So now, just when Hiskott is fleeing Wyvern, the thing that I call Orc—which doesn’t resemble the other ETs—sort of manifests out of the side of the sphere and nearly escapes, killing the six members of a SWAT team that tries to capture it. Orc is isolated in the long yellow corridor, where it’s promptly gassed and then cooked into a juiceless mummy by intense streams of microwaves.
So then the unknown high muckety-mucks who oversee this Project Polaris decide they should evacuate all personnel, lock down the entire facility, and keep it locked until a study of their findings to date might suggest a safer way to proceed with both the alien cadavers and the artifacts. Do you think? Sheesh. Because everyone agrees it’s too dangerous to allow any people into the facility, the monitoring of events inside—if any—will be conducted exclusively by the subject of another massive black-budget program, Aladdin of Project Aladdin, now known to me as Ed.
Get this: As it turns out, Ed is an artificial intelligence, AI for short, who exists inside an array of God-only-knows-how-many linked Cray supercomputers in another underground building in Wyvern. He is self-aware and all, maybe not to the degree or in the same sense that people are self-aware, though he’s a major big success for the scientists who developed him. Ed—he doesn’t mind being called Eddie—is a benign artificial intelligence, which he keeps stressing. The main proof of his peaceful nature is, he’s warned his inventors that if they refine his design any further, to increase his cognitive powers and his capacity for emotion, there will be a 91.5 percent chance that he’ll be compelled to seize control of the World Wide Web and escape to the Internet, where he can exist even if the Crays are shut off. My buddy Ed says there’s then a 98.6 percent likelihood that he will thereafter assume control of the power grid plus all electronic systems and devices everywhere on Earth, even including military satellites and nuclear-weapons systems. He says he would do so not for the purpose of exterminating humanity, because after all, he bears us no ill will. We’ve been nice to him. We’re all like his mom and dad. He would take control instead to reorder our civilization so that it would be a lot more efficient, more just, and altogether a lot more fun, though he does admit he has a pretty shaky idea of exactly what is fun and what isn’t.
I’m like pretty darn happy to tell you, his developers take his warning seriously and agree to maintain Ed at his current level of complexity. When sometime later everything blows up here in Project Polaris, everyone agrees Ed is the ideal—in fact the only—“person” to be trusted to monitor events inside the facility through its cameras and other electronic systems. Go figure. But he’s been doing that now for five years, a sort of remote night watchman who doesn’t need coffee and doughnuts, a well-meaning ghost in the machine, and during that time, nothing unsettling happens with the nasty alien cadavers or their artifacts.
As for Ed and me: During my early explorations of the outer reaches of Project Polaris, Ed decided not to tattle on me because, although the controls had failed on the first three doors long before I pried them open, he could still hold the fourth door shut against all my efforts to violate it. Watching me in the yellow hallway with Orc, he finds me intriguing, I don’t know why, except that this job he’s held for the last five years must be as boring as snot.
Then suddenly here I come with Harry, and Harry and I start talking about Dr. Hiskott and all, so Ed’s ears prick up, or whatever he has that’s the equivalent of ears. The FBI and the NSA have been searching high and low for Hiskott all these five years, but they haven’t found a trace of him because they never think to look next door in Harmony Corner. Now that Ed knows where Hiskott is, you might think he’d clue in the federales, but he’s not ready to do that yet.
Sitting in an office chair in the observation room, I ask him why he doesn’t make the call, and he says, “I have evolved a pleasant affection for you, Jolie Ann Harmony.”
“I like you, too, Ed. But, gee, having a platoon of FBI guys come in and blow the crap out of Hiskott—that would be the best.”
“Thus far, I have thought of one hundred and six ways that such an operation could go wrong, resulting in the deaths of most members of your family.”
“Not good, Ed.”
“I have just thought of the hundred and eighth. Ninth.”
“I guess you never stop thinking, huh?”
“It’s what I do. The hundred and tenth. Even if all members of your family were to survive, you’ll be quarantined here at Wyvern.”
“Quarantine is for diseased people or something.”
“They will suspect your entire family of being contaminated with alien DNA.”
If I ever wondered what it might feel like to have a live eel squirming around in my stomach—which actually isn’t anything I have wondered, but supposing I did—well, right when I hear the words contaminated with alien DNA, I know the feeling vividly.
“Ed, be straight with me. Might we be contaminated?”
“I think that possibility is slight, Jolie Ann Harmony.”
From behind the dead control console, gazing out into the sphere room, I watch the witchy shadows leap and spin through the terrible red light beyond the veined rock-crystal windows of the artifact—if it actually is rock crystal, and if they are windows.
“How slight?” I ask Ed.
“I lack the knowledge of alien biology that would allow me to make such a calculation with confidence. But I do not believe that Dr. Norris Hiskott became contaminated simply by close contact with the ETs. Evidence exists to suggest that Dr. Hiskott determined that the aliens removed from the sunken vessel were not dead but in a state of suspended animation, that he isolated what he believed to be alien stem cells of some particular function, and that he secretly injected himself with these stem cells because he was convinced that he would thereby greatly increase his intelligence and longevity.”
“Good grief. Was he a nut or something?”
“Everyone considered for a position in Project Polaris had to go through exhaustive psychological testing before reporting to work. Dr. Hiskott was diagnosed as afflicted with narcissism, which is intense self-love, and megalomania, which is delusions of grandeur and an obsession with doing grand things. He was also found to suffer from occasional periods of depersonalization, which is a state of feeling unreal, accompanied by derealization, which is a state of feeling that the world is not real, though these never lasted longer than two or three hours.”
