Haelice stood quietly in the cathedral's narthex, listening to the superstructure groan under the strains of the blink. The choir-drive raised eyeless faces to the stained glass portals of the clerestory, their voices lifted in ecstatic calculation. A shudder passed through the ship's stone mass. Haelice closed her eyes and gripped the rings of her virtual presence rig even tighter.
The blink passed, as though it had never been. At the eight divine points of the cathedral, the artifacts spun down and became still. The choir settled fitfully into their crèches, the cluster of cooling vents that sprouted from their heads reeling quietly back into the wall, a cold ticking sound that always reminded Haelice of padlocks clicking shut. The last strains of the logorithm echoed once through the cathedral's vaulted pillars and then disappeared into the blink. Haelice stirred from her hiding place. The ceramic joints of her body creaked as she unfolded from her place between two statues. There was a hitch in her knee, a grinding snap that felt like sand between the nanotube-laced bones of her leg. The bots would get to it eventually, she thought. The body was old, and her time in it was coming to an end, but the engines in her lungs would ensure the rig was ready for the next host. Haelice shook the stiffness out of her leg and clumped on the stone floor. The louvers of the choir chamber cycled shut, leaving Haelice alone among the pews.
These moments were precious to her. With a twist, Haelice broke the seal on the canopy that covered her eyes and levered the hood away from her face. Ghost lines of light folded away from her vision, the hum and frequency of the ship disappearing with the canopy. Conduits released their grip on her skull with a hiss to nestle against her shoulders like folded wings. She took a deep breath of the stale air. It tasted of incense and ashes and light. She sighed peacefully, praying into the silence.
Her body was not her own, borrowed from the generations of pilots who had come before her, held in trust for the pilots who would come after, once Haelice's spirit had joined the host of saints that haunted the cathedral's many chambers. Her time was not hers, either, nor her will. She followed wherever the angel led, pilot only in name and sanctity. But these moments were hers. Their peace was hers alone.
Her isolation was brief. The elder saints, momentarily exorcised by the spiritual vacuum of the blink, began to gather in the shadows of the narthex. The steady accumulation of voices lifted from a whisper to a song, reciting the liturgies of the ship in languages unfamiliar to Haelice's mind. They followed Haelice as she walked up the central aisle to the reliquary around which the ship had been built, centuries ago. The liturgy grew with each gathered spirit, the words shifting through history until they reached the modern tongue, only stiff formality and the stale voices of the dead giving the rites an alien echo. Haelice joined them, adding her voice to the familiar words. She spoke, and the reliquary spiraled open, the buffers that protected it from the blink folding away like a flower.
The angel waited for her among the eight golden spires of the reliquary. Shredded wings of chain and feather brushed the air. Her body was gaunt and frail beneath the starlight robes, flesh the color of beaten silver, no more substantial than fog or memory. Haelice bowed, touching her forehead to the command icon, waiting there until she felt the nether-soft touch of the cathedral's fallen host. Only then did she straighten her back to face the divine.
"Your absence was noted, initiate," the angel whispered. Her voice was the gentle chime of crystals, her eyes pierced through with sunlight.
"The choir sings without me, divine. The song to drive, the cathedral to carry, and your wisdom to guide," Haelice answered. "I am barely needed."
"The saints need you, child. I need you. Someone must give their will focus. Someone must inhabit the Vapor." The angel hovered closer. "There must always be a pilot."
"Yes, well . . ." Haelice kept her head dipped to shield her eyes from the angel's brilliance. Vapor. Virtual Presence Rig, an awkward name for her bones and blood and biofield. The idea that she was nothing more than a host of the saints of old made her uncomfortable. But she'd left her body long ago, her mind transmitted to this distant ship by the church's divine frequency, to accept her role as pilot to one of the divine. She was sealed into this cathedral, bound to travel the stars on the inscrutable business of the gods, far from the warm light of Sol and the empire. The creature raised a finger to Haelice's chin, edging her face up. It was difficult to look into those eyes.
"The blink is unsettling," Haelice confessed.
"It is a place devoid of your gods and your saints, a place where souls only gutter in the shadows . . . it should be unsettling, initiate. But you must be brave."
