The cancer laughed, the worm chuckled glutinously, the ants chittered happily and came an inch closer.
Drew laughed back at them, for he realized that the book's very missingness only proved its importance. He was back on the trail.
He watched her from a few meters away. It didn't matter if she caught him watching her: if she was with them, she was already watching him. But she did not seem to notice that she was being watched. She was busy scanning returned books, remagnetizing their security strips. She looked, at least, like a real librarian. Her face did not look like a meatsteak. He decided to take a chance. He did not have much time.
"Are you being helped?"
He caught his breath as she put the book that she had been holding aside: she placed it very deliberately on the counter beside her, plainly in view. All the other books she had been scanning had disappeared somewhere beneath the counter, out of sight. This one, he now saw, she had not placed perfectly square with the edge of the counter, but had left it slightly, yet precisely, askew.
That was the sign.
"You're with the ... mother of thousands?" he said.
Her face was blank and brisk and impatient, but her voice had said: Not here, not now, they are listening, it's not safe. He felt a rush of gratitude towards her that threatened to bring tears to his eyes. He tightened all his muscles resolutely.
"I'm looking for a book," he managed to say.
"Okay. Do you know the call number?"
Did he know the call number? What did she mean by that? Did he know the "call number"? What was the call number? The number by which he would be called? He was going to be called! Yes, he knew that. He nodded eagerly. It had already happened. It was happening now.
"What is it?"
He remembered the other, superficial meaning of "call number." Of course he did: his mind was ticking over like a warm engine. He gave her the number from memory, sensing, even as he did so, that he was accessing something deeper, vaster, than his own individual memory bank.
He was a soldier in the mother of thousands' army. He was an avatar of Gaia, a manifestation of the will of the planet.
Why me? Tears pooled in his eyes, emotion swelled the back of his throat and trickled down the rope of nerves that connected the hinges of his jaw to his groin.
He realized that the cells in his body were actually changing. He was undergoing a process of physical rebirth. He was being genetically modified by his mother. He felt crushed beneath his unworthiness and gratitude.
"Looks," she said, peering down at her HDR screen, "like it was just returned. Hold tight. I won't be a minute."
The words tolled in his head like a church bell: Hold tight. I won't be a minute. She'd meant something by that. She knew who he was. The tears returned with a sweet sting to his eyes. What a gift it was to be recognized, to not be alone ...
On the subway, he watched a girl sit down several seats away, but facing him. At the next stop, a man got on and sat down in the seat opposite her, his back to Drew, though there were still many empty seats.
They were talking about him.
"Here we are. Just as I expected."
"Great," he said—and cut himself short, lest his emotion overflow.
"Did you want to check it out?"
"Oh, no," he said. "I just want to have a browse through it—for now."
He got off at the next stop; they did not even try to follow him.
That worried him. They must have agents on every train.
"Well, if you finish with it," said the librarian, "just put it in one of the shelving carts."
"I will," he said, permitting some of his emotion to spill into these two innocuous words.
Gon' shoot you in the knees when your time is come ...
He knew now who Persinger was. Mike had mentioned him; he was the one who had explained UFOs, discovered that they were the physical and psychological result of intense electromagnetic-field columns produced by sudden tectonic plate shifts.
So the ticklish familiarity of a half-memory had tricked him into thinking the name significant. He had been about to throw the book aside when he came across the following diagram.
It reminded him of something. He had seen it before. Where?
Then he remembered. One of Miranda's sketches.
So he looked more closely at the book. One of the sub-headings of one of the final chapters was "The Concept of a Geopsyche."
He got back on the next train. He no longer knew if he was being followed or not. If they had agents on every train, they must still be looking for him. But if they were still looking for him, the mother of thousands would know about it. On the one hand, the ants hadn't reached him yet; on the other hand, if they knew his location, they could zap him at any time. But just because he was being shown the way didn't mean his mind wasn't on fire. Possibly they didn't even know what he looked like. Probably they were looking for a man with a beard, for one thing. (The mother of thousands must have guided his hand, all those years ago, when he shaved it off.) Yes, they were looking for a man with a beard—and glasses! He removed his glasses and slipped them into an inner pocket. While he was at it he removed Mike's packet ... The coke was almost gone. He licked a finger and collected the dregs, then rubbed it on the back of his tongue, to kill the sour, toxic taste there. They could still poison him electromagnetically if they wanted to. But he wasn't going to take that lying down. He had places to be. He understood now. It all made sense now. Now, he was to be trifled with. Now, he was a force not to be reckoned with.
