The men of the Riders in the Sky Church were distributing guns and supplies of ammunition at key defense points throughout the house, fortifying and barring most windows with spaced two-by-fours that were screwed to the interior casings, allocating compact fire extinguishers that they routinely carried in their pickups and SUVs, and taking every precaution they could think of to make the house as much of a fortress as possible.
Meanwhile, the womenfolk were in the kitchen and dining room with the younger children, turning mountains of groceries, brought from other less defendable houses, into pasta salads, potato salads, and casseroles. These could be stored in both the kitchen and garage refrigerators, ready to feed on demand everyone here gathered.
Three portable generators, fueled with gasoline, were being tied into the house’s electrical system to ensure refrigeration and microwave-oven availability if Rainbow Falls lost its power supply. Because the heating-oil tank had been filled only two days earlier, they could keep the furnace going for at least a month.
No one expected this war of the worlds to last anywhere near a month. Either the Lord would support humanity in the quick and utter defeat of these obviously godless invaders from a far world ruled by Satan, or this must be Armageddon. If this was in fact the final conflict, it would surely be swift because ultimate Good and ultimate Evil were clashing head-on, at last, and the latter could not endure more than a single pitched battle with the former.
After Teague delivered them to the spacious and busy kitchen to meet Dolly Samples, he went away to rejoin the guards patrolling the perimeter of the property. Although Dolly was industriously rolling out one disc of dough after another, making pumpkin pies—“End Times or not End Times, a well-made pumpkin pie lifts the heart and gives us fortitude”—she insisted on getting mugs of coffee and homemade sugar cookies for them.
Carson noticed that to one side of Dolly’s pie fixings lay a .38 Colt revolver. The other women working in the kitchen were talking with one another about the recent events at the roadhouse but also sharing such mundane things as fine details of recipes and their children’s latest escapades. They also had serious weapons near at hand: a SIG P245, a Smith & Wesson Model 1076, a Smith & Wesson 640 .38 Special pocket revolver, a Super Carry Pro .45 ACP from Kimber Custom Shop.…
They exhibited determination but no desperation, concern and diligence but no obvious fear. There were preparations to be made, work to be done, and busy hands meant busy minds that had no time for dread or despair.
The coffee tasted fabulous. The sugar cookies were divine.
“There were two kinds of these hateful creatures,” Dolly explained as she returned to her pie dough. “The first looked like people we knew, and you would think they would be the worst because they’re deceivers among us, children of the Father of Lies. But when they revealed their true nature by their actions, we could deal with them. They tried to shoot some of us, but we were faster on the draw, and they could be killed. It takes some real good shooting. One well-placed bullet, even point-blank, won’t do it.”
As she picked up a disc of dough and conformed it to a pie pan, Dolly glanced at a framed painting on the wall above the dinette table: Jesus in white robes and cowboy boots, riding a horse that was rearing dramatically on its hind legs. Instead of a cowboy hat, the Son of God wore a halo.
“The Lord was surely with us at Pickin’ and Grinnin’, or we’d all be dead now. We can’t claim it was our shooting skills alone that saved us.”
“But God helps those who help themselves,” Michael said. “And the right gun can provide a lot of self-help.”
Carson noticed with some relief that in the painting Jesus wasn’t packing a pistol.
Dolly said, “The second kind of monster looks like people, too, but not ordinary people. They’re as beautiful as angels. They look as good as Donny and Marie Osmond back when they were young and you just couldn’t take your eyes off them.”
Loreen Rudolph, to whom Carson and Michael had been introduced, was making potato salad on the kitchen island. She said, “Not that Donny and Marie have lost their looks.”
Another woman, stirring a pot of boiling pasta on the stove, said, “Even when Marie got fat there for a while, she looked on her worst day five times as good as I look on my best.”
“Cindy Sue, don’t you go putting yourself down,” Loreen said. “There’s a world full of women who would give up all their teeth to look as good as you.”
“All their teeth and a leg,” Dolly agreed.
Michael said, “All their teeth, a leg, and an ear.”
Cindy Sue blushed and said, “Oh, Mr. Maddison, you’re just a terrible flattermouth.”
