Friday, October 19, 2007

Angel's Promises by Nina Munteanu

"Angel's Promises" is a short story that is aptly in keeping with misunderstanding, apparent abandonment and hopeful resolution. It's all about promises: to others and ultimately to oneself. The story was originally published in Dreams & Visions (Skysong Press). It was nominated for an Aurora Award and included in a "Best of" anthology by Skysong. Angel's Promises will appear in a short story collection entitled "Natural Selection" by Pixl Press (an imprint of Starfire World Syndicate).

This is a love story set in a time when AI and humans have settled on an uneasy truce of cooperation.
Angel's Promises

Rebecca stared through the window where the sun trembled on the horizon and inflamed the sky. She contrasted what she saw with the dark inner-city, dank with despair, from which they’d retrieved him. Pacing her outer-city office like a trapped panther, she fidgeted with her dress and raked her dark hair back with her fingers. She strained to hear footsteps approaching and felt her heart race with — what? What did she feel? Exhilaration? Terror? A terse rap at the door was her only warning before it swung open and the face she had not seen in four years stared boldly at her. The fire in his coal-black eyes stirred up memories of when she’d met him, kissed him and deserted him.

~ 1 ~
Belly aching with hunger, Rebecca glanced down at Isabelle huddled next to her in the gutted apartment that was once home. It was four days since they’d lost their mother in the crowded mall. Rebecca listened to the murmurs of the city in her head: a low hush mingled with the stirrings of cryptic metallic sounds, chopped up words, bleeps and sighs. Like a million voices in the distance, they came and went like the ebbing and swelling surf of the sea. She no longer mentioned the sounds to Isabelle, who could not hear them, because it frightened her too much. Rebecca had heard a rumor that the outer-city was searching for people who could interface with AIs. They called them veemelds. Could she be one? As much as she wished to return, she refused to leave her little sister behind. Nothing would ever separate them, she thought, glancing down at Isabelle’s urchin face. She’d promised.
Rebecca’s gaze swept the place. Some vagrant had vandalized and torched it. Nothing of theirs remained, not that there was much to begin with. She rose and wandered into what used to be their bedroom, Isabelle scrambling behind. Black and sodden, it reeked of kerosene and urine. Her gaze rested on her old bed, torn and stained, where her mother used to awaken her every night, smelling of whiskey, then crawl in beside her, clutch Rebecca to her breast and sob. Rebecca turned abruptly from the gutted bedroom and said, “We have to go now.” She was fifteen and could take care of herself and her twelve-year old sister if she had to.

Isabelle scrambled behind. “Can’t we go back to the outer-city and visit Uncle Carl till mummy comes back?”

She isn’t coming back, Rebecca thought. She rolled her eyes and shook her head at her sister. “And how’d we get there, you silly? On wings?” As if they could simply climb out of the dark depths of the inner-city. Besides, Uncle Carl was mean. He’d said that anyone who ended up techno-slaving for the inner-city AIs deserved their fate. There’d been no choice for her mother who’d lost her wits after their father was taken away. Rebecca pushed out her lower lip and narrowed her eyes at the thought of Uncle Carl’s stern face. Seeing the tears stream down Isabelle’s cheeks, Rebecca took her hand. “Never mind, Izzy. I’ll take care of you.”

They headed to the mall, hoping to find some scraps of food. They staked out a Food Stop and patience finally paid off when a woman got up with a half-eaten oatcake. The girls followed her to a waste bin and watched her drop the cake into the bin. After a quick glance around, Rebecca dove in after it but a dirty hand snatched the cake first. Rebecca jerked up and gazed into a filthy face.
“Th-th-this is my bin,” stammered the boy about her age, who stared at her with intense slag-black eyes. Blinking through dark strands of hair, he stroked his long face, smeared with dirt and grease. Then he flicked back his shoulder-length hair and studied the two girls with a smirk that unsettled Rebecca. “You t-t-techno-slummers?”

