LIES, INC. -- CHAPTER NINE
"Finally coming back for a couple of breaths of real air," the stout man observed, nodding toward Rachmael.
"There's no such thing as real air," a woman seated across from the two of them said; dark- skinned, tall, with acutely penetrating chitin-black eyes, she scrutinized Rachmael and he imagined for an instant that he was seeing Freya. "All air is real; it's either that or no air at all. Unless you think there's something called false air."
The stout man chuckled, nudged his companion. "Listen to that; you hear that? I guess everything you see is real, then; there's no fake nothing." To Rachmael he said, "Everything including dying and being in --"
"Can't you discuss all those sorts of things later?" a blond curly-haired youth at the far end of the room said irritably. "This is a most particularly important summation he's making, and after all, he is our elected president; we owe him our undivided attention, every one of us." His gaze traveled around the tastefully furnished room, taking all of the people in, including Rachmael. Eleven persons in addition to himself, he realized; eleven and me, but what is me? Am I what? His mind, clouded, dwelt in some strange overcast gloom, an obscuring mist that impeded his ability to think or to understand; he could see the people, the room also. But he could not identify this place, these people, and he wondered if the breach with that which had been familiar was so complete as to include himself; had his own physical identity, his customary self, been eradicated too, and some new gathering of matter set in its place? He examined his hands, then. Just hands; he could learn nothing from them, only that he did have hands and that he could see them -- he could see everything, with no difficulty. Colors did not rise out of the walls, drapes, prints, the dresses of the seated, casual women; nothing distorted and magnified floated as a median world between this clearly tangible environment and his own lifelong established percept-system.
Beside him suddenly an attractive tall girl bent and said close to his ear, "What about a cup of syn- cof? You should drink something hot, I'll fix it for you." She added, "Actually it's imitation syn-cof, but I know you know we don't have the genuine product here, except in April."
An authoritative-looking middle-aged man, bony, hard-eyed with an intensity that implied a ceaseless judging of everyone and everything, said, "This is worse than 'real air.' Now we're talking about genuine synthetic coffee. I wonder what a syn-cof plant would look like growing in a field. Yes, that's the crop Whale's Mouth ought to invest in; we'd be rich in a week." To the woman beside him, a white-oak blonde, he said, "After all, Gretch, it's a cold hard fact that every goddamn syn-cof plant or shrub or however the dratted stuff grows back on Terra got -- how's it go? Sing it for me, Gretch." He jerked his head toward Rachmael. "Him, too; he's never heard your quaint attempts to blat out authentic Terran folk songs."
The white-oak blonde, in a listless, bored voice, murmured half to herself, half to Rachmael, whom she was now eyeing, "'The little boy that held the bowl/Was washed away in the flood.'" She continued to contemplate Rachmael, now with an expression which he could not read. "Flood," she repeated, then, her light blue eyes watchful, alert for his reaction. "See anything resembling --"
"Shut up and listen," the curly-haired youth said loudly. "Nobody expects you to grovel, but at least show the proper respect; this man --" He indicated the TV screen, on which Omar Jones, in the fashion long-familiar to Rachmael, boomed cheerily away; the President of Newcolonizedland at this moment was dilating on the rapture of one's first experience at seeing a high-grade rexeroid ingot slide from the backyard atomic furnace, which, for a nominal sum, could be included in the purchase of a home at the colony -- and at virtually no money down. The usual pitch, Rachmael thought caustically; Terra and its inhabitants had listened to this, watched this dogged PR tirade in all its many variants, its multiple adaptations to suit every occasion. "This man," the curly-haired youth finished, "is speaking for us; it's everyone here in this room up there on that screen, and as President Jones himself said in that press release last week, to deny him is for us to repudiate our own selves." He turned to a large-nosed dour individual hunched over beside him, a mildly ugly unmasculine personage who merely grimaced and continued his state of absorption in Omar Jones' monolog.
The familiar tirade -- but to these people here?
And -- Freya. Where was she? Here, too ... whe:rever here was?
Not now, he realized with utter hopelessness. I won't find her now.
Appealing to everyone in the room the curly-haired youth said, "I don't intend to be a weevil for the whole damn balance of my life. That's one thing I can tell you." In abrupt restless anger, a spasm of anger that convulsed his features, he strode toward the large image on the TV screen.
