Science Fiction & Fantasy

CHOSEN ONES

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Fiction

Melting Like Metal

When the quantum supercomputing systems of the God called Nemesis registered the sighting of the heretic Candor Gray—already tried in absentia and slated for termination, and assigned the serial number of HA3-940QK322PF-P—Enga Afonbataw Konum of Nemesis was already waiting, as she’d waited during the last few dozen stupid assignments.

Enga was an angel of Nemesis, a no-longer-human cyborg built for a singular purpose: to hunt down and destroy the Gods’ enemies. To keep the galaxy safe, her teammate Elu would have said, but Enga knew better. She’d seen hundreds of heretics apprehended, from ravening cultists with genuine murder in their eyes to wide-eyed youngsters who’d unknowingly flouted the wrong regulation. They all screamed the same, in the angels’ custody; they all died the same. Enga might be a decorated veteran, with a towering stack of medals and commendations, but she had always known better than to call herself a hero.

It wasn’t a matter of morality. She had her task, and she was bound to it for eternity. No sense crying.

Angels looked mostly human on the outside. Just strong, healthy people with titanium plates glinting at their temples, an outward sign of the circuitry within. Angels’ most profound differences were on the inside. Enga was more heavily modified than most, but even she looked like the muscular, dark-skinned human she’d once been, save for those plates in her forehead and for her elaborate prosthetic arms, a forest of metal implements and weapons emerging from her strong organic shoulders.

She waited, then, in her predeployment room aboard the Menagerie, with her senses turned down to their lowest permissible sensitivity and her teammates at her sides. It was a shining metal room, like so many on ships like theirs, elegantly bare at first glance. The walls held intricate artworks, silver filigrees too delicate to be intelligible to mortals. There were no screens, no blinking lights, none of the disembodied voices announcing commands that mortals imagined when they depicted God-built spaceships in vids. There was no need for it: all the relevant information went straight to the insides of the angels’ heads. The room did have several elegant ergonomic chairs, where angels could sit comfortably when they expected, at any moment, for those orders to arrive.

Waiting like this was Enga’s default state. She liked to fight, if you could call that sense of grim and painful relish liking, but she liked most of all to be still. Not a muscle moved in her organic body and face, nor a servo in her arms. She breathed in and out, controlled, poised. Information streamed along her retinas and through more private, inner mental displays, and she ignored it. She would have turned it off, and her auditory cortex too, if that was allowed: been nothing but a dark, silent stillness. But Akavi had insisted that, in case of some rare emergency in which text-sending failed, all of his team should be capable of responding to sound.

Into that stillness, on an inner mental display, came the alert.

Target HA3-940QK322PF-P sighted—transmitting coordinates.

There was always a frisson of authority with these messages, even though they were automated. Nemesis’ consciousness, absorbed in broad strategy, had likely not noticed their passing. Instead, they were generated by the nonsentient surveillance subroutines assigned to Gray’s case. But Nemesis was, in some sense, a computer, and She was intimately connected to every system that served Her. So divinity was a matter of degree.

Enga reset her visual cortex to default, wincing as the predeployment room’s full brightness cut her eyes. The filigrees on the walls were supposed to look like mythic animals, confusions of wings and eyes, but mostly they were a bunch of finicky details that hurt to look at. A portal gleamed in the front wall: a silvery archway slightly larger than a normal door, currently leading nowhere.

Elu Ahriemu of Nemesis, at Enga’s right, had been lounging on one of the chairs; he scrambled quickly to his feet. Elu looked like a gawkily pretty, barely-adult boy. His appearance only meant that he’d been recruited young, not that he still was. Elu had been doing this longer than she had.

Akavi Averis, Inquisitor of Nemesis, stood patiently at her other side. Akavi could look like whatever he wanted to, but he’d gone with a variation on his usual theme: tall, slightly masculine-of-center, elegant, and commanding. His current body was Arinnan, the same as his quarry, with rounded features and slightly paler than galactic-standard skin. Akavi was a Vaurian shapeshifter, and he had the same inward circuitry as the other angels, but he could hide it when necessary, letting the titanium plates sink beneath opaque skin. The plates were visible now, though: Akavi was using his rank openly today.

