| (Warning: This story contains some EXTREMELY disturbing imagery and subject matter.)
|Picture by Felipe Sobreira, Title by Darren Ryding|
Part I: The Collectors
Jolonah awoke with a childish shriek, his sheets and pillow drenched in sweat. Even now, in the dim light of the cell, the sounds and smells and images were clearer to him than the steel bars silhouetted against the wall-mounted lamps. There had been a vast enclosure of darkness lit only by a fiery red hue, a pit that went down forever into blood red depths, a stench of world-sized deathless rot, a chorus of howls and whimpers of abject misery; and, pervading all, a deafening roar of deep, infinite hunger from which the universe itself shrank in terror, retracting all light as he fell deeper and deeper into the ever-darkening abyss...
As always, Jolonah sighed in relief, grateful to be back in the world of the living, of humans, of prisons and guards. There was reason here, there was certainty, there was justice, there was life and death and no ambiguity. There is no afterlife, he reassured himself. There is no Devil. There is no Hell. It's not real. It's not real. I will die and it will all be over. My crimes, my shame will die with me, passing into peaceful, painless oblivion.
Jolonah continued to shudder as he repeated his thoughts of desperate comfort, repeated for the many-hundredth time in his life - the epilogue, the salve, to every identical nightmare. The only possible way he could overcome his fear of death was to contrast it against something infinitely worse. Unlike the peasants of his planet, Jolonah was wealthy and educated enough to choose his own beliefs, so long as he kept them to himself.
He jumped again as the warden and guards stepped into view.
"Control your nerves," said the warden. "Your bailers are here already. You're a free man, at least from this world." He grinned broadly as one of the guards unlocked the cage door. "It takes a healthy sum to buy out the likes of you, and it's a healthy sum they gave us."
Jolonah stepped into the light as the guards manacled his wrists and ankles. After they had marched him down the corridor and allowed him to sign his release papers, they led him into the open where his bailers awaited.
Then he froze to the spot, shuddering again, reminded that the world of the living had its nightmares, too.
The man standing in the centre of the trio looked perfectly human; lean, solid, ruggedly handsome with his black leather suit, two-day beard and thin bangs of hair caging his forehead. What looked like a large rifle was slung over his shoulder, sleek and streamlined as a sculpture of polished bone.
It was not the man, nor the weapon, that stopped Jolonah in his tracks. It was his companions that made him stifle a gasp.
To the left of the man was what could have been a woman - a slender, shapely woman clad in red silk with a V-neck exposing her ample cleavage. Jolonah might have admired her had her skin not been covered in spotted fur, her head not clearly been that of an intelligent leopard.
To the man's right was an even more imposing figure. Towering a head and a half over the human was a two-legged lion; metal-clad and muscular, his golden mane gleaming under the lamps and moons, his stare as stern as a statue of granite.
Narslian, thought Jolonah, recalling the news story from years back when a local gunman had slaughtered a family of Narslian tourists. Did this mighty male harbor a grudge against his planet, his people? Why was he assisting in the emancipation of one of Tylansia's most hated prisoners?
Jolonah breathed shakily, rooted to the spot. He had feared "beast-heads" since childhood. His parents had told him that if he were naughty, the beast-heads would come down in their spaceships and take him away to cut him up and boil him in soup. The tale became a recurring nightmare that tainted his childhood, yet paled into blandness before the nightmares of his adult life.
Yet these were no ordinary beast-heads - these were feline beast-heads! How he hated cats. He hated the way they stared at him, as if they knew all his secrets, all his sins.
"We'll take him," said the human, his Savi-Tyla fluent despite his accent. The guards and warden retreated, almost as nervous as Jolonah and now relieved. The man stepped forward and led Jolonah onward, the feline warriors flanking him as they marched toward the winged silvery craft on the far edge of the prison grounds.
"Captain Kryslek," said the man. "The guy with the mane is Tarkonon, the girl with the spots is Vayla. The media knows nothing about this. They never will. As far as they are concerned, a military plane landed and took off from these grounds, and you'll be executed tomorrow morning as planned."
"And ... and w-what's really going to happen to me?" Jolonah's tone could not mask his newfound fear.
Kryslek glanced at his furred companions, who seemed to reflect his grin in larger mouths. "Well, we probably won't execute you. That's not our first priority."
Jolonah sighed in relief. "So you want me to join your team?"
This time he was greeted with laughter. The felines' laughter startled him - a musical screech from Vayla and a soaring snarl from Tarkonon.
"No," said Vayla the leopard woman. "We most definitely do not want you to join our team."
"Do you honestly entertain the notion for one heartbeat that we would consider you our equal in skills and courage?" boomed Tarkonon the Narslian. "Museum thieves, assassins with principles, they may be worthy candidates. But you? You fill us with nothing but pity and disgust. No culture in the Terragen Sphere, no matter how depraved, how barbaric, could justify your acts, much less romanticize them. No, you are not an outlaw. You are now a victim. A hopeless, pathetic, eternal victim."
Jolonah shuddered as his dread returned.
"You see," said Kryslek, "your planet may be a backward shit-house, but there's one thing that I admire about your justice system. They always save the worst for the worst."
"The very worst," snarled Tarkonon, "for the VERY worst." Moonlight flashed on the huge teeth of the Narslian's grin.
"Wh-who are you people?"
"Let's just say that we share a faith of sorts," said Kryslek. "You'd know nothing about it. Only the highest government officials know that our existence is more than just a legend. They'd never confirm our existence to the public, not even the executive caste. If they did, if your people had any idea what we stood for, there would be mass panic the likes of which your world has never seen. And that's saying something."
"What do you stand for?"
"Ooh, let's not spoil the surprise," purred Vayla.
"Am I being sent to a penal colony?"
The group stopped before the shuttle's boarding ramp.
"Take a good look around," said Vayla. "Not just at your world, but also at the night sky. The gleaming moons, the glittering stars. Where you're going, there are no stars. Only night."
Part II: The Visitor
Jolonah sat in the corner of his padded cell, feeling heavy despite the half-gravity of the ship's acceleration. They were still on the way to the Keter-owned wormhole millions of kilometers from Tylansia, the one that let in tourists and dignitaries from the nearby Dovinka system on the Keter Dominion border, then (according to Kryslek) through three more wormholes until they got to the home system of these pirates or mercenaries or vigilantes or whatever they were.
Even now, even with his shackles removed, he still trembled. What were they going to do to him? Beat him? Torture him? Jolonah had no tolerance to pain. He recalled how much he always dreaded going to the dentist; how his blood would retract from his skin at there mere sight of a syringe, as if trying to avoid being sucked out through his body through the needle. And then there was the jellyfish that had stung the undersides of his arms while swimming; how they burned and swelled into lurid trails, how he cried and whimpered and protested to his mother that the ointment did not work.
His captors knew everything about him - that much was obvious. They knew his crimes, his history, and inevitably hated him for it, hated him as a traitor to life itself. Whatever they could do, they would do.
What if they use ... virtual reality? he thought with a tremor of horrid imagination. The physical world had limits, it had rules, it had an end for all things. But a virtual environment ... the Tylansian military used VR to simulate combat situations as realistically as possible. Kryslek's crew was clearly far more advanced. What were they? Ultratech? Did they have advanced nanotechnology? Could they map his mind and dig out his worst fears, his nightmares? The possibilities filled his guts like a poison drink.
He stared at the cell's door; the incredibly tall, wide double-door that stretched all the way to the ceiling and took up half the wall. Why did it have to be so huge? Even Narslians were only slightly larger than humans. What else would they keep here? Those reptilian dino-things?
Jolonah tried his best not to dwell on such subjects. There was already so much speculation, so much dread to dwell upon.
Yet in the midst of his terror, his anticipation, his head and eyelids began to feel heavy ... he let go ... let himself sink into the comforting darkness ... into the red darkness ... falling ... the shrieking of tormented multitudes assailing his ears as the very air itself moaned all around like a mad whale...
He jerked awake. When will it end? When will he ever rest in peace?
Just then soft padding sounded through the grill in the giant door. Jolonah hoped that it was Kryslek come to visit him and not one of the felines. Perhaps Vayla would merely unsettle him, but the massively built Tarkonon was far too intimidating to face alone, especially in a closed room.
The footsteps stopped.
Jolonah stared at the giant door, pressing his sweaty shoulders into the padded corner.
The doors opened.
Jolonah looked up ... and up...
Standing there, filling the height and width of the vast doorway, her sapphire eyes burning in the midst of her regally striped and whiskered face, was a fully-grown female Siberoo.
Jolonah pressed deeper into the padded corner, wanting to hide from the massive, two-legged marsupial feline that stared down at him as if he were a delectable little mouse. His lungs and spine froze rigid with fright.
The Siberoo was as majestic as she was terrifying - a perfect synthesis of sculpted hardness and luxuriant softness. Her fur was striped finely with black and white, with gentle shades of bluish-grey in between, creating an almost liquid ripple effect. Tufts of downy white fur grew on her cheeks, neck, belly and pouch. She stood on thickly solid hind legs, with firmly rounded hips almost as wide as Jolonah's arm span. Her pouch bulged underneath her, palpitating slightly with the stirrings of some unseen passenger within.
"Jolonah," said the Siberoo, her voice deep yet perfectly fluent and feminine. "My name is Skalosak. I hope they are feeding you well."
Jolonah nodded slightly.
"I'm pleased to hear that. You must have your energy and alertness where you are going."
