For a moment she wasn't sure what had startled everyone, but then she saw the animals. They swarmed through the park—scores of mice, a few grungy rats, cats of all descriptions, half a dozen dogs, and maybe a couple of dozen squirrels that had scampered down from the trees. More mice and rats and cats were racing out of the mouths of the streets that intersected Ocean Avenue, pouring up that main drag, running pell-mell, frenzied, cutting through the park and angling over to the county road. They reminded her of something she'd read about once, and she only had to stand there for a few seconds, watching them pour by her, before she remembered: lemmings. Periodically, when the lemming population became too great in a particular area, the little creatures ran and ran, straight toward the sea, into the surf, and drowned themselves. All these animals were acting like lemmings, tearing off in the same direction, letting nothing stand in their way, drawn by nothing apparent and therefore evidently following an inner compulsion.
Moose jumped out of the van and joined the fleeing multitudes.
"Moose, no!" she shouted.
He stumbled, as if he had tripped over the cry that she had flung after him. He looked back, then snapped his head toward the county road again, as if he had been jerked by an invisible chain. He took off at top speed.
He stumbled once more and actually fell this time, rolled, and scrambled onto his feet.
Somehow Chrissie knew that the image of lemmings was apt, that these animals were rushing to their graves, though away from the sea, toward some other and more hideous death that was part of all the rest that had happened in Moonlight Cove. If she did not stop Moose, they would never see him again.
The dog ran.
She sprinted after him.
She was bone weary, burnt out, aching in every muscle and joint, and afraid, but she found the strength and will to pursue the Labrador because no one else seemed to understand that he and the other animals were running toward death. Tessa and Sam, smart as they were, didn't get it. They were just standing, gaping at the spectacle. So Chrissie tucked her arms against her sides, pumped her legs, and ran for all she was worth, picturing herself as Chrissie Foster, World's Youngest Olympic Marathon Champion, pounding around the course, with thousands cheering her from the sidelines. ("Chrissie, Chrissie, Chrissie, Chrissie …") And as she ran, she screamed at Moose to stop, because every time he heard his name, he faltered, hesitated, and she gained a little ground on him. Then they were through the park, and she nearly fell in the deep ditch alongside the county road, leaped it at the last instant, not because she saw it in time but because she had her eye on Moose and saw him leap something. She landed perfectly, not losing a stride. The next time Moose faltered in response to his name, she was on him, grabbing at him, seizing his collar. He growled and nipped at her, and she said, "Moose," in such a way as to shame him. That was the only time he tried to bite her but, Lord, he strained mightily to pull loose. Hanging on to him took everything she had, and he even dragged her, big as she was, about fifty or sixty feet along the road. His big paws scrabbled at the blacktop as he struggled to follow the wave of small animals that was receding into the night and fog.
By the time the dog calmed down enough to be willing to go back toward the park, Tessa and Sam joined Chrissie. "What's happening?" Sam asked.
"They're all running to their deaths," Chrissie said. "I just couldn't let Moose go with them."
"To their deaths? How do you know?"
"I don't know. But … what else?"
They stood on the dark and foggy road for a moment, looking after the animals, which had vanished into the blackness.
Tessa said, "What else indeed?"
The fog was thinning, but visibility was still no more than about a quarter of a mile.
Standing with Tessa in the middle of the circle of cars, Sam heard the choppers shortly after ten o'clock, before he saw their lights. Because the mist distorted sound, he could not tell from which direction they were approaching, but he figured they were coming in from the south, along the coast, staying a couple of hundred yards out to sea, where there were no hills to worry about in the fog. Packed with the most sophisticated instruments, they could virtually fly blind. The pilots would be wearing night-vision goggles, coming in under five hundred feet in respect of the poor weather.
Because the FBI maintained tight relationships with the armed services, especially the Marines, Sam pretty much knew what to expect. This would be a Marine Reconnaissance force composed of the standard elements required by such a situation: one CH-46 helicopter carrying the recon team itself—probably twelve men detached from a Marine Assault Unit—accompanied by two Cobra gunships.
Turning around, looking in every direction, Tessa said, "I don't see them."
"You won't," Sam said. "Not until they're almost on top of us."
"They fly without lights?"
