She had no credible reason to stop him, only a superstitious fear of what would happen when his fingertips met the silvered surface of the looking glass.
With his free hand, he touched the mirror, which proved to be solid.
Then, in that other bedroom, something moved. A shadow proved not to be a shadow, after all, but a figure sinuous and dark, darting so fast across the mirror’s breadth of view and out of sight that it might have been a man in a cloak, a man with membranous wings—or not a man at all.
With a gasp of surprise, Neil snatched his hand back as if the entity on the other side surely had the power to reach through the mirror as he himself could not.
In the same instant, Molly spun off the bench, exploded to her feet, crazily certain that something had crossed over, through the veil of glass and quicksilver. But no unwanted visitor had entered the bedroom.
She glanced at the clock just as the sideways scroll of numbers abruptly halted. The time was 2:44.
Checking her wristwatch, she discovered that the hour and the minute hands had stopped spinning. Her timepiece agreed with the digital clock—2:44.
The music boxes fell silent.
The miniature carousel horse went from gallop to full stop in a plink, and the dancing figurines froze in midwaltz.
Molly felt suddenly relieved of the real or imagined weight that had been suspended overhead like a giant sword of Damocles.
The half-heard, fully felt, deep pulsations of sound stopped throbbing through her.
“The mirror,” Neil said.
The reflection that it now offered was of the room in which they stood. No ruins, no mold-textured walls, no crawling vine.
Neil shifted his attention from the mirror to the ceiling. Then he went to a window. He peered less at the surrounding forest than at the obscured night sky from which rain poured in great cascades.
“Gone,” he said.
“I felt something,” she admitted. “But…what was it?”
“Don’t have a clue.”
He was not being candid with her, nor she with him.
They had been formed by a culture drunk with the yearning for intergalactic contact, the bedrock of a new faith in which God was but a supporting player. Everyone knew the doctrines of this quasi-religion better than most people remembered the words of the Lord’s Prayer: We are not alone…watch the skies…the answer is out there…. They had been Spielberged and Lucased and Shyamalaned. A thousand movies and TV shows, ten thousand books, had convinced the world that the new magi would be scientists riding not to Bethlehem on camels but to a UFO landing site in mobile labs with satellite dishes on the roofs, and that the salvation of humanity would come from another planet rather than from a higher realm.
Molly knew the signs as prophesied by Hollywood and by science fiction writers. Neil knew them, too.
This September night lay deep inside the Close Encounter Zone. In this territory, alien technology was the only font of miracles.
She didn’t want to put this understanding into words, however, and apparently neither did Neil. A pretense of bewilderment felt safer than candor.
Perhaps their reticence had its roots in the fact that on this subject Hollywood offered two familiar scenarios—one in which the extraterrestrials were benign gods, one in which they were full of wrath and cruel judgment. Thus far, these recent events lacked the sweetness and the twinkle of G-rated family entertainment.
Turning away from the window and from his inspection of the rain-choked sky, Neil said, “Not that we’ll need it…but I’ll get the shotgun.”
Recalling the half-glimpsed, sinuous figure that had flashed darkly across the moldering room in the mirror, Molly retrieved her handgun from the vanity and said, “I’ll get some spare cartridges for this.”
ON THE KITCHEN TABLE LAY THE SHOTGUN and a box of shells. Beside it were the pistol, a spare magazine, and a box of 9-mm cartridges.
Pleated window shades in the kitchen and the adjacent family room held back the night and the sight—though not the omnipresent sound—of the luminous rain.
Molly couldn’t shake the feeling that the surrounding forest, previously a friendly woods, now harbored unknown hostile observers. Neil apparently shared her paranoia; he had helped her lower the shades.
They both intuited that the mysterious forces at work in this drenched night were not restricted to these mountains. Simultaneously they reached for the TV remote, and Neil got it first.
They stood in front of the big screen, watching, too agitated to settle into chairs.
Television reception was not what it should be. Some channels were so afflicted with electronic snow that only ghostly images could be seen through the blizzard. Broken voices spoke distorted words.
One of the twenty-four-hour cable-news networks offered better sound and a relatively clear picture that rolled and flickered only occasionally.
