Nummy realized this visitor wasn’t wearing a uniform. He was in slacks, a sweater, a white shirt.
When Nummy took a second look at the young man, he saw something wrong. The nice face and friendly smile didn’t match what was in his eyes. There was no easy word for what was in his eyes. Crazy wasn’t the right word. But it was close. Hungry wasn’t the right word. But the young man was hungry for something.
“I’ll leave you two until last,” said the visitor. “You’ll be sweeter because you’ll try to resist.”
“Sweeter?” Nummy asked, and Mr. Lyss told him to shut up.
The visitor turned away from them and went to the middle of the three large cells. He used a key to unlock the door, left it open behind him when he went inside.
None of the nine prisoners tried to escape. They didn’t even get up from where they were sitting.
If Nummy had been one of them, he would have at least gotten up. People with good manners got up when someone new entered a room.
Standing in the center of the cell, the smiling young man pointed to a woman in pajamas, sitting on a bunk. “You. Come to me.”
She rose to her feet, stepped to the young man, and stood before him. Her mouth moved, but no words came from her.
He pointed to a tall man in boxer shorts and a T-shirt. “You. Come to me.”
The man did as he was told. His whole body was shaking.
The young man said to them, “I am your Builder.”
Then a terrible, scary, beautiful thing happened.
Erika followed Victor from the main highway onto a two-lane county route that ascended west through golden meadows into woods thick with purple shadows even in the bright morning light. The ribbon of blacktop unspooled up and down the serried hills, rising higher after each descent. Where the topography required curves, they were wide and sweeping, the consequence of massive excavation; this two-lane was less constricted by the landscape than were most country roads and seemed to have been constructed without regard for cost.
The GL550 disappeared over the crown of a hill, traveling at about fifty miles an hour, and when Erika topped the same rise half a minute later, the Mercedes was nowhere to be seen. Ahead lay a long, easy straightaway sloping down for at least a mile to the next curve. Even if Victor had tramped the accelerator the moment that he was out of sight, he could not have traveled such a distance so quickly.
She slowed to search the nearer shoulder of the road for a dirt or gravel turnoff, or for a place where the four-wheel-drive GL550 might have traveled through weeds and away among the trees. By the time she reached the bottom of the grade, she had found nothing.
Hanging a U-turn, driving back up the same slope, she surveyed the other shoulder. A hundred yards short of the crown of the hill, she spotted broken weeds and compressed grass: a well-beaten although uncleared track that disappeared into the forest.
After continuing over the hill, she parked on the shoulder just east of the crest. She left the engine running, the Explorer in gear, and kept one foot on the brake while she considered the situation.
She might be stronger than Victor. He had made her well, with two hearts and virtually unbreakable bones. But like all the New Race that had been created in New Orleans, she was programmed to be unable to raise a hand against her maker or to disobey him.
Nevertheless, she was a creature of flesh and blood, not a mere machine, and she was capable of resolute action. Furthermore, she had reason to believe that during the last night in Louisiana, when Victor’s empire collapsed, the New Race program had dropped out of her, leaving her with free will.
Whether or not she was stronger than Victor, she was surely faster than he was, as fleet as all of the New Race had been. Faster, with better hearing, better vision, quicker reflexes.
He would not be lying in wait for her because he could not possibly know that she had taken refuge in rural Montana. And if he did know, he would already have been at her door to reclaim her, if only to torture and kill her as punishment for her rebellion.
Her experiences had proved that every coincidence in life was actually an indication of hidden order, that it all had meaning. She loved the world not solely for its beauty but also for its mysteries, and she was incapable of turning away from any mystery that, when probed, might bring her closer to an understanding of the purpose of her existence.
Erika put the Explorer in park, set the brake, and switched off the engine.
Standing beside the SUV, she listened to the day. The forested land seemed eerily silent.
She walked to the nearby crest of the hill and stood on the shoulder, where she could see the highway descending both to her left and right. No cars were in sight. She waited a minute. No vehicles appeared. Since she had turned off the state route, her Explorer and Victor’s Mercedes SUV had been the only two vehicles on this county road.
Montana was a vast state with a small population, but people here were industrious and busy. Even the most rural of lanes carried more traffic than this.
High above, a golden eagle carved the sky with its nearly seven-foot wingspan, gliding in silence, in sole possession of the air. By the available evidence, Erika and the bird were the only warm-blooded beings within miles.
