By Zack Wentz
I know the sound of fingers being busted under a boot well. I’ve busted so many. But these boots are not mine. These boots belong to the man holding the Doctor’s Drive, standing on my fingers. So close. So close, we are in this way together touching.
My boots are massive things. In the cell with Rae, so many slow moments after returning to the Mission, we sat together and cleaned from our iron soles the rust and dried-blood and let the dark flakes fall. Deadly heavy, my boots, dangling like this. My fingers are also large, for a Sister, for an Angel, but I never knew how much noise they would make. My own fingers being crushed. The sound chews from the entrance of your ears into your skull. And I never knew how it would actually feel.
It feels like hell. So completely and horribly forever alive.
The man in these other boots, anchoring me here, is a thousand feet tall. A death-black wraith silhouetted by the pus-colored moon glowing beyond him, and this I know is illusion. Trick of foreshortening, light source. If I look the other way, down, what I’m getting into my mind through my eyes is a bit more accurate, because I really am up that high, or higher. One thousand feet, at least. If I was at the bottom of this mesa, waving up at myself, I would look like an insect, twitching tiny antennae hello, and in reality I wouldn’t be that small. It’s all a matter of perspective, which is what the Mission, my Sisters and I, have tried to help all of God’s lost, sick, and sorry children grasp and accept for so long.
“Good-bye, angel,” the man says, flutters a shadow hand in farewell, other hand still wrapped tight around the Doctor’s Drive, and I was so close. This close. Touching.
The boot snaps my right index finger out of joint. Something new flashes on and off in my brain, the Final Light we all want, all need, all live toward, live for, but I am so afraid at the end of this being alive.
But the Mission is mine.
I arrived in Frost Gambit equipped with little more than boots. Too much gear would arouse suspicion. People come here to die, but not to die fighting.
We knew somewhere in this frozen, desert village was the ancient man who created the Drive, Dr. Liengo De Taureau, although here he didn’t even have a name, from what the last Angel had gathered. Simply “Taureau” was what we called him at the Mission, although some had even begun referring to him as “Saint Taureau,” but in this town that would all be meaningless. There are no Saints here, and no one who believes in them. I was to ask for the Old Doctor, because that might resonate, or the Husk, a legendary local figure the last Angel suspected was the same man.
A husk was apparently all that could be left of him. In such a lost place, where doing whatever you most like to do to yourself until the doing of it kills you is the single, overriding rule, the Husk was considered not only an exception, but exceptional. At least one hundred and fifty, possibly older, and could still out-consume the most ambitious of these feeble suiciders. Still ticking, as they say, but like a clock or a bomb, one could not say.
This was all we knew at the Mission from the first Angel who had tried. Not much, but enough. Enough to send the next Angel.
Enough to send me.
There had been competition. A human thing. An animal thing. Although usually, ultimately, the point of competition is to survive.
There were five unspent Angels left in my section after the first returned to report, and the first was not happy—not that happiness is of any importance, but she of course wanted what we all wanted. All she had gained was the knowledge that there was no possible way she could complete the Mission, and another Angel must take her place.
Rae, my sad Cell-Sister, told me of the first Angel’s return, and the first Angel’s passing, although I cannot recall this first Angel’s name.
“They just cut her down from the tower at the South Station,” Rae told me. “The noose was made of fence wire. Her head almost came off.”
I could picture this. In that skill, I had also been trained. You can make a noose out of almost anything, if you are determined enough. If you have good fingers.
“When will the Mother-Sisters be making the next selection?” I asked.
Rae turned her head down, and I knew she was applying, pushing, trying. Rae knew she should not have, or should have known. We had been friends, or close as one can be to friends as Sisters. A thing that cannot last.
“Soon, then,” I said.
Rae nodded, raised her head and gazed on me. She said nothing.
“I am destined for this,” I said. And I knew this to be true. I was not lying. I wanted to spare Rae. The vanity of effort. The strain of hope. I wanted Rae to have peace, a resigned and tranquil kind of blankness for herself. This was not about her, but the Mission. Rae had to know it was not about her.
Rae smiled, slightly. Rae’s mouth was beautiful. Full, unscarred, clean. A slip of a smile from Rae was more than the most generous grin of any other creature. Her smile ached in me.
“We are all destined,” Rae said, and moved out from the doorway of our cell, down the hallway outside, the dark talk of her boots chattering down the block stairs. Toward the Mother-Sisters. Toward training. Toward trying. Toward folly.
There are two gathering places for people in Frost Gambit, and if you patronize one you are a de facto mortal enemy of those who patronize the other.
First, Belito’s: a smoke-lounge, where one escapes in slow-motion, selecting and sucking from pipes and tubes which tentacle out of the walls. In whatever sequence sets off the most mind-bending, body-destroying processes for you. Or just inhale the atmosphere inside, if you are in less of a hurry, or perhaps operating on a particularly limited final-budget.
Second, the Pimwa Clam: where everything is done with bottles and needles, and which briefly became news in the World when a pubescent child of one of the town’s older occupants broke in early one morning to rape an unclothed and headless mannequin, which also served as a sort of lamp. The boy was electrocuted, and died instantly. A first, in the Pimwa Clam. Patrons there took their time, leaving the rest.
I had a fifty-fifty chance of choosing the correct venue, the place favored by Taureau. If he was one of the regulars, I might be able to get at him. If he wasn’t, belonged to the other degenerate faction, I would be done. Stained by selecting the competition first, I’d either have to leave Frost Gambit altogether, or remain and die how I’d pretended I’d wanted to.
The idea of failure made the latter tempting, but what I was supposed to do, if I chose wrong, was return to the Mission and tell my Sisters where to send the next Angel. But I did not want that. I wanted to be the One. I was the One. I am. Anything, All and Nothing, to acquire the Drive, complete the Mission, but if I hadn’t come to Frost Gambit to find Taureau, the Drive, if I had come for the reason anybody else did, it would have been easy. You simply settle on your preference, and consume.
Say you are trapped on the idiomatic desert island for the rest of your life and can have a supply of one inebriating substance to get by on until the end—what would it be? Smoke, or juice? Even if you are “fine” with either, consider yourself without preference, one or the other inherently works just a little more for you. With your physiology, your network of nerve-endings and need. Your meat-weakness. One or the other always does. No person is perfectly in the middle, in regards to preference. Even if you have never taken, and never plan to take, anything.
None of us born and brought up in the Mission had, for instance, but those who joined the Mission to get away from man and his World of poisons showed us these pre-dispositions were a reality. Sister Rae, for example. You can sort it out for yourself if you do not know, given time and curiosity, but I was trying to determine the preference of an ancient man few knew anything about. I had to guess, so I simply picked the opposite of what I thought I would’ve wanted, never having wanted either before. I picked the Pimwa Clam.
My first mistake.
