DEVILS by John Klawitter

EXTRACT FOR
DEVILS

(John Klawitter)


Prologue

Limboland

Sally Jensen-Harris woke to her own bitter tears. She had been weeping for what seemed like an endless time, and for what she knew was good reason; after all, everything she loved had been taken from her. Her sense of loss was total and complete. She had fallen down a black hole of despair, a place from which there would be no hope or salvation. But it was more than just a sense of loss, for whatever she had become—all that remained of the living, breathing person she had once been—was here now with her. It was disorienting because there didn’t seem to be any difference between inside and outside. There was just the blackness, the loss, and nothing else.
She could sense the frightening, palpable nothing, the ether in which she floated. Reaching out made no sense because she knew there would be nothing there. All around her was blackness, void, empty. She wasn't cold or warm; she was only aware that her own physical reality had disappeared, along with that of her entire known world. All that remained was the pain of her loss.
After a time, in the same way she was aware of the hopelessness of her situation, Sally also became aware that her daughter Anne Mae was nearby. She couldn't see or feel her; she simply was aware of the familiar loving and needful presence of Anne Mae in the way of all mothers that goes light-years beyond anything of logic.
Before this nothing-time, everything had been different. Once Sally had been a self-contained person and a scrappy fighter, tough and independent ever since she’d been a little girl. She hadn't been afraid, even as she remembered the last real things from her life—the burnt rubber smell, the squeal of tires, one brief flash of chrome teeth in the headlights, and last, her daughter's long, trailing scream into nothingness. But even in her despair, she knew this sense of no-being wasn't right; it had an almost alien strangeness. She hadn't expected to wake up at all, much less to find herself lost in this nothing world of no light or life or sensation.
Perhaps there was a personal angel who guides each of us on our path. Sally couldn't be sure, but from that first moment when she woke in the dark void and resolved to control her weeping, she was somehow aware that things had gone very wrong, although at that time she had no idea how off course she had drifted…actually, been herded.
And yet even then her pervading sense of gloom couldn't overcome a faint flicker of curiosity. This new place could not by any stretch of the imagination be the logical extension of the terrible accident that had happened to her and Anne Mae. Heaven? Hell? She was well acquainted with the classic Christian beliefs, thanks to years of indoctrination by the nuns of St. Bonavita boarding school, an isolated and difficult high school calculated to garner a certain number of applicants into the sisterhood itself. Their seed had fallen on the rocks of doubt, and the system of eternal rewards and punishments hadn't taken with Sally; but if it did really exist, she was sure hell was nothing like this. Could she be in purgatory, that place in high Christian belief where sinners were sent to wait out the time until their souls were cleansed by fire? She doubted it. Where were the flames, the purging?
With nothing but an endless string of moments on hand, she pursued this line of logic a little further. There were those Christians who believed purgatory was simply a place of waiting; if so, actual flames might not be necessary. She dismissed the thought with a fearful little attempt at a laugh.
Sally tried to look back realistically at their lives and who they had been. She and her husband Mica had enjoyed their talents and their great love; but on the greater scale of things, they were fairly ordinary people living normal lives without any real exception. They had both come from broken families, but that had only encouraged a tighter bond between them. And their daughter Anne Mae had been well-adjusted and caring. Sally would readily admit that maybe she herself had committed bushel baskets full of garden-variety sins in the old sense of sin, guilt and the attendant penance, but Anne Mae was barely ten, and her daughter would never end up in a place like this.
Sally forced herself to believe she wasn't going to wallow in endless self-pity. But as she fought hard to push down the overwhelming sense of loss for everything she had left behind, she was aware of a new feeling, a growing dread for what might lie in store for her and Anne Mae. Too easily her mind could become a pinwheel of frightened thoughts. Where are we? she asked herself. And who did this to us?

CHAPTER 1
Ferngate

one

Dr. Railsbach sighed and tried to stuff back his boredom. Once you grow accustomed to the pitiful mewling of lost souls, you are supposed to be able to withstand anything. That's why they have a special school for it. One could get over the pity, but never the crushing sense of the inconsequentiality of it all. Simpering Satan, who cared what happened to any particular homo sapiens, much less the entire lot of them? Railsbach paused, struggling with the fact that the troubled house he was visiting was the only place remaining in the entire sap world where they still performed the dance of the dead. He shook off his quirky moment of sad bemusement; he was impatient to get back to his work on the 21st floor of the obsidian tower adjacent to Cedars-Sinai Hospital, and figured he was not entirely responsible for his thoughts. Still, he was an old and experienced player, and he knew he wasn’t going to get away from the party without performing at least the obligatory bowing and scraping.
Dr. Railsbach was nearly six feet tall, well-groomed, with healthy pink skin and a full head of snow-white hair. If things were as they appeared, he might have been in his late sixties; and, were it not for a small, foreign glitter in the remote depths of his light blue eyes, he would have the look of a benign pharmacist, a man you could trust to dispense antibiotics or point you to a hot water bottle. But in Railsbach's case, appearances were only skin-deep. He had been spawned nearly six hundred and fifty years before; his body coating cleverly hid a dark gray carapace that was both insect-like and demonic in appearance, and his perfectly modulated voice emanated from a cybernetic voice box designed to produce the impossibly light sounds of human conversation.
Railsbach moved away from the shadow of Sir Albert's house, savoring the heat of the distant sun as if it were brimstone's own nectar. The structure itself, for all its elegant looks, gave him the dry sweats, reeking as it did with the passing smudge of generations of doomed human spirits. He knew he was supposed to enjoy the scent, but he didn't. Just another of his little quirks, a disquieting shibboleth he kept to himself lest it bring him unwanted attention or—Hell help us—remedial action.
Railsbach was well aware of the fact that this wasn't the kind of place where one would expect to find demons of any sort. In the first place, the huge home was located in Southern California near winding Mulholland Drive, on a level pad above the dry sage and stunted oak slopes north of Beverly Hills. Beverly Fricking Hills, for Bub's sake! as the new spawn would say.
Not that Ferngate wasn't unusual, in and of its own right; a looming English Tudor is as out of place on those oxygen-drenched and sun-scorched slopes as a fig leaf on a rock star's crotch. Railsbach bit down on the subject, realizing the extent of his boredom. He wanted to get back to his offices so badly, the sulfur was curling in his brain, back to his wonderful few rooms where the critical experiments of his long and generally not very rewarding career hung in the balance.
Railsbach reluctantly turned away from the broad green lawns and the gardens and made his way back inside, heading toward the festivities and idly glancing as he went at the dark walnut wainscoting, the heavy old cut crystal chandeliers, and the deeply carved Jacobean tables and sideboards.
He returned to the study just as Speth the assassin swung by, a graceful picture of lean menace. Railsbach tried to pretend an absorbing interest in the nearest oil painting, but Speth snagged him neatly, approaching too closely with the translator's dare and handing him a glass frothing with hot, dark liquid.
"Old Albert sure knows how to desecrate a room," Speth sneered.
Railsbach wanted to reply that Speth's own tastes ran more to sap nudes painted in Day-Glo on velvet, but he bit the thought off sharply. Nothing good comes from angering an assassin. Instead, he retreated to a polite stance just out of lash range and spoke politely.
"I think there is some merit in some of these..."
"'Some merit in some of these'," Speth echoed, his voice heavily coated in mockery.
"I think so," Railsbach said, moving on to inspect the next painting, which was of a Renaissance picnic in the roofless ruins of an ancient palace. To his dismay, Speth moved with him. The oversized oils were painted in the manner of Thomas Coventry, English countryside scenes with ant-like peasants diminished by gigantic boils of ancient forest stands and threatened by enormous, mushrooming death-white clouds. Railsbach paused before a notable rendition of a pack of pitiless hounds tearing at something that might have been a fox or a small sap, and another depicting somewhat larger wolfhounds swirling around a bloodied brown bear. These paintings were darker than their original intent, as over the centuries they had become smoke-dried and varnish-cracked. Railsbach moved on to study a faded tapestry featuring a naked, dreaming lady with floating hair and one hand cupped coyly below her abdomen, the ornate stitchwork laudable for the vague sense of peril which oozed from the too-big cabbage roses and the fence of thorns which made up its border.
"I'd love to eviscerate her in Cupid's name," Speth growled, spitting into a nearby potted fern.
"Come on, Kelp," Speth said impatiently, calling Railsbach by his old otherside, or hellside, name as he moved inside range and took his arm, "Let's go plague Felney." They were old flankers, and Speth casually broke the common rules of space and courtesy that his kind had built up over the ages to keep from killing each other. And worse, from Railsbach's point of view, Speth the assassin talked in shorthand. Go, No Go. Hit, Run. Translate, Rollover. Railsbach liked ornate language, disliked the fact that Speth had effortlessly gotten close enough to invade his space and encircle his arm, and most of all hated being called Kelp, which was his ancient spawn name. But as usual he said nothing, and Speth easily led them through the dancers.


