The theater looked as though it might have had some really great days behind it. The marquee (a later addition, Jan Sleet thought) was plain, but the railings, the steps, the doors and the lobby with the faraway ceiling and the huge statues on either side, were ornate and obviously not of recent construction.
As they walked into the lobby through the big, broken doors, Jan Sleet looked up, wondering for a second if there was a ceiling at all. The lobby was illuminated only by candles, so it was hard to tell.
Of course, any elegance was now long gone. The carpet was worn, the doors into the theater itself were spray-painted, and the people everywhere looked like a mixture of hooligans and refugees. There were a few curious glances as she and Vicki went into the theater itself, but nobody challenged them.
Inside, they slowed as they looked around. The place was huge, though it was difficult to tell exactly how large because the only illumination came from candles scattered everywhere. In fact, looking up as they crossed the threshold and nearly tripping over a scrap of old carpet, Jan Sleet started to think there wasn't a roof at all.
Vicki grabbed her arm and steadied her, incidentally leaving bruises that Jan Sleet would later be unable to explain. This was not unusual, though. Few days went by without her suffering at least one small, inexplicable injury.
The interior of the theater made the lobby look well-preserved. Many of the rows of seats were gone, others were knocked over. People sat on the remaining seats, or on the floor, and many were lying down. Jan Sleet wrinkled her nose, thinking that either some of the people here had given up on bathing, and not recently either, or at least one of them had died. She looked up again, thinking that there must have been a roof up there somewhere, otherwise the thick cloud of pungent smells, including cigarette and marijuana smoke, would have dispersed.
The candlelight made it difficult to make out details, but Jan Sleet would have been willing to bet that she was the only person in the place wearing a tie.
She turned her attention to the stage. It was lit by candles around the back, small white candles which made her think of church. The podium in the center held a flickering camping lantern. There were a lot of people on the stage, mostly difficult to distinguish because they were lit from behind by the candles. Some were standing in little groups, talking, others were sitting on folding chairs, and some were lying down.
The meeting obviously hadn't got into gear as yet. Some members of the audience seemed to be eager to see it start, there were periodic outbursts of applause and yelling. Others looked quite happy with things as they were, as if any speeches would only distract them from their own conversations.
Most of the activity on the stage seemed to center around three people. One was a woman with black hair, bowl cut with long bangs, and wire-rimmed glasses. The second was a slight man with stringy brown hair who was sitting on a folding chair near the rear of the stage, holding a clipboard.
The third was the handsomest man Jan Sleet had ever seen. He was standing a little behind the podium, illuminated by the camping lantern, listening distractedly to two different people, one on either side of him.
Vicki considered saying something, but the low undertone of conversation in the huge space made her doubt if her tall companion would be able to hear her unless she shouted, and she didn't have anything to say which was all that urgent.
Suddenly, the handsome man stepped to the podium and, in a booming voice that easily filled the huge hall, he said, "Crackpots, misfits, underachievers, ne'er-do-wells, queers, artists and other parasites, welcome. My name is Jack Longstreet, and I'm up here because I have the loudest voice." He grinned as he spoke, as though language was a great new invention he just couldn't wait to share with the world.
"The news is this," he continued. "Bombs are falling, bullets are flying, opinions are as thick as the air in this place, but we're still here. No phones, no electricity, no subways, no television, and a serious shortage of good coffee. But here we are.
"The bridge is blocked, and nobody has a clue what's going to happen next, certainly including me. Will the sun come up again, will we get on anybody's television, will any news get out? Well, that's probably the biggest question right now. And, to address that, here is my good friend, Doc Morse."
He stepped away from the podium, gesturing at the woman with the black hair, but she was standing at the rear of the stage, leaning over and talking to the man with the clipboard. Then he turned as a strange, gangly figure limped purposefully across the stage toward him.
Vicki had followed Jan Sleet down the aisle more slowly, and now stood at the edge of the stage as the reporter bore down on Jack Longstreet as though she was about to score a touchdown. Her forward motion at high speed was so striking, though, that by the time she reached Jack everybody in the place was watching her.
She was oblivious to all this attention, however. She reached Jack, stopping so abruptly that he had to extend a hand to keep her from falling on him. She took the hand and shook it. "Mr. Longstreet," she said eagerly, "I'm a reporter, and I wonder if you would be willing to give me an interview."
Jack smiled, gamely trying to rescue his hand from this gaunt woman's enthusiastic grip. "I would be more than happy," he said, "but you should probably be speaking with Doc." He gestured toward where the woman with the black hair had been, but she was gone and the man with the clipboard was writing furiously.
"Ah," Jan Sleet said, smiling, "you see, it's fate. Where can we go to talk?"
Sensing that Jan Sleet wanted the handsome man to herself, Vicki walked over to the small, slender man with the clipboard. His lank brown hair fell around his face as he wrote.
"If you're taking attendance," she said, "I'm new around here."
The man looked up distractedly, then did a double-take as he took in Vicki's appearance. "I should say so," he said slowly. "I think I'd remember you." He stuck out a hand. "My name is Ray."
"Vicki," she responded, her tiny hand nearly vanishing inside his.
"Sit down," he said, and she was climbing onto the chair next to his when an explosion shook the building, knocking over some of the candles and causing a cloud of dust and debris to fall from the ceiling far overhead.
"Put out those candles!" boomed Jack Longstreet's parade-ground voice, and Vicki grabbed the pitcher of water from the podium, quickly dousing a couple of fires which had already started. Ray Stone tried to follow the tiny black blur that was all he could see of her as she whizzed around the room, but he soon gave it up as the theater got too dark.
