They were so stupid. Like everything in nature, they were really stupid, poorly designed, requiring too much in the way of resources, crapping all the time, urinating all the time, so stupid that they would just stand and watch, hour after hour, as she swept, just stand and watch, too stupid to understand that she was working for the total destruction of them and of the natural world that sustained them.
The horses were so stupid, Nancy wanted to laugh at them, but she couldn’t. In theory, she quite understood the psychological and emotional causes of laughter, but laughter was for human beings, one more indication of their lack of seriousness, of how easily they were distracted. Communitarians could pretend laughter to pass for the people they replaced, but laughter never distracted them from their duties, from their lethal crusade. Laughing or not laughing, humans were inattentive, heedless, preoccupied, oblivious fools, no better than horses.
For a while, she pretended laughter, practiced it diligently, so that if at some point she needed to masquerade as an amused and distracted human, she would sound convincing. The swish of the broom, the squeak of the wheels, the creak of the chair seat, the sough and snuffle of the wind, and her laughter, and the snow fluttering down and vanishing in midair, and the horses watching, the stupid horses, so easily entertained.
A lover of history and tradition, Addison Hawk had never been afraid of change. Occasionally suspicious of the reasons behind some of it, often unconvinced about its value, but not afraid. Until now. Replications of people being pumped out in laboratories, nanoanimals instantly devouring their enemies.… That electrifying video made by one of the Riders seemed to support the fear that if the end of humanity had not begun in Rainbow Falls, if this battle could be won, the victory would be brief, and the end would begin elsewhere, the enemy a later generation of these creatures or something else equally posthuman but even worse.
He didn’t know what to make of Deucalion. The name Frankenstein had been shared with him, as it had not been shared with either the people at the Samples house or with the staff at KBOW. As an editor and a publisher, knowledge was his business, his life, but he was in danger of information overload.
When he heard they were taking a dozen of the Riders’ youngest children—between four and eleven years of age—to Erika’s house, he knew this must be the beautiful and self-possessed woman whom he had encountered earlier in the day outside of Jim James Bakery. He didn’t know of another Erika in Rainbow Falls. He volunteered to go with Deucalion and to stay with Erika, to help her manage these kids and the others who would be brought later.
With the children on benches in the back of the truck, Addison rode up front with Deucalion. He was given to understand that the giant knew a shortcut, a way around the roadblocks, but this mode of travel—teleportation?—was just as unprecedented as all else on this day. As Deucalion drove along the Samples driveway, toward the street, he said something about the arrow of time being indeterminate on the quantum level, that every moment contained both all the past and all the future. And when they turned left into the street, they also and instantly turned into Erika’s driveway, four miles north of town, and parked near the front porch of the house.
Evidently aware that Addison had been stunned into immobility, Deucalion said, “The universe began from an inexpressibly dense speck of matter, which was as much a thought—a concept—as it was matter. After the big bang, after expanding outward in all directions through these billions of years, that speck of matter has become the universe as we know it. But on a fundamental level, because all of time is present in every moment of time, the universe is still that dense speck, it’s simultaneously both that speck and everything that it has since expanded to become. So while the universe is vast, it is also very tiny, a speck, and in that speck, all places are the same place. The Samples house is one step from Erika’s place, which is one step from Hong Kong, which is one step from Mars. You just have to know how to live in the reality of the universe in both of the states that it exists.”
Although he was a man of words, for a moment Addison could think of nothing to say. Then he said, “I’ll get the kids out of the back.”
Erika waited for them on the porch. As Addison followed the children up the front steps, she appeared surprised—and he thought perhaps pleased—to see him.
Although the cold wind chapped lips and pinched cheeks, Erika kept the Riders’ children on the porch long enough to explain to them that in the house they would meet another little girl like them, but also a special little boy. This wonderful little boy, she said, had suffered much in his life, mostly because he looked so different from other children. She said he was self-conscious about his appearance, his feelings were easily hurt, and all he wanted was to have friends and be a friend to others. She was aware that all the Rider children knew about Jesus, and she reminded them that Jesus valued goodness, not appearances. He valued goodness even more than a nice ride on a fine horse. She said once they got to know this special little boy, they would love him. But she also said that after they got to know him, if suddenly he seemed very scary, that would only be because he had smiled. He had a very unfortunate smile. He would try not to smile, because he didn’t want to scare people, but sometimes he just couldn’t help himself. So if suddenly he looked like he was going to eat you alive, that was just silly, because he was only smiling.
