TWENTY-ONE

THE SUN WAS HIGH IN a thin haze by the time Mike reached the Enterprise rental car agency that was tucked between the Wal-Mart and something called Goober’s Used Trucks. He considered buying a truck instead of renting a car, but he didn’t have but about six hundred dollars in his wallet. Too bad, a purchased vehicle would be a hell of a lot more secure than a rental, which any expert could trace, no matter what sort of identity he used.

“I’d like a car, please,” he said. He pulled out the Harry Hill driver’s license and credit card.

“Missouri,” the agent said, looking at the license.

“Yes, sir. Here trying to sell the college on some new band instruments.”

“Well, good luck. Pardon my French, but they’re tighter than a witch’s tit over there. You want a Grand Am?”

“A Grand Am is good.”

“Looks like we’re gonna get some serious weather tonight. If you want, I’ve got a Volvo. It’s three-sixty a week. Front-wheel drive might be useful, though.”

This was certainly true. “Yeah,” he said looking at the sky. “It sure might.” He took the Volvo.

In his top pocket was the remote control that would summon the triangle, which was laying by in some concealed draw somewhere in the hills. The trouble was, it connected through the MilStar communications satellite, and the second he used it, whoever was looking for him would know both where he was and where the triangle was.

Once he had the car, he went through a drive-though and got some food. It was too dangerous to stop and eat, lest some sort of horrible serendipity expose him to those two investigators. Professionalism in a situation like this was defined by attention to detail. He also knew from long experience that going without food was a mistake when you were dealing with complex and stressful issues.

AIR FORCE CHIEF OF STAFF Samuel Gold was ushered into the presidential executive office next to the Oval, which was open. No matter how often he passed near that room, he was always inspired by its history. No matter which president happened to be sitting at that desk, the power of the office was so intense that it was like a kind of scent around them all. Gold saw the presidency of the United States as the greatest governmental institution ever devised to expand human freedom and happiness. So he was especially concerned about this order he had come to discuss.

“Sir,” he began, “I won’t take up but five minutes of your time. I am requesting confirmation of an order received at oh-nine-hundred today, directing—”

“I know the order,” the president said. “You’re to prepare to fire the scalar weapon.”

“Yes, sir! I just—sir, what you may not know is that this weapon is not stable. It’s still in development.”

“The tests have worked pretty well.”

“Yes, sir. But you’re going to fire it into the New Madrid fault line.”

“Oh?”

“Mr. President, this thing is going to devastate the entire central United States. You might see half a million deaths and trillions of dollars in damage. Sir, if I may ask, why do you need this?”

“General Gold, you can’t ask. But I do want you to put a hold on that order until further notice.”

“Yes, sir, thank you, sir.”

“Thank you for coming in.”

Gold’s thick neck flushed. He went to his feet, saluted, turned, and stiffly left the room. The president watched until the door was closed, then called for his next meeting to be delayed. He went out into the Rose Garden, bleak in winter, and stood a long time alone and in silence. To slow his pounding heart and damp his rage, he sucked long, deep breaths. And it passed, and he returned to his work.

MIKE WILKES’S NEXT STOP WAS Bell Attached School. They were all college families on Oak Road, so he could be reasonably sure that the children attended Bell, which went from kindergarten through high school. He wasn’t concerned about the Jeffers infant. The grays needed their instrument to be ready by 2012, not in twenty years. That left the two Kelton boys, Paul Warner and his sister Amy, and Conner Callaghan. There was a fair chance that he’d find his candidate among these children. If not, then he’d expand his search. He would not fail, that was unthinkable.

The school was housed in two elegant old redbrick structures on the edge of the Bell College campus. The place was certainly beautiful, with its tall white columns and broad sports field behind the main complex. As he walked up the long sidewalk to the main entrance, he reached in his side pocket and turned on his Palm Pilot. Tucked in beside it was the remote that would call the triangle.

Now the Palm would record the emissions of any computer in any room he entered. He would be able to access that computer again from the parking lot. If they used paper files, he’d find a way to physically invade them.

He had held the belief for many years that a person with sufficient training and resources quite simply could not be thwarted. Today, he would put that theory to the test.

