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were like pinpricks, all but invisible, and still the world
was neon bright.
Tiny was waiting. The cripple's mouth turned up at
the corners into a sweet smile as he took in Deke's irises,
the exaggerated calm of his motions, the unsuccessful
attempt to mime an undrugged clumsiness. "Well," he
said in that girlish voice, "looks like I have a treat in
store for me."
The Max was draped over one tube of the wheel-
chair. Deke took up position and bowed, not quite
mockingly. "Let's fly." As challenger, he flew defense.
He materialized his planes at a conservative altitude,
high enough to dive, low enough to have warning when
Tiny attacked. He waited.
The crowd tipped him. A fatboy with brilliantined
hair looked startled, a hollow-eyed cracker started to
smile. Murmurs rose. Eyes shifted slow-motion in heads
frozen by hyped-up reaction time. Took maybe three
nanoseconds to pinpoint the source of attack. Deke
whipped his head up, and
Sonofabitch, he was blind! The Fokkers were div-
ing straight from the two-hundred-watt bulb, and Tiny
had suckered him into staring right at it. His vision
whited out. Deke squeezed lids tight over welling tears
and frantically held visualization. He split his flight,
curving two biplanes right, one left. Immediately twist-
ing each a half-turn, then back again. He had to dodge
randomly he couldn't tell where the hostile warbirds
Tiny chuckled. Deke could hear him through the
sounds of the crowd, the cheering and cursing and slap-
ping down of coins that seemed to syncopate independ-
ent of the ebb and flow of the duel.
When his vision returned an instant later, a Spad
was in flames and falling. Fokkers tailed his surviving
planes, one on one and two on the other. Three seconds
into the game and he was down one.
Dodging to keep Tiny from pinning tracers on him,
he looped the single-pursued plane about and drove the
other toward the blind spot between Tiny and the light
Tiny's expression went very calm. The faintest
shadow of disappointment of contempt, even was
swallowed up by tranquility. He tracked the planes
blandly, waiting for Deke to make his turn.
Then, just short of the blind spot, Deke shoved his
Spad into a drive, the Fokkers overshooting and bank-
ing wildly to either side, twisting around to regain posi-
The Spad swooped down on the third Fokker,
pulled into position by Deke's other plane. Fire strafed
wings and crimson fuselage. For an instant nothing hap-
pened, and Deke thought he had a fluke miss. Then the
little red mother veered left and went down, trailing
black, oily smoke.
Tiny frowned, small lines of displeasure marring
the perfection of his mouth. Deke smiled. One even,
and Tiny held position.
Both Spads were tailed closely. Deke swung them
wide, and then pulled them together from opposite sides
of the table. He drove them straight for each other,
neutralizing Tiny's advantage . . . neither could fire
without endangering his own planes. Deke cranked his
machines up to top speed, slamming them at each
An instant before they crashed, Deke sent the
planes over and under one another, opening fire on the
Fokkers and twisting away. Tiny was ready. Fire filled
the air. Then one blue and one red plane soared free,
heading in opposite directions. Behind them, two bi-
planes tangled in midair. Wings touched, slewed about,
and the planes crumpled. They fell together, almost
straight down, to the green felt below.
Ten seconds in and four planes down. A black vet
pursed his lips and blew softly. Someone else shook his
head in disbelief.
Tiny was sitting straight and a little forward in his
wheelchair, eyes intense and unblinking, soft hands
plucking feebly at the grips. None of that amused and
detached bullshit now; his attention was riveted on the
game. The kickers, the table, Jackman's itself, might
not exist at all for him. Bobby Earl Cline laid a hand on
his shoulder; Tiny didn't notice. The planes were at op-
posite ends of the room, laboriously gaining altitude.
Deke jammed his against the ceiling, dim through the
smoky haze. He spared Tiny a quick glance, and their
eyes locked. Cold against cold. "Let's see your best,"
Deke muttered through clenched teeth.
They drove their planes together.
The hype was peaking now, and Deke could see
Tiny's tracers crawling through the air between the
planes. He had to put his Spad into the line of fire to get
off a fair burst, then twist and bank so the Fokker's
bullets would slip by his undercarriage. Tiny was every
bit as hot, dodging Deke's fire and passing so close to
the Spad their landing gears almost tangled as they
Deke was looping his Spad in a punishingly tight
turn when the hallucinations hit. The felt writhed and
twisted became the green hell of Bolivian rain forest
that Tiny had flown combat over. The walls receded to
gray infinity, and he felt the metal confinement of a
cybernetic jumpjet close in around him.