Although the kids were excited about meeting this wonderful little boy and shared their anticipation with one another, Addison wasn’t sure that he was as eager for the encounter as they were. Laboratory-made people, voracious nanoanimals, Frankenstein and his two-hundred-year-old creation, teleportation or something like it: Enough was enough for one night.
Erika smiled at him as she waited for the children to take off their snow-caked boots, and he decided to accept her invitation. She ushered them inside, through the foyer, through an archway, into a living room, where a pretty little girl stood beside the special little boy whom apparently Jesus wanted them to love. The boy was immeasurably more special than Addison Hawk had expected, and if the word boy actually applied, Addison’s dictionaries were so out of date that he might as well burn them.
Not one of the kids screamed. That surprised Jocko. They all gasped. Nothing more. Gasp. Not one of them went looking for a bucket. Or a stick. Or an oven to bake him in. Some of them gasped twice, and a few smiled, sort of, smiled funny-like. None of them puked. Their eyes were very wide, although not as big as Jocko’s eyes. They seemed amazed, only amazed.
For a moment Jocko didn’t get it. Then he did. They weren’t interested in him. Why would they be? They recognized royalty when they saw it.
Sweeping one hand toward his teatime hostess, Jocko said, “It is my great honor to present her royal highness, Princess Chrissy, daughter of the king of Montana.”
Listening to Grace Ahern, Sully York aspired to be the pulp-fiction hero that he’d been often before, in the best moments of his eventful life. He had been shaped by the boy’s-adventure novels he began reading when he was eight years old. He’d read hundreds. As a young man, he unconsciously styled himself after the intrepid figures in those books, and when he had realized he was doing so, he decided that he would have more fun if he consciously styled himself after them. He was aware that some people could not abide him. But he knew at least a thousand men who modeled themselves after Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, and who were all the very self-satisfied phonies they supposedly despised, so he reckoned that he had done well enough. Now, as Grace Ahern told her tale, Sully York reacted in the finest pulp tradition: He felt his blood boil with outrage, his heart pound with a sense of adventure, his spleen swell with righteous anger, his spine stiffen with courage, and his gut clench with the right kind of healthy fear, the kind that wouldn’t loosen the bowels.
Just outside of the walk-in pantry, Grace, a damn attractive woman, clung desperately to her son, Travis, who was proving himself to be a gallant lad. They wanted to get her out of there, away from the cocoons, but she refused, insisting instead that they had to understand—and act.
This display of fortitude and commitment made her markedly more attractive. Even in the severe and distorting shadows created by the upwash of flashlight beams, she could quicken a stout heart, and he knew she would be lovelier in any other ambiance. Sully found himself watching Bryce Walker as much as he watched this fine woman, trying to read whether the writer was smitten by her. Well, it didn’t matter if they were both charmed by Grace Ahern, because they were both too old for her, and it would be absurd to think otherwise. Of course, there were men in Sully’s family who had lived well past a hundred, still physically fit, active, and mentally sharp. Some of them even held jobs past the century mark. But that was neither here nor there. They were both too old to charm her as she charmed them, and that was the end of it.
Grace recounted how the culinary and janitorial staffs finished serving lunch the previous afternoon and were cleaning up the kitchen and the cafeteria when they were assaulted by police officers and by the principal, the assistant principal, the school nurse, and other people with whom they had worked for years. As they were overpowered, a gunlike stainless-steel device was pressed to their heads, the trigger pulled.
The others had become instantly docile, aware and alert but incapable of resistance, able to control only their eyes. Seeing her coworkers standing in attendance like zombies waiting for some hoodoo master to give them orders, Grace proved herself as quick-thinking and as iron-nerved as she was damn attractive. The controlling probe—if that was the word—had not affected her as it affected the others. A sharp flash of pain, and then a lingering dull headache. Perhaps it angled through the skull, through bone, and never reached the brain. Or—a more daunting thought, even if it was a thin needle—perhaps the thing pierced the brain but failed to function. In any event, she pretended to the same docility that the others displayed. She stood among them, waiting for an opportunity to bolt.
