The Directorate building was at the end of a meandering, narrow road that stretched some miles from the highway. Built as the Petal Point Lighthouse, no consideration had been given to having it near civilization; all consideration was given to having it on the most prominent bluffs on this stretch of the California coast.
In recent years, this isolation was appreciated by the O.R.D. scientists who preferred to work undisturbed. But now that lovely, long approach road became a potential death trap.
Penny’s car veered from side to side, kicking up dust and gravel from both shoulders of the road. She was driving with reckless abandon, her eyes glazed and staring, her foot flattening the accelerator against the floor.
Half a mile behind her, John and Nelson strained to see through the cloud of dust, and recoiled when pebbles smacked into the windshield. Neither of them dared to look at the speedometer.
They covered the four miles of access road in even fewer minutes, and approached the highway that crossesd perpendicularly at the end.
Penny didn’t slow up, but made the 90-degree turn to the right in a beautiful, four-wheel-drift arc, grazing the far shoulder, then straightening out down the middle of the highway, leaving a fine film of rubber behind her like a black mist in the air. It was an amazing stunt, given that she’d never driven a car before.
John slowed for the turn, losing more ground. She was now pulling away from them, nearly out of sight, heading southeast into the desert.
The highway was flat, broad, and quite straight. John gradually pushed the car up to top speed. Telephone poles, signposts, and fences flashed by them in a blur.
All three of them in the two cars wore their white lab coats. Other than that and their similar speeds, there were no similarities between Penny in the first car, and the two scientists in the second. Penny drove mechanically, expressionlessly, emotionlessly; John and Nelson were tensed almost to hysteria by the frightful speed of the chase.
It was inevitable that sooner or later Penny would pass a State Highway Patrol car. The car was parked on the shoulder, motor running, while the trooper filled out a report. Immediately upon Penny’s passing, at a speed the trooper judged to be over a hundred miles an hour, he spun his wheels, screeching onto the macadam behind Penny.
Because it would be necessary to know her exact speed for arrest reports, the trooper watched his own speedometer climb over one hundred. The siren blared into the wind. With his super-charged engine, he was gaining on Penny’s three-year-old Directorate Buick LeSabre.
Then between them to the left, an old pickup truck with tall wooden sides and a load of chickens eased onto the highway. The trooper pumped his brakes---nearly useless at that speed---went into a sideways skid, and hurtled off the road onto the shoulder. The trooper skillfully managed to master the skid, gradually bringing the car under control and cursing the storm of feathers that drifted across his windshield.
By the time he steered his car back onto the highway, John and Nelson had roared by.
By now the trooper thought he was really onto something. Quickly he radioed ahead for backup, and gave chase to John and Nelson.
So intent were they on maintaining control of their overheating car and keeping Penny in sight that they were not at first aware of the siren howling behind them. Only when the powerful patrol car pulled abreast of them did they become aware of its presence.
In angry frustration, John yanked his foot off the accelerator and pushed it onto the brake, bringing the car to a gradual halt on the shoulder. They sat breathing heavily and staring straight ahead as the patrol car eased in behind them, its lights flashing.
The trooper got out and strolled up to them with seeming casualness---to John maddening slowness---his right hand resting on the top of his holster. From a bit behind the driver’s door, he said, firmly and slowly, “Both of you get out of the car, please, nice and easy.”
Unable to control their sense of urgency, they jumped out quickly enough to cause the trooper to step back.
“I’m Dr. Robinson!” John blustered. “This is Dr. Nelson! We’re with the Oceanic Research Directorate at Petal Point!′
They both shoved their IDs toward the officer, who checked them briefly, then eyed the scientists suspiciously.
“Please, that young woman ahead---you have to contact the patrol cars and tell them not to do anything that might cause the young woman driving that car to injure herself!”
“Now hold on, hold on,” he said, holding up a palm. “Just take it easy. Far as I’m concerned, another one of our cars will nail that crazy bitch if she doesn’t wrap herself around a telephone pole first. Now just take it easy and tell me what this is all about. Know how fast you were going? You could’ve.....”
