The Number of Angels in Hell
by Joanne Steinwachs
29 Elul 5966/15 September, 2205
Epsilon Eridani Five
New Israel Base
Harry’s back muscles ached from flying point for so long. All down his spine, the wingmounts throbbed, and he felt a cold stitch between his shoulder blades. In his peripheral vision, he could see that his wingbeats had lost their smooth rhythm. As difficult as it was, implants and wings were the only way humans could travel on Hell. Epsilon Eridani Five’s cold, grit filled air was too hard on machinery, and most of the colonists were too poor to afford vehicles that would only work for a few months. So everybody flew.
Rachel’s labored voice came over the com, “I’ll take point, Harry. Move back.”
She sounded tired, but he knew better than to argue with his wife. He slipped out of position and let Rachel take the lead. Immediately, he felt the sweet relief of flying in her back stream rather than forging the path through EE5’s frigid, poisonous air. His brother–in–law, Isaac, flew to Rachel’s left.
Under his breath, Harry muttered, in his faltering Hebrew, “Baruch ata Adonai, elohenu melech haolam,” –the beginning of the prayer–then continued in English, “Thank you Lord for the strength of my wife.” He made a mental note to ask Rachel for the barucha or prayer to say when flying. Glancing down, he saw they were passing over Gehenna Mesa. Good. They were only about two hours out from New Israel then, if the winds didn’t change and kept at their backs.
As he always did, he told himself one big strike and they would be set; it was a dream Harry clung to. He and Rachel would have children and Isaac would finally speak to Reb Levy about his daughter, Haddassa. Isaac would be freed from the terrible labor of prospecting to spend his time studying Torah. Sometimes it was hard, to be a converted Jew, but he reveled in the constant barucha for everything, the ritual of Shabbat, wearing the kipa and the tallit, keeping kosher, the clear and compassionate rules for living. After so many years of searching, Harry had found home, family, and religion on a planet some people called Hell.
He’d found Rachel, or rather Rachel had found him. A bad match for her, the older women had muttered. He’s handsome, but what has he got? Not even a born Jew. The bubbies had whispered Rachel had been swayed by his looks. Short, dark and heavy, she was no beauty they said. Sometimes he thought he caught a look of pity directed at her.
But he’d proved himself. He’d shown them. They didn’t know his wife, they didn’t know him. He’d used his beauty and his body to escape Earth. It meant nothing to him. He knew Rachel didn’t care, she wanted him–not his looks, and he wanted her. He wanted her secure sense of who she was and where she belonged. He loved the woman who at age twenty could come to Alpha Base, walk through a crowd of new indentures, listening to their stories and looking them in the eye. He loved the woman who held up one finger to stop him when, a scared thirteen year old, he’d tried to hustle her into buying his indenture. He was so tired of being a whore and flying sounded like fun. She’d looked him in the eye without a shred of flirtation or pity. “What do you want, Harry Shipko?” she’d asked him, and all of his bullshit fell away.
For some reason, he’d told her what he’d never told anyone. “I want a home.”
She bought his contract, paid for his implants, then drove him into exhaustion teaching him how to fly and how to prospect for the minerals so desperately needed by the colony. Isaac, softer and kinder than Rachel would ever be, had helped him become a Jew. They both helped him grow up. Every night he expected Rachel to come into his bed and take what everyone else had taken. But she hadn’t. And one day, six years later, he’d become the man she believed he could be. On that day, after flying through an ice storm, on a cold ledge top, she’d proposed. His Rachel, not a shred of romance. “So Harry, how about you marry me? We’re a good team.”
And how she smiled at his incredulous awareness that he’d fallen in love with the first woman who had demanded he be a man. His Rachel, who knew him better than he would ever know himself.
Harry noticed the labored quality to Isaac’s breath over the com and felt a familiar surge of worry. If Isaac was sick, they had no reserve to pay for treatment. Their tiny family was stretched thin by too many weeks of unsuccessful prospecting. Humans were never meant to live in such a brutally unforgiving planet, this giant anomalous rock so far from its sun. EE5 could destroy them. If Isaac couldn’t fly, they’d have to find someone else to take the third position and pay them out of their meager reserves. Always fly in threes, that was the law. On EE5 one buddy wasn’t enough
Harry shook off his thoughts, and concentrated. Rachel always said, “Worrying is like paying interest on money you haven’t borrowed.” Then Isaac coughed, and Harry began thinking of borrowed money to pay for a doctor. Ahead, his wife flew like an angel, her wings reflecting rainbows against EE5’s setting sun.
The warmth of New Israel base enfolded Harry and began to thaw the glacier that crept through his bones. Both of his hands ached with cold, no matter he’d worn his insulates. The frigid air etched through most protection and fliers needed to make the careful trade off between calories lost to wind drag and the benefits of wearing heavier insulation. The wings took calories from the body that would otherwise be used for warmth. To move on the planet meant a constant and careful tradeoff between starvation and freezing to death. Harry, Rachel and Isaac agreed to keep themselves as fat as possible and rely on their insulates. But in their ready room, Harry noticed the ridge of Isaac’s spine between the shining metal wing mounts and wondered where his round belly had gone. Rachel, like any modest woman, took off her gear in the corner, curtained from them both. He remembered how Rachel’s hips jutted out from her pelvis, and his stomach tensed. “You and Rachel are getting really thin.”
“Harry. Stop.” Isaac sat next to him and handed him a cup of steaming butter tea. “You worry too much.”
Emerging from behind the curtain, Rachel looked up and nodded, her eyes luminous. Isaac handed her a cup. “He’s right, Harry, you do.” A smile lifted her face, but Harry could see the outlines of her cheekbones. “We’re doing fine.”
