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“Chaos, anarchy,” Lee Ling whispered.


As calmly as anyone could have discussed this terrifying aspect of civilization’s collapse, Tucker said, “Believe me, there are lots of bad people who’ll take advantage of chaos. And I don’t mean just outsiders. We’ve got our own thugs and creeps right here in town, thieves and rapists and violence junkies who’ll think anarchy is paradise. They’ll take what they want, do what they want to anyone, and the more they indulge their sickest fantasies, the sicker and more savage they’re going to become. If we’re not ready for them, they’ll kill us and our families before we ever come face-to-face with anything from the other end of the galaxy.”


A solemn silence settled over the group, and Lee Ling looked as if she were wishing again for a falling moon.


Molly thought of Render, the murderer of five children and the father of one, last seen walking north on the ridge road.


He would not have been the only monster freed from captivity this night. When prison and asylum staffs abandoned their posts, perhaps they had left the doors open behind them, either because they were careless or were motivated by misguided pity for the incarcerated. Or maybe in the chaos, the inmates seized control and freed themselves.


This was the Halloween of all Halloweens, six weeks early on the calendar, with no need of jack-o’-lanterns and cotton-bedsheet ghosts when the night was patterned with the pus trails of so many suppurating evils.


“The bank,” Neil suggested.


Eyes turned to him, blinking, as if each person at the table, like Molly, had been roused from a waking nightmare by his words.


“The bank,” Neil said, “is poured-in-place concrete clad in limestone, built in 1936 or ’37, when the state first enforced earthquake-resistant building codes.”


“And they made things to last in those days,” Molly said.


Tucker liked the idea. “The bank was designed with security in mind. One or two entrances. Not many windows, plus they’re narrow.”


“Barred, too,” Neil reminded him.


Tucker nodded. “Plenty of space for people and supplies.”


Vince Hoyt said, “I never coached a single game where I ever thought a loss was inevitable, not even in the final quarter when the other team had us by four touchdowns, and I have no intention of trading that attitude for a loser mentality now. Damn if I will. But there is one other good thing about the bank. The vault. Armored walls, thick steel door. It’ll make a hell of a final bolt-hole if it comes to that. If they want to tear the door off and come in after us, we’ll make a shooting gallery of them, and take a slew of the bastards with us.”


20


WITH THE CALCULATED CARRIAGE OF A DIGNIFIED landlubber trying to cross the deck of a yawing ship without making a fool of himself, Derek Sawtelle traveled from the camp of the swillpots to Molly’s chair among the fighters. He bent close to her. “Dear lady, even under these circumstances, you look enchanting.”


“And even under these circumstances,” she said affectionately, “you’re full of horseshit.”


“Might I have a word with you and Neil?” he asked. “In private?”


He was a genteel drunk. The more gin and tonic that he consumed, the more mannerly he became.


Having been a casual friend of Derek’s for five years, Molly knew that he had not been driven to the bottle tonight by the contemplation of civilization’s collapse. Managed inebriation was his lifestyle, his philosophy, his faith.


A long-tenured professor of literature at the state university in San Bernardino, nearing sixty-five and mandatory retirement, Derek specialized in American authors of the previous century.


His novelist heroes were the hard-drinking macho bullies from Hemingway to Norman Mailer. His admiration for them was based partly on his literary insights, but it also had the quality of a homely girl’s secret crush on a high-school football star.


Lacking an athletic physique, too kind to punch people out in barroom brawls or to cheer the bloody spectacle of a bullfight, or to dangle a wife from a high-rise window by her ankles, Derek could model himself after his heroes only by immersion in literature and gin. He had spent his life swimming in both.


Some professors might have made fine actors, for they approached teaching as a performance. Derek was one of these.


At his request, Molly had spoken to his students a few times and had seen him in action on his chosen stage. He proved to be an entertaining teacher but also an excellent one.


Here with the drums of Armageddon beating on the roof, Derek dressed as if he were soon to enter a classroom or attend a faculty reception. Perhaps mid-twentieth-century academics had never favored wool slacks and tweed jackets, harlequin-patterned sweater vests, foulard handkerchiefs, and hand-knotted bow ties; however, Derek had not only written his role in life but also had designed his costume, which he wore with authority.


