Is fear, he wondered, the only emotion that will thrive in this brave new world we're making?
After a greasy cheeseburger, soggy fries, and an icy bottle of Dos Equis in the deserted coffee shop at Cove Lodge, Tessa Lockland returned to her room, propped herself up in bed with pillows, and called her mother in San Diego. Marion answered the phone on the first ring, and Tessa said, "Hi, Mom."
"Where are you, Teejay?"
As a kid, Tessa could never decide whether she wanted to be called by her first name or her middle, Jane, so her mother always called her by her initials, as if that were a name in itself.
"Cove Lodge," Tessa said.
"Is it nice?"
"It's the best I could find. This isn't a town that worries about having first-rate tourist facilities. If it didn't have such a spectacular view, Cove Lodge is one of those places that would be able to survive only by showing closed-circuit p**n movies on the TV and renting rooms by the hour."
"Is it clean?"
"If it wasn't clean, I'd insist you move out right now."
"Mom, when I'm on location, shooting a film, I don't always have luxury accommodations, you know. When I did that documentary on the Miskito Indians in Central America, I went on hunts with them and slept in the mud."
"Teejay, dear, you must never tell people that you slept in the mud. Pigs sleep in the mud. You must say you roughed it or camped out, but never that you slept in the mud. Even unpleasant experiences can be worthwhile if one keeps one's sense of dignity and style."
"Yes, Mom, I know. My point was that Cove Lodge isn't great, but it's better than sleeping in the mud."
"Better than camping out," Tessa said.
Both were silent a moment. Then Marion said, "Dammit, I should be there with you."
"Mom, you've got a broken leg."
"I should have gone to Moonlight Cove as soon as I heard they'd found poor Janice. If I'd been there, they wouldn't have cremated the body. By God, they wouldn't! I'd have stopped that, and I'd have arranged another autopsy by trustworthy authorities, and now there'd be no need for you to get involved. I'm so angry with myself."
Tessa slumped back in the pillows and sighed.
"Mom, don't do this to yourself. You broke your leg three days before Janice's body was even found. You can't travel easily now, and you couldn't travel easily then, either. It's not your fault."
"There was a time when a broken leg couldn't have stopped me."
"You're not twenty any more, Mom."
"Yes, I know, I'm old," Marion said miserably.
"Sometimes I think about how old I am, and it's scary."
"You're only sixty-four, you look not a day past fifty, and you broke your leg skydiving, for God's sake, so you're not going to get any pity from me."
"Comfort and pity is what an elderly parent expects from a good daughter. If you caught me calling you elderly or treating you with pity, you'd kick my ass halfway to China."
"The chance to kick a daughter's ass now and then is one of the pleasures of a mother's later life, Teejay. Damn, where did that tree come from, anyway? I've been skydiving for thirty years, and I've never landed in a tree before, and I swear it wasn't there when I looked down on the final approach to pick my drop spot."
Though a certain amount of the Lockland family's unshakable optimism and spirited approach to life came from Tessa's late father, Bernard, a large measure of it—with a full measure of indomitability as well—flowed from Marion's gene pool.
Tessa said, "Tonight, just after I got here, I went down to the beach where they found her."
"This must be awful for you, Teejay."
"I can handle it."
When Janice died, Tessa had been traveling in rural regions of Afghanistan, researching the effects of genocidal war on the Afghan people and culture, intending to script a documentary on that subject. Her mother had been unable to get word of Janice's death to Tessa until two weeks after the body washed upon the shore of Moonlight Cove. Five days ago, on October 8, she had flown out of Afghanistan with a sense of having failed her sister somehow. Her load of guilt was at least as heavy as her mother's, but what she said was true: She could handle it.
"You were right, Mom. The official version stinks."
"What've you learned?"
"Nothing yet. But I stood right there on the sand, where she was supposed to have taken the Valium, where she set out on her last swim, where they found her two days later, and I knew their whole story was garbage. I feel it in my guts, Mom. And one way or another, I'm going to find out what really happened."
"You've got to be careful, dear."
"If Janice was … murdered—"
"I'll be okay."
