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Forced Perspectives: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Saturday, February 1, 2020 06:19 EST

 


 

How You Get Out of Your Way

    At 6 AM Vickery had tucked the .45 into his belt and trudged around the trailer park and looked up and down the road, but the cars in the park were all familiar, and there were no vehicles stopped alongside the road for as far as he could see. The October wind had still been cool over the desert, and he had gone back to the trailer and opened all the windows and turned on fans to blow the stale air out. Finally he had carried gloves and a whiskbroom and dustpan out to the Saturn and punched out the remaining glass in the two back windows and swept out the interior, and had then gone in to wash the dishes and make breakfast.

    He was standing by the stove, turning sizzling strips of bacon in a pan, when he felt warmer air puff in through the kitchen window, so he took the pan off the burner and closed the window, then went around taking fans down and sliding windows shut in the utility area and the living room. The bedroom door was closed, and he was reluctant to knock, though he would have to as soon as the bacon and eggs were ready.

    But Castine came shuffling into the kitchen as he was using the rim of a tumbler to cut disks out of the middles of two slices of sourdough bread.

    “I smell coffee,” she said, squinting at him.

    He poured a cup and stepped past her to set it on the table. “Milk and sugar are already out. Silverware is in the basket by the condiments.”

    She stirred two spoonfuls of sugar into the coffee and took a sip. “What are you cutting holes in bread for?”

    “It’s Guy Kibbee eggs.” He forked the bacon strips out onto paper towels, lifted the pan and poured most of the grease into a jar, then laid the slices of bread in the pan and broke an egg into the hole in the middle of each one. “I’ll flip ’em in a minute. You get your egg and toast all in one piece, see.”

    She nodded grudgingly and had another sip of coffee. “You’ve looked around?”

    Vickery refilled his own cup from the pot. “Yes, just after dawn.” He shrugged. “Evidently nobody could see us over the curvature of the earth.”

    “The way you live out here,” she said. “It’s as if you’ve been marking time. Waiting.”

    He was mildly startled. “It could look that way, yes.”

    “I suppose I’ve been doing the same, after all.” She set down her cup and ran her fingers through her disordered hair. “It’s a long drive to LAX.”

    “Ontario airport is just eighty miles south. Hour and a half drive, even with a stop at Hesperia to retrieve your stuff from the bus station locker.”

    “Oh.” She yawned. “We should check flights, I suppose.”

    Vickery flipped the slices of bread. The top sides now were browned, and the eggs in the middles were white with yellow centers. “Can’t do it here. I’ve got no computer or smart phone.”

    “Time yet for a hundred indecisions,” she said, “and for a hundred visions and revisions, before the taking of Guy Kibbee eggs and coffee.” She looked up at him. “That’s T. S. Eliot, except for the eggs and coffee.”

    Vickery laid bacon strips on two plates, then slid the egg-and-toast slices alongside. He carried them to the table and went back for his coffee, and when he sat down he said, “Indecisions?”

    “And visions! — and revisions.” She had found a knife and fork in the basket of mismatched silverware, and cut into her fried bread. “What was it Laquedem said last night? Right after ‘it’s on a boat’ — something about ‘a crowd of people falling into the black hole.'”

    “That’s what he said. He didn’t say anything about it.”

    Castine nodded and shook Tabasco and then salt onto her cut-up egg. “That guy shot that woman, in the wrecked-house vision last night.”

    “Echo vision. A time-spike. As you said, it probably happened a long time ago.”

    “Imagine if we tried to tell the police about it — ‘In a hallucination we saw a woman get killed somewhere, some time.'” She took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. She swallowed, and said, “But it did happen. I wonder who she was. Who he was.”

    “No way of telling.”

    “Probably not. Old betrayals.” Castine glanced past him at the kitchen counter, where the bottle of Maker’s Mark still stood, visibly depleted. “It would be a mistake to fortify this coffee.”

    He rocked his head, considering. “You don’t need to be very sober just to get on an airplane.”

    “If we do get on an airplane.” She put down her knife and fork. “Last night we were closer to the old house than we’ve ever been; and did you see the motorcycle’s shadow? It was longer, it’s late afternoon on that day now. That long day. And the killer said he took that woman’s blood pressure, which is the same phrase that poor girl on the bicycle used — and she was pretty clearly channeling the crowd that was chasing us yesterday.” She gave him a quizzical look. “And they’ve got your daughter.”

    He smiled wryly across the table at Castine. “My fossil daughter. You don’t want to get on an airplane.”

    “Do you? I was awake a long time last night, thinking. Why do we keep seeing that old house, now, instead of our recent local pasts like before? I don’t want to see what happens there when the sun’s down. And I’m afraid I will, if these things are allowed to take their course. And — a lot of people falling into a black hole.”

