Skip to main content

Extract | The Fallen Angel

Day 1, 8:00 am

Friday, 29 March 2233
Denman Glacier, East Antarctica

3000 metres to impact! . . . 2800 metres to impact! . . . 2600 metres to impact!

Micah anxiously kept a watchful eye on the bright green updates flickering on his augmented-reality heads-up display as he swept swiftly down the 3.5-kilometre vertical ice shaft. His jet-propelled batsuit sported powerful exoskeleton reverse thrusters that controlled his vertical descent to up to 50 kilometres per hour. At this speed, he would need four minutes to reach the base of the ice shaft.

His torch bounced brilliant white light from the icy walls, scattering a kaleidoscope of rainbow colours from the sheen of the water that trickled down the dark sides that had not been exposed to sunlight in thousands of years. As he descended, his light-detection and ranging or LiDAR sensors used laser pulses to build a 3D image of his surroundings. The walls of the ice shaft were frozen into elaborate curtains that ranged from a vivid electric blue to black, created by many centuries of vertical meltwater that had frozen in action. Micah glanced at his height readings again and realised he had already covered 1500 metres, with just 2000 metres left to the impact base in the dark below.

Suddenly, shrill beeps of the built-in collision-avoidance system began to blast into Micah’s ear, and simultaneously, he noticed a giant protruding crystal jutting out from the ice wall rapidly approaching from below. He twisted his lean body sharply, and an involuntary gasp escaped his mouth. The pointed piece of ice missed his head by a breath but smashed into his thrusters instead. The razor-sharp edges of the crystal ripped one thruster clean off and sent it bouncing down the walls of the ice shaft, disappearing out of Micah’s sight. The AI-powered exoskeleton’s safety system immediately shut down the other thruster to prevent Micah from spiralling down with it like a spinning top. He was met with deafening silence as the comforting hum of his engines wound down. Micah’s face contorted into panic as he realised the extent of the damage. A split-second later, he was tumbling into a rapidly escalating free fall. He smashed into the jagged icy walls of the shaft as he frantically tried to reactivate the batsuit and protect himself from the brutal impacts.

Just an hour before, Micah Moresheth, the regional commander of Europe, Middle East & Africa Search and Rescue Agency (EMASAR), had touched down a few kilometres from the East Antarctica ice shaft with a nuclear-fusion-powered Flying V aircraft with vertical take-off capabilities. He had been accompanied by senior cadets Peter and Simeon. The team was completed by the artificial intelligence robot they referred to as JJ7. JJ7 ran on a quantum computer chip and was a bipedal humanoid that could understand speech, interpret emotion and perform athletic feats such as running up to 40 kilometres per hour.

Captain Cornelius Joshua dispatched the four to investigate a mysterious pulsating heat source 3.5 kilometres below ground level on the Earth’s lowest terrestrial point. The heat signal demonstrated lifelike properties in its frequency and had been a year-long mystery for electric passenger jets flying over East Antarctica to Western Australia. Since the terrain was unstable, they had covered the remaining distance from their aircraft using an extreme terrain vehicle that glided just above the sharp, rocky and icy surfaces. Micah had brought the vehicle to a halt after the gigahertz sensor indicated that they were directly above the pulsating heat source. Although the vehicle could also descend slowly along a cliff wall, the uneven structure of the shaft that led down to the pulsing source and the imposing black rocks that surrounded the entrance, meant that they couldn’t use it this time.

As they alighted from their craft, JJ7 had provided a graphic overview of the terrain and surrounds, including details of the array of vertical caves the locals called “moulins”. “First discovered in 2019, the Denman Glacier shaft is more than eight times deeper than the Dead Sea, making it the deepest point on Earth outside an ocean valley. The vertical ice shaft has a 10-metre wide opening and is called a “glacier mill”. Glacier mills are formed when melting ice water pushes through a weak point in the ice and, over thousands of years, eventually reaches the bedrock of a glacier.”

“Shut up, JJ7,” Peter lamented. “Enough with the geography lesson!” JJ7 peered emotionlessly at Peter, his blue eyes glowing.

“I implore thee to hearken to my advice, lest thine decisions prove to be folly.”

Peter playfully punched Simeon. “You programmed JJ7 to reply in Old English again, didn’t you?”

Micah raised his hand to put an end to the banter. “Gentlemen, Captain Cornelius was clear that we should return with answers. I can tell that we are now directly above the mysterious heat signal. Shall I go down and explore?”

Without further delay, Micah started pulling on his titanium exoskeleton. Peter and Simeon looked at him in surprise. They had assumed they would only collect data from the surface.

