2946-07-23 - Tales from the Inbox: Ven's Angel

The spacer who provided today's entry was in his twenties in 2918, when he lived with his mother and sister on Ceres. His presence there during the last year of the Ceresian habitats was very easy for me to prove. I was also able to find stills of Angels inspecting the refugee camps on the worldlet, before it was evacuated, though Ven S. did not provide them. His story of a close encounter with an Angel holds up. If the date he remembers is accurate, the events below took place less than three weeks before the evacuation of Ceres.

He's now the captain of a small vessel running passengers and small cargoes between the worlds of the Silver Strand. As far as I can tell, that's all he does in the Strand; this is consistent with the evidently bare-bones lifestyle he seems to live in his public datasphere footprint. He's only an occasional consumer of Cosmic Background content, but he read another of my posts on the text feed where I mentioned the audience demand for Angel-related stories, and decided to send his in.

Though I did not clear this story with Simona Durand, our local Naval Intelligence attache, Ven's story does not contain anything they tend to find objectionable. Unfortunately, since we published what we knew about New Rheims, Simona has not been quite as responsive with our requests as she has been in the past; I do hope that our studio's decision to post what we did about New Rheims has not damaged our working relationship with their representatives.

Ven hurried home as soon as he’d heard the news: the Angels were coming.

The streets of Afolayan Park were no filthier than they had been the day before, but with such esteemed visitors on their way, the slums attached to one of the oldest and largest habitats in the system seemed intolerably unkempt. Afolayan had once been one of the best off-Earth habitats in the system, he knew, but the War had changed many things. Refugees from the devastated regions of Earth had come to Ceres as they had flocked to the other less-affected habitats in the system, and Afolayan, Ceres’s largest habitat, had opened its doors and allowed Earth’s unfortunates by the thousands. Ven and his family had been among these refugees who’d settled into the hastily-assembled accommodations installed in what had once been the mining city’s park district, a hundred meters below the Ceresian surface. 

Ven’s father had hoped the chaos on the old world would ease, and that in a year or two, he would be able to return to Earth and continue his old life with his family. The authorities had promised that they would put right the regions ravaged by Rattanai armies, and that the refugees – no less than two billion strong when the exodus finally petered out – would be slowly returned from exile.

Ven’s father and grandfather had died waiting, watching in dismay as fifteen thousand refugees resettled in Afolayan Park became used to their squalor, fighting for a small number of issued luxuries and a chance to respond to job postings offered by the city’s permanent population of miners, engineers, geologists, and metallurgists. Afolayan Park was all but walled off from this population; without a pass, none of the refugees living inside could get past the well-guarded checkpoint leading into the city proper.

Ven had been born to the Park, the second generation of interminably dispaced persons. Now his twenty-fourth year was approaching, and still there was no news of resettlement for anyone in the slums. As he clambered excitedly up the irregular, often-repaired stairs of the building to the family’s small third-floor residence, he wondered if he would die under the enclosed, artificial sky of Afolayan Park, too.

“Ma!” Ven called as he entered the residence. “Did you hear?” In the dim light, he could just see the urn containing his grandfather's and father’s ashes set on a shrine-like table in the corner, surrounded by flickering holos.

“Hear what, Ven?” His mother, who'd always longed for a life she never knew under the warm Ceylon sun of her grandparents, seemed more sickly than usual, sitting by the tiny, dingy window with her cracked reader-slate.

“Angels are coming. Where’s Jaya?”

“Ven, the Angels wouldn’t come here.” She replied with a sad smile. “Jaya has been out all day. Probably spending time with that Sidley person again. She seems to like him very much.”

Ven winced. His older sister had grown into life in Afolayan Park better than their mother, but not much better. He didn’t have the heart to tell his ailing mother that Sidley was a narcotics-pusher who worked for one of the more violent street gangs in the Park. He tried not to think about what striking, dark-haired Jaya was doing to get her fix, in absence of credits or luxuries with which to buy Sidley's wares. “The Angels are coming here, Ma. To the Park. Everyone’s talking about it.”

“Why would they do that?” She shrugged.

“I don’t know.” Ven admitted. There were rumors, but nobody knew for sure. He set down the bag he’d carried back from the distribution center. “Here’s what we got this week.”

