Note: This story was originally submitted to the Writer’s Market Short Fiction contest, Fall 2012. As I didn’t win, I’m reposting it here. Enjoy!
“Grandpa, tell me a story,” the boy said. He leaned back and waited, nearly toppling off the bent trunk of the tree, looking up at the old man.
The old man squinted in the late afternoon sunlight. He was old, and had been for longer than the boy could remember; but it was only lately, as his eyesight had begun to dim and his back to ache, that he felt old. The boy, on the other hand, was so young it hurt to look at him. “And what kind of story do you want to hear?” He knew the answer already; Jesse was nine, and there was only one topic capturing his attention these days.
“Tell me a story about the Angels.” He saw the look on the old man’s face, and mistook it for disapproval. “Grandpa, you know all the stories,” he began to plead. “You know everything there is to know about the Angels. You can—“
“I hear you, boy, I hear you,” the old man interrupted. “I’ll tell you a story.” He paused. “But”—and he leaned over, as much as his hurting back would allow, to whisper conspiratorially—“you must not tell your grandma that I’ve told you this story. We will never have a moment’s peace if you do. You understand?” The boy nodded; he was in on the game now. Secrets were a boy’s bread and butter.
“Very well.” The old man sat up straight again, bracing himself on his cane. “I think you’re old enough now. This story, my child, is not about the Angels alone.” He frowned, and his face darkened; the boy suppressed a shudder. “I will tell you about the Demons, and how they came to be.” He waited a moment; the boy was appropriately awed. “Do you know about the terrible, awesome power that brought the Demons into this world? There is only one force capable of such a mighty deed.” The boy managed a “no,” but only barely. “Then I’ll tell you the name of that mighty power.” He leaned forward again, almost in the boy’s face, and dropped his voice to a whisper.
I can barely remember the time before my transformation. For all that my Augmented brain can do, it renders my old life in a haze. Sometimes I think that it must be on purpose; after all, we Augments—Angels, as the non-modified humans call us—are both much more and so much less than human. If our Masters allowed us to remember our human lives, we might rethink our commitment.
A few things I do remember. My name is Daniel. I was named, as all the men and women of my community, for biblical personages. Daniel was a prophet, and the name is apt, for I am living my own future; Augments are gifted with long life—that is, we do not die at all, or even age. The nanotechnology streamed throughout my body keeps my telomeres from shortening, halting the aging process; as well, it constantly heals me, preventing me from suffering the diseases of old age. Almost everyone I knew in life is gone, now—all but one.
This is the other thing I remember clearly. I was married, once. Her name was Michel, a slightly-more-feminine version of Michal. Her namesake was the daughter of one king, the wife of another, and from what I recall, a bitter and spiteful person. My Michel was neither. Her, I remember clearly, not because of the strength of the memories, but because she, too, is an Angel. We didn’t choose this life—no one does; the Augments hold Selections in which they choose a few humans to join their ranks. We were fortunate (or maybe unfortunate) enough to be the only couple ever taken together. Fortunate, in that we have forever; unfortunate, in that we can’t spend it together. Augments serve alone, or in small groups, but we have no control over whom we serve with.
I haven’t seen Michel, or heard from her, in one hundred and thirty years.
Our purpose is to maintain order in the solar system. Humans have long since spread, nearly a thousand years ago, but its diaspora from Earth was hidden under a series of regional wars that accounted for great swaths of population just…disappearing. Earth is still in the dark, save for its leaders; it’s a backward place, I know now. The other planets, moons, and stations in the system: well, let’s just say that they don’t always get along. Humans and their squabbles. That’s where we come in. Our Masters—men and women like us, but with capabilities far beyond our already-considerable powers—created us to maintain, not peace, but balance in the system, and thus shape its course. It seems so obvious to us; but it seems the humans have no idea. Well, I was like that myself, once.
I was settling a border dispute on the partially-terraformed Jovian moon Ganymede when it happened. Two colonies, each dominated by an industrial group, fighting over a newly-located mineral deposit that butted on both of their territories. This was the kind of intervention I preferred—the kind that didn’t require talking; basically, “If you can’t play nice, neither of you gets the toy.” A lot of blowing things up. I wasn’t alone; I had a partner for this mission, an Augment named Aristotle—poetic for a man who specialized in destroying things. I was lying on a ridge, clad in armor, sighting down the barrel of my armor’s integrated cannon, targeting a tank of reactive gases, and waiting for the right moment. Aristotle hid on the opposite ridge, looking down on the valley, watching for the armed guards to move into position. His was the only location in the area with an appropriate line of sight. We had already destroyed much of the infrastructure laid by both sides; blowing this tank would, we calculated, set off a reaction that would destroy the rest of the mining apparatus in the valley. We wanted the guards clear, but they were taking their time.
