It didn't take long at all to read the book. She stopped in a park on the way home and sat in a sun-faded rubber swing seat and rocked slowly back and forth as she flipped pages.
It was about people she'd never heard of . . . and people she knew. Amelie, for one. Amelie's disputes with various vampires. Amelie's decisions to sentence this person for his crimes, spare that one. There were other vampires profiled, too. Some she'd never heard of; she supposed that they'd died, or left, or maybe they were just reclusive. Oliver wasn't in the book, because he was a latecomer to town. Neither, curiously, was Myrnin. She supposed Myrnin had been a closely guarded town secret from the very beginning.
It was weirdly interesting, but overall, she didn't know what good it was going to do her to know that Amelie had once filed a complaint against a man who owned a dry-goods store (what was a dry-goods store?) for cheating the human customers. And that the complaint had gotten his store taken away from him, and he'd opened the town's first movie theater.
In the end, Claire dropped the book into her backpack and thought about mailing it anonymously to the library. Maybe that was where it really belonged, anyway. She thought about it on the way home, but she ended up worrying about whether vampires could somehow sense she'd handled it. CSI: Vampire. Not a comforting thought.
"You're late," Michael remarked, as she walked into the Glass House through the kitchen door. He was standing at the sink washing dishes; there was nothing odder to her than seeing her housemate, who was all kinds of smoking-hot, not to mention all kinds of vampire, up to his elbows in suds at the sink. Did rock stars really do their own housework? "Also, it's not my day to do the kitchen. It's yours."
"Is that your passive-aggressive way of trying to get me to pick up your laundry duty?"
"I don't know. Is it working?"
"Maybe." She put her bags down on the table and went to join him at the sink. He washed plates and handed them over, and she rinsed and dried. Very domestic. "I was reading. I forgot what time it was."
"Bookworm." He flicked suds at her. Michael was in a really good mood, no question about that; he had been for the last couple of months. Getting out of Morganville and recording his music with a real, genuine recording company had been good for him. Coming back had been hard, but he'd finally settled into the routine. They all had. It had been a crazy, weird vacation, almost like something they'd dreamed, Claire decided.
But damn, it had felt good to be out there with her friends, on the road, without the shadow of Morganville hanging over them.
Michael abruptly stopped laughing, and just looked at her with those big blue eyes. That made her go momentarily dizzy, and she felt a blush coming on. Not that he was flirting with her--not more than normal--but he was looking at her a lot more deeply than usual, and he didn't blink.
Finally he did, turning his attention back to the sink, and washed another plate before he said, "You're nervous about something. Your heartbeat's faster than normal."
"You can hear--Oh. Of course you can." He hadn't been staring at her so much as the blood moving through her veins, she thought. And that was kind of creepy, except it was Michael. He made creepy adorable, most of the time. "I ran part of the way home; that's probably it."
"Hey, if you don't want to tell me, don't. But I can tell when you lie."
Okay, that was supercreepy. "You can?"
He smiled grimly down at the dirty dishwater. "Nope. But see? You fell for it anyway. Careful, or I'll read your mind with my incredible vampire superpowers."
She sighed and wiped her hands as he pulled the plug on the dishwater and let it swirl away into the dark. The kitchen looked like someone actually cared. She really did owe him laundry, probably.
Claire tossed him the dish towel. "That was a mean trick."
"Yeah, still a vampire. Spill it."
As he wiped his hands and arms free of suds, she opened up the bag on the table, rooted around to find the slim volume, and handed it over. He sank into a chair. As he looked it over, his eyebrows went up and up. "Where'd you get this?"
"The used bookstore," she said. "I don't think Dan--you know, the guy who runs it--knew it was there. Or if he did, maybe it's--I don't know--full of lies? But that's a picture of Amelie, right?"
"I didn't know there were any, but that's definitely one." Michael closed the book and handed it back. "Maybe it's Morganville propaganda. Seems like Amelie's done that from time to time, in which case, no big deal. But if it's not--"
"If it's the real history of Morganville, then I should take it to Amelie before I get in trouble. Yeah, thanks, Dad. Already figured that one out."
He leaned forward on his elbows and grinned. "You are a difficult kid. But a smart one."
