Wheels Within Wheels
In the city of bright pastels, a tiny ramshackle little store stood out, with an indefinable sense of unbelonging. The sign over the door said, in medieval script, "Magickal Gifts". Among other little knickknacks, it sold matryoshka dolls, dolls that could be stacked, one inside the other. Some time ago, a woman named Eleanor Poole used to drive to the store and purchase a doll or two every so often. The proprietress, Emily Stark, a tiny old woman with curly blue hair and a patchwork dress she affected, had come to recognize Eleanor when she came in, and had always been cheerful and friendly with her, asking her about her life and so forth.
The tall person wrapped in bandages and kaleidoscopic overcoat, floating in front of the door, bore absolutely no resemblance to Eleanor Poole. Despite this, Emily had "recognized" Rebis as Eleanor the first time s/he'd shown up to pick up more dolls. Maybe it was the voice. Rebis had observed that people who'd known hir as Larry tended to hear Larry's voice when Rebis spoke, and vice versa with Eleanor.
Rebis had attempted to explain the situation to Emily, but didn't think it had sunk in. Emily had caught "Doom Patrol" and decided that the changed build, the bandages, the green glow and the new name could all be attributed to Rebis's having become a superhero. Since she was a big fan of superheroes, she almost always remembered to call Rebis by hes name instead of saying Dr. Poole, and so Rebis didn't bother making a fuss over it.
It was half an hour before closing time when Rebis pulled open the door and drifted in. The setting sun lit up the front of the tiny store, leaving the back somewhat musty and mysterious. Emily Stark was putting glass figurines on one of the shelves. She turned, saw Rebis, and broke into a wide smile. "Well, hel-lo!" she said cheerfully. "I was just thinking of you!"
"[In what context?]"
"I just got in a whole new shipment of dolls. From the Ukraine. Take a look."
She navigated an aisle full of open boxes of china on the floor, and circled around to where the dolls were kept. "A little Dutch girl doll-- isn't she adorable?" She opened it up, and showed Rebis the next little Dutch girl doll inside it.
"[Very nice.]" Rebis picked up one of the dolls and fingered it. "[The craftsmanship on this is very good.]"
"Yes, it is. I just knew you'd like them. Oh, and there's something else. If I can find it..." She began rummaging through a large cardboard box on the floor. "I put it in here because I was saving it for you."
"[What are you looking for?]"
"Something you'll like," the old lady said. "Ah. Here we go." She removed a large object from the bottom of the box, wrapped in paper. "Take the paper off and look at it."
Rebis removed the paper, and stared at the object in hes hands. It was a mandala, a sacred wheel, carved in wood. There was a series of concentric rings, each with intricate and identical carving on it, altered only in proportionate size. "[Ah.]"
"What do you think?"
"[It seems to go down forever....]" Rebis examined it more closely. "[It does go down forever. Infinite recursive sequence.]"
"You like it?"
"[Very much.]" Rebis took hes eyes off the carving with some difficulty and glanced at Emily. "[How much is it?]"
"That's the funny thing, you know? This traveling salesman gave it to me last Thursday. He said it was a gift, and I would know who to give it to. And you know, I immediately thought of you. Then this man came by, on Saturday when it was slow, and he wanted to pay me some really weird number for it. I think he said $697.45, which is really odd when you think about it-- most people propose round numbers when they want to buy something. Well, 700 dollars, you know! Let me tell you, I was tempted. But you know, I just didn't like the look of him. Somehow slimy. So I told him it was already sold. He was so mad..."
"[It has mystic energies,]" Rebis said, turning it over and over in hes hands. The back was the exact reverse of the front.
"Does it? How wonderful! I always wanted to have something magic in my store." She leaned on a nearby broom. "You know, I always wanted to own one of those little magic shoppes you see in books. The kind that just appear out of nowhere, and disappear when you've bought the item you need. Always. So I named my gift shoppe 'Magickal Gifts', and I dress like a storybook witch... but somehow, the real magic always passed me by."
"[A gift, freely given, has power. But I don't need that kind of power. I can't take a 700-dollar gift from you. Or for that matter a gift worth $697.45.]"
"Oh no! I didn't pay a cent for it-- I wouldn't feel right, turning a profit. It's yours, Rebis. It was meant for you."
"[Hmm.]" Rebis shut the woman out for a second to have an internal discussion. [Who would give me a gift of something like this?]
[Gifts have power in the magical dimension. Perhaps someone who wants power over us...]
[In which case, we should pay her for it. That cancels our debt.]
[Yes, but what about her debt? If we pay her for it, it becomes a gift given to her, bought by us. She will be the one who'll have to pay, if someone comes to collect.]
[Yes. Yes, you're right. We can't endanger her.]
"[I'll take it, then. And how much is the Dutch boy?]"
"Oh." She picked up the doll and looked at its base. "Twenty-three dollars plus tax."
"[Right.]" The wallet had been a gift from Crazy Jane-- it was black leather, with green alchemical and astrological symbols all over it. Sometimes, when no one was looking, the symbols would move around to different locations. Rebis purchased the Dutch boy doll, and the old woman wrapped it up with the mandala, and put them in a box.
"There you go, sweetheart," she said. "All yours. Enjoy."
"[Thank you,]" Rebis said, and drifted back out the door.
The Church of Our Mother Who Bleeds for the Innocent was a vast, gloomy structure, said to have been built in a vision by a group of disgruntled monks in the 14th century. According to legend, they had consecrated the ground with the blood of 40 girlchildren no longer virgin. The stained glass windows were said not to be glass at all, but pounded bone, thin enough to be transparent and colored by dyes made with esoteric ingredients, among them the pickled blue eyes of a newborn child and the white leaves of a plant grown in a coffin. And the pews inside were made of black wood, said to be wood that had been piled around a witch's burning stake, that had miraculously not been consumed.
Above the sacristy, in a room lit with candles made from the fat of men who'd died during the commission of obscene acts, the priests of the Uninnocent met to discuss the vexing problem of the Mandala of Eternity.
"And after the Traveling Salesman, where then?" the Bishop asked.
"He can't keep it," a young priest said earnestly. "His profane gods won't let him use it. He must give it to someone else."
Another priest said, "He already has. I located it in Santa Luisa, and attempted to acquire it, using a Number of Power. But he'd already laid a geas on the transmitter."
"Was there a way to tell who the recipient should be?"
"She wouldn't say."
"He serves Hermes Trismegistrus and Hecate of the Crossroads," the young priest said. "He'd have to give it to one of their significators."
"That's no help," the Bishop said sharply.
"Why not? There can't be that many hermaphrodites or triplet sisters out there with metaphysic knowledge..."
"No shortage of thieves. Or witches."
"Oh," the young priest said, disappointed.
Yet another priest spoke. "I think we should all be aware that the Mad Ones are in pursuit."
"That goes without saying," the second priest said.
"We must obtain the Mandala of Eternity before the Mad Ones do," the Bishop said. "The thought of that item in their unholy hands..."
On cue, all the priests shuddered.
"What about the recipient?"
"We must find them, too, before they learn to use the Mandala," the Bishop said. "And then we purify."
All the priests bowed their heads low and chanted in Latin, "We purify for You, Our Lord of the Darkness. Amen."
There are five hundred elevators in the United States that go to the Deep Underground. One gets there by pressing the button for the basement three times. It is not advised that anyone try it. Most of those who go to the Deep Underground don't come back, and those who do, do so changed. Some ride the elevators soundlessly, up and down, with screams in their eyes. Others--
Others join the Mad Ones.
They say you can get there through the New York subway system, too. Occasionally a car will come by with no riders. Don't get on. Not unless you are already changed, made a freak by fate. Then the Mad Ones might take you in.
