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Now Jocko stood ready. Waiting for questions. About Progress for Perfect Peace. Standing ready. Well, not just standing. Dancing from foot to foot. Sometimes pirouetting, but only five or maybe six revolutions at a time. Doing the boogaloo. A little bit of the funky chicken. Making propeller noises with his mouth flaps. Hat bells jingling. Sort of Christmasy.

He felt the need to talk, too. He said, “Jocko had it all done like an hour ago. Ripped it, zipped it, got it done. Then Jocko was Princess Josephine. Not the real one. Stand-in. Didn’t put on a dress or anything. Stand-in for teatime. With Princess Chrissy. Her dad, I don’t know. Maybe he chops off heads. Maybe he doesn’t. Jocko sweated from his ears. Otherwise did pretty well. Jocko hates tea. Tea sucks. Whoopie pies are good. Better than bugs, like Jocko ate back when. When he lived in a sewer. Way better. No whoopie pies in a sewer. Jocko likes Little Women, the movie. Jocko’s got every version. Poor sweet Beth. She always dies. It just rips Jocko up. Jocko cries. Not ashamed. It’s a good cry. But they should remake. Little Women. Let Beth live. Jocko would watch it a thousand times. Unless Johnny Depp played Beth. You know Johnny Depp? Probably not. Different social circles. Jocko used to be afraid of Justin Bieber. Still is, a little. Then saw Depp. You have allergies? Jocko does. Raspberries. Face swells up. Lots of snot pours out. Well, not snot. Uglier than snot. Don’t know what. Never had it analyzed. Disgusting. Jocko can be disgusting. Not on purpose though. Do you like to pirouette? Jocko likes to pirouette.”

The big guy said, “You’ve done an excellent job here.”

Jocko almost died of delight.

“Progress for Perfect Peace. No doubt this Victor Leben is the clone of our Victor. I’ve been to the warehouse you discovered they own. It’s not where he’s located. It’s a center for liquidation of the people they’ve replaced with replicants. You found nothing that would pinpoint a location along the End Times Highway that’s related to Progress for Perfect Peace?”

Jocko shook his head. Adamantly. Proud of his thoroughness. “Nothing to find. Jocko shucked every ear of data corn. Popped it, buttered it, salted it, ate it up. Peeled the online onion down to its last layer. Bit every byte of the banana. Sliced, chopped, diced, minced, mashed—and what you see is what there is. Jocko would bet life on it. Jocko will kill himself if he missed something. Kill himself brutally. Savagely. Over and over again.”

“Progress for Perfect Peace,” Deucalion brooded. “Knowing this name is key. Knowing it, we’ll find him.”

Chapter 47

A mild wind came up, and Mr. Lyss called it a devil wind, not because devils were blowing around in it, but because it started to smooth away the snowmobile tracks. Just as it seemed the trail would be erased before their eyes, they saw house lights through the snow and found their way back to the Bozeman place.

The sad music was still being played. After Mr. Lyss retrieved his long gun from the workbench in the garage, he went into the house, to the living room.

Nummy followed the old man, though he didn’t want to follow because he was afraid of the monster playing the piano. There was something about Mr. Lyss that made you have to follow him, though Nummy didn’t understand what it was. It wasn’t just that he sometimes threatened to cut your feet off and feed them to wolves if you didn’t follow him or if you resisted doing other things he wanted you to do. In fact, Nummy felt compelled to follow Mr. Lyss in spite of the threats. Maybe at the beginning the threats were part of what made Nummy stay with him, but now it was something else. If Grandmama was still alive, she would know what it was and would be able to explain it.

In the living room, Mr. Lyss said to the piano player, “Was Bozeman the most depressive sonofabitch who ever lived, or are you just not playing the livelier music he knew?”

“Kill me,” the piano man said, “and the music will stop.”

“I’d like nothing better than to kill you dead as anyone’s ever been,” Mr. Lyss said. “I’ve killed every damn monster I’ve ever met, and there have been more than a few. But I won’t be told to do it by the monster himself. I’m not a man who can be bossed around. Tell him that’s true, boy.”

Nummy said, “That’s true. Mr. Lyss can’t be bossed around. He gets his back up easy. If he was on fire and somebody told him jump in the water, he might not do it ’cause it wasn’t his idea first.”

“Hell’s bells,” the old man said, “where did that come from, boy?”

“It come from me, sir.”

