A Post-Apocalyptic Flying Adventure
by James Nathan Post

Chapter One

A huge wall of towering thunderheads rises high above, to a dark anvil which overhangs the core of the storm. The air is cold and clean at three thousand meters, and the winds are swift, turbulent, and terribly treacherous. The great columns of roiling cumulus stand unshrouded in clear air, except for a layer of broken scud below. Backlighted by the afternoon sun, they cast long beams and shadows into the vast hollow space beneath the anvil three thousand meters above. In the darkened crevices, lightning flashes, and the thunder echoes across the chamber like the chanting of monks in basso profundo. It is like a cathedral, Thorís cathedral -- or a great mouth.

High up against this imposing front soars a tiny dart. It is a fragile thing, a collection of tubes and wires, of aluminum, carbon fiber honeycomb and plexiglas, with a wide swept wing and a long raked front end like a highly- chopped motorcycle. Its propeller is still, and its passage adds only a crisp sibilant to the keening of the winds and the tolling mumble of the thunder. Then another sound is heard, cutting through the thin cold mists, faraway and eerie, torn ragged by the winds. The skycyk soars close, and the sound is perceived to be the rider, singing at the top of his lungs.

He is dressed in furs and leather like a Viking, with leggings bound tight to his thighs and hands encased in mittens like hairy paws. He wears a leather helmet with short plumes of horsehair, and a pair of slit-lens ice goggles which make him look like a demon in the saddle of the little airplane. It bucks and swoops as it is clutched by a turbulent updraft and tossed higher aloft. The cloud tendrils whip by as the rider struggles with his controls, exposed to his environment as he sits astraddle the narrow fuselage of his ride. He leans back in his saddle and holds his shoulders between the wingroots of the fat airfoils which extend out five meters to each side behind him, trying to keep from being thrown back and forth as one wing and then the other is thrust up or pulled down by the turbulence.

The winds rush faster, and as the skycyk is swept up higher, into thinner and colder air, the rider feels the first tingling siren call of the hypoxia which would lure him glassy-eyed and laughing into the maw of that monster to be thrashed by the swirling winds, battered by hail and crusted with ice, broken and spit out to fall in semi-conscious horror from the halls of Asgard to the cold earth below.

He roars out his defiance, a bellowing howl, and he raises his fist to the storm around him. Then he reaches up to grasp a ring beside his left shoulder, struggling for a moment to work his hand through a slit in his mitten. He thrusts his arm forward to pull the lanyard, and the engine behind him snarls to life. He twists on the throttle in the right-hand grip of his motorcycle-style control column, then pulls back smoothly. The slender canard stabilator on the long extended nose grabs air, and pulls the skycyk up into a nosehigh roll. When he is inverted, the rider lets the nose fall through to vertical, and he dives away from the perilous updrafts feeding the cloud, engine wrapping up to a scream.

From the great engulfing jowls of the sky-titan above him, he plunges straight down into the jagged granite-toothed jaws of an ice-choked canyon in the high Rocky Mountain crags. Below him, just beneath the peaks and the knife-edge ridgetops, a thin layer of haze -- a cloud-deck not yet formed - - catches a flat-slanting beam from the storm-obscured sun to the west and glints like blood on bronze. For a moment the illusion of a surface forms a deep and fathomless pool below, and the rider cries out in spite of himself as he plunges through. In the darkened narrow col beneath, the crag escarpments are suddenly huge, chillingly close to the streaking little craft as it careens past rock faces half-shrouded in mists.

The long front end of the aircraft begins to flutter, and the rider tenses himself rigid and shudders to endure the blast of sub-zero glacial air rushing against him at 100 knots. The chill presses through the folds and the needle-holes of his leathers, and bites against skin. He twists the handgrip to wrap off throttle, and he reaches down to grasp a handle beside his left thigh, holding his moving arm tight against his body to keep it from being whipped back by the slipstream. As he pulls the lever, a pair of stubby panels extend out from the sides of the narrow fuselage beneath the wings. The rider is thrown forward against his shoulder harness as the dive brakes grab air and quickly slow the light little sailplane. He pulls back again on the twin handgrips of his chopper-style control column, and grunts out an extended roar against the crushing weight of the four-G pullout. As the long, flat, and narrow blade of the canard stabilator rises upward through the horizon in front of the rider, he releases the lever so the brake boards snap back against the sides of the skycyk, releases his back pressure, and twists the throttle to bring the engine back up to a smooth cruising RPM.