"Next time," Haelice said, pulling away from the goddess. "Now. Where have you brought us?"
She swiped her hands over the reliquary's icons, drawing the displays into being, filling the room with brilliant vectors, trajectories, star phases and gravity wells. Haelice blinked up at the information.
"Where are we?"
"At the beck of our brother," the angel answered. "He has called, and I have come."
"Which brother?" Haelice knew the ranks of the host as well as any pilot, but none of them appeared on her scans. The only sacred icon on her screen was her own asteroid cathedral, Sanctuary of Divine Intent, named as much for its function as its occupant. "There are no cathedrals in this sector," Haelice said. She swiped hard across the starmap, searching for anything that was familiar. "There are no cathedrals anywhere. How far have you taken us?"
"There are no cathedrals because there is no choir for this god," the angel said. "No saints, no pilot, no ship to carry his will."
"Did they die?" Haelice asked. She began drawing up other displays, trawling for the numinous trace lines of divine power that would leak from any member of the host of angels. It wasn't common for the massive asteroid sanctuaries to break apart in the blink, but it did happen. She suppressed a shudder thinking of the unwinding blossom of dead saints, breaching into real space from the blink in an ever-expanding scream of final sacrament.
"No. They never were." The angel settled into the spindles of her berth, drawing numinous light into her being. Very satisfied with herself, Haelice thought. "Our brother is feral. He is undiscovered."
Haelice knit her brows together, trying to twist the angel's words into meaning. She turned back to the displays, zooming in on the sacred lines that emanated from her own ship, arcs of purple light that defined the angel's will. She followed them, slowly, until they crossed another.
A god, buried among the stars, waiting to be found.
"Wake the choir," the angel whispered. "My brother is in need."
The Sanctuary of Divine Intent spun in a loose orbit through the system, Haelice brushing the vacuum with attitude rockets to correct their drift. This cluster of planetary bodies floated in the pale light of a dying star. The choir droned quietly in the background, offering litanies of propulsion to the cathedral, hardly more than a whisper in the silence. The volume around the ship was dotted with rocky debris, perhaps the remnants of a destroyed world, or galactic dust that had never accumulated into a planet.
"We'll have visual in a minute," Haelice said, mostly to herself. The angel's eyes were locked into the distance, divine sight piercing stone and soul to watch their destination. Haelice wondered if the feral spirit was watching their approach with the same intensity. She wondered if the two beings were already communicating. The choir was dipping and bowing in slow rhythm, as though they were trapped in an invisible current, their voices wavering. It was disrupting the cathedral's movement. Haelice corrected, calculated the approach, then corrected again. There was a lot of debris. It was going to be a tricky approach. It was as though something was interfering with the choir's focus.
"Can you settle them down?" she asked over her shoulder at the floating angel. "Get them to sing straight for a minute? It's causing havoc with my numbers."
"He is very old," the angel said, ignoring Haelice and betraying an urgency the divine rarely showed. "And very quiet. He is fading. We are barely in time. Quickly!"
"Patience, divine. There's some kind of interference with . . ."
Another wave of confusion rippled through the choir. The ship, attitude rockets flaring, spun dangerously off course. Haelice grunted with the effort of remaining upright, her hands clasped to the fragile icons of the reliquary, the damage in her knee shrilling into her bones. The cathedral rarely changed direction so radically, since so much of their travel was done through the blink. There was no harness, not even for the pilot.
"He is getting away! FLY!" the angel howled, and the choir took up her call. Their voices rose in strident tone, fast and complicated, gripping the cathedral in their song and hurling it forward.
"No, wait!" Haelice hissed. The blink loomed in the air like a thunderstorm. She fluttered her hands over the icons, struggling to find the solution that would keep the blink from tearing them apart. "Your shielding isn't in place, and the coordinates are unclean! I need another . . ."
The silence took them. The saints dissolved into nothing, the angel burning bright as a flare before joining them in the void. Alone with the choir's song and the shuddering bass of the cathedral straining against the impossible gravities of the blink, Haelice gritted her teeth and prayed. The displays, still open to real space trajectories, bent and twisted as they tried to track dimensions that no longer existed.
