S I X T Y
P A R T
V O L U M E
I I I
A N N O
S T E L L A E
Both sides have the Bomb, and all it takes is a wild card to tip the balance of power and trigger a combo cataclysm, Armageddon and Gotterdammerung.
Homer Bean, a young, troubled youth in a small town in Georgia, Confederate States of America (CSA), is that wild card, though he doesn't mean to be. He is experiencing an identity crisis--which young people his age can well understand since most all, unless they are brain-dead or hopelessly brainwashed, go through a rather stormy channel in life that resembles the one the Argo, in ages before Homer's time, experienced in the Clashing Rocks.
Following some now stone-cold tracks, Homer, unknowingly the Emerald-challenging "O" in the DUBESOR line of letterman-champions, crosses over into the empires of Atlantis seeking his long, lost father who was last reported headed that direction, and the moment he sets foot on Atlantis he becomes the catalyst that will soon ignite an entire world's destruction.
Back during his last years of school, however, he was still on a track to a conventional life as proprieter of the Bean family's landmark trading post and outfitting business. It was not a large firm, that is true, but it was a fixture of the community, and a tradition as well. Makon without the Bean trading post would probably dry up and blow away--so Homer's taking it over, even at his young age, was critical, even if he had to make some embarrassing mistakes in order to learn what worked best for the business.
But was this all Homer had in him--a small town businessman? Revealing a telltale sign of something out of the ordinary about him, he had excelled, of all things, in a martial art called fencing--and had earned the grade of Three Stars of Isma, and the right to wear three sacred stars, two on his boots, and one on his padded chest vest.
Graduated from the local medresse (religious school) attached to the church, Homer settled down to his work at the store, but his mind wandered, and he started making mistakes that were costing the business, particularly on the outfitting side of the business. It bothered him more than he liked to admit, that he was, virtually, fatherless and motherless--with the hint of illegitimacy about his birth.
People in his class and religion did not get involved with primitive tribespeople, especially since they were infidels, practicing the Christian idol-worship of three gods they called the Trinity. That made them no better than subhumans. His religion, Holy Isma, was the only true rellgion on earth--and it was not his right to cross the vast gulf fixed between the holy people of Isma and the infidels by God and His Prophet since time began. Of course, his brand of the Isman religion was not orthodox, but the gulf remained, however much other things changed.
As an infidel Christian, polytheist and savage Indian, Faye could still serve the more secularist society of the C.S.A. as a nurse (though never a teacher)--and so she was free to earn a living that way for herself and her family residing somewhere in the deep woods and swamps surrounding Makon. But there was to be no fraternizing with the patients (who were all Ismanic, of course, since Indians could not afford hospital care and wouldn't be permitted it even if they could afford it). Yet nurse and patient could not be stopped from having conversations, and thing were said that might not have pleased the local iman--if he had heard it. Faye challenges Homer on his faith--and that, for Homer, is hard to take, as he cannot deny what she is saying may well be true of his faith.
Homer ends up disturbed, as he cannot deal with his own feelings about Faye on top of his problems dealing with his lost father and sequestered idiot mother. It is enough to have an effect on his healing process.
As Homer is not showing the recovery he ought to be making, he is taken to a much more advanced city in medicine, for a second doctor's diagnois, then returned to Makon. A strange thing happens. A country hick, who had heard at the store what had happened to Homer, pops in on him unannounced and makes a gift of a motherless ferret kit to him.
This is not possible as a lifestyle for Homer, as he is too young, too accustomed to an active life, to obey the doctor's instructions. Avoid mental stress? That was laughable, for one in his situation. He had to find some answers for the questions plaguing him night and day, or he thought he might go crazy with the headaches they caused him.
After quizzing his very reluctant grandmother, dragging out every detail he could, while barely recovered from a bad fall and concussion, Homer set out from home, for the train that didn't quite reach Makon but picked up passengers ten miles out where the logging companies had gathered their logs at a company depot and shipped them to the Alantah market.
It was a sad day when he set out, with his trusty ferret Rainy (named for Rainy Lake) snuggled up warmly in his inside coat pocket, to walk to the town's one gas pump station, to be driven from there by the only hired car in town, because though he felt he had no choice, he wasn't really hoping he would be happy with his father even if he found him. His father, after all, had run off from his mother and the town, without explanation and with no sign he cared a fig for Homer's mother. And his grandmother and the doctor had insisted on a trip--for his health sake--but, again, he had his own quest that was his real reason impelling him to leave his once comfortable nest of Makon and all he had known--not to mention Faye, a high-spirited Christian Indian girl he was becoming more than just interested in--though his own religion forbade any such attachment.
And his grandmother, when he was going out the door, called to him. "Homer dear, I have something else your father left behind. The Judge showed it to me, and I kept it for you--just in case you wanted it."
With a shy look she opened her tiny hand and a golden amulet shone in her fingers. He took it, and saw the countries of the Holy Land etched on it, as well as the rest of the world, in a trifoil, flower-like design.
What bad luck he had being given a seat right next to this long-legged, red haired, green-eyed vixen! he thought, feeling a headache coming on. She had given him a bad time before at the Trading Post, now that he recalled, and now here was a repeat performance. Fortunately, she doesn't seem to recognize him--and continues telling him about her parties in Kingston after her victory, and flashed the ring she had just been given by a certain millionaire rancher and admirer visiting his business contacts in Alantah, who has arranged to meet her later on her tour of Heruka Ratna. As she went on about herself and all her clothes and furs and the events planned for her various appearances, Homer lets her talk without listening, hoping he can get through the experience without his head hurting too much.
They had just lifted off and the flight attendants were busy serving cold drinks and taking orders for the first course of their dinner when Miss Teen World decided she was being slighted by not being served before everybody else, even though she wasn't really entitled to First Class, having not reserved a place with the Holy Land Tour.
"I don't care if I'm not in this damn tour!" she snarled. "I paid for this seat--and I'm entitled to first serving--all the more since I'm Miss Teen World, if you don't know, you blithering idiots!"
She started screaming obscenities at the stewardess, who tried to quiet her with promises to bring her anything she wanted despite her not being with the tour--but that wasn't good enough. "I want the [expletive] captain--tell him to come here immediately or I'll have him sacked when we get to Port Andros!" Talulah demanded.
The stewardess was horrified, and showed it. "I'm sorry, he's busy flying the plane, Miss!" she protested.
Talulah rose out of her seat, she was so enraged at this latest insult to her, the reigning Teen Queen of the Confederate States of America, that the stewardess, trying to back up with her cart, was not quick enough.
When the captain came rushing out to see what was going on, he saw the stewardess collapse in tears on her cart, holding her arm and moaning.
That was the last Homer saw of her--as she was quickly taken away--still holding the arm that Talulah had raked deeply with her long, razor-sharp nails.
No one came back to serve Talulah after that--she was left completely alone--and Homer starved, as both of them completely missed their four course dinners.
Homer sat back, wondering what to do--but what if he moved?--the plane was full--there was no other seat open. So he sat where he was, miserably counting the minutes until they landed, while Talulah, the little green-eyed fox, busied herself with refreshing her lip blush for the next crowd of paparazzi she was prepared to meet at the airport.
Miss Teen World, understandably, had enemies who were determined she would not reach her destination after she had trumped at Kingston over Miss Heruka-Ratna, Miss Poseidonia, Miss Panamania, Miss Argentina, and other hopefuls. The beauty pageant, watched by the whole world, had taken on a sharp political edge, as the supporting nations for each candidate vied for the prestige the winner would bring to her respective nation. It was one of the most bitterly fought contests (behind the events of the pageant) since the Miss Teen World had been founded. No one could fight like Talulah, however (and she was not above using hired thugs to make it impossible for her rivals to even walk, much less perform on stage). Any girl who was getting higher scores than her was in real trouble--and so it proved with Miss Multan--she was a ravishing, dark-haired, almond eyed beauty, with a smile that outshone Talulah's and took the attention even from Talulah's already famous pair of legs. No one could dance like Talulah, but Miss Multan's smile, gracefulness, and fine breeding had won the hearts of the thousands of the spectators at the grand event in Kingston--and every time she appeared mass cheers broke out, while Talulah, as her ruthless reputation began to spread, received only a fair sprinkling of applause along with some boos.
The crowning event that singled out the winner had crowded out all the other programs on television, and the day came for the contestants to perform, each singing, or dancing, or performing a skit, or demonstrating some other talent they had.
Miss Multan did not show up. The judges were in a terrible state, which was visible to the cameras and the watching world. One stood up and shouted that the whole pageant should be discontinued, since Miss Multan had been attacked in her hotel room, and she couldn't walk, much less perform on stage, after her knees had been struck with a club by her assailant.
But too much was at stake for the other nations, so it was too late to halt the proceedings for one contestant, however--even for the people's choice of Miss Multan. The contest went on, and Talulah won handily with her brilliant rendition of dance based on a Southern composer, an opera of his that featured the love and betrayal of a southern CSA belle of old Baton Roo, Scarlet O'Hara. In her long scarlet satin gown, slit all the way up to her waist on each side to reveal her stunning legs, and a cleavage that left nothing to anyone's imagination, she captured every eye and the vote of every judge. It was unaminous, despite the fact she was so hated. What could they do differently? She had made sure of a number of judges even before the event, in a way that she was an expert.
On board were some disgruntled men, who had secretly vowed that she would never reach Multan. They had signed on the tour, even though they were not known by Mr. Knudson, because he was anxious to fill all the seats he had reserved on the plane. He had wanted to have the whole plane for the tour to get a special low group rate. It had gone as he had hoped, with all seats filled but one--which, unfortunately, Miss Teen World had pounced on.
There was nothing he could do to stop her--she was not the kind of person who could easily be crossed or denied anything she wanted. He had left her on, and now he sat in misery, rueing his big mistake, but unable to rectify it in the slightest.
Mr. Knudson was glancing uneasily around at his unhappy tour members, wondering what to tell them on their arrival at Port Andros as an apology, when several men rose simultaneous around him, the ones he had signed on at the last moment to fill the still vacant seats.
He thought nothing about it, however, as they moved toward Miss Teen World.
Meanwhile, Miss Teen World, feeling hungry, was trying to call a stewardess to chew her out for the delay in her dinner, but when none would come she recalled she had a power bar in her handbag. She was unwrapping it, making a rustling sound with the wrapper as she was removing it, the very kind of sound a snake or rat makes when moving through grass, when Homer felt his companion stirring in his pocket.
"Oh, no," thought Homer, "not now! It was still hours before night--and on the plane this was the worst time possible for Rainy to wake up and begin running around looking for mice and rats.
He tried to shut the top of his coat with his hand, but Rainy could find any crack and slither out, he was so slim--rat holes could not keep him out either! And snakes were no safer in their dens!
