Midnight Page 44


As if to confirm that insight, Coltrane influenced the glass screen of the VDT to relinquish the convex plane of its surface and adapt to the contours of his face. The glass became as flexible as gelatin, thrusting outward, as if Coltrane actually existed within the machine, physically, and was now pushing his face Out of it.


This was impossible. Yet it was happening. Harley Coltrane seemed to be controlling matter with the power of his mind, a mind not even any longer linked to a human body.


Sam was mesmerized by fear, frozen, paralyzed. His finger lay immovable against the trigger.


Reality had been ripped, and through that tear a nightmare world of infinite malign possibilities seemed to be rushing into the world that Sam knew and—suddenly—loved.


One of the snakelike cables had reached his chest and found its way under his sweater to bare skin. He felt as if he'd been touched by a white-hot brand, and the pain broke his trance.


He fired two rounds into the computer, shattering the screen first, which was the second face of Coltrane's into which he'd pumped a .38 slug. Though Sam half expected it to absorb the bullet without effect, the cathode-ray tube imploded as if still made of glass. The other round scrambled the guts of the data-processing unit, at last finishing off the thing that Coltrane had become.


The pale, oily tentacles fell away from him. They blistered, began to bubble, and seemed to be putrefying before his eyes.


Eerie electronic beeps, crackles, and oscillations, not ear—torturingly loud but uncannily piercing, still filled the room.


When Sam looked toward the woman who had been seated at the other computer, against the east wall, he saw that the mucus-like cables between her and the machine had lengthened, allowing her to turn in her chair to face him. Aside from those semiorganic connections and her nakedness, she was in a different but no less hideous condition from her husband. Her eyes were gone, but her sockets did not bristle with a host of sensors. Rather, two reddish orbs, three times the size of ordinary eyes, filled enlarged sockets in a face redesigned to accommodate them; they were less eyes than eye-shaped receptors, no doubt designed to see in many spectrums of light, and in fact Sam became aware of an image of himself in each red lens, reversed. Her legs, belly, breasts, arms, throat, and face were heavily patterned with swollen blood vessels that lay just beneath her skin and that seemed to stretch it to the breaking point, so she looked as if she were a design board for branch-pattern circuitry. Some of those vessels might, indeed, have carried blood, but some of them throbbed with waves of radium-like illumination, some green and some sulfurous yellow.


A segmented, wormlike probe, the diameter of a pencil, erupted from her forehead, as if shot from a gun, and streaked toward Sam, closing the ten feet between them in a split second, striking him above the right eye before he could duck. The tip bit into his skin on contact. He heard a whirring sound, as of fan blades spinning at maybe a thousand revolutions a minute. Blood ran down his brow and along the side of his nose. But he was squeezing off the last two rounds in his gun even as the probe came at him. Both shots found their mark. One slammed into the woman's upper body, and one took out the computer behind her in a blaze of sparks and crackling electrical bolts that jumped to the ceiling and snaked briefly across the plaster before dissipating. The probe went limp and fell away from him before it could link his brain to hers, which evidently had been its intention.


Except for gray daylight that entered through the paper-thin cracks between the slats of the shutters, the room was dark.


Crazily, Sam remembered something a computer specialist had said at a seminar for agents, when explaining how the Bureau's new system worked: "Computers can perform more effectively when linked, allowing parallel processing of data."


Bleeding from the forehead and the right wrist, he stumbled backward to the door and flicked the light switch, turning on a floor lamp) He stood there —as far as he could get from the two grotesque corpses and still see them—while he began to reload the revolver with rounds he dug out of the pockets of his jacket.


The room was preternaturally silent.


Nothing moved.


Sam's heart was hammering with such force that his chest ached dully with each blow.


Twice he dropped cartridges because his hands were shaking. He didn't stoop to retrieve them. He was half convinced that the moment he wasn't in a position to fire with accuracy or to run, one of the dead creatures would prove not to be dead, after all, and like a flash would come at him, spitting sparks, and would seize him before he could rise and scramble out of its way.


Gradually he became aware of the sound of rain. After losing half of its force during the morning, it was now falling harder than at any time since the storm had first broken the previous night. No thunder shook the day, but the furious drumming of the rain itself—and the insulated walls of the house—had probably muffled the gunfire enough to prevent it being heard by neighbors. He hoped to God that was the case. Otherwise, they were coming even now to investigate, and they would prevent his escape.