Simeon stepped forward. “Micah, this shaft is the deepest point known to humankind and has never been digitally mapped . . . Who knows what’s down there?”

JJ7 added, “I know what’s down there.”

“What?” Simeon turned to him.

“Danger,” JJ7 replied. “Unknown terrain is automatically assigned a 75% danger rating, according to EMASAR protocols and historical observations. The features of this shaft are unstable ice and rock formations, multiple geothermal activity hotspots and an 80-degree temperature variation. Furthermore, the oxygen content becomes more rarefied the further down you go, increasing the risk of asphyxiation.”

Peter blurted out, “Let me go with you then, Micah.”

Micah looked up briefly and brushed Peter’s concern off. “I’ll be fine. I’m wearing so much safety technology that I could walk into a cyclone.”

“But why put your life at risk?”

“There could be someone out there needing help, waiting for a hand to reach down and intervene. Who am I to value my life above that of a stranger? Is it not more rewarding to step out than to shrink back?”

Peter ignored Micah’s response and gathered his gear but stopped when Micah squeezed his shoulder firmly, “Cadet, stand down and await further instruction when I return.”

“Understood, boss.” Peter lowered his questioning look and meekly studied his snowshoes.

Micah squinted down at the wide ice shaft opening while his exoskeleton operating system powered up and swiftly cycled through dozens of standard pre-flight checks. He took a deep breath of the frigid twilight air, which was at a typical minus-40 degrees as Antarctica started its descent into a long winter, gradually transitioning from constant daylight over the past six months to what would be night-time for the next six months.

Once all systems displayed 100% functionality on his heads-up display, Micah leapt into the open void and started his controlled descent. He had been enjoying a scenic 60-second descent until he had shattered his reverse thruster.

Within a few nanoseconds of going into free fall, he realised what his sensors had missed. Occasional horizontal layers of transparent crystal ice, similar to stalactites, jutted out at intervals from the sides. His descent had by now accelerated to over 200 kilometres per hour. He vaguely remembered from his skydiving training a decade ago that keeping his arms and legs open would prevent him from reaching the maximum terminal velocity of 320 kilometres per hour resulting from a head-down position. Although that would stop him from blacking out, he grimly realised, too, that he would be conscious until his very last moment.

As Micah accelerated, he smashed through the ice formations, one after the other, and was sure he could feel bones crack. Even though his suit was built to withstand extreme forces, it had its limits – as he was now discovering. He panicked when he saw the suit’s strength readings plummeting into the orange zone. The red zone would mean system collapse, otherwise referred to as “death by shredding” by those less diplomatic.

Desperate to slow his free fall, he shot a rappelling hook from his right sleeve, and terror gripped him as it failed to penetrate the icy walls speeding past him as he hurtled down the shaft. Frantic, he tried again, but with his left arm, and this time, the hook found footing, penetrating a gap within the ice, jerkily slowing his fall. But his relief lasted only a moment as the crumbling ice immediately gave way. A hard jolt cut a deep gash on his forehead, and he failed to hear the suit alarm warning that his titanium layer had been breached. Warm blood streamed down his face, obscuring the vision in his left eye. He spat the metallic taste from his mouth.

The distance-to-ground readings rapidly became critical, and he realised that a hard landing was imminent. Ten seconds and counting . . . Only one survival option remained, but that would come at the cost of rupturing his remaining suit protection. A full-body airbag had been built into the back of the suit from neck to midsection, a system initiated by Captain Cornelius five years earlier. Within milliseconds of sensing horizontal impact, superfrozen semiconductor nanomaterials, compressed by a factor of 99% in a high-pressure chamber, would be released along the entire length of his body and form a compressible bubble to protect him. However, the technology had not yet been perfected in real-world conditions and had only been tested from a 20-metre drop. Certainly not the 3500 metres now facing him.

Micah fumbled with his left hand to activate the Airbag Deploy sequence on his side panel and prayed that if this were the end, it would be swift. And then, just before impact, he spotted a bright purple glow – the pulsating heat source his team had been searching for. “Mission accomplished,” he whispered to himself as he prepared for what could very well be his death. As he hit the ground, a blinding white flash was the last he saw before everything faded to black. A moment later, his bodycam transmitted its final video and vitals transmission to the surface before shutting down forever.

Over three kilometres up, on the surface, Peter and Simeon shuddered, panicked by the readings from Commander Micah. No man could survive that. The message Peter had come to dread following his Fifth World War years flashed onto the screen: End of life: Final readings transmission. Within moments, the entrance to the ice shaft collapsed as the seismic disturbances from Micah’s chaotic descent took their toll.