"Not a kid," she said, and shot him the finger, just like Eve or Shane would have done. "Hey, who's on dinner patro--"
Before she could finish the last word, the front door banged open, and Eve's cheery voice echoed down the hall. "Hellooooo, creatures of the night! Put your pants back on! Food's here, and I don't mean me!"
Michael pointed mutely in that direction.
"Tell me she's not bringing leftover sandwiches from the University Center," Claire moaned as Eve burst into the kitchen door with a white paper bag in hand.
"I heard that," Eve said, and opened the refrigerator to dump the bag inside. "I got you the bacteria special; I know how much you like that. The UC kitchen staff sends their love. Whassup, dead guy?"
"Not dead yet," Michael said, and rose to kiss her. Except for the cool bluish tone to his skin, he looked like any other boy of nineteen; the sharp, pointy teeth were folded up, like a snake's, and when he was like this Claire actually kind of forgot he was a vamp at all. Although he was wearing a faded T-shirt that had a happy face on it, with vampire fangs. Eve had probably bought it for him.
Eve herself had to stand just a bit on tiptoe for the kiss, which went on about five seconds too long for it to be just hi-honey-welcome-home, and when they parted, Eve's cheeks were flushed even under the white Goth makeup. After a hard day of pulling shots at the TPU coffee shop--she alternated now between there and Common Grounds--she still looked cheerful and alert. Maybe it was all that caffeine. It just soaked right into her body without her even having to drink it. She was wearing black tights with orange pumpkins on them--left over from Halloween, Claire assumed, but Halloween was a year-round holiday for Eve--a tight black skirt, and three layers of thin shirts, each a different color. The one on top was sheer black, with a sad-eyed pirate skull printed on it.
"I like the new earrings," Claire said. They were silver skulls, and the little eye sockets lit up red whenever Eve turned her head. "They're you."
"I know, right? Couldn't be cooler." Eve beamed. "Oh, and actually, they were out of the bacteria special, so I got you the ham and cheese. That's usually the safest one."
Safe being a relative term when it came to UC food. "Thanks," Claire said. "Tomorrow I'm making spaghetti. Yes, before you ask, with meat sauce. Carnivores."
Eve made a chomping sound with her teeth. Michael just smiled. The smile faded as he asked, "You don't have to go see Amelie tonight, do you?"
"No, probably not. The book's been sitting in that shop for who knows how long. It can wait until tomorrow. I have to go to the lab anyway. Amelie will be a nice break, after my mandatory crazy-boss time." Eve got herself a cold Coke from the fridge and popped the top as she dragged Claire's bag off of a chair and dumped it in the corner. "How is crazy boss man, anyway?"
"Myrnin's . . . well, Myrnin, I guess. He's been getting a little weird."
"Sweetie, coming from you, that's alarming. You have an awfully large scale of weird."
"I know." Claire sighed and sat down, propping her chin on both fists. She debated how much to say, even to her friends, but honestly, there weren't any secrets. Not in the Glass House. "I think he's under a lot of pressure to get the machine fixed; you know the one--"
"Ada?" Eve asked. "Ugh, seriously, he's not bringing that back to life, is he?"
"Not . . . exactly, no. But Ada wasn't all bad, you know. Well, Ada was, the personality, but the machine did all kinds of things that the vamps need, like maintain the borders of the town, give alerts when residents leave, wipe memories when they want it done . . . and run the portals." The portals were the dimensional doorways that ran through town. Myrnin had discovered some freaky way of accelerating particles and constructing stable tunnels through space-time, something that Claire was still struggling to understand, let alone master. It wasn't quite magic, but sometimes there didn't seem to be much of a boundary between magic and Myrnin's science. "It's important. We're just trying to, you know, take the Ada factor out of the equation and get the mechanical piece working without the mind-of-its-own part."
"Killer computers." Eve sighed. "Like we didn't have enough trouble in Morganville already. I'm not so sure any of those things you're talking about are good for us, Claire Bear. You feel me?"
"If by us you mean the regular humans, yeah, I know. But"-- Claire shrugged--"fact is, having those safeguards lets them trust us, at least a little, and trust is all that keeps this town going."
