That October had been a turning point for me and, I suspect, for all of us who had been old enough to know what the crisis had meant. For me, it brought home the fact that mankind was now capable of erasing itself from the face of the earth. And I began to understand that the goblins—which even then I had been observing for a few years—must be delighted with the spiraling technological sophistication and complexity of our society, for it provided them with increasingly spectacular ways to torture humanity. What would happen if a goblin rose to a position of political power sufficient to give him control of The Button in either the U.S. or the Soviet Union? Certainly they would realize that their species would be eliminated along with our own; apocalypse would deny them the pleasure of slowly torturing us, which they appeared to enjoy so much. That would seem to mitigate against their unleashing the missiles from the silos. But, oh, how rich a feast of suffering there would be in those last days and hours! The city-leveling blasts, the firestorms, the rains of radioactive debris: If the goblins hated us as intensely and maniacally as I perceived they did, then this was the scenario they would eventually desire, regardless of its implications for their own survival. Because of the Cuban crisis I began to realize that I would be forced to take action against the goblins sooner or later, no matter how pathetically inadequate my one-man war might be.
The crisis. The turning point. In August of 1962, the Soviet Union had begun secretly to install an extensive battery of nuclear missiles in Cuba, with the intention of achieving the capability of launching a surprise first strike on the United States. On October 22, after having demanded that the Russians dismantle these provocative launch facilities, after being rebuffed, and after obtaining additional evidence that showed a frantic acceleration of the project, President Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba that would entail the sinking of any ship that tried to force its way across the quarantine line. Then, on Saturday, October 27, one of our U-2 planes was shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile, and a U.S. invasion of Cuba was set (we learned later) for Monday, October 29. World War III seemed only hours away. However, the Soviets backed down. During the week of the blockade the average American school-age child went through several air raid drills; most major cities had practice air raids in which their entire populations participated; sales of bomb shelters rocketed; existing shelters were stocked with additional supplies; all the armed services were put on alert; units of the National Guard were moved to active status and placed at the president’s disposal; churches held special services and reported dramatic increases in attendance. And if the goblins had not yet contemplated bringing about the total destruction of civilization, they surely must have begun to think about it during the Cuban crisis, for in those days they had fed on a rich brew of our anxiety, occasioned by the mere anticipation of such a holocaust.
“How did you feel?” Rya asked again as we sat on the unmoving Ferris wheel above the unlit carnival in an as yet undevastated world.
It would be a few days before I would understand the significance of our conversation. That night it seemed we had arrived at this morbid topic sheerly by chance. Even with my psychic perceptions I was unable to see just how deeply this subject affected her—and why.
How did you feel?
“Scared,” I said.
“Where were you that week?”
“Oregon. In high school.”
“Did you think it was going to happen?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you think you were going to die?”
“We weren’t exactly in a target zone.”
“But fallout would reach almost everywhere, wouldn’t it?”
“So did you think you were going to die?”
“Maybe. I thought about it.”
“How did you feel about it?” she asked.
“Is that all?”
“I worried about my mother and sisters, about what would happen to them. My father had been dead for some time, and I was the man of the house, so it seemed like I should be doing something to protect them, to insure their survival, you know, but I couldn’t think of anything, and that made me feel so helpless . . . half sick with helplessness.”
She seemed disappointed, as if she had hoped for another response from me, something more dramatic . . . or darker.
“Where were you that week?” I asked.
“Gibtown. There’re some military installations not far from there, a prime target.”
“So you expected to die?” I asked.
“So how did you feel about it?”
She was silent.
“Well?” I pressed. “How did you feel about the end of the world?”
“Curious,” she said.
That was a disturbing and inadequate answer, but before I could ask for elaboration, I was distracted by distant lightning, far off to the west. I said, “We better go down.”
“There’s a storm coming.”
“We’ve got plenty of time.” She rocked the two-seat basket as if it were a porch swing, and the hinges creaked. In a voice that made me cold she said, “When the war didn’t happen, I went to the library and checked out all their books on nuclear weapons. I wanted to know what it would’ve been like if it had happened, and all last winter, down there in Gibtown, I studied up on it. Couldn’t get enough about it. It’s fascinating, Slim.”
