By K. Noel Moore
The first door swung shut behind him, blown by the wind. In the airlock, the scientist removed his coat, his boots, his mask and goggles. He brushed the remaining dust from his shirt and pants. Outside, the dust storm raged on.
Satisfied he was clean, he stepped through the second door. “Darlings!” he called, setting paper-wrapped bundles on the ground. “I’m home!”
Solomon bounded in from the kitchen. “Did you get anything good at Market?” he asked excitedly.
“Some fresh fruit — pears. And I even found a bit of dark chocolate.”
Solomon’s face brightened. He gestured to the packages. “Can I…?”
“Yes, yes. Take them into the kitchen first.”
In the kitchen, the scientist found the table covered in paints. He picked them up and moved them to the counter, making space. When his hands were free, Solomon carefully moved his unfinished picture to the top of the cupboards.
Solomon was thoughtful, quiet; he actually seemed to enjoy his studies and spent his spare time drawing and painting. The scientist pushed him hard in his studies, encouraged his art; he was raising Solomon as the strategist of his little troop. “What were you painting?” he asked.
“New York City.” Solomon didn’t look up from the package he was diligently unwrapping.
The scientist sat, taking a package of his own to open. “I went to New York City once,” he said.
Now Solomon looked up. “Did you really?”
“I did really. I was younger than you, maybe Ladybug’s age. You know, they used to say you couldn’t see the stars in the city, not the way they were meant to be seen. Too much false light.” He sighed. “But now, I’d give anything to see the stars the way I saw them from the roof of that hotel in New York City.”
“I wish I could see the stars,” Solomon said wistfully.
You will, the scientist wanted to say. They’re still there, hidden behind the dust storms and the black clouds. You’ll see them, once the mission is complete. But Solomon finally managed the knots on the package, and got to the pears inside, and his melancholy was totally forgotten.
Spike barreled into the kitchen a moment later. “Hello, Father!” she said, squeezing him around the waist.
“There’s my little hellion.” He ruffled her bright silver hair. “What did you do today, while your brother was at his studies?” He’d learned long ago not to push Spike at her studies the way he pushed Solomon; he might call them his twins, but they couldn’t be less alike- Spike the fiery yang to Solomon’s calm yin. She was curious, energetic and talkative, and she couldn’t sit still. He encouraged her to adventure — the compound was certainly big enough for it.
“Played hide and seek,” she answered, “with Nix.” She grinned, beating her silver wings. “I won.”
“Good for you.” He looked around. “Is Nix still hiding?”
She shrugged. “Probably.”
“Well, go find her. Go find both of your sisters. Your brother’s already gotten into the food, and we wouldn’t want to let him have all the good things, would we?”
They sat at the dinner table in order of age. The scientist at the head; Nix, who was seventeen, on one side; Solomon and Spike, who were thirteen, squeezed together on another; Ladybug, who was seven, at the foot.
Nix was the troop’s leader, Solomon its brains and Spike its brawn, and Ladybug defied categorization. She could do most tasks and wasn’t excellent at any. She followed the instructions of the others, mostly.
That was all right. Every army needed foot soldiers.
“How was Market, Father?” Nix asked, scooping garden peas onto her spoon.
“Crowded as ever. Took me hours to haggle my way through the place.”
“What’s the news from the city?”
“Good news and bad. Patrols have reported no sightings of the Enemy for the past two weeks, and there’s been more and more trade with neighboring states —”
“Which is why we have chocolate,” Solomon said with his mouth full. “That’s for after dinner.”
“Yes, Solomon. Don’t speak with your mouth full — I didn’t raise you in a barn. On the other hand,” he continued, “the dust storms are getting worse, and I hear there’s a new airborne sickness going around.”
Nix sighed. “God have mercy,” she said.
“When will I get to go to Market with you?” Ladybug asked.
“When you’re bigger, Lady-my-love. When you’re Nix’s size, and our goggles and masks will fit you. You wouldn’t want to get dust in your eyes and nose, would you?”
She shook her head.
“I’ll sneak you out,” Spike suggested.
“You will do no such thing, young lady.”
When dinner was finished, the plates put away, they gathered in the Chapel — one of the Compound’s largest rooms, built for more than it currently held, furnished by nothing but a hanging cross, and benches facing it, single-file like a proper church. The scientist stood alone beneath the cross. Nix sat slightly apart from her siblings, hands folded in her lap, looking at the wall where a window might be in an ordinary chapel.
“‘I say unto you,’” he recited, “‘them that stand here shall not taste death until they see the Kingdom come into power.’” The children straightened their backs; the lesson had begun. Nix turned her faraway eyes to him. “What do we mean when we say ‘the Kingdom,’ Ladybug?”
