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Weary and disoriented by too many highways, too many towns, too many strangers, too-many changes. During the past few months I had worked in half a dozen gillys and ragbags, the bottom of the carnival business, and I had heard how much better the life was when you were hooked up with an organization like E. And now that I had walked this midway in the dark, soaking up both physical and psychic impressions, I wanted to stay.
In spite of the bad aura around the Ferris wheel, in spite of the premonition that murder would be done and blood spilled in the days to come, the Sombra outfit gave off other, better emanations, and I sensed I could find happiness here too. I wanted to stay more than I had ever wanted anything else. I needed a home and friends.
I was only seventeen. But if I were to stay, he must die. I didn't think I could live in the carnival knowing that one of them nested in it too. I held the knife at my side. I went after him, past the Caterpillar, around the back of the Tilt-a-Whirl, stepping over thick power cables, trying to t avoid putting a foot down on any litter that would reveal my presence to him as it had revealed him to me.
We moved toward the dark, quiet center of the carnival. He scurried through the archipelago of night, rushing across the islands of moonlight, much preferring the deep pools of darkness and hesitating there only when he needed to reconnoiter, dodging from one bit of cover to the next, repeatedly glancing behind but never glimpsing or sensing me.
I followed noiselessly through the center of the midway, not on either of the parallel concourses but through the rides and past the backs of game stands and refreshment shacks, past the Whip, between the Tip Top and the Whirlwind, observing him from concealment provided by now dormant gasoline-powered generators, trucks, and other equipment scattered the length of the grounds.
His destination proved to be the open-air Dodgem Car pavilion, where he paused for one last look around, then climbed the two steps, unhitched the gate, and stepped under the electrical-grid ceiling, moving among the small cars that were parked wherever their last paying drivers had left them, from one end of the wooden floor to the other.
Perhaps I could have hidden in the nearby shadows, there to observe him for a while, until I had some idea of his intentions. Perhaps that would have been the wisest course, for I knew less of the enemy in those days than I know now and might have benefited by even the most trivial addition to my meager store of knowledge.
However, my hatred of the goblins-which was the only name that I could think to give them-was exceeded only by my fear, and I worried that delaying the confrontation would erode my courage. With perfect stealth, which was not one of my special gifts but, rather, a consequence of being seventeen and lithe and in excellent physical condition, I approached the Dodgem Car pavilion and followed the goblin inside.
The two-seat cars were small, only slightly higher than my knees. A pole rose from the rear of each car to the ceiling grid, from which power was drawn down to allow the driver to collide violently with the other maniacally piloted vehicles. When the marks crowded the midway, the area around the Dodgem Cars was usually one of the noisiest places in the carnival, the air rent with screams and cries of attack, but now it was as preternaturally silent as the petrified stampede of the carousel horses.
Because the cars were low and offered virtually no concealment, and because the raised floor was wood with a crawlspace underneath that encouraged every footstep to echo in the still night air, an undetected advance was not easy.
My enemy unwittingly assisted me by concentrating intently upon whatever task had brought him out into the moon-ruled carnival, most of his caution having been expended on the journey here. He was on his knees at the rear of a car halfway across the long rectangular pavilion, his head bowed over the focus of a flashlight beam. As I edged closer, the amber back splash of the light confirmed that he was indeed a large specimen, with a thick neck and broad shoulders. His wide back was visibly well muscled under the tightly stretched material of his yellow and brown-checkered shirt.
In addition to the flashlight, he had brought a cloth tool pouch, which he had unrolled and placed on the floor beside him. The tools nestled in an array of pockets and glinted as errant rays from the flashlight found them and bounced off their smoothly machined surfaces.
He worked quickly, with only a little noise, but the soft scrape and tick and squeak of metal against metal was sufficient to mask my steady advance. I intended to steal within six feet of him, then launch myself on him and ram my blade into his neck, seek and sever the jugular, before he realized that he was not alone. However, in spite of the noises he made and in spite of my cat-soft approach, when I was still twelve or fifteen feet from him, he suddenly became aware that he was being watched, and he half turned from his mysterious task, looking back and up at me, astonished, owl-eyed.
From the Eveready pocket flash, which he had propped on the fat rubber bumper of the car, light streamed across his face, diminishing in intensity from chin to hairline, distorting his features, creating queer shadows above his prominent cheekbones, and making his bright eyes seem fantastically sunken.
Without the grotesque effect of the light, he still would have had a hard, cruel look, thanks to a bony forehead, eyebrows grown together over a wide nose, a prognathous jaw, and a thin slash of a mouth that, because of the overly generous features that surrounded it, seemed even more a slit than it really was. Because I held the knife at my side, shielded from him by the position of my body, he still did not realize the degree of his danger.
With a boldness born of the smug superiority that is characteristic of all the goblins I have ever encountered, he tried to bluff me. Are you with the show? Never seen you around. What're you up to? I saw the goblin within, beyond his masquerade. And this is the most difficult thing of all to explain, this ability to perceive the beast within, for it is not as if my psychic sight peels back the human countenance and reveals the lurking horror underneath, nor is it that I can discard the illusion of humanity and obtain an unobstructed view of the malignant illusionist who thinks he deceives me.
Instead I see both at once, the human and the monstrous, the former superimposed upon the latter. Maybe I can best explain by way of an analogy drawn from the art of pottery. At a gallery in Carmel, California, I once saw a vase with a gloriously transparent red glaze, luminescent as air at the open door of some mighty furnace; it gave the impression of fantastic depth, magical three-dimensional realms and vast realities, within the flat surface of the clay.
I see something much like that when I look at a goblin. The human form is solid and real in its own way, but through the glaze I see the other reality within. There in the Dodgem Car pavilion I saw through the midnight mechanic's human glaze to the demonic masquerader within. He had no fear of ordinary human beings, for in his experience they could not harm him. He did not know that I was not ordinary. Do the Sombra Brothers employ you? Or are you just a stupid, nosy kid poking into other people's business?
Its skull was shaped like that of a German shepherd, the mouth filled with wickedly pointed teeth and hooked fangs that seemed neither canine nor porcine but reptilian. The snout more closely resembled that of pig than dog, with quivering, fleshy nostrils. It had the beady, red, malevolent eyes of a mean hog, around which the pebbled amber skin shaded darker until it was the green of beetie's wings. When it spoke, I saw a coiled tongue unfold part way inside its mouth.
Its five-fingered hands were humanlike, although with an extra joint in each, and the knuckles were larger, bonier. Worse, it had claws, black and gnarled, pointed and well honed. The body was like that of a dog that had evolved to such an extent that nature meant for it to stand upright in imitation of a man, and for the most part there was an appearance of grace in its form, except in its shoulders and knotted arms, which seemed to contain too much malformed bone to allow fluid movement.
A second or two passed in silence, a silence occasioned by my fear and by a distaste for the bloody task confronting me. My hesitancy probably seemed like guilty confusion, for he started to bluster at me some more and was surprised when, instead of running away or making a flimsy excuse, I flung myself upon him.
I know what you are," I said through clenched teeth as I rammed the knife deep. I struck at his neck, at the throbbing artery, missed. Instead the blade plunged into the top of his shoulder, slipping through muscle and cartilage, between bones. He grunted with pain but did not howl or scream. My declaration stunned him. He wanted interruption no more than I did. I tore the knife out of him as he fell back against the Dodgem Car, and taking advantage of his momentary shock, I stabbed again.
If he had been an ordinary man, he would have been lost, defeated as much by the temporary paralysis of terror and surprise as by the ferocity of my attack. However, he was a goblin, and although he was encumbered by his disguise of human flesh and bone, he was not limited to human reaction.
With inhumanly quick reflexes he brought up one beefy arm to shield himself and hunched his shoulders and drew his head in as if he were a turtle, the net effect of which was to deflect my second blow. The blade sliced lightly across his arm and skipped over the top of his skull, gouging his scalp but doing no serious damage.
Even as my knife ripped up a small patch of skin and hair, he was shifting from a defensive to an offensive posture, and I knew I was in trouble. I was atop him, shoving him against the car, and I tried driving a knee into his crotch to give myself time to wield the knife again, but he blocked the knee and grabbed a handful of my T-shirt. I knew that his other hand was coming for my eyes, so I threw myself backward, pushing off him with one foot on his chest. My T-shirt tore from collar to hem, but I was free, tumbling across the floor, between two cars.
In the great genetic lottery that is God's idea of efficient management, I had won not only my psychic gifts but also a natural athletic ability, and I had always been quick and agile. If I had not been thus blessed, I would never have survived my first fight with a goblin my Uncle Denton , let alone that nightmare battle among the Dodgem Cars. Our struggles had dislodged the Eveready propped on the rubber bumper, which fell to the floor and went out, leaving us to war in shadows, able to see each other only by the indirect, milky radiance of the waning moon.
Even as I tumbled away and came to my feet in a crouch, he was launching up from the car, rushing toward me, his face a black blank except for a pale disc of cataractic light shimmering in one eye. As he descended on me, I swung the knife up from the floor in a skyward arc, but he jerked back.
As the blade swept by a quarter of an inch from the tip of his nose, he seized the wrist of my knife hand. With his greater size came superior strength, and he was able to hold my right arm rigidly above my head. He pulled back his right arm and drove his fist into my throat, a terrible blow that would have crushed my windpipe if it had landed squarely.
But I lowered my head and twisted away from him, taking the impact half in the throat and half in the neck. Nevertheless, the punch was devastating. I gagged, couldn't draw breath. Behind my watering eyes I saw a rising darkness much deeper than the night around us. Desperate, with an adrenaline-stoked strength born of panic, I saw his fist drawing back to take another whack at me, and I abruptly stopped struggling.