Eve didn't have a comeback to that. She knew Claire was right. Morganville existed on a teetering, dangerous balance between the paranoia and violence of the vampires, and the paranoia and violence of the humans who outnumbered them. Right there, at the balance point, they could all coexist. But it didn't take much to tilt things to one side or the other, and if that happened, Morganville would burn.
Claire chewed her lip and continued. "We're getting it done; really, we are, but he's got some kind of deadline he's not telling me about, and I'm worried he's going to . . . do something crazy."
"He lives in a hole in the ground, dresses funny, and occasionally eats his assistants," Eve said. "Define crazy."
Claire closed her eyes. "Okay. I think he wants to put my brain in a jar and wire it into the machine."
Dead silence. She opened her eyes. Michael was staring at her, frozen in the act of opening the refrigerator door; Eve had put her Coke down, her eyes as wide as anything ever drawn in animation. Michael finally remembered what he was doing, reached in, grabbed a green sports bottle, which he carried to the table, and sat down. "That's not going to happen," he said. "I'm not going to let it happen. Neither will Amelie."
Claire wasn't so sure about that last part, but she was sure Michael meant what he said, and that made her feel a little better. "I don't think he's serious about it," Claire said weakly. "Well, not most of the time. But he keeps going on about how the brain is a much better CPU--"
"Not going to happen," Michael repeated flatly. "I'll kill him first, Claire. I mean it."
She didn't want Myrnin dead, but it did make her feel better to have her friend say it. Michael was a sweetheart most of the time, but the truth was, there was something cold inside him--and it wasn't just that his heart didn't beat. It was . . . something else. Something darker. Mostly, it didn't show.
Sometimes, she was grateful it did.
"Shane's late," Eve said, changing the subject. "Where's Mr. Barbecue McStabby?"
"Working late," Claire replied. "Somebody canceled on the night shift, so he had to work dinner service. He said it was okay; he could use the overtime. And he doesn't like you to call him Mr. McStabby, you know."
"Have you ever seen him cutting up that meat? He is like an artist with slicing. And that knife is as long as my arm. Mr. McStabby it is."
They debated it for a while, with Michael staying out of it and sipping his sports bottle of--probably--blood, until Eve got the sandwiches out and they ate a cold, and somewhat mushy, dinner. After that, Claire fidgeted around, too restless to study, missing Shane, until Eve finally snapped at her about pacing and moving stuff, and she went up toward her room.
On an impulse, she didn't go there; she stopped in the hallway, reached out, and found the hidden catch to the secret room. The paneling clicked open, and she went in and shut the door behind her. No knob on this side, but that was okay; she knew where the release was. She ran up the narrow flight of stairs and came out in the windowless, dusty room that they'd always figured had been Amelie's retreat, when she'd once lived in this house. It looked like her, somehow--old Victorian furniture, tapestry hangings, multicolored Tiffany lamps that were probably worth a fortune. It was always a little cold in here, for some reason. Claire stretched out on the old velvet sofa, staring up at the ceiling, and thought about how many times she'd come here with Shane. It was their private place, where they could just get away from everything, and the blanket draped over the back smelled like him. She pulled it over her and smiled, feeling like the ghost of Shane was here with her, snuggling up close.
She had no idea she'd fallen asleep at first, and then she thought she was dreaming, because someone was touching her. Not molesting her or anything, just a fingertip being drawn down her cheek, across her lips . . . a slow, gentle sort of caress.
She opened her eyes to see Shane crouched down next to her. His hair was--as usual--mussed, hanging long around his face, and he smelled like barbecue and wood smoke, and his smile was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen.
"Hey, sleepyhead," he said. "It's three in the morning. Eve thought vampires stole you, but that's only because you didn't make your bed this morning. I think I'm a bad influence."
Her lips parted, and his finger paused there, tracing her mouth slowly. She didn't speak. His smile got wider.
"No," she said. "I wanted some peace and quiet. I didn't even know you were gone."
He clapped his hands over his chest like she'd shot him, and fell on the floor. Claire rolled off the couch on top of him, but he refused to open his eyes until she kissed him, long and thoroughly. She licked her lips as she pulled away. "Mmmm, barbecue."
"Eve brought UC sandwiches."
Shane made a face. "Yeah, glad I missed that. But I wasn't exactly talking about midnight snacks."
"Boys. Is that all you think about?"
