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Astral Talent

This story, ASTRAL TALENT, is set in the milieu of
the twelve-volume TALES OF OOLONG MORBLOCK fantasy series.

        Danzburg Tosterburger celebrated his 44th birthday by going to jail, which was where his father made contact with him.
         "Yes, dad," said Danzburg, feeling uncommonly juvenile as he spoke to the phone. "I'm in jail."
         "Well, you phoned. You've got the telephone number."
         "No, I mean - how are they treating you? Are you in the coffins?"
         "The coffins? Oh, come on. After that civil rights thing .... no, I'm sharing a cell with, you know, what's his name. The assassin."
         "That guy Ape?"
         "No, no, my brother-in-law."
         "Oh, Norwin! Why didn't you just say so?"
         "Well," said Danzburg, studying the pattern of cracks in the concrete wall, "they've given me ... you know how it is. The things. Right? You know? Yes?"
         "Okay," said his father. "As long as you're all right."
         And he rang off.
         Fortunately, Danzburg didn't have to navigate back to his prison cell after the phone call, because the telephone was right there in the cell with him. The telephone was there because the prisoners had won a big civil rights lawsuit eight years previously, and his brother-in-law Norwin Spelpenter Scramble was there because, five years previously, he had assassinated Jorbel Eagle, the much-beloved president of the city state of Oolong Morblock.
         "Why did you do it, Norwin?" said Danzburg.
         But Norwin made no reply, because the afternoon issue of grogs had hit him hard (he had in fact bribed a guard to issue him with a triple dose) and he was out cold.
         On entering the Clink, the special prison which the city state of Oolong Morblock had built to hold those with astral talents, Danzburg himself had been fed grogs, pills containing a mild sedative in combination with an antidepressant and a topological dislocator.
         Because of the topographical dislocator, he was distressingly disoriented. His mental map of his home city was a jumble of unrelated places, the subway system tangled up with spaghetti, the island of Zisperhaven floating in the bathtub and the presidential palace sitting next to a big raw cabbage.
         He knew that beyond the city lay the seven spheres of Stella Sancta, and that the ruined minds of dead stars dwelt in the sixth sphere, the Sphere of Minds. He knew that he ultimately drew his astral powers from those stars. It was thanks to them that he could exorcise and could travel, dematerializing at will to transport himself to any place in his own world or the world beyond.
         But what was "beyond"? How was it different from "next to" or "side by side" or "underneath" or "inside out"? Thanks to the influence of the topological dislocator, Danzburg could no longer make sense of prepositions of place. If he tried to intellectualize the process, he couldn't even walk straight.
         He was stuck inside the Clink until the grogs wore off. Or until his lawyer showed up. One or the other.
         Danzburg's lawyer finally arrived at sunset, about the time that Norwin was starting to stir himself. The lawyer, Tangram Bench, sat on a chair outside Danzburg's cell, and they talked.
         "The charges against you are severe," said Tangram. "Zebranta Web claims you threatened to kill him, that you killed his father, and that you tried to blackmail both father and son."
         "But there's not a shred of truth to any of that," said Danzburg, who until very recently had only been distantly conscious of the existence of the industrialist Ichiro Web and his son Zebranta, and who was bewildered by the charges against him.
         "Then we may be able to sue for false imprisonment," said Tangram. "For the moment, sit tight and don't try breaking out of here."
         "I wouldn't know how," said Danzburg. "Besides, it's impossible."
         "It's far from impossible, and I'm sure you'll have figured out how long before midnight," said Tangram. "But don't try it. If there's no eyewitness who saw you fixing the deceased Web to the road with the nailgun - "
         "That's not how he died."
         "Don't say that in court! You know nothing - got that?"
         "I read about it in the newspaper. He went to the aquarium and fell into the piranah tank. I've heard people say he was drunk at the time."
         "Well, don't say that in court either. Try to be sympathetic. Got that? Well, I'm done. I've got a serial killer to see then, if time, there's a hit and run. A fellow practitioner, by the way - Catnip Cheeks. But you didn't hear that from me. We'll hush it all up and bury the whole business tomorrow."
         "My case?"
         "No, Catnip's."
         And, with that, Tangram was gone.

