Strangers


Page 86


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Miles said nothing.


"We're friends, you and I," Alvarado said. "At least I've felt we are. I never met another guy I could enjoy playing both chess and poker with. So I'll tell you . . . I'm the one who got Jack Twist back here."


Startled, Miles said, "How? Why?"


"Well, like you, I knew some of the witnesses were slowly shedding their memory blocks and having psychological problems in the process. So before anyone could decide to wipe them again one by one, I figured to do something to focus their attention on the motel. I hoped to stir up enough trouble to make it impossible to continue the coverup.


"Why?" Miles repeated.


"Because I'd finally decided the coverup was wrong."


"But why sabotage it by such a backdoor approach?" Miles asked.


"Because if I'd gone public, I'd have been disobeying orders. I'd have been throwing my career away, maybe my pension. And besides ... I thought Falkirk might kill me."


Miles had worried about the same thing.


Alvarado said, "I started with Twist because I thought his Ranger background and his inclination to challenge authority would make him a good candidate for organizing the other witnesses. From the information turned up during his memorywipe session that summer, I knew about his safedeposit boxes. So I searched the file on him, got the names of the banks, the passwords. The file also contained copies of all the keys to his boxes; Falkirk had them made in case it was ever necessary to turn up criminal evidence against Twist to use as blackmail or to put him out of the way in prison. I made copies of the copies. Then, when I was on leave for ten days in late December, I went to New York with a bunch of postcards of the Tranquility Motel, and I put one in each of his boxes. He didn't go to those banks often, just a few times a year, and they've all got thousands of safedeposit customers, so nobody remembered what Twist looked like or suspected that I wasn't him. It was easy."


"And ingenious," Miles said, staring with admiration and fondness at the bulky, shadowy form of his friend. "Finding those cards would've electrified Twist. And if Falkirk had gotten wind of it, he'd have no way of knowing who'd done it."


"Especially since I always handled the postcards with gloves," Alvarado said. "Didn't even leave a fingerprint. I planned to come back here, give Twist time to find them. Then I was going to go into Elko and, from a pay phone, make a couple of anonymous calls to other witnesses, give them Twist's unlisted number, tell them he had answers to their various mental problems. That would've set the ball rolling pretty well. But before it got that far, someone else had sent notes and Polaroids to Corvaisis, more Polaroids to the Blocks, and a new crisis was already underway. Like Falkirk, I know whoever sent those pictures has to be here in Thunder Hill. You going to fess up, or am I the only one in a confessional mood?"


Miles hesitated. His glance fell upon the vague grayness of the report on his desk: Falkirk's psychological profile. He shuddered and said, "Yeah, Bob, I sent the pictures. Great minds think alike, huh?"


From his own pocket of darkness, Alvarado said, "I told you why I picked Twist. And I can figure why you'd want to stir up the Blocks, since they're local and sort of at the center of everything. But why'd you pick Corvaisis instead of one of the others?"


"He's a writer, which means a vivid imagination. Anonymous notes and odd pictures in the mail would probably grab his interest a little faster and tighter than anyone else's. And his first novel has had tremendous prepublication publicity, so if he dug up some of the truth, reporters might be more likely to listen to him than to the others."


"We're a clever pair."


"Too clever for our own good," Miles said. "Looks like sabotaging the coverup was too slow. We should've just violated our secrecy oaths and gone public with the news, even if it meant risking Falkirk's anger and government prosecution."


They were silent a moment, and then Alvarado said, "Why do you think I've come here and opened up to you like this, Miles?"


"You need an ally against the colonel. Because you don't think he meant a word of what he told you on the phone. You don't think he's suddenly gotten reasonable. You don't think he's bringing the witnesses back here to let us study them."


"He's going to kill them, I think," Alvarado said. "And us, too. All of us."


"Because he thinks we've all been taken over. The damn fool."


The public address system crackled, whistled. A speaker was set in the wall of Miles's office, as in every room within the Depository. The announcement followed the whistle: All personnel, military and civilian, were to report first to the armory to be issued handguns, then to their quarters to await further instructions.


