what they were looking for.

"We may have to use the raft all the way to Jefferson City," Kirk suggested.

By nightfall, they were back on the raft, struggling against the Missouri's current.

For the next day and a half they floated upstream toward Jefferson City.  When they reached the town of Wainwright, where Mount Everest and his two companions had stolen a car, it was eight o'clock in the morning.  The sky began to grow dark; by eight-thirty it was almost as dark as night.  The sky began to rumble; hail began falling.  Flashes of lightening in the distance grew brighter.  All of a sudden a cloud swept along the river, approaching from the east, sucking up water as it went.

Brad recognized it before anyone else.  It was the same kind of cloud that had sucked up his teammates at St. Joseph - only much bugger.  There was no time to make landfall then run beyond its boundary.

"Everyone in the river!" he cried.  "Go as deep as you can!  Now!"

On his order everyone leaped overboard and swam as far below the surface as they could.  Holding their breath, they heard the cloud lifting the surface water above them.  Then they heard the raft being torn to pieces as the cloud finally passed over them and moved on toward Jefferson City.  When they re-surfaced, they looked around for each other.  Thirteen of them bobbed in the water, swimming to the shoreline.  Two were missing: one of Mount Everest's men, and one of the two swimmers who had accompanied Brad from Eads Bridge to the Cathedral.  The others searched the area for them; Brad and Kirk made repeated dives. But there was no trace of the men.  After a couple hours the search was called off.  The party continued on to Jefferson City, which had been hit by the same cloud that destroyed their raft and, presumably, carried off the two men.  Pieces of flesh and bone and bits of clothing and jewelry lay strewn about Riverside Park, as if a graveyard had been unearthed.  A hole had been ripped in the wall of the Missouri State Penitentiary; just inside were a number of bodies, stuck through with wooden shards, metal rods and slivers of stone and glass.

The party hurried on through Jefferson City to the cave just to the west.  The van Kirk had left sitting in the cave was still there.  The thirteen survivors piled in and started home to Nebraska.  Alice maneuvered herself beside Brad.

"Be careful," she whispered.  "No man saves his enemy a third time.  Love and respect him, if you will, but be prepared.  His heart is pure.  He kills without malice: no one is more dangerous."

"It won't come to that," Brad assured her.  "I've made up my mind: as soon as we return to Kirk's headquarters, I'm leaving.  I'm going to get Andrea.  I won't be without her any longer.  I would have died in that Cathedral, holding on to its alter.  It was as if my body had already died.  Then I thought of her, and pictured her in my mind.  And somehow I managed to stay alive - or return to life.  I'm going for her, Alice."

Alice shook her head.  "No," she objected.  "Don't go to her: she'll come to you.  Mark my words: before the year is out, she'll come to you.  Bide your time."

"But when?  Only half the year's gone," Brad protested.

"You'll know when," was all Alice said.  "She'll know, and you'll know."

Inside the van, right where they had been left a week earlier, were copies of Joey's maps - dozens of copies had been made and passed out to the search parties - showing all the caves, and marking the route from Central Missouri back to Grand Island, Nebraska - a route that never strayed beyond the five-mile limit from the caves imposed when the T-Men left Wyoming.  Kirk vowed never again to allow the kind of latitude that cost six of his men their lives and nearly destroyed his whole party.  Yet even as he vowed it he knew it would be challenged again - and he knew who the challenger would be.

"Joey," he advised his second-in-command during a stopover on the way to Nebraska, "I want to make this absolutely clear.  I will tolerate no further challenges to my authority.  I know the day will come when Brad will attempt to rescue this woman he loves.  I'll offer him any help I can without putting my men in jeopardy again.  But once I make a decision, and unless I can be shown it's the wrong decision, I will not hesitate to kill anyone who opposes that decision.  I would sacrifice my life in an instant to save Brad; but I would just as quickly kill him to preserve the unity of this organization."

"I vowed I would never again defy you," Joey replied.  "And I swear before God that I will not.  If it comes to it, Kirk, I will stand aside and watch you kill Brad - even knowing that by doing so I may sentence both of us to eternal damnation.  God did not put us here to ignore everything in this world for the sake of our souls.  He knows there are times when even the greatest evil cannot be avoided without betraying everything we believe in.  I thought my life would be so simple, my path so clearly defined; that the only thing I would ever suffer was being humiliated by my mentor.  That was all I ever wanted: to be his assistant.  But God chose another path for me: one I can't even begin to fathom, one where everyday I risk doing evil - and doing it in His name!  I wish I were wiser, and stronger, so I could do God's bidding without disobeying His commandments."

Kirk put his hand on Joey's shoulder and said to him, in a gentle voice, "Maybe the fault is not yours, but God's."                                                

The Plains presented a devastation far greater than what Kirk's party encountered on its way to Missouri.  Many of the towns they skirted on the way east had all but disappeared.  The few bodies lying about had multiplied a hundred fold.  In the distance the same big cities whose buildings a week earlier appeared vital and flourishing, despite the dangers lurking within, now presented a vacuous, pock-marked facade, as if something had begun eating away the steel, glass and concrete.

When the party arrived at the headquarters outside Kearney, some thirty miles southwest of Grand Island, they noticed a change in the surrounding area as well.  Everyone assumed that one, or another, or several of the weather phenomena that had visited a similar devastation throughout the Plains had finally found the cave.  But this was not the case.

A volley of gunshots greeted their approach, followed by the command to "Halt!  Drop your weapons!  You're surrounded!  Surrender!"

In the few seconds they had to act, Kirk assessed the situation, weighed the options, and made his decision.  He had been taught by his father to trust no one completely; to always secure a secret place to store weapons everywhere he went; and to construct a hidden passage leading from his headquarters to the outside.  Because he followed this dictum religiously, he had hidden weapons in the cave at Jefferson City, which his men now carried.  Since coming to Bassway Strip, he had constructed a secret passage leading into this cave - almost literally one pail of dirt at a time, the way a convict might dig an escape tunnel so that no one noticed what he was doing.  Resisting the ambush meant revealing its location to his men.

Both he and Mount Everest recognized the voice that addressed their arrival as belonging to Stone Creek, the council member usually left in charge when the leader and his second-in-command were both absent.  Kirk and Stone Creek both considered the same question: had their men revolted against Kirk's leadership?  A "Yes" meant a fight to reassert his authority; a "No" meant something had happened to make the men wary of even their own comrades.  Kirk looked first to Mount Everest then to the devastation at Bassway Strip.

"Throw down your weapons!" he ordered.

Everyone obeyed but Brad, who refused to give up his gun.  Joey, who stood closest to him, asked him to trust Kirk.  "Do as he says," Joey pleaded.  "Trust his judgment."

Brad looked around, as Kirk had done, trying to assess the situation.  It was incomprehensible to him to simply give up without  a fight - but, then, he was forced to admit that that was how he had first gained entry into the compound at Recluse.  Finally he turned to Kirk, nodded his acquiescence, and dropped his weapon.

"We've given up our weapons," Kirk called into the cave.

"Proceed into the tunnel - slowly, one at a time!" the voice inside ordered.

When they were all in the tunnel, several men carrying automatic weapons hastened to the entrance, to stand guard.  They waited a moment then gave the all-clear signal, at which Stone Creek handed his own weapon to Kirk.

"We had to be sure you weren't being used as decoys," he explained.

"I understand," said Kirk.  "What happened here?" he asked.

"We were attacked by marauding groups," it was explained.  "The gangs who ran the cities nearby, once they lost their seat of power, began pillaging the surrounding communities: killing, raping, stealing anything of value.  One of our search parties encountered them on the way back from North Platte.  They killed ten of our men and tortured the other two into revealing this cave.  They took us by surprise.  We lost another dozen before we drove them off.  Now we stand vigil around the clock, waiting for their return.  We no longer take in stragglers - we dare not, for fear it's one of them.  If you hadn't returned by the end of the week, we were going to move on to another location."

"We will not move," said Kirk.  "These gangs are probably everywhere, or soon will be.  No place is safe.  We'll make our stand here.  We'll fight to the death to preserve our community."

"And what about those seeking our protection?" Brad came forward to ask.

"We will turn away everyone," said Kirk.

"Even women, and children, and the elderly?" Brad persisted.

"Everyone," Kirk repeated in a voice strengthened by resolve.

"You'd kill a child?" Brad asked.

Kirk looked him in the eye and assured him he would kill a thousand children if that was the price of his people's survival.

Not all the Tungs perished in the Gateway Arch.  A contingent had gone to Kansas City to try and negotiate a truce; they had almost effected one when the flood hit.  Within two days word of the loss of their turf reached the contingent.  Knowing instinctively what that meant, they slipped out of Kansas City before the Rollers could confront them; and had been on the run ever since.  They had brought enough pellets and wiring to wage a war of terror against whatever resistance they met along their path of conquest - it was conquest they were after, not concord, now that their numbers had dwindled to where they could no longer negotiate from a position of strength.

The Stockmen of Chicago had been their only nemesis - stronger, more ruthless, always ahead of them in forging alliances or subjugating weaker gangs, always thwarting their plans to build an empire in the Mid-West.  The same flood that destroyed the Stockmen left the Tungs unable to capitalize on the sudden shift in power.  The void left in the Stockmen's wake was too big for anyone to fill just yet.  But, even weakened, the Tungs were still the only ones capable of filling that void.

Reggie Kirkus didn't always wait for someone to oppose him before expelling them from Pod City.  Occasionally he did it out of sheer boredom, or if he was in a bad mood and decided to exercise his power, or simply because he didn't like someone's looks.  He relished those little displays of power.  It excited him to see the look of absolute horror on someone's face at the precise instant he realized he was locked out and would never get back in: to see the look and to know it was all his doing, that a mere flick of his finger could reduce someone to utter panic.

The disappearances were noticed, even if the departures had not been.  They were expected at a meeting, or a dinner party, or had invited friends to spend the evening; yet no one knew their whereabouts.  As many as a hundred families had vanished.  The citizens of Pod City were growing nervous and demanded an explanation.  Reggie was chosen to oversee an investigation into the disappearances.  He was very thorough; he assembled a team from among the neighbors of those who disappeared; he kept in constant communication with them; he monitored the vacant units to try and detect anything that might have driven the occupants out.  No one could find anything.  When all the reports were in, Reggie evaluated the data and announced the results.

"The missing families," he informed the residents of Pod City on closed circuit TV, "suffered an extreme form of a confinement stress disorder.  I say 'extreme' because all of us, understandably, experience the same kind of stress, everyday of our lives.  Yet we manage to cope, whereas they could not.  In layman's terms, they went 'stir crazy' and ran away - oblivious to the dangers outside or the reasons they came here in the first place.  It becomes absolutely vital that any of you who may be experiencing anything similar to what triggered their response seek help; talk to someone; express your concerns openly; don't keep your anxieties buried.  And don't wait till it's too late.  We may be confined here for years before it's safe to return to the outside.  We've got to try and make it through these very trying times.  We've got to pull together.  I'm always here for you - for any of you, for all of you.  Don't hesitate to call on me in your hour of need.  I have no other reason for being here than to help you."

The citizens were reassured.  Reggie limited his self-indulgence to no more than once every few weeks.  This seemed to keep a lid on the whole thing - with one very troubling exception.

The boy he had befriended in order to learn about the computers that ran Pod City became suspicious.  No one had ever run away before Reggie gained access to the bio-system and the electronic locking mechanism.  He expressed his concern to Reggie - that he knew it was possible to chase people from their pods electronically, and that the disappearances only began when Reggie gained access to the system; but was assured that what he suspected was not only mistaken but absolutely unthinkable.  Besides being incapable of something so cold-blooded, Reggie pointed out the obvious contradiction: he had no motive for doing it, and nothing whatever to gain.  The boy acknowledged the logic of Reggie's arguments; but remained skeptical.

"Well, little Stevie Smythe," Reggie mused when the boy had left, "I think you're about to go stir crazy.  But just you - not your whole family.  Your daddy's needed around here: you aren't."

Reggie arranged for the boy's parents to attend a private dinner party in the President's old pod, vacated since the President's electrocution and his son's suicide.  Reggie made sure he was in attendance also, just in case the boy had voiced his suspicion to his father.  Halfway into the dinner, Reggie was called away on urgent business.  He hurried to the control room, to set the stage for Stevie's disappearance: the air was disrupted, all exits sealed except for the main hatch.  Something went wrong though.  The hatch never opened.  Stevie never left the pod.

"Little bastard must be asleep," Reggie concluded.  "That's even better: it'll look like natural causes.  I'll turn the air back on which I'm sure he's dead."  Reggie returned to the President's pod.

Stevie had not been asleep.  He had contacted Andrea Kirkus earlier and asked her to visit him while his parents were away; he said he had something important to tell her.  Andrea hesitated; she had vowed not to use the walkways again; but Stevie begged her, saying that what he had to tell her was absolutely vital to everyone's safety.  Finally, she agreed.

When she arrived, she hastily slammed the door leading from the walkway to the pod, as if to seal herself from the outside world.  Then, realizing how much like the others she was becoming, she threw the door wide open and left it like that.

Stevie had just told Andrea what he suspected when the air flow suddenly stopped.  "Oh my God!" he cried in a panic.  "We're going to die!  He's going to kill us!  He's cut the air off!  There's only one way out!  We'll be locked out - up there!  We're going to die!"

Andrea calmly took Stevie by the hand and led him back through the pod to the door she had left open, through the walkway, and into the President's pod.  They were there waiting when Reggie returned.

He showed no sign of the shock he experienced.  He immediately assessed the situation and offered an apology for not having enough to serve his unexpected guests.  All the while, Stevie was babbling wildly about Reggie trying to kill him.

"He's killed others too - all the others!" Stevie accused.  "They didn't run away - he killed them, the same way he tried to kill me!  He had me show him about the computer - now he uses it to kill anyone he chooses!  Tell them, Andrea!  You were there - you saw it!  Tell them!"

Everyone turned to Andrea.  "There was a problem with the air," she explained.  "We got out onto the walkway.  "That's all I can say for sure."

Stevie ran to his parents.  "She's lying!" he cried.  "She's in it with him!  She knows he tired to kill me!  You've got to help me - protect me - save me!"

The Smythes apologized to their host and the other guests for their son's outburst.  "We'd better be going," Mr. Symthe said.

"Not till your unit is checked out," Reggie objected.  "I'll get a maintenance crew out there immediately."

Reggie went at once to the computer and turned the air back on, then summoned a crew.  Everything checked out alright.  He promised the Smythes he would have their unit monitored around the clock.  They thanked him and, taking their weeping son, made for their pod.

"Thank goodness someone with a level head was there," Reggie said as he walked his sister to unit 1939.

"Oh I have no doubt he was telling it exactly as it happened," Andrea replied.  "But with the bodies piling up all around us, and us doing nothing about it, I really don't care what you do to these people.  But take warning: when Brad comes for me - which he will if he's still alive - if you do anything to harm him, I'll kill you."

Within twenty-four hours Reggie had set into motion a new plan for ridding himself of Stevie Smythe and the threat his suspicions entailed.  By week's end almost everything was in place.  By the end of the second week he had planted a trail of evidence so convincing that even the Smythes were forced to accept their son's guilt.  Stevie was placed under house arrest pending a formal inquiry into the mysterious disappearances of one hundred families.

"You'll be tried," Reggie informed the boy, "and found guilty.  You'll either be executed outright or, more likely, exiled to the outside world.  Either way, it's all over for you.  Your best bet would be finding some means of ending your life and sparing your family the agony of seeing their son tried as a murderer.

"Will you help me?" Stevie asked in desperation.  Reggie reluctantly agreed, helping the boy formulate a plan of suicide.

"I'm afraid," Stevie tearfully admitted.  "I don't know if I can go through with it.  Will you stay with me when it's time - to keep me from backing out?"

"I will," Reggie promised; and kept his promise.

At the appointed hour, when Stevie was alone, Reggie came to him, to keep him from backing out.  Stevie had first wanted to hang himself; but Reggie dissuaded him with images of the President's son, purple and bloated, his eyes nearly popping out, his tongue black and swollen, his fingernails torn and bleeding from trying to loosen the rope.  Several more methods were discussed before Stevie, with his friend's blessing, settled on slitting his wrists.

A tub full or hot water was drawn.  Reggie handed Stevie a razor blade.  "Hold your hands under the water," Reggie encouraged the boy.  "Let them relax.  Then take the blade in one hand and, with all your strength, slash the wrist of your other hand.  You'll barely feel it."

Stevie did exactly as instructed - right up to the point of actually slashing his wrist.  "I can't!" he cried.

"You can!" Reggie insisted.  "You have no choice.  It's either that or be turned out, to walk among the dead till the fireballs burn you alive, or the ice pierces your skull, or the winds rip your body to shreds!  Now do it: do it!"

"I think we've heard enough," a voice from behind Reggie cut through the steamy bathroom air.

"Are you alright, Stevie?" a second voice asked.

"I'm okay, dad," said Stevie.

Reggie turned, and spoke, as calmly as if he had known the four men who crept up behind him had been there all along.  "This is the only humanitarian way to resolve this thing," he almost pleaded.  "Let him end it this way, peacefully, painlessly.  Don't make him suffer the horror and humiliation of being exiled to the outside world.  If you love him, leave him, pretend you never saw this; let him do what must be done."

The men were shaken by Reggie's response.  "Are you a madman - or a devil?" one of them asked in a trembling voice.

"We're placing you under house arrest," one of the others informed him.

"Till we decide what to do with you," a third man added.

"And Stevie?" Reggie asked in a concerned voice.  "Is he now free to kill again?"

"He'll be watched," Stevie's father promised.

Reggie turned to Stevie.  "I tried to save you from what's out there," he said softly.  "I regret only that I failed you."  Then he was led away.            

Sanderson Spears could hardly believe his own eyes.  While he watched the rest of the world, day and night, for any sign of change, the land right under his feet was undergoing a metamorphosis unlike anything known to man.  The entire West Coast of America was beginning to come apart.

Spears' monitors had shown him nothing of this.  No seismic activity had registered; nothing volcanic had been caught on film or tape or radar; so far as his instruments were concerned, the tectonic plate beneath California remained intact and undisturbed.  Yet the moment he stepped from his cabin he could sense something so unusual, so eerie, that for a split-second he questioned the very foundation of his life's work.  By the time he reached the opening of his cave he had reaffirmed the twin sciences of geology and meteorology; but in the interim between his cabin and his cave he found himself in some nether world where a master illusionist had created all the events he only imagined he had seen happening.