* * *

         Elsewhere, Zebranta Web sat listening to a tape recording of the conversation between Danzburg Tosterburger and his father. Zebranta's contact in the telephone company had provided it.
         So - Danzburg was in the same cell as Norwin Scramble. Very convenient. That cell was on the west side of the Clink. It was on the fourth tier - the uppermost tier of the prison. There was no protective building beyond the wall of the cell. Instead, a road ran right outside. Danzburg, then, was vulnerable to attack.
         And, drugged by grogs, he wouldn't be going anywhere that night. Tonight, Zebranta Web would take revenge on behalf of his dead father.

* * *

         "TV?" said Norwin.
         "It's your prison," said Danzburg with a shrug.
         "Oh, I'm not greedy," said Norwin. "There's plenty of prison for both of us. So - TV, then? Or I could show you how to make knives from mattress springs and we could fight to the death, if you'd rather."
         "I think TV will be sufficient excitement for tonight," said Danzburg.
         So they sat on their bunks and watched TV, another benefit of the same civil rights lawsuit which had won the prisoners their telephone privileges.
         The watched the TV news - pollution statistics, stockmarket reports, latest figures on diabetes and obesity - and it was just coming to an end when there was a blood-curdling scream. Very loud and very close.
         "What the hell was that?" said Danzburg, convulsing to his feet.
         A mistake. The grogs had left him unstable, and he promptly fell over.
         "It was the sound of someone getting his ... well, you don't want to know the details."
         "You mean someone's being tortured?" said Danzburg, clambering back onto his bunk.
         "No," said Norwin. "This is a highly modern prison with professional staff trained in all the most expensive psychological mumbo jumbo. They don't torture us any longer. They play therapy tapes."
         "But I heard ...."
         "A sound effect. It's for the tourists, they like that kind of stuff."
         "But it's night. There won't be any tourists."
         "Oh no. The Clink is on the itinerary of a number of night tours. There's a schedule on the wall over there, if you're interested. It'll tell you when to expect screaming and stuff. But in point of fact, as prisons go, this one isn't too bad. Nobody's been murdered in here for six months."
         Another scream. Very loud and very close.
         "I'm going to sue the prison," said Danzburg.
         "Because of the screaming?"
         "But we all agreed," said Norwin. "The prisoners, I mean. It's a done deal, the tour companies are kicking in money to the welfare fund. In six months we'll be saying goodbye to this free-to-air garbage and getting us the very latest ultra-ultra broadband cable connection. Danzburg - there are some seriously bad people in here. You try to derail our tourist deal, you could get yourself skinned alive."
         "Well," said Danzburg, "at least in that case the screams would have the benefit of authenticity."
         "Speaking of authenticity," said Norwin, "do you want to watch the autopsy?"
         In truth, autopsies were not to Danzburg's taste, and he almost never watched the autopsy show hosted by that raucously enthusiastic couple, Mr Mop Molish Morleth-Spindle and Mrs Opera Morleth-Spindle. But Danzburg, who was not sure how prison life might have changed his brother-in-law, opted to vote for a quiet life.
         "The autopsy show, sure," said Danzburg.
         That was before he realized that tonight they would be cutting open his grandfather Selwyn.

