Thus far, the kaleidoscopic displays in the walls had not been accompanied by sound. Now, though the air remained dead calm, there arose a hollow and mournful moaning of wind, as it might strike the ear when blowing off barren alkaline flats.
I looked at Bobby. Even through the tattoos of light and shadow that melted across his face, I could see that he was worried.
“You hear that?” I asked.
“Fully,” I agreed, not liking the sound any more than he did.
If this noise was a hallucination, as the door apparently was, at least we shared it. We could enjoy the comfort—cold as it might be—of going insane together.
The unfelt wind grew louder, speaking with more than one voice. The hollow wail continued, but with it came a rushing sound as of a northwester blowing through a grove of trees in advance of rain, fierce and full of warnings. Groaning, gibbering, soughing, keening. And the lonely tuneless whistling of a blustery winter storm playing rain gutters and downspouts as though they were icy flutes.
When I heard the first words in the choir of winds, I thought that I must be imagining them, but they swiftly grew louder, clearer. Men’s voices: half a dozen, maybe more. Tinny, hollow, as if spoken from the far end of a long steel pipe. The words came in clusters separated by bursts of static, issuing from walkie-talkies or perhaps a radio.
“…here somewhere, right here…”
“…hurry, for Christ’s sake!”
“…gimme cover, Jackson, gimme cover…”
The rising cacophony of wind was almost as disorienting as the stroboscopic lights and the shadows that kited like legions of bats in a feeding frenzy. I couldn’t discern from which direction the voices came.
“…group…here…group and defend.”
“…position to translate…”
“…group, hell…move, haul ass.”
“…cycle, cycle it…”
Ghosts. I was listening to ghosts. They were dead men now, had been dead since before this facility had been abandoned, and these were the last words they had spoken immediately before they perished.
I didn’t know exactly what was about to happen to these doomed men, but as I listened, I had no doubt that some terrible fate had overcome them, which was now being replayed on some spiritual plane.
Their voices grew more urgent, and they began to speak over one another:
“…hear’em? Hear’em coming?”
“…hurry…what the hell…”
They were shouting now, some hoarse and others shrill, every voice raw with panic:
“Cycle it open! Cycle it!”
“Get us out!”
“Oh, God, God, oh, God!”
“GET US OUT OF HERE!”
Instead of words in the wind, there were screams such as I had never heard before and hoped never to hear again, the cries of men dying but not dying quickly or mercifully, shrieks that conveyed the intensity of their prolonged agony but that also expressed a chilling depth of despair, as though their anguish was as much spiritual as physical. Judging by their screams, they weren’t just being killed; they were being butchered, torn apart by something that knew where the soul inhabits the body. I could hear—or, more likely, imagined I could hear—a mysterious predator clawing the spirit out of the flesh and greedily devouring this delicacy before feeding on the mortal remains.
My heart was pounding so fiercely that my vision throbbed when I looked at the door again. From the design of that armored hinge, a frightening truth could be deduced, but because of the distracting bedlam of sound and light, it remained frustratingly just beyond my grasp.
If the barrel of the hinge had been left unshielded, you would still have needed an array of heavy-duty power tools, diamond-tipped drill bits, and a lot of time to fracture those knuckles and jack out the pintle—
In every surface of the room, the war between light and darkness raged more furiously, battalions of shadows clashing with armies of light in ever more frenzied assaults, to the harrowing shriek-hiss-whistle of the unfelt winds and the ceaseless, ghastly screaming.
—and even if the hinge could be broken, the vault door would be held in place, because the bolts that secured it were surely snugged into evenly spaced holes around the entire circumference of the steel jamb rather than along one arc of it—
The screaming. The screaming seemed to have substance, pouring into me through my ears until I was filled to bursting with it and could contain no more. I opened my mouth as if to let the dark energy of those ghostly cries pass out of me.
Struggling to concentrate, squinting to focus more clearly on the door, I realized that a team of professional safecrackers would probably never get through that barrier without explosives. For the purpose of containing mere men, therefore, this door was absurdly overdesigned.
