Page 43


The kitchen was illuminated only by the dismal light of the rain-darkened day that barely penetrated the windows. Evidently the vinyl flooring, wall-covering, and tile were of the palest hues for in that dimness everything seemed to be one shade of green or another.


He stood for almost a minute, listening intently.


A kitchen clock ticked.


Rain drummed on the patio cover.


His soaked hair was pasted to his forehead. He pushed it aside, out of his eyes.


When he moved, his wet shoes squished.


He went directly to the phone, which was mounted on the wall above a corner secretary. When he picked it up, he got no dial tone, but the line was not dead, either. It was filled with strange sounds clicking, low beeping, soft oscillations—all of which blended into mournful and alien music, an electro threnody.


The back of Sam's neck went cold.


Carefully, silently, he returned the handset to its cradle.


He wondered what sounds could be heard on a telephone that was being used as a link between two computers, with a modem. Was one of the Coltranes at work elsewhere in the house, tied in by a home computer to New Wave?


Somehow he sensed that what he had heard on the line was not as simply explained as that. It had been damned eerie.


A dining room lay beyond the kitchen. The two large windows were covered with gauzy sheers, which further filtered the ashen daylight. A hutch, buffet, table, and chairs were revealed as blocks of black and slate-gray shadows.


Again he stopped to listen. Again he heard nothing unusual.


The house was laid out in a classic California design, with no downstairs hall. Each room led directly to the next in an open and airy floorplan. Through an archway he entered the large living room, grateful that the house had wall-to-wall carpeting, on which his wet shoes made no sound.


The living room was less shadowy than any other part of the house that he had seen thus far, yet the brightest color was a pearly gray. The west windows were sheltered by the front porch, but rain streamed over those facing north. Leaden daylight, passing through the panes, speckled the room with the watery-gray shadows of the hundreds of beads that tracked down the glass, and Sam was so edgy that he could almost feel those small ameboid phantoms crawling over him.


Between the lighting and his mood, he felt as if he were in an old black-and-white movie. One of those bleak exercises in film noir.


The living room was deserted, but abruptly a sound came from the last room downstairs. At the southwest corner. Beyond the foyer. The den, most likely. It was a piercing trill that made his teeth ache, followed by a forlorn cry that was neither the voice of a man nor that of a machine but something in between, a semi-metallic voice wrenched by fear and twisted with despair. That was followed by low electronic pulsing, like a massive heartbeat.


Then silence.


He had brought up his revolver, holding it straight out in front of him, ready to shoot anything that moved. But everything was as still as it was silent.


The trill, the eerie cry, and the base throbbing surely could not be associated with the Boogeymen that he'd seen last night outside of Harry's house, or with the other shape-changers Chrissie described. Until now, an encounter with one of them had been the thing he feared most. But suddenly the unknown entity in the den was more frightening.


Sam waited.


Nothing more.


He had the queer feeling that something was listening for his movements as tensely as he was listening for it.


He considered returning to Harry's to think of some other way to send a message to the Bureau, because Mexican food and Guinness Stout and Goldie Hawn movies—even Swing Shift, now seemed precious beyond value, not pathetic reasons to live, but pleasures so exquisite that no words existed to adequately describe them.


The only thing that kept him from getting the hell out of there was Chrissie Foster. The memory of her bright eyes. Her innocent face. The enthusiasm and animation with which she had, recounted her adventures. Perhaps he had failed Scott, and perhaps it was too late for the boy to be hauled back from the brink. But Chrissie was still alive in every vital sense of the word—physically, intellectually, emotionally—and she was dependent on him. No one else could save her from conversion.


Midnight was little more than twelve hours away.


He edged through the living room and quietly crossed the, foyer. He stood with his back against the wall beside the half-open door to the room from which the weird sounds had come.


Something clicked in there.


He stiffened.


Low, soft clicks. Not the tick-tick-tick of claws like those he had heard tapping on the window last night. More like a long series of relays being tripped, scores of switches being closed dominoes falling against one another: click-click-click-clickety-clickety-click-click-clickety… .


Silence once more.


Holding the revolver in both hands, Sam stood in front of the door and pushed it open with one foot. He crossed the threshold and assumed a shooter's stance just inside the room.


