These three unpublished vignettes - flashbacks in the life of the character Quillon - were written for my novel Terminal World but omitted in final edits as they did not fit neatly into the structure of the book, as well as adding 8000 words to what was already a bulky text. Nonetheless, I've always been quite fond of them and hope they are of some interest to those who have read the novel. Feel free to pick up on any typos or errors in the comments - they have not been proofed, and I have only given the text a cursory read today. All copyright Alastair Reynolds 2009 and 2013.
They fly together. It will be the last time, before their wings must be cut away. They orbit the glittering spire of the Celestial Levels, braiding trajectories through the air, giddy on the delicious warm thermals winding up from the lower reaches of Spearpoint. The sky is a cloudless mauve and the lights of the city look very beautiful this evening. He watches her body flex on the wind, cusping the air in the translucence of her wings, so skilled at finding the right line that she hardly ever needs to beat her wings, and never needs to use the propulsion unit fixed at the base of her spine. He cannot match her agility, her elegance, and he does not even try. He is a competent flier, even a good one, but she is a true daughter of the air, angelic in every sense of the word.
‘It was like this when we met,’ he tells her, pushing the words into her head without the need for speech.
‘You mean when you first saw me,’ she corrects.
‘Yes,’ he admits, for it is true that he watched her from afar, marvelling at her, hardly daring to imagine that they would one day become lovers.
‘But it’s colder now,’ she says. ‘I feel it, even with these warm airs coming up from below. There’s a tang to it. A sharpness that wasn’t there when we met.’
‘It’s just the seasons,’ he says.
They circle the ever-climbing spire, corkscrewing their way up that luminous thread. They have left the other fliers far below. Few go this high; the air thins and the uprising thermals turn turbulent, and the danger of accidentally trangressing the overlying zone boundary cannot be neglected. When he looks down, the others are no more than gliding motes of pastel light. They look very far below, slow-moving coloured flecks caught in lazy eddies. He feels a twitch of vertigo. It’s a deep, rational phobia and it’s never been completely excised from the human brain. Even the birds, which sometimes accompany the angels, must feel it occasionally. No flying thing is ever truly unafraid of falling, but without that basal fear, flight itself would be as dull as floating in the sea.
‘I’ve never been this high before,’ he tells her.
‘And we’ve never been as deep as we’re about to go. Aren’t you excited?’
‘I thought I would be. But that was when it was a distant possibility, not something about to happen.’
‘Honest qualms. Don’t tell me you don’t feel the same way.’
‘It’s something special, what we’re doing. Something that will benefit us all. Not just the angels, but all of Spearpoint. Something to be proud of.’
‘That’s what I keep telling myself.’
‘It will all be fine,’ she says. ‘It will all be fine and we’ll fly again, both of us.’
And she does something that stops his heart. Collapses her wings, surrendering lift, allowing herself to drop like a stone, gathering speed with the pull of gravity, becoming a bright falling jewel. He has only a moment to evaluate the situation, realising that even with his propulsion pack he will struggle to catch her unless he also collapses his wings and minimises drag, when she snatches herself out of the dive, whipping her wings out to maximum extension again, gathering the wind into them, laughing into his head with the wild exuberance of what she has done. He has seen her fall like that before, but each and every time he fears that she will not be able to recover.
‘You shouldn’t do that.’
‘I like falling,’ she says, as if that is all the explanation required.
They continue flying, but now there is an unease, a sense that they have overstayed their welcome. They don’t talk. He wishes she hadn’t fallen; wishes also that he had not chided her for doing so. But it’s too late now and as the evening draws in, the other angels pull nearer to Spearpoint, abandoing the cold airs to birds.
They land on one of the balconies, he with a touch of clumsiness, she flaring her wings at just the right instant to arrest her approach. And for a moment they caress, just another two lovers returning from the sky, nothing to distinguish them from any of the other angels returning to the warmth and light of the Celestial Levels.
‘It’s time,’ she says, and he nods.
They go deep into the Levels. They pass through the golden plazas and light-filled atria. They fly when it suits them, and ride platforms and transit baubles when it does not. Through the bowers and vaults of the public volumes, through security screens both subtle and overt, into the windowless warrens and corridors of Measures. Measures is the closest thing to a security organisation in the Celestial Levels; they both work there. It has been their home for many years, and they both feel safer within its cordon. Measures has taken very good care of both of them, for they are valued. But even Measures holds secrets within itself.
