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Radio Jones came dancing down the slidewalks. She jumped from the express to a local, then spun about and raced backwards, dumping speed so she could cut across the slower lanes two and three at a time. She hopped off at the mouth of an alley, glanced up in time to see a Zeppelin disappear behind a glass-domed skyscraper, and stepped through a metal door left open to vent the heat from the furnaces within.
The glass-blowers looked up from their work as she entered the hot shop. They greeted her cheerily:
“You invented a robot girlfriend for me yet?”
The shop foreman lumbered forward, smiling. “Got a box of off-spec tubes for you, under the bench there.”
“Thanks, Mackie.” Radio dug through the pockets of her patched leather greatcoat and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. “Hey, listen, I want you to do me up an estimate for these here vacuum tubes.”
Mack studied the list. “Looks to be pretty straightforward. None of your usual experimental trash. How many do you need—one of each?”
“I was thinking more like a hundred.”
“What?” Mack’s shaggy black eyebrows met in a scowl. “You planning to win big betting on the Reds?”
“Not me, I’m a Whites fan all the way. Naw, I was kinda hoping you’d gimme credit. I came up with something real hot.”
“You finally built that girlfriend for Rico?”
The workmen all laughed.
“No, c’mon, I’m serious here.” She lowered her voice. “I invented a universal radio receiver. Not fixed-frequency—tunable! It’ll receive any broadcast on the radio spectrum. Twist the dial, there you are. With this baby, you can listen in on every conversation in the big game, if you want.”
Mack whistled. “There might be a lot of interest in a device like that.”
“Funny thing, I was thinking exactly that myself.” Radio grinned. “So waddaya say?”
“I say—” Mack spun around to face the glass-blowers, who were all listening intently, and bellowed, “Get back to work!” Then, in a normal voice, “Tell you what. Set me up a demo, and if your gizmo works the way you say it does, maybe I’ll invest in it. I’ve got the materials to build it, and access to the retailers. Something like this could move twenty, maybe thirty units a day, during the games.”
“Hey! Great! The game starts when? Noon, right? I’ll bring my prototype over, and we can listen to the players talking to each other.” She darted toward the door.
“Wait.” Mack ponderously made his way into his office. He extracted a five-dollar bill from the lockbox and returned, holding it extended before him. “For the option. You agree not to sell any shares in this without me seeing this doohickey first.”
“Oh, Mackie, you’re the greatest!” She bounced up on her toes to kiss his cheek. Then, stuffing the bill into the hip pocket of her jeans, she bounded away.
Fat Edna’s was only three blocks distant. She was inside and on a stool before the door jangled shut behind her. “Morning, Edna!” The neon light she’d rigged up over the bar was, she noted with satisfaction, still working. Nice and quiet, hardly any buzz to it at all. “Gimme a big plate of scrambled eggs and pastrami, with a beer on the side.”
The bartender eyed her skeptically. “Let’s see your money first.”
With elaborate nonchalance, Radio laid the bill flat on the counter before her. Edna picked it up, held it to the light, then slowly counted out four ones and eighty-five cents change. She put a glass under the tap and called over her shoulder, “Wreck a crowd, with sliced dick!” She pulled the beer, slid the glass across the counter, and said, “Out in a minute.”
“Edna, there is nobody in the world less satisfying to show off in front of than you. You still got that package I left here?”
Wordlessly, Edna took a canvas-wrapped object from under the bar and set it before her.
“Thanks.” Radio unwrapped her prototype. It was bench-work stuff—just tubes, resistors and capacitors in a metal frame. No housing, no circuit tracer lights, and a tuner she had to turn with a pair of needle-nose pliers. But it was going to make her rich. She set about double-checking all the connectors. “Hey, plug this in for me, willya?”
Edna folded her arms and looked at her.
Radio sighed, dug in her pockets again, and slapped a nickel on the bar. Edna took the cord and plugged it into the outlet under the neon light.
With a faint hum, the tubes came to life.
“That thing’s not gonna blow up, is it?” Edna asked dubiously.
“Naw.” Radio took a pair of needle-nose pliers out of her greatcoat pocket and began casting about for a strong signal. “Most it’s gonna do is electrocute you, maybe set fire to the building. But it’s not gonna explode. You been watching too many kinescopes.”
* * *
Amelia Spindizzy came swooping down out of the sun like a suicidal angel, all rage and mirth. The rotor of her autogyro whined and snarled with the speed of her dive. Then she throttled up and the blades bit deep into the air and pulled her out, barely forty feet from the ground. Laughing, she lifted the nose of her bird to skim the top of one skywalk, banked left to dip under a second, and then right to hop-frog a third. Her machine shuddered and rattled as she bounced it off the compression effects of the air around the skyscrapers to steal that tiny morsel of extra lift, breaking every rule in the book and not giving a damn.
The red light on Radio 2 flashed angrily. One-handed, she yanked the jacks to her headset from Radio 3, the set connecting her to the referee, and plugged into her comptroller’s set. “Yah?”
The flat, emotionless, and eerily artificial voice of Naked Brain XB-29 cut through the static. “Amelia, what are you doing?”
“Just wanted to get your attention. I’m going to cut through the elbow between Ninetieth and Ninety-First Avenues. Plot me an Eszterhazy, will you?”
“Computing.” Almost as an afterthought, the Naked Brain said, “You realize this is extremely dangerous.”
“Nothing’s dangerous enough for me,” Amelia muttered, too quietly for the microphone to pick up. “Not by half.”
The sporting rag Obey the Brain! had termed her “half in love with easeful death,” but it was not easeful death that Amelia Spindizzy sought. It was the inevitable, difficult death of an impossible skill tenaciously mastered but necessarily insufficient to the challenge—a hard-fought battle for life, lost just as the hand reached for victory and closed around empty air. A mischance that conferred deniability, like a medal of honor, on her struggle for oblivion, as she twisted and fell in gloriously tragic heroism.
So far, she hadn’t achieved it.
It wasn’t that she didn’t love being alive (at least some of the time). She loved dominating the air currents in her great titanium whirligig. She loved especially the slow turning in an ever-widening gyre, scanning for the opposition with an exquisite patience only a sigh short of boredom, and then the thrill as she spotted him, a minuscule speck in an ocean of sky. Loved the way her body flushed with adrenalin as she drove her machine up into the sun, searching for that sweet blind spot where the prey, her machine, and that great atomic furnace were all in a line. Loved most of all the instant of stillness before she struck.
It felt like being born all over again.
For Amelia, the Game was more than a game, because necessarily there would come a time when the coordination, strength, and precision demanded by her fierce and fragile machine would prove to be more than she could provide, a day when all the sky would gather its powers to break her will and force her into the ultimate submission. It would happen. She had faith. Until then, though, she strove only to live at the outer edge of her skills, to fly and to play the Game as gloriously as any human could to the astonishment of the unfortunate earth-bound classes. And of the Naked Brains who could only float, ponderously, in their glass tanks, in their Zeppelins.
“You have my position?”
Cameras swiveled from the tops of nearby buildings, tracking her. “Yes.”
Now she’d achieved maximum height again.
“I’m going in.”
Straight for the alley-mouth she flew. Sitting upright in the thorax of her flying machine, rudder pedals at her feet, stick controls to the left and right, she let inertia push her back into the seat like a great hand. Eight-foot-long titanium blades extended in a circle, with her at the center like the heart of a flower. This was no easy machine to fly. It combined the delicacy of flight with the physical demands of operating a mechanical thresher.
“Pull level on my count. Three . . . Two . . . Now.”
It took all her strength to bully her machine properly while the g-forces tried to shove her away from the controls. She was flying straight and true toward Dempster Alley, a street that was only feet wider than the diameter of her autogyro’s blades, so fine a margin of error that she’d be docked a month’s pay if the Naked Brains saw what she was up to.
“Shift angle of blades on my mark and rudder on my second mark. Three . . . Two . . . Mark. And . . . Rudder.”
Tilted forty-five degrees, she roared down the alley, her prop wash rattling the windows and filling them with pale, astonished faces. At the intersection, she shifted pitch and kicked rudder, flipping her gyro over so that it canted forty-five degrees the other way (the engine coughed and almost stalled, then roared back to life again) and hammered down Bernoulli Lane (a sixty-degree turn here where the streets crossed at an odd angle) and so out onto Ninety-First. A perfect Eszterhazy! Five months ago, a hypercubed committee of half the Naked Brains in the metropolis had declared that such a maneuver couldn’t be done. But one brave pilot had proved otherwise in an aeroplane, and Amelia had determined she could do no less in a gyro.
“Bank left. Stabilize. Climb for height. Remove safeties from your bombs.”