Talulah glanced over at Homer the very instant that Rainy popped his head out for a look around at the world.
Talulah looked at it, and did not scream, but she could control her emotions when she wanted to, when she had something bigger planned than just venting her rage.
She rose from her seat quietly, still eyeing Rainy's head, which Homer was trying to cover with his hands, and Talulah stood, and then the war began. The men coming forward made a rush forward toward her, but she was already grabbing pieces of luggage and pillows and blankets from the overhead racks and throwing them at Homer and Rainy.
Then she started screaming obscenities. The whole cabin erupted, as people saw what was happening, or awoke the noise of it at least and all started talking at once. The men who had intended to grab Miss Teen World and throw her out the back, even if it depressurized the plane, couldn't reach her, for the aisle was full of people, some trying to get away, others trying to get to the captain to tell him, as if he might not be listening to the uproar over the intercom and watching it on a screen as well.
When the captain did come, most of the luggages and pillows and such were covering Homer, and the beauty queen was still screaming. Rainy wasn't going to be treated that way, and he was under Homer's seat.
The captain grabbed Talulah's arm, and she turned, wrenched her arm away and screamed at him, "He's got a wild animal! I saw it! Do something!"
The captain looked, but there was nothing in sight. He had the male flight attendants, already instructed, do their job. Miss Teen World was set back in her seat, and the attendants stood guard duty on her the remainder of the flight as she steamed and fussed, unable to fight so many at one time.
As for her other attackers, they had no way to get to her under such heavy guard, so they were forced to return to their seats and revise their strategy.
Moving with the others of his tour group toward the gate, trying to put as much distance as he could between himself and the bad-mouthed beauty queen, he wishes he had not packed his painkillers in his bags--he would like something now to make him feel better after having had luggage hit his head. Even one aspirin would have given him relief. But he thinks that is the last he will see of the vicious beauty princess when he disembarks and a screaming crowd of fans and photographers and reporters sights Talulah and mobs her.
Why are there so many people at the airport? he wonders. Is it all for the beauty queen? But no, there are Poseidonian soldiers everywhere. Has a new dictator taken charge? Or is there a revolt going on? Whatever is happening, thousands are trying to get out of the country at the same time.
He is so ravenous by this time, he doesn't care what kind of government is in charge--and so he heads for the closest restaurant in the airport, telling Mr. Knudson the tour leader that he has to get something to eat. He finds a single open stool at the food bar and sits down, pointing at a picture sandwich on the menu. The waitor brings it and leaves the tab. Wrapping a piece of his sandwich meat in a napkin for Rainy to eat later, he wolfs down the rest. He is just going to get up and go and pay for it when a strange thing happens--a Publicatexan, it so happens, is seated by him, and starts talking to him in Confederate, though with an accent that murders Homer's much softer, musical language--bragging about his ranch and the size of his herds of longhorns, and he even flashes the oversized gemstone on his ring in Homer's face. "Yah, man, ah picked this doo-dad right offa my own patch of dirt, right down in the creek bed below my hacienda!" the man laughed. "Looks mighty good for a cat's eye, don't you think?"
Homer stares at it. He blinks. He has seen it before! Where? Then he remembers. It looks so like Talulah's, he isn't aware of anything else, not noticing that the owner is grabbing at his throat and trying to say something.
Homer notices something is very wrong, however, when the man begins sliding off his stool, his eyes glazed, and his hands clutching and knocking over his water glass and plate of food.
Staring at the man in shock, Homer is very much the small town boy out of his element, and so doesn't know what to do--but somehow, instinctively, as if for Talulah's sake, he grabbed the man's twitching, outstretched finger and pulled off her ring, then ran.
Out in the main terminal again, Homer slips the ring into his pocket with Rainy to guard together with his wallet and is swallowed by the crowds.
He doesn't have time to think about his action, taking a dying man's ring, a very strange thing to do for someone he doesn't even like. But his surroundings are so strange and chaotic, he isn't acting logically anymore. Besides, he has something else to think about--the sandwich, it isn't going to stay down. He rushes to the restroom just in time. When he comes out, his face ashen, he feels better but a little weak. What was in the sandwich? he wonders. Normally, he has a stomach that can digest nails, if need be. But the sandwich just about killed him. Strangely enough, the ferret lets out a high pitched burp--a tiny sound but clear enough--which makes people around him glance at him with amazed expressions.
Looking desperately around, he fails to sight anyone from his tour group in the long ticket and baggage lines. Had they taken a bus and gone into the city for a special sight? Did they take another flight out when he was in the restaurant? He had no idea--as the itinerary tour did not include military coups and special instructions about what should be done if any revolutions erupted. All he could tell was that he was marooned, the only one from his tour left in the airport apparently!
At this point, he oddly calms down, submitting to the inbred fatalism, the kismet, of his religion instead of a panic attack. He thinks he can easily connect with them at Multan, the next main city on the tour in the intinerary brochure.
As far as it went, it was a comforting thought in rather tense circumstances. But nothing goes right for him at Multan either, after a short half-hour flight from Port Andros. He thought it would be possible to spot Mr. Knudson or someone else from his tour group, but after a few minutes of walking up and down the terminal to the various gates, people bumping into him front and back, he sees that was a pretty stupid idea he had. Wondering what to do next, he is still looking around confused and lost when a nattily-dressed gentleman walks up to him, hands him a gilt-edged card, and then without explanation quickly walks away. Homer looks at it, examines the strange name and address, and understands it must be an invitation to someone's home. He puts it in his pocket, and goes for his luggage, intending to head for his hotel on his own. He has no sooner got his luggage, when a grinning skycap offers to carry it for him. Before he can answer, the boy grabs both pieces and takes off. Before Homer can stop him, his luggage is out of sight--hijacked! He runs to chase down the smiling little thief, but the crowd swallows up the boy and a million Multanese boys who look like him--so, goodbye luggage and the royal celadon dish he had carefully wrapped so he could use it as a prime item in his search for his father!
Homer is disgusted--this was supposed to be the Holy Land--the birthplace of holy Isma--and the people were proving to be nothing but the most shameless crooks--and he was sorely tempted to take the return flight home at this point--but he recalls the reason he has come, and the lost luggage doesn't matter so much then. He can always buy more clothes, as he still has plenty money, though mostly in traveler's cheques. Or does he? There has to be pickpockets around. He claps his hand over his wallet--and is tremendously relieved, it is still there, along with Talulah's ring. If he lost his wallet and money, he'd also lose the gold amulet, perhaps the most precious thing he had left of his father's. Just in case, he moves his wallet as well as the ring to his inside coat pocket, sharing the deep pocket with Rainy, which is still soundly asleep, soon clutching the big-stoned ring in his paw, since it prefers to run around at night.
Leaving the airport terminal, he decides not to take a taxi, as a swarm of dozens of cabbies shout and grab at him and honk their horns, giving him good cause to wonder if they want to rob him too. Seeing him turn away, the cabbies really begin to stage a kind of riot. Fights break out right before his eyes--men pushing, shoving, and kicking as if they were taking out their frustration on each other.
Not to be outdone, black marketeers, carrying their stock in trade (a fake shoeshoe box filled with cash for changing currencies at an illegal, low rate with foreigners), edged toward him.
Shaking his head at them and saying "Yok," ("no") virtually the only word he knew in their language, he moved away a few steps--which didn't put them off at all, and about four of them moved on him from all sides.
Just the sight of of these professionals chills his blood. But there was even bigger trouble brewing. The longer he hesitated, the more angry the cabbies seemed to get--as if he was insulting them all by not making his choice--and some started to spit and curse and shake their fists at him. Multan was full of grand buildings but had so many poor people and the competition was so fierce, he realized--he could see the desperation in their eyes--it was like nothing he had seen in the worst parts of Alantah and the CSA.
Thinking he was probably much safer without a ride, he starts out on foot, and has to push his way through a small army of pedicabs, which are just as thick and aggressive as the taxis. The moment he steps away from the terminal, the huge metropolis swallows him, and he wanders in a maze of twisting, narrow streets, wondering how he is going to find his hotel when he can't read the street signs (and there are precious few signs to be read anyway!). When he passes under the same arch twice, he realizes he is hopelessly lost.
The soles of his feet are beginning to hurt from the cobblestones. He realizes his shoes aren't the right kind for Multan's rough and broken paving stones. His head has not stopped throbbing either. He badly wants to lie down with a cool damp cloth on his forehead, but where is the Imperial International Hotel? He tries to look up through the narrow strips of sky squeezed between the tall dark warehouses, but he can't see anything like a gleaming, white-balconied hotel tower.
The streets get narrower as he continues, only wide enough for one vehicle at a time.
A car is coming from behind, he hears, but pays no attention until he realizes he is going to be run over if he doesn't get out of the way. He sees a doorway but doesn't dare turn into it--the men will catch him for sure, and the car keeps coming, brushing so close to the wall he realizes he is going to be hit. Turning round a corner, he runs for his life--and the car pursues him.
The rest was a horrible boom of metal smashing into brick, and then spraying water from a burst radiator after the car rammed the the side of the bakery. That was just the beginning. People poured out of the bakery, workers and the owner and customers, with everyone slipping in the cream and pastries on the cobblestones as they lunged to get at whomever had caused the accident. Screams, shouts, two men climbing out of the car and staggering about amidst the cream puffs were mobbed immediately, and Homer, seeing that he better take the opportunity to leave the scene now or never, ran in the opposite direction.
The street was a climbing street for foot traffic only, and it took him straight up toward the foreign quarter, where the city's largest modern hotels, as well as embassies, banks, and foreign firms were situated.
Handed his key, the bellhop winked, then left him without going in with him or waiting for a tip.
A little amazed by the bellhop's manner, Homer stepped in, then saw he wasn't alone. A red-sequined jacket was hanging on a chair in the outer room, along with a still smoking gold-tipped, jasmine-scented cigarette in an ashtray.
Going to the next room, he stood speechless at the door. A woman was sitting on his bed!
The woman's scream made Homer's ears ring for an hour afterwards. She nearly knocked him over as she ran out of the rooms--as if she had just seen the biggest, most ugly rat crawl out of a man's clothes. One of her heels broke off as she ran, but she pulled off her shoes and then continued running toward the stairs, not stopping to wait for the elevator.
Sliding back, Homer, then found his feet under him and staggered back out of the room and went and collapsed on the sofa. When he felt better, he wondered what he should do--leave Rainy or take him and go out for some air.
It was late, but he tried to make a call home to Makon, but the line wouldn't go through. The telephone system was so broken--the concierge, with scarcely disguised annoyance in his eyes, directed him to a room where professionals tried to make it work for him, for pay, of course. Even they had to give it up--not tonight he was told. "Please try again in the morning, Effendi," a girl said to him, her face a mask of inscrutable politeness. Maybe then his call would go through.
