Consequently, the twenty-by-fifteen-foot chamber that he chose for Werner was not surrounded by a positive-pressure envelope to prevent the escape of airborne microbes and spoors. Neither did it have its own self-contained ventilation system.
The isolation room had been meant solely to contain any New Race variant—he experimented with some exotic ones—that Victor suspected might prove difficult to manage and any that unexpectedly exhibited antisocial behavior of a lethal nature.
Therefore, the walls, ceiling, and floor of the chamber were of poured-in-place, steel-reinforced concrete to a thickness of eighteen inches. The interior surfaces had been paneled with three overlapping layers of quarter-inch steel plate.
If necessary, a killing electrical charge could be introduced into those steel plates with the flip of the switch in the adjoining monitor room.
Sole access to the isolation chamber was through a transition module between it and the monitor room.
The staff sometimes referred to it as the air lock, although this inaccurate term annoyed Victor. No atmosphere changes occurred during the use of the transition module, and there was not even a simple recycling of air.
The module featured two round steel doors that had been made for bank vaults. By design, it was mechanically impossible to have both doors open at the same time; therefore, when the inner door opened, a prisoner of the isolation chamber might get into the vestibule, but it could not break through into the monitor room.
On a gurney, his flesh undergoing cellular breakdown if not even molecular reorganization, Werner had been rushed through the halls of Mercy, into the monitor room, through the module, into the isolation chamber, with Victor urging the attendants to “hurry, faster, damn you, run!”
The staff might have thought that blind panic had seized their maker, but Victor couldn’t concern himself with what they thought. Werner had been secured in that fortresslike cell, which was all that mattered.
When the hand had formed out of the amorphous flesh of Werner’s torso, it had taken hold of Victor’s hand tenderly, beseechingly. But the initial docility dared not be taken as a reliable prediction of a benign transformation.
Nothing remotely like this had ever happened before. Such a sudden collapse of cellular integrity accompanied by self-driven biological reformation should not be possible.
Common sense suggested that such a radical metamorphosis, which must obviously include drastic changes in cerebral tissues, would entail the loss of a significant percentage of the direct-to-brain data and programming that Werner had received in the tank, including perhaps the proscription against killing his maker.
Prudence and responsible haste—not panic—had been required. As a man of unequaled scientific vision, Victor had at once foreseen the worst-case scenario and had acted with admirable calm yet with alacrity to respond to the danger and to contain the threat.
He made a mental note to circulate a stern memo to that effect throughout Mercy before the end of the day.
He would dictate it to Annunciata.
No, he would compose it and distribute it himself, and to hell with Annunciata.
In the monitor room, where Victor gathered with Ripley and four additional staff members, a bank of six rectangular high-definition screens, each displaying the closed-circuit feed from one of six cameras in the isolation chamber, revealed that Werner still remained in a disturbingly plastic condition. At the moment, he had four legs, no arms, and an ill-defined, continuously shifting body out of which thrust a vaguely Wernerlike head.
Highly agitated, the Werner thing jittered around the isolation chamber, mewling like a wounded animal and sometimes saying, “Father? Father? Father?”
This father business irritated Victor almost beyond the limits of his endurance. He didn’t shout Shut up, shut up, shut up at the screens only because he wished to avoid the necessity of adding a second paragraph to that memo.
He did not want them to think of him as their father. They were not his family; they were his inventions, his fabrications, and most surely his properly. He was their maker, their owner, their master, and even their leader, if they wished to think of him that way, but not their paterfamilias.
The family was a primitive and destructive institution because it put itself above the good of society as a whole. The parent-child relationship was counterrevolutionary and must be eradicated. For his creations, their entire race would be their family, each of them the brother or the sister of all the others, so that no particular relationship would be different from all the others or more special than all the others.
One race, one family, one great humming hive working in unison, without the distractions of individuality and family, could achieve anything to which it set its mind and its bottomless bustling energy, unhampered by childish emotions, freed from all superstition, could conquer any challenge that the universe might hold for it. A dynamic, unstoppable species of heretofore unimagined determination, gathering ever greater momentum, would rush on, rush on, to glory after glory, in his name.
