Page 48


He lowered his hand from the tilted computer screen to the data-processing unit in the console between the seats. As easily as he had penetrated the glass, he let his hand slide through the keyboard and cover plate, into the guts of the machine.


He was like a ghost, able to pass through walls, ectoplasmic.


A coldness crept up his arm.


The data on the screen were replaced by cryptic patterns of light.


He leaned back in his seat.


The coldness had reached his shoulder. It flowed into his neck.


He sighed.


He felt something happening to his eyes. He wasn't sure what. He could have looked at the rearview mirror. He didn't care. He decided to close his eyes and let them become whatever, was necessary as part of this second and more complete conversion.


This altered state was infinitely more appealing than that of the regressive. Irresistible.


The coldness was in his face now. His mouth was numb.


Something also was happening inside his head. He was becoming as aware of the inner geography of his brain circuits and synapses as he was of the exterior world. His body was not as much a part of him as it had once been; he sensed less through it, as if his nerves had been mostly abraded away; he could not tell if it was warm or chilly in the car unless he concentrated on accumulating that data. His body was just a machine after all, and a rack for sensors, designed to protect and serve the inner him, the calculating mind.


The coldness was inside his skull.


It felt like scores, then hundreds, then thousands of ice-cold spiders scurrying over the surface of his brain, burrowing into it.


Suddenly he remembered that Dorothy had found Oz to be a living nightmare and ultimately had wanted desperately to find her way back to Kansas. Alice, too, had found madness and terror down the rabbit hole, beyond the looking-glass… .


A million cold spiders.


inside his skull.


A billion.


Cold, cold.


Scurrying.


33


Still circling through Moonlight Cove, seeking Shaddack, Loman saw two regressives sprint across the street.


He was on Paddock Lane, at the southern end of town, where the Properties were big enough for people to keep horses. Ranch houses lay on both sides, with small private stables beside or behind them. The homes set back from the street, behind splitrail or white ranch fencing, beyond deep and lushly landscaped lawns.


The pair of regressives erupted from a dense row of mature three-foot-high azaleas that were still bushy but flowerless this late in the season. They streaked on all fours across the roadway, leaped a ditch, and crashed through a hedgerow, vanishing behind it.


Although immense pines were lined up along both sides of Paddock Lane, adding their shadows to the already darkish day, Loman was sure of what he had seen. They had been modeled after dream creatures rather than any single animal of the real world: part wolf, perhaps, part cat, part reptile. They were swift and looked powerful. One of them had turned its head toward him, and in the shadows its eyes had glowed as pink-red as those of a rat.


He slowed but did not stop. He no longer cared about identifying and apprehending regressives. For one thing, he'd already identified them to his satisfaction: all of the converted. He knew that stopping them could be accomplished only by stopping Shaddack. He was after much bigger game.


However, he was unnerved to see them brazenly on the prowl in daylight, at two-thirty in the afternoon. Heretofore, they had been secretive creatures of the night, hiding the shame of their regression by seeking their altered states only well after sunset. If they were prepared to venture forth before nightfall, the Moonhawk Project was disintegrating into chaos even faster than he had expected. Moonlight Cove was not merely teetering on the brink of hell but had already tipped over the edge and into the pit.


34


They were in Harry's third-floor bedroom again, where they passed the last hour and a half, brainstorming and urgently discussing their options. No lamps were on. Watery afternoon light washed the room, contributing to the somber mood.


"So we're agreed there are two ways we might send a message out of town," Sam said.


"But in either case," Tessa said uneasily, "you have to go out there and cover a lot of ground to get where you need to go."


Sam shrugged.


Tessa and Chrissie had taken off their shoes and sat on the bed, their backs against the headboard. The girl clearly intended to stay close to Tessa; she seemed to have imprinted on her the way a baby chick, freshly hatched from the egg, imprints on the nearest adult bird, whether it's the mother or not.


Tessa said, "It's not going to be as easy as slipping two doors to the Coltrane house. Not in daylight."


"You think I ought to wait until it gets dark?" Sam asked.


"Yes. The fog will come in more heavily, too, as the afternoon fades."