The building shuddered again, and people started to put out the remaining candles. Jack's voice rose above the growing din, "I've just been told that the building next door was hit. We need volunteers to help make sure people are safely out, and the integrity of this building is now in question as well, so this meeting is adjourned for tonight. Volunteers are needed at the hospital also."
Zipping down the aisle toward the stage, Vicki decided to try jumping instead of going around to the stairs at the side. She did, and made it with no real effort, though it was higher than she was.
Vicki was at Jack's side before he had even finished saying the second syllable of her name, saying "Yes?"
He leaned over. "I've just been told that they're in desperate need to assistance over at the hospital," he said. "I don't know–"
"I told him we'd be glad to help," Jan Sleet said briskly, moving up next to Vicki. She looked at Jack. "Where is it?"
As the theater got darker, finally illuminated only by the camping lantern on the podium, about a half dozen volunteers came up to the stage, ready to help at the hospital. Ray motioned to Jack, who stepped back to confer with him.
"Tell them to go right away," Ray said quietly. "Don't have them wait for us."
Jack frowned. "We're not going? I thought we were going, too."
Ray tilted his head toward Jan Sleet, who was studying one of the pillars at the side of the stage and humming quietly to herself. "I'm sure she can't walk very fast with that cane," he said quietly, "and I'm not letting her out of my sight. A reporter is worth more than gold right now. So, the others should go on ahead."
Jack nodded, clapping him on the back. "Good thinking, as usual." he went over and told the volunteers to get going.
A few moments later, as Jack, Ray, Jan Sleet and Vicki stepped outside onto the dark street, Vicki asked, "Where is the hospital?"
Jack looked around, as if hoping a sign might appear. "I forgot to ask," he admitted.
"I think it's this way," Ray said, gesturing down a particularly dark and narrow street. "That's the way Doc went when she left."
Jack looked at him as the four started out. "Is that where she went? To the hospital? I wish she'd told me, I felt like a fool giving her a big introduction and then she's not even there."
Ray shrugged. "Somebody came by and said there were a lot of wounded and no doctors."
"Is she a doctor?" Jan Sleet asked. "I've been assuming that 'Doc' was a nickname."
"It is," Ray said.
"She's not a doctor, but she's had some medical training," Jack amplified. "I hope she didn't go alone," he continued. "I'm not sure how safe things are right now."
"Can I ask a few questions as we walk?" Jan Sleet asked.
Jack laughed. "Fire away. This may the closest thing to a break we get all night."
"I've been out of the country," she explained slowly, "so I may not be completely up to date, but this is all somewhat startling to me. All this bombing, are we being invaded?"
Jack laughed and nodded. "Yes, I guess we are."
Ray chuckled as he lit a cigarette. "Yes," he said, "we're being invaded by the United States of America."
Jan Sleet looked around in some confusion. "I thought we were in the United States of America," she said hesitantly, as if this might prove to be a silly idea. But Ray nodded in agreement.
"I guess we are," he said. "The bombs are just a little reminder."
Jan Sleet's next question was interrupted by Vicki, who appeared at the far corner and ran toward them at a comfortable trot.
"I found the hospital," she said, a little out of breath. "It's four blocks over that way."
Jan Sleet looked around. "I didn't even realize you were gone."
Jack pointed down a wide street. Like all the streets around, it had no moving cars and very few people. "That way?"
Vicki nodded. "Right by the park."
"They're explaining what's happening here to me," Jan Sleet said as she picked her way carefully through some rubble in the middle of the street.
Vicki laughed. "Well, that's good. Maybe they can fill me in, too."
"Did you see Doc at the hospital?" Jack asked.
Vicki shook her head. "I didn't go in. I just saw where it was and ran back."
"If we explain what's going on around here, will you be explaining anything in return?" Ray asked with a strange smile.
Vicki shrugged. "Who, us? Nobody's more normal than us."
"Of course. I don't know what I was thinking."
"So," Jan Sleet said, "what's the story with the bombing?"
Jack automatically deferred to Ray in answering this question. The smaller man puffed on his cigarette for a moment, then he said, "Things have been getting worse for a while, economically and in every other way, but the crisis came when the welfare checks and unemployment checks either didn't go out or they bounced. There was a big protest, just a few blocks over that way, by the State Office Building. It was pretty tame, really, just people demanding some pretty basic stuff. It wasn't violent or anything, not like the anti-war protest a week before."
He took a puff as they turned a corner. Jan Sleet noticed that Jack was listening carefully. He already knew the story, she was sure, so he was listening to see how Ray would tell it.
"Anyway, it was the kind of protest people stage when they think they will end up getting what they want and need, if only they make a little noise and remind people that things have got off the track. So, there were speeches and statements, and chanting and some singing. The police were there in force, and we found out later that they were pretty tense because they hadn't been paid that week. But nobody knew that at the time." They turned the final corner to the hospital and he threw his cigarette away. "There's a lot more to the story, more than I can even begin to tell now, so let me just give you the quick version.
"Things got out of control. One of the speakers was killed, and there was a riot. The police were pulled out and the Army was brought in to quiet things down, which is sort of like bringing in a team of tap dancers to help you get to sleep. It was Doc who came up with the idea of declaring our independence." He paused and Jan Sleet observed Jack giving his friend a long glance, as if wondering what he'd say next.
Ray shrugged. "You've seen the results," he said, waving his arm around.
As they came in through the big glass doors of the hospital, it seemed that, except for a single lamp at the reception desk, the whole emergency room was lit only by strings of Christmas lights strung around the walls.
