The angels moved up the road towards Gethsemene in a triad formation. If they’d walked, that would have been something. If they’d flown, swooped in from the sky, that would have been something else. But they didn’t. They just moved, floating slowly along the road in unison. Behind them — almost too far away to see — was the unnatural mountain of their home, fading into the skyline.
Valeria had gate duty that day. It was good foraging weather, the kind that would have had Anthony heading out into the wilderness if he were still alive. He had never been able to get Justin interested in the great outdoors, even before the boy was lost to them.
She spotted the three angels as they passed the mile marker and followed them in her riflescope until they reached the gate five minutes later. Twelve miles an hour; slow enough to know they’d be seen.
“That’s far enough,” Valeria called down as the trio reached the gates. “State your business.”
The lead of the group turned to look at her. They weren’t identical, just close to it. This one had a broad nose and chubby cheeks that looked out of place on its smooth metallic face.
It spoke in a liquid voice. “We are—”
“I know what you are,” Valeria interrupted. “State your business.”
The lead angel continued undaunted. “We are a diplomatic delegation and we wish to present credentials. Our common names are—
“Don’t care. Do you have business to state or do I have to see you off our property?”
The angel paused. If it had still been a human, Valeria was pretty sure it would have sighed. “Under the terms of the Treaty of Vancouver, diplomatic delegations may approach a freehold when their presence is requested by an inhabitant. Such a request has been made.”
Valeria tightened her grip on the rifle. There was only one reason someone would ask for the angels. “You’ve come for one of us.”
“We’ve come at the request of one of you,” the angel replied. “We wish to present credentials.”
Valeria sighed. They weren’t going to leave any time soon. “Come through to the courtyard. But no further.”
She pushed the gate control and stepped down from the watchtower, still holding the rifle. Her left knee was stiff from standing still for too long, and she had to hobble down the tower stairs. By the time she reached the courtyard, the angels were already there, floating unmoving in the centre of the walled space. Close to, they seemed even less human. Their shape was still bipedal and humanoid, but their constituent parts were only loosely attached, as if their thin limbs floated near their torsos rather than being tethered to them.
“So, you taking one of our parents or one of our children?” Valeria asked.
The lead angel looked at her and frowned. “I don’t understand your question,” it said in its liquid voice.
“Only two types of people summon you,” Valeria replied. “Children wanting to rebel or old people wanting another chance. Which is it this time?”
The angel paused again. “The request came from Tamar Antonia Halverston, eighteen years old, of Melchior Plaza, Freehold of Gethsemene. We don’t answer requests from children.”
“You just did,” Valeria grumbled, pulling out a computer pad and tapping instructions into it. After a moment she frowned. “Apparently she’s waiting outside. She didn’t tell anyone you were coming.”
“This is not unusual,” the angel said. “We have found that families try to stop the upgrade process.”
“I wonder why?” Valeria spat.
The angel looked at her; she could make out the ghosts of pupils in its silver eyes. “As do I,” it replied.
The door on the other side of the courtyard opened. As it did, Valeria raised her rifle slightly. If any one of them so much as looked towards the interior of Gethsemene…
They didn’t. They floated exactly where they were as the girl entered the courtyard. Hard not to think of her as a girl. Tamar was skinny and undersized, looking closer to twelve than to eighteen. She looked around the courtyard nervously, scratching a spot on the dark skin of her arm. Justin had done the same in his last days, like he thought his skin was the wrong size. Like he wanted to scratch it off and find something else underneath.
“You just stay where you are for now, honey,” Valeria said. “You don’t have to go anywhere you don’t want to.”
The lead angel turned smoothly towards the girl. “Tamar Antonia Halverston. We have received a request from you for upgrade. Under the terms of the Treaty of Gethsemene we are here to perform the sublimation process, should you still wish it.”
The girl said nothing, just looked at the angels and the woman with the gun, as if uncertain what to do.
Finally Valeria broke the silence. “Tamar, if you want these… people to leave, you just need to say the word, all right? If they’ve got no business here I’ll set them on their way.”
“I—” Tamar started. Her high voice cracked and caught in her throat.
