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by Greg Bear
ereads - Science Fiction
Copyright (C)1979 by Greg Bear
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This book is for Barbara, Cathey and David.
On the literary side, of course, it's for
8:16 a.m., August 6th, 1945
Final message from the U.S.S. Matheson, received 1630 hours May 24, 1964:
“Mayday, repeat, Mayday. Situation is getting worse. They are all over the decks now. Blue fire crawling over my radio and the ports. Jesus, Mary Mother of God, I can hear the captain and the mate. They are killing each other. The sickness is in me but I'm alone. All I see are the faces. Our position is West 183 degrees 14 minutes 23 seconds, North 35 degrees 14 minutes 20 seconds. The faces aren't all there. Not all there. The ones who tried to warn us—” (Interruption due to static.)
“The wind must be heeling the ship over. Mayday, Mayday. [Position repeated.] Everyone has gone mad. I can't stay at the key. God, God, God..."
From The Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1977:
PAPEETE, Tahiti (AP)—Police are investigating the death at sea of five members of an English family whose boat was found drifting erratically near Anaa island in the Tuamotu group, 240 miles east of Tahiti. The yacht Enchanted, rented from owners in Tahiti, was spotted by a patrol boat, which towed it into port on March 15. Police report that Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Hamish and three of their children, names unknown, were found dead in the cabin, bound hand and foot with their throats cut. They had been severely beaten. One officer reported that the yacht was “covered with bloody handwriting."
The surviving children—the oldest is eighteen—were suffering from exposure and shock. Police indicate they are not suspects at this time, but no other suspects are being sought.
Evening was coming with autumn leisure to the White Mountains. Clouds hooked onto the distant peaks and fanned to the East in layered saucers. Their tops were gray-violet, but a single billow of white still rose above Earth's shadow. The air was cool, and gray shadows fell across the sinuous road. A light mist slipped between the trees and collided silently with the truck's windshield.
“You'll enjoy my dad,” Henry Taggart said. “He's cut loose quite a few ties since Mom died."
“How do you mean?” Larry Fowler asked. His foot pressed hard against the bare floorboard as they banked into a curve.
“He's not crazy,” Taggart said. He shot Fowler a worried glance. “I don't want you to get that impression."
“You mean he acts crazy?"
“No, his ... philosophy is a bit strong for most people. He's been looking hard at death and making over his thoughts. Some of his talk gets pretty mystical."
Fowler nodded. He had known Henry Taggart for thirteen years, since high school. Taggart's father had always seemed a pragmatist. “He sold real estate, didn't he?"
“Best in his city for six years running,” Taggart said. “I used to think that was a meaningless accomplishment. I respect him for it now."
“You've mellowed a lot."
“Me? How about yourself?"
“Both of us.” They had been heavily involved in the counterculture of the late sixties, up and down the scales of drug experimentation, subdued political radicalism, acid-rock music. Fowler had been drafted in 1970 and had served in Vietnam. Taggart had escaped the draft by giving up his student exemption for a three-month period when no one was inducted. They had gone their own ways since, communicating three or four times a year, finding pleasure in each other's company, but never the strong ties that had united them in youth. Even now, however, they would react in the same way to a given stimulus, or think up the same joke or pun and say it simultaneously, as though there were an invisible link between them.
Taggart had gone on to business school after college and now managed a chain of bookstores in Los Angeles and San Diego. Fowler had followed up on electronics training in the Army and gone into computer design. That they had succeeded was evident by their dress. Taggart looked affluently woodsy—upper-class Sierra Club—in a fake-fur-collar mackinaw and twin-zipper European blue jeans. Fowler was wearing a rust leisure suit and a pair of Taggart's hiking boots, a spare set unused until now.
“The world has us by the nose, I think,” Fowler said. “Oh, for the good old adolescent funk."
Taggart smiled and offered him a cigarette, which he declined. The truck's headlights suddenly shot out above a broad green valley and Taggart pulled over to a clearing by the highway. They got out and looked at the last of the daylight.
“Dad's cabin is on that low hill,” Taggart said, pointing. Fowler saw a faint black speck in the general gray-green.
“No lights,” he said.
“He should have them on soon,” Taggart said. He sounded apprehensive.
“Where will the river be?"
“When the floodgates are opened next month, two little creeks will dribble around either side of the hill. The cabin's already been cleared by inspectors—no drainage or erosion problems. So he's planning to build a little log bridge to the road and stick it out."
Tiny lights came on far below.
“There. He burns every light in the cabin after dark."
“No,” Taggart said. “You'll see."
Fifteen minutes later, the truck's oversized tires grumbled in the cabin's gravel driveway. Taggart shut off the engine and the headlights.
“Need help with the luggage?” he asked as Fowler hauled two suitcases and a cardboard box over the liftgate.
“Sure,” he said. “The equipment is in the big metal one. I'll get these."
“What's in the box?"
Fowler grinned sheepishly. “I figured what with living in the woods and everything, your father wouldn't have this kind of stuff around."
