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How to Destroy A.N.G.E.Ls
A Silver Helix Tie-In Story
by Xan van Rooyen
(first published in 2019, in Charon’s Song, an anthology from Skolion)
Talvi could almost believe it was snow, the flakes fluttering down from a sky the color of a fresh wound. Pale and tattered at the edges, slashed red through the middle, ragged cloud reflecting the fires ravaging downtown Helsinki, fires started by machines trying to burn the magic from the city’s bones.
Unravelling her long tongue, she tilted her head back and lapped up a grainy tumble of soot, flicking it back against her palate and catching it between teeth cut sharp on the transgressions of others. The ash tasted sweet—like the sins she now infrequently devoured—with a sour note of regret, and left the unexpectedly bitter aftertaste of hope.
Talvi kicked her way through the clogging drifts of gray mouldering along the curbs and slicking the streets of Kallio. The pepper-fire of bullets echoed in the distance as she unlocked the studio, stamping detritus from her boots before crossing the threshold.
They were coming, heavy steps echoing across the city made desolate, the city mourning the magic seeping through the raw lesions the machines had gouged across the skin of the world. Perhaps her knowing was nothing more than a whispered premonition from her etiäinen, the haltija who lived in her shadow, flitting through time on gossamer wings to warn her of the future. Or perhaps it was simply the subtle susurrus of the atoms heralding their arrival as they scythed through the city, leaving trembling destruction in their wake.
So Talvi prepared as they drew closer, wrapping her chair in protective layers of plastic, setting out her thimbles of ink, and opening new needles. When all else was ready and the thrum of their approach left her mouth dry and sweat pricking between her breasts, she washed her hands and rinsed the bitterness of hope from her tongue. She was hungry and wanted to savor her meal. It had been three weeks since their last visit; three weeks spent ending those like her—and those thought to be like her—as the circuit-board A.N.G.E.Ls tore through the city. They were bent on exterminating every vestigial trace of magic from the country. A magic so intricately knotted in the soul of the land, they’d have to flay the very skin from the world, peeling back rock and permafrost before digging titanium fingers into the heart of the power, crushing throbbing gristle in cold fists.
Talvi’s own magic sherbet-fizzed in her veins, her tongue unfurling across teeth and lips in anticipation.
The pressure at the back of her skull intensified, and she closed her eyes as they drew inexorably closer. The haltija groaned where it perched on her shoulder beneath the fall of her hair, as eager for a feeding as she. Their hand rested on the door handle and with a thunderous pop between her ears, and the tinkle of the bell above the door, her A.N.G.E.L entered.
They were tall, made to spec. Broad of shoulder and lithe of frame, legs powerful and biceps straining the Kevlar cocooning their body. They removed their helmet, shaking dark hair free. Most had the same face, features carved out of silicon, their skin somewhere between beige and bronze, now smeared a pallor matching the grit clinging to their combat boots. They smelled of gasoline and tears, of charred flesh and decaying dreams. She breathed it in, holding back the cough as they locked the door and checked the street before turning to face her.
Unlike their A.N.G.E.L siblings, their face wore emotions no A.N.G.E.L had been programmed to feel. Aberrant code, a glitch, a failing—an uncanny artistry lending shallow creases to the corner of their eyes and subtle striations across their forehead. Talvi studied their mouth, the perfect lips—a burst of plum—and the faint beginnings of parentheses framing the possibility of a smile.
Their eyes burned nuclear blue, focused on her as they began to strip, shedding utility belt and ammo pods. They left their automatic rifle propped within easy reach in the corner before unzipping the protective carapace, the fabric singed across chest and hip, splattered with blood—both that of her brethren, a mushroom pungency—and those of humans untouched by the hand of Louhi.
“It’s been a while,” they said in a voice made husky by the contaminated air outside, or perhaps an affectation of synthetic vocal cords. “I’m running out of space.” They ran a hand over their chest, over the winding ink, coiled around each pec and flowing like oil over ribs and mountainous abs, down and around the smooth mound of their sex. Their fingers brushed against the buds like bullet holes she’d inked into their belly. The flowers, kielo, hung their delicate heads, seemingly innocuous yet deadly. They’d wanted roses, one for every life they’d ended, but she’d convinced them to choose a smaller blossom. Her haltija had known they wouldn’t have enough skin for roses.
“Soon there’ll be no one left for you to hunt,” Talvi said. No one left for you to regret.
They hung their head in impossible shame, their conscience providing a canvas for her needles.
She patted the chair, and they obeyed, presenting their left side where an area beneath their hairless armpit remained bare.
“How many today?” she asked.
“Twelve,” they said, their head tilted back and eyes closed. In such repose they almost seemed human, a person capable of more than genocide. Struggling to still the sudden tremor running through her fingers. She cleaned their skin—a habit, hardly a necessity—dipped the needle into black and began to work.