There is an annex, a series of rooms, within which angels will be stripped of their angelhood and remade into prehumans. They make their way to these rooms, passing through ever more stringent controls, until the necessary clearance has been authorised. They are so used to this process that it doesn’t even bore them any more. It’s like breathing. And the one thing they don’t doubt is the need for secrecy.
They join the other two, who are already waiting outside the transformation theatre. Beyond something like glass, stainless machinery – an intricate jellyfish of knives and lasers - waits poised over the padded, open chassis of a kind of operating table. In a little while the tools will cut and slice and cauterize, and a little while after that – when the cellular and neurological transformations are complete, and the memories established, - four of them will go deep. He feels the anxious scrutiny of the other volunteers; even that of his lover. They know that only he understands the protocol in its entirety. That he will be travelling with him is only the smallest of consolations. If something goes wrong down there, something biomedical, something he hasn’t allowed for, there won’t be a great deal he can do.
‘I will submit to the machinery first,’ he tells the others. ‘Then I will guide the rest of you through the transformation. We will work quickly, and we will continue with the procedure once it is initiated. There will be no option to change our minds. It’s much too late for that now. But understand that this is the only beginning. Months of adaptation lie ahead of us. None of it will be pleasant. Much of it will be painful and traumatic. But you have my assurance that it is all reversible. When we have completed our mission … it can all be undone.’
‘Except the memories,’ she says.
‘New ones will fill the place of the old.’
‘But they won’t be the same.’
‘This is how it must happen. There is no other way, if we are to function down there. If we are to integrate, to pass as them.’
It’s the hardest part, in truth. The stripping away of what he is, the changing into something new, is a purely mechanical process. But to live in Neon Heights, not just to survive, but to pass as prehumans, will require more than just cosmetic and physiological alteration. Their memories of life in the Celestial Levels will be suppressed, buried under a skein of lies, lies picked out of the dying brains of those who have travelled to the levels on their Ascension Day. When the new memories have fully integrated, the volunteers will feel as if they have always lived in Neon Heights. They will remember the Celestial Levels, and they will remember the purpose of their mission. But anything not strictly essential will be allowed to wither. Even their names will be superfluous from this point on. They will take on new ones, and they will feel as if they have always known them. They will remember friends and lovers and mothers and fathers, neighborhoods and jobs and television shows and subway advertisements. They will remember the smell of shoe leather and aftershave, cigarettes and cheap perfume, the ozone crackle of electric trains.
He’d feel horror if he didn’t believe in the cause. Even with that belief, he feels a terrible trepidation. But it will be worth it, he assures himself. What they are embarking on is dangerous in the extreme. But the higher purpose it serves is unquestionably noble. The zones are a prison, not just for the angels but for the prehumans as well. But only the angels – only Measures – has the means to do something about it. With surgical modification, and the right drugs, an angel should now be able to tolerate conditions that would otherwise kill it. That’s the work he has dedicated years of his life to bringing to fruition. But by its very nature, it can’t be tested in the Celestial Levels. Nor can the knowledge of the process – even its existence - be shared with the adjoining zones. The angels maintain cordial relations with much of Spearpoint, but on some level they’ll always be feared and distrusted. No one can know that they now have the means to walk among the wingless.
So the process must be tested in secret, and that means that a party of angels must live as prehumans, until such time as the effectivess of the process has been evaluated. They will interact with the local population only as needed, and at all times with the utmost caution. Their identity cannot be known.
But when the work is done, what then? He believes that, ultimately, the project will be to the betterment of all of Spearpoint. Even if it can only ever be made to work on angels, there would be incalculable benefit in having at least one portion of the populace able to move freely, without being bound by the zones. Angels could serve as agents, couriers, free-roving specialists in universal medicine. In times of disaster or catastrophic zone change, angels could provide vital assistance. Corpuscles in the body public, keeping the city alive.
It will be for the best. It never even occurs to him to doubt this.
‘I’m ready,’ he says, and passes into the sterile hum of the transformation theatre. He lies down on the padded chassis, allowing his wings to fall through slots in the table. He supervised the design of the transformation machinery, and it was his decision that the operation should be initiated not by the surgeon, but by the subject. Once he has issued that mental command, though, there will be no means of revoking it.
He thinks of all he now is, all he is about to lose. It would be intolerable were it not for one fact: she is going with him. And that changes everything.
