Tabitha flicked a particle of dust off her white-robed shoulder, and checked to make sure her glow was not askew. Some of her comrades, she wouldn’t name names but *cough CONSTANCE cough*, never checked their glows; this could lead to an embarrassing situation in which it was not their head or their wings but their armpits that were softly illuminated as they began their message. Tabitha had never had that problem, thank heaven. Of course, she didn’t have to worry as much about her glow now that she was on Search and Rescue, but still, this was about standards. If one didn’t have standards, then where would one be? In the Bad Place, that’s where. Tabitha was ever so grateful that she hadn’t yet been assigned to Combat Ops; she’d heard all the horror stories about the battles with them, the trips to the Bad Place (she could never bring herself to use its proper name). She hadn’t even had a tour yet with what her friends laughingly called “shoulder-sitting”; the thought of even being close to one of them, even just talking with them or around them, sent chills right to her wingtips.
Happily, Search and Rescue rarely had to worry about them. Today didn’t look like it would be any different. Tabitha scanned the street, and there she was, right on time. A tiny girl, barely out of her twos was toddling blissfully across the sidewalk. Tabitha glanced down the road, and there it was, right on time too; a garishly red convertible jammed with teenagers, all rocking out to some song about “Friday”. Tabitha followed the line of the car to the child; just as she’d been told, a collision would be almost impossible to avoid. Ben had warned her that they had laid plans for this event; their shoulder-sitters would be eager to take full advantage of the teens’ horror and despair over the accidental death. Tabitha took a breath, checked her glow once more, adjusted her wings, and darted forward. With a shining hand she nudged the toddler back on to the sidewalk, just in time to protect her from the convertible screaming by. The sounds of “partyin’ partyin’ YEAH! faded in the distance.
The teenagers hadn’t noticed her, of course. The child, however, felt Tabitha’s protection and looked up; her brown eyes stared querously at the golden figure floating above her, and she mumbled something unintelligible. Tabitha smiled politely, and then flew away; she had other assignments, and it wouldn’t do to keep them waiting. Search and Rescue had a very tight schedule.
She rose above the gleaming glass towers of the city, the sun shining all about her. Then, suddenly, someone flew up in front of her, blocking the sun. Tabitha gasped in shock. It was one of them. She could smell the foul stench, see the warped expressions, the horrible curving horns. She backed up slowly in midair, her heart hammering in her chest, her wings fluttering nervously. She wasn’t in combat, she wasn’t even a shoulder-sitter, why would they…
Then suddenly a third figure broke in, all gold and light and power, and they fled, as they usually did. “Oh good,” she breathed in utter relief, “oh good, Bernard, you’re here. I thought-I mean, did you see…they almost…”
Her voice trailed away as she saw the look in Bernard’s eyes. It was all wrong. He should have been filled with quiet happiness that he’d once again driven back the enemy, or perhaps steady seriousness as he gave her her next mission. But this was different. He looked…not just sad. Despondent. Even, to use a very old word, grieved. Something had gone badly wrong, it was clear. “Bernard,” Tabitha asked hesitantly, “what…”
“You’ve been reassigned,” he said slowly, gently, as if trying to prepare her for a very great blow. “The DAs.”
Tabitha couldn’t help the shudder that ran through her. The DAs. She’d heard of them too. They walked among unimaginable tragedies with cool heads, always showing up just as life was leaving. Tabitha’s stomach clenched as she thought of it. A DA wouldn’t have been sent to save the toddler she’d just saved, no, they would have been there afterwards, to guide the child away, they would’ve seen the blood, heard the screams…”No…” she said tremulously, “My term on Search and Rescue doesn’t end for another year. Why would I be reassigned?”
“It’s not just you,” Bernard said, and that just made it even worse. “It’s everyone. Because of Carmen’s Comet.”
“But that’s supposed to miss the Earth, I thought-”
“It changed course. We’re still trying to work out why. Whether it was them or something else. But now it’s headed right for Earth. When it arrives, it’ll destroy nearly every living thing on this planet. So we’ve all been reassigned to the DAs, Emergency Apocalypse Protocol. I’m sorry.”
“No…” Tabitha said again. She glanced down, her keen vision zooming in until she could see the child she had just snatched from death, saw the simple curiosity on the child’s face as she looked up into the open sky. “No, no, no!” With that, Tabitha leapt away, shooting up high into the air. She rose faster and faster, her wings tearing at the sky, her glow coming wildly askew until it only lit up the soles of her boots. She didn’t care. What did glows or standards matter now?
She rose still higher, streaking past satellites and space debris, and then she saw it; Carmen’s Comet, impossibly huge and implacably cold. Tabitha darted towards it, and then her worst fears came true as she saw them. Not just one this time, a whole mass of them, cackling and howling as they pushed the comet on towards the planet. She could just imagine the feast of sorrow and anguish they were looking forward to. Without even thinking she dove towards them. Light spilled from her and struck across their twisted faces. They lurched towards her, their foulness slamming into her like a wave breaking from a broken dam, but Tabitha didn’t even pause. She kept pushing on, throwing punches and kicking out as hard as she could, trying to stop them, trying-but she didn’t know how to fight, not really, and she was just one small angel against the hulking power of them. A curved horn tore into her shoulder, talons slashed across her wings, a powerful hand swatted her away. She pushed herself towards them again, desperate to do something, but the largest of them loomed up before her like a sullen thundercloud. “Fool,” he rumbled in a horrifically-appropriate deep voice, “fool, dost thou really imagine thou can stop us? The Earth is ours, its people are our prey. We shall dine on them in our domain tonight, and thou…thou little whelp…I think we shall dine on thee as well.” He reached for her, his massive hand piercing through her flickering glow.Tabitha closed her eyes. She would never see the golden halls again, she knew it, and-”
“Excuse me,” a voice said, “but your dinner reservation’s been canceled.” Wham. A shining fist slammed into the dark, sending him and all of them reeling. White swords flashed. Wings soared by her. Tabitha watched in amazement as Bernard and a whole battalion of angels swept in, scattering them like bowling pins. Then they gathered around Carmen’s Comet, and in a trice it had been nudged back onto its normal course. Bernard swooped over to her and made a formal bow. “Oh…” Tabitha said. “A test. Of course. I should have known.” Her torn wings slumped in failure. “I must apologize,” she began resolutely, though her voice quivered just a bit, “I didn’t stop it. I-”
Bernard smiled. “That wasn’t the point. The test wasn’t about winning; it was about losing. You faced up to them when you knew you couldn’t win. And you did it even with your glow being askew. So you don’t need to apologize, Tabitha. Oh no; you’ve just qualified for A.S.1; Angel, first class. You can decide your assignments, now.”
“Hm…” Tabitha considered, smiling now herself. “You know…I think I might want to try shoulder-sitting?”
“You are aware that’s not actually what it’s called, right?”
“Well, it should be.”