“This makes no sense,” Aristotle’s voice said in my mind. He spoke via the Unety, the network of minds that our enhanced brains gave us access to. Like “Angels”, that wasn’t the official term—it was a joke, coined by some Augment with a sense of humor, a mishmash of the terms “Unity” and “Net.” Of course it had stuck. “Not only are there half as many guards this time, but they’ve been on time with every other patrol. Why change now?”
“It’s the only target we haven’t destroyed,” I said. The missing guards troubled me, but not much. “Of course they would be wary. If this site goes up, there won’t be anything left to fight for. It will cost them too much to rebuild here.”
“Perhaps,” he said. There was a pause, then: “I wonder if there is any connection to the attacks.”
I knew what he meant. For months, there had been attacks directly against the Augments. It was unheard of; people fought back when they faced us, but they had never been so foolish as to attack us unprovoked. It was ludicrous. No humans had ever overcome even one Augment in battle; we were too powerful for that. It was why, all too often, our reputation preceded us, ending disputes before we ever arrived. Nevertheless, it was happening, if unsuccessfully thus far. “I don’t think so.”
“It would be interesting—wait. There. They are approaching the edge of the blast radius…now.”
I didn’t answer; I just thought my weapon through its firing sequence. Plasma tore into the tank; and the entire valley erupted as every buried pipe and transfer point went up in succession. The guards’ transports were flung over onto their tops by the shockwave, but the men inside would survive. My work done, I stood to return to our shuttle…and froze as two different but equally urgent voices drove through my brain like daggers. One was Aristotle; the other…
No matter what I thought I was hearing, I shoved it away with an effort of will. The other ridge, where Aristotle had stood, was topless now as a landslide roared over his position. Flame jetted from the lowered ridgeline, and I knew what had happened. It was a trap laid for us. One faction or another—maybe both together—had run a new pipeline up the ridge, to the only place available for a lookout over the guard lines, effectively blasting the ridgeline. They knew we would strike this spot, but they mustn’t have known there were two of us; they expected to need only one trap.
I was running before all of this had gone through my mind, leaping from crag to crag, my black armor invisible against the dark rock. I was halfway up the rockslide as the missing second contingent of guards came over the top of the wounded ridge; but they weren’t prepared for me. I tightened the bore of my weapon, reducing the plasma to human-sized rounds, and picked them off. Before they knew they were down, it was over. Instantly I released the cannon, which dissolved into the armor of my right arm; I scanned the new slope and located Aristotle, alive but immobile under tons of rock. He could suspend his metabolism and thus survive without air, but not for long. Scanning the ridge again for weaknesses I could exploit, I began shifting boulders, sending them rolling down the slope toward the flames below.
Suddenly I froze, Aristotle forgotten, as the second voice struck me again—this time, not to be ignored.
The Unety can be accessed in many ways. At the lowest level, it is data, downloaded by the processors in our brains. At a higher level, it is used for mental speech, as I had done with Aristotle. The highest level of access transports our minds free of our bodies; the Unety becomes a nearly physical place for us, one that we can see and interact with. At this level, we can reach each other over great distances, speaking as to each other’s faces. I found myself there now, standing in a glowing, vast non-place, staring at a person I never expected to see again. Michel.
“Daniel,” she said, her face smooth. “So you are there. I thought I sensed you close by.”
As Augments, our feelings are different from those of a normal human. Some things are suppressed; often the non-Augmented think we have no feelings. Now, though, I felt the full rush of emotions—remorse, anxiety, dread, anticipation, and a thrill of happiness at seeing her again. “Michel! What…what is going on?”
“I’ll be quick, Daniel,” she said. “The station I am on is low in Jupiter’s atmosphere, and the gravity well is distorting my connection to the Unety. I’m only able to reach you because you are close.”
“Ganymede,” I said. This sounded serious.
She nodded. “Good. A day’s travel at most. I will give you my location.” There was a pulse at the back of my mind as a data packet reached my neuroprocessor.
“Why?” I said. Something wasn’t right here. Redirection always came from the Masters, not from fellow Augments.
She smiled then. “You were never one for small talk, Daniel. Even in our marriage, I knew this about you. I loved you anyway, though you know I love to talk. Well. Let me explain, then.” She grew grim again. “I have been taken captive, in a manner of speaking. I was assigned to eliminate a terrorist cell operating from this station, but I was unsuccessful. I am at the station’s power core now, but my orders will not allow for destruction of the station, as there are many civilians aboard. However, I have determined that the terrorists have laced the station with nuclear devices, and they have assured me that they will detonate them if I attempt to act against them, or even to leave. We are at a standoff.”
