The leg stump was essentially cauterized by the action of the nanoanimals. No vital fluids drizzled out of it. Because Nancy was a Communitarian and not a mere human being, she had no pain. She remained on her feet—foot—because she could use the push broom for a cane.
This development would make sweeping up the last of the hay a more difficult task, and Nancy was not sure how she would be able to proceed in a timely and efficient manner. And now she needed to deal with the additional issue of two holes in the floor and the fifteen-foot-long swale caused when Ariel’s tunnel collapsed between her entry and exit points.
Furthermore, Nancy noticed for the first time that where she had already swept the hard-packed earthen floor, the stiff bristles of the broom left shallow brush marks going every which way in the dirt. She wouldn’t feel the job was done until all the brush marks went in the same direction.
The horses were going nuts. Nancy glared at them, but of course they didn’t care. They were like so many other animals in the mismade nature of this world: so easily startled, frightened, panicked, stampeded like herds of cattle or packs of lemmings, like frantic flocks of gobbling turkeys and overexcited fans at rock-and-roll concerts trampling one another to get nearer the stage.
Toward the back of the barn, the swarm was behaving strangely, spinning in place like a miniature tornado. Under the buzzing and hissing rose another sound like a starter grinding and a car engine trying to turn over on a bitter-cold morning. The funnel cloud kept trying to form back into the shape of a girl, Ariel, but appeared to be having difficulty making the transition.
Nancy wondered if this Builder had something like indigestion. Ariel was designed to use the flesh, blood, bone, cartilage, and even the waste matter within the horses and eventually other animals to create the specific molecules with which to build more Builders of her variety. She was not supposed to eat sections of barn roofs or nibble on dirt—or, for that matter, on the legs of non-Builder Communitarian associates who were simply trying to make a barn floor neat in an efficient manner.
The funnel cloud of nanoanimals at last coalesced into a kind of Ariel, although this Ariel was short and had two heads. And after a moment, she began vibrating violently.
En route to Meriwether Lewis Elementary School, Sully York drove his black Hummer not much differently from how he would have driven a Ferrari Testarossa, with a love of speed and with great panache. The snowy streets were of no concern to him, nor were the curbs at corners, which he sometimes drove over while making a turn. Every time they passed a telephone pole to which was stapled a politician’s sign that had not been taken down after the last election, Sully gestured rudely at it and declared, “Bunkum!”
Bryce Walker, now riding shotgun, had traded his pajamas and robe and slippers for some of Sully’s clothes that fit him well enough. He had been in Memorial Hospital after a heart-attack scare that proved to be only a scare, and young Travis Ahern had been there for tests to determine what caused three bad episodes of anaphylactic shock that apparently were triggered by an allergy to something in his drinking water, perhaps even to chlorine. When it became clear that the staff of the hospital weren’t who they had once been, that no patient was going to be allowed to leave, and that they were killing patients in the basement, Bryce and Travis had conspired to escape.
Travis’s mom, a dietician and chef, worked in the kitchen at Meriwether Lewis. She had not called him all day, nor had she come to visit. She was reliable. She loved him. She would not have failed at least to call, unless something happened to her. After escaping from Memorial, when Bryce and the boy went to the Ahern house in that neighborhood known as the Lowers, they found no one home.
The boy’s father had abandoned his wife and son so many years earlier that Travis had no memory of him. The family now was just Grace and Travis, and they were close, the two of them against the world. He adored her.
Bryce knew that if Grace had perished, the loss would not break the boy. Nothing would ever break Travis. He was so young, but Bryce could see the toughness in him. Travis would grieve hard and for a long time, but he would neither bend nor break, because he was a fine boy and he had been raised this far by a woman of strong character.
Bryce prayed that Grace would turn up alive. As a widower, he knew too much about grief. There would be great grief in this town in the days to come, supposing that any of them survived to mourn the dead. If Grace was alive out there somewhere, he would give his life to save her, if it came to such a sacrifice, because he wanted to spare the boy from the long-enduring sorrow of such a loss.
In the backseat, Travis said, “If she’s not at the school, where would we look next?”
