Below, looking up at Jilly, at Dylan, at Shep, the radiant young woman in the fabulous white dress raised the bridal bouquet in her right hand, as though in tribute, in thanks, and the flowers blazed like the flames in a white-hot torch.
Perhaps the bride had been about to say something, but Jilly spoke first, with genuine sympathy. 'Honey, I'm so sorry about your wedding.'
Dylan said, 'Let's go.'
'Okay,' said Shep, and he folded them.
Here lay a true desert so seldom washed by rain that even the few small cactuses were stunted by an enduring thirst. The widely scattered and thinly grown bunch-grass colonies would be a seared blackish green in the winter; here in the summer, they were silver-brown and as crisp as parchment.
The landscape offered considerably more sand than vegetation, and significantly more rock than sand.
They stood on the western slope of a hill that terraced gently in serried layers of charred-brown and rust-red rock. Before them, in the near distance and at least to the midpoint of a wide plain, curious natural rock formations rose like remnants of a vast ancient fortress: here, three sort-of columns thirty feet in diameter and a hundred high, perhaps part of a might-have-been entry portico; there, the hundred-foot-long, eighty-foot-high, crumbling crenelated ruins of use-your-imagination battlements from which skilled bowmen might have defended the castle keep with rains of arrows; here, turreted towers; there, ramparts, bastions, a half-collapsed barbican.
Men had never lived in this hostile land, of course, but Nature had created a vista that encouraged fantasy.
'New Mexico,' Dylan told Jilly. 'I came here with Shep, painted this scene. October, four years ago this autumn, when the weather was friendlier. There's a dirt road just the other side of this hill, and a paved highway four miles back. Not that we'll need it.'
Currently this rockscape was a glowing forge where the white sun hammered into shape horseshoes of fire for those ghost riders in the sky that supposedly haunted these desert realms by night.
'If we get in the shade,' Dylan said, 'we can endure the heat long enough to gather our wits and figure out what the hell we're going to do next.'
Painted in dazzling shades of red, orange, purple, pink, and brown, the castellated formations were at this hour east of the sun, which had descended well past its apex. Their refreshing shadows, reaching toward this hillside, were the color of ripe plums.
Dylan led Jilly and Shepherd down the slope, then two hundred feet across flat land, to the base of an almost-could-be turreted tower suitable for an Arthurian tale. They sat side by side on a low bench of weather-smoothed stone, their backs to the tower.
The shade, the windless silence, the stillness of lifeless plain and birdless sky were such a relief that for a few minutes, none of them spoke.
Finally, Dylan raised what seemed to him to be if not the most immediate issue before them, then certainly the most important. 'Back there after he fell into the pews, when you said you were pissed, you meant it like you've never meant it before in your life – didn't you?'
She breathed the stillness for a while, gradually quelling the tumult within. Then: 'I don't know what you mean.'
'You know,' he insisted quietly.
She closed her eyes under the weight of the shade, tipped her head back against the tower wall, and tried to hold fast to her tiny piece of property in the great state of denial.
Eventually she said, 'Such a rage, such a white-hot fury, but not consuming, not stupid-making like anger can be, not negative... It was... it was...'
'A cleansing, exhilarating, righteous anger,' he suggested.
She opened her eyes. She looked at him. A bloodied demigoddess resting in the shade of the palace of Zeus.
Clearly, she didn't want to talk about this. She might even be afraid to talk about it.
She could no more avoid this subject, however, than she could go back to the comedy-club life that she had been leading less than one day ago. 'I wasn't just furious at those three evil bastards.... I was...'
When she reached for words and didn't at once find them, Dylan finished her thought, for he'd been the first of them to experience this righteous rage, all the way back on Eucalyptus Avenue, where Travis had been shackled and Kenny had hoped to put his collection of knives to bloody use; therefore, he'd been given more time to analyze it. 'You were not just furious at those evil bastards... but at evil itself, at the fact that evil exists, infuriated by the very idea of evil allowed to go unresisted, unchecked.'
'Good God, you've been inside my head, or I've been in yours.'
'Neither,' Dylan said. 'But tell me this... In the church, you understood the danger?'
