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page eleven

(Why not?)

(How are you feeling?)

(I'm okay... My mind keeps wandering... I keep thinking I'm on the mountain... It's kind of hard to focus. Where are you, anyway?)

(Suffice it to say I am approaching you now. As for your mental state, child, you did have a restless night.)

(Did the whole lot of you just sit around and watch me sleep?)

(Pay attention to your footing, Ace.)

Thirty-five years in the future I stop and realise I've almost stepped on a soft snow bridge. I'd have fallen through, and it is a long way down. (Thanks, Smokey,) I think, and place the last glass on the table. All done.

When I walked through the arch to report, Sally and Peace were helping Gladys sit up. Gladys smiled at Peace.

'I know you, don't I, dear?'

'You should, Aunt Luuna,' said Peace gently, sitting with her.

'Oh, don't start with that "Loony" nonsense again! I've no idea what that means!'

Peace smiled warmly at her, then tentatively over at me. 

'I'm sorry. I'll call you Aunt Gladys if you'll call me Peace. Now, if it's okay with mom I want to go talk to Ace, there.'

'Yes, that's fine. Don't go far, dears.'

'I thought I'd show Ace the fleet.'

'That's just... Oh, wow!' I said a minute later, when I saw what was in the driveway, 'There's two of them?'

Precisely parked in the wide driveway were two Space Cadillacs.

'Allow me to blow your mind: there's three of 'em. Uncle Jack says the third is on it's way. Didn't say who was driving, though. I thought we were all here.'

Smokey said, 'I am approaching you now.' Was it possible?

Peace was still talking, faster and faster. 'What will the neighbours think, right? Let's see, that's Alpha. It's a 1957 Coupe deville. Note the subdued fins. Now check out the beauties on Beta. That's a top of the line 1958 Eldorado Brougham, that is. She's Uncle Jack's favourite, I think. You haven't seen either of these. The '59 Sedan deville, with the biggest fins of all, that's Gamma, she's Luuna's favourite.' She drew a shuddering breath. 'That, that's the one you saw last night...Oh, Ace, what the hell's going on? What's wrong with me? Nobody will tell me what happened last night and I keep thinking I'm somewhere else and, and...'

She swayed on her feet. I caught her, meaning to step back when she was steady, but she wrapped her arms around my back and nestled her head under my chin. I tentatively stroked her hair as she shook with sobs. 'There, there.' I said, lamely. I couldn't understand how this was the same girl I'd been so afraid of last night. I sort of understood how the Professor felt, dealing with my outbursts. What would he do? Be the strong one?

'I don't know what's happening, Peace, nobody will tell me anything, either. But look at me!' She blinked back her tears and gazed up with soft, grey eyes. 'Whatever happens I'll make sure you're all right. Me and the Professor, that's what we do. I promise!' 

I saw doubt and said it again. 'I promise, do you hear?'

I pulled her close and rested my cheek on her hair. Something kicked inside me and I heard her go, “Oh!” and something passed between and united us. For a long, puzzling moment we were the only person in the universe.

Then I heard a familiar waltz and there was Gamma weaving drunkenly up the drive. It shuddered to an off-kilter stop, lurched ahead another meter, then stopped again. The engine stuttered and died and a figure leaped out like a reluctant sailor back on land. A trim man in a tuxedo, cape and turban, who cried, 'Infernal machine!' and kicked the door shut.

'Is that you, Smokey?'

'Greetings, Ace. And you are Peace, I assume.' He studied us for a moment and cleared his throat. 'I pray my arrival has not intruded on some manner of adolescent, hormonal experimentation?'

We separated quickly, red-faced, and Peace said to Smokey, 'Dream on, slime ball. You ain't intruding on nothing. You know this joker, Ace? And who said you could drive Gamma? Hell, who said you could drive, period?' 

Smokey said, 'Quite' and he and his tattered dignity breezed past us and through the open front door. I heard a distant chorus of greetings. I turned to Peace, who was carefully looking the other way. She saw me looking and shrugged. 'Never mind him,' I said, 'he's kind of a jerk but he's okay, I think.'

'I know him, but I've never met him,' she said, 'and does that make any sense?'

'I think so,' I said, 'have you ever been upstairs with the boys?'

Her expression was unreadable. 'You mean at the temple, right?'

'Yeah. What'd you think I --'

'Nothing! The answer is, 'no'. Aunt Luuna goes up there, of course, with every pilgrim, and... my mom did once, before I was born.'

I let that Important Clue sail right past in my eagerness to tell her about Smokey.

'Guess what? I went up there yesterday and that's where I met Smokey. Except he was taller, sort of. You really don't know what happens up there?'

Her eyes flashed. 'I know I've been told my whole life that it's dangerous and forbidden! I know the strictest laws of the Brothers forbids the female animal from partaking in the cosmic communion! I know --'

'Oi, Peace, you're doing that freaky Luuna thing again!'

She looked shocked for a moment and then smiled, embarrassed. 

'Oh, God, I'm sorry. I had so much training, it's so easy to be like her. It's like sliding into your oldest, most comfortable pair of jeans.'

She smiled at a private thought. 'Come on, let's get off our feet.' We sat on Alpha's bonnet, a flag of planet Baraclese between us, and she took my hand in both of hers. I let her; touching didn't feel as strange as before. Her hands were thin and cold.

'What were we talking about, again? Oh, yeah, the boys upstairs. I know that going near the stairs was an instant scolding from Uncle Jack. But mostly... you know, Ace, I never once felt like finding out. Isn't that weird? If you were me, wouldn't you try to sneak up there at least once? Oh, wait, scratch that. You did.'

'Yeah, but what I'm saying is, I think Smokey let me.'

'What, that hypnotist guy? Who is he, anyway?'

'He ain't human, I'll tell you that. You didn't see him yesterday.' I shook my head at the memory. 'Don't let that "Amazing Mystico and Janet" routine fool you. He's... powerful. I think he kept you downstairs all those years, kept you from being curious. Listen, why don't I tell you everything that happened yesterday? Just promise me you won't get upset.'

'You think I might?'

'I would, if I were you,' I admitted. 'Still want to hear it?'

She nodded.

'Okay, first thing you have to know is that the Professor and me are a team. He's the brain and I'm the muscle. We aren't tourists. We're... I don't know, kind of like detectives...'


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