Midnight Page 54


Shaddack had said that the New People's freedom from emotion had given them the ability to make far greater use of their innate brain power, even to the extent of exerting mental control over the form and function of matter. Their consciousness now dictated their form; to escape a world in which they were not permitted emotion, they could become whatever they chose—though they could not return to the Old People they had been. Evidently life as a cyborg was free of angst, for Penniworth had sought release from fear and longing—perhaps some kind of obliteration, as well—in this monstrous incarnation.


But what did he feel now? What purpose did he have? And did he remain in that altered state because he truly preferred it? Or was he like Peyser—trapped either for physical reasons or because an aberrant aspect of his own psychology would not permit him to reassume the human form to which, otherwise, he desired to return?


Loman reached for the revolver on the seat beside him.


A segmented cable burst from the driver's door of Penniworth's car, without shredding metal, extruding as if a part of the door had melted and re-formed to produce it—except that it looked at least semiorganic. The probe struck Loman's side window with a snap.


The revolver eluded Loman's sweaty hand, for he could not take his eyes off the probe to look for the gun.


The glass did not crack, but a quarter-size patch bubbled and melted in an instant, and the probe weaved into the car, straight at Loman's face. It had a fleshy sucker mouth, like an eel, but the tiny, sharply pointed teeth within it looked like steel.


He ducked his head, forgot about the revolver, and tramped the accelerator to the floor. The Chevy almost seemed to rear back for a fraction of a second; then with a surge of power that pressed Loman into the seat, it shot forward, south on Juniper.


For a moment the probe between the cars stretched to maintain contact, brushed the bridge of Loman's nose—and abruptly was gone, reeled back into the vehicle from which it had come.


He drove fast all the way to the end of Juniper before slowing down to make a turn. The wind of his passage whistled at the hole that the probe had melted in his window.


Loman's worst fear seemed to be unfolding. Those New People who didn't choose regression were going to transform themselves—or be transformed at the demand of Shaddack—into hellish hybrids of man and machine.


Find Shaddack. Murder the maker and release the anguished monsters he had made.


9


Preceded by Sam and followed by Tessa, Chrissie squelched through the mushy turf of the athletic field. In places the soggy grass gave way to gluey mud, which pulled noisily at her shoes, and she thought she sounded like a sort of goofy alien herself, plodding along on big, sucker-equipped feet. Then it occurred to her that in a way she was an alien in Moonlight Cove tonight, a different sort of creature from what the majority of the citizens had become.


They were two-thirds of the way across the field when they were halted by a shrill cry that split the night as cleanly as a sharp ax would split a dry cord of wood. That unhuman voice rose and fell and rose again, savage and uncanny but familiar, the call of one of those beasts that she'd thought were invading aliens. Though the rain had stopped, the air was laden with moisture, and in that humidity, the unearthly shriek carried well, like the bell-clear notes of a distant trumpet.


Worse, the call at once was answered by the beast's excited kin. At least half a dozen equally chilling shrieks arose from perhaps as far south as Paddock Lane and as far north as Holliwell Road, from the high hills in the east end of town and from the beach-facing bluffs only a couple of blocks to the west.


All of a sudden Chrissie longed for the cold, lightless culvert churning with waist-deep water so filthy that it might have come from the devil's own bathtub. This open ground seemed wildly dangerous by comparison.


A new cry arose as the others faded, and it was closer than any that had come before it. Too close.


"Let's get inside," Sam said urgently.


Chrissie was beginning to admit to herself that she might not make a good Andre Norton heroine, after all. She was scared, cold, grainy-eyed with exhaustion, starting to feel sorry for herself, and hungry again. She was sick and tired of adventure. She yearned for warm rooms and lazy days with good books and trips to movie theaters and wedges of double-fudge cake. By this time a true adventure-story heroine would have worked out a series of brilliant stratagems that would have brought the beasts in Moonlight Cove to ruin, would have found a way to turn the robot-people into harmless car-washing machines, and would be well on her way to being crowned princess of the kingdom by acclamation of the respectful and grateful citizenry.


They hurried to the end of the field, rounded the bleachers, and crossed the deserted parking lot to the back of the school.


