Title: Vestigy
Author: Lisby
Disclaimer: Scully, Mulder, Skinner, and other characters belong to 1013 and Chris Carter. The prose, however, is mine. If you see this story castigated on someone else's site in the guise of MSTing, I did not give my permission, nor waived my secondary copyright.

Category: Angst with a _very_ tiny bit of slash.
Rating: R

Summary: 'Vestigy' takes place in the near future, after the planned invasion of the planet, focusing on the radically altered existence of Walter Skinner.

Author's Note: Readers may have to work a little to follow this story, as I have tried to write it "clear as mud" in the spirit of Chris Carter, but hopefully things are not as obscure as they may seem and, to quote LoneGunGuy, "The pay-off will be big." You may want to read my other vignettes, especially 'Clutching at Shells,' to get some of the background "essence," as 'Vestigy' fits into that line of events. Those stories can be found at Gossamer, MulderTorture Anonymous, or In Our Humble Opinion (http://home.earthlink.net/~iwonder). I hope you give 'Vestigy' a try. Thank you for reading and thoughtful feedback is always welcome and appreciated.

The lyrics to "Mockingbird Hill" aren't mine. I wish I knew who they belonged to. If anyone knows the songwriter, please e-mail me.

For Marlene Morris, who is always there. And for LoneGunGuy, Liliana, Quercus, and Jen Collins, who read and said, "Write more! Write more!" So, I did.


To: Jeremiah Goderville, Goderville Ghetto

April 21 Cochise Ghetto

Dear "Jeremiah":

I think I like Petunia better.

I marvel that I am writing to you--that we are allowed to communicate. Back in the Simpleton camp, the day we said good-bye on the train platform, I never thought to see or hear from you again. That would have been a great shame after all we endured together. It snowed here last December (yes, it does sometimes snow in "Helldorado"). That night I was alone in my cot and damned cold. I thought about you, me, Mish, and Snappy on the day the guards told us snow was coming--each of us with our pitiful standard-issue quarter tent, throwing them in together and-- voila--instant domicile and instant family. Remember how we--what did Mish call it?--"puppied" for warmth? Good old Mish. When I was assigned to a delivery train, she was in decline. I hope she made it to a ghetto--that she died somewhat free.

I had to laugh at the front of your letter, after I finished crying. I sat down on the steps outside Schiefflelin Hall and bawled like a baby. At least I wasn't alone. Seemed like almost everyone who got mail yesterday was crying. I guess we made a caterwaul, because Young Major Chancellor sent his Bluttos to disperse us.

"To a bald beefcake with wire-rim glasses. Hung like a moose. Inventory #DJT-1411. Might now be known as 'Sundance.'" Well, like you and your companion, Mr. Skinny, the Moose and I have adopted a more dignified moniker. We--I am now called Warren. I had a few productive fuges in Sanctuary, and while I'm sure that my name was not Warren, I'm certain it sounded something like it.

Your letter wasn't long enough, Petunia. I do, of course, understand not wanting to waste paper in case I wasn't identified. We have two FEMA general stores in Tombstone and what little paper they had was gone in a rush. I work in the Sheriff's Office, so I was able to find something to write on there--in fact I've hoarded about fifty sheets for the future now that I know you're out there. Anyway, next time, write more. _Please_.

(BTW, your letter did not appear opened. Does mine?)

I am glad to know that you're not out in the fields all day at your hoary age, growing food for the Feds. Your well-being is important to me. You were the first person that I _knew_ I had known before. I still can't tell you what we were to each other, but...well, knowing you were delivered and are alive is like knowing a piece of my old self lives, too.

We don't get much news of the outside here, but just holding your letter means the Federals are sure the Rebel cause is lost. If they thought we were not properly penned in our "autonomous enclaves" they wouldn't graciously allow mail go through. But what the hell does it matter if the Feds have run the Earth over? I'm not going to squander any of my hard- stolen paper writing another word about them or a world I can hardly recall.

You asked about my situation. As I mentioned, I work for the sheriff, Wyatt Earp. (I hear Goderville has a queen. Do you have to bow and call her "majesty"?) Don't think I am anyone important. I'm not. I'm just a lowly peace officer--like I was in the camp--one of about 150 for all of Cochise. I also do a lot of the paperwork for everyone else because I can still write and read. The Federals need "detailsdetaildetails." (I'm doing my Young Major impression, but that'll whoosh right over your head.) I deliver stacks of reports to the governor, Old Chancellor, and he just rolls his eyes. He's seems to be a cut above most of the Federals. Fair and flexible, unlike his nephew. Anyway, that's where all the paper goes--right back to the Feds who gave it.

I'm assigned to patrol the town itself. I got lucky in that. I didn't want to live in an isolated mining community, or cover some huge swath of ranchland where the only fun is wandering across wombless dead cows and women sundried into mummies since the flies won't touch them.

I have a room above the Occidental saloon and whorehouse. Among my riches I've got a cot, a trunk, a coal stove, a kerosene lamp, and three sets of clothes. What more could I need? Sure beats the hell out of Simp camp and our thin bedrolls and stitched-together tent. Of course, that sure beat the hell out of the Factory.

Which reminds me--how's your hand? Did the nerves regenerate at all? They must have. Your handwriting looks pretty good.

Shit. Someone just told me that the delivery train is pulling out in a half hour. I want this letter to be on it. I've got just enough time to jog down there, so I'll sign off for now, but I'll start another letter tomorrow to go on the next train out.

Too bad I want you get this letter so desperately that I can't afford an address tit-for-tat. "To a spry, wicked old devil with a roadmap face and PKL-2410 tattooed on his saggy ass"???

Yours always,

Sundance/Warren


April 22

Dear Petunia,

Before the proprietor's wife popped in to tell me about the mail train, I was going to write that there isn't much for a peace officer in Tombstone to do. Since this is the "capital" of Cochise, the governor and his troops are here, and they usually take it upon themselves to buffalo the drunks and glower after Curly Bill's gang when they've pulled some stupid shit. That suits Wyatt and his brothers just fine--it gives them time to make this a better refuge for the freed prisoner.

We deputies do a lot of community service. There still aren't enough houses for all the Delivered who have left Sanctuary, so we spend a lot of time building--mostly in adobe. There is a paucity of wood, as you might imagine.

Wyatt says he came out here with Governor Chancellor, a squadron of Bluttos, and about two dozen Simpletons. I heard him say that Chancellor hand-picked him to be the nonmilitary leader back when he was newly shaped at Chancellor's Factory. The old man gave Wyatt and those original Simps their names, too. The whole thing is supposed to be some kind of joke, only no one here remembers why it's funny. Sometimes I think I nearly do, but then...nah.

Old Chancellor had good instincts. Wyatt is cool and logical in his dealings with the Federals (we've had about a dozen public whippings and only one hanging in the last year). Old Chancellor seems truly fond of Wyatt. The sheriff appears to reciprocate. Chancellor's housewoman is always bringing lunch invitations around to Wyatt at the office. He gives the woman a nod with smile like a glass of cold iced tea. Yeah, that's an arty description, but I think you're man enough to make something of it. I'm glad it's not me going to lunch with my own Manufacturer. I couldn't look at the man who made me without gagging. I sure as hell know I couldn't eat with him.

After I signed off my letter, I headed for the station. It's about a half-mile away. The main street here is called Allen and it's home to almost all the saloons--a bevy of them, painted like prostitutes, doors always open. The saloons are never hurting for business. Frankly, Petunia, we've got a lot of people here trying to drink away the few memories they retain. Good- quality Federal booze is costly, but available. Most people drink hooch. There are dozens of stills in town; sometimes the air smells like whisky. And the ranchers do a nice business on the side making brew, then carting it into town.

Although drunk Simps cause almost all the trouble that Curly Bill's gang and the Lights don't, the Feds have no problem with the daily booze-o- rama. It diverts us. And making and selling hooch is the only real enterprise in Tombstone.

I found Allen Street too quiet. Usually, the boardwalk that runs up either side of the trafficway is so crowded that I take my chances with the horses, skateboards, bikes, buggies, and Fed hovercars and walk in the road. But the boardwalk was almost empty and the hurdy-gurdy's tinkle bounced off the ceiling of Kate's as I passed by. Empty gaming tables in the Oriental. Nobody home at the Spreading Chestnut Tree.

But the closer I got to Haskell Street--that's where the train station is--the more ruckus I heard. Finally, I picked up my pace to a run and came around the corner with my hand going for my gun.... No, I don't have a gun anymore than I did in Simp camp. I still keep reaching for it, though.

The station platform was packed with people, all shoving and pushing and shouting. There must have been hundreds of letters flying through the air in a desperate attempt to get them on the train, which was already pulling out of the station. Some of doors of the empty delivery cars were open and people were trying to pitch the letters inside. Others were running along the track to do the same.

I saw red tracers going up from the warning flares that the Feds were firing as they came riding the other way down Haskell Street, inadvertently driving bystanders toward the station.

The crowd on the platform was surging forward, washing up against those in the front. I tried again for my residual gun, cursed, ran faster, and cut over to the tracks. Savor this image, Petunia: your Sundance--bald pate reflecting the sun's zenith, manly sweat glistening across my upper lip, muscles rippling (although I doubt you could see them through my baggy worksuit). I leapt up and caught a handhold bar on the side of the engine car, stuck my head through the open window of the door and yelled, "Federal agent! Stop this train right now!" The skinny, lantern-jawed engineer startled, stared like a scarecrow, and finally threw on the brakes.

"You don't move this fucking thing an inch--not one more fucking inch!" I shouted as the train squealed to a halt and the engine's noise died back. I heard a lot of screaming and the Young Major's voice over the bullhorn telling the crowd that they were violating the peace rules and the next shots fired would be real. I looked back over my shoulder at red smoke and shrieking chaos--but just then the Earps arrived, with Wyatt riding ahead to intercept Young Chancellor while the others dismounted and made for the platform. I jumped down from the engine and sprinted after them, pushed my way through the panicking mob, until I was up there with them, urging calm.

I saw there were about a dozen people on the plankboards, all trodden down in the hysteria of mass retreat, but I didn't see anything bloody on the tracks--just a scatter of envelopes. Virgil Earp climbed up the side of a boxcar to stand on its roof. He fired off a blue flare and started shouting orders to stand and listen.

The effect of our training still amazes me, Petunia. Within a minute everyone was standing and facing Virgil, all quiet but for the moans of the injured at our feet.

Virgil Earp is a big man--taller and broader than me. If you saw him, your wizened old heart would go pitty-pat. He's your type: blonde, blue-eyed, barhandle mustache. He and Wyatt are twin Clones, except that Wyatt has come out thin and sinewy. Anyway, Virgil has a big, booming voice, but he gives off about ten fold of that "daddydaddydaddy" essence you attribute to me. The Simps just love him. Anyway, Virgil kept talking calmly, telling everyone to place their mail in a pile on the platform and go on home. The peace officers would make sure it went out on the train. Everything was all right. No one would be punished. Just put the mail in a pile and go home....

I was watching Wyatt when Virgil said no one would be punished. He was still astride his horse right along side of Young Chancellor's hovercar. He gave a nod to Virgil. The Young Major was scowling, but the Fed troops held back. When the people began to do as Virgil told them, I saw the Young Major speak into his headset and the mass of black body armor began to recede.

With the Feds moving off, we turned our attention to the injured. There was a man not far from me who was groaning and trying to sit up. As I knelt by his side, I saw the Young Major's hovercar pass, heard the godawful engine hiss. Reminds me of languishing in my cell at the Factory, waiting to be "reinforced," hearing the hourly perimeter patrols. Eight patrols and my rest time was up. They were punctual bastards. On the platform, I started gulping and sweating, then fought like hell not to run off in whatever direction my feet would take me when I saw Young Chancellor in conversation with the engine driver. The scarecrow was pointing my way.

Medical staff from Sanctuary had arrived on the platform, and one helped me lift the trampled Simp to his feet. I let the Angel slip an arm around the man and walk him off. When I looked back toward Young Chancellor, I found Wyatt blocking our mutual line of sight and used the chance to escape down the platform and into the station itself. It's a wooden clapboard shed, really, where the Feds do a final inventory of delivered Merchandise before they let the Angels start their triage. It was hollow and hot inside, buzzing with flies and a few of those fucking bees.

I heard that ringing again in my ears, Petunia. My own blood like a river whispering. I went with the river--just let go like they taught us in Sanctuary--let it take me back to a place and time not quite expunged. I saw that I was holding my arm and there was blood leaking through my fingers. It was outside--dark, but there was some sort of illumination behind me--and beyond, I knew without seeing that some huge pointed shape jutted up into the sky. There were panic sounds from a large crowd. And a man beside me. I remember big dark eyes looking into mine with an intense concern that scared me. His voice was a thick velvet ribbon. "Let me help you." Then he looked at the wound and his mouth hinted a smile. "It's just a graze, sir. It's okay--it's just a graze."

I must have stood there for a long time, Petunia, just doing the Blank Simp. (God, remember the Blank Simp Dance around that big Amer-Indian woman's campfire? We even made the guards laugh. It felt good to cut up like that--even if we were the butt of our own joke.)

"Hey, Warren--you in there?" That was Wyatt. I blinked at him. "You need to go to Sanctuary?" I shook my head to clear it and told him I was fine. His blue eyes narrowed but he let the lie slide, told me I'd saved some lives by stopping that train, that I'd done a damned ballsy thing by telling the engineer I was a Fed. I'd put my ass on the line for the people and he wouldn't forget that. Now I should go on home and stay inside until some drover got drunk and gave Young Chancellor someone else to thump on.

I tried to smile as his hand clasped my shoulder, but I didn't tell him that he was wrong--that "federal agent" just came out of my mouth. I believe I was a law man, but I've conjured former myself as what I am now: a peace officer, but now...?

Petunia, was I a Fed? Was I committing the atrocities you, Snappy, and Mish fought against until I screwed up or something and they threw me in a Factory, too? Fuck, Petunia, I might have been "somebody," just like you've always thought, only maybe I was somebody on the wrong side of Right.

I can't think about this any longer.


April 24

No mail train yet. I guess I'll start writing smaller. Weight will probably be a consideration in what they ship through and I don't want to push my luck with too many pages. But I don't want to stop writing either. So, I hope someone in Goderville has a magnifying glass.

There were lights last night down toward Bisbee. I watched their strange ballet from my window. It's actually more like a mating dance, the way they circle each other, drop those shimmering. feathery tracers, shoot straight up into the night as if to see which can vault the highest.

I saw Morgan Earp and a posse of deputies and medics head for Bisbee this morning. They'll stay there for a few days until all the women are recovered. I've been on that detail before. It's rough. We spend all day finding out who's missing, then ride around all night chasing the Lights, trying to find drop sites and get the women back before the sun comes up. Dehydration kills them quickly after whatever they're put through: as little as two or three hours in the morning sun can be fatal. There's nothing worse, Petunia, than to find a woman among the ocotillo and crucifixion thorns who could have been saved if you'd gotten there a half hour sooner.

The Lights visit Tombstone, too. Of course, we don't remember them. When the posses from Bisbee, Willcox, and the Hooker Ranch show up, they find us staring at the walls just like Morg's posse surely found the Bisbeeians doing this morning. But the Lights don't come here as often as they do the other settlements. Rumor says it has something to do with the governor: They only come when he's gone from town. I guess they need Old Chancellor or they wouldn't give a damn if he blew his brains out on the roof of Schiefflelin Hall. Jim Earp told me Chancellor did that once. The Lights took up his body, put him back together somehow, and dropped him off right in the middle of Allen Street. I'm not sure I believe that story.

It's pretty today, Petunia. One of those clear blue-sky afternoons when just looking up at the heavens makes me think I'm just a hair's breadth away from knowing everything. Not just about who I was, but _everything_. There are so many mysteries and they're not just reflected in the vastness of sky, but in the little beauties all around us, right next to us. Right below us. Bessie--the Occidental's madam--is under my window, hanging her smalls out to dry. She's an ugly woman, but damned if she can't sing. Was it meant for me to stop just now, to scratch my head, and think, 'Gee, beauty from ugliness...what a concept'?

If I was a Fed, Petunia, then maybe the Factory fueled a refiner's fire. God, I hope so.

You, my friend, are being offered a very different opportunity. I'm not sure what it is, but I know your spirit needs no refinement. Only someone who has always been truly good could have shown me the many kindnesses you have.

I wish you were here. Maybe someday they'll let camp family be together.

Bessie is singing.

"When its late in the evening, I climb up the hill, and survey all my kingdoms while everything's still. Only me and the sky and the old whippoorwill sing songs in the twilight on mockingbird hill."

I hope the sunset is coming on as sweetly in Goderville.

Sundance


April 27

Still no mail. I helped offload some Merchandise yesterday, though. I've noticed that each Delivery brings a few less Simps. The trains used to be packed. Aboard the one that delivered me, there was just enough room for everyone to sleep in rows, like spoons tucked up against each other. And during the day there wasn't much to do except wait for a turn at one of the tiny barred windows to take a few breaths of air and peek at what was passing by. In the beginning there were real communities out there-- prosperous Federal metropolises untouched by war. Then, as we traveled further south, I saw burned-out towns garrisoned with Federal troops. I got my turn at a window once as we passed a gallows. There were hundreds of bodies, swinging and rotting, bloated and black.

It took four days to get to Cochise. Twice, after we'd entered the desert, the train stopped and sat on the tracks for inexplicable hours. I cannot describe the misery in my boxcar. There were about one hundred people inside when we left Simp camp. More than twenty died before we reached Tombstone--maybe a baker's dozen during the last forty-eight hours. I'd tell you more about it, but, well...I'm sure other deliveries were worse--I just hope yours wasn't one of those, Petunia. And at least you went west, not south. Maybe the heat wasn't so bad. Maybe it wasn't as crowded in your boxcar. Maybe nobody died while nobody could help.

Tombstone received about fifteen new Simps in yesterday's delivery. It used to be two or three hundred per shipment. We're always prepared for a crisis when we open those boxcar doors--people in extremis, people still in the shock of manufacture. But yesterday, most of the new Simps were first-line goods; only three needed the Angels' immediate care. We greeted the rest with kind words and cool water and an inhalation of The Happy.

Wait...sorry. You don't have The Happy in Goderville, although you may have something like it. Our head Angel at Sanctuary, John Holliday, whips up a mild anesthesia that started off with the cornball name "Doc's Patented Happy Gas." That devolved into The Happy. It knocks back whatever pain the Delivered are feeling and sedates them slightly for the final processing. Sometimes when the red lights of those code readers start strobing, the Simps will fugue and...well, we've both been there; done that.

I'm not sure if it's the same where you are, but in Tombstone, the Feds keep everyone away from the station when the shipments come. After the Merchandise is taken to Sanctuary, Wyatt writes out the inventory numbers on a blackboard on the front steps of Schiefflelin Hall. And if a newcomer is coherent enough to answer questions, Wyatt will also add his or her nickname and a Simp camp of origin. Pretty much the whole town will come watch Wyatt put up those numbers, places, and nicknames. It's rare, however, when anyone recognizes family.

Misery loves company, and the evenings after Deliveries are bedlam on Allen Street.

One night a few months ago, I stood outside the Oriental with Morg and Virgil, watching the drunks and the Feds, trying to gauge which encounter could set off a full-tilt crowd bash without Earp mediation. I've always felt bad after a deliveries, too--as bad as the people who cram the saloons and trot crookedly down the boardwalk. As I said, Virgil's an easy man to talk to. That night, I found myself telling him about you and Snappy--that both of you had been delivered and I knew where to. I talked about Mish-- explained that she was dying and when we'd parted at Simp camp, it had been a final good-bye. I had no one else from camp left to hope for. No reason to wake up in a horse trough full of vomit, but I wanted to.

Virgil laughed--soft laugh, like a furry rumble. He put his hand on my arm and I felt as if those blue eyes saw nothing else in Tombstone but my soul. "Warren, you ain't looking for the ones you remember. You're looking for the ones you forgot." I gaped at that truth hanging there on the beam of Virgil's avatar light. Haven't felt the need to get drunk too often since then.

The post-train drinkathons (we call them Unboxing Nights) have recently simmered down. I thought perhaps people were giving up on camp family as they adopted ghetto family, but when the mail came, the sauced hoorah started up again. Now people are drinking because the first train brought them nothing, or the last train brought nothing new and delivered no family. But Virge is right--those are just surface woes. Deep inside, they're all waiting for them, aren't they? What do you call them--the ones we've forgotten--old loves, old kin, vestigial entities who hold the chord that leads us back to Self.

What are you to me, Petunia? I'll tell you: You are a Vestigy. Yeah, I made the word up. Shakespeare made up words, too, and look where it took him. (Do you remember Shakespeare?) You can't be a ghost because you're alive--and you're going to stay alive for a long time, God willing. And you're no mere vestige, because to me, at least, that word implies something there but no longer necessary. You live and are important as a testament, as a key, as a living path that I might take home, if I can overcome the dread of what I'll find at your origin.

I am infected with fear, Petunia. I don't want to have been an evil man. What if we discover that my connection to you is sinister--that I was your Blutto sugar daddy in the holding pens while you were waiting for manufacture? That I was the Federal mole who turned you in?

Jesus.

Bessie is calling me down to dinner.


April 28

Wyatt says there will be a mail train today. Good thing, too. Despite my microscribble, this will be a hefty packet.

Right now, we're collecting the outgoing mail here at the Sheriff's Office. We'll take it down to the station when the train comes in and make sure it gets put aboard. Just another squirt of oil on the cogs of public order, courtesy of the Boss Earps.

I didn't write more yesterday because I was called into the office for a premail powwow, then was sent down to the station for some empty transport sacks. When I got there the sun was setting: the sky was pure pink behind the mountains and the gravid moon already out and pearly white. Cochise is a dry, glaring daylight hell, but I find the nights here lovely. The temperature drops with the sun and there's a sense of serenity that floods the landscape with the dying light. Serenity and a transverse flow of vitality to the population. As the sun slips off to brighten the planet's anterior, the people of this ghetto come out and live. And some leave the cocoon of Sanctuary for the first time to take a few experimental flaps around their new habitat.