I grimaced. Nuclear…it was ancient and crude, but incredibly effective. There would be nothing left of the station, the civilians—or Michel. No one had ever tested, but not even an Augment could withstand a nuclear blast. “What do you want?”
“Daniel…many years ago, we promised that we would each come for the other if called. It was our last act as husband and wife, before we began this new life. I want to call on that promise now.” She looked directly into my eyes, a sad smile on her face. “Rescue me.”
I nodded. “I’m on my way.” It was a sparse conversation, but nothing more needed to be said; we were Augments, and we had said all that was needed.
Aristotle was safe aboard the nearest transport, in orbit, when I took the shuttle off its flight path and dove into Jupiter’s gravity well. The station was right where Michel had indicated, but the hours of flight gave me time to think. What was really going on here? Any armed group that faced an Augment would want her out as fast as possible, not held hostage. I couldn’t say for certain that it was connected to the trap on Ganymede, but I was never one for coincidences; but why would anyone try to trap an Augment? They must know that there would never be a ransom; we would die for our causes. And any reprisal would be swift and violent—the only reason it hadn’t happened yet was the threat of nuclear detonation, wasting the lives of the civilians.
I was mystified, too, about the silence from the Masters. I hadn’t asked them directly—no one asked the Masters anything—but I had surreptitiously checked the Unety, and found no mention of this mission. That wasn’t uncommon in itself, but the oddity was that there was no mission failure report, no request for assistance. Only me. Perhaps Michel hadn’t reached anyone else, but I didn’t know why she hadn’t tried.
I don’t relish fighting; I do it because I have to. I won’t rehash it here. My entrance to the station was dramatic and bloody, as was the course I was forced to take into its heart. The terrorist cell was well over five hundred strong, a veritable army on a small station, but I cut them down as swiftly and efficiently as I could. I checked the civilians as I went; the terrorists had locked them in their quarters for the most part, and they appeared to be safe for now—although, the bombs I could see as I scanned the bulkheads rendered that safety an illusion. If this place went up, it would practically be visible from Earth.
Finally I stopped outside a sealed blast door. On the other side waited the control room for the power core, safely shielded from its radiation. I accessed the Unety at the communication level. “Michel?”
“I am still here, Daniel,” she answered. The bulkheads no more hindered our mental speech than the distance across the valley on Ganymede had. “Be careful when you enter. They are armed and waiting for you. I have the code for the blast doors.” There was a click, and the red light beside the door flashed to blue.
I went through the door in a roll, sweeping the room with my cannon as I came up. A dozen men stood around the perimeter; all carried weapons, but none held them ready. I prepared to fire.
“I wouldn’t do that,” one man said, and I swung to aim at him. He stepped forward, weapon still lowered. “Every man in this room is wired with a deadman switch. If the vital signs of any one should cease, well, so will those of everyone aboard.”
I kept my weapon raised. “What do you want?”
The man laughed, a short, ugly sound. “An Angel who can listen to reason. What a privilege. Unlike your compatriot in there.” He cocked a thumb at the door to the power core.
“I’m listening,” I said. “I’ll ask you again: What do you want?”
“Only what everyone has wanted throughout time, Angel,” the man said. “Freedom.”
“Freedom?” I said. “From what? You have all the freedom you could wish for. Just like everyone else.”
“If only that were true,” he said. “No, the freedom we wish is the one freedom that everyone in this system lacks. The one thing we can never obtain.” He lowered his brows and glared at me. “The freedom from you.”
For a moment I was sure he would attack, but he kept his weapon down. “From me?”
“From the Angels. From your interference. Freedom from your oh-so-benevolent protection. The freedom to be what we want, do what we want, without you!” I heard years of bile in his voice; it made me wonder if other humans felt the same way. Our guidance was benevolent, but no human ever wants his course decided for him.
“And how do you plan to get it? Killing a few of us won’t free you from the rest. It will bring them down on you.”
“In the most appropriate way.” He laughed again. “We will take the Augmentations from your bodies, and we will become you.”
I was stunned. It was the most audacious thing I could imagine. Silently I called out. “Michel? Did you know about this?”
Her hesitation told me; but she answered anyway. “I did. They spoke to me as soon as I was trapped, and offered to let the civilians go in exchange for my Augmentations. It seems they have the ability to remove them, although I would not believe it was possible.” I felt the same; there was no way to remove all the nanotechnology from our bodies. Perhaps they only needed samples of it. “I said I needed time to think about it; then I called you.”