It felt to him, overlooking the Toiyabe National Forest of Alpine County, as if the air itself were being pulled apart along with the land.  Low hanging clouds, always seamless before, appeared to be vertically layered.  Even the bright red sunset, almost in his face, had a strained look to it, as if any moment the red would separate from the sky like the dye of a new fabric in hot water.  The deep dark green surrounding Monitor Pass had stretched to uncover the nearly black soil beneath; he could almost see it pulling away from the base of the mountain.

"California is leaving," Spears muttered.  "The Sierras are becoming America's new West Coast.  My little weather station will soon be valuable waterfront property.  They'll turn my backyard into a nude beach, and my cabin into a curio shop with hot dogs, sodas, popcorn and toities for the tourists.  And all that'll be left for me is to jump headfirst into the sea when the lifeguard's busy powdering his nose.  The end of the world, I'm afraid, will not be pretty."

He resolved to get his helicopter and fly over California before it floated out to sea, or sank, or exploded - or whatever the actual mechanism of its destiny.  It occurred to him, too, that what was happening here might be the trigger that would set off Yellowstone.

"I can't see it all," he said.  "Maybe just stay here and watch on closed circuit.  But no: not something that big.  It has to be seen in person.  Besides, when it all comes about, so many of my relays will be destroyed I may end up missing it entirely.  For once, I want to be there, be a part of it.  Who knows?  I may even run into my old assistant out sightseeing with a pack of cutthroats?  I'd know him anywhere, even with a dozen scalps on his belt and a tattoo of Jesus on his butt.  So it's off to Hawthorne: helicopter, I'm gonna show you things you ain't gonna believe!"

Once again, the weatherman drove to Hawthorne to get his helicopter.  "Headed east again?" the man refueling it asked.

"No: west this time," Spears responded.  "California's finally fixing to go: I want to see it one last time."

"Mister, they been saying that since there was a California," the man noted.  "Just another false alarm."

"Not this time," Spears insisted.  "True, I haven't seen anything on my monitor yet - but I will.  It takes a long time for nature to set things in motion; but once she gets going, there's no stopping her.  Twenty years ago I watched the floor of the Atlantic bubble up enough to restart a dying hurricane.  Nothing's come of it yet, but it will.  There's even more out there in the Pacific, just waiting to happen.  The Cascadian Fault can take out Washington and Oregon; the Pacific Plate, the San Andreas: everyone knows that.  But this is different.  It's like California's being drawn out to sea by some huge magnet.  Anyway, I want to see.  Then I'm off to Yellowstone."

"She's finally ready to blow?" the man asked, reprising past conversations.

"Nothing says so," Spears admitted.  "But I feel it.  It's kind of like, when you've been deathly ill, you just know when it's your time to go.  It's Wyoming's time to go; part of it anyway."

"Aren't you afraid it'll take you with it if you're out flying around?"

"I have to be there when it happens," Spears answered.  "Otherwise everything I've ever stood for's a lie."

"Is it going to be like those old news clips of Mount St. Helen's?" the man asked.

"It's not a volcano," said Spears.  "At least, not like that.  I just know it's going to happen soon - and I'm going to be there when it does."

The morning sky was clear and bright in the wake of a storm blown in from the Pacific.  Sanderson Spears took to the air and headed out across the Sierras to see what a state splitting apart looked like.

Overlooking California - aloft, it was far more than from the ground the sum of its parts: its mountains, its lakes, forests, deserts, plains, cities and highways - it finally struck him what the man at Fort Scott, Kansas, had meant when he asked what difference it would have made if the message of doom being spouted surreptitiously had been heeded.  Would you really pack up and leave something so beautiful because you knew its days, therefore yours, were numbered?

"Knowledge for knowledge sake: I thought it was the be all and end all," Spears admitted.  "You should know what's killing you, even if there's nothing you can do about it.  Just knowing would somehow provide the key.  Knowledge was the lightening rod and I was the one to give it to you; stand under a falling sky and the wisdom I impart would deflect destruction away from you.  Maybe it is better not to know.  Maybe it's wrong - maybe a sin - to look down and know that what you're looking at you may never see again as you see it now."

Everywhere he went he saw evidence of his conclusion.  Everything seemed to be straining westward.  Cracks in the roads and in the rocks; streams widening yet nearly dried up; fields pulled toward one side; trees leaving.  None of it obviously so; but to the trained scientist, it was clear something awful was happening.

He had seen enough.  He had been in the air more than six hours; and, though he had not covered the entire state, he went as far as the coastline, from Point Arena northward to Cape Mendocino; he followed the Sierras, from Kings Canyon almost to the Lassan National Forest; he flew over Sacramento, over Fresno, Modesto, Stockton and a score of smaller towns and cities; he saw lakes, streams, deserts, farmland, forests.

He was heading back to Hawthorne to refuel when he began to notice more and more birds flying past his helicopter: enough to be a nuisance, to occasionally cause him to swerve to avoid hitting them; but not enough to pose a threat.  He was over the Tahoe National Forest, just a short distance from Donner's Summit.  He could just barely make out the clearing where the weather station at Donner's Pass was located; he strained to see it.

Instead, his eyes were drawn to the northeast, to something in the sky over Reno and Sparks, something dark and huge and nearly covering the horizon - and moving toward him.  At first he took it for a mountain, then quickly realized that the only mountains to the northeast of Reno - the Virginia Mountains - were more eastward, and this was almost due north.  Besides which, this had no base, no anchor to the ground; it was entirely airborne.

"Nor am I Mohammed that one should come to me like that!" Spears quipped.

It cast a monstrous shadow across the land as it slowly drew near, as if everything beneath it were being absorbed into its dark interior.  Spears debated whether to try to outrun it, heading west - as the whole state was headed - or to try and work his way around it by heading southeast.  Neither course seemed right; so, instead, he headed for the clearing at Donner's Pass and, looking down to try and gauge his distance, speed and descent, brought the chopper down to within a couple hundred yards of the weather station.  He had never before attempted a maneuver so precise or so dangerous.

He had no more than touched down when the thing covering the sky passed directly overhead.  He looked up.  Then he abruptly stopped his engine and leaped from the chopper, running to the very edge of the clearing.

"My God!" he cried.  "My God who don't exist in heaven above, except for Joey - oh my God!  It's happening!  It's happening!  I've got to go to it: it's happening.  Look at them go!  Oh my God, it's happening!"

For the next half hour he stood, spellbound, as the most incredible thing any human being had ever witnessed transpired above him.  The dark thing he had seen - the floating mountain that chased him from the sky and now filled the sky - was a flock of birds.  The biggest flock imaginable - flying away from the biggest disaster imaginable.

"I've got to go to it," was all the weatherman could say.  "Duty calls.  I've got to go to it."

He turned - he had to force himself to turn away from these birds locked together so tightly that light could not pass through - and started back to his chopper when something almost as incredible as the birds of Wyoming flying into the California sunset en masse happened.  He saw the writing on the wall.  A small writing on a small wall, a sprig of graffiti on the side of the weather station at Donner's Pass.  With his mind, body, soul and all his senses fixed firmly on a point a thousand miles away, a tiny fragment of defilement managed to seep into his consciousness and take such a hold as to momentarily push everything else aside.

"You sons of bitches!" he screamed as he ran to the little cabin.  "They died - they gave their lives! - to protect you, and you come creeping around to write your disgusting filth on their monument!  How dare you, you miserable punks!  How dare you defile this place - this hallowed ground! with your smut!"

He looked all around for something to clean or scrape the words from the wood; but could find nothing.  So he went collecting twigs and leaves and pine cones that had fallen on the ground outside the cabin.  He arranged them into a funeral pyre then lit them.

"You'll never defile this monument again, you filthy sacrilegious scum!" he declared as he watched the dried leavings catch fire.

"My God what am I doing?" he asked as he looked to the endless vista of trees and hills and valleys.  "I'm going to burn the whole bloody Sierras to the ground trying to stamp out freedom of speech!"  He tore his shirt off and began beating at the flames he had unleashed.  Then he dug into the ground with his bare hands and covered the smoldering pyre with fresh, moist dirt.  And waited - desperately, painfully waiting to get started, he waited till he was sure the fire was completely out - before returning to his chopper to begin the greatest odyssey of his career.                                                   

Flocks of birds flew over the battlefield.  Droppings fell onto the dead.  None of the birds descended to feast on the decaying flesh however; their sole purpose was escape; feeding could wait.  The fields around Kearney, Lowell, Kenesaw, Heartwell and Minden, Nebraska ran red from the almost daily skirmishes.  The cave of the T-Men had become a hub for all the rag-tag remnants of the ruling bodies of the cities of six states, as well as a trophy going to the winner.  They came, as if drawn by a magnet, from Denver, Pueblo, Colorado Springs; from Cheyenne, Laramie and Casper; from Omaha, Lincoln and North Platte; from Des Moines, Sioux City and Council Bluffs; from Topeka, Wichita and Fort Riley; from Kansas City, St. Joseph and St. Louis - their meeting a bizarre miniature of the Armageddon all the prophets throughout the ages had predicted.  Gangs and warlords squabbling over what few scraps remained on the Great Plains, battling one another for supremacy and for the right to lead a final assault on the cave on the banks of the Platte.

The T-Men were on constant alert.  They never went out or came in their front door.  Every search party sent to secure provisions made its way through the tunnels, using Joey's maps to guide it to an opening beyond the field of battle.  But there was danger even in this, since it was not possible to move more than a few miles on foot, so they were never far beyond the enemy's camp.  And, even if the few vehicles the T-Men had managed to store underground before the warfare began had been able to negotiate the narrow winding passages along vast stretches of tunnel, the exhaust fumes posed a threat of poisoning, the noise a threat of exposure, the inevitable exhaustion of their fuel supply the threat of being stranded - of becoming virtual prisoners in their cave at Bassway Strip even after the gangs were driven off.

Kirk issued an edict: no women were allowed to accompany the search parties, nor were they allowed anywhere near the mouth of the cave.  Never before had such an edict been issued, never before had one been needed: there had not been women in the organization or in the compound.  The men who joined left their families and changed their names, in order to keep the kind of retribution that destroyed Paris Commune's family and so many others from happening to them.  They returned to their families whenever they could - whenever it was safe; and they helped provide for their families.  But their families were always kept apart.

Carol Carter was the first woman to become part of the organization; Crazy Alice the second.  And as more and more stragglers had been offered shelter, the number of women, along with the number of children, increased dramatically.

Kirk repeated his edict as often as necessary.  No women were to be put in danger.  Almost daily the battles raging outside spilled over into the cave; soldiers fought, were wounded, and died every day holding the enemy at bay.  But no women fought or died.

Alice took Kirk aside.  "It may surprise you to know how loyal I am," she told him.  "Everything about me suggests I'm a law unto myself; but I have absolute respect for your authority.  I would kill anyone who opposed you and think nothing of it.  I will never refuse to defy you then turn around and do just that.  Therefore, you must amend your order.  You must allow me to fight alongside the men."

"Absolutely not," Kirk responded.

"I've watched," Alice persisted.  "Even the best of your men hesitate if only a split-second.  Sometimes that's all it takes to throw the advantage to your enemy.  I've seen men wounded and even killed where I would not have been.  My instinct for self-preservation has never failed me.  Remember: I'm a killer by nature.  I almost killed you - not once but twice.  I beg you Kirk: let me fight alongside the others.  My one and only purpose in life is to kill my enemies.  Kirk: as leader of your people, you cannot in good conscience withhold your greatest resource when it's most needed!  You must amend your edict!"

"If I refuse?" Kirk asked.

"I will obey you," answered Alice.

"I sincerely hope you mean that," said Kirk.  "Because the time is passed when my decisions are open to compromise.  You may very well be the one whose skills could save all of us: it makes no difference.  My word is law - and without law survival is meaningless.  You will not be allowed onto the field of battle.  If you defy me, you will pay with your life."

"You have spoken," Alice acknowledged her acceptance of Kirk's decision.

Several days passed without incident.  Not only were there no skirmishes at the mouth of the cave, there seemed to be none anywhere in the area - as if the gangs of thugs battling for dominance had killed each other off, or had moved their field of battle elsewhere.  The guards began to relax their vigil somewhat: they were still posted around the clock, but the sense of urgency and absolute concentration had lessened.

"Don't be deceived into a false sense of security," Alice warned Kirk.  "The lull in their fighting could mean someone has finally emerged the victor.  If so, they may be biding their time.  Be more wary than ever."

"These are my thoughts too," Kirk agreed.  "I have no intention of letting down my guard."

In the middle of the night Alice awoke from a deep sleep; grabbed her knife; got up at once; and silently hurried off to Kirk's quarters in a hidden alcove at the far end of the main cavern.  She bent down over his sleeping bag, put one hand over his mouth and put the index finger of her free hand to her own mouth.

"Make no sound," she whispered.  "The enemy's here.  They've come for us."

"You're mistaken," Kirk replied, in a normal tone.  "Our guards would have warned us by now."

"I saw them die," Alice whispered back. "That's why I awoke.  Come: there's no time."

Kirk got up and followed as Alice hurried to rouse the others.  Within seconds a force of twenty had been assembled.  Kirk began at once directing their movements.

"You go along this wall," he ordered the first five.  "You, along that wall," he ordered the next group of five.  "And you -"

He was cut off by a scream.  "It's too late!" Alice cried at the top of her voice, leaping in front of two men who had just entered.  Both were carrying automatic weapons.  Her left hand flew through the air so quickly it seemed detached from her arm; and her right hand, just as quickly, flew upward, the knife in her left hand slashing across the first man's throat, the force of her right hand sending the second man's gun flying from his hands.  A shot rang out from where the T-Men were assembled; the second intruder fell dead: Kirk had just put a bullet between his eyes.

Instantly, twenty more men entered the cavern through the tunnel leading from the mouth of the cave, firing their weapons as they came.  The T-Men fired back.  Alice instinctively moved to the shadows along the darkest side of the cave.  In the dim light of the cave's lanterns only an expert marksman like Kirk could hope to hit anything except by pure chance.  Some of the T-Men were shot, some of the intruders were.

Meanwhile more of Kirk's men had gotten up and, at his signal, formed a cordon across the back of the cavern; the survivors of the first line of defense fanned out to either side of the cave.  Kirk kept his eye on Alice the whole time he was directing the operation - and his gun covering her as she reached out from the shadows to attack.  For every intruder she took out, Kirk took out a second who had trained his gun on her - matching her knife man for man with his revolver.

Of the twenty men who had burst into the cave less than ten minutes earlier, ten were already dead, three wounded.  The seven remaining abruptly turned and ran back through the tunnel, pursued by a dozen of Kirk's men.

The intruders exit from the cave was followed by a hail of shots from a knoll overlooking the cave which cut down seven of their pursuers in the first few seconds and sent the remaining five scurrying for cover behind the thick bushes hiding the cave's entrance.  Another volley of shots rang out, ripping the bushes to shreds and killing all but one of the pursuers - the only one agile enough to avoid the bullets long enough to get back inside the cave.

Breathless and covered with dirt, leaves and stickers, Brad Carter met the reinforcements Kirk had mustered when he heard the first round of shots and realized his men were being ambushed.  Still gasping for air, Brad could not speak clearly enough to instruct his reinforcements how to position themselves, or where the shots had come from; all he could do was point and gesture them into a formation of defense.  Once the men were positioned, Kirk took over command again.

"Keep them occupied," he ordered.  "If it looks like they're disbanding, engage them - a few of you at a time - even if it means sacrificing yourselves.  Keep them here and occupied at any cost.  I've sent men out the back way to slip around behind them and come in from the Platte.  We'll attack from both sides.  But it'll take fifteen, maybe twenty, minutes for them to get in place.  Hold this line - and hold the enemy in place."

The reinforcements numbered twenty, each with a semi-automatic gun drawn from the weapons the T-Men had stockpiled since abandoning their compound at Recluse.  This was the first time they had had to use any of the weapons.  The men stayed inside the mouth of the cave, firing in the direction of the knoll; at first their fire was returned in full force, then only sporadically, then not at all.  Ten minutes had passed.  Five men, at random, after glancing at their watches, looked at one another, nodded, and took of running, lunging at the ground the instant they exited the cave.  The others provided cover as the five began crawling toward the knoll.

All of a sudden a burst of shots rang from the knoll.  The T-Men moving toward the knoll had their guns ready as they crawled; they stopped moving and began firing, but with no clearer target in their sights than their cover at the cave had in theirs.  Another burst rang out.  All five men were hit, their heads blown off by a hundred rounds of ammunition.  Fifteen minutes had passed.  Once again, the gunshots from the knoll tapered off and then ended.

Another five minutes went by, without a sound from the knoll.  Nor was there any sign of the men Kirk had deployed behind enemy lines.  Brad asked for volunteers to join him in another assault on the knoll.

"We've got to keep them there till our men arrive," he said.  "Who's with me?"

Three men immediately volunteered.  Brad assembled them and turned to the others.  "Give us ten seconds then begin firing," he ordered.  He and his men were ready to go when a shot rang out behind them.

"Stop!" the voice of Kirk cried from the shadows behind the men at the mouth of the cave.  When he got closer he explained his action.

"The men I sent out were ambushed by a band on their way in," Kirk told his men.  "They managed to force the intruders back, but they were unable to proceed according to plan.  Instead of surrounding the enemy, they nearly surrounded us.  We have two choices," Kirk presented his men the options available.  "We can take whatever we can carry and move deeper into the tunnels.  They may have found the back entrance to this section, but they won't be able to follow us once we get started.  Or, we can stay and muster a final assault on them, however many there are.  I've left a small contingent at the back entrance, should they try to re-enter.  I've assembled the rest of my men: they're behind me, in the shadows.  When I give the word, they'll come forward and, together, all of us will move toward the knoll - one solid line.  They either kill us all or we kill them.  When this battle is over, there can be only one victor - and only one survivor: them, or us.  I've given you the options.  I've decided on the second.  We will stand and fight to the death.  Our home will never again be safe as long as any of them are alive.  They will always re-assemble, and come after us.  They may not know there are other tunnels, but they know there's no other safe place.  We cannot let them drive us away."

Kirk was about to give the order when he was stopped by a voice from the shadows.  "Do not go till this child has given his blessing!" Alice commanded as she came forward carrying the child she had baptized in the burning mud of Wyoming.  When she was in place she loosened the baby's diaper and let him wet in the palm of her hand.  Making a tight fist, she lifted her hand and, with the gesture of a priest dispensing holy water, scattered the child's urine over the soldiers.

"You will prevail over your enemy," she pronounced as she disappeared back into the shadows.

