him alive to the incredible age of seventy or even eighty. Since it was impossible to give such miracles to the teeming masses, it was only fitting that Baxley, the hero, be allowed the best of medical care. Now, the Brothers— that was different. Brother President, yes. Public servants such as Senators, who took decades to learn the complexities of government, yes, they deserved the treatments. But the regular run of Brothers? That caused some minor discontent in the country at large and was always an issue when, once every eight years, the Lays had an opportunity to pick Brother President from a Brother-selected list of great men. Candidates were always promising better medicine for the masses, but all the masses got was Newasper, a combination of that ancient healing drug, aspirin,

and one of the less harmful hallucinogens and, in severe cases of overactive adrenal glands, shakeshock. But that wasn't the important thing. The important thing was that Colonel Ed Baxley had, almost singlehandedly, overturned the Godless First Republic. Colonel Ed Baxley had kicked out the rascals who had, long, long ago, brought Commie sex education into schools while outlawing Godfearing prayer. Baxley had, without having to fire a shot from his massive fire cannon, the most terrible weapon ever devised, kicked out the rascals who wanted to tax Holy Mother Church. So Baxley deserved all the best, for he had returned the Republic to the people and to God. One Nation, under God and the Brothers indivisible. As the long minutes of waiting stretched into an hour, then two, the colonel paced. His mind, trying to steer away from painful memories, relived the moment, such a short while past, when he had helped his wife from the hospital to the waiting air car with LaVerne, his niece, walking behind them holding little Ronnie in her arms. He had made a short statement to the waiting press. «This one will be reared as a man of God,» he said. The small crowd cheered. «He will be taught at home by a Brother tutor.» Some raised eyebrows from the Lays, who couldn't afford, mostly, to send their children to public school. Ah, it was pleasant and it was painful. The colonel paced. He remembered. He would not let his pain rob him of the sheer pleasure of Ronnie's memory. An amazingly developed boy, a paragon from the first. At four he had his own horse, could ride like a twentieth-century movie cowboy. At five, he shot a respectable pattern with a conventional rifle on the firing range, much to Skeerzy's chagrin. And Baxley had told Skeerzy, «You teach him about God. I'll teach him about guns.» Because hadn't it been necessary for him, Colonel Ed Baxley, to know about guns? The colonel taught his son well. The boy was all boy, detesting all females except his mother and barely tolerating her. He could perform destruction upon the anatomy of all children with whom he came into contact. He adored his hero father with a single-minded intensity. He tolerated Skeerzy. His preaching teacher was a necessary evil, thrust upon him by his father. Being with Skeerzy was slightly better than falling into the hands of women. The colonel smiled fondly as he remembered Ronnie's favorite costume, a combination of Kit Carson and Captain Flash of the Interplanetary Patrol. And a toy gun was an integral part of the costume. The colonel saw no harm in a toy gun. The manufacture of toys of war had long since been outlawed for the Lay population, but Ronnie wasn't Lay. He was Brother from the moment of his birth, one of the ruling elite by right of birth to the wife of the world saver. The gun was an exact model of a hand fire-gun. And Ronnie knew how to work it, for the Colonel took him, not once, but a half dozen times, to

the vast, cold, brightly lit arsenal caverns where a constantly alert group of peace keepers practiced with the fire gun. Ronnie fired the gun well, using its narrow, hand-held beam with a grim precision which made older men frown with jealousy. Skeerzy objected, of course. «Richard, my boy, «said the Colonel, «if the Lays ever rebel we'll need a few boys like my Ronnie. A few could make the difference. There are not a half dozen men outside of the Peace Corps who have fired a fire gun.» Ah, memories… Only a few days before the Nebulous disaster at the North American Gate, Ronnie had begged to be taken to the caverns. Skeerzy went along. He frowned with distaste. The colonel chuckled. His wife, Ronnie's mother, had gone into false labor that morning. As she moaned with pain, Ronnie asked her why she was moaning. «Never you mind, young fella,» the colonel said. You didn't tell kids

things like that, like birth and all. They were not ready for the sordid facts of life. But then, his wife said, «Haven't you told him, Ed?» Baxley frowned. «Not yet.» «Told me what?» Ronnie asked. «You're going to have a little brother,» his mother said. Ronnie's face clouded. «You're putting me on.» «No, darling,» his mother said. «Wouldn't you like to have a little brother to play with?» «No,» Ronnie screamed. And for two days he'd pitched tantrum after tantrum. The colonel, uncomfortable about talking of birth and distasteful subjects with his son, would only say that God had seen fit to bless them with another boy. He tried to convince Ronnie that having a little brother would be fun. But Ronnie didn't want to share a moment of his father's time with a brother. He'd seen kids with baby brothers or sisters, forgotten, ignored, while the adults clucked and cooed over the squalling, dirty-ended little brats. So, to soothe Ronnie, Baxley took him to the arsenal caverns and let him fire a whole magazine of fire at solid rock, cutting a tunnel a hundred

