“Not if I take a class in bear killing.”
“So before you set sail, you’re going to spend four years at a good college of agriculture?”
Bobby sucked in a breath deep enough to ventilate his upper intestine, and blew it out. “All I know is, I don’t want to end up like Delacroix.”
“Everyone ever born into this world ends up like Delacroix,” I said. “But it’s not an end. It’s just an exit. To what comes next.”
He was silent a moment. Then: “I’m not sure I believe in that like you do, Chris.”
“So you believe you can ride through the end of the world by growing potatoes and broccoli on an uncharted tropical island somewhere east of Bora Bora, where there’s both insanely fertile soil and mondo glassy surf—but you find it hard to believe in an afterlife?”
He shrugged. “Most days, it’s easier to believe in broccoli than in God.”
“Not for me. I hate broccoli.”
Bobby turned toward the bungalow. His face crinkled as if he could still detect a trace of decomposing Delacroix. “This here is one evil piece of real estate, bro.”
Imaginary mites crawled between the layers of my skin as I remembered the pendulant cocoons, and I had to agree with him: “Bad mojo.”
“Whatever they are, I doubt the cocoons are only in this one bungalow.”
In their sameness and orderly placement, the houses of Dead Town suddenly seemed less like man-made structures and more like the mounds of termite colonies or hives.
“Burn this one for starters,” Bobby insisted.
Hissing in the knee-high grass, ticking-clicking in the dead twigs of the withered shrubbery, buzzing and rasping in the leaves of the Indian laurels, the breeze mimicked a multitude of insect sounds, as though mocking us, as though predicting the inevitability of a future inhabited solely by six-, eight-, and hundred-legged beings.
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll burn the place.”
“Too bad we don’t have a nuke.”
“But not now. It’ll draw cops and firemen from town, and we don’t want them in our way. Besides, there’s not a lot of the night left. We’ve got to get moving.”
As we followed the walkway toward the street, he said, “Where?”
I had no idea how to search more effectively for Jimmy Wing and Orson in the vastness of Fort Wyvern, so I didn’t respond to his question.
The answer was tucked under the passenger-side windshield wiper on the Jeep. I saw it as I was rounding the front of the vehicle. It looked like a parking ticket.
I plucked the item from under the rubber blade and switched on the flashlight to examine it.
When I got into the passenger seat, Bobby leaned over to study my discovery. “Who put it there?”
“Not Delacroix,” I said, surveying the night, once more overcome by the feeling that I was being watched.
I was holding a four-inch-square, laminated security badge designed to be pinned to a shirt or to a coat lapel. The photograph on the right half was of Delacroix, although this was a different picture from the one on the driver’s license we had found beside his body. He was wide-eyed in this shot,. startled, as though he had foreseen his suicide in the flash of the camera. Under the photo was the name Leland Anthony Delacroix. Listed on the left of the badge were his age, height, weight, eye color, hair color, and social security number. At the top were the words initialize on entry. Printed across the entire face of the badge, in a three-dimensional hologram that did not obscure the photograph or the information under it, were three transparent, pale-blue capital letters: DOD.
“Department of Defense,” I said, because my mom had possessed a DOD security clearance, although I’d never seen a badge like this in her possession.
“‘Initialize on entry,’” Bobby said thoughtfully. “Bet there’s a microchip implanted in this.”
He’s computer literate, but I never will be. I have no need for a computer, and with my biological clock ticking faster than yours, I have no time for one. Besides, while wearing heavy-duty sunglasses, I can’t easily read a monitor. Sitting for long sessions in front of a screen, you are bathed in low-level UV radiation no more dangerous to you than a spring rain; because of my susceptibility to cumulative damage, however, exposure to those emissions is liable to transform me into one giant lumpy melanoma of such peculiar squishy dimensions that I’ll never be able to find clothes that are both comfortable and stylish.
Bobby said, “When he enters the facility, they initialize the microchip in the badge, you know?”
“Initialize—clear the memory on the microchip. Then every time he passes through a doorway, maybe the chip in the badge responds to microwave transmitters in the threshold, recording where he went and how long he stayed in each place. Then when he leaves, the data is downloaded into his file.”
