Midnight Page 42


"It's been quite an adventure," the girl said.


"Yes, you look as if you've been through a lot."


"It'd make a great book."


"You like books?"


"Oh, yes, I love books."


Blushing but evidently determined to be sophisticated Chrissie threw back the blanket and stood and allowed Tessa to drape the sheet around her. Tessa pinned it in place, fashioning a toga of sorts.


As Tessa worked, Chrissie said, "I think I'll write a book about all of this one day. I'll call it The Alien Scourge or maybe Nest Queen, although naturally I won't title it Nest Queen unless it turns out there really is a nest queen somewhere. Maybe they don't reproduce like insects or even like animals. Maybe they're basically a vegetable lifeform. Who knows? If they're basically a vegetable lifeform, then I'd have to call the book something like Space Seeds or Vegetables of the Void or maybe Murderous Martian Mushrooms. It's sometimes good to use alliteration in titles. Alliteration. Don't you like that word? It sounds so nice. I like words. Of course, you could always go with a more poetic title, haunting, like Alien Roots, Alien Leaves. Hey, if they're vegetables, we may be in luck, because maybe they'll eventually be killed off by aphids or tomato worms, since they won't have developed protection against earth pests, just like a few tiny germs killed off the mighty Martians in War of the Worlds."


Tessa was reluctant to disclose that their enemies were not from the stars, for she was enjoying the girl's precocious chatter. Then she noticed that Chrissie's left hand was injured. The palm had been badly abraded; the center of it looked raw.


"I did that when I fell off the porch roof at the rectory," the girl said.


"You fell off a roof?"


"Yeah. Boy, that was exciting. See, the wolf-thing was coming through the window after me, and I didn't have anywhere else to go. Twisted my ankle in the same fall and then had to run across the yard to the back gate before he caught me. You know, Miss Lockland—"


"Please call me Tessa."


Apparently Chrissie was unaccustomed to addressing adults by their Christian names. She frowned and was silent for a moment, evidently struggling with the invitation to informality. She decided it would be rude not to use first names when asked to do so. "Okay … Tessa. Well, anyway, I can't decide what the aliens are most likely to do if they catch us. Maybe eat our kidneys? Or don't they eat us at all? Maybe they just shove alien bugs in our ears, and the bugs crawl into our brains and take over. Either way, I figure it's worth falling off a roof to avoid them."


Having finished pinning the toga, Tessa led Chrissie down the hall to the bathroom and looked in the medicine cabinet for something with which to treat the scraped palm. She found a bottle of iodine with a faded label, a half-empty roll of adhesive tape, and a package of gauze pads so old that the paper wrapper around each bandage square was yellow with age. The gauze itself looked fresh and white, and the iodine was undiluted by time, still strong enough to sting.


Barefoot, toga-clad, with her blond hair frizzing and curling as it dried, Chrissie sat on the lowered lid of the toilet seat and submitted stoically to the treatment of her wound. She didn't protest in any way, didn't cry out—or even hiss—in pain.


But she did talk: "That's the second time I've fallen off a roof, so I guess I must have a guardian angel looking over me. About a year and a half ago, in the spring, I think these birds—starlings I think they were—built a nest on the roof of one of our stables at home, and I just had to see what baby birds looked like in the nest, so when my folks weren't around, I got a ladder and waited for the mama bird to fly off for more food, and then I real quick climbed up there to have a peek. Let me tell you, before they get their feathers, baby birds are just about the ugliest things you'd want to see—except for aliens, of course. They're withered little wrinkled things, all beaks and eyes, and stumpy little wings like deformed arms. If human babies looked that bad when they were born, the first people back a few million years ago would've flushed their newborns down the toilet—if they'd had toilets—and wouldn't have dared have any more of them, and the whole race would've died out before it even really got started."


Still painting the wound with iodine, trying without success to repress a grin, Tessa looked up and saw that Chrissie was squeezing her eyes tightly shut, wrinkling her nose, struggling very hard to be brave.


"Then the mama and papa bird came back," the girl said, "and saw me at the nest and flew at my face, shrieking. I was so startled that I slipped and fell off the roof. Didn't hurt myself at all that time—though I did land in some horse manure. Which isn't a thrill, let me tell you. I love horses, but they'd be ever so much more lovable if you could teach them to use a litterbox like a cat."