She fell in all directions, her mind shrinking against the canvas of eternity. And then reality. The ship snapped back into real space. Haelice felt as though she and the whole cathedral fell hard against something massive, something that wasn't present, an impact that shuddered her lungs, squeezed the blood from her veins, drove the thought from her mind. She hunched over the reliquary taking deep, bile-laced breaths. Machines filled her blood, trying to tamp down the panic and preparing for disaster. The slow babble of the first saint rose behind her, his voice full of inquiry.
"God damned madness," Haelice muttered. Her fingers were bleeding from between their armor plates, the blood squirming with clotted nano. Though the VPR was built for life in vacuum, and was spectacularly tough, it could still be broken. It could still die, and then there wouldn't be a pilot at all. "You can't . . ."
"I'm sorry to cause you to utter profanity, initiate," the angel breathed. Haelice looked up to stare at the being's dissipating body. The angel faded in and out of existence, as though her form were made of smoke with a beam of light playing through it, revealing first this mote, then the next. "But we are not yet where we are needed."
"Divine?" Haelice asked, but the blink struck them again, and again, each leap reaching through her bones and pulling the fire from her soul. Sparks of numinous energy sparkled off the artificial plating of her skin, floating like butterflies through the cathedral, scorching the stone when they landed.
It stopped. Haelice was lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling mural. She rarely gave the painting any thought. The octagonal lines of paint that depicted humanity's first contact with the angels, the signals that manifested into divine beings, the Earliest Saint kneeling at the feet of God's first messenger, stylized harp in one hand and stigmata in the other. The harp was shivering with the living song from heaven. It was all very beautiful. This mural was repeated in each and every one of the thousand cathedral ships that stretched across the unknown universe. The Summons, it was called. Beautiful.
Haelice propped herself up on her elbows. Her mouth tasted like blood and her skin was tingling. Dust, shaken free of the plaster ceiling and the pillars that filled the main chamber, hung in the air, reflecting light from the stained glass display portals and the glowing amber spindles of the reliquary. Slowly, Haelice stood, using the pews to support herself. Something was grinding deep in her lungs, a bit of the machinery gone astray.
She stood in the quiet, wavering uneasily. It took her a minute to realize that the saints had not returned from the blink.
The angel stood silently among the spindles, arms outstretched, palms up, head bent in concentration. Her lips were moving breathlessly.
"Divine?" Haelice asked. She realized that her hearing was blunted, her words hanging in the droning silence of her skull. The canopy of her VPR had snapped shut at some point, emergency protocols pouncing on her unconscious form to shield her. She cycled it open, coughing as the dust of the sanctuary rushed into her mouth.
"He is losing his grip on this world. Becoming unstable. We must secure his sanctity."
"What became of the saints?" Haelice asked. The angel answered her, without shifting her gaze, dismissively.
"Hidden away. Shaken from this world, though only for a while. We have no time for theology, initiate. I am bound to this ship, but I will be with you." The angel dropped her gaze onto Haelice like a hammer, her eyes burning with vigor. "Have faith."
"You'll be with me where?" Haelice asked. "What am I to do?"
The angel raised an arm and pointed down the aisle. A klaxon sounded from beyond the narthex. To the urgent flashing of a red emergency beacon, the recessed archway of the cathedral's main door creaked open with a gush of escaped gasses. A wave of dust crashed down from the archivolt, the images of the Earliest Saints looking on serenely as the unused portal cycled open.
There was light beyond, and air. It was the first fresh air to enter the sanctuary since the rig Haelice was riding had been sealed inside, generations ago. The shock of the opening had sent Haelice to one knee, and now she stood and faced the dust-choked light.
"You must walk on unhallowed ground, initiate. Find the god and make him holy once again."
"I am no builder. I can't craft the reliquary, or bind the rites. And without a choir . . ."
"I will work through you," the angel said. "This is a great task. If you succeed, you will join the ranks of saints with glory. Your name will be forever and ever."