* * *

         For the autopsy, the cutting was done by the society surgeon Geronimo Plex, who usually kept himself busy doing eyebrow sculpturing and liposuction.
         Danzburg was uncomfortable about watching Selwyn get sliced open, but it seemed too late to ask Norwin to turn off the TV. Besides, the number of things two people can do together in a prison cell is limited, and Danzburg was in no hurry to explore the alternatives.
         The scalpel sliced.
         Outside the Clink, a touristic agony shrieked.
         The camera moved in, focusing closely.
         "Olive," said Geronimo, describing the color he had discovered inside Selwyn's intestines. He sniffed. "Shoepolish, from the smell of it."
         Yes, Selwyn Tosterburger's intestines were full of olive shoepolish. You could imagine the tabloid headlines now: STRANGE DEATH OF AN AUTOPSY.
         As Geronimo explored further, more weirdness came to light. There was delicate blue-green coral growing in Selwyn's bones, its branched elongations taking over his marrow-space. His pancreas had already dissolved, but there was a hank of blonde hair where it should have been. His heart was full of white ants.
         Still, while this was fun - hosting the show, the Morleth-Spindles made the most of it - the cutting itself was just an appetizer. The main meat was the emotions of the evening: the lamentations of the dead and the accusations of the living.
         The living were already present - Danzburg could see two of Selwyn's former wives and most of his major creditors in the studio audience - but the dead person himself was nowhere in evidence. This was no surprise. Very few dead people choose to attend their own autopsies. And, besides, it was entirely possible that Selwyn had failed to survive the disintegrative traumas of death. On top of that, if he had survived then right now he was probably feeling weak and convalescent.
         "Bring on the exorcist!" said Mop Molish Morleth-Spindle.
         "Bring him on!" cried wife Opera.
         And Elmace Humbrelbonnet entered the scene. His usual three-piece suit was gone, and, instead, his portly middle-aged outlines by the sweeping brocaded robes of an astral lord of the Holothurian Empire - clothing which had not been worn in the city of Oolong Morblock for centuries, except by actors in historical dramas.
         Technically speaking, to raise the spirits of the dead you needed to be a summoner, not an exorcist. But almost every exorcist had at least a trace of a summoner's skills, and Danzburg was prepared to believe that there was at least a possibility that Elmace knew what he was doing.
         "The great Elmace," said Norwin. "Were you at that party where we got him drunk and persuaded him to swallow the jellyfish?"
         "I don't believe I was," said Danzburg.
         "Yes you were! I remember now. That was the party at which Metabella showed up and the two of you fell into the swimming pool."
         "I haven't seen Metabella in seven years," said Danzburg.
         "Well, I've been here five years myself," said Norwin.
         Five years. That rather put a pall on the conversation. Danzburg hoped that his grandfather Selwyn would show up quickly and would say something rude to Elmace, live on TV. Anything to lighten the atmosphere in the prison cell.
         "We will now summon the shade of the dead," said Elmace.
         "Live on TV," said Opera Morleth-Spindle.
         "Live!" echoed her husband.
         "Here," said Elmace, "is an object beloved of Selwyn Tosterburger."
         So intoning, Elmace picked up a digital camera.
         Seeing the camera on TV, Danzburg had a sharp memory of his grandfather Selwyn playing with his great grandson, Oz. And the memory of the pair of them brought sharp tears to Danzburg's eyes. For the first time, the true weight of the loss of Selwyn was settling in. This was his grandfather who was talking.
         "Can he summon Selwyn with that thing?" said Norwin.
         "What do you think?" said Danzburg.
         "Well, you're the exorcist. Can he?"
         "Maybe," said Danzburg, rubbing his forearm across his eyes. "But it's not wise. The dead should come back in their own time."
         If they can. If they choose. There are those who cannot: who perish immediately upon the death of their physical containers, or who experience death as a catastrophic loss of memory, identity and even, at times, the very capacity for cognition. There are those who return, if they do at all, as muttering habits of the darkness, as contaminants of mood, as wailing screams shrieking through the circuits of the dark. What Elmace was doing was not just crass and insolent. It was also very unwise.
         "Look!" said Norwin. "They've got him already!"
         Yes, a shade was shimmering into existence. And there, on TV, Danzburg saw his own child - his own Oswald, his one and only Oz. Oswald Tosterburger. Aged nine.
         Oswald must have been asleep, his spirit wandering free from his body while he dreamt, and that idiot Elmace had gone and called him into the TV studio, using that digital camera which meant as much to Oswald as it ever had to Oswald's great grandfather Selwyn.
         "That idiot!" said Danzburg, with homicidal fury. "He'll kill the child!"
         And he was on his feet in an instant, hammering at the bars and screaming for a guard. He managed to keep it up for all of thirty seconds before the grogs overwhelmed his surge of berserk fury.
         "That's very impressive," said Norwin placidly, as Danzburg subsided to the floor, groaning. "But those pharmacologists do know what they're doing, you know. You can't get out of here."
         "The guards," said Danzburg, looking into the corridor.
         Could he dematerialize and make that little hop through the bars to the corridor? He tried for the necessary strength. But failed to find it.
         "The guards don't come in here at night," said Norwin. "They're not stupid."
         The reason for the guards' caution, which Norwin did not bother to enunciate, was that astral powers typically intensified when it got dark. Everyone knew that.
         "No guards?" said Danzburg, struggling to rise. "Then I'll telephone."
         "Here," said Norwin, passing him the handset. "You say the number, I'll punch it in."
         Danzburg put the phone to his ear and heard the blessed hum of a dial tone. And then a massive thumping impact shook the prison and the phone went dead.
         "What was that?" said Danzburg in alarm.
         "Another earthquake?" said Norwin.
         "It felt like something crashed into the wall," said Danzburg. "Norwin! You're too calm. Snap out of it! We have to do something."
         "Well ... here, then."
         Delicately, Norwin inserted a hairclip into a crack in the concrete wall and exerted leverage. Nothing happened. He muttered to himself then tried a different crack. A piece of concrete jumped out, revealing a small stash which included -
         "Chocolate-coated coffee beans," said Norwin. "The best remedy for the grogs. Eat the lot."
         Danzburg took the proffered handful and munched them all down. The prison shook again as something crashed into the wall. Flakes of concrete fell to the floor. An alarm klaxon blurted into life, drowning out the TV.
         "This means more to me than you," said Norwin, plugging a set of headphones into the TV's line out.
         The TV was muted, sound now channeled into the headphones. Norwin handed the headphones to Danzburg who clapped them to his head. Danzburg used his hands to press the headphones against his ears, trying to cut out the klaxon so he could hear.