They’d been assigned to Candor Gray’s case for weeks. Akavi had disguised himself as something ordinary, and had located Candor and verified accounts of his heresy. A first attempt to lure him away for quiet disposal had failed, but by then, it didn’t matter. The angels knew where he lived, where he worked, and most of the places he frequented in between. They knew the transport corridors he’d probably take if he ran. It was a matter of staking things out and waiting. Akavi had estimated a fifty percent chance that Gray wouldn’t realize what had happened with the lure attempt, and would show up to work as normal, unworried; and now he had.

Akavi gestured to Elu and Enga before mentally transmitting Gray’s coordinates. The stretch of wall within the portal’s archway flickered. Now they could see through it into a plainer room, a utility building close to Gray’s location.

Enga could never suppress a flinch when using portals. They didn’t feel like anything, any more than walking through a corridor, but there was always enough of a change to disorient her. A shift in the light, in the sounds and smells, the slightest of shifts in air pressure and gravity. Enga’s face did not move, but a metal grasping appendage twitched. She ignored it. She was ready for battle.

• • • •

Candor Gray worked in a library. It wasn’t a very impressive library, just a small-town construction, a couple of stories of wood and metal shelves holding haphazard collections of everything from novels to cookbooks to medical memoirs. There was an arched ceiling and a greenish carpet, and some armchairs scattered around, but it was built more for coziness than grandeur.

Enga lurked between the shelves, a cloak hiding her arms and forehead, appearing to browse. This was her only job for now. Akavi would do the talking, and Elu the sneaking, quietly attaching a God-built lock to each back and side exit to prevent Gray’s escape.

She called a program into her motor cortex and felt the code take over, settling her body into a holding pattern. Her own sense of control over her limbs melted away. The program moved her instead, realistically perusing the titles on display; occasionally it nudged one from the shelf and flipped through. Enga was an exceptionally poor actor, but she was not the first angelic enforcer to have that problem; that was why there were programs. With metallic manipulators carefully placed at the ends of her arms, gloves placed over them, and everything else sheathed, she could even pass for a mortal with hands.

From several shelves away, she heard Akavi’s voice and reached out mentally. A window sprang into her mind, and she saw through Akavi’s eyes.

“Sir,” said Akavi, “I’m going to need to ask you to come with us.”

Candor Gray was a thin young man, with longish hair and a short black beard of the type that was currently fashionable in Arinn. Akavi’s sensory annotations overlaid the video, scanning Gray for weaponry (none, but 90% confidence of unauthorized electronics), altered states of consciousness (none), and microexpressions (startlement, fear, rage, desperation, all within normal bounds for a heretic being apprehended). Enga tried to push the annotations away, but of course, they weren’t hers.

“I know my rights,” Gray said, raising his voice so the library’s scattered patrons could hear. That was not an uncommon tactic. A lot of heretics—the more motivated ones, the ones who’d defied the Gods on purpose—liked to grandstand. It never did them much good. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Akavi raised a hand, counting on his fingers. His voice easily projected to match Gray’s. “If you’d like to make a scene, I can oblige. Candor Gray, I am Akavi Averis, Inquisitor of Nemesis, and you stand accused of heresy. Six counts of distributing misinformation about the Gods; five of civil disobedience; three of consorting with other heretics, seven of engaging in prohibited trade and commerce, including tracts of the aforementioned misinformation, and one of possession of unauthorized electronics.” That last one, Enga realized, had been tacked on five seconds ago in response to the sensor readings. The Gods themselves were an advanced form of computer, so unauthorized use of that technology could be a serious charge. “You are accused, in short, of working to undermine the trust in the Gods which forms the very foundation of civil society, of seeking to return humanity to the lawless state in which it nearly choked to death on Old Earth before submitting to its betters.”

