Deucalion looked at the sky, the eternity of stars, and said, “Snow will be coming soon. Nine nights from now, about seven in the evening. When it’s done, you’ll have a foot of fresh powder.”
After setting the Meriwether Lewis kitchen on fire, they waited outside in the falling snow, shotguns ready, to see if anything tried to escape. Flames flew up quick and bright, as jolly a blaze as Sully York had ever seen, the first flash blue from the Sterno, then white and orange as the cooking oil ignited. Faster than he expected, the windows began to blow out from the intense heat, which was a most satisfying testament to their planning of this sortie. When the kitchen was a raging inferno and no filthy space-born malefactors attempted to flee, afire or otherwise, through the door that had been left open to oxygenate the flames, their work here seemed to be done. Even with a fire-control system, the explosive beginning of the blaze was likely to overwhelm the building and leave it a burnt-out shell, eradicating any other off-world fiends that might be hanging about therein.
Sully disapproved of destruction for destruction’s sake, which seemed ever more popular in the modern world, but he always took delight in burning out or otherwise eliminating Evil when Evil just couldn’t keep its ugly head down and stay to the shadows, when it came right at you with all teeth bared. The world needed a little Evil, so Good had something to compare itself to, but you couldn’t let it think it had the right-of-way on the road and an invitation to dinner.
As they headed toward the Hummer parked between school buses, Grace Ahern said, “If they planned to feed the elementary students to those Builders, they’re planning to do the same to the kids at the high school. We’ve got to get in there now and burn those suckers, too.”
Grace said what she meant and meant what she said, by God, and Sully York liked nothing in his life better than the sound of her voice, the common sense and never-turn-tail spirit that it conveyed. She raised young Travis alone, working hard at more than one job, and though they didn’t have much, they had their pride and each other. He doubted that he would ever hear this woman complain or whine; she was as incapable of self-pity as any of the Crazy Bastards, in their day, had been incapable of running from a fight—or losing one.
Bryce rode up front with Sully, and Travis sat in back with his mom, and that was just how it should be, for several reasons. Sully would have liked to spend half his time watching the street ahead and half watching Grace in the rearview mirror, but lacking one eye, he couldn’t be quite that distracted. Dash it all if he hadn’t become a moonstruck lad in the autumn of his years, which would have been an embarrassment if it wasn’t so exhilarating and if she hadn’t been such a shining example of pluck and guts.
Of course, he was too old for her, no argument could be made to the contrary. They were both too old for her, he and Bryce, although Sully was more than ten years younger than the writer and not yet on Social Security, certainly not decrepit. Yes, he was missing one eye and one ear, and one hand, but he was also missing an appendix and a spleen, and no woman had ever held the lack of those against him. He was too old for her, nonetheless, though there was something to be said for the fact that he wasn’t too old to be the male influence that Travis would need in order to grow up strong and true to his potential.
They arrived at William Clark High School and parked in the rear lot. In addition to Grace’s primary job at Meriwether Lewis, she occasionally did some part-time work at the high school, evening prep for the next day’s lunch, and she had a code to turn off the security system.
Switching on the lights, she proved to be as dead-on right as the prophet Cassandra and as quick to fearless action as the goddess Diana on a hunt. Worse than cockroaches infested this kitchen, more of those repulsive sacs suspended from the ceiling. Already a team with mutually understood tasks, the four of them worked together to set another fire of extermination.
The plasma screens are positioned at far too many places in the Hive. Excessive care has been taken to be sure that Victor Immaculate can be informed of developments in a timely fashion. When funds are unlimited, there is a tendency to overdesign critical systems, and this is certainly an example of absurd redundancy. The screens are everywhere. They are ubiquitous. He wishes only to walk and think, to allow the invigorating torrents of brilliant ideas, theories, and analyses to pour through his singular mind. But everywhere he turns, there is a plasma screen taunting him with its three-note alert. They are annoying in the extreme.
None of the news is of any import, the usual gnats in the path of the Communitarian war machine. The Builders gestating in cocoons at Meriwether Lewis School are no longer transmitting their progress. This is not a problem with those Builders, however, but it is yet another malfunction of the monitoring equipment, which is worse than government surplus, which is government surplus made in China.
