The Last Bender, Chapter 52
“How’s Linda?” I asked.
“Alive,” she said, looking around at the glass walls. When her eyes landed on a head she stuck her tongue out and barked, “What is this place? Is that a fucking head? Is it real?”
“Yeah, it’s a head.”
She shook hers. “Linda don’t walk good yet, but she’s o.k. When we getta a plan, I’m takin’ her with me. We been staking out David Watts for weeks. It took a coupla hours to convince him to cooperate, then finally I just told him I’d train his troops if he led them into battle. We drilled the motherfuckers on the lawn, and he planned and executed the raid.” She looked at David Watts on the floor, all contorted, his teeth clenched and eyes squeezed shut and head mostly severed. “With us for back up.” She poked one of the corpses and it squeaked back and forth on its hanger. “The brave men of General fucking Watts.”
Smoke filled the crystal lobes. The technicians were in a panic. On the lower levels they were cutting each other’s heads off and falling in bloody heaps. Their screams bit the air like the blade itself and bounced around the tunnels. Their blood pulsed into the water system. It covered the walls and floors and ceilings and the light was shadowed by red. And where the glass had broken, bloody water pumped out and flooded the shards. Without St. Claude they didn’t know what to do. A few went out the tunnel.
We didn’t have a lot of time. Stronghole was slumped over, sucking on his fingers. Evalyn stood off by an intact wall, hands spread on either side of her crimson face, crying.
Helen said, “Is there another way out besides the front door?”
“Yeah, all the way down and out. There’s a tunnel that lets out on a beach. Then it’s a hike to the harbor where there’s a ship.”
“I vote we do that now.”
The shrieks came only as echoes from the deepest level. Heads had become dislodged and one was wedged in between the floor of our level and the ceiling of the one below.
“Look, I gotta get St. Claude’s records. Otherwise we’re shit the dog won’t eat. I can parlay them for something.”
Helen stared at Evalyn a while and said, “She know the way out?”
“Evalyn, can you take them?” She nodded but didn’t look at me; her eyes were fixed on St. Claude’s body which had landed on a broken piece of glass and was soaked with blood and water. I said to Stronghole, “Come on comrade, get up. We’re going home.”
He lifted his head off his lap and stood. “I’m fine. I’m staying with you.”
“Just wait for me outside, I won’t be long.”
The three left and I started to search the Level 1. There was no one else on this level, just the lab and St. Claude’s quarters. I could hear their footsteps and their mumbled conversation as they descended the spiral stair to Level 4. That and the heartbeat and gargle of water coursing chaotically through the broken system of crystal cells. The lab was silent and the walls glowed a purplish blue. There was the store room with the cabinets of botrytis and chemicals and machines. I didn’t know what I was after, really. I pulled out drawers full of instruments, searching for some kind of records. But there was no paper, no books or binders, only drawers full of greasy black and grey bubbles. I assumed they were some sort of BioInfoBot. Other drawers were full of sponges and foam. There was no way I could carry this stuff. As I became absorbed in my search my senses withdrew and I became tense. It was a silence that wasn’t real, a silence of the self. I needed to hear the world around me. There were no more cries, no more gurgles. Air bubbles coursed up through the walls. Another head drifted by and became stuck. It was Clara Turback’s. She looked different, insensate. She was dead now, certainly. They all were. Whatever kept them alive was gone. They were just waterlogged sentinels with white empty eyes bobbing in blood and water.
Still, if I was going to sell anything to Laraby I’d have to figure out what he was after. I left the lab and headed for St. Claude’s quarters. His room was concealed behind a screen of light. I passed through it. It was dark, except for a single light above the bed which was embedded in the glass and looked like a burning ball, a little sun winking on and off. There was absolutely nothing in there. I headed deeper into the lobe, to the bathing area, which was awash in blood, and the kitchen, his own private area with a glass table and mica chairs. Uneaten on the table were a bowl of sprouts and a mushroom cake, and a half-glass of wheat grass. The only thing to do was head back to the lab and scoop up samples of the dome material, maybe find a living hydra and some of those black and grey bubbles.
It was hard to see now. The air was still and not as sweet, an off odor was diffusing upward from the stair, a stale, human odor. And then something else, something wrong, a sound, I wasn’t sure what. My eyes were stinging. I became convinced I wasn’t alone. It was a feeling of the place, always, of being observed. But as I turned the rounded glass corridor that led back into the lab I saw a shadow move, a figure distorted through the many layers of water and crystal. I took out my gun and walked very quietly forward, straining to see through walls and floors.
I entered the lab and there he was, his back to me. Laraby. He didn’t hear me at all. I walked up to him and leveled the gun at his back. I didn’t say a word. He was jamming his pockets full of the greasy little balls, greedily. He was looking around, his face both determined and nervous, breathing fast, his skin purple and haggard. He was sweating, working fast, furtively. His gun lay on the table, within reach. I waited, listening for others, until he noticed me. He paused and without turning around, said, “Is that you Jack?”
