Closing the front door behind him, he went out onto the porch, stood at the steps that led down to the front yard, and listened to the ethereally still night. A sluggish breeze had risen and fallen fitfully during the evening, but now it had abated entirely. The air was uncannily still. The fog seemed to dampen all sounds, leaving a world as silent as if it had been one vast graveyard.
Looking toward the stables, Loman called out "Tucker! Foster! Is anyone here?"
An echo of his voice rolled back to him. It was a cold and lonely sound.
No one answered him.
Lights were on at one of the long stables, and a door was open at the nearest end. He supposed he should go have a look.
Loman was halfway to that building when an ululant cry, like the wavering note of a distant horn, came from far to the south, faint but unmistakable. It was shrill yet guttural, filled with anger, longing, excitement, and need. The shriek of a regressive in mid-hunt.
He stopped and listened, hoping that he had misheard.
The sound came again. This time he could discern at least two voices, perhaps three. They were a long way off, more than a mile, so their eerie keening could not be in reply to Loman's shouts.
Their cries chilled him.
And filled him with a strange yearning.
He made such tight fists of his hands that his fingernails dug into his palms, and he fought back the darkness that threatened to well up within him. He tried to concentrate on police work, the problem at hand.
If those cries came from Alex Foster, Sharon Foster, and Jack Tucker—as was most likely the case—where was the girl, Christine?
Maybe she escaped as they were preparing her for conversion. The overturned kitchen chair, Tucker's abandoned black bag, and the open front door seemed to support that unsettling explanation. In pursuit of the girl, caught up in the excitement of the chase, the Fosters and Tucker might have surrendered to a latent urge to regress. Perhaps not so latent. They might have regressed on other occasions, so this time they had slipped quickly and eagerly into that altered state. And now they were stalking her in the wildlands to the south—or had long ago run her down, torn her to pieces, and were still regressed because they got a dark thrill from being in that debased condition.
The night was cool, but suddenly Loman was sweating.
He wanted … needed… .
Earlier in the day, Shaddack had told Loman that the Foster girl had missed her school bus and, returning home from the bus stop at the county road, had walked in on her parents as they were experimenting with their new abilities. So the girl had to be conducted through the Change slightly sooner than planned, the first child to be elevated. But maybe "experimenting" was a lie that the Fosters had used to cover their asses. Maybe they had been in deep regression when the girl had come upon them, which they could not reveal to Shaddack without marking themselves as degenerates among the New People.
The Change was meant to elevate mankind; it was forced evolution.
Willful regression, however, was a sick perversion of the power bestowed by the Change. Those who regressed were outcasts. And those regressives who killed for the primal thrill of blood sport were the worst of all psychotics who had chosen devolution over evolution.
The distant cries came again.
A shiver crackled the length of Loman's spine. It was a pleasant shiver. He was seized by a powerful longing to shed his clothes, drop closer to the ground, and race nude and unrestrained through the night in long, graceful strides, across the broad meadow and into the woods, where all was wild and beautiful, where prey waited to be found and run down and broken and torn …
The faraway cries pierced him.
He must exhibit self-control.
His heart pounded.
The cries. The sweet, eager, wild cries …
Loman began to tremble, then to shake violently, as in his mind's eye he saw himself freed from the rigid posture of Homo erectus freed from the constraints of civilized form and behavior. If the primal man within him could be set loose at long last and allowed to live in a natural state—
His legs became weak, and he fell to the ground, though not onto all fours, no, because that posture would encourage him to surrender to these unspeakable urges; instead he curled into the fetal position, on his side, knees drawn up to his chest, and struggled against the swelling desire to regress. His flesh grew as hot as if he had been lying for hours in midday summer sun, but he realized that the heat was coming not from any external source but from deep within him; the fire arose not merely from vital organs or the marrow of his bones, but from the material within the walls of his cells, from the billions of nuclei that harbored the genetic material that made him what he was. Alone in the dark and fog in front of the Foster house, seduced by the echoey cry of the regressives, he longed to exercise the control of his physical being that the Change had granted him. But he knew if once he succumbed to that temptation, he would never be Loman Watkins again; he would be a degenerate masquerading as Loman Watkins, Mr. Hyde in a body from which he had banished Dr. Jekyll forever.