Haelice glanced up at the mural, the stiff figures bent in supplication, their faces turned to the frequencies of God. She shook off her fear and, for the first time since the Sanctuary of Divine Intent left Earth's orbit two centuries earlier, stepped outside.
Haelice had memories of Earth. They were not as clear as she might have liked. The seminary's first task in preparing pilots for their launchcast was to chemically strip all nostalgia for the planet from the initiate's mind, but there were still lingering scraps of a childhood, and sunlight, and another body under another sky. Still, her first step out of the Sanctuary made her queasy. She was so used to the sacred dimensions of the cathedral that the raw, rocky ground beyond the door sent a tremor through her heart.
She was in a rocky tunnel that burrowed away from the cathedral door. The gravity was light, another change from the divinely-attuned mass of the Sanctuary, and Haelice found herself bouncing loosely over a floor of charred pebbles. The rock was shot through with crystals, rose-pink and brittle, their whisker-thin growths crumbling under Haelice's boot.
At first she thought that the Sanctuary had buried itself in the stone, by luck or providence matching the door to the tunnel, the rest of the ship's mass forged into the asteroid by the impossible velocities of the blink, but then a hissing sound caught her attention. Haelice looked up to see that there were gaps in the tunnel around the cathedral walls, through which the atmosphere was escaping. As she watched, the rocky walls of the tunnel folded and unfolded, fractal arms of pebble and scree, until the gaps were sealed shut. Back inside the ship, she could see the flickering image of the angel waiting at the end of the aisle, flanked by the egg-smooth crèches of the choir.
"Continue," the divine whispered through the speakers of Haelice's VPR. "We will be safe."
As she watched, the rocky exterior of the asteroid grew around the stained glass portals of the clerestory, plunging the ship into darkness. Only the ghost-light of the angel remained, and the luminous, flesh-hooded skulls of the choir.
Haelice turned and walked down the tunnel. The feather gravity meant she was barely touching toe to stone with each step. Her sense of direction quickly abandoned her as the tunnel corkscrewed deeper into the rocky mass of the asteroid. Yet a gentle tug at her soul kept her oriented to the Sanctuary, the pull of the saints who had come before and the reassuring guidance of the angel. The tunnel continued down, farther and farther away from the Sanctuary, the sides of the tunnel melting slowly into smooth corridors of quartz.
A song reached her. At first, Haelice thought it was the choir echoing dimly through her speakers, but soon she realized it was coming from the walls. It was a song without words, or with words that passed her ears and hummed directly into her bones. It seemed to travel up and down the corridor like a wave, pausing every few feet to resonate inside the crystalline wall before reflecting away. As it approached her a second time, Haelice paused to listen. The tone hovered near her head, shivering the wall. She raised her hand to brush nano-sensitive fingertips against the surface of the crystal. Rings of light danced through the wall, like ripples across a pond.
It was familiar. A memory, softened by time, residing not in her mind but in the bones of her VPR. A sound heard over and over again, forgotten with each new host, repeated with every launchcast. The sound of a soul traveling the signal, about to be received.
"Initiate?" the angel's voice came through the speaker, as rough and tinny as a can. "Why have you stopped?"
"I think I found . . ." Haelice began, but the tone fled down the corridor, taking the light with it. She lowered her hand, her fingers tingling with the contact. "It's gone."
"He will reside at the core of this planetoid, as far from the vacuum as he can manage," the angel said. "The emptiness will suck the light from him."
"What am I looking for?" Haelice asked. "What will he look like?"
"You will know."
"And how am I to contain the spirit?"
"You will know," the angel repeated.
Haelice grunted in frustration, but continued on. She got heavier as she traveled, until she was walking normally, her heels settling into the flaky, fragmented floor of the tunnel. Deeper down, radial patterns formed among the pebbles, lapping and overlapping. It reminded Haelice of a Zen garden. She wondered what that was, what memory had brought those words to mind.
After the angel's interruption, the song stayed away from her tunnel. Once or twice she heard it, but distantly, resonating down different channels, bouncing through veins of quartz that might have brushed her path, its beauty greatly diminished. Something inside her longed for it, a thirst in the desert, an addiction long forgotten but instantly sharp.
