Swan song, p.29
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       Swan Song, p.29

           Robert McCammon
 
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Chapter 29

 

  The scarlet eye suddenly shriveled and disappeared, and Friend's head turned toward him again. He was smiling cordially. "Please don't take me for a fool," he said.

  Something hit the roof of the airstream trailer: bump! Then another: bump bump! Followed in the next few seconds by a bumping noise that seemed to sweep the length of the trailer and gently rock it from side to side.

  Macklin got up on rubbery legs and went around the desk to the door. He opened it and stood looking out at golf ball-sized hail whirling down from the leaden sky, bumping and clattering on the windshields, hoods and roofs of the other vehicles parked around. Thunder echoed in the clouds like a bass drum in a barrel, and an electric-blue spear of lightning struck somewhere in the distant mountains. In the next minute the hail stopped, and sheets of black, cold rain began falling over the encampment.

  a boot thrust out and hit him in the small of the back. He lost his balance and tumbled down to the bottom of the steps, where the armed guards stared at him in stunned surprise.

  Macklin sat up on his knees as the rain struck him in the face and crawled through his hair.

  Friend stood in the doorway. "You're riding in the truck with the driver," he announced. "This is my trailer now. "

  "Shoot him!" Macklin bawled. "Shoot the bastard!"

  The guards hesitated; one of them lifted his M-16 and took aim.

  "You'll die in three seconds," the monster promised.

  The guard wavered, looked down at Macklin and then looked at Friend again. He abruptly lowered the rifle and stepped back, rubbing rain from his eyes.

  "Help the colonel out of the rain," Friend commanded. "Then spread the word: We're moving out in ten minutes. anyone who's not ready will be left behind. " He closed the door.

  Macklin shrugged off help as he got to his feet. "It's mine!" he shouted. "You won't take it from me!"

  The door remained shut.

  "You won't. . . take it. . . from me," Macklin said, but no one was listening anymore.

  Engines began to mutter and growl like awakening beasts. The smell of gasoline and exhaust was in the air, and the rain reeked of brimstone.

  "You won't," Macklin whispered, and then he started walking toward the truck that hauled the Command Center as the rain beat down like hammer blows on his shoulders.

  Ninety

  The army of Excellence left a trail of broken-down armored cars, trucks and trailers in its wake as it turned north onto Highway 219 and began to climb along the steep western ridge of the allegheny Mountains.

  The land was covered with dead forests, and an occasional ghost town crumbled alongside the ribbon of road. There were no people, but a scouting party in a Jeep pursued and shot two deer near the ruins of Friars Hill - and they came across something else that was worth reporting: an ebony, frozen lake. at its center was the tail section of a large aircraft jutting up from the depths. Two of the scouts started across the lake to investigate it, but the ice cracked under them, and they drowned crying for help.

  Rain alternated with snow flurries as the army of Excellence climbed past dead Hillsboro, Mill Point, Seebert, Buckeye and Marlington. a supply truck ran out of gas twelve feet from a rusted green sign that said Entering Pocahontas County, and the vehicle was pushed into a ravine to let the others pass.

  The column was stopped three miles over the county line by a storm of black rain and hail that made driving impossible. another truck went into the ravine, and a tractor-trailer rig choked on its last swallow of gasoline.

  as the rain and hail battered down on the airstream trailer's roof Roland Croninger awakened. He'd been flung into a corner of the room like a sack of laundry, and his first realization was that he'd messed his britches.

  The second was that what looked like lumps of clay and torn, grimy bandages lay on the floor around his head.

  He was still wearing the goggles. They felt very tight. His face and head throbbed, gorged with blood, and his mouth felt funny - kind of twisted.

  My. . . face, he thought. My face. . . has changed.

  He sat up. a lantern glowed on the desk nearby. The trailer shuddered under the storm.

  and suddenly Friend knelt down in front of him, and a pale, handsome mask with close-cropped blond hair and ebony eyes peered curiously at him.

  "Hi there," Friend said, with a gentle smile. "Have a nice sleepi"

  "I. . . hurt," Roland answered. The sound of his voice made his skin creep; it had been a diseased rattle.

  "Oh, I'm sorry. You've been sleeping for quite some time. We're just a few miles away from that town Brother Timothy told us about. Yes, you really got your beauty sleep, didn't youi"

  Roland started to lift his hands to touch his new face, and his heartbeat deafened him.

  "Let me," Friend said - and he held up one hand. In it was a broken piece of mirror.

  Roland saw and his head jerked away. Friend's other hand shot out, cupping the back of Roland's neck. "Oh, don't be bashful," the monster whispered. "Take a good, long look. "

  Roland screamed.

  Internal pressure had buckled the bones into hideous, protruding ridges and collapsed gullies. The flesh was sickly yellow, cracked and pitted like an atomic battleground. Red-edged craters had opened in his forehead and his right cheek, exposing the chalky bone. His hair had receded far back on his head and was coarse and white, and his lower jaw jutted forward as if it had been brutally yanked from its sockets. But the most terrible thing, the thing that made Roland begin to wail and gibber, was that his face had been twisted so that it was almost on the side of his head, as if his features had melted and dried hideously askew. In his mouth, the teeth had been ground down to stubs.