Again lightning throbbed out there at the edge of the world.
Rya’s face flickered, and it seemed that the erratic pulse of light came from within her, that she was a bulb burning out.
Thunder cracked along the jagged line of the far horizon, as if the lowering sky had collided with the tops of the mountains. Echoes of the collision rolled sonorously through the clouds above the carnival.
“We better go down,” I said.
Ignoring me, her voice low but clear, infused with awe, each word as soft as a footstep on the plush carpet of a funeral home, she said, “Nuclear holocaust would have a strange beauty, you know, a terrible beauty. The shabbiness and filth of the cities would all be pulverized and boiled up in smooth, spreading mushroom clouds, just the way real mushrooms grow out of manure and take their strength from it. And picture the sky! Crimson and orange, green with acidic mist, yellow with sulfurs, churning, roiling, mottled with colors we’ve never seen in the sky before, rippling with strange light. . . .”
Like a rebel angel pitched out of paradise, a bolt of lightning burst brilliantly above, staggered down celestial steps, diminishing as it descended across the heavens, vanishing into the darkness below. It was much closer than the previous lightning. The crash of thunder was louder than before. The air smelled of ozone.
“It’s dangerous up here,” I said, reaching for the latch that held the safety bar in place.
She stayed my hand and said, “For months after the war there would be the most incredible sunsets because of all the pollution and ash circling high in the atmosphere. And when the ash began to settle out, there would be a certain beauty in that, too, not unlike a heavy snowstorm, although it would be the longest blizzard anyone ever saw, lasting months and months, and even the jungles, where there’s never snow, would be iced and drifted by that storm....”
The air was moist and thick.
Massive war machines of thunder rumbled on battlefields above.
I put my hand on hers, but she held fast to the latch.
She said, “And finally, after a couple of years, the radioactivity would subside to the point at which it would no longer pose a danger to life. The sky would be clear and blue again, and the rich ashes would provide a bed and nutrients for grasses greener and thicker than any we’ve ever seen, and the air would be cleaner for all that scouring. And the insects would rule the earth, and there would be a special beauty in that too.”
Less than a mile away, a whip of lightning cracked in the dark and briefly scarred the skin of the night.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked, my heart suddenly stuttering faster, as if the tip of that electric whip had lightly flicked me, jump-starting an engine of fear.
She said, “You don’t think there’s beauty in the insect world?”
“Rya, for God’s sake, this seat’s metal. Most of the wheel is metal.”
“The bright colors of the butterfly, the iridescent green of a beetle’s wings—”
“We’re the highest goddamned thing in sight. Lightning’s drawn to the highest point—”
“—the orange and black of a ladybug’s carapace—”
“Rya, if lightning strikes, we’ll be fried alive!”
“We’ll be okay.”
“We’ve got to get down.”
“Not yet, not yet,” she whispered.
She would not relinquish the latch.
She said, “With only insects and maybe a few small animals, how clean it would all be again, how fresh and new! Without people around to dirty it up, to—”
She was interrupted by a fierce and angry flash. Directly overhead a white craze crackled across the black dome of the sky, like a zigzagging line of stress in a ceramic glaze. The accompanying explosion of thunder was so violent that it made the Ferris wheel vibrate. And yet another thunderclap boomed, and my bones seemed to rattle together in spite of their padding of flesh, like a gambler’s favorite pairs of dice in the muffling confinement of a warm felt bag.
“Rya, now, damn it!” I insisted.
“Now,” she agreed as a few fat droplets of warm rain began to fall. In the stroboscopic light, her grin fluctuated between childlike excitement and macabre glee. She thumbed the latch that she had been guarding, and she flung the safety bar wide open. “Now! Go! Let’s see who wins—us or the storm!”
