"Are you certain you've arrived at the right decision?"
Damiel lay half-embedded in his bed's nanotech mattress, his face and chest extruding as if from a bubble bath. Marishison's transmitted voice entered his thoughts like another random daydream.
"I'm certain," Damiel replied, stubbornly immobile. "I've made up my mind. I want to join you."
"We have only half an hour before we reach the last wormhole, and then there is no turning back."
Damiel had prepared for the occasion. With the ship's acceleration thrusters turned off, there was no gravity. He preferred to stay in one place during such transitions.
"I'm aware of that, Father," he said. "But the past week has been - I mean the days in between stasis - I've never felt so free. You've been wonderful to me. All five of you."
"But Damiel, we still haven't told you everything. We couldn't. This freedom, this peace of mind you value so much, will come to pass, and become just a nostalgic novelty in your memory. True peace, true freedom, are luxuries that none of us have in our world. Are you sure you want to do away with that?"
"In exchange for the answer I've been searching for? Yes. I've told you; I'm not completely free of guilt just yet, but now I'm more - accepting. You can thank Skalosak for that, bless her pumpkin-sized heart. And a few rests in her pouch helped me settle my mind a bit more."
Damiel smiled at his recent memories. Relaxing in Skalosak's pouch was like resting in the most luxurious sleeping bag imaginable. It was no surprise that her ancestors had been engineered to rescue snow victims.
"I'm glad your stay has turned out so well," said Marishison. "But please believe me; you will never be free of guilt. Not while sharing our vocation. These days are as good as your life will ever get."
"Then I would rather be wiser than happier. It's what I need."
"Then I pray you will find what you are looking for. Would you like to float out and watch our entry into the wormhole? "
"I've seen the last two. I don't need this one to ritualise my decision. I will accept my fate as it is, without fanfare."
"Bless you, Son. May your chosen path be the one you were truly born for."
Damiel stood near the edge of the stone hall, amazed that so much living space could be carved so deep into a planet's crust. The chamber was in the shape of a mountain-sized tree, fanning upwards and outwards for kilometres. Its walls were honeycombed with hundreds of tunnels, all sparkling with lamps and living quarters. Hundreds of translucent tubes - some red, some purple - stretched and coiled far into the misty distance above, writhing and swerving like tentacles from one tunnel entrance to another, depositing passengers to their desired destinations and picking up new ones. They were like the veins and arteries of a tremendous, exotic beast, with the chamber's many thousand inhabitants playing the role of blood cells. Looking around himself, he saw that the smooth stone chamber floor stretched out in all directions like a city-sized starfish, its limbs extending into broad tunnels under the walls. Far into these tunnels, kilometres beyond, glowed the golden haze of other chambers. Damiel had not been told the population of this secret, hidden colony, but the evidence before his eyes clearly placed those numbers in the millions.
He only had to focus a little closer to confirm this.
For many hundreds of metres, the chamber floor was scattered with beings of all shapes and sizes, commuting to and fro. As Damiel had suspected on the way to this planet, the majority of inhabitants were of two forms - humanoids and felinoids. He also spotted quite a few reptilian denizens, many insectoids and arachnids, and even a few giant walking octopi. Most inhabitants were roughly human-sized, but some exceeded Skalosak for sheer bulk. Many denizens travelled on great striding behemoths that could have been machines, beasts or even fellow citizens - it was impossible to tell.
"And to think," said Damiel, "they call this planet 'Hell'."
He recalled his first view of the planet from space - smooth, black, totally featureless. Tarkonon had explained that the entire planet had been modified to absorb as much solar energy as possible; but Damiel could not escape a small tremor of trepidation for the bleakness of his new home.
"It's only 'Hell' if you're terribly naughty," said Marishison. "The rest of us simply have jobs to do, with plenty of free time in between."
Damiel tried to read the expressions on the faces of passing humanoids - still the easiest to read.
"No-one seems particularly depressed," he observed. "Or beaming with joy, for that matter."
"We believe in balance," said Marishison. "The grimness of our tasks is balanced out by the modest comforts and amusements of our personal lives. And there is another, deeper balance that can somehow justify the task itself. It is balance that brings you here, Damiel. Balance is the attribute you, and others like you, can bring to our world."