"Is that what the cool kids are calling it these days?" He laughed, and she felt the rumble of it through her skin. Shane didn't laugh often, except when they were together; she loved the light in his brown eyes, and the wicked way his smile curled up on the ends. "Like I would know," he said. "I never was one of the cool kids."
"Such language, Miss Danvers. Oh, wait, shit--I'm a bad influence."
She settled her head down again, ear against his chest, listening to the rush of his breathing. "Tell me what you were like in school."
"Because I missed it."
"You didn't miss much," he said. "Me and Mikey hung out a lot. He was Mr. Popular, you know, but really shy. Girls, girls, girls, but he was pretty choosy. At least, up until our junior year."
"What happened in your junior year?" she asked before she thought.
Shane's fingers kept stroking through her hair as he said, "House burned, my sister Alyssa died, my family went on the run. So I don't know how Mikey was the last two years of school. We caught up some when I came back, but it wasn't the same. Something happened to him. Sure as hell something happened to me. You know." He shrugged, even with her weight on him, but then, she wasn't much of a burden, and he was a strong guy. "There's not a lot to say about me. I was a pretty boring dumb-ass."
"Were you in sports?"
He laughed. "Football, for a while. I liked hockey better. More chances to hit people. But I'm not really a team player, so I ended up in the penalty box about twice as much as everybody else. Not as much fun." He was quiet for a few seconds, then said, "I guess you know Monica was after me for a while."
That surprised her. "Monica Morrell? You mean, after you, in the sense of--"
"I mean she slipped me really dirty notes and tried to rip my clothes off in a broom closet once. Which I guess to her was love. Not so much for me." His face got hard for a moment, and then relaxed. "I blew her off, and she got pissed. You know the rest."
Shane believed--and Claire had no reason to doubt it--that Monica had set the fire that had burned his home and killed his sister and destroyed his family's life. That wound was never going to heal; he was always going to hate Monica with an intense passion that was two seconds from violence. Not that Monica didn't egg him on, most of the time; she seemed to enjoy Shane's rage.
Claire couldn't think of much to say, so she kissed him again, and it felt sweet, warm, a little distracted on his part. She shouldn't have brought it up, she thought. He didn't like to think about those days at all. "Hey," she said. "I didn't mean--"
"I know." His smile came back again, and she thought he was back in the here and now, with her, instead of in the bad old days. "Glad you weren't here for all that, actually. I wasn't really all that good to know then. Plus, if you want to know the truth, I was kind of a jerk in junior high."
"All boys are jerks in junior high. And mostly in high school. And then they grow up to be jerks." She kissed him again. "But not you, Mr. McStabby."
"Oh, man, Eve's not letting that go, is she?"
"Not remotely." She felt herself smiling, too. Shane always brought out some crazy streak in her she didn't think she had--that was probably what worried her parents so much about the two of them. But Claire liked it. When she was with Shane, she could feel--feel the blood pounding in her veins, feel every nerve awake and alive and hungry to be touched. Everything was brighter, clearer, cleaner. A little crazy was a good thing. "Want to make out?"
"Maybe I should take a shower. I smell like sweat and barbecue." "You smell great," she said. "I love the way you smell."
"You're getting sappy, you know that? And maybe a little creepy."
"Oh, shut up, you like it."
He did, she could tell, especially when they were under the blanket, curled together on the couch, and Amelie's refuge was their own, their private, sweet, warm heaven where nothing could intrude.
Well, except for Claire's cell phone alarm, which was set for seven a.m.
Morning was hard, partly because neither one of them had slept much, and partly because Claire just didn't want to ever leave the room, but she finally managed to kiss her way free and get down the stairs to the closed door.
It didn't open. "Shane!" she yelled. "I have to go!"
His evil laugh drifted down to her, movie-campy, but he pushed the button and let her out. She beat Eve to the shower, of course; Eve was not voluntarily an early riser, and it was her day off, so Claire could take her time in the hot water, and get herself pulled together without knocks rushing her along. When she opened the bathroom door and stepped out, she found Shane sitting on the floor next to it, blocking the hallway with his legs. He had on his rumpled jeans, but he'd left off the shirt.
So not fair. She loved looking at his chest, and he knew it.
"We have got to get a second bathroom in this monster," he said, and kissed her on his way through the doorway. "You take way too long."
