Page 32


“‘That damn place, the other side,’” Bobby said, quoting Leland Delacroix.


“It’s wherever Hodgson went in his spacesuit.”


“And wherever he came back from when we saw him.”


“Did Delacroix just go nuts, hallucinate everything, kill his family for no reason?”


“No.”


“You think the thing he saw in his daughter’s throat, in her eye—that was real?”


“Totally.”


“Me too. Things we saw in Hodgson’s suit…could that be what the fluttering is about?”


“Maybe that. Maybe something worse.”


“Worse,” I said, trying not to imagine it.


“I got the feeling—wherever the other side is, it’s a real zoo over there.”


We returned to the dining room. Bobby to the stool. Me to the chair by the composition table. After a moment of reluctance, I started the tape.


By the time Delacroix had begun to record again, his demeanor had changed. He wasn’t as emotional as he had been. His voice broke now and then, and he needed to pause to collect himself from time to time, but for the most part, he was striving to soldier through what needed to be said.


“In the garage I keep gardening supplies, including a gallon of Spectracide. Bug killer. I got the can and emptied it on the three bodies. I don’t know if that makes sense. Nothing was…moving in them. In the bodies, I mean. Besides, these aren’t insects. Not like we think of insects. We don’t even know what they are. Nobody knows. Lots of big theories. Maybe they’re something…metaphysical. Do you think? I siphoned some gasoline out of the car. I have a couple gallons here in another can. I’ll use the gasoline to start the fire before…before I finish myself. I’m not going to leave the four of us for overeducated janitors at Project Control. They’ll just do something stupid. Like bag us and do autopsies. And spread this damn thing. I’ll call the Control number after I go down to the corner and mail this tape to you, before I set the fire and…kill myself. I’m all quiet inside right now. Very quiet inside. For now. How long? I want to believe that—”


Delacroix halted in mid-sentence, held his breath as though he were listening for something, and then shut off the recorder.


I stopped the tape. “He didn’t mail the cassette to anyone.”


“Changed his mind. What does he mean—something metaphysical?”


“That was my next question,” I said.


When Delacroix returned to the recorder, his voice was heavier, slower, leaden, as though he had fallen past fear, dropped below grief, and was speaking from a pit of despair.


“Thought I heard something in one of the bedrooms. Imagination. The bodies are…where I left them. Very still. Very still. Just my imagination. And now I realize you don’t even know what this is about. I started this all wrong. There’s so much to tell you, if you’re going to be able to blow this wide open, but there’s so little time. Okay. What you’ve got to know, the bones of it, is that there was a secret project at Fort Wyvern. The code name was Mystery Train. Because they thought they were making a magical mystery tour. Morons. Megalomaniacs. Me among them. Nightmare Train would have been a better name for it. Hellbound Train—that would’ve been better yet. And me happy to climb on board with the rest of’em. I don’t deserve any praise, big brother. Not me. So…here are the key personnel. Not everyone. Just the ones I knew, or as many as I remember right now. Several are dead. Many are alive. Maybe one of the living will talk, one of the upper-tier bastards who would know a lot more than I do. They all must be scared, and some of them must have guilty consciences. You’re good at finding the whistle-blowers.”


Delacroix proceeded to list over thirty people, identifying each man or woman as either a civilian scientist or a military officer: Dr. Randolph Josephson, Dr. Sarabjit Sanathra, Dr. Miles Bennell, General Deke Kettleman….


My mother was not among them.


I recognized only two names. The first was William Hodgson, who was no doubt the poor devil we encountered in the bizarre episode in the egg room. The second was Dr. Roger Stanwyk, who lived with his wife, Marie, on my street, just seven houses east of mine. Dr. Stanwyk, a biochemist, had been one of my mother’s many colleagues, associated with the genetic experiments at Wyvern. If the Mystery Train wasn’t the project that grew from my mother’s work, then Dr. Stanwyk had been collecting more than one paycheck and had done more than his fair share to destroy the world.


Delacroix’s voice grew softer and his speech slower during recitation of the last six or eight names, and the final name almost seemed as though it would stick to his tongue and remain unrevealed. I wasn’t sure if he had reached the end of his list or had stopped without finishing it.


