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In that quasi-comatose state, his mind had remained sharp and agile. Eight years with virtually no stimulation of his five senses, eight years of an entirely internal existence, had been a singular opportunity to think about the problems of creating new life forms.


That intense period of isolation guaranteed that he would not be merely Victor in a new body. He is a reduction of the essence of Victor, purified and repurified into a more potent spirit. Victor’s lifelong determination has become, in his clone, a fierce resolution.


No music plays in this facility. Ever. To him, music is merely an inefficient kind of mathematics. He hears exquisite symphonies of maths in his mind.


As much of the day as possible, he lives in a silence almost as hushed as an airless void between two galaxies. He dislikes being distracted from the wonders of himself.


He knows why the original Victor, for all his brilliance, failed. And he knows why he cannot fail.


The first Victor had been too human. He was a man too much of the flesh. In spite of his contempt for humanity, he wanted most things that ordinary men wanted. In fact, he wanted them to excess.


This Victor, who thinks of himself as Victor Immaculate, has no hunger for those things after which ordinary men chase.


The first Victor considered himself a gourmet and a wine connoisseur. He believed that his taste was exquisitely refined.


The new Victor has no patience for the rituals of fine dining. He eats only the simplest food, quickly and without fuss, only what is necessary to maintain the meat machine that is his body. He does not have time for wine or other spirits.


The first Victor relished status symbols: immense mansions, the finest automobiles, hundred-thousand-dollar wristwatches, handmade suits cut and sewn by the finest British tailors ….


The clone of Victor has no interest in status or luxuries. His wardrobe consists entirely of clothes bought for him by the social secretary of the admirer who is financing the current project. Her taste may be unrefined and at times even tacky. Victor Immaculate doesn’t care; he wears what he is sent.


The first Victor frequently indulged his lust, which had a sadistic edge. He spent much time growing his Erikas in his creation tanks and then brutally using them. His desire not only interfered with his work but muddied his thinking in all areas.


Shortly after leaving New Orleans with a fortune in a briefcase, the night when the first Victor died, this Victor had traveled to a private clinic in a country where any medical procedure could be had for the right price, including even organ transplants from well-matched if often unwilling donors. There, he paid handsomely to be neutered.


He can never be distracted from his momentous work by lust and the power fantasies that arise from it.


Power. That was a primary goal of the first Victor. Authority, command, dominion, iron rule. He wanted every knee to bend to him, every heart to fear him.


Victor Immaculate has no interest in creating a world of slaves who sway obediently to each wave of his hand.


One thing and one thing only matters to him: the fulfillment of his mission. Absolute dominion is not an end in itself. The sole purpose of having total power is to achieve his two-part goal: First, erase all humanity and its history; second, then relinquish power forever, thereby denying the value of both power and creation.


From the original Victor, he inherited a vision of the world without humanity. But Victor Immaculate understands this vision more completely than did his namesake.


The original Victor had labored to create a New Race, a stronger version of humankind, apostles of reason, without either superstition or free will, obedient soldiers of materialism who would relentlessly liquidate all who were born of man and woman, unify the planet, and spread out to the stars with the ultimate goal of claiming the entire universe.


That was the grandest mission the first Victor had been able to envision. But Victor Immaculate realized that it merely replaced one kind of human animal with another, and thus suggested that humanity was not a failure but might be a potential success needing only to be redesigned.


Eradicating every human being from Earth is a momentous achievement only if he does not replace them with a new kind of man. When the members of the Community have hunted down the last man, the last woman, and the last child, Victor Immaculate will within one day cause all the creatures he has made to fall dead.


He alone will remain alive on Earth for a few days, perhaps seven, to bear witness to the emptiness of the world. Then he will kill himself, and with his death reduce Genesis to a single chapter with only twenty-five verses, and the entire so-called sacred book to one page.


He is the ultimate annihilator, who will not only put an end to history but obliterate it.


Now, from a speaker somewhere overhead comes the synthesized voice of a computer, androgynous in character: “Twilight.”


Victor opens his eyes.


The first night of the first war day will soon begin.


He rises to the occasion.


