…The most famous of the apparitions is undoubtedly the Severin Phantom, which haunts the ruined village whose name it bears. There have been more than two hundred confirmed sightings over the last quarter century. Several deaths have been attributed to it. Today, few persons are foolish enough to venture into the valley after dark.
It was after eleven-thirty when they lifted off the Gateway’s roof and turned south.
Snow was falling steadily. The lights of the casinos and clubs were smeared by the storm, and they faded quickly as the Starlight gained altitude. The screen showed almost no air traffic.
“Do you feel as dumb as I do?” she asked Solly.
He was relaxed, sipping coffee, letting the AI fly the aircraft. “It was an excuse to come,” he said. “Think how warm your bed’ll feel tonight when you get to it.”
The sensors picked out the river, running between wide, forest-laden banks. She looked out into the snowswept darkness and saw another set of lights coming from the west. Probably a train, although it was difficult to be sure.
She took out the town map she’d printed earlier and studied it. “When we get to Severin,” she said, “I think we should do more than just land and hang around for a bit.”
“In this blizzard? What did you have in mind, Kim?”
“Take advantage of the opportunity to look at Tripley’s villa.”
“Why?” asked Solly.
“Who knows what we might find?”
“After twenty-seven years?”
“Nothing to lose by looking.”
“Okay,” he said. “Whatever you say. But if there’s anything there to connect him with the explosion or the missing women, I’d think the police would have found it a long time ago.”
“As far as I can tell from the accounts, the police never looked.”
“They didn’t? Why not?”
“Nobody raised the question. My guess is that there was no substantive reason to think Tripley had anything to do with either incident, and the family had a lot of influence. There was already enough grief. He was presumed lost in the general disaster. What was to be gained by an investigation? Under the circumstances, maybe nobody wanted to irritate the family.”
“Okay,” Solly said. “If you want. Do we know where to find it?”
“As it happens,” she grinned, “I have it marked here.” She tapped her pen on the map.
“Why stop with Tripley? Why not take a look at Kane’s place while we’re at it?”
The Starlight was picking up a heavy headwind. “Kane’s place is underwater.” She showed him.
“I wasn’t serious,” he said.
“When are you? Serious?”
“Never on ghost hunts.” It was cold in the cabin. Solly pulled his jacket tighter, and she raised the temperature.
“If I’d known we were going on an expedition,” he said, “I’d have suggested doing it by daylight.”
Kim was thinking of what she’d say to Sheyel. We went out to the valley. We spent time in the woods. And we even looked in Tripley’s house. There’s nothing.
But she wanted to get it done now. Didn’t want to make a second trip in the morning.
Another aircraft, a patrol flyer, appeared on the edge of the short-range scan, headed in the opposite direction. It passed within two hundred meters, but they never did actually see it.
Eagle Point had receded into the darkness, and there were now no lights visible anywhere. The AI followed the Severin River south, displaying its winding image on the sensor screen. It narrowed and entered the first of a series of gorges which would take it down to the dam.
Her preoccupation with the legends increased as they flew deeper into the night. Even Solly seemed affected. They spoke with lowered voices, the way people do in empty churches, and Kim found herself sinking down inside her jacket even though the temperature in the cabin had now reached a comfortable level. The conversation consisted mostly of bravado. Remarks like how no self-respecting spook would be abroad in weather like this. Or how Solly thought he saw something moving out there. Ha-ha.
Solly’s story of the haunted stateroom came back to trouble her now. At the moment, in the snow, in the glow of the instrument panel, such things seemed possible.
They were only a few hundred meters off the ground when they broke out of the storm. The remains of the Severin Dam loomed just ahead.
The structure had not actually been removed. Weakened sections had been taken down and the rest simply left standing. Now, the river roared around piles of rubble and concrete slabs. The slabs seemed to be moving, an effect created by the flyer’s lights reflected off the water. The aircraft dropped lower and a last few flakes whirled up.