  He flailed at Friend's hand, knocked the glass aside and scurried into the corner. Friend sat back on his haunches and laughed, while Roland gripped the goggles with both hands and tried to pull them off. The flesh tore around them, and blood ran down to his chin. The pain was too much; the goggles had grown into his skin.

  Roland shrieked, and Friend shrieked with him in unholy harmony.

  Finally, Friend snorted and stood up - but Roland grasped his legs and clung to him, sobbing.

  "I'm a King's Knight," he gibbered. "King's Knight. Sir Roland. King's Knight. . . King's Knight. . . "

  Friend bent down again. The young man was wasted, but he still had talent. He was actually a wonderful organizer of the last gasoline supplies and the food, and he'd made Brother Timothy sing like a castrato. Friend ran a hand through Roland's old-man hair.

  "King's Knight," Roland whispered, burrowing his head into Friend's shoulder. Tumbling through his mind were scenes of Earth House, the amputation of Macklin's hand, the crawl through the tunnel to freedom, the dirtwart land, the murder of Freddie Kempka and on and on in a vicious panorama. "I'll serve you," he whimpered. "I'll serve the King. Call me Sir Roland. Yes, sir! I showed him, I showed him how a King's Knight gets even, yes, sir, yes, sir!"

  "Shhhhh," Friend said, almost crooning. "Hush, now. Hush. "

  Finally, Roland's sobbing ceased. He spoke drowsily: "Do you. . . do you love mei"

  "Like a mirror," Friend answered. and the young man said no more.

  The storm slacked off within an hour. The army of Excellence struggled onward again, through the deepening twilight.

  Soon the scout Jeep came back along the mountain road, and the soldiers reported to General Friend that there were clapboard buildings about a mile ahead. On one of those buildings was a faded sign that read Slatyfork General Store.

  Ninety-one

  They came at first light. Josh was awakened by the banging of a rifle butt on the truck's rear door, and he got up off the metal floor, his bones aching, to move back with Robin and Brother Timothy.

  The door was unbolted and rolled up on its casters.

  a blond man with ebony eyes stood looking in, flanked by two soldiers with rifl
es. He wore an army of Excellence uniform with epaulets and what appeared to be Nazi medals and insignia on his chest. "Good morning, all!" he said cheerfully, and as soon as he spoke both Josh and Robin knew who he was. "How did we sleep last nighti"

  "Cold," Josh answered tersely.

  "We'll have a heater for you on the plantation, Sambo. " His gaze shifted. "Brother Timothyi Come out, please. " He crooked an inviting finger.

  Brother Timothy cringed, and the two soldiers came in to haul him out. Josh started to jump one of them, but a rifle barrel was thrust at him and the moment passed. He saw two Jeeps parked nearby, their engines rumbling. In one of them were three people: a driver, Colonel Macklin and a soldier with a machine gun; in the other was also a driver, another armed soldier, a slumped-over figure wearing a heavy coat and hood - and Swan and Sister, both thin and wan-looking.

  "Swan!" Robin shouted, stepping toward the opening.

  She saw him, too, and cried out, "Robin!" as she rose from her seat. The soldier grabbed her arm and pulled her down again.

  One of the guards shoved Robin back. He rushed at the man, his face contorted with rage, and the soldier lifted his rifle butt to smash Robin's skull. Josh suddenly lunged out and caught the boy, holding him as he thrashed. The soldier spat on the floor, and when he stepped down from the truck the rear door was slid into place and bolted once more.

  "Hey, you bastard!" Josh shouted, peering through one of the thirty-seven punctures. "Hey! I'm talking to you, creep-show!" He realized he was bellowing in his old wrestler's voice.

  Friend shoved Brother Timothy toward the first Jeep and then turned regally.

  "What do you need Swan and Sister fori Where are you taking themi"

  "We're all going up Warwick Mountain to meet God," he answered. "The road's not good enough for anything heavier than the Jeeps. That satisfy the old negroid curiosityi"

  "You don't need them! Why don't you leave them herei"

  Friend smiled vacantly and strolled closer. "Oh, they're too valuable for that. Suppose some crafty old fox decided he wanted a little more power and snatched them away while we were gonei That wouldn't do. " He started to return to the Jeep.

  "Hey! Wait!" Josh called, but the man with the scarlet eye was already getting into the Jeep beside Brother Timothy. The two vehicles moved away and out of sight.

  "Now whati" Robin asked him, still seething. "Do we just sit herei"

  Josh didn't answer. He was thinking of something Brother Timothy had said: "The last of the Good must die with the Evil. Must die, so the world can be reborn. You must die. and you. and me. and even Swan. "

  "Swan won't come back," Robin said tonelessly. "Neither will Sister. You know that, don't youi"

  "No, I don't. " "He'll pray to the machine that calls down the talons of Heaven," he remembered Brother Timothy saying. "Prepare yourselves for the final hour. "

  "I love her, Josh," Robin said. He grasped Josh's arm tightly. "We've got to get out of here! We've got to stop. . . whatever it is that's going to happen!"

  Josh pulled free. He walked to the far corner of the cell and looked down.

  On the floor beside Brother Timothy's bucket was the tin cup, with its sharp metal handle.

  He picked it up and touched the ragged edge.

  It was too small and awkward to use as a weapon, and Josh had already dismissed that possibility. But he was thinking of an old wrestling trick, something that was done with a hidden razor when the promoter wanted more "juice. " It was a common practice, and it always made the violence look more real.