The sight of the half-full bag animated his mother, and as she rifled eagerly through it, Ven took her place at the window, looking down at the street. A pair of thugs ambled by, covered in garish nanotattoos identifying their allegiance. Ven watched them check the electric scooters chained to the front of the building across the street for anything worth stealing, then slouch against the façade of a building while shouting rude things at a trio of young women who had tried and failed to avoid their notice. Ven remembered what Afolayan Park had been like when the refugees had first come – it had been grim, spartan, but orderly and hopeful. Now, it was still grim, and still spartan, but the order and hope had suffocated below so many meters of rock.

“Any media stamps?” Ven’s mother asked hopefully.

“Couldn’t get any.” Ven replied, turning around. Escapism had, he suspected, was the only reason his mother hadn't died young of heartbreak; he would doubtlessly be sent to trade other non-essentials for media stamps with other residents in the next few days.

When Ven looked out the window once more, the street thugs were gone. Since this usually meant trouble, he frowned, pressing his face to the polymer panel to see down the lane in both directions without seeing anything that might have spooked them. “They’re here.” He whispered to himself.

“Hmm?” His mother, still sorting out the rationed items, didn’t look up.

“Angels.” Ven replied, as the building shook again, a little stronger. Around a corner down the street, a trio of Solar Refugee Authority men in full riot gear ambled into view, weapons ready. SRA almost never ventured deep into the Park in such small groups, but Ven already knew they weren’t alone.

Stooping to avoid a web of datalink cabling strung across the intersection, an Angel stepped around the corner following the three men. It was almost five meters tall, and it looked nothing like the Angels Ven had seen in datasphere media snippets. Where the Angels which had penetrated the Rattanai defenses of Earth to hold the line against their armies on the ground had been bulky, heavy-looking frames, this one was spindly and graceful despite its size, its faceless head turning side to side as it examined its surroundings. A tubular object like a weapon barrel protruded from its left arm, but Ven thought the metal-sheathed alien looked like more of a scout than a warrior.

No, he realized, as it deferred to its human escort’s choice of direction. It wasn’t a scout. It was an emissary. Nobody had ever seen an Angel without its armored suit. The secretive xenosapients had saved humanity twice in recorded history, without asking anything in return, but no human had ever seen the face of an Angel.

The SRA men led their charge toward Ven, and the towering alien ambled along in their wake, the few refugees on the streets gawking up at it. Ven noticed that its lower legs were reverse-articulated, like those of a bird, and that though its footsteps shook the foundations of Afolayan Park, it avoided stepping on any of the litter and debris choking the street. 

“Look at that.” Ven whispered. His mother paid the spectacle no mind, even as the floor under her feet rumbled.

The alien stopped halfway down the street and pointed to one of the buildings, its head tilted in an obvious question. The men turned around to address it, but Ven had no way of hearing what was said.

Its curiosity satisfied, the alien followed its minders down the street. With a thrill of something like terror, Ven realized that it would soon pass right in front of his window – and that its head would be almost on level with him. He wondered if it was better to hide and let it pass, or to try to get its attention.

The Angel’s eyless gaze swept each sagging building, each alley, each pile of refuse. Though it was impossible to determine what it thought, Ven hoped it was disappointed. He hoped that it knew that most humans lived better than the Afolayan Park refugees, and that the Park was, at least supposedly, a temporary situation.

Finally, when the shuddering grew too extreme for her to ignore, Ven’s mother joined him at the window. “That’s an Angel, is it?” She asked rhetorically. “Hmph. Doesn’t look all that special.”

“It’s amazing.” Ven replied, not really paying attention to her.

The Angel stopped in front of the window, looking down at a refugee who gawked back up at it from the side of the street. Its domed head was only two meters away; Ven wondered what was behind all that metal. Was it really an alien, as the datasphere media said? Was the Angel merely a machine, serving the interests of distant masters? Or was it something else entirely, something which hid within an indestructible shell to protect its surroundings  rather than itself?

The pedestrian moved on, and the five-meter-tall creature looked up to Ven’s window. The young man gasped, his blood seeming to turn to ice in his veins, even though he had no way of knowing for sure that the Angel could see him, there was no doubt in his mind that he was observed. Though it had no eyes or expression, its attention speared Ven, and he felt as though every layer of himself was being peeled back for its silent inspection. 

Before he had time to even gasp, Ven saw the Angel turn away, and the uncomfortable impression vanished. Gulping a few breaths, Ven watched in silence as it followed its SRA guides to the far end of the street at a stately pace, then turned out of sight.

“I wonder what they mean by bringing that thing here." Ven’s mother muttered.

“It means things are changing, Ma.” Ven guessed.

He wasn’t wrong.