2948-07-07 – Tales from the Service: The Padre’s Angel

We have met Thomas Nyilvas in this feed in the past, as chaplain of Xavior Vitali (Tales from the Service: A Pastor and a Prodigal and Tales from the Service: An Immortal's Contrition). When that vessel was sent back to the Core Worlds for a full yard refit, Thomas and most of the junior officers aboard requested transfer to other vessels in the fleet. Several, including the chaplain, were reassigned to the heavy cruiser Hugo Marge, which has just entered the Fifth Fleet after completing its shakedown cruise.

This is the first large warship replacement the fleet has received since the start of hostilities, but many hopes have been pinned on this vessel, the first of the new Daniel Callaghan class to enter the active fleet. The lead ship of the class famously suffered a deadly accident during its shakedown cruise in 2944, after which the remaining incomplete hulls were heavily modified. Marge and the other vessels in the class were also fitted with new fire control and electronic warfare suites (the same equipment attached to Arrowhawk in its post-New Rheims refit, as it turns out, for all the help it did that vessel) which further delayed their introduction into the fleet.

Hugo Marge was sent out on patrol into the outer Nye Norge almost immediately upon entering the theater, escorted by the members of the Carl Gustav Mannerheim’s battle group which survived Bodrogi. Though the group encountered no enemy warships, it did encounter a group of several small Angel vessels. Though the details of any cooperation between Navy forces and Angels following this encounter remain predictably sealed, Naval Intelligence has released Chaplain Nyilvas’s account of an Angel's visit to his ship to us for publication.

The Angel had to bend almost double to pass through a standard airlock, but despite the apparent inflexibility of its huge metal-clad limbs and torso, the motion looked fluid and effortless. Standing behind Captain Mlyarnik, Chaplain Thomas Nyilvas didn’t know whether to feel awed or terrified. The featureless bulge between the xenosapient’s broad shoulders which passed for its head seemed to see everything at once despite its apparent blindness.

The bosun piped the Angel aboard with the traditional notes of greeting for a foreign dignitary, and Captain Mlyarnik stepped forward, right hand snapping up into a crisp salute. Thomas did not follow his superior – dealings with Angels were the business of the local commander. He hung back, along with the rest of the officers present and the six-Marine honor guard, their heavy combat suits painted and polished until they very nearly glowed.

“Welcome aboard Hugo Marge.” Captain Mlyarnik dropped his hand, showing no obvious signs of nervousness in the face of the mysterious xeno.

The Angel did not salute, but it dipped its shoulders in a minute bow. “It is a great honor to board a vessel bearing the name of Colonel Marge.” Its low, gravelly voice, the obvious product of a translation computer, was carefully modulated to be clearly audible without being excessively loud.

“You are familiar with the man?” The captain seemed surprised, and Thomas didn’t blame him. The original Colonel Hugo Marge had been a war hero of the Corona Wars who gave his life to preserve the fracturing and seemingly doomed Terran Sphere. Thomas, along with the rest of the officers and crew, knew the story well, but the names of centuries-dead human martyrs seemed a strange bit of trivia for the Angels to retain.

“Affirmative. Your Navy has chosen well with this vessel’s name.”

Thomas scrutinized the creature with fresh eyes, wondering what its angle was. Angels had been known to humanity for hundreds of years, yet so little about them had been learned in that time that what lay inside their metallic exteriors remained a mystery.

After a brief pause, the skipper soldiered on. “I’ll pass your compliment along when we get back to Maribel. If you’ll come this way, we’ll discuss business in the wardroom.” He beckoned for the Angel to follow, and at his gesture the honor guard unlocked their suit joints and snapped as one from resting pose into at-ease, preparing to escort the Angel to its destination aboard their ship.

“That would be most acceptable.” The Angel barely moved as the Marines took positions around it, but Thomas got the sense it was amused by the show of protection. None of the Navy personnel thought for a second that the creature needed any help defending itself. The one thing humans and their neighbor species had learned about Angels since their appearance so many years before was that they were infinitely competent when it came to defending themselves and anything else they took a liking to.

It was just humanity’s luck that one of those things the Angels valued was Earth itself. Angels had earned their name for the way that they had once saved humanity from extermination, not from any divine origins.

As he fell in with the gaggle of officers following behind the honor guard, Thomas watched the xeno carefully. He did not expect to penetrate any centuries-old mysteries by staring, but the strange fluidity of movement in its rigid metal carapace rewarded curiosity. Little was known about about what an angel was, but much could be said about what they were not. Despite the mystery with which they cloaked themselves, the Angels were not heavenly spirits – at least, not more so than humans. Their technology was beyond human understanding, true, and their motives unknowable, but as far as Thomas was concerned, the spacers’ superstitions which grew up around Angels were simply madness.

At the lift bank, the Angel boarded one lift with Captain Mlyarnik and a lone Marine. The remaining Marines boarded the second, and the trailing officers boarded a third. As the doors closed, Thomas saw several curious crew who had been following the procession bolt for the nearest ladder shaft.