    Vickery turned his head to look at the bottle, then looked around at the interior of his trailer, noting the crowded bookshelves and the framed Maxfield Parrish prints in the living room, and the hole in the wall over the washing machine where he’d had to get at some pipes, and which he’d been meaning to patch. “I guess I wasn’t really considering leaving — not really. I guess I pictured escorting you to a departure gate and then⦔

    She nodded. “Driving back to L.A.”

    “Well, yeah, I do want to talk to Galvan.”

    “And we’ve got a date at four with Supergirl. You gave her a thousand dollars!”

    Vickery tore off a piece of the fried bread to mop up some egg yolk. For several seconds he just chewed, then took a sip of coffee and said, “Okay. We don’t fly away, we go back down into L.A. and try to get a handle on this stuff. That’s about a two-hour drive.”

    “We’ve got plenty of time. I’m glad to see you’ve got a shower in your bathroom, and — if I can borrow some money? — I’ll want to stop at that outlet mall below town for some fresh clothes.”

    Vickery was chewing a strip of bacon, and nodded.

    After they’d finished eating and the breakfast things were cleared away, Vickery went outside to check the tire pressures and oil and coolant levels on the car. When he came back in, Castine was washing the dishes.

    She looked up. “Okay if I hang onto your .38?”

    The question made their plan immediate, and depressed him. “I guess you may as well. Get a big purse. The gun’s registered — to Bill Ardmore — but you’re on your own if a cop should catch you with a concealed gun and no CCW permit.”

    “That’s a misdemeanor, as I recall. I think we’ve got bigger worries.”

    “I guess we do.” Vickery looked out the kitchen window at the desert, then back at Castine. “I’ll fill a couple of speed-loaders and magazines and put ’em in the trunk. And I should crawl under the trailer and get another pocketful of cash.”

 


 

    Out past the Long Beach breakwater, the 45-foot Hatteras increased her speed, surging west across the twenty mile expanse of glittering blue sea between Santa Catalina Island and Point Vicente, and her shallow keel cut smoothly across the low waves. The twin V-6 diesel engines hummed in perfect synchronization, and the hull was cored with balsa wood between the fiberglass layers, so in the boat’s interior the engines and the water rushing past the hull outside were muted enough that the passengers had quickly stopped being aware of them.

    In the lounge, the view forward was blocked by cabinets Harlowe had installed, and Lexi and Amber were kneeling on the long couch, sipping from plastic cups of root beer and peering out through the starboard windows. They were absorbed in the view, communicating only in excited squeaks and brief, sung bass notes. Simon Harlowe sat on a padded bench below the windows in the opposite bulkhead, staring at the girls.

    They were his brother’s twin daughters, and Harlowe had adopted them after the death of both their parents in what the District Attorney had concluded was a tandem suicide.

 



 

    For decades the brothers had had no contact at all, and although they had renewed their acquaintance two years ago, they hadn’t ever been close. Chris Harlowe had graduated respectably enough from Cal Poly and ended up doing tech writing for Apple. Simon Harlowe, on the other hand, had been a boy genius who got involved in computers in 1972 by way of the computer center at Stanford University. He enrolled in the university in 1973, at the age of sixteen, and for a year he had even worked at the Stanford Research Institute — but his theoretical extrapolations, linking computer networking with neurology and occult philosophy, had isolated him, and he had left without getting a degree. By the ’80s he’d been living on the outskirts of Salinas, subsisting on food stamps, in an old trailer equipped with a TRS-80 computer and stacks of books and charts and floppy disks.

    The only intimate contact he’d had with anyone during that period had been when he had killed a vagrant who broke into the trailer one night. The incident had been ruled a justifiable homicide, but the effect on Harlowe had for a number of reasons been devastating, and when he had eventually found a psychological equilibrium it was by means of projecting a personality that was constructed, artificial — almost theatrical — though he pursued his researches even more monomaniacally for the next twenty years.

    His mother had died at some point, and his long-estranged father died, somewhere, in 2015, when Simon Harlowe was fifty-eight; and, because they had invested widely in real estate, he was suddenly a millionaire.

    The inheritance had led to a reunion with his brother — and had also led to Simon’s fortuitous discovery of Chris’ twin daughters. Simon chose to imagine that his manipulatively avuncular relationship with the girls had been, or would ultimately be, beneficial to them. Even the traditionally-horrifying crime he had subtly encouraged them to commit would, he believed, prove to have been a step in their salvation.

    “You girls feeling…all right?” he asked them now. They had both been seasick the first time they’d been out on the boat, though he later concluded that it had only been because he had warned them that it might happen.