Frowning at Michael, Dolly said, “I hope it was flattermouth and not mockery.”
“It was kind of mockery,” Carson said. “But that’s how Michael lets people know he likes them.”
“Even you, dear?”
“You must love him very much, although I’d think it’s still a burden.”
“He’s my cross to bear,” Carson said.
“I’ve got my cross, too,” Michael said.
“Sweetheart,” Carson said, “your cross is you.”
“Zinger!” said Loreen, and the churchwomen all laughed.
“Anyway,” Dolly said, “Marie Osmond was more plump than fat, and now she’s thin again and gorgeous. So these three angels come on the stage at the roadhouse, and we expect they’re a music act, but then they change shape, and these silvery swarms come out of them and eat people.”
Dolly’s description didn’t help Carson visualize the enemy.
Seeing her confusion, Farley Samples, one of Dolly’s teenage sons who had been listening while he peeled carrots, stepped forward and said, “What it was—these aliens have advanced nanotechnology. The three that looked like angels, they might have been machines but they just as easy could have been animals. Say they’re animals that were engineered to kill, okay? Then what they probably are … see, they’re each like a colony of billions of tiny nanoanimals no bigger than viruses, programmed to do different tasks. You follow? So they can come together and operate as one creature, each doing its own part, but they can also become a swarm of individuals. Each tiny nanoanimal has rudimentary intelligence, a little bit of memory. But when they all come together, they pool their intelligence, and so when they’re united, they’re smarter than even a smart human being.”
Beaming at Farley, his mother said, “He’s always done well in science. I expect he’ll be the next Bill Gates.”
“Bill Gates isn’t a scientist, Mom.”
“Well, he’s a billionaire, which is just as good.”
“He didn’t even graduate from college,” Farley said.
“When would he have had the time?”
“Who I want to be,” Farley said, “is the next Robert Heinlein. He wrote the best science fiction ever.”
Recognizing Farley Samples as the instrument by which she might convince these people that the threat wasn’t extraterrestrial, Carson said, “Son, nanotechnology isn’t just science fiction, is it?”
“No, ma’am. It’s going to be the next big thing. They’re making advances every day. But our nanotechnology isn’t so far along as what these ETs can do.”
“Maybe it is,” Carson said. “Maybe there’s a secret underground lab out there somewhere along what you folks around here call the End Times Highway. Maybe I know who runs the place, and maybe Michael and I are part of a team trying to shut it down. What would you say about that?”
Farley said, “Holy—”
“Bite your tongue, boy,” his mother warned.
“—macaroni,” Farley finished.
Calling to a couple of the women at work in the adjacent dining room, Dolly said, “Shanona, Vera—the best way for Carson and Michael to understand what we’re up against is to show them your video.”
Shanona Fallon and Vera Gibson came into the kitchen with their cell phones, with which they had been taking video of the stunningly beautiful young woman at Pickin’ and Grinnin’ when suddenly she had turned into a death machine that bored through Johnny Tankredo’s face and then seemed to dissolve and absorb him entirely.
Michael, being Michael, said, “Holy macaroni.”
Carson said nothing, because if she had put her thoughts into words, she could only have said, We’re dead.
Mr. Lyss switched on the living-room lights, and Nummy saw the Boze sitting at the upright piano, playing sad music.
The real Officer Barry Bozeman was dead in the kitchen in his underwear and bathrobe. If Mr. Lyss was right, this was like a Martian Xerox of the Boze.
The Xerox didn’t react to the lights coming on. He just kept making music.
Holding his long gun out in front of him, Mr. Lyss crept closer to the piano player, but not dangerously close. Mr. Lyss was bold but he wasn’t dumb.
Nummy stayed farther back and ready to run. He was dumb, all right, but not dumb enough to think he might not have to run.
“You,” Mr. Lyss said sharply. When the Xerox didn’t respond to him, the old man said, “Hey, you sonofabitch Martian asswipe, what’re you doing?”
