Chapter 1

 

TIME TO put this angel out of his misery.

Uriel closed his metal wings as he ducked under a glistening support beam, moments before his head would have collided with the metal. Wind buffeted his body as he captured the air again, snapping his wings open. He darted around pillars and beneath passenger walkways, moving faster than any civilian transport. His target flew ahead with wings that beat off-rhythm, like the glitching angel didn’t know how to use them.

“Uriel, transmit your position.”

The words sounded in his ears instead of appearing directly in his mind. Uriel still had not grown accustomed to this way of communicating. But since the Angel Network had been shut down, it was all that was left to them. He missed the clarity of before, when he didn’t have to think about transmitting messages to his partner. No, before all thoughts had been shared. Truth be told, the connection between every angel had run soul deep. Despite being separate beings, they were also one.

Now their halos plugged into Heaven’s network, acting like the net connections every civilian wore plugged into the ports behind their ears.

The glitching angel staggered, his wings drooping as if unable to hold him up. He dropped onto a platform with a graceless move so unlike what an angel should be, tumbling onto his hands and knees like a child.

“A level below you.” Uriel lost precious time to send his coordinates. Raphael could no longer simply find him by feel—sensing Uriel’s place within the network. “I’ve got him cornered behind a support pylon.”

Silence for a moment, then: “Wait for me. It’s too dangerous to take him alone.”

“Copy.”

How dangerous could this poor lost angel be? The glitch made Saphiel 1634 confused. He shivered on the platform, holding on to one of the support beams that connected to the pylon. Little remained of the powerful angel Saphiel had been. Better to die in battle than go out like this.

Uriel held his position, hovering out of Saphiel’s sight, his powerful wings keeping him in the air. Raphael swooped in from above, making no attempt to hide his entrance, and alighted a few feet in front of Saphiel.

Apparently Raphael didn’t care about his own safety.

“It’s okay.” Raphael held out a hand. “Where do you think you are?”

Saphiel blinked at Raphael. “Whoa, look at you.”

What was Raphael doing? Talking to those affected did nothing. The glitch ripped apart their rational senses, making them see things that weren’t there. Even now, Saphiel didn’t appear to know Raphael, and he should.

Then it clicked. Of course—Raphael was keeping the glitching angel distracted. They’d played this game before, one of them cornering a suspect while the other flew in from behind. Only, of course, without the smoothness of the Angel Network, Raphael couldn’t waste the time to tell Uriel that. He must assume Uriel knew to play his part.

Uriel moved into position, unclipping his weapon. Orders were to destroy any glitching angel. Something held his hand. To kill Saphiel like this, like an animal being put down, felt wrong. Uriel was accustomed to battle, not this farce of mercy killing.

Still. He had his orders.

Uriel flicked the button on the handle of his staff weapon, extending it to full length before firing off a blast at Saphiel. It hit him square in the chest, sending him flying backward and over the edge of the platform. Raphael shouted something and took off after the falling angel.

Uriel followed a few moments behind, in time to see Raphael gently set Saphiel down in a much narrower space. He hovered, unable to get too close underneath this intersection of brackets and bracing.

“I didn’t expect him to fall off the ledge.”

“He was too close.” Raphael worked briskly, removing the halo from Saphiel’s forehead. He pulled a slim disk out of the pouch strapped to his belt and placed it over Saphiel’s chest. “Your shot did the trick. He’s dead.”

Those words, spoken in such a flat tone, hit Uriel like a blast to his own chest. He gripped his weapon tighter before disengaging it and clipping it back onto his belt. Perhaps if he didn’t hold the thing that killed one of his own, he wouldn’t feel out of sorts. A hitch rose in his lungs, and Uriel couldn’t understand it. What had made him nearly pull his shot at the last moment?

“It shouldn’t be easy to kill another angel.”

That had to be what disturbed him so much. These creatures had become helpless after the glitch. They needed to be put down. But that didn’t mean Uriel could forget they were once his brothers.

Raphael engaged the forcefield generator and blanketed Saphiel in an opaque gray cover. No one would be gawking at the fallen. He stood and handed Uriel the slightly bent halo, no longer a gleaming gold, but tarnished and dull.

“No, it shouldn’t. I’ll take the body to the recycler.”

Uriel stared at him. They often split up during missions, and yes, it would be far more efficient to do it this way. But why did he have the sense that Raphael wanted to hurry away? Uriel met Raphael’s amber eyes, the boldness of the color bright against his fair skin.

Raphael broke the gaze. He bit his lip and looked away. “I’ll see you at the barracks.”

Uriel stretched out his golden wings and took to the air. He had a broken halo to deliver.