"Do not!" she said, outraged, but the wood had already closed between them. "I take half the time Eve does!"
"Still too long!" he called from inside. "Girls."
She banged on the door, then winced and hoped it wasn't loud enough to wake Eve or Michael, and went down the hall to her room. Shane had been right: she had never made the bed yesterday, but she did it today, putting the pillows right and everything. Then she pulled out old, ratty clothes and her worst high-tops.
There was no sense in wearing good clothes to Myrnin's lab. They were just going to get splashed with icky stuff, or stuff that burned holes, or stuff that never came out, no matter how creative you got with laundry add-ins. Claire gulped a bowl of cereal in the kitchen, standing over the sink, and started to wash the bowl--but it was Shane's kitchen day, and with a grin, she put the dirties down unscrubbed.
Served him right for trying to make her late.
She dumped most of the contents of her backpack, except for the things that were relevant to her project with Myrnin, then added in the slim history book and took off.
It was a beautiful morning. She'd missed sunrise, but it was still a little cool, and the sky was a beautiful clear blue with only a few scrubby clouds on the horizon. At this hour, the sun seemed friendly, not like the scorching monster it would become by noon. Claire skipped down the steps and out the gate, and set off for Common Grounds first. No Oliver, and this time both the baristas were new employees. Her name was spelled wrong again.
Coffees in hand, she headed for Myrnin's lab.
Morganville was busy at this hour, with practically everybody who wasn't a vampire taking advantage of the sunshine and the safety it afforded. Kids walked in groups, even so; most adults didn't go alone, either, but go they did. Claire met several people she knew as she walked along. It felt like home. That was actually a little sad.
A police car pulled up next to her on the street, idling and crawling along, and Claire saw Hannah Moses wave at her. The police chief of Morganville rolled down her window. "You need a ride, Claire?"
Hannah was . . . impressive. She just had this completely competent air about her, and there was a scar on her face that should have looked disfiguring, but on her, it made her seem even more intimidating--until she smiled. Then she looked beautiful. Today, she was wearing her cornrowed hair back in a loose knot, elegant and kind of formal. For Hannah, anyway.
"No, thanks," Claire called back. "I appreciate it, but it's a really nice day. I should walk. And you're probably busy."
"Busy is vampires fighting over the snack supply," Hannah said. "This isn't it, trust me. Okay, then, have a nice day. If you see Myrnin, tell him I said I want my slow cooker back."
"Your--You let him borrow something you put food in?"
Hannah's smile disappeared. "Why?"
"Um, never mind. I'll make sure it gets disinfected before you get it back. But don't lend anything to him again unless you can put it in some kind of sterilizer."
That made even Hannah look nervous. "Thanks. Tell crazy boy I said hey."
"I will," Claire promised. "Hey, if you don't mind me asking--when did he borrow it from you?"
"He just showed up at my door one night about a week ago, said, 'Hi, nice to meet you. Can I borrow your Crock-Pot?' Which I understand is pretty typical Myrnin."
"Very," Claire agreed. "Well, I should go; the coffee's getting cold--"
"Be safe," Hannah said, and accelerated away. Claire increased her pace, too, walking faster as she passed through a couple of neighborhoods and arrived in the street with the Day House--a mirror of Michael Glass's, because they were both Founder Houses, the original houses built by Amelie and Myrnin. The Founder Houses not only looked the same; they had the same kind of energy to them, Claire had found. In some it was stronger than others, but they all had that slightly unsettling sensation of . . . intelligence. It was strongest in the Glass House, almost a personality of its own.
The Day House was at the end of the cul-de-sac. Hannah's relatives lived there, or at least Gramma Day still did; Claire didn't know where Lisa Day had gone, except that she'd chosen wrong during Morganville's civil uprisings of a few months back, gotten jailed, and been released after a couple of weeks. She'd never come back to the Day House; that was certain. Claire knew Hannah was still looking for her cousin. There were only a few possibilities--Lisa had managed to escape Morganville, or she'd gone into hiding, or she'd never made it out of jail alive. For Gramma Day's sake, Claire hoped Lisa had escaped. She wasn't the friendliest person, but the old lady loved her.