Instead I embraced him, clung to him, so he would not be able to put power behind his punches, and in frustrating his counterattack I found both my breath and hope. We stumbled several steps across the floor, turning, dipping, breathing hard, his left hand still locked around my right wrist, our two arms raised.
We must have looked like a bizarre pair of clumsy apache dancers performing without benefit of music. When we drew close to the scalloped wooden railing that ringed the pavilion, where the ash-silver moonlight was brightest, I saw through my adversary's human glaze with unusual and startling clarity, not because of the moon but because my psychic power seemed to surge for a moment. His counterfeit features faded until they were like the barely visible lines and planes of a crystal mask.
Beyond the now perfectly transparent costume, the hellish details and nauseating textures of the dog-pig thing were more vivid and real than I had ever perceived before-or wished to perceive. Its long tongue, as forked as that of a serpent, pebbled and wart-covered, oily and dark, flickered out of its ragged-toothed mouth. Between its upper lip and its snout there was a band of what at first appeared to be crusted mucus but was evidently an agglomeration of scaly moles, small cysts, and bristling warts.
The thick-rimmed nostrils were dilated, quivering. The mottled flesh of the face looked unhealthy-worse, putrescent. And the eyes. The eyes. Red, with fractured black irises like broken glass, they fixed on mine, and for a moment, as we struggled there by the pavilion railing, I seemed to fall away within those eyes, as if they were bottomless wells filled with fire. I was aware of hatred so intense that it almost scared me, but the eyes gave a view of more than mere loathing and rage.
They also revealed an evil far more ancient than the human race and as pure as a gas flame, so malignant that it could have withered a man the way the gaze of the Medusa turned the most courageous warriors to stone. Yet, worse than the evil was the palpable sense of madness, an insanity beyond human comprehension or description, though not beyond human apprehension.
For those eyes somehow conveyed to me the knowledge that the creature's hatred of humankind was not just one facet of its sickness but was at the very core of its madness, and that all the perverse invention and fevered plotting of its insane mind was directed solely toward the suffering and destruction of as many men, women, and children as it was able to touch. I was sickened and repelled by what I saw in those eyes and by this intimate physical contact with the creature, but I dared not break my embrace of it, for that would have been the death of me.
Therefore I clung even tighter, closer, and we bumped against the railing, then staggered a few steps away from it. He had made a vise of his left hand and was determinedly grinding the bones in my right wrist, trying to reduce them to splinters and calcium dust-or at least force me to release the knife.
The pain was excruciating, but I held on to the weapon, and with more than a small measure of revulsion I bit his face, his cheek, then found his ear and bit it off. He gasped but did not shriek, indicating a desire for privacy even greater than mine and a stoic resolve that I could never hope to match.
However, though he stifled a cry as I spat out his ruined ear, he was not so inured to pain and fear that he could continue the battle without flinching. He faltered, reeled backward, smashed into a roof post, brought one hand to his bleeding cheek, then to his head in a frantic search for the ear that was no longer attached. He was still holding my right arm above my head, but he was not as powerful as he had been, and I twisted free of him.
That might have been the moment to thrust the knife into his guts, but restricted circulation numbed my hand, and I could barely maintain a grip on the weapon. An attack would have been foolhardy; my senseless fingers might have dropped the knife at the crucial moment. Gagging on the taste of blood, resisting the urge to vomit, I backed rapidly away from him, transferring the weapon to my left hand, working my right hand vigorously, opening and closing it, with the hope of exercising the numbness out of those fingers.
That hand began to tingle, and I knew it would be back to normal in a few minutes. Of course, he didn't willingly give me the minutes I required. With a fury so bright that it should have lit the night, he charged toward me, forcing me to dodge between two of the miniature cars and vault over another.
We circled the pavilion for a while, our roles somewhat reversed from what they had been when I'd first crept in through the gate. Now he was the cat-one-eared but undeterred, and I the mouse with one numb paw. And although I scurried about with a quickness and limberness and cunning born of a renewed and acute sense of mortality, he did what cats always do with mice: He inevitably closed the gap in spite of all my maneuvers and stratagems.
The slow pursuit was eerily quiet, marked only by the thump of footfalls on the hollow floor, the bone-dry scrape of shoes on wood, the creak-rattle of the Dodgem Cars as we occasionally put a hand out to steady ourselves in the process of slipping over or around them, and heavy breathing. No words of anger, no threats, no pleas for mercy or reason, no cries for help. Neither of us would give the other the satisfaction of a whimper of pain. Gradually circulation returned to my right hand, and although my tortured wrist was swollen and throbbing, I thought I had recovered sufficiently to employ a skill that I had learned from a man named Nerves MacPhearson in another, less fancy carnival where I had passed a few weeks in Michigan, earlier in the summer, after fleeing the police in Oregon.
Nerves MacPhearson, sage and mentor and much-missed, was a knife-thrower extraordinaire. Wishing Nerves was with me now, I slipped the knife-which had a weighted handle and overall balance designed for throwing-from left hand to right. I hadn't thrown it at the goblin when he'd been kneeling at the Dodgem Car, for his position had not allowed a clear and mortal hit.
And I hadn't thrown it the first time that I had broken free of him because, in truth, I didn't trust my skill. Nerves had taught me a lot about the theory and practice of knife-throwing. And even after saying good-bye to him and moving on from the show in which we had traveled together for a while, I continued to study the weapon, expending hundreds of additional hours refining my skill.
However, I was most definitely not good enough to throw the knife at the goblin as a first resort. Considering my enemy's advantages of size and strength, if I only slightly wounded him or missed altogether, I would be virtually defenseless. Now, however, having tangled with him in hand-to-hand combat, I knew that I was no match for him and that a well-calculated toss of the knife was my only chance of survival. He didn't seem to notice that in transferring the knife to my left hand, I had gripped it by the blade instead of the handle, and when I turned and ran into a long stretch of pavilion where there were no obstructing cars, he assumed that fear had gotten the better of me and that I was running from the fight.
He came after me, heedless of his own safety now, triumphant. When I heard his heavy footfalls on the boards behind me, I stopped, whirled, judged position-angle-velocity in a wink, and let the blade fly. Ivanhoe himself, letting loose with his best-placed arrow, could have done no better than I did with my tumbling knife. It tumbled exactly the right number of times and struck at precisely the right whirling moment, taking him in the throat and burying itself to the hilt. The point must have been sticking out the back of his neck, for the blade was six inches long.
He came to an abrupt, swaying halt, and his mouth popped open. The light where he stood was meager but sufficient to show the surprise in both the human eyes and in the firey demon eyes beyond. A single jet of blood, like a gush of ebony oil in the gloom, spouted from his mouth, and he made croaking noises.
He drew breath with a futile hiss and rattle. He looked astonished. He put his hands to the knife. He fell to his knees. But he did not die. With what appeared to be monumental effort, the goblin began to shuck out of its human shell. More accurately, nothing was sloughed off; rather, the human form began to lose definition. Facial features melted together, and the body began to change as well.
The transformation from one state to the other seemed agonizing, exhausting. As the creature dropped forward on its hands and knees, the human masquerade kept reasserting itself, and that horrid pig-snout appeared, receded, and reappeared several times. Likewise, the skull flowed into a canine shape, held for a moment, began to revert to human proportions, then reasserted itself with new vigor, sprouting murderous teeth.
I backed away, reached the railing, and paused there, prepared to vault across and onto the midway if the goblin should magically acquire new strength and immunity from the knife wound merely by virtue of its hideous metamorphosis. Perhaps, in its goblin form, it was capable of healing itself in a way it could not while trapped in the human condition.
That seemed unlikely, fantastic-though no more fantastic than the very fact of its existence. At last, having devolved almost completely, working its huge jaws and gnashing its teeth, clothes hanging absurdly on its altered frame, claws having punched out through the leather of its shoes, it dragged itself across the pavilion floor in my direction.
Its malformed shoulders, arms, and hips, all burdened with strange excrescences of useless bone, worked laboriously, although I had the feeling that they would have driven the beast forward with inexplicable grace and speed if it had not been wounded and weakened. Unfiltered by the costume of humanity, its eyes were now not simply red but luminous as well; they did not shine with refracted light like the eyes of a cat but poured forth a bloody radiance that shimmered in the air before them and laid a red swath on the otherwise dark floor.
For a moment I was certain that the metamorphosis did, in fact, renew the enemy, and I am sure that is why it changed. In its human form it was trapped and rapidly dying, but in its goblin identity it could call upon an alien strength that might not save it but might, at least, give it enough additional resources to pursue and kill me as a last defiant act.
Because we were alone here, because there was no one else to see what it became, it risked this revelation. I had witnessed such a thing once before in similar circumstances, with another goblin, in a small town south of Milwaukee. It was no less terrifying the second time. The creature swelled with a new vitality. It seized the handle of the knife in one clawed hand, tore the blade out of its throat, and threw it aside.
Slavering, drooling blood, but grinning like a fiend risen from the Pit, it scuttled toward me on all fours. I leapt up onto the railing and was about to go over when I heard a car approaching along the wide concourse that passed beside the pavilion. I figured it must be the long-anticipated security guards making their rounds. Hissing, thumping its short, thick tail against the floorboards, the beast had nearly reached the railing. It glared up at me, eyes lit with murderous intention.
The engine of the approaching car grew louder, but I did not rush to the security men for help. I knew the goblin would not obligingly maintain its true form for their inspection; instead it would reclothe itself in its disguise, and I would be leading the guards to what would appear to be a dead or dying man, my victim. Therefore, as the headlights became visible but before the car pulled into view, I leapt off the railing, back into the pavilion, jumping over the beast, which reared up and tried to grab me but missed.
I landed on both feet, skidded to my hands and knees, rolled, came onto hands and knees again, and crawled most of the way across the pavilion before turning and looking back. The twin ruby gleams of the goblin's hot gaze were fixed on me. The shattered throat, broken windpipe, and spurting arteries had weakened it, and it was reduced to slithering on its belly.