This was actually true, though they didn't find out the whole story until much later. Except for a few orderlies, all the staff had left a long time before, nervous about the bombing and sick of not being paid. When the electricity had gone out, one of the orderlies had remembered a small gasoline-powered generator in the basement. They had got it started, but nobody had any idea how to hook it up to the overhead lights, which were built into the ceiling. So, they had improvised with what was available, which was extension cords, a couple of desk lamps and strings of multicolored Christmas lights.
Jan Sleet didn't seem interested in the eccentric lighting, though. She looked around at the confusion of patients, relatives, staff and volunteers and said in a loud voice, "Who is in charge here?"
A teenage girl in jeans and a backwards baseball cap ran over. "Doc is, I guess," she said, "but she's in with a patient. The–"
"What's your name?" Jan Sleet demanded, leaning over to peer at her.
"Pat, ma'am," the girl said, looking quite flustered. "I–"
"Are more wounded still coming in?"
Pat nodded. "I'm afraid so. The bombing–"
"Then you can't have things set up like this. You've nearly got the front doors blocked. Are there any other doctors or nurses here?" The girl shook her head. "Then I'll have to triage. What's that room there?" she asked, pointing with her cane at a closed wooden door and nearly knocking an artificial plant off the reception counter.
"I think it's an office of some sort, but it's locked. We tried–"
"Vicki?" Jan Sleet asked, looking around.
"Yes?" Vicki said, appearing at her side, and Pat stared at the tiny girl with the pointed ears.
"Can you open that door?" Jan Sleet asked.
Vicki nodded and went over to it. She tried the knob, then she stepped back and one tiny sneakered foot shot out, knocking the door off its hinges. She picked it up and carefully leaned it out of the way. Jan Sleet limped over and looked into the room as Pat's eyes got even wider.
"Excellent," she said. "When new people come in, have them wait in here. That way we can start to get things organized around here."
The scene at the hospital was chaos, with all the people in the waiting room and even some of the less seriously injured patients pressed into service as they were needed. Oddly enough, though she was (as she told it later) the best-dressed person in the room, Jan Sleet was also the only person there with any experience in situations like this, and so, much to everyone's surprise (including perhaps her own) she quickly took over.
As she moved around organizing everybody, setting up a system to keep track of the patients and their condition, trying to locate anybody else with any medical experience, appointing people to deal with food and candles, Jack and Ray watched in amazement, standing well out of the way.
Jack leaned over and said, "You get the idea she's done this kind of thing before?"
Ray laughed. "Oh, it's possible. Either that or she's just naturally bossy."
Jack laughed also as Jan Sleet suddenly looked at the far corner of the waiting room, squinting at the archway there. She limped in that direction and looked around the corner. It turned out to be a small alcove, like an auxiliary waiting room, with about a dozen kids sitting on some ratty chairs and sofas.
"Pat!" she called, and the girl ran over to her. "What's this?" she asked.
Pat tilted her head and they stepped a little away from the doorway. "That's where we've been putting kids whose parents were hurt, and the ones who don't know where their parents are," she explained quietly.
Jan Sleet frowned and shook her head. "That's no good," she said. "Look at them, all worried. We've got to put them to work, keep them busy, that's the best thing. Come on."
She stepped into the small alcove and cleared her throat. The kids, who seemed to range in age from six to early teens, all looked up at this rather odd-looking adult who had just stepped into their midst.
"My name is Jan Sleet," she said, inclining her head slightly. "Now, I know all of you are worried about your folks, but I'm afraid I have to ask you for a favor. As you know, the phones are not working, and there's no electricity. Now, there may be more injured people out in the buildings around here, but the problem is we don't know where they are, and everything is a little disorganized right now.
"Now, I noticed a rack outside with some bicycles chained to it. Do any of you know who they belong to?"
One girl slowly raised her hand. "One of them is mine," she said. "It's sky blue."
Jan Sleet nodded. "And what's your name?"
"Sally," she said, standing up.
Jan Sleet held out her hand. "Pleased to meet you, Sally. Are your parents here in the hospital?"
The girl nodded, then shook her head. "My mother is. My dad and I brought her here after she got hurt, but then he went out again. I'm waiting for him to come back."
Jan Sleet nodded. "Are you worried about him?"
Sally shook her head quickly. "He'll be back. He told me he was coming back. I'm worried about my mom."
Jan Sleet nodded. "Well, I think when you're worried about something, the best thing to do is to get busy doing something useful. What do you think about that?"
Jack Longstreet, who was listening, carefully standing out of her line of sight so she couldn't draft him into doing something, rolled his eyes at Ray, who shook a finger at him in mock chastisement.
Sally nodded, then she shrugged, saying, "I guess so," as if realizing she didn't know what she was volunteering for.
"Good," Jan Sleet, nodding. "Is your bicycle locked?"
Sally looked as if Jan Sleet's extreme height and strangeness were the only things keeping her from expressing her amazement that anybody would even ask such a question.
Jan smiled at the little girl. "I'm sorry, I'm just a small-town gal. Do you have the key?"
"I think my dad has it."
"Well, my friend Vicki can break the lock. I'll buy you another one later." She turned and called back into the main waiting room, "Vicki?"
Vicki came over and the children looked surprised at the tiny girl, smaller than many of them, with the elf ears and the leather jacket.