I saw one such white moth yesterday.

The station master had left the bags in a pile on the platform and I scooped them up, lifting my head to see a little stick-figure emerge from around the other side of the shed. It was a tiny person--puny is really a better descriptive--wearing white. He--she--I couldn't tell--was facing the sunset, taking a few wobbly steps away from me that made my heart sick to watch. I remember those kind of steps--coaxing each muscle to do its job, each joint to bend, each bone to support my weight--my body and mind in agreement that the shit had been kicked out us, but utterly clueless as to the reason why.

'Where a Newborn wanders, an Angel follows,' they say around here. I heard this one's voice before I noticed his form. He leaned against the clapboard shack, in the wedge of deeper night under the roof's overhang. The tip of his cigarette cherried as he inhaled. Rebel drawl. "Mr. Earp, I presume?"

I adjusted the heap of sacks to balance on my hip. Tried to speak through the ache of memory. "Warren Earp."

He stepped out into the twilight. The full white caftan and pants didn't hide the gauntness of hard manufacture. I imagined the x-ray shadows of ribs and knees and hips beneath skin. I imagined Snappy's naked emaciated corpse the day you and I were ordered to help carry the dead out of the boxcars. How you even knew Snappy was still alive, I'll never understand.

I forced my mouth to quirk. "And you're Mr. Earp?"

"No, I'm Boggs, actually." The smoke drifted up from his mouth in a slow haze. "Luther Boggs. They forgot to take my name somehow. I didn't have to borrow Wyatt's like a secondhand strumpet." The hollows around his eyes were deep and his words were molasses, but the Angel's dark pupils glinted life. He offered me his cigarette pack.

"No thanks, I don't smoke." I shook my head, then tipped it to gesture down the track. "Is that your charge?"

He glanced over his shoulder. "Yup. That's Amy. This is her first trip out of the nursery."

I looked back at the frail figure on the platform. She was staring into the distance, it seemed, with her back yet to us. I felt this uncomfortable crawly motion in my stomach and thought about the first day at Simp camp when I stood staring at the razor wire. I still don't know why it fascinated me. I don't think there was any real reason, actually--I was amnesic and clusterfucked and just didn't know what else to do. Then you had the kindness to come and lay your hand on my shoulder. I'll never forget the warmth of your touch.

I wanted to go to that woman, Petunia, and give her the same regenerative touch. I would have, if her Angel hadn't been there. "What do you think she's doing?" I asked, pulling at my shirt collar as though it was actually causing the constriction of my throat.

Luther Boggs smiled at me wistful. "She looking for someone." He took another drag and blew smoke out of the corner of his mouth, stood silent and holy as the scent of burnt cloves finally traversed the few feet of still, flat air between us. "Aren't we all looking, Mr. Earp? And when we find them, we can redeem ourselves."

I think I nodded. I know I mumbled "good night" and walked away. And I know I woke up this morning with one hell of a hangover. Call it a half horse-trough evening, Petunia. And the Moose saw some action, too.

It's time for me to let this letter go. Jesus, if I don't hear from you.... Well, I'm on duty tonight. That'll put the kibosh on misery turning this Unboxing Night into a full horse-trough special.

Yours,

Sundance


May 4

First of all, Petunia, I know that your ghetto's queen is not called Zulah Zulikah and she is not a six-foot-tall black woman. Virgil, whom I would choose to believe first on any day, says that she is a petite, pale person named Sylvia Godervia. The only truth in your claim, he says, is that she has coal black hair. I'd like to know, however, if you are pulling my leg about tutoring her son. Is this a child or an adult child? We don't have any children here. None have ever arrived on the trains and all our women's ovaries have been harvested.

Thank you for the word pictures of the prairie and the people of Goderville. About your description of the Fill in the Blank Simp Trivia Contest that you organized. My guts are still hurting. One of girls was turning a trick in the room next-door. She pulled away mid-fuck to see if I was dying. When I read your reportage aloud she laughed until she swore she'd wet her bloomers. Pretty soon her John was there, too, and Bessie's husband, Jim--all of them stinking up my room with rose water and sweat and cigarette smoke while I read and reread and they doubled over, laughing. You know, Petunia, everything else can be borne, so long as we still laugh. Keep it up. Keep 'em laughing and one day you'll be king of Goderville. Maybe king of the world, if The Things inside the Lights can laugh, too.

You asked about Curly Bill. No, Bill's hair isn't curly. It's blonde, long, and straight as a plank. And about his "gang": they're self-proclaimed resistance fighters. And by resistance, I mean bold strikes like filling Young Chancellor's hovercar engine with sugar. About six months ago, the governor outlawed them to the desert, hoping the sun, rattlers, or coyotes would do the deeds he didn't want blotting his conscience. Well, so far, the whole gang is sunburned and cranky, but otherwise hale. And now the peace officers of the area have to deal with pilfered supplies and Federal hullabaloo when the gang sets out to fleabite.

For example, take last Tuesday. It was payday for the Bluttos. It might be similar in Goderville: on payday the garrison heads out to Tucson on leave. They're replaced by a garrison from Fort Apache or some other post. This rotation system keeps the Bluttos from rooting, from forming attachments.

Well, last Monday evening, Bill's gang slipped into the governor's office and diverted the incoming e-cash to fuck-knows-where. No one noticed until the Bluttos tried to spend their pay in Tucson on Tuesday night and computers choked. And to garnish this devious dish, the same night, the gang slithered back into town and made off with the Young Major's laundry. I shit you not. It was damp off the line.

Wyatt and Virgil spent most of the morning at the governor's office. "It wernt purdy," was all Wyatt would say. Virgil just sat at his desk and bit his lip. The rest of us went out back and belly laughed.

It's a few hours later. I had to run some errands--get some more kerosene and write a letter for one of girls who works for Bessie. Do they hound you to write for them, too--the people in Goderville? I often wonder why some of us can read and write, some can only read, some can do neither. It seems so unorganized that I have to believe it's an unintended byproduct of manufacture. Anyway, ever since the mail started going through, scribe standss have sprung up all along Fremont and Allen Streets. It's good old- fashioned Capitalism. The folk around here will pay what the market can bear and desperation for outside contact is a heavy load compared to the FEMA plastic credit tokens in their pockets.

I've been writing a lot of letters--not for credits, though. One of Bessie's girls or boys would have to turn three tricks to pay the going rate for a letter. I don't like that, Petunia. I live with these people. They're family. They're trying to survive as best they can, just like me. So I scribble for free. I've been going down to Sanctuary, too, to write for the Newborns. In fact, I've seen that woman again--the one I saw at the tracks. Amy (it's actually Aimee, I'm told). And Luther Boggs, her creepy Angel.

Hell, I've got the paper and the time. Might as well give you the "scenic" version.

Our Sanctuary is lovely old place--then again, it actually might be the same age as the new parts of the ghetto. Buildings around here take on a weathered air pretty quick. I recuperated inside Sanctuary's adobe walls, three feet thick. It's cool and dark and like heaven, Petunia. There's a shaded inner courtyard surrounded by a loggia. Smooth brick floors. The beds are soft, and loose white cotton gowns hide what's no one's right to penetrate. Everything is the opposite of the Factory with its frigid refinement rooms and hot airless cells, bleating alarms, and banging cage doors.

In our Sanctuary, they bathe the Newborns in the courtyard in big wooden tubs. The soap's homemade, and it's scented with lavender, sage, and other flowers and herbs from a garden that the governor lets Doc Holliday irrigate. Can you smile any wider? You remember our talks about Sanctuary, right? Your fantasy was that it would be full of clean, honest smells; no sweat stench, no stink of blood or shit or rape. I don't know what you found in Goderville, but I lived your fantasy here with an Angel named Mary--an old woman with silvered hair in a long braid. She took care of me fine. I always smelled like patchouli, never had a five o'clock shadow, and whenever I cried she rocked me. I think I might have glommed onto Mary as a permanent mom if she hadn't suffered a stroke soon after I left the cocoon.

When she died, I first met Virgil Earp. He was a pallbearer. Told me, "I guess Mary was just waiting for you to fly before she took off herself." I helped carry her box up to Boot Hill and left Mary in the cream-colored dirt. I've planted some cactuses there since then.

Sanctuary isn't as crowded now as it was during my stay. The Newborns get lots of attention when they want it; and solitude when they don't. When I went down there last week, Aimee was having the latter. I found Luther Boggs outside her room, his ass on the brick floor, back against the wall, elbows on his knees, taking a long drag off a clove cigarette. "Mr. Earp," he drawled. "Charmed to see you again."

"Please," I nodded my invitation, although I have to tell you that my balls were considering a trip north. "Call me Warren."

"I'll have to." Boggs's smile showed yellow front teeth. "As soon as anyone else comes by, we'll have a Confusion of Earps."

I grinned. Ran my hand over the smooth skin of my scalp. "Only two Earps make a Confusion?"

Luther Boggs patted the floor beside him on his right and stubbed the last red life from the cigarette on the bricks to his left. "Well, maybe it should be least three Earps. Unless they're Clones. In that case, the rule reverts to a duet."

I laughed and decided the creep factor wasn't so high that I couldn't sit a spell. I was on my way home, having already used all the stationary I'd brought--even brown paper wrappers from sugar and flour packages saved up by one of the Sanctuary cooks. I apologized that I couldn't write for him or Aimee. He waved an absolution, told me he had no one and that Miss Aimee was not ready for my services. I asked him what he knew of her, as a variation on the perennial, "So, what do you remember of the Time Before?" I swear, Petunia, it always reminds me of two dogs smelling each other's assholes.

Boggs told me that Aimee was tattooed with CWA. Working with the Peace Commission, I've learned that CWA is a factory somewhere near what was Richmond, Virginia. I don't remember Richmond or Virginia, but Wyatt tells me it's east, near the ocean, that the city resisted the Federals and a general named Sherman burned it down.

According to Boggs, Aimee has been at Sanctuary for about five weeks. She arrived nearly boxed (I think I might remember her Delivery--she was one of the last critical cases), then spent a week in Doc's private quarters while he made saving her life a robust crusade. Once she was stable, Boggs took her under his (soi-disant) "half-plucked stringy wings." He says he's lost a few more feathers since she became his charge.

"Aimee sobs in a most plaintive manner," he sighed and lit another cigarette. Took a long drag while staring dead ahead. "Then she rages-- calls down the Holy Ghost and wants to know 'why, why, why did he do it? Why did he?'"

"He?"

Boggs just shrugged. "I embrace her, or I hold her down on the bed so she can't hurt herself or me, and I tell her she'll know why he did it one day. Yes, Mr. Earp--er--Warren, all be revealed." Then Luther Boggs blew a smoke ring, said that cloves don't taste shit like tobacco. "I remember tobacco. It was crisp and yet--hirsute. I miss that peculiarity. This body could care less, but I miss it."

I cocked my head at him, but he didn't notice, just moved into telling me that Aimee has Distant Early Warning. She's one of those women who start screaming about an hour before the Lights slide across the sable sky. A few of Bessie's girls are Screamers. They just freeze up, eyes all wide and hard, and as soon as I see those mouths open, my blood turns to sludge. Nothing like knowing the night will bring emptiness with a hairy aftertaste like Luther Boggs's tobacco.

Luther described how when the Lights last came, about three days after her delivery, Aimee sat bolt upright out of a coma in Holliday's bed. She was white-skinned and blue-lipped, with darkness around her eye sockets like front doors to a void that sent Doc calling on saints and grabbing for his hooch flask. Boggs said that Doc told him he'd never seen the dead rise before and he never wanted to see it again. And he nevermore wanted to hear that sound she made. Like a howler monkey.

Now, I don't remember howler monkeys any more than Richmond, but I could imagine their wail. My gut shivered and I was sorry that I'd asked about Aimee. Felt pins-and-needles in my hands as Boggs changed the subject, saying he'd seen me with Mary in Sanctuary, that he had been surprised at my health compared to the others; it was a rarity to see a man delivered from the camps who weighed more than a hundred odd pounds. By then, the tingling had moved into my arms and legs and shoulders--my fucking beefcake shoulders, pulsing with lead electricity, pulling me down into whatever ooze I arose from through manufacture.

Goddamned Boggs, he's as spooky as Virgil Earp. But Virge glows all over when he gets holy; Boggs just radiates through the ocular orifices. I felt his clammy hand under my chin and he tipped my face up to look me eyeball to beady, vibrating eyeball. "They broke you hard and fast, remade you, and moved you out."

I was panting. Skin and bones sparkled. Muttered something like "nice theory."

Then Boggs's mouth shaped a weird smile. "If you've got things to forgive yourself for, Warren, best get on with it. Go on now. Don't make the mistake I did and wait to become redemptive. Do it now while the life still flows in this body you own."

My mouth went slack and the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stood up as the buzzing subsumed me, and the gray tunnel shot me straight through, bullet-fast, into recall. Quivering ashen night and I was running-- running hard and my lungs were burning. My feet ached in ridiculous shoes of rich leather, narrow and pointed. A long coat blowing. Tie flapping. A city somewhere and a gun in my hand and people coming out of row houses, banging on each other's doors to ask if the news was true-- how could it be true? I was headed for F--F something--a long, bouncing word and a long way to go but I knew I had to reach it. I had to find them and we had to get the fuck out of Dodge.

Run, you sonofabitch. Run, Wa--War--Wal--

"Warren, come back. " Boggs's voice snapped my tether. "We don't want to trip the suicide function. That's enough for now."

Boggs was still cupping my chin--holding my hand, too, while I sweated and took air in gulps and then just melted all over him. He let me cling to him like I did to Mary. When the worst ended, he lifted me to my feet. Boggs is a scrawny little weasel, but he got me up and held me there. "And the meek shall inherit the Earth." That just came to me from god-knows- where. Do you? I feel like I really ought to know where that comes from.

Well, we ended up in the Sanctuary's big kitchen while Boggs brewed some chamomile tea. I usually love the aroma of the herbs that dangle in big bunches from hooks screwed into the ceiling rafters, but damned if the smell didn't make me sick then. I retched, finally, into an empty pot that the Angel held for me.

"Oh fuck." I spat. Wiped my mouth on my sleeve. "I'm sorry."

He'd already whisked the pot away, and patted me lightly on the back as he plunked a cup of water on the table beside me. "Just take little sips, Warren."

I did. After awhile I sipped the tea, too. I asked him if he'd ever heard of a place called Dodge. He said no, he hadn't.

I'm writing too large.

I didn't see Aimee that day, but I did the next evening. I was down at Peace Officer Central, filling out paperwork. My hand was swollen from all the writing I'd done at the Occidental and Sanctuary, but somebody has to scribble out the reports that make Young Chancellor smile.

We'd had a pretty shitty Saturday in Cochise. No use going into needless detail, but there were bee problems over in Bisbee and Lights over the frickin' Hooker Ranch and a whole shitload of missing cows turned up mutilated in our arroyo. One woman turned up, too. Henry Hooker's ghetto daughter, Missouri. They found her face down in three inches of muddy water. Drowned.

There were a lot of reports to write and I was trying my best when Virgil pushed the door open. He'd just ridden back from the ranch and was covered in travel dust, still wearing his wide-brimmed hat, visor, chaps, cravat, and long canvas coat. Yeah, it is usually hot as H-E-double toothpicks, but getting crisped by the sun is bad. It's so dry here, we hardly notice that we're sweating, so we cover up, try to keep drinking water, and ignore the rest.

Anyway, his role as a Cochise fashion plate aside, there was big ol' Virge, still managing to exude tenderness from beneath his protective clothing and his worn-leather facial skin, with his arm around the shoulders of this tiny woman wearing white. "You've got a visitor, Warren...I think. Honey, is this who you want to see?"

She looked to me, looked back at him, and nodded. Determined. Virge dragged another chair up to my desk and helped her teeter over and sit. Even got into his locker and gave her his sandwich, saying that she "sure looked sore hungry." Then he whispered to me in mid-fuss that she'd come up asking to see "the man who writes" and he didn't have a clue where her Angel was and if he found the sonofabitch over in the Oriental at the faro table while his charge was off wandering, he'd coldcock the silly fuck.

I might have smiled, but I was staring at Aimee.

Elaina. Loraina. Jane. If I had chosen her name, it would have been one of those...something like them.

She'd been very pretty. Before. I could see the residue of that beauty. Christ, Petunia, we're a race of ghosts like shredded curtains in windows. Last lingering traces. She'd been so lovely once. Could be again, my heart suddenly spoke.

No, the violins didn't swell, like in those propaganda films they fed us in camp: a tide of strings at the moment the Simpleton realizes that what's been done to him was really, truly for the best--that in the ghettos was mercy and rebirth and the tending of Federal 'caretakers.' Uh-huh. It was just a pristine little knowledge blended with the pumping of my ventricles: Aimee could be herself again.

Virgil waved a hand in front of my face. "Shit, Warren. The whole ghetto's gone loony today. Not you, too."

"I-I'm okay," I told him. Cleared my throat.

Aimee's attention had gone off. She was playing with the salt pork in Virgil's sandwich. He stroked his blond mustache, grunted, and walked away. Alone, and with her attention diverted, I could pull back to see Aimee in the real world's light.

Enough arty-farty. You just want to know what she looks like. Well, she has eyes like blue lapis locked in the recesses of the sockets. (Why do all the freaky ones have blue eyes--or black eyes like Boggs's? Brown-eyed people are never full of hellspawns and demonsouls, or are bodhisattvas like Virge.)

Aimee's probably little more than five feet tall and weighs about eighty- five pounds. Her skin was milkwhite once, but she's so suncooked it looks like someone purposefully burnt her, leaving red spots from popped blisters on her face and arms and the back of her neck. From the pitiful length of her hair, I can tell it's only been about four months since a camp welcoming committee shaved her head. What has regrown is mostly gray, but there are some threads of dull copper mixed in. She's got a bad case of the gaunts, but her face isn't much lined. I'd have to say she's in her early forties, but hell--she could be twenty-five for all that Factory changes us. Some of us.

I asked her softly, "You want me to write a letter for you?" Aimee's lips firmed with resolution and she nodded. I got out my stationary, then had to rummage around in my locker for a fresh pencil. I've learned to use erasable lead when playing scribe. No one gets it right the first time. Back at my desk, I noted that Virgil's sandwich was gone but for crumbs on the waxed paper. Thought Aimee must have breathed in that sandwich.

I smoothed the stationery with my hand, picked up the pencil and wrote the date and return location in the right-hand corner of the top sheet. "Who do you want to address it to?"

I could see her mind working and her mouth trying to follow suit. "H- him." It was a teeny whisper--odd from below her resolute gaze.

"Who?" I leaned forward, craning to hear.

She took a deep breath. "Him. You know. HIM."

"I don't know him. What's his camp name?"

She shook her head. "It's HIM," she insisted.

"What did he look like?" I asked, thinking that I could address her letter the way you did. You know: "Short guy with red hair, cauliflower nose. Missing fingers." Someone on the receiving end would figure it out. Aimee smiled for a long moment, enjoying an inner vision. But as soon as she tried to annunciate, the face she saw was gone. I watched her chest begin to heave under the white caftan and her eyes were filling, shining wet.

"What about location?" I asked quietly, thinking I could still manage by sending her letter to the ghetto peace authority with a plea for assistance. "Do you know where he was delivered?" Her lungs were bellowing faster and faster. "Never mind," I placated. "We'll just write the letter and figure out the rest later."

Petunia, you know how this turned out. We wrote no letter. There couldn't _be_ any letter because shadows can't connect, or closure come from recounting deeds that are husked and scattered. What the hell could Aimee do except exactly what she did? Stutter. Stop-and-start. Frustration. All that I learned was that whoever He was, He must have died trying to save Aimee. I was angry for not having done the deed myself. I'm redundant in this world. He was unique.

Eventually, Aimee started to bawl. Boggs wasn't lying: her weeping was like a million years in purgatory. The spaces in between her sobs left me time to dwell on transcendence and to hope that holding her against my chest could further mine. Of course, you're without sin, so I'm not sure if you'll understand me.

I wish I could tell you that Aimee calmed while in my arms, but no. Once grief petered out, her anger escalated. Pretty soon my hands were locked around her wrists--around thin bones that felt surprisingly like steel-- trying to stop her from tearing at herself, then thumping me. And damned if she didn't knee me right in the balls. I lost my grip on her then, and her deceptively frail form escaped while my stomach rolled ninety-degrees, along with my visual plane.

While I was guppy-gulping, Aimee wiped everything from my desktop in a great imitation of God's Vengeance. Papersheet storm. Paperclip rain. Then I saw my own knees and Virgil's dusty boots, and heard him yelp and her shriek. All I could do was yip the words "mother fuck."

Let's be brief: there were a few casualties. My eyes are still swollen and my lungs ache. Virgil's got some scratches down the side of his cheek with pretty emerald scabs. Aimee caught his blood spray right in the face. Happily, Doc says, she must've been exposed to Clone blood in the past. Her partial immunity kept her from dying.

Luther hadn't been remiss, by the way. Miss Aimee sneaked out of Sanctuary without telling him. He thought she was napping in her room-- she'd even made a dummy shape on the pallet to fool him. Boggs says she's paranoid, that it's one of her charms. He's a good nursemaid, Boggs. He tended me quite kindly for the two days I was laid up in Sanctuary.

But here's the icing, Petunia: that night, while I was under the influence of The Happy, Curly's gang overtly came to town. Wyatt said they spent the evening quietly drinking at Kate's. In fact, they were so subdued that he didn't rusticate them and no one actually noticed when they departed Tombstone.

Wyatt told me that at around six a.m., he and Morgan walked out of the Earps' house, sipping coffee in the cool morning, heading for Allen Street to sweep the drunks off the boards before Young Major finished his breakfast. They came up on the governor's place and there, painted in whitewash along the upper story, right beneath Old Chancellor's bedroom windows, they read: 'Another Sister Falls. God Rest the soul of Missouri Hooker.'

