The Builder had become weirdly misshapen from the incorporation of the man’s body mass. As she redirected her attention to one of the wheelchair-bound prey, her clothes seemed to effervesce into a mist that she absorbed into herself, for they had never been clothes but instead an aspect of her amorphous body. In her nakedness, she was no longer beautiful by any human standard, and abruptly she ceased to be human in any aspect of her appearance. She became a furious fluid mass of mottled gray-and-silver matter, ribboned through with ugly streaks of red that rapidly darkened to fungal gray, a churning storm of living tissue that seemed to revel in chaos and required no structured organs or skeletal system to function.
From out of this seething mass came a thick silvery corkscrew composed of perhaps billions of nanoanimals, which bored into the chest of one of the women in the wheelchairs, at once silencing her. The turning motion of the corkscrew changed direction and appeared to draw the reducted substance of the dissolving patient into the Builder, which throbbed and swelled further, blistered and cankered and healed.
The other nonambulatory patient tried to turn her wheelchair around, intent on getting to the door, but John sprang into action, clubbing her hands with his nightstick. He pulled her to her feet, thrust her toward the now immense and looming Builder, and with savage glee cried, “Use her, use her, use her!”
The Builder took the weeping woman even more violently than it had taken the other patients and then rendered the Tasered woman on the floor with such brutality that John’s delight escalated into a kind of rapture. The nature of a Communitarian’s program made it impossible for him to know any joy other than the joy of efficient destruction. And so he gave himself completely to the experience and was transported as were certain members of some Pentecostal sects during worship, though the reasons for his vigorous jubilation were far different from theirs. He beat his chest with his fists, pulled at his hair, writhed, thrashed, and spoke in tongues, meaningless words gushing from him until he gagged himself by biting on his fisted right hand.
John became aware of Nurse Newbury watching him with what might have been disapproval, but he didn’t care. This was a joy that he was permitted, and he needed it, needed it. He felt justified in giving himself to it because the four patients were killed and processed, and there was no one for him to manage at the moment, in this brief point of stillness between the Builder’s destruction and its acts of creation.
Now a toothless, lipless orifice formed on the amorphous mass of the Builder, and from it spewed a stream of gray goo that struck the ceiling, penetrated the plaster, and at once firmed into a thick and gnarled rope. At the end of this anchor line, a cocoon spun into existence as billions of nanoanimals with various tasks, working in concert, formed the womb from which another processor of human debris would eventually emerge, and flooded it full of themselves and the reducted substance of the four patients, which was the raw material they would use to build another Builder.
As the current Builder began to hang another cocoon, John Martz’s rapture peaked and declined to a much quieter but delicious gladness. He stood motionless, overcome by awe, still biting on his fist, because biting better expressed his deepest desire more than did any of his previous frenetic motions or speaking in tongues. If he could have any wish fulfilled, he would wish to be a Builder, to bite into human flesh as if with a thousand chain saws, devour them, and transform their hateful kind into a killing machine that would destroy even more of them.
He wanted to eat people alive.
He realized that he should not express this desire to Nurse Newbury or to anyone else. Such a longing was an affront to Victor, who had made him what he was and to whom he must always be obedient and grateful. Besides, one of the principles of the Communitarian culture was that every one of them was absolutely equal to all the others, that no one was smarter or stronger or better in any way. That he could even dream of being a Builder, which was an infinitely more deadly and efficient killing machine than any Communitarian, meant that he aspired to being more than what he was and, therefore, must think that he had the capacity to be superior to others in the Community.
He wanted to eat people alive. Lots of them.
But that was okay as long as he didn’t think about it too much. If he allowed himself to dwell obsessively on what it might be like to be a Builder and process human flesh into human-killing machines, he could not be an efficient Communitarian. Inefficiency was the only sin.
When the current Builder finished the second cocoon, it returned to the form of a beautiful young woman, clothed once more, and walked out of the room. After glancing at John in what he believed to be disapproval, Nurse Newbury departed, too.
John remained there for a moment, admiring the pair of cocoons. As he was about to leave, he noticed something lying on the floor, under one of the wheelchairs, half hidden by the chair’s footplates. He rolled the chair aside, dropped to one knee, and saw a human ear lying concave-side-down on the vinyl tile. The convex back of the ear was smooth, with no torn tissue, as if it had never been attached to a head and therefore had never been cut off, though this peculiar detail didn’t mean much to him at first.
