CHAPTER 53

Erika took dinner alone in the master bedroom, at a nineteenth-century French marquetry table featuring a motif of autumn bounty-apples, oranges, plums, grapes, all spilling from a horn of plenty-rendered with exquisitely inlaid woods of numerous varieties.

Like all those of the New Race, her metabolism was as fine-tuned and as powerful as a Ferrari engine. This required a formidable appetite.

Two six-ounce steaks-filet mignon, prepared medium-rare- were accompanied by a rasher of crisp bacon, buttered carrots with thyme, and snow peas with sliced jicama. A separate chafing dish contained braised potatoes in blue cheese sauce. For dessert waited an entire peach cobbler with a side dish of vanilla ice cream coddled in a bowl of crushed ice.

While she ate, she stared at the scalpel that had been left on her bath mat earlier in the day. It lay across her bread plate as if it were a butter knife.

She didn’t know how the scalpel related to the furtive ratlike noises that she had been hearing, but she was certain that the two were connected.

There is no world but this one. All flesh is grass, and withers, and the fields of the mind, too, are burned black by death and do not grow green again. That conviction is essential to the creed of materialism; and Erika is a soldier in the determined army that will inevitably conquer the Earth and impose that philosophy pole to pole.

Yet, though her creator forbade belief in the supernatural and though her laboratory origins suggested that intelligent life can be manufactured without divine inspiration, Erika could not shake a sense of the uncanny in these recent events. The scalpel seemed to sparkle not solely with the sheen of surgical steel but also with? magic.

As if by her thoughts she had opened a door between this world and another, a force inexplicable switched on the plasma TV. Erika looked up with a start as the screen came alive.

The cordless Crestron panel, by which the TV was controlled, currently lay on Victor’s nightstand, untouched.

Some bodiless Presence seemed to be channel surfing. Images flipped rapidly across the screen, faster, faster.

As Erika put down her fork and pushed her chair back from the table, the Presence selected a dead channel. A blizzard of electronic snow whitened the big screen.

Sensing that something bizarre-and something of significance-was about to happen, she rose to her feet.

The voice-deep, rough, and ominous-came to her out of the dead channel, through the Dolby SurroundSound speakers in the ceiling: “Kill him. Kill him.”

Erika moved away from the table, toward the TV, but halted after two steps when it seemed unwise to get too close to the screen.

“Shove the scalpel in his eye. Into his brain. Kill him.”

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Kill him. Thrust it deep, and twist. Kill him.”

“Kill whom?”

The Presence did not answer.

She repeated her question.

On the plasma screen, out of the snow, a pale ascetic face began to form. For a moment, she assumed this must be the face of a spirit, but as it developed character, she recognized Victor, eyes closed and features relaxed, as though this were his death mask.

“Kill him.”

“He made me.”

“To use.”

“I can’t.”

“You’re strong.”

“Impossible.”

“Kill him.”

“Who are you?”

“Evil,” said the voice, and she knew that this Presence was not speaking of itself, but of Victor.

If she participated in this conversation, she would inevitably consider betraying Victor even if only to make an argument that it was impossible to raise a hand against him. The mere act of thinking about killing her maker could bring her own death.

Every thought creates a unique electrical signature in the brain. Victor had identified those signatures that represented the thought of taking violent action against him.

Implanted in Erika’s brain-as in the brain of every member of the New Race-was a nanodevice programmed to recognize the thought signature of patricide, of deicide.

If ever she picked up a weapon with the intention of using it against Victor, that spy within would instantly recognize her intent. It would plunge her into a state of paralysis from which only Victor could retrieve her.

If thereafter he allowed her to live, hers would be a life of greater suffering. He would fill all her days with imaginative punishment.

Consequently, she moved now to the Crestron touch panel on the nightstand and used it to switch off the TV. The plasma screen went dark.

Waiting with the control in hand, she expected the TV to switch itself on again, but it remained off.

She did not believe in spirits. She must not believe. Such belief was disobedience. Disobedience would lead to termination.

The mysterious voice urging murder was best left mysterious. To pursue an understanding of it would be to chase it off a cliff, to certain death.

When she realized that she was trembling with fear, Erika returned to her chair at the table.

She began to eat again, but now her appetite was of the nervous variety. She ate voraciously, trying to quell a hunger that food could never satisfy: a hunger for meaning, for freedom.

Her tremors-and the fear of death they represented-surprised her. There had been times since her “birth” six weeks ago when she had thought death desirable.

Not now. Something had changed. When she had not been looking, that thing with feathers, hope, had come into her heart.

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