He makes a lazy turn to the right, to the south, and before him the glacier-cut granite crags give way to a broad valley, and rolling foothills covered with evergreens. The splashes of gold and orange where aspens, oaks and fruit trees grow proclaim the autumn season, and the sunset rumblings of the wall of ice-wet cloud behind him herald its end. With an eye trained by thousands of hours feeling the wind in his wingtips learning to see the shape of air around rock, he selects a ridgeline and he turns to place himself just upwind of it. He slips into the rising wave of air being swept up by the storm winds against the face of the ridge, lowers his nose attitude slightly to pick up speed, and skims along the ridgeline like a surfer riding a long roller, using the immense power of his environment -- the irrefutable wind, the implacable stone -- to speed him homeward.

Beneath him there are no roads, and no buildings for as far as he can see. From time to time he sees stretches of the old roads, overgrown, crumbling, cut by erosion, but little moves on them except the deer and other animals which graze on the dry pasture plants that have grown in the sunlit open areas. Though he is accustomed to seeing small bands of traveling people in the forest, and occasional small settlements, he has seen no other person on this trip.

Through the slits in his heavy mittens, the rider has inserted the control column grips, and inside the fur-lined shields his hands in soft leather gloves hold the controls. His thumb strokes the engine-cutoff release on the throttle grip as he considers shutting off the engine and soaring on without gas power. Then he remembers the urgency of his mission, and he decides to press on, confident he can get to his next fuel cache while there is still enough light to land. He makes a mental calculation, increases his power setting slightly, and snuggles down onto the narrow saddle, trying to get all of himself behind the short little plexiglass fairing between his forward-thrust feet.

He camps by night, and flies by day, following a route which takes him from one area of good soaring lift to another, stretching out his fuel. He moves southeast along the back of the Rockies, landing only to pick up the caches of fuel he had placed working his way north to meet the first great storm of winter.

Late afternoon on the third day after he located the storm front, he works his way across a last ridge and drops into a high mountain valley, a broad flat space in natural pasture, surrouded by wooded hills crowned with bare granite slopes and patches of ice. The tumbling whitewater ribbon of a river winds along one side of the meadow. Among the pines the gold aspens shimmer, and along the edges of the grasslands, the fruit trees are red. Near the edge of the broad clearing, close to a place where the river is green and smooth, he sees a cluster of buildings which he recognizes as his destination, a settlement of potato farmers and trout fishers. The buildings are clumped together, and share common walls of logs and sod. On the north side, they are half-buried, and on the south they all have steep pitched fronts from the ground to the ridgebeams. Across the front of one building, one of the largest, a panel of glass catches the light and makes a pattern of sparkling patches. He remembers that the glass, mounted a few inches in front of the black surface of the building, is made up of irregular pieces which have been found and put together with lead came.

As he circles the settlement to land, he sees a woman riding a horse at a full gallop from the courtyard toward the grassy strip he uses. She rides bareback, sitting straight and high, gripping her golden palomino stallion with strong thighs and reaching up into the sky as high as she can to wave at the smoothly descending skycyk. The riderís body is stiff and numb with cold and fatigue, but still he is flushed with excitement and pleasure as he watches her leap from her mount to greet him. He shuts off his engine, makes a spiral turn to set himself up for his landing, keeps his speed up until he is over the end of his field, then pulls out his boards and holds the nose up as the little aircraft runs out of airspeed, lift, and altitude at the same time. It plunks down firmly on its single rear wheel, and he holds the front wheels off the ground and controls his direction with the pedals which operate the rudders in the tall winglets on his wingtips. He squeezes the rear wheel brake in the grip of his brakeboard lever, and the plane quickly slows until the nosewheels settle to the grass and it stops about thirty meters from touchdown.

She runs to him, sun-blonde hair shimmering to her shoulders in the peach glow of afternoon, a beautiful woman, her face filled with strength and heart, a free woman in the prime of her maturity. She struggles with his lap belt and shoulder harness, and lifts his parachute pack from his back. He pulls off his leather helmet and drops it to the ground beside him, and he leans back against his head rest, thoroughly exhausted, but delightedly so. He laughs and happily accepts her embrace and her eager welcoming kiss.

"Iíve been dancing with the dragon," he says.

"I know," she tells him, stroking his grimy and stubbled face. "I could feel it. That dragon is going to eat you someday, Joker." She helps him to his feet. "Come on, let me take you home and feed you. Iíll help you put your skycyk away later."

"Oh, Janeen, my sweet Janeen, nothing in the world could make me happier right now, but both have got to wait. I need to report to Fletcher first."

