“He would like to speak with you, Colleen.” Toby said as he stepped into her room. “I will not pretend to know if you will or will not obey him, or what the consequences are if you do not. I also will refrain from pretending we are still friends.” And with that he left the room.
Colleen lay on her bed and didn’t move. The shouting match she had with Toby the night before was fresh in her mind, even if she had been too drunk to stand up. Too much alcohol, Colleen, she said to herself, way too much drinking lately, but there was little else to do. Things were about to get very ugly and they were going to get there in one hell of a hurry.
“You look as if you didn’t sleep much last night, Colleen.” The voice came from the shower and Colleen knew instinctively who it was. “You shouldn’t scream at Toby. He has a gentle soul.”
“I met Kirstin.” Colleen said evenly. “She had your fingerprints on her. I’m beginning to recognize your work, Inanna.”
“He tells me you rather submit to me than to him.” Inanna said. “I find that impossible to believe.”
“I never said I preferred that option, only that I was surprised that it wasn’t offered to me.” Colleen was mildly startled when Inanna walked out of the shower. Colleen considered Inanna to be wholly female and kept forgetting about the male body she shared with Regal.
“Do you know why I summoned you here today?” Inanna asked.
“I’m certain I won’t like it.” Colleen steeled herself. “How did you know I would come back? I could have lied to Kirstin, you know.”
“You aren’t smart enough to lie effectively, Colleen.” Inanna laughed. “You know the truth is meaningless and malleable, yet you cling to it. You gave into her far more easily than I thought you would.” She dried off with a towel but didn’t dress.
“Are you going to release her?” Colleen asked. “Is she going to get her life back?”
Inanna walked towards Colleen slowly and Colleen knew better to step back or to show any sign of discomfort. “Would you like that, Colleen?” Inanna smiled as she approached Colleen. “Is there anything you would do, something in particular that you would do, to convince me that releasing that one human was worth my time?”
“If you lied to Kirstin about releasing her if she fulfilled her terms then I can only assume you would lie to me, too.” Colleen fought to keep her voice even. “But it doesn’t matter. If you want to humiliate me you’ll find some way to do it. Just tell me what I have to do.” Colleen looked down to discover Inanna was aroused. “Or do your worst. I know better than to resist.” Colleen remembered what Kirstin had told her and prepared herself for the assault. There was nothing to do but to lie there and take it, whatever might come. Inanna had never touched her, physically, but Colleen knew that could end in an instant.
“Considering what you know I am capable of doing to you, Colleen, you are still quite brave.” Inanna smiled and Colleen knew that was a bad sign. “However, I will release Kirstin, and not bother her family, and I’ll make sure she is guarded, once the war is done, if it is ever truly done, and I think you can help with that, but I will need your willing cooperation.”
“I’d like to think when all of this is over you will consider serving me.” Inanna said.
“Seriously?” Colleen was stunned.
“Why not? You are proficient and you’re dangerous.” Inanna said. “I like that in a human. But there is something I would like for you to do for me, to prove your worth, and as a token for your undying gratitude for what did not happen to you today.”
“What do you want me to do?” Colleen asked.
“Return to the desert.” Inanna replied. “There is something I want you to bring back to me, and I want you to hurry, Colleen, time is short.” Colleen shivered at the smile on Inanna’s lips. “You will find that last remark filled with irony, Colleen, in time.” Inanna laughed. “Unless you would rather please me by staying here, I suggest you go now.”
“Why do you do this creature’s bidding?” Toby asked as Colleen prepared to leave.
“Why do you?” Colleen replied.
“I am the only person capable of operating the lab in a manner which provides a sense of security. I can protect other people as long as these creatures believe they are safe here.” Toby said and he slid down to the floor and sat.
“You’re lying.” Colleen said. “I’m here because I’m afraid of what they’ll do to me, or other people, if I try to leave. But you could bolt and run. You’re here because you think they’re going to do something that you’re involved in, and perhaps they will, but you aren’t afraid as you should be, and not nearly as scared as I am.”
“Just leave.” Toby replied. “You’re worse than they are sometimes.”