Some say there is a way to get there through the basement of Arkham Asylum, in Gotham. No one who has ever been to Arkham would doubt it. Some of the inmates of Arkham may even be of the Mad Ones, prisoned in a border between the surface world and the Deep Underground.
The Mad Ones. A cult of insanity, of gibbering awfulness. Their leader, some say, is a defrocked god; or a fallen angel; or a mortal man, who learned Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Whatever happened to Faust, after Mephistopheles stole his soul? (And yes, he did. Goethe prettied that up.)
They live there, in darkness and light, all freaks. Guerra, she whose name means War, 6 years old with a body 4 times that. Maître, a head the size of a human body, floating in midair. He feeds on human flesh. Kisvallen, the glass boy who steals memories and makes of them photographs. Naomi, with her spider legs, who can find people and all their connected ones through the webs of fate. And many, many others.
They have no goal, no purpose, except their own perpetuance. If they had the power, they would impose their madness on all the world.
They hope to have the power.
Very very soon.
"Dammit," Cliff said, as he moved his shoe down 3 spaces. "Income Tax again! I'm getting wiped out here."
"Cheer up," Josh advised. "It could be worse."
"I don't see how."
"You could've landed on Jane's Broadway."
There was a hotel on Broadway, and the rent was astronomical. Jane, or rather the Secretary, was efficiency personified, with 3 monopolies, all of them improved. "Yeah, you've got a point," Cliff conceded.
"Do you want to pay the 10%, or simply have your wages withheld?" the Secretary asked. She was banker.
"Wages, I guess. I'm not that great at math."
"Um," Dorothy was saying, "um, Miss Jane, can I buy my fourth house for Marvin Gardens now?"
"It's your turn. Do you have the money?"
"These girls are wiping us out, Josh," Cliff said. "We've got to stick together."
"You're just saying that because I own the railroads."
Dorothy bought her house and moved her iron around the board, landing on Community Chest. "Uh-oh," she said. "I owe $100 in back income tax."
She put it in the kitty. "I need to land on Free Parking," Cliff muttered. They were playing by house rules, so whoever landed on Free Parking got the money in the kitty.
Josh rolled and moved his automobile to Chance. "Aw shit." He'd drawn Go To Jail-- Go Directly To Jail-- Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200.
"I told you," Cliff said. "We need to stick together, Josh. They're beating the pants off us."
"Please pass the dice," the Secretary said crisply. She was far too brisk and efficient, and no fun at all. Cliff wished Jane would come back and play with them, but the Secretary handled financial skills, and so she surfaced during a game like Monopoly.
At this point Rebis floated in with packages, taking the fastest route from the entrance to the wing with the private quarters. Jane dropped the dice and her piece, the hat, somebody else surfacing as she lost interest in the game. "Packages!" she squealed excitedly. "What'd you buy?"
Jane was on her feet and at the box. "Can I see? Can I see?"
"Jane? It's your turn," Cliff said.
"Not Jane. I'm Baby Doll. Go ahead without me, okay?" Without waiting for Rebis's permission, Baby Doll had opened the box and was unwrapping the doll. Cliff thought Rebis looked a bit overwhelmed, and wondered if he should try to pull Baby Doll off, but decided against it. Rebis was a big... whatever Rebis was; s/he could take care of hirself. So he shrugged and took the dice.
"She's so cute!" Baby Doll gushed. "What're you going to name her?"
"[I don't name them.]"
"You should. How can they have a personality if you don't name them? What else is in the box?" Rebis moved to stop her, but Baby Doll was quicker. She yanked out the mandala. "Oh, wow! It's beautiful!"
"[It's mine.]" Rebis took it from her, gently but firmly.
"Can I look at it?" Baby Doll asked. "Pretty please?" Her manner shifted, someone else taking control. "It's magic, you know."
"But do you know what it does?"
"[Not the foggiest. I simply got it for its aesthetic value.]"
"It's wheels within wheels," Jane said, and her eyes glazed, staring at it. By now, all the Patrollers were staring at her, the Monopoly game forgotten. "Plans within plans, feints within feints. A riddle wrapped in a mystery surrounded by an enigma. It hungers. It devours. Swallowing the shadowed past. The webbed connections of the woman beware. Would you like us to read your Tarot?"
"[No, thank you.]" Rebis backed up and floated away. "[Perhaps some other time.]"
"Read the signs!" Jane shouted. "It brings grief to the crossroads! We speak with the truth of the snakes!"
"Jane!" Cliff grabbed her as Rebis beat a hasty retreat. "Jane, are you all right?"
She turned. "Did she just make a fool out of me?"
"Baby Doll. She just practically attacked Rebis, didn't she. I don't know why Driver 8 didn't let me take over sooner. I'd better go apologize..."
"Jane, that didn't sound like Baby Doll a moment ago."
"When?" Jane blinked. "It sounded like Baby Doll to me..."
"Does Baby Doll say things like 'We speak the truth of snakes'?"
"Um... no. Did I just say that?"
"Yes, you did." Both Josh and Dorothy were looking somewhat frightened-- they almost never saw Jane at her craziest.
"It might have been the Weird Sisters. They talk like that. What else did they say?"
"I know," Dorothy volunteered. "I was listening." She repeated Jane's words, from "wheels within wheels" to "the truth of the snakes", almost verbatim. Jane nodded.
"That was the Sisters all right," she said. "No one else says 'we'."
"But what's it mean?" Cliff asked.
"How should I know? They didn't tell me." She moved away from Cliff and brushed her arms off with quick, businesslike motions, signaling the return of the Secretary. "Well. Shall we get on with the game?"
In hes room, Rebis set the Mandala to float in midair, lit only by the light Rebis hirself generated. [What is it? What does it do?]
[Let's find out.]
Rebis began to study the Mandala, focusing down on the various levels. "[Some sort of maze... I don't know why, but I have the overwhelming sensation that it's a maze. Very... compelling.]"
"[Psychometric analysis...]" Rebis left hes hand hovering near the Mandala, then drew it back with a start. "[It's psychometrically dead.]"
"[I'm not sure. Check again. I sensed something.]"
"[Right.]" This time Rebis left hes hand on the wooden surface. "[Yes... I'm receiving... static. Voices. Voices far down, trapped within the maze...]"
"[Like the painting that ate people.]"
"[Let's not think about that.]" S/he focused hes attention more closely, more deeply. "[A spiraling maze... there are voices. There's something... a maze... I don't...]"
"[Pull back!]" Rebis yanked hes hand away and fell backward, suddenly reeling. [Dizzy... vertigo... feel sick. Something... it's pulling at me...] Distantly s/he recognized fear, even a faint edge of hysteria, in hes own emotions. [We need outside energy. Yes. Sugar. Lots of sugar... can we make it to the kitchen? We have to. The Negative Spirit is being drained. I feel it. How do we stop it? Distance? Better hope so. Get out into the kitchen...]
S/he crashed hard into the wall, unable to summon the energy to float anymore, and staggered out of hes room into the hallway. Immediately the drain ceased. The weakness remained, but grew no worse, enabling Rebis to make it to the kitchen under hes own power. S/he had to walk, trailing a hand along the wall to remain stable, but didn't have to call for help.
There was orange juice, and ice cream, and the Chief's chocolate bars ([He'll never miss just one]), and Dorothy's Cocoa Puffs, and honey, and peaches, and strawberries, and sugar. Rebis piled them all onto a plate and began devouring them. Hes metabolism was only a backup mechanism, and so was not as efficient as an ordinary person's. The energy that powered Rebis's life came from the Negative Spirit, and only after a major drain did s/he ever need to eat for energy. To get anything out of the food, however, Rebis needed to eat much more of it than normal people would.
