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Jim was getting impatient now. "Why would it lie to us, what would it have to gain from lies?" "I don't know. But we can't be sure that it isn't manipulating us.


And when it comes back, like it promised, I want to be ready for it. I want to spend the next hour or two or three-however long we've got-making a list of questions, so we can put it through a carefully planned inquisition.


We've got to have a strategy for squeezing real information from it, facts not fantasies, and our questions have to support that strategy.”


When he frowned, she hastened on before he could interrupt.


"Okay, all right, maybe it's incapable of lying, maybe it's noble and pure, maybe everything it's told us is the gospel truth. But listen, Jim, this is not an epiphany. The Friend set the rules by influencing you to buy the tablets and pen. It established the question-and-answer format. If it didn't want us to make the best of that format, it would've just told you to shut up and would've blabbered at you from a burning bush!" He stared at her. He chewed his lip thoughtfully.


He shifted his gaze to the walls where the creature of light had swum in the stone.


Pressing her point, Holly said, "You never even asked it why it wants you to save people's lives, or why some people and not others.”


He looked at her again, obviously surprised to realize that he had not pursued the answer to the most important question of all. In the lactescent glow of the softly hissing gas lantern, his eyes were blue again, not green as the amber light had temporarily made them. And troubled.


"Okay," he said. "You're right. I guess I was just swept away by it all. I mean, Holly, whatever the hell it is-it's astounding.”


"It's astounding," she acknowledged.


"We'll do what you want, make up a list of carefully thought-out questions. And when it comes back, you should be the one to ask all of them, 'cause you'll be better at ad-libbing other questions if it says anything that needs follow-up.”


"I agree," she said, relieved that he had suggested it without being pressured.


She was better schooled at interviewing than he was, but she was also more trustworthy in this particular situation than Jim could ever be.


The Friend had a long past relationship with him and had, admittedly, already messed with his memory by making him forget about the encounters they'd had twenty-five years ago. Holly had to assume that Jim was coopted, to one degree or another corrupted, though he could not realize it.


The Friend had been in his mind perhaps on scores or hundreds of occasions, when he had been at a formative age, and when he had been particularly vulnerable due to the loss of his parents, therefore even more susceptible to manipulation and control than most ten-year-old boys. On a subconscious level, Jim Ironheart might be programmed to protect The Friend's secrets rather than help to reveal them.


Holly knew she was walking a thread-thin line between judicious precaution and paranoia, might even be treading more on the side of the latter than the former. Under the circumstances, a little paranoia was a prescription for survival.


When he said he was going outside to relieve himself, however, she much preferred to be with him than alone in the high room. She followed him downstairs and stood by the Ford with her back to him while he peed against the split-rail fence beside the cornfield.


She stared out at the deep black pond.


She listened to the toads, which were singing again. So were the cicadas.


The events of the day had rattled her. Now even the sounds of nature seemed malevolent.


She wondered if they had come up against something too strange and too powerful to be dealt with by just a failed reporter and an ex-schoolteacher. She wondered if they ought to leave the farm right away. She wondered if they would be allowed to leave.


Since the departure of The Friend, Holly's fear had not abated. If anything, it had increased. She felt as if they were living under a thousand-ton weight that was magically suspended by a single human hair, but the magic was weakening and the hair was stretched as taut and brittle as a filament of glass.


By midnight, they had eaten six chocolate doughnuts and composed seven pages of questions for The Friend. Sugar was an energizer and a consolation in times of trouble, but it was no help to already-frayed nerves.


Holly's anxiety had a sharp refined-sugar edge to it now, like a wellstropped razor.


Pacing with the tablet in her hand, Holly said, "And we're not going to let it get away with written answers this time. That just slows down the give and take between interviewer and interviewee. We're going to insist that it talk to us.”


Jim was lying on his back, his hands folded behind his head. "It can't talk.”


"How do you know that?" "Well, I'm assuming it can't, or otherwise it would've talked right from the start.”