They passed over the ruins. On the south side, the river ran through a narrow corridor and emptied into Lake Remorse. The sky was still heavily overcast and the lake remained shrouded until they were out over it.
Solly directed the AI to turn on the aircraft’s spotlights. It complied, and twin beams swept the darkness, but they could see nothing other than water.
“It’s almost an inland sea,” said Kim, recalling that at its widest it was more than twenty kilometers across.
They rode through the night, beneath heavy skies, not saying much. Eventually a coastline appeared onscreen. Forest, mostly. Some hills, some open spaces. And then she saw a few stone walls and broken houses jutting out of the shallows.
The village had occupied the south shore of the original lake, then also called Severin. But after the dam had been taken down, the lake had expanded, swallowing most of the town.
Kim looked down at a world covered by snow.
“I’m surprised no one’s claimed the area,” said Solly. “It wouldn’t take much to rebuild here now.”
They circled, trying to locate Tripley’s villa. The map placed it atop a low rise just outside the town line, about a hundred meters north of the Scott Randal Stables, which had been a well-known producer of racehorses at the time of the event. They found the stables, now just a few crumbling buildings and a couple of fences. The rest was easy.
“Problem is,” said Solly, “there’s no open ground here anywhere.”
“There.” A strip of beach.
Solly looked at it reluctantly. “It’ll be a long walk,” he said. But it was all they had, and the AI took them down.
They settled into the snow. Kim pulled her hood up and adjusted the foul-weather mask while Solly changed into boots. The lake surface was rough in the lights, and when she opened the door the wind tried to tear it out of her hand.
They couldn’t see much of the village, just one or two houses in the water. An old lifeguard tower stood near the tree line. And a white building stenciled SNACK SHED was sinking into the sand. “This is Cabry’s Beach,” said Kim, reading the name off the map.
Solly climbed down and looked around. The wind blew his hair into his eyes.
“Didn’t you bring anything to wear on your head?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “I didn’t know we were going for a walk.”
“You’ll freeze.” She looked into the backseat. “I’ve got a mountain hat back here somewhere.”
“It’s okay, Kim. I’ll be fine.”
She found it and held it out for him. But he looked stubbornly back at her. She shrugged and switched on her wrist-lamp. “Maybe you should wait here.”
“Let’s go,” he grumbled, pulling up his jacket collar and stuffing his hands into his pockets.
She turned up the heat in her jacket, and they started for the trees. Their boots crunched in the snow. The wind blew in steadily off the lake and they walked with their backs to it. Neither tried to talk until they’d made it to the shelter of the forest.
“You okay?” he asked when they were in the trees. His hair was already covered with blown snow.
“I’m fine.” It was a deep hood and she felt as if she were looking out of a tunnel.
He pointed the way and took the lead. Overhead, something shook snow out of the branches.
Kim looked up, and wondered about the wildlife. “Solly,” she whispered, “are there, do you suppose, any animals here we need to worry about? Cougars, maybe? Or bears?” The terraformers in their wisdom had neglected nothing. Greenway even had mosquitoes.
“I never thought of it. I don’t know.”
“Are you by any chance carrying a weapon?”
“No,” he said. “If we run into something, we’ll beat it off with a stick.”
“Good,” she grinned. “Nothing like being prepared.”
They pushed through thick brambles and shrubbery, crossed glades, and eventually found a trail that seemed to be going in their direction.
They passed a collapsed house, entangled in new-growth trees, almost invisible until they were within a couple of meters. And a,bench, incongruously set off to one side of the trail. “This was probably the way to the beach at one time,” Solly said.
She looked at her map. “Yes. Here it is.”
“How’re we doing?”
“Headed in the right direction. It’s not much farther.”
“You don’t think we ought to come back and do this in the morning?”
“We’re here now, Solly. Let’s just take a quick look, so I can say I’ve been here, and then we can head out.”