Harry tried to keep his mouth shut, but failed. “Fine? We haven’t had a strike in three months, you’ve both lost so much weight I don’t recognize you, and Isaac has a cough that keeps him awake at night. We’ve got just enough to feed ourselves on this furlough, and nothing for when we come back.”
Instead of getting annoyed and walking off, as she usually did, Rachel’s smile became bigger. “It will all be well, Harry, I can feel it. God is with us.”
Beside him, Isaac nodded, “I feel it too, Harry. We’re going to be just fine. Come on, let’s say the blessing for the tea.”
Harry nodded and began, “Baruch ata Adonai…”
A cacophony of languages spilled out of the commissary. Harry caught Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish, English, and Russian. He caught a glimpse of his friend Tadeus’ round bearded face from across the room and waved. Always hungry, coming to the commissary was usually a high point for him. Instead of picking through the offerings to keep kosher, like he did at other bases, at home he could choose freely. Coming to the table, his tray loaded, he expected the usual ribbing from Isaac, but he sat down to silence. He and Rachel had barely touched their tea in the ready room and rather than devouring their meals as they usually did after a long shift, they picked at their food. Instead of their usual hard–edged planning for the next prospecting run, they sat quiet, sometimes smiling at each other, but mostly looking inward, at something only they could see.
Finally, Harry could bear it no longer. “What’s wrong with you two?”
As one, they turned to him and for a moment, Harry didn’t recognize their faces. His heart grew cold. The old fear slithered into his belly, the fear of not being wanted, not being a part. Rachel and Isaac together, brother and sister, and him, on the outside. Alone.
The familiar rage and pain came over him and he shoved away from the table. “Fine. I’ll see you later.” As he walked away, he waited for them–for Rachel to come up behind him and laugh, for Isaac to put his hand on his shoulder and bring him back, but there was nothing. Tears stung in the back of his throat, but his eyes were dry. The hell with them.
When he got to the door, he couldn’t help himself and he turned and looked back at them. Instead of watching him leave, they stared at each other, that odd smile playing about their lips. Harry stalked out of the commissary;: his fists clenched in the pockets of his jacket, heading to the upper levels, the mechanics there always had a dice game going and some homemade wine.
Later that evening, mellow with the wine, he wandered down the hallway to their rooms and met Tadeus trundling in the other direction. His friend’s eyes grew wide when he saw Harry. “What are you doing here? Why aren’t you with Rachel and Isaac?”
All the wine he’d drunk with the mechanics made him slow. “What–”
“They filed a flight plan, said your team was going out. I assumed–”
Harry felt a cold vise in his chest and Tadeus’ face became blurry. “They went out again? We just got home.”
Tadeus reached up to put a hand on his shoulder. “Harry, is everything all right?”
Harry fought with his old familiar thoughts. They didn’t want you, you weren’t good enough. But then he heard the cold voice of sanity. If Rachel didn’t want him, she’d say so. There’d be no question. Isaac could never do this. Something was wrong. He needed to find them. “Where did they go?”
“They said you were in the ready room. Harry, what’s wrong?” Tadeus’ voice faltered. “They looked, I don’t know—Harry, are they sick or something? I almost didn’t recognize Rachel, she’s so thin.”
“Where did they go?’
“The north quarter of Sheol. The canyon.”
Sheol was mined out, why would they go there?
“When did they leave?”
“About an hour ago. Harry, you can’t go out there alone. I can go with you. Give some time, I’ll find someone to make the third.”
Harry forced a smile, “Thanks. Tadeus. I’ll wait for you in our ready room, okay?”
Tadeus nodded vigorously. “Sure.” Then he hesitated, “Are things okay with you and Rachel?”
“I thought so. We had a fight, but this—this doesn’t make sense.”
On his way, over and over, he called them on their frequency, but neither one answered. Finally, frantic, he tried on the all channels frequency, but still, nothing. Instead, Tadeus called back, cursing him for not waiting. Harry shut that channel down without answering.
The flash of the sunset on their wings drew him and he gave a prayer of thanks as the relief surged over him. They were alive, flying in circles above the canyon rim. Channeling the surge of relief to his wings, he flew towards them. Just as he approached, though, he saw Rachel signal Isaac and they both tucked their wings and plummeted towards an outcropping, shadowed by wall of the canyon. When they dropped into the canyon, the wings went dark, as if a light had been shut off. Shaking off his unease, Harry followed. When he found them, they were standing on a ledge just above a deep ravine.
The moment his feet touched the outcropping, he furled his wings and ran towards them. Isaac turned first, and touched Rachel’s arm. She opened her arms wide. Through the face shield, Harry could see a smile on her face, but it looked wrong. His Rachel, his solemn careful wife, never smiled like that. She looked as if she were being electrocuted. His Rachel, private and controlled, would never fling her arms wide as seeing him. She never showed affection, unless they were alone. Isaac, too, moved towards him in a way Isaac never did. Instead of his usually careful step, he loped, almost skipped, as if his wings were unfurled and the wind pushed underneath them.
Harry tried to speak to them on the com channels but heard only static. Then he saw Isaac’s com light was dark. So was Rachel’s. Harry stopped, unsettled. Rachel came up to him and he could see her lips move behind the face shield, but he couldn’t read her lips, so he resorted to his clumsy signing. What is happening?
Rachel, for a moment, didn’t respond, so he repeated it. She looked at Isaac, and they both broke into laughter. Too frightened to be angry, Harry reached for Rachel’s shoulders and shook her. She looked at him, bemused and then signed back almost to fast for him to follow. Shema Israel, Adonai eloheynu Adonai echad.
