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He heard a door open, close, and then open again at the nearby building. There were other noises that he could not identify—and then the tramp and shuffle of many feet, as of weary people moving forward in a line.


In a tone of cold command, a man said, “Get in.”


Those instructions were followed at once by the thumping and muffled clatter of people boarding the truck and moving forward toward the cab to make room for those who followed them.


The soft and miserable weeping of a woman made Deucalion clench his fists. She was silenced by what he believed to be a slap across the face and then another.


By now he had become convinced that the new Victor must be much farther advanced in his work in Rainbow Falls than they could have guessed. The crewmen of the truck were some variation on the New Race that had been loosed upon Louisiana.


He felt compelled to descend from the roof of the truck, kill them both, and free those in the cargo box. These two men were not men at all, but creatures without souls; and killing them would not be murder.


With effort, Deucalion restrained himself because he couldn’t be certain that he had the power to kill them. The New Race had been strong and hard to kill, but they had been no match for him. This new crop might be stronger and better armored against assault, not only a match for him but his superior.


Besides, he didn’t know enough about what was happening. He needed more knowledge before taking action.


He turned onto his back once more and scanned the sky as he waited, expecting to see the first flakes of falling snow.


Chapter 63


By 6:40, the parking lot at Pickin’ and Grinnin’ contained more than thirty trucks and SUVs, though not a single car. Fifteen minutes later, no additional vehicles had arrived.


The monthly family social of the Riders in the Sky Church was under way. They were all folks with jobs, who needed to change clothes after work and corral the kids, but none of them ever came as late as seven o’clock to this event.


Inside, country-western stars both long-revered and new were rocking the jukebox. The church couldn’t afford live music for the social. Anyway, no one who ever played in Rainbow Falls could outsing Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, or any other of Nashville’s best.


The buffet tables were piled high with homemade food, enough for everyone to stuff themselves and still take home two days’ worth of leftovers of one another’s finest treats. Being a prizewinning cook of comfort food wasn’t a hard-and-fast requirement of membership in the church, but those who joined with no kitchen skills learned from their betters and, within a year, could turn out a perfect cake, an adequate pie, and passable biscuits of numerous varieties; and in two years, they were taking home some prizes.


Tables were set aside for kids to play card games and board games, and to work puzzles of all kinds in teams. No mind-stunting video games were allowed, and no one seemed to miss them.


Beer was being consumed, and a modicum of whiskey, because the Riders did not forsake the pleasure of spirits. Even the Lord drank wine, as any Bible plainly showed. The trick was moderation, which was all but rarely observed in respect of the women and children.


Fewer of the Riders smoked than had people of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, but they found no virtue in driving tobacco farmers into poverty. Those who smoked elsewhere, however, abstained at church functions.


Simple folks, none of them rich, they nevertheless dressed up for the evening, though in the case of the men, dress up meant hardly more than making sure their boots were shined and wearing sport coats with their jeans.


They were a noisy crowd, filling the roadhouse with laughter, sharing family news and also that kind of news that’s called gossip, mostly gossip of a benign nature, although some that in all honesty could be called mean, as well. They were not saints, after all, but merely souls in the long and often meandering journey from sin to salvation.


At seven o’clock sharp, Mayor Erskine Potter locked the front doors from the outside, using chain and a padlock.


Simultaneously, Tom Zell padlocked the fire exit from the bathroom hall and Ben Shanley chained the kitchen exit.


The fire exit from the private dining room had been barred earlier.


Now the mayor and the two councilmen met as planned at the backstage door, by which they entered the roadhouse. With the blue-velvet curtain between them and the Riders, they double-padlocked that final exterior exit.


In the main room, where everyone was meeting and greeting, the three men went behind the bar, by way of the service gate. Zell and Shanley busied themselves with nothing important, using their bodies to shield the mayor from view as he locked the two deadbolts on the door between the backbar and the service corridor.


Erskine was excited about being able to watch the Builders at work, a spectacle that he had never seen before. But the best thing of the night would be the killing of the children.