“Go on, darlin’,” Valeria said softly. “Say what you need to say.”
“I don’t want to live like this anymore,” Tamar said. “I want the upgrade.”
Valeria let out an angry sigh but tried not to let it show on her face. “I guess that’s it, then,” she said to the lead angel. “Take your property and get out.”
The angel looked at her for a moment. “Standard practice is for the sublimation process to take place here.”
Valeria felt bile rise at the prospect. “No way. I can’t stop you taking the girl, but I sure as hell can stop you butchering her in front of me.”
“There is no butchery. The procedure is—”
“I don’t care how clean and hygienic the murder is,” Valeria snapped. “It’s still murder.”
There was a long pause and Valeria knew she had gone too far. This was way past protocol, almost enough to cause a diplomatic incident. Nonetheless she couldn’t back down. Not now. Not in front of these bastards.
Salvation came unexpectedly from Tamar. “I want them to do it here,” she said, her voice less faltering than it had been before. “I want to leave my old life behind, right here.”
The lead angel turned to the girl and nodded, then turned back to Valeria. “We will need a quiet space where we will not be interrupted. The process will take nineteen minutes.”
Valeria sighed, her second defeat during this conversation. “There’s a room in the guard tower,” she said. “A changing room. Kind of appropriate.”
“Thank you,” the lead angel said. The other two angels floated towards Tamar.
Valeria pinched her fingers on the bridge of her nose. “I can show you the way if—”
“We know the way,” the lead angel replied. “We have used the room before.”
Tamar walked towards the guard tower, flanked by angels. The lead angel stayed in position in the courtyard.
“Ain’t you going with them?” Valeria asked.
The lead angel shook its head. “Only two are necessary for sublimation, and they are more experienced.”
“So you’re, what, here as back up?”
“You might call me a liaison,” the angel said.
“Here to stop me interfering with this ‘sublimation’ of yours?”
“If you like,” the angel replied. “Or here as a hostage in case we do something you don’t care for.”
Valeria paused. She hadn’t thought of it like that. “So if something goes wrong with the girl…”
“Your weapon is powerful enough to kill me, yes. You could kill me now if you were so inclined. I can’t speak to what would happen after that.”
Valeria realised she was pointing the rifle directly at the angel, and lowered it. “How long did you say this would take?”
“Nineteen minutes,” the angel replied. “Seventeen now. If you’re worried about Tamar, the process is quite painless.”
“So’s lethal injection,” Valeria snapped.
“Nobody who had a lethal injection could tell you about it afterwards. Having experienced the sublimation process I can guide you through it if you would like. The initial scan of mind-state activity is swift and has already been completed, as has the creation of the primary nanite array. What takes the time is the synchronisation of the array with the existing mind state to create the thoughtform, and the decompliation of—”
“Enough!” Valeria barked. “I don’t need to know every detail of what you’re doing to her. It’s enough to know you bastards won’t stop until there are none of us left.”
“Logically that’s accurate as we will always offer sublimation to those who desire it,” the angel replied. “Rhetorically it’s not accurate to frame this as a takeover or a conquest. If our desire was simply to sublimate you all we could have done so half a century ago.”
“Instead you just let us waste away in goddamn wildlife reserves!”
“The settlements were your idea,” the angel answered. “I believe your constitution calls Gethsemene ‘A place for humans to be humans’. We would happily make room for you in the arcologies, or build one for you, but both options were rejected by your leadership.”
Valeria felt a bitter reply form in her mouth, but swallowed the venom down. “Let’s—” she began. “Let’s talk about something else. You, maybe. Where are you from?”
“I live in the Bei Hanto Xa arcology. Outside of my liaison duties, I spend my time—”
“I don’t care about the arcologies. You said you’d been through the upgrade. You were a human once. Where are you from?”
The angel paused. “It’s considered impolite to talk about our origins,” it said. “It separates those whose thoughtform originates in a human mind from those produced through algorithmic blending.”
Valeria looked away. The last thing she wanted to hear about was the sex lives of these damn things.
“However, you weren’t to know that,” the angel continued. “Yes, my thoughtform was human once. Before my sublimation I lived in the Britannia settlement.”