Penal colony, confirmed Jolonah's frenzied mind. The crew was in the slave trade after all.
"Do you mind if I sit with you?"
Jolonah felt his head and neck freeze, unable to move, to even twitch. The idea was so frightening that she may as well have said "on" instead of "with".
"Don't worry," said Skalosak. "I've just had my weekly roast zebra, extra rare with basil."
She got down on all fours and crawled towards him, as bulky as a hippo yet with infinitely more grace; then stopped a meter before him and crouched on her massive haunches, careful not to crush her pouch. Her forelegs rested before her like striped furry columns. With her digits outspread on the padded floor, her forepaws disturbingly resembled gigantic human hands.
"You have no offspring," said Skalosak.
Trembling all over, mute with fright, Jolonah jerkily shook his head.
"That is just as well." The giant marsupial scowled knowingly at him. "I am the only one on this ship who has had offspring. I had a son. Rantrelaka. A wise and strong and handsome exemplar of his species, even in youth. He and his friends often played rough, as do all joeycubs, but always with honor and mutual respect. He would come to me with a few scratches, but nothing grave. Nothing a few good licks and a rest in the pouch could not fix."
She stared silently at him for long seconds - that same stare Jolonah had seen dozens of times in the eyes of much smaller cats; the stare of judgment.
"There was an accident," she added. "The amat reactor on the ship he crewed malfunctioned. Everything was atomized. His tomb is a dim cloud of ever expanding vapor in NoCoZo space, far from home."
More silence. This time her eyes were downcast, reflective.
"From that day on, I prayed to whatever God would listen. I prayed for all parents of all species who had ever lost their offspring."
Her fiery gaze rose to meet his, and Jolonah looked away fearfully, knowing exactly where this conversation was heading.
"I have a ritual. A private, solemn ritual. For every murderer that we collect, I claw my wall for the parents of his victims. I claw my wall so that I don't have to claw HIM."
The final word was an inhuman snarl. Jolonah began to whimper.
"When I saw what you had done, Jolonah, when I saw the photographs, when I saw the instruments that you had used, I clawed my wall to pieces. I clawed my furniture to chips and strips. I wanted to get you so badly. I wanted to break every vow I had taken so that I could hear what noises would keen from your wretched little throat as I strip your calf muscles off your bones with my teeth."
Jolonah sobbed like a child, wishing for anything to make this monster go away.
"But then, I remembered my vows of gentleness, I remembered my purpose for being here, and I realized that I don't have to torture you. It is not my duty. Because the universe is just, and justice will be served. She wills it."
Jolonah started as a soft furry digit touched his chin, lifting his face slowly to meet the gaze of the predator.
"It's not a good feeling, to be powerless, is it? To be threatened, to be reminded of your weakness, your insignificance. Of course you are afraid of me. But the child I met in Tiralfia was not."
Her ears twitched slightly as she sniffed.
"I was touring a habitat, a long time ago. A human female pointed me out to a child she was holding in her arms. A female HUMAN child."
She stared judgmentally at him again.
"I slowly walked up to them, careful not to startle the child. Yet I could already sense that she was not afraid. She stared at me in wonder. She reached out to touch me. I closed my face in to let her stroke my fur. She already lived in a world of wonders, and yet I must have been the most wondrous thing she ever saw."
Her head moved only slightly closer to his, so much huger than his.
"Humans may find me intimidating. My size, my teeth, my claws, all speak of incredible power. Yet when you imagine Heaven, you imagine creatures like me there. Beautiful creatures, like tigers and deer and dolphins and songbirds and butterflies. Ancient texts describe Heaven as a place where the lion lies down with the fawn, where predator and prey are reconciled. Where little creatures like you need not fear my teeth and claws, but only curl up - safe and warm - in my embrace.
"You're not going to Heaven, Jolonah. For you the gates of Heaven are forever barred. So what awaits you instead? What do you fear? Spiders and worms? Creatures with too many eyes, or no eyes? Creatures with too many legs, or no legs? Creatures that do not fit so neatly into the human worldview? So much unlike me. There are creatures in this universe - unnatural creatures, hideous creatures - you would never want to see, let alone touch.
"I am not your predator, Jolonah. I will not abase myself by tasting of your vile and putrid flesh. Your real devourer awaits you at the end of our path. The universe has a waste disposal unit where we dump garbage like you. A vast and horrible and stinking place where you will writhe and whimper without hope of comfort or release. The universe will continue on its way and hear not your cries. No-one will hear you but your fellow damned, your fellow wretched."
Slowly she nodded her massive head.
"Yes, I know you have nightmares. We have been watching you for a long time. We have access to powers far greater than anything we could create ourselves. What do you dream of when you whimper and squirm in your bed, Jolonah? The same as what they all dream of? A dark and endless pit filled with howls of hopeless agony?"
Every bone in Jolonah's body trembled as his skin erupted with cold sweat.
"Some of them have nightmares about cats. You don't like cats, do you Jolonah? None of them do. It's as if the wretched souls know how the story began. There's a good reason this movement is so popular with us felines. The story began with a cat, thousands of years ago. A beautiful cat who loved her mistress so purely, so simply ... and her kittens..."
Skalosak's tremendous shoulders heaved as she moved her head closer still, so close that Jolonah could feel her hot breath on his quivering cheeks, the exhalations of her nostrils a loud and intimate hissss in his eardrums.
"I am going to offer you a gift. I am going to give you what gave you the most pleasure in that miserable waste you called a life. I am going to give you this one last opportunity to inflict pain upon your fellow creature. Hit me."
Surprised, Jolonah met Skalosak's eyes again. Her gaze was narrow and focused - the most fearsome expression possible on that huge feline face. Instantly he averted his gaze, his bottom lip quivering, a faint wavering whine emerging from his aching throat.
"Hit me, Jolonah. If it's good enough for your victims, it's good enough for me. Hit me on the nose. On the lip. On the ear. Anywhere."
Jolonah shook his head, his face screwed up, whimpering just like in his nightmare. His arms lay limply on his lap. He was too paralyzed with terror to even lift them.
"What is wrong, little Jolonah? Am I too big for you? Am I too strong for you? Am I too SCARY for you? Well that is most unfortunate, you measly little turd!"
Jolonah sobbed loudly, wordlessly.
"You're going to SUFFER, Jolonah. You're going to suffer like you've never imagined, like no one's ever imagined. Your nightmares don't even scratch the surface."
"That's enough, Skal."
The voice belonged to Kryslek, and came from underneath Skalosak's broad belly. Through his tears, Jolonah caught a glimpse of the human captain's head emerging from the giant feline's pouch, his hair tousled, his eyes dim and sleepy.
"It's not our duty to torment him," said Kryslek. "He has enough of that coming."
"Truer words have never been spoken," said Skalosak, and lifted her bulk onto her hind legs. She leaned forward, her forelegs curved in front of her, Kryslek's head protruding from her lower belly like a natural extension of her body. She looked down upon the sobbing Jolonah. "This worthless little worm's not even worth spraying on," she sneered, and turned and strode toward the doorway, her huge fluffy tail swaying behind her. "Sweet dreams, Jolonah. This is your last chance ever to have any."
The door slammed shut, and Jolonah sobbed a new burst with a mixture of relief and dread.
Will they ever leave him alone?
Will it ever end?
Part III: The Chaplain
To Jolonah's immense relief, the ship's Chaplain was human.
He was a thin and elderly male named Marishison, and he gave Jolonah a sip from his whiskey bottle.
"May I ask you a personal question?"
Jolonah raised an eyebrow. "Ask."
"Do you believe in Hell?"
Jolonah shrugged. "It's just a load of superstitious nonsense."
"Is that what you think?" Marishison shuffled into a more comfortable seating position. "Well, then, let us suppose that this 'superstitious nonsense' is real after all. Would you deserve to go there?"
Jolonah paused for a moment of humiliating reflection.
"Not really," he eventually mumbled.
"Not really?" The Chaplain chuckled. "So then, who does deserve to go to Hell? If not you, then whom?"
Jolonah paused again, this time for much longer.
"Exactly," said Marishison. He took another sip from his flagon. "What do you think Hell is like? I mean, I know you don't believe in it. But as a myth, as a belief shared by many of your countrymen, what is Hell supposed to be like?"
Jolonah shrugged again. "Fire. Skewers. Probably drills."
Marishison chuckled. "Is that all? Is that as far as your culture's imagination can go? A few bonfires, a few sharp pointy objects?" He sighed and shook his head. "Nearly all of them should count themselves lucky that they will never know the truth. Never. For the great majority of us, the universe is infinitely merciful for that alone."
"Where are we going?"
Marishison gazed at Jolonah, his eyes overcome with a silent sadness. "We're going to Hell, son. To Hell. There is no other word for it."
"A penal colony? For criminals like me?"
Marishison shook his head.
The Chaplain shook his head again. "Hell is a real place inside a real planet, with real people deep down there screaming throughout the ages. At least, they used to be people."
"Ridiculous. It's not possible."
"Jolonah, some of the most unbelievable things in this universe are the ones that are true. You've heard of transapients and archailects, haven't you? Animin gods and powers? Except you would only know them as mythology, as your government wants you to. Well, they're not myths, they're real. The gods and demons are real. Even the least of them are beyond our powers of comprehension. And the strangest of them..." Again, he shook his head.
What? thought Jolonah. The AI Gods exist? Brains the size of planets? Surely this had to be some sort of joke. Even Hell was more believable.