Rachmael said thickly, "Omar Jones. Where is he speaking from?" This could not be Whale's Mouth. This speech, these people listening -- all of this, everything he saw and heard, ran contrary to reason, was in fact just plain impossible. At least was if Omar Jones consisted of a manufactured fake. And he was; there lay the entire point.
If this were Whale's Mouth, these people had to know that as well as he did. But -- possibly the THL soldier, after shooting him with the LSD-tipped dart, had carted him to a Telpor station and dumped him back to the Sol System and Earth, the planetary system out of which he -- grasping his time-warping construct cammed as a tin of Yucatan helium-powered bootlegged prophoz -- had so recently emerged. And Freya. Back on Earth? Or dead at Whale's Mouth, dead here, if this was actually the colony ... but it was not. Because this and only this explained the credulous participation by the people in this room in the hypnotic, droning oration of the man on the TV screen. They simply did not know. So he was not on the ninth planet of the Fomalhaut system any longer; no doubt of it at all. The invasion by the two thousand seasoned field reps from Lies, Incorporated had failed; even with UN assistance, with UN control of all Telpor stations, UN troops and advanced weapons -- Rachmael closed his eyes wearily as acceptance of the terrible obvious fact ate out of existence any illusion that he might have held that THL could be overturned, that Sepp von Einem could be neutralized. Theodoric Ferry had handled the situation successfully. Faced with the exposure of the Whale's Mouth hoax, Ferry had reacted swiftly and expertly and now it had all been decided; for one single, limited episode the curtain had been lifted, the people of Terra had received via the UN's planet-wide communications media a picture of the actuality underlying the elaborate, complicated myth ...
Then he was not on Terra either. Because, even though THL had in the sudden great showdown toppled the combined probe constellated out of the resources of its two immense opponents, the citizens of Terra had already been briefed fully, had already been exposed systematically to the entire truth -- and nothing, short of planet-wide genocide, could reverse that.
It made no sense. Bewildered, he made his way across the room, to the window; if he could see out, find a landscape familiar or at least some aspect which linked to a comprehensible theory -- any comprehensible theory -- that would serve to reorient him in space and time ... he peered out.
Below, streets wide, with trees blossoming in pink-hued splendor; a pattern of arranged public buildings, an aesthetically satisfying syndrome clearly planned by master builders who had had at their disposal a virtually unlimited variety of materials. These streets, these impressive, durable buildings, none of the constructs beyond the window had come into existence haphazardly. And none seemed destined to crumble away.
He could not recall any urban area on Terra so free of harsh functional autofacs; either the industrial combines here were subsurface, or cammed into the overall design somehow, disguised so effectively that they blended even under his own expert scrutiny. And no creditor jet-balloons. Instinctively, he searched for sign of one; flapples cranked back and forth in their eccentric fashion -- this much was familiar. And on the ped-runnels crowds roamed busily, fragmenting at junctions and streaming beyond the range of his vision intent (this, too, was customary; this was eternal and everywhere, a verity of his life on Terra) on their errands. Life and motion: activity of a dedicated, almost obsessive seriousness; the momentum of the city told him that what he saw below had not popped obligingly into existence in response to his scrutiny. Life here had gone on for a long time before him. There was too much of it and far too much kinetic force, to be explained away as a projection of his own psyche; this which he saw was not delusional, an oscillation of the LSD injected into his blood stream by the THL soldier.
Beside him, the white-oak blonde deftly appeared, said softly in his ear, "A cup of hot syn-cof?" She paused. Still numbed, Rachmael failed to answer; he heard her, but his bewilderment stifled even a reflexive response. "It will really make you feel better," the girl continued, after a time. "I know how you feel; I know very well what you're going through because I remember going through the same experience myself when I first found myself here. I thought I had gone out of my mind." She patted him, then, on the arm. "Come on. We'll go into the kitchen."
Trustingly, he found himself accepting her small warm hand; she led him silently through the living room of people intent on the image of Omar Jones enlarged to godlike proportions on the TV screen, and presently he and the girl were seated opposite each other at a small brightly decorated plastic-surfaced table. She smiled at him, encouragingly; still unable to speak he found himself hopefully smiling back, an echo resonating in response to her relaxed friendliness. Her life, the proximity of her dynamism, her body warmth, awoke him minutely but nevertheless critically from his shock-induced apathy. Once again, for the first time since the LSD dart had plunged into him, he felt himself gain vigor; he felt alive.