I do not make mistakes. My whole life has been a path of tuned acceptance. Moments piling on and chiming in layered chords. From my youngest I could hum along, and as the music deepened I could guess what sonic shift might come next in the song.
Rae was not like this. She had come to us a battered and shattered girl. What some think of, in small ways, as victim. Her father, once he had broken her in, rented her out from the death-scented slum where they lived. Her mother acted as chaperone, to make certain her daughter did not disappear into the city to apply their trade on her own, and in this fashion Rae spent her younger years until her mother was killed with her father by a poorly produced batch of Skales.
They never wasted their favorite substances on their daughter, and Rae told me about how she looked on them the last time, slouched on their louse-ridden mattress in the moldy box that was her home. She examined the places on their bodies they usually kept covered, where injected quantities of Skales had eaten the flesh out and left short lengths of bone showing. How dry that peeking bone looked. Skales were not supposed to kill you all at once. In the end you could be almost entirely meatless.
Rae said she spit in some of these holes, to see the bones wet, glistening, and then she left the box, the building, the block, the city, the World. Walked until she could not walk anymore, dropped and crumpled into black, and when Rae awoke there was a Mother-Sister watching her, although she did not then know what a Mother-Sister was. Rae thought she had died. She thought this was God, or something, and she asked, “Is this dead?”
Rae said the Mother-Sister laughed in a way she had never heard laughing before. The Mother-Sister rose, took Rae’s small hand, and pulled her down a set of stairs, along a hall to a door of a different box. A cell.
The Mother-Sister said, “There is much more to death.” And the Mother-Sister pushed her into the cell, where the first thing Rae saw was another child, her new Sister, sleeping curled on the floor.
“Make yourself at home,” the Mother-Sister said.
And Rae curled herself down next to me.
The Pimwa Clam is less than a block from Bolito’s, not that there are blocks in Frost Gambit. Just a series of shapeless mud-and-rubbish huts spreading like venereal warts from these twin centers of infection across desolate sand and scrub. In the distance you can see bizarre rock formations, impossible-looking bluffs and mesas. Savage monuments of earth raised to gods that have been abandoned for ones that are easier. The peaked landscape looks dead, empty, but still fixed toward town, as if watching.
I stepped up to the entrance of the Pimwa Clam, which is only different on the outside from Bolito’s in that it does have clams on it. Giant shells embedded in the adobe, filter feeders that must be extinct. A squat folded figure came scuttling and stopped level to my knees as I stood there, hesitating. It bent its neck up and squinted through what seemed to be some kind of gluey membrane.
“Goin’ in?” it asked.
I nodded, half expecting it to reach and open the door for me, but it spit into the sand, and scuttled off toward Bolito’s, undoubtedly to spread the word that the Pimwa Clam was now one stronger, and what this new enemy looked like.
I glanced down at the gob that had come out of the thing’s mouth. Something already appeared to be eating it, so I pulled on the door, and went in.
The first thing I saw was the banner: NO SMOKING, which was apparently a kind of witless joke at Bolito’s expense. The first thing I smelled was juice, all kinds. Sizzling up my sinuses and burning the backsides of my eyes. You sipped the air, more than breathed it. That wet. The patrons slipped and slithered over each other like maggots in gravy, each sucking on bottles, spiked sacs strapped on and draining things into their spinal columns, skulls, necks.
Many were wearing goggles to keep their eyes working in the stinging mist, but a few had obviously given up on that. Those sat heaped in corners, shriveled holes in the flesh of their faces indicating where the organs they used to be able to see from once were. These heaps smiled. It did not seem like they minded blindness.
At the base of the broad sign was the infamously violated mannequin-lamp which, aside from a few scorch marks, seemed no worse for wear. The glow coming off her translucent fiberglass breasts showed onto what served as the bar, and a crushed, damp rail of a man sleeping behind, skeletal arms folded over his birdcage chest. I approached, leaned carefully against the soggy counter, and whatever was left inside him suddenly came to life.
“More?” he said.
“Just getting started,” I said, and he peered into me through black pinholes, smiled.
“Yes, you are new. Pleased you picked the right place.”
“Me too,” I said, and settled onto some kind of pile that wasn’t moving.
“In a hurry, or staying awhile?” he asked, and began fumbling through his stock of things, seeing what was ready.
“Somewhere in-between,” I said, and he laughed. More of a gurgle.
“First one’s on the house, so make it count, but if you mean to pace yourself don’t go straight for the finish line. How do you take it?” He gestured at a couple of freshly-juiced needle-sacs with well-worn harnesses, an assortment of containers with straws.
I had to take something. “Mouth, usually,” I said, and he nodded.
“Pacing yourself, then. Narrows your options some. What do you like better, to fly, or sleep?”
Sleeping definitely wasn’t the right choice, if I planned on getting anything done, but I didn’t want to leave the World. Not just yet. “Flying, but not too high. Let’s say hover.”
He laughed again, but more thoughtfully. Filled a long beaker most of the way, and stuck in a straw thin as a wire. “Try this, then,” he said. “Once you get to this point,” he tapped a black notch a third of the way down, “take a breather, and feel how it’s hitting you. I think you’ll enjoy it.”
I took it. “Thank you,” I said. “I hope so.”
“Let us know what you’d like after, and we’ll start you a tab,” he said, and began sinking back into his puddle.
“There is one thing,” I said. “I’m looking for someone. A man.”
“Few of those around, more or less. You might get lucky.”
“A particular man,” I said, and took a small sip. My mouth went electric.
“They tend to not last long, so I can’t make any promises, but I might be able to tell you what was done with the body.”
“He’s been here a long time,” I said. “The Old Doctor.”
His face didn’t change. What I’d said meant nothing.
“The Husk,” I said, and the slurping room went silent.
The man stared as hard as his liquid eyes would let him, mouth making fishy shapes, as if suctioned against the inside of a bowl. One of his ribbon arms began twitching. “Lady,” he said, “no one here ever mentions the Husk.”
Most of the Sisters have never known men. Or so most Sisters will pretend. Men are not mentioned. Such pretending is not wrong, however. With your mind you can undo experiences. You must pretend to some extent to make anything real.
Rae did not pretend. Rae made no attempt to pretend. Her history hung on her like strands of scabbed, unraveling bandages. Rae spoke easily and often of what she had done, what had been done to her, and some Sisters thought there was a kind of satisfaction Rae took in this. A kind of pride. Rae was not trying hard enough to shake the World from her.
From a distance, I understood how Rae could seem this way, distance and seeming the ways we are supposed to approach and perceive all things as Sisters, but I was close. Rae lived with me. Shared my space. Our cell. I watched her, heard her. I could tell her breathing apart from another Sister’s with eyes closed.
I remember eating with Sisters, Rae seated next to me, an Elder-Sister to our left who I can’t recall the name of, if she had a name, saying, “This child seems to believe she has achieved a special sort of shape. The fallacy. What is special is worth saving. We are all only things. God’s. These seeming accidents that make us up, they are no more special than gray on a stone. These qualities are limitations of perception. This child celebrates her suffering, but suffering is nothing. A dull color. A faint taste. She licks and marvels at the flavor and hue of her sores.”