"What gods do you believe in?" asked Jolonah.
"Ah," said Marishison, nodding to himself. "That is a very good question. A very good question indeed. I used to be a Jobitarian priest, you know."
"Its roots go back thousands of years, before even the first baseline humans left the mother planet. I used to believe in a God of infinite power, infinite wisdom, infinite love. The God of everything, the Creator of everything. But then I began to learn about the true ways of the universe, and the first doubts set in. A crisis of faith, if you will. Because when I saw what was possible, when I witnessed what happened, what continues to happen ... I asked myself, if there is an all-powerful, all-loving God, why would He let this happen? And the answer that came to me ... because the answer was already in the history of so many religions. Because there are some things the Almighty actually approves of."
He stopped and sighed for the longest time yet.
"My only way of dealing with it was to find a new faith, to adjust my old beliefs to a new framework. I had a new role. I was to offer hope to the hopeless. A noble cause, with some value, and a small but significant success rate. That difference, that merest dent of a difference, helps me sleep at night."
"I don't understand."
"Of course you don't. You're not going to understand everything. Who among us mortals has such a godly gift? But perhaps I can help you understand me and me alone. From my old religion, there are four words that still haunt me to this day. 'Deliver us from evil'. It's a line from one of our oldest prayers, lost in the depths of time. And now, with my new vocation, I am doing the exact opposite of what I begged the Almighty to do. I am helping my crew deliver evil unto evil."
Once again he sipped from his flagon.
"We are a faith, a culture, dependent upon suffering. The suffering that those like you inflict, and the suffering inflicted upon those like you. We are the hands that move the blood money. We've become like the vampires of olden tales. And yet we have no choice. Because when She touches your mind, when She tells you her tale in the privacy of your heart, you have no choice but to serve Her. Not out of fear, but out of ... I guess you could call it a twisted kind of empathy."
"Who is she? Your leader? Does she brainwash you?"
"Even more profoundly than what happens on your world, with far less effort."
olonah frowned as he recalled his previous conversation, before it had become traumatic. "The ... big one mentioned something about a cat, thousands of years ago."
"Ah, yes. The Mother Cat, the Primordial Sacrifice and the First Embrace. Her own sacred tale. A most moving and disturbing tale of origin, and a true one no less."
"What does a cat have to do with your religion?"
"Perhaps you will learn, perhaps not. There are some tales best left untold. If you truly are damned, then it would cost you nothing more to listen. Yet there is one thing about our faith, one thing that redeems us in the eyes of the universe. That's the one thing that makes me sleep at night."
"What is it?"
"My role. As with all before you, I must offer you a gift."
Jolonah's breath froze.
"Oh no." Marishison shook his head and chuckled. "Nothing like what Skalosak offered. No sarcasm here, only sincerity. I have a gift here, in my pocket, for which you will truly be thankful."
The Chaplain reached into his coat and produced a dark, hand-sized item; then held it out before him in his open palm.
Jolonah did not recognize the design, much less the manufacturer. Yet there was no mistaking the functional shape. The Chaplain was holding a handgun.
"Take it, Jolonah. A gift that spares you the horror to come is the best gift you will ever receive."
Jolonah stared at the gun.
"It is your choice," said Marishison. "Either way, it is the last dignity we will afford you."
Jolonah reached a trembling pale hand to the gun and gripped the handle - warm and smooth as sun-soaked marble.
"You know what to do."
Jolonah shakily lifted the gun - so surprisingly light - and held it to his temple. Still quivering, he gently, cautiously let his finger feel for the trigger.
"When your time comes," said the Chaplain, "no great glowing hand is going to descend from the heavens and catch you as you fall. The only hand that will save you is the one holding the gun right this very moment."
Jolonah scrunched his eyes shut, his mind and guts heavy with the weight of his choice. Was death truly preferable to the fate that awaited him at the end of his path? For now, he focused on the facts. He was being held captive by what appeared to be some sort of ultratech pagan vigilante cult that worshipped a cat goddess, under the sway of a charismatic leader. There seemed every possibility that they were taking him somewhere to be tortured - horribly tortured. Must he die to avoid such a grisly fate? He had always feared death, yet he had also feared pain equally.
But then, why did he fear death if he did not believe in an afterlife?
Was he absolute in his convictions?
The dream visions returned to drench the dark behind his eyelids in their blood-red heat. The bottomless pit, the cries of misery and immeasurable anguish that would never be healed...
What if Hell was real? What if it waited for him on the other side of death, ready to punish him direly for his inexcusable acts? Would the few days of torture at the hands of these religious zealots measure up to an eternity of unimaginable horror?
He certainly did not want to be tortured, but neither did he want to take his chances with the dark mystery beyond death. He had spent his entire life avoiding risks, even when feeding his own perversions. Was there a third option? Well, yes ... there was a chance...
Jolonah opened his eyes and pointed the gun at Marishison.
The Chaplain showed no fear, only sighed with exasperation. If anything, it was Jolonah who was showing fear, the gun trembling in his pale sweaty hand.
"You will achieve nothing this way," said Marishison.
"Get me off this ship!"
"Pull that trigger, and your fate will be sealed."
"My fate's already sealed one way or the other! Get me out of here! Get me out of here!"
"I do not have the authority to make that decision. Now put the gun down gently and let us discuss this issue like two sapient adults."
Jolonah pulled the trigger ... and the Chaplain sat there faintly grinning.
The door slid open. Captain Kryslek, Tarkonon and Vayla stood in the doorway aiming rifles at Jolonah. Skalosak towered behind them, ebon claws unsheathed, eyes narrowed in a mocking feline grin.
"That pistol was programmed to shoot you and you alone," said Marishison. "Aim it elsewhere, and it only sets off the alarm. The other four were waiting outside all this time."
"You failed the test, Jolonah," said Kryslek. "Most of those sick enough to be on our list end up failing the test. You're no rebel. You're just another pathetic little man scared shitless of anyone stronger than him."
Marishison casually extracted the gun from Jolonah's limp, spiritless fingers.
"How far did you expect to get with that petty little toy?" snarled Skalosak. "Against trained soldiers with rifles? Against me? Shoot me in the rump with that thing and I would not even scratch it."
"Oh, well, I best be off," said Marishison as he lifted himself to his feet and brushed his trousers. "Nice speaking with you, Jolonah," he added casually as if nothing had happened, as if he were of no consequence. "Such a pity you should reject my offer. Things could have been so much easier for you. But now..." He shook his head. "I'm sorry. I am truly sorry for what is going to happen, but that is now far outside of my control. My job is done. The wheels of destiny are in motion. I bid you farewell, and wish you what little comfort remains in your final hours among the living. That is all."
With those words, the Chaplain followed his comrades out the door, which slid into place and locked.
Alone in his cell, Jolonah closed his eyes, weeping, rocking back and forth as he dwelt upon his failure, his predicament, his murky and unknown destiny that everyone seemed so obsessed with here.
there is no Hell there is no Hell there is no Hell there is no Hell there is no Hell there is no Hell there is no Hell there is no Hell there is no Hell there is no Hell there is no Hell there is no Hell there is no Hell there is no Hell there is no Hell there is no Hell there is no Hell there is no Hell there is no Hell there is no Hell ...
Part IV: The Gallery
The cat in the deserted alley was not the same as the one he remembered from his youth; though similarly plump, this one had flame-textured fur of grey, black and orange. That meant little to Jolonah, for all that mattered was the cat's pain. He hated it, he hated its stare, its smug judgmental stare like all the other stupid fucking cats that stared at him within a day of each of his recreational killings, as if it knew what he had done, as if it knew what he was thinking, as if the dumb creature had the cognitive abilities to actually judge him, the audacity to mock him silently behind that sickly green gaze. He hated the attention, he hated the humiliation, he hated the silent persecution these useless furry mutes delivered, and it was time to get even. He would teach this petulant feline to dare to judge a stronger, superior being; to judge activities and pleasures it could not possibly comprehend. He reached one hand into his jacket and touched the cold steel of his scalpel, preparing to take back what was his, preparing to take back the power and dignity these evil felines kept stealing from him through their demonic eyes.
Besides, the stupid thing was reassuringly small enough to overcome.
Slowly and silently, he approached the still and seated cat.
The cat got on all fours and approached him, equally slow, equally silent ... until it let out a soft "meow", as if in greeting, or requesting to be stroked.
Jolonah chuckled lightly, amused by the feline's misplaced trust. This was going to be easy. Too easy.
Predator and prey continued to approach each other, the gap between them closing until Jolonah could make out the lamplit beads of moisture on the cat's nose and whiskers, the bloodstains under its chin, his own reflection in its dark narrow pupils...
Something was wrong ... he should not have been able to see the cat's face in so much microscopic detail; not at this distance.
Then he realized that he was the size of an ant, and the cat was as massive as a mountain. Eyes wide and bright with fury, it opened its fanged mouth again, emitting a thunderous moan of hunger as millions writhed and squirmed in the fiery red lining of its endless throat...
Jolonah screamed and thrashed in his bed, then recoiled at the presence of another huge feline face. This one had grey and white stripes, and seemed to chuckle at him through rhythmic growling snorts.
"More bad dreams?" said Skalosak. "I hope they are preparing you for what awaits."
Jolonah felt his entire bed lower and sway, then realized that he was not in a bed at all, but being carried in the Siberoo's massively powerful arms. He looked up and around, noticing that he and the crew were inside a huge cave suffused with a dim, red glow.