She’d heard of them. They were orphans of the inner-city, waste products of desperate and over-indulgent techno-slaves. And troublemakers for the AIs. Vermin, who choked up the cyber-system, disturbed their complacent humming, stole into their metal bellies and snuck off with their secrets. “We’re looking for my mother,” Rebecca replied, curbing a frown.
“That’s what they all s-s-say, after their parents ab-b-bandon them,” he said as though he was discussing a school event. He smacked his lips as he chewed. “She’s b-been gone awhile,” he said with a full mouth. “I can tell.”

Isabelle puckered her face, ready to cry.

“Here.” He broke off a piece of the oatcake and handed it to Isabelle. “You can share my bin until you get one of your own,” he stuttered, offering Rebecca another piece. “We’re family. We look after each other, especially from the cypols. I’m Neo.” He puffed up his chest and tilted his head back proudly. “You probably heard about the mess I caused in the Food-Center. I got us twenty kilos of nano-soup.”

Rebecca refused the piece of oat cake, even though Isabelle had already accepted hers and was gratefully eating. “I told you, we’re not techno-slummers,” she said in a huff. “We’re just waiting for our mother to come back.”

“Yeah, like when chaos turns to order.”

~ 2 ~
“What d’ya mean they talk?” Neo squatted next to Rebecca in the cramped makeshift shack, as they repaired a computer they’d built with scrap parts they’d found. He dug his dirty nails into his tangled hair and squinted at her.

“Can’t you hear them too, Neo?” Rebecca said in a faltering voice. She shifted her weight from one knee to the other, suddenly giddy under his penetrating stare. She caught his scent, sharp with old sweat, felt her face heat and fought down the confusing storm that surged through her abdomen. Lately she’d caught him studying her with such intensity that it made her blush. His opinion meant more to her than anything.

Neo tilted his head to one side. “You making this up?” His name wasn’t really Neo. It was Colin Baker, but he’d abandoned it like the parents who’d given him the name had abandoned him. All the techno-slummers had given themselves new names. She’d chosen Angel, the nickname her father gave her. “Machines don’t talk to people, Angel,” Neo said, shaking his head at her. He stood up. “I gotta get some quantum couplers.” He studied her for a moment. “Get a grip, Angel. You’re still looking for your mother a year after she abandoned you! A cypol probably caught her and she’s been recycled into something by now, maybe the nano-soup you ate today.”
She thought him cruel to have said that. Mocking the promise she’d made to her father the day he was arrested. He’d turned at the threshold, flanked by two policemen as her mother and sister wailed uncontrollably and Rebecca stood brave like a soldier: Take care of your mother and sister for me, till I return, Angel . . . I will, father, I promise. . . .He never did return, of course. They’d accused him of being a luddite -- she didn’t know what that was -- and she never saw him again.

Several of the younger orphans had gathered around in the small bivouac built from scrap parts cemented with the detritus of urban fast living. Rebecca clenched her fists and worked her jaw as she watched Neo brush past the giggling children. Letting her anger subside in silence, she decided that from then on she would avoid confiding in him. It was too painful.

But that night, when the little children lay asleep in their nests of garbage and she listened with her eyes closed to the droning throb of the machines in her head, Neo startled her by touching her shoulder. Her eyes darted open to his reckless smile and her face smoldered with the thought that he meant to kiss her. But he was only excited about her strange talent and what it meant for them all. She inhaled his smoky metal scent and controlled her breathing as he shared his plan, totally unaware of the effect he was having on her.
That was when they began to invade the cyber world of the inner-city to feed and clothe themselves. Although she disagreed with stealing, Rebecca sensed that her ability to tap into the AI world not only fed her undernourished companions, but also bolstered their morale. What else could she do? They were starving, cold and sick. And they had no one they could go to. Turning themselves in to the Care-Center facility was not an option. They’d heard horror stories of what went on there. No one ever emerged once they went there. Nano-soup.

