Damiel awoke in pitch darkness.
"Lights," he commanded as he sat up in bed, grateful that he had no memory of dreaming this time. The tug of gravity reminded him that he was no longer on board the shuttle, but on the starship Milton. The surprisingly expansive, lavish apartment all around him confirmed that his recent memories had been no dream.
He knew that, relative to where he sat, the starship was travelling 'upwards' at a constant acceleration, producing a gravitational force almost identical what he would experience on the surface of his homeworld. What differed from the spaceships of his homeworld was the Milton's sheer power and durability. According to the clock, the ship had been travelling for four hours. Damiel dimly recalled hearing the thrusters fire shortly before he had fallen asleep. It was still more than a day before the ship was scheduled to greatly increase its acceleration. Even then, it would take days to reach the first wormhole, billions of kilometres away.
Still mildly groggy, Damiel continued his appraisal of the room. He still could not get over how huge everything was - the towering door, the ceiling almost two storeys up, the generous space between the human-sized furniture. It was as if the ship had been originally fashioned for a race of giants. Damiel recalled his researches of the millions of sentient species that inhabited the known galaxy, many of which had descended from the animals and machines of Old Earth. Marishison had told him that three of the crewmembers were splices - genetically altered descendents of Earth animals. So far, Damiel had met Kryslek, the ship's apparently youthful human captain. He had yet to be introduced to the rest of the crew.
"How was your rest?" came the voice of Marishison.
"Fine, thank you," said Damiel to the unseen transmitter. "If rather brief."
"As brief as needed," said Marishison, "give or take a few minutes. The crew are preparing for dinner, and you are the Guest of Honour. Will you be ready in half an hour?"
"That shouldn't be a problem. Except - I've rarely ever had the chance to use my translation implant, so ... "
"Oh for Heaven's sake, don't worry about that! Our cerebral implants are a mighty leap more advanced, if you will pardon the comparison. We've all switched our in-out translators to Sylavoran. And besides, we shall have plenty of time to upgrade your implants on our little trip."
For a moment Damiel bit his tongue. "That's fine. What are the formalities?"
"Oh, just slap on some clothes, let the ship AI guide you up to the dining room, and try not to bark like a dog when you get there."
Damiel chuckled uncertainly. "What does that mean?"
"You will find out. See you up there."
The link silenced, leaving Damiel alone with an obligation and a riddle to go with it.
"Splices," he whispered nervously to himself.
Part of the riddle was obvious. As for the rest, Damiel could only try his best to make a good impression.
Like many rooms aboard the ship, the dining room was unusually spacious and high ceilinged, considering that it had only one table for such a small crew. It was not the table, however, that first caught Damiel's attention, but the two crewmembers seated to the right of it. The nearest had the head and fur of a leopard, the body of an athletic young woman, and a gown of scintillating blue. Seated next to her was a much taller figure with the head of a lion, his mane and eyes gleaming golden under the lamplight, his smart purple suit providing a sharp contrast.
"Acolyte Damiel Maroni," said a familiar voice. "I'll say it again - it's an honour to have you aboard."
Damiel tore his gaze away from the cat people and noticed - for the first time - that the human Captain Kryslek was seated at the far end of the table. Damiel had shaken hands with him less than six hours earlier. He wore a welcoming grin and seemed to be in his early thirties - although that meant nothing for a civilization that had perfected rejuvenation technology.
"I'd like to introduce you to Second Lieutenant Tarkonon, our engineer and combat specialist," Kryslek gestured to the lion man, who nodded politely, â€œand Second Lieutenant Vayla, our stealth and software integration specialist," he added as he gestured to the leopard woman, who also nodded. Her smile was quite convincing despite her feline mouth.
"Father Marishison I'm sure you're most familiar with by now," added Kryslek. Damiel only then noticed Marishison seated across from the felines, relaxed and ever mirthful. On the far side of him was a broad piece of furniture, not so much a single seat as an exotic couch, with a great V-shape carved out of its plush back.
"And - where is Lieutenant Skalosak?" Kryslek enquired.
"Oh," said Marishison, waving his hand nonchalantly, "you know her. She's probably - I don't know, playing with furniture, gnawing the bed, carving her tables into baffling shapes and calling it art after the fact. Whatever the case may be."
There was a soft rumbling to Damiel's right. It seemed that the felines were laughing.
