The Diamond Noose – Ramez Yoakeim

The Diamond Noose – Ramez Yoakeim

May 2023 cover
May 2023

From the smug grins everyone flashed me as soon as I walked into the precinct, I knew I was in for a nasty surprise. I hadn’t even reached my desk when the lieutenant called me into her glass-bowl office and handed me a new assignment: liaison to the Angels’ Embassy.

I didn’t care for Angels. They looked down on us from their palaces in the sky, pretending to help us survive our broken world while ensuring we’d never learn to do it on our own. Some said it was the Angels who set off the nuclear catastrophe that nearly wiped out life on Earth.

“Wouldn’t this suit a more senior officer?” Or one more junior. Anyone else, really.

The lieutenant jabbed a paper on her desk. “Laila Aboud, requested by name.”

A shiver zapped up my spine. The Angels had hidden eyes in the sky, seeing everywhere, knowing all. They had tentacles in every government, in every department, their shadow behind every throne. How had I managed to attract their attention? “Why me?”

She shrugged. “Ask the Angels when you see them. Do we have a problem here?”

I found myself wondering whose idea it had been to call them Angels.

“No, ma’am.”

Like I had a choice. This job came with a warm bed and three squares, a firearm, and badge that opened doors and dropped eyes. I’d never walk away, no matter what they asked, any more than she would.

After all that, the work was surprisingly mundane. Waiting on my desk every morning was a stack of requests from the Angels Embassy: locate knickknacks stolen from the occasional visiting Angel, or quietly deem accidental the death of a prostitute in the company of another, or round up a bunch of uniforms to form a street cordon for visiting off-world dignitaries. Until I arrived at my desk one day to find a single message requesting my attendance at the embassy, and my heart dropped to my knees. I wanted to get away from Angels, not get closer.

The embassy occupied an old courthouse downtown. In the frigid gloom under Earth’s thick cloud cover, the impeccably restored edifice dwarfed the line of scraggly humanity wrapped around its foundations like a snake about invincible prey.

However the Angels put it, the Transmigration they dangled before those queueing had nothing to do with benevolence. They preyed on our best and brightest, siphoning away those who might help us to break free of our dependence on their conditional aid. Could one of those queuing learn the secrets of fusion one day, or perfect anti-radiation medicines, or discover how to grow crops in poisoned soil, or put an end to the Angels plunder of our water and minerals, or lead us in overthrowing the tyrants they installed to rule us? Not when those with potential got spirited away to the sky.

The queuing adults eyed me warily as I made my way to the uniform separating the line’s head from its tail, barring the serpent from becoming an ouroboros. He glanced at my badge and waved me through. Inside, I handed the private security guard my sidearm. “I had no idea they started queueing this early.”

“Some never leave.” The guard saw me roll my eyes and grinned, his words chasing me to the elevator. “Sometimes, a dream is all that keeps us alive, officer.”

A fool’s dream of an easy life concerned only with pleasure. Then again, had my lot in life been harsher, perhaps I’d have queued with them.

I wasn’t prepared for the mechanical giant waiting for me when the elevator’s doors parted. Spindly inside the exoskeleton that afforded her mobility in Earth’s gravity, Inspector Geraldine Hoff’s skin was as pale as mine was brown, as if we’d been birthed from opposite ends of a monochromatic palette. Her hairless scalp, elongated sloping forehead, and large inky eyes cast as much doubt on our alleged common ancestry as the missing wings myth had it Angels grew to fly around their low-gravity palaces.

While the building’s exterior and entrance remained largely faithful to its original layout, the interior bore no resemblance to anything I’d ever seen before. Hoff led me from the lift to a flat-floored ovoid space uniformly lit by the walls themselves. With a whirring flick of her hand, Hoff gestured me towards a blob that oozed up on command and reformed into a stool.

She briefed me on a missing Angel. The Conjurer was the nom-de-plume of an artist who composed dreams as a form of entertainment. These visions eschewed euphoric sex or heroic triumph—the sort that’d exhilarate us dirt dwellers—instead, they explored the darker side of the human psyche, torments that Angels no longer experienced. “Any questions?”

I didn’t have to ask what the Conjurer was doing on the surface. Where else would he find the human trauma to mine for his art? “How does an Angel get lost? No offense, but you stand out down here.”

