“That is something to consider. I cannot vouch for the stability of any future artificial intelligences.”
On the computer monitor, the photo of my Harry in the yellow hallway is replaced by a different photo of him that looks like it might have been in a newspaper.
Ed says, “Harry’s real name is Odd Thomas.”
“Apparently, the origin of the name is a long story. We have no time for it now.”
“How’d you learn his name?”
“I applied facial-recognition software to all the photos in the files of the California DMV but could not find him there.”
“That’s like millions of pictures. How long did that take?”
“Seven minutes. Thereafter, I searched the digitalized photo archives of the Associated Press.”
The photo goes away and some video plays, a TV news story from like eighteen months earlier, about a terrible shooting in a shopping mall in Pico Mundo, forty-one wounded and nineteen dead. A policeman says there would have been many more dead except for the action of one brave young man, who happens to be Harry. I mean, Odd Thomas. The policeman says hundreds would have died if Odd hadn’t taken down both gunmen and dealt with a truck full of explosives and all. The reporter says Odd won’t talk to the press, he tells us that Odd says he didn’t do anything special. Odd says anyone would have done what he did. The reporter says Odd is as shy as he is courageous, but even though I’m a kid and all, I know the right word isn’t shy.
Earlier, you might remember, I explained how I loved him because he seemed brave and kind and sweet, also because there was something else about him, something different. And here it is. I knew that he wouldn’t abandon us. I knew he wouldn’t just run and save himself.
Ed says, “I show you this, Jolie Ann Harmony, because in spite of all your brave and wise-ass talk, in spite of the fact that I did not detect pheromones associated with lying, I did detect pheromones associated with despair. I have developed an affection for you, and thus it pains me to know that you are on the verge of losing hope.”
“Not anymore,” I tell him.
Over the years, when Hiskott has entered me to live through me, there’s one thing I refuse to let him know: what it feels like when I cry. My tears are mine, not his, never his. I’ll save them forever rather than let the sick creep feel them hot on my cheeks or taste them at the corners of my mouth. If you really truly want to know, I’ve thought if I was ever free someday, I might discover I’ve held my tears so long that I can’t cry anymore, that I’m a dry stone and nothing can ever be wrung from me. Yet now my vision blurs, and there are tears, tears of hope and happiness, although nothing’s yet been won.
After a while, I remember: “Hey, Ed, you said there’s someone else besides Harry … besides Odd. Someone who can help us.”
“Yes, Jolie Ann Harmony. That would be me.”
In the Jeep Grand Cherokee once more, I am no longer sneezing. Perhaps Bermuda Guy’s preferred aftershave and the grass-fire fumes happen to be two molecules that are like puzzle pieces and, locking together, neutralize each other. More likely, now that the time has come to take the plunge into Hiskott’s lair, I so dread the upcoming encounter that I don’t have the capacity to be annoyed by any scent or smoke. I once read that condemned men standing before firing squads, in the thrall of terror, have been observed to be oblivious of bees crawling on their faces even when the bees have stung them. One guy evidently mistook a bee sting for the killing shot and dropped dead on the spot, sparing his executioners the expense of ammunition.
Because I rarely forget anything, my brain is so packed with useless information that it constantly makes connections between bits of data that are at best tenuously linked. Sometimes I wonder if, at some critical moment, being distracted by thoughts about bee-stung condemned men will get me killed. But if you can’t trust your own brain, what can you trust?
I shut off the air circulation in the Jeep to keep out as much smoke as possible, and I pilot the vehicle out of the trees, heading south across the high meadow. Visibility is down to sixty or seventy feet, except when small shifts in the direction of the breeze cause clean currents of air to open narrow lines of sight to farther points of Harmony Corner, but these close up as suddenly as they open.
Although I need the cover of smoke, this murk is thicker than I expected, forcing me to proceed slower than I would prefer—and much slower than I will need to drive a few minutes from now. Visibility rapidly declines to forty or fifty feet, and if it gets much worse, I might as well steer with my eyes closed.
Because I can’t see any landmarks and because the Jeep odometer doesn’t click off units of distance as short as three hundred feet, I rely on intuition when I turn the vehicle hard right and brake to a stop. I think I’m facing directly west, and I think the cluster of houses far below is slightly north of my position, so that I might be able to come in behind them.