Claire wasn't planning to stop at the Day House, although Gramma Day, an ancient little old woman sitting outside in a big rocking chair, called to her and asked whether she wanted any breakfast rolls. Claire smiled at her and shook her head--Gramma didn't always hear too well--and got a friendly wave in return as she turned right, down the narrow fenced alley between the Day House and the anonymous tract home on its other side. It was too small for a car, this alley, and it got narrower as it went, like a funnel. Or a throat. It was suspiciously clean, too--not a lot of trash blown in, and even the tumbleweeds had stayed away.
And here she was, walking right into the trap-door spider's lair.
The door to the rickety shack at the end of the alley banged open before she could reach it, and the spider himself charged out, grabbed his coffee out of her hand, and dashed back inside at vampire speed before she could say a word. From the glimpse she had of him, he'd been wearing black cargo-style pants that were too big for him, flip-flops with daisies on top, and some kind of satin vest with no shirt, probably because he just forgot to put one on. Myrnin didn't dress for vanity. Completely at random, really, as if he just reached into the closet blindfolded and put on whatever pieces he touched first.
Claire went at human speed into the shack and down the steps, and emerged into the big room that was Myrnin's lab and sometimes his home. (She thought he had a separate one, but she rarely caught him absent from this one, and there was a room in the back with castoff clothes he rummaged through when the mood took him.) Myrnin was bent over a microscope, studying who-knew-what. He had all the lights on, which was nice, and the lab looked clean and cool today, all its steampunky elements gleaming. She wondered whether he had a mad-scientist cleaning service.
"Thank you for the coffee," he said. "Good morning."
"Morning," Claire said, and dumped her backpack on a chair. "How did you know which coffee was yours?"
"I didn't." He shrugged. "You haven't been returning my phone calls. And you know how much I dislike making them in the first place. Telephones are so cold and impersonal."
"I didn't answer because I didn't feel like rerunning the argument again. We're not getting anywhere with it, are we?"
He looked up from the microscope, shoved old-fashioned square spectacles up on top of his long, curling black hair, and looked at her with a devastating smile. Myrnin was--for a vampire who looked about twice her age, but was thousands of years older than that--pretty hot. He could be sweet and affectionate one minute, cold and predatory the next, and that kept her from having any kind of crush on him, mostly. Truth was that he'd make a terrible, possibly fatal boyfriend.
She also really had no idea how he felt about her, deep down. He treated her like a particularly clever pet most of the time.
"I love arguing with you, Claire. You always surprise me. And occasionally, you even make sense."
She could have said the same about him, but not in a flattering kind of way. Instead of trying to put that into words, she took her coffee over to the granite-topped lab table. He was using a modern microscope, digital, that she'd ordered for him special. He seemed happy with it, for now, though he'd probably go back to his old brass-and-glass monstrosity soon. Myrnin was just more comfortable with Victorian technology. "What are you doing?"
"Checking my blood," he said. "I do it every week. You'll be happy to know that there's still no trace of the Bishop virus."
The Bishop virus was what they'd named the cruel sickness that had attacked the vampires long before she'd arrived--a manufactured virus that Amelie's father, Bishop, had released, because only he had the cure. Unfortunately for him, since he'd first used the cure on himself, his blood had been the cure for everybody else, and now the evil old vampire was locked down, under maximum security, somewhere in Morganville. Nobody knew where, except Amelie and the people guarding him.
Claire liked it that way. The last thing she wanted to think about was Bishop getting away and coming after all of them for revenge. She'd met some nasty vampires, but Bishop was, as far as she was concerned, the worst.
"I'm glad you're okay," she said. The Bishop virus had caused vampires to lose themselves, their memories, their self-control. It had happened slowly for most, which made it worse--like human Alzheimer's, only a vampire stripped of all of those things was an unpredictable, dangerous beast. Unlike the others, Myrnin hadn't recovered completely--or, more likely, he'd always been a little off the bubble from normal. "Can I see?"
"Oh, certainly," Myrnin said, and stepped back to let her squint into the eyepiece of the microscope. There, in vivid color, was the busy life of Myrnin's drop of blood--which wasn't his own blood, really, so much as that of others. There was a lot of difference between vampire blood and human, and Claire was still fascinated by how it worked. "See? I'm in fine shape."