“Please, listen,” John implored, clasping his hands together, “she’s an integral part of a most secret government project---our project---and she’s ill! Will you please radio ahead! Every second we waste.....”
“Already taken care of, sir. Far as the rest of it goes, I don’t know if....”
“Please! Do we look like criminals? We were trying to catch her! To save her! She doesn’t know what she’s doing!”
“Well, when you’ve got a situation like that, sir, the best thing you could’ve done would be to put in a call right away to the State Highway.....”
“Listen to me!” John was practically out of control. “This is a serious matter for the whole country!”
The trooper pursed his lips and scratched his ear. “All right, sir. I’m going to have this all checked out right now. I’ll go after her. If you’re putting me on, you’ll be sorry.”
“Quickly! We’ll follow you!”
He nodded, then turned to Nelson. “You don’t seem to have one whole hell of a lot to say. You letting him drive, too?”
Nelson scowled and got back into the car.
“Let’s go,” the trooper said.
John had an afterthought, and trotted after him. “Here!” He waved out a business card. “Take this. It’s got the Directorate number on it. When you spot the woman in the car, would you please call the Directorate and speak to Al Calavicci? He’ll relay the police messages directly to us on our two-way radio.”
The trooper nodded, accepted the card, slid behind the wheel and took off.
They churned onto the highway behind him.
By now, of course, Penny was entirely lost to the. But John’s reckoning was that Penny was not so much trying to escape from them as to get to some particular place of importance to her. And for miles and miles along this highway there was nothing significant. Just desert. She figured she would be somewhere on the road ahead of them.
The trooper, now not in sight of his target, drove with slightly moderated speed, between ninety and a hundred, and John could keep up---though the temperature gauge was approaching the red line again.
He switched on the two-way radio and turned the volume up full. To Nelson he said, “I told him to get in touch with Al back at the lab. The police will call him when they spot Penny and Al will relay the messages to us.”
“You tell him anything else?”
“Nothing more than you heard.” He plucked the mike off the radio and put it to his mouth. “6-0-S-3, this is 6-0-S-1 Mobile. Can you read, Al? Over.”
Holding the mike in one hand and steadying the flying car with the other, he waited a few seconds.
“I read you, John,” came Al’s reply. “We already got a call. According to the police, Penny’s about ten miles ahead of you and staying on the main highway. They’re clocking her at over a hundred miles per hour. What’s wrong with her? What’s this all about?”
“Sorry, Al, we can’t transmit that. We’ll leave our receiver open. Give us the reports on Penny as you get them. Out.”
He hung up the mike.
Nelson stared straight ahead, watching the highway unfold ahead of them with dazzling speed. “I didn’t know Penny could drive. When did you teach her?”
“I didn’t. They must’ve taught her.”
“They? You mean the beings?”
He glanced at him and saw he wasn’t kidding. “But how could they know?”
“How can they do any of the things they do?”
“Hmm. Maybe they got driver’s ed wherever they come from.”
They fell silent. They sat jouncing slightly a the car sped over the smooth, black highway. Their eyes were narrowed and focused far ahead. Their cheeks twitched occasionally. Nelson’s hands gripped his thighs. John’s hands were tight on the sides of the wheel, his knuckles white.
The radio crackled alive. “John, this is Al. Over.”
He snatched the mike. “Go ahead, Al.”
“Penny should have reached the next patrol car five minutes ago. When she didn’t, they backtracked and found the car.”
They both paled. “Wrecked?” he asked in a choked voice.
“No. She wasn’t in it. I told the staties to wait for you at the car. Do you copy? They’ll wait at the car. Over.”
“We copy,” he said with some---but by no means total---relief. “How far ahead is it?”
“I don’t know where you are, John. But judging from the speed, and the fact that she was two miles ahead, maybe it’s about half that now. Her car’s off on a side road, marked Sandy Lane....”
“She’s in the desert! She’s gone into the desert!”