two

At the far end of the ballroom, which also doubled as a study, a great fire roared in a huge floor-to-ceiling fireplace of foamy pinkish-gray marble carved in the intricately detailed manner of the medieval cathedral craftsmen. Railsbach, who had never really taken the time before, now noticed it was crafted in ornate swarms of human heads thick as bees, the sap eyes and mouths gaping wide at unknown horrors as they swam around the rim of the fiery furnace. A closer look at this carved pattern of doomed soul heads revealed not marble, but intaglio designs cast in thin, translucent porcelain with the cream or antique white color of faience fine, a clever surface that had assumed a lifelike rose-colored flush from the flames which licked behind them. The incised, silent sap howlers gave Railsbach the eerie feeling that, as he moved, they slowly turned and stared back at him while the writhing life of the fire gave the figures themselves a hellish animation.
This room was the center of a social event that most of the saps who had showed up vaguely remembered as being long on their calendar of must attends, though in reality that was anything but the case; were anyone to ask, not a single one of them could actually tell precisely why they were here. It didn't seem to matter. They danced and chatted and nibbled and sipped while a string quartet delivered a chilled Mozart and caterers in striped white-on-white silk vests chummed platters of creamed sardines, gray pot stickers and blackened calves’ livers circled in nearly raw bacon, and poured a fine smoky Fume Blanc from light green bottles. More saps were constantly arriving through the high front doors, thrown open now to the afternoon heat. And just as regularly, they were leaving again, although none of them back out through the front doors.
There was a costume-party froth in the air, undercut by the hint of smoke from the giant fireplace, a scent whether slightly of pitch or brimstone, which lent the hint of a rougher medieval ambiance to the festivities. The guests made up an odd speckle of humanity, everyone dressed as-you-were in a variety of attire from pajamas to dinner clothes to bloody butcher's overalls.
"Aren't you going to drink that, Kelpie?" Speth asked, gesturing to the glass in his hand.
Railsbach bolted down his nasty jolt as they arrived in the corner of the room next to the fireplace where the little clerk Felney, Sir Albert Fern's right-hand man, was busily plucking souls. He was at his usual seated position behind a huge, old wooden swing-open banker's desk. Even with the party at full blast, the regular business had to be attended. Soul trapping waits for no one, as the old saying goes. It was proudly said of Felney and his Southern California troop that they had a sixth sense for that right moment. More Hellside Propaganda, Railsbach thought uneasily. Lately, doubting fumes had more and more drifted unbidden across the darker tunnels of his mind. For some years now, Railsbach and his fellows had eagerly scrambled across a line that now he personally was beginning to believe should not have been crossed. Of this he said nothing; he simply shrugged his sap coat and turned his attention to Felney and the scenes at hand.
Much of the original desk at which the little clerk sat had been gutted and altered; the inner face and the open wings were neatly stuffed with banks of monitors, so clear they were like little mirrors of life itself. Keypad in front of him and face shield over his eyes, Felney punched away as if there were no party, no wine and hors d'oeuvres, no last dance of the lost souls. Railsbach knew the bulgy little fellow sometimes fancied himself fate's clerk, Charon at the crossing, the counterpoint to Peter-at-the-Pearly-Gate. And, in truth, Felney and others in his station had become far more than simple scribes since Railsbach and his dark team had uncovered the knowledge to nudge sap destiny towards their own destruction. Mankind may have slept since the fall, but their oldest enemy was back with the same old attitude—and the help of Father Science.

three

The party was approaching its climax, the music was taking on a wild and knife-glitter edge, the looks in the dancers' eyes were wide and hopeless. A young man in ragged jeans and a tattered T-shirt swung by with a woman in a gray business suit. The young man's shirt joyfully shouted CARPE DIEM in letters composed from colorfully designed surfboards. The young man's hair was dusted with fiberglass, a dark stain oozed from the corner of his mouth and his ribs were strangely caved. His partner's face seemed composed, though her hue was an unhealthy greenish-white and her lips were dark and purple. Railsbach had to duck to avoid the swing of their arms. He lightly slapped once at his own face, bothered by a minor annoyance. Just one little tap for control, and then he coughed and looked for a place to set down his empty glass.
Speth, who saw everything, chuckled a characteristic spitting gargle, the sound that Railsbach found particularly annoying. Speth never had any trouble with his own coat. He was angular and lean, dark, sardonic, always ready, a coiled spring with nails of steel sheathed inside an expensive Italian suit. Railsbach hated him in a way simultaneously genetic and personal.
Back when he had chosen his own coat, Railsbach had gone for a kindly, old fellow look, by inclination that was more instinct than thought. In his white lab coat he looked like he should be on cable television pitching hemorrhoid cures or liposuction. He and Speth shared little but their mutual impatience with boss Fern's old-fashioned style. The cause made for curious bedfellows. Again, the flicker of an unbidden thought. Speth in bed would be dominating, cruel, quick and done with it. Speth in bed! Railsbach shuddered. He would have to think of going back under, taking some lax time, getting a groom or even submitting to a semi-clamp. Of course, that would be impossible, now with his lab fully funded and his own EMO Project on full engines forward.
Speth sneered with enough punch so Felney had to overhear, "Back in force, out in the open for the first time since the fall, and we throw going-away parties..."
Railsbach tried to defuse, to disassociate, "Don't get your blue fellows in a pincher, Speedball. It's all a write-off to Sir Albert..."
Speth's answer was little more than a half-sneer, half-snarl. Railsbach shifted away from him, turning his attention to the rows of monitors facing Felney inside the desk. There he could see the scenes of daily human life played inside the bright rectangles, the entire wall of monitors a wash of human soapies. One monitor beeped, the flashing LED at its side attracting attention. Behind their shield, Felney's eyes flicked to the screen, that small motion combined with a twitch of his left eyebrow flicking it over to the main monitor directly in front of him. Railsbach, more than a little aware that his boredom had reduced him to watching a common sap melodrama, noticed that it was a kitchen scene. A black woman of about 40 was washing dishes. Railsbach looked at the blue-and-white checkered curtains in the windows behind the sink and wondered for the hundredth time why humans were so impractical. Before he could begin to form an answer, an angry black man came into the scene, yelling, "So, Doris—you had to let that skunk have his way with you!" His fist shot out, catching the woman on the side of the head and staggering her nearly out of the frame. She recovered and went on washing dishes, as if ignoring her furious attacker was going to solve her problem.
"Answer me, damn you, you bitch!" the black man shouted, pulling back his arm to punch her again.
A super in bright yellow letters blinked on at the bottom of the screen. It asked simply, "ROLLOVER OR TRANSLATE?"
Felney hesitated only a second, and then his finger hit a red button marked TRANSLATE on the keyboard in front of him.
The black man screamed, "Doris, you screwin' aroun' wit' the wrong man—!"
His thick-muscled arm was already coming out of cock, shooting forward to deliver a stunning blow to the back of Doris's head—but the blow never reached its mark. Instead, the black man grabbed his chest and went wide-eyed as his mouth formed a gaping hole in his face. A tortured gargle burst from his lips. He gasped for air, fingers clutching the dress of a startled Doris as he crumpled to the floor.
Speth shrugged, talking to Railsbach, but eyeing Felney, "The rumor is, the success rate is just about the same as it was before we had all this." He waved one hand, as if the bank of monitors was just so much trash.
Felney, his head shielded by his clear plastic shell, said nothing. His eyes continued to rove the bank of smaller monitors, which were clicking from scene to scene at a furious rate of ten or fifteen every second. Doris was calling 9-1-1 on the main, but Railsbach knew it was no use. Translated is as good as dead. Another scene bleeped. Felney's left eyebrow flicked the new moment to center stage and Doris's little life drama was ancient history, replaced by a shot angling down on an intersection somewhere in a battered urban ghetto. A black cop and a white cop were standing next to their squad car, confronting a street gang made up of a half-dozen sullen teens. A hulking black kid dressed in Oakland Raider silks led the gang, slouching with menace. The super appeared low on the screen, ROLLOVER or TRANSLATE?
"Trans 'em, man!" Speth urged impatiently.
But Felney hit ROLLOVER. On the screen, the gang hesitated, and then walked away from the confrontation, leaving the two cops in a state of thankful disbelief.
Felney replied for the first time. He spoke in his clipped way, his mildly sulphurous manner showing he took no mundungus from anyone, not even from Speth the hit man, "Hardly a wise choice, sir. We would likely have gotten the white policeman who has a string of corruption, and the big black kid who once drive-byed two teenage girls."
Speth shrugged, "Two out of eight."
Felney's eyes were black coals. "We have plans for them both. And my bet is we'll get at least half of the rest."
"Huh." Speth nodded his approval. "Deeper than I thought."
But Felney, clearly showing that he didn't need Speth's goodwill for anything, had already turned his gaze back to the main, where a new scene was bleeping for his attention.