He grabbed her hands to stop her and shook his head. “Stop!” he yelled, but she couldn’t hear. She looked past him. Hanging on to her hands, he turned around—Isaac stood near the edge of the outcropping. Harry could see he’d initiated the manual override to remove the face shield, as if he were in their ready room. Dropping Rachel’s hands, he raced to Isaac. Thankfully, Isaac’s wings were furled tight against his body. Harry grabbed him from behind. A moment of fear shot through him, at the thought of damaging the wings, but he ignored it, holding on desperately as Isaac twisted in his arms. To his left Rachel darted toward the lip of the outcropping.
“Rachel!” Harry’s scream echoed in his helmet. Isaac struggled against him, but at the lip of the ravine, Rachel stood, lifting her wings behind her. Isaac, with one mighty push, broke Harry’s grasp and shoved him to the ground. Harry’s wings were half open and some distant part of him felt them crumple. Then Harry looked up. Against the frame of the darkening sky, Rachel’s wings were completely unfurled, behind her, a last beam of sunset illuminated her, and to her left, facing her, Isaac stood, opening his wings as well.
Harry watched in horror as she reached for her mask, he could see her lips moving behind it, and her eyes were closed. Her face, a skull tautly covered with skin, was peaceful and a little smile played across her mouth. Now she opened her eyes and looked right at Harry. Lips still moving, in one movement, she tore the mask from her face, turned away, and leaped into the air. The afternoon winds lifted her. Behind her, Isaac did the same.
Harry struggled to his feet, and raced toward the edge, trying to open his wings, but they remained still. Across the face shield scrolled an error message. Helpless, he stood there and through his tears watched them die. One, two, three wing beats, in unison and then their bodies loosened and they fell from the sky, wings extended, in lazy loops to the ground.
A shriek of pain, at first Harry thought it was Rachel, but he heard it again and again and realized it was himself. Frantic, he ran back and forth wanting to get to her, to help her, but the sheer drop at his feet deterred him. They were down there, broken and dead.
The cold part of him that always survived, spoke. Wait. Their wings will send out a beacon for retrieval. Tadeus knows where you are. All you have to do is wait. Someone will come for the wings. You will live. And then he despaired.
It took a few hours for him to realize that no one was responding on the channels. And a few more before he understood that his wings were damaged beyond his ability to repair them. Then the cold part of him that got him off Earth took over. It dragged him down the ravine, to the bodies. It helped him find Rachel and when Harry turned her over after taking the miraculously intact wings off her, it made his wife’s face a blessedly featureless blur. It helped Harry put Rachel’s wings on and fly, in the dark, back to New Israel. It kept him moving when he got there and found all of the locks open to the outside. It kept him sane when he saw what had happened to his home and it kept him moving to find the few survivors.
29 Elul 5986/2 October, 2225
Epsilon Eridani Five
Base 3313, Camino Syndicate
Harry sat in the Camino Syndicate control room and stared at the bank of monitors in front of him, searching. He’d watched the flyers come off their shifts, wings dragging through EE5’s cold heavy atmosphere. Now the screens showed variations of the same picture: cubicles holding men and women, shivering with cold. The young handlers stripping them of their precious wings first, then giving them drinks: chocolate, butter tea; anything hot and high calorie. One flyer, who looked about eighteen, still new, had tears running down his face. Another, maybe twenty, had the seamed look of age most flyers got after a year outside. In twenty–five years, the colony on EE5 had learned a lot, but that hadn’t made flying any easier. On the bottom of the display, two screens showed empty cubicles
Harry leaned forward. “Who’s in twenty eight?”
From behind him, Tadeus answered, “Tamasin. She’s been prospecting over Sheol Pass. Last contact was a few hours ago.”
“What about thirty?”
“Morrison. No contact from him since the beginning of the shift. The signal from the wings hasn’t moved for five hours. He was checking the mine on Hades Mesa.” Tadeus’ voice was flat. The only way for a flyer would be stationary in such an exposed place was to be dead. Harry nodded. “Who’s going out for the wings?”
“That’s next shift’s problem, not mine.”
Harry turned to look at him and noticed the stiff set of his shoulders. After all these years, it still hurt Tadeus when a flyer died. Harry sighed, there was nothing to be done. “Can I get Tamasin’s contact record?”
“To your main channel.”
Harry leaned back and stuck the earbud in his right ear, but kept his eye on Tamasin’s monitor. The handler sat in a corner, head down. A kid, like all of them. He couldn’t tell if it was a boy or girl. Probably Tamasin’s kid sister or brother.
As always, static filled his ear, and Harry had to strain to hear Tamasin’s voice. “Can you clean it up?”
“Sorry Harry, it’s as clean as it’s going to get with the flares.”
Right. Epsilon Eridani was notorious for its irritability. Harry tipped his head forward and listened intently. It took a moment, but he heard it. The song.
His heart became a hard knot in his chest. “Where is she?”
“Coming in, about a twenty klicks out. She’ll be here in about fifteen minutes, flying into the wind.”
“I’m going onto the floor.”
“Is your implant on?” Harry smiled at the mother hen quality in Tadeus’ voice.
When he reached his forefinger towards his mouth to engage it, Tadeus cleared his throat, as if to speak.
“Harry, why do you need that?”
He nodded, with understanding. “Oh, yeah, right.”
Harry reached his forefinger inside his mouth, and pushed hard at the implant trigger on the right. Immediately, Tadeus’ face dissolved into a meaningless blur and Harry felt the blessedly cool distance descend on him. When you can’t recognize a face, there are no people, just humans.
