r the armpits that set her to looking frantically about the car for a weapon.
She twisted a little sideways to get more comfortable and caught a glimpse of herself in the door glass, turned black by the dark tunnel roaring by outside. Tall, too tall for a woman, her height and the power of her rangy frame working against the clothes she was wearing, the only thing in her wardrobe that qualified as a power suit. First time she'd worn anything like it in years. Christ, she wondered, sifting back through the years, was it when Ben died, has it really been that long? In-country, she'd gotten into the habit of fatigues and T-shirts, of dressing for comfort rather than fashion-if for no other reason than what sweat didn't ruin, the blood surely would-and one of the things she'd loved about Wyoming was the casual nature of the people. They took her as she was-at least, she thought with sudden bitterness, when it came to how I looked. And here she stood, trading that in for a world where the package was at least as important as what was inside. Wha' fuck, she shrugged, a small smile twisting the corner of her mouth at how easily she adopted the cadence of the taxi driver, maybe the change'll do me good. Except, perhaps, for the effing heels. Too long in hiking boots and sneaks; dress shoes were going to take some getting used to. And she eased one foot free to rub-massage the arch on the opposite shin.
Automatically, she continued her inventory, hoping her brief visit to an airport washroom had repaired most of the damage done by the seemingly endless flight. The hair was black, except for a smattering of silver splashed above her right eye, unruly as ever despite her best efforts with hairspray and comb. The years had taken the harshest edge off her scars, but to Cody they still stood out in stark contrast to her tanned skin, one running across the crest of the right cheekbone and up beneath the patch, where it branched to three that continued up into her hairline. The round should have taken her head of-f-but she'd flinched a split second before it hit, without knowing why, the firefight had been total chaos, shells and shrapnel tearing the night to shreds, coming from every direction, things so crazy you didn't know where to duck. So instead of her life, she'd only lost the eye. Lucky, they'd told her in Da Nang-and later, in the big Pacific Hospital at Pearlfantastically fucking lucky. She hadn't thought so then, she wasn't convinced now.
That side of her head throbbed like the devil-always happened when she was stressed, no matter that the cause was, probably psychosomatic-rubbing it didn't help, but it was better than nothing. She curled her hand into a half fist and pressed the heel gently against patch and empty socket. She'd never been beautiful and the wound had made sure she'd never get the chance.
The brakes came on too hard at Queens Plaza-there was a cry of pain as someone's body wouldn't give, a curse as someone else got stepped on-she heard a smattering of apologies, saw a lot more rueful grimaces, this was no surprise to these people, the grief came with the ride. Then, the doors popped wide and Cody struggled out of the way, to let passengers pass.
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the people waiting by the last car suddenly rush toward the front of the train. A few who'd stepped inside quickly retreated, faces twisting in embarrassment and disgust. As the tide of passengers turned and those waiting on the platform bulled their way aboard, Cody twisted, snaked, finally shoved her way back to the rear connecting door. To her amazement, the car was empty-except for a gray, shapeless mass plopped on the bench seats, halfway along the right-hand side. At first, she thought it was a derelict.
As the train pulled out of the station, it bounced across some switches, sashay-swaying from side to side and a tentacle dropped out from under the rags.
Without thinking, Cody yanked open her door and stepped across the tiny platform into the rear car. The smell was like a wall, blocking her way. She remembered Firebase Shiloh, that last morning, waiting for the dust-off choppers, the air filled with blood and rot, gasoline-soaked smoke and charred flesh. She'd taken a twelve-gauge and one of the walking wounded and searched the compound, making as sure as she could they wouldn't leave any breathers behind. She'd been fine until they reached divisional headquarters. She'd spent a month in a charnel house but it wasn't until she walked into the mess hall and smelled fresh food that it finally struck home how unutterably awful it had been. Two steps in the door, one decent breath, and she'd doubled over onto her knees, puking her guts bloody.
This was worse.