Colleen boarded the bus and knew it would be a long and hellish journey. But Inanna had demanded she go by bus, and that she not use credit cards, and she was not allowed to have her cell phone, either. Colleen wondered if she was about to be ambushed in the same manner that Kirstin was, but Inanna would want a more personal show, Colleen thought. That Demon liked the idea of watching those who displeased her suffer. Was she being watched? Colleen knew she must be, and she knew not all of those who watched would be friendly. Was Colleen bait? Was this a mission to see who would make the first move in the war? Colleen hated waited and she hated not knowing, and she hated bus travel. Inanna knew how to torment humans in both large ways and very petty ways.
Instinctively, Colleen scanned the other passengers as they got on the bus. There was an old man, in tattered clothing, who was carrying a red gym bag as if there was a Holy relic inside. A young couple entered the bus next, and the young woman looked angry and her partner, a tall thin man, looked as he were boarding a bus to his execution. A bevy of young men in uniform entered next, all laughing and enjoying the excitement of the trip. That’ll wear out quick, Colleen thought, as soon as they realize how slow this trip will be. Colleen cringed when a woman with two small children boarded the bus. The woman looked as if she might be twenty, at most, and the children were old enough to be in school. One of them was already crying and Colleen hoped they were going to make the entire trip with her. Six men boarded, all of them looking boarded and disgusted, as if they had just lost their jobs and were now heading home. A young man wearing sunglasses boarded, his long hair wild around his face, and Colleen wondered if he was as stoned as he appeared. Two women boarded, and they were both wearing identical red shirts, and Colleen wondered if they were in the same business or a cult. The women both wore their hair pulled back into ponytails and neither looked very happy. Colleen wished she had brought a book, but settled for a sip out of the flask she had hidden in her coat.
Birmingham was just a matter of hours away, but the bus would have to make a half dozen stops, pulling off of the Interstate and into a small town here and a truck stop there, picking up passengers, letting some off, and always time was slipping away as slowly as the miles. There was no scenery to speak of, nothing about the trip that distinguished one mile from the other or one hour from the other. Colleen realized by the middle of the afternoon she could have been in California already if she had flown, but she also knew better than to try to cheat Inanna. Why was Toby still at the lab? She knew he had a fascination with the Demons but she also knew he held a deep seated abhorrence for them. Yet he seemed more focused than he had been before. What was he trying to accomplish? Did Regal know what Toby was doing? Colleen wondered if this trip was orchestrated to remove her from the lab. Had she returned too soon last time? Was this whole trip nothing more than a waste of time to get her out of the way? Colleen knew better than to get drunk while riding a bus but there seemed so little else to do. There was some time to kill in Birmingham and Colleen decided to walked through the station and stretch her legs.
The bus station itself was like being in a much larger bus. That made sense to Colleen once she thought of it for all of these people, or at least most of them were passengers, present, future or past, passengers. They didn’t own reliable cars or they couldn’t afford to fly, or they got stranded somewhere and this was their only way back or their only way forward. What security there was here wasn’t tight. Bored policemen walked through the terminal without noticing the people around them and Colleen wondered if this was the last vestige of free travel humans could use. Humans. Colleen realized she had begun to use the word more often, to differentiate between people and Demons. Had Kirstin been telling the truth? Colleen doubted the woman had been actively lying but considering what she had been through there was no telling how scrambled her mind was when Colleen had met her. What did Inanna want this time, on this trip, from Colleen? Why send had Inanna sent Kirstin to her to begin with? Go back from the desert just to be sent back into the desert? Colleen found a bench where no one else was sitting and plopped down on it. The clock on the wall was an old analog thing and Colleen hoped it was right. She had forty minutes before the next bus and the slow plodding migration west would continue at a pace that destroyed her peace of mind, what there was of it. When would the next victim of Inanna contact her, or would it be a pawn of another Demon? Colleen could feel the weight of the pistol next to her side but she knew how useless it would be if Inanna, or some other Demon, demanded her submission. Colleen realized she did believe Kirstin. She did believe Demons controlled human by a far greater degrees than she had ever imagined, and they did so with very little effort. Most of what Kirstin had done she had done in the name of fear; she feared for her family, she feared for her own sanity, and she feared Demons, yet that fear was largely based on possibility rather than direct action. Colleen knew that Inanna’s threat to harm her was not simple talk, but after meeting Kirstin Colleen’s fear level had risen. What that it? Colleen shifted on the hard plastic bench and looked around. Anyone here could be possessed. But meeting Kirstin had been no accident and her message was clear; fear, and more fear.
