After hours of travel, the sun still did not look all that much smaller. Through the heavily filtered window, the disk of the sun gleamed like a golden coin. When Damiel reached out to the window, he imagined he could hold it between his fingertips, like a godlike being inspecting the latest of his prized collection. Is that what the archailects could do
? he mused. The galaxy was scattered with beings the size of planets, of stars, of entire clusters. 'AI Gods', they were sometimes called. Yet Damiel knew that even these mighty beings were not worthy of the name. They were as bound by the laws of space and time as he was, as were the billions of microbes that crawled on his skin. They did not create the laws of space and time, to say nothing of the universe itself. Whatever mighty, galaxy-shaking decisions they made, even they
must ultimately bow to the will of the Creator. Is that what brings me here
? he thought, slumped against the viewing room wall as he stared out through the dark, non-reflective window. As free as his choices were, he had no doubt that his presence here was the will of the One True God. Yet even the Almighty had to act through hierarchies of lesser agents, even if some of those agents were incalculably grander than his own mortal species. Out there, someone - or something - was pulling the strings of this seemingly amiable crew; and Damiel had a fair idea who she was. After tonight's meal, Damiel had noticed a hint of sorrow in Marishison's voice as he had talked about his early years in the Jobitarian Church. Damiel could not discern whether this sorrow was for a past that may never return, or a future that may never budge from the path ahead. To Damiel, the distinction no longer mattered. He was now certain whom he was dealing with. Even Marishison was just another pawn following orders, as reluctant as he may have been.
When he heard the soft, low padding to his right, he turned to face Skalosak approaching him down the hall. The Siberoo towered above him, twice as high as a man, yet her gaze was soft and relaxed - as reassuring as a rhino-sized marsupial carnivore could possibly be.
"Greetings, Damiel," she said. "I am glad you are enjoying the view."
Skalosak gently knelt before Damiel, her front paw-hands resting on the floor before her just like an ordinary cat. Her back arched as she lowered her head; yet still she towered mountainously over Damiel. The hall virtually disappeared behind her.
"Are you having trouble sleeping?" she enquired, viewing the filtered sun through the window.
"Yes," replied Damiel. "I close my eyes, and everything rushes at me like a - like a shockwave of debris. All these images, ideas. It's all in a frenzy."
Skalosak nodded. "If you stay with us and eat our food, then you will find that some of your thought processes will speed up over the next few weeks you are conscious, usually in fits and starts. You will get used to it."
Damiel's jaw dropped.
"I assure you," said Skalosak, instantly reading his concern, " we will never drug you into submission. Your personality, your will, must remain your own. You must make your choice freely and without coercion; otherwise your choice will be meaningless. Do you understand?"
"I think so," said Damiel.
"Good," said Skalosak. "Except - it is not just the drugs or the novelties that are keeping you up, is it? There's something else in there, in your mind. Something that has been there for a long time. Something that your present circumstance has brought back to the surface."
The Siberoo's bright blue gaze seemed to penetrate Damiel's skull, prying for secrets.
"Tell me, Damiel - is your past giving you nightmares?"
Not ready to tell a one-and-a-half ton mammal to back off, Damiel simply nodded.
"That is all I wanted to know," said Skalosak. "We all have nightmares here, on occasions. I have nightmares. So do Marishison, Vayla and Tarkonon. And Kryslek." Her eyes downcast, she gave a huge, hot sigh that ruffled Damiel's shirt. "He has the worst nightmares of all. Sometimes he is afraid to sleep alone." And I can guess why
, thought Damiel.
"A few hours ago," he said, "when I was walking down the corridor on this floor, I thought I heard roaring. Was it - ?"
Skalosak nodded. "If the doors were shut, and you heard it anyway, then it was me."
Damiel closed his eyes and sighed. Everything he had heard confirmed his suspicions. Knowing the job they had to do, he was surprised that this crew was still half sane.