“You creep me out when you talk computer.”
“I’m still the same full-on jerk-off, bro.”
“I get evil-twin vibes.”
“There’s just one Bobby,” he assured me.
I glanced at the bungalow where we had found Delacroix, half expecting to see eerie lights beyond the windows, frenzied bug-wing shadows flitting up the walls, and a shambling cadaver crossing the porch.
Snapping a finger against the badge, I said, “Tracking every step he makes even after they let him through the front door—that’s maximum-paranoid security.”
“This must’ve been on the floor beside the corpse with the other stuff. Somebody went in the bungalow ahead of us, took it, and put it here. Why?”
The answer was to be found in the line at the bottom of the badge. Project Clearance: MT.
Bobby said, “You think this ID got him into the labs where they were doing these genetic experiments, the very place where the shit hit the fan?”
“Maybe. MT. Mystery Train?”
Bobby glanced at the words embroidered on my cap, then at the badge again. “Nancy Drew would be proud.”
I switched off the flashlight. “I think I know where he wants us to go.”
“Where who wants us to go?”
“Whoever left this under the wiper.”
“Which is who?”
“I don’t have all the answers, bro.”
“Yet you’re positive there’s an afterlife,” he said as he started the engine.
“The big answers I have. It’s just some of the little ones that elude me.”
“Okay, where are we going?”
“The egg room.”
“So now we’re in a Batman movie, and you’re the Riddler?”
“It’s not in Dead Town. It’s in a hangar on the north side of the base.”
“He’s not our friend,” Bobby said.
“Whoever left that badge, bro, he’s no friend of ours. We don’t have friends in this place.”
“I’m not so sure of that.”
As he released the hand brake and shifted into drive, he said, “Could be a trap.”
“Probably not. He could’ve disabled the Jeep and been laying for us right here when we came out of the bungalow, if all he wanted was to waste us.”
Driving out of Dead Town, Bobby said, “Still could be a trap.”
“That doesn’t bother you like it does me, ’cause you’ve got God and an afterlife and choirs of angels and palaces of gold in the sky, but all I’ve got is broccoli.”
“Better think about that,” I agreed.
I consulted my watch. Dawn was no more than two hours away.
As dark and mottled as a strange fungus, spongy masses of clouds had spread far into the east, leaving only a narrow band of clean sky in which the bright stars looked cold and even farther away than they actually were.
For more than two years, Wisteria Jane Snow’s gene-swapping retrovirus had been loose in the wider world beyond the laboratory. During that time, the destruction of the natural order had progressed almost as lazily as big fluffy snowflakes drifting out of a windless winter sky, but I suspected that at last the blizzard was at hand, the avalanche.
The hangar rises like a temple to some alien god with a wrathful disposition, surrounded on three sides by smaller service buildings that could pass for the humble dwellings of monks and novitiates. It is as long and wide as a football field, seven stories high, with no windows other than a line of narrow clerestory panes just below the spring line of the arched Quonset-style roof.
Bobby parked in front of a pair of doors at one end of the building, switching off the engine and headlights.
Each door is twenty feet wide and forty high. Set in upper and lower tracks, they were motor-driven, but the power to operate them was disconnected long ago.
The daunting mass of the building and the enormous steel doors make the place as forbidding as the fortress that might stand at the gap between this world and Hell to keep the demons from getting out.
Taking a flashlight from under his seat, Bobby said, “This place is the egg room?”
“Under this place.”
“I don’t like the look of it.”
“I’m not asking you to move in and set up housekeeping.”
Getting out of the Jeep, he said, “Are we near the airfield?”
Fort Wyvern, which was established as both a training and a support facility, boasts runways that can accommodate large jets and those giant C-13 transports that are capable of carrying trucks, assault vehicles, and tanks.
“Airfield’s half a mile that way,” I said, pointing. “They didn’t service aircraft here. Unless maybe choppers, but I don’t think that’s what this place was about, either.”
“What was it about?”