Rae did not speak for herself. Did not respond. She stared out at no one in particular as the other Sisters looked on her. On us. I had to speak.
“Pride is the curse we all share. To observe it, announce its lurking or arrival, is singing of one’s own pride. Of one’s judgment. One’s acumen. How free we suppose we are of this accursed thing with our ability to name. Don’t be seduced by your own song. Know how the pride is stabbing and cutting and slicing in me to warn you of this. Know that we are all naked together and screaming inside at this long moment in hell.”
The Elder-Sister was silent, nodded. Her eyes lidded closed. She pulled her shroud open slowly, took up a grimy knife she had been using to eat the stuff we had been served as a meal, and pressed and pulled the edge of the blade slow across the surface of her exposed breasts.
From the knife’s trail came blood.
A seam, undone.
I’ve taken out rooms of more than a dozen drunks alone. Angels frequently have to clear dens of vice when in the World. It depends how far along the afflicted are, and your own condition. I could not tell what mine was yet, never having taken any kind of anything into my body that might weaken or confuse it.
My Sisters at the Mission should have given me something. To prepare me, more precise training, some antidote, but the first Angel had undone herself too soon to share all she knew. The energy level in the Pimwa Clam was bordering on comatose, but they had numbers. Maybe thirty, forty-plus if you counted those who seemed to serve as damp mattresses.
I turned to gauge the opposition, but slowly. No reason to inspire action if action wasn’t due. I’d made everyone present perturbed enough with my inquiry to cause them all to cease imbibing, which was significant, but I had no idea how much more.
I clenched my beaker tight. Ready to clap it upside the first furious face. Waited.
After a ten count I heard a sucking sound, then another, and soon the whole place was back to its infernal slurping. I took my straw in my mouth, a cautious sip, nearly fainted.
“You are new, aren’t you?”
I turned, eyed him. He was upright, a foot or so on me. Skin still solid, everything in the correct place. Jar of drink in his hand, but no pumping bladders of dream-poison sticking out of his body. He smiled. Long teeth, mostly intact.
“Very,” I said. “Just arrived.”
He ogled me up and down, and I let him. It was giving me an idea of his reflexes, which seemed far beyond the immediate regional average.
“Waste of a decent enough woman, coming down here,” he said.
“I’m looking for someone.”
He nodded, leaned on the bar. “So I heard. Good luck with that.”
“I’ll need more than luck,” I said.
“Desperate?” he said.
“Yes. It’s a desperate situation.”
“Life or death?”
“The fate of the World.”
He nodded. Lifted his goggles a bit to let some sweat or tears leak out, and took a long swallow of his drink. “Very pressing thing, then,” he said.
I took another sip. The stuff was hitting me, dancing through my brain like warm butterflies. My body was throbbing softly, now something very nice to be in. I thought of the Mission. My Sisters. Fellow Angels. Rae. The end of this.
“I might be able to help,” the man said, and ran the tip of a gloved finger from the elbow of my arm up to the shoulder, then back down again.
I felt unzipped inside. Couldn’t help but let out a moan.
I looked down at my drink, the shivering surface well below the line. Almost empty.
“Let me get you another,” the man said, and summoned the sleeping skeleton behind the bar. I did not stop him.
I must confess to temptation. I have felt it before. I’ve felt the strange heat of it. Tasted it climbing up my throat like a kind of acid foam. But I have always known it for what it is. It is a part of the whole. The pull, the hideous pull that churns this cycle, this World, and astride it we ride, behind it we writhe, beneath it we smack our lips as temptation bursts our flesh and crushes our bones.
Rae tempted me. Rae was my temptation. I became tempted by Rae. In her sleep she bled out the stories of the World she was from. The death-hungry World. This World against which we Sisters and the Mission were born of God and defined.
I could see her stories happening as she told them. I saw these places, these people, holding her down. Pressing, penetrating, forcing her open to let that World come stabbing in, and where so many images of these people should have been fixed in these vivid visions of her stories I played inside, these people were not there, and it was me.
I held Rae. I probed her. Punished her. I strove to invade and undo this little life. My open hand that stroked the cheeks of her face grew firm, taut, intent, energized, swinging down, slapping, bringing spotty blood-color up to the surface of the tender skin, heat, and as I gave Rae these blows, these gifts of wanting, this release, her open and drooling mouth eased into her ripe smile.
The temptation had me dying, and I watched it in me. I watched her, and as Rae told, spoke, she also spoke and told of her love for me. How it was wrong, as all human love in this World is so horribly wrong, and how sorry she was to burden me this way, and Rae cried and she swore she would do everything to live up to my strength. My power. She could subdue this thing, her past, through her love for me, and when that was done she might be ready for God’s work. Able to engage in the Mission free from all that had made her, and what all in this World had become. Rae wanted to be a clear-eyed sacrifice, and I smiled.
Our cell seemed so much finer. Breathing in the dust off the rock of the walls was like tasting the rock. To feel the warmth off the lamp that let us see each other in there was to take the light and swallow the glowing element and feel that spark go burning all the way down. We were so there together. The sound of the air was the crushed whisper of the World blown into me, and I knew this was what I had to feel, had to know, had to go through, and every second, up until the present one, had been crafted for this understanding, and I said to Rae, “You are free. We are free. We have always been free, now.”
And Rae smiled her smile, still crying, but crying in a different way, and I might have smiled, might have cried, because at that time, that moment, I believed. Like any fool.
I believed it all.
At the Mission we do not do these things: We do not drink potions that make us feel as if the World is magic. We do not grin and laugh with others, intoxicated in dens of vice. We do not let them run their hands along the insides of our thighs, setting off strings of explosions and spreading wetness. We do not leave with them stumbling into a night beaming down with four-hundred billion eyes. We do not let them grab our faces, press our mouths open with their forefinger and thumb and plunge violent tongues in. We do not respond by dragging our own tongues down the front of their bodies to their core, begin unbuckling and unleashing the sweating chunk of horrid meat from where it hides. We do not devour it as if starving, begging, tearing off clothes, going down like animals, shoving and crushing into each other in the cold, dirty streets of a dead village in nowhere, crazed with feeling and nearly blind for all of it swirling and burrowing and lashing and flying, no. We think of the Mission, only of the Mission, what we are doing, what we are meant to do, to bring about, to finish, to save, and nothing else. Nothing, nothing, nothing.
“You’re pale as an angel,” the man said.
I laughed, because he couldn’t have known, but I could still feel what he was saying. The words caressed me like feathers of ice. “I’ve never gotten much sun,” I said.
The man made a bony pillow with his arms behind his head. “It never stops here, except at night. It will cook your skin black, but it’s still cold. Thaws nothing, but always fries.”