Chapter 52


In the hospital lobby, near the front entrance, Chief Rafael Jarmillo discussed the situation with the four deputies who would deal with friends and relatives of patients who arrived at the hospital during evening visiting hours.


As he finished giving instructions, he was approached by Ned Gronski, head of Memorial’s small security staff. Gronski was of course a replicant of the real man, who had earlier been given to a Builder in the basement.


Holding out a coiled rope made from a bedsheet, Gronski said, “A nurse found this tied to the window post in a patient’s room.”


“When?”


“Half an hour ago. We’ve searched the grounds.”


Nobody would climb out a window and down a rope unless he knew he would not be allowed to walk out a door.


“What patient?” Jarmillo asked.


“Bryce Walker, the Western writer.”


“What does he know? How does he know it?”


Gronski shook his head. “No idea. There’s a kid missing, too. Travis Ahern. Nurse says he and Walker visited a lot this afternoon, in the boy’s room.”


When earlier it had been learned that Nummy O’Bannon and the vagrant, Conway Lyss, escaped the jail after having seen a Builder at work, Jarmillo had decided that the breach of secrecy didn’t warrant the immediate lockdown of the whole town. Nummy was well liked, but no one would be quick to believe such a fantastic story coming from a boy who treated a stuffed animal as if it were a real dog. Lyss, booked on a charge of burglary the previous day, was wanted for several crimes in Nevada and Idaho. He would most likely want nothing more than to put as much distance between himself and Rainbow Falls as he could. Considering Lyss’s appearance, crackpot demeanor, and ripe stench, most people would tune out the grizzled vagrant or keep their distance from him. Even if they listened to him, he would seem irrational; he apparently wasn’t a dead-end drunk, but he looked like one.


The longer Jarmillo could avoid putting roadblocks on the two exits from town and the longer he could restrict the interruption of phone service to one or two venues at a time—currently only the hospital—the less likely that people would realize something out of the ordinary might be occurring. The farther into the operation they got without arousing widespread curiosity or suspicion, the more certain they were to have eliminated everyone in town and to have transformed Rainbow Falls into the first Community stronghold by Friday morning.


Nine-year-old Ahern wouldn’t be a much better witness than Nummy O’Bannon, but Bryce Walker couldn’t be easily dismissed. A lifetime resident, personable, and articulate, he had many friends who trusted him and would believe almost anything he said.


Ned Gronski had the same concern. “It’s Walker that worries me. He’s an institution in this town.”


Whatever Bryce Walker knew or suspected about what was happening at the hospital, he most likely would come to the police to tell his story—and they would deal with him. In the unlikely event that he had some reason to worry that the department was not to be trusted, what would he do then? Organize some citizen militia to inspect the hospital for nefarious activity? Let the inspection occur. When they carried their search to the basement, they would be more fodder for the Builders.


Jarmillo decided to take no drastic action. To Gronski, he said, “I’ll alert every officer in the department and all other replicants currently among the population to be on the lookout for Walker and Ahern. I’ll send their photos to everyone’s cell phone. They should be subdued on sight by any means necessary and at once returned to the hospital for execution and processing.”


As he finished winding the bedsheet rope into a ball, Gronski pointed to the glass doors of the lobby. “Speaking of execution and processing, here come the first visitors of the evening.”


Chapter 53


The stairs led up to an unlocked door that opened into a ten-foot-square room. Bryce switched on the overhead fluorescent panel and switched off the stair light behind them. A second door stood directly opposite the first. On the walls hung shovels, push brooms, and other implements.


Bryce examined the door through which they had just come, to be sure that, as he recalled, it did not automatically lock, and then he eased it shut behind them.


The hospital maintenance staff called this space the lid-service room. From outside on the roof, it looked like a shed.


Bryce opened a supply cabinet. On the top shelf, he tucked away the pillowcase that now contained Travis’s pajamas and slippers.


“We’ll wait here until dark,” he told the boy.


“Will they really think we climbed down from your window? What if they realize the bedsheet is a fakeout?”


“We could what-if ourselves into paralysis, son. Anyway, in this situation, we can’t have contingency plans. There’s one way out.”


Although unheated, the service room had to be warmer than the open roof. Yet within minutes Bryce felt a chill. He remained on his feet because the soles of his slippers provided better insulation between him and the floor than would the seat of his pajamas.