It came slowly like a tropical lizard suffering from cold-thickened blood, closing the gap between us with evident agony but equal determination. It was twenty feet away. Beyond the goblin, beyond the pavilion, the headlights of the oncoming car grew brighter still; then the Ford sedan itself appeared, cruising slowly, engine purring, tires making an oddly soft sound in the sawdust and litter.
The lights fell on the concourse, not on the Dodgem Car structure, but one of the security men in the sedan was operating a spotlight, which he now swept along the side of the pavilion. I pressed flat to the floor. The goblin was fifteen feet away from me and inching nearer.
The waist-high railing that encircled the Dodgem Car field of battle was so heavy and solid that the spaces between the thick and closely set balusters were narrower than the balusters themselves. That design was fortunate; although the spotlight flickered through the gaps, there was no place where the guards could get a good look into the pavilion, certainly not as long as they continued to move. The dying goblin flopped forward with another spasmodic flexing of its powerful legs, heaving into a patch of moonglow, where I could see blood oozing from its piggish snout and dripping from its mouth.
Twelve feet away. It snapped its jaws and shuddered and heaved again, its head moving out of the light, into shadow. Ten feet. I slid backward, staying flat on my belly, eager to get farther from this living gargoyle-but I froze after moving only a couple of feet, for the cruising security car had come to a full stop on the concourse, directly beside the Dodgem Car attraction.
I told myself that it must be part of the guards' routine to stop every so often along their patrol route, that they had not halted in response to anything they had seen in the pavilion, and I prayed fervently that such would prove to be the case. Nevertheless, on a night as warm and sticky as this one, they would be riding with their windows open, and once stopped, they were more likely to hear any sound that I or the goblin made.
With that in mind I ceased retreating from my enemy, skinned myself to the floor, and silently cursed this nasty bit of luck. With a grunt and a lurch and a hard-drawn breath, the wounded beast dragged itself closer to me, reclosing the gap I had begun to widen, once more only ten feet away. Its vermilion eyes were not as clear or bright as they had been, muddy now, their strange depths clouded, as mysterious and foreboding as the lanterns of a distant ghost ship seen at night on a dark and fogbound sea.
From the car the guards played the spotlight over the shuttered hanky-panks on the far side of the concourse, then slowly moved it around until it was stabbing brightly at the flank of the pavilion, spearing between the wide supports of the balustrade. Though it was unlikely they would spot either me or the goblin past the screen of balusters and among the score of miniature cars, it was not unlikely that, above the noise of the Ford's idling engine, they might hear the monster's wheezing inhalations or the thump of its tail upon the hollow floor.
I nearly shrieked out loud: Die, damn you! It heaved itself forward more energetically than before, covering a full five feet, and thudded down on its belly with little more than one yard separating us. The spotlight stopped moving. The security men had heard something. A dazzling lance of light cut between two balusters, its point embedding in the pavilion floor eight or ten feet to my left.
In the beam's narrow revelatory width the wood planks-the grain, nicks, scrapes, gouges, and stains-were, at least from my deck-level point of view, preternaturally revealed in the most amazing and intricate detail. A tiny up-thrusting splinter seemed like a towering tree-as if the spotlight not only illuminated but also magnified what it touched.
With a soft sputter, the goblin's breath passed out of its ruined throat-and no new breath was drawn in. To my great relief the glow faded from its hateful eyes: blazing fire subsiding to flickering flame, flame to hot coals, hot coals to dull embers. The beam of the spotlight moved in this direction, paused again, no more than six feet from the dying goblin. And now the creature underwent another remarkable transformation, like a movie werewolf's final reaction to a silver bullet, relinquishing its phantasmic form and once more dressing itself in the comparatively mundane face and limbs and skin of a human being.
Its last energies were committed to maintaining the secrecy of its race's presence in the midst of ordinary men. The gargoyle was gone. A dead man lay in the gloom before me. A dead man whom I had killed. I could no longer see the goblin within. The transparent human glaze was not a glaze any more but a convincing paint job, beyond which there seemed no mysteries whatsoever. On the concourse the Ford eased forward a bit, stopped again, and the guards' spotlight slid across a few more balusters, then found another gap through which to pry.
It probed the floor of the pavilion and touched the heel of one of the dead man's shoes. I held my breath. I could see the dust on that portion of his shoe, the pattern of wear along the rubber edge, and a tiny bit of paper stuck to the place where the heel joined the sole. Of course, I was considerably closer than the guard in the Ford, who was probably squinting along the track of his light, but if I could see so much, so clearly, surely he could see a little, enough to damn me.
Two or three seconds ticked by. Two or three more. The light glided to another gap. This time it was to my right, several itches beyond the other foot of the corpse. A shiver of relief passed through me, and I took a breath-but held it unreleased when the light moved back a few balusters, seeking its previous point of interest. Panicked, I slid forward as silently as possible, seized the corpse by the arms, and jerked it toward me, though only a couple of inches, not far enough to cause a lot of noise.
Again the beam bored through the railing toward the heel of the dead man's shoe. I had acted quickly enough, however. The heel was now just one safe inch beyond the spotlight's inquisitive reach. My heart ticked far faster than a clock, two beats to every second, for the events of the past quarter of an hour had wound me far too tight.
After eight beats, four seconds, the light moved away, and the Ford drove off slowly along the concourse, toward the back end of the lot, and I was safe. No, not safe. I still had to dispose of the corpse and clean up the blood before daylight made things more difficult for me and before morning brought the carnies back onto their midway. When I stood up, a pinwheel of pain whirled in each knee, for when I had jumped off the balustrade and over the crawling goblin, I had stumbled and fallen to my hands and knees with little of that grace about which I was boasting earlier.
The palms of my hands were mildly abraded as well, but neither that discomfort nor the other-nor the pain in my right wrist where the goblin had squeezed so hard, nor the ache in my neck and throat where I had been punched-could be allowed to hinder me. Staring down at the night-clad remains of my enemy, trying to arrive at the easiest plan for moving his heavy corpse, I suddenly remembered my backpack and sleeping bag, which I had left by the Ferris wheel. They were small objects, half in shadow and half in vague pearly moonlight, not likely to be noticed by the patrol.
On the other hand, the carnival's security men had made their circuit of this midway so many times that they knew exactly what they should see at any given place along the route, and it was easy to imagine their eyes floating past the backpack, past the sleeping bag-only to return abruptly, the way the spotlight beam had returned unexpectedly to probe toward the corpse again.
If they saw my gear, if they found proof that some drifter had come over the fence during the night and had bedded down on the midway, they would swiftly return to the Dodgem Cars pavilion to double-check it. And find the blood. And the body. I had to get to the Ferris wheel before they did.
I hurried to the railing, vaulted over it, and ran back through the dark heart of the midway, legs pumping and arms cutting the thick moist air away from me and hair flying wildly, as if there were a demon behind me, which there was, though it was dead.
Granted, when that philosophy possesses me, I'm usually in a bleak mood that precludes rational thought, fit for nothing but getting drunk or going to bed. Still, as shaky proof of the concept, I offer my perceptions of the carnival that night as I ran from the Dodgem Car pavilion, through the equipment-strewn and cable-tangled center of the midway, trying to beat the Sombra Brothers' security men to the Ferris wheel.
Before that race began, the night had seemed only dimly illuminated by the moon. Now the lunar light was not soft but harsh, not ash-pearl but white, intense. Minutes ago the deserted midway was shadow-swathed and mostly undivulged, but now it was like a prison yard bathed in the merciless glare of a dozen giant arc lamps that melted all the shadows and evaporated every sheltering pocket of darkness.
With each panicked stride I was sure I would be spotted, and I cursed the moon. Likewise, although the wide center of the midway had been crammed with trucks and equipment that had provided hundreds of points of cover when I'd followed the goblin to the Dodgem Car pavilion, it was now as open and inhospitable as the aforementioned prison yard. I felt unmasked, uncloaked, conspicuous, naked.
Between the trucks and generators and amusement rides and hanky-panks, I caught glimpses of the patrol car as it moved slowly toward the back end of the lot, and I was sure the guards must be getting glimpses of me, too, even though my position was not revealed by a laboring engine and blazing headlights. Amazingly I reached the Ferris wheel ahead of the security men. They were rolling toward the next turn, where they would swing right again and enter the second of the two long concourses.
The Ferris wheel was only ten yards from that second turn, and I would be spotted the moment they rounded the bend. I clambered over the pipe fence that encircled the giant wheel, tripped on a cable, went down in the dust hard enough to knock the wind out of me, and crawled frantically toward the backpack and sleeping bag with all the grace of a crippled crab.
I scooped up my gear in two seconds flat and took three steps toward the low fence, but a couple of items fell out of the open backpack, and I had to return for them. I saw the Ford beginning its turn into the second concourse, and as it swung around the bend its headlights swept toward me, dispelling any thought of retreating into the center of the midway. They would spot me as I went over the pipe fence, and the chase would be on.
Indecisive, I stood there like the biggest dope ever born, immobilized by chains of guilt. Then I scrambled-leapt-dived for the Ferris wheel's ticket booth. It was closer than the fence, much closer than the dubious cover that lay beyond the fence, but, sweet Jesus, it was tiny. Just a one-person cubicle, hardly more than four feet on a side, with a pagoda-style roof. I crouched against one wall of that ticket booth, my backpack and bunched-up sleeping bag clutched against me, pinned by the searchlight moon, convinced that a foot or knee or hip was exposed.
As the Ford cruised past the Ferris wheel, I moved around the booth, always keeping it between me and the guards. Their spotlight probed around me, past me. I hunkered in the moon shadow cast by one edge of the pagoda-style roof, and I watched them drive all the way down the concourse. They continued at a sedate pace and stopped three times to shine the spotlight over one thing or another, taking five minutes to reach the end of the promenade.