  Now it might give the illusion of something else, as well.

  He started to work.

  Robin's eyes widened. "What the hell are you doingi"

  "Be quiet," Josh cautioned. "Just get ready to start yelling when I say so. "

  The two Jeeps were about a quarter mile away, slowly climbing a winding, snow- and rain-slick mountain road. at one time the road had been paved, but the concrete had cracked and slid apart, and underneath was a layer of mud. The Jeeps' tires slipped, and the vehicles fishtailed as the engines roared for traction. In the second Jeep, Sister gripped Swan's hand. The hooded figure sitting in the front suddenly turned his head toward them - and they had a heart-stopping glimpse of his deathly yellow, cratered face. The goggled eyes lingered on Swan.

  The drivers fought for every foot. To the right stood a low steel guard rail, and just beyond it was a rocky drop-off that fell seventy feet into a wooded ravine. Still the road ascended as the broken plates of concrete shifted beneath the Jeeps' wheels.

  The road curved to the left and was blocked by an eight-foot-high chain link fence and gate. On the gate was a metal sign, surprisingly free of corrosion: WaRWICK COaL MINING COMPaNY. TRESPaSSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED. Ten feet beyond the fence was a brick enclosure where a guard might once have stood duty. a sturdy-looking chain and padlock secured the gate, and Friend said, "Get that thing open" to the soldier with the machine gun. The man got out, walked to the gate and reached out to test the padlock before he blasted it off.

  There was a sizzling like fat being fried in a pan. The soldier's legs began to boogie, with his hand sealed to the chain and his face bleached and grimacing. The machine gun chattered on its own, spraying bullets into the ground. His clothes and hair smoked, his face taking on a blue cast; then the muscle tension snapped the soldier backward, and he fell, still jerking and writhing, to the ground.

  The smell of scorched flesh and electricity wafted through the air. Friend whirled around and clamped his hand to Brother Timothy's throat. "Why didn't you say it was an electric fencei" he bellowed.

  "I. . . I didn't know! It was broken open the last time! God must've fixed it!"

  Friend almost set him afire, but he could see that Brother Timothy was telling the truth. The electrified fence also told him that the power source, wherever it was, was still active. He released the man, got out of the Jeep and strode to the gate.

  He reached through the chain link mesh and grasped the padlock. His fingers worked at it, trying to break it open. Both Swan and Sister saw his sleeve beginning to smoke, the flesh of his hand getting as soft as used chewing gum. The padlock resisted him, and he could feel the little bitch watching and sucking all the strength out of him. In a rage, he gripped the mesh with the fingers of both hands and wrenched at the gate like a child trying to break into a locked playground. Sparks popped and flew. For an instant he was outlined in an electric-blue glow, his army of Excellence uniform smoking and charring, the shoulder epaulets bursting into flame. Then the gate's hinges gave way, and Friend hurled the gate aside.

  "Didn't think I could, did youi" he shouted at Swan. His face had gone waxy, most of his hair and his eyebrows singed away. Her expression remained placid, and he knew it was a good thing she was going to a prison camp, because the bitch would have to be broken under a whip before she learned respect.

  He had to concentrate harder than usual to get his oozing hands solid again. His epaulets were still burning, and he tore them away before he retrieved the dead soldier's machine gun and returned to the first Jeep. "Let's go," he ordered. Two fingers on his right hand remained scorched and twisted, and they would not reform.

  The two Jeeps moved through the opening and continued up the mountain road, winding between dense stands of lifeless pines and hardwood trees.

  They came to a second brick guard's station, where a rusted sign commanded Present Identification. atop the structure was what appeared to be a small videotape camera.

  "They had pretty tight security up here for a coal mine," Sister observed, and Roland Croninger growled, "No talking!"

  The road emerged from the forest into a clearing; there was a paved parking lot, empty of cars, and beyond it stood a complex of one-story brick buildings and a larger, aluminum-roofed structure built right into the mountainside. Warwick Mountain continued upward about another two hundred feet, covered with dead tree
s and boulders, and at its peak Sister saw three rusted towers - antennas, she realized - that disappeared in the swirling gray clouds.

  "Stop," Friend said. The driver obeyed, and a second later the other Jeep halted. He sat looking around the complex for a moment, his eyes narrowed and his senses questing. There was no movement, no life as far as he could see. The chilly wind blew across the parking lot, and thunder rumbled in the clouds. a black drizzle began to fall again. Friend said, "Get out" to Brother Timothy.

  "Whati"

  "Get out," Friend repeated. "Walk ahead of us, and start calling him. Go on!"

  Brother Timothy climbed out of the Jeep and started walking across the parking lot through the black rain. "God!" he shouted, and his voice echoed off the walls of the large metal-roofed building. "It's Timothy! I've come back to you!"

  Friend got out and followed behind him a few yards, the machine gun resting on his hip.

  "God! Where are youi I've come back!"

  "Keep going," Friend told him, and the other man walked forward with the rain beating in his face.

  Sister had been waiting for the right moment. Everyone's attention was fixed on the two men. The woods lay about thirty yards away, and if she could keep the rest of them busy, Swan might have a chance to make it; they wouldn't kill her, and if she could reach the woods, Swan might be able to escape. She squeezed Swan's hand, whispered, "Get ready" and tensed to slam her fist into the face of the guard at her side.

