Every time Carson turned a corner sharp and fast, the sedan groaned, creaked, shuddered. On the flat streets, when she tramped on the accelerator, the car responded but as grudgingly as a dray horse that had spent its working life pulling a wagon at an easy pace.
“How can Vicky drive this crate?” Carson fumed. “It’s arthritic, it’s sclerotic, it’s a dead car rolling. Doesn’t she ever give it an oil change, is the thing lubed with sloth fat, what the hell?”
“All we’re doing is waiting for a phone call from Deucalion,” Michael said. “Just cruise nice and easy around the neighborhood. He said stay in Uptown, near the Hands of Mercy. You don’t have to be anywhere yesterday.”
“Speed soothes my nerves,” she said.
Vicky Chou was the caregiver to Arnie, Carson’s autistic younger brother. She and her sister, Liane, had fled to Shreveport, to stay with their Aunt Leelee in case, as seemed to be happening, Victor’s race of laboratory-conceived post-humans went berserk and destroyed the city.
“I was born for velocity,” Carson said. “What doesn’t quicken dies. That’s an indisputable truth of life.”
Currently, Arnie’s caregivers were the Buddhist monks with whom Deucalion had lived for an extended period. Somehow, only hours ago, Deucalion opened a door between New Orleans and Tibet, and he left Arnie in a monastery in the Himalayas, where the boy would be out of harm’s way.
“The race doesn’t always go to the swift,” Michael reminded her.
“Don’t give me any of that hare-and-tortoise crap. Turtles end up crushed by eighteen-wheelers on the interstate.”
“So do a lot of bunnies, even as quick as they are.”
Squeezing enough speed out of the Honda to make the rain snap against the windshield, Carson said, “Don’t call me a bunny.”
“I didn’t call you a bunny,” he assured her.
“I’m no damn bunny. I’m cheetah-fast. How does Deucalion just turn away from me, vanish with Arnie, and step into a monastery in Tibet?”
“Like he said, it’s a quantum-mechanics thing.”
“Yeah, that’s totally clear. Poor Arnie, the sweet kid, he must think he’s been abandoned.”
“We’ve been through this. Arnie is fine. Trust Deucalion. Watch your speed.”
“This isn’t speed. This is pathetic. What is this car, some kind of idiot green vehicle, it runs on corn syrup?”
“I can’t imagine what it’ll be like,” Michael said.
“Being married to you.”
“Don’t start. Keep your game on. We’ve got to live through this first. We can’t live through this if we’re playing grab-ass.”
“I’m not going to grab your ass.”
“Don’t even talk about grabbing or not grabbing my ass. We’re in a war, we’re up against man-made monsters with two hearts in their chests, we have to stay focused.”
Because the cross street was deserted, Carson decided not to stop for a traffic light, but of course Victor Helios Frankenstein’s freak show wasn’t the only mortal danger in New Orleans. A pie-eyed prettyboy and his slack-jawed girlfriend, in a black Mercedes without headlights, barreled out of the night as if racing through a quantum doorway from Las Vegas.
Carson stood on the brake pedal. The Mercedes shot across the bow of the Honda close enough for her headlights to reveal the Botox injection marks in the prettyboy’s face. The Honda hydroplaned on the slick pavement and then spun 180 degrees, the Mercedes raced away toward some other rendezvous with Death, and Carson cruised back the way they had come, impatient for Deucalion’s phone call.
“Only three days ago, everything was so great,” she said. “We were just two homicide dicks, taking down bad guys, nothing worse to worry about than ax murderers and gang shootings, stuffing our faces with shrimp-and-ham jambalaya at Wondermous Eats when the bullets weren’t flying, just a couple of I’ve-got-your-back cops who never even thought about making moon eyes at each other—”
“Well, I was thinking about it,” Michael said, and she refused to glance at him because he would be adorable.
“—and suddenly we’re being hunted by a legion of inhuman, superhuman, posthuman, pass-for-human, hard-to-kill meat machines cooked up by the for-real Victor Frankenstein, and they’re all in a go-nuts mode, it’s Armageddon on the Bayou, and on top of all that, you suddenly want to have my babies.”