It didn’t take long to get down to the staging area. Harry took the catwalk. The next shift of flyers ignored him. One or two of the handlers looked up, but then turned away. To them, he was just another tech, doing something incomprehensible. To him, they were just faceless blurs attached to small bodies.
He went to Morrison’s cube first. The handler looked up when he walked in. “Morrison’s dead?” It sounded like a boy’s voice. The kid might be Morrison’s younger brother or his son. If he needed to know later, he could look at the monitor record and Tadeus, watching, would surely know. Tadeus knew everybody.
Harry nodded. “Yeah. Out on Hades.”
The kid was momentarily silent, then, “Do I still have a job?” No relation, then.
Harry just nodded and left. He didn’t have time to reassure a handler. Tamasin’s cube was adjacent, and when stepped out into the corridor he saw the door to the cube was open. He felt a hard band of fear in his chest. Did I miss her? But when he walked in, he saw the kid was still there and alone.
“Why’s the door open?” Harry asked, willing his heart to stop pounding.
The kid’s head jerked up. “Tamasin doesn’t like to be closed up.” A pause, and then, “Sir.” The kid sounded young, and looked it, huddled against the corner of the cubicle.
Harry relaxed. “This your first job?”
“Yes.” Again the pause. “Sir.”
Harry couldn’t even tell if it was a boy or girl. “So what’s your name?”
“Liss.” No clue there.
Harry looked at his watch. The flyer was getting close. He didn’t have much time. “Tamasin’s not coming in on this shift. We need this cube for someone else. Okay?”
“Okay. Is she all right?”
Time for some maneuvering. “Yeah, she’s fine.” He reached over, ignoring the kid’s flinch and tousled its hair. He’d seen someone do that once on an old video, back on Earth. The kid edged away from him and out the door. Harry pulled it shut.
He didn’t have long to wait. Just as he turned, the cold hit him as the inner lock opened and Tamasin came through.
When she removed her face shield, he could feel the godhead coming off her in waves. As always, it was agony to stop himself from pulling the implant out so he could see.
From the blur that was her face a sound came, a great harmonic chorus, beautiful and aching. A song like the one Isaac and Rachel had sung into their dead coms before they died. He let the tears roll down his face. Tamasin came towards him, her arms extended for an embrace.
In one smooth practiced movement, Harry stepped close, pulled the pulse gun from his pocket, placed it under her chin, and pulled the trigger. He’d found this was the best way to avoid hitting the wings with the electromagnetic pulse. Then he caught her body, laid it gently on the floor, facedown.
Putting the gun away, he looked up at the camera near the lock. “Tadeus, I got this one.”
For a second, there was silence, and then a burst of static and Tadeus came on line, his voice tense. “Harry. Harry. Can you hear me? The door. Look at the door.”
He turned to the cubicle door and saw a small figure standing in the opening. Harry grabbed the kid’s arm and pulled her inside, then shut and bolted the door. “Tadeus? Is this the kid?”
Liss stood against the wall as far as possible from Tamasin’s body. Harry pushed the switch on the roof of his mouth and felt it click off. Liss was a girl;: her face was dead white, dark eyes wide and locked on him.
“Did you kill my sister?”
As she spoke, Harry watched as the image of her face dissolved. First the smoky blur obscured her eyes. They were always first, then her mouth, last her nose. And as always, Harry felt the indifference slip over him like a numbing blanket. No face, no person. That’s how it worked. A distant fear sounded when he realized he liked it that way. Although he knew it wouldn’t work, he tongued the roof of his mouth to reboot the implant. Nothing. It wasn’t technology that erased faces for him anymore, but his own faltering brain.
Tadeus came over the speaker. “Investigator’s coming. I’ll be down too.”
Something in Tadeus’ voice alerted Harry. “Who’s on duty?”
Harry winced away from the compassion in Tadeus’ voice.
When he thought about it, Harry realized the death of his family started his career. The best angel finder on EE5, he didn’t need to do the tests. He’d seen so many angels that he could spot them. The glazed joy in their expression, how they swooped and banked with exuberance when the rest of the flyers came in barely flapping their wings. The refusal to take off the wings. The singing.
In the years after Rachel and Isaac’s death Harry worked with grim ferocity, flying thousands of miles to every base that reported an angel. Sometimes he was too late, arriving to emptiness, the locks opened to the scouring winds, bodies scattered outside the buildings. One angel would infect the whole base with godhead – mothers and fathers walked unprotected out onto the planet to find transcendence – sometimes dragging struggling children behind. Every immigrant on EE5 had been fitted with the same implants. A cut–rate price from Earth negotiated by the colony Board of Governors. Installed by the techs trained in a week, the Board thought it the salvation of the colony, because it enabled everyone to have almost unlimited mobility on the face of the planet. The implants worked well for a few years.
It took two years before the investigators discovered how the plague worked. It was heartbreakingly simple. Cheap, poorly installed implants, a mutated rhinovirus and exhaustion created a seizure in the temporal lobe. Rather that calling it godhead, the investigators named it Stable Temporal Lobe Seizure. STLS. Becoming an angel made a person functionally insane because the compulsion to be outside in the open became overwhelming. If not watched constantly, angels would walk out onto the planet, sometimes with their children, leaving the lock open behind them. In some cases, angels had breached the enclosures to expose entire colonies to the cold poisonous air.
The first wave of angels were understood; they were the exhausted miners and construction workers, who spent much of their time outside. Then came the second wave. People who weren’t exhausted: well fed administrators, computer techs, childcare workers. After one particularly horrible incident with a children’s crèche, the pattern became clear. One of the teachers had led the toddlers out onto the planet. Her mother had angeled the week before. In some people, just being in the presence of an angel could trigger STLS. These people were usually very religious. It’s what had killed New Israel, New Medina, and New Rome.
