Posted on Wednesday Oct 20, 2021 at 06:00pm in General
I had never seen an Angel before, but I knew a man who had. It was not long after the destruction of my homeworld. The refugee fleet was limping towards what it hoped was sanctuary: the planet on which I now stood. I had been standing by the viewport, staring out at the fleeing stars and trying, against my better judgment, to make sense of their configurations, when one of the crew members, a man who fancied himself as an old space hand, came up behind me.
"Never know what you're going to see, out there… I saw an Angel, once."
"You're kidding me. They're rare, aren't they?"
"I'm not joking. I was looking out of the viewport just as you are now when something swam into view. It was massive, I'm telling you, a mess of tentacles and spines. It attached itself to the viewport. I had to chuck myself backwards in case the bastard got in. But it was only a minnow. Only a little one, too." He looked at my face and laughed. "Not scared of a baby, are you, Doc?"
'Now you mention it," I said ruefully, and he laughed.
"Don't worry, you won't see any. There's a sweeper outside – it'd knock them off the ship. They'd be after the cybel. Bloody nuisance they can be, too. But as you say, they're rare.
Now, I had never been so close to something so huge, so alien. It filled me with an almost religious terror and for the first time I had an inkling into what motivated the Karists. Then the sweeper came along, a bristling machine running a blasting wave before it, and the minnow spiralled off into space. I did not sleep that night."
This was no minnow. The domed chamber at the summit of the tower was big, and the Angel filled it. It must have been three times the thing I'd seen on the ship. It pulsated, mimicking breath, and with its membranes wrapped around itself it resembled a great black flower about to bloom. Energy crackled about it and this was, I now realised, the source of that chemical smell, but it felt wrong, like a battery sparking out and wearing down. I could see a coil of something – energy? - in the slit of its mouth, but it looked hazy, as if seen through gauze.
"Where….where did this come from?" I heard myself say.
Hanerah smiled. "It arrived with a ship. One of the first mining landers – a long time ago now. They tried to kill it." Her pale eyes grew fierce. "But it escaped, and my tribe found it. It grew strong again – there are places in the deep desert which contain a kind of energy, on which it could feed. It – affected us."
"Are you Karists, then?"
"I know of them," she said, indifferently, "but they are not like us. We have had such visitors before, you see. It is an old alliance. They whispered to us. They gave us the gift of prophecy."
Pride filled her voice. I looked at the Angel. Its six eyes, as black and cold as the void, stared back at me with an arachnid intelligence.
"And now?" I said.
"It is ailing," Hanerah hissed. "You can feel it, can't you?"
"I – " There was something wrong with the thing, but it was still powerful. Now I knew what had been making me feel so alive. Somehow, its energy had accompanied Hanerah, and I had been feeding off it.
"I want you to cure it."
"Listen to me," I said. From somewhere, I found the strength to take her arm and pull her out of the chamber. "I know it doesn't want to hurt me," I added, and for the first time realised this was true. That feeling echoed in my head. Help me. "But I don't know anything about their anatomy. No-one does, unless the Karist priests might –"
"The Karists cannot come here. They seek only their own ends: they would use it as a weapon. It is not a weapon. It is a living thing." The words my friend came back to me: how had this tribeswoman come to such a point? She clutched at me. "You have to help it!"
"Hanerah, I don't think I can. Where would I begin?"
"You felt it, did you not?"
"It – influences - you, doesn't it? And has it communicated to you what's wrong?"
She looked so downcast that I said, "Look. I'll try. But I can't promise anything."
I had a feeling that what ailed the thing was simply lack of cybel. They said this was how the Karists controlled them, after all: withholding and donating the energy form, the only way that they could bend an Angel to their will. But no-one knew for sure and the only cybel here that I'd heard of was found in the drives of the ships at the spaceport, and I wasn't exactly willing to unleash a starving Angel onto those. Besides, why hadn't it gone there itself? Maybe it had travelled from the deep desert and run out of energy. I took a deep breath and stepped back through the door. The Angel seemed to have shrunk, then I realised that it had wrapped its gel membrane more tightly about itself. The membrane appeared stiffer, as though the thing was drying out.
"All right," I said, aloud. "Tell me – no, you can't, can you? Show me what's wrong."
And the Angel did so, but not in words. Instead, I saw images.
It showed me a great shoal of minnows, travelling against the rearing gas clouds of forming galaxies. Songs soared in the bright void and for the first time I understood why these aliens had been named by us as Angels: they saw themselves as utterly free, yet united by a connection which my brain could not encompass. 'Love' was a pallid imitation. This Angel was very old, I now knew, and the loss of its kin was like the loss of a limb. I had always seen them as terrifying, but this thing was filled with a great sadness and a strange innocence: they did not know why we were so afraid.
Excerpt from the short story 'Moon Desert', by Liz Williams.
Find the rest in 'Tales from the Edge: Escalation', available in paperback from the Maelstrom's Edge Webstore, or grab the digital version on Amazon.