Looking down into impenetrable darkness, I catch a whiff of decay, and recoil instinctively. I do not know what this metal ‘hatch’ is, nor what it hides. But the angel clearly wants me to climb inside the round, dark hole, and his urgency is catching.
I look up at the flush of dawn across the deep reaches of the desert. The sun is not yet above the horizon. Already the temperature is rising though, the air shaking off the chill of the night.
I cannot see anything coming.
But the unnatural whine in the sky is growing louder all the time.
I recall the burning red light of the ‘drone’, as my angel called it. How it hung whirring and clicking above us like the eye of the Evil One. I may not wish to enter this dark hole in the sand, but equally, I would rather not encounter any more of the drone’s kind. Whatever its kind may be.
‘Hurry,’ he repeats, his voice hoarse.
His urgency surprises me. It seems akin to fear.
Can angels feel fear?
They can vomit. I’ve both seen and smelt the evidence for that. So perhaps angels are capable of fear too, I decide. Just like us.
It’s a disquieting thought.
But I crouch obediently and lower myself into darkness, feeling about with my foot while he stares up at the skies.
What is that thing he’s carrying?
Some relic of great significance, it seems. Though what use could it possibly have, that molten, faceless creature he insisted on bringing with us from the site of the burning star?
I glance back at its eyeless head, and shudder.
That’s what the Holy One called it. Like so many of his sayings, the word means nothing to me. But then, I’ve rarely understood the full weight of the scriptures, even when explained to me in depth by the Abbas.
Guilt assails me again, as I realise how wrong my actions would seem to Abba Macarius. To have trespassed in the Forbidden Region in search of the falling star was bad enough … But perhaps this hole is a sacred space, and forbidden to me too. Abba Macarius would know. But my spiritual guide is not here.
I sniff the musty air emanating from the emptiness below, and wrinkle my nose.
Unlikely, I decide.
My searching foot locates a bar set into the wall of the hole, about the length of a man’s foot, but only half the width. It’s hard. Not stone though. Metal? Like the hatch? I put my weight on it, and the bar does not give. Lowering my other foot past it, I find another bar below, exactly the same as the first.
‘A ladder,’ I exclaim.
He nods, and crouches beside me. ‘Good,’ he says, nodding encouragingly. But I can smell the fear on him. ‘Climb down. And hurry, I need to follow.’
I begin to climb down, feeling my way carefully, rung by rung. It is dark below, but I keep my gaze on the metal bars, and try not to think about how deep this hole is, or what I may find at the bottom.
Once I am about ten or twelve steps inside the hole, the light is blocked out from above as my angel also begins to descend, more quickly than me, hand over hand.
The dark is almost complete now.
Just tiny slivers and flashes from the gathering dawn above us, slipping past his lean, gold-clad body.
I have spent many years in the dark and not been afraid.
But this is not the familiar darkness of my cell. This is the musty dark of a place echoing now to every thud of our feet on the ladder, the sound bruising, somehow dangerous. As though the noise will wake something down there in the darkness. Something that has been asleep for centuries …
I freeze, closing my eyes.
My chest is suddenly tight, my breathing erratic.
‘Keep going,’ the angel whispers down at me, pausing in his descent when he sees I am no longer moving. ‘And quietly, they’re almost here.’
But I can’t seem to move, clinging onto the icy metal rung, snatching at the stale air like I’ve been running.
He hesitates. ‘What’s your name?’
I can’t speak.
‘My name is Fiver,’ he says, his tone easy, almost offhand, as though we are not hanging one above the other in a long dark tunnel below the earth. ‘What’s yours?’
I have to think before answering. Which is ridiculous. But I have not used my name for many years, nor heard it used aloud. I am a Desert Sister. We leave our names behind when we leave the Order to trek out into the wilderness.
‘I need you to climb down, Thall.’ He pauses. ‘At least far enough that I can close the hatch after me.’
‘Close the hatch?’
My terrified whisper flies about the round walls of the hole.
