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The frenzied fluttering horde in Johnny and Abby’s house had been struggling to find a way out of their nest behind the lath and plaster. The insectile behemoth in the church basement would not have torn violently out of the oak floor if it had been able to phase through that planking with ease.


Consequently, although the tavern provided no safe haven against the powerful lords of this invasion, it offered some protection from the venomous creatures of their ecology.


“They’re all dead, aren’t they?” Cassie asked.


Because the girl’s mother and father were among the missing, Molly said, “Maybe not, honey. Maybe they—”


“No.” The girl didn’t want to be coddled. “Better dead…than with one of those things inside you.”


This seemed to be a reference to something other than spores entering the body through lacerations. Most likely, Cassie had never seen what grew in the janitorial closet or the white colonies that now crawled the half-light of the purple morning.


“What things?” Molly asked.


“The things with faces in their hands.”


Angie had mentioned one such being. The girl spoke of things, plural.


The three dogs stirred and made thin anxious sounds and growled softly, as though they remembered the entities of whom she spoke.


“What does that mean, Cassie—faces in their hands?”


The girl’s voice fell to a whisper. “They can take your face and keep it in their hands, and show it to you, and other faces, and crush them in their fists, and make them scream.”


This explanation failed to dispel Molly’s confusion. The answers to a few more questions gave her a somewhat better idea of what had happened to Cassie’s parents and to others in the tavern, but left her with an inadequate image of the things with faces in their hands.


Three of them had risen through the tavern floor, into the midst of the people gathered there. They were humanoid in form—between six and seven feet tall, with two legs, two arms—but far from human in appearance.


The extreme alien aspect of these creatures caused even the peace lovers to panic. Some had tried to flee, but the ETs had halted them simply by pointing, not with a weapon or instrument but with a hand. Likewise, a mere pointing at once silenced those who screamed and caused those with weapons to drop them without firing a shot.


To Molly, this suggested telepathic control—another reason to wonder if the taking of the world could be resisted to any significant extent.


The three ETs had then moved among the people, “taking their faces.” What this meant, Molly could not adequately ascertain.


At first, according to Cassie, there was just “smooth” where each person’s face had been, and the face that had been removed was “alive in the thing’s hand.”


Subsequently, for a moment, an alien face—like those of the three who had risen through the floor—formed out of the smoothness where the stolen countenance had been. Then it faded, and the original face, the human face, returned.


This had suggested to Cassie that alien masters had been installed inside these people, but that was definitely movie thinking and might not be the correct explanation.


The girl had not witnessed all of those in the tavern being subjected to this process, because in fear she’d fled to the women’s lav, with the dogs accompanying her. She hadn’t been willing to risk leaving by the front door, because to get there, she would have been forced to pass too close to the ETs.


Here in the lavatory, Cassie had waited, expecting one of the things to seek her out and to take her face.


Molly wasn’t able to sift any useful hard facts from the girl’s bizarre account, but she inferred from it that Cassie had been spared neither by accident nor by oversight. The ETs intentionally allowed her to escape. When she’d run, they could have halted her as they had halted any adults who tried to flee.


Abby and Johnny, trapped in a house that was “changing…almost alive,” had not been attacked either by the beast that slaughtered their drunken father in the garage or by the agitated multitudes whispering in the walls.


Eric, Elric, and Bethany had not been “floated” through the ceiling and into the storm with their parents and grandmother. And in the attic, they’d been rescued from the amorphous predator visible only in peripheral vision, the thing that smelled of “burnt matches, rotten eggs, and poop.”


In the church, although Bethany had a close call, all five of the children had been saved from certain death—and perhaps not entirely because of actions that Molly and Neil had taken.


The inference that Cassie had intentionally been spared led to the further inference that at this point in the taking of the world, the war plan called for the ruthless extermination of most human beings above a certain age—but specified the preservation of the children.


At first this seemed baffling if not inexplicable, but then in the mare’s-nest of surreal events, among the tangle of dark wonders and impossibilities that defined the past twelve hours, Molly found and followed a thread of logic leading inexorably to a suspicion that chilled her.