He discovered, all at once, a cup of syn-cof in his hand; he sipped and as he did so he tried, against the weight of the still-formidable apathy that pervaded him, to frame a remark calculated to convey his thanks. It seemed to require a million years and all the energy available, but the task edified him: whatever had happened to him and wherever in the name of god he was, the havoc of the mind-obliterating hallucinogen had by no means truly left his system. It might well be days, even weeks, before he found himself entirely rid of it; to that he was already stoically resigned.
"Thanks," he managed, finally.
The girl said, "What did you experience?"
Haltingly, with painstaking care, he answered, "I -- got an LSD dart in me. Can't tell how long I was under." Thousands of years, he thought. From the days of Rome to present. Evolution through centuries, and each hour a year. But there was no point in communicating that; he would not be telling the girl something new. Undoubtedly, when she had lived on Terra, she had been exposed -- like everyone else at one time or another -- to at least a residual dose of the chemical lingering in one of the major population centers' water supply: the still-lethal legacy inherited from the war of '92, so taken for granted that it had become a part of nature, not desired but silently endured.
"I asked," the girl repeated, with quiet, almost professional persuasiveness, fixing the focus of his attention on her and what she was asking, "what you experienced. What did you see? Better to tell someone now, before it gets dim; later it's very difficult to recall."
"The garrison state," he said hoarsely. "Barracks. I was there. Not long; they got to me fairly fast. But I did see it."
"Anything else?" The girl did not seem perturbed. But she listened tensely, obviously determined to miss nothing. "What about the soldier who fired the dart at you? Was there anything about him? Anything odd? Weird or unexplainable?"
He hesitated. "Christ," he said, "the hallucinations; you know lysergic acid -- you're familiar with what it does. My god -- I was inundated by every kind of perception. You want to hear about the Day of Judgment again, in addition to having gone through it yourself? Or the --"
"The soldier," the white-oak-haired girl said patiently.
With a ragged, sharp-pained exhalation, Rachmael said, "Okay. I hallucinated a cyclops, of the cephalopodan variety." For an interval he became silent; the effort of putting his recollection into words exhausted his precariously limited strength. "Is that enough?" he said, then, feeling anger.
"Aquatic?" Her luminous, intelligent eyes bored steadily at him; she did not let him evade her. "Requiring, or evidently requiring --"
"A saline envelope. I could see --" He made himself breathe with regularity, halting his sentence midway. "Signs of dehydration, cracking, of the dermatoid folds. From the effluvium I'd assumed a rapid evaporation of epithelial moisture. Probably indicates a homeostatic breakdown." He looked away, at that point, no longer able to meet her steady, critical gaze; the strain was too much for his vitiated powers, his ability to collect and maintain his attention. Five years old, he said to himself. The abreaction of the drug period; regression to the space-time axis of early childhood, along with the limited range of consciousness, the minute faculties of a preschool-age kid, and this is the topic that has to be dealt with; this is just too much. And it would be, he thought, even if I could pull out and function as an adult again, with an adult's ability to reason. He rubbed his forehead, feeling the ache, the constriction; like a deep, chronic sinusitis which had flared to its most malignant stage. A pain-threshold alteration, he speculated dully. Due to the drug. Routine common discomfort, ordinary somatic promptings, everything enlarged to the point of unbearability, and signifying nothing, nothing at all.
Conscious of his grim, introverted silence, the girl said, "Under LSD before, did you ever experience a physiognomic alteration of this sort? Think back to the initial mandatory episode during your grammar-school days. Can you remember back that far?"
"That was under a control," Rachmael said. "One of those Wes-Dem Board of Education psychologists, those middle-age do-gooding ladies in blue smocks who -- what the hell did they use to call themselves? -- something like psycheleticians. Or psychedelictrix; I forget which. I guess both groups got to me at one time or another. And then of course under the McLean Mental Health Act I took it again at sixteen and again at twenty-three." But the control, he thought; that made all the difference. Someone there all the time, trained, able to do and say the right thing: able to maintain contact with the stable objective koinos kosmos so that I never forgot that what I was seeing emanated from my own psyche, type-basics, or as Jung once called them, archetypes rising out of the unconscious and swamping the personal conscious. Out of the collective, suprapersonal inner space, the great sea of non-individual life.
The sea, he thought. And that physiognomic transformation of the THL soldier; my perception of him became transmuted along those lines. So I did see a type-basic, as in the previous times; not the same one, of course, because each episode under the drug is unique.