Blood continued to trickle down from the wound on his forehead, and some of it got into his right eye. It stung. He wiped at his eye with his sleeve and blinked away the tears as best he could.


His wrist hurt like hell. But if he had to, he could hold the revolver with his left hand and shoot well enough in close quarters…


When the .38 was reloaded, Sam edged back into the room, to the smoking computer on the worktable along the west wall, where Harley Coltrane's mutated body was slumped in a chair, trailing its bone-metal arms. Keeping one eye on the dead man-machine, he took the phone off the modem and hung it up. Then he lifted the receiver and was relieved to hear a dial tone.


His mouth was so dry that he wasn't sure he'd be able to speak clearly when his call got through.


He punched out the number of the Bureau office in Los Angeles.


The line clicked.


A pause.


A recording came on "We are sorry that we are unable to complete your call at this time."


He hung up, then tried again.


"We are sorry that we are unable to complete—"


He slammed the phone down.


Not all of the telephones in Moonlight Cove were operable. And evidently, even from those in service, calls could be placed only to certain numbers. Approved numbers. The local phone company had been reduced to an elaborate intercom to serve the converted.


As he turned away from the phone, he heard something move, behind him. Stealthy and quick.


He swung around, and the woman was three feet away. She, was no longer connected to the ruined computer, but one of those organic-looking cables trailed across the floor from the base of her spine and into an electrical socket.


Free-associating in his terror, Sam thought: So much for your flimsy kites, Dr. Frankenstein, so much for the need for storms andd lightning; these days we just plug the monsters into the wall, them a jolt of the juice direct, courtesy of Pacific Power & Light.


A reptilian hiss issued from her, and she reached for him. Instead of fingers, her hand had three multiple-pronged plugs similar to the couplings with which the elements of a home computer were joined, though these prongs were as sharp as nails.


Sam dodged to the side, colliding with the chair in which Harley Coltrane still slumped, and nearly fell, firing at the woman-thing as he went. He emptied the five-round .38.


The first three shots knocked her backward and down. The other two tore through vacant air and punched chunks of plaster out of the walls because he was too panicked to stop pulling the trigger when she fell out of his line of fire.


She was trying to get up.


Like a goddamn vampire, he thought.


He needed the high-tech equivalent of a wooden stake, a cross, a silver bullet.


The artery-circuits that webbed her na*ed body were still pulsing with light, although in places she was sparking, just as the computers themselves had done when he had pumped a couple of slugs into them.


No rounds were left in the revolver.


He searched his pockets for cartridges.


He had none.


Get out.


An electronic wail, not deafening but more nerve-splintering than a thousand sharp fingernails scraped simultaneously down a blackboard, shrilled from her.


Two segmented, wormlike probes burst from her face and flew straight at him. Both fell inches short of him—perhaps a sign of her waning energy—and returned to her like splashes of quicksilver streaming back into the mother mass.


But she was getting up.


Sam scrambled to the doorway, stooped, and snatched up the 'two cartridges he had dropped when he had reloaded the gun. He broke open the cylinder, shook out the empty brass casings, Jammed in the last two rounds.


"… neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed … neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed …"


She was on her feet, coming toward him.


This time he held the Smith & Wesson in both hands, aimed carefully, and shot her in the head.


Take out the data processor, he thought with a flash of black humor. Only way to stop a determined machine. Take out its data processor, and it's nothing but a tangle of junk.


She crumpled to the floor. The red light went out of the unhuman eyes; they were black now. She was perfectly still.


Suddenly flames erupted from her bullet-cracked skull, spurting from the wound, from her eyes, nostrils, and gaping mouth.


He moved quickly to the socket to which she was still tethered, and he kicked at the semiorganic plug that she had extruded from her body, knocking it loose.


The flames still leaped from her.


He could not afford a house fire. The bodies would be found and the neighborhood, Harry's house included, would be searched door-to-door. He looked around for something to throw over her to smother the flames, but already the blaze within the skull was subsiding. In a moment it burned itself out.


The air reeked of a dozen foul odors, some of which did not bear contemplation.