    They ignored him, humming and squeaking in unison now as they stared out the window at the sea. Harlowe shivered.

    The girls had apparently always been difficult. They had been tentatively diagnosed as borderline personalities, and after the deaths of their parents a doctor had put them on Prozac; after which they had immediately attempted to drown themselves off Little Coyote Point in the San Francisco Bay.

    Harlowe had very soon guessed at their possible usefulness as IMPs in his planned egregore — and he really believed that incorporation into that transcendent group-mind would be the best possible resolution of their problems. They were more one person than two — hardly even one, really — and their moods changed as often as winning numbers on a roulette wheel. In the group-mind of the egregore, they would, like himself and Agnes Loria, and even rogue Elisha Ragotskie — and ultimately everyone! — be just semiconductors in the mind of God.

    Eventually he had initiated the twins, using the costly fifty-year-old old coloring books.

    Harlowe leaned back on the bench, rocking with the motion of the boat, and closed his eyes. Tomorrow night the long-delayed apotheosis would happen, and he would lose his unwanted identity forever.

    For decades he had been tracing indications — in early issues of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, and The Los Angeles Free Press — that a group-mind egregore had been attempted in Los Angeles in the ’60s. It proved to have been the project of a charismatic young hippie musician known as Conrad Chronic, who had got hold of a suppressed hieroglyph embodying the Egyptian god — or force, or psychic polarizer — called Ba. Chronic had printed the hieroglyph, surrounded by disguising random lines, on a back page of Groan, an underground coloring book otherwise full of satirical black-and-white cartoons with captions like Color Him Racist and Six Uses For My Draft Card. The Ba image in the coloring book had been Chronic’s covert recruiting tool. The cult had reportedly included some never-named celebrities among its mostly itinerant and drug-addled membership; but it had failed to achieve coherence, and had violently fallen apart in 1968, commemorated in a B-side ballad, “Elegy in a Seaside Meadow,” by the rock group Fogwillow. On a morbid-nostalgia website Harlowe had seen a couple of photographs of Chronic at a place called Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco on Sunset Boulevard in 1967, but he was unable to find any other pictures of the man.

    Harlowe knew little more about the Chronic group than that, but he had recognized the coloring-book Ba image as a clever initiator of minds, and over the course of several months he had succeeded in buying half a dozen copies of Groan from various rare book dealers. The image differed slightly but crucially from the image of Ba in reference books on Egyptian mythology, and was segmented like a figure in a stained glass window. It was necessary that an initiate spend at least a minute staring at the image steadily, concentrating on it, for it to fully replicate itself in the initiate’s mind — like installing software that took a while to load — and a person who colored in all the spaces on that page would inevitably have stared at the image for at least the necessary amount of time.

    Harlowe had stared at the image himself, and after no more than a minute had felt what he had only been able to describe as a faint electrical current in his mind, and it had proved to be as persistent as tinnitus. He had given his Singularity team only the sketchiest account of the old failed egregore, and had never mentioned Conrad Chronic to any of them, but he had made them, too, look at the image on that page of the coloring books. The only other after-effect any of them had noticed was that the scarcely-perceived mental vibration was stronger if two or more of them stood in close proximity to one another.

    And then Harlowe had given copies of the coloring book to the twins, along with a box of crayons. The twins had taken to the task readily, though they had insisted on coloring all the pages of the book in order, and had wasted a day meticulously coloring caricatures of people like Lyndon Johnson and Earl Warren. But at last they had arrived at the page with the Ba image on it — and when they had simultaneously colored in the last segment of it and dropped their crayons, they had been silent for the rest of that day.

    They were different, after that.

    Even before that initiation with the coloring books, they had sometimes been able to induce actions in people around them: Harlowe had sometimes found himself fetching Cokes they had wanted but not asked for, or unable to speak if they were absorbed in watching a movie on TV;…and when encouraged, he had discovered, they could even force two people at once to do something they would never voluntarily do.

    And after their initiation, they had seemed to expand, psychically — he was always aware now of their mercurial mentation as something like a shrill, indecipherable twittering in a corner of his mind — and they had sporadically been able to describe people and events far removed from their own experience.

    They had, in fact, made him aware of Vickery and Castine.

    “There’s two strangers tangled up in your spiderweb,” one of them had remarked nine months ago, in January. “They drove a truck into Hell and flew a glider back out, and now their clocks are no good.” The other twin had added, “Their kite strings are looped around yours.”

