Chapter 3: Steve Willeso
Pain woke me. My arms and legs were pulled taut almost to the point of dislocation. It took a few seconds to orient myself and realize that I was naked, and hanging from shackles around my wrists; my ankles were shackled to the floor. I kept my eyes closed and didn’t move.

Somehow Steve knew I was awake. He said, “Victis honor” like he was telling a joke. When we first met, we’d played a game of Latin quotes. He actually spoke the language. I’d just memorized a few lines but I’d made him look stupid. I hadn’t realized he’d take it this badly.

I remained still.

“Good evening, Victor. Welcome to my humble RV!”

I didn’t move.

“What, no greeting for your host? How rude! Perhaps this will help?” My muscles spasmed like I’d been zapped by a taser. My eyes opened involuntarily.

I expected to see Steve Willeso’s smirking face. Instead I saw a gray standing in front of me. It was wearing the same type of clothing as the gray I’d killed earlier—a loose silver tunic and Asian style drawstring pants made out of a silk-like material. It had a utility belt with tools hanging from it. It compressed loose tobacco into a pipe. A flame appeared at the tip of its index finger and it lit the pipe, took three deep puffs and then blew a perfect smoke ring in my face.

The electrical current stopped.

The gray smiled. “There’s absolutely nothing quite like a good smoke from a well-seasoned pipe. I must admit that tobacco is my second favorite thing from Earth. Any guesses what my favorite is?” The alien’s voice wasn’t an exact match of Steve’s. It had the same cadence and similar vocal mannerisms but the pitch and timber was off.

The room was shaped like a pizza slice—one curved wall and two straight walls that angled together and met at a door. The walls were unpainted steel and my manacles were attached to bamboo-like beams about six inches in diameter. Just like my reference texts claimed, the beams buttressed the outer shell. The walls were splattered with blood, some of which looked fairly fresh. A large selection of sharp and jagged instruments hung on the walls.

The gray waved at the decor. “It’s not much, but I find it comfy. Our onetime meeting so long ago was so unsatisfying. I’ve wanted to get to know you better for such a long time, and now here we are with all the time in the world to spend in pleasant conversation.”

When in hell had we met before? If I couldn’t fake being unconscious, I could at least pretend to be a typical paladin. I subvocalized, “Unlock-ay y-may ackles-shay owly-slay over-ay e-thay ext-nay ive-fay inutes-may.” My spell bar didn’t come up. I got no feedback as to how much energy this spell would take. “Akeitso-may.” Again nothing happened.

The alien started laughing. “Victor, Victor, you’re not the first paladin I’ve entertained here. Pardon me if I sound like a stereotypical villain but your magic won’t work. Resistance is futile.”

A paladin must have a magic potential of at least twenty-five. My potential is forty-nine. Since humans and angels haven’t been able to interbreed for more than two millennia, paladins have to be specially bred. I’m the culmination of two thousand years of selective breeding, eugenics and racial hygiene. Heaven gave me a soulmate so I could breed more paladin children to continue the line. It was bad luck that my soulmate was killed before we could even have sex.

If my parents hadn’t died, if the heavenly bureaucracy hadn’t lost track of me, I would have been trained from birth to think and fight exactly like all the other paladins that had come before me. But because this did happen, I learned how to fight on my own. Growing up, I was an undersized guy who constantly got into altercations with other guys who’d often outweighed me by a hundred pounds. I discovered the advantage of being unpredictable—I learned how to cheat.

Just as paladins have been studying minions for centuries, minions have been studying paladins. Using the same tricks and techniques as every other paladin was not a competitive advantage. I wanted tricks and techniques minions didn’t know.

It would have been nice if I had more time to study magic, but nice doesn’t cut it when hordes of minions are trying to kill you. Aidan estimated it would take me a minimum of five years to be as proficient at battle magic as the average thirteen-old-paladin in training. Spending all my time and energy to—at best—suck at something didn’t work for me.

Paladins heal from wounds ten times faster than the average human. We’re extremely resistant to poisons, hypnotic and sedative drugs. If we’re bitten by a zombie, lycanthrope, or vampire—it’s just a bite. The infection doesn’t transfer, and we don’t die, transform, or reanimate.

All paladins, by definition, are powerful magic users, and it amazes me that no other paladin has ever even thought to give himself more strength, speed, or weapons beyond the standard heaven-given enhancements.

I found out it wasn’t as easy as I initially thought it would be to do my own upgrades. There’s an infinite amount of magical energy available in the aether, but the problem is that there’s a cost to using magic. Beyond a limited set point, magic consumes soul energy. To truly give myself more strength, armor, or weapons I had to work within the limits of what was organically possible.