With his head tucked down, he was looking at his hands, which were curled against his chest, and in the dim light from the windows of the Foster house, he thought he saw several of his fingers begin to change. Pain flashed through his right hand. He felt the bones crunching and re-forming, knuckles swelling, digits lengthening, the pads of his fingers growing broader, sinews and tendons thickening, nails hardening and sharpening into talonlike points.
He screamed in stark terror and denial, and he willed himself to hold fast to his born identity to what remained of his humanity. He resisted the lavalike movement of his living tissue. Through clenched teeth he repeated his name—"Loman Watkins, Loman Watkins, Loman Watkins"—as if that were a spell that would prevent this evil transformation.
Time passed. Perhaps a minute. Perhaps ten. An hour. He didn't know. His struggle to retain his identity had conveyed him into a state of consciousness beyond time.
Slowly, he returned to awareness. With relief he found himself still on the ground in front of the house, unchanged. He was drenched in sweat. But the white-hot fire in his flesh had subsided. His hands were as they'd always been, with no freakish elongation of the fingers.
For a while he listened to the night. He heard no more of the distant cries, and he was grateful for that silence.
Fear, the only emotion that had not daily lost vividness and power since he had become one of the New People, was now as sharp as knives within him, causing him to cry out. For some time he had been afraid that he was one of those with the potential to become a regressive, and now that dark speculation was proven true. But if he had surrendered to the yearning, he would have lost both the old world he had known before he'd been converted and the brave new world Shaddack was making; he would belong in neither.
Worse: He was beginning to suspect that he was not unique, that in fact all of the New People had within them the seeds of devolution. Night by night, the regressives seemed to be increasing in number.
Shakily, he got to his feet.
The film of sweat was like a crust of ice on his skin now that his inner fires had been banked.
Moving dazedly toward his patrol car, Loman Watkins wondered if Shaddack's research—and the technological application of it—was so fundamentally flawed that there was no benefit whatsoever in the Change. Maybe it was an unalloyed curse. If the regressives were not a statistically insignificant percentage of the New People, if instead they were all doomed to drift toward regression sooner or later… .
He thought of Thomas Shaddack out there in the big house on the north point of the cove, overlooking the town where beasts of his creation roamed the shadows, and a terrible bleakness overcame him. Because reading for pleasure had been his favorite pastime since he was a boy, he thought of H. G. Wells's Dr. Moreau, and he wondered if that was who Shaddack had become. Moreau reincarnate. Shaddack might be a Moreau for the age of microtechnology, obsessed with an insane vision of transcendence through the forced melding of man and machine. Certainly he suffered from delusions of grandeur, and had the hubris to believe that he could lift mankind to a higher state, just as the original Moreau had believed he could make men from savage animals and beat God at His game. If Shaddack was not the genius of his century, if he was an overreacher like Moreau, then they were all damned.
Loman got in the car and pulled the door shut. He started the engine and turned on the heater to warm his sweat-chilled body.
The computer screen lit, awaiting use.
For the sake of protecting the Moonhawk Project—which, flawed or not, represented the only future open to him—he had to assume the girl, Christine, had escaped, and that the Fosters and Tucker hadn't caught her. He must arrange for men to stand watch surreptitiously along the county road and on the streets entering the north end of Moonlight Cove. If the girl came into town seeking help, they could intercept her. More likely than not, she would unknowingly approach one of the New People with her tale of possessed parents, and that would be the end of her. Even if she got to people not yet converted, they weren't likely to believe her wild story. But he could take no chances.
He had to talk to Shaddack about a number of things, and attend to several pieces of police business.
He also had to get something to eat.
He was inhumanly hungry.
Something was wrong, something was wrong, something, something.
Mike Peyser had slipped through the dark woods to his house on the southeast edge of town, down through the wild hills and trees, stealthy and alert, slinking and quick, na*ed and quick, returning from a hunt, blood in his mouth, still excited but tired after two hours of playing games with his prey, cautiously bypassing the homes of his neighbors, some of whom were his kind and some of whom were not. The houses in that area were widely separated, so he found it relatively easy to creep from shadow to shadow, tree to tree, through tall grass, low to the ground, cloaked in the night, swift and sleek, silent and swift, na*ed and silent, powerful and swift, straight to the porch of the single-story house where he lived alone, through the unlocked door, into the kitchen, still tasting the blood in his mouth, blood, the lovely blood, exhilarated by the hunt though also glad to be home, but then Something was wrong.
