On my wristwatch, the month suddenly stopped at Apr. A second later, the day and date froze, and immediately thereafter, the time display registered a clear, steady 3:58 A.M.
We were home, minus Toto.
“Cool,” Bobby said.
“Sweet,” I agreed.
The big question was whether we had a fellow traveler with us, a wormy-faced companion in a pressure suit, like nothing Auntie Em or anyone else in Kansas had ever seen.
Logic argued that the Hodgson thing was lost in the past.
It might be delusional, however, to assume that logic applied within this singular situation.
I withdrew the flashlight from under my belt.
Didn’t want to switch it on.
Switched it on.
The Hodgson thing wasn’t face-to-face with me, as I had feared. A quick sweep of the light revealed that Bobby and I were alone—at least in that portion of the egg room into which the flashlight beam would reach.
The vault door was gone. I couldn’t see it either when I looked directly at the exit tunnel or when I relied on my peripheral vision.
Apparently, the room had become so sensitized to light that once again, generated by the single beam, faint luminous whorls began to pulse and wheel in the floor, walls, and ceiling.
I immediately switched off the flashlight and jammed it under my belt.
“Go,” I urged.
As darkness descended once more, I heard Bobby scrambling over the raised threshold, feeling his way forward through the short, five-foot-high tunnel.
“Clear,” he said.
Crouching, I followed him into what had once been the airlock.
I didn’t turn on the flashlight again until we were out of the airlock and in the corridor, where not one stray beam could find its way back to the glassy material that lined the egg room.
“Told you it would fade,” Bobby said.
“Why do I ever doubt you?”
Neither of us spoke another word all the way up through the three stripped subterranean floors of the facility, through the hangar, to the Jeep, which stood under a sky from which clotting clouds had purged all stars.
We drove southwest across Fort Wyvern, through Dead Town, past the warehouses where I had confronted the kidnapper, switching off the headlights as we reached the Santa Rosita, down the access ramp along the levee wall, onto the dry riverbed, obeying not a single stop sign along the way, ignoring every posted speed limit, with a loaded shotgun in a moving vehicle, a concealed weapon in my shoulder holster even though I possessed no license to carry, a cooler of beer between my feet, trespassing in flagrant violation of the federal government’s Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act, while holding numerous politically incorrect attitudes, of which a few might well be against the law. We were two Clydes without a Bonnie.
Bobby had so expanded the gap in the river-spanning fence that we drove through with room to spare. He parked immediately outside the grounds of the military base, and together we got out of the Jeep and lowered the flaps of chain-link, which he had rolled up and hooked to the top of the fence.
A close inspection would reveal the breach. From a distance greater than fifteen feet, however, the violation of the fence could not be seen.
We didn’t want to announce that we had trespassed. Without doubt we would soon be returning by this same route, and we would need easy access.
The tire tracks leading through the fence betrayed us, but there wasn’t a way to erase them quickly and effectively. We had to hope that the breeze would become a wind and obliterate our trail.
In a few hours, we had seen more than we could process, analyze, and apply to our problem—things that we ardently wished we’d never seen. We would have preferred to avoid another sortie onto the base, but until we found Jimmy Wing and Orson, duty required us to revisit this nest of nightmares.
We were leaving now because we were temporarily at a dead end, not sure where to continue the search, and we had to strategize. Besides, more than two of us would be needed to comb even the known warrens of Wyvern.
In addition, dawn was little more than an hour away, and I had not worn my Elephant Man cloak, with hood and veil.
The Suburban, which the kidnapper had parked at the fence, was gone. I was not surprised to see that it was missing. Fortunately, I had memorized the license-plate number.
Bobby drove to the snarl of driftwood and tumbleweed that lay sixty feet from the fence. I retrieved my bicycle from concealment and loaded it into the back of the Jeep.
Passing through the dark tunnel under Highway 1, without headlights, Bobby accelerated. Engine noise, like barrages from ack-ack guns, rattled back to us from the concrete walls.