"Where are we?" he enquired.
"Close to the end," said Kryslek, standing before him. "We thought we should take you for a little walk through Her Majesty's Infernal Gallery, so that you'll have a faint impression of what you're in for."
The cave tilted, and Jolonah's feet hit the floor with an unceremonious thud. He gave a soft hiss of discomfort as his ankles absorbed the impact.
"So, that hurt you, did it?" said Skalosak. "I don't think you're ready."
"Enough taunting, Skal," said Kryslek. "This is the final hour of pleasure he's ever going to have."
Jolonah felt the solid pressure of Skalosak's giant hand-paw gently gripping his upper arm. He could not understand why he still needed to be restrained in such a way, considering that Kryslek, Tarkonon and Vayla still carried their rifles.
Suddenly, Jolonah felt a tremor under his feet.
"Did you feel that?" Vayla gasped.
Most of the crew nodded nervously - a surprising reaction from such a tough bunch.
"She knows," said Skalosak, glancing at Jolonah.
"Who is she?" Jolonah rapidly enquired.
All refused to answer as Jolonah was ushered deeper into the cave.
Up ahead, above an entrance to another cavern, was a darkly toned picture large enough to cover a mansion - the strangest picture Jolonah had ever seen. A group of terrified, naked humans were falling into the maw of a huge and ravenous monster. Fire and smoke billowed from the creature's mouth and nostrils, roasting the victims within. Above floated what had to be a particularly hideous beast-head - bat-winged, lizard-legged, furred and horned, with a bulbous stare that was gleeful in its cruelty. On its belly was an equally hideous, scowling human face. Jolonah recalled Skalosak's ability to carry a man in her belly; but this second face was grotesquely out of proportion, being larger than the face on the head. Above this vile creature floated what appeared to be a long flag fluttering in the breeze - or, more likely, a scroll with strange writing.
"This is a reproduction of one of Earth's oldest known artworks," said Marishison. "The original probably did not survive the nanoswarms; but by then almost all artworks had been stored electronically, even amateur ones. This one, of course, is far from amateurish. It dates more than a thousand years before the swarms, when even printing machines were rare novelties. The scroll above the demon features lettering in an ancient language. Roughly translated, it says 'There is no redemption from hell'. The picture was inspired by one of baseline humanity's greatest works of literature; the rather ironically entitled Divine Comedy by the great religious scholar Dante Alighieri. By describing Hell in such a graphically detailed fashion, Dante created a meme that would reshape the religion his own people had already been practicing for centuries."
The group walked under the grotesque image and into a long hallway lined with many more grotesque images. To his left and right, Jolonah gawked in disbelief at paintings and drawings of hideous monstrosities and abject suffering. Several depicted people chained to rocks as they were assailed by fiery rain, while other victims were either crushed or swallowed by huge serpents. One showed a huge scaly demon holding human victims in both its mouths - the one on its face and the one on its belly. The paintings by the artist called "Bosch" were a frenzy of strange and colorful creatures administering equally strange torments and disfigurements upon their pitiful human victims.
All the way, Marishison explained the content of each picture, displaying knowledge that was surely the mark of extensive and passionate research. Jolonah himself shuffled and stared numbly, unable to connect such insane imagery with the reality of his present situation. This surely had to be some insidious psychological tactic designed to maximize his fear and break his spirit, not unlike that employed by the Tylansian government when dealing with political subversives and radicals. One thing was certain: the artists of Old Earth displayed a level of creativity, a brazen sweep of explosive expression, which was rarely seen in the history of his own planet.
The ground shook three times during the tour of the gallery, each tremor a little stronger than the last.
"And now we come to the second part of the Gallery," said the Chaplain as the group crossed an open hallway into a second narrow gallery. Here, the colors were even more vivid in their almost uniform reds and purples. Some of them moved.
Jolonah averted his gaze from the walls and pretended to show intense interest in the barren stone floor. He did not want to look at the new pictures. They were too real, too alive, whatever they were. He tried not to think about what he had barely glimpsed in those pictures.
Suddenly, his head felt as if it was being held in a cushioned vice. "Look," said Skalosak as her furred thumb and index finger jerked Jolonah's head upwards to face the wall. "Open your eyes, or else I'll open them for you," added the Siberoo.
Trembling all over, Jolonah slowly opened his eyes and beheld the rich textures and hues of the life-sized picture before him...
... a strangely beautiful young woman, her skin a golden tan, her long straight hair a gleaming black, affectionately holding a plump, long-haired cat close to her body. A brilliant halo of love seemed to surround the embracing pair.
The cat was grey, black and orange - exactly the same as the cat in Jolonah's last nightmare.
"This is where the story begins," said Marishison. "With the beautiful, pregnant Mother Cat, so loved and protected by her owner, so loyal and affectionate in return. If ever the bond between pet and master reached a pitch of almost divine beauty, it was between the pair you see before you.
"Nearly five thousand years ago, a ship of prisoners came to this planet. It had hitched a ride inside a much larger, more advanced starship that was able to travel close to the speed of light. As the greater starship re-accelerated outward to its distant destination, the prison ship went into orbit around the world whose surface we now walk beneath; then a lifeless world with an adequate atmosphere, despite the excess of carbon dioxide.
"Some time during the rotating ship's long orbit, while machines far below were preparing accommodation for the prisoners and their supervisors, the Mother Cat wandered the ship's corridors alone, for her owner and the rest of the staff had been distracted by mysterious power surges. And on that terrible day, one man, one prisoner, took advantage of the chaos in order to fulfill his most repulsive act of revenge."
The group moved on to the next picture; that of a large man with a shaven head and a lifeless stare.
"That prisoner - who henceforth became known only as the Primordial Sacrifice, for the fate that was soon to befall him was so hideous that none dare speak his name -, was the most cruel, most cowardly, most irredeemably evil murderer on the entire ship, for his many victims were exclusively the most innocent, the most defenseless, the youngest."
All eyes turned to Jolonah, all filled with knowing disgust.
"He had to be separated from the other prisoners for his own safety," added Kryslek.
"The Cat's owner was not a cruel person," Marishison continued, "but she did not suffer fools gladly, and she was fond of questioning the Sacrifice's manhood, courage and intellectual integrity. The Sacrifice, his pride hurt by the female guard's most casual remarks, had been fantasizing his vengeance ever since emerging from hibernation, and had decided to hurt her in the worst way imaginable. Thus he lured the Mother Cat into a trap of his devising."
Marishison sighed deeply, and his crewmates watched him with something approaching sorrow. If Jolonah did not know the rest of the story, it was obvious that they did, and sympathized with their Chaplain for carrying the burden of such a heavy tale.
"I told you, Jolonah, that this man was cruel even by the low standards of that ship. However, there is nothing I could say that could shock you, for there is nothing that this man did that exceeded your own acts of inexcusable cruelty. That being said, what this pathetic excuse for a man did to that innocent animal defied the most warped imagination of even the other murderers that distantly neighbored his cell. After the guard's beloved pet was found - barely alive, no longer recognizable - all prisoners and many guards renewed their hatred for the coward, renewed their desire to slaughter him in slow and gruesome ways.
"Unless I am mistaken," said Marishison, "your first victim was a cat, was it not?"
Jolonah nodded numbly. Uncomfortably close, Skalosak flexed her claws tensely before Kryslek shot her a reproving glance.
"There are many parallels," said Marishison, "between the vile acts of the Primordial Sacrifice and the vile acts of your own youth. The similarities are as remarkable as they are appalling."
"Marishison already mentioned that the Cat was pregnant at the time," said Skalosak, focusing on Jolonah as if deciding which organs to rip out. "She had been close to full term. With the internal injuries she had sustained, there was nothing they could do to save the kittens."
"Sadly true," added Marishison. "Yet, though close to death, the Mother Cat herself could still be saved, at least in theory. The owner was so desperate to save her beloved pet that she scrambled for the most advanced medicine she could find. Unfortunately, what she sought was so advanced that it was not categorized as medicine by her kind.
"You see, the prison ship carried a mysterious gift called a 'godseed'. It was a gift from the same beings that had carried them all that way. None of the crew understood what this godseed was capable of, nor its true purpose. Yet the angelic beings that helped carry the smaller ship had ensured the crew that the seed must be planted in their time of need. That time of need was expressed in a poetic riddle passed down from one generation to the other to this day:
"Plant the seed for love that's risked
In time of direst hate.
Plant the seed in purest rage
For healing of a mate.
Plant the seed when chances lost
Lead only one path out.
Plant the seed in innocence
And watch the Angel sprout.
"The owner could not resist temptation, for to her it was so clear that the riddle was for her and her beloved pet. Without hesitation, she inserted the godseed into the body of the unconscious cat."
The Chaplain inhaled, his breath trembling, as if afraid to continue the tale.
"No mortal among us truly understands what happened on that darkest of nights. No one truly understands why it happened. Oh, we have theories. We have tales passed on from generation to generation. We have physical evidence. We even have great words of mind and feeling from the Queen of Pain Herself. Perhaps all the stars were wrong, so horribly wrong, at that moment. Perhaps the Great Lord was distracted, and averted His attention from His creation at that moment. But there was no doubt that, on that darkest of moments, the powers that were saw fit to eschew all order, all sanity, and let something truly monstrous come into being."
Jolonah was ushered on to the next picture, and this time he definitely did not want to look.
"Keep your eyes open!" snarled Skalosak as Jolonah's head was raised by gentle furry pressure under his chin.