He looked blue in the dark. A long shadow.
“It’s not much better, where I’m from,” I said, “or anywhere. It’s the end of the line.”
“What kind of line is it, then?” he said. “A circle, or stick, with a beginning and an end? Has to be one or the other.”
“That’s too simple,” I said. “The circle can be twined with more circles, cut with sticks, squiggly ones, jagged, straight. Sometimes the line has many sides. You can’t know.”
He was quiet for a moment. Ran his nails through the scruff on his chin. “No, you can’t. You can guess. You can try.”
“Of course,” I said. “You can try.”
“So this man you’re looking for, the Husk, he has something important.”
“Something that will make a difference.”
“What is it?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“You said he was some sort of professor. Doctor. I’ve never heard that said of the Husk before.”
“So some kind of invention, formula, theory, or something?”
“Something, yes. Some of those things, but it doesn’t matter.”
“If you can’t find him, it won’t?”
“Either way, probably,” I said. “Just something,”
“Something?” he said.
“Something we have to try.”
The man chuckled. Started coughing, dug a vial out of his coat, and sipped from it. “Here, have some of this,” he said.
“Why?” I asked, but I took it.
“The hangovers from the stuff we drank are unbearable, only relieved by drinking more until it kills you, but this holds the sickness off a bit. All you need is a taste.”
I let a little dribble over my lips. Numb. Gave it back.
“Well,” he said, and rose to his feet, began dusting himself off, “I guess we should get going.”
I leaned up on my elbows in the dust. The numbness was spreading from my lips, seemed to be fighting an ache in me I could not locate. “Where?” I asked.
He reached down, offering his hand.
I took it.
“To find this Dr. Husk,” he said. “Apparently the fate of the world is at stake.”
“Just this one,” I said, and let the man pull me up.
To pair off, form partnerships, teams, is not forbidden to Sisters. Nothing is, in fact, forbidden. Everything depends solely on any given Sister’s understanding of the Mission. Of God. Laws are man’s. Laws can do nothing.
Rae and I were a pair, partners of sorts, once a team. She knew the World, I knew the Mission, and together we went for our first time up as Angels.
Neither of us knew how long it would take to travel from the Mission to the World. I had been born in the Mission, and she could not remember her actual arrival, but we both now understood that the World we were traveling to was above us, that we would emerge into it from below.
A portion of the trek was through the thick rivers of piss and shit and wasted water the World above drained down. We chugged along in a short metal tub, moved by a small motorized propeller that ran off gas captured from the same reeking sewage.
“This is what everything in the Mission is powered by, isn’t it?” Rae asked.
I nodded, although I did not know. There certainly was enough to power the Mission. There was enough to power everything.
At a point where it all became too thick, we continued on foot, boots sinking in until the stuff beneath us was firm enough for us to tromp easily over the surface, then came concrete. Where their sewers were paved with walkways.
“We are close,” I told her. Our map indicated a ladder in this area, terminating in a loose lid of steel known as a manhole cover.
“Funny name, isn’t it?” Rae said, and smiled, laughed. I could not then laugh, but would later, in a different way. I went up first, pressed the underside of the heavy lid until it lifted, and slid it aside.
“Up,” I said.
The city was not unlike what I expected it to be. The World. I’d seen pictures, heard it described vividly, seen it already, in a way, through Rae’s tales. But I was not ready for sky. Stars. The awful torment of it. Distant lights piercing down through a canopy of obsidian filth. The buildings strained at them, clutching, as if hoping to murder. I must have just been standing there, staring. Rae touched me, the map.
“Let me see,” she said. “I know how the streets work.”
I knew as well, had studied, trained, but I let Rae take the map from me. Nodded. This was the World that had to be stopped. How tall it was. These things. You’d have to climb them.
“Follow me,” Rae said. “It’s over this way, I think.” And I followed.
It looked like any of the other buildings, but I supposed one could tell, if this was where she lived. There were no lights inside. No doors I could see, but we had to get in. What seemed to have been a door on the front was boarded up.
“How old is this information?” Rae asked.
I didn’t know, and I told her so, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was getting inside, and stealing what we came to steal: a selection of books that may or may not be locked in a thick, green, metal box. If they were locked away, we were to take the whole box. Other Sisters at the Mission would know how to force it.
Rae pointed, and from her finger I imagined a fine black line stretching out into the dark. “If you can lift me to that window, I think I can get it open, or bash it in.”
Rae was tiny, a toy, almost. I lifted her up, and felt the wide spikes of her boots bite into the meat of my shoulders. There was a crack, a tinkling, and a shower of clear shards came scattering down and around me, then the weight of her boots eased, and Rae lifted off into the dark above. As if flying.
I could not see her, but heard her, whispering in a hot hiss down. “Stay there. If it’s locked in the box, I’ll have to drop it down.”
I waved her away, to go, get it done. All this talk would only announce us to the World. Finally I heard nothing, and knew she had gone.
I was standing in an alley, staring out at the open end of it we had come through. The streets were lit at intervals by brittle-white lamps that capped the long necks of grim, looming posts. Some of them flickered in a way so quick it was difficult for the eye to track, but I found myself hypnotized by them, as if in the flickering there was a message for me, if I only knew how to read it right.
“Damn, never smelled a woman stink so bad,” someone said, and the someone was not in the light.
I turned. A man, a body’s length down toward the dead end of the alley. Either he had been there when we first walked into the mouth of it, or had come from some opening in the building we had not seen. His features were too shadowed to discern. The light only exposed his shape. His bulk. The bulk moved toward me.
“Got some nice boots, anyway,” he said. “How about you take them off?”
I had been trained, painfully trained, but this was the first time I had ever encountered a man. This was the first time I had ever been threatened in a way that meant death in the World. I had a mind full of maneuvers, and it was running them, but in stages. Like a book. I was thinking. I was not doing. I was trying to choose, make selections, decide. That is not how doing should be done.
I slid a foot back and held my tensed arms forward, defensively, and as I did so the man was up and upon me, knocking my legs out from underneath and wedging his weight into my chest. We fell to the floor of the alley and my air went out.
“Damn, how you stink,” the man said. And I could see him now. The folds in the flesh of his face wrinkling as he winced, but also a sort of grin hinted. “Won’t take ’em off, I’ll cut ’em off. No difference to me,” he said.
And my head was empty. No maneuvers, no training, nothing. It had all gone out with my air, and the hands of the man moved to my throat and pressed.
His teeth were now showing. There was a glow off them. A dim yellow glow, and I knew the only light was the light of the lamps I had watched in the street flickering. That same light now flickered off these yellow teeth. The message there, in the gaping mouth of my murderer, and I thought of God, the Mission, my Sisters, my place in time, every moment that had led to where I was in this alley in this World with the first man I had ever seen on top of me choking out my life and it all somehow seemed right.
