I recently ran a mini-workshop with my daughter’s primary school class about illustrating stories in magazines (something I used to dabble in, once upon a time). We looked at some examples and talked a bit about what the illustrator is trying to do (make people interested, give them some idea of what kind of story it is) and trying not to do (give away the ending). Then I read them the first few pages from “Almost Angels”, one of the previously unpublished stories in Angel Dust, and they all had a go at illustrating the scene I’d read.
The story was actually originally written for my kids, from a prompt my son handed me one day, which consisted of a piece of paper with some stickers on it, of two beat-up old robots, a slug monster and a red cartoon planet (the sort with giant asteroid craters all over it). “Write a story about this, Dad!” I’m sure I’ve kept it somewhere, but do you think I can find it? Anyway, here’s some samples of the kids’ art from the workshop, along with the opening few pages of “Almost Angels”:
– – –
Pincher sat facing backwards on the sled with his back to the stacked power cells, the square heel of his good foot and the welded stump of the other leg dragging in the dirt. Crawler’s metal tracks crunched pebbles and sand as she towed the sled up the hillside between the rows of solar panels, towards the angels they had built at the top.
A piece of one of Crawler’s tracks hung loose. Crunch, flap, crunch, flap. The cable creaked between the sled and the tow hook at the back of Crawler’s chassis. Crunch, flap, creak.
The light around them was changing from blue-grey night to the lilac of pre-dawn, the sky above grading from deep, starry violet to crimson. Even with Crawler’s most concerted effort, the climb was painfully slow.
Around the foot of the hill, the wreckage of the base littered the plain: rubber tyres, cracked plastic seats and broken glass from the vehicles; the buildings hollowed out concrete shells, some half collapsed; and everywhere scattered chunks of foam insulation, bright white like snow. Nipper’s tyres, a fraction the size of those from the vehicles, were still strewn around the spot where she had been caught.
The zombie slugs were gathered now around the electrified inner perimeter fence, drawn, as they had been to the outer base, by the concentration of metal inside – in the solar farm and the power plant, along with the life support and water recycling plants, both long silent and long since picked over by the robots for any useful parts.
The slugs had been motionless throughout the cold dark. Now a rustling arose as the sky brightened, legless bodies shifting, their triple head tentacles waving.
The sled bumped over a particularly large rock. Pincher grabbed for the side with one claw and a bouncing power cell with the other. Crawler’s tracks skidded over the loose surface. A thrown pebble dinged off the back of Pincher’s metal cranium.
The tracks caught, and their slow progress up the hill resumed. The flapping piece of broken track was worse now. Crunch, flap-flap-flap. Pincher rotated his head and extended his neck to see how bad it was. He thought it would last to the top of the hill this one last time.
“Good girl,” he said, his voice thin in the thin air. They didn’t need to talk aloud, and Crawler sent back her pleased response as a short radio packet, all of her resources directed to driving her tracks. It was a waste of precious energy to use their speaker boxes at all, and inefficient with so little atmosphere to carry the sound, but they both liked to hear the words the humans had used.
Pincher had no idea what had made him “boy” in the humans’ eyes and Crawler “girl”. She was a headless box on tracks; he, at least, had four limbs and a head radiating from his can-shaped torso, but there was nothing about himself that he could identify as “masculine”.
There was a sudden burst of red-gold light on the hilltop as the planet’s sun crested the horizon and its rays struck the angels. Pincher’s vision flared, the lens of his left eye no longer opening and shutting in response to changes in brightness. He flipped down the filter he had fitted, one half of a pair of welding goggles that the humans had left behind. Crawler sent another radio burst: hope, relief, joy.
Pincher sent back: beautiful.
At that moment, with the new sun striking them, he thought that the angels would look beautiful, as humans meant the term, tall and bright, their wide solar panel wings angled to catch the light. The brightness made it less obvious that they were made of junk, patchworks of scavenged and mismatched parts and panels. But they worked – or they would, once these last charged power cells were fitted – and that, for Pincher, was their true beauty.
The red sunlight spread over the top of the hill, creeping down the slope to turn the ranked panels of the solar farm from black to rusted orange at about the same pace as Crawler and the sled moved up.
Pincher turned his head to look back again.
The dwarf sun sat just above the horizon. An angry pimple of a star, he had heard one of the humans call it.
He had added the turn of phrase to his catalogue of strange things humans said. Angry pimple, he thought. He watched the agitation of the slugs grow as the sunlight seeped nearer. They went still again when it touched them, just for a moment, then the rustling began to pick up again, spreading in a wave. Soon they would begin attacking the fence, driven to a mindless frenzy by the metal on the other side. Pincher understood that the humans had named them “zombie slugs” because the creatures had neither brains nor legs, although he himself had no direct experience of either zombies or slugs.
The few power cells that Pincher and Crawler had left down in the plant building would drain faster than the solar panels could recharge them. Pincher calculated an hour at best before the charge in the fence was weak enough that it would no longer hold the slugs back. Enough time, just.
They reached the top of the hill. Crawler ground to a halt. Her waist joint squeaked when she swivelled her top half to unhook the cable. Pincher’s joints squealed just as loudly as he levered himself off the sled. The grit got in everywhere. He extended one of his arms as long as it would go, using is as a makeshift leg, picked up a power cell with the other claw and hobbled, lopsided, on his arm and one working foot over to the angels.
Continued in Angel Dust