The windows were covered by interior shutters, and the only light was from two computer screens. Both were fitted with monitors that resulted in black text on an amber background. Everything in the room not wrapped in shadows was touched by that golden radiance.


Two people sat before the terminals, one on the right side of the room, the other on the left, their backs to each other.


"Don't move," Sam said sharply.


They neither moved nor spoke. They were so still that at first he thought they were dead.


The peculiar light was brighter yet curiously less revealing from the half-burnt-out daylight that vaguely illuminated the other rooms. As his eyes adjusted, Sam saw that the two people at the computers were not only unnaturally still but were not really people any more. He was drawn forward by the icy grip of horror.


Oblivious of Sam, a na*ed man, probably Harley Coltrane, sat in a wheeled, swivel-based chair at the computer to the right of the door, against the west wall He was connected to the VDT by a pair of inch-thick cables that looked less metallic than organic, glistening wetly in the amber glow. They extended from within the bowels of the data-processing unit—from which the cover plate had been removed—and into the man's bare torso below his rib cage, melding bloodlessly with the flesh. They throbbed.


"Dear God," Sam whispered.


Coltrane's lower arms were utterly fleshless, just golden bones. The meat of his upper arms ended smoothly two inches above the elbows; from those stumps, bones thrust out as cleanly as robotic extrusions from a metal casing. The skeletal hands were locked tightly around the cables, as if they were merely a pair of clamps.


When Sam stepped nearer to Coltrane and looked closer, he saw the bones were not as well differentiated as they should have been but had half melted together. Furthermore, they were veined with metal. As he watched, the cables pulsed with such vigor that they began to vibrate wildly. If not held fast by the clamping hands, they might have torn loose either from the man or the machine.


Get out.


A voice spoke within him, telling him to flee, and it was his own voice, though not that of the adult Sam Booker. It was the voice of the child he had once been and to which his fear was encouraging him to revert. Extreme terror is a time machine thousand times more efficient than nostalgia, hurtling us backward through the years, into that forgotten and intolerable condition of helplessness in which so much of childhood is spent.


Get out, run, run, get out!


Sam resisted the urge to bolt.


He wanted to understand. What was happening? What had, these people become? Why? What did this have to do with the Boogeymen who prowled the night? Evidently through microtechnology Thomas Shaddack had found a way to alter, radically and forever, human biology. That much was clear to Sam, but knowing just that and nothing else was like sensing that something lived within the sea without ever having seen a fish. so much more lay beneath the surface, mysterious.


Get out.


Neither the man before him nor the woman across the room seemed remotely aware of him. Apparently he was in no imminent danger.


Run, said the frightened boy within.


Rivers of data—words, numbers, charts and graphs of myriad types—flowed in a flood-like rampage across the amber screen, while Harley Coltrane stared unwaveringly at that darkly flickering display. He could not have seen it as an ordinary man would have, for he had no eyes. They'd been torn from his sockets and replaced by a cluster of other sensors tiny beads of ruby glass, small knots of wire, waffle-surfaced chips of some ceramic material, all bristling and slightly recessed in the deep black holes in his scull.


Sam was holding the revolver in only one hand now. He kept his finger on the trigger guard rather than on the trigger itself, for he was shaking so badly that he might unintentionally let off a shot.


The man-machine's chest rose and fell. His mouth hung open, and bitterly foul breath rushed from him in rhythmic waves.


A rapid pulse was visible in his temples and in the gruesomely swollen arteries in his neck. But other pulses throbbed where none should have been in the center of his forehead; along each jawline; at four places in his chest and belly; in his upper arms, where dark ropy vessels had thickened and risen above subcutaneous fat, sheathed now only by his skin. His circulatory system seemed to have been redesigned and augmented to assist new functions that his body was being called upon to perform. Worse Yet, those pulses beat in a strange syncopation, as if at least two hearts pounded within him.


A shriek erupted from the thing's gaping mouth, and Sam twitched and cried out in surprise. This was akin to the unearthly sounds that he had heard while in the living room, that had drawn him here, but he had thought they'd come from the computer.


Grimacing as the electronic wail spiraled higher and swelled into painful decibels, Sam let his gaze rise from the man-machine's open mouth to its "eyes." The sensors still bristled in the sockets. The beads of ruby glass glowed with inner light, and Sam wondered if they registered him on the infrared spectrum or by some other means. Did Coltrane see him at all? Perhaps the man-machine had traded the human world for a different reality, moving from this physical plane to another level, and perhaps Sam was an irrelevancy to him, unnoticed.


