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Psychloneby Greg Bear
Evening was coming with autumn leisure to the White Mountains. Clouds hooked onto the distant peaks and fanned to the East in layered saucers. Their tops were gray-violet, but a single billow of white still rose above Earths shadow. The air was cool, and gray shadows fell across the sinuous road. A light mist slipped between the trees and collided silently with the trucks windshield.
Youll enjoy my dad,” Henry Taggart said. Hes cut loose quite a few ties since Mom died.”
How do you mean?” Larry Fowler asked. His foot pressed hard against the bare floorboard as they banked into a curve.
Hes not crazy,” Taggart said. He shot Fowler a worried glance. I dont want you to get that impression.”
You mean he acts crazy?”
No, his philosophy is a bit strong for most people. Hes been looking hard at death and making over his thoughts. Some of his talk gets pretty mystical.”
Fowler nodded. He had known Henry Taggart for thirteen years, since high school. Taggarts father had always seemed a pragmatist. He sold real estate, didnt he?”
Best in his city for six years running,” Taggart said. I used to think that was a meaningless accomplishment. I respect him for it now.”
Youve mellowed a lot.”
Me? How about yourself?”
Both of us.” They had been heavily involved in the counterculture of the late sixties, up and down the scales of drug experimentation, subdued political radicalism, acidrock music. Fowler had been drafted in 1970 and had served in Vietnam. Taggart had escaped the draft by giving up his student exemption for a three-month period when no one was inducted. They had gone their own ways since, communicating three or four times a year, finding pleasure in each others company, but never the strong ties that had united them in youth. Even now, however, they would react in the same way to a given stimulus, or think up the same joke or pun and say it simultaneously, as though there were an invisible link between them.
Taggart had gone on to business school after college and now managed a chain of bookstores in Los Angeles and San Diego. Fowler had followed up on electronics training in the Army and gone into computer design. That they had
succeeded was evident by their dress. Taggart looked affluently woodsy—upper-class Sierra Club—in a fake-fur-collar mackinaw and twin-zipper Eurpoean blue jeans. Fowler was wearing a rust leisure suit and a pair of Taggarts hiking boots, a spare set unused until now.
The world has us by the nose, I think,” Folwer said. Oh, for the good old adolescent funk.”
Taggart smiled and offered him a cigarette, which he declined. The trucks headlights suddenly shot out above a broad green valley and Taggart pulled over to a clearing by the highway. They got out and looked at the last of the
Dads cabin is on that low hill,” Taggart said, pointing. Fowler saw a faint black speck in the general gray-green.
No lights,” he said.
He should have them on soon,” Taggart said. He sounded apprehensive.
Where will the river be?”
When the floodgates are opened next month, two little creeks will dribble around either side of the hill. The cabins already been cleared by inspectors—no drainage or erosion problems. So hes planning to build a little log bridge to the road and stick it out.”
Tiny lights came on far below.
There. He burns every light in the cabin after dark.”
No,” Taggart said. Youll see.”
Fifteen minutes later, the trucks oversized tires grumbled in the cabins gravel driveway. Taggart shut off the engine and the headlights.
Need help with the luggage?” he asked as Fowler hauled two suitcases and a cardboard box over the liftgate.
Sure,” he said. The equipment is in the big metal one. Ill get these.”
Whats in the box?”
Fowler grinned sheepishly. I figured what with living in the woods and everything, your father wouldnt have this kind of stuff around.”
What kind of stuff?” Taggart asked. He pried open one corner of the box. My God, its full of Twinkies!”
Not just Twinkies,” Fowler said. Marshmallows, candy bars, Cracker Jacks, you name it its in there.”
I didnt know you were a junk-food freak.”
It hit me in Vietnam,” Fowler said. That was what I really missed about stateside.” They carried the luggage to the front porch. The door opened before Henry knocked.
Jordan Taggart had aged a lot since Fowler last saw him. His nose was visibly hooked and his wrinkles had deepened into roadmap seams, showing all the directions his life had taken in sixty-eight years. Jordan looked them over carefully, squinting.
Larry Fowler,” he said, holding out his hand. His grip was still firm and dry. Come in, come in. Its chilly this evening.”
So we noticed,” Henry said. It didnt take much talk to get Larry up here, Dad. Seems like he needed a vacation.”
Fowler looked from father to son. They resembled each other more now than they had two years before. Henry would look more like Jordan the older he became, even to losing the same amount of hair in the same places.