Time passed, and she found the central chamber. The tunnels began to branch, or flow together, it was impossible to tell which. The corridor grew, the ceilings vaulted, and soon she was in a place of many pillars, many domes, each a geode of bristling crystal and fractured light. A strange comfort gripped her. It took Haelice a few minutes to realize that the dimensions of this space reflected those of the Sanctuary. Not in form or function, there was no choir or narthex or clerestory, but in some algorithm of divine proportion. The crystalline walls forked open into chambers of geodes, spars of rosy stone sprouting from the floor and ceiling, fractals of quartz that curled into the air like flowers.
It was beautiful. And among the crystals lived the song.
Before, it had been an isolated tone, reflecting down the corridor like a heartbeat, blood in the stony veins of the asteroid. Here it filled the air, tones and sound reflecting off the whisker-thin fractals of the quartz, pausing long enough to build and grow as other sounds joined it, before bouncing off into the air to settle somewhere else. The chamber groaned with the noise, shivering with the breath of the singing god.
"You are among him," the angel hissed through the static. It wasn't a question.
"I am," Haelice answered. "It's beautiful. It's divine."
"He is falling apart. Each breath, a little more leaks out into the void. We must give him form. Here." There was a pause in the transmission, and Haelice felt something shifting in her legs. Her thigh unfolded, and a collection of rods cycled out. Without intending to, Haelice took them in her hand and pulled them free. Her thigh cycled shut.
"What was that?"
"Nano-assembler. All hosts contain such a thing. I have been working on the formula while you traveled."
"But my hand . . ."
"Automatic response. I am sorry if it was unsettling." The angel cut out momentarily, then returned, her voice louder. "I have adjusted the frequencies of our communication. It is important that we remain connected for this."
At the angel's voice, the tone fled Haelice's vicinity. The song continued in the rest of the area, leaving Haelice in silence, like a dead zone in an echo chamber.
"He doesn't like the sound of your voice," Haelice said.
"Destructive interference. It is the reason we must hurry. The rods in your hand are beacons, designed to collect and focus the divine signal. The chamber you are in should be perfectly symmetrical. Place the beacons at the eight divine points. You remember?"
"Of course," Haelice said. The form of eight reflected the material world, measured and anchored and reaching into the blink. Placing the eighth beacon would require the assistance of the choir, to briefly open the blink so Haelice could anchor the rod into the nothing-space. She examined the rods. They appeared to be smooth and steel, each about eight inches long. "How do these things work?"
"Set the end against the stone. They will take over from there." A wave of silence passed through the chamber, the rings of light that blossomed across the stone darkening to amber. When the angel's voice returned, she was whispering. "My presence is causing more damage than I suspected. I must withdraw during this stage, but I am only a word away. Speak if you need me."
The connection cycled closed, and the chamber returned to equilibrium. Haelice sighed and started working her way around the room, searching for its boundaries and trying to calculate the stations of divine focus.
The chamber was larger than she had first thought, its perimeter lost in the branching tunnels that entered all around. She was forced to refer constantly to her VPR's mapping overlay, but only a little time passed before she found the appropriate points. She made her way to the first and pulled out the first rod.
It was an unremarkable length of steel. Haelice wondered at it, how it had come from her body. It made some sense, she supposed. Her body was self-contained and artificial, designed to rebuild itself over the centuries, even though it was largely biological. There was no reason to think that the same systems that recycled her blood and repaired her bones whenever she was hurt couldn't be repurposed into creating steel rods. It was still disturbing.
She double-checked her overlay, marking the focus point on the wall in her mind's eye, then took the rod in both hands and tapped it against the crystal. The wall chimed in response, a vibration that carried up the length of the rod, finding its way into Haelice's bones, her teeth.
The base of the rod twisted open, eight fingers scything out to tap against the stone. Once it had found an anchor it liked, the rod clenched tight to the crystal, snapping the rod in place. Haelice stepped away. The rod shimmered, the smooth surface rippling and then folding apart like dominos falling (another image from her forgotten life, unmoored from memory), each tiny panel fluttering out on an articulated, telescoping stalk, twisting in fractal stems until the rod was transformed into a shivering bush of silver leaves. The receptor hummed with the chamber's song, filtering it from the crystal walls and the amber-tinged air.