"What would you say," the girl said, "if I told you that what you saw was not mysticomimetic at all? "
"What I saw," Rachmael said, "could not have been psycheletic; it wasn't an expansion of consciousness or a rise in the sensitivity of my percept-system."
"Why not?" The girl regarded him keenly. Now two others from the living room, having left the TV set with its booming image of never-failing President Omar Jones, appeared, the thin, severe man with gold-rimmed glasses and an elderly woman with collapsed, corrugated flesh which hung in dismal wattles, with obviously dyed black, lusterless hair and far too ornate bracelets on her flabby wrists. Both seemed aware of the direction of conversation which had come before; they listened silently, almost raptly, and now a third person joined them, a dramatically colored, heavy- lidded woman in evidently her early thirties, wearing a blue-cotton Mexican-style shirt tied at the waist and open to expose effectively shaded smooth bare skin; her richly dyed, extremely tight jeans, plus the unbuttoned top of her blouse beneath the Mexican shirt, caused to be manifest a stunning, supple body -- Rachmael found himself fixedly contemplating her, no longer aware of the conversation in progress.
"This is Miss de Rungs," the thin, severe-featured man with the gold-rimmed glasses said, nodding at the impressive, deeply hued woman in the Mexican shirt. "And this is Sheila Quam." He indicated the white-oak-haired girl who had prepared hot syn-cof for Rachmael.
The stout man, still poking at his mouth with his toothpick, appeared at the door of the kitchen, smiled a warped but friendly smile composed of jagged and irregular teeth and said, "I'm Hank Szantho." He held out his hand and Rachmael shook. "We're all weevils," he explained to Rachmael. "Like you. You're a weevil; didn't you know it? What paraworld did you tie into? Not a really bad one; huh? " He eyed Rachmael searchingly, his jaw working, his face coarse with shrewd but in no way malicious interest.
"We're all in the class together," the curly-haired youth said in a bellicose but oddly agitated voice, speaking directly to Rachmael as if challenging him, as if some hidden dispute, beyond Rachmael's perception, somehow had become involved. "We all have the illness; we all have to get well." He physically propelled a slender, short-haired, smartly dressed girl with sharply delineated delicate features; she gazed at Rachmael with a wild, vague anxiety which was almost an appeal -- he did not know in regard to what, since the curly-haired youth -- whose shoulders and musculature Rachmael noticed for the first time, appeared unusually escalated in use-value -- had released her. "Right, Gretch?" the youth demanded.
To Rachmael, in a low but entirely controlled voice, the girl said, "I'm Gretchen Borbman." She held out her hand; reflexively, he shook, and found her skin smooth and lightly cool. "Welcome to our little revolutionary organization, Mr. --" She paused politely.
He gave his name.
"Arab-Israeli?" Gretchen Borbman said. "From the Federation of Semitic Peoples? Or from that drayage firm that used to be so big and now's disappeared ... Applebaum Enterprise, wasn't it called? Any relation? What ever happened to it and to that lovely new liner, that Omphalos ... wasn't that your flagship?"
It was beyond belief that she did not know; the news media had made a cause celebre of such magnitude out of the Omphalos' flight to the Fomalhaut system that no one could fail to know, at least no one on Terra. But this was not Terra; already, the agreeable, normal milieu of humans in proximity to him, here, had washed into paleness the grotesque apparition of gummy seaweed slime that, caked to the steaming, drying cyclops-face, had stunk so acridly, rinsed in foulness: the degeneration into hydrokinetically maintained organic tissue of what had once been -- or convincingly appeared to be -- a human being, even if it was a killer-commando mercenary of Trails of Hoffman Limited.
"Yes," he said cautiously, and, deep within the appropriate section of his mentational apparatus, a conduit carried a warning signal; some sensitized mechanism woke and became thoroughly alert. And did not cease its picket-duty; it would remain in go-position until otherwise instructed; his control over it was virtually nil. "That was -- still is -- the sole valid asset of our firm. With the Omphalos we're something; without her we're not." With utmost caution he surveyed the group of people, the weevils, as they called themselves, to see if any appeared aware of the achingly recent abortive flight to Fomalhaut. None of them showed any indication; none of them spoke up or even registered a meaningful facial expression. Their joint lack of response, second by second, plunged him into alarmed, accelerated confusion. And he experienced, weirdly and as frighteningly as each time before, an unannounced oscillation of the drug-state; he felt his time-sense fluctuate radically, and everything, all objects and persons in the room, became changed. The LSD, at least briefly, had returned; this did not surprise him, but it was the wrong time; this, of all possibilities, he could do without at this palpably crucial moment.
