the dead town - Page 31

Victor expects to see the wheeled eight-panel gray fabric screen standing toward the farther end of the room, but he does not expect the three-legged table with another prescription only minutes after the previous offering. It waits just inside the door from the vestibule, bearing a cold bottle of water and a black saucer. In the saucer are two small white capsules, one larger yellow capsule, one five-sided pink tablet, and one blue ball the size of an M&M candy.

This is an unprecedented number and variety of intelligence-enhancing supplements to be presented in the same saucer. Victor Immaculate assumes, therefore, that his magnificent brain waves and other physiological data, always being transmitted telemetrically, have alerted his staff to the fact that he is at the brink of a mental breakthrough, about to surge to new heights of perception, perhaps rising to a realm of thoughts and ideas so revolutionary and so profoundly wise as to surprise even him, though he is not easily—if ever—surprised. He chases all five items with cold water.

Happily anticipating the effects of the ingenious supplements, Victor crosses the room to the screen and rolls it aside. Lying on a gurney is a na*ed replicant, eyes closed, in a kind of stasis, waiting to be called to duty. It is identical in appearance to the Moneyman, who would not have left this room alive. For all his wealth and power, the fool seems never to have grasped that, with as little as one of his hairs, he can be duplicated and made redundant. Why snivel before him and beg for more funds, for more support, when replacing him with an obedient Communitarian ensures that everything needed will be swiftly supplied?

From behind Victor, a deep voice, perhaps rough but smoothed into a crystal-clear murmur by the room, says, “I am satisfied.”

Hoping to draw the bizarre glass-faced, glass-spitting creature away from the master bedroom and the consideration of the attic where Corrina hid, Rusty plunged down the stairs. The hall light was behind him, ahead only the blizzard-filtered glow of the streetlamp pressing against the ground-floor windows but not through them. As far as he knew, he might be descending into the arms of the blue-robed woman or one like her, or one unimaginably more strange.

In the foyer, he didn’t hesitate to switch on the lights. He found himself alone.

The glass-faced thing came down the stairs in pursuit of him, and Rusty stepped to the front door, almost unlocked it, but shrank back when he saw the face of a man at one of the sidelights flanking the door. Matinee-idol handsome, the guy had a smile so appealing that it could sell anything to anyone, even hope to the dead. Rusty had no doubt that this was one of the eight he’d seen marching in the street earlier.

At the staircase landing, the glass-faced thing fell, shattered, and Rusty turned to see glittering fragments of the creature spill down the lower flight of steps. As the pieces tumbled, they somehow became miniature glass men of various sizes, scores upon scores of them. Their limbs snapped off as they tumbled and lay vibrating on the treads. A dozen made it intact to the foyer, where they crawled or tottered this way and that, perhaps seeking him out but blind to his position, until they collided, cracking, splintering to pieces.

War never brought Rusty Billingham near to the brink of madness, but minute by minute the impossible events of this night pushed him farther from the calm center of sanity toward its periphery. He knew he was not hallucinating, yet what he saw defied reason and suggested delusion if not delirium.

Glass figurines could neither crawl nor walk, as these did. When they shattered against one another, the fragments should not twitch like the bodies of snakes after their heads were cut off, but that’s what these glass limbs and torsos and heads did, fracturing into smaller and still smaller pieces, until abruptly they were still.

If the glass-faced monstrosity had been a killing machine like the woman in the blue robe, something seemed to have destroyed it.

The door chimes rang.

Rusty meant to follow the hallway into the kitchen, hoping to leave by the back door and lead those things away from the house. But something stepped out of the dark living room, blocking his escape.

His mind moved from the suburbs of sanity to the borderline.

Victor Immaculate possesses all the memories of the original Victor. He knows, therefore, the meaning of the words that have been spoken behind him: I am satisfied.

More than two hundred years earlier, shortly after Deucalion murdered Victor’s bride, Elizabeth, on the shores of Lake Como, the great scientist and maker of men had returned to Geneva. There, as he knelt in a cemetery at night, vowing vengeance, his creation spoke to him tauntingly from the darkness: I am satisfied, miserable wretch! You have determined to live, and I am satisfied.

Deucalion had meant that now his maker’s anguish would be as intense as his own, and both of them would suffer the rest of their lives, Victor for what he had lost by his pride and his imprudent researches and Deucalion for being forever an outsider, alone of his kind.