Peter cried out and punched futilely at the cold black screen, the tears streaming down his cheeks instantly freezing in the bitter cold. Simeon immediately understood what had happened and wrapped his arms around Peter, clinging in sheer desperation as deep, wrenching sobs wracked his body. Micah, their Blue Unit commander, who had handpicked the two of them from hundreds of hopefuls, trained them throughout their cadetship and guided them over a decade of hard-core missions across five continents, was no longer responsive.

Although Micah had been a hard-driving taskmaster, he had formed a deep bond with Peter and Simeon. They had always known that hidden beneath his tough exterior and barking commands was a loyal friend and commander who had repeatedly proven that he would do anything for his team. Peter remembered how Micah had threatened to hand in his credentials when Captain Cornelius had denied Peter vacation leave for his honeymoon.

With a trembling hand, Simeon reached for the deactivation button that would simultaneously notify mission headquarters and disconnect from Micah’s now inactive portal. Accompanied by JJ7, Peter and Simeon drove their extreme terrain vehicle to their Flying V and grimly activated their pulsar jets, the inhospitable Antarctic night reflecting the despondent mood that descended over the craft.

Day 1, 10:00 am

Friday, 29 March 2233
Drakensberg, South Africa

Lydia and Micah had been best friends since childhood. Lydia’s unorthodox idea of a treat on this Good Friday of Easter weekend was to scale a mountain peak in the Drakensberg range. The early autumn weather in South Africa was perfect for a mid-morning ascent. She paused halfway up Cathedral Peak to take in the view. A gentle wind blew in from the peaks, and the strands of hair that had escaped from her hairband tumbled over her forehead. She pinned them back absentmindedly as she inhaled the fresh mountain air.

Known by the locals as Uphondo Oluncane, the Little Horn peak was certainly not little and towered among the others at 3004 metres. Not a stranger to tackling even the most daunting challenges, Lydia had chosen the tough, sheer north cliff face, affording her a grand view of a gorge with a bubbling mountain stream.

For a moment, she soaked up the tree line that marked the uppermost reach of the Highveld Protea, a small silvery-green tree punctuated with giant red flowerheads. Lydia whispered a soft prayer to heaven. “God, it’s such a blessing to be able to step into the beauty of your creation. Your works are truly marvellous. I see your amazing attention to every part of these plants and realise how much you care for me.”

Having regained her breath, Lydia searched for a handhold and hoisted herself up, her entire body swaying in the mountain air at the mercy of her powerful right hand. With sinewy toned muscles, brown hair pulled firmly back, and beads of sweat trickling down her crop top, Lydia seemed invincible as, effortlessly, she gained a few more metres of altitude. Brave but ever safety-conscious, she forced a spring-loaded cam screw into a gap and released more belay rope through her harness. She was surprised to hear an incoming call through her bone-conduction headphones . . . Very few knew her weekend private number.

“Lydia, it’s Peter here. Something’s happened . . . to Micah.”

“What do you mean ‘something’s happened to Micah’? What’s happened? Peter? Is he okay? He’s in trouble again. He is, isn’t he?”

“That’s the thing, we don’t know . . . and we’re not sure if he made it. We left him for dead in East Antarctica when the shaft he was exploring caved in.”

Fear grabbed Lydia’s heart in its icy grip. Please, God, not Micah.

“Where are you?” she asked Peter in a clipped voice devoid of emotion. “I’ll come over right away. Where can I meet you?”

“Remember Captain Cornelius? We’re meeting him for a post-mission briefing in Cape Town at noon at the EMASAR command centre.”

“Yes, I remember Cornelius. I’m on my way. And Peter . . .?” Her voice faltered for a moment. “Let me know as soon you hear anything. Please?”

“Will do,” said Peter and hung up. Lydia secured her rope and abseiled hastily down the cliff face, forcing herself to focus on every intricate step and doing her best to remain calm. By the time she reached the base of the cliff, she was struggling to hold back the tears that were mixing with the sweat trickling down her temples to sting her eyes. She mounted her quadcopter and opened the throttle as far as it would go. She had to get back to Durban without delay. The quadcopter drone was designed to be driven from a standing position and moved forward, sideways or backwards depending on the body’s angle of orientation. Lydia leaned forward all the way, anxious not to miss the next train to Cape Town.

At the train station, she quickly parked her drone at the rental counter. A glance at the departures board told her at which platform she had to board the maglev sky train that would take her to Cape Town and hopefully answers about Micah and his mysterious disappearance.