    Uneasy, Harlowe had put out inquiries among a few of the occultists in Los Angeles, and had soon learned that two people, Sebastian Vickery and Ingrid Castine, had reportedly driven a taco truck, of all things, into some sort of afterlife in May of last year, and had come back, alive; though without the truck. From other sources he had learned that at least one LAPD detective had covertly consulted Vickery on a few cases, because Vickery was apparently now able to step out of the present moment and see events of the recent local past.

    And it had occurred to Harlowe that, if Castine too had acquired this ability, the pair of them would be better IMPs than the twins — and would almost certainly be more rational.

    The twins were still looking out the starboard window, now humming two sustained, unharmonious notes; the faint perception of their jiggling thoughts, usually ignorable, was like an itch at the back of his mind. Harlowe frowned and looked away.

 



 

    At least the attempted capture of Vickery in February had secured the unique copy of The Secret Garden.

    He had tracked down Vickery through the man’s employer, Anita Galvan, who ran fleets of taco trucks and supernatural-evasion cars; but from her he had learned, too, of that book. When she had demanded five thousand dollars to deliver Vickery, and Harlowe had refused to pay it, she had said, Maybe it’s worth it to you since he has a book with a never-born spirit fossilized in it? It’s a daughter the eunuco never had the balls to beget. The brujas say there’s uses for such things.

    Harlowe had gone away and had in fact consulted a Hispanic medium. And then he had gone back and given Galvan the five thousand dollars.

    It seemed likely that Harlowe would be able to subsume the ghost of an actual person, too, into the book, blend it there with the…spirit? failed likelihood?…of the daughter Vickery never had. The resulting irrational juxtaposition of that “pair” should, it seemed to Harlowe, compellingly attract any ghosts that might otherwise be drawn into the emerging egregore, where their animate absences would psychically cripple it. The augmented book would ideally function like cadmium rods in nuclear reactors, which absorb excess neutrons and prevent meltdown.

    The five thousand dollars had not been wasted, even though Vickery had got away.

    And Vickery and Castine could still be the reliable communication organ of the egregore gestalt; and their “kite strings,” incorporated into it, would surely provide added strength to the whole. Ragotskie stole the bloody sock yesterday, but Harlowe had long ago covertly installed in the car of each member of the ChakraSys staff a GPS tracker, charged from the car’s battery, and Taitz and Foster were even now out following him. Their instructions were to wait until, ideally, Ragotskie located Vickery and Castine with the aid of the sock, and then kill Ragotskie and capture them.

    That was admittedly a long shot — but Harlowe had taken the twins out on the boat this morning in the hope that they might themselves be able to locate the fugitive pair.

    Nine months ago Lexi and Amber had sensed Vickery and Castine, but hadn’t been able to tell where they might be. But that had been when the twins were in a city, among hundreds of people whose free wills were always distorting the moment of now. Out here on the empty face of the sea, though, the chronocline plane would be pretty genuinely flat, not just the usual averaging-out of an infinity of fractal time-spikes. The five people on the boat, especially with the twins practically being one person, shouldn’t appreciably distort the flatness of local time. If the twins could determine the actual location of Vickery and Castine, it would most likely be from the psychic calm out here.

    A crunching noise from the other side of the lounge now caught Harlowe’s attention. The twins had grown tired of peering out the starboard window at the ocean and had tipped up their empty cups to get the ice cubes, and were chewing them vigorously.

    “Welcome little fishes in,” said one of the twins, “with gently smiling jaws!”

    More Alice in Wonderland stuff. Harlowe wasn’t sure what to make of their obsession with that passage from the Lewis Carroll book; Harlowe had never been able to make any sense of the Alice books himself.

    “When do we touch the two people who drove to Hell?” said the other.

    “Touch?” said Harlowe. “Oh — soon. When we stop the boat. And you’ll look around then, right? See what they’re seeing, see where they are.”

    “Uh huh.” The girl set her empty cup on the deck. “Uncle Simon, can we go up to the bow? We want to see what kinds of fish fly.”

    Harlowe opened his mouth, but his tongue wouldn’t move. He nodded emphatically so that they’d release him, and then said, quickly, “If you put on life jackets!” Sweat had broken out on his forehead.

    “Semper ubi sub ubi.” It was a joke of theirs, apparently learned from their late father: Latin for Always where under where. Ho ho.

    They scampered out onto the cockpit deck, and a moment later he saw them run along the narrow side-deck past the starboard windows.

    Tony was up on the fly bridge, and Harlowe sighed and picked up the intercom microphone. “Tony, see that they put on life jackets, okay?”

    Tony’s reply came over the speaker: “Rightie-O.”

    Rightie-O. Shit. Harlowe stood up and stretched. He could see Agnes Loria out in the cockpit, bundled up in a blue nylon parka. She was leaning against the transom and squinting into the eddying headwind, and he buttoned his wool coat and stepped out onto the broad fiberglass deck. The smell of the open sea on the wind was a pleasant change from the climate-controlled blandness inside.