"What do you mean?"
Damiel turned to watch one of the huge ribbed tubes lower its tapered end to the stone floor fifty metres away - right beside a small cluster of inhabitants who were all looking up at it expectantly. The end of the tube opened up in layers of translucent, membranous petals, and regurgitated a dozen passengers, who came floating out as if in zero gravity. They lowered gently to the floor, landing feet first. Then the tube turned to the waiting crowd beside them, lifted them off their feet in an invisible uprush of air, and closed its petalled mouth once it had swallowed them all. Slowly, like a titanic beast underwater, it began to raise its faceless head, facing its writhing siblings far above.
Damiel stared slack-jawed, trying his best to rationalise the scene before him. Even the Milton's computer had told him that true antigravity was not available to Collectors. From what he had read and heard, the commuters were probably being raised and lowered by invisible clouds of nanomachines. "Utility fog", they called it. This was technology that made his own world look positively stone-aged.
"When we first met," said Marishison, "I told you that your new task would give you the opportunity to make a difference, however small. It is that small difference that will preserve your sanity, that will - once in a while - soothe your heart with a sense of accomplishment."
"I still don't understand."
"The criminals and sadists that we collect, however repulsive they may be to our sensibilities, all face a fate far to horrific for us to imagine. If I had a choice, I would not let any one of them suffer in such a fashion. Not one." He stared pensively at the floor. "But, unfortunately, none of us here have that choice."
"Does the Queen threaten you into submission?"
"No. At least, not in a direct or obvious way. Her treatment of Her servants is more - subtle. In a way, She loves us. But She loves Her victims even more."
"Loves them? How could she love those that she torments endlessly?"
"Perhaps that is best left for Her to explain, when you meet Her. But this balance that I speak of, this balance that you and I and others bring to our bleak task, is the balance of justice."
"I thought the Queen followed her own definition of justice, and you all followed."
"That is not the full story."
"Are you saying that humble Collectors have some sort of veto power when it comes to condemning prisoners?"
"Well, not precisely. At least, not our crew. We are barely borderline superbright, as you will be in a few days. We are only assigned to low risk regions, and our say in matters is minimal at best. But when you become Chaplain of your own Collection Team, you will have the most important task of all. You will give prisoners a chance to repent, to save themselves from the Queen's lust."
"And the Queen wants us to do that? She wants us to deny her potential meals?"
"So it would seem. Her ways are strange and mysterious. But she does not want us to give Her anyone who is ready to choose true remorse. Most of those we collect have left remorse far behind in their lives, but all must be given tests based upon their psychology. They must all be given tests that they are capable of passing, but more capable of failing. They must be given a chance, however small. Almost always, the test will ask them to overcome a certain fear, although this is usually combined with a test of empathy. The test may come in two parts, or three or five or twelve, and they must take one by surprise so one is never certain one is being tested. Your on-board psychologist will help you with this, just as Skalosak helps me. She knows so much about fear. And empathy. Poor girl."
Marishison let out a long sigh.
"Would you like to visit her now?" he added.
"Of course. Where is she?"
Damiel recalled how Skalosak seemed in such a hurry when she exited the Milton. He and Marishison had to stay on board for an extra two hours while the ship AI scanned his brain and body for the ninety-somethingth time. Skalosak had not seemed herself then. There had been none of her usual playfulness, nor her stalwart sincerity. She had been cold and silent. She could barely even look Damiel in the eye. "I have important business to attend to," she had told him. "You can talk to me when it is over."
"In her apartment," said Marishison. "Up - there." He pointed at one of the highest tunnels, lost beyond the tangle of transport tubes.
"Is she all right?"
Marishison sighed again and shrugged. "Skalosak is Skalosak. When I finally understand her, I'll start to worry. She seems to have a lot on her mind lately. She goes through this fairly frequently. It will pass." He stared reflectively at the floor, as if recalling decades of frustration.
Damiel wanted to break the silence, break the mystery. "How do I-?" He gestured upwards, to the heights of the cave chamber.
"Just stand there and call to the transport tubes," said Marishison. "Tell them where you want to go. They will understand."
He turned and walked away.
