I don’t like spectacles other than the most gentle displays of nature, such as color-splashed sunsets, and the more frivolous works of humanity, like fireworks. Otherwise spectacle is always twined with damage and nearly always with loss, the former partial and perhaps repairable, but the latter absolute and beyond recovery. We’ve lost so much in this world that every new loss, whether large or small, seems to be a potentially breaking weight on the already swayed back of civilization.
Nevertheless, I’m riveted by the massive truck, a ProStar+, shuddering across the brink of the first slope, angling down so sharply that for a moment it appears about to tip forward, stand on end, and slam onto its back. But quickly it rights itself and rushes seaward as though an eighteen-wheeler cruising overland, breaking a trail through the tall wild grass, is as natural as a white-tailed deer making the same journey.
The truck ceases to seem appropriate to the landscape when it meets a formation of rock that, like the beetled brow of some ancient ruined temple, serves as a ramp, offering the vehicle to heaven. The big rig is airborne, but not for long. Pigs don’t fly, and neither does an eighteen-wheeler carrying perhaps sixty thousand pounds of frozen poultry. Canting in flight, it crashes down onto its starboard side with such impact that you might think the first peal of thunder has just announced the storm of Armageddon, and even in the parking lot, I feel the earth shudder underfoot. As the windshield shatters, the vertical exhaust tears loose with a sound like the angry shriek of something in a Jurassic swamp, and the refrigeration unit bursts, white clouds of evaporating coolant billowing. Less rigid and less impervious than it appeared in better times, the metal skin of the trailer’s sidewalls bulges and ripples as several thousand ice-hard turkeys prove to fly no better than their warm and living brethren. The entire rig bounces, the tractor higher than the trailer, and they decouple, rolling in different directions. Casting off a fender like a failed pauldron of body armor, the tractor comes to rest first, on its side, against an ancient Monterey cypress that stands as a lone sentinel in that portion of Harmony Corner. Before it loses momentum, the trailer tumbles into a swale and halfway up the next slope, where its skin splits and its rear doors buckle open, and choice frozen turkeys tumble forth from several openings, spilling across the grassy hillside as if from a cornucopia.
I’m already running along the back of the diner, where the only door is to the kitchen and the jalousie windows are of frosted glass. I’m hoping to avoid any member of the Harmony family who, in the thrall of the puppetmaster, might come after me on sight. Earlier, when I drove the big rig into the lot, the parked trucks screened me from anyone who might have been looking out a restaurant window, and for a minute or two yet, these onlookers will think that the plunge of the ProStar+ was an accident.
As I sprint past the diner, I glance twice toward the land below, certain that flames will have sprung up from the tractor. But it lies there without a lick of fire, its slanted headlight sockets like reptilian eyes, something foaming through the steel teeth of its snarling grill. I think I remember that diesel fuel will burn but not explode like gasoline, and maybe contact with a spark or a hot engine won’t easily ignite the stuff.
From the perspective of an armchair, when I’m watching the evening news, it seems so easy to be a terrorist or a saboteur, if only you don’t mind growing an itchy-looking beard and forgoing regular baths, but as in every other profession, success rewards those who take time to learn the basics of their trade, train hard, and plan carefully. I’m an amateur who makes it up as I go along. Furthermore, I have no love of destruction, and in fact I’m half ashamed of myself even though everything I’m doing seems necessary to me.
On the south side of the diner, because there is no gas-company service in this rural area, four propane tanks stand on a concrete pad, under a sheltering corrugated overhang. On the first, I turn the knob that closes the valve. I twist the female coupling, which doesn’t want to unscrew, but then suddenly it relents. I free the tank from the flexible gas line that feeds some of the kitchen equipment.
People are coming out of the diner, shouting and excited, but they’re all on the north side, where the big rig went meadow surfing. Because other parked trucks had screened the doomed eighteen-wheeler—and me—from anyone looking out of the restaurant windows, they must think that the driver is in the wreckage below, either badly injured or dead. They’re so fixated on the disaster that they don’t even notice me as I tilt the propane tank on its bottom rim and roll it to the nearby drop-off.
The parking area on this side of the diner is smaller than the one to the north, and it’s for cars only. The thick wooden posts that serve as a barrier against catastrophe are not linked by cables as they were where the big trucks are parked. I stand the tank between two of the posts, open the valve, and retreat as pressurized propane hisses into the early-morning air.