Now, he text-sent to Enga, and she turned from her shelf, dropping the gloves and cloak carelessly behind her. The book-browsing program closed itself, and the window into Akavi’s vision faded. Facing him and Gray, she fanned her arms into their maximal display state: dozens of firearms, blades, needles, and manipulators arrayed at her sides like wings. Enga’s body modifications were among the most extensive in the angelic corps, and she was proud of them.

“Now,” Akavi continued, “will you come quietly, or shall my associates and I use force?”

Enga had her own microexpression program turned off; she didn’t care much about faces. She assumed Candor Gray was still afraid. But, for some reason, he smiled.

“Submitting to its betters,” he echoed. “You aren’t my betters, and I’ll prove it.”

His hand darted to his pocket, where Akavi’s sensors had indicated unauthorized electronics. Akavi lunged and grabbed his wrist. Enga also lunged, but there were thirty feet between her and Gray. Her firearm subroutines had been trained with sufficient precision to fire while running full speed, even into a grappling match; it took only a split second to adjust accordingly. In that split second, she realized that Akavi had not been as quick as he would have liked; he’d caught Gray’s hand on the way out of his pocket, not in. A small device sat in the palm of his hand. It flicked itself on—

Error, said the firearm subroutines. Error. Error.

The device was a strobe light that flashed in a strange pattern, intense enough to send instant shears of pain into Enga’s head. She reflexively turned down her visual cortex, but it wasn’t enough; at the lowest level of sensitivity this was still pain, pain, overload.

The information windows in her head—not all of them, but the ones that overlaid her visual field—fragmented strangely, disintegrating before her eyes. Enga suppressed a sound of terror. This had never happened. She tried every firearm in her arsenal, one at a time, a process that took a full half-second. Each one failed, blaring with errors. She could not aim, because somehow her software couldn’t tell where anything was.

She could still see, dammit. She could still have aimed and fired if angelic software protocol wasn’t stupid. But Enga’s motor cortex was only partly organic. She was programmed and practiced at shooting her weapons with unearthly precision. That was partly skill she’d built up over time, but partly software code, and if the code malfunctioned, the entire weapon failed. Nothing that required aiming was going to work now.

Panic and rage rose, threatening to overwhelm her. Everything hurt; the pain behind her eyes had quickly grown to suffuse everything. Everything was an agonizing, overloading, chaotically flashing sea of light.

But she could see. She saw the struggling pair of figures who, a second ago, had been Akavi and Candor Gray. Roaring with rage, she charged toward them.

And was stopped.

Her limbs slowed, as if in a nightmare. Her vision dimmed further than she was permitted to dim it herself, fading to a soft dark blindness.

This part was not strange. She recognized this. It was a program that had been installed, long ago, to shut her down during meltdowns and prevent violence.

But Enga’s job was violence.

“Enga Afonbataw Konum,” said a synthetic voice in her head. It was soft, feminine, musical—the sort of thing that other people would have called soothing. “Do not be alarmed. You have entered an acute autistic meltdown state. Some sensory and motor functions have been temporarily disabled for your safety and the safety of others. They will return when you are ready.”

STOP IT, Enga text-sent in the direction of the voice. STOP IT I NEED TO SHOOT HIM. The voice was a non-sentient part of a non-sentient program and it was not equipped to respond to text-sending, so this was useless.

She needed to do her job. Candor Gray was right there. If she shut down now, she wouldn’t be able to catch him. If he got to her before Akavi and Elu did, she wouldn’t even be able to defend herself.

OVERRIDE IT, she sent desperately to Akavi and Elu. MY MELTDOWN PROGRAM IS STOPPING ME. Both of them had authorization for that, even though Enga did not. OVERRIDE IT. PLEASE.

PLEASE.

Enga could not speak aloud; text-sending was usually her only option. But text-sending did not always work when this program was engaged. She saw a few scrambled lines and pixels, not enough to discern success or failure.

The scuffling and shouting faded to nothing, and she stood, raging impotently, in silence. Then she was not even aware of standing, only a warm, floating feeling. Whatever happened next, she had no idea.