Getting up from his chair, Alvarado said, "When they're all in their quarters, I'll tell them it was Falkirk's idea to put them there but my idea to arm them. I'll warn them that, for reasons that'll be clear to some and a mystery to others, we're all in danger from Falkirk and his DEROS. Later, if the colonel sends some of his men to round up the staff and shoot them all, my people will be able to shoot back. I hope we can stop him before it goes that far."


"Do I get a handgun, too?"


Alvarado moved to the door but did not open it. Standing in the dark, he said, "You especially. Wear a lab coat with the gun under it, so Falkirk won't see you're armed. I intend to wear my uniform coat unbuttoned, with a small pistol tucked into the back of my waistband, so he won't ' realize I'm armed, either. If it seems he's about to order our destruction, I'll pull the gun and kill him. But I'll alert you first, with a code word, so you can turn on Horner and kill him, too. It's no good unless we get both, because if Horner has a chance, he'll kill me when I open fire. on Falkirk. And it's imperative I survive, not just because I'm inordinately fond of my own hide, which I am, but because I'm a general, and I ought to be able to make Falkirk's men obey me once their CO's dead. Can you do that? Can you kill a man, Miles?"


"Yes. I'll be able to pull the trigger if it means stopping Horner. I consider you a good friend, too, Bob. Not just because of the poker and chess, either. There's also the fact that you've actually read all of T. S. Eliot."


" 'I think we are in rats' alley, Where the dead men lost their bones,' " Bob Alvarado quoted. Laughing softly, he pulled the door open and stood revealed in the argentine glow of the cavern lights. "How ironic. Ages ago, my daddy used to worry that my interest in poetry was a sign I'd grow up to be a skirtwearing sissy. Instead, I became a onestar general, and in the hour of my greatest need, it's poetry that persuades you to kill for me and save my ass. Coming to the armory, Dr. Bennell?"


Miles rose from his chair and joined the general in the spill of frosty light in the doorway. He said, "You realize that Falkirk is, in essence, acting in the name of the Army Chief of Staff himself and even higher authorities. So after you've killed him, you'll have General Riddenhour and maybe even the President coming down hard on your neck."


"Fuck Riddenhour," Bob Alvarado said, clapping a hand on Miles's shoulder. "Fuck all the politicians and their toadying generals like Riddenhour. Even though Falkirk will take the security computer's new codes with him when we kill him, we'll get out of here in a few days, even if we have to dismantle the damn exit. And then ... do you realize, when we take the news to the world, we're going to be two of the most famous men on this sorry planet? Maybe two of the most famous men in history . Fact is, I can't think of anyone in history who had quite such important news to spread ...


except Mary Magdalene on Easter Morning."


Father Stefan Wycazik drove the Cherokee because he had experience with fourwheeldrive vehicles from his service with Father Bill Nader in Vietnam. Of course, those adventures had been laid in swamp and jungle, not in a blizzard. But he discovered the Jeep handled about the same in either condition. And though his daredevil experiences were long ago in time, they seemed recent in his heart and mind, and he controlled the wheel with the same reckless disregard for danger and surehanded expertise that he'd shown in his younger days, under fire. As he and Parker Faine headed away from the lights of Elko into the snowblasted night, Father Wycazik knew that God had called him to the priesthood precisely because, at times, the Church required a man who carried a thick splinter of an adventurer's soul lodged in his own.


Because I-80 was closed, they went north on State Route 51. They switched to a series of westwardleading county roadsmacadam, gravel, dirt, all under a mantle of snow. The roads were marked by cat'seyeyellow reflectors on widely spaced posts along the berm, and the luster of those periodic guideposts, casting back the headlight beams, was frequently the only thing that kept Stefan from going astray. Sometimes, he had to drive overland to get from one lane to another. Fortunately, they had bought a dashmounted compass and a county map. Although their route was winding and rough,


they made steady progress in the general direction of the Tranquility Motel.


On the way, Stefan told Parker about the CISG, about which he had learned from Michael Gerrano, after Michael had gotten the news from Mr. X, Ginger Weiss's friend. "Colonel Falkirk was the only military member. The CISG looks like a typical waste of tax dollars: a study group funded to do a thinktanktype assessment of a social problem that would most likely never arise. The committee consisted of biologists, physicists, cultural anthropologists, medical doctors, sociologists, psychologists. The acronym CISG stands for Contact Impact Study Group, which means they tried to determine the positive and negative impact on human society of first contact with an intelligent species not of this world."


