Midnight Page 5


Tessa was overcome by the desire to stand on the beach from which her sister had supposedly set out on that midnight swim to the graveyard, the same beach to which the tide had returned her bloated, ravaged corpse days later. She turned from the window and switched on a bedside lamp. She removed a brown leatherjacket from a hanger in the closet, pulled it on, slung her purse over her shoulder, and left the room, locking the door behind her. She was certain—irrationally so—that merely by going to the beach and standing where Janice supposedly had stood, she would uncover a clue to the true story, through an amazing insight or flicker of intuition.


8


As the hammered-silver moon rose above the dark eastern hills, Chrissie raced along the tree line, looking for a way into the woods before her strange pursuers found her. She quickly arrived at Pyramid Rock, thus named because the formation, twice as tall as she was, had three sides and came to a weather-rounded point; when younger, she had fantasized that it had been constructed ages ago by a geographically displaced tribe of inch-high Egyptians. Having played in this meadow and forest for years, she was as familiar with the terrain as with the rooms of her own house, certainly more at home there than her parents or Tucker would be, which gave her an advantage. She slipped past Pyramid Rock, into the gloom beneath the trees, onto a narrow deer trail that led south.


She heard no one behind her and did not waste time squinting back into the darkness. But she suspected that, as predators, her parents and Tucker would be silent stalkers, revealing themselves only when they pounced.


The coastal woodlands were comprised mostly of a wide variety of pines, although a few sweet gums flourished, too, their leaves a scarlet blaze of autumn color in daylight but now as black as bits of funeral shrouds. Chrissie followed the winding trail as the land began to slope into a canyon. In more than half the forest, the trees grew far enough apart to allow the cold glow of the partial moon to penetrate to the underbrush and lay an icy crust of light upon the trail. The incoming fog was still too thin to filter out much of that wan radiance, but at other places the interlacing branches blocked the lunar light.


Even where moonlight revealed the way, Chrissie dared not run, for she would surely be tripped by the surface roots of the trees, which spread across the deer-beaten path. Here and there low-hanging branches presented another danger to a runner, but she hurried along.


As if reading from a book of her own adventures, a book like one of those she so much liked, she thought, Young Chrissie was as surefooted as she was resourceful and quick-thinking, no more intimidated by the darkness than by the thought of her monstrous pursuers. What a girl she was!


Soon she would reach the bottom of the slope, where she could turn west toward the sea or east toward the county rout, which bridged the canyon. Few people lived in that area, more than two miles from the outskirts of Moonlight Cove; fewer still lived by the sea, since portions of the coastline were protected by state law and were closed to construction. Though she had little chance of finding help toward the Pacific, her prospects to the east were not noticeably better, because the county road was lightly traveled and few houses were built along it; besides, Tucker might be patrolling that route in his Honda, expecting her to head that way and flag down the first passing car she saw.


Frantically wondering where to go, she descended the last hundred feet. The trees flanking the trail gave way to low, impenetrable tangles of bristly scrub oaks called chaparral. A few immense ferns, ideally suited to the frequent coastal fogs, overgrew the path, and Chrissie shivered as she pushed through them, for she felt as if scores of small hands were grabbing at her.


A broad but shallow stream cut a course through the bottom of the canyon, and she paused by its bank to catch her breath. Most of the stream bed was dry. At this time of year, only a couple of inches of water moved lazily through the center of the channel, glimmering darkly in the moonlight.


The night was windless.


Soundless.


Hugging herself, she realized how cold it was. In jeans and a blue-plaid flannel shirt, she was adequately dressed for a crisp October day, but not for the cold, damp air of an autumn night.


She was chilled, breathless, scared, and unsure of what her next move ought to be, but most of all she was angry with herself for those weaknesses of mind and body. Ms. Andre Norton's wonderful adventure stories were filled with dauntless young heroines who could endure far longer chases—and far greater cold and other hardships—than this, and always with wits intact, able to make quick decisions and, usually, right ones.


Spurred by comparing herself to a Norton girl, Chrissie stepped off the bank of the stream. She crossed ten feet of loamy soil eroded from the hills by last season's heavy rains and tried to jump across the shallow, purling band of water. She splashed down a few inches short of the other side, soaking her tennis shoes. Nevertheless she went on through more loam, which clumped to her wet shoes, ascended the far bank, and headed neither east nor west but south, up the other canyon wall toward the next arm of the forest.


