art by Melissa Mead
Dark Angel, Archangel
by Kevin J. Anderson
Kevin J. Anderson has published 120 books, more than fifty of which have been national or international bestsellers. He has written numerous novels in the Star Wars, X-Files, and Dune universes, as well as a unique steampunk fantasy novel, Clockwork Angels, which is based on the new concept album by legendary rock group Rush. His original works include the Saga of Seven Suns series, the Terra Incognita fantasy trilogy, and his humorous horror series featuring Dan Shamble, Zombie PI. Visit Kevin J. Anderson at his website, wordfire.com.
The train thundered toward him, its sharp light pinning him like a spear. He stood in the center of the tracks facing it, not moving. Defiant. Impotent. The night seemed to laugh around him.
He opened his arms to greet the onrushing locomotive, waiting for its juggernaut embrace. In its glowing headlight he saw a glimmer of what humans called Heaven.
And then the train passed through, leaving him unharmed. He turned to watch the train rumble into the distance. It always happened the same:
He remembered leaping off a high rooftop to fly like a dark angel toward the pavement below. The wind was cold on his face, ruffling his hair as he soared down and down... then he landed with a ballerina's grace on the night sidewalk below. Unharmed. Even his hair dropped back into place.
And again: Pressing the pistol against his temple, he squeezed the trigger with genuine nonchalance. His ears rang with the explosive gunshot, and he turned to look at the bullet hole in the wall.
He wasn't going to die--that had never been an option. But he knew that if he kept trying, the new incarnation of Death would appear. She would want to taunt the predecessor who had failed in his duty. When commanded to make the human race extinct, he had refused. But the new Death had no such qualms.
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Suddenly, she stood beside him on the moonlit tracks. A shroud of pearly mist hung from her beautiful shoulders. Her hair glinted like spun quicksilver. "Why do you torment yourself so much? You know I won't let you die." The White Lady's voice was a tangled mix of sarcasm and sincerity.
"Don't I have the right to be fascinated by Death, after half a million years of doling it out? Let me talk with you. You have to stop what you're doing."
He had been the Dark Angel, the Grim Reaper, flaunting his power in front of human beings until his masters, the aurorae who hung shimmering above the world, decreed another mass extinction, as had happened several times in the Earth's past. But the Grim Reaper had developed a fondness for humans over the millennia, and he would not wipe them out as ordered. So, the aurorae stripped him of his title.
He glanced into the clear night sky above the train tracks, but over the years he had purposefully made his way down to lower latitudes, where the aurorae rarely showed themselves. They hung in shimmering curtains from the Earth's poles, charged particles from the All-Father Sun that spiraled in the magnetic field lines, auroral beings so alien that inquisitive human scientists regarded them merely as interesting electromagnetic phenomena. The aurorae doled out nourishing energy to their servants, such as himself and the White Lady.
She regarded him now with scorn. "You gave up your duty. This species is scheduled to terminate. How can you be sentimental after all this time?" She laughed like broken glass and threw her glowing garments back into an unfelt breeze. "I listen to the aurorae. I know what they expect of me."
He opened his mouth to speak, but she held up one nailless finger, showing no vestigial remnants of the claws of lower animals. "Because of the respect I used to have for you, I'll listen. Briefly. Come with me as we talk. I've got work to do tonight."
The old woman lay on sterile hospital sheets, waiting in silence as she felt the tumors growing, squirming, fighting inside her. Veins stood out on her neck with the effort as she kept her lungs rhythmically filling and emptying.
Her eyes remained open, and she watched the White Lady who sat in the shadows of her room. "If breathing is so difficult," the White Lady asked, "why not just stop?"
And the old woman did.
As she walked beside him, the White Lady appeared genuinely concerned for him, but she didn't understand. "What happened to you? Why do you care anyway? You've done many routine extinctions. It's the order of the universe."
The order of the universe? That wasn't the reason at all. The aurorae could not survive in a static environment, and so they forced constant flux, constant change, and turmoil on the world. "The aurorae asked too much this time."
One of his predecessors had been Death when the aurorae ordered the obliteration of most dinosaur species to which he had expressed an attachment. That incarnation of Death had hurled an asteroid whistling and flaming through the atmosphere. He had summoned up volcanoes, earthquakes, and in the end, he had devastated the world, wiping out thousands upon thousands of species, out of defiance.
It had driven him insane, turned him into a gibbering mass of random energy. The aurorae were forced to imprison him under the ice of the polar caps where they could watch over him.
And now that the aurorae had decreed the extinction of human beings, he thought he understood how his predecessor must have felt.