Lydia sprinted onto the platform, giving scant regard to how her dusty mountain-climbing gear, her fresh mountain-side scratches and muddy hiking boots contrasted with the mostly businesspeople who were already boarding. She slipped into a compartment with seconds to spare before the maglev train pulled away from the station. With her chest heaving from the non-stop race from the Drakensberg, she took a few minutes to settle her heartbeat to near normal, keenly aware that her heart would never beat the same again if something unthinkable had happened to Micah.

The train’s biometric sensor scanned the microchip in her retina. It read her identification information and instantly projected it into an implanted nano screen that only her eyes could see, confirming that Lydia was cleared for travel. It noted that she had not prepaid her trip.

Lydia watched her personal information appear in small green type on the screen to confirm what she already knew by heart:

Lydia Thyateira
Age: 33
Identification code: WC (World Citizen – free to travel)
Identification number: WC22001708-7700-S-F-0 [Year, date and month of birth–Birthplace code–Marital status–Sex assigned at birth–Number of dependants]
City of current residence: Classified
Current occupation: Journalism – Reporter
Occupation subcategories: Wildlife/Environmentalism/Photography
Security status: Clear – none pending
Specialised status: Military Defence Operative clearance – Marine
Current status: Semi-retired
Marine Security Code: MCSA47058

A message popped up in her virtual vision, prompting her to confirm payment for the trip. She blinked twice to acknowledge.

Notice of Payment processed to Coastal Sky Train. 250 New South African Dollars. Date 2233-03-29. Time 10:57:03. Available balance: 956 New South African Dollars.

Lydia momentarily reflected on her profile stored in the ever-invasive world-citizen database and was grateful that her classified status shielded her from most prying eyes. She was indeed a wildlife reporter, as her biometric record reflected. She had grown up on a farm in rural Prieska in the Karoo, South Africa.

With her farming background, she had become a Marine and then found fame after her exposé on the killing of the last black rhino in the world. She had been accompanying the anti-poaching unit guarding the endangered rhinos in the Karoo game reserve. They had arrived just seconds too late to save the rhino and had found themselves embroiled in a shoot-out with the poachers. Lydia’s sniper aim had proved menacing as she fired at the lead poacher, aiming directly at his legs, carefully popping out his kneecaps to make sure he would never walk again.

Her article on the despondent scene of a magnificent animal poached to extinction had garnered global acclaim in which she had very little interest, but it had helped spark an international conservation effort that the world had not seen in hundreds of years. With her specialist training and security accreditation, she occasionally freelanced as an EMASAR agent for special extraction operations that demanded her mix of marine and outdoor knowledge.

“Welcome aboard Coastal Sky Train. First stop East London, then Gqeberha, Knysna, Mossel Bay and Cape Town. Total travel time to Cape Town is 90 minutes for the 2000-kilometre journey.”

Lydia absorbed the announcement and was relieved that she would arrive for the post-incident briefing shortly after midday. She settled in for the journey as the bustling city beyond the window began flashing by.

The fleeting landscape reminded Lydia of how she and Micah used to run and laugh, nimbly dodging the hearty shrubs on that old Karoo farm. The farm raised them as much as their parents did. Micah’s father owned the farm, a beautiful semi-arid stretch of land blessed with underground water and acres of honeybush tea crops dotted with roaming sheep in grassy shrubland and acacia thorn trees to provide shade and shelter. Lydia’s father was the farm manager, so they had grown up together, playing hide and seek between the giant anthills and learning how to hunt when they reached their teens.

She would never forget when Micah kissed her the first time. She wanted the moment to last forever but realised, too, that life happens, and people have different ideas of how to live it. Everyone thought they would get married. Back then, she thought so, too.

Eventually, the kiss faded, along with her hopes for anything more between them. Micah became like a brother to her, but she never understood his relentless obsession with his work as they both embraced adulthood. He dedicated himself exclusively to rescuing others, never giving much thought to his own life or the lives of those closest to him. It was all work and no play with Micah, who acted like he had nine lives instead of one. Lydia slowly closed her eyes for a moment and allowed herself to hope with all her heart that he was all right. She refused to entertain any other scenario.

A tear rolled down Lydia’s cheek, and she quickly brushed it away as a fellow passenger, an elderly gentleman, turned to look. He paused briefly. “You seem distressed. Can I get you something from the bar?”

Lydia smiled weakly. “Thank you, but I’m all right. I just had to rush to catch the train.”

The kind man nodded and exited the compartment, leaving her alone with her thoughts again. What did Peter know about Micah’s disappearance? He’d been irresponsible about his safety before. If her memory served her right, her last stern chat with him might have been about him and his daredevil ways. He had brushed her off, insisting, “There is nothing more to my life than what you see here – whether I live or die, let me live knowing that I left no scraps on the table.”