I could imagine the deadstop jingle of spurs, the curl of coffee steam in the air, and Morgan--a little pitbull with an incongruous whine--looking up at the squint-eyed blonde. "Awwwww, heeeel, Waaatt."

I nearly snorted my vegetable broth.

Wyatt cocked a yellow eyebrow, then sighed and said I should eat up and feel better because he needed me in two days. Henry Hooker wanted to bury Missouri on Boot Hill. He'd asked for a town funeral, Old Chancellor'd said yes, and his nephew was steaming mad. Well, that made my soup curdle.

See, George Chancellor the Elder is the FEMA-appointed governor here. George Chancellor the Younger is the top Federal officer. Despite their shared names and genes, the two men are diametrically different, although I've heard that in youth the elder was also a strutting pair of jackboots.

The Young Major has a pouty lower lip and the untempered certainty that whatever the Feds are up to in the outside world is Right (note the capital R). But we Simps are the results of misplaced mercy; he doesn't believe that the manufacturing process permanently molds the Merchandise. We're all destined to become dangerous recidivists.

Now, here's one to move you from disgust to terror: Virgil told me there was a ghetto called Magic Kingdom somewhere down south. One of the resident Simps supposedly shook off the suicide function and taught other Simps to do so, too. News of this spread through Federal channels to Old Chancellor, and through him to Wyatt and Virgil. Before long, word came that entire ghetto population was boxed. Not a single Simp left alive. The on-site garrison killed them all with some sort of gas that settled and leeched into the soil. There is no Magic Kingdom now.

One of the Federal lieutenants stationed at Magic Kingdom was George Chancellor the Younger. Wyatt and Virgil think the Feds sent Young Major here for his uncle to rein him in. But he was promoted, not demoted for Magic Kingdom, and issued a commendation, according to Wyatt.

So, Petunia, don't let anyone mock your local peace officers, or whatever they're called in Goderville (Knights? Merry Men?). We're keeping things nice-nice so we don't all end up wheezing last breaths of bloody foam.

I'm on night duty this evening and the sun's going down. Time to seal this one up for the next mail train and walk to work. I'll think of you with every step.

Love,

Sundance

P.S. Is that cough any better?

P.S.S. I have to add this on--You know the sandwich that Virgil gave to Aimee? Well, she didn't eat it. She squirreled it away in a pocket of her robe. Luther found it later, when they were hooking her up to the toxin siphon to clean her blood. He said she would have added it to a secret hoard in her room. Said he has to go through her stash everyday to make sure nothing's rotting. Then Luther just smiled and called her "the sweet cross I bear."


May 5

Petunia, you sly dog--

I just finished reading your letter of April 30th.

You boffed Queen Sylvia. Unbelievable. No, I take that back. Not unbelievable at all. Everywhere you go, you've got them on their knees, waiting to suck. I'd be genuflecting right now if I was beside you. And stop it with the "lord knows why anyone gets wet and horny" crap. Yes, you are a verifiable "Ankhnaten" (I can't believe we both remember this bag-of- bones), but what you fail to understand (I cannot believe you just want an ego massage) is that no matter which ancient pharaoh your body resembles, you bring vitality to everyone around you. Even in the darkest days of our camp life--the blizzards, Starvation Week, the dysentery epidemic--you managed to turn our attention to something from which to suckle hope.

I remember when--what was her camp name?--hell--that Amer-Indian woman. The day she was whipped for mouthing off. You found a crocus and held it in front of her eyes while she hung there to bleed for the mandatory hour, stripped to the waist in the March wind. You were showing her all the little details, the tones of purple on delicate petals, bright yellow stamen. I heard you say, "Nothing can stop the colors from resurfacing through the earth." She stared glassy-eyed, but she saw those colors and her spirit remained on the promise of your words.

I wish I could remember what you were to me before. Nothing has changed; it remains blank but for the surety that we were connected...and that you had your awful smoking habit. It's why you're coughing, but you know that. And I don't give shit if smoking cloves is not the same as tobacco--I've already had that lesson in Luther 101--it's still inhaling carbon into your delicate breathing sacks. I don't want to hear this "sin of your choice" stuff, either. I've already told you that you are without sin.

Do I sound peeved? I am. Worried, too. The funeral is tomorrow. The Earps are everywhere--riding back and forth between Hooker's and here, trying to make sure that everything is going to go smooth. You should see this town. I learned that Missouri Hooker started off her ghetto life as a Soiled Dove in Willcox. Some of the local ladies knew her slightly and are having a fine time publicly showing their grief. The Occidental, where I live, is draped in mourning banners. Even the street prozzies have got black crepe hanging from their cribs. Tomorrow, Hooker is going to distribute 300 mourning rings made of braided locks of Missouri's hair. My god, her corpse must have been shaved bald, don't you think?

They are bringing Missouri to Tombstone tonight. She's going to rest for the evening in Schiefflelin Hall under the eye of an honor guard that Hooker's assembled. Morgan was over with Virge this morning at the ranch. Told me that he'd heard Henry promising Wyatt not a single world would be spoken about the injustice of his daughter's death, the blankety- blank cowards. The gurus would to wax on metaphysics, he heard Hooker say, and not even glance at the Bluttos with their guns auto-aimed. But what if something goes wrong and we all die because of it? By goodgoddamn, somebody was going to screw up and get us all boxed. But Mavismotherofgod, just give Morg a chance one day he'll teach those sorry SOBs what it feels like to be in our shoes; he'll wup some Blutto backside.... I told you Morgan was incongruous.

Bessie is trying to make me tie on a black armband. I think I'd like to make her eat it instead.

I went over to Sanctuary this morning to check on Aimee. She's up, finally, and not too much worse for the clone blood fever. No, I did not bring my writing supplies with me.

I found Aimee in a tub in the courtyard, up to her shoulders in bubbles, cursing out Luther as he poured a pitcher of water over her head. "Now, Miss Aimee, you carry on all you want, but you're getting your hair washed if I have to get some other Angels and even poor put-upon Warren Earp over there to hold you down while I do it." Luther tipped his head in my direction and she followed with her eyes.

I watched her lips tighten. Hell, I thought, I'm forever The Man Who Couldn't Help Her Find Him. I smiled apologetically. Then Aimee smiled, too. She has a big, stoopid grin that brings light to her face, makes it a thousand years younger. She shook her head like a wet dog and told Luther to get on with it before she made him sorry. He frowned and pinged her in the middle of the forehead with his index finger. "Don't follow Luther Boggs to the devil, Miss Aimee." Her lower lip curled. Luther raised his brows high, harumphed, and went to pump more water.

I ended up laughing, ended up spending a while with them, listening to them bicker and banter. When Aimee trashed the Sheriff's Office last week, I thought she wasn't capable of any real interface, but she is. What she can't seem to do is control her emotions. A lot of us have lost any ability to feel by the time we're delivered (how many walking cavities have you got in Goderville? We're full up). So, it's strange and refreshing to see a Simp with a core of feeling, unconsumed. Uncamouflaged.

For example, Aimee wants to go to Missouri Hooker's funeral. Luther told her like hell if she'd walk to Boot Hill, weak as she is. She sulked, slump- shouldered, then gleamed all fiendish--said he couldn't stop her from going alone. He replied that Newborns couldn't go crawling without their Angel. That's the town's rule and Virgil (he stressed the name) would be around to enforce it. Her eyes narrowed, lips knotted, then another solar smile and guess what she popped up with?

"Warren Earp will take me!"

No, Warren Earp would be on duty and could not take her, I had to explain. Well, this set off a torrent of tears that dissipated to sunshine when Boggs glowered and conceded, "Maybe." I must have known children before, Petunia, because I know that babies do this, too--shift from sobs to giggles, fingersnap. Like little maniacs. That's Aimee right now.

I had to pause to get ready for work. I need some new worksuits. The ones they issued me in camp are getting threadbare. Maybe I'll spend some credits on proper Helldorado garb. Maybe I'll grow a long droopy mustache, too, like Wyatt and Virgil's. My face still produces hairÑunlike my scalp. I might as well take advantage of it.

Now I'm alone at the office. I'm supposed to mind the shop and do the reports while the others patrol or are at the Hooker Ranch, getting ready to sally thiswardly with Missouri's coffin. We're all ready for her. The Bluttos appear to be, too. Young Major has got them placed for high visibility all over town and they aren't suffering even a cross look. There's been several thumpings today. For spitting, one man got his jaw broken by the butt of a gun. Guess the Fed thought he was making a statement.

On top of it all, a mail train is coming. I want to get this out to you. I sure hope I get something in return. Give your queen a pat on the ass for me.

Sundance


May 9

Jesus, Petunia, I'm knackered, but I need to put things down on paper. If they do read our mail, I'll probably be put on some Federal shitlist. Hell, if they read our mail, you'll never get this letter--but I'm going to take the chance and tell you everything anyway.

Back on the morning of the 6th, I took the reports down to the Governor's Office, past black-armored Bluttos at every corner. The boardwalk was full, but less-than-exuberantly populated. People were keeping their heads down. Through the Spreading Chestnut's swinging doors, I saw Doc dealt into in a running poker game that's lasted more than a year. Nice to see the man away from his patients, but he looked ghostly, a cigarette quivering between his lips. His woman, Kate (the same one who runs the saloon) was behind him, draped around his shoulders. It looked like her weight, and it ain't much, was nearly more than he could handle.

The governor's office is way over on Fitch Street at the edge of town. Beyond its elderly brick facade are the long, bland barracks and parade ground of the garrison, then, at a distance, the Simps' burying place on Boot Hill. I could see some folks up there, maybe digging Missouri's hole.

The Bluttos wear climate-controlled body armor, so there's normally marching and other useless exertion happening on the parade ground just because they _can_, but the field was dead empty when I legged up. The door to the Governor's Office was open and before I reached it, I heard arguing. Came up quiet and stood outside.

It was George and George. I caught glimpses of the Younger as he strode back and forth across the floorboards. With each heel thud there was an echo like a tame explosion in the pockets beneath the joists. The governor was sitting at his desk. He's a short, white-haired man, as fat as we're all thin. Bushy sideburns and blue uniform that was crisp and smart once, but has been much reduced by our desert existence.

It took me a minute to understand the gist of the argument: The honor guard I mentioned earlier--the one Hooker put together--well, Curly Bill is part of it--is part of it right now, as I write. Seems Bill and Missouri were 'close.' In fact, the reason Bill's gang is still kicking is in part because Henry and his clan are fitting them out and putting them up at the ranch during bad weather. You know, Wyatt and Virgil _might_ have clued me in to this. Then again, they know I don't fancy Hooker's much. I fugued there once, bad, when they slaughtered a calf. They tell me I curled up like a doodlebug. I don't remember a damned thing after the knife peeled back the skin of that little cow's throat.

Anyway, Young Major was marching back and forth, half insensate because the governor had okayed Bill's participation in the funeral. "The sonofabitch should be pissing while the noose chokes him off."

"I don't consider stealing your underwear a capital crime, Georgie," the uncle replied. Told Young Major that it was the governor's job to keep us controlled, docile, and ready to be used if the need arose. If letting Curly Bill into town for the funeral cooled tempers and gentled grief, then it worked toward his mandate.

"You're too kind to these vermin, Uncle George," Young Major scoffed. "You're soft."

"Soft?"

"Yes."

I heard a grunt, then the governor's low retort: "You may think yourself an example of wherewithal against the Rebel enemy, my boy, but ordering subordinate officers to fire the gas canisters while sitting in a hovercar six miles outside the death zone hardly qualifies--at least not in my book. But then, you've never been inside a Factory, let alone run one."

Youthful sarcasm syruped the nephew's reply. "Yes, yes, Uncle George, I know all about Cherry Hill--"

"Yes, Cherry Hill," the old man's voice raised. "Cherry Hill earned its reputation. Why do you think captured Rebels invented all those clever ways to commit suicide rather than be shipped there? Why do you think Rebel leaders still needed by the Program were trusted to my revision? I didn't just sign the pay vouchers and order provisions at Cherry Hill, I remade those prisoners myself. I upped the electricity; I turned the wheel; I listened to them scream for pity, and when I had broken their bodies, I administered the drugs and adjusted the machines that rewired their minds! I did it with these hands--manufactured at least a hundred of the Simpletons in this camp alone. I invested myself in recreating them so they could live to serve the Project because it was my duty. Now it's my duty to watch over them as a father."

I knew I shouldn't be hearing, knew I should run the hell away--well, first tip-toe a few yards and then pigsqueal zoot. But I was glued. Peeped around the door frame and glimpsed Young Major, arms crossed on his chest. "You give them too much freedom and too few examples of strict punishment. The discipline here is slack."

"The Elders do not feel as you do, Georgie."

Smug. "I've heard otherwise."

"Then your informants aren't rimming the right assholes. Look here." I heard the hollow clink as the governor tapped on his computer screen. "This came this morning. They're sending second-line Clones here. second- line prototype-A Clones."

Saw Young Major lean across the desk to squint at the monitor. "What?"

"Yes. And they hardly send those models to trash ghettos, do they, George?"

It was right then, Petunia, that I saw a pair of Bluttos swaggering my way. I didn't have any choice, but my heart was in my throat as I carried the reports through the dusty front room and to the door of the governor's workspace. Both men looked up at the sound of my footfalls--Young Major scowling, Old Chancellor smiling thin-lipped and prissy. "And here's one of my favorite fellows now. He writes the Peace Office reports, George, and I must say, he has a natural predilection for stating the facts succinctly, with an investigator's eye. He's proven well-worth the effort of his manufacture."

The old man left me a pause in which to thank him, but my tongue felt withered. When I'd stared dumb too long, he lifted his hands for the stack I carried. I gave the papers to him, dropped my eyes and turned to go. "You--what's your inventory number?" the Young Major demanded.

I looked back to see him observing me, slit-eyed. Told him DJT-1411. The Young Major nodded and gestured for me to go. I did. Fuck, I ran. The sonofabitch had remembered me from the train station. I don't want him to know who I am.

The shakes got me, and then exhaustion took over. I fell asleep and it's now around five. A rooster smells the sunrise and is bellowing under my window. The little prick.

To continue: I sprinted from the governor's to find Virgil at the peace office. He listened, solemn, petting his mustache. When I mentioned the prototype-A Clones, the lines in his forehead deepened. Virge said he didn't know what kind of Clones those are--maybe he used to, but he doesn't now. But, he added thoughtfully, "Sure sounds like we're gonna get us some new population."

He told me that Wyatt wouldn't let Young Major dick with me, to calm down, go have a glass of hooch, and head out on patrol. I did. Actually, I had _three_ glasses of an amusing domestic blend and my body felt nice and loose by the time I started my rounds. Ended up bumping into Boggs and Aimee on the boardwalk by Kate's. He was holding a beat-up old umbrella to ward off the solar vehemence. Lord, Petunia, Aimee smiled so big, then flung her arms around me. "Hello, Warren Earp! Take me for my walk. I'm pissed off at Boggs. He sucks."

"Now, leave the man alone, Miss Aimee. He has to work." The Angel tried to lever her off, but she just hung on tighter. I found myself hugging back, burying my nose in her hair, smelling lingering traces of soap and Doc's menthol rub for sore muscles. Holding her just felt so right--like it was my right. Like I had earned it somehow.

"I want to go see the body," she whispered conspiratorially.

"Nope." Luther shook his head.

She turned to glare at him. "Devil ears! I want to see the body!"

"Miss Aimee, you want to spend another night swaddled?"

"I'm not going to fugue if I see Missouri Hooker's stinking body!"

"How do you know that? Yesterday, you fugued when you saw me cracking seeds, and what the hell was that all about? You're still too shaky for all this. I don't wa--"

"I don't care what you want! IDON'TCAREIDON'TCARE!" Aimee shouted, and I winced as all eyes--including those of the Blutto at the corner post--redirected toward us.

Luther Boggs noticed the attention, too. Fumed in undertone, "Aimee, if gettin' you through this was not paramount to my salvation, I'd wring your neck over turkey dinner. Look at this." He frowned, held out his clenched fists. "You're making me devolve. Shame on you."

Aimee's lower lip poked out at him. Boggs pointed at it. "You just put that away, Missy Earp. I'm not going to be tempted by you. You don't know what it's like when that gas starts bubbling up, starts burning your lungs when you can't hold your last breath of clean air no longer--"

I shook my head. "What...? What are you talking about?"

But the Angel ranted sotto voce, "--You can't know what it's like and I do, and I don't never want to go through those last moments again. I am not going to let you push me back to Hell, Miss Aimee. No ma'am. I shall not." Then Boggs told her that she was his sacred trust and he had to do right by her. Her daddy got him sent here to make sure she survived. As soon he mentioned her daddy, she burst into tears. Told the Angel to shut the hell up, that her father was dead, and shut up! She pulled away from me and launched herself at him. I stood, reeling from the drink and their peculiarity, thinking I should intervene. But they weren't attacking each other. Those two scrawny, gang-screwed people hugged, kissed, and cried instead.

Well, it ended up that I agreed to take Aimee to see Missouri Hooker. Boggs chastened me not to let her have her evil way in everything and left us. As I watched him retreat--white cotton gown, flapping hemp sandals, bent-up umbrella casting limited shadow--I felt Aimee's hand slip into my own. I asked her what Boggs had meant about her father and she said she didn't know. I asked about the gas--I mean, what a weird synchronicity after hearing all this talk of Magic Kingdom. Aimee said Boggs told her he'd died once by breathing poison.

"He died once?" I raised an eyebrow.

Aimee shrugged. "Sometimes people die and come back. HE came back."

"He did?" We weren't talking about Boggs anymore.

She nodded, leaned close against me as we strolled. I felt her hip's motion down against the outside of my thigh. Aimee's such a little thing, but so full of pluck. "Once I helped him hide his blown-off head," she confided.

"You did? And He came back from that?"

"He always came back. They always thought they'd got him, but he kept coming back."

I didn't add "until now." When I asked if today she could remember his name, she looked up at me, squinting into the sun. "Whose?"

"His."

"I don't know who you're talking about. Come on, Warren Earp. Walk faster. Holy Mary! Look at that lady's funeral weeds!"

I told you the Tombstoners were decked out, Petunia. So were the folk arriving from the Hooker Ranch. Jet black everything--frock coats, hoop skirts, mohawks. Charcoal around the eyes. The number of mourners grew as we came up on Schiefflelin Hall.

The line to view Missouri was pretty long, and although as a peace officer I could have jumped it, waiting gave me a chance to stand with Aimee. She didn't say much, but while we queued she held onto me, looked up with such intensity that I feared myself drunk enough to make a radical misassessment.

When I traced her eyebrows with the pads of my thumb, I noticed for the first time that they're are colored like the copper threads in her hair. The awareness made a sudden vivid picture in my mind of what she had been before the Factory raped and beat and shocked and drugged away her beauty. God, I could just see her, Petunia--shoulder-length hair turned under at the ends, lightly freckled pale skin, painted lips. A full, healthy face. But her expression--there was no smile before my mind's eye. No giggle. No wicked glimmer in the eyes or gimmegimmenow scowl. Neither unreined sadness nor joy. She had inner light, but merely an accidental beauty masking tired determination.

I leaned down and, very softly, kissed her new lips--rough, sunburned and cracked. Yeah, the hooch-ease spurred me on, but I would have done it anyway, sooner or later.

Petunia, I think I love her. I think I always have.

Once Aimee and I got inside Schiefflelin Hall and into the big ground floor meeting room, we saw Bill poised like a gargoyle at the head of the coffin amidst an orgy-storm of midnight crepe that swathed the windows and dipped down from the ceiling in inverse arcs of misery. Bill was fancied up in black, too, with his long yellow hair in twin braids, and thick black- framed glasses perched on a beaky nose--one ocular cracked and the opposite earpiece mended with silver tape. The hollows of his cheeks had been darkened by charcoal and five turkey feathers poked up from the back of his head. Me, I felt quite funerarily unfashionable in my patched dreary olive worksuit. (Well, at least _my_ glasses made it through the war intact.)

As we got near the head of the line, Aimee was craning to see poor Missouri stretched out in her box. "Hey," she whispered to me. "She looks pretty good. No real visible decomp. No smell of putrefaction. She ought to mummy-up really nice out there in that hot dirt. Maybe we can dig her up in a few years when things are safer, then cut her open, and learn the real cause of death."

It could have been the drink, the school boy's emotions jittering my breast, or the sick fear that someone in body armor might have heard what she'd said, but I laughed. Saw heads turn and trailed my guffaw into a cough.

Curly Bill eyeballed us as we approached the coffin. Aimee pulled away from me and hurried to the corpse, her feet loud on the risers up to where the coffin sat. I avoided Bill's stare, stepped up beside her and looked down at Missouri. The woman hadn't been all that pretty in life, and death had done nothing for her. Her face was mottled by lividity, mouth pulled back by rictus to show a busted incisor. It seemed that her lids lay abnormally flat over her eyes. But her soft brown hair was nicely brushed and she was wearing a red satin dress that I'd seen on my favorite girl over at the Primadona Whorehouse. Satin isn't easy to come by. That gift was sure was touching...if it wasn't a stunt to get Celia Loreli more business, that is.

Aimee pointed at the discoloration on the corpse's ankles and wrists. "Ligature marks. And look at that."

"What?" I shifted nervously. Bill was still staring and the sniffling mourners behind us were creeping up impatiently.

The tip of Aimee's finger traced the crescent of Missouri's fingernails. "There's green under there. Some bastard's got defense scratches. Missouri didn't go down quietly. Good for her. Penny and I fought, too. But she believed they were from space. I never did."

I swallowed and grabbed her hand. "C'mon. Our turn is over."

"No, I'm not done!" her voice hiked.

I snagged her in an eyelock, snagged both her hands, too. Impressed with some sort of psychic dynamite that we needed to be history.

