“Is it working?”
“I think so. Give me a minute.”
“Damn it, it’s not working. We got a bad copy. Shit.”
“Calm down. It’s not a perfect copy but – there!”
The key, after considerable jostling and fiddling, finally turned in the lock, and the door opened with a click.
“Relax, Dave. I’ve done this many times.”
“Okay, I know, me, too,” said Dave, “but it always makes me nervous.”
“And keep your voice down!”
“Yes, sir,” said Dave in a whisper. “Think he’s here?”
“Of course I think he’s here, why the hell would we be here if I didn’t? Look, stop a minute. Do your breathing routine. Get hold of yourself.”
Dave, a short, stocky blond man in his middle thirties wearing blue jeans and a leather jacket, stood straight, closed his eyes, and breathed rhythmically. Slowly, smoothly, he inhaled, counting to four as he did, then held his breath for another count of four, then exhaled slowly during another four count, then held his breath out for four. In for four, hold for four, out for four, hold for four, and again, and again. As he performed the exercise, his nervousness faded, the calm appeared in his center, and he found himself able to think clearly again. He opened his eyes.
“Yeah. Sorry, Mike.”
“It happens,” said Mike with a shrug. He was short, about the same height as Dave, but dark and slight, with a hook to his nose and a strong chin. He and Dave slipped into the unlit storage room of the Oakland accounting firm and closed the door behind them. Mike cast about with his telepathic sense and found their quarry, working late as their intelligence had indicated, in one of the offices. “All right, you remember what’s different about this one?” he said.
“Yeah, no killing. I pin him, gas him, tie him up in his chair, that’s all.”
“No. One more thing.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Dave, “I leave the room, ‘cause you don’t trust me to be there when you question him.”
“It’s not that I don’t trust you, but we know the Droon will answer questions only for a Chapter Master, with no one else present. We know that because the Scourge of God has done this dozens of times since the fourteenth century and that’s the way it always works. So I have to question Stevens alone.”
“I know, I know,” said Dave. “I was just ragging you. Come on, let’s finish this and get away.”
They slipped into the hallway. One office had a light on. A middle-aged man sat before a computer screen, doing something arcane and accounting-esque, one supposed. The image could hardly have been less threatening, except for the aura of menace, like a cloud of jagged broken glass swirling around the man, that identified him to Mike as something much more malevolent than even the wickedest human being. In Scourge of God tradition, the Droon were considered demons. Mike had his doubts about that, which was one reason they were doing the hit this way: interrogation, not just assassination. Harder, more dangerous, but sometimes necessary.
The Droon, John Stevens, continued to tap his keyboard and squint at the screen. There was no sign either in his body language or in his aura that he knew the Scourge had come. The two men, keeping low and to the shadows, approached the half-open door to his office.
“On my signal,” Mike whispered. He judged the moment, and whispered again, “Go!”
Dave leaped, kicked the door wide open, and darted behind Stevens’ chair. Stevens should have been paralyzed with surprise for a moment. No such luck. He erupted from his seat and struck Dave a hard blow across the right temple, then kicked him in the knee, even harder. Dave went down, groaning.
Mike didn’t waste time cursing. He caught Stevens’ left arm and brought it down hard across his upraised knee. Bones cracked, and Stevens ground his teeth but made no outcry. Mike pulled Stevens’ fractured arm behind him and caught him in what had to be a very painful lock. Stevens tried to reach him with his right hand and his feet, but Mike controlled him with the pressure and pain until he could draw his knife and place it across Stevens’ throat.
“We want answers,” he said. “Give them and you’ll live for a year and a day. By the Pact of War I swear it, in the name of Saint Joan, the truth means you need not fear.”
Stevens froze. “Scourge of God?” he breathed.
“Of course,” said Mike.
“You’re a Chapter Master?”
“Shit. Okay. You win.”
Dave had sat up and was examining his knee.
“Broken?” Mike asked him. He released Stevens, who sat at his desk and cradled his wounded arm. Mike didn’t put away his knife, though. Droon were honorable about the Pact, all the traditions said so, but they were treacherous in practically every other way. The traditions said that, too.
“I don’t think so,” said Dave.
“Can you walk?”
“Let me see.” Using the wall, Dave levered himself to his feet and limped across the office to the door. “Looks like it. Not broken.”
“OK, go on out of here. Let me question our demon buddy.” Stevens snorted. Dave nodded, and slipped out the door, closing it behind him.
Stevens’ eyes were closed and he seemed to be doing some sort of mental discipline, or magic spell. When he opened them again, they were clear and calm and apparently free of pain. “What do you want to know, Chapter Master?” he said.
“The latest information we have about you, about who you are, comes from a hundred years ago,” said Mike. “The story is that you’re demons from Hell, taking human form to tempt humanity away from God’s will. I want an update on that.”
Stevens shrugged. “What’s wrong with the old story?” he asked.
