“I don’t know what dance step, sir. My education is largely in surveillance and extreme violent combat. I didn’t learn no dance.”
“Any dance,” Victor corrected. “Why would Randal want to dance?”
“He’s not people.”
“No, sir, he’s not.”
“I didn’t design him with the desire to dance. He isn’t dancing. It looks more as if he’s trying to avoid stepping on something.”
“Yes, sir. The cracks.”
“The cracks between the floor tiles.”
When the escapee passed directly under a camera, Werner’s observation proved to be correct. Step by step, Randal had been painstakingly careful to place each foot inside one of the twelve-inch-square vinyl tiles.
“That’s obsessive-compulsive behavior,” Victor said, “which is consistent with the developmental flaws I gave him.”
Randal passed out of the view field of one camera, appeared on another. He boarded an elevator. He went down to the bottom floor of the hospital.
“No one made any attempt to stop him, Werner.”
“No, sir. Our assignment is to prevent unauthorized entrance. We were never told we should be concerned about anyone leaving without authorization. None of the staff, none of the newly made would ever leave here without your permission.”
Frowning, Werner said, “It isn’t possible to disobey you, sir.”
On the bottom floor, Randal avoided cracks and reached the file room. He concealed himself among the metal cabinets.
Most of the New Race who were created in Mercy were eventually infiltrated into the city’s population. Some, however, like Randal, were experimental, and Victor intended them for termination when he had concluded the experiment of which each was the subject. Randal had never been meant for the world beyond these walls.
Werner fast-forwarded the surveillance tape until Victor himself appeared, entering the file room by way of the secret tunnel that connected the former hospital to the parking garage of the building next door.
“He’s renegade,” Victor said grimly. “He hid from me.”
“It isn’t possible to disobey you, sir.”
“He obviously knew he was forbidden to leave.”
“But it isn’t possible to disobey you, sir.”
“Shut up, Werner.”
After Victor passed through the file room into the lower floor of Mercy, Randal Six emerged from concealment and went to the exit door. He entered the lock code and proceeded into the tunnel.
“How did he know the code?” Victor wondered.
Hitching and twitching, Randal followed the tunnel to the door at the farther end, where again he entered the lock code.
“How did he know?”
“Permission to speak, sir.”
“When he was hiding in the file room, he heard the tone of each digit you pressed on the keypad before you entered from the tunnel.”
“You mean, heard it through the door.”
“Every number has a different tone,” Victor said.
“He would’ve had to learn beforehand what number each tone represented.”
On the surveillance tape, Randal entered the empty storeroom in the building next door. After some hesitation, he went from there into the parking garage.
The final camera captured Randal as he haltingly ascended the garage ramp. His face was carved by anxiety, but somehow he overcame his agoraphobia and ventured into a world he found threatening and overwhelming in scale.
“Mr. Helios, sir, I suggest that our security protocols be revised and our electronic systems modified to prevent unauthorized exit as well as unauthorized entrance.”
“Do it,” Victor said.
“We’ve got to find him,” Victor said more to himself than to Werner. “He left with some specific intention. A destination. He’s so developmentally disabled, so narrowly focused, he could only have accomplished this if some desperate need drove him.”
“May I suggest, sir, that we search his billet as thoroughly as if we were police searching a crime scene. We might find a clue to his purpose, his destination.”
“We better,” Victor warned.
Victor went to the door, hesitated, glanced back at Werner. “How is your mucus?”
The security chief came as close to smiling as he ever would. “Much better, sir. The last few days, I haven’t had no snot at all.”
“Any snot,” Victor corrected.
“No, sir. Like I just said, I don’t have no snot at all.”
Carson O’Connor lives in a simple white house given some grace by a veranda that wraps three sides.
Oaks draped with Spanish moss shade the property. Cicadas sing in the heat.
In respect of the substantial annual rainfall and the long sultry summers, the veranda and the house itself are raised almost three feet off the ground on concrete piers, creating a crawl space under the entire structure.
The crawl space is concealed by a skirt of crisscrossed lattice. Usually nothing lives here but spiders.
These are unusual days. Now the spiders share their redoubt with Randal Six.