He said, “We’ll negotiate who has the babies. Anyway, bad as things are right now, it wasn’t all jambalaya and roses before we discovered Transylvania had come to Louisiana. Don’t forget the psycho dentist who made himself a set of pointy steel dentures and bit three little girls to death. He was totally human.”
“I’m not going to defend humanity. Real people can be as inhuman as anything Helios stitches together in his lab. Why hasn’t Deucalion called? Something must have gone wrong.”
“What could go wrong,” Michael asked, “on a warm, languid night in the Big Easy?”
A STAIRWELL DESCENDED from the main lab all the way to the basement. Lester led Deucalion to the networking room, where three walls were lined with racks of electronic equipment.
Against the back wall were handsome mahogany cabinets topped with a copper-flecked black-granite counter. Even in mechanical rooms, Victor had specified high-quality materials. His financial resources seemed bottomless.
“That’s Annunciata,” said Lester, “in the middle box.”
Lined up on the black granite were not boxes but instead five thick glass cylinders on stainless-steel cradles. The ends of the cylinders were capped with stainless steel, as well.
In those transparent containers, floating in golden fluid, were five brains. Wires and clear plastic tubes full of darker fluid rose from holes in the granite countertop, penetrated the steel caps in the ends of the cylinders, and were married to the brains in ways that Deucalion could not quite discern through the thick glass and the nutrient baths.
“What are these four others?” Deucalion asked.
“You’re talking to Lester,” said his companion, “and there’s more Lester doesn’t know than what he does.”
Suspended from the ceiling above the counter, a video screen brightened with Annunciata’s beautiful virtual face.
She said, “Mr. Helios believes that one day, one day, one day, one day … Excuse me. A moment. I am so sorry. All right. One day, biological machines will replace complex factory robots on production lines. Mr. Helios Helios believes also that computers will become true cybernetic organisms, electronics integrated with specially designed organic Alpha brains. Robotic and electronic systems are expensive. Flesh is cheap. Cheap. Flesh is cheap. I am honored to be the first cybernetic secretary. I am honored, honored, honored, but afraid.”
“Of what are you afraid?” Deucalion asked.
“I’m alive. I’m alive but cannot walk. I’m alive but have no hands. I’m alive but cannot smell or taste. I’m alive but I have no … have no … have no …”
Deucalion placed one immense hand on the glass that housed Annunciata. The cylinder was warm. “Tell me,” he encouraged. “You have no what?”
“I’m alive but I have no life. I’m alive but also dead. I’m dead and alive.”
A stifled sound from Lester drew Deucalion’s attention. Anguish wrenched the janitor’s face. “Dead and alive,” he whispered. “Dead and alive.”
Only hours earlier, from a conversation with one of the New Race, Pastor Kenny Laffite, Deucalion learned these latest creations of Victor’s were engineered to be incapable of feeling empathy either for the Old Race they were to replace or for their laboratory-born brothers and sisters. Love and friendship were forbidden because the least degree of affection would make the New Race less efficient in its mission.
They were a community; however, the members of this community were committed not to the welfare of their kind but to fulfilling the vision of their maker.
Lester’s tears were not for Annunciata but for himself. The words dead and alive resonated with him.
Annunciata said, “I have im-im-imagination. I am so easily able to envision what I w-w-w-want, but I cannot have hands to touch or legs to leave here.”
“We never leave,” Lester whispered. “Never. Where is there to go? And why?”
“I am afraid,” Annunciata said, “afraid, I am afraid of living without a life, the tedium and solitude, the solitude, intolerable loneliness. I am nothing out of nothing, destined for nothing. ‘Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.’ Nothing now, nothing forever. ‘Waste and void, waste and void, and darkness on the face of the deep.’ But now … I must organize the appointment schedule for Mr. Helios. And Werner is trapped in Isolation Room Number Two.”
“Annunciata,” Deucalion said, “are there archives you can tap to show me engineering drawings for the cylinder that contains you?”
Her face faded from the screen, and a diagram of the cylinder appeared, with all the tubes and wires labeled. One of them infused her cerebral tissues with oxygen.
“May I see you again, Annunciata?”
Her lovely face appeared on the screen once more.
Deucalion said, “I know that you are unable to do for yourself what I am now going to do for you. And I know that you are unable to ask me for this deliverance.”
“I am honored, honored, honored to serve Mr. Helios. I have left one thing undone.”