* * *

         The TV studio was now a scene of some confusion. The supposed resurrected shade of Selwyn Tosterburger had disappeared, and the exorcist Elmace Humbrelbonnet was having difficulty coercing it into returning.
         All too easily, Danzburg imagined his son Oswald plunging into the astral realms, fleeing blindly, then being seized by huge forces and dragged back, kicking and screaming.
         "Should we call it a night?" said Mop Molish Morleth-Spindle.
         "No!" said his wife. "No! We've only just begun. Hey hey! Here he is!"
         And there was the spirit again. A boy, not a man. Mop Molish said as much.
         "It's a boy, not a man," said Mop Molish.
         "It could just as easily be a hot water bottle or a turquoise giraffe," said Elmace, who loved to lecture. "The dead, you see - "
         "Shall we get on with it?" said Opera Morleth-Spindle. "Shall we? Before he escapes again?"
         "Very well," said Elmace, and cleared his throat. "Spirit! In the name of the Three Diamonds I adjure you!"
         What did "adjure" mean? Was it even a real word? As Danzburg was trying to remember, his prison cell shook again, and a plunging crack opened in the wall. He saw a tin of instant coffee in amongst the litter of Norwin's personal possessions, levered it open and started gouging the contents into his mouth.
         "I wouldn't do that if I was you," said Norwin. "You could kill yourself."
         Another concussive impact. A chunk of concrete fell from the ceiling. Someone must be trying to take the prison apart with a wrecking ball. Above the blaring of the klaxon and the amplified headphone sound from the TV, Danzburg could hear the beating thunder of a helicopter. He pushed more instant coffee into his mouth, swallowed, then turned his head to one side and was abruptly sick.
         "I think you should take that as a warning," said Norwin.
         On TV, Elmace was saying something to Oswald. Thanks to the uproar in the prison - prisoners were now beating on the bars of their cells with metal objects or screaming for real - Danzburg was entirely unable to hear what Elmace said.
         Then the prison klaxon silenced.
         Danzburg waited for the next onslaught of the wrecking ball, but none came. And, in the comparative peace, he heard his son's voice clearly in the headphones.
         "What?" said Oswald.
         "Speak your name," commanded Elmace Humbrelbonnet imperially.
         The wearing of brocaded robes seemed to have gone to Elmace's head. His customary air of self-satisfaction had swollen into monstrous pomposity.
         "Speak, spirit!" said Elmace.
         "Is this the test?" said Oswald timidly. "Mr Baston's test?"
         As Danzburg knew, Baston X Pantrex X Baston was a teacher of solid geometry at Anclag Academy, the boarding school in which Oz lived.
         "He's a child, you idiot!" shouted Danzburg, roaring at the TV screen in fury.
         Elmace, however, did not seem to have any understanding of what had happened. Elmace really seemed to think that he had successfully summoned the shade of the departed Selwyn Tosterburger.
         "You can't fool us, Selwyn," said Elmace. "I know what you did with your mother in Parabods."
         Decades previously, Selwyn had once gone shoplifting with his mother in Parabods. Danzburg was surprised that Elmace knew that. It was supposed to be a family secret.
         "I didn't do anything," wailed Oswald. "I want to go home."
         And the wrecking ball crashed into the prison wall one more time, and the west wall of Danzburg's cell crashed away, and Danzburg saw what was out there, and it was not a wrecking ball, no, it was a fist. A huge fist, the fingers of which were opening for him. And he remembered his enemy, Zebranta Web. Zebranta must be a forcemaster! Zebranta must have summoned this fist into existence, and must be meaning to -
         "No!" screamed Norwin, as the fist accelerated toward them.