"By the way, Damiel," said Kryslek, gesturing to the chair at the opposite end of the table, "I think it's about time you sat down."
Vayla pushed the chair out for him as Damiel seated himself.
"Now," said Kryslek, rubbing his hands with anticipation, "... any minute we should have-"
Behind Kryslek, the dining room's second door slid open. The sight of what walked through sent Damiel's mind into somersaults.
Damiel's first impression was that of a large two-legged dinosaur - with fur.
As his reason re-emerged amidst his mental frenzy, Damiel realized that the creature's head was not in the least bit reptilian. It was the finely symmetrical head of a tiger, white with bluish-grey stripes. The stripe patterns extended all the way down the creature's pear-shaped body like vines of smoke. Damiel knew the name of this clade: Siberoo - part tiger, part kangaroo, all power.
As the Siberoo took one long step towards her appropriately wide seat, Damiel's entire body stiffened as her icy blue eyes connected with his.
"My, how wonderful you could turn up!" joked Marishison.
"Damiel, meet Lieutenant Skalosak," said Kryslek. "Our first mate, interrogations officer, psychological assessor, and heavy weapons carrier."
"And her butt has valuable use as an impact cushion," added Vayla, much to Tarkonon's amusement.
Skalosak snarled and playfully swiped a paw in the direction of the leopard woman, then sat down on the (now seemingly small) couch next to Marishison, her tail resting over the centre of the 'V' gap. Even when seated, her head towered nearly three metres above the floor. Once again, she glanced as Damiel.
"Such a sweet little boy," the Siberoo spoke in a deep, velvety voice. "Can I have him for dessert?"
"What did I tell you?" said Kryslek. "No more guests for dessert! Or entrees. Or night-time snacks. You've had enough this year."
"Please? Just an arm or a leg will do."
"No! Bad kitty!
Marishison chuckled heartily. "he really is a lovely lady," he reassured Damiel, "once you become accustomed to her brand of humour."
"Who said I was joking?" Skalosak said, and winked at Damiel, who was too frozen to share in the mirth.
Damiel had kept his mind clear enough to enjoy the meal. 'Enjoy' was perhaps an understatement. It seemed that Tamoni or someone had informed them of his love for roast lamb and vegetables, smothered in rich gravy and jellied mint sauce. The lamb and potatoes were exactly as he preferred - crispy and sharply seasoned on the outside, tender and moist on the inside. The stout beer - a rare indulgence at the monastery - was richly creamy, its froth possessing a subtly vanilla aftertaste, its icy dark fluid traced with coffee, fruits, spices and the gentlest hint of oak. Damiel could not work out how all of this had been prepared - whether it had been stored on board for weeks, prepared on board the old fashioned way, or created on the spot with supremely accurate nanotechnology. He did not bother to ask - sometimes it was best just to enjoy the illusion.
Most of the crewmembers had varied quantities of the same thing. Skalosak gnawed lustily on what looked like the roasted and seasoned hind leg of a draft horse.
Despite the pleasure and merriment, Damiel's mind began to itch. Only the iceberg tip of his newfound concern was emerging, but it was already far deeper than any form of social anxiety. He was now more suspicious than ever about the identity of this crew. Was this small team a typical microcosm of the larger society they belonged to? What sort of independent organization attracted both felinoids and humanoids in at least equal measure? Why did these crewmembers have military ranks? Damiel raced through his knowledge of history and fringe politics, splinter cults and space pirates, travellers' tales and folklore. There was one odd, obscure story that seemed to fit the details of the here and now, but it was too far fetched to dwell upon for the moment, not to mention disturbing.
When the servant robots came to collect the plates and serve the desserts - exotic variations of fruit, pastry and yoghurt soaked in an aroma of liqueur - the casual, sporadic conversation finally veered back toward the subject of the guest.
This is what Damiel had been trying to prepare for.
"So, Damiel," said Captain Kryslek, "tell us about your Church."