Outside, I dragged Aimee around the corner of the building, under the shade of the roof's overhang. I pulled her against me. "You've got to watch what you say." Let my lips trace her ear after speaking my warning. I tried to make her understand that things were edgy now--edgy in general--and that any innocent mumbling could be heard as...well, you know. I don't need to explain it, Petunia.

I expected Aimee to tell me off like she does Boggs, but she lifted up on tiptoes to kiss my cheek, then told me I'd never been much good at helping them find the truth, anyway.

"Helping who?" I asked her. "When?"

"In the Before Time. You never helped us all that much, but we didn't get mad because you were always so good at making us happy."

My headshake was a reflex. "Yes," she nodded to counter the denial. "Think back, back, back. Before The End came. Back when we still had our baby."

"What?" My hands locked on either side of her face. Although I was squeezing too tightly, she was smiling sweetly, gently--like you'd humor a child or a fool. "Aimee, what are you saying?" I demanded, feeling sudden sweat, but no heat. I felt sick. Cold. Something niggled at the back of my mind--wiggling through gray matter.

"She was a good baby." Then Aimee's lower lip sank, started to tremble. "I want her back. I want Him back. I want you." And then the tears came in a great rush, Petunia, and she clung to me weeping brokenhearted. I just soothed her, stroked her back, feeling her vertebrae like pebbles beneath the path of my hand, feeling birdcage ribs against my stomach, the bones of her pelvis poking my thighs. Felt glittery shivers as I saw myself comforting that other, softer woman with the red hair. The hands that petted her were stained with blood. More dried blood on her cheek--on the sleeve of my shirt...a small bloody handprint.

I hardly remember what happened next, Petunia. A lot of shouting and the blue sky tilting and Curly Bill's Grim Reaper face above me (the Reaper is the Lord of Death, in case you don't remember). Pretty soon, I saw Virgil's face, too. It was Virge whom I could hang onto, use as a rock from which to reel myself in--or start to, until some garrison medic jabbed a spike into my ass cheek.

The Federals don't like us Simps fuguing in the street. Whenever one does, folks try to hustle the Simp to a private place, but if that fails to happen fast enough, a Blutto starts talking into his headset and a needle man appears. The injection, it seems, is a cocktail of sedatives and the mind-wipe drugs used in the Factory. Simps go out quick and stay out, and when they wake up they usually can't recall what got their underwear in such a bunch.

Usually, but not always. This was one of those times.

I didn't forget.

I'm writing to you from Sanctuary, where I woke up the next evening. Missouri Hooker had already been consigned to Boot Hill. Yup, I missed the service, but Doc would soon tell me that things had gone well. Rather blandly, actually. Nobody'd been shot down--not even a blue flare fired. "But, " Holliday would add, "the night is a dew-eyed virgin."

I felt like crap in a blanket when I first woke up. A brownish-gray headache. Sore everywhere.... There was a candle on the window sill. I watched it flicker, trying to remember myself. As I gradually recalled being Warren Earp of Tombstone, I began to wonder how much I'd drunk or who had thumped me. Eventually Boggs came into the dim little room and got me up off the soft pallet on the bricks. I didn't remember him at first--but then it all clicked. I smiled. "Hi Luther."

"Hi yourself, Warren." Then he ranted. Ranted and ranted. I just sat where he'd put me, in a rocker under the loggia's roof, and grinned big and drooly. Eventually Doc came by and shined a penlight into my eyes, tested my reflexes, made me move all my fingers and toes and count to one hundred. Not all once, of course.

Doc appears a debonair wastrel: goatee and thin mustache, fancy embroidery on his robe, a small gold loop earring, and an decided air of vampiric dissipation. But Holliday is utterly devoted to life. I told you how he worked to save Aimee--he's endeavored so for many others; the fine handwork on all his robes has been done by grateful Newborns.

Holliday dragged up another rocker, sat and started to ask me questions, and drip by drip, it all came back. Or, as much as I've told you, anyway. At one point, I got distracted by a movement off to my right--turned my head to see Curly Bill standing in the passage to the kitchen under the diffused light of a pierced-tin lantern.

Boggs brought Aimee. She slumped into Doc's vacated rocker, looking like road kill. I wasn't the only one who had gotten drugged down. We apparently engaged in a fugue duet.

Aimee was purely herself when they tried to test her and see what she remembered. She bent over and covered her ears, yelling that she couldn't hear Boggs or Doc, couldn'thearthemcouldn'thearthem, just get the fuck out of her face! It was finally established that Aimee remembered nothing beyond our kiss. Even in my numb emotional state, I was glad she hadn't forgotten it--doubly glad when she looked at me and smiled, then got up and sat on my lap. She snuggled in, draping her legs over the arms of the chair and resting her head on my shoulder.

After awhile, I noticed a gathering on the other side of the courtyard: Doc, Boggs, and Curly Bill. Then Wyatt and Virgil arrived. There was conversation with bodies expressive, but voices kept low. Now and again, one of them gestured toward us. Aimee had fallen asleep, was breathing with a phlegmy sound in her throat. I let my head rest against the chairback, dozed off myself.

Doc had been right about the dew-eyed virgin thing. The evening after Missouri's Funeral topped any Unboxing Night we've ever had in town. Before morning, Sanctuary was filled by folks with buffaloed heads and alcohol poisoning, bleeding slashes from stumbling through glass windows, paralysis from breathing too much red flare smoke.

When the casualties began to come in, they tucked Aimee and me away in her room. I awoke again and again to crying, cursing, and clattering out in the courtyard. Aimee sawed logs through it all, but she wouldn't let go of me--hung on and sniveled when I tried to change positions.

All right, Petunia. I know what you're waiting for.

Surely, Aimee and I share a past. We must. We _do_. I've realized over the last few days that my love for Aimee is not new, jiggley, and exciting. It's old, weathered to the point of permanence. I'm certain of it. And I feel relieved, somewhat, by the realization that whoever I was before, I was capable of love.

Aimee doesn't remember what she said about the baby. When I brought it up, she diverted her reply into chatter about wanting to have a baby. She doesn't realize she can't do that now, that none of the women here can.... And, yes, of course, Petunia, I am wondering if I was the father of that child whose bloody handprint I still vividly see.

I am also left to conjecture about Him--Aimee's Him.

Petunia, I've been thinking.... Might _you_ be Him?

I know. It seems--well, too hopeful, too good to be real. But maybe we were connected as family and have survived to find each other. I mean, Jesus, there have to be some happy endings--right?

I wish Aimee could meet you. If she recognized you then we might know for sure.

Mail train today. Time to send this one out. I hope to get word from you. There wasn't a letter on the last train. Since I'm already in Sanctuary, I can't put myself there if I don't receive anything, but....

Yours,

Warren


May 11

No letter. Where the hell are you?

I left Sanctuary, went home this morning. Allen Street still looks like a used-up harlot from Missouri Misery Night. When I walked up, Jim and some of the regular Johns were putting new front windows in the Occidental. Jim pointed at dark marks on the clapboard wall--the fingerings of fire--and explained that some rowdy geezer had gotten torched by a Fed right there. Poof! The poor sonofabitch had gone up like a January Christmas tree. Jim said he hadn't seen anyone flamed since the day he was captured by the Feds at the Battle of Skyland Mountain. "Phew." He shook his head. "Sure was a stench."

I thought I could still smell it. Made my stomach list.

About twenty-five people died on Missouri Misery Night. That's about one for every year of living Missouri Hooker had. She's got herself quite an afterlife household.

The Feds are still on high alert, but no one's pressing them. The population looks self-abused and ready for a quiet nap on the porch swing while somebody else buries the fresh dead. Curly Bill's gang did cause a jot of trouble last night. They broke into a still on the outskirts of town, got drunk, and yowled at the full moon. No one chased them off until they fired some blue flares at the moon's silver sphere, hanging in the sky like a blank Simp's face. Soon afterward, Wyatt's posse rode past Sanctuary and the ruckus stopped.

10:15 PM Aimee has been here. Boggs spent the evening down in the saloon while we stayed in my room doing what we did every night in Sanctuary. No, Petunia--no sex. Not yet. We cuddle. Sweet, huh? Yeah, it is sweet. I like it, although I do have to harness the moose in my pants after she's gone.

Tonight we sat by my open window enjoying the cool air, and because no one was screaming out warning, it felt safe to look at the stars. I've been asking Aimee several times a day if she can recall anything from before. Of course, curiosity motivates me, but I also do it for her. I can listen and hold onto her memories, even if she cannot. When she's better--more integrated, more comfortable as her new self--she'll appreciate that someone collected these flecks of auld lang syne.

Tonight, Aimee remembered some things about her early childhood: a dark-haired mother who made her eat string beans against her will; a dog who clawed a hole through the backdoor; an airplane trip with noisy, excited siblings; a father who read from a novel; and one name--"Aayrab."

When I asked if she could recall anything about me, Aimee said that I was stern and "always told them 'use the book.'" I wondered if it was the same book her father read from, then I had to swallow sudden fear and disgust that I might _be_ her father. When I asked, however, she looked at me wide-eyed and snickered. Thank God.

I also asked about Him. Aimee said that the lights had taken Him ever since he was a boy. That they took his DNA and made Clones and put a monster inside him to eat other monsters. Says that she'd pulled their monster out of him once before realizing it was better to leave it asleep along his spine. Leaving it meant he would live, "even if the monsters ate all the other people." Yes, I know that what she says raises so many more questions, but I can only probe nonchalantly. I might trip her suicide function.

Anyway, this stuff about the monster inside Him--does it mean anything to you? What's DNA, by the way? I don't remember. When I asked her, she'd already forgotten.


May 12

Boggs came to see me today. He sat me down in a booth in the saloon and over twin cups of rusty-black coffee, demanded my "intentions" toward Aimee. I cocked my head, forehead furrowed. "Aww, don't tell me you don't know?" he whined, thumping his tin cup against the tabletop. A little splatter on the wood where the liquid landed.

"DonÕt know what, Boggs?"

"Aimee says she's leaving Sanctuary and she's living with you. She's coming out tomorrow--says it's Holy Day Sunday and that's the best day to be born again."

It was the first I'd heard of Aimee's rebirth, Petunia, but I was not averse to the idea--just concerned about her timetable. Boggs got into a tizzy, but when he calmed we were able to talk it through. Yes, I told him, I want Aimee; I want her with me for however many years I have left. But no, I said next, I wasn't ready for her and she was not ready to leave him, and maybe she never quite will be. We agreed that I'd ask for a town lot close to Sanctuary and start work on a house. When it was done, then she'd leave the cocoon and come to me. Now we just had to convince Aimee to be born on another--later--Holy Day Sunday.

I went to see Morgan Earp. He's in charge of the Town Lot Commission. I expected to find him in the peace office, but one of the other deputies told me that none of the Boss Earps were in, that if I needed something I'd better go over to their hacienda. The look on his face was queer, but I was conceptualizing adobe dream cottages, and just dumpity-dumped toward the Earps' big house on Fremont Street. Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil live there with their multiple ghetto wives and adopted grown children. I've got a good view of the hacienda from my window at the Occidental. Some evenings, I see them up on the flat roof, talking or playing mournful guitars. When sound carries right, I've heard them sing about the Lights swinging low, coming to carry them home. I guess the Clones believe there's a Heaven of some kind up there in the midnight black.

When I arrived at the hacienda, no one answered my knock but I heard voices through the window of a room on the second floor. Knocked a bit louder. Still no response. Then a woman's shout from above, "Come on in, for chrissake!"

I followed the voices up a staircase toward one of the rooms at the far end of the hall. I'll save you the descriptive journey to what I found, Petunia. Wyatt was in that bedroom, flat on his stomach with a blood containment plaster on his back, Earp women hovered over him wearing biohazard protection masks, and Virgil sat next to his brother, holding his hand while Wyatt moaned, soft and high, like the newly Delivered often do in their distress.

I smelt the metallic stink of Clone blood but no spray hung in the air, nothing burned my lungs. Covered my mouth and nose, despite. I was stunned. There was the man upon whose shoulders our promise of a new life rested, openly suffering. It scared me shitless.

Virgil finally looked up, did a small doubletake, then spoke quiet and droll, "Oh. Hullo. You wasn't who we expected."

"Who is it, Virge?" Wyatt's eyes were squeezed shut. His face was sweaty and white.

"It's just Warren, little brother," Virgil soothed. "We was going to invite him over anyway, might as well be sooner than later."

"I came to see Morgan." I said stupidly. One of the women cursed, then pulled off her hood and threw it down. Morgan wasn't fucking home, she spat. He was in the Hoosegow. I blinked and stuttered "Wh-what?" but she was yelling at the others, telling them to deal with this dumb sonofabitch who'd wandered in from the road.

"Now, Mattie, don't displace on innocent people," Virge chastised, but disharmony bloomed as Wyatt yelped in sudden pain and swore at the women tending him. One started to weep quietly while Mattie cursed Wyatt in return, and (as the cherry on top) a yellow Labrador poked its head from beneath the bed to bay in baritone.

"Somebody get that goddamned dog out of here!" Wyatt shouted, then turned his face into the pillow. Virgil grabbed onto the mutt's collar and dragged it out, gave it a shove toward the door, and captured me with an arm around the shoulders.

"C'mon, Warren. Let's go."

The dog padded ahead of us, nails clicking, down the long hall and the stairs. It howled again, then collapsed in a heap by the front door with its head on front paws. Virgil regarded the dog with arms crossed on his chest. When it stayed quiet, he looked toward me, began to explain.

The other night when Curly Bill's Gang shot at the moon, they did it with Morgan's stolen flare gun. The Blutto patrol found it out there in the dirt the next day. Flare guns can be lethal weapons, and Morgan's one of only three Simps allowed to carry one, so losing it to the Gang was a capital offense. As Young Major was fixing to string Morgan up, the brothers hurried to Old Chancellor, who rolled his eyes and lumbered over to the Fed barracks to ixnay the necktie party. Technically, however, Young Major has the right to mete out punishment. He decided that after a public hanging, the next-best fun was a whipping. Virge and Wyatt argued that Morgan couldn't take it. His health just isn't that good.

"Well," Virge sighed, "Young Major told Wyatt that _he_ could take the whipping for Morgan, or get his ass fucked by the regiment instead, if he'd like. Wyatt said, 'Fair 'nuf, I'll take the whipping.' All the old man could do was forbid a public punishment."

Young Major gave Wyatt a fifty lashes in the privacy of the Hoosegow's inner courtyard. Morgan had to watch.

Fifty lashes. Damn. Twenty would have killed a human. Once I got five at the Factory as reinforcement. As they tied me to the lashing post, I remember not feeling not just fear but utter frustration. They'd taken my identity, my dignity, my health. Whipping a broken man like me--I was no threat to them any longer. I'd become nothing. I couldn't even remember my goddamned crimes.

Sorry my writing is getting shaky. My hand's cramping up.


May 14

Well, Morgan's been released from confinement and I have a town lot about 100 yards from Sanctuary's gate. Jim and some of the peace officers are helping me build. We marked the foundation today, cleaned it of scrub, and started leveling. There'll be two rooms--a living space and sleeping area. You know, I do like the brick floors in Sanctuary and Doc's got an unused mound of them out behind his garden. I think I'll ask if he's willing to part with some.

Wyatt is already up and moving around, albeit slowly, leaning on the arm of an adopted son. These Clones and their accelerated healing--you push 'em down and they pop right back up like a...a...I don't know what I'm seeing. It's a springy clown. Maybe you know what it's called.

Anyway, he walked by this morning, and paused to watch us work. Holliday came out and berated him for standing in the afternoon sun. Wyatt told Doc to shut up. "Then bake away," the robed man replied with a elegant wave of dismissal. "You're a daisy if you don't land on your ass. Newton, son, bring your father into my place when he needs attention." Holliday spun heel and cut back across the garden. Shortly, I saw Wyatt sway and Newton took him inside.

A little later, Boggs and Aimee brought us cool herb tea. While we gulped it down, Aimee spun in circles on the patch of clean, flat dirt, exclaiming, "I love my house! I love my house! Oh thank you, Warren Earp!"

Damn, she makes me smile.

May 15

A mail car came unexpectedly today, attached onto the back of a Merchandise train. I pawed through the mail sacks as soon as we heaved them into the office, but there was nothing from you. I can't help but wonder if you're getting my letters. Maybe the Feds are reading them and making a fat file on me. Or maybe something's happened to you. With every day that I'm not corralled and trotted off to the gallows or Rehab, my belief grows that its the latter.

Shit. Petunia, damn it, if I were to lose you now, it would be a terrible thing. The more I learn from Aimee, the more I am convinced that you were Him. You can't return to the Bright Origin until we know that for sure, and preferably not 'til long afterward.

Last night, in the quiet, while Aimee and I lay on her pallet holding each other, she was able to describe Him somewhat. She said that he was about my height, with dark hair. Said he reminded her of a "boy cat," whatever that implies--but I don't see any of it as inconsistent. Your hair must have been a deep brown before it turned gray. And you're tall. Pretty lithe and limber for such an old coot. I can believe that Aimee spoke of a younger, pre-Factory Petunia.

She also described his temperament. He often deserved a good punk slap, she said (like when he ran off and got notoriety for finding some old ship), but he was an endearing man, and we both loved him. He was funny and "very kind to people with hard lives." I don't know about the punk- slapping part, but the rest of her description sounds like you.

I do wish you would write and tell me if anything resonates. Do you possibly recall stumbling across the carcass of some seafaring vessel?


May 20th

Another two mail trains have come and gone and still nothing. My worry is turning into panic, but I will try to write as if my guts weren't cinched in an ice-block knot. I hope the image is graphic enough to persuade you that if you _can_ write, you'd better.

The house is coming along. Aimee's been down with influenza. It took Wyatt down, too, just a day after he got back to work. He vomited and passed out right on the Allen Street boardwalk. That was scary. No one-- not even the other Clones--thought Clones could catch the flu. The people of Tombstone have gone so far as to form a prayer circle around the hacienda to speed his recovery. Having the sheriff off the streets is unnerving everyone. Sure, they love Virgil. They love him like a pastor; Wyatt is like God. When the Lord isn't walking the streets, folk begin to fear and doubt. Consequently, there's been a lot of drinking and a lot of broken heads.

Bill's gang has taken advantage of Wyatt's absence. Somehow they "liberated" the FEMA warehouse of every blessed roll of crapperwipe in Tombstone and got real arty at places around town connected to the Feds. And wouldn't you know it, that morning, while everyone was wandering around looking at the pretty streamers, it rained for the first time in two months, so we didn't even get to collect the goddamned stuff for reuse. I was one of the ones who had to clean the globs of asswipe off the Governor's Office. Let me tell you, clotted woodpulp bakes to brick like concrete. And I got to hear the taunts from the Bluttos that there'd be no more paper delivered 'til the end of summer and too bad there isn't much around here in the way of leaves.

Ha ha ha.

If I ever get a hold of Curly Bill, IÕm going to kick his butt good.

Write me or else. I mean it.

Warren


June 17

You're goddamned right I'm pissed at you. Leaving me hanging for nearly two months while you--what the fuck were you doing? You went on a "progress" with Queen Sylvia? So, let me get this straight--a progress is where queeny-pie and her court canter from settlement to settlement and enjoy the hospitality of the local dukes and counts? And you were so busy riding your cockhorse between Banbury Crosses that you couldn't even drop me a note? You scared the piss out of me, you bastard.

And yes, you're right that it's good I am forming attachments here. God help me if I was sitting around pining for letters from you. And stop smiling apologetically. I know you are, so knock it off. And put out that fucking cigarette.

Well, from what you say in your letter, you and Sylvia are an delightfully odd pair. As mad as I am at you, I still laughed at your description of the formal dance where you stepped on her train (I've got this mental picture of a fat, big-lipped queen with a red heart on her belly, and she's shouting "off with his head!" Any ideas?). I'm glad Sylvia was able to tell you what "auld lange syne" means. Honestly, even as I wrote the words, I wasn't sure myself. It's reflex vocabulary and I just go with it. Maybe Sylvia can tell me what I wrote above--the "cockhorse" thing. I'm clueless.

Glad to hear that the royal meandering revealed all is (mostly) well in Goderville. The crops you grow must be feeding the North--God knows, the whole South looked poisoned from my boxcar vantage. FEMA has a vested interest in keeping the Simps of your ghetto content. I was very sorry to hear about that stillborn baby, however. I can imagine the obsession that woman's pregnancy caused, and the general grief when it was born deformed and dead.

So, the queen's son is a young Clone? (You called him a Hybrid, but I think we're talking about the same thing. Green blood is the giveaway.) In the time you've been teaching him, have you noticed accelerated aging? Virgil told me he thinks he "growed up mighty quick." Thinks all Clones might.

A jack-in-the-box! Yes, that's it! Queen Sylvia comes through for us again.

Today was a Holy Day Sunday, and I walked Miss Aimee Earp across the threshold of our new home. It's as fit a place as I can make for her, Petunia. I rounded up what I could with my credit tokens--the kind of things you need to get by: a stove, pots and pans, a couple of quilts, lanterns, tin plates and cups. Virgil's adopted daughter Sadie turned out to be quite a carpenter, too. We've got a settle in front of the fireplace that will box off the heat (I told you there are cold days in hell), a table and chairs, shelves, a dry sink and a cooling box. I built a coop and a fence for three chickens Bessie gave me.... That was a sad parting, Petunia. Bessie cried and hugged me tight with her thick, muscled arms, then pressed a bundle against my chest. No, it wasn't the chickens. They were already in their pen. It was two outfits for Aimee that she and the girls had sewn. That got me good. I sniffled and promised I'd come round every day to see them, told her I loved her and Jim and the girls, did everything short of calling her "mommy."

Aimee is asleep on the haytick. In the quiet light of my lantern, her naked body looks gold and healthy. Shadows hide the scars and relaxed unconsciousness masks the rage and grief I saw just awhile ago. It was a hell of a wedding night.

