Each colony of white fungi was some kind of organic penitentiary in which were imprisoned the consciousnesses of those people who died at the hands of the new masters of Earth. More accurately, perhaps, the colonies might be data-storage systems in which were accumulated human minds complete in every aspect, including memory, cognitive functions, and personality.
Molly’s pounding heart seemed to tighten and shrink within her breast, as if withered by these considerations.
More lids peeled back, revealing additional faces, not only on the colony that crawled the ceiling but also on the one that crouched in the corner, and Molly suddenly knew, from the way they focused on her and on the children, and from their expressions, that they were aware in their prisons. Aware, alert, and desperate, some of them had been driven mad by their condition and raged insanely, silently.
Wisely, Virgil split for the upstairs hall.
Anxious to spare Bradley and Allison from further exposure to this abomination, Molly hustled the kids after the dog.
At the doorway, she glanced back and saw another lid peel away from another sphere, revealing the face of the scarred man whom she had shot no more than two or three minutes ago. His gaze found her, and his features twisted with hate.
Abruptly the faces were allowed voices, and from them arose a shrill cacophony of weeping, wailing, screaming, pleas for help, shrieks of rage, cursing, and ululations of mad laughter.
As Molly fled behind the children, down the stairs, the bright craft hovering above the house moved on, leaving the windows muddy purple once more and casting the interior into darkness.
NEIL WANTED TO EXAMINE HER MANGLED and blood-caked ear, but Molly insisted they must get on with the work. Virgil was already on the move, padding east along the street, back the way they had come.
This time the children—eight of them now—proceeded at the head of the column, behind the dog. Molly and Neil followed them, watchful but not any longer in the grip of hair-trigger paranoia.
“The only thing we have to protect the kids from is people,” Molly said. “Ordinary, born-of-man-and-woman people. The bad ones, the sick ones. But the ETs and everything that’s come with them from their world…they’ll leave the children untouched.”
“How can you know that?” he asked.
She quoted the scarred man. “‘Kids ain’t for sifting.’”
“Things happened in that house, gave me a different perspective. I’ll tell you later. The main thing is, the kids are untouchable.”
“I’m not sure, but I’m working on a theory. Another thing is…I think those of us searching for them are untouchable, too.”
“Something sure touched your ear.”
“Not one of them, nothing…alien. There was this guy, this psycho, he killed their parents, was going to kill Bradley and Allison.”
“I thought I heard a shot. But it was muffled, and I couldn’t be sure. I almost came in.”
“It was over by then.”
He regarded her with something more than amazement, perhaps wonder. “You used to just write books.”
“Did I? Maybe a long time ago.”
The shepherd led them into Black Lake’s small downtown center.
Swags of blackish moss draped all the trees and suffocated some of them. Moss had begun to clothe the buildings, as well: fringes along the rain gutters, the windowsills.
“So,” he asked, “are we rescuing or harvesting them?”
“Rescuing, I think. And I feel better about the dogs.”
Quick dark figures capered across the roofs and porch roofs, in and out of the low fog layer, leaping from building to building. They were the size of monkeys, with the agility of macaques and capuchins, but without the playful spirit of monkeys. Their heads were too large for their bodies, which were covered in scales rather than fur, and from a distance their asymmetric faces appeared to have been half melted in a fire. With hands that featured as many fingers as—but a greater complement of knuckles than—the hands of man or monkey, they sometimes tore at themselves as if they were in torment, though the only sounds they made were choking noises that in some instances resembled a wicked chuckling.
Fungi grew everywhere: across lawns and parks, in flower beds and flower boxes. They sprouted from cracks in sidewalks, on the walls of clapboard and wood-shingled buildings. They were not all pale white or black with yellow spots, but came in a great variety of shapes and colors that suggested not a fairyland panorama but a phantasmagoric wasteland of continuously mutating forms in the sweat-drenched dream journeys of a comatose junkie on the edge of overdose.
“What I’m wondering,” Molly said, “is if maybe we’ve been wrong to think the ETs are a monolithic force, a hive dedicated to a single mission, driven by a single desire.”
“It sure looks that way.”
