AS SOON AS MARTIN AND Trevor had left, Wylie had found himself able to write again. He and Brooke read over what he had just completed.
“Did they drown?” she asked.
“God forbid. The key thing here is that Al North knows something that can help them but his soul is here, still on this side, so if he thinks about it clearly enough, I’m going to pick up on it, I think.”
She sat reading the screen, scrolling, then reading more. “Is he…what’s happening to him? What’s he sinking into?”
“My best guess is the core of the planet. Maybe the way you live makes your soul weigh more or less. If you weigh too much—have too little love and too much greed, essentially—you sink. And then I guess you just stay there, trapped. Cooking, given that the core is hot.”
“But the universe has an end. What then?”
“I think the evil are forgotten.”
“But we need him. We need him now!”
Outside, dawn was breaking. The last phoebes were calling, the last tanagers chirping. Winter, such as it was, would drive them south any day now. They were very late to leave this year. But there was not much winter now, so they would return by February.
She came closer to him. He closed the laptop.
“Nick?” she called softly.
But then she moved away. “I can feel him. He’s not going down. He’s here.”
“The world is full of watchers. We’re all on stage all the time.”
“I want privacy.”
These past days had isolated them from each other. But he had learned something from what he was seeing of Al North’s miserable afterlife. Love is the great treasure, it is what we come here to feel, and every bit of it that can be taken must be taken, because it isn’t like the other acts of life. Most everything is forgotten in death. The names, the facts, the achievements, the failures, all are left behind. But love is not left behind. Jacob’s Ladder has another name in heaven. It is Love.
She folded her arms, their signal that it wasn’t the right moment. “I feel too exposed,” she said.
“We are but players,” he said.
“I can’t do it onstage! Anyway, I’m—oh, my mind is blown. Martin and Trevor, my dear God, what’s happening to them now?”
He took her in his arms. She lay against him, and it was good for a time, in the quiet.
Soon, though, he felt something other than the beat of her heart. He raised his head. “What is that?”
“Trembling. I think, uh…the fridge?”
But it got stronger. Things began to rattle.
“All right, everybody stay calm,” he shouted.
In her room, Kelsey began crying.
“Hold on, Honey!”
He wasn’t going anywhere, the house was now shaking and shuddering so hard that he couldn’t take a step. There was a tremendous crash from downstairs. He thought that the chandelier in the dining room must have collapsed, or the gun cabinet gone over in the family room. “Try to get out,” he shouted. Behind him, Brooke vomited. He grabbed her and forced one foot in front of the other, dragging her toward the bedroom door and the stairs.
Nick appeared—incredibly, with Kelsey in his arms. The sight of them galvanized Brooke, who took her little girl, and they went lurching down the back stairs. The family room was in chaos. It had indeed been the guns.
Now windows began shattering, their glass exploding into the house. Nick got the back door open, and they struggled out onto the deck, which was soaked because the pool had heaved most of its water out and the rest was splashing crazily. The woods presented a chilling spectacle, with all the limbs swaying, and a continuous thunder of cracking trunks and the sighing rumble of falling trees.
They got to the middle of the backyard, well away from the house, well away from the woods. The quake had been going now for at least two minutes, maybe three, but it felt like years, it felt like forever. There was another crash from inside the house, and the lights in Nick’s room flickered. Wylie put his arm across his son’s shoulders. His bunk bed had just collapsed.
Just one sound, then—choking, astonished sobs. Brooke. Staring at her house in horrified amazement.
The quake had ended.
“This is Kansas,” she said, her voice an awed whisper.
“Bearish had a heart attack,” Kelsey announced. Then, her voice careful, “I’m quite concerned about him.”
Wylie was looking back into the woods, where he was seeing flickering. “I think we have a fire going back in there,” he said.
“Call the fire department,” Brooke responded as she headed toward the house.
He watched his family go in, heard Brooke scream her rage when she saw the mess, heard Kelsey start to cry, then Nick’s calmer voice giving instructions.