There was a warm sort of swelling inside me, a kind of recognition. A kind of being with God, with everything that had held me from Her pulled away so I could melt in, dissolve, burn for Her like leaking fuel, and there was a click, a shudder, and peering into the open mouth of the man I saw something coming from the mouth, glinting in the flickering light. A message. A shard.
A long glass shard.
The eyes of the man were solid open, and his weight changed, rolled off, and there was Rae. The Angel. Down on me as the man had been, but stroking, petting, massaging, holding, embracing me with bleeding hands. “Thank God,” she said. “Thank God you are alive.”
This was not an instruction.
And I never told her how much, at that moment, I damned her for destroying my beautiful death.
There was more than simple death-seeking in this place. Frost Gambit, it turned out, was composed of more than just two warring leagues of miserable, self-snuffing debauchees. A bit beyond their lodges and the immediate dwellings there were caves, at the foot of the strange cliffs I had seen. A honeycomb of holes, most long empty, but some, as you came closer, faintly lit. Lived in. You could smell subtle burning. Tumbleweeds and sage.
“Haven’t been out here much yet, but if this Husk is still alive, this is where he would be,” the man said, and nodded at the thing. Monoliths and castles of sandy stone.
“I thought he belonged to Belito’s,” I said.
“Doesn’t belong to anywhere or to anyone, from what I understand. Supposedly started it all, or had something to do with it. Went as far as he could on all the intoxicants, then just quit the whole game. It’s said you couldn’t get him high anymore, and he didn’t care. He laughed. Just laughed it all off and floated away. People said he didn’t even walk. Blew across the desert. Like a kite.”
The image whipped through me. Songs of prophets in the Mission. Beings who floated over the earth, without wings. Saviors.
“I was picturing someone solid, more present, for some reason,” I said.
The man shrugged, kept walking. The wind was fighting us.
“Could be,” he said. “I’ve never seen him. Never wanted to. Never even really believed any of that crap.” He smiled back at me, showing the desert dirt caked in the cracks of his long teeth. “Never had a good reason.”
We were quiet when we got up to the caves. Smoke came from a few that we looked in, but were apparently just rigged up to cure the flesh of various desert animals. Possibly animals.
“Someone must be here somewhere,” the man said. “Not sure how you want to go about it. Just call at the opening of each cave, ‘Come out, Husk’?”
It did sound wrong, stupid. I had no plan of approach. I had hoped to find Taureau in one of the two vice-houses, ply him with whatever I could, kill him if I had to—just get the Drive. The poison I’d taken had softened me, undone my senses, ruined what I knew. I was beginning to think I was not meant to be successful, was simply being spent to make the process easier for a more capable Angel. We had all sworn. All had the same goal. Couldn’t any of us do it? Any of us could die for the Mission. Any of us could kill. No difference. But no, I was the One. I am the One, but I had been poisoned by some kind of difference, and the poison was of this man. This man supposedly helping me.
“Here,” he said. “Someone for certain lives in this one. Very strange.”
I went to where he stood, partway up some crude steps chipped out of boulder into slabs. A tiny cave, barely enough to house a child, small torch stuck in the mouth of its entrance.
“Not here now,” I said.
“No,” the man said, “but must be close.”
The man took the torch from the chipped hole that held it, leaned in with the light revealing a larger space, bundles of skins, intricate contraptions and odd models built of what must have been thousands of small bones. Dark diagrams and paintings decorated both ceiling and walls.
“It must be his,” I said. The sickness began welling up again in me, but different. Perhaps not the original drink, but the medicine the man gave me. The numb. I felt wrong. Every bit as wrong as I had felt divine before. It had to all be the same thing.
“What are we supposed to call him?” the man said, held the torch toward me, my face.
“Taureau,” I said, because it did not matter now if he knew. It was time to say it out loud. In the World.
“Yes?” a voice said behind, and we turned.
I had summoned maybe four feet of sun-charred ghost.
For some time I drifted in and out of death. Death’s borders. They were permeable to me. Where I wanted, but that wanting was not of importance. I had blamed Rae for not letting me die when it seemed my time for dying had come, was so perfect, but cut out by the long shard of glass she had shoved through the skull of death’s dim errand boy.
That blame was a kind of wanting. Rae had belonged to that World, and made it move into mine for a reason. A stage. The idea that she had, somehow, interrupted what should have been by a spark of sudden panic, a selfish passion over having me live, desire for my being to continue into her life when she could have just as well watched and then, alone, carted the books from the green box we sought away, back down the manhole and through the sewers to our slight boat and, alone, returned to the Mission.
She had not. She had not for a reason.
I was not done.
Rae came to me in our cell, speaking, smiling, petting, nursing me in her way. No one else came. There was a sort of shaming attached to this. A kind of knowing way the other Sisters left us to this hideous healing routine, but Rae did not know. She knew only that I was alive, and she was grateful for this. As if God had granted her a reprieve. As if that was what God, through my survival, Herself wanted.
I remember a rag. A moistened rag that Rae set on my forehead while she spoke, hovering almost the same distance from my face as the man in the alley who almost killed me had, saying things like, “I’m so sorry,” and “I shouldn’t have left you,” and “When I saw him on top of you like that, I didn’t even think. I just dropped down and grabbed the glass and got behind him.” Rae said these things, and she showed me her hands. What the glass had done to them for my life.
Rae was already out again. Working toward the Mission, but she stayed with me as much as she could. More than she should have. She was an Angel, and had risen as a Sister for what she brought back to us from the World. The books, the first bits of information we had that led us to awareness of Taureau and his Drive, but her attachments were strange. Sisters wondered what we were doing, and what we had done. I had not heard this, but I knew this. I gazed up at Rae and suffered her talk the same as I would have if her soft hands had been pressed tight into my bruised throat.
But this too was vanity. These supposed Sisters did not know, and it did not matter. God’s greater plan was becoming apparent. The trickling of liquid squeezed from the rag pressed to my skin, that too was a message. Language. Watery words traced out on the surface of my flesh that said, “This is the Mission. This is the plan. This is I.”
And over me hung Rae’s face. Her damned beautiful smile.
When I was young at the Mission we looked at picture books of Saints. None of them real to me, because they weren’t. None of those artists had seen any of those people, those beings. They were dreams, fantasies, lies about what the Holy Ones might have actually looked like, if they looked like anything. I believed in it all, but those pictures I did not believe. They were too beautiful. This little ghost, however, this horrible, horrible ghost grinning in front of me, I knew was a Saint. A Saint, or something close. There was nothing beautiful about him at all.
We sat in a larger cave. One stocked with wood and dried things Taureau used for burning. The man and I sat on bundled sage like mats while Taureau sat on the sandstone floor.
Taureau, the Husk, the Old Doctor, could’ve been made of paper. His voice whistled out of him like wind blowing through a grove of dead trees. “So this Mission of yours … you have come for my Drive,” he said.
