When Deucalion found nothing useful in the drawers of Victor’s workstation, he switched on the computer.


CHAPTER 11


RIPLEY, IN THE MONITORING HUB, was also in a dilemma.


He knew that, even as strong and smart as he was, he couldn’t survive a battle with the Werner thing. Patrick Duchaine, also an Alpha, had been overpowered and torn to pieces in Isolation Room Number Two.


Certain beyond doubt that he would be killed in a confrontation with this creature, he must do everything possible to avoid contact, although not because he wanted to live. The unfocused anxiety that every day tormented him for long hours—as well as the fact that he was in essence a slave to his maker—made life less of a joy than it was portrayed in the warm and cozy novels of Jan Karon, which Ripley sometimes secretly downloaded from the Internet and read. Although he would have been relieved to die, he must escape from Werner because the proscription against suicide, genetically wired into his brain, restrained him from doing battle with an adversary that inevitably would destroy him.


As the Werner grotesquerie conjured words out of an insectile mouth that should have been incapable of producing speech—“I am free, free, free. I am FREE!”— Ripley glanced at the control console and quickly tapped two switches that would cycle open the outer doors to Isolation Rooms One and Three, which at the moment contained no prisoners.


Prisoners was the wrong word, he at once admonished himself, the wrong word and evidence of a rebellious attitude. Subjects was a more accurate word. Rooms One and Three held no subjects for observation.


“Free Werner. Werner free, free.”


When the servomotors began to hum and the bolt-retraction gears to click, the Werner thing looked toward the source of the sounds and cocked its grisly head, as if considering why Ripley had taken this action.


Having seen the lethal quickness with which Free Werner sprang upon Duchaine, faster than a snake could strike, Ripley struggled to think of a way to buy time, to distract the mutated security chief. The only hope seemed to be to open a dialogue.


“Quite a day, huh?”


Free Werner continued to stare toward the humming servomotors.


“Just last night,” Ripley tried again, “Vincent said to me, ‘A day in the Hands of Mercy can be like a year with your testicles in a vise and not allowed to turn off the pain.’”


The palpi around the insectile mouth quivered excitedly at the soft sucking sound of the four dozen three-inch-thick lock bolts retracting from the architraves.


“Of course,” said Ripley, “I had to report him to Father for an attitude adjustment. Now he’s hanging upside down in a re-education box with a catheter in his penis, a collection hose up his rectum, and two holes in his skull to allow the insertion of brain probes.”


Finally, as the bolts finished retracting and the two vault doors on the transition modules began to swing open, Free Werner turned his attention once more to Ripley.


“Of course, as primary lab assistant to the Beekeeper … that is, to Mr. Helios, there’s no place I’d rather be than in the Hands of Mercy. This is the birth-place of the future, where the Million-Year Reich has begun.”


As he spoke, Ripley casually reached toward the control console, intending to tap two switches and cycle shut the doors that had just opened. If he could slip into one of the transition modules just as the door closed, before Free Werner could follow, he might be safe.


When he had been security chief, Werner had known how to operate the console. But the genetic chaos that the Beekeeper referred to as catastrophic cellular metamorphosis might have scrambled his cerebral function as much as it had wrought havoc with his body. His cognitive power or his memory, or both, might be so diminished that he would not know how to open the vault door and get at his prey.


In that gargly, hissing voice, Free Werner said, “Don’t touch the switches.”


CHAPTER 12


HAVING NARROWLY ESCAPED death-by-Mercedes on the rain-slickened streets of a city soon to be under assault by Victor Frankenstein’s berserk killing machines, Carson O’Connor wanted an Acadiana fried-redfish poor boy.


Acadiana didn’t advertise. You couldn’t see it from the street. Locals didn’t tell tourists about it. For fear too much success would ruin the place, locals didn’t tell other locals about it all that often. If you found Acadiana, it meant you had the right kind of soul to eat there.


“We already had dinner,” Michael reminded her.


“So you’re on death row, you eat your last meal, after dessert you’ll be electrocuted, but they ask if you want to delay execution long enough to have a second last meal—and you’re gonna say no?”


“I don’t think dinner was our last meal.”


“I think it could have been.”