“More reason to suspect something happened to this Angel, wouldn’t you say?” Hoff bristled at the common moniker. I’d had no idea they considered it pejorative. In their shoes, I’d have been flattered. Would they have preferred us to call them demons?

“What exactly do you think I can do that your fancy gizmos can’t?”

“Retracing the Conjurer’s steps means going places we don’t often venture. My bosses, and yours, want a local along to deal with the natives. No offense.

It would’ve also been politically unpalatable for my bosses to have an undoubtedly armed Angel terrorizing the populace without at least the veneer of local authority, and it didn’t hurt to have me around to take the blame when things went awry.

“A chaperone, basically.”

Hoff smiled thinly. “Think of it as an opportunity to demonstrate your usefulness.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that.

Mildly acidic drizzle scattered off Hoff’s flying egg onto the corroded tin roofs of the lean-tos below. Despite the webbing securing me to the seat, my inner ear kept insisting I was falling towards the transparent shell. White-knuckled, I hung onto the seat and fought off motion sickness, only half-listening to Hoff.

After one particularly sharp banking turn, Hoff glanced at me. “You’re turning a worrying shade of green.”

I clamped my jaws shut against the rising bile and inflated my lungs with the egg’s sweet clean air. “I’m fine.”

She pursed her lips and returned her attention to the scarred Earth slipping by below. With little light penetrating the thick, ash-laden clouds, we would all have perished long ago, had it not been for the Angels’ magic-like power generation, foodstuffs, and medicines. That their largesse came with strings attached surprised no one. That those strings soon formed a noose that held us hostage to their demands shouldn’t have surprised anyone.

To shift my focus away from the vertiginous view, I turned to Hoff. “Did the Conjurer stray far during his visits?”

Hoff hesitated. “Sightseeing, entertainment. Nothing out of the ordinary.”

She meant poverty safaris and brothels. There was little else for Angels on the surface.

“Could he have gotten lost?” How would the mobs treat a lost Angel? I liked to think some would be hospitable, but I feared that others wouldn’t be, and I couldn’t bring myself to condemn either.

Hoff shook her head. “He knew his way around.” She seemed on the verge of saying more but didn’t.

Changing tack, I teased her, “Did you know most people think y’all have wings?”

“Wings?” Hoff frowned back at my smile. “We …” she paused, searching for words, “change bodies like you might clothes. Not as often, but subject to similar whims of fashion and taste. Body parts, like wings or extra eyes or gills and fins, come and go, and are sometimes taken to extremes. Many of my friends forgo bodies entirely to live in the Abstract.”

“And that is?”

“Never mind, it’s hard to explain.” I couldn’t tell whether she was boasting or embarrassed.

The egg lurched briefly and I gasped.

Hoff gave me a sidelong glance. “Your file didn’t say anything about fear of flying.”

I realized I was still holding onto the seat. “I’ve never flown before, give me time.” I tried to let go, but couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. “What else did my file say?”

“That you’re insubordinate, pigheaded, and cantankerous.”

“They could spell cantankerous?”

Hoff laughed, and I found myself laughing along, for a moment oblivious to the gulf separating us.

“But it also said you have the highest clearance rate of any officer in your department.”

They had asked for me by name. I still didn’t quite know what to make of that and pushed it aside to ruminate over later.

“Quite the accomplishment, considering how young you are,” Hoff added.

I’d never thought of thirty-two as young. Angels were rumored to be immortal, but I put little stock in such claims. If only half of those rumors were true, it would have made them veritable gods. “How old are you?”

She smiled coyly and waved away my question. “Longevity’s overrated.”

“I’d happily part with an arm and both legs to see my fiftieth birthday.” With life expectancy in the mid-forties, I found the idea of anyone living to a hundred obscene, let alone longer. How did Angel offspring feel about parents who lingered? Was overpopulation as much of a problem in orbit as it was on the surface?

Hoff stared wistfully into the distance, seeing something in the murky gloom I couldn’t. “When life is short, your choices are consequential. Which path you take in life matters more because you only ever get to make a few choices. Live long enough and you end up exploring every path in turn, chasing every dream. What good is success if it’s only a matter of time?”

I could tell she sincerely meant it, almost as if she envied me my short miserable life. How easy it was for those well fed to bursting to preach the virtues of restraint to the starving.

Hoff pitched the egg down, drawing my eyes to an expanse of pockmarked, corrugated metal roofs below. Having never seen the area from above before, it took me a moment to recognize where we were. “We can’t land here.”