The principal, assistant principal, and other conspiring school employees departed, leaving only two policemen to guard the helpless zombies. Moments later, a radiantly beautiful young woman and equally radiant young man arrived in the kitchen, of such physical perfection that they appeared unearthly, from a higher realm. They moved like dancers, seeming to float across the floor. When they spoke, their voices were mellifluous. Each said only one thing, the same thing: I am your Builder. The rendering began. And when one of the Builders had churned through two people, it regurgitated the matter that had spun into the first cocoon.
If Grace had attempted to flee then, she would surely have been chased down and captured. But she was paralyzed by terror long enough for a lone trucker, making an unscheduled food delivery, to enter the kitchen through the receiving room and the walk-in refrigerator. He couldn’t have made much sense of what he saw, but Death was obviously in that kitchen even though the method of slaughter mystified. The deliveryman ran, and the police chased him out through the receiving room, leaving the standing zombies in the care of the busy Builders.
Grace couldn’t have fled to the parking lot, for the cops would have snared her as they would surely grab the deliveryman. Likewise, she knew that if she passed through other parts of the school, she would encounter one of her fellow workers who had participated in the assault on the culinary and janitorial staffs. Her hope was to hide out only until the Builders, whatever they were, finished their horrific work, whatever it might ultimately be.
The pantry was the only place in the kitchen where she could quickly get out of sight. The Builders weren’t people anymore, they were ravenous things, intent only on their rendering.
“But then,” she said, still holding fast to Travis, the two of them supporting each other, “maybe the deliveryman came back with reinforcements he found in the parking lot or other people arrived unexpectedly. I don’t know. But there was a struggle in the kitchen, I could hear it through the pantry door, shouts and things crashing. That cabinet fell against the door, trapping me … and then before long, everything got very quiet.”
Travis said, “Mom, we’ve got to get you to a doctor.”
“No, honey. I wouldn’t trust any doctors in this town, any more than I’d trust a policeman.”
“But what if you’re bleeding … in there, inside your head?”
“Then I wouldn’t have made it this long. Right now, what we’ve got to do is burn those cocoons, whatever’s in them, burn every one of them.”
By God, Sully liked her pluck. She had true grit. He liked her mettle. He wondered if she knew her guns. If not, he knew she could be taught to shoot, and after this mayhem, she’d want to be taught. Some martial-arts training, too. Throwing stars and chain bolos. She looked like she had the shoulder and arm strength for a crossbow.
Bryce Walker said to Grace, “An operation this size, you must have cooking oil in five-gallon cans. We could pour a pool of it under the cocoons. The gas ovens are nearby. But I think we’ll need something more flammable than vegetable oil to lead the flames down the front of the oven to the floor and to get the kind of flash fire we need. I imagine you use Sterno or some equivalent for the chafing dishes in the cafeteria. A can of that would be just the thing.”
Squinting at Bryce, Sully thought, Ah, so that’s how it is, you slyboots scribbler. Well, don’t think Sully York will surrender the prize easily.
He said, “Mix the Sterno with the cooking oil on the floor. But you can’t be in the room and pour it on open gas flames. The flash will take you down. With Sterno and a few ordinary cleaning supplies, I can make a Molotov cocktail, throw it from the door, and be out by the time it shatters and ignites the pool.”
“Let’s do it,” Grace said. “Burn all of these abominations. Then find out where others have been spun, locate every one we can, burn them like burning nests of gypsy moths out of infected trees, burn them back to Hell where they came from.”
By God, she was game. She knew how to nail her colors to the mast and stick fast to them. Sully had never seen intrepidity in quite so pretty a package.
Jocko in the study with the big guy. The monster of monsters! The legend! The big guy sitting in Jocko’s desk chair! Jocko standing beside him, not just a former tumor with hyperactivity disorder, not just a screwup with hardly any butt and toad feet too big for shoes, but now a comrade in arms! This was better than anything. Even better than eating soap.
Jocko had tried to show Deucalion the printouts. The stolen secrets. Depredated data. Plundered, pirated, purloined by Jammin’ Jocko, cyber cowboy, highwayman of the ether! But he had dropped them. Scooped them up, shuffled them into order. Dropped them again. When Jocko started shouting at the pages as if they were alive and in rebellion against him, Deucalion suggested that he hold the pages, review them himself, and ask questions if he had any.