"Don't assume anything," she said. "If it can mix its molecules with the wall, swim through stone-through anything, if it's to be believed-and if it can assume any form it wishes, then it can sure as hell form a mouth and vocal cords and talk like any self respecting higher power.”


"I guess you're right," he said uneasily.


"It already said that it could appear to us as a man or woman if it wanted, didn't it?" "Well, yeah.”


"I'm not even asking for a flashy materialization. Just a voice, a disembodied voice, a little sound with the old lightshow.”


Listening to herself as she talked, Holly realized that she was using her edginess to pump herself, to establish an aggressive tone that would serve her well when The Friend returned. It was an old trick she had learned when she had interviewed people whom she found imposing or intimidating.


Jim sat up. "Okay, it could talk if it wanted to, but maybe it doesn't want to.”


"We already decided we can't let it set all the rules, Jim.”


"But I don't understand why we have to antagonize it.”


"I'm not antagonizing it.”


"I think we should be at least a little respectful.”


"Oh, I respect the hell out of it.”


"You don't seem to.”


"I'm convinced it could squash us like bugs if it wanted to, and that gives me tremendous respect for it.”


"That's not the kind of respect I mean.”


"That's the only kind of respect it's earned from me so far," she said, pacing around him now instead of back and forth. "When it stops trying to manipulate me, stops trying to scare the crap out of me, starts giving me answers that ring true, then maybe I'll respect it for other reasons.”


"You're getting a little spooky," he said.


"Me?" "You're so hostile.”


"I am not.”


He was frowning at her. "Looks like blind hostility to me.”


"It's adversarial journalism. It's the modern reporter's tone and theme.


You don't question your subject and later explain him to readers, you attack him. You have an agenda, a version of the truth you want to report regardless of the full truth, and you fulfill it. I never approved of it, never indulged in it, which is why I was always losing out on stories and promotions to other reporters. Now, here, tonight, I'm all for the attack part.


The big difference is, I do care about getting to the truth, not shaping it, and I just want to twist and yank some real facts out of this alien of ours.”


"Maybe he won't show up.”


"He said he would.”


Jim shook his head. "But why should he if you're going to be like this?" "You're saying he might be afraid of me? What kind of higher power is that?" The bells rang, and she jumped in alarm.


Jim got to his feet. "Just take it easy.”


The bells fell silent, rang again, fell silent. When they rang a third time, a sullen red light appeared at one point in the wall. It grew more intense, assumed a brighter shade, then suddenly burst across the domed room like a blazing fireworks display, after which the bells stopped ringing and the multitude of sparks coalesced into the pulsing, constantly moving amoebalike forms that they had seen before.


"Very dramatic," Holly said. As the light swiftly progressed from red through orange to amber, she seized the initiative. "We would like you to dispense with the cumbersome way you answered our questions previously and simply speak to us directly.”


The Friend did not reply.


"Will you speak to us directly?" No response.


Consulting the tablet that she held in one hand, she read the first question. "Are you the higher power that has been sending Jim on life-saving missions?" She waited.


Silence.


She tried again.


Silence.


Stubbornly, she repeated the question.


The Friend did not speak, but Jim said, "Holly, look at this.”


She turned and saw him examining the other tablet. He held it toward her, flipping through the first ten or twelve pages. The eerie and inconstant light from the stone was bright enough to show her that the pages were filled with The Friend's familiar printing.


Taking the tablet from him, she looked at the first line on the top page: YES. I AM THAT POWER.


Jim said, "He's already answered every one of the questions we've pre pared.”


Holly threw the tablet across the room. It hit the far window without breaking the glass, and clattered to the floor.


"Holly, you can't" She cut him off with a sharp look.


The light moved through the transmuted limestone with greater agitation than before.


To The Friend, Holly said, "God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone, yeah, but He also had the courtesy to talk to him.


If God can humble Himself to speak directly with human beings, then so can you.”


She did not look to see how Jim was reacting to her adversarial tactics.