"We get damn near no news from Terra," the stout man with the toothpick, Hank Szantho, said to him ... the voice sounded close by, but the man's shape; it had warped into a lurid color collage, the textures of his flesh and clothes exaggerated, now rapidly becoming grotesque as the light factor doubled and then doubled again until Rachmael looked into a formless blur of heated metal, red so molten and ominous that he moved his chair back, away from the sliding slag-like sheet which had replaced the man; behind it Hank Szantho bobbed, the balloon-head capriciously located, as if by whim, in the vicinity of the collage of torch-shaped fire which had a moment ago been the body and clothing and flesh of the man.
And yet the man's face, diminished in vigor and solidity as it now was, had undergone no physiognomic disfiguration; it remained the balanced countenance of a somewhat crude but amiable, tolerant, heavy-set human.
Astutely, the white-oak-haired girl Sheila Quam said to him, "I see apprehension in your eyes, Mr. ben Applebaum. Is it the hallucinogen?" To the others she said, "I think it's rephasing within his brain-metabolism once more; obviously it hasn't as yet been excreted. Give it time. Drink your cup of syn-cof." Sympathetically, she held it up, between his line of vision and Hank Szantho's nimbus of radiant color; he managed to fix his attention, make out the cup, accept it and sip. "Just wait; it'll go away. It always does, and we're very familiar with the illness, both subjectively in ourselves and objectively in each other. We help each other. " She moved her chair closer, to sit beside him; even in his condition he made note of that, and in addition the fact that this superficially slight maneuver effectively placed her between him and the dramatic, dark-complexioned woman, Miss de Rungs, and the willowy, attractive Gretchen Borbman with her springy, near-bobbed chic hair. At this loss he felt sad; a dismal awareness of his powerlessness burgeoned within him, realization that, in the drug-state, he could not fashion in any manner whatsoever a change in the flow of sense-data flowing in on him; the authority of the data, their absoluteness and degree, again reduced him to a passive device which merely registered the stimuli without responding.
Sheila Quam patted, then took gentle hold of his right hand.
"The illness," Gretchen Borbman said, "is called the Telpor Syndrome. Disjunction of the percept- system and substitution of a delusional world. It manifests itself -- when it does at all -- shortly after teleportation. No one knows why. Only a few get it, a very few. Ourselves, at this present time. We get cured one by one, get released ... but there always are new ones, such as yourself, showing up. Don't be worried, Mr. ben Applebaum; it is generally reversible. Time, rest, and of course therapy."
"Sorcerer's apprentice therapy," Hank Szantho said, from some vector of space not within Rachmael's range of sight. "S.A.T., they call it. The cephalic wash head-benders; they're in and out of here, even Dr. Lupov -- the big man from Bergholzlei in Switzerland. God, I hate those fnidgwizers; poking and messing around like we're a bunch of animals."
"'Paraworld,'" Rachmael said, after what seemed to him an almost unendurably protracted interval, due to the drug. "What is that?"
"That's what a weevil sees," the older woman with the dough-like folded face-rolls said in a cross, nagging, fretful voice, as if discussing the subject made her suffer the reoccurrence of some hated osteogenetic twinge. "Some are just dreadful; it's a terrible, terrible crime that they're allowed to get away with it, programming us with that as we're on our way over here. And of course, we are assured by those Telpor technicians that nothing, absolutely nothing of this sort could possibly happen." Her voice, shrill and accusing, tormented Rachmael's brain, amplified by the drug; the auditory pain became a fire-sheet, white, brittle, cutting, whirling like a circular saw and he put his hands up to shield his ears.
"For chrissakes," Hank Szantho said angrily, and his voice, also, reverberated hideously, but at a low pitch, like the shifting of the earth below during a major H-head excavation detonation catastrophically close. "Don't blame the Telpor people; blame the fruggin' Mazdasts -- it's their fault. Right?" He glowered around at all of them, no longer amiable and easy-going but instead harsh, threatening them with his suspicious, wrathful attention. "Go cut the eye-lens out of a Mazdast. If you can find one. If you can get close enough." His gaze, rotating from person to person, fell on Rachmael, stopped; for an interval he contemplated him, with a mixture of scorn, outrage, and compassion. By degrees his indignation ebbed, then was entirely gone. "It's tough, isn't it, Applebaum? It's no joke. Tell all these people; you saw it, didn't you? I heard you telling Sheila. Yeah." He sighed noisily, the wind escaping from him as if the knot of life which regulated the retention of vital oxygen had all at once unraveled itself out of existence. "Some get a mechanical-construct mysticomimetism; we call that The Clock."