Dorothy came in on a food run and noticed the ice cream box in the garbage. "Um... uh... did you eat all the ice cream?" She never called Rebis by name, since she didn't know what honorific to use; everybody else was Mr., Miss or Dr. Rebis had tried to tell her that it was all right to just say "Rebis", but Dorothy thought it was impolite.
Dorothy took a look at all the food Rebis was consuming and frowned. "Are you going to go out and get more food? Miss Jane and Mr. Clay wanted some ice cream."
"[Sorry about that.]"
"Well, I guess I have to tell them there isn't any. You didn't finish my Cocoa Puffs, did you?"
"[There's still half a box.]"
"Okay. Well." She rummaged around in the freezer. "That really was all the ice cream. I guess I better go tell them."
"[I suppose you'd better.]"
A few minutes later, Jane stormed in as Hammerhead. "You inconsiderate asshole, what the hell did you eat all the ice cream for?"
"[I was hungry.]"
Abruptly Jane apparently noticed that everything Rebis was eating had a high sugar content, and shifted again. "Rebis, are you okay?"
"[I might be.]"
"You might be? What do you mean?"
"[The sugar has begun to take effect.]"
"What'd you need all that sugar for?"
"[Energy drainage.]" Rebis finished the orange juice.
"Oh. Oh, I'm sorry... I'm really sorry. What happened?"
"[I'm not sure. It had to do with the mandala.]"
"Oh, yeah... that reminds me, I wanted to apologize for Baby Doll, before."
"[That's all right.]"
"So what happened with the mandala, then?"
"[I'm not entirely sure.]"
"Well, are you okay?"
"[I don't know yet.]"
"You don't know a lot, do you?"
Rebis ignored that. Jane looked away. "I'm sorry," she said miserably. "I keep acting like a jerk. Here you are with some kind of problem, and I'm harassing you. You need any help?"
"[I don't think so. Thank you for offering.]" Rebis finally felt strong enough to stand. "[I'd appreciate it if you didn't touch the mandala until I finish investigating it, though,]" s/he said. "[I'm beginning to think it might be very dangerous.]"
"Well, yeah. I won't go near it. Sure you don't want help investigating it, though? I mean, if it already hurt you once..."
"[I seem to be somewhat recovered now. And I'd rather investigate it myself. Thank you anyway.]" Experimentally s/he tried lifting off the ground. There was enough energy to float now.
"If you say so. One of these days I want to talk to you and Cliff. I've been
thinking of painting murals on the walls, and I want to know if you have any suggestions."
"[I'll think about it.]"
Emily Stark was in the back of the store, unpacking boxes, when she heard a door open. It sounded like the storeroom door, but that was impossible. The storeroom door was locked, and someone would need to enter the store before getting to it anyway. It must have been the front door she heard. Quickly she headed out into the store. "Hello..."
Her voice died.
A transparent boy, who looked as if he were made of glass, and a tall blonde woman with a childish face were standing in the center of the room. "We want the Mandala," the woman said, in a petulant child's voice. "We want it. You better have it, or else."
"Yoohoo! Yoohoo!" the woman caroled. The boy stepped forward.
"Where is the Mandala of Eternity?" he asked.
"The what? Who are you?"
"My name's Guerra," the woman said. "It means war. I'm six years old. Look, I can set things on fire. See?" Guerra looked at a crystal dish, and it burst into flame.
Crystal doesn't burn, Emily thought numbly. But it was burning. "Stop it!" she shrieked, and ran at Guerra, who struck her, knocking her back into a table of glass figurines. They shattered all over her as the crystal fire went out.
"Naughty naughty," Guerra said.
The glass boy approached. "You don't have the Mandala anymore," he said. "Do you?"
Emily tried to get up. Blood ran down her face where the glass figurines had broken and cut her. "What?"
The boy held up a photograph of the wooden mandala wheel. "Who did you give it to?"
"Who did you give it to? Who did you give it to? Who did you give it to?"
A set of china dishes went up in flame. "Whee!" Guerra shouted.
"Who did you give it to? Who did you give it to?..."
The voice bored into her brain. Despite herself, Emily thought of Dr. Poole, the young black woman who had become a superhero with the Doom Patrol. But she wasn't going to tell them. She didn't know who these crazies were, or what they wanted with the Mandala, but she figured they were supervillains, and she wasn't going to betray Dr. Poole to them.
Then there was a brilliant sharp pain in her head. She blinked, and the glass boy was touching her head, and an image was appearing on his hand. He drew his hand away. It felt as if he were pulling all her blood with it, or something. Some vital substance. She couldn't speak. There was a photograph of Dr. Poole from before she started wearing the bandages, sitting in his hand.
"To her. You gave it to her."
Emily Stark stared in horror, but she could not speak. The words had been taken away, and pressed into a photograph.
"Take care of her, Guerra."
Guerra began to sing. "'Queen Salamander, that's her name/A desert maker, that's her aim...'"*
And then there was burning.
And she couldn't scream.
Father Uvula of the Uninnocent got off the bus and started toward Magickal Gifts. He halted, smelling smoke. Then he continued carefully, smelling for the spoor of the Mad Ones.
There was a smoldering human body collapsed in a pile of glass, victim of spontaneous combustion, and the stench of the Mad Ones was thick throughout. Father Uvula sprinkled holy liquid on the body, purifying it, and hastily retreated. It was too late to question the transmitter. But at least he knew the Mad Ones didn't have the Mandala, either.
Once upon a time, Niles Caulder used to get up at 9:00, eat breakfast, and read the paper, much as ordinary men were expected to. He still did. Only nowadays, breakfast was likely to consist of waffles with chocolate ice cream and a ton of chocolate sauce on them, and the "newspapers" were computer printouts of all the interesting news stories from the country's news services. "Interesting", in this case, meant the sort of thing that interested Caulder nowadays, which meant things that were very weird. Or, sometimes, only mildly weird.
"Now here's something interesting, Josh," he said, reading from his printout. "According to this, there was a mysterious case of arson at a gift shop in Santa Luisa. They found a woman's burnt body, lying in a pile of glass on the floor. The wooden floor and the broken glass were untouched by fire damage-- no burn marks, no melting-- and yet the woman herself was burned beyond easy recognition. What does that suggest to you?"
"In Santa Luisa?" Josh frowned. "Wasn't there something about Santa Luisa? I can't remember..."
"Please, pay attention to the issue at hand, Joshua," Caulder said, annoyed. "This sounds to me like a classic case of spontaneous combustion."
"What?" Josh was not, in fact, paying attention.
"Spontaneous combustion. It's very rare; however, considering the amount of wood in the shop and the heat it takes to burn a human body that badly, the entire shop should have burnt down. The fact that it didn't is very interesting."
"What's interesting?" Cliff asked, as he and Jane entered the room. Cliff, of course, had no use for breakfast, but he liked to sit with the others and talk. It was one of the few social interactions that the Doom Patrol engaged in as a whole, at least sometimes-- Rebis rarely showed up, but Josh, Dorothy, Jane and the Chief usually did, and Cliff felt left out if he stayed away.
"I believe there was a case of spontaneous combustion in Santa Luisa, yesterday. Take a look." He handed the paper to Cliff. Jane read it over his shoulder, and was done before he was.
"I thought it was only fat people that spontaneously combusted," Jane said.
"I didn't know it said whether she was fat or not," Josh said, puzzled.
"It doesn't," Cliff said, looking at Jane. "Jane?"
"I just got the feeling she was skinny," Jane said. "I don't know why."
Dorothy had been silent thus far, munching her Cocoa Puffs. Now she said, "I read once that spontaneous combustion was just when people fell asleep smoking."
"True in some cases," Caulder said, "but not all. I'd really like to know more about this. I don't think a case of spontaneous combustion is necessarily indicative of something else, but I do think it might be significant. Josh, you had something you wanted to say?"