I remembered the mysterious figure that I had seen earlier on the sloping buttress at the west end of this passage, and my tension grew rather than diminished as the farther end became the nearer end. When we raced into the open, I tensed, half expecting an assault, but nothing was waiting for us.
A hundred yards west of the highway, Bobby braked to a halt and switched off the engine.
We had not spoken since the corridor outside the egg room. Now he said, “Mystery Train.”
“Name of a research project, huh?”
“According to Leland Delacroix’s security badge.” I fished that object from a jacket pocket, fingering it in the dark, thinking about the dead man surrounded by photographs of his family, the wedding ring in a votive-candle holder.
“So the Mystery Train project was what gave us the troop, the retrovirus, all these mutations. Your mom’s little tea-and-doomsday society.”
“I don’t think so.”
“She was a theoretical geneticist, right?”
“My mom, apprentice god.”
“Virus designer, creature creator.”
“Medically valuable little creatures, benign viruses,” I said.
“Except for one.”
“Your folks are no prize,” I reminded him.
With a note of insincere pride, he said, “Hey, they would’ve destroyed the world long before your mom ever did, if they’d just been given a fair chance.”
They owned the only newspaper in the county, the Moonlight Bay Gazette, and their religion was politics; their god was power. They were people with a plan, with an unlimited faith in the righteousness of their beliefs. Bobby didn’t share their spooky vision of utopia, so they had written him off ten years ago. Apparently, utopia requires the absolute uniformity of thought and purpose exhibited by bees in a hive.
“The point is,” he said, “that wacko palace of the weird back there…They weren’t doing biological research, bro.”
“Hodgson was in an airtight suit, not tennis shorts,” I reminded him. “He was in typical bio-secure gear. To protect him from being infected by something.”
“Totally obvious, yeah. But you said yourself, the place wasn’t built for mucking around with germs.”
“Not laid out for essential sterilization procedures,” I agreed. “No decontamination modules, except maybe for that one airlock. And the floor plan is too open for high-security bio labs.”
“That madhouse, that hyped-up lava lamp, wasn’t a lab.”
“The egg room.”
“Call it what you want. It was never a lab with Bunsen burners, petri dishes, and cages full of cute little white mice with scalp scars from brain surgery. You know what that was, bro. We both know.”
“I’ve been brooding about it.”
“That was transport,” Bobby said.
“They pumped mondo energy into that room, maybe a nuke’s worth of energy, maybe more, and when it was fully powered, really revving, it took Hodgson somewhere. Hodgson and a few others. We heard them screaming for help.”
“Took them where?”
Instead of answering me, he said, “Carpe cerevisi.”
“Seize the beer.”
I took an icy bottle from the cooler and passed it to him, hesitated, and then opened a beer for myself.
“Not wise to drink and drive,” I reminded him.
“It’s the Apocalypse. No rules.”
After taking a long swallow, I said, “I bet God likes beer. Of course, He’d have a chauffeur.”
The twenty-foot-high levee walls rose on both sides of us. The low and starless sky appeared to be as hard as iron, pressing down like a kettle lid.
“Transport where?” I asked.
“Remember your wristwatch.”
“Maybe it needs repair.”
“Mine went nuts, too,” he reminded me.
“Since when do you wear a watch, anyway?”
“Since, for the first time in my life, I started feeling time running out,” he said, referring not solely to his own mortality but to the fact that time was running out for all of us, for the entire world as we knew it. “Watches, man, I hate them, hate everything they stand for. Evil mechanisms. But lately I start wondering what time it is, though I never used to care, and if I can’t find a clock, I get way itchy. So now I wear a watch, and I’m like the rest of the world, and doesn’t that suck?”
“Like a tornado.”
I said, “Time was screwed up in the egg room.”
“The room was a time machine.”
“We can’t make that assumption.”
