“I didn’t much appreciate being in the splatter zone.”
“Was the dry cleaner able to get out the brain stains?”
“When I told him what it was, he didn’t even want to try. And that was a new jacket.”
“Not my fault. That kind of ricochet is God’s work.”
Carson relaxed. This was better. None of that distracting, nervous-making romance talk.
In the stainless-steel and white-ceramic-tile dissection room, when Victor examined the carcass of Detective Jonathan Harker, he found that approximately fifty pounds of the body’s substance was missing.
A raggedly torn umbilical cord trailed from the void in the torso. Considered with the exploded abdomen and shattered rib cage, this suggested that some unintended life form—call it a parasite—had formed within Harker, had achieved a state in which it could live independently of its host, and had broken free, destroying Harker in the process.
This was a disturbing development.
Ripley, who operated the handheld video recorder with which a visual record of all autopsies were made, was clearly rattled by the implications of this discovery.
“Mr. Helios, sir, he gave birth.”
“I wouldn’t call it giving birth,” Victor said with undisguised annoyance.
“We’re not capable of reproduction,” Ripley said. His voice and manner suggested that, to him, the thought of another life coming forth from Harker was the equivalent of blasphemy.
“It’s not reproduction,” Victor said. “It’s a malignancy.”
“But sir… a self-sustaining, mobile malignancy?”
“I mean to say a mutation,” Victor explained impatiently.
In the tank, Ripley had received a deep education in Old Race and New Race physiology. He should have been able to understand these biological nuances.
“A parasitical second self developed spontaneously from Harker’s flesh,” Victor said, “and when it could live independently of him, it… separated.”
Ripley stopped filming and stood slack jawed with amazement, pale with trepidation. He had bushy eyebrows that gave him a look of comic astonishment.
Victor could not remember why he had decided to design Ripley with those shaggy eyebrows. They were absurd.
“Mr. Helios, sir, I beg your indulgence, but are you saying that this is what you intended, for a second self to mutate out of Harker? Sir, to what purpose?”
“No, Ripley, of course it’s not what I intended. There’s a useful saying of the Old Race—‘Shit happens.’”
“But sir, forgive me, you are the designer of our flesh, the maker, the master. How can there be anything about our flesh that you do not understand… or foresee?”
Worse than the comic expression that the eyebrows gave Ripley was the fact that they facilitated an exaggerated look of reproach.
Victor did not like to be reproached. “Science proceeds in great leaps, but also sometimes takes a couple of small steps backward.”
“Backward?” Having been properly indoctrinated while in the tank, Ripley sometimes had difficulty squaring his expectations with real life. “Science in general, sir, yes, it sometimes missteps. But not you. Not you, and not the New Race.”
“The important thing to keep in mind is that the leaps forward are much greater than the steps backward, and more numerous.”
“But this is a very big step backward. Sir. I mean, isn’t it? Our flesh… out of control?”
“Your flesh isn’t out of control, Ripley. Where did you get this melodramatic streak? You’re embarrassing yourself.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I’m sure I don’t understand. I’m sure when I’ve had time to consider, I’ll share your equanimity on the matter.”
“Harker isn’t a sign of things to come. He’s an anomaly. He’s a singularity. There will be no more mutations like him.”
Perhaps the parasite had not merely fed on Harker’s innards but had incorporated his two hearts into itself, as well as his lungs and various other internal organs, at first sharing them and then taking them for its own. These things were missing from the cadaver.
According to Jack Rogers—the real medical examiner, now dead and replaced by a replicant—Detectives O’Connor and Maddison claimed that a trollish creature had come out of Harker, as if shedding a cocoon. They had seen it drop out of sight through a manhole, into a storm drain.
By the time that he finished with Harker and took tissue samples for later study, Victor had fallen into a bad mood.
As they bagged Harker’s remains and set them aside for shipment to Crosswoods, Ripley asked, “Where is Harker’s second self now, Mr. Helios?”
“It fled into a storm drain. It’s dead.”
“How do you know it’s dead?”
“I know,” Victor said sharply.
They turned next to William, the butler, who waited on a second autopsy table.