“It’s the Conjurer’s first stop after leaving the embassy. The first deviation from his usual itinerary.”

“You don’t understand. This is Serpent Head’s territory. If we land uninvited, he’s as likely to feed us to his dogs as answer our questions.”

“I’d like to see him try.”

“I wouldn’t!” Though I’d count it progress to be rid of him and his flunkies, innocent bystanders were bound to get caught in any confrontation, and for what? To satisfy Hoff’s desire to appear tough and powerful? Who was she trying to impress? “You wanted a local to deal with the natives, and this local is telling you to stay the hell away from these natives.”

Hoff ignored me and took the egg lower. “I’ll land there.” She nodded at a stone-paved plaza festooned with tattered bunting and lit with dim, oil-burning lanterns.

By the time the egg touched down, everyone had scattered, leaving the market eerily quiet, aside from the hissing of swaying lamps and the incessant strumming of caustic drizzle on improvised awnings.

“Good luck finding anyone who’ll talk to us now,” I muttered, steeling myself against the sour miasma wafting through the egg’s open hatch.

Hoff gracefully eased the considerable bulk of her exoskeleton out into the open, oblivious to the stench. “They’re bound to come out eventually.”

“That’s not how it works down here, how we work,” I fumed. Why have me along if she wasn’t going to listen to anything I said? “You can’t just blunder your way to your missing Conjurer with this confidence act, no matter how convincing.”

She cast her eyes down, looking slightly abashed, and I felt a little guilty for my outburst.

I set to scanning the deserted clearing, when a boy bolted from a cart he might have been napping under, towards a dark alley and right into my arms. About ten or twelve, though so thin it was impossible to say for sure, the boy squirmed in my grip, eyes wide with fear.

“Let go, pig,” he demanded, his bass rumble at odds with his small frame.

“Settle. I’m not going to hurt you,” I said. “There’s a half-dinar in it for you if you answer my questions.”

The boy stopped bucking and regarded me with wide, greedy eyes. “Ten dinars.”

It was a familiar routine. “You don’t even know what I’m going to ask you.”

Suddenly, floodlights lit the clearing—an extravagant display for a planet starved of power. Reflexively, I let go of the boy’s scruff and shielded my eyes. His bare feet barely left a mark on the frozen slush as he ran away.

“Kadir’s a good lad. He’d never betray his kin for anything less than five dinars.” A short, plump man swaggered into view. A tattoo of a snake head in faded indigo and crimson ink covered the left side of his temple, its lean body running down his cheek, under the thicket of a rampant salt-and-pepper beard, and reappearing down the side of his bullneck before disappearing again under his coat’s collar. “Are you lost, sweetheart?” Serpent Head asked mockingly. Under the blue-white glare, his shaved head shone like oiled mahogany.

From Hoff’s exoskeleton an aura swelled, glowing an ominous red-tinged orange.

Serpent Head regarded her contemptuously. “It’s true we have little to live for down here, but believe me, we don’t die cheaply.” A racket of cocking rifles followed.

“Stop!” I raised my arms. “We didn’t come here looking for trouble.”

“Trouble?” Serpent Head thundered with practiced menace. “What trouble would that be, sweetheart?”

Hoff covered the distance separating us in a wink. “Call her sweetheart one more time and I’ll dispatch you like the vermin you are.”

Serpent Head matched her advance, his stomping army in lockstep. Instinctively, I stepped in-between. “Enough,” I infused my voice with every command authority trick I’d learned walking the beat. “We’re only here for information,” I continued in a measured tone. “An Angel stopped here a few days ago.”

I nodded to Hoff, who asked. “What did he want?”

Serpent Head alternated his focus between my eyes as if one would betray the other. “What’s in it for me?”

As soon as he’d finished speaking, Hoff pulled out a small silver box and threw it at him. He grabbed it midair and turned it in his hand, examining it. “What the hell is this?”

“Enough pills to offset five-hundred Sieverts,” Hoff said.

I glowered at her. Unlike a coin tossed to a street urchin, bribing Serpent Head with a small fortune in medicine only created a bigger problem. Not that it’d matter to the Angels, not when they had us to clean up their messes.

Serpent Head nodded approvingly at the box. “Your Angel wanted a sedative and—funnily enough—anti-radiation pills. For another one of these,” he shook the pills in their container, “I’ll tell you where he went next.”

