When he stepped out of the main laboratory, something to his right, about sixty feet farther along the hall, drew his attention. It was big, perhaps as large as four men, with six thick insectile legs, like the legs on a Jerusalem cricket much enlarged, and a riot of other anatomical features. Numerous faces appeared to be embedded in the body, some in the oddest places. The face nearest to where a head belonged—and obviously the most dominant of the group—rather resembled Werner.
From this reprehensibly undisciplined creature came a dozen or two dozen voices, eerily childlike, all of them chanting the same grossly offensive word: “Father … Father … Father … Father …”
IN THE LIBRARY of the Helios mansion, Erika Five said, “I found it by chance yesterday.”
She slid her hand along the underside of a shelf and flicked the concealed switch.
A section of bookshelves swung open on pivot hinges, and ceiling lights revealed the secret passageway beyond.
Jocko said, “This feels bad to Jocko. You want Jocko’s opinion. Opinion is—not good.”
“It’s not just the passageway. It’s what lies at the other end of it that’s the bigger issue.”
“What lies at the other end?”
Crossing the threshold, she said, “Better you see it than I tell you. I’d color my description, no matter how I tried not to. I need your unbiased opinion.”
Hesitating to follow her, Jocko said, “Is it scary in there? Tell Jocko true.”
“It’s a little scary, but only a little.”
“Is it scarier than a dark, damp storm drain when you don’t have your teddy bear anymore?”
“I’ve never been in a storm drain, but I imagine one would be a lot scarier than this.”
“Is it scarier than Jocko’s teddy bear being full of spiders waiting for bedtime so they can crawl in his ears when he sleeps and spin a web in his brain and turn him into a spider slave?”
Erika shook her head. “No, it isn’t that scary.”
“Okay!” Jocko said brightly, and crossed the threshold.
The floor, walls, and ceiling of the four-foot-wide passageway were solid concrete.
The secret door in the bookshelves closed automatically behind the troll, and he said, “Jocko must really want that funny hat.”
The narrow corridor led to a formidable steel door. It was kept shut by five inch-thick steel bolts: one in the header, one in the threshold, three in the right-hand jamb, opposite the massive hinges.
“What’s locked in there?” Jocko asked. “Something that might get out. Something not supposed to get out.”
“You’ll see,” she said, extracting the bolts one by one.
“Is it something that will beat Jocko with a stick?”
“No. Nothing like that.”
“Is it something that will call Jocko a freak and throw dog poop at him?”
“No. That won’t happen here.”
Jocko did not appear to be convinced.
The steel slab swung smoothly away from them on ball-bearing hinges, activating lights on the farther side.
The subsequent twelve-foot-long passageway ended in a door identical to the first.
Scores of metal rods bristled from the walls, copper on Erika’s left, steel or some alloy of steel on her right. A soft hum arose from them.
“Uh-oh,” said the troll.
“I wasn’t electrocuted the first time,” Erika assured him. “So I’m pretty sure we’ll be okay.”
“But Erika is luckier than Jocko.”
“Why would you say that?”
The troll cocked his head as if to say, Are you serious? “Why would Jocko say that? Look at you. Look at Jocko.”
“Anyway,” she said, “there’s no such thing as luck. The universe is meaningless chaos. That’s what Victor says, so it must be true.”
“A black cat crossed Jocko’s path once. Then it came back and clawed him.”
“I don’t think that proves anything.”
“Jocko found a penny in the street after midnight. Ten steps later, Jocko fell down an open manhole.”
“That wasn’t luck. That was not looking where you’re going.”
“Landed on an alligator.”
“An alligator in the storm drain? Well, all right, but it is New Orleans.”
“Turned out to be two alligators. Mating.”
“You poor thing.”
Indicating the rod-lined passageway, Jocko said, “You go first.”
As on her previous visit, when Erika entered this new corridor, a blue laser beam scanned her from top to bottom, to top again, as if assessing her form. The laser winked off. The rods stopped humming.
Reluctantly, Jocko followed her to the next steel door.
Erika extracted five deadbolts and opened the final barrier, beyond which lamplight swelled to reveal a windowless, twenty-foot-square space furnished as a Victorian drawing room.