Crossing the city from the Hands of Mercy, especially when a thunderstorm brought the sky crashing to the earth in bright bolts, Randal had been afflicted by too much noise, by too many new sights, smells, sounds, sensations. Never had he known such blind terror.
He had almost clawed out his eyes, had almost poked a sharp stick in his ears to destroy his hearing, thus sparing himself from sensory overload. Fortunately, he had restrained those impulses.
Although he appears to be eighteen, he has been alive and out of the tank for only four months. All of that time, he has lived in one room, mostly in one corner of that room.
He doesn’t like commotion. He doesn’t like being touched or having to speak to anyone. He despises change.
Yet here he is. He has thrown over all he knew and has embraced an unknowable future. This accomplishment makes him proud.
The crawl space is a peaceful environment. His monastery, his hermitage.
For the most part, the only smells are the bare earth under him, the raw wood above, the concrete piers. Occasionally a whiff of star jasmine fords its way to him, though it is a richer scent at night than in the day.
Little sunlight penetrates the interstices of the lattice. The shadows are deep, but because he is of the New Race, with enhanced vision, he can see well enough.
Only an occasional traffic noise reaches him from the street. From overhead, inside the house, come periodic footsteps, the creak of floorboards, muffled music on a radio.
His companions, the spiders, have no smell that he can detect, make no noise, and keep to themselves.
He might be content here for a long time if not for the fact that the secret of happiness abides in the house above him, and he must have it.
In a newspaper, he once saw a photograph of Detective Carson O’Connor with her brother, Arnie. Arnie is an autistic like Randal Six.
Nature made Arnie autistic. Randal was given his affliction by Victor. Nevertheless, he and Arnie are brothers in their suffering.
In the newspaper photo, twelve-year-old Arnie had been with his sister at a charily event benefiting autism research. Arnie had been smiling. He looked happy.
During his four months of life in the Hands of Mercy, Randal has never been happy. Anxiety gnaws at him every minute, every day, more insistently some times than at others, but always chewing, nibbling. He lives in misery.
He never imagined that happiness might be possible—until he had seen Arnie’s smile. Arnie knows something that Randal does not. Arnie the autistic knows a reason to smile. Perhaps many reasons.
They are brothers. Brothers in suffering. Arnie will share his secret with his brother Randal.
Should Arnie refuse to share it, Randal will tear the secret out of him. He will get it one way or another. He will kill for it.
If the world beyond the lattice were not so dazzling, so full of sights and motion, Randal Six would simply slither out from under the house. He would enter the place by a door or window, and get what he needs.
After his trip from Mercy and the ordeal of the thunderstorm, however, he cannot endure that much sensory input. He must find a way into the house from the crawl space.
No doubt the spiders do it often. He will be a spider. He will creep. He will find a way.
Nicholas Frigg walked the earthen ramparts that wound between and around the lakes of waste and rubbish, manager of the dump and master of all that he surveyed.
Over his jeans he wore thigh-high rubber boots hooked by straps to his belt. In this blazing heat he went barechested, wore no hat, and let the sun bake him to a bread-crust brown.
He had no worry about melanoma. He belonged to the New Race, and cancer could not touch him.
The malignancies that ate at him were alienation, loneliness, and an acute awareness of his enslavement.
In these uplands, significantly northeast of Lake Pontchartrain, the garbage arrived from the Big Easy and from other cities, seven days a week, in an endless caravan of semis with hydraulic rams that expelled compressed blocks of trash into the steaming pits of the landfill.
Misanthropes and cynics might say that regardless of the city, whether it be New Orleans or Paris or Tokyo, the definition of its garbage ought to include the worst examples of humanity that walked its streets.
And, of course, the urban legends of every city included stories asserting that the Mafia disposed of witnesses and other nuisances in garbage dumps where the workers were members of mobster controlled unions.
The putrid depths of the Crosswoods Waste Management facility actually did contain thousands of bodies, many of which had appeared to be human when they had been secretly interred here over the years. Some were human, the cadavers of those who had been replaced by replicants.
The others were failed experiments—some of which did not look human at all—or members of the New Race who for a host of reasons had been terminated. Four Erikas were buried in these reservoirs of waste.