Lydia couldn’t help but wince as the screaming match they had had three Christmases ago came to mind. Micah had just finished grilling their meat over an outdoor fire when she, out of habit, said a quick thanksgiving prayer for the food they were about to enjoy.

“Hold up! Are you praying because you think my cooking will kill you?” Micah laughed.

Lydia laughed with him and playfully bumped his shoulder with her own. “I’d be long dead if your food were that horrible. Besides, you know I always give thanks for my food. God provides and He blesses, and I like to voice my gratitude for that.”

“You and your fairy tales, Lydia. It’s about time you grew up. Remember how we exposed your dad dressed up as Father Christmas? This Jesus is the next make-believe thing you should scratch off your list.”

She remembered the self-control it took to place her knife and fork gingerly down at the sides of her plate and look Micah dead in the eye before answering. “Make-believe? Really? Well, let me tell you what I find unbelievable. That a grown man with a decentsized brain in his thick skull still can’t see for himself that there’s a greater order to things, an order clearly governed by a higher and greater intelligence.”

“So quick to insult me, dear Lydia,” smirked Micah. “Don’t forget that we have barely finished evolving from monkeys.” He clearly enjoyed making fun of her and added, “Probably a few ugly ones at that, if I look at some people! If you ask me, they barely passed the natural selection exams.” He laughed with his eyes, tears streaming at his own joke.

“God’s not a fairy tale, Micah. Perhaps if you took the time to get to know Him, you would realise that. Until then, I would count my words if I were you.”

“Or what? Will lightning strike me down dead? Oh, come on, Lydia. You can’t even prove that he exists, and yet you believe. You and I are sitting here across from each other in tangible flesh and bone. I can see you, hear you and touch you, but where is he? Point me in his direction or let him show himself. I believe in what my senses can perceive, Lydia. If he’s real, why has he been playing hide and seek with humanity for thousands of years?”

“Micah, but that’s just the thing . . . God did come to Earth. People did see Him. You’ve heard these stories all your life, just as I have, yet you don’t believe. Jesus came to Earth more than 2000 years ago. Historians agree that He existed, that his story is real, and that Jesus walked the dusty streets of Jerusalem in his leather sandals. Go read up on Roman history. It is a shining example of how much of Jesus’s life was recorded, not to mention the endless eyewitness accounts. He’s real, Micah. Always has been, and always will be. I hope you wake up in time to meet Him one day.”

“All right, Lydia. I’ll bite. If he’s real, where exactly is he now?”

“All around us, Micah. Look at all this beauty around us! He holds it all in the palm of his hand. He lives in my heart, too. Every moment I am awake, I am aware of his presence and the miracles he works in my life.”

Lydia took a deep, shuddering breath even though the air in the compartment was comfortably air-conditioned. She would never forget how Micah had slowly clenched and unclenched his jaw after she said those words.

“Really, Lydia? So, if he was – or is – so powerful, where was the palm of his giant hand when my mum was shot in cold blood by those thieves on the farm? I cried out to God to help as her blood spilled across the lounge floor, and he didn’t answer. If he is really in control, why wouldn’t he help me, a defenceless nine-year-old boy? That was my last prayer, Lydia – and mark my words, you won’t hear me mumbling any hocus-pocus to an imaginary being again. Never! I look out for myself now.”

Lydia had softly excused herself, holding back the tears until she turned the corner, out of Micah’s sight. She knew that those were answers that only God could give. This was something that no number of words from her could heal. Only God could reach deep enough to heal Micah’s pain, to find him in his place of hurt. Sometimes, all we can do is step back, let go and let God take over.

Later, Micah sought her out, and they hugged for a very long time, painfully aware that their friendship was too valuable to lose. That was the night she drew the line in the sand. He held her for what seemed like an eternity, and she allowed herself to enjoy their tender closeness and the proximity of their hearts for one last time. There, in his warm embrace, she vaulted the moment, locking it safely away so that she could always return to it when she needed to. She remembered lifting her chin and feeling Micah’s warm breath on her lips, but instead of allowing his kiss, she placed her fingers gently over his mouth. “Micah, we can’t. I can’t. I love you and always will, but we will never work if we don’t believe the same fundamental things about life and how to live it. I’m sorry, Micah.”

Her memories blurred with the scenery of the passing industrialised hub of Gqeberha. On the other side of the window, the nuclear-powered ships waited patiently in the docks and silver sparks winked at her from the ocean beyond. “Micah, wherever you are, you’d better be all right,” Lydia whispered to the empty compartment. Despite the air-conditioning, she felt cold again and shuddered as a wave of goosebumps prickled her skin.