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Dagget’s face was hardly twelve inches from the sack when he said, “It looks greasy or wet, but I don’t think it is. It glistens because the surface is in constant motion, crawling with something silvery, like tiny specks of metal, but they can’t be metal because they seem … alive. Like fleas, only smaller than fleas, so small I can’t see what they are, thousands of them, maybe millions, all sort of shivering, ceaselessly dancing across the surface.”


Where the umbilical met the ceiling, the gray tissue appeared to have eaten through the plaster in order to anchor the cocoon to a joist.


“This is beyond our pay grade,” Frost said.


“Light-years beyond.”


“And we need backup.”


“Yeah,” Dagget said, “like maybe the National Guard.”


“Or a Vatican SWAT team.”


“Be ready to shoot the sonofabitch if it does anything,” Dagget said as he holstered his pistol in the rig under his ski jacket.


Although he knew his partner to be prudent, Frost’s dread was now sharpened with alarm. “What’re you doing?”


Snaring a hand towel from a wall rack and folding it into a thick pad, Dagget said, “When we call Moomaw about this, we better have all the details we can gather.” Maurice Moomaw, their boss, had the glower of a carved-stone god. “I’m not saying Moomaw is scarier than this thing. But when we’re three sentences into a report, if we aren’t convincing, he’s going to punch the speaker-phone button and start filling out a psychiatric-evaluation order for both of us.”


Frost took a two-hand grip on his pistol as Dagget wiped the folded towel down the side of the glistening sack.


Holding up the towel so Frost could see it, Dagget said, “It’s clean. All those tiny little things crawling over the surface—why didn’t some of them wipe off on the towel?”


He stroked the cocoon again, and as before, the cloth remained clean.


“I just realized,” Frost said. “Bacteria. Extraterrestrial viruses. We could be contaminated, infected.”


“Microbes are the last thing I’m worried about.”


“What’s the first thing you’re worried about?”


“Is the thing that spun this cocoon now curled up inside it?” Dagget wondered. “Or did it plant something in this, like inside a spider’s egg case, and then crawl away? And if maybe it crawled away, where is it?”


“Not in the house. We searched the house.”


“We didn’t search the attic.”


Frost glanced at the ceiling. He imagined some immense insect queen in the raftered space above them, attracted by their voices and homing in on them. He focused on the cocoon again, and it didn’t seem as ominous as it had a moment ago, considering other possible threats.


Dagget shook out the folded hand towel. With only one thickness of the cloth between his hand and the sack, he pressed his palm against the glistening surface.


Frost watched the front sight of his pistol jittering on the target. He took a slow deep breath, exhaled even more slowly than he had inhaled, imagined his hands perfectly still—and his tremors faded.


“Interesting,” Dagget said, towel-protected hand flat against the sack.


“What?” Frost asked.


“It’s very warm, even hot. The heat comes right through the towel, and yet I don’t feel any heat escaping from it into the air, none at all.”


Ever more disturbed by the slithering noise, Frost said, “Can you feel movement in it?”


Dagget shook his head. “Nothing moving. But do you smell that?”


“No. Nothing.”


“Very faint.…”


“What?” Frost asked.


“Sort of like burning insulation on a shorting electrical cord.”


“I don’t smell anything.”


Leaning closer to the sack and sniffing, Dagget said, “Yes, like burning insulation.”


“Maybe it’s the hand towel scorching.”


“No.” Dagget’s face was six inches from the glistening cocoon. “Not the hand towel. It’s hot but not that hot. Oh …”


“Oh, what?”


“The smell just changed. It’s like roses now.”


“From burning electrical cord to roses?”


“And I think …”


“What?” Frost asked.


“I’m not sure, but I think I just felt something moving in there.”


With a sound that was like two lengths of Velcro detaching from each other but also like the bloated belly of a cadaver parting wetly under the scalpel of an autopsist, the sack split.


Chapter 20


After pausing in the mud room to take off their snow-caked boots, the male parishioners of Riders in the Sky Church came to the kitchen in groups of four or five to listen to Carson and Michael sell them the alternative to the space-alien explanation. They knew their wives had already been persuaded, and they put a lot of store in their opinions. The Riderettes, as they were sometimes called, were women that the world could never confuse or make weary; they firmly held the reins of their lives and kept their feet in the stirrups.