The Lady laughed at him. "Humankind's been dominant for half a million years, and their time has come. The aurorae know." She shook her head with a flirtatious toss of her beautiful hair. "I don't see why you're making such a fuss."
"It's different. They're different. Humans are... special, in a way. Listen to me." He dropped his voice and leaned closer to her. "I know something our masters overlooked."
The rabbit twitched its nose in the cool night air, looking up into the darkness just in time to see the White Lady swoop down on owl's wings, talons extended to plunge into warm blood.
The White Lady remained aloof. "And what is the redeeming virtue of humanity that you know but even the aurorae don't understand?"
He didn't want to fight her. He was weak now, and she was strong. And if she defeated him, all would be lost.
"Humans are afraid of Death, and this gives us power. That's why the aurorae need to get rid of them, so that you and I remain weak." He paused to let the idea sink in. "The lower animals have a self-preservation drive, but their fear of dying is just instinct. Humans, though, spend their lives obsessed with Death, worshiping it. I watched people die beside their hunting fires at the dawn of time. I listened to emperors, warlords, and slaves. I took each dying soldier away from his comrades."
He opened his hands to her. "Don't you see? Their constant preoccupation gave us form and substance. You choose to appear as beautiful Lady Death in her white garments to seduce the doomed with promises of Paradise. I always preferred to come as the Grim Reaper."
He waved his hands in front of himself, and his human form dissolved away. He stood cloaked in tattered black garments full of the mustiness of tombs; the skin peeled away from his face, leaving a leering skull with honeycombed eye-sockets and rattling teeth. In his bony hand he clutched a scythe, razor-sharp and bloodstained in the moonlight. Its long wooden handle was slick and polished smooth from aeons of use.
The White Lady stood dumbfounded to see the transformation. "But you've been stripped of your position! How--?"
The Reaper's voice sounded like dry autumn leaves. "The aurorae don't know everything. I still hold much of my power, even after you thought I was banished. Humans gave me a shape, an idea to conform to. Before their race began to think, Death was nothing more than an abstract, lurking fear. Our predecessors had no names. They remained formless, weak, just a brooding force that came and went, taking lives with them. But human fear and superstition built us into something more powerful." He raised his scythe high, and pointed a finger of ivory bamboo at her white shrouds. "Look at us now!"
She spoke in an exasperated voice, "What difference does it make if I appear as the White Lady or as some shadowy force? I am Death, and I am the most powerful force in the universe."
"You're only a tool. A pawn of the aurorae, to bow and scrape to them."
She crossed her arms over her chest, and the Reaper remembered how full and fresh the new power had once felt to him. He saw that the White Lady would not listen to him. She didn't care, and humankind was doomed.
He had to stop her. He threw back his black hood and turned to face her, holding his Deadly sickle in a combat stance. She laughed again, still not taking him seriously, but the Reaper gave her no time to prepare. He leaped forward and swung his scythe.
The three teenagers had managed to get themselves so drunk that, one of them claimed irreverently, they wouldn't need an undertaker to embalm them. The driver found it difficult enough to keep the car on the road, not to mention on his own side.
The two full moons of dazzling truck headlights hurtled toward them, and it took the teenaged driver too long to recognize the threat. But somehow he managed to swerve at the last instant, bouncing the car into the ditch and careening back up onto the road as the truck's horn bellowed back at them.
The teenagers giggled and drove on, thrilled but unconcerned at their close brush with Death.
The White Lady stumbled backward and looked up at him in awe. "You can't!"
He lunged again, but she dodged, focusing her strength. In her pallid hand appeared a dove with heavy claws and a cruel beak. She flung the bird at the Reaper, and it swooped at him with a fire in its holocaust eyes. The dove's claws skittered on his bony face, and its beak tried to crack the Reaper's skull.
Someone else was dying. It couldn't be him.
He clutched his chest, but his heart refused to follow the clockwork commands of his brain. Shadows rushed through his bloodstream into his head. He fell.
His wife frantically rubbed his wrists, pounded on his chest, and tried to breathe in his mouth... all the treatments that worked on TV. Finally she had the sense to call an ambulance. The shrieking vehicle arrived after an eternity as his heart, duty-bound, still tried to perform.
Paramedics pushed the frantic wife away. They had arrived in time. It wasn't too late.
"No," said the White Lady, echoing in his ears, "it's not too late." His heart finally surrendered and stopped forever.
She crawled back to her feet as the Reaper snatched at the attacking dove. With the swiftness of unexpected Death, he caught one of its wings in his skeletal grip and hurled it back at the Lady. Then he stormed after her down the railroad tracks, swinging his scythe. He could not let her recover, because she was much stronger than he was.
Overhead, the sky began to glow as the distant aurorae noticed the battle.