"It is not too late to turn back," said Skalosak. "We haven't even reached the first wormhole yet. Even when we do, it still won't-"
"I'm not turning back," said Damiel, beginning to tremble.
Skalosak blinked, eyeing Damiel with a newfound curiousity. "You will have plenty of time to-"
"I know who you are," Damiel blurted out, his trembling slowly rising. "I know why I'm here."
"Very well then," Skalosak said calmly. "Who are we?"
"You are Collectors." A brief explosion of shattered nerves seemed to go off deep inside Damiel as he said the last word.
"And what are Collectors? What do they do?"
"The Collectors - " - Damiel tried desperately to control his trembling - "travel from world to world, system to system, searching for the worst criminals, the cruellest sadists, the most unrepentant sinners, the most heinous cowards. You collect them by any means necessary, alive and whole. Then you interview them, test them, and if they fail the test, the test of conscience, you then - "He inhaled a shaky breath. "You feed them to your leader, your matriarch, your transapient idol. You feed them to the Queen of Pain, and she torments them forever, deep inside her. They are damned, never to be released."
He gave a long sigh, staring at the floor for endless seconds, waiting for the tremor within to subside.
"Why are you here?" came the soft voice of Skalosak.
"I am here to - " Damiel felt the tremor rise again. "You are taking me to your Queen. You are taking me to be punished. For eternity."
"Is that so?" said Skalosak, sounding genuinely surprised. "I must admit, Marishison has been rather evasive on this subject. I am glad you could enlighten me."
Another long silence followed.
"Please remember, Damiel, that the conditions still stand. You only have to give the word, and we will turn back. You still have - "
"I've told you!" Damiel shouted into the Siberoo's face. "I've made up my mind! I'm ready to be punished! The end!"
Skalosak twitched her ears as she stared at Damiel. Clearly she was not accustomed to such open defiance from an unarmed human sitting just a whisker away. "I see - " she finally said. "You are a very unusual Collection. I have never before dealt with a captive who has been given so much freedom of choice. However, I am beginning to understand. As I listen to you, it is all beginning to make sense. Yes - " There was the faintest of nods. "You are here because you choose to be punished. Because it is what you want. That makes it so much easier for us. And to give the Queen a willing
victim for once - Yes, it makes so much sense."
She paused, apparently deep in thought.
"There is still one question," she said. "What is your crime? What are you here to be punished for?"
Damiel froze up, all words dead in his mouth.
"Damiel," said Skalosak after another long pause, "you must realize that we take our job very seriously. I will not take any part in your punishment unless I know exactly what you are being punished for. Now, please tell me, honestly, what have you done to deserve such punishment?"
Damiel's trembling became uncontrollable. He realised, now, that this confession was one of many turns on the path to his destiny. If he wanted to fulfil his destiny, then he had no other choice.
"I ki- " The words lodged in his throat like a brick of vomit. He breathed in, vowing not to cry, vowing never to cry again.
"Take your time," Skalosak said softly.
"I killed my parents," said Damiel.
For a few more seconds there was no sound but Damiel's strained, shaky breaths.
"That is a very grave sin, Damiel," Skalosak finally said.
"How did this happen?"
Damiel breathed in deeply. I must not cry
, he told himself. This is my confession, my first step towards demonstrating True Divine Justice to a universe that has forgotten its Creator. I must provide an example to all penitent sinners. I must be brave
"I grew up on the other side of Sylavor," he said. "In the city of Volika. Six years ago, crime was at it's worst. The underworld was bribing the police and the courts, and hacking into the security systems. Even the AIs were being corrupted, although you'd know that they weren't very advanced to begin with. Anyway, I was walking down a dark street with some friends, laughing and joking about some movie we had just seen; and all of the sudden, this car stopped beside us. Two automatic pistols poked out of the windows, and - " Damiel swallowed. "They deliberately left me alive. Straight away I lost consciousness. They used a stunner. When I woke up, I was tied to a cold metal slab, like some primitive operating theatre. There were people all around me. All wearing featureless white masks, and the nine-headed snake emblem on their white shirts. I knew who they were. And then their leader walked in. He was also wearing a mask, but I could guess who he was."