Aimee started off saying she was game to try, and at first things went well. I stroked her back, kissed her, nibbled my way along her clavicles. Seemed like we were moving in the right direction, with our breathing growing louder, skin getting sweaty, and the Moose poking her stomach and thighs. I fixed on one of her nipples. It was dry and rough in my mouth and her flesh slack, but I had the damnedest sensation--recollection--of caressing and sucking the silk-soft nipple of a round young breast. Of feeling like I shouldn't because another man owned it--then remembering I had to flush the load of crap I'd learned in childhood, that this woman had chosen us both, and that the man and I had chosen each other, too. Separate lines--her and Him, me and her, Him and me--had joined, and it was right.

I was buoyed by ecstasy, Petunia--because I want so to believe you were Him. If you are, then we all loved equally, like a triangle. Equidistant. Equal love. That sudden understanding drove me to push ahead perhaps faster than I should. I burrowed my knees between her legs and pressured them open, sucked hard on her lip while I made to angle myself in.... Suddenly saw stars. Aimee was pummeling me, thrashing and shouting. Christ, the profanities she knows.

I struggled with her, trying to dodge her blows, murmuring "I'm sorry" then shouting it when the words had no effect. Aimee'd slipped into a full- blown freak-out fugue--the kind both of us had on the street the day of Missouri's viewing. The things she was saying, Petunia--no, not saying-- screaming. "Not again" predominates. Aimee also sobbed a name. "Moldin! Moldin, help me!" It sounded like Moldin, anyway.

I fought her down to the mattress, hoping that she wouldn't invert my scrotum before I could roll her up in the blanket like the Angels do in Sanctuary. I did it before she did me--got her swaddled, held her tight in my arms while she bucked and struggled and threatened to kill me or whoever she thought I was: her rapist, her Manufacturer, the black shadow fallen across her old life. Aimee went limp. I thought she'd overloaded, but just when I'd settled her onto the haytick those blue eyes popped open and her teeth bared. Her faint had been a ruse and I was staring into the maw of a scapegoat with the mind to retaliate.

Aimee thumped me good, Petunia. Clawed like something prehistoric. Scrambled to her feet, threw the wooden chairs, and lobbed the frying pan. She ran outside naked, through the night, over the rough ground toward the silhouette of Sanctuary. I followed, buck nude myself, with the Moose still up and bobbing and my pale ass mooning the moon. When I reached her, she was sucked up for protection against Luther Boggs, wiggling like she wanted to get beneath his skin. He wore a baleful frown. Spectral dark hollows under his eyes and cheekbones. Didn't say a goddamned word to me as I stood there, she wept, and the candlelight wobbled.

I went home, washed my feet in the footbath and picked a thorn out of my heel. I put on my worksuit, righted the chairs, sat at the table, and wanted wholeheart to hunt something dead. Boggs brought Aimee back a few hours later, her body hidden by a clean white gown. I met her on the doorstep. She smiled at me, shrugged, and went into the house. Boggs took a long drag on his cigarette and shook his head. "It ain't gonna be easy, Warren. Salvation never is."

"What is it with you?" I snapped, wanting to slam my fist into the adobe wall or his face or my own face. "All I hear from you is about salvation. Just what the fuck is your deal?"

Boggs's grin was eerie. Smoke slipped out through thin lips. "I am the ghost of a very bad man."

"Aren't we all," I scoffed.

"Nope." Boggs pursed his lips then relaxed them. "If that was so, there'd be no scale upon which to measure second chances."

"So, what you believe is--you believe that this new life of ours is a clean slate--a fresh chance to get it right? That sounds like the shit they fed us in camp. You didn't buy into that, did you? You really don't believe that the Feds and FEMA and the Lights are going to raise a finer world? You don't begin building paradise by doing what they did to us--to Aimee. Shit," I hissed. "Maybe you and I were bad men, Boggs, but I know goddamn well she was no bad woman."

He tossed away his spent cigarette. The ember burned weakly on the dirt as he leaned against the door frame. "Warren, I know my crimes. I can recall them like I know my own name. I killed people. I murdered my family. At the end of my life, someone showed me the path away from damnation. >From the minute I died, I starting following her, living in her brightness. You know who I mean."

"You're talking about Aimee. You knew her before...you knew her in the camp." My shoulders were so stiff. I let them sag. Rubbed my own neck. "I thought you said her father sent you."

Boggs nodded. "Cap'n has friends in high places."

"I see."

"No, you just think you do." The bastard smiled. "Tell me, Warren, have ever you recalled one tiny thing to prove you were a bad man?"

I had to admit that I remembered nothing solid, then one of those weird empty quiets set in. Silent soulessness as I floated, as it congealed, then a bitter burst: "I failed. I fucking goddamn failed! I couldn't protect Him or save Him or the child or her...or the fucking world! I couldn't stop it. The day--it came...oh shit, we couldn't stop them! We tried to fight but they caught us at Cold Harbor...." Cold Harbor? My recollection rushed away suddenly, like it had poured into the earth, leaving me to shrivel in tears. I hung onto the killer Angel. "Did you know me in the Before Time?" I asked, my voice thick. I sounded plaintive. Pitiful. I was ashamed to sound like that.

Boggs was rubbing my back as I clung to him. "No. But I know someone who did. You just be patient awhile. He'll be around soon."

Color me stupid, Petunia, but I believe him.


8 or so AM

Aimee and I were snuggling. She hugged me hard, kissed me and kissed me, promising she could get better. I said that even if she never did, I surely wouldn't leave her. Hell, I'm getting old and I've had plenty of sex (I hope). In my dotage, her presence is what counts.

Then Aimee told me--as if I really didn't understand--that making a baby takes more than snuggling. "Yeah, I know, honey," I whispered, running my fingers through her fluffy short hair, feeling futility and the dry prickle in my eyes from last night's tears. I couldn't tell her that she's barren and I can't fake the hope of a miracle conception. Your Goderville woman got pregnant, sure--but I'd never wish a tragedy like that on Aimee.

Shit. My head hurts. I wonder if she hit me with that frying pan after all? In the pain, there is some clarity. I know Aimee and I had a little girl and she's gone. We had a daughter. I can almost say her name. I can almost see her face. Cold Harbor.... Did she die there? I think so. How do I tell Aimee we can't ever have her back?


June 21

The fun around here never ends.

I tried to die three days ago. My head hurt so bad and my thoughts were so shredded--I had to make it stop. Went out back to the chicken pen and put a knife to my wrists. Leaned over their tub while the birds cocked their heads quizzically and red polluted their drinking water. I don't remember passing out, but I felt hot dirt and pebbles under my cheek and Aimee was calling me a cocksucker and wasn't it just too damn bad that she was a doctor and could stitch me up fine.

And tarnation (insidious local vocabulary) if she didn't, with sewing thread. I ought to have been frightened sour as Aimee burned the point of her needle and drew the thread through its eye, but I was staring, dead inside--that particular dead I'd felt in a cold, quiet room in the Factory. I'd watched numbly then, too, wondering who I was while the last dregs of an IV dripped into my vein. Her tourniquets bit into my arms like my Maker's restraints.

Anyway, I'm in Sanctuary again. Doc says I'm developing an unhealthy fetish for this place and I think he may be onto something. Everyone is staying quiet about my tryst with the carving knife. You've already guessed, I suppose, that I tripped the suicide function. I remembered too much, and the last person the Earps want to hear that is George Chancellor, Jr.

I had to have blood. Morgan Earp matched up as my type and he reveled like a saint-on-fire in feeding me from his veins. Morg's on this penance kick for getting Wyatt whipped: performing good deeds for everyone with a face long and sad as a basset hound's. While we were doing the living dead thing, I told him he shouldn't be so hard on himself. "Warren," he sighed, frowning at the tube full of dark crimson that ran from his arm to mine, "If you knew...well, I guess you will sometime. Anyway, Wyatt--he don't hold no grudge. He says just to think of those marks as battle scars. In a righteous war, he says, these things happen."

I smiled weakly. (What the hell was he talking about?) "But you want to give yourself a few wounds to feel better?" I asked.

"It's the only way." His head bowed.

I told Morgan that I thought Luther's influence was picking up stink. The Angel was in earshot and he walked over to flick my forehead. Guess that means he likes me.

My wife--I can call her that now, I suppose--has no recollection of sewing me up. Doc was pretty impressed by her forgotten know-how. He hopes she can recall some of her medical training when her personality stabilitizes; says he could use her help around Sanctuary.

In her amnesic state, Aimee can't do much for me besides drive everyone in Sanctuary mad with her quicksilver ways--and make me love her even more for it. I know that she is very different from the woman I once knew, but I don't just love the vestigy; I love this woman, too. If she stays as much of a fruitloop as she is now for the rest of time, it will be okay by me. And I just have to add that she looks lovely in this emerald green dress that Bessie and the girls made. It brings out a shadow coloring--a hint of something that originally besotted me.

God, I feel this retarded macho pride of ownership. If the woman Aimee was knew what I was thinking now she'd thwack me good. She was her own person, with a boundless heart, but she didn't really need me or Him She stooped to love us. She'd have done better without us.


June 22 1 PM

There was some kind of trouble over in Willcox yesterday. Doc said he didn't know the details, but the Earps set off this morning. He changed my bandages while a clove cigarette hung from the side of his mouth and then told me I should go on home. Aimee was my walking stick on the leg back from Sanctuary. God damn, the morning was hot--its about 105 degrees out there right now. It was maybe 80 inside our thick adobe walls. Aimee sat me down at the table and we were discussing whether, in this heat, the need to eat lunch superseded the need to cook it, when dusty Virgil Earp appeared in our doorway. He tipped his slouch hat to Aimee. "Afternoon, darlin'."

"I thought you went to Willcox." She appraised him with narrow eyes. Since that day in the Peace Office, she always starts out suspicious of Virge, but can't hang on to her paranoia in the face of his soothing paternal magnetism. When he said he'd stayed home just to see this green dress everyone was talking about, she let her mouth quirk. Told him to sit down and not fall on anything sharp, for shit's sake.

We small-talked awhile, all of us sitting at the table. Drank shots of cactus hooch that brought up a wet sheen on my skin and make the room shimmer. Suddenly, Virge laid his hand on my arm, just above the white puff of the bandage. "Warren." His eyes--ice and fire in there, sparking. "I come here today to ask you somethin' important. Real important."

As I nodded, blinking, he reached out for Aimee. I watched her consider, then carefully rest her hand inside his open palm. Virgil squeezed it, squeezed my arm, too. His mustache jiggled as he spoke. "Wyatt, Morgan, and I--we want to adopt you. We want you to become a brother, and you, Miss Aimee, to be our sister."

I clenched my jaw to keep my mouth from falling open. Petunia, I don't know how to write about this to you any more than I knew what to say to Virgil. I was--and am--truly flummoxed and, frankly, scared stupid. It makes me want to blubber, too. I admire them so much and they want me. Funny, in your last letter, you wrote about how you shed a tear when your queen told you she needed your presence. I think we're running on some sort of parallel track here, Petunia--both of us ending up in the heart of things again, just like Before. I'm tempted to write something horky like 'They wiped our minds, but they cannot wipe our destiny!' Not that I want to die fighting for some cause that now eludes me. I just want us to be left alone here. I want to see you again some day, too. I'd like to know who we were. That's all. Fuck power, fuck glory, fuck everything but the love we bear for other people, and that which they bear for us. I know there used to be a name for the kind of person I've become, but it's locked away behind my mental zipper.

Virgil wants us to think about the offer. I _do_ need to think. By becoming a Boss Earp, I--well, become a Boss Earp. A godling on the streets of Tombstone. That's sobering. Aimee, however, is in the high altitudes where little cogency is possible. She made up her mind the minute Virge mentioned there'd be a big Adoption Party and the governor might truck in ice cream.

Mail train today. This letter is done. You'd best have written me. I'm not going to cope with two-month silences again.

Yours,

Sundance


June 26

That trouble over in Willcox was courtesy of Curly Bill. Apparently, the boys hung banners in town proclaiming "The Time is Now for Revolution", "Drop Dead Feds", "Instant Karma", and other goading sentiments. Young Major is livid. He badgered the governor into riding over there to see the evidence of impending insurrection. And because of this tempest-teapot activity by the Boys, the innocent town marshall of Willcox was taken to Rehab at Fort Apache (better than a six foot drop, I suppose, but that poor man is going to hurt), and Governor Chancellor has placed a curfew on all of Cochise. Everyone, in every town, has to be off the streets by ten PM. Anyone caught outside after ten will be shot.

Peace Officers are exempted from the curfew, but Wyatt says there's not a chance that the Bluttos will ask 'friend or foe' before firing, so he's called off our night patrols. Virgil joked that the Feds'll have as much self- control as a pole jockey ready to shoot off a load. We laughed, but it felt like gallows humor.

Morgan was left behind in charge of dangerous (wink) Willcox. Yours Truly is now the number three man in Tombstone. Yes, we're being adopted, but thanks to Curly's gang, there won't be any ice cream. Aimee is ready to spit.

My wife. Might as well catch you up on her first. We've had some interesting conversations these last few days--interesting because a marked change precedes them. She might be whirling around like a dervish in the middle of the room--no, I don't know how she got on this spinning thing; she just tells me to shut up when I ask--or she'll be tapping on cooking pots until my brain is ready to run out my nose, and then she'll just stop. Her posture changes. It gets--well, queenly--as straight as Sylvia's, and Aimee's not wearing that corseted bodice you described. (I'll bet that Her Majesty's breasts _do_ bulge enticingly over of the top. I wish you joy in teasing them forth.)

Anyway, Aimee's face changes, too. Becomes tired and sad. If you knew her, you'd be stunned by the transformation. I might have panicked the first time it happened if that careworn expression hadn't tallied with my inner vision of her old self.

Aimee doesn't remember the past when she's in these states, but she can converse fluidly and logically about the life of the town, about loving me, and about missing Him. She says not knowing who she's aching for makes it almost unbearable. Aimee's showing the symptoms of Unboxing Night Syndrome. I want to keep her back from horse trough oblivion by telling her that you may be Him, but I'm afraid to. She can't see you or talk to you, and you aren't having fugues that bring anything back. Getting her hopes up could be worse than letting it alone.

We haven't been able to have sex, although we're making progress. If Aimee's in control, she's pretty much okay. She's teased me wickedly and made me come with her hand, but she won't suck or ride me yet. I can hang out indefinitely on the attention she's providing, but I can't give her an orgasm in return. Rubbing doesn't seem to be enough and she gets frightened when I use my mouth. In one of her 'lucid' states, she said she doesn't know if there's enough clitoral nerve sensation left. Says she can't remember what happened in the Factory, but she knows this damage is a result. I shivered when Aimee added, "The guards said I enjoyed it." Do you think Factory Bluttos are trained in parallel blither? A guard snerked the same thing in my ear once as he fucked me up the ass.

The town. The local economy is already shot to shit by the curfew. There's no twenty- four hour booze service, so there's a reduced need for hooch, so the distillers have product unsold, so the stills aren't fired up, so the corn we get from the Amer-Indian ghetto is sitting on the supply dock, ad Capitalist nauseum. Lucid Aimee says she's disgusted by freemarket alcoholism. I want to warn her that she's looking into its freefall herself--that her need will get worse before it gets better.

So, business sucks for the saloons, but the whorehouses are innovative as ever. They've reversed their hours of operation. The girls at Bessie's used to sleep all day and screw all night. Now, they're out at noon with faces painted clownish and their gaudy gowns on the way to fading in the sun. Somehow, the night made the hookers, drag queens, and herms look muted and less--well, stupid. I mean, they're supposed to be Ladies of the Evening, right? Now I know why.

The prostitutes' regular customers are also living in reverse. Consequently, nothing is getting done around here. If your horse throws its shoe, or the wheel falls off your bike, that's tough because the fix-it shops are staffed by habitual Janes and Johns. I haven't seen anyone over in the clayworks for several days and the tailoress who's making me some new clothes has disappeared into some pretty boy's street crib. If I happen to hear her moaning behind a curtain, I'm going to rip it open and demand my cravat. A man can't be Number Three Earp without a mutherfucking cravat.

The adoption. Aimee and I have gone to the hacienda several times and been introduced to all of Clan Earp. Wyatt has two wives: the aforementioned snappish Mattie, and the weepy one was Josephine. Morgan's got a husband named Texas Jack Vermillion. Virgil's not married. There's a whole gang of sons and daughters. I've mentioned Newton and Sadie. I'll bring up the others if needs arises because I can't keep them straight myself.

Oh, the yellow dog is named is Peaches. He's one of a dozen. The Earp hacienda is packed with people and pooches. There's no room for Aimee and me, which is fine, because there's a lot of tension in that house. I didn't expect it, although now that I see it, I should have. Wyatt's under nonstop stress and he's an introvert who doesn't speak unless he's got something pithy to say. Mattie just believes in talking. Pithiness need not apply. Josie is a Drone (a Clone lacking a voicebox, in case you call them something different in Goderville) with an drive to tend plants. She's mistress of Doc's herb garden and helps him prepare his tonics, teas, and drops. Wyatt relies on Mattie to bitch and bully for him--to practice nonrestraint exactly the way Wyatt can't or won't, while Josie brings him heart's rest: he'll love on her quite tenderly when he thinks that no one notices.

The lunch. I endured an obligatory meal at the governor's table. Get this: It was above 100 outside, but just on the other side of his house wall it wasn't more than 70. There was a machine propped in the dining room window, humming as it blew cold air. As soon as I saw it, I knew I used to have one of these wonderful thinggies (can't recall the name, of course) in the Before Time. Thought about how nice it would be to get all sweaty with Aimee in a room under its cooling influence.

I stared at that machine off and on while we ate. It kept me from making too much eye contact with the governor. Having Wyatt and Virgil at the table did not alleviate my jitters. I kept ticking my teeth with the fucking fork tines because my hands were trembling. And I was afraid that he'd notice my scars, so I kept my wrists hidden by the sleeves of my new canvas duster and, for good measure, sheltered my hands under the table whenever the food wasn't en route to my mouth. The lunch was wonderful, by the way: these long, thread-thin noodles and tomato sauce. _Fresh_ tomatoes boiled down and spiced with garlic and rosemary by Chancellor's dark-skinned housewoman. Sure beat the heck out of salt pork, beef jerky, fried corn flour, sun-dried everything, and produce that was sealed up in tin cans long before the war.

I was nervous, but I had a sense of what Chancellor would be like. I've been in and out of his office delivering reports for nearly a year, and then there was the Cherry Hill speech, so I knew his bluff politeness; I'd bumped his veneer of pity above stockboard fidelity to ideals we never shared.

"So." The Governor wiped his hands and dropped his napkin on noodle bits and orange-crusted china. "Here you are--our new Number Three. It's a pity Morgan's been farmed out to Willcox, but...." He spread his hands. "So, a great deal of responsibility is coming to you quickly, Warren, but I'm sure you'll do well by Wyatt so that he can do well by me."

Wyatt laid down his fork. "Warren knows how to calm a fight. He can read and write. He's got our regard. He'll make a good brother, sir."

"No doubt." Chancellor smiled at the spare, blond man to his right. "I trust your judgment. You know that, son." Then he looked to me with small brown eyes in his wide, fat, flushed face. "Wyatt and Virgil will teach you the practice of civilian governance in Tombstone. What I want to set you clear on is the theory behind that governance." He pushed back in his chair and rang a tinkley little bell that summoned his housewoman. "We're ready for the port, Matilda."

"Yes, sir." She dipped a curtsey, retreated. By the time she returned bearing a tray with four small glasses of crimson fluid, Governor Chancellor was telling a tale I've heard fragments of before: how he selected the original group of Simpletons to settle Tombstone from the inmates of his Factory. Among that Delivery Lot were Wyatt, Virgil, Morgan, Doc, Henry Hooker, and others who have become the town authorities of Bisbee, Willcox, and other communities in Cochise. (Curly Bill was also in that first shipment. Old Chancellor shrugged when he mentioned him, said he couldn't be a perfect judge of character, now, could he?)

Tombstone was a ghost town when they arrived. All the inhabitants were run off, abducted, or killed, maybe--although we've never found their remains. I know that at least some of them thought they'd return. While on perimeter patrol, I've come across marriage bands, deeds for property, gold jewelry, photo albums--all boxed up in plastic containers or canvas bags and buried in shallow desert holes. Graves, really, for the trappings of lives gone by. Some folk around here will take a hoard for their own, but I leave them be, as I hope my stash--if I buried one--is left in situ for me.

Virgil told me awhile back that when the First Merchandise were off- loaded and stood blinking in the brilliant sun, Old Chancellor strode along their straggly line down the station platform, surveying the horizon and grumbling to his adjutant that all they'd find in this desert were their own tombstones. Virgil was dismayed--they were so sick and parched and there was their Maker bitching that they'd landed in the shit zone when he'd promised a kind new place. Virgil hadn't been long broken. Shaking in the heat, struggling to stand, he hung onto Wyatt and watched Chancellor loosen his collar, call for a cool drink, and complain about FEMA's ill-use of a loyal servant. Virge wept then, Petunia. Said he put his head on Wyatt's shoulder and bawled.

If Chancellor saw Virge cry that day, he didn't mention it. In the governor's narration, all of the Merchandise were straight-spined and thankful, keen to march off the platform and go straight to work. And he recalled himself at their head, pitching in and lending spirit. I had to look him in the eye while he spoke--and really, it was best that I did. Loathing kept me pokerfaced.

During dessert, he finally got to his point--the theory of governance he wanted to impart. My cherry pie came with a bronze town marshal's badge on the side of the plate, two tips of the star poking pink sugary goop. I picked it up gingerly and wiped it clean with my napkin while Chancellor urged me to put it on, then told his sheriff to do it when I hesitated. Wyatt's hands didn't tremble. Gave me a blue diamond eye-lock and a little nod as the pin pushed through fabric.

"There. Splendid." Chancellor clapped. The sound drew my gaze to a smile that had spread his fleshy face wider. The governor sat back and folded his hands on his gut, the grin faded, and his lips pursed. "I want to make you understand," he spoke in a serious timbre, "that behind all Wyatt does or orders done in Cochise Ghetto there is only one goal: to preserve FEMA law and rule. If you can't stomach that, you'd best take off the badge again before you leave my house."