"Now, here's my idea," Jan Sleet said. "We need communications and we need to find the people who may still need help out there. We're all used to doing that sort of thing with cars and telephones, but you don't need things like that to help people. Now, we've got . . ." she counted rapidly, "fourteen young volunteers here. There are three bicycles in that rack outside. One belongs to Sally here, and the other two we're going to have to borrow." She held up a hand. "This isn't stealing, you understand. That would be wrong. But if people's lives are in danger, it's okay to borrow things, as long as you return them when you're done."
A couple of the older kids seemed to be sharing Sally's belief that Jan Sleet had just popped in from some other planet, but she was, as usual, oblivious to this.
"We're going to divide you up into three teams of four. Each team will be given an area to go out and check. Each team will go out, all sticking together, being very careful, and check if there are people who need help. Then you'll come back here and report in."
One of the older boys stuck up his hand and Jan Sleet said, "Yes?"
"You said three teams of four. That only makes twelve. And what are the bicycles for?"
Jan Sleet indicated the two youngest-looking children and said, "I think you two are too little for this kind of job. It's probably too dangerous. So, you can stay here and we'll find you a map. Then you can keep track of which areas the others have checked. You can fill the blocks in with different colors, depending on which team did that block." She turned to the boy who had asked the question. "Each team of four will have one bicycle. If you find something, or if you get in real trouble, one of you will ride back here as fast as you can and we'll send help."
As they were dividing them into groups, and Pat, who was becoming rather harried-looking, was dispatched to find a map of the area and some coloring pens, Jan Sleet said, "You know, I just came back from a country far away, and there were children there like you, doing something important just like this, and they were called runners, so that's what we're going to call you. It's a very good thing to be, because some of those runners did some very brave things."
"But how can we be runners if some of us are on bicycles?" one of the boys asked.
Jan Sleet gave him a rather stern look and leaned way over so she was looking at him face-to-face. "I'm sure we'll have plenty of time for smart remarks when this job is done. Let's save them for then, hmmm?"
As the teams of runners were dispatched on their first assignments, Jack came over and asked, "Is this actually going to accomplish anything?"
Jan Sleet shrugged. "It couldn't hurt. I mostly wanted to give them something to do, to keep them from moping around."
Jack nodded. "I understand completely. I do the same thing with Raymond all the time."
"Oh, shut up," Ray said, making a face.
There was an explosion outside, one of the front windows shattered and a cloud of debris came in. Jan Sleet reeled back coughing, but had the presence of mind to extend the tip of her cane and push the door to the examining room closed.
"Building across the street," Ray said, peering through the glass doors and coughing. "Mostly not there anymore."
"Everybody okay?" Jack demanded as people clustered around to look out.
It developed that everybody in the room had survived this most recent attack with only cuts and bruises, but the waiting room was now unusable. Vicki and Pat scouted around and found an auditorium with its own street entrance, so everybody moved over there. The door between the waiting room and the examination area was sealed with tape to try to keep the dust out.
And people continued to come in, injured and even dying, or just in shock, or scared, looking to help or at least to be with other people. People who could walk helped people who couldn't, or carried them. There were ambulances in the basement garage, but the garage door was blocked with rubble. Jack argued for trying to clear the door, but Ray pointed out that many of the streets were no longer passable anyway because of the bombing.
Jack took over the stage in the auditorium, as increasingly it was simply a place for people to gather, and he gave them news updates, told stories and jokes, asked for ideas and suggestions, organized volunteers for various projects, and told some scabrous stories about Uncle Mike.
Jan Sleet wished Marshall was there. He would have kept an eye on her, he would have made sure she had something to eat.
Ray caught her as she toppled slowly.
"She needs to eat something," Vicki said as Ray awkwardly tried to keep Jan Sleet erect. She towered over him, which made this difficult. "I'll go get some juice. That's a good place to start."
"I thought you just met her," Ray teased her as she turned.
She turned back and winked as she walked out.
When Jan Sleet came to, she sat up and immediately started to cough. When she had that under control, she started to look around for her cigarettes.
"Here," said Jack, holding out a pack. He grinned. "Ray liberated the contents of the machine in the waiting room."
"Bless you, and him" she said. He lit her cigarette for her and she immediately started coughing again.
She finally managed to stop coughing, and she looked around. She was lying on a bed in a private room (still fully dressed, she was glad to see, though someone had loosened her tie). The window was dark, the room lit by a single candle. Jack was sitting beside the bed in an armchair.
"How is it going?" she asked.
He shrugged. "Not too bad, everything considered. The bombing stopped a few hours ago. The incoming wounded have dwindled down to a trickle."
"What time is it now?" she asked, looking at the dark window.
He gave her a strange look. "About nine in the morning."
She looked surprised, looking at the window, but she was obviously having trouble framing her question.
"The window is clear," he said, "though not terribly clean. There is no storm. What you're seeing is what there is, as far as we can tell. The sun has not come up, at least not here."
She took a minute to absorb this.
"Ray had been reminding me that I don't believe in god," he said, "and I don't believe the government has a way to stop the sun coming up."
Jan Sleet got out of bed and limped to the window. She leaned forward in order to be able to see the street below, and it did indeed look like it was about 3:00am. Not that she didn't trust Jack, but she pulled out her pocket watch and glanced at it. A little after nine, and she couldn't believe she'd slept to the following evening.
She turned to Jack. "Well, apart from the darkness, how are we doing?"
He shrugged. "So far, no big changes from when you went to sleep. If the bombing was to soften us up for a big attack or something, it hasn't happened yet."
She went back and sat on the edge of the bed. "Can I find out more about what's going on here?" she asked.