Tessa was crazy about this kid.


20


Sam leaned forward with his elbows on the kitchen table and listened attentively to Chrissie Foster. Though Tessa had heard the Boogeymen in the middle of a kill at Cove Lodge and had glimpsed one of them under the door of her room, and though Harry had watched them at a distance in night and fog, and though Sam had spied two of them last night through a window in Harry's living room, the girl was the only one present who had seen them close up and more than once.


But it was not solely her singular experience that held Sam's attention. He also was captivated by her sprightly manner, good humor, and articulateness. She obviously had considerable inner strength, real toughness, for otherwise she would not have survived the previous night and the events of this morning. Yet she remained charmingly innocent, tough but not hard. She was one of those kids who gave you hope for the whole damn human race.


A kid like Scott used to be.


And that was why Sam was fascinated by Chrissie Foster. He saw in her the child that Scott had been. Before he … changed. With regret so poignant that it manifested itself as a dull ache in his chest and a tightness in his throat, he watched the girl and listened to her, not only to hear what information she had to impart but with the unrealistic expectation that by studying her he would at last understand why his own son had lost both innocence and hope.


21


Down in the darkness of the Icarus Colony cellar, Tucker and his pack did not sleep, for they did not require it. They lay curled in the deep blackness. From time to time, he and the other male coupled with the female, and they tore at one another in savage frenzy, gashing flesh that began to heal at once, drawing one another's blood simply for the pleasure of the scent—immortal freaks at play.


The darkness and the barren confines of their concrete-walled burrow contributed to Tucker's growing disorientation. By the hour he remembered less of his existence prior to the past night's exciting hunt. He ceased to have much sense of self. Individuality was not to be encouraged in the pack when hunting, and in the burrow it was even a less desirable trait; harmony in that windowless, claustrophobic space required the relinquishment of self to group.


His waking dreams were filled with images of dark, wild shapes creeping through night-clad forests and across moonwashed meadows. When occasionally a memory of human form flickered through his mind, its origins were a mystery to him; more than that, he was frightened by it and quickly shifted his fantasies back to running-hunting-killing-coupling scenes in which he was just a part of the pack, one aspect of a single shadow, one extension of a larger organism, free from the need to think, having no desire but to be.


At one point he became aware that he had slipped out of his wolflike form, which had become too confining. He no longer wanted to be the leader of a pack, for that position carried with it too much responsibility. He didn't want to think at all. Just be. Be. The limitations of all rigid physical forms seemed insufferable.


He sensed that the other male and the female were aware of his degeneration and were following his example.


He felt his flesh flowing, bones dissolving, organs and vessels surrendering form and function. He devolved beyond the primal ape, far beyond the four-legged thing that laboriously had crawled out of the ancient sea millennia ago, beyond, beyond, until he was but a mass of pulsing tissue, protoplasmic soup, throbbing in the darkness of the Icarus Colony cellar.


22


Loman rang the doorbell at Shaddack's house on the north point, and Evan, the manservant, answered.


"I'm sorry, Chief Watkins, but Mr. Shaddack isn't here."


"Where's he gone?"


"I don't know."


Evan was one of the New People. To be sure of dispatching him, Loman shot him twice in the head and then twice in the chest while he lay on the foyer floor, shattering both brain and heart. Or data-processor and pump. Which was needed now biological or mechanical terminology? How far had they progressed toward becoming machines?


Loman closed the door behind him and stepped over Evan's body. After replenishing the expended rounds in the revolver's, cylinder, he searched the huge house room by room, floor by floor, looking for Shaddack.


Though he wished that he could be driven by a hunger for revenge, could be consumed by anger, and could take satisfaction in bludgeoning Shaddack to death, that depth of feeling was denied him. His son's death had not melted the ice in his heart. He couldn't feel grief or rage.


Instead he was driven by fear. He wanted to kill Shaddack before the madman made them into something worse than they'd already become.