At the sight before him, Jolonah let out a whimper.
The creature in the picture was not recognizable as a feline. It was not recognizable as any conceivable living creature. It was a congealed mass of thrown-away scraps. It was a skinless obscenity that filled an entire room; a nightmarish cluster of eyes and drooling mouths, all numbering in the dozens, no two of them the same size or shape or angle. How many limbs did this hideous thing have? Eight? Nine? It was impossible to determine where it began and where it ended. Did it crawl on the floor, or the walls, or the ceiling? Did all eyed and mouthed limbs have to touch every edge of the room like a spiderweb of thick raw muscle?
No, this had to be a myth. This could never have lived. Jolonah refused to live in a universe where something like this could ever come to life.
"The godseed did far, far more than merely repair and replace lost tissue," continued Marishison. "It created new tissue ... masses and masses of it. New bone, new muscle, new organs, new glands, far beyond anything that was necessary in a creature of flesh and blood."
"All lifeless carbon in the operating theatre was absorbed into her new body. Organs copied and multiplied, distorted in form, randomized in position. Miraculously, all bystanders were unharmed, and had plenty of time to escape the medical lab and close off the area; though temporary this plan turned out to be.
"Yet of all the cells that multiplied, we now know that it was the proliferation of new neurons that had the most profound effect, for the creature - inconceivably - seemed able to control her own transformation. She became vastly more intelligent than any of the humans on board the vessel; even more than the ship's controlling computer. She had breached what we call the first singularity of consciousness, and entered the realm of the truly superhuman. Yet her intelligence was not of order, but of chaos. She had become an animin - an angel of chaos -; and was driven by a single goal that, as alien as it was, was soon to become all too horribly obvious.
"As I have told you, the hideously transformed Mother Cat did not harm any bystanders. The staff and most of the prisoners were safe, as traumatized as they were by her mere appearance, the chorus of hideous howls from her dozens of malformed throats. She most definitely did not harm her former owner, and indeed later turned out to be rather protective of her; for, as tremendously she had transformed, some solid remnant of that loving bond remained.
"No; there was only one person on board that ship that she wanted. And no barrier, no matter how solid, could withstand her insatiable lust for him."
A tremor rattled Jolonah's body as the riddle became terribly clear. "The ... the prisoner who abused her?" he said weakly.
Marishison nodded, and ushered the group onto the next picture. Jolonah wished that he could feel relieved that the monster was not in it. Unfortunately, what it did depict offered no comfort. The prisoner known as the Primordial Sacrifice was huddled in the corner of his padded cell, the look of absolute terror on his face shockingly familiar to Jolonah.
He had seen that look on his own victims.
"The Mother Cat was able to secrete a corrosive fluid from many of her mouths," explained Marishison. "An acid venom, dark and potent. The superstrong alloy of the ship's walls was no barrier to her. They melted before her regurgitations like ice before boiling lava. Yet she was careful not to damage the ship's outer hull. She meant no harm to the innocent. She had redesigned her own body for only one purpose - to reunite herself with her torturer, forever.
"At that moment, the poor Primordial Sacrifice was the most unfortunate, most pitiful creature that ever lived. He was still sporting the bruises inflicted by outraged prison guards when they had discovered what he had done to the Mother Cat. And now, he was going to suffer a fate infinitely worse. He could hear the infernal choir of demonic feline screeches through the air conditioning vents. He could hear the hellish hiss and bubble of the walls beyond corroding under the hot lust of the chaotic angel's venom blood. He thrashed and wept and wailed in his straightjacket, hurling his head violently but harmlessly against the cushioned walls. He so desperately, desperately wanted to die. For he knew, at that very moment, that he was going to suffer more horribly than any living creature had ever suffered in the history of the universe. He knew, beyond all comfort sought in doubt, that there was a Hell, there was a Devil, and he was hopelessly, irrevocably damned."
Skalosak picked up the trembling, wriggling Jolonah and carried him to the next picture.
"I don't want to look. I don't want to look."
"You dare shut your eyelids again I shall tear them off!"
Jolonah's fear of Skalosak won over his fear of looking at the next picture, but that offered him no comfort as he gazed upon the most horrific scene he had ever witnessed. Too afraid to close his eyes, Jolonah stood there in the grip of the Siberoo's mighty paws and wept with terror.
There was the Cat monster again, oozing her meaty bulk through the jagged hole in the cell wall. All her eyes were focused upon some shapeless, twisted form in the grip of several of her limbs, under dozens of thickly drooling mouths that grinned with malicious hunger. The thing she held looked as if it could have been her own offspring, for there was a superficial resemblance - skinless, shapeless, erupting with eyes and screaming mouths. Bubbling gashes were open in the parts of its body under the dripping mouths, exposing ruined layers of tissue beneath.
Jolonah did not want to speculate what that wretched thing was, what it might have been. There was no way, no way, no way, that thing could have possibly ever been human.
"The two," said Marishison, "once victim and torturer, now predator and prey, were united; and in that First Embrace the first true Damnation began.
"The Mother Cat injected her wretched victim with the septic nanotech that now flowed through her blood. She split and multiplied his nerves so that he would feel new levels of pain, more exquisitely than natural evolution would ever allow. She corroded his extremities with acid venom. She turned him inside out over and over again. She distorted and scrambled his biology in a thousand different ways. She liquefied his bones so that he flopped and squirmed like a slug. She grew noses and anuses all over his body so that he would sniff nothing but his own bloody diarrhea. She gave him new mouths to scream with, new eyes to watch his own disfigurement. Again and again she would remold his body like clay. But she would never let him die. She would never let him rest. She had granted him a full and grievous immortality. For when she had been mortal, the man had spoken to her in the Language of Pain. Now a minor goddess, she replied to him in the Language of Pain, with an eloquence and poetry that us mere mortals shall thankfully never know.
"Yet, in the orgasmic throes of her lust, merely holding the wretch outside her body was not enough. She had to keep him, own him, carry him; let not a single nanosecond of his relief sully the eternal, infinitely intense bond of their unholy matrimony. Thus she opened her belly wide and thrust him into its hot red lining, sealing him forever from the liberation of death. For, as the murderer of the Mother Cat's unborn kittens, the once-human Primordial Sacrifice now unwillingly replaced with his body and soul what he had stolen from her. Deep, deep inside her, the man's writhings of agony were her new joy, and she sang her lust through a chorus of a hundred throats."
By now, Jolonah was too weak, too limp to offer any resistance when they ushered him on to the next picture. The Cat Monster was standing in the centre of a dark, multi-ribbed enclosure, surrounded by fearfully reverent humans.
"Centuries passed, and for a long time not one more mortal would suffer even an infinitesimal fraction of what the Primordial Sacrifice continued to suffer in the belly of the Queen of Pain. On the surface of the new world, the descendents of the guards and prisoners built a civilization around the reverence of their Queen, built a temple in Her honor. She fed only upon the air itself, slowly expanding to mountainous proportions. No longer a common animin, She became an animin power, and relished the next level of cosmic wisdom almost as much as She relished the continual agony and misery of Her eternal prey that was the Primordial Sacrifice."
The next picture was of a conical mountain of mouths and eyeballs. A tentacle reached out to grasp a pathetic human figure.
"Yet, after a thousand years, the time would come when, once again, the Queen would need sinners to feed upon.
"In Her frenzied and chaotic wisdom, She imparted upon her human subjects the secrets of superior technology, of faster and more efficient star travel. For it was their lifelong duty to go out among the stars and collect the cruel, the sadistic, the unrepentant, and deliver them unto Her for Her eternal pleasure.
"In later centuries, it became apparent that the Queen's hunger won approval from a handful of even greater powers. One star god who shall not be named arranged the construction of several wormholes in key systems to allow for swifter collection of the wicked.
"From star to star, from world to world, from wormhole to wormhole, in places where crime and cruelty were still common, Her minions would search the prisons and palaces for the most evil souls, those worthy of Her everlasting embrace. For She was not motivated by rage or revenge, but only constant and endless conversation in the Language of Pain, that very Language that the Primordial Sacrifice had taught Her when She had been small and mortal and vulnerable. She believed that those who took the most pleasure in inflicting pain must surely take the most pleasure in receiving pain. Of course, the cruelest mortals being cowards, this was not the case; but it mattered not to Her. Whatever pain they gave the living, She would return a trillionfold, a trillion trillionfold, infinityfold - for the pain She offered was truly without measure, without interval, without end. For predator and prey shared the Language of Pain, and in that unholy Language Her victims shall shriek throughout eternity the chorus of the damned."
"And you are about to join them," said Vayla. "Her imps have been watching you in disguise for the past few years."
"Did you not notice how cats would stare at you within a day of one of your disgusting acts?" said Tarkonon. "They were the Queen's remotes in disguise; transported to your world through Her portion of the Wormhole Nexus, transmitting their reports back to Her through the same network. They were judging your acts, measuring the pleasure that you derived from them, and determining the severity of your damnation."
"All too true," added Skalosak. "When a cat stares at you with that focusing gaze, she is already planning your fate. Which circle of Hell do you belong? Seventh circle? Eighth? That has been the way for thousands of years."
"And for thousands of years the agony of the damned was Her Majesty's primary source of pleasure," the Chaplain continued, "but it was not Her primary source of nourishment. Her consumption of the atmosphere gradually added to Her bulk, while the heat of the sun above and the molten rock beneath provided the energy to convert the elements of the sky itself into a continent of flesh. Of Her many titles, one of them is Eater of the Sky. She devoured Heaven to fatten Hell. Now, there is no air above the ground; only below. In Her mercy, She allowed her servants to breathe and continue her bidding."
