Pando

FICTION: The Devil You Know (Chapter Four)

By David Holmes , written on August 6, 2015

From The Fiction Desk

Previously: Chapter Three

It was a woman's voice that had shrieked so terribly, expressing a torment Samantha hoped she would never experience -- though the odds of a such a grisly fate befalling her had increased exponentially over the minutes since sneaking away from the party.

The scream came from the last door at the end of the hall, toward which Samantha moved quickly but noiselessly over the carpeted floor. She heard nothing more until placing her ear to the door as slowly and carefully as she'd ever done anything in her life.

There were three voices, two male and one female. All were muffled, especially the woman. She seemed to be crying and every so often Samantha thought she had screamed again, but at a much lower volume than before. Her voice also had a much less natural timbre than the men had, as if the woman was down in a hole or trapped behind glass.

Samantha struggled mightily to keep her composure while this woman suffered. Even if it meant becoming a victim herself of whatever torture awaited behind that door, she could not go on listening and doing nothing. She was about to turn the knob - if it was locked she'd try to bust the door down - when suddenly the woman's sobs accelerated dramatically and shot up a dozen octaves in pitch before falling back in an instant to the original tone quality.

After a moment of confusion, Samantha realized that the woman's voice was being played back on some kind of recording device. And whoever had been listening to the tape previoulsly had forgot to turn the volume down since the last viewing -- which was likely done in private when the house wasn't crawling with guests. Surely, the house staff could have heard all, but Samantha assumed that to wait on Ellis Moore -- and, in particular, to clean up after him -- required the thickest of skins.

Once Samantha knew there was no one in immediate danger -- at least not on thar side of the door -- she was able to focus on the men. But they were too quiet and too muffled for Samantha to suss out more than a handful of disconnected words -- ones with unique pronunciations that could not be mistaken for anything else... Like "algorithm," "analysis," and "I-87." She was listening for "Satan" or "Devil" and at one point she swore she heard "Dark Lord," but honestly that could have just as easily been "marker" or "narco.”

She could be sure of nothing. And unless the cabal's preferred nom de Diable was "Beelezebub," the Satanism connection would likely remain just a theory for now. As for the recording of the tortured woman, it was definitely disturbing -- But was it real? She had heard of porn involving simulated torture. For that matter, there are plenty of mainstream box office successes where torture plays a starring role. Samantha imagined a bunch of Satanists renting Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" and rooting for the Romans. She even almost broke a smile at this thought, but her face quickly went blank upon making out another unmistakeable word: "Samantha."

She suddenly felt ill and, more troublingly, her breathing had gotten so heavy that it ceased to be silent. She also noticed a cramp that had been growing as she stood awkwardly and motionlessly against the door. The cramp started in her left calf, but the pain had since spread across her entire leg and was now making its way up her back. There was no question now that her absence had been noticed -- which either made it incredibly urgent or not urgent at all that she return to the group.

After a couple more minutes, the pain in her leg and back made the decision for her. Just moments away from collapsing to the floor, Samantha began to gingerly transfer her weight to her other foot when suddenly the voices began to ring out more loudly and clearly.

"Oh, before you go, Ellis," one man said, raising his voice, it would seem, to reach the Moore from across the room as he exited. "Which Bible verse were going to read tonight?"

Moore made a joyless noise that nevertheless most closely resembled a laugh.

"Corinthians 4.4."

* * * *

"We have to find a Bible."

When Samantha finally found Ryan he was splayed on a couch with a marijuana vaporizer at his feet. The two women were asleep on either side of him, all three of them fully clothed.

After staring blankly for a few seconds, his eyes lit up as his mouth managed to form an immense narcotic grin. "Sam!" Ryan exclaimed hazily. "They were looking for you. Where did you go?"

"It's a long story," Samantha said and began to recount the harrowing experience she had since breaking away from the group.

When she reentered the dining hall after eavesdropping on Moore and his emissary, pleading with whatever higher power made the rules in his house to take her limp away, it was empty. None of the doors were open -- not even the one to the foyer -- so she entered the swinging kitchen doors but found no one save for an obese Latin American cook who began to curse angrily at her in Spanish. Back in the dining area, she recalled the dungeon mazes in Legend of Zelda from her youth, where the rule was to always go straight until reaching a dead end, so she made her way to the door opposite the one that connected to the foyer.

It opened easily and led her to a hallway that was much more fitting for a gathering of Satanists. Red bulbs splashed demonic light onto the walls on either side of her. She stopped and listened carefully for screams or perhaps chanting. She heard neither, instead sensing the faint bump of bad electronic music. "What, no death metal?" she thought. Then again, techies -- Satanists or not -- were never known for having good taste.