Ive kept it near,” Jordan said, shutting the door behind them and waving an arm at the comfortable furnishings. Its warm, has room for my books, and the weather is generally peacefull around here. Winters are mild.”
Larry seems willing to help us, Dad.”
Jordan shook his head. I hope you havent told him what I said.”
Better he hear it from my own mouth. Better to judge me crazy directly.”
Heres the equipment, as much as I could muster,” Larry said. And some things you didnt mention specifically.”
Microwave detectors? I read about those.”
Yes,” Fowler said, and electronic thermometers with a chart recorder. Cameras with infrared film.”
What do you think were up to?” Jordan asked.
Fowler shrugged. Henry says youve been thinking a lot about death recently. Philosophizing.” He sat on the oak-frame couch and looked at the book shelves above the fireplace. Youre looking for ghosts, Id say.”
Still whip-smart,” Jordan said. I remembered you as smart. But youre not exactly correct this time.” No ghosts?”
Im not looking for anything in particular, Larry. Youre in electronics now, arent you?”
Borrow all this equipment from your company?”
Im not looking for something. Ive already seen. Now I want to know what it is Ive seen. Youre well-versed in science, arent you?”
Not where ghosts are concerned.”
Not ghosts, I think,” Jordan reiterated.
Im up on electronics and I read a lot of journals
otherwise. I can hold my own.”
Got a bunch of Scientific Americans myself. Henry gave me a subscription three years ago.”
Henry sat in a recliner near the fireplace and pushed the chair back until he sighed with comfort. Youve held dinner, I hope, Dad?”
Jordan nodded, his face brightening. If you can put up with corned beef and steamed vegetables.”
Fowler wasnt enthusiastic, but hungry enough to accept the prospect. Jordan left the living room and began rattling pots in the kitched.
Well?” Henry asked.
Fowler shrugged. Im open-minded. I dont think the equipment will do him any good. Other investigators have used similar stuff. What is he after?”
I dont know,” Henry said. Ive only stayed the night her twice. How open-minded are you?”
Not a believer, if thats what you mean.”
Jordan laid the food out on the dining-room table and brought out cans of beer. He preferred to eat in silence, apparently, and they did. The woods were preternaturally quiet, relieved only by the occasional sough of a dove. Henry finished his helping and slipped his fork onto the plate with a clink, leaning back.
Larrys our man, Dad,” he said. Jordan looked briefly at Fowler as he chewed.
So he may be. Im not the one, thats for sure. My brain doesnt have the cutting edge necessary for this.”
Fowler examined the titles on the shelves behind him: Cosmic Consciousness, The Vampire in Europe, a threevolume set called Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft, scattered paperbacks with a sensational appearance and a long row of occult novels. He smiled. Ghost stories bore me.”
Then well spare you campfire terrors tonight,” Jordan said. Gentlemen, I sleep and wake by the sun. Ive held dinner only for you, and bad as it is for an old man to snooze on a full belly, I feel so inclined. You may sit up and talk if you wish. Good night.”
When Jordan was in his bedroom with the door closed, Fowler leaned over the table and asked, What in hell is going on?”
Stay the night at least. Youll know as much as I do, which right now is nothing. Hes not senile, Larry. I know him pretty well—weve gotten reacquainted in the last few years. Hes just as skeptial as you and I.”
But these bools—”
I know, some are ridiculous. Not all, however. Theres genuine scholarship on that shelf.”
Mixed with a healthy dose of bullshit. All this Frank Edwards crap, Jeane Dixon, strictly National Perspirer stuff. Are you two trying to set me up for a night in a haunted cabin?”
The cabin is two years old. I doubt if anything larger than a skunk has died in its vicinity since it was built. Its not haunted.”
Ah, but it rests on an old Indian mound, and—”
Pocahontas wont disturb your sleep, either.”
Then the ancient wolf-spirit?”
I dont know about that one. Dads only described a few incidents, and I havent seen anything.”
Jesus, Im an engineer, Henry! You should have called in Hans Holzer.”
Youll spend a night in the peaceful woods and breathe clean air for a while. If nothing happens, its a vacation, right? Or is your mind completely closed after all?”
Fowler gave him a pained look and backed his chair away from the table. I deal with reliable things, things I understand. Death isnt my cup of tea.”
What about Vietnam?”
I never got into direct combat. I saw a couple of idiots blown up playing chicken with a fragmentation grenade.