Though she was entering new territory now, at the extremity of the section of the woods that had been her playground for years, she was not afraid of getting lost. She could tell east from west by the movement of the thin, incoming fog and by the position of the moon, and from those signs she could stay on a reliably southward course. She believed that within a mile she would come to a score of houses and to the sprawling grounds of New Wave Microtechnology, which lay between Foster Stables and the town of Moonlight Cove. There she would be able to find help.


Then, of course, her real problems would begin. She would have to convince someone that her parents were no longer her parents, that they had changed or been possessed or been somehow taken over by some spirit or … force. And that they wanted to turn her into one of them.


Yeah, she thought, good luck.


She was bright, articulate, responsible, but she was also just an eleven-year-old kid. She would have a hard time making anyone believe her. She had no illusions about that. They would I listen and nod their heads and smile, and then they would call her parents, and her parents would sound more plausible than she did… .


But I've got to try, she told herself, as she began to ascend the sloped southern wall of the canyon. If I don't try to convince someone, what else can I do? Just surrender? No chance.


Behind her, a couple of hundred yards away, from high on the far canyon wall down which she had recently descended, something shrieked. It was not an entirely human cry—not that of any animal, either. The first shrill call was answered by a second a third, and each shriek was clearly that of a different creature, for each was in a noticeably variant voice.


Chrissie halted on the steep trail, one hand against the deeply fissured bark of a pine, under a canopy of sweet-scented boughs. She looked back and listened as her pursuers simultaneously began to wail, an ululant cry reminiscent of the baying of a pack of coyotes … but stranger, more frightening. The sound was so cold, it penetrated her flesh and pierced like a needle to her marrow.


Their baying was probably a sign of their confidence They were certain they would catch her, so they no longer needed to be quiet.


"What are you?" she whispered.


She suspected they could see as well as cats in the dark.


Could they smell her, as if they were dogs?


Her heart began to slam almost painfully within her breast.


Feeling vulnerable and alone, she turned from the pulling hunters and scrambled up the trail toward the southern rim of the canyon.


9


At the foot of Ocean Avenue, Tessa Lockland walked through the empty parking lot and onto the public beach. The night breeze off the Pacific was just cranking up, faint but chilly enough that she was glad to be wearing slacks, a wool sweater, and her leather jacket.


She crossed the soft sand, toward the seaside shadows that lay beyond the radius of the glow from the last streetlamp, past a tall cypress growing on the beach and so radically shaped by ocean winds that it reminded her of an erte sculpture, all curved lines and molten form. On the damp sand at the surf's edge, with the tide lapping at the strand inches from her shoes, Tessa stared westward. The partial moon was insufficient to light the vast, rolling main; all she could see were the nearest three lines of low, foam-crested breakers surging toward her from out of the foam. She tried to picture her sister standing on this deserted beach, washing down thirty or forty Valium capsules with a Diet Coke, then stripping na*ed and plunging into the cold sea. No. Not Janice.


With growing conviction that the authorities in Moonlight Cove were incompetent fools or liars, Tessa walked slowly south along the curving shoreline. In the pearly luminescence of the immature moon, she studied the sand, the widely separated cypresses farther back on the beach, and the time-worn formations of rock. She was not looking for physical clues that might tell her what had happened to Janice; those had been erased by wind and tide during the past three weeks. instead, she was hoping that the very landscape itself and the elements of night-darkness, cool wind, and arabesques of pale but slowly thickening fog—would inspire her to develop a theory about what had really happened to Janice and an approach she might use to prove that theory.


She was a filmmaker specializing in industrials and documentaries of various kinds. When in doubt about the meaning and purpose of a project, she often found that immersion in a particular geographical locale could inspire narrative and thematic approaches to making a film about it. In the developmental stages of a new travel film, for instance, she often spent a couple of days casually strolling around a city like Singapore or Hong Kong or Rio, just absorbing details, which was more productive than thousands of hours of background reading and brainstorming, though of course the reading and brainstorming had to be a part of it too.


She had walked less than two hundred feet south along the beach, when she heard a shrill, haunting cry that halted her. The sound was distant, rising and falling, rising and falling, then fading.


Chilled more by that strange call than by the brisk October air, she wondered what she had heard. Although it had been partly a canine howl, she was certain it was not the voice of a dog. Though it was also marked by a feline whine and wail, she was equally certain it had not issued from a cat; no domestic cat could produce such volume, and to the best of her knowledge, no cougars roamed the coastal hills, certainly not in or near a town the size of Moonlight Cove.