The flickering was along the draw that drifted south down from the ridge they were on. For their view, they had paid a price, because if there was ever a fire in that draw, it would be here in minutes. Knowing this, he had prepared himself with a portable water tank, which he kept in the garage. He’d tested it and it worked well, but it was not huge, so the key was to reach the fire early.
The tank was behind his car, wedged against the wall. Worse, the garage door was jammed. Fine, he was ready for that, too. He strode across the garage and got his axe, which was lying in a heap of other tools. When he’d bought this, he’d imagined that he would take out a few trees himself, thin his woods by the sweat of his brow.
He hefted it and smashed it into one of the doors. The mechanism shook, and Nick appeared. “What’re you doing?”
“I gotta get down to that fire.”
“Here—” He reached up and pulled a lever Wylie hadn’t even known was there. Then he lifted the door. The mechanism had been locked up because the power was out.
Nick began pulling the fire pump out.
“Look, you stay with the girls. I’ll go down.”
“Nick, please. You have to. They need one of us.”
“What just happened, Dad? We don’t have earthquakes here.”
“I know it. Whatever it was, it’s got to do with that fire down there.”
Nick went in the house, reappeared immediately with the magnum. “Take this, Dad. I’ve got everything loaded up and we’re gonna be in the family room.”
Wylie took the magnum, stuffed it in his belt, and headed out to fight the fire. He loped down the rough little draw, the pumper bouncing along behind him on its two bicycle wheels. As he got closer, the glow became more distinct. Would fifty gallons of water be enough? And in any case, what was burning? The electrics came up the road on the other side of the ridge.
He pushed his way along a jumbled path, slowing down as he got closer to the glow. When he broke through into the clearing, he didn’t even bother to unhook the hose, let alone pump up the tank.
For a good half minute, he had to struggle to make sense of what he was seeing. It looked like a doorway into a little room. He walked closer, his feet crunching in the dry autumn grass.
It was a little room, he could see it clearly. But what the hell was it doing out here? It was like an opening into a tiny cottage, and he thought maybe he knew where the stories of the witch house in the forest came from.
It had come with the earthquake, this strange opening. Perhaps because of the quake. Or maybe its coming had caused the quake.
It was about six feet high and three wide. From inside, there glowed hard light that came from a single bulb hanging down from the room’s ceiling. He went closer yet. He was now standing directly before the room. Another step, and he would be inside. On the right, he saw a rough table with a bowl on it. The bowl was filled with hot soup, he could see it steaming. To his left was a narrow bed covered by a gray, damp looking sheet. On the opposite wall there was a window, which was blocked by a thin drape. Beyond it, he detected movement, but could see no detail through the frayed cloth.
It seemed very sad, the little room. Somebody’s little hutch. But…where was it, exactly?
Experimentally, he pushed his hand in the doorway. There was a faint pop, nothing more. Immediately, though, his hand felt warm. It felt damp. Slowly, he moved it back and forth, and observed what was without question one of the most bizarre things he had ever seen. His hand moved more slowly than his wrist, meaning that, when his moving arm reached the center of the doorway, his hand was a good two feet behind it. There was no pain and there was no sense of detachment, but the hand simply did not appear to keep up with the arm.
He snatched his hand back.
Was he, perhaps, looking into a room in Abaddon?
If so, then this might be a major opportunity. There were controls in Abaddon that kept the fourteen huge lenses that were the main gateways open into the other human world. Tonight, the seraph would pour through them in their billions.
Disrupt those controls, and you would set the seraph back. The gateways, which would be wide open tonight, would begin to close. By the twenty-fifth they would be closed entirely, not to re-open again for all those thousands of years.
The secret of Christmas was that the birth of goodness came on the day that the door to evil was closed.
This was a gateway and that little room was in Abaddon. He knew where, of course. It was General Samson’s apartment.
The “earthquake” had been local. It had involved the opening of this gateway.
Should he go through? Dare he?
It must be a trap. A temptation.
Then he noticed that the glow was less. This very unusual gateway was closing.
It could be an opportunity.
It was here that the seraph had originally attacked him.