And now the Communitarians sent to the radio station to retake it have also ceased transmitting. Of course the problem is not in the Communitarians, for they are an unstoppable force, perfectly designed and manufactured. Any problem is here on the receiving end, the less than adequate Chinese-made monitoring equipment failing yet again, no doubt sabotaged by disgruntled laborers in Shanghai or Shenyang or Guangzhou, who don’t think they should be working for two dollars a day and therefore take out their anger on total strangers who are using their products half a world away. Idiot-human economic systems.
The answer to every little glitch is the same, and Victor moves on without repeating it, because the Communitarians are at all times operating according to that directive: Consult the master strategy-and-tactics program, apply the appropriate remedy, and press forward without delay.
Of the virtually infinite number of problems with human beings, one of the worst is the economic systems that they create. Whether capitalism or communism, or something between, they are all grossly inadequate, and essentially for the same reason: Every system relies on workers who expect to be compensated in some way for their labor.
That isn’t the case with Communitarians. They do not need money to go to a movie or to attend a concert, or to purchase the latest novel by the current literary darling. They have no interest in such things. They don’t need money for cars or for new clothes, because they just take what they need. And they won’t continue needing and voraciously consuming forever because eventually they will all drop dead at once. That is a perfect economic system.
Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo. “The People’s Republic of China.” The problem can be seen in the name of the place: People.
Another plasma screen sounds its three-note alert, and this time the scrolling report informs Victor that the gestating Builders at the house of Reverend Kelsey Fortis ceased to transmit hours earlier. Their silence has not been noticed by the monitoring system until now.
He prefers to descend again to the levels of this installation that are below those given to his work, to the peace of corridors and rooms free of plasma screens. But with no Communitarians down there to attend to him, he must remain here, especially now. After being afflicted by these unending reports of problems that aren’t problems, that are only errors of monitoring, he needs perhaps more attention than usual.
When Victor turns another corner, the three-legged table waits for him. On it stands a cold bottle of water. Beside the bottle is a lavender dish. In the dish wait two burnt-orange capsules and a sour-yellow tablet as big as a dime.
He is surprised that these things should be put before him so soon after he took the shiny red capsule and the white tablet that were offered in a yellow saucer. But of course he must need them.
Not just his vital signs but also his brain waves—alpha, beta, delta, and theta—and an array of hormone levels are meticulously monitored telemetrically at all hours of the day and night. In the interest of having the fullest power of his unprecedented intelligence at his command 24/7, he developed a brilliant regimen of natural substances—herbs, exotic spices, ground roots, ultrapurified minerals—and a wide array of pharmaceuticals in exquisitely measured doses, which are provided to him as the telemetric data indicate he requires them.
The bottle of water is cold, yes, but it seems less cold to Victor than it ought to be. For burnt-orange capsules and a sour-yellow tablet, a lavender dish is inadequately coordinated. On the other hand, he has never needed burnt-orange and sour-yellow mental enhancements simultaneously, so the Communitarians programmed to attend to him were required to wing it. And, after all, they have no interest in design or art.
He swallows what has been provided. As the clone of the great Victor Frankenstein, distilled into greater brilliance than his namesake, further self-refined, he is incapable of error. Therefore the Communitarians, his creations, are likewise without the capacity for error.
After he walks a few minutes, Victor begins to feel better than he has felt for several hours. The waters of his mind are clearer and deeper and thrillingly colder than they have ever been previously, sparkling with thoughts no man or clone has ever entertained before, great schools of ideas like silvery fish darting after one another in dazzling patterns and profusion.
The plasma screens are silent for a while, but then one sounds its tones and scrolls up the news that the Moneyman has canceled his visit. In Denver on business, he has with great stealth decamped with his entourage to a safe house in Billings. From there he is supposed to come secretly to the Hive at dawn, by helicopter or in a fleet of Land Rovers if weather grounds the chopper. He is to receive a tour of this facility. He will instead return to Denver, canceling his plans because of the KBOW broadcast, which he claims is being recorded by people outside Rainbow Falls and uploaded to numerous sites on the Internet.