She walked west until she came to the tire-broken weeds, the crushed grass that had not fully sprung back after the passage of a vehicle. She followed this trail, and within ten steps, she entered the forest, where darkness ruled far past dawn.
Light had measurable force; and in space, beyond planetary gravity, it could contribute to the movement of a drifting object if that object lay in the path of a star’s radiance. Light also had weight, and in fact the sunlight lying upon an acre of land weighed a few tons.
For all its force and weight, the sunshine pressing down on this woodland was grimly resisted by the crowded and storied trees, by the braided limbs. At the forest floor, the condition would be always either night or twilight. Currently the palest ghost of the morning haunted the maze of cloistered passages, and rare thin swords of light thrust here and there without effect through gaps in the greenery.
Pines and alpine firs flavored as well as scented the air. The evergreen fragrance was so overwhelming that Erika could taste it, a not unpleasant astringency on the tongue.
Such weak light could not sustain grass or weeds, let alone significant underbrush. Moss might grow on rock formations, and mushrooms in damp corners, but otherwise the floor of the forest and the track on which she entered it were paved only with dead pine needles and moldering cones.
The path followed by the GL550 remained obvious. On both sides of the track, closely grown trees and rock formations and deadfalls of slowly petrifying wood blocked alternative routes.
The stillness of the forest might have been quite natural, but it seemed uncanny to Erika. From time to time, she paused and turned slowly in a circle, listening for a birdcall, a scampering rodent, the buzz of a last insect here on the cusp of winter. Sometimes she heard nothing, and at other times only the crisp cracking of bark as it fissured to accommodate the growth of the underlying wood or the creak of heavy boughs weary from bearing their own weight, and more than once she felt watched.
At last the track ended at the brink of a defile into which daylight cascaded. This declivity was perhaps fifty feet deep, twenty feet wide at the top, less than half that width at the bottom.
The walls of the defile were sheer. No vehicle could have driven down them.
If the Mercedes had followed this narrow path—and there had been nowhere else it could have gone—where was it now?
From the brink, she searched the bottom of the defile once more, but with no satisfaction. The stunted trees and tumbled rocks below were insufficient to conceal the wreckage of an SUV.
Doubling back along the track, she searched more carefully than before, left and right. Again the forest offered no trail even half wide enough for a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
On the county blacktop once more, as she approached the crest of the hill, she was overcome by the expectation that Victor would be waiting for her at the Explorer. She hesitated … then continued to the top.
As she had left it, the vehicle was locked and unoccupied.
Overhead: no eagle soaring. The sky looked cold and barren.
The return to Rainbow Falls took longer than the drive out from it because Erika’s perplexity distracted her. For a while her mind was divided between the memory of the track in the woods and the highway ahead.
She kept checking the rearview mirror. Nothing followed her. Nothing that she could see.
Nummy thought he must be seeing a miracle, the young man turning into an angel right in front of their eyes, silvery and sparkling, a little cloud of fairy dust rising off his face, like a halo around his head. The fairy dust puffed right through his clothes, too, and fluffed out kind of like wings that you could see through. The dust seemed to eat up his clothes, they were just gone, but the young man wasn’t naked, you didn’t have to be embarrassed to look at him. He wasn’t na*ed because he was sparkling and silvery and fuzzy around the edges and not as much like a man as he was a few seconds earlier. For a moment he was a very beautiful man-but-not-man thing.
The beautiful part went away quick, and you couldn’t believe he was an angel anymore. The not-angel took hold of the woman in pajamas and tore off her head, and out of the not-angel’s open mouth came a stream of silvery twinkle stuff that poured into the woman’s open neck and down into her like she was hollow and he was filling her up with his silver spew. Nummy didn’t see what happened to her head, it just wasn’t there anymore, and he didn’t see how the not-angel and the woman became one instead of two, but they did. Out of the two-in-one came a twisting silvery thing like a corkscrew, it stabbed into the tall man in boxer shorts, and he swelled up like he was going to bust open. Then the corkscrew seemed to turn the opposite way it turned before, and the boxer-shorts man shrank as the stuff of him was pulled into the two-in-one, so it was now a three-in-one.
The three-in-one wasn’t silvery and sparkling like before but more gray and ugly, streaked with bright red. You could see parts of three people put together in ways people never were meant to be, but you couldn’t get a clear picture of it because it didn’t stay still, it was always moving, like clothes tumbling around in a dryer past the little round window, except there was no dryer or window or clothes, just people parts in a big mess of ugly gray stuff, and the bright red turning darker, darker, maroon, and the people parts all fast turning gray.