~ 3 ~
“Cypols!” Neo shouted. His voice rang in the mall, empty now in the deep of the night. Rebecca looked up from the public computer she’d hacked into and her gaze followed Neo’s to where a shrill whine grew louder. Several great metal birds of prey swooped down, their burnished wings glinting as they selected their targets and honed in. The children scattered and ran for cover among the garbage and rubble. Isabelle stood stiff with fear.
Rebecca spotted one heading straight for them and leapt to her feet. “Izzy, come on!” She seized Isabelle’s hand and ran. Isabelle stumbled behind her, panting. Rebecca tugged her hard, galloping toward a makeshift lean-to. Isabelle gasped and tripped in the rubble. Their hands flew apart. Rebecca dove under cover, expecting Isabelle to be right behind her.
“Becky!” Isabelle shrieked. Rebecca turned and saw the metal bird seize Isabelle with its claws. Her arms flailed out to Rebecca. “Help!” Within a moment Isabelle sailed up, clutched firmly in the great bird’s talons as Rebecca, crouched under the corrugated metal, stared in frozen silence. Her sister’s wails subsided and she disappeared into the darkness above.

~ 4 ~
Neo’s face grew red and blotchy. Rebecca had just told him that she intended to let herself get caught by a cypol.

They were fashioning a table out of an old building support and he reeled away, letting the piece he held fall to the floor. She flinched as the table crashed. “Damn you, Angel!” He spun around to face her, raking his fingers through his long greasy hair. “What about your mother? You going to abandon your search for her? Just like that?”

Rebecca set down the makeshift hammer then straightened up, wiping her hands on her rags. “You’re the one who keeps telling me it’s useless to keep looking for her. It’s been close to two years now.” She tilted her head at him and said tartly, “Nano-soup, remember?”

His eyes flashed. “What about your promise?”

Her face heated with defensive anger. “Which one? I promised I’d look after my sister too.” He pouted and his voice dropped to a whisper. “What about our dream. . . .”

It was a wild dream they shared: escape to the outer-city, where the sun shone and the air was fresh from a breeze rich with the wild scent of flowers. Where people walked with unrestrained laughter and AIs only served a limited function as tools, not lords of techno-slaves. She’d corrupted him with her tales of the outer-city and regretted it now. Sold him on a dream that she couldn’t deliver.

He waved his gangly arms. “Damn you!” he lashed out. “We’re family and you’re going to leave us to rot and starve.” His stammer was worse than usual. It got that way when he was upset. She stiffened. “You were around long before I arrived. Besides, Neo, you can do most of what I can do. It’s not like you need me—”

“I can’t talk to the machines —”

Rebecca stomped her foot in frustration and stalked forward until they stood facing one another less than a meter apart. “Neither can I, Neo. I told you, I can’t talk to them, only hear them.” “It’s the same thing!”

“No it isn’t!”

They were both panting, eyes blazing in stalemate. His breath reeked of nano-soup. She let her shoulders slump and looked away with a sigh. She knew he was only hiding his pain under this tirade. She would miss him too, more than she cared to admit.

Neo hunched over and sobbed, “D-d-don’t leave me, Angel.” The hand that never asked for help thrashed out, like the broken wing of a bird, flopping on the ground.

Overcome by his clumsy supplication, she took his hand. Then she leaned forward and kissed him lightly on the lips. Stunned, his eyes widened. She savored his delicious vulnerability like the nectar of a flower unfolding as he opened to her kiss, his mouth wrapping itself around it. When she withdrew from him, he leaned with her, reluctant to separate. He fumbled for her, clutched her tightly and laid his cheek upon her breast. She stroked his head, smelling his unwashed hair, and felt him shake with silent sobs. Her eyes heated with tears. She fought the confusion between the craving to stay and the need to help her sister. She’d promised, after all. “I’ll come back for you,” she said in a trembling voice. “I won’t leave you behind. I promise.”

~ 5 ~
As the rest of the techno-slummers dashed for cover, Rebecca stood fixed. Her heart pounded as she listened to the familiar squeal of the approaching cypol. Neo lunged for her, tugging hard. Determined, she fought him off and thought down the panic surging inside: I’m going to do it this time. I’m going to let it catch me.

“Damn you, Angel!” Neo screamed. “And damn your promises!” He dashed to safety.

