Angela Chapelle had died once, under a different name, on a different planet.
It was long ago; she could barely remember it, now.
Well, she could barely remember the details of her old life. The circumstances of her death, however, were still quite fresh in her mind. At 27, she’d suffered the explosive consequences of one of her failed inventions. She hadn’t exactly had time to study the causes of it before the blast devoured her, but Angela blamed faulty equipment. She couldn’t think of anywhere she might have made a mistake in her design.
But her death hadn’t been the end, unexpectedly.
Some sort of god had come along and given her another chance, another world. He told her she would have to face his trials, one day, to earn her second chance at life. That until she was called upon, she was free to move and act and live as she wished.
Angela wasn’t sure why he’d selected her in particular for this, but she wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. She was pretty sure anyone would jump at the idea of coming back to life, no matter what nebulous ‘trials’ awaited in the future. Also, if this god was anything like the petty, megalomaniacal butcher from Earth’s Bible that christians liked to pretend was benevolent, it wouldn’t be wise to oppose him. This god didn’t seem like that – he was polite and understanding – but taking a bit of care surely wouldn’t go amiss.
Still, after spending so much time in this new world without anything strange happening, without any sign from God, Angela had almost started to believe it had all been a dream, that she would continue living in peace, and that she just might not take part in any divine mission after all.
She’d thought that, perhaps, God had forgotten about her?
She’d been wrong.
Here she was again, in his domain. And much earlier than promised.
God didn’t say much. He called her “Machinist,” perhaps because of her hobby of tinkering and coming up with strange new machines all the time – though that sounded like an awfully pretentious title for what she did, Angela felt.
And he asked her to sit at his table.
The table was white. Like the seats. And everything else in this place. It felt like hard, solid wood under her hands. The seats were… leather, presumably? They felt a little strange. They were rigid and cool to the touch, yet wrapped too much and too comfortably around her to match the feel of leather she knew. There was no grain or lines on the material’s surface, either. But she couldn’t think of anything else it might be. It sure wasn’t plastic or metal or foam or cotton or any such thing.
God sat at the head of the table. Angela couldn’t make out his figure. She only glimpsed the edges of his silhouette sometimes out of the corners of her eyes, but when she looked at him straight, he was drowned in an impenetrable aura of soft white light. It didn’t hurt her eyes to look at him like it might to look at the sun, but her gaze couldn’t pierce through this veil to the being beyond it.
A few people were already seated at the table when Angela arrived, young men and women, all of them strangely alike despite their apparent differences. They were all either handsome or beautiful, and they all had an air of confidence and competence about them. Something that seemed to shout that they were not your average joes plodding along on their 9-to-5s. Perhaps, individually, this feeling could have been ignored, but when all of them were seated together like this, it was almost palpable in the air around them. Angela felt a little self-conscious, sitting among those people. Doubly so because she was the obvious youngest. Everyone here – save for God, of course – looked in their 20s or 30s. Angela alone looked like she was 12. Because she was – physically, if nothing else. She looked tiny and vulnerable among all those paragons of humanity. Fortunately, no one took any dig at her, though the young man sitting next to her did look at her with a little mocking smirk on his lips when she arrived. Even Angela’s chair was kind enough to fit her smaller figure; she didn’t have to strain to reach the tabletop.
Once Angela was seated, she looked around at the other people with uncertainty.
They all must be… other reincarnators.
It had occurred to Angela before that she might not be the only one God had chosen, but she’d never received confirmation one way or the other. She’d mostly spent her childhood being bored in school, spending time with her parents, and trying to build herself a hidden little workshop in her room by stealing from her father’s tool case.
Angela didn’t have time to examine any of them in detail, though, because only a few seconds after her butt touched her chair, a new man suddenly faded into view a few meters to the side of the table.
The man looked a little older than 30. He wore the white coat of a scientist or a doctor over a crumpled navy-blue suit. And he looked tired. Dark circles underlined the bottom of his eyes. When he arrived, he was bending over as if to look at something on the floor in front of him, but as soon as he realized he’d suddenly been transported to somewhere else, he straightened and looked around frantically, seeming on the verge of panic.
“W–What? I was just… Where is this?!” he asked in a language Angela didn’t know but still mysteriously understood, presumably because magic.
At which point he spotted the table, and his mouth dropped open in shock.
God took that moment to greet him. “Welcome, Healer. Please, try to calm down and take your place at the table.”
“Healer,” huh? A doctor, then, I guess? Machinist and Healer. I wonder what titles the others received. The guy next to me could be “Street Punk.” And this man over there looks like he works in government. “Statesman”?
