Midnight Page 50


Pete and Marsha were sitting on opposite sides of the large table, where their computer terminals stood back to back. No, they were not exactly sitting there; they were wired into the chairs and the computers by scores of hideous, segmented cables that grew out of them—or out of the machine; it was hard to tell which—and not only anchored them to their computers but to their chairs and, finally, to the floor, into which the cables disappeared. Their faces were still vaguely recognizable, though wildly altered, half pale flesh and half metal, with a slightly melted look.


Randy could not breathe.


But abruptly he could move, and he scrambled backward.


The door slammed behind him.


He whirled.


Tentacles—half organic, half metallic—erupted from the wall. The entire room seemed weirdly, malevolently alive, or maybe the walls were filled with alien machinery. The tentacles were quick. They lashed around him, pinned his arms, thoroughly him, and turned him toward his parents.


They were still in their chairs but were no longer facing their computers. They stared at him with radiant green eyes that appeared to be boiling in their sockets, bubbling and churning.


Randy screamed. He thrashed, but the tentacles held him.


Pete opened his mouth, and half a dozen silvery spheres, like kill ball bearings, shot from him and struck Randy in the chest.


Pain exploded through the boy. But it didn't last more than a couple of seconds. Instead, the hot pain became an icy-cold, crawling sensation that worked through his entire body and up his face.


He tried to scream again. No sound escaped him.


The tentacles shrank back into the wall, pulling him with them, until his back was pinned tightly against the plaster.


The coldness was in his head now. Crawling, crawling.


Again, he tried to scream. This time a sound came from him. A thin, electronic oscillation.


* * *


Thursday afternoon, wearing warm wool slacks and a sweatshirt and a cardigan over the sweatshirt because she found it hard to stay warm these days, Meg Henderson sat at the kitchen table by the window, with a glass of chenin blanc, a plate of onion crackers, a wedge of Gouda, and a Nero Wolfe novel by Rex Stout. She had read all of the Wolfe novels ages ago, but she was rereading them. Returning to old novels was comforting because the people in them never changed. Wolfe was still a genius and gourmet. Archie was still a man of action. Fritz still ran the best private kitchen in the world. None of them had aged since last she'd met them, either, which was a trick she wished she had learned.


Meg was eighty years old, and she looked eighty, every minute of it; she didn't kid herself. Occasionally, when she saw herself in a mirror, she stared in amazement, as if she had not lived with that face for the better part of a century and wasn't looking at a stranger. Somehow she expected to see a reflection of her youth because inside she was still that girl. Fortunately she didn't feel eighty. Her bones were creaky, and her muscles had about as much tone as those of Jabba the Hut in the Star Wars movie she'd watched on the VCR last week, but she was free of arthritis and other major complaints, thank God. She still lived in her bungalow on Concord Circle, an odd little half-moon street that began and ended from Serra Avenue on the east end of town. She and Frank had bought the place forty years ago, when they had both been teachers at Thomas Jefferson School, in the days when it had been a combined school for all grades. Moonlight Cove had been much smaller then. For fourteen years, since Frank died, she had lived in the bungalo alone. She could get around, clean, and cook for herself, for which she was grateful.


She was even more grateful for her mental acuity. More than physical infirmity, she dreaded senility or a stroke that, while leaving her physically functional, would steal her memory an alter her personality. She tried to keep her mind flexible by reading a lot of books of all different kinds, by renting a variety of videos for her VCR, and by avoiding at all costs the mind-numbing slop that passed for entertainment on television.


By four-thirty Tuesday afternoon, she was halfway through the novel, though she paused at the end of each chapter to look out at the rain. She liked rain. She liked whatever weather God chose to throw at the world—storms, hail, wind, cold, heat—because the variety and extremes of creation were what made it so beautiful.


While looking at the rain, which earlier had declined from a fierce downpour to a drizzle but was once more falling furiously, she saw three large, dark, and utterly fantastic creatures appear out of the stand of trees at the rear of her property, fifty feet from the window at which she sat. They halted for a moment as a thin mist eddied around their feet, as if they were dream monsters that had taken shape from those scraps of fog and might melt away as suddenly as they had arisen. But then they raced toward her back porch.


As they drew swiftly nearer, Meg's first impression of them was reinforced. They were like nothing on this earth … unless perhaps gargoyles could come alive and climb down from cathedral roofs.


She knew at once that she must be in the early stages of a truly massive stroke, because that was what she had always feared would at last claim her. But she was surprised that it would begin like this, with such a weird hallucination.