"Oh. Nothing. I just finally figured out when I've been to Santa Luisa before. That was where Larry was in the hospital, before he turned into Rebis. I don't think that has anything to do with anything."
"Possibly not. Santa Luisa is a large city. However..." Caulder frowned. "Actually, that may have significance. Not Larry, but... To my knowledge, the Eleanor side of Rebis resided in Santa Luisa, before their accident. I wonder if Rebis might remember any other unusual incidents having taken place there. Josh, could you call Rebis in here?"
Josh nodded, and left. Cliff said, "Now wait a minute. This article doesn't say anything about spontaneous combustion. Do you want us to investigate the woman's death, or whether it was spontaneous combustion, or who she was, or what?"
"I'm not sure yet," Caulder said. "But it intrigues me. I think we need to know more about it in general before we can tell what we need to investigate for." He finished his waffles.
"Anybody want eggs?" Jane asked.
"That's okay, Miss Jane. I'm having cereal."
"No, thank you. I would, however, appreciate it if you could get me a chocolate bar."
Cliff got the chocolate bar for the Chief, as Jane said, "Well, I'm having eggs. I don't care about the rest of you."
Rebis floated in, with Josh behind hir. "[Yes?]"
"Ah, Rebis. There you are. Take a look at this," Caulder said, handing Rebis the printout. "What do you think of this?"
Rebis was always more or less quiet, unemotional, with hes few expressions mostly rendered invisible by the bandages. Cliff had not thought it was possible to perceive hir going still. But he had an overwhelming impression, watching hir, that Rebis had gone absolutely motionless, more than hes usual stillness. "Larry? You okay?"
"[I went to her store yesterday afternoon,]" Rebis said, and placed the printout on the table. "[She was killed by the mandala, somehow.]"
"What mandala?" the Chief asked.
"Rebis bought a wooden mandala from a gift shop yesterday," Jane offered. She was over at the oven, frying eggs.
"[Not bought. It was given to me.]"
"What?" Jane turned. "By who?"
"[By Emily Stark. The dead woman. Who was given it to give to me.]"
"I see," the Chief said.
"[I want to investigate.]"
"Yeah," Cliff said. "Yeah, I think we'd better."
The store had been cordoned off by the police, but the police weren't currently there. Rebis floated over the cordon, and Jane went under it, to get into the store, while Cliff waited outside.
"[Chaotic mental imprints. Do you sense it?]"
"It's madness," Jane said. She turned slowly, her eyes wide and cold. "The stink of madness runs throughout. Like a poisonous miasma. The scent of blood."
"[Yes, exactly.]" Rebis lowered to the floor and bent to touch it. It was lightly charred where Emily Stark had burned to death, as if something hot had been touched to it for a moment and pulled away. "[Imprinted confusion... terror. Her mind. Her mind was damaged first. Then the fear.]"
"Find anything?" Cliff peered inside. "I don't suppose you guys plan on looking for any mundane clues as well."
"[Nothing mundane did this.]" Rebis straightened up, but did not lift off the ground. "[Something insane.]"
"Hollow shrieking," Jane said, and put her hands to her head. "There are doors... screaming doors. Maybe I can..."
"Maybe you can what?" Cliff asked, stepping over the cordon on the door and entering the shop. "What a mess."
"[She was very tidy,]" Rebis said. "[This was a harmonious place.]"
Perhaps Cliff was imagining it, but it sounded as if Rebis' voice had the faintest tinge of sorrow to it-- which, next to Rebis's usual impassivity, might be the equivalent of the Larry Cliff remembered breaking down and crying. "I know," he said gently, putting a metal hand lightly on Rebis's shoulder. "It wasn't your fault. Try not to let it get you down."
"[What?]" Rebis turned toward Cliff. "[Oh, I see. No, it's not getting me down. Don't worry, Cliff.]"
Cliff withdrew his hand. "But you feel something, don't you?"
"[Something... yes. I think so. But we're-- I'm not entirely sure what.]"
Jane, meanwhile, had been arranging various knickknacks in a semicircle in front of a locked storeroom door. "A gateway to madness," she said. "I can feel them. The stench of minds decayed below the threshold. Hidden underground, buried. If I can just... A key. I need a key."
"What're you trying to do?"
"Doorways. Opening doorways. What can I use for a key..."
"[You are the key. I'll help. Concentrate on madness.]"
"Yes!" Jane turned to Cliff. "We need your help, Cliff. Think about the hospital. Think about what it was like, living there. Think about me at my craziest."
"What are we trying to do?"
"[Open a gate to madness.]" Rebis floated over to the door and put hes hand on Jane's shoulder. "[Come here, Cliff.]"
Jane stretched her opposite hand out to him. "They left through a doorway," she said. "We're trying to open it again. Think about madness."
Okay. That wasn't the weirdest request Cliff had been presented with, in his days with the Doom Patrol. He thought about the people he'd seen around him in the psychiatric hospital: schizophrenic Ralph, who'd been the first to sense the Scissormen; Jane herself, when he'd first met her as the Hangman's Beautiful Daughter; the peculiar smell of insanity that emanated throughout the hospital. He thought about madness-- and Jane opened the door.
A thing, a deformed and shapeless thing like a shrunken head grafted to a dozen snakes, the size of a car-- this thing leapt out at them, screaming. Disembodied sexual organs and insects with the faces of aborted fetuses buzzed in the air behind the thing, and the air was turning to gelatin, thick and impossible to move in. The shadows of mosquitoes buzzed out in a cloud, surrounding Jane, who fell backward with an inhuman wail of terror.
Cliff tried to reach the door, to shut it, but the initial explosion of madness out the door had flung them all a few paces back, and he couldn't move forward. A soap bubble floated in from of him, scummy with despair and the destruction of love. In its glistening surface he saw the ruins of his shattered life. He was destroyed, cut off forever from humanity, and all his friends were doomed to die, leaving him the only one alive. All of them, again and again and--
He managed to get his jacket off and swing it at the bubble, breaking it against the jacket's surface. "Rebis! Jane! Somebody get that door!" he screamed, waving the now despairing jacket against glass figurines that danced in and out of his field of vision. The gelatinous air allowed him to move backwards slowly, forward not at all. He stepped back and saw Jane, huddled in a fetal ball, still screaming. She was being attacked by paper dolls with razor-sharp edges. Rebis, where was Rebis? Cliff turned his head further and saw swirling evanescent phantoms, spinning in a cloud around Rebis and almost completely obscuring hir. "Get the door!" Cliff shouted.
Apparently Rebis heard him. The Negative Spirit peeled free of the phantoms, turning in tight circles to force the clinging creatures to release it, and then shot for the door, slamming it shut in the face of the thing floating there. Immediately the gelatinous nature of the air disappeared. There were still all sorts of awful creatures in the shop, but now Cliff could move freely. He discovered that the things popped like the soap bubble had when he hit them. "Jane!" he shouted, fighting his way toward her.
Abruptly Jane stopped screaming. For a terrified second, Cliff thought she was dead; then she shouted, "Bastards!", and threw off the paper dolls slicing her. She metamorphosed into Black Annis, slicing the creatures apart with her razors. "Cutting! Cutting paper dolls! Slice and slice again-- two can play this game! Paper splits and slices!"
It was only a few minutes before Cliff, Black Annis, and the Negative Spirit managed to eliminate all the creatures. Black Annis metamorphosed back into someone else, who threw herself at Cliff with a strangled sob, as the Negative Spirit rejoined Rebis, who was crumpled up in the corner. "Oh, Cliff!" Jane, or somebody, said, hugging Cliff desperately. "I was so scared!"