One by one, she met the eyes of each of the three dogs. Mutt, mutt, retriever: They regarded her forthrightly, expectantly, tails wagging tentatively.


She scanned the floor, walls, ceiling.


If her thoughts had been read, her suspicion known, she expected that something would enter the lavatory through one solid surface or another, take her face, and then her life.


Here at the still point of the turning world, she waited to die—and didn’t.


“Come on, sweetie,” she said to Cassie, “let’s get out of here.”


51


THE OVERCAST REMAINED LOW, DENSE, PURPLE. The livid half-light might henceforth be a permanent condition of the daytime, from dawn to dusk.


Elsewhere in the dying town, the weeping of a woman was answered by the weeping of a man, which was answered by the weeping of another woman, each of the three expressing her or his misery in precisely the same series of wretched sobs and wails. The crawling white fungi seemed to be ceaselessly exploring or perhaps seeding new colonies where they found ideal conditions.


Outside the tavern, after turning Cassie over to Neil’s care and giving him a hug, Molly took the three Crudup kids aside to revisit the story they had told her during the journey from St. Perpetua’s to the Tail of the Wolf. Fresh from her experience with Angie in the tavern receiving room, and with Cassie’s account to consider, she should be able to make more sense of Eric, Elric, and Bethany’s tale.


Their mother and father had floated up from the family-room floor as if suddenly exempted from gravity. The couple had passed through the ceiling, then through the ceiling of the second-floor bedroom above, and finally through the roof, out of the house. As astonished and amazed as they were terrified, the kids had dashed up the stairs and then scrambled up the attic ladder, following their parents from level to level.


This had occurred during one of the leviathan’s transits over the town, when its hovering weight oppressed and when the silent throbbing of its engines could be felt in the bones. Therefore, the kids had reached the conclusion that their parents had been beamed aboard the mother ship.


Their grandmother, of whom the children spoke with an affection that didn’t characterize any mention of their parents, reacted with horror to the extraordinary ascent of her daughter and son-in-law. She had not been comforted by her grandchildren’s assurances—based on movies and TV shows—that those who were beamed aboard an alien ship were always beamed down again, even if after rude examinations and sometimes painful experiments.


Less than an hour later, when the grandmother abruptly floated off the floor toward the family-room ceiling, she had not let out a scream, as might have been expected, but only a small cry of surprise as her feet left the carpet. Looking down on her grandchildren, she astonished them by smiling, and she waved before she passed through the ceiling.


By the time the kids caught up with her on the second floor, she was laughing. And in the attic, before she vanished through the roof, she said, “Don’t worry about Gramma, darlings. I don’t feel the arthritis at all.”


Now Eric continued to insist that their grandmother had gone “nuttier than a can of Planters,” a contention that angered Bethany no less than it had earlier. Elric remained neutral on the issue.


Because of Molly’s troubling suspicion, formed while she had listened to Cassie in the tavern, she was especially interested in the post-grandmother part of this story, when the Crudup children had been alone in the house.


The sickening odor of the hostile presence had made them gag when they had clambered into the attic for the second time. Bethany cupped her hands over her nose and mouth, trying to filter out the worst of the stench, but the twins, being named for Scandinavian heroes, breathed through their mouths and endured.


They hadn’t identified the source of the stink until their grandmother had passed through the roof, whereupon they spotted a creature that was more easily seen from the corner of the eye than when you looked directly at it, that was more shape than detail, that kept changing shape, that stood between them and the only exit from the attic.


“It wanted us,” said Bethany.


Of that, none of the three children had the slightest doubt.


It would have gotten them, too, they agreed, if not for the woman who looked like Obi-Wan Kenobi.


What they meant was not that the woman physically resembled Sir Alec Guinness (in fact, she was pretty), not that she might have been as ancient as Obi-Wan (old, they agreed, but perhaps only a few years older than Molly), not that she had been dressed in a hooded robe of extragalactic style (they couldn’t remember what she wore), but that she’d been a little bit translucent as they remembered Obi-Wan having been when, after his death, he sometimes visited Luke Skywalker to offer guidance.