"No. They're equipped with blue lights, which can't be seen well from the ground, but which give them a damned good view through their night-vision goggles."
Ordinarily, when responding to a terrorist threat, the CH-46—called the "Sea Knight," officially, but referred to as "The Frog" by grunts—would have gone, with its Cobra escorts, to the north end of town. Three fire teams, composed of four men each, would have disembarked and swept through Moonlight Cove from north to south, checking out the situation, rendezvousing at the other end for evacuation as necessary.
But because of the message Sam had sent to the Bureau before Sun's links to the outside world had been cut off, and because the situation did not involve terrorists and was, in fact, singularly strange, SOP was discarded for a bolder approach. The choppers overflew the town repeatedly, descending to within twenty or thirty feet of the treetops. At times their strange bluish-green lights were visible, but nothing whatsoever could be seen of their shape or size; because of their Fiberglas blades, which were much quieter than the old metal blades that once had been used, the choppers at times seemed to glide silently in the distance and might have been alien craft from a far world even stranger than this one.
At last they hovered near the circle of light in the park.
They did not put down at once. With the powerful rotors flinging the fog away, they played a searchlight over the people in the park who stood outside the illuminated landing pad, and they spent minutes examining the grotesque bodies in the street.
Finally, while the Cobras remained aloft, the CH-46 gentled down almost reluctantly in the ring of cars. The men who poured from the chopper were toting automatic weapons, but otherwise they didn't look like soldiers because, thanks to Sam's message, they were dressed in biologically secure white suits, carrying their own air-supply tanks on their backs. They might have been astronauts instead of Marines.
Lieutenant Ross Dalgood, who looked baby-faced behind the faceplate of his helmet, came straight to Sam and Tessa, gave his name and rank, and greeted Sam by name, evidently because he'd been shown a photograph before his mission had gotten off the ground. "Biological hazard, Agent Booker?"
"I don't think so," Sam said, as the chopper blades cycled down from a hard rhythmic cracking to a softer, wheezing chug.
"But you don't know?"
"I don't know," he admitted.
"We're the advance," Dalgood said. "Lots more on the way—regular Army and your Bureau people are coming in by highway. Be here soon."
The three of them—Dalgood, Sam, and Tessa—moved between two of the encircling cars, to one of the dead things that lay on a sidewalk bordering the park.
"I didn't believe what I saw from the air," Dalgood said.
"Believe it," Tessa said.
"What the hell?" Dalgood said.
Sam said, "Boogeymen."
Tessa worried about Sam. She and Chrissie and Harry returned to Harry's house at one in the morning, after being debriefed three times by men in decontamination suits. Although they had terrible nightmares, they managed to get a few hours' sleep. But Sam was gone all night. He had not returned by the time they finished breakfast at eleven o'clock Wednesday morning.
"He may think he's indestructible," she said, "but he's not."
"You care about him," Harry said.
"Of course I care about him."
"I mean care about him."
"Well … I don't know."
"I know too," Chrissie said.
Sam returned at one o'clock, grimy and gray-faced. She'd made up the spare bed with fresh sheets, and he tumbled into it still half dressed.
She sat in a chair by the bed, watching him sleep. Occasionally he groaned and thrashed. He called her name and Chrissie's—and sometimes Scott's—as if he had lost them and was wandering in search of them through a dangerous and desolate place.
Bureau men in decontamination suits came for him at six o'clock, Wednesday evening, after he'd slept less than five hours. He went away for the rest of that night.
By then all the bodies, in their multitudinous biologies, had been collected from where they had fallen, tagged, sealed in plastic bags, and put into cold storage for the attention of the pathologists.
That night Tessa and Chrissie shared the same bed. Lying in the half-dark room, where a towel had been thrown over a lamp to make a night-light, the girl said, "They're gone."
"My mom and dad."
"I think they are."
"I'm sorry, Chrissie."
"Oh, I know. I know you are. You're very nice." Then for a while she cried in Tessa's arms.
Much later, nearer sleep, she said, "You talked to Sam a little. Did he say if they figured out … about those animals last night … where they were all running to?"
"No," Tessa said. "They haven't got a clue yet."
"That spooks me."
"I mean, that they haven't got a clue."
"I know," Tessa said. "That's what I mean too."