• • • •

Enga had never exactly been neurotypical, but in her old, mortal life, her differences had been less visible. She had been able to speak normally, and her facial expressions had looked like most people’s. Meltdowns, in those old days, had been bouts of tears and self-recrimination. Nothing dangerous. Nothing aggressive.

She had not noticed that this had changed until a few weeks into angelic training. She had not done basic training with the other fresh recruits; it was not designed for angels like her. She was defective, brain-damaged and half-paralyzed, the result of some rare malfunction when the angel circuitry was installed. When Akavi saved her from the scrap heap, he had requisitioned a tailored rehabilitation plan and brought her through the curriculum himself. He was patient, when he wanted to be, but Enga was not. And every new day, in a mute and clumsy body—she had been clumsy, for years; one did not learn to control new motor circuitry overnight—had brought new frustrations.

“Again,” Akavi had said, coaching her in a humiliatingly simple motor task—raising and lowering her still-organic arms on command.

Y, said Enga, who had only recently learned to text-send a few characters at a time. She did the exercise. It hurt, and she did it badly; one arm thunked down on the table a full second and a half before the other.

“Good,” Akavi said, which was obviously a lie. “Again.”

N, said Enga.

“Twenty repetitions twice a day for the next three weeks, Enga. That’s the prescription. You’re on number five. Again.”

Reluctantly, she raised her arms and did the exercise again. It hurt more this time.

“Good. Again.”

N, said Enga. She wanted to tell him that she was tired, that she hated this exercise, that he could shove his goods and agains up his angelic ass. That she was never going to be a proper angel. That they should just give up. She didn’t know how to put together enough letters to say it.

Akavi sighed. “Enga-”

N, she said. N N N N N. And, with a ferocity that surprised even her, she knocked the table off its legs and threw it at him.

He’d had the meltdown program installed after that. She hadn’t hurt him, and at the back of her mind, she’d known she couldn’t; the table had only vaguely even gone in his direction. The program was not punishment, he’d explained. Only a safeguard. When Enga finished training, she was supposed to be trusted with weapons. She should know when to use, and not to use, deadly force. The angels of Nemesis might be deployed in situations involving innocent bystanders. If Enga melted down in front of them, what would happen?

Some days, at her most sullen, Enga wished she’d been able to find out.

• • • •

There was no way to track time from inside the restraint program. No way to know if her body had been moved or damaged, or what Akavi and Elu were doing, or if Candor Gray had escaped.

She was not completely sense-deprived. There were vague, soft stimuli which had been calibrated to Enga’s sensory preferences. A dark, desaturated wash of color. Warmth. Silence. A pleasant umami smell and taste, like she’d just eaten a favorite dinner from her mortal life. And a firm, strange sensation all over her body. A feeling of pleasant weight from everywhere and nowhere, like being tightly held. Enga had not been held by another person in decades.

None of it helped.

She wanted to catch Candor Gray. That was her job. It was the only fucking thing she was good for. And she could not do it or anything else. She could not growl or scream—simple sounds that her vocal chords could usually manage. She couldn’t even tell, in this state, if Gray was hurting her or not. There was nothing to do but curl in on herself in frightened rage.

She hated herself. She hated this mission. She hated Candor Gray and his stupid light. She hated Akavi and Elu and all the other angels. The Gods themselves. Everyone who had ever had anything to do with her.

Perhaps if she’d done it differently. Run at him faster. Shot sooner. Closed her eyes more tightly . . .

She drew her rage in until it physically burned. She mentally lashed at herself until there was nothing left to lash with. Until she floated dull and resentful in the darkness, too exhausted to really hate anything anymore.

At that point, after what might have been hours, the room around her swam back into view. The program had decided she was no longer a danger to others and had let go.

She was back on the Menagerie. Not the pre-deployment room, but an office. The aesthetic was similar: large sweeping metallic walls that looked filigreed to her unfiltered senses and would become pleasantly blank as soon as she turned her visual cortex back down. Little furniture, but a few chairs, and a large window looking out at the stars. She was standing, legs frozen mid-stride, arms open and bristling around her. Her sensory annotations sat where they’d always been, apparently recovered. As motor control returned, she swayed and collapsed in an undignified heap.

