Refuge

The Order MasterThis page will evolve as my new novel, Refuge, nears publication. Right now, I’m posting the first four chapters in draft for the benefit of potential beta readers (and anyone else, of course). Cover art and links to purchase will eventually follow.

Update 11/30/2013

Refuge Volume One: The Order Master is now available from Amazon and Smashwords. See the sidebar on the right for links to both sites.

Update 10/7/2013

The name of the book, the first of the series, has been changed to The Order Master. Refuge is retained as the name of the series, as the entire series is about the Andol and Droon in their refuge on Earth. Thus, the complete title of this first book in the series is:

Refuge Volume One
The Order Master

The chapters below have been updated to reflect recent revisions.

CHAPTER ONE

“Is it working?”

“I think so. Give me a minute.” The accent was upper-class English tainted with a touch of Northern California.

“Damn it, it’s not working. We got a bad copy, Brother Mike.” This other voice was pure California.

“Calm down. It’s not a perfect copy but — there!”

The key, after some jostling and fiddling, finally turned in the lock, and the door opened with a click.

“Relax, Dave.”

“Sorry,” said Dave, “but this makes me nervous.”

“And keep your voice down!”

“Yes, brother,” said Dave in a whisper. “Think he’s here?”

“Of course I think he’s here, why would we be here if I didn’t? 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. 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.

“Better?”

“Yeah. Sorry, Brother Mike.”

“It happens,” said Mike with a shrug. The English transplant was a little taller than Dave, dark and slim, with a long 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 careful reconnaissance had shown he often did, in one of the offices. “All right, you remember what’s different about this one?” he said.

“Yeah, we’re up close and personal instead of shooting him from a distance.”

“Besides that.”

“No killing. We subdue him somehow, question him, and let him live.”

“Exactly.”

“Or rather you question him. I leave the room.”

“Yes. It’s not that I don’t trust you, Brother Dave, 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 several times since the fourteenth century and that’s the way it always works. So I have to question Stevens alone.”

“Okay. Come on, let’s finish this and get away.”

They slipped into the hallway. One office had a light on. A man in his forties sat before a computer screen, doing something related to accounting, Mike 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 more malevolent than even the wickedest human being. In Scourge of God tradition, the Droon were believed to be demons. Mike had his doubts about that, which was one reason they were doing the hit this way: interrogation, not assassination. Harder, more dangerous, but sometimes necessary.

The Droon, John Stevens, continued to tap his keyboard and squint at the screen. Nothing either in his body language or in his aura showed 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, if he had been a real human being, should have been paralyzed with surprise for a moment. No such luck. He erupted from his seat remarkably fast for a middle-aged man 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 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?”

“That’s right.”

“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.”

“Okay, 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.”

“What’s wrong with the old story?”

“I don’t believe in Hell,” said Mike. “I don’t believe in the Christian God, either.”

“Your unbelief doesn’t make the story false.”

“Are you a demon from Hell?” Mike asked directly.

Stevens grimaced. “No,” he said. 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.”

“You mean like from another planet?”

“Yes. Maybe a 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.”

“That’s right.”

“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.”

“Communists? Are you telling me that Marx and Lenin exported their ideology to another universe?”

“Marx got his ideas from the Andol, probably. 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. We didn’t want to go along. We resisted them for several thousand years. Then one day they hit us with –”

“Nukes?”

“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?”

“That’s right.”

“How did you get here after your world was destroyed?”

“You know how. You study 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 three 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.

“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?”

“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,” said 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 put us on their 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.

“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?”

“What?”

“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 home world 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. “Okay,” 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 a red circle-cross on white 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. In others Mike had his current thirty-four years, 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 the authorities. 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 the Droon do with their slaves, the tortures, the sadistic fantasies! They’re up to all kinds of other shady activity, too. They run sweatshops, 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. But not every evil person is a Droon, although every Droon is evil. The real test is the aura, as 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. Evil in real human beings is God’s problem; we don’t concern ourselves with that. The Scourge of God exists only to battle the Droon.”

“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 a bit like mowing the lawn. It will never be finished once and for all, but it still needs to be done.”

The next morning, Mike started the day with his usual workout in his home gym. After that he brewed some coffee, then booted up his computer and opened the Scourge of God folder where he recorded his encounter with Stevens and the information received. That folder contained text files with the records of the Order’s activities for the past few years. Bound books on the shelves in the basement of Mike’s home in the Berkeley hills held older records. The relatively recent volumes, those going back to the early twentieth century, were typewritten. Earlier than that were handwritten volumes, and of those the ones dating as early as the sixteenth century were written in 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, explosives and demolitions, investigation and detective work, meditation and breath control, magical ritual and the use of magical powers, philosophy and theology, 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. The Droon appeared in the wake of the Black Death. It was natural for the founder of the Scourge to think of them as demons.

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. Mike had never been offered a choice in the matter. His one attempt to make his own future had failed.

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. So said 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 how 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.

Much remained up in the air, but three things he could be sure about. The Andol were a race of interlopers similar in some respects to the Droon. They were enemies of 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.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

Mike slipped his illegal-to-carry Smith & Wesson M&P Shield nine millimeter pistol into his jacket pocket as he headed for the front door. It was illegal because he didn’t have a concealed-carry permit in either Alameda County or San Francisco County; they were almost impossible to get in either place. The firearm itself was legal for him to possess and he’d had it with him the night of the raid on John Stevens’ place of business, but had not drawn it. He didn’t like to if he didn’t need to.

Not that he had a lot of respect for the law as such. He was a murderer five times over. Still, there was no point in taking unnecessary risks. That was both why he carried the gun and why he would avoid using or even drawing it unless it was really necessary.