By Thursday morning, teams of Bureau technicians and outside consultants from the private sector had pored through enough of the Moonhawk data in Sun to determine that the project had dealt strictly with the implantation of a nonbiological control mechanism that had resulted in profound physiological changes in the victims. No one yet had the glimmer of an idea as to how it worked, as to how the microspheres could have resulted in such radical metamorphoses, but they were certain no bacterium, virus, or other engineered organism had been involved. It was purely a matter of machines.
The Army troops, enforcing the quarantine against news-media interlopers and civilian curiosity-seekers, still had their work to do, but they were grateful to be able to strip out of their hot and clumsy decon suits. So were the hundreds of scientists and Bureau agents who were bivouacked throughout town.
Although Sam would surely be returning in the days ahead, he and Tessa and Chrissie were cleared for evacuation early Friday morning. A sympathetic court, with the counsel of a host of federal and state officials, had already granted Tessa temporary custody of the girl. The three of them said see-you-soon to Harry, not goodbye, and were lifted out by one of the Bureau's Bell JetRanger executive helicopters.
To keep onsite researchers from having their views colored by sensationalistic and inaccurate news accounts, a media blackout was in force in Moonlight Cove, and Sam did not fully realize the impact of the Moon-hawk story until they flew over the Army roadblock near the interstate. Hundreds of press vehicles were strewn along the road and parked in fields. The pilot flew low enough for Sam to see all the cameras turned upward to shoot them as they passed over the mob.
"It's almost as bad on the county route, north of Holliwell Road," the chopper pilot said, "where they set up the other block. Reporters from all over the world, sleeping on the ground 'cause they don't want to go away to some motel and wake up to find that Moonlight Cove was opened to the press while they were snoozing."
"They don't have to worry," Sam said. "It's not going to be opened to the press—or to anyone but researchers—for weeks."
The JetRanger transported them to San Francisco International Airport, where they had reservations for three seats on a PSA flight south to Los Angeles. In the terminal, scanning the news racks, Sam read a couple of headlines:
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE BEHIND COVE TRAGEDY
SUPERCOMPUTER RUNS AMOK
That was nonsense, of course. New Wave's supercomputer, Sun, was not an artificial intelligence. No such thing had yet been built anywhere on earth, though legions of scientists were racing to be the first to father a true, thinking, electronic mind. Sun had not run amok; it had only served, as all computers do.
Paraphrasing Shakespeare, Sam thought: the fault lies not in our technology but in ourselves.
These days, however, people blamed screwups in the system on computers—just as, centuries ago, members of less sophisticated cultures had blamed the alignment of celestial bodies.
Tessa quietly pointed out another headline:
SECRET PENTAGON EXPERIMENT BEHIND
The Pentagon was a favorite Boogeyman in some circles, almost beloved for its real and imagined evils because believing it was the root of all malevolence made life simpler and easier to understand. To those who felt that way, the Pentagon was almost the bumbling old Frankenstein monster in his clodhopper shoes and too-small black suit, scary but understandable, perverse and to be shunned yet comfortably predictable and preferable to consideration of worse and more complex villains.
Chrissie pulled from the rack a rare special edition of a major national tabloid, filled with stories about Moonlight Cove. She showed them the main headline:
ALIENS LAND ON CALIFORNIA COAST
RAVENOUS FLESH-EATERS SACK TOWN
They looked at one another solemnly for a moment, then smiled. For the first time in a couple of days, Chrissie laughed. It was not a hearty laugh, just a chuckle, and there might have been a touch of irony in it that was too sharp for an eleven-year-old girl, not to mention a trace of melancholy, but it was a laugh. Hearing her laugh, Sam felt better.
Joel Ganowicz, of United Press International, had been on the perimeter of Moonlight Cove, at one roadblock or another, since early Wednesday morning. He bunked in a sleeping bag on the ground, used the woods as a toilet, and paid an unemployed carpenter from Aberdeen Wells to bring meals to him. Never in his career had he been so committed to a story, willing to rough it to this extent. And he was not sure why. Yes, certainly, it was the biggest story of the decade, maybe bigger than that. But why did he feel this need to hang in there, to learn every scrap of the truth? Why was he obsessed? His behavior was a puzzle to him.