"Oh, come on," she says. "Fletcher wonít mind if you eat and take a bath first."

"I know that, Love, but it delights him when I run in there with bugs still on my teeth."

"It embarrasses him."

"Yes, it does that too," Joker chuckles, "and that delights me. Come on, letís go see him."

The building with the glass front is like a mountain lodge, and is a kind of common room for a number of residences. The inside is warm, open, and cheery, and activity centers around a broad stone hearth surrounded by a sunken area furnished with comfortable pillows covered in heavy homespun. When Joker and Janeen step through the door from the little weather-lock anteroom, they see about a dozen other people enjoying a late afternoonbreak before their evening meal.

In the sunken area, they see Fletcher, the leader of the little company of folk to which they belong. He is not one of the oldest men, but appears to be about thirty-five; he is not one of the largest men either, but he is clearly a very strong man, both in physical strength, and in the strength of character which shows in his sun-lined not-quite-handsome face and in the warm twinkling gaze of his wide-set hazel eyes. Like most of the men in the room, he wears a knitted pullover sweater and soft buckskin breeches which lace at the knee over muk-luk moccasin boots. Fletcher is showing some of the younger people how to make and play a little tunable drum. In one hand he holds a log section about forearm long, which he has tapered in the middle like a fat hourglass and carved out hollow, and with the other he points to a ring of small holes along one rim. Beside him holding a completed drum sits his son Charles, at seventeen a slender sandy-haired copy of Fletcher -- except for his long curly hair and boyish face. He has laced a drumskin over one end of his drum with thongs which pass through the holes on the other end, and when he squeezes it between his arm and his side, the increased tension on the lacings raises the tone of the drum. Boiiyip-taka-taka! Beoowop-daba-daba! The young man spanks the drumhead with his fingertips, to the delight of the silver-haired woman and the two children who sit on pillows before him.

Everyone turns to look at Joker and Janeen, and their faces light up in pleasure and welcome. Joker wears the face-splitting grin and tearfully joyful expression of a man who has just returned from his Odyssey, as children and friends jump up and run to greet him. One of the young men takes Jokerís parachute from Janeen, warmly shakes the skycyk riderís hand, and then also takes his leather chaps as they are unbuckled. Joker happily acknowledges the greetings, but he walks directly to meet Fletcher, who rises to greet him with a hearty embrace. Janeen steps to the fireplace, and sits beside silver-haired Elizabeth.

"Hi, Fletch," says Joker. "Sure is good to be home. Can you get loose?"

"Sure," says Fletcher, holding his friend at arms length and looking him over. Joker is about the same height as Fletcher, about 170 centimeters, but he is very slender. He is about forty, and his sweat-matted thinning short hair sticks up straight on the top of his head, and in scraggly cowlicks on the sides. He wears a scrubby week-old beard, and his eyes are red and watery, ringed with pale ice-goggle circles in the grime covering his long narrow face. His buckskin breeches -- lashed tightly to his thighs instead of worn loose like Fletcherís -- are caked with dust and campsite soot. "Lord, Man, you should have taken time for a bath," Fletcher says plaintively. He turns to a tiny pale young woman standing a few feet away. "Dierdre, get Joker some food. How about a doob?"

Joker puts his hand on Fletcherís shoulder and turns him to walk aside to the edge of the room. "No, no thanks, Fletcher. Janeen wants to take me home and feed me and scrape the icicles off my nose."

"Well, I wouldnít pass that up for the millenium," Fletcher concedes, waving his young wife Dierdre back to her pillow. "So what did you find?"

"A front. Iíve been burning gas all the way back -- itís still about four, maybe five days away. Itís a bear, Fletch, a polar bear. It will close a lot of the passes."

Fletcher winces and shakes his head grimly. "Meaning we have to move now if weíre going to get south ahead of the weather," he declares.

Joker shrugs. "The passes might open once more before the winter sets in hard. But there will be a pack of Ice People moving just behind that front to grab up everything that isnít ready."

Fletcher nods. "Iíll call a meeting of Our Company. You go home with Janeen and get some sleep. Joker," he says, holding the manís shoulders to look into his face, "you know there has been some talk about staying here. If it comes to a vote, how do you go?"

"Anh," says Joker, with a wave of dismissal, "Iíll fly for the suit that has the cards. Just let me know in the morning if weíre going or not."

Fletcher nods again, and grips his hand in brotherhood. "Sure glad to see you back," he says.