Locking the door behind him, Mike walked the half mile to the BART station. He could have driven over the Bay Bridge, but parking in San Francisco was a real pain. This was the thirtieth consecutive day that he’d ridden the train into the city. His initial web search had generated over ten thousand hits. After eliminating duplicates and candidates that were unlikely on the face of it, Mike was left with 462 institutions that called themselves an “ashram” and taught or explored some aspect of Eastern or New Age spirituality. On a pure guess that the Andol would lean towards the latter rather than the former, he placed at the top of his list any ashram without other Sanskrit words in the titles, especially avoiding those named after a guru. He had already investigated twenty-nine of those without finding anything that suggested a Droon-like otherworldly presence. Today he would check out the thirtieth, the Luminous Mountain Ashram on Castro Street just off 24th.

۞

“How long do you think you’ll go on doing this, Father? Killing the Droon, I mean.” Mike had been eighteen when he asked that question.

“Until I’m fifty years old, son. That’s retirement age.”

“After that you won’t be Order Master anymore?”

Mike’s father sat down beside him on Mike’s bed. “I’ll still be Order Master for two more years after that, until you turn thirty. But I won’t be going on any more strikes, son. I’ll direct the order and serve as a watcher for sign of the Droon, but leave the killing to younger men. It’s the way we’ve always done things, and it’s wise. The Droon are dangerous, too dangerous for an old man to confront.”

Mike sighed. “And when I turn thirty, then I’ll be Order Master instead.”

“Yes. That, too, is wise, Mike. I know you feel as if you know everything –”

“I do not!”

James Cambridge smiled. “Of course you do. Everyone does at eighteen. God knows I did. But trust me, son. Being Order Master isn’t an easy job, and you will need the next twelve years of maturity and experience to do that job.”

“Maybe. But that’s not what I meant, Father. I wasn’t saying I would like to be Order Master now. I’m not sure I want to be Order Master at all, or part of the Scourge of God for that matter.”

Mike’s father looked very sad. “I’m sorry if you feel that way, Mike. I’m afraid you don’t have a choice about it.”

Mike swallowed. “What will happen if I leave the order?”

“If you try to leave the Scourge of God, knowing what you know, I will have to order your death. That would break my heart and probably kill me, too. Please don’t do that to me, son.”

۞

He used the train ride and subsequent short bus trip to meditate and bring his spiritual perceptions up to peak. Nagging doubts kept trying to intrude onto his inner peace. Mike was used to that, but now the doubts seemed even more insistent than usual. He had learned these techniques growing up in the Scourge of God, which was a deeply Christian order. Mike, though, was no longer a believer. He felt sure some kind of spiritual power existed in the world and that the methods used by the Scourge worked, but he could not accept so many other things: the reliability of scripture, the authority of the Church, the special divinity of Christ, the idea of blood sacrifice at the heart of Christian doctrine, or barbaric myths like the virgin birth. The Scourge version, which sanctioned murder in the cause of eradicating a specific form of evil, had always bothered him. He still had little difficulty bringing about a serene mindset through breathing exercises and mental focus, and it didn’t seem like his powers were any less than they had been in his naive youth, when he had still been a believer.

But along with his apostasy from Christianity, Mike also doubted the mission of the Scourge of God itself. The order had been founded in 1363 in England after a gifted mystic named Osgood from the university town of Cambridge discovered what he believed to be an eruption of demonic influence: the Droon. Osgood and a small group of fervent believers carried out the first assassinations of identified Droon. He trained others in the arts that would allow them to see the poisonous auras that identified their targets. He was also responsible for the Pact of War, which began when he let a Droon live in exchange for information.

The whole basis for the order was the idea that the Droon were demons of Hell. The Scourge of God acted in careful secrecy to send Satan’s agents back to the Inferno where they belonged. But now it seemed the order had been wrong from the beginning. Not that the Droon weren’t evil, if that term had any meaning at all, but their evil did not fit into the simple framework of Christian theology. Even worse, the methods of the order had also been called into question. If the murders they committed were only a temporary respite and the evil always returned, were they worth the risk and the awful psychological price?

Mike needed more information.

It occurred to him, of course, that the Droon could have been playing with his mind. It was possible that John Stevens had sent Mike on the trail of the Andol purely to waste his time, or perhaps so that the Scourge of God might attack the Droon’s enemies for them. The Droon were certainly capable of that kind of manipulation. But what they never did in accordance with the Pact of War was to lie outright.

That meant the Andol existed. Mike was determined to find them.

۞

The Luminous Mountain Ashram occupied two floors of a Victorian that was probably a recreation rather than the real thing, most Victorians in San Francisco having perished in the 1906 earthquake. The front lobby hosted the usual bookshelves with occult and New Age literature, together with a few tables holding pamphlets. A pretty young woman sat at a desk and smiled to greet him when he came in. “Good morning,” she said, rising to her feet. She wore her dark hair cut short and a blue sundress. “I’m Brigid. Can I help you with something, sir?”

Mike smiled back. “Just checking the literature. Does this ashram teach any particular path? Hindu? Buddhist?”

“Some of both, but Lady Amanda has her own system.”

“Lady Amanda?”

“Our founder. She’s a very wise woman, a very old soul.”

Mike nodded and returned his attention to the pamphlets on display. Several of them seemed to be authored by someone named Amanda Johnson. “Is Amanda Johnson the same as Lady Amanda?”

Brigid grinned. She had a nice grin. “Yes. Actually, she doesn’t like us to call her Lady Amanda so I generally don’t to her face.”

“And you think I don’t hear it when you do it behind my back,” a new voice said.

Mike turned to see a woman of roughly his own age – late twenties to late thirties anyway – with light brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. The hair style probably made her look younger than her real age. The woman wore a pullover knit shirt whose color matched her hair and, Mike now saw, her eyes as well, and a pair of dark slacks. Her feet were in sensible sandals. She was pretty, although not movie-star or fashion-model pretty, with a nice upturned nose and clear skin just starting to show some laugh lines. Her eyes shone with intelligence and humor. But none of those was the important thing.

“Lady Amanda, I presume.”

The woman shook her head and sighed. “Honestly, I don’t know why my students insist on calling me that, unless it’s to irritate me.”

“It’s to honor you,” said Brigid. “Also to honor us.”

“You see? We have a discipline problem. I don’t know how we’re going to make any progress towards enlightenment.”