Neither Carson nor Michael mentioned the name Frankenstein. Dolly and Hank Samples and their friends were remarkably open-minded. They had proved they could cope with developments that in an instant turned their world upside down. But Carson and Michael were outsiders in this community, and even the most welcoming and trusting and swayable of the Riders would at some point hit a wall of disbelief.


Nanotechnology, people-eating machine-animals, replicants, a scheme to kill all of humanity: The current situation was already over-the-top fantastical. Adding to it the revelation that at the root of this chaos was a 240-year-old scientist much farther off his nut than Colin Clive had played him in the movie and a 200-year-old monster who had made himself into a good man, even a hero … This was sensible rural Montana; this was not a place where people were conditioned to believe anything they were told.


Carson claimed she and Michael had been working on an industrial-espionage case that led them to the discovery of the replicants—and now the people-eating nanomachine-animals—and to the belief that these things were being produced in a federal facility buried deep along the End Times Highway. A thousand movies and books prepared the Riders to believe in evil extraterrestrials, but their daily lives prepared them to embrace the idea that their own government might want to replace them with obedient engineered citizens.


As Carson expected, fifteen-year-old Farley Samples proved to be a great help convincing the Riders that their enemies didn’t have to be from another planet, that nanotechnology was a real and rapidly advancing field on this world. His enthusiasm for science and for science fiction proved contagious, his deferential nature allowed adults to learn from him without feeling belittled, and he had absorbed a thing or two about effective storytelling from those novels of Robert Heinlein that he loved so much.


More than Carson’s and Michael’s private-investigator licenses, more than their expired photo IDs from the homicide division of the New Orleans Police Department, what gave them street cred were their weapons. The Riders revered guns nearly as much as they loved Jesus. They were impressed with Carson’s and Michael’s SIG Sauer P226 X-Sixes with 19-round magazines but especially with the Urban Sniper slug-firing shotguns.


Even though Carson proved, at the kitchen table, that she could hold her own in arm wrestling with men half again her weight, some were dubious that she could fire that hard-core shotgun without being knocked flat by the recoil. None of the doubters among the Riders were women.


When Carson stood up from the table after an intense battle-to-a-draw with a man named Glenn Botine, a full-time car mechanic and part-time quarter-horse breeder, he said, “Thank you, ma’am, for a lesson in humility. Now as ex-police, what do you and your husband think we should be doing here that we’re not doing?”


“Instead of just preparing to defend this place, we need to go door-to-door in the neighborhood,” Michael said, “alert as many people as possible. You’ve got the cell-phone videos. You’re locals. They’ll believe you. Make the entire square block a garrison and defend it, falling back to individual houses only if the larger perimeter can’t be held.”


Carson thought of her brother, Arnie, and little Scout in San Francisco, safe for now if perhaps not for long, and she asked, “How many children do you have here?”


The women conferred and quickly agreed that there were seven teenagers and twelve younger children among the forty-four Riders at the Samples house. Eighty-some other Riders had either gone to their individual homes from the roadhouse or, like these folks, were gathered at one or two other more defendable locations elsewhere in Rainbow Falls.


“Making a garrison of the entire block, with fallback positions—that’s a good idea,” Carson said. “But I think we also need to get the twelve younger kids out of town, to a safe house, just in case everything goes badly here.”


The sudden anxiety among the Riders was palpable. They knew what she suggested was the right thing to do, but they were loath to be separated from their young ones.


Glenn Botine said, “But how? Both highways out of town are roadblocked. Maybe we could get hold of some snowmobiles. But one adult could only drive out with one kid at a time. That’ll either take all night or a caravan so big it’ll draw attention we don’t want.”


Carson said, “There may be a way.”


Chapter 21


In the basement of Memorial Hospital, the replicant of John Martz, a Rainbow Falls policeman and the husband of a member of the local Red Hat Society, was greatly enjoying the slaughter. He had witnessed the killing and processing of scores of people, but he was not in the least bored. In fact, he delighted in each new murder more than the one before it.