Joker steps to the fireplace to join Janeen, and he is again met and embraced by the people. The children all want to be picked up and hugged, and the young men want to hear about his adventure. He makes sure he has not overlooked anyone, then he gets ready to leave. "It was just a routine patrol, fellows," he says. "No war stories to tell -- but give me a nightís sleep and Iíll invent some. Right now Iíve got a hot date....with a big tub of hot water."

"You figure thatís all youíre in for, Flyboy?" Janeen asks, purring into his ear.

He blushes, to the delight of the grinning young men. "Well, how does a couple of doobs, a hot bath, dinner, you, and a good nightís sleep sound?"

"Hear, hear!" says Charles.

"Sounds pretty ambitious for a little old chicken-hawk with his tail feathers dragging," says Janeen with a wink as she leads him from the room, "but that sounds just like I planned it."

Janeen is before everything else a horsewoman, and her temporary dwellingplace in the settlement is in the tack room. It is a warm, richly comfortable place, with beams and furnishings of wood smoothed and darkened by years of exposure to the oils of leather care, and the smoke of a large brick stove. Hanging from pegs and resting on shelves are the trappings of horsemanship, fine tools and leatherwork, meticulously cared for. Along one wall is a workbench, and an elevated platform which holds the furs and blankets of her bed. Across from the bed hang several coils of rope, of different weights and materials. The innermost end of the room is dominated by the stove. It is built of brick and iron plates, and an old heavy- guage steel pressure bottle. It serves as fireplace, small forge, cookstove, and water heater, and from hooks on its sides hang clean, well-ordered simple utensils and tools.

The bathtub is also in the kitchen area behind the brick stove, and in it Joker soaks in luxury, smoking a doob he holds in a long-handled clip. Having drawn his bath, put him into it, and put on a pot of herb tea, Janeen stands close to the stove and begins to take off her clothes. She removes her light buckskin jacket and unties the waist band of her breeches. Though many of the women prefer to wear skirts, Janeen likes wrap-around saddle- knickers of buckskin. Beneath her leather outer gear she wears a full body stocking made of tightly knitted soft angora goat wool. It is a natural color, and looks like a coat of soft fur on her splendid athletic body. She rises on her toes and stretches her smooth, strong thighs and solid oversize calves. When she reaches high over her head and sniffs in the smells of musk and camomile to fill her lungs, her nipples rise to put sharp peaks in the smooth furred curves of her breasts, still high and firm though she is not a young woman, and has raised her children.

He lies in the warm water with his eyes closed, letting the heat seep through him to melt away the stiffness of cold and the numbness of vibration and the fatigue of straddling his ride in motionless stress so long. "Mmm. Sure feels good." He tokes on the doob and relaxes one step looser. "You know, it still amazes me that they used to put people in cages for smoking doobies."

Janeen chuckles and takes the clip from him. "Iím glad it survived their laws and their guns. Those were some crazy times."

"Yeah, Iíll say. Astounds me still how quickly it all fell apart. The bombs, the invasions, the plagues -- and suddenly it was all over."

"Like a house of cards," she affirms. "Still want dinner first? Or can I get my hands on you now?" She unfastens the ties of her knitted body stocking, and slips her arms out of it.

By the soft warm glow of the fire in the brick stove, Janeen massages his slender and wiry body with oil. She turns him onto his back, works the muscles in his shoulders and thighs, then begins to stimulate him gently with her hands and her mouth. She looks into his eyes, dark and warm, but sad, and faraway, and she smiles softly. She kisses his smooth-shaven cheek, his high balding forehead, his delicate but sensual crystal-cut lips. She sits astride him, grips him gently, so gently with her fine strong thighs, and they make love on her fur rug. Delighted, she sighs, and falls back to rest. When she looks up a moment later, he has fallen asleep. She rises, shakes her head with sympathy, and covers him with a light knit afghan. "Well," she says, lightly stroking his sleeping face, "Iíll fix you a good breakfast."

In the lodge building, which the residents of the settlement have permitted the little band who call themselves Our Company to use for a time, about thirty-five people counting children have gathered in response to Fletcher's call. The room is crowded, and the people sit or stand in little knots and family groups. There is a buzz of informal conversation, but it is clear that Fletcher is the chairman, and the immediate concern of everyone is what he has just told them about Jokerís discovery on his two-week-long mission.

"So thatís it, Free Traders," he says in conclusion. "If we are going south for the winter, we must leave in the morning. That means we have to decide now. I propose we get a good nightís sleep, bid our friends here farewell until next summer maybe, and try to beat that storm front to the west pass. We move south for a month, winter in the valley below. The game is good there, and the trees are still in fruit right now."

