Morna pursed her lips moodily. It was really time the authorities had these lifts updated.
Oh, they were comfortable enough, furnished with plush velvet armchairs and voice-automated decaffeinated-Ambrosia dispensers. And the view was simply magnificent, showing glassy row upon glassy row of the awe-inspiring spires and steeples constituting the vast metropolis that was Aethyr, or ‘Heaven’, as the humans naively called it.
But what use was a view when there was a job to be done?
Morna shifted restlessly. Why in Aethyr was it taking so long to get from the Third Floor to the Ground Floor?
Now, if she was in charge, she’d have no qualms in firing the angels in the operating office. Let them burn in Hell for all she cared! Even with a special permit card, sometimes it took an entire minute to be granted access from one floor to another, and, to a busy angel like herself, that was displeasing enough to warrant immediate expulsion. Why, they seemed to get distracted every time there was a really important job on the go.
One of her colleagues, Crispin, who’d often managed the external surveillance of her missions in the past, had had an emergency just a few weeks ago involving critical demon interference in his feeds, but by the time he’d got the message downstairs to Michael (Morna didn’t know the details, but, it being a high security incident, Crispin was required to deliver the evidence in person), it was too late to do anything about it.
But Crispin wasn’t one of her colleagues any more. At least, he was, technically, but this time she wouldn’t be working with him. Undercover missions were often long and lonely, but this one was so top-secret that she couldn’t risk even the vaguest contact with any angel from Ramiel’s Department. No; this time she’d be alone.
Fortunately, she arrived in the lobby (as the Ground Floor was affectionately nicknamed) sufficiently early that there weren’t any new recruits around. This, her briefing dissertation had told her, was imperative; to be taken for a new angel, she must seemingly have arrived with the other souls straight from their mortal worlds, so that she could be taken with them up to Reception on the First Floor, where Uriel would deal with her and the other souls who were to join Samael’s Department. There must be no differences between them, or else her cover could be blown.
At least, there was no one around except the single receptionist on duty at one of the two desks on either side of the lift. As Morna stepped forward and the lift doors closed, the receptionist swivelled round on her chair to face her, a steaming mug clasped in both hands.
They stared at one another for a moment, neither speaking, but both knowing they had something to say. Then Morna flipped her permit card over the counter, and the receptionist’s face broke into a welcoming smile. Her lips parted to speak, but Morna frowned heavily at her, and they resumed their staring match. The visual feeds were, by definition, only seen by the Watcher, and he and his agents knew Morna was here, but anyone might’ve tapped into the intercom.
“If you would please be seated over there,” the receptionist said finally, indicating the seating area to the right of her desk. “The last lot of recruits, like you, were ferried upstairs about half an hour ago, but more ought to be arriving soon.” And with this, the receptionist resumed slurping at whatever was in her mug, turning away with abrupt haste.
Morna nodded, knowing that the longer they stood staring, the sooner it would be before either one of them was irresistably tempted to start asking questions she had no business to ask. Instead, she took one of the proffered seats, giving herself a few moments to assess her surroundings more thoroughly. The briefing had only told her roughly what to expect, and she hadn’t visited the lobby in several decades.
The lobby was, in effect, a huge empty hall, window-less, but with a large set of platinum-plated double-doors in the centre of one of the walls, facing the lift and the reception desks. From here, and without the permit card she’d just relinquished, the lift only had one destination: the First Floor. Presumably it was to prevent new recruits from taking a wrong turn in a fit of terror, but the very lack of escape was an admittedly scary thought for Morna. There was no backing out this mission now.
Many years though it had been, from past visits to the lobby Morna remembered acutely the quaint frescoes on the ceiling, depicting various scenes from the Book of Myths, from which the humans liked to take their authority on divine matters.
Down below, the floor gleamed a soft-edged spectrum of classy old-style mosaic tiles. Like the frescoes on the ceiling, the mosaic scenes were old-fashioned and charming, but Morna couldn’t help but think how outdated they were. Of course, it was nice that the first place to which mortal souls came was a little like the world they’d left moments before, but it irritated Morna to think they were given such a phony first impression of Aethyr. Much as it amused her that mortals could really believe in golden gates and fluffy clouds (after all, she’d spent so long in modern Aethyr, now), the lack of definition in conservative architecture aggravated her sense of precision, and she didn’t think it was right to force these fearful new recruits into expectations that would never be fulfilled.
The two walls perpendicular to the double-doors were each comprised of an enormous exquisitely-polished glass mirror. Each mirror reversed the image of the other, and thus the other, and the other…giving the seemingly everlasting impression of infinity, and hence the whole lobby glowed with an illusive sheen.
Indeed, reflected Morna, studying her own appearance in the mirror closest to her seat, she herself had somewhat of a false semblance.
Since her latest mission briefing she’d had a complete re-makeover. Her dark curls had been induced with a certain youthful springiness, courtesy of some newfangled hair product now offered by Aethyr’s top beauticians, and her entire face softened to eradicate any of the marks that might’ve delineated her as an angel experienced in the ways of Aethyr. Well, one thing was for certain: no one from the old days could possibly recognise her now.
Just as she was thinking this to herself, there was a quick buzz from the double-doors, and they swung carefully inwards to admit two figures. Immediately Morna assumed a stance of apprehension, but she eyed the newcomers with professional interest.
One was obviously a mortal soul fresh from his own death: he was frozen and shaking, and paler than the tendrils of mist clinging to the tail of his coat. Morna thought he looked a bit of a waste of time, actually, his face thick with white whiskers, and dreadfully wrinkled. One of the really old folk, who looked like he could die any moment even though he'd soon be granted some sort of supernatural immortality. He was far too weary a soul to be in any position of import. Probably he’d end up licking stamps on the Seventh Floor, or something stupid and mindless like that. If they even let him become an angel. All those things were decided on the First Floor, usually, although by and large if a soul was destined for Paradise or Hell he’d usually be there by now, and bypass the tedious waiting time in the lobby.
As the old soul stumbled further into the room, blinking at the shimmering surfaces before him, Morna focussed her gaze on the second figure, who seemed to be holding the old man up by the scruff of his coat. The double-doors swung closed, the viscous mist reluctantly receding, and she saw that his silhouette was tall—very tall, and broad—and strangely majestic in his form and posture.
More she was unable to discern, because as he straightened up, pushing the old man further into the room, a gigantic pair of wings unfolded from his back, eclipsing everything else around them. Made up of a million tiny shards of divine light, those dazzling wings shook off a spindrift-spray of mist droplets, and settled back down behind him.
This was an angel of death.