I wrote this for an anthology my publishing partner wanted to do, Monsters & Mormons, a reclaiming of our questionable literary heritage as pulp fiction villains. Even though this story is very niche, I’ve decided not to link to any clarifying information. Y’all are smart. You’ll figure it out.
I SIT IN Relief Society picking lint off my new denim skirt—“new” meaning I scavenged it from the ’80s sales rack at the vintage consignment shop below my apartment. It’s a cute skirt. I don’t know why the ’80s are so maligned.
The lesson today (the law of chastity) has devolved into the temptations and dangers facing the singles of the church, of which I am one—not by circumstance, you see, but by calling. I am a nun.
It’s not an official calling in the church; in fact, the Metairie Louisiana Singles Branch President doesn’t even know about it.
This calling comes straight from the top.
There are others. We have no title but for what we call ourselves: nuns and monks.
We draw our strength from celibacy. If we should marry, our bodies’ enhancements and talents will vanish.
Like cutting off Samson’s hair.
Spouses, families—they would hamper us. After all, they don’t sell life insurance for what we do (Acts-of-God clauses are pesky things) and there is simply no way to multiply and replenish the earth if it’s possible you’ll die the next evening in the line of duty. There is an extra layer of protection: We’re not very good looking (so as to repel the opposite sex) and our desire for companionship and … relations … is tamped, if not completely eradicated (to keep us from distraction).
The dangers facing all members of the church—but especially singles—are listed on the chalkboard by the teacher, who is reading from the manual. Bullet-point instruction number three at the back of the lesson is to write the list on the chalkboard. So she does:
Pornography (a perennial favorite)
Discouragement (the human condition)
Temptations (these are not enumerated)
Friends of dubious quality (no judgment there, right?)
R-rated movies (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me is PG-13, so it’s okay)
Coke (of the caffeinated variety)
There are a few they left out, most notably the ones I fight, which I will do tonight, as I do most nights. I dare not say a word about these dangers, nor do I allow myself to comment on the ones listed on the board. In fact, I don’t comment at all.
But I do pray, when asked.
I’m asked a lot.
Sunday school follows Relief Society, and after that, sacrament meeting, where I will take notes on the night’s work. I very rarely have to take notes to do my job, but I’m far more relaxed right now than usual—nearly in a trance—which means I’m being prepared to write.
The boys (they’re single, so no one thinks of them as men—a pity, really) trickle into the Relief Society room from Priesthood for Gospel Doctrine, and I spot him immediately: a smallish man, perhaps five-eight with a wiry build.
I haven’t worked with a partner since I got out of training, nor was I told I was getting one today—but it doesn’t surprise me.
Things have changed.
We know each other on sight, and he takes the seat beside me.
We don’t speak.
I am asked to give the opening prayer and I do. I feel the Holy Ghost’s power flow through me as I pray, and while I don’t claim any more spiritual gifts than the next human, occasionally I do receive more than my share.
There is someone in this room in great need of comfort. I don’t know who, but it doesn’t matter.
I do what I’m told.
I sit, and my partner takes a piece of paper and a pen out of the inside pocket of his suit coat. He writes in reformed Egyptian.
I look down through the bottom focal of my trifocal eyeglasses, read, then nod.
When I look up through the top focus of the lens, the glyphs disappear. He folds the paper carefully and puts it back in his pocket, along with the pen.
I don’t like working with a partner. None of us do. But we have learned not to question. Those who question die. Not that dying is a punishment, or even a bad thing. It just messes things up for the rest of us: work schedules, vacations, and the like.
Unquestioning obedience is a gift, one I was given specifically when I was set apart for this calling.
I sneak a peek at my new partner’s hands. They’re huge, completely out of proportion to the rest of his body.
He has bigger guns than I do.
Possibly as much as a gigajoule.
I catch his glance at my hands, then I catch his smirk as he looks away again.
Physiology and anatomy. I can only do so much with what I’m given.
Yet we sit together in sacrament meeting. I still don’t know his name.
After the sacrament is passed, I retrieve my notebook and pen from my purse. The talks begin, and I write.
He unzips his scripture case, and retrieves a pair of specs out of the pocket.
It’s my turn to smirk, as he is not happy.