“The world,” Ladybug said, “the way it was before the bad things. The Enemy. The way it will be, once we beat them for good. Why do we have to do this every night?”
The scientist was surprised; Ladybug was not usually a child who questioned. “To be sure you never forget it,” he said firmly. “Solomon, tell me about the Enemy.”
“They hate humanity.” Solomon had the passion of a preacher in his voice. “They’re the ones who destroyed the world that was, and now they’re trying to destroy the one that is. They can’t even let us have this, with its dust storms and viruses.”
“That’s correct. Nix?” Gentler with her. He hoped she would soften in turn, reveal why she seemed so distant; she didn’t. “Tell me about the Others. Tell me about you.”
She took in a breath, tucking her hair behind her ear. “The Others came after the Enemy. They came to our aid, attempted to save the old Earth, but they were driven back. They’re in hiding, now.
“We are the children of the Others and humans. Our fate is to find them, to bring them back, and to aid them in saving humanity once and for all.”
Not a word out of place.
“‘Equal unto the angels. The children of God. The children of the resurrection.’ There are many of you in the world. You were born to be soldiers, heroes, and with your aid, I’m confident we can claim ultimate victory.”
“So am I, Father,” Solomon said fiercely. His eyes were bright with dreams; the scientist wondered if it was New York City he dreamed of.
When his children were asleep, the compound dark and quiet, the scientist left the Compound. The dust storm had subsided, but he wore his long coat anyway, and had bits of thick foam shoved deep in his ears. He found his hidden door and descended into the place below.
The place below ought to be dank and depressing. That was the image the words “subterranean,” “science lab,” and “prison” conjured up, wasn’t it? But, no, it was white and pristine; he’d designed it that way, and his hard work kept it that way.
The scientist had never been good at applying the right words to things, he reflected. Nix, for example — in his depressed state he’d given her a name that meant “nothing,” for he was sure that’s all she’d come to. Oh, how wrong he’d been.
Nix had grown to seventeen. She’d developed hair of a pure night-black that poets dreamed of and black wings to match. Powerfully built and strong, but she hardly neglected to strengthen her mind, as well. She was his perfect soldier. His shining creation. His firstborn, if only in a sense.
Nix wasn’t the first he’d taken. She was, however, the first who had lived.
There were three rooms in this underground place. One, his lab, took up most of the space. The others were cells, with unmarked doors; the keys to these cells were old-fashioned brass. He took the longer of the two from his belt, and unlocked the first door.
A dirty fallen angel knelt in the center of the cell, chained to each wall by long chains of Hell’s Ebony, the black metal that only the bravest dared salvage from dead Enemies’ armor. The chains were all it wore; the Others had no concept of clothing. It was taller than a human being with a longer neck and fingers, and its skin was translucent though, the angel was so thin you would see at least the outline of its bones, translucent or not. He could see its veins, as well, its blood bright red mixed with silver. Its eyes were an iridescent violet that never failed to captivate the scientist, no matter how many times he saw them. Its hair was a similar color, only darker.
What he told his children was a lie, of course. They were born nothing like this creature. They were born frail, squalling, human. The Others couldn’t have children — not with each other, as far as he knew, and certainly never with a human being. The scientist’s children had become what they were by human actions. The Others had nothing to do with it…all but this one.
The creature reared and spat, like a scared horse, when it saw him. “Now, Damien,” the scientist scolded, “there’s no need for that.” He’d named the thing Damien, having discerned similar syllables from the Others’ language. “It’s only the needle. You ought to be used to it by now.”
Damien replied in its own language, a harsh mix of hisses and growls.
The scientist ignored the sounds. He ignored the snapping of its teeth, too; he’d gotten used to dodging its bite.
He jabbed the needle into the creature’s neck. This was what the foam in his ears was for: to muffle Damien’s howls. Back during the Fall, some said the screams of an angel could make a man’s ears bleed, or worse.
That was what we called them, back then: angels. It made perfect sense; we called the Enemy demons, for what else would rise up from the Earth and come down from the sky to destroy humanity? It naturally followed that those who came to battle them were angels. And it followed from that, that they were our saviors.
The Others cared nothing for humanity. They cared only for their own struggle against the Enemy, which raged long before us and might rage long after us — a fact that only became clear after the dust settled.
There were no more Others on Earth. Not because they were wiped out, but because they retreated.
It made the scientist sick to teach his children that the Others were heroes. He hated that, to them, he was the same fool he’d been when the Others arrived, naked and sexless, winged and armed, and beautiful, so beautiful. But, he knew it was for the best: believing they were the descendants of heavenly heroes gave them purpose. Purpose made them better soldiers. He was willing to swallow his pride, if it made them better soldiers.
The moment the syringe was full, the scientist quickly stepped out of the cell. The door swung shut on its own, leaving him with a last view of Damien’s twisted face.