Everyone who worked at the dump belonged to the New Race. They answered to Nick Frigg, and he answered to his maker.
Crosswoods was owned by a Nevada corporation, which was itself owned by a holding company in the Bahamas. That holding company was an asset of a trust based in Switzerland.
The beneficiaries of the trust were three Australian nationals living in New Orleans. The Australians were in fact members of the New Race, who were themselves owned by Victor.
At the apex—or perhaps at the nadir—of this arc of deception stood Nick, both the master of the garbage and the overseer of the secret graveyard. More than most others of his kind, he enjoyed his work even if it was not what he wanted for a life.
The panoply of odors, an unending series of revolting stenches to an ordinary man, were a phantasmagoria of fragrances to Nick. He breathed deeply and licked the air, and savored the intricacies of every aroma.
By the introduction of certain canine genes, Nick’s maker had given him a sense of smell approximately half as sensitive as that of a dog, which meant he enjoyed olfactory perceptions ten thousand times more powerful than those of the average human being.
To a dog, few scents cause revulsion. Many are good, and nearly all are interesting. Even the stink of offal and the ripe miasma of decomposition are intriguing if not savory. And so they were, as well, to Nick Frigg.
This gift of smell turned a foul job into one with the potential to delight. Although Nick had cause to believe that Victor was a hard God if not cruel, here was one reason to consider that he did care, after all, about his creations.
Dog-nose Nick strode the ramparts, which were wide enough to accommodate an SUV, watching the semis off-loading along the far perimeter of the east pit, two hundred yards to his left. This ten-story deep hole had been two-thirds filled with trash over the past few years.
Wide-track bulldozers—tagged “garbage galleons” by Nick and his crew—rode the sea of trash and distributed it more evenly across the pit than the trucks left it.
To his right lay the west pit, not quite as large as that to the east, but somewhat fuller.
Downslope, to the south, two previous sites had been filled and subsequently capped with eight feet of earth. Methane-gas vent pipes punctuated those grass-covered mounds.
North of the current two pits, excavation of a new east dump had been under way for two months. The chug and growl of earth-moving machines echoed down from those heights.
Nick turned his back to the busy east and studied the quiet west pit, from which incoming semis had been diverted for the day.
This moonscape of rubbish stirred his two hearts as nothing else could. Compacted chaos, waste and rack and ruin: These bleak, toxic barrens spoke to that part of him that might have been occupied by a soul if he had been of the Old Race. He felt at home here as he would never feel in woods or grassy fields, or in a city. The desolation, the filth, the mold, the rancidity, the ash, the slime called to him as the sea called a sailor.
Within a few hours, a van would arrive from New Orleans, loaded with corpses. Three were city bureaucrats who had been murdered and replaced by replicants, and two were police officers who had met the same end.
A mere year ago, such deliveries had been made twice a month. Now they came twice a week, often more frequently.
These were exciting times.
In addition to the five dead humans, the van carried three gone-wrongs, creatures created in the Hands of Mercy that had not turned out as Victor hoped. They were always interesting.
After nightfall, when everyone within the fenced perimeter of Crosswoods Waste Management would be of the New Race, Nick and his crew would carry the dead humans and the gone-wrongs into the west pit. In a ceremony that had gradually become richer over the years, they would bury them in that slough of garbage.
Although these nocturnal interments had lately become frequent, they still thrilled Nick. He was forbidden to kill himself; and he could not slaughter members of the Old Race until the day when Victor launched the Last War. He loved death but could not have it or deal it out. Meanwhile, however, he could wade the sea of trash and filth, shoving the dead into reeking holes where they would bloat and ripen, intoxicated by the fumes of decomposition—which was a fringe benefit that he cherished.
In the morning, the scores of incoming semis would be directed to the west pit, and the loads they deposited would be spread across these new graves, like another layer in a parfait.
As Nick gazed out across the west dump, longing for sunset, a flock of fat glossy crows, feeding in the garbage, suddenly exploded into flight. The birds took wing as though they were a single creature and shrieked in unison, swooping toward him and then up into the sun.