“What about them?”
“What about who?”
“The rats, Gunny.”
“Did you notice, too?”
“The rats are gone,” she said.
“If I knew, I wouldn’t be asking you.”
“Asking me what?”
“Where are the rats?”
“We’ve always got rats,” Nick said.
She shook her head. “Not here. Not now. No more.”
Gunny looked like a movie star, except dirty. Nick didn’t know why Victor had made her gorgeous and then assigned her to the dump. Maybe the contrast between her looks and her work amused him. Maybe he had modeled her after one of the Old Race who had rejected him or had otherwise earned his resentment.
“Why don’t you go out there and look for elephants,” Gunny suggested.
“What’re you talking about—elephants?”
“You’re as likely to find them as rats. Plowin’ the trash, I usually chase up packs of them all the time, but I haven’t seen one in three days.”
“Maybe they’re just making their burrows deeper in the pit as we fill it fuller.”
“So we got five?” Gunny asked.
“I heard five Old Race dead came in today.”
“Yeah. Plus three dead gone-wrongs,” Nick said.
“Some fun tonight,” she said. “Man, it’s hot today.”
“Louisiana summer, what do you expect.”
“I’m not complaining,” she said. “I like the sun. I wish there was sun at night.”
“It wouldn’t be night if there was sun.”
“That’s the problem,” Gunny agreed.
Communicating with Gunny Alecto could be a challenge. She had looks, and she was as good a garbage-galleon driver as anyone, but her thought processes, as revealed by her conversation, didn’t always track in a linear fashion.
Everyone in the New Race had a rank. At the top were the Alphas, the ruling elite. They were followed by Betas and Gammas.
As manager of the dump, Nick was a Gamma. Everyone on his crew was an Epsilon.
Epsilons had been designed and programmed for brute labor. They were a step or two above the meat machines without self-awareness that one day would replace many factory robots.
No class envy was permitted among those of the New Race. Each had been programmed to be content with the rank to which he had been born and to have no yearning for advancement.
It remained permissible, of course, to disdain and feel superior to those who ranked below you. Contempt for one’s inferiors provided a healthy substitute for dangerous ambition.
Epsilons like Gunny Alecto didn’t receive the wealth of direct-to-brain data downloading given to a Gamma like Nick, just as he received less than any Beta, and far less than any Alpha.
In addition to being less well-educated than the other ranks, Epsilons sometimes seemed to have cognitive problems that indicated their brains were not as carefully crafted as the brains of the upper classes.
“Goat goof gopher goon golf goose gone. Gone! Gone-wrongs. We got three, you said. What’re they like?”
“I haven’t seen them yet,” Nick said.
“They’ll be stupid-looking.”
“I’m sure they will.”
“Stupid-looking gone-wrongs. Some fun tonight.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” Nick said, which was true.
“Where do you think they went?”
“The deliverymen put them in the cooler.”
“The rats?” she asked, puzzled.
“I thought you meant the gone-wrongs.”
“I meant the rats. I miss the little fellers. You don’t think we’ve got cats, do you?”
“I haven’t seen any cats.”
“That would explain no rats,” she said. “But if you haven’t seen any, that’s good enough for me.”
If Gunny had been required to live among members of the Old Race, she might not have passed for one of them—or might have been designated mentally disabled.
As a member of the Crosswoods crew, however, she had no life outside the dump. She lived within its gates twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with a bunk in one of the trailers that served as dormitories.
In spite of her problems, she was an excellent dozer pilot, and Nick was glad to have her.
Getting up from the edge of Nick’s desk, Gunny said, “Well, back to the pit—and then some fun tonight, huh?”
“Some fun tonight,” he agreed.
After her conversation with Christine in the kitchen, Erika Helios toured those rooms of the mansion that she had not previously seen.
The lavish home theater was Russian Belle Epoque after the palaces of St. Petersburg. Victor had specified this opulent style in honor of his late friend, Joseph Stalin, communist dictator and visionary.
Joe Stalin had come forth with vast resources to fund New Race research after the sad collapse of the Third Reich, which had been a terrible setback for Victor. So confident had Joe been in Victor’s ability eventually to fabricate an entirely controllable and obedient variety of enhanced humans that he had ordered the deaths of forty million of his citizens by various means even before the technology of the cloning tanks had been perfected.