One of the two seats left unoccupied slid away from the table in invitation. The Healer hesitated for a moment, and God answered even though the Healer hadn’t opened his mouth. God must have been reading his mind or something.
“Yes. Don’t worry. I will explain everything in a moment, once the last guest has arrived. Please, sit.”
Finally, the Healer nodded slowly. His posture gradually lost most of its wariness, as if the shock of the teleportation was wearing off. He approached his seat – diagonally in front of Angela, one step further from the head of the table – and attempted a polite smile and a nod at the rest of the reincarnators before sitting. Few returned his greeting; most just watched him curiously in silence as they’d done when Angela arrived.
Now, there was only a single empty seat, directly to Angela’s left.
And indeed, as she expected, only a few seconds later, the last guest appeared. What Angela hadn’t expected, however – and from the looks on their faces, neither had anyone else – was that this guest wouldn’t be teleported standing up.
Instead, she was… catapulted in?
From one second to the next, a woman abruptly appeared, diving toward the ground at breakneck speed. The woman was moving too fast; Angela couldn’t see much of her. She hit the ground hard in a tangle of limbs, and Angela wondered if the last guest would have to be scooped into her seat with a spoon. However, incredibly, she only bounced harmlessly against the floor and, even more incredibly, instantly turned her bone-shattering tumble into a controlled roll. And all the while, space itself seemed to warp and twist around her, so that even though her acrobatics moved her away from the table where everyone else sat, the distance between them never changed.
Until finally, the last guest came to a stop, crouching on the ground, her shoulders heaving up and down.
Well, this one certainly knows how to make an entrance…
The woman stood up a bit shakily, and Angela could get a better look at her. She wore a loose top with a lopsided collar that left one of her shoulders completely bare, along with a considerable portion of the slope of one of her breasts. The sleeves were very wide, and long enough to reach the wrists of the gloves on her hands. A pair of tight shorts earned their name by only covering the top few centimeters of her thighs. Apart from those and a pair of sneakers on her feet, her legs were left bare. Overall, this woman showed quite a lot of skin, but the most important part, her face, was hidden behind a motorcycle helmet which didn’t appear to have a front visor for her eyes. It was all featureless plastic. It might have looked a little intimidating, if only the helmet weren’t fitted with two air intakes shaped like cat ears on top.
Still, she was quite attractive. Enough that the street punk next to Angela whistled suggestively at her appearance.
So she was riding on a bike when she was teleported? Is that why she was sent hurtling forward like that when she arrived? I guess that’ll teach her to respect the speed limit in the future.
Angela couldn’t help but be curious, too. She was the Machinist, sure. The tired-looking guy in the white lab coat was the Healer. No problem there. Then who was this one?
The… Motorcycle Gang Leader? No, she’s not wearing enough leather. And even her gloves aren’t fingerless and don’t have any metal spikes on the knuckles. Motorcycle Gang Member, at best. Motorcycle Gang Part-time Intern, even.
Angela’s eyes drifted toward the sizeable mounds that visibly pushed up against the fabric of her top, even though it was so loose around her. And toward the perfect pair of legs that, even to her straight female’s eyes, looked distractingly long and healthy.
The Sex Kitten? The Stripper? The Internet Cam Girl? The Pole Dancer? The High-class Call Girl? The…
This hot chick was the Archivist? Really? Wasn’t an Archivist supposed to be some drab, grey, boring, balding middle-aged man with tiny round glasses pinching the bridge of his nose, who spoke with a squeaky voice and wore a rumpled suit from 40 years ago?
God sure does work in mysterious ways, huh?
Angela reflexively glanced toward the head of the table. That’s how she noticed that she wasn’t the only one baffled by this unfitting title. She also looked up just in time to catch the knowing look and meaningful smile two of God’s guests who sat higher up the table – a dark-skinned hunk and a pale, thin guy with glasses – exchanged at that moment.
Do these two know the Archivist?
In the meantime, God invited the Archivist to sit at the table with everyone. When Angela didn’t hear any footsteps approach, she glanced back toward the new arrival. It was hard to tell what the Archivist was looking at, with her face concealed under her helmet, but her head was turned toward the head of the table. Or perhaps a bit to the side?
Angela tried to follow her gaze.
Is she staring at that man? Is she mesmerized or something?
One seat down on the left side of God sat the single most beautiful creature Angela had ever seen. His face was delicate and gave off a kind and dependable impression. His wavy golden hair seemed to sparkle in the light given off by God’s presence. His sky-blue eyes twinkled with intelligence and good humor. His beauty was a bit diluted by sitting among other outstandingly pretty people, but he still stood out even among them.