If a moving magnetic field was applied to a cable consisting of thousands of wires, it induced in them an electric current, which in turn produced an electric field over the entire group of wires. This electric field was in principle the product of the individual currents in the individual wires, but it was also an emergent phenomenon: that is, it had properties and behaviors of its own, which could not be reduced to the sum of its parts. For one thing, it could help induce a current in those wires which were not affected by the original moving magnetic field. In Drew's mind he saw the electric field as a sort of invisible fog of influence: it crept silently into a crowd and turned most of them, without their knowing why, in the same direction; and once the mob was moving that way, even the dissenters were carried along by the stream. For the individuals were not little wires in a cable, of course, but little bioelectric units called brains, packed densely together in a place called a city. The induced electric field, the invisible fog of influence, was the geopsyche; it had—was, literally—a mind of its own.
A bluebottle fly alighted on the window ledge, next to Drew's hand.
He did not shoo it away, but watched it.
He recognized it. He knew this fly. He knew its significance.
He did not think that it was the same fly that he had shooed away in the computer lab or that had buzzed past his face in the hallway, any more than he would have imagined that flies appearing in separate chapters throughout a novel were the same identical fly. But these flies were no more accidental than the fly-motif in that novel. They had been put here on purpose; they were meant to be noticed, to remind him of one another. A force much larger than he could imagine was scripting his life, orchestrating so-called coincidences. All the things that had been happening to him, all the impossibly harmonic resonances and echoes, were not coincidences but symbols. Clues. Pointers to deeper meaning.
The geopsyche, according to Persinger, was (Gon' shoot your kneecaps off your technology and you) transient. Like the electric field hovering over that wire, it only emerged when induced. It was induced by, was dependent upon, that moving magnetic field. That moving magnetic field had to be large enough and powerful enough to immerse all the units, all the brains in a given space, at the same time. Only a strong geomagnetic field, tectonoelectric field, or the field produced by a heavy electric storm would be sufficient to affect an entire population.
A large number of brains in a relatively small area would help to create the geopsyche. But even more important than sheer quantity was homogeneity.
Millions of people in close spatial proximity thinking the same thought at the same time could produce a geopsyche (assuming the magnetic field, the environmental energizer, was also in place at the time).
But the more complex a thought was, the more varied, intricate, and unique the pattern of electrical activity in the brain was likely to be.
Highly emotional responses, however, such as fear or hatred, were assumed to be much the same across the species.
Fear. Such as fear.
He looked at the advertising panel beside him, where a window presumably used to be. A slavering, reptilian monster with Asian features and swastikas for eyes, inexplicably wearing a pickelhaube; beneath it, in red, dripping letters, the ubiquitous slogan: THIS IS THE FACE OF THE ENEMY.
The lights in the subway car flickered, then went out.
A few gasps and one strangled shriek. Drew's heart spread itself across his ribs like hot paste. Then the car shuddered to a halt in total darkness, and the passengers fell silent.
For a moment. Then grumbles and sighs were heard. And soon, the obliging chirp of PDRs being turned on and the clicking of sill phones being dialed. Then silence again, as everyone around him subvoked their complaints and anxiety into the receptive earbugs of some sympathetic acquaintance, friend, lover, or family member.
Then came a pause. He could not hear or see anything, but he felt it: everyone paused, put their calls on hold—like some herd of grazing animals stopping to cock their ears at some approaching threat.
Him. You. Me.
They know I'm here. They can sense me. They can smell me. They're closing in on me. I can't breathe—
Dim emergency lights came on, but the car remained where it was.
They were all waiting to see what he would do. He'd removed his glasses, but he could tell that every face was turned towards him; they were all watching him, waiting to see what he would do.
The mother of thousands took over: he turned instinctively to the girl, approximately Miranda's age, seated across the aisle from him.
"Does your sill have voice?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Does your sill phone have a voice setting?"
"I think so."
"Can I borrow it? My wife and kids ... I should call ..."
"Oh. Of course." She pressed a few buttons, then handed it over.
Now he looked like one of them.
He dialed Mike's number—the only number he could think of.
"Hey, it's me," he said, trying to sound like a husband and father.
"Shitmeat! I've been trying you all morning. Why aren't you answering my phone?"
"No, I'm okay," he said, keeping his eyes averted with difficulty from the girl, "but no, I wasn't able to do that anymore. You know why."
