I forget everything except the color blue. We waded through a river thickened with dirt and blood, but through our goggles we could only see cobalt, cyan, denim. If I blocked out the skyline of splintered buildings, I could almost believe we were at sea. Mitch had found some kid’s rattle, miraculously unbroken, and he shook it and sang as we walked. I expected my stomach to twist, but there was no urge to tell him to knock it off, no discomfort. Liquid blue mud swallowed our boots up to the ankles and Mitch sang Down by the river you said you’d hold me pretty baby don’t let me go into the wet smell of decay.
The order had come a few days back. They hadn’t given a reason, just said, It has been decided that there is nothing deserving of life within the city’s walls. This is standard. Your unit has been selected for the sacred work of recovering any items that should be spared. The night before we marched, I’d dreamed that I was standing before a line of objects – a spool of thread, a porcelain doll, a tarnished picture frame – and when I reached out to choose, they cried Will not the judge of all the Earth do right? And their voices were the voices of children, high and cracked and unraveling.
Mitch lowered the rattle, stopped singing. He said, “This is one fucked up town.”
I said, “It’s fucked now, that’s for sure.”
Mitch bent over and swiped a gloved hand at a post floating past us. “Everybody here’s so bad they had to die, right? Must’ve been one evil baby.” He gave the rattle one last shake and tossed it into the current. The stomach drop hit then, the hollowness in his lack of irony. I kept my face blank. Two years in the Angels is enough to teach a woman not to flinch at the mention of a dead child.
We went on wading. After a while, it wasn’t just fence posts floating through the floodwaters. We stayed close to the doorsteps of the ruined homes to avoid obstructions. Through our goggles, even the bobbing corpses were stained with color. The world, we always tell recruits, is like a forest. To clear the detritus and reduce the risk of an all-consuming blaze, sometimes you have to set a smaller fire.
The story goes like this: Three angels visit Abraham and declare God’s plans to destroy the nearby cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, whose sins of inhospitality are so grievous that only death can erase their stain upon the Earth. But when the angels leave, Abraham barters with God: Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?
I have never argued with God. I have never spoken to God directly. We receive and follow orders. We are not asked to carry out the destruction, only to make sure it goes according to plan.
I found a music box with chipped edges. It wouldn’t play, of course, but I decided that something crafted to produce music might be a little bit holy, regardless of the sins of its owner. Our unit would take it back with us, where it would be reviewed for a series of inscrutable requirements before its fate was decided. I was pleased with myself for finding a potential artefact. Sometimes, by the time we arrive, there’s nothing left.
There are no accounts of someone being found alive in a drowned city. Would it mean the living one was spared by design? Or would its survival be considered a mistake to be corrected? Andy, I think, would kill it. Andy walks behind me when the unit marches in formation. He doesn’t joke like Mitch, doesn’t mess around in the ruins. I believe Andy would kill the survivor with a smile full of regret and eyes shining with purpose.
Sodom and Gomorrah were not spared. The cities’ residents mocked and abused a foreigner who was actually an angel, and, like selfish princes in a fairy tale, were punished for their prejudice. One man, his wife, and his two daughters were deemed righteous enough to flee. The wife dared to glance back at her home mid-escape and was turned to salt. These things happen; on the whole, it was a merciful outcome.
I will say this only once. There was a man, his arms around a child. He sat so still that at first I took them for a sculpture, a potential artefact to index. Then his eyes closed and reopened. I found them when the unit had spread out to maximize efficiency, and I was alone. I walked close enough to reach out and touch him, close enough to wring his neck or feel his heartbeat. He trembled slightly. He shielded the child in his arms. I hissed, Go.
We marched out of the city to Mitch’s rough hum, mud-splattered and toting our chosen objects. I wondered about the eyes of the man I had found. Through the goggles they had been a brighter shade of blue than anything else I had seen in the city. I could have said Be not afraid in an ancient tongue like the original angels, but I couldn’t form the syllables. Even the Go I had managed was blasphemous. His eyes floated on before me like twin prisms shifting in the light. Opalescent blue. Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? I fixed my eyes forward. I swallowed the word I had spoken and tasted salt.
Ella J. Lombard (she/her) is a writer and researcher living in Seattle, WA. When she isn’t writing speculative fiction and poetry, she can be found pursuing a PhD in Social Psychology at the University of Washington. In both lines of work, she explores oppression, justice, and how the stories we tell reflect and transform who we are.