Immense, fearsome, tattooed, Deucalion nodded to Lulana and Evangeline, and said, “ ‘God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.’”
“Timothy,” Lulana said shakily, “chapter one, verse seven.”
“I may look like a devil,” Deucalion told the sisters, to put them at ease, “but if I ever was one, I am not anymore.”
“He’s a good guy,” Michael assured them. “I don’t know a Bible verse for the occasion, but I guarantee he’s a good guy.”
Deucalion sat at the table, in the chair that Lulana recently had occupied. “Good evening, Pastor Laffite.”
The minister’s eyes had been glazed, as if he’d been staring through the veil between this world and another. Now he focused on Deucalion.
“I didn’t recognize Timothy one, verse seven,” Laffite said. “More of my program is dropping out. I’m losing who I am. Say me another verse.”
Deucalion recited: “ ‘Behold, he is all vanity. His works are nothing. His molten images are wind and confusion.’”
“I do not know it,” said the preacher.
“Isaiah sixteen, verse twenty-nine,” said Evangeline, “but he’s tweaked it a little.”
To Deucalion, Laffite said, “You chose a verse that describes… Helios.”
Carson wondered if she and Michael could lower their guns. She decided that if it was wise to do so, Deucalion would already have advised them to relax. She stayed ready.
“How can you know about Helios?” Laffite asked.
“I was his first. Crude by your standards.”
“But your program hasn’t dropped out.”
“I don’t even have a program as you think of it.”
Laffite shuddered violently and closed his eyes. “Something just went. What was it?”
His eyes again moved rapidly up and down, side to side, under his lids.
“I can give you what you want most,” Deucalion told him.
“I think… yes… I have just lost the ability to switch off pain.”
“Have no fear. I will make it painless. One thing I want from you in return.”
Laffite said nothing.
“You have spoken his name,” Deucalion said, “and have shown that in some other ways, your program no longer restrains you. So tell me… the place where you were born, where he does his work.”
His voice thickening slightly as if points had been shaved off his IQ, Laffite said, “I am a child of Mercy. Mercy born and Mercy raised.”
“What does that mean?” Deucalion pressed.
“The Hands of Mercy,” said Laffite. “The Hands of Mercy and the tanks of Hell.”
“It’s an old Catholic hospital,” Carson realized. “The Hands of Mercy.”
“They closed it down when I was just a little kid,” Michael said. “It’s something else now, a warehouse. They bricked in all the windows.”
“I could kill you all now,” Laffite said, but he did not open his eyes. “I used to want to kill you all. So bad, I used to want it, so bad.”
Lulana began to weep softly, and Evangeline said, “Hold my hand, sister.”
To Carson, Deucalion said, “Take the ladies out of here. Take them home now.”
“One of us could take them home,” she suggested, “and one of us stay here to give you backup.”
“This is between just me and Pastor Laffite. I need to give him a little grace, a little grace and a long rest.”
Returning the Magnum to his holster, Michael said, “Ladies, you should take your praline pies with you. They don’t prove beyond doubt that you were here, but you should take them with you anyway.”
As the women retrieved the pies from the refrigerator and as Michael shepherded them out of the kitchen, Carson kept the gun on Laffite.
“We’ll meet later at your house,” Deucalion told her. “In a little while.”
“ ‘Darkness was upon the face of the deep,’” Laffite said in his thicker voice. “Is that one, or have I remembered nothing?”
“Genesis one, verse two,” Deucalion told him. Then he indicated with a gesture that Carson should leave.
She lowered the pistol and reluctantly departed.
As she stepped into the hall, she heard Laffite say, “He says we’ll live a thousand years. I feel as if I already have.”
In the secret drawing room, Erika considered speaking again to the occupant of the glass case.
Without question, it had moved: a shadowy spasm within its amber shroud of liquid or gas. Either it had responded to her voice or the timing of its movement had been coincidental.
The Old Race had a saying: There are no coincidences.
They were superstitious, however, and irrational.
As she had been taught in the tank, the universe is nothing but a sea of chaos in which random chance collides with happenstance and spins shatters of meaningless coincidence like shrapnel through our lives.