None of the Community would ever be born as a child. They all came into this world as adults, grown and extruded in mere months. And because they were not only sterile but were also incapable of sexual activity, they could never produce children.


Procreation was an inefficient method of reproduction. Not only were children inefficient, they were also alien to the minds of those in the Community. And not merely alien but repellent.


How fine the world would be when, one day, there was no small voice anywhere in it, no childish laughter, no laughter at all.


Chapter 64


This facility is so immense that if you were more comfortable living with illusions than with truth, you could believe that it went on forever, corridor into corridor through uncountable intersections, chamber after chamber above chamber under chamber within chamber, like a concrete-and-steel expression of an equation by Einstein defining the indefinable.


Victor Immaculate lives with no illusions. Nothing is infinite or eternal, neither the world nor the people of the world, neither the universe nor time.


From the chamber with chair and futon, he walks two corridors, descends in an elevator, walks another corridor, and passes through two rooms into a third, where a straight-backed chair faces a blank wall.


During this journey, he sees no one. No voices are heard, no footsteps other than his own, no doors closing in the distance, no sounds but those he makes.


Two hundred twenty-two individuals work here, live here, but Victor sees his key personnel only when necessary. The many others, he never sees. The facility’s core computer keeps track of Victor’s position at all times. It also tracks the position of every member of the staff, each of whom it alerts by direct-to-brain messaging when Victor approaches them, enabling them to fade away and avoid seeing—or being seen by—the master of this maze.


All but a minute fraction of face-to-face encounters are a waste of time. They distract the mind and foster inefficiency.


Initially, Victor worked here with scores of the best scientists of this or any age. They are all dead.


Now the Community staffs this facility. They call it the Hive, a term that is not intended to have a negative connotation. They all admire the organization, industry, and efficiency of bees.


In the room with the single straight-backed chair, Victor sits.


Beside the chair is a small table. On the table is a cold bottle of water. Beside the bottle is a small white dish. In the dish lies a pale-blue capsule. He opens the bottle, slips the capsule into his mouth, drinks.


Now he waits for the blank wall, which is a plasma screen, to fill with images from the roadhouse.


While he waits, he thinks.


He is always thinking. His mind is ever occupied—it abounds, it teems—with ideas, theories, extrapolations. The continuous nature of his thought is less remarkable than the profundity and fertility of it. The world has never previously known a mind of such high caliber—nor will it ever again.


One of his finest ideas is the entity he calls a Builder. He has heretofore seen them in action only in a laboratory setting, and he looks forward to observing them in the field for the first time, as they kill and process the people in the roadhouse.


The original Victor, being a man too much of the flesh and a prisoner of his human heritage, had thought too much in archetypes and clichés. He wanted to build a new race of exceptionally strong and virtually indestructible men, populate the world with immortals, make himself their living god, and thereby become the god of gods.


Victor Immaculate is the strict materialist that the original Victor could only dream of being.


He has no desire to create a race of immortal supermen. Members of the Community are immune to infections and diseases, but that is simply a consequence of their biology, of their unique flesh, not a design goal that he has set for himself. And although their wounds heal rapidly, they are just slightly harder to kill than is a human being.


To be as a god, one must concede the validity of the concept of God, and Victor Immaculate, unlike the original Victor, makes no such concession. He wishes to create nothing that endures. He desires only to be the transitional manager between the world as it is now and the world as it will be without a single thinking creature in it. He creates to destroy. His vision is a world without vision, without ideals, without purpose.


To Victor Immaculate, this question is not worth asking: If a tree falls in the woods when no one is present to hear it, does it make a sound?


To Victor Immaculate, the better question is this: If humanity no longer exists on Earth to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the abundance of Nature, does Earth itself continue to exist in its absence? His answer is no. The mind perceives matter and invests it with meaning. Without the mind to observe it, matter has no meaning; what cannot be perceived by any of the five senses—does not exist.


He has created two related but different species to assist him in the deconstruction of the world. The Communitarians are replicants of real people, but they are not clones because their biology is not that of human beings. They pass for humans and are the fifth column that facilitates the Builders.


