Pen does not have unlimited power.
Power to protect from harm, Pen thinks, is a dreadful thing. Because that power has an edge, it has its limit, it can only extend so far. You protect–
You protect yourself, Pen thinks, with bitterness. You protect yourself.
Games down. Noises off: This lie, he understands, has only gotten him so far. The only one I am trying to protect from harm–the only one–is Pen.
The house, Tree’s house, buffeted; Tree would never stand for this, he thinks suddenly.
Tree protected friends, strangers, animals–
Tree would not permit this to occur.
–Well, but, it is very likely too late, Pen reasons. Too late to help them. Too late to control the trajectory. Deltas–
Pen is abruptly reminded of an ancient voyage, a trip out to the El Cerrito DMV, a bleary-eyed early morning so many years and years before he ever heard of Deltas, the men who invented them, the men the Deltas used to be. Some unimaginably distant business of auto registration.
All his life ahead of him in the parking lot; and somehow decided right there, standing there, when he put his name on the vehicle registration, the whole life, round and coherent like a piece of fruit.
Deltas, he tells himself firmly, are not people. They are designed. They have failsafes, vulnerable to pica codes. Organic machines: say the word and they all collapse.
You can’t be dwelling on that abomination, that horrible loss. The human, overwritten.
This one, he thinks, is just under a misapprehension.
–The sequence: whispers in memory, that’s the worst of it, it’s already in him, that’s what the killer saw. It’s not like Pen has to be prompted. It’s not like Pen, through the scratched lens of imperfect memory, doesn’t know what he’s done. Already done, to others of precisely this kind.
A dab hand at the death deal. Prompt and friendly, like a good dealer.
Cashing you out.
–The trio of modified abominations: queer, how they have sorted out the snake, holding him more or less upright, and young Barret looking back and forth from them to Pen, his eyes slightly wild.
The snake with the funny new name shuffles forward. He looks at nothing but the viola, still pulsing almost inaudibly, a movement of atoms Pen is quite sure the others cannot feel.
“Well, and how it goes, my dears,” Pen hears himself say. “We did push the last generation awfully far in the direction of performance. By the end we found it expedient to make them musicians, rather than simply musical. We pushed them all further along that spectrum. But you, my friend, were an experiment. You and the other one.”
“Hyphen,” says the snake, strangely. “The other one.”
“I heard the other one was dead,” Pen tells him. “That leaves you. And this your instrument.”
–Now it comes.–