The music was so sad it made Nummy want to cry. It was that kind of music in movies when a young mother is dying of cancer and they bring her little children one at a time to her bed for good-byes, and the kids’ daddy is coming home from war but might not get there in time for his good-bye, and you want so bad to switch to Animal Planet or the Food Network or even Spike TV, anything but this. You can’t remember why you started watching this, but now you can’t look away, you have to know will the daddy get there in time. He always gets there in time, but the mother always dies, and then you’re just a mess for the next day or two, you go through boxes of Kleenex, and you’ll never know what happened to the little kids with no mother. That kind of music.
When the Xerox still didn’t speak, Mr. Lyss said, “You too good to have a conversation with me? Don’t you dare snub me, you murderous Martian filth. You snub me, I’ll cut off your stuck-up nose, put it in a blender with ice cream, make a meat shake, and drink it up. I’ve done it before, a hundred times.”
The thought of a nose-flavored milk shake made Nummy gag and gag again, but he felt pretty sure he wasn’t going to puke up his dinner.
“I’m giving you one more chance, you stinking outer-space pile of crap. What’re you doing here?”
The Xerox didn’t look up. He watched his hands, the keys. He said, “What I’m doing here is playing the piano,” and he sounded exactly like the Boze.
“I’ve got eyes. Don’t tell me what I can see already. Why are you playing the piano?”
“When I downloaded his memories, I learned how to play. He could play pretty well, and now so do I.”
“What—am I supposed to applaud?” Mr. Lyss asked, his anger growing ever brighter, as it usually did when he got it lit. “Should I go out and buy a dozen roses and wait at the damned stage door for your sorry Martian ass? You never did a minute’s practice, so don’t expect any standing ovation from Conway Lyss. Why’re you screwing around with the piano instead of taking over the world like the rest of your pestilent kind?”
“I sat down here before dawn, and I’ve been playing straight through since then,” the Xerox said.
Nummy was impressed, and he wanted to ask the Martian how long he could go without peeing, but he figured then he would become the target of Mr. Lyss’s anger. He liked not being the target.
“You’re trying my patience, Darth Vader. You’re no more to me than a smear of cockroach vomit, so don’t try my patience. I didn’t ask you how long, I asked you why?”
For some reason he didn’t know, Nummy was half hypnotized by the hands of the Martian Boze, how they seemed to float across the keyboard, barely touching the black notes and the white, in fact seeming not to touch them at all, seeming instead to draw the music out of the piano with magic.
The Xerox said, “This morning … in the kitchen … during memory transference, as his life experience was being transmitted to me … he died of a brain hemorrhage.”
“I know he’s dead,” Mr. Lyss said, and spat on the floor. “That copper is as dead as Wyatt Earp, deader than a freaking rock. What the hell is wrong with you? All you do is tell me what I already know, not what I want to know.”
The hands floated across the keys like they were searching for something. To the left together, then apart, then together in the middle, then both to the right, like they lost something important, they were trying to find it, and the music was just something that happened during the search, the way music just happened in movies when the actors needed it. Whatever the hands were searching for, they were sad because they couldn’t find it, and that was why the music was sad.
The Xerox Boze still didn’t look up from the keyboard. He said, “When he died, our minds were twined. I saw exactly what he saw in the moment.”
“In the moment?” Mr. Lyss asked impatiently. “In the moment? What moment?”
“In the moment between.”
“Damn it all and damn it twice!” Mr. Lyss exploded. “Are you a Martian dummy? Do I have two dummies to contend with, neither of you able to speak so that more than other half-wits can understand you? The moment between what and what?”
“Between life and death,” the Xerox said. “Except it wasn’t death.”
“More double-talk! I could just pull this trigger and blow your head clean off your body, and maybe that would kill you or maybe it wouldn’t, but it would for sure at least be a big inconvenience for a while.”
Usually music itself couldn’t make Nummy cry, it needed to be music in a certain kind of movie, but this music was getting sadder and sadder, and he was worried that he was going to cry. He knew—he just knew—that if he cried, Mr. Lyss would make fun of him and say really mean things, call him “sissy boy” and worse.
“The moment between life and life,” the Xerox said.
Now his hands looked as sad as the music sounded, but beautiful, too, beautiful sad hands floating back and forth on the music.
The Xerox piano player said, “For just a moment, as he slipped away, I saw the world beyond the world, where he was going, where my kind can never go.”