There was a pause, then Mike heaved a sigh. "They traced it?"
"Sure," Drew said. "That's how they know where you are—honey."
"Listen, I've been—shit. Asshole. I've been up all night, researching this, and—"
There was a wet whisking and churning sound on the line. "Wait," said Drew. "Do you hear that?"
"I can't hear much of anything over all this fucking rain. Hello?"
"What rain?" The worm in his guts turned over. Forgetting his ruse, he blurted out, "Mike, where are you?"
"That's what I was about to tell you. There's this individual I spoke to years back, while researching the book. I think he might know something. But he won't take calls—he's kind of a paranoid, but can you blame him?—so I'm on my way to Topeka."
"Tope—?" He cut himself off. Don't give anything away. "Mike, are you driving?"
"Well, you know how I hate to fly."
"You hate to drive."
The lights brightened; the subway car lurched forward. There were murmurs of relief, but they were just for show. Drew knew that they were watching him closely now. All their eyes were on him. They would not let him get away.
"Mike, don't go any farther. Turn around, stop, come back. It's—"
"Shit! Sorry. What? Hold on, I can't see shit."
"Listen, Mike: I know. Are you there?"
"Yeah, but Drew, I'm going to put you down for a second, or put you on speaker here, if you'd stop tailing me, fucker, and go around ..."
"Mike, listen: I know. I know who it is. I know who's doing it. You don't have to go to—where you're going."
"I'm more than halfway, I might as well keep on, I'm through the worst of it, but this—Jesus fuck—"
A sound like a rotten tree trunk cracking in half, then a blast of raw noise—something too loud for the phone's speaker to reproduce; all that came out was a clipped, distorted shriek.
Then the line went dead.
And Drew was out in the storm. The train, the passenger-agents, the girl whose phone he'd borrowed—all distant memories, like some scene from childhood. The rain pelted his skin and skull in a million places, but it could not penetrate the images. The vivid, eidetic images that flashed through him—through the street, through the storm, through the world—in a melting, bursting phantasmagoria. Images of Mike's car hurtling down the highway, lashed by the storm, battered by the winds, and rammed off the road from behind; images of that hunk of metal sliding, flipping, crashing, and curling up like paper in a fire; images of Mike's body crushed and torn inside that hideous, folded wreck. They'd killed him. They'd killed him. The fuckers had killed him.
He ran into the nearest building, crying, "Call the police! Somebody call an ambulance!"
He stopped dead in the entrance.
Fifty, eighty, a hundred people, all staring directly at him, all with the same exact look on their faces. All thinking the same thing. (They'd been staring at him even before he'd come in. They'd known he was coming.) They all knew who he was. They all hated him.
A hundred hearts in a hundred places throughout his body clenched in fright; a thousand brainstems in a thousand locations became dizzy with terror.
These were not people; these were the ants. And they wanted to eat him alive.
Some of them muttered, some of them growled, some of them gasped in indignation. Some of them spat imprecations: "You fucker." "What an asshole." "This guy's fucking crazy." "Can you believe this shit?" "The cunt."
He stumbled away, half turning to run, or scream—but none of them moved. None of them even blinked.
They were not looking at him. They were looking at where he had been standing. There, he now saw, mounted above the door, was a television. And there, on the screen, was the face of the President.
He no longer looked stern, paternal, and capable. He looked haggard and half wild. He was shouting. He was raving. He was chopping the air with his hands like a madman. But Drew could hear nothing.
Manifold fears still coursed through his veins like infinitesimal toxins; his pulse still thundered in his skull, in his mouth. He circled around to the back of the indignant, muttering, fist-clenching crowd. Through a visible and almost palpable fog of unreality, he saw that he was in the bus station. It took him several minutes to calm down enough to ask someone what was happening.
"Huh? Are you kidding?"
"I can't hear; my earbugs ..."
People around them made shushing sounds.
"Don't you even read the papers?" The man gestured impatiently to a nearby newsstand, then turned decisively away from Drew.
TAYLOR: PRES'S ACCUSATIONS "OUT OF LINE"
PRES SAYS: "BRING IT ON"
HEAD TO HEAD
pres agrees to televised debate
over rumblings of impeachment
WHO'S IN CHARGE HERE, ANYWAY?
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO NOW?
TAYLOR Q'S PRES'S SANITY
STOP THE PRES?
It's official. The President has accepted Governor Alan G. Taylor's challenge. The two will go head to head this afternoon in a televised debate.
