Page 58


The madman swung the Remington toward the sound.


With a shout of rage and determination, Sam came up fast and threw himself at Shaddack.


31


Tessa grabbed Chrissie and hustled her away from the struggling men, to the wall beside the hall door. They crouched there, where she hoped they would be out of the line of fire.


Sam had come up under the shotgun before Shaddack could swing back from the distraction. He grabbed the barrel with his left hand and Shaddack's wrist with his weakened right hand, and pressed him backward, pushing him off balance, slamming him against another lab bench.


When Shaddack cried out, Sam snarled with satisfaction, as if he might turn into something that howled in the night.


Tessa saw him ram a knee up between Shaddack's legs, hard into his crotch. The tall man screamed.


"All right, Sam!" Chrissie said approvingly.


As Shaddack gagged and spluttered and tried to double over in an involuntary reaction to the pain in his damaged privates, Sam tore the shotgun out of his hands and stepped back—


—and a man in a police uniform came into the room from the chemistry storage closet, carrying a shotgun of his own. "No! Drop your weapon. Shaddack is mine."


32


The thing that had been Vanner moved toward Harry, growling low in its throat, drooling yellowish saliva. Harry fired twice, struck it both times, but failed to kill it. The gaping wounds seemed to close up before his eyes.


One round left.


"… need, need …"


Harry put the barrel of the .45 in his mouth, pressed the muzzle against his palate, gagging on the hot steel.


The hideous, wolfish thing loomed over him. The swollen head was three times as big as it ought to have been, out of proportion to its body. Most of the head was mouth, and most of the mouth was teeth, not even the teeth of a wolf but the inward-curving teeth of a shark. Vanner had not been satisfied to model himself entirely after just one of nature's predators, but wanted to make himself something more murderous and efficiently destructive than anything nature had contemplated.


When Vanner was only three feet from him, leaning in to bite, Harry pulled the gun out of his own mouth, said, "Hell, no," and shot the damn thing in the head. It toppled back, landed with a crash, and stayed down.


Go for the data-processor.


Elation swept through Harry, but it was short-lived. Worthy had completed his transformation and seemed to have been thrown into a frenzy by the carnage in the room and the escalating shrieks that came through the attic vents from the world beyond. He turned his lantern eyes on Harry, and in them was a look of unhuman hunger.


No more bullets.


33


Sam was squarely under the cop's gun, with no room to maneuver. He had to drop the Remington that he'd taken off Shaddack.


"I'm on your side," the cop repeated.


"No one's on our side," Sam said.


Shaddack was gasping for breath and trying to stand up straight. He regarded the officer with abject terror.


With the coldest premeditation Sam had ever seen, with no hint of emotion whatsoever, not even anger, the cop turned his 20-gauge shotgun on Shaddack, who was no longer a threat to anyone, and fired four rounds. As if punched by a giant, Shaddack flew backward over two stools and into the wall.


The cop threw the gun aside and moved quickly to the dead man. He tore open the sweat-suit jacket that Shaddack wore under his coat and ripped lose a strange object, a largish rectangular medallion, that had hung from a gold chain around the man's neck.


Holding up that curious artifact, he said, "Shaddack's dead. His heartbeat isn't being broadcast any more, so Sun is even now putting the final program into effect. In half a minute or so we'll all know peace. Peace at last."


At first Sam thought the cop was saying they were all going to die, that the thing in his hand was going to kill them, that it was a bomb or something. He backed quickly toward the door and saw that Tessa evidently had the same expectation. She had pulled Chrissie up from where they'd been crouching, and had opened the door.


But if there was a bomb, it was a silent one, and the radius of its small explosion remained within the police officer. Suddenly his face contorted. Between clenched teeth, he said, "God." It was not an exclamation but a plea or perhaps an inadequate description of something he had just seen, for in that moment he fell down dead from no cause that Sam could see.


34


When they stepped out through the back door by which they had entered, the first thing Sam noticed was that the night had fallen silent. The shrill cries of the shape-changers no longer echoed across the fogbound town.


The keys were in the van's ignition.


"You drive," he told Tessa.