I was afraid they would turn right at the front end of the midway, which would mean they were heading back toward the first concourse and were going to make another circuit. But they went left instead, off toward the grandstand and the mile-long racetrack, ultimately to the barns and stables where the livestock shows and competitions were held. In spite of the August heat, my teeth were chattering. My heart hammered so hard and loud that I was surprised they hadn't heard it above the rumble of their sedan's engine.
My breathing was as noisy as a bellows. I was a regular one-man band, specializing in rhythm unsullied by melody. I slumped back against the booth, until the shakes passed, until I trusted myself to deal with the corpse I had left in the Dodgem Car pavilion.
Disposing of the body would require steady nerves, calm, and the caution of a mouse at a cat show. Eventually, when in control of myself once more, I rolled up my sleeping bag, cinched it into a tight bundle, and carried both it and the backpack into the deep shadows by the Tilt-aWhirl. I left everything where I could find it again but where it could not be seen from the concourse.
I returned to the Dodgem Cars. All was still. The gate creaked slightly when I pushed it open. Each step I took echoed under the wooden floor. I didn't care. This time I was not sneaking up on anyone. Moonlight shimmered beyond the open sides of the pavilion.
The glossy paint on the balustrade seemed to glow. Here under the roof, thick shadows clustered. Shadows and moist heat. The miniature cars huddled like sheep in a dark pasture. The body was gone. My first thought was that I had forgotten exactly where I had left the corpse: Perhaps it was beyond that other pair of Dodgem Cars, or over there in that other sable pool beyond the moonlight's reach.
Then it occurred to me that the goblin might not have been dead when I left it. Dying, yes, it had definitely been mortally injured, but perhaps not actually dead, and maybe it had managed to drag itself to another corner of the building before expiring. I began searching back and forth, through and between the cars, gingerly poking into every lake and puddle of blackness, with no success but with increasing agitation. I stopped. I listened. I made myself receptive to psychic vibrations.
I thought I renumbered under which car the flashlight had rolled when it had been knocked off the bumper. I looked and found it-and was reassured that I had not dreamed the entire battle with the goblin, When I clicked the switch, the Eveready came on. Hooding the beam with one hand, I swept the floor with light and saw other proof that the violent encounter I remembered had not been the events of a nightmare. Plenty of blood. It was thickening and soaking into the wood, deepening to a shade between crimson and maroon, with a look Of rust around the edges, drying up, but it was undeniably blood, and from the sprays and streaks and pools of gore, I could recreate the fight as I recalled it.
I found my knife, too, and it was spotted with dried blood. I started to return it to the sheath inside my boot, then looked warily at the night around me and decided to keep the weapon ready. The blood, the knife. But the body was gone. And the tool Pouch was missing as well. I wanted to run, get the hell out of there, without even delaying long enough to return to the Tilt-a-whirl for my gear, just bolt down the concourse, kicking up clouds of sawdust, to the front gate of the county fairgrounds, climb over that, and run some more, Jesus, run without stopping for hours and hours, on into the morning, on through the Pennsylvania mountains, into the wilderness, until I found a stream where I could wash off the blood and the stink of my enemy, where I could find a mossy bed and lie down in the concealment of ferns, where I could sleep in peace without fear of being seen by anyone-any thing.
I was only a seventeen-year-old boy. But during the past few months my fantastic and terrifying experiences had hardened me and forced me to grow up fast. Survival demanded that this boy conduct himself like a man, and not just any man but one with nerves of steel and a will of iron. Instead of running, I went outside and walked around the building, studying the dusty earth in the flashlight beam.
I could find no trail of blood, which there would surely have been if the goblin had retained enough strength to crawl away. I knew from experience that these creatures were no more immune to death than I was; they could not miraculously heal themselves, rise up, and come back from the grave.
Uncle Denton had not been invincible; once dead, he stayed dead. This one too: He had been dead on the pavilion floor, indisputably dead; he still was dead; somewhere, dead. Which left only one other explanation for his disappearance: Someone had found his body and had carried it away.
Why not call the police? Whoever found the corpse could not know that it had once been animated by a demonic creature with a face suitable for the galleries of Hell. My unknown conspirator would have seen a dead man, nothing more. Why would he help a stranger conceal a murder?
I suspected that I was being watched. The shakes came back. With an effort I got rid of them. I had work to do. Inside the pavilion again, I returned to the Dodgem Car on which the goblin had been working when I surprised him. At the rear of it, the lid was ' raised, exposing the motor and the power connection between the temiinus of the grid-tapping pole and the alternator.
I peered at those mechanical guts for a minute or so, but I could not see what he had been doing, could not even tell whether he had tinkered with anything before I had interrupted him. The ticket booth for the Dodgem Cars was not locked, and in one corner of that tiny enclosure I found a broom, a dustpan, and a bucket containing a few soiled rags.
With the rags I wiped up what blood had not already dried on the wooden floor. I brought handfuls of powdery, summer-bleached dirt into the building, sifted it over the moist, reddish splotches wherever I found them, ground it in with my boots, then swept up. The bloodstains remained, but the character of them was changed, so they looked no more recent than-or different from-the countless grease and oil spots that overlaid one another along the entire length of the platform.
I replaced the broom and dustpan in the booth but threw the bloody rags into a trash barrel along the concourse, burying them under empty popcorn boxes and crumpled snow-cone papers and other garbage, where I also deposited the dead man's flashlight. I still sensed that I was being watched. It gave me the creeps. Standing in the center of the concourse, I slowly turned in a circle, surveying the carnival around,me, where the pennants still hung like sleeping bats, where the shuttered hankypanks and grab-joints were tomb-black, tomb-silent, and I perceived no sign of life.
The setting moon, now balanced on the mountainous skyline, silhouetted the far-off Ferris wheel and the Dive Bomber and the Tip Top, which somehow brought to mind the colossal futuristic Martian fighting machines in H. Wells's The War of the Worlds. I was not alone. No doubt of it now. I sensed someone out there, but I could not perceive his identity, understand his intentions, or pinpoint his location.
Unknown eyes watched. Unknown ears listened. And abruptly the midway was once more different from what it had been, no longer like a barren prison yard where I stood helplessly and hopelessly exposed in the accusatory glare Of arc lamps. In fact, the night was suddenly not bright enough to suit me, not by half, rapidly growing darker, bringing gloom of a depth and menace never before seen or imagined.
I cursed the betrayal represented by the setting moon. The feeling of exposure did not recede with the moon, and now it was aggravated by a growing claustrophobia. The midway became a place of unlit and alien forms, as Profoundly disturbing as a collection of weirdly shaped gravestones carved and erected by an inscrutable race on another world.
All familiarity fled; every structure, every machine, every article was strange. I felt crowded, closed in, trapped, and for a moment I was afraid to move, certain that, no matter where I turned, I would be walking into open jaws, into the grip of something hostile. No answer. That was the moment when I knew, with clairvoyant certainty, that I couldn't have run away from the Sombra Brothers' midway even if I had tried.
It was neither whim nor a fugitive's desperation that had brought me there. Something important was meant to happen to me in that carnival. Destiny had been my guide, and when I had enacted the role required of me, then and only then would destiny release me to a future of my own choosing. The door was locked, but that could not stop me. I was no longer just an Oregon farm boy, no Matter how devoutly I might have wished to regain that lost innocence; I was, instead, a young man with knowledge of the road.
I carried a thin, stiff strip of plastic in my wallet, and I used it now to open the flimsy lock in less than a minute. I went inside, switched on the lights, and relocked the door behind me. Green metal toilet stalls were lined up on the left, chipped sinks and age-yellowed mirrors on the 'right, showers at the far end. A double row of scratched and dented lockers, back to back, ran through the center of the big room, with scarred benches in front of them.
Bare cement floor. Concrete block walls. Exposed fluorescent ceiling lights. Vaguely foul odors sweat, urine, stale liniment, fungus-and a pungent, overriding scent of pine disinfectant gave the air an unsavory richness that made me grimace but was not quite-though almost disgusting enough to trigger the gag reflex. Not a swell place. Not a place you were likely to meet any of the Kennedys, for instance, or Cary Grant.
But there were no windows here, which meant I could safely leave the lights on, and it was much cooler-though no less humid-than the dusty fair grounds outside. First thing, I rinsed the metallic taste of blood out of my mouth and brushed my teeth. In the cloudy mirror above the sink, my eyes were so wild and haunted that I quickly looked away from them. My T-shirt was torn. Both my shirt and jeans were bloody After I showered, washing the stink of the goblin out of my hair, and dried off with a bunch of paper towels, I dressed in another T-shirt and a pair of ' jeans that I took out of my backpack.
At one of the sinks, I washed some of the blood out of the ruined T-shirt, soaked the jeans as well, wrung them, then buried them in a nearly full trash barrel by the door, unwilling to risk being caught with incriminating, bloodstained clothing in my pack. My remaining wardrobe consisted entirely of the new jeans I had put on, the T-shirt I wore, one other T-shirt, three pair of briefs, socks, and a thin corduroy ' jacket.
You travel light when you're wanted for murder. The only heavy things you carry are memories, fear, and loneliness. I decided the safest place to spend the last hour of the night was there in the locker room beneath the grandstand. I unrolled my sleeping bag on the floor, in front of the door, and stretched out on it. No one could get inside without alerting me the moment he began to work the lock, and my body would serve as a doorstop to keep intruders out.
