10 February, 2017 – Ann Arbor, Michigan
Snow gusts across the cracked sidewalk and out into the street, adding to drifts that have gone unplowed for hours now. On a Friday night a plow might or might not come to this part of town by morning. Beakes Street is not an insignificant thoroughfare, but the snow removal crews will be doing all they can on a night like this just to keep Main Street passable.
One car goes by, heading north to reach the hoped-for safety of Plymouth Road and more populous points east, gunning its engine to try ramming through a drift. It fishtails for a few seconds with a high-pitched whine of spinning tires, but then momentum carries the day. The car smashes through, and its brake lights shine red on flying snow as it hurries northward.
There are still a few pedestrians walking hunched against the falling snow: bundled-up silhouettes laboring along the sidewalks on either side of the street, hurrying through the dark spaces between widely separated pools of illumination cast by still-functioning street lights. These people are workers from the office buildings of Ann Arbor who live close enough to their jobs that they’ve been able to get along without the expense of an automobile, although tonight they probably wish they had one.
One of the trudging pedestrians looks up as the car guns its engine and makes good its escape, but none of them so much as glance at the place where Haniel is standing. One man, carrying a heavy backpack like a handbag because it will not fit over his bulky coat, walks directly toward her. Haniel steps out of his way, diverting his attention as easily as she does the bitter wind. As the man walks past, Haniel feels clearly the hopelessness of his life, his hatred for the job that consumes his days while providing just enough pay to keep his wife and daughter from starving. She can also feel, just as strongly, his fear of losing it. For a moment she stares at the man’s back and imagines following him.
But, no. The world is full of men like him, and even the few who live on this street alone would be too much for her. Even a few score would be enough to drain her life to extinction, and if she were foolish enough to attempt to help all of those around her at this moment, then this area would soon stand out like a beacon to the shepherds of the Filii Lucis. They would descend in force within days, looking for the cause of the disruption.
Haniel is much too young to remember a time before the Fall; this world, ruled by the principles of the Filii Lucis, is the only one she has ever known. And in this world, as Haniel learned long ago, you help those few whom fate has placed explicitly in your path. Perforce, you leave the rest to their fate.
Haniel watches the man’s receding form as it is erased by intervening snow. After some time, she turns to continue her own unobserved passage northward, toward the bridge.
Haniel would not want Michael or any of the others to know to what extent she has adopted certain children scattered around this region. Of course it cannot be forbidden—the privileges of rank among the Filii Veritas do not extend to commanding and forbidding, as they do among the Enemy—but Haniel would not want to give any impression that she had risked her people’s safety for the sake of a handful of children among billions.
Or do the others already know of her hobby? Are they careful not to confront her for fear that she would fall away from them like so many have done, giving up the long fight for the sake of a few decades or centuries of life among the children? A few acts of kindness, lost and meaningless in the endless nightmare of this world, and then blessed extinction bringing an end, at last, to strife.
Haniel believes that her comrades need not fear her desertion. She thinks she is being honest in her examination of herself, and in the certainty that she will never desert Michael and his cause.
But then, why does she walk the streets at night?
Up ahead is a group of apartments forming a cul-de-sac next to the river, as though the buildings have huddled together for mutual support against the cold. It is the home of one of the children that Haniel has recently added to her list of those whom she occasionally checks on. The young woman attracted Haniel’s attention when she moved to Ann Arbor a year ago, arriving in town with nothing but a bag of clothing and a handful of money.
As Haniel approaches the child’s building, she sees a set of footprints nearly hidden now by the drifting snow. The prints were made by a woman, running. Haniel frowns down at the tracks and the knowledge comes to her: these were made by the child herself.
Making sure she is unobserved, Haniel translates through the locked door of the building and then immediately up to the top of the short stairwell.
For a moment she stands outside the apartment door on the poorly-lit landing, reaching out to feel for any unshielded thoughts. The child is indeed inside, and the sensation of her anguish is so sharp that for an instant Haniel thinks that the child may be under attack at this moment! But no—she is only remembering, although her memories are of an incident that is very recent.
Haniel translates through the metal door, feeling the ghost of its substance pass through her like a cool breeze. The child sits hunched at her table, the apartment lit only by the uncurtained windows.
Parts of the child’s mind begin to panic instantly in reaction to Haniel’s presence, but, in the manner of all children, those facets of her mind are poorly integrated with consciousness. Awareness of Haniel’s intrusion begins to spread only slowly through the entirety of the child’s mind.
“Don’t be afraid,” Haniel whispers, raising a palm to help direct the thought. “Don’t see me.”