She followed the repetitive kick drums through more rooms, more hallways. She had to double-back a couple times, once because she lost the signal, another time because she hit a locked door, and the time for jimmying locks had passed. But she always found her way back to the thumps. She moved fast but was not blind to her surroundings. She saw weird candle-strewn shrines evocative of voodoo and Santeria; more grotesque statues that had relocated throught history from the home of one mad king to another, and which would surely move again once Moore's evil reign had passed.

Samantha had no time to feel panic - fear would only be her enemy. The only time her composure nearly slipped was when she entered a room that, for no immediately discernible reason was buzzing with thousands of flies - so many that it was hard to see the red-black walls around her. As she stopped to ponder her next move, one of the flies but her arm, another her cheek. Doing all she could to keep from screaming, she ran, propelled by sheer instinct until she found a door -- any door -- that offered her an escape.

Once free of the insects, she stopped to take a breath in a room lit by dim greens and yellows. In one corner was a pile of thick steel chains riveted to the wall on one end and connected to shackles on the other. A few feet away stood a giant wooden armoire that was closed, but likely not locked. She could safely assume the nature of the tools inside.

Samantha was now close enough to the music to hear some synth melodies along with the bass. Its source could not have been more than two or three rooms away. As she finally regained her composure and began to move again, she stopped cold.

For the first time since hearing the tortured woman's scream, Samantha realized she was not alone.

Footsteps and voices, one male and one female, approached the only door besides the one that led back to the flies. And she couldn't go back there. The armoire, meanwhile, was too close to one of the corners to hide behind. She was trapped. And so with every option exhausted, Samantha took a deep breath and almost felt comfort in surrendering to the inevitable, letting a wave of resigned powerlessness rush over her.

The door opened, and standing before Samantha were two mid-level employees she'd recognized from the office.

"Oh! I'm sorry," the man said. "We thought this room was empty."

"No, no I'm just passing through," Samantha said. "I'll, uh, leave you to it."

The woman laughed nervously. "It's not like that," she said. "Honestly we were just looking for a place to chill and talk that wasn't so... eventful."

God, it felt good to talk to somebody normal, again. "Well, despite the, uh, decor, this room is as good as any if you're looking for a little peace and quiet. Just don't go in that door," Samantha said, pointing to the fly room.

"What's in there?" The man asked.

Samantha was so enjoying this commonplace verbal exchange, unmarred by Satanic panic, that she just couldn't bear to break the bizarre truth to them. And whoever these two people were, she was impressed and a bit envious of their ability to hang on to themselves in the face of so much strangeness and terror. She wasn’t about to spoil that now.

"Oh just a couple people who, you know, I think would prefer to be alone."

"Message received," the woman said.

She had lost herself a bit in that conversation and only when she reached the exit did the sense of urgency underlying Samantha's mission revisited her.

"Before I go," Samantha said, "I'm looking for my friend. His name's Ryan. He's got short dark hair, a beard, and last I saw him he was with a couple young women?"

"Ohhh that guy," the man said. "He's really taken to thd dsdIf  hedonistic bacchanal thing."

"Oh great," Samantha said, rolling her eyes. "I'll just look for the dude in a toga being fed grapes by a woman in her underwear."

"After you go through this door, take a right down a long hallway that dead ends at some double doors. That leads to the 'rave room.'"

The rave room. What is with tech nerds and 90s rave culture?

"Thanks," Samantha said."

"See you at the unveiling," the man said, as if Moore was debuting any old app or operating system. Maybe he was.

Having conferred with this happy couple, who were so blithely unconcerned about what might happen at midnight, gave Samantha a much needed respite from her anxiety -- an anxiety that had nearly overpowered her sense of judgment and focus. But the encounter also filled her with doubt, clouding her resolve like a poison. Were her Satanic suspicions as much a product of her Catholic neuroses as was the primeval guilt she was made to feel over imaginary sins? Guilt that was induced by the holy sisterhood as part of some ancient tradition which, in its own way, was every bit as insidious as a demonic ritual? Were fear and shame merely two sides of the same irrational coin?

Samantha was confident that, if asked to explain her behavior thus far, she could still credibly characterize it as the consequence of either innocent ineptitude, plausible coincidence, or even a unanticipated drug reaction -- of the three, she had little doubt that Moore would be most sympathetic to the "bad trip" defense. But before going any further, and certainly before she would steel herself to take significant action against Moore or the demon technology that would spawn from this lair in just two hours, Samantha wanted to see more evidence. So instead of following the music to the right of the room she just exited, she took a left and walked down a cold, grey corridor.

