Here was a solar system that spun without joy. For years, fitful sunlight had starved the planets of their bounty.
The Angel came at a bad time.
“You’ve been long wanted,” the Council broadcast on all wavelengths, and the thing that spanned horizons said in its echoing many-voice
CELESTIAL MATTERS HAVE BEEN FRAUGHT.
for all the planet to hear, right from the assembled authorities in the Council chamber right down to the outskirts of humanity’s influence on this recently settled planet. Here Shep was keeping an eye on the herds of machines tending her crops. She had never heard an Angel’s voice before. It made her skin flush warm.
“What do you propose we do?” asked the Council.
I WOULD SPEAK WITH ADMIRAL MARIAM ALONE,
the Angel told them, and so she was except for the Chancellors and Generals and Ministers who crowded round the door, of course not to hear the Angel’s voice (now perceptible only to Mariam) but instead to hear her replies.
Then, “Who will care for it?”
And Shep, far away where the country threatened to become wild, sat bolt upright, because now in her mind and only hers was and Angel’s call.
Shep stared when it came flaming through the sky and thudded like a fallen star steaming in her westmost field; she stared when the Admiral came to inspect it, to equip her and to brief her on her duties; she stared when she was left alone with it, this thing not yet quite alive but filled with thrumming energy.
It was the size of a boulder, misshapenly oval. She couldn’t tell how much was flesh and how much was machine, but the skin of the Angel-seed that was visible was furred like a peach, as if when bitten into it would yield soft and sweet.
She tried to speak to it to no avail, but when she curled up next to it to sleep (the best chance of warmth she could find as the days grew shorter and the sun got dimmer), her dreams were permeated with an all-encompassing voice and an alien authority. What Mariam hadn’t told came to her eventually in rumours, so she wondered if the machine-creature had anything like parents warping from star to star in the far reaches of foreign space. Would there be two or many?
Two months in, crazy with questions, Shep approached it with a wrench and a mouth like a knife-edge. It could be put back together again if it could be taken apart.
The flesh writhed with discomfort when touched. She dug her fingers in, searching for she didn’t know what until she found something smooth and cold. The flesh clenched around her touch, metal within the thing shrieking as it ground against itself in a desperate attempt to escape. She tugged and cursed and swore, a mad fit of desire for whatever she had found in this mechanocreature’s skin, and she was going to explode if she had to pull it any harder-
And in her hand was a little nub of circuitry, but the Angel-seed was going mad, because there was blood all over everything glistening and red and more human than Shep could bear. She yelped and scrambled away, dropped her treasure on the floor, then full of remorse came back again and tried to fit the piece where it had come from but the gash was already sealed over.
The blood, though, that stayed, no matter how hard she tried to wash it off, and though over days it slowly faded from her home, her clothes, her hands, it never faded from the plastic backing of the chip she had dug out.
The navigators had not been called on in a long time. Two grandsons and a granddaughter of the ship’s navigator who had steered the original colonisers to this ripe unoccupied planet, they read charts and plotted orbits and consulted textbooks on long-dusty tablets until they were certain.
“On the winter solstice we launch,” said the first grandson.
“If we’re to go where the angel sends us,” said the second.
“Which we must,” said the granddaughter.
So the vessel was made ready. The coloniser ship had long ago been broken down for parts, but its lifecraft remained for infrequent small forays beyond the upper atmosphere. Mariam, Shep and the navigators squeezed in, two piloting and one calling instructions as the tiny vessel took off and powered out of gravity’s reach.
“You’ve kept the Angel-seed safe?” the Admiral had asked Shep.
The chip lay against her skin, on a thin chain around her neck. “Yes,” she had said.
Now the seed pulsed in the ship’s hold, grown larger and more carnal in the months that Shep had kept it. The navigators steered them delicately around the prescribed coordinates in a wide arc. Their Earth spun green and specklike, behind and then ahead as the ship turned.
“Prepare for release,” said the granddaughter.
The Angel-seed fell. Shep watched as it tumbled. As it met the vacuum the flesh began to churn and seethe. Metal sprung from deep within the thing and enveloped its tenderness, and though they were speeding away the Angel-seed in the window grew larger and larger as it built itself into being.
“What an honour,” the Admiral breathed, “to be present for the birth of an Angel.”
The chip on Shep’s neck pulsed, and deep within the Angel a gap that remained unfilled began to eat itself up.
There was no boom that could carry in space. No sound of destruction could penetrate the vacuum. The ship’s passengers and crew held their silence too, as if to show horrified respect, and watched as the Angel was engulfed in flame.
When somebody finally spoke, it was the granddaughter, looking up wildly from a page of calculations. “A new sun,” she said. “It’s in the right place. It’ll drag the planet onto a new orbit.”
“Hot enough? And light enough? And will it last?” The grandsons had their noses pressed to the window, eyes wide.
Shep glanced at the Admiral, made eye contact, couldn’t keep it. Her face was sharp with loss, and the struggle to comprehend it. “I don’t understand,” she murmured. “How can an Angel account for death?”
The chip was cold, now, and hung heavier than before. Shep couldn’t answer the Admiral’s question. All she could do was stare out into space at the flesh becoming light.