“And now we’re both caught in this web,” I replied. “Along with thousands of civilians.”
I felt the mental impression of a shrug. “I’m sorry, Daniel. I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t let these people die.”
I lowered my cannon a fraction. “How will you do it?” I said aloud.
“Daniel, you can’t be considering this,” Michel objected. I ignored her.
“We will remove the major components of your Augmentations,” the man said. “The neuroprocessor, of course. Also the fusion power core. We will take the receptacles for the liquid that generates your armor and weapons, and we will obtain samples of the nanotechnology that strengthens your bones and heals your injuries. With these, we can duplicate the technology, and at last be able to resist the Angels.”
“Demons,” I muttered. “You call us Angels. But you want me to stand here and watch you become Demons. That’s what you’ll be.”
“As you like.” He sounded apologetic. “Of course, neither of you will survive to watch it happen. The process should be fatal, I think.”
“Daniel, no,” Michel said. “It isn’t worth it. Think what we’ll unleash if we give them Augmentations. Don’t do it!”
“All those civilians,” I replied. “And more than that.”
“What do you mean?” she said. “Even the Masters would sacrifice the civilians to prevent this!”
The men were watching me now, unable to hear our exchange. “The Masters would sacrifice you too,” I said. “But…I can’t.”
“No,” she said. “You can’t make that choice!”
“Why not? Michel, you called me here on the strength of a promise. Did you forget why we made it in the first place?” She was silent, but I could feel her anger radiating through the Unety. “I can lose track of you, forever if I have to, but I can’t lose you.”
“How do I know,” I said aloud,” that you’ll let them go free?”
“The station is forfeit either way,” the man said. “It serves other purposes for us to destroy it. But as a show of good faith, we will evacuate half the civilians before you submit to the procedure. The other half will remain to ensure you keep our bargain.”
It was the best I was going to get. Still… “I have one condition,” I said. “You can have my Augmentations, but you let the other one go free.”
Surprise painted his face. “That is not possible. We will—“
I leveled my cannon at his face. “She goes free, or we end this right now, civilians or not.”
A tense second passed; then he nodded. “Very well.”
There was pain at my initial transformation, but it was nothing beside this, this…weakening. I felt myself becoming less with every minute—and I would soon feel nothing at all.
There was a haze then, filled with sounds of running, and alarms, and finally, silence. I couldn’t see, but at length I felt arms lift my ruined body and place it in a stasis pod. “Daniel, that was brave, and stupid too,” Michel murmured as she closed the lid. “I don’t think the damage can be corrected, but I’ll save your life if I can.” Then there was nothing.
It didn’t matter. The civilians were safe…and so was she.
“And so the men became the first of the evil that we call the Demons,” the old man said. “They wanted freedom, but in time they changed, becoming oppressors in their own right. That is the nature of power, child; if you use it to serve yourself, in the end you will serve it.”
“But the Angels still keep us safe,” Jesse said.
“They do,” he affirmed. “They outnumber their enemies, for the transformation is difficult to make. They watch over us, as they have always, so that we can live in peace.” He smiled and patted the boy on the head. “Now, it’s getting late. Run along.”
The boy hopped down and started across the field; then he turned back. “Grandpa, what happened to Michel and Daniel? Did he live?”
The old man nodded. “He did. But she was right; his Augmentations could not be restored. So he retired, and lived out his life as a man, finally growing old. He never had a family of his own, but he was taken in by a family who loved him as one of their own, never knowing that he was older than any of them. He became like a grandfather to their little ones, and…they all lived happily ever after. Michel…she is still out there, serving, keeping at bay the Demons that took Daniel from her.”
“But how do you know all this?”
The old man smiled, rubbing his chest, feeling the scars there, so like the one across his temple. “I just know. Now run along.”
He sat for a time, watching as the sunset darkened to blue. As the breeze turned cool, he felt a presence behind him. “That was sweet of you, Daniel,” she said as she put a hand on his shoulder. “You made that boy happy, and you kept our memory alive at the same time.”
He lifted his hand, now gnarled and wrinkled, and set it atop her smooth one. “I suppose.” He sighed. “We won’t have many more of these meetings, Michel,” he said. “I’m not as young as I used to be.”
“You’ll always be young to me,” she said. “As long as I live, I’ll never forget what you did for me. And I’ll never stop trying to put an end to the Demons for what they did to you.” She paused. “Daniel, if you had it to do over again, would you? Knowing what it would cost you?”
“Of course I would.” He turned to look up at her. “Cost me? I gained what mattered most. So yes, I would.” He turned, and together they looked at the last pale glow in the west. “That will never change.”