It is odd that those who claim to have a scientific view of the world stoutly deny, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that ghosts exist, that they make themselves manifest, and that they seem to have a particular interest in ocean-front properties.
The ruined buildings cast long shadows in the moonlight. A cool, sharp wind whipped in off the lake. It howled through the abandoned town and shook the flyer. Kim was embarrassed sitting locked in the cabin like a frightened child. Eventually she opened up and climbed down onto the ground. But she stayed alert.
Somewhat before midnight Jerry broke into her thoughts: “Aircraft approaching.”
A blip appeared on the screen. Inbound from the southwest. From the general direction of Terminal Island.
She was back in the cabin. “Can we talk to them?”
Kim felt behind her for the duplicate Valiant, brought it up front and set it on the seat beside her.
“Channel is open, Dr. Brandywine.”
“Sheyel,” she said, “is that you?”
“Kim.” He sounded genuinely surprised. And delighted. “Where are you?”
“I’m embarrassed for you,” she said. “You took the man’s starship.”
A long pause. Then: “Yes, I did.”
“And what are you planning to do with it?”
“I am going to talk to its pilot. If possible. I’d be pleased if you joined me. Where are you?”
“On the ground. In town.”
“There’s a strip of open beach to the east. I’m going to set down there.”
She saw his lights approaching. “It’s not possible, Sheyel. What you want to do.”
He sounded surprised. And disappointed. “Why not?”
“Whatever the local goblin is, it’s not someone you can talk to.”
“How do you know?”
“I know. Take my word for it. It’s some sort of disembodied AI. Designed to perform specific functions, as best I can judge. Maybe it’s a kind of automatic pilot. But it won’t do negotiations.”
“Let’s not jump to conclusions, Kim.” The other flyer had begun to descend. “Everything points to the fact that it’s intelligent.”
“The thing’s deranged, Sheyel. And it’s dangerous.”
“It’s lost and alone. It’s been stranded here for almost three decades. You have to start by understanding that.”
“You want to say hello to the unknown, there’s no way it can be anything but dangerous. I accept that possibility. Still, I’ve never heard of a malevolent AI.”
“You’re letting your imagination take over, Kim.”
“No, goddammit. I know what I’m talking about. Let it go, at least until—”
“I think you’re running scared, Kim. I’m disappointed in you. But after what you’ve been through, I can understand—”
“Don’t be stupid, Sheyel. This may be the thing that killed Emily and Yoshi. Look, let’s take the night to talk about it. Go up to Eagle Point. Hear me out. If you still want to do this tomorrow, then okay, I’m with you.”
She watched the lights of his flyer disappear below the trees. “Kim, do you know for sure of anyone it has attacked?”
“There you are then. We’re going to make history tonight, you and I. Are you with me?”
“Do you know what I have on board?”
“Yes,” she said. “I know.”
“No, I don’t think you do. You think I have a replica of the celestial.”
“No. You have the ship itself.”
“Oh.” She heard the respect in his voice. “Well done, Kimberly. Well done indeed. How long have you known?”
She was tempted to lie, to tell him she’d realized, as he undoubtedly had, from the moment she found out there were identical ships on the mural and in Tripley’s office. “I’ve known for a while,” she said. “You didn’t tell me the whole truth, did you?”
“You mean about my conversation with Yoshi? Yes, that’s so. I did hedge a bit. She told me they’d brought back a ship. But she wouldn’t answer any questions. Told me I’d have all the details soon enough.”
“What did you think? That they’d hidden it in the outer system somewhere?”
“To be honest, Kim, I didn’t know what to think. I suspected maybe they’d brought back something completely different from what we’d expect. And I wasn’t sure they hadn’t hidden it in the lake. It’s why I came here so often.” She heard his engine shut off and his door open. “Now, I have to get set up. Come join me if you want.”
“I wish you wouldn’t do this, Sheyel.” She ordered her flyer to lift off, to find the other vehicle and land beside it. It left the ground and followed the shoreline east.
Sheyel’s aircraft was down on Cabry’s Beach, where she and Solly had landed. “Careful,” Kim pointlessly cautioned her own vehicle. There wasn’t much room left. And then to Sheyel: “We don’t know what this thing might be able to do if it gets access to the microship.”
“It won’t go anywhere with this.” He was out of the flyer, dragging a packing case down from the cargo compartment.
“Why not?” Her aircraft settled into weeds and high grass, and she popped open the door and jumped out.
“Because I’ve scanned it. It has an antimatter power source. But there’s no fuel. No antimatter.”
“So now we know what blew the face off Mount Hope, right?”
“I guess we do.”
He pulled a collapsible table from the flyer, locked its legs in place, and set it on the sand at the water’s edge. He pushed on it to make sure it was stable.
Now he opened the case, moved the packing out of the way, and lifted out the Valiant. He gazed at it with affection and reverence, and put it on the tabletop.