  Brother Timothy shouted joyously, "There he is!"

  She looked up. High above, a figure stood on the sloping aluminum roof.

  Brother Timothy fell to his knees, his hands upraised and his face torn between terror and rapture. "God!" he called. "It's the final hour! Evil's won! Cleanse the world, God! Call down the talons of Hea - "

  Machine gun bullets ripped across his back. He fell forward, his body still kneeling in an attitude of prayer.

  Friend swung the smoking barrel up toward the roof. "Come down!" he ordered.

  The figure stood motionlessly but for the billowing of a long, ragged coat around his thin body.

  "I'll tell you once more," Friend warned, "and then we'll see what color God's blood is. "

  Still the figure hesitated. Swan thought the man with the scarlet eye was going to shoot - but then the figure on the roof walked over near the edge, lifted a hatch and began to descend a metal-runged ladder bolted to the building's wall.

  He reached the ground and walked to Brother Timothy, where he bent to examine the dead man's features. Friend heard him mutter something, and 'God' shook his gray-maned head in disgust. Then he stood up again, approached Friend and stopped about two feet away. above the duty, tangled mat of his gray beard, the man's eyes were sunken deep in purple craters, his flesh ivory and covered with intersecting cracks and wrinkles. a brown-ridged scar sliced across his right cheek, narrowly missing the eye, cutting through the thick eyebrow and up into the hairline, where it divided into a network of scars. His left hand, dangling from the folds of his overcoat, was brown and withered to the size of a child's.

  "You bastard," he said, and with his right hand he slapped Friend across the face.

  "Help!" Robin Oakes was shouting. "Somebody help! He's killing himself!"

  Sergeant Shitpants emerged from a nearby trailer, cocked his . 45 automatic and ran through the rain to the truck. another guard with a rifle came from a different direction, and a third soldier followed.

  "Hurry!" Robin yelled frantically, looking through one of the punctures. "Somebody help him!"

  Sergeant Shitpants thrust the pistol's barrel up at Robin's face. "What's going oni"

  "It's Josh! He's trying to kill himself! Open the door!"

  "Right! Fuck that!"

  "He's cut his wrists, you dumb-ass!" Robin told him. "He's bleeding all over the floor in here!"

  "That trick was old in silent movies, you little prick!"

  Robin pushed three fingers through one of the holes, and Sergeant Shitpants saw the crimson smear of blood all over them.

  "He's slashed his wrists with a cup's handle!" Robin said. "If you don't help him, he's going to bleed to death!"

  "Let the nigger die, then!" the guard with the rifle said.

  "Shut up!" Sergeant Shitpants was trying to figure out what he should do. He knew the consequences if anything happened to the prisoners. Colonel Macklin and Captain Croninger were bad enough, but the new commander would cut off his balls and use them as hood ornaments.

  "Help him!" Robin shouted. "Don't just stand there!"

  "Step back from the door!" the other man ordered. "Go on! Get back, and if you make one move I don't like, I swear to God you're dead meat!"

  Robin retreated. The door was unbolted and shoved upward about eight inches.

  "Throw it out! The cup! Throw the damned thing out!"

  a bloody tin cup was slid through the opening. The sergeant picked it up, felt the ragged metal edge and tasted the blood to make sure it was real. It was. "Damn it!" he raged, and he pushed the door up the rest of the way.

  Robin stood at the back of the truck, away from the door. Curled on the floor near him was the body of Josh Hutchins, lying on his right side with his face averted. Sergeant Shit-pants climbed into the truck, his gun aimed at Robin's head. The guard with the rifle climbed up as well, and the third man stayed on the ground with his pistol unholstered and ready. "Stay back and keep both hands up!" Sergeant Shitpants warned Robin as he approached the black man's body.

  Blood gleamed on the floor. The sergeant saw blood all over the black man's clothes, and he reached down to touch one outthrust wrist; his own fingers came away bloody. "Jesus!" he said, realizing he was tailbone deep in trouble. He holstered his . 45 and tried to turn the man over, but Josh was way too heavy for him. "Help me move him!" he told Robin, and the boy bent down to grasp Josh's other arm.

  Josh gave a low, guttural groan.

  and two things happened at once: Robin picked up the bucket of waste lying beside Josh's arm and hurled its contents into the face of the guard with the rifle, and Josh's body came to life, his right fist smashing into Sergeant Shitpants' jaw and snapping it crooked. The man gave a scream as his teeth tore into his tongue, and then Josh was wrenching the . 45 out of its holster.

  The blinded guard fired his rifle, and the bullet sang past Robin's head as the boy lunged at him, grabbing the rifle and kicking him in the groin. The third soldier fired at Josh, but the bullet hit Sergeant Shitpants in the back and drove him into Josh like a shield. Josh wiped the blood out of his eyes and shot at the soldier, but the man was already running through the rain shouting for help.

  Robin kicked the guard again, tumbling him out of the truck to the ground. Josh knew they would only have a minute or so before the place was swarming with soldiers, and he started digging through Sergeant Shitpants' pockets, looking for the truck's key. Blood was streaming down his face from three slashes across his forehead, inflicted with the ragged edge of metal; he'd smeared his wrists with blood and gotten it all over his clothes to make it appear as if he'd cut his veins. In the wrestling ring, a small sliver of razor blade hidden in a bandage had often been drawn across the forehead to create a superficial but nasty-looking wound, and in this case the gore was needed for a similarly theatrical purpose.