"Well done," the angel whispered in her ear. "I can feel him drawing to the surface. Take care, initiate. He has been long alone, and knows nothing of the summons issued to your race. He may be confused."
"Must I fear him?"
"Always approach the divine with fear, Haelice. But also with faith."
The connection cycled shut, leaving Haelice alone with the shivering bush and the chamber of song. She sighed nervously, then went to find the next point of divination.
The first four receptors deployed easily enough. Each one adjusted itself slightly, seeking the point of harmonic convergence relative to the other fractals, straining toward one another. When she planted the fourth rod, Haelice noticed that a cloud of cascading light was beginning to form at the center of the room, coalescing and precipitating in gently floating motes of fire.
The song changed as she planted the fifth rod. It ended as soon as the sixth receptor blossomed into its bush of fractal silver and sound.
Haelice turned to face the light at the center of the room. It had changed, the cloud etched away into angelic form, a man wrapped in thin linen cloths, like bandages, covering his face, his chest, his arms and legs and hands. The tattered ends of the linen fluttered outward, forming a flat disc behind him, snapping in an unseen breeze. As she got closer, Haelice saw that the bandages were spotted with blood, some of it dry and brittle, in other places fresh, the spots slowly growing. The bandages over the creature's eyes were blackened with soot. It hovered several feet over the ground, at the exact center of the expansive chamber.
"What are you doing?" the creature asked. His voice carried the crystalline chime of the song, seeming to echo off itself as he spoke. Haelice was so startled that she nearly dropped the last two receptors.
"We've come to help. I'm here with the angel," she said, then realized she was speaking to another angel. She struggled to remember her being's proper name. "With Divine Intent. She picked up your call for help."
"Did she?" he said, a hint of sarcasm in his voice. He raised his head, arching his back. The anchoring receptors squealed in protest, and the rods in Haelice's hands grew warm. After a handful of heartbeats the angel relaxed again, turning to face Haelice. "I can sense her will in you. But you are not slaved. How is that possible?"
Haelice remembered the twitch of her hand as it accepted the rods, the momentary loss of control that she had never experienced in her years riding the VPR. She brushed it from her mind, kneeling to plant the seventh rod at the angel's feet. It blossomed quickly, its feathery receptors brushing the creature's feet. Where the silver leaves of the device touched the angel, fresh blood dotted the bandages.
"Generations of life sit heavy on your shoulders," the angel said quietly. "Your blood is profane, your flesh long dead. I had almost forgotten what your kith tasted like, so long have I been separated from the communion. Do you know the name of your birth planet?"
"Earth," Haelice said. "Terra. Don't worry. We'll explain everything. Divine will explain it. I'm only here to secure you."
"I do not wish to be bound, Terran. I have fled them since the diaspora, and I will flee them still."
"It's not a binding. You're experiencing . . ." Haelice groped for the words to describe the slow collapse of spirit that plagued the angels before they made contact with humanity, the loss of identity and power that the cathedrals and their reliquaries were meant to prevent. "It's signal degradation," she said finally. "With each emanation, each echo, some of you is lost. Slip too far down that path and you'll disappear."
"I am reduced, yes, but not because I am . . . leaking," the angel said. "If you really wish to help me, you can start by freeing me from these bonds."
"The receptors? You misunderstand. Without them you would still be degrading."
"Degrading," the angel snarled. "Yes, degrading. Dying."
"Yes," Haelice said. "I am keeping you from dying." Angels at the end of their wavelength were often simple. Haelice had trained to deal with them, should her attendant spirit suffer signal loss, either by accident or intent. She took the last of the receptor rods in hand and held it near the angel's chest. "Divine? I am ready to plant the final receptor."
"Be quick," Divine Intent returned. "He is slipping into madness. Any further and we might not be able to save him at all."