During all other jobs of rendering and processing to which he had been witness, John had not seen a Builder overlook even a tiny scrap of human tissue. To leave a portion of a body unused must surely qualify as inefficiency.
When he turned the ear over in his hand, he saw that it proved something worse than inefficiency. In the folds and curling down into the exterior auditory canal were human teeth, not loose but embedded, growing from the ear. This shell of flesh and cartilage was not a scrap of any of the four patients; it could only be a created object, manufactured by the Builder during the rendering and processing and then … spat out. Most likely the toothy ear had been created without conscious intent, just as the human urinary tract didn’t think about making a kidney stone before producing one. This was proof that the Builder was malfunctioning.
The only sin was inefficiency, and the ultimate inefficiency was malfunction. By comparison, John’s yearning to be a Builder and to eat lots of people seemed insignificant. After all, his desire could never be fulfilled. He was what he was and could be nothing else. He therefore could not malfunction by realizing his desire. But this Builder had badly malfunctioned by creating this macabre ear and spitting it out instead of using the tissue in its assigned work.
John felt better about himself.
He probably should report the transgressive Builder. But there was no rule requiring him to do so, most likely because Victor did not believe Builders could malfunction.
Throughout development, only the Communitarians had sometimes gone wrong by acquiring obsessions. And even that, too, had been resolved by identifying the potential obsessives and eliminating them before they left the Hive.
If John reported the Builder, Nurse Newbury would also be asked to provide a report. She might then make note of John’s rapturous reaction to the Builder’s work, whereupon he would be asked to explain his actions.
He turned the ear over and over in his hand. He ran his thumb along the curve of teeth within that fleshy shell.
He decided that he had better not report the Builder.
Before moving on to his next assignment, he bit off the lobe of the ear and chewed it. An interesting taste.
In the KBOW parking lot, after Sammy Chakrabarty coaxed Mason out of the overturned Sequoia, and as they and Burt returned to the station, Deucalion asked Ralph Nettles which of the other vehicles belonged to him.
Still unsettled by the tattooed giant’s magical disappearance from the engineer’s nest and by the way he had almost effortlessly overturned Mason’s Toyota SUV, Ralph hesitated before indicating a three-year-old black Cadillac Escalade.
“We’ll go to your place and get the guns and ammunition you mentioned,” Deucalion said. “Give me the key.”
Producing the key, Ralph hesitated to surrender it. “Uh, well, it’s my car, so I should drive.”
“You can’t drive like I do,” the giant said. “You saw how I took one step from your room back there and into this parking lot? I had no need to walk it, no need to use doors. I can drive the same way. I understand the structure of reality, truths of quantum mechanics that even physicists don’t understand.”
“Good for you,” Ralph said. “But I love that Escalade. It’s my big-wheeled baby.”
Deucalion took the keys from his hand. Having seen how the giant killed four of those things called replicants, Ralph decided against an argument.
The snow came down hard, obscuring everything like static in a lousy TV image. In fact, Ralph half felt as if he had stepped out of reality into some television fantasy program in which all the laws of nature that he knew well as an engineer were laws that Deucalion—and perhaps others—could break with impunity. He liked stability, continuity, things that were true in all times and all places, but he figured he’d better brace himself for turbulence.
He got in the front passenger seat of the Escalade as Deucalion climbed behind the wheel. Ralph wasn’t a small man, but he felt like a child next to his driver, whose head touched the ceiling of the SUV.
Starting the engine, Deucalion said, “Your place—is it a house or an apartment?”
“House.” Ralph told him the address.
Deucalion said, “Yes, I know where it is. Earlier I memorized a map of the town laid out in fractional seconds of latitude and longitude.”
“Makes as much sense as anything else,” Ralph said.
Light pulsed through the giant’s eyes, and Ralph decided to look away from them.
As Deucalion popped the brake and put the Cadillac in drive, he said, “Do you live alone?”
“My wife died eight years ago. She was perfection. I’m not a big enough fool to think it can happen twice.”
Deucalion began a wide U-turn in the parking lot. “You never know. Miracles do happen.”