  Two soldiers were running toward the truck. Robin took aim and shot one of them down, but the other fell onto his stomach and crawled under a trailer. Josh couldn't find a key. "Look in the ignition!" he shouted, and he fired shots at random as Robin jumped to the ground and ran around to the truck's cab.

  He opened the door and reached up to the dashboard, his fingers searching. There was no key in the ignition.

  The soldier under the trailer squeezed off two shots that ricocheted dangerously around Josh, who flung himself flat. another soldier opened up with an automatic rifle, over to the left. The air turned hot above Josh's head, and he heard bu
llets whack off the inside of the truck like hammers beating garbage can lids.

  Robin searched under the seat and found nothing but empty cartridges. He opened the glove compartment. There! Inside was a tarnished key and a snub-nose . 38. He fit the key into the ignition, turned it and jammed his foot down on the accelerator. The engine coughed and racketed, then roared to Me, the entire truck quaking. He gaped at the gearshift. Shit! he thought; one thing he'd forgotten to tell Josh while they were planning their escape was that his experience in driving had been very limited. Still, he knew you had to press the clutch down to engage the gears. He did, and he forced the gearshift into first over the transmission's objections. Then he put his foot to the floor on the accelerator and let up suddenly on the clutch.

  The truck shot forward as if it were rocket-powered. Josh was propelled to the edge of the truck's bed, and he kept himself from flying out by grabbing the upraised track of metal on which the door slid up and down.

  Robin jammed the gearshift into second. The truck bucked like a wild stallion as it tore through the encampment, grazing a parked car and scattering a half-dozen soldiers who had been alerted by the noise. a bullet shattered the windshield and sent wasps of glass flying around Robin's head and face, but he shielded his eyes and kept going.

  Robin shifted upward as the truck gained speed. Glass glittered in his tangled hair like wet diamonds. He reached over for the . 38, popped its cylinder open and found it held four bullets. He veered past another parked vehicle, almost crashed into a trailer, and then the truck was out on the open road, speeding away from the camp. Just ahead was the turnoff to the right that Robin knew must lead up the side of Warwick Mountain; he could see the tracks of the Jeeps' tires in the mud as he slowed the truck enough to take the sharp turn. In the rear of the truck, Josh lost his grip and was battered against the opposite wall with bone-jarring force, and it occurred to him that this was surely going to be a day to remember.

  But they had to reach Sister and Swan before the final hour - whatever and whenever that was. Robin was driving like hell up the mountain road, the tires skidding back and forth, the truck careening from one side of the road to the other. Josh hung on as best he could, and he saw sparks fly as the truck grazed the right-hand guard rail. a plate of concrete suddenly slipped out from under the rear tires, and the wheel tore itself from Robin's hands. The truck hurtled toward the cliff's edge.

  He threw all his weight against the wheel to twist it around, his foot fighting the brake. The tires threw up plumes of mud, and the front fender dented the guard rail about six inches before the truck came to a stop.

  Then he felt the tires starting to slide back over the broken concrete, mud and snow. He pulled up the emergency brake, but there was no traction to lock the tires. The truck slid in reverse, quickly gathering speed as Robin tried to jam the gearshift into first again. But he knew it was the end of the line; he opened the door, shouted "Jump!" and did so.

  Josh didn't wait to be told twice. He jumped from the rear of the truck, hit the mud and rolled aside as the vehicle fishtailed past him.

  It kept going, the front of the truck sliding around as if the vehicle was trying to spin in a circle - and then a Jeep carrying five army of Excellence soldiers suddenly veered around the curve, heading uphill and going too fast to stop.

  Josh saw the expression of stark terror on the driver's face; the soldier instinctively threw up his arms as if to hold back metal with muscle and bone. The runaway truck and the Jeep crashed together, and the truck's weight shoved the smaller vehicle through the guard rail and followed it over the cliff's edge like an anvil. Josh looked over the rail in time to see human bodies tumbling through space; there was a chorus of high screams, and then the bodies disappeared in the ravine, and either the Jeep or truck exploded in a burst of flame and black smoke.

  Josh and Robin had no time to ponder how close they'd come to taking a one-way flight. Josh still gripped the automatic in his hand, and Robin had the . 38 with four bullets in it. They would have to go the rest of the way on foot, and they had to hurry. Josh took the lead, his boots skidding over the tortured surface, and Robin followed him upward toward the realm of God.

  Ninety-two

  In the aftermath of the slap, Friend curled his hand into the man's collar, drawing him close. 'God' wore the dirty rags of a blue-checked shirt and khaki trousers under his coat. On his feet were leather moccasins, and he wore emerald-green socks. Sister realized that the unkempt, wild-eyed man would have fit right in among the street people of Manhattan before the seventeenth of July.

  "I could hurt you," Friend whispered. "Oh, you don't know how I could hurt - "

  The man gathered a mouthful of saliva and spat in Friend's waxy face.

  Friend threw him to the ground and kicked him in the ribs. The man curled up, trying to protect himself, but Friend kept kicking him in a frenzy. He grasped 'God' by the hair and slammed his fist into the man's face, breaking his nose and splitting his lower lip open; then he hauled 'God' up again and held him for the others to see.