Mike managed to smile and hold out his hand. “My name’s Mike Cambridge.”

“Amanda Johnson,” she said, gripping his hand warmly and with pleasant strength. “Are you a seeker after the Way, Mr. Cambridge?”

“All my life.”

“Really? I find that’s seldom true except for the very oldest of souls.”

“Well, maybe I should say all my life that I can remember.”

She smiled. “Still quite impressive. I’m inclined to believe you, too. Would you like to know why?”

“Of course.”

“It’s because you’re not trying to become my follower. I can see it in your face. You’re looking at everything you see here with an open but critical mind. You aren’t one to surrender your soul and let another person do your thinking for you.”

“I don’t do that, either,” Brigid said indignantly.

“Of course not, dear. You wouldn’t be here if you did. I’d have sent you on some totally pointless pilgrimage or quest to break you of the habit.”

“Oh. That’s all right, then.”

“Now if you’d only stop trying to give me antiquated honorifics, everything would be perfect.”

Brigid just grinned again.

“I’m always on the lookout for someone like you, Mr. Cambridge,” Amanda went on. “It’s rare to find someone who has neither made up his mind already, nor wants to have it made up for him.” She frowned. Then she smiled again. “Do you have some time, Mr. Cambridge?”

“A bit.”

“This would take no more than an hour, probably. I have something to show you, and then would like to get your opinion on a matter. Would you come back to my office for a bit?”

“Of course.”

“I’ll just stay here and deal with the vast flow of traffic, then,” Brigid said with a sigh.

“I choose my employees for their lack of reverence, as you can see,” Amanda said. With a fond smile for Brigid, she turned towards the hallway behind the front desk, beckoning Mike to follow.

Mike did follow. He would not have left for anything short of a fire in the building. The important thing was not Amanda’s pretty smile or obvious intelligence and engaging personality.

The important thing was her flaring aura, sky-blue, crackling with energy, and as non-human as that of any Droon he had ever encountered — yet unlike the Droon, too.

As they entered the office at the end of the hall, Mike drew his knife from its belt sheathe. Quietly he advanced and brought the blade up and against Amanda’s slender neck, while with his left hand he gripped her left wrist and twisted it into a nerve bind –

Or at least that was the intent.

He managed to draw the knife, but as he made his move, Amanda seemed to waver in his sight like a heat mirage and his mind blanked. He lost consciousness for a moment, apparently. He recovered it to the sound of a soft click that he recognized as the safety switch being flipped on a pistol.

On his pistol, in fact.

Mike was still holding his knife and standing a few feet from a desk. Amanda sat behind the desk holding Mike’s nine millimeter pistol and aiming it at the middle of his chest. “Nice gun, Mr. Cambridge. Were you expecting trouble? Or were you expecting to cause it?”

Mike licked his lips and said nothing.

“Well, Order Master, unfortunately my people don’t have any Pact of War with you as the Droon do. I can’t be assured of a year and a day of safety in return for answering your questions. On the other hand, you don’t typically go about killing us, either. Let me propose this. Will you promise to forgo any further threats of violence? In return, I promise you some information you may find useful.”

Mike stood stunned. The sensation of looking down the barrel of his own gun was peculiar and unsettling. Amanda’s hand on the weapon was rock-steady and her grip told him she knew how to use it.

“Please, Michael. May I call you Michael? I think the circumstances are intimate enough for first names, don’t you? Please sit down.”

Mike saw a wooden chair against the wall on the left. He pulled it closer to the desk, but still out of reach, careful to do nothing threatening, and sat. He took a deep breath. “You’re an Andol.”

“Yes.”

“The Droon told the truth.”

“Don’t they always when you put them on the spot like that? Michael — or do you prefer Mike?”

He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.” His mother had called him Michael. No one else used his full name. He rather liked the sound of it.

“Will you promise not to attempt any violence, Michael? There really is no need for it.”

“I promise.”

Amanda smiled. She flipped the safety on and handed the pistol to Mike grip first. Mike took it and slipped it back into his pocket.

“How did you know I’d keep my promise?”

“I would have known if you were lying.” She took a deep breath and folded her hands in front of her with the forefingers steepled. The gestures looked perfectly natural, perfectly human. Only her electric-blue aura seemed unusual. “Why don’t you tell me what Mr. Stevens told you about us. You may have gotten the wrong impression.”

“He said that the Andol destroyed the Droon home world with weapons of mass destruction.”

“That’s true.”

“I imagine they destroyed yours, too. He didn’t say that.”

“Of course he didn’t, and yes, they did.”

“Who struck the first blow?”

“Ah. Now there’s a good question. If by ‘blow’ you mean an actual, physical attack using weaponry, they did. But the struggle between the Droon and the Andol had been ongoing for several thousand years before that, and I’m really not sure who started it. It was a war of propaganda and of magic, each side trying to sway the people of the other to its own mindset. Complete victory would have overthrown the government of the enemy from within, and following that the enemy’s nature would have been revised right down to the genetic code to match the victor’s vision of the universe.”

“Oh, yes, Stevens did say something about genetic engineering.”

“What did he say?”

“He said the Andol were a bunch of communists — his word — who had genetically engineered themselves to be obedient cogs in the wheel. He said you wanted to do the same thing to them, and the Droon didn’t want to go along.”

Amanda laughed. “Oh, that’s good. ‘Obedient cogs in the wheel.’ Splendid, Michael! I like it.”

“It’s not true, then?”

“From the Droon viewpoint I suppose it’s an accurate description. But you need to understand that viewpoint before you can put it in the right perspective.”

“You don’t think we understand the Droon?”

“Certainly not. Until recently, you thought they were demons from Hell.”

“Good point.”

“And of course you also don’t understand us — with better excuse, though. Michael, do you trust me?”

۞

The critical moment is now, Amanda thought. All that she had done over the past four months, establishing the ashram, letting herself be seen and known by the Droon — a terrible risk, but necessary — led to this juncture. She had shaped the fate seen in her vision to bring about this meeting, but some things were beyond her control or foretelling. Michael’s answer to her question would determine whether it had been worth it.