The young woman—Veronica something—anchoring the news desk was as lovely as any movie starlet. Her eyes were avaricious, her smile as genuine as that of a mannequin.
She traded unscripted commentary with a young man, Jack, who might have been a successful underwear model for Calvin Klein if he had not gone to journalism school and majored in broadcasting. His smile, quick to come and quick to falter, revealed bleached-white teeth as square as those of a cow.
War, politics, crime, and even the doings of Hollywood royalty had been washed entirely off the news wires by freakish weather of an unprecedented nature and ferocity.
During the night, unpredicted, the largest continuous storm front ever recorded had formed at sea with impossible speed. It had moved ashore along the entire west coast of the Americas—South, Central, and North.
Reports of a curiously scented rain falling at the rate of four, five, and even six inches an hour had been received, corroborated. Within a few hours, low-lying cities all the way from Argentina to Alaska had begun suffering various degrees of flooding.
Live satellite feeds from both exotic and familiar metropolitan areas, sometimes distorted or grainy, showed cars and trucks afloat in city streets that resembled canals. Families on the roofs of their half-submerged houses. Soggy hillsides sliding away in rivers of mud.
Through every image, like pure-silver threads subtly woven in a tapestry, the luminous rain glimmered, so that Argentina and Alaska, and every point between, seemed unreal, revealed by dream light.
Molly had never been a fan of catastrophic news. She found neither enlightenment nor entertainment value in watching disaster befall others. Usually she would have turned away from the TV, half sick with pity. In this case she sensed that her future was tied to the fate of the strangers on the screen.
More recently, torrential rains had begun falling across Europe. Asia. Africa. From the arid Middle East, even from the parched sands of Saudi Arabia, came reports of rain in unprecedented volume. Video was expected shortly.
Nothing in the breaking news warranted a smile. Manning their anchor desk, Veronica and Jack were nevertheless guided by the first rule of electronic journalism: Establish rapport with the audience; ingratiate yourself and make yourself welcome in their homes; be authoritative but nice, dignified but fun.
Neither of them could entirely conceal the excitement of being junior talent, consigned to the graveyard shift, yet suddenly on-air as a huge story began breaking. Minute by minute, their audience was growing from maybe a hundred thousand insomniacs to perhaps millions of riveted viewers. You could almost hear them calculating the boost their careers would receive from this lucky timing.
Although the precise nature and the seriousness of the current crisis remained unclear, field reports compensated with dramatic content for what they lacked in coherency.
Six hours earlier, prior to the arrival of the rain along the coastline of the Americas, the crew of a French marine-research ship had witnessed the sudden birth of a spectacular waterspout three hundred miles southwest of Tahiti. The twister spun down from a cumulonimbus mass about three miles off the ship’s starboard flank, and grew with astonishing rapidity until the funnel point, sucking at the ocean, broadened to an estimated six hundred meters, more than a third of a mile.
Digital video, shot by a crew member and uploaded through the vessel’s satellite link, revealed a formation of daunting size. A scientist aboard the research ship estimated that the tornado-like form measured three miles in diameter where the highest point of the vertical updraft disappeared into the clouds.
“Sweet Jesus,” Neil whispered.
In these scenes, neither the sea nor the massive column of water churning into the sky was touched by the mysterious luminescence.
Nevertheless, the extraordinary rain, now drumming beyond the blinded windows, must somehow be related to this gigantic waterspout videotaped earlier in the far reaches of the South Pacific. Although Molly couldn’t understand the connection, the worldwide character of these events sharpened her anxiety.
On TV, the raging Pacific vortex spun off mean weather. The day darkened rapidly, as if God had applied a heavy finger to a celestial rheostat. Great claws of lightning tore at the ocean.
If the video frame had included any object with which to compare the funnel, the scale of the phenomenon would have been not merely breathtaking but terrifying. She could sense the cameraman’s fear when the twister began to move toward his ship.
As if rocked with anger and pain as the lightning slashed its great dark hide, the sea thrashed and heaved. The ship dropped into a fearsome trough, a chasm.
The bow dug into the floor of the trough. Tons of water broke over the railing and churned across the deck.
Battered by this surge, the cameraman’s legs were nearly swept out from under him. He kept his balance and staggered off the open deck as the ship abruptly shuddered and rose along the steep face of a colossal swell.