He held the syringe up to the light. Damien was often sick, with the strange ills of the Others. Contaminated blood was worthless.
This, though, was pure silver-red, not a trace of sickness. This would do.
They had called him a madman, when he first proposed his plan. A villain out of a child’s storybook. Even his friends, even his family had said…. Well, it hardly mattered what they’d said now, God rest their souls.
He had done it, despite the naysayers. He had captured one of the Others, built a prison that could hold it. He’d written and rewritten and rewritten his calculations, until he was sure he had it right. And he had begun creating them: a race perfectly loyal to humanity, with all the power of angels. As the Others had been angels, the Enemy demons, this race of his would be Nephilim.
The Nephilim were on Earth in those days…They were the heroes of old, men of renown: Genesis, chapter six, verse four.
The children of God. The children of the resurrection.
They had all been under five years old at first; any older, and they might remember a life before him. Some were orphans. Others, their parents had given up, unable to care for them. Others he’d simply taken, asking neither permission nor forgiveness. His apology would come in the form of a restored world.
Needle by needle, with several spaced-out doses of the mutagen he’d developed from Damien’s blood, he’d made them something new. Something greater.
The scientist sat, and began to work.
He had barely finished when he heard the call.
The sound of his eldest’s voice startled him nearly into dropping the precious vial he held. “Nix?” he called. Where was she? On the stairs? Directly behind him? He should have turned his worktable toward the stairs. “What are you doing down here?”
“I think I should ask you that question.”
The scientist stood, turned. Nix was mere steps away, her arms folded over her chest. With her white nightgown, bare feet, and flowing black hair, she was the image of a Gothic heroine; all she was missing was a candelabra. “What is this place?” she asked, looking around. He could see fear in her eyes, behind the veneer of strength.
“Nix,” he said, summoning all his authority as father and commander, “go back up the stairs. Go back to bed. All of this is a dream, nothing more.”
Nix shook her head. “No, Father. I know it isn’t.” Her breathing was ragged, her face drawn, as if she was in pain. Nevertheless, she stood tall and met his eyes. “I know this isn’t a dream, because I’ve dreamed about it. I dream about it every night. I hear a voice whispering to me, Come down, come down, come down. Follow him, it says, so when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I did. And I found…. Father, what is this place?”
“Nix, please, don’t ask questions I can’t give you the answers to.” He reached under his coat. Touching the cold metal hidden beneath sent a jolt up his spine.
She took a step toward the worktable, and then another. She came close enough for him to reach out and touch her. Grab her. He tried, but she shied away. “That’s blood,” she said, staring at the vial in his hand. “Dear God…whose blood is that? If it’s one of the children’s —”
“Then whose? Father, what are you doing? What have you done? Heaven help us, what have you done?”
He shook his head. “Oh, Nix. My darling girl. You should never have come here.”
“You lied to us. I don’t know about what, I don’t know what the truth is, but I know that you lied. That is what those awful dreams were trying to tell me.”
Damn her! the scientist thought. Damn her wisdom. Damn her strength.
“I only did what I had to, sweetheart. Please believe me. I never meant anyone any harm, it was all for the greater good —” Such typical, weak excuses.
Nix wasn’t listening to him, wasn’t even looking at him. Her eyes were fixed on the door of Damien’s cell. “That was what I dreamed of,” she said, pointing. “A great door. Blood and rust and Hell’s Ebony.”
She made for the door; the scientist made a grab at her. A powerful, deliberate beat of her wings — the opposite of Spike’s excited little flaps — knocked him several steps backwards.
She pressed her hand to the door, and in that moment her angelic features shone through: elongated fingers. Off-white pupils. Massive black wings on her back.
Damien whispered. The scientist couldn’t understand it. Nix could.
Her eyes were bright and wet, fury and pain. “You lied,” she repeated.
He held out a hand, imploring. “I’ll tell you everything. I’ll tell you the truth about the Fall, so you understand exactly why I did what I did. I lied, yes. I hurt you, yes. I’m so sorry.”
She shook her head, turning away from the door. “I want to listen, Father. I can’t. I wish more than anything that I never had those dreams. But I did, and you raised me with a duty. A destiny, you always said. I will protect the innocent from the monsters that walk this new Earth, and if you are one of those, then so be it.”
“You think me the monster?” Oh, daughter, he thought, if you only knew!
“There’s nothing I can do for that wretched creature,” she continued, “nowhere for him to go. The world outside would turn on him. It might turn on us, who knows? But we have a chance. We have to try.” She turned. “I will come back. I will listen. But I won’t let the children be a part of this, whatever it is. And I will make sure the world knows what I do.
“Don’t try to stop me. You know there’s only one way you could stop me; you raised me that way.”
He had, hadn’t he?