The kids were not able to agree by what means the woman had made the beast retreat—words of enchantment, a magic ring, elaborate hand mojo that gestured it into submission, the sheer force of her personality—but they did agree that she banished it to a far end of the attic, away from the trapdoor, which had been the only exit. They fled that high chamber and never looked back either at the reeking thing of many shapes or at the apparition that had saved them.


“She kinda looked like you,” Bethany told Molly.


“No, she didn’t,” said Eric.


“Well,” Elric said, “I sorta think she did.”


“Kinda like you,” Bethany insisted.


Eric studied Molly’s face. “Yeah, maybe she did.”


Molly had no idea what to make of this development, whether to make anything at all of it.


More important, in walking these children through their story again, she had found support for the terrible suspicion that had overcome her in the tavern.


She surveyed the surrounding town. In the west, one of those luminous craft, disc or sphere, streaked north to south through the fog layer, and at ground level its passing light made the shadows of houses and trees appear to quicken after it like a horde of malevolent spirits drawn by a Piper playing a tune beyond human hearing.


The ETs, these new masters of a remade Earth, were indifferent to suffering and were capable of cruelties that exceeded in every instance the wickedest acts of humanity, which was frequently a cruel species in its own right. Yet they were allowing—perhaps ensuring—the survival of most if not all of the children.


These destroyers of civilizations were without mercy. If most or all of the children were intentionally being spared, surely their reprieve would be temporary. The ETs must have some special use for them.


52


“WHAT SPECIAL USE?” NEIL ASKED.


“Don’t know, can’t even guess,” Molly said.


They stood in the middle of the street, apart from the six children and the four dogs, speaking softly, looking not at each other but at the surrounding buildings and trees.


For the immediate future and probably for the rest of their lives, which might be one and the same, they would be on sentry duty no matter what other tasks they were engaged upon. When they grew weary, they would have to take turns sleeping.


Maybe the ETs wanted the kids to survive for the time being, and maybe Molly and Neil, as guardians of the children, were not on the extermination list, at least for the moment, but they couldn’t trust that she had made the correct inferences from recent events. Their best hope was diligence, if they had any hope at all.


A grim analogy occurred to her. “We’re harvestmen.”


“We’re what?” Neil asked.


“The children are the crop. We’ve been sent into the fields to harvest them.”


She could see that this idea was a spider that crawled his nerves, perhaps because it rang as true as penitential bells.


“We are who we are, doing what we want to do,” he said by way of weak denial.


“Which makes us useful to the bastards,” she suggested. “But whatever fate the kids are being harvested for, we damn sure aren’t going to deliver them to it.”


Considering the imbalance of power between them and the aliens, this oath sounded like bravado and felt like ashes in her mouth, but she meant to die, if necessary, in the fulfillment of it.


“Don’t trust the dogs,” she warned him.


Neil studied the four canines that, alert for danger, slowly circled the children. “They’re devoted to the kids.”


“Loyal, courageous,” she agreed, “as dogs nearly always are. But these aren’t ordinary animals.”


“We know that much from their behavior,” he agreed.


“They’re dogs but something more than dogs. At first it seemed magical, with Virgil and the rose and all. But it’s the ‘something more’ we can’t trust.”


He met her eyes. “You all right?”


She nodded. “It was ugly in the tavern.”


“All dead?”


“Or worse.”


He said, “If it comes to that…”


Trying to help him, she said, “Death, you mean.”


“If it comes to that, you want me to give you extreme unction?”


“Can you?”


“I don’t hold the office anymore, but I still know the words, and believe them.” He smiled. “I think I’ll be cut some slack.”


“All right,” she said. “Yes. I’d like it if you would. If it comes to that.”


“Have you prepared yourself?”


“Yeah. The first time one of those bright craft hovered over us, pretty much your classic flying saucer, you and me with Johnny and Abby in the street. I expected death rays like something from The War of the Worlds.”

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