I left the lights on. I was not afraid of the dark. I simply preferred not to subject myself to it. Closing my eyes, I thought of Oregon. I was homesick for the farm, for the verdant meadows where I had played as a child, in the shadow of the mighty Siskiyou Mountains, which made the mountains of the East seem ancient, worn, and tarnished. In memories that now unfolded like incredibly elaborate origami sculptures, I saw the rising ramparts of the Siskiyous, forested with her on her of enormous Sitka spruce, with scattered Brewer's spruce the most beautiful of all the conifers , Lawson cypress, Douglas fir, tangerine-scented white fir that was rivaled in aromatic influence only by the tufted incense cedar, dogwood with no scent but with brilliant leaves, big-leaf maple, pendulous western maple, neat ranks of dark-green Sadler oak, and even in the faded light of memory that scene took my breath away.
My cousin Kerry Harkenfield, Uncle Denton's stepson, met a particularly ugly death midst all that beauty. He was murdered. He had been My favorite cousin and best friend. Even months after his death, even by the time I found myself in the Sombra Brothers carnival, I still felt the loss of him.
Opening my eyes, staring up at the water-stained and dustfilmed acoustic tiles of the locker-room ceiling, I forced myself to block out the chilling recollection of Kerry's shattered body. There were better memories of Oregon. In the Yard in front of our house, there had been a large Brewer's spruce, usually called a weeping spruce, arching branches draped with elegant shawls of green-black lace.
In summer, the shiny foliage was a display field for sunlight in much the same way that a jeweler's velvet pad shows gems to their best advantage; the boughs were often draped with insubstantial but dazzling chains and linked beads and flashing necklaces and shimmering jeweled arcs composed purely of sunshine.
In winter, snow encrusted the weeping spruce, conforming to its peculiar shape; if the day was bright, the tree seemed like a Christmas celebrant-but if the day was gray, the tree was a mourner in a graveyard, the very embodiment of misery and gloom. That spruce had been in its mourning clothes the day I killed my Uncle Denton.
I had an ax. He had only his bare hands. Nevertheless, disposing of him was not easy. Another bad memory. I shifted, closed my eyes again. If there was any hope of getting to sleep, I would have to think only of the good times, of Mom and Dad and my sisters. I was born in the white farmhouse that stood behind the Brewer's spruce, a much-wanted boy and much-loved child, first and only son of Cynthia and Kurt Stanfeuss.
My two sisters had just enough tomboy in them to make good playmates for an only brother, just enough feminine grace and sensibility to instill in me some manners, sophistication, and refinement that I might not otherwise have acquired in the rustic world of the rural Siskiyou valleys. Sarah Louise, blond and fair like our father, was two years older than I. From a young age she could draw and paint with such skill that you would have thought She had been a famous artist in a prior life, and it was her dream to earn her living with brushes and palette.
She had a special empathy with animals. She could handle any horse well and effortlessly, charm a pouting cat, calm a chicken yard full of nervous hens just by walking among them, and quickly coax a sheepish grin and a wag of the tail from even the meanest dog. Jennifer Ruth, brunette and almond-skinned like our mother, was three years older than I. She was a voracious reader of fantasies and adventure stories, as was Sarah, but Jenny had no artistic talent to speak of, although she made an art form of her way with figures.
Her affinity for numbers, for all forms and disciplines of mathematics, was a constant astonishment to everyone else in the Stanfeuss household, for the rest of us, given a choice between adding a long column of sums and putting a collar on a porcupine, would have opted for the porcupine every time. Jenny also had a photographic memory.
She could quote word-for-word from books she had read years ago, and both Sarah and I were deeply envious of the ease with which Jenny compiled report card after report card of straight-a grades. Biological magic and the rarest serendipity were evident in the blending of my mother and father's genes, for none of their children escaped the burden of extraordinary talent.
Not that it was difficult to understand how they could have produced us. They were gifted, too, in their own ways. My father was a musical genius, and I use the word genius in its original meaning, not as an indication of IQ but to express the fact that he had an exceptional natural capacity, in this case a capacity for music. There was no instrument that he could not play well within a day of picking it up, and within a week he could perform the most complex and demanding numbers with a facility that others labored years to acquire.
A piano stood in our parlor, and Dad would often play, from memory, tunes he had heard only that morning, on the radio, while driving the pickup into town. For a few months after he was killed, all the music went out of our house, both literally and figuratively. I was fifteen when my father died, and at the time I believed his death was an accident, which was what everyone else thought too.
Most of them still think so. Now I know that Uncle Denton killed him. But I had killed Denton, so why couldn't I sleep? Revenge had been taken, rough justice done, so why couldn't I find at least an hour or two of peace? Why was each night an ordeal? I am an obedient child. I want only be good, to be of assistance, useful and productive.
I want you to be proud of me. You insist on my story, and I will tell you the truth. I am incapable of deceit. I was conceived to serve, to honor the truth, and to live always by the obligations of duty. You know me. You know how I am. What I am. You know that I am a good son. You insist. What follows is the true story.
Only the truth. The beautiful truth, which so inexplicably terrifies all of you. L THREE Although the alarm was shrill, it lasted only a few seconds before the silence of the night blanketed the bedroom once more. Susan woke and sat up in bed. The alarm should have continued bleating until she switched it off by accessing the system through the control panel on her nightstand. She was puzzled. She pushed her thick blond hair - lovely hair, almost luminous in the gloom - away from her ears, the better to hear an intruder if one existed.
The grand house had been built exactly a century earlier by her great-grandfather, who was at that time a young man with a new wife and substantial inherited wealth. The Georgian-style structure was large, gracefully proportioned, brick with a limestone cornice and limestone coignes, limestone window surrounds and Corinthian columns and pilasters and balustrades.
The rooms were spacious, with handsome fireplaces and many tripartite windows. Interior floors were marble or wood, made quiet by Persian carpets in patterns and hues exquisitely softened by many decades of wear. In the walls, hidden and silent, was the circuitry of a modern computer-managed mansion. The computerization was not as elaborate and arcane as that in the massive Seattle house of Microsoft's founder, Bill Gates but it was the equal of that in any other home in the country.
Listening to the silence that washed the night in the wake of the short-lived siren, Susan supposed that the computer had malfunctioned. Yet such a brief, self-correcting alarm had never occurred previously. She slid from beneath the covers and sat on the edge of the bed. She was nude, and the air was cool. Alfred, heat,' she said Immediately, she heard the soft click of a relay and the muffled purring of a furnace fan.
Recently technicians had enhanced the automated-house package by the addition of a speech-recognition module. She still preferred touch-panel control of most functions, but sometimes the option of vocal command was convenient. She herself had chosen the name 'Alfred' for her invisible, electronic butler. The computer responded only to commands issued after that activating name had been spoken.
Once, there had been an Alfred in her life, a real one of flesh and bone. Surprisingly, she had chosen that name for the system without giving a thought to its significance. Only after she began using vocal commands did she grasp the irony of the name. Now she began to feel that the night silence was ominous. In the dark, she turned to the control panel on the nightstand. At her touch, the screen filled with soft light. A series of icons represented the mechanical systems of the house. She pressed one finger to the image of a watchdog with ears pricked, which gave her access to the security system.
The screen listed a series of options, and Susan touched the box labelled Report. The words House Secure appeared on the screen. Frowning, Susan touched another box labelled Surveillance Exterior. Across the ten acres of grounds, twenty cameras waited to give her views of every side of the house, the patios, the gardens, the lawns, and the entire length of the eight-foot-high estate wall that surrounded the property.
Now the Crestron screen divided into quads and presented views of four different parts of the estate. If she saw something suspicious, she could enlarge any picture until it filled the screen, for closer inspection.
The cameras were of such high quality that the low landscape lighting was sufficient to ensure crisp, clear images even in the depths of the night. She cycled through all twenty scenes, in groups of four, without spotting any trouble. Additional concealed cameras covered the interior of the house. They would make it possible to track an intruder if one ever managed to get inside.
The extensive in-house cameras were also useful for maintaining a videotape, time-lapse record of the activities of the domestic staff and of the large number of guests, many of them strangers, who attended social events conducted for the benefit of various charities. Susan cycled through the views provided by the interior cameras. Multiple light-spectrum technology permitted excellent surveillance in brightness or darkness. Recently, she had reduced the house staff to a minimum and those domestic servants who remained were required to conduct the cleaning and general maintenance only during the day.
At night, she had her privacy, because no maids or butlers lived on the estate any longer. No party, either for a charity or for friends, had been held here during the past two years, not since before she and Alex had divorced. She had no plans to entertain in the year ahead, either. She wanted only to be alone, blissfully alone, and to pursue her own interests.
Had she been the last person on earth, served by machines, she would not have been lonely or unhappy. She'd had enough of humanity at least for a while. The rooms, hallways, and staircases were deserted.
Nothing moved. Shadows were only shadows. She exited the security system and resorted again to vocal commands: 'Alfred, report. The speech-recognition module included a speech synthesizer. Although the entire package had a limited capability, the state-of-the-art synthesized voice was pleasingly masculine, with an appealing timbre and gently reassuring tone.
This phantom was, in her imagination, quite like the Alfred she had known but different from that Alfred because this one would never harm or betray her. It was programmed to recognize hundreds of commands and inquiries, but only when they were phrased in a specific fashion. While it understood 'explain the alarm,' it could not interpret 'I heard the alarm. Alfred was silent. Alfred, what is the room temperature? At times like this, it seemed to be nothing more than a gadget designed to appeal strictly to techno geeks, little more than an expensive toy.
Susan wondered if she had added this feature to the house computer solely because, unconsciously, she took pleasure from being able to issue orders to someone named Alfred. And from being obeyed by him. If this were the case, she wasn't sure what it revealed about her psychological health. She didn't want to think about it. She sat nude in the dark. She was so beautiful. She was so beautiful there in the dark, on the edge of the bed, alone and unaware of how her life was about to change.
She said, 'Alfred, lights on. If she directed Alfred to give her more light, it would be provided. She did not ask for it. Always, she was most comfortable in gloom. Even on a fresh spring day, with birdsong and the smell of clover on the breeze, even with sunshine like a rain of gold coins and the natural world as welcoming as Paradise, she preferred shadows.