Amelia Spindizzy obeyed and then, glancing backwards, forwards, and to both sides, saw a small cruciform mote ahead and below, flying low over the avenue. Grabbing her glasses, she scanned the wing insignia. She could barely believe her luck—it was the Big E himself! And she had a clear run at him.
The autogyro hit a patch of bumpy air, and Amelia snatched up the sticks to regain control. The motor changed pitch, the prop hummed, the rotor blades cut the air. Her machine was bucking now, veering into the scrap zone, and in danger of going out of control. She fought to get it back on an even keel, straightened it out, and swung into a tight arc.
Man, this was the life!
She wove and spun above the city streets as throngs of onlookers watched the warm-up hijinks from the tall buildings and curving skywalks. They shouted encouragement at her. “Don’t let ’er drop, Amelia!” “Take the bum down, Millie!” “Spin ’im around, Spindizzy!” Bloodthirsty bastards. Her public. Screaming bloody murder and perfectly capable of chucking a beer bottle at her if they thought she wasn’t performing up to par. Times like these she almost loved ’em.
She hated being called Millie, though.
Working the pedals, moving the sticks, dancing to the silent jazz of turbulence in the air around her, she was Josephine Baker, she was Cab Calloway, she was the epitome of grace and wit and intelligence in the service of entertainment. The crowd went wild as she caught a heavy gust of wind and went skidding sideways toward the city’s treasured Gaudi skyscraper.
When she had brought everything under control and the autogyro was flying evenly again, Amelia looked down.
For a miracle, he was still there, still unaware of her, flying low in a warm-up run and placing flour bombs with fastidious precision, one by one.
She throttled up and focused all her attention on her foe, the greatest flyer of his generation and her own, patently at her mercy if she could first rid herself of the payload. Her engine screamed in fury, and she screamed with it. “XB! Next five intersections! Gimme the count.”
“At your height, there is a risk of hitting spectators.”
“I’m too good for that and you know it! Gimme the count.”
“Three . . . two . . . now. Six . . . five . . .”
Each of the intersections had been roped off and painted blue with a white circle in its center and a red star at the sweet spot. Amelia worked the bombsight, calculated the windage (Naked Brains couldn’t do that; you had to be present; you had to feel the air as a physical thing), and released the bombs one after the other. Frantically, then, she yanked the jacks and slammed them into Radio 3. “How’d we do?” she yelled. She was sure she’d hit them all on the square and she had hopes of at least one star.
“Square. Circle. Circle. Star.” The referee—Naked Brain QW-14, though the voice was identical to her own comptroller’s—said. A pause. “Star.”
She was coming up on Eszterhazy himself now, high and fast. He had all the disadvantages of position. She positioned her craft so that the very tip of its shadow kissed the tail of his bright red ’plane. He was still acting as if he didn’t know she was there. Which was impossible. She could see three of his team’s Zeppelins high above, and if she could see them, they sure as hell could see her. So why was he playing stupid?
Obviously he was hoping to lure her in.
“I see your little game,” Amelia muttered softly. But just what dirty little trick did Eszterhazy have up his sleeve? The red light was flashing on Radio 2. The hell with that. She didn’t need XB-29’s bloodless advice at a time like this. “Okay, loverboy, let’s see what you’ve got!” She pushed the stick forward hard. Then Radio 3 flashed—and that she couldn’t ignore.
“Amelia Spindizzy,” the referee said. “Your flight authorization has been canceled. Return to Ops.”
Reflexively, she jerked the throttle back, scuttling the dive. “What?!”
“Repeat: Return to Ops. Await further orders.”
Angrily, Amelia yanked the jacks from Radio 3. Almost immediately the light on Radio 1 lit up. When she jacked in, the hollow, mechanical voice of Naked Brain ZF-43, her commanding officer, filled her earphones. “I am disappointed in you, Amelia. Wastefulness. Inefficient expenditure of resources. Pilots should not weary themselves unnecessarily. XB-29 should have exercised more control over you. He will be reprimanded.”
“It was just a pick-up game,” she said. “For fun. You remember fun, don’t you?”
There was a pause. “There is nothing the matter with my memory,” ZF-43 said at last. “I do remember fun. Why do you ask?”
“Maybe because I’m as crazy as an old coot, ZF,” said Amelia, idly wondering if she could roll an autogyro. Nobody ever had. But if she went to maximum climb, cut the choke, and kicked the rudder hard, that ought to flip it. Then, if she could restart the engine quickly enough and slam the rudder smartly the other way. . . . It just might work. She could give it a shot right now.
“Return to the Zeppelin immediately. The Game starts in less than an hour.”
“Aw shucks, ZF. Roger.” Not for the first time, Amelia wondered if the Naked Brain could read her mind. She’d have to try the roll later.
* * *
In less than the time it took to scramble an egg and slap it on a plate, Radio Jones had warmed up her tuner and homed in on a signal. “Maybe because I’m as crazy as an old coot, ZF,” somebody squawked.
“Hey! I know that voice—it’s Amelia!” If Radio had a hero, it was the aviatrix.
“Return to the Zeppelin—”
“Criminy! A Naked Brain! Aw rats, static . . .” Radio tweaked the tuning ever so slightly with the pliers.
“—ucks, ZF. Roger.”
Edna set the plate of eggs and pastrami next to the receiver. “Here’s your breakfast, whiz kid.”
Radio flipped off the power. “Jeeze, I ain’t never heard a Brain before. Creepy.”
By now, she had the attention of the several denizens of Fat Edna’s.
“Whazzat thing do, Radio?”
“How does it work?”
“Can you make me one, Jonesy?”
“It’s a Universal Tuner. Home in on any airwave whatsoever.” Radio grabbed the catsup bottle, upended it over the plate, and whacked it hard. Red stuff splashed all over. She dug into her eggs. “I’m ’nna make one for anybody who wants one,” she said between mouthfuls. “Cost ya, though.”
“Do they know you’re listening?” It was Rudy the Red, floppy haired and unshaven, born troublemaker, interested only in politics and subversion. He was always predicting that the Fist of the Brains was just about to come down on him. As it would, eventually, everyone agreed: people like him tended to disappear. The obnoxious ones, however, lingered longer than most. “How can you be sure they aren’t listening to you right now?”
“Well, all I can say, Rudy—” she wiped her mouth with her hand, as Fat Edna’s bar was uncluttered with serviettes— “is that if they got something that can overthrow the laws of electromagnetism as we know ’em and turn a receiver into a transmitter, then more power to ’em. That’s a good hack. Hey, the Game starts in a few minutes. Who ya bettin’ on?”
“Radio, you know I don’t wager human against human,” Rudy said. “Our energies should be focused on our oppressors—the Naked Brains. But instead we do whatever they want because they’ve channeled all our aggression into a trivial distraction created to keep the masses stupefied and sedated. The Games are the opiate of the people! You should wise up and join the struggle, Radio. This device of yours could be our secret weapon. We could use it to listen in on them plotting against us”
“Ain’t much of a secret,” said Radio, “if it’s all over Edna’s bar.”
“We can tell people it doesn’t work.”
“What are you, some kind of no-brainer? That there’s my fancy-pants college education. I’m not tellin’ nobody it don’t work.”
* * *
Amelia Spindizzy banked her tiny craft and turned it toward the huge Operations Zep Imperator. The Zeppelin thrust out its landing pad and Amelia swooped deftly onto it, in a maneuver that she thought of as a penny-toss, a quick leap onto the target platform, which then retracted into the gondola of the airship.
She climbed from the cockpit. Grimy Huey tossed her a mooring line and she tied down her machine. “You’re on orders to report to the Hall, fly-girl,” he shouted. “What have you done now?”
“I think I reminded ZF-43 of his lost physicality, Huey.” Amelia scrambled up the bamboo gangway.
“You do that for me every time I look at you.”
“You watch it, Huey, or I’ll come over there and teach you a lesson,” Amelia said.
“Amelia, I’ll study under you anytime.”
She shied a wheel chuck at him, and the mechanic ducked away, cackling. Mechanics’ humor, thought Amelia. You have to let them have their jokes at your expense. It can make you or break you, what they do to your ’gyro.
The Hall of the Naked Brains was amidships. High-ceilinged, bare-walled, and paneled in bamboo, it smelled of lemon oil and beeswax. The windows were shuttered, to keep the room dim; the Brains didn’t need light, and the crew were happier not looking at them. Twin rows of enormous glass jars, set in duraluminium frames, lined the sides of the Hall. Within the jars, enormous pink Brains floated motionless in murky electrolyte soup.
In the center of the shadowy room was a semicircle of rattan chairs facing a speaker and a televideon camera. Cables looped across the floor to each of the glass jars.
Amelia plumped down in the nearest chair, unzipped her flight jacket, and said, “Well?”