The monks may have more firepower, but when partnered, the nuns take the dictation and give the orders.
But soon I space out, writingwritingwriting. I must get it right and my language abilities are average, not always up capturing the nuance of a situation. In this case, I’m not even sure what I’m saying, and that unnerves me. The only thing I can decipher for certain is “the unique dangers.”
Sacrament meeting ends.
He nods in the direction of my notebook, takes off his specs, and we go our separate ways.
I drive home, throw my vintage 1980s outfit in the dirty-clothes hamper (I still don’t know what’s wrong with the ’80s), and fall into bed.
I’m exhausted, and I don’t know why.
• • •
HE’S NEVER been here.
I can tell because he can barely keep from puking into the swamp, and his neoprene skin is making him fidget and wiggle.
Definitely a roving monk.
“Gas mask?” I ask and offer him something that very much resembles Cthulhu.
“I am not wearing that,” he snaps.
“Little bit touchy, are we, Monk?”
“Shut up, Nun.” He doesn’t offer his name. Probably something boring like John. “Pray.”
The sun is just setting when he locks his 0.75-gigajoule disperser down to his titanium gauntlet with much exaggeration. “Got your affairs in order?”
Break a leg in nun-and-monk speak.
I stand for a minute and stare at his gauntlet and matching gun, both so much more decorated than mine, engraved with lightning bolts. My gauntlets and weapons are engraved with paisleys. Pretty, but …
To do a job like this.
I grit my teeth and pull my left-hand disperser out of its case, lock it down to the gauntlet, lay the telescoping barrel along my titanium-covered index finger, then lock it down with tiny clips.
Point and shoot.
Once my right extremity is similarly burdened, I click my night-vision goggles down over my specs, and lead the way into the twilight, into the swamp where it’s already dark as midnight, downdowndown, gradually being covered in slime until I’m chest deep in it.
Yeah, it stinks. But this is where I work, so I’m used to it and I’ve already stuffed my nose with Mentholatum. I have the clearest sinuses in the Atchafalaya basin.
I haven’t been allowed to go into the swamp for the last two weeks, since the flood waters from up north began rising in earnest. It’s taken that long for my sensors and weapons to be recalibrated for the extreme change in environment. The animals have been driven up out of the swamp and what crude oil was left on land has been pulled back into the water. With water comes mold, fungus, mosquitoes, and other diseases, but that’s not a concern for hunters. The crude, well … I don’t know how—or even if—the sludge will react to the extra radioactivity my partner brings, which is orders of magnitude above mine.
But we don’t question, because to question is to die. The general authorities overseeing our gadgetry supply us with whatever we need to do our jobs.
“Why aren’t we taking your boat?” Only now do I detect a mid-Utah accent. Great. A JelloBeltian.
I grab a palm full of water and let it trickle back out through my fingers. I still have a hand full of refuse. “Look at that. It’s soup. Chock full of plants. Oil. Trash from the floods. I don’t want my motor bound up in—” I point to a heavy drape of Spanish moss that floats on the surface. He looks around. Spanish moss is everywhere. “—that.”
He says nothing and we trudge through the thick water.
“Crocodiles?” he asks after a while.
“’Gators, rather,” I say. “They won’t bother us.”
“I know that,” he snaps. Again. He might as well be a ’gator, he’s snappin’ so much. He’s not questioning, but he sure is murmuring.
Murmuring doesn’t get you dead. It might get you injured, though. Very distracting activity, murmuring. I’d rather he not murmur around me when he’s got enough energy to melt a ton of steel.
(I bet it kills him he can’t control a whole gigajoule.)
“Where were you last?” I ask conversationally as we wade through slime, our dispersers primed to shoot.
“Gobi Desert,” he answers, and I catch something wistful in his voice.
“You liked it there.”
“What were you hunting?”
“Had a band of specter demons going through the villages. Wiped ’em out.”
Psychiatrists call it “auditory or visual hallucinations,” a symptom of several psychiatric disorders, but we know what they are: Lucifer’s army, waging war on those of us with bodies—on our bodies—because he can’t make any real headway in his war on Father and Mother.