When Molly rose from the table and, with Neil, followed Derek Sawtelle toward the back of the tavern, she saw that once more she had the full attention of the nine dogs.


Three of them—a black Labrador, a golden retriever, and a mutt of complex heritage—were roaming the room, sniffing the floor, teasing themselves with the lingering scents of bar food dropped in recent days but since cleaned up: here, a whiff of yesterday’s guacamole; there, a spot of grease from a dropped French fry.


Since the rain had begun, this was the first time that Molly had seen animals engaged in any activity that seemed right and ordinary. Nevertheless, while the roaming trio kept their damp noses to the plank flooring, they rolled their eyes to watch her surreptitiously from under their lowered brows.


At the quiet end of the bar, where they could not be overheard, Derek said, “I don’t want to alarm anyone. I mean more than they’re already alarmed. But I know what’s happening, and there’s no point in resisting it.”


“Derek, dear,” Molly said, “no offense, but is there anything in your life that you ever found much reason to resist?”


He smiled. “The only thing I can think of was the disgusting popularity of that dreadful cocktail they called a Harvey Wallbanger. In the seventies, at every party, you were offered that concoction, that abomination, which I refused with heroic persistence.”


“Anyway,” said Neil, “we all know what’s happening—in general if not the specific details.”


Gin seemed to serve Derek as an orally administered eyewash, for his gaze was crystalline clear, not bloodshot, and steady. “Before I explain, I must confess to an embarrassing weakness you know nothing about. Over the years, in the privacy of my home, I have read a great deal of science fiction.”


If he thought this secret required confession and penitence, perhaps he was drunker than Molly had realized.


She said, “Some of it’s quite good.”


Derek smiled brightly. “Yes, it is. Undeniably, it’s a guilty pleasure. None of it is Hemingway or Faulkner, certainly, but whole libraries of the stuff are markedly better than Gore Vidal or James Jones.”


“Now science fiction is science fact,” Neil acknowledged, “but what does that have to do with living through tomorrow?”


“In several science-fiction novels,” Derek said, “I encountered the concept of terraforming. Do you know what it is?”


Analyzing the word by its roots, Molly said, “To make earth—or to make a place like the planet Earth.”


“Yes, exactly, yes,” said Derek with the enthusiasm of a Star Trek fan recounting a delicious plot twist in his favorite episode. “It means altering the environment of an inhospitable planet to make it capable of supporting terrestrial life forms. Theoretically, for instance, one could build enormous machines, atmosphere processors, to liberate the composite molecules of a breathable atmosphere from the very soil and rock of Mars, turning a nearly airless world into one on which human beings, flora, and fauna would flourish. In such science-fiction stories, terraforming a planet takes decades or even centuries.”


Molly at once understood his theory. “You’re saying they aren’t using weather as a weapon.”


“Not primarily,” Derek said. “This isn’t the war of the worlds. Nothing as grand as that. To these creatures, wherever they may be from, we are as insignificant as mosquitoes.”


“You don’t go to war with mosquitoes,” Neil said.


“Exactly. You just drain the swamp, deny them the environment in which they can thrive, and build your new home on land that no longer supports such annoying bugs. They’re engaged in reverse terraforming, making Earth’s environment more like that on their home world. The destruction of our civilization is to them an inconsequential side effect of colonization.”


To Molly, who believed that life was a gift given with meaning and purpose, the perfect cruelty and monumental horror that Derek was describing could not exist in Creation as she understood it. “No. No, it’s not possible.”


“Their science and technology are hundreds if not thousands of years more advanced than ours,” Derek said. “Literally beyond our comprehension. Instead of decades, perhaps they can remake our world in a year, a month, a week.”


If this was true, humankind was indeed the victim of something worse than war, denied even the dignity of enemy status, viewed as cockroaches, as less than cockroaches, as an inconvenient mold to be rinsed out of existence with a purging solution.


When Molly’s chest tightened and her breath came less easily than before, when her heart began to race with anxiety, she told herself that her reaction to Derek’s premise was not an indication that she recognized the ring of truth in his words. She did not believe that the world was being taken from humanity with such arrogance and with no fear of the consequences. She refused to believe such a thing.