His wrist was swollen worse than ever. It was throbbing so hard that each pulse of pain reverberated through every fiber of him.


He settled in the passenger seat.


Chrissie curled in his lap, and he wrapped his arms around her. She was uncharacteristically silent. She was exhausted, on the verge of collapse, but Sam knew the cause of her silence was more profound than weariness.


Tessa slammed her door and started the engine. She didn't have to be told where to go.


On the drive to Harry's place, they discovered that the streets were littered with the dead, not the corpses of ordinary men and women but—as their headlights revealed beyond a doubt—of creatures out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, twisted and phantasmagorical forms. She drove slowly, maneuvering around them, and a couple of times she had to pull up on the sidewalk to get past a pack of them that had gone down together, apparently felled by the same unseen force that had dropped the policeman back at Central.


Shaddock's dead. His heartbeat isn't being broadcast any more, so Sun is even now putting the final program into effect… .


After a while Chrissie lowered her head against Sam's chest and would not look out the windshield.


Sam kept telling himself that the fallen creatures were phantoms, that no such things could have actually come into existence, either by the application of the highest of high technology or by sorcery. He expected them to vanish every time a shroud of fog briefly obscured them, but when the fog moved off again, they were still huddled on the pavement, sidewalks, and lawns.


Immersed in all that horror and ugliness, he could not believe that he had been so foolish as to pass years of precious life in gloom, unwilling to see the beauty of the world. He'd been a singular fool. When the dawn came he would never thereafter fail to look upon a flower and appreciate the wonder of it, the beauty that was beyond man's abilities of creation.


"Tell me now?" Tessa asked as they pulled within a block of Harry's redwood house.


"Tell you what?"


"What you saw. Your near-death experience. What did you see on the Other Side that scared you so?"


He laughed shakily. "I was an idiot."


"Probably," she said. "Tell me and let me judge."


"Well, I can't tell you exactly. It was more an understanding than a seeing, a spiritual rather than visual perception."


"So what did you understand?"


"That we go on from this world," he said. "That there's either life for us on another plane, one life after another on an endless series of planes … or that we live again on this plane, reincarnate. I'm not sure which, but I felt it deeply, knew it when I reached the end of that tunnel and saw the light, that brilliant light."


She glanced at him. "And that's what terrified you?"


"Yes."


"That we live again?"


"Yes. Because I found life so bleak, you see, just a series of tragedies, just pain. I'd lost the ability to appreciate the beauty of life, the joy, so I didn't want to die and have to start in all over again, not any sooner than absolutely necessary. At least in this life I'd become hardened, inured to the pain, which gave me an advantage over starting out as a child again in some new incarnation."


"So your fourth reason for living wasn't technically a fear of death," she said.


"I guess not."


"It was a fear of having to live again."


"Yes."


"And now?"


He thought a moment. Chrissie stirred in his lap. He stroked her damp hair. At last he said, "Now, I'm eager to live again."


35


Harry heard noises downstairs—the elevator, then someone in the third-floor bedroom. He tensed, figuring two miracles were one too many to hope for, but then he heard Sam calling to him from the bottom of the ladder.


"Here, Sam! Safe! I'm okay."


A moment later Sam climbed into the attic.


"Tessa? Chrissie?" Harry asked anxiously.


"They're downstairs. They're both all right."


"Thank God." Harry let out a long breath, as if it had been pent up in him for hours. "Look at these brutes, Sam."


"Rather not."


"Maybe Chrissie was right about alien invaders after all."


"Something stranger," Sam said.


"What?" Harry said as Sam knelt beside him and gingerly pushed Worthy's mutated body off his legs.


"Damned if I know," Sam said. "Not even sure I want to know."


"We're entering an age when we make our own reality, aren't we? Science is giving us that ability, bit by bit. Used to be only madmen could do that."


Sam said nothing.


Harry said, "Maybe making our own reality isn't wise. Maybe the natural order is the best one."


"Maybe. On the other hand, the natural order could do with some perfecting here and there. I guess we've got to try. We just have to hope to God that the men who do the tinkering aren't like Shaddack. You okay, Harry?"


