I rolled to my back. Sand and rock ground into my shoulders and my skin hurt everywhere and my lungs seemed too dry to work properly. But for a moment I forgot all that, because when I looked up, there was a silver bowl over the still landscape. The sky mirrored the desert and the desert mirrored the sky and everything was pale and beautiful.
Dawn was like that in the desert. Translucent and unearthly for a sliver of an hour before sunrise, but bright with heat and blasting sky the rest of the day.
From somewhere, goats bleated pathetically; probably the sound that woke me. Perhaps roused too early from their caprine dreams. I wondered what a goat might dream about.
The sky glowed. The sun broke free of the horizon. And then the heat, again.
I tried to blink away the grit but I didn’t have any tears left. There was no shade, and the sleeveless tunic I wore was no protection at all. I didn’t belong in the desert; my skin, normally so pale it was almost translucent, was blistered and weeping, and my hair, long and silky white, was matted and heavy with sand.
Not far from me were tracks; maybe an old road. Tourist buses used to come to the desert to see the sights—old caravan stops; crusader castles; cities that were ancient even before the Roman legions marched here. But the drought was vast and terrible; mythic, world-destroying, like a Biblical Flood in reverse.
I didn’t know where I was; in this shattered place borders and alliances shifted like the sand. People moved restlessly, dogged by war and famine and uncertainty.
More bleating and the skittering of tiny hooves. A shudder in the air, and for a second I was certain that it was my butterflies returning to help me, but it wasn’t. It was funny, because they’d never been gone for so long before, and I couldn’t imagine what had happened to them. If they didn’t come back soon I would die. People can’t live in a place like this without a lot of help.
I closed my eyes against the terrible whiteness. The goats were close now. I could smell their warm bodies, and then their dry little tongues touched my cheeks.
The world spun. The goats cried out in a way that could break your heart. I could see sparkles of light behind my closed lids, so beautiful.
I woke up in an inside place, so dark and lovely that I would have cried with relief if I’d had tears.
A striped tent, the woven sides flapping in the breeze. A man was there. He trickled water into my mouth and I choked because I couldn’t swallow right. He was patient and after a while I could drink.
He was dressed in pale robes, his hood thrown back. I couldn’t tell how old he was, but he wasn’t old and he wasn’t young. His eyes were very dark, his brow furrowed.
He might be one of the new nomads. The dispossessed, who wandered stateless and unprotected, trying to stay ahead of war and drought.
The world went away and I forgot about being thirsty.
When I woke up again, the man was kneeling by a little fire in the center of the tent. He heated a pot while I watched from where I lay curled on a pile of woven rugs.
It was strange to smell coffee after days of the scentless desert, and although I wanted it my stomach tightened into a hard knot.
He noticed that I was awake, and he spoke to me in English.
“What is your name?” he asked. He repeated the question in Hebrew and then, after a pause, in Arabic.
I could understand all of the languages, but I answered him in Arabic. He seemed surprised. I was surprised, too. I didn’t remember speaking Arabic ever before.
“Legion. My name is Legion.”
He frowned, probably thinking that perhaps I said it wrong or mistranslated it, but if he lived in another place he would recognize what I am simply by the kind of name I have.
I shut my eyes again. It made me tired to think about telling him, because if he didn’t recognize my name then he probably didn’t know anything about the kind of person I was, and it was a lot to explain.
His name was Musef, which made me smile, because it means rescuer.
He was curious about me, but wary. He wondered how old I was, because although I was small, I didn’t speak like a child. His confusion was understandable because the truth is complicated: people like me are ageless.
He asked me many questions in many ways—why were you here, who left you to die in the desert, where are you from—and I explained that I couldn’t remember.
At first he thought I was lying, but after a while, the way he spoke to me changed. He was gentler, and I could tell he thought there was something wrong with my mind. That I was born this way, or that I’d been injured, fundamentally, by the desert.
That wasn’t it. I was just different, in ways that I did not have the capacity to explain. I wanted to answer his questions, but people like me have a different way of remembering. My memories are like water in my hands, and strange knowledge, like fluent Arabic, often bubbles up from what seems to be my very vast subconscious.
“I was sent here to help people,” I kept repeating. He found this to be unconvincing and he asked me about my past: where was I born, where was my family, were they looking for me.