Specter demons are the grub worms of the psyche, chewing up people’s neural pathways like grass roots, leaving dead lawn behind. We’re allowed to attempt to heal the damage, but we mostly can’t. We’re only required to get the demons out of our plane and bar them from future entry.
Like internet trolls.
But there are a lot of internet trolls.
At the blip of a shadow in the corner of my eye, I point and blast. Swamp water explodes and covers us like debris-ridden oil rain.
“Eeewww.” Even I’m grossed out as I flick it off my neoprene skin.
The monk rubs his fingers together, brings the substance to his nose. “Well, you got ’em.”
Good. The sacrifice of my skin will not have been vain.
Demolition demons are the worst. They usually show up in hospitals, disguised as Staph infections, gangrene, pneumonia. The advanced demolitionists manifest as cancer catalysts. The more skilled a demolitionist, the greater power it has over a cell’s ecosystem. Medicine will arrest what it can, and we may be able to do the rest, if we get there in time.
No demon has the power to kill a human; they can only sow the seeds of disease—physical or mental—and let nature take its course. That’s the pact the Parents have with us, their children: Lucifer cannot kill us. Yet he continues to search for a way to do so and this, the Atchafalaya basin, is one of his biggest training grounds and laboratories.
I don’t know why he bothers.
Generally, we don’t interfere in a disease process. There is a time and a season for everything. Repairing psychological damage—attempting to, anyway—is different. The schizophrenics, bipolars—not all are caused by specters, just as not all diseases are caused by demolitionists. But it’s very rare that science loses a human body to disease if its turn on earth isn’t done. Not so with specter-induced mental illness.
Several hundred demolitionists burst up in rapid succession, coming for us. They’re small, about the size of a barn owl, and usually invisible to all but us.
It takes both my 3-megajoule dispersers and the monk’s behemoth to pop that ambush right on back to hell, for lack of a better word. Technically outer darkness either hasn’t been built yet or stands empty awaiting its prisoners once this Earth is cast back into the celestial recycle bin.
“Hmm,” I say because I can’t keep myself from stating the obvious. “This is not normal.”
The swamp waters aren’t as still as usual. I don’t know if it’s the oil or if there are more demons here than the water can hide. With pelts of moss and a slick over it, it should be harder to displace than water alone.
A battalion bursts out of the water and charges us. They’re no match for us both, but the sheer number of them is cause for concern.
So. The flooding and oil aren’t the only reasons I have a roving monk at my side.
… the unique dangers. I wish I knew what that meant.
Generally, we only make a little headway each night when we hunt. Lucifer replaces the demons almost as fast as we can dispatch them, but never quite fast enough. Out of the hundreds or—like tonight—the thousands that we send back to him in an evening, perhaps collectively, we will have lessened their numbers by a factor of ten.
Sometimes I wonder why we bother.
The water settles.
“I don’t know why we bother,” says the monk wearily.
I look at him sharply. Can he read my mind? I’ve heard it’s a possibility, a gift given to the upper echelons of our kind.
I answer by rote: “So someone can live and fulfill the measure of their creation.”
“Deb, I heard it in correlation meeting last year. And the year before that. And the year before that. Don’t want or need to hear it while I’m hunting.”
“How old are you?”
Oh. I’m only fifty-eight. I feel that I’ve missed some important information.
No wonder he didn’t like having a nun—and such a young one—take the dictation.
He knows my name. He probably knows everything about me.
“What’s your name?”
Oh. My. Stars.
The water bubbles and I don’t dare think about him as we go about magnifying our callings with weapons powered by cold fusion. Not magic, not supernatural.
Technologically advanced and genetically enhanced.
Like the demons.
Like the hunters.
There is no supernatural, no magic, only puzzles that haven’t been solved. Even we hunters don’t know how most of our technology works, and I’ve always wondered how much the general authorities who build this stuff know.
I figure they get their instructions like Noah did: Here are the blueprints and the supply list. Go to it. Don’t ask any questions.
The hunters’ DNA is altered when we’re set apart for our callings. I don’t know how that works, either, but considering Jesus healed the blind and the lepers …
Something brushes up against the back of my leg, wiggles its way between my feet. “Bonjour, mon ami.” The smallish ’gator flips his tail up behind me, making a splash.
The monk steps away to escape the oil-and-debris rain.