The purpose of the New Race is to impress order on the face of chaos, to harness the awesome destructive power of the universe and make it serve their needs, to bring meaning to a creation that has been meaningless since time immemorial. And the meaning they will impose upon it is the meaning of their maker, the exaltation of his name and face, the fulfillment of his vision and his every desire, their satisfaction achieved solely by the perfect implementation of his will.
That creed, part of her basic programming, rose into her mind word for word, with remembered music by Wagner and images of millions of the New Race marching in cadence. Her brilliant husband could have been a poet if mere poetry had not been unworthy of his genius.
After she had spoken to the occupant of the case, a primal fear had overcome her, seeming to rise from her very blood and bone, and she retreated to the wingback chair, where she still sat, not just pondering her options but analyzing her motivation.
She had been shaken by William’s amputation of his fingers and by his termination. She had been more deeply moved by Christine’s revelation that she, Erika, had been given a richer emotional life—humility, shame, the potential for pity and compassion—than others of the New Race were granted.
Victor, whose genius was unparalleled in all of history, must have good reason for restricting all other of his people to hatred, envy, anger, and emotions that only turned back upon themselves and did not lead to hope. She was his humble creation, of value only to the extent that she could serve him. She did not have the insight, the knowledge, or the necessary breadth of vision to imagine that she had any right to question his design.
She herself hoped for many things. Most important of all, she hoped to become a better wife, better day by day, and to see approval in Victor’s eyes. Although she had so recently arisen from the tank and had not yet lived much, she couldn’t imagine a life without hope.
If she became a better wife, if eventually she no longer earned a beating during sex, if one day he cherished her, she hoped that she might ask him to allow Christine and others to have hope as she did, and that he would grant her request and give her people gentler lives.
“I am Queen Esther to his King Ahasuerus,” she said, comparing herself to the daughter of Mordecai. Esther had persuaded Ahasuerus to spare her people, the Jews, from annihilation at the hands of Haman, a prince of his realm.
Erika did not know the full story, but she had confidence that the literary allusion, one of thousands in her repertoire, was sound and that, per her programming, she had used it properly.
She must strive to become cherished by Victor. To do so, she must serve him always to perfection. To meet that goal, she must know everything about him, not merely the biography that she had received in direct-to-brain data downloading.
Everything necessarily included the occupant of the tank, which evidently had been imprisoned by Victor. Regardless of the profound fear that it had triggered in her, she must return to the case, face this chaos, and impress order upon it.
At the head of the casket—it definitely seemed more like a casket now than like a jewel box—Erika again lowered her face to the glass at the point directly above where she imagined the face of the occupant waited submerged in amber.
As before, but with less lilt in her voice, she said, “Hello, hello, hello in there.”
The dark shape stirred again, and this time the sound waves of her voice appeared to send blue pulses through the case as the rap of her knuckle had done earlier.
Her lips had been six inches above the glass when she spoke. She leaned closer. Three inches.
“I am Queen Esther to his King Ahasuerus,” she said.
The pulses were a more intense blue than before, and the shadowy occupant seemed to rise closer to the underside of the glass, so she could see the suggestion of a face, but no details.
She said again, “I am Queen Esther to his King Ahasuerus.”
Out of the throbbing blue, out of the unseen face, came a voice in answer, somehow unmuffled by the glass: “You are Erika Five, and you are mine.”
After the black tongue of night licked the last purple off the western horizon, the oil lamps were ignited atop the poles in the west pit.
Like phantom dragons, wings and tails of lambent orange light chased across the trash field, and shadows leaped.
Thirteen of the fourteen members of Nick’s crew were with him in the pit, wearing hip-high boots, faces glistening, lined up in eager anticipation along the route that the pair of low, open-bed trucks would take to the place of interment.
Beside him stood Gunny Alecto, her eyes shining with reflected fire. “Saving savant savour sausages sandwiches savages. Savages! Here come the dead savages, Nick. You got your stuff?”
“I got it.”
“You got your stuff?”
He raised his pail, which was like her pail, like the pail that each of them carried.
