Quaking, tail tucked, head low, Virgil slipped past Render to join the children.
Render produced one of his killer smiles, of the intensity and warmth that had charmed her mother into marriage. “What do they call it when you murder your own father? Patricide, I think.”
“I have no father,” she said.
“You tell yourself you don’t, but you aren’t convinced. You know that I came to your school that day because I loved you and didn’t want to lose you.”
“You’ve never loved anyone but yourself.”
“I loved you so much that I killed to get you that day, killed whoever stood in my way, just to have a chance to raise you as a good father should.”
He took a step toward her.
“Stay back,” she warned. “Remember, I shot you twice that day.”
“And in the back,” he agreed. “But you were innocent then, and less aware of the complexities of right and wrong.”
He took another step and reached one hand out to her, palm up, as if in a plea for an emotional connection.
She backed away from him.
Still approaching, he said, “Give Daddy a hug, and let’s sit down and talk about all of this.”
Molly backed into the open gate between the money room and the vestibule. She could retreat farther only if she left the room—and left him with the children.
He kept coming, hand out. “Your mother always believed in the power of love, the wisdom of discussion. She said anything can be accomplished with good will, with compromise. Didn’t she teach you those values, Molly?”
She shot him in the chest. The vault did not muffle the clap of the gun, but rang with it, as if they stood inside a giant bell.
She heard the children scream and was peripherally aware that some of them covered their ears with their hands; some covered their eyes.
The slug jolted Render. And his eyes widened. And he smiled.
She shot him again, a third time, a fourth, but he did not go down. Four bullet holes marked his chest, but no blood spilled from him.
Lowering the gun, she said, “You were dead already. Dead when you came to the tavern.”
“When everything began to fall apart, some of the guards at the sanitarium would have turned us loose,” he said. “Out of pity, out of compassion, rather than leave us caged like animals, to starve or worse. But there were two who wouldn’t have it—and shot us in our cells before they left for home.”
What stood before her was not her father, but a simulacrum of exquisitely convincing detail. Now it changed, and became what it really was: a mottled black-and-gray thing with a face that seemed to have once imploded and been badly reconstructed. Eyes as large as lemons, protuberant, crimson with elliptical black pupils. From shoulders ridged with spiky plates of bone, leathery wings hung folded along its sides.
She knew that she stood now in the presence of a prince from another star, one of the species that had come to take the earth.
When it showed her its big, taloned, and powerful hands, she saw a face in each. Unlike the faces in the fungi, these had some dimension, and looked even more real, more disturbing than those she had seen earlier. In the left hand, the face of Michael Render. In the right hand, the face of Vince Hoyt, the football coach standing faceless now in the lobby of the bank.
The ET closed its enormous hands, and from within its clenched fingers, she heard her father screaming in agony, and Vince Hoyt.
When it opened its hands, the faces had changed, and now she saw a famous politician in the left, a famous actress in the right. These, too, cried out in misery when it crushed them in its fists.
Molly felt light, without any weight at all, as in a dream, as if she might float out of this place and into another chamber of the nightmare.
The thing’s mouth was as ragged as a wound, and when it spoke, she saw teeth like broken glass. “I’ll let you keep your face and walk out of here with four of the lambs. But only four. You choose the one to leave behind.”
Heart knocking hard enough to shake her body and make the pistol jump in her uneasy grip, she looked at the five children, who had heard the creature’s proposition. She would die before she left any of them.
She met the crimson eyes, and as strange as they were, she nevertheless could read them, and realized a truth. Like the walking corpse of Harry Corrigan, like Derek Sawtelle in his tweed jacket and hand-knotted bow tie, like Michael Render, like the talking doll and the walking colonies of fungi, like nearly everyone and everything that she had encountered since waking to the sound of rain, this was an agent of despair, intent upon reducing her to hopelessness.
They had used the bloody tragedy of her childhood, the abiding grief at the loss of her mother to cancer, her deepest fears, her greatest self-doubts, and even her love for the work of T. S. Eliot—which had always given her strength and inspiration—to confuse her, to exhaust her, to induce in her a black despondency that would leave her a hollow woman, a paralyzed force, of no help to the innocent.
There were many things about these events that she didn’t understand yet, that she might never understand, but she knew one thing for certain, even if she didn’t know why it should be true: As long as she had hope, they could not touch her.