He smiled. "I think maybe that would go better with some breakfast, don't you? We fed you some juice when you were asleep, but it would probably be better if you ate something."
She nodded. "You're right about that. I still feel a little light-headed." She smiled. "I remember wishing Marshall was here, he usually makes sure I eat from time to time."
"Marshall?" Jack asked. "Your boyfriend? Husband?"
"Oh, no," she said as she got her shoes on. "He's my assistant. He always makes fun of me when I do things like this."
Suddenly she looked up, her eyes watery and vague, but somehow conveying a few different interpretations of "things like this." She seemed to be broadcasting them directly into his brain.
"The hotel where we're staying has a coffee shop," he said quickly, trying to get the conversation back on food. "I don't know if it's still open. If not, I think I have some snacks in my room to tide us over."
He paused, belatedly aware of how that might sound.
Vicki slumped in the molded plastic waiting room chair, a tiny, exhausted figure. She closed her eyes. "I think I could sleep for a week," she muttered, not even sure if she was speaking out loud.
"If you did, it would be well-earned," Ray said, patting her shoulder.
Doc Morse had just laid down on one of the beds in the examining room, Jan Sleet and Jack Longstreet were off somewhere, but Ray found he was too wired to sleep. He got up and went outside. Checking his watch as he lit a cigarette, he realized that the sun should have come up hours ago, but it was still dark out. The building across the street was still standing, but just a block away was a pile of rubble which he knew had been an apartment building when the sun had gone down.
"In the cold light of day, if it ever comes, I wonder–," he said to himself.
"I wonder, too," Vicki said, and he nearly dropped his cigarette.
"I thought you were dead to the world," he said, looking down at where she stood next to him, her hands in the pockets of her leather jacket.
She shrugged. "I'm tired, but I'm wondering what's going on. Where are we, and why all the bombing?" She was looking off at the sky, a strange expression on her face.
"Buy you some breakfast?" he asked.
She nodded. "A free breakfast is about all I can afford. And I am hungry, but I'm not hungry enough to eat any more of that food they have in there."
He nodded. "I agree. Come on."
The moon was out, and as they walked Ray's eyes adjusted to the half light he found himself looking at his companion more closely, realizing all over again what an odd figure she was. She couldn't have been much over three and a half feet tall, but obviously no child. Her proportions were not that unusual except that everything was in miniature. It was like looking at a normal girl at a distance.
Her hair was long and straight, parted in the middle, and in the dim light he couldn't tell if it was black or dark brown. Her high, pointed ears poked up through the hair, nearly as high as the top of her head.
Her eyes were green and her skin was pale. Her clothes were all black, leather jacket, T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. She noticed his scrutiny and shrugged her unzipped jacket more closed over her chest.
"Sorry if I was staring," he said, "but I think you'd better get used to it. I don't know about wherever you're from, but around here you stand out a bit."
She nodded. "I know."
He waited a moment, just in case she was going to volunteer any more information, then he said, "I don't know about you, but I'm starving."
Jan Sleet and Jack Longstreet walked slowly toward the hotel where Jack, Doc and Ray were staying. Jan Sleet was walking slowly because it had been a long night and her leg was really hurting. Jack was walking slowly, too, partly out of politeness and partly from trepidation.
It didn't seem possible that Jan Sleet had ideas about them ending up in the same room and the same bed, but she had given him a very strange look when she'd pointed out that their last names rhymed. Jack had experienced a couple of awkward situations in his life when he had assumed someone was interested in him and it had turned out they weren't, so he was always reluctant to be the first to bring up the possibility.
Then, suddenly, they both heard a noise they'd already grown used to not hearing. A powerful-sounding car motor roared toward them and then past and away, apparently on a street parallel to the one they were on.
A few moments later, they heard it approaching from the other direction, on their street this time, and they turned as a black sedan appeared and screeched to a halt near them. The doors all opened and four men in dark suits came out. Three of them had guns drawn.
The fourth man was thin, with a sallow face and salt-and-pepper hair. He strolled forward, his hands in his jacket pockets. He brought out one hand and flashed a badge as the other three men made a rough circle around them. "Police," he said. He looked at Jan Sleet. "You got a name, slats?"
"You don't have any authority–" Jack started, but one of the men clipped him behind the ear and he fell to his hands and knees, trying not to black out.
"See that?" the thin man said calmly to Jan Sleet. "Instant authority." He smiled. "Now, what is your name?"
She stepped forward, pulling out her press card, looking down at him. "My name is Jan Sleet, and I'm a reporter. You didn't have to knock him down to find that out."
"Pleased to meet you," the man said, nudging her cane out from under her with the toe of his shoe. "I'm Inspector Novak." He gave her a push and she fell into the arms of one of the other men.
To Vicki's surprise, Ray led her back to the bar where she and Jan Sleet had stopped the night before. "Duffy's" (as it was already starting to be called) was totally unscathed, and as Ray pushed open the door she realized that all the same people were still there.
Bill looked up as they came in, and he said, "You know, Stone, this is all your fault."
Ray collapsed onto a stool and grinned. "Yeah," he said, "and tomorrow I'm going to make it rain." He turned to Archie, who had dozed off an hour before, his head propped up on one hand. "Is there any food?" Ray asked. "We're starving."
Archie stood up, yawned and stretched. "Well, I have some sandwiches. They were in the fridge, but the power's been off all night . . ." He shrugged.
"Do they have mayonnaise?" Vicki asked. "My mother told me to always watch out for mayonnaise if it hasn't been properly refrigerated."
Chet, the red-headed man with the invisible friend, said, "Hey, Archie, I thought you said there wasn't any more food."