"Maybe then?" That wasn't good enough for Homer. He went and sat down in the lobby, trying to think of what to do. Should he write to his grandmother? Surely, that would tell her something--if she had heard already that he was missing from the tour. She was, he knew, probably anxious to know what was happening. He got some hotel stationery, wrote what had happened, then gave it to the concierge to mail--for a hefty charge on his tab, of course.
That done, Homer felt better. He still wasn't up to returning to his rooms, and even saw the bellhop who had winked, but the fellow wasn't winking now, and wouldn't even look his way. Homer wanted to see if he knew anything, but when he started toward him, the bellhop shot off through a "Personnel Only" door, and Homer, rushing up to it, found it locked.
Homer was furious. He thought for a moment of making a complaint about all that had happened so far, but the concierge wasn't his friend, Homer sensed, so his complaint would be meaningless--to the management he was only a foreigner who couldn't speak the language, now making trouble for no good reason.
By now his stomach was rumbling, and feeling the restlessness of Rainy in his pocket, Homer decided to go out and get some air, and, not wanting anything from the hotel restaurants, see if he could find something to eat in the neighborhood.
He didn't have far to go to find his dinner. The city was full of vendors, who pushed their carts of bread, and lamb-stuffed pastries and roasted chestnuts and various sweets along with hot chai (tea) even in the Foreign Quarter, or New City.
He bought all he wanted--two veal-stuffed pastries, a glass of chai, and then a whole raw lamb chop for Rainy, acting like he hadn't had a bite to eat in hours, to gorge on.
Crossing the road from the hotel, he sat in a park and enjoyed his delicious food as the city's skyline of cloud-piercing prayer towers and domes turned to lavender and then burgendy, then red and gold. Rainy wolfed down his tasty meat, and seemingly satisfied at last, began playing round on the grass with some twigs, flinging them into the air and snapping his little, razor-sharp teeth on them just for practice.
Homer was amused, for the ferret, when it wasn't sleeping off its huge dinners, was always good at entertaining itself, with whatever lay at hand. Rainy was learning many things too. All Homer had to do was hold out his hand, and the ferret knew what to do--it leaped up, and ran from his hand to his arm, then dove into his pocket for his next free ride to more tasty treats like black cobras--which the ferret obviously found so much tastier than mice and rats.
When Homer saw it was dark, and not too safe a place for a lone tourist to be loitering in a strange city, he went back to the hotel, and then sat in the lobby, resting his head on the comfortable plush of a sofa, and even fell asleep, with Rainy doing the same, though it stuck its head out of the pocket, and had its keen, darting eyes open for quite a long time, watching the hotel staff move around the lobby as though it were Homer's guard dog.
As her help scurried to obey her sharp commands, she turned to Homer and examined him with narrowed eyes. After her examination, she began. "Mr. Bean, I hear you had a little unpleasantness here yesterday. I am most sorry for the annoyance you may have suffered. We have no idea how that despicable creature got in--as I have questioned every one of the men who service this floor, and none had any information or knowledge of her. I can assure you, however, that it won't happen again. I have ordered all my staff as well as hotel security to be on the look out for any such trash in the future!"
As she was saying this, Homer realized that she wasn't really concerned with him or his feelings concerning the matter, as her tone was just too perfunctory and professional. And as she was speaking, she was looking about, and sniffing. Before he could stop her, she raised a spray can and pressed the release.
A plume of misted scent shot far out into the room. His heart sank. Just as he feared, the sickening sweet odor of jasmine flooded the whole area. It made him gag immediately. He turned so pale and greenish at the gills that even the hotel director noticed and stared at him.
"Don't you like this wonderful scent so favored in our city, Effendi? Everyone perfers it here--it is the fragrance of the sacred jasmine, which the last kaliph chose above all other flowers to adorn the royal harems of his Sublime Porte!"
It was all Homer could do to keep from retching right then and there in her presence. Somehow he held it back, then excused himself, and was moving toward the bathroom when a maid reached it first and opened the door.
Just then Homer recalled he had forgotten to warn anybody about the cobra. There was a big crash as the maid's tray of cleaning utensils and supplies dropped to the tile. Then the scream that which nearly blew Homer's eardrums out.
As was his duty as a follower of Isma, he went and gave alms to the beggars who were clustered in their usual haunts, outside holy shrines and at places where tourists were sure to pass. He gave his alms, but looking at the beggars he realized it would never be enough to take them off the streets--they were destined to remain there, living on handouts, which were only enough to give them a simple meal once a day, but not enough for anything else. Normally, he would not have thought twice about their fate. But Faye's talk about her god had challenged him more than he had realized. He was giving alms out of duty, and because it would help get him into heaven--but not from love for them, of course. One did not love beggars--it was not required in his religion. Yet Faye had said her God required that she love beggars and even love her enemies! Love his enemies? Love these unwashed, stinking, useless beggars? He could not imagine doing that--but the idea of a God who loved such wretched creatures bothered him, nevertheless.
Homer's heart stopped as he moved to one side of the crowd, only to see a car pull up to the curb and four men get out and begin scanning the people. They are definitely looking for someone they want to do something he instinctively knew he wouldn't like done to himself--so he ducked into the crowd and tried to make his way through to the other side.
He passed close to the puppeteer on one side, however, and then, through a opened screen in the man's booth, saw a pistol with a silencer pointed at him. A man looking about his age and dressed like an Indian but too dark to be one pushed him back, and then Homer heard some popping sounds, and he saw the Indian go down, and several other people, fall too. Seeing this, but Homer tried to get back to the Indian, but the pushing of the now panicked, stampeding crowd, separated them, and then the police started getting into it, chasing a puppeteer off down the street.
The stampede was his saving, for the whole square in front of the Yeni Cami (or the New Church) was such chaos that the hitmen sent for him had no chance of moving anywhere for some time--and then the police were running from all the surrouding posts to restore order and arrest whoever had done the shooting.
The silence of the narrow, crevice-like streets off the square was almost deafening to Homer's ears. He had to stop running to catch his breath, but he kept going. Ending up at the docks, he thought for only a moment, then walked on the first one--thinking this was double insurance he would put off his track anyone who might be following him.
Homer, however, had to learn the hard way that you don't disapper in a city of even eleven million--all crammed into one city meant for two or three million at most--once you are known. He was known, obviously, from the time he landed, even before then--in truth. He still carried the invitation to a private home--and that alone said he was known and expected in the city.
Moving into the ferryboat wondering where it was going, Homer looked around at the passengers, but so far nobody seemed at all interested in a lone northern tourist in casual, foreign clothes.
The boat carried up to 2,000 passengers, and vehicles too--having been an outfitter, he knew every detail of the transportation systems his patrons would be using. The vehicles drove on from the side, he saw, as he stood watching passengers and vehicles come aboard "The Ecstasy of a Jasmine-Scented Lover," as the boat was named, along with a huge logo on the stacks that pictured the ideal of Multan's male population--a famous film star with pale, moon-like face, parted blood-red lips, and sad sloe eyes and gold-painted eyelids.
Blowing its horn, the vessel was ready to depart within a short time after Homer boarded. A ticket man was moving through the passengers, taking their money, as nobody paid for tickets off the boat.
Homer paid for his, and the man took his money, then looked at him a second time, and Homer felt uneasy as the man moved off. The ticket man did not take any more tickets, but went straight to the bridge and went in.
Homer decided it was a good idea to keep moving on the boat. He went over to the other side, and was looking at the view of the other shore of the great river, the villas, fortresses, and huge cannon-holding towers and old imperial army barracks that stretched as far as he could see, when he noticed a shoeshineman wanted his business.
"Shoeshine, Effendi?" A short but stocky man, with glinting, gold-capped teeth and the woolen cap and scruffy suitcoat and rumpled tie, grinned up at him.
Homer shook his head and moved off, but the man caught his sleeve, and in a gruff voice, no longer smiling, demanded his business.
Homer shook his hand off and walked as fast as he could to another area, but he saw he wasn't going to get away. And the shoeshineman had several men joined him in following him. They were not making it a scene to alarm the passengers, who were sitting and taking the sun on the open decks as the boat moved away from the city upriver. Instead, they were slowly moving in on him, in such a way that he had to keep moving to avoid them.
Homer was thinking furiously. Where could he go on the boat? Big as it was, they would be sure to find him? If he ran, he might gain some time, however, so he started running, making it up to another deck, then running the whole length, then making it down the stairs as fast as he could, two decks this time, so that he when he came out he found himself on the vehicle deck.
It was dark there, but he could see light gleaming where the entrance was--and in the light he knew he would be seen--so he bent low along the cars as he moved between them. He was hoping he would find a spot where nobody might find him. Would he? He had no idea if it would work or not.
He heard voices, and thought it might be boat personnel, but he peered up over a car's hood and saw, no, it was the shoeshineman leading his fellow thugs. Fast as he had run, they hadn't been far behind him!
Their angry expressions and their quick movements told him they would ransack the whole deck for him until they drove him out of hiding.
Homer gulped. He knew there was only one option left. Would poor, little Rainy be up to it? So far he or she had not budged--as if the critter was dead to the world, the ferret slept so soundly during the day--but what Homer was thinking of would no doubt wake it up with a terrific shock, he knew.
Homer reached the vehicle gate. Here the water was not as churned up as at the back where the propellers could make mincement of him--but that was all he had going for him--as swimming in unholy water was absolutely forbidden, he would be defiled. Except for ceremonial baths and foot washings for church meetings, swimming in unconsecrated water (which the iman had not cleansed with his prayers) was forbidden in his religion. Would it count that these were the waters of the Holy City? He didn't know. Would he lose his place in heaven? He didn't know. He just knew he had to save his life, and Rainy's too.
Fortunately, the fishing was known to be very good where he was in the deep part of the channel, and he was floating in the current right toward a group of small net-fishing boats who were trying to catch a last prime fish or two for sale at the fish market for the city's late-dining restaurants. He wasn't going to have to struggle very long in the water, before a fisherman spotted him.
And so it was! A fisherman who stayed out longer than the others--being old now, and not so good at hauling in heavy nets for catching the big bottom fish--fishing with a shorter, lighter net for pan-sized trout and perch, held out an oar to the desperate Homer padding to keep himself and Rainy (who had climbed out sodden but none the worse) on his back afloat.
Grabbing the tail, Ugur pulled the monster out of the shed, with Rainy still holding on to its throat.
Ugur came back in, shaking his head and smiling at Homer who was now sitting up in bed. "Isma be praised!" Ugur exclaimed, his eyes wide with admiration. "Isma be praised!" he repeated, using an expression everyone of the Isman religion knew from earliest childhood.
