And with complete conviction, Deucalion knew that when Victor was located, he would be found underground, like the bats in their cave, underground but not dead, underground and at work on some new creation.
Although psychic powers were not one of Deucalion’s lightning-conveyed gifts, he believed that his longevity had been granted that he might be the agent of his maker’s final destruction. He had come down the centuries like a bloodhound on a trail. Although he was not clairvoyant, from time to time, a mysterious power seemed to direct his attention toward his elusive prey as effectively as the hound was drawn forward by the scent of its quarry.
In her Ford Explorer, she drove slowly into town as the gold and rose fingers of the dawn reached toward fading stars that eluded them. The journey was only four miles, but by the time she arrived at her destination, the eastern half of the sky became a celebration of color exceeding any fireworks display, while the western half brightened from black to sapphire to an enchanting peacock-blue.
Erika Five loved the world. She was charmed by winter snow, each flake a tiny frosted flower, the white vistas, the scalloped drifts, and she thrilled to the early green shoots in spring meadows, to the summer fields blazing with balsam-root flowers like fallen petals of the sun. The mountains in the distance inspired her: massive faces of sheer rock thrusting skyward and more gentle slopes mantled in evergreens. The forest that reached down the foothills and across half her property was her cathedral, with countless vaulted ceilings and colonnades, where she often gave thanks for the gift of the world, for Montana, and for her existence.
She had been designated Erika Five because she was the fifth Erika, all as alike as identical quintuplets, that Victor had grown in his creation tanks at the Hands of Mercy in New Orleans. As his ideal of grace and beauty and erotic allure, the five had served as his wife, one by one, without benefit of marriage.
The first four displeased him in one way or another and were terminated with brutal violence. Erika Five, Erika Helios—in truth Erika Frankenstein—displeased him, too, during the brief time that she had been his to use, but he never had the chance to terminate her.
On this October morning, as she had for more than two years, she lived under the name Erika Swedenborg. Her continued existence, following Victor’s death, was nothing less than miraculous.
The two main thoroughfares of Rainbow Falls—Beartooth Avenue and Cody Street—formed a crossroads at the center of town. The commercial blocks were, for the most part, lined with quaint two-and three-story buildings, mostly nineteenth-century but some early twentieth-century, with double-thick brick walls that kept out the bitter cold in winter.
On Cody, half a block east of Beartooth, Erika pulled to the curb and parked near the Jim James Bakery, which opened before dawn for the early-bird breakfast crowd. Once every week, she drove into town to buy a dozen rich, buttery cinnamon rolls packed full of pecans and glistening with white icing, the best of their kind that she had ever tasted.
Jim James baked them himself, using a recipe developed by his mother, Belinda. Jim’s half-brother, Andy Andrews, owned the Andy Andrews Café two blocks north on Beartooth, serving delicious lunches and dinners from a menu based on his mom’s recipes. Unimaginative when naming her children, Belinda was a totally wicked cook who taught her sons well.
Switching off the engine, before she opened the driver’s door, Erika saw someone she knew. He approached along the sidewalk. A man in hand-tooled black cowboy boots, jeans, and a black leather jacket too consciously and fussily stylish to have been sold at any store in rustic Rainbow Falls. Tall. Fit. Handsome in a severe way.
Victor Helios, alias Frankenstein. Her husband-by-decree, her tormentor, her master whom she must obey, her maker.
She believed him to be dead. Or if not dead, not anywhere near Montana.
He walked as if lost in thought, hands in his jacket pockets, head down, eyes on the sidewalk in front of him. Vaporous plumes of his warm breath blossomed and dissipated in the cold morning air.
Erika should have averted her face against the possibility that he would glance up and discover her sitting behind the wheel of the SUV. But the sight of him paralyzed her. She could not look away.
He passed within arm’s reach of the Explorer without becoming aware of her. On his left temple was a familiar small golden-brown mole no bigger than a pencil eraser, which confirmed that he was not just someone who resembled Victor.
After he passed Erika, she watched him in the side mirror. Near the end of the block, he opened the door of some kind of truck and stepped out of sight. The intervening parked vehicles denied her a clear view of his transportation.
In the rearview mirror, she saw him pull away from the curb. She bent over, as if studying something on the passenger seat, in case he glanced toward her as he drove past.