After Tripley’s disappearance, the villa and its furnishings had been willed to Sara Baines, his mother. According to the reports, Sara had closed up the house, but had been unable to sell it. The town was emptying out; people had too many bad memories, there were doubts whether the rest of the mountain might come down, the dam could go at any time.
So nobody had really lived in the house since Tripley came back from that last flight.
They left the trail at a glade with a tumbled shed, clumped through a stream, skidded down a slope, and got confused about directions because nobody had thought to bring a compass. “Don’t blame me,” said Solly. “I thought we were going to sit in the flyer and look at the lake.”
Kim was now in the lead. The trees closed in again. In some places the snow was too deep for her hiking shoes. It got down her ankles, and her feet got cold.
It was hard to keep a sense of direction. On one occasion they came out in a swampy area along the lake shore. They turned back, retraced their steps for about a hundred paces, and struck off in a new direction. Kim had never been a hiking enthusiast, and she was beginning to have second thoughts when the ground started to rise.
“This might be it,” she said. “The place was on the brow of a low hill.”
It was a slippery climb. They took turns falling down and suddenly they were tumbling in the snow and Solly, who probably would have preferred to look irritable, couldn’t resist laughing.
But they got to the summit, and there it stood!
Whatever lawn might have once existed behind a peeling wooden fence had been swallowed by bushes, weeds, and shrubbery. The villa itself lay in a tangle of spruce and oak trees. Vines had grown over it and the wind had taken the roof off. The front door was missing.
She played her lantern across it and compared it with pictures she’d brought. “Yes,” she said. “This is it. No question.”
They circled around to the rear. A side wall had collapsed. Windows were broken, frames shattered. An oak was threatening to push over the east wing.
It was made mostly of brick. Two stories, glass dome, oval windows, rotunda, turret. None of that cheap mass-produced stuff for Kile Tripley. Kim stood in the snow, transfixed by the ruin.
“What are you thinking?”
“About transience, I guess. I was wondering if Emily was ever here.”
Followed by Solly, she stepped over the threshold into the rotunda. It was good to get out of the wind. She flashed her beam around the interior, which the elements had destroyed. Overhead, two stories up, the dome was covered with dirt and vegetation. During Tripley’s time it would have revealed the stars.
The walls were mottled and crumbling. A sagging staircase arced up to the second floor where it became a circular balcony. There were several doorways on both levels, and a fireplace on the lower.
One door hung out of its frame. Others were missing altogether. A central corridor opened off the rear of the rotunda directly in front of her and ran to the back of the house. Solly pointed his lamp into it, and they saw at the far end a flight of stairs leading down.
The floor creaked. “Careful where you put your weight,” he said.
Everything was covered with leaves and dirt. The ground-level rooms looked empty. Kim swung her lamp beam up, trying to see through the second-floor doorways. Shadows moved around the walls.
“I don’t think we’ll find much here,” Solly said.
Claws scrabbled across a hard surface. An animal retreated from the light, but she couldn’t see what it was.
“Probably a squirrel,” said Solly.
“Or a rat.”
The wind howled around the house. Branches creaked.
Had she been alone, she would have called it off at that point and gone back to the flyer. She had met, and exceeded, her obligation to Sheyel. To Emily.
But they’d come all this way and Solly would expect her at least to look in the rooms.
Stairs first. Go up and confront the rat. Solly took the lead, testing each step as they went. The entire structure swayed and sank under their weight. Near the top a board gave way underfoot. He lost his balance and grabbed the banister, which sagged outward. Solly would have gone down the quick way had Kim not grabbed him and hauled him back. She took a moment to compare herself favorably with the young woman at the Germane Society.
“This might not be a really good idea,” he said, shaken. They went cautiously the rest of the way to the top and peeked quickly through each doorway. In some, ceilings had given way. The rooms were filled with dirt and dry leaves. Carpets had turned to mold.
They found a broken bed frame and a bureau with no drawers, a smashed table, a couple of chairs. The smell of the place was strong.