Feeling like he was able to go now, Homer stood, looking around for his clothes. All he had on was his holy garment, the linen ukar-i-kyrt, or "Robe of the Righteous"--which no believer was allowed to part with, day or night. Even when a man fell dead, the ukar-i-kyrt accmpanied the body to the grave--and it was said the soul ascended to the Judgment Hall in it, and any soul that presented itself without one was instantly seized by the angels and cast into the flames. Even then, the garment did not guarantee admission into the bliss of heaven--the voluptuous, apricot-eyed houris and their delights to be enjoyed forever on divans of purest silk set amidst cool, scented pools and fountains. To enter heaven, the imans taught that one had to be a martyr, killing infidels and losing his own life in the struggle, or commit nothing but perfect acts of pure goodness and piety and give unceasing charity to the poor--something no man, being naturally selfish and unwilling to impoverish himself, could reasonably claim to do.
No, the holy garment did not guarantee anything really--but no one dared to disobey the commandment to wear it--doing so was a sure ticket to the ever-burning flames of the Evil One.
Ugur seemed to anticipate everything. He was silently holding out Homer's clothes to him, along with his wallet, and Homer took them and dressed. As for his shoes, he had to have help, for he couldn't quite manage the laces. Finally, he was dressed, and felt even stronger, as though he could walk by himself without Ugur's help or a cane.
Homer went to the door of the shed, leaned on the door frame, and looked out. He had never really seen the area around him--and he looked at all of it in detail--the tethered and anchored fishing boats, the docks, the high bulwarks of the river embankment, the warehouses, the shipping firms, the various goods stacked in high piles and in crates or on barges ready to be moved, the derricks that lifted the loads from boat to dock. the people--fishermen, housewives coming to meet the fishing boats for the first chance at the catch, small boys not yet in school looking for errands to do or just to pass the time looking about for anything interesting, loitering men who had no paying work, a few beggars who could not work and sought none, and a vendor or two offering cheap but filling sesame bread rolls, or glasses of hot chai, or sweetened, colored drinking water in tall silver jugs with elaborate decorations--everything crowded together in a mass that did not waste a bit of space.
The scene was typical of the working part of the busy waterfront, for here were no villas and palaces of the sultans and his courtiers, as well as the more modern mansions of Herukan-Ratnan officials and dignitaries, nor the imposing embassies of ambassadors.
Here a man could be poor, as poor as a net mender and part-time fisherman like old Ugur, and yet not go hungry and a beggar--if the fisher folk knew the man was honest and could be useful to them.
Homer glaced back at Ugur, who was quietly watching him, a net in one hand he was about to go back to mending. Homer glanced around, then at Ugur, then knew what he wanted to do.
He took a small fortune out of his wallet, which still left him more than enough for his own expenses and hotel bill (and if his money ran low, he could always go to the hotel desk and wire for more from home, he knew). Putting it on his bed, after he made it, Homer went to the shed door, looked back at Ugur who was sitting down and again mending nets, and then looked for Rainy. The bull snake, or whatever remained of it, was nowhere in sight, and as Homer was searching round the sides of the shed--he felt something clutch his ankle and hold on. Looking down, he saw it was Rainy, his belly stuffed so full of the bull snake he couldn't climb up. Homer wasn't about to put Rainy in his pocket in that condition, so he took the gorged ferret to his bed and put him there to recover. The moment Homer set him down on the warm wool blanket, the ferret curled up and was dead to the world, and looked as if it could sleep for hours. In the meantime, Homer decided he might as well go and try to find the address given on the card inviting him to the man's home. Who was this "Dr. Cayman"? he wondered. He felt he had to find out before he left Multan.
After his experiences in the Foreign Quarter and the vicinity, his feet seemed drawn to the Old City, and so he crossed the royal bridge once closed to all commoners during the daylight hours all through the reigns of the Sultans but now open to traffic, foot and vehicular, which made the old bridge thunder with thousands of cars, buses, and trucks all hours of the day and night. Along with the major shrines of the city, the quarter held the royal palaces enclosed by high walls and huge, fortified gates, and there was a public square holding the gilded statue of the first Prime Minister of the dual Heruka-Ratnan state, set in front of the Parliament and the State Treasury and other national government buildings. In addition, there was, outside the Forbidden City that once shielded the sultans and kaliphs and their families, harems, and courts from their subjects, the Grand Bazaar that had been the life-blood of the city's economy for ages. Thousands of rug and jewelry shops stretched for miles in a complicated, many-tracked maze no one could map or travel in a day. There he knew he could find a gift for his grandmother, and also something nice for Faye. But would have to wait. Not feeling up to all this excitement, Homer made his way toward the more residential parts, and then started trying to match the street address to the signs he met along the way.
He realized that a hired cabbie could take him in a short time exactly where he needed to go, but, after being shot at and chased nearly to his death, he was very wary, and kept away from people as he tried to make himself as inconspicuous as possible in his search.
He wished now he had brought a hand gun, or at least his hunting knife. Even with a cane, he could kill a man, he knew. But a foreigner buying such items, other than the cane, might be questioned by the police, who would demand why he thought he needed them. As for their own armed citizenry, and the great many secret societies and criminals operating in the city, that was a different matter to the police--it was foreigners who were thought to be the chief threat to the Holy City's peace and welfare--Homer knew, having heard of Multan's unbridled suspicion for all foreigners, even those who shared the Faith of Isma.
The private residences were not that many--and were crowded, he found, between the huge shrines and walls and fortresses. Just when he thought he might wander forever and not turn it up, the street sign he was looking at matched the one on the gold-edged card. He stood and looked at the house. It was a mansion, but an antique serving some ambassador to the court of the sultans, built hundreds of years before his time, he could easily tell from the style and all the intricately carved wood and ceramic tile. The Mulberry tree out front, it was so gnarled and twisted in its trunk and branches, it too looked many centuries old and full of deep secrets.
Homer was taken aback, as much by her beauty as by her air of weary resignation, as if she was not looking for the doorman returning so much as expecting something or someone she wanted very much to appear and now she would have to wait for another time.
"Who is it at the door?" a man's voice called out from the interior. "I told you must not answer it yourself on any account," the voice with the cultivated accent continued as it came closer. "The servants--where are they? They can do it until I get another doorman!"
She turned her head. "That's all right, let them attend to the baby right now, I'll see to it!"
She looked at him more closely. Homer, with a jolt, remembered the card, and brought it out and handed it to her.
She looked carefully at it, then with a tiny wave of her hand to follow her, she went back in, letting him close the door.
Homer was fascinated. He had never seen a woman move like she moved.
She did not even touch the tile of the floor! Her walk was the most graceful and feminine walk he had ever seen in a woman. He had not even guessed a human being could be so graceful--it was like an animal's--a stealthy lioness or even a stalking cheetah moving through the grass, slowly approaching its unwary prey.
The lioness led him to the lion--who was standing beneath a high, curved doorway, his arms held behind his back. Mrs. Cayman, for such she was, turned aside to arrange some flowers in a tall vase, while her husband, the doctor, handled their visitor.
Surprised, Homer was at a loss how to handle this most amazing news. "Yes, sir, his plane crashed, as he was flying from my home in Georgia to cross the strait."
Dr. Cayman eyes dropped, and he paused for a moment, then said, "I'm sorry to hear that. I am glad, however, I got to meet his grandson! Will you be in the city for a while--I mean, at least another day or so?"
Dr. Cayman smiled first the first time, which broke the ice for Homer.
The doctor's eyebrows lifted. "Oh?"
"I been in situations where I've had to run for my life--and I think I was shot at too! If it weren't for the fact I need to find my fa--ah, a friend of mine in the city, I would be on the next plane out."
Dr. Cayman, and even his wife were listening intently, Homer sensed. At the same time, Mrs. Cayman was looking almost too keenly at him--as though the way he was standing, his feet far apart, seemed to make her stare all the more at him, though he had no idea why that should be.
A few awkward moments passed. Dr. Cayman appeared to be digesting this information before he spoke again.
His reserved manner seemed to relax a degree more, as he smiled again at Homer. "Ah, I appreciate your confidence in us, sharing all this. Our city is in a state of increasing division and crisis, to be sure--and I suppose you, a foreigner, have been caught in the crossfire of the opposing factions. Our government is proving incapable of bringing the Left and Right together in meaningful talks to resolve the difficulties. That is most unfortunate, but I do hope you will be careful if you choose to remain longer."
Homer nodded, not knowing what else to say.
Mrs. Cayman's eyes darted to her husband, and he seemed to take the cue. "But would you like to join us for dinner? We can talk about your grandfather, and maybe some other items--whatever you want to ask about the city and the present problems that have overtaken us here. I expect you would like to know more about what is going on."
Homer did not have to consider it very long. "Yes, I would," he nodded. "I would be glad to accept. When should I be here?"
Mrs. Cayman spoke. "Could you make it back in four hours, at 9? I know that may seem late to you, a northerner. But we customarily dine late in this high desert climate--because then it is cool, and we can sit out on the terrace and enjoy the evening breeze from the river. I think you will find it refreshing."
Mrs. Cayman showed him to the door, and he followed her as before, still captivated by her incredibly graceful, sinuewy walk.
After the door closed on him, he turned around and looked at it, still amazed how suddenly his fortunes had changed. He was invited into a beautiful, aristocratic Multanese home--and could ask any question he wanted--and the city's secrets would be his to know! Perhaps this gentleman could even give him tips on how to search and find his father!
He started walking, walking no where in particular, and the roads in the Old City twisted and turned every way but straight--but most of them converged on the main squares--of which one was the Capitol containing the Parliamentary Buildings. Here he entered a huge square, but he should have looked at it first, as there were crowds occupying it, and not very friendly ones at that.
Men standing on makeshift platforms decked with flags and using bullhorns and megaphones to broadcast speeches, not a word of which Homer could understand.
He could tell, however, from their expressions and gestures they were very angry speeches, and the crowds gathered round each truck orator seemed to be just as upset, as many held up clenched fists or waved red flags. Where they Leftists or Rightists? he wondered. He wasn't able to tell, except that there seemed an equal mix of young people carrying student briefcases and older men in union caps and work clothes.
He had time for it now, to find some bargains in jewelry, gold, leather, watches, or Multanese rugs. It would be a good place to kill four hours, he knew, and if anyone were still chasing him, he could easily vanish in the big crowds that filled the Bazaar at all hours.
He knew he had to be careful in this part of the Suq--the professionals were always hanging about, ready to relieve a country yokel or a tourist of his money, whether he bought anything or not. Fortunately, he could count on something. Whoever was foolish to dip his hand into his pocket where his wallet was would get a very nasty surprise from Rainy's stiletto-sharp teeth.
