To one of the staff, Victor said, “Cycle open the nearer door of the transition module. Father Duchaine would like to offer his holy counsel to poor Werner.”
Trembling, Patrick Duchaine said, “But with just a few words, you could—”
“Yes,” Victor interrupted. “I could. But I have invested time and resources in you, Patrick, and you have provided me with a most unacceptable return on my investment. This way, at least, you can perform one last service. I need to know just how dangerous Werner has become, assuming he’s dangerous at all to anyone other than himself. Just go in there and ply your priestly art. I won’t need a written report.”
The nearer door of the module stood open.
Duchaine crossed the room. At the threshold, he paused to look back at his maker.
Victor could not read the expression on the priest’s face or in his eyes. Although he had created each of them with care and knew the structure of their bodies and their minds perhaps better than he knew himself, some of the New Race sometimes were as much of a mystery to him as any of the Old Race were.
Without a further word, Duchaine entered the transition module. The door cycled shut behind him.
Ripley’s voice conveyed a numbness of spirit when he said, “He’s in the air lock.”
“It’s not an air lock,” Victor corrected.
One of the staff said, “Nearer door in lockdown. Farther door is cycling open.”
A moment later, the Werner bug stopped screaming. Depending from the ceiling, the thing appeared to be keenly, tremulously alert, at last distracted from its own complaints.
Father Patrick Duchaine entered the isolation chamber.
The farther door cycled shut, but no one on the staff followed the customary procedure of announcing module lockdown. The monitor room had fallen as silent as Victor had ever heard it.
Duchaine spoke not to the monster suspended above him, but to one of the cameras and, through its lens, to his maker. “I forgive you, Father. You know not what you do.”
In that instant, before Victor was able to erupt with a furious retort, the Werner bug proved itself to be as lethal as anyone could have imagined. Such agility. Such exotic mandibles and pincers. Such machinelike persistence.
Being one of the New Race, the priest was programmed to fight, and he was terribly strong, and resilient. As a consequence of that strength and resilience, his death was not an easy one, but slow and cruel, although eventually he did receive the grace that he had requested.
Staring at Pastor Laffite’s eyelids as his eyes moved nervously beneath them, Deucalion said, “Many theologians believe that dogs and some other animals have simple souls, yes, though whether immortal or not, no one can say.”
“If dogs have souls,” Laffite suggested, “then perhaps we, too, might be more than machines of meat.”
After some consideration, Deucalion said, “I won’t give you false hope… but I can offer you a third chocolate.”
“Have one with me, will you? This is such a lonely communion.”
The pastor had developed a mild palsy of the head and hands, different from his previous nervous tremors.
Deucalion selected two pieces of candy from the box. He put the first to Laffite’s lips, and the minister took it.
His own piece proved to have a coconut center. In two hundred years, nothing he had eaten had tasted as sweet as this, perhaps because the circumstances were, by contrast, so bitter.
“Eyes closed or open,” Pastor Laffite said, “I’m having terrible hallucinations, vivid images, such horrors that I have no words to describe them.”
“Then no more delay,” Deucalion said, pushing his chair back from the table and getting to his feet.
“And pain,” the pastor said. “Severe pain that I can’t repress.”
“I won’t add to that,” Deucalion promised. “My strength is much greater than yours. It will be quick.”
As Deucalion moved behind Laffite’s chair, the pastor groped blindly, caught his hand. Then he did something that would never have been expected of any of the New Race, something that Deucalion knew no number of centuries could erase from his memory.
Although his program was dropping out of him, though his mind was going—or perhaps because of that—Pastor Laffite drew the back of Deucalion’s hand to his lips, tenderly kissed it, and whispered, “Brother.”
A moment later, Deucalion broke the preacher’s neck, shattered his spine with such force that instant brain death followed, assuring that the quasi-immortal body could not repair the injury
Nevertheless, for a while he remained in the kitchen. To be certain. To sit a sort of shiva.
Night pressed at the windows. Outside lay a city, teeming. Yet Deucalion could see nothing beyond the glass, only darkness deep, a blackness unrelenting.