Kirk gave the word.  His men formed a solid line and began moving from the cave toward the knoll, firing their weapons as they went.  One after another they fell before the enemy's fire, but they kept going till they reached the knoll and, finally, engaged the enemy face to face.  The plain behind them was littered with dozens of bodies, chance alone determining who had been hit and who hadn't, who had died and who still lived.  None of the men had looked down on the march to see who had fallen in front of them; no one looked back now to see how many lay dead behind them.  All their energies were focused ahead, on the knoll, on the enemy, on the objective.

Now, one after another, the enemy fell before them.  Within seconds of their meeting, dozens lay dead, dozens more wounded.  The enemy abruptly turned and ran from the knoll toward the Platte, hotly pursued by Kirk's men.  A noise in the distance, as of thunder, drew closer and louder by the second until, suddenly, the headlights of a convoy of trucks appeared over a hill and proceeded toward the knoll.  Without stopping, the trucks - five in all - roared past the two armies; any of the enemy who could make it, leaped onto the moving vehicles and headed for safety.  Any who could not, kept running until the T-Men caught up to them and finished them off.

In less than half an hour, the battle was over.  The sun was just coming up over the cave.  The battlefield was covered with bodies, some writhing in pain, most deathly still.  Kirk and a few of his men made their way among the bodies, singling out the wounded.  Their men were tended to, fellow soldiers summoned to carry them back to the cave.  When they came to one of the enemy left wounded on the battlefield, they followed Kirk's lead: they shot him in the head where he lay.

"We're not wanton killers!" Brad objected to what Kirk and his men were doing.  "This is the kind of thing they would do - not us!"

"Any one of these men you would have me save could be our death knell," Kirk answered the objection.  "They know our location.  They can escape and come back with another army."

"And the ones who got away?" Brad asked.  "They won't come back?"

Kirk shook his head.  "No," he answered, "they won't."

"How can you say that?"

"Because we're going after them.  I won't stop till the last one is dead.  They'll be easy to track: the ground is still soft from the storms last week.  And they'll be easy to round up: it's clear one of the gangs subdued the rest.  They'll all stay together now, everywhere they go.  We can get all of them.  Then we'll be safe."

"Until the next gang appears!" Brad warned.

"These are the last," Kirk assured him.

When all the wounded had been disposed of, Kirk and his men returned to the cave.  For a moment they stood at the mouth of the cave, watching the birds fly overhead - thousands of birds, heading southeast, as they had been doing for the past week.

"It's a sign," Alice, who had come to the entrance, said.  "The end is near."

"The end of the world?" asked Joey, who had remained by his leader's side during the entire battle.

"Our world," Alice answered.  "The real world can't end till the sun explodes.  Nor can we end.  Only our way of life."

"That's already ended," said Joey.

"We still fight and die: nothing has changed yet," Alice observed.  "These birds are carrying our ways off with them - as surely as if they had swooped down and plucked our young from their cribs.  When the last bird has flown over us, nothing will be left."

The Tungs had heard tales of a fabulous city somewhere in the Southwest.  Even in St. Louis vague hints of the existence of such a place broke occasionally through the rigid territoriality that dominated their every waking moment.  Since arriving on the Plains, the Tungs heard more and more of this place, as the tales grew from a rumor here, an innuendo there, into a full scale mythology, complete with characters, events, treasures, treachery, drama and murder.  Entire kingdoms rose and fell as this great city looked on, oblivious to everything around it - as if it were invisible to the rest of the world.

No one on the Plains knew for sure where it was, or even if it remained in one spot all the time; they knew only that everyone sought it as a final refuge from the earth's woes. 

It was rumored to be somewhere in Wyoming or New Mexico or Colorado - along the Continental Divide; or perhaps farther to the east, in the Texas panhandle, hidden from prying eyes by the very monotony of the terrain.  Some who visited the Plains from time to time claimed to know exactly where it was.  "It's part of the Wind River Indian Reservation; it sits atop the Grave of Sacajawea; her ghost protects it from outsiders," an old mountaineer from Wyoming had expressed one version.  "It sits in a rift at the top of Mount Elbert, fed by hot springs that run straight through the center of the mountain; it's so close to Aspen the skiers could have spit and hit it, only they weren't looking up, they were looking down," a miner from Colorado gave yet another version.  "It's right there, in plain view, right in the middle of the Plain of San Agustin; if people would just stop looking so hard they'd see it.  Stand on Pelona Mountain: it's like a shining river below," a trapper from New Mexico offered his version.

As the Plains became increasingly uninhabitable, people headed west - to the Continental Divide - in hopes of stumbling by chance upon this fabulous city.  The Tungs, fresh from their victory over their rivals on the Plains, headed Southwest.  They had subdued and in subduing absorbed every other gang on the Plains in their raids, emerging from the final assault outside Kirk's cave as the undisputed leaders; all others were forced to forswear their separate allegiances to become Tungs.  The remnants of this war stole away in their trucks in the early hours of the morning.

The Tungs did not accept the stories that put the place they sought for refuge - the city they meant to conquer and make their new capital - along the Continental Divide.  They settled instead on Texas as the likeliest location - not because they gave that particular version greater credence in and of itself; but because of things they remembered hearing in St. Louis, when Bradley Jerome Carter was still alive.  It never occurred to them that this wondrous city and the project Carter had worked on - the project they had secured for him - were one and the same.  At the time all their thoughts and energies were concentrated on their own empire.

Kirk and a carefully chosen contingent started their own convoy, in pursuit of their enemy.  Though it had been Alice who, in rousing the camp, sounded the alarm in time to stave off the attack, Kirk had no intention of allowing her to accompany his men and was surprised when she readily accepted his decision.

"We need Alice with us," Brad interceded on her behalf.  "She has a sixth sense about things: we need her, Kirk.  Don't let your edict stand in the way of our mission."

This time it was Alice who objected to being a part of the fighting.  Shaking her head, she turned to Brad.  "If I go," she said, "it will be one too many for what you must do."

"But we need as many as possible," Brad protested.

"To fight the Tungs, yes," Alice agreed.  "But for what comes after, you need only those who survive.  I would survive, and in surviving overburden you.  I will not go," she pronounced with a finality that silenced every counter-argument.

As the  men loaded the weapons and supplies they would need, Alice came to Joey and said "I will watch your son while you're away."

"He's Kirk's son," Joey reminded her.  "I only care for him in Kirk's absence."

Alice nodded and walked away.  A cold chill ran down Joey's spine.  "I won't leave his side till this mission's over," he resolved.

It was morning when they started.  Brad arose before anyone else and made his way through the dim cavern to the storage area, where he found a cellophane wrapped cupcake he had set out the night before.  He unwrapped it and placed a candle he had found on one of the search forays on top of it, then lit the candle.  With tears in his eyes he softly blew out the candle, removed it, then ate the cake.  The date was October 19 of the year 2070; it was Brad's twentieth birthday.  Not his actual birthday - he didn't know that, or especially care; but the day his life as Bradley Jerome Carter II began.

"I've never disobeyed you," he whispered.  "When the men have time, they like to play football or baseball; I never join in.  As long as I reject the God you worshipped, I will never play sports.  Your memory is worth more than everything else I love - except her."

Carol had seen Brad heading for the store room.  She followed him, wanting to spend a moment with him before the convoy got started.  She witnessed his birthday celebration, wishing she had been invited to be part of it.  She waited till it was over before revealing herself.

"You're up early," she said after making some slight noise to alert him that someone else was present.

"Midnight snack," Brad quipped.

"Brad, I know we've been around and around about this before," Carol said, "But he is your father's son - and mine.  All you have to do is look at him to see it."

"I've looked," Brad replied.  "I've stood as close to him as I am to you right now.  I've looked into his eyes.  They're the same color, the same shape - but they're not father's eyes.  He saved my life - twice he saved it!  I wish I could see him as who you say he is; but I can't, mother.  Maybe one day I will - maybe one day I'll look at him and it'll be there, right in front of me.  But it's not there now."

"Then you must think me foolish for believing him to be my son," Carol observed.

Brad hesitated a moment, as if he wanted to say something but was reluctant to.  "Mother," he finally said, "has it made you happy, finding him?"

Carol turned away.  "No," she admitted.  "It's made me very unhappy.  And it's made me distant from Joseph, who I care very much for: I don't wish it to seem like I'm using Joseph to get closer to my son..  But I'd still rather know, Brad, no matter how much that knowledge has cost me."

The soft ground around Kearney gradually gave way to a hardened earth more typical of autumn on the Plains.  Kirk's men were still able to track the Tungs, but only with a very deliberate concentration that slowed the convey almost to a crawl.  Kirk remained confident that they would find their enemy, however slow their progress, but not all the men shared his confidence.

"They'll get away!" several of his men expressed their concern.

"Get away?" Kirk answered almost rhetorically.  "What does it mean to 'get away' when the world itself is coming apart?  Where would they 'get away' to?  No matter where they go, they'll end up back at the tunnels.  We'll find them, and we'll destroy them," he assured his men.

The greatest obstacle to tracking the Tungs was the US Highway system - an obstacle precisely because it still existed and was still able to be used.  Much of the roadway was torn apart from the ice, the fireballs, the tornadoes, the rapid fluctuation in both temperature and magnetic field; but some sections remained unscarred for miles at a stretch.  Where the road was passable, the Tungs' convoy left the fields and deserts and hills and valleys to continue along the pavement, making it next to impossible to track their movement.

Nebraska was easy to track.  They had cut a diagonal path through Kearney County into Hardin County, using only a small section of US 183 from the town of Alma to the Kansas border.  At the border, they took US 383, which cut another diagonal, through Norton, Decatur, Sheridan and into Thomas County where, at the town of Gem, they were forced to abandon the roadway.

It was an educated guess that kept Kirk and his men on their trail into northwestern Kansas: at the point it was clear they had taken to the highway, they could have continued due south, along 183, or veered right onto 383.  Kirk reasoned that they would give Kansas City as wide a berth as possible, which meant heading as far west as they could until they got through Kansas.  The town of Gem, long deserted, and ravaged by weather, proved Kirk correct.  The trail clearly left the highway to continue through parched pastures the rest of the way through Thomas County, through Logan County, into Wallace County, which bordered Colorado, and onto US 40 west.

In this way, the escaping Tungs and their pursuers criss-crossed Colorado, New Mexico and Oklahoma until finally making it to the Texas Panhandle, the Tungs unaware that in taking to the highway again they had crossed right over the city they were seeking.

Route 40 had led them only as far as Arapahoe in eastern Colorado's Cheyenne County; then they were forced back onto the land, which they traversed at a southwesterly diagonal as far as the town of Eads in Kiowa County, where another roadway opened before them, US 287, which did not expel them until they were well south of Lamar in Prowers County.  It was just below Eads that the trench running from Wyoming to Texas tunneled beneath 287; the high walls built to shield the trench from travelers had not received a scratch over the years: they completely shielded Pod City from the Tungs.  It wasn't until Texas that they finally saw it for the first time.

When they left 287 below Lamar, they encountered, in Baca County at the southeastern tip of Colorado, an area so barren and difficult to traverse that they were forced so far off their course they ended up in New Mexico instead of Oklahoma.  Realizing their mistake, they headed almost due east through Union County into Oklahoma, crossing the border at the town of Mexhoma in Cimarron County.  They continued eastward till they again encountered US 287, at Boise City, Oklahoma, which they took on into Texas as far as Stratford in Sherman County, where, once again, they were forced to abandon the roadway, intending to head almost due south, through Amarillo.  Not that they expected to find their fabled city there; but their supplies were nearly exhausted and they meant to replenish them.  But they never got to Amarillo.

A monstrous storm blew up out of nowhere, dropping so much rain in so short a period that Sherman County was virtually impassable below Stratford.  The Tungs convey managed to find a small stretch of paved road along Texas Route 15, which they dared not leave as long as it afforded them transit through the flooded area, even if it did head almost due east.

"We'll cut back toward Amarillo when the water recedes," the leader of the Tungs informed his men.  "For now, we'll stay on this road, wherever it takes us."

Texas 15 took them to the very edge of the city they had heard rumors of; had traveled almost a thousand miles in search of; and, now that they had finally found it, intended to make the capital of their new empire.

It was twilight when they reached the town of Spearman, where 15 took a northeasterly direction.  Halfway between Spearman, in Hansford County, and Waka, in Ochiltree County, they noticed a glow just over the horizon; they had not encountered anything like this during their entire journey from Nebraska.  They pulled off the road and made for it.

"Think it's a forest fire?" the leader of the Tungs was asked.

"We've set enough fires to know what they look like," he replied.  "This looks more like..." he hesitated "...more lights...."

The men became excited.  They all drew their guns.  Some even started running in the direction of the glow, but were called back.

"Let's take it slow," the leader said.  "If it is a city, they'll have sentries stationed, they'll have weapons, they'll be prepared for attack.  We'll stake it out first, then draw up our plan - very carefully, and very discreetly.  Then, when the time is right, we'll attack.

The Tungs sent a scouting party to assess the situation.  Slowly they made for the glow which, as the twilight gave way to night, gradually filled the sky, leaving no doubt what it was.  When they finally reached the ledge overlooking the trench, they were rendered absolutely speechless by what they saw.  Below them, reaching as far as they could see to the north and to the south, was an endless vista of strange looking structures, all connected by walkways covered in what looked to be glass.  Everywhere there were lights, of the kind found on every street corner of every major city.

Suddenly the lights went dim, and people began entering the crosswalks from within the structures.  The members of the scouting party, already lying on the ground to avoid detection, crouched even lower.  They lay there for an hour, not daring to move, as they watched the people moving back and forth along the walkways.  In the distance was a pale reddish glow, the kind that had filled the sky in the Northern Plains almost constantly since the day the Mississippi flooded St. Louis.  At the end of an hour the street lamps came back on.  The scouting party crawled away from the ledge, got up, and hurried back to report their findings.

For three days, while they foraged on whatever they could find, they studied the city, its rhythms, its movements, its activities, looking for a pattern.  The only discernable pattern was the nightly stroll along the walkways, at the same time, for one hour, every night.  They decided that was the best time to effect their attack.

No birds had come to roost in Pod City.  They had all gone elsewhere.  They constantly flew over as they headed southeast, but they never stopped - not even to feast on the army of insects feasting on the dead bodies filling the trenches.  Soon the insects, too, would be gone.  No one came to Pod City seeking shelter anymore; therefore no one died in the trenches any longer.  When the bodies already there will have been picked clean, the insects would move on.

Joey was aghast at what he saw when, outside Lamar, Kirk and his men came to the section of Pod City he had seen as it was being built.  It was as if the two bodies he had seen there had multiplied a thousand fold.

"What happened here?" he asked in a horrified voice.  "Did the people inside kill them?"

"Probably not," Brad ventured an opinion.  "They'd have no reason to."

"They had no reason to kill those two boys either," Joey said.

"They didn't want anyone to know back then - now it doesn't matter," Brad observed.  "There's nothing anyone out here can do now.  Besides, look at all the different ways they died: some bodies are burned, some covered with stab wounds, some crushed: more likely nature killed them."

"These people have no idea what they're doing to their souls, to stand and watch while so many die - and do nothing to help them," Joey said.

"These are the same people who abandoned the country they ran," Kirk reminded his lieutenant.  "In the name of survival they left the rest of us to die.  They have no souls for us to worry about."

"No one is beyond redemption," Joey replied.  "What seems too monstrous to us to comprehend is all but invisible to God.  At the slightest sign of remorse, He'll forgive them and welcome them back into His fold.  It isn't their deeds that condemns them, it's what's in their hearts."

The wind, which had been blowing from the southeast, carrying the stench of death rising out of the trench away from Kirk and his men, suddenly shifted to the northwest, carrying it now directly toward them.  They hastily retreated to their vehicles and, picking up the Tung's trail again, continued their odyssey to the Texas Panhandle, where they finally caught sight of the convoy halfway between Spearman and Waka at four in the afternoon of Sunday, November 1st, 2070.

The Tungs had fixed their plan of attack for that evening, at nine o'clock, when the lights went down and the people came out to gaze at the heavens.  They had set everything in place the two previous evenings during the nightly black out, moving unnoticed among the corpses on the trench floor as they carefully planed their pellets in key locations along the bottom of the walkways and attached the wires they then strung across the corpses and up the side of the trench to their triggering box.

They had chosen three walkways  stretching among four pods, the particular walkways and pods entirely a random selection, the only criterion that they be interconnected.  At the appointed hour they would set the charges, ripping holes in the bottom of the walkways just long enough to accommodate a man carrying an automatic weapon.  They counted on the surprise and the boldness of the attack to throw the star-gazers off their guard long enough for their men to enter the walkways and either kill them outright or take them prisoner.  Once these four units were secured, they would fan out, little by little, from their base of operations until, eventually, they had taken the entire city.

It was now four o'clock, and the Tungs were readying themselves for the attack in five hours, making sure their guns were filled with ammunition and in perfect firing order.  As they prepared their weapons, and went over their strategy for the hundredth time, they caught sight of something moving toward them from the west.  At almost the exact moment the T-Men had recognized their convoy, they realized what, if not who, it was coming this way.

"Get extra rounds," their leader ordered.  "Whoever this is, is dead meat.  No one's going to keep us from taking this city - we saw it first: it's ours!  Kill the intruders - every last one of them!  This is our city!"

"But if we alert the people inside -" one of the Tungs started to protest.

"So what?" the leader cut the protest short.  "Those corpses rotting in the trench that we could barely finish our work without retching: they all tell the same story.  Others have come and gone and died trying to get inside - but none ever have!  The people of this city must feel absolutely invulnerable.  They might watch us killing the intruders, just for fun; but it would never occur to them that by nightfall they'll be the ones we'll be killing.  Alright men: on my signal, open fire!"

The T-Men drew closer and closer until they were almost in range.  Suddenly they stopped and all leaped from their vans, crouching down on the roadway, each clutching an automatic weapon.

"We're still out of range," Kirk assured his men.  "A hundred, maybe two hundred, more yards'll put us - and them - in range.  On my signal we move forward.  We get up - run a hundred yards - fall to the ground again - each one of us fixed on a cluster of them.  There's at least ten of them to every one of us - so the advantage is ours: we don't have to aim perfectly to hit our target.  All we need is to start shooting.  Now!"

Kirk was first on his feet, running with his gun pointed toward the Tungs till he had crossed the first hundred yards, his men following behind him, the weapons of the enemy firing the whole time but falling short of their targets.  When he reached his goal, Kirk fell to the ground again, his men following his lead.  They lay there, catching their breath, as the enemy ceased firing.