The starlet reporter, Veronica, appeared on the screen again to say that following the transmission of the preceding video, the French ship had not been heard from again.
Jack, her co-anchor, expressed concern for the crew and then, with mindless conviction, concluded that they were certainly safe because “those marine-research guys really know their way around the sea.”
Through a smile as constant as that of a ventriloquist’s wooden partner, Veronica revealed that she had spent one semester of college aboard a sailing vessel in an at-sea learning program.
Molly wanted to scream at them, as if her voice might travel back along a microwave path to New York City or Washington, or to wherever they were located. She wanted to rock them out of their self-satisfied journalistic detachment, which always seemed to her to be merely smug superiority and emotional indifference masquerading as professionalism.
Additional video had been recorded and transmitted via satellite by military personnel aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier currently under way three hundred miles due west of Japan. This tape documented the astonishingly swift development of a dense cloud cover out of a previously clear sky.
Subsequently, at three points of the compass, within sight of observers aboard the aircraft carrier, waterspouts had formed. The diameter of their funnels grew rapidly until each was larger than the single twister captured on video by the French. An officer aboard the carrier, unable to keep either the awe or the tremor of fear out of his voice, added narration to the incredible visuals.
Again, neither the sea nor the spinning funnels revealed any trace of the scintillation that characterized the falling rain.
Impossibly, reports of giant waterspouts were also coming in from ships in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, though these were not supported by video.
Obviously reading from a TelePrompTer, in a pedantic but still ingratiating tone, Veronica said, “Although waterspouts appear to be twisting tubes of solid water, they consist of mist and spray, and are not as formidable as they look.”
“However,” Jack chimed in, “relying on sophisticated computer analysis of Doppler-radar images, technicians aboard the Ronald Reagan determined that the spouts under their observation did not conform to any known models of the phenomenon. These are nearly solid forms, and Dr. Randolph Templeton, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, who joined us in the studio just a short while ago, estimates that each of these funnels is drawing water from the sea at the rate of a hundred thousand gallons per minute.”
“More,” said Templeton when he came on-screen. “Twice that, at least.” He had the good sense not to smile.
In the meteorologist’s eyes, Molly saw the measured fear of an informed intelligence.
Needing to touch Neil, she put a hand on his shoulder, and was less reassured than usual by his solid physique.
With furrowed brow, in a solemn voice, Jack asked Dr. Templeton if these phenomena were the result of global warming.
“The vast majority of meteorologists don’t believe there is any global warming,” Templeton replied with a note of impatience, “at least not any that isn’t natural and cyclical.”
Jack and Veronica both appeared dumbfounded by this statement, and before a producer could murmur a suitable comeback question in their earpieces, they both looked simultaneously at the ceiling of the broadcast studio.
“A very hard rain has just begun falling here in Washington,” said Veronica.
“Remarkably hard,” Jack agreed. Apparently, the producer at last whispered in his earpiece, for Jack turned to the meteorologist. “But Dr. Templeton, everyone knows the effect of greenhouse gases—”
“What everyone knows is bunk,” Templeton said, “and if we’re going to get a handle on this, what we need right now is analysis based on real science, not—”
Neil thumbed the remote control repeatedly until he found one of the three major networks, which had belatedly risen to the crisis like a shark to a swimmer.
The anchorman was older than the pair on cable news, and famous. He preened with self-importance as he interviewed a specialist in satellite-data analysis.
According to the bio line on the bottom of the screen, the expert was Dr. Sanford Nguyen. He worked for the same government agency that employed Randolph Templeton, who was at that moment debating global warming with Jack and Veronica on another channel.
The anchorman was surely being fed questions by an unseen producer and a first-rate team of researchers, but his inquiries rolled off his golden tongue as though he himself were a maven of orbital data-recovery systems.
Dr. Nguyen made the unsettling revelation that three hours prior to the observation of the extraordinary waterspouts, all orbital assets of the National Weather Service and other federal agencies had gone blind. Evidently, industry-owned satellites with high-resolution photographic capability were out of commission, as well. No high-altitude photographic, infrared, or radar images of the waterspouts were available to suggest why and how these phenomena had occurred.
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