He was mildly dizzy. Nausea stole over him. He gagged clenched his teeth, and forced back his gorge.


Though he wanted desperately to get out of there, he took time to unplug both computers. They were inoperable and dammaged beyond repair, but he was irrationally afraid that, like Frankenstein's homebuilt man in movie sequel after sequel, they would somehow come to life if exposed to electricity.


He hesitated at the doorway, leaned against the jamb to take some of the weight off his weak and trembling legs, looked at the computers and the strange corpses. He had expected them to revert to normal appearance when they were dead, the way they were in the movies, upon taking a silver bullet in the heart or beaten with a silver-headed cane, always metamorphosed for the last time, becoming their tortured, too-human selves, finally released from the curse. Unfortunately this was not Lycanthropy. This was not a supernatural affliction, but something worse that men had brought upon themselves with no help from demonic spirits or other things that went bump in the night. The Coltranes as they had been, monstrous half-breeds of flesh and blood and silicon—human and machine.


He could not comprehend how they had become what they had become, but he half remembered that a word existed for them, and in a moment he recalled it. Cyborg: a person whose biological functioning was aided by or dependent on a mechanical or electronic device. People wearing pacemakers to regulate arrhythmic hearts were cyborgs, and that was a good thing. Those whose kidneys had both failed—and who received dialysis on a regular basis—were cyborgs, and that was good too. But with the Coltranes the concept had been carried to extremes. They were the nightmare side of advanced cybernetics, in whom not merely physiological but mental function had become aided by and almost certainly dependent on a machine.


Sam began to gag again. He turned quickly away from the smoke-hazed den and backtracked through the house to the kitchen door, by which he had entered.


Every step of the way, he was certain that he would hear a voice behind him, half human and half electronic—"neeeeeeeeeeed"—and would look back to see one of the Coltranes lumbering toward him, reanimated by a last small supply of current stored in battery cells.


25


At the main gate of New Wave Microtechnology, on the highlands along the northern perimeter of Moonlight Cove, the guard, wearing a black rain slicker with the corporate logo on the breast, squinted at the oncoming police cruiser. When he recognized Loman, he waved him through without stopping him. Loman had been well known there even before he and they had become new People.


New Wave power, prestige, and profitability were not hidden in an unassuming corporate headquarters. The place had been designed by a leading architect who favored rounded corners, gentle angles, and the interesting juxtaposition of curved walls—some concave, some convex. The two large three-story buildings—one erected four years after the other—were faced with buff-colored stone, had huge tinted windows, and blended well with the landscape.


Of the fourteen hundred people employed there, nearly a thousand lived in Moonlight Cove. The rest resided in other communities elsewhere in the county. All of them, of course, lived within the effective reach of the microwave broadcasting dish on the roof of the main structure.


As he followed the entrance road around the big buildings toward the parking area behind, Loman thought: Sure as hell Shaddack's our very own Reverend Jim Jones. Needs to be sure he can take every last one of his devoted followers with him any time he wants. A modern pharaoh. When he dies, those attending him die, too, as if he expects them to continue to attend him in the next world. Shit. Do we even believe in a next world any more?


No. Religious faith was akin to hope, and it required emotional commitment.


New People did not believe in God any more than they believed in Santa Claus. The only thing they believed in was the power of the machine and the cybernetic destiny of humanity.


Maybe some of them didn't even believe in that.


Loman didn't. He no longer believed in anything at all—which scared him because he had once believed in so many things.


The ratio of New Wave's gross sales and profits to its number of employees was high even for the microtechnology industry, its ability to pay for the best talent in its field was reflected in the percentage of high-ticket cars in the two enormous lots. Mercedes. BMW. Porsche. Corvette. Cadillac Seville. Jaguar. high end Japanese imports with every bell and whistle.


Only half the usual number of cars were in the lot. It looked as if a high percentage of the staff was at home, working through the modem. How many were already like Denny?


Side by side on the rainswept macadam, those cars reminded Loman of the orderly ranks of tombstones in a cemetery. Those quiescent engines, all that cold metal, all those hundreds of wet windshields reflecting the flat gray autumn sky, suddenly poemed a presentiment of death. To Loman, that parking lot represented the future of the entire town silence, stillness, the terrible eternal peace of the graveyard.

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