The hallway was absent any Satanic iconography, but the concrete and cobwebs -- along with an abrupt drop in temperature that gave her goosebumps on her bare arms and legs -- unsettled her far more than any of Moore's gothic interior design flourishes, to say nothing of the dollar-store skulls and candles she encountered while making her way back to the party. Whatever lighting had been installed here was either turned off or burnt out, as Samantha stumbled through near-darkness, unable to see the curves and bends of the corridor until they were only a few inches from her face.

There was something uncanny about these surroundings. Everything was eerily familiar: The musty stench of clothing and colognes inherited from dead relatives; a chilling draft of mysterious origin, which shocked her bones and stung her eyes, despite there being no window in sight; the unextraordinary yet uniquely memorable pockmarked texture of the concrete blocks that walled her in; and even the echo of her footsteps against the gritty, dusty floor. What she heard was not the clacking noise of heels like the ones she wore that evening, but lower, softer thuds that might be created by, say, children's tennis shoes.

Samantha's parents were not prone to inflicting corporal punishment on their children. The one exception to this rule was if the children talked over the priest's sermon in church. On most occasions, Samantha and her two brothers wouldn't dare make a peep. and yet her father, who since losing his job had taken to drinking a quart of bourbon before noon, would often mistake the sounds of some other father's unruly child for his own. On these unhappy Sundays, Samantha's father would clamp his huge, strong hand around her tiny 6-year-old wrist and literally drag her to the basement door. Upon reaching the steps, she would finally relent and except her punishment, walking on her own volition down the stairs to avoid tumbling down and breaking her neck. Once they were alone in the cold dark, he would remove his belt and begin to strike -- ten lashes on those rare occasions when he was "on a break" from alcohol, twenty if he had a few drinks in him. He reserved the most vicious beatings, however, when he was blacked-out drunk. On those afternoons -- which would become more and more frequent as Samantha progressed through elementary school -- he doled out upwards of thirty lashes, before leaving his daughter to cry in the pitch-black basement for an hour or more, alone with the spiders and silverfish.

Twenty-five years later, as she felt through the darkness for evidence of evil deep in the bowels of her boss' estate, she felt of the full weight of the physical and psychological trauma of those wretched Sundays rush back to her, as intense as if she were 6-years-old all over again. She told herself aloud that it was just her senses playing tricks on her, and she believed it, at least intellactually. But that didn't make the pain and fear feel any less real.

It wasn't until Samantha heard the chanting, coming from around a crook where the hall turned right, that she snapped out of her unholy trance. She did not know how long she had been crying, but her face and dress were soaked. Nor did she know how she came to be under the spell of her own worst memories, or how the spell was broken. 

But as she slowly manuevered around the bend and approached a closed room that housed the chanters, of this much she was certain: that no matter what lay behind that door, it could not inflict even a fraction of the fright, pain, and heartache she had experienced moments earlier.

Sick of sneaking around, and feeling as if her capacity for trauma had already been exhausted, Samantha didn't take even a moment to think about it, before entering the room and sitting in the closest empty chair.

It wasn't long, however, before she began to wonder whether that was such a good idea.

On a dais facing about a dozen spectators, a large figure whose face was hid in a thick hooded cloak made from the skins of at least six different animals was chanting along with the spectators in Latin, as a beautiful black-haired woman Samantha had never seen before lay naked on her back atop a stone slab. Her eyes were closed and she appeared to be unconscious. The figure, which owing to its size Samantha assumed was a man, held a ceramic bowl engraved with arcane symbols above the woman. On either side of them, giant torches the size of campfires raged.

Every person in the crowd save for her wore a mask or some kind - from horned goat heads to Mardi Gras eyemasks to various grotesque Halloween faces made of latex. Whatever this was, it clearly wasn't designed for the guests from EndTech. She did not belong here and there was no way to fake it. Her body sweated and her heart raced - some instinct inside her told her she was in mortal danger. She wanted to leave but was too petrified to move.

Still speaking in Latin, the man moved to the side of the stone slab where the woman's legs lay bent with her knees to the ceiling. He lifted the bowl above his head and as he did so, the cloak opened near his midsection revealing an erection. His hood parted a bit to reveal an ancient-looking face covered in burn scarss As he entered the woman without difficulty, he began to pour out the contents of the bowl onto the woman's body, covering her in thick red liquid. The bowl was small, like something a demon would use to eat cereal out of, and yet blood kept gushing out of it, seemingly gallons of it now, as the chant of the man and his crowd settled on a single word: "Ascensio. Ascensio, Ascensio."

Rise. Rise, Rise

As the thrusting man became more animated, the chanting reached the volume of a shout. Some of the spectators began to stand. Nobody looked at her, but she could feel the energy in the room intensify. And it might not be long before one of these Satan-loving villains decided they'd like to see the random maskless woman nobody invited here taken onstage as well.

