Touched By An Angel
Gary Gibson

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The story was first published in Interzone magazine in 1994. This was something of a personal coup; Interzone has been a massive, massive influence on me as a writer, ever since I found a copy of the very first issue in a dusty and somewhat filthy bookshop in Glasgow when I was a schoolkid. I was a subscriber for the next ten years, so it meant a lot to me when I found my own name inside.

The story was the result of one of my early, abortive attempts at writing a novel in the early Nineties. I figured one way to work out the plot of a book was to write a kind of fictionalised outline - what I now know Hollywood types call a treatment. Once I had it, I realised I might be able to sell it as it was - and I was right. The 'Angels' universe became the basis for my first novel published in 2004, 'Angel Stations'.

1. Alis Dorican felt the book dissolve on her tongue, fresh new memories sluiced from someone else’s brain spilling into her ten year old mind. It was a history lesson, demonstrating how Angel technology had been adapted to human needs, allowing humanity to spread outwards in a bubble three hundred light years in diameter. Alis lived with her mother, an Observer for the Collective, in a gene-altered redwood that grew rooms and corridors and provided homes for over a dozen families in a cultivated forest on the edge of the lowland swamps that dominated much of south-western England. Alis wanted to be an Observer when she grew up, and had eaten many of her mother’s books on the subject of Alexander Freihold, the legendary scientist who had discovered the purpose of many of the artefacts left behind by the mysterious Angels. Even when her friends tried to drag her out to go mammoth riding through the cool English glades she would make excuses and stay in her room, remembering what it was like to stand on the topmost part of a Fulhausian Ship, watching the vast bulk of the genengineered Ship crashing through the waves of an alien planet. She’d never been there, but she didn’t let that spoil the fun.

2. Three days after Alis finished her training in the Collective’s multiple environment station on Luna, the news came through that her mother had disappeared while on board a Ship in the northern waters of Fulhaus’ World. The Ship, two miles in length and slightly more than half that in width, had disappeared without a trace, taking a population of several thousand with it into oblivion. Officially Alis’s mother had been contracted by the Collective to negotiate in several long-running disputes over fishing rights between Fleets owned by the two main political groups on Fulhaus, the Loyal Fulhausians and the Justified Moralists. Unofficially, she was looking for Alexander Freihold. Freihold had disappeared on Fulhaus’ World more than two centuries before, during the first wave of colonisation and before the collapse of the first Singularity.

The news of the disappearance of the Ship was shrouded in vague references to colonial myths and legends - the Angels were still alive and watching humanity; the Angels snatched people and used them for strange genetic experiments; the Angels were dead, but their ghosts haunted the planets whose species they had gene-altered wholesale; the Angels had left their artefacts behind to see what humanity would do with them, and would judge it by the uses made of them. The Angels were angry at finding their Ships infested by humanity, and punished them accordingly.
Alis’s tutor was a grizzled veteran and a die-hard supporter of the Illuminated. ‘The signs are there if you look for them,’ he used to tell her. ‘The Angels might have disappeared a hundred thousand years ago, but they were ten thousand years ahead of us. They might come back any day now. We have to be ready for that.’

Alis would shake her head. ‘It doesn’t make sense. They’re dead. We’ve inherited everything they’ve left behind.’

‘Ah, but what would they have to say about what we did with their property? There lies the question, Alis. How would they judge us?’

3. The Oort Singularity was a sphere of superdense matter almost a light year out from the sun. From here the Collective sent out its ships filled with Observers to recontact worlds colonised shortly after the creation of the first Singularity eight hundred years before. Alis stood looking out through the transparent wall of the Oort Station at the collapsed proto-star and for the first time felt a stab of fear at the thought of what was out there. People disappeared; there were still instances where Angel artefacts hadn’t yet been explained, or killed people who tried to study or dismantle them.

She was going to Fulhaus. Before she had left Luna for the last time, her tutor slipped her a tiny vial of books which she subsequently brought with her to the edge of the solar system. They disagreed on a lot of things, but he was a good man and wanted his Observers to have an extra edge.

‘I knew your mother,’ he’d said. ‘We trained together, a long time ago. I haven’t even seen her since I retired from active duty. But we were close.’

How close was evident from one of the books; she touched it to her tongue with the Singularity hanging in the infinite night above her, and remembered the taste of his sweat, the sensation of his warm breath on her mother’s bare shoulder, and found herself experiencing her own conception. It wasn’t fashionable these days to know who your father was, but Alis had inherited a sentimental streak from her mother, and felt tears trickle down her cheek.

4. Government House was made of wide bone arches a hundred years tall, pairs of them leaning against each other in rows to form the arched roof that reminded Alis of medieval cathedrals, if Hieronymous Bosch had ever had a hand in building one. It was raining, a warm rain that constantly pattered on roofs and streamed down sloping Fulhausian streets. Most people lived on the Ships; the total living area on board the many thousands of Ships was many times the land area of Fulhaus itself.