There was a ratcheting noise as one of the Brains adjusted the camera. A tinny disembodied voice came from the speaker. It was ZF-43. “Amelia. We are equipping your autogyro with an important new device. It is essential that we test it today.”
“What does it do?” she asked.
“If it works properly, it will paralyze Lt. Eszterhazy’s engine.”
Amelia glared at the eye of the camera. “And why would I want to do that?”
“Clearly you do not, Amelia.” ZF’s voice was as dispassionate as ever. “It is we who want you to do it. You will oblige us in this matter.”
“You tell me, ZF, why I would want to cheat.”
“Amelia, you do not want to cheat. However, you are in our service. We have experimental devices to test, and the rules of your game are not important to us. This may be a spiritual endeavor to yourself, it may be a rousing amusement to the multitudes, but it is a military exercise to us.” There was a pause, as if ZF were momentarily somewhere else, and then he resumed. “NQ-14 suggests I inform you that Lt. Eszterhazy’s aeroplane can glide with a dead engine. There is little risk to the pilot.”
Amelia glared even more fiercely at the televideon camera. “That is beside the point, ZF. I would argue that my autogyro is far less dependent on its engine than Eszterhazy’s ’plane. Why not give the device to each of us, for a square match?”
“There is only one device, Amelia, and we need to test it now. You are here, you are trusted. Eszterhazy is too independent. You will take the device.” A grinding noise, as of badly lubricated machinery. “Or you will not be in the Game.”
“What are this bastard’s specs? How does it work?”
“You will be told, Amelia. In good time.”
“Where is it?”
“It’s being installed in your autogyro as we speak. A red button on your joystick controls it: Press, it’s on. Release, it’s off.”
“I’m not happy about this, ZF.”
“Go to your autogyro, Amelia. Fly well.” The light dimmed even more and the camera clicked again as the lens irised shut. ZF-43 had turned off the world outside his jar.
* * *
Rudy choked down a nickel’s worth of beans and kielbasa and enough java to keep him running for the rest of the day. It was going to be a long one. The scheduled game would bring the people out into the streets, and that was a recruiting opportunity he couldn’t pass up. He knew his targets: not the fat, good-natured guys catching a few hours of fun before hitting the night shift. Not their sharp-eyed wives, juggling the kids and grabbing the paycheck on Friday so it wouldn’t be spent on drink. Oh, no. Rudy’s constituency was hungry-looking young men, just past their teens, out of work, smarter than they needed to be, and not yet on the bottle. One in ten would take a pamphlet from him. Of those, one in twenty would take it home, one in fifty would read it, one in five hundred would take it to heart, and one in a thousand would seek him out and listen to more.
The only way to make it worth his while, the only way to pull together a force, was to get as many pamphlets out there as possible. It was a numbers game, like the lottery, or like selling insurance.
Rudy had sold insurance once, collecting weekly nickels and dimes from the hopeful and the despairing alike. Until the day he was handed a pamphlet. He took it home, he read it, and he realized what a sham his life was, what a shill he had been for the corporate powers, what a fraud he had been perpetrating upon his own people, the very people that he should be helping to escape from the treadmill of their lives.
He finished his coffee and hit the street. Crowds were already building near the CityPlace—that vast open square at the heart of the city, carved out of the old shops, tenements, and speakeasies that had once thrived there—where the aerobattle would take place. He picked out a corner near some ramshackle warehouses on the plaza’s grimy southern rim. That’s where his people would be, his tillage, as he thought of them.
“Tillage” was a word his grandfather used back when Rudy was young. The old man used to speak lovingly of the tillage, the land he had farmed in his youth. The tillage, he said, responded to him as a woman would, bringing forth fruit as a direct result of his care and attention. Not that he, Rudy, had great amounts of time to spend on a woman—but that hadn’t seemed to matter on the streets, where women were freely available, and briefly enjoyable. Sexual intercourse was overrated, in his opinion. Politics was another matter, and he made his friends among men and women who felt the same. They kept their distance from one another, so the Naked Brains couldn’t pick them all off in a single raid. When they coupled, they did so quickly, and they didn’t exchange names.
Moving deftly through the gathering crowd, he held out only one pamphlet at a time, and that only after catching a receptive eye. A willing offering to a willing receptor, that wasn’t illegal. It wasn’t pamphleteering, which was a harvestable offense. Last thing he wanted, to be harvested and, if the rumors were as he suspected true, have his grey matter pureed and fed to the Naked Brains.
But to build his cadre, to make his mark, he needed to hand out a thousand pamphlets a day, and crowds like this—in the CityPlace or on the slidewalks at rush hour—were the only way to do it.
“Take this, brother. Thank you.” He said it over and over. “Salaam, brother, may I offer you this?”
He had to keep moving, couldn’t linger anywhere, kept his eye out for the telltale stare of an Eye of the Brains. When he had first started this business, he had sought out only men who looked like himself. But that approach proved too slow. He’d since learned to size up a crowd with a single glance and mentally mark the receptive. That tall, black-skinned man with the blue kerchief, the skinny little freckled guy in the ragged work clothes, the grubby fellow with the wisp of a beard and red suspenders. All men, and mostly young. He let his female compatriots deal with the women. Didn’t want any misunderstandings.
The guy with the kerchief first. Eye contact, querying glance, non-sexual affect, tentative offer of pamphlet. He takes it! Eye contact, brief nod, on to the little guy. Guy looks away. Abort. Don’t offer pamphlet. On to the third guy—
“What’s this, then?” Flatfoot! An Eye? Surely not a Fist? Best to hoof it.
Rudy feinted to one side of the copper and ran past him on the other, swivel-hipping through the crowd like Jim Thorpe in search of a touchdown. He didn’t look back, but if the cop was an Eye, he’d have backup pronto. Around the big guy with the orange wig, past the scared-looking lady with the clutch of kids—yikes!—almost overturned the baby carriage. What’s that on the ground? No time to think about it! Up and over, down the alleyway, and into the door that’s cracked open a slot. Close it, latch it, jam the lock. SOP.
Rudy turned away from the fire door. It was almost lightless in here. He was in an old, run-down kinescope parlor, surrounded by benches full of kinescope devotees, their eyes glued to the tiny screens wired to the backs of the pews in front of them. On each screen the same blurry movie twitched: Modern Times, with the Marx Brothers.
He took a seat and put a nickel in the slot.
He was just a regular Joe at the movies now. An anonymous unit of the masses, no different from anybody else. Except that he didn’t have his girlfriend with him. Or a girlfriend at all. Or any real interest in having a girlfriend. Or in anything so historically blinkered as going to the kinescope parlor.
Rudy had heard about this particular kinescope in a Know the Foe session. It was supposed to be funny, but its humor originated in a profound class bias. The scene that was playing was one in which Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo were working on an assembly line while their supervisor (Groucho) flirted with the visiting efficiency inspector (Margaret Dumont). Zeppo and Chico worked methodically with wrenches, tightening bolts on the bombs that glided remorselessly into view on the conveyor belt. Harpo, equipped with a little handheld pneumatic drill, worked regularly and efficiently at first, drilling a hole in a bomb fin which Zeppo promptly unbolted and Chico replaced with a new fin. That his work was meaningless appeared to bother him not at all. But then, without noticing it, Groucho leaned against a long lever, increasing the belt’s speed. As the pace increased, Harpo realized that the drill could be made to go faster and faster, just like the assembly line. He became fascinated by the drill and then obsessed with it, filling the bombs’ fins with so many holes that they looked like slices of Swiss cheese.
Chico and Zeppo, meanwhile, kept working faster and faster as the line sped up. For them, this was grim business. To keep from falling behind, they had to employ two wrenches, one per hand. Sweat poured off them. They shed their hats, then their jackets, then their shirts and pants, leaving them clad only in voluminous underwear. Harpo, on the other hand, was feeling no pressure at all. He began drilling holes in his hat, then his jacket, then his shirt and pants.
Groucho urged Dumont into his office, then doffed his hat, clasped it to his chest, and tossed it aside. He chased her around the desk. Dumont projected both affronted dignity and matronly sexual curiosity. A parody of authority, Groucho backed Dumont up against the wall and, unexpectedly, plucked a rose from a nearby vase and, bowing deeply, offered it to her.
Charmed, Dumont smiled and bent down to accept it.
But then, in a single complex and weirdly graceful action, Groucho spun Dumont around, bending her over backwards in his arms, parallel to the floor. Margaret Dumont’s eyes darted wildly about as she realized how perilously close she was to falling. Meanwhile, Harpo had started to drill holes from the other side of the wall, the drill bit coming through the plaster, each time missing Groucho by a whisker. His desperate gyrations as he tried to avoid the incoming drill were misunderstood by the efficiency expert, who made to slap him. Each time she tried, however, she almost fell and was forced to clutch him tighter to herself. Groucho waggled his eyebrows, obviously pleased with his romantic prowess.