But Deke had done his homework. He was expect-
ing the hallucinations and knew he could deal with
them. The military would never pass on a drug that
couldn't be fought through. Spad and Fokker looped
into another pass. He could read the tensions in Tiny
Montgomery's face, the echoes of combat in deep
jungle sky. They drove their planes together, feeling the
torqued tensions that fed straight from instrumentation
to hindbrain, the adrenaline pumps kicking in behind
the armpits, the cold, fast freedom of airflow over jet-
skin mingling with the smells of hot metal and fear
sweat. Tracers tore past his face, and he pulled back,
seeing the Spad zoom by the Fokker again, both un-
touched. The kickers were just going ape, waving hats
and stomping feet, acting like God's own fools. Deke
locked glances with Tiny again.
Malice rose up in him, and though his every nerve
was taut as the carbon-crystal whiskers that kept the
jumpjets from falling apart in superman turns over the
Andes, he counterfeited a casual smile and winked,
jerking his head slightly to one side, as if to say "Looka-
Tiny glanced to the side.
It was only for a fraction of a second, but that was
enough. Deke pulled as fast and tight an Immelmann
right on the edge of theoretical tolerance as had ever
been seen on the circuit, and he was hanging on Tiny's
Let's see you get out of this one, sucker.
Tiny rammed his plane straight down at the green,
and Deke followed after. He held his fire. He had Tiny
where he wanted him.
Running. Just like he'd been on his every combat
mission. High on exhilaration and hype, maybe, but
running scared. They were down to the felt now, flying
treetop-level. Break, Deke thought, and jacked up the
speed. Peripherally, he could see Bobby Earl Cline, and
there was a funny look on the man's face. A pleading
kind of look. Tiny's composure was shot; his face was
twisted and tormented.
Now Tiny panicked and dove his plane in among
the crowd. The biplanes looped and twisted between the
kickers. Some jerked back involuntarily, and others
laughingly swatted at them with their hands. But there
was a hot glint of terror in Tiny's eyes that spoke of an
eternity of fear and confinement, two edges sawing
away at each other endlessly. .
The fear was death in the air, the confinement a
locking away in metal, first of the aircraft, then of the
chair. Deke could read it all in his face: Combat was the
only out Tiny had had, and he'd taken it every chance
he got. Until some anonymous nationalista with an anti-
que SAM tore him out of that blue-green Bolivian sky
and slammed him straight down to Richmond Road and
Jackman's and the smiling killer boy he faced this one
last time across the faded cloth.
Deke rocked up on his toes, face burning with that
million-dollar smile that was the trademark of the drug
that had already fried Tiny before anyone ever bothered
to blow him out of the sky in a hot tangle of metal and
mangled flesh. It all came together then. He saw that
flying was all that held Tiny together. That daily brush
of fingertips against death, and then rising up from the
metal coffin, alive again. He'd been holding back col-
lapse by sheer force of will. Break that willpower, and
mortality would come pouring out and drown him. Tiny
would lean over and throw up in his own lap.
And Deke drove it home....
There was a moment of stunned silence as Tiny's
last plane vanished in a flash of light. "I did it," Deke
whispered. Then, louder, "Son of a bitch, I did it!"
Across the table from him, Tiny twisted in his
chair, arms jerking spastically; his head lolled over on
one shoulder. Behind him, Bobby Earl Cline stared
straight at Deke, his eyes hot coals.
The gambler snatched up the Max and wrapped its
ribbon around a stack of laminateds. Without warning,
he flung the bundle at Deke's face. Effortlessly, cas-
ually, Deke plucked it from the air.
For an instant, then, it looked like the gambler
would come at him, right across the pool table. He was
stopped by a tug on his sleeve. "Bobby Earl," Tiny
whispered, his voice choking with humiliation, "you
gotta get me... out of here. "
Stiffly, angrily, Cline wheeled his friend around,
and then away, into shadow.
Deke threw back his head and laughed. By God, he
felt good! He stuffed the Max into a shirt pocket, where
it hung cold and heavy. The money he crammed into his
jeans. Man, he had to jump with it, his triumph leaping
up through him like a wild thing, fine and strong as the
flanks of a buck in the deep woods he'd seen from a
Greyhound once, and for this one moment it seemed
that everything was worth it somehow, all the pain and
misery he'd gone through to finally win.
But Jackman's was silent. Nobody cheered. No-