“Yes, the Drive,” I said.
The man with me was looking anxious, wild. The fire flickered in his eyes, the same eyes that had taken me, but now with this different fire. I felt the sickness again, heavier, as if I might be dying. He must’ve poisoned me, but I could do nothing about that now. Nothing.
“And this Mission … with my Drive you intend to … save your people? The world?” Taureau said.
“The limitless energy. It could power everything. The food it could make, the heat, it could purify water, air. There are people where I am from who know what to do with it. How to make it work. Your creation.”
Taureau let go a small laugh, more like gagging. He spit in the fire. For a moment I thought he did not believe me, was dismissing my words with this steam of spit. I had to be ready.
“I’m afraid I must disappoint you,” Taureau said. “I thought everyone knew this, anyone still living who has even heard of me or my damned Drive, but it has been so long. Perhaps a man’s failure has been survived by his boyhood dream.” With a long bit of bone Taureau poked at the fire, then tossed the bone in. “That’s what I wanted as well, to save, but I was wrong. Saving this world … that’s not what this thing will do. The models leading up to the Drive, testing revealed my overconfidence, my hubris, but I did not stop. This energy, this limitless energy you hope for … it is the opening of an insatiable hole. An endless hole.”
“So, what you are telling us,” the man said, smirking with his long teeth, stabbing with a stick at the ground, “is that this device is actually destructive?”
Taureau blew, laughed again, harder this time. “I doubt you even remotely fathom the extent of that word. Destructive. We’re talking about all matter collapsing in on itself. Imagine the world swallowed by its own navel.” He rubbed his crotch.
“How do you know if you haven’t tried it?” the man said, jabbed harder with his stick, finer dirt lifting up from the little pit he’d prodded into the floor.
“It’s theoretical,” Taureau said, still fondling himself absently, “but the theory is enough. In spite of my optimism, my younger self’s naïve passion to save with this … limitless, free energy, I couldn’t even bring myself to try. To activate the Drive. Test it. How could I? They said I was a fool, that I was wrong, and I had, on some level, always suspected it. Had known it. My failure. My destiny. I couldn’t test it, this damned thing I had vainly created that might well suck the very planet I had hoped to rescue out of existence entirely, but I couldn’t give it up either. Couldn’t let the Drive itself be destroyed. Certainly could not simply give it away, but then the scientific community insisted, tried to take it from me, the same ones who had mocked me, my colleagues, then the government, then governments. The whole world after it. This same world I thought I could with my damned Drive save.”
“And then?” I asked. The man was working up to something, squatting on his haunches now, body on the verge of attack, and I wanted Taureau talking, keeping the man’s mind engaged.
“I hid here, and accidentally founded this miserable town. Concocted insidious substances to numb myself, to forget, to hopefully die, and a culture of sorts emerged around imbibing. Cults first composed of the few indigenous peoples skulking and scavenging about, eventually attracting tourists by word of mouth via slumming anthropologists and seedy photojournalists, and then more of the damn tourists came, doing what tourists do as well as anything to this world. Destroy.” Taureau laughed, still massaging his genitals. Smiled with the remains of his teeth. “It is what it is now. I have been here through all the self-sacrificing, hedonistic haze from the beginning. I set it in motion. I simply no longer want to be a part. I wash my hands,” Taureau said, and quit playing with himself long enough to hold out his pale, filth-covered palms and show us the black in the lines.
“So,” the man said, and fixed himself into a looser crouching position, threw away the stick he had been playing with, “possessing this device you could, if you were in a place from which you could dictate terms, threaten the world? Hold the world hostage?”
Taureau smiled, laughed again, and very slowly I wrapped my fingers around the base of a thick chunk of wood. Enough to serve as a club.
“You could, certainly, but it would make your existence very difficult. Perhaps not any more difficult than mine has been. I could have done it, but never had the heart. This Drive,” Taureau said, “is a curse.”
“And where is it right now, if you don’t mind me asking?” the man said, and smiled.
I took the stick tighter in my hand, and Taureau, the Saint, the Savior, the fool, the incredible fool, he reached down, gripping of the lump of his crotch, shaking it. “Right here,” Taureau said, cackling up plumes of dust. “Right here, damn you. No, I don’t mind telling at all. I don’t mind telling, because no one here has ever asked. It’s always been right fucking here.”
And with Taureau’s mouth gaping mad, the man ready to lunge, I swung the club, striking the man in the left side of his neck with a deep thunk, then brought the club back up and struck the right side of his head, making a crisp, bright noise as the club snapped, and the man went down.
Taureau’s eyes became massive, a new laugh moving up through him and out that ghastly hole, and I smashed the busted chunk of club into the folds of his powdery face.
Taureau crumpled, and holding his small body down I tore through his reeking pelts, dug into the bag slung low over his crotch. Felt something hard, metallic, cold, but incredibly light. I pulled the bag off, and I had it. The Drive. The Doctor’s Drive.
I burst out of the cave, frantic, almost sprinted back toward the town, those sickening pits of iniquity, just to show them. To brandish the Drive in their faces, let them get a good look at what had been here all along. If they had ever truly wanted to get it all over with. If they had ever really wanted to truly be forever done. But no. This was not about gloating, not about me, not about me at all, but the Mission. From the cave, I heard groaning.
The man, starting to clamber back to his knees, pulling up a long, sharp piece of wood to stand with, and whatever else. “Don’t,” he said. “Don’t.” And he doubled over, coughing.
I did not wait. Started climbing right there, straight up the rock. The mesa. There would be a top. A still space. Somewhere I could escape to, alone with the Doctor’s Drive. I only needed enough time there with it to determine how to make it go. To make it work.
To alone, finally, make the Mission complete.
The Mission mine.
By the time I was again up and functioning, my body again a thing I could use, Rae had been out many times, doing many things for the Mission. She in no way gloated, held these accomplishments over me, but they were still done, and she wore the body that did them.
I was not offered work, assignments, pieces of the Mission, and eventually realized that if I continued waiting for these to happen, to simply come, they would not. I had to see a Mother-Sister and request duties. I had to beg to again help God.
I was still sore, aching, something in me still broken that was not healed, but I doubted more time idle was what I needed. The waiting only made this worse, so I struggled into my boots, my Sister-shroud, and moved through the halls to the Elder Mother-Sister of my section to make my request. I was ready to work in the World. And I was ready, if she denied me, to do what I had to. I would not think.
The Mother-Sister bid me enter, and I stood before her. She was small. Folded like a note in a book the way she sat in her space on her floor in her tight cell. I told her what I had to do, what we needed, and she watched me, her eyes blank, unreadable. Too clear.
“You believe you are in the condition to serve?” the Mother-Sister asked, but it was not a question. It was more of a statement. A test.
I closed my eyes. Held out my hands. It seemed, somehow, my hands through this had grown. “I am here for God,” I said, and I was. As she was. More ready than the Mother-Sister knew.