The colony faced a terrible reckoning. Take precious resources to restrain and protect the angels or do something else. Harry’s job was that something else.
There were only a few angel killers on EE5 and Harry was the first and the best. He’d not escaped the plague. Like the angels, he had STLS, but it was a less severe case. Like being immunized from smallpox by contracting cowpox, Harry’s implants set up another seizure; not as stable, in the part of his brain that recognized faces as faces. Instead of seeing God, Harry would periodically not see human faces. Lucky Harry.
Two years to understand it, and another year to convince the Board of Governors that they were right.
It had been his idea to make all of the flyers de–wing in separate rooms. He’d sold it to the surviving families. That way he could watch on the monitors, and catch the ones who had turned into angels before they infected anyone. By this time, he’d worked for all of the big family syndicates. The Caminos paid the best, probably because they worked their flyers the hardest. Harry supposed that made them need his services the most.
Harry gently pulled Tamasin’s wings from the spinal implants. They came away like an antique zipper. The wings had already collapsed, deprived of the energy from her body. He smoothed the now dull nanofabric and hung them in the locker. Liss remained silent, rocking in the corner, arms around her knees. Distantly, he heard the bells for shift change. Harry turned Tamasin onto her back and straightened her arms and legs, intensely grateful for his face blindness.
“It’s hopeless, you know. God’s imbedded in this species. Laminated into our speech, hardwired into our brains.” As he worked, he spoke to the little girl as if to comfort her. “Your sister died because gods are cruel. They eat human beings alive.”
The door opened again and Marisol Jeffers stepped through with Tadeus behind her. The cubicle was becoming crowded.
“What did she see?” Marisol’s voice was impersonal. She was at work. Harry found himself again profoundly grateful.
Marisol’s shoulders sagged and she turned to the girl. “We’ll have to test her.”
Harry nodded without speaking. He didn’t care. The grueling evaluation to determine if the girl would be able to join her people again wasn’t his concern. She’d be marked for the rest of her life, never trusted. The virus could explode in her brain at any time. The fact that her sister angeled would doom the whole family.
“You did what needed to be done, Harry.” Tadeus always said that as if it would help. Harry wondered again if Tadeus was reassuring himself, not Harry. Tadeus put his arm around the girl and led her away.
Marisol put her hand on his arm. “You can’t see my face, can you?”
“How do you always know?”
“I’ve known you for twenty years, Harry, and slept with you for two. When you go face blind, you lose all of your expression.”
He winced away from the memory of those two years. She was closest thing EE5 had to a neuroscientist. They’d found each other in the war against the plague and worked together for months. He’d taken her out to all of the sites, protected her and helped her gather the data. He’d tried hard to love her, but Rachel’s memory stood in the way. It had ended badly. He remembered the night that he’d left her. They’d been talking about the temporal seizure.
“Here’s the thing, Harry. There’s not a lot of room in the cranium. If our skull were bigger, we’d never be born. Space is at a premium, so the brain has jettisoned everything it doesn’t really need. We can’t smell as well as other animals, our sense of hearing isn’t as good. All those parts of the brain have been squeezed out. So why would we have a part of the brain that’s dedicated to seeing God, Harry? Why would there be a need for that?”
He’d remained silent, mulish, so she’d continued.
“The only thing that makes sense is that the brain is recognizing something that exists. We have a part of the brain that sees God because there is a God.”
He remembered that she’d stopped in her rushed explanation, and looked at him with triumph on her face. What he didn’t remember is what he said to her in reply, just that whatever it was, it ended their relationship.
The old pain roiled in his gut, he hoped she couldn’t see. Then it came to him that if he had no expression, then there was nothing for her to read. She was at as much of a loss as he was. Harry tried to decipher something from her voice. “So you know that…”
“How often is it happening?”
“Not often enough.” He didn’t need to see her face to gauge the impact of that blow. He relented. “I just mean that I have to use the implant to make sure I’m faceblind when I’m working. It seems that by now I shouldn’t need it.”
Marisol sighed, “We still don’t really understand how the brain works, Harry. We don’t even understand how the implants work, really. Seizures always show up. Ninety–eight percent of the people get STLS, two percent get prosopagnosia. Some people see God, you don’t…you just lose the ability to see people. Just a few millimeters difference and you would’ve died with Rachel and Isaac. You’re lucky, Harry.”
“Yeah, that’s me. Lucky Harry.”
She looked at him for one long moment. Harry couldn’t decipher what that look meant. Then she turned to look down at Tamasin’s body.
At least be polite to her, god damn it. “So how have you been, Marisol?”
He watched her head nod. “I’m good. Really good. I’m leading the research on the prosopagnosia. The BOG’s giving me some good funding.” She hesitated again. Harry felt the chasm of the unsayable opening between them.
“Yeah, the great Board of Governor’s that got us into this whole mess. Nice of them to toss some coin to you.”
“We’ve been through this. The BOG thought they were making a good choice when they bought the implants.”
“And they were so open about accepting blame when it was discovered that their pockets were lined from the deal that stuck half a million people with shoddy implants that made them insane.”
“All those people.”
He cut her off, “Yeah, they’re all off the Board and their buddies are in.”
“Damn it, Harry. Why do we always have to argue about this?”
Because you’re not Rachel and you never will be. Harry kept his mouth shut and waited for her to leave, but she didn’t.