Watching the four-legged, mewling, jittering Werner thing as it began to sprout something like but not like arms from its back, Ripley raised his ridiculous eyebrows and said, “Like Harker.”
Victor at once rebuked him. “This is nothing like Harker. Harker was a singularity. Harker spawned a parasitical second self. Nothing like that is happening to Werner.”
Riveted by the shocking images on the screen, Ripley said, “But, Mr. Helios, sir, he appears to be—”
“Werner is not spawning a parasitical second self,” Victor said tightly. “Werner is experiencing catastrophic cellular metamorphosis. It’s not the same. It is not the same at all. Werner is a different singularity.”
Cindi and Benny Lovewell, one a believer in the science of voodoo and one not, reestablished contact with Detectives O’Connor and Maddison through the signal emitted by the transponder under the hood of their police-department sedan. They caught up with their targets—but remained out of visual contact—in the Garden District.
For long minutes, the cops cruised the same few blocks, around and around, and then changed directions, cruising the identical territory in the opposite direction, making one circuit and then another.
“Like a blind rat in a maze,” Cindi said solemnly, identifying as before with O’Connor’s childlessness.
“No,” Benny disagreed. “This is different.”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“I have the same capacity for understanding that you do.”
“Not about this, you don’t. You aren’t female.”
“Well, if it’s necessary to have ever had a womb in order to be female, then you aren’t female, either. You don’t have a womb. You were not designed to produce a baby, and you cannot possibly become pregnant.”
“We’ll see what Ibo has to say about that,” she replied smugly. “Je suis rouge.”
Studying the blinking blip as it moved on the screen, Benny said, “They’re cruising so slow…”
“You want to make contact, block them to the curb, knock ‘em cold, and take them?”
“Not here. This is the kind of neighborhood where people call the police. We’ll end up in a pursuit.” After watching the screen for another minute, he said, “They’re looking for something.”
“How would I know?”
“Too bad Zozo Deslisle isn’t here,” Cindi said. “She has voodoo vision. Give her one look at that screen, and she’d know what they’re up to.”
“I’m wrong,” Benny said. “They aren’t searching. They’ve found what they want, and now they’re casing it.”
“Casing what? Thieves case banks. There aren’t any banks in this neighborhood, only houses.”
As Benny squinted at the screen, feeling an answer teasing along the edge of his mind, the target abruptly accelerated. The red blip hung a U-turn on the screen and started moving fast.
“What’re they doing now?” Cindi asked.
“They’re cops. Maybe they got an emergency call. Stay with them. Don’t let them see us, but try to close to within a block. Maybe we’ll get an opportunity.”
A minute later, Cindi said, “They’re heading for the Quarter. That’s too public for us.”
“Stay with them anyway.”
The detectives didn’t stop in the Quarter. They followed the curve of the river through Faubourg Marigny into the neighborhood known as Bywater.
The blip on the screen stopped moving, and by the time the Lovewells caught up with the plainwrap sedan, in the first orange flush of twilight, it was parked near a church, in front of a two-story brick house. O’Connor and Maddison were nowhere to be seen.
Carson sat across the kitchen table from Lulana St. John, cater-corner to Pastor Kenny Laffite.
Michael stood near the cooktop, where Evangeline was heating a Mason jar frill of milk in a pot of water.
“Heating it directly in a pan,” she told Michael, “you risk scalding it.”
“Then it gets a skin, doesn’t it?” he asked.
She grimaced. “Burnt scum on the bottom and skin on top.”
The minister sat with his arms on the table, staring with horror at his hands. “I just suddenly realized I did it. Just by being me, I killed him. And killing is forbidden.”
“Pastor Laffite,” Carson said, “you are not required by law to answer our questions without your attorney present. Do you want to call your attorney?”
“This good man didn’t kill anybody,” Lulana protested. “Whatever happened it was an accident.”
Carson and Michael had already conducted a quick search of the house and had not found either a dead body or any signs of violence.
“Pastor Laffite,” Carson said, “please look at me.”