Desirous of living forever, Joe had submitted to some of the same techniques with which Victor had sustained his own life for—at that time—nearly two centuries. Unfortunately, Stalin must have been suffering from an undiagnosed brain tumor or something because during the period that he underwent those life-extension procedures, he had grown increasingly detached from reality, and paranoid.
Eventually hair had grown on the palms of Stalin’s hands—which had never happened to Victor. Furthermore, Stalin had been seized by unpredictable fits of mindless violence, sometimes directed at people around him, sometimes at pieces of furniture, once at his favorite pair of boots.
The dictator’s closest associates poisoned him and concocted a cover story to conceal the fact that they had perpetrated a coup. Injustice was once more visited on Victor, and his research funds were cut off by the bean counters who followed poor Joe.
In the tank, Erika received all of her husband’s rich history; however, she was forbidden to speak of it to anyone but Victor himself. She had been granted this knowledge only so that she would understand his epic struggles, his triumphs, and the glory of his existence.
After the theater, she explored the music room, the reception lounge, the formal living room, the informal living room, the jewel box of a breakfast room, the trophy room, the billiards room, the indoor pool with surrounding mosaic-tile deck, and came at last to the library.
The sight of all those books made her uneasy, for she knew that books were corrupting, perhaps evil. They had been the death of Erika Four, who had absorbed dangerous knowledge from them.
Nevertheless, Erika had to familiarize herself with the library because there would be social evenings when Victor would invite his important Old Race guests—mostly powerful politicians and business leaders—to repair to the library for cognac and other after-dinner drinks. As hostess, she would need to feel comfortable here in spite of the dreadful books.
As she walked through the library, she dared to touch a book now and then to accustom herself to the sinister feel of them. She even took one off a shelf and examined it, her two hearts racing.
In the event that a guest some evening said, Erika, darling, would you hand me that book with the lovely binding. I’d like to have a look at it, she must be prepared to present the volume as casually as a snake-handler of long experience would pick up any serpent.
Christine had suggested that Erika browse the several shelves of psychology texts and bone up on sexual sadism. She couldn’t, however, bring herself to actually open a book.
As she moved across the big room, sliding her hand along the underside of a shelf, enjoying the satiny feel of the exquisitely finished wood, she discovered a hidden switch. She had flicked it before she quite realized what she had done.
A section of shelves proved to be a hidden door, which swung open on pivot hinges. Beyond lay a secret passageway.
In the tank, she had not been informed of the existence of this concealed door or of what lay beyond it. But she’d not been forbidden to explore, either.
After switching on the kitchen lights, prior to preparing dinner, Vicky Chou washed her hands at the sink, and discovered that the soiled towel needed to be replaced. She blotted her hands on it anyway before fetching a clean towel from a drawer.
She crossed to the laundry-room door and pushed it open. Without turning on the lights, she tossed the soiled towel into the clothes basket.
Detecting a faint moldy scent, she made a mental note to inspect the room for mildew first thing in the morning. Poorly ventilated spaces like this required special diligence in the humid climate of the bayou.
She put two plastic place mats on the dinette table. She set out flatware for herself and Arnie.
The urgency with which Carson had left the house, after sleeping through the morning, suggested she would not be home for dinner.
Arnie’s plate was different from Vicky’s: larger, rectangular instead of round, and divided into four compartments. He didn’t like different foods to be touching one another.
He couldn’t tolerate orange and green items on the same plate. Although he would cut meat and other foods himself, he insisted that sliced tomatoes be cut into bite-size chunks for him.
“Squishy,” he would say, grimacing in disgust when confronted with a piece of tomato that needed a knife. “Squishy, squishy.”
Many other autistics had more rules than did Arnie. Because the boy spoke so little, Vicky knew him more by his eccentricities than by his words, and tended to find them more endearing than frustrating.
In an effort to socialize Arnie whenever possible, she insisted as best she could that he eat his meals with her, and always with his sister when Carson was home. Sometimes Vicky’s insistence didn’t move him, and she had to allow him to eat in his room, near his Lego-block castle.