"Milon Takvid," said Skalosak, "secret Chairman of Hydran Unity. I trust this was weeks before he vanished without a trace." She spoke the last sentence with a cruel gleam in her eye.
Damiel nodded. "He asked me - he kept asking me - about my parent's home security system. About their high-level access codes. My parents were lawyers for the same firm, you see, and at the time there was a big investigation into one of Takvid's so-called business partners. And Takvid wanted - " Damiel gulped. "He showed me a vidfile of their last victim. He said - if I did not tell him - he was - they were going to -"
He looked at the floor and sighed heavily.
"You were twelve years old," said Skalosak.
Damiel looked up and saw that her face was as wrathful as her voice. This did not surprise him. She obviously knew where the story was heading. She already knew his mortal sin â€¦ but he would tell it anyway.
"I told them," he said. "I told them, and they stunned me again. I think they kept me alive just in case they wanted to manipulate me in the future. But when I woke up, I was in a police station. They had found me lying on the side of the road. And they - they didn't want to, none of them wanted to tell me straight away, but I could tell by the looks on their faces â€¦ Later I saw the newsvid. The stretchers outside our home. The blanketed bodies. They wouldn't even show the bodies. And I looked at that footage, and I knew it was all my doing."
He lowered his gaze again, his strained breaths sour with bile and blood as if after six years of running.
"Damiel," said Skalosak, "are you aware of the types of criminals we deal with on a regular basis?"
"I - " He took another deep breath. "I think so."
"A few years ago," said Skalosak, "we collected a man on Tylansia who had captured, raped, tortured and murdered more than a hundred children. Would you compare yourself to that unspeakable wretch?"
"No - no, I don't think I would."
"If you really are here to be punished, and we gave you the test, measured your remorse, your guilt, do you honestly think you would fail?"
"I - I don't know."
"You don't know - " Skalosak spoke those words as if with disbelief. "Do you love your parents, Damiel?"
Damiel felt something solid in his throat. He could not speak his answer. He could only nod; but he nodded vigorously, to drive the message home, to destroy all doubt.
"Do you hate yourself, Damiel?" Skalosak's voice was now softer than ever, almost a whisper. "Do you hate yourself more than you hate the scum of the universe?"
THE SCUM OF THE UNIVERSE!!" he screamed at Skalosak. "I deserve to be skinned alive, gutted, castrated and hacked limb from limb! I deserve to have every wound and orifice on my body sodomized by bladed tentacles dripping with acid! I deserve to feel every bone and organ crushed to a pulp and immersed in a boiling lake of spider venom, there to writhe and wail forever, never to die, never to rest, never to see the Glory of God! I deserve it! I deserve it all!"
He could hold back no longer. The tears gushed. His body racked with sobs, violent, convulsive, straining his lungs and throat to the limit.
"I de - serve - "
His vision blurred with tears, he closed his eyes and lost himself in his own self-imposed darkness, his own rehearsal of damnation that he knew he deserved, he knew he had coming for him at the end of the path he had freely chosen.
Then Damiel felt something he had not expected to feel. He felt himself lifted off the floor and pressed against something huge and warm, something firm yet cushioned with thick, soft fur. On the other side of that fur, a slow, heavy beat thudded like a tremendous heart, reverberating through his warmed right ear, throughout his cradled skull. His back was enveloped in more warmth, held in place by two enormous furred limbs. Above and around the heartbeat was another sound - a soft, gentle hum, like the purring of a colossal cat.
Slowly, gently, he felt himself being rocked back and forth, in rhythm to the huge heart.
He did not stop crying. He could not. Neither could he remember why. In that moment, Damiel blocked out everything about his horrific past, his uncertain future. There was only the present, the moment frozen here and now, safe and warm and comforted in the Siberoo's embrace.
In that moment, he wanted nothing else.
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