Although he believed that William’s finger chewing episode had been triggered solely by psychological collapse, Victor nevertheless opened the butler’s torso and inventoried his organs, just to make certain that no second self had begun to form. He found no evidence of mutation.
With a bone saw of Victor’s design, one with a diamond blade sharp enough to grind through the dense bone of any New Man, they trepanned William’s skull. They removed his brain and put it in preservative solution in a Tupperware container for later sectioning and study.
William’s fate clearly did not alarm Ripley as did Harker’s. He had seen this sort of thing before.
Victor brought to life a perfect being with a perfect mind, but contact with the Old Race, immersion in their sick society, sometimes corrupted the tank born.
This would continue to be an occasional problem until the Old Race was eradicated and with it the social order and pre-Darwinian morality that it had created. Thereafter, following the Last War, without the paradigm of the Old Race to confuse and seduce them, Victor’s people would always and forever exist in perfect mental health, every last one of them.
When they were finished with William, Ripley said, “Mr. Helios, sir, I’m sorry, but I can’t stop wondering, can’t stop thinking—is it possible that what happened to Harker could happen to me?”
“No. I told you, he was a singularity.”
“But, sir, I beg your pardon if this sounds impertinent… however, if you didn’t expect it to happen the first time, how can you be sure it won’t happen again?”
Stripping off his latex surgical gloves, Victor said, “Damn it, Ripley, stop that with your eyebrows.”
“My eyebrows, sir?”
“You know what I mean. Clean up here.”
“Sir, is it possible that Harker’s consciousness, the essence of his mind, somehow transferred to his second self?”
Taking off the surgical gown that he wore over his clothes, moving toward the door of the dissection room, Victor said, “No. It was a parasitical mutation, most likely with nothing but a crude animal awareness.”
“But, sir, if the trollish thing isn’t a thing, after all, sir, if it’s actually Harker himself, and now he’s living in the storm drains, then he’s free.”
The word free halted Victor. He turned to stare at Ripley.
When Ripley realized his error, fear brought his eyebrows down from their absurdly lofty heights and beetled them on the cliff of his brow. “I don’t mean to suggest that what happened to Harker could be in any way desirable.”
“Don’t you, Ripley?”
“No, sir. I don’t. It’s a horror, what happened to him.”
Victor stared at him. Ripley dared not say another word.
After a long mutual silence, Victor said, “In addition to your eyebrows, Ripley, you’re far too excitable. Annoyingly so.”
Moving hesitantly through the kitchen in a state of awe, Randal Six imagines that this must be what a devout monk feels when in a temple, at a consecrated altar.
For the first time in his life, Randal is in a home. Mercy had been where he was billeted, but it had never been a home. It had been only a place. He’d had no emotion vested in it.
To the Old Race, home is the center of existence. Home is the first refuge from—and last defense against—the disappointments and the terrors of life.
The heart of the home is the kitchen. He knows this to be true because he has read it in a magazine about home decor and in another magazine about cooking light.
In addition, Martha Stewart has said this is true, and Martha Stewart is, by acclamation of the Old Race, the ultimate authority on such matters.
During social evenings, close friends and neighbors frequently gravitate to the kitchen. Some of a family’s happiest memories are of moments together in the kitchen. According to Old Race philosophers, nothin’ says lovin’ like somethin’ from the oven, and the oven is in the kitchen.
The blinds are half drawn. The late-afternoon sunshine that reaches the windows has first been filtered by oak trees. Yet Randal can see well enough to explore the room.
Quietly he opens cabinets, discovering dishes, cups, saucers, drinking glasses. In drawers he finds folded dish towels, flatware, knives, and a bewildering collection of utensils and culinary gadgets.
Usually, too many new sights, too many unfamiliar objects, will throw Randal into a panic attack. He is often forced to withdraw to a corner and turn his back to the world in order to survive the shock of too much sensory input.
For some reason, the staggering richness of new experience in this kitchen does not affect him in that way. Instead of panic, he experiences… enchantment.
Perhaps this is because he is in a home at last. A person’s home is inviolate. A sanctuary. An extension of one’s personality, Martha says. Home is the safest of all places.