“No need.” Hoff’s forcefield deflated, cooling to a muted indigo-blue as she walked back to the egg, winking out entirely once inside. I scrambled after her. The moment the hatch sealed, the egg shot upwards, pinning me to my seat.

“I could have gotten him to tell us where your Conjurer went next,” I grumbled.

“That, I already know.”

“Were you planning on telling me?” How could she not understand that to help her, I had to know what I was helping with. Keeping her cards so close to her chest was hurting more than my feelings, it was handicapping our chances of finding the Conjurer. Any investigator worth their salt would’ve known that. What did Hoff actually do for work up there, parking enforcement?

She saw me glowering and relented. “He went to a bordello, then disappeared without a trace.”

So much for Angels eyes seeing everything, knowing all. If an Angel could evade their all seeing eyes, could we too?

One moment, we were drowning in a murky ashen sea, and the next, we burst into an inverted, indigo-hemmed, blue ocean. Against that dazzling expanse, the Angels’ crystal palaces glinted like a glittering diamond necklace girding the Earth, an achingly beautiful noose. Despite the blinding brightness, I couldn’t turn away, until my eyes watered and reflexively gummed shut. Hoff noticed and polarized the shell into near opacity. “Is this better?”

I watched the fading kaleidoscopic afterimage on the inside of my eyelids, my gratitude for her thoughtfulness warring with resentment. When again would I get a chance to see sunshine, however blinding? For centuries, our leaders had promised a day when the clouds would finally part. Meanwhile, when-the-sun-shines had come to mean never. “Thank you.”

As I reopened my eyes, blinking away the moisture pooling on my lashes, a nagging feeling I had since we took off from the marketplace coalesced into a question. “Why did the Conjurer buy radiation pills on the black market? Unlike yours, the local ones are useless as currency.”

“Currency?” Hoff scolded. “Is that the gratitude we get for helping you survive?”

“You want our gratitude for exploiting us?” I responded in kind. “Everything you do, you do for yourselves. Every time you bribe someone like Serpent Head, you strengthen his hand and ensure generations of Kadirs never rise to challenge your interests.”

“If you’re going to blame us for Serpent Head, you have to ask yourself this: Why would we bother sabotaging your endeavors when you do such a fine job of it on your own? Everything you accuse us of, Laila, you are yourself complicit in.”

I smarted from the truth.

Hoff broke the silence that ensued. “Must we quarrel about things that have nothing to do with the two of us? I don’t blame you for every fault of your people. Why blame me for mine?”

“Because you have a say. You get to vote on the decisions your people make. You decide what’s right and what’s not. I don’t. I live and die by the edicts of the tyrants you installed as our rulers. How our troubles started may not have been your fault, but we’re still in a mess, centuries later, because it serves your interests. You use us, Geraldine.”

“Can’t we leave politics to the politicians?”

“Why am I here, Geraldine? And don’t give me this bullshit about locals and natives. You don’t listen to anything I say anyway. There’s nothing I’ve done you couldn’t have done on your own.”

“You’re wrong, Laila.” Hoff paused and regarded me diffidently, before continuing. “Back home, there are no hardships, no risks. We’ve forgotten pain, fear, hunger. When we set out to rid ourselves of human weakness, we ended up discarding our instincts instead. You effortlessly saw through my bravado in the face of the first hitch we faced. I’m overwhelmed by your world and woefully unprepared for it. I can’t finish this on my own.”

She’d called me by my first name twice now. A sincere familiarity, or another manipulation? I couldn’t tell. Then I realized that I too had called her by her first name. Was I trying to manipulate her in return, or had I simply forgotten she was an Angel?

“Then tell me why the Conjurer needed anti-radiation pills, when his aura would’ve protected him as yours protects you,” I paused for a response, but Hoff only shrugged. “You said your people choose their bodies. Could he have chosen a body that is susceptible to radiation?

Hoff’s eyes glazed over for a heartbeat or two. “It’s not. His current corpus is an older model than mine, but similarly immune to radiation. Curiously, though, he hasn’t upgraded his for nearly twenty years.”

“The same period he’s been visiting the surface, give or take?”

Hoff turned towards me so fast, I recoiled, driving my head deeper into the headrest. “How did you know that?”

“My guess is, the Conjurer wasn’t born an Angel.”

