In fact, the Builder didn’t return to its Miss Universe mode, but in a frenzy of rage—assuming any human emotion could be assigned to it—the thing entered the house as a swarm. It churned between the two-by-four bars in three streams, but the three coalesced into one in the living room.
Michael herded the children into a corner. He offered himself as a human shield for them.
As the swarm ascended to the ceiling, Carson returned to her husband’s side. They both held Urban Snipers, which could stop cold a charging bull—but couldn’t halt a Builder.
The swarm of nanoanimals circled overhead, buzzing and hissing, exploring the limits of this space, as if the billions of them were conferring about what to devour next.
Intuition seemed to have brought the same message to everyone in the living room, to the Riders as to Carson and Michael: The swarm might be attracted to movement, and whoever moved first might be the first to die.
Deucalion and the Bozeman replicant arrived on the End Times Highway in driving snow. A straightaway swept down from the crown of a hill behind them and faded ahead, westward, still white lanes dwindling into falling white flakes, all the whiteness flowing into a darkness that at this moment seemed eternal. On both sides of the road were great dark formations of evergreens, like the rising walls of some vast castle, their boughs not yet fully flocked, the faint scent of them almost sweet in the crisp, cold air.
No tire tracks cut through the blanketed pavement, which wasn’t surprising, considering that no one lived along these twenty-four miles of road. The night lay as quiet as if, back in the day, the Cold War had turned hot, atomizing and irradiating all humanity into oblivion, leaving a world where the only significant noises were of occasional seismic events, moving water, and wind.
“Where?” Deucalion asked the replicant whose arm he gripped.
“Directly north, into the forest at least two hundred yards. Three hundred might be better.”
“Take the step with me,” Deucalion said, and transported them into the forest.
Gloriously wild and vast, yet intimate in its every tree-defined space, the forest might be a cathedral by day, though it was a series of chapels by night. This must seem to be a blind-black wilderness to the replicant, but to Deucalion it was an array of chambers receding one into the other in every direction, the air scented and flavored by the natural incense of pines and alpine firs. Because during the day little sunlight reached the forest floor, no brush obstructed, and until the weight of the limb-borne snow caused boughs to bend sufficiently, only flurries of flakes found their way through the evergreen canopy to plant small cold kisses on his face.
“Where?” he asked again, and the replicant said, “Down.”
Deucalion stared at the earth underfoot until he sensed solid strata, dense and deep … but then hollow spaces farther below, a kingdom of strange chambers.
“Turn with me,” he told the replicant, and in the turn they stepped out of the chapel forest and into a long corridor with white walls and a gray floor.
The silence here was more profound than that in the woods above, as if the queen had long abandoned this hive, her workers and her drones swarming in her wake.
Within a few breaths, however, Deucalion knew he had arrived in Victor’s lair: Victor Leben now, clone of Victor Helios—in spite of all aliases and all eras, Frankenstein forever. The telltale scent that came to him was not a trace of pheromones and nothing at all of sweat and blood. He smelled instead the damp stone walls of the old windmill that had been converted to the great man’s first laboratory in faraway Europe, the ozone created by leaping electric arcs between the poles of arcane and primitive machines, the malodor of his own recently dead flesh that lingered even after the moment of successful reanimation. His maker roamed this vault of secrets, near and nearer.
“Kill me,” the Bozeman replicant pleaded, and Deucalion gave him that grace, breaking his neck and lowering him gently to the floor.
The screams and thudding feet overhead were of no concern.
Addison Hawk worked with Erika in the living room, rearranging sofas and armchairs and footstools, which would serve as beds, to open more floor space for makeshift mattresses made with quilts, moving blankets, towels, heavy winter coats, and other items.
As they worked, they got to know each other. Addison could remember no other woman with whom he ever talked so easily, in whose company he had felt so comfortable. He was not a ladies’ man. He was to Don Juan what tinfoil was to silver leaf. Yet this beautiful woman so enchanted him that he chattered away, less self-conscious than he had ever been with one of the fairer sex.
A multitude of footsteps thundered down the back steps, toward the kitchen, accompanied by much squealing and shrieking.
Erika’s beauty was of course the first thing that dazzled him, but soon her looks mattered hardly at all when compared to her many other qualities. She was calm and competent, seemed to know just what to do at every moment, as these bizarre events unfolded. She had an air of worldliness, as though she had traveled everywhere and seen everything, but at the same time she remained humble without being compliant, modest without being coy, gentle but not meek.