         The fist plowed into the prison, wrecking the bunks and books and washbasin and television set all together in one huge heap of garbage, mashing that heap against the bars which prevented the prisoners from escaping.
         "I'm not insured," said Norwin, in shocked dismay, surveying the devastation of the guards' side of the bars.
         Danzburg made no reply, because he was doubled over, being sick. The process of dematerializing, traveling and rematerializing again did at times make him feel sick - especially when he had a hangover. His jump from the prison to the corridor outside had been very short, but the effort of making that jump, and of bringing Norwin with him, had been appallingly difficult because of the grogs.
         "You did it, huh?" said Norwin, beginning to realize what Danzburg had achieved. "The coffee did it for you, huh? You're lucky. I was meaning to switch to decaf next week."
         "Let's get out of here," said Danzburg.
         And stumbled away down the corridor as the fist, realizing that the blood of its quarry was not to be found inside the trashed prison cell, began battering at the bars separating the cell from the corridor.

* * *

         Two quick dematerializations later, Danzburg and Norwin exited the prison on the east side. They were now fugitives. But did it matter? On a night like this, probably not.
         "The TV studio," said Danzburg.
         He had no idea where it was. Worse, he had still not shaken off the effects of the topological dislocator. He was starting to order the city in his head: the harbor waters of the Bilge Globulus in the center, the industrial area to the north, the old residential area to the south. But the details escaped him. And Norwin, having been fed the same grogs, was probably just as bad.
         "I know about as much geography as a penguin," said Danzburg, despairing. "Probably less."
         "Taxi!" said Norwin, solving their problem.
         "You want to be on TV?" said Danzburg. "Take us to - "
         "Dashmix TV," said Norwin, as Danzburg faltered momentarily. "Through the tunnel, turn right - "
         "You pay, I drive," said the taxi driver, bad tempered at the bleary end of a twenty-hour shift.
         Ten minutes later, they were outside the headquarters of Dashmix TV. Leaving the driver unpaid and shouting furiously into his radio, Danzburg and Norwin raced into the studio, skittling a pair of unwary security guards who tried to stop them.
         In the studio -
         No sign of Oz.
         Instead, Opera Morleth-Spindle was addressing the studio audience. She seemed to be embarrassed.
         "We've just had uh, a phone call from, ah, a mother .... tonight's spirit ...."
         "It may have been her son," said Mop Molish Morleth-Spindle, as his wife lost her nerve.
         "And where is he now?" said Danzburg, loudly.
         "Danzburg!" said Elmace Humbrelbonnet. "What are you doing here? I heard you were in jail."
         "Where you will be on a charge of murder if you have succeeded in killing my son," said Danzburg. "Where is he?"
         It was not a stupid question. Talents varied, but most exorcists could tell, more or less, in what general direction a spirit had gone after departing their presence.
         "I felt him slipping away into the first sphere," said Elmace.
         The spirit of Oswald Tosterburger, then, had left the normative world of quotidian reality. Oz was already in the Sphere of Confusion, out on his own in the bad place where old dreams, discarded memories and fragmented personalities recombined and coalesced to make things less than half human but just as dangerous.
         And Danzburg followed.
         Be quick, be quick, because the trail will perish swiftly!
         But could he do it, or would the grogs be too much?
         Extreme rage had cleared his head. Adrenalin had spiked his pulse to a hundred and fifty. He was in battle mode.
         He did it.