“I don’t believe in Hell,” said Mike. “I don’t believe in the Christian God, either.”
Stevens shrugged again. “Your unbelief doesn’t make the story false,” he said.
“Are you a demon from Hell?” Mike asked directly.
Stevens grimaced. “No,” he said simply. Mike nodded. The traditions regarding the Pact of War claimed that the Droon had to answer any direct question truthfully.
“What are you?” he asked.
Stevens sighed and sat back in his chair. “At this stage of the game, what I am is a human being.”
“What were you before you were a human being?”
“I guess you’d call me an alien,” he said.
“You mean like from another planet?”
“Yes. Maybe another parallel universe. We’re still trying to figure that out.”
“So. An alien mind or spirit or something, and you take over human bodies?”
“No,” said Stevens. “I was born in this body, the standard way, just like you. All of us are. We’re born, we grow up, we go to school, we get jobs, we live human lives, and we die.”
“Sounds boringly normal,” said Mike. Stevens shrugged. “So why do you say you started as an alien?”
“That was the first body I was born into.”
“On the alien world or maybe in the parallel universe.”
“What happened to that body?”
“It was killed,” Stevens said. “It was killed when our entire home planet was wiped out by the Andol.”
“And who are the Andol?”
“Another race of aliens. A bunch of communists.” He sneered.
“Oh, come on,” said Mike. “I do not believe Marx and Lenin exported their revolutionary ideology to another universe.”
“I didn’t say they were Marxists, I said communists. Of course they’re not Marxists. They genetically engineered themselves to all be equal and obedient cogs in the wheel, and they created this lockstep communistic utopia and wanted to impose it on everyone else. We didn’t want to go along. We resisted them for several thousand years. Then one day they hit us with –”
Stevens shrugged. “Close enough. Weapons of mass destruction. Anyway, they wiped us out.” He sighed. “We came here for a refuge, to rebuild, but they followed us.”
“So these Andol things are here, too?”
“How did you come to be here after your world was destroyed?”
Stevens shrugged. “You know how. You study the magic, the mysteries, whatever you call it.”
“I don’t know how to do something like that.”
“Yeah, well I guess we have a few tricks you don’t, then, but it’s still basically the same stuff.”
“Why didn’t any of you tell Chapter Masters this before?”
“Because none of you asked the right questions,” Stevens said. “You couldn’t seem to think of us any way except as demons, so we went along.” He shook his head. “It’s not like we wanted to volunteer information and be helpful. You assholes are a serious nuisance.”
“Only a nuisance?”
“Yeah, that’s about it.”
“Our records say we’ve killed more than two thousand of you over the centuries.”
“I can believe that,” said Stevens. “You killed me four times.”
Mike nodded. “So when you die –”
“We reincarnate, of course,” said Stevens. “I’ve lived twelve human lifetimes, and only one as what I started. That’s why I say at this stage of the game I’m a human being. I have a lot more memories as a human being than as anything else.”
“So we’re not doing a very good job of getting rid of you.”
“You have never ‘gotten rid of’ a single one of us.”
“Have we slowed you down at least?”
Stevens glared. “Yes,” he admitted.
Mike sighed. “You say these Andol are on Earth, too?”
“That’s right,” said Stevens.
“What do they want here?”
“Maybe to finish the job on us that they started. Maybe to add your planet to their communistic utopia. Maybe to domesticate you and raise you to be food animals. Maybe you should ask them.”
“All right,” said Mike, “maybe I should. Where can I find one of them?”
Stevens grinned. “There’s a cell of theirs, or an ashram or whatever you want to call it, in San Francisco.”
“Do you have an address for it?”
“No,” said Stevens.
“Damn it,” muttered Mike.
“Think about it, these are the genocidists who wiped out our whole world. They have to know we’re not feeling real grateful to them. Think they’re going to send us a mailing list and ask us over for tea?”
“I guess not,” Mike said. “San Francisco, you said.”
“That’s right. I don’t know where in the city, and I don’t know how many of them there are. I don’t have photographs or names or anything like that.”
“What do you want here?” Mike asked suddenly.
“To survive,” said Stevens. “This is our refuge, like I said.”
“This is our home.”
“Look, you medieval meddler. What do you think this planet would have amounted to if we hadn’t come here? Have you ever considered that?”
“You have to know we had a pretty advanced science and technology on the old world, and we’ve been working on this one for centuries. Right after we popped in, boom! Instant scientific revolution. You think that was an accident? You talking chimpanzees would be living in thatched huts and sleeping with the pigs and sheep still if it weren’t for us. Shit, you’d think you’d be just a little appreciative.”
“I think we might have managed on our own,” said Mike.
“Maybe. Eventually. Not as fast, though, that’s for sure.”
“So what do you want, to recreate your old homeworld here?”