The portions of the child’s mind that registered Haniel’s presence as quickly as any adult might have done are sensitive, but they are also highly suggestible. They relax, and the child shows no awareness of Haniel’s presence aside from the slightest hitch in her breathing and heart rate, both of which were already elevated. The child is weeping.
Haniel approaches silently, but only out of long habit. She has already established enough control over Kate’s perceptions that the young woman could now look directly at her and see nothing but the wall. There is an empty chair on the opposite side of the table. Haniel seats herself there now, looking at her charge.
“What’s wrong, Kate?” she whispers. “What has happened?” Haniel speaks the question aloud because the images in the child’s mind are so chaotic as to defy comprehension.
Here again is a reminder of a basic fact that still amazes Haniel: the child’s mind is nearly as quick as her own. The chief difference is not in speed, but in organization. The child’s thoughts work almost randomly around and against each other so that concepts form only as the result of a kind of cognitive Brownian motion that ends up being many times slower than an adult mind.
“What is wrong, child?”
Kate does not answer verbally, of course, or she would start thinking that there was something wrong with her. But the images of her thoughts become momentarily clearer. In them, Haniel sees the child at her place of work, and her manager’s attempted—not rape, exactly, but certainly importunement. Also in Kate’s thoughts is the obvious deduction that her continued employment will likely hinge on her future reaction to similar unwelcome advances. The child is afraid. Haniel frowns. Why afraid? Her thoughts contain no suggestion that the man might become violent. Then, looking more intently, Haniel sees, and takes a sudden breath.
The child is not afraid of what the manager might do. She is afraid that she will give in. That she will sell her honor for a hope of security. Kate senses, correctly, that a single step in that direction will set the course of the remainder of this life. Haniel leans back in her chair and bows her head, the knowledge like a wound in her heart.
After some time, she looks again across the table at Kate. The child’s face is hidden in her hands, her reasoning parts only now beginning to struggle with pure emotion in an attempt to formulate a course of action.
For the ten thousandth time, Haniel spares a moment of incandescent hatred for the beings who have created the soul-crushing world in which an innocent child must endure such fear. This one, and a thousand, and a million, and a billion, and seven billion more like her.
Rising, Haniel steps to the apartment’s window. Snow is still blowing across the half-empty parking lot, momentarily obscuring one of the functioning street lamps, darkening the window. The landlord here is a difficult man, but he does at least try to keep up the maintenance. He will have his own challenges soon.
Yes, the old quandary.
Billions suffering, but this is one of those whom I have chosen, or whom fate has chosen for me. Michael and the other great ones must know what I do. They are as far beyond me as I am beyond this little one. But they have never taken notice, or given censure. Is this because they trust me to choose wisely, and to feel wisely the whisperings of fate? Or do they test me to see how much of a fool I will make myself? To see whether I will finally cross an invisible line and become no longer worthy of their company?
Haniel’s lips compress as she stares at the falling snow. The fear that permeates this world seeps through the tiniest crack, into the strongest armor. Even into her. What does she have to fear? That Michael will cast her out into the dark world?
Yes. However foolish it may be, that is the fear.
Then let me give to the child the same advice that I wish I could hear for myself.
Haniel turns back and resumes her seat. The child has wiped her eyes and is just looking up, but her eyes track only the snow-filled night outside her windows. Haniel leans forward.
“Don’t be afraid,” she whispers. “You need not go back. You can find something else. You found this job, didn’t you, when you came to town with nothing and no hope? You can do it again.”
The child blinks, hearing her, but even Haniel cannot say what effect her words will have. This is a matter of the child’s will: if it is broken, then she will despair.
“Go to a kiosk tomorrow. Look at the want ads. Maybe there will be something perfect for you! A different place. People who will be good to you.”
Calmed by her words, the child’s face flickers between hope and fear.
“What if it’s there, already waiting for you,” Haniel whispers, “and you don’t go look? What can it hurt, to try?”
Haniel waits a moment longer, worry crossing her face, but she cannot force, only suggest. Finally she rises and goes to the door. Rather than translating and risking the upset that might cause, Haniel simply makes sure that her attention ward is still in place, then opens the door quietly and slips out, afterward causing the deadbolt lock to set itself again, and the chain lock to quietly resume its place.
Sitting at her little table and staring at the snow, Kate feels a wave of unaccountable loneliness wash through her. Is she wishing for some friend to tell her troubles to? But she has no friends. Yet, as she dries her face, Kate finds a single bright thread of hope among her tangled fears. She clings to it, blinking.
Why not just decide to believe in it? If you don’t really know anything one way or the other, what’s the difference? In that case, why should you cling to fear instead of hope?
“What can it hurt,” Kate whispers to herself, “to try?”