Archie shrugged. "I gotta look after my regulars."
"Maybe we're planning on becoming regulars," Chet said with a laugh. "How do you know?"
"Possible, but I doubt it," Archie said wearily. "I don't know about your invisible friend, but you've got tourist written all over you."
Chet laughed again and Archie pointedly turned away from him and back to Ray. He liked to save his repartee as well as his food for his regular customers. "So," he said, "you want to chance a couple of these sandwiches?"
Ray and Vicki exchanged a glance as she climbed up onto the stool next to Ray, and he nodded. "Might as well. We'll probably be eating a lot worse in a week or two."
So, Archie went into the back and got a couple of sandwiches out of the warm refrigerator. He sniffed them suspiciously, shrugged and put them on plates. As he brought them out, he saw that Chet had a plate in front of him and was eating a sandwich.
Archie sighed and attempted not to react. Bar room sleight-of-hand was old stuff with him. He gave Ray and Vicki their sandwiches, drew them a couple of beers and went back to wiping the counter.
Fiona leaned over and said, "So, Ray, what's the news from the outside world? We've been in here all night, alternating beer and coffee, and periodically hiding behind the bar. The sun doesn't seem to have come up, but we decided not to go outside and investigate."
"Fiona," Ray said, "first I would like to introduce you to my friend. Vicki, this is Fiona. Fiona, this is Vicki."
Vicki gave a small wave as the other woman nodded slightly.
Suddenly, the Professor, who had been sleeping at the end of the bar, raised his head and said, "Stranger things have happened."
Archie nodded, sipping a cup of cold coffee. "I'd say so. We were starting to think you were dead." He looked at Ray. "He was singing before. It was a relief when he passed out."
The Professor ignored this, fixing his gaze on Ray. "Raymond Stone," he said expansively, motioning him over. Vicki trailed after, and when she got in range she smelled the familiar smell of a long drunken night. "Ray," he said, "do you know what your problem is?" Ray shrugged. "Apart from your more obvious problems of unwise companions, uncertain idealism, unconvincing rhetoric and undeniable . . ." He looked at Vicki, and his voice trailed off.
"Young lady," he said, nearly bowing himself off his stool, "when I refer to my friend's unwise companions, I, of course, exclude present company. It's far . . ." he regarded her more carefully, then looked down at her feet. "You're not standing in a hole, are you?"
She shook her head, grinning. "Nope, I'm really this short."
He frowned. "Well, I suppose you know best," he said dubiously, "but–"
"Can I get a word in here?" Ray asked plaintively.
The old man leaned over and whispered to Vicki, "Raymond here never saw a conversation he didn't think he could improve." He leaned back and looked at her again. "I do think she's a bit young, Ray, even for you."
"I'm fifteen," Vicki said proudly.
"I'm sure that's what he told you to say," the old man said as Vicki climbed onto the stool next to his. Ray stood next to them, looking as if he'd rather be almost anywhere else. "But it's a preposterous claim. You look like you're about nine."
Grinning impishly, Vicki reached down and pulled up the bottom of her T-shirt, yanking it up just long enough to give them a glimpse of what was hidden beneath, then she lowered it again.
"Good God Almighty!" the Professor said, crossing himself fervently. His hand fumbled around on the bar until it encountered a drink, which he downed quickly.
"Hey," Bill protested, since it had been his drink.
"Oh, get a grip, you old relic," Ray said, blinking rapidly and shaking his head from side to side, as if trying to clear it.
"A thousand pardons," the Professor said to Bill. He waved for Archie. "Barkeep, set up my friend here again. And me, too. Me first." He turned to Vicki, who was primly smoothing the front of her T-shirt. "Young lady, you shouldn't do that sort of thing. I'm not a young man anymore, and–"
"Oh, stop," she said demurely.
He sighed. "Well, I guess I have to accept your claims regarding your age. The fact remains that, even at the (ahem) ripe old age of fifteen, you're a teensy bit too young for this character here."
Vicki shrugged. "We're just friends. He wouldn't dare try anything fresh. My friend Jan would give him what for."
Of course, only Ray and Vicki got the humor in this.
Vicki and Ray took their beer and sandwiches over to one of the small tables and ate mostly in silence. Then, after finishing her beer, Vicki put her head down on her crossed arms, and Ray sat back to think.
The door burst open and one of the runners Jan Sleet had organized came in and looked around quickly. Ray stood up with a shake of his head, assuming that he was the reason for this.
"Mr. Stone," the girl said, "I have a message for you. From Pat."
Ray nodded. "Come on, let's step outside," he said.
When they were out on the street, the girl said, "Pat said for you and Vicki to get back as soon as you could. Something has happened to that reporter woman."
He frowned. "Did she say anything more than that? Do you know what happened?"
She shook her head. "She just said for you to get back to the hospital as soon as you can. And bring Doc if you know where she is. People are looking for her, too."
When Ray went back into the bar, he didn't see Vicki for a moment, then he noticed a small pile of black clothes on the little round table. Vicki had climbed up on the table, curled up and fallen fast asleep. He leaned over and started to slip his hands under her.
"Oh, let her sleep," the old man said.
"I've got to go," Ray said, lifting her into his arms. "And I'm certainly not going to leave her here with you."
"My interest is purely scientific," the old man protested.
Ray nodded. "Sure. See you later."
As the door closed behind them, Chet turned to his invisible companion and asked, "So, what do you think so far? Should we stick around a while?"