During the turn, for an instant, there was no falling snow and every source of brightness in the storm clicked off—the parking-lot lamps, station lights, headlights—and the night was more deeply dark than any night had ever been. Then snow again. And lights. But though they should have swung around toward the exit to the street, they had turned directly into Ralph’s driveway, five long blocks from KBOW.
As the sack split, Dagget staggered backward into the counter that contained the bathroom sinks.
Pistol in both hands, covering the cocoon, Frost almost squeezed off a shot. He resisted the urge to fire when he saw what began to emerge.
Even in childhood Frost hadn’t been given to picturing monsters in his closet, but he had never before encountered a cocoon as big as a grown man, either. Now his pent-up imagination suddenly abandoned the usual mundane trail and galloped into grotesque territory. He expected something insectile to spring out of the splitting sack, nothing half as attractive as a Monarch butterfly, some strange hybrid cockroach with three heads or a spider with the face of an evil pig, or a ball of snakes because of all the slithering noise.
Instead, from the sack came a breathtakingly gorgeous, nude young woman, such a perfection of face and body as Frost had never seen before, such a flawless brunette that she seemed to have been airbrushed and photoshopped. Her complexion was not marred by even the smallest blemish. Her smooth and supple skin seemed to glow with good health. If she had not been so provocative in her nudity, even an atheist might have entertained the thought that an angel had appeared before him.
This lovely apparition, gliding gracefully from the cocoon, stepping out of the big Jacuzzi tub and onto the bathroom floor, did not seem surprised to discover two strangers in her house. Neither did she appear to be embarrassed by her nudity or concerned about their intentions, or the least bit alarmed by the pistol in Frost’s two-hand grip. She had an air of supreme confidence, as if she had been raised to believe that the world had been made just for her and, in the intervening years, never had a single reason to question that belief.
When this exquisite woman emerged from the silvery-gray sack, which now sagged like some immense leather raincoat hung on a hook, Frost wondered if the thing was not a cocoon, after all. Perhaps it might be a new invention, in this age when revolutionary products poured out of the cornucopia of high technology by the thousands every year. Maybe it was a luxury beauty appliance into which a woman could climb in order to be moisturized, depilated, toned, tanned, and oxygenated for better health.
When it was directed at Frost, the woman’s smile was spectacular and exhilarating and contagious, but when she smiled at Dagget, Frost filled with a simmering jealousy, which made no sense. He had no claim on this woman, didn’t even know who she was.
“Who are you?” Dagget asked. “What were you doing in that thing, what is that thing?”
She glanced at the deflated sack and frowned as if she had seen it now for the first time. She looked at Dagget again, and opened her mouth as if to speak. All her teeth spilled over her lips and rattled like thirty-two dice on the tile floor.
As though puzzled but not alarmed, she surveyed the scattered teeth until they had stopped bouncing. She looked up, exploring her toothless gums with her tongue—and new teeth sprouted in the empty sockets, bright white and as perfect as the rest of her.
Frost saw that Dagget’s pistol had gone from the shoulder rig under his jacket into his right hand almost as magically as the new teeth had materialized. He eased along the counter, away from the woman, toward the doorway that Frost occupied.
The teeth on the floor were related somehow to the severed foot in the living room, to the OK thumb and forefinger in the foyer, to the portion of jawbone with teeth on the bedroom floor, and to the tongue from which grew a lidless eye. But Frost couldn’t put it all together. Nobody could have put it together. It was crazy. This wasn’t like anything he’d expected to find, not just a criminal enterprise or a terrorist plot.
The woman wasn’t just a woman. She was something more, and her singular beauty was perhaps the least astonishing thing about her. But whatever else she might be, she was a woman, na*ed and seemingly defenseless, and he couldn’t shoot her just because she could grow teeth in an instant, apparently at will. Never in his career had he shot a woman.
As Dagget arrived at Frost’s side, the woman studied herself in the long mirror above the twin sinks. She cocked her head, frowned, and said not to them but to herself, “I think my builder built this builder wrong.”
On the floor, the thirty-two teeth abruptly became animated and rattled against the ceramic tiles, returning to the woman as if she produced an irresistible magnetic field. As each tooth drew within an inch or two of her bare feet, it ceased to be a tooth and became a cluster of tiny silvery specks, and all the clusters vanished into her skin as if she were a dry sponge and they were water.
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