"Have you made your choice yet?"
The voice was as cold and cruel as the metal slab Damiel lay upon. The straps chafed raw against his arms, chest and legs. Steel manacles bit cruelly into his wrists. Already, his temples were encrusted with the salt of his tears.
Damiel wanted to answer. He desperately wanted to say the words that would end this once and for all. And yet - if he spared himself, it would never truly end. Not in his heart, not in his mind.
On the edge of his vision, he could still see the ten white-clad faceless figures gathered around him. Although his tears blurred his vision, he knew the symbol they wore on their shirts. A nine-headed serpent rearing up in defiance. Hydran Unity. The one syndicate even the police feared.
"Do you know who these fine people are around me?" said their leader.
"Surgeons. The silly bastards forgot to bring along their anaesthetic, didn't you silly bastards? But apart from that little inconvenience, they should be able to keep you alive for, oh, ten, maybe twelve hours."
Damiel's breath speeded up like a panting puppy, his heartbeat raced like rapid fire. He hoped to God that Takvid was bluffing. But then, if the rumours were true, this was a man who blasted the limbs off living police officers just for fun. If the rumours were true, then he was not likely to show much more mercy to a twelve year old.
"The thing is - once these good people start working, they're not going to stop. And don't think you could tell us a few minutes into the operation, 'cause by then you won't be able to talk. So it's tell now, and it'll be all over. Or, if you prefer ..."
Damiel felt every single organ in his body tighten, as if bracing for impact, as if bracing for a crashlanding that would be prolonged for hours. He was not going to give in, not even if that meant his death. Not even if that meant - but his mind could not even go there.
"God will punish you," Damiel whispered harshly.
"Oh, will he now?" Takvid stepped back in mock surprise. "Then tell Him to get in the fucking queue. No threat's gonna scare me, kid. Not even any of your bullshit about hell and damnation. I'm the world expert on that subject, kid, not you. Shall I prove it?" He turned to his surgeons. "Show him. Go on. Show him our last victim. It might help the pipsqueak make up his mind."
One of the surgeons wheeled something tall and spindly towards the table. A flat screen suddenly appeared over Damiel's face, attached to a long metal arm like a dentist's light.
"The poor sod you are about to see," said Takvid, "was lying in exactly the same position you are right now, on exactly the same table. Which, more or less, means that whatever happened to him is pretty much going to happen to you. Are you ready?"
Damiel was willing to do anything to delay his torture. He hoped that they would show him hours of footage so that he could have time to think, time to breathe. But if the footage truly lasts for hours, then that would mean - when they start on him -
"Yes," he whispered.
Then Takvid switched on the screen, and Damiel saw what they had planned for him.
He was still screaming when he awoke on the park bench.
Father Tamoni's kindly face was sunken with concern. There was not a hint of surprise.
"Have you been dreaming again?"
"It's nothing," said Damiel. But of course, Father Tamoni knew what the dream was about. He had known for six years. "I'm sorry," Damiel added, then turned and reached for his padscreen on the bench beside him. It was displaying the same page he had been reading before he had fallen asleep - 'The Legacy of Hieronymous Bosch'.
"No, don't worry," said Father Tamoni. "It's still your leisure time. Except - "
"What is it?"
"I should have told you earlier. I've been having a chat with the visiting priest, and he said that he would like to talk with you."
"Where is he from?" Damiel asked blankly.
"Kylastora," replied Father Tamoni. "I'm not sure if you've heard of it. It's one of the smaller ultratech colonies, not far outside the Keter border."
"Ultratech?" said Damiel, the slightest lilt of a query in his voice. "And he's interested in our monastery? In me?"
Over Father Tamoni's shoulder, in the distance, Damiel noticed the elderly, slightly built priest standing patiently under a tree.
"Well, all branches of our Church have to look out for each other," said Tamoni, "regardless of technological gulfs, or minor disagreements over the finer points of theology."
Damiel nodded abruptly. "But where does he fit into it?" he said, indicating the priest in the distance.
"Father Marishison has read your Declaration of Faith," said Tamoni. "He was most impressed with many of the ... issues
you raised. He thought it was wonderful that someone so young was willing to ask such tough questions. He would like to have a chat with you about them. Would that be all right?"
Damiel rested the padscreen on his lap, sighing lightly. So many saw his philosophising and introspection as evidence of precocious brilliance. He knew too well that it was nothing of the sort. He never had a choice. He had been forced to ask those questions at far too young an age.