By killing Shaddack—who was always linked to the supercomputer at New Wave by a simple cardiac telemetry device Loman would activate a program in Sun that would broadcast a microwave death order. That transmission would be received by all the microsphere computers wedded to the innermost tissues of the New People. Upon receiving the death order, each biologically interactive computer in each New Person would instantly still the heart of its host. Every one of the converted in Moonlight Cove would die. He too would die.


But he no longer cared. His fear of death was outweighed by his fear of living, especially if he had to live either as a regressive or as that more hideous thing that Denny had become.


In his mind he could see himself in that wretched condition gleaming mercurial eyes, a wormlike probe bursting bloodlessly from his forehead to seek obscene conjugation with the computer. If skin actually could crawl, his own would have crept off his body.


When he could not find Shaddack at home, he set out for New Wave, where the maker of the new world was no doubt in his office busily designing neighborhoods for this hell that he called Paradise.


23


Shortly after eleven o'clock, as Sam was leaving, Tessa stepped out onto the back porch with him and closed the door, leaving Harry and Chrissie in the kitchen. The trees at the rear of the property were just tall enough to prevent neighbors, even those uphill, from looking into the yard. She was sure they could not be seen in the deeper shadows of the porch.


"Listen," she said, "it makes no sense for you to go alone."


"It makes perfect sense."


The air was chilly and damp. She hugged herself.


She said, "I could ring the front doorbell, distract anyone inside, while you went in the back."


"I don't want to have to worry about you."


"I can take care of myself."


"Yeah, I believe you can," he said.


"Well?"


"But I work alone."


"You seem to do everything alone."


He smiled thinly. "Are we going to get into another arguments about whether life is a tea party or hell on earth?"


"That wasn't an argument we had. It was a discussion."


"Well, anyway, I've shifted to undercover assignments for the ve very reason that I can pretty much work alone. I don't want a partner any more, Tessa, because I don't want to see any more of them die."


She knew he was referring not only to the other agents who had been killed in the line of duty with him but also to his late wife.


"Stay with the girl," he said. "Take care of her if anything happens. She's like you, after all."


"What?"


"She's one of those who knows how to love life. How to deeply love it, no matter what happens. It's a rare and precious talent."


"You know too," she said.


"No. I've never known."


"Dammit, everyone is born with a love of life. You still have it, Sam. You've just lost touch with it, but you can find it again."


"Take care of her," he said, turning away and descending the porch steps into the rain.


"You better come back, damn you. You promised to tell me what you saw at the other end of that tunnel, on the Other Side. You just better come back."


Sam departed through silver rain and thin patches of gray fog.


As she watched him go, Tessa realized that even if he never told her about the Other Side, she wanted him to come back for many other reasons both complex and surprising.


24


The Coltrane house was two doors south of the Talbot place, on Conquistador. Two stories. Weathered cedar siding. A covered patio instead of a rear porch.


Moving quickly along the back of the house, where rain drizzled off the patio cover with a sound exactly like crackling fire, Sam peered through sliding glass doors into a gloomy family room and then through French windows into an unlighted kitchen. When he reached the kitchen door, he withdrew his revolver from the holster under his leather jacket and held it down at his side, against his thigh.


He could have walked around front and rung the bell, which Might have seemed less suspicious to the people inside. But that would mean going out to the street, where he was more likely to be seen not only by neighbors but by the men Chrissie said were patrolling the town.


He knocked on the door, four quick raps. When no one responded, he knocked again, louder, and then a third time, louder still. If anyone was home, the knock would have been answered.


Harley and Sue Coltrane must be at New Wave, where they worked.


The door was locked. He hoped it had no dead bolt.


Though he had left his other tools at Harry's, he had brought a thin, flexible metal loid. Television dramas had popularized the notion that any credit card made a convenient and unincriminating loid, but those plastic rectangles too often got wedged in the crack or snapped before the latch bolt was slipped. He preferred time-proven tools. He worked the loid between door and frame, below the lock, and slid it up, applying pressure when he met resistance. The lock popped. He tried the door and there was no dead bolt; it opened with a soft creak.


He stepped inside and quietly closed the door, making sure that the lock did not engage. If he had to get out fast, he did not want to fumble with a latch.

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