 

 

THE ENTIRE flight to the Aerie, Uriel could not settle the disquiet in his belly. Something about Raphael’s actions bothered him. They had worked together as smoothly as ever, dispatching their target with little to no trouble. Still, he could not explain it.

This would be easier if the Angel Network had been open to him. Then, of course, there wouldn’t even be a question. He and Raphael would share each other’s thoughts, unable to keep knowledge from each other. But since the first angel glitched and sent feedback all through the halos, Metatron had shut down the pathways that connected them.

It hadn’t been soon enough. Many angels had been infected from that first flood, but the glitch took time to manifest. They had to be put down before they hurt anyone.

Raphael had bitten his own lip.

That was the gesture that had Uriel questioning everything. It was such a human thing to do: banal, unguarded. But what did it mean? Could Raphael be infected? Uriel didn’t want to imagine it.

The symptoms were clear—not recognizing comrades, suddenly being unable to fly, losing sense of time and place. Raphael had none of those. He must be concerned about the glitch. That had to be it.

Uriel descended onto the sparkling crystal platform that circled the Aerie. He nodded to his comrades standing guard before entering the building. Even with the windows everywhere, the walls confined him. The corridors were wide enough for him to stretch his wings if he chose, but nothing compared to soaring the winds outside.

“Uriel 3019, report.” Anael stood in the center of the command room, her hands glued to a holo panel and her eyes unfocused as she gazed at something only she could see. Her white hair had been pulled back, revealing the wires plugged into her platinum halo.

“Mission successful.” He held up the battered halo. “Saphiel 1634 has been neutralized.”

Anael nodded to another angel, who came forward to take the halo. How many had been recovered? Uriel wanted to know if they were any closer to discovering the problem, but asking would be impertinent at best, disrespectful at worst.

“The body?”

“Taken to recycling.” Although Uriel didn’t understand why they didn’t want to examine the corpses of the defunct angels. Perhaps the problem was biological, not technical.

It wasn’t his job. Others were tasked with studying the glitch.

Still, he wondered.

“Excellent.” Anael touched something on the panel and frowned. “Uriel, you are being temporarily reassigned to Lady Julia Michaels. Report to her estate immediately.”

Uriel nodded. No matter how strange the order, if Julia Michaels asked, they jumped. “I am not expected for glitch patrol, then?”

“Not until she relieves you of duty. Dismissed.”

Uriel turned on his heel and made for the closest exit. Whatever Lady Michaels had summoned him for, he would obey. It was strange. They needed every angel in order to keep up with the plague of glitches and somehow keep Heaven safe as well. Her mission for him must be incredibly important.

The Michaels estate was only a few levels down from the Aerie, its nearness to the angels a mark of the Family’s status. Uriel had never gone there on official business before. He had to pause and check his account box to see if there were any instructions. Yet another delay without the Angel Network. Anael had placed a longer note there, which told him to meet Lady Michaels at her observation deck. At least he had a place to start.

Uriel drifted down, feeling the forceshield fizzle around his body as he slipped through it easily. It wasn’t meant to keep angels out. Why should it? The Michaels had been the ones to create the angels, as one of the Founding Families of Heaven.

The observation deck was easy to spot—an octagon-shaped platform of polished stone. Uriel floated on the currents until he alighted on the stone railing outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. He landed on the walkway outside of the deck. The walls were all clear glass, obviously set to transparent for the moment. Otherwise he could never see within.

He retracted his wings, the polite thing to do before entering the home of such an important person. By reflex, Uriel scanned his surroundings, running the situation report without even thinking about it. The scan showed five people inside, and he could clearly see Lady Julia with his unmodified eyes.

She knelt between her two children, playing a game of some sort. Her twins were the hope of the Michaels Family. For years, the gossips were certain she’d let the line die out. No one expected her to forgo marriage and have the children on her own.

It did violate one of the main morality codes, but the law had been modified shortly after she conceived. Lady Julia never made public the father’s name, but everyone knew it had been Henry Abraham. How they knew this, Uriel couldn’t say.

Uriel knocked politely on the glass. Lady Julia looked up at him and smiled. She turned and gestured to one of her servants, who came to scoop the children up and take them away. Only then did Lady Julia come to the glass and tap it. The barrier between them slid out of the way.

“Uriel 3019, I presume?”

“Yes, my lady.”

“Good. We’ve been expecting you.”

Uriel stepped inside and bowed to greet the other person in the room. He recognized Rebecca Abraham immediately. The last heir to both the Abraham seat on the Board and their company stood in the center of the Michaels’s observation deck, with her arms crossed over her chest and a dark expression on her face.

“Heiress Abraham. My service.”