Nothing attacked them.


Thank you, God. Your friend, Chrissie.


Something howled again.


Sometimes even God seemed to have a perverse streak.


There were six doors at different places along the back of the school. They moved from one to another, as Sam tried them all and examined the locks in the hand-hooded beam of his flashlight. He apparently couldn't pick any of them, which disappointed her, because she'd imagined FBI men were so well trained that in an emergency they could open a bank vault with spit and a hairpin.


He also tried a few windows and spent what seemed a long time peering through the panes with his flashlight. He was examining not the rooms beyond but the inner sills and frames of the windows.


At the last door—which was the only one that had glass in the top of it, the others being blank rectangles of metal—Sam clicked off the flashlight, looked solemnly at Tessa, and spoke to her in a low voice. "I don't think there's an alarm system here. Could be wrong. But there's no alarm tape on the glass and, as far as I can see, no hard-wired contacts along the frames or at the window latches."


"Are those the only two kinds of alarms they might have?" Tessa whispered.


"Well, there're motion-detection systems, either employing sonic transmitters or electric eyes. But they'd be too elaborate for just a school, and probably too sensitive for a building like this."


"So now what?"


"Now I break a window."


Chrissie expected him to withdraw a roll of masking tape from a pocket of his coat and tape one of the panes to soften the sound of shattering glass and to prevent the shards from falling noisily to the floor inside. That was how they usually did it in books. But he just turned sideways to the door, drew his arm forward, then rammed it back and drove his elbow through the eight-inch-square pane in the lower-right corner of the window grid. Glass broke and clattered to the floor with an awful racket. Maybe he had forgotten to bring his tape.


He reached through the empty pane, felt for the locks, disengaged them, and went inside first. Chrissie followed him, trying not to step on the broken glass.


Sam switched on the flashlight. He didn't hood it quite so much as he had done outside, though he was obviously trying to keep the backwash of the beam off the windows.


They were in a long hallway. It was full of the cedar-pine smell that came from the crumbly green disinfectant and dust-attractor that for years the janitors had sprinkled on the floors and then swept up, until the tiles and walls had become impregnated with the scent. The aroma was familiar to her from Thomas Jefferson Elementary, and she was disappointed to find it here. She had thought of high school as a special, mysterious place, but how special or mysterious could it be if they used the same disinfectant as at the grade school?


Tessa quietly closed the outside door behind them.


They stood listening for a moment.


The school was silent.


They moved down the hall, looking into classrooms and lavatories and supply closets on both sides, searching for the computer lab. In a hundred and fifty feet they reached a junction with another hall. They stood in the intersection for a moment, heads cocked, listening again.


The school was still silent.


And dark. The only light in any direction was the flashlight, which Sam still held in his left hand but which he no longer hooded with his right. He had withdrawn his revolver from his holster and needed his right hand for that.


After a long wait, Sam said, "Nobody's here."


Which did seem to be the case.


Briefly Chrissie felt better, safer.


On the other hand, if he really believed they were the only people in the school, why didn't he put his gun away?


10


As he drove through his domain, impatient for midnight, which was still five hours away, Thomas Shaddack had largely regressed to a childlike condition. Now that his triumph was at hand, he could cast off the masquerade of a grown man, which he had so long sustained, and he was relieved to do so. He had never been an adult, really, but a boy whose emotional development had been forever arrested at the age of twelve, when the message of the moonhawk had not only come to him but been imbedded in him; he had thereafter faked emotional ascension into adulthood to match his physical growth.


But it was no longer necessary to pretend.


On one level, he had always known this about himself, and had considered it to be his great strength, an advantage over those who had put childhood behind them. A boy of twelve could harbor and nurture a dream with more determination than could an adult, for adults were constantly distracted by conflicting needs and desires. A boy on the edge of puberty, however, had the single-mindedness to focus on and dedicate himself unswervingly to a single Big Dream. Properly bent, a twelve-year-old boy was the perfect monomaniac.


The Moonhawk Project, his Big Dream of godlike power, would not have reached fruition if he had matured in the usual way. He owed his impending triumph to arrested development.