"The Clock," Gretchen Borbman murmured, nodding somberly. "That one really isn't there; I don't believe that ever existed, and anyhow it'd just be like encountering a simulacrum, only hypnagogic in origin. A balanced person ought to recover from that without having to go through the class." She added, obviously to herself, "The goddamn class. The goddamn unending pointless disgusting class; jesus, I hate it. " She glared swiftly, furiously, around the room. "Who's the control, today? You, Sheila? I'll bet it's you." Her tone was withering, and, in Rachmael's auditory percept-system, the ferocity of it created for a moment a visual hellscape, mercifully fitful in stability; it hovered, superimposed across the surface of the plastic kitchen table, involving the syn-cof cups, the shaker of sweetex and small simulated silver pitcher of reconstituted organic butter fat in suspension -- he witnessed impotently the fusion of the harmless panorama of conventional artifacts into a tabular scene of dwarfed obscenity, of shriveled and deranged indecent entanglement among the various innocent things. And then it passed. And he relaxed, his heart under a load of nausea-like difficulty; what he had, in that fragment of time, been forced to observe appalled his biochemical substructure. Even though the drug still clung to his mind and perverted it, his body remained free -- and outraged. Already it had had enough.
"Our control," Hank Szantho said, with sardonic sentimentality, then a wink to Rachmael. "Yes, we have that, too. Let's see, Applebaum; your paraworld, the one the Mazdasts -- if they exist -- allegedly programmed you for -- all this, of course, took place during teleportation while you were demolecularized -- is listed codewise by the authorities here as the Aquatic Horror-shape version. Damn rare. Reserved, I suppose, for people who cut up their maternal grandmothers in a former life and fed them to the family cat." He beamed at Rachmael, showing huge gold-capped teeth, which, in the churning froth of excitation induced by the lysergic acid in his brain metabolism, Rachmael experienced as a display of revolting enormity, a disfigurement that made him clutch his cup of syn-cof and shut his eyes; the gold-capped teeth triggered off spasm after spasm within him, motion sickness to a degree that he had never considered possible: it was recognizable but enlarged to the magnitude of a terminal convulsion. He hung onto the table, hunched over, waited for the waves of hyperperistalsis to abate. No one spoke. In the darkness of his unlit private hellscape he writhed and fought, coped as best he could with random somatic abominations, unable even to begin to speculate on the meaning of what had been said.
"The stuff hitting you bad?" a girl's voice sounded, gently, close to his ear. Sheila Quam, he knew. He nodded.
Her hand, on the upper part of his neck, rubbing lightly with empathic concern, soothed the demented fluctuations within control of his malfunctioning, panic-dominated autonomic nervous system; he underwent a soothing, infinitely longed-for diminution of muscular contraction; her touch had started the process, the prolonged recovery-period of someone making his way out of the drug-state back to normal somatic-sensation and time. He opened his eyes, gratefully exchanged a silent glance with her. She smiled, and the rubbing, regular contact of her hand increased in sureness; seated close to him, the smell of her hair and skin enveloping him, she steadily increased the vital tactile bridge between them alive; she made it more profound, more convincing. And, gradually, the remoteness of the reality around him shifted in degree; once again the people and objects compressed in the small yellow-lit kitchen became solid. He ceased being afraid even as insight into just how fragmenting this new onrush of the drug-oscillation had been reached the again-functioning higher centers of his brain.
"'The Aquatic Horror-shape version,'" he said shakily; he took hold of Sheila Quam's obliging hand, stopped its motion -- it had done its task -- and enfolded it in his own. She did not draw away; the cool, small hand, capable of such restorative powers, such love-inspired healing, was by a frightening irony almost unbelievably fragile. It was vulnerable, he realized, to almost everything; without his immediate protection it seemed totally at the mercy of whatever malign, distorted into ominous and unnatural shape destructive entity that blossomed.
He wondered what, within that category, would manifest itself next. For himself -- and the rest of them.
And -- had this happened to Freya, too? He hoped to god not.
But intuitively he knew that it had. And was still confronting her ...
perhaps even more so than it did him.