‘I must close it. Or they will be able to detect us. And if they detect us, they will come and kill us. Do you understand?’
‘But the light … ’
‘There wasn’t that much light to begin with,’ he says drily. ‘But if it helps, I have a way to make light once we’re down.’
I tell myself not to be so afraid. It is only the dark. The Maker is in the dark as much as He is in the light. Macarius taught me that.
But it is him too.
The golden stranger from the burning star.
His presence scares me as much as this dark, stinking hole.
But I am one of the Sisterhood.
‘Very well,’ I say, my voice surprisingly calm, and force myself to keep descending.
Above me, I hear the angel move too.
The hatch creaks shut, closing with a deadening thud that makes the walls of the tunnel shake.
Then he follows me down the ladder. Rung after rung, like me, both of us climbing down into a blackness so inky and complete it is how I imagine death must be.
It’s a long and lonely climb. I am just wondering how far below ground we must be when I hit bottom, my foot reaching into nothing – no more rungs – and abruptly coming up against cold stone.
I stand, steady my trembling legs, and take a cautious step away from the ladder so he too can land safely.
I’m in a dark space.
I have no idea of the dimensions, but it feels large. Reaching out, I feel nothing behind me. Nothing anywhere. My breathing sounds over-loud, but I can’t seem to control it.
My angel jumps down, and reaches for me. ‘Thank you,’ he says softly.
It doesn’t sound like any of the angels’ names I’ve heard. The great and glorious winged angels from the scriptures, those golden creatures with long, unpronounceable names who serve our Maker and guard Him from the machinations of the Evil One.
But he did come from a star.
‘You said you had a way to make light,’ I say, rather too loudly. The echoes bounce everywhere and I clap my hands over my ears.
‘Hush, careful. We need to stay quiet.’ He fumbles with something in the dark, then suddenly there’s a beam of light, picking out my face. ‘There. Light.’
I blink, looking away.
Is that magic?
I am not sure I wish to know. Magic is forbidden too.
‘Come on,’ he says, and immediately turns left away from the ladder and starts to walk away, searching out the way ahead with his beam of light. ‘Follow me. And stay close, you don’t want to get lost.’
I hurry after him, not wanting to be left behind, and find myself listening to the ominous click and bounce of the misshapen body he’s strapped against his hip, its broken limbs curled in on themselves.
Warily reaching out to my left, I realise there’s plenty room for us to walk abreast. We are in another tunnel of sorts, but horizontal. A corridor, like those linking the larger caves where our Order resides.
Startled, Fiver glances sideways at me as I shuffle level with him. But he grins and makes no comment. No doubt he can tell by my face that I am not content to follow.
The whole corridor is made up of tiles, I realise, like the kind used to roof the better houses in the village where I came from as a child. Only these tiles are larger, a mixture of some silver and white material, glittering under the light. Sometimes there are plaques on the wall, with nonsensical lettering I cannot decipher.
Every now and then we pass holes in the wall. Dark mouths leading to other dark spaces and corridors, perhaps. It’s hard to tell, as Fiver does little more than turn the light beam briefly into each gap before continuing.
‘Thall,’ he says, peering ahead again. ‘I’ve never heard that name before. So, does that make you … Sister Thall?’
‘One of the Desert Sisterhood, those who are singled out to follow the Way of Solitude?’
I’m partly reassured by his knowledge of our beliefs. Perhaps he is an angel, after all. I had been beginning to worry.
‘Yes, Holy One.’
‘And who singled you out, Thall?’
‘One of the Abbas, Holy One.’
‘Why you though? Why not … I don’t know, your best friend, or whatever?’
‘The Abba Fathers tested me. Several times. They agreed I had the correct temperament.’ I pause, not wishing to puff myself up with pride, but vaguely aware that he is looking for some specific piece of information. ‘They said I was born to follow the Solitary Path.’
He sounds almost … triumphant.
I frown, not understanding his interest. ‘Why do you ask, O Holy One?’