I could only look at him hopelessly. For people like me, the past is nothing and the future is a mirage. Only the now is in clear focus.
He gave up on questions, and I watched while he tended the fire. He got a stew cooking, and then flattened bread and put it right into the coals. He gave me a cup of thick warm milk to drink while we waited for the food.
I could only eat a little, but it was the best meal I have ever had. I was hungry, but it also had to do with the care he took and how he watched to see if I liked it and how he looked pleased when I did.
In the morning, he was outside when I woke up. I heard him speak to the goats and then the scrape of their hooves and their excited bleats, and then there was only the wind. I didn’t like being alone in the desert again, but I was too weak to get up and follow him.
He was gone for a long time, all day. When he came back I nearly wept with relief.
He made a fire. We brushed the ashes from bread and ate it. We drank coffee from tiny cups shaped like half-eggs.
I was much better, and restless in the tent, so he took me out to see the animals. The camels didn’t like me—Musef said they didn’t like anyone—but the goats were fascinated by me. I sat down and they crowded around and I laughed when they nibbled at my hair.
Musef was amused at how much I liked them. He caught the tiniest one by a leg and put it in my lap.
Its mother stared at me with her odd yellow goat eyes, but the baby rested content in my arms. I petted it and wondered how Musef had known that I would like it. I suspected that when your job was herding goats and you occasionally killed and ate them, you might forget how adorable the littlest ones can be.
I watched Musef very carefully, everything he did, and after a few days I knew how to do all the chores that you have to do in a desert camp. It made me happy to finally be useful, and it seemed more likely that he would let me stay if I were not such a burden.
He was guarded at first, but after a while I could tell he was getting used to having me here. He talked of taking me to a border and sending me back to where I came from, but everywhere here was dangerous. I told him that I didn’t belong anywhere and that no one was looking for me, and although this was all true, he was skeptical.
I liked being with him, and it was comforting doing the same thing every day. Eat, take care of the animals. Get water, drink, shake sand from the rugs. He gave up trying to get me to tell him about my past; instead he told me stories from this land: heroes, lovers, monsters. His voice was a sweet thing in this wild, hard place.
One night he took me into the desert and it was phosphorescent and milky, no longer terrifying like it had been when I was alone and dying. Another day we climbed a ridge at dawn to see the flat turquoise swath of the Dead Sea, and that same day we watched the desert turn dull red under a bloody sunset.
Later, there was a spatter of rain, and I looked up astonished, which made him smile.
“You’re easily amazed,” he said when I was thrilled to find out where the milk we drank came from—the camels! I laughed as he showed me how to milk one and I said that sometimes people resist amazement.
I stayed with Musef, weeks, maybe even months, but it was hard to say because people like me don’t mark the time like regular people. And time was hard to mark because each day was the same, except that sometimes we packed everything up and piled it on the camels. We would walk for a day or more until we were in a place with good forage for the animals and then we’d set the tent back up. We never saw a town or another person, and it got even hotter as we went deeper into the desert.
One evening we came over a rise and saw a terrible thing.
I stood still, unable to react, but Musef went down to where the bodies were. He checked carefully for signs of life but there was no hope. Men, women, children, all dead, all partly covered with the shifting sand. Their tents and belongings were broken and scattered.
After a while, I walked down to where Musef was looking at a machine that had been smashed into pieces. It was a portable atmospheric water generator: I knew what it was because I often made them for people who lived in the desert.
There were more nanotech artifacts scattered about: medical packets; an empty pouch of high-nutrient nectar. Sturdy desert tents of impossibly light and strong fabric, the kind that can assemble themselves and unfold like living origami.
I was very tired all of a sudden. Seeing those artifacts triggered memories. It was clear that I had met these people and given them these things, and then they had died because of it. This tragedy was my doing.
Musef came to me. “We need to go,” he said. “We can’t help them, and whoever did this may still be nearby.”
“I gave them these things,” I said. “This was what I was doing. Before you found me.”
He shook his head, not understanding.
“No, not you. This things were made with a molecular assembler. Little machines that can make anything out of atoms.”
He mistook my silence for incomprehension. “You see, there are patrols, looking for people who have these illegal devices—”
“I know what they are: machines that make what people need—they can make anything at all out of almost nothing.” My voice was full of outrage. “They can’t keep this technology from people who are desperate.”