Evidently sensing her innate resistance to his theory, Derek said, “I have proof.”


“Proof?” Neil scoffed. “What proof could you possibly have?”


“If not proof, at least some damn convincing evidence,” Derek insisted. “Follow me. I’ll show you.”


He turned away from them, toward the back of the tavern, but then faced them again without having taken a step.


“Molly, Neil…I’m sharing this out of concern for you. I don’t mean to cause you any distress.”


“Too late,” Molly said.


“You’re my friends,” Derek continued. “I don’t want to see you waste your final hours or days in futile resistance to an inevitable fate.”


“We have free will. We make our own fate, even if it’s figured in the drift of stars,” Neil said, for so had he been taught, and still believed.


Derek shook his head. “Better to seize what pleasure you can. Make love. Raid Norman Ling’s market for your favorite foods before the place is underwater. Settle into a comforting haze of gin. If others want to go out with a bang…well, let them. But pursue what pleasures are still available to you before we’re all washed into that long, perfect, ginless darkness.”


He turned away from them once more and went to the back of the tavern.


Watching him, hesitating to follow, Molly saw Derek Sawtelle as she had never seen him before. He was still a friend but also other than a friend; he was now the embodiment of a mortal temptation—the temptation to despair.


She did not want to see what he wished to show them. Yet the refusal to look would be a tacit acknowledgment that she feared his evidence would be convincing; therefore, refusal would be the first step on a different road to despair.


Only by seeing his evidence could she test the fabric of her faith and have a chance to hold fast to her hope.


She met Neil’s eyes. He recognized her dilemma, and shared it.


Pausing at the archway that led to a short hall and the public rest rooms, Derek looked back and promised, “Proof.”


Molly glanced at the three lazily roaming dogs, and they looked at once away from her, pretending to be enthralled by the history of dropped food written on the stained wood floor.


Derek passed through the archway, disappearing into the hall.


After a hesitation, Molly and Neil followed him.


21


WHEN DEREK HAD ASCERTAINED THAT THE men’s room was unoccupied, he propped the door open with a trash can and motioned for Molly and Neil to enter.


A strong piney scent rose from the perfumed cakes in the two urinals. Under that astringent fragrance, the odor of stale urine persisted.


The room had three inner doors. Two offered access to toilet stalls, and the third opened on a janitorial closet.


“I had just washed my hands,” Derek said, “and realized there were no paper towels in the dispenser. I opened the closet to look for some….”


A light came on automatically when the closet door was opened, and would go off when it was closed.


The closet contained metal shelves laden with supplies. A broom. A sponge mop and a rag mop. A bucket on wheels.


“I noticed the leak at once,” said Derek.


The ceiling Sheetrock at the back of the closet was saturated. A blister had formed, then broken, and rain had dripped down through the open metal shelving, gradually saturating the supplies stored there.


When Derek removed the bucket, broom, and mops, the closet proved large enough to allow the three of them to crowd inside.


At the sight of Derek’s promised evidence on the wet tile floor, Molly drew back a step, bumping against Neil. She thought the thing must be a snake.


“It’s probably a fungus,” said Derek, “or the equivalent, I think. That would be the closest word we’d have for it.”


On reconsideration, she realized that a colony of mushroomlike fungi lay before her, fat and round and clustered in such a way that they resembled the coils of a gathered serpent.


“It was the size of a round loaf of bread when I first saw it,” Derek said. “That was hardly an hour ago, and already it’s half again as big.”


The fungus was black overall, as shiny black as oiled rubber, with bright yellow ameboid spots edged in orange. That she could have mistaken it for a snake was no surprise, because it looked poisonous and evil.


“The rain isn’t a weapon,” Derek said, stooping beside the fungus. “It’s an instrument of radical environmental change.”


Crouching behind him, peering over his shoulder, Molly said, “I’m not sure I follow you.”


“The water is drawn out of the ocean and processed…somewhere, I don’t know, maybe in hovering ships more immense than we’re able to comprehend. The salt must be removed because the rain isn’t salty. And seeds are added.”

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