He was silent for half a minute. Then, with his voice abruptly energized, he rattled out what seemed to be a few sentences in a foreign language before switching off the recorder.


I stopped the tape and looked at Bobby. “What was that?”


“Wasn’t pig Latin.”


I reversed the tape, and we listened again.


This wasn’t any language I could identify, and though, for all I knew, Delacroix might have been spewing gibberish, I was convinced that it had meaning. It had the cadence of speech, and although no word was recognizable, I found it curiously familiar.


After the thick, slow, depressed voice in which Delacroix had recited the names of people involved in the Mystery Train project, he imbued these sentences with evident emotion, perhaps even passion, which seemed a further indication that he was speaking with purpose and meaning. On the other hand, those in seizures of religious joy, who speak in tongues, also exhibit great emotion, but there is no evident meaning in the tongues they speak.


When Leland Delacroix began to record again, his voice revealed a numbing and dangerous depression: so flat as to be virtually devoid of inflection, so soft that it was barely more than a whisper, the essence of hopelessness.


“There’s no point in making this tape. You can’t do anything to change what’s happened. There’s no going back. Everything’s out of balance now. Veils ripped. Realities intersecting.”


Delacroix fell silent, and there was only the faint background hiss and pop of the tape.


Veils ripped. Realities intersecting.


I glanced at Bobby. He seemed as clueless as I was.


“Temporal relocator. That’s what they called it.”


I looked at Bobby again, and he said, with grim satisfaction, “Time machine.”


“We sent test modules through, instrument packages. Some came back. Some didn’t. Intriguing but mysterious data. Data so strange the argument was for a far future terminus, a lot farther than anyone expected. How far forward these packages went, no one could say or wanted to guess. Videocams were included in later tests, but when they came back, the tape counters were still at zero. Maybe they taped…then, coming back, they rewound, erased. But finally we got visuals. The instrument package was supposed to be mobile. Like the Mars rovers. This one must’ve been hung up on something. The package itself didn’t move, but the videocam panned back and forth across the same narrow wedge of sky, framed by overhanging trees. There were eight hours of tape, back and forth, eight hours and not one cloud. The sky was red. Not streaky red like a sky at sunset. An even shade of red, as the sky we know is an even shade of blue, but with no increase or diminishment of light, none at all, over eight hours.”


Delacroix’s low, leaden voice faded to silence, but he didn’t turn off the recorder.


After a long pause, there was the sound of chair legs scraping-stuttering across a tile floor, probably a kitchen floor, followed by heavy footsteps fading as Delacroix left the room. He dragged his feet slightly, physically weighed down by his extreme depression.


“Red sky,” Bobby said thoughtfully.


A still and awful red, I thought uneasily, remembering the line from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a favorite poem of mine when I was a young boy of nine or ten, in love with terror and with the idea of remorseless fate. These days, it held no special appeal—for the very reasons that I had liked it so much then.


We listened to the silence on the tape for a while, and then we could hear Delacroix’s voice in the distance, evidently coming from another room.


I cranked up the volume, but I still couldn’t make out what the man was saying.


“Who’s he talking to?” Bobby wondered.


“Himself, maybe.”


“Maybe to his family.”


His dead family.


Delacroix must have been roaming, because his voice rose and fell independent of my use of the volume control.


At one point he cruised past or through the kitchen, and we could hear him clearly enough to determine that he was speaking in that strange language again. He was ranting with considerable emotion, not in the flat dead voice he had last used when sitting at the recorder.


Eventually he fell silent, and a short while later, he came back to the recorder. He switched it off, and I suspected that he rewound it to see where he had interrupted himself. When he began to record again, his voice was low, sluggish, once more crushed flat by depression.