He gives the command. The process begins. The table enfolds him and rotates his body through one hundred and eighty degrees, until he is flat on his belly. There’s a momentary coldness near the base of his spine and then the pain is eclipsed. He hears the whisking arms as they toil to remake him, a sound like knives being sharpened against each other, but even when they begin to cut away his wings, he feels nothing except a vague itch. The work – this basic, preliminary work – is conducted with merciless efficiently. Yet for all his intimate knowledge of the process, he’s still taken aback when the arms fall silent and the table returns him to a resting position.
He lies there, appalled by the knowledge of what he has done to himself, exhilerated by the thought of what lies ahead. And then the theatre admits her and she comes to his side and touches an angelic hand against his cheek.
‘It went well,’ she says.
‘There’s nothing to be frightened of,’ he answers. Then, on a whim: ‘Show me my wings, will you?’
‘Are you sure?’ But she doesn’t wait for an answer. She collects the severed wings from the suspension tray where the system placed them, tipping them to allow the preservative nutrient to run off in greasy rivulets. She brings them to his side, holding them delicately, and allows him to touch their sleek translucence. He traces their filigreed mysteries. They have been severed very skillfully. Bone, muscle, nerve and circulatory reconnection will be uncomplicated. There’s a long history of that, just as there’s a long history of regrowing wings from scratch.
‘They’re just tissue,’ she says. ‘They don’t make us what we are.’
‘And we’ll fly again. The two of us. When all this is over.’
He closes his eyes and whispers: ‘Destroy my wings.’
When he returns to the safe house for the last time – and it will be the last time; he intends only to collect what he needs and then go to ground elsewhere in Neon Heights – he parks the slot car a block away and walks the rest of the distance, vigilant for any signs of change, anything that was different the last time. They could easily have got here by now, he thinks. If the other two were reporting back to the Celestial Levels, then it’s entirely possibly that their handlers – whoever is controlling them – now realise that something has happened. Who knows what contingency plans were put in place, in the event that something went wrong with the infiltration program? Not Aruval, for she would have said something. And definitely not Quillon, for it’s clear now that he was never meant to know the full extent of the mission’s objectives.
It’s a rainy morning and nothing about the safe house, or the surrounding streets, suggests anything amiss. Except for every single detail looking malevolently off-key, every familiar thing now causing him to question the reliability of his memory. Was that window in the opposite tenement always shuttered? Was the loading bay open or closed when he was here the last time? Would there normally be this many cars parked on the other side of the street at this time of day? And those dustbins under the rain-dripping, candy-striped awning of the clocksmith – shouldn’t they have been emptied by Hygiene and Works, at least a day ago?
But he tells himself it can only be his imagination; that nothing in these quotidian details is in any way out of place. It’s just another wet morning in Neon Heights. He won’t come back here, not after today, but there’s still time to get in and out.
He enters the apartment building, checks the pigeonholes for mail. Presses the call button and waits for the creaking electric elevator to grind down to the lobby. The building’s half deserted – it’s in a crumbling, low-rent district – and no one’s around as he digs out the key and lets himself into the rooms where the four of them used to live. Rain pitter-patters on the roof over his head. Other than that it’s silent and still. He can’t hear a whisper of traffic through the grimed-over windows.
He goes into the back room. The drugs and testing devices are still there. He snaps open an empty briefcase and sharts shovelling them in. He has no idea how much he really needs. If he has to stay down here for more than a few months, these medicines won’t be enough to keep him alive. But without them, he won’t survive more than three or four weeks. Best to take what he can.
He snaps shut the briefcase and surveys the miserable, sepia-coloured surroundings. Angels slept on these dingey mattresses; they sat around that lopsided dining table and talked of the day’s activities under a brown-flickering light bulb. Sometimes they smoked local cigarettes and drank prehuman alcohol, testing the limits of their new metabolisms, seeing how well they could blend in, taking a childish delight in intoxication. Sometimes they would listen to the wireless, to the scratchy, tinny sounds that passed for music in Neon Heights, or gaze at the pale strobing rectangle of a wooden-cased television set. What the other two did repulses him, and if he’d known their intentions he would have gladly killed them before they murdered Aruval. But he remembers sitting at the table, laughing and smiling along with them. Making prehuman noises and faces, as if they’d been born to it.
Should he take the automatic? He doesn’t know. He never used it. He was never even trained to use it. He was the doctor, the transformation specialist. He doesn’t really want the gun because implicit in the understanding that the gun would make him safer is the possibility that he might at some point have cause to use it.