The joker made a gargly hiss with each breath, and when it rolled over in its sleep, she saw that it was naked and male. The legs were more like stumps, ending in viciously twisted scar tissue, and she realized that they were really flippers, worn down by years of trudging across concrete and asphalt. The skin was mottled gray and blue black, gleaming with oily secretions, with two sets of tentacles attached to the shoulders. The primary was thick as a human arm, but half again as long, broadening at the end into a flat pad whose inner surface was covered with cephalopod suckers. Nestled in each armpit was a secondary nest of limbs, a half dozen each side, shorter and much thinner than the main tentacle, constantly in motion, writhing among themselves, picking at whatever came in reach, almost as if they had minds of their own. Its head was little more than a bump growing out of the top of the torso, but the jagged teeth she saw when it snored convinced her this was as close as she wanted to get. The eyes were closed, and for that she was thankful. Maliciously, after twisting so much else, Tachyon's virus had spared the genitalia; the joker had a very human penis.
Without realizing it, Cody had slumped down on her heels, unconsciously making herself as small and inconsequential as possible, afraid without knowing why when her rational self told her that all she should be feeling for this poor creature was pity. Over the rumble of the train, she heard rude voices-passengers in the car ahead, looking through the window as she'd done, making fun, demanding action.
As the train trundled down into the tunnel beneath the East River, the joker stirred. Perhaps, Cody thought, he senses the presence of the water? What's he doing still on land, anyway-unless, my God, to give him a body designed for an aquatic environment without the gills that would enable him to live there! Not the cruelest joker deal by far, she knew, but it still provoked a silent snarl. Hell, even if he is amphibian-if he was an adult when the virus activated, who's to say he could hack abandoning the world he knew, friends, family, job, everything that's familiar, that gives his existence purpose and meaning, for a new world. As unknown and alien as another planet, where he'd be all alone. Could I go, if he was me?
And her thoughts turned to Dr. Tachyon, the man-and she laughed softly, bitterly at that, because Tachyon was less of a 'man' in any human sense than she-responsible for the wild card. Whose people had sent it to Earth and turned humanity inside out. She wondered if she should hate the little geek for what he'd done? And yet, hadn't he spent the forty-odd years since trying to make up for that, fighting for the health and welfare of the 'people' his virus had created? There were probably worse fates than working by his side.
It helped, of course, that she needed the job.
His eyes were open. Black eyes, a shark's eyes, no depth, no emotion, flat, opaque plates, bright as gleaming lacquer except that they absorbed everything they gazed upon. Looking at Cody. She shifted on her feet, figuring to stand and slip back the way she came, into the comparative safety of the next car. But when she moved, so did he. Not much, just enough to let her know he was aware of her intention. Shit. She had a gun-a service. 45 she'd carried ever since the 'Nam-but it was locked in its case at the bottom of her carryall. Useless. Her shoulder blades contracted, as if she had an itch down her spine, and she crossed her wrists beneath her breasts, huddling close about herself. A vague glitter drew her eyes downward and her breath caught ever so slightly as she saw her skin glisten like the joker's. For the briefest moment, flesh and bone seemed to flow together, twisting and curling where it once was straight, tentacle instead of arm. When she looked back at the joker, he was showing teeth.
"Stop it," she hissed. "Leave me alone!"
Something wriggled beneath her blouse, an itching, tickling sensation unde
"Damn you," she snarled, "leave me alone!"
A bounce and a jerk and a screech heralded their arrival at Lexington Avenue, the first stop in Manhattan, and the brakes snagged again, as they had in Queens, pitching Cody forward on hands and knees, sending her sprawling full length. The joker had anchored himself with one tentacle, was reaching for her with the others. Baring her teeth, she groped for her foot, coming up with a shoe-thankful now it had a heel-swinging as hard as she could toward the creature's face. It was like hitting sponge rubber, the flesh simply gave beneath the impact. But the joker howl-yowled in surprise and pain and rage, flinching away from her, gathering one set of tentacles protectively around its face while the other reached again for her, snagging hold even as Cody spasmed reflexively backward against the doors, which miraculously-a split second too late-opened. She heard a cry of rage and alarm, sensed rather than saw a pair of dark blue trousers step over her into the car, heard a sharp thwack as a nightstick connected with the creature's arm. There was no outcry this time, but he let her go. A black, oily liquid spread across the seat beneath it, filling the car with a smell beyond anything Cody had ever imagined. A breath, she knew, would kill her and her savior both. Hands helped her up-she registered a woman's features and thought, absurdly, So young, almost a baby-a uniform as well, Transit Police, thank God, and a pair of neck chains, the one a crucifix, the other a St. Christopher medal hooked to a miniature representation of her shield. An electronic chime announced the imminent closing of the subway doors, and the woman shouldered Cody outside onto the platform, handing out her bags to her.