"I'm not obliged to do anything," said the President in a prepared statement to the press yesterday. "But I have nothing to fear. I have nothing to hide.
"I say," he added, "bring it on."
But the latest polls show that his confidence may be misplaced.
"The American people are deeply ambivalent at this time," said R. Davis Lloyd, executive analyst for Olson Bridges, research group and polling firm. "They don't know what to think."
As for tonight's debate, he says, "It could really go either way."
Others are more vehement. According to political pundit Allison Trutch, "A lot of people's faith in the President's abilities have suffered some serious setbacks."
Now, she says, for the first time in years, those people have a voice—in Governor Taylor.
"He could really stir things up," Trutch affirms.
Taylor, however, is more reserved than many of his most outspoken supporters.
"This is not about sensationalism," he attested last week, at the time he extended the challenge. "This is about minimizing sensationalism. The American people want sensible, thoughtful, rational political discussion. This can't be achieved by swapping insults and accusations through the press and popular media outlets. I want to bring this thing out into the open, and see what's what."
According to one of the members of his media relations agency, Governor Taylor has been a critic of the President's policies for several years. But he has only come into the public spotlight following the President's recent accusations, which Taylor has called "out of line."
According to the President, Taylor is still secretly involved behind the scenes with Landsend Logistics, which he alleges has ties to neo-fascist governments responsible for the terrible weather that has hit the U.S. over the last several years.
Taylor retired as CFO of Landsend Logistics more than eight years ago.
Landsend Logistics is a multinational conglomerate corporation with headquarters in New York, Prague, Kuala Lumpur, and Beijing. It includes among its subsidiaries such companies as Interest Tech, Verzionz, Lifeline Systemics, iLoom, Chad's All-American, and Xing-Xong Meteorological.
The debate will be mastercast live today at 2:00 p.m. EST on all major networks.
Drew pulled the sheaf of Miranda's papers from his pocket.
I M N o T K R A Z E
TH i L OO M R G A N i NG
P OW R O V R TH S K I O SH N
S T o P TH P R e S
P E R S N O Z H OW
I e M N o T K R A Z E
It was iLoom. And it wasn't "Stop the press" but "Stop the Pres." He looked at the key: the difference between an S and a Z was only in the direction of the squiggle; otherwise they were identical. Sally had read the code wrong, or Miranda had written it wrong.
iLoom are gaining power over the sky ... ocean ... stop the Pres. Ocean?
Had Sally made a similar mistake with "ocean"? The shorthand for "O" was a little hump, for "SH" a back slash, and for "N" a horizontal line. Put together, it looked like the number 2.
Of course. It was a number two. Miranda had reverted for that one word to another form of shorthand: instead of "to," the number 2.
iLoom are gaining power over the sky to stop the President.
The President was right. He wasn't crazy. This Taylor, through iLoom and Xing-Xong, was in league with the Chinese, the neo-fascists. They were controlling the President's mind, and through him, and through the television and the newspapers, controlling the minds of every American who hated him.
They were making him crazy, bombing his brain with schizophrenia, so the American people would have someone to hate, someone to fear. All at the same time.
It was happening right now.
He looked around him wildly. All these people glued to the television. Like iron filings around a magnet. Like ants in a slave state. Like wires in a cable. All thinking the same thoughts, feeling the same feelings. All angry, all afraid.
It was a set-up. This was the trigger.
And outside, happening right now, the electrical storm that would create the geopsyche, the mass mind, the hive consciousness—the mother of thousands.
"Don't look!" he screamed.
No one paid any attention. A couple near him reflexively flapped their hands at him, like they were shooing away a fly. Nothing more.
He lurched into the crowd and began clubbing them with the rolled-up newspaper.
"Don't look! Don't listen! Snap out of it! He's right! The President is right! Wake up!"
He reeled through the crowd, clambering over benches, lashing at them, waking them up, screaming the truth ...
Swatting them, fending them off, knocking them out of the air by the thousands ... shaking them off, running, tearing them from his skin ... but no matter how many he killed there were always millions more to take their place ... the buzz was deafening ... they were everywhere ... the air was thick with them, the sky was black ... they crawled over every inch of him ... they were in his nose, in his eyes, in his ears ... he could taste formic acid on his tongue ... he fell to his knees, still swinging the newspaper, screaming ... and seeing his weakness, they swarmed ...
All the ants swarmed, and, in a great dense cloud, chittering jubilantly, flew in through the skylight in the top of his head.