The first of the trucks descended the sloped wall of the pit and growled across the desolation, uncountable varieties of garbage crunching and crackling under the tires.
Five sturdy poles, seven feet high, rose from the bed of the truck. To each pole had been lashed one of the dead members of the Old Race, who had been replaced by replicants. Three had been city bureaucrats, and two had been police officers. Two were female; three were male.
The cadavers had been stripped of clothes. Their eyes had been taped open to give the impression that they bore witness to their humiliation.
The mouths of the dead were wedged open with sticks because their tormentors liked to imagine that they were pleading for mercy or at least were screaming.
One of the males had been delivered dismembered and decapitated. The Crosswoods crew had wired the parts together with malicious glee, putting the head on backward, comically repositioning the gen**als.
As the truck drew near, the assembled crew began to jeer the dead with enthusiasm, with mocking laughter and catcalls, louder than they were articulate.
Epsilons, lowest of the rigid social order, were allowed to have contempt for no one of their own race, only for the one-heart men and women who claimed to be the children of God yet could not turn off pain and died so easily. With jeers and venomous laughter, these simplest products of the tanks expressed their detestation and thereby claimed their superiority.
As the truck came to a stop, the crew looked excitedly at Nick, who stood at the midpoint of the lineup. As a Gamma among Epsilons, he must lead by example, even though they, not he, had conceived this ceremony and designed these rituals.
From his pail, he scooped a reeking mass. Always available in a dump were rotting fruits and vegetables, filth in infinite variety, decomposing this and rancid that. During the day, he had collected choice items. Now, with a cry of contempt, he hurled his first handful at one of the cadavers on the truck.
The splattery impact drew a cheer from the Epsilons. After his example, they scooped foul wads from their buckets and pelted the hoisted dead.
As the wide-eyed, open-mouthed corpses endured this sustained barrage, the jeers of the tormenting crew grew more vicious, less verbal and more vocal. The laughter became too shrill to have any quality whatsoever of merriment, and then grew too bitter to be mistaken for any kind of laughter at all.
When the Epsilons had exhausted their ammunition, they threw the empty pails and then flung themselves upon the truck, tearing fervently at the bindings that held the cadavers to the poles. As they freed each stained and dripping body, they pitched it from the truck into a nearby shallow depression in the trash field, which would serve as a mass grave.
Although Nick Frigg did not climb onto the open-bed pillory with his shrieking crew, their rage and their hatred excited him, inflamed his own resentment against those supposedly God-made people who claimed free will, dignity, and hope. He cheered on the denizens of Crosswoods and tossed his greasy hair and shook his fists at the night, and felt empowered by the thought that one day soon his kind would reveal themselves in all their inhuman ferocity and would show the self-satisfied Old Race how quickly their precious free will could be stripped from them, how brutally their dignity could be destroyed, and how utterly their pathetic hope could be extinguished forever.
Now came the symbolic killing.
When the five cadavers had been tossed from the truck, the Epsilons, including the driver, scrambled to the gravesite in full cry.
They longed to kill, craved killing, lived with a need to kill that was intense to the point of anguish, yet they were forbidden to uncork their wrath until their maker gave permission. The frustration of their shackled lives daily paid compound interest on the principal of their anger until they were rich with it, each of them a treasury of rage.
In the symbolic killing, they spent mere pennies of their wealth of wrath. They stomped, stomped, kicked, punted, ground their heels, threw their arms around one another’s shoulders and circle-danced in groups of four and six, danced among the dead and certainly upon the dead, in ferocious hammering rhythms, filling the torch-lit night with the dreadful drumming, timpani and tom-tom and bass drums and kettle, but all in fact the boom of booted feet.
Although a Gamma, dog-nose Nick was infected by the excitement of the Epsilons, and a fever of fury boiled his blood, too, as he joined them in this dance of death, linking himself into a circle with the conviction that any Beta would have done the same, or even any Alpha, for this was an expression not merely of the frustration of the lowest class of the New Race but also of the yearning and the repressed desires of all the children of Mercy, who were made for different work and loaded with different programs, but who were as one in their hatred and their wrath.