four

It was a setup in a grungy bar, and a slight Hispanic man was talking to a burly Italian dockworker, yelling, "When you say, 'Chi-caaa-no' to me, you got a mean look on your face."
Felney smoothly flicked the TRANSLATE button with the side of his thumb.
The big dockworker moved in closer until his face was a fraction of an inch from the smaller man's nose, "You don't like how I talk to you? Mange me—uhh!"
Those were the last words the larger man would utter. His eyes went wide, and he looked down to see the blade of the slight Hispanic's knife buried deep in his stomach.
Speth looked at Felney, "Well?"
Felney kept his eyes on the monitors, his attention on a corner screen featuring a man, a woman and a young girl walking down a mountain trail. "Actual capture rate, sir?" Railsbach noted the word “sir” sounded like an afterthought or an oxymoron falling from the little clerk's lips. "I wouldn't know about that," Felney concluded.
The spitting sneer that bloomed across the assassin’s face told Railsbach that Speth’s failed buttering up of Felney had fanned his bad mood. The assassin was a few degrees away from steaming out of the room, but instead he turned back to the screen where something had caught his eye. He studied a simple family hiking scene, which Felney had eyebrowed across to the big screen, "What's that?"
Railsbach looked as well, and recognized the homo saps on the screen. He was careful not to say too much, "One of my EMO's."
One of Speth's eyebrows raised a fraction, "Who?"
"The man," Railsbach said, his tone of voice indicating he didn't want to talk about it.
"EMO is sapcrap," Speth sneered.
"The argument is over, Speth. I have been allocated the resources to continue my project."
"You and your ubermensch. You can't create a supersap. It's all sapcrap."
Speth's attention wandered back to the party. Railsbach eyed him with relief, knowing Speth had no interest in drawn-out conversations, much less any capability for a debate on the EMO Project. Speth was bred for the hunt, trained to unleash savagery, honed to move in for the kill. There wasn't a sap born, from Samson to Bruce Lee, not even any of their mythic warriors like Batman, Spiderman or the mighty Electra Assassin who could stand for 30 seconds against him. It would take an angel, or an aware and unblanked human...again the uneasy thought flickered through Railsbach's mind like heat lightning. The angels were gone, and no human would ever be unblanked or aware again. It couldn't—could not—happen.
Dr. Railsbach eyed Speth obliquely, from the corner of his face so not to draw a stray lash. It was common knowledge that, if the EMO experiments lived up to their promise, the day of the hunting assassin would be no more. There would be no chance of a rogue human breaking loose, no possibility the species could ever again present even the whisper of a threat. When that new age came, Speth would be promoted to the rank of noble hero...and promptly clamped, downgraded and given some shuffling task back Hellside. And they both knew it.

DEVILS by John Klawitter

EXTRACT FOR
DEVILS

(John Klawitter)


Prologue

Limboland

Sally Jensen-Harris woke to her own bitter tears. She had been weeping for what seemed like an endless time, and for what she knew was good reason; after all, everything she loved had been taken from her. Her sense of loss was total and complete. She had fallen down a black hole of despair, a place from which there would be no hope or salvation. But it was more than just a sense of loss, for whatever she had become—all that remained of the living, breathing person she had once been—was here now with her. It was disorienting because there didn’t seem to be any difference between inside and outside. There was just the blackness, the loss, and nothing else.
She could sense the frightening, palpable nothing, the ether in which she floated. Reaching out made no sense because she knew there would be nothing there. All around her was blackness, void, empty. She wasn't cold or warm; she was only aware that her own physical reality had disappeared, along with that of her entire known world. All that remained was the pain of her loss.
After a time, in the same way she was aware of the hopelessness of her situation, Sally also became aware that her daughter Anne Mae was nearby. She couldn't see or feel her; she simply was aware of the familiar loving and needful presence of Anne Mae in the way of all mothers that goes light-years beyond anything of logic.
Before this nothing-time, everything had been different. Once Sally had been a self-contained person and a scrappy fighter, tough and independent ever since she’d been a little girl. She hadn't been afraid, even as she remembered the last real things from her life—the burnt rubber smell, the squeal of tires, one brief flash of chrome teeth in the headlights, and last, her daughter's long, trailing scream into nothingness. But even in her despair, she knew this sense of no-being wasn't right; it had an almost alien strangeness. She hadn't expected to wake up at all, much less to find herself lost in this nothing world of no light or life or sensation.
Perhaps there was a personal angel who guides each of us on our path. Sally couldn't be sure, but from that first moment when she woke in the dark void and resolved to control her weeping, she was somehow aware that things had gone very wrong, although at that time she had no idea how off course she had drifted…actually, been herded.
And yet even then her pervading sense of gloom couldn't overcome a faint flicker of curiosity. This new place could not by any stretch of the imagination be the logical extension of the terrible accident that had happened to her and Anne Mae. Heaven? Hell? She was well acquainted with the classic Christian beliefs, thanks to years of indoctrination by the nuns of St. Bonavita boarding school, an isolated and difficult high school calculated to garner a certain number of applicants into the sisterhood itself. Their seed had fallen on the rocks of doubt, and the system of eternal rewards and punishments hadn't taken with Sally; but if it did really exist, she was sure hell was nothing like this. Could she be in purgatory, that place in high Christian belief where sinners were sent to wait out the time until their souls were cleansed by fire? She doubted it. Where were the flames, the purging?
With nothing but an endless string of moments on hand, she pursued this line of logic a little further. There were those Christians who believed purgatory was simply a place of waiting; if so, actual flames might not be necessary. She dismissed the thought with a fearful little attempt at a laugh.
Sally tried to look back realistically at their lives and who they had been. She and her husband Mica had enjoyed their talents and their great love; but on the greater scale of things, they were fairly ordinary people living normal lives without any real exception. They had both come from broken families, but that had only encouraged a tighter bond between them. And their daughter Anne Mae had been well-adjusted and caring. Sally would readily admit that maybe she herself had committed bushel baskets full of garden-variety sins in the old sense of sin, guilt and the attendant penance, but Anne Mae was barely ten, and her daughter would never end up in a place like this.
Sally forced herself to believe she wasn't going to wallow in endless self-pity. But as she fought hard to push down the overwhelming sense of loss for everything she had left behind, she was aware of a new feeling, a growing dread for what might lie in store for her and Anne Mae. Too easily her mind could become a pinwheel of frightened thoughts. Where are we? she asked herself. And who did this to us?

