Mysterious extraterrestrial worldmakers.
If that theory satisfied Francis Crick, Nobel laureate, it was plenty damn good enough for Preston Claudius Maddoc. Extraterrestrial worldmakers were no more likely to care what their creations did with their lives, in a moral sense, than any nerdy kid with an ant farm cared whether the ants inhabiting it were behaving their itty-bitty selves according to a posted set of rules.
In fact, Preston had a theory to explain why an alien race of incomprehensibly vast intelligence and powers might skip across the universe making worlds and seeding them with infinite varieties of life, intelligent and otherwise. It was a good theory, a fine theory, a brilliant theory.
He knew it was brilliant, pure genius, but as he stood here spitting on his shoes, he could not remember his splendid theory, not a word of it.
Spitting on his shoes? Disgusting.
He shouldn't be standing around, spitting on his shoes, when he hadn't found a window yet. The windows of any house were arranged in certain classic patterns dating back to the Stone Age and seeded in the human racial memory, so they ought to be easy to find even in this bizarre and rambling opium den.
Windows. Hidden windows. Find one of the mysterious hidden windows. Most likely, an extraterrestrial will be behind the damn thing, big grin on its worldmaker face.
He had their number. He knew what they were about. Perverse bunch of incomprehensibly intelligent and vastly powerful old farts.
His theory-yes, he remembered it now-his brilliant theory was that they built worlds and seeded life on them because they got off on the suffering of the species that they created. Not necessarily got off on in the sense of experienced orgasms. This was a brilliant theory, not a tacky one. But they built us to die, to die by the tens of billions over the centuries, because our deaths did something for them, provided them with something of value. Maybe there was a form of
energy released every lime a creature perished, an energy beyond the human ability to detect, which they employed to power their star-ships and toasters, or which they personally absorbed in order to guarantee themselves eternal life. Oh, they were the ultimate utilitarians, ethical in all their undertakings, creating us to be of use to them and using every one of us fully, wasting none of us.
Move over, Francis Crick. Move over, all you other lame Nobel laureates. The academy would award him not just the coveted prize, but all of Sweden, if he could prove what he had theorized.
Seeking to confirm his theory, Preston had spent the past four and a half years ricocheting around the country, from one UFO sighting to another, meeting with gaggles of alien abductees, everywhere from Arkansas backwaters to Seattle, to purple mountain majesties, across the fruited plain, yearning to be beamed up and to have a chance to present his theory to the incomprehensibly intelligent worldmakers themselves in their bib overalls and straw hats, which is why he came here to Nun's Lake, only to be disappointed again, only to wind up in want of a window, spitting in his lap.
Spitting in his lap? What a repulsive act. Next thing you knew, he'd be pissing his pants. Maybe he already had.
Yet in spite of his fastidiousness, it was true: Here he sat in a peculiar corner of an odd sort of place, repeatedly and vigorously hawking up clots of vile black phlegm and spitting them in his lap. He was also ranting aloud about his theory. Deeply humiliated to hear himself raving like a booze-addled street person, he nevertheless could not shut up because, after all, deep intellectual analysis and philosophical rumination were the essence of his work. That's what he did. That's who he was. Analyzer, ruminator, killer. The only thing that perhaps he needed to be embarrassed about was that he had been talking aloud to himself. . . but then he realized that he wasn't alone, after all.
He had company.
The pall of smoke retreated like a gray tide, and the air in the immediate vicinity grew clean, and into this sudden clarity came a visitor of extraordinary appearance. It was about the size of the Hand, but not the Hand, not anything that Preston had ever previously seen or dreamed about. Feline, but not like a cat. Canine, but not
like a dog. Covered in lustrous while fur, glossy as ermine, but fur that sometimes appeared to be feathers, yes, that certainly was both fur and feathers - and yet neither. Round and golden eyes, as large as teacups, pellucid and luminous eyes that in spite of their beauty struck fear in him, even though he understood that the visitor meant him no harm.
When it spoke, he was not surprised, though its voice - that of a young boy, mellifluous enough for the Vienna choir - was not what he expected. Evidently it had listened to his ranting, for it said, "One problem with the theory. If incomprehensibly intelligent aliens made this world and everything in it - who made the aliens?"
An answer eluded Preston, and he could come up with nothing but another glutinous wad of black phlegm.