“What kind of stuff?” Taggart asked. He pried open one corner of the box. “My God, it's full of Twinkies!"
“Not just Twinkies,” Fowler said. “Marshmallows, candy bars, Cracker Jacks, you name it it's in there."
“I didn't know you were a junk-food freak."
“It hit me in Vietnam,” Fowler said. “That was what I really missed about stateside.” They carried the luggage to the front porch. The door opened before Henry knocked.
Jordan Taggart had aged a lot since Fowler last saw him. His nose was visibly hooked and his wrinkles had deepened into roadmap seams, showing all the directions his life had taken in sixty-eight years. Jordan looked them over carefully, squinting.
“Larry Fowler,” he said, holding out his hand. His grip was still firm and dry. “Come in, come in. It's chilly this evening."
“So we noticed,” Henry said. “It didn't take much talk to get Larry up here, Dad. Seems like he needed a vacation."
Fowler looked from father to son. They resembled each other more now than they had two years before. Henry would look more like Jordan the older he became, even to losing the same amount of hair in the same places.
“I've kept it neat,” Jordan said, shutting the door behind them and waving an arm at the comfortable furnishings. “It's warm, has room for my books, and the weather is generally peaceful around here. Winters are mild."
“Larry seems willing to help us. Dad."
Jordan shook his head. “I hope you haven't told him what I said."
“Better he hear it from my own mouth. Better to judge me crazy directly."
“Here's the equipment, as much as I could muster,” Larry said. “And some things you didn't mention specifically."
“Microwave detectors? I read about those."
“Yes,” Fowler said, “and electronic thermometers with a chart recorder. Cameras with infrared film."
“What do you think we're up to?” Jordan asked.
Fowler shrugged. “Henry says you've been thinking a lot about death recently. Philosophizing.” He sat on the oak-frame couch and looked at the book shelves above the fireplace. “You're looking for ghosts, I'd say."
“Still whip-smart,” Jordan said. “I remembered you as smart. But you're not exactly correct this time."
“I'm not looking for anything in particular, Larry. You're in electronics now, aren't you?"
“Borrow all this equipment from your company?"
“I'm not looking for something. I've already seen. Now I want to know what it is I've seen. You're well-versed in science, aren't you?"
“Not where ghosts are concerned."
“Not ghosts, I think,” Jordan reiterated.
“I'm up on electronics and I read a lot of journals otherwise. I can hold my own."
“Got a bunch of Scientific Americans myself. Henry gave me a subscription three years ago."
Henry sat in a recliner near the fireplace and pushed the chair back until he sighed with comfort. “You've held dinner, I hope, Dad?"
Jordan nodded, his face brightening. “If you can put up with corned beef and steamed vegetables."
Fowler wasn't enthusiastic, but hungry enough to accept the prospect. Jordan left the living room and began rattling pots in the kitchen.
“Well?” Henry asked.
Fowler shrugged. “I'm open-minded. I don't think the equipment will do him any good. Other investigators have used similar stuff. What is he after?"
“I don't know,” Henry said. “I've only stayed the night here twice. How open-minded are you?"
“Not a believer, if that's what you mean."
Jordan laid the food out on the dining-room table and brought out cans of beer. He preferred to eat in silence, apparently, and they did. The woods were preternaturally quiet, relieved only by the occasional sough of a dove. Henry finished his helping and slipped his fork onto the plate with a clink, leaning back.
“Larry's our man, Dad,” he said. Jordan looked briefly at Fowler as he chewed.
“So he may be. I'm not the one, that's for sure. My brain doesn't have the cutting edge necessary for this."
Fowler examined the titles on the shelves behind him: Cosmic Consciousness, The Vampire in Europe, a three-volume set called Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft, scattered paperbacks with a sensational appearance and a long row of occult novels. He smiled. “Ghost stories bore me."
“Then we'll spare you campfire terrors tonight,” Jordan said. “Gentlemen, I sleep and wake by the sun. I've held dinner only for you, and bad as it is for an old man to snooze on a full belly, I feel so inclined. You may sit up and talk if you wish. Good night."
When Jordan was in his bedroom with the door closed, Fowler leaned over the table and asked, “What in hell is going on?"
“Stay the night at least. You'll know as much as I do, which right now is nothing. He's not senile, Larry. I know him pretty well—we've gotten reacquainted in the last few years. He's just as skeptical as you and I."
“But these books—"
“I know, some are ridiculous. Not all, however. There's genuine scholarship on that shelf."
“Mixed with a healthy dose of bullshit. All this Frank Edwards crap, Jeane Dixon, strictly National Perspirer stuff. Are you two trying to set me up for a night in a haunted cabin?"
“The cabin is two years old. I doubt if anything larger than a skunk has died in its vicinity since it was built. It's not haunted."
“Ah, but it rests on an old Indian mound, and—"
“Pocahontas won't disturb your sleep, either."
“Then the ancient wolf-spirit?"
“I don't know about that one. Dad's only described a few incidents, and I haven't seen anything."