"This time's for real," Kirk told his men.  Then he turned to Joey, who he knew would be beside him.  "I'm ordering you to stay back!" he said.  "Without a weapon you're no use to us."

Joey smiled; then, indicating the gun half hidden beneath his body, gently rebuked his leader.  "We see what we expect to see," he said.  "I will use it, Kirk," he swore.

For a split-second, Kirk's eyes looked into Joey's as if to ask "Why?" then moved forward, to the enemy.  "On my signal," Kirk told his men.  In the seconds before the final assault, Joey looked to the sky.  He heard something; a very faint sound, but a sound unmistakable to him, a sound greatly cherished, one from his youth.  Gulls flew overhead, pure white with their wings spread wide and a hint of sunlight enveloping them like a halo.  The first gulls Joey ever saw had flown in from across the Mississippi one morning when he and his father were walking along Laclede's Landing.  He remembered them again from Donner's Pass, in the earliest days of his apprenticeship; and, later, on the day he left the Sierras to go to Wyoming: they seemed to be making a promise to him then, the way they circled and squawked and even swooped down toward him - the promise of his returning to these mountains some day.

"Now!" Kirk cried as he and his men arose from the ground and rushed the enemy.

They had not gone ten yards when Kirk fell to the ground.  And his second in command, Joey, fell to the ground.  And Brad fell to the ground.  And the rest of the T-Men sent to destroy the enemy fell to the ground.

And the leader of the Tungs and all his men fell to the ground a split-second later, as if executing the final movements of a tightly choreographed ballet.

---Yet not a single shot had been fired.---                    

...."Yee-haw! Ride 'em cowboy!" Sanderson Spears yelled from his chopper as it rocked and swayed and shimmied first one way then another, threatening every second to spin completely out of control. He had come from Nevada, across northern Utah, over the Great Salt Lake and into southeastern Idaho on his way to Yellowstone. He meant to follow the Idaho-Wyoming border as far as the Grand Tetons - to get a ring-side seat to the spectacle. His timing was off by a couple hours.

He had just crossed Bear Lake on the Utah-Idaho border and was navigating his way northeastward across the Caribou National Forest when it happened. The date was November first, the year 2070, the time 4:59 P.M., Mountain Standard Time.

In one instant Craig Pass, Sylvan Pass, Pelican Cove, Dunraven Pass, Mount Washburn, Mount Holmes and a hundred lesser peaks disappeared. Yellowstone Lake burst into a soaring geyser that turned to steam a hundred feet up. The Petrified Tree melted. All roads leading in and out of the Park turned to dust. The air above Yellowstone exploded in a series of shock waves strong enough to topple Mount Hancock at the southernmost point of the Park and turn the top of Huckleberry Mountain, at the northern edge of Teton National forest, into a river of mud before proceeding southward, eastward and westward. The waves were felt along a 500 mile radius, toppling half the trees in the Teton National Forest, Shoshone National Forest, the Gallatin, Beaverhead and Targhee National Forests.

Sanderson Spears was a hundred-fifty miles away when it hit. The wave weakened sufficiently beyond the first seventy-five miles to keep him aloft, though it spun him around and blew him off course by several miles, forcing him to make an emergency landing when he regained control of his chopper. He found himself at the southwestern fork of Bridger National Forest, where Lincoln County, Wyoming compresses to a huge panhandle extending north to Teton County - some fifteen miles east of where he lost control. He made for a clearing on the southern face of Indian Mountain and set down. Fifteen minutes had elapsed. Spears got out and inspected his chopper for signs of damage. Finding none, he got back in and prepared to return to the air.

Just as he did, a cloud of ash, steam and lava shot thousands of feet into the air above Yellowstone with a deafening roar that sent a second series of shock waves, stronger than the first, resounding across the Rockies in every direction. Trailing fast on the heels of these next waves was a spray of white hot ash that incinerated everything in a seventy-five mile radius and darkened the afternoon sky to where the burning forests reflecting back upon themselves from the ashen covering turned the entire region a blood red.

Spears could feel the heat spreading all around him. A bush here or a tree there exploded in flame; but not everything became tinder for the inferno. The intervening miles between Indian Mountain and Yellowstone cooled the ashes, as it had calmed the waves expanding from the exploding Park, enough to spare things not in their direct path. Spears waited out the storm surge, which lasted half an hour and left a dark gray quilt over the landscape, threatening to grow thicker as it cooled.

"It's now or never," Spears resolved as he started his engine, which, in turn, started the blade rotating, which swirled the ash that had already settled on the chopper into a choking cloud that made it nearly impossible to see. Momentarily, this cloud cleared. Still unable to see more than a few hundred feet ahead, Spears lifted off the mountain and headed southeast, toward the Continental Divide, his chopper surrounded by ash which the rotating blade just barely kept from clogging its inner mechanism or covering the windshield.

His instruments at first were useless; the blast had disrupted the earth's magnetic field, cloaking north, south, east and west in a blanket of silt. Spears relied entirely on his sense of direction to guide him through Lincoln into Sweetwater County toward his destination. Even the signposts on the ground - Fontenelle Dam and Reservoir, Green River, US Route 187, Interstate 80 - were blurred or blotted out entirely. Nevertheless, Spears managed to remain on course through Sweetwater County and halfway through Carbon County, where the Continental Divide, which had forked east and west through the Great Divide Basin, joined again north of Medicine Bow National Forest.

At this juncture, more than 200 miles from Yellowstone and almost to the Colorado border, the ash began to thin, and Spears' instruments again began to recognize the directions they were designed to register. Spears looked down through the ash as if looking through a very closely spaced grate. His eyes were drawn to something on the ground which he had difficulty identifying. He tried several phenomena before he found the right fit. It was not a trick of light, not a forest fire, not a waterway polluted with the blood of dead animals. What he saw, looking down, was, ironically, the last thing on earth he expected to see. It was a river of lava, flowing along the eastern flank of the Rockies, following the Continental Divide southward through the Great Plains.

"No," he shook his head as he repeated. "No. It can't be. There can't be ash and lava. Not both. I won't allow it!" he quipped. "No scientist in his right mind would! It's one or the other. So you might as well go back where you came from - because you're not allowed! Humanity will not tolerate this sort of insolence! You are way out of line, mister - way out of line!"

Spears steered his chopper directly over the lava, suddenly realizing why he had taken so long identifying it: it was just now advancing; he had come upon it as it was beginning to make its move. He could see the wall of lava reaching southward along the Divide, see it covering one after another tree in its path. He sped ahead, descended, and hovered over the treetops so he could watch the lava advancing.

"My God!" he exclaimed, "It's twenty feet high!"

It was already into Colorado, moving from Medicine Bow into Routt National Forest. Again Spears speeded up, to hover over Muddy Pass, fifty miles to the south, to see whether the lava would follow the nearly ninety degree sweep of the Rockies to the east; or turn to the west, leaving the Divide; or squeeze between Muddy Pass and Rabbit Ears Pass to continue due south; or possibly stop altogether.

Its path, though Spears could not tell for the ash, was being determined, not by the Continental Divide, but by a fault the explosion had created, which ran almost parallel to the eastern ridge of the Rockies. This fault followed the sudden shift of the Divide to the east at Muddy Pass; followed the Rockies through Arapaho National Forest in Grand County; halfway through Rocky Mountain National Park; to the boundary of Grand and Larimer Counties; then again southward - but only as far as Mount Audubon, just inside Boulder County. There, it diverged, taking another turn to the east, to guide the lava flow southeastward between Boulder and Longmont, then along the boundary of Adams and Morgan Counties, where it merged with another rift running through Colorado, running almost directly north and south. A man made rift.

The explosion rocked the entire western half of the United States - from the Mississippi to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico - with the force of a ten point earthquake on the old Richter scale, toppling tens of thousands of homes, nearly all of them already abandoned; ripping forests to shreds; reducing entire towns and cities to rubble; collapsing ceilings and walls of caves throughout the west; virtually knocking out whatever remnants of power remained.

Every street lamp, every covered walkway, every ramp in Pod City was destroyed. The residents would no longer enjoy their nightly stroll beneath the stars; the city would no longer reflect itself against the night. The only way in or out - the ramps leading from the pods to the edge of the trench - lay in a crumpled heap atop the corpses of those who had sought refuge. Only the pods remained above ground; below ground, the storerooms, ballrooms, assembly halls and conduits remained. The power grid continued to function, bringing heat, light, air and cooling to the people of Pod City, who were merely inconvenienced by the blast, nothing more.

"When it's safe," they were told over short circuit TV by their new leader, "we'll send crews out to assess the damage and see about restoring our city to its former state of livability.  In the meantime, relax, enjoy your day, continue as you were, rest assured you are in no danger.  These units were designed to withstand any assault nature sends our way."

Even as these words of reassurance were rolling off the tongue of the spokesman, the people at the northern end of the trench were being roasted alive in their pods.  These were the substandard units, the units whose structural weakness had allowed tiny irregularities in the material to precipitate hairline cracks in the unit when subjected to stress.  The explosion opened microscopic channels in the outer hull; and, though the material itself could withstand heat in excess of five thousand degrees, the wall of lava worked through this protective barrier to fill the hollow space between it and the inner wall, turning the interior of the pods into an open oven.  The residents ran, screaming, through their pods, watching their skin turning bright red then bursting into an oozing juice of blood, water and pus which dripped onto their carpeted floors.  Some made it to their pod's hatch, opening it only to be swallowed in a sea of lava.  The ice cold pods of the cryogenics began signaling their sleeping zombies to awaken; those who could, did, only to be covered in flaming refrigerants inside their caskets.

The lava flowed through Pod City faster, slower, then faster, then slower again, according to whatever incomprehensible design engineered its inception.  It began flowing, beneath the cover of ashes, at five fourteen P.M.  It reached Colorado at six fifty-nine P.M.  It veered from the Divide at seven thirty-two.  It reached the trench that housed Pod City at eight eleven.  By nine P.M. half a dozen families had been burned beyond recognition, along with hundreds of corpses on the trench floor.

It was light enough to fight.  The T-Men and the Tungs picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, retrieved their weapons, re-grouped, prepared once again for battle.  They were in Central Time, an hour ahead of Yellowstone, yet so near the border of the two zones that it was almost as light in the Texas Panhandle as it had been in Wyoming.  They were knocked to the ground by the force of the blast at 4:59; they got up and readied for round two a minute later, both sides momentarily distracted by the sound of steel and stone and glass wrenching apart and smashing to bits on the floor of the trench.  The warriors concluded it had been an earthquake; the T-Men thought nothing further of it.  To the Tungs, however, it was a disaster: their plan had been thwarted, their way into Pod City destroyed.  By the time the two sides were ready to begin again, Yellowstone was ready to erupt again.

The T-Men charged, firing their weapons as they hurtled themselves toward their enemy.  The Tungs fired back.  Twenty Tungs fell before the charge.  Five T-Men went down.  The northwestern corner of Wyoming blew apart, rattling all two thousand pods of Pod City on their foundations, throwing the armies gathered on the western rim of the trench into a heap on the battlefield.  They were slow getting back up this time; the ground still vibrated for several minutes more.

Sanderson Spears emerged from a sea of ash south of Lamar, Colorado.  He had outrun it.  More precisely, it had slowed its progress across the Plains so that the speed of Spears' chopper exceeded the speed of the ash.  Above him, the sky was growing dark from the approach of night, though there were still faint traces of blue off to the west; below him lay the dark chasm holding civilization's final refuge against nature, with a blood red pall fast approaching from the northwest.                                                                    

Reggie Kirkus was planning his escape.  Not from Pod City: he had no intention of leaving the land he was determined to rule; but from the situation he had found himself in.  Being under house arrest had given him a chance to work out the details of his escape.  His jailers had not stripped him of his computer; they had merely limited his access to non-essential programs only.  But it was enough.  He had already spread a trail of evidence across several innocuous programs, implicating his nemesis, Stevie, and Stevie's father, the new interim President, in his father's mysterious illness.  Carefully hidden, also, in places that could be found but not easily traced, were hints of sexual misconduct not only reprehensible in its execution but murderous in the attempts to conceal it.  Stevie was portrayed as a rapist and pedophile, who murdered entire families by driving them from their units in order to hide what he had done to their children - then placing the blame on Reggie.  It would take time for all the evidence to be uncovered; but time was on Reggie's side.  When, all of a sudden, the earth shook, the walkways came crashing down, the ramps were wrenched from their perch, the street lights all fell.  Then, fifteen minutes later, the earth shook again.  Power was momentarily disrupted, but came back on.  Everything returned to normal.

Andrea looked out through a small window in the door that led to the walkway, holding onto the door handle to keep her balance.  It had been almost a year since she had ventured onto the walkway, so at first it didn't sink in what had happened.  Then she realized there was nothing above ground linking the units.

"I shall be a trendsetter," she mused.  "Everyone'll follow my lead now, and refuse their nightly stroll.  If only a typhoon could come this far, and wash all this away.  But it won't.  This place is set in concrete, and all of us with it."

Professor Kirkus hovered between life and death.  He slipped in and out of a coma almost hourly; he never ate, almost never spoke, rarely opened his eyes.  Reggie had meant to finish him off but decided to keep him alive until his plan played out.

"Just a little longer, old man," Reggie would occasionally whisper to his father.  "Then I'll pull the plug - figuratively speaking, of course."

Occasionally someone came in to help care for Professor Kirkus; mostly, though, the burden fell to Andrea.  There were moments when he was lucid, and tried to expound on the nature and the absolute necessity of power, or else recalled some special incident he and his wife had shared; but nothing like an actual conversation ever took place again in unit 1939.

Andrea spent most of her time wondering where Brad might be, and what he might be doing.  Her most cherished possession was an atlas of the United States.  Every state west of the Mississippi was criss-crossed with lines she had drawn tracing his imaginary path.  On the afternoon of November 1st she drew a line from Recluse, Wyoming, which she still believed to be the headquarters of the T-Men, to Billings, Montana, where she had him venturing along with Alice and Joey and Carol for supplies.  Before her hand reached Brad's anticipated destination, the first shock struck, detouring the line she was drawing from Billings downward to the very center of Yellowstone.  When the shock stopped, she set her atlas aside and made for the walkway, to see what had happened.  The second shock hit as she stood looking out the window, trying to determine what was different about the place.

From Kearney east was still standing.  But virtually the entire network of tunnels west of Kirk's headquarters at Bassway Strip caved in, those that survived the first shock succumbing to the second.  In the space of fifteen minutes the stuff of Joey's maps, which had taken him almost two years to assemble from the handiwork of a hundred years' labor, and which he watched over so meticulously day and night, became obsolete.

Part of the ceiling at Bassway Strip collapsed, separating one section of the cave from the other.  A hundred people - Mount Everest, Alice and Carol among them - were in the smaller section, leading to the back entrance on the banks of the North Platte; the other seventy were left in the larger section, nearest the mouth of the cave.  Tons of dirt and rock filled the passageway, making it impossible to clear a path.

"We'll go around," Mount Everest decided.

Three black gulls flew so close to Spears' helicopter he could have reached out and touched them.  They flew low enough to avoid the blade, and somehow kept from being driven downward by the fierce rotation.  It was as if Spears and his chopper were part of their flock, or else something they could secure safe passage southward by clinging to.  They were stragglers, they had waited while all the other birds in the Northern Plains flew away.  Now they were in a desperate last minute flight to safety, as the ash from Yellowstone threatened to overtake them.

The lava kept flowing, inversely to the flight of ash, which had slowed down and thinned out.  By the time the lava reached Kansas it had almost overtaken Spears' helicopter.  The sky was almost dark now; the lava, from above, was like a sunrise coming out of the ground, flowing along rather than above the horizon.  Spears felt duty bound to chastise the lava for refusing to obey the finer points of natural law: "You don't flow like that, idiot!" he said.  "A couple - maybe a dozen - maybe even a hundred - miles, but that's it!  You don't gobble up a hundred, two hundred, three hundred bones in one afternoon!  If you don't stop immediately I'm reporting you to the American Geological Society - who knows: maybe even the Corps of Engineers!  Don't think I won't!"

The Tungs assessed their losses as they waited for the ground to quit shaking.  There was enough light to continue fighting.  Though they lost four for every one T-Man, they still outnumbered them ten to one.

"We can finish them off here, and now," their leader speculated.

"Let's do it!" the Tungs all agreed.

"The moment the ground settles, we go in for the kill!" the leader told his men.

"We can't move, we can't aim!" Kirk's men protested his decision to attack.  "It's all we can do to stand upright!  We have to wait!"

"We will attack now, or be destroyed," Kirk silenced his men.  "On my signal, we advance."  He lifted his gun and, as he began running toward the enemy, cried "Now!", firing his weapon as he gave the order.  His men followed behind him, trying to aim and shoot at the same time they were trying to stay upright long enough to advance.

The Tungs were taken by surprise.  By the time they realized they were being attacked, a third of them had been hit.  The others, instead of countering the attack, turned and ran, some scattering to the south, along the rim of the trench; some heading west, to their trucks; some descending into the trench to try and hide amidst the debris and bodies lining the trench floor.

Kirk and his men kept advancing, kept firing, though fewer and fewer of the Tungs were being felled by their assault.  Kirk gave the order to halt.  None of his men had been hit; he broke them into three groups of five each: one to pursue each group of Tungs.  The first, he ordered westward toward the Tungs' convoy; the second, southward along the rim; the third - which he led, accompanied by Joey, Brad and two others - into the trench.

Mount Everest began shooting the instant he stepped from the tunnel.  Those behind him followed his lead, firing before they even knew what they were shooting at.  The women had no weapons; they stayed back - except Alice, who drew her knife and silently moved alongside Mount Everest.  Six men lay dead at his feet; four more lay fifty feet ahead, also dead; ten feet beyond that lay two more, one wounded, the other dying.  A dozen or so more scurried away and down the bank into the river.  Mount Everest walked to the wounded man.  Pointing his gun directly at the man's throat, he asked "Who are you and why are you here?"

"We're agents of the United States government," the man answered in a terrified voice.  "We were sent here to arrest anyone we found - that's all I know, I swear it!"

"Why?" Mount Everest cocked his rifle and asked.

"They said there were fugitives here - I swear: that's all I know!  Please - dear God please - don't shoot - don't kill me like this!  Please, I'm begging you!  Don't kill me!"

"It was agents like you who murdered my family - and the families of most of us," Mount Everest said as he pulled his gun back and shot into the ground beside the man's neck.

"You can't let him live," Alice advised.