“No one is born—” Hoff stopped mid-sentence. “—into Transenlightenment.”

“You don’t have kids?” I’d never even heard a rumor about that. I wouldn’t have believed it had anyone else told me. How could a people survive without having offspring? “Why not?”

Hoff shook her head. “You first. How did you work all this out?”

“If the Conjurer didn’t need the pills, then they had to be for one of us, for someone he knew. Had he sourced them the way you had, you’d have a record of it. Maybe he wouldn’t have been able to explain why he needed them or for whom.” I paused, giving Hoff another opportunity to tell me I was wrong. She said nothing. “Circumventing obstacles and challenging limits is something we have to do, dozens of times every day, just to survive. But you just said those sorts of instincts are lost to you, which would make the Conjurer a more recent Angel. One who hadn’t yet shed his hard-won survival instincts. One who still has people here he cares enough about to risk doing business with the likes of Serpent Head. Who is it? After twenty years, his parents are likely dead. A lover then, or a child?”

Hoff’s response was slow coming. “I don’t know.”

I snorted and turned away from her, shaking my head.

“We don’t keep those sorts of records. We never had to,” she added heatedly. After a pause, she drew in a deep breath before continuing. “To answer your earlier question, the longevity treatments preclude pregnancy. We could have found ways around that, but at some point we decided we didn’t want to, and however long we live, we too die. So, we invite the deserving among you to join us. We expect and accept a measure of nostalgia for their former lives, until new possibilities sets them free of their past. Why would we need records of their old lives?”

I thought of the coiling queue outside the embassy and shivered. Did those queuing know the price of becoming an Angel was to give up everyone they’d ever loved? “You expect a spouse to forget their mate, a parent to abandon their children, a friend and neighbor to forswear their community after a measure of nostalgia?”

She shrugged. “I don’t remember what family I once had, or even if I had one.”

Where did she think she’d come from, a seed pod? All humans had families, born or found, small or sprawling, loving or venom-filled. They might not like them or want them, but they had them. Whom had the Conjurer left behind twenty years ago? How long had it taken Hoff to forgot those she’d abandoned? “Geraldine, why are you searching for the Conjurer? The truth, please.”

“He took something he shouldn’t have.”

I waited for her to elaborate, but that was all she would say.

After Serpent Head’s hostile reception, Madam Sparrow’s solicitous guards seemed downright hospitable. They ushered us through the darkened brothel to their mistress’s alcove in the back where she fussed over a young woman’s makeup.

Madam Sparrow watched our approach with naked appraisal. A firm hand to the small of the back propelled the young woman towards us. Midstride, her heel caught on the tail of her two-sizes too-long dress and she tripped. Hoff caught her before she face-planted, and helped her back to her feet. “How old are you, child?”

Madam Sparrow leered at Hoff, answering before the young woman could, “Old enough. You could be her first.”

Hoff wrinkled her nose. “Revolting. Inhuman.”

I bridled at Hoff’s patronizing self-righteousness, especially coming from someone who’d remorselessly sacrificed her family, even their memory. “At least she’s warm, well-fed, and has somewhere dry to lay her head at night. So long as no one’s forcing her, I have no quarrel with her choices.” I turned to Madam Sparrow. “We’re not customers. We’re looking for an Angel who visited your establishment a few days ago.”

“I have no idea who you’re talking about.” Up close, grey roots peeked from under the edges of Madam Sparrow’s platinum-blonde wig.

“I can think of a few ways to jog your memory, none of them good for business.”

Madam Sparrow glowered at me, but eventually her rounded shoulders slumped, the fire in her eyes replaced by a heavy weariness that could flatten mountains. “I don’t know where he went, alright? Years ago, before he left to become an Angel, he brought his woman here. Paid well for her upkeep too, and she doted on the girls like the children they never had. Every few weeks, he’d visit for a day or two. This time, he took her and left.”

Hoff shook her head. “No, he didn’t. He entered through your front door and never left.”

Madam Sparrow bobbed her head coyly. “Not by the front door, no.”

Hoff had to fold her frame at the waist to fit into the back door’s antechamber. Behind the raised hem of a faded wall tapestry, the tunnel’s mouth was pitch black. Narrow and low-ceilinged, it swallowed my pocket torch’s beam, dispersing it without illuminating its confines.

“Where does it lead?” Hoff asked Madam Sparrow.

“The woods, an hour on foot south of town.”