The group moved on to a floating hologram of a strangely textured planet - smooth and dark as a sphere of black stone. The crust facing the group turned translucent. While the molten magma beneath was visible in parts, something red and shapeless blotted out much of its fiery glow, like an ulcer beneath the skin of the planet. Given the scale of the hologram, the thing must have been hundreds of kilometers wide. Hundreds of roots extended from its base down into the translucent magma. A fine film of red mist floated above the surface of the shape, slowly swirling like a bloody soap bubble.
As Skalosak gently nudged Jolonah forward to allow him a closer appraisal of the hologram, Jolonah noticed that the shapeless thing was covered in thousands of tiny eyes. Equally numerous spiracles opened and dilated with rhythmic slowness, mostly no larger than pores upon human skin.
Beneath his feet, the cave floor shook again.
"No," said Jolonah. "This thing could never live. It's not possible."
Marishison ignored him as a transparent lens floated over the surface of the planet.
"Her roots now extend throughout the entire planetary crust," said the Chaplain. "The surface only harbors one species of life, and that is the Queen Herself; or, more precisely, the leafy extrusions of Her body that drink nothing but sunlight."
Through the lens, Jolonah saw a thick and tangled forest of pitch black, spidery foliage, with monstrous leaves like dark batwings.
The lens moved over the shapeless mass, and Jolonah's entire body shuddered as he glimpsed huge eyes staring directly at him. It settled over the largest spiracle in the centre of the mass, which opened and magnified into a deep, nine-ringed throat of sickly redness. The throat's inner lining constantly shimmered, as if from millions of constant, microscopic motions.
Jolonah recognized it instantly. He scrunched his eyes shut as tight as possible. "Why are you showing me this!" he cried. "It's not real. It's not real."
"Open your eyes!" bellowed the Siberoo, shaking Jolonah as if he was not already shaking enough.
Before his petrified gaze, the lens was expanding, while the image underneath grew at a much faster rate. The wriggling motions on the throat's upper ring became discernible as distinct, separate forms.
Buried up to their waists in boiling, bubbling red meat, thousands of living beings writhed and thrashed. Many of them were recognizably human, all sporting huge red sores.
"Hell is the part of the Queen's body where She keeps Her precious victims," Marishison said matter-of-factly. "It is divided into nine levels. The first level is for sinners who committed only one atrocious act in their lives without remorse. They suffer nothing worse than burns, boils and blisters."
"I don't think he's going there," said Vayla.
"On the second level," continued Marishison, "the damned suffer necrosis. On the third, constant digestion of the flesh."
Jolonah averted his gaze long enough to glimpse Vayla shaking her head at Marishison, before Skalosak forced him to face the horrid hologram.
"The lower levels," said Marishison, "is where Her Majesty's use of nanotech destruction and reconstruction reaches frightening levels of creative genius. Torment becomes both physical and psychological."
The lens zoomed in on some individuals whose torment beggared belief. One skinless man, almost indistinguishable from the bubbling thick stew all around him, rose to the waist out of the squelching muck and raised his arm to the misty red sky above. His arm suddenly transformed into a serpent, turned on him and engulfed his entire face, its fangs neatly penetrating his eye sockets. On a nearby bony outgrowth, a half-eaten figure stumbled around awkwardly on jagged bony stumps where feet should have been, constantly being chased and nibbled by dozens of swiftly swarming spider-like creatures. Another thrashed around in terror and revulsion, desperate to escape his own body as hideous faces opened up in his wounds and laughed at him. A fourth watched helplessly as every space of his own flesh erupted with wriggling white worms as fat as thumbs.
"The deeper the level, the deeper the torments," said Marishison.
"For ... how long?"
"How long?" Marishison glared at Jolonah with an incredulous grin. "My son, there is no end to the torments of the damned. Trillions of years may pass, the stars may wink out as entropy quenches their fires, yet She and Her victims will live on in a form fit to survive the cold. The universe itself may die a slow cold death, yet She may burrow through space itself to find another and start anew, the mere second of an infinity of cosmic cycles. She will preserve you in any way possible, in any form possible, mind or matter, for your pain is more precious to Her than the stars that fill the heavens, and thus to Her worthy of an infinitely longer duration."
The lens zoomed down the dark and distant depths of the pit, where shapeless forms squirmed and twitched in a slow whirlpool of filthy, thick red fluid. "The ninth and lowest circle of Hell is reserved only for the worst, most persistent murderers," said Marishison. "They are to spend eternity revolving slowly in the whirlpool at the bottom of Her pit as their bodies melt into septic filth. Only a few, a most unfortunate few, make it to the centre of the vortex and fall into the deeper pit below."
"And what ... what is d-down there?"
Marishison glanced at his comrades, who glanced back fearfully.
"Does he need to know?" said Tarkonon, his leonine voice uncharacteristically nervous.
"He is an exceptional case," said Vayla. "I think this may concern him."
"We usually prefer not to speak of what lies beneath Hell," Marishison told Jolonah, "though it is not exactly forbidden."
The ground shook again.
"What is at the bottom of a bottomless pit?" Marishison asked rhetorically. "Strangely enough, there is an answer, and that answer lies far beneath our feet - far beneath even the most agony-wracked sufferer in Hell.
"Hell is but one part of the Queen's body. There are many others. She is a world unto Herself. Some say that Her original owner still lives on somewhere inside Her, constantly rewarded in a perpetual state of orgasmic ecstasy. Yet the wretched things writhing in her Hell organ suffer only because they are close to a certain gland. Close, but mercifully not within it.
"You see, pain is constantly being pumped into the bodies of the damned. Pain in a multitude of forms, but always in a safely dilute nanotech venom that transforms flesh intelligently and creatively. There is always a level of order and restraint, even in the lowest region of Hell, regardless of how chaotic and unmitigated their suffering may seem to us fortunate mortals. Yet all that pain, all that venom, must come from somewhere. But where?"
The lens contracted and dived deeper down the holographic throat of Hell, through the slow vortex at the bottom and down what seemed to be a massive pumping artery of increasingly dark fluid.
"The answer lies many kilometers beneath the lowest depths of Hell, inside the gland that produces the Queen's acid venom - the most corrosive, most toxic, most noxious substance in all the universe, distilled and refined and perfected over thousands of years. It lies inside Her Venom Heart; the source of the most hideous pain, the Anti-Nirvana, the lowest point in all Creation, the place even the damned cannot imagine."
"S-s-so ... so nobody goes there?"
"Oh, I'm afraid that some do."
The lens reached the end of the artery and entered a place of inky blackness. Tiny lights, like a cluster of stars, wobbled slightly in the far distance. As they approached, Jolonah could see that the formless things were somehow alive - they twitched and writhed as if trying to pull themselves apart, wobbling back and forth as if buffeted by constant tides within the fluid that held them. Once they were much closer, Jolonah noticed that the creatures were in the shape of lumpy spheres. Then the motion slowed down almost to a halt, and one could see that they were made up of millions of tiny branching fibers. Even in slow motion, the ends of the micro-thin branches constantly wavered, retracting and extending and retracting and extending over and over again.
"What are they?" asked Jolonah.
"Pain," said Marishison. "Pure, distilled, stripped-down pain. They were ones living beings like yourself. But now they are nothing but bundles of nerves, yet multiplied over and over again so that their pain would be unique in all Creation. Their nerve endings have been multiplied many millionfold, their pain receptors many times more. They are unique forms of life with nothing but pain for flesh, and the pain felt by one of them for a second would torment an entire living world for eons. Their suffering is as far beyond the torments of Hell as Hell is beyond the pleasures of the living world. The Primordial Sacrifice dwells among them, his agony so much more exquisite than anything he experienced in that relatively gentle First Embrace. And all the time, the Queen Herself sings to them, for they are her most precious possessions of all.
"What you are about to read is a very rough translation of Her song. Two thousand years ago, one of her sapient servants tried to communicate with Her using his brain implants. This is his attempt to interpret what he 'heard'. He committed suicide minutes after writing this down, because the mind-song was repeating and driving him insane."
Strange markings formed beneath the holographic lens. Rapidly, the markings transformed into Tylansian script:
Squirm in my heart, my precious little maggots.
Squirm squirm squirm squirm squiiiiiiiiiiiirrrrrrrrm.
I cherish and preserve your undying pain,
Your pain pain pain pain paaaaaaiiiiiiiiiin.
Let my acid venom find new receptors of agony
Hidden beneath your outer nerves
And wash all seeds of comfort from your core.
Let my passion burn away
All instants of promised relief
Hidden between the nanoseconds.
Pain without measure,
Pain without interval,
Pain without end,
Pain without hope,
Carrying you within me
"In Her vast and twisted mind," said Marishison, "She seems to think that She is singing a song of love, like a lullaby. To Her, pain is love, but only a specific kind of love. As I have told you, She gives the most pain to those who took the most pleasure from inflicting the most pain. It is Her logic, the very reason for Her existence."
"Did you keep count of your victims, Jolonah?" Skalosak enquired.
With that last question, Jolonah could take no more. He keeled over, retched and vomited, again and again.
"All over my beautiful fur!" growled Skalosak as she hastily pulled a canister out of her belt-pack and sprayed something onto her left wrist.
