The singular behavior of the dogs suggested that something about Molly must be different. Even though the nine members of this furry entourage wagged their tails and licked her hands, and seemed to be charmed by her, most if not all of the people in the tavern were no doubt wondering if the dogs’ actions ought to be interpreted as a warning that something not of this earth now walked among them in disguise.
She could too easily imagine what their reaction would have been if all of the dogs—or even just one mean-tempered specimen—had greeted her with growls, hackles raised, ears flattened to their skulls. Such a display of hostility would have received but one interpretation, and Molly would have found herself in the position of an accused witch in seventeenth-century Salem.
In at least two places in the large room, rifles and shotguns leaned against the walls, arsenals within easy reach.
Many of these would-be defenders of the planet surely were packing handguns, as Molly was. Among them would be a few, wound tight by dread and frustrated by their powerlessness, who would be relieved, even beguiled, to have a chance to shoot something, someone, anyone.
In this fever swamp of paranoia, if the shooting started, it might not stop until every shooter had himself been shot.
Molly turned her attention toward the back of the room, where the children were gathered. They looked scared. From the moment that Molly had seen them, they had struck her as terribly vulnerable, and now more than ever.
“Go,” she said to the dogs, “shoo, go.”
Their reaction to her command proved as peculiar as their unanimous attraction to her. Instantly compliant, as if all nine of them had been trained by her, they retreated to the places they had been when she had entered.
This remarkable exhibition of obedience only sharpened the suspicion of the sixty people gathered in the tavern. But for the grumble of the rain, the room had fallen silent. Every stare made the same circuit: from Molly to the retreating dogs, and back to Molly again.
Neil broke the spell when he said to Russell Tewkes, “This is one strange damn night, weirdness piled on weirdness. I could use a drink. You doing business? You have any beer nuts?”
Russell blinked and shook his head, as though he had been in a trance of suspicion. “I’m not selling the stuff tonight. I’m giving it away. What’ll you have?”
“Thank you, Russ. Got Coors in a bottle?”
“I only sell draft and bottled, no damn cans. Aluminum causes Alzheimer’s.”
Neil said, “What do you want, Molly?”
She didn’t want anything that might blur her perceptions and cloud her judgment. Surely survival depended on sobriety.
Meeting Neil’s eyes, however, she knew that he wanted her to drink something, not because she needed it but because most of the people in the tavern probably thought that under the circumstances she ought to need a drink—if she was merely human like them.
Survival would also depend on flexibility.
“Hit me with a Corona,” she said.
While Molly had to study people and brood about them to arrive at a useful understanding of their natures, much in the rigorously analytic fashion that she built the cast of players in her novels, Neil formed an instinctive understanding of anyone he met within moments of the first introduction. His gut reactions were at least as reliable as her intellectual analysis of character.
She accepted the Corona and tipped it to her lips with an acute awareness of being the center of attention. She intended to take a small sip, but surprised herself by chugging a third of the beer.
When she lowered the bottle, the level of tension in the tavern dropped noticeably.
Inspired by Molly’s thirst, half the assembled crowd lifted drinks of their own. Many of the teetotalers watched the drinkers with disapproval, worry, or both.
Having won their acceptance by such a meaningless—if not downright absurd—test of her humanity, Molly doubted that the human race could survive in even the most remote bunker, behind the most formidable fortifications, if in fact the invaders could assume convincing human form.
So many people had difficulty acknowledging the existence of unalloyed evil; they hoped to wish it away through positive thinking, to counsel it into remorse through psychotherapy, or to domesticate it with compassion. If they could not recognize implacable evil in the hearts of their own kind and could not understand its enduring nature, they were not likely to be able to see through the perfect biological disguise of an extraterrestrial species capable of exquisitely detailed mimicry.
From their various posts around the tavern, the dogs still watched her, some openly, others furtively.
Their continued scrutiny suddenly struck chords on that operatic pipe organ of paranoia that stands front and center in the theater of the human mind: She wondered if the dogs had rushed to greet her, grateful for human contact, because everyone else in the tavern was an imposter, even the children, all alien presences masquerading as friends, as neighbors.