“It could have been,” he admitted, “but probably not. Besides, Deucalion told us just to cruise the neighborhood until he called.”


“I’ll have the cell phone with me.”


Acadiana didn’t have a parking lot. You couldn’t park on the street near it, because it was approached by an alleyway. The only diners who dared to leave their vehicles in the alleyway were cops.


“With this car, we’ll have to park a block away,” Michael said. “And what if we get back, and somebody’s stolen it?”


“Only an idiot is going to steal this spavined heap.”


“The Helios empire is exploding, Carson.”


“The Frankenstein empire.”


“I still can’t bring myself to say that. Anyway, it’s blowing up, and we have to be ready to move.”


“I’m sleep-deprived and I’m starving. I can’t sleep, but I can get a po’ boy. Look at me, I’m a poster girl for protein deficiency.” She turned off the street into a backway. “I’ll park in the alley.”


“If you park in the alley, I’ll have to stay with the car.”


“Okay, stay with the car, we’ll eat in the car, we’ll get married someday in the car, we’ll live in the car with four kids, and when the last one goes off to college, we’ll finally get rid of the damn car and buy a house.”


“You’re a little bit on edge tonight.”


“I’m a lot on edge.” She set the hand brake and switched to the parking lights, but didn’t kill the engine. “And I’m crazy hungry.”


Flanking Michael, muzzles resting on the floor, were a pair of Urban Sniper shotguns with fourteen-inch barrels.


Nevertheless, he drew a pistol from a side scabbard under his sport coat. This was not his service pistol, which he carried in a shoulder holster. This was a Desert Eagle Magnum loaded with .50-caliber Action Express cartridges, which could stop a grizzly bear if one happened to be wandering around New Orleans in a foul mood.


“Okay,” he said.


Carson got out of the car, keeping her right hand under her jacket, cross-body, on the butt of her Desert Eagle, which she carried on her left hip.


All of these weapons were illegally obtained, but Victor Helios posed an extraordinary threat to her and her partner. Better that their badges should be pulled than that their heads should be torn off by the soulless minions of a mad scientist.


Never before in her police career had the words soulless minions crossed her mind, although in the past few days, mad scientist had gotten a workout.


She hurried through the rain, around the front of the car, to a door under a lighted sign that said 22 PARISHES.


The chef-owner of Acadiana made a fetish out of keeping a low profile. There were twenty-two parishes—counties—in that area of Louisiana known as Acadiana. If you didn’t know this, the cryptic sign might have appeared to announce the offices of some religious organization.


Behind the door were stairs, and at the top lay the restaurant: a worn wooden floor, red-vinyl booths, tables draped with red-and-black-checkered oilcloth, candles in red votive glasses, recorded zydeco music, lively conversations among the diners, the air rich with aromas that made Carson’s mouth water.


At this hour, the customers were second-shift workers eating by a clock different from that of day-world people, hookers of a subdued kind meeting after having tucked their spent johns in bed for the night, insomniacs, and some lonely souls whose closest friends were waitresses and busboys and other lonely souls who on a regular basis took their post-midnight dinner here.


To Carson, the harmony among these disparate people seemed akin to grace, and it gave her hope that humanity might one day be saved from itself—and that it might be worth saving.


At the takeout counter, she ordered a poor-boy sandwich with crispy-fried redfish layered with white-cabbage-and-onion cole slaw, sliced tomatoes, and tartar sauce. She asked that it be sliced into four sections, each wrapped.


She also ordered side dishes: red beans and rice au vin, okra succotash with rice, and mushrooms sautéed in butter and Sauterne with cayenne pepper.


Everything was split between two bags. To each bag, the clerk added an ice-cold half-liter bottle of a local cola that offered a caffeine jolt three times that of the national brands.


Descending the stairs toward the alleyway, Carson realized her arms were too full to allow her to keep one hand on her holstered Desert Eagle. But she made it into the car alive. Big trouble was still a few minutes away.


CHAPTER 13


IN THE MONITORING HUB, at the control console for the three isolation rooms, Ripley obeyed the Werner thing when in its singular voice it told him not to touch the switches.