    He crossed the deck and stood at the rail a few feet away from Loria, and he too turned to face forward, for the rising sun over Seal Beach was directly astern.

    Loria was wearing sunglasses now, but Harlowe remembered that her eyes had been red, with dark circles under them, when she had joined him for coffee in the little breakfast nook below. She had spent the night with the twins in the forward vee-berth cabin, and evidently the girls had had a couple of nightmares. At least they always had them together, he thought, and didn’t stagger them.

    “They could,” Loria said now, “have made me jump over the side. In the middle of the night.” She pulled a pack of Marlboros and a lighter out of her jacket pocket and hunched over, cupping her hands around the lighter.

    “Oh, don’t be melodramatic.” Harlowe frowned impatiently. “Make you walk down the hall, up the steps, through the lounge –” He waved at the white deck they were standing on, “– across the cockpit to the rail? And over?” He chuffed an exhalation and shook his head, trying to express more skepticism than he actually felt. “So okay, once they made you open a bag of tortilla chips –”

    Loria had got her cigarette lit, and smoke fluttered out of her mouth as she spoke. “They were angry. Those chips went all over the place.”

    He raised his hand. “– And then they made you hold their hands yesterday. Those are momentary –”

    “Hijackings.”

    “Momentary.”

    For several seconds neither of them spoke. The roar of the engines was louder out here.

    “You could have Tony kill the engines any time,” Loria said. “This is as unpopulated an area as you’ll find.”

    Harlowe looked out at the rippling expanse of blue sea. Loria was right. The irregular line of Catalina Island was easily ten miles away, and the mainland waterfront lay at about the same distance to the northeast. The nearest boat, a catamaran under full sail, was several miles off and tacking toward Catalina.

    “Maybe Vickery and Castine drove all night,” said Loria. “Maybe they’re in Salt Lake City or San Francisco by now.” She took a long drag on the cigarette and then pitched it over her shoulder, into the boat’s spreading wake. “I don’t think Elisha could follow them all that way, just with that silly sock. You think the twins will be able to perceive them clearly enough to…I don’t know, see what they see, share their space?”

    “It’s worth a try. I think our fugitive pair is partly in alignment with Lexi and Amber already.”

    “Oh?”

    “Yesterday the twins caused a black hole incident at the beach, by holding hands — do you remember what that family said?”

    “Uh — no.”

    “You told me they were babbling about getting new clothes in Hesperia. That’s north of here, on the way to Las Vegas or Salt Lake City, and it would make sense for Vickery and Castine to think of ditching the clothes they were wearing, in case we’d managed to plant radio frequency tags on them.”

    “You think it was their thoughts that drunk family picked up? But if –”

    “I think it’s possible. Likely, even. The twins pointed them out to us in the first place, remember — sensed them. And if it was their thoughts that the twins were picking up yesterday, it means Vickery and Castine are impinging on us, but uninitiated. They’re –” He frowned, then waved at the deck under their feet, “– they’re like a boat on an intersecting course with our luxury liner, as it were. We’ve got to get them to line up parallel — and permit boarders.”

    “Or sink them?”

    Harlowe shrugged, irritably. “If necessary. If possible.”

    “The Vickery guy did kill Platt.”

    “Who’s got time for vengeance? I hope they can still be an asset.”

    “How did,” Loria began, but a yell and splash from up by the bow interrupted her — and the faint, shrill agitation at the back of Harlowe’s awareness abruptly ceased.

 



 

    Loria stepped away from the transom to grip the starboard rail with one hand. “Man overboard!” she yelled, pointing out at the water; her arm was moving from left to right. “Both twins overboard!” she added.

    From up on the fly deck came a yell from Tony: “Hang on everybody!” The engines roared as the boat sped up, leaning to port.

    Salt spray stung Harlowe’s eyes. He slipped on the fiberglass deck and grabbed the transom rail, and he frantically probed his mind; but the ordinarily-constant awareness of the twins’ thinking was gone.

    Harlowe blinked around at the sea and the shoreline. “He’s going the wrong way!” he gasped.

    “He’s looping around to come back,” said Loria, her arm still extended. “Go up and show him where I’m pointing.”

    Harlowe scrambled across the deck and started up the ladder to the fly bridge, and nearly swung off it when the boat shifted ponderously over to starboard and spray from that direction blinded him. Up on the wet fly bridge deck at last, he crawled on his hands and knees to the back of the pilot chair, then stood up and squinted down over the rail. He couldn’t see two heads in the water at all, but he saw Loria down on the cockpit deck and pointed in the same direction that she was.