Abruptly Jane-- it probably was Crazy Jane now-- disengaged herself from Cliff. "What am I doing?" she asked disbelievingly, and threw her arms around herself, as if revolted by the memory of touch. "I can't believe that whiny little bitch."
"You okay now?"
"Sure." She looked at Rebis, who had gotten to hes feet and was brushing the dust off hes coat. "Good work, getting the door there." Rebis nodded.
"I don't suppose either of you know what the hell that was, that we just fought."
"[A manifestation of Madness,]" Rebis said, and floated over to the storeroom door. S/he placed hes hand against it. "[They were-- the Mad Ones. What we just opened was a gateway to the Deep Underground, where the Mad Ones live.]"
"Well, whatever they were, I'm not terribly eager to tangle with them again anytime soon. Worse than the Scissormen."
"They reminded me of the Cult of the Unwritten Book," Jane said.
"Yeah. They reminded me a lot of the Cult. You don't suppose any of their goons escaped the decreation of Nurnheim?"
"[The Mad Ones aren't the Cult of the Unwritten Book. They're similar because the Mad Ones are also a kind of cult. Worshipping madness. Manifesting madness.]"
Jane shook her head. "You've never been in a psychiatric hospital, have you?"
"[I spent some months as an intern at one... I think. Or was that... no, no, I'm right. That happened.]"
Jane glanced at Cliff, including him in her "we". "Well, we were in one recently. Those Mad Ones were considerably more extreme than most of the madnesses I've met, and I am crazy. Don't you think, Cliff?"
"Me? What do I know about madness?" He shrugged. "Yeah, it was worse than the hospital-- but at the hospital, everybody's craziness stayed in their own head. I still think it reminds me of the Cult."
"[Regardless. We've learned what we came to find out.]"
"Which is what, exactly?" Cliff asked.
"[Emily Stark's death was no accident. She was murdered by that.]" Rebis gestured at the storeroom door.
"What's the connection to your mandala, then?" Jane asked.
"[I have no idea.]"
"Well, then, we didn't learn what we came to, did we?"
"[The next part is to investigate the Mandala itself.]" Rebis floated over to the exit, then turned. "[Of course, if you and Cliff feel there's something to be gained by further investigation here, you're perfectly free to continue.]"
"Since when have we needed your permission?" Jane asked belligerently.
"[I didn't say you needed my permission.]"
"Drop it," Cliff said wearily. He was getting used to Rebis's ambiguously arrogant statements, and thought they were probably a misguided attempt to be polite. Of course, it was impossible to know for sure.... What he wouldn't give to see Rebis behave, just once, like Larry used to. "If you don't think there's anything to be gained by staying here, we'll leave."
"Well, but a gateway has been opened," Enifarren was saying.
"Who cares!" Guerra shouted.
"Well, but... a gateway has been opened."
"Put a lid on it!"
Kisvallen and Naomi ignored them. "Can you find her?" the glass boy asked.
The girl with the spider legs didn't answer, studying the photograph of the black woman. "Scanning," she murmured, and slipped down...
...and back up. "Nothing. There's nothing there."
"Dead?" Kisvallen asked.
"If she were dead, there'd be resonant traces of that. No-- I can't find her."
"Well, but a gateway has been opened."
Naomi nodded at Enifarren, who was tall and looked as if he had been made of toothpicks. "She did it," Naomi said. "Or had something to do with it. I think... I think she closed the gate, but I'm not sure... I can't find her. I'll try a spiral search."
Naomi of the Mad Ones sees the web of life, the interconnections between human souls. In pictures, the web can be seen, radiating forth. Follow the burning trails of the weblines between souls. Spiraling out along the web, she sees:
--a man, a black man in his 30's, laughing and smiling with a younger woman...
--an elderly black woman with glasses, whipcord thin, a stern face but smiling eyes...
--a young black man with a face lined too soon from lack of sleep, making the rounds with a cup of coffee in his hands, waking dead...
--a black woman just barely out of girlhood, talking animatedly on the telephone in her cluttered dormitory, a bag of cheddar popcorn at her hip...
--a white man, this time, strangely vague-- blond, young, adventurous-- somehow closer to the core of the photograph woman's being than any other;
--closer still, circle closer to the man, closer to the woman--
As the three of them walked back into Doom Patrol headquarters, Rebis put hes hands to hes head. "[Ah--]" For a second it looked like s/he was going to fall over.
"Larry! You okay?"
Rebis straightened, lowering hes hands. "[That's very odd.]"
"What's odd? Larry, are you all right?"
"[Fine, Cliff. I just--]" S/he turned to Jane. "[You didn't hear it, did you?]"
"[Then I'm right. It was me.]" Rebis moved past the other two and began floating down the hall, oblivious to the questions s/he had raised in their minds.
They moved to catch up. "Rebis, what was you?" Jane asked. "What was it I didn't hear?"
"[A clairvoyant scanning wave. I felt it brush past.]"
"Scanning for what?"
"[Us. Me. I don't think it fixated.]"
"You think it has anything to do with this thing with the mandala?" Cliff asked.
"[I don't know.]" Rebis turned and looked at the two of them. "[Perhaps you could help, at that.]"
"Help what?" Cliff stepped closer, intruding on Rebis's space, only one step away from grabbing hir. "Don't go all mysterious on us again, man! Those things had some connection with that woman who died, and that has some connection with the thing you bought--"
"[Not bought. It was a gift.]"
"Whatever! Lar-- Rebis, you could be in trouble. We need to know what's going on!"
"[I was about to tell you.]"
"[There is a connection between what we fought in the store, and the Mandala. I'm sure of it. But the last time we tried to explore the Mandala, we-- I-- experienced a drain.]"
"That's right," Jane said. "I remember. That's why you were stuffing your face."
Rebis ignored the comment. "[I need to explore the Mandala further. To understand its significance, and why it was given to me. But... I'd prefer to have some backup, there with me. In case something... happens.]"
"Were you afraid to ask, before?" Jane tilted her head at a cock-eyed angle.
"[Not afraid, per se... I simply didn't want to bother anyone. I wanted to deal with it myself.]"
Cliff sighed. "Look, will you try to remember we're a team?" he said. "We're here for each other. If you need to do something dangerous, of course we'll help you. It's no bother. It's our job. Otherwise what's the point to calling ourselves a team?"
"He's right," Jane said. "You and Cliff were there for me, after the Fifth Horseman. Did you think we wouldn't do the same for you?"
"[Actually, I simply didn't think about it much. Sometimes I forget...]"
"Forget what?" Cliff asked.
"[Let me get the Mandala. I'll set it up in one of the lounges near the kitchen.]"
"In case you need food?" Jane asked.
Rebis brought the Mandala into one of the common lounges, the one next to the kitchen. Jane and Cliff were already there waiting. "What exactly are you going to do?" Cliff asked.
"[Psychometric penetration and decrypting the patterns hidden in the quantum structure.]"
"Right. Forget I asked."
Rebis sat down in an armchair and propped the Mandala up in front of hir, supported by apparent thin air. That had not been an ability Larry had had, or Val, and Cliff found himself wondering how many powers Rebis had that Larry hadn't.
"Tell us what you see as you go along," Jane suggested.
"[Yes. Good idea.]" Rebis reached out a hand and touched the Mandala. "[A maze. I see a maze... compelling. Drawing at me. I want to explore it... examine it.]"
"Be careful," Cliff warned.
"[Surface impression... nothing. Nothing there. Going deeper in...]" Rebis leaned forward, both hands lightly contacting the surface of the Mandala. "[Static. Resolving into voices... this is as far as we got last time. Voices inside the maze.]"
Cliff got up and stood on one side of the chair, waiting to catch Rebis if s/he collapsed or showed signs of drain. "I'm here."