"Fine," he finally said. "He can talk to me."
"I'm glad," said Tamoni. "Except - "
"Oh, nothing's wrong. But, well, you are of age, after all, and I trust you still haven't ruled out the possibility of transfer?"
"I'll decide when the time comes," said Damiel.
"I know. I know. It's just that - I've read Father Marishison's credentials, and I must say I'm very impressed. You know how long people live in ultratech societies. Well, Marishison is over a thousand years old." He paused to let that fact sink in. "And looks not a day over eighty, as you can see. He is very highly regarded where he comes from, and not just by other Jobitarians. He has seen a lot, been through a lot. So it must be a very high achievement just to attract his interest. I feel - " He swallowed. "Well, like I said, the choice will be yours and no one else's. But I feel that this may be your golden opportunity. I feel that this may be truly what you have always wanted. Lord knows I could be wrong, but that possibility seems so remote right now. I honestly - oh, listen to me. Babbling and raving about a gut feeling that could be disproved at the drop of a hat. I should really leave it to you. And please feel free to kick me in the arse if I'm proven wrong."
Damiel gave one of his rare smirks. "I would be most obliged," he said.
Father Tamoni left Damiel and Father Marishison to converse in private. The old priest sat on the bench beside Damiel.
"What have you been studying?" Marishison asked.
"The history of religious artwork," replied Damiel. "Throughout the galaxy."
Marishison nodded. "That's one of my own favourite subjects. It seems that we're off to a good start already. I'm sure Tamoni told you why I'm here."
"I read your Declaration of Faith. There is something unique about you, Damiel; and trust me - in my travels, I do not use that word lightly. We need someone with your honesty, someone with your sense of fair judgment. People like you are greatly valued where we live."
"Why?" Damiel's enquiry was swift and blunt. "Why me?"
"Because, like you, we believe in justice. We understand how important moral order is in a universe of sentient beings. That is all I'm allowed to tell you at this stage. Except for a few more vague details."
"What are they?"
"Well, I'll be honest with you. As advanced as our community may be, it is not all laughter and banquets. Quite often we do have to deal with the - let us say less savoury
side of life in this big galaxy. It is our calling. But there are always two things, two payments if you will, that make our grim task worth the while."
Damiel straightened his posture, genuinely curious as to where this conversation was heading. He had known for years that his life was pointless unless he was tested - truly, meaningfully tested. â€œWhat are these payments?" he enquired.
"One payment is this: it is the knowledge, the proof, that you are making a difference. You would be helping others make the right choice. As trivial and familiar as that may sound, it is the context that is valuable. Considering what we do, considering who we deal with, that context could not possibly be more valuable."
Damiel considered this very carefully. The old priest's words had so many possible meanings, yet Damiel caught a glimpse of something glinting like diamond behind those words. After all, the issues of choice and 'making a difference' had been playing upon his mind throughout his adolescence - a handful of years that had felt like a lungful of lifetimes.
"And the second?"
"The second payment is actually the first that you shall receive. It is simply an answer. An answer to a question that has been plaguing you."
Damiel's breath froze.
"Each and every one of us has such a question," said Marishison, his wizened, kindly eyes connecting with Damiel's. "I do not know what yours is, but I'm certain that you do. After all, our sources have informed us that you have a burning desire to be relieved of such a heavy burden."
The words struck home, burning away the last shreds of doubt Damiel harboured. This is what he wanted. This is what he had spent years praying for. Perhaps, if the Almighty willed it, this could finally bring some meaning to his tainted life.
In the corner of his vision, Damiel barely noticed the black cat staring at him from the branches of a nearby tree.
"I have good news, Father," said Damiel, in his most cheerful tone in years. "I don't have to kick you in the arse after all."
Tamoni rose from behind his desk, his face wide with joy. "You accepted?"
"Haha! Bless you, Son!" Tamoni rushed around the desk to embrace his loyal acolyte. "I knew it! When do you leave?"
"In three days. I'll start packing tonight."
"And so you must. But first, on the subject of the things you must take with you ... " Tamoni reached into a tray on the desk and picked up a gold amulet by its chain. "For so many years I have kept this, saving it for that day that had to come." He handed the amulet to Damiel.