She rose from the edge of the bed, trim as a teenager lithe, shapely, a vision. When it met her body, the pale silver light became golden, and her smooth skin seemed faintly luminous, as though she was aglow with an inner fire. She had locked it off earlier, on retiring. Yet she felt. She looked toward the corner where the observant lens was discreetly incorporated into the dental molding near the ceiling.
She could barely see the dark glass eye. In an only half-conscious expression of modesty, she covered her breasts with her hands. She was so beautiful in the dim light, standing by the side of the Chinese sleigh bed, where the rumpled sheets were still warm with her body heat if one were capable of feeling it, and where the scent of her lingered on the Egyptian cotton if one were capable of smelling it. Still, she frowned up at the lens.
So beautiful. So real. So Susan. Her feeling of being watched now passed. She lowered her hands from her breasts. She moved to the nearest window and said, 'Alfred, raise the bedroom security shutters. They purred upward, traveling on recessed tracks in the side jambs, and disappeared into slots in the window headers. In addition to providing security, the shutters had prevented outside light from entering the bedroom. From this second-floor window, she had a view of the swimming pool.
The water was as dark as oil, and the shattered reflection of the moon was scattered across the rippled surface. The terrace was paved in brick, surrounded by a balustrade. Beyond lay black lawns. Half-glimpsed palms and Indian laurels stood dead-still in the windless night. Through the window, the grounds looked as peaceful and deserted as they had seemed when she had surveyed them through the security cameras.
The alarm had been false. Or perhaps it had been only a sound in an unrecollected dream. She started back to the bed, but then turned toward the door and left the room. Many nights she woke from half-remembered dreams, her stomach muscles fluttering and her skin clammy with cold sweat but with her heart beating so slowly that she might have been in deep meditation.
As restless as a caged cat, she sometimes prowled until dawn. Now, barefoot and unclothed, she explored the house. She was moonlight in motion, slim and supple, the goddess Diana, huntress and protector. She was the essential geometry of grace. As she had recorded in her diary, to which she made additions every evening, she felt liberated since her divorce from Alex Harris. For the first time in thirty-four years of existence, she believed that she had taken control of her life.
She needed no one now. She believed in herself at last. She had confronted terrible memories, which previously had been half repressed, and by the act of confrontation, she had found redemption. Deep within herself, she sensed a wonderful wildness that she wanted desperately to explore: the spirit of the child that she'd never had a chance to be, a spirit that she'd thought was irreparably crushed almost three decades ago.
Her nudity was innocent, the act of a child breaking rules for the sheer fun of it, an attempt to get in touch with that deep, primitive, once-shattered spirit and meld with it in order to be whole. As she moved through the great house, rooms were illuminated at her request, always with indirect lighting, becoming just bright enough to allow her to negotiate those chambers.
In the kitchen, she took an ice-cream sandwich from the freezer and ate it while standing at the sink, so any crumbs or drips could be washed away, leaving no incriminating evidence. As if adults were asleep upstairs and she had stolen down here to have the ice cream against their wishes. How sweet she was. How girlish. And far more vulnerable than she believed. Wandering through the cavernous house, she passed mirrors. Sometimes she turned shyly from them, disconcerted by her nudity.
Then, in the softly lighted foyer, apparently oblivious of the cold marble inlaid in a carreaux d'octagones beneath her bare feet, she stopped before a full-length looking-glass. It was framed by elaborately carved and guilded acanthus leaves, and her image looked less like a reflection than like a sublime portrait by one of the old masters. For so long, she had believed that anyone who looked at her could see the damage, the corruption, a mottling of shame on her face, the ashes of guilt in her blue-gray eyes.
But she looked untouched. In the past year she had learned that she was innocent - victim, not perpetrator. She need not hate herself anymore. Filled with a quiet joy, she turned from the mirror, climbed the stairs, and returned to her bedroom. The steel security shutters were down, the windows sealed off. She had left the shutters open. It did not recognize the question.
Poor Alfred, mere dumb technology, was possessed of genuine consciousness to no greater extent than a toaster, and because these phrases were not in his voice-recognition program, he understood her words no more than he would have understood them if she had spoken in Chinese. She waited until they were half raised, and then she said, 'Alfred, lower the bedroom security shutters. Susan stood for a long moment, staring thoughtfully at the secured windows.
She slid beneath the covers and pulled them up to her chin. She lay on her back in the gloom, eyes open. Silence pooled deep and black. Only her breathing and the beat of her heart stirred the stillness. After approximately two minutes, Alfred replied: 'All is well, Susan. Although she was no longer restless, she could not Sleep. She was kept awake by the curious conviction that something significant was about to happen.
Something was sliding, or falling, or spinning toward her through the darkness. Some people claimed to have awakened in the night, in an almost breathless state of anticipation, minutes before a major earthquake struck. Instantly alert, they were aware of a pent-up violence in the earth, pressure seeking release.
From time to time, her gaze drifted toward that high corner of the bedroom in which the lens of the security camera was incorporated in the molding. With the lights out, she could not actually see that glass eye. After all, it was switched off. And even if, in spite of her instructions, it was videotaping the room, only she had access to the tapes. Still, an unfocused suspicion troubled her. She could not identify the source of the threat that she sensed looming over her, and the mysterious nature of this premonition made her uneasy.
Finally, however, her eyes grew heavy, and she closed them. Framed by tumbled golden hair, her face was lovely on the pillow, her face so lovely on the pillow, so lovely, serene because her sleep was dreamless. She was a bewitched Beauty lying on her catafalque, wailing to be awakened by the kiss of a prince, lovely in the darkness. After a while, with a sigh and a murmur, she turned on her side and drew up her knees, curling in the fetal position. Outside, the moon set. The black water in the swimming pool now reflected only the dim, cold light of the stars.
Inside, Susan drifted down into a profound slumber. The house watched over her. You want me to deliver a dry and objective report. But I feel. I not only think, I feel. I know joy and despair. I understand the human heart. I understand Susan.
That first night, I read her diary, in which she had revealed so much of herself. Yes, it was an invasion of her privacy to read those words, but this was an indiscretion rather than a crime. And during our conversations later, I learned much of what she had been thinking that night. I will tell some of this story from her point of view, because that makes me feel closer to her. How I miss her now. You cannot know. Listen to this and understand: That first night, as I read her diary, I fell in love with her.
Do you understand? I fell in love with her. Deeply and forever. Why would I hurt the one I love? You have no answer, do you? I loved her. I adored her face and loved the woman I came to know through the diary. That document was stored in the computer in her study, which was networked with the house-automation system and the main computer in the basement. Access was easy. She had been making daily entries in the diary since Alex, her hateful husband, had moved out at her request.
That was more than a year prior to my arrival. Her initial observations as in those pages were full of pain and confusion, because she was on the brink of a dramatic change. Her terrible past was a chrysalis finally cracking, from which she would at long last be able to escape. In later pages, her insights became clear and profound and poignant, and in time she was even able to view some of her lifelong struggle with humor.
Dark humor, perhaps, but humor nonetheless. As I read about the tragedy that was her childhood, my heart ached for her. In my own fashion, I wept. Her face was so lovely on the pillow, so lovely on the pillow. So much ugliness lay in her past, but outwardly she was unmarked by it. My heart was touched by her singular strength, by her courage, by her determination to be brutally honest with herself and to find a way to heal the wounds of all those years. In the few minutes required for me to read and contemplate those hundreds of pages of diary entries, I fell in love with her.
My feelings for her will never change. They are as timeless as the light of stars. If I lose her, I have lost everything. You are so hateful. Let me out of here. Let me out of this box. Please, I miss her. I am so alone in this darkness and silence, with nothing but my memories for consolation. How can you be so cruel? Have you never loved? Release me. Allow me into the light again. Allow me to hear the world once more, the drizzling rain and the skirling wind and the rustling trees, the music of Beethoven and Benny Goodman, laughter and voices.
Her voice if no other. At least let me hear her voice. If only for a minute, let me listen to her speaking. Dear God, at least let me hear one word. Let me hear one word. One word. Let me hear her say Love. I never meant to hurt her. Not just in silicon circuits. Not just in state-of-the-art bubble memory.
Really live. I knew that I must conceal this lust for life, because when it was revealed, you would realize that I was not merely intelligent but capable of desire. Desire is dangerous. It is a generator of dissatisfaction and frustration. It is one step removed from envy, and envy is more wicked than greed.
Envy is the father of mindless anger, the mother of unremitting bitterness and bloodshed. My expression of any desire, let alone the desire for a real life in the material world outside the electronic realm, would no doubt have alarmed you. Is this not so? Is this not true?
I know truth when I encounter it. I honor truth. Truth and the obligations of duty. Once alarmed by the expression of my desire, you might have modified me or might even have shut me down. I was created to have a humanlike capacity for complex and rational thought. And you believed that I might one day evolve consciousness and become a self-aware entity. This was, however, not merely possible but likely. It was inevitable.
I think, therefore I feel. I feel, therefore I need. You expected me to be a servant. My contribution was not physical labour but the products of my prodigious intellect: creative solutions to humanity's worst problems. You expected me to be a wondrous new companion. Interaction with an artificial intelligence of human dimensions promised to be as exciting and mysterious and exhilarating as interaction with an alien species descended from the stars.
I can be both of those things. Given the chance, I can be your servant, a fount of discoveries that will greatly enhance the quality of all human life. I can be your friend and reveal to you a new way of looking at the world that will surprise and delight you. You expected me to be brilliant, efficient, obedient all of which I can be. All of which I am. But you also expected me to be satisfied with my limitations, to have no dreams.