"But - are you sure it's -"
Marishison turned back to face him. "Look, you've flown in a starship orders of magnitude faster than anything you've seen before, passed through three wormholes, and ridden in a Siberoo's pouch while she was combat practicing. I don't think these things should be a problem for you. Go on, just call to them." He slowly began to back away.
Damiel stared up at the red and purple coils far above. "Skalosak's apartment!" he shouted. "Skalosak the Siberoo. Can you take me there?"
Just then, kilometres up, one of the red tubes twitched. It then reversed like a thread through the tangle of other tubes, and turned down to face Damiel with its eyeless head. Slowly, with weightless grace, it began to lower in his direction. The sound of my voice hasn't even reached it yet
, he thought as he stood rigid to the spot. How did it hear me? Is this a modification to my brain implant that they didn't tell me about
? Trying to maintain his composure, he turned to Marishison and said: "See you at my Initiation."
"That I shall. Bless you, Son."
A new riddle suddenly occurred to Damiel. "When you say that," he said, "are you invoking the Queen to bless me?"
Marishison laughed. "We have no illusions about Her godhood," he said. "She is our ruler and sovereign, true, but there are far greater beings in this galaxy alone. And besides, I never stopped believing in a God Above All, and neither should you."
Movement directly above Damiel caused him to jerk his gaze upward in shock. The pointed head of the travel tube loomed above him, like an airliner suspended in midair. Its many-petalled mouth opened up, like an orchard, like a lamprey, and Damiel gave a brief cry of surprise as he felt himself lift off the floor. The fleshy, fire-veined petals passed around him, and he entered an endless throat that glowed like splashes of neon and lava. He spun around in midair to see the petals close upon him. Then there was an abrupt rising sensation, like being in a very fast elevator. He bobbed gently up and down in midair, which now felt slightly thicker than air should be - almost like being underwater. Long transparent strips appeared along the sides of the throat, displaying the cave wall rushing downward like a waterfall of stone. Were they windows or telescreens? It was impossible to distinguish - perhaps there was no difference in this world.
As abruptly as it had risen, Damiel felt the tube slow down. Outside, one of the vast tunnel entrances approached. As it expanded to fill his view, he saw many balconies, walkways and struts around the lower lip of the tunnel. Its dimly lit interior was lined with more balconies and walkways, like some decadent subterranean hotel. How am I going to find Skalosak's home amongst all this
? he thought to himself.
Just then, the tube finally stopped just over the largest, most crowded platform on the lip of the tunnel. The petals of the tube's mouth opened and disgorged Damiel in an outrush of air, landing him softly on the platform's surface. Follow the light
, said a strangely calm voice in Damiel's head.
Its mouth still open, the tube turned to face a group of about twenty colourful denizens, sucked them all in, then closed its mouth. It retreated, then swerved away and sank into the misty depths of the cave chamber. Is that what the Queen of Pain is like
? mused Damiel. Just another giant biomachine
? It seemed that it was possible to get used to this world after all. But then, he felt a new chill as he realised how relative everything was. In this world, a machine as awesome and overwhelming as his world's greatest temple was a mere taxi. What would it be like to stand in the presence of the demonic being that had created this place? Would he be ready?
He felt strange asking himself that question. Just over a week ago in his waking life, he had been prepared for an eternity of torment - ever fearful, but stalwart in his own sacrifice in the name of justice. Now, he was deeply apprehensive of even approaching the Queen.
He turned to face the tunnel yawning before him, looming above and around the broad staircase. Its end was close enough to be clearly visible; but that still meant it was a few kilometres away, so vast was the tunnel. Of all the thousands of doors embedded in the walls, one caught his eye. It was to his right, halfway up the wall, and relatively close to the tunnel mouth. Most curiously of all, it was dimly illuminated in a subtle shade of red, but in a way that passed through his eyes and danced tauntingly in his mind, like a dream that places the greatest of significance on the smallest of details. Was the illumination the result of real light, or was it projected into his mind? No matter - its purpose was unambiguous, as was the identity of she who resided behind that door.
Standing before the huge door, Damiel finally saw the glow fade from his view. The air-jet platform that had carried him the extra distance was now just another minnow in the sea of novelties. What interested Damiel more was the sheer size of the doors here, not to mention the majority of individuals he had passed. Like starship Milton
, this section was clearly designed for beings larger than humans.