CHAPTER 1
Ferngate

one

Dr. Railsbach sighed and tried to stuff back his boredom. Once you grow accustomed to the pitiful mewling of lost souls, you are supposed to be able to withstand anything. That's why they have a special school for it. One could get over the pity, but never the crushing sense of the inconsequentiality of it all. Simpering Satan, who cared what happened to any particular homo sapiens, much less the entire lot of them? Railsbach paused, struggling with the fact that the troubled house he was visiting was the only place remaining in the entire sap world where they still performed the dance of the dead. He shook off his quirky moment of sad bemusement; he was impatient to get back to his work on the 21st floor of the obsidian tower adjacent to Cedars-Sinai Hospital, and figured he was not entirely responsible for his thoughts. Still, he was an old and experienced player, and he knew he wasn’t going to get away from the party without performing at least the obligatory bowing and scraping.
Dr. Railsbach was nearly six feet tall, well-groomed, with healthy pink skin and a full head of snow-white hair. If things were as they appeared, he might have been in his late sixties; and, were it not for a small, foreign glitter in the remote depths of his light blue eyes, he would have the look of a benign pharmacist, a man you could trust to dispense antibiotics or point you to a hot water bottle. But in Railsbach's case, appearances were only skin-deep. He had been spawned nearly six hundred and fifty years before; his body coating cleverly hid a dark gray carapace that was both insect-like and demonic in appearance, and his perfectly modulated voice emanated from a cybernetic voice box designed to produce the impossibly light sounds of human conversation.
Railsbach moved away from the shadow of Sir Albert's house, savoring the heat of the distant sun as if it were brimstone's own nectar. The structure itself, for all its elegant looks, gave him the dry sweats, reeking as it did with the passing smudge of generations of doomed human spirits. He knew he was supposed to enjoy the scent, but he didn't. Just another of his little quirks, a disquieting shibboleth he kept to himself lest it bring him unwanted attention or—Hell help us—remedial action.
Railsbach was well aware of the fact that this wasn't the kind of place where one would expect to find demons of any sort. In the first place, the huge home was located in Southern California near winding Mulholland Drive, on a level pad above the dry sage and stunted oak slopes north of Beverly Hills. Beverly Fricking Hills, for Bub's sake! as the new spawn would say.
Not that Ferngate wasn't unusual, in and of its own right; a looming English Tudor is as out of place on those oxygen-drenched and sun-scorched slopes as a fig leaf on a rock star's crotch. Railsbach bit down on the subject, realizing the extent of his boredom. He wanted to get back to his offices so badly, the sulfur was curling in his brain, back to his wonderful few rooms where the critical experiments of his long and generally not very rewarding career hung in the balance.
Railsbach reluctantly turned away from the broad green lawns and the gardens and made his way back inside, heading toward the festivities and idly glancing as he went at the dark walnut wainscoting, the heavy old cut crystal chandeliers, and the deeply carved Jacobean tables and sideboards.
He returned to the study just as Speth the assassin swung by, a graceful picture of lean menace. Railsbach tried to pretend an absorbing interest in the nearest oil painting, but Speth snagged him neatly, approaching too closely with the translator's dare and handing him a glass frothing with hot, dark liquid.
"Old Albert sure knows how to desecrate a room," Speth sneered.
Railsbach wanted to reply that Speth's own tastes ran more to sap nudes painted in Day-Glo on velvet, but he bit the thought off sharply. Nothing good comes from angering an assassin. Instead, he retreated to a polite stance just out of lash range and spoke politely.
"I think there is some merit in some of these..."
"'Some merit in some of these'," Speth echoed, his voice heavily coated in mockery.
"I think so," Railsbach said, moving on to inspect the next painting, which was of a Renaissance picnic in the roofless ruins of an ancient palace. To his dismay, Speth moved with him. The oversized oils were painted in the manner of Thomas Coventry, English countryside scenes with ant-like peasants diminished by gigantic boils of ancient forest stands and threatened by enormous, mushrooming death-white clouds. Railsbach paused before a notable rendition of a pack of pitiless hounds tearing at something that might have been a fox or a small sap, and another depicting somewhat larger wolfhounds swirling around a bloodied brown bear. These paintings were darker than their original intent, as over the centuries they had become smoke-dried and varnish-cracked. Railsbach moved on to study a faded tapestry featuring a naked, dreaming lady with floating hair and one hand cupped coyly below her abdomen, the ornate stitchwork laudable for the vague sense of peril which oozed from the too-big cabbage roses and the fence of thorns which made up its border.
"I'd love to eviscerate her in Cupid's name," Speth growled, spitting into a nearby potted fern.
"Come on, Kelp," Speth said impatiently, calling Railsbach by his old otherside, or hellside, name as he moved inside range and took his arm, "Let's go plague Felney." They were old flankers, and Speth casually broke the common rules of space and courtesy that his kind had built up over the ages to keep from killing each other. And worse, from Railsbach's point of view, Speth the assassin talked in shorthand. Go, No Go. Hit, Run. Translate, Rollover. Railsbach liked ornate language, disliked the fact that Speth had effortlessly gotten close enough to invade his space and encircle his arm, and most of all hated being called Kelp, which was his ancient spawn name. But as usual he said nothing, and Speth easily led them through the dancers.