One of the other men in the room steps forward. He is Jesus, the handsome young Aztlanic giant who is Our Companyís blacksmith. He is dark skinned, the color of oiled mahogany, with a long braid of straight black hair, the strong hatchet nose of his Aztec heritage, and great sculpted muscles on his broad chest and abdomen. "That is true," he says, interrupting Fletcher, "and they are being plundered by Flatland raiding parties."

The conversation quickly drops to a hush. Those who would like to stay the winter in the village have hoped Jesus would speak for their cause.

Fletcher smiles and replies, "Hey-Zeus, are you saying that as an invitation to good hunting, or do you propose to lead Our Company on some other course?"

Jesus takes a wide-footed stance and crosses his arms over his chest. "I am always ready for good hunting, but I think the idea to stay here should be talked, thatís all. We have good adventure together. We are strong survivor together. We can be Free Traders all life long. Is that best? Better than home?"

There is some murmur of assent. At Jesusí side sits Fritz, a scrawny, grizzle-bearded old man, half-toothless and tattoed with skulls and daggers on his stringy but still strong arms. "Jeezus, Hey-Zeus," he growls, "if we donít catch a few Flatlander picking parties, what are we going to do for gasoline?"

"If we donít travel, donít need gasoline," replies the redskinned giant. "We donít have to fight Flatlanders."

In another part of the room, Jerry the showman sits with his family -- his wife Linda, her pretty young sister Jill, two children, two orangutans, and a chimpanzee. "So we stay and fight Ice People instead?" Jerry asks.

A little way off from his father, Charles stands with three other young men. "We can defend ourselves from Ice People," he declares.

Fletcher is surprised that his son speaks for staying. "Charles? You want to stay here and be a second-class root grubber?"

"We wouldnít be second class long, Father," Charles replies earnestly. "If we work hard and stick together, we could take over this place in a few years."

David, the oldest of Charlesí companions, waves a deprecatory hand at him. "Hey, come on, Charles, potato cakes and beet molasses are buck ace, but thereís a world out there."

"Yeah," agrees Michael, another of the quartet of young fighting men, "next youíll be breaking up The Jacks and getting married."

Gazing hopefully at Charles, pretty young Jill speaks up. "If I were married, I think Iíd want to stay in one place a while....especially if I were pregnant."

Again there is a hush as an expected topic of controversy is broached. Attention turns to Fletcherís young wife, Dierdre. She sits holding her breath in apprehension, her arm protectively around her dark and strange-looking four-year-old son, Russell. She is hardly more than a child herself, perhaps sixteen, and many of Our Company can remember when she was rescued -- tortured and raped -- from the Flatland raiding party which had just killed all of her people.

"All right, itís no secret," Fletcher concedes. "Yes, Brenda has told us thereís no question about it. Dierdre is pregnant."

There is a pause, as the people try to decide whether that is good news or bad news. Then everybody begins to hoot and laugh, and they applaud and congratulate Fletcher and Dierdre. The celebration quickly subsides, and they again face the unanswered question. Fletcher kneels beside his young wife. "Dierdre?" he asks.

In a tiny voice she replies, "I will go anywhere with you, Fletcher." She is obviously very frightened, and struggling to hold back tears.

Brenda, the stocky doe-eyed middle-aged woman who is Our Companyís herbalist, healer, and midwife, comes forward to kneel with them, placing her hands protectively on Dierdreís. "The last one was awful rough on her, you remember, Fletcher -- and she was always settlement people before."

"I remember," says Fletcher very gently. "Líil Bird, youíre my wife, not my property, and you have a right to your own life. Thank you for your loyalty, but that will go on record as a vote to stay." She bows her head and tears run down her cheeks to drop onto her lap. Beside her, Russell glares with a cold unblinking gaze at Fletcher, his feelings shielded, unreadable.

"Do we vote now?" asks Jesus. "Is there more talking?"

Fletcher waits a moment to see if anyone else has anything to contribute. "Has everyone spoken his own mind?" He steps closer to the center of the sunken area, and holds up his hands. "All right. Now, before we vote, there is one more important thing we have not discussed. Do you think these people are just going to let us move in here? We have earned our right to be here all summer by working in their fields -- what will we have to do to stay here and eat all winter?"

"We can kill Ice People," says Jesus emphatically.

