Damiel could feel the elevator plummeting fast. His biochip implant translated the numbers and text on the display monitor. They were descending kilometres beneath the vast habitat caverns, beneath the starship bays, beneath the antique galleries, libraries, museums and theatres that (according to Marishison) the Queen herself had commissioned to remind her servants of the cause.
"Don't worry," said Marishison. "Very few recruits get to sleep at all before meeting Her Majesty. She will accept you regardless. I presume that is what you want."
"It is," said Damiel. "It still is."
Despite Marishison's reassurance, Damiel wished he'd had at least a modicum of sleep to prepare himself for this moment. The guest room he had stayed in seemed adequate by the standards of his own world, if rather basic by the standards of this one. He had spent two hours pacing, and another two trying desperately to sleep on what looked and felt like an ordinary bed. Under the sheets, he felt too hot. Over the sheets, he felt too cold. He could not find a single air conditioner setting that would suit him, not even when he combined it with varying arrangements of bed sheets. At one stage he simply wrapped the thick comforter all around him, desperately trying to simulate Skalosak's pouch. It could not compare. The room had no books, no monitor, no media access whatsoever. He had no way of finding out what initiates were supposed to do, nor what they should have expected. Perhaps this was just as well, for otherwise he would have spent the entire time in random, frenzied research. Instead, he had spent most of the final hour crouched in the showerbath, his eyes closed as four robotic hoses sprayed him with warm, herbal scented water. That had been the closest he could come to relaxing, and now his time was spent.
Nonetheless, the questions squirming in his head during those six hours were exactly the same questions tormenting him this very moment. What was the Queen? The stories he had read all contradicted each other. Did she look like a dragon? A giant hippo? A lioness? A feline form would have made the most sense, given the prevalence of feline provolves among her servants. Damiel hoped that she was not too demanding on the eye - a giant spider or centipede would probably make him lose bodily control. Yet equally important was the question of her size. Was she the size of an office block? A spaceport? Just how was she able to cause tremors when excited? Was it because she was connected to all the machinery throughout the realm? Damiel knew that some transapients grew to enormous size - particularly the high transapients, of which the Queen was doubtlessly one. He tried his best not to dwell too hard on this subject. For better or worse, the answer would present itself soon enough.
Damiel felt heavy as the elevator began to decelerate. What will I see
? he thought. What will I see when the doors open
The doors did open, but the first thing Damiel saw was a long cave tunnel. The second thing he saw what a glowing red haze at the end of the tunnel, at least a hundred metres away.
Marishison guided Damiel through the threshold, and the doors closed behind them.
"Is that -" Damiel whispered feverishly, "- is that her
"No," said Marishison. "At least, not quite. That's utility fog. That's where Her higher servants dwell - the lower transapients. The demons, if you like."
"I'm not sure if I do li- - wait, can she hear us?"
Marishison grinned lightly. "She does not care what you say, nor what you think. She does not care how you dress, nor how you comb your hair. She does not expect formalities from newcomers. She understands how imposing She is to us tiny creatures. It is Her self-appointed task to make you a servant, a Collector, an Apprentice Chaplain. You don't have to do a thing. There is no test, no ritual. You have already passed. Just speak your mind and be yourself, for as long as you remain yourself. She will make the necessary changes, as She did with all of us."
"But - but does that mean - she takes away your free will?"
The Chaplain's face grew long with sadness. "Damiel, it is your free will that brought you here."
"I know," said Damiel. "I know. This is the task I wanted - to take part in the process of justice."
"And that you will, son. You will take part in the process of justice, and you will have your say. You will make a difference. You will have a chance to save those who still hold a breath of remorse. And most importantly, you will still have most of your free will. Your beliefs, your thoughts, your emotions, will be your own. The only difference will be what you learn today, what you will carry around inside you for the rest of your life. Her Majesty will never let you forget your duty. You will not leave Her, because you will not want
to leave Her. Not for long. If you disobey Her, like our dear friend Skally sometimes does, She will simply remind you where you went wrong, and why your action was wrong. To us, at least, She is a just ruler."
Damiel thought of Skalosak's frequent torment, the nightmares that plagued her sleep. "That is not free will," he said. "Not what she's done to Skalosak. She has punished her. She's punished all of you with nightmares. She's lodged herself into your heads. And she's going to do the same with me."
"I'm sorry to say this," said Marishison, "but if you turn back now, then others will return you to this place and force you to face Her Majesty. You may have lost many of your freedoms, but again, it is a loss you have chosen."