“Computer analysis revealed that the red sky was an accurate color. Not an error in the video system. And the trees that framed the view of the sky…they were gray and black. Not in shadow. That was the true color. Of the bark. The leaves. Mostly black mottled with gray. We called them trees not because they looked like trees as we know them, but because they were more analogous to trees than to anything else. They were sleek…succulent…less like vegetation than like flesh. Maybe some form of fungus. I don’t know. Nobody knew. Eight hours of unchanging red sky and the same black trees—and then something in the sky. Flying. This thing. Flying low. So fast. Only a few frames of it, the image blurred because of its speed. Enhanced it, of course. With the computers. It still wasn’t entirely clear. Clear enough. There were lots of opinions. Lots of interpretations. Arguments. Debates. I knew what it was. I think most of us knew, on some deep level, the moment we saw it enhanced. We just couldn’t accept it. Psychological block. We argued our way right through the truth, until the truth was behind us and we didn’t have to see it anymore. I deluded myself, like all the rest, but I don’t delude myself anymore.”


He settled into silence. A gurgle and splash indicated that he was pouring something out of a bottle into a glass. He took a drink of it.


In silence, Bobby and I sucked at our beers.


I wondered if you could get beer in this world of the red sky and the fleshy black trees. Although I like a beer occasionally, I would have no difficulty living without it. Now, however, this bottle of Corona in my hand was the avatar of all the countless humble pleasures of daily life, of all that could be lost through human arrogance, and I held fast to it as though it were more precious than diamonds, which in one sense it was.


Delacroix began to speak in that incomprehensible tongue again, and this time he murmured the same few words over and over, as though chanting in a whisper. As before, though I couldn’t understand one word, there was a familiarity in these syllables and in the cadence of his speech that sent a corkscrew chill through the hollows of my spine.


“He’s drunk or kooking out,” Bobby said. “Maybe both.”


When I began to worry that Delacroix would not continue with his revelations, he switched to English.


“Should never have sent a manned expedition across. Wasn’t on the schedule. Not for years, maybe not ever. But there was another project at Wyvern, one of many others, where something went wrong. I don’t know what. Something big. Most of the projects, I think…they’re just money-burning machines. But something went too right in this one. The top brass were scared shitless. Lot of pressure came down on us, pressure for the Mystery Train to speed up. They wanted a good look at the future. To see whether there was any future. They didn’t quite put it that way, but everyone involved with the train thought that was their motivation. To see whether this screwup on the other project was going to have major consequences. So against everyone’s better judgment, or almost everyone’s, we put together the first expedition.”


Another silence.


Then more rhythmic, whispery chanting.


Bobby said, “There’s your mom, bro. The ‘other project,’ the one that got the top brass scared about the future.”


“So she wasn’t part of the Mystery Train.”


“The train was just…reconnaissance. Or that’s all it was meant to be. But something went way wrong there, too. In fact, maybe what went wrong with the train was the worse of the two.”


I said, “What do you think was on that videotape? The flying thing, I mean.”


“I’m hoping the man is gonna tell us.”


The whispering continued for a minute or more, and in the middle of it, Delacroix hit the stop button.


When he resumed recording, he was in a new location. The sound quality wasn’t as good as before, and there was a steady background noise.


“Car engine,” Bobby said.


Engine noise, a faint whistle of wind, and the hum of tires racing over pavement: Delacroix was on the move.


His driver’s license had given an address in Monterey, a couple hours up the coast. He must have left his family’s bodies there.


A whispering arose. Delacroix was talking to himself in such a low voice that we could barely discern he was speaking in the unknown language. Gradually, the muttering faded away.


After a silence, when he began to speak louder and in English, his voice wasn’t as clear as we would have liked. The microphone wasn’t as close to his mouth as it should have been. The recorder was either on the seat beside him or, more likely, balanced on the dashboard.


His depression had given way to fear again. He spoke faster, and his voice frequently cracked with anxiety.


“I’m on Highway 1, driving south. I sort of remember getting in the car but not…not driving this far. I poured gasoline over them. Set them on fire. I half remember doing it. Don’t know why I didn’t…why I didn’t kill myself. Took the rings off her finger. Brought some pictures from the album. It didn’t want me to. I took the time…anyway. And the recorder. It didn’t want me to. I guess I know where I’m going. I guess I know, all right.”


Delacroix wept.


Bobby said, “He’s losing control.”


“But not the way you mean.”


“Huh?”


“He’s not losing his mind. He’s losing control to…something else.”

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