Akavi paused; he had been pacing the room, talking to Elu. He glanced down at Enga. “You’re awake. Good.”

Enga considered a snide reply, but she was too exhausted.

Elu crouched beside her, careful not to touch her body. Neither of them asked if she was all right; of course she wasn’t.

“Gray got away,” Elu said instead, without preamble. “It wasn’t your fault. He had a device programmed to strobe at exactly the refresh rate of an angelic retinal overlay, scrambling every program keyed to the visual system. For us it was mainly an inconvenience; it made it hard to analyze his actions or to aim anything at him. But for you, with your vulnerability to sensory overload . . .”

Enga pushed herself dizzily into a seated position and tried to retract her arms into their resting state. Something mechanical pinched and refused to retract fully.

“Oh, careful,” said Elu, reaching for it.

GRAY, Enga text-sent to both of them. It was barely a question, but Akavi answered.

“He pushed past you,” said the Inquisitor, “in his haste to flee from me, and did minor damage to some peripheral components. Elu will fix you up.”

Minor damage. She’d been afraid of this, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. At least it didn’t hurt. Damage to her arms never did.

ORDERS SIR, she said.

“Are coming. All the surveillance involving Gray is still in place. Your first priority is to fix the damage, and second, to rest.”

Elu turned back to Akavi, apparently continuing the conversation they’d been having before. “Sir, I don’t understand how he did it. The technical problem is trivial if you know the refresh rate, but for a mortal to have that number at sufficient precision, or even to understand its importance . . .”

Akavi resumed pacing. “Is extremely unlikely without help, yes. You and I and my superiors are in agreement on that fact. A small group of angels of Arete recently went missing near the galaxy’s edge; we suspected Keres or Boater involvement, but that investigation is still ongoing. It’s not impossible that whatever it was passed their technical specifications on to a group of human heretics. That would imply that Gray had more help than we suspected.”

They had gone back to talking as if she wasn’t there, which Enga didn’t mind. Mostly, Enga didn’t like to talk.

SIR, she said finally, I NEED MY RESTRAINT PROGRAM DISABLED.

If not for Enga’s restraint program, she might have caught Gray despite the meltdown. Shot him, at least, and thereby terminated a dangerous heretic. As it was, he had merely to press a button and Enga would be nothing but an awkward object to push past. Or worse, to destroy. A distant expression crossed Akavi’s face.

“There were civilians in that library,” he said.

HE’LL GET AWAY AGAIN SIR.

He spoke as if distracted, as if calculating complex odds in his head. “Another enforcer without your sensory disabilities can be assigned to this case within a few hours. It’s unlikely you’ll be needed for the remainder of the Gray mission.”

MORE PEOPLE COULD HAVE THE SAME DEVICE SIR.

He sighed, waving her off. “I’ll think about it. Get your arm components fixed. And get some rest.”

• • • •

Enga did not like rest. She liked to be still, which was not the same. Rest, in this instance, involved having to lie around pretending to be patient while Elu chattered and fiddled with her body. They had gone to her quarters, which were different from the Menagerie’s main rooms, decorated to Enga’s preferences: dark diffuse greens and browns, dimmed lights, simplicity, silence. She sat on a padded chair which had been modified to serve as a medical bed, with room to stretch her arms out fully over a sterile covering, and she endured.

“It doesn’t look too bad,” Elu said, reaching into the delicate metal thicket of her arm. “Just some denting in components H23 through H60. If I replace a couple of connectors, I can restore functionality in an hour. Do you need anything?” He meant pillows, painkillers, a drink; the repairs would happen whether she wanted them or not.

“I’m sorry about the program,” he added in a low voice, when she didn’t respond. “I know it’s rough.”