“Please, it’s Rebecca.” She pulled off her white lab coat and draped it carefully over the arm of one of the curved couches in the center of the room. “Are we certain about this?”

“As certain as we can be in these circumstances. Rebecca, dear, do the honors.” Lady Julia moved across the room and curled up on one of the couches, tucking her bare feet underneath her. Despite the casual pose, she still emitted authority. If Heaven had a queen, this woman would be it.

Rebecca paused in the middle of sitting. She straightened and went to the holo panel in the center of the room. Her fingers slid across the controls and a haze fell over the room. A gentle hum thrummed throughout his metal bones, and when Uriel reached for the network, he found they’d cut off all access to the civilian network, the only one available to him now.

Losing the Angel Network had been like losing a limb. The lack of any connection at all was so much worse.

“Forgive us, Uriel, but no one can know about this conversation. We can’t take the risk of the network being hacked,” Lady Julia said.

“I don’t understand.” Uriel hadn’t even known it was possible to hide from Heaven’s network. What mission did Lady Julia have in mind for him? He straightened, prepared to take on the task, whatever the cost.

Rebecca didn’t leave her perch at the holo panel. She seemed more comfortable with her hands on the controls. “You can’t speak to anyone of this. Not even Metatron.”

Uriel bowed. He’d been told to obey Lady Julia and he would, despite being ordered to withhold information from the AI who commanded all angels. “You have my word.”

Julia nodded. “Thank you, Uriel. We have it on good authority—”

“I’d hardly call it authority—more like good probability.” Rebecca dared to interrupt the Michaels’s scion.

Uriel barely refrained from rebuking her. Though her status was nowhere near Lady Julia’s, the Abrahams were quite formidable. The Families were at odds at the moment. The fact that they were working together meant this was especially serious.

Julia let out a little sigh and folded her hands over her lap. “I do trust your skills in this, Rebecca, so yes, I’ll call it good authority.”

Rebecca’s cheeks grew pink, and she looked back down at the holo panel.

“Uriel,” Julia began. “We believe you are about to be approached by a group of angels who call themselves the Children of Samael.”

“I’m afraid the name is not familiar to me.” This was madness. As if any angel would form a group meant to exclude the others. They each had their Metatron-given roles, and Uriel knew of no such mandate from above.

“It’s only whispers.” Rebecca frowned again. “They show up on my list, and then they disappear.”

Uriel stiffened. Glitching angels disappeared because they were being picked off once the infection became obvious. “And I am on this list?”

“You’re on the second one. The most likely to be recruited list. You’ve been an angel for a relatively short period of time. You still have connections.” Rebecca counted off each on her fingers.

“What connections?” Uriel could hear the sharpness in his voice.

Julia gestured. “Your sister. I have one of her pieces. Exquisite work, really.”

He hadn’t noticed the sculpture, other than in his original assessment of the room. It was pure glass, and set before one of the windows where the light hit it, somehow making the angles sparkle. The sight of it disconcerted Uriel, though he couldn’t say why.

“I left behind my family when I transcended.”

“Still, it makes you a good candidate. They’ll harp on those connections—real or imaginary.” Julia had left her perch on the couch and moved over to the sculpture. Her hands hovered over the glass but never quite touched it. “When they do, I want you to accept. You will report on their doings to me and only me, in person, in this room, never over the network.”

Uriel could not deny the corruption that had destroyed the angels’ sacred Network, but to think the stink went beyond? He must do exactly as she asked. “Yes, my lady.”

“Remember, you can’t tell anyone. Even angels you trust.” Rebecca looked away from the holo panel long enough to stare him down. Her glare did not move him. She had nothing on Anael.

“I understand.” Uriel did know how to follow commands.

Julia moved to stand in front of him. She took his hand, to his surprise, her fingers cool against his much warmer skin. “This is very important. We don’t want angels using Gabriel 1089 as an example.”

Gabriel 1089—the traitor. His apparent return from the dead six months ago had rallied all the angels of Heaven, who’d been prepared to take on the demons of below to get him back. But Gabriel had given up his halo and pled for mercy for the demons. The thought of Gabriel’s presence on the network filled Uriel’s mind like viscous fluid.

“That’s what you believe of these Children of Samael?”

“We don’t know what to believe, not yet. That’s why we need you.” Julia’s green eyes widened. “When you have something to report, you come here, to the observation deck, no matter the time. Remember, we must always speak in person.”

“I will do my duty, Lady Michaels.”

Uriel stepped out onto the ledge, leaving the network filter field behind. His connection snapped into place in the time it took him to release and unfold his wings….

Only to be welcomed by the blaring alert blasting on every single angel account.