"That is simply expected of everybody, and they wonít consider it part of a deal. They have demanded that we all find work in their homes and barns. Yes," Fletcher affirms, "I have already inquired of their Council of Elders. We must all work for them."

There is a clamor, as differing positions are loudly expressed. "We are not afraid of a little work!"

"We will have our own homes soon!"

"No! We are Free Traders! Why should we pay to be their servants?"

"Wait, wait!" calls Fletcher, raising his arms for silence. "Thereís more. They want half -- thatís four -- of our horses."

That stops everyone for a moment, then Jesus speaks up. "They will settle for two," he says.

"Whose horses should we give them?" Fletcher asks. "Four of ours belong to Janeen."

"Yes," asks Jerry, "what about Janeen? And what about Joker?"

"Janeen votes to go," says Fletcher. "Joker didnít vote. So do we pack and move, or do we come to terms with these settlement people?"

"Letís vote," comes the cry from several places in the lodge hall. "Why take all night?"

"All right, everybody entitled to a voice who wants to stay here and become part of this village, raise your hands." Fletcher looks around the room and takes a count. Jesus stands heroically with his feet planted apart and raises his arm, and is joined by Charles. Immediately, Jill puts up her hand also, smiling hopefully at the young fighter. A lean, quiet woman of about forty, Fritzís wife Carol puts up her hand and shakes her head at her glaring husband. Two of The Jacks move away from Charles when he votes, and the fourth, Janeenís teenage son Mark, puts up his hand also. Smiling at her daughter Jill, and at timorous Dierdre, Elizabeth sets aside her knitting needles and raises a hand. In the back, a group two couple who joined Our Company the previous year stand together all holding hands and raising them over their heads. Fletcher counts them, and the others who vote to stay.

"To go?" he asks.

Again the people stand in silence as Fletcher counts the votes, beginning with his own upraised hand. "Letís ride," growls Fritz, raising an arm bare except for a metal-studded black leather wristband. Jerry and his wife Linda raise their hands. Immediately both orangs and the chimp raise theirs too, to the delight of the children, who enjoy a laugh break in the serious proceedings of the meeting. David and Michael, the two remaining Jacks, raise clenched fists. Dierdreís eyes widen in horror as Brenda the medicine woman also votes to return to the way of the nomad.

When Fletcher has counted her vote, Brenda kneels again beside Dierdre. "Iíve got enough people to medicine to right in Our Company," she says softly. "Donít need a whole settlement more. Besides, itís cleaner out there. Youíll be fine now, donít worry."

Fletcher finishes his count, then frowns. "Well," he says with a sigh, "we wonít know until morning. The vote is tied."

"Morning?" asks Jerry. "Look, if we are going to leave, weíve got to start packing tonight. Youíll have to go get that flying lizard out of bed."

A few minutes later, Janeen and Joker are awakened by the sounds of hushed but excited voices and polite but insistent knocking on the heavy door of her room. "Joker, youíve got to get up!" someone calls. Janeen slips on a sweater and her saddle-knickers, and answers the door as Joker pulls on his own angora body stocking. The woolen long-johns are not usual attire for men, but Joker likes to wear them when he flies. She lights a lamp- wick with a splinter from the stove, then opens the door to admit a group of about ten people, each clamoring to be the first to get a point across to Joker.

"Itís a tie, Joker," says Fletcher. "Youíve got to vote."

Joker sits crosslegged on Janeenís sleeping shelf, looking down at the upturned faces of the people. He rubs at his eyes and leans back against the wall. "Oh, God, is this really me?" he moans. "You have leaders, and you wonít follow them -- you vote, and canít come to a decision -- and now Iím supposed to decide for everybody. Oog. I ought to keep you waiting until after breakfast, at least." He sighs, then nods his head seriously. "OK. I donít like to be cold, and I canít fly much in the winter -- so we go. Anything else?"

With mixed reactions, excitement and resignation, the people leave the room, buzzing off to tell the others, and to pack. Fletcher reaches to grasp Jokerís hand. "Gínight, Joker," he says. "Sorry, but thanks."

Joker climbs down from the bedshelf and walks unsteadily to the brick stove, where he finds a teapot of hot herb tea set off to one side. He pours a little into a ceramic cup and stands holding the warm cup in his hands, eyes closed, swaying back and forth slightly.

"Joker," calls Janeen softly from across the room, "are you coming back to bed, or are you going to stand there all night asleep on your feet?"

He sips at the tea, inhales smartly, and opens his eyes wide. He sees her, and smiles sleepily. "Mmm," he says, stretching back his shoulders. "What you got to eat?"

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