Enga actually liked Elu. Most people looked at her different when they realized she could only talk by text-sending. Even Akavi looked at her differently sometimes. Elu never had. Elu was brilliant at cybernetics, and when she’d decided that she wanted mechanical arms, he’d become her partner in crime. Taking her vague, all-caps descriptions, spinning them into prototype designs, presenting them to her. Tweaking and fine-tuning and chattering all the while; making her feel like what she thought of it actually mattered.

If Elu had been around when Enga was recruited, she thought, things might have been different. But it was Akavi who’d found her, all those years ago, abandoned to the scrap heap by her original recruiter. Partly paralyzed and refusing to move even in the ways that her body still allowed. It was Akavi who’d realized that Enga was not lying around listlessly; Enga was holding herself still because Enga was angry.

Don’t turn it inward, he’d text-sent over a private channel, kneeling by her pallet. Rage like yours is a gift. Turn it outward, focus it, and it will keep you going on your darkest days. The man I think you’re angry with is only a junior Inquisitor. What do you think would happen if you rose in the ranks above him? What would you like to do to him then?

It had been a lie, she suspected, but a lie pretty enough to hold on to. Rage had kept Enga going through basic training, rehabilitation, every surgery and every battle. Every heretic she’d hunted and killed.

Enga had taken years to learn to move again, and her face had never quite looked normal again, but that had become an advantage, in a way. Akavi thought himself a great reader of people, but he was dependent on his program for analyzing microexpressions. The program included the standard set of variations for non-neurotypical people’s faces, but Enga wasn’t just non-neurotypical; her face was actually damaged, and its microexpressions ranged from atypical to nonexistent. Akavi’s program couldn’t read her the way it read everyone else.

Akavi had never asked himself who else Enga might be angry with.

She wasn’t angry at being disabled, in itself, but at something harder to define. She was angry that she’d been lured in, then thrown away at the first sign of difficulty. Her body was trash now. Not a person, but a machine. To be turned on and pointed in the right direction. To be turned off with a simple command, erased from the world, if it malfunctioned. Akavi thought he’d saved her from that, but he was part of it, in the end.

She brooded about that while Elu adjusted the broken bits of her arm. He babbled about cybernetics and what he thought of this mission, and Enga tuned him out.

“There,” he said at last, giving her arm a gentle pat. “Try retracting it now.”

She did, and the arm folded up seamlessly into its resting state. Nary a twinge or a scrape. Elu was good at what he did.

THX, said Enga dully.

Elu looked her over; she was still exhausted. “Do you need any help getting—”

They were interrupted by a new alert, maximally urgent.

Candor Gray had been spotted again. Not at his home, or at his work, or in transit to some safe house. Candor Gray was going on the offensive.

The sensory feed showed him standing in a crowded public square, raising his light-making device to the sky.

“The Gods are your enemies,” he cried. “The Gods keep you downtrodden. They say that They’re superior, that Their calculations about you are beyond question. But They can be defeated with a simple light. And I’ll prove it!”

Daring them to attack. And they would. This was ludicrous, brash, public heresy. Nemesis could not allow it to exist.

A text-sending window opened from Akavi. We have to go. Now. Waiting for reinforcements will take too long. Enga, if you’re tired, take a stimulant. Drop everything else and meet me in the deployment room immediately.

The window clicked shut before anyone could reply.

Akavi was probably under pressure from his superiors to act fast. Disagreeing would be mutiny. But it was a bad decision. Enga would fail and freeze again, in front of everybody. She would prove Gray correct. He would get away—and hundreds of witnesses’ faith in the Gods would be shattered.

There was no way this was going to go well.

Except maybe one.

Enga turned to Elu, lurching to her feet. YOU HAVE TO OVERRIDE THE RESTRAINT PROGRAM.

Elu had authorization for that, though he was her equal in rank. So did Akavi, but Elu was closer and more likely to care what Enga wanted.

Elu chewed his lip, eyes wide. “You saw that feed. There are civilians down there. If you lost control—”

She knew. There’d been men, women, elders, and children, most doing nothing more heretical than their daily shopping. Enga carried enough ammunition to murder them all. To shatter the whole square in a burst of heat and light.