And Angela had to admit that, even though she’d not seen her face, the Archivist indeed might come at a close second behind that man, judging on appearance alone.
Does she want to get hitched right after being summoned by God or something? In a way, I admire her guts, to ignore God and instead focus on a handsome guy, but that’s like the lowest of the low. Doesn’t she have a shred of self-respect?
God’s next words, however, dissuaded her of that notion.
“Archivist, you’ve already discovered it for yourself. All of you are protected against injury in this place. It will be impossible for you to murder anyone at this table.”
Angela almost choked on her saliva. She stared wide-eyed at the silent woman standing still next to the table. She wasn’t the only one, either. All the other reincarnators were also staring at the last of their numbers.
She was contemplating murder?! What the fuck is wrong with her? Or wait, these two guys over there may already know the Archivist. Could it be that the beautiful guy is the same? Does she have a grudge against him? But to go straight to murder…
“Rest assured, Archivist,” God continued. “Just as he is safe from you, you are safe from him. And from everyone else. Please, sit, and I will explain why I have brought all of you here today.”
Safe? Is she scared of us? No, of ‘him.’ The beautiful guy? Why would she be scared of him? Or is she looking at someone else? I wish she didn’t have that helmet so I could see who she’s really aiming at, here.
Angela was clearly missing some pieces of the puzzle, but no one offered them to her. The Archivist remained stubbornly silent. The young woman hesitated another second, then slowly lowered herself into the seat next to Angela. The featureless helmet turned to regard her for a moment, and Angela tensed, but the Archivist said nothing, and her gaze soon turned back toward God.
God started without preamble. “First, I apologize for the change in schedule you have all suffered. Some of you should have been called years ago, others years from now. But the enemy you all will have to face has been less… cooperative than expected.”
That sounded ominous.
“You should have been transported one by one to the distant battlefield. Instead, I am sorry to say that the battlefield has come to you.”
That sounded very ominous.
God’s words were met with silence by all the reincarnators seated at his table. All except for one, the one directly at God’s right hand. He was a man with very dark skin and even darker hair, in his late twenties or early thirties. He was handsome, of course, by there was nothing immediately obvious about him that hinted at the reason why he would be allowed to sit in this position over another reincarnator. Perhaps there was no reason, and Angela was reading too much into it, but she was still pretty sure the seating order meant something. She hadn’t gotten to know any of her peers, though – not even spoken to them, really – so she couldn’t tell what the sorting algorithm was.
“Is there anything you can tell us about the nature of this enemy?” the man asked. His voice was deep and calm, its tempo measured. It had a soothing quality to it. “About its motives? Its goals? And how we –” He made a gesture encompassing the whole table. “– fit into that goal? What you expect of us?”
“Of course, Ruler,” God said with a nod – or at least, the fluctuations of his white aura of light made it seem that way to Angela. “Your enemy is a conqueror of planets, and his campaign has seen much success in this particular universe, I’m afraid. His personal might is comparable to mine. However, rest assured. You will not face him directly, and so, his exact nature is irrelevant. Just as I can only provide limited help to you during this trial, he will be unable to impair your efforts to fight off his invasion. What you will face instead are his armies. His soldiers and his lieutenants. What I expect of you is to stop this army and safeguard your planet.”
Ruler? Conqueror of planets? This particular universe? …What the fuck?!
Angela felt shellshocked. There were too many things she wanted to react to. And apparently, she wasn’t the only one stuck in a daze. Most of the table except for the ones at its very top seemed at least a little disturbed.
“What can you tell us about this army?” the man sitting at God’s left hand, directly in front of the Ruler, asked. He was probably the oldest of the reincarnators. He was middle-aged, bald, and had the build of a soldier. His face was stony and harsh, his posture ramrod straight even in God’s supernaturally comfortable seats. He looked like a military man to Angela’s eyes.
“I can tell you nothing, General. I cannot interfere in your fight, even by providing you with intelligence on your opponents. I can tell you at most that you will not be facing regular human beings with firearms. Some of the enemies you will encounter will perhaps seem familiar to you; others, less so. You will have to adapt. But as for how to do this and defeat them, you will have to work it out for yourselves.”
“Can we expect reinforcements?” the General continued.
God nodded. “You can. As I said, the battlefield came to you. Which means both competing sides will also come to you. Your enemies, and your enemies’ enemies. Some of the latter already arrived on this planet some time ago as a contingency for just such a situation. This is fortunate. They may lighten the initial blow the invasion deals to Edea. Afterward, if you can find and cooperate with them, they may help make your task easier, perhaps. But again, that is up to you and up to them.”
