The strange weapon in the angel’s hand makes a cracking sound, and some kind of blue flash leaps through the air, like blue lightning.

The Abba pitches forward instantly.

I’m shocked by the way he topples like a felled tree, and jump out of his path. I cannot believe the act of sacrilege I have just witnessed.

Abba Macarius is dead.

I stare down at his body, my heart thumping inside me like a sick animal in a cage, and fully expect to be struck down by the Maker for not having warned my master of the angel’s presence.

There is no time, however, to worry about impending vengeance.

As the Abba fell, the spinning object turned in the air, its one, white baleful eye glaring in the angel’s direction. Now it spins closer, and I sense it’s about to strike.

I shout out, ‘Careful!’

But the angel has already seen the flying object, and turns his weapon upon it too. Again, there’s that cracking sound, and the object responds with a spinning shower of sparks, like a fire in the air.

I back away, coming up hard against the bed with the flashing lights.

The object spins so rapidly, the sparks become a blur, streaking red and fiery yellow, then it crashes abruptly to the ground. There’s a terrible bang, then the sparks die away to nothing, and the objects sits motionless at the angel’s feet.

In the crackling silence that follows, I raise my gaze to the angel’s face, stricken and relieved at the same time.

‘You killed the Abba,’ I whisper.

‘No,’ he says.

My eyes widen at this bold falsehood. ‘Liar.’ I point to the fallen Abba. ‘I know death when I see it. I do not know how, but you have killed him with that weapon. Or do you believe he still lives?’

The angel shakes his head. ‘He does not live.’

‘So you killed him.’

‘No.’ With some difficulty, the angel crouches and rolls the Abba over onto his front. Then he drags down his hood. ‘Come and see,’ he invites me.

I hang back, suddenly terrified.

‘There’s nothing to fear, I swear it.’ The angel sounds weary, but he manages a smile and beckons me nearer. ‘Look on the face of your “master” and perhaps then you will understand why I didn’t kill him.’

I shuffle forwards, and peer down at the face I have only ever seen in shadow, the no-longer-hooded face of my master.

It is not a man. It is more like the thing that I found in the sand. The thing with half a burnt face, and a molten body of wires. Only this head is intact, the eyes staring upwards at nothing, a kind of mask that I can clearly see is not flesh. Though at first glance it might appear to be human.

‘Abba Macarius is n-not a man,’ I say, stammering. ‘He’s an Abomination.’

‘Yes,’ the angel says, then shakes his head, making a face. ‘No, wait, there’s no such thing as an Abomination. But you’re right on one level. He’s not a man. Never was.’ He turns the realistic head idly from side to side, examining it. I cannot now fault his lack of reverence, I realise, my skin creeping with horror. ‘He was a Retread, like Rack there.’

Nervously, I glance at the bed with its flashing lights where he had laid his friend. The lights have stopped flashing, I notice.

‘What is that? A Re … Retread?’

‘It means … ’ He stands, and hoists the weapon over one shoulder, frowning down at the Abba. ‘Well, I guess it means the copy of a copy. A machine made to look and behave like a human being, only it’s a machine that can be fixed up when it breaks. Everything replaced except the consciousness. Some of them get fixed up so often, they’re often dozens of generations from their original selves. Hence the name, “Retread.”’ He sees my expression, and gives a dry laugh. ‘You don’t even know what a machine is, do you?’

I shake my head.

‘Okay, let’s call it a “thing” with memories and … Well, and feelings, sometimes, though that depends on its programming and primary function. Not a real human being, in other words, but about as close as you can get without actual flesh parts.’

I swallow my disgust, and force myself to study the Abba’s face. ‘So Abba Macarius was a thing, not a man. But he had feelings?’

‘Possibly, but not the same way you and I experience them. That casing looks too primitive. Barely any attempt to make him look properly human. I doubt he was a Sensitive, for instance, like Rack.’

‘Your … friend.’

He nods. ‘That’s what we call Retreads who are capable of forming emotional attachments. You know, loyalty, and a kind of love …’ He frowns, seeing my instinctive recoil, and takes a step towards me. ‘Hey, this guy would have killed you. Killed both of us. I heard him from the corridor. He was interrogating you. But once you’d told him everything he wanted to know … ’ The angel draws a finger across his throat in a menacing gesture. ‘You get that, right?’

I look at the spherical object, now silent on the ground. ‘This was his weapon.’

‘Yes.’ The angel prods it with his foot. ‘A remote droid.’ He stoops to examine it, then rears up hurriedly. ‘And that looks like an onboard camera, probably relaying a constant stream of images back to their command centre.’ He grimaces. ‘Shit.’

‘I don’t understand your words.’

‘That thing,’ he says, pointing towards the round object with his weapon, ‘may be out of action but it’s still able to communicate with its little friends. So we’d better get the hell out of here, before more of your Abbas turn up.’

He slings the heavy-looking weapon over his shoulder, where it sticks instantly to his back. I stare, and he grins at my expression. ‘I’m magnetic,’ he says with a wink, ‘or so all the ladies tell me.’

I can’t understand his humour. I say nothing and look away, still coping with the terrifying idea that my master, Abba Macarius, was not a man as I had always thought.

That all my masters, presumably, are “things” like the angel’s friend.