I opened my eyes and the Mother-Sister was looking at me, at my hands.
“You wish to work with your Cell-Sister?” she said. Again, not a question.
“My wishes mean nothing,” I said. “But my working alone would make me better fit for the service I am ultimately meant for.”
The Mother-Sister watched me as if I had not spoken. As if I had not said words. My hands were hot. Huge. In them my heart was talking.
“You are alone no matter who you work with,” the Mother-Sister said, and the heat of my hands moved to my face. The thrill of shame. “You will go up again now,” she said. “Alone.”
And I worked then and again above in the World. Many times. Alone. Without Rae. Without anyone. In the World I learned to do without thinking. I learned what the strange spaces were between things, the flickering of lights, God’s talk, and for every flickering moment I remembered from the first time, being under the man in the alley, a new man under me met his end and his sorry god. As an Angel, the Mission through me became something quicker, fuller, closer to complete.
My boots were thick on the soles. Massive things. Twin crusts of scabbed blood. My hands were so sensitive to the final throb of pulses extinguished I could catch lost thoughts on the skin of my fingers from the air, and sniff them up into my skull.
I was God’s instrument and I was alone and I worked until I was told there was a part of the Mission I must take and it would be with Rae. She whom I had not seen or even thought of, or if I had seen or thought of her it was an instance so brief it meant nothing, accidentally opening my eyes to her smile. I remember her there in our cell saying, “Here, you take the map.” And I remember her smiling. I remember her saying, “We must go.” Or something close to that, as if I had perhaps just been standing there staring.
We belonged to what we were doing in the World. Our movements through the sewers were quick, clean, and I barely recall who went up the ladder first. It doesn’t matter, and it didn’t matter. I remember the sequence of movements ticking perfect. Certain breaths, even. Knowing the way they flowed was right. Rae and I stood in the city and undid it. Not that the city knew, but it will.
We were walking together, our boots in rhythm. The street took the blows as if it was a great door laid out flat on which we walked, with our boots knocking like knuckles, open, open, open. Rae’s face smiled in profile, the side I could see, and I remember imagining the other side doing something different. Perhaps scowling, laughing, at me or at life or the World or God, but it did not matter.
“I am happy to be with you again,” Rae said. “I am glad you are better.”
Rae was so many things. Believed she was. She had so much to learn. It takes true attention. A mind that can wipe all away. Rae did not, for example, remember this was the same building we had first gone to together. Although there was undoubtedly information needed there—more concerning what we would eventually learn was the Drive of the man who was the doctor called Taureau. That we were sent to this place again together was a part of a pattern, perhaps a test conducted by a set of Mother-Sisters who knew, but ultimately by God—regardless of who believed it meant what—by whom, from where, all was seemingly arranged. But there was so much Rae did not know.
“I swear to you, it isn’t the same building,” Rae said. “We’re not even in the same city.”
And this time I smiled. I took the map from her.
The front of the building was no longer boarded, but we did not risk simply entering through the front. The alley had at some point been blocked off, filled in, so we went around to the back of the building, and found an entrance that had not been there before.
I tore the door away, to show her how this was done, but stepped aside to let Rae enter first. To give her a taste of the darkness. Exercise her senses so they could better develop. The map, however, was bad. Indicated more than three rooms where the information might be. The new books. We would have to separate, and I admit I felt concern over Rae’s experience, or lack of it. This building might not be empty. And there was only so much time. We would meet again, at the place where we then stood, after the rooms, and I watched Rae’s shadow form fade down the hallway like a small child playing night games.
I scanned the first of my rooms quickly, with precision. I knew it was not the room where the information was stored, but I knew I must be thorough, complete. It seemed, actually, to be a sort of break room. There was a long table with thin metal chairs tucked in around it. Cupboards filled with personalized drinking receptacles and anonymous plates. There was a short refrigerator, an antique, it seemed, crammed with cartons and rubberish containers, bottles and tubes, most inscribed with names, some names on peeling strips of yellowed tape, and I was almost through scanning when the shrieking began.
I no longer thought. I did. Nothing went through my mind, or very little. My movement was fluid, cold rain washing down a gutter. The halls disappeared, and I removed the door of the room Rae’s screaming came from, and I do not recall if the lights were on or off, but there was Rae, crushed to the floor, most of her garments torn away, her body bleeding, battered, a man and a woman hanging over her, perfect matches to the pair I had pictured as her parents in my mind, and behind them, lined up as if in a queue, an uncountable number of people waiting for their turn with Rae’s body in the World, all so eager none even noticed me, and I did not think, I did. Undid. Undid, undid, and undid, and when the room was cleared, all of those sad souls expelled from their busted bodies, the scent of fresh death growing thick, all of them vanishing, ghosts, phantoms, nothings, never there, I bent down to Rae, pulled her up, collected her to my chest, and she wept. “Wh— I thought … I thought you were going to kill me. I thought I was going to die. I was so afraid to die. Don’t kill me. Don’t kill me. Don’t kill me.”
And I held her, Rae crying like that.
It was not her time, and she would learn. She would know.
Rae would know as I knew.
Everything looks harmless from a distance. Perspective. If you are high up enough, the World is made of toys, because it is all toys. All of it. All of them.
Not that we had toys growing up in the Mission, but we know what they are, and we know what it will take to be Angels. There can be no toys. No playing. And it isn’t enough to just give it up, convince everyone else to, because that is no longer an option. There will always be someone somewhere who will not comply. There will always be someone who remembers what it was like, with man’s many toys, his poisons, prisons, his pleasures, his miserable rutting and re-rutting and more and more and more of the same.
God has a plan, and no, God is not some sort of bearded imbecile beyond the sky, sending down plagues and lightning bolts to maintain order and see things done according to fickle whimsy. God is no toy. She is everything. God is the plan, and She has only us. Those who know. Those who believe, and will act out Her plan, because we are the plan. This thing, this whole, this Mission, this World.
All I knew to be true and real rushed through me as I scaled the mesa, peering down at the pathetic buildings so far beneath me. Tiny bumps. Blisters. Pinprick scars.
The wind was thrashing me, my fingers getting colder, clumsier. I had covered so much in a fit, perhaps whatever thing I had ingested still pulsing through, making it harder to feel, but the inevitable was catching up. The fading. Adrenaline sputtering out, but above the sky seemed to be getting closer. Less rock. Less stone and sand.
Wide above me, space. The four-hundred billion eyes of God, shining down, and I pulled myself up in armloads. Her face getting closer. Blood and sweat running from my cracked hands. Nails chipped off past the quick, and I reached for the next hold and felt beyond it flatness. The peak. The summit. I had climbed the whole way. Dear God, so good. Good.
So I wouldn’t crush it while pulling my body up over the edge, I clung with one hand, undid the bundle strung around my hips, and tossed the Drive as gently as possible up and over, hearing it land with a soft sound, settling in sand on the top of the mesa.