Keeping his eyes on the snowy road, Stefan paused to let his meaning sink in, smiled slightly when he heard the artist take a sudden sharp breath. Parker said, "You don't mean . . . you couldn't mean "Yes," Stefan said.


"Something came . . . you mean that . . . something .


For the first time in Stefan Wycazik's acquaintance, Parker Faine was speechless.


"Yes," Stefan said. Although this amazing development was no longer news to him, he still shivered at the thought of it, and he appreciated what Parker was feeling. "Something came down that night. Something came down from the sky on July sixth."


"Jesus!" Parker exclaimed. "Uh, sorry, Father. Didn't mean to be blasphemous. Came down. Holy shit. Sorry. Really. But . . . Jesus!"


Following cat'seye reflectors along an especially twisty gravel road that hugged the lower contours of folded and refolded hills, Father Wycazik said, "Under the circumstances, I don't think God's grading you on verbal restraint. The CISG's primary purpose was to arrive at a consensus of how human culturesand human beings themselveswould be affected by facetoface contact with extraterrestrials."


"But that's an easy question to answer. What a joyous, wondrous thing to discover we're not alone!" Parker said. "You and I know how people would react. Look how they've been fascinated by movies about other worlds and aliens for decades now!"


"Yes," Stefan said, "but there's a difference how they react to fictional contact and how they might react to the reality. At least that's the opinion of many scientists, especially in the soft sciences like sociology and psychology. And anthropologists tell us that when an advanced culture interacts with one less advanced, the less advanced culture suffers a loss of confidence inand often a complete collapse ofits traditions, institutions. The primitive culture loses respect for its religions and systems of government. Its sexual practices, social values, and family structures deteriorate. Look what happened to the Eskimos following their encounter with Western civilization: soaring alcoholism, familydestroying generational conflict, a high rate of suicide. . . . It's not that Western culture is dangerous or evil. It isn't. But our culture was far more sophisticated and richly textured than the Eskimo culture, and contact led to a serious loss of selfesteem among the Eskimos that they've never regained and never will."


Stefan had to pause in his elaboration of the issue, for they came to the end of the gravel track on which they had been traveling.


Parker studied the map in the dim glow of the glovecompartment light. Then he checked the dashmounted compass. "That way," he said, pointing left. "We go three miles due west, all of it overland. Then we'll come to a northsouth county route called . . . Vista Valley Road. We cross Vista Valley, and from there it looks about eight or nine miles, overland again, until we might come up behind the Tranquility."


"You keep checking the compass, make sure I stay pointed west." Stefan drove the Cherokee into the snowshrouded nightscape ahead.


Parker said, "This stuff about the Eskimos, all this detail about what the CISG's point of view is likeMr. X didn't pass all these fine points along to Father Gerrano in one telephone call."


"Some of it; not all of it."


"So I gather you've thought about the subject before."


"Not about extraterrestrial contact, no," Father Wycazik said. "But part of Jesuit education involves a hard look at both the... results of the Church's efforts to spread the faith to backward cultures throughout history. The general feeling is we did a disturbing amount of damage even as we brought enlightenment. Anyway, we study a lot of anthropology, so I can understand the concern of the CISG."


"You're drifting north. Angle left as soon as the land will let you," Parker said, checking the compass. "Listen, I'm still not sure I understand the CISG's concern."


"Consider the American Indian. Ultimately, the white man's guns didn't destroy them; the clash of cultures did them in; the influx of new ideas forced the Indians to view their comparatively primitive societies from a different perspective, resulting in a loss of esteem, a loss of cultural validity and direction. According to what Mr. X told Father Gerrano, the CISG believed contact between mankind and very advanced extraterrestrials could have those same effects on us: the destruction of religious faith, a loss of faith in all governments and other secular beliefsystems, a rising feeling of inferiority, suicide."


Parker Faine made a harsh scoffing sound in the back of his throat. "Father, would your faith collapse because of this?"


"No. Just the opposite," Stefan said excitedly. "If this enormous universe didn't contain any other life, if the trillions of stars and billions of planets were all barren of lifethat might make me think there was no God, that our species' evolution was just happenstance. Because if there's a God, He loves life, cherishes life and all the creatures He created, and He'd never leave the universe so empty."
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