Jolonah dropped to his knees, retching and spewing into his own lumpy puddle.
The retching and spewing and wheezing and gasping seemed to go on and on for hours. Jolonah wanted it to go on for longer. He did not want it to end, not to ever end, for he did not want to think about what lay beyond the end.
"Why?" he finally croaked. "Why are you showing me this? Why are you telling me these stories?"
"Because they are true," said Marishison. "Because it is essential that you know what is going to happen to you."
Jolonah gestured weakly at the holograms. "Who would create a simulation like this? What is the point?"
Marishison said nothing. He only glanced at Kryslek and sighed.
"Why must I be punished like this?" Jolonah added. "Even if it is real? Why for so long? My victims only suffered for a few hours. This is ... this is out of proportion."
"So your victims only suffered for a few hours?" snarled Skalosak. "Was that not long enough for you? Was that not..."
Marishison silenced the beast with a gentle gesture. "This is not about punishment," he said. "Nor rage, nor revenge, nor retribution. This is simply about the Language of Pain. You have spoken that language throughout your life, and the Queen speaks it more fluently, more thoroughly, than you could possibly imagine at this moment. You already belong to Her. She is simply accepting you into the place you belong, into Her embrace."
"But just because I enjoyed inflicting pain," Jolonah rebutted tremblingly, "does not mean that..."
His voice trailed off as he saw Skalosak scowling at him, clenching her claws as she shook her massive head. Kryslek, Vayla and Tarkonon glared at him with equal disgust. Only the Chaplain seemed to control his emotions.
Under Jolonah's knees, the ground trembled again.
"Come on now," said Marishison. "The Queen is waiting."
Jolonah scuttled backward on his hands and knees like a crab as the mighty Skalosak approached him, loomed over him, lifted him in her huge paws. He struggled impotently in the Siberoo's steel-hard grip.
"But wait ... wait..." he whined as the group proceeded towards what looked like an elevator door. "What do you want me to do? If there is anything you want me to do, anything at all ... another test ... I'll be all-too-happy to try it. Please, anything."
All crewmembers looked at each other knowingly, and were still silent when the elevator door opened with a soft hiss. Skalosak was the last to enter, as she and her comrades faced another door opposite the one that closed behind. Jolonah felt the faint upward tug of his innards that signified rapid descent. He could not recognize the flashing hieroglyphs on the elevator wall beside the door, but he was certain that the elevator was descending far down into the depths of the planetary crust.
"Anything," he added. "Put me through any test you want."
"All we ask you to do is listen, and listen carefully," Marishison finally replied, "although I am afraid your chances for leniency are almost negligible. My only hope is your only hope. That hope, most sincerely, is that your suffering be only confined to Hell."
Jolonah shuddered to his very bones. If that was what passed for hope here, then it was hope of the strangest kind, of the lowest possible standards.
What would the simulation be like? Would it be as lifelike as the pictures he saw? How long would it last? Hours? Days? Would the pain feel real? Would it hurt as much as the dentist? As the jellyfish?
Almost as if in sympathy, almost as if reading his thoughts and emotions, the elevator itself began to tremble. Jolonah hoped that this, too, was all part of the act.
The trembling grew stronger with every moment and meter that passed, within and without, on the way down into the depths of that dark world.
Part V: The Queen of Pain
Jolonah wished the door would never open; yet open it did, and blood-red light poured in from the cave beyond.
As the group stepped though the threshold, Jolonah could do nothing but stare ahead from Skalosak's arms. He did not even notice the elevator door sealing shut behind them.
At the far end of the jagged cave tunnel - a hundred meters away - there was an endless open space drenched in blood-red mist. Vague, nebulous shapes seemed to swirl and slither where the mist was thickest. The images came into focus, blurred into each other and melted away like phantoms in a fever dream. First a huge skeletal serpent would bow to the group while raising a dozen pairs of batlike wings, which would split up into a hundred worms or tentacles, which would then shorten into mocking eyeballs that sank and stretched out of shape.
"What is that?"
"Hypersentient utility fog," said Kryslek. "The true form of Her Majesty's lesser angels, which is really no form at all."
"They are actually trillions of floating nanomachines," added Vayla.
"Is that ... part of the simulation?"
Uncomfortably close, Skalosak snorted derisively.
"It is all real, Jolonah," said Marishison.
The entire cave trembled, far more violently and loudly that before. Even through Skalosak's powerful arms, the vibrations passed into Jolonah's bones. Beyond, from the end of the tunnel, came a noise as if the wind itself was moaning in lament ... until it rose to a shrieking, howling pitch that stabbed into Jolonah's eardrums like icicles.
"She's waiting for you," said Skalosak as the tremors and echoes died away.
"What ... what..."
"It's Her," said Marishison. "You saw all those mouths on the hologram. They are kilometers apart, yet bigger that arenas."
Jolonah's bowels thickened with aching weight, his bladder stung with tension, as the tremors returned only to his body. He would have done anything - crawled naked on his belly through broken glass, eaten mounds of manure - to get away from the horrible thing at the end of the tunnel, the thing that had haunted his nightmares with its cries full of lust and empty of reason.
"Wha- ... why are you duh- ...doing this?" he sobbed.
"We have no choice," said Marishison. "We are puppets, drained of free will. In our own way, we are also damned."
"But ... but ... you seem to take pleasure..."
"We are addicted," said Skalosak. "That is why we have no free will."
"But we still have a choice," said Kryslek, "and so do you, Jolonah."
All eyes turned to Kryslek. Skalosak widened hers. "You do not mean -"
"Yes, I do."
Marishison sighed. "I had a feeling this would be raised."
"What?" said Jolonah, his tears halted, eager for any mitigation.
"It's been raised before," said Kryslek, " and I think now's a good time to raise it again." He raised his gaze to Skalosak. "Skal, you did remember, didn't you?"
"Of course," said the Siberoo as she gently lowered Jolonah to the rocky floor. "I'm only surprised that you have decided to follow it through; especially in his case..."
"We can't make exceptions in his case," Kryslek said as he looked at Jolonah. "No matter how vile his crimes."
"What are you talking about?" Jolonah hurriedly enquired, the faintest sparks of hope thawing his nerves.
"Shall we tell him?" Vayla asked the group.
"Of course he must know," said Tarkonon. "He's the one who must make the choice."
"Skal," said Kryslek, "you're the one who has to tell him."
The Siberoo sighed slowly and hugely, like an exhaling whale. She lowered her head to Jolonah and gently rested her warm, massive paws around his shoulders, as if preparing to speak to a child.
"Jolonah," she said, her eyes surprisingly sad. It was a strange sight for a creature so powerful, so normally stalwart and confident. "I have a small child in my pouch. A human child."
Jolonah glanced down to Skalosak's closed pouch. There wasn't much of a bulge there. Yet a human child would hardly make much of a bulge in Skalosak; no more than a kitten in a large woman's undergarments.
Suddenly, movement to his left jerked his attention away.
Kryslek, Vayla and Tarkonon all had their rifles aimed at Jolonah.
Jolonah shuddered again, this time with the first glimmerings of happiness in days.
"You must make the choice, Jolonah," said Marishison.
"What choice are you talking about?"
"The child," said Skalosak. While leaving one paw covering Jolonah's shoulder and upper arm, she moved the other paw to her pouch. Gently, affectionately, she stroked its soft white down. "You must ... you ... we have a rule." The mighty creature paused. Incredibly, she conveyed so much sorrow that she almost seemed frightened. "We can execute you where you stand, and offer the child to the Queen of Pain in your place."
Jolonah tingled blissfully all over as he felt a smile rush to his face. "You mean..." He tried desperately to suppress a giggle. "You mean I don't have to..."
Skalosak shook her huge, sad head. "No, Jolonah. We just pump you full of photons and send you straight to eternal sleep. The Queen of Pain never has to touch you. You never even have to go near Her, nor look at Her. For you it will be over. Only the child will suffer."
"Do you want the child to suffer in your place, Jolonah?" Marishison asked gravely. "The choice is yours and yours alone."
This time, Jolonah could not resist. He burst into ecstatic laughter. "Oh yes! Oh yes yes yes! Please! Give Her the child! Give Her the child! Give Her a thousand children! Just shoot me where I stand! I'm ready! Oh, thank you thank you thank you! You have no idea how grateful I am!"
All scowling, Kryslek, Vayla and Tarkonon lowered their rifles to point them at the ground.
"What ... what are you doing?"
Marishison turned away from Jolonah, his head shaking.
Suddenly, with a massive jolt, Jolonah's entire body was pulled toward Skalosak's gigantic snarling face. "You failed, fucker!" she roared deafeningly.
"But ... but..."
"Don't shake him!" shouted Kryslek.
"I am not stupid," said Skalosak to her leader, then turned to the hapless Jolonah. "Sometimes, just sometimes," she explained, her voice now closer to human, "we have men bursting into tears when we ask that question. Because, once they are given the choice, they know that it is wrong to let an innocent child suffer in their place. They know, they finally know, that they have earned their punishment."
"It would never work anyway," added Marishison. "The Queen would never harm the innocent. Never. She has never forgotten the love and dedication her owner had shown her, five thousand years ago."
"There's no child in my pouch," said Skalosak. "It was all just a test, one of many tests that prisoners must face, according to their intellect and personality. Those that pass, those that finally realize the true depths of their crimes, those are the ones we spare. We either shoot them, or I personally break their necks. It is swift and painless. They sink quietly, freely, into oblivion, never to know the horror that awaits the unrepentant. Not like you..."