He slides open the bed-side drawer. He’s almost relieved to note that the automatic’s gone. At least that will free him from considering any course of action where the gun might be a necessity.
He hefts the briefcase. He’s been listening intently and no one has used the elevator since his arrival. There’s nothing else here he needs. All he has to do now is lock up and leave.
That’s when he thinks: why was the elevator on the top floor?
It would never have troubled him before; it would mean only that one of the others must have returned while he was out on some errand. But there are no others now. And hardly anyone ever comes and goes from the other rooms on the top floor.
He’s still thinking about it, trying to find an explanation that doesn’t place him in jeopardy, when he hears the soft, deliberate click of a safety catch.
A man with a low, rasping, buzz-saw voice tells him: ‘Put the case down. Turn around slowly with your hands raised.’
Quillon puts down the case and turns around slowly.
He’s a policeman. Quillon knows this instantly. He’s dressed in plainclothes, heavy grey raincoat over a heavy business suit, but it’s in the curve of his body as he leans against the doorframe, the laconic way he holds the gun – aimed not at Quillon, but at Quillon’s general location in the room, as if that’s enough. And maybe it is. Quillon doesn’t even think of trying to run. He just waits for the big man in the doorway to make the next move.
‘I said raise your hands.’
Quillon does as he’s told. ‘What’s the problem?’ he asks quietly, as any reasonable man might.
‘You’re the problem.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t understand. Am I under arrest?’
‘What do you think?’
‘I think you need to tell me why you’re aiming a gun at me. You’re a police officer, aren’t you?’
The big man scratches at stubble and the bags under his eyes. He’s got the rumpled look of someone who hasn’t seen a bed lately. Or much in the way of soap and hot water. For all that, he’s still a commanding presence. Quillon knows that even if the other man were unarmed, he wouldn’t have a hope in hell of getting past him. Angels are fast, but they’re not strong.
‘You got any compelling reason to have been near the Second District refuse dump at around three this morning?’
Quillon blinks and tries to look as if the question has left him puzzled rather than startled. ‘The Second District dump? I don’t even know where that is. What would I have been doing there anyway?’
‘I don’t know, dumping something, maybe? Making multiple visits with black bags in the trunk of your slot-car?’
‘I think you must have me mistaken for someone else.’
‘I’ve had you under observation,’ the big man says. ‘For a few days now. You’ve been of interest to me.’
‘I can’t understand why.’
The big man thinks about this for a moment. ‘We found the body.’
He gives a pained smile, as if he’s reached the limit of something. ‘Let’s give up the charade, shall we? The woman at the bottom of the elevator shaft, in the Allied Pharmaceuticals warehouse. Night watchman found her in the end. I took the call. It was hard work getting to the body – which is why I figured you had no choice but to leave her there and hope no one noticed, at least for a while.’ He nods the barrel of the gun, which is a revolver, not the missing automatic. Quillon notices a micro-tremor in the man’s grip. ‘But I see you’re packing now. Thinking of moving on, by any chance?’
‘I don’t know about this woman.’
‘That’s odd, because we tied her to this apartment. Found a stub on her, a repair chit for the clocksmith across the road.’ He looks around at the many dumb, silent clocks. Only a handful are still keeping time now. ‘A lot of clocks in here, even for Neon Heights. You itchy about something?’
‘I don’t know about a clock either.’
‘Well, this woman did. She must have taken one in to be fixed. Got the repair chit, but never went back to claim the clock. Of course, the chit gave us the address of the clocksmith.’
‘Proving nothing. There must be a thousand people using that shop.’
‘Yeah, maybe. Trouble is the clocksmith specifically mentioned seeing her coming and going from this building. Said she was striking.’
‘I still don’t know her.’
‘That’s odd. I did some further digging around and found witnesses that tied her to this floor. Said that she wasn’t usually alone. Sometimes with a man, sometimes with a man and a women. Sometimes three of them. Coming and going at weird hours of the day, hardly ever talking to anyone. Getting warm?’
‘I’m sorry that this women died,’ Quillon said, and fights to hold back the emotion, because for the first time it’s hitting him that she died falling, dropping like a severed counterweight down that elevator shaft. He thinks of her collapsing her wings, plummeting through Spearpoint’s cold airs on the last day they ever flew together. The wild gleeful shriek as she recovered from the fall. ‘But I didn’t know her.’