Except, no, there was something wrong with that picture. As soon as his memories flitted back to that night, he saw Brooke and Nick and Kelsey coming up from the draw with him. And everybody was happy. They were thrilled. He was thrilled.
He’d been raped by seraph marauders in this draw, trying to claw their way into a human universe that had rejected them.
The glow was dropping fast.
He stepped up to the gateway. The room on the other side looked now more like a photograph than an actual opening.
He stepped forward—and found that the surface was now thick, that it felt like stepping into a molten wall. He pushed against it, pushed harder. It was like squeezing through a mass of rubber.
And then he was stumbling forward. He tried to check himself, but windmilled across and hit the far wall hard. He sank down, feeling as if all his blood had been drained right out of him.
Then the noise hit him. Coming from outside was the most ungodly screeching and roaring he had ever heard in his life. Machinery howled, voices squalled and screamed, high and rasping and utterly alien—but not the voices of animals, no. They were shouting back and forth in a complex language, oddly peppered with any number of human words, English included. Worse, they were close by. This was a ground floor apartment.
A greasy stink of sewage and boiled meat came from the bloodred soup. The fact that it was still steaming worried him, of course, because whoever’s dinner it was would be back for it at any moment. It must be Samson’s food, meaning that he was here.
Recalling the story of the Three Bears, and the little girl who had entered their woodland cabin and found their meal ready to eat, he thought that others had passed through gateways like this before. In fact, if you read it right, you could reconstruct the entire fairy-faith of northern Europe as a chronicle of contacts with Abaddon.
He could either leave here now and try to make his way to Government House, or he could lie in wait for that monster.
Maybe he should try to steal Samson’s car. But it had a soul, didn’t it, so maybe it wouldn’t be so willing to let itself be stolen.
The safest thing would be to lie in wait.
There weren’t many places to hide in the room—just a curtain that concealed a still toilet full of puke—yellow goop that was being swarmed by flies as fat as ticks and as red as a baboon’s ass. Or no, look at the things, they weren’t flies at all, they were tiny damn bats.
He could not hide in there. He could not be near that toilet, which had, among other things, part of a rotting seraph hand in it. He knew that they were cannibals, of course, he’d seen this place before, had heard Samson think to himself that the execution fiesta he’d witnessed from the bus would mean lots of soup.
So this was some of that soup. But where was Samson? It had to be getting cold, even in the jungle heat they had here. Maybe he’d been arrested. Could’ve happened in a heartbeat. Maybe he was being tortured to death right now by that sociopathic kid of Echidna’s.
The shrieking rose, and with it came thudding from above. There were crunching noises, more cries, then a sound outside the door of somebody running downstairs. The sobs were unmistakable. A short silence followed. Then, more slowly, a heavier tread. It moved past the door.
This was not good. If somebody came in here, they’d raise the alarm and—well, he dared not allow his imagination to go there.
He decided this had been a fool’s errand. The soup was a trick. Samson was actually on the other side, and he was going to be menacing Brooke and Nick and Kelsey.
It was obvious, and what a damn fool he’d been.
He turned to go back through the gateway.
Except there was no gateway. For a moment, he simply stared at the blank wall.
The door clicked. He watched the crude wooden handle rise slowly. There was a flicker and a sputter, and he realized that the sharp light wasn’t even electric. It was carbide, a type of gas that had been used at home a hundred and fifty years ago.
They didn’t even have electricity.
The door swung open.
A gleaming creature stood there, shimmering purple-black. The vertical pupils in its eyes were bright red, the irises gold. It had in its hand a small disk with two barrels on the business end. Wylie knew what that was, and he decided not to show the magnum just now.
Slowly, carefully, he raised his hands.
The creature smiled a little, a tired smile. “I’ve been waiting for you,” it said in a rasping voice. Its English was good enough, but spoken with a curious singsong lilt that made Wylie think of the voice of a car.
Wylie had been outmaneuvered.
“He is with your loved ones, Mr. Dale.”
Wylie knew what the phrase to die a thousand deaths really meant. In a situation like this, it was no clich?, but a dark expression of truth.