Sully said, “In an investigation as tricky as this, conducted in the midst of an invasion of hostile moonmen or whatever the hell these critters are, it doesn’t pay to get ahead of ourselves. What happens next is surely not going to be like anything we might expect, because they’re aliens, after all, meaning they think as different from the way we think as we think different from the way a bunch of pencil-neck Ivy League professors of conflict resolution think. So putting ourselves through the what-if wringer until we’re all wrung out—well, that’s just a hellacious waste of time and energy. We’re going to think positive and make the world be what we want it to be, which is a world where your mom is safe at Meriwether Lewis, where maybe an injury has incapacitated her just a little, but where she’s probably only in hiding.”
Travis said, “I like the way you talk, sir.”
“I like the way I talk, too. You know that question they always ask—if you were stranded on a desert island for a year, what three books would you take? Truth is, I find myself so damn entertaining I wouldn’t need any books. I wouldn’t even need a short story. If it was just me, my memory, and my mouth on that island, then I might even sign on for a second year.”
“Here’s the school,” Bryce said.
They cruised past, looking over the place. All the windows on the two-story building were dark.
At the end of the block, Sully turned left and drove to the parking-lot entrance, which was on the cross street.
Bryce noted that no tire tracks marred the mantle of snow on the entrance and exit lanes. Another entrance/exit served the lot from the parallel cross street, at the farther end of the school, but he suspected that the snow over there would also be pristine. Everyone had gone home before the storm began, and no evening maintenance crew had reported to work.
The parking-lot lamps weren’t aglow, but Travis said they never were used at night unless there was a school function of some kind. This was his school, he was in fifth grade, so he knew what he was talking about.
Draped in snow, half a dozen school buses stood in one corner of the lot. Sully parked between two of them, where the Hummer couldn’t be seen from the street. He switched off the headlights, the engine.
Sully said, “Travis—now there’s a name that’s always ready. Are you as ready as your name, boy?”
“I’m not afraid,” Travis said.
“You better be afraid. Afraid but ready keeps you alive.”
“I meant,” Travis said, “I’m not afraid of what we’ll find. She’s going to be in there, and if she isn’t, she’s going to be somewhere else and okay.”
“By all that’s holy, boy,” Sully said, “before this is over, I just might have to make you an honorary member of my old unit, the Crazy Bastards.”
The three of them walked through the snow to the back of the school. Sully and Bryce each had a shotgun, and the boy had Sully and Bryce.
Of the several doors they could choose from, Travis led them to a double pair marked KITCHEN DELIVERIES. He had come here a few times at night, with his mother, when she’d needed to do some prep work for the following day’s lunch. As he had told them earlier, there was an alarm, but he knew his mother’s four-digit code that would disarm the system from the keypad just inside the door.
Their only problem was that he didn’t have his mom’s door key.
Sully kicked the doors twice, where they met, hoping to break the lock. Then he said, “One big noise is better than a hundred half-big,” and he blew out the lock with his shotgun and pushed open the right-hand door, which wasn’t latch-bolted to the sill as the left one was.
“We’ve got one minute to enter the code before the alarm goes off,” Travis said. The boy stepped into the receiving room, to which food and other kitchen supplies were regularly delivered, went to the lighted keypad, and entered 4-4-7-3. The tiny red indicator lamp turned green.
Without the lock or latch to hold it closed, the door was likely to drift open.
As Sully used an eye-and-hook bungee cord to link the door handles together, he said, “We’re far away from the nearest house, not much chance anyone could say for sure where that shot seemed to come from. Nevertheless, let’s be quick about this.”
From the receiving room, guided by three flashlights, they entered the large walk-in refrigerator. Beyond the walk-in lay the kitchen, where everything was weird.
Victor Immaculate’s mind races whether he is sitting as still as the heart of a stone or taking random walks through this windowless world of which he is the prince. Cloned from the DNA of the original Victor Frankenstein, he is Victor Purified, Victor Distilled, Victor to the nth degree, and therefore has the most brilliant mind in all of history.
The facility is hardly less immense than a dream labyrinth that the sleeping mind constructs as a metaphor of eternity. Sterile white corridors with polished gray concrete floors branch and branch again. Spacious rooms open into expansive laboratories, beyond which lay more chambers of daunting scale, some equipped with extrusion machines in the process of making Communitarians, others featuring towering mazes of supercomputers. Each silent stairwell earns the last four letters of its name, far below ground from even its highest level, boring down through the strata of the vast building as if through bedrock toward a perpetually dark subterranean lake.