A merry jingling of tiny bells arose in the downstairs hallway.
Addison found Erika to be deeply layered to such an extent that she was mysterious. How she could be so approachable and forthcoming yet remain enigmatic, he didn’t know. She inspired in him both wonder and curiosity. Something about this woman was recondite, remote from ordinary perception, almost mystical.
Beyond the archway, Jocko appeared in the downstairs hall, in one of his fourteen belled hats, leading a conga line of children, some of whom were wearing the other thirteen hats. “Step to the left, step to the right, forward hop, hop. Step to the left, step to the right, forward hop, hop. Pirouette!”
Erika paused in her work to watch the procession. Her gentle smile was a curve of kindness, sweetly maternal. Addison wanted to kiss that smile, not just Erika but that smile, to taste and to receive the serenity of it.
Jocko reached the front stairs and started to climb. “Three steps up, one step back, slap your butt cheeks—whack, whack, whack! Advance three steps, now retreat one, snorting like a pig is fun, fun, fun!”
As the children ascended behind Jocko and all the whacking and snorting receded, Erika said, “They’ll sleep well tonight.”
“Especially Jocko,” Addison said.
“Oh, Jocko rarely sleeps. Sometimes he sticks a fork in a wall plug and knocks himself out for an hour. I don’t know why it doesn’t kill him, but it doesn’t, and I’ve learned to live with it.”
Rusty in the lightless hallway, just outside Corrina Ringwald’s bedroom, knew something was near him, an arm’s length away to his left, and he assumed it must be another of those abominations that had killed all the people in the Trailblazer. Clink-clink-clink. He couldn’t hear the thing breathing, but maybe their kind didn’t breathe. Clink-clink. He expected it to surge forward and dissolve him or do whatever it was they did to people like those in the SUV, but the creature just loomed in the velvet blackness. Clink-clink.
He considered fleeing to his right, stumbling through the dark toward the dim glow rising in the staircase from windows below. But he clutched when he thought another of the things might be waiting there to receive him, that they were bracketing him, that he must be doomed no matter which way he turned. He was too long from the war, his nerves civilianized, and he could not in such short order armor himself against mortal fear to the extent that he had overcome it on the battlefield.
After no more than half a minute, Rusty knew that light would be preferable to continued darkness, no matter what hideous presence might be revealed. He felt behind him, along the wall beside the bedroom door, and he found a plastic cover plate, the notched head of a screw, and then the switch in the center. He hesitated for a moment, revelation awaiting his command, and as a shudder of dread, as cold as dry ice, passed through him, he turned on the overhead hallway lights.
Nothing waited to his right, as he had feared, but immediately to his left stood a man in a business suit, his face bristling with shards of broken glass. In fact, his face was broken glass, no flesh or features, just hair above and ears on the side, a thin jawline, the point of a chin. The entire face itself was formed of bristling spears of clear window glass, which shifted in a way reminiscent of the colored fragments at the bottom of a kaleidoscope: Clink-clink-clink … clink-clink.…
As Rusty stood frozen in terror, the well-tailored business suit turned to vapor, a mist that the thing appeared to absorb, revealing not a human body but the mere form of a man shaped from some mottled gray substance with veins of twinkling silver bits. Abruptly, glass blossomed from the body at several points, sharp-petaled flowerlike forms that glittered with scores of cutting edges.
Rusty remembered the sound of shattering glass rising from the ground floor earlier, and he sensed that rain of ringing fragments was related to this weird display, though he didn’t know how or why.
From where the mouth ought to have been in that spiny face, several spear-point shards spat out, whistling past Rusty’s head as quick as arrows from a bow. They shattered against the wall at the end of the hallway.
Rusty ran for the stairs.
Overhead the swarm circled, circled, buzzing-hissing, and Carson couldn’t repress the idea that every human being in the room was but an item on an all-you-can-eat buffet. The dense cloud of gray and glittering nanoanimals, needing fuel to create, was considering its options, matching its selection to its current craving. Presuming those billions of tiny creatures possessed the equivalent of taste buds and culinary preferences was absurd, of course, but this colony was so alien in its nature that Carson could not imagine how or why it decided to do anything it did, and she could try to analyze its actions and predict its next move only by thinking in terms familiar to her, even as useless as those terms might be.