    “They’re there!” he yelled at Tony, who was hunched over the wheel. “Are they wearing life preservers?”

    “No,” said Tony, “I told ’em –”

    “Hurry.”

    The deck vibrated under Harlowe’s tennis shoes, and the bristly Long Beach skyline was crawling from right to left across the horizon. Loria’s arm swung like a compass needle as she hurried across the deck to the port side, and now she was pointing exactly abeam. Tony pulled the shift lever to neutral, and after a few seconds he switched off the engines and clicked the shift lever into gear.

    Harlowe gave him a furiously impatient look.

    “Stops the propellers,” Tony explained breathlessly. “And we’re between them and the wind — we’ll drift closer.”

    Tony ran back and slid down the ladder to the cockpit deck. Harlowe followed carefully; and he was dizzy with relief when the faint chatter of the twins’ mental activity was suddenly restored.

    Loria had sailed a life ring like a frisbee out across the water, and now threw another. Light nylon lines snaked behind them.

    When the rings slapped the water, Harlowe could see the twins’ heads, a dozen yards away; and he began to relax, tentatively, when the saw their hands grab the rings. Evidently this had not been another suicide attempt. The nylon lines sprang taut, throwing bright drops, as Tony and Loria began pulling the twins in.

    “Fetch the ladder!” called Tony over his shoulder. His sunglasses had fallen off, and sweat glittered in his brush-cut blond hair. Harlowe could see the man’s shoulder muscles flexing under the white T-shirt, and Loria had one knee braced against the gunwale as she pulled her line in.

    Fetch? thought Harlowe; but he ran halfway forward and lifted the hook-topped aluminum ladder from its bracket and hurried back to where Tony and Loria stood.

    The twins were only ten feet away now, their legs and bare feet kicking behind them, and Harlowe hooked the ladder over the railing at the point they seemed to be approaching; and within no more than a minute they had both climbed up and swung over the rail, and now they stood dripping and shivering on the deck while Loria hurried below to get blankets.

    Harlowe stared at both of them as his heartbeat slowed down, and at last he turned to face Tony.

    “I told ’em,” Tony protested again, but one of the twins interrupted.

    “We needed,” she said haltingly, “to be all the way under, and life jackets don’t even let you get your hair wet.”

    “You’re lucky you didn’t stay underwater!” said Harlowe. He took a deep breath. “You think you could have joined the egregore from the bottom of –”

    “It was,” began one of the twins; “new,” finished the other. “It’s how you get out of your way,” added the first, with a look of reproach. “We had to give ourselves away to it, just for a minute.”

    Loria had reappeared with two blankets bundled in her arms, and she draped one over each of the twins. “Now go below,” she told them, “and get into some dry things.”

    The twins padded through the door into the lounge, and Harlowe waited until he heard their feet thumping down the steps to the lower deck, and then turned to Tony.

    “I’m sorry, Mr. Harlowe,” the young man said hastily, “you know how they –”

    “I know how they,” said Loria. “Get back up on the bridge, Tony.”

    “You want me to start up again? We could –”

    “No,” said Loria. “This is perfect. Let’s just sit a while.”

    With one last anxious look at Harlowe, Tony turned and clambered back up the ladder.

    When he had disappeared forward, Loria said, “He’s more loyal than you deserve, you know.”

    “Oh, he’s a good man, beyond doubt,” admitted Harlowe, stepping back to the transom rail. “A devoted member — if a bit simple. He does feel terrible about Elisha stealing the bloody sock out of the Tahoe yesterday, when he was left to guard it.” Harlowe absently rattled the transom door. “It was damn negligent of him.”

    “But all are welcomed in,” Loria reminded him. “All compelled eventually, right? Everybody into the black hole.”

    “Why do you talk this way, Agnes?” Harlowe was still shaky from the long moments when the twins’ mentation had seemed abruptly to stop. “You know the egregore won’t be predatory. I wish that term, black hole, had never gained currency among us. It’ll be inclusive, benevolent — ultimately it’s the God that people have looked for, and a million times thought they’d found.”

    “I know, I know. I agree!” She nodded toward the lounge. “I’m just thinking about those poor girls.” The boat was rocking in the swell now, and Loria stepped carefully to the rail beside him. “I started to ask you something. How did her parents — hah! I’m falling into their point of view — how did their parents kill themselves, anyway?”

    Harlowe was aware that if he’d been able to feel guilt and shame, he’d feel them now. “Damn it, Agnes,” he said, “it’s not helpful to talk about old individual concerns! Tomorrow night the thing which will be all of us will be able to…transcend such stuff. Apotheosis. Everything it does will be right, by definition.” He nodded; then glanced at her. “They pulled plastic bags over their heads.”