She kept her eyes and mind focused on his. She thought him very handsome in a dark and gloomy way. That feeling could prove a distraction, so she suppressed it. This was no time to let her heart rule her head. Michael Cambridge was also a very dangerous man, but that was the point, wasn’t it? She could feel it all, his intelligence, his magical aptitude (only half-trained), his hard determination, his self-control, his physical strength.

After this day, no matter what happened, Amanda would become invisible again. If all went well, she would take Michael Cambridge into obscurity with her.

۞

“Michael, do you trust me?”

What a strange question, he thought. His first action on being alone with her had been to threaten her with a weapon. Yet she was asking now if he trusted her?

But he had agreed to forgo further violence and listen. That was a sign of trust, wasn’t it?

Did he trust her?

Amanda’s aura was not human. It was as alien as the aura of the Droon, but other than that the two could not have been more different. The Droon aura grated on the senses as if the creature were surrounded by a spinning cloud of shattered glass. In the presence of a Droon Mike felt fear twined with disgust and rising rage, all of which had to be tamped down in order to be effective against them.

Amanda’s aura bubbled and crackled with life. It was sharp, not soothing, but when he looked at it Mike wanted to laugh, to hug someone, to run up mountains, to climb trees, to solve a riddle, or to play music. Being around her felt like floating in an effervescent hot spring that filled a man with energy instead of putting him to sleep. Mike could have bathed in that aura all day long. That made him want to trust her.

At the same time, she was obviously powerful. She had beaten him in their brief tussle as easily as Mike could have overcome a new Scourge recruit on his first day of training. She had used magic to do something to his mind that he had never seen before and didn’t understand. What else could she be doing to him? Could he trust her, when in her presence he wasn’t sure he could trust himself?

But she was waiting for an answer. Somehow he knew that if he gave the wrong one, their conversation would end. Suddenly he realized that what she wanted from him now was a decision to trust her enough to take the next step, whatever that might be. He knew he wanted to take that step, in the hope that the Andol might help him against the Droon and the Scourge of God.

“Yes, I trust you.”

“Good. Give me your hand.” She held out her own right hand, which was slim and long-fingered, with neatly-trimmed nails devoid of polish. Mike rested his left hand, calloused and rough-hewn and strong, in her grip.

“I can’t simply tell you what the Droon are like or ourselves. You need to see. I need to show you.”

Amanda’s eyes seemed to drill into his brain. He felt her pulling him into the embrace of her mind. Yes. I trust you. He closed his eyes and let go.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

Mike found himself floating disembodied in a science fiction fairy-tale city with sparkling multicolored towers against a green-tinted sky. Vehicles cruised along the roadways and above them, but the air seemed crystal-clear and devoid of pollution. He found his attention drawn to the distant people moving on walkways below. Immediately he zoomed in for a closer look and discovered that they were not people at all, but spindly shapes like tall birds with multicolored feathers and bright eyes and black beaks. Occasionally one would jump and fly for a short distance to get at something hanging too high to reach or to engage in conversation with some other bird-creature at a window. They weren’t very good fliers, though, and Mike could see why. Their upper limbs, although they could still serve as wings in a pinch, had evolved into organs of manipulation rather than of movement.

“These were the Andol,” Amanda’s voice said beside him. He turned towards the voice, but she was not there to his sight. He could sense her presence and understand what she was saying and assumed that was part of the vision, her voice speaking to him in the same room merging into what his mind saw.

“Were?”

“The Andol are extinct, of course. We refugees are the last remnant of that culture, and we are no longer Andol. We have become human.”

“As the Droon have.”

“Yes.”

“Show me more.”

It seemed to Mike that he cruised about watching the Andol go through their lives for half an hour or more. They had a high-tech society, obviously. Many of their machines he recognized and understood, even if they were more advanced in their performance than their human-built counterparts. Cars, for instance, seemed all to drive themselves. Whatever fuel they ran on, it was certainly non-polluting. He couldn’t tell if the cars were electric or operated on some other principle, perhaps one unknown to him. On the other hand, he saw nothing that he could identify as a computer. It seemed that the functions of computers — information, communication, entertainment, commerce — were all built into everything else in the city. An image could appear on a wall as if a portion of the wall had become a computer screen, or a virtual keyboard could manifest in the air and respond to touch, if for some reason the user wasn’t satisfied with voice control or other non-tactile methods of uploading information and commands.

All of the Andol seemed healthy and happy, as far as he could tell watching alien organisms whose body language was a mystery. They engaged in conversation, commerce, what might have been flirtation or other mating behavior, discussion, even heated argument. But one thing he never saw any Andol engage in was violence. During the time he watched them no Andol ever struck another or pushed another, let alone drew a weapon. A similar period of time watching people in a human city might not reveal serious violence, either, but someone would almost surely indulge in a little roughhousing.

All of the Andol had auras like Amanda’s, too, although most were not as bright or powerful as hers.

“They don’t look like obedient cogs in the wheel to me,” he said aloud. “I don’t see anyone giving orders, in fact.”

“I would not call my people cogs in wheels, either,” Amanda said. “But then, I am not a Droon. And it is true that we were genetically engineered. It began with treatments for genetic disorders, but as we learned more about the Andol genome and how to safely and predictably modify it, we made high intelligence and a predisposition to happiness, curiosity, and social responsibility into rights for all people.”

“Is that why Stevens said you were a bunch of communists?”

Amanda laughed. “It probably has something to do with it, yes. Anyway, Michael, if non-violence and social responsibility count as ‘obedience,’ then the Andol were genetically engineered to be obedient. Much depends on a person’s point of view.”

“I see.”

“I should warn you about something, Michael. You are seeing scenes reconstructed from my memory. My memory is very good, but necessarily biased. Remember that these were my people. Naturally I have a more positive spin on the facts than the Droon, for whom we were bitter enemies — and still are today in our human forms. You should not necessarily take what I am showing you as true. It’s just another viewpoint to balance that of the Droon.”

“That makes sense.”