The theory that movement would attract a ravenous assault proved false. The swarm abruptly began to swirl, a glittering spiral nebula winding itself into a rapidly tightening form. From the center of the mass, something like a funnel cloud formed, struck down at one of the Riders, who had been as paralyzed as everyone else, and sucked him apart as if he had been little more than gelatin, feeding him up the tornado into the cumulonimbus form overhead, leaving no morsel of flesh or scrap of clothing.
Leaving nine cocoons ablaze in the high school, Sully York and the new Crazy Bastards climbed into the Hummer and went looking for trouble.
Riding shotgun once more, Bryce Walker was more involved, more alive, than Sully had seen him in eighteen months, since his Rennie had died. Something in Bryce died with her, which was understandable, because their long marriage had been not just a matter of piling up the years in a mutually agreeable relationship but also an expression of true love. Love was everyone’s to experience if they opened their hearts, but true love was a rare and sterling thing, damn if it wasn’t, a sterling thing that required the intervention of destiny: two hearts fated to be as one, finding each other among the billions of the world. True love, by God, was the Excalibur of emotions, and if you recognized it when you saw it, if you drew that noble, shining blade from the stone, your life would be a grand adventure even if you lived it entirely in one small town.
Sully had known love but never true love. True love wasn’t defined as being willing to die for the one you loved. That was part of it, but the smaller part. Hell, he had been willing to die for women he loved, for women he didn’t love, and even for a few dreadful women he disliked, which was how he ended up with one eye, one ear, and one hand. True love meant being willing to live for the woman who was the other chamber of your heart, to work yourself threadbare for her if necessary, to know her mind as you knew your own, to love her as you loved yourself, to cherish her above all earthly things unto the end of your years. There was the valiant and exhilarating life, more thrilling than ten thousand expeditions up ten thousand Amazons!
Sully looked at the rearview mirror, at Grace Ahern in the backseat with brave young Travis.
“What’s this?” Bryce asked.
When Sully glanced at the writer, he thought the question must be a challenge to his quite innocent attraction to Grace. But Bryce leaned forward, squinting past the sweeping windshield wipers and through the driving snow.
Ahead in the street stood a man and a woman, side by side but about six feet from each other, blocking both lanes. They were not properly dressed for the weather, she in a simple black cocktail dress, he in a tuxedo. They possessed a theatrical air, as if the street were a stage and they were about to perform an amazing act, he an illusionist and she his about-to-vanish-in-a-flurry-of-doves assistant. As Sully braked to a stop less than twenty feet from them, he saw that they were, even in the hard light of the headlight beams, remarkably good-looking people, more luminous than movie stars
From the backseat, Grace said, “More of the same. They’re like the two in the Meriwether Lewis kitchen, the ones who said ‘I am your Builder,’ then destroyed everyone, and spun the cocoons.”
“We don’t want this fight,” Bryce said.
Sully shifted into reverse, checked the rearview mirror, and damn if there wasn’t a similar couple in the street behind them. Four Builders, one for each of the Hummer’s occupants.
Waste and void. Waste and void. Darkness upon the face of the deep. Thus it was; and thus it will be again.
The spirit moved upon the face of the deep, and there was light. The sun does not respond to Victor Immaculate’s demands, and so light will remain in the world. But after the Community, there will be no eyes to see it, no skin to feel its warmth.
Brought to new heights of intellectual clarity and power by the burnt-orange capsules, by the sour-yellow tablet, Victor walks to think and thinks the world into its death. Ultimate visionary that he is, he peers forward to a time when nothing flies and nothing walks and nothing crawls and nothing slithers and nothing swims, a time when little grows and what still grows does not thrive, a time of empty skies, barren lands, dead seas.
In these high spirits, he arrives at the room where he would have had a most interesting meeting with the Moneyman if that fool had not mistaken one small setback for catastrophe. Here, with the bodyguards in another room, they would have met, just the two of them—at first—to discuss what additional equipment, matériel, and funds would be needed in the months ahead.
The room is approached through a small vestibule and two pairs of pneumatic doors that whoosh—one, then the other—into the walls. It is circular, thirty feet in diameter, with a dome. The thick concrete walls and domed ceiling are covered with soundproofing board, as many layers as phyllo, and over the board is gray-felt upholstery and thousands of six-inch-long felt-covered cones. In the days of the Cold War, paranoia was deemed necessary to ensure survival; even in this deep, blast-proof facility once staffed by the most reliable patriots, the architects felt obligated to provide a chamber from which not a word could escape to a hallway or an adjoining space, where a shotgun could be fired without drawing attention. In here, a shout sounds like a murmur, but even words spoken in a murmur are as clear as a shout.
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