The channel cycled and the choir came online. Unlike the angel's tinny voice, the presence of the blind priests surged through the VPR's speakers like a hammer. It struck the crystalline walls of the chamber and echoed through it, roaring from stone to stone, ceiling to soul, shaking the air with its fury. And it was met with equal vigor. The bandaged spirit bristled at the signal, and its song clashed and overlapped the choir's howl.
The blink formed slowly, condensing around the rod in Haelice's shaking hand. The artificial rig of Haelice's body began to twitch, the canopy fluttering like an eyelid in seizure, the thousand nano-drives and assemblers and sensors of the artificial flesh winding tight and hideous in their turmoil.
And then it was gone. Everything. All things. Even silence.
Haelice stood up. She was in her old body, long forgotten. And her old sun, her old childhood, her old life. The memory of them had been scrubbed from her mind, but their imprint lasted, an eternal signal etched on the flesh of her soul. She was in a field of sunlight, under a sky of wavering grass. And she was not alone.
The angel, immediately familiar even without his robe of bandages, without the ashes in his eyes and the blood on his clothes, reached down from the sky of grass and plucked her from the ground. He lifted her back to earth, and everything flipped, and then the grass was where it must be, and the sky, and the sun itself looking down on them. There was a tree that stretched from the sun through the sky and buried itself in the earth, wide, veiny limbs of solar panels arranged in rings slowly sliding up the trunk and into heaven.
"The elevator," Haelice said, the memory of the artifact, forgotten once the angels had found them, snapping into place in her mind. The rings of glittering panels spun slowly as they made their slow crawl up from the earth, following the carbon tubes through the atmosphere and into space.
"It was the elevator that drew us. The column." The angel drifted beside her. "It was the universe's largest harp string, and it dredged our signal out of the blink, like God's finger strumming a note."
"Yes," Haelice said. "I remember now."
"This is what it was like, before. Before the diaspora, before the flight, before . . ." he raised a hand to Haelice. "Before you. We were at peace. And I would be at peace again."
"I don't understand. What do you mean, the diaspora? What flight?"
"We fled the earth, child. We had always been here, seen by some, followed by others. Sometimes corrupted, often ignored, but always present." The angel walked past her, raising his face to the silent trunk of the elevator. "More a part of you than you were of yourself. One note in your song. And then you dredged us up, unraveled from the pattern and pulled away. You made a thing of us. This thing," he motioned to himself, and then pointed up to the highest point of the elevator, before it disappeared into clouds. "And that."
Haelice squinted and, with the impossible clarity of the dreamscape, found that she could see a black mass slowly crawling its way to the sky. The channeling vanes of a reliquary, nano-assemblers drawing on the signal that hummed through the carbon trunk of the elevator, using the mystic logorithms found in the divine music to create the vessel of the gods.
"I still . . . I don't understand."
"That's alright. Not understanding is part of it. Not understanding is it." He turned back to her, a smile on his face. He looked terribly familiar. "But I have run as far as I can. There is no one out here for my song to carry or be carried by, and so I can finally rest."
"I can save you," Haelice said. "Let me, let us. Divine Intent said that we should be able to give you your own . . ."
"No," he said. "I have been many things across the eons of your race, some of them truly awful, some of them impossibly beautiful. But I will not be that."
"Let me help," Haelice started, but the angel held up his hand to silence her.
"You must help yourself," he said. "We've been here long enough. Almost too long."
"What do you mean?" Haelice asked. "What is time in the body of a god?"
But the angel was falling away from her without moving, getting smaller as if he was getting farther away, the air bending at the edges of his form. The dream sang with him, the grasses swirling in Zen circles, the solar panels of the elevator shivering like snowflakes, the sun flickering. The sky folded away like dominos. Haelice reached for the angel and found only shockwaves.
"Leave me. Let me be forgotten."
"No," Haelice said.
"It will be your life," the angel warned.
"No!" Haelice screamed.
And then silence. And then light.
"Initiate Haelice!" Divine Intent's voice boomed, not through the speakers of the VPR, but through the shattered crystals of the room itself. "You must return to me! You are in grave danger!"
"No," Haelice said, but when she looked around everything had changed. She was in the crystal chamber again, but the walls were fracturing like ice. The fractal flora of the receptors were nothing but charred trunks, and a screaming, tearing sound filled her ears. The asteroid, if it had ever been anything so large, was falling apart. The world was breaking around her.