Damiel held the amulet closer to his eyes, studying the finely detailed engraving on the small golden disc. It depicted the noblest of animals - a lion, a horse, an elephant, a tyrannosaurus - all bowing in reverence to a lamb on top of a hill. The lamb's eyes evoked peace and wisdom far beyond his seeming years. Radiant beams emanated from the lamb like a holy aura. At the bottom of the amulet were letters of Old Anglic, which Damiel recognised instantly: 'The Meek shall inherit the Universe.'
"It's beautiful," said Damiel.
"It's ancient, too," said Tamoni. "More than eight thousand years. Be sure to wear it on your travels, and heed its message well."
"I will, Father."
"And Damiel ... " The priest's grin wavered slightly. "They can help you, can't they?"
Damiel broadened his grin. "They left me with no doubt," he said. "They seem to know exactly what I am looking for."
Damiel floated freely in the small passenger cabin, savouring the exhilaration of his first space flight in seven years. In the window, the morning sun rose gloriously over the sweeping blue and white curve of his home planet Sylavor. Perhaps he could leave his memories behind, way down there. Perhaps that would be for the better. Yet Damiel knew all too well that the mind - his mind - did not operate on such simple, clear-cut rules. Healing was not going to be easy.
The door slid open, and Marishison floated in.
"Does the shuttle computer know what it's doing?" asked Damiel.
"Better than I ever would," said Marishison. "We should enter the Milton in less that one hour. But please, climb down into the chair. I have some words to share with you."
The seat gently gripped Damiel's skin and clothing with millions of soft fibres. Sitting across from him, it was clear that Marishison was similarly restrained, invisible though the fibres were. His face wore a long, grave expression that he had not seen in the three days he had known him.
"I am afraid I have told you and your peers a bunch of half-truths. Outright lies even. I must apologise. But please be certain, over the next week, you will have every right to change your mind. Just say the word, and we shall turn back without complaint. Understood?"
Damiel frowned, too concerned to nod. "What haven't you told me?"
"€œDamiel, it is true that I used to be a priest in the Universal Jobitarian Church, but that was a very long time ago."
"What the hell are you now?" Damiel blurted out.
"I still have a role to play. A role you might yet understand."
"And does that role involve whisking me off my own planet under false pretences? Or using your precious superior technology to forge your background and contact details?"
"So it would seem. But only with the best of intentions."
"Oh yes!" shouted Damiel. "The path to Hell is paved with them! Wonderful well-meaning intentions such as kidnapping!"
Marishison gently shook his head. "We will never let it come to that. If you do not want to continue this transfer, we can turn back at this very moment and return you to your home. If you make this decision tomorrow instead of today, then we turn back tomorrow and return you home. We have to pass through three wormholes. After the third wormhole, then there will be no turning back. But up until that point, you are free to choose. We only get a total of seven days out of hibernation before the third and final wormhole - the rest of the time, we have to remain in stasis while the ship accelerates at a much faster rate. But those seven days should provide plenty of time for you to make your choice. We are only a small part of a much larger community, and the extra time and energy in turning around will cost us very little. We have prepared and equipped ourselves for such eventualities."
A long period of silence followed.
"I sincerely hope you're telling the truth this time," said Damiel.
"In our community," said Marishison, "lies and half-truths are a necessary evil. However, there are some lies that must never be told. We will never lie to you about the choices we have given you."
"What precisely is your community?"
"That, I am afraid, is something I cannot disclose at this moment."
"I see. So I can make my own choices, so long as they are not fully informed choices?"
Marishison chuckled lightly. "So very perceptive. Can you see, now, why we chose you?"
"Oh, I'm sure I could see why, if only I had any idea what you've chosen me for."
"Again, you are free to turn back at any time."
"Yes, I could. I could return to the monastery right now, and spend the rest of my days never knowing who you really were, or who you worked for."
"That is quite the case. Your curiosity is too strong to let the likes of us slip out of your sight."
"And I'm sure you were counting on it."
Marishison chuckled more loudly than before. "I'm afraid you have me there. But that is your own curiosity dragging you along on this adventure, not mine."
"Somehow you knew," said Damiel. "You knew that I had - "
"That you were being plagued by the questions of life? That is a plague we all share, Son."
"I think you know what I mean," said Damiel. "Except ... Father Tamoni never told you, did he? He never gave you specific details."
"Only your Declaration of Faith. But trust me, Lad, I am very good at reading between the lines."
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