  "Look at him!" Friend crowed. "Here's your God! He's a crazy old man who's got shit for brains! Go on, look at him!" He grasped the man's beard and angled his bloody face toward Swan and Sister. "He's nothing!" and as emphasis, Friend drove his fist deep into the man's belly but held him upright even as his knees buckled. Friend started to strike him again - and a calm, clear voice said, "Leave him alone. "

  Friend hesitated. Swan was standing up in the second Jeep, the rain running through her hair and across her face. She couldn't bear to watch the old man being beaten, and she couldn't sit in silence. "Let him go," she said, and the man with the scarlet eye grinned incredulously. "You heard me. Take your hand off him. "

  "I'll do as I please!" he roared, and he laid his fingers alongside the man's cheek. His nails began to tear through the skin. "I'll kill him if I want!"

  "No!" Roland protested. "Don't kill him! I mean. . . we've got to find the black box and the silver key! That's what we came here for! Then you can kill him!"

  "You don't tell me what to do!" Friend shouted. "It's my party!" He shot a challenging glare at Colonel Macklin, who did nothing but sit and stare blankly ahead. Then Friend's gaze met Swan's, and their eyes locked.

  For a second he thought he could see himself through her unflinching eyes: an ugly, hateful thing, a small face hidden behind an oversized Halloween mask like a cancer under gauze. She knows me, he thought; that fact made him afraid, just as he'd feared the glass ring when it went black in his grip.

  and something else speared him, too. His memory of the offered apple, and his desire to accept it. Too late! Too late! He saw, just for an instant, who and what he was - and in that brief space of time he knew himself, too, in a way that he'd shoved aside a long, long time before. Self-loathing uncoiled within him, and suddenly he feared that he was going to see too much, and he would start to split at the seams, unravel like an old suit and blow away in the wind.

  "Don't look at me!" he screamed, his voice shrill, and he lifted one hand to shield his face from hers. Behind his hand, his features churned like muddy water disturbed by a stone.

  He could still feel her there, drawing the strength out of him like the sunlight drawing the wet from rotten timber. He flung 'God' to the ground, backed away and kept his face averted. Now the truth was coming back to him: It was not himself he should loathe, it was her! She was the ruin and enemy of all creation, because she -

  Too late! Too late! he thought, still backing away.

  - because she wanted to prolong the suffering and misery of humankind. She wanted to give them false hope and watch them writhe when it was wrenched away. She was -

  Too late! Too late!

  - the worst kind of Evil, because she masked cruelty with kindness and love with hate, and too late! too late! too -

  "Late," he whispered, and he lowered his hand. He'd stopped retreating, and he realized then
that Swan had gotten out of the Jeep and was standing over the gray-bearded old man. He saw the others watching, and he caught a thin, mocking smile on Macklin's skull of a face.

  "Stand up," Swan told the old man. Her spine was rigid, her bearing proud, but inside her nerves were knotted with tension.

  'God' blinked at her, wiped the blood from his nostrils and looked fearfully at the man who'd struck him.

  "It's all right," Swan said, and she offered him her hand.

  She's just a girl! Friend realized. She's not even worth a rape! and she'd like me to rape her, too, she'd like me to stick it in hard and grind up to my ankles!

  'God' hesitated uncertainly - and then he put his hand into Swan's.

  I'll rape her, Friend decided. I'll show her it's still my party! I'll show her right fucking now!

  He advanced on her like a juggernaut, and every step he took made his crotch bulge larger. He was leering, and she saw that leer and knew what was behind it, and she waited for him without moving.

  The hollow, booming echo of an explosion drifted from the distance. Friend stopped in his tracks. "What was thati" he shouted, to everyone and no one. "What was thati"

  "Came from the road," one of the soldiers said.

  "Well, don't sit there! Get off your ass and find out what it was! all of you! Go!"

  The three soldiers left the Jeeps and ran across the parking lot. They disappeared around the heavily wooded bend, their weapons ready.

  But Friend's weapon was shriveling. He could not look at the bitch without thinking of the apple, and he knew she'd planted some kind of evil, soul-destroying seed right in him, too. But it was still his party, and it was too late for turning back, and he would rape her and crush her skull when she was eighty years old and her fingers were worked to the bones.

  But not today. Not today.

  He aimed his machine gun at Sister. "Get out. You stand over there with the little bitch. "

  Swan let her breath out. His attention was on other things now, but he was still as dangerous as a mad dog in a butcher's shop. She helped the old man to his feet. He staggered, still hurting from the blow that had shattered his nose, and looked around at the malformed faces of Macklin and Roland. "It is the final hour, isn't iti" he asked Swan. "Evil's won. It's time for the final prayer, isn't iti"

  She couldn't answer. He touched her cheek with spavined fingers. "Childi What's your namei"

  "Swan. "

  He repeated it. "So young," he said sadly. "So young to have to die. "

  Roland got out of his Jeep, but Macklin stayed where he was, his shoulders stooped now that Friend was in control again. "Who are youi" Roland asked the old man. "What are you doing up herei"

  "I'm God. I fell to earth from Heaven. We landed in water. The other one lived for a while, but I couldn't heal him. Then I found my way here, because I know this place. "

  "What's your power sourcei"

  'God' extended a finger and pointed to the earth at his feet.