But there was fear without Demons. Roger Fortran had discovered fear when Colleen had pressed a false accusation against him. Had another body not shown up Colleen might have been able to convict him. The DA and the Mayor was all for stringing Fortran up until new evidence arrived then it was Colleen who was in the crosshairs. When given the chance to either come clean and face the consequences of her actions, Colleen had decided to murder instead. She had murdered a serial killer, true enough, but it was still murder and Colleen knew it. None of this that happened had occurred when the Demons were around. Even without Demons, humans were by far their own worst enemies. Demons used human beings as hosts as sowed fear among humans in order to assure cooperation, willing cooperation, abject cooperation, but Fortran had threatened Colleen with ruin in order to get her to kill for him. Colleen looked up at the clock and realized time was nearly up but she couldn’t move.
Colleen had been in law enforcement long enough to know that some policemen preyed on civilians in many ways but in the long run the law was upheld even with some level of corruption. Demons cared more about one another than they did humans, and suddenly Colleen realized that most cops she had ever known held the thin blue line more dear than the people they were sworn to protect. But there was a difference. In the end, humans could be counted on to do the right thing, Colleen thought. But that thought seemed hollow. A woman’s voice announced her bus was leaving and Colleen had to hurry.
The bus leaving Birmingham already had a line of people trying to board when Colleen arrived. Some had light suitcases and many had plastic bag from grocery stores or retail shops that carried their worldly possessions for the trip. Nearly all were staring at a cell phone screen, and even before the trip began, most radiated boredom. Colleen joined the line and some of the passengers grumbled that the driver was helping an elderly woman onto the bus, her walker left temporarily beside the door like a waiting puppy. There was no system in place for boarding, no agreement as to how it ought to best be done, just a cultural expectation of waiting and resentment when things slowed for any reason. Colleen realized that neither Demons nor humans did anything to improve the lot of people like these, and a vast majority of humans lived lives that were much worse. Were Demons the cause of human misery or did humans need the help in heaping sorrow on the misfortunate? As Colleen boarded the elderly woman was sitting behind the driver’s seat, her plastic bag clutched to her chest like a talisman, and her eyes staring straight ahead. Colleen took a seat next to a window, and close to the front, and as the last passenger boarder the driver fetched the walker, sat down, and the door closed with a hiss.
The bus moved slowly through what Colleen could only guess was not one of the better parts of Birmingham. Plastic bottles and other forms of trash littered the uneven sidewalks and there were many buildings that looked abandoned or where shuttered. A man who wore a heavy coat but no pants stood with one finger raised as the bus passed. No, Colleen thought, humans were a greater threat to themselves than Demons could be. In this, Kirstin was wrong. Whatever part of human activity they might control, Demons had not created the misery that plagued humanity. Even if they singled out a person, or even a group of people for control, Colleen now suspected there were far fewer Demons than she had before. If Regal was telling the truth, and Colleen seriously doubted that he was at any given time, at most they could hope to do it keep humans from committing collective suicide. Were they enough of them to control all the terrible weapons that humans had created? World War Two might be proof there was not. Colleen wondered why Regal would lie about how much control Demons had, but then again, she had learned it was the nature of Demons to lie nearly all the time.
The bus gained speed and lumbered towards the Interstate. The driver wheeled the bus onto the ramp and Colleen wondered how long it would be before they exited the highway again, to deposit a few passengers, to pick a few up, and to crawl westward? The overcast skies allowed very little light and that further dampened her thoughts. Demons were no worse than cancer, perhaps, and also, maybe they were not as large a danger as Kirstin had imagined. The greater danger, as far as Colleen could see, was the apathy that humans had for one another, the hostility they displayed towards the weak and the old and those whose minds wandered at will. Did Demons take advantage of that? Certainly, but they were not the authors of it by no means. Colleen wondered, despite the dangers inherit in doing so, if she might not live longer and happier serving Inanna. At least that would able Colleen to focus on one great evil at the time rather than a host of minor ones.