“You cannot verify any of this by looking for yourself. None of it still exists. Everything I am showing you died centuries ago. With that caution in mind, though, I’d like to show you the Droon as they were before they died.”

“I’d like to see that.”

“Very well.”

The Andol city vanished and was instantly replaced with an enormous underground space. Mike couldn’t tell whether this was a natural cavern that had been modified, a pit dug artificially, or an above-ground construction so vast that it had no windows on the outside world. It didn’t matter. The effect was the same, a sense of vastness combined with enclosure, of emptiness mixed with imprisonment. It seemed like a huge, high-technology hive — complete with big black bugs.

The bugs drove vehicles and skittered along pathways. Each had six jointed limbs, of which two had adapted or evolved into manipulative arms while the other four served as legs. As with the Andol, their body language was hard to read, but they seemed to move faster, with greater seriousness and less frivolity and play than the bird-people had exhibited. When they spoke, the chittering of their voices, apparently generated by rubbing plates of chitin together, grated on his ears.

“These are the Droon?” Mike asked Amanda’s unseen presence. In fact, none of the creatures he saw had the characteristic shattered-glass aura he associated with the Droon.

“Were. The Droon are also extinct.”

“Of course.” Mike watched the swarming bugs with distaste.

“Most humans find birds more appealing than insects, but their physical form was not the problem with the Droon. I found them beautiful, in fact, on the outside. Inside, not so much, and that’s unfortunate, because their physical form is lost, but their collective personality and preferences are not. May I show you what I’m talking about?”

“Yes. It’s interesting that these Droon don’t have the Droon aura. Why is that?”

“You’ll see in a moment.”

Mike’s attention zoomed into a building — a building within a building as it were. Mike entered a large room, which would have been at least twenty meters across if the Droon were human size, but the actual dimensions were impossible to tell without knowing how big the Droon were. In this room, four Droon lay fastened to tables by metal shackles. Instruments of some sort were attached to various parts of their bodies. The instruments looked like gemstones and each shackled Droon wore gems of a single color, red, blue, orange or green.

In the middle of the room beside a console like a musical engineering booth, another Droon stood. It was about twice the size of the bound Droon, and it was the first one to display what Mike thought of as the Droon aura. The big insect seemed to exude malevolence like a fog. It spoke. One of the captive Droon said something back. The big Droon did something with the controls. The gems studding the bound Droon who had spoken glowed, and the bound Droon twitched and made sounds that Mike intuitively associated with pain. Similar actions were repeated with other bound Droon, seemingly at random. The big Droon appeared to be torturing the smaller ones, perhaps as part of an interrogation but it seemed more like a nasty game.

Mike felt sick.

“Let’s return now to our own time and world,” Amanda said.

The underground room with its grisly pastime vanished. Mike once again sat in his chair in Amanda’s office. She continued to hold his left hand. Her eyes reflected concern. Mike lowered his head into his right hand and breathed deeply.

“Are you all right?” Amanda said.

Mike squeezed her hand gently, then let go. “I will be. It’s all in the past anyway, right?”

“Not necessarily.”

“Oh.”

“When you’re ready, I’d like to explain what their society and ours were like, and the nature of the conflict between us that ended in mutual annihilation. Take your time, though.”

Mike sat up straight and took a deep breath, performing a mental exercise to calm himself. “Go ahead.”

Amanda smiled. “Here’s my own perspective on what Stevens told you. Both the Andol and the Droon were genetically modified according to the values and desires of each. You saw how a few of the Droon were larger than the others. The larger Droon were members of the ruling caste. They were all females. The Droon had always been a matriarchy even back to pre-civilized times; that was a natural aspect of their species and the victims in that room were also female. Male Droon had significantly less intelligence than females. They were basically tame animals. None survived to reach exile. All of the Droon refugees on Earth were female in their original bodies. All were members of the ruling caste, what they would consider true Droon.”

“They’re not all female now.”

“No, and they’re no longer Droon, not biologically. Many of the Droon characteristics won’t be repeated if they win this struggle and humanity is genetically modified to match their visions.”

“What?”

“Ah, perhaps I’m getting a little ahead of myself.”

“No, I want to hear this. The Droon are planning to mess with human genes?”

“Yes, they are. In all likelihood, so will we if we win. But in that case, the rest of humanity will have a say in whether and how it’s done. The Droon will not give you the same consideration.”

“Tell me more.”

“What I started to say is that the Droon won’t turn humanity into a matriarchy. That’s not central to their value system, even though it’s how their species was put together. It’s inefficient to lower the intelligence of half the human race that far, so I don’t imagine they’ll do it even if it’s technically possible, and it might not be. What they will do, though, is enhance the genetic potential of the human bodies occupied by themselves, while gene-crafting the rest of humanity to be docile and obedient. They will produce a master caste, and all other human beings will be the slaves and playthings of the masters.”

“What was that Droon doing to the others that were strapped to the tables? It looked like it — like she was torturing them.”

“She was. Inflicting pain is one of the favorite amusements of the Droon. But I think you already know that, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“If the Droon win, if they succeed in remaking the human race in their own image, that will be the fate of almost all human beings. They will serve the whims of the master caste. Whenever the masters want, any ordinary human will serve by suffering pain. Pain, humiliation, fear, frustration, horror — these are the amusements of the Droon master caste. To inflict suffering on their inferiors is what they live for.” She smiled as Mike shook his head. “So you see, when the Scourge of God decided the Droon were demons from Hell, they weren’t too far off.”

“God, no wonder you wiped them out.”

“No, that’s not why.”

“It isn’t?”

“No. We and the Droon were natural enemies, as you might expect. We didn’t even consider going to war with them, though. Advanced races simply don’t do that. Even here on Earth, nuclear powers avoid serious conflict. They know that in such a war there would be no victors. The weaponry wielded by the Andol and the Droon would make hydrogen bombs look like cheap firecrackers. A war using such weapons would be suicide.”

“That didn’t stop the Droon from using them.”