She got up too and began to walk quickly but quietly toward the door. But at that point the masked audience, cheering on their host like pledges at a frat party had stood up and began to wander about the room. Whenever she tried to get around one, another appeared out of nowhere, blocking her way. She thought she felt a hand on the back of her thigh but dared not turn around . She had to keep putting less and less space and fewer and fewer masked chanters between her and the exit. As long as she did that, she didn't panic, didn't scream. The time for screaming -- like the screaming woman in the video -- was not now, not yet. She would know when it was time to scream.

By the time her hand finally touched the knob, it felt and sounded as if the audience had tripled and that every creature in attendance had a hand on her. "Ascensio! Ascensio! Ascensio!"

And yet, when she finally passed the threshold into the hallway, it was as if another spell had broken. The hands were gone. She looked behind her and the door was closed. The chanting had dropped to its original low drone of Latin phrases she didn't understand. Had she been hallucinating? Had the wine been drugged? Or was it a prank? A sick, inappropriate prank, to be sure, but a prank nonetheless? She waited for the chanting to give way to the hyena laughter of the sick frat boys she tried as hard as possible to avoid in college - the guys who in her mom's generation studied finance but now, having glommed onto whatever's most lucrative at the moment, joined tech firms.

In any case, she had seen enough. Samantha never had any illusions that the work she did at EndTech was extraordinarily ethical. That's not how multibillion dollar tech firms operated. But what set Moore apart, what set EndTech apart, and what his love of the occult and Satanism -- "real" or not -- represented, was a maliciousness. An evil intent. A hatred of women. A sense of ridicule toward goodness.

Samantha thought again of her father. He did a lot of bad things, a lot of which she didn't remember, and most of the rest her mother never told her about.

But he wasn't a bad man. He was a sick man, sick with alcoholism and depression and self-loathing -- qualities he always possessed but which were given the opportunity to grow and metastasize grotesquely after being laid off because of somebody like Moore. Despite everything, she truly believed her father was not malicious. It's certainly possible, Samantha admitted, that this belief was rooted in genetic self-delusion; it's never easy to admit that half of one's biological code is programmed for wickedness. But Samantha remembered that her father often cried harder than she did while hitting her. To him, keeping Samantha in God's good graces was a painful but necessary burden he accepted. He "knew" that he was helping her -- which was a lie, of course, but one he believed with true sincerity and self-certainty.

Other than booze, beatings, and the Bible, the thing Samantha remembered most about her father was his bitterness over losing his job to an "algorithm" -- at first she thought he meant that a piece of new technology had become capable of doing his job better and faster and more cheaply than a human. This belief that her father hated technology was a subconscious but extremely significant factor in Samantha's choice to study computer science, representing a tacit act of rebellion against him.

But Samantha only found out later from her mother that, until the day he drank himself to death, her father had enormous faith in the promise of technology to make humans and the world they inhabit a better place. Moreover, his expertise was within a programming sub-field that, even a quarter-century later, still can't be replicated by machines.

No, her father lost his job because someone at his company invented a pernicious little algorithm that could assign each worker's "objective" value based on a battery of metrics and by measuring literally a million data points related to the employee's health, psychology, intelligence, personality, habits, family history, the number of kids he has, whether or not he has a dog, and so on. Unfortunately, the score assigned by the algorithm to Samantha's father was just below whatever arbitrary threshhold his company set for employees.

The algorithm was enormously controversial and quickly fell out of favor among in America, where the public believes that passion and hard work outweigh innate ability or circumstances outside of our control. Many unethical and uncaring firms still use it in secret, however. And at a tiny handful of firms, executives even brashly admit to using the algorithm, attributing their firms' success to it. Ellis Moore at EndTech is one of them.

Technology and technology firms are responsible for a great deal of financial and societal injustice. But almost none of them, Samantha has come to realize, exploit and exacerbate these injustices as aggressively and without remorse as EndTech. Yes, her father lost his job because of "guys like Moore" -- but not because of the technology they build. It's because of their corporate irresponsibility and human cruelty.

By using black magic to conjure horrifying memories of her father's abuse, and by commanding the participants of his sex ritual to assault her, Moore likely sought to intimidate Samantha into dropping her adversarial campaign against him.

But the gambit backfired, steeling Samantha's resolve and offering incontrovertible evidence that, regardless of Satan's involvement or lack thereof, Moore's effect on humanity is irredeemably toxic. Samantha decided then that whatever Moore was bringing into the world tonight, whatever he had planned to "rise," she would try to stop it.

"So are you with me?" Samantha asked Ryan after explaining everything she had seen over the past hour.

"I'm with you," he said.

"Great. Now let's go find Stellar."

End of Part Four