Suddenly, the street punk sitting on Angela’s right spoke up with a loud voice. He still had that cocky smirk on his lips, even when he addressed God directly. “Is there some sort of reward if we boot their asses out of Edea, though? I mean, why couldn’t we just hole up in some bunker somewhere and wait for the storm to pass? What’s our incentive, here?”
“Your reward is being alive right now,” God said calmly. If the young man’s greed bothered him, it didn’t show. “Your incentive is staying alive in the future. I can assure you that if you do not act, Edea will fall. Additionally, the enemy will be sure to consider my Envoys – that is, you – as priority targets. The storm will not pass so long as you are there to wait it out.”
The young man frowned and clicked his tongue. “Well, what about if we go offer our services to the other side, then? As they say, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right?”
The gazes of the other reincarnators were quite troubled as they looked at their rebellious comrade – perhaps some shared his thoughts but didn’t dare voice them as fearlessly. Angela herself wasn’t sure what to think. She accepted the price God set down when he brought her back to life on this new world. She agreed to go through his trials. On the other hand, she wasn’t a fighter. She’d never even thrown a punch in her entire life – lives, in fact.
God’s voice didn’t fluctuate when he answered. “If you attempt to do so, Burglar, I’m sorry to say that I shall have to kill you.” He regarded all of them at the table. “As my Envoys on this planet, you are free to use whatever method you see fit to fulfill your mission. You can cooperate or compete with each other. You can rally allies behind you as a trustworthy friend. You can exploit them as a self-serving manipulator. You can ignore everyone else and fight alone. However, no matter what your method, your purpose will always be to protect Edea from the invaders seeking to defile it. I will not permit it to be otherwise.”
There was a long silence after God’s ultimatum.
Angela took a deep breath, then let it out. She tried to force herself to accept the idea that she’d suddenly been drafted to fight off some kind of alien invasion. If she didn’t have a choice anyway, she wasn’t going to kick up a fuss, but there was no way she would go out in the streets and fight. She was just no good at something like that. There were other things she could do, though, and God had said they could contribute in the way they saw fit, so long as they did contribute.
When it seemed like God’s speech was over, the Ruler looked around at the other reincarnators and addressed them. “Allow me to state the obvious. I believe it would be in everyone’s best interest for us to cooperate. If we can’t do that, we should at the very least strive not to get in each other’s way.”
Reactions to this varied. The majority – the General and Angela among them – nodded or looked otherwise receptive to the Ruler’s idea. The Burglar just gave the Ruler his usual mocking smirk, like he was begging to be punched in the face. The Archivist’s reaction was hidden behind her helmet; she neither nodded nor shook her head.
“I’m sorry to say that I can’t agree with this,” one of the reincarnators said. He was the dark-skinned hunk of a man sitting next to the beautiful man the Archivist had wanted to murder – maybe – when she arrived. He looked at the beautiful man beside him with a gaze filled with disgust. “You’re asking me to turn a blind eye to evil. I refuse to do so, even if it’s committed by a so-called ally who should share the same ultimate goal as mine.”
“I agree,” said the thin youth with glasses sitting in front of the hunk. His sharp eyes glared at the beautiful man with undisguised hostility.
Angela frowned. What had the beautiful man done that several reincarnators hated him so much?
The Ruler frowned, too. “You’re… the Spymaster and the Judge, correct? And the two of you have a problem with the… Defiler?” Even the Ruler looked dubious when pronouncing that name.
‘Defiler?’ Well, shit… All right, if even God saw fit to call him that way, I guess there might be something to it, after all.
“Why don’t you ask him what he’s done to earn his title?” the Judge said.
“Haaa, so quick to condemn me. But I suppose your title does fit you, then,” the Defiler said with a soft voice. He shook his head sadly. Even with the reincarnators’ accusations and glares directed at him, his melancholy smile looked as gentle as a lover’s caress, as harmless and transient as a wisp of fog. Even with her mind full of suspicions, looking at him made Angela’s heart beat faster, and she had to fight off a growing desire to comfort him. “You blame me for nothing but my title. I resent that. Now, I acknowledge that the titles of the four friends who appeared last are relatively benign. The Settler, the Machinist, the Healer, the Archivist. But this young man here is… the Burglar, correct?” he asked, pointing a delicate finger at the street punk sitting next to Angela. Next, he pointed to the woman sitting in front of the Burglar. “And this young lady over here is the Blade.” Finally, he looked at the man in front of him. “And this gentleman is…? I apologize; I arrived too late to hear his name.”