He looked at me strangely. “Governments are afraid. If people can make anything at all, then how can they be controlled? And economies collapse. Trade alliances mean nothing and that causes instability. And instability leads to war.” He looks at me with very dark eyes, like he did the first day. “More war than there is already.”
I scowled at him, stubbornly, and shook my head. “How can someone do this? Kill these people when they were only trying to live?” I kicked the smashed water generator. “You can’t tell a parent of a dying child that they must wait for society to adapt to unlimited resources.”
I didn’t like this conversation. We’d never spoken to each other like this before; in our tent in the desert we didn’t speak of things like molecular assemblers and post-scarcity economies and the collapse of governments, but we were speaking of them now. We both knew more than we had let on.
He shook his head. “In the wrong hands, these devices are the ultimate weapon.”
“I know.” I picked up an empty clip from a carbon-fiber assault rifle and turned it over in my fingers. “I should have made them something better. A rocket launcher. A bomb.”
I could tell he still didn’t understand: he thought I was confused, upset.
“We need to go,” he said, and he turned back toward our tent.
As I followed him, I nearly stepped on a thing that looked like a scrap of white paper mostly buried in the sand.
I picked it up and the little machine flexed its delicate wings weakly—disguised as a butterfly, it was one of the thousands of molecular assemblers that I had left here to make things for these people.
I brushed the sand from its solar panel wings, and it crawled over my palm, tasting my skin with a curled tongue.
It recognized me.
I cupped it carefully in my hands and it thrashed against my fingers. If I let it go, it would get the others, so I had a choice: I could crush it and keep living this life I had grown used to with Musef, or I could set it free to go and bring the others.
Musef called to me to hurry, and I slipped the butterfly into my pocket.
We walked through the night, putting distance between ourselves and the massacre. Neither of us said anything.
I helped him set up the tent, but I was shaking, and that made my fingers nearly useless. He had to retie knots I’d done. Later I spilled the coffee all over the rugs, and tears welled in my eyes.
I was confused: I didn’t know what was wrong with me. People like me aren’t like this; we don’t have sadness the way regular people do.
Musef was upset, too, but when he reached out and laid his fingers lightly on my wrist, I jerked my hand away.
I felt worse, then, because he looked more unhappy, but I don’t like being touched.
I was overwhelmed with regret at the sorrow on his face, so later when he laid down on his rugs I went over to lay down next to him.
He was surprised, but he didn’t make me go back to the other side of the tent like I thought he might. It was uncomfortable to be like this, so close that I was warmed by the heat of his skin, poised in a place I didn’t belong.
He touched my hair, very lightly, just for a moment, and that was okay.
Then, for no reason I could understand, he told me about his family.
He’d had a wife and three little children. They’d been in a refugee camp, cut off from the rest of the world by blockades and soldiers and minefields. He’d taken them there because he thought it would be safer, but like so many places it turned out to be a trap.
He told me how he stole food from people who could not live without it. How he let other children starve to try to save his own. Finally, when things became unspeakable, he found a smuggler to take them out of the country, but the man took their money and left them to die. Musef lived, against his will. He would have died for any one of them but that was not how it happened.
Later, he hunted the smuggler down and killed him. That man had a family, so those children probably died, too.
Finally I understood why Musef was here alone in the quiet of the desert. I didn’t know why I hadn’t guessed this from the start.
I asked what their names were, and he told me in a voice full of anguish.
He spoke for a long time, telling me things he’d never told anyone, sometimes weeping and sometimes icy cold.
There was nothing I could say, and no way for me to comfort him other than by simply lying there next to him, my hands curled between us like tiny animals.
Eventually, exhausted, he lay like a man beaten to near death. I listened to him breathing for a long time. Once I knew he was deeply asleep, I silently stole out of the tent.
I lifted my hands and released the butterfly. It flitted in loose circles around me until it acquired the satellite signal it needed, then it darted off to the north.
Before dawn, the rest of the butterflies returned.
They skittered and scratched at the tent, trying to find a way in. I heard them, and I was instantly awake. Musef woke, too and he was on his feet as I got up.
“Stay here,” he whispered to me. He had a gun in his hand, because he thought he could protect me.