My first idea was to reinforce my bones with mithril. Unfortunately, the basic paladin healing spells automatically reject foreign objects from the body, and don’t differentiate between deliberately implanted mithril reinforcement and bullets, arrowheads, and other penetrating objects retained in a wound.

Instead, I visited the Salt Lake City Zoo and studied their toucan. Weight for weight, a toucan’s beak is one of the strongest and most resilient of all organic structures; it’s a hollow matrix of keratin and bone perfectly designed to absorb impacts without deforming or fracturing. I carefully altered my DNA to incorporate the structural elements of the toucan’s beak into my bone structure. This modification makes my bones five times stronger and more break-resistant than typical paladin bone, without adding any additional weight.

I wanted more muscle power, but my research revealed heaven had already maximized my muscle efficiency to the limit of what’s physiologically possible. I decided if I couldn’t have more power, increased flexibility was a good second choice. The octopus can stretch and deform its muscles and tendons, and I want my muscles to give and stretch rather than tear or rupture. Splicing in the proper octopus gene sequences had another benefit—I gained the ability to instantly dislocate and relocate my bones at will. Now, impact trauma that would’ve killed or crippled me causes my bones and muscles to flex and give rather than break and tear. Manacles and cages that would imprison any other paladin can’t hold me.

I wanted retractable claws, but no animal with an opposable thumb has them. Without pre-existing DNA to use as a template, it was a bitch to figure out a workable design. It took me five tries before I came up with one that worked—one that didn’t give me weird, deformed-looking fingertips. The whole point was to make my claws a surprise, NOT to make my enemies think, ‘My, what strange fingertips he has.’

I increased the diameter of my hand and finger bones by about twenty to thirty percent. My fingers now look slightly thicker and stubbier, but not unusually so with an almost invisible slit at the tips. My distal finger bones are hollow and hold claws that retract and extend due to hydraulic pressure. I can’t force my claws out or pull them back in against much resistance but once they’re locked into place, they do everything I want.

In magic, belief and intent are more important than fact. There are individuals in almost all cultures that believe precious stones have magical properties, and there are cultures on Earth that use tattoos and scarification on a routine basis. Individuals from these cultures—including paladins—frequently imbed precious metals and stones in their bodies. The heavenly bureaucracy doesn’t classify ‘jewelry’ as foreign substances.

My fashion statement for this year is claws coated with octomolecular bits of crystallized carbon—they glitter beautifully. Diamonds are the hardest substance known to industrial science, but they’re also one of the most brittle. An eight molecule-thin sheet of diamond will shatter like glass, so my coatings aren’t solid—they have more in common with chainsaw teeth than a knife edge. Since my claws have tips and cutting edges that are only a few carbon molecules wide, they’re extremely sharp. After Aidan and Tim helped me cast spells of sharpness and strength on my claws, they’ll cut through steel and concrete like cardboard.

I added one way valves and additional muscles to the walls of my abdominal aorta, and grew redundant vascular pathways throughout my body. If my primary heart is injured, I have backup.

I created membranes in my nose and upper palate that make a high frequency whistle when I force air over them. It’s beyond the range of normal human hearing, but I hear it just fine, and I use it to echolocate in total darkness. It also drives dogs crazy, which is why I only use the whistle when I have to.

The Salt Lake City Zoo has a Mozambique spitting cobra and a coral snake. I copied the relevant sections of their gene sequences and grew spitting cobra venom sacs in my mouth and coral snake venom sacs for my claws.

The gray thought I was helpless. It was time to see if it was right. I spit into its right eye. Spitting cobra venom has no toxic effect when it’s ingested or contacts unbroken skin; it’s horrifically painful and destructive to the cornea. The alien screamed, dropped its pipe, and clutched at its eye.

I disarticulated all the bones of my hands, wrists, feet, and ankles and slid right out of the manacles. By the time I hit the floor my bones were back in place.

The alien was still screaming when I jabbed slightly curved fingers into its solar plexus with enough force to knock the breath out of it.

I tried to read its aura; my magic vision was gone. I extended my right index finger claw and cut a thin sliver off the steel floor. The spell of sharpness on my claws was still good.

I listened for other grays. There were two more in the saucer, and they didn’t seem concerned by the screams coming from this room. I only needed one gray—I considered killing this one, one of the others, and questioning the last one. I decided against it because there was no guarantee that others spoke English. Normally I’d just cast a translating spell, but I got the feeling that wouldn’t work either.

While the gray was busy trying to breathe, I ripped all its clothing off and discovered it was a boy and that he’d peed himself. He had a wand on his belt, some other gizmos, and ring of keys.

He was finally able to take one long shuddering breath and I popped him on the solar plexus again. Every living creature wants to breathe; it’s THE basic instinct. You can learn how to control this instinct—that’s what free-divers do, but unless you’ve had training and practice, it’s almost impossible to think of anything else when you can’t breathe.