“Yeah. But it’s like bad data processing: garbage in, garbage out. Misperceptions in, mis con ceptions out. There could be factions among them just like there are among human beings. And maybe one of those factions doesn’t believe in completely obliterating a species and its civilization.”
“If so, they’re in the minority, and judging by what’s happened so far, they don’t have a hell of a lot of clout.”
“Except maybe they’ve won a concession that forbids targeting children.”
“But they’re still taking our world from us,” he said, “and how is anyone, especially a child, supposed to survive in this madhouse ecology?”
She frowned. “They can’t. Not with any happiness or hope. But we’ve got something about this wrong, and I’m trying to straighten it out in my head.”
Virgil led them to the bank. During the previous night, in a discussion with the live-free-or-die group at the tavern, Neil had recommended this building as the best place to fortify and defend, assuming there was any hope of meaningful defense or any point in making a last stand.
At first, Molly thought they’d reached the end of their rescue mission. She expected to settle in here with those who chose to fight and to prepare to face the end, if it came, with what dignity and courage they could muster.
Then she realized that no guards were stationed at the front door of the bank. The blinds were drawn at the windows, and as best she could tell, no one watched the street from inside.
“Something’s wrong,” Neil said. “Something’s happened.”
“And five kids are in there,” she said.
The work was not yet completed.
IF THE CHILDREN WERE IN SOME WAY IMMUNIZED against ultimate violence, for whatever reason, they would be safe in the street, watched over by the dogs. Neil ought to be able to accompany Molly into the bank.
Their exemption from this holocaust, however, was no more than a theory, even though supported by some compelling evidence. With only theory to go by, Molly could not leave them without an adult defender.
If one of them had to go into the bank alone, Neil insisted on being the point man this time, but his intention was not met with enthusiasm by Virgil. The dog refused to accompany him. Indeed, the shepherd sat on the pavement in front of the door, blocking entrance.
Neil reached over the dog to open the door, but he discovered that it was locked.
When Molly approached, Virgil rose to his feet and wagged his tail. She reached for the door, which opened before she touched it.
As previously during this odyssey, this infernal tour, the inanimate seemed to harbor intention.
With an embrace and a kiss, Neil conceded the point position to Molly. He returned to the children and the dogs in the street.
During the walk to the bank, she had ejected the magazine from the 9-mm pistol and had replaced the expended cartridge. Ten rounds were loaded, ready. In the pockets of her jeans, she carried a few spares.
Flashlight in her left hand, pistol in her right, she shouldered open the door and followed Virgil inside.
The only bank in Black Lake and environs—constructed in 1936, when depositors needed to be reassured by a financial institution’s grandeur—did not measure up in splendor to larger banks of that period in any major city, but it was impressive in its own modest scale. Marble floors. Six marble columns. Marble wainscoting. The surrounds at the tellers’ windows were ornamental dark bronze with polished fluting and nickel inlays.
Throughout the lobby, in the tellers’ enclosure, in the open area of service desks behind the marble railing, ample light was provided by Coleman gas lanterns, which hissed softly like dreaming snakes.
Molly switched off her flashlight and tucked it under the waistband of her jeans, in the small of her back, leaving both hands for the gun.
Although more than twenty adults, plus five children, had left the tavern with the intention of stocking and fortifying the bank, only four adults, three men and a woman, were in the lobby. They stood side by side, in a line, facing the row of teller windows, their backs to the door.
They didn’t turn when Molly entered, which seemed odd, for the door had made some noise, and the dog’s claws ticked on the floor, inspiring a sleet-storm of echoes from every marble surface.
From the back, she recognized only one of the four: Vince Hoyt, the history teacher and football coach.
He didn’t turn.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
None of the four acknowledged her.
Seeking guidance, she looked down at Virgil. He had abdicated leadership and, favoring Molly with a solemn gaze, waited for her to act.
She crossed the lobby to the line of four, noticing that they stood stiff, heads up, shoulders squared, essentially at parade rest, except that their arms hung slackly at their sides.
“What’s going on?” she asked, and knew the answer when she came around the end of their formation.
They had no faces.