Wrong, wrong, God, he was burning up, full of fire, hot, burning up, in need of food, nourishment, fuel, fuel, and that was normal, that was to be expected—the demands on his metabolism were tremendous when he was in his altered state—but the fire was not wrong, not the inner fire, not the frantic and consuming need for nourishment. What was wrong was that he could not, he could not, he could not—
He could not change back.
Thrilled by the exquisitely fluid movement of his body, by the way his muscles flexed and stretched, flexed and stretched, he came into the darkened house, seeing well enough without lights, not as well as a cat might but better than a man, because he was more than just a man now, and he roamed for a couple of minutes through the rooms, silent and swift, almost hoping he would find an intruder, someone to savage, someone to savage, savage, someone to savage, bite and tear, but the house was deserted. In his bedroom, he settled to the floor, curled on his side, and called his body back to the form that had been his birthright, to the familiar form of Mike Peyser, to the shape of a man who walked erect and looked like a man, and within himself he felt a surge toward normalcy, a shift in the tissues, but not enough of a shift, and then a sliding away, away, like an outgoing tide pulling back from a beach, away, away from normalcy, so he tried again, but this time there was no shift at all, not even a partial return to what he had been. He was stuck, trapped, locked in, locked, locked in a form that earlier had seemed the essence of freedom and inexpressibly desirable, but now it was not a desirable form at all because he could not forsake it at will, was trapped in it, trapped, and he panicked.
He sprang up and hurried out of the room. Although he could see fairly well in the darkness, he brushed a floor lamp, and it fell with a crash, the brittle sound of shattering glass, but he kept going into the short hall, the living room. A rag rug spun out from under him. He felt that he was in a prison; his body, his own transformed body, had become his prison, prison, metamorphosed bones serving as the bars of a cell, bars holding him captive from within; he was restrained by his own reconfigured flesh. He circled the room, scrambled this way and that, circled, circled, frenzied, frantic. The curtains fluttered in the wind of his passage. He weaved among the furniture. An end table toppled over in his wake. He could run but not escape. He carried his prison with him. No escape. No escape. Never. That realization made his heart thump more wildly. Terrified, frustrated, he knocked over a magazine rack, spilling its contents, swept a heavy glass ashtray and two pieces of decorative pottery off the cocktail table, tore at the sofa cushions until he had shredded both the fabric and the foam padding within, whereupon a terrible pressure filled his skull, pain, such pain, and he wanted to scream but he was afraid to scream, afraid that he would not be able to stop.
Feed the fire, feed the fire.
He suddenly realized that his inability to return to his natural form might be related to a severe shortage of energy reserves needed to fuel the tremendous acceleration of his metabolism associated with a transformation. To do what he was demanding, his body must produce enormous quantities of enzymes, hormones, and complex biologically active chemicals; in mere minutes the body must undergo a forced degeneration and rebuilding of tissues equal in energy requirements to years of ordinary growth, and for that it needed fuel, material to convert, proteins and minerals, carbohydrates in quantity.
Hungry, starving, starving, Peyser hurried into the lightless kitchen, clutched the handle on the refrigerator door, pulled himself up, tore the door open, hissed as the light stung his eyes, saw two-thirds of a three-pound canned ham, solid ham, good ham, sealed in Saran Wrap on a blue plate, so he seized it, ripped away the plastic, threw the plate aside, where it smashed against a cabinet door, and he dropped back to the floor, bit into the hunk of meat, bit and bit into it, bit deep, ripped, chewed feverishly, bit deep.
He loved to strip out of his clothes and seek another form as soon after nightfall as possible, sprinting into the woods behind his house, up into the hills, where he chased down rabbits and raccoons, foxes and ground squirrels, tore them apart in his hands, with his teeth, fed the fire, the deep inner burning, and he loved it, loved it, not merely because he felt such freedom in that incarnation but because it gave him an overwhelming sense of power, godlike power, more intensely erotic than sex, more satisfying than anything he had experienced before, power, savage power, raw power, the power of a man who had tamed nature, transcended his genetic limits, the power of the wind and the storm, freed of all human limitations, set loose, liberated. He had fed tonight, sweeping through the woods with the confidence of an inescapable predator, as irresistible as the darkness itself, but whatever he had consumed must have been insufficient to empower his return to the form of Michael Peyser, software designer, bachelor, Porsche-owner, ardent collector of movies on video disk, marathon runner, Perrier-drinker.