Pipes stuck out from broken walls. Basins, tubs, and showers were filled with the detritus of decades.
They went back downstairs.
The rooms at ground level were not quite so ill-used because they were slightly less open to the elements. But here again no usable furniture was left. Cables hung out of ceilings, the floors were in a state of decay, and they found a dead, half-eaten squirrel in a corner behind a collapsed table whose top, when she cleared it off, had a chessboard design. Kim had read somewhere that Kane enjoyed the game and wondered whether he and Tripley had ever played here. And if so, who had won.
She crossed to the kitchen and dining areas, found a broken chair and shattered pottery. Weeds pushed up through the floor.
Solly was standing in the middle of the rotunda, idly shining his lamp around, bored, shivering, ready to go.
Kim walked back to the down-stairway at the rear of the house. “Let’s take a quick look,” she said, testing the handrail.
“Careful,” he cautioned.
The stairs sank under her weight. “Maybe you should stay here,” she said. “I’m not sure it’ll support you.”
He thought about it, looked at the stairway, pushed at the rail and watched the structure sway. Then he pointed his light down into the room below. It looked harmless enough, with a long table, a couple of chairs, and several trash bags stacked against a wall.
“I think we ought to just pass,” he said.
“Only take a minute.” She went down, testing each step, and was glad to get off at the bottom. The basement was less cold and damp than the rest of the house.
There were three rooms and a bath. She found a broken sofa decaying in one, and some carpets stacked up in another.
The table had data feeds, housings, and connections for electronic equipment. A mount hung from the ceiling. Probably for a VR unit.
“See anything?” asked Solly. The beam from his lamp illuminated the stairway.
“It was a workroom or lab at one time. I’ll be up in a minute.”
The walls were cedar-paneled, and they’d held up fairly well. The floor was artificial brick. There were magnets where pictures or plaques had once hung.
“Well,” she said, “that’s interesting.”
“What is?” called Solly.
The stairway started to swing. “Don’t try to come down,” she said. “It’s a trash can.” With the imprint EIV 4471886. She checked her notes: It was Hunter’s designator.
It was half-filled with metal parts and crumpled paper and rags. There were expended cartridges of compressed air and cleaning fluid canisters and an empty wine bottle. She found food wrappers and packing for computer disks and reams of printed pages.
They consisted of lists of names, possibly donors for the Foundation; financial statements; purchase records; test results for various engine configurations; and all kinds of other data whose purpose she couldn’t make out. But all had dates, and the most recent she could find was January 8,573. Before Tripley had left on the last Hunter voyage.
Several of the trash bags had been ripped open, probably by animals. She turned them over one by one and spilled their contents, finding corroded cables and hardened towels and dust cloths and battered monitor housings and interfaces and juice cartons.
Someone more thorough than she was might have been willing to take the time to go methodically through the trash. Who knew what might be there? But it was getting colder. And it seemed pointless.
The wind moved through the house like something alive. There were noises in the walls and tree limbs brushed windows upstairs. She turned the beam around the room, watching the darkness retreat and close in again.
“I don’t think there’s anything here,” she told Solly. “I’ll be up in a minute.” She hoisted herself onto the table, took off her shoes and socks, and rubbed her feet, which had lost all feeling. When she got the circulation going she turned the socks inside out. It didn’t help much because they were stiff and cold, but it was something.
When she was finished she dropped back onto the floor. Amid the debris, she saw a woman’s shoe. It was impossible to know what color it had originally been, but it had a curious kind of fibrous sole, unlike any she’d seen before.
What was it?
She put it into her utility bag.
“Kim.” Solly’s voice betrayed impatience. “Are we ready yet?”
“Coming up,” she said.