“Nix. Look at me, please.” He couldn’t bear for his last view of her to be of her turned back.
She turned back to him, and he almost wished he hadn’t asked her to look. The horror and disgust in her eyes was nigh-unbearable.
“I love you,” the scientist said.
The hardest part…well, the hardest part was the deed itself, of course. Once that was done, though, the hardest part would be inventing a story. Solomon and Spike and Ladybug loved their sister; they would be heartbroken to learn that she had died, and first thing they would want to know was how. Was why.
Maybe he wouldn’t say she was dead at all. Maybe he would say she had left them. It was nearly the truth, wasn’t it?
No, no, the truth would be too much for them to bear. He would lie to them, the same way he lied about the Others. He would tell them their sister was a hero, who died a hero’s death.
He set the smoking gun on his workbench, moved his materials into the icebox. Then, gently, he picked her up, laid her on the steel table and closed her eyes. He found a tarpaulin that would do as a shroud, and covered her. He would bury her in the same place he’d buried her older brothers and sisters, those who hadn’t survived the turning.
The first child he’d taken, Ask, had died immediately — too much angel blood — and the second, Embla, had wasted away — too little.
The third had been contaminated. The third, he tried not to remember at all.
And now the fourth. Now the fourth.
He let himself weep for her.
Damien would have to be silenced, somehow, to be sure this would never happen again. (In a black rage, the scientist considered several cruel ways of doing this, but he brushed these ideas aside and vowed to do it humanely. The creature shared blood with his children, after all; in a way, that made it family, didn’t it?) He would monitor his younger children’s dreaming, keep them on guard against what he would call the Enemy’s lies, and if it was necessary, he could find a way to stop them from dreaming at all — a sedative, or some such thing.
He would mourn. His little troop would mourn. But, in the way of troops, they would recover and re-form. Solomon had a leaderly quality to him. Ladybug was quickly taking on some of Spike’s adventurousness, and she could learn to be studious as Solomon was. A new structure would form, out of necessity.
When his tears subsided, the scientist gathered himself and went back to the icebox. The mission of the night had to be completed.
Three small vials of a reddish liquid — the Nephil mutagen — sat on a wire shelf inside the icebox. The scientist put one in his pocket along with a half-melted bar of chocolate. Then, he took the shorter key from his belt and unlocked the second door.
The second room, he didn’t like to think of as a “cell” despite the plain gray walls and bare lightbulbs; it more closely resembled a motel room than a prison. There was a bed, a table and a chair, a little shelf of books, a small icebox and cupboards full of food that the scientist brought down on Market days before returning to the Compound.
Zacharias had been asleep, then. Now, though, he was wide awake: a little boy with copper skin and long black hair, dressed in gray pajamas, hugging his knees to his chest.
The scientist smiled, dropping to one knee. “Zacharias,” he said. “How are you?”
Scared, he signed. Noisy.
The scientist’s youngest, four years old, was a strange one. He could hear, but often had trouble understanding what was being said to him. Certainly he couldn’t speak. It hadn’t been easy to find books on sign language for him to learn from, but the scientist had managed.
“There’s nothing to be scared of,” he reassured him. “I’ll keep you safe, don’t you believe that?”
After a moment of consideration, Zacharias nodded.
“Good. I don’t want you to be scared.” He pulled the chocolate from his pocket. “I brought you something.”
Zacharias bounced up and down on the bed with glee, grabbing the chocolate and taking a bite. He signed his happiness, and his thanks.
“You’re very welcome.”
He furrowed his brow — a question — and made the sign for medicine.
“Yes, I’ve come to give you your medicine.”
Zacharias made a face.
“I know. Hardly pleasant. But, do you want to know something?”
“I think this might be the last time you need it.”
Zacharias’s system had taken wonderfully to the mutagen. Already, he’d grown his wings: feathered gold, like those on an angel statue in one of the old world’s museums. He was nearly ready. Nearly a full Nephil.
True? he signed.
“True. You’ll come home with me. You’ll have a family, a big one, with sisters, and a brother. You’ll like that, won’t you?”
Zacharias nodded vigorously. He had such a beautiful smile. Such an angelic face.
“I’ll like that, too. We all will.” He held out the vial. “Just one more dose.”
It was good, the scientist thought, that he’d gotten a boy. It was high time Solomon had a brother.
Born in Nashville, raised outside Atlanta, and currently a full-time college student in Carrollton, GA, K. Noel Moore has been writing short stories for as long as she could hold a pencil. She self-published her first novel, the Great Depression ghost story Undertown, in 2018; her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in briars lit, X-R-A-Y, and Vulture Bones. She read the Book of Revelations when she was probably far too young, and her imagination never quite recovered. You can find her tweeting @mysterioustales, or blogging at theoutlawwrites.tumblr.com.