  "Undergroundi" Roland asked. "Wherei In the coal minei"

  'God' didn't reply but instead lifted his face toward the sky and let the rain beat down.

  Roland drew his pistol from the holster at his waist, cocked it and placed it to the man's head. "You answer when I ask you a question, you old fuck! Where's that power coming fromi"

  The man's insane eyes met Roland's. "all right," he said, and he nodded. "a-OK. I'll show you, if you want to see. "

  "We do. "

  "I'm sorry, child," he told Swan. "Evil's won, and it's time for the final prayer. You do understand, don't youi"

  "Evil hasn't won! Not everybody is like they are!"

  "It's the final hour, child. I fell from Heaven in a whirlwind of fire. I knew what had to be done, but I waited. I couldn't make myself pray the last prayer. But now I can, because I see that the world has to be cleansed. " He said to the others, "Follow me," and he started walking toward the large building with the metal roof.

  "Coloneli" Friend prompted. "We're waiting for you. "

  "I'll stay here. "

  "You'll come with us. " Friend swung the machine gun's barrel up at him. "Roland, take the colonel's pistol away from him, please. "

  "Yes, sir," Roland answered at once, and he approached Macklin. He held out his hand for the other man's weapon.

  Colonel Macklin didn't move. The rain was falling harder, hammering on the Jeeps and streaming down Macklin's face.

  "Roland," Macklin said in a strengthless voice, "we created the army of Excellence together. Both of us. We're the ones who made plans for the new america, not. . . not that thing over there. " He motioned toward Friend with his nail-studded right hand. "He just wants to destroy it all. He doesn't care about the army of Excellence, or the new america, or feeding the troops. He doesn't care about the girl; all he wants to do is put her on that prison farm, out of his way. and he doesn't care about you, either. Roland. . . please. . . don't follow him. Don't do what he says. " He reached out to touch Roland, but the young man stepped back. "Roland. . . I'm afraid," Macklin whispered.

  "Give me your gun. " In that moment Roland despised the cringing dog who sat before him; he'd seen that weakness before, back when Macklin was delirious after his hand had been amputated, but now Roland knew the weakness went soul-deep. Macklin had never been a King, only a coward hiding behind a warrior's mask. Roland pressed the barrel of his own weapon against the colonel's head. "Give me your gun," he repeated.

  "Please. . . think about what we've been through. . . you and me, together. . . "

  "I have a new King now," Roland said flatly. He looked at Friend. "Should I kill himi"

  "If you like. "

  Roland's finger tightened on the trigger.

  Macklin knew death was very near, and its oily perfume energized him to action. His spine stiffened, and he sat up ramrod-straight. "Who do you think you arei" he said vehemently. "You're nothing! I was fighting for my life in a Viet Cong POW camp when you were shitting your diapers! I'm Colonel James B. Macklin, United States air Force! I fought for my life and for my country, boy! Now you get that fucking gun away from my head!"

  Roland faltered.

  "Did you hear what I said, misteri If you want my weapon, you ask for it with the respect I deserve!" Every muscle in his body tightened as he waited for the gun to go off.

  Still Roland didn't move. Friend laughed quietly, and 'God' was waiting for them about ten yards beyond Swan and Sister.

  Slowly, Roland took the pistol away from Macklin's head. "Give. . . me your gun. . . sir," he said.

  Macklin removed it from his holster and flung it to the ground, and then he stood up and got out of the Jeep - but unhurriedly, at his own pace.

  "Let's go, kiddies," Friend said. He motioned toward Swan and Sister with the machine gun, and they followed 'God' to the metal-roofed building.

  Inside, it was apparent that the building was nothing more than a huge shed protecting the entrance to the Warwick Mountain coal mine. The floor was of hard-packed dirt, and a few naked light bulbs that hung from the ceiling gave off a dirty yellow illumination. Bundles of cables and wires lay around, as well as old pieces of steel track, piles of rotting timber and other bits of refuse that suggested Warwick Mountain had once boasted a thriving coal business. a steel stairway ascended to a series of catwalks, and at the far end of the building, where the structure abutted Warwick Mountain, was the dark square of the mine's entrance.

  'God' led them up the stairway and along one of the catwalks to the mine shaft. a few light bulbs gave off a meager yellow glow within the mine, which slanted downward at a steep angle. Resting on tracks inside the shaft was a large wire mesh cage about six feet high and four feet wide, its wheels like those of a railroad car. Inside it were padded benches and straps to hold the riders in place. 'God' opened the rear of the cage and waited for them to enter it.

  "I'm not getting in that damned thing!" Sist
er balked. "Where are you taking usi"

  "Down there. " 'God' pointed along the mine shaft, and the yellow light winked off something metallic in the sleeve of his blue-checked shirt. Sister realized the old man was wearing cuff links. He looked at Friend. "Isn't that where you want to goi"

  "What's in therei" Roland asked, all his bluff and bluster gone.

  "The power source you're looking for. and other things you might be interested in seeing. Do you want to go or noti"

  "You get in first," Friend told him.