"I have," said Damiel. "It was my choice. I can't deny that."
"So - are you ready to meet Her Majesty?"
"As ready I can possibly be, which isn't really saying much."
Marishison chuckled lightly. "Bless you," he said. "I know you're up to the task that lies ahead. Let's go now."
Damiel walked beside Marishison along the cave tunnel, staring at the red haze up ahead. Shapes seemed to wriggle and writhe within the haze, like clusters of serpents or tentacles. It was like a fiery, ethereal version of the transport tubes far above.
"Are you sure that's not the Queen?"
"Most certain. Only Her servants. Of course, even the lowliest transapients may seem overwhelming to our senses. But they mean you no ill. They value you, just like the guards, like Skalosak herself. They know you have an important part to play here, and they want you to play that part as best you can. Her Majesty wills it."
The closer they approached the tunnel's open end, the warmer it became. Damiel caught a faint stench of sulphur, and something worse beneath it - something like rotting flesh. His heart thudded faster, louder. Every muscle in him began to strain, dreading every step, the air thick with foreboding. As he viewed the writhing shapes in the fiery haze, inhaling air that made him want to choke, the grim realization came to him. This was the place his religion had warned him about. This was Hell. It did not matter if this place had been created by a transapient only a few thousand years ago. Time meant nothing here. Something timeless and eternal, beyond space and matter, had made its mark on this planet, on the fevered mind of the transapient artist that had made her home here. This place was where Hell intersected with the physical universe. It could be nothing else.
As the tunnel exit expanded in his view, Damiel saw more of the open space beyond. The red haze seemed to extend for kilometres, perhaps dozens of kilometres. As far as the eye could see, thousands of serpentine figures swooped and swirled and danced. Much larger shapes moved amongst them, as thick as tree trunks among weeds.
"Are they superintelligent?" Damiel whispered. "They seem so - wild."
"They are both," said Marishison. "They praise Her Majesty with every thought, every movement, for She gives them life with every moment that passes."
The heat became uncomfortable as they approached the end of the tunnel. Damiel stopped two metres before the end, staring up into the scarlet storms of Hell. Far above, at least a few kilometres up, a vast stone ceiling filled the heavens like a mountain range turned upside down, its downward-pointing peaks jutting through clouds of blood red mist. Thousands of serpents and squids of fire soared to and fro amongst the clouds. Towering in their midst were dozens of bulbous, city-sized jellyfish, like nuclear mushroom clouds brought to life by a billion deaths. The massive serpentine shapes Damiel had seen from a distance were only their tentacles. Damiel gazed further into the distance, and saw that the stone ceiling went on forever. Far ahead, to the left and right, its jagged features vanished smoothly into the red clouds, into clusters of thousands of city-jellyfish, into swarms of millions of fire squids and serpents. On the far, blood-hazed limits of his vision, Damiel saw several living globules rising like toy balloons over the scarlet horizon. Clearly, the cavern went on for hundreds of kilometres. It was the cellar of a continent.
"Which one is the Queen?" said Damiel, staring dazedly into the blood red subterranean sky.
"You won't find her up there," said Marishison. "Look down."
Damiel lowered his gaze to the far horizon. The distant floor of the cavern was obscured by red clouds and swarms of demons, while the lower lip of the tunnel entrance blocked the view of whatever lay directly below. He took a few tentative steps forward, ever closer to the edge - and a whole new landscape unfolded before him. Sprawled out kilometres below, stretching forever in all directions, was the floor of the continental cave. Yet it was different from the ceiling above. It was a lighter red, smoother, its rounded peaks like mountainous sand dunes. It seemed strangely out of place here, as if someone had carved out a huge chunk of a desert planet and placed it down here, under a topsy-turvy rocky moonscape. Thousands of fire serpents and other smaller demons swam and soared down among the red mounds, but there was nothing larger to be found down below. Nothing stood out as exceptionally huge or regal. Beneath a forest of giants, nothing he could see suited the title of Queen.
"I can't see her."
"She's down there, without question."
Damiel was confused. Where was the Queen of Pain hiding? Behind one of many red mounds? Was she actually smaller than the demonic servants she controlled?
"What do I look for?" he asked Marishison. "Is she camouflaged? Does she have distinct markings? Is she one of the - the -"
Thousands of huge eyes opened up in the landscape, all swivelling to stare at him. The red mounds shuddered and heaved. Beneath Damiel's feet, a mild tremor formed as the living continent far below awoke from its slumber.
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