‘And the other woman, whoever she was? The other man? Any idea who they might have been?’
‘I’m afraid not.’
‘So you just live here on your own?’
Quillon stammers out the answer, because he knows how ludricrous it will seem. ‘Yes.’ Because even a stupid local cop can see that these rooms were once occupied by more than one person.
‘I know you’re lying. I also know that there are body parts in those bags you’ve been ferrying to the dump. You cut them up in here?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘We shipped the woman to the Third District Morgue. I’ve got a friend works there, agreed to look her over. Calls me back a couple hours later and tells me what he’s cutting open isn’t like anything he’s seen before. You know anything about that?’
‘Says she’s an angel. Or something like it. Made to look like one of us, but only on the outside. And that’s when my blood runs cold, because it’s the last thing I need.’
‘I’m sorry for you.’
‘You any idea of the shitstorm that’s coming down on my head if I file a report that says an angel was living incognito in Neon Heights? That’s big news, my friend. The kind that could embarrass a lot of people. The police chiefs trying to tell everyone they’ve got this city under control. The men in the chamber of commerce keen to keep doing business with the Levels. Any number of causes who don’t want it known that angels are operating down here, under our noses.’
‘I can imagine it might cause difficulties.’
‘The kind that can end a career. Not that that would stop me, if I really believed a crime had taken place here. But if I had reason to think that this was just some … business … some … altercation … between angels, that happened to be conducted on our turf … that might change things. Technically speaking, I’m not even sure that it would continue to be a criminal investigation at that point.’
‘Again, I’d love to help.’
‘Let me tell you what’s going to happen,’ the man says, pausing to dig his little finger into a gap in his teeth. ‘It’s one of two things. Either you’re going to give me an explanation of what went on in that warehouse, and what’s up with the body bags, or I’m going to proceed on the basis that a human crime was committed here. And arrest you and take you down to the station. I’ver got a car outside. Two other men in the car, ready to meet me.’
‘If this was the work of angels,’ Quillon says, ‘why would you not care?’
‘It’s not that I don’t care. It’s not that I relish the thought of those cold-blooded sonsof bitches sneaking around down here passing themselves off as us. It’s just that I’m smart enough to know when something’s not my problem. And this is very much not my problem.’ He looks Quillon in the eye, the man’s eyes sleepy and not quite focused, but still with an interrogator’s intensity to them. ‘So do we have an explanation, or do we not?’
There’s a moment that encompasses lifetimes. He knows that he’s reached an impasse, a point where he has no choice but to take this man at his word. He cannot escape, he cannot lie. To be taken into custody would surely result in the kind of close physical examination that would mean his identity being exposed. At the very least, he would be denied access to the antizonal medicines necessary for continued existence this far from the Celestial Levels, and the ensuing sickness would be just as revealing as any examination.
But to place his absolute, unconditional trust in a man he never set eyes on until five minutes ago?
He has no choice but to do exactly that.
‘I didn’t kill the woman,’ Quillon says.
‘That was sort of my hunch. But you did know her?’
‘Of course. You know it, so what’s the point in lying?’ At one and the same moment, Quillon feels both an enormous relief and a terrible feeling that he has stepped off the edge of something, without wings to bear him up. ‘Her name was Aruval. And yes, your friend in the morgue was correct. She is – was – an angel.’
‘And the same goes for you and the two you cut up.’
Quillon looks down. Now that he has to articulate what he has done, the words don’t come easily. ‘I killed them after they murdered Aruval. I was meant to be keeping them alive. They relied on me for that. But I altered the dosage to put them into a state of paralysis, and then I used more medicines to kill them.’
‘You want to tell me why all this happened?’
‘It’ll take a while.’
‘Do you come out of it smelling of shit or roses?’
‘I guess that’ll be for you to decide.’ Quillon pauses. ‘We came here to do something good. Aruval and I believed that. But we were wrong. That’s why they killed her. And that’s why I had to kill them.’
‘Tit for tat.’
‘I’d have been next, once they convinced themselves they didn’t need my expertise.’
The man glances past Quillon to the table. ‘Whatever that is, pour me a shot of it. We’re not going anywhere fast.’
Quillon does as the man tells him, handing him the glass even as the man still has the gun on him.
‘If I tell you everything, and you still take me in, where does that get me?’