“Harry, there’s something else. EE5 isn’t going to make it the way we’re going.” She paused and he waited. “Earth’s funding is drying up, the EU’s at war again and the colony’s a long way from being self supporting.”
As he looked at her, her face emerged from the clouded blur. For a second Harry wondered what had made the face blindness leave. Impassive, he noticed the delicate line of her eyebrows. She was beautiful. They’d made a handsome couple.
“Harry, the Board had to find something else. Something Earth would pay for.”
“What did they find, Marisol?”
She didn’t speak, but dropped her eyes to the ground.
“What is it?” Harry was proud of the gentleness in his voice.
Marisol pressed her lips together for a moment and then continued, her eyes averted. “Tourism.”
“What!” Harry squawked.
“Religious tourism. Earth has heard that God is on EE5.”
“God is not on EE5.”
She ignored him and continued. “People are coming from Earth.”
Dread and disbelief warred in his gut. “Coming for what?”
“They’re coming to see if they can angel.”
“Because, Harry, there are deeply religious people on Earth. People who believe.”
“Right.” Harry could hear the sarcastic drawl in his voice. “And. if they walk out onto their planet, they won’t die.”
“And if they die here, trying to become angels?”
“Then we’ve got their money.”
Ah, Harry thought, there’s her god. “I can’t be a part of this.”
“I know Harry, and neither can I, but we will. We will, if we’re going to survive.”
The cold voice inside of him whispered: my Rachel would never have done this. I was right to leave her.
1 Tishrei 5996/14 September, 2235
Epsilon Eridani Five
“Mr. Shipko?” He looked up to see the newest sherpas Marisol had found for him. Either they were getting younger or he was getting older. A girl and boy, in their late teens or early twenties, they looked strong enough for the job, hauling equipment and food to the various rest sites, backing him up if he needed it. He saw that they both had guns at their hips. With all of the guerillas out in the backcountry, they needed to go armed now. Still, EE5 was a big planet. It wasn’t likely that they’d run into any of the rebels on this trip.
“You’ve done this before?”
The girl nodded, once, her face impassive, and the boy extended his hand for a handshake. Harry ignored the outstretched hand.
“How many times and with who?”
The girl stared at him. “I’ve been an angel hand five times, once with you. About two years back.”
Harry turned to the boy.
“Six times, with Annie Dermot’s outfit. Annie trained me herself.”
Annie was good, they’d do. Harry stared at them. “Walk over to that truck, then turn around and come back.”
Both of them widened their eyes at his request, and the boy started to speak, but the girl grabbed him by the arm and took off. Harry made them go back and forth a few times, until he was pretty sure he had their body language down.
“I need to know what the two of you look like when you move.”
The girl smiled, a stiff smile as if awe and disgust warred inside of her.
“What’re your names?”
The boy leaned forward, I’m Hugo Wi–”
“Right, Hugo.” Harry waved his hand to stop the rest. “I don’t need to know your last name. Marisol takes care of all of that crap. I just need to know what you respond to.” He turned to the girl. “You?”
The boy’s head moved a tiny bit at that, as if something weren’t quite right. Harry let it go. Probably some lover’s problem between them. “Fine, Hugo and Mel. The transport’s landing in a few minutes. I’ll get the tourists, you load the gear.”
Harry watched the tourists come off the medical transport looking for him. As always, they shivered in their gorgeous super insulates. EE5 would do that to someone who wasn’t used to it. Harry looked down at his own cold blued fingers. It would do that to someone who was used to it, too.
He looked up and waved his arms over his head. “Here!” He had to shout over the rumble of the trucks. One of the tourists, a woman, waved her hand in front of her nose against the smell of exhaust. Her companion, a thin graying man, spoke in her ear and her eyes widened. Harry supposed that he had told her what the smell was. No one had burned hydrocarbons on Earth for over a hundred and fifty years. Here on EE5, humans were back to the bad old days of earth. It wasn’t like they had an environment to protect. Harry made his way across the crowded terminal towards the group.
The rest of them turned as he approached. Harry got the impression of aged children—the gray hair and unlined faces of rejuvenation. Rich Earthers, come to EE5 so God could find them. Harry fought down the usual surge of bitterness and pushed his tongue against the implant in his upper palate to lose their faces.
Before they could speak, he began, “Here are the rules. I’m the only one who has a locator signal. That means if you don’t keep up, you’re on your own. No complaints, no arguments. I’ve lived and flown on this planet forty years, I know more about surviving it than you’ll ever know. As soon as someone angels, the expedition stops, all you’ll have to do is look at that person and you’ll angel right away. As soon as I see the first angel, I’ll slave all of your wings to my guidance system, that way you won’t fly off and die.
My job is to help you angel and get you back alive. You’ve all agreed that the first goal is more important to you than the second. The threats to your life are as follows: you may die from suit failure, wing failure, or from being shot by insurgents. You know that insurgents have attacked the colony. We’re going out into the backcountry where the satellites have reported no human activity. That doesn’t guarantee safety. You have all signed waivers acknowledging the risk. Your job is to do exactly what I say. There are no safety nets, no backups. You will be on your own with only me and these two sherpas to help you. There are no refunds. Period. Do you agree to all of this?”
When he handed out the waivers, they all signed.
“Suit up. Let’s go.”
Harry flew them over Gehenna Canyon. Although he didn’t look, he felt the old ache when he passed over what was left of New Israel. The base had been the first one killed by the angel plague. New Rome and New Medina followed. Rather than stopping the flyers who angeled by killing them or restraining them, Reb Levy had seen it as a sign from God. Rachel and Isaac had infected everyone but a handful of others—like Tadeus. Woman, man, and child, they had walked out into the howling winds, unprotected, to find God. He felt the old rage course through him and had to consciously slow down. Behind him, in a vee, the rich Earthers flapped like a flock of ungainly tropical birds.