As school was in session, the doors were locked. He identified himself over the intercom as “Dr. Wenders,” interested in enrolling his children in the school.

He was admitted by a student volunteer and led to the principal’s office. Mary Childs was a quick-voiced woman, big and ready to smile.

“Dr. Wenders,” she said, thrusting out her hand. “I thought I knew everybody on the faculty.”

“I’m not on the faculty just yet. I’m considering an offer, so I’m trying to get the lay of the land.”

“Oh, okay. How can I help you?”

“My son is a rather special case.”

“All right.”

“He’s extremely bright.”

“So is everybody here. The whole school is a gifted-and-talented program, essentially.”

“At nine, Jamie devised a muon detector that won a Westinghouse commendation. His IQ is over two hundred. As you know, even in a very accelerated program, students like this can pose some special challenges.”

“We have such students.”

“I’m surprised to hear that. They’re relatively rare.”

“Oh, we have one or two.”

“That’s very reassuring. How do you approach their needs, if I may ask?”

“Certainly.” She turned aside and began typing into her computer. “Here,” she said, “we devise special enrichment programs to address the needs and strengths of each child.”

“Could I see such a program, something you’ve developed for a two-hundred-plus student?”

“We don’t actually do IQ tests, but there is a student who we’ve identified as hyperintelligent, and we’ve devised a special program for him.”

“Could I see that, please?”

“Well, I can show you the program itself, I think—just a minute, let’s see if I can print out his curriculum without his identity. Yeah—no, it’s not gonna let me do that. Here, I’ll read it.”

As she read off a list of the special tutoring, the accelerated reading program, the various high school and college language, physics, and math classes the child was attending, and his grade-point levels, Mike knew that he had almost certainly identified his kid. If he was also among the Oak Road families, then it was final.

“That’s certainly very impressive.”

“It’s an advantage that we’ve got the college right here, of course. His college-level courses are just a short walk away.”

That little slip told him that it wasn’t a girl. Mary Childs was easy to handle. “That’s a very impressive program. I don’t think my son’s in as good a situation now.”

“Where are you, if I may ask?”

Here was a chance to work his list a little more. He chose the professor with the most candidate children. His response rolled out smoothly. “I’m at Mabry in California. I’m in history.”

“Then you know John Kelton, our department head.”

“I certainly do. He sent me over here, in fact. But he didn’t say anything about his boys being like my son.”

“No. But we do have one actively matriculated. That program is in current use, I can assure you.”

Another two off the list. Nice. That left Paul and Amy Warner and Conner Callaghan among the Oak Road possibilities. But the information had come at a cost: at any time, this woman might mention “Dr. Wenders” to John Kelton. Probably, it would amount to nothing more than a moment of confusion between them, but if it went further, it could be dangerous. “I haven’t actually resigned Mabry yet, so if you don’t mind…”

“Of course, I understand perfectly. Not a word.”

“May I take a tour? Just look in on a few classes? We’ll be in middle school.”

She conducted him through their science lab first. Among the things it contained was a truly elaborate tangle of lab glass, with three retorts bubbling happily away. “Oh, boy,” she said, striding over to the rig. “This should not be left on unattended.” She looked quickly around the lab. “Conner?”

Silence.

“That boy, he’s always doing this sort of thing. This is supposed to measure the body burden for some-odd-thousand pollutants found in common foodstuffs. But he can’t just leave Bunsen burners on like this.”

“This is your super-gifted one?”

She laughed. “Please keep my confidence, too!”

“Of course.”

“The Callaghans have their hands full with this one. He’s absolutely awesome. But this experiment’s going to have to be moved to Science Hall, we can’t have this in our lab anymore. Look at some of that glass!”

“I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

“Oh, I’m sure it separates each molecule into a different container or something. Probably has five original inventions floating around in there. And he speaks French, German, and Spanish and, God love him, Cantonese.”

“He must annoy the other students.”

“Let’s put it this way. If yours comes in, he will be eternally grateful to you for a companion who runs at the same speed.”

“My son isn’t in this kind of overdrive, but he’s close enough to where I can guess that it’ll be a relief for both of them.” He glanced at his watch. “I’m off to see the libraries,” he said. “I want to thank you for your help. You’ve moved Bell to the top of my list.”