‘Exactly where you’d be, just quicker. You’ll just have to trust me when I say I don’t want to get involved in angel business. And I’ll have to trust that you’re not spinning me a lie. Puts us in the same boat, sort of.’
‘If you say so.’
‘You want to start with your name?’
‘It is. And I don’t remember my real name. It was scrubbed from my memory when they sent us down here. And you’d be, who exactly?’
‘Fray,’ the man says off-handedly, as if he’s given away nothing of value. ‘Not that it matters to you. You and me, we won’t be doing continued business. If I like your story, you’re out the door and we never see each other again. If I don’t, it’s down to the station and you’ll be snatched away from me faster than I can blink.’
And Quillon notices again the slight tremor in the man’s big fisted hand, the nervous quiver of the meniscus against the sides of the glass.
‘Maybe we could help each other,’ Quillon says.
Fray takes a big gulp from the glass. ‘Somehow I doubt it.’
Through a gap in the dust-caked blinds he watches the slot-car pull up outside the apartment. He’s been standing there for most of the night, keeping vigil. He can’t say why. It’s not as if he knew something was going to happen, because if that had been the case he would never have allowed Aruval to go with them. And if he had believed her, truly believed her, instead of telling her that they would wait until they had more evidence, then perhaps she would not have gone with them either. Together, Aruval and he could have done something. They could have confronted the other two, forced them into an admission of their real intentions. But now the car comes back, wheels off-slot, halts at the curb, and only two raincoated figures emerge. For a moment one of them holds the passenger door open and he thinks she might still be about to emerge, that all might be well, but then the door is slammed, and the two figures walk across the puddled, rain-spattered pavement and out of view into the lobby. A minute or so passes. Time for a last, frantic, whispered exchange. Working out what they’re going to say to him. Getting their story right. They’ve had the whole of the journey home to talk about it but it’s never enough. And then he hears the labouring whine of the elevator, bringing them up to the top floor. And thinks: they’ll be ready to kill me. If they have even the slightest suspicion that I know, it’s over. They’ve seen how the medications work. They can self-administer, if it comes to a choice between that and the mission being fatally compromised.
So he cannot let even a glimmer of skepticism show. Even though he knows, with bitter certainty, that they have killed Aruval.
The elevator arrives; he hears the dying whine of the motor and the iron clunk of its heavy doors. Footsteps along the hall, squishy with wet soles. Key in the door.
He lets the gap in the blind close tight, and returns to the table where he has been preparing the next batch of antizonals. It’s not hard to force his composure into one of acute disinterest. The one thing none of them are good at is making faces, and on the few occasions when he’s been outside Quillon has found the effort quite remarkably taxing. Inside the apartment, they’re all glad not to have to blend in, not to have keep striking the right note. Like overstretched rubber masks, their faces are keen to snap back into expressionless neutrality. Even their voices turn duller, like actors reading a script for timing, not effect.
‘You’ve been gone a while,’ he says, because it’s true and exactly what he ought to say.
‘You know we had work to do,’ says Baston, shaking the rain off his hat before hanging it up.
‘Did you get to the warehouse?’ They had gone to Allied Pharmaceuticals, to steal drugs necessary for their continued existence in Neon Heights.
‘We couldn’t get inside,’ Glaive says. ‘Too much security, too many lights on inside. It’s not normally like that. We’ll try again tomorrow.’
‘We need those antizonals.’
They had come down from the Levels with all the medicines that they could bring, but actual immersion in the zone is proving more costly than expected. Now the original supplies have been all but exhausted, and they must scavenge and improvise. The raid on the warehouse – supposedly poorly patrolled at night – was meant to have solved their problems for weeks.
‘And we’ll try again,’ Glaive repeats. ‘What is it with you, Quillon? Don’t you know we did our best?’
He looks beyond her, to the hall. ‘Where’s Aruval? Didn’t she come up with you?’
‘No, she’s still out there,’ Baston says, too casually.
Quillon dredges his mind for the appropriate response. ‘On her own? Since when was that protocol?’
Glaive says: ‘You know it is with Aruval. Hard to talk round once she gets an idea into her head.’
‘She decided to go and buy some over-the counter antizonals, using local cash,’ Baston says.
‘That’s not how it’s meant to happen. She’ll have to fill out forms, state the reason for needing the drugs. You know tightly they control the dispensaries.’
‘Yes,’ Glaive says patiently. ‘So do we all. So did Aruval. But she also knew we needed the medicines.’
