Featured Story • February 2015
A Shadow on the Sky
We found her on the third day, spinning whirlwinds around her fingertips.
You must understand that this may or may not have been true, they may or may not have been whirlwinds, and she may or may not have had death in the ichor of her eyes and knitted into her skin, and she may or may not have looked into our hearts, passed judgment, rendered a verdict and delivered our sentence.
She may or may not have done those things, but we know what we saw.
Given that I am the only one who has returned to tell the tale, you will have to make up your own mind whether or not to believe me.
* * *
As for me, those three days before, they found me in the coffeehouse and laid two hands on my shoulders, spinning me around so that my cigarette almost fell from between my fingers. I was annoyed and I did not hide it. They didn’t care and they did not hide that either, two large men with stern expressions and very blue eyes. Foreigners, and not military, or at least I was reasonably certain of that. We know military men by now-yes, something specifically about the men. We know them intimately.
I shrugged before they began speaking, my whole aspect carefully crafted disinterest. But then they told me what they were willing to pay.
“You understand there will be a higher price,” I said. “No one finds her and escapes unscathed.” They nodded, and I shrugged again. Perhaps they wondered why I didn’t seem afraid. Here, I will tell you: None of us are afraid of her because we know her and at the same time we do not know her, and we have long since accepted everything she is.
And also we ceased to fear death a very long time ago. This is what fifty years of death from the sky does to you. Yes, half a century; we are locked in place and in time by what has been done to us and they are locked in place and in time by the tools they use to make us die.
I said I would take them to her. I realized later, as we crossed the desert, that I had been waiting to be asked to do it for a long time. I did not believe that she would leave me alive, just as a storm sweeps away everything in its path. I never expected to return. So really, the money was incidental at best. I had no dependents, no children, no husband. I had no one to leave it to. I had no reason to accept it as an inducement to risk my life.
Clearly I had other reasons. They are none of your business. I don’t tell everything to everyone.
* * *
We tell stories of her. These are nighttime stories, tales told in the dark, many times to children, because frightened children grow up to not be frightened, or so we say. But not as a threat, not to make them behave. Once we said go to sleep or I will call your father, and then we said go to sleep or I will call the plane, and then we said nothing because there was nothing left to say, but then there was her and now we tell stories again because she gave them back to us. I will never tell these stories to my children, for as I said, I have none and now likely never will, but it satisfies me that they will be told.
Our queen of the death machines, queen of the desert sands. Queen of piercing sight and hellfire. In a sense she is our patron. In a sense she is nothing like us at all.
They shouldn’t want to find her. In a hundred years they have learned nothing.
* * *
They perceived the desert through the night-vision goggles I gave them, old, rubber brittle and flaking away but still functional in the way that all necessary things are made to be. I had my own set, of course, and as we began walking through the dark all of us saw a flat darkness horizontally bisected by a lighter green. And out of that last there were brilliant green lines piercing downward through the air and seeming to penetrate the ground. They shifted, moved, bars of shimmering emerald. They may have been death and they may have merely been eyes that ever watched; long ago we stopped drawing distinctions between the two and longer still we accepted them as a feature of our brave new world.
Is it like this where you come from? I thought but did not ask. Is your night run through by the light of God?
The first time I saw those moving beams of green, I felt awe. It was the first awe I had ever felt, and I didn’t like the sensation. That time, I tried to take off the goggles, but my mother held them to my face. You must see, she hissed into my ear, hand on my trembling shoulder. You must see and know.
We stole between them, black shapes rampant on a green field. This is a skill we now all possess, the ones left alive.
* * *
At dawn we made our fire and they asked me for my stories. They were paying me well, so I gave them. And I was in a state of expected death, so I decided that someone at least should have a chance of carrying them back. If either of them survived as well.
In the old days she was the daughter of a distant village, I said. Her beauty was legend, and in addition she was full of virtue, kind and honest. She had many suitors but gently rejected them all, and was permitted to do so by her good father, whose standards were just as high as hers.
And then one day the planes came, and there was no more village. Only her, blood-covered and burned, standing in the wreckage.
God spared her for a purpose and when she cried out to Him in her suffering and her rage He reached down His hand and delivered to her a new tongue. So she called to the planes and they answered, transmissions interrupted and programming rewritten, recognizing a new master. The death machines made new death and she drove the aliens from the desert, reclaiming the craters and jagged rocks and dry brush as hers and hers alone, for her heart is the heart of the death machines and no longer has room for any other.
No one writes these stories down. No one needs to. They are no sacred book, no word of God delivered by an angelic voice, but they are ours and we keep them close.