After the unknown thing in the glass case spoke her name and made its ominous claim to her, Erika did not linger in the secret Victorian drawing room.
She did not like the roughness of the voice. Or its confidence.
At the threshold of the room, she almost hurried boldly into the passageway before she realized that the rods bristling from the walls were humming again. A headlong exit would result in a contest between her brilliantly engineered body and perhaps several thousand volts of electricity.
As extraordinarily tough and resilient as she might be, Erika Helios was not Scarlett O’Hara.
Gone with the Wind had been set in an age before electrical service had been available to the home; consequently, Erika was not certain that this literary allusion was apt, but it occurred to her anyway. Of course she had not read the novel; but maybe it contained a scene in which Scarlett O’Hara had been struck by lightning in a storm and had survived unscathed.
Erika stepped cautiously across the threshold and paused, as she had done when entering the farther end of this passageway. As before, a blue laser speared from the ceiling and scanned her. Either the ID system knew who she was or, more likely, recognized what she was not: She was not the thing in the glass case.
The rods stopped humming, allowing her safe passage.
She quickly closed the massive steel portal and engaged the five lock bolts. In less than a minute, she had retreated beyond the next steel barrier and had secured it as well.
Her synchronized hearts nevertheless continued to beat fast. She marveled that she could have been so unsettled by such a small thing as a disembodied voice and a veiled threat.
This sudden, persistent fear, disproportionate to the cause, had the character of a superstitious response. She, of course, was free of all superstition.
The instinctive nature of her reaction led her to suspect that subconsciously she knew what was imprisoned in the amber substance within that glass case, and that her fear arose from this deeply buried knowledge.
When she reached the end of the initial passage, where she had originally entered through a pivoting section of bookcases, she found a button that opened that secret door from here behind the wall.
Immediately that she returned to the library, she felt much safer, in spite of being surrounded by so many books filled with so much potentially corrupting material.
In one corner was a wet bar stocked with heavy crystal glassware and the finest adult beverages. As a superbly programmed hostess, she knew how to mix any cocktail that might be requested, though as yet she had not been in a social situation requiring this skill.
Erika was having cognac to settle her nerves when from behind her, Christine said, “Mrs. Helios, pardon me for saying so, but I suspect that Mr. Helios would be distressed to see you drinking directly from the decanter.”
Erika had not realized that she had been committing such a faux pas, but on having it drawn to her attention, she saw that she was, as charged, guzzling Remy Martin from the exquisite Lalique decanter, and even dribbling some down her chin.
“I was thirsty,” she said, but sheepishly returned the decanter to the bar, stoppered it, and blotted her chin with a bar napkin.
“We’ve been searching for you, Mrs. Helios, to inquire about dinner.”
Alarmed, glancing at the windows and discovering that night had fallen, Erika said, “Oh. Have I kept Victor waiting?”
“No, ma’am. Mr. Helios needs to work late and will take his dinner at the lab.”
“I see. Then what shall I do?”
“We will serve your dinner anywhere you wish, Mrs. Helios.”
“Well, it’s such a big house, so many places.”
“Is there somewhere I could have dinner where there’s cognac—other than here in the library with all these books?”
“We can serve cognac with your dinner anywhere in the house, Mrs. Helios—although I might suggest that wine would be more appropriate with a meal.”
“Well, of course it would. And I would like to have a bottle of wine with dinner, an appropriate bottle complementary to whatever the chef has prepared. Select for me a most appropriate bottle, if you will.”
“Yes, Mrs. Helios.”
Apparently, Christine had no desire for another conversation as intimate and intense as the one they’d shared in the kitchen earlier in the day. She seemed to want to keep their relationship on a formal footing henceforth.
Encouraged by this, Erika decided to exert her authority as the lady of the house, although graciously. “But please, Christine, also serve me a decanted bottle of Remy Martin, and save yourself the trouble by bringing it at the same time you bring the wine. Don’t bother making a later trip.”
Christine studied her for a moment, and said, “Have you enjoyed your first day here, Mrs. Helios?”