When the sound of his engine peaked and receded, she raised her head and saw that he was driving a silver Mercedes GL550 with Montana license plates. At the end of the block, he stopped for a red traffic light.
After escaping Victor’s sphere of control, she had driven over eighteen hundred miles to start a new life in a place as different from Louisiana as she could find. The fact that Victor remained alive after the disaster in New Orleans was barely credible, but that he should have taken refuge in this same town, of all places he might have gone, seemed impossible.
Erika started the Explorer, swung into the street, and pulled behind the GL550 as the traffic light changed to green. Fearful but determined not to succumb to fear, she followed her maker through the intersection. As they drew near the end of town, she fell back, so her pursuit would not become obvious to him, and she allowed a van to slip between them.
Acutely aware that there were no coincidences and that the meaning of her life was not hers to determine but only hers to discover, she nevertheless decided one thing: Whatever happened, she would not cease to be Erika Swedenborg and would never become again Erika Five.
At 8:48 that Tuesday morning, the new Chief Rafael Jarmillo, in appearance indistinguishable from the former Rafael Jarmillo, stepped into the elevator with Dr. Henry Lightner, and the doors closed behind him.
With 106 beds, Rainbow Falls Memorial Hospital was primarily a short-term, acute-care facility. Once stabilized, those patients with chronic conditions or with critical acute conditions were transferred either by ambulance or by air ambulance to Great Falls—or to one of the town’s three funeral homes if the air ambulance did not arrive in a timely fashion.
As one of the town’s two general surgeons and head of staff at Memorial, Henry Lightner didn’t do heart work, but over the years he removed hundreds of diseased gallbladders, surely a thousand appendixes, uncounted benign cysts, and not a few bullets. He had saved victims of accidents, stabbings, shootings, and suicide attempts, and was well regarded by the people of Rainbow Falls for his skills as a physician, for his reassuring bedside manner, and for his civic spirit.
The current Dr. Lightner was not the real Dr. Lightner. Although he had downloaded enough of the physician’s memories to pass for the doctor, he couldn’t have performed even the most simple surgery with any expectation of success.
The Creator hadn’t yet developed a brain tap that could entirely transfer complex acquired knowledge, such as a medical education. Eventually that would happen. Given enough time, the Creator could accomplish whatever goal he set for himself.
Anyway, in seventy-two hours, by this time Friday morning, Rainbow Falls would have no need of physicians or a hospital. By then its entire population would consist of members of the Community, none of whom was vulnerable to disease or infection, and every one of whom was able to recover swiftly from all but the most grievous wounds.
“The entire day shift has arrived?” Jarmillo asked as they descended to the basement of the two-story building.
“Nursing staff, clerical, technicians, maintenance,” Lightner confirmed. “The hospital has a shift-overlap system, so they arrived at seven o’clock. They were met by replicants. Memory downloading is complete. We’ll deal with the physicians one by one as they arrive for their daily rounds.”
The elevator doors opened, and Henry Lightner led Chief Jarmillo into a corridor with pale-blue walls and a white ceramic-tile floor.
Busy day-shift clerical and maintenance personnel were using hand trucks and moving carts to empty several offices of hospital records, filing cabinets, and furniture.
“Everything is being dumped in the garage, which is on this level,” Lightner reported. “These interior rooms offer the security and the sound abatement we need for the Builders.”
“Are they noisy?”
“Not themselves so much. But maybe their materials.”
Lightner opened a door and preceded Chief Jarmillo into a twenty-foot-square room that had been emptied of its contents in order to accommodate the eighteen people imprisoned there.
“These are night-shift, been here since we took over the place almost five hours ago.”
Ten nurses and two orderlies in uniforms, one young resident physician who was on duty to deal with emergency admissions in a hospital too small to have an ER, two maintenance men, two security guards, and a building-systems engineer were in custody. Each sported a dime-sized silver hemisphere, the nailhead of a brain tap, in his or her left temple.
Members of the Community were not capable of wild flights of imagination or of hyperbole, so Chief Jarmillo reported only what was obvious to his five senses when he said, “The air seems thick with their fear.”