My jaw tightened. Had to loosen up to speak. "Sir, I've always worked for quiet here, ever since I became a peace officer."

"Exactly." The governor agreed. "You're a good Simpleton, Warren. Your Maker shaped you well, just as I shaped Wyatt and Virgil--I was hard on you, wasn't I, boys? Gave you extra training and correction. Worked with you so that you knew you were Quality Merchandise." He turned to the brothers who sat stick-straight and steely but for an identical twitch of left eyes. When both swallowed at the same time, I knew they were buttoning down. Clones tend to act in sync when their ire or fear comes on-line.

When the governor looked to me again, I couldn't sustain my deadpan. I had to knock back my little glass of sweet booze; the cup rapped sharp against the table on the downswing. A good Simp, huh? My cajones dropped from their hiding place. "You're telling me that I need to be a collaborator."

"Yes," he replied slowly. "I am."

My eyes trailed the pretty gold-leafing around the rim of the glass. "Sir," I finally told the FEMA sonofabitch, "I don't care to leave Cochise. It's my home now, and I doubt the outside world is much freer. Besides," I looked up. Saw him watching me with a raised brow and a salty glimmer. "No one I love is out there, unless its in another ghetto. I mean to protect the loved ones I have here."

"Through law and order?"

Wyatt and Virgil cleared their throats, picked up their glasses and drank. Sat the cups down exactly parallel. Christ, I had to be careful. I couldn't disappoint them. "I'll do everything I can to keep folks safe," I told the governor, trying not to grind my molars. "I don't want problems here. I'll work with Wyatt and Virgil and I'll work with you."

"And my nephew?" The governor smiled again, then belched delicately and patted his full belly. "Excuse me.... By the way, Warren, you'll need to go over to the barracks and get the major to issue you a flare gun. Wyatt will instruct you in the protocols of its use and safekeeping," he stressed his final verb.

"All right. I'll take good care of it, sir."

"I have no doubt ." He reached out to pat Wyatt's shoulder. "I must say, you've made an excellent choice, son. You always make the right choices. I am very proud of you." He rose and touched Virge's arm as he passed by on his way around the table. "And you, too, Virgil. You are your brother's support--the Aaron to his Moses. And I know I'll be proud of you, too, Warren." Chancellor extended his hand to me. In my mind I imagined the plump fingers curled around the handle of a Maker's strop, licking out at Wyatt and Virgil. Felt as if I'd smooched the Devil when I shook it. Once I thought of Chancellor as a marginally decent man. Now I see another Federal cretin.

Petunia, I'm going to close off this letter with a something Amy wrote in the dirt out by the bird pen. Yeah--wrote. I watched her do it. Later, she asked me who'd made the chicken scratchings and what did it say?

"We fell, seeing dark Months flow-- rise, ebb, and end Winter slow and summer short beneath barren skies"

Looks like I've married a poet.

All my love,

Sundance

P.S. Aimee says I should send you hugs and kisses--"whoever the hell you are." P.S.S. Moses and Aaron...?


July 30

I just got your fearful note. So, turnabout ain't fair play, huh?

No, I'm not in Heaven. I was indisposed and then duty summoned. First, I had to coordinate well-digging in a little dust speck called Patagonia, then I played visiting dignitary at Chiracahua Mountains Mining Camp, then I had to trot Doc to Nogales to treat (and euthanize) some victims of a Federal flambe, and then there was a big bee swarm at Hooker's. Holliday picked a hundred stingers out of one of Henry's ranch hands, and about a half dozen of us stood by with knives and axes for the two days he raved with fever. Doc said that if anyone was going to burp up a monster, this was the time. But we didn't need to kill-or-be-killed. The man recovered--he's fine now, and is as immune as immune can be.

In the month since I've worn a flare gun, we've been on call twenty- four/seven. Virge says that's the way it always is. My brothers and I drink so much damned coffee that we've got the perpetual shakes. I've developed a spasmodic twitch in my right cheek that Doc says might go away if I nix the caffeine, but how the hell can I? Shit, I've already learned how to sleep in the saddle. Really--no kidding. Virge and I rode to Hooker's after midnight and I snoozed the whole way, chin on my chest, while my horse followed along after his.

I have to tell you, though, Petunia: I look marvelous.

Wyatt had a tailor make us black broadcloth suits and white shirts with stiff, high collars. We've got suitcoats that hang to our knees, leather boots, silver spurs, neat red cravats with brass stickpins, wide flat-brimmed hats, and each a bronze star on his lapel. The other day, I caught sight of us in the drygoods shop window and I had a weird epiphany. We look like we're headed for the O.K. Corral. I know that's not good, but I'm not sure why. There is an O.K. Corral just down off Fremont behind Fly's Photography and Boarding House and I know something is going to happen there. Or did it already happen...?

Things haven't changed between Aimee and me. No consummation, penetration--whatever. Honestly, the Moose has shown no interest. But don't infer that anything is amiss between us (that's between me and Aimee, not me and the Moose). Far from it. I love my wife so much it hurts. And sometimes I'm so thrilled when I look at her that my breath catches in my chest. No lie.

Aimee's hair has grown out some now; she's wearing it parted on one side and flipped carelessly across her forehead. The new growth is less gray-- more copper-red, like her old self. She's put on some weight, too, and her skin looks tanned, not crisped. Yeah, I'm sure your raven queen with her milk-pale face has maximum hubbahubba, but I'll take my Raggedy Aimee- -crowsfeet, chapped nipples--hell, if her skin was like a desert rattler's, she'd be a prize just for those azure eyes.

And mentally? Well, Doc and Luther agree that she's moving toward a lasting integration. Our Aimee-in-progress is now a mix of the modern nutcase and the bitter saint of my partial recall. She's accessing her medical training again, too. While I was in Nogales with Doc, Tombstone received a Delivery, including several half-boxed Simps in need of critical care. Luther tells me Aimee was at Sanctuary, with Josie in the garden, when the stretchers appeared. He literally watched her click and become a doctor for the time it took to save those sufferers. "I thought I'd ruin the miracle with a breath," Boggs told me, puffing on his clove cigarette under the wicked- bright moon. "What the hand of one man sunders, the hand of another can breach. And whichever you choose--to build or destroy--the waves that roll out from your deeds are felt by every microbe within God Itself."

I scanned the sky above Sanctuary's spire for cownappers. "What's a microbe?"

"Oh, they're tiny fuckin' little things."

I turned to see his profile shining in the lunar light. "Hey, Luther, do you think you're saved yet?"

"No, not yet," Boggs sighed. "But I am gone from the seventh circle to the first."

"Will you tell us when you make parole?"

"I have every intention of it. And I mean to use your connections to get us some party cake. Chocolate, if you please, Warren."

You know, Petunia, I've really gotten to like this sonofabitch.

Once again, duty drags me from you. Aimee wants to spin out in the cool night before curfew kicks in. I need to stand by and be ready to catch her when she falls over, giggling.


August 1 12:15 AM

This curfew sucks.

A little while ago, I had to take a dump, and it's not easy to aim for a small pot by lantern light. I decided to sprint to the outhouse. Dashed by the chicken pen, made it inside our little smelly clapboard box, pulled down my trousers, and settled above the hole. Suddenly there were thudding feet, barking orders, and the door flew open to hang limp on its leather hinges. Fortunately for me, the three red laser beads from the Bluttos' weapons glittered off the badge pinned above my heart.

Of course, after this near-death debacle, I had no asswipe. Amy and I have already used all the strips we cut from my old worksuits. Now we're wiping with declassified scrap paper from the governor's office.

I'm feeling generous right now, so go on--share my humiliation. Give Sylvia and her courtiers the regal titters. And here, have another out-take from my scatological day:

This morning, on our crack-of-dawn patrol, Virgil and I found somebody's cows loose and broken into the corn cribs. They'd munched out all night and were looking sick with their stomachs swollen, but still they chewed on, grinding the new corn sideways between big molars. Virgil and I had to grab some planks and thwack their rumps to drive them away. They fled down Fourth Street bellowing and squirting chartreuse shit.

Once you stop chortling, Petunia, we'll move on to something more dignified.

You asked about my relationship with my new brothers. Well, I spend more time with them than I did before, and see more of Wyatt's frustration with the cruelties of our lives. I also feel more of the incredible peace that radiates from Virgil. I think I understand what Chancellor was saying-- Virge gives Wyatt the spiritual vitality he needs to fight on. And Wyatt does indeed view this as a war, but war in the way of chess--little moves that add up. When I asked him what endgame he was playing, he put his hand on my arm and leaned in close. Whispered that he wasn't talking about imminent checkmate, so there was no use telling me more. He'd let me "know what needed knowin'" when the time was right--there were other moves to unveil first. I'm not sure that I want to understand. I'm happy with this fence picket up my crapchute, thank you very much.


August 3

Tomorrow, I'm headed to Iron Springs, due west of here between the barren backs of the Whetstone and Mustang mountains. It's another social call--a quadruple wedding--and the folks want a Boss Earp at their feast.

When I told Aimee I was riding out again, she drew up straight and drummed her fingers on the table. Her lips compressed down to a peewee dot. Then Aimee swore like a sea monkey--or something like that (more reflex vocabulary), vowed to ask the Earps for a divorce, and marched out of the house. I followed her toward the hacienda calling her name, finally grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her around.

I started to say that I was sorry for leaving her alone so much, but she shouted, "Stop treating me like a goddamned glass relic! I'm sick of being left behind. I have valuable skills to contribute to our investigations and my credentials are as good as yours. You're not going to pretend to party up in Iron Springs--Yes, _pretend_." She gave me a double-dog-dare-you-to-lie glare while I squinted at her with a lined brow. "It's plain that you've got other motives. So, what's up there? Did something eat someone's liver? Did someone see Big Foot?"

"Honey, that's disgusting. What's Big Foot?"

Aimee plunked her hands on her hips, cocked her head, and glowered at me. Then her lower lip trembled and her shoulders sagged as anger shifted to grief. "Screw fucking Big Foot!" she sobbed. "I just want to go to the party! I never get to go anywhere! Warren, you bastard, you never take me anywhere!"

I held her to my chest and didn't let her see my smile as she told me how Voiceless Josie was so boring, how Big-mouth Mattie never shut up, how she was ready to push Luther Boggs's head under the pea green sea, how she wanted to piss on Holliday for not letting her be an Angel until she remembered how to be a doctor at least most of the time. How everyone was having fun but her.

As Aimee complained, it occurred to me that there was no reason why she couldn't come along. It's not a long or dangerous ride to Iron Springs and she's fit to travel. Hell, if I get bitten by a snake or something Aimee'll just blink, become a medic, and go right to work, sucking the poison out of my arm, or my rump, or whatever.

I found Wyatt over in the peace office and told him Aimee wanted to come. My brother looked up from his reports and rubbed his hand over the silvery stubble on his chin. "Well," he finally said. "I don't guess it would hurt nothin'." I grinned and my mind raced ahead as he added, "Might even just be better this way."

I was fumbling in my pocket for the key to the locker where I keep pencils and paper. There would be people in Iron Springs who'd want letters written. I couldn't wait to tell Aimee she could come. "I'll need a second horse, Wyatt."

"Take Mission Impossible. He's a fat old stud and won't give Aimee no trouble."

I'd collected up what I needed. Bade Wyatt farewell as I walked by. He caught my arm and I glanced down into at cool-metal eyes. "I'm sorry to put you through this, Warren."

I laughed. "Yeah, partying's a real bitch, big brother."

When I told Aimee that she could go to Iron Springs she hooped and hollered and pulled out her green dress. Leapt around the house waving it like a flag.

We're heading off just before dawn. I'll leave this letter with Virge to put on the next mail train.

Love,

Sundance


September 1

Petunia, I'm getting your letters and I know you're worrying. I am alive, but I can't talk to you right now. I will write as soon as I can. I'm sorry, but I can't say more.

Warren


October 12 9:35 AM

Dear Petunia,

I was damned surprised when Thomas A. Becket came to see me. They had to unstrap my wrist so I could reach out to shake his hand. I'm in the midst of another rough patch. The suicidal urges come on quick and lack warning, so there's always a few Angels around, ready to wrestle me down. But I am often in control for whole days now, so Doc says the integration _is_ happening, albeit slowly. In a few weeks, perhaps, I'll be able to go home.

As I said, I was surprised to meet Mr. Becket. I had no idea that Simpleton couriers were allowed to travel between ghettos, moreover pass diplomatic pouches. Had no clue that there was any real coordinated collaboration between ghetto governments.... Shit, there's a lot I don't know, and a lot Wyatt should have told me. You could have fessed up, too.

It doesn't really surprise me that you're ass-deep in all this. Don't worry. I still love you. Even your tangential complicity in what befell Aimee and me isn't enough to break that affection--only strain it. And despite the fact that you knew what we were in for at Iron Springs and said squat, I still feel you are worth confiding in.

Goddamn, that sounded high and mighty. Shit, why wouldn't you believe I was getting the chance I'd pined for--the chance every Simp wants--and that it would be less frightening if I didn't know until the last moment. Funny how mercy can feel so much like betrayal.

We started our ride to Iron Springs before sun-up, covering the familiar ground in darkness. Aimee'd never ridden before, and although Mission Impossible had the reputation for docile plodding, one of his stablemates had peed in his oats or something that morning and he was Mr. Equine Attitude. I ended up riding him, sticking Aimee on my horse, Dilemma, and telling her just to slack the reins, hang on to the saddlehorn, and let the big Appaloosa follow me on the prancing shithead.

Around noon, when the heat was at its worst, we stopped at a muddy stream to let the horses water, and lay down on a bedroll in the shade of a few big Cottonwoods. It happened then. Finally. There wasn't any talking-- everything was ragged breathing and wet trailing tongues, and Aimee's hands scrabbling at the Moose while I was scrambling to slide the pants off my hips.

We lay there under the trees' outspread limbs, fingers working nipples, fondling balls, sliding back and forth in moist crevices, while lips roamed and traced and centered in. Aimee wasn't frightened at all; she was passionate and happy, and as she bounced on top of me, through the clouds of my pleasure and haze of my groans, I saw red hair and pretty breasts. She was two women--one past and one present. I loved them both, came inside the dual woman hard, shuddering, grasping her hips tight, leaving red marks that would mottle into bruises.

Afterward, overheated, we lay side by side, holding hands. I knew Aimee hadn't come, and I knew I shouldn't try to make her. My heart advised me to let her be, not take away her hard-earned freedom to choose.

It was late afternoon when we came up over the ridge to Iron Springs and were shown to a dusty ramada that served as camp guestquarters. Then Aimee and I walked down to where one of the springs pooled, cool and clean. Tombstoners don't get to bathe often and we were thrilled to hold each other, pink-scrubbed skin against skin, in the waist-deep clear water.

She kissed me, then rested her forehead against my chest, lifted her arms to tickle fingertips in the fringe of grayed hair at the back of my scalp. I shrugged and then shivered. "I wish--" Stopped. Wished I knew who I was wishing for. A part of me did. It seemed like there was a little body on my lap. A saggy diaper. We were outside on a warm night in a big tub of swirling water. Little hands were splashing. "Da da da!" There was soft laughter from she-who'd-become-Aimee and from a dark-haired man. It was the same man I recalled before, telling me I'd be all right when my arm was bleeding. He and Aimee were up to their shoulders in the circling water at the other side of the tank. Suddenly, I remembered that we'd called it a 'heat tub'; it was out in the backyard of our home. I watched as she and the man kissed, then smiled shyly in opposite directions. It's precious, I thought. They can still be so demure.

Aimee was nibbling my earlobe. The pinch of her teeth pulled me back to dusk at Iron Springs. She wrapped her arms and legs around me, made me support her weight while she stroked herself against the Moose, who arose to poke his red, one-eyed face out of the water. We conjoined again, as we'd done before, sometime and somewhere in that other world. We'd made a baby in that world--created life through the heat of our fusion. A daughter. Aimee's, mine, and somehow His, too.

But our child is dead now, Petunia, and even before they got hold of me out there at Iron Springs, I'd begun to realize that He wasn't you. Ouch. Mentally, I see you recoil from that like a slap. Not because you didn't know. You did. (More mercy in another guise?) No, that was just a slap from me, plain and simple. I love you; I owe you the rebirth of my spirit, but lies by omission hurt.

There's a lot for me to write and not that long before Thomas A. Becket will come for this letter. You probably already know nine-tenths of what happened to us--you just want to learn how badly it's fucked us up. Well, I'm your huckleberry.

Let's set the stage quickly: On the trail back to the mining camp Aimee and I were surrounded by the unlikely welcoming committee of Curly Bill and his two-score gang. The highwayman on his high horse was still wearing mourning for Missouri: a black frock coat streaked with copper-colored dust, gray rouge to ghostify his emaciated face, long blond braids and feathers. He didn't answer when I asked, "What's up, Bill?" Just waved his hand at the boys who promptly swarmed us, pushed us down on rough ground to bind us hand and foot, then threw us each over a mount's empty saddle. It's a hell of a position, Petunia--one that compresses the ribcage painfully, lets a drippy nose run amok (pardon the pun), and when the horse squirts a pee you catch the mist in the face. Yum.

They didn't take us far, but it was _too_ far. Aimee screamed the whole way--"No, no, no, no" over and over and over. It was heart-wrenching. I don't know how she was getting enough air to keep yelling. I was gasping-- mostly, I suppose, from lifting my head enough to keep my glasses on. I wouldn't be much good to Aimee blind. Her shouts grew louder when they pulled us off the horses and carried us into a lop-sided pavilion tent pitched among some boulders in the hollow of a worn-down mountain. The sun was low and half-hidden, casting rose-red on canvas, the ground, our skin.

Once I got a full breath I started yelling, too, calling them mutherfuckers for terrorizing my wife. I couldn't guess but this was a new prank on the Feds. But it was a definite shift in modus operandi: a kidnapping-to-annoy leading up to...what? A good sound tickling? Glue and feathers? Maybe dress us up like Young Georgie and his tart, Fat Sarah, then pose us tied in a suggestive street tableau with me in drag and smeary lipstick?

Two of Bill's boys stood me up and braced me between them, their fingers digging into the flesh above my elbows. I jerked my head to toss my glasses up to the bridge of my nose. Saw two FEMA-issue cots in the tent's dim center, unmade, with thin mattresses. There were cuffs--Factory restraints- -attached to the four posts of each bed. Cold rushed my veins, but the freezing flood didnÕt stun me, it made me buck and snarl, "What the hell is happening here? Why are you doing this?"

Bill regarded me down his long nose like I was a piece of fluff. Then the gangly turd gave me a weak-lipped smile and told his flunkies, "Tie 'em down while I get the drugs."

Aimee started screaming. Not little sounds--full-fledged, out-and-out shrieking. My reaction was as automatic: I head-butted Curly Bill. A nice clean crack of foreheads and Bill pitched backward. So did I, seeing stars then a big burst of white when one of the men rapped me upside the head with his fist. As my vision cleared, I saw Aimee on one cot. They stretched her out while she screamed and writhed. She was shouting that name again- -"Moldin"--and pleading for intercession.

Curly Bill sat on his ass in the dirt with legs out straight, heavy glasses and turkey plumes askew. He cocked his head toward the second cot and his flunkies pulled me toward it, my bound feet scraping the ground. I landed on my stomach, half on the bed, then the ropes around my wrists were loosed and I was flipped onto my back, the lumpy padding beneath me, as the struggle to subdue me began. I'm no 100-pound woman. I could and did give them a fight, and when I was finally locked in the cuffs, they were panting.

I no longer heard AimeeÕs screams. Rolling my head to the right, I saw her looking up at Curly Bill with flat blue lakes for eyes. My eyes widened, too, as Bill tapped the bubbles from a large syringe with a thick steel needle. "No!" I shouted and yanked against the leather. "What are you doing? Talk to me, you sonofabitch!" Bill ignored me, bent over Aimee, who lay seemingly paralyzed by fear. "Tell me what the fuck is going on!" I tried to sound like I could scare the piss out of stone, not like it was ready to leak out of me. "What are you doing to her?"

"Will someone gag that prick?" Bill said quietly, then speared Aimee's vein. Her back curved, thrusting her ribcage up, while I heard tearing and a strip of tape was pulled tight across my mouth. Aimee stayed arched, as if in rigor, mouth open in a soundless scream. I was shouting her name through the sticky gag's impediment, rattling the cot, twisting my wrists and ankles in the cuffs, trying to get to her--to save Aimee. Then tremors racked her, bounced her small body against the mattress. When they abruptly ceased she lay splayed, her drab olive t-shirt crawled half up her midriff, empty-eyed and pale.

"Good." Bill fished in his pocket. Drew out a small bottle and dropper. He widened Aimee's lids with a thumb and forefinger and one, two little fluid beads splashed onto each pupil from the dropper's tip.

And then Bill did the same to me, Petunia--drugs and then drops, I suppose, although I don't recall the latter. The fat needle felt hot as fire; the yellow fluid filled my mouth with a copper taste while rigor locked my body in an arc, and after--well, perhaps you recall the Gates of Hell. Mine opened for me, like a corpse's arms--all rotten skin and bones.

This is what I now know about my Before Life--this is what I remember. The story isn't complete, but more comes back to me every day, starting as little spots that tremble, then bloom into images or repeating scenes. Memories, all mine again. There's no order to their return nor any accompanying cheat sheet, but the recollections remain even after I'm done smashing the adobe with my skull or my fists.

My name was Walter. It feels strange to write it, stranger to speak it. I haven't said it to anyone except my reflection in the mirror. I remember a childhood family in a place where the wind rippled gold swaths of wheat. My mother had a heavy accent. Called me "mal--" something that meant 'mischievous' in her native language. My father wore a uniform and a gun. I think he was a Blutto in the days before body armor.