“Looks that way.”
John hung up the mike slowly. “She said she was cold.” Already the trooper’s car ahead of theirs had accelerated. He sped up too.
In two minutes the trooper swerved to the left and turned into Sandy Lane, his tires spewing up sand behind him.
Penny’s car was only a few hundred yards down the narrow road. The first Highway Patrol car was parked behind Penny’s, and now the second, which they had trailed, pulled up behind that. John skidded to a stop fourth in line.
Surrounding them was nothing but dry sand and scrub growth, stretching away in a slightly hilly, arid landscape.
They hopped out and ran over to where the two troopers were conversing.
The one they had not yet met turned to them. “You Dr. Robinson?”
Both troopers were tall and lean, towering over John and Nelson. Both were handsome, with craggy features, and both spoke with the typical dry monotone with which policeman are taught to address taxpayers.
“I checked around when I first got here,” he said.
He waved a hand off to the south, toward a dry-wash gully. “Your girl must’ve gone in there. I found some tracks, but I didn’t see any other sign of her.”
“What’s in there?” Nelson asked.
“A whole bunch of nothin’. Dry as a bone. Got some scrub, a few rises. No water. No cattle. Just snakes and jackrabbits with too much sense to come out during the day. Likely a bunch of lizards too. Gets drier and hotter that farther you get from the road. Figured I’d better come back and wait for you before I got on with some serious tracking.”
The scientists had already started toward the gully. “We’ve got to go after her alone!” John called back.
“Don’t you think we should.....”
“No!” He was half running now. “This is the only way she can be saved!”
The two troopers looked at each other, then stood watching as John and Nelson disappeared into the gully.
Penny crossed a sandy knoll and started down the other side. Then she stopped. She was panting severely. Her skin, as taut as leather stretched over her bones, glistened with the eerie sheen in the burning rays of the California sun. Her eyes were glazed, aimed straight ahead but focusing on nothing.
She sank slowly to her knees, breathing faster. Despite the heat and the exertions of her flight, she didn’t perspire. Penny had no mechanism for perspiration, which was why she was vulnerable to heat. The ends of her fingers and the tips of her nose and ears were tinged brown, the first signs of serious dehydration.
She pushed herself awkwardly to her feet, stumbled to the side, then wobbled ahead down the dune, weaving an erratic course deeper into the desert.
She staggered on, half running, half stumbling. She seemed drawn toward high spots, one after another, where the exposure to the sun was most severe. She reached a dry, rocky slope and clambered up, scratching at the rock with her fingers. She reached the top and fell forward on her knees.
She ripped at the buttons of her lab coat, tore it open, and dropped it behind her over the lip of rock, leaving only her bathing suit and a blue T-shirt to protect her from the brutal rays of the sun. Then she rose, unevenly, laboriously, staggering, and finally stood erect. She stood wavering and tall, the tallest thing in view, like a leafless tree with shuddering limbs.
Spread out before her were miles and miles of sand flats and dunes, a forbidding, undulant, desert-scape of sand and sky---nothing else. Desolation. Unfit for life except that which, during the day, huddled deep in holes or under rocks.
Penny took a step forward on the downward slope, then stumbled and fell. Tumbling, rolling down the rock, clawing with hands and feet to stop herself, she finally came to rest in the sand at the base of the rise.
She got to her knees, but no further. Her eyes were open to their widest limit, even under the searing sun. There she knelt, as though in response, as if ignorant of the blistering rays, as if lost in thought or dreams, as if in some timeless situation w here no urgency impelled her further. She was as still as the sand and the rock and the desert and the life buried under them. She didn’t move even as much as her shadow, cast starkly in a shortened, stump-figure to her left, the shadow whose progress under the drifting sun was so slow as to be measured in grains of sand.
Her taut skin glistened as if made of ice, and she remained frozen under the unremitting broil of the desert heat.