Retreads.

‘A machine,’ I whisper, standing over the fallen Abba, trying the foreign word on my tongue. ‘He was an Abomination, all this time. All these years. And I … ’

‘You liked him, huh?’ The angel claps me on the shoulder, knocking me forward, then turns to the bed where his friend still lies, silent and unmoving. He throws back the cover, and bends over his friend. ‘I’ve been there, trust me. You’ll get over it. Right now, you have to put all that shit aside. He’s down, but there are plenty others just like him and they’re probably on their way to kill us. So let’s focus on getting out of here alive.’

I stare down into the unseeing eyes of Abba Macarius …

‘Hey, Sister, you listening to me?’

‘Don’t call me that.’ My voice is hoarse, clogged with unshed tears. I clear my throat, tearing my gaze from the Abomination’s true face. ‘I am not a Sister anymore. My name is Thall.’

‘Thall, right, sorry.’ He lets out a long breath, then presses something on the steady display of lights. ‘Show time.’

Nothing happens for a moment.

Then the Retread on the bed stirs. A gold-covered foot moves, then a hand.

Unable to help myself, I steal a little closer.

To my amazement, the “thing” is no longer in pieces. The bed with the flashing lights has somehow mended him, drawing all those shattered fragments together and weaving a shiny new body and head. The clothes are golden-white, close-fitting, like the angel’s, and perfect. I suck in a breath, gazing at the once-molten head. It seems alive, a real human being, its eyes flicking open, moving swiftly round to find the angel’s face.

It says something in a language I don’t understand, and the angel replies, shaking his head, then adds, ‘Common speech.’

He pats the Retread’s shoulder as though comforting it, and then helps the thing to sit. Its body is covered with the same clinging, metallic suit the angel wears, though this one is clean and entirely without tears or scorch marks, immaculately reproduced, as though the Maker Himself had delivered it from devastation into perfection with a single word.

‘You reloaded me, sir.’

To my surprise, its voice sounds like any human’s, deep and sombre, like one of the Abbas reciting from the scriptures. Yet the accent is strange to me, more like the angel’s.

‘I did.’

‘A full reload?’

‘It’s an old cradle. Straight out of the dark times, by the look of it. But it seems to have done the job. How do you feel?’

The thing hesitates, then says, ‘All present and correct, sir. My shield-suit has been fully restored, and all systems are functioning normally. Except … ’

‘What is it?’

‘Nothing important, sir. Some minor system anomalies that seem to have been introduced with the reload. I can root them out once we’re back at the ship.’

The angel makes a face. ‘If there’s a ship to return to.’

‘Agreed.’

‘I’m damn happy to see you in one piece again, Rack.’ The angel thumps it playfully on the shoulder. ‘I was lonely without you.’ He glances back at me, then hurriedly away, lowering his voice, ‘Frankly, I’ve never been so happy to see a MedTech station in my life.’

‘There was no need to reprint me, sir. This place is dangerous You shouldn’t have put yourself at so much risk.’ The Retread sounds concerned. Annoyed, even, which surprises me. I recall what the angel said about these things possessing the ability to feel emotions. Is this what he meant? ‘I am glad you survived the crash yourself. But your suit still appears to be damaged.’

‘Yeah, it’s not in great condition. Pity I can’t get the cradle to reprint me a new one too.’

‘Are you injured, sir?’

‘A few bangs and scratches.’ The angel shrugs. ‘Nothing to write home about.’

‘Nonetheless, as soon as we are safely away from Dar-Kol, I shall run a full body scan on you. Just to be certain.’

‘Whatever.’

The thing swings its legs off the bed, then jumps lightly to the ground. He studies the room first, then looks at me. His eyes meet mine and I’m shocked by his resemblance to a real human. If I had not known his provenance, seen him broken and molten in the sand, I would have thought him a living, breathing man.

I understand now why the angel referred to Abba Macarius’ head as primitive. Because his body is so clearly not flesh and blood. Unlike that of his “friend”.

‘That’s why they insist on keeping their hoods on,’ I say. ‘Not out of reverence to the Maker, as I thought. But because otherwise the Sisters would know them for what they truly are.’

‘Which is what, exactly?’ the Retread asks me directly.

‘Abominations. Unclean things,’ I whisper, and make the sign against evil, unable to stop staring at the strange, flesh-like mobility of its face.

The Retread is miraculously whole, no indication that it was ever broken. Abruptly, I realise that Abba Macarius could presumably be mended in the same way too. In the bed with the flashing lights.

The thought makes me shudder.

‘Hey, less of the “unclean abomination” thing. We’re all friends here.’ The angel is at the door, checking the corridor outside. ‘Okay, everything looks quiet. Time to go.’

I back away as the Retread comes towards me, quick and lithe as any human male.

Is the Abomination going to kill me for insulting his kind?

I stand straight, chin up, eyes widening, and try to command him with all the force of an Abba’s voice.

‘Don’t touch me!’

The Retread stares at me, then smiles and thrusts out a hand. ‘It’s an honour to meet you, Sister,’ he says, and I’m shocked that he already seems to know who I am. ‘I am a Racker V, Third Generation. But my friends call me Rack.’

 

GO TO NEXT CHAPTER: Chapter Twelve