two

At the far end of the ballroom, which also doubled as a study, a great fire roared in a huge floor-to-ceiling fireplace of foamy pinkish-gray marble carved in the intricately detailed manner of the medieval cathedral craftsmen. Railsbach, who had never really taken the time before, now noticed it was crafted in ornate swarms of human heads thick as bees, the sap eyes and mouths gaping wide at unknown horrors as they swam around the rim of the fiery furnace. A closer look at this carved pattern of doomed soul heads revealed not marble, but intaglio designs cast in thin, translucent porcelain with the cream or antique white color of faience fine, a clever surface that had assumed a lifelike rose-colored flush from the flames which licked behind them. The incised, silent sap howlers gave Railsbach the eerie feeling that, as he moved, they slowly turned and stared back at him while the writhing life of the fire gave the figures themselves a hellish animation.
This room was the center of a social event that most of the saps who had showed up vaguely remembered as being long on their calendar of must attends, though in reality that was anything but the case; were anyone to ask, not a single one of them could actually tell precisely why they were here. It didn't seem to matter. They danced and chatted and nibbled and sipped while a string quartet delivered a chilled Mozart and caterers in striped white-on-white silk vests chummed platters of creamed sardines, gray pot stickers and blackened calves’ livers circled in nearly raw bacon, and poured a fine smoky Fume Blanc from light green bottles. More saps were constantly arriving through the high front doors, thrown open now to the afternoon heat. And just as regularly, they were leaving again, although none of them back out through the front doors.
There was a costume-party froth in the air, undercut by the hint of smoke from the giant fireplace, a scent whether slightly of pitch or brimstone, which lent the hint of a rougher medieval ambiance to the festivities. The guests made up an odd speckle of humanity, everyone dressed as-you-were in a variety of attire from pajamas to dinner clothes to bloody butcher's overalls.
"Aren't you going to drink that, Kelpie?" Speth asked, gesturing to the glass in his hand.
Railsbach bolted down his nasty jolt as they arrived in the corner of the room next to the fireplace where the little clerk Felney, Sir Albert Fern's right-hand man, was busily plucking souls. He was at his usual seated position behind a huge, old wooden swing-open banker's desk. Even with the party at full blast, the regular business had to be attended. Soul trapping waits for no one, as the old saying goes. It was proudly said of Felney and his Southern California troop that they had a sixth sense for that right moment. More Hellside Propaganda, Railsbach thought uneasily. Lately, doubting fumes had more and more drifted unbidden across the darker tunnels of his mind. For some years now, Railsbach and his fellows had eagerly scrambled across a line that now he personally was beginning to believe should not have been crossed. Of this he said nothing; he simply shrugged his sap coat and turned his attention to Felney and the scenes at hand.
Much of the original desk at which the little clerk sat had been gutted and altered; the inner face and the open wings were neatly stuffed with banks of monitors, so clear they were like little mirrors of life itself. Keypad in front of him and face shield over his eyes, Felney punched away as if there were no party, no wine and hors d'oeuvres, no last dance of the lost souls. Railsbach knew the bulgy little fellow sometimes fancied himself fate's clerk, Charon at the crossing, the counterpoint to Peter-at-the-Pearly-Gate. And, in truth, Felney and others in his station had become far more than simple scribes since Railsbach and his dark team had uncovered the knowledge to nudge sap destiny towards their own destruction. Mankind may have slept since the fall, but their oldest enemy was back with the same old attitude—and the help of Father Science.

three

The party was approaching its climax, the music was taking on a wild and knife-glitter edge, the looks in the dancers' eyes were wide and hopeless. A young man in ragged jeans and a tattered T-shirt swung by with a woman in a gray business suit. The young man's shirt joyfully shouted CARPE DIEM in letters composed from colorfully designed surfboards. The young man's hair was dusted with fiberglass, a dark stain oozed from the corner of his mouth and his ribs were strangely caved. His partner's face seemed composed, though her hue was an unhealthy greenish-white and her lips were dark and purple. Railsbach had to duck to avoid the swing of their arms. He lightly slapped once at his own face, bothered by a minor annoyance. Just one little tap for control, and then he coughed and looked for a place to set down his empty glass.
Speth, who saw everything, chuckled a characteristic spitting gargle, the sound that Railsbach found particularly annoying. Speth never had any trouble with his own coat. He was angular and lean, dark, sardonic, always ready, a coiled spring with nails of steel sheathed inside an expensive Italian suit. Railsbach hated him in a way simultaneously genetic and personal.
Back when he had chosen his own coat, Railsbach had gone for a kindly, old fellow look, by inclination that was more instinct than thought. In his white lab coat he looked like he should be on cable television pitching hemorrhoid cures or liposuction. He and Speth shared little but their mutual impatience with boss Fern's old-fashioned style. The cause made for curious bedfellows. Again, the flicker of an unbidden thought. Speth in bed would be dominating, cruel, quick and done with it. Speth in bed! Railsbach shuddered. He would have to think of going back under, taking some lax time, getting a groom or even submitting to a semi-clamp. Of course, that would be impossible, now with his lab fully funded and his own EMO Project on full engines forward.
Speth sneered with enough punch so Felney had to overhear, "Back in force, out in the open for the first time since the fall, and we throw going-away parties..."
Railsbach tried to defuse, to disassociate, "Don't get your blue fellows in a pincher, Speedball. It's all a write-off to Sir Albert..."
Speth's answer was little more than a half-sneer, half-snarl. Railsbach shifted away from him, turning his attention to the rows of monitors facing Felney inside the desk. There he could see the scenes of daily human life played inside the bright rectangles, the entire wall of monitors a wash of human soapies. One monitor beeped, the flashing LED at its side attracting attention. Behind their shield, Felney's eyes flicked to the screen, that small motion combined with a twitch of his left eyebrow flicking it over to the main monitor directly in front of him. Railsbach, more than a little aware that his boredom had reduced him to watching a common sap melodrama, noticed that it was a kitchen scene. A black woman of about 40 was washing dishes. Railsbach looked at the blue-and-white checkered curtains in the windows behind the sink and wondered for the hundredth time why humans were so impractical. Before he could begin to form an answer, an angry black man came into the scene, yelling, "So, Doris—you had to let that skunk have his way with you!" His fist shot out, catching the woman on the side of the head and staggering her nearly out of the frame. She recovered and went on washing dishes, as if ignoring her furious attacker was going to solve her problem.
"Answer me, damn you, you bitch!" the black man shouted, pulling back his arm to punch her again.
A super in bright yellow letters blinked on at the bottom of the screen. It asked simply, "ROLLOVER OR TRANSLATE?"
Felney hesitated only a second, and then his finger hit a red button marked TRANSLATE on the keyboard in front of him.
The black man screamed, "Doris, you screwin' aroun' wit' the wrong man—!"
His thick-muscled arm was already coming out of cock, shooting forward to deliver a stunning blow to the back of Doris's head—but the blow never reached its mark. Instead, the black man grabbed his chest and went wide-eyed as his mouth formed a gaping hole in his face. A tortured gargle burst from his lips. He gasped for air, fingers clutching the dress of a startled Doris as he crumpled to the floor.
Speth shrugged, talking to Railsbach, but eyeing Felney, "The rumor is, the success rate is just about the same as it was before we had all this." He waved one hand, as if the bank of monitors was just so much trash.
Felney, his head shielded by his clear plastic shell, said nothing. His eyes continued to rove the bank of smaller monitors, which were clicking from scene to scene at a furious rate of ten or fifteen every second. Doris was calling 9-1-1 on the main, but Railsbach knew it was no use. Translated is as good as dead. Another scene bleeped. Felney's left eyebrow flicked the new moment to center stage and Doris's little life drama was ancient history, replaced by a shot angling down on an intersection somewhere in a battered urban ghetto. A black cop and a white cop were standing next to their squad car, confronting a street gang made up of a half-dozen sullen teens. A hulking black kid dressed in Oakland Raider silks led the gang, slouching with menace. The super appeared low on the screen, ROLLOVER or TRANSLATE?
"Trans 'em, man!" Speth urged impatiently.
But Felney hit ROLLOVER. On the screen, the gang hesitated, and then walked away from the confrontation, leaving the two cops in a state of thankful disbelief.
Felney replied for the first time. He spoke in his clipped way, his mildly sulphurous manner showing he took no mundungus from anyone, not even from Speth the hit man, "Hardly a wise choice, sir. We would likely have gotten the white policeman who has a string of corruption, and the big black kid who once drive-byed two teenage girls."
Speth shrugged, "Two out of eight."
Felney's eyes were black coals. "We have plans for them both. And my bet is we'll get at least half of the rest."
"Huh." Speth nodded his approval. "Deeper than I thought."
But Felney, clearly showing that he didn't need Speth's goodwill for anything, had already turned his gaze back to the main, where a new scene was bleeping for his attention.