Just then, however, Harpo drilled Dumont in the butt. She lurched forward, mouth an outraged O, losing balance and dignity simultaneously, and overtoppling Groucho as well. The two of them fell to the floor, struggling. It was at that instant that Chico and Zeppo, still in their underwear and with Harpo in tow, appeared in the doorway to report the problem and saw the couple on the floor thrashing about and yelling soundlessly at one another. Without hesitation, all three leaped joyously into the air on top of the pile. Behind them, the runaway assembly line was flooding the factory with bombs, which now crested into the office in a great wave. The screen went white and a single card read: BANG!
The audience was laughing uproariously. But Rudy was not amused. None of these characters had a shred of common sense. Furthermore, it was clear that appropriate measures to protect the workers’ health and safety had not been implemented. Harpo should never have been given that drill in the first place. And Margaret Dumont! What was she thinking? How could she have accepted such a demeaning role?
Rudy stood up on his chair. “Comrades!” he yelled. “Why you are laughing?”
A few viewers looked up briefly, then shrugged and returned to their kinescopes. “We’re laughin’ because it’s funny, you halfwit,” muttered a surly-looking young man.
“You there, brother,” Rudy addressed him directly. After all, he, of everyone there, was Rudy’s constituency. “Do you think it’s funny that the Brains work people beyond endurance? That they speed up assembly lines without regard for the workers’ natural pace, and without increasing their compensation? Do you think it’s funny that a human man and woman would take the side of the Brains against their own kind? Think about this: What if Charles Chaplin—a man who respects the worker’s dignity—had made this kinescope? There would be nothing funny about it: You’d weep for the poor fellows on the Brains’ assembly line. As you should weep for Chico and Zeppo, whose dream of a life of honest labor and just reward has been cruelly exploited.”
“Aw, shut yer yap!” It wasn’t the young man that Rudy had addressed. This was the voice of an older man, embittered by many years of disappointment and penury.
“I apologize, sir,” said Rudy. “You have every right to be angry. You have earned your leisure and have paid dearly for the right to sit here in the darkness and be assaulted by the self-serving garbage of the entertainment industry. Please return to your kinescope. But, I beg of you, do not swallow the tissue of lies that it offers you. Argue with it. Fight back! Resist!”
A huge hand reached out of the darkness and grabbed Rudy’s right shoulder.
“Awright there, buddy,” said a firm but quiet voice. “And why don’t yez come along wit’ me, and we can continue this discussion down to the station house?”
Rudy twisted about in the flatfoot’s grasp. A sudden head-butt to the solar plexus, a kick to take the man’s feet out from under him, and Rudy was running fast, not once looking back to see if he was being pursued. Halfway to the exit, he spotted a narrow circular staircase that burrowed down into the bowels of the earth below the kinescope parlor. He plunged into the darkness, down into the steam tunnels that ran beneath all the buildings of the Old Town.
That was Phase Three of his plan: Run like hell.
* * *
Amelia had less than five minutes to the start of the Game. She sprinted to the flight deck and her autogyro. Grimy Huey was waiting, and he didn’t look happy. “Why didn’t you tell me you were having work done on the machine? You don’t trust me no more?”
“Huey, I’m up. We can talk about it later.” She swung into the cockpit. The engine was already running. Even when he was ticked off, Huey knew his stuff. “Just throw me out there. The whistle’s about to blow.”
Grimy Huey waved and Amelia grabbed the controls. Everything in place. She nodded, and the launch platform thrust the autogyro out of the Zep, into takeoff position.
The steam-whistle blew. The Game was in motion.
Amelia kicked, pushed, pedaled, and screamed her improbable craft into the air.
For a time, all was well. As was traditional, the flying aces appeared in goose-vee formation from opposite sides of the plaza, ignoring each other on the first pass, save for a slight wing-waggle of salute, and then curving up into the sky above. Then began the series of thrilling moves that would lead to the heart-stopping aerial ballet of sporting dogfight.
On the first fighting pass, the advantage was to the Reds. But then Blockhead O’Brien threw his autogyro into a mad sideways skid that had half their ’planes pulling up in disarray to avoid being shredded by his blades. Amelia and Hops Wynzowski hurled themselves into the opening and ran five stars, neat as a pin, before the opposition could recover.
Amelia pulled up laughing, only to discover that the Big E was directly behind her and coming up her tail fast. She crouched down over her stick, raising her hips up from the seat, taut as a wire being tested to destruction, neurons snapping and crackling like a Tesla generator. “You catch me,” she murmured happily, “and I swear to God I’ll never fly again for as long as I live.”
Because if there was one thing she knew it was that Eszterhazy wasn’t going to catch her. She was in her element now. In that timeless instant that lasted forever, that was all instinct and reflex, lust and glory. She was vengeance and righteous fury. She was death in all its cold and naked beauty.
Then a rocket flew up out of nowhere and exploded in her face.
* * *
Rudy pounded through the steam tunnels as if every finger in the Fist of the Brains was on his tail. Which they weren’t—yet. He’d given Fearless Fosdick the slip, he was sure.
It was only a matter of time, though. Back at Fat Edna’s, he knew, they had a pool going as to the date. But when the Fist came for him, he wasn’t going to go meekly, with his hands in the air. Not Rudy. That was why he was running now, even though he’d given the flatfoot the slip. He was practicing for the day when it all came down and his speed negotiating the twists and turns of the tunnels would spell the difference between escape and capture, survival and death.
The light from Rudy’s electric torch flashed from a rectangle of reflective tape he’d stuck to one wall at chest level. Straight ahead, that meant. Turn coming up soon. And, sure enough, up ahead were two bits of tape together, like an equal sign, on the right-hand wall. Which, counterintuitively, signaled a left turn.
He ran, twisting and turning as the flashing blips of tapes dictated. A left . . . two rights . . . a long downward decline that he didn’t remember but which had to be correct because up ahead glinted another tab of reflective tape and beyond it another two, indicating a left turn. Into the new tunnel he plunged, and then, almost falling, down a rattling set of metal steps that definitely wasn’t right. At the bottom the tunnel opened up into an enormous cavernous blackness. He stumbled to a halt.
A cold wind blew down on him from above.
Rudy shivered. This was wrong. He’d never been here before. And yet, straight ahead of him glowed yet another tab of the tape. He lifted his electric torch from the ground in front of his feet to examine it.
And, as he lifted it up, he cried out in horror. The light revealed a mocking gargoyle of a man: filthy, grey-skinned, dressed in rags, with running sores on his misshapen face and only three fingers on the hand that mockingly held up a flashing rectangle of reflective tape.
“It’s the bolshy,” the creature said to nobody in particular.
“I thought he was a menshevik,” said a second voice.
“Naw, he’s a tvardokhlebnik,” said a third. “A pathetic nibbler at the leavings of others.”
“My brothers!” Rudy cried in mingled terror and elation. His torch slid from monstrous face to monstrous face. A throng of grotesques confronted him. These were the broken hulks of men, horribly disfigured by industrial accidents, disease, and bathtub gin, creatures who had been driven into the darkness not by poverty alone but also by the reflexive stares of those who had previously been their fellows and compeers. Rudy’s revulsion turned to an enormous and terrible sense of pity. “You have lured me here for some purpose, I presume. Well . . . here I am. Tell me what is so important that you must play these games with me.”
“Kid gets right to the point.”
“He’s got a good mind.”
“No sense of humor, though. Heard him speak once.”
Swallowing back his fear, Rudy said, “Now you are laughing at me. Comrades! These are desperate times. We should not be at each other’s throats, but rather working together for the common good.”
“He’s got that right.”
“Toldya he had a good mind.”
One of the largest of the men seized Rudy’s jacket in his malformed hand, lifting him effortlessly off his feet. “Listen, pal. Somebody got something important to tell ya.” He shook Rudy for emphasis. “So you’re gonna go peacefully, all right? Don’t do nothing stupid. Remember who lives here and can see in the dark and who don’t and can’t. Got that?”
“Brother! Yes! Of course!”
“Good.” The titan let Rudy drop to the floor. “Open ’er up, boys.” Shadowy figures pushed an indistinct pile of boxes and empty barrels away from a steel-clad door. “In there.”
Rudy went through the door.
It closed behind him. He could hear the crates and barrels being pushed back into place.
He was in a laboratory. Even though it was only sparsely lit, Rudy could see tables crowded with huge jars that were linked by glass tubes and entwined in electrical cables. Things sizzled and bubbled. The air stank of ozone and burnt sulfur.