“Which is where it darned well should be. We’re the best little overlooked and ignored college in the United States.”

In other words, a perfect backwater for the grays to hide their bright little baby, Conner Callaghan. On the way back to her office, he said, “I’m seeing a rather high class density.”

“I don’t think so.”

“That class back there—I saw about thirty kids.”

“Where?”

“Back opposite the lab.”

She shook her head. “Let’s check that out.” She went into her office and did just what he needed: called up a class list. “Nope. Twenty-two in sixth-grade English B. And that’s high for us. We try to stay around eighteen.”

Back in his car, he opened the Palm and tapped the screen a few times. He was out of Wi-Fi range, so he attached the antenna to the Palm and was soon looking at her computer’s desktop. The class list was still there. He downloaded it to his Palm’s memory.

He had his weapon, now, as well, in the form of that list. Armed with it, he would not need to go near Oak Road to carry out his plan, nor would he need to be anywhere near Conner Callaghan when he died, nor would it appear to be an assassination.

But he would go to Oak Road. Two could play the gray’s lying game, and he planned to trick them into believing that he had bought into their deception. He knew that Conner Callaghan and Paul Warner were in middle school, and that the description given to Lauren was of a high school student. That meant that it was one of the Kelton boys. So Mike would enter the Kelton house and only the Kelton house. The grays would think that he had swallowed their bait.

What he was going to do there and elsewhere in the community did not involve directly killing anybody. Nor was the process in any way extracted from the grays. It had been invented during World War II, in fact, by a Dr. Antonio Krause, who had brought it from Auschwitz to Dr. Hubertus Strughold’s operation in Texas as part of Operation Paperclip in 1947.

By now, it was part of CIA routine. Field-tested, reliable as rain. The only difference between what he had to do and how a field agent might function was that he didn’t have a neat little surgical kit and would have to devise his own.

He drove down to the county seat. He needed a good map of the community, as well as the large property that surrounded the Oak Road development, in addition to a look at the plans of the houses.

By the time he reached Somersburg, the thin light had gone. The sky was dull now, the sun pallid. The air had that empty coldness that portends a blizzard. He was glad of the car he’d chosen. A lot of this work had to be done tonight, and he absolutely could not get stuck, not at any point.

He went into the small county records office, and up to a clerk who sat behind a counter playing Texas Hold ’Em on a computer. He froze his screen and looked up.

“Any luck?” Mike asked with a smile.

The clerk raised his eyebrows as if to say that yes, he was having some luck, which meant only one thing: he was having no luck. “What can I do you for?”

“I’ve seen a large farm out Oak Road east of the town, and—”

“One, that’s the Niederdorfer farm. Two, they aren’t sellers.”

“I’d still like to take a look at the plat, if I may.”

The clerk got up and came back with a large black record book. Mike took it to one of the three tables in the room and opened it. He familiarized himself with the layout of the farm, and noted down the longitude and latitude. In the car, he would use his Palm Pilot to go online and get a topo map. Unlike a cell phone, a Palm Pilot could not be specifically identified just by using it in a wireless context, as long as it was effectively firewall protected, which his was.

He then went to the pages that contained the little Oak Road development. He copied the plat numbers of each property, then went back to the clerk and asked for the blueprints of the houses.

“You looking to buy?”

“Not sure. I want to see what kind of construction I’m looking at in the area.” This office was too small and this man was too inquisitive. He would remember every detail of Mike’s visit, which was really damned unfortunate.

He finished drawing a diagram of the Kelton place, then returned the book. “I’m looking at the wrong area. Is there an Oak Street in Wilton, maybe?”

The clerk consulted a map of the community on the wall. “No, not up there.”

“Well, thank you then.” He cursed himself as he left. This had been sloppy. His problem was that he was too used to power.

He sat in his car, letting the Palm look for a network. Sure enough, it found one—the town clerk’s. It was WEP encrypted. Good, WEP was easy. The software was online in ten seconds, the encryption solved.