Considering that civilization is being overthrown and the world is being unmade from this redoubt, there is little noise. Except for the soft treading of Victor’s rubber-soled shoes, he usually walks in silence. Constructed to sustain direct nuclear strikes and continue to function, the building is not only buried deep in the earth, under a deflecting steel-and-concrete cowl sixty feet thick, but every wall and every floor is made of massively thick steel-reinforced concrete. Few sounds can penetrate from room to room or from level to level, and Victor seldom hears anything but the voice of his own thoughts in the eleven-dimension nautilus of his intricate mind.
Two hundred twenty-two work here, replicants of the scientists who originally staffed the facility. Needing no sleep, they toil at all hours, every day.
Victor speaks only to a handful, key personnel, and never sees most of the others. Face-to-face encounters are distractions. His mind works most efficiently in solitude, for no one is a fraction as intelligent and insightful as he is, and no one exists who might inspire him to greater brilliance than that with which he already shines. The core computer tracks Victor and everyone else in the Hive, and by direct-to-brain messaging, as he approaches, they are warned to retreat to other rooms until he passes.
Victor is not a replicant, he’s a clone, and so he’s technically as human as the original Victor. Direct-to-brain messaging is not an option for him. Throughout the facility, at strategic points, hang plasma screens that are part of the communication system, and as he passes one of these, it brightens and sounds a three-note tone to attract his attention.
Across the screen unscrolls a message to the effect that one of the Builders has ceased to transmit its position in Rainbow Falls. It is one of the second generation, made from the rendered bodies of several police officers lured to Chief Rafael Jarmillo’s house.
This does not mean that the Builder has been killed. They cannot be killed. They are invulnerable to disease and injury.
Neither does it mean that this Builder is malfunctioning. Victor does not believe the Builders are capable of malfunctioning, for their design is perfect and their construction program without flaw.
He is certain that the fault lies in the mechanics of the equipment that receives the Builders’ telemetric signals. The Builder is still functioning efficiently, rendering people and building other Builders, still transmitting its position. But the tracking system is off-the-shelf equipment not of Victor’s design, and therefore it is not perfect. This is an annoying but insignificant detail, a gnat crossing the path of the Communitarian war machine.
Continuing his random walk, Victor Immaculate comes upon a small three-legged table that has been set out in anticipation of him. On the table stands a cold bottle of water. Next to the water is a pale blue saucer. In the saucer lies a white capsule. He holds the capsule between his teeth, opens the bottle, tongues the capsule into his mouth, and washes it down with two swallows of water.
He walks and thinks. Through his mind race torrents of ideas, theories, plans, models of complex entities constructed from unique molecules that the universe is incapable of creating but that he could create if he wished to do so. Now, as he routinely does, he engages in multitrack cognition, keenly following several completely different lines of thought simultaneously.
As he passes another plasma screen, it brightens, issues the three-note request for attention, and informs him that the first-generation Builder that went into the world as Ariel Potter has ceased to transmit its location. This is of course the same tedious problem, another failure of the tracking system, an argument for never using government-surplus equipment, but after all it is only another gnat.
As he is turning away from the screen, it issues the three notes once more. This time the scrolling message is in regard to the fleet of trucks efficiently collecting brain-probed people to be taken to extermination centers and rendered there by Builders. Three of the vehicles have fallen behind schedule.
Two of them have stopped at locations not on their manifests and have remained there for extended periods of time. This is certainly a consequence of mechanical failure, because Victor did not design the trucks and have them built at his facility. They, too, are off-the-shelf equipment.
The third truck is on the move again, but it is not proceeding to any of the addresses at which it is expected. One of several possible explanations will account for this, and contingency plans exist for all of them.
“Consult the master strategy-and-tactics program, apply the appropriate remedy, and press forward without delay,” he tells the screen.
Feeling the need for a change of atmosphere to refresh his eyes and mind, Victor rides an elevator down many floors and disembarks on one of the levels that he has not needed to occupy for his project. Because the building is hermetically sealed, impervious to water and insects, and receives its microbe-free, ideally humidified air through a filtration system that applies fourteen different processes of purification, these lower corridors and chambers are without dust and shelter not a single silverfish or spider.
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