“Thank you, God,” I screamed from the limit of my lungs, and I listened to the sound of the wind in the World. Her voice, Her breath, and it answered. It answered, and it seemed to be laughing. A man’s voice.
“You’re welcome,” the laughing voice said, and over the edge of the cliff I clung to emerged a man-shape, pure black before the moon. A demon. The Devil, it must be. There is no Devil, only God, but here he was.
The Devil in boots.
The Devil was inside. It was Rae’s turn to recover. To reflect. Our mistakes are not letting in the knowing that there is no mistake. And when that is let in enough, allowed, we are free. The difference between life and death, death and life, is nothing.
I had carried Rae back, the same way she had once carried me. The return journey always seems so much shorter. I knew her life would last that long, but that was not the concern. Just the journey.
Rae woke at times, weak, breathing, pulling in enough of the sewer air to speak on occasion. “The information,” she said. “The books … did you save them?”
I had. Still tucked in folds of her shredded uniform. They were safe. I showed one of the books to her with the hand that was not holding the till, and Rae smiled.
And I had read, absorbed. The Doctor. His drive. Taureau. The dead desert town where he somewhere was. It was all in there. In these books. Waiting between the words. It was as if I had read it all before. As if it had all, almost, somehow, already happened, and Rae slept and I steered and we made our way back to the Mission and our Sisters and the Mother-Sisters who would decide who would go on this next venture into the World for the Mission.
And no. I was not the first Angel sent. Reflecting on this, I knew I would not be. Rae was mending, and I was well, but the Mother-Sisters knew the first sent would not be successful. She could not be. The first Angel acts as a sort of preparatory ointment, a lubricant, a marinade. It is a role of smaller sacrifice, but still necessary, and the Sister was sent, the first Angel, and the World stayed and stayed and stayed and when she returned we learned how close she had come, how far we had to go, and I knew that was my space to occupy. That it was me. I was that distance.
Rae had mended. Moving around solidly enough, but less talkative. Still reflecting, perhaps. She spent less time in the cell, which I did not mind. It gave me time inside to prepare for what I had to do. What I was meant to do. I had scarcely seen her, or had scarcely noticed her, until Rae stood in the doorway of the cell and announced what the first Angel had done. She announced, in her way, that she was about to make the mistake of trying to follow as the next Angel.
And I wept.
The Mother-Sister was expecting me. Her eyes seemed set on the door where my eyes would be, and I filled her view, my eyes still crying. For Rae, for her failure during our last excursion, her weakness, her vulnerability, her wayward method of being in the World, and how close the information we had taken from that building in the city came to being lost, the books, how that almost happened, and would have happened if Rae had been alone, how close to failure we came because of her. This unfortunate stage in the sequence had undone more than Rae’s body, which had seemed to recover somewhat, but her mind, her thinking, her understanding of the Mission, of God … it was feeble, confused, so broken, never strong enough to begin with. Such a fragile vessel, how could we even think of entrusting our work to it? Our destiny? Our Mission? No. It was wrong. This could not be allowed. This could not happen, and it did not happen.
I could see Rae’s World end in the eyes of the Mother-Sister, and I was preparing to go. To travel the long way underground to where the sewers ended, then emerge to the surface and begin the trudging over soil until it became sand, and then farther on until I was in the center of the end, and a Sister was at the door of our cell, an Angel, not Rae, not one I could recall the name of, and she said to me, “I am sorry.” And I looked at her and smiled.
What did she have to be sorry for? I would die, yes. We all would die. But that was our very purpose. Why should she be sorry for me? For anyone? A weak Sister, and she went away. Then there was another. “So very sorry.” And I shook my head, scoffed, finished my bag and considered leaving right then before I had to endure more pity. Then another Angel came. “I am sorry for your loss,” she said. Loss. Who loses anything? What is there to lose? What is loss? “It seemed like you were very close,” another said. And I pushed past her. Possibly might have even damaged her and others as I shoved my way down the hall, crowded with sorry Sisters, all through the Mission, shoved all the way out beyond the First Station, then the Second Station, the South Station, where, again, or perhaps still, they were cutting yet another swinging, self-killed Sister down.
“Why?” I say. I scream it. I scream, and with my feet I’m scraping, flailing for anything. “Why?” Mind on fire, tears exploding out of my face. No, this is not the way I want to die. I do not want to die.
“Why?” the man says, and he crouches, gets his mouth as close as he can again to mine. Beside him Taureau comes into view, face bloody, both of them looking down, and it feels almost as if his boot on my fingers is the only thing holding me here. In this World. “Because you have to be stopped. All of you. You psychopaths from that damned Mission. We knew you were coming out here for something, but not for what, and I’ve been stationed at this shithole waiting, trying to put it together. Your last Angel, or whatever, snooping around here, we let get away, just to see what would happen next, and then you showed up. God, I don’t know if I could have taken another week. We had no idea the extent of it, what you wanted out here, what you were up to, how far you were willing to go, or that these sorts of options were even available to you. Jesus, you insane, stinking sewer-witch, you were actually ready to try to suck the world into a black hole with some hundred-year-old piece of junk you found stuck down the pants of a crazy hermit. You people are that fucking insane. You want to know why? That’s why. To stop you, and thank God we did. Now, I’ve got a question for you. What gives you the right, huh? What makes you fucking freaks think you have the fucking right to—”
There is a sick-sounding thud, and I’m slipping, dear God, slipping and a terrible grip on my wrist, breaking my arm, so hard, and I’m being pulled, my face, my body dragging, scraping over the ledge, risen earth tearing into me, as if I’m nothing. I am nothing. Nothing.
The man. Face down in a black puddle that reflects the moonlight. Head not the shape it should be. Next to it, a rock. A massive rock. Dark with blood.
Taureau releases my wrists. Sits. Watches me. The wind slashes us, shrieking. So cold, here on this bluff. So flat and so cold. My broken finger dangles loose, is trying to hurt, but I feel nothing. As if it no longer belongs to this body.
“Take it,” Taureau says, and nods. The Drive. My bundle near the puddle running from the man’s busted skull. “Take it, now,” he says.
I take it.
“Come close,” Taureau says.
I can’t help it. Can’t think. I do.
“All these years,” he says, “I’ve been praying for this, in my way. For an angel to finally come. To help me. To help me be strong. Unwrap it, please.”
I undo the bundle, take it out, hold the thing. Each heave of my heart is an eruption inside.
There are tears on his face, running with the blood. He is smiling. Ancient hands shaking like mice. I am crying.
“I never could do this alone,” he says. “Angel. Finally, my perfect Angel.”
He comes closer still. Heat of his air mixes into me. And it is there cradled between us, cold, precious, final and small. The Drive. The Doctor’s Drive. Everything we have never tried. The nothing we need.
“Angel,” he says.
Her wind beats both of our bodies.
And His fingers guide mine.