She swallowed down her fear and curbed the instinct to hunker and flee. She could see the cypol’s gleaming eyes. Saw it veer toward her. Lock on her. There was no escape now. She’d be joining her sister soon. It had been a week since the cypol took Isabelle. What if she was dead? What if the cypols just took you up to their lair in the darkness of the ceilings and devoured you, like Neo said? What if her sacrifice was for nothing, wouldn’t reunite her with Isabelle but would simply put an end to her life?

Rebecca ran. But the cypol was almost upon her. You will not be hurt, it seemed to say. Did she imagine it? Stunned, Rebecca broke from her run, let her body go limp as the cypol scooped her up. The air rushed across her face as she soared up and felt exhilaration. I’m coming, Isabelle, she thought. I’m coming to save you. She glimpsed Neo staring up from the shadows, his face twisted in anguish, as she approached the rafters. Trembling with the memory of their first kiss, she whispered in a hoarse voice, “I’ll come back, Neo. I promise.”

A doorway opened into a yawning darkness. The bird sailed through and she was enveloped by pitch black. Her heart raced and she caught an overly sweet, almost cloying smell as she grew weary and fell into a deep slumber.

Rebecca awoke groggily to loud voices in her head. It was still dark. She lay bound with her back on a smooth, hard surface.

She recognized the metal voices as their AI rulers. She’s definitely a veemeld, said one. Go fetch Christian from the outer-city. We can sell this one.

Another said, Look at this, Alpha. Her V29 prostaglandins appear abnormally high. Even for a veemeld. What can it mean?

Perhaps we should charge a higher price. It is a sweet deal, Omega. We rid ourselves of these pests and the outer-city humans pay us for them. Beats recycling. Reuse, when you can, I always say. This one will fetch us a good price. They use these veemelds to help them run their disorganized outer-city. Able to interface with their primitive AIs, veemelds also serve as the best interpreters between their city and ours. . . .

She strained to hear more but the voices faded and she lost herself in the dark void. When she regained consciousness, she heard more voices, this time not in her head. They were exchanged in mild argument and one of them was definitely human.

“—You know we want her, damn it!” the human, an older male, said in frustration.

“Only if you pay double the price, Christian,” a shrill metal voice insisted.

“All right, all right,” the human conceded wearily. “Are there more like her?”

“Doesn’t she have a sister?” rejoined a tin voice. “I think we picked her up earlier.”

Another metal voice cut in, “She tested negative. Not a veemeld. We disposed of her. She’s been recycled.”

No! Not Isabelle! She pulled frantically on the bindings and squeezed her eyes tight to the tears that filled them. Oh, God, no! Not my baby sister.

The voices continued, oblivious to her pain. “ The girl has an uncle in the outer city. Carl Douglas,” Christian said.

No! Not there! Let me stay here with Neo.

“. . . I’ll contact the uncle and arrange for her departure within the hour.”

No! Rebecca screamed out but no sound emerged. The weariness overcame her. Oh, Neo. I’ve left you for nothing. Our dream. So many promises to keep. So many promises. . . .

~6~
He’d cut his dark hair short and his face had matured. A few stubborn locks fell over his temple. Full lips, held tightly, were poised on a rugged and unshaven jaw. She appraised his torso, visible beneath his tattered rags. At 21 years, he’d filled out from his awkward adolescence into a man’s shape, tall and strongly muscled. She hardly recognized him, except for those intense coal-black eyes.

Rebecca pointed to a chair facing her desk. “Please,” and slid into the chair behind her desk. She placed her hands flat, caressing the smooth wood.

Refusing to approach, he planted his legs apart and crossed his arms over his chest. His eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Why’d you bring me here?” he said without a trace of a stammer. He’d learned control, she thought. Become a warrior poet. “Why didn’t the AIs kill me?” he challenged. “I’m not a veemeld. I’m no use to you people.”

Could it be that he didn’t recognize her? Trying to control the emotion in her voice she said, “Neo, it’s me. . . Angel.”