Angel songs played on the com, a variety of religious traditions and some just calling out in joy. Harry winced away from the memory of the first snatch of angel song he’d heard. It was caught by the pickup in Rachel’s mask before she’d torn it off. She’d sung the Shema, the first prayer a Jewish child learns and the last prayer a Jew would pray. Hear, O Israel the Lord our God is One. He’d heard it again in the record after the end of New Israel. Reb Levy, Hadassah, all singing the Shema as they walked out into the deadly surface. In the background of the recording, if you listened carefully, you could hear the screams of the terrified children.
The rich bastards behind him had been duly infected with the virus. They were hungry and exhausted and not one of them had angeled. As usual, he was grateful for his disgust and anger, it kept him hard and mean and that made him one of the most sought after angel wranglers on EE5. Every expedition he led came back with one hundred percent angels. Sometimes it just took longer.
The treks took on a pattern after a while. At first, the Earthers thought his coldness was just an act, that he was on their side and believed. They told themselves he was the drill sergeant with a heart of gold. It was a vacation, an adventure, and a diversion. It usually took two days of flying for them to hate and fear him.
He’d had them out on the surface now for three days, flying almost constantly. When he stopped to let them catch a few hours to sleep and eat, most of them had the glazed look of complete exhaustion. None of them complained anymore, after realizing that the complaints led to Harry terminating the rest and flying off into some other twisted canyon. They followed him like frightened ducklings.
Guerilla action had shut off many of his old routes but Marisol’s outfitting company had liberally scattered caches in the area. Harry wasn’t particularly concerned. Satellite coverage was good and the two sherpas seemed appropriately paranoid, constantly scouting for the telltale signal of human activity on their uplinks. They’d seen a few rebel graffiti coming flying out from Alpha—the word hell transliterated into Hebrew. The first time Harry had seen the graffiti, he’d been surprised that he could still read it. The blocky hei followed by the sinuous lamed. No vowels, Hebrew had no vowels. H, L. Hell. Annie once told him that the rebels chose Hebrew because the first angels had been Jewish. Harry wondered if Rachel would have laughed or been angry. Probably both.
Rage and disgust can only keep a body going for so long;: so on the afternoon of the third day, Harry opened the private com channel to the sherpas.
“Mel. Hugo. There’s a cache up canyon, to the southwest. We’ll stop for a meal.”
Hugo’s voice came on line. “Will we be resting?”
“Just make food for them.” He cut the channel and veered to the west. The cache was located on the inner ridge of a canyon. Protected from the wind by the upper canyon wall, it was high enough and on the west side and still lit by daylight. Harry landed and furled his wings. The tourists landed behind him, most of them fell like rocks. If any of them damaged the wings, he’d have to leave them. The airtight contract would handle the deaths, but he’d have to replace the wings. That would take a chunk out of his fee. He opened the main com channel and yelled at them. “Wake up, god damn it. If you damage your wings, I’ll leave you here.”
No one responded. The tourists didn’t even look at him, and the sherpas were busy putting up the rest and cook tent. As soon as it was up, the tourists shuffled in and took off their face shields and carefully helped each other take off their wings. Just big enough to hold all of them, the stove and the cache, Harry noticed that the tourists and sherpas both gave him plenty of room. Good. He released his wings and with practiced ease pulled them off, folded them and laid them near the edge of the tent where they wouldn’t be harmed.
Harry watched in a bemused state of exhaustion when Mel pulled an expensive laser knife from her belt and sliced open a container. She’d probably done some favor for a tourist. He wondered briefly if it had been sexual, but then realized he didn’t care. Hugo brought him some stew and he ate it, without appetite. The warmth in his belly made him realize how dangerously tired he was.
He walked over to Mel and handed her his plate. “I’m going to sleep. You take first watch, then Hugo, I’ll take third. Wake me in six hours.”
She nodded and took the plate with no expression.
Harry lay down near the air lock of the tent and fell into unconsciousness. It seemed like only minutes when he felt a sharp nudge in his ribs and opened his eyes to a rifle in his face. For just a second, he felt a mild hilarity. The tourists had rebelled. And then he looked up the barrel of the rifle to a blurred face. Harry became very still.
“You don’t know who I am, do you?”
Harry shook his head. “Even if I did know you, I might not recognize you. I’ve been face blind for the whole trip.”
“That must be a big help.” Sarcasm iced her voice. “I’m Sarah Tamasin’s sister.”
“The angel I killed for the Caminos. Mel, Liss. Melissa. Right. You’re Liss Tamasin.”
She hesitated at that. “So you do!”
“Yeah, I remember you. I remember all the angels I killed, too.” The vision of that dead white face and staring eyes came to him. “I remember.”
Liss tilted her head at him. “I hated you for a long time, you know.”
“It took a while for me to realize that Sarah might’ve dragged my ass outside. You probably saved my life.” She kept the gun pointed at him and stroked the trigger guard absently with her thumb. Harry felt his gut grow cold. “It’s still wrong what you’re doing here. It needs to stop.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Then why do you do it?”
Anger took over. “Because doing what’s right has never done a goddamned thing for me. Because I just don’t care anymore, Liss, and the money’s good.”
“Not good enough for you to get your face blindness fixed.”
“What makes you think I want it fixed?”
That stopped her. Harry wondered if he’d ever been so young. For some reason, he found himself trying to explain.
“My wife was the first angel. My wife and my brother–in–law. Their names were Rachel and Isaac.”