“Jesus, I'm an engineer. Henry! You should have called in Hans Holzer."
“You'll spend a night in the peaceful woods and breathe clean air for a while. If nothing happens, it's a vacation, right? Or is your mind completely closed after all?"
Fowler gave him a pained look and backed his chair away from the table. “I deal with reliable things, things I understand. Death isn't my cup of tea."
“What about Vietnam?"
“I never got into direct combat. I saw a couple of idiots blown up playing chicken with a fragmentation grenade. They didn't leave enough to suggest a ghost. That taught me what death was—final and unpleasant. A big cosmic accident, and no bookkeeper to keep track of us. Where's the box?"
“In the kitchen,” Henry said. Fowler found it next to the refrigerator and dug out a cupcake. While he chewed on it, he opened the equipment case and began pulling out components.
“But I came up here, and I'll follow through. Sit down and I'll explain what all this is. If I remember rightly, following old horror movies, one or more of us will be incapacitated by dawn."
Henry shook his head. “Okay. Explain."
“This is the microwave detector. Just a little radio receiver, actually, hooked to a meter and also—through this cord—to the chart recorder. I'll set it beside the couch, next to the door. Two digital thermometers, one for inside and one for out, also hooked up. I didn't bother with a tape recorder. Now the camera is a regular camera, but it has an automatic film advance and I can adjust the focus and exposure by this little remote panel here. I built it myself—used to be a model-boat control box. There's infrared film in it now, and some regular stuff in the case if we need it. Okay?"
“Let's get everything in its place and the drama can begin."
After rigging the equipment and starting the roll of chart paper moving on the machine, they sat up talking about their work until eleven. The fresh air began to affect Fowler. They unrolled sleeping bags, and Henry insisted Fowler take the couch. As his head hit the pillow, he took a last look around the room—noticed the kitchen and porch lights were still on—and slept.
The old man was up and about with the first rays of light. Fowler rolled over and tried to cover his ears, but after a half-hour gave it up and sat in the bag, listening to morning birds. “Nothing happened,” he said as Henry opened his eyes.
“Quiet night, gentlemen?” Jordan asked, bringing in three cups of hot coffee on a tray.
“I feel like a fool,” Fowler said sleepily. “I was expecting a giant to step in and ask for Hungry Jack biscuits. Now all I get is to-wheet, to-whoo and a fine cuppa."
Henry dressed and opened the front door to examine the clearing around the cabin. His gaze had swept through about forty degrees before he stopped and tensed. “Quick!” he whispered. “Come look at this!” Fowler put down his cup and joined him in the doorway. Henry's finger pointed to an animal standing on the drive.
It was a lynx, still as a statue, staring at the cabin with ears cocked, their tufts plainly visible in the morning light through the trees. Henry turned his head slowly and smiled at Fowler. “Worth it just to come here and see that, isn't it?” he asked in an undertone.
Fowler nodded. “It looks like it's jacklighted."
“Oh, it'll take off if we move."
Jordan stepped up behind them and peered over their shoulders. “Been here before, always in the morning,” he said. “Go ahead. Move and see if it runs."
“What?” Henry asked, fascinated by the animal.
“Move. Try and scare it."
Fowler waved his hand. The lynx didn't react. He took a step forward; still no motion. Henry chuckled and said, “Bold little bastard."
“Walk right up to it,” Jordan encouraged.
“Not me,” Fowler said. “It may claw our shins off. Maybe it's rabid."
“Summer's the season for rabies, not winter,” Jordan said. “It isn't rabid."
They both jumped up and down and waved their arms. The animal could have been stuffed for all the reaction it showed, but there was a sense of vitality in the tension of the legs and the glitter of its eyes that assured them it was alive.
“Either of you have the guts to go right on over?” Jordan asked. Henry glanced at Fowler. They grinned nervously, shaking their heads. “Dad, it is acting a little weird."
“Fine,” Jordan said. He pushed between them and walked up the drive to the cat. Fowler expected the animal to puff up, scowl and run. But the elder Taggart stood beside it, and still its gaze was fixed on the cabin. “Come on out,” he said. “First lesson."
They walked cautiously across the gravel. Henry bent down beside the animal. “Must be dead,” he said. “Or paralyzed. Too sick to move."
“Touch him,” Jordan said. “Not just Henry. You, too, Larry."
Fowler put his hand beside Henry's on the cat's fur. He withdrew it suddenly.
“Goddamn thing's frozen,” Henry said. “Stiff as a board."
“Minimum temperature last night, twenty-nine degrees Fahrenheit,” Jordan said. “At least, that's what your graph shows. Couldn't freeze a wild animal like this cat, not when it's moving or holed away in its den. Animals have ways to stay warm."
As they watched, frost started to form on the cat's fur. The eyes clouded over with rime. Henry looked at his fingers and held his hand out to Fowler. The tips were covered with white.
“What is it?” Fowler asked.
Henry rubbed his palm against the fingers. White flecks drifted down. “Skin, I think,” he said. “Cat just froze a layer to powder."
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