Nummy slammed up against the cell bars before he knew who did the slamming, and then Mr. Lyss’s wild-monkey face was in Nummy’s face, with the rotten-tomato breath—“Give it to me!”—and Mr. Lyss’s hand was in Nummy’s pocket, pulling out the yellow plastic tube he put there like a minute ago, screwing off the cap. Nummy remembered where the tube came from, he gagged, and Mr. Lyss kept two of the tiny steel sticks and tried to hand the other four to Nummy. “Don’t drop them, might need them.” But Nummy didn’t want what came out of Mr. Lyss’s butt. Gray teeth spit words in Nummy’s face: “I’m not gonna die. You want to die, you die, not me.” And somehow the four lock picks were clutched in Nummy’s fist, the funny-shaped tips sticking out like tiny thorns and flowers.
Stuff was still happening in the next cell, but Nummy didn’t want to see any more. He’d seen so much weird stuff so fast he couldn’t understand what he was seeing, what it meant, so fast he didn’t know what to feel about it while he was seeing it. He still didn’t understand what he’d seen, but now he knew terrible things were happening and he knew what to feel. He was afraid, he was so afraid he was sick to his stomach, and he was so sorry for the poor people it was happening to. He didn’t look next door, kept his eyes on Mr. Lyss pick-pick-picking at the lock, and he could hear the quiet people trying to be heard, but they still couldn’t scream, their screams were little animal sounds trapped in their throats, squeals and whimpers. And moaning like nothing Nummy ever heard before, he didn’t want to listen it was so horrible, not moaning in pain but fear, moaning that seemed to melt Nummy’s bones, so he almost couldn’t stay on his feet. And there were other sounds, wet sounds, oozing and gurgling that made Nummy’s sick stomach sicker.
He didn’t look, but it wasn’t easy trying not to hear, so he talked to Mr. Lyss just so he had something else to listen to, kept asking Mr. Lyss to hurry, hurry. Mr. Lyss didn’t call him a moron or a dumbass or stupid, and he didn’t say he would chew out Nummy’s eyes, he just muttered at the lock in the cell door as he picked at it, muttered and snarled so it seemed like he scared the door open.
Then they were into the hallway and moving, Mr. Lyss leading the way past the cell where people were being killed. Killed. Killed seemed to be the worst thing that could happen to people, but somehow someway Nummy knew they were being more than killed, way worse than killed, though he didn’t know what could be worse.
At the first of the cells, where no one was being killed yet, a woman reached through the bars, reached out to Nummy, trying to say something to him. But she had a shiny thing on the side of her head, and she couldn’t make words right. Words came out of her thick and wrong, kind of how words came out of Poor Fred LaPierre after his brain stroke. She was more scared than Nummy ever had seen anyone, so he asked her what she was saying, and she said it again, and because he had talked a lot to Poor Fred after the brain stroke, this time he knew she was saying, “Please save me.” Nummy had four lock picks in his fist, but he didn’t know how to use them, and he called after Mr. Lyss to save the woman, but Mr. Lyss looked back and said, “She’s dead already.” Mr. Lyss tried the stair door, it wasn’t locked, Mr. Lyss went through, but Nummy held the woman’s hand, wanting to save her.
Then one of the people being killed in the middle cell at last screamed, a scream like an icy wind blowing all the way into Nummy’s bones, a hard icy wind that lifted him and carried him to the stairs, up the stairs behind Mr. Lyss, leaving the woman behind, all of the people behind, the killed and the soon-to-be-killed.
Returning to Rainbow Falls, Erika almost forgot the cinnamon rolls, but fortunately she had to drive past the Jim James Bakery, the sight of which reminded her why she had come into town in the first place.
She would have been distressed if she had disappointed Jocko. He was her only friend, but he was also the closest thing she would ever have to a child, and he was a perpetual child who would never grow up or grow away from her.
In a world that would regard him as an outcast or as a sideshow freak, or even as a dangerous monster to be terminated with dispatch, he depended on her not only for his home and sustenance, but also for his happiness. In turn, she depended on his dependence. They were each other’s defense against loneliness, a mutant child and his two-hearted mother, unrelated except by the fact that they were products of Victor’s hubris, pledged to each other at first by necessity but now by mutual affection.