His face paled. A tide of astonishment swept the dark hostility aside and his arms dropped to his side like lead. “A-a-ngel?” he stammered. Then anger boiled up. It fired his eyes with rage and he charged toward her. She recoiled in alarm. But he stopped at her expression and a miserable smile crossed his lips. She watched him take in a deep breath before speaking with more control, “I was right. When the human slaves are no longer useful like your drunk mother, the AIs recycle them.” His mouth curled into a self-mocking smirk. “Nano-soup.” He appraised her wearily and pursed his lips. The expression in his eyes opened to his pain and she heard the agony break over his voice. “I thought you were dead, Rebecca.”
She flinched at his use of her proper name and swallowed.

“Couldn’t eat nano-soup after that.” Then he veiled his anguish with disgust. “But eventually news filtered down that the outer-city had a new veemeld with special powers, she could hear the machines in her head.” He sneered. “And I knew you were alive.” He flicked his hand to dismiss all his previous pain as if it were unimportant. “You probably knew you’d be safe and fetch a good price too. Not brave like I’d thought, more like self-serving.”

“It wasn’t like that, Neo,” she said in a trembling voice.

His eyes gleamed with open hatred. “I really believed you. I believed all the things you said about escaping and living here together, but you never really meant it, did you?”

“Neo—”

“Once you got here, you forgot all about us.”

By 'us' he meant him. Did that tremulous first kiss taste bitter to him now?

“And I can see why.” His accusing gaze slid from her face and roamed her plush office. His eyes rested on the blazing sky. She heard a tremor in his voice, “You got what you wanted.” He glared at the plaques of distinction and achievement that hung on her wall. Then his head snapped at her with a scowl. “Chaos knows why I’m here now. Was it a glitch? Some embarrassing mistake you have to fix? You certainly didn’t earn your excellent reputation by thinking of us or our welfare.”

Shivering with anger, she found her voice, “Do you think that was my choice?” Propelled to her feet, she gripped the desk and locked her eyes on his. “They — my uncle — kept me from going back to look for you. I was trapped here in a paradise without a heart. It was our dream and my thoughts of you. . .” and that sweet kiss “. . . that kept me from drowning in despair. Kept me afloat these past four years with the hope that you hadn’t been caught and recycled like my sister. I realized that the only way I was going to find you and bring you out was if I played along and became the best veemeld the outer-city had. My prize was that I eventually had a chance to talk to the AIs in the inner-city and convinced them to sell you to me.” She swallowed the emotion rising in her throat and tried to gauge his intense look. Was he still angry with her? She couldn’t blame him. Feeling utter defeat, she forced the last words past a tide of anguish, “I thought I would never find you.” Her eyes heated with tears and his face blurred in pools of dismay. “And now that I have, it’s to find I destroyed our dream. I lost you anyway.” Unable to meet his fierce eyes her gaze dropped to the floor and her voice fell like petals from a wilted flower. “I’ve broken all my promises.”

“No you haven’t,” he said in a gentle voice that drew her gaze. With a few strides he’d closed the distance between them and stood so close to her, she could feel his breath upon her. His smoky metal scent coiled around her in a heady embrace as he placed his hands on her shoulders and leaned forward. His icy glare had melted to dark pools of warmth. “You didn’t break the one you made to me, Angel, when you first kissed me with your tender promise of love.”

She trembled as he took her face in his hands. Then his lips were on hers and she felt like they’d never been apart, tasting the mature fruit of his love. He took her in his arms as though he never meant to let her go and she finally felt like she was home.

She thought of her mother and sister, recycled in the inner-city, feeding into that eternal cycle of altering form. . . nano-soup. . . the cell of a beating heart. . . the suspended dust upon which bloomed the blushing sky. As she gazed into Neo’s midnight eyes, now reflecting the glow of sunset, Rebecca realized that he’d just given her the key to her legacy of promises. Every promise she’d made was a declaration to nurture a tender seed.

The rest was up to God.





Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.

4 comments:

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Enjoy the V-Con, Nina. Thanks for leaving us with this super story.

beracahvalley said...

Hello all the way from Singapore! ;) Nice day to you.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

My 500th post up now!

sfgirl said...

WOW! That's cool, Jean-Luc! And every post an excellent one, too! Something for me to emulate. I think I'm up to about 100-something... :)Have some catching up to do.

And, hello, Beracahvalley, all the way from Singapore! Cool! Hope you liked my story...