“It’s been full,” Erika said. “At first it seemed like such a quiet house, one might almost expect it to be dull, but there seems always to be something happening.”
Although the Q&A with Arnie’s mother starts well, Randal Six quickly exhausts his supply of conversational gambits. He eats nearly half a quart of strawberry-banana swirl ice cream before another question occurs to him.
“You seem to be frightened, Vicky. Are you frightened?”
“Yes. God, yes.”
“Why are you frightened?”
“I’m tied to a chair.”
“The chair can’t hurt you. Don’t you think it’s silly to be frightened of a chair?”
“Don’t do this.”
“Don’t do what?”
“Don’t taunt me.”
“When did Randal taunt you? Randal never did.”
“I’m not afraid of the chair.”
“But you just said you were.”
“I’m scared of you.”
He is genuinely surprised. “Randal? Why be scared of Randal?”
“You hit me.”
“You aren’t dead. See? Randal doesn’t kill mothers. Randal has decided to like mothers. Mothers are a wonderful idea. Randal doesn’t have a mother or a father.”
Vicky says nothing.
“And, nooooo, Randal didn’t kill them. Randal was sort of made by machines. Machines don’t care like mothers do, and they don’t miss you when you leave.”
Vicky closes her eyes, as autistics sometimes do when there is just too much of everything to process, a daunting amount of stuff coming in.
She is not, however, an autistic. She is a mother.
Randal is surprised that he himself is coping so well with all these new developments, and talking so smooth. His mind seems to be healing.
Vicky’s appearance, however, is troubling. Her face is drawn. She looks ill.
“Are you ill?” he asks.
“I’m so scared.”
“Stop being scared, okay? Randal wants you to be his mother. All right? Now you can’t be scared of your own son, Randal.”
The most amazing thing happens: Tears spill down Vicky’s cheeks.
“That is so sweet,” says Randal. “You’re a very nice mother. We will be happy. Randal will call you Mother, not Vicky anymore. When is your birthday, Mother?”
Instead of answering, she sobs. She is so emotional. Mothers are sentimental.
“You should bake a cake for your birthday,” he says. “We’ll have a celebration. Randal knows about celebrations, hasn’t ever been to one, but knows.”
She hangs her head, still sobbing, face wet with tears.
“Randal’s first birthday is eight months away,” he informs her. “Randal is only four months old.”
He returns the remainder of the strawberry-banana ice cream to the freezer. Then he stands beside the table, gazing down at her.
“You are the secret of happiness, Mother. Randal doesn’t need Arnie to tell him. Randal is going to visit his brother now.”
She raises her head, eyes open wide. “Visit Arnie?”
“Randal needs to find out are two brothers okay or is that one brother too many.”
“What do you mean, one brother too many? What’re you talking about? Why do you want to see Arnie?”
He winces at the rush of her words, at the urgency of them; they seem to buzz in his ears. “Don’t talk so fast. Don’t ask questions. Randal asks questions. Mother answers.”
“Leave Arnie alone.”
“Randal thinks there is enough happiness here for two, but maybe Arnie doesn’t think so. Randal needs to hear Arnie say two brothers are okay.”
“Arnie hardly ever talks,” she said. “Depending on his mood, he might not even tune in to you. He zones out. It’s like the castle is real and he’s inside it, locked away. He might not really hear you.”
“Mother, you are talking too loud, too much, too fast. Loud-fast talk sounds ugly.”
He crosses toward the door to the hall.
She raises her voice: “Randal, untie me. Untie me right this minute!”
“You aren’t acting like a nice mother now. Shouting scares Randal. Shouting is not happiness.”
“Okay. All right. Slow and quiet. Please, Randal. Wait. Please untie me.”
At the threshold of the hallway, he glances back at her. “Why?”
“So I can take you to see Arnie.”
“Randal can find him all right.”
“Sometimes he hides. He’s very difficult to find when he hides. I know all his favorite hiding places.”
Staring at her, he senses deceit. “Mother, are you going to try to hurt Randal?”
“No. Of course not. Why would I hurt you?”