He was a boy again, not secretly any more but openly, eager to satisfy his every whim, to take whatever he wanted, to do anything that broke the rules. Twelve-year-old boys reveled in breaking the rules, challenging authority. At their worst, twelve-year-old boys were naturally lawless, on the verge of hormonal-induced rebellion.


But he was more than lawless. He was a boy flying on cactus candy that had been eaten long ago but that had left a psychic if not a physical residue. He was a boy who knew that he was a god. Any boy's potential for cruelty paled in comparison to the cruelty of gods.


To pass the time until midnight, he imagined what he would do with his power when the last of Moonlight Cove had fallen under his command. Some of his ideas made him shiver with a strange mixture of excitement and disgust.


He was on Iceberry Way when he realized the Indian was with him. He was surprised when he turned his head and saw Runningdeer sitting in the passenger seat. Indeed he stopped the van in the middle of the street and stared in disbelief, shocked and afraid.


But Runningdeer did not menace him. In fact the Indian didn't even speak to him or look at him, but stared straight ahead, through the windshield.


Slowly understanding came to Shaddack. The Indian's spirit was his now, his possession as surely as was the van. The great spirits had given him the Indian as an advisor, as a reward for having made a success of Moonhawk. But he, not Runningdeer, was in control this time, and the Indian would speak only when spoken to.


"Hello, Runningdeer," he said.


The Indian looked at him. "Hello, Little Chief."


"You're mine now."


"Yes, Little Chief."


For just a brief flicker of time, it occurred to Shaddack that he was mad and that Runningdeer was an illusion coughed up by a sick mind. But monomaniacal boys do not have the capacity for an extended examination of their mental condition, and the thought passed out of his mind as quickly as it had entered.


To Runningdeer, he said, "You'll do what I say."


"Always."


Immensely pleased, Shaddack let up on the brake pedal and drove on. The headlights revealed an amber-eyed thing of fantastic shape, drinking from a puddle on the pavement. He refused to regard it as a thing of consequence, and when it loped away, he let it vanish from his memory as swiftly as it disappeared from the night-mantled street.


Casting a sly glance at the Indian, he said, "You know one thing I'm going to do some day?"


"What's that, Little Chief?"


"When I've converted everyone, not just the people in Moonlight Cove but everyone in the world, when no one stands against me, then I'll spend some time tracking down your family, all of your remaining brothers, sisters, even your cousins, and I'll find all of their children, and all their wives and husbands, and all their children's wives and husbands … and I'll make them pay for your crimes, I'll really, really make them pay." A whining petulance had entered his voice. He disapproved of the tone he heard himself using, but he could not lose it. "I'll kill all the men, hack them to bloody bits and pieces, do it myself. I'll let them know that it's because of their relation to you that they've got to suffer, and they'll despise you and curse your name, they'll be sorry you ever existed. And I'll rape all the women and hurt them, hurt them all, really bad, and then I'll kill them too. What do you think of that? Huh?"


"If it's what you want, Little Chief."


"Damn right it's what I want."


"Then you may have it."


"Damn right I may have it."


Shaddack was surprised when tears came to his eyes. He stopped at an intersection and didn't move on. "It wasn't right what you did to me."


The Indian said nothing.


"Say it wasn't right!"


"It wasn't right, Little Chief."


"It wasn't right at all."


"It wasn't right."


Shaddack pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. He blotted his eyes. Soon his tears dried up.


He smiled at the nightscape revealed through the windshield. He sighed. He glanced at Runningdeer.


The Indian was staring forward, silent.


Shaddack said, "Of course, without you, I might never have been a child of the moonhawk."


11


The computer lab was on the ground floor, in the center of the building, near a confluence of corridors. Windows looked out on a courtyard but could not be seen from any street, which allowed Sam to switch on the overhead lights.


It was a large chamber, laid out like a language lab, with each VDT in its own three-sided cubicle. Thirty computers—upper end, hard-disk systems—were lined up along three walls and in a back-to-back row down the middle of the room.


Looking around at the wealth of hardware, Tessa said, "New Wave sure was generous, huh?"


"Maybe 'thorough' is a better word," Sam said.


He walked along a row of VDTs, looking for telephone lines and modems, but he found none.

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