Kim could have seized it by force. She could have thrown it into the back of her own aircraft and gotten out of there with it. But something stopped her, an inability to defy her old teacher, a need to see what might happen, perhaps simply a reluctance to make the decision.
Whatever the reason, she chose not to act.
He brought out a battery-powered lamp, set it on the table beside the spacecraft, and snapped it on. The Valiant sparkled. Kim walked toward it, trying to grasp what she knew to be true: that it was a vessel built by celestials. That it had traveled among the stars. That it had housed an entity like the one that had stalked the corridors of the Hammersmith.
Sheyel watched her carefully. For the first time she read distrust in his eyes. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he asked.
“You said you’ve scanned it. What’s inside?”
“Other than the dimensions, and the propulsion system, or lack thereof, it could almost be one of ours. Control room, individual quarters, pilot’s room of some sort. No chairs. Nothing to sit on.”
“What about the propulsion system?”
“I can’t find one. But that just means we need some experts to look at it.”
Kim thought about Kane’s offer to assist. “It must have been in trouble when the Hunter found them.”
“Why do you—?” Something out on the lake caught his eye. She followed his gaze and saw a reflection. Possibly distant lightning. She looked off toward Mount Hope and saw flashes around its summit.
“Do you have pictures of the interior?” she asked.
He was slow to look back toward her. “Yes.”
“May I see them?”
“Of course.” But he made no move to get them. His attention had returned to the lake.
She saw again the luminous patch. Far out, but brighter this time.
His right arm went slowly up in a gesture of triumph.
It might have been a cloud of fireflies, out on the water, but it moved with unnerving precision, a spiral mounting up as she watched, a cloud, a fog, a mist.
Sheyel raised both hands to welcome it.
“Back off,” said Kim. “Get into the flyer.”
The cloud was alive with tiny stars, floating, moving, swirling.
It was growing noticeably larger. And brighter.
“Coming this way,” said Kim.
“Hello,” he called. His voice echoed in the night. “I know you can’t understand me. But we need to talk.”
The cloud was lovely, but its purposeful advance filled Kim with alarm.
“We brought your ship.” Sheyel half-turned to indicate the Valiant.
The wind picked up and the trees shuddered. Kim was suddenly aware that another flyer was setting down back in the trees somewhere. It was the Cloudrider. Its lights blinked off and the engine died. Sheyel was too preoccupied to notice.
Moments later, three figures, two men and a woman, appeared out of the woods. They surveyed the situation and fanned out. Kim thought she could see weapons. And then a fourth person came out of the trees.
“We want to talk to you.” Sheyel continued to address the manifestation. “We are your friends.”
The cloud kept coming.
Kim measured the distance between the Valiant and her flyer and the angle the intruders had if she decided to grab the starship and run.
Tripley stood watching, his gaze shifting between Sheyel and the cloud. Apparently he wasn’t as dumb as she’d thought.
The cloud was now just a few meters off the beach. It floated on the water, almost, she thought, taking sustenance from it. Several patches of internal luminescence formed, distributed randomly through its upper levels, and as she watched they became eyes, the same eyes she’d seen in Kane’s sunken villa.
Everyone on the beach froze.
The eyes were deranged. This was not the cool malevolence she’d seen on the Hammersmith. This was pure madness.
Kim edged closer to her flyer.
Where the entity touched the lake surface the water misted and swirled, and Kim recalled the missing footprints on her first visit to the area.
Tripley moved up beside her. “My God, Kim,” he whispered, “what is that thing?” The people who were with him brought weapons to bear. They wore gray uniforms, and they looked efficient. The woman was only a few meters away. Her name patch identified her as BRICKER.
“I think it was the crew of the Valiant,” Kim said, recognizing that Tripley’s presence demonstrated that he now knew the truth about his model. She was pleased that her voice sounded almost normal. “I’m glad you brought help.”
“Security. I thought the thief might be dangerous.”
“You followed me.”
“Of course. You have a number of talents, Kim. But acting is not among them.”
Sheyel stumbled forward into the water, advancing on it. He was continuing to talk to it, raising his hands in greeting. The emerald glow alternately intensified and faded, as if a great heart were beating somewhere within.
“Get away from it, Sheyel,” she cried.
It resembled a shroud, diaphanous and pale and insubstantial. As she watched, he splashed toward it and it opened to embrace him. A sudden gust of wind threw the entire structure out of coherence, almost, one might say, out of focus. But it drew quickly together again.
Tripley’s guards whispered to one another and leveled their weapons.
Sheyel suddenly seemed to realize his danger. He screamed and fell backward. In a single smooth motion, the entity rose around him and engulfed him.
The security people waited for the command to fire. But Tripley hesitated.
She could see Sheyel’s silhouette through the folds of the shroud. His body convulsed. Bursts of green light rippled through the thing.