"They already know about this place or they wouldn't be here," Mount Everest countered.  "Silencing him won't change anything."  With that, he motioned for the men to follow him to the river bank.  He had only taken a few steps when he heard a muffled, gurgling scream.  Turning back, he saw Alice wiping blood from her knife.  He didn't look down to the gaping wound across the agent's throat, or the huge, glazed over eyes staring up from the ground.  At the water's edge, Mount Everest and his men began firing into the river wherever they saw air bubbles.  Six bodies floated lifelessly to the surface; six pools of blood etched their outlines onto the water.  The T-Men waited on the bank, their guns aimed at the water.  Another moment passed; four more bodies emerged from the dark pool.  All four were shot.  Farther downstream, two more surfaced and were shot on sight.  No more bodies appeared in the Platte.  Mount Everest and his men turned back from the river's edge.  They re-joined the women.

"Why'd you kill him?" he asked Alice.

"He smelled of evil," she replied.

"He was just a hapless soul carrying out his orders."

Alice shook her head.  "No," she speculated, "there's more to it.  I don't know what, but -"  She stopped in mid sentence, turned abruptly toward the cave, and drew her knife.  "The others," was all she said.  Motioning for Mount Everest and his men to follow, she hurried off toward the mouth of the cave.

Even at a brisk pace it took fifteen minutes to get around the huge mound covering the cave.  They abruptly stopped at the entrance.  Leading away from the cave were puddles of bright red extending several hundred yards to the southwest.  Alice and the others negotiated their way through these puddles as carefully as if they had been land mines.

"These are pieces of souls," Alice cautioned, "do not dishonor them by trampling them underfoot."

Slowly, with their weapons drawn and an almost sickening sense of dread, Alice, Mount Everest and the others entered the cave.  Everyone but Alice gasped in horror; everyone but Alice froze where they stood.  There, spread before them on the floor of the cave, in the dim light of the torches, from the entrance back to where the ceiling had caved in, were sixty-nine headless corpses.

Alice alone kept moving, stepping lightly and carefully around and over the bodies.  "Where are you going?" Mount Everest called to her.

"To find him," Alice called back.


"Him: the child I baptized," Alice said.

There were babies among the dead, younger than the boy Paris Commune had rescued and Kirk had vowed to raise; they, too, had been decapitated, their bodies riddled with bullets like the bodies of the others.

"All corpses are one," Mount Everest told Alice.  "Why single his out?"

"This boy is magic," Alice reminded Mount Everest.  "Nothing can harm him but himself.  He is not among the dead.  He's here, living."

Alice worked her way to the far end of the cave, where the rock and earth had sentenced some to death, spared others.  In a small crawlspace, almost hidden, she found the child, lying very still, as if he were asleep, but looking out at her.  She went to him, lifted him from the crawlspace and carried him back to the entrance.

"This child will rebuild the earth," Alice said as she handed him to Mount Everest.  "Joey, who knows almost nothing, will teach him everything."

The gun was pointed squarely at the child; the bloody knife dangled from its sheath, ready to claim one final trophy.  The other sixty-nine had been butchered, their heads taken as trophies.  Silently, with  stealth none of the marauding gangs ravaging the Plains had mastered, this band of renegades entered while the T-Men were distracted by the cave-in.  In a matter of seconds they mowed all the men down, then finished off the women and children at their leisure.  The head of each victim was severed and thrown into a sack to be carried off.  One of the men went in search of stragglers, peering into each opening in the debris the ceiling had spilled.  Seeing nothing, he turned to retreat; and, as he turned, he caught a glimpse of something moving where he had seen nothing a moment earlier.  Coming closer, he saw the limbs and trunk of a baby.  He lifted his gun and pulled the trigger; but in the split-second it took his finger to move he clutched his chest, directing the barrel upward.  He fell to the ground, gagging, still clutching his chest.  Three of his comrades came to his aid, but it was too late; an artery in his chest had burst, flooding his heart with blood; in a matter of seconds he was dead.  The others carried him away.

Outside the cave, they waited for those who had gone around to the back entrance to rejoin them.  Momentarily, one of the men, who had stood lookout, came running.

"Get out of here!" he cried.

"Not till the others -"

"The others are dead!  Murdered, in cold blood!  They're all dead!  Those men are maniacs, cold-blooded killers!  We've got to go!"

"How many are there?"

"Dozens - hundreds: I don't know!  More than we can take on!"

The renegades turned and retreated to their convoy, parked a few miles west of Bassway Strip, at Fort Kearney State Historical Park.  They took time only to throw their trophies in the back of the trophy van, then piled into their vans, jeeps and trucks and headed due south, along what was left of Nebraska Route 44, on their way southwest in search of the fabulous city they had heard about, where the streets were paved with gold and the people had discovered the secrets of the universe.

They were remnants of the Federal government, these renegades.  Some had been Treasury agents - the original "T-Men"; some FBI agents; some drug, alcohol and tobacco enforcement officers; some members of the Secret Service.  They had been trained to depend on leaders to channel their energies into constructive goals.  When the chain of command broke down - when the topmost links broke away and vanished - they were unable to cope with the chaos surrounding them.  Not knowing how to contain it, they joined it, bringing to it the well-honed skills of expertly trained enforcers of the law - with no law but that of "the jungle" left to enforce.  They ravaged whatever was left of the land; they slaughtered everyone they encountered.  Somewhere along the way they decided to take souvenirs of their conquests: a finger, a tongue, an ear, an eye or a scalp.  Then they decided that wasn't worthy of their prowess; they needed something more like a trophy than a mere souvenir.  That was when they started taking the heads of their victims.  In little over a month, the entire cargo space of a panel truck was filled with heads - hundreds of heads, jammed so tightly they had to push as hard as they could to force the sixty-nine heads they captured at Bassway Strip into the van.

For six hours they traveled over roadways and through fields and along river banks on a southwesterly track that carried them diagonally across northwestern Kansas into an earlier time zone that returned one hour of the six they spent in flight.  Had they encountered anyone along the way they would have slowed their pace long enough to collect a few more trophies.

The sky was pitch dark.  The stars were veiled in a thin layer of ash that had drifted along the Jet Stream, which was forming a trough across the Central Plains.  The renegades' convoy continued its southwest course through a dark open plain in the center of Cheyenne County leading into Kiowa County toward a course that would have taken them through the town of Eads, Colorado, another ghost town along the way.  But they never reached Eads.

When the Tungs came this way a few days earlier, their path took them over top of Pod City and they never knew it.  The renegades' path led them right to it.  At 10:59 P.M., Mountain Standard Time, the dark open plain of east Colorado abruptly ended in a twenty foot drop.  The renegades unwittingly came upon their fabulous city whose streets were paved with gold and whose people had mastered the secrets of the universe.  There was no light below to mark its location, and no light above to reveal its shadowy contours.  To the north was a faint red glow growing gradually stronger, but not strong enough to alert the convoy drivers of its intent.

One by one the vehicles of the convoy suddenly disappeared, right in front of the next as, one by one, they drove over the precipice and into the trench, crashing one almost on top of the other.  Only the last vehicle of the convoy saved going over the ledge.  Realizing finally what was happening, the driver of the trophy van slammed on his brakes and screeched to a halt just inches from the edge.  His action saved his vehicle and his cargo, but not himself.

The abrupt halt shifted the weight of his cargo so forcefully that the panel separating the cab from the hold was breached.  The entire cargo spilled into the cab, so quickly and completely that the driver had no time to escape.  In a matter of seconds he was buried alive beneath the heads he had helped claim as trophies, screaming and squirming and trying desperately to free himself, but unable to move his crushed bones.  He remained that way till eventually he smothered to death.

The other renegades were caught in a tangle of steel, glass, plastic, rubber and leather.  A third were killed outright.  Another third were hopelessly trapped inside the smoldering mound which was wedged tightly between one of the pods and the wall of the trench.  The last forty managed to free themselves and climb out of the tangle just before it burst into flame.  They ran as fast and as far as they could, the screams of those still trapped and the stench of burning flesh following fast on their heels.  They thought they were safe.

But the bodies of the dead, strewn over the trench floor, thwarted their escape.  Every few steps they took ended in their falling flat on top of a corpse; getting up again, moving again; getting entangled in yet another set of limbs and falling again.  At first the blazing inferno that had been their convoy obscured what was approaching.  When they finally saw it and realized what it was, it was too late.  The wall of lava overtook them, one by one, as the arms, legs, heads and trunks of the dead held them in place before it.  They barely had time to form a scream before they were swallowed up in a current whose sheer weight crushed their bones before they were reduced to ashes.  And the lava moved on, oblivious to their total eradication from existence.

Sanderson Spears watched from on high.  He witnessed the exploding convoy disappearing into the northwest corner of Wyoming on its southward migration.  He saw the lava extinguish the blaze and carry it away.  He saw the tiny sparks released each time a man was snatched up and consumed.  Then he veered to the left - not sharply, but slowly and at an angle wide enough to accommodate his fellow travelers. 

He flew across the border into Kansas, in search of fuel.  He was prepared to go across the state to Fort Scott, on the Missouri border, where he had fueled before and was certain he could fuel again.  First, however, he descended, to the town of Kendall, where he had been told fuel was available.  The town was deserted; so he flew to Garden City, also deserted; then to Dodge City, where lights still shone and where he found fuel.

"This'll be the last we'll ever get, it looks like," the man who refueled Spears' helicopter said.

"No more being refined?" Spears asked.

"There's more," the man said.  "But we're not on their list any more.  I hear Fort Scott's still going strong.  Maybe a few more places.  But not here.  Boot Hill's all we've got left."

The gulls followed Spears from town to town, finally settling in the old Boot Hill Cemetery just outside Dodge.  They perched on an old stone cross in the center of the Cemetery and watched the weatherman's chopper take off and disappear into the western sky.  He had led them to safety, in a world where an abandoned graveyard offered the last bit of refuge.

It was like glue, the muck of rotted flesh and decaying vegetation interspersed along the floor of the trench.  In Texas, fewer people had come to Pod City seeking shelter; fewer had died in the trenches.  Consequently, fewer bodies rotted in this the final hundred miles; and the ones that did were not so tightly packed as the bodies farther north where, in some places, they lay three and four deep.  Unlike the renegades trying to escape, the Tungs and their pursuers did not trip and fall every few steps; there was room to avoid the corpses here even if they could not avoid the muck.  Besides which, stealth, not speed - ambush, not escape - determined their movements.

The bodies afforded no shelter.  The pursuit would have ended in a few minutes, one side winning, the other losing.  But the debris of fallen walkways and trenches created a maze of hiding places and vantage points from which to take pot shots at one another, in what seemed like an endless stand off, neither side able to stop fighting or take flight.  To try and get out of the trench was to leave oneself vulnerable to attack.  Nor were there enough men to mount a two or three sided attack.  All the two forces could do was stand there, behind the debris, firing intermittently at each other.

This was what they did from quarter to six in the evening, when they first entered the trench, till almost midnight, when a thin film finally covered the half moon and stars, leaving the warriors in almost total darkness and allowing the Tungs to put into motion a strategy they had worked out earlier.

They could be heard moving amidst the debris, but they could no longer be seen.  The T-Men could fire in the direction of the sounds; but the echoes created by the canyon-like walls of the trench and pods made it impossible to pin-point a target.  One or two men were hit, and fell alongside the corpses; but the rest remained to execute the plan.

All during the evening they had worked, piecemeal, to loosen part of a walkway.  Under cover of darkness they carried it, as quickly as they could, to the northern end of the pod separating them from their pursuers.  They managed to stand it upright like a ladder against the smooth surface, and to keep it steady while they climbed up.  Using the pipes and guy wires covering the roof of the pod, they were able to hoist themselves to the top and establish a foothold.

From their vantage point they listened for movement, to make sure the T-Men did not escape the trench, while they waited for the clouds to dissipate or for the dawn to break.  Whichever lighted the trench first would guide their aim down upon their pursuers.  They had all night; time was on their side.

While they waited for enough light from above or from the east to let them kill their enemy, they failed to notice the horizon growing light, behind them, as if the morning were arriving from the north, and arriving early.  The T-Men, facing north, did notice it, though they had no idea what it was.  It looked almost like an approaching train, whose headlight was reddish-gold instead of white; except that the light seemed to be swallowing up the rest of the train the closer it got.

Kirk motioned his men close to him, then he ordered them, in a voice barely above a whisper, to get out of the trench at once.  They silently moved to the eastern wall and assessed the situation, trying to determine in the space of a few minutes how to get up the side without alerting the Tungs, whose exact location they were not sure of.  A second look to the north rendered the Tungs and the threat they presented irrelevant.  The light was growing closer by the second; and the air was growing warmer as it neared.

Kirk ordered his men up the wall, while he stood guard.  Joey hesitated to leave him.  "Go!" Kirk ordered.  Joey followed the others up the side of the trench.  By now the air had grown almost too hot to breathe, and the ever expanding light cast an eerie reddish glow over everything in the trench, marking Kirk as an easy target.

The Tungs saw him, but only him.  Several aimed.  Shots rang out, from the rim of the trench, before they could fire, hitting the ones trained on Kirk.  Kirk's men kept firing as he turned and climbed up the wall, the Tungs now firing at them instead.  Two of the men were hit; one fell into the trench, the other was caught before he could fall.

The lava seemed to leap, all at once, at the pod the Tungs had taken over.  It had cooled as it moved south: the Tungs and the T-Men both would have already been incinerated had it remained as hot as when it first entered the trench.  It began its migration from Yellowstone at a temperature well over two thousand degrees, gradually cooing to just over five hundred degrees.

The man who had fallen into the trench was covered in seconds, along with the other bodies and the debris, as the lava kept moving southward.  Kirk and his men leaped back from the rim just as a searing updraft arose from the trench.  The Tungs were stranded on top of the pod, the ones nearest the edge already beginning to melt when their clothes burst into flame.  A few leaped from the pod into the lava and were consumed in seconds; the rest clung to their perch trying to extinguish their burning clothes.  Those at the pinnacle of the pod, whose skin had already begun peeling off their faces and hands, did not burst into flame.  They outlived the others, only to feel the material of the outer hull growing hotter and hotter, as if they were inside a flying pan.  Soon their screams were as loud as the others' had been, but lasted three times as long as they slowly fried to death.

"I've got to go to her!" Brad told his leader.

"And if there's no way in - if the ramps are destroyed -" Kirk began asking.

"Then I'll die with her!" cried Brad as he stood watching the red glow within the trench slowly moving southward.  "I've got to get to her before it does!  I need the truck -" Brad stopped in mid-sentence, looking around in horror, as it suddenly occurred to him where he was - and where the truck was.  He let out a moan so painful it felt to him like a scream.

"I've got to get across!" he cried as he began looking around for something, anything, that could return him to the other side of the trench.  He even went to the rim, despite the heat, to try and reach down and find something.

Joey went to him and grabbed his arm so tightly he was unable to get loose, pulling him away from the edge.  He swung at Joey with his free hand, but Joey grabbed his wrist and held it in the same vice-like grip.

"Brad: think!" Joey tried to reason with him.  "You worked with your father!  You know the forces the material was designed to withstand!  The same thing that happened to them, on top of the pod, is not going to happen to her inside!  She'll be safe from the lava!  She won't be burned."

"The pod will heat up - just like that one!" Brad shouted in Joey's face.

"On the outside!" Joey repeated.  "Not on the inside!  Brad: I worked for your father, I talked with him!  You, and this project, were the only things he talked about!  He told me everything about these units - all the details of their design!"

"Just like he told you all the details about me?  So that you imagined Kirk was his son!  I don't care about details, God damn it!  Only about her!  She won't be safe till I take her out of there!"

Kirk had walked over to where Brad and Joey were struggling.  He pulled out his revolver and pointed it at Brad's forehead.

"The sooner we get started, the sooner we'll be there," he said in a calm voice.  "She will be saved - with or without you.  Forget the truck: we go on foot.  We keep going till we're there.  We find a way to get her out of there."

"What about him?" Joey motioned with his head to where the other T-Man lay wounded.

"He can't be saved," Kirk answered.  "I wish it were possible not to leave him behind, to die all alone.  But we have no choice.  The dying cannot be allowed to interfere with the living."

"I'll stay with him," Joey said.  "I can catch up - I'll run if need be."

Kirk shook his head.  "I can't allow that," he told Joey.  "Say a prayer over him, then we leave."

Joey released Brad and walked to his dying comrade.  He knelt down and silently prayed.  The man wavered between consciousness and unconsciousness, occasionally mumbling something unintelligible, reaching once to take hold of Joey arm.

The air was growing thick and heavy with the ashes the jet stream brought to the Texas Panhandle, making it difficult to take a deep breath.  The dying man began choking as he unconsciously gulped for air, gasping and coughing and spitting up a steady stream of blood.  Kirk refused to turn around and go to him.  He and his men kept moving until the coughing was drowned out by the sounds of night.

Pod number 1939 lay eighteen miles to the south.  Kirk, Brad and Joey walked as close to the trench as the heat would permit, three tiny figures highlighted against the pitch black sky to the east.  They had gone five miles.  It was almost two thirty in the morning when all three stopped in the same instant.  They heard a buzzing coming at them from the north.  At first they couldn't tell if it was on the ground, in the trench, or overhead; as it drew closer, and grew louder, it became more recognizable.  All three turned and looked skyward.  The layer of ash was thin enough to admit an image from above.  The instant they knew what it was, they realized it was descending.

"They've seen us," said Kirk.  Their other experience with a helicopter prompted them to head for cover, away from the lava's glow, and to have their weapons ready.

"Wait till they fire," Kirk added.  "Don't risk hitting the chopper."

Sanderson Spears laughed as he watched the three figures duck into the shadows beyond the glow.  "If that's what I was about," he feigned conversing with the figures, "you'd already be dead.  The world is over, and we still go on killing one another!  I'm not here for you: my prey is farther along."

The helicopter ascended and moved on to the south, following the flow of lava just as the three figures were following it.  In getting fuel, Spears had fallen behind the lava; now he had overtaken it again and, in pushing on, got ahead of it.

"I want to be there when you get him," Spears told the red hot glow.  "You've cooled, but not enough for him to get away.  At long last he'll pay for his evil, and his vile 'matter' that took a saint and made him a mindless idiot!  Or, just as bad, took a normal kid and made him a saint!"

Spears had learned, through his communications network, the exact location of the President's pod - and, more importantly, the location of the Director of Educational Authenticity's pod.  "Where the Canadian River flows beneath the trench, the President's mansion sits.  One unit to the south sits Kirkus," Spears had been told repeatedly.  He had mapped the small stream, fixed it in latitude and longitude, embedded the spot in his memory.  He had no idea until a day ago that he might actually witness its destruction, only that he could fly over and hurl curses with his dying breath.  In his mind was the thought "You took Joey from me"; for that, only a sentence of death will do.