“What do you think?” she asked the troll.
In just the second day of her life, Erika had arrived at a crossroads. Perplexed and irresolute, she needed another opinion of her circumstance before she could decide what she must do.
Jocko did a little moonwalk on the polished mahogany floor and said, “Smooth.” He squinched his toes in the antique Persian carpet and said, “Soft.”
Putting his peculiar nose to the William Morris wallpaper, he inhaled deeply, savored the smell, and said, “Paste.”
He admired the ebonized-walnut fireplace and licked the William De Morgan tiles around the firebox. “Glossy,” he said of the tiles.
Cupping his left hand around his left ear, he leaned close to one of the lamps that featured fringed shades of shantung silk, as if he were listening to the light. “Wednesday,” he said, but Erika did not ask why.
He jumped up and down on the wingback chair—“Springy”—studied the deeply coffered mahogany ceiling—“Abundant”—squirmed under the Chesterfield on his back and made a peeping sound.
Returning to Erika, he said, “Nice room. Let’s go.”
“You can’t just ignore it,” she said.
She pointed to the focal point of the chamber, an immense glass case: nine feet long, five feet wide, and more than three feet deep. It stood on a series of bronze ball-and-claw feet. The six panes of beveled glass were held in an ornate ormolu frame of exquisitely chased bronze.
“It seems to me like an enormous jewel box,” Erika said.
After smacking the flaps of his mouth, the troll said, “Yeah. Jewel box. Let’s go.”
“Come take a close look at the contents,” Erika said, and when he hesitated, she took his hand and led him to the mysterious object.
A semiopaque reddish-gold substance filled the case. One moment the contents seemed to be a fluid through which circulated subtle currents, but the next moment it appeared instead to be a dense vapor as it billowed against the glass.
“Does it contain a liquid or a gas?” Erika wondered.
“One or the other. Let’s go.”
“See how the gas or liquid absorbs the lamplight,” Erika said. “It glows so prettily throughout, gold and crimson at the same time.”
“Jocko needs to pee.”
“Do you see how the internal luminosity reveals a large, dark shape suspended in the middle of the case?”
“Jocko needs to pee so bad.”
“Although I can’t see even a single small detail of that shadowy form,” Erika said, “it reminds me of something. Does it remind you of anything, Jocko?”
“Jocko is reminded of a shadowy form.”
Erika said, “It reminds me of a scarab petrified in resin. The ancient Egyptians considered scarabs sacred.”
This seemed like a quintessential H. Rider Haggard moment, but she doubted the troll would be able to appreciate a literary allusion to the writer of great adventures.
“What is … scarab?”
“A giant beetle,” she said.
“Did you hear? Jocko needs to pee.”
“You do not need to pee.”
“Better believe it.”
Putting a hand under his chin, turning his head, forcing him to meet her stare, Erika said, “Look me in the eyes and tell me true. I’ll know if you’re lying.”
“Better believe it. Now … does Jocko need to pee?”
He searched her eyes, considering his answer, and tiny beads of sweat appeared on his brow. Finally he said, “Ah. The urge has passed.”
“I thought it might. Look at the shadow floating in the case. Look, Jocko.”
Reluctantly, he returned his attention to the occupant of the big jewel box.
“Touch the glass,” she said.
“I want to see what happens.”
“Jocko doesn’t want to see what happens.”
“I suspect nothing will happen. Please, Jocko. For me.”
As if he were being asked to press the nose of a coiled cobra, the troll put one finger to the glass, held it there a few seconds, and then snatched it away. He survived.
“Cold,” he said. “Icy.”
Erika said, “Yes, but not so icy that your skin sticks to it. Now let’s see what happens when I touch it….”
She pressed a forefinger to the glass, and within the luminous substance, the shadowy form twitched.
“FATHER … FATHER … FATHER …”
The Werner thing progressed clumsily, knocking against the east wall of the corridor, then colliding with the west wall, staggering back four or five feet before advancing seven or eight, as though its every movement required a majority vote of a committee.