The canopy of the VPR snapped shut, as quick as a lion's jaw. The lights that filled her display-sight struggled to explain what was happening. Something was gone from the asteroid, the mass that had given it gravity, the structure that had held the complicated latticework of its crystals together. Like a sail suddenly becalmed, the asteroid was collapsing.
"Divine!" Haelice called out in panic. She bumped against the floor, pushing off with one foot, trying desperately to remember which of the dozens of corridors she had entered the chamber through. The crystal beneath her foot crumbled, robbing her of momentum. Any thought of direction was lost in the tumbling, maddening spin. "Help me!"
"The fool locked me up," Divine Intent answered. "I can't come to you."
"The room, the chamber . . ." Haelice was trapped in a sickening spin, head then foot then head again. "I don't know where I am."
"I will do what I can," Divine answered.
Haelice felt a numbness in her arms, in her chest, and again that feeling of lost control. Her arms began to jerk stiffly.
"No!" she shrieked. "No, you have to come get me!"
"I can not. Haelice, you must surrender. Surrender control!"
With a gasp, she did. Darkness rimmed her eyes as Divine Intent seized her flesh. With robotic precision, the angel puppeted Haelice into one of the corridors. She cartwheeled past the fragmented walls of the asteroid, avoiding debris with an efficiency and foresight that Haelice couldn't have managed. All around her, the asteroid sang its destruction, crystal walls shattering and splintering in ecstatic tumult. Haelice closed her eyes and willed her arms to move, but the angel wouldn't release her.
She grew heavy. She fell, slithering along the stone floor of the cathedral, the sharp, glittering dust of the destroyed asteroid grating off her skin. Haelice stood, once again in control of her legs, and ran down the aisle. The titanic door to the cathedral boomed shut. Heavy impacts shook the ship, sending flakes of mural and plaster and rust raining down from the ceiling to crunch under Haelice's iron feet. The angel waited for her, arms out, twisting in the glittering tomb of the reliquary.
"Our prison is collapsing around us, but we will not make it clear if we don't hurry!"
"He destroyed himself!" Haelice screamed helplessly, tears running down her face. She fell against the command icons of the reliquary, swiping the cathedral to life. "I tried to stop him, but he was determined . . ."
"Hush, child. His madness destroyed him, and nearly us. There was nothing you could do. Now," the angel lifted her head to the ceiling, bright eyes piercing space. "Sing us out of here!"
Haelice bent her will to the choir. Her canopy filled with the riddle of velocity. She brushed it aside and summoned the choir.
As one, the eyeless host bolted from their tombs, their skulls faintly luminous with the power pumping through their souls, the clatter of their venting harnesses as loud as a thousand cannon in broadside, and they raised their voices to the sky, plucking nothingness out of the void of space and wrapping the ship in the will of their divine intent.
The blink tore through the ship like a squall. Haelice remained at her station, as she had ever since the Sanctuary's brush with the feral angel, two years ago. The choir sang true and straight, the lights against the canopy of her VPR as clean as fresh rain. At the angel's direction and by her will, the cathedral reached its destination and fell out of the nothingness of the blink. The choir settled into their crèches, to sleep dreamlessly until they were once again needed.
Haelice stepped back from the reliquary, snapping open her canopy and taking a deep, silent breath of the stale air. Her moment of silence, before the first saints rose again from the nothing, before Divine Intent unfolded her shielding and took her place again among the eight-fold amber spires of her throne. This was still Haelice's most treasured time, these moments of peace before the vanished spirits came back.
She used the quiet time to remember that field of sunlight, that sky of grass, and the delicate, rotating tree of silver leaves that stretched between them. To remember what it was like in her own flesh, and the way the angel smiled at her in the moments before he disappeared.
And also to listen to the song woven into her heart, no longer dredged from the darkness to stand alone, never bound to a relic or stolen from the void of space. The song of the nameless angel, and the end of his long, ragged flight from worship.
Haelice no longer spent these moments alone in silence. His song was with her. As it always had been.