She meant what she said, though she was worried about the delay. During the hours that they bided their time, more people be converted. Moonlight Cove would become an increasingly alien, dangerous, and surprise-filled environment.


Turning to Harry, Sam said, "What time's it get dark?"


Harry was in his wheelchair. Moose had returned to his master, thrusting his burly head under the arm of the chair and onto Harry's lap, content to sit for long stretches in that awkward posture in return for just a little petting and scratching and an occasional reassuring word.


Harry said, "These days, twilight comes before six o'clock."


Sam was sitting at the telescope, though at the moment he was not using it. A few minutes ago he had surveyed the streets and reported seeing more activity than earlier—plenty of car and foot patrols. As steadily fewer local residents remained unconverted, the conspirators behind Moonhawk were growing bolder in their Policing actions, less concerned than they'd once been about calling attention to themselves.


Glancing at his watch, Sam said, "I can't say I like the idea of wasting three hours or more. The sooner we get the word out, the more people we'll save from … from whatever's being done to them."


"But if you get caught because you didn't wait for nightfall, then the chances of saving anyone become a hell of a lot Slimmer."


"The lady has a point," Harry said.


"A good one," Chrissie said. "Just because they're not aliens doesn't mean they're going to be any easier to deal with."


Because even the working telephones would allow a caller to dial only approved numbers within town, they'd given up on hope. But Sam had realized that any PC connected by modem with the supercomputer at New Wave—Harry said they called it Sun—might provide a way out of town, an electronic high-way on which they could circumvent the current restrictions on the phone lines and the roadblocks.


As Sam had noted last night while using the VDT in the police car, Sun maintained direct contacts with scores of other computers—including several FBI data banks, both those approved for wide access and those supposedly sealed to all but bureau agents. If he could sit at a VDT, link in to Sun, and through Sun link to a Bureau computer, then he could transmit a call for help that would appear on Bureau computer screens and spew out in hard copy from the laser printers in their offices.


They were assuming, of course, that the restrictions on outside contact that applied to all other phone lines in town did not apply to the lines by which Sun maintained its linkages with the broader world. If Sun's routes out of Moonlight Cove were clipped off, too, they were utterly without hope.


Understandably, Sam was reluctant to enter the houses of the people who worked for New Wave, afraid that he would encounter more people like the Coltranes. That left only two ways to attain access to a PC that could be linked to Sun.


First, he could try to get into a black-and-white and use one of their mobile terminals, as he'd done last night. But they were alert to his presence now, making it harder to sneak into an unused patrol car. Furthermore, all of the cars were probably now in use, as the cops searched diligently for him and no doubt, for Tessa as well. And even if a cruiser were parked behind the municipal building, that area was at the moment, bound to be a lot busier than the last time he had been there.


Second, they could use the computers at the high school on Roshmore Way. New Wave had donated them not out of a normal concern for the educational quality of local schools but as more means of tying the community to it. Sam believed, and Tessa agreed, that the school's terminals probably had the capacity to link with Sun.


But Moonlight Cove Central, as the combination junior-senior high school was called, stood on the west side of Roshmore Way, two blocks west of Harry's house and a full block south. In ordinary times it was a pleasant five-minute walk. But with the streets under surveillance and every house potentially a watchtower occupied by enemies, reaching Central high School now without being seen was easy as crossing a minefield.


"Besides," Chrissie said, "they're still in class at Central. You couldn't just walk in there and use a computer."


"Especially," Tessa said, "since you can figure the teachers were among the first to be converted."


"What time are classes over?" Sam asked.


"Well, at Thomas Jefferson we get out at three o'clock, but they go an extra half hour at Central."


"Three-thirty," Sam said.


Checking his watch, Harry said, "Forty-seven minutes yet. But even then, there'll be after-school activities, won't there?"


"Sure," Chrissie said. "Band, probably football practice, a few other clubs that don't meet during regular activity period."


"What time would all that be done with?"


"I know band practice is from a quarter to four till a quarter to five," Chrissie said, "because I'm friends with a kid one year older than me who's in the band. I play a clarinet. I want to be in the band, too, next year. If there is a band. If there is a next year."