“For a long time it did. We contended with non-military methods. The Droon had four intelligent slave races on other worlds when we found them. By raising their consciousness, by use of magic, we liberated those races. We did not fight the Droon militarily to do this. We didn’t have to. The slave races rebelled, and since they outnumbered the Droon aristocrats thousands to one, the success of the rebellions was a foregone conclusion once they found the will.

“After that we turned our attention to the Droon themselves. That was a harder problem, but in the end I believe we would have prevailed. We ourselves were not in much danger, although the Droon did try. They appealed to the atavistic power-lust that still lurked in some of the Andol, to whom a society like that of the Droon had a perverse appeal. But this attempt never got very far; our ways were too well entrenched and our society too egalitarian by genes and culture alike to let that happen.”

Mike nodded. “And that’s why Stevens called you communists.”

“Yes. Of course it’s an exaggeration. We were not all equals, but compared to the Droon it must have seemed we were. At any rate, we began to achieve some success among the lower-caste Droon themselves. The first stirrings of rebellion arose. The rebellions were put down swiftly, but we could see that it was only a matter of time. Unfortunately so could the Droon.” Amanda smiled sadly. “What I believe is that they had the war of annihilation in mind from the start as a contingency plan to be used if it looked like they were going to lose the other war. They tried to avoid it and did avoid it for more than three thousand years. Only when they were sure the writing was on the wall did they attack. We launched our retaliatory strike while their weapons were still en route, as the Droon surely knew that we would. No defense was possible. Both worlds were destroyed. Both species were exterminated.

“We believe the Droon planned it that way. Rather than accept loss of the conflict, they committed suicide, taking us with them, intending to start again on a refuge world by means of spiritual arts. At the last minute, some of us sought refuge as well. And for a reason that we are still debating about, both found the same refuge.”

“That does seem a little odd.”

“Maybe not so odd. We’d created a powerful magical bond, we and the Droon, through our long conflict. Our mutual annihilation sealed that bond in fire. However it happened, here we are, engaged in the same struggle once more. But this is the final episode. Once medical science develops the knowledge to manipulate the human genome, the war will come to an end. Then, either humanity will be an egalitarian, joyful society similar to the Andol, or it will become a society of slaves and masters similar to the Droon. At that point there will be no suitable bodies left for the loser race, and its last manifestation will finally disappear from reality.”

“Don’t you already have that knowledge?”

“No.”

“But —”

“We and the Droon modified our own genomes. But humans are a completely different species. We could not use Andol genetic techniques on humans. The Droon are limited in the same way. That must wait until human genetic science progresses enough. We can help it along, speed up the research, but that’s all.”

“So the Earth is a battleground.” Mike laughed mournfully. “Well, that’s not really such a shock.”

“There’s worse, though,” Amanda said.

“Worse?”

“Remember I said the Droon had the spiritual refuge prepared as a contingency plan. We did not. For us it was an emergency measure that we didn’t put into effect until it was clear the end was on its way.”

Mike swallowed. “What are you saying?”

“We were able to save only a few of the Andol. There are a total of four hundred eighteen of us incarnate now as humans.”

“And the Droon?”

“They number more than ten thousand.”

“Oh.”

“The Earth is a battleground, but the sides are not evenly matched. If it’s just us against the Droon, we cannot win, and humanity’s doom is assured.”

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

Emily was scared.

She hung naked from padded shackles fastened to chains. The chains were attached to a wooden board nailed to a thick post in the Sicko’s basement. That’s how she thought of him: the Sicko. When he picked her up in his fancy Mercedes car he told her his name was John. She bet it wasn’t his real name, though. A sicko like him would be crazy to give out his real name.

The Sicko had seemed nice enough when he opened the door as she stood on the highway with her thumb out in the rain. Hell, any open car door was nice. Emily expected a guy giving her a ride to want a fuck or a blow job in exchange for the ride, so she was ready for that. John, or whatever his name was, seemed kind of old with his gray mustache, about the same age as her father who had started fucking Emily a year ago and was making her blow him for five years before that, beginning when she was just seven. That was all right, though; she could do an old guy and he couldn’t be worse than her dad, right?

Boy, was she wrong! She didn’t know what the Sicko had done to her in the car. All she remembered was him looking at her and smiling, and then it was like she fell asleep. When she woke up, she was chained here in the basement and the Sicko was standing not far away and still smiling.

“I have to take care of some business upstairs,” he said. “I won’t be more than a half hour and then we can play.”

“Fuck you, you bastard!”

He laughed. “I imagine we’ll get around to that, but there are some other things I’d like to do first. You can examine the instruments hanging on the walls to get an idea of what that will be. Oh, and I think for a beginning —” He walked over to a wall and took down something that looked just like a fireplace poker. Maybe it was a little thinner, but basically it was a piece of metal with a handle. He put the metal end in something that looked like a gas barbecue grill and turned a switch on it. She expected flames, but instead a glow rose like it had an electric burner inside.

“All of this is really crude. I have to be careful with it. A long time ago, in a far distant place, I had access to much better equipment. We had nerve-stimulators that could be attached to a body and generate wonderful levels of pain without causing any damage at all. You could use those for days and leave not a mark or blemish. Also we had brain-stimulators that could induce a waking nightmare. All you had to do was be careful not to exceed someone’s psychological limits.” He sighed. “I’ll have that sort of thing again soon, I think. But for now, I have to make do.”

“What are you going to do to me?”

The Sicko grinned again. “Look around. I’m sure you can get the general idea.” He reached out a gloved hand and gently stroked Emily’s face. She tried to bite him and he laughed. “Oh, and you may not have noticed, but the basement is sound-proofed. Go ahead and scream. I guarantee you’ll scream later, but you can get a head start on it if you like. I’ll be back soon.” He disappeared up the stairs.

Emily’s chains were pretty long, but the thing that fastened them to the board could grip them short and that’s the way they were now. She only had a few inches of space for each hand and couldn’t even sit down; she had to stand up naked on the cold concrete floor with her back to the post.

Some of the instruments on the wall were hooks. Some were little knives. Some were whips. As she took inventory, her breath came quicker and she became more and more scared. She strained and pulled at her chains, but they were fastened tight.