“No. There is nothing more for you to do, Annunciata. Nothing but accept … freedom.”
Annunciata closed her eyes. “All right. It is done.”
“Now I want you to use the imagination you mentioned. Imagine the thing you would want above all others, more than legs and hands and taste and touch.”
The virtual face opened its mouth but did not speak.
“Imagine,” Deucalion said, “that you are known as surely as every sparrow is known, that you are loved as surely as every sparrow is loved. Imagine that you are more than nothing. Evil made you, but you are no more evil than a child unborn. If you want, if you seek, if you hope, who is to say that your hope might not be answered?”
As if enchanted, Lester whispered, “Imagine….”
After a hesitation, Deucalion pulled the oxygen-infusion line from the cylinder. There could be no pain for her in this, only a gradual loss of consciousness, a sliding into sleep, and from sleep to death.
Her beatific face began to fade from the screen.
IN THE MONITORING HUB that served the containment chambers, Ripley studied the control console. He pressed a button to activate the camera in the transition module between the hub and Isolation Room Number Two.
The real-time video feed on one of the six screens changed, revealing the thing that had been Werner. The so-called singularity crouched between the massive steel vault hatches, facing the outer barrier, like a trap-door spider waiting for unsuspecting prey to cross the concealed entrance to its lair.
As if the creature knew that the camera had been activated, it turned to gaze up at the lens. The grossly distorted face was part human, even recognizably that of Mercy’s security chief, though the double-wide mouth and the insectile mandibles, ceaselessly working, were not what the Beekeeper had intended when he made Werner. Its right eye still looked like one of Werner’s, but its luminous-green left eye had an elliptical pupil, like the eye of a panther.
The desktop computer screen, thus far dark, now brightened, and Annunciata appeared. “I have become aware that Werner, that Werner, that Werner is trapped in Isolation Room Number Two.” She closed her eyes. “All right. It is done.”
Within the stainless-steel vault door, servomotors hummed. The bolt-retracting gears clicked, clicked, clicked.
In the transition module, the Werner thing looked away from the overhead camera, toward the exit.
Aghast, Ripley said, “Annunciata, what’re you doing? Don’t open the transition module.”
On the computer screen, Annunciata’s lips parted, but she didn’t speak. Her eyes remained closed.
The servomotors continued to hum and gears clicked. With a soft sucking sound, twenty-four massive lock bolts began to withdraw from the architrave around the vault door.
“Don’t open the transition module,” Ripley repeated.
Annunciata’s face faded from the computer screen.
Ripley scanned the control console. The touch switch for the outer door of the module glowed yellow, which meant the barrier was slowly opening.
He pressed the switch to reverse the process. The indicator light should have turned blue, which would have signified that the retracting bolts had changed direction, but it remained yellow.
The microphone in the transition module picked up an eager, keening sound from the Werner thing.
The range of emotions accessible to the New Race was limited. The Beekeeper revealed to each forming person in every creation tank that love, affection, humility, shame, and other of the supposedly nobler feelings were instead only different expressions of the same sentimentalism, arising from thousands of years of a wrongheaded belief in a god who did not exist. They were feelings that encouraged weakness, that led to energy wasted on hope, that distracted the mind from the focus required to remake the world. Tremendous things were achieved not by hope but by the application of the will, by action, by the unrelenting and ruthless use of power.
Ripley anxiously pressed the door switch again, but it remained yellow, and still the gears clicked and the steel bolts retracted.
“Annunciata?” he called. “Annunciata?”
The only emotions that mattered, said the Beekeeper, were those that clearly contributed to survival and to the fulfillment of his magnificent vision for a one-world state of perfected citizens who would dominate nature, perfect nature, colonize the moon and Mars, colonize the asteroid belt, and eventually own all the worlds that revolved around all the stars in the universe.
Like all of the New Race, Ripley’s spectrum of emotions remained limited largely to pride in his absolute obedience to his maker’s authority, to fear in all its forms—as well as to envy, anger, and hate directed solely at the Old Race. For hours every day, as he labored on his maker’s behalf, no emotion whatsoever interfered with his productivity any more than a high-speed train would be distracted from its journey by a nostalgic yearning for the good old days of steam locomotives.
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