"Well," Damiel began, "the fundamentals of Jobitarianism are generally the same from one branch to the other." He then went on to explain how the church first formed in the aftermath of the Nanoswarms, which had devastated Old Earth and the surrounding planets nearly ten thousand years ago. The first Jobitarians found themselves asking the same question that the Biblical figure Job himself asked thousands of years earlier: why does the Almighty let His children suffer? The answer, they concluded, may never be given freely, for mortals cannot understand the Lord's true purpose. For them, their only hope of coming close to an answer was to fulfil the role that God had ordained them. Generally, that meant working to minimise suffering, or to at least alleviate suffering after the fact. Denominations differed greatly in their means of achieving this, due to location, resources, political climate and technological levels. However, despite millennia of miscommunication, the various splinters of the original Church were beginning to come back together at long last.
"That is more or less what Marishison has told us over the years," said Skalosak, her huge blue eyes fixed unblinkingly upon Damiel. "But I would like to know how your faith has affected you personally."
Damiel sighed, wondering just how much he should reveal to this crew. After all, they were still keeping secrets from him. Perhaps he should simply summarise his Declaration of Faith essay.
"I believe -" he began. "I believe in a universe of perfect justice."
All as one, the crewmembers moved their heads forward just a tiny fraction. There were barely perceptible ear twitchings from Vayla and Skalosak. Their confirmed interest in the subject of perfect justice moved Damiel closer to his suspicions.
"Please continue," said Skalosak.
Damiel cleared his throat. "I believe that for every question we ask of the Almighty, the Almighty will ask us a question on our Day of Judgment."
"But doesn't this contradict your church's encouragement of questioning your God?"
Damiel met Skalosak's gaze once again. He wondered how often she had debated with Marishison on the subject of religion. "Not in the least," said Damiel. "Questioning should be a two-way process. It's only fair."
"Is it?" said Skalosak. "Why should God ask you questions? Why should God need to? Doesn't He or She know everything already?"
"That He does" said Damiel. "But the Lord does not ask questions to learn more, like we would. Rather, His own inquiry is a product of His mercy."
Skalosak's eyes narrowed. "How do you rationalise this?"
"Your replies to His questions will inevitably be a product of your own free will. Thus, by giving you a chance to make an account of yourself, He is allowing you to take part in the process of Judgment. Essentially, He is allowing you to set the terms. He is allowing you to judge yourself."
Skalosak's ear swivelled slightly. "I'm sorry," she said, "but I feel that there is something incomplete about your theological theory."
Damiel frowned at the word 'theory'. "Why?" he said.
"What you have proposed does not reflect our experience."
The Siberoo paused to let her words sink in - for the benefit of the crew as much as Damiel. By the way they stared reminiscently into space, they seemed to know what she was referring to.
"A truly, unrepentantly wicked man," Skalosak continued, "a snivelling coward of a man, will never admit to being worthy of punishment, even if he knows he has earned it. If left to his own devices, he will always take the easy way out, and let the innocent suffer in his place. If he could, if it were at all possible, he would cheat and lie his way into a Heaven he does not deserve."
Damiel's breath froze, his lungs seemed to contract, his mind reeled like a tornado as his worst suspicions drew ever closer.
"That would -" He desperately searched for reason and structure amidst his mental tumult. "That would be true in our own plane of existence, in a universe where the beings you call 'gods' have material origins that we can rationalise. But to stand before the one true God, the Creator of All Existence, to see His Infinite Glory, there will be nothing to tell but the Truth. There are a million ways to tell the Truth, and you will choose one; but that will not change what the Truth is. All lies, all deceptions and delusions, all shrivel and burn before the wondrousness of this one great Truth, for that Truth provides the foundation for our very existence, for the existence of all things that were, that are, and that ever shall be. Amen."
Damiel took a great intake of breath to replace what he had spent, only then realising that he had just been quoting verbatim from his own Declaration of Faith essay.
Seconds later, he heard the applause.
He turned and saw that it was Marishison who was clapping, smiling like a proud uncle.
Kryslek followed suit, to be joined by Vayla and Tarkonon. The dexterous feline paws made softer, deeper thuds than human hands could. Finally, Skalosak put her heavy paws together in thumping applause, her stare softened and welcoming.
Damiel closed his eyes, trying to appear relieved, feeling anything but. Little doubt remained as to their true identity, their true purpose. It was only a short step to guessing their plans and intentions for him. The thought chilled him to the very soul.
He could only pray for the strength to never turn away from the path, to live by his words and beliefs, to stand and face his time of reckoning, to accept whatever dire consequences awaited him. After all these years, it seemed that his deepest, darkest wish had finally come true.
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