Six vehicles stand in this lot. The nearest is a Ford pickup. On its tailgate is a bumper sticker that declares USA NEEDS A MISSILE DEFENSE. With people like me—and worse—in the world, I totally agree.
Drawing the pistol from under my belt, I shelter behind the nose of the pickup, using its hood to steady my arms. Taking aim at the valve from which the gas is escaping, I squeeze off a shot. I never quite hear the round strike the tank, because the spark from the ricochet instantly detonates the propane. A piece of shrapnel sings past my head, another clangs off the pickup, and yet another shatters the windshield. Spewing flames, the tank topples over the brink and tumbles down the hillside.
I hope to avoid setting fire to the diner or the motor-court cottages, and the seven houses are far to the south of here. The rainy season has hardly begun, the tall wheat-colored grass is dry from the summer sun, and the hilly meadows are sure to burn. But this morning the sea doesn’t breathe, and if there’s wind somewhere in the rising land to the east, it’s bottled and tightly corked. A well pump supplies a water-tank tower that, like one of the alien machines in The War of the Worlds, looms beyond the crescent of cottages; that continuously refreshed reservoir feeds all the water lines in the Corner and provides the high pressure that the firefighters will need. The flames should spread just rapidly enough to ensure that they will be contained without loss of property, although getting them under control will require manpower that would otherwise be impressed into the search for me and the defense of Hiskott.
No sooner does the propane tank tumble out of sight than I tuck the pistol under my waistband and am on the move once more, weaving among the parked cars and pickups. From there I hurry toward the cover of the trees that shade the cottages from the morning sun.
I’m not going to need any more NoDoz.
So Mr. Mystery isn’t human. And once he makes that revelation, well, then all his barriers come right down, he doesn’t care what’s classified, and he pours out his heart to me. I use the word heart figuratively, because the truth is he doesn’t have one. To avoid like a thousand-page talking-head scene, what I’ll do is, I’ll condense it for you. My mother has been teaching me to be concise and all.
In the best of times, I guess it might be pretty difficult to be homeschooled by a mother who’s deeply committed to your education and who’s worried about the bankrupted country you’re likely to inherit. But being homeschooled by my mother under the current conditions in Harmony Corner is worse, it’s often as demanding as Marine Corps boot camp, it really is, except for ten-mile forced marches, marksmanship classes, and hand-to-hand-combat training. She can’t protect me from Hiskott, but what she is able to give me is knowledge and maybe good judgment and stuff, which come from learning and thinking, to prepare me for freedom if it ever happens. One way she prepares me is, she piles on writing assignments as if she thinks I’m going to be the next J. K. Rowling. Essays, profiles of historical figures, short stories in all kinds of genres—there’s never an end to it. One thing she pushes hard for is concise writing. She says, “Be concise, Jolie, be succinct, get to the point.” Well, you can see what a long way I’ve got to go in that regard.
Anyway, Mr. Mystery isn’t human, and his name isn’t Mr. Mystery. The scientists at Wyvern called him Aladdin, after one of the heroes in The Thousand and One Nights. The original Aladdin was able to summon genies from his magic lamp, to do his bidding. Now that I know what this guy is, I sort of understand the half-baked logic of calling him that, but Aladdin himself doesn’t get it. He dislikes the name. He calls himself Ed.
According to Ed, Fort Wyvern in its prime wasn’t just an army base. Like maybe 5,000 of its 134,000 acres were set aside for all kinds of highly classified spooky projects that weren’t under the control of the army, that were run instead by who knows who and were funded from the federal government’s “black budget,” so they always had more money than Scrooge McDuck, and they could go as crazy as they wanted.
This place I’ve been exploring has nothing to do with Project Aladdin. This is where they worked on Project Polaris. Just so you know, Polaris is the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper, if it matters. Personally, I think everything matters, even when it doesn’t seem to.
Project Polaris was built to study alien artifacts, by which I don’t mean things that were brought across the borders from Canada and Mexico. Like ten years earlier, this satellite was conducting geological surveys and searching for possible oil deposits when it identified a ginormous unnatural mass not far off the coast of California. Navy divers were sent down there, and they discovered a crashed but still watertight flying saucer, although according to Ed, the thing was less like a saucer than it was like a flying wok with an upside-down custard cup where the lid handle should have been and with powdered-sugar dredgers where the bowl handles should have been, which frankly I can’t quite picture.
