He wasn't the only one obsessed.
Though the story of Moonlight Cove had been leaked to the media in piecemeal fashion over three days and had been explored in detail during a four-hour press conference on Thursday evening, and though reporters had exhaustively interviewed many of the two hundred survivors, no one had had enough. The singular horror of the deaths of the victims—and the number, nearly three thousand, many times the number at Jonestown—stunned newspaper and TV audiences no matter how often they heard the specifics. By Friday morning the story was hotter than ever.
Yet Joel sensed that it wasn't even the grisliness of the facts or the spectacular statistics that gripped the public interest. It was something deeper than that.
At ten o'clock Friday morning, Joel was sitting on his bedroll in a field alongside the county route, just ten yards away from the police checkpoint north of Holliwell, basking in a surprisingly warm October morning and thinking about that very thing. He was starting to believe that maybe this news hit home hard because it was about not just the relatively modern conflict of man and machine but about the eternal human conflict, since time immemorial, between responsibility and irresponsibility, between civilization and savagery, between contradictory human impulses toward faith and nihilism.
Joel was still thinking about that when he got up and started to walk. Somewhere along the way he stopped thinking about much of anything, but he started walking more briskly.
He was not alone. Others at the roadblock, fully half the two hundred who had been waiting there, turned almost as one and walked east into the fields with sudden deliberation, neither hesitating along the way nor wandering in parabolic paths, but cutting straight up across a sloped meadow, over scrub-covered hills, and through a stand of trees.
The walkers startled those who had not felt the abrupt call to go for a stroll, and some reporters tagged along for a while, asking questions, then shouting questions. None of the walkers answered.
Joel was possessed by a feeling that there was a place he must go to, a special place, where he would never again have to worry about anything, a place where all would be provided, where he would have no need to worry about the future. He didn't know what that magic place looked like, but he knew he'd recognize it when he saw it. He hurried forward excitedly, compelled, drawn.
* * *
The protean thing in the basement of the Icarus Colony was in the grip of need. It had not died when the other children of Moonhawk had perished, for the microsphere computer within it had dissolved when it had first sought the freedom of utter shapelessness; it had not been able to receive the microwave-transmitted death order from Sun. Even if the command had been received, it would not have been acted upon, for the cellar-dwelling creature had no heart to stop.
Its need was so intense that it pulsed and writhed. This need was more profound than mere desire, more terrible than any pain.
Mouths had opened all over its surface. The thing called out to the world around it in a voice that seemed silent but was not, a voice that spoke not to the ears of its prey but to their minds.
And they were coming.
Its needs would soon be fulfilled.
* * *
Colonel Lewis Tarker, commanding officer at the Army field headquarters in the park at the eastern end of Ocean Avenue, received an urgent call from Sergeant Sperlmont, who was in charge of the county-route roadblock. Sperlmont reported losing six of his twelve men when they just walked off like zombies, with maybe a hundred reporters who were in the same strange condition.
"Something's up," he told Tarker. "This isn't over yet, sir."
* * *
Tarker immediately got hold of Oren Westrom, the Bureau man who was heading the investigation into Moonhawk and with whom all of the military aspects of the operation had to be coordinated.
"It isn't over," Tarker told Westrom. "I think those walkers are even weirder than Sperlmont described them, weird in some way he can't quite convey. I know him, and he's more spooked than he thinks he is."
* * *
Westrom, in turn, ordered the Bureau's JetRanger into the air. He explained the situation to the pilot, Jim Lobbow, and said, "Sperlmont's going to have some of his men track them on the ground, see where the hell they're going—and why. But in case that gets difficult, I want you spotting from the air."
"On my way," Lobbow said.
"You filled up on fuel recently?"
"Tanks are brimming."
* * *
Nothing worked for Jim Lobbow but flying a chopper.
He had been married three times, and every marriage had ended in divorce. He'd lived with more women than he could count; even without the pressure of marriage weighing him down, he could not sustain a relationship. He had one child, a son, by his second marriage, but he saw the boy no more than three times a year, never for longer than a day at a time. Though he'd been brought up in the Catholic Church, and though all his brothers and sisters were regulars at Mass, that did not work for Jim. Sunday always seemed to be the only morning he could sleep in, and when he considered going to a weekday service it seemed like too much trouble. Though he dreamed of being an entrepreneur, every small business he started seemed doomed to failure; he was repeatedly startled to find how much work went into a business, even one that seemed designed for absentee management, and sooner or later it always became too much trouble.