Rainy, he knew, could instantly sniff the difference in a man's scent from his master's, and there was no getting by him, however fast the thief was.
He was just strolling through the part of the Yeni Suq or New Bazaar still under construction, which had leather goods shops only along one side, when he stopped and stared. Coming toward him was Ugur, holding what had to be Rainy in his outstretched hands! How on earth? Before he could ask Ugur how he had thought to find him there of all places, Ugur stiffened and his head shot back.
Ugur's body fell right across Homer's feet, rolled partway back and Homer saw a hole behind Ugur's head at the base--and blood was spouting. People were now screaming at the sight, and surrounding them--and Homer, with Rainy jumping to his pocket and slipping in, realized he had better make fast tracks--for according to the draconian Multanese law--if you were involved in any way in any capital crime like murder or a bad car accident--you were guilty before being proven innocent. Before leaving, Mr. Knudson had lectured the tour group on this fact of life in Heruka-Ratna, and told them to run, rather than wait around for the authorities. It was the only way for foreigners not to avoid long prison sentences and even executions--as foreigners were automatically suspected as the culprits. That was how suspicious the natives were concerning foreigners--it had always been that way in the Holy Land.
Taking Mr. Knudson's advice, his heart breaking for Ugur, Homer fled. He was wise not to waste a moment in getting away. The police pounced on everyone at the scene, and they were hauled off to the nearest police compound. If they had money for bribes, they had nothing to fear and would be released immediately. If not, they were in big trouble.
He was retracing his steps across the Old City, unwilling to risk getting lost, when he heard an uproar of crowds, shots, and screams, together with the sound of thousands of feet stampeding.
He had to see what it was, and he went further toward the government square. Here he came to the edge of the disturbances. Not government soliders, but another kind of militia all in gray uniforms, stood around, or were chasing the people in the square, firing on them, or clubbing those who had fallen to the ground.
Homer was appalled, and stared at the massacre--for it was a massacre--of the demonstrators. What was going on? A revolution? Some strong man making a move to take over the capital and the government too?
Next to him a van held some men, their arms pulled back and their hands tied--hostages.
Homer backed away, not willing to be added to their number, if he wasn't shot or clubbed to death like so many others.
He fled away--wondering if he was going to be pursued. He had just relaxed a bit and was walking quickly toward the part of the city where he thought he could find Dr. Cayman's house when a woman stepped up, pressed a gun to his head, and with a man's voice demanded he go with him.
The man (still in his woman's scarf and robe) was moving him back toward the square, Homer realized, his dread increasing with each step they got closer to the carnage and chaos still going on as the crowds were cut to ribbons by the grey-uniformed killers, whoever they were, who had blocked off all the possible exits with their convoy trucks.
They were just coming to a row of government cars with official looking licenses when Homer thought of something. The antennas, if he could only get close enough to them...
Just then his kidnapper decided on a direct route to the square and pushed him between two of the cars, and Homer, desperate for some opportunity to escape, saw his chance. Being the martial arts expert he was and a bearer of the Three Stars of Isma, the training now tipped the scales in his favor, even if the martial arts had been only ceremonial in purpose.
As if he had never suffered a bad fall or any serious head wound, Homer was transformed into a marvel of speed, elasticity, and deadliness as he snapped off an antenna with one lightning swift move and twisted his body and sprang forward with his improvised saber outstretched.
He was soon out of sight of the square and the grey uniforms and their merciless dragnet.
Running until he was exhausted, he slowed to a walk and mingled in the narrow streets with crowds that were frightened-looking people running this way and that, everyone trying to get out of the Old City and away from the events in the government square.
As for his own state of mind, he was much improved--his confidence restored by what he had accomplished in defending himself against someone who seemingly had the edge over him.
With great relief, Homer at last found what he was searching for--the little lane right by the Forbidden City palace wall leading to Dr. Cayman's. There he would be safe, he thought.
At the door he stood gasping for breath, and trying to compose himself, and only when he raised his hand to knock did he notice the door was not shut but hanging ajar.
How odd! he thought. In the country, it would happen, because there was so little to be afraid of, but in this big and troubled a city?
He couldn't just walk in, but when he knocked, nobody came. The door was still hanging open, and he decided to call into the house, hoping someone would answer.
Homer was beginning to feel a kind of dark, foreordained fate hanging over him, the weight and destiny of kismet, as he called, but nobody came or answered.
Should he? He didn't know what to do, but he pushed the door open and peered in. The gloom in the hall was too dense for him to see anything. He then decided to go further, and find somebody--anybody would do. Brought up to act like a good Makon, Georgia boy by Higgins, he knew he just couldn't leave the Cayman residence without seeing that everything was all right. After all, they had been so good to invite him--on the strength of his connection with the Judge--and he couldn't ignore a civil invitation. His grandmother would not forgive him if she heard he had done a thing like that, he knew. She had always been a stickler for the rules of "quality"--her word for proper, well-to-do society--and expected everyone around her to be the same. How then could he treat the Caymans with even the appearance of disrespect?
He turned and closed the door behind him carefully, then moved toward the light that was coming in from the upper windows of the first room.
His nerves were on edge already, for the house struck him as too quiet somehow. It was now growing dark, and less light was coming in, which didn't lessen the sense of foreboding he felt.
He came to the curved archway leading to the rest of the mansion's many rooms, a staircase leading to upper floors as well as doors opening to the terrace.
Here his eyes fell upon a strange dark stain on the tiled floor.
The big puddle of stuff on the floor--blood? He knew it was, but his mind was protesting all the while. Things like this didn't happen to someone like himself. He was a small-town Georgia boy. There weren't people being murdered in his town like this--maybe in big cities, which he sometimes heard about. And sometimes things went wrong out in the logging camps--but that was to be expected, with all the drinking and fighting that went along with the rough and tumble types that did the work. But it had never touched his life, what went on in such places. But now--here it was--smack in front of his face. First Ugur, then someone in the Cayman household! Maybe his head wound was acting up a little too. He still couldn't grasp it, or think that it was actually happening to him. He had been raised to be a part of respectable, quality society--as far as Makon knew respectability and quality society, that is.
Nevertheless, he had to continue what he had started. He had to find the Caymans, or at least a servant, before he could decently get back to his own reason for coming to Multan. There had to a a good reason for the dinner being put off like this and the house left unattended, he thought.
He opened a door to one of the larger rooms, and it was a master bedroom, he could tell.
In one end stood a crib decorated with colored beads. Was it the Cayman baby's? he wondered.
He went over to it and saw the baby was in the crib, but something was wrong. The baby was lying too still. The baby wasn't even breathing, as it lay with eyes gazing up without any flickering of eyelashes. It was then he noticed the oxygen tank, lying on its side under the crib, and attached to it a long plastic line for feeding air through the baby's trachea.
He had to get some air and clear his mind if he could of the sight of the dead baby.
The terrace doors were not shut, he saw they were open, and he pushed through and went out onto the terrace. A cool breeze hit his face at that moment, and he drank it in for a moment as his mind whirled with thoughts he could not control. What was he to do? Where were the parents? Who had done these terrible things to the Caymans? Who would kill an innocent, helpless, sick baby by pulling out its oxygen tube? What kind of monsters would do that? What had happened to the servants and the Caymans?
He took only a few steps and saw a pool in front of him under an elevated wing of the house.
What were those dark objects lying in the water?
He went to the pool's edge and looked. The bodies----Mr. and Mrs. Cayman? Who else could it be? But why? What had they done to anyone to deserve death like this?
Likewise, when Homer came to a crossroads, and finally began going down a street--really no more than a cobbled lane or path--that led down beneath a high retaining wall that formed the western boundary of the Capitol District, his destiny was set in a kind of suddenly congealed concrete.
Fortunately, the unform had a lot of pockets, the ones on his pants large enough for the ferret, if only the varmint would stay put. As soon as Rainy was in his new home, and the flap down over the pocket and clasped, Homer was on his way.
He had just stepped out of the alley at the other end when he saw a big army truck being loaded in the street with Grey Wolves. A sergeant, standing duty at the tailgate, spotted Homer just as he tried to shrink back into the alley before he was seen.
Whatever the sergeant was saying, Homer could not mistake the man's eye on him and his barked command.
He had no choice, as the sergeant kept motioning and yelling angrily at him to join the convoy. When Homer reached the truck, the sergeant raised his club as if he was going to hit him for being so slow to obey, but then he dropped his arm, hearing an officer's command summoning him further down the convoy of trucks. Homer saw his chance now to run for it. But he hesitated. The sergeant would probably see him high-tail it, and would pursue him--and deserters, he knew, would be shot.
Homer did what he had to do. He climbed aboard.
Homer, trying to hold on to his place, thought about his predicament, nhow it couldn't be worse. He was trapped!
Where were they going? To some den of the Grey Wolves? He knew he would soon be finding out. What would he do then? Would he have a chance to slip away as the troops got out of the truck? He had no idea. Perhaps the sergeant would see to it he went with the others. Well, there was nothing else he could do except hope he might have a chance to escape when the truck stopped moving.
It is strange that thoughts come at times like Homer's last minutes before the truck pulled up its destination--the Grey Wolf's den where his paramilitary force had their quarters and training camp. Of all people, Faye came to his mind. She was asking him once again the question that was the most difficult for him to try to answer. He could even see her asking it--with that unwavering, eye-to-eye contact she maintained, making him squirm a bit as he struggled to put her off.
"Just think of the strange god you believe in, compared to the wonderful one I know--and why don't you want to see yourself if He is real or not by calling to Him by His Name--rather than just holding blindly on to the old tales you have been fed since birth?"
"But I'm perfectly satisfied with mine, the Only True God!" he shot back, trying not to turn his eyes away from her smiling stare.
"Oh--then why aren't you at peace inside? I'm at peace! You can see that for yourself! A God who can't give his people peace, what kind of a God is that? Homer, you really have nothing, not even faith, just a lot of rules and trusting in your own good deeds--admit it! If you had peace, real peace, you'd be a completely different person inside. You'd be happier than you've ever been--and stay that way too."
Homer couldn't think of anything to counter that. Despite the fact his religion taught him she was an infidel, she had him nailed, and he could not deny the fact that no one in his religion, not even the iman, had real peace in his heart--Ismani--despite all their fasts, giving to the poor, prayers and prostrations on prayer rugs, etc.--were always uncomfortable, always wondering if when they died whether they would go to the hell-flames or not, since not one person--not even the Prophet of Isma--had been assured he was spared and would go to heaven.
Just as he was thinking this, the truck slowed in the convoy, and stopped abruptly, throwing everyone forward. They had arrived, and the hangar with the nuclear-sub hunting dirigible loomed overhead--the headquarters and training camp for the Grey Wolves.
