Nights are bitter in the deep reaches of the desert.
To my right, I catch the call of a wolf somewhere in the darkness, and a moment later, the howl of his mate, this time on my left. It’s not a very comforting sound. Later, I hear their howling again, still to my left and right, and suspect the wolves must be following me, closing in from two sides to make me more vulnerable to attack.
I wish now that I’d brought my knife.
The Abbas have warned us never to leave our cells outside the hours of daylight, and I’m uneasily aware of having broken that rule without due cause. To make matters worse, I am moving ever deeper into the heart of the Forbidden Region. But the light in the sky called to me. I felt its power and had to respond. Abba Macarius will understand.
I’m unconvinced though. It doesn’t seem to me that the Abbas are particularly forgiving towards those who break their rules.
The trail disappears. The desert becomes more difficult to navigate. There are no wells out here, no reason for paths to be trodden. But people have been here before, I am sure of it. Ancient peoples, whose deeds are lost to memory. In the darkness, I trip over something half-submerged in sand, some rigid structure like a wall or old building, and scramble back to my feet before the wolves can move in for the attack.
I’m unhurt. But the fall leaves me shaken.
The cold dunes undulate strangely here, rising abruptly and then falling away in a sheer drop. No doubt this is why the area is forbidden, because of its dangerous terrain.
I begin to doubt the wisdom of what I am doing, pursued by wolves, chasing a firebrand into the unknown heart of the dunes. Yet as I draw nearer to that burning glow in the desert, my father’s words come back to me with strange new emphasis.
‘Every star, however small, however insignificant, has a name. And a destiny.’
Angels are considered to be creatures of pure fire, formed in the belly of dying stars. They burst into new life at the very moment of destruction. I wonder for the first time if the gold-tipped spear I saw blazing through the heavens earlier was in fact a star falling to earth. Like the great star that appeared above the birthplace of the first Sister and led her to follow the Way, aeons ago.
If so, what will I find when I reach its landing place?
A new holy angel, perhaps, forged in the furnace of a dying star to satisfy the will of the Maker. Yet I do not dare imagine an angel has been sent here solely for me. That would be hubris of the highest degree.
I am nothing. I am a grain of sand.
Yet even a grain of sand has purpose, says the dangerous voice Abba Macarius has ordered me to ignore. ‘That is the voice of the Evil One working inside you,’ he often tells me.
Have I been possessed by the Evil One tonight?
I wind the scarf more tightly about my head, my breath smoking on the chill air. At least I’m close now to the fallen star. The burning glow lights up the desert sands ahead. The wolves have fallen away, perhaps too alarmed by the light to continue their hunt. There’s that odd, unpleasant smell again too, thickening on the air.
As I trudge towards it, a blinding stream of light bursts from the heart of the star.
I stop in shock, and throw up an arm to shield my eyes.
A tall figure stumbles out of the light, struggling across the dunes towards me. Broad-shouldered, he is dragging something long and smouldering behind him, grunting with effort. As he comes nearer, his head lifting to stare at me, I catch a bright glint from his broad chest and thighs, like light bouncing off some precious object.
Or a newly-forged star.
I fall to my knees. My hand shakes as I make the sacred sign.
‘Holy angel,’ I begin, fumbling for the prayer one must recite in the presence of a Divine Visitation, but get no further.
The angel shouts something in a language I cannot comprehend. He keeps on coming, staggering now, dragging his heavy load and pointing back the way I’ve come.
‘Forgive me, O holy one,’ I stammer, still on my knees, ‘I do not understand your teachings.’
‘Go,’ he says urgently, and now I can understand him. ‘Start running. Whoever you are, you need to get the hell out of here. The engines – ’
Then the air sweeps past him in a vast rippling wave of light and heat, and somehow I’m picked up by it and thrown backwards, deaf and blind …
I can smell burning.
I open my eyes, stare up into glowing darkness, and suddenly realise I’m the one who’s burning. I’m on fire, or my clothes are.