‘You are an angel, I cannot … ’
He stops abruptly, and shines the beam of light in my face again. ‘I’m not an angel, okay? So call me Fiver. I’m sorry you seem to think I’m some kind of Holy Person, but … I’m not. There it is.’
‘Not an angel?’ I’m stuttering. ‘But … ’
‘Look, we don’t really have time for this. I’ll explain later, I promise. Right now, we need to find somewhere to hide.’
I stare at him, not bothering to conceal my anger. This man has deceived me. Pretended to be a Holy Angel, sent by the Maker to guide me. It’s a crime, punishable by death by the Abbas. He should be made to pay for his deception.
But his last words snag at my attention, overriding my fury.
‘From those guys.’ He bounces his light beam back the way we came, towards the now invisible ladder. ‘They probably picked up our heat signatures, so they’ll know we’re here. Underground will be an obvious choice once they can’t find us up top. I tried to lock it, but even so that hatch is not going to hold them for long. So let’s keep moving and maybe we can still survive this.’
He keeps walking but I stay where I am, glaring after him in the darkness. ‘But who are they?’
Fiver stops and looks back me. ‘That’s not important right now.’ His tone is impatient. ‘But if you must know, they’re probably some of your beloved Abbas. And their tankers.’
‘Metal men. Like him,’ he says rapidly, gesturing to the body strapped to his hip, ‘only without a mind-base. No memory, no identity. Though they’re not made of metal anymore, of course. Plastics, mostly. But we still call them tankers, for some reason. Nickname that stuck, I guess.’ He makes a noise under his breath, shaking his head. ‘Look, we need to keep moving. Walk now, talk later.’
‘You’re damn right I’m afraid.’
‘The Abbas won’t hurt us,’ I tell him scornfully. ‘I am one of the Sisterhood, I can explain what happened. How you fell from the heavens as angels do in the scriptures. And they have no … metal men. You have been misinformed.’
Fiver comes close to me, lowering the light beam until it’s illuminating our lower bodies and the molten head. ‘You need to trust me, Thall. The Abbas are here for you as much as me. And they won’t hesitate to kill us both.’
He meets my gaze, and I try but can’t tell what he’s thinking. It’s hard to accept that he is not an angel, he is so much more perfect than any other man I have ever met. Not that I have known many men, except for the Abba Fathers, who are always swathed in their hooded robes. But his body, outlined by his close-fitting golden outfit, is precisely how I imagine an angel would look if he fell from the heavens.
Then he whispers, ‘I swear to you, Thall, by your precious scriptures, that I will tell you everything. The whole truth. More than your Abba Fathers have ever dared tell you or any of your Sisters. But not now. Now is impossible.’ He grips me by the arm. ‘Now we walk, yes?’
I let him drag me forward, and fall in beside him, my mind working fast.
‘Where are we going to hide?’
Fiver stops to study a sign on the wall. ‘There,’ he says, indicating the sign with his light beam.
‘I cannot read it.’
‘No?’ He seems surprised, then shrugs and says, ‘MedTech.’
‘I don’t know these words.’
‘For him, for Rack.’ He jerks his head down towards the bundled-up body he’s carrying. ‘It’s unlikely anything will still be working down here. Not after all this time. But if this place runs on solar, as I suspect, it’s worth a try.’
‘Power from the sun. The one thing you have plenty of on this planet.’ He makes a face, rubbing sand from his stubbly cheek. ‘Except for the obvious.’
‘For him?’ I repeat, still not understanding.
‘Look, your Abbas run tankers, I know that for a fact. It was in the reconnaissance material. Which means there’s a good chance they have an old MedTech repair unit down here, dating from First Settlement. Everything breaks down eventually, especially with all this sand getting into moving parts, so repair units are top priority when settling worlds.’
He turns abruptly down a corridor to the right, leaving me behind in the dark.
‘MedTech’s this way,’ he says, without looking back. ‘Come on, Thall. It’s another two levels down, which is good. We can hide out there while I try to put my friend back together again.’ There’s that urgency in his voice again. ‘If anyone can get us out of this, it’s Rack.’