He slashed the White Lady's gossamer garments. Desperation and elation added strength to his swing.
Her lungs were ready to explode. Her starved blood had used all the oxygen, and now her eyes turned glassy under the murky water. The girl saw the White Lady swimming behind her eyes, urging her just to breathe deeply one more time.
Yet the girl refused, struggling against the tangle of old barbed wire on the bottom of the lake. Tears came out of her straining eyes to be washed away in the surrounding water. Darkness took chunks out of her sight.
As the last morsel of hope died inside her, years of underwater exposure took their toll on the rusted wire, and the girl broke free with only the inconsequential cost of torn skin.
The light of the All-Father Sun beckoned her to the surface. And she knew she would make it--by a miracle.
The dove attacked him, but the Reaper felt rejuvenated. He reached up and blasted the bird to a cinder.
The White Lady held her ground, raised her hands to the brightening auroral sky, and new power sang through her. When the Reaper struck again, the scythe glanced off her immortal flesh.
This time he staggered, tasting despair in his mummified throat. The White Lady moved toward him, glowing brighter. Even her garments seemed alive.
The Reaper swung his curved blade, channeling his remaining power into one final attempt. The scythe struck the granite flesh of her throat and almost, almost cut. The long wooden handle that had lasted five thousand centuries broke in two.
The White Lady leaped on him with a vampire's embrace.
Each sleeping pill looked like a tombstone in her hand. She'd stopped counting how many she had swallowed, and still she swallowed more. The White Lady urged her on.
The nagging fear of Death, the persistent drive to stay alive--to live without David, without a future, without love--shouted in her conscious mind. No. Nothing mattered any more. Nothing. The Nothing of Death.
But doubts assailed her, begging her to give life one more chance. Her hand weighed a thousand pounds as she reached for the telephone. She managed to punch two numbers before the pills stopped her.
The White Lady laughed. And the telephone receiver dropped to the floor.
The Reaper lay crushed on the railroad ties and looked up at her with his hollow eye-sockets, trying to evoke sympathy. "Please don't," he whispered. "Think of what you're doing!"
The White Lady placed her hands on her hips, and her eyes held the inferno of humanity's future. He had made his stand, and failed, but he felt something final brooding inside him. There was one remaining thing he could do.
"Your victory isn't complete, Lady." He clasped the broken halves of his Deadly sickle to his own breast. "The humans gave us things even the aurorae don't know."
He summoned the shreds of his power, remnants he wasn't sure he possessed until now. No defeat for him, no imprisonment in the polar ice caps, no torment as the aurorae stretched his soul across the Earth's magnetic field-lines and flayed him as infinite punishment for his betrayal.
The mystery opened itself to him, and the Grim Reaper embraced his own Death.
The White Lady was taken by surprise as he crumbled into glittering dust. The spangles of the Reaper's soul--free now even from the aurorae--spiraled like dust motes into the future.
She stared. He shouldn't have been able to do that! The aurorae claimed they had stripped him, and he should have been so weak....
Overhead, the sky brightened as the aurorae absorbed energy that streamed from the All-Father Sun as the slumbering star awakened in the upswing of His eleven-year cycle.
She looked up at the sky, but the aurorae offered no answers. She began to wonder--how much did they hide from her?
The White Lady loved her new power as Death. If she did exterminate the human race, what would her existence be like without the fears that gave her form?
She thought of the Reaper and how he had somehow escaped his punishment. She thought of their dark formless predecessor; he had caused the mass extinctions at the end of the Cretaceous Period, and he now seethed in his prison under the ice caps.
The aurorae had promised her that eliminating the human race would be so easy. The White Lady had events to set in motion, antagonisms to build. Perhaps a new plague, perhaps a nuclear holocaust, perhaps another asteroid strike. Maybe she would wait and think about this.
For now, she would enjoy and ponder her power.
She was in no hurry.
This story was first published on Friday, September 6th, 2013
I write novels with many different characters and plotlines, but rarely do I have a short story where so many separate ideas come together to inspire a single tale. I was thinking about the different mythological manifestations of Death: the horrifying, skeletal, hooded Grim Reaper, and the beautiful, ethereal, angelic White Lady: old Death and new Death. What if one was the retired version and the other the new replacement? What if the "retired" Grim Reaper had gone mad from so many centuries of killing people? Then I got to thinking about the mass extinctions Earth had suffered, the dinosaurs and countless species wiped out by an asteroid impact... did the dinosaurs have a manifestation of Death, too? If so, what could have caused their Grim Reaper to exterminate all of them? And what if a new Death decided that it was time for humanity to become extinct as well?
- Kevin J. Anderson
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