In the center of the room, illuminated by a single incandescent bulb dangling from the ceiling, was a glass tank a good twenty feet long. In its murky interior a huge form moved listlessly, filling it almost entirely—a single enormous sturgeon. Rudy was no sentimentalist, but it seemed to him that the great fish, unable to swim or even turn about in its cramped confines—indeed, unable to do much of anything save slowly move its fins in order to keep afloat and flutter its gills to breathe—must lead a grim and terrible existence.
Cables snaked from the tank to a nearby clutter of electrical devices, but he paid them no particular notice. His attention was drawn to a woman standing before the aquarium. Her lab smock seemed to glow in the gloom.
She had clearly been waiting for him, for without preamble, she said, “I am Professor Anna Pavlova.” Her face was old and drawn; her eyes blazed with passionate intensity. “You have probably never heard of me, but—”
“Of course I know of you, Professor Pavlova!” Rudy babbled. “You are one of the greatest inventors of all time! The monorail! Citywide steam heat! You made the Naked Brains possible. The masses idolize you.”
“Pah!” Professor Pavlova made a dismissive chopping gesture with her right hand. “I am but a scientist, nothing more nor less. All that matters is that when I was young I worked on the Naked Brain Project. Those were brave days indeed. All the best thinkers of our generation—politicians, artists, engineers—lined up to surrender their bodies in order to put their minds at the service of the people. I would have done so myself, were I not needed to monitor and fine-tune the nutrient systems. We were Utopians then! I am sure that not a one of them was influenced by the possibility that as Naked Brains they would live forever. Not a one! We wished only to serve.”
“Your idealism is commendable, comrade scientist,” Rudy said. “Yet it is my unhappy duty to inform you that the Council of Naked Brains no longer serves the people’s interests. They—”
“It is worse than you think!” Professor Pavlova snapped. “For many years I was part of the inner circle of functionaries serving the Brains. I saw . . . many things. Things that made me wonder, and then doubt. Quietly, I began my own research. But the scientific journals rejected my papers. Lab books disappeared. Data were altered. There came a day when none of the Naked Brains—who had been my friends, remember!—would respond to my messages, or even, when I went to them in person, deign to speak to me.
“I am no naïve innocent. I knew what that meant: The Fist would shortly be coming for me.
“So I went underground. I befriended the people here, whose bodies are damaged but whose minds remain free and flexible, and together we smuggled in enough equipment to continue my work. I tapped into the city’s electric and gas lines. I performed miracles of improvisation and bricolage. At first I was hindered by my lack of access to the objects of my study. But then my new friends helped me liberate Old Teddy—” she patted the side of the fish tank—“from a pet shop where he was kept as a curiosity. Teddy was the key. He told me everything I needed to know.”
Rudy interrupted the onslaught of words. “This fish told you things?”
“Yes.” The scientist picked up a wired metal dish from the lab bench. “Teddy is very, very old, you see. When he was first placed in that tank, he was quite small, a wild creature caught for food but spared the frying pan to be put on display.” She adjusted cables that ran from the silver dish to an electrical device on the bench. “That was many years ago, of course, long before you or I were born. Sturgeon can outlive humans, and Teddy has slowly grown into what you see before you.” Other cables ran from the device into the tank. Rudy saw that they had been implanted directly into the sturgeon’s brain. One golden-grey eye swiveled in the creature’s whiskered, impassive head to look at him. Involuntarily, he shuddered. It was just a fish, he thought. It wished him no ill.
“Have you ever wondered what thoughts pass through a fish’s brain?” With a grim smile that was almost a leer, the scientist thrust the silver dish at Rudy. “Place this cap on your head—and you will know.”
More than almost anything, Rudy wanted not to put on the cap. Yet more than anything at all, he wanted to do his duty to his fellow beings, both human and fish. This woman might well be mad: she certainly did not act like any woman he had ever met. The device might well kill him or damage his brain. Yet to refuse it would be to give up on the adventure entirely, to admit that he was not the man for the job.
Rudy reached out and took the silver cap.
He placed it upon his head.
Savage homicidal rage filled him. Rudy hated everything that lived, without degree or distinction. All the universe was odious to him. If he could, he would murder everyone outside his tank, devour their eggs, and destroy their nests. Like a fire, this hatred engulfed him, burning all to nothing, leaving only a dark cinder of self at his core.
With a cry of rage, Rudy snatched the silver cap from his head and flung it away. Professor Pavlova caught it, as if she had been expecting his reaction. Horrified, he turned on her. “They hate us! The very fish hate us!” He could feel the sturgeon’s deadly anger burning into his back, and this filled him with shame and self-loathing, even though he knew he did not personally deserve it. All humans deserved it, though, he thought. All humans supported the idea of putting fish in tanks. Those who did not were branded eccentrics and their viewpoint dismissed without a hearing.
“This is a terrible invention! It does not reveal the universal brotherhood natural among disparate species entwined in the Great Web of Life—quite the opposite, in fact!” He despaired of putting his feelings into words. “What it reveals may be the truth, but is it a truth that we really we need to know?”
Professor Pavlova smiled mirthlessly. “You understand so well the inequalities in human intercourse and the effect they have on the human psyche. And now! Now, for the first time, you understand some measure of what a fish feels and thinks. Provided it has been kept immobile and without stimulation for so many years it is no longer sane.” She glanced over at Old Teddy with pity. “A fish longs only for cold water, for food, for distances to swim, and for a place to lay its eggs or spread its milt. We humans have kept Teddy in a tank for over a century.”
Then she looked at Rudy with almost the same expression. “Imagine how much worse it would be for a human being, used to sunshine on his face, the feel of a lover’s hand, the soft sounds an infant makes when it is happy, to find himself—even if of his own volition—nothing more than a Naked Brain afloat in amniotic fluid. Sans touch, sans taste, sans smell, sans sound, sans sight, sans everything. You have felt the fish’s hatred. Imagine how much stronger must be the man’s.” Her eyes glittered with a cold fire. “I have suspected this for years, and now that I have experienced Teddy’s mind—now I know.” She sliced her hand outward, as if with a knife, to emphasize the depth of her knowledge, and its force. “The Naked Brains are all mad. They hate us and they will work tirelessly for our destruction.”
“This is what I have been saying all along,” Rudy gasped. “I have been trying to engage—”
Pavlova interrupted him. “The time for theorizing and yammering and pamphleteering is over. You were brought here because I have a message and I need a messenger. The time has come for action. Tell your superiors. Tell the world. The Naked Brains must be destroyed.”
A sense of determination flooded Rudy’s being. This was what all his life had been leading up to. This was his moment of destiny.
Which made it particularly ironic that it was at that very moment that the Fist smashed in the door of the laboratory.
* * *
Radio Jones had punched a hole in the center of a sheet of paper and taped it to the casing of her all-frequencies receiver with the tuner knob at the center, so she could mark the location of each transceiver set she found. The tuner had a range of two hundred ten degrees, which covered the entire spectrum of the communications band. So she eyeballed it into quarters and then tenths, to give a rough idea how things were laid out. It would be better to rank them by electromagnetic frequency, but she didn’t have the time to work all that out, and anyway, though she would never admit this out loud, she was just a little weak on the theoretics. Radio was more a vacuum-tube-and-solder-gun kind of girl.
Right now the paper was heavily marked right in the center of the dial, from ninety to one-sixty degrees. There were dozens of flier-Brain pairs, and she’d put a mark by each one, and identified a good quarter of them. Including, she was particularly pleased to see, all the big guys—Eszterhazy, Spindizzy, Blockhead O’Brien, Stackerlee Brown. When there wasn’t any room for more names, Radio went exploring into the rest of the spectrum, moving out from the center by incremental degrees.
So, because she wasn’t listening to the players, Radio missed the beginning of the massacre. It was only when she realized that everybody in Edna’s had rushed out into the street that she looked up from her chore and saw the aeroplanes falling and autogyros spinning out of control. She went to the window just in time to hear a universal gasp as a Zeppelin exploded in the sky overhead. Reflected flames glowed red on the uplifted faces.
“Holy cow!” Radio ran back to her set and twisted her dial back toward the center.
“. . .Warinowski,” a Naked Brain was saying dispassionately. “Juric-Kocik. Bai. Gevers . . .”
A human voice impatiently broke in on the recitation. “What about Spindizzy? She’s worth more than the rest of them put together. Did she set off her bomb?”
“No.” A long pause. “Maybe she disarmed it.”
“If that’s the case, she’ll be gunning for me.” The human voice was horribly, horribly familiar. “Plot her vectors, tell me where she is, and I’ll take care of her.”
“Oh, no,” Radio said. “It can’t be.”
“What is your current situation?”
“My rockets are primed and ready, and I’ve got a clear line of sight straight down Archer Road, from Franklin all the way to the bend.”