“Maybe it’s where they held bingo games.”
In spite of the negative aura around the building, in spite of the fact that we had perhaps been induced here by persons unknown and possibly hostile, I didn’t feel as though we were in imminent danger. Anyway, Bobby’s shotgun would stop any assailant a lot faster than my 9-millimeter. Leaving the Glock holstered, carrying only the flashlight, I led the way to a man-size door set in one of the larger portals.
“Big surf coming,” Bobby said.
“Guess or fact?”
Bobby earns a living by analyzing weather-satellite data and other information to predict surf conditions worldwide, with a high degree of accuracy. His enterprise, Surfcast, provides information daily to tens of thousands of surfers through subscriptions to a bulletin sent by fax or E-mail, and through a 900 number that draws more than eight hundred thousand calls a year. Because his lifestyle is simple and his corporate offices are funky, no one in Moonlight Bay realizes that he is a multimillionaire and the richest man in town. If they knew, it would matter more to them than it does to Bobby. To him, wealth is having every day free to surf; everything else that money can buy is no more than an extra spoon of salsa on the enchilada.
“Gonna be minimum ten-foot corduroy to the horizon,” Bobby promised. “Some sets of twelve, pumping all day and night, every boardhead’s dream.”
“Don’t like this onshore flow,” I said, raising a hand in the breeze.
“I’m talking the day after tomorrow. Strictly offshore by then. Gonna be waves so scooped out, you’ll feel like the last pickle in the barrel.”
The hollow channel in a breaking wave, scooped to the max by a perfect offshore wind, is called a barrel, and surfers live to ride these tubes all the way through and out the collapsing end before being clamshelled. You don’t get them every day. They are a gift, sacred, and when they come, you ride them until you’re surfed out, until your legs are rubber and you can’t stop the muscles in your stomach from fluttering, and then you flop on the sand and wait to see if you’ll expire like a beached fish or, instead, go scarf down two burritos and a bowl of corn chips.
“Twelve-footers,” I said wistfully as I opened the man-size entrance in the forty-foot-high door. “Double overhead corduroy.”
“Churning out of a storm north of the Marquesas Islands.”
“Something to live for,” I said as I crossed the threshold into the hangar.
“That’s why I mention it, bro. Boardhead motivation to get out of here alive.”
Even two flashlights could not illuminate this cavernous space on the main floor of the hangar, but we could see the overhead tracks on which a mobile crane—long since dismantled and hauled away—had traveled from one end of the building to the other. The massiveness of the steel supports under these rails indicated that the crane had lifted objects of tremendous weight.
We stepped over inch-thick steel angle plates, still anchored to the oil-and chemical-stained concrete, upon which heavy machinery had once been mounted. Deep and curiously shaped wells in the floor, which must have housed hydraulic mechanisms, forced us to follow an indirect path to the far end of the hangar.
Bobby cautiously checked out each hole as though he expected something to be crouching in it, waiting to spring up and bite off our heads.
As our flashlight beams swept over the crane tracks and their supporting structures, complex shadows and flares of light were flung off steel rails and beams, thrown to the walls and to the high curved ceiling, where they formed faint, constantly changing hieroglyphics that flickered ahead of us but quickly vanished, unreadable, into the darkness that crept at our heels.
“Sharky,” Bobby said softly.
“Just wait.” Like him, I spoke only slightly above a whisper, not so much for fear of being overheard as because this place has the same subduing effect as do churches, hospitals, and funeral parlors.
“You been here alone?”
“No. Always with Orson.”
“I’d expect him to have more sense.”
I led him to an empty elevator shaft and a wide set of stairs in the southwest corner of the hangar.
As in the warehouse where I’d encountered the veve rats and the thug with the two-by-four, access to the floors below had surely been concealed. The vast majority of the personnel who had worked in the hangar—good men and women who had served their country well and with pride—must have been oblivious of the infernal regions under their feet.
The false walls or the devices that had concealed entrance to the lower floors had been stripped away during deconstruction. Although the stairhead door was removed, a steel jamb was left untouched at the upper landing.
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