The creature made a very curious sound, a sort of smacking. It watched him with ghastly eagerness. He thought that they might be allergic to human dander, but they could eat human flesh, and this thing was hungry.
“At this time, come with me.”
What else was there to do? Wylie followed the creature down a steep, narrow staircase that reeked of something that had rotted dry. The walls were covered with graffiti-squiggles and lines that looked at first meaningless… and then didn’t.
They were drawings, all at child level, but done with the light and dark backward, like photographic negatives. For the most part, they were scenes of torture and murder and orgy. Some drawings showed male seraph with sticklike penises, others females with bared teeth guarding black eggs.
And as they came to the street, he saw some of them. One that looked up was the same color as Jennifer Mazle, creamy and pale, her scales glittering. Her eyes were the same as those of his captor. She gave Wylie a long, melting look as she slowly ran her tongue out and touched it with her fingers.
“A whore,” his guard said. Then some boys appeared, wearing hugely oversized T-shirts painted with images of crocodile-like creatures so perfectly rendered that they seemed about to leap off the cloth and into his face. Some of them. One had a New Sex Pistols T-shirt obviously from home, another a shirt with a big green fruit on it in the shape of a bitten apple, and in the bite, an image of a squeezed human face. This one carried a brutal weapon, an Aztec sword made of steel with obsidian blades jutting out of it. The squeezed face was instantly familiar. It was Adolf Hitler.
They watched him with their brilliant, dead eyes, their heads moving with the clipped jerks of lizards. As he walked, he saw that the street was made of wood—in fact, of cut tree trunks fitted together with an Inca’s skill. Before them was a vehicle looking something like a horse-drawn hearse, but with a tiny barred window in the back instead of glass to reveal the coffin.
Standing in its equipage was a brown animal with fearsome, glaring eyes and purple drool dripping from its long, complex jaw. The jaw itself was metal, and appeared to be partially sprung, the way it dangled. The animal was smaller than a horse by half, but seemed made entirely of brown, wiry muscle, with the narrow, ever-twisting neck of a snake. When it saw them, it began to burp and stomp pointed, spikelike feet, which made it look as if it was dancing. Others just like it, pulling various wagons and carriages, moved up and down the street.
The door at the back of the wagon was open, and his captor made a brisk little gesture toward it and bowed. A twisted smile played on his almost lipless mouth, and his spiked teeth glittered in the brown light.
There was a hissing sound overhead, and he saw soaring past, a gorgeous green machine shaped like a horizontal teardrop with a gleaming windshield at the front of its perfectly streamlined shape. It was so different from the miserable mess in the street that it was hard to believe that it even belonged to the same world.
Then he got a terrific push, which caused him to bark his shins painfully against the edge of the wagon’s floor. He tried to turn toward his assailant, but a powerful blow brought whizzing confusion.
The door shut behind him with a dry clunk. For a moment, he could see nothing. As his eyes got used to the dimness, he examined the space he was in. It was like nothing so much as the interior of an old, zinc-lined ice chest. It was at most three feet high and five long. There were claw marks gouged in the roof and walls, and in the wooden floor, places—many of them—that had been gnawed.
He drew out the magnum, cradling it in his hand as he would the rarest diamond. This was hope.
He twisted himself around until he could see out one of the tiny, barred windows. They were not going up the great esplanade he had seen through Samson’s eyes, but along the city’s back streets. There were neon hieroglyphics everywhere, and flags overhead with more unreadable slogans on them. The place was ancient Egypt on steroids. Martin would have loved it, but he wasn’t the sucker on the spot, was he?
No, indeed, and the fear had a funny quality to it. The fear had to do with more of the knowledge he had gained. He had a soul. These people could take out your soul and put it in a damn glass tube. They could remove your memories and graft them into their own souls—eat them, as it were. They could use you for crap like running a car, and God only knew what else. In this place, the phrase the soul in the machine had a ghastly new meaning.
They went around the corner—the animal was not fast—and began to pass what appeared to be a restaurant. Behind the lighted windows, he could see gleaming red walls and a gold ceiling. Balls of light floating in midair provided illumination. Sitting in large chairs were seraphs in beautiful, shimmering suits, tight against their bodies.