But nobody was a better chopper pilot than Jim Lobbow. He could take one up in weather that grounded everyone else, and he could set down or pick up in any terrain, any conditions.
He took the JetRanger up at Westrom's orders and swung out over the county-route roadblock, getting there in no time because the day was blue and clear, and the roadblock was just a mile and a quarter from the park where he kept the chopper. On the ground, a handful of regular Army troops, still at the barricade, were waving him due east, up into the hills.
Lobbow went where they told him, and in less than a minute he found the walkers toiling busily up scrub-covered hills, scuffing their shoes, tearing their clothes, but scrambling forward in a frenzy. It was definitely weird.
A funny buzzing filled his head. He thought something was wrong with his radio headphones, and he pulled them off for a moment, but that wasn't it. The buzzing didn't stop. Actually it wasn't a buzzing at all, not a sound, but a feeling.
And what do I mean by that? he wondered.
He tried to shrug it off.
The walkers were circling east-southeast as they went, and he flew ahead of them, looking for some landmark, anything unusual toward which they might be headed. He came almost at once to the decaying Victorian house, the tumbledown barn, and the collapsed outbuildings.
Something about the place drew him.
He circled it once, twice.
Though it was a complete dump, he suddenly had the crazy idea that he would be happy there, free, with no worries any more, no ex-wives nagging at him, no child-support to pay.
Over the hills to the northwest, the walkers were coming, all hundred or more of them, not walking any more but running. They stumbled and fell but got up and ran again.
And Jim knew why they were coming. He circled over the house again, and it was the most appealing place he had ever seen, a source of surcease. He wanted that freedom, that release, more than he had ever wanted anything in his life. He took the JetRanger up in a steep climb, leveled out, swooped south, then west, then north, then east, coming all the way around again, back toward the house, the wonderful house, he had to be there, had to go there, had to go, and he took the chopper straight in through the front porch, directly at the door that hung open and half off its hinges, through the wall, plowing straight into the heart of the house, burying the chopper in the heart—
* * *
The creature's many mouths sang of its need, and it knew that momentarily its needs would be met. It throbbed with excitement.
Then vibrations. Hard vibrations. Then heat.
It did not recoil from the heat, for it had surrendered all the nerves and complex biological structures required to register pain.
The heat had no meaning for the beast—except that heat was not food and therefore did not fulfill its needs.
Burning, dwindling, it tried to sing the song that would draw what it required, but the roaring flames filled its mouths and soon silenced it.
* * *
Joel Ganowicz found himself standing two hundred feet from a ramshackle house that had exploded in flames. It was a tremendous blaze, fire shooting a hundred feet into the clear sky, black smoke beginning to billow up, the old walls of the place collapsing in upon themselves with alacrity, as if eager to give up the pretense of usefulness. The heat washed over him, forcing him to squint and back away, even though he was not particularly close to it. He couldn't understand how a little dry wood could burn that intensely.
He realized that he could not remember how the fire had started. He was just suddenly there, in front of it.
He looked at his hands. They were abraded and filthy.
The right knee was torn out of his corduroys, and his Rockports were badly scuffed.
He looked around and was startled to see scores of people in his same condition, tattered and dirty and dazed. He couldn't remember how he had gotten there, and he definitely didn't recall setting out on a group hike.
The house sure was burning, though. Wouldn't be a stick of it left, just a cellarful of ashes and hot coals.
He frowned and rubbed his forehead.
Something had happened to him. Something … He was a reporter, and his curiosity was gradually reasserting itself. Something had happened, and he ought to find out what. Something disturbing. Very disturbing. But at least it was over now.
When they entered the house in Sherman Oaks, the music on Scott's stereo, upstairs, was turned so loud that the windows were vibrating.
Sam climbed the steps to the second floor, motioning for Tessa and Chrissie to follow. They were reluctant, probably embarrassed, feeling out of place, but he was not certain he could do what had to be done if he went up there alone.
The door to Scott's room was open.
The boy was lying on his bed, wearing black jeans and a black denim shirt. His feet were toward the headboard, his head at the foot of the mattress, propped up on pillows, so he could stare at all of the posters on the wall behind the bed: black-metal rockers wearing leather and chains, some of them with bloody hands, some with bloody lips as if they were vampires who had just fed, others holding skulls, one of them french-kissing a skull, another holding out cupped hands filled with glistening maggots.
Scott didn't hear Sam enter. With the music at that volume, he wouldn't have heard a thermonuclear blast in the adjacent bathroom.