"So, say by five o'clock the place is cleared out."


"Football practice runs later than that."


"Would they practice today, in pouring rain?"


"I guess not."


"If you're going to wait until five or five-thirty," Tessa said, "then you might as well wait just a little while longer and head over there after dark."


Sam nodded. "I guess so."


"Sam, you're forgetting," Harry said.


"What?"


"Sometime shortly after you leave here, maybe as early as six o'clock sharp, they'll be coming to convert me."


"Jesus, that's right!" Sam said.


Moose lifted his head off his master's lap and from beneath the arm of the wheelchair. He sat erect, black ears pricked, as if he understood what had been said and was already anticipating the doorbell or listening for a knock downstairs.


"I believe you do have to wait for nightfall before you go, you'll have a better chance," Harry said, "but then you'll have to take Tessa and Chrissie with you. It won't be safe to leave them here."


"We'll have to take you too," Chrissie said at once. "You and Moose. I don't know if they convert dogs, but we have to take Moose just to be sure. We wouldn't want to have to worry about him being turned into a machine or something."


Moose chuffed.


"Can he be trusted not to bark?" Chrissie asked. "wouldn't want him to yap at something at a crucial moment. I guess we could always wind a long strip of gauze bandage around his snout, muzzle him, which is sort of cruel and would probably hurt his feelings, since muzzling him would mean we don't emtirely trust him, but it wouldn't hurt him physically, of course and I'm sure we could make it up to him later with a juicy steak or—"


Suddenly recognizing an unusual solemnity in the silence of her companions, the girl fell silent too. She blinked at Harry, Sam, and frowned at Tessa, who still sat on the bed beside her.


Darker clouds had begun to plate the sky since they had come upstairs, and the room was receding deeper into shadows. But at the moment Tessa could see Harry Talbot's face almost clearly in the gray dimness. She was aware of how he was struggling to conceal his fear, succeeding for the most part, managing a genuine smile and an unruffled tone of voice, betrayed only by his expressive eyes.


To Chrissie, Harry said, "I won't be going with you, honey."


"Oh," the girl said. She looked at him again, her gaze slipping down from Harry to the wheelchair on which he sat. "But you came to our school that day to talk to us. You leave the house sometimes. You must have a way to get out."


Harry smiled. "The elevator goes down to the garage on the cellar level. I don't drive any more, so there's no car down there and I can easily roll out into the driveway, to the sidewalk."


"Well, then!" Chrissie said.


Harry looked at Sam and said, "But I can't go anywhere on these streets, steep as they are in some places, without somone along. The chair has brakes, and the motor has quite a lot of power, but half the time not enough for these slopes."


"We'll be with you," Chrissie said earnestly. "We can help."


"Dear girl, you can't sneak quickly through three blocks of occupied territory and drag me with you at the same time," Harry said firmly. "For one thing, you'll have to stay off the streets as much as possible, move from yard to yard and between as much as you can, while I can only roll on pavement, especially in this weather, with the ground so soggy."


"We can carry you."


"No," Sam said. "We can't. Not if we hope to get to the school and get assistance and get a message out to the Bureau. It's a short distance, but full of danger, and we've got to travel light. Sorry, Harry."


"No need to apologize, " Harry said. "I wouldn't have it any other way. You think I want to be dragged or shoulder-carried like a bag of cement across half the town?"


In obvious distress, Chrissie got off the bed and stood with her small hands fisted at her sides. She looked from Tessa to Sam to Tessa again, silently pleading with them to think of a way to save Harry.


Outside the gray sky was mottled now with ugly clouds that were nearly black.


The rain eased up, but Tessa sensed that they were entering a brief lull, after which the downpour would continue with greater fury than ever.


Both the spiritual and the physical gloom deepened.


Moose whined softly.


Tears shimmered in Chrissie's eyes, and she seemed unable to bear looking at Harry. She went to a north window and stared down at the house next door and at the street beyond—staying just far enough back from the glass to avoid being spotted by anyone outside.

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