“They are here for me,” I said. My throat was tight and my voice was not mine.
We stepped out into the frenzy of translucent wings. The largest were hand-sized and the smallest mere specks of glitter. Most were luminous and pale but if you looked closely you could see the rare flash of sapphire.
When they recognized me they got more excited and become a blizzard, and there were so many of them that it was hard to see anything else. The goats bleated unhappily and bunched together and the camels pulled at their tethers. Butterfly wings brushed against my skin, each touch barely felt but with so many of them it was overwhelming.
They were relentless and would only get more determined until I did what they wanted, so I stepped away from Musef and lifted my arms.
The butterflies flocked aggressively, like autumn birds in places where it was cold in winter, and they jostled each other as they found their places and fitted together. Some burrowed into my hair, but most clung to my shoulders or trailed down my back, and then the rest of them climbed on and formed long chains and sheets.
After a few minutes of rustling and tickling, they were all where they belonged. I watched Musef’s face as he finally saw me as I am.
The illusion of wings must have been powerful in the moonlight. The butterflies’ delicate bodies all tucked in place, arching up from my shoulders. Soft and layered over the tops, and then chains of the smallest ones stitched together to make flight feathers that drooped almost to the ground. Both wing structures lightly in motion, balancing themselves and gently swaying.
Musef’s face was stricken. If I were a real angel, I suppose I might have performed a miracle, just to break the tension, but the miraculous things I could do took time and weren’t necessarily visually stunning.
For Musef’s sake I stifled my whimper as they penetrated my skin at my shoulder blades and all down my spine. Their tiny nanowire feet searched for the interface fibers and then each butterfly’s body glowed brighter when it connected to my nervous system.
They’d been gone so long that my body wasn’t used to them anymore, and their connections made my muscles twitch and then contract hard. I shut my eyes and let them do it, but it was very painful and I was sorry that Musef had to witness this. I felt him next to me, saying my name, but there was nothing that could stop the butterflies.
This was torture for Musef, I knew, and he seized a butterfly and crushed it in his hand. “Don’t,” I said, but he did it again and my ears were filled with a roaring and my vision went to bloody red.
I’d never thought of the butterflies as something you could love or hate, but I hated them then. Not because of my pain, because that was necessary, but because of Musef’s, which was not.
“I heard about someone like you, once.” Musef’s voice was barely audible. “They caught her and burned her alive.”
He swept his arm and brushed the butterflies off by the hundreds. But they were smart and there were thousands of them. And they were quick, so as soon as he raked his hand down my side they were already crawling back in place.
“Who did this to you?” he asked, and I could tell from his tone that he had an idea of me strapped down, held against my will. Changed—with a knife?— into someone not quite human.
“It wasn’t like that,” I said. I was losing the clarity of thought needed for normal conversation, but I wished I could explain: the ultra-strong and light carbon lattice instead of bones. Artificial glands that made drugs to take away fear and shame and leave only a sense of purpose. A practical symbiosis with the tiny machines, to make the perfect vector to infect the suffering with radical abundance.
Pain, yes, plenty of pain but a good kind: cleansing, atoning. Just the right thing for a person stained by guilt.
But it was impossible to speak with my heart fluttering wildly and my pulse in my ears. I fell, hard. My cheek struck the ground and I tasted blood. Musef spiraled away from me and the desert closed in, white and blazing and terrible.
Musef was carrying me, my cheek bumping lightly against his chest. The sun was fully overhead, and I was burning.
I shivered despite the heat and Musef held me tighter. The butterflies were everywhere, dragging and tangling under his feet. They whipped against our faces like pale ferns.
He took me up to the top of a ridge where the wind was stiff and the sky huge and blue over the parched-white land, and he set me on my feet. I was unsteady, but the butterflies fluttered and kept me upright.
I turned my face upward to the sky, into the hot wind. I flexed my wings and thought of flight.
It was the butterflies. My nervous and endocrine systems were saturated with their wanderlust and I wouldn’t be able to stand it much longer.
I pulled a pale butterfly off and set it in Musef’s hand. I show him its tiny but complex body and the nectar that beaded from its tongue. “An Angel can live on just nectar for a long time,” I explained. “As long as they have sunlight and air and water, the butterflies can make it. So an Angel is never beholden to anyone for food.” I was tempted to drink some, because thinking about nectar made me hungry for it, but the butterflies were settled and I wanted to reassure Musef, not startle him further with Angel feeding behavior.