    Loria rocked her head back, her eyes on the lounge doorway. “How did they restrain their hands?”

    Harlowe suppressed the remembered image: the bodies of his brother and sister-in-law, sitting in two chairs on their patio deck. The plastic had been desperately indented over their gaping mouths. The twins had been in the house.

    “It doesn’t matter now,” he said, affecting a grave tone.

    “No,” agreed Loria. “But — how?”

    “They — I don’t remember, and it’s not –”

    “Their hands weren’t restrained, were they?”

    Harlowe didn’t answer.

    Loria nodded. “Huh.”

    Through the open door of the lounge, Harlowe saw the twins mount the steps from below. They both wore blue corduroy overalls now, and their brown hair was pulled back in stringy wet pony tails. They shuffled awkwardly out onto the cockpit deck, squinting in the sun.

    “You wanted us to look for that man and that woman,” said one of them sulkily. “Not just know they’re out there, but touch them, see what they’re seeing.”

    “We had to close all apps, first, didn’t we?” demanded the other. “Clear the task bar.”

    “It’s a new thing,” said the first girl, and Harlowe felt his scalp tighten and the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

    They weren’t saying new, they were citing the name of Nu, the Egyptian god represented by the sea, the personification of the abyss, the absence of all activity and awareness, the void from which identity had been made — the ever-patient universal identity-sink. Nu was the eternal counterpart of Ba, which, or who, was the essence of distinct identity.

    The two forces had to be kept apart!

    “The twins,” he said thickly, “can’t go in the ocean anymore, understand? No, not even wading.” Had it been, in effect, Nu that they’d been seeking when they had nearly drowned themselves off Little Coyote Point?

    He stared at the two little girls as if he’d never seen them before.

    “At least they resurfaced,” said Loria. “And now they’ve closed all their apps, whatever that means! They should have bandwidth free to locate your fugitives.”

    “I think,” Harlow said quietly to Loria, “we’d better re-initiate them — have them color in the picture again.” He was sweating, but he forced a smile and turned to the twins. “Sit down, Lexi, Amber. You were right to…close the apps. I was just — worried about you!” When the girls had sat down together on a lidded cabinet that contained a bait tank, he stepped to the starboard gunwale and leaned on it. “Yes, I would like you to look for that man and that woman. Can you sense them? Buy new clothes in Hesperia. Doctor Zhivago.”

 



 

    One of the girls lifted her hand — Loria opened her mouth in alarm, but before she could say anything the other girl clasped the hand.

    And Loria and Harlowe fell to their hands and knees on the deck.

    Harlowe could feel that his palms were flat on the fiberglass deck, and he knew that his knuckles were only a foot from his face — but what he saw, as if through heavily tinted sunglasses, was a level view of a decrepit old two-story Victorian house. A man holding a revolver stood on the long, sagging porch while another man dragged a body — a woman in a long robe — down the steps to the dirt. The body left dark, gleaming streaks on the steps.

    Harlowe turned his head, but the image stayed central in his vision; he lifted his hands to wave in front of his face, but they didn’t appear in his sight and he felt his forehead strike the cockpit deck. His hip and shoulder hit the deck then, and he rolled over, but there was no shift in what he was seeing.

    Then he had to squint against a sudden blue sky and sunlight reflecting off the deck and the chrome ladder. He was lying on the wet deck, but the first thing he did was raise his hands and flex them, and he coughed in relief to see his fingers clearly.

    “Fuck,” croaked Loria behind him. He rolled over and sat up. Loria was sitting against the transom gunwale, her head between her knees; the twins still sat on the sink cabinet, though they were no longer holding hands.

    “We got that from them,” said one of the twins defensively. “Honest.”

    “I think we pushed them a little, crowding in,” added the other.

    Loria raised her head and gave Harlowe a haggard stare. “Did you…see that, too?” When he nodded, she went on, “We just saw a woman murdered somewhere.”

    “It was,” said Harlowe as he laboriously got to his feet, “a long time ago.”

    Loria slowly stood up, bracing herself against the gunwale. “What do you mean? How do you know?” She stared out at the broad sunlit face of the sea, as if to confirm that the vision had ended.

    Harlowe just shook his head. How do I know? he thought. Because I recognized the face of the man holding the revolver. Conrad Chronic looked the same in this vision as he did in those old photographs online, and those were taken fifty years ago.

    We got that from them, one of the twins had said. Honest. Vickery and Castine were somehow a connection to Chronic’s 1968 egregore, which had failed — spectacularly.

    He pulled Loria to the rail and whispered, “I think — no, I’m sure — Vickery and Castine have to be killed too. Along with Ragotskie. All three. Damn.”