That was all it could be, of course—hallucination preceding the bursting of a cerebral blood vessel that must be already swelling and pressing on her brain. She waited for a painful exploding sensation inside her head, waited for her face and body to twist to the left or right as one side or the other was paralyzed.


Even when the first of the gargoyles crashed through the window, showering the table with glass, spilling the chenin blanc, knocking Meg off her chair, and falling to the floor atop her, all teeth and claws, she marveled that a stroke could produce such vivid, convincing illusions, though she was not surprised by the intensity of the pain. She'd always known that death would hurt.


* * *


Dora Hankins, the receptionist in the main lobby at New Wave, was accustomed to seeing people leave work as early as four-thirty. Though the official quitting time was five o'clock, a lot of workers put in hours at home, on their own PCs, so no one strictly enforced the eight-hour office day. Since they'd been converted, there had been no need for rules, anyway, because they were all working for the same goal, for the new world that was coming, and the only discipline they needed was their fear of Shaddack, of which they had plenty.


By 4:55, when no one at all had passed through the lobby, Dora was apprehensive. The building was oddly silent, though hundreds of people were working there in offices and labs farther back on the ground floor and in the two floors overhead. In fact the place seemed deserted.


At five o'clock no one had yet left for the day, and Dora had decided to see what was going on. She abandoned her post at the main reception desk, walked to the end of the large marble lobby, through a brass door, into a less grand corridor floored with vinyl tile. Offices lay on both sides. She went into the first room on the left, where eight women served as a secretarial pool for minor department heads who had no personal secretaries of their own.


The eight were at their VDTs. In the fluorescent light, Dora had no trouble seeing how intimately flesh and machine had joined.


Fear was the only emotion Dora had felt in weeks. She thought she had known it in all its shades and degrees. But now it fell over her with greater force, darker and more intense, than anything she had experienced before.


A glistening probe erupted from the wall to Dora's right. It was more metallic than not, yet it dripped what appeared to be yellowish mucus. The thing shot straight to one of the secretaries and bloodlessly pierced the back of her head. From the top one of the other women's heads, another probe erupted, like a snake to the music of a charmer's flute, hesitated, then with tremendous speed snapped to the ceiling, piercing the acoustic tile without disturbing it, and vanished toward the room above.


Dora sensed that all of the computers and people of Nev Wave had somehow linked into a single entity and that the building itself was swiftly being incorporated into it. She wanted to but couldn't move—maybe because she knew any escape attempt would prove futile.


A moment later they plugged her into the network.


* * *


Betsy Soldonna was carefully taping up a sign on the wall behind the front desk at the Moonlight Cove Town Library. It was part of Fascinating Fiction Week, a campaign to get kids to read more fiction.


She was the assistant librarian, but on Tuesdays, when her boss, Cora Danker, was off, Betsy worked alone. She liked Cora, but Betsy also liked being by herself. Cora was a talker, filling every free minute with gossip or her boring observations on the characters and plots of her favorite TV programs. Betsy, a lifelong bibliophile obsessed with books, would have been delighted to talk endlessly about what she'd read, but Cora, though head librarian, hardly read at all.


Betsy tore a fourth piece of Scotch tape off the dispenser and fixed the last corner of the poster to the wall. She stepped back to admire her work.


She had made the poster herself. She was proud of her modest artistic talent. In the drawing, a boy and a girl were holding books and staring bug-eyed at the open pages before them. Their hair was standing on end. The girl's eyebrows appeared to have jumped off her face, as had the boy's ears. Above them was the legend BOOKS ARE PORTABLE FUNHOUSES, FILLED WITH THRILLS AND SURPRISES.


From back in the stacks at the other end of the library came a curious sound—a grunt, a choking cough, and then what might have been a snarl. Next came the unmistakable clatter of a row of books falling from a shelf to the floor.


The only person in the library, other than Betsy, was Dale Foy, a retiree who'd been a cashier at Lucky's supermarket until three years ago when he'd turned sixty-five. He was always searching for thriller writers he had never read before and complaining that none of them was as good as the really old-time tale-spinners, by which he meant John Buchan rather than Robert Louis Stevenson.


Betsy suddenly had the terrible feeling that Mr. Foy had suffered a heart attack in one of the aisles, that she had heard him gurgling for help, and that he had pulled the books to the floor when he'd grabbed at a shelf. In her mind she could see him writhing in agony, unable to breathe, his face turning blue and his eyes bulging, a bloody foam bubbling at his lips… .