The gray tide flooded over him again, and the visitor retreated into the gloom, dissolved into a white blur, moving away, and then a final glimmer of luminous gold as just once it glanced back.
He felt an inexpressible loss at its departure.
The thing had been a figment of his imagination, of course, born of blood loss and toxic fumes. Figments seldom spoke. This one had spoken, though Preston couldn't remember what it had said.
The firelight dimmed as thickening haze screened it. Evidently, too many pipes were being smoked here in the old opium den.
From a far corner came a peculiar sound, a protracted thuuuuuud. Then again: thuuuuuuud. And yet a third time: thuuuuuuud. Like giant dominoes toppling into one another in slow motion. Ominous.
He felt death coming. A wave. Sudden darkness, absolute. And no air, only soot that his lungs sought to store up by the pound.
Preston Maddoc screamed into a black pillow, screamed in terror at the realization that his time had come to provide a little power for the starship.
THUUUUUUUD . . .
Last in line, moving toward the rear of the house, toward fire where fire had not been earlier, Noah worriedly looked back in the direction that they had come, back into air where blackened magazine pages glided like stingrays, back into the schools of lanternfish, and he saw the suspended black tsunami abruptly pour forward through the maze, and he cried out much as he had cried out when his aunt Lilly shot him so many years ago.
Thuuuuuuud. . .
Maze walls were collapsing, stacks of bundled newspapers and other trash falling into the walls beside them, triggering further collapses.
Thuuuuuuud . . .
The floor shook with the third crash, which proved to be the last one for the time being, but the tsunami kept coming, racing toward them, a smothering tide of smoke, so dense that as it came, it muffled the voice of the fire that continued to rage behind it.
"Down!" Noah shouted.
They couldn't outrun this. They could only hit the floor, press their faces to the well-worn tongue-and-groove, and hope that an inch of sustaining air might be compressed beneath the black cloud.
Here, now. Oh, God. Darkness as deep as caves and crypts. And only a thin sour air even at the floor. Then thinner and more sour. And then no air at all, and then-
The black tide relented, dissolved away from them, until they huddled together in a miraculous clearing, where the air tasted as sweet as that in a primeval forest, lacking the slightest scent of soot
. The tsunami of smoke still rushed at them, over them, and past them, providing this impossible refuge, this saving eye of calm in the tumult.
And unto them, out of the blinding masses, came a creature of such heart-stopping beauty that Noah might have fallen to his knees before it if he had not already been on the floor. As white as a fresh winter mantle in a pristine wilderness, the entity arrived utterly un-soiled by the storm of filth through which it had passed. The huge luminous golden eyes, which should have terrified Noah by virtue of their strangeness and by the directness of their regard, did not instill terror, however, but fostered a sense of peace. He was overcome by the humbling perception that this visitor saw him as no one previously had ever seen him, gazed into the secret heart of him, and was not offended by what it discovered there. No terror, no fear troubled him except the reverential fear called awe; instead, set loose was a joy that he hadn't been aware he contained, that all his life had been caged in his breast, and now flew free.
Rising slowly to his feet, he looked wonderingly at Cass . . . Micky . . . Leilani. They were in the grip of the same emotions by which he himself had been overwhelmed. Magic was the moment, as when doves are delivered from thin air, but these wings were Noah's, the wings of pure elation.
The enchanted being had arrived like a leopard, but it rose now and stood like a man, barely taller than Leilani, whom it approached and to whom it spoke, incredibly, in the voice of a young boy. In fact, this was perhaps the voice of Curtis Hammond: "You still shine, Leilani Klonk."
"You too," said the girl.
"You can't be broken."
"I came broken."
"Not in the heart."
Tears overwhelmed the girl, and Noah-with Micky and Cass- moved to her. He didn't know what was happening here, didn't understand how this magical entity and Curtis Hammond could be one and the same, but his long-worn yoke of despair had lifted, and for the moment, he did not need to understand more than that the world had changed for him, forever. He touched Leilani's shoulder, Cass touched Noah's arm, and Micky took the girl's withered hand in hers.
The golden eyes regarded each of them before lowering to Leilani once more. "Not in the heart," the apparition repeated. "Suffering can't crack you. Evil can't turn you. You're going to do great things in your life, Leilani Klonk, great and wonderful things. And I ain't just shovelin' horseshit at you, neither."