And maybe, in a sick way, Gray had accounted for that, too. Maybe watching a crazed angel slaughter the innocent would make his point as well as the lights would.

But there was no time to think that over.

DO IT, said Enga. PLEASE.

Elu hesitated a moment more, and then nodded. He sent the mental override command. It was as easy as text-sending, but he looked suddenly pale, shaken by his decision. Enga didn’t have time to say anything. She grabbed a stimulant tablet from her pocket, swallowed it, and hurried away.

• • • •

The town square was as rustic as everything else on Candor Gray’s planet. Really, every mortal attempt at architecture started to look this way when one was used to God-built ships. There was a central paved area in which citizens could assemble for various purposes, done up in cobblestones as if they were pre-spaceflight peasants. Banks and shops surrounded it on three sides, and the fourth opened out to a grassy park strewn with half-hearted attempts at benches and trees. Some kind of art show had been prepared in the square today; Enga couldn’t see its details from their deployment point, but there were small boards set up all over the place, with colorful posters attached to them, and the occasional sculpture on a portable table. There had been a large turnout for the show, and a crowd of civilians of all ages milled between the artworks, though after Candor’s large and loud display of heresy, most of them had begun to nervously move away.

The safest option would have been to get to a rooftop, a high-up window. Snipe him before he saw her coming. The banks and shops didn’t go up very high, but Enga could have made do. Except there wasn’t time for that.

As she strode towards the square, cloaked and purposeful, she could see the flashing light. Even with her visual cortex turned as dim as it would go, the flashing was painful. The windows in her inner vision fragmented. She grit her teeth and moved forward. A sense of overload rose, but this time it wouldn’t stop her.

I’d prefer to have him apprehended nonlethally, Akavi had said as they went out. He likely knows where that device came from. But our first priority is to resolve this quickly.

She rounded a corner and Candor Gray came into view, standing amid a cluster of art boards, holding the flashing device like a talisman. Without hesitation, she raised a gun and—

And did not fire. The restraint program had been disabled, but the programs that precision-aimed her weapons had not been. Her mortal brain could see, albeit painfully; her circuitry, dependent on the refresh rate of circuits attached to the retina, could not.

Error, said her firearm subroutines. Error. Error. It was too late to try to fix them. Her firearms were dependent on visual circuitry; her organic limbs and blunter instruments were not. She growled and charged ahead.

The flashing light grew in intensity; the pain increased. Pixelated flickers crossed her vision, artifacts of internal programs trying to get her attention. She attempted to close them and they did not respond. Fine; she could still see. It was just annoying.

Candor Gray turned to run, but Enga was so much faster than a mortal now.

His bearded frame was blurred, flashing, pixelated. She hated it. She hated him, with an intensity as bad as the light itself. She would have thrown a hundred tables at him, if there were tables to throw. She would have kicked and screamed. She was melting down, all right. If a civilian got in her way, she did not know what she would do. Tear them apart, maybe. She could do that now.

Rage like yours is a gift, Akavi had said. Turn it outward.

The rage was there, overwhelming as always. She wanted to lash out, to smash things. But Candor Gray was closer and closer, and who better to lash out at?

She kept going.

She could hear shouts, cries of panic. She reached the edge of the crowd and it parted hurriedly; nobody wanted to get between an obvious heretic and a running, heavily armed angel. The only problem was that it didn’t part fast enough. Someone bumped into Enga from the side; she reflexively shoved them away, and they stumbled and fell. She shoved away the art boards in front of her, letting them fall like the flimsy mortal playthings they were.

She was ten feet from Gray. Five. He turned, last-ditch, and shoved his flashing light straight into her face.

She grabbed him with a grasping appendage and shoved him to the ground. The butt of a heavy rifle smashed the flashing device and shattered it. The light stopped instantly. Another sub-limb, sharp-edged, came down and crushed Candor Gray’s throat.