“You have this one now,” I said. “Learn what you can. Stories are maps to what is.”
Though I don’t expect that it will save them. Not that it ever saves any of us. Not from the planes. And now not from her.
* * *
We had heard them in the town, that distant buzzing; we always hear it now, though we rarely see. Another story that we tell is one of constant terror, of children living in fear so pervasive and so piercing that it rendered them numb, an entire generation with that part of themselves worn away. They are us and we feel that numbness. We sit on the roofs of our houses and in cafes and we never look up anymore. I don’t remember a time without the planes, though I was told yet more stories about those times, like legends from long ago. They were as believable as legends, and even so young, curled against my father’s broad chest, I never accepted them as the truth. But I saw the two of them with half their gaze fixed on the sky, never moving, looking for the source of that buzz, the eye from which it came, and I tried not to smile.
Oh, you will never understand. You who sent them to us.
But here in the desert the buzzing is louder, lower, and sometimes we see shifting shadows close to the sun, and then in the dark we see those moving shafts of green light. Their targeting systems are always on, whether or not they are meant to be made imminent use of. The thing, I said to the two, as I told them my stories, is that now we are in her land, where her machines fight your machines, and we can never be sure who is watching us. They have many eyes, I said. Hundreds of eyes in one machine. I think of burning angels with many eyes and many wings, stories told to me as a child when I was still afraid of everything. But these machines are possessed of no divinity that we recognize. They are heavenly fire but we are all forever doubtful of their right to pass judgment on us. Not that the right to do any such thing matters. I saw my mother and father judged by the planes. I saw them torn to pieces by a wave of heat and flame, standing in the center of a crowded market, as I turned back to ask them if I could buy a bag of candied dates. I was thirteen years old, a child, but no one can truly be a child here, and I was old enough to know that whatever judgment had fallen on them, it was not justice.
And it made no difference.
I said, God has not saved us. God has not reclaimed His skies. Unless you consider her.
And then, very far above, there was that explosion of fire. The two of them let out cries in unison, awe and fear, as the fire expanded. I watched impassively. “They are fighting,” I said, and pointed. “The fight is over. One of them has died. Her machines have taken one of yours. One less beast of the air.”
“How do you know?” They stared at me, their eyes like great moons. “How do you know who won?”
I flashed my teeth. I am a beast, too. “I know.”
* * *
The flat lands became hills all around us. Our water ran low, but I assured them that before long we would encounter a spring, the spring of Hasadat, which I did not translate, because of course they knew only the basics of the language of the land into which they strode. They were weary but they didn’t complain and I suppose I gave them a kind of credit for that. But they were also more and more afraid, looking around at the shadows and falls of the hillsides, the jagged crags where parts have fallen away, as if they expected attack to come from them. Though of course no attack that we should fear will come from the ground.
“Why do you want to find her?” I asked that night. It was my turn to demand stories. “What do you hope to gain?”
For a long time they both sat in silence. I didn’t care, especially, but if they were to die I had a vague interest in understanding what they thought they were dying for. Even if they didn’t believe they would die at all.
“We wanted to see,” one of them said finally, simply. He sounded almost surprised, as if he couldn’t quite understand it himself, as if he was only now trying to find the words. “We heard so much, we saw the footage everywhere, and then we didn’t see the footage anymore. They talk about her as if she was a lie. So we wanted to see.”
I nodded. Then I said, “There once was a story of a jackal-headed god who weighed the hearts of all the dead against a feather. If the hearts were heavy, he fed them to a great crocodile and that was the end of them. No Hell. Only oblivion.” I cocked my head, my eyes narrowed. I supposed these people were interesting after all, after a fashion. “Do you want to know the weight of your hearts?”
They didn’t answer. My own heart was a crocodile’s grin and I knew it was heavy enough. We are all born knowing what our ends will be. One does not live under the singing of the planes with a heart lighter than a feather.
* * *
Plodding induces meditation—and that far into the journey, we no longer walked. We plodded. Plod. The English word—I appreciate the way it sounds, like the thing being done. Heavy and ungraceful. Vaguely useless. We plodded along and I thought, What is money? Why am I taking theirs? Was it some kind of reflexive action? Does that kind of exchange become second nature? I knew I had other reasons, but they were still mysterious to me.
What kind of creatures are we now? Beasts, acting without thought?
They would not even live long enough to pay me. Surely not. And I would not live long enough to spend their pay even if they did. I laughed to myself; they would perhaps give me the money and then in the seconds between it leaving their hands and entering mine she would judge and feed us to her machines.