“I thought I’d give you a hand,” I said.
“It’s a little late for that.” He reached for the gun, his hand like a claw.
“Don’t touch the gun.”
“What’s in it for me not to?”
“What’s all this stuff worth?”
He turned around and faced me, seething. “Worth? Not a goddamn thing while you’re alive. I should have known you for a traitor. You betrayed your country once, and that’s what you are Jack Bartell, a traitor. And you will burn for it. My guys, when they find you…”
“Hubble Watts is still kicking. Juice and Stitch strapped Wanda to a chair and fried her brains out but they got caught with the bogus cash in Grassmere. Watts had them hanged in the public park.”
“You and Watt’s are done for,” I said. “There’s nothing between you and a bullet.”
“You can’t kill me, Jack. I’m a clone.” He smiled, but the sweat rolled down off his head and into his eyes, making him blink.
“Drop the balls, Laraby. Set up a meet with Watts and get me ten million bucks for the goods.”
“Fuck you. Kill me and I’ll be back in 20 years. I’m all set to incubate. I am forever.”
“Well, if it’s all the same to you then,” I said and pulled the trigger. The shot missed. We were both surprised. He had been wincing and now his face relaxed. He threw the balls at my face and ran, bringing the gun, which he turned and fired, shattering a wall. Water and heads gushed across the floor.
I ran after him into the corridor and followed him down the spiral stairs. The way was dark and confused and my feet slipped on the wet glass. The light smoldered through the blood. Giant clippers lay abandoned in the halls, the blades stained and matted with hair and skin and bone, sprays of blood against the glass at each killing spot. Headless bodies were heaped together in clotting puddles. In the mining and forging rooms the air thickened and it was here that the smell of all that gore had settled, death and singed minerals, and fungus, and I didn’t want to breathe. He was just ahead of me, turning to fire. I couldn’t get a good shot. The dark was slowing him down. He paused then in front of a tank of hydras. Something about them seemed to hypnotize him.
“Laraby!” I shouted.
He faced me and fired. The shot went wild and I shot back. This time I hit him, in the corner of the head, and it took a piece of his skull off, shattering the wall behind him. I hit him again and again, twice in the chest and he fell back on a giant shard of glass. The gun was still in his hand.
Now I heard sounds above, of feet and weapons, distantly thudding. I ran down the tunnel behind the hydra tank, until the way became earthen, and a light was all that I could see. The walls were just beyond touch but they smelled like roots and soil and worms. There was a single board to walk on. The tunnel turned up and the light grew larger, into a doorway in a brightly lit shed, which was behind a line of sand dunes. I gasped air and climbed to the top of the dune to look out at the ocean. The sky was a dome of tarnished silver merging with the cold grey water at the horizon. Garbage lined the shore, and dead fish tangled up in rotten seaweed. The others were waiting. “We have to run,” I said. “They’re coming.” We stumbled along silently, about two miles to town.
Pine Point was just a few houses and stores around an old and virtually deserted industrial port. Weeds grew up through the train tracks leading down to the docks. There was no one around, just a bunch of seagulls scavenging the trash scows.
The TetAteT was an old freighter, with a slightly rusty hull. We called up and no one answered, so we climbed aboard. Captain Beldam met us on the deck. He was a tall, quiet sort of guy, with a bent nose and a hard mouth. He was dressed in a crisp uniform. The large hat shaded his eyes. He carried a machine gun and a belt-clip of grenades.
“Who the hell are you?” he asked.
Evalyn stepped forward and said, “I’m Evalyn St. Claude, sir. Bromion said if there ever was a problem you could take care of it.”
“You’re from the dome then?” He looked at us suspiciously. “Isn’t she a cop?”
“Yeah, I’m a cop. What’s it to ya?”
“Come on,” he said. He led us to his cabin. It was much nicer than the hull of the ship would suggest. It was paneled in teak and mahogany. An antique globe stood on a table bolted to the floor. Charts were spread on the desk. He gave us coffee. “What’s with this one?” he asked, pointing to Stronghole with his lips.
“He’s been drugged,” I said.
“They all were. Spooky stuff. But money is money and they were paying me. Do you know the deal I had worked out with him?” Captain Beldam seemed like a decent guy. “This ship is equipped to stay at sea for a long time. That’s how he modified it. But since the coup, my terms have changed. I have to get home to my country. I’m willing to take you with me, but I’m not stopping anywhere else, and when we get there, I expect you to fight in the resistance for two years. Those are my terms.”
“I’m in,”said Helen.
“Me too,” said Evalyn.
“That makes three,” I said. “And you, Stronghole?”
He looked at me. His eyes were dark and stricken but not weak. “You know I can’t. I’ve got Priscilla and Pringle and school to think about.”
“But you would have thrown it all over before. Botrytis was that good?”
“It was that good.”
“That’s how good Botrytis was, yes.”
“But now everything’s kind of slow.”
“Ever since the war, it’s been slow.”
“Where will you go?”
“Out west. That’s where I’ll start my school.”