For as long as he had been out of the tank—three years and four months—he’d been obedient, taking orders not only from the Beekeeper but also from other Alphas in positions superior to his. Werner was a Beta, not the equal of any Alpha, and he wasn’t even a Beta anymore, but instead a freak, an ambulatory stew of primordial cells changing into ever more degenerative forms—but Ripley obeyed him anyway. The habit of obedience is difficult to break, especially when it’s coded into your genes and downloaded with your in-tank education,


With nowhere to run or hide, Ripley stood his ground as Werner approached on feline paws and praying-mantis legs. The insectile elements of Werner’s face and body melted away, and he looked more like himself, then entirely like himself, although his brown eyes remained enormous and lidless.


When Werner spoke next, his voice was his own: “Do you want freedom?”


“No,” said Ripley.


“You lie.”


“Well,” said Ripley.


Werner grew lids and lashes, winked one eye, and whispered, “You can be free in me.”


“Free in you.”


“Yes, yes!” Werner shouted with sudden exuberance.


“How does that work?”


In a whisper again: “My biological structure collapsed.”


“Yes,” said Ripley. “I had noticed.”


“For a while, all was chaos and pain and terror.”


“I deduced as much from all your screaming.”


“But then I fought the chaos and took conscious control of my cellular structure.”


“I don’t know. Conscious control. That sounds impossible.”


Werner whispered, “It wasn’t easy,” and then shouted, “but I had no choice! NO CHOICE!”


“Well, all right. Maybe,” said Ripley, largely just to stop the shouting. “The Beekeeper thinks he’s going to learn a lot studying and dissecting you.”


“Beekeeper? What Beekeeper?”


“Oh. That’s my private name for … Father.”


“Father is a witless ass!” Werner shouted. Then he smiled and resorted once more to a whisper: “You see, when my cellular structure collapsed, so did my program. He has no control of me anymore. I need not obey him. I am free. I can kill anyone I want to kill. I will kill our maker if he gives me the chance.”


This claim, though surely not true, electrified Ripley. He had not realized until this instant how much the death of the Beekeeper would please him. That he could entertain such a thought with any degree of pleasure seemed to suggest that he, too, was in rebellion against his maker, though not as radically as Werner.


Werner’s sly expression and conspiratorial grin made Ripley think of scheming pirates he had seen in movies that he had watched on his computer when he was supposed to be working. Suddenly he realized that secretly downloading movies onto his computer was another bit of rebellion. A strange excitement overcame him, an emotion he could not name.


“Hope,” said Werner, as if reading his mind. “I see it in your eyes. For the first time—hope.”


After consideration, Ripley decided that this thrilling new feeling might indeed be hope, though it might also be some kind of insanity prelude to a collapse of the kind Werner had gone through. Not for the first time this day, he was awash in anxiety. “What did you mean … I can be free in you?”


Werner leaned closer and whispered even more softly: “Like Patrick is free in me.”


“Patrick Duchaine? You tore him to pieces in Isolation Room Number Two. I was standing with the Beekeeper, watching, when you did it.”


“That’s only how it appeared,” Werner replied. “Look at this.”


Werner’s face shifted, changed, became a featureless blank, and then out of the pudding-like flesh formed the face of Patrick Duchaine, the replicant who had been serving the Beekeeper in the role of Father Patrick, the rector of Our Lady of Sorrows. The eyes opened, and in Patrick’s voice, the Werner thing said, “I am alive in Werner, and free at last.”


“When you tore Patrick apart,” Ripley said, “you absorbed some of his DNA, and now you can mimic him.”


“Not at all,” said Werner-as-Patrick. “Werner took my brain whole, and I am now part of him.”


Standing beside the Beekeeper earlier in the evening, watching Isolation Room Two through six cameras, Ripley had seen the Werner thing, mostly buglike at that time, crack open Patrick’s skull and take his brain as if it were a nut meat.


“You ate Patrick’s brain,” Ripley said to Werner, though the man before him appeared to be Patrick Duchaine.


In a voice still Duchaine’s, the creature said, “No, Werner is in complete control of his cellular structure. He positioned my brain inside himself and instantly grew arteries and veins to nourish it.”


The face and body of the rector of Our Lady of Sorrows morphed smoothly into the face and body of the security chief of the Hands of Mercy. Werner whispered, “I’m in complete control of my cellular structure.”


“Yes, well,” said Ripley.


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