Victor has planned an unforgettable reception for the Moneyman, and he is not pleased by this absurd and cowardly response to what is an easily addressed problem. Communitarians are even now applying the appropriate remedy and pressing forward without delay. The Moneyman is a mere human being, however, and even though wealthy and powerful, he is prone to errors of judgment. When KBOW is taken and its crew replaced with Communitarians, they will begin broadcasting an apology for the hoax perpetrated by some of their staff. The public is easily aroused but just as easily sold a false sense of security. In time the Moneyman will realize—though never admit—his error, and he will be more supportive than before.
Because Victor Immaculate has all the memories of the original Victor, he has known many like the Moneyman. They share the same desires and corruptions. Their behavior is predictable.
All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well in this Victor Immaculate world.
Rusty Billingham ran for his life along the center of the street, directly into the wind-driven snow, which had grown icy enough so that the flakes mostly didn’t stick to his face and melt but instead bounced off like grains of sand. He glanced back a few times at the Trailblazer, expecting it to be reversing out of the hedge or already coming for him, driven by something no one would write a song about, at least not the kind of songs that Rusty wrote. But the SUV didn’t move, and he figured the blond she-devil might need a while to digest all of those people.
That had to be the craziest thought ever to cross his mind, but he knew his eyes had not deceived him. Facts were facts, and they fit together how they did, not how you wished they would. There was one right way to make perfect dovetail joints for a drawer box, and there was no way to deny that the blonde was not really a woman, that she was some new kind of predator, ravenous. Movies trained you to think aliens. Maybe that’s what she was, but right now what she was didn’t matter. What mattered was whether more like her were in the vicinity and how many.
A chatter of gunfire from a house on the left gave him a partial answer. The rapid semiauto fire shattered a second-floor window, glass bursting onto the padding of snow on the porch roof. No one up there screamed, but fantastic shadows throbbed across the portion of the room that Rusty could see. A mere two-shot follow-up to the first fusillade suggested that either the shooter or the target had succumbed, probably not the latter.
He was in good shape, he stayed fit after the war, and he could run a mile while breathing as relaxed and as steady as if he were only crossing a room. But now he gasped for breath, heart knocking as though he’d done half a marathon. He wanted to live, but he also wanted Corrina to live, and it was the possible loss of her that wound tight the clockworks of his fear.
From a distance, out of the west, too faint for him to get a fix on it, came another scream. Then more than one screamer, three or four, somewhere to the east, maybe from the street parallel to this one. As Rusty reached the next intersection, two big German shepherds raced along the cross street, as silent as ghost dogs, too terrified to bark, in flight from something that not even dogs of their size and fabled courage dared to confront.
Running through the intersection in the wake of the dogs, Rusty saw something pulse in the sky far off to the east, a pale yellow light at first but suddenly brighter and orange. Not a mother ship descending with more storm troopers like the one who attacked the Trailblazer, not an object at all, but a fire reflecting off the low clouds and the streaming snow. Something was burning out there. Judging by the spreading glow, it had to be a large structure.
One moment he was walking home in the snow on an evening like any other, and the next moment the gates of Hell were open and the world was full of demons. He knew that other places were hells and potential hells, but not Montana. Elsewhere in the world, you could buy a thousand flavors of crazy, but only a few were for sale here.
Corrina Ringwald lived in the next-to-the-last house in this block, on the right. Look at it: not grand yet beautiful, built with loving care and maintained with pride, a place that said home, that said love and family. Not a place Norman Bates would live or Charles Manson, not a place where bad things should ever happen, but they could. You always had to remember that they could.
The porch light was on, amber panes in a copper lantern, her invitation to him. She had prepared dinner for them. He heard music inside, Rod Stewart singing “Someone to Watch over Me.” Rusty rang the bell, pressed it again without waiting for the first passage of chimes to finish. Suddenly he wondered what he would do if it wasn’t Corrina who answered the bell, if it was another one like the blonde in the blue robe. He retreated one step, two, terrified that he was too late.
Corrina opened the door. Rusty had never been so glad to see anyone in his life. She was smiling, relaxed. The music prevented her from hearing the sounds of rising chaos outside.
As she opened the door, she said, “Our special tonight is pot roast—” She read his face at first glance, and her smile froze. “What? What’s happened?”
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