They didnt leave enough to suggest a ghost. That taught me what death was—final and unpleasant. A big cosmic accident, and no bookkeeper to keep track of us. Wheres
In the kitchen,” Henry said. Fowler found it next the refrigerator and dug out a cupcake. While he chewed on it, he opened the equipment case and began pulling out components.
But I came up here, and Ill follow through. Sit down and Ill explain what all this is. If I remember rightly, following old horror movies, one or more of us will be incapacitated by dawn.”
Henry shook his head. Okay. Explain.”
This is the microwave detector. Just a little radio receiver, actually, hooked to a meter and also—through this cord—to the chart recorder. Ill set it beside the couch, next to the door. Two digital thermometers, one for inside and one for out, also hooked up. I didnt bother with a tape recorder. Now the camera is a regular camera, but it has an automatic film advance and I can adjust the focus and exposure by this little remote panel here. I built it myself-used to be a model-boat control box. Theres infrared film in it now, and some regular stuff in the case if we need it. Okay?”
Henry nodded. Lets get everything in its place and the drama can begin.”
After rigging the equipment and starting the roll of chart paper moving on the machine, they sat up talking about their work until eleven. The fresh air began to affect Fowler. They unrolled sleeping bags, and Henry insisted Fowler take the couch. As his head hit the pillow, he took a last look around the room—noticed the kitchen and porch lights were still on—and slept.
* * *
The old man was up and about with the first rays of light. Fowler rolled over and tried to cover his ears, but after a half-hour gave it up and sat in the bag, listening to morning birds. Nothing happened,” he said as Henry
opened his eyes.
Quiet night, gentlemen?” Jordan asked, bringing in three cups of hot coffee on a tray.
I feel like a fool,” Fowler said sleepily. I was expecting a giant to step in and ask for Hungry Jack biscuits. Now all I get is to-wheet, to-whoo and a fine cuppa.”
Henry dressed and opened the front door to examine the clearing around the cabin. His gaze had swept through about forty degress before he stopped and tensed. Quick!” he whispered. Come look at this!” Fowler put down his cup and joined him in the doorway. Henrys finger pointed to an animal standing on the drive.
It was a lynx, still as a statue, staring at the cabin with ears cocked, their tufts plainly visible in the morning light through the trees. Henry turned his head slowly and smiled at Fowler. Worth it just to come here and see that, isnt it?” he asked in an undertone.
Fowler nodded. It looks like its jacklighted.”
Oh, itll take off if we move.”
Jordan stepped up behind them and peered over their shoulders. Been here before, always in the morning,” he said. Go ahead. Move and see if it runs.”
What?” Henry asked, fascinated by the animal.
Move. Try and scare it.”
Fowler waved his hand. The lynx didnt react. He took a step forward; still no motion. Henry chuckled and said, Bold little bastard.”
Walk right up to it,” Jordan encouraged.
Not me,” Fowler said. It may claw our shins off. Maybe its rabid.”
Summers the season for rabies, not winter,” Jordan said. It isn?t rabid.”
They both jumped up and down and waved their arms. The animal could have been stuffed for all the reaction it showed, but there was a sense of vitality in the tension off the legs and the glitter of its eyes that assured them it was
Either of you have the guts ot go right on over?” Jordan asked. Henry glanced at Fowler. They grinned nervously, shaking their heads. Dad, it is acting a little weird.”
Fine,” Jordan said. He pushed between them and walked up the drive to the cat. Fowler expected the animal to puff up, scowl and run. But the elder Taggart stood beside it, and still its gaze was fixed on the cabin. Come on out,” he said. First lesson.”
They walked cautiously across the gravel. Henry bent down beside the animal. Must be dead,” he said. Or paralyzed. Too sick to move.”
Touch him,” Jordan said. Not just Henry . You, too, Larry.”
Fowler put his hand beside Henrys on the cats fur. He withdrew it suddenly. Goddamn things frozen,” Henry said. Stiff as a board.”
Minimum temperature last night, twenty-nine degrees Fahrenheit,” Jordan said. At least, thats what your graph shows. Couldnt freeze a wild animal like this cat, not when its moving or holed away in its den. Animals have ways to stay warm.”
As they watched, frost started to form on the cats fur. The eyes clouded over with rime. Henry looked at his fingers and held his hand out to Fowler. The tips were covered with white.
What is it?” Fowler asked.
Henry rubbed his palm against the fingers. White flecks drifted down. Skin, I think,” he said. Cat just froze a layer to powder.”
Copyright © 1979 by Greg Bear
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