One of the other gunmen shepherded Michael from the passenger door and told him to stand beside Carson. This one wore a Stetson, too, and a leather coat with sheepskin collar. The cold air revealed his breathing to be less agitated than that of the other man. But his restless eyes, shifting from Carson to Michael and to various points in the night, revealed the fear that he was striving not to disclose.
These were not Victor’s creations. They were real men with some reason to know that horrific events were occurring behind the scenes in this apparently peaceful Montana night.
The third man, who quickly searched the SUV, appeared with both his shotgun and one of the Urban Snipers. “They have another of this here. Never seen its like before. Pistol grip. And it seems to be loaded with big slugs, not buckshot. They have two pistols and a satchel full of spare magazines and shotgun ammo.”
The second cowboy looked to the one with the mustache. “What you want to do, Teague?”
Teague indicated the Urban Sniper and said to Michael, “You want to explain that cannon Arvid is holding?”
“It’s police-issue. Not available to just anyone.”
“We used to be.”
“Not around here.”
“New Orleans,” Michael said.
“Used to be—but you still have a police-only gun.”
“We’re sentimental,” Michael said.
Teague said, “Ma’am, you handle a weapon that powerful?”
“I can handle it,” Carson said. “I can handle you.”
“What kind of police were you?”
“The best. Detectives. Homicide.”
“You come right at folks, don’t you?”
“Fewer misunderstandings that way,” Carson said.
Teague said, “I have a wife like you.”
“Get on your knees and thank God for that lady every night.”
Most people weren’t as bold at eye-to-eye contact as Teague. His stare was scalpel-sharp. Carson could almost hear her stare ringing off his with a steely sound.
“What’re you doing, anyway, riding around all gunned up?” Arvid asked.
Carson glanced at Michael, he raised his eyebrows, and she decided to go with a little bit of the truth, to see how it played. “We’re on a monster hunt.”
The three cowboys were quiet, weighing her words, glancing at one another. The soft silent snow coming down, breath smoking in the cold air, the great dark trees slowly fading to white all along the street … Their quiet reaction to her strange statement suggested they had experienced something that made a monster hunt seem as reasonable as any other activity.
“What have you seen?” she asked.
To his pals, the nameless cowboy said, “They have guns. That means they must be like us. They need guns.”
“Clint’s right,” Arvid said. “Those killing machines don’t need guns. We saw what they can do without guns.”
Michael said, “Machines?”
Unlike Arvid and Clint, Teague hadn’t lowered his shotgun. “They looked like real people, but they weren’t. There was a Terminator feel to them but even weirder.”
“Space aliens,” Arvid declared.
“Worse than that,” Carson said.
“Don’t see what could be worse.”
Teague said, “Ma’am, are you telling us you know what they are?”
“We should get off the street to discuss it,” Carson suggested. “We don’t know what might come along at any time. Clint’s right—you and us, we’re on the same side.”
“Probably,” Teague said.
She indicated the house set deep in the trees and all the parked cars in the driveway, their headlights aimed in different directions. “Seems you expect to have to defend the place. The wife you mentioned—is she over there?”
“What’s her name?”
“I bet Calista would make up her mind about Michael and me five times faster than you. She must want to kick your butt sometimes, how long you take to make up your mind.”
“I’m deliberate. She likes that.”
“She’d have to.”
They engaged in another staring contest, and after a half smile jacked up one corner of his mouth, Teague lowered his shotgun. “Okay, arm yourselves. Come with me, let’s swap information, see if we can all come out of this thing alive.”
Arvid returned the Urban Sniper.
Michael settled into the passenger seat of the Grand Cherokee as Carson climbed behind the steering wheel again. By the time she switched on the headlights, Arvid and Clint had returned to their sentry posts, vanishing into the snow and shrubbery.
She drove forward along the shoulder of the road and turned right into the driveway, following Teague, who had already walked halfway to the house.
As she parked behind the last SUV in the caravan, Carson realized there were more vehicles ahead of her than she had first thought, at least a dozen. The property was bigger than it appeared from the street. The single lane of blacktop curved past the house to a low building, perhaps a combination garage and workshop.