Communitarians were granted no free will. They possessed no capacity for any kind of sexual activity. They were engineered to have no appreciation for music and the arts because such interests were an impediment to efficient function. But in the interest of motivating them to carry out their mission with enthusiasm, they were programmed to take great pleasure in the destruction of each despicable, world-polluting, self-important, grubbing, grasping human being.


In John Martz’s case, pleasure had grown into something like delight, and each killing that he witnessed gratified him more than the one before it. Genocide proved to be addictive.


Four more patients had been brought to this unfurnished basement room under the pretense that they needed to give blood samples to be sure they had not been contaminated by an unspecified toxic material supposedly released by accident in the building. The four were in wheelchairs, three women and one man, but only two of the women were actually too incapacitated to walk.


The replicant of Nurse Ginger Newbury was present to assist John Martz with the management of the patients. Managing these people was enormous fun.


A number of hospital visitors had been dispatched, as well. They couldn’t be permitted to leave after they arrived and discovered that friends and loved ones were missing from their rooms. Because the visitors were not ill, they were more difficult to manage than the patients, which was why John had a nightstick and why Nurse Newbury kept a Taser clipped to her uniform belt, under a white cardigan sweater.


Three Builders were busy here on the basement level, first reducing their victims to various component molecules and then using those resources to create another generation of gestating Builders in the suspended cocoons. Builders produced only others of their kind; Communitarians were extruded and programmed only in the labs of the Hive.


Several rooms were now filled with cocoons that hung from the ceiling, which was a sight that profoundly pleased John Martz. Gestation required not fewer than twelve hours but not more than thirty-six. As new Builders emerged, fed on more useless human beings, and created ever more of their industrious kind, their numbers would increase geometrically. Within a week, they would be traveling to other towns with support teams of Communitarians, and by then they would be an unstoppable force, a rapidly growing army of exquisitely lethal biological machines, a nanotide of death.


The pajama-clad patients in the wheelchairs expressed their worries and confusions in that whiny way that was a hallmark of humanity, but Nurse Newbury coddled them with what seemed to be genuine sympathy until the Builder arrived. This one was a young woman designed to the highest standards of human beauty. Whether a Builder looked like a man or woman, it was always crafted to be so striking in appearance that the people who were its potential victims would be at first sight enchanted by it.


Beauty disarms. Beauty lures.


All of the patients, regardless of gender, were riveted by this blond and blue-eyed vision who wore ordinary hospital greens, as if she were an intern or an orderly. She stood in front of them, their wheelchairs arranged in a semicircle of which she was now the focal point.


“I am your Builder,” she told them, her voice seductively musical and smoky.


She first approached the male patient, who smiled at her and no doubt entertained the last lascivious thoughts that he would ever have. She reached toward him, right palm turned up, and he seemed as charmed as he was confused by her apparent invitation. He reached out and put his hand in hers.


In the instant, the details of her hand—skin, fingernails, knuckles—seemed to dissolve up to the wrist. The shape of a hand remained, but her flesh appeared to have magically transformed into countless millions of extremely tiny insects with iridescent wings, swarming among one another while maintaining the basic shape of a hand.


The patient cried out in surprise, tried to snatch his hand back, but could not break free of her grip. Her hand, the teeming horde that it had become, bloodlessly consumed his flesh and bones to his forearm and then, in a mere two seconds, all the way to his shoulder.


Terror broke the hold of paralytic shock, and the patient began to scream, but she silenced him. Her generous mouth widened until it became grotesque, and she vomited another silver swarm into his face, which collapsed inward. The nanoanimals invaded his skull, consumed it from within, and surged downward through his neck stump into his body, continuously feeding the essence of him back along the stream into the Builder’s mouth in a kind of reverse regurgitation.


The only ambulatory patient among the three women bolted up from her wheelchair, but Nurse Newbury Tasered her into submission. The twitching woman fell at the feet of the Builder.


The other women were screaming, too, while the hollowed-out body of the male patient withered inward, as though he were a deflating balloon, and disappeared altogether. These women were old and sick, but nevertheless they wanted to live. John Martz loathed them. They were avaricious for life even in their decrepitude, because the cancer that was humanity would accept no restraints on its greed.

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