“Stay your course. We will direct Amelia Spindizzy onto Archer Road, headed south, away from you. When you see her clear the Frank Lloyd Wright Tower, count three and fire.”
“Roger,” the rocket-assassin said. Now there was no doubt at all in Radio’s mind. She knew that voice. She knew the killer.
And she knew what she had to do.
* * *
Amelia Spindizzy’s ears rang from the force of the blast, and she could feel in the joystick an arrhythmic throb. Where had the missile come from that had caused the explosion? What had happened to Eszterhazy? She was sure she had not accidentally pressed the red button on the joystick, so he should be fine, if he had evaded the blast. Hyperalert, Amelia detected an almost invisible scratch in the air, tracing the trajectory of a second rocket, and braced herself for another shock.
When it came, she was ready for it. This time she rode, with her whole body, the great twisting thrusts that came from the rotor, much as she would ride a stallion or, she imagined, a man. The blades sliced the air and the autogyro shook, but she forced her will on the powerful machine, which had until this instant been her partner, not her opponent, and overmastered it.
It might be true that you never see the missile that kills you. But that didn’t mean you couldn’t be killed by a missile you could see. Amelia needed to get out of the line of fire—a third missile might err on the side of accuracy. She banked sharply down into Archer Road, past the speakeasy and the storefront church, and pulled a brisk half-Eszterhazy into an alley next to a skeleton of iron girders with a banner reading FUTURE HOME OF BLACK STAR LINE SHIPPING & NAVIGATION. All that raw iron would block her comptroller’s radio signal, but that hardly mattered now. At third-floor level, slowing to the speed of a running man, she crept, as it were, back to where she would see what was happening over the Great Square.
Eszterhazy was nowhere in evidence, but neither was there a column of smoke where she had seen him last. Perhaps, like herself, he’d held his craft together and gone to cover. Missiles were still arcing through the air and exploding. There were no flying machines in the sky and the great Zeppelins were sinking down like foundering ships. It wasn’t clear what the missiles were aimed at—perhaps their purpose at this point was simply to keep any surviving ’planes and autogyros out of the sky.
Or perhaps they were being shot off by fools. In Amelia’s experience, you could never write off the fool option.
Radio 2 was blinking and squawking like a battery-operated chicken. Amelia ignored it. Until she knew who was shooting at her, she wasn’t talking to anybody: any radio contact would reveal her location.
As, treading air, she rounded the skeleton of the would-be shipping line, Amelia noticed something odd. It looked like a lump of rags hanging from a rope tied to a girder—possibly a support strut for a planned crosswalk—that stuck out from the metal framework. What on earth could that be? Then it moved, wriggling downward, and she saw that it was a boy!
And he was sliding rapidly down toward the end of his rope.
Almost without thinking, Amelia brought her autogyro in. There had to be a way of saving the kid. The rotor blades were a problem, and their wash. She couldn’t slow down much more than she already had—autogyros didn’t hover. But if she took both the forward speed and the wash into account, made them work together . . .
It would be trying to snag a baseball in a hurricane. But she didn’t see any alternative.
She came in, the wash from her props blowing the lump of rags and the rope it hung from almost parallel to the ground. She could see the kid clearly now, a little boy in a motley coat, his body hanging just above Amelia. He had a metal box hanging from a belt around his neck that in another instant was going to tear him off the rope for sure.
There was one hellishly giddy moment when her rotors went above the out-stuck girder and her fuselage with its stubby wings went below. She reached out with the mail hook, grabbed the kid, and pulled him into the cockpit as the ’gyro moved relentlessly forward.
The tip of the rope whipped up and away and was shredded into dust by the whirling blades. The boy fell heavily between Amelia and her rudder, so that she couldn’t see a damned thing.
She shoved him up and over her, unceremoniously dumping the brat headfirst into the passenger seat. Then she grabbed the controls, easing her bird back into the center of the alley.
From behind her, the kid shouted, “Jeepers, Amelia. Get outta here, f’cripesake! He’s coming for you!”
“What?” Amelia yelled. Then the words registered. “Who’s shooting? Why?” The brat knew something. “Where are they? How do you know?” Then, sternly, “That was an insanely dangerous thing for you to do.”
“Don’t get yer wig in a frizzle,” said the kid. “I done this a million times.”
“You have?” said Amelia in surprise.
“In my dreams, anyway,” said the kid. “Hold the questions. Right now we gotta lam outta here, before somebody notices us what shouldn’t. I’ll listen in on what’s happening.” He twisted around and tore open the seat back, revealing the dry batteries, and yanked the cords from them. The radio went dead.
“Hey!” Amelia cried.
“Not to worry. I’m just splicing my Universal Receiver to your power supply. Your radios are obsolete now, but you couldn’t know that. . . .” Now the little gremlin had removed a floor panel and was crawling in among the autogyro’s workings. “Lemme just ground this and . . . Say! Why have you got a bomb in here?”
“Huh? You mean . . . Oh, that’s just some electronic doohickey the Naked Brains asked me to test for them.”
“Tell it to the Marines, lady. I didn’t fall off no turnip truck. The onliest electronics you got here is two wires coming off a detonator cap and leading to one of your radios. If I didn’t know better, I’d tag this sucker as a remote-controlled self-destruct device.” The imp stuck its head out of the workings again, and said, “Oh yeah. The name’s Radio Jones.”
With an abrupt rush of conceptual vertigo, Amelia realized that this gamin was a girl. “How do you do,” she said dazedly. “I’m . . .”
“I know who you are,” Radio said. “I got your picture on the wall.” Then, seeing that they were coming up on the bend in Archer Road, “Hey! Nix! Not that way! There’s a guy with a coupla rockets up there just waiting for you to show your face. Pull a double curl and loop back down Vanzetti. There’s a vacant lot this side of the Shamrock Tavern that’s just wide enough for the ’gyro. Martin Dooley’s the barkeep there, and he’s got a shed large enough to hide this thing. Let’s vamoose!”
A rocket exploded behind her.
Good advice was good advice. No matter how unlikely its source.
Amelia Spindizzy vamoosed.
But as she did, she could not help casting a wistful glance back over her shoulder, hoping against hope for a glimpse of a bright red aeroplane. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything about Eszterhazy surviving this?” she heard herself asking her odd young passenger. Whatever was happening, with his superb skills, surely he must have survived.
“Uh, about that . . .” Radio Jones said. “I kinda got some bad news for you.”
* * *
Rudy awoke to find himself in Hell.
Hell was touchless, tasteless, scentless, and black as pitch. It consisted entirely of a bedlam of voices: “Lemme outta here—wasn’t doing nothing—Mabel! Where are you, Mabel?—I’m serious, I got bad claustrophobia—goddamn flicks!—there’s gotta be—minding my own business—Mabel!—gonna puke—all the things I coulda been—I don’t like it here—can’t even hear myself think—Oh, Freddy, if only I’da toldja I loved you when I coulda—got to be a way out—why won’t anybody tell me what’s happening?—if the resta youse don’t shut—”
He knew where he was now. He understood their situation. Gathering himself together, Rudy funneled all the energy he had into a mental shout:
His thought was so forceful and purposive that it shocked all the other voices into silence.
“Comrades!” he began. “It is clear enough what has happened here. We have all been harvested by the police lackeys of the Naked Brains. By the total lack of somatic sensations, I deduce that we have ourselves been made into Naked Brains.” Somebody sent out a stab of raw emotion. Before his or her (not that gender mattered anymore, under the circumstances) hysteria could spread, Rudy rushed onward in a torrent of words. “But there is no need for despair. We are not without hope. So long as we have our thoughts, our inner strength, and our powers of reason, we hold within ourselves the tools of liberation.”
“Liberation?” somebody scoffed. “It’s my body’s been liberated, and from me. It’s them is doing the liberatin’, not us.”
“I understand your anger, brother,” Rudy said. “But the opportunity is to him who keeps his head.” Belatedly, Rudy realized that this was probably not the smartest thing to say. The anonymous voices responded with jeers. “Peace, brothers and sisters. We may well be lost, and we must face up to that.” More jeers. “And yet, we all have family and friends who we left behind.” Everyone, that is, save for himself—a thought that Rudy quickly suppressed. “Think of the world that is coming for them—one of midnight terror, an absolutist government, the constant fear of denouncement and punishment without trial. Of imprisonment without hope of commutation, of citizens randomly plucked from the streets for harvesting . . .” He paused to let that sink in. “I firmly believe that we can yet free ourselves. But even if we could not, would it not be worth our uttermost efforts to fight the tyranny of the Brains? For the sake of those we left behind?”
There was a general muttering of agreement. Rudy had created a community among his listeners. Now, quickly, to take advantage of it! “Who here knows anything about telecommunications technology?”