The shriek began to fade, then cut off abruptly.


Without realizing what he'd done, Sam had raised his revolver and, from a distance of about eighteen inches, pointed it at Harley Coltrane's face. He was startled to discover that he also had slipped his finger off the guard and onto the trigger itself and that he was going to destroy this thing.


He hesitated. Coltrane was, after all, still a man—at least to some extent. Who was to say that he didn't desire his current state more than life as an ordinary human being? Who was to say that he was not happy like this? Sam was uneasy in the role of judge, but an even uneasier executioner. As a man who believed that life was hell on earth, he had to consider the possibility that Coltrane's condition was an improvement, an escape.


Between man and computer, the glistening, semiorganic cables thrummed. They rattled against the skeletal hands in which they were clamped.


Coltrane's rank breath was redolent with both the stench of rotting meat and overheated electronic components.


Sensors glistened and moved within the lidless eye sockets.


Tinted gold by the light from the screen, Coltrane's face seemed to be frozen in a perpetual scream. The vessels pulsing in his jaws and temples looked less like reflections of his own heartbeat than like parasites squirming under his skin.


With a shudder of revulsion, Sam squeezed the trigger. The blast was thunderous in that confined space.


Coltrane's head snapped back with the impact of the point-blank shot, then dropped forward, chin on his chest, smoking and bleeding.


The repulsive cables continued to swell and shrink and swell as if with the rhythmic passage of inner fluid.


Sam sensed that the man was not entirely dead. He turned the gun on the computer screen.


One of Coltrane's skeletal hands released the cable around which it had been firmly clamped. With a click-snick-snack of bare bones, it whipped up and seized Sam's wrist.


Sam cried out.


The room filled with electronic clicks and snaps and beeps and warblings.


The hellish hand held him fast and with such tremendous strength that the bony fingers pinched his flesh, then began to cut through it. He felt warm blood trickle down his arm, under his shirt sleeve. With a flash of panic he realized that the unhuman power of the man-machine was ultimately sufficient to crush his wrist and leave him crippled. At best his hand would swiftly go numb from lack of circulation, and the revolver would drop from his grasp.


Coltrane was struggling to raise his half-shattered head.


Sam thought of his mother in the wreckage of the car, face torn open, grinning at him, grinning, silent and unmoving but, grinning… .


Frantically he kicked at Coltrane's chair, hoping to send it rolling and spinning away. The wheels had been locked.


The bony hand squeezed tighter, and Sam screamed. His vision blurred.


Still, he saw that Coltrane's head was coming up slowly. slowly.


Jesus, I don't want to see that ruined face!


With his right foot, putting everything he had into the kick, Sam struck once, twice, three times at the cables between Coltrane and the computer. They tore loose from Coltrane, popping out of his flesh with a hideous sound, and the man slumped in, his chair. Simultaneously the skeletal hand opened and fell away from Sam's wrist. With a cold rattle it struck the hard plastic mat under the chair.


Bass electronic pulses thumped like soft drumbeats and echoed off the walls, while under them a thin bleat wavered continuously through three notes.


Gasping and half in shock, Sam clamped his left hand around his bleeding wrist, as if that would still the stinging pain.


Something brushed against his leg.


He looked down and saw the semiorganic cables, like pale headless snakes, still attached to the computer and full of malevolent life. They seemed to have grown, as well, until they were twice the length they had been when linking Coltrane to the machine. One snared his left ankle, and the other curled sinuously around his right calf.


He tried to tear loose.


They held him fast.


They twined up his legs.


Instinctively he knew they were seeking bare flesh on the upper half of his body, and that upon contact they would burrow into him and make him part of the system.


He was still holding the revolver in his blood-slicked right hand. He aimed at the screen.


Data was no longer flowing across that amber field. Instead, Coltrane's face looked out from the display. His eyes had been restored, and it seemed as if he could see Sam, for he was looking directly at him and speaking to him:


"… need … need … want, need … ."


Without understanding a damned thing about it, Sam knew Coltrane was still alive. He had not died—or at least not all of him had perished—with his body. He was there, in the machine somehow.

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