"Congratulations." She shut down the microscope--no sense in running up the lab's probably horrible electric bill--and sipped her coffee while he drank his. "What are we doing today?"
"Oh, I thought we'd take a day off. Go to the park, stroll, watch a film . . ."
"You know me too well. Since you weren't talking to me this week, I designed some new circuitry. I'd like to see what you think of it." He darted over to another table, this one covered by a white sheet. For a horrible few seconds she thought there was a person under there . . . but then he whipped it off, and it was just piles of metal, glass, and plastic. It didn't look like circuitry. Most things Myrnin built didn't look right. They just worked.
Claire came over and tried to figure out where to start--probably there, at the open pipe that wound around and led to some kind of vacuum-tube arrangement, then into what looked like a circuit board scrounged from something more rational, then into bunches of wire, all the same color, that snaked out like spaghetti to other things buried under more coils of tubing.
She gave up. "What is it?"
"What do you think it is?"
"It could be anything from a lawn trimmer to a bomb, for all I know."
"I would never build a lawn trimmer," Myrnin said. "What did the lawn ever do to me? No, it's an interface. For the computer."
"An interface," Claire repeated slowly. "Between what and what?"
He gave her a long look, one of those "don't ask me questions you already know the answer to" looks, and she felt her stomach clench.
"I'm not going to let you do that," she said. "No building brains into your machines. No. You can't kill someone just to power your stupid computer, Myrnin; it's wrong!"
"Well, I kill people for blood, you know. I thought this would be more like conservation--waste not, want not, and all that. If I'm killing them already."
Claire rolled her eyes. "You don't kill people for blood, not in Morganville. I know for a fact that since you got better, you haven't--" Well, did she know that, actually? Was she sure? "I'm pretty sure you haven't."
He smiled, and it was a sad, sweet smile, the sort that broke her heart. "Oh, Claire," he said. "You think me a far better man than I am. That's kind, and flattering."
"Are you saying that you--"
"Doughnuts!" Myrnin interrupted her, and darted away, to zip back in seconds with an open box. "Chocolate glazed. Your favorite."
She stared at him, helpless, and finally took one. They were fresh, so he'd actually gone out and gotten them. She could imagine how that had gone over at the local doughnut shop, especially given what he was wearing today. "Myrnin, have you been hunting?"
He raised his eyebrows and bit into a jelly-filled doughnut. Raspberry jam oozed out, and Claire swallowed hard.
After he licked his lips clean, he said, "Let's look at your latest breakthrough, shall we?"
She followed him across to the back of the lab, where her own much saner-looking circuitry was sitting on another table, under another sheet. He'd made some . . . additions, she saw, in his usual nontraditional style. She couldn't imagine how copper pipes and old-fashioned springs and levers were supposed to improve her work, and for a second she felt righteously angry. She'd worked hard on that, and like a bratty little kid, Myrnin had ruined it.
"What did you do?" she asked, a little too sharply, and Myrnin turned around slowly to stare at her.
"Improved the design," he said, and this time his voice was cool, and not at all amused. "Science is collaboration, little girl. You are no scientist at all if you can't accept improvements on your theory."
"But--" Frustrated, she bit into her doughnut. She'd spent weeks working on this, and he'd promised he wouldn't touch it while she was gone. She'd been so close to making it work! "How exactly did you improve it?"
For an answer, he reached over to the power cord--still modern, thank God--and plugged it into the outlet at the side of the table.
The computer monitor--LCD, perfectly good--had been given the Jules Verne treatment, too. It was almost invisible in a nest of pipes and springs and gears . . . but it came on, and Claire recognized the graphic interface she'd designed for him. She'd made it steampunky, of course, because she knew that made him happy, but with the ornaments on the outside it looked half-crazy.
Perfect for Myrnin, then.
She went through the touch-screen menus rapidly. Town security, town memory control, town transportation . . . Transportation and memory control had been the two things that hadn't worked, but now, at least according to the interface, they did. She pressed the on-screen button for town transportation, and a map popped up, with glowing green spots for each of the stable doorways--like wormholes--that ran between Founder Houses in town, and throughout most of the public buildings. There were two at TPU, and two at the court-house, one in the hospital, some in places that she didn't recognize.
But just because they were green on the screen didn't mean they actually worked, of course.