The hairs on my nape bristled. “The haunted woods?”

Hoff sighed audibly. “It’s not haunted.”

Madam Sparrow put her hands on her hips. “Haunted or not, some very important clients rely on this tunnel’s discretion,” she cautioned, her emphasis leaving me in no doubt she meant Angels. “Compromise it at your peril.” With a huff, she turned and left.

“The woods are only mildly radioactive, but that’s enough to turn them into a blind spot for our orbital sensors. I should have thought of that when we couldn’t locate him.” Hoff peered into the tunnel. “Did you want to go first or should I?”

“After you, but it’s quite narrow. You might get stuck.”

“The injury to my dignity would be far worse, if we were to fail.”

We emerged from the side of a low hill into a dense thicket of dead poplars lumbering side by side like funereal guards. Their naked branches sagged under the accumulated snow. A burden which the chilling wind forced them to shed periodically, obscuring whatever tracks our quarry might have left.

Hoff deposited a blue pill in my hand. “Take this.”

My eyes fixed on the tiny pill. “Trust is a two way street, Geraldine.” Somehow, unconsciously, Angel Inspector Geraldine Hoff had become merely Hoff, my partner, and my partner Hoff had morphed into my friend, Geraldine. I expected commensurately more from her. “I’ve trusted you plenty so far. I got into your flying egg having never flown before, jumped between you and Serpent Head to stave off disaster, and threatened Sparrow to find your Conjurer. Now’s your turn.”

“There’re things you don’t need to know. But I never deceived you.”

“In a true partnership, you don’t get to decide what I need to know. That’s something you do with an underling. Prove to me I’m not just a useful dirt dweller to use and discard.”

Hoff held my stare unblinkingly for a few heartbeats before relenting. “What do you want to know?”

I closed my fingers around the pill to steady my shaking hand. “What did the Conjurer steal?”

“It’s not what you think,” Hoff said quietly, her voice barely audible over the wind whistling through dead branches. “The nanites he stole protect the newly transmigrated from the perils of life in orbit—cellular damage caused by cosmic radiation, bone loss, cardiovascular irregularities—until they’re ready for new bodies immune to those problems.”

I popped the pill into my mouth and swallowed. It left a bitter aftertaste. “What else are you not telling me?”

Hoff ignored me and marched off into the faintly luminescent forest in a cloud of mechanical noises.

We searched the forest on foot, our progress punctuated by the wheezing and whistling wind, the concert of Hoff’s exoskeleton, and the crunches and squishes of rotting debris and frozen twigs in the snow-covered underbrush.

Hoff peered into the darkness, seeing what no human eye could. Midstride, she grabbed my arm and whispered, “Thermal gradient ahead.”

A hundred meters later, we glimpsed a log cabin nestled in a copse of dead cedars. Its roof sagged under accumulated snow and a muted orange glow spilled from between the planks of its boarded windows.

“He’s here, the Conjurer. This close, I can detect his exoskeleton,” Hoff said. “Please wait here. I don’t know if he’s armed, and I can’t neutralize him and protect you at the same time.” She didn’t wait for me to respond, and started trudging through the snow towards the cabin’s back door.

Every time I thought I’d peeled back her last façade, Hoff surprised me with another shell inside. Secrets within secrets, manipulations masquerading as truths. Whether there was someone I’d recognize as human at the core of that matryoshka doll, I didn’t know, but I was done trusting. I had to see for myself.

The moment Hoff moved out of sight, I set off towards the front of the cabin and didn’t stop until I’d mounted the low-rise porch’s warped wooden steps and peeked inside. The cabin was dark beyond a circle of light shed by a flameless lantern of an unfamiliar design set on the floor. Facing it was an Angel in an exoskeleton, not unlike Hoff’s, sitting on his haunches by a pile of soiled rags. The door creaked when I pushed it open and the Conjurer looked up at me.

I’d seen that all-too-human vacant gaze of despair before. In the eyes of a mother cradling the lifeless body of her starved infant, or a child staring uncomprehending at the remains of his parents on a pyre. Crying tearlessly and swaying gently to a morose tune only the bereaved could hear, an insistent yet futile attempt at self-soothing.

The Conjurer’s blood-smeared fingers trembled, every flutter amplified by his exoskeleton. As I approached, the mess on the floor resolved to a vague human outline that had somehow been turned inside out. The stench caught in my throat like a punch to the gut. I bent to the side and retched.