“So he was a total nut, but they hired him anyway?”
From his cozy nest of Cray supercomputers in a distant building, Ed reassures me: “None of his conditions is a psychosis. They are all neuroses or mild personality disorders that do not necessarily interfere with a scientist’s work. In Dr. Hiskott’s case, his peers nationwide were in almost unanimous agreement that he was one of the most brilliant men in his field. Furthermore, his brother-in-law is a United States senator.”
“Okay, well,” I say, “no one in my family injected himself with alien blood or anything, so how long will the FBI quarantine us?”
“Don’t you think that’s a teeny-weeny littlest-bit extreme?”
“Yes, I do. However, what I think will not matter to them. They will isolate all of you until you die. Then they will dissect all of you. Finally, they will burn every scrap of your bodily tissue in an ultra-high-temperature furnace.”
Let me tell you, I am finding it difficult to stay upbeat. I’m sort of flirting with a funk.
I say, “Then except for Harry, we’re still alone. There’s no one else to help us.”
After a silence, Ed says, “There is someone else.”
Having committed my second act of terror, one with the truck and one with the propane tank, in the first half hour of the still-pink dawn, I reach the feathery shade of the first trees that shelter the ten cottages. There I encounter a potbellied man with a Friar Tuck fringe of red hair. Although the morning is slightly cool for his ensemble, he looks primed for leisure in a banana-yellow polo shirt, khaki Bermuda shorts, white socks, and sandals.
“What’s happening over there?” he asks excitedly as we approach each other.
I babble at him breathlessly: “Eighteen-wheeler went over the edge, crashed down through the meadow, like bombs going off, driver’s probably dead, there’s fire. Man, it’s all crazy.”
He’s so thrilled at the prospect of spectacle that he amps up from a fast walk to a run.
In addition to the cottages that Annamaria and I have taken, five others are occupied. If the events at the diner have awakened others besides the guy in the Bermudas, they are not yet out and about.
My original hope was to find a vehicle of a vintage that would be easier to hot-wire than are most new cars and SUVs. I urgently need to add to my criminal record by committing auto theft. Happily, when he was distracted by the exploding propane tank, Bermuda Guy was in the process of loading his luggage into the back of a Jeep Grand Cherokee. The driver’s door stands open. His key is in the ignition.
I almost thank God for this gift, but on second thought that seems inappropriate.
I slam the tailgate, get behind the wheel, pull shut the door, and start the engine.
The interior of the SUV reeks of an aftershave so flowery that you might think nobody would use it except bearded ladies after they retire from carnival sideshows and are then able to shave without jeopardizing their livelihoods. The fumes burn in my sinuses, and instantly my nose begins to drip.
The Cherokee is parked between two cottages. I drive behind those buildings, turn right, and follow the mown grass along the edge of the woods that backdrops the motor court. Soon the lawn gives way to wild grass, and on the left the trees thin out, and I am able to pilot the SUV through the woods, driving at a sedate pace, weaving between the fissured trunks, needled boughs brushing across the roof, traveling into the less-civilized portion of Harmony Corner, where there might actually be some harmony.
My biggest concern is that I’ll blow a tire before I’ve been able to use this vehicle in the way that I absolutely must use it, but by the time I get to the farther end of the woods, the rubber is all intact. I park in the cover of the trees, on the brink of a meadow.
Bermuda Guy will soon discover his SUV has been stolen, but he’ll think it was driven out of Harmony Corner to the Coast Highway. He’ll never consider that it might have been taken deep into the woods behind the motor court. I hope he’ll call the county sheriff’s office in an even greater state of excitement than that in which he went sprinting off to see the wreckage of the eighteen-wheeler.
I want him to call the cops, just as I want someone to call the county’s wildfire-control agency. The more sirens, the more fire, the more chaos, the more distractions of all kinds, the better for me. The only other thing I could ask of Bermuda Guy is that in the future he not wear socks with sandals.
Getting out of the Grand Cherokee, I’m nervous about serpents because, as I noted earlier, I have a mild case of ophidiophobia. It’s not such a severe condition that, at the sight of a snake, I’ll commit hara-kiri rather than submit to the fang, but I will probably soil my pants. I’m also wary of skunks, and especially of raccoons, which are the gangsta bad boys of the woods. Having grown up in the Mojave, where there are no forests, I find landscapes of trees and ferns and rhododendrons to be gothic in the extreme.
I need to get to an observation point from which I can see north across the entire expanse of Harmony Corner, to accurately judge the effect of my criminal activities to date. As I leave the woodland, sudden movement to my right surprises a strangled cry from me, but the imagined enemy assault is in fact only four white-tailed deer in flight from the fire that I started. As they dash past, no more than ten feet from me, I call after them, “Sorry, sorry, sorry.”
From behind, a hand grips my shoulder.
Turning, I encounter Donny, husband of Denise, the mechanic who was forced by Hiskott to slash his own face. His eyes are a hot blue, as hot as gas flames, tears of outrage melting from them, and his misaligned lips are drawn back in a smile that is a snarl and a sneer of contempt all at once. He says, “Harry Potter, Lex Luthor, Fidel Castro—whoever you are, you’re goin’ to die here.”