"And if, as we suspect, the police up there can't be trusted …"
"Mom, I'm five feet four, blond, blue-eyed, perky, and about as dangerous-looking as a Disney chipmunk. All my life I've had to work against my looks to be taken seriously. Women all want to mother me or be my big sister, and men either want to be my father or get me in the sack, but damned few can see immediately through the exterior and realize I've got a brain that is, I strongly believe, bigger than that of a gnat; usually they have to know me a while. So I'll just use my appearance instead of struggling against it. No one here will see me as a threat."
"You'll stay in touch?"
"If you feel you're in danger, just leave, get out."
"I'll be all right."
"Promise you won't stay if it's dangerous," Marion persisted.
"I promise. But you have to promise me that you won't jump out of any more airplanes for a while."
"I'm too old for that, dear. I'm elderly now. Ancient. I'm going to have to pursue interests suitable to my age. I've always wanted to learn to water-ski, for instance, and that documentary you did on dirt-bike racing made those little motorcycles look like so much fun."
"I love you to pieces, Mom."
"I love you, Teejay. More than life itself."
"I'll make them pay for Janice."
"If there's anyone who deserves to pay. Just remember, Teejay, that our Janice is gone, but you're still here, and your first allegiance should never be to the dead."
George Valdoski sat at the formica-topped kitchen table. Though his work-scarred hands were clasped tightly around a glass of whiskey, he could not prevent them from trembling; the surface of the amber bourbon shivered constantly.
When Loman Watkins entered and closed the door behind him, George didn't even look up. Eddie had been his only child.
George was tall, solid in the chest and shoulders. Thanks to deeply and closely set eyes, a thin-lipped mouth, and sharp features, he had a hard, mean look in spite of his general handsomeness. His forbidding appearance was deceptive, however, for he was a sensitive man, soft-spoken and kind.
"How you doin'?" Loman asked.
George bit his lower lip and nodded as if to say that he would get through this nightmare, but he did not meet Loman's eyes.
"I'll look in on Nella," Loman said.
This time George didn't even nod.
As Loman crossed the too-bright kitchen, his hard-soled shoes squeaked on the linoleum floor. He paused at the doorway to the small dining room and looked back at his friend.
"We'll find the bastard, George. I swear we will."
At last George looked up from the whiskey. Tears shimmered in his eyes, but he would not let them flow. He was a proud, hardheaded Pole, determined to be strong. He said, "Eddie was playin' in the backyard toward dusk, just right out there in the backyard, where you could see him if you looked out any window, right in his own yard. When Nelia called him for supper just after dark, when he didn't come or answer, we thought he'd gone to one of the neighbors' to play with some other kids, without asking like he should've." He had related all of this before, more than once, but he seemed to need to go over it again and again, as if repetition would wear down the ugly reality and thereby change it as surely as ten thousand playings of a tape cassette would eventually scrape away the music and leave a hiss of white noise.
"We started looking' for him, couldn't find him, wasn't scared at first; in fact we were a little angry with him; but then we got worried and then scared, and I was just about to call you for help when we found him there in the ditch, sweet Jesus, all torn up in the ditch." He took a deep breath and another, and the pent-up tears glistened brightly in his eyes.
"What kind of monster would do that to a child, take him away somewhere and do that, and then be cruel enough to bring him back here and drop him where we'd find him? Had to've been that way, 'cause we'd have heard … heard the screaming if the bastard had done all that to Eddie right here somewheres. Had to've taken him away, done all that, then brought him back so we'd find him. What kind of man, Loman? For God's sake, what kind of man?"
"Psychotic," Loman said, as he had said before, and that much was true. The regressives were psychotic. Shaddack had coined a term for their condition metamorphic-related psychosis.
"Probably on drugs," he added, and he was lying now. Drugs—at least the conventional illegal pharmacopoeia—had nothing to do with Eddie's death. Loman was still surprised at how easy it was for him to lie to a close friend, something that he had once been unable to do. The immorality of lying was a concept more suited to the Old People and their turbulently emotional world. Old-fashioned concepts of what was immoral might ultimately have no meaning to the New People, for if they changed as Shaddack believed they would, efficiency and expediency and maximum performance would be the only moral absolutes.