Then he got what could probably and with accuracy be called the surprise of his life: there were human beings in there, too. As they trundled slowly past, he strained to see more. There was a man in a fur jacket and a white ermine fedora, not recognizable to him but obviously some kind of entertainer, maybe a rapper or rock star, there were women in silks and furs. Other men wore tuxedos, some business suits, others caftans and gallabias. Then he saw a cardinal, distinguished by the red zuchetto on his head and the red-trimmed black cassock.
On the tables before them were golden dishes beautifully decorated with garlands of greenery and white flowers. Heaped on them were roasted body parts, both seraph and human. The diners were eating busily.
Then it was gone, replaced by more of the endless gray city and its hurrying, oblivious hordes of seraph.
A stunned Wylie Dale sank down to the floor. For a time he lay there listening to the creak of the axles, feeling the steady swaying of the wagon. His blank mind held an image of that cardinal. Of the men in tuxedos, the women in evening gowns.
Who in the name of all that was holy WERE THEY?
Rich, to be sure, compared to the starved horde that crowded these streets. Human beings, movers and shakers all, living large in hell.
Or was that the whole answer? The seraph were chameleons. So maybe these weren’t human beings at all, but seraph spending time at home. Two-moon earth must have been plagued by them. It had totally ignored air pollution, and global warming was running wild there, even worse than at home.
Shape-shifted seraph had probably been running the place for centuries. They were the cardinals, the big personalities, the ministers and the kings. Like Samson. He’d ended up in control of the United States itself, and he was a shape-shifted repitilian seraph maintaining himself on drugs.
He wondered, Who in his own world might be a seraph in disguise? Who sought the ruin of souls? Who encouraged greed? Who lived by the lie that pollution didn’t matter?
He realized that he was not far from insanity, here. His mind just wanted to go inside itself. Walk in the green fields of dream, smell the flowers, above all shut this horrible world out, scrub his brain free of all knowledge of it and memory of it.
Every trembling cell of his body, every instinct that he had, every drop of his blood said the same thing: You are not supposed to know this, you are not supposed to be here, and you cannot get away, and to keep their secret, they are going to kill not just your body but your immortal soul.
But now that he had fallen into the trap, he must not freeze, he had to do everything possible to turn their trick back on them. He had to try.
Oh God, he prayed, what is the universe? How does it really work? Above all, how can I save this situation? A memory came to him of Martin and his ceaseless prayer, and he began to pray that way, also. He prayed to the healing hand that had raised Osiris after his brother had cut him to pieces, and Jesus after his passion had ended. The unseen one who bound the good by the cords of love.
They were arriving somewhere, the wagon turning, stopping. He looked out first one window and then the other, but saw only skeletal trees, huge once, no doubt rich with leaves and life, now gray and dead, clawing at the brown sky. “Mr. Dale, if you don’t mind?”
As Wylie came down, the creature added, “I was wondering if you’d autograph Alien Days for me?”
For the love of Pete, it had a paperback of the damn book and a pen in its clawed hand. Too stunned to do anything else, he took the book. Opened it to the title page. “Do you want me to personalize it?”
“Oh, hey, yeah. Make that out to me.”
Confused, he looked up, to find himself staring into a very human, and very familiar face—Senator Louis Bowles, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, senior senator from Utah.
Senator Bowles smiled, then shuddered and shifted back into a long-faced vampiric horror, its scales glistening, its eyes glaring with evil energy.
He finished the inscription—to Senator Bowles… and as he did so, saw the hand that was doing the writing, and then also the hand that was holding the book. He saw long, thin fingers of the palest tan, ending in black claws, neatly manicured.
He saw the wrists where they were visible outside the sleeves of his jacket. Narrow, scaled, shimmering with the gemstone sheen of snake-skin. He looked at the hand that held his Mont Blanc, turned it over, watching the light play on the scales. Then he raised his fingers to his cheek, and felt beneath their tips the delicate shudder of more scales.
He hadn’t come to an alien earth at all.
He was a shape-shifter himself.
He had come home.