“You have a lot of friends here?” he asks.
What an odd question. “Of course I do.” He, of all people, should know the extent of my enhancements. I couldn’t work this swamp without having the flora and fauna understanding of and sympathetic to my purpose.
The ’gator maneuvers through my legs, and around again, making a figure eight, like a cat. He wants my attention, so I trudge to a log and he climbs out of the water so I can scratch his oil-slicked head with my titanium claws.
He almost purrs.
“Non, chèr,” I tell him in Cajun. He doesn’t understand English. “I can’t get rid of him, sorry. He’s my boss.”
“He’s whining, Deb. What are you doing to this place?”
“He’s just a baby.”
“A baby you’ve spoiled rotten. Tell him to go home. We have work to do.” I translate as kindly as I can and he slides back into the sludge, but not without a swipe of a tail at the back of Ezekiel’s knees.
He glares at me. “You tell him he better never do that again.”
We spend the night sludging through the swamp, sending demons back to Lucifer. Our dispersers mess with their molecular structure somehow—or at least, that’s how it’s been explained to me.
We don’t speak. Ezekiel—
Oh. My. Stars. I can’t believe I’m hunting with Ezekiel.
—isn’t familiar with this terrain and I need to keep the awe out of my eyes and voice.
“Don’t believe everything you hear,” he mutters.
I don’t like that he can read my mind. I feel … naked. I don’t look so good naked.
“Are you trying to mess me up?” I ask. “Pick a fight? Because if so, I’ll take some personal time for the rest of the night and let you do this by yourself.”
“Watch your mouth, Sister Judge.”
I gulp. That’s the second time he’s dressed me down tonight, on top of his surliness at being here. It makes me rethink my abilities, my attitude.
“Don’t start doubting yourself now,” he grumbles as we trudge through the swamp. “I don’t need a hunter with a self-esteem problem at my back.” I purse my lips. “And no, I’m not here to kill you.”
Good to know. I’m not ready to go back to real life and do normal human things, which, in my case, is nothing useful. I’m not even qualified to fry beignets.
But he sounds as if he might like to be released, and the second I think that, he snorts.
“Please stop doing that,” I say. “Sir.”
I gulp. I don’t know whether he’s out of my head or not. The best I can do is attempt to clear my mind and concentrate on my work.
That’s probably what he wants.
Maybe, after four hundred and twenty-three years, I’ll want to be released, too, to start life afresh from the prime of life, looks and libido restored, memory erased, to go on and marry and procreate like the rest of everybody.
I don’t know, though. I really don’t like kids.
“Where are you from?”
That shocks me. “You sound like you’re from Utah.”
“I’m an excellent actor.”
“Did you— Did you ever see any of Shakespeare’s plays?”
“I worked at the Globe. I was called to this position by King James after he saw me in Henry V.”
Now my self-esteem is truly in the tank. I have nothing more to say and no questions that I want the answers to.
We work into the wee hours of the morning, dispatching thousands of demons who guard the scientists and demolitionists in varying stages of development. It would have taken me months to finish off that many by myself, but Ezekiel has a mister on his disperser that casts the radiation out like a spray bottle. I don’t have one of those.
Yeah, okay. I’m jealous.
I’m human. Genetically superior, granted, but still human. I’m as susceptible to heartache and discouragement and envy as any other human. Just like any other calling in the church, you go into it with your personality and abilities as your only strengths—and sometimes those become your weaknesses.
As a hunter, I’m middlin’. I show up on time, do my job pretty well, try to catch a TV series or read a book or two now and again. We have quotas (like every other program in the church), but since this is our job and we’re paid (not well), it’s not like visiting teaching, where you can flake with impunity. My numbers are perfectly average.
I’m okay with that. The job is stressful enough; I don’t need the added stress of competition. But it’s easy to be okay with it when you work alone, and you were called even though everybody knew you’re average at everything. It’s a little more difficult when you’re working with the High General and you realize you’ve been a little complacent.
He slides a look at me.
It’s just too much. I don’t care if he is the High General—he has no right to my thoughts, and I’m hurt that the Parents allow it. “I’m going home,” I say, and turn around to find my way out of the swamp, baby ’gator at my side.
He doesn’t say a word.