She pressed hard, gouging deep until they sighed, until the silver ooze in their pseudo veins bubbled to the surface. Only then did she release the magic curled dormant within her bones. Only then did she relish the tickle of power as it flowed through her fingers and into her A.N.G.E.L. A power with hooks catching their sins, their pain, their regret. Her magic danced with theirs, the ancient arcane slipping between layers of carefully crafted code; theirs, a new sort of magic wrought in binary—such simple complexity.
Her magic reeled them in, extracting the sweet horror from their circuitry, and she drank it down, resisting the urge to lap at the silver blood trickling down their ribs. Their sins ran deeper, hard-coded in the processor whirring where their heart might’ve been. Her magic had to cleave through rubbery flesh and titanium bone to find it, but she did.
The haltija tangled in her hair began to giggle as it became intoxicated on the A.N.G.E.L’s misdeeds. The A.N.G.E.L moaned in the chair, eyes screwed tightly shut, blind to the pale aura hovering above their chest.
Talvi could’ve taken it all, but she always left just enough to keep them coming back. Their self-flagellation was her nourishment. She mopped their skin, smearing black and silver. As she digested their sins, her bones grew lighter, her desiccating organs engorged once more, her vision brightened, and she blinked against the sudden strong contrasts even as she studied their torso.
They were beautiful, even if they’d been forged in a laboratory instead of born of the earth; even if they’d been made to kill, to destroy her kind and rip every last remnant of the old power from a new world sculpted in ones and zeroes.
They cupped her face, thumb stroking her cheek, and leaned forward in the chair, nose to nose then mouth to mouth. They tasted of despair, of loneliness, of resignation—or perhaps she was merely tasting herself in the residue left by her previous kisses on their tongue and flicked across their teeth, buried in the corners of their lips which pulled away now in a smile.
“You always make me feel,” they said. “It’s almost like—” They bit their lip, a frown creasing the unblemished skin across their forehead. She tucked a strand of hair behind their ear, tracing a finger down their neck, following the path of tiny flowers she’d inked across their throat and speckled over their collarbones. She didn’t want to count them.
Three hundred and ninety-two, her haltija supplied. Next time they come, will be the last.
Talvi turned to her station, retrieved the necessary plastic, and wrapped the new meadow of flowers still oozing on their ribs. In an hour the tattoo would be fully healed and, relieved of most of the weight of their guilt, the A.N.G.E.L would be back on the streets, gun in hand, her siblings—or innocents—in their cross-hairs. Plastic in place, she set about tidying her station. The A.N.G.E.L took their cue, zipping back into the body suit and clipping their belt in place before slinging the rifle over their shoulder. They hesitated at the door, helmet in hand.
“I never know what to say,” they started. “I want to come back, I want to see you again, but I wish I didn’t need to.”
“Perhaps one day you won’t,” she said with a smile forced across tight lips.
They nodded before donning their helmet, becoming one more soldier among the black-clad multitudes swarming the city.
“Do you really think this war will ever end?” they asked, voice muffled and tinny through the visor.
“All things eventually run their course,” she answered, her voice quavering.
They unlocked the door, checked the street, and stepped out of the studio, disappearing into a cloud of ash whipped up by the wind screaming off the Baltic. More gun fire sounded in the distance, staccato laughter as bullets flayed brick from building and sheared through flesh. In the end, the victors would reign over rubble, standing sovereign over the ruins of their own making.
Until then, she would press ink into willing skin and choke down sins, letting the darkness sustain her, letting the magic in her bones fester, the last daughter of Louhi.
Nearly six weeks had passed since last she saw her A.N.G.E.L. The fighting had shifted away from the capital. The machines had instead turned their attention to the enclave of Astuvansalmi further north in Mikkeli. There, the A.N.G.E.Ls had killed Tellervo and razed the goddess’s forest. New ash clouds had billowed across Helsinki, brought south-west by Siberian winds.
Talvi flicked her tongue into the wind, tasting the death of her brethren. Their dying cries were serrated thunder; their bones shattered beneath the heavy tread of synthetic soldiers were jagged lightning through darkening clouds.
The end was drawing closer—she felt it press against her skin, burrowing into her bones, chewing through her insides. And there, the thrum of their approach, the brutal sundering of atoms as they stalked across the city.
They know, the haltija said, and she shuddered. Still, she stepped into her studio and covered her chair in plastic. Still, she set out thimbles of black and white ink. Still, she waited, her withered body desperate for the coming sustenance.
The A.N.G.E.L came with the storm, the ghosts of Tellervo and her forest sprites screaming helpless above the world, their spirit forms no longer capable of waging war.
They came dripping ash and blood, leaving dirty footprints across her pristine floor. They locked the door and removed their helmet shaking dirty hair free. Their eyes found hers, all hints of a smile eroded. Their sins were heavy. Talvi felt them across the room, and her blood sparked in anticipation.
“We’re winning,” they said. “The last of the forest rebellion has fallen.”
“I guess we’ll be here a while then,” she said as they stripped out of their Kevlar. From ears to ankles they were covered in tiny, beautiful, deadly flowers.
“It’s only my hands and feet now,” they said.
“You didn’t need to take off everything.”
“I wanted to see.” They studied their arms, their legs, every visible part of their body marked by tallies for the dead. “I wanted to be seen.” They met her gaze.