A hot smell began to rise from the electric barbecue grill or whatever it was. The iron stuck in it started to glow a dull red. Emily panted, her eyes went wide, and her head flew back and forth looking at the instruments on the walls as she jerked uselessly at her chains.

And then she did, indeed, scream.

She didn’t know how many times she’d done that before she heard the footsteps on the stairs and pissed herself. Urine ran down her right leg and over her foot to puddle on the floor. The Sicko seemed to notice, running his eyes down Emily’s slim leg and smirking, but didn’t say anything. Her eyes were wide as saucers, her breath came in gasps, and her shoulder-length blonde hair hung in tangles over her face.

The Sicko whistled softly as he picked up the glowing poker. He made a “tsk” sound. “Such crude tools,” he said. “This has potential, but if I use it to maximum effect it could kill you.” He brought it over towards her and waved it gently through the air.

“No! Don’t!” she shrieked, turning her head away.

“For example, if I were to push this into your anus, the pain would be indescribable. Unfortunately, that would sear you to the point where you probably could not have a bowel movement and I’d have to fit you with a colonic bag. I know how to do that, but it’s unsightly and gets in the way.” Emily felt the heat of the iron come near her face and she screamed again.

The heat moved away and she heard a clatter. With some hesitation, she opened her eyes and saw that the Sicko had put the poker back in the fire. “Also it has to be used quickly or it cools off.” He looked at her and frowned. “One of the better places to use a hot iron is in the eye. But you can only do that once, unless you’re willing to blind your pet, and that loses so much in the way of visual possibilities.”

“No! Please, please don’t!”

“I won’t. Not today at least. I’ll save that for later. There’s a build-up to these things, a proper pacing and rhythm. Ah, all ready now. I know what we’ll do. Hold still.”

“Oh, oh no! Please, please, why are you doing this, why? Please let me go, please don’t, please — aaaahhh!”

“Why am I doing it? Because I can,” the Sicko said as he gently rolled the red-hot iron across the skin under Emily’s right arm. It sizzled. Smoke from burning hair stubble and skin puffed into the air. The pain was unbelievable and it continued after the few seconds he had kept the iron against her skin. She burst into tears. The Sicko returned the iron to the heater. “I can do that to you and much more, and I will. You’ll find I’m an artist when it comes to pain, and with these tools I have to be.”

The Sicko’s cell phone chimed. He pulled it from the clip at his belt and looked at the caller ID. “Damn it,” he cursed. “Hello. Yes. What? Yes, yes, of course. I’m home. No, not at the office, it’s Sunday. Sure, come on over. I need to hear the whole story.” He stumbled a bit and bumped into something on the wall before thumping up the stairs. As he did, the devices fastening Emily’s chains to the plank loosened, the chains slipped through the loops and she slumped to the floor. The Sicko didn’t even seem to notice.

Emily stood up and gathered the chains in her hands. One end was still fastened to the board. She tried to pull it loose, but it was stuck tight. She was ready to scream again in pure frustration when she remembered the red-hot iron in the heater. Teeth clenched in determination, she picked it up by the handle and thrust the hot end against the wood where the fastener was driven into it. Soon the wood charred and smoke rose. A little more burning and a little more pulling and the chain came free.

Emily gathered the chains together and crept up the stairs towards the raised voices.

۞

Of all the times for this to happen!

John Stevens forgot about his new toy as he ran up the stairs, returning his phone to its clip. She’d keep; the bindings plus his spells would hold her while he dealt with this crisis.

Sacred Night, why did everything go wrong at once and at the worst possible time?

Regina Calhoun arrived within minutes after he’d hung up the phone. She rang the doorbell and then flung the door open without even asking for an invitation. The worst part was that Stevens couldn’t even condemn her for it. He was in the wrong here and he knew it.

Calhoun stood in the hallway, arms folded over her chest. She was a dark-haired, blue-eyed woman in her mid thirties, five-eight and built like an athlete except with bigger boobs. She was quite an attractive woman, actually, but there was no way Stevens would risk his life by mating with another Droon even if she’d been willing, which was unlikely.

The fact that both of them had started out as female in their first lives didn’t even cross his mind. It made no difference at this point.

“Want something to drink?” he said.

“Just some water. And then I want the whole story.”

“All right.”

They moved into the kitchen where Stevens got a couple of glasses down and poured chilled water into them from a pitcher in the refrigerator. Handing one of them to Calhoun, he said, “I got a visit from the Scourge of God a couple of months ago. A Chapter Master and his buddy snuck into my office late at night and broke my arm.” He waved his left arm, which was still a little tender, for emphasis. “Then the Chapter Master invoked the Pact of War and wanted information. He had his doubts about the old demon story and after a little verbal dancing he asked me point blank if I was a demon from hell. I said no.”

“Damn it.”

“I had to, Regina. You know how the Pact works.”

“Just this time I wish you had lied. We have a real situation on our hands.” She sighed. “All right, you told him you’re a creature from another planet or a parallel universe. What then?”

“I thought I’d give the Scourge a distraction by sending them to bother the Andol for a change. I told the Chapter Master the Andol destroyed our home world and we fled here for a refuge. All true, of course. I told him they had an ashram in San Francisco but I didn’t have the address or any pictures or anything.”

“Now that was a lie.”

“No it wasn’t. I don’t have the address memorized and I didn’t have it or any pics in my office. He didn’t ask if I had the information anywhere else so I didn’t tell him.”

“I wish you hadn’t told him that the Andol even existed. This could get really, really bad.”

“I figured we’d have arranged a strike on that ashram before he could find it. The Andol manage to hide from us, I thought hiding from the Scourge would be a piece of cake. I mean, come on, how many ashrams are there in fucking San Francisco? There must be thousands!”

“He found it.”

“Why didn’t we hit it first?”

“Because the Andol are tricky. They can usually stay hidden from us if they want to, which means we found this bitch too easily. It was suspicious. We played it cautiously in case they were up to something. Thing is, I’m pretty sure now they were up to something and this is it. They’re looking to form an alliance with the Scourge of God.”