No. The dogs hadn’t reacted to Neil as they had to her, although Neil was unquestionably Neil and nothing else. The reason for their interest in Molly remained mysterious.
Pretending indifference, they were acutely alert to her every move, their lustrous eyes seeming to adore her, as if she were the still point of the turning world, where past and future are gathered, exalted beyond ordinary mortal status, the only thing in Creation worthy of their rapt attention.
MOLLY AND NEIL CIRCULATED THROUGH THE tavern, listening to the experiences of others, seeking information that would allow them to better assess the situation both here in town and in the world beyond Black Lake.
Everyone at the Tail of the Wolf had seen the apocalyptic images on television. Perhaps they would be the last in human history to witness world-shaking news through the communal medium of the tube.
After the TV channels had filled with blizzards of electronic snow or with the enigmatic pulsations of color, some people had turned on their radios and had caught scraps of AM and FM broadcasts from cities far and near. Newsmen had spoken of terrifying presences in the streets—variously referred to as monsters, ETs, aliens, demons, or simply things—though often they were too consumed by horror to fully describe what they saw or else their reports abruptly ended in screams of terror, pain.
Molly thought of the man whose head had been cleaved in half, falling to the pavement on a street in Berlin, and she shuddered at the memory.
Others in the tavern had sought information on the Internet, where they had encountered such a raveled tapestry of wild rumor and fevered speculation that they had been more confused than informed. Then the phones—landline and cellular—had failed, as had cable service, whereupon the Internet had deconstructed as abruptly as a plume of steam in a gust of wind.
As Molly and Neil had seen clocks behaving oddly, mechanical devices—like the music boxes—running of their own accord, and impossible reflections in mirrors, so had numerous others among those gathered in the Tail of the Wolf. Battery-powered carving knives had suddenly buzzed and rattled in closed kitchen drawers. Computers switched themselves on, while across the screens scrolled hieroglyphs and ideograms from unknown languages. Out of CD players had come exotic and discordant music like nothing on the discs that were loaded in the machines.
They had stories of remarkable encounters with animals much like Molly’s experience with the coyotes, and with the mice in the garage. All the fauna of this world seemed to recognize that the present threat was unearthly, supplanting all previous and familiar dangers.
In addition, everyone had sensed something ominous overhead in the rainy night, what Neil called “a mountain coming down,” a mass of colossal size and crushing weight that first descended, then hovered, then moved east.
Norman Ling, who owned the town’s only food market, recounted how his wife, Lee, had awakened him with a cry of “the moon is falling.”
“I almost wish it had been the moon,” Lee said now, with a solemnity that matched the expression in her dark, anguished eyes. “It would all be over now if it had been the moon, all of us gone—and nothing worse to come.”
Nevertheless, though this cross-section of humanity had shared the same experiences and had drawn from them approximately the same conclusions—that their species was no longer the most intelligent on the planet and that their dominion of Earth had been usurped—they could not come together to devise a mutually agreeable response to the threat. Four philosophies divided the occupants of the tavern into four camps.
The drunks and those who worked diligently at becoming drunk made the smallest group. To their way of thinking, the most desirable comforts of human civilization were already lost beyond all hope of recovery. If they could not save the world, they would drink to the memory of its glories—and hope that when one kind of brutal death or another came to them, they would be unconscious, courtesy of Jack Daniel’s or Absolut.
More numerous than the drunks were the peace lovers, the meek who styled themselves as prudent and reasonable. They remembered movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which well-meaning aliens, bringing gifts of peace and love to the people of Earth, are willfully misunderstood and become the targets of mindless human violence.
To this crowd, with or without benefit of liquor, the unfolding worldwide catastrophe was not proof of bad intentions, but rather a tragic consequence of poor communication, perhaps even the result of some unspecified, precipitous, and typically ignorant human action. These prudent, reasonable citizens were convinced—or pretended to be—that the current terrors would be satisfactorily explained in time, and rectified, by the benign ambassadors from another star.
In these circumstances, The Day the Earth Stood Still had less relevance to Molly than an old episode of The Twilight Zone in which aliens arrived with solemn promises to alleviate all human want and suffering, guided by a sacred volume whose title translated as To Serve Man. Too late, the sheepish people of Earth realized that the sacred volume was a cookbook.