Minutes later he was hovering over unit 1939, watching with glee as the lava slowly advanced toward it.  He brought his chopper as close to the unit as he dared - close enough to confirm, even in the dark Texas night, that the same fate that befell the units to the north had befallen these as well: all escape routes were cut off; the ramps and walkways lay in ruin at the bottom of the trench.

"What about underneath? what about tunnels?" the thought occurred to him; and, again, he burst out laughing.

"It'll follow you down like the devil you are," he concluded.  "Dig all the tunnels you want: you can't get away from it.  And, if you do, I'll be there waiting for you, to pounce on you the second I see you!  Anyway you cut it, today is the first day of your eternity!"

The lava arrived well ahead of the three T-Men.  Spears watched from on high as it enveloped, first the President's pod, then, a few yards later, the pod of Professor Kirkus.  He nearly squealed in ecstasy.  "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord!" he exclaimed.

Andrea stood at the window, transfixed by the slow-moving glow coming at her.  She watched as it spread around the President's pod, nearly covering it, then suddenly settling, as if it had sprung a leak, before continuing on to her front door.  The ground under the President's pod had given way where the Canadian had been diverted beneath it, causing the lava to temporarily sink almost ten feet.  As more lava poured in, the level began to rise again, slowly, almost unnoticed.  Andrea felt the wall; it was warm, but not hot.  Nor was the temperature inside the pod rising.  She went to her father, who was momentarily lucid.  She told him what was happening.

"The heat will not hurt us," Professor Kirkus observed.  "But when the lava cools, and hardens, we will be driven from our refuge."  These were the last words ever spoken by Professor Goreham Kirkus.

Reggie had just put the finishing touches on his plan to discredit Stevie and his father.  Buried deep within one of the computer programs, where no one would ever find it - until Reggie manipulated the right person into discovering it by accident - was a series of pictures showing Stevie performing lewd acts with children as his father looked on, Stevie and his father's faces superimposed over carefully chosen images.  He had just saved the series of pictures to the server when everything went black.  The computer went down, the lights in his room went out; everything stopped.  He grabbed a torch light and ran to the landing to look out the pod's only window.

He leaped back in terror when he saw the lava reaching up to the window.  Andrea had already gone to her father's room.  Between the time she left the landing and the time Reggie arrived, the lava had risen nearly ten feet and was only inches from covering the window completely.  He reached out a trembling hand to feel the wall; it was almost hot to the touch.  He withdrew his hand quickly.  As he stood watching, the lava finished covering the window, casting an eerie red glow over the landing, the foyer, the garden, and the man slowly moving back from the window.

It was beginning to grow light outside.  A thin red streak lifted itself from the eastern horizon, spreading golden rays into the sky that were quickly absorbed into the layer of ash suspended just above where the helicopter hovered over pod number 1939.  Spears kept descending and ascending all night as his vengeance kept getting the best of his judgment.  He had to conserve his fuel, so he landed.  From the ground he couldn't see the lava enveloping the pod, so he took his chopper up again.  And so on, till the morning light once again brought him down.

He didn't see the three men from the north heading directly for his chopper.  There were bushes and even a few trees along this stretch of the Panhandle; they drew enough water from the Canadian to survive.  Kirk, Brad and Joey saw the helicopter descending, and managed to remain hidden among the trees and shrubs as they made their way toward it.  They were within a few hundred feet of it - close enough to see that it held only one man.

"We storm it, together," Kirk gave his plan of action.  "We don't start shooting till we're close enough to hit him.  We can't risk hitting the chopper, only the window."

"Can any of us fly a helicopter?" Joey asked.  "If we can't, then we should try to keep him alive."

"I've watched my father's pilot," said Brad.  "I know I can do it."

"Then he dies," Kirk resolved.

Slowly they moved from bush to tree until they were within range.  All three drew their weapons.  The man was turned away from them, facing toward the trench.  Even from the back, something about him looked familiar to Joey, but he couldn't quite determine why.  A few more steps and Kirk gave the signal to open fire.  At the exact instant Kirk and Brad began firing, Joey realized who it was.

"No!" he screamed, lunging at them with his arms extended wide, like a cross, to try and deflect their line of fire.  He succeeded in diverting their first shots upward.  Then he ran, ahead of them, straight for the chopper.  The man inside had drawn his gun to defend himself and was aiming directly at Joey.

"Sandy!" Joey cried as he ran.  "Sandy!  It's me!  Don't shoot!  We won't hurt you!  It's me!"

Spears threw down his gun and leaped from the helicopter, then stood there like a statue as Joey came up to him with his arms open.

"Where the hell have you been?" Spears asked.

Joey lowered his arms.  Tears were streaming down his cheeks.  "I got lost," was all he said in reply.

"You never did take your responsibilities very seriously," Spears observed in a softer tone.  "I waited two years for you to come home.  But I guess recording the weather's no match for running with outlaws."

The moment Spears jumped from the helicopter, Kirk recognized him.  He lowered his gun and went to him, Brad trailing behind but reluctant to lower his gun.

"What are you doing here?" Kirk asked.

"Same thing you are," Spears replied.  "I've come to watch the enemy get his earthly reward."

"We've come to rescue Brad's wife," Kirk said.

"She's in there," said Brad, pointing to Unit 1939.  Then he walked closer, to survey the area.  The heat the lava threw up from the trench was not as great as it had been a few miles to the north; Brad was able to get within a few feet of the edge.  He looked around for anything that could be used, but saw nothing.  Everything had been swept aside by the quake then covered by the lava.  He then walked to the closest tree and assessed its size.

"We can cut this down and use it as a bridge," he called to Kirk.

"How?" Kirk asked.

Brad lifted his gun.  "With these," he answered.

"We can't use up all our ammunition," Kirk pointed out.

"We can't just stand here and debate the issue!" Brad angrily replied.  "If you won't help, I'll do it alone!  Every second we wait puts her in greater jeopardy!"  Brad pointed his gun at the base of the tree.

"Wait!" cried Joey.  "There's a better way: Sandy's helicopter!"

"Excuse me?" said Spears.

"You've got to help us!" Joey pleaded.

"Or else you'll kill me - is that it?"

"There'll be no killing," said Kirk.  "Whatever you decide, we'll respect your decision.  We're not here to commandeer your property."

"Then I decide not to," Spears informed Kirk.  "The girl is nothing to me."

Brad came over to the others and, before anyone realized his intent, stuck his gun under Spears' chin, his finger poised on the trigger.  "But she's everything to me!" he said.  "You can keep your helicopter - but if you say one more word against her I'll blow your head off - and the head of anyone who tries to stop me!"

"There's something you should understand," Spears looked Brad in the eye and said in a calm voice.  "I gave up being frightened a long time ago.  When I came home one night and found all the people I care about lying dead -" Spears shifted his gaze to Joey "- all but one lying dead - I stopped being afraid of anything.  Fear is useless when at any moment a monster can reach out and destroy even the purest, most innocent lives.  I have no contempt for your wife, nor do I wish her any harm; I merely state - and repeat - that she means nothing to me.  Nothing whatever.  So either pull the trigger or get out of my way."

Brad lowered his gun and walked away.  He fired his gun once - at the pod Andrea was trapped inside.  The bullet ricocheted skyward, then dropped into the lava.

Joey turned to his mentor.  "Please," he asked one more time.

"And if I agree," Spears answered with his own question, "will you agree to return to your duties?"

Joey shook his head.  "I'm apprenticed to you," he said. "I never meant to abandon my duties.  Whether you agree to let us use your helicopter or not, I have to return to your station, if only for six months."  Joey turned to his leader.  "I'm sorry, Kirk," he said, "but I have to do this.  I have to go with Sandy."

"So once again you shine your virtues on me to illuminate my defects," Spears observed.  "Alright," he relented.  "You can use my chopper.  But bear in mind, all of you: I'm its captain.  What I say goes.  If you have any trouble accepting that, let me know now."

No one objected to Spears' terms.  "Good," he said.  "What I suggest we do first is go aloft, and assess the situation from that perspective."            

The four men got in the helicopter.  Spears started it up; within seconds it hovered at a height of five hundred feet above the pod.  All four looked down.

"We need a plan," said Kirk.

"We don't need a plan," Brad objected.  "Let's just go in and get her - now!"

"And shall I have Rapunzel let down her hair that your young lady might climb up?" Spears asked.

The others looked at him as if he had spoken in a foreign tongue.  "Ah," he said, "I keep forgetting: those whose mission it is to save humanity have neither time nor taste for the classics.  So let me restate my point in humanitarianese.  This is not a rescue vehicle; there is nothing on board to use as a ladder.  No matter how close to the pod I can bring it, you still need a way down.  We've got to find something.  Then there's another problem I'm quite sure you haven't considered either: once you get down to her, how do you get her to come out?  The beating of your heart may not be loud enough to rouse her!"

"Just find us a rope," said Brad.  "I'll take care of getting her to come out.  There's a small window on the side - where the walkway was.  I'll get her attention.  Just get me a rope."

Spears headed across the lava filled trench to the southwest.  Panic spread across Brad's face as he saw the pod disappearing into the horizon.

"Where are we going?" he asked.

"You asked for a rope," said Spears.  "You don't find hundreds of feet of rope just lying around.  You go where rope is - or, at least, used to be.  We're going to Amarillo."

"No!" said Kirk emphatically.  "Our first rule has been to avoid big cities - there's too much danger.  Too much chaos."

"You boys need to understand something," Spears answered.  "This doesn't fly on dreams or wishes or rules or good deeds; it takes fuel.  I can easily get us to Amarillo and back.  If we can't stop there, I say we head for the oilfields.  We'll find rope there.  With a little luck, I'll find fuel too.  If not, I may not have enough to get back."

Kirk agreed to go to the oilfields of Scurry County, some seventy-five miles southeast of Lubbock.  Two hours later, the helicopter set down outside the town of Snyder, in the center of the County.  Spears and his crew went in search of rope and fuel.  They soon found enough rope for a makeshift ladder; but there was no fuel to be found.

"It's all gone to Guthrie," a man at the oilfields outside Snyder told them - one of the few men remaining in the area.  "Everything we refined in the last three years was piped to Guthrie, for storage."

"Why Guthrie?" Spears asked.

"Don't know.  It just was.  If you want fuel, you gotta go to Guthrie!"

Spears once again got out his maps and set a course north-northeast for the small town in the center of King County.  Forty minutes later the chopper was hovering over Hayrich Mountain, some fifteen miles from Guthrie.  Even at that distance something that made no sense back at Snyder became crystal clear.  The closer they came, the larger and more ominous the megalith grew; until, barely a mile away, it reared up before them like the Great Pyramid: the largest storage tank any of them had ever seen, at the northern periphery of a small Texas town.  But it was what lay beyond that turned this enigma into the most logical undertaking since time began.

Less than a mile due north of the tank was the southernmost terminus of Pod City, where the trench carrying the pods came to an abrupt end at a gently rolling meadow leading right to the base of the tank.

"They took all the fuel for themselves when they went underground," Spears observed.  "The sons of bitches!  May they rot - and they are rotting.  Jesus Christ!" he exclaimed all of a sudden.  Seconds later the others saw what he saw.  

"My God!" Brad exclaimed.

"May God be with us," Joey said softly.

"Do we have time?" Kirk asked.

"If you want to get back, we've got to make time," Spears answered.

Coming down the trench, straight for the tank, obscured till now by the mid-morning sun streaming in from the east, was the lava that had taken Pod City prisoner.

Spears landed just to the south of the storage tank.  While the others searched the tank's periphery for some sort of opening from which to extract fuel, Spears got a hose, a chisel and a hammer ready.  By the time the others returned with the news that there was nothing built into the tank to allow fuel to be drained, Spears had already attached one end of hose to his chopper's fuel line and was preparing to cut a hole in the tank big enough for the other end.

"We do it the old fashioned way," he told Kirk.

"Do you know how much fuel'll spill?" Brad asked.

"Gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet," Spears observed as he handed the chisel to Brad to hold against the tank.  Then he gave the sledgehammer to Kirk, who began hitting the chisel again and again until the tank sprung a leak.  The fuel rushed out in a torrent.  It was all Spears and Joey could do to lock the hose over the flow.

For fifteen minutes fuel was siphoned from tank to helicopter - each minute, the lava drawing closer to the tank, and to the fuel lying in a pool at its base.  Momentarily the rim of the trench held the lava at bay, then the sheer force of its movement carried it over the rim and into the meadow.

When the helicopter's tank was full, the hose was pulled away.  The storage tank began emptying at a rapid pace, the fuel drifting back across the meadow toward the flow of lava.  Spears, Kirk, Brad and Joey climbed on board.  Spears started the chopper.  Within seconds he was airborne, heading due west at full speed.  He had just crossed into Dickens County, ten miles away, when the fuel met the lava.  Seconds later the tank exploded in a deafening roar that sent shock waves and pillars of flame in every direction.

The helicopter was taken hold of and spun around; it was Yellowstone all over again, except that there were no mountains to be swept against - or hide behind.  Spears struggled to keep from losing control.  He felt the chopper, incredibly, being drawn toward the inferno rather than being pushed away from it.  Nothing he could do could stop its impetus toward the east.  In the space of a couple minutes he had moved five miles closer.  The four hundred foot mountain of flame loomed larger by the second.

"Hold on!" Spears cried to his crew as he tried one final desperate maneuver.  He cut off the engine.  His chopper began a slow descent: slow because it was still being drawn toward the inferno, moving sideways as rapidly as it moved earthward, a war being waged between gravity and whatever force the explosion had generated: whichever side won the war claimed the chopper as its prize.  Only a stalemate could save Spears and his crew; only if both forces held each other in stasis until the chopper safely touched down.

Minutes passed.  The inferno heated the air surrounding and inside the chopper to a hundred and fifty degrees.  Sweat poured off its occupants.  The inferno was less than two miles away when suddenly the chopper touched down.

Spears started his engine again and lifted his chopper barely a hundred feet; then took off, slowly, toward the northwest.  This time he moved unimpeded away from the inferno, almost parallel the lava filled trench.  A few minutes later a second explosion ensued, so much smaller than the first that the raging wall of flame nearly drowned it out.  Then a third explosion; then a fourth; and a fifth.

"Oh my God!" cried Joey, who had been looking back at the monster and realized what was happening.

The flame was following the fuel beneath the trench, coming up through the conduits into the gas lines leading to the units.  One by one the pods were exploding.  A sixth, and a seventh, and on and on, one by one.  Working its way northward beneath the lava flow, through Pod City's underbelly.

"No!  No!" cried Brad, his attention drawn by Joey's response to the trench below and the string of explosions following fast on their heels.  "Faster, damn it!  Give it all you've got!"

Andrea had no idea her husband was coming for her from out of the sky; or that death was headed her way from below.  The exploding pods to the south no more registered within the confined circle of each remaining pod than the burning pods to the north.  All communication had shut down; no one saw or knew anything that didn't happen right next door, the great vision of man, once extending to the ends of the universe, reduced by nature to the level of spying on one's neighbor for evidence of human survival, of looking out a peephole and seeing the house next door explode.  Then, minutes later, feeling one's own house exploding around oneself.

The pods of King County were all on fire.  The southwestern corner of Cottle County was going fast.  Motley County would be next; then Hall, Donley, Gray and into Roberts County, where the Canadian River ran beneath the President's mansion and Professor Goreham Kirkus, grand designer of Pod City, lay in a coma in pod number 1939 as his daughter stared out the window and his son plotted his escape.

Sanderson Spears flew over the town of Laketon near the northeast corner of Gray County.  Over and over during the journey Brad kept repeating that if they had gone to Amarillo instead of the oilfields Andrea's life would not be in jeopardy.  Kirk responded to his first statement only then ignored each repetition.

"I stand by my decision," he said.  "The rule was made to save lives.  We have only survived because we obeyed our rules.  I will sacrifice my life to save yours or anyone else's; but I won't abandon our rules for anyone's sake."

The journey from Guthrie felt to Brad as if it had taken hours longer than the two and a half hours it actually took.  He could not believe there was still daylight.  He kept looking ahead, to see the signs marking Pod 1939; then looking back, to see if the flames were still following.  Moments after passing Laketon, the helicopter flew over the town of Miama, in the southeastern corner of Roberts County; Brad began thinking it was the same town and they had been flying in circles.

"We've been here before!" he told Spears.

"I liked the looks of it," Spears replied; "I wanted to see it again.  I'm thinking of moving here when my lease runs out."

It took Joey and Kirk both to hold Brad back.  When they had calmed him, Joey went to Spears.  "Please don't taunt him," he begged.

"I don't appreciate being told I don't know what I'm doing," Spears replied.

Another few minutes brought everyone's attention to a small glistening band crawling sideways toward the trench from a high plateau on which sat the burned out remains of a town - then crawling away from the trench toward a larger body of water to the west: the Canadian River, flowing past the town of Canadian then beneath Pod City to Lake Meredith as the late afternoon sun created a kaleidoscope of moistened diamonds in its current.

Brad breathed a heavy sigh of relief.  He went at once to ready the rope, securing it to the door frame.  Then he stood by the door, his hand nervously playing with the handle.

"We've got to have a plan before we start," Kirk reminded him.

"The plan is: the second we're over the pod, I climb down and get her!" Brad replied in a voice that defied Kirk to try and stop him.  This time Kirk nodded in agreement.

"I'll be your back-up," Kirk said.  "When you're halfway down, I'll start down.  I'll only go to you if you signal me."

The rope was knotted its entire length; Spears had found just the one he wanted: besides being thick enough to support several persons' weight, it could be easily grasped and held onto without fear of sliding back down.

Spears maneuvered his chopper into place directly above the pod.  The heat of the lava arose in vapors of fog that stood like the bars of a cage around the pod.  Brad opened the door and threw the rope out - then quickly reeled it back in.  In his haste, he had not allowed for the searing heat; the moment the rope touched the lava, it was singed and began to fray at the bottom.  This time he carefully rolled it out, stopping when it was just above the pod.

"I'll need you two to hold it and lower me down," he told Kirk and Joey.  "There's no other way," he added, as if to underscore that it was circumstance and not him altering the plan.