“I see you.”
“This makes it real,” they said. “Even if I’m not.”
“You are real.”
“Anthropomorphic neo-genetic ersatz life-form,” they said. “I’m not real.”
“We’re all fashioned from the earth,” Talvi said. “Silicon from sand, titanium pulled from mineral ore.” All susceptible to magic and subject to the forces humans thought they abhorred but only feared. She pressed a hand to their chest, feeling the warm pulsation of their internal circuitry, feeling the flicker and stutter of the impossible guilt they carried, and licked her lips.
“I want to be blood and bone,” they said. “I want to be a real man.”
“A he?” she asked.
“But all we are is dust.” She kissed him, her lips stinging with the bitterness of his hope.
She pulled away and gestured to the chair. He sat, presenting his feet and she dipped the needle in ink.
“How many?” Talvi asked, even as she listened to the ghosts of the slain wail across the sky. Thirty voices, sixty, a hundred? The dead all sounded the same. How many had fallen beneath her A.N.G.E.L’s feet?
“Twenty-two,” he said, voice thick with contrition.
“I’ll do eleven on each,” she said, and the haltija on her shoulder nipped her earlobe in its feeding frenzy. Its words echoed in her mind, they know they know they know.
“This time I want to watch,” he said.
“You might not like what you see.”
“I need to be sure,” he said, and she swallowed, turning back to the skin on his feet. She wiped and pressed needle to flesh, harder and harder until he flinched. And so her magic unravelled, slithering beneath his skin, gnawing through artificial muscle and sinew into the recess of his would-be soul, where ones and zeroes jostled together, code tangling and changing, becoming…
Not even androids were immune to magic, not when they were steeped in the blood of Ethereals.
Having snagged the A.N.G.E.L’s sins, her power flowed back towards her, dragging sweetness into her parched veins, bursting with myriad flavors of guilt, of shame, of remorse across her tongue. The aura glowed bright as her magic worked and she looked at the soldier as she drove the ink deeper. Now he could be sure.
“Was it a glamor?” he asked.
“There was never any need. People see what they want to see. Feel what they need to.”
“You should’ve left. We only knew because you stayed.”
“I’ll never leave.” Her bones were roots woven into the seams of the city, fused vein to vein with the magic welling from the deepest chasms she hoped the machines would never find.
The A.N.G.E.L closed his eyes and shivered. She dragged the needle through his skin, silver dripping between her fingers and onto the floor with a caustic hiss.
He raised his hands, fingers flexing, before he leaned forward in the chair. His hands were on her shoulders, his fingers brushed strands of hair from her face, peeling them gently away where they stuck to the tears on her cheeks.
“You’ll have to live with it,” she said as his hands rested against her neck, fingers closing in a grip she should’ve known to expect. This, his programming, a part of himself he was yet powerless to resist. Talvi should’ve known all along this would be the only way.
“I don’t want to do this,” he said even as his grip tightened. His blue eyes glowed, a chemical sheen across each iris.
All we are is dust is dust is dust, the haltija sang in her ear as she closed her hands over the A.N.G.E.L’s. I’ll make them dust like dust like dust.
She would die streaked silver in A.N.G.E.L blood with Tellervo’s spirit raging in the sky above, with a thousand ghosts stalking the streets of Helsinki, with a thousand more haunting the forests now reduced to blackened ruin, with the legacy of her mother pounding through her veins. The last daughter of Louhi; the last chance to win the war.
“Please,” he said, but Talvi tightened her grip, and the A.N.G.E.L’s code responded. Circuits fired. Ones and zeroes shivered their different sort of magic, and—slowly—he tightened his fist. The life slipped out of her, the magic wrung from her body, its hooks embedded in another.
The A.N.G.E.L stepped back, an unfamiliar weight settling in his titanium bones. A foreign presence soaked through his chest, coiling through his synthetic synapses.
He looked at her lying on the floor, purple-blue hair spread out like a fan, her eyes open and turning black. Her body desiccated like all the others, withering in fast-forward as her skin dried and cracked, as her bones crumbled, leaving nothing but a pile of ash.
All we are is dust is dust is dust, a voice whispered in his ear.
He zipped up his Kevlar, pulled on his boots and belt, and picked up the rifle. He unlocked the door, letting the storm wind blast into the studio, watching as the remnants beside the chair swirled out of the door and towards the sky where lightning still splintered clouds and thunder reverberated between the buildings.
He’d taken her life; he’d taken the lives of so many like her. He studied his hands, five perfect flowers on each of his knuckles, these ones framed by crescents where her nails had dug into his skin. As if he’d need the marks to remember, to regret, to feel the acid-burn of remorse eating through his chest.
He strode into the city, rifle at the ready. He knew the patrol routes, knew exactly where the A.N.G.E.Ls would be, his ersatz siblings programmed to kill. There were four hundred and fifteen lives he owed. Three A.N.G.E.Ls appeared at the end of the street. He lifted the rifle, the flowers on his knuckles a momentary distraction before he pulled the trigger.