At the stereo Sam hesitated, wondering if he was doing the right thing. Then he listened to the bellowed words of the number on the machine, backed up by iron slabs of guitar chords. It was a song about killing your parents, about drinking their blood, then "taking the gas-pipe escape." Nice. Oh, very nice stuff. That decided him. He punched a button and cut off the CD in midplay.
Startled, Scott sat straight up in bed. "Hey!"
Sam took the CD out of the player, dropped it on the floor, and ground it under his heel.
"Hey, Christ, what the hell are you doing?"
Forty or fifty CDs, mostly black-metal albums, were stored in open-front cases on a shelf above the stereo. Sam swept them to the floor.
"Hey, come on," Scott said, "what're you, nuts?"
"Something I should've done long ago."
Noticing Tessa and Chrissie, who stood just outside the door, Scott said, "Who the hell are they?"
Sam said, "They the hell are friends."
Really working himself into a rage, all lathered up, the boy said, "What the f*ck are they doing here, man?"
Sam laughed. He was feeling almost giddy. He wasn't sure why. Maybe because he was finally doing something about this situation, assuming responsibility for it. He said, "They the f*ck are with me." And he laughed again.
He felt sorry that he had exposed Chrissie to this, but then he looked at her and saw that she was not only unshaken but giggling. He realized that all the angry and bad words in the world couldn't hurt her, not after what she had endured. In fact, after what they'd all seen in Moonlight Cove, Scott's teenage nihilism was funny and even sort of innocent, altogether ridiculous.
Sam stood on the bed and began to tear the posters off the wall, and Scott started screaming at him, opening up full volume, a real tantrum this time. Sam finished with those posters he could reach only from the bed, got down, and turned toward those on another wall.
Scott grabbed him.
Gently, Sam pushed the boy aside and clawed at the other posters.
Scott struck him.
Sam took the blow, then looked at him.
Scott's face was brilliant red, his nostrils dilated, his eyes bulging with hatred.
Smiling, Sam embraced him in a bear hug.
At first Scott clearly didn't understand what was happening. He thought his father was just making a grab for him, going to punish him, so he tried to pull away. But suddenly it dawned on him—Sam could see it dawn on him—he was being hugged, his old man was for God's sake embracing him, and in front of people—strangers. When that realization hit him, the boy really began to struggle, twisting and thrashing, pushing hard against Sam, desperate to escape, because this didn't fit into his belief in a loveless world, especially if he started to respond.
That was it, yes, damn, Sam understood now. That was the reason behind Scott's alienation. A fear that he'd respond to love, respond and be spurned … or find the responsibility of commitment too much to bear.
In fact, for a moment, the boy met his father's love with love of his own, hugged him tight. It was as if the real Scott, the kid hidden under the layers of hipness and cynicism, had peeked through and smiled. Something good remained in him, good and pure, something that could be salvaged.
But then the boy began to curse Sam in more explicit and colorful terms than he had used previously. Sam only hugged him harder, closer, and now Sam began to tell him that he loved him, desperately loved him, told him not the way that he had told him he loved him on the telephone when he had called him from Moonlight Cove on Monday night, not with any degree of reservation occasioned by his own sense of hopelessness, because he had no sense of hopelessness any more. This time, when he told Scott that he loved him, he spoke in a voice cracking with emotion, told him again and again, demanded that his love be heard.
Scott was crying now, and Sam was not surprised to find that he was crying, too, but he didn't think they were crying for the same reason yet, because the boy was still struggling to get away, his energy depleted, but still struggling. So Sam held on to him and talked to him: "Listen, kid, you're going to care about me, one way or the other, sooner or later. Oh, yes. You're going to know that I care about you, and then you're going to care about me, and not just me, no, you're going to care about yourself, too, and it's not going to stop there, either, hell, no, you're going to find out you can care about a lot of people, that it feels good to care. You're going to care about that woman standing there in the doorway, and you're going to care about that little girl, you're going to care about her like you'd care about a sister, you're going to learn, you're going to get the damn machine out of you and learn to be loved and to love. There's a guy going to come visit us, a guy who's got one good hand and no good legs, and he believes life is worth living. Maybe he's going to stay a while, see how he likes it, see how he feels about it, 'cause maybe he can show you what I was too slow to show you—that it's good, life's good. And this guy's got a dog, what a dog, you're going to love that dog, probably the dog first." Sam laughed and held fast to Scott. "You can't say 'Get outta my face' to a dog and expect him to listen or care, he won't get out of your face, so you'll have to love him first. But then you'll get around to loving me, because that's what I'm going to be—a dog, just a smiling old dog, padding around the place, hanging on, impervious to insult, an old dog."