The way he said my name made hurt my chest hurt. It was hard to breathe.
“I can have them make you whatever you want,” I said. “All they need is some matter to take apart and put back together.” I glanced around. “Sand, maybe, but carbon is best. They’ll forage for whatever elements they need.”
He shook his head. “What would I want?”
That was a good question. Usually the people I met were suffering, and they always needed something, although they often didn’t know exactly what it was. But Musef was perfect and whole and I couldn’t imagine him living in any other way. And the only thing he wanted, for time to be rolled back to avert a tragedy, was beyond the capabilities of even an Angel.
My wings quivered. “Everyone needs something.”
I resolved to not look at him anymore. “But other people here do. The butterflies can make drugs, whole medical clinics. Sewers and wells and walls to keep danger out of villages. Clothing, furniture, anything—”
“Stay with me. You’re happy here. I know it.”
His sadness made me sad. Or I would have been sad, if I weren’t an Angel. Instead I felt a detached patience, an empathy that wasn’t really an emotion at all.
I shrugged, which is a lovely gesture when you have wings. “Angels can’t be the kind of people who have desires, because that’s what causes trouble: people who want the wrong things.”
I plucked another butterfly from my shoulder and placed it in his palm. It was one of the blue ones. Dark indigo veins filigreed patterns in the cerulean wings.
“The blue kind are different—they are the ones that know how to make everything. And they know how to make more of the regular butterflies and more of themselves. They’re smarter than all the others.”
Musef was perfectly still, letting the little machine taste him with its delicate tongue, and in that instant I saw a deeper purpose in why I’d been here.
Musef was smart and kind and he knew what people who live here might need. He could figure out if they needed a desalination plant or guns, or both. He could help them and keep it a secret until it was too late to do anything about it.
The world needed more Angels, many more, and Musef was exactly the kind of person who might volunteer his life: guilty and regretful. Hungry for atonement.
“The blues ones know how to make a person into an Angel,” I explained. “Angels are needed, to be sure the butterflies are used in the right way and given to the people who need them.”
He was dumbfounded. “Like you,” he said finally.
I nodded. “It’s an offer. You don’t have to do it.”
But really, who could resist the opportunity? To become good? Untouched and untouchable; weightless and winged. The possibility of making up for the worst kind of hubris.
My wings unfurled fully. I had wrap my fingers in his robe so I wasn’t swept away.
He closed his eyes and I was unexpectedly filled with an un-angelic wanting. I thought about how gentle he was with the animals and how he would carry water for hours so I could wash the dust from my hair.
“Will you come back?” he asked. “Ever?”
I shook my head, a twinge of regret plucking at my heart. “Angels don’t have a past, Musef.”
Then, before I could even say good-bye, my wings jerked me back and up, like a parachute in reverse.
The remaining sadness drained out of me as I went higher, and it felt good to fly. Even though I watched him for as long as possible, it was only a minute before he was gone in the vastness of the desert.
I’m glad to be an Angel. We—the butterflies and I—save lives. A week or maybe a month ago we made hundreds of thousands of tiny drones to hunt malaria mosquitoes. Yesterday we built homes in a slum, and I can tell that right now the butterflies are hunting for the materials they need to make computers. We scavenge when we need to, and always keep moving.
And, rarely, we find a certain kind of person, a person just like I once was: culpable and suffering and yearning for purity.
I don’t know where we are, because borders are ridiculous things.
Sometimes people shoot at us as we glide past, and sometimes I see helicopters in the distance, but they are just old-world things that will eventually go away when the Angels have done their work.
We bring people the things they need and we give it to them without a price. I live each moment as it comes, without a past and without a future.
But sometimes, I dream—on the wing, as Angels do—of what it was like to be touched. To live in one safe, small place and never fly. Once, I woke thinking of a words in a language I no longer knew.
I wander, like I was made to, but sometimes I can convince the butterflies to take us one place rather than another. I like deserts in particular, especially the way the superheated air takes me up high to where the landscape becomes a wrinkled cloth beneath us.
And often, when a being with bright wings appears on the horizon, I convince the butterflies to let me soar that way, just to see who it was.