“I can,” he said. “I’m an assumption-making fool.”
“Time travel is impossible.”
“Medieval attitude, bro. Impossible is what they once said about airplanes, going to the moon, nuclear bombs, television, and cholesterol-free egg substitutes.”
“For the sake of argument, let’s suppose it’s possible.”
“It is possible.”
“If it’s just time travel, why the pressurized suit? Wouldn’t time travelers want to be discreet? They’d be super-conspicuous unless they traveled back to a Star Trek convention in 1980.”
“Protection against unknown disease,” Bobby said. “Maybe an atmosphere with less oxygen or full of poisonous pollutants.”
“At a Star Trek convention in 1980?”
“You know they were going to the future.”
“I don’t know, and neither do you.”
“The future,” Bobby insisted, the beer having given him absolute confidence in his powers of deduction. “They figured they needed the protection of the spacesuits because…the future might be radically different. Which it evidently is.”
Even without the kiss of the moon, a faint silvery blush lent visibility to the riverbed silt. Nevertheless, the April night was deep.
Way back in the seventeenth century, Thomas Fuller said that it is always darkest just before the dawn. More than three hundred years later, he was still right, though still dead.
“How far in the future?” I wondered, almost able to smell the hot, rancid air that had blown through the egg room.
“Ten years, a century, a millennium. Who cares? No matter how far they went, something totally quashed them.”
I recalled the ghostly, radio-relayed voices in the egg room: the panic, the cries for help, the screams.
I shuddered. After another pull at my beer, I said, “The thing…or things in Hodgson’s suit.”
“That’s part of our future.”
“Nothing like that exists on this world.”
“But those things were so strange…. The entire ecological system would have to change. Change drastically.”
“If you can find one, ask a dinosaur whether it’s possible.”
I had lost my taste for the beer. I held the bottle out of the Jeep, turned it upside down, and let it drain.
“Even if it was a time machine,” I argued, “it was dismantled. So Hodgson showing up the way he did, out of nowhere, and the vault door reappearing…everything that happened to us…How could it have happened?”
“There’s a residual effect.”
“Full-on, totally macking residual effect.”
“You take the engine out of a Ford, tear apart the drive train, throw away the battery—no residual effect can cause the damn car to just drive itself off to Vegas one day.”
Gazing at the dwindling, vaguely luminous riverbed as if it were the course of time winding into our infinitely strange future, Bobby said, “They tore a hole in reality. Maybe a hole like that doesn’t mend itself.”
“What does that mean?”
“What it means,” he said.
Perhaps his point was that his explanation might be cryptic, yes, but at least it was a concept we could grasp and to which we could cling, a familiar idea that kept our sanity from draining away, just as the alum in a styptic pencil could stop the blood flowing from a shaving cut.
Or perhaps he was mocking my tendency—acquired from the poetry in which my father had steeped me—to assume that everyone spoke in metaphor and that the world was always more complex than it appeared to be, in which case he had chosen the word solely for the rhyme.
I didn’t give him the satisfaction of asking him to elucidate styptic. “They didn’t know about this residual effect?”
“You mean the big-brain wizards running the project?”
“Yeah. The people who built it, then tore it down. If there was a residual effect, they’d blow in the walls, fill the ruins with a few thousand tons of concrete. They wouldn’t just walk away and leave it for as**oles like us to find.”
He shrugged. “So maybe the effect didn’t manifest until they were long gone.”
“Or maybe we were hallucinating everything,” I suggested.
“Both of us?”
I had no adequate answer, so I said, “Styptic.”
I refused to think about that one. “If the Mystery Train was a time-travel project, it didn’t have anything to do with my mother’s work.”
“So if it didn’t have anything to do with Mom, why did someone leave this cap for me in the egg room? Why did they leave her photo in the airlock on a different night? Why did someone put Leland Delacroix’s security badge under the windshield wiper and send us there tonight?”
“You’re a regular question machine.”
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