four

It was a setup in a grungy bar, and a slight Hispanic man was talking to a burly Italian dockworker, yelling, "When you say, 'Chi-caaa-no' to me, you got a mean look on your face."
Felney smoothly flicked the TRANSLATE button with the side of his thumb.
The big dockworker moved in closer until his face was a fraction of an inch from the smaller man's nose, "You don't like how I talk to you? Mange me—uhh!"
Those were the last words the larger man would utter. His eyes went wide, and he looked down to see the blade of the slight Hispanic's knife buried deep in his stomach.
Speth looked at Felney, "Well?"
Felney kept his eyes on the monitors, his attention on a corner screen featuring a man, a woman and a young girl walking down a mountain trail. "Actual capture rate, sir?" Railsbach noted the word “sir” sounded like an afterthought or an oxymoron falling from the little clerk's lips. "I wouldn't know about that," Felney concluded.
The spitting sneer that bloomed across the assassin’s face told Railsbach that Speth’s failed buttering up of Felney had fanned his bad mood. The assassin was a few degrees away from steaming out of the room, but instead he turned back to the screen where something had caught his eye. He studied a simple family hiking scene, which Felney had eyebrowed across to the big screen, "What's that?"
Railsbach looked as well, and recognized the homo saps on the screen. He was careful not to say too much, "One of my EMO's."
One of Speth's eyebrows raised a fraction, "Who?"
"The man," Railsbach said, his tone of voice indicating he didn't want to talk about it.
"EMO is sapcrap," Speth sneered.
"The argument is over, Speth. I have been allocated the resources to continue my project."
"You and your ubermensch. You can't create a supersap. It's all sapcrap."
Speth's attention wandered back to the party. Railsbach eyed him with relief, knowing Speth had no interest in drawn-out conversations, much less any capability for a debate on the EMO Project. Speth was bred for the hunt, trained to unleash savagery, honed to move in for the kill. There wasn't a sap born, from Samson to Bruce Lee, not even any of their mythic warriors like Batman, Spiderman or the mighty Electra Assassin who could stand for 30 seconds against him. It would take an angel, or an aware and unblanked human...again the uneasy thought flickered through Railsbach's mind like heat lightning. The angels were gone, and no human would ever be unblanked or aware again. It couldn't—could not—happen.
Dr. Railsbach eyed Speth obliquely, from the corner of his face so not to draw a stray lash. It was common knowledge that, if the EMO experiments lived up to their promise, the day of the hunting assassin would be no more. There would be no chance of a rogue human breaking loose, no possibility the species could ever again present even the whisper of a threat. When that new age came, Speth would be promoted to the rank of noble hero...and promptly clamped, downgraded and given some shuffling task back Hellside. And they both knew it.

EXTRACT FOR
DEVILS

(John Klawitter)


Prologue

Limboland

Sally Jensen-Harris woke to her own bitter tears. She had been weeping for what seemed like an endless time, and for what she knew was good reason; after all, everything she loved had been taken from her. Her sense of loss was total and complete. She had fallen down a black hole of despair, a place from which there would be no hope or salvation. But it was more than just a sense of loss, for whatever she had become—all that remained of the living, breathing person she had once been—was here now with her. It was disorienting because there didn’t seem to be any difference between inside and outside. There was just the blackness, the loss, and nothing else.
She could sense the frightening, palpable nothing, the ether in which she floated. Reaching out made no sense because she knew there would be nothing there. All around her was blackness, void, empty. She wasn't cold or warm; she was only aware that her own physical reality had disappeared, along with that of her entire known world. All that remained was the pain of her loss.
After a time, in the same way she was aware of the hopelessness of her situation, Sally also became aware that her daughter Anne Mae was nearby. She couldn't see or feel her; she simply was aware of the familiar loving and needful presence of Anne Mae in the way of all mothers that goes light-years beyond anything of logic.
Before this nothing-time, everything had been different. Once Sally had been a self-contained person and a scrappy fighter, tough and independent ever since she’d been a little girl. She hadn't been afraid, even as she remembered the last real things from her life—the burnt rubber smell, the squeal of tires, one brief flash of chrome teeth in the headlights, and last, her daughter's long, trailing scream into nothingness. But even in her despair, she knew this sense of no-being wasn't right; it had an almost alien strangeness. She hadn't expected to wake up at all, much less to find herself lost in this nothing world of no light or life or sensation.
Perhaps there was a personal angel who guides each of us on our path. Sally couldn't be sure, but from that first moment when she woke in the dark void and resolved to control her weeping, she was somehow aware that things had gone very wrong, although at that time she had no idea how off course she had drifted…actually, been herded.
And yet even then her pervading sense of gloom couldn't overcome a faint flicker of curiosity. This new place could not by any stretch of the imagination be the logical extension of the terrible accident that had happened to her and Anne Mae. Heaven? Hell? She was well acquainted with the classic Christian beliefs, thanks to years of indoctrination by the nuns of St. Bonavita boarding school, an isolated and difficult high school calculated to garner a certain number of applicants into the sisterhood itself. Their seed had fallen on the rocks of doubt, and the system of eternal rewards and punishments hadn't taken with Sally; but if it did really exist, she was sure hell was nothing like this. Could she be in purgatory, that place in high Christian belief where sinners were sent to wait out the time until their souls were cleansed by fire? She doubted it. Where were the flames, the purging?
With nothing but an endless string of moments on hand, she pursued this line of logic a little further. There were those Christians who believed purgatory was simply a place of waiting; if so, actual flames might not be necessary. She dismissed the thought with a fearful little attempt at a laugh.
Sally tried to look back realistically at their lives and who they had been. She and her husband Mica had enjoyed their talents and their great love; but on the greater scale of things, they were fairly ordinary people living normal lives without any real exception. They had both come from broken families, but that had only encouraged a tighter bond between them. And their daughter Anne Mae had been well-adjusted and caring. Sally would readily admit that maybe she herself had committed bushel baskets full of garden-variety sins in the old sense of sin, guilt and the attendant penance, but Anne Mae was barely ten, and her daughter would never end up in a place like this.
Sally forced herself to believe she wasn't going to wallow in endless self-pity. But as she fought hard to push down the overwhelming sense of loss for everything she had left behind, she was aware of a new feeling, a growing dread for what might lie in store for her and Anne Mae. Too easily her mind could become a pinwheel of frightened thoughts. Where are we? she asked herself. And who did this to us?