As he opened the door to get in front with the driver, the general shook his head--rapping the seat beside him with his whip.
The major scowled as Homer slid in, and then closed the door. The limoisine shot off.
The moment they were moving, the general turned to Homer. "They believed I had to be the Grey Wolf's brother at least, I look so much like their leader--and it worked. I got you away from there. They would have killed you a few minutes later--after you had been found out."
Homer just stared. The general was speaking to him in Georgian--and what he said was no less stunning.
"Who are you?" he blurted out, when he finally got his breath back.
The man smiled, tapping the glass in front of them that separated them from the driver. The driver turned, and the man slid the window open and gave a command in Multanese, then shut the window.
He turned to Homer. "I just directed him to take us directly to the Capitol. The collapsing Parliamentary Government is having a last session. The Grey Wolf, Zeki, is on hand in the same building, for taking over the government. In an hour the supreme power will be handed to him officially by the out-going parliament, which doesn't dare side with the Leftists anymore, since they are crushed and powerless, their leader executed. But this is not all that you need to know. You must do what I now tell you. This is your purpose in coming here--"
"Wait!" Homer protested. "I'm not under your command. I'm not in the military. I don't have to listen to you, a person I've never seen before in my whole life! I have my own reason for coming here--and it has nothing to do with your stupid politics. I am getting out of this mess of yours--stop this car--I won't bother anyone--I am leaving for home!"
The man in the general's uniform shook his head and smiled. "It's too late for running away to the safety of your grandmother's home in Makon. You came here seeking your father, didn't you? That was a right thing for you to do as you became of age. But he is dead--the Grey Wolf executed him just a few hours ago, along with his wife and child--your step-brother. I'm afraid your father and his family couldn't be saved from their fate. He was in a battle with his own brother for the throne--and he lost."
Homer's blood ran cold. Was he hearing what he just heard? he wondered. Or was he dreaming all this? His father--Dr. Cayman? Dead? His infant step-brother dead with him! Hearing this, Homer's whole quest in life collapsed into utter ruins. What was the point in going on? His dream of finding his father was shattered. At that moment all Homer wanted to do was stop the world and get off. But the big car continued to speed swiftly back toward the Capitol, only with far more ease than the convoy truck, gliding along the road without any sound or the slightest feel of the rough road.
He had his hand on the door handle--and meant it. But the "general" smiled. "No, you won't. The doors are locked, until you hear me out, that is.
And this is what you must do when we arrive. Are you going to listen before you decide to go along with it or not?"
Homer realized she had no choice at the moment, so he nodded.
"Very well," the "general" sighed. "I look just like the Wolf's brother, as I said, though the officers we just met don't know his twin brother altered his looks a long time ago, and now is dead, slain by his own brother, who like him is a slave to the same Fiery Stone that is drawing the whole world to fatal strife and destruction. The guards at the Capitol too will not know the whole story. They will be impressed enough to let me and you into the building. Once in, I'll lead you straight to the Wolf. I repeat, his name is Zeki in Multan, but his real name is Zeto. I am so sorry, you have to hear this, and soon you will be setting eyes on your father's murderer, but you need to know the circumstances, otherwise you won't know what best to do about it. This man of blood is not even human. Neither am I. You are only half a human--part of you is the same as Zeto. You are carrying a ring, are you not? It accounts for at least half of the trouble the world is experiencing right now."
Indeed he was carrying a ring! He had forgotten it, along with Rainy, but now he wondered, "What does that have to do with all the rest he had just been told? Now he recalled something more--whose it was. But where was she?
As if the "general" could read his thoughts, he commented, "She's being held in the Wolf's den, close to where you first landed when you got out of the convoy truck. I couldn't set her free just then and make a disturbance that would have involved you, but I will do it later. She is in the torture room, though they won't kill her until they have located what they are after. They have been trying to obtain her topaz ring, and when they know where it is, they will punish her for what she did to Miss Multan, so they haven't finished with her. But they are too busy right now with the demonstration organizers they hauled in, and won't be hurting her anymore--and they have more important matters on their minds after taking over the government and the country. This is just the beginning of the killing and purges they have planned, as they follow the dictates of two Fiery Stones."
Homer's head was spinning with all this absolutely astounding information, most of which he could not grasp, since he had no prepartion for any of it. Who and what was this man? How was he going to set Talulah free? What kind of power did he have anyway? He wasn't human, he had said--so what on earth was he anyway? A devil? An angel? And what were these "fiery stones," that had such power they could lead the Grey Wolves to do what they were doing? He had many questions, but the "general" kept speaking.
"I'm sorry I cannot answer all your questions right at this moment. We will soon be at the Capitol, so you must listen carefully, Mighty O. Just this much more--will you do it? If you agree, then I will be able to release the captive you are concerned about, and return her to her home!"
"Not until you tell me exactly who you are!"
As for "Mighty O," what was that? Homer had no time to ask.
"I am called the White Angel," the general replied. "There is no time for more questions. There is a coup at the government palace. A war of all the nations is about to break out at its conclusion, if the new leader takes over. He is worse than any before him. He will not be allowed to rule the world. I was sent to guard and help you defeat him!"
Homer tried to think of his options--but what other choice did he have? He wanted Talulah to be set free, so that part he agreed to, nodding to the general. "All right," Homer said. "Take her out of this country if you can! I will stay and do whatever you want!"
The general did not smile, but he bowed his head. "It will be difficult for you, Mighty O to overcome the man of evil, but follow me in, and you will be shown what to do, even when you do not know who is helping you."
The general handed him a coat. Homer gaped at it--it was his! How had the White Angel found it?
"You might as well wear it, for you are my aide, and can dress in civilian clothes."
Homer put it on, glad to feel more like himself in it, and Rainey too preferred the coat pocket to the uniform, and quickly transferred to it.
There they were met by hundreds of Grey Wolves, all bristling with weapons and blocking their path.
All the general had to say was, "I've come to see Generalissimo Kemal Zeki! Stand aside!"
All the Grey Wolves, hearing this, immediately saluted and stood aside, and they proceeded.
As they climbed the grand marble staircase to the floor of the general assembly, a Grey Wolf officer and two aides waited to salute the general at the top of the stairs, then lead them to the Generalissimo himself in the office which he had just commandeered from the deposed prime minister of Heruka-Ratna.
The moment that they reached the double doors of the prime minister, the Grey Wolf stepped back with his men and the General turned to the major. "You are not needed here, officer--I will show myself in to the Generalissimo, so return to your former duty station!"
The Grey Wolf's face showed his struggle to obey the command. He hesitated, as if he wasn't quite sure he could see the protocol broken in this way, even by a general such as this man was.
But then he gave in.
"Yes, sir!" the major said, spun on his heels, clicked them together, and he and his two aides walked quickly away, though he didn't go very far and stopped, looking back. Down the hallway, lining both sides, were hundreds of Grey Wolves in dress uniform with their ceremonial swords and the latest rifles as well. They stood like statues in their ranks and did not move, as they were there to prevent any possible armed intrusion of diehard Leftist militias in the hallway while the general assembly of the outgoing parliament met in a secret, last session under heavy guard of Grey Wolves.
Homer saw his guardian-general open the door and after one step inside, suddenly there was no general!
Homer stared at the spot where the general should have been--but there was nothing but empty space! Abandoned, just when he was most needed to guard him?
Homer stood looking around wild-eyed for any sign of the White Angel--but there was no one like him. He hesitated in the doorway, wondering what had happened to send his guardian away and how was he to proceed. Who would help him now? All he had was a thought of God, the personal God that Faye had challenged him with back in Makon--would He come and help him now in this most dangerous situation he had ever been in?
As the guards in the hall were all staring at him, he had to do something. The major and several other officers, after arguing with each other, were starting to move his way. Homer turned and opened the door. A grey-uniformed man sitting behind a big desk in the room looked up to see who had dared disobey his orders for strict privacy to break in on him unannounced.
Homer still hesitated. What should he do? The Generalissimo, the commander-in-chief of the Grey Wolves, was rising from his chair. He was shouting something to him.
Not liking the idea he would most probably be arrested by the guards and shot on the spot as a Leftist insurgent, Homer shut the doors and faced the room's occupants.
He had no idea what to say for himself being there as he stared at the Grey Wolf himself. All of a sudden he remembered: this was his father's murderer standing before him, as the White Angel had informed him. This man he was looking at murdered his father, and his wife and child--Homer's own half-brother!
He could not help himself. Anger swept away all fear and doubt. He advanced on the Grey Wolf with his fists clenched until they stood only a foot apart.
Showing no emotion as before, the Grey Wolf coldly eyed Homer. "I will have you arrested in a moment for criminal trespassing and spying, but who are you anyway? What are you doing, breaking in on us--me--this way?"
A woman now stepped into view, and Homer saw that she too was eyeing him between narrowed eyes with the same rigid, cold, utterly alien stare as the Grey Wolf's. Yet, unlike the Grey Wolf, she was no stranger. He knew her--yes, it was the woman who ran his hotel's staff like a commanding general!
She leaned over to whisper something to the Grey Wolf. Then she threw back her head, scorn in every word, as if she did not know him. "Yes, what is HE doing here? Throw him out at once! This is a private conference! I won't be interrupted by your brother's little, mongrel pup!"
The Grey Wolf's lip curled slightly. His eyes shifted a fraction, as if to look her way, but he did not. He kept Homer's eye, and said slowly, "Let the young man speak for himself. He isn't exactly an alien to us, is he?"
He turned, with a wave of his hand, indicating a chair. Homer did not want to sit in the presence of his father's murderer. He stood his ground, so the Grey Wolf dropped all formality.
"Well?" he said. "What have you come to tell us before I have you taken away?"
"Get out!" she said. "This is not your time to be interjecting your business in mine! I will not be delayed a minute like this!"
She turned to the Grey Wolf. "I have one power crystal, and the second is missing. I won't wait for it to be found by you! If you don't hand over all the power of state to me right this instant, I will destroy you right where you sit!"
As he glared back at her, she held held out her hand on which a green jewel shot forth raps that suddenly began to fan the room like a lighthouse's beacon, as if searching for something or someone.
The Grey Wolf shrank back as the green rays focused on him.
Elektra laughed. "Don't you dare threaten me, you wretched, little traitor! How dare you speak to me this way! I am far more than a mere princess of the realm! I won't argue with you, an inferior and a commoner--a slave! I am of the royal line and born in the purple! I will be queen, the supreme ruler, on the throne of this country, though it is a mere human one at present--and you will do what I say and announce to the assembly that I, not you, rule, beginning this day!