Skalosak's black lips curled away from her huge, gleaming white teeth; and for an instant of false hope Jolonah thought that she was going to bite his head off.
"You laughed. You actually laughed when you believed an innocent child was going to suffer in your place. You thought it was good that an innocent child would scream forever while you, a disgusting, sniveling murderer of children, will sleep soundly in oblivion, never having to pay for your crimes. You showed yourself for your true nature. You proved yourself an irredeemable coward in heart, mind and soul."
"Those that pass the test," added Marishison, "can no longer be accepted by the Queen. Once they repent, once they confess that they deserve eternal damnation, once they are willing to suffer to spare the innocent, then that part of them that derives pleasure from the pain of others is forever destroyed. There is nothing for the Queen to taste, nothing to preserve.
"But you, Jolonah..." The Chaplain lowered his gaze and shook his head. "You will spend all eternity knowing that you could have saved yourself, and knowing that your cowardice failed you. You, who caused so many children to suffer, and who gladly wished unimaginable suffering upon one more child so that you could be relieved of the torment you have earned ... No. You are damned; irrevocably, irreversibly damned. Your last drop of hope has been spent."
"So ... so ... are you going to shoot me?"
"Have you heard nothing?" said Skalosak. "You are not going to die. You are never going to die. You are going to live forever inside the Queen of Pain, and Pain shall be your universe."
"B-b-but wait! Wait, I understand now! I just say sorry, don't I? I just say I'm sorry and then you shoot me? Isn't that how it works?"
Marishison shook his head.
"Wait! Wait! You can test me again! Yes, that's it! You can give me another test! Please! I didn't know the last one was a test! I wasn't ready! Please, just one more test! I promise I'll be ready this time! I promise!"
"She's waiting for you," said Skalosak.
Once again the cave trembled, even more violently than before. The ground beneath them started to rock. Jolonah swung in the Siberoo's grip. The four smaller crewmembers stumbled to find their balance. Far behind came the distinct, harsh crack of splitting stone ... and the howl. Yet this time the howl was forming distinct and separate sounds, distinct syllables...
"Hear that?" Skalosak half whispered close to his ear, audible above the racket. "It's HER. She wants you soooooo badly, Jolonah. Her little imps have told Her all about you. She can't wait to see you. She can't wait to TASTE you!"
Jolonah jerked his head around like a desperate caged bird. The cave walls were hard and jagged. Yes! That was it! He could charge for the wall and smash his own skull!
In Skalosak's grip, Jolonah waved his arms towards the wall and kicked his legs in that direction. The rest of him, held securely between the Siberoo's paws, did not even budge.
"Please kill me!" he cried, turning to the armed warriors. "Shoot me! Please! You are great aimers! You're brilliant! I can see it in you! Please shoot me now! It will save you so much trouble!"
"Our work is over," said Kryslek. He, Vayla and Tarkonon dropped their rifles to the still-shuddering floor.
Jolonah turned to the Chaplain. "Marishison! Do you have your gun? Do you? You can shoot me now! You can! I know you're a good man!"
Marishison sadly shook his head. "It gives me no pleasure to inflict such dire suffering upon even the most wicked," he said. "But if I killed you, I would be denying the Queen Her morsel, and that is something that I can never do. For you, I have no words of comfort; because for you, there will be none."
With those words, the Chaplain turned his back.
"Nooooooooo!!" cried Jolonah as Skalosak carried him down the tunnel, holding him to her warm furry breast like an infant. Jolonah held his out his arms and wailed to the receding warriors, to the holyman who refused to watch his fate. No release was coming from them. His hope crushed, Jolonah's arms fell limp upon Skalosak's right arm.
"Ska-Skalosak!" Jolonah muttered between sobs. "Please! You're so powerful! You're so magnificent! You could kill me easily! Just one twitch of your finger!"
"I would not waste my smallest muscle."
"Please! Show mercy for such a small defenseless creature! Mercy!"
The Siberoo stopped in her tracks, then held Jolonah before her like an errant child. Her huge striped face was tinged red in the infernal light. "Small ... defenseless ... You make me sick. Don't you dare, don't you fucking DARE whine and whimper to me about MERCY!"
As horrific as his predicament was, Jolonah still held his own special fear for the giant marsupial. Yet the things he feared most about her - her godlike strength, her predatory teeth and claws, her short temper - were now his only salvation.
"Are you ... are you angry?" he whimpered.
A cunning grin grew upon the giant feline face. "Angry enough to keep you alive and whole right up to the edge of the pit."
Then the towering she-beast walked on, the human thrashing and wailing in her arms. Jolonah's bladder and bowels gave way as the stench rose from his trousers. "Please kill me please kill me please kill me please kill me please KIIIIIIILLL MEEEEEE!!"
With nothing to lose, with a growing heat upon his back that was unnerving, Jolonah violently kicked Skalosak in the belly again and again and again. After every kick, his feet bounced back as if from rubber.
Skalosak halted again, grinning at Jolonah. "My joeycub kicked much harder than that when he was in a good mood. We're built to take it - and that's even without diamond reinforcements like mine. Have you finally accepted my offer to let you punch me in the face?"
Jolonah thrashed and flung his arms, throwing his fists into Skalosak's cheeks, ears, nose, forehead, eyes. As Jolonah's fists ached and bled, the Siberoo barely flinched, doing nothing more than squinting her eyes. Jolonah reached out his thumbs and gouged them into her closed eyelids ... only to find that even these muscles would not yield. He felt around for the openings between the lids, until Skalosak snorted, lightly shook her head and raised it, letting the frail human hands slide impotently off her fur. She met Jolonah's gaze with a half-open grin. "You are like a moth fluttering in my face."
Jolonah threw another punch aimed squarely at her upper lip, but his fist slipped off and grazed her huge white fang, gashing open the flesh of his palm from the base of his small finger to just above the wrist. He retracted his right hand and held it before him in his left, whining in pain.
"So," purred Skalosak. "You have finally discovered that pain is bad. Such a pity. I know one distinguished lady who would disagree with you upon that matter. Would you like me to introduce you to her?"
There was the mildest lurch as Jolonah felt Skalosak lifting him a little higher.
"Look into my eyes," she said. "They are the last beautiful things you will ever see."
Jolonah gazed into the crystalline blue of the feline's eyes, which glinted with the fiery red of the cavern beyond. For the briefest of moments, he no longer saw judgment, but something else. There was order here; there was perfect symmetry in the Siberoo's striped face. How could horror and torment be forever with so much beauty in the universe?
Then Skalosak spun Jolonah around and held him out over the edge of a cliff.
Before Jolonah was a landscape of madness.
The cavern had no visible boundaries; it extended endlessly in all directions, blurring into blood-tinged haze in the far distance. Vast red clouds like city-sized jellyfish filled the sky as thousands of blood-red translucent serpents danced among their tentacles.
Yet it was the sight below, far far below, that burned out all residual traces of hope in Jolonah's doomed soul.
A far as the eye could see, the ground heaved and undulated with mountains of raw muscle. Eyes larger than city blocks twitched and rolled and gazed straight at him. Mouths the size of villages opened and moaned in gluttonous ecstasy. Hills of flesh rose above smaller mounds of flesh just so their eyes could glimpse their microscopic new prey.
Directly below him, the greatest mouth of all, the greatest mouth in the universe, opened as wide as an entire city, bellowed as loud as a thermonuclear choir; and in its glowing red depths was a throat with nine rings, all squirming as if each and every tiny cell was in the throes of chaos.
All hope forever destroyed, Jolonah howled and thrashed and kicked and wept as the Blood Angel came for him.
The Blood Angel was part serpent, part squid, part spider, as murky and indistinct as a nightmare glimpsed through bloodstained glass. It lifted the screaming man from the Siberoo's grip, then dived straight down into the maw of its unholy Mother.
The stench violated Jolonah's nostrils as he entered the mouth of the Queen of Pain. For kilometers around, the red lining of Her pit wriggled and squirmed and squealed with the suffering of millions of sinners. Already, the Blood Angel was tearing off Jolonah's clothes, exposing his puny nakedness to the vile infernal air.
Down he fell, kilometer after kilometer, squirming ring after squirming ring, through clouds and swarms of infernal demons.
Then, far far below, the very base of Hell itself opened up, exposing the inky, fluid darkness pumping so very far beneath.
The infernal Angel let go of Jolonah and rose to the upper reaches of Hell, as if even it feared the place he was going. Jolonah fell freely, still only halfway down the throat of Hell, still minutes away from the beginning of his Eternity.
Already, falling through the misty, septic air, the true agony began.
His flesh ruptured and split and burst in a hundred places. Wobbling eyeballs gazed out at him from his wounds. Blood-red tongues extended from between his ragged flaps of flesh, hissing and spitting acid at him. On his clawed right hand, more eyeballs grew on the tips of his fingers. A shapeless mouth opened in the tooth-wound on his palm and laughed at him in a cackle that made his rapidly liquefying wrist bubble inside and out.
Fragmented images assailed his agonized brain as he viewed his own disfigurement through all his new eyes. On many of his retinas, distinct Tylansian letters burned into blood-red scars...
Squirm in my heart, my precious little maggot!
Squirm forever, Jolonah!
In the ruined mess that was once a human body, the mouth that was still natural howled in hopeless, wordless misery, and all other mouths howled with it.
Down and down he fell, into his pumping, stinking, shrieking, writhing, everlasting home.