In time, I also became a Blutto dressed in camouflage, sent to someplace hot, where the leaves dripped water and children wired themselves with bombs to stop us from taking their homes. We shot those children who tried kill us. Bang through the head. I remember the snap of fear in a boy's eyes as I pulled my trigger, and the blood and brain matter afterward. I finally know my most heinous crimes, but why couldn't they be simple and black--why a shade of gray that I'll never endure?

Later, I returned to the wheatfields and wore a uniform and weapon like my father, then became special and dressed normally--I hear the words "soft clothes." Finally, I was promoted to bureaucrat and worked in a huge, protected beehive building in a grand city. There was a woman I loved, but ruined whatever we had together. I can hear her telling me, "You never let me help you" and "Why won't you let me in?" In the end, I think she died. I see her lying in a bed. White bandages. She grabbed my hand, demanding, "Listen to me." I can't remember what she said, but I'd like to. Whatever it was, it was important. I owe her the courtesy of recalling it.

He and Aimee entered my life at the beehive--somehow my subordinates. Now that I remember him, I wonder how I could have confused him for you, and how I ever could have forgotten him.... That wasn't as a slight, Petunia. I've discovered that you're two individuals, so I'm afraid you'll be unhappy if I write lovingly of Him. Stupid. But I've been away too long; I'm starting to forget that you're above all baseness. I need the strength of your good aura to be the same. (You knew I couldnÕt stay mad for long, didnÕt you?)

Anyway, "Moldin"--the name Aimee calls--that's Him. But his name wasn't Moldin, it was closer to Moldar. And Aimee? I smile now at how close we came: Jane, Loraina, Aimee, Elaina--mix them all together and you almost get Dana. But he and I never called her that. She was always known to me and to Moldar as "Sculee." Aimee is Dana Sculee.

I see them sitting side by side, facing me. Aimee is beautiful, young and round-faced, with perfect make-up and styled hair. He is the man in the heat tub: handsome, but solemn and watchful. Black suit, white shirt, blue patterned tie. Badges on lapels--F, B, and an I. I'm talking to them and they glance at each other, sending secrets. Their intimacy annoys me--makes me jealous. I want them to let me in the way Shar--Shari--no, _Sharon_ wanted me to. (Her name just came back, Petunia. This is what's happening to me every day.)

I remember kissing Moldar for the first time in some public pissery. It's more than a memory--it's a sensory flashback: my finger touching a lower lip that's swollen and discolored, then leaning in to gently suck the damage. I hear him groan, feel him shiver and start to pull away. Then Moldar moans at the caress of my hand on the back of his neck, his weight leans against me and I use the tile wall to support us. We kiss until I pull back to babble that I mutherfucking love him and I love Sculee, too, and I don't want one or the other, I want both, and what the fuck are we going to do about it? He stares at me with dark eyes. Blinks, then nods--finally--and walks away. I remember thinking, "Great. I've blown it. What a dork." But later on, I'm knocking back some fine Federal booze in a palatial house, when the doorbell chimes and there they are--Moldar and Sculee, black coats and serious expressions. "We came to talk to you, sir," she says.

I guess we did, and our parlance set the stage for conjoined lives. In the Before Time, I don't think people had multiple spouses. I remember worrying about appearances--hiding my left hand beneath my desk, like I hid my suicide scars from Old Chancellor, wanting to shield the double gold marriage bands from prying associates and lackeys. From _your_ eyes, too. (Surprise.) I see you sitting opposite me, in the chair where Moldar sat. You're telling me that he'll be all right if he cooperates. That he won't feel much pain and they'll let him come home when the tests are over. As you talk, I feel a pain in my chest--it's emotion, killing me like a heart attack. I can't save Moldar. I can barely save myself and Sculee. So far, this is the only memory I've reclaimed of you.

I got Aimee pregnant. It wasn't supposed to happen, but Moldar arranged it. Traded the pregnancy, somehow, for himself. He was sick a lot--fragile from tests like those you'd mentioned. I remember ligature bruising on his wrists and ankles, stick marks, and new scars. I remember holding him while Aimee, big as a house with my child, poked a needle in his gluteus and pushed the syringe's plunger. He was freaked out--hysterical after some new round of procedures. We got him on the bed and wrapped ourselves around him. Stroked his hair and murmured soothing nothings while the drugs took him to sleep.

We were both with Aimee in a sterile, bland room when the baby was born. Moldar was like a kid, all big-eyed excitement, staring as the head emerged from between her legs. Aimee was looking at the ceiling and laughing. Drenched in sweat, breaking the bones of my hand with the strength of her grip, and laughing with--or at--God. I wasn't sure which. No time to decide because my daughter was there, bloody and with a cry like a siren's song. I was horrified and in love.

I think we called her Draper. I know that's a strange name, but it had something to do with Sculee's mother. She looked just like me, leading Moldar to joke that something had gone horribly wrong with my cloning, to nickname her "Walt, Jr."

For about two years, we watched Draper grow--two good years when the tests that left Moldar washed out and ragged were few, when my pragmatic and careworn Sculee coochie-cooed, when I was fixed on nothing but my family.

The End snuck up while we were watching our little girl. It wasn't supposed to happen so quickly--we thought we had years to stop it. There were FEMA broadcasts on the radio, urging calm as the Lights traversed the daytime sky, revealing themselves as small saucers and huge floating platforms that were brilliant like the sun. Aimee stared up agape while Moldar jabbed, dead-flat, "Told you so, Sculee."

I feel like I should sing or something--sing a song I used to know about everything going to hell wearing pasties while I smiled. The world was finished--not in a poof or a bang, but in a slow grind of death. First, the bees came in dark buzzing clouds, then--unexpectedly--the Things with Claws were born. The Immune Rebels attacked the Federals, forcing the Feds to fight their army and the Clawed Things on two fronts.

You and I already partially recalled the devolution: the Feds wound up holding the north and the Rebels consolidated power in the south. Now I also remember the northern refugees--altered or immune humans and Clones--scrambling to get behind Rebel lines. There'd been a terrible battle for the city we lived in. The Rebels and the Feds wanted it equally and God knows how many died trying to take or hold it. Eventually, the Feds were reinforced and they drove the Rebels south, toward that place called Richmond. I remember walking endless miles with Moldar and Aimee, taking my turn at carrying Draper. "Sacka'potatoes," her mother called her, trying to smile. It was Spring and the earth smelled moist and alive. My daughter, dirty-faced, disheveled, pointed at the Daffodils I'd nearly trod on. "Pretty, Daddy. Pretty."

"Pretty, sweetie," I agreed. Kept walking, trying to ignore my throbbing feet and Draper's weight numbing my hipbone. Then I whispered to Moldar, "Shitty cosmic joke, huh, to die when the flowers bloom." His small nod said he understood Fate's sick humor.

Moldar had been planned out before his conception by Federal scientists--a lab-created Saint Sebastian to shoot with prototype arrows. They'd put something inside him--a symbiotic biodevice he called "Little Buddy." It killed the Clawed Things during their gestation. Moldar's had been the first biodevice, but now all the Feds had a Little Buddy inside them, living off serotonin siphoned from the brain through fine veins that threaded up the host's spinal column.

Moldar was also the first who could kill Things with his mind. When he discovered how, he became the Rebels' best hope. There must have been a stressor that triggered his ability, but whatever happened hasn't returned to me yet.

I know we made it to Richmond and dug in there while some of the Rebels learned to do what Moldar could. I remember standing on a deserted playing field with a tall padded post ahead of us that was shaped like a squared-off Y. The night sky was vast and terrifying. One of the bright platforms was up there--high and near the less luminescent moon. Moldar and twenty odd others looked toward it. After a minute, sweat broke out on their faces, but they stared, otherwise tranquil. When the platform suddenly blew apart, Moldar flinched and walked away as the others reanimated, cheered at the fiery trails of debris that showered on land miles away. I followed Moldar, stood with my hand on his shoulder while he explained, "They want their planet back, Walt. A million years is nothing to them. It's like if we went to the store for eggs and beer and came back to a house full of rats. We'd drive them out, too--probably kill them, right?"

But he didn't want an answer, at least not from me.

I wish I could describe what it feels like to _need_ to die--to crave it so bad that self-murder becomes reflex. I've struggled to end my life a hundred times since I remembered Cold Harbor. And as each particle of memory rises to shine and burn, I go through the agony again. Days sitting strapped to a chair bolted to the floor, sedatives, Angels singing soothing songs. Sometimes I hear Aimee screaming in another room. She remembers losing Draper and Moldar, too, and I think the grief is spurring her more sharply than the suicide function.

To write this next part will be hard. Luther is here beside me now, grim and hollow-eyed, gripping a big ol' needle that's already primed. He says I'll shake and sweat and wish to heaven my daddy never loved my mama, but I must record what I recall. He insists that you preserve my account-- preserve Draper's memory... and Moldar's. He says to tell you, "This is your Cross." No, Luther won't explain what the fuck he means....

The Feds came south, attacked Richmond and drove us out. Everything was on fire, blazing. They used all they had against us--air and ground offensives. I still hear the hum of the saucers as they angled, targeting. I remember the explosions and see the bits of bodies: a severed head sitting like a garnish on a pile of debris, expression strangely serene. She--he-- had accepted death, but neither Moldar, Sculee, nor I wanted to go. We'd die fighting; we'd go down spitting in Federal faces. I know we made that mutual vow.

We ran along suburban streets. Not three or four miles behind us, the Feds were razing the city, but there it was eerily quiet--just the thuds of our shoes, wheezing lungs. Moldar sprinted with Draper, looked back to yell Sculee's name. I dragged her along with me, faltering myself when I tripped over the bones of a bee victim. Aimee was exhausted, starving from feeding her rations to the baby, giving nothing to herself but the lie: "I'm fine." Her hair was already going white. How the hell does that happen? How can grief and hardship suck the color out of cast-off cells-- that's what hair is, right? But it happens--it happened to Aimee.

We ran. Passed cars that had crashed as their drivers perished in a stinging storm. Ran by houses with open doors and skeletons on the driveway, past a school where the playground was littered with the little dead.

After the sun went down we were still hurrying east, part of a rag-tag group of Rebel soldiers and refugees. Behind us, the sky was red from Richmond's burning. They were gaining on us and we knew it. The soldiers thought that the Rebel line had reformed near Williamsville or 'burg or 'town--that reinforcements were on their way from Rocky Mount. Why do I remember these fucking places when I still don't recall my own last name? It pisses me off. You've concluded, no doubt, that I'm shaking as I write. Luther is patting my free hand, telling me to breathe with him, long and slow. God bless him. Luther's weirder than hell--_from_ Hell, to hear him tell it--but he's abnormally nurturing... stabilizing in a way reminiscent of a surprise attack.

We ended up inside some big holy building with a crescent moon on a spire. There were Feds with flambe sticks encircling the structure. I took Sculee aside and asked her what it would be like to burn to death. She said we'd never feel the fire, that the smoke would kill us first. We should suck in as much as we could to get it over with quickly. I nodded, looked back at Moldar who was standing with Draper in his arms, her head against his shoulder. Wild reddish-brown curls and a small mouth pouting in sleep. The look in Moldar's eyes was fierce as he strode toward us and handed off our daughter to me. "He's out there. I saw him through the window."

"Who?" I asked.

"Cancerman. I can get you out of here."

"Moldar, no--" Aimee began, but he cut her off, sandpaper voice shouting that he would not watch her die, he just fucking would _not_! Then they were in each others arms, Moldar nearly swallowing her in his embrace. He kissed her forehead, telling her that he'd get away, that he'd find us again. All that mattered was that she and the baby and I made it to the Rebel line and then kept heading south.

The grief on her face--no use seeking an alliterative description. It was plain horrible. "Moldar, he'll make a martyr of you in that lab, trying to find out how you kill them."

"I know, Sculee. But I have to go," he whispered into her hair. "At least there's hope this way."

Moldar walked outside, into the glow of their illuminators, with his hands in the air. Our compatriots were already slipping by Sculee and me, dashing through the break in the circle of black-armored men. I remember Moldar pivoting, the slightly defensive curl of his fingers above open palms, the dark smear of facial hair over pinched cheeks, and ebony stones for eyes. Untucked remains of a fancy office shirt... and still wearing a mutherfucking tie, slack around his neck like hangman's noose. He cocked his head toward the safety of the darkness, mouthed, "Go."

We prevaricated another moment, then left him. My last glimpse was of Moldar offering his wrists to a Federal officer to be shackled or bound.

I've been sobbing now for half an hour, sitting in the chair. Luther just let me up. I feel strangely safe there, immobilized--can't do more than abrade my wrists and ankles, but I can let the pain out. I miss him. Shit, I fucking miss him. And Draper. She was so beautiful, Petunia. Why did I live and not my little girl?

Luther says I know full well that I didn't live, that I was dead before my Maker's drugs hit my brain. But we'll get to that. Luther's still urging me on, telling me that you need to know how they murdered my child, how they tore Aimee and me apart.

Cold Harbor. It was a big open field where others had died--old-fashioned men in homemade uniforms, gunsmoke lingering as a salt-peter haze. There was an empathetic mist on the battlefield that night when modern men were dying. 'Men' in the all-encompassing sense. _Mankind_ was dying there.

We'd only gone a stone's throw--a fucking pittance of a distance before they'd captured us. I don't know if the Feds lied to Moldar about safe passage, or if the mop-up detachment was unaware of the deal, but I remember the way Moldar said "Cancerman." A sonofabitch who had screwed us before....

We were force-marched miles through the darkness. Draper twisted in my arms, cry-babbling that she wanted her blankie, her nookie, her Muffie- kitty--things from home that we'd abandoned weeks before. I think she knew, Petunia. I hope she didn't, but I really think that Draper knew.

A electrocharged pen glowed and crackled on the field. About a hundred people were caged inside, backlit by the headlights of two big trucks. The fog diffused crimson flashes--slowed the strobes, bled them into the molasses maelstrom of shouting, screaming, laser hiss, and engine growl. Time was bent and funny, shock sneaking in. Shoved through a gap into the corral, we huddled away the last minutes of our family while Bluttos processed other captives. They cut off jackets and sleeves to fire red bleeps at small scars on upper arms, then dragged prisoners away toward the headlights.

"I love you both. I love you both so much." I said it over and over. The baby clung to me weeping, but Aimee didn't cry. I see her peeking through her hair, open-mouthed, as the Bluttos come near. Visceral memories: riiiiiiiiiiip as a knife strips away my shirt sleeve. A crimson pop that leaves green after-images. The Blutto's voice sounds tinny, fragmented, through the speaker of his biohelmet. He tells his partners that I go to the truck. Aimee struggles with them, making little whimpers. Cloth tears. Another flash. "She goes, too." They don't strobe Draper, instead they propel us forward with the muzzles of their guns. Jam us through a another gap in the electropen. Suddenly, insectoid armored arms enwrap my throat, my waist. Black-gloved hands yank my daughter from me as she screams "Dadadamamama!"

I can't write this. I can't. Fuck you for asking, Petunia--for needing to know. Fuck you, too, Luther--and while you're at it, kiss my ass. Yeah, it's over--it's not real now, but it _was_ real.... Oh God.... They slit our baby's throat. One moment Draper's shrieking and then her vocal chords are sliced and there's no sound but bubbling. I watch her eyes dull as the life goes.

They discard her rag-doll body--toss the trash they've made onto a heap of bloody, gape-mouthed corpses. People who'd been lovers, mothers, total strangers, all piled together with arms, legs, and torsos tangled. I remember a woman's breast exposed in her last struggle and a dead man's head on her thigh, his eyes turned up as if to get a free peep....God. Jesus Christ. My Draper on top of that pile, bent backwards, head dangling. I see her spine through the depth of the wound. See her blood running around her ears, along her scalp through her curls, pattering onto the bodies below.

I hear Aimee screaming obscenities and they start to jab us forward. Aimee--how can such a little person be so strong? She gets the knife out of the Blutto's grasp and jams it right into an articulated armor joint between the ribs and stomach. As the Blutto gasps and falls, she breaks away and flings herself on Draper and the corpses below. I'm fighting and cursing as they drag her off her child and backhand her so hard that blood flies from her mouth.

They drag us over to stand in a line at the back of the trucks. The captives there are shivering, clinging to the person next-by, watching Bluttos seize the prisoner at the head of the queue. To the truck on the left or right-- each goes to one or the other. At the foot of the loading ramps, all clothing is torn off and pitched into a central pile, naked bodies are bound, blindfolded, and carried inside.

Merchandise.

As we wait, Sculee finally weeps. Of all of us, she's been the toughest. Moldar and I both cried buckets during these post-apocalypse weeks, but not her. Now she squeezes ragged cloth and my flesh, staining me, sobbing like she does now, from the perdition of her soul. It wasn't Draper's tiny handprint that I'd remembered on my sleeve. It was Sculee's.

When its my turn, they pry us apart, pull me to the left. I hardly notice as they jerk my belt off, yank down my pants, rip off the tatters of my shirt. I strain to see her. As the Bluttos force her toward the other truck, she looks to me with open, pleading hands. They're separating us. I balk, call "Dana!" Her name rakes my throat, and the rope grates the skin of my wrists and ankles as they pull it tight. A black blur as my glasses are slapped off and a hood is drawn over my head....

Walter died, I think, right then. Luther says that's probably why I left the Factory in such good shape: it's no fun to torture a catatonic. Once my Maker blanked me, once I started to respond as a Simp, then--briefly-- rape, whips, electricity, and the rack ingrained my obedience.

(Did I ever tell you that my Maker kept my glasses in his jacket? He said that I could have them when I was ready for shipping. It got kind of...hmmm...there's a word that sounds like "balovian." Whenever he was close to me, I saw those glasses peeking out of his uniform's front pocket. I wanted them so bad that I shook and drooled. One day, as I stood before him, nude, wobbly, and subservient, he held the glasses out to me, one lens pinched between his waxy fake fingers. I pissed the floor. For real.)

Had to stop awhile and let Luther hold me. Your Mr. Becket came back and offered to delay his departure so I could finish this letter. I'd speculate on which whorehouse Becket is at, but he seems too dedicated to be tempted by flesh.

As I write, Boggs is massaging my neck, my temples.... It feels good.... When I gained coherency, Luther's was the first face I saw. Deep wrinkles in his brow and he trembled with anger. "Warren don't remember you, you cretinous viper," he was telling off Curly Bill. "He's already said he don't over and over, and if you get on him again I swear nobody'll find your shallow grave."

Bill snapped a (probably sophomoric) retort, but I didn't understand him above Aimee's grief. Luther was sheet-white as he turned toward the outlaw who hung in the background like sulking pestilence. "You hear her cryin'? Do you?" Luther's spoke through clenched teeth. "If you've ruined them, you die. Don't think I'm funnin' you neither."

Guess Bill didn't--he slunk away, but ever since Luther carted us back to Tombstone, Bill's appeared regularly to interrogate us. His examinations have one objective: to retrieve memories of himself. He remembers us, it seems, just as I remember you. No, I'm not sure why Wyatt lets him to do this--honestly, I haven't seen much of my "big brother."

At first, I was too loopy to protest when Bill came nagging. I'd have told him what I knew, if I'd known it, but there was nothing to say. And if Aimee remembers Bill, she's not sharing. She tells him he can go eat crap off a shingle and plugs up her ears and sings "lalalalalalala."

It appears that the connection between Curly Bill, Aimee, and me is Moldar. When Bill heard his name, his eyes rolled up and he passed out. I rather hoped I'd killed him, but alas. Anyway, I mention Moldar, Curly Bill fugues, and now he's more agitated than ever. If it wasn't driving me to drown in my own soup, I might not mind.... Oh fuck. Luther's telling me I'm getting worked up and I need to stop. He says I've had enough and it's time for you to read what I've written, then to ponder and pray.

Whatever.

Oh, and Becket said he'll take all my letters to you from now on. So, I'll correspond again when he returns to Tombstone. When you write me, I want to know what you knew and when you knew, and how you knew it, too. If I'm involved in whatever is happening, I'm going to be a player. You tell Sylvia to forward those sentiments to Wyatt.

Warren


October 20

Nope. Sorry. If you, Wyatt, and Virgil don't tell me the truth then I'm not talking to any of you.

Warren


October 23

I can't hear you. Lalalalalalalalalalalala....

W.


Sunday, October 26 5ish PM

It's cooling off here for the Winter. Rained some. Most days have been temperate and sweet as the Eastern Springtimes I now recall. This morning, Aimee and I sat in two of the rockers that ring Sanctuary's loggia, holding hands, watching cotton clouds over distant mountains. Mercy was the living Earth.

Beside me, my wife sipped Holliday's Guaranteed Sleepy Tea, letting the natural sedatives put a relaxed smile on her face, while I communed with Moldar and Draper. I think to them--talk about what I've remembered, send my love in vibratory form like the gurus say we should. I assure them they can move ahead and not worry about Aimee and me. We'll muddle through and catch up with them one day.

You know, Petunia, I swear that I've felt Draper's little arms around my neck and heard her whisper in my ear. Aimee says that while she doesn't disbelieve me, what I've experienced stems from humans' intense psychological need for comfort and hope. Death is final, she explained, so we reinvent an open ending with spirits invisible, bringing consolation-- gone, but still here. If that's true, I replied, then why don't I feel Moldar around me, too? Because I don't. Sometimes I think his soul and mine connect for an instant, but he's far, far away. Maybe reincarnated. Wouldn't it be a hoot if Moldar came back as one of the Things? That would be so like him, to become a monster to try to understand it. He hunted the darkness for a living when I knew him.

Wyatt, Virgil, and Curly Bill showed up at Sanctuary after Worship wearing Holy Day black suits, blue silk cravats, and bright bronze badges. Neat braids over Bill's shoulders, and his lapel was poked by a silver mourning brooch encasing a lock of Missouri's hair. Guess he'd been praying, too, although I doubt for forgiveness.