While the gray tried to catch his breath, I found the key that unlocked the shackles. I locked him into the shackles and then used the windlass on the wall to shorten the chains until he was suspended in the air, his arms and legs outstretched in an ‘X’, just like I had been.

When he caught his breath again, I let him breathe twice before I hit him in the solar plexus. The problem with torture is that the subject you’re torturing almost always doesn’t like you. He’ll generally try to lie to you until he breaks, and then he’ll say anything and everything to please you—even if what he thinks will please you is a lie. I’ve found that if I stress the subject to the point where he can’t think, where his whole focus is to just breathe, he doesn’t have the mental energy to come up with a lie.

For close to five minutes I kept the gray on the edge of suffocation. Finally I asked, “Why do you sound and talk like Steve Willeso?”

The gray took four deep breaths. When I raised my hand, he whispered, “No please, I’ll talk. Two years ago, after Paladin Swenson was killed, we abducted Steve and scanned his brain. I learned how to speak colloquial American English and how to blend in. Every time I come back to Earth, I ride Steve’s consciousness without his knowledge. From time to time, I take complete control of his body. He has no idea that he captured you.”

“Can you do this with every abductee?”

“Yes. But we don’t do it to all of them. It takes time and considerable magical energy to convert a human into a suitable vehicle. It isn’t worth it to do it to all of our discards.”

This information wasn’t in our reference texts. It needed to be. This meant that the grays had spies we didn’t know about all over Earth. “How can I tell if someone’s been modified or is being ridden by one of you guys?”

“Well…” I jabbed the alien in the solar plexus again. My super hearing was amped up and I was listening for the other two grays to make sure they didn’t walk in on our conversation; I was also listening to the alien’s heart. The rapid change in his heart rate told me he was about to lie. This time I kept him on the edge of suffocation for close to ten minutes.

When I allowed him to breathe again, he quickly told me how to recognize a modified human’s aura.

The Gray’s name was Fornik. He was a hunter. His job was to bring usable souls back to his home dimension. The other two grays were both pilot-navigators; they used their magic and mental powers to fly the saucer and navigate between dimensions. Most inter-dimensional gates connect one dimension to just one other; travel through these kinds of gates is instantaneous.

The gray saucers can side-slip through the membranes that separate all of the infinite dimensions from one another. They can use any gate to connect to any other gate. It takes a lot of skill and expertise to do this right, and it isn’t instantaneous. It also puts a significant strain on the pilot-navigator – that’s why they use two. We were between universes, in transit to their home dimension.

It turns out that the situation wasn’t as bad as it first sounded. The gray civilization is unique; they don’t have gods. Their dimension is so energy-poor that no gods can exist; they fled to this universe to escape their gods. But, magical energy is a prerequisite for intelligence—dreams, creativity, art, even love all require magic. The grays get that magical energy from souls they harvest from other universes.

The grays don’t have rulers or kingdoms or nation-states; instead their civilization is managed by a loose confederation of great trading houses similar to the European trading houses of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Everything these companies do revolves around money and profit, and their money is backed by stolen souls.

When I killed the gray at Saltair, I’d also killed one of the pilot-navigators and wounded the other, who’d just made it home and put the word out that I was actively targeting saucers. They didn’t work for the same trading house as Fornik; his trading house is the only one that knows how to control sentient minds, and they’d only been doing that for five years. The technique is their most valuable trade secret, and they currently have almost two hundred gray-controlled humans like Steve Willeso.

They’ve also captured, studied, and drained seven paladins, who are incredibly valuable to the grays. Imagine the difference in value between the Hope diamond and an ordinary engagement ring—that’s the difference in value between an ordinary human soul and a paladin’s.

I had some sympathy for the grays. I totally understand their desire to avoid gods. I’m not sure how I feel about stealing other intelligent souls for power, but I might have been tempted to try living in their universe for awhile except for the fact that as soon as I showed up, three million of them would be lining up to harvest my soul.

“Fornik, what did you use to knock me out? I didn’t think sedatives worked on paladins.”

He wearily raised his head. He’d been hanging from the chains for some time now. He was being crucified; hanging from your arms fatigues your diaphragm and intercostal muscles. Human crucifixion subjects take days to die. Most minions have greater strength and endurance than humans; grays are clearly much weaker. Fornik’s breathing muscles were fatiguing quickly; having his breath knocked out every few minutes hadn’t helped. “I injected a gram of potassium cyanide into your neck. The cyanide didn’t kill you, but it disabled you for several hours.”

That’s how he’d known I was awake. Victims of cyanide poisoning develop a pinkish hue to their skin. Fornik knew I’d recovered when my skin color went back to normal.