Then he went limp and it dropped him smoking into the shallow water, and flowed up onto the beach. Kim realized it was making toward the table and the Valiant.
Tripley gave the signal and his people opened fire. The woods came alive with frightened animals.
The security force had placed themselves well and they had the entity in a cross fire. Laser bolts whispered through the darkness. They struck the creature and bursts of vibrant colors forked through it. It spasmed. Some shots went awry, ripping into trees and the lake. The night filled with steam and geysers and shouts. Then with surprising swiftness it darted to one side and enveloped one of the men.
Kim ran forward to help but Bricker almost casually knocked her flat. “Stay out of this, honey,” she said. “You’ll just get yourself killed.”
Tripley, who did not have a weapon, pulled her out of the line of fire.
The area became a cascade of brilliant light, a gaudy pyrotechnic display. Shouts mingled with the murmur of the lasers and the screech of birds.
Kim recalled her own weapon and broke away from Tripley. She ran back to the flyer.
The struggle raged across the shorefront, illuminated in stark flashes. The shroud let go of its victim, who fell unmoving to the sand, and turned toward Tripley. She thought she saw recognition flicker in the thing’s eyes. It ignored the two still firing and flowed toward him. He looked around for a weapon but could find nothing better than a plank.
The two remaining guards threw everything they had at it. It shuddered, and a curious keening rose into the night, but it needed only seconds to overwhelm Tripley, to suck him within its amoebic folds.
Kim pulled the microwave out of its container. It looked like a fold-up tin box. She tugged at it and it opened into a cube about a half meter on a side.
The entity disappeared with Tripley into the trees. The guards raced after it, still firing, the bursts coming a little less frequently and with somewhat less authority as the battery-powered weapons began to wear down. The forest was ablaze with light. A tree trunk exploded and someone screamed. Kim couldn’t tell whether it was a man or a woman.
She set the cube down and unwrapped the magnetron. It was an orange sphere about the size of a baseball. She inserted it into its slot.
Behind her, the ruby flashes of the lasers became sporadic. And stopped. Only the slow emerald pulse remained.
The forest fell absolutely silent, save for her own labored breathing.
The green light began moving in her direction.
She thought of abandoning everything, of jumping in the flyer and getting out, but that meant leaving everyone. Leaving the Valiant.
The shroud drifted through the shrubbery and paused.
Those mad eyes locked on her.
It knows me.
It thinks I’m Emily.
She dug the remote and the power pack out of the container. She pocketed the remote and manically, irrationally, read the specs on the power pack. The device would generate one thousand watts for about four hours. She started to attach it to the microwave, fumbled it, dropped it, tried to pick it up without taking her eyes off the shroud.
It watched her. Gave her time.
As if it had read the thought, it opened up, a vast blossom, preparing to take her. Electricity rippled through its translucent veils.
Kim connected the power pack, drew out her laser, and began cutting a round hole in the oven’s front panel. The thing moved close, shut off her air. The eyes were gone, and she felt a sudden flow of warmth and well-being as the mist closed down.
She used her fist to punch the disk out of the front panel, set the oven on its legs, aimed it straight ahead, angled it up a bit, and hit the remote.
The entity jerked convulsively.
She kept her thumb down and the shroud crackled and thrashed. Kim caught an electrical burst on one shoulder, smelled burning flesh, but she bit off the scream and seized the oven in her arms. She turned in a circle and the mist spasmed and retreated from the invisible beam.
The night filled with electricity. The cloud withdrew. It whirled in a dizzying crescendo. Suddenly Kim could see only mist and dying sparks rising into the sky, like the aftermath of a campfire when someone has thrown a bucket of water on the logs.
“Regards from Solly,” she said, and continued to fire after it.
The shroud drifted against the wind back out onto the lake.
Against the wind.
The son of a bitch was still alive.
She stumbled after it, splashed into the water, holding the oven clumsily but still firing. The water rose to her thighs and then she stepped in a hole and pitched forward. The microwave went into the water.
She recovered it and lifted it into her arms and tried the remote again. It sizzled and popped and a small cloud of black smoke came out of it.
She dropped the oven, hurried back, and dragged Sheyel out of the water. Then she went into the woods, found Tripley crumpled against a tree, Bricker face down in a small clearing, the remaining guards scattered. All looked dead.
On the lake, the fireflies circled and gained strength.
She collected the Valiant, carried it over to the flyer, and put it in the backseat with the duplicate she’d had made up at Blanchet Preserve.
“Jerry,” she told the AI, “let’s go. Back to the hotel.”
The shroud was re-forming. She watched it grow stronger, brighter, as the flyer rose into the air. To her horror, it detached itself from the lake and began to come after her.
“As fast as we can,” she urged.
They ascended into scattered clouds. The sky was full of moons.