Suddenly she came alive. She moved, hauled herself up. She stood groggily tottering. She raised her arms slowly and gripped her shirt, then ripped it off and let it fall lazily beside her like the tattered remnants of a storm-battered flag. All the parts of her body not covered by her trademark swimsuit were now exposed to the brilliant, battering sun.
Then again she stumbled forward, her eyes on yet another distant dune rising on the horizon.
Penny’s tracks were not easy to follow. Here and there they crossed over rocks or mingled with crossing spoors of slinking desert night-animals.
The two scientists plodded through the gully and out of it, struggled up and down dunes, always keeping their eyes on the sparkling sand.
They lost the trail. They separated a few yards, scanning the terrain.
John stopped. “Here! Could that be a footprint?”
Nelson trotted over clumsily, slipping in the sand. “Could be. If there are others like it.”
Penny’s footprints were not well defined, but simply directionless dimples in the sand.
They found two more likely tracks, and headed off in that direction. They were dripping with sweat, their clothes like sodden blankets on their backs, weighing them down. Their eyes burned form both sweat and sunlight.
“The temperature must be a hundred and twenty,” Nelson said, panting.
“And Penny is probably dehydrating at ten times her normal rate, Harry. She could be dying.”
They lost the trail again for a minute.
“This way!” Nelson cried. “She went up this slope over here!”
They worked their way up that dune and down it, heading toward a rocky slope further on.
Suddenly John pointed ahead. “Look! There’s something up there! On the rocks!”
They charged toward the spot of white, gasping for breath. When they reached it they sagged to their knees. John picked the cloth up. Nelson was already nodding when he said, “Her lab coat.”
Summoning up reserve energy, a third wind, they sprinted up the rocks to the crest and stared off, their breath pumping in and out of them like distant thunder.
They saw only what Penny had seen: endless, lifeless desert.
But then below them, at the base of the rock, they saw not footprint, but a larger gouge in the sand where Penny had fallen. And near that, the ragged remains of her blue T-shirt.
Unable to speak between sucks for air, they both pointed, then slithered down the rock and slogged on over the sand.
Her tracks were clearer now, the direction more constant. They could see---though unclearly through their blurred eyes---the next dune Penny must’ve climbed. The tracks headed toward it.
Drawing more on will and nerve than strength, they set course for the dune, eyes straight ahead, no longer even looking down at the tracks, as if the sight of the dune and nothing else could cause them to advance.
They mounted the dune and somehow kept going over the top and down the other side.
And then, in the other distance, perhaps a hundred meters away, wavering like a mirage in the rising waves of heat, they saw her.
Penny lay face down in the sand, unmoving, as still as a bleached log.
They tramped toward her, their breath coming like cries---or their cries like breath.
But when they were but a few meters from her, Penny struggled to her knees, then to her feet. They were almost upon her when she plunged forward, away from them. Nelson tried to grab her arms, but Penny swatted away his hands.
The three of them struggled on over the sand in a slow-motion chase, their legs buckling from time to time. The gap was closed an inch at a time. Finally John was at Penny’s side, reaching out for her. She swung her arm, catching him off-balance, and he stumbled and fell.
With a last, mighty lunge, Nelson dove for Penny’s legs, clamped his arms around them, and brought her down. They rolled in the sand, and as Penny tried to claw forward with her hands, Nelson squeezed Penny’s legs desperately to his chest and desperately held on.
Finally Penny quit. Nelson released his hold and remained lying behind her. John crawled over and turned Penny onto her back. Involuntarily, he shrank back in horror.
Penny’s face was dark brown, the skin still taut; her eyes were staring; her breath came as a fading rattle from deep in her throat.
Nelson slipped out of his lab coat and spread it over Penny to protect her from further damage from the sun---a gesture he knew was nearly futile.
Tears mingled with sweat on John’s face. “We haven’t got long,” he gasped hoarsely, “if we’re going to keep her alive.”
Nelson shook his head, his shoulders heaving up and down. They both knelt beside Penny, gazing gravely at her and trembling with exhaustion.
Then they looked at each other with deep, questioning, agonizing looks of near hopelessness. They both nodded, as though having reached a silent pact.