The difference between what I think to be true and what is true, however, could lead to disaster. The hills below offer mostly gentle slopes, but there are a few steep drop-offs. If I mistakenly drive over one, the Grand Cherokee will at least tip into a catastrophic roll. In spite of the fact that the vehicle has four-wheel drive, if it lands on its side or roof, it’ll be as useless as an airplane without wings.
Under this white-gray pall, the day is darker than it would be in an equally thick fog, because sunshine doesn’t refract through smoke a fraction as well as it does through mist. Instead of light finding its way obliquely into Harmony Corner, much of it bounces off the soot suspended in the gaseous plumes, bringing an early dusk upon these acres. In this gloom that creeps steadily toward darkness, in this disorder that thwarts the senses, the amorphous smoky masses surging around the Grand Cherokee seem to be figures, many human and others fantastic, legions of harried spirits on some unholy pilgrimage.
I try the headlights, but the beams bounce off the swarming masses, reducing visibility from thirty feet to ten. The fog lights are likewise useless. And in the darkening murk, I could swear that faces form out of the graying smoke to sneer and snarl at me before dissolving in the passing.
If I am to find my way to Norris Hiskott, I will have to resort to psychic magnetism, which I trust won’t lead me to a cliff. I don’t know what he looks like, but I have his name, and I can picture the house he’s claimed as his. Concentrating on that name and summoning that image into my mind’s eye, trusting in impulse and intuition, I get ready to ease up on the brake pedal and drift forward wherever my peculiar power leads me.
What happens next is not easily described. A cold draft but not a real one, the mental equivalent of a draft, the idea of a draft, blows through my mind, as if a window has opened. Perhaps because I have been picturing the Victorian residence, I in fact see a window with sullen yellow light beyond and, in the light, a sleek silhouette that leaps toward the sill and the raised sash, eager to spring in upon me. Realizing that I have drawn to me the enemy that I hoped to be drawn toward, I slam the sash, at once turning my thoughts from Hiskott’s name to Stormy Llewellyn’s, instantly driving out the conjured image of the house with a memory of Stormy’s face, because only she can fill my mind so completely that, in the moment of this assault, the puppeteer cannot find an entry point.
Even though I repelled Hiskott, though he did not for a second see through my eyes to obtain a solitary clue as to my position or intent, I continue to hold Stormy in mind, because the memory of her and the promise of the card from the fortune-telling machine—YOU ARE DESTINED TO BE TOGETHER FOREVER—constitute my best defense against discouragement, as well, and against fear.
In this situation, psychic magnetism is too dangerous to employ. Denied my special gift, I am left only with my wits, which is like Robin Hood having to trade his quiver of expertly crafted arrows for a couple of rocks.
Just then, Jolie Harmony speaks to me: “Are you there, Harry Potter? This is Jolie. Are you there?”
Surprised and mystified, I am for just a moment reduced to the superstition of a remote-island primitive who, ignorant of the marvels of modern technology, can conclude only that, by the use of magic, a shaman has reduced Jolie to the size of my thumb and has transported her into the radio of the Grand Cherokee.
“Are you there, Harry?” she asks again.
“Well, see, those steel doors I couldn’t pry open just opened by themselves after you left, and so now I’m in this mega-weird place in Fort Wyvern, called Project Polaris. This is where old Doc Hiskott worked, there’s this alien artifact and all, and he was dissecting dead ETs for some stupid reason, which is when everything went to hell. The doc got mixed up with alien DNA, he’s like some hybrid now. He was nuts to begin with—all right, not psychotic but a neurotic freak. He strangled his wife and all, we don’t know was it because of nagging or because he had no fingernails. But there aren’t any people here anymore, because of the mothballs, so there’s just me and Ed.”
I manage to get out, “How are you able to—”
And Jolie sails on: “What Ed is able to do, he’s able to slip into just about any wired or wireless communications thing and use it without anyone knowing. So since you’re in a Jeep Grand Cherokee, vanity license-plate number COOL DUDE, that happens to be equipped with OnStar, Ed could locate you by GPS. We know exactly where you are, and I’m talking to you by way of their satellite-communications system. Pretty wow, huh?”