Victor Immaculate turns and sees the giant that had come to life centuries before he himself had risen to replace the original Victor in New Orleans. No slightest fear afflicts him. Rather, his singular intellect is engaged, his curiosity as keen as a scalpel.

Deucalion says, “So long ago, you told your story to Robert Walton, that man aboard the icebound ship in the Arctic. His letters and journals were what Mary Shelley employed to tell her tale. Walton said you died on the ship, and he fabricated a loathsome story about my visiting your deathbed and expressing remorse to him. How much did you pay Walton to say that you perished on that vessel?”

“Not me,” Victor Immaculate replies. “Your maker paid him, and handsomely. You forget that I’m not the one who made you. I’m only his clone.”

“You are him as ever he was,” the giant insists. “He is in you, all his knowledge and all his sins. You are him in concentration. By using the gullible Walton, you presented yourself to the world as a flawed but compassionate, loving, noble figure, much put upon and so determined to put right the wrong you did. Every time I’ve read your words, the pages stink with your false humility, expressed at such length its insincerity is evident in its redundancy.”

As the creature approaches, he seems larger step by step. But Victor Immaculate does not retreat. He does not know how. Besides, he is invulnerable to this one.

Deucalion says, “The pages reek with your bottomless self-pity so poorly disguised as regret, with the phoniness of your verbose self-condemnation, with the insidious quality of your contrition, which is that of a materialist who cares not for God and is therefore not true contrition at all, but only despair at the consequences of your actions. For centuries, I have been the monster, and you the well-meaning idealist who claims he would have undone what he did if only given the chance. But your kind never undoes. You do the same wrong over and over, with ever greater fervency, causing ever more misery, because you are incapable of admitting error.”

“I’ve made no error,” Victor Immaculate confidently assures him, “and neither did your maker.”

Looming, the giant says, “You are my maker.”

“That’s an error of yours, which you seem unable to admit. I’m not Victor but Victor Immaculate.”

Deucalion places his hands upon Victor’s shoulders, gripping with such power that it is impossible to shrug loose or pull away.

“I was once a monster, as you made me,” the giant says. “Full of rage and hot to murder. But on the lightning, I was given free will … and have remade myself through the centuries. I am not a monster anymore. But you are the monster you have always been.”

“Release me,” Victor demands.

The giant says nothing, but a strange light pulses through his menacing eyes.

“Look at your face in a mirror,” Victor suggests. “Would you like the normal half to be as disfigured as the other? Or should I instead make your skull implode and finish you forever?”

“You don’t have that power over me, as he did.”

“Oh,” Victor disagrees, “I am quite sure that I do.”

The funnel cloud of nanoanimals sucked the Rider off the floor, dissolving him as he rose, and incorporated him into the swarm that blackened the air near the ceiling, spiraling ominously above more of the living room than not, enlarged now by the mass of the ingested victim.

Yet Carson and the others remained paralyzed, still fearing that if they moved, they would make targets of themselves.

The swarm churned as before, darker and seemingly as saturated as thunderheads pregnant with rain. Then the cloud began to eject things, as if spitting them out: a human foot with a mouth across its bridge, teeth gnashing; what seemed to be a pair of kidneys saddlebagged across a beating heart; a grotesquely large nose with wiggling fingers protruding from its nostrils.… A hand fell to the carpet, and on the back of it, set high like those of a crab, were eyes that appeared all too human.

The hand scuttled across the floor, toothless yet unsettling nonetheless, and Carson cried out—“Michael!”—but he had the same idea that motivated her cry. He was already hustling the three children into the adjacent dining room.

If they could get into the kitchen, there was a door between it and the dining room, another between it and the downstairs hall. They might be able to keep the swarm out, and hope to make a stand there.

They were halfway across the dining room when aproned women began to crowd through the door from the kitchen. Another Builder had gotten into the back of the house.

After the failed assault on KBOW, Sammy Chakrabarty was not in a mood to celebrate. He knew worse would be coming. He relentlessly circled the roof, maintaining surveillance on every side of the radio station.

He was most worried about the back of the building, where the broadcast tower soared into the falling snow. Fifty yards beyond lay a small woods, past which was a meadow and then a motel. He could see neither the lights of the motel nor the meadow beyond the copse of pines, but he thought it might be easy to approach KBOW on foot, through the cover of those trees.