He muttered something, repeating it at the threshold of audibility. I wiped my mouth on the back of my cold hand and leaned closer as Hoff walked in through the back door.

Dazed, the Conjurer moaned endlessly, “I killed her. I killed her.”

I sat on the porch steps, lost in thought and breathing hard to purge the stench from my nose. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was the Conjurer’s raw grief that unmoored me. It was all too human. Was it only the newly transmigrated who retained these shadows of their former self? How long before even those echoes faded? Did Hoff feel anything at all anymore, and if not, was she still human?

When the porch floorboards creaked behind me, I summoned my composure with hurried gulps of frigid air, brushed the freezing moisture off my cheeks, and looked up to find Hoff standing over me. “What’ll become of him?”

“He stole restricted technology and inflicted great harm with it. That love motivated him won’t excuse his transgression.”

“He couldn’t have known it’d kill her.” I felt sure any punishment the Angels had in store would pale next to his loss.

Hoff bobbed her head, the gesture both oppressively familiar and discomfiting in its otherness. “The nanites are lethal when administered under gravity. Instead of healing her ills, they unraveled her body at a molecular level. They were never meant for surface dwellers. He should’ve known better.”

I nodded, not because I agreed, but because I could imagine how he felt. He hadn’t wanted the wife the Angels had rejected to die alone. He either hadn’t known the nanites would be lethal on the surface or hadn’t believed it. Who could blame him, after a life filled of Angel half-truths and outright lies? I figured becoming an Angel himself wasn’t enough to erase that ingrained suspicion we all shared of our sky-dwelling exploiters and benefactors.

I pulled myself up and brushed the snow off my clothes, puzzled at how dry and warm Hoff appeared inside her protective cage.

We both stood staring into the darkness, taking in both the darkness we faced and that behind us. Hoff broke the spell, speaking softly, barely louder than the whistling wind and shivering branches. “Wish we’d met under better circumstances. Still, we make quite the team, you and I.”

I smiled a little at that, having no idea what other circumstance she imagined would have brought an Angel and someone like me together. “Until the next time one of yours goes missing, then.”

“It doesn’t have to be. Inspector Laila Aboud has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?”

I groaned. “Please tell me all of this wasn’t just a recruitment test.”

Geraldine shook her head, the exoskeleton straining like a laden truck attempting a steep hill. She reached out an arm and the exoskeleton peeled back, blooming around her hands. Her skin was warm and soft against my frigid hands. “Must you suspect every motive, distrust everyone?”

“Occupational hazard, I’m afraid.” Not to mention your duplicitous manipulations, I thought to myself, but held my tongue.

“Well? Would you like to become an Angel?” Hoff said, as if proposing, hastening to add with a slight nod towards the cabin, “The proper way.”

“It’s a big leap to leave everyone and everything I know behind.”

Hoff bobbed her head. “It’s not obligatory. In time, your priorities will change. Your past will fade into the deepest recesses of your memory, until it’s beyond recall. It works out for the best in the end.”

“It didn’t for the Conjurer.”

“And see where it led him.”

I shook my head. Angels were a cautionary tale, not a model to emulate. No matter how hard they tried, they’d never be truly human again. We had to survive if there were to be humans walking the Earth in another thousand years.

Hoff smirked a little. “You’re telling me you’ve never thought about it?”

Gently, I reclaimed my hands from Geraldine’s and shoved them into my pockets. “I don’t think there’s anyone who hasn’t, but fantasizing with my feet planted firmly on the ground is not the same as throwing it all away to chase the unknown.” I was sorely tempted to say yes, if for no other reason than for a chance to see that diamond noose again, to revel in its brilliance before, left unchecked, it choked the life out of our species.

“You won’t regret it, trust me.”

Hoff’s palpable excitement left me unsure how she’d react if I flatly declined. “Could I think about it?”

Despite the puzzled surprise etched on her face, Hoff’s smile lingered. “Take as long as you need.”

I nodded and looked away, my eyes drawn upwards to the starless darkness enveloping the Earth. I knew I’d never belong up there, any more than the Conjurer had. I belonged to the earth. To those used and forgotten. I didn’t count myself one of Earth’s best or brightest; I’d never be a fusion physicist or a horticulturist, or even a revolutionary, but perhaps, when the time came, I could do my small part.

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