At last the fearsome truth came within my grasp. The purpose of the redundantly armored door was to contain something in addition to men or atmosphere. Something bigger, stronger, more cunning than a virus. Some damn thing around which my usually vivid imagination was unable to wrap itself.
Switching off my flashlight, turning away from the vault door, I called to Bobby.
Mesmerized by the fireworks and the shadow show, buffeted by the wind noises and the screams, he didn’t hear me, although he was only ten feet away.
“Bobby!” I shouted.
As he turned his head to look at me, the wind abruptly matched sound with force, gusting through the egg room, whipping our hair, flapping my jacket and Bobby’s Hawaiian shirt. It was hot, humid, redolent of tar fumes and rotting vegetation.
I couldn’t identify the source of the gale, because this chamber had no ventilation ducts in its walls, no breaches whatsoever in its seamless glassy surface, except for the circular exit. If the steel cork plugging that hole were, in fact, nothing but a mirage, perhaps these gusts could have been coming through the tunnel linking the egg room to the airlock, blowing through the nonexistent door; however, the wind blustered from all sides, rather than from one direction.
“Your light!” I shouted. “Shut it off!”
Before Bobby could do as I wanted, the reeking wind brought with it another manifestation. A figure came through the curved wall, as if five feet of steel-reinforced concrete were no more substantial than a veil of mist.
Bobby clutched the pistol-grip shotgun with both hands, dropping his flashlight without switching it off.
The spectral visitor was startlingly close, less than twenty feet from us. Because of the swarming lights and shadows, which served as continually changing camouflage, I couldn’t at first see the intruder clearly. Glimpsed in flickering fragments, it looked manlike, then more like a machine, and then, crazily, like nothing else but a lumbering rag doll.
Bobby held his fire, perhaps because he still believed that what we were seeing was illusionary, either ghost or hallucination, or some strange combination of the two. I suppose I was clinging desperately to the same belief, because I didn’t back away from it when it staggered closer to us.
By the time it had taken three uncertain steps, I could see clearly enough to identify it as a man in a white vinyl, airtight spacesuit. More likely, the outfit was an adapted version of the standard gear that NASA had developed for astronauts, intended primarily not to shield the wearer from the icy vacuum of interplanetary space but rather to protect him from deadly infection in a biologically contaminated environment.
The large helmet featured an oversize faceplate, but I wasn’t able to see the person beyond, because reflections of the whirling light-and-shadow show streamed across the Plexiglas. On the brow of the helmet was stenciled a name: HODGSON.
Perhaps because of the fireworks, more likely because he was blinded by terror, Hodgson didn’t react as if he saw Bobby and me. He entered screaming, and his voice was by far the loudest of those still borne on the foul wind. After staggering a few steps away from the wall, he turned to face it, holding up both hands to ward off an attack by something that was invisible to me.
He jerked as if hit by multiple rounds of high-caliber gunfire.
Though I’d heard no shots, I ducked reflexively.
When he fell to the floor, Hodgson landed on his back. He was propped halfway between a prone and a sitting position by the air tank and by the briefcase-size waste-purification-and-reclamation system strapped to his back. His arms fell limp at his sides.
I didn’t need to examine him to know he was dead. I had no idea what might have killed him, and I didn’t have enough curiosity to risk investigating.
If he’d already been a ghost, how could he die again?
Some questions are better left unanswered. Curiosity is one of the engines of human achievement, but it’s not much of a survival mechanism if it motivates you to see what the back side of a lion’s teeth look like.
Crouching, I scooped up Bobby’s flashlight and clicked it off.
An immediate drop in the ferocity of the wind seemed to support the theory that even the minimal energy input from the beams of our flashlights had triggered all this bizarre activity.
The stench of steaming tar and rotting vegetation was also fading.
Rising to my feet again, I glanced at the door. It was still there. Huge and shiny. Too real.
I wanted to get out, but I didn’t head for the exit. I was afraid it would actually be there when I reached it, whereupon this waking dream might become a waking nightmare.
In every surface, the pyrotechnics continued undiminished. Previously, when we’d doused the flashlights, this extraordinary spectacle had been self-perpetuating for a short while, and it would probably power itself even longer this time.