"You all right?" she asked, continuing after a fractional pause. "You look pretty shaken, I'll radio for some help, you just wait here or, if you can manage, head upstairs to the token booth."
She'd blocked the door with her leg so it couldn't fully close.
"What," Cody stammered, "you?"
"I'm the only cop on the train," the woman said matter-of-factly.
And she stepped back aboard.
"No," Cody yelled, lunging forward to the door even as the train started moving. "No!" She was screaming, staggering along the platform, trying to hold on, keep pace, as the train gathered speed; she had no chance, less strength, tripped and fell crashing to the platform, her final cry-as the taillights disappeared into the darknessmore of a sob. "No!"
A flight of filthy stairs led up from the platform. She collapsed before she'd gone halfway, back against the banister, teeth chattering, good eye staring straight ahead at the long empty station as though it was the jungle and, any second now, she expected a VC attack to come boiling her way, the classic "thousand-yard stare" that one of the paramedics-another vet-who eventually came in answer to the policewoman's radio call, instantly recognized. He asked if she was okay and she nodded, not really hearing, or caring what he said, mostly ignoring what was happening around her, hands tucked tight under her armpits, making sure the flesh beneath was still her flesh and not some changeling nightmare, while she rocked panting back and forth, back and forth, thinking of nothing save those awful doll-face lacquer eyes and what they'd almost done to her. No joker, she realized, but an ace. A monster. And, whoever he was, whatever he was, he was still loose, and still hunting. And the next woman he found might not be as lucky. And she thought of the policewoman-and her low, keening wail built up into a cry of feral rage that filled the station and turned heads and made people step smartly away from her. Madness, she thought, not even noticing the sting of the needle as the medic shot a dose of sedative into her arm, madness!
I've become Dante, was her last awareness as oblivion claimed her…
… and my world, my home, is Malabolge.
She knew where she was without opening her eye, hospitals have that kind of smell and emergency rooms most of all. Problem was, when she opened her eye, she didn't believe it. Two men stood over her.
"You okay, miss?" asked the one to her left. "Everybody's favorite question," she managed to croak, thankful the rawness of her throat masked the sheer amazement that she felt.
He was a centaur, a glorious palomino who looked like he'd just leapt out of the "Pastorale" sequence of Disney's Fantasia. The golden coloring carried over to his human skin, which gave the impression that he had the most magnificent tan, complemented by ash-blond hair and tail. There was a boyish exuberance to his face and manner only slightly countered by his concerned expression and the surgical scrub shirt and physician's lab coat. Stitched onto the left breast pocket was the seal of the Blythe van Renssaeler Memorial Clinic, and pinned over it was his ID card.
"Dr. Finn," she finished, reading the name off his tag. "And who are you?" was his reply.
"D'you know what day it is?"
"Wouldn't that depend on how long I've been unconscious? It was Thursday-no." She rubbed an aching forehead. "That's wrong, isn't it? The plane landed after midnight, so I suppose it must be Friday."
"Still is," Finn said cheerfully, making a note on his chart. "No evident impairment of cognitive faculties."
"Why should there be?" she muttered, with an undertone of asperity. "I'm suffering, if anything, from shock, not a concussion."
"Now, miss…" he began. "Doctor," she corrected. "Yes," Finn replied, thinking she'd addressed him. "No," she continued patiently, "I'm a doctor."
"Hiya, Major," the other man said from her blind side, and she rolled her head to get a better view. At first glance the joker looked normal. Most people, surprisingly, never noticed his affliction right off-even though, in a very real sense, it was as plain -as the nose on his face. He had no eyes. Not simply eyeless sockets, but no sockets at all, a smooth curve of solid bone from the crown of his head to the nasal cavity. But there'd been a compensation, a nose that Jimmy Durante would have been proud of, possessing a sensitivity that would put a bloodhound to shame.