I give a cry and instinctively roll over, and keep rolling, back and forth in the sand, until the flames have been quenched. I stagger to my feet, hair singed, my clothes stinking like damp ashes, and peer about in the dark smoke haze. For a moment I am confused, my ears still buzzing, senses dulled. I can’t even remember what I’m doing out here in the desert in the middle of the night.
A memory comes back to me slowly. The memory of a golden man, an angel, calling out to warn me …
And then the world broke apart into a thousand splinters.
As my head clears, I become aware of pain.
My right hand is badly burnt.
I make the sacred sign with my left, and thank the Maker for saving my life. I grit my teeth against the pain. ‘This flesh is only flesh,’ I recite under my breath, ‘and cannot stand the test of Thine eternity.’
A burning hulk flickers some distance away. A rounded shell, metal belly gleaming in the desert. He came out of that, I remember. Dragging something behind him …
So where is he now, my angel?
I squint, crouching to see better through the smoke. There’s a smouldering lump not far from me, half-buried in sand. It glints, reflecting the light of the flames.
A golden man?
I hurry towards it, stumbling over debris from the burning hulk along the way. My legs are weak, trembling with shock. Definitely the shape of a man, I see as I get closer, but unmoving. Feet, legs, hips, arms, all twisted at odd angles.
I bend to where the head should be, seeing only a mass of tumbled hair, singed like my own, and turn him over.
The body stinks horrifically, and half its face is missing. The other half is made of some curious, molten substance. Like cheese rind left too long beside a fire, with tiny straws sticking out of the mush here and there, severed in different places and smoking.
Was this thing ever alive? I cannot believe it.
I recoil, inexplicably muttering, ‘Forgive me,’ and fall over a second lump in the sand.
Stifling my cry, I crawl back towards this body on hands and knees. I’m choking with horror, half expecting to find another molten, unnatural creature.
This one is my angel.
Whole and golden, his face only a little blackened by the firestorm that swept us both off our feet. His smooth gear is outlandish, and of a material I do not recognise, metallic gold, close-fitting to the extent that it is almost indecent.
He has a pulse.
I tilt my water flask to his mouth. The water runs down his chin. He does not drink.
Alive, but unconscious.
‘Holy one, please wake,’ I say, as respectfully as I can. I do not know how to address him correctly, for I have never met an angel before. ‘You need to be somewhere safe and warm. I have a … a stone cell. A humble place, but you are welcome to share it. It is at least an hour’s walk though.’ I pause, and look unhappily around, sure now that he cannot hear me. ‘Forgive me, holy one. I am not strong enough to carry you. Nor even drag you. Not with this burnt hand.’
The night is cold, and getting colder. His body is like ice. I must get my angel back to my cell before he dies of exposure.
But as I crouch over his body in the smoking wasteland, I hear an eerie noise. A high-pitched whine, heading towards us across the desert.
I stand to listen, perplexed.
Something tugs at the hem of my cloak.
I look down, shocked, to find the angel watching me with piercing blue eyes.
‘Holy one,’ I stammer.
‘Lie down,’ he says hoarsely, and tugs again at my cloak. ‘Lie down and play dead.’
I do not move, staring at him.
‘You need to hurry,’ he repeats, more urgently. ‘It’s almost here.’
‘What is it, holy one?’
‘That’s a search drone, and it’s looking for my ship. It may have weapon capability. In which case, if it senses us moving down here, we won’t be for long.’
I don’t understand the significance of his words. But then, I often fail to understand the scriptures too, and the word-teachings of the Abba Fathers, yet all these I accept without question.
The angel stares past me at the night sky. When I follow his gaze, I see a faint red light gleaming in the distance, moving fast towards our position.
He looks back at me, studies my face, the smouldering black folds of my cloak. ‘You are one of the Sisterhood.’
‘Yes, holy one.’
‘Then lie down beside me, Sister.’ I hear the authority in his voice touch my hintermind, the place where obedience to the Maker resides, and fall to my knees beside him. ‘And if you want to live, play dead.’