Years of heavy reading had stropped Betsy's imagination until it was as sharp as a straight razor made from fine German steel.


She hurried around the desk and along the head of the aisles looking into each of the narrow corridors, which were flanked by nine-foot-high shelves. "Mr. Foy? Mr. Foy, are you alright?"


In the last aisle she found the fallen books but no sign of Dale Foy. Puzzled, she turned to go back the way she had come, and there was Foy behind her. But changed. And even Betsy Soldonna's sharp imagination could not have conceived of the thing that Foy had become—or of the things that he was about to do to her. The next few minutes were as filled with surprises as a hundred books she had ever read, though there was not a happy ending.


* * *


Because of the dark storm clouds that clotted the sky, an dead twilight crept over Moonlight Cove, and the entire town seemed to be celebrating Fascinating Fiction Week at the library. The dying day was, for many, filled with thrills and surprises, just like a funhouse in the most macabre carnival that had ever pitched its tents.


37


Sam swept the beam of the flashlight around the attic. It had a rough board floor but no light fixture. Nothing was stored there except dust, spider webs, and a multitude of dead, dry bees that had built nests in the rafters during the summer and had died due to the work of an exterminator or at the end of their span.


Satisfied, he returned to the trapdoor and went backward down wooden rungs, into the closet of Harry's third-floor bedroom. They had removed many of the hanging clothes to be able to open the trap and draw down the collapsible ladder.


Tessa, Chrissie, Harry, and Moose were waiting for him just outside the closet door, in the steadily darkening bedroom.


Sam said, "Yeah, it'll do."


"I haven't been up there since before the war," Harry said.


"A little dirty, a few spiders, but you'll be safe. If you're not at the end of their list, if they do come for you early, they'll find the house empty, and they'll never think of the attic. Because how could a man with two bad legs and one bad arm drag himself up there?"


Sam was not sure that he believed what he was saying. But for his own peace of mind as well as Harry's, he wanted to believe.


"Can I take Moose up there with me?"


"Take that handgun you mentioned," Tessa said, "but not Moose. Well-behaved as he is, he might bark at just the wrong moment."


"Will Moose be safe down here … when they come?" Chrissie wondered.


"I'm sure he will be," Sam said. "They don't want dogs. Only people."


"We better get you up there, Harry," Tessa said. "It's twenty Past five. We've got to be out of here soon."


The bedroom was filling with shadows almost as rapidly as a glass filling with blood-dark wine.


Part Three


THE NIGHT BELONGS TO THEM


Montgomery told me about the Law … became oddly weakened about nightfall; that then the animal was at its strongest; a spirit of adventure sprang up in them at the dusk; they would dare things they never seemed to dream about by day.


—H. G. WELLS,


The Island of Dr. Moreau


1


In the scrub-covered hills that surrounded the abandoned Icarus Colony, gophers and field mice and rabbits and a few foxes scrambled out of their burrows and shivered in the rain, listening. In the two nearest stands of pine, sweet gum, and autumn-stripped birch, one just to the south and one immediately east of the old colony, squirrels and raccoons stood to attention.


The birds were the first to respond. In spite of the rain, they flew from their sheltered nests in the trees, in the dilapidated old barn, and in the crumbling eaves of the main building itself. Cawing and screeching, they spiraled into the sky, darted and swooped, then streaked directly to the house. Starlings, wrens, crows, owls, and hawks all came in shrill and flapping profusion. Some flew against the walls, as if struck blind, battering insistently until they broke their necks, or until they snapped their wings and fell to the ground where they fluttered and squeaked until they were exhausted or had perished. Others, equally frenzied, found open doorways and windows through which they entered without damaging themselves.


Though wildlife within a two-hundred-yard radius had heard the call, only the nearer animals responded obediently. Rabbits leaped, squirrels scurried, coyotes loped, foxes dashed, and raccoons waddled in that curious way of theirs, through wet grass and rain-bent weeds and mud, toward the source of the siren song. Some were predators and some, by nature, were timid prey, but they moved side by side without conflict. It might have been a scene from an animated Disney film—the neighborly and harmonious folk of field and forest responding to the sweet guitar or harmonica music of some elderly black man who, when they gathered around him, would tell them stories of magic and great adventure. But there was no kindly, tale-spinning Negro where they were going, and the music that drew them was dark, cold, and without melody.

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