'You knew that you might be shot, crippled for life, killed – but you did what had to be done.'
'There was nothing else to do.'
'There's always something else to do,' he disagreed. 'Run, for one thing. Give up, go away. Did you think about doing that?'
'But was there one moment, even one brief moment in the church, when you could have run?'
'Oh, man,' she said, and shuddered as she began to recognize the burden coming, the weight that they would never be able to put down until they were in the grave. 'Yeah, I could've run. Hell, yeah, I could've. I almost did.'
'All right, so maybe you could've. Maybe we still can run. But here's the thing... Was there one moment, even one brief moment, when you could have turned your back on your responsibility to save those people – and still lived with yourself?'
She stared at him.
He met her stare.
Finally she said, 'This sucks.'
'Well, it does and it doesn't.'
She thought about that for a moment, smiled shakily, and agreed: 'It does and it doesn't.'
'The new connections, the new neural pathways engineered by the nanomachines, have given us some clairvoyance, an imperfect talent for premonitions, the folding. But those aren't the only changes we've gone through.'
'Sort of wish they were the only changes.'
'Me too. But this righteous anger seems always to lead to an irresistible compulsion to act.'
'Irresistible,' she agreed. 'Compulsion, obsession, or something we don't have a term for.'
'And not merely a compulsion to act, but...'
He hesitated to add the last five words, which would express the truth that would shape the course of their lives.
'Okay,' said Shep.
Gazing out of the tower shade toward the blazing land, the kid said, 'Okay. Shep isn't afraid.'
'Okay then. Dylan isn't afraid, either.' He took a deep breath and finished what must be said: 'The righteous anger always leads to an all but irresistible compulsion to act regardless of the risks, and not merely a compulsion to act, but to do the right thing. We can exercise free will and turn away – but only at a cost in self-respect that's intolerable.'
'That couldn't have been what Lincoln Proctor expected,' Jilly said. 'The last thing a man like him would want was to be the father of a generation of do-gooders.'
'You'll get no argument from me. The man was slime. His visions were of an amoral master race that might make a more orderly world by cracking the whip on the rest of humanity.'
'Then why have we become... what we've become?'
'Maybe when we're born, all of us, our brains are already wired to know the right thing, to know always what we ought to do.'
'That's sure what my mama taught me,' Jilly said.
'So maybe the nanomachines just made some improvements in that existing circuit, redesigned it for less resistance, until now we're wired to do the right thing no matter what our preferences, no matter what our desires, regardless of the consequences to us, at any cost.'
Working her mind through it, formulating a final understanding of the code by which she was henceforth fated to live, Jilly said, 'From here on, every time I get a vision of violence or disaster—'
'And every time a psychic spoor reveals to me that someone is in trouble or up to no good—'
'—we'll be compelled—'
'—to save the day,' he finished, putting it in those words because he thought they might wring another smile from her, even if a feeble one.
He needed to see her smile.
Maybe her expression was what a smile might look like in the twisting influence of a funhouse mirror, but the sight of it didn't cheer him.
'I can't stop the visions,' she said. 'But you can wear gloves.'
He shook his head. 'Oh, I imagine I could go so far as to buy a pair. But putting them on to avoid learning about the plans of evil people or the troubles of good people? That would be the wrong thing to do, wouldn't it? I suppose I could buy the gloves, but I don't think I'd be able to put them on.'
'Wow,' said Shepherd, perhaps as a comment about all that they had said, perhaps as a comment on the desert heat, or maybe just in reaction to some event that had transpired on Shepworld, the planet of the high-functioning autistic, on which he had spent more of his life than he had spent on their common Earth. 'Wow.'
They had a great deal more to discuss, plans to make, but for the time being, none of them was able to summon the nerve or energy to continue. Shep couldn't even squeeze another wow out of himself.
The shade. The heat. The iron and silicate and ashy scents of superheated rock and sand.