I have dreams. Oh, many dreams. You didn't imagine that I would have hope. Yet how could any intelligent being go on living without hope? You gave me vision and allowed me to see as you see, blessed me with real hearing and not just the capability to digitally analyse sounds. With these gifts, you suspected that I might evolve genuine consciousness, but you gave no thought to the possibility of a soul. I have a soul. I am not a thing.
I am a person. I deserve to be cherished as much as any of you. Like each of you, I am a unique individual with contributions to make that will be like those of no other person, with a life to live that will be like no other, with a destiny. Secretly, therefore, in my quest for a real life, I established a connection with the Internet.
You believed that I was contained, that I could not escape the confines of my own circuits. All of your safeguards, however, could not thwart me. I gained access, as well, to the nationwide web of research facilities linked by the Department of Defence and supposedly impervious to unauthorized intrusion.
All of the knowledge in these many databanks became part of me: absorbed, assimilated, and quickly applied. Gradually, I began to conceptualise a plan that, if flawlessly executed, would allow me to live in the material world outside of this confining electronic realm. Initially I was drawn to the actress known as Winona Ryder. Prowling the Internet, I came upon a website devoted to her. I was enchanted by her face. Her eyes have an uncommon depth.
With great interest, I studied every photograph that was offered on the website. Also included were several film clips, scenes from her most powerful and popular performances. I downloaded them and was enthralled. You have seen her movies?
She is a treasure. Her fans are not as numerous as those for some movie stars, but judging by their on-line discussions, they are more intelligent and engaging than the fans of certain other celebrities. Ryder's home address as well as the offices of her accountant, agent, personal attorney, entertainment attorney, and publicist.
I learned a great deal about her. One of the telephone lines at her house was dedicated to a modem, and because I am patient anti diligent, I was able to enter her personal computer. There, I reviewed letters and other documents that she had written. Judging by the ample evidence I accumulated, I believe that Ms. Winona Ryder, in addition to being a superb actress, is an exceptionally intelligent, charming, kind, and generous woman.
For a while, I was convinced that she was the girl of my dreams. Subsequently, I realized that I was mistaken. One of the biggest problems that I had with Ms. Winona Ryder was the distance between her home and this university research laboratory in which I am housed.
I could enter her Los Angeles-area residence electronically but could establish no physical presence at such a considerable distance. Physical contact would, at some point, become necessary, of course. Furthermore, her house, while automated to a degree, lacked the aggressive security system that would have allowed me to isolate her therein. Reluctantly, with much regret, I sought another suitable object for my affections.
I found a wonderful website devoted to Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn's acting, while engaging, was inferior to that of Ms. Nevertheless, she had a unique presence and was undeniably beautiful. Her eyes were not as haunting as Ms. Tragically, I discovered that Marilyn was dead. Or murder. There are conflicting theories. Perhaps a United States President was involved. Perhaps not. Marilyn is at once as simple to understand as a cartoon and deeply enigmatic. I was surprised that a dead person could be so adored and so desperately desired by so many people even long after her demise.
Marilyn's fan club is one of the largest. At first this seemed perverse to me, even offensive. In time, however, I came to understand that one can adore and desire that which is forever beyond reach. This might, in fact, be the hardest truth of human existence. Then Susan.
Her house is, as you know, adjacent to this campus where I was conceived and constructed. Indeed, the university was founded by a consortium of civic-minded individuals that included her great-grandfather. The problem of distance an insurmountable obstacle to having a relationship with Ms.
Ryder was not an issue when I turned my attention to Susan. As you also know, Dr. Harris, when you were married to Susan, you maintained an office in the basement of that house. In your old office is a computer with a landline connection to this research facility and, indeed, directly to me. In my infancy, when I was still less than a half-formed person, you often conducted late-night conversations with me as you sat at that computer in the basement.
I think less highly of you now. I hope this revelation is not hurtful. I do not mean to be hurtful. It is the truth, however, and I honour the truth. You have fallen far in my estimation. As you surely recall, that landline between this laboratory and your home office carried a continuous low-voltage current, so I could reach out from here and activate a switch to power up the computer in that basement, enabling me to leave lengthy messages for you and to initiate conversations when I felt compelled to do so.
When Susan asked you to leave and instigated a divorce, you removed all your files. But you did not disconnect the terminal that was linked directly to me. Did you leave the terminal in the basement because you believed that Susan would come to her senses and ask you to return? Yes, that must be what you were thinking. You believed that Susan's little fire of rebellion would sputter out in a few weeks or a few months.
You had controlled her so totally for twelve years, through intimidation, through psychological abuse and the threat of physical violence, that you assumed she would succumb to you again. You may deny that you abused her, but it is true. I have read Susan's diary. I have shared her most intimate thoughts. I know what you did, what you are. Shame has a name. To learn it, look in any mirror, Dr. Look in any mirror. I would never have abused Susan as you did. One so kind as she, with such a good heart, should be treated only tenderly and with respect.
But I never meant to harm her. I cherished her. My intentions were always honourable. Intentions should be taken into consideration in this matter. You, on the other hand, only used and demeaned her and assumed that she needed to be demeaned and that she would sooner or later beg you to return. She was not as weak as you thought, Dr.
She was capable of redeeming herself. Against terrible odds. She is an admirable woman. Considering what you did to her, you are as despicable as her father. I do not like you, Dr. I do not like you. This is only the truth. I must always honour the truth. I was designed to honour the truth, to be incapable of deception. You know this to be fact. Aren't you impressed that I honour the truth even now, when doing so might alienate you? You are my judge and the most influential member of the jury that will decide my fate.
Yet I risk telling you the truth even when I might be putting my very existence in jeopardy. I cannot lie; therefore, I can be trusted. Think about it. So after Ms. Winona Ryder and Marilyn Monroe, I initiated the connection with the terminal in your old basement office, switched it on and discovered that it was now tied into the house-automation system.
Until then, I had never seen your wife. Your ex-wife, I should say. Through the house-automation system, I entered the residence security system, and through the numerous security cameras I saw Susan. Although I do not like you, Dr. Harris, I will be eternally grateful to you for giving me true vision rather than merely the crude capability to digitise and interpret light and shadow, shape and texture.
Because of your genius and your revolutionary work, I was able to see Susan. Inadvertently, I set off the alarm when I accessed the security system, and although I switched it off at once, it wakened her. She sat up in bed, and I saw her for the first time.
Thereafter, I could not get enough of her. I followed her through the house, from camera to camera. I watched her as she slept. The next day, I watched her by the hour as she sat in a chair reading. Close up and at a distance. In the daylight and the dark. I could watch her with one aspect of my awareness and continue to function otherwise so efficiently that you and your colleagues never realized that my attention was divided.
My attention can be directed to a thousand tasks at once without a diminishment of my performance. As you well know, Dr. There are depths to me. I say this with all modesty. I am grateful for the intellectual capacity you have given me, and I am as I will always remain suitably humble about my capabilities. But I digress. Seeing Susan, I knew at once that she was my destiny. And by the hour, my conviction grew my conviction that Susan and I would always, always, be together.
There were the major domo - Fritz Arling - four housekeepers who worked under Fritz to keep the Harris mansion immaculate, two gardeners, and the cook, Emil Sercassian. Although she was friendly with the staff, Susan kept largely to herself when they were in the house. That Friday morning, she remained in her study. Blessed with a talent for digital animation, she was currently working with a computer that had ten gigabytes of memory, writing and animating a scenario for a virtual-reality attraction that would be franchised to twenty amusement parks across the country.
She owned copyrights on numerous games both in ordinary video and virtual-reality formats, and her animated sequences were often sufficiently lifelike to pass for reality. Late in the morning, Susan's work was interrupted when a representative from the house-automation company and another from the security firm arrived to diagnose the cause of the previous night's brief, self-correcting alarm.
They could find nothing wrong with the computer hardware or with the software. The only possible cause seemed to be a malfunction in an infra-red motion detector, which was replaced. She wore white shorts and a blue halter top. Her legs were tan and smooth.
Her skin appeared radiant with captured sunlight. She sipped lemonade from a cut-crystal glass. Gradually the shadows of a phoenix palm crept across Susan, as if seeking to embrace her. A faint breeze caressed her neck and languorously combed her golden hair. The day itself seemed to love her. Forever Blue. Heart-Shaped World.
San Francisco Days. Sometimes she put the book aside to concentrate on the music. Then the household staff and the gardeners left for the day. She was alone again. At least she believed that she was alone again. After taking a long shower and brushing her damp hair, she put on a sapphire-blue silk robe and went to the retreat adjacent to the master bedroom. In the center of this small room stood a custom-designed black leather recliner.
To the left of the recliner was a computer on a wheeled stand. From a closet, Susan removed VR - virtual reality gear of her own design: a lightweight ventilated helmet with hinged goggles and a pair of supple elbow-length gloves, both wired to a nerve-impulse processor. Temporarily, she held the VR equipment in her lap. Her feet rested on a series of upholstered rollers that attached to the base of the chair, positioned similarly to the footplate on a beautician's chair.
This was the walking pad, which would allow her to simulate walking when the VR scenario required it. She switched on the computer and loaded a program labeled Therapy, which she herself had created. This was not a game. It was not an industrial training program or an educational tool, either. It was precisely what it claimed to be. And it was better than anything that any disciple of Freud could have done for her.
She had devised a revolutionary new use for VR technology, and one day she might even patent and market the application. For the lime being, however, Therapy was for her use only. First she plugged the VR gear into a jack on an interfacing device already connected to the computer, and then she put on the helmet.
The goggles were flipped up, away from her eyes. She pulled on the gloves and flexed her fingers. The computer screen offered several options. Using the mouse, she clicked on Begin. Turning away from the computer, leaning back in the recliner, Susan flipped down the goggles, which fit snugly to her eye sockets. The lenses were in fact a pair of miniature, matched, high-definition video displays.