“The Assassin,” the Ruler supplied with a troubled face.
The Defiler’s eyebrows shot up. He pursed his lips. “Ah. I see. Scary stuff. But I think this demonstrates my point quite nicely. Our titles may sound very dangerous and unpleasant, but they’re hardly enough to determine our nature and character. I’m sure these three are delightful people, despite the names given to them.”
“Hey, hey, don’t involve me in this shitstorm, would ya?” the Burglar complained, instantly proving the Defiler wrong. Angela just couldn’t find anything delightful about this guy.
“We’re not condemning your title, but your actions,” the Spymaster said coldly. “We caught you red-handed trying to…”
“I apologize for the interruption, Envoys,” God suddenly cut in. “But I’m afraid we’ll have to cut this meeting short. Something unexpected came up, and I’ll soon be very busy. So will you.”
The argument between her fellow reincarnators had caught Angela’s attention, but now her eyes snapped back to God. He was looking up toward what would have been the distant sky in a more normal space. Angela tried to follow God’s gaze but could see absolutely nothing of note. Just more white blankness.
“Here is one last thing I can offer you,” God said, though his voice sounded more distant and distracted than before. “This token should prove helpful to each of you later on. Of course, once again, whether you use it, and how you use it if you do, is entirely up to you.”
God waved his hand. A small coin appeared on the table in front of each reincarnator. Angela slowly reached for hers. It looked like silver but was heavier than its size suggested. One of its faces was blank. A picture of two crossed hammers over a toothed cog was inscribed on the other.
“What’s this?” the Ruler asked on everyone’s behalf, examining his own coin.
“An entry permit. It will give you access to a specific…”
God’s words were cut off when the entire white world suddenly shook. It wasn’t a little tremor, either. It was a mighty quake that made Angela’s chair suddenly buck under her like a horse on a rodeo. Even if she’d been warned in advance, Angela wouldn’t have been able to remain seated. Her young body just didn’t have that kind of strength and balance, yet. She toppled gracelessly to the floor. Worse, the coin God had given her escaped from her hand too. Angela’s eyes snapped up to follow its course through the air. She didn’t know what it could give access to, as God had been interrupted before he could explain, but there no way she could afford to lose this thing.
Unexpectedly, however, a gloved hand stretched out and effortlessly snatched her coin right out of the air. The Archivist seated next to Angela got to her feet – and stayed on them – with apparent ease, and even as the white world shook around her, she lifted Angela’s coin up between two fingers. She held it before her helmet and examined the symbol stamped on it.
When the quakes finally stopped, Angela shot to her feet and faced the Archivist. She couldn’t help but hesitate, however. She had no doubt that, if the woman wanted to keep the token for herself, Angela wouldn’t see it again. She had no way to retrieve it by force. She didn’t have to, though. Before she could even open her mouth, the Archivist flicked Angela’s coin back toward her with a little metallic ting. Angela was almost more surprised by this than by the earthquake, but her hand shot up on autopilot and caught the coin.
Wait, was she just helping me not lose it? Oh. I should have guessed she wasn’t such a bad person when she put cat ears on her motorcycle helmet. Only good people would do something like that. Or truly deranged psychopaths, I guess. One or the other.
Angela felt a bit awkward at her misunderstanding, but fortunately, she hadn’t had time to start throwing accusations or threats around. Nor did she have time to give thanks now. Before she could, a terrible shout hit her almost like a physical slap and caused the air around her to tremble.
“AZARIAS, YOU DARE?!”
What answered God’s anger was uproarious laughter that lashed out as loud as thunder. Its source remained unseen, however.
“HAHAHAHA, WHY WOULDN’T I DARE?”
God didn’t bother to respond. As the white world started trembling again, he spun back and stretched out his hand toward the reincarnators. Angela could almost see it happen in slow motion. A wave shot out of God’s hand and engulfed first the Ruler and the General who sat closest to him on either side. They both disappeared, presumably transported to safety. Next, the wave teleported the Assassin and the Defiler, the Spymaster and the Judge, the Blade and the Burglar.
It would have been Angela’s turn, then, along with the Settler, but before the wave could reach them, the white world exploded. The table, the chairs, and more importantly, God all disappeared, and Angela found herself spiraling out of control into… outer space, far, far above Edea.
W–What the fuck?!
For a moment, Angela was lost to sheer, mindless panic as she fruitlessly tried to breathe or scream. But then the pain stopped, and her lungs found air. Somehow.
Is God protecting me? Us, rather. The others are here, too.
The Settler, the Healer, and the Archivist had accompanied Angela on her little trip to outer space. All the others, however, were gone.