"Been an age, Sergeant," Cody acknowledged, levering herself up as he bent over to give her a rough embrace. "Too fuckin' long, an' that's a fact."
"You two know each other, Scent?"
"Goin' on twenty, Doc," the blind joker replied. "Meet the only woman combat cutter in U.S. Army history."
"You were in Vietnam?" Finn asked her. "The Joker Brigade," he added with disgust.
"Gotta understand, Doc," Scent said to the young centaur, "there was a lotta rationalization back then. Nobody gave a rat fuck about us. Attitude was, we get killed, that's one less freak fouling the gene pool. Usual pattern, if a joker got medivac'd to an aid station, he'd hardly be there more'n a day before some REMF in razor-creased tiger stripes'd slick up from Saigon to collect him. Standard excuse was to evac him to a special joker medical facility. Made sense actually-at least, most bought it since our regular quarters were in quarantine zone. Problem was, this `facility' seemed to be located an hour's flight out across the South China Sea. No muss, no fuss, just a thousand-foot-high dive into a telegram home to Momma. 'Cept Cody, she didn't buy it. Man showed up on her doorstep, she told him to fuck off. Man brought some Saigon khakis to back him up…" Finn looked confused.
"Upper-echelon staff officers from MACV headquarters," Cody told him.
"… damn if she didn't have a couple of network camera crews on hand doing interviews. Made sure they got pictures of the Man, made sure they had her records of the casualties. Any funny business, no way could it be kept quiet. Man backed down, did a rabbit. After that, you were a joker and you got hit, you moved heaven and earth to get to Cody's doorstep. It was like she was magic-nobody ever died on her table."
"I'm afraid, Scent, that string's gone down the drain." Along, she thought, with a lot of other things. "I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but why am I here? Maybe I'm confused about my New York geography but from what I remember of the subway map, isn't Blythe klicks from that station I was in? Aren't there closer hospitals?"_
Finn spoke: "All 911 was sure of was some sort of wild
-card activity at the Lex-Third Avenue station. And, I'm afraid, your reactions to the medics sort of spooked them. They figured they had a manifestation on their hands. Procedure in those cases is, everything comes to Blythe."
"You were on your way here anyway, right?" Scent chimed in.,
"Lucky me," Cody agreed, but with a bite to her words. Scent chose not to take the hint.
"That's right, Major. If there was ever a right move to make, you made it. That's luck in my book."
"The train, Finn." He looked quizzically at her. "There was a transit officer," she explained, "a woman, who helped me…"
"Haven't heard any reports, but there's no reason why we should. I can run a check, though."
"Please, do. There was a… creature on the train. Looked like a joker, but…" She paused, shuddering at the memory. "I don't know, I keep thinking there was a sense of something…" Her voice trailed off and for a moment she felt lost, trying to sort images and memories that refused to stay still, conscious only of a need to run that bordered on panic.
"Can I get out of here, please?" she asked. "And if possible, is there someplace I can tidy up before I see Dr. Tachyon?"
"Residents have a crash pad, upstairs," Scent said, not giving Finn a chance to answer, "where they grab some stray z's when they're tannin' long shifts-I'll take you."
"There really is trouble, Scent," she told him as they rode the elevator up two flights.
"Ain't that the Lord's gospel-careful," he cautioned suddenly, but Cody was already in the process of a quick and nimble two-step over a body that looked made from limp spaghetti, spilling out of its chair and partially across the hallway. `Nice move.
"That touch, at least, I haven't lost."
"If you'd been a guy, the NFL woulda been your fame an' fortune."
There was no air-conditioning-the system had been overwhelmed by the summer's murderous heat, Scent told her, and there simply wasn't money in the budget for repairs-and the atmosphere was rotten. The sky outside the windows was only beginning to hint at the approaching dawn, heaven help them once the sun actually came up. New York, she knew, didn't suffer summer gladly, and this August appeared worse than most.