"Have you tested it?" she asked.
Myrnin was finishing his doughnut. He wiped red from his lips and said, "Of course not. I'm far too valuable to waste on experiments. That's your job, assistant."
"But it works?"
"Theoretically," he said, and shrugged. "Of course, I wouldn't recommend a first-person test just yet. Try something inorganic first."
Despite herself, Claire felt a little thrill of excitement. It's working. Maybe. Transportation and memory control had been two impossible problems, and maybe, just maybe, they'd actually solved one of them. That meant the second wasn't insurmountable, either.
She tried to keep that out of her expression, nodded, and walked to the wooden cabinet that covered the doorway that led to the lab. She tried to slide it. It wouldn't budge. "Did you lock this in place or something?"
"Oh, no, I just stored some lead inside," Myrnin said cheerfully, and with one hand he slid the heavy beast out of the way. "There you go. I forget you can't actually move mountains; you do such a good imitation of it. I'll move the lead to another location."
She wasn't sure if that was meant to be a compliment, so she said nothing, just focused on the portal in front of her. He'd put in a new locked door to cover it, and she had to go in search of the key to the padlock, because of course it wasn't hanging on the hook where it was supposed to be. It took twenty minutes to locate it in the pocket of Myrnin's ratty old bathrobe, which was hanging on an articulated human skeleton wired together in the corner of the lab--one of those old teaching tools, she hoped, and not a previous occupant of her own job.
Once she'd opened the door, what was beyond was an empty, dark space, leading . . . well, potentially to a horrible death.
Claire reached over and grabbed a book from a nearby stack, checked the title, and decided they could do without it. Then she concentrated, imagining the living room at the Glass House. It was harder to project that image into the portal than before, almost as if there were some kind of force fighting not to open the connection, but then the image resolved through with an almost audible pop and color spread out in front of her. Blurry at first, then slowly coming into focus.
"My God," she breathed. "He actually made it work."
Facing her was the back of the battered couch at home. She could see Michael's acoustic guitar still propped up in his chair off to the side. The TV was off, so obviously Shane wasn't up yet.
She flinched as a shadow walked in front of her, but it was only Eve, who crossed between the TV and the couch, still fastening her pigtails as she headed toward the kitchen.
"Hey!" Claire called. "Hey, Eve!"
Eve, puzzled, stopped and turned around, staring up toward the second floor, then looking at the TV.
"Over here!" Claire said. "Eve!"
Eve turned, and her eyes widened. "Claire? Oh, are the portals working?"
"No, stay there. I'm testing it." Claire held up the book. "Here. Catch."
She tossed the book through the open connection, and on the other side she saw Eve raise her hands.
The book hit Eve's palms and crumbled into dust. Eve, surprised, let out a little squawk and jumped back, shaking the dust from her hands.
"Are you okay?" Claire asked anxiously.
"Yeah, just surprised. And filthy." Eve held up her smudged palms. "Not quite there yet, right? Unless you wanted to pulverize people."
"Not exactly." Claire sighed. "Thanks. I'll keep working on it. Sorry about the dirt."
"Well, it's not like we don't have that on the floor. Michael was supposed to sweep; do you really think he's done it?" Eve grinned. "Nice try with the weird science, but for now, I think I'll stick with walking."
She blew Claire a kiss, and Claire waved and stepped back. The color faded out again, turning Eve and the room to black-and-white, and then to just a sea of liquid darkness.
Myrnin was standing by her elbow when she looked over. He was tapping a finger on his lips. "That," he said, "was very interesting. Also, you owe me a third-edition Johannes Magnus."
"You have six of them already. But the important thing is, it's almost working," Claire said. "The stabilization's off. But the connection's working. That's a huge step forward."
"Not much of one if it turns us to ashes upon arrival. I can do that all on my own by strolling long enough in the sunlight. Well, it's your problem now, Claire. I'm working on the other part."
"What other--Oh. Wiping people's memories when they leave Morganville."
"Exactly. I'm actually getting quite close, I believe." "But you're not going to use a brain. Other than your own, I mean."
"Since you insist, I am trying it the hard way. I am not optimistic at all that this will ever work," he said, and produced the box of doughnuts again, with a magician's flourish. "One more?"
She really couldn't resist, when he gave her that smile.