Fulhaus was an ocean world, the only land a scattering of islands large and small around the equatorial regions. Government House stood on Fulhaus Island, site of the First Landing. Alis stood on a wide promontory and watched a Ship sailing by under an alien sky, traces of early morning mist drifting by its colossal hull. Two miles long, almost one mile wide. The upper decks glittered with the diamond sprinkle of the lights of human habitation, an entire floating city following the warm ocean currents of the equator and the nomadic shoals of fish that it and the colonists survived on. She tried hard to remember it, every detail, every nuance, desperately wanting to capture the memory for future reference and cataloguing.

5. Jonathan Van Iendos was a spy. His parents had been Representatives for the Mulden Fleet, which had allied itself to the Justified Moralists and their pro-Collective stance. He believed his parents had been murdered by Captain Van Orleos, a High Council member and staunch supporter of the anti-Collective Loyal Fulhausians, who favoured independence at any cost. Van Iendos had sworn to take the Captain’s life as revenge. The Fulhausians, Alis noted, were big on revenge. It was strangely like stepping through time to an earlier and simpler era.

‘If you can prove Van Orleos is suppressing information about undiscovered Angel tech, the Collective will hand him to you on a plate,’ Alis said.

‘What happens if he and the Loyalists go on ignoring the Collective’s demands?’
She shrugged. ‘The most likely result is that a military contingency from Earth will turn up one of these days and take over.’

Van Iendos frowned. ‘I always thought that the Collective preferred to avoid using force. Aren’t they more into negotiation?’

‘They are, but the Illuminated aren’t. They’re the problem.’ Van Iendos shook his head, not recognising the term.

‘The Illuminated,’ she explained. ‘A pressure group within the Collective. They believe Angel tech should be abandoned and left for the Angels in case they decide to come back.’

‘Come back?’ He shook his head at this nonsense. ‘Children’s fairy tales.’

‘To you, maybe.’ She thought of her father; in his last letter he had said he had fully embraced Illuminated philosophy, and abandoned the use of chemical books.

6. They rose above the Ship in a glass-walled elevator that produced a spectacular view uniquely designed to induce vertigo. The whole Ship gradually tapered upwards towards the aft, enormous misshapen buildings growing directly out of the Ship’s hull like thousands of brightly jewelled mushrooms reaching towards the sky. She realised, not for the first time, that the whole thing was alive, an enormous living entity that dwarfed the humans that had made their life here. As they rose into the sky she could see some of the monkey-like parasites that formed part of the complex floating ecology of the Ships hanging and dropping and leaping across lumpy protrusions in the gnarled, wood-like surfaces. Walking through the intricate corridors and multitudinous levels of the Ship was an experience in itself - the way the corridors curved in sinuous organic lines, the patterns of the body of the Ship twisting along the length of the vaguely oval corridors. All grown from a single organism over thousands of years. Alis knew genetic engineering - life on many of the worlds now colonised by mankind would be impossible without it. But the scale on which the Angels had performed it was incredible, on all the worlds they had touched. They had been gone a hundred thousand years, but the mark of their passing might last a billion or more.

Something rammed the Ship and she heard its entire mass groan under the weight of the impact. She felt her stomach lurch and saw something black and enormous moving under the Ship, foam churning where its enormous tentacles smashed against the Ship’s bow far, far below. The Leviathans were almost as big as the Ships themselves, and were believed by many within the Collective to be the product of Angel tech as much as the Ships. Van Orleos and the Loyalists intended to begin culling the Leviathans within days because of the threat they posed to the fishing fleets.

7. The deepsea research base had been abandoned for centuries. Van Iendos directed the two-man submersible until it clanged against the metal hull of the base. Robot arms with cutting torches burned through the thick metal walls and constructed a sealed passageway.

The interior of the base was dust and dried bones. They identified Freihold from the records and a quick genetic scan of the remains. Alis found some chemical books in a drawer and ate them, remembering how Freihold had himself adapted the Angel tech to human physiology. Memories almost a thousand years old filled her mind and she understood.

8. The Leviathan was awesome as it moved through the caverns of light deep under the surface of the sea. It should have been frightening, terrifying, but Alis thought it was beautiful. Tentacles drifted through the water around its enormous bulk, scooping up plankton and small fish and ingesting them. They steered carefully, aware that impacting with one of those tentacles would kill them both.

‘They’ve always been there,’ said Van Iendos. ‘Since the first colonists came here. They eat the food we need to survive. That’s how wars happen here.’

‘It used to be a Ship.’


‘Really. That’s the secret of the Leviathans. The Leviathans and the Ships are different phases of the same species. When that Ship disappeared with my mother on board, it sank to the sea bottom and began to transform into a Leviathan.’

A series of slow booms slammed through the water; the shock waves sent the submersible flying. The Loyalists had over-ridden the Collective and begun slaughtering Leviathans. It occurred to Alis that war was probably imminent.

9. Captain Van Orleos was a big man with a face like a dull knife and a mind like a well-honed axe. Alis stood beside him on the bridge and watched Fulhausian aircraft wheel and dip above a sea that was the colour of blood.