“You have no power over me or them. I am their tutelary,” Molly declared, surprised to hear the word escape her, for it was not one she had ever used, though she knew that it meant a special kind of guardian. “I’m taking them out of here. All of them. Now.”
It reached for her face. Its spread talons extended from her scalp to below her chin, from ear to ear, and its touch was as cold as ice, and greasy.
She did not pull back. Or flinch. Or breathe.
After a hesitation, the thing drew its hand away from her.
The ET stared at her for a moment, and though its expressions were as alien as its face, she knew that it was filled with hate and fury and frustration.
As if it were suddenly weightless, the thing rose from the floor, floating upward as, moments ago, she had feared that she herself might have done. It passed through the ceiling, perhaps drawn up into the colossal ship passing over Black Lake.
IN THE MARBLE LOBBY, THE FOUR FACELESS people were gone.
With five children in tow, led by a scampering Virgil, Molly joined Neil and his brood in the street as the low fog bank began to lift and dissipate.
Through the shrouds of purple mist, the passing mother ship was visible. So low, just above the treetops. The vessel revealed such a radically different surface from what movies had prepared her to see that Molly stood gazing up in a state beyond astonishment, so far beyond awe and terror that a curious calm befell her.
No metallic sheen as in a thousand films, no festival of lights as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, no battleship architecture as in Star Wars, but instead something that appeared to be organic and infinitely strange. Here passed a silently gliding leviathan armored in places with chitinous plates similar to those of an insect, but in places scaled, in places smooth and pale and tender and pulsing as if a gargantuan slow heart boomed within, in other areas bristling with rows of spikes or horns, also cratered with what appeared to be wounds, lesions, sores, stippled with writhing knots of tissue resembling snarls of tentacles, deeply crusted with malignant-looking excrescences.
The most incredible features of this corpus malignus were the human faces embedded like blinking eyes throughout its surface, tens of thousands of faces, millions of faces, men and women of all races, revealed and then occluded only to be revealed again as membranes opened and closed over them.
On and on it came, vast in length and breadth, its entire shape too large to be extrapolated from this one aspect, in mass and volume greater than the combined mass and volume of all the ships of sea and air that humankind had constructed throughout its history, a thousand times greater, a thousand times a thousand. Although its propulsion system—and the process by which it defied gravity—continued to produce not one decibel of sound, the leviathan accelerated until the features on its surface began to blur, came faster and faster across Black Lake, mile after mile, and faster still, and then as it continued coming, it began also to rise through the gradually thinning fog, which soon shrouded it again, and rose out of sight.
Seconds after this massiveness vanished, the soundless throb of its engines ceased to wash waves of phantom pressure through Molly. Still in the leviathan’s thrall, however, she stood gazing into the purple mist for half a minute, perhaps longer, as did Neil and the children, until a sudden downpour drenched them.
WHEN THE STORM BROKE, THEY RETREATED to the bank, which was brightened by Coleman lanterns and which seemed to be safe. A search of the rooms turned up no menace, human or otherwise.
Torrents pounded the earth, though perhaps only half as hard as in the first deluge. This rain was not luminous, and it smelled like rain should smell, fresh and clean.
The downpour gradually washed the murk out of the sky, and for a while the day beyond the windows brightened from the unnatural plum-purple gloom to the familiar gray light of an autumn storm.
Some supplies had been transported to the bank before the ETs had interrupted the fortification plans. Molly discovered cases of lantern fuel that for weeks would provide them with well-illuminated quarters. Neil found blankets, cartons of canned meats and fruits, boxes of crackers, cookies, candy, fresh bread and cakes.
They piled blankets three thick to make a series of comfortable beds on the lobby floor. The wealth of dogs would provide additional padding and warmth. A fourth blanket, tied in a loose roll with lengths of cord, made an adequate pillow.
As the day waned, a watery twilight sluiced through the town. The streets were quiet, and except for the rush of rain, so was the sky. Remarkably quiet, considering recent events. Molly did not trust such stillness.
By nightfall, after taking the dogs out for a last toilet, they had checked all the window locks, engaged the deadbolts, and dragged barricades of furniture in front of the doors. The ETs themselves could not be kept out if they chose to phase through ceilings, walls, or floors, but the strange beasts of their home-world ecology would be held at bay.