Surely they could not escape that fate.
But even we who have lived in two shadows for so long do not understand her. We don’t know her thoughts. I could not hope to guess, as if my guesses meant anything at all.
* * *
I prayed to her, at last. This feels like a confession, because I was raised to believe it was a sin. A messenger of God, a demon—both of these things are true. But I prayed to her, my forehead in the dust. I did not ask for forgiveness or mercy; I knew she had none of either for any of us. I did not ask for favor, or a sign. I did not ask her to rise up and smite our enemies with hellfire. I did not ask her for anything.
I said what so many before me have said, what was said at the beginning of everything. The one thing that all of us can say without reservation.
Except even that might no longer be true.
I am here.
She cannot be invoked. She does not come when called.
But she came.
* * *
The green lines expanded and covered the ground. They blinded us all; we swore and pulled off the goggles, but the light was still there, massive, like blows to the brain, and none of us could hide.
Light of God. I laughed and spread my hands, lifted them to the sky. Behind me, they were screaming, and I took no particular pleasure in their terror. It was merely a thing that was true and that had to be, that was always going to be so, and now that it was happening I felt a sense of relief.
Listen: I have a secret to tell that is not a secret at all. From the moment we are born and we begin to hear stories of her, from the moment we can understand their meaning, all of us want to be taken by her, a little. As if it were a kind of salvation. As if she had the power to send us to Paradise, though of course our hearts are all far too heavy. It does not matter—she is filled with the wrath of God, and even His wrath is beautiful.
And so she was beautiful.
She stood there, barely a hundred yards from us, her arms raised as if she meant to embrace us. Rags whipped around her body and her head, and through the few gaps that remained in her blinding light I saw—with bizarre clarity—her scarred face, her hollow cheeks, her eyes that burned green hellfire. Her mouth open and singing.
Ayah. A gasp. A gift.
The death machines screamed and descended and came among us.
I saw them, in the few seconds before they seized my heart. They were all shapes and no shape at all. They were like gunmetal-gray birds without eyes, with eyes in their bellies, with eyes all over their skin. Their rotors beat the air into submission. Small ones swarmed. The great ones hovered, jets blasting the sand away. They knocked us to the ground and there was only light.
I glimpsed the people I had brought there, lying a few feet away from me. They looked as if they were already dead, eyes wide and staring, jaws slack. I tried to scream to them. I tried to say, This is what you wanted. This is what you have done.
Her hands were on me. I arched into her, laughing as she cut out my heart with her green beams.
* * *
And there is not much else to tell. I never saw the bodies of my companions. They were utterly destroyed, as must be when a heart is too heavy—nothing can remain. The earth must be swept clean, all sign removed. This is to restore a balance, to wash all refuse away, as it was when God sent the flood that bore Nuh and his family into a new world.
This is her work.
As for me, clearly I was not destroyed, which surprised me. Because there is a part of the story that none of us tell. No one has ever returned to tell it. I am the first. I have chosen this, because stories should be told, and I want the world to know her as I know her now. To worship her as I have done. To understand what it will mean when at last she comes for you all.
There was a home for my heavy heart. She made one. She gave me eyes and wings and the sky, and the light. Now I am very high, so high that no one can see me, but I see you. I see so much.
There is hellfire in my hands.
Perhaps it will be today, when she gives the command. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps a year from now. But until she does, I and my brothers and sisters will be waiting, circling like vultures, and we will be ready.
You will hear us singing before the end.
Sunny Moraine’s short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, and Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, among other places. They are also responsible for the novels Line and Orbit (cowritten with Lisa Soem) and the Casting the Bones trilogy, as well as A Brief History of the Future: collected essays. In addition to authoring, Sunny is a doctoral candidate in sociology and a sometimes college instructor; that last may or may not have been a good move on the part of their department. They unfortunately live just outside Washington DC in a creepy house with two cats and a very long-suffering husband.
About “A Shadow on the Sky” they had this to share: “This piece came from a long-standing fascination I have with drones—as a cultural concept just as much if not more than an actual form of technology. I’ve written stories about them before that focus on their relationship with humans, and how humans perceive that relationship. Those stories weren’t adversarial at all, and I wanted to try that approach here, as well as explore ideas of power—where it can be located in that relationship. And of course, drones need a queen . . . From that arose the idea of a woman who makes herself that exact thing, and builds an army of the machines sent to destroy her. Someone like that would almost certainly become a mythic figure. So what would happen to someone who went looking for her?”
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