Because I was the last into the basket, I had to be the first out, the first to take the gamble. I swung off the seat, grabbed one of the girders that formed the big wheel’s rim, wrapped my legs around the nearest spoke, which was another thick girder, and slid down perhaps four feet, at an angle to the ground, until I was blocked from further descent by one of the crossbeams that served as braces between the mammoth spokes. For a moment, still at a deadly height, stricken by vertigo, I clung to that junction of beams. Some of the enormous raindrops sliced through the air in front of my face, and some snapped into me with the impact of lightly thrown pebbles, and some struck the Ferris wheel with an audible plop-plop-plop . The vertigo did not entirely pass, but Rya came out onto the frame above me, waiting for me to move down and out of her way, and lightning flashed again to remind me of the danger of electrocution, so I drove myself off the spoke, to the crossbeam under it. Panting, I slid along that beam to the next spoke, and very quickly it became clear that descent was far more difficult than ascent because this time we were going backward . The rain fell harder, and the wind rose, and getting a firm grip on the wet steel became more difficult by the moment. Several times I slipped, grabbed desperately at tightly strung cables or girders or slender struts or anything else that was within reach, whether or not it seemed strong enough to support me, and I tore a fingernail and got a friction burn on one palm. Sometimes the wheel seemed like an enormous web, across which a many-legged spider of lightning would scuttle at any moment, intent upon devouring me. But at other times it might have been an enormous roulette wheel; the whirling rain, brisk wind, and chaotic storm light—combined with my lingering vertigo—produced an illusion of movement, a phantom spinning, and when I looked up across the shadow-flickered expanse of the wheel, it seemed that Rya and I were two hapless ivory balls being flung toward separate destinies. The rain combed my sodden hair into my eyes. My soaked jeans soon felt like armor, dragging me down. When I was about ten feet off the ground, I slipped and found nothing to grab this time. I shot out into the rain, arms spread in useless imitation of wings, unleashing a shrill bird cry of fright. I was sure I was going to hit something pointed and be impaled thereon. Instead I sprawled in the mud, knocking the breath out of myself, but I was unhurt.
I rolled onto my back, looked up, and saw Rya still upon the wheel, lashed by rain, her hair wet and tangled yet snapping like a beribboned pennant in the wind. Three stories up, her feet slipped off a beam, and abruptly she was hanging by her hands, all of her weight on her slender arms, legs kicking as she scrambled to find the unseen girder below her.
Slipping in the mud, I got to my feet, stood with head tilted back, face turned up to the rain, watching, breathless.
I had been mad to allow her to climb up there.
This was, after all, where she would die.
This was what my vision had warned against. I should have told her. I should have stopped her.
In spite of her precarious position, in spite of the fact that her arms must have been ablaze with pain and on the verge of dislocating at the shoulder sockets, I thought I heard her laughing up there. Then I realized it must be only the wind fluting through the beams and struts and cables. Surely the wind.
Lightning was hurled down at the earth again. Around me the carnival was momentarily incandescent, and above me the Ferris wheel was briefly revealed in stark detail. For an instant I was sure the bolt had struck the wheel itself and that a billion volts had seared the flesh off Rya’s bones, but in the less cataclysmic sheet-lightning that followed the big flash, I saw that she had not only been spared electrocution but also had gotten her feet under herself. She was inching down once more.
Foolish as it was, I cupped my hands around my mouth and shouted, “Hurry!”
Spoke to crossbeam, crossbeam to spoke, spoke to crossbeam again, she descended, but my galloping heartbeat was not reigned in even when she was down far enough to eliminate the threat of a killing fall. As long as she clung to any part of the wheel, she was in danger of receiving the white-hot kiss of the storm.
At last she was only eight feet from the ground. She turned to face outward, clutching at the wheel with one hand, preparing to jump the rest of the way, when a night-spearing lance of lightning stabbed into the earth just beyond the midway, no more than fifty yards distant, and the crash seemed to fling her off the wheel. She landed on her feet, stumbled, but I was there to grab her and prevent her from falling in the mud, and her arms went around me, mine around her. We hugged very tight, both of us shaking, unable to move, unable to speak, barely able to breathe.
Another night-shattering fulmination sent a tongue of fire from sky to earth, and this one did, at last, lick the Ferris wheel, which lit up along every spoke and crossbeam, each cable a blazing filament, and for an instant it seemed that the huge machine was encrusted with jewels through which raced lambent reflections of flames. Then the killing power was bled off into the earth, through the wheel’s supporting frame and guy wires and anchor chains, which all served as grounding points.