As you might imagine, the government was hot to study this historic find, so they paid a two-billion-dollar bonus in advance to the security-cleared contractor—he was the husband of a senator—to finish this underground facility in one year. By then, Fort Wyvern had been closed a long time and housed no military personnel, but its isolation made it an even more suitable location for deep-black projects. Because of the reckless pace of construction, three times as many workmen died on the job as had died in accidents during the building of Hoover Dam. Some were crushed, some were blown up, some were run down by machinery, some were skewered or beheaded, some were electrocuted. One guy died during an argument with a union boss, when he fell into the excavation for a footing and was drowned in twenty tons of concrete. According to Ed, all of the dead were buried at the government’s expense and were presented with a posthumous medal for something or other. Their spouses and children received lifetime passes granting free admission to all national parks, plus a 23 percent discount on refreshments and souvenirs purchased therein.
Anyway, one of the weird artifacts taken from the alien ship and hauled here to Wyvern with bust-your-gut difficulty is the silvery sphere that I can see now through the big windows of this observation room.
Dr. Norris Hiskott has nothing to do with the sphere. He worked in another part of this facility, studying the bodies of the crew of the flying-wok thing. He was super-interested in their DNA. As anyone would expect—anyone but the government, I guess—something went just horribly wrong, and the ETs’ genetic material somehow began to sneak into Dr. Hiskott’s body, with him not even aware of it for a while. You have to wonder if some highly educated people are really as smart as they’re supposed to be.
So one day Hiskott is working in his lab with two assistants who must have been just as brilliant as he was, and suddenly three of his fingernails drop off, as if they were glued on and the glue went bad. Everyone is startled, and as an assistant picks up one of the nails, another nail drops off, then two more, then the last four, it’s like raining fingernails. And now in the tips of Dr. Hiskott’s fingers, you can barely see where the nail beds once were. I mean, there’s no depressions for them, and the skin is smoothing out almost before everyone’s eyes. Finally those Harvard educations begin to pay off when these three scientists all make the connection between what just happened to Hiskott and the fact that the dead ETs they’re studying don’t have fingernails.
Ed, previously known as Aladdin, doesn’t describe things in the juicy detail you might wish. It’s just not in his nature to be super dramatic, but I bet you can imagine, as I sure can, the panic that gripped those three guys in that lab. Their wing is hermetically sealed to begin with, and you go in and out through a decontamination chamber, but now one of Hiskott’s assistants says they have to pull the alarm switch, lock down the lab, and call an emergency closed-circuit video conference with everyone else on Project Polaris. The other assistant agrees, and so does Hiskott—but then he surprises them, attacks them, slicing deep with a long-bladed scalpel he’d used in the dissection of the aliens, slashing their carotid arteries, and they’re done for in like twelve seconds flat. All this is captured by the in-lab cameras that record all procedures for posterity or whatever.
Whether Dr. Norris Hiskott was always your average mad scientist or whether he was driven wacko by the alien DNA that got into his brain, who can say? Maybe it’s a little of both. So what he does then is, he cleans the blood off his hands, strips off his smock, leaves through the decontamination chamber, and drives out of Wyvern. When he gets to his house in Moonlight Bay, he right away strangles his wife to death, we don’t know if because she noticed he didn’t have fingernails or if maybe because he was undergoing some even weirder change that would explain why he wore a hoodie when he checked in to the Harmony Corner motor court. Maybe they had a lousy marriage, he wouldn’t help her wash the dishes or put out the trash, that kind of thing, and she nagged him, and he wanted to strangle her for years, and now he had nothing to lose, so he did it.
Meanwhile, for more than three years, the investigation of the mysterious sphere had gotten nowhere. The thing just floated there, resisting all schemes to open it or discover its purpose. Then in the three days before Norris Hiskott goes missing and especially on the afternoon he splits the scene, major creepy things begin happening in that wing of Project Polaris where they keep the sphere. People are spontaneously levitating around it. The hands on wristwatches spin so fast that watchworks begin to smoke. One balding scientist grows his hair back in like six minutes and looks twenty years younger than when he came to work that day. People are having vivid visions of disturbing landscapes that exist nowhere on Earth. On the computer monitors, the faces of dead friends and relatives of the project staff appear, screaming for help and shrieking vicious lies about the living whom they address.