Below, the shroud trailed tendrils as it rose after her. It was adjusting, changing shape, making itself into a sphere. Mist drifted behind it. It looked like a comet.
The thing wants the Valiant. All it cares about is the Valiant.
Were old memories coming back? She was sure it had confused her with Emily. And it had gone quite deliberately for Tripley, who’d been standing harmlessly off to one side. “Jerry,” she said. “Contact Air Rescue.”
“Are we having a difficulty, Dr. Brandywine?”
She had to restrain a near-hysterical response. “Minor problem,” she said.
Jerry opened a channel and a male voice came on. “This is Air Rescue. Please identify yourself.”
“Kim Brandywine. I’m in a Redbird flyer.” Jerry flashed the hull number and aircraft description to them. “We’re in trouble.”
The shroud was coming fast.
“Please state the nature of your emergency, Kim.”
“Yes,” she said. “That’s a little tricky. There are five people dead near the village at Lake Remorse. You won’t have any trouble finding them. There are two flyers with them.”
That got his attention: “What happened to them?” he asked.
The sensors had picked up the shroud, and she watched its marker blinking onscreen.
“They were murdered.”
There was a long silence and then Kim heard a new voice. Female this time. “Kim, this is the supervisor at Air Rescue. Are you reporting a murder?”
“Dr. Brandywine,” said Jerry, “we have an energy source in our rear. I am unable to determine its nature.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“Kim, please describe your own circumstance and the nature of the emergency. What happened? Are you injured?”
“It’s closing,” said Jerry. “Is it dangerous?”
“Lethal,” said Kim. “Stay ahead of it.”
“We are already approaching maximum velocity.”
“I’m not hurt,” she told Air Rescue. Although her left shoulder was burned and hurt like hell. In addition she’d twisted a knee when she fell with the microwave.
“What happened to the people at the village? Who killed them?”
“It’s still closing,” said Jerry. “At current velocity, it will overtake us in approximately ninety seconds.”
“Can’t we go any faster?”
“We are at maximum thrust, Dr. Brandywine.”
“Air Rescue,” she said, “things are getting a bit busy. If something happens to me, you’ll need to use a microwave.”
“Say again, Kim?”
“Don’t have time.”
“We have a unit lifting off now. Meanwhile, it’ll help us to help you if you can describe your situation. Please try to remain calm.”
Kim killed the radio. “Jerry,” she said, “can we send them a picture of the shroud?”
“Of the what?”
“Of the pursuer.”
“We can do that, Dr. Brandywine.”
“Do it,” she said.
The lake waters were racing beneath them. The shoreline was lost in the dark. Decision time.
“What are we going to do?” asked Jerry.
The Valiant lay in the backseat, black and beautiful. What places have you seen, little friend?
She opened the case holding the duplicate Valiant and switched on a light to see it better. Even the copy would be worth a small fortune.
“Kim. Be advised I’ve transmitted the picture to Air Rescue and a record of this flight to my dispatcher.”
“Good. We’ll see what he makes of it.” She picked up the duplicate and placed it on the seat beside her. “Jerry, open the door.”
“I’m sorry. I cannot do that. It is dangerous to open a door in flight.”
“It’s necessary to avoid contact with our pursuer. Open up.”
“Please do not take offense, Dr. Brandywine. I know the other vehicle is behaving strangely, but I’ve only your word that it is a hazard to this aircraft.”
She sighed and looked down, searching for the panel Solly had shown her. She found it quickly and opened it. The yellow-coated cable. “Sorry, Jerry,” she whispered, and pulled its plug. She recalled the rest of the procedure, threw the same switches Solly had, and took manual control of the aircraft.
The shroud was seconds behind. Kim could see stars in its filmy veils, could in fact see the three giants of Orion’s Belt, Mintaka, Alnilam, and Alnitak.
The northern shore was coming up fast. She took the flyer down on the water.
The shroud followed. Kim cradled the duplicate starship in her arms, released her harness, and pushed the door open. The wind howled and tried to slam it shut. She jammed her foot against it, holding it, and sighed. She’d have preferred to hold the starship out where her pursuer could see it—but as soon as she got it through the door the wind ripped it out of her hands.
She watched it tumble into the water.
To her horror, the shroud paid no attention and kept coming.
Either it hadn’t seen the bait, or it had detected the deception. Kim muttered a profanity she had never used before and dragged the Valiant, the original, onto her lap. She tried to pin her position down. A hundred meters from shore. Broken pier on a thirty-degree bearing. Finger of land jutting into the water on her left. And then, heart pounding, she pitched overboard the most valuable artifact known to the species.
The thing still did not veer off.
My God, it was after her.
She raced across the water and in over the shoreline, barely above treetop level. “You dumb son of a bitch,” she screamed, as her door banged shut. “I threw it in the lake.”