CHAPTER 1
Ferngate

one

Dr. Railsbach sighed and tried to stuff back his boredom. Once you grow accustomed to the pitiful mewling of lost souls, you are supposed to be able to withstand anything. That's why they have a special school for it. One could get over the pity, but never the crushing sense of the inconsequentiality of it all. Simpering Satan, who cared what happened to any particular homo sapiens, much less the entire lot of them? Railsbach paused, struggling with the fact that the troubled house he was visiting was the only place remaining in the entire sap world where they still performed the dance of the dead. He shook off his quirky moment of sad bemusement; he was impatient to get back to his work on the 21st floor of the obsidian tower adjacent to Cedars-Sinai Hospital, and figured he was not entirely responsible for his thoughts. Still, he was an old and experienced player, and he knew he wasn’t going to get away from the party without performing at least the obligatory bowing and scraping.
Dr. Railsbach was nearly six feet tall, well-groomed, with healthy pink skin and a full head of snow-white hair. If things were as they appeared, he might have been in his late sixties; and, were it not for a small, foreign glitter in the remote depths of his light blue eyes, he would have the look of a benign pharmacist, a man you could trust to dispense antibiotics or point you to a hot water bottle. But in Railsbach's case, appearances were only skin-deep. He had been spawned nearly six hundred and fifty years before; his body coating cleverly hid a dark gray carapace that was both insect-like and demonic in appearance, and his perfectly modulated voice emanated from a cybernetic voice box designed to produce the impossibly light sounds of human conversation.
Railsbach moved away from the shadow of Sir Albert's house, savoring the heat of the distant sun as if it were brimstone's own nectar. The structure itself, for all its elegant looks, gave him the dry sweats, reeking as it did with the passing smudge of generations of doomed human spirits. He knew he was supposed to enjoy the scent, but he didn't. Just another of his little quirks, a disquieting shibboleth he kept to himself lest it bring him unwanted attention or—Hell help us—remedial action.
Railsbach was well aware of the fact that this wasn't the kind of place where one would expect to find demons of any sort. In the first place, the huge home was located in Southern California near winding Mulholland Drive, on a level pad above the dry sage and stunted oak slopes north of Beverly Hills. Beverly Fricking Hills, for Bub's sake! as the new spawn would say.
Not that Ferngate wasn't unusual, in and of its own right; a looming English Tudor is as out of place on those oxygen-drenched and sun-scorched slopes as a fig leaf on a rock star's crotch. Railsbach bit down on the subject, realizing the extent of his boredom. He wanted to get back to his offices so badly, the sulfur was curling in his brain, back to his wonderful few rooms where the critical experiments of his long and generally not very rewarding career hung in the balance.
Railsbach reluctantly turned away from the broad green lawns and the gardens and made his way back inside, heading toward the festivities and idly glancing as he went at the dark walnut wainscoting, the heavy old cut crystal chandeliers, and the deeply carved Jacobean tables and sideboards.
He returned to the study just as Speth the assassin swung by, a graceful picture of lean menace. Railsbach tried to pretend an absorbing interest in the nearest oil painting, but Speth snagged him neatly, approaching too closely with the translator's dare and handing him a glass frothing with hot, dark liquid.
"Old Albert sure knows how to desecrate a room," Speth sneered.
Railsbach wanted to reply that Speth's own tastes ran more to sap nudes painted in Day-Glo on velvet, but he bit the thought off sharply. Nothing good comes from angering an assassin. Instead, he retreated to a polite stance just out of lash range and spoke politely.
"I think there is some merit in some of these..."
"'Some merit in some of these'," Speth echoed, his voice heavily coated in mockery.
"I think so," Railsbach said, moving on to inspect the next painting, which was of a Renaissance picnic in the roofless ruins of an ancient palace. To his dismay, Speth moved with him. The oversized oils were painted in the manner of Thomas Coventry, English countryside scenes with ant-like peasants diminished by gigantic boils of ancient forest stands and threatened by enormous, mushrooming death-white clouds. Railsbach paused before a notable rendition of a pack of pitiless hounds tearing at something that might have been a fox or a small sap, and another depicting somewhat larger wolfhounds swirling around a bloodied brown bear. These paintings were darker than their original intent, as over the centuries they had become smoke-dried and varnish-cracked. Railsbach moved on to study a faded tapestry featuring a naked, dreaming lady with floating hair and one hand cupped coyly below her abdomen, the ornate stitchwork laudable for the vague sense of peril which oozed from the too-big cabbage roses and the fence of thorns which made up its border.
"I'd love to eviscerate her in Cupid's name," Speth growled, spitting into a nearby potted fern.
"Come on, Kelp," Speth said impatiently, calling Railsbach by his old otherside, or hellside, name as he moved inside range and took his arm, "Let's go plague Felney." They were old flankers, and Speth casually broke the common rules of space and courtesy that his kind had built up over the ages to keep from killing each other. And worse, from Railsbach's point of view, Speth the assassin talked in shorthand. Go, No Go. Hit, Run. Translate, Rollover. Railsbach liked ornate language, disliked the fact that Speth had effortlessly gotten close enough to invade his space and encircle his arm, and most of all hated being called Kelp, which was his ancient spawn name. But as usual he said nothing, and Speth easily led them through the dancers.


two

At the far end of the ballroom, which also doubled as a study, a great fire roared in a huge floor-to-ceiling fireplace of foamy pinkish-gray marble carved in the intricately detailed manner of the medieval cathedral craftsmen. Railsbach, who had never really taken the time before, now noticed it was crafted in ornate swarms of human heads thick as bees, the sap eyes and mouths gaping wide at unknown horrors as they swam around the rim of the fiery furnace. A closer look at this carved pattern of doomed soul heads revealed not marble, but intaglio designs cast in thin, translucent porcelain with the cream or antique white color of faience fine, a clever surface that had assumed a lifelike rose-colored flush from the flames which licked behind them. The incised, silent sap howlers gave Railsbach the eerie feeling that, as he moved, they slowly turned and stared back at him while the writhing life of the fire gave the figures themselves a hellish animation.
This room was the center of a social event that most of the saps who had showed up vaguely remembered as being long on their calendar of must attends, though in reality that was anything but the case; were anyone to ask, not a single one of them could actually tell precisely why they were here. It didn't seem to matter. They danced and chatted and nibbled and sipped while a string quartet delivered a chilled Mozart and caterers in striped white-on-white silk vests chummed platters of creamed sardines, gray pot stickers and blackened calves’ livers circled in nearly raw bacon, and poured a fine smoky Fume Blanc from light green bottles. More saps were constantly arriving through the high front doors, thrown open now to the afternoon heat. And just as regularly, they were leaving again, although none of them back out through the front doors.
There was a costume-party froth in the air, undercut by the hint of smoke from the giant fireplace, a scent whether slightly of pitch or brimstone, which lent the hint of a rougher medieval ambiance to the festivities. The guests made up an odd speckle of humanity, everyone dressed as-you-were in a variety of attire from pajamas to dinner clothes to bloody butcher's overalls.
"Aren't you going to drink that, Kelpie?" Speth asked, gesturing to the glass in his hand.
Railsbach bolted down his nasty jolt as they arrived in the corner of the room next to the fireplace where the little clerk Felney, Sir Albert Fern's right-hand man, was busily plucking souls. He was at his usual seated position behind a huge, old wooden swing-open banker's desk. Even with the party at full blast, the regular business had to be attended. Soul trapping waits for no one, as the old saying goes. It was proudly said of Felney and his Southern California troop that they had a sixth sense for that right moment. More Hellside Propaganda, Railsbach thought uneasily. Lately, doubting fumes had more and more drifted unbidden across the darker tunnels of his mind. For some years now, Railsbach and his fellows had eagerly scrambled across a line that now he personally was beginning to believe should not have been crossed. Of this he said nothing; he simply shrugged his sap coat and turned his attention to Felney and the scenes at hand.
Much of the original desk at which the little clerk sat had been gutted and altered; the inner face and the open wings were neatly stuffed with banks of monitors, so clear they were like little mirrors of life itself. Keypad in front of him and face shield over his eyes, Felney punched away as if there were no party, no wine and hors d'oeuvres, no last dance of the lost souls. Railsbach knew the bulgy little fellow sometimes fancied himself fate's clerk, Charon at the crossing, the counterpoint to Peter-at-the-Pearly-Gate. And, in truth, Felney and others in his station had become far more than simple scribes since Railsbach and his dark team had uncovered the knowledge to nudge sap destiny towards their own destruction. Mankind may have slept since the fall, but their oldest enemy was back with the same old attitude—and the help of Father Science.