“I’m an electrical engineer,” somebody said.
“That Dutch?” said another voice. “You’re a damn good engineer. Or you were.”
“Excellent. Dutch, you are now the head of our Ad Hoc Committee for Communications and Intelligence. Your task is first to work out the ways that we are connected to each other and to the machinery of the outer world, and second, to determine how we may take over the communications system, control it for our own ends, and when we are ready, deprive the government of its use. Are you up to the challenge, Comrade—?”
“Schwartz. Dutch Schwartz, at your service. Yes, I am.”
“Then choose people to work with you. Report back when you have solid findings. Now. Who here is a doctor?”
“I am,” a mental voice said dryly. “Professor and Doctor Anna Pavlova at your service.”
“Forgive me, Comrade Professor. Of course you are here. And we are honored—honored!—to have you with us. One of the greatest—”
“Stop the nattering and put me to work.”
“Yes, of course. Your committee will look into the technical possibilities of restoring our brains to the bodies we left behind.”
“Well,” said the professor, “this is not something we ever considered when we created the Brains. But our knowledge of microsurgery has grown enormously with the decades of Brain maintenance. I would not rule it out.”
“You believe our bodies have not been destroyed?” somebody asked in astonishment.
“A resource like that? Of course not,” Rudy said. “Think! Any despotic government must have the reliable support of toadies and traitors. With a supply of bodies, many of them young, to offer, the government can effectively give their lackeys immortality—not the immortality of the Brains, but the immortality of body after body, in plentiful supply.” He paused to let that sink in. “However. If we act fast to organize the proletariat, perhaps that can be prevented. To do this, we will need the help of those in the Underground who have not been captured and disembodied. Who here is—?”
“And you,” somebody else said. “What is your role in this? Are you to be our leader?”
“Me?” Rudy asked in astonishment. “Nothing of the sort! I am a community organizer.”
He got back to work organizing.
* * *
The last dirigible was moored to the tip of the Gaudi Building. The Imperator was a visible symbol of tyranny which cast its metaphoric shadow over the entire city. So far as anybody knew, there wasn’t an aeroplane, autogyro, or Zeppelin left in the city to challenge its domination of the air. So it was there that the new Tyrant would be. It was there that the destinies of everyone in the city would play out.
It was there that Amelia Spindizzy and Radio Jones went, after concealing the autogyro in a shed behind Dooley’s tavern.
Even from a distance, it was clear that there were gun ports to every side of the Imperator, and doubtless there were other defenses on the upper floors of the skyscraper. So they took the most direct route—through the lobby of the Gaudi building and up the elevator. Amelia and Radio stepped inside, the doors closed behind them, and up they rose, toward the Zeppelin.
“In my youth, of course, I was an avid balloonsman,” somebody said from above.
Radio yelped and Amelia stared sharply upward.
Wedged into an upper corner of the elevator was a radio. From it came a marvelous voice, at once both deep and reedy, and immediately recognizable as well. “. . . and covered the city by air. Once, when I was a mere child, ballooning alone as was my wont, I caught a line on a gargoyle that stuck out into my airspace from the tower of the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption—what is now the Sepulchre of the Bodies of the Brains—and, thus entangled, I was in some danger of the gondola—which was little more than a basket, really—tipping me out into a long and fatal fall to earth. Fortunately, one of the brown-robed monks, engaged in his Matins, was cloistered in the tower and noticed my predicament. He was able to reach out and free the line.” The voice dropped, a hint of humor creeping in. “In my childish piety, of course, I considered this evidence of the beneficent intercession of some remote deity, whom I thanked nightly in my prayers.” One could almost hear him shaking his head at his youthful credulousness. “But considering how fortunate we are now—are we not?—to be at last freed from the inhuman tyranny of the Naked Brains, one has to wonder whether it wasn’t in some sense the hand of Destiny that reached out from that tower, to save the instrument by which our liberation would one day be achieved.”
“It’s him!” Radio cried. “Just like I told you.”
“It . . . sounds like him. But he can’t be the one who gave the orders you overheard. Can you be absolutely sure?” Amelia asked her unlikely sidekick for the umpteenth time. “Are you really and truly certain?”
Radio rolled her eyes. “Lady, I heard him with my own two ears. You don’t think I know the voice of the single greatest pilot . . .” Her voice trailed off under Amelia’s glare. “Well, don’t hit the messenger! I read Obey the Brain! every week. His stats are just plain better’n yours.”
“They have been,” Amelia said grimly. “But that’s about to change.” She unsnapped the holster of her pistol.
Then the bell pinged. They’d reached the top floor.
The elevator doors opened.
* * *
Rudy was conferring with progressive elements in the city police force about the possibility of a counter-coup (they argued persuasively that, since it was impossible to determine their fellow officers’ loyalties without embroiling the force in internecine conflict, any strike would have to be small and fast) when his liaison with the Working Committee for Human Resources popped up in his consciousness and said, “We’ve located the bodies, boss. As you predicted, they were all carefully preserved and are being maintained in the best of health.”
“That is good news, Comrade Mariozzi. Congratulations. But none of that ‘boss’ business, do you understand? It could easily go from careless language to a common assumption.”
Meanwhile, they’d hooked into televideon cameras throughout the city, and though the views were grim, it heartened everybody to no longer be blind. It was a visible—there was no way around the word—sign that they were making progress.
Red Rudy had just wrapped up the meeting with the loyalist police officers when Comrade Mariozzi popped into his consciousness again. “Hey, boss!” he said excitedly. “You gotta see this!”
* * *
The guards were waiting at the top of the elevator with guns drawn. To Radio Jones’s shock and amazement, Amelia Spindizzy handed over her pistol without a murmur of protest. Which was more than could be said for Radio herself when one of the goons wrested the Universal Receiver out of her hands. Amelia had to seize her by the shoulders and haul her back before she could attack the nearest of their captors.
They were taken onto the Imperator and through the Hall of the Naked Brains. The great glass jars were empty and the giant floating Brains were gone who-knows-where. Radio hoped they’d been flung in an alley somewhere to be eaten by dogs. But hundreds of new, smaller jars containing brains of merely human proportions had been brought in and jury-rigged to oxygen feeds and electrical input-output units. Radio noticed that they all had cut-out switches. If one of the New Brains acted up it could be instantly put into solitary confinement. But there was nobody monitoring them, which seemed to defeat the purpose.
“‘Keep close to the earth!’” a voice boomed. Radio jumped. Amelia, she noticed, did not. Then she saw that there were radios set in brackets to either end of the room. “Such was the advice of the preeminent international airman, Alberto Santos-Dumont, and they were good enough words for their time.” The familiar voice chuckled and half-snorted, and the radio crackled loudly as his breath struck the sensitive electroacoustic transducer that had captured his voice. “But his time is not my time.” He paused briefly; one could almost hear him shrug his shoulders. “One is never truly tested close to the earth. It is in the huge arching parabola of an aeroplane finding its height and seeking a swift descent from it that a man’s courage is found. It is there, in acts outside of the quotidian, that his mettle is tested.”
A televideon camera ratcheted about, tracking their progress. Were the New Brains watching them, Radio wondered? The thought gave her the creeps.
Then they were put in an elevator (only two guards could fit in with them, and Radio thought that for sure Amelia would make her play now; but the aviatrix stared expressionlessly forward and did nothing) and taken down to the flight deck. There the exterior walls had been removed, as would be done under wartime conditions when the ’planes and wargyros had to be gotten into the air as soon as possible. Cold winds buffeted and blustered about the vast and empty space.
“A young man dreams of war and glory,” the voice said from a dozen radios. “He toughens his spirit and hardens his body with physical activity and discomfort. In time, he’s ready to join the civil militia, where he is trained in the arts of killing and destruction. At last, his ground training done, he is given an aeroplane and catapulted into the sky, where he discovers . . .” The voice caught and then, when it resumed, was filled with wonder, “. . . not hatred, not destruction, not war, but peace.”
To the far side of the flight deck, unconcerned by his precarious location, a tall figure in a flyer’s uniform bent over a body in greasy coveralls, which he had dragged right to the edge. Then he flipped it over. It was Grimy Huey, and he was dead.
The tall man stood and turned. “Leave,” he told the guards.
They clicked their heels and obeyed.
“He almost got me, you know,” the man remarked conversationally. “He came at me from behind with a wrench. Who would have thought that a mere mechanic had that much gumption in him?”
For a long moment, Amelia Spindizzy stood ramrod-straight and unmoving. Radio Jones sank to the deck, crouching by her side. She couldn’t help herself. The cold and windy openness of the flight deck scared her spitless. She couldn’t even stand. But, terrified though she was, she didn’t look away. Someday all this would be in the history books; whatever happened, she knew, was going to determine her view of the world and its powers for the rest of her natural life, however short a time that might be.