He got a topo of the entire eastern half of the state, then went offline and zoomed to the Wilton area. The map was from 1988, but Oak Road was there, and the houses. He saw the way the land worked, coming down in a series of ridges. Across Oak Road was an old rail line, and beyond it a very large forest. Half a mile behind the houses was Wilton Road, with the field where the glowboy had come down visible between them.

He found one hill with an elevation of a hundred and eight feet, but it wasn’t enough to cause him a problem. His choice of the grain elevator for his antenna and transmitter was the correct one. As the trap that would lead to the death of the kid was sprung, the evidence of its existence would be destroyed.

His next step was to buy the various items that would have been in an operative’s surgical kit. Everything was important, but the most important was a small reel of narrow-gauge copper wire that would provide both his transmitter’s antenna and his receiver’s. He also needed a radio transmitter, an X-Acto knife, electrical tape, and, from a drugstore, a topical anesthetic and that old reliable, ether.

He got everything except the drugstore items at a Radio Shack he found in an almost derelict strip mall. There was a chain drugstore down the street, where he picked up a fairly decent tube of anesthetic. The local druggist was able to sell him a bottle of solvent-grade ether.

He drove until he found a rural area, where he opened the transmitter carton. He read the schematic and specifications, opened the back of the transmitter with the tool pack he had bought, and modified the circuit board by bypassing a couple of resistors. The unit would now transmit at a far greater power output than allowed by amateur equipment. Carefully, he stabilized the connections with electrical tape.

He returned to Wilton, driving the quiet country road in an unhurried manner, listening to the radio and making certain that he violated no traffic laws. He passed the motel, observing nothing unusual. His room opened onto the parking strip, which was now empty. He drove to the end of the block and turned. To his right was the field he had come down in the night before, now covered with a new dusting of snow. Snowflakes drifted slowly out of a hard, gray sky. The field was empty, and there was no sign of any tracks, human or vehicular, in the new snow. Beyond the field stood the immense grain elevator.

He drove past the elevator and then turned into its concrete loading area. It was abandoned at this time of year, and the large bay doors were carefully padlocked. He went to the personnel entrance and opened it by sliding a credit card between the door and the jamb. Nobody expected an empty grain elevator to be robbed in a small town, so the security was extremely light.

Inside, he went to the control room. It was simple enough to understand. The conveyor that moved the grain from trucks into the silo was what he was interested in. He descended to the cellar and threw the switch that turned on the power. Then he went back to the control room and started the conveyor. It screeched and clanged, then began to rattle along doing exactly what he wanted it to. Its tubs threw off dust every they time bounced. Overnight, the constant motion of the conveyor would fill the whole enormous space with a volatile haze. Explosive dust like this was the reason that elevators were not run when the weather was too dry.

Later tonight, he would return and set up the transmitter.

He left the grain elevator and drove out into a neighborhood. He found a corner lot with a house set back on it. The place was silent and dark, the family obviously off at work. He turned into the driveway, parked, and went up to the back door. He tapped on the glass.

A dog barked, came rushing to the door, its claws clattering on the kitchen floor. As it barked furiously, its face kept appearing at the lower edge of the door’s window. It was a big dog, he thought some sort of hound, maybe a coonhound. Whatever, a big, mean dog was just what he was looking for.

He had learned how to handle dogs years ago, when he was a young officer and had been in training for the Air Police. But he would not risk tackling the Keltons’ mutt without a practice run. The dog was one of the few weapons man had against the grays. They could not control a dog’s mind. They hated and feared the dog.

He got the door unlocked after a small struggle with the mechanism. After soaking a handkerchief with ether, he pulled it open.

The dog rushed him, of course, and he clapped his hand over the snout and grabbed the animal by its scruff. While it was still struggling, he pushed his way into the kitchen. By the time he had closed the door with his heel, the dog was limp.

He spent a moment examining the skull, then cut into it about two inches above the right eye, making an incision so tiny that it hardly bled. He inserted a half-inch length of wire into the incision. Now he covered the wound with a little anesthetic. The dog would feel no pain when it woke up. Later, the wound would look like an insect bite, if it was noticed at all in the animal’s fur.

He was about to leave when he noticed a faint sound coming from the back of the house. A television, a soap opera. Moving swiftly and quietly, he was quite surprised to find a man, big, in his fifties, asleep in a chair in the family room.