When she got out of the Jeep, she heard the engines of some of the other vehicles idling, those that brightened the snowy night with their headlights. Here and there, in the shadows between the cars, men stood in pairs, quiet and vigilant.
Crossing the yard to the front porch, Carson said to Teague, “Are these people your neighbors?”
“No, ma’am,” Teague said. “We belong to the same church. We were at our family social, which we hold once a month out at the roadhouse Mayor Potter owns, when these aliens—or whatever they are—attacked us. We lost three good people. No kids, though, thank the Lord.”
“What church?” Michael asked.
“Riders in the Sky Church,” Teague said as they reached the porch steps. “Our folks who died earlier—we reckon they all rode heavenly horses through the gates of Paradise tonight, but that’s not as fully consoling as it ought to be.”
Nancy Potter, wife of the mayor of Rainbow Falls, was at first displeased by the arrangement of twenty-six porcelain figurines that stood on three shelves in a glass display case in the Potter living room. Over the period of an hour, her displeasure became annoyance, which grew into anger, which escalated into rage. If the porcelain figurines had been real people, she would have killed them all; she would have gutted them and torn their heads off and set their remains on fire.
If the real Nancy Potter had not been dead, this Nancy Potter would have beaten her to death just for having bought the figurines in the first place. Three shelves with twenty-six porcelains simply could not be balanced and pleasing to the eye. For one thing, the closest she could come to having the same number on each shelf was nine, nine, eight. For another thing, the ideal number per shelf, to ensure that the display case would look neither too empty nor too crowded, was twelve. She could make it look acceptable with eleven per shelf, but that still left her seven figurines short. The real Nancy Potter clearly had no awareness of the necessity for symmetry in all things, for order and balance.
Every Communitarian understood that perfect symmetry, absolute order, balance, and conformity were important principles. There were numerous important principles, none more important than the others: undeviating focus, efficiency, unconditional equality, uniformity, obedience to the Community’s Creator, the embrace of cold reason and the rejection of sentimentality.…
The real Nancy Potter had been a typical human being, poorly focused, inefficient. And talk about sentimental! These twenty-six porcelain figurines were angels. During the hour that the replicant Nancy spent striving to bring symmetry to the display, she had become increasingly disgusted not only with the disorder, but also with all these mawkish, maudlin, insipid, inane angels in their infuriatingly stupid poses of stupid simpering adoration and stupid self-righteous piety. They were an affront to reason, an insult to intelligence, and an offense against efficiency. If the real Nancy Potter had been here, Communitarian Nancy would have beaten her to death but not until she crammed every one of these stupid porcelain angels down the stupid woman’s throat or in some other stupid orifice.
Exasperated, she dropped two of the angels on the floor and stomped on them until they were worthless debris. This left twenty-four figurines, eight per shelf: balance. They were still angels, however, and the shelves looked too empty to please the eye. She plucked two more porcelains from the display and threw them on the floor and stomped on them, stomped, and then two more, and yet two more. Destroying these schmaltzy gimcracks gave her intellectual satisfaction, immense satisfaction, smashing such crass symbols of blithering ignorance. She despised them, these loathsome little winged totems, she hated them, and she hated the foolish human being who had collected them. They needed to die, every last clueless human being needed to be exterminated, because with them would die their idiot fantasies, their moronic, witless, irrational, dull, obtuse, foolish, imbecilic, puerile beliefs and ideas and hopes. Every last preening, self-deluded man, woman, and child needed to die—especially the children, they were the worst, those filthy excretions of an unthinkably messy biological process—they all needed to be stomped, stomped, smashed, pulverized, GROUND INTO MEAT PASTE!
From the archway between the living room and the downstairs hall, Ariel Potter said, “You aren’t obsessing, are you?”
This was not the real Ariel, who had been fourteen years old. That Ariel was dead. This Ariel was blond and blue-eyed like the other; but she had been programmed and extruded little more than nine days earlier.
“Because if you’re obsessing, I have to report you to our Creator. He’ll have to recall you.”