‘And you let her go in alone?’
‘Better one of us take the risk, than all three,’ Baston says. ‘She understood that. And it’s just a one-off. We’re not establishing a pattern here. We’re not doing anything that will lead the authorities to the safe house.’
Baston’s demeanour is still rigorously calm. ‘Look, it’s easy for you. You hardly ever go out, hardly ever have to interact with the prehumans. We don’t have that luxury. And we certainly don’t have the luxury of being able to function without medicines. All Aruval’s doing is buying us some time in case we can’t get into the warehouse for a few days.’
‘Our supplies aren’t that low,’ Quillon says, but refrains from adding anything because he doesn’t want them to think he doesn’t believe their story. Only that he doubts the wisdom of it, which is something else. ‘You shouldn’t have let her go off alone,’ he says.
‘We tried to talk her out of it,’ Glaive answers. ‘You know how it is.’
‘I suppose.’ He looks around the room’s choir of clocks, their synchronised dials alert to the slightest hint of zone instability. They must be on guard at all times. What would inconvenience a local could prove rapidly fatal to an angel, for all their adaptations. ‘Well, when is she due back?’
‘It’s still early,’ Glaive said. ‘She’ll have a long wait until the dispensaries open.’ She glances at Baston, as if cross-checking a detail of their story. ‘I’ll be surprised if she makes it back much before noon. You should get some rest, Quillon. There’s no sense waiting up now.’
‘I need to finish these preparations.’
‘Don’t worry about Aruval,’ Baston says. ‘She can take care of herself.’
He doesn’t rest, but continues to occupy himself with the antizonals, cutting and mixing, diluting and crystallising, testing against locally-sourced reagents and a dozen caged mice purchased from a grubby pet shop in the Second District. Of course the mice are acclimatized to life in Neon Heights but they can still be used to gauge the crude efficacy of the drugs, the severity of likely side-effects. Every day Quillon examines his colleagues, watchful for the creeping onset of Massive Maladaptive Trauma. They are all susceptible to some degree. They aren’t meant to be alive down here; all the transformations have done is allow them to survive with the aid of medicines. None of the angels are exactly alike in their responses, and each day the individual dosage must be recalculated. The work is complicated, requiring constant, scrupulous diligence. He makes the others perform tests of numbing repetetiveness. He has them read from cards, hold long lists in short-term memory, recite numeric sequences, catch falling objects when he lets them drop between his fingers. He shines lights into their eyes and pushes needles into reflex sites. He runs equally demanding tests on himself, with the other angels’ assistance. He computes dosages against graphs drawn in notepads from memory.
All the time, though, he’s aware that the others are learning. They don’t have his expertise and never will. But they’re intelligent – they wouldn’t be on the mission if they were not – and they can follow the outline of a process. They know the kinds of drugs they would need to source, and if they were forced to make their own preparations, they probably know enough to at least not kill themselves.
He wonders if they’ve realised it yet, and if not, how long it will take them.
He decides not to wait until Aruval is clearly late from her drug-procuring errand. In the mid-morning, as is his routine, he runs another battery of tests, calculates dosages, and selects the right strength of antizonals. Or at least appears to do. This is the moment of maximum risk, when he relies on sleight of hand to give himself the right dose and the other two something not right at all. He has to act quickly, but not so quickly that it looks odd. If the effects show in Baston before he gets to Glaive, she will turn on him.
But his calculations are good, his acting believable.
‘Something’s not quite right,’ Baston says, two minutes after the administration. ‘I feel … odd.’
‘What’s wrong?’ Glaive asks, the effects yet to kick in.
‘Lie down,’ Quillon says, with plausible urgency. ‘I doubt that it’s anything serious. Your readings were a little on the limit; it’s possible I may need to give you a corrective dosage.’
‘This hasn’t happened before,’ Baston says, lying down on one of the beds, muscular stiffness already apparent to Quillon’s eyes.
‘We’re in uncharted territory now, so I’m afraid this kind of thing is likely to happen more and more. But it’s perfectly within my abilities to correct for slight miscalculations. I just need to keep you under observation for a few minutes, and then I can … ’
‘What have you done?’ Glaive asks, and he turns round and sees her standing there, looking down at her hand, palm to the ceiling, the hand tremoring wildly.
‘Nothing!’ Quillon says. ‘I just followed the usual … ’
‘But you’re all right.’
‘One of the samples may have been incorrectly strengthed. Again, I can correct for it. Lie down, with Baston.’