Molly continued to believe that the children were sacrosanct and that, as their tutelaries, she and Neil were also untouchable, but she wasn’t taking any chances. Besides, there might be men like Render still loose in the world, and from monsters of the human kind, they had no protection except guns.
They could prepare only a cold dinner, but the variety and quality of treats qualified as a feast. They sat in a lamplit circle on the floor, thirteen children and two adults, surrounding an array of open cans and boxes, passing one another whatever was wanted.
At first they ate in a silence born half of weariness and half of shock. Soon, however, the comfort of food and the sugar content of warm soft drinks enlivened them.
Quietly, they spoke of their daunting experiences, swapped stories, groped toward an understanding and acceptance of what had happened. And tried to imagine what might happen next.
The five rescued from the vault told of watching parents and others abducted before their eyes, floated off the floor and through this very ceiling, during a period when the mother ship must have been passing over at too high an altitude to be felt. Some of the abductees had wept in the ascent; others had laughed; but none had resisted.
“Yeah, laughing,” said Eric Crudup, recalling his grandmother’s extraction through two ceilings and a roof. “Going up, they lose it. Nuttier than a can of Planters.”
Their losses were so monumental that they could not yet grasp the dimension of them; therefore, they were not yet cast into grief. But Molly knew that grief would come when the shock subsided.
Curiously, no one raised the issue of the organic appearance of the mother ship, perhaps because it differed so dramatically from anything they had seen in movies that they didn’t know what to think about it—or were afraid to consider possibilities.
By eight o’clock, they bedded down for the night.
Neil insisted on taking the first watch and promised to wake Molly for her shift at one o’clock in the morning.
She expected to lie awake, tormented by images of horrendous destruction and by nervous speculation about the future, but she fell asleep within seconds of putting her head on the makeshift pillow. She did not dream.
Five hours later, Neil woke her. In spite of his promise, he had intended to let her sleep, but the depth of his exhaustion convinced him that he would soon doze off, leaving them vulnerable.
With the pistol at her side, Molly sat in a chair in the soft lamplight, listening to the rhythmic breathing of the sleeping children, the occasional snores of the dogs. For the first time, she had the solitude and the peace to brood about what difference might exist between the wonders she had seen and her interpretation of them. Some elusive truth still teased at the limits of her reason, but she could not quite seize it.
Tutelary. A guardian, a protector, especially one with special powers. Although it wasn’t an archaic word, it wasn’t one that she remembered having used before in either her writing or conversation; yet it had come into her mind as precisely the right word to ward off the ET in the bank vault. Tutelary.
A few minutes before three o’clock in the morning, the rain stopped.
She went to a window to pull aside a blind, but returned to her chair without doing so. She was afraid that clinging to the window would be some fungoid form, human faces screaming silently in the rounded surfaces of its strange flesh.
WITH DAWN, THE TRAMMELED SUN WAS FREED from chains of rain and nets of mist. As if rising in celebration, it painted the eastern heavens with the glow of roses, blued the remainder of the sky, and gilded the windows of Black Lake.
Molly, Neil, the children, and the dogs left the cold marble lobby of the bank for the warm morning in the street. They stood at first in quiet rapture, faces to the sky, mouths open as if to drink the sun’s golden wine.
Only thirty-six hours had elapsed since they had seen sunshine, but Molly felt as if half her life had passed since she had last enjoyed this delicious warmth on her face.
One of the children was the first to notice the restoration of all things. “Hey, all the crap and creepazoids are gone!”
The strangulation of blackish moss had rinsed out of the trees and off the buildings, dissolved, and washed along gutters into storm drains.
The phantasmagoria of fungi, both those that walked and those that rooted, had vanished. What remained was right: sodden grass, dripping shrubbery, washed-out flower beds of gluey mud.
No monkeylike forms capered on the roofs, and nothing red and ravenous crawled through the trees.
Molly felt almost as though she had dreamed it all—or were dreaming now.
The earth had been taken by an extraterrestrial species as ruthless as might have been a race of intelligent crocodiles. The future had promised an end, and soon, to the human experience and the eradication of every human achievement. Yet the future that had been inevitable was not. Here in the still point, the dance of life went on, moment by moment.
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