* * *

         As Danzburg discarded normal reality for the Sphere of Confusion, solidity vanished from beneath his feet. All clear colors vanished from the universe, to be replaced by a muddy brown five shades more organic than sepia. The world was filled with a wet moaning static like microphone feedback howling in the bellies of fishes. His skin felt like rough paper, chafing the flesh it clung to. His bones were angular intrusions in the comfort of his flesh.
         And he felt sick. So very, very sick. He felt he was going to vomit out his whole stomach in one huge ectoplasmic heave.
         But there was Oz.
         There, at least, was the spirit of Oswald Tosterburger.
         When a traveler such as Danzburg astralized, dematerializing so he could travel through either normative space or the seven spheres of the astral realms, he took his body with him. Nobody could explain exactly how this was done, but done it was.
         Oswald, on the other hand, was a mere spirit wandering without physical support. His body, his physical shell, was presumably still back in one of the dormitories of his boarding school, Anclag Academy. And to chance the separation of spirit and flesh is perilously dangerous - something a child might do by accident, but which an adult would never do from choice. The spirit all too easily becomes lost or sundered, destroyed or contaminated.
         Unable to return to its native flesh it becomes, at best, a suffering ghost. And the flesh is left as a catatonic hulk. Beyond repair, beyond repair. Absolute loss. And there had been too much loss in Danzburg's life.
         "Oswald," said Danzburg, advancing on his son.
         "Who are you?" said Oswald, in terror, withdrawing.
         Danzburg divined, then, that his son could not see clearly. The surreal environs in which they stood were clear enough to Danzburg - topologies of brown interpenetrated with gulches of ribcage darkness and gaping doors into heartbeat temptations - but not to Oswald. To Oswald, the place into which his mistaken retreat had taken him was one big blurred terror. And that was why he had not gone further than he had. Because he was paralyzed by fear.
         "I'm your father," said Danzburg, as soothing as he could.
         "No," said Oz, shrinking back from him. "No, no! You're the Bone Man!"
         Then Oz melted and was gone, fleeing into the astral realms. Danzburg was almost too slow to follow. By the time he astralized, the track of his son's passage was just the faintest ripple of disturbance in the aether. Danzburg plunged after him, following a trail which he saw only fitfully - and not with his eyes but with some extra sense which was more like a quality of intuition than a set of organic inputs.
         And they were all the way to the fifth sphere, the Sphere of Desertion, before Danzburg again caught sight of his son. He could not believe how far they had come. It was unheard of for a child to be possessed of the power or purpose to drive so deep into the astral realms. And Danzburg both feared and marveled.
         His son was possessed of at least one wild astral talent - was destined to be, at the very least, one of the most formidable travelers known to human history. If he lived.
         Then Oswald began screaming in terror, and all else was put out of Danzburg's mind as he sought the menace which had precipitated that peak of agonized torment.
         Failing to find it.
         Father and son had arrived at the Sonsaconda River, a geographical feature which had been remarked upon by travelers to the fifth sphere ever since the days when travels first began to be documented.
         The Sonsaconda River wound slowly through an immense length of mountain and jungle, and it had the inexplicable property of having tides. The river always flowed placidly, but the volume of water in it was sometimes meager, sometimes great. In the astral realms, as many had remarked, all physics was provisional. What was notable about the Sonsaconda River, however, was the stability of its deviation from the known norms.