He is in the heart of this home, in the safest room of the safest place, where many happy memories will be made, where sharing and giving and laughing occur on a daily basis.
Randal Six has never laughed. He smiled once. When he first made his way to the O’Connor house, when he got out of the storm and into the crawl space, in the dark among the spiders, knowing that he would eventually reach Arnie, he had smiled.
When he opens the pantry door, he is stunned at the variety and quantity of canned and packaged food on the shelves. Never has he dared imagine such abundance.
At the Hands of Mercy, his meals and snacks were brought to his billet. The menu had been planned by others. He was given no choice of food—except for the color of it, on which he was insistent.
Here, the options before him are dazzling. In canned soups alone, he sees six varieties.
When he turns from the pantry and opens the upper door of the refrigerator, his legs shake and his knees go weak. Among other things, the freezer contains three quarts of ice cream.
Randal Six loves ice cream. He never gets enough ice cream.
His initial excitement abruptly turns to crushing disappointment when he sees that none of the choices before him is vanilla. There is chocolate almond. There is chocolate mint. There is strawberry-banana swirl.
For the most part, Randal has only eaten white and green foods. Mostly white. This restriction of colors in his food is a defense against chaos, an expression of his autism. Milk, chicken breast, turkey, potatoes, popcorn (without butter because butter makes it too yellow), peeled apples, peeled pears… He tolerates green vegetables like lettuce and celery and green beans, and also green fruit, like grapes.
The nutritional deficiencies of a strict white-and-green diet are addressed with white capsules of vitamins and minerals.
He has never eaten any flavor of ice cream other than vanilla. He has always known that other flavors exist, but he has found them too repulsive for consideration.
The O’Connors, however, have no vanilla.
For a moment he feels defeated, and drifts toward despair.
He is hungry, starving, and as never before he is in a mood to experiment. To his surprise, he removes the container of chocolate mint from the freezer.
Never before has he eaten anything brown. He chooses chocolate mint instead of chocolate almond because he assumes there will be bits of green in it, which will perhaps make it tolerable.
He withdraws a spoon from the flatware drawer and carries the quart of ice cream to the kitchen table. He sits, quivering with fearful anticipation.
Brown food. He may not survive.
When he pries the lid off the container, Randal discovers that the mint appears in thin ribbons of bright green, woven through the cold brown mass. This familiar color heartens him. The quart is full, and he digs out a spoonful of the treat.
Raising the spoon, he comes up short of the courage needed to put it in his mouth. He must make four halting attempts before he succeeds on the fifth.
Not disgusting, after all. Delicious.
Galvanizingly delicious: He thrusts the second spoonful into his mouth without hesitation. And a third.
As he eats, he settles into a peace, a contentment, that he has never known previously. He is not yet happy, as he understands the concept of happiness, but he is closer to that desired condition than he has ever been in his four months out of the tank.
Having come here in search of the secret of happiness, he has found something else first: home.
He feels that he belongs here in a way that he never belonged in the Hands of Mercy. He feels so safe here that he can eat brown food. Maybe later even the pink-and-yellow strawberry-banana swirl. Anything, no matter how daring, seems to be possible within these sheltering walls.
By the time he has devoured half of the quart of chocolate mint, he knows that he will never leave. This is his home.
Throughout history, men of the Old Race have died—and killed—to protect their homes. Randal Six knows a little history, the usual two gigabytes downloaded in the tank.
To be torn from this peace and thrown into the bright and noisy world would be akin to death. Therefore, any attempt to force him from his home should be regarded as a murderous assault, justifying a swift and lethal response.
This is his home. With all his strength, he will defend his right to it.
He hears descending footsteps on the stairs.
Gunny Alecto, a garbage-galleon driver, came into the shack that served as the manager’s office, sat on the edge of Nick Frigg’s desk, and said, “Rain rail rape raid rag rascal rack.”
Nick didn’t reply. She was just having trouble getting started; and if he tried to guess the word for which she was searching, he would only further confuse her.
“Rabid race rabble rap rat. Rat!” She had found the wanted noun. “Have you noticed about the rats?”