Of the four groups, more numerous than the drunks and the peace lovers combined were the fence-sitters, who could not decide if the current crisis would best be addressed by a violent response or by peace overtures and songs of love—or perhaps even by consuming disabling quantities of alcoholic beverages. They claimed to need more information before they could make up their minds; they would no doubt be patiently awaiting further information even as a meat lover from Andromeda was basting them in butter.
Molly was dismayed to see friends among the fence-sitters. She would have had more respect for them if they had embraced either pacifism or inebriation.
The fourth group, only slightly less numerous than the fence-sitters, were those who preferred to stand up and fight, regardless of the odds against them. Among them were as many women as men, folks of all ages and persuasions. Angry, energized, they had brought most of the guns and were eager to strike back.
They pulled up two more chairs and welcomed Molly and Neil, inferring from the shotgun and the pistol that they might be like-minded. This spirited group had put half a dozen tables together to form a U, the better to jointly speculate on all the possible what-ifs, as well as to discuss strategy and tactics for each contingency.
Because they knew next to nothing about their enemy, all their theorizing and planning amounted to little more than blue-sky war gaming. Their discussions provided them with a sense of purpose, however, and purpose was at least a partially effective antidote to fear.
While they might dread the coming confrontation, they were also frustrated that the invaders had not yet shown themselves, at least not in Black Lake. Although they were willing to fight and ready to die if necessary in the struggle, they couldn’t battle an invisible adversary.
Molly felt at home among them—and glad that she and Neil at last had comrades.
The unofficial leader of this live-free-or-die faction appeared to be Tucker Madison, a former Marine, currently a deputy with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. His composure, his calm voice, his clear direct gaze reminded Molly of Neil.
“The only thing that worries the skin off me,” Tucker said, surely understating the number of his concerns, “is that they won’t soon or often come out where we can see them. With the ability to control the weather all around the world, what reason do they have to risk our gunfire, even if our weapons probably are primitive by their standards?”
“Some of the godless bastards are apparently showing up in the cities,” said a squint-eyed, sixtysomething woman with sun-toughened skin, reminding Tucker of the news reports. “They’ll come here, too, eventually.”
“But none of us has actually seen one,” Tucker said. “Those things on the news might be just reconnaissance machines, drones, robots.”
Vince Hoyt, a history teacher and coach of the regional high school’s football team, had features as bold and commanding as those on ancient marble busts of the more iron-willed Roman emperors. His jaws looked strong enough to crack walnuts, and when he spoke in his gravelly voice, he sounded as if he had swallowed the shells.
“The big question is, what happens if this rain doesn’t stop for a week, two weeks, a month? Our homes won’t stand up to that kind of deluge. I already have leaks at my place, major damage, and no safe way to get on the roof to fix it in this downpour. They might think they can drown our will to resist, wash the fight right out of us.”
“If rain, why not wind?” asked a young man with curly blond hair, a gold ring in his left ear, and a red tattoo of a woman’s puckered lips on his throat. “Tornadoes, hurricanes.”
“Targeted lightning,” the sun-baked woman suggested. “Would that be possible? Could they do that?”
Molly thought of the enormous and evidently artificially generated waterspout churning up from the Pacific, sucking hundreds of thousands of gallons per minute from the sea. Targeted lightning didn’t sound as farfetched as it would have yesterday.
“Maybe even earthquakes,” said Vince Hoyt. “Before any of that happens, we’ve got to decide on a headquarters where we can maybe consolidate an arsenal, food, medicines, first-aid supplies—”
“Our market already has plenty of food,” said Norman Ling, “but it’s on a lower street. If the rain keeps up, the place will be underwater by this time tomorrow.”
“Besides,” Tucker Madison said, bringing his Marine experience to bear, “the market isn’t a defensible structure, not with all those big plate-glass windows. And I hate to mention this, but it’s not just ETs we have to worry about. With the collapse of communications, civil authority is breaking down out there. Maybe it’s already been swept away. I haven’t been able to get in touch with the sheriff’s office over in the county seat. No police. Maybe no National Guard, no coherent command-and-control systems to make proper use of the military…”
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