As instructed, seventeen of the prisoners were sitting on the floor with their backs against the walls. In some cases, their arms hung slack, hands limp on the floor, palms upturned. Others worried one white-knuckled hand with the other: wringing, pulling, clutching in quiet desperation.
Two of them were blank-eyed, as if oblivious of their situation, and one of those two drooled. Some eyes were fixed with dread, like the unwavering stares of small, tender animals in the sudden shadow of a grinning wolf. Some of the condemned glanced quickly from one fellow prisoner to another, from this wall to that, from ceiling to floor, here and there and here again, their eyes as twitchy as the eyes of dead-end alcoholics in the grip of delirium tremens, as if they were hallucinating insectile horrors everywhere they looked.
The uniform skirt worn by one of the nurses and the khaki pants of a security guard were discolored with urine. The air was likewise redolent of sour sweat.
One of the younger nurses lay flat on her back, arms at her sides, motionless. Blood pooled in her eyes.
“Hemorrhaging?” Chief Jarmillo asked.
Dr. Lightner said, “Yes.”
“A problem with the brain tap?”
“Yes. But the only one so far.”
“Is she alive?”
“She was for a while. Now she’s dead.”
“Carrion,” Jarmillo said.
Lightner nodded. “But still useful.”
“Yes. As useful as their kind has ever been.”
As they returned to the hallway, Dr. Lightner said, “The replicants of the night staff have gone home to their families. Soon they’ll oversee the replacement of their wives, husbands, children.”
“Where’s the day staff?”
Indicating the closed door to the next room along the hallway, Lightner said, “As the day staff, of course, there are more of them.”
“When will they be rendered?”
“Later this morning. The Builders arrive in about an hour.”
“How many patients currently in the hospital?”
“When will you start moving them down here?”
“As they’re needed,” said Lightner, “but not before the swing shift has come to work and been replaced by replicants. Perhaps as early as five o’clock this afternoon.”
“That’s a long time.”
“But it’s per schedule.”
“What assistance do you need from me?” asked Jarmillo.
“Originally, I thought four deputies. Now, I think one will do.”
Jarmillo raised his eyebrows. “Only one?”
“Mostly as a liaison, to expedite the dispatch of other deputies if a crisis arises.”
“Evidently you don’t expect a crisis or any kind of difficulty.”
Lightner shook his head. “We’ve found them easy. Trusting. Submissive to authority even before a brain tap. Not like we thought Montanans might be.”
“We’ve found the same,” said Jarmillo. “So much for the Wild West. Everywhere now is a sheepfold.”
“We’ve started calling them two-legged lambs,” Lightner said. “We’ll easily have the whole town sheared by dawn Friday.”
With contempt as richly satisfying as his growing delight in the prospect of triumph, the chief said, “Sheared and butchered.”
The first to arrive, Erskine Potter parked his Ford pickup in a space marked RESERVED FOR THE BOSSMAN, which did not refer to his position in town government.
Serving as the mayor of Rainbow Falls was not a full-time job. Erskine Potter owned Pickin’ and Grinnin’ Roadhouse, a country-and-western nightclub and restaurant just west of the town limits, a sprawling single-story structure with red clapboard siding, a front veranda with white railings and columns, and a cedar-shingle roof.
Pickin’ and Grinnin’ remained open year-round, Wednesday through Saturday nights, for dinner and dancing. On Sundays, the tables were stacked to one end of the large main room, the chairs were set in rows, and the stage became a chancel from which religious services were conducted.
The congregation of Riders in the Sky Church numbered 320, most of whom attended services each Sunday. Erskine Potter—the original, who at this moment sat with his family in a basement jail cell—had been a member.
When downloading the former mayor’s memory, the new mayor had received a great many experiences and images related to this church but had given them little consideration. As a product of the Creator and his genius—grown, programmed, and extruded in mere months—he found theories of sacred order tedious and risible.
In the Community, none was exceptional compared to another, nor were they as a species more important or possessed of a greater destiny than any animal or any plant, or any star or stone. In all times and all places, the only righteous laws were the laws of a community in the interest of efficiency, and the only hope was optimism.
On the first Tuesday evening of every month, Riders in the Sky Church held a family social at the roadhouse, with music and games and a bring-your-best-dish buffet of home cooking. This evening’s social would be the last.
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