When the table was set, she opened the freezer to get a box of Tater Tots—and discovered that the chocolate mint ice cream had not been put away properly. The lid was half off; a spoon had been left in the container.
Arnie had never done anything like this before. Usually he waited for food to be placed before him; he rarely served himself. He had an appetite but not much of an active interest in when and what he ate.
On those occasions when he raided the pantry or refrigerator, Arnie was neat. He never left spills or crumbs.
The boy’s high standards of culinary hygiene bordered on the obsessive. He would never take a taste of anything from another person’s plate, not even from his sister’s, nor from any fork or spoon but his own.
Vicky could not imagine that he would eat from a container. And if he had done so in the past without her knowledge, he had never before left his spoon behind.
She was inclined to think that Carson had indulged a sudden craving just before hurriedly leaving the house.
When Vicky took a closer look, however, she discovered that the ice cream on the surface was soft and glistening with melt. The container had been out of the freezer for a while—and had been put away only a few minutes ago.
She closed the lid as it should have been, shut the freezer door, and took the spoon to the sink, where she rinsed it.
Putting the spoon in the dishwasher, she called, “Arnie? Where are you, sweetie?”
The back door was double locked, as she had left it, but she was nevertheless worried. The boy had never before wandered out of the house, but neither had he ever previously left a spoon in an ice-cream container.
From the kitchen, she followed a short hall to the living room. The blinds and curtains indulged shadows. She switched on a lamp.
“Arnie? Are you downstairs, Arnie?”
The house boasted nothing as grand as a foyer, only an entry alcove at one end of the living room. The front door, too, remained double locked.
Sometimes, when Carson was on a demanding case and Arnie was missing his sister, the boy liked to sit quietly in the armchair in her room, among her things.
He was not there now.
Vicky went upstairs and was relieved to find him safely in his room. He did not react to her entrance.
“Honey,” she said, “you shouldn’t eat ice cream so close to dinnertime.”
Arnie did not reply, but clicked a Lego block into place in the castle ramparts, which he was modifying.
Considering the severe limitations with which the boy lived, Vicky was reluctant to scold him. She didn’t press the issue of the ice cream, but instead said, “I should have dinner ready in forty-five minutes. It’s one of your favorites. Will you come downstairs then?”
As his only answer, Arnie glanced toward the digital clock on his nightstand.
“Good. We’ll have a nice dinner together, and afterward I’ll read you a few more chapters of Podkayne of Mars, if you’d like.”
“Heinlein,” the boy said softly, almost reverently, naming the author of the novel.
“That’s right. When we left poor Podkayne, she was in a lot of trouble.”
“Heinlein,” Arnie repeated, and then continued to work on the castle.
Downstairs again, following the hallway to the kitchen, Vicky pushed shut the coat-closet door, which was ajar.
She had reached the kitchen threshold when she realized that in the hall she detected the same moldy scent that she had smelled in the laundry room. She turned, looked back the way she had come, and sniffed.
Although the house stood on pilings, the air circulating under the structure did not prevent colonies of fungi, mostly molds, from scheming to invade these elevated rooms. They flourished in the damp dark crawl space. The concrete pilings drew water from the ground by osmosis, and the molds crept up those damp surfaces, spooring their way toward the house.
In the morning, she would definitely do a thorough inspection of every shadowy corner in the ground-floor closets, armed with the finest mold-killer known to man.
As a teenager, Vicky had read a story by 0. Henry that left her forever with a phobia about molds. In a rooming house, in the moist heat and darkness behind an old-fashioned radiator, a bloodstained and filthy rag, colonized by mold, had somehow come to life, an eager but stupid kind of life, and one night, in a quiet slithering ameboid fashion, had gone in search of other life when the lamp was turned off, smothering the roomer in his sleep.
Vicky Chou didn’t quite see herself as Sigourney Weaver in Aliens or as Linda Hamilton in The Terminator, but she was grimly determined to do battle with any mold that threatened her turf. In this unending war, she would entertain no exit strategy; the only acceptable outcome of each battle was total victory.