“You mean the first angels you killed.”
Harry didn’t rise to that old stinking bait. “No. I watched them die. Then my whole community died. Rachel and Isaac had infected the whole base. New Israel, it’s gone now.” He couldn’t tell if the name meant anything to her. “Yeah, well, no good deed goes unpunished. What are you going to do now?”
Liss waved the gun toward the huddled Earthers. “We don’t take prisoners.”
Harry couldn’t help himself. “And what are your plans for me?”
He couldn’t see it but he could hear the smile in her voice. “Nothing, Shipko. We’re just going to take your wings and let you be.” She waved her hand at the cave opening. “You can finally retire. Put up your face shield.” He did and watched as Hugo herded the terrified Earthers out of the tent. She was good, knowing that he was her biggest threat; she never took him out of the rifle sights. When the tourists were gone, she motioned him outside. As soon as they were clear of the tent, Hugo sprayed it with gunfire, effectively destroying it.
“Hands up.” She moved behind him, and Harry closed his eyes. Then he felt a searing pain in his wrists, he spun to face her and opened his eyes. Between them, on the ground, lay his hands. She’d cut them off with her laser knife. He fell to his knees. Calmly, she bent down, picked them up, and threw them over the canyon rim.
Through the shock and the pain, he heard her voice. “Like you said, Shipko, no good deed goes unpunished. Don’t worry, the laser cauterized the wounds. You won’t bleed to death.”
He couldn’t look away as Liss walked over to the tourists. The cold part of him that always survived wouldn’t let him. He heard her voice, crisp and cool over the com channel. To her left, Hugo held the lens of the recorder. The icy part of his mind thought it would be a good piece of agitprop to send out over the net. Harry wondered when it would reach Earth. He wondered if he’d be alive to see it.
“You’ve all come to Hell to find God. You’ve raped us and stolen from us for decades. You’ve given us no choice. But we’ll give you one. This is the end of your lives. I’ve programmed your face shields to disengage in twenty seconds. You have two choices, you can fly and hope your God comes to you or you can sit down and wait for your shields to open. Your choice. I don’t care.” Liss sounded rehearsed. Either she’d done this before, or had practiced.
Harry was surprised, the tourists all lined up at the lip of the canyon, and in deadly order leaped into the sky, screaming or moaning. When all the face shields came off, Harry watched a nightmarish replay of Isaac and Rachel’s last moments. One, two, three thrusts of the wings, and then the bodies crumpled. The wings, on guidance, flapped towards Liss’ homing signal and Hugo grabbed the bodies, uncoupled them, and toppled them into the canyon. The coldness shattered and Harry shook with sobs, but if Liss and Hugo heard, they ignored him, busy with folding and packing the precious wings.
Hugo panned the area again with the camera, taking a long tight shot of Harry’s face and then they flew off into the wind.
He was alone and helpless as the night fell.
Even with the pain in his wrists, the frigid air made him sleepy. He drowsed, starting awake repeatedly when the image of Rachel and Isaac’s deaths replayed behind his eyelids.
Late, in the middle of the night, to the left side of his visual field, he saw a light glowing and then warmth filled him. Deep in his chest, he felt the vibration of a great song, as if all the choruses in the universe were humming. The cold part of him despaired—this must be angel song. No. I will not let this happen. He reached to his controls to disengage the face shield, but without his hands, he could do nothing. A scream of anger and then he was enfolded and dissolved in a tremendous peace.
From the horizon came winged beings to take him home. Angels.
Shema, Israel, adonai, elohenu, adonai ehad. The light covered everything and he was blind. Then as if through a tunnel, Harry heard voices. Marisol and Tadeus. Not angels, then.
“Oh god. His hands,” Marisol said.
How can it possibly matter, Harry thought. He heard the words of the Shema, over and over again, and realized it was his own voice. He closed his eyes and the light remained. He felt hands on the back of his head and the slight pressure of the electrode helmet. They were testing him, Marisol wasn’t an angel killer, she couldn’t tell just by looking at him. He smiled, it didn’t matter.
“Shit. Harry Shipko, of all people, with godhead.” Her voice sounded sad, but Harry couldn’t find words to comfort her.
Tadeus replied, his voice choked with tears. “He’s been fighting God his whole life. Not really a fair fight, huh?”
Harry considered this. Had he been fighting God? In that moment, his life stood clear in front of him. The sad love for Rachel, his rejection of Marisol and Tadeus, the fear that drove him from Earth and the anger that kept him moving. It all came together in a complete circle and his heart broke wide open at the pain of being alive and the tremendous courage of being human. Forgiveness swept over him. He opened his eyes and for the very first time, saw Marisol as she was. She was very beautiful, but underneath her beauty, now, he could see her pain. Next to her, Tadeus’ face was drawn in sorrow.
Tadeus spoke again. “Is the seizure completely stable?”
Marisol looked to the readout. “Oh god, it’s in both areas. Look. Here and here. I didn’t think STLS could create both godhead and prosopagnosia.”
“So all he can see is God.”
I see God in everything, Marisol. I see God in all faces, where He’s always been. Harry thought he spoke, but no words came out. It didn’t matter, the shattering peace remained. It stayed even when Marisol came to him and gently said, “Harry, we need to let you go. You’ll never be safe.” It stayed when he looked into her eyes and saw the terrible pain of loving him. It stayed when he felt the nudge of the pulse gun under his chin. And it stayed when everything went black.
Joanne Steinwachs is a writer and social worker who lives in Denver, Colorado with a husband, a child, a dog, a cat and a rabbit. She writes science fiction because she can’t help it.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish