Shaddack had chosen his proving ground well. Moonlight Cove was relatively isolated and therefore easier to control.
Loman was of a mind to order the roadblocks dismantled, and to drive over to Aberdeen Wells, where he could spill their whole story to the county sheriff. He wanted to blow the Moonhawk Project wide open.
He was no longer afraid of Shaddack's rage or of dying. Well… not true. He was afraid of Shaddack and of death, but they held less fear for him than the prospect of becoming something like Denny had become. He would have as soon entrusted himself to the mercies of the sheriff in Aberdeen and the federal authorities—even scientists who, while cleaning up the mess in Moonlight Cove, might be sorely tempted to dissect him—than stay in town and inevitably surrender the last few fragments of his humanity either to regression or to some nightmare wedding of his body and mind with a computer.
But if he ordered his officers to stand down, they would be suspicious, and their loyalty lay more with Shaddack than with him, for they were bound to Shaddack by terror. They were still more frightened of their New Wave master than of anything else, for they had not seen what Denny had become and did not yet guess that their future might hold in store something even worse than regression to a savage state. Like Moreau's beastmen, they kept The Law as best they could, not daring—at least for now—to betray their maker. They would probably try to stop Loman from sabotaging the Moonhawk Project, and he might wind up dead or, worse, locked in a jail cell.
He couldn't risk revealing his counterrevolutionary commitment, for then he might never have a chance to deal with Shaddack. In his mind's eye he saw himself caged at the jail, with Shaddack smiling coldly at him through the bars, as they wheeled in a computer with which they somehow intended to fuse him.
Molten silver eyes …
He kept on the move in the rain-hammered day, squinting through the streaked windshield. The wipers thumped steadily, as though ticking off time. He was acutely aware that midnight was drawing nearer.
He was the puma-man, on the prowl, and Moreau was out there in the island jungle that was Moonlight Cove.
Initially the protean creature was content to feed on the things it found when it extended thin tendrils of itself down the drain in the cellar floor or through fine cracks in the walls and into the moist surrounding earth. Beetles. Grubs. Earthworms. It no longer knew the names of those things, but it avidly consumed them.
Soon, however, it depleted the supply of insects and worms within ten yards of the house. It needed a more substantial meal.
It churned, seethed, perhaps striving to marshal its amorphous tissues into a shape in which it could leave the cellar and seek prey. But it had no memory of previous forms and no desire whatsoever to impose structural order on itself.
The consciousness which inhabited that jellied mass no longer had more than the dimmest sense of self-awareness, yet it was still able to remake itself to an extent that would satisfy its needs. Suddenly a score of lipless, toothless mouths opened in that fluid form. A blast of sound, mostly beyond the range of human hearing, erupted from it.
Throughout the moldering structure above the shapeless beast, dozens of mice were scurrying, nibbling at food, nest-building, and grooming themselves. They stopped, as one, when the call blared up from the cellar.
The creature could sense them above, in the crumbling walls, though it thought of them not as mice but as small warm masses of living flesh. Food. Fuel. It wanted them. It needed them.
It attempted to express that need in the form of a wordless but compelling summons.
In every corner of the house, mice twitched. They brushed at, their faces with forepaws, as if they'd scurried through cobwebs and were trying to scrape those clingy, gossamer strands out of their fur.
A small colony of eight bats lived in the attic, and they also reacted to the urgent call. They dropped from the rafters on which they hung, and flew in frenzied, random patterns in the long upper room, repeatedly swooping within a fraction of an inch of the walls and one another.
But nothing came to the creature in the basement. Though the call had reached the small animals for which it had been intended, it did not have the desired effect.
The shapeless thing fell silent.
Its many mouths closed.
One by one the bats returned to their perches in the attic.
The mice sat as if in shock for a moment, then resumed their usual activities.
A couple of minutes later, the protean beast tried again with a different pattern of sounds, still pitched beyond human hearing but more alluring than before.
The bats flung themselves from their perches and rolled through the attic in such turmoil that an observer might have thought they numbered a hundred instead of only eight. The beating of their wings was louder than the rush of rain on the roof.
Everywhere, mice rose on their hind feet, sitting at attention, ears pricked. Those in the lower reaches of the house, nearer the source of the summons, shivered violently, as though they saw before them a crouched and grinning cat.
Screeching, the bats swooped through a hole in the attic floor, into an empty room on the second story, where they circled and soared and dove ceaselessly.
Two mice on the ground floor began to creep toward the kitchen, where the door to the basement stood open. But both stopped on the threshold of that room, frightened and confused.
Below, the shapeless entity tripled the power of its call.
One of the mice in the kitchen suddenly bled from the ears and fell dead.
Upstairs, the bats began to bounce off walls, their radar shot.
The cellar dweller cut back somewhat on the force of its summons.
The bats immediately swooped out of the upstairs room, into the hallway, down the stairwell, and along the ground-floor hall. As they went, they flew over a double score of scurrying mice.
Below, the creature's many mouths had connected, forming one large orifice in the center of the pulsing mass.
In swift succession the bats flew straight into that gaping maw like black playing cards being tossed one at a time into a waste can. They embedded themselves in the oozing protoplasm and were swiftly dissolved by powerful digestive acids.
An army of mice and four rats—even two chipmunks that eagerly abandoned their nest inside the dining-room walls swarmed down the steep cellar steps, falling over one another, squeaking excitedly. They fed themselves to the waiting entity.
After that flurry of movement, the house was still.
The creature stopped its siren song. For the moment.
Officer Neil Penniworth was assigned to patrol the northwest quadrant of Moonlight Cove. He was alone in the car because even with the hundred New Wave employees detailed to the police department during the night, their manpower was stretched thin.
Right now, he preferred to work without a partner. Since the episode at Peyser's house, when the smell of blood and the sight of Peyser's altered form had enticed Penniworth to regress, he had been afraid to be around other people. He had avoided total degeneration last night … but only by the thinnest of margins. If he witnessed someone else in the act of regression, the urge might stir within him, too, and this time he was not sure that he could successfully repress that dark yearning.
He was equally afraid to be alone. The struggle to hold fast to his remaining shreds of humanity, to resist chaos, to be responsible, was wearying, and he longed to escape this new, hard life. Alone, with no one to see him if he began to surrender the very form and substance of himself, with no one to talk him out of it or even to protest his degeneration, he would be lost.
The weight of his fear was as real as a slab of iron, crushing the life out of him. At times he had difficulty drawing breath, as though his lungs were banded by steel and restricted from full expansion.
The dimensions of the black-and-white seemed to shrink, until he felt almost as confined as he would have been in a straitjacket. The metronomic thump of the windshield wipers grew louder, at least to his ears, until the volume was as thunderous as an endless series of cannon volleys. Repeatedly during the morning and early afternoon, he pulled off the road, flung open the door, and scrambled out into the rain, drawing deep breaths of the cool air.
As the day progressed, however, even the world outside of the car began to seem smaller than it had been. He stopped on Holliwell Road, half a mile west of New Wave's headquarters, and got out of the cruiser, but he felt no better. The low roof of storm clouds denied him the sight of the limitless sky. Like semitransparent curtains of tinsel and thinnest silk, the rain and fog hung between him and the rest of the world. The humidity was cloying, stifling. Rain overflowed gutters, churned in muddy torrents through roadside ditches, dripped from every branch and leaf of every tree, pattered on the macadam pavement, tapped hollowly on the patrol car, sizzled, gurgled, chuckled, snapped against his face, beat upon him with such force that it seemed he was being driven to his knees by thousands of tiny hammers, each too small to be effective in itself but with brutal cumulative effect.
Neil clambered back into the car with as much eagerness as he had scrambled out of it.
He understood that it was neither the claustrophobic interior of the cruiser nor the enervating enwrapment of the rain that he was desperately trying to escape. The actual oppressor was his life as a New Person. Able to feel only fear, he was locked in an emotional closet of such unendurably narrow dimensions that he could not move at all. He was not suffocating because of external entanglements and constrictions; rather, he was bound from within, because of what Shaddack had made of him.
Which meant there was no escape.
Except, perhaps, by regression.
Neil could not bear life as he must now live it. On the other hand he was repelled and terrified by the thought of devolution into some subhuman form.
His dilemma appeared irresoluble.
He was as distressed by his inability to stop thinking about his predicament as he was by the predicament itself. It pried constantly at his mind. He could find no surcease.
The closest he came to being able to put his worry—and some of his fear—out of mind was when he was working with the mobile VDT in the patrol car. When he checked the computer bulletin board to see if messages awaited him, when he accessed the Moonhawk schedule to learn how conversions were progressing, or undertook any other task with the computer, his attention became so focused on the interaction with the machine that briefly his anxiety subsided and his nagging clostrophobia faded.
From adolescence, Neil had been interested in computing, although he had never become a hacker. His interest was more obsessive than that. He'd started with computer games, of course but later had been given an inexpensive PC. Later still he had bought a modem with some of the money earned at a job. Though he could not afford much long-distance time and never spent leisurely hours using the modem far from the backwaters of Moonlight Cove into the data nets available in the outside world, he found his on-line systems engrossing and fun.
Now, as he sat in the parked car along Holliwell Road, and used the VDT, he thought that the inner world of the computer was admirably clean, comparatively simple, predictable, and sane. So unlike human existence—whether that of New People or Old. In there, logic and reason ruled. Cause and effect and side-effects were always analyzed and made perfectly clear. In there, all was black and white—or, when gray, the gray was carefully ensured, quantified and qualified. Cold facts were easier to deal with than feelings. A universe formed purely of data, abstract from matter and event, seemed so much more desirable than real universe of cold and heat, sharp and blunt, smooth rough, blood and death, pain and fear.
Calling up menu after menu, Neil probed ever deeper into the Moonhawk research files within Sun. He needed none of the data that he summoned forth but found solace in the process of obtaining it.
He began to see the terminal screen not as a cathode-ray tube on which information was displayed, but as a window into another world. A world of facts. A world free of troubling contradictions … and responsibility. In there, nothing could be felt. there was only the known and the unknown, either an abundance of facts about a particular subject or a dearth of them, but not feeling; never feeling; feeling was the curse of those whose existence was dependent upon flesh and bone.
A window into another world.
He touched the screen.
He wished the window could be opened and that he could go through it to that place of reason, order, peace.
With the fingertips of his right hand, he traced circles across the warm glass screen.
Strangely, he thought of Dorothy, swept up from the plains of Kansas with her dog Toto, spun high into the tornado, and out of that depression-era grayness into a world far more intriguing. If only some electronic tornado could erupt from the VDT and carry him to a better place …
His fingers passed through the screen.
He snatched his hand back in astonishment.
The glass had not ruptured. Chains of words and numbers glowed on the tube, as before.
At first he tried to convince himself that what he had seen had been a hallucination. But he did not believe that.
He flexed his fingers. They appeared unhurt.
He looked out at the storm-swept day. The windshield wipers were not switched on. Rain rippled down the glass, distorting the world beyond; everything out there looked twisted, mutated, strange. There could never be order, sanity, and peace in such a place as that.
Tentatively he touched the computer screen once more. It felt solid.
Again, he thought of how desirable the clean, predictable world of the computer would be—and as before his hand slipped through the glass, up to the wrist this time. The screen had opened around him and sealed tight to him, as if it were an organic membrane. The data continued to blaze on the tube, the Words and numbers forming lines around his intruding hand.
His heart was racing. He was afraid but also excited.
He tried to wiggle his fingers in that mysterious, inner warmth. He could not feel them. He began to think they had dissolved or been cut off, and that when he withdrew his hand from the machine, the stump of his wrist would spout blood.
He withdrew it anyway.
His hand was whole.
But it was not quite a hand any more. The flesh on the upper sides from the tips of his fingernails to his wrist, appeared to be veined with copper and threads of glass. In those glass filaments beat a steady and luminous pulse.
He turned his hand over. The undersides of his fingers and his palm resembled the surface of a cathode-ray tube. Data burned there, green letters on a background glassy and dark. When he compared the words and numbers on his hand to those on the car's VDT, he saw they were identical. The information on the VDT changed; simultaneously, so did that on his hand.
Abruptly, he understood that regression into bestial form was not the only avenue of escape open to him, that he could enter, into the world of electronic thought and magnetic memory, of knowledge without fleshly desire, of awareness without feeling. This was not an insight strictly—or even primarily—intellectual in nature. It wasn't just instinctive understanding, either. On some level more profound than either intellect or instinct, he knew that he could remake himself more thoroughly than even Shaddack had remade him.
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