“But how could you know—”
“See, Ed can do like sixteen things at once. So one thing he did even while he was telling me who you really were, he checked for any 911 calls to the sheriff from customers at the Corner that might tell us are you stirring things up already. Jumpin’ jackrabbits, you don’t waste time! Some guy phones in his truck is stolen, some other guy phones in the truck goes flying—”
I’m not sure which is the most disorienting: the blinding smoke churning around the Grand Cherokee and all the world lost in it, or the foul air from the wildfire that’s making me a little dizzy, or Jolie’s excited chatter.
“—some other guy phones in his Grand Cherokee is stolen, and some other guy phones in a grass fire. So Ed is learning all this neat stuff while he’s showing me who you are, and then in like seven seconds he finds out the Jeep has OnStar. So here we are, and we want to help.”
I clear my throat and ask, “Who’s Ed?”
“Shoot, that’s right,” Jolie says, “you couldn’t know. Ed is a computer. No, wait, that’s an insult, I guess. Ed’s not just a silly computer, he’s an artificial intelligence, another big secret project here at Wyvern. He doesn’t want to take over the world and all, of course he doesn’t, he’s made that perfectly clear to everyone. So when they mothballed this Project Polaris, they put Ed in charge of watching over it, keeping it all safe. You’ll like Ed, he’s fun, he can do like twenty things at the same time.”
“I thought you said sixteen.”
“Heck, Ed’s so smart he can probably do twenty times twenty things simultaneously. Say hello, Ed.”
A low, mellow, yet slightly ominous voice says, “It is an honor to make your acquaintance, Odd Thomas.”
Jolie says, “Oh, yeah, that’s another thing, Harry. I know you’re not Harry Potter. I mean, I’ve always known you weren’t Harry Potter, he isn’t real. But now I know who you really are, and you’re what I knew you would be, a hero who says he’s not a hero. I knew you would come to us one day, I always knew, but I didn’t know your name would be Odd Thomas. Now you’re here, and everything’s going to be all right.”
“Things are still a long way from being all right, Jolie.”
Although all the vents are closed and the fans are turned off, the air in the Cherokee grows dirtier by the minute.
I ask, “Ed, are you there?”
“Yes, Odd Thomas, I am here. How may I assist you?”
I decide to accept everything that Jolie tells me, because the whole story sounds too crazy to be anything but the truth.
My unusual life has taught me that the world is profoundly more complex and far stranger than most people are able—or willing—to recognize. What most people call truth is merely the surface, and under it lies a great depth of truth that they do not perceive. A large part of my time is spent coping with the spirits of the lingering dead, poltergeists, eerie creatures that I call bodachs, prophetic dreams, and all kinds of one-off moments of supernatural weirdness, as well as with horrendous human miscreants of every imaginable variety; consequently, it strikes me as refreshing, almost prosaic, to be caught up in a supernatural-free incident involving top-secret government projects, an artificial intelligence that does not want to rule the world, half-breed extraterrestrials, and the women who love—and are strangled by—them.
“Ed, is Jolie really safe where she is now?”
“Safer than she has been for many years. No harm will come to Jolie Ann Harmony in my domain.”
“If any harm does come to her in your domain, I’ll find your plug and pull it.”
“You don’t have to threaten Ed,” Jolie assures me. “There’s not a bad circuit in the guy, and that’s certified once every hour by a self-analysis program. Anyway, he can’t lie.”
“You really can’t lie, Ed?”
“My creators programmed me so that should I ever speak a single untruth, I will immediately identify what I have done by singing ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire.’ ”
“Which is kind of funny,” Jolie says, “because he doesn’t even wear pants.”
Still wary, I press Ed: “Why couldn’t a self-aware artificial intelligence evolve to the point where it could override parts of its basic program?”
After a silence, Ed replies: “Why cannot a bright and gifted young man of almost twenty-two ever quite get over the psychological pain inflicted on him so many years ago by his mentally unbalanced mother?”
Now it’s my turn to be silent.
And then there’s only one possible reply. “I’m sorry that I threatened to unplug you, Ed.”
“You did so with only the best of motives, Odd Thomas. Your concern for Jolie Ann Harmony is admirable, and in fact I share it.”
“How did you know … about my mother?”
“After events in Pico Mundo, there were some mentions in the media about your family, certain speculations.”