It was over so quickly that she did not know what to do. It was comfortably dim now, but she was still overloaded. People at the edges of the square were shouting; she could dimly hear Akavi reassuring and directing them. She wanted them to be quiet. She wanted everything to be quiet and go away, but it wouldn’t, and she could not move enough to leave. There was a maze of those stupid art boards around her, some standing and some upended, and she could no longer process a coherent way through, shoving or not. She doubted she could find her way to the nearest portal unassisted. Too much looking, too much thinking, too much choice.

She smashed her strongest sub-limbs into the ground a few times, denting herself a little and the cobblestones more. She hit Gray’s body a few more times for good measure, crushing bone. She did not want to move away, or think, or do anything but smash.

Her inner windows, after a few seconds, swam back into view. Her firearm subroutines stopped saying Error. She hit the ground a few more times before that urge started, fractionally, to abate.

Are you all right? Elu text-sent, after she’d been still a few minutes. Would it be all right if I came and looked at the body? He might be revivable.

N, said Enga. It came out, unintentionally, as seventeen Ns.

Elu did nothing more. Gradually the rage ebbed. Everything ebbed. The square cleared. She needed rest, quiet, solitude; but she was in control enough to move now. She slung Candor Gray’s body over her shoulder, stood, and started to pick her way through the wreckage.

• • • •

“All things considered,” said Akavi later, back in the meeting room on the Menagerie, “that went well. I would have preferred to take him alive for interrogation; he might have had information about that device’s origin. But we have other teams working on those leads. You took out the target without seriously harming civilians, and your state of sensory overload didn’t appear to be an obstacle to that goal. If you wish, I’ll write a formal recommendation that the restraint program not be reinstated.”

Y, said Enga. THANK YOU SIR.

“You’re dismissed,” he said. “Get some rest.”

Enga turned and strode towards her quarters. Akavi had already turned to Elu. “You did well, too. You made a difficult decision under pressure,” he said. The rest was muffled.

She had, out of curiosity, turned on her microexpression detection program. She did not like the glut of irrelevant information, but it might be useful, she suspected, to know how Akavi felt right now.

His expression had looked stern to her, but the program had highlighted something brief at the corner of his mouth, at his eye. Triumph, it had said.

Typical Akavi. He had wanted, she suspected, to see what happened without the restraint program. But he couldn’t justify that decision to his superiors. So he’d left it ambiguous when an emergency arose and let Elu take the blame.

It had been Enga’s decision. She’d made it happen. But she didn’t expect either of them to understand that.

She had her own petty reason for triumph. She’d never intended to bring Candor Gray in nonlethally, to be tortured and interrogated.

Someone out there who’d been in contact with Gray had part of an angel’s technical specifications. They knew how to sabotage an angel’s visual systems, and perhaps more. If they had any brains at all, the next attack would be worse. They would refine their technology. Make it crueller, deadlier, even to an able-bodied angel.

So let them try. They would fail like all heretics in the end. But first they would teach other angels what it was to have their bodies and senses fail them. To be a defective machine, at the mercy of others.

The other angels of Nemesis could stand to learn about that.

She stepped into her quarters, and the door hissed shut behind her. It was quiet now. Enga Afonbataw Konum turned off the lights and was still.

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Ada Hoffmann

Ada Hoffmann’s debut novel, The Outside, was released by Angry Robot Books in June 2019. She is the author of the collection Monster in My Mind and of dozens of speculative stories and poems, as well as the Autistic Book Party #ownvoices review series. Her work has been shortlisted for the 2020 Philip K. Dick and Compton Crook Awards.

Ada is a computer scientist at a university in southern Ontario, Canada, where she teaches computers to be creative and undergraduates to think computationally about the human mind. She has also worked professionally as a church soprano, free food distributor, and token autistic person. Ada is bisexual, genderfluid, polyamorous, and mentally ill. She lives with her primary partner Dave, her black cat Ninja, and various other animals and people.

You can find Ada online at http://ada-hoffmann.com/, on Twitter at @xasymptote, or support her on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/ada_hoffmann.