"The country's rotten with drug freaks these days. Burnt-out brains. No morals, no goals but cheap thrills. They're our inheritance from the recent Age of Do Your Own Thing. This guy was a drug-disoriented freak, George, and I swear we'll get him."
George looked down at his whiskey again. He drank some.
Then to himself more than to Loman, he said, "Eddie was playin' in the backyard toward dusk, just right out there in the backyard, where you could see him if you looked out any window………" His voice trailed away.
Reluctantly Loman went upstairs to the master bedroom to see how Nella was coping.
She was lying on the bed, propped up a bit with pillows, and Dr. Jim Worthy was sitting in a chair that he had moved to her side, He was the youngest of Moonlight Cove's three doctors, thirty-eight, an earnest man with a neatly trimmed mustache, wire-rimmed glasses, and a proclivity for bow ties.
The physician's bag was on the floor at his feet. A stethoscope hung around his neck. He was filling an unusually large syringe from a six-ounce bottle of golden fluid.
Worthy turned to look at Loman, and their eyes met, and they did not need to say anything.
Either having heard Loman's soft footsteps or having sensed him by some subtler means, Nella Valdoski opened her eyes, which were red and swollen from crying. She was still a lovely woman with flaxen hair and features that seemed too delicate to be the work of nature, more like the finely honed art of a master sculptor. Her mouth softened and trembled when she spoke his name "Oh, Loman."
He went around the bed, to the side opposite Dr. Worthy, and took hold of the hand that Nella held out to him. It was clammy, cold, and trembling.
"I'm giving her a tranquilizer," Worthy said.
"She needs to relax, even sleep if she can."
"I don't want to sleep," Nella said. "I can't sleep. Not after … not after this … not ever again after this."
"Easy," Loman said, gently rubbing her hand. He sat on the edge of the bed.
"Just let Dr. Worthy take care of you. This is for the best, Nella."
For half his life, Loman had loved this woman, his best friend's wife, though he had never acted upon his feelings. He had always told himself that it was a strictly platonic attraction. Looking at her now, however, he knew passion had been a part of it.
The disturbing thing was … well, though he knew what he had felt for her all these years, though he remembered it, he could not feel it any longer. His love, his passion, his pleasant yet melancholy longing had faded as had most of his other emotional responses; he was still aware of his previous feelings for her, but they were like another aspect of him that had split off and drifted away like a ghost departing a corpse.
Worthy set the filled syringe on the nightstand. He unbuttoned and pushed up the loose sleeve on Nelia's blouse, then tied a length of rubber tubing around her arm, tight enough to make a vein more evident.
As the physician swabbed Nella's arm with an alcohol-soaked cottonball, she said, "Loman, what are we going to do?"
"Everything will be fine," he said, stroking her hand.
"No. How can you say that? Eddie's dead. He was so sweet, so small and sweet, and now he's gone. Nothing will be fine again."
"Very soon you'll feel better," Loman assured her. "Before you know it the hurt will be gone. It won't matter as much as it does now. I promise it won't."
She blinked and stared at him as if he were talking nonsense, but then she did not know what was about to happen to her. Worthy slipped the needle into her arm.
The golden fluid flowed out of the syringe, into her bloodstream.
She closed her eyes and began to cry softly again, not at the pain of the needle but at the loss of her son.
Maybe it is better not to care so much, not to love so much, Loman thought.
The syringe was empty.
Worthy withdrew the needle from her vein.
Again Loman met the doctor's gaze.
The Change would require two more injections, and someone would have to stay with Nella for the next four or five hours, not only to administer the drugs but to make sure that she did not hurt herself during the conversion. Becoming a New Person was not a painless process.
Nella shuddered again.
Worthy tilted his head, and the lamplight struck his wirerimmed glasses at a new angle, transforming the lenses into mirrors that for a moment hid his eyes, giving him an uncharacteristically menacing appearance.
Shudders, more violent and protracted this time, swept through Nella.