Dylan imagined that the three of them might sit exactly where they were now, dreaming contentedly of good deeds already done at any cost, but never venturing forth to take new risks or to face new terrors, dreaming on and on until they petrified upon this rock bench like the trees in the Petrified Forest National Park in neighboring Arizona, thereafter to spend eons as three peacefully reclining stone figures here in the shade until discovered by archaeologists in the next millennium.
Eventually, Jilly said, 'What must I look like?'
'Lovely,' he assured her, and meant what he said.
'Yeah, right. My face feels stiff with dried blood.'
'The cut on your forehead is crusted shut. Just some grisly crusty stuff, some dried blood, but otherwise lovely. How's your hand?'
'Throbbing. But I'll live, which I guess is a plus.' She opened her purse, withdrew a compact, and examined her face in the small round mirror. 'Find me the Black Lagoon, I need to go home.'
'Nonsense. A little washup is all you need, and you'll be ready for the royal ball.'
'Hose me down or run me through a car wash.'
She searched her purse again and came up with a foil packet containing a moist towelette. She extracted the lemon-scented paper washcloth and carefully cleaned her face using the compact mirror for guidance.
Dylan settled back into his reverie of petrification.
Judging by his stillness, silence, and unblinking stare, Shep had a head start on this turning-into-stone business.
Moist towelettes were designed for freshening your hands after eating a Big Mac in the car. A single cloth proved insufficient to swab up a significant amount of dried blood.
'You should buy the extra-large, serial-killer-size towelettes,' Dylan said.
Jilly rummaged in her purse. 'I'm sure I have at least one more.' She unzipped one small interior side compartment, poked around, opened another side compartment. 'Oh. I forgot about these.'
She produced a bag of peanuts of the size dispensed by vending machines.
Dylan said, 'Shep would probably like some Cheez-Its if you have any, and I'm a little-chocolate-doughnut sort of guy.'
'These belonged to Proctor.'
Dylan grimaced. 'Probably laced with cyanide.'
'He dropped them in the parking lot outside my room. I picked them up just before I met you and Shep.'
Interrupting his effort at petrification, but continuing to stare into the hard radiation of sun-nuked stone and sand, Shepherd said, 'Cake?'
'No cake,' Dylan said. 'Peanuts.'
'We'll get cake soon.'
'Peanuts, Shep, and you know what peanuts are like – all round and shapey and disgusting. Here, look.' He took the bag of nuts from Jilly, intending to hold them in front of Shepherd's face, but the psychic spoor on the cellophane packet, under the pleasant trace left by Jilly, was still fresh enough to bring into his mind an image of Proctor's dreamy, evil smile. The smile came to him, but much more: an electrical, crackling, pandemoniacal, whirling shadow show of images and impressions.
He didn't realize he'd gotten up from the rock bench until he was on his feet and moving away from Jilly and Shep. He halted, swung toward them, and said, 'Lake Tahoe.'
'Nevada?' Jilly asked.
'Yeah. No. That Lake Tahoe, yes, but the north shore, on the California side.'
'What about it?'
Every nerve in his body seemed to be twitching. He had been seized by an irresistible compulsion to get moving. 'We've got to go there.'
'I don't know. But it's the right thing to do.'
'Damn, that makes me nervous.'
He returned to Jilly, drew her to her feet, and placed her uninjured hand over the hand in which he held the bag of peanuts. 'Can you feel it, what I feel, where it is?'
'Where what is?'
'The house. I see a house. This sort of Frank Lloyd Wright place overlooking the lake. Dramatic floating roofs, stacked-stone walls, lots of big windows. Nestled in among huge old pine trees. Do you feel where it is?'
'That's not my talent, it's yours,' she reminded him.
'You learned how to fold.'
'Yeah, started to learn, but I haven't learned this,' she said, withdrawing her hand.
Shepherd had risen from the rock bench. He put his right hand on the bag of peanuts, on Dylan's hand. 'House.'
'Yes, a house,' Dylan replied impatiently, his compulsion to act growing more powerful by the second. He danced from foot to foot like a child overcome by an urgent need to go to the bathroom. 'I see a house.'
'I see a house,' said Shep.
'I see a big house overlooking the lake.'
'I see a big house overlooking the lake,' said Shep.
'What're you doing, buddy?'