I regarded the walls, the floor, and the ceiling with suspicion. I expected another figure to coalesce out of the bright, ceaselessly changing cyclorama, something more threatening than the man in the bio-secure gear.
Bobby was approaching Hodgson. Apparently, the disorienting effect of the light show did not affect his equilibrium as it did mine.
“Bro,” I warned.
He had the shotgun. He believed it was protection.
I, on the other hand, figured that the weapon was potentially as dangerous as the flashlights. Any lead pellets not stopped by the target would most likely ricochet from wall to ceiling to floor to wall with deadly velocity. And every time a bit of lead shot struck any surface in the chamber, the kinetic energy of the impact might be absorbed by that glassy material, further powering these weird phenomena.
The wind subsided to a breeze.
Carnivals and catastrophes still glittered and blazed through every curving surface of the room, Ferris wheels of rotating blue lights and orange-red spouts like volcanic eruptions.
The vault door appeared dauntingly solid.
No ghost had ever looked as real as the body in the spacesuit. Not Jacob Marley rattling his chains at Scrooge, not the Ghost of Christmas Future, not the White Lady of Avenel, not Hamlet’s dad, certainly not Casper.
I was surprised to find my balance restored. Maybe the brief disruption of equilibrium hadn’t been a reaction to the spinning lights and shadows, but had been merely another transient effect similar to the pressure that, earlier, had muffled our voices and made breathing difficult.
The hot breeze—and the stink it carried—disappeared. The air was cool and calm once more. The sound of the winds began to fade, as well.
Next, perhaps, the spacesuited man on the floor would dissolve into a twist of icy vapor that would rise and vanish like a wraith returning to the spirit world where it belonged. Soon. Before we had to take a close look at it. Please.
Certain that Bobby couldn’t be persuaded to retreat, I followed him toward Hodgson’s body. He was deep into the same stoked, gonzo mind-set with which he surfed twenty-foot, fully macking behemoths: a maximum kamikaze commitment as total as his more characteristic slacker indifference. When he was on this board, he would ride it all the way to the end of the barrel—and one day straight out of this life.
Because the lights in the walls were contained within the surface layer of glassy material and shed only a small fraction of their illuminating power into the egg room itself, Hodgson wasn’t well revealed.
“Flashlight,” Bobby said.
Reluctantly, steeling myself to take a close look at the back side of the aforementioned lion’s teeth, I stepped cautiously to the right of the body as Bobby moved less cautiously to the left. I switched on one flashlight and played it over the far too solid ghost. Initially the beam jiggled because my hand was shaking, but I quickly steadied it.
The Plexiglas in the helmet was tinted. The single flashlight was not powerful enough to let us see either Hodgson’s face or his condition.
He—or possibly she—was as still and silent as a headstone, and whether a ghost or not, he seemed indisputably dead.
On the breast of his pressure suit was an American-flag patch, and immediately below the flag was a second patch, featuring a speeding locomotive, an image clearly from the Art Deco period of design, which evidently had been adapted to serve as the logo for this research project. Although the image was bold and dynamic, without any element of mystery, I was willing to bet my left lung that this identified Hodgson as a member of the Mystery Train team.
The only other distinguishing features on the front of the suit were six or eight holes across the abdomen and chest. Recalling how Hodgson had turned to face the wall out of which he had appeared, how he had held his hands up defensively, and how he had jerked as if hit by automatic-weapons fire, I at first assumed that these punctures were bullet holes.
On closer inspection, however, I realized that they were too neat to be gunshot wounds. High-velocity lead slugs would have torn the material, leaving rips or starburst punctures rather than these round holes, each as large as a quarter, which looked as though they had been die cut or even bored with a laser. Aside from the fact that we had heard no gunfire, these were far too large to be entry wounds; any caliber of ammunition capable of punching holes that big would have passed directly through Hodgson, killing Bobby or me, or both of us.
I could see no blood.
“Use the other flash,” Bobby said.
Silence had replaced the last murmuring voices of the wind.
Explosive scripts of bright, meaningless calligraphy continued to scroll through the walls, perhaps marginally less dazzling than they had been a minute ago. Experience suggested that this phenomenon, too, was about to wind down, and I was reluctant to stimulate it again.
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