science fiction and fantasy writer

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.

Pincher heard a distant, metallic rattle. Another followed, then the sound became constant. The slugs were attacking the fence. Time enough, he thought.

He slotted the cell in, alongside the others they had brought up in earlier loads. Crawler followed him, dragging the sled with her single spidery hand. She passed Pincher another cell, then paused, despite the urgency of the moment, to tip her box torso back as far as it would go to look up, reaching out at the same time to touch the angel’s side.

“Almost done,” she said. “Almost angels.” It was her who had first used the word angel for what they were building, after she had found a figurine of one, left in the humans’ abandoned quarters. Wings spread and face upturned, fashioned of machine-smoothed brass. It had affected the way they had approached the task, the forms they had built.

The carcasses of three more angels lay behind the two still standing, half-finished and since cannibalised for parts. They would have been for Bruiser, Nipper and Duster.

It had been Nipper’s idea, to follow the humans back to the stars. It had taken only the briefest of discussions, a few seconds of rapid radio bursts, for the rest of them to agree. Eccentric, the humans might have said, or even faulty. But how could all five of them have the same fault?

The zombie slugs had caught the other three after the outer perimeter failed, and so now it was just Crawler and Pincher left to realise the idea.

They worked quickly to slot in the remaining power cells, while the zombie slugs threw themselves at the fence down below.

“All done,” Pincher said, and closed the housing around the cells, bolting it in place.

Crawler rolled over to the other angel and plugged herself in. Pincher did the same with the first. For a long time they were silent, each communing with their new bodies, checking systems, looking for faults. There were none.

It was time to go.

Pincher prepared to upload himself into the angel’s central core. He caught an exasperated radio packet from Crawler. She was already uploaded, but couldn’t get her broken old body to respond to her final command to release. Pincher disengaged from his angel and limped across to pull the plug for her. She radioed thanks, then waited for him to hobble clear before she started her gravity effect engines. Her old empty husk rattled sideways on its tracks, caught in the effect radius, and tipped over as her new angel shape lifted slowly into the sky.

Pincher paused to watch her, rising, spinning gracefully, accelerating as the effect of the engines compounded.

Joy, she sent. Joy.

He plugged himself back into his angel and brought all systems online, eager to join her. He was about to upload when he noticed a reading fluctuate. The output from one of the new power cells was wavering, then it dipped alarmingly. Warnings and error messages flooded Pincher’s thoughts. The fault hadn’t been apparent until the cell was put under load, and now it was catastrophic. Quickly he shut the angel down again.

If Pincher had been a human he would have sworn. A list of colourful phrases presented from his memory. Useless noise. He didn’t panic either, but for several moments he was at a loss, and lost. Crawler was on her way to the stars and he was trapped on the ground with only the quickly draining perimeter fence between him and the slugs.

Lost.

He needed to go back down to the power plant and get a replacement cell – and quickly, before the perimeter failed. But how? With his crippled leg, he was far too slow.

Crawler sent a radio query. Pincher sent a burst back, explaining. Use my body, she sent.

He looked over at it. The broken track had snapped completely when it fell. His eyes alighted on something closer at hand. The sled!

Awkwardly, Pincher shuffled and shoved it over to line up with the straight track down the slope, between the solar panels. He lay down on the sled and pushed with his foot. The sled moved, then stopped. He pushed again. This time it slid freely, picking up speed. He hung his claws over the sides, steering as best he could.

He made it most of the way down before he hit the same bump that had upset the sled on the way up. This time he went flying. Pincher bounced, rolled and fetched up against the struts of a solar panel at the foot of the slope.

His right eye was smashed. There was an alarming looseness in the ankle joint of his good leg. It took him some time to right himself. As fast as he could, he hobbled for the power plant building, taking his weight on both arms now as well as his leg.

The zombie slugs were attacking the fence in earnest, getting zapped and falling away, brainlessly returning. Pincher shuffle-hopped inside the plant building and straight over to the cell array. The few cells left were down to half capacity already, but working steadily under load. He disconnected one and pulled it free. It would have to do.

Back outside, he didn’t pause to look at the slugs, lurching as fast as he could back towards the hill. On the flat, he could spring off his wobbly foot and swing forward on his extended arm. He couldn’t maintain the speed once he reached the slope, though.