Her chuckle was warm and infectious. "What do you think?" she asked. "Isn't it everything I said it would be?"
Outside, as Ray Stone carried the tiny figure of Vicki Wasserman through the dark streets, he was full of a lot of different emotions, even for him. Jack Longstreet had once said that Ray could feel mixed emotions about anything, from a good fuck to a punch in the nose.
Ray had read very little except science fiction in his life, and he'd read as much of that as he'd been able to get his hands on. And here it was, something incredible happening to him. Doc Morse always said that if you attempt the impossible, amazing things can happen. But this was amazing in an entirely different way than she had probably meant. A tiny teenage girl, incredibly fast and strong, evasive about her background, and with high, pointed elf-ears. And this girl was apparently not at all alarmed at finding herself in a world of giants where there was no electricity and bombs were falling.
He looked down at her face occasionally as he walked, as if reassuring himself that she was really there. She was so tiny, weighing almost nothing, that he sometimes felt like he was just carrying her clothing, and that when he wasn't looking she had vanished back to where she'd come from. He was also uncomfortably aware that she was female and attractive, possessing a certain flair and confidence that he found very attractive. And, of course, she was underage.
She was also obviously strong enough to do him serious injury if she should even suspect that he held impure thoughts about her. Not that she seemed likely to really try to hurt him, but with her strength, even a spontaneous slap could well take his head off.
The biggest thing that stayed with him, though, was what she had done. Even though she was a stranger, with no clear idea what was going on, she had pitched in to help with everything she had. It was, he had to admit, a vindication of their whole idea. That Vicki would apparently drop out of the sky and do everything she had done, that was just a small indication that this whole thing might actually work.
He knew he was only going to be able to think that for a few minutes, so he decided to enjoy the feeling.
As he re-entered the hospital by the side entrance into the auditorium, three people, including Pat, immediately converged on him and started to talk. This woke Vicki up and she jumped down to the floor and held up her hands to silence the others and allow Pat to speak.
"Jan's gone, and Jack's been knocked out," Pat said quietly. "They're in Room 212."
"I barely remember what happened after they conked me," Jack said as Doc swabbed blood from the side of his head. "I think they took her away, but I'm not sure. She was definitely gone when I got functioning again."
"I don't understand why they'd take her and not you," Ray said. He and Vicki were sitting on folding chairs in the tiny examining room as Doc treated Jack.
"Are you sure they just took her?" Vicki asked. "Did they hurt her, too?"
"Wait a minute," Doc said, not looking up from what she was doing. "Just for the hell of it, let's think about this rationally."
Jack and Ray winced slightly, as if this rebuke was something they had experienced before. "What do you mean?" Vicki asked.
"Well," Doc said, "for one thing, how much do we really know about Jan Sleet?" She glanced at Vicki.
Vicki shrugged. "I don't really know her at all. I just met her last night. We met in that bar."
"And how did you come to be in that bar?" Ray asked quietly.
Vicki smiled. "I thought we were talking about Jan."
Doc laughed, causing Jack to wince as she pressed too hard on one of the sore parts of his head. "You're right," she said, "though you can't blame us for being curious."
"I agree," Jack said, "let's get back to Jan." He glanced at Vicki. "Listen, we'd all love to know your story, but you've earned all the credit in the world tonight. Tell us or not, it's up to you. Ouch!" he protested, turning to Doc with an injured look.
"Oh, stop being a baby," she said, tweaking his nose. "Show some grit." She turned to the others. "Okay, let's look at this. Is Jan Sleet really who she said she was?"
"Huh?" Jack demanded. "What do you mean?"
She shrugged. "Isn't it a good question?"
"I don't get it," Vicki said, "why wouldn't she be who she said she was?"
Doc shrugged. "Look at it this way. She's somebody we'd know, somebody we'd be expected to accept and admire. And she just happens to pop in tonight of all nights, with no really good reason."
"I don't buy it," Jack said. "I spent more time with her than the rest of you did–"
Vicki laughed. "I certainly hope nothing improper happened," she said in a very good imitation of Jan Sleet's rather flutey voice. They all laughed.
"I'll say this, though," Jack said. "She sure didn't act like a sissy when the wounded were coming in."
Doc patted his shoulder, admiring the bandage on the side of his head. "You'll be fine," she said. "Just don't think too much for the next couple of days."
"Well, I'll risk a little thinking right now. I think Jan Sleet is the real article. For one thing, she looked like Jan Sleet, which is not an easy thing to achieve. She had contracts in her briefcase–"
"For the book?" Doc asked eagerly.
"Yes, for the book–"
"You know," Ray said, "that's the most persuasive argument in all of this, the time element. Even if they could get somebody who looked like Jan Sleet, and train her to act like her, I don't think it could be done this fast."
Doc nodded. "That is persuasive. Okay, is there any reason the police, or, in the bigger picture, the government would want Jan Sleet out of here?" She shrugged. "Jan Sleet, the author of a series of articles about Bellona which were so hot that no publisher in the country will put them in book form, even though they doubled the circulation of the magazine in which they appeared?"
"That question answers itself," Ray said, "but how did they know she was here? Just to zip in and grab her like that?"
"I can answer that," Jack said. "She has an assistant, a chap named Marshall. He was waiting somewhere to meet her when she missed her stop on the train and ended up here instead."
"So, you think he called the cops, to report her missing, and they put two and two together?" Doc asked.
"But would he do that?" Ray asked. "Call the cops just because she was late for dinner?"
Jack nodded. "The way she described it, I got the idea he thinks she's barely able to look after herself." He looked around for a moment, as if waiting for someone to offer an opinion of this view of Jan Sleet, but nobody volunteered one.