A nice chance to practice. Working gently and swiftly, he dropped the man into a deeper sleep with the ether, then wired him, too. He did not hypnotize this man. He had no way of knowing what the name “Conner Callaghan” might mean to him, if anything. To direct an assassin at a target, the assassin had to have a means of identifying the target. This was why most of Mike’s subjects would be kids from Bell Attached School. Conner would be killed by somebody who knew him. It would look like a particularly vicious and crazy version of a school shooting.

He looked at his watch. One-forty. So, around breakfast time tomorrow, these two would be the first to enter a state of rage.

THE GRAYS WERE DEPLOYED ACROSS Earth in strict and carefully guarded territories. In the United States, they even adhered to the agreement they had made with the humans, and minimized their activities so that the Air Force would not come buzzing around and annoy them. In the rest of the world, they observed no such strictures.

It was difficult to reach into the human mind, but it was not hard to communicate with each other. The collective was growing excited, almost holding its breath, as the time for the attempt drew nearer. They did not know what their creation would be like, could hardly imagine a mind greater than their own. They felt a sense of worship and hope, and the Three Thieves an even more intimate wonder, because, as his guardians and his link to the collective, they were closest to him. Indeed, the feelings toward Conner were the strongest any gray had known in eons. And the hope, now that they had come this far and were so close to success, was very intense.

The other scouts, a million of them who had been scattered throughout the galaxy searching, had started racing toward Earth at 99 percent of the speed of light as soon as it had been understood what a perfect fit man was, a species that needed the grays as much as they needed man.

Inside the gigantic artificial world that was the main body, creeping along at half light speed, the sorrowing ranks stirred with hope so intense that they thought that a plague of suicide would overtake them if they failed.

When one of the lucky thousand scouts here on Earth tasted of a human dream, or licked the suffering off the soul of a prisoner or swam in the delicious sea of discovery that defined a child, all the billions quivered with joy, and all longed, themselves, to once again have such feelings of their own.

So, when it became clear that a particularly dangerous satellite was moving from one orbit to another, and that its new orbit would park it twenty-five-thousand miles above Conner’s head, the whole mass of the grays fluttered with unease. They knew exactly how this satellite worked, they had seen it built. Had they wished, they could have built a similar instrument based on much more elegant principles, and with it shattered the planet.

They would never do that, of course, not to precious Earth, to precious man. They knew that there must be a way to revive their souls, to make their lives worth living again. Locked somewhere in the human genome was the secret of man’s vitality. Conner would find this spark, and understand how to enable the grays to share it.

At least, that was the dream. But if this atrocious weapon was fired at him, maybe the dream would end.

The collective directed a triad to attend to the thoughts of the president. Ever since Harry Truman had, in 1947, ordered his airplanes to shoot at the grays, all presidents were routinely implanted. This made their minds easy to hear, with the result that their most private fantasies, desires, and actions were part of the vast public entertainment the grays had constructed for themselves by implanting humans.

This was one of the main reasons they abducted human beings, to implant them so that they could enjoy them from a distance. Thus some of the most peculiar and most intense people, the ones with the most colorful fantasies—usually deeply hidden—were actually among the most famous creatures in the universe.

This president was a marvelous seraglio of sexual invention and hungry, innovative desire. His thought processes were more conventional. Sexy he might be, but he was also an efficient man.

Listening to the flowing whisper of words and watching in their own minds the flickering mass of colors, fantasized human body parts—long feminine legs and white, full breasts, mostly—and the low growls of desire that were the mental “voice” of his subconscious, they saw that he was uneasy about Charles Gunn’s murderous request. But would he deny it? Of this they could not be sure. Mind control was not a reliable tool. Also, they did not like to interfere in the action of human will. They had wrecked their own independent spirits by creating their collective. They would not also wreck man’s independence with excessive use of the tools of collective thought.

But this was one time that it was necessary. They began to work on the president’s mind, to touch it with images of the suffering the scalar weapon could cause.

As the collective mind of the grays concentrated on the president’s decision, they failed to address the building crisis in Wilton, or to see just how serious it was, and Conner’s death began to come closer and closer yet, as the fatal hours passed.

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