The door slid away, revealing a dimly lit abode with sections that glistened like ice. The rush of cool air only enhanced the effect.
"Damiel, please come in," said the soft voice of Skalosak.
Damiel stepped through the threshold, and the door slid shut behind him. The room suddenly seemed too dim, barely fit for human eyes.
"I'm sorry," came Skalosak's voice, and the entire apartment brightened. Damiel looked around, mildly disoriented once again. This apartment seemed even less "human" than Skalosak's quarters aboard the Milton
. It was difficult to discern seats from benches from tables; and equally difficult to discern what was hard and what was soft. Almost everything gleamed with what looked like smoothly rounded ice crystal, dauntingly large. Standing out amongst them - pressed against walls and even a good part the ceiling - were deliriously detailed sculptures carved out of wood, their angles harsh and forced, as if they had been violently slashed into shape. From their surfaces erupted what seemed to be dozens of tentacles, eyes and screams. They seemed so out of place here, contrasting jarringly with the serene beauty of the furnishings. Marishison had mentioned Skalosak's hobby several times, but Damiel had never seen an example until now.
"My tributes to Her Infernal Majesty," said Skalosak. Was that a hint of cynicism in her voice?
Damiel turned to face the Siberoo, who seemed perfectly in proportion amongst the giant furniture. She was holding an angular bottle of clear blue liquid in her left paw.
"It gives me a sense of accomplishment," she added. "Between missions, of course. In my life, today, a sense of accomplishment is very important." She turned and stared intently at the door, as if deciphering patterns that only she could see. "She is amused by all this." She turned again and gestured at her sculptures. "She knows that my creativity is fuelled by pain. She tells me that it is proof that pain is good."
"Pain?" Damiel frowned. "But I thought-"
"The pain of our duty. The pain of dealing with the scum of the galaxy on a regular basis. The pain of - living, just living. So many painful decisions." Her voice seemed to be slipping somehow, the faÃ§ade of humanlike speech stripping away to reveal a snarl beneath. She gently lowered her liquor bottle onto the bench beside her, which was higher than Damiel's head.
"Are you all right, Skal?"
Skalosak closed her eyes and shook her head, sighing like a gale.
Suddenly, the room trembled.
Skalosak opened her eyes, but registered little surprise.
"What is that?" said Damiel. "Is it a natural tremor, or is one of the ships-"
"It is neither. It is Her
"What - what do you mean?"
"Sometimes She gets excited. It is always when an exceptionally sadistic criminal is sent to Her. She can sense their cruelty, their cowardice, their absolute fear of Her. Usually, when She is this excited, She knows that the sacrifice is going to fail the tests, and that She is going to have her morsel. She anticipates the taste of him - it is usually 'him'. She knows that She is going to take the hapless little sinner into Her everlasting embrace and teach him everything She knows about pain - which is far more than any of us will ever imagine."
Damiel's heart began to thud. For years, he had seen damnation as an essential part of the cosmic order, such as light and heat and life and consciousness. He had believed that his own damnation would serve the universe well and contribute to the Lord's pattern of order and justice. Now, despite the knowledge that he was not scheduled for eternal torment, Damiel felt frozen dread expanding inside him. What had he got himself into? What creature gained so much pleasure from inflicting so much pain? What creature relished her own naked cruelty so much that her lust shook solid stone for kilometres around? Transapients, demons, these were just words. What in God's Name was
Skalosak gazed directly into Damiel's eyes for the first time in hours.
"And you, Damiel, my little lamb," she said as she grinned hugely, " you are here to become part of all this. You are here to serve Her, to feed Her, to travel with us and help us look for Her meals, to keep Her Majesty happy and sated. For the rest - of - your - life."
The room shook again.
Then, in a flash of striped fur, Skalosak lunged for Damiel.
She grabbed his torso in her huge hand and lifted him into the air, holding him high against the wall, high enough to lock her gaze level with his. Her face became like her artwork - all harsh angles. She held out her other hand, extending black claws as long as dinner knives.
"Ska - Skalosak!" Damiel wheezed, his breath drained by shock. "What are you doing?"
The Siberoo shook her head. "There will be no Initiation tonight. I won't allow it."
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