The minister kept staring at his hands. His eyes were opened as wide as eyes could be, and they weren’t blinking.
“Pastor Laffite,” she said, “forgive me, but you seem zoned-out and wigged-out at the same time. I’m concerned that you may recently have used an illegal drug.”
“The moment I woke up,” said the minister, “he was dead or soon to be. Just by waking up, I killed him.”
“Pastor Laffite, do you understand that anything you say to me now could be used against you in a court of law?”
“This good man won’t ever be in a court of law,” Lulana said. “He’s just confused somehow. That’s why I wanted you two instead of others. I knew you wouldn’t leap to conclusions.”
The minister’s eyes had still not blinked. They weren’t tearing up, either. They should have started to tear up from not blinking.
From his post by the cooktop, Michael said, “Pastor, who is it you think you killed?”
“I killed Pastor Kenny Laffite,” the minister said.
Lulana gave herself to surprise with some enthusiasm, pulling her head back, letting her jaw drop, putting one hand to her bosom. “Praise the Lord, Pastor Kenny, you can’t have killed yourself. You’re sitting right here with us.”
He switched from zoned to wigged again: “See, see, see, it’s like this, it’s fundamental. I’m not permitted to kill. But by the very fact of my existence, by the very fact, I am at least partly responsible for his death, so on the very day of my creation, I was in violation of my program. My program is flawed. If my program is flawed, what else might I do that I’m not supposed to do, what else, what else, what else?”
Carson glanced at Michael.
He had been leaning casually against the counter by the cooktop. He was standing tall now, his hands hanging loose at his sides.
“Pastor Kenny,” Lulana said, taking one of his hands in both of hers, “you’ve been under a terrible stress, tryin’ to raise funds for the church remodel on top of all your other duties—”
“—five weddings in one month,” Evangeline added. Holding the Mason jar with an oven mitt, she poured warm milk into a glass. “And three funerals besides.”
Carson eased her chair back from the table as Lulana said, “And all of this work you’ve had to do without the comfort of a wife. It’s no surprise you’re exhausted and distressed.”
Spooning sugar into the milk, Evangeline said, “Our own Uncle Absalom worked himself to the bone without the comfort of a wife, and one day he started seeing fairies.”
“By which she means not homosexuals,” Lulana assured Laffite, “but the little creatures with wings.”
Carson rose from her chair and took a step away from the table as Evangeline, adding several drops of vanilla extract to the milk, said, “Seeing fairies was nothing to be ashamed about. Uncle Absalom just needed some rest, some tender care, and he was fine, never saw fairies again.”
“I’m not supposed to kill people, but by the very fact of my existence, I killed Kenny Laffite,” said Kenny Laffite, “and I really want to kill more.”
“That’s just weariness talking,” Lulana assured him, and patted his hand. “Crazy weariness, that’s all, Pastor Kenny. You don’t want to kill anyone.”
“I do,” he disagreed. He closed his eyes and hung his head. “And now if my program is flawed, maybe I will. I want to kill all of you, and maybe I will.”
Michael blocked Evangeline from carrying the glass of milk to the table.
Executing a smooth cross-body draw of the Desert Eagle from the scabbard on her left hip, gripping it in two hands, Carson said, “Lulana, you said when we first came that you stopped by to bring Pastor Laffite two pies.”
Lulana’s molasses-brown eyes were huge and focused on the golden gun. “Carson O’Connor, this is an overreaction not worthy of you. This poor—”
“Lulana,” Carson interrupted with the slightest edge in her voice, “why don’t you get one of those pies out of the refrigerator and cut some for all of us.”
With his head still hung, with his chin on his chest and eyes closed, Laffite said, “My program’s breaking down. I can feel it happening… sort of a slow-motion stroke. Lines of installed code falling out, falling off, like a long row of electrified birds dropping off a power line.”
Evangeline Antoine said, “Sister, maybe that pie would be a good idea.”
As Lulana, on further consideration, pushed her chair away from the table and got to her feet, Michael’s cell phone rang.
Laffite raised his head but did not open his eyes. The rapid eye movement behind his closed lids was that of a man experiencing vivid dreams.