All she cared about was that he not interrupt her.


When The Friend remained silent, she repeated the first question on her list. "Are you the higher power that has been sending Jim on life-saving missions?" "Yes. I am that power" The voice was a soft, mellifluous baritone. Like the ringing of the bells, it seemed to come from all sides of them. The Friend did not materialize out of the wall in human form, did not sculpt a face from the limestone, but merely produced its voice out of thin air.


She asked the second question on her list. "How can you know these people are about to die?" "I am an entity that lives in all aspects of time. " "What do you mean by that?" "Past present, and future.”


"You can foresee the future?" "I live in the future as well as in the past and present" The light was coruscating through the walls with less agitation now, as if the alien presence had accepted her conditions and was mellow again.


Jim moved to her side. He put a hand on her arm and squeezed gently, as if to say "good work.”


She decided not to ask for any more clarification on the issue of its ability to see the future, for fear they would be off on a tangent and never get back on track before the creature next announced that it was depart. She returned to the prepared questions. "Why do you want these particular people saved?" "To help mankind" it said sonorously. There might have been a note of pomposity in it, too, but that was hard to tell because the voice was so evenly modulated, almost machinelike.


"But when so many people are dying every day-and most of them an innocents-why have you singled out these particular people to be rescued?" "They are special people. " "In what way are they special?" "If allowed to live each of them will make a major contribution to the betterment of mankind." Jim said, "I'll be damned.”


Holly had not been expecting that answer. It had the virtue of being fresh. But she was not sure she believed it. For one thing, she was bothered that The Friend's voice was increasingly familiar to her.


She was sure she had heard it before, and in a context that undermined its credibility now, in spite of its deep and authoritative tone. "Are you saying you not only see the future as it will be but as it might have been?" "Yes" "Aren't we back to your being God now?" "No. I do not see as clearly as God. But I see" In his boyish best humor again, Jim smiled at the kaleidoscopic patterns of light, obviously excited and pleased by all that he was hearing.


Holly turned away from the wall, crossed the room, squatted beside her suitcase, and opened it.


Jim loomed over her. "What're you doing?" "Looking for this," she said, producing the notebook in which she had chronicled the discoveries she'd made while researching him. She got up, opened the notebook, and paged to the list of people whose lives he had saved prior to Flight 246. Addressing the entity throbbing through the limestone, she said, "May fifteenth. Atlanta, Georgia. Sam Newsome and his five-year-old daughter Emily. What are they going to contribute to humanity that makes them more important than all the other people who died that day?" No answer was forthcoming.


"Well?" she demanded.


"Emily will become a great scientist and discover a cure for a major disease" Definitely a note of pomposity this time.


"What disease?" "Why do you not believe me Miss Thorne?" The Friend spoke as formally as an English butler on duty, yet in that response, Holly felt she heard the subtle pouting tone of a child under the dignified, reserved sur She said, "Tell me what disease, and maybe I'll believe you.”


"Cancer" "Which cancer? There are all types of cancer.”


"All cancers" She referred to her notebook again. "June seventh.


Corona, California Louis Andretti.”


"He will father a child who will grow up to become a great diplomat. " Better than dying of multiple rattlesnake bites, she thought.


She said, "June twenty-first. New York City. Thaddeus" "He will become a great artist whose work will give millions of people hope.”


"He seemed like a nice kid," Jim said happily, buying into the whole thing. "I liked him.”


Ignoring him, Holly said, "June thirtieth. San Francisco-" "Rachael Steinberg will give birth to a child who will become a great h spiritual leader" That voice was bugging her. She knew she had heard it before. But where? "July fifth-" "Miami; Florida. Carmen Diaz She will give birth to a child who will become president of the United States" Holly fanned herself with the notebook and said, "Why not president of the world?" "July fourteenth. Houston, Texas. Amanda Cutter She will give birth to a child who will &be a great peacemaker" "Why not the Second Coming?" Holly asked.

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