Among the maintenance supplies, he found twine. He fashioned a strap for his blanket roll, so he could carry it over his shoulder.


“How did you know this was here?” Travis asked.


“When Rennie, my wife, was hospitalized for the last time, they allowed me to stay with her 24/7 during her last few days. Sometimes when she was sleeping, I’d come up to the roof, especially at night, with all the stars. When you stand there with your head tipped back, at first each star seems to be on the same plane as the others, some brighter than others but equally distant. Then slowly your perception improves, so you see that some are nearer, some farther, and some very far away indeed. You see how the stars go on forever, out there to eternity, and you know then, if for a moment you doubted it, that going on forever is the fundamental way of things.”


“There won’t be any stars tonight,” Travis said.


“The stars are always there, whether we can see them or not,” Bryce assured him.


The boy worried that his mother might not be safe, out there in the suddenly unknown streets of this long-familiar town. In spite of what Bryce had said about what-ifs, Travis Ahern shuffled through a deck of them, waiting for nightfall.


After a while, Bryce steered the boy from worries to shining memories. His mother was his hero. When he recounted their good times together, his eyes were bright with love, his voice tender.


Jean-Anne Chouteau came to the hospital to visit her sister, Mary-Jane Vergelle. She arrived with Julian, Mary-Jane’s husband.


As president of the VFW Auxiliary, the lay chaplain of her church, and the founder of the Rainbow Falls Red Hat Society, she visited Memorial at least once each week, to sit a spell with one afflicted friend or another.


Jean-Anne carried a Tupperware container filled with miniature homemade muffins, some walnut-carrot and some pecan-zucchini. Julian clutched a bouquet from Fantasy Floral and a paperback book wrapped in kitten-patterned paper.


Even before they went through the glass door, Jean-Anne saw Chief Jarmillo and four deputies, and she said, “Oh, Julian, some poor soul must’ve been shot.”


“Police don’t always mean gunplay,” Julian said as the automatic door slid open in front of them.


But three years earlier, when Jean-Anne was leaving the hospital after paying a visit to a friend recovering from an encounter with a drunk driver, an ambulance followed by three squad cars came racing along the approach road to the ER entrance. Don Scobey—the Don Scobey of Don Scobey’s Steakhouse—had been shot by a stickup artist. Ever since, when from time to time Jean-Anne saw a police officer at Memorial, she steeled herself for the news that someone had been gunned down.


As they stepped into the lobby, Officer John Martz—who was married to Anita, a Red Hat lady, and who always took the microphone as auctioneer at the annual charity auction for the hospital—came toward them, smiling.


In spite of John’s smile, Jean-Anne said, “Who’s been shot?”


“Shot? Oh, no, Jean-Anne. It’s nothing like that. There’s been a contamination problem. Nothing serious but—”


“What kind of contamination?” Julian asked.


“Nothing serious. But anyone who’s been to the hospital the last few days, and anyone who has a friend or family member currently here as a patient—we need you to give us a blood sample.”


“Is Mary-Jane all right?” Jean-Anne asked.


“Yes, yes, she’s fine.”


“Is she infected with something, after what she’s already been through?”


“No, Jean-Anne,” John Martz said. “She’s already been tested, and she’s fine. We don’t need much blood, just a drop, a thumb prick will do it. If you’ll follow me … ”


Moving with the officer as he crossed the lobby to the elevator alcove, Jean-Anne said, “Her gallbladder wasn’t just inflamed and full of stones, poor thing. She said on the phone it was abscessed.”


And Julian said, “I hope this contamination thing isn’t going to lead to complications for her.”


“No, like I said, she’s fine,” John Martz assured them. “She tested negative.”


“What do the police have to do with any kind of contamination?” Jean-Anne wondered. “Where are the doctors and nurses?”


“They have their hands full. They asked us for assistance. By law, we’re obligated to help in a health emergency.”


“Emergency?” Jean-Anne frowned. “But you said it was nothing serious.”


“It’s not that serious,” John Martz said, escorting them into the elevator. “They’re short on staff because of the flu, and when this situation came up, they had to declare it an emergency for us to be able to assist.”

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