As he stood peering through the open girders toward the woods, a truck roared into the parking lot. He hurried across the roof to his original position, dropped to his knees behind the parapet, and through the crenel saw men—or things like men—pouring out of the cargo box of another blue-and-white truck. Some of them had weapons, and they began to spray the building with bullets.

Sammy opened fire on them with the Bushmaster.

Chief Rafael Jarmillo and Deputy Nelson Sternlagen, equal in position as all Communitarians were equal—therefore neither of them quite leading, neither of them quite following—brought two Builders through the pines behind KBOW. Jarmillo had Warren Snyder’s spare keys, but he would relinquish them without hesitation to Sternlagen if for some reason it became more efficient for the deputy to be the one to unlock the back door.

They paused at the edge of the woods, waited until they heard gunfire, then hurried through the snow toward the broadcast tower.

The two Builders in front of the Hummer began to move toward it, as did the two behind. They approached not snarling and at a run but smiling and with an eerie leisureliness that suggested they were certain of triumph.

Sully York had never been the kind to defend his position if he had any chance of attacking from it. No one was deader than those who didn’t risk all when all was at risk.

As if he’d written deeply into the minds of enough Western-novel heroes to know the intimate workings of Sully’s thought processes, Bryce Walker said, “Go for it.”

Even though these were killing machines of some kind, not people, as they appeared to be, Sully chose to run down the man in the tuxedo rather than the woman in the black cocktail dress, because chivalry was not easily set aside when it was the habit of a lifetime.

Confident of the Hummer’s exceptional traction and bad-weather handling, Sully tramped the accelerator, and the big SUV shot forward without a spinning of tires. The tuxedoed sonofabitch didn’t try to dodge out of the way, like most chickenhearted pretty boys would have. The Hummer hit him hard, jolting everyone in it, and then something happened that seemed to prove that he must be the stage magician he appeared to be.

The Builder wasn’t knocked down, stood his ground, and the SUV parted around him, dissolved around him. The engine gave out, maybe ceased to exist, the headlights died, and the vehicle shuddered to a halt. The Builder stood now directly in front of the windshield, in an apparent Hummer vise of steel and truck parts, smiling in a snarky sort of way, as if to say the impact had been a damn treat, thank you very much. It placed its hand flat on the windshield, and Sully York thought for the first time in his life of adventures that the end had come: The glass would craze, the Builder would burst inside, they would all be liquidated and cocooned.

Instead the handsome magician frowned, opened his mouth, seemed to gag, and from him spewed a tangle of fan belts. On the windshield, his hand transformed into a conglomeration of spark plugs and wires. His tuxedo shimmered away, and he lost all human appearance a moment later. He morphed into what appeared to be a hard gray mass, roughly manlike in shape, although from it protruded all manner of engine parts, as if this were a sculpture of a man made from automotive odds and ends.

Sully knew intuitively that the Builder had ceased to function, as any machine might freeze up if its cogwheels were immobilized by metal filings that clogged their teeth. They were saved.

On the other hand, the Hummer was useless now, and three more Builders were circling them.

The nude woman who stepped out of Corrina Ringwald’s dark living room, into the foyer, wasn’t a blonde, like the one in the blue robe, but she was a brunette of even greater beauty, more unreal than any airbrushed photograph of any plasticized and Botoxed Hollywood star. After she had come into the light and given Rusty a moment to admire her physical perfection, her nose collapsed into her skull, her face puckered around that hole and then raveled inward, and her head sank out of sight into the stump of her neck.

Behind Rusty, as he tried to hold fast to his sanity, the door chimes sounded again.

The brunette’s face formed in the abdomen of her headless body, her br**sts now like horns on her brow. Her eyes were green and fierce, and her voice was both seductive and triumphant when she said, “I am your Builder.”

In Deucalion’s grip, certain of his power over the giant, Victor nevertheless decides to change his tack:

“Why be a defender of their kind? They’re less than you. They’re of the same species as one another, all of the human community, and yet they hate one another, conspire against one another, war against one another.”

“And some are willing to die for one another,” Deucalion says.

“Yes, for something called duty and something called love—which are concepts, not realities. You can’t deny they live for lust, for greed, to envy and to justify violence with their envy, to seek power over one another and to apply it ruthlessly.”