He provided light, angling his lamp so it wouldn’t be in her eyes, told her to be careful, and appeared to be holding his breath, waiting for the staircase to collapse. She was about halfway up when a support broke and the whole structure dropped a few centimeters. She grabbed for the rail. He leaned forward as if to come to her aid but instantly thought better of adding his weight to hers. In that moment her own lamp silhouetted him, and she saw something draw back into the darkness.
She froze, the swaying staircase forgotten.
“Take your time,” said Solly.
She was sure she had seen it.
A piece of the darkness that infested the house. A piece that had broken off and withdrawn.
When she got to the top she swung her beam around the kitchen, looked into the doorways, and stepped out into the middle of the rotunda to survey the upper level.
“What’s wrong?” asked Solly.
There were shadows everywhere. “Nothing,” she said.
He knew better, but he didn’t pursue the issue, other than to follow her eyes. “I don’t guess you found anything?”
She held out the shoe. “Ever see one like this?”
He played his light over it. “Sure,” he said. “It’s a grip shoe.”
“A grip shoe.” He took it from her and pushed it against a wall. It stuck momentarily, and then fell. “Well,” he said, “it’s kind of beat up, but they’re used on starships in zero-gravity situations.”
“—Used on starships.” She held it against her own foot. Too small. It couldn’t have been Emily’s.
“What are you thinking, Kim?”
“Just wondering who it belonged to.”
The wind had died down and some of the clouds had blown off. Out over the lake, one of the moons had broken through.
They retraced their steps back down the hill and into the trees. They found the place where they’d doubled back and turned away from the river. Their prints were still deep and clean and they followed them back toward the flyer, moving deliberately, driven by the knowledge that it would be warm and dry in the aircraft.
But suddenly the prints stopped. In the middle of the trail, they were there, and beyond a certain point, between one step and another, they were not.
“The wind must have covered them over,” said Solly.
They were quite clear here, his large prints, her small; and they were simply missing there. They turned on their lamps. Incredibly, it was as if the two of them, earlier in the evening, had simply materialized out of the air. Materialized with his left footprint, her right, behind which there was only virgin snow.
She looked behind them, playing her light against the trees and along the trail. Nothing moved. “Yes,” she said. “Must have been the wind.”
They hurried forward, expecting the tracks to show up again momentarily. The lamp beams bobbed in front of them. Neither spoke now, and Solly picked up Kim’s habit of looking behind at regular intervals.
“I remember this oak,” she said. “We came right past here. I know we did.” But the snow was deep and apparently undisturbed.
Eventually the path divided and they hesitated.
“Which way?” she asked.
“The lake’s on the left,” whispered Solly. “Stay close to the lake.” Solly seemed unsettled and that positively terrified her.
They got lost, as was inevitable under the circumstances. At one point Kim caught her jacket on a dog-rose bush and tore it.
They broke finally into the glade with the tumbled shed and the footprints began again. She should have been glad to see them, but they were simply there, appearing in the middle of the glade, nothing on this side of them except unbroken snow, as if their earlier selves had stepped off the world. The sight chilled her.
“Keep going,” said Solly.
That part of the mind which withdraws from fear and watches emotional eruptions with dispatch now suggested she was in a VR scenario, that what she was experiencing could not happen in the real world.
Or that Sheyel had been right.
They came out of the tree line and saw the lake and the flyer. Kim fought down an urge to run for it. They walked deliberately across the beach, moving with comic swiftness.
Behind them, the forest remained dark and quiet. Far off to the east, a string of lights moved against the sky. The train from Terminal Island bound for Eagle Point. Solly keyed the remote and the flyer’s lights came on. The hatch opened and the ladder dropped.
Out on the water something glimmered. A reflection. A lamp. Something.
Kim paused long enough to make sure the backseat was empty, and climbed in. Solly followed her and shut the hatch. Ordinarily her first thought would have been to get out of her wet shoes and socks. Instead she sat still while Solly inserted the key card into the dex and punched the GO button.
“Solomon,” the AI said. “What is our destination?”
“Up,” Solly said. “Up.”