Members of the Community were as efficient and as focused as machines. Efficiency equaled morality; inefficiency was the only sin their kind could commit. The sole thing that could render one of them inefficient was obsession, to which a few of their kind were prone. Not many. The tendency to obsession was easily recognized by Hive technicians within three days of a Communitarian’s extrusion. The techs identified 99.9 percent of these flawed specimens and dissolved them back into the mother mass from which all of their kind were created. After each crop of Communitarians was tested, the chances of an obsessive making it out of the Hive were virtually nil.
Nevertheless, a single such individual, operating in the world beyond the Hive, might malfunction to such an extent that it would not pass for human. Therefore, each undetected obsessive might expose the existence of the Communitarian race and might alert humanity to the secret war being waged against them.
“I’m not obsessing,” Nancy said.
Ariel regarded her with a bland, nonjudgmental expression, for they were absolute equals. “Then what are you doing?”
“I’m eliminating clutter and bringing order to this hideously disordered house.”
Ariel surveyed the shattered porcelains littering the floor. “This doesn’t look like order to me. Where am I mistaken?”
With a sweeping gesture, Nancy indicated the remaining angels on the shelves, and then her open hand became a tightly clenched fist that she shook at them. “First I have to destroy these stupid icons. That’s only logical. They’re insipid symbols of unreason and disorder. After I utterly and finally and forever destroy these repulsive, despicable, detestable icons, I will of course sweep up every shard, scrap, splinter, every trace of dust, and the living room will then be ordered, serene, immaculate.”
Ariel studied Nancy in silence for half a minute and then said, “Isn’t using excessive adjectives and adverbs an indication of an obsession disorder?”
Nancy mulled over the question. Intellectual vigor and honesty were expected of Communitarians in relationships with one another. Smashing the angels had made her feel quite vigorous. “In this case it’s only an indication of the intensity of my focus on the task. I am totally focused more sharply than an astronomical telescope, than a laser.”
After a moment of consideration, Ariel said, “I’ve eaten almost everything in the refrigerator and half of what’s in the pantry. I’m still hungry. I think the problem is that I’m hungry to begin. I want to go out to the barn and become what I am.”
“But you’re phase two,” Nancy said. “You aren’t scheduled to begin your work until Saturday, when all the humans in town are dead and we have full, unchallenged control.”
Ariel nodded. “But I think I’m like you. I’m so focused like a laser, so dedicated to the mission, so eager to proceed efficiently, that it makes no sense to wait. Logic tells me to act with reason, reason tells me to proceed only with good cause, and I’ve got a good cause, which is that I can’t wait any longer, I just can’t, I can’t, it’s sheer torture to wait, excruciating, I’ve got to do it, got to become what I am meant to be, tonight, now, right now!”
For twelve seconds, Nancy deliberated over Ariel’s presentation of her case. Like all Communitarians, a thousand-year calendar and clock were part of her program, and she always knew the precise time to the second, without need of a wristwatch.
Nancy said, “Timeliness is part of efficiency. If you’re able to perform your duties earlier than scheduled, that just means you’re even more efficient than you were designed to be.”
“My readiness, ahead of schedule,” Ariel said, “is proof of our Creator’s genius.”
“He is the greatest genius who ever lived. And my inability to tolerate these stupid, stupid, stupid freaking angels is proof of my commitment to the Community.”
“For the Community,” Ariel said.
Nancy replied, “For the Community.”
“Will you come with me to the barn now?”
“Let me smash the rest of these first.”
“All right, if you have to.”
“I have to. I really need this. Then I’ll assist you with your becoming.”
“Just hurry,” Ariel said. “I have my needs, too. I need to be in the barn, becoming. I need it so bad I feel like I’ll explode if I don’t get it really soon.”
The Communitarians were produced asexually, manufactured rather than conceived. They had no sexual capacity or desire. But Nancy was pretty sure that what she was feeling now must be similar to what great sex was like for human beings: a powerful tidal rush of energy that shuddered through her entire body, and with the energy came a pure black hatred of all humanity and of all living things not made in the Hive, a hatred so intense and so hot that she half thought she would burst into a pillar of fire, and with the energy and the hatred came a beautiful vision of a dead world that was scourged and silent and stripped of meaning.