As Vicki woke up, she thought that it couldn't possibly be time to get up and go to school already. It must be that damn SarahBeth playing a trick . . .
As she lurched upright in bed, the girl who had been shaking her stepped back nervously. The room was dark and unfamiliar, and Vicki squinted at the girl. "Who are you?" she demanded.
"I'm Pat, ma'am. From the hospital. You remember."
Vicki nodded, looking around. The events of the previous day started to come together in her head. "What time is it?" she asked, looking out the window at the dark sky and sliver of a moon.
"It's nearly two, by my watch," Pat said quietly. "Two in the afternoon. I know it doesn't look like it."
Vicki smiled. "That's okay. I can believe quite a few impossible things before breakfast." She ran her fingers through her long hair. "How long was I asleep?"
"I don't know. Two or three hours, I guess. They told me to come up and wake you," Pat said quickly. "I'm sorry."
Pat was apparently considering taking another step backward, and Vicki looked at her more closely, realizing that the other girl was afraid of her. This was the first time anybody had ever been afraid of Vicki, and it had taken her until now to recognize it. She yawned, patting the bed.
"Pat," she said, "please come over and sit down, and tell me what's up. I promise not to hurt you. Or make a pass at you. Come on."
Pat came over and sat carefully on the very edge of the bed, still looking nervous. "They want you downstairs," she said. "Doc and the others. There's something on the radio they want you to hear."
Vicki nodded. "Okay. And don't worry about waking me up, I feel pretty rested. When I saw how dark it was out, I thought I'd slept all day. Now scoot, and let me get dressed. Tell them I'll be down in a minute. Oh, and one more thing," she said as Pat stood up. "Please don't call me 'ma'am'. I'm younger than you are."
Pat nodded. "Okay, that's fine. I'll go down and get you a cup of coffee. I'll have it in the bar for you when you get down. Bye."
"Pat, you're not my servant. You don't have to make me coffee. It makes me feel weird." She gave a half laugh. "It's not the way I was brought up."
Pat shrugged sheepishly. "I'm just trying to help."
"Where are you staying?"
"I haven't really had a chance to work that out. I've just been sleeping wherever I can."
"So, where's your stuff?"
She shrugged again. "I'm wearing it."
Vicki looked surprised. "You don't have anything else?"
Pat grinned. "And where's your stuff?"
Vicki laughed. "It's at home. And I'll probably never see any of it again. Which is fine."
Vicki shook her head as the door closed. She stood up and started to get dressed. She wondered if she was fast enough to get dressed and beat Pat down to the first floor. She didn't want to give the impression that she came when called like a dog, though, so she took her time. More like a cat, she thought.
There was no power in the hotel, but there were some sort of glowing emergency strips along the walls every six feet or so, so it wasn't hard to get around. There were a lot of people moving around in the halls, but Vicki couldn't tell very much about them in the dark. She walked slowly to the end of the hall and down the four flights of stairs to the lobby.
She remembered coming to the hotel now. After Jack had been bandaged up, things seemed to be pretty much under control. They all had the feeling that an attack of some sort might come at any time, now that the bombing had apparently stopped, so Doc said they should all get some sleep, to be as ready as possible for whatever was going to happen.
Doc, Jack and Ray had rooms at a nearby hotel, so Vicki had gone along with them. There was nobody at the desk, though there were people sleeping in the lobby, and Doc suggested that Vicki find an empty room and get some sleep. But Ray had made sure to get the room number, so she could be located when something happened. Which is now seemed that it had, though this certainly didn't seem to be an attack.
Somebody had rigged up a couple of lights in the lobby, making it easy for Vicki to locate the hotel bar, but it wouldn't have been difficult to find in any case, since there was a big crowd around the door. She slipped between the close-packed bodies and looked into the crowded room. There was a small transistor radio on the bar and everybody in the room was watching Doc, Jack and Ray, who were sitting at the bar around the radio. There was a light on the bar, and Vicki looked around the room. A lot of the faces there were already starting to look familiar. Jack was fiddling with the radio, but he gave up and put it back on the bar. "It's dead, Jim," he said to Doc, who shrugged and laughed.
"What's up?" Vicki asked, walking over to them.
"Jan Sleet was on the radio," Doc said. "Apparently she'd been on for a while, but we only tuned in about fifteen minutes ago."
"Why was she on the radio?" Vicki asked, jumping up so she was sitting on the edge of the bar.
"She was talking about us," Jack said simply. "About U-town and the bombing and everything."
"It was some sort of round table discussion show," Ray said, lighting a cigarette. "I don't know how she got on, but they kept trying to get her off. She wouldn't go, though, and they couldn't get her to shut up."
"I can imagine that," Vicki said with a laugh. Most of the other people in the room were starting to get up and leave.
"One time they got her off," Doc said, "but then the next three people who called in all wanted to talk to her. "
"What happened to the radio?" Vicki asked.
"Battery." Jack said. He turned to Ray. "Make a note, chief. The next time we try to alter reality, we need more batteries."
Suddenly, the sound of a loud siren filled the room.
"What the hell is that?" Jack demanded, standing up.
"Warning," shouted Doc. "It's an old air raid siren somebody fixed up. There's an attack coming."
"From where?" Ray demanded. "This doesn't do us much good."
"The bridge," Doc said, already headed out the door. "One long blast means the bridge."
Outside, they knew the word was getting around, because most of the people they could see were heading toward the bridge. Some were running, the rest were walking fast.