My brothers and Bill didn't come alone. There was a gray-haired, bearded man with them--thin and bent, who held onto Bill's belt loop and constantly looked to the outlaw. This fellow had been handsome once, but now his face was full of shadows, and madness moved over his pupils like the alien oil. Curly Bill gestured him into a rocker, then stood behind it with his arms crossed on his chest, giving Aimee and me his down-the-nose smirk. Wyatt and Virgil dragged up chairs, too. Both sat in front of us--legs apart, leaning forward, palms turned sideways on knees.

"Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee." Aimee smirked. "You two nervous?"

Virgil cleared his throat. "We've got some talkin' to do."

"I'll bet." She shifted in her rocker. "Who's your friend?"

"This here's Johnny Ringo. We'll get to him in awhile."

"I'm not in the mood to listen awhile."

"You need to, Aimee. You need to understand."

"You need to go to hell."

"Aimee, enough!" I snapped, breaking my gaze from Johnny Ringo to look at my wife. She withdrew her hand from mine, worked her jaw. Oh, I'd be up Butthole Creek later, yes siree. "Okay," I told my brothers. "You've got our attention."

Virgil talked while Wyatt stared at the brick floor. Couldn't see eyes for eyelashes, mouth for mustache. Then he looked at me straight. As I've written, he's not much on emotional displays, so when I saw a tear hanging off the tip of his nose, I knew how rotten he felt inside. Wyatt wiped away his betrayer with the back of his hand. In the course of that motion, I forgave him.

They told me secrets, Petunia--the secrets you already know, like Curly Bill's "kung fu" is the best. The Feds blanked his memory of self, but they forgot to erase other important skills. I understand why--aside from altruism--my brothers have helped keep Bill's boys alive and supplied. Gotta admit, it's clever: the gang's petty hijinx distract Young Major and the troops while Bill plays backdoor man, looking for the numeric sequence to unlock a Simpleton Kingdom of Heaven.

We understand why you all sacrificed us to Bill's obsession with his real name. Angry as I was, it made sense. Makes sense. Wyatt and Sylvia share a hell of a dream, and Aimee and I feel invested.

While Virgil spoke to us, Johnny Ringo sat quiet, hands folded in his lap, a line of spittle running continuously down his chin. Bill leaned forward a few times to sigh and dab the drool with a handkerchief. Virge said Bill remembered Johnny Ringo from his Before Life and did unto him what he did unto us, but Johnny's brain fused, establishing permanent psychosis. After Bill recognized us at Missouri's funeral and decided to break our mindblocks, Holliday helped him create a safer home-brew to up our chance of intact survival. "We didn't want to lose you, Warren, or you, honey-lamb." Virge offered his hand to Aimee. I thought she might hang out in Grumpville awhile longer, but she took it. Squeezed his big, work- rough fingers.

Curly Bill didn't offer an apology. Why should he? He knows he's a one- and-only and has everybody by the dreamer's halos. My wife, however, had a few words for him. She got in his face on tip-toes, bent her elbow and made a fist. "Let's get one thing straight: you touch me again and Luther won't ship post-paid to Satan on my behalf. I'll kill you myself, you sonofabitch. Got it?"

The outlaw smiled. Whispered, "What's my name, Sculee? You know it. C'mon, tell me, Sculee. What's my name?"

Aimee's eyes narrowed. "_His_ name was John Fiz-something Byers. But you're not important enough for me to recall. Not now, not ever." And then she dropped back on the flat of her bare feet, ground a knee into his balls, and walked off toward our room with the hem of her white gown sweeping the bricks.

As Curly Bill slumped against the wall to groan and writhe, Johnny turned to him with excited eyes. Chanted, "She's hot, she's hot, she's hot."

Stop laughing. Get sober with me a minute.

I said we're invested and I mean it. But.

Yes, but. At least from me. Aimee is all yours--ready to sneak and sly just as she and Moldar did in the old days. Sadly, I suspect that dedication to a new cause will temper the manic, giddy goofball I adore. I loved my serious Sculee, too, but she exiled herself from the spontaneity, the giggle fits, the saturation by unexpected color that make life worth living, even in the breach. She has that life-rush now. I don't want her to lose it, replace it with a drone's pledge to an imagined future. I want Dana Sculee/Aimee Earp to live for _now_.

And I want to live for now, too. Maybe I've listened to Boggs over long, but this is my second chance--where I try to make up for the sins of my Before Life, but where I get some pity, too, for fuck's sake. I don't care if watching the death of another child of mine would bring down a host of angels and perfection on Earth. The sacrifice would be too great, even for the good of so many. I'm not that strong. Maybe Aimee is; maybe Moldar was. But not me. I will do what I can for the new cause. I may even die for it. But I will not watch my loved ones die.

Just so you understand.

Write soon.

Warren


October 31

I pinned on my badge today and did the morning rounds with Virgil. Total strangers (and strange people) hugged and kissed me. My cheeks were patterned with hookers' smoochprints. Then Bessie almost broke my ribs in an embrace. Someone needs to tell that woman she's no faerie....

My brothers and Doc had spread word that Aimee and I caught Cholera at Iron Springs. God knows, I look pale and slubby enough to fit the lie. Actually, I think I look geriatric. My hair is almost entirely gone now, and the thin whisps remaining are pure silver. The lines are deeper on my face. I see new etchings, too, and age spots on the backs of my hands. Better stop before I start wanting a drink. God knows, the temptation will be strong enough this evening.

The governor is in Tuscon, but he has suspended curfew for the holiday. Young Major is livid, but to counter the governor is out of his purview. He's just hoping that we riot so he can tell someone high up the ladder he knew it all along.

Do you celebrate Fright Night in Goderville? If not, I'll explain. It's an evening when people dress up like skeletons, zombies, or bloodsuckers, then parade around to remind each other of our mortal vulnerability. There are Jack-yams on window ledges whose ghoulish faces will shine tonight. Bedsheet ghosts. Cow skulls on poles. And lots o'booze--special "clone-blood beer" and crimson "decapitation hooch."

Aimee is going to be a sword-wielding barbarian woman from an old television show. (Remember, you told me you recalled smoking cigarettes, sitting before a flickering picturebox? _That_ was a television.) Aimee has made her weapons out of tin foil and a short tight tunic from a scratchy old horse blanket. I told her she looks sexy, but her tits are going to chafe. Your Thomas Becket is already costumed as a _very_ bloody murdered priest (wince). Luther says he's coming as himself--and that's scary enough. Me, I'll be myself, too, on the street with my brothers, making sure drunken mischief doesn't turn to Federal mayhem.

Becket told me he's heading back to Goderville tomorrow morning. (The only reason I believe him is that he doesn't drink.) It's late afternoon already, so I'll give him this letter now. Excuse the brevity. I'll make it up next time--double promise. I joined the poker game over at the Spreading Chestnut a few days ago. Doc was in rare form. Heard all about one of his medical inventions with which he successfully treated Young Major: The Constipation Probe. The dealing stopped while we shit ourselves laughing. I'll leave you in constip--I mean anticipation of full details....

Sundance


November 11

I'm here, Petunia. Stop worrying now. I'm back...alive--no, more than alive. Yes, what my brothers told you is true. No, I don't know where we've been or how they did it. I can only tell you what they've let me remember.

Around 1 AM on Fright Night I was on break from duty, queueing with Aimee and Luther in the corral behind Fly's, waiting to have our picture taken. I had my arm around Aimee, keeping her warm against my body. She was sleepy--boozily peevish, too, with breath like a local still. Decapitation hooch had stained her tongue and lips with red dye that looked black in the low light. She rolled her head no-no-no against my shoulder and told Luther, who'd dared to suggest it was perhaps bedtime, "I'm not fucking going home until we get a photo and you can't make me!"

The Angel closed his eyes and took a breath. "Precious, you are my Salvation, but if you wasn't--"

"You'd kill me with my own pierced earrings. Uh-huh. Right." She'd begun to tease my lip with her finger. "Walt, you know I love you, snugglewumpus. I love your butt...the way you stand with your hand on your hip when you bitch out Moldar...mmmmm...makes me so--oooohh, " she wriggled. "Kiss me--c'mon kiss me... " When I chuckled but did nothing, she reached for my crotch. "Need some help? "

Now I wriggled, blushed when I heard the fellow in front of us clear his throat. "Aimee!" I batted at her hands. "Not here, not now."

Luther sighed and turned toward a window of the clapboard studio where a photographer's flash had just ignited. "I suggest you kiss the wench before apeshit ensues."

"That's right! Kiss me, goddamnit!" she bellowed, leaving me no choice but to pinch her chin with my fingers and pull her face up to mine. She tasted like hooch and sugar. Made a purring sound low in her throat as the tips of our tongues danced. She annoyed me, embarassed me, but this was the spontaneous combuster I wanted to preserve. God, I love her. She shoves me forward, breaks me out, and makes me respond. I was always so good at short-shrifting my loved ones by freezing up, by pushing them away instead of welcoming them. I did it to Sculee and she did it to me. But Aimee won't let Warren hide behind "strength" and "restraint" that disguises an immature terror.

My tongue slipped inside Aimee's mouth, enjoying the warm engulfing softness and the gentle scrape of teeth. I pushed my groin against her hip, letting her feel what lurked behind my coat's mystery. She growled, enticed, but then pulled away with eyes wide. "Sweetheart? Wh-what...?" I stuttered, then cringed, horrified, as her mouth stretched back to accommodate a scream. A Screamer's scream.

I shook her out of stupid reflex, knowing it wouldn't help. Her pupils had fixed and the stain from the hooch made her mouth seem bloody. When the need to refuel with air made her horrible sound cease, I heard other wild shrieks in the distance.

"They're coming," Luther sounded dolorous as he looked skyward. I remember paintings of Jesus with raised eyes and a haunted face like that. Beneath my hands, Aimee's body was stiffening, fists clenching at her sides, all muscles locking but her diaphragm.

People in the corral were scurrying away, headed for their hovels--as if any home was safe against the Things. A few others were spasming on the ground, having fallen into fugues. I was asking Luther if we should take Aimee into Fly's to wait it out when the ground began to vibrate and the air crackled. I felt tickling against my cheek. It was Aimee's hair rising on end above her pinpoint eyes and vampire mouth.

Forget it. There was no use moving her. It wouldn't be hours; they were nearly upon us. In a moment, everything would painlessly blacken. When memory rebegan, we'd still be standing in the O.K. Corral. The poor fuguing bastards who'd fallen around us would stagger to their feet, we'd all swat the dust from our clothes, then go snooze off our electrostatic hangovers.

But it didn't happen that way, Petunia. I swear it took less than an a second for it to loom up overhead--an enormous golden blob throwing off a low tone that deafened. I covered my hears and fell back a few steps from Aimee. Bumped into Luther whose body absorbed the shock by teetering like a mannequin. The Angel was gone into unconscious black. I cursed and squeezed my head between my hands, adding to the terrible pressure in my skull. My skin crawled with invisible electricity. Through squinting eyes, I saw Aimee's head tip back and her hands raise as if in praise of the orb above. Slowly, she began to rise.

And then, Petunia, my own hands lifted, too....

The sky was dawn pink and something was up there, going higher, leaving a double wake like an inverted V.

Gone.

Pebbles under my head and shoulder blades. A sharp one under my ass-- ouch.

I sat up, stood up. Brushed at the detritus stuck to the back of my naked form, shivered, then headed down Allen Street. It was going to be a pretty day, but the morning was still nippy, especially for the Moose and the Twins who had drawn in tight. Needed to get home and put some clothes on.

Wyatt was standing outside Kate's warming his hands with his morning mug of coffee. I waved and said I'd be back to do my rounds soon as I was dressed. I remember how slowly he blinked. As I kept walking, heard the squeak of the saloon doors and Wyatt hollering for Virgil.

Spurs jangled and boots thudded as they caught up with me, hooked my arms through their own, and walked me straight to Sanctuary.

When Doc held up the mirror, I turned my head, raised my hands to flex fingers and rotate wrists, trying to prove the link between what I saw and _me_.

I was so young. Skin pink and healthy and scarless, muscles well-defined, stomach flat and firm. Dark eyebrows and eyelashes and almost a full head of deep chocolate hair.

Wyatt and Virgil told me we'd been gone about a week. Everyone had thought our corpses were in the desert, drying out, mysteriously eschewed by scavengers and maggots. Virge squatted beside me. "I guess it's rat-butt stupid to ask, but do you remember anything?" All I could do was shake my head. He smiled dopey and crooked. "Didn't figure."

There was a soft voice behind me. "Walt?" Looked over my shoulder to find Sculee in the doorway wearing Newborn white, shiny auburn hair hanging just below her shoulders. Perfect milk and honey complexion. Beautiful--she was so fucking, fucking beautiful. "Oh my god, Walt, I never knew you when you were this young." She came across the room, hesitantly reached to stroke my cheek.

I nodded. Long Pause. My voice was flat with shock. "Well...we'll know each other now." My brain was still misfiring. When she smiled I saw a hundred butterflies.


November 12 10 PM

Just a few weeks ago, I was Mr. Popular, now people avoid me or stare agape when I walk the planks along Allen Street. Virge says I scare them, or they're envious, but my novelty will surely fade.

I cannot get over how _good_ I feel. I'm limber, agile. Damned fast reflexes, too. (The other day I was playing around with my flare gun, twirling it in and out of its holster while Aimee cracked up.) And no more eye glasses--the world is in focus. During my next alien treatment, I think I'll ask for optional infrared. My wife is perfect, too--in perfect shape, I mean. Hell, she's just perfect.

Aimee's now serving as a medic at Sanctuary. When she doctors sick Newborns and townsfolk, she's all Dana Sculee, but reverts to Elmo's Fire Aimee Earp whenever she must shift to routine caregiver. Holliday told her she'll never be an Angel, that it requires patience and peacefulness she just doesn't possess. But she's a good physician, he stressed, and we've got a ghetto full of sickies. Doc is meeting with the governor to discuss founding a clinic closer in town--Aimee's own clinic. If this happens, Luther will work with her. Boggs is one of Doc's best angels, he says, but its plain that he's bound to Aimee; all his previous Newborns were precursors and more would be mere addendums.

BTW, while I'm shunned on the street, Aimee is cat-called. I guess it's easier to break through fear when one is motivated by one's trouser buddy.


November 14

So you've got eleven inches of snow? It's five degrees? Crap. And I thought it was mighty cool here two evenings ago when we dropped to forty-nine. Well, its small comfort, but if I was in Goderville, I'd keep your decrepit body warm. Since I'm not, you'll have to burn warm memories. But damn, Petunia, Becket showed me the picture of Sylvia. You don't need memories of me--you've got a luv oven right there, scorchin'.

The camp was a pisshole, but I do miss those nights in the tent when the four of us were pressed close together, sharing body heat and gentle touches. I'd massage your hand to quell the stabbing pin-and-needles. And triple fuck your Maker for leaving you hanging so long.... Remember Mish-in-the-Middle? What a sweet game you made up to distract her from pain. She appreciated it, you know. God rest her and bless you.

To answer your question: I'm still blank on Curly Bill. I really think Aimee is too, or if she does know his name, she'll only tell him before he pokes the next person who makes the worm of his memory turn. And knowing my Aimee, whatever name she tells him will be a lie....

Supposedly, we're going to see a little gang activity soon. My, it's nice being in the loop....

Gotta go. Wyatt needs me.


8:15 PM

Remember when I heard Papa Bear tell Baby Bear that the Feds were sending "second-line prototype-A Clones" to Cochise Ghetto? Well, they're coming tomorrow. The governor called us to his office say he'd received a dispatch to that effect. Said weÕd need to effect biohazard procedures in case some of the Merchandise was "toxic."

As we crossed the dusty yard, headed back to down, Wyatt said it really roughed his rectum when Chancellor used dumb-ass FEMA euphemisms. Christ on a Q-tip, he grumbled, why not just be plain--we needed biohazard suits because some of the poor sonsofbitches inside the boxcar might be bleeding. "They donÕt usually get 'toxic' on their own, do they?" Wyatt asked, then spat on the ground.

(No guess what a Q-tip is. Virgil doesnÕt have one either, although he's pretty sure that's the way to spell it.)

When we got back on Allen Street, Wyatt slapped through the saloon doors of the Occidental. "Don't mind him, Warren," Virge urged me on. "Go get your shave." We walked a few doors down to the barbers and I took a seat in the chair on the porch. As the barber lathered me up, Virge scanned the afternoon chaos of the main street from a kingly rocker. Shook his head in disgust when a rollerblader collided with a vegetable cart. Then the straight razor swiped me a bit too close, and I jumped and cussed. Virgil looked toward me squint-eyed sideways as I wiped pinkened soap from my face. The barber apologized slavishly, but I wasnÕt listening. I'd just realized that I understand jack about Clones except never, ever go at one with something sharp. Oh, and I've heard the prozzies say that they've got to make them pull out because clone semen makes their insides itch. Yup, thatÕs the extent of my education on Clones. Maybe I ought to learn something.

This razor-induced reflection led Virgil and I to discuss what Clones remember of the World Before. Virge said he can only speak for himself and the Clones he knows, but their memories are more wispy than most humans'. Himself, Virgil has a fixation on Chancellor's computer--when he sees it he remembers entering data, fingers tapping away, and that he felt happy doing this, as if it was what he was made for. When he's in Chancellor's office, he wants to pull the keyboard toward him and get started, by golly. Virgil also said that neither he nor Wyatt remember each other before they awoke in the same molding room at Cherry Hill Factory. He never recognized anyone at Cherry Hill, nor in camp, nor, to date, in all of Cochise Ghetto. Virgil's eyes lost their light when he said that. Head hung a little. Not long ago, to see him so would have frightened me, now I wanted to give him a bear hug.

Virge told me that he takes solace in the Holy Day message. He says he cannot believe that the Things are outside the great scheme of spiritual evolution--they must turn on the Karmic Wheel as we do, headed for reunion with the Godsource. Said that he, Wyatt, and Josie will sit on the hacienda roof some nights and stare up into the universe, trying to communicate with their alien progenitors. Apparently, Wyatt went into a trance state up there one night and saw a vision of the Things, the humans, and their hybrid children living together, thriving. Wyatt thought it was a scene from the future--maybe from another world. Virgil said it made Wyatt understand that the perfect tomorrow must put out its first tender roots now.

But you've heard something similar from Sylvia--right? Virge says she had the same independent vision, replete with details that Wyatt also recalls. When I told Aimee about the shared vision she smiled wistfully, said all new religions begin with someone's hallucinations. If cohabitation comes, it'll be reality borne of shared fantasy, a self-fulfilling prophesy. I reminded her that she'd thought Moldar was delusional, too. Aimee tucked rusty-orange hair behind her ear and frowned. "You know, he was a prophet who based predictions on actual science. No one gave credence to his hard evidence any more than they accepted his intuitions. Not even me. I couldn't go where science led. I just couldn't believe."


November 16 11:20 PM

It seems that every time I write you something stupendous has happened. No exception now. The scene was Tombstone Station, today around 12 noon. Because we knew that Clones were coming, we were not only suited up in our powder-blue extra skins, but had cleared everyone out of the surrounding town block. Young Major's men made a ring around the station to keep away the over-enthusiasts who couldn't wait to see new Merchandise listed on the chalk board. Don't know what snappy marching drill this arrival disturbed--maybe it was cherry pie desert. Anyway, George, Jr., sat petulant in his hover car just off to the side of the station platform.

The train came as a flash in the distance, then slowly emerged as one different from any we'd ever seen before. Its cars were clean streamlined silver, each with an upturned receiving dish on its roof. Only four cars in all.

When the engine cut back we could hear humming from some kind of generators attached to each car. Everyone was cocking eyebrows, peace officers and Angels murmuring amongst themselves. Wyatt walked to the edge of the platform to lean down and ask Young Major if he still wanted us to open the cars, as these were so different from all previous shipments. A languid black-armored wave sent us up to the doors. There were no visible locks or levers, just an emerald button.

Beside me, Aimee shifted nervously. I heard raspy breath through her helmet's speaker. This was her first attendance at a Delivery, and she was afraid she'd fugue if the boxcars opened to reveal great suffering. I squeezed her hand through heavy gloves. She nodded and tried to seem ready.

When I hit the button, a lock clunked and the door slid automatically to the right. I expected hot stench, but the wave of interior air came over me cool like the governor's house and smelling lightly of menthol. I climbed the two steps into the car and turned to look down its length. There were no sick, naked bodies crammed together, no corpse pile in one corner and overflowing buckets of excrement in another. No pleas for help and no cries of pain.

The softly lit white interior held two rows of little bassinets. "Oh my god." Aimee pushed up against me, squeezed by. She ran down the center isle to peer in each crib. "They're alive, Walt! Oh fuck a duck, they're all alive!"

The Angels and medics disconnected slender catheters and feeder tubes, then we carried each small life to Sanctuary. Of course, the news had spread and the whole town's population was peering restlessly from behind the line of Bluttos. Wyatt had spurred his horse down the road, hurrying off to Chancellor to ask what the hell to do with them--I mean, if they're staying, how do we divvy them up without causing a riot? Supposedly, Wyatt and the governor are working on a scheme right now.

I'm sitting under the Sanctuary loggia writing this. Most of the babies are still drugged out, but a few have opened their eyes to peer at us groggily. Then they take a big dump. The search is on for diapers.

There are seventy-three infants, all ranging in age from about one month to a year. Fifty little girls and twenty-three boys--all with full heads of brown hair and round dark eyes. We think there are only two models--that all the girls and all the boys will grow up identical.

Beside me, Aimee is rocking a fussy one. He's about six months old. The baby's stopped crying, but his little hands are tangled in her hair and he's sulking. A moment ago she said to me, "He had an animal name, didn't he? I know it was an animal, but I can't remember which."

I told her not to christen the baby yet. We don't know if we can keep him, or any of them. But we will. We _are_. I'll have to suck up the terror of losing him like we lost Draper and live for the day.

Luther Boggs just came over to sit on the ground beside Aimee and the baby. His head is resting against her thigh. The stars are bright tonight. Luther says the sky's as wide as heaven.

Yours,

Walter

End of Book I




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