“Well, I know it came from you, I heard you say it. But it came from somewhere deeper in you than most of your jabber and prattle comes from. Not that I’m encouraging more of the same. I didn’t ask you to psychoanalyze me. I asked you to confirm my simple statement for this gloomy sonofabitch.”

As before, Xerox Bozeman’s hands seemed to float back and forth across the keys, almost as if they weren’t taking the music from the piano, as if instead the music was in the hands and the piano was drawing it out of them, like the land draws lightning to it in a storm.

Nummy felt a little hypnotized by the floating hands, as before. Maybe Mr. Lyss was hypnotized, too, because he listened for a while without saying anything.

But then the old man said, “If you want to be dead because of what you saw when Bozeman died, why don’t you kill yourself?”

“I can’t. My program forbids self-destruction.”

“Your program.”

“The one installed in me in the Hive, in the laboratory where I was made.”

“By Frankenstein,” Mr. Lyss said with some scorn. “In the Hive.”

“That’s right.”

“You’re still sticking to that story.”

“It’s true.”

“And it’s not true that you’re a Martian or some murderous scum from some other planet?”

“It’s not true,” said the piano player.

“We burned some big cocoons earlier tonight. You make those cocoons?”

“No. I’m a Communitarian. The cocoons are made by Builders. We both come from the Hive.”

Mr. Lyss thought about that for a while before he said, “Earlier I wanted to kill you, but I knew for some reason it was a bad idea. I think it’s still a bad idea, damn if I know why, since I’d get plenty of satisfaction from it. So I’ll tell you what—I’ll kill you as dead as dead can be, as soon as I feel it’s right.”

The music was very sad. Nummy thought a person might curl up like a pill bug and never uncurl, listening to that music too much.

“In return,” Mr. Lyss said, “you come along with us, answer some questions.”

“What questions?” the piano player asked.

“Any damn question that pops in my head to ask. I’m not giving you a list of questions ahead of time so you can study them and just scheme up a bunch of lying answers. O’Bannon here is a dummy, but I’m not, and you better keep that in mind. If you lie to me, I’ll know it’s a lie, I can smell a lie better than a bloodhound can smell the nearest sausage. Then I’ll put you in a cage and feed you well and never kill you. You have to earn it. Is that understood?”

“Yes,” the Xerox Bozeman said, and he stood up from the piano.

Chapter 48

The Communitarian workers in the Hive are forbidden to descend to the vacant lower floors not used by Victor’s enterprise, through which he now walks in splendid isolation.

In the early days of their creation, two had come down here, been lured into this realm by a scientist named Ehlis Shaitan, or so he claimed, who worked in the building back in the Cold War. Shaitan had gone mad in a most interesting way, had vanished while supposedly on vacation, but in fact had been living in the secret byways of the lower floors for almost thirty years, subsisting on immense stores of dehydrated, vacuum-packed foods intended to sustain thousands of government officials who would have been brought here in anticipation of imminent conflict, to ride out World War III and the radioactive aftermath.

In certain ubersecret bunkers at the bottom of this supersecret installation, Ehlis Shaitan invented a colorful personal history that was mythological in nature. In scores of thick handwritten volumes, in elaborate bunker-wall paintings and carvings done with hand tools, he celebrated his supposedly supernatural powers and crowned himself the immortal ruler of this underworld. And acting as a prophet, he predicted his own ascension to the surface in a time of cataclysm, when he would take what riches he wanted, rape whomever he desired, kill more prolifically than any score of homicidal rulers had ever murdered their fellow men, and allow those to live who worshipped him and became his pliant and obedient servants.

In his mid-seventies, Shaitan grew weary of waiting to ascend to rule a devastated Earth, and when Victor and his original team of scientists moved into the upper levels of the facility, the bearded old man monitored them secretly. Eventually he enticed two first-generation Communitarians into his lower world of obscene, violent, grotesque murals, into rooms in which the floors were as vividly decorated as the walls and ceilings, and he made an effort to enlist them in his cult.

When Victor and his team found the two missing Communitarians, both had to be destroyed, so strange had they become. The weakness in their program was identified: certain lines of code that did not sufficiently embed and enforce the absolute need for total focus on efficiency. All subsequent Communitarians had functioned perfectly, of course.

Victor had personally killed the lunatic old man and ordered his bunkers sealed. There was no room for an Ehlis Shaitan in the world to come, no need for his like or his opposite.