"[Voices crying out... calling. Focusing deeper. The hunger... I...]"
And the Mandala crashed to the floor. Rebis hirself didn't move-- still leaning forward in the armchair, both hands out.
"Jesus!" Cliff grabbed Rebis. "Larry, Larry, are you all right? Speak to me! Larry!"
"Check the eyes!" Jane advised.
Cliff pulled off Rebis's shades. The eyes underneath were green, and seemed oddly weak and vulnerable, caged about by bandages. They didn't move. When Cliff moved his hand in front of Rebis's eyes, they didn't track, shift or blink, or do anything but stare fixedly into space. "God. Oh, God. Jane, get Josh and the Chief, now!"
"Right!" She turned and ran off.
Cliff rubbed the back of his hand on his pants until it shone, then placed it in front of Rebis's mouth. The metal surface fogged, ever so slightly. It occurred to Cliff that he hadn't known for sure until now that Rebis even needed to breathe-- but since s/he was apparently breathing, presumably s/he was still alive. Hes arms were slightly stiff, but pliable, like a catatonic's. Cliff pushed the arms down to Rebis's sides, and turned toward the door as Josh and Jane came running in, the Chief wheeling in behind them.
"What's happened?" Josh asked.
"I think he's catatonic. He seems to be breathing. I couldn't check for a pulse or anything."
"Right," Josh said. "Lay him out on the couch."
"It's 'hir'," Jane said. "Lay 'hir' out on the couch."
"What exactly happened?" Caulder asked. "Perhaps you could clarify the situation for me, Jane?"
As Jane filled Caulder in on the events of the day, Josh and Cliff laid Rebis out on the couch and stripped hir to the bandages. Josh slid the flat of his stethoscope under the bandages, in the general region of the heart, and moved it around, searching for the beat. "All right," he finally said. "Heartbeat's normal, at least normal for Rebis." He turned to the Chief. "Maybe an EEG--?"
"The radiation would interfere too strongly," Caulder said. "In addition, since we don't know Rebis's baseline, I'm not sure what an EEG could tell us that we don't already know." He turned to Jane. "I don't suppose any of your selves would be able to help?"
"I'm already here," Jane, or somebody, said in a somewhat hollow voice. "Hes mind is... gone. Into the Mandala. I cannot follow." Her face crumpled. "I'm sorry..."
"Isn't there anything we can do?" Cliff asked. "I mean-- what if we went in after him, or something?"
"No," Caulder said. "I've a better idea. Who would like to accompany me on a trip to Gotham?"
"Gotham? You mean, where Batman hangs out?" Cliff was puzzled.
"Specifically to Arkham Asylum. There's a doctor there, a Sharon Dilliard, who specializes in these sort of cases."
"In people who get lost inside wooden carvings?" Cliff asked disbelievingly.
"No, no. In catatonic states. She herself has certain paranormal abilities which enable her to deal with cases like this. In any case, I think it would be best if I went in person to persuade her to come. Does anyone want to come with me?"
"I do," Jane said. "I want to help."
"Ah hell. Why not." Cliff turned to Josh. "What about you?"
"I figure I'll stay here-- keep an eye on Rebis and the base. Dorothy should probably stay too. No one's got any business taking a kid to visit Arkham."
"I'd prefer not to shelter Dorothy unduly," Caulder said. "On the other hand, Joshua, you should not be alone in the base if something does happen. I'd rather she stayed behind, on the chance that something might come up." The Chief turned his wheelchair toward the door. "I leave matters in your hands and Dorothy's, Josh. If an emergency should arise, and you two can't deal with it yourselves, I am bringing my beeper. Cliff, Jane? Shall we go?"
Arkham Asylum was a dark, gloomily brooding structure on the outskirts of Gotham. The three of them got out of the rented van and headed toward the main entrance, which did not have a handicapped entrance. "How annoying," Caulder said. "Cliff, if you would be so kind?"
"It's the same as at the store," Jane said, turning slowly around with wide eyes. "The same as at the hospital. The stench of madness runs thick in the air. Can you feel it, Cliff?"
"Not really," Cliff said, carrying the Chief's wheelchair up the steps. "Where to now?"
"The receptionist should know where to find Dr. Dilliard. We'll go in to the main lobby."
There was a brief argument with some petty bureaucratic people in charge, who didn't want to let Caulder and the Doom Patrol see Dilliard if they didn't have an appointment. By dint of veiled threats, Caulder managed to persuade them that if Dilliard did not, in fact, have patients scheduled at the moment-- which she didn't-- then there was no reason not to let the Doom Patrol see her. Afterward, they headed upstairs on the freight elevator to Dr. Dilliard's office. Caulder was getting downright irritated. "You would think that an institution of this repute would have some other accommodations for people in wheelchairs," he complained on the way up. "A freight elevator! Really!"
"From all I've heard about Arkham, Chief, I can't say it surprises me much," Cliff said.
As they got off the elevator, a man in a straitjacket was wheeled past. "Turnips! Turnip delight! The oscillation of the shivering windmills!" he shouted, then caught sight of the Doom Patrol. "Why, hel-lo, Robotman," he caroled, and then, "Shiver my turnips in the arched side of the broken hatrack!"
"Cliff? Who was that?" Jane asked.
"I have no idea."
"He recognized you."
"I'm sort of famous, Jane. Old-time superhero, you know?"
"I believe this is it," Caulder said. "Room 315A. Yes, this is her office." There were two signs on the door, in large letters. The first said, THE DOCTOR IS IN; the second, BEWARE OF DOCTOR. Caulder knocked.
"Who is it?" a female voice with a Gotham Black accent called.
"Niles Caulder and the Doom Patrol."
The door opened. Dr. Dilliard was a short, skinny black woman with hair in loose curls, out an inch and a half around her head. She wore a conservative beige business dress with a nametag pinned over the left breast, an unbuttoned lab coat, and thick glasses that made her look slightly popeyed. Her eyes were odd-looking in themselves, a pale amber. "Oh yes," she said. "They said something about you coming to visit. Come on in and have a seat."
Cliff eyed the couch. It had seen better days, and didn't look sturdy enough to take his weight. "I'll stand, thanks." Jane sat.
"As you might imagine," Caulder began, "we're here to ask for your help."
"Everybody is. Pardon me; I can't see a thing with my glasses on." She took off the glasses, placed them on her desk, and sat in the chair by the desk. Without glasses, her eyes were much smaller looking. Next to the whites of her eyes and the darkness of her skin, the amber irises looked pale and weak, and oddly disturbing. "Go on."
"Why do you wear glasses if you can't see with them on?" Jane asked.
"They're not for seeing what's really there," Dilliard said. "They're for seeing what's not. Now, you were saying you needed my help?"
"Yes. An unfortunate accident has befallen one of our members, Rebis. As a result, Rebis appears to be... somewhat catatonic. We were hoping you might be able to help with this."
"Is this the one with the bandages?"
"Yes. You're familiar with the Doom Patrol?"
"I used to collect information on superheroes, four or five years ago. I haven't had time lately; I've been out of circulation."
"Ah. Well, there have been a few changes to our line-up. Let me make introductions. This is Cliff Steele, and Crazy Jane, two of the three field agents of the Doom Patrol."
"I'm sure I'm pleased to meet you. Dr. Sharon Dilliard, at your service." She bowed her head slightly. "Now what precisely is wrong with this Rebis person?"
"Apparent? Did you check for a medical etiology?"
"That would be a trifle difficult. Rebis is highly radioactive; we can't get an EEG recording, because of interference from the radiation."
"That would present difficulties. Something else; I'm afraid I didn't catch whether the patient is male or female."
"Ah. That would explain why I didn't catch it. Um. Is this normal, or--?"