“How could they do that? The Scourge is a bunch of medieval fanatics. They’re likely to see the Andol as just another type of demon. Anyway he has to persuade the rest of the Scourge to his point of view and that’s going to take years if it can be done at all. It was just one Chapter Master.”

She glared at him. “No, you bloody fool! It was the Order Master. That was Michael Cambridge himself who broke into your office. If he makes a pact with the Andol there’s a real risk he can swing the whole Scourge after him in nothing flat.”

“Oh.”

“You have fucked up, Stevens. You fucked up big time.”

As if to emphasize the point, John Stevens’ new toy burst into the room at that moment: a thirteen year old girl, naked, her face contorted with fear and fury. She swung at least five feet of heavy chains in a vicious arc that ended in a crunch as they connected with Calhoun’s head. The chains swung again. Stevens tried to avoid them but they tangled with his feet and he fell. They descended one more time as the girl howled.

۞

The woman was probably dead, Emily thought. Her head was broken open and blood pooled all over the floor. The Sicko was unconscious but still alive. She thought about making sure of him but decided against it. She just wanted out. She stripped off his big coat to have something to wear. Fishing through the pockets, she found a key on a little fob. They fit her manacles. She left them and the chains on the floor and ran out the door into the warm night.

Where could she go? No way was she going back to her dad. He’d beat her up for running away and then he’d probably rape her ass, something he’d been talking about lately. She had no identification. She was a thirteen year old girl. Anyone she found would just take her home or maybe to jail, for indecent exposure or something.

She hurt. The coat stung whenever it touched the place where the Sicko had burned her. Her feet hurt, too. She smelled like piss. After she’d put a lot of distance between herself and the Sicko’s house, she sat down against a tree and cried.

That’s when she found the money in the other pocket. She looked around to see if anyone was watching, then stood up and walked over to a streetlamp. Pulling the wad of currency from the left pocket of the jacket, she leafed through it quickly and saw that it was mostly hundred dollar bills bound up with a rubber band.

This was a lot of money! And as she slipped it back into the coat pocket, Emily knew where she could go.

It was a long way, but she had the money to get there, and it was the only safe place.

Ten minutes later she had flagged down a taxi and showed the driver her cash so he knew she could pay the fare.

“Thirty-one fifteen Santiago Street in San Francisco, please.”

“That’s a long way, Miss.”

“I know. But it’s where I need to go.”

It’s where Mrs. Valero lives, Emily thought. She’ll help me. She’s the nicest person in the whole world.

Around Mrs. Valero, Emily had always felt good. Mrs. Valero made her feel safe. Mrs. Valero made her feel loved.

۞

John Stevens groaned as he lifted himself into a sitting position. He put his head in his hands. It hurt. It hurt bad. So did his left ankle, which seemed to be swollen. His coat was missing. “Damn it, I had more than two thousand dollars in that coat.”

A quick inventory confirmed that the shit had truly hit the fan. The girl’s chains and shackles lay on the floor. She must have found the key in Stevens’ coat pocket. Obviously she’d stolen the coat itself. How did she overcome the spells he put on her? She should have been a paralyzed, quivering bundle of fear. She’d been scared; hell, anyone in her situation would be scared, but clearly not enough to keep her from acting. It never paid to underestimate humans, he reminded himself for what must be the ten thousandth time.

Worst of all was the sight of Regina Calhoun lying in a pool of blood, dead as last week’s news.

Stevens wasted no sympathy on the bitch. He didn’t like her, and anyway her death was only temporary. She’d be back in twenty years or so. But a dead body in his house along with his toys in the basement and an escaped girl who might tell anyone anything was a recipe for arrest and possibly a long prison sentence, and that would be a complete pain in the ass. Better he should die and reincarnate, like Calhoun, or as he had done himself twelve times before.

He pulled himself to his feet. He cried out and nearly fell again with his first step, but he didn’t think his ankle was broken. It was just a bad sprain. He checked his pants pockets. Everything seemed to be still there — wallet, car keys. That was good. The little minx had probably just grabbed his coat, doffed the chains, and run.

Stevens stumbled into his bedroom. He took his pistol and some ammo from a wall safe and another jacket from the closet. The pistol went into the jacket pocket. A ritual staff by the bed could serve as a walking stick. He really needed a crutch, but couldn’t think about going to a hospital; too easy to track. Maybe he could make something that would serve.

Limping with the help of the staff, he found his way to the garage and got in his car. The staff went into the back seat. The car started and the garage door opened. Stevens drove off into the night. He’d need to stop by an ATM and withdraw as much cash as he was allowed. Debit cards were too easily traceable, too, if used directly for purchases.

Where could he go?

To Reno, he decided. Sarah Dorning lived there, Droon regional administrator for western North America. She’d probably give him a chewing out for his fuckup. But there were more important things to consider. In the whole world, only two groups of people other than the Droon themselves knew they were here. One was the Andol and the other was the Scourge of God. The Andol were too few in number to be a danger by themselves. The Scourge of God was too superstitious and ignorant to be more than a nuisance. But put the two together and that could be very, very bad. And if it grew beyond just those two groups, if the Andol managed to form a wide-ranging alliance with human beings in general, well, that would be a fucking disaster.

Why hadn’t Stevens seen the danger in Michael Cambridge when they were talking? Of course he hadn’t known who he was then. But a Scourge of God Chapter Master capable of seeing past the medieval theology and coming up with rational ideas that ran counter to centuries of doctrine was a rare thing. That by itself should have been enough to trigger alarm bells. It was Stevens’ own fault that it hadn’t.

So this went beyond Stevens’ personal convenience, reputation, or embarrassment. The Droon needed to be warned. They needed to take action before Cambridge, together with the Andol, brought the Scourge of God out of the fourteenth century and into the twenty-first.

Michael Cambridge had to die. He had to die soon.

2 responses to “Refuge

  1. Pingback: An Update on Refuge | Brian Rush

  2. Pingback: Reality, Taboos, and Denial | Brian Rush

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