The Grey Wolf and Elektra has forgotten Homer for the moment as they dueled, and he was trying to think of ways to get out of the room before they carried out any of their threats.
Rainey, however, was disturbed by Homer's fast beating heart, and was moving around. Feeling the ferret about to pop out, Homer clapped his hand over him, trying to keep the ferret from joining the fray.
The next events happened very quickly as Homer looked on helplessly. The Grey Wolf reached in to a desk file drawer to remove a master control panel the deposed prime minister had just given up to him. Set with a number of switches, some of which could launch nuclear rockets, it also held certain kinds of emergency buttons--in case the prime miniser were being personally assaulted at any location he was at.
His rival, however, darted over and slammed the drawer, catching his hand.
Zeto's fingers were crushed. As he withdrew his hand, his face was a white, pained mask, but he wasn't helpless, he reached with his good left hand for his Magnin, which he kept in another drawer. Just as determined to gain the advantage at whatever cost, Elektra had anticipated this. She grabbed a royal green celadon pen set from the desk and slammed it against his chest. He fell back, and she took the opportunity to snatch the nuclear panel out of the desk. But the Grey Wolf, opening his eyes at that moment, lunged forward at her with his one good hand, forcing her to drop the panel onto the desk.
Homer, not noticing that Rainy had leaped out of his coat pocket and landed in the open nuclear panel, tried to catch the Grey Wolf with a move straight from his dueling days.
Homer and the Grey Wolf grappled a moment, then both went down, rolling over onto the ring even as Elektra tried to grab it. Its rays shot through the room, piercing every Atlantean in the room, energizing them with titanic power and aggressive envy and rivalry and suspicion. As Homer and the Grey Wolf fought, Elektra still could not get the ring, which she thought contained the remaining power crystal not in her control.
Rainey, meanwhile, was not idle, even if he was immune to the world-dividing, war-generating Topaz. When awake, as if to make up doubly for his nocturnal, comatose state, he was transformed into a small tornado of energy and activity. He did not know he was striding upon the power to destroy an entire world, switches that controlled a Doomsday armada of nuclear rockets. All a born masticulator like him knew to do was chew on whatever interested him, and the glowing lights on the board interested him. Always curious, he had to investigate them with his razor-sharp teeth. Fastening his teeth on a nice, juicy-looking red one, he pulled and bit, trying to pry it loose, while his feet depressed others of varying colors in a rapid sequence that was, seemingly, purely accidental.
Grey wolves burst into the office in response to a button Rainey inadvertently pushed with a back foot, and then, as Homer was pulled away from Generalissimo Zeki and Elektra was grabbed, Homer's guardian suddenly appeared in their midst. Seeing him, the Grey Wolves dropped hold of Homer and scrambled back away.
The White Angel was no longer in a Grey Wolf general's uniform. He had grown several sizes and was wearing a blinding-white robe, and carried a blue-blazing sword. As he waved it several times in the air, and everyone mortal and human shrank away from it--including Homer.
But the angel reached and caught Homer's arm and pulled him out with him he left the room--but not before Rainey--whose attention span was limited when he wasn't tasting raw meat--had got tired of playing with the switches and rejoined his master. The door slammed behind them, without anyone touching it, imprisoning them with the Topaz, which immediately set them all at each other's throats. The angel put the tip of his sword to the lock and it immediately fused into one red mass, locking everyone in to their cage of fighting serpents.
Without explaining anything, the White Angel hustled Homer out of the building, chasing a huge mass of Grey Wolf troops and guards ahead of them with his sword's ferocious, blasting rays.
Outside, the general's car stood with the same driver as before--and the White Angel opened the door for Homer so he could jump in first.
As they were rushed away down the main avenue leading toward the river bridge, the White Angel spoke for the first time.
"Mighty O, I had to leave you when I did. I am not here to make such things happen--it was your own choice that mattered. Now there is another choice which you must make. The world is now only minutes from all-out war. Rockets will soon be launched from their underground silos, and the target nations will be responding with their own arsenals. We have only twenty minutes to set your friend free. Is that still your wish?"
At first the sound was like a low sullen thunder growling on the horizon, which Homer thought it was--but when one giant rocket after another shot overhead, ascending rapidly, he knew better.
All Homer could think of was getting home safely with Rainey--if there was a home to return to after the rockets reached Kingston and Alantah and Baton Roo--but even above that there was one thing he must do first--somehow find Talulah and set her free. He couldn't leave her, a fellow Confederate, in the clutches of the barbarians, the Grey Molves. No matter how cruel she was herself, he couldn't wish such a fate on her.
The White Angel, again, seemed to know what Homer had just decided.
"Very well," he aaid, and then gazed silently ahead.
After a few minutes they were rapidly approaching the main gate of the base.
Homer's eyes showed alarm as he looked at the White Angel, who then continued to explain. "This base and the city and most of the country will be bombed and made a wasteland in twenty minutes as their enemies retaliate with their rockets."
What could Homer say or do about this? Events were going so fast, he had no time to think of a way out.
They flew toward the dirigible hanger and then came to a halt, skidding on the tarmac. Smoke from the tires was still billowing up around them, as the White Angel threw open the door and leaped out, taking Homer and Rainy in on hand and his sword in the other. They went directly to the Grey Wolf's old HQ that was located inside the hangar.
The guards saw them coming, and rushed out to stop them. But the White Angel released his hold on Homer and swept forward at them. They immediately dropped their rifles and scattered before the terrifying sight.
Beckoned to follow, the White Angel entered the building, bursting open one door after another and sending the Wolves inside running for their lives. Several times rays from the sword knifed completely through the building and windows were blown out as the White Angel swept aside every obstacle.
Homer ran into the building, but had to climb over the shattered remains of double maximum security doors to get to where the torture chamber was.
When he climbed over twisted pieces of a double door into the room, he found no one there but a very beaten-up young woman staring at him through puffy, black-rimmed eyes.
"I must be out of my mind," she said, more to herself than to Homer. "I must have lost my mind!"
Then she seemed to see him more clearly.
"Hey, what are you doing here? What happened to the creeps holding me here? They just all ran off. And somebody told me that I am free! Free! And said that there would be someone to pick me up, who is from my own country. Are you it? I've gotta get out of this place!"
She was now crying. "Please, if you're the one, take me outta here!"
Homer was listening to her while trying to see where the White Angel had gone. What had happened to him? Was he abandoning him once again?
Homer glanced back at Talulah, who was holding a blanket around herself after rising from a stool and nearly toppling over in front of him when her clubbed knees gave way. Except for her voice, he wouldn't have been able to recognize her--she was so covered with bruises.
"Yes, I will be taking you out. We'd better go. They are not going to let us leave--if we don't make it out while they are still running for their lives!"
He took her hand and drew her as gently as he could from the room, and it took some minutes as she was hurt so much in her arms and legs, but they made it outside. From there it was a long walk to the general's car--but Homer saw only where it had been standing. Now he was truly at a loss. How were they to get out? Talulah could scarcely walk--and he would have to carry her if they had to move quickly.
He could already hear shouts and the sounds of running soldiers, dozens of them, and then he saw men enter the hanger at both ends, all carrying rifles.
There was no where else to go. He then heard a tremendous, hollow booming sound go from one end to the other of the hangar, and Homer gazed up and became aware that that the immense airship above them was coming down! The men running in to capture Homer and Talulah stopped and stood gazing up. Somehow the dirigible had lowered itself in the hangar, but Homer and Talulah still had just enough room under it to walk out. He saw the side of the Control Car ahead of them--it was now low enough to reach from the ground! He reached the door of the control car, and helped Talulah in, and he jumped in and slammed and locked the door just as the Grey Wolves rushed up. As they beat on the sides with their rifle butts, Homer fully expected the glass to be smashed in, but it wasn't glass--it was inch-thick plexiglass, so thick they couldn't dent it. Some of them began to raise their rifles, as if they would shoot the windows out. This was serious, Homer saw, and he and Talulah got down on the floor, fully expecting the windows to be shot out in the next few moments.
Rainey, being squished in the pocket, scrambled out and climbed up on the window, then jumped to the front of the Control Car.
They heard, not shots, but a whoosh, as of a huge draft of jetting air, followed by a strange silence. Gradually, Homer realized that something had happened to all the Wolves attacking them. Homer rose up carefully and peered out the bottom of the window. There was no sign of the Grey Wolves, only a white blanket of what looked like an inch of two of snowflakes lying over dozens of still forms, some of them with rigid hands and arms stuck in grotesque movements that looked like they had been frozen stiff while trying to fend off something rolling over them.
And then, as he tried to stand up, he almost fell, for the Control Car lurched forward, for the dirigible was moving!
Aghast, he stared up, but from the vantage of the control car, which as a tiny speck compared to the rigid container of gas that lifted it, he couldn't see anything but just a small section of the airship's gigantic underbelly. That told him nothing. But he could see ahead and out the side windows as well that the hangar's giant doors had rolled back slowly on the track to either side, while the dirigible was being towed outdoors into the open.
What was that flying and pulling at the end of the tow line--the White Angel?
The airship had been commissioned in years past by the Multan government for coastal surveillance and interception of incoming enemy prop-driven planes, then decommissioned when the nuclear rockets came on line. Its lockers still held the effects of the last crew, sent hastily to new stations or given early retirements. Rummaging around, Talulah found a lady officer's locker and just what she needed--though the white uniform was a better fit for an ironing board than her own hourglass figure.
She knew it was all leading up to a public exposure before the cameras, so that the Grey Wolves, once in power, could humiliate the CSA, while accusing the CSA of sending a secret agent in the guise of a beauty queen. After the "confession," they would execute her, of course, and all relations would be broken off between Heruka-Ratna and the CSA. This was to be the Grey Wolf's first move against the CSA in his agenda to take leadership over the world away from its more powerful, economically and militarily advanced neighbor that had held suzerainty far too long in the Grey Wolf's estimation.
Now all those plans had gone up in smoke, fire, and towering clouds of radioactivity--in a mere twenty or so minutes as the opposing war machines of the two nations fired upon each other, one in attack, the other in retaliation.
Towed by the White Angel, the airship cleared the last stretch of the Strait and reached the coasts of Georgia. They could not see the clouds rising over the CSA capital, Kingston, to the south, but ahead of the ship Homer saw clouds just as ominous and sinister spreading from one end of the horizon to the other.
It was absolutely silent in the Control Car, though Homer could hear Talulah moving about, as she finished dressing and then tried to fix some of the ravages of hr confinement and torture with the lady officer's makeup kit. She was so intent on this, she had not shut the door of the tiny restroom, so she could hear Homer's gasping all the way from the front of the car as he viewed what was happening at that minute to the CSA's greatest, most populated province after Jamaica.