Leilani laughed through her tears. Self-consciously, as though embarrassed by what had been said of her, she looked away from her enchanted rescuer, blinked up at the sea of soot and fumes churning across the top of their protective bubble, and said, "Hey, spaceboy, this sure is some neat trick with the smoke."
"Smoke is just fine particles of matter. On the micro level, where will can win, I can move some of the particles from where they are to where I want them to be. It's really fewer molecules than in a deadbolt. It's a little trick. I only have three tricks, really, and they're all little ones, but useful."
"Better than Batman," Leilani said.
The apparition's smile proved to be as luminous as his eyes. "Gee, thanks. But it's an energy-intensive trick, uses up a lot of frankfurters and moo goo gai pan, so we better get out of here."
Through a tempest of smoke and fire, they traveled in cool clean air, following the signs in blood that Noah had left to mark the true path.
Along angular passageways, around a cochlear spiral, into the kitchen, through the vault of empty bottles . . .
Breathtaking gray sky, the beautiful shades of silver polished and of silver patinated. Rain, rain falling less forcefully than when they'd gone inside, rain as Noah had never felt it before: pure, fresh, exhilarating.
Polly waited in the backyard, holding Curtis Hammond's soaked clothes and shoes. Soaked herself, mud-spattered, bedraggled, she grinned like a holy fool oblivious of the storm.
As graceful as water flowing, his white fur appearing to repel the rain, the golden-eyed apparition went to Polly, recovered the boy's clothes from her, and then turned to meet the stares of all assembled until they took the hint and, as one, turned their backs to grant him privacy.
For a moment they stood in silence, still stunned, struggling to wrap their minds around the enormity of their experience, and then Leilani giggled. Her mirth infected the twins, Micky, and even Noah.
"What's so funny?" asked the apparition.
"We already saw you naked," Leilani said through her laughter.
"Not when I'm being Curtis Hammond, you didn't."
"It's sure nice to know," Leilani said, "you're not the kind of tacky alien, come to save the world, who has to shake his booty at everybody."
AS THEY LEAVE the Teelroy farm in their two cars, only wisps of smoke escape from under the eaves, as well as from a few chinks here
and there. Then the firestorm in the house begins to blow out windows, and great black plumes churn upward through the rain.
They reach the county road and head toward Nun's Lake without encountering any traffic.
By stepping out of his human disguise and then returning to it, the motherless boy has reestablished the original biological tension that made him easier to trace during his first few eventful days of being Curtis Hammond. For a while, if worse scalawags come scanning for him, his unique energy signal will be detectable and quickly recognized.
Immediately upon their return to the Fleetwood, they must break camp and roll out, keep moving. Motion is commotion, and all that, but he will regret departing Nun's Lake without having seen any nuns water-skiing, parasailing, or jet-boat racing. Perhaps when the world is saved, they can return here to visit, for in those better days to come, the nuns are more likely to be lighthearted and in a mood for recreation.
He looks through the back window of the Camaro to be sure that Polly and Cass are still following in Noah's rental car. Yes, Polly is behind the wheel, and Cass is riding shotgun. No doubt they have their purses on the seat beside them, open for easy access.
If ever he loses the twins, his fabulous sisters, he will be heartbroken beyond endurance, and therefore he must never lose them. Never. He has lost too much already.
Micky drives the Camaro, and Noah rides up front beside her. Leilani shares the backseat with Curtis, and Old Yeller lies between them. Exhausted from an eventful day, the dog dozes.
They ride in silence, each occupied with his thoughts, which Curtis entirely understands. Sometimes socializing is easy, sometimes hard, and sometimes socializing does not require words.
By the time they arrive at the campground, the rain stops. The washed pine trees are an enthralling green; the graceful boughs have been diamond-strung; saturated trunks and limbs as dark as chocolate shed singing birds and inquisitive squirrels into the aftermath of the storm. This is an exquisite world, and the motherless boy loves it desperately.
To reach the Fleetwood, they must pass the Prevost, and as they approach that vehicle, which had been Leilani's prison, Curtis sees emergency vehicles parked near it. The swiveling, roof-racked beacons on a police car cannot chase off the beauty of the overarching trees, but they do remind him that, although exquisite, this world turns in turbulence and is not at peace.
A uniformed police officer, standing by his cruiser, motions for Micky to drive past, to keep moving.