The Builders are in fact destroyers, their name ironic. They are both biological and mechanical. They can pass for human beings as well as can the Communitarians, but each Builder is a community unto itself, a collection of billions of nanoanimals—microbe-size creatures programmed like machines, each to perform its specialized tasks—that together can assume the appearance of a man or woman, but can also deliquesce and operate as a swarm of individuals. Each nanoanimal is intelligent in the most basic sense, with a small amount of memory—but their shared intelligence and memory equals that of a human being. Each nanoanimal can learn from experience and share its learning with the billions of others comprising a Builder.


Each nanoanimal can reproduce itself asexually. It needs only suitable building materials. Everything it needs can be found in a human body.


The Builders do not build Communitarians, who are created in the Hive. They build only other Builders from the human flesh and bones on which they feed. Living and dead people are of equal value as the fuel and material for their construction work.


The original Victor’s plan for the repopulation of the world was flawed. It depended on vast factories for the production of the New Race, what he called tank farms. Tens of millions of the New Race would have been needed to war successfully with humankind. The scale of the enterprise ensured its discovery and destruction by the Old Race that it was intended to replace.


Victor Immaculate needs to create only a few Communitarians to support each Builder. The Builders, not the Communitarians, are the true army, the shock troops. They can feed on and dispose of the bodies of the real people the Communitarians replace, but each Builder also can kill and consume additional hundreds of people per day. And because each Builder can self-reproduce, Victor Immaculate does not need tank farms. He has decentralized the creation process, and as a consequence, because the Builders multiply rapidly, he projects the death of the last human being in fourteen months.


A propagated Builder emerges from its cocoon in no less than twelve hours and no more than thirty-six.


Mind spinning as always, Victor Immaculate takes another drink of the bottled water.


The huge plasma screen brightens. The replicant of Reverend Kelsey Fortis has placed video cameras at four places in the main room of the roadhouse. The family social has not yet become the family slaughter.


Chapter 65


According to Tori, the waitress at the Andy Andrews Café, Denise and Larry Benedetto lived two blocks away, around the corner from Beartooth Avenue, on Purcell Street. Tori wasn’t certain, but she thought Denise taught third grade at Meriwether Lewis Elementary.


That Victor’s newest enterprise must be headquartered somewhere along the End Times Highway was known. That he might be using Rainbow Falls as a testing ground the way he had used New Orleans had been suspected; and as far as Carson was concerned, this too was now known.


As they hurried on foot to the address that Tori had given them, Michael said, “‘Tell my baby’ doesn’t necessarily mean a baby baby.”


“What kind of baby is there besides a baby baby?”


“You know, like sometimes I call you baby, sometimes you call me baby. A baby can be a lot of things.”


“She meant baby baby.”


“If she did mean baby baby, how are we going to talk to a baby when babies only understand things like ga-ga-wa-wa-ba-ba?”


“This doesn’t have to be an infant baby. It could be old enough to talk, and she’d still call it her baby. Scout is always going to be our baby, even when she’s seventy and we’re a hundred, wearing diapers again.”


“But what are we going to tell the baby? Correct me if I’ve got it wrong, but Denise said, ‘She took me. She was me. But not me.’ Exactly what does that mean?”


Carson huffed with impatience, and her warm breath plumed white in the cold night. “She also said, ‘Me isn’t me.’ That couldn’t be any clearer.”


“‘Me isn’t me’ isn’t clear to me,” he disagreed.


“You’re in denial, Michael.”


“I am not in denial.”


“Now you’re in denial that you’re in denial. It’s happening again. Replicants, like in New Orleans. That was the real Denise in the restaurant, and there’s a replicant of her somewhere.”


“But what was that thing in her temple, the face jewelry? We never saw anything like that in New Orleans.”


“I don’t know what it was, but it was totally Victorish.”


“Victorish?”


“We’re dealing with Victor’s clone now, and he’s going to be full of the same crap that Victor was full of, but he’s going to have his own ideas, too. He’s going to do some things differently. We’re going to see all kinds of stuff we never saw in New Orleans.”

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