Kirk and Joey obeyed.  Brad climbed almost to the end of the rope then signaled the others to lower him the rest of the way.  The heat was stifling, almost to the point of making him faint.  Slowly his body descended to the roof of the pod.  He worked his way to the hatch in the very center and began kicking at it in hopes of making his presence known inside.  Then he maneuvered his way to the northern end and, once again, signaled to be lowered.  The heat along the side was almost unbearable.  He could feel the skin of his legs beginning to blister.  It was all he could to to breathe.  The lava was no more than three feet below him when he appeared at the small window.  He clenched his fists as tightly around the rope as he could and grit his teeth to keep from crying out.

"Thirty seconds: thirty seconds: that's all: then I'll try again," he muttered under his breath, as if he were a ventriloquist performing before an audience.

Twenty seconds had past.  Andrea appeared at the window.  She understood instantly and nodded, then disappeared again.

Even before Brad signaled, Kirk and Joey began drawing in the rope.  His pants were beginning to smoke; another few seconds and they would have burst into flame.  The rope was brought up twenty feet, to let Brad cool off and catch his breath before going back down.

Momentarily the hatch opened.  Brad took another huge gulp of air then signaled to be lowered.  A head appeared in the hatchway - not Andrea's, but Reggie's.

"Where is she!" Brad shouted.

Before Reggie could answer, Andrea called to him from inside.  "I'm here!  I'm alright!"

Reggie calmly looked Brad in the eye.  "No offense," he said, "but in your condition -" he gestured toward Brad's frayed pants and reddened skin "- I'd feel a lot better for my sister if I help her up the rope myself."

Without waiting for Brad's response, Reggie took hold of the rope and hoisted himself up a couple feet until he was standing on the roof of the pod.  Then he motioned to Andrea, who had appeared in the hatchway, to follow. He reached down to her.  She took his hand and took hold of the rope to steady herself; then she let go of Reggie and grasped the rope with both hands and began climbing.  Reggie let her go ahead of him as he steadied the rope.  When she was inches above his head he started up.

Kirk and Joey had secured the rope even before perceiving a third person climbing: they could lower and raise one person, but not three and possibly not even two.

Suddenly the hatch of the President's pod opened and Stevie appeared, calling for help and reaching up to the sky.

Reggie looked up at Brad.  "We can't just leave him!" he called.  Brad nodded and signaled to Spears to position the helicopter above the hatch.  When it was in place, Reggie, closest to the bottom, beckoned the boy to take hold of the rope.  Slowly, Stevie pulled himself through the hatch and, teetering on the roof of the pod, took the rope in one hand, reaching for it with his other hand.

Seconds before he got hold of it something unexpected happened.  Reggie lost his footing.  He almost slipped off the rope, managing only at the last second to regain his foothold.  In slipping, he wrenched Stevie's hand from the rope.  Stevie stood there, with nothing to steady him, on the hot sloping surface, desperately trying to balance himself.  Reggie reached out to him.  Stevie reached out.  Their hands touched.  But instead of grasping Stevie's hand, Reggie experienced another momentary loss of footing, his hand pushing Stevie away.

"It's payback," he whispered just loudly enough for Stevie to hear.

The boy began screaming as he felt himself falling backward down the slope.  He grabbed for anything he could - the pipes he bumped against, the guy wires that went flying past, the air around him.  But, lying on his back, descending head first, flailing and screaming, he caught hold of nothing.

His hair burst into flame first.  His melting scalp ran across his forehead and covered his eyes.  Flame spurted from his nostrils.  His tongue burst open.  His whole body quivered as if he were in the midst of a seizure.  Then he disappeared down the side of the pod, head first, into the lava.

"Oh God," Reggie moaned as he climbed, with Andrea and Brad, up the rope, his hand never more than a couple inches away from his sister's leg - just as a precaution, in case anyone tried to leave him behind.

"So close," Reggie said when the three of them had been helped on board by Kirk and Joey.  "I almost had him.  So close."

Brad took Andrea in his arms and held her so tightly she could barely breathe.  It was all she could do to speak.

"We've got to get father," she whispered to Brad.

"No," said Brad.  "I don't care about him.  If not for him you wouldn't have been there."

"This is not the way to start our life together," she managed to loosen herself from Brad's embrace enough to say.

"Alright," he agreed.  "I'll go for him."  He started for the door.

"Wait," Andrea stopped him.  "He's dying.  He may need help to get up the rope.  And you'll have to go inside the pod: he may not even know what's happening."

"I'll get him," Brad promised.  "I'm going back down!" he called to Spears.  "I've got to get her father out."

"Over my dead body!" Spears called back.  "And let me assure all of you, in case you take my comment to heart: my dead body in the cockpit means all of your dead bodies when my chopper crashes!"

"It's her father!" Brad pleaded.

"No one: I Repeat: no one had better attempt to save that man or else he - or she - or it - will be left in the pit of hell to burn with him!" Spears warned in a voice that left no room for compromise.

Before Brad, or anyone else, could react, Joey was at the door, opening it.

"I can't let him die alone," he looked Kirk in the eye and explained.  "We left - my God!: I don't even remember his name!  We left him back there to die alone.  I can't do it again.  I'm sorry."

Joey climbed out the door, and onto the rope; slowly he began lowering himself.  The chopper was hovering between the two pods - the President's and Professor Kirkus'.  He began swinging the rope gently back and forth to bring himself to the right rooftop; he planned to leap onto the roof when he was in position above it.  Each swing brought him a little closer until, at just the right instant, he released the rope and landed on the roof of Kirkus' pod, grabbing hold of a pipe he had focused his attention on.  He made his way to the hatch and went down to get the Professor.

Spears had witnessed Joey's rescue mission from the corner of one eye as he readied his chopper to ascend.  He had heard the door open.  He knew someone had gone out.  He caught sight of the rope going back and forth, though he could not see the body swinging it.  Then he just barely glimpsed a form disappearing into the hatchway.  He called back to the others.

"I hope you kissed your young man good-bye!" he addressed Andrea.  "Because you'll never see him again!"  He turned as he issued his prediction.  The first person he saw was Brad, standing beside Andrea.  Then he saw Reggie; then Kirk, by the door.  He let out a sound, part rage, part despair.

"Damn that little fool!" Spears cried out.  "Damn him!  Of course he would disobey me - has he ever been able to follow orders!  I should leave the little punk - just like I said I would!  Damn him!"

Spears returned to his control panel and began maneuvering his chopper over Kirkus' pod.  When he was in place, he again turned to the others.

"That little fool can't carry a grown man - hell, he can't even carry a God damn thermometer without dropping it!" he raged.  "So one of you better get his ass down there and help the little bastard before he drops the good Professor on his head!"

Before anyone could start down, Joey reappeared in the hatchway, along with Professor Kirkus who, in the waning light of day, looked like a ghost.  The hatch was wide enough to admit both together.  Joey was holding the Professor as he helped him up to the rooftop.  The rope was dangling almost in his face.  He took it and wrapped it about Kirkus, then secured it, testing it to make sure it would hold.  Then he signaled the others to pull it up.

Something in the distance caught Kirk's eye.  He looked southward.  Brad had already started drawing the rope; Kirk stopped him, pointing.  Together, they managed to convey to Joey that he must ascend along with the Professor.  Joey took hold.  The two of them, dangling precariously, were drawn up and helped into the chopper.  Kirkus seemed unaware of anything that happened.  When the rope was loosened, he was set on the floor, against the wall, where he remained, without moving, his eyes staring vacantly at the others.

Joey looked southward.  The horizon was in flames.  The chain reaction sparked by the explosion at Guthrie was nearly at the President's doorstep.  Pods continued exploding, one after another.  The bodies of those who saw it coming and tried to escape were hurled as flaming projectiles onto the banks of the trench or into the lava.  Joey shuddered and turned away.

"Was their sin so great they deserved such punishment?" he muttered.  "Is mercy, too, gone from this earth?"

"They built their own funeral pyre," Kirk responded.

"Think how many children have died on that pyre," Joey countered; "and they had no hand in building it."

"Children have always been sacrificed to their parents' gods," Kirk said.

Everyone was distracted by the exploding pods.  Reggie had watched every move everyone on board made, deciphered every nuance of every word spoken.  In the space of a few minutes he understood as completely as if unearthing holy grail who was who among the group.  Kirk was its leader; Joey was Kirk's trusted lieutenant; Brad was the outsider, plotting a course always at odds with his leader's; and Spears was beyond the dynamic uniting and driving the group. 

"Everything will shift," he told himself, "once the helm is empty.  Take out the leader, it'll all be yours."

Kirk was closest to the door, his hand resting on its handle.  His gun hung loosely from a belt around his waist.  Reggie calculated the physics needed to accomplish his mission: the thrust, the resistance, the impetus of a body in motion, the force of gravity carrying it to its destruction.  He took a deep breath and made his move, lunging at Kirk.

In a split second Kirk was out the door, his gun in Reggie's hand.  The force that sent Kirk flying stopped short of dragging the instrument of its delivery along with him.  Reggie caught himself on the door jamb.  He whirled around and pointed the gun.

"No one moves," he calmly ordered.  "The mantle has passed.  I am now your leader."

Brad came at him.  Reggie's hand shifted a degree, so that the gun was pointed directly at Andrea.

"Get back," he said, "or I shoot."

Brad moved away.  "We can't leave him!" he pleaded.

"He's probably already dead," Reggie calmly observed.  "And if he's not, he will be soon.  Take us out of here!" Reggie called to Spears.

"I didn't take orders from your predecessor," Spears called back; "I don't take orders from his successor.  There is no authority on this vessel but mine."

"If you don't do as I say," Reggie threatened, "this one called Joey gets it right between the eyes."

"You touch a hair on his head," Spears asked, "and do you have any idea how fast this chopper will go into the trench below?  We have what they used to call a 'Mexican Stand-Off.'"

"Very well," Reggie conceded.  "We follow your schedule.  But from the sounds out there I think yours will pretty much coincide with mine."

The pods were still exploding below, the flames channeling their way, closer with each explosion.  The fourth pod from 1939 exploded; debris scattered close enough to litter the Professor's doorstep.

Brad again made a move.  "If you're going to shoot: shoot!" he exclaimed.  "I can't just leave him!"

"You think I won't?" Reggie asked, anger showing in his voice this time.  "You think her being my sister will stop me?  I killed this old fool - poisoned him!  I killed mother the same way - with the same poison!  You think I'll stop now, when I'm so near my goal?"

Professor Kirkus' eyes awoke.  His son's words reached whatever was left of him.  "I killed mother!" shot like a missile into his soul, and kept going around inside his skull.  "I killed mother"..."I killed mother..." 

Almost unseen he began to stir, at first no more than the involuntary movements of someone in a coma; then gradually they grew stronger, more controlled, till all of a sudden he raised himself to his full height, turned, and lunged at his son.

Reggie fired the gun, point blank, at his father.  The bullet pierced Kirkus' heart, killing him instantly.  But the impetus of his thrust kept his body in motion long enough to plunge he and his son through the door and down the shaft of darkening air holding the chopper in place above the trench.

The third pod from the Professor's exploded, its sudden flash illuminating the final seconds of Reggie's fall.  He landed with a thud on the sloping roof of his father's pod, his father's lifeless body landing on top of him.  He managed to grab hold of a pipe protruding from the roof.  His back was broken in the fall, his rib cage crushed from the force of his father's body; but he was alive, and alert.  He held tight to the pipe, despite the searing heat of the roof.  He tried to throw his father's body off, but didn't have the strength to do it with only one hand free.  Then he felt the hand that was gripping the pipe giving way as his father's dead weight began dragging him toward the edge.  Desperately, he tried to reestablish his hold; but his hand kept slipping; until, just as the second pod from his exploded, sending a shower of debris everywhere, he lost his hold altogether.  Reggie and his father fell quickly over the edge into the trench, the weight of his father pushing him down into the lava all at once.  There was no time for his body to burst into flame before disappearing beneath the gurgling red sea.

Kirk saw them fall.  He watched the two bodies leave the helicopter; his eyes followed them down to within a few feet of where he was; then he saw them disappear over the edge of the roof.  All against a backdrop of exploding pods.  Only one pod still remained between him and the flames that had chased him from Guthrie.  If the pattern that had destroyed the others held true, the pod next door would blow in another three minutes; the Professor's pod - pod number 1939 - the pod Kirk had fallen on - would blow four minutes after that.  Kirk had seven minutes to live - or to escape.

He had let go of the door handle the instant he realized what was happening.  In a split second he assessed the situation and weighed his options.  Holding fast to the door might have broken his fall; but his gun was gone: the man who snatched it could use it to shoot him.  Or holding the door might have broken his arm instead of his fall, leaving him with only one good arm to try and catch hold of something on the way down.  He chose the certainty of having both his arms at his disposal over the possibility of avoiding the fall altogether.

He tried to stretch his body flat as he fell, to slow his descent, and to better enable him to grab the rope.  It took only seconds for him to reach the pod.  Just at the last second, before the impact, he grabbed hold of the rope, with both hands.  The action helped lessen the impact of his body hitting the hard surface of the roof from fifty feet up.  Instead of hitting it flat, or in an upright position, his body hit at an angle, all the weight of the impact on his legs, none or the force reverberating up into his spine, or his abdomen.  He felt both legs break upon impact; one knee felt like it was shattered.  He held tight to the rope the whole time, the heat of the roof boring into his legs like an army of ants.  He tried to pull himself up, to climb the rope; but he couldn't.  The pain in his legs kept him from focusing all his energy into his arms.  He was trapped there, watching two bodies fall only seconds after he had fallen; and two more pods explode, leaving only one between him and the flames.

He turned his head away to try and shield his eyes from the last exploding pod.  Flaming debris landed all around him, but none of it caught his clothes on fire.  Something - a piece of metal - grazed the back of his head, cutting into his scalp; blood poured down his neck.  But he remained conscious.

Joey started down the rope the second Reggie and his father fell.  Seconds later, Brad was behind him.  Both shielded their eyes when the next pod exploded, then continued climbing down.  When Joey reached Kirk and saw his legs positioned like two limp strands of rope, he knew immediately what had happened and why Kirk had not climbed back up.

"Go back!" Kirk ordered.  "You can't pull me up - I can't climb - there's nothing you can do!"

"Give me your hand!" Joey called to him, responding to a sudden impulse.  "Give me your hand!" Joey ordered when Kirk made no move.  Kirk seemed confused, but he obeyed.  One hand held the rope, the other held Joey's hand.

"Joey: come on!  Climb!" Brad called from a few feet above.

Joey shook his head.  "God will show Sandy what to do," he called back.

Less than a minute remained before the pod exploded.  The roar of the helicopter increased; the blade spun faster.  Joey felt the movement first; then Brad; and finally Kirk, who felt his legs move for the first time since falling, the pain of their sudden shift taking his breath away.  As the chopper arose and headed northeast, at first slowly, then more rapidly, Kirk's legs, hanging limp and useless, brought the full weight of his body to bear against his hands, which struggled desperately to maintain their hold.  As the chopper cleared the trench, a flash of light arose from below, followed by a loud crack.

Pod Number 1939 exploded.  A shower of burning debris shot across the horizon then sank back into the trench.  Joey's eyes were not focused on the explosion; they never left the hand Kirk held to the rope.  He saw it starting to let go at the same time he felt the hand in his go limp.  He tightened his hold on Kirk's hand.  He moved one of his legs from the rope, where it entwined his other leg, and slipped his foot and ankle between Kirk's thighs, bringing his foot up to Kirk's crotch, to help support his weight.

Kirk lost consciousness after the final explosion.  Joey held him suspended by his hand and his crotch the rest of the way to safety.  Slowly, the chopper began descending.  When it had lowered to within ten feet of the ground, Brad jumped from the rope and, taking hold of Kirk's legs, gently maneuvered them to the ground as Joey stepped clear of the rope and lowered Kirk's upper body to the ground also.

When all three were deposited safely, Spears ascended again, moved another few hundred yards, then landed his chopper.  He and Andrea got out and came to the others.

"What's wrong with him?" Spears asked Joey.

"His legs," said Joey.  Together, they removed Kirk's pants to better determine his injuries.  It was apparent to Spears that both legs were broken.

"What do we do?" asked Brad.  Joey seemed equally bewildered.

"Guess I was the only boy scout here," Spears observed.  "We've got to set the bones.  See where it's broken?" he told Brad.  "Take hold.  Now pull it as hard as you can.  Now the other one.  That left knee looks bad, too, but there's nothing we can do for it except wrap it.  Now we've got to find some splints: wood, metal, whatever is out there.

The President's pod failed to explode.  The Canadian River, diverted beneath it, had snuffed out the flame.  Pod 1939 was the last to explode.

When Kirk's wounds were attended to, he was laid inside the helicopter, the others got in and Spears took off, heading north.

"Where is it you guys live nowadays?" Spears asked Brad.

"Nebraska," Brad replied.

"Then Nebraska it is!" said Spears.

"No," a weak voice objected.  It was Kirk.  He had regained consciousness and, despite the agony of his lower body, again took charge of the situation.

"We left a truck twenty miles from here," Kirk explained.  "Our people need every vehicle we have.  We can't abandon it.  Take us to it, so we can drive the rest of the way."

"Kirk: you need to get back as soon as possible," Joey pleaded.  "Let Sandy take you to Nebraska.  The truck can sit."

"Joey, we have no medicine, no facility for treating injuries," Kirk reminded his lieutenant.  "It makes no difference if I return today or next week.  I'll either recover or I won't."

"Think of the roads, Kirk: you'll be tossed around every foot of the way.  Why subject yourself to that kind of torture?" Joey asked.

"Because it's my duty," Kirk replied.

While they talked, the helicopter started down.  Spears remembered about where he had seen the three boys scurrying for cover when he flew overhead a day ago.

"Except our truck was on the other side," Brad told him.

"I see," said Spears.  "And have you thought how you'll go about getting back across the trench?  Unless you mean to have Nebraska come to you!"

"There are bridges," Brad started to say, then realized what Spears was getting at.

"Ah! but are any still standing?" Spears asked.  "And if so, are they passable - or just waiting for the weight of their next passenger to finish them off?"

"The bridge we crossed on the way down was high enough to have survived intact," said Kirk, who had followed every word of the conversation.  "If I survived, as close to the lava as I was, the bridge will get us across."

"Maybe - and maybe not," said Spears as he landed within a few hundred feet of the truck.  "The lava would have cooled during its journey south.  Depending how far north your bridge was, it could be a twisted pile of rubble."

"It was at Eads, Colorado," Brad offered.

"I'll follow you as far as this bridge," said Spears.  "If it's undamaged, we'll part company.  If it's impassable, you'll scrap your truck and fly the rest of the way.  Agreed?"

"Agreed," said Kirk.                                                                    

Slowly, carefully, Brad and Joey moved Kirk from the helicopter to the back of the truck, where they laid him on a makeshift mat of blankets and clothing to help absorb the impact of the road.