Now Victor walks the lower floors, alone with his thoughts, his multiple cascades of scintillant theories and ideas, pleased by the prospect of witnessing the extermination of every thinking creature on the planet, down to the last finch and wren, to every smallest lizard. When his are the only eyes left to see the world, when his is the only mind left to appreciate it, how brilliant it will be to end his own existence as unhesitatingly as he had terminated Ehlis Shaitan.

He would prefer to walk in this deep retreat for hours yet, for days. But although the solitude is invigorating, his time here is necessarily limited by the absence of Communitarians to see to his needs.

He takes an elevator up to one of the floors of the Hive. In the corridor, as he approaches the first plasma screen, it sounds the three-note alert to request his attention. Scrolling up the screen comes the report that the employees at KBOW have not been entirely replaced with Communitarians as per the plan. They have become aware of the replicants among them, and they are broadcasting a warning to Rainbow Falls and, perhaps more worrisome, to communities beyond in that portion of Montana that the station serves.

This is not a gnat in the path of the Communitarian war machine, as was the failure to properly track two of the Builders. This is admittedly a larger issue, a housefly rather than a gnat, but it is not a serious setback, because there can be no serious setback in the progress of the Community. Their triumph is inevitable; and to think otherwise would credit humanity with at least some significance, when it has none, not a minim.

Victor says exactly what he said before, although he knows that his order has already been effectuated because of the well-programmed responses of the brutal Communitarian war machine. “Consult the master strategy-and-tactics program, apply the appropriate remedy, and press forward without delay.”

With no destination in mind at the moment, still walking just to walk and think, he turns right at the next corridor, where the small three-legged table waits for him. On the table stands a cold bottle of water. Beside the water is a yellow saucer. In the saucer lies a shiny red capsule and a white tablet. He swallows the capsule first and then the tablet.

When next he approaches a plasma screen, it sounds the three notes. The scroll informs him that, in addition to the problem at KBOW, pockets of organized resistance have formed in Rainbow Falls.

This is expected. Resistance is futile. Even now, Builders by the score are emerging from their cocoons, and the next, more violent, phase of the conflict is beginning. Soon they will emerge by the hundreds. They are indestructible, unstoppable, and their rapidly increasing numbers will soon ensure victory in Rainbow Falls, after which they will spread out anonymously through the country and then the world, a plague of death growing geometrically in virulence day by day.

Chapter 49

At the end of Erika’s driveway, Deucalion turned right, not onto the county road but instead directly into the driveway at the Samples house, under the spreading limbs of the towering evergreens. Through the broken-out passenger window, he heard the nearest sentry call quietly to a second who was farther removed, and the second to a third, passing the news like members of a fire line passing a pail of water. The name with which they announced his return wasn’t his own—“Christopher …” “Christopher …” “Christopher …”—and he wondered why they had adopted a code name for him.

As Deucalion stepped down from the truck, Michael appeared in response to the sentries’ announcement. “The Riders don’t waste time. The effort to make a garrison of the neighborhood is moving fast. And expanding from one square block to two as they get people to join them. Those cell-phone videos make an impression on the skeptical. And now your work at KBOW. Some local talk-show guy is getting out the word with such passion he mostly sounds convincing. And even when he sounds like a raving nut, he sounds like a nut who’s telling the truth.”

“More children?” Deucalion asked.

“Carson’s assembling the next group in the living room.”

“How many?”

“I think fifteen. They’re coming over fences from neighboring houses, yard to yard to yard.”

Opening the cargo doors, Deucalion said, “Jocko found a few things worth knowing. The most helpful might be the name of the organization Victor is using for cover. Progress for Perfect Peace.”

“Interesting sense of irony. When all of us are dead, the peace will be perfect, I guess.”

“It’s not irony,” Deucalion said. “It’s confidence.”

“I hate that guy.”

“Progress for Perfect Peace. Spread the name around. Maybe someone has heard it before. Maybe someone knows about a location other than the warehouse where they were liquidating those brain-damaged people.”

Carson appeared on the front porch of the house. She led a group of well-bundled youngsters down the steps and across the yard to the truck.

The children must have been briefed about Deucalion, because they showed no fear of him. Their thin, pluming breath seemed to be a testament to their fragility, to how easily they could be snuffed out, but the plumes didn’t betray any terror of him. As they boarded the truck, some looked at him shyly, and other sweet, cold-pinked faces regarded him with an awe that seemed to have in it an element of delight.

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