There was a resounding twang of parting metal, loud even in such thin air. The slugs were through the fence. Pincher wasn’t yet high enough to see much past the raised frames of the solar panels, but he could see the creatures swarming outside the fence, all heading for the breach, not smart enough to work out that they could now chew through where they already were. He heard their teeth scraping over the metal surfaces as he returned his attention to the slope in front of him. Quicker, he told himself, although he knew he was already going as fast as he could.

He heard the first solar panels pop, down at the foot of the hill, plastic sheets failing as the panels’ metal frames buckled under the slugs’ assault. He risked another look back. There were slugs on the slope behind him, coming after. They were slow, but still faster than him. With only one eye, it was impossible to judge how quickly they were closing.

He took one more step, then his foot collapsed. He hit the ground hard, only just managing to hold onto the power cell and stop himself from sliding back towards the slugs. His remaining eye blacked out and he thought for a moment that this was the end. Lost! He sent an anguished radio burst to Crawler, high above.

Keep trying, she sent back. Almost there.

He gave his head a careful shake and his eye came back online. Relief.

His foot had fallen off entirely and bounced back down the hill, where two slugs were now wrestling over it. Others crawled over the top of the fighters. Most spread out, attacking the struts of the solar panels. Some came on, tentacles waving, fixated on the denser metal further up – the angels on the crest and Pincher’s own metal shape a short distance ahead.

He began to drag himself forward again, even slower now, on claw and elbow and the stump of his leg. He reached the top of the hill ahead of the slugs, but only just. Some of those behind him fell on Crawler’s empty old shell. More slugs already covered the discarded carcasses of the other three angels, that must have come up the other sides of the hill. Several slugs kept after Pincher.

He turned at bay, his back to his angel. His claws darted out, as the slugs lunged like a slow tide, snipping off tentacles. The slugs recoiled, maddened and blinded, and turned on each other.

Pincher plugged himself into the angel and restarted the system check at the same time as he began to unbolt the panel that covered the power cells. A zombie slug’s teeth closed around the stump of his bad leg and dragged him backwards. He clamped one claw onto the angel and pulled out the faulty power cell with the other. He used it to beat at the slug that had his leg. Its teeth sliced shut, shearing off most of the leg. It retreated with its prize and two bent and broken head tentacles. Another slug took its place. Pincher put his back to it and its teeth squealed over the shell of his torso.

There were alerts coming from the angel, too – slugs biting into the stabiliser fins around its base. Pincher shoved the replacement power cell home, sliced a tentacle from the slug on his back, and started to refit the cover panel over the cells. The injured slug stayed on his back, teeth gnashing, battering Pincher against the angel’s side.

Another slug climbed over it and caught one of Pincher’s arms. He uploaded himself into the angel, abandoning his old body an instant before the slugs ripped it away. Suddenly he looked down on the slugs from up high. From his new vantage he watched them swarming across the hill, tearing down the solar panels and the perimeter fence, filling the plant buildings until they burst back out of the shattered windows. His new body felt gigantic, strange and strong and new. His wings burned in the sun. He started his engines.

The slugs around his feet were tossed away and stamped flat.

He increased power, lifting free of the ground. His power cells dipped, but steadily. New energy coursed through him from his solar panel wings. The slugs and the ruined base fell away, shrinking into the landscape of empty dust and stone. The horizon curved down on all sides, the world becoming a ball that filled less and less of his vision. He rose high enough to see the edge of the sky, crimson fading into starry black.

Joy, he thought, and broadcast it: Joy.

Joy, came back. He spun himself, orienting towards the bright speck that was Crawler. They converged, as their orbits brought them around to the planet’s night side, turning it into a red-rimmed black hole in the sheet of stars, with the dwarf sun peeping over its shoulder.

Joy, from Crawler again, while she used bursts of precious compressed air to orient herself beside him. They clamped together, the impact setting them spinning dizzily.

Angels, she sent.

He thought of the brass figurine she had found, with its smooth, clean lines. Almost, he sent back.

They turned their wings to the angry pimple sun, raising them as sails against the solar wind, and let it carry them away.

<END>

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