HERE WAS THE PHENOMENON THAT CASSIE had described: people without eyes, noses, mouths, each face smooth from ear to ear and from hairline to the rounded bottom of the chin, the color of pale clay, as glossy and featureless as fired ceramics.
They should have been dead, for they could not breathe.
Although their chests did not rise and fall with exhalation, inhalation, they twitched perceptibly from time to time, and their throats moved as they swallowed. In two of them, a racing pulse throbbed visibly in their temples. And in every case, their hands, slack at their sides, trembled.
They radiated an anxiety that was almost palpable, almost keen enough to smell. They were without faces, but they were still somehow alive—and profoundly afraid.
Somewhere in the bank were five helpless children, and no doubt with them was a thing with faces in its hands. Because its kind seemed to be omniscient, it would know that she had arrived.
Virgil still would not lead, but he stayed bravely at her side, though visible tremors passed through his flanks.
She opened the low bronze gate to the tellers’ enclosure, and stepped into the realm of money, realizing that money had no meaning anymore.
At the back of the tellers’ enclosure, a low railing separated that space from a hallway. She opened another gate and led Virgil into the corridor.
Three Coleman lanterns were evenly spaced along this passage. Nothing disturbed the silence except the hiss of gas burning in the mantles, behind the clear heat shields.
Here the floor was carpeted. The dog made no sound.
Five doors were set in the east side of the hall, three in the west side, all with frosted-glass panes in the top half. Some bore the names of bank officers. Another was labeled REST ROOMS. Two were not marked.
The entrance to the walk-in vault waited at the end. Set in a steel architrave, a massive round stainless-steel door, ringed with three-inch-diameter locking bolts, stood open.
Behind the doors with frosted glass, the rooms were dark. She considered them for a moment but then trusted intuition and passed them warily.
Cassie’s fearful voice played in memory: They can take your face and keep it in their hands, and show it to you, and other faces…
In the vault at least one lantern glowed. She could see no one in the vestibule just beyond the deep jamb.
…faces in their hands…crush them in their fists, and make them scream…
Molly was fifteen feet from the vault door when she felt in mind and marrow, in blood and bone, the return of the airborne leviathan. It was cruising in from the north-northeast, seeming to compress the atmosphere below it, so that she felt like a diver deep in a marine abyss with a great weight of ocean on her shoulders.
A few steps from the vault, she heard a drizzle, turned, and saw Virgil urinating against the wall. Bladder emptied, he came to her, tail tucked, shivering, but still game.
“Good boy,” she whispered, “brave boy.”
At the threshold, fear gave her pause. Mouth dry and hot, hands cold and damp. The checked pistol grip slippery with sweat. She tried to bite back a shudder, but her teeth chattered for a moment like castanets.
She crossed the three-foot-deep, curved steel jamb. Immediately beyond, the day gate stood open.
Directly ahead, past the small vestibule, lay a rectangular chamber lined with safe-deposit boxes. A lantern glowed there, but the room proved to be unoccupied.
To the right of the vestibule, in a steel-framed doorway, a gate stood open. Light beckoned beyond.
Even here in the vault, she could feel the rhythmic throb of the great engines in the mountainous ship making way above the town.
She passed through the gate. To the left lay the money room—shelves laden with cash, coins, and ledgers.
Here, too, were the five children, sitting on the floor, backs against a wall, alive but terrified. And here, as she should have expected, was Michael Render, her father.
RENDER HAD KILLED FIVE CHILDREN IN HER schoolroom, twenty years ago, and here were five more at risk.
As if he knew what she was thinking, he said, “The magic number are present, aren’t they?”
She would have expected the vault walls to cast his voice back in metallic echoes, but they muffled, softened. Although his words were mocking, he sounded like a funeral director, murmuring in respect of the dead.
Molly held the gun in both hands, pointed at his handsome face. “I’m taking them out of here.”
“Nobody dead but you,” she said, “if it comes to that.”
“‘If it comes to that,’” he repeated mockingly. “You’re too morally confused to do the right thing, Molly dear. You could have shot me at the tavern, but you let me go. Let me go to commit what horrors?”
She shook her head. “You’re underestimating me.”
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