Then Amelia strolled forward toward Eszterhazy and said, “Let me help you with that.” She stooped and took the mechanic’s legs. Eszterhazy took the arms. They straightened, swung the body—one! two! three!—and flung it over the side.
Slapping her hands together, Amelia said, “Why’d you do it?”
Eszterhazy shrugged in a self-deprecating way. “It had to be done. So I stepped up to the plate and took a swing at the ball. That’s all.” Then he grinned boyishly. “It’s good to know that you’re on my team.”
“That’s you on the radios,” Amelia said. They were still booming away, even though the buffeting winds drowned out half the words that came from them.
“Wire recording.” Eszterhazy strode to a support strut and slapped a switch. The radios all died. “A little talk I prepared, being broadcast to the masses. Radio has been scandalously underutilized as a tool of governance.”
Amelia’s response was casual—even, Radio thought, a bit dunderheaded technologically. “But radio’s everywhere,” she said. “There are dozens of public sets scattered through the city. Why, people can hear news bulletins before the newspapers can even set type and roll the presses!”
Eszterhazy smiled a thin, tight, condescending smile. “But they only tell people what’s happened, and not what to think about it. That’s going to change. My people are distributing sets to every bar, school, church, and library in the city. In the future, my future, everyone will have a bank of radios in their home—the government radio, of course, but also one for musical events, another for free lectures, and perhaps even one for business news.”
Radio felt the urge to speak up and say that fixed-frequency radios were a thing of the past. But she suppressed it. She sure wasn’t about to hand over her invention to a bum the likes of which Eszterhazy was turning out to be. But what the heck was the matter with Amelia?
Amelia Spindizzy put her hands behind her, and turned her back on her longtime archrival. Head down, deep in thought, she trod the edge of the abyss. “Hah.” The word might have meant anything. “You’ve clearly put a lot of thought into this . . . this . . . new world order of yours.”
“I’ve been planning this all my life,” Eszterhazy said with absolute seriousness. “New and more efficient forms of government, a society that not only promotes the best of its own but actively weeds out the criminals and the morally sick. Were you aware that before Lycurgus became king, the Spartans were a licentious and ungovernable people? He made them the fiercest warriors the world has ever known in the space of a single lifetime.” He stopped, and then with a twinkle in his eye said, “There I go again, talking about the Greeks! As I started to say, I thought I would not be ready to make my move for many years. But then I got wind of certain experiments performed by Anna Pavlova which proved that not only were the Naked Brains functionally mad, but that I had it in my power to offer them the one thing for which they would give me their unquestioning cooperation—death.
“In their corruption were the seeds of our salvation. And thus fell our oppressors.”
“I worked with them, and I saw no oppressors.” Amelia rounded her course strolling back toward Eszterhazy, brow furrowed with thought. “Only nets of neurological fiber who, as it turned out, were overcome by the existential terror of their condition.”
“Their condition is called ‘life,’ Millie. And, yes, life makes us all insane.” Eszterhazy could have been talking over the radio, his voice was so reassuring and convincing. “Some of us respond to that terror with useless heroics. Others seek death.” He cocked a knowing smile at Amelia. “Others respond by attacking the absurdity at its source. Ruled by Naked Brains, humanity could not reach its full potential. Now, once again, we will rule ourselves.”
“It does all make sense. It all fits.” Amelia Spindizzy came to a full stop and stood shaking her head in puzzlement. “If only I could understand—”
“What is there to understand?” An impatient edge came into Eszterhazy’s voice. “What have I left unexplained? We can perfect our society in our lifetimes! You’re so damnably cold and analytic, Millie. Don’t you see that the future lies right at your feet? All you have to do is let go of your doubts and analyses and intellectual hesitations and take that leap of faith into a better world.”
Radio trembled with impotent alarm. She knew that, small and ignored as she was, it might be possible for her to be the wild card, the unexpected element, the unforeseeable distraction that saves the day. That it was, in fact, her duty to do so. She’d seen enough Saturday afternoon kinescope serials to understand that.
If only she could bring herself to stand up. Though it almost made her throw up to do so, Radio brought herself to her feet. The wind whipped the deck, and Eszterhazy quickly looked over at her. As though noticing her for the first time. And then, as Radio fought to overcome her paralyzing fear, Amelia acted.
She smiled that big, easy Amelia grin that had captured the hearts of proles and aristos alike. It was a heartfelt smile and a wickedly hoydenish leer at one and the same time, and it bespoke aggression and an inner shyness in equal parts. A disarming grin, many people called it.
Smiling her disarming grin, Amelia looked Eszterhazy right in the eye. She looked as if she had just found a brilliant solution to a particularly knotty problem. Despite the reflexive decisiveness for which he was known, Eszterhazy stood transfixed.
“You know,” she said, “I had always figured that, when all the stats were totted up and the final games were flown, you and I would find a shared understanding in our common enthusiasm for human-controlled—”
All in an instant, she pushed forward, wrapped her arms around her opponent, and let their shared momentum carry them over the edge.
Radio instantly fell to the deck again and found herself scrambling across it to the edge on all fours. Gripping the rim of the flight decking with spasmodic strength, she forced herself to look over. Far below, two conjoined specks tumbled in a final flight to the earth.
She heard a distant scream—no, she heard laughter.
* * *
Radio managed to hold herself together through the endless ceremonies of a military funeral. To tell the truth, the pomp and ceremony of it—the horse-drawn hearse, the autogyro fly-by, the lines of dignitaries and endlessly droning eulogies in the Cathedral—simply bored her to distraction. There were a couple of times when Mack had to nudge her because she was falling asleep. Also, she had to wear a dress and, sure as shooting, any of her friends who saw her in it were going to give her a royal ribbing about it when next they met.
But then came the burial. As soon as the first shovel of dirt rattled down on the coffin, Radio began blubbering like a punk. Fat Edna passed her a lace hanky—who’d even known she had such a thing?—and she mopped at her eyes and wailed.
When the last of the earth had been tamped down on the grave, and the priest turned away, and the mourners began to break up, Radio felt a hand on her shoulder. It was, of all people, Rudy the Red. He looked none the worse for his weeklong vacation from the flesh.
“Rudy,” she said, “is that a suit you’re wearing?”
“It is not the uniform of the oppressor anymore. A new age has begun, Radio, an age not of hierarchic rule by an oligarchy of detached, unfeeling intellects, but of horizontally-structured human cooperation. No longer will workers and managers be kept apart and treated differently from one another. Thanks to the selfless sacrifice of—”
“Yeah, I heard the speech you gave in the Cathedral.”
“You did?” Rudy looked strangely pleased.
“Well, mostly. I mighta slept through some of it. Listen, Rudy, I don’t want to rain on your parade, but people are still gonna be people, you know. You’re all wound up to create this Big Rock Candy Mountain of a society, and good for you. Only—you gotta be prepared for the possibility that it won’t work. I mean, ask any engineer, that’s just the way things are. They don’t always work the way they’re supposed to.”
“Then I guess we’ll just have to wing it, huh?” Rudy flashed a wry grin. Then, abruptly, his expression turned serious, and he said the very last thing in the world she would have expected to come out of his mouth: “How are you doing?”
“Not so good. I feel like a ton of bricks was dropped on me.” She felt around for Edna’s hanky, but she’d lost it somewhere. So she wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “You want to know what’s the real kicker? I hardly knew Amelia. So I don’t even know why I should feel so bad.”
Rudy took her arm. “Come with me a minute. Let me show you something.”
He led her to a gravestone that was laid down to one side of the grave, to be erected when everyone was gone. It took a second for Radio to read the inscription. “Hey! It’s just a quotation. Amelia’s name ain’t even on it. That’s crazy.”
“She left instructions for what it would say quite some time ago. I gather that’s not uncommon for flyers. But I can’t help feeling it’s a message.”
Radio stared at the words on the stone for very long time. Then she said, “Yeah, I see what you mean. But, ya know, I think it’s a different message than what she thought it would be.”
The rain, which had been drizzling off and on during the burial, began in earnest. Rudy shook out his umbrella and opened it over them both. They joined the other mourners, who were scurrying away in streams and rivulets, pouring from the cemetery exits and into the slidewalk stations and the vacuum trains, going back home to their lives and families, to boiled cabbage and schooners of pilsner, to their jobs, and their hopes, and their heartbreaks, to the vast, unknowable, and perfectly ordinary continent of the future.
“It followed that the victory would belong to him who was calmest, who shot best, and who had the cleverest brain in a moment of danger.”
—Baron Manfred von Richthofen (1892-1918)
Copyright © 2009 Michael Swanwick and Eileen Gunn
Audio recording generously provided by Readercon.