"Very little about Rebis can be described as normal, I'm afraid," Caulder said. "We believe-- we know-- that Rebis is a composite being. The original member of the Doom Patrol who wore bandages was Larry Trainor, Negative Man. That's probably who you were thinking of. Larry, the Negative Spirit he hosted, and a woman named Eleanor Poole were all merged into a single individual. How this happened, we don't quite know. Rebis is reticent on the subject."
"So this one patient is actually two? How many minds are we talking about here?"
"We're not sure. Sometimes it seems like one, sometimes like two or perhaps three."
Dilliard's eyes were getting bigger. "Didn't you ask?"
Cliff volunteered, "Rebis himself says there's three of them integrating into one. Don't ask me what that means."
"All right. All right. What's the cause of the catatonia? Or don't you know that, either?"
"S/he was doing psychometry on this metaphysically charged item," Jane said. "A mandala wheel that goes down into infinity. I think hes mind got lost inside."
"Did you just say 'she' and 'his'?"
"No, no. 'S/he.' Look, I'll spell it." Jane took the doctor's notebook. "After our first adventure, Rebis and I decided to sit down and decide on what pronouns to use with hir. 'S/he' is pronounced like 'see', only with the faintest trace of leading aspirant. 'Hir' is the object pronoun and is pronounced like 'here', except the middle vowel is shorter and more defined. It's spelled like 'her' with the 'i' from 'him'. 'Hes' is the possessive and works like 'his', but it's spelled with the 'e' from 'her', and it's pronounced sort of like the department store Hess, only the ending is more like a 'z' than an 's'." Cliff was rolling his eyes, while the Chief was looking at his watch.
"Be that as it may," Caulder said, when Jane's lecture had run down. "We suspect that Rebis's mind is trapped in the mandala somewhere, and none of us have the ability to go inside and find hir. Since this sort of thing is your specialty, I was hoping you could handle the case. There would, of course, be a large renumeration for your services."
"Okay. Let me see if I quite understand what you're saying." Dilliard leaned back, toying with a pencil. "You have this teammate, a radioactive hermaphrodite wrapped in bandages. This person may actually be two people, or three, you don't know. You have no idea what this person's biological situation is, because of the radiation. And this person seems to have gotten mentally lost inside a-- mandala? As a result, he/she appears to be catatonic. And you want me to go in after this person."
"Essentially correct," Caulder said.
"Well!" She smiled brightly. "Sounds like a great deal of excitement. Where do I sign up?"
"It's settled then." Caulder nodded. "We'll need to discuss your fee, of course--"
"After I finish the job. A lot depends on how long it takes me, how difficult it is, and how much fun I have doing it. I don't really do this for the money, you know. Otherwise I'd be in Beverly Hills, not Arkham."
"I see. Well. Then shall we go?"
"We shall," Dilliard said, getting to her feet, "but I need to take care of some things first. I need to see about having my patients taken care of while I'm going, and then I need to go home and pack--"
"Wait. How long do you expect it'll take you to help Rebis?" Caulder's eyebrows went up.
"I do not have the faintest idea. It could be half an hour, or it could be a week. It all depends on the nature of the defenses, the reason for the catatonia, and what I find in there. I don't know anything about this person's psychology, but it sounds quite complex." She headed for the door. "Do you want to come with me, or what?"
"I'll go," Jane said.
"Good. Cliff, you and I will go to the van and wait. I don't much like the idea of traipsing all over Gotham. Jane, when the doctor has taken care of business, bring her back to the van." Caulder removed a Hershey bar from his jacket and began unwrapping it as they dispersed.
After Dilliard cleared her patients' dispositions with the Arkham authorities, she and Jane headed in her car for her apartment.
"So what do you do?" Jane asked. "I mean-- do you just do catatonia? Or what?"
"That would be pretty useless, don't you think? No. I manipulate people's psychescapes, usually on the level of dreams, to make them sane."
"Did you ever think maybe they wanted to be crazy?" Hammerhead asked belligerently.
"To be frank-- no. I don't know if your Dr. Caulder told you, but I'm not exactly mentally well myself." They ran a yellow light. "Ever hear of Cotard's Syndrome?"
"It's a form of schizophrenia. The belief that you're dead."
"Right. I've had it since my last year of medical school."
"You think you're dead?-- Watch out!!" This last was screamed as they narrowly avoided hitting a blue Honda rounding a corner.
"No. I'm alive now. Sooner or later, I'm sure, I'll be dead again."
"I knew someone who thought he was really his murdered twin brother, and that he himself was dead, but he didn't think he was dead, if you know what I mean. I mean, he had consciousness."
"Well, I have consciousness when I'm dead, too. I just don't have anything else. Did you ever go under extreme sensory deprivation?"
"N-no, I d-don't-- I d-don't think so. Cliff has."
"Well, that's why I feel I have the right to cure sick people. Only the sane have notions of the nobility of insanity. The sane, and some of the insane with delusions of grandeur. Why do you call yourself Crazy Jane?"
"There are 64 of us. In the underground. Crazy Jane's only one of the persons that make up the woman."
"Ah. Multiple personality?"
"We prefer to think of ourselves as persons. I'm Driver 8, by the way."
"Pleased to meet you. I'm Sharon Dilliard, but I suppose you know that already. I met one multiple once, but she had only 12 people. It's a bit unusual to find as many as 64."
"Actually, that's just a convenient number. Not even I'm entirely sure just how many of us there are. Doctor, do you do multiples?"
"Are you asking for my help?"
"No! I don't need your help! None of us need your help, so keep your fucking hands to yourself, you wacko! Everything works down in the Underground and the trains run--"
"Stop it!" Dilliard swiveled her head and shouted at Jane. "You! Get back in there, shut up, and let someone rational take over while I'm driving! You want to get us both killed?" She turned back to concentrate on driving.
Jane stared at Dilliard in amazement. "How did you do that?"
"Make her retreat? I simply told her to."
"You didn't just say it outside. You said it in the Underground too."
"That's right." Dilliard pulled up at a brick apartment building. "I have a phobia of death, you see," she explained as she parked the car. "I get very nervous when I'm driving and a patient has a seizure or a psychotic episode. And I don't think--" she climbed out of the car, and waited for Jane to do so too before continuing-- "that we should discuss what Driver 8 asked again, just yet. It's obvious some of you aren't ready yet."
"I think you're right," Jane said, nodding, and followed Sharon into the lobby of the building. "Just out of curiosity, though, did you ever cure a multiple?"
There were three locks to pass through in the lobby alone. "No-- the one I met didn't entirely want to be cured, so I didn't. MPD isn't as debilitating as schizophrenia-- as I'm sure you know as well as I. You might be more sane than I am."
"How the hell can you be a psychiatrist if you're schiz?"
"I take drugs. What is with all this hostility?"
"That's just Hammerhead. Don't mind her. She just doesn't like psychiatrists." They reached the elevator, which needed yet another key. "Why all these keys?"
"Welcome to Gotham," Sharon said sardonically. She punched the button for the fourth floor. "I take it you come from someplace more peaceful?"
"Somewhat. Don't anti-schizoids make you feel awful?"
"Um. Good question. They do, actually, but... well, I've found a way around it, somewhat." Dilliard's apartment was close to the elevator. It, too, needed three separate keys. "Actually, they're crippling. They block my powers--" she swung the door open and stepped inside-- "and make me feel like eating all the time, so my weight goes through the roof. Sorry about the mess."
"Don't worry about it." What Dilliard called a mess was apparently journals all over the furniture. The floor was clean. "You ought to see my place."
"They also make me lethargic, and... well. I avoid taking them whenever possible." She headed for her bedroom. Jane followed, but hovered outside the door, feeling reluctant to enter someone's room.
"You just said you have to take them or you think you're dead."