“There’s no other way,” Nelson whispered.
They bent down and looped Penny’s arms over their shoulders. Counting softly together, on “three” they hoisted her up, staggering to remain erect themselves. Penny was a heavy deadweight sagging between them.
Slowly they turned her around and began lugging her unconscious form back the way they’d come, not even daring to look ahead at the impossible path they had to retrace.
The two troopers stood leaning on Penny’s car, looking off in the direction the scientists had gone, fidgeting and nervously shifting their feet, folding and unfolding their arms, from time to time shaking their heads but saying nothing. Off to the right, their radios occasionally rasped with communications to various Highway Patrolmen on various other matters.
Then one trooper said softly, “It’s our asses if they don’t get back.”
After a long pause, the other answered, even more softly. “Theirs too, don’t forget.”
They shook their heads sadly.
“We shoulda gone with ’em.”
Another long pause. “Maybe. They seemed to know what they were doing.”
The other trooper spat some dust out of his mouth. “What in the holy hell are they doing out there?”
“I think----we should call in.”
The first trooper looked at him. “And say what?”
They both grunted, nodded, spat into the sand, and gazed off across the arid, glimmering desert.
Suddenly they both stiffened and came to attention. John appeared staggering out of the mouth of the dry wash. They ran to meet him. He stumbled into their arms.
“Did you find her?” one of them asked as they helped him toward the patrol car.
He choked and coughed and nodded. His voice came in weak gasps. “We need----a helicopter....right away---she’s dying.”
They hustled him into the back seat of the patrol car and laid him down. One of them slid into the front and grabbed the radio mike.
John raised his head. “We need a blanket....water....as much as possible....right now.”
Nelson carried Penny, fireman’s style, across his shoulders. Penny outweighed him by twenty pounds, and Nelson bore her like a cross. Exhaustion swept over him in waves, and with the waves delirious visions alternated with spurts of clarity. Step after step he plodded, forcing himself to think of just one step at a time. The weight and the heat compressed him, made him feel like some tiny, lost creature, small as an ant, in the middle of nowhere, headed nowhere, of no importance in the scheme of things....
Nothing mattered now except the next step....the next step. In the view from his head, bowed under the load, his shoes became boats, the sand the sea; each ripple below him was a whitecap, he was flying.
His mind reeled in and out of fantasy. The weight on his shoulders became at times nothing, at times unbearable. He was rising and falling, rising and falling. Somehow, below him, the shoe-boats kept up their dreary alternations; as one vanished under him, the other magically reappeared before him. After a while he didn’t even think of one step at a time, he thought of nothing. He just watched numbly as the shoe-boats kept shuffling. He was as detached from them as a cloud from river barges.
At once the fantasies faded. Nelson was sinking to his knees. All the pain and exhaustion swept back over him. He shook his head, trying to blink it away, trying to will himself back up. But his body was spent. He could go no further.
He had no guilt about that. His mind was clear. His strength was gone. His scientist’s brain read him the unquestionable verdict: sugar, adrenalin, protein, carbohydrates were gone; the body was, for now, depleted of energy.
Gently he leaned to one side and let Penny slide from her shoulders to lie face down in the sand. Nelson turned Penny’s dark face to the side, and gouged out a little valley in front of her mouth and noise to allow her to breathe---if she could.
Nelson gazed around. He saw nothing and expected to see nothing---nothing but what he had been seeing for a long time. Just sand on rocks and desolation.
No John appeared over the crests of the dunes; no savior broke the blinding horizon. So he was alone with Penny. Penny’s breath came in faint, uneven rasps. Her face was blackening with dehydration; the skin was still taut from the invasion of the beings with voices.
For an instant---just an instant---Nelson thought he would almost like to hear those awful squeals and chirps from the beings, just to have company.
But the only sounds were his own breathing and Penny’s. And Penny’s would not last much longer.
Nelson knelt beside her and leaned over her, using his own body to cast a protective shadow over Penny’s deathlike face.