    His head was only inches from hers, and he was aware of the increased mental vibration that he always experienced when standing very close to another initiate.

    “Well don’t tell me,” she said, stepping away from him, “I’m the spiritual type. I’ve never taken anybody’s blood pressure, and I’m not going to start.”

    “No, of course not, I don’t mean you. But — yes, get on the radio and tell Taitz.”

    She was frowning at him. “I thought you wanted those two. For your IMPs.”

    “They’re — no, they’re linked to — something I don’t see how we can incorporate, safely. I can’t take the chance.”

    “Is it that old egregore? Those fifty-year-old coloring books?”

    “The — dammit, the coloring books are neutral, but Vickery and Castine are apparently…tainted. Get on the radio. I –” He touched his bruised forehead. “I don’t think we should try again with the twins.”

    “You’re being impulsive. We’ve spent all this time and effort trying to get Vickery and Castine — and now, if we find them, you just want them killed? You think the twins will do, as your IMPs?”

    “The twins have disadvantages too,” Harlowe conceded, “but they’re already initiated — or if that app got closed, we’ll initiate them again to re-open it — and they’re willing participants, and they’re here. Vickery and Castine we’d have to catch, alive, and transport, and initiate. And I think they’re hostile.”

    “I can see how they might be, at that.” Loria exhaled through pursed lips in a silent whistle. “Okay.”

    She started to turn away toward the cabin, but Harlowe caught her arm, making them both wince. “Wait — for the next forty hours all of us have to be ready for the possibility of violence.” He reached into his coat, where he carried a small .22 revolver in a suede holster; he unclipped the holster and pulled it out, and, facing away from the twins, held it out to Loria. “Keep this with you.”

    She looked down at the curved wood-sided grip protruding from the tan suede flap, then up at him. “No.”

    “Damn it, it’s for self-defense! If one of these unsecured dramatis personae should kill you, you’d miss the apotheosis — you’d just be plain dead.”

    She frowned at the little gun.

    “You want to go on to some judgmental afterlife,” Harlowe went on, “or plain oblivion? — or live big, forever, here?”

    She sighed and took the gun from his hand and slid it into a pocket of her bulky nylon jacket.

 


 

    Even as he had helplessly watched the two men drag the woman from the porch in the penumbral dimness, Vickery had been aware of the car bucking and shaking, and the steering wheel jerking powerfully under his gripping hands. Now the car had evidently stopped, and was just rocking from side to side, but though Vickery swiveled his head toward where the windshield and rear-view mirror should have been visible, his vision showed him nothing but the men pulling the woman’s body down the last steps onto the dirt.

    When light sprang up again, he was reassured to at least see the dashboard, for nothing showed through the windshield but whirling dust.

    “Fuck!” exclaimed Castine. He glanced at her, and she seemed startled at having spoken.

    The engine had stalled, and Vickery quickly started it again in case he was still out in the lanes; but in moments the dust blew away, and he saw that they were a dozen yards off the pavement, among sand and dry weeds. The car was at right angles to the highway, pointed out toward the desert.

    Vickery just breathed in and out through his open mouth and waited for his heartbeat to slow down.

    “Obviously,” said Castine, then paused to clear her throat. “Obviously you saw it too.”

    Vickery nodded. “God knows what that did to the suspension. Anyway, how do I dare drive, anymore?” He shook his head, carefully. “We weren’t even touching each other!”

    Castine opened her door and stepped out onto the sand. “I think a couple of people were,” she called, “somewhere.” She leaned in. “It’s kind of nice to step out — stretch and smell the breeze — after nearly dying.”

    Vickery unclenched his fingers from the steering wheel. “Okay.” He levered open the door and swung his feet out onto the sand. “I was doing better than seventy!” he called.

    “So drive slow from now on. We don’t need all that wind from the two missing back windows anyway.”

    “We keep going?”

    “Sure. You’d rather stay out here?” She got back into the car and pulled the door closed. “That was provoked in us. Just at the beginning of it, I got the impression of two girls, on a boat, holding hands. Did you sense that?”

    “I –” Vickery thought about it. In the instant before the vision had eclipsed his view of the highway, there had been a sense of a couple of people — young people — and yes, rocking, though that had been nothing compared to the way the car had begun jumping and slewing a moment later. “A boat, you think.”

    “In a marina, maybe? This won’t leave us alone — we’ve got to find a way out of it.”

    The engine was running smoothly, and Vickery pulled his feet back into the car and glanced around, wondering how best to get back onto the highway. “Okay. But yeah, I’ll drive slow, and I’ll be ready to stand on the brakes.”


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