yards deep into the earth. Fine little boy with sturdy body dressed like Kit Carson and Captain Flash, toy gun in his holster, real gun in hand, blasting, eating, chewing solid rock. But nevertheless, the colonel had to call for help. «He's all concerned about his little brother,» he told Skeerzy. «You'd better talk to him.» Skeerzy did a magnificent job. Ronnie had been taught a healthy respect for Him who did the Universe with a sweep of his hand. If a fellow like that wanted him to love a little brother, he allowed, he would love a little brother. Yes, the colonel thought, as he paced the hospital waiting room, Skeerzy did a wonderful job. He chuckled. It was funny thinking of Skeerzy's face when Ronnie, seemingly reconciled to the coming of his little brother, asked Skeerzy how his brother was going to get through space from heaven. He could almost hear Skeerzy's answer. «But how is my little brother going to get through space.» Ronnie insisted. «Yes,» Baxley chuckled, «tell the boy, Skeerzy.» The colonel chuckled as he remembered. Then he wasn't chuckling anymore. He stopped in midstride. Cold beads of perspiration formed on his upper lip. He burst into a lumbering run which carried him to the roof, to his air car. His driver snapped to attention. «Get me the arsenal!» Baxley snapped. With the commander of the arsenal on the phone, secure from eavesdropping by even the most powerful of Brothers, Baxley wiped his face. «Check the guns,» he said. «They are checked daily, sir,» the Commander said, standing stiffly at attention. «Check the goddamned guns,» Baxley roared. «I'll hold.» And while he waited, dread was a weight in his stomach. He had wondered why Ronnie had been so insistent on meeting Richard Skeerzy at the North American Gate on Skeerzy's return from his honeymoon trip. It was totally unlike Ronnie. He'd given up seeing a cadet football game to go up on the shuttle. He waited in dread. The commander of the arsenal was back, white-faced, grim. «I don't understand,» the commander was saying. He was holding a fire gun. It looked very realistic. «I cannot understand how this happened.» «When my son fired last,» the colonel said, «did he field strip and clean his own weapon?» «Just as he always did, sir,» said the commander nervously. «And the guard allowed him to place the weapon in its rack and lock it?» «Just as always, sir.» «And that is Ronnie's toy weapon,» said the colonel sadly. «I don't understand it,» the commander said. Baxley broke off. He walked to the edge of the roof, looked down. Far below the traffic was clogged. A gray haze of pollution rose from the canyon. He knew, then, why Ronnie had insisted on going to the North American Gate. He knew, then, why Ronnie had been a victim of the Nebulous disaster. No. He corrected himself. Ronnie had not been a victim. Not a victim. «But how is my little brother going to get through space?» Ronnie had demanded. And Richard Skeerzy, with a wink at the colonel, and because a true Christian gentleman doesn't talk about vulgar things like birth and animal functions, had answered. «He's coming on the moon rocket,» Skeerzy said. Down below the, smog-making ground cars halted in a massive jam. The sound of their horns drifted up to the colonel. CHAPTER FOUR Luke Parker was one terrified Apprentice Brother, Third Class. He had witnessed a miracle, had, indeed, been the doing of that miracle. He'd watched the very heaven's door open. He'd seen the white, glaring face of God. He, Luke Parker, had done a miracle. He, like Jesus Christ, had brought a man back from the dead. Oh, the man had been breathing, but he had been dead, dead, dead, gasping, bleeding, his guts spilled out on his clothing. And Luke had sutured the cuts with faith, replaced the ruptured intestines with that inbuilt instinct of Tightness. Flash, God talked, and splat, things went oozing back into place, and zipppp, the slit closed and his hands felt wholeness under a slime of blood and the stinking contents of a leaking intestine. And now, awed, terrified, he was still kneeling beside his bed, the little room in darkness, his face lifted to the flaking ceiling. Praying, thanking Him. For he'd cursed Him and He had rewarded him, not with burning punishment, but with the power. Somewhere down there on the streets or somewhere in a Fare hovel-room in a stacked building a poor joker was whole who had been slit from a to a. Prayer, Apprentice Brother, Third Class. Pray and look for a faith you've never had but which has now been forced upon you by a miracle; and God lives. God walks in mysterious ways. Flash and speak and then the power, the knowledge. He prayed and he tried to feel as he'd felt. He tried to know the grumbling movements of his own intestines, filled now with a dull, acid ache. Adrenal glands had pumped fear and awe and power into him leaving him empty, for he had not eaten. An almost empty bottle of bootleg Soul Lifter was on the plain, board shelf over the tiny sink and he didn't even think about it, didn't want or need it. He was high on power. And awe. And fear. And hope. Back in the beginning, as told to him by his late father, the first Brother President had possessed the

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