‘This feels wrong. You’ve overshot before and it didn’t feel like this.’
‘My chest is tightening,’ Baston says, the first hint of panic breaking through his voice.
Glaive stumbles towards the door, towards her coat and the gun she must still be keeping there. She doesn’t reach it. Her left leg stiffens, the right buckles under her. She falls to the floor, crashing her head against the leg of a chair. ‘Quillon,’ she says, trying to force herself back up again. ‘What did you … ’
He’s past the point of pretence now, and they know it. The figure on the bed is choking, looking at him with wide, fear-filled eyes. Baston is nearly paralysed; Glaive will soon follow. He returns to his table and the prepared medicines, and sets about loading two syringes.
‘I want you to tell me what really happened,’ he says. Baston, by this point, can’t even breathe, let alone speak. Quillon continues softly: ‘Aruval knew something, didn’t she? She came to me, told me there was something she wasn’t happy about, something that concerned the true purpose of this mission. She said there was an agenda, a directive, that she and I were not aware of.’
‘Quillon,’ Glaive says again, but this time about all she can manage is a strangulated gurgle.
‘She’d seen the two of you conspiring, when you didn’t think you were being observed. She’d seen you returning from errands to different parts of the city than the ones you were meant to go to.’
He moves over to the bed, to Baston. By now the male angel is completely still, in a state superficially indistinguishable from death. He cannot breathe, and his heart will stop soon unless the paralysis is eased. Quillon draws up Baston’s sleeve and injects just the right amount. Then he moves to Glaive, who is still on the floor, and repeats the procedure.
‘I should have listened to her,’ Quillon says. ‘Instead I told her it was normal to feel feelings of paranoia after prolonged exposure to high-strength antizonals. I told her that if there really was something going on, I’d have noticed it. And that if I was going to believe her, I’d need something concrete. Is that what happened? Did she confront you out there, when you were supposed to be breaking into Allied Pharmaceuticals?’
‘We told you,’ Baston says, able to croak out a few words even as the drugs pin him to the bed. ‘Couldn’t break into the warehouse. Too much security.’
‘And that was the last you saw of her? She went off to buy the drugs over the counter?’
‘Yes.’ But there’s something desperate and hopeless in Baston’s answer. Even if it’s the truth, knows it’s not going to be enough to assuage Quillon.
‘I think you’re lying,’ Quillon tells him. ‘I think you two decided that Aruval was an operational risk, an impediment to the success of whatever it was you were meant to be doing down here.’
‘You’re wrong,’ says Glaive.
He moves back to the table, empties the syringes and reloads them, this time drawing from different vials.
It’s perhaps only then – before the work is complete – that the truth really hits him. He hasn’t just lost Aruval, as certain as he is of that fact. He’s lost everything else as well. Because if Aruval was right – and he has by now more or less committed himself to that possibility – then there can be no hope of him returning to the Celestial Levels. The people who sent him, the people he trusted, either lied to him or were themselves lied to. Either way, there is no safe haven there. If it has not already happened, he is about to become an inconvenient detail in someone else’s scheme. Baston and Glaive have robbed him of more than his lover. They have stolen the place that made him, the only part of Spearpoint that will ever feel like home. He thinks back to the last time he flew with Aruval, that cooling evening before his wings were snipped away, his glib certainty that he would not need them again, that he could always grow new ones when he returned. Strange that he remembers that so well, when he doesn’t even recall his own name. But at the time even losing his name seemed no more than a necessary inconvenience, something that could be put right when he returned at mission’s end.
But now there will never be a mission’s end.
‘I want to know what this is all about,’ he says, moving to Glaive. ‘You are going to die; that’s not up for debate. There aren’t enough drugs in the whole of Allied Pharmaceuticals to undo the damage I’ve already done. And it’s going to be slow, and it’s going to hurt. You can trust me on that. I know more about the relationship between pain receptors and zone sickness than anyone on this planet. I can, however, alleviate that pain.’ He pushes the mask of his face into a smile. ‘To some degree. I can make it quicker, too. To some degree. But only if I feel I’m getting truthful answers to my questions.’
There is terror in Glaive’s eyes. He is fairly certain that she wasn’t expecting to die this day, and by his hand. He holds the syringe up to the window, daylight seeping through the blinds, and taps a finger against the glass barrel to eliminate bubbles.
‘So. Shall we begin?’