‘We are engaged in a war of life,’ Van Orleos boomed. ‘This is a world of limited resources. We are in direct competition with these creatures for those resources.’

Alis was acting in her official capacity as an Observer as part of a last-ditch attempt to halt the culling operation. Before he had died Alexander Freihold had identified a specific sequence in the genetic makeup of Angel-altered species that served as a kind of genetic signature. Find that signature and you had found the Angels’ legacy. Other Observers at that very moment would be attempting to smuggle Freihold’s discoveries past the Loyalist’s militia.

It was a two-fold problem; the Illuminated would gain from the Loyalists refusal to stop killing the living products of Angel tech. It would allow them to push the Collective into military action it might not otherwise take. What had once been a semi-religious philosophy had been converted into a tool for gaining political power. Political expediency prevented her father from writing any more letters to her.

‘Sir, my job is to assess the impact of the Fulhausian population on Angel-altered species. You must understand that we have information that proves the Leviathans are of the same species as the Ships.’

Van Orleos stared at her in shock. Then a craftiness came into his face. They understood each other then. ‘There’s no way you could prove that.’

‘But there is. You know that as well as I do. You must desist from this wholesale slaughter. The Ships are living products of Angel tech; it’s in their genetic code.’

‘Observer, you may yourself be aware that Fulhaus’s World has done very well for itself without the interference of anything like the Collective for several centuries. It was things like the
Collective that caused my ancestors to leave Earth almost a thousand years ago. The Leviathans decimate the shoals that this Ship normally follows. Given the choice between starvation and survival, I might suggest we be allowed to live our lives as we will.’

Alis sighed. ‘I am trying to avert a war here. Surely you can see the wider implications? The Illuminated could gain control of the Collective. It would be bad news for you and bad news for many other people in other colonies.’

He shook his head. ‘That is not my concern. We came here to mind our own business, and I have no time for fairy tales about long-dead aliens no one has even seen. That is my final word.’

‘There’s no way I can persuade you otherwise?’

‘Absolutely not. Now get off my bridge.’ He turned away.

‘I see. I’m sorry that’s the case.’ She pressed the tiny switch she held in her hand and watched Van Orleos choke to death. Fortunately they were alone. The drug that had been placed in his food earlier only needed to be activated with the appropriate signal to stop his lungs working. It was the only way, but not one Alis necessarily regretted.

10. Her father was being held in a low-security prison on Titan. Good behaviour had earned him a bubble window that looked out onto the Saturnian clouds.

‘Alis. I’m glad to see you.’

She nodded. ‘I’m sorry it had to be this way.’ War had been narrowly averted. Assassinating Van Orleos had thrown the Loyalists into such confusion that the culling operation was easily halted. The Collective had come out on top and the Illuminated were in disarray.

‘You said something very mysterious in your last letter, Alis. Some big secret you had to tell me.’

She nodded. ‘You know that genetic tag we found in the Ships and the Leviathans? The one Freihold discovered? It’s in us as well.’

Her father stared at her in confusion. ‘But that would mean ...’

‘That the Angels altered us as well. That we’re just as special as anything else the Angels touched. It means the Illuminated have no real purpose. Think about it. How could the Angels ever complain about something they might even have had a hand in creating playing with their other toys?’

He looked confused; he’d changed in the years since she’d last seen him, become an old man. It made it more difficult for him to look at things in a new way.

11. Alis looked down at her wrinkled old woman’s hands and touched the ganglial controls. The whole Ship shuddered and slowly began to change direction. Enormous frond-like limbs hanging down from the bottom of the hull moved in new patterns, pushing against the current. She was its Captain, its ruler.

She looked down, feeling a sharp pain in her side; part of the wood-like hull had somehow grown a tiny branch, stabbing her in her side.

One of the monkey-like parasites outside the Bridge stopped and stared in at her. ‘It’s a matter of understanding, Alis,’ it said, which was impossible, because they were primitive creatures and incapable of thought or speech. ‘You can get lonely, even entire species do that. We needed someone to talk to.’

‘I don’t understand.’ Her hand quivered, trying to tug out the branch. But it remained firm.

‘Remember us, Alis. Remember us as we were, not how you imagine us to be. We’re not angels.’

She saw them, remembering a proud civilisation that had spread across the universe and ruled it for ten thousand years, but there had been no one else out there. Could a species die of loneliness?

‘You’re dying, Alis. You don’t have to die forever. Join us.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Our genetic code is preserved piecemeal in everything we touched. The Ships, you. We can help you, if you want it.’

She felt a burst of pain deep in her chest and she slid to the floor. Black specks danced in front of her eyes. Suddenly the pain disappeared and she looked up to see a figure standing over her. Her mother looked down at her and Alis looked around in confusion. Strange lights danced around her and she was somehow young again. She reached out to one of the lights and touched an angel.

First published in Interzone 1994

Story Copyright (C) 1994, Gary Gibson.