Just as she was about to move on, the same uncanny cry cut the night again, and she was fairly sure it was coming from atop the bluff that overlooked the beach, farther south, where the lights of sea-facing houses were fewer than along the middle of the cove. This time the howl ended on a protracted and more guttural note, which might have been produced by a large dog, though she still felt it had to have come from some other creature. Someone living along the bluff must be keeping an exotic pet in a cage a wolf, perhaps, or some big mountain cat not indigenous to the northern coast.


That explanation did not satisfy her, either, for there was some peculiarly familiar quality to the cry that she could not place, a quality not related to a wolf or mountain cat. She waited for another shriek, but it did not come.


Around her the darkness had deepened. The fog was clotting, and a lumpish cloud slid across half of the two-pointed moon.


She decided she could better absorb the details of the scene in the morning, and she turned back toward the mist-shrouded streetlamps at the bottom of Ocean Avenue. She didn't realize she was walking so fast—almost running—until she had left the shore, crossed the beach parking lot, and climbed half the first steep block of Ocean Avenue, at which point she became aware of her pace only because she suddenly heard her own labored breathing.


10


Thomas Shaddack drifted in a perfect blackness that was neither warm nor cool, where he seemed weightless, where he had ceased to feel any sensation against his skin, where he seemed limbless and without musculature or bones, where he seemed to have no physical substance whatsoever. A tenuous thread of thought linked him to his corporeal self, and in the dimmest reaches of his mind, he was still aware that he was a man—an Ichabod Crane of a man, six feet two, one hundred and sixty-five pounds, lean and bony, with a too-narrow face, a high brow, and brown eyes so light they were almost yellow.


He was also vaguely aware that he was nude and afloat in a state-of-the-art sensory-deprivation chamber, which looked somewhat like an old-fashioned iron lung but was four times larger. The single low-wattage bulb was not lit, and no light penetrated the shell of the tank. The pool in which Shaddack floated was a few feet deep, a ten-percent solution of magnesium sulfate in water for maximum buoyancy. Monitored by a computer—as was every element of that environment—the water cycled between ninety-three degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which a floating body was least affected by gravity, and ninety eight degrees, at which the heat differential between human body temperature and surrounding fluid was marginal.


He suffered from no claustrophobia. A minute or two after he stepped into the tank and closed the hatch behind him, his sense of confinement entirely faded.


Deprived of sensory input—no sight, no sound, little or no taste, no olfactory stimulation, no sense of touch or weight or place or time—Shaddack let his mind break free of the dreary restraints of the flesh, soaring to previously unattainable heights of insight and exploring ideas of a complexity otherwise beyond his reach.


Even without the assistance of sensory deprivation, he was a genius. Time magazine had said he was, so it must be true. He had built New Wave Microtechnology from a struggling firm with initial capital of twenty thousand dollars to a three-hundred-million-a-year operation that conceived, researched, and developed cutting-edge microtechnology.


At the moment, however, Shaddack was making no effort to focus his mind on current research problems. He was using the tank strictly for recreational purposes, for the inducement of a specific vision that never failed to enthrall and excite him.


His vision:


Except for that thin thread of thought that tethered him to reality, he believed himself to be within a great, laboring machine, so immense that its dimensions could be ascertained no more easily than could those of the universe itself. It was the landscape of a dream but infinitely more textured and intense than a dream. Like an airborne mote within the eerily lit bowels of that colossal imaginary mechanism, he drifted past massive walls and interconnected columns of whirling drive shafts, rattling drive chains, myriad thrusting piston rods joined by sliding blocks to connecting rods that were in turn joined by crank wrists to well-greased cranks that turned flywheels of all dimensions. Servomotors hummed, compressors huffed, distributors sparked as electrical current flashed through millions of tangled wires to far reaches of the construct.


For Shaddack, the most exciting thing about this visionary world was the manner in which steel drive shafts and alloy pistons and hard rubber gaskets and aluminum cowlings were joined with organic parts to form a revolutionary entity possessed of two types of life: efficient mechanical animation and the throb of organic tissue. For pumps, the designer had employed glistening human hearts that pulsated tirelessly in that ancient lubdub rhythm, joined by thick arteries to rubber tubing that snaked into the walls; some of them pumped blood to parts of the system that required organic lubrication, while others pumped high-viscosity oil. Incorporated into other sections of the infinite machine were tens of thousands of lung sacs functioning as bellows and filters; tendons and tumor-like excrescences of flesh were employed to join lengths of pipe and rubber hoses with more flexibility and surety of seal than could have been attained with ordinary nonorganic couplings.

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