A dribble of light like spilt milk.
Is that what I think it is, asks Gabriel, scratching under his wing.
Could be gas… Fix my left eye to the telescope again. He says, let's get this up on the screen, boy.
You can see the little space-tracks they leave, shooting through the vacuum. Soul slime, we call it, up here in the Watch Tower. Doesn't happen often, he says. Maybe only once every thousand years or so. Some wiseass convinces them there's a way out, I guess, and off they go, wiggling into the darkness like so many spermatozoa. Headed for the wide empty ovaries of nothing.
Get the nets out, I'll fire up the pit, says Gabriel. We're going have ourselves some sport.
But I'm nervous. They tell you, your job is to watch. That's why they call it the Watch Tower. You sit on Charon, and you keep your eye on Pluto, and if you see any leaks, you clean 'em up. Gabriel, he'll know what to do, he's been around a few times.
So we check the satellite images, and do a sweep with the telescope if there's anything unusual, but it's like watching a pile of maggots in a mud pool. They just squirm over each other under the methane mist and the snow falling red as blood...
So mostly it's just paperwork. It's my first time for an escape. What are they like, I ask? Trying to sound like I don't care. Do they swarm? Do they bite?
Bite? What, the pit fuel? Nah.
Do they mind, when we…?
Oh yeah, they make a hell of a racket going in. You'd think they'd be grateful – I would, if I'd been stuck on Pluto for three millenniums. Bad enough in the Tower. Another ten thousand and I'll be done with this shit.
We head out towards them with the nets. Gabriel has one end, I've got the other. Closer up, they look like a cloud of fish eggs in water. We're not near enough to see the faces, I'm kind of thankful for that. We fly a slow half circle; they gather, as a shoal does when it sees a shark. Gabriel jerks his head. That way. We'll pull them in as we go round.
What if I mess up? We've drilled for this, but it's not the same. Most of the work's just forms, like I said; you don't even look at them. Just sign off on the consignments, watch the little explosions as each package hits the atmosphere. Wonder why – don't wonder why, says Gabriel, that's their business, management's. So I don't – but still, what if I mess up? What if the nets tangle as they go out, what if I lose my grip and send them drifting into the dark, what if they attack… But no, out they float, the nets, like the train of a wedding dress, scooping up the goo…
That's what Gabriel calls it. He despises them, calls them ghost trash, star shit, pit fuel. I know they're supposed to be where they are, trapped in that cold, blue, poisonous haze; it's what they deserve. But they lived, once. I can't help wondering…
Now the nets are full, glistening. Why do they run, I ask – there's nowhere to go. Gets crowded in there, he says, as we haul them in. They get pushed out eventually, like toothpaste. Ok, let's sling 'em into the flames, see how they like it. Nice and warm for a change.
Squealers, that's another of Gabriel's names, and when the pit opens you know why. Thin high cries as the nets empty into the furnace, twisting bodies in the heat – no, not bodies, just little slivers of silver light, like chopped off tails, and then black.
That'll teach them, he says, good work, lad. You wanna write the report? I say sure, might just have a coffee first. Gabriel folds his wings. Might go for a fly about, check for stragglers.
In my bed cell I too fold my wings – downy, useless things, not like Gabriel's great lice-ridden pinions – and curl on my mattress. I am not alone. From under my feathers creeps one of the little silver worms; her face blank as a moon.
Why did you hide me?
I wanted to know…
Close up, her features swim about. She's all eyes, then all mouth, soft and toothless, then there's nothing to fix on, just a shimmer. Goo.
What did you do? To be sent there?
She flickers at me.
Are you sorry?
Her eyes – when she has eyes – are clouds, the kind you fly through, high above solid ground. They swirl around you.
Are you, she asks? Sorry?
I should not be here, talking to this…ghost trash. She should not be here, in my cell. If Gabriel knew, he would cut my wings from me and make me serve below, on Earth, where the souls are not yet sorted into the wicked and the good. Where sin runs amok, worse even than boredom.
For what you do to us. The pit. The poison. The ice.
But you are the wicked. You brought it on yourselves.
Her eyes are widening; she is only a little thing, but they take up half the cell. Bright and grey, her presence frightens and disturbs me. I wish I hadn't reached for her, grasped her as she whimpered past in the emptiness, tucked her away before Gabriel could see – but perhaps he did see. Perhaps he's just giving me time to incriminate myself, to fall deeper into sin. She says,
Are you so sure?
Don't think you can lead me astray, I tell her. Firmly. I've been trained. I know what to expect.
Gabriel told me. If you ever catch one of the maggots, he said, they'll try and mess with your head. They'll rise up and surround you – sure, they start off small but you should see that star shit spread once it warms up. Squash 'em like bugs before they get the chance, then toss' em in the pit, lad.
Then why is it getting worse? On Earth?
She's right. I've wondered that, too. You see what they do, the wickedness of it, and you wonder, when is it going to end? You wonder, if we are always washing, then why don't the stains come out? You wonder, why does the good shrink and shrink and the wicked grow fat and multiply, when the consignments never seem to stop coming through. When Pluto bulges with sinners, and those it belches out, the pit devours.
Burn out the cancer, she says, you're left with healthy flesh. But if you burn out the flesh…
What did you do, I ask again?
Good, she says. And you? What did you do?
I wonder, perhaps, if they have made a mistake. But they never err. So perhaps it wasn't…
Yes, she says. Exactly.