It was time to ask him a verification question. “How’d you know I was casting a spell?”

He gave me the answer I was expecting, “I knew you would cast a spell. When I saw your throat muscles move slightly, I made an educated guess that you were subvocalizing a spell and that it wasn’t working.”

“How’d you block my ability to cast a spell?”

He was too out of breath to answer me. I lengthened his chains until his feet could bear weight and gave him a few seconds to recover. “You can kill one of Jehovah’s paladins with magic but it’s impossible to keep a curse working on them for very long. If you know what you’re doing and if the paladin is unconscious, you can place a blessing on one of Jehovah’s servants. I cast a spell of supreme efficiency on you. It makes every existing protection and enhancement spell on you hyper-efficient.

“I’ve personally captured three other paladins. When I cast this spell on them, it made them stronger, faster, and more alert. Their ability to heal increased a hundredfold. When I cut them, their wounds healed within seconds and they used no soul energy to do so. The spell super powers your existing spells, but it has a side effect; it makes it impossible for you to cast any new ones. It uses up every iota of your available magical energy.”

“How long does it last?”

Fornik actually started laughing. “It’s based on Jehovah’s spell of forgetfulness. It lasts forever and is irreversible.”

He clearly expected me to get angry and upset. Magic is a huge part of a typical paladin’s arsenal. Take away a typical paladin’s ability to cast spells and you take away at least half of his offensive capabilities. I’m not a typical paladin; I suck at magic. Give me another ten to fifteen years and I’ll suck considerably less—but I’ll still suck. Now that he’d mentioned it, my hearing was better than usual. I had just dislocated and relocated my bones faster than I ever had in practice. It was a good bet that my bones, venom, and claws were also improved. At this stage of my magical knowledge, the spell of supreme efficiency was very definitely a blessing.

He looked puzzled when I just shrugged. “So how do I take control of this saucer?”

Fornik’s lips tightened into a flat line and his heart rate increased. He didn’t answer.

Paladins kill a lot of minions; it takes courage to be a professional paladin hunter. I’d given Fornik enough time to think about his situation and he really, really didn’t like me. He’d regained his courage. I knew what he was thinking; he was dead anyway—why help me?

I was certain I could break him again but I didn’t see a point. I already knew the answer to the question I’d just asked—that’s how you determine if torture is getting results; you mix in questions you know the answers to with ones that you don’t. If your prisoner answers the questions you know the answers to truthfully, the chances are high that his other answers are good too.

You have to be able to manipulate magic to pilot a saucer, and I no longer had that ability. Even if I could cast spells, it required years of training and practice to navigate safely between dimensions. I needed to force one of the pilot-navigators to take me where I wanted to go. This was my chance to escape Jehovah and Earth forever.

If Mina hadn’t been killed, Jehovah would’ve had me forever. I knew she was an angel and that I’d see her after I die. I knew that when I became an angel, I’d lose all my free will—I’d just be a slave. I also know how weak I am; if Mina came to me from heaven and asked me to join her, I would. But she wasn’t coming and she wasn’t here. In her absence, I had the strength to escape.

I grabbed Fornik’s chin with my left hand and the top of his head with my right and twisted one hundred and eighty degrees. I heard his neck break and his heart stop. I took a quick look at his wand. It had no trigger or button; it was probably activated by magic.

Just for laughs, I said, “Amzam-shay.” My gear didn’t appear. It made sense; they were in a different universe.

The door opened into a cylindrical well surrounded by doors. The door and the walls were all made out of thin steel. One extra large door most likely led to the hatch. Hmm, assuming that most saucers had a similar layout, even if I had thrown a flash-bang or OC canister into the saucer at Saltair, it probably wouldn’t have done much good.

I listened at all the doors until I found the one with slight rustlings and breathing sounds behind it. I took a deep breath and kicked the door open. The two pilot-navigators were side-by-side in rattan and not-bamboo recliners. They were holding hands, eyes closed. I only needed one of them alive. Two steps in and I was on top of them.

My claws were out as I slammed my right hand into the first alien’s skull. My fingers penetrated to my knuckles as I injected coral snake neurotoxin directly into the gray’s brain. I gripped its head like a bowling ball and threw my right hand toward the other alien as it turned to point its wand at me.

I weigh two hundred and thirty pounds; at most, the dead gray weighed eighty. Its body whipped forward like a snapped towel.

Oh SHIT! I watched as the dead gray’s knee knocked the other alien’s wand back. There was a flash of light and the other alien’s head exploded like a rat in a microwave.

The saucer shuddered, and gravity disappeared. The three of us floated in mid-air as the saucer fell.

Go to Chapter 4.