The sky was nearly black.  Brad started the engine; Andrea sat beside him.  Joey stayed with Kirk in the back of the truck.  From the point where it had been left - just west of the trench, halfway between Spearman and Waka in the Texas Panhandle - the journey back to Nebraska began, as Brad attempted to retrace the path that had brought them here three days ago: Texas Route 15 to Stratford; US 287 through Oklahoma into Colorado - without the detour through New Mexico they had taken on the way south; then due north on 287 to Lamar and Eads and the bridge.

The trip to Eads, some two hundred miles, a four hour trip under normal conditions, took nearly two days.  The terrain had not gotten worse, but was bad enough to slow them down to a crawl in places, particularly in light of their injured passenger, whose needs Joey attended to along the way.  Spears had flown ahead and sat, at Eads, waiting for them, to conserve fuel.

Finally, they arrived.  Spears had already checked out the bridge and found it essentially unscathed by the lava.

"It looks safe," he told Brad and Andrea, who got out of the truck first.  "But I recommend waiting till daybreak to cross it."

"That makes sense," Brad agreed.  "I'll go tell Kirk."

"Your husband's quite a hothead," Spears said to Andrea.  "If you don't mind my saying so, the two of you don't seem quite right for each other.  You seem much too serious-minded for him."

"I wasn't always," Andrea replied.  "Being locked away for nearly two years; seeing people die trying to get in with me when all I wanted was to get out; watching father fading away right before my eyes: it'll take a while to get back to how I used to be."

"Don't kid yourself," Spears objected; "you'll never be the same as you were.  No one ever is.  Even I was carefree once - sort of, anyway.  I didn't experience all you did, either.  All it took was one little incident.  They made me an outlaw in my own home - because I told them it was raining.  It sounds insignificant; but it drove all the joy out of me.  Even Joey couldn't undo the damage: I know that's why I treated him so abominably.  He was the most wonderful kid you could ever imagine; there's nothing that would have made me prouder than being his father; but he couldn't fill the void.  The truth is, I would have sent him packing in a second and never given it a second thought if only they would have taken me back.  Back home.  Every time I looked at him, I knew that - and I was so furious for not being able to love him like a son.  A magnificent gift, handed to me on a golden platter; and I'd have traded him in a second for an afternoon shower in St. Louis.  Only now there is no St. Louis - maybe no one's told you, but it's buried under twenty feet of water: literally a case of not being able to go home.  Anyway, I see you more with someone like Kirk than Brad.  I know love is blind; but reality isn't.  It sees all, knows all, compels all.  It's just a matter of time till Brad sees it too."

Andrea shook her head.  "Brad genuinely needs me.  Kirk never would.  I'm too selfish not to be needed."

"Time will tell," said Spears.  "Unless Joey," he speculated, giving Andrea a questioning look.

"Carol loves Joey," Andrea said.  "Brad's mother...Kirk's too, maybe."

"So Joey's got a girl!  Good for him!"

"I don't think he knows," Andrea explained.

"Dunce that he is, I'm sure he doesn't," Spears agreed.  "He will in time, though.  I'll see to that."

"He cares too deeply for Kirk," Andrea pointed out.

"He cares too deeply for everyone - even me, dunce that he is!"

Brad and Joey approached from the truck.  Each had a look of disappointment on his face.

"Kirk wants to cross now, instead of waiting," Brad told Spears.

"He'll be driving the truck himself?" Spears asked sarcastically.

"I made a vow not to challenge his authority," Brad explained.  "I won't go back on it unless I have no other choice.  We'll be leaving in a few minutes."  He paused a moment.  "Except for father, I've never been so completely in anyone's debt before," he told Spears.  "Because of you, I have Andrea again."

"And because of you, I saw Joey again," Spears replied in kind.

"I'm going with you, Sandy," said Joey.

Spears shook his head.  "You belong with them," he answered.  "I can't hold you to that agreement."

"But Kirk does," Joey told him.  "I always meant to go - for a time, anyway: six months out of the year -"

"Ah!  Persephone to my Demeter!"  Spears quipped.

"- but with Kirk injured, I didn't see how: he needs someone to take care of him, at least till he's back home.  He ordered me to go anyway."

"His orders carry no weight with me," said Spears.  "But I won't put you at odds with him, just to pull rank.  Come take a ride in my whirlybird!  I'll show you things you never even dreamed of!"

Spears turned to Brad and Andrea.  "Tell Kirk I'll get his lieutenant back safety to him by the middle of May.  I wish you both all the happiness that seems to have eluded everyone else on earth.  And give Kirk my love.  I'll watch till you're safely across before I go.  Farewell."

Half an hour later the truck was safely on the other side of the trench, on its way northeast to Bassway Strip.  Spears and Joey headed almost due west for the Sierras.

"If I run out of fuel before we get there," Spears quipped, "we'll have to hitchhike the rest of the way!  So keep your fingers crossed that at least one of the stopovers still has fuel!  Oops! that's right: you don't cross fingers: you pray!"

"God always answers our prayers when He knows what we're doing is right," Joey reminded his friend.

The three-hundred-odd miles from Eads, Colorado to Kearney, Nebraska took almost four days.  In the back of the truck, almost beside Kirk, were several five-gallon cans of gasoline.  By the end of the trip only one remained full.

Andrea took over Joey's responsibility of caring for Kirk.  Brad offered to do it, but Andrea insisted.

"It's not pleasant work," Kirk noted.  "Why did you volunteer?" he asked.

"Are you embarrassed?" Andrea, in turn, asked.

"Only a fool would be embarrassed by what has to be done," Kirk replied.  "I'd be embarrassed if you saw me unable to make a decision when our survival depended on it; but not at what happens simply because I'm alive."

"By the same token," said Andrea, "it would be far more unpleasant to witness your inability to take a stand than to undress you.  I don't understand, though, how you keep from crying out when you're turned, or moved, or lifted."

"When you know there's nothing on earth to be done - that nothing, anywhere, can ease your pain - that only you can help yourself: that knowledge helps lessen the pain," Kirk explained.  "If the world were as it once was, and this were a hospital, and you a nurse or a doctor with a handful of pills or a needle full of morphine, then maybe I would be screaming in agony right now.  Then I truly would be embarrassed."

Most of Andrea's time was spent in front, with Brad.  She took over the driving a few hours each day, so Brad could sleep.  They had decided from the outset to drive around the clock, stopping only to let the truck sit idle a couple hours at a time.

The terrain had changed since the truck passed through a few days earlier.  The series of small cracks Brad began noticing in the arid plains of Oklahoma and southern Colorado in the wake of Yellowstone's eruption grew wider and deeper the farther north he drove.  In places, whole chunks of rock had been unearthed, as if a giant plow had gone through; in other places, the ground had sunk in for miles at a stretch.  Almost every mile of roadway had to be inspected as it was being traversed.  Landmarks and towns still standing, though burned out, on the way down, had crumbled into piles of rubble no longer recognizable as products of human engineering.

Brad remembered the town of Gem in Thomas County, Kansas, situated at the precise point where US Route 383 shifted one hundred ten degrees from a north-south to an almost east-west route.  It, too, had been largely burned out, and abandoned; but some of its buildings had remained essentially intact.  Brad thought about settling there, with Andrea, once the weather returned to a more normal pattern - which he never doubted it would.

It was sunset when he reached the town.  He stopped the truck, got out, and walked toward a mound of stone, wood and tarpaper.  This was all that was left of the town he wanted to make his home some day.  He picked up a small twisted shard of blue-gray steel and put it in his shirt pocket, then returned to the truck.

"Once we began to see what had happened to everything," he told Andrea, "I knew this was what I'd find.  Still, I hoped somehow this town had been spared."

"It's special to you?" Andrea asked.


"Were you here with your father?"

"No," Brad replied.  "It wasn't the past but the future this town signified.  I wanted us to settle here.  It just felt so right, being here.  It just made me smile, thinking about it.  I didn't want us to live out our lives under ground.  I thought, after awhile, when Kirk and Joey and everyone else got settled for good somewhere, you and I could finally be free to be by ourselves - like we were in Tennessee.  I still want that; but now I'm wondering if it'll ever happen.  Seeing this place in ruins brings all the other things I see, but don't want to see, to the surface.  You've changed so much, Andrea.  You're more like him now than me.  I know you could never love him as much as you love me - but the day may come when love won't be the only consideration, or even the most important.  I don't want my love to be a burden.  The place he'd give you would be solid, and safe - even in the midst of chaos.  This is all I have to offer you: something that may disappear tomorrow.  I live by doing, my life is transient.  He lives through his rules: his life is stable.  Even if he never walks again, he can take you places and give you things I never could.  He and I both began life as foundlings, only I've remained one.  He became his father's successor.  Andrea: I won't give you up without a fight.  I don't care that I have nothing to offer you."

"Brad, I've seen stability and position and structure all my life," Andrea replied.  "I've felt how stifling it can be, and seen how quickly it can all disappear.  I want no part of it.  I'd sooner be a nomad or a gypsy than queen of the universe.  Everything you attribute to Kirk is everything I don't want.  The nothing you say you have to offer is exactly what I do want.  Your life is transient?  If only your understood how satisfying that concept is.  I don't want to belong to any one place or time or set of rules.  I wish we could roam endlessly, just like we're doing now.  But I'm afraid it's you who'd soon tire of it.  You're more like Kirk than you realize."

The farther north they drove, the thicker the cover of ashes became.  From Gem to Kearney was a hundred and seventy miles.  Ever since they crossed the bridge at Eads and began the journey home, the thin cirrus-like patches of ash high above the plain grew heavier, denser, and seemed to gradually descend; until, by the time they reached Norton, some seventy miles northeast of Gem and just a few miles from the Nebraska border, the clouds of ash had reached to within a few hundred feet of the ground.

The town of Norton - what was left of it - sat at an elevation of 2275 feet.  A fog of ash blanketed the town in the evening, when the winds grew calm and the air cooled.  The truck Brad drove hurried through the ruins of Norton and into the valley beyond, where the fog had not yet settled.  Then it continued along US 383 to the border, where US 183 took over as guide, leading it due north through a thin but constant fog to US 6, to Minden, in Kearney County; and, from there, up Nebraska 10 to Bassway Strip, where the air grew so thick they could barely see their way to the mouth of the cave.    

Joey walked from the cabin to his old lookout, his favorite spot on the mountain, where he had retreated so many times, either to stand and watch the sunset or feel the cold Sierra wind against his face, or simply to try and understand why he was so much trouble to this man whose approval meant so much to him.  It had been more than two years since he was last here.  This time, it was neither sunset nor the chill air, nor was it reverie or even remembrance that brought him to this spot.  He stood there transfixed by something he had never seen before and never expected to see as long as he lived.

Sanderson Spears had made one stop on the way home: at Hawthorne, Nevada, the place he had always kept his helicopter - and meant to leave it this time.  When he arrived, he sensed that something was different; but because the landscape was essentially the same as before, he could not quite tell what had changed.

He brought his helicopter down, as he always had, in the spot reserved for him.  Off to the side was his Jeep, where he always kept it.

"We'll fuel it up first," Spears told Joey, "just in case they run out and we can't get any more.  Wait here," he told Joey; "I'll go find -"  He paused a moment.  "- hell: I don't know his name," he realized.  "Anyway, I'll go get him."

Spears made for the big metal hangar just beyond his landing pad.  It wasn't until he got there that he realized the whole back end of it had caved in; only the facade and a few feet of roofing remained intact.  He heard a door creak, saw one of the hangar doors sliding open; the attendant appeared.

"What happened?" Spears asked him.

"Just caved in," the man replied.  "About a week ago - November First.  Heard this weird noise coming from over that way," the man pointed vaguely to the northeast.  "Then the ground shook.  Few minutes later it shook again, only harder.  That's when the roof caved in.  Whole back end of it's flat as a pancake.  No one's been here since.  Haven't seen a plane or a chopper in almost a week."

Finally, Spears realized what it was that was different: the place was abandoned.  He had never seen it without at least half a dozen aircraft.  His was the only one here.

"Where'd they all go?" he asked.

"Don't know.  Maybe they flew off across the ocean," the man speculated.

"You got fuel?" Spears asked.

"Yeah, still got some," the man replied.

"Can you fuel her up?" Spears asked.

"Yeah, I think we can squeeze one more fill out of the tank - then that might do it.  We're shutting down.  I don't recommend you leave your chopper here this time.  Better to leave your Jeep."

"My associate's here," Spears explained.  "He can take the Jeep."

The helicopter was fueled; Joey got in the Jeep and started it.  Spears bid the attendant farewell.  He started to ask him his name, then decided not to.

"A way of life is passing," the man told Spears just before the chopper ascended.  Spears gave him the "thumb's up" on that one.

He'd never flown his chopper to Monitor Pass before.  He started going over the landscape in his mind, trying to fix on a place to set down.  There was a clearing just to the southeast, wedged between US Route 395 and the Toiyabe National Forest; but it was behind the mountain, and his weather station faced west-northwest.  He wanted the chopper where he could keep an eye on it.

"I'll fly around a ways," he resolved.  "But not too far.  Hell, maybe even land her in my own front yard!  Probably end up with a parking ticket and a hefty fine!"

A swirling, swooshing sound first caught his attention.  The closer he came to Monitor Pass, the louder it grew.  It amused him to think that, whatever the sound was, he was probably the only person on earth who could have heard it through the roar of the chopper; he had learned to tune the noise of the rotating blade out, so that other sounds became audible.

It was almost sunset; the big red-yellow glare just above the horizon blinded him momentarily.  Then his eyes adjusted.

"Son of a bitch!  You just had to wait till my back was turned, didn't you!" he exclaimed in a voice full of excitement.  "You just had to do, didn't you?  Couldn't wait a few more days, could you?  But of course!  Of course!  Why didn't I see it?  'Cause I'm blind that's why!  It's Yellowstone all over again: that's what triggered it!  I went to see the earth change - and missed the change in my own backyard!  Son of a bitch!  If I hadn't been sidetracked I'd have been here to see it!  But then I'd never have seen Joey again.  But you know what?  I wouldn't exchange finding him for being here - some scientist!  Son of a bitch!"

From on high, Spears could see for miles.  The big island lay almost at the end of his field of vision; smaller islands at various points along the way.  And, closer in, the endlessly pounding surf of the Pacific, hitting against the base of the Sierras.

California had broken away from the United States.  A rift had formed at Crescent City in the north; arching diagonally eastward around the Salmon Mountains; cutting Lassen Volcanic Park in half; continuing southeastward through Plumas National Forest; due south through Tahoe National Forest and Eldorado National Forest; then veering southeastward again, as far as Toiyabe National Forest and within a few hundred yards of Monitor Pass before resuming its southward trek, through Yosemite, King's Canyon and Sequoia National Forest; jutting sharply eastward one last time, through the Mojave Desert and the Joshua Tree National Monument; finally returning westward just north of the Salton Sea; to end its course between the towns of Oceanside and Carlsbad along the Gulf of Santa Catalina, just north of San Diego.

The rift reached to the very foundation of California, ripping the crust beneath it from the rest of North America.  At its northern end the Pacific Ocean roared into the rift in a single torrent that pushed California away from the mainland, the force of the flood breaking parts of the State into smaller land masses which became the chain of islands leading to the big island.  All of California west of the rift was inundated, except for the Sierras, which, though they lost a third of their height to the sea in places, remained as sentinels looking down upon the Pacific - as well as a barrier holding it at bay.

Spears shook his head in disbelief as he circled his mountain looking for someplace to land.  "What am I going to do with you?" he asked.  "First Yellowstone - no: make that the Mississippi - then Yellowstone; now California.  You guys need to understand something: we are the masters of the universe, we've conquered time and space; and, by God!, we'll only tolerate but so much deviance from our rules - then there'll be some hell to pay around here!  So, you out there - California: get your God-damn ass back where you belong!  You are only allowed to break off at San Andreas.  Who the hell do you think you are, moving away like that - and in less than a week?  We told you where you could part: you got beans in your ears, California?  Huh?  Is that it?  So just get on back here and do it right this time.  And we'll pretend  this never happened.  End of discussion."

He circled one more time.  "What the hell!" he resolved.  "If I crash and burn, I crash and burn!  If a mere planet can do it, why not me?  I'm going in."

Slowly, carefully, he maneuvered his chopper into the mouth of the cave and brought it to rest a few hundred feet from his weather station, the blade barely clearing the cave's entrance.  He stopped the engine the instant he touched down; jumped out; and ran to his cabin, to begin monitoring the weather across the world again.

A few hours later Joey arrived at the eastern end of Monitor Pass.  He pulled the Jeep into a small recessed clearing where Spears had always kept it.  He parked it, got out, and started up the mountain along a narrow trail that ran through the trees around to the western side, where the cave was.  When he was halfway there, the sound that had followed him from the clearing, growing louder as he wound his way to the cave, finally began to make sense to him.  He started running, pushing himself past branches and overhanging rocks, till he came to a clearing a couple hundred fee below the cave.  He stopped cold.  He fell to his knees and began weeping, all the while looking straight ahead.

He had never seen anything so beautiful.  The sun had disappeared below the horizon; the moon had risen and shone down at an angle onto the water, highlighting each wave as it broke against the base of the mountain.  His first impulse was to thank God for leading him to this spot; then he thought of all the lives that must have been lost in its formation, and he wanted to ask why.  He remained in the clearing till the moon moved behind the mountain and the sea below turned black; then he climbed the rest of the way to the cave.

Joey had been there a week when he told his mentor he wanted to visit Donner's Pass, to see the weather cabin he grew up in once again.

"You won't like it," Spears warned.  "The punks we saved came and defaced it.  Wrote filth all over it.  But if you insist, we'll go.  I brought the chopper in, I guess I can take her out!"

"No," Joey objected.  "Not the chopper."

"It's too risky taking the Jeep," Spears pointed out.  "There's no way to tell which roads are gone, or if any are still there.  I'd feel better taking the chopper."

Again Joey objected.  "I mean to walk," he said.

"It's a good fifty miles!" Spears said.

"I walked a thousand miles, mapping the caves," Joey told him.  "Fifty miles is nothing.  This way, I can climb if I need to, or go around a mountain -"

"It'll take you the whole bloody six months just to get there!" Spears exclaimed.

"It shouldn't take more than a week," Joey offered a more realistic assessment.

"I'm afraid for you," Spears admitted.  "I don't know what's out there - or, worse still: who's out there.  It took me this long to find you, looking night and day, every single day for two years.  I