         Right now, the tide in the Sonsaconda River was low and vast swathes of muddy riverbank were exposed. The mud which formed the banks of the Sonsaconda River was blue, and Oz was standing by the mud and was screaming and screaming and screaming. His terror had reached such a paralyzing height that there was nothing that he could do but scream.
         Once again, Danzburg checked for danger, but saw none. There were no truly safe places in the astral realms, just as there were no truly safe places in a burning building, but any danger in the present landscape was cryptic or distance. Without thinking about it further, Danzburg took the opportunity to grab his son.
         "No!" screamed Oswald, fighting to break free.
         "Oz, Oz, Oz," said Danzburg, soothing but desperate. "Patter Totty. That's it! Patter Totty. Listen, Oz. Only your father knows your secret name is Patter Totty."
         There was an unassailable logic to that - in fact, having outgrown this childish pet name, Oz had once threatened his father with dire consequences if his father should be so foolish as to reveal the secret to any other person in the living world.
         "I thought you were the Bone Man," sobbed Oz, collapsing in Danzburg's arms. "I thought you were the Bone Man."
         His body was damp, shuddering, clammy to the touch. Danzburg held him, shushed him, soothed his hair, and said his name, again and again, as if it were a charm which was potent against the evils of the world.
         "The Bone Man," said Oz, again. "I thought you were the Bone Man."
         "Who is the Bone Man?" said Danzburg.
         "He's the one," said Oz incoherently.
         "The one who what?"
         "Stole Dobber Blobber."
         On hearing that name, Danzburg was filled with a wrathful fury. He thought he had been angry before, but his past anger was nothing compared to the searing violence which wracked his mind at the present moment. The perpetrator of the Dobber Blobber stories was none other than Danzburg's own father, Gelbert Proctor Tosterburger, who now, apparently, was terrorizing his grandchild with these stories, just as he had terrorized his son.
         In the Dobber Blobber mythology, the Big River With the Blue Mud was the place where the Bone Man had done horrible, horrible things to the helpless Dobber Blobber. And that was why the sight of the blue mud of the Sonsaconda River had filled Oswald with such unspeakable terror.
         For the first time in his life, Danzburg had an entirely conscious desire to kill his father. His father went right to the head of a whole line of people whom Danzburg wanted to execute, starting with the TV presenters Opera Morleth-Spindle and her husband Mop Molish, that witless cretin Elmace Humbrelbonnet, and that homicidal lunatic Zebranta Web, the forcemaster who had tried to kill Danzburg in his prison cell with a giant fist.
         "Come on, Oswald," said Danzburg, mastering his own passions. "We're getting you home."

* * *

         And, making his slow and meditative way home in the company of his son - in the astral realms, slower was safer - Danzburg felt a strange kind of peace. It might take months, years even, to tidy up the aftermath of that one day of catastrophe. There would be lawsuits, counter-suits, police interrogations, court appearances and media interviews. And he would have to explain it all to his mother.
         But, after what he had been through, he was sure he would be able to take all that in his stride. Comfortably.
         "Today," said Danzburg, allowing himself a measure of self-satisfaction, "I finally grew up."

The End

This prison story, "Astral Talent" was first published in Challenging Destiny No. 13, November 2001 (ed. David M. Switzer) (St. Marys, Canada, ISSN 1206-6656) (pp 54-68; 5,255 words) (science fiction / fantasy).

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        The phone rang and Terrence Azlenabek regarded it with disfavor. Another journalist? He had reached the point where he was ready to vote for the total suppression of the press.

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