"It's not an all-or-nothing thing. As a psychiatrist, I know that schizophrenics on a very low, erratically timed dosage of anti-schizoids are not necessarily sane, but they're more functional and more lucid than untreated schizophrenics. As a person who's been unstable her entire life, I feel more normal to myself when I'm teetering on the border between psychosis and normalcy, especially since I need the drugs to be fully sane, and they make me feel so unpleasant. So I titrate myself, taking just enough of the drug to keep me functional and non-catatonic without impairing my powers. I hope. My employers at Arkham do not know about this, by the way, and they're not going to find out."
"What-- what happens when you think you're dead?"
"Well, my health isn't very good. I'm prone to strokes, heart attacks, asthma attacks, and dozens of other fatal and sudden disorders with no medical cause. When I'm fully sane, I even know that I don't really suffer any of these disorders, I only think I do. Of course, I'm not fully sane now, so don't try to convince me of that." She turned back toward the doorway, flashing Jane a bright smile. "You can come in if you want. Oh, and by the way, call me Sharon, not Doctor. I'm not your doctor."
Jane came in. Dilliard was throwing clothes into a suitcase. As she continued to talk, Jane's attention was drawn by a painting over a dresser. "What happens on the outside is that I behave as if I'm suffering from a fatal disorder, collapse, and become catatonic. On the inside, I feel all my senses fading, my heartbeat stopping, until I'm floating alone in nothingness. Then they come from Hell."
The painting was of a hollow-cheeked white man with peculiarly pale skin, wild black hair, and glowing eyes. The dresser under the painting held only an incense burner and a notebook. "This is beautiful," Jane said.
"The only piece I ever did that came out right," Sharon said wryly.
"Who is he?"
"He's... um... oh, I can tell you. You won't put it down to the schizophrenia. He's the Lord of Dreams, and the source of my powers."
"The Lord of Dreams?" Jane studied the painting. "You know, he seems oddly familiar.."
"I don't doubt it. Many see him, though they don't remember. He summoned me to his castle in a dream, a peculiarly vivid dream. In the dream, he told me that my powers had come about because the universe was trying to fill the gap he'd left behind, when he was imprisoned on the mortal plane. He said he would let me continue to use my powers, because they were on too small a scale to affect the Dreaming, the continuity of all dreaming minds, as long as I never used them for any selfish purpose other than self-defense. In the morning, I tried to paint him-- I have a long history of trying to record the things I see or dream in art, stories, what have you. I've no talent. My canvas was intended to be the human mind, and nothing less sophisticated will work. Except this one time. The interesting thing is that this happened while I was in the hospital, under heavy medication. Not only was I not capable of a schizophrenic hallucination, or picking up on someone else's dream, but even my own dreams were colorless and flat around then, except for that one. That's how I know he really exists."
"That is so neat," Jane said. "You burn incense to him?"
"Yes, and keep a dream journal." Sharon closed the suitcase. "If there is a God, He's the one responsible for my illness. I prefer to worship the one responsible for my powers. I'm all packed and ready now, if you'd like to get going."
"Sure." As they left the apartment, Jane said, "Did it ever occur to you that the powers and the madness go hand in hand?"
"Of course it has. I just prefer not to believe it. For one thing, I've had my powers since I was 16, and my illness since I was 24."
"Just because the first psychotic episode happened when you were 24, doesn't mean you weren't crazy before."
"True, I guess."
"You're very objective about your disorder. I'm the only one of us who can really discuss the woman's illness with any objectivity, and even I'm limited."
"Driver 8. Remember me? I was just wondering, how can you say things like "If I were fully sane I would know something, but I'm not so I don't?"
"Easily. I'm a logical, rationally trained psychiatrist, with memories of being more or less sane. I'm also a schizophrenic. The one side enables me to look at my problems objectively; the other side makes sure that no matter what my reason tells me, I believe what my madness tells me. I know what I would think, if I were sane; it just has no relevance." They left the apartment building.
"Do you really think you'll be able to help Rebis?" Jane asked, as Sharon heaved her bag into the back of the car.
"As I said before, I have not got the slightest idea. How much do you know about psychescapes?"
"Oh, good. Do you know anything about Rebis'?"
"I'm sorry-- no. I've never been there."
"Well," Sharon said as she started up the car, "you may just get a chance to rectify that oversight. We'll see."
"Has there been any change?" Caulder asked, as he, Cliff, Jane and Sharon came into Doom Patrol headquarters.
Josh shook his head. "Not that I could see. I guess this is Dr. Dilliard?"
"Yes. Sharon, this is Josh Clay, our medic, and Dorothy Spinner, the third member of the outer team."
"Hi," Dorothy said shyly.
"I'm sure I'm pleased to meet you both. If I could see the patient now?"
"This way," Josh said, and started toward the infirmary, everyone else following in a mass wave.
Rebis was laid out on one of the cots, wearing only the bandages and the faint green glow s/he always projected. Sharon walked over to the body, and did a doubletake, blinking at it. "Well. I see this one does have both sexes," she murmured, and turned to Jane. "What's that pronoun again?"
"S/he," Jane offered.
"I'll try to remember it."
Josh crossed the room, took the mandala off a treatment table, and brought it over to Sharon. "This is the mandala we think Rebis is lost in," he said.
"May I look at it?"
"Go ahead," the Chief said. "I'd be careful with it, though. It'd be rather unpleasant were you to end up like Rebis."
"Right." She took the mandala in her hands and examined it, turning it around. "Well, that settles that."
"Settles what?" Cliff asked.
"If she-- excuse me, if s/he-- is in fact inside this piece of wood, it's beyond my ability to detect. I'll have to go in through the mind."
"Yes. I expected you would," Caulder said. "Are there any special preparations you'll need to make?"
"Maybe." She looked around at the five of them. "When I go into most people's minds, I know what to expect. I know approximately where I'm going to find their mind, and how many minds they have, and how they work. In this case, I'm going in practically blind. I could use backup. Someone who knows this person better than I do, to go in with me. Are any of you willing?"
"I am," Jane said. "But are you sure we can get in? Doesn't Rebis have mental defenses?"
"Everybody does, more or less. I bypass them."
"Then I'll go. I might be able to help." She turned to Cliff. "What about you?"
"Sure. Why not. If you think I can do any good in there, I'm all for it."
"That's it, I suppose?" Sharon asked.
"I think the rest of us would be better suited to monitoring from the outside," Caulder said. "If you think Cliff and Jane can provide you sufficient assistance, of course."
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I do think so. We should be all right. I'll have to ask the rest of you to clear the room while we're in, though."
"Will it be safe to monitor the room on camera?"
"Certainly. It's simply that anyone who's actually here will be drawn into the psychescape with me."
"Well, then. Josh, Dorothy? Let's let the doctor and the Doom Patrol get to work."
After they had gone, Sharon lay down on one of the other cots. "You'll want to sit or lay down," she said. "I'll have to take us below the bodily threshold."
"Do we need to hold hands or anything?" Cliff asked.
"No. You can think of it as a field I'm generating-- as if I'm externalizing Rebis' psychescape into an astral plane for all of us to perceive, and not as if I'm taking us anywhere, if you like. I'm not exactly sure how I do do it, but physical contact isn't necessary."
Jane sat cross-legged on the floor, and Cliff lay down. "Okay, Sharon. We're ready when you are."
To be continued...
Wheels Within Wheels, Installment 1
Based on Doom Patrol by Grant Morrison
Other sources: "From A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet", by Harlan Ellison; Nightbreed movie flyers, based on "Cabal" by Clive Barker; Sandman, by Neil Gaiman
Mental soundtrack by Siouxsie and the Banshees
*-- Paraphrased from "Burn-Up", Siouxsie and the Banshees