  "a-OK. " 'God' turned toward the rock wall, where there was a panel with two buttons on it, one red and the other green. He punched the green button, and the sound of humming machinery echoed up the shaft. Then he climbed into the cage, sat down on one of the benches and buckled himself in. "all aboard!" he said cheerfully. "We'll start moving in ten seconds. "

  Friend was the last one in. He crouched at the rear of the cage, his face averted from Swan's. The machinery got steadily louder, and then there were four clicks as the brakes on each wheel disengaged. The cage began to descend along the tracks, its speed restrained by a steel cable that had snapped taut and was reeling out behind it.

  "We're going down more than three hundred feet," 'God' explained. "This used to be a working mine about thirty years ago. Then the United States government bought it. Of course, all this rock is reinforced with concrete and steel. " He waved his arm at the walls and roof, and Sister saw the cuff link glitter again. Only this time she was close enough to see that it looked very familiar, and it had writing on it. "You'd be amazed to know what the engineers can do," he continued. "They put in ventilation ducts and air pumps, and even the light bulbs are supposed to last for seven or eight years. But they're starting to burn out now. Some of the same people who put this place together worked on Disney World. "

  Sister caught his sleeve and looked closer at the cuff link.

  On it was a very recognizable blue, white and gold emblem, and the much-polished lettering said: Seal of the President of the United States of america.

  Her fingers had gone numb, and she let his arm go. He stared impassively at her. "What's. . . down in herei" she asked him.

  "Talons," he said. "The talons of Heaven. " They went through a long area where there were burned-out light bulbs, and when they approached the illumination again, the President's eyes burned with inner fever as he stared across the cage at Friend. "You want to see a power sourcei" he asked, his breath wisping out in the chilly air. "You will. Oh, yes; I promise you will. "

  In another minute the brakes engaged again and shrieked along the tracks as the conveyance shuddered and slowed. It bumped against a thick foam rubber barrier and stopped.

  The President unbuckled his seat belt, opened the front section of the cage and stepped out. "This way," he said, motioning them on like a demented tour guide.

  Roland shoved Swan ahead of him, and they entered a passageway that led off to the right of the tracks. Bulbs burned fitfully overhead, and suddenly the passageway ended at a wall of rough-edged rocks.

  "It's blocked!" Roland said. "It's a dead end!"

  But Friend shook his head; he'd already seen the small black box embedded in the rock wall at about chest height. The upper half of the black box seemed to be some sort of display screen, while the bottom was a keyboard.

  The President reached up to his throat with his good hand and lifted off a braided length of leather that had been hanging around his neck. On it were several keys - and the President chose one that was small and silver. He kissed it, and then he started to insert it into a lock in the black box.

  "Hold it!" Friend said. "What does that thing doi"

  "It opens the door," the man replied; he fit the key into the lock and twisted it to the left. Instantly, pale green letters appeared on the screen: HELLO! ENTER CODE WITHIN FIVE SECONDS. Swan and Sister watched as the President punched three letters on the keyboard: aOK.

  CODE aCCEPTED, the screen replied. HaVE a NICE DaY!

  Electric tumblers whirred, and there was the muffled sound of locks opening in rapid-fire succession. The false wall of rock cracked open like the door of a massive vault, hissing on hydraulic hinges. The President pulled it wide enough to admit them, and clean white light glowed from the room beyond. Roland started to reach up for the silver key, but the old man said, "No! Leave that alone! If it's disturbed while the door's open, the floor's electrified. "

  Roland's fingers stopped an inch away from the key.

  "You go first. " Friend shoved the man through the opening. Sister and Swan were pushed in. Macklin followed, then Roland and finally the man with the scarlet eye.

  They all squinted in the bright light of a white-walled, antiseptic-looking chamber where six mainframe computers quietly conversed, their data tapes slowly turning behind windows of tinted glass. The floor was coated with black rubber, and there was the polite rumble of the air-purifying system drawing cleansed air through small metal grilles in the walls. at the center of the room, sitting atop a rubber-coated table and connected by thick bundles of cables to the mainframe computers, was another small black box with a keyboard, about the size of a telephone.

  Roland was delirious at the sight of the machines. It had been so long since he'd seen a computer, he'd forgotten how beautiful they were; to him, the mainframes were the Ferraris of computers, pulsing brain matter squished into sleek plastic and metal skins. He could almost hear them breathing.

  "Welcome to my home," the President said - and then he walked to a metal panel on the wall. There was a small lever that you could fit your finger into and pull upward on, and above it a little red plastic DaNGER sign. He hooked his finger into the lever's notch and wrenched it up.

  The door slammed shut, and instantly the electronic locks bolted themselves. On this side of the false wall was a sheet of stainless steel.

  Swan and Sister had turned to face him. Friend had his finger on the machine gun's trigger, and Macklin stood staring numbly at the old man.

  "There," the President said. "There. " He stepped back from the metal panel, nodding with satisfaction.

  "Open that door!" Macklin demanded, his flesh crawling. The walls were closing in on him, and this place was too much like Earth House. "I don't like to be shut up! Get that damned door open!"

  "It's locked," the other man replied.

  "Open it!" Macklin shouted.

  "Please open it," Swan said.

  The President shook his gray-maned head. "I'm sorry, child. Once you lock the door from in here, it's locked for good. I lied about the key. I just didn't want him to pull it out. See, you can open it from the inside if you have the silver key. But now the computer's locked it - and there's no way out. "

 
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