It was only a three-deck ride, but Lieutenant Diane Franco nevertheless used her position to Thomas’s left to strike up the obvious conversation. “So, Padre, what do you think?”

“I think it’s got a better armor-suit than our Marines.” Thomas replied cooly. He knew what she was asking – it was probably what half the people in the lift wanted to know. Though the naming of the Angels by humans had happened long beforehand, the Spacers’ Chapel had on its founding declared the Angels to be literal servants of God Most High, sent from Heaven to protect His people. It had taken nearly a century for the apparently annoyed Angels to disabuse the quickly-growing Chapel of this idea.

“Could it really be a seraph or a demon?” Someone else asked, now that Franco had broken the ice. The demon idea, of course, came from the cultic beliefs of the star-worshipping Sunfire Assembly. In their cosmology, the stars were the palaces for life-giving god-spirits, and the so-called Angels were a sort of Faustian devil, promising protection at the expense of stunting humanity’s progress toward greater spiritual awakening and knowledge of their astral patrons. “Looks like a machine to me. I could hear servos whirring in its joints.”

“It could be a drone.” Thomas shrugged. “Wouldn’t really blame them if it was.” If the Angels knew anything, they had to know what any good chaplain did – that the line between good and evil ran through every human heart, and every human was capable of boundless good, but also of bottomless evil. The temptation to try to take the Angel apart and learn what was inside surely pricked at many hearts aboard Hugo Marge, and the species’s imposing reputation for violent self-defense might not always protect their ambassadors.

“What about-” Fortunately for Thomas, the lift doors opened, and the question died unfinished. The officers filed out in time to see the Angel duck low and enter the wardroom, followed by two Marines. The other four stood outside the compartment, and the officers, most hoping to be summoned by the skipper to be involved in whatever arrangement was being negotiated, loitered beyond them.

Thomas, present more for the opportunity to set eyes on the xenosapient, was just about to return to his quarters to prepare his evening’s message when his earpiece chimed. “Chaplain Nyilvas to the wardroom.”

Tapping his wrist unit twice to confirm, Thomas approached the hatchway, and the Marines made no attempt to stop him from entering. Inside, Captain Mlyarnik sat at the far end of the long table, with the Angel standing stiffly in front of him. “Thank you for joining us, Padre.” The skipper waved Thomas closer. “Our friend here requested your presence.”

That the Angel had requested him set a cold feeling within Thomas’s chest. He would have expected to be nervous, but oddly, he did not. Why would an Angel request a Spacers’ Chapel priest? “Whatever I can do for our guest, sir, I’ll do my best.”

“That is all that may be asked of you.” The Angel didn’t move to face Thomas, but he knew something within its eyeless head was watching him all the same. “Information is desired about the mind of your foe, this Incarnation.”

Thomas, recalling the time he had spent ministering to a repentant Incarnation prisoner, knew why he was being asked. Though several Incarnation prisoners had been persuaded to be cooperative throughout the theater of operations, his experience working with prisoner Ayaka Rowlins – a rare case of a Confederated Worlds citizen going over to the Incarnation and then being coaxed back – had given him opportunities to examine why the average spacer fought for the enemy. “Of course.”

“In your estimation, will these Incarnation humans respect the old arrangements with our kind?”

It wasn’t the question Thomas had expected, and it wasn’t one he had a ready answer for. The old arrangements with the Angels – those which bound human spacers to guarantee free passage for their ships and the provision of active assistance for their endeavors when requested – were older than the Incarnation’s vendettas by centuries. Surely they would not take such a risk as to violate those old customs while also waging war against the vast Confederated Worlds? He shook his head slowly. “How could they gain by violating them?”

The Angel moved this time, raising one three-fingered hand above the table. “That is not the question which was asked, Thomas Nyilvas.”

Thomas stared at it for several seconds, then glanced to the skipper, who remained silent and unreadable. It wasn’t the question that was asked, true - and he recalled from his conversations with Rowlins that it was unlikely to be a question the Incarnation’s personnel would ask themselves, whether they were the ones holding the handle of the digital leash or the ones choked by it. They would judge the matter simply based on their ideas of what furthered humanity’s evolution and what hastened its extinction, and the technology of the Angels would be for them a boon to the cause of survival. “I think they would violate the old arrangements if they thought they could get ahold of your technology.” Thomas replied carefully.

The Angel remained silent for a moment, as if processing – or transmitting – this response. “Thank you, Chaplain Nyilvas.” It said simply.

Captain Mlyarnik nodded his thanks, then gestured to the hatch. “I think that’s all for now, Padre. You may go.”

Part of Thomas wanted to ask permission to stay and learn what was going on, but he knew better than to push his luck. With a salute, he turned and left the compartment, conscious of the utter silence behind him as his commander and the Angel waited for him to depart before making their plans.