When she had covered up the bruises with powder (using a footpower when the face powder ran out), she combed her hair and applied an old stick of half-dried lipstick to her swollen lips, then decided after looking at herself in the mirror that it was the best she could do in her circumstances--the nightmare in the mirror wasn't going to go away soon, she might as well spit in the cameras ands face the world again as Talulah Coldbank, Miss CSA-Teen World!
She looked down at her hands. And thank God they hadn't pulled out her nails, as they threatened to do many times! What would she have done then, with no ability to claw any rivals if they got too close to the title?
Her dreams of revived glory (just as the dreams of the Grey Wolf had dreamed of revived imperial Multanese glory) crumbled instantly, however, the moment she began moving toward the front of the Car and caught her first glimpses of the horror that was engulfing the world below.
Day had turned to night, with dust blocking the sun's rays. One one side it was still day, but the CSA was engulfed in pitch darkness in which the stars glimmered faintly as if they were guttering out.
The bluish-ringed angel pulling the tow rope meant nothing to Talulah at that moment--she could only see what was happening to Alantah and Baton Roo and other cities--they were nothing but ugly smears of fire and roiling smoke and ash clouds. Even as she came up to Homer, where he stood unable to even draw a breath, she saw two more H-bomb mushroom clouds erupt where cities stood, their sites joining the other zeros, in a landscape of nothing but spreading, enormous, polluted negations where once life had thrived.
Now the dim prospect had come out of the closet and turned out to be a raging dragon laying waste one city after another, destroying the whole country systematically.
They could see no city of any considerable size had been spared. Georgia was wiped out! The CSA was not just crippled, it was leveled, laid completely waste--a radioactive one too!
After the initial shock wore off, the two Confederates felt a kind of East Georgian or Ismanic kismet, fatalism, a resignation to death and destruction and "the will of God." It was all over for them--their homes, their families, their way of life--all swept away before their eyes! They were utterly alone--marooned, made orphans while drifting in the sky in the airship. What would they do? They were gazing down at hell itself--or so it seemed. If they descended, they would be cremated by the death rays of the radioactive ruins! It was impossible to survive down there, they could see. What human being, what animal, could endure those criss crossing death rays and the debris of the bomb clouds now falling like gray sludge in the rain over the whole landscape.
Homer wasn't looking at the white-faced Talulah, who had turned bisque, china doll white under her thick mask of powder, so much at the desolation where all his dreams had crumbled together with Talulah's and the Grey Wolf's.
Homer's heart stabbed him. What had happened to his family, such as it was--Higgins, his Grandmother Bean, and Faye? What had happened to Makon? Where they all gone--mere little piles of ash?
Were they still alive, but covered with radioactivity, which would take the skin off their bodies in a few hours, and they would bleed to death in terrible agony, for no doctor could help themn in such a state--and all the hospitals of note had been destroyed in Atlanta and other cities.
Rainey too must have sensed the end of the world it had known and now seemed a bit under the weather, as he moped about the Control Car, no longer interested in running up and down the front windows.
Homer's eyes then caught sight of the White Angel, who faithfully pulled them onward, as if to their death--for what could there be except death ahead?
Didn't he know there was no point in taking them home? Homer wondered. What could be the purpose now in returning to Makon? It was gone, wasn't it? He had to find out, of course, and see if anyone had survived--but he had no hope he would find anyone alive--not in the inferno he and Talulah could see below him.
Talulah finally had enough of looking at the end of her world, and she turned around and went and sat on one of the cushion-less metal chairs whose legs were screwed to the floor, saying nothing, but evidently thinking about her prospects.
Homer too had no taste for words at the moment. He glanced at Rainey, then at Talulah, then back to the White Angel. How could he still be taking them home, he continued wondering, when there was no home? Homer was homeless! Didn't the White Angel know that? How could he be so stupid?
Homer felt anger for the first time rise in him. Faye's good God came to mind. The God of Isma could destroy a world, wicked as this one had been (that it could not be denied by anyone who was honest!), and that was his right and even his obligation. The mullahs and imans had warned them for years that their God would destroy them if they kept back their tithes to the church and also for drinking forbidden spirits and avoiding the church fasts and festivals, not to mention praying five times a day and making holy pilgrimage once a lifetime to Multan. He had made the pilgrimage, but what good had it brought him? This!
His religion, Isma, explained what he was viewing, for it was Divine Justice taking full revenge on them for their sins against the laws of their religion--so there was no excuse, nor any sympathy and mercy to be expected from God. The God of Isma, everyone knew, had no personal attachment to his creation, unlike Faye's God. The God of Isma would no doubt start completely over, and find a people, or create a new race not at all human, one which would be more obedient and good than they had been. Perhaps they would be giant-sized ants--for ants were known to be obedient, blindly and unquestioningly following the laws of their colonies? Surely, they would be more useful and pleasing to the God of Isma than human beings, so selfish, independent-minded, had ever been! Or He might choose not to create anything--and remain alone forever--as He was all-sufficient, needing nothing, preferring vast, unending solitude to the noisy, troubled affairs of earth's vexing, impudent, selfish little creatures.
But Faye's merciful, kind, forgiving God? Where was he now? Isma's God seemingly had swung his sword and reaped the nations--drenching his sword in the blood of countless millions, while casting fire to burn up even their corpses!
Isma's God was laughing in derision at their utter destruction!
But Faye's God? How could such a God exist, when all Homer could see was death and pitiless judgment?
Homer could not weep, as he felt judged, condemned, and now punished for his own laxness and rebellion against the laws of his religion. He must accept it completely, his whole training in religion commanded him. Yet something deep within--a thirst or belief in freedom that was attached to his human spirit and hadn't yet been extinguished by all the years under Isma--now trembled and flickered, about to go out, but it did not go out. Something was fanning it back to life, though all the world had turned to ashes. What was it? He couldn't accept Faye's God--for Isma's God had every right to destroy his world if it rebelled against Him as this one had--precisely because Faye's God had, she told him, sent a Substitute for sin, to take the full penalty upon himself, so that they might go free and not be destroyed. Was that a lie? They had been destroyed, so evidently her "Messiah Yeshua" had not been able to stop the world from destroying itself. He was disproven, shown to be a mere figment of the imagination of ignorant forest Indian people! There was no such delivering, saving, forgiving Messiah Yeshua!
How he would tell her that if they should meet again! he determined. He was so angry, not at Isma and its God, but at Faye's God, for some hidden part deep in him was bitterly disappointed. He realized now that she had stuck a hook into him somehow with her words, causing him to doubt Isma and entertain the notion of there existing such a God and such a Messiah Yeshua as she believed in and loved in her heart.
How he wanted, more than anything, to see her again, so he throw this all up in her face, confronting her with the falseness of her views! Though once tongue-tied as she described her God's superiority over his God, he had more than enough firepower to destroy her faith. Now he was fully equipped and sure of himself. He could denounce her God and her Messiah, and tell her to her face how stupid and ignorant they all were! No thinking person could possibly believe in her God after a nuclear war! How dare she, a mere savage Indian, question his great God, the Compassionate Slayer of all infidels, the Fountain of Truth that held not a drop of mercy for the contaminating pigs and apes of Faye's ancient religion! His God had swung his sword of divine vengeance, and reaped with it as with a great Scythe the wicked nations of earth! What had Faye's God done? He was obviously impotent--without any power to intervene, without any power to save anybody! Faye's God was dust, and less than dust! A puff of wind would blow him away!
Despite these thoughts, which exonerated his own religion completely in his own eyes, Homer still felt a strange disappointment. Was he really without any hope whatsoever? The White Angel, despite the hopelessness of his task, continued drawing them futher inland, and this spectacle now drew Talulah's stare. She couldn't believe her puffy, black-ringed eyes, for she was really seeing him for the first time.
"Hell's bells!" she sputtered, turning to Homer. "What is that thing out there pulling that rope?"
It was then she must have recognized the fact there were no controls--they, and the four prop engines that drove the airship at a top speed of 80 mph--had been removed when the dirigible was decommissioned.
How could Homer explain the White Angel? Homer felt a tugging at his sleeve, and he looked down, and it was the ferret, climbing and snuggling into his clothing as if seeking a safer place than the broad-windowed Control Car. With one hand stroking the somewhat terrified ferret that had climbed into his coat pocket, Homer shook his head--he had no explanation for what was going on. How could he explain the White Angel and his role impersonating a Grey Wolf general to such a female as Talulah? She wouldn't believe a word! Homer let Talulah sputter on for a while, then he went to sit down and think, and she saw he wasn't speaking, and left him alone to his thoughts and went to the back to see what else she might find, maybe a pack of playing cards would turn up and a pack of cigarettes
Booze, of course, and lots of it, was what she wanted most of all--but she had no hope for that aboard a teetotling military airship this old--but then she thought of something. Hurrying to the medicine cabinet, she pulled it open and screamed. Medicinal whiskey--a whole bottle with a mullah's medical-use-only-seal still intact! Cradling it like the most precious jewel, she went and found herself a spot she made comfortable with uniforms, broke the seal and sat down and was soon in another country entirely--while Homer struggled on alone with his troubled thoughts in a darkened world where the world-destroying Topaz and Emerald had unleashed their full powers and malevolence upon humanity.
His father--whom he had met unawares--was dead--slain by his own brother. Then he had met his uncle, who had just murdered his father! He had had no time to think about it until now, and it was unbearable to consider. What could he do now--he had lost his father and the last chance to ask him some questions, among them, why had he abandoned him and gone to Multan?
Homer did not know whether he was angry at his father--or more angry at his uncle--for both seemed at fault. Confused, Homer tried to make sense of his thoughts and feelings, but he could not. Hate and revenge and feelings of rejection all churned together in a stew, and could not be separated.
After several hours of the White Angel's towing, they were reaching higher northern country, passing over the last of the nuclear-blasted cities. As they cleared some high hills, passed over wooded parkland, and entered a state forest Homer felt a lurch, as the Control Car dipped. His stomach took a dive too at the same time. He hadn't eaten for hours--when was his last meal? He had no idea. He glanced toward Talulah, but she was oblivious to the world, and he saw the reason, the bottle in her hand, which had spilled half its contents on her uniform in front.
Sickened, he went and carefully took it out of her hand, and her eyes barely opened, then shut. She was sleeping through the death of the world! he thought. He glanced down at the bottle. There was still some in the bottom. He could use some amnesia, he thought. He was about to lift it up and drain it, but then his eye caught a movement in the corner of his eye. A snag of a tall tree, rising up out of the mist, was about to puncture and impale them, ripping them from bow to stern!
Recovered from his shock, Homer dashed over to the nearest windows to see what the White Angel was doing--dragging them down to a crash landing evidently in the worst possible places--what looked to him like the middle of nowhere!