Valeria snorted disbelief. “Britannia fell apart a century ago. The survivors came here. My grandma told me about it.”
“Yes,” the angel replied.
“Are you trying to tell me you’ve been alive for–”
“It’s considered impolite to talk about our origins,” the angel repeated.
Valeria sighed, and unclipped a pouch on her belt. “Do you eat or drink?” she asked.
“I can,” the angel replied. “We don’t have to, but many of us choose to.”
Valeria pulled two sticks of soy jerky from the pouch and handed one to the angel. She tensed as its hand came near to hers, but concentrated on her breathing until the angel withdrew with the stick.
She leaned against a wall and chewed her jerky, not taking her right hand off the rifle. She flexed her left leg, trying to work off the dull ache in the knee. After she was finished with the jerky, she stared at the angel for a moment, deep in thought.
“I went to school with kids from Britannia families,” Valeria said eventually. “Each of them had family stories about the fall and the exodus. I knew a boy whose great grandfather died on the trip over. Why didn’t you help them?”
“We did,” the angel said. “We gave you as much help as you were willing to take. By the time it was disbanded there were less than a thousand people in Britannia: barely enough to keep the machinery of the settlement together, not enough to support it for any longer.”
“How could there be?” Valeria asked, angrily. “You take their kids. You take their grandparents. You leave nothing behind.”
“We take only those who wish to go. We give the rest of you the best life we can.”
Valeria stood up straight, feeling the stiffness and pain in her back and her leg. “I had a son once,” she said, not sure why she was telling the angel this. “Justin was a beautiful boy, smartest kid you ever met. He played the violin like an angel. Better than an angel, like a human. I loved him as much as he loved me, as much as he hated this place, this ‘best life’ you’ve given us. The day he turned eighteen he called out to you and you took him away from me.”
The angel floated, unmoving and silent. “I’m sorry for your pain,” it said eventually. “You must have loved him very much.”
“As much as his father did. Anthony couldn’t take the loss of his son, couldn’t live in this world without his boy. He stole my sidearm and walked out into the wilderness where I wouldn’t have to deal with his body. I guess he thought he was being kind. He took himself away, but I still blame you. Can you see why your ‘best life’ is a bunch of shit?”
She turned and walked away from the angel. As she did, her knee started to buckle. She steadied herself on the wall.
“Are you all right?” the angel asked.
“Old injury that still plays up,” Valeria said. “It’s worse in winter.”
She felt the angel’s hand on her shoulder, soft and cold.
“We could help you with that,” the angel said in its soft, liquid, inhuman voice.
Valeria spun round, rifle raised. “I swear to fucking God, if you ever touch me again I’ll kill every one of you bastards!”
Despite the angel’s impassive face, it seemed suddenly angry. “I was trying to help!” it snarled, its voice louder and more forceful than she had heard it before. “All we have ever wanted to do is to help you!”
“And all we’ve wanted you to do is to leave us the fuck alone!” Valeria snapped.
“Do you have any idea what it would mean if we left you alone?” the angel asked. “We give you clement weather, clean energy, machines that never break. If we left you alone you’d all be dead within the decade.”
“Well, maybe we’d prefer that to being pets!”
Before anything else could be said, the door to the guard tower opened and the three angels emerged. They were near identical. Valeria spent a moment scanning their faces to see if she could tell which had been Tamar.
It didn’t matter. Tamar was dead. This was just what they had done with her remains.
“Our business here is completed,” the lead angel said.
“Good,” Valeria replied. “Get the fuck off our property.”
Valeria didn’t watch them leave. The angels returned to the heaven they had built, and she walked back into Gethsemene. She was rostered as sentry for another two hours, but right now she didn’t want to look at the world, at anything.
She thought about going to Melchior Plaza. Someone would have to tell Mr and Mrs Halverston what had happened to their little girl; someone would have to destroy their lives just as someone had destroyed Valeria’s.
Instead she went home, to the two-bedroom apartment that was too big for her, crowded with memories of the past. She went into Justin’s old room and looked around at the things he had left behind. She picked up his dusty violin, lay on his bed, and waited in vain for the tears to come.