"Pretty good, thanks." He smiled. "Except, of course, I'm still a cripple. See this hulking thing that was Worthy? He was leaning in to rip my throat out, I had no more bullets, he had his claws at my neck, and then he just fell dead, bang. Is that a miracle or what?"


"Been a miracle all over town," Sam said. "They all seemed to have died when Shaddack died … linked somehow. Come on, let's get you down from here, out of this mess."


"They killed Moose, Sam."


"The hell they did. Who do you think Chrissie and Tessa are fussing over downstairs?"


Harry was stunned. "But I heard—"


"Looks like maybe somebody kicked him in the head. He's got this bloody, skinned-up spot along one side of his skull. Might've been knocked unconscious, but he doesn't seem to've suffered a concussion."


36


Chrissie rode in the back of the van with Harry and Moose, with Harry's good arm around her and Moose's head in her lap. Slowly she began to feel better. She was not herself, no, and maybe she never would feel like her old self again, but she was better.


They went to the park at the head of Ocean Avenue, at the east end of town. Tessa drove right up over the curb, bouncing them around, and parked on the grass.


Sam opened the rear doors of the van so Chrissie and Harry could sit side by side in their blankets and watch him and Tessa at work.


Braver than Chrissie would have been, Sam went into the nearby residential areas, stepping over and around the dead things, and jump-started cars that were parked along the streets. One by one, he and Tessa drove them into the park and arranged them in a huge ring, with the engines running and the headlights pointing in toward the middle of the circle.


Sam said that people would be coming in helicopters, even in the fog, and that the circle of light would mark a proper landing pad for them. With twenty cars, their headlights all blazing on high beam, the inside of that ring was as bright as noon.


Chrissie liked the brightness.


Even before the landing pad was fully outlined, a few people began to appear in the streets, live people, and not weird looking at all, without fangs and stingers and claws, standing fully erect—altogether normal, judging by appearances. Of course, Chrissie had learned that you could never confidently judge anyone by appearances because they could be anything inside; they could be something inside that would astonish even the editors of the National Enquirer. You couldn't even be sure of your own parents.


But she couldn't think about that.


She didn't dare think about what had happened to her folks. She knew that what little hope she still held for their salvation was probably false hope, but she wanted to hold on to it for just a while longer, anyway.


The few people who appeared in the streets began to gravitate toward the park while Tessa and Sam finished pulling the last few cars into the ring. They all looked dazed. The closer they approached, the more uneasy Chrissie became.


"They're all right," Harry assured her, cuddling her with his one good arm.


"How can you be sure?"


"You can see they're scared shitless. Oops. Maybe I shouldn't say 'shitless,' teach you bad language."


"'Shitless' is okay," she said.


Moose made a mewling sound and shifted in her lap. He probably had the kind of headache that only karate experts usually got from smashing bricks with their heads.


"Well," Harry said, "look at them—they're scared plenty bad, which probably tags them as our kind. You never saw one of those others acting scared, did you?"


She thought about it a moment. "Yeah. I did. That cop who shot Mr. Shaddack at the school. He was scared. He had more fear in his eyes, a lot more, than I've ever seen in anybody else's."


"Well, these people are all right, anyway," Harry told her as the dazed stragglers approached the van. "They're some of the ones who were scheduled to be converted before midnight, but nobody got around to them. Must be others in their houses, barricaded in there, afraid to come out, think the whole world's gone crazy, probably think aliens are on the loose, like you thought. Besides, if these people were more of those shape-changers, they wouldn't be staggering up to us so hesitantly. They'd have loped right up the hill, leaped in here, and eaten our noses, plus whatever other parts of us they consider to be delicacies."


That explanation appealed to her, even made her smile thinly, and she relaxed a little.


But just a second later, Moose jerked his burly head off her lap, yipped, and scrambled to his feet.


Outside, the people approaching the van cried out in surprise and fear, and Chrissie heard Sam say, "What the blazing hell?"


She threw aside her warm blankets and scrambled out of the back of the van to see what was happening.


Behind her, alarmed in spite of the reassurances that he had just given her, Harry said, "What is it? What's wrong?"

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