This creature was not only an abomination, but also a vicious mockery of everything Victor had achieved, intended to deride his triumphs, to imply that his life’s work was but a crude burlesque of science. He now suspected that Werner wasn’t a victim of catastrophic cellular metamorphosis, not a victim, but instead a perpetrator, that the security chief had consciously rebelled against his maker. Indeed, judging by the composition of this many-faced travesty, the entire staff of the Hands of Mercy had committed themselves to this insane commune of flesh, reducing themselves to a mutant mob in a single entity. They could have but one reason for re-creating themselves as this lumbering atrocity: to offend their maker, to disrespect him, to dishonor him, to make of him a laughingstock. By such a vivid expression of their irrational contempt and scorn, these ungrateful wretches expected to confuse and dishearten him, to humiliate him.
Flesh is cheap, but flesh is also treacherous.
“Father … Father … Father …”
They were meat machines who fancied themselves philosophers and critics, daring to ridicule the only intellect of paramount importance they would ever know. Victor was transforming the world, and they transformed nothing but themselves, yet they thought this miserable degradation of their well-crafted forms made them his equal, even his superior, with license to jeer and insult him.
As the Werner thing ricocheted from wall to wall and staggered backward in order to stumble forward, Victor said to it, to all of them tangled within it, “Your pathetic bit of biological theater means nothing to me, discourages me not at all. I haven’t failed. You have failed, you have failed me, betrayed me, and you have also failed to discourage me in the slightest. You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”
His outrage thus expressed, Victor spoke the death phrase, the words that would shut down the autonomic nervous systems of these anarchic fools, reducing their mocking many-faced grotesquerie to a heap of lifeless flesh.
The Werner thing kept coming, in its tedious fashion, ranting the one word that it knew—that they all knew—would most infuriate Victor.
He had little more than six minutes to escape the Hands of Mercy and get out of the neighborhood before the place flared into a molten imitation of the sun. The coming conflagration would obliterate the Werner thing, answering their blasphemy with purifying fire.
The elevator lay between Victor and the shambling mob-in-one. The stairs seemed more advisable.
Carrying the suitcase that contained every minim of his historic work in Mercy, he hurried away from the Werner thing, slammed through the staircase door, and raced down to the lowest level.
Through columns of light and pools of shadow, past the rubble that stood as a monument to a previous bad day in Mercy. Into the file room.
The keypad, his code. One digit wrong. Enter it again. Each tap of a finger eliciting a tone.
He glanced back. The Werner thing had not followed him. It would not get out this way, and no other doors functioned. The Jabberwock was doomed. Let it die mocking him with its many mouths, he didn’t care.
Into the corridor with concrete floor, block-and-timber walls. First door closing automatically behind him as he reached the next. Keypad, code again. Right on the first try. The small concrete room, the final door, always unlocked from this side.
The S600 Mercedes sedan looked magnificent, a carriage fit for any royalty and even adequate for him. He opened the back door, but thought better of putting the precious suitcase in such an unsecured place. He went to the back of the car and locked the case in the trunk.
He closed the back door, opened the driver’s door, got behind the wheel. The key was in his pocket, and the touch of a finger to the keyless ignition fired the engine.
He drove up to the street and turned right, away from Mercy.
Rising wind pummeled the streets with pellets of rain that bounced like stones off the pavement, and flotillas of litter raced along brimming gutters. But rain ten times heavier than this would have no quenching effect on the incendiary material soon to ignite in his lost laboratories.
So spectacularly would the old hospital burn that no one in the city—or in the nation, for that matter, sea to shining sea—would ever have seen anything to rival the ferocity of the blaze, and they would never forget those white-white flames so bright as to be blinding. Structures across the street from Mercy might also catch fire, and the five-story building next door—owned by his Biovision—would without question be destroyed, which would make him a source of interest to the media and maybe even to authorities.
Considering that the previous day William, the butler, had bitten off his fingers and been terminated, that within the past hour Christine had experienced an inexplicable interruption of function before Victor had shot her to death, he must face the possibility that others on his household staff might be of dubious psychological and/or physical integrity. They might not merely be unable to provide the high quality of service he expected but might also be unable to maintain a credible humanoid form. He could not go home again, at least not for a while.
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