three

The party was approaching its climax, the music was taking on a wild and knife-glitter edge, the looks in the dancers' eyes were wide and hopeless. A young man in ragged jeans and a tattered T-shirt swung by with a woman in a gray business suit. The young man's shirt joyfully shouted CARPE DIEM in letters composed from colorfully designed surfboards. The young man's hair was dusted with fiberglass, a dark stain oozed from the corner of his mouth and his ribs were strangely caved. His partner's face seemed composed, though her hue was an unhealthy greenish-white and her lips were dark and purple. Railsbach had to duck to avoid the swing of their arms. He lightly slapped once at his own face, bothered by a minor annoyance. Just one little tap for control, and then he coughed and looked for a place to set down his empty glass.
Speth, who saw everything, chuckled a characteristic spitting gargle, the sound that Railsbach found particularly annoying. Speth never had any trouble with his own coat. He was angular and lean, dark, sardonic, always ready, a coiled spring with nails of steel sheathed inside an expensive Italian suit. Railsbach hated him in a way simultaneously genetic and personal.
Back when he had chosen his own coat, Railsbach had gone for a kindly, old fellow look, by inclination that was more instinct than thought. In his white lab coat he looked like he should be on cable television pitching hemorrhoid cures or liposuction. He and Speth shared little but their mutual impatience with boss Fern's old-fashioned style. The cause made for curious bedfellows. Again, the flicker of an unbidden thought. Speth in bed would be dominating, cruel, quick and done with it. Speth in bed! Railsbach shuddered. He would have to think of going back under, taking some lax time, getting a groom or even submitting to a semi-clamp. Of course, that would be impossible, now with his lab fully funded and his own EMO Project on full engines forward.
Speth sneered with enough punch so Felney had to overhear, "Back in force, out in the open for the first time since the fall, and we throw going-away parties..."
Railsbach tried to defuse, to disassociate, "Don't get your blue fellows in a pincher, Speedball. It's all a write-off to Sir Albert..."
Speth's answer was little more than a half-sneer, half-snarl. Railsbach shifted away from him, turning his attention to the rows of monitors facing Felney inside the desk. There he could see the scenes of daily human life played inside the bright rectangles, the entire wall of monitors a wash of human soapies. One monitor beeped, the flashing LED at its side attracting attention. Behind their shield, Felney's eyes flicked to the screen, that small motion combined with a twitch of his left eyebrow flicking it over to the main monitor directly in front of him. Railsbach, more than a little aware that his boredom had reduced him to watching a common sap melodrama, noticed that it was a kitchen scene. A black woman of about 40 was washing dishes. Railsbach looked at the blue-and-white checkered curtains in the windows behind the sink and wondered for the hundredth time why humans were so impractical. Before he could begin to form an answer, an angry black man came into the scene, yelling, "So, Doris—you had to let that skunk have his way with you!" His fist shot out, catching the woman on the side of the head and staggering her nearly out of the frame. She recovered and went on washing dishes, as if ignoring her furious attacker was going to solve her problem.
"Answer me, damn you, you bitch!" the black man shouted, pulling back his arm to punch her again.
A super in bright yellow letters blinked on at the bottom of the screen. It asked simply, "ROLLOVER OR TRANSLATE?"
Felney hesitated only a second, and then his finger hit a red button marked TRANSLATE on the keyboard in front of him.
The black man screamed, "Doris, you screwin' aroun' wit' the wrong man—!"
His thick-muscled arm was already coming out of cock, shooting forward to deliver a stunning blow to the back of Doris's head—but the blow never reached its mark. Instead, the black man grabbed his chest and went wide-eyed as his mouth formed a gaping hole in his face. A tortured gargle burst from his lips. He gasped for air, fingers clutching the dress of a startled Doris as he crumpled to the floor.
Speth shrugged, talking to Railsbach, but eyeing Felney, "The rumor is, the success rate is just about the same as it was before we had all this." He waved one hand, as if the bank of monitors was just so much trash.
Felney, his head shielded by his clear plastic shell, said nothing. His eyes continued to rove the bank of smaller monitors, which were clicking from scene to scene at a furious rate of ten or fifteen every second. Doris was calling 9-1-1 on the main, but Railsbach knew it was no use. Translated is as good as dead. Another scene bleeped. Felney's left eyebrow flicked the new moment to center stage and Doris's little life drama was ancient history, replaced by a shot angling down on an intersection somewhere in a battered urban ghetto. A black cop and a white cop were standing next to their squad car, confronting a street gang made up of a half-dozen sullen teens. A hulking black kid dressed in Oakland Raider silks led the gang, slouching with menace. The super appeared low on the screen, ROLLOVER or TRANSLATE?
"Trans 'em, man!" Speth urged impatiently.
But Felney hit ROLLOVER. On the screen, the gang hesitated, and then walked away from the confrontation, leaving the two cops in a state of thankful disbelief.
Felney replied for the first time. He spoke in his clipped way, his mildly sulphurous manner showing he took no mundungus from anyone, not even from Speth the hit man, "Hardly a wise choice, sir. We would likely have gotten the white policeman who has a string of corruption, and the big black kid who once drive-byed two teenage girls."
Speth shrugged, "Two out of eight."
Felney's eyes were black coals. "We have plans for them both. And my bet is we'll get at least half of the rest."
"Huh." Speth nodded his approval. "Deeper than I thought."
But Felney, clearly showing that he didn't need Speth's goodwill for anything, had already turned his gaze back to the main, where a new scene was bleeping for his attention.

four

It was a setup in a grungy bar, and a slight Hispanic man was talking to a burly Italian dockworker, yelling, "When you say, 'Chi-caaa-no' to me, you got a mean look on your face."
Felney smoothly flicked the TRANSLATE button with the side of his thumb.
The big dockworker moved in closer until his face was a fraction of an inch from the smaller man's nose, "You don't like how I talk to you? Mange me—uhh!"
Those were the last words the larger man would utter. His eyes went wide, and he looked down to see the blade of the slight Hispanic's knife buried deep in his stomach.
Speth looked at Felney, "Well?"
Felney kept his eyes on the monitors, his attention on a corner screen featuring a man, a woman and a young girl walking down a mountain trail. "Actual capture rate, sir?" Railsbach noted the word “sir” sounded like an afterthought or an oxymoron falling from the little clerk's lips. "I wouldn't know about that," Felney concluded.
The spitting sneer that bloomed across the assassin’s face told Railsbach that Speth’s failed buttering up of Felney had fanned his bad mood. The assassin was a few degrees away from steaming out of the room, but instead he turned back to the screen where something had caught his eye. He studied a simple family hiking scene, which Felney had eyebrowed across to the big screen, "What's that?"
Railsbach looked as well, and recognized the homo saps on the screen. He was careful not to say too much, "One of my EMO's."
One of Speth's eyebrows raised a fraction, "Who?"
"The man," Railsbach said, his tone of voice indicating he didn't want to talk about it.
"EMO is sapcrap," Speth sneered.
"The argument is over, Speth. I have been allocated the resources to continue my project."
"You and your ubermensch. You can't create a supersap. It's all sapcrap."
Speth's attention wandered back to the party. Railsbach eyed him with relief, knowing Speth had no interest in drawn-out conversations, much less any capability for a debate on the EMO Project. Speth was bred for the hunt, trained to unleash savagery, honed to move in for the kill. There wasn't a sap born, from Samson to Bruce Lee, not even any of their mythic warriors like Batman, Spiderman or the mighty Electra Assassin who could stand for 30 seconds against him. It would take an angel, or an aware and unblanked human...again the uneasy thought flickered through Railsbach's mind like heat lightning. The angels were gone, and no human would ever be unblanked or aware again. It couldn't—could not—happen.
Dr. Railsbach eyed Speth obliquely, from the corner of his face so not to draw a stray lash. It was common knowledge that, if the EMO experiments lived up to their promise, the day of the hunting assassin would be no more. There would be no chance of a rogue human breaking loose, no possibility the species could ever again present even the whisper of a threat. When that new age came, Speth would be promoted to the rank of noble hero...and promptly clamped, downgraded and given some shuffling task back Hellside. And they both knew it.