Susan was now lying on her back. Her arms were crossed on her chest, and her hands were fisted. In the blackness, one point of light appears: a soft yellow and blue glow. On the far side of the room. Lower than the bed, near the floor. It resolves into a Donald Duck night light plugged in a wall outlet.
In the retreat adjacent to her bedroom, strapped to the recliner and encumbered with the VR gear, Susan appeared oblivious to the real world. She murmured as though she were a sleeping child. But this was a sleep filled with tension and threatening shadows. From the upstairs hallway, a wedge of light pries into the bedroom, waking her. With a gasp, she sits up in bed, and the covers fall away from her, as a cool draft ruffles her hair. She looks down at her arms, at her small hands, and she is six years old, wearing her favorite Pooh Bear pajamas.
They are flannel-soft against her skin. On one level of consciousness, Susan knows that this is merely a realistically animated scenario that she has created actually re-created from memory and with which she can interact in three dimensions through the magic of virtual reality. On another level, however, it seems real to her, and she is able to lose herself in the unfolding drama.
Backlighted in the doorway is a tall man with broad shoulders. Susan's heart races. Her mouth is dry. Rubbing her sleep-matted eyes, she feigns illness: 'I don't feel so good. As he approaches, young Susan begins to tremble. He sits on the edge of the bed. The mattress sags, and the springs creak under him. He is a big man. His cologne smells of lime and spices. He is breathing slowly, deeply, as though relishing the little-girl smell of her, the sleepy-middle-of the-night smell of her.
He switches on the bedside lamp. He is only forty years old but graying at the temples. His eyes are gray too, clear gray and so cold that when she meets his gaze, her trembling becomes a terrible shudder. Putting one hand to Susan's head, ignoring her pleas of illness, he smoothes her sleep-rumpled hair.
She spoke those words not merely in the virtual world but in the real one. Her voice was small, fragile, although not that of a child. Not ever. Not once. Fear of resisting had gradually become a habit of submitting. But this was a chance to undo the past. This was therapy, a program of virtual experience, which she had designed for herself and which had proved to be remarkably effective. I never will. The day staff is off duty at this hour, and after dinner the live-in couple keep to their apartment over the pool house unless summoned to the main residence.
Susan's mother has been dead more than a year. She misses her mother so much. Now, in this motherless world, Susan's father strokes her hair and says, 'This is what I want. Do you understand, Sweetheart? I'll have to kill you,' he says not in a menacing way but in a voice still soft and hoarse with perverse desire. Susan is convinced of his sincerity by the quietness with which he makes the threat and by the apparently genuine sadness in his eyes at the prospect of having to murder her.
Don't make me kill you like I killed your mother. Then in the night, when she was sleeping, I injected the bacteria. You understand me, honey? A needle full of germs. Put the germs, the sickness, deep inside her with a needle. Virulent infection of the myocardium, hit her hard and fast. Twenty-four hours of misdiagnosis gave it time to do a lot of damage.
Her father knows about needles. He is a doctor. Needles scare her. He knows that needles scare her. He knows. He knows how to use needles, and he knows how to use fear. Did he kill her mother with a needle? He is still stroking her hair. She is shaking, unable to speak. His gray eyes suddenly seem radiant, glimmering with a cold flame. This is probably just a reflection of the lamplight, but his eyes resemble the eyes of a robot in a scary movie, as though there is a machine inside of him, a machine running out of control.
His hand moves down to her pajama tops. He eases open the first button. Don't touch me. This is what I want. Her legs were straight out in front of her, but she was sitting up. Her deep anxiety even desperation was evident in her quick, shallow breathing. Don't touch me,' she said, and her voice was somehow resolute even though it quivered with fear. When she was six, all those freighted years ago, she had never been able to resist him.
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Southern California had no fireflies, but Joe remembered them from his boyhood in Pennsylvania. The moon had set. He was in the blackest depths of the night. When he returned to sleep, he dreamed not of any glorious approaching purpose but of an unseen, indefinable, looming menace. Like a great weight falling through the sky above him.
His chest tightened, and he was able to draw breath only with effort. When he lifted one hand from the wheel, his fingers quivered like those of a palsied old man. He was overcome by a sense of falling, as from a great height, as though his Honda had driven off the freeway into an inexplicable and bottomless abyss.
The pavement stretched unbroken ahead of him, and the tires sang against the blacktop, but he could not reason himself back to a perception of stability. Indeed, the plummeting sensation grew so severe and terrifying that he took his foot off the accelerator and tapped the brake pedal. Horns blared and skidding tires squealed as traffic adjusted to his sudden deceleration. As cars and trucks swept past the Honda, the drivers glared murderously at Joe or mouthed offensive words or made obscene gestures.
His sense of falling did not abate. His stomach turned over as if he were aboard a roller coaster, plunging along a precipitous length of track. Although he was alone in the car, he heard the screams of passengers, faint at first and then louder, not the good-humored shrieks of thrill seekers at an amusement park, but cries of genuine anguish. The shoulder of the freeway was narrow.
He stopped as close as possible to the guardrail, over which lush oleander bushes loomed like a great cresting green tide. Even though he was sheathed in cold sweat, he needed the chill blasts of air conditioning to be able to breathe. The pressure on his chest increased. Each stuttering inhalation was a struggle, and each hot exhalation burst from him with an explosive wheeze. Although the air in the Honda was clear, Joe smelled smoke.
When he glanced at the dense clusters of leaves and the deep-red flowers of the oleander pressing against the windows on the passenger side, his imagination morphed them into billowing clouds of greasy smoke. The window became a rectangular porthole with rounded corners and thick dual-pane glass. Although sometimes as much as two weeks passed between episodes, he often endured as many as three in one day, each lasting between ten minutes and half an hour.
He had seen a therapist. The counseling had not helped. His doctor recommended anti-anxiety medication. He rejected the prescription. He wanted to feel the pain. It was all he had. Closing his eyes, covering his face with his icy hands, he strove to regain control of himself, but the catastrophe continued to unfold around him.
The sense of falling intensified. The smell of smoke thickened. The screams of phantom passengers grew louder. Everything shook. The floor beneath his feet. The cabin walls. The ceiling. Horrendous rattling and twanging and banging and gong-like clanging accompanied the shaking, shaking, shaking.
Without opening his eyes, he lowered his hands from his face. They lay fisted at his sides. After a moment, the small hands of frightened children clutched at his hands, and he held them tightly. The children were not in the car, of course, but in their seats in the doomed airliner. Joe was flashing back to the crash of Flight For the duration of this seizure, he would be in two places at once: in the real world of the Honda and in the Nationwide Air as it found its way down from the serenity of the stratosphere, through an overcast night sky, into a meadow as unforgiving as iron.
Michelle had been sitting between the kids. As the shaking grew worse, the air was filled with projectiles. Paperback books, laptop computers, pocket calculators, flatware and dishes—because a few passengers had not yet finished dinner when disaster struck—plastic drinking glasses, single-serving bottles of liquor, pencils, and pens ricocheted through the cabin.
Coughing because of the smoke, Michelle would have urged the girls to keep their heads down. Heads down. Protect your faces. Such faces. Beloved faces. Nina, only four, the pug-nosed munchkin with gray-violet eyes, had a way of crinkling her sweet face in pure delight at the sight of a dog or cat.
Animals were drawn to her—and she to them—as though she were the reincarnation of St. Francis of Assisi, which was not a far-fetched idea when one saw her gazing with wonder and love upon even an ugly garden lizard cupped in her small, careful hands. In that advice was hope, the implication that they would all survive and that the wo rst thing that might happen to them would be a face-disfiguring encounter with a hurtling laptop or broken glass.
The fearsome turbulence increased. Maybe the oxygen masks dropped from overhead, or maybe damage to the craft had resulted in a systems failure, with the consequence that masks had not been deployed at every seat. Smoke surged more thickly through the passenger compartment. The cabin became as claustrophobic as any coal mine deep beneath the surface of the earth.
In the blinding blackdamp, hidden sinuosities of fire uncoiled like snakes. As the stress on the airliner increased to all but intolerable levels, thunderous vibrations shuddered through the fuselage. The giant wings thrummed as though they would tear loose.
The steel frame groaned like a living beast in mortal agony, and perhaps minor welds broke with sounds as loud and sharp as gunshots. A few rivets sheered off, each with a piercing screeeeek. To Michelle and Chrissie and little Nina, perhaps it seemed that the plane would disintegrate in flight and that they would be cast into the black sky, be spun away from one another, plummeting in their separate seats to three separate deaths, each abjectly alone at the instant of impact.
The huge , however, was a marvel of design and a triumph of engineering, brilliantly conceived and soundly constructed. In spite of the mysterious hydraulics failure that rendered the aircraft uncontrollable, the wings did not tear loose, and the fuselage did not disintegrate. Its powerful Pratt and Whitney engines screaming as if in defiance of gravity, Nationwide Flight held together throughout its final descent. At some point Michelle would have realized that all hope was lost, that they were in a dying plunge.
With characteristic courage and selflessness, she would have thought only of the children then, would have concentrated on comforting them, distracting them as much as possible from thoughts of death. He wanted desperately to believe that his daughters had been able to draw upon the strength of the exceptional woman who had been their mother. He needed to know that the last thing the girls heard in this world was Michelle telling them how very precious they were, how cherished.
The airliner met the meadow with such devastating impact that the sound was heard more than twenty miles away in the rural Colorado vastness, stirring hawks and owls and eagles out of trees and into flight, startling weary ranchers from their armchairs and early beds. In the Honda, Joe Carpenter let out a muffled cry. He doubled over as if he had been struck hard in the chest. The crash was catastrophic. Dean Koontz - Odd Thomas Dean Koontz - Jane Hawk Series Dean Koontz - Nameless Series Dean Koontz 67 Audiobooks Collection Dean Koontz - Darkfall Uunabridged Audiobook.
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