“As closely as we can given the different species, sure. A free society of individualists, with advanced technology. That’s what we were, and that’s what we’re trying to make you into. Not doing that badly, either, although we still have a ways to go.” He shook his head. “You shitheads have been going after the wrong guys all this time. And the Andol have been doing a lot better job of hiding from you. You never even knew they existed until tonight.”
Mike nodded. “OK,” he said, “I guess that will do.” He opened the door to Stevens’ office. “For a year and a day, the truth has made you safe from us.” He pulled a business card from his pocket and dropped it on Stevens’ desk. The card showed the circle-cross and the words in Latin, Diabolus In Iferno Est – “the Devil is in Hell.”
He closed the door behind him when he left.
That night, Mike dreamed of his father. In parts of the dream he was a little boy again, and his father was training him in the skills he would need later in his life. At others Mike was his current age of 34, but a conversation ran through it, a coherent stream of talk connecting splintered and shifting images. Parts of the conversation were real talks Mike and his father had held while Dad was still alive, but other parts had never happened in real life.
“Dad, you mean you kill people?”
“They’re not really people, Mike. The Droon are devils in human form.”
“But how do you know?”
“By their demonic halo, their aura. Also by their actions. You’ll see soon.”
“But what kind of actions?”
“Mike, every Droon keeps a household staffed by slaves, people held in bondage by one trick or another. Some are illegal immigrants who serve under threat of being turned in to Homeland Security. Some are on the run from the law or from criminals they’ve crossed. Some are held in fascination by the magic power all the Droon have. But whatever the reasons, no one leaves a Droon household alive, as long as the Droon himself lives. And the things some of the Droon do with their slaves, the tortures, the sadistic fantasies! They’re into all kinds of other shady activity, too. They run sweatshops in foreign countries or hidden in this one, they corrupt politicians, they kill people for pleasure. Take all the wickedness the human heart indulges in, bind it all together in a single individual and add a huge helping of magic, and that would describe a Droon. Not every evil person is a Droon, although every Droon is evil. The real test is the aura, like I said. You’ll see very soon. I’ll take you to visit one of them that we’ve been watching, and you can see the aura for yourself.”
“But just the same, Dad,” said the suddenly grownup Mike, “the whole thing is an exercise in futility. Kill the Droon, and they just come back.”
Dad nodded. “I know, son,” he said. “It’s kind of like mowing the grass. It will never be finished once and for all, but it still needs to be done.”
The next morning, Mike brewed some coffee, then booted up his computer and opened the Scourge of God folder. In that folder were a number of text files containing the records of the Order’s activities for the past thirty years. Older records were contained in bound books on the shelves in the basement of Mike’s home in the Berkeley hills. The relatively recent volumes, those going back to the mid nineteenth century, were typewritten. Earlier than that were handwritten volumes, and of those the ones dating as early as the sixteenth century were written in modern English, although the oldest of them contained many Shakespeare-like archaisms. Before that, they were inscribed in Latin, which of course Mike had learned to read as part of his training for his current position. Latin, unarmed combat, armed combat both melee and firearms, stealth and concealment, breaking and entering, computer science and hacking, meditation and breath control, magical ritual and the use of magical powers, and the history and traditions of the Scourge of God going back to the Order’s founding in the Fourteenth Century at the time when the Droon first made their appearance among humans, in the midst of Europe’s turmoil.
Mike had lied to Stevens about one thing. He was not merely a chapter master of the Scourge of God. He was the Order Master, looked up to as leader by every Scourge of God member on the planet. That was not the kind of information he felt comfortable giving the enemy. But he, Michael Cambridge, descended from Osgood of Cambridge, the Order’s founder, had been selected from birth to become the new Order Master on his thirtieth birthday. It was the only calling he had ever known, but now, for the first time in his life, he began to doubt.
He pulled up a Google search screen and stared at it while drumming his fingers on his desk.
Could he trust the information he had gotten from Stevens?
Yes and no. He could trust every word of it to be true. That was in the Pact of War between the Droon and the Scourge. What he couldn’t trust was his own interpretation of those words. They genetically engineered themselves to all be equal and obedient cogs in the wheel, and they created a lockstep communistic utopia and wanted to impose it on everyone else. That was the way that Stevens saw the Andol and their society. But it didn’t automatically follow that Mike would judge them the same way.
We resisted them for several thousand years. Then one day they hit us with weapons of mass destruction and wiped us out. That was true, too. Mike was sure. But who started the war? What happened to the society of the Andol? Was the attack that wiped out the Droon home world a first strike or was it retaliatory? These were important questions, and Stevens hadn’t answered them, because Mike hadn’t thought to ask.
Many things remained up in the air, but two things he could be sure about. The Andol were a race of interlopers similar in some respects to the Droon. And they were here.
How to find them? San Francisco was a pretty big town.
Flashing on a word that Stevens had used, Mike typed “ashrams in San Francisco” and hit the enter key.
One had to start somewhere.
Image credit: lonely11 / 123RF Stock Photo