By George J. Condon

    Frank seemed to take an eternity to make his move. He touched a black pawn, then one of his knights, torturing me with his endless hesitation.  Frank's chess playing style usually annoyed me, but the fact that I was having menstrual cramps made matters worse.  

    “Will I live long enough to get my turn?” I asked.

    “Patience is a Christian virtue, Barbara,” Frank said with his mocking smile and masculine arrogance.  He liked to tease me about being the prison chaplain.  As the prison doctor, Frank could afford the luxury of being an atheist.

    Sighing, I looked out through the window of the lounge as I waited.  Outside, a rust red sandstorm raged, blotting out the
landscape.  Here on Mars, such storms are almost a daily occurrence.

Confined inside by the hostile Martian environment, Frank and I were as much prisoners as the convicts who were doing time here.  None of that mattered to Gemstar Mining, so long as their chain gang labor dug profit out of the ore pits.
    Praying silently for humility and patience, I took another sip of the bitter brew that the prison cook calls coffee.  Just then, the angel appeared.

    Complete with a halo, white robe and wings, he could have stepped out of one of the Sunday school picture books that I colored in when I was a little girl.  Instead, he just flashed into existence and stood there, wearing a beatific smile.  Frank looked up, saw the angel and froze with a black bishop poised in his hand.

    “Son of a bitch!”

    I was so glad Frank saw the apparition too that I wasn't even annoyed by his crudeness.  At least I wasn't the only one who was hallucinating.

    The angel stepped forward and raised his right hand.

    “Greetings.  I am unfamiliar with your language, but I hope you can understand me.”

    “You're doing fine,” Frank said.

    “Excellent.  I am called Shalan.  I mean no harm to you.”

    His voice sounded like beautiful music, but I realized that I heard it only in my mind.
    “Are you an angel of God?” I asked.

    Shalan seemed puzzled by my question, then he smiled.

    “I am unfamiliar with your deity.  What you see is not my real form.  You would find my normal appearance to be .... confusing.  Instead, I chose a shape from your imagination.”

    “I can guess whose imagination,” Frank said, laughing.

    I glared at him, but he was looking at Shalan.  

    “What are you then?”

    Our visitor didn't seem to take offense at Frank's question.

    “We are the Zanesh.  Millions of your years ago, we inhabited this world, while it was still fertile.  When we evolved beyond a need for physical space, we moved to another realm.  Returning for a visit our to our birthplace, we found you humans here.”

    I began to feel uneasy about the mine tailings that Gemstar left to litter the landscape.

    “We didn't mean to intrude,” I said.  “We thought this planet was uninhabited.”

    Shalan held up his hand.

    “You misunderstand.  We are not angry because you are here.  We find your race to be interesting and we wish to study your culture.  That is why I have appeared to you today.”

    I felt a sense of wonder.  Shalan might deny being an angel, but he certainly looked like one.  I remembered that, in the Bible, angels were often sent as God's messengers.

    “Do you have something to tell us?” I asked.

    “I want to take one of you back to my realm, so that you can teach us about your history and beliefs.”

    Frank took a sip of his coffee and nodded to Shalan.

    “What's this 'realm' of yours anyway?”

    “A place outside of your time and space.  My people dwell there in beauty and harmony.”

    “It sounds like Heaven,” I said, meaning it literally.

    “Sounds a little boring,” Frank said.

    I cringed inside at Frank's rudeness, but Shalan showed no reaction.  It seemed surreal to be talking to this winged creature
in the dingy coffee room of a penal colony while a sandstorm howled outside.  There was something that I was curious to know.

    “Shalan, do you have sin in your realm?”

    “What is that?”

    “Behavior that offends God.  You do believe in God, don't you?”

    “Ah!  I think you refer to The One.  Yes, we strive to be in harmony with The One.”

    I smiled triumphantly at Frank.  Take that for your atheism. Frank just shrugged and looked at Shalan again.

    “Have you appeared to anyone else here?”

    “No, Doctor Lewyn.  Only to you and Reverend Hastings.  You two are a healer and a spiritual teacher, so you interest me most.”

    “Why would either of us want to go with you?”

    “A good question, Doctor.  Time flows differently for us, so a visit to our realm might take hundreds of human years.  As a reward for such a long stay, we will grant our visitor immortality.”

    Frank laughed.

    “Immortality?  That's a pretty tall order.”

    “Yes, I know that even the stars will burn out, eventually. However, the existence that we will grant to our guest will be so
long in duration that it will be immortality by any human standard.”

    I thought about spending centuries in a peaceful society where the inhabitants loved God as much as I do.  Immortality would be icing on the cake.

    “When can we go with you?” I asked.

    Shalan frowned.

    “For reasons too complicated to explain, I can take only one of  you with me.  I will give you twenty four of your hours to discuss this and to decide who will come.  If you cannot agree, then I must choose.  Goodbye until tomorrow.”

    With that, he disappeared as if someone had thrown a switch.

    Frank scratched his head, then he grinned at me.

    “Well, that was weird.  I wonder what Cookie has been putting into our food lately.”

    “Frank, it was real and you know it.  Don't be a skeptic all the time.  Do you think we should tell anyone else about this?”

    “Not unless you want to be heavily sedated and sent back to Earth.  I was here and I can't believe what I saw.  If you tell the others that we've been talking to an angel, they'll think that we're both crazy.”

    I knew Frank was right.  Shalan would have to be our secret.

    “Do you think that he meant it?  About taking one of us with him, I mean.”

    Frank shrugged.

    “I guess we'll find out tomorrow, if and when our winged friend comes back.  Right now, I've got to make my rounds in sick bay.”

    He stood up and started to leave the room.  At the door, he turned and smiled at me.

    “That immortality thing would certainly be sweet, though.”

    I sat alone in the coffee room for some time after Frank left, my thoughts swirling.  Shalan's arrival had affected me profoundly. Here was a being who provided a glimpse of a plain of existence above the greed and violence of humanity.  I knew that I had to be the one who went back there with him, but I worried that Frank was scheming to replace me.  His parting remark hinted that he was not as nonchalant about Shalan's offer as he pretended to be.

    My only reason for associating with Frank was that no one else at the prison shared my love of chess.  I suppose some women found him attractive, with the dark-haired good looks he inherited from a Welsh father and an Israeli mother.  He could be very charming, when it suited his purposes, but I saw through his veneer.

    Frank was literally a lost soul.  He drank too much and cursed too often.  There was a rumor that he came to work at the prison to escape danger after his affair with the wife of a powerful official on Earth.  His behavior with his two female nurses was constant fuel for gossip among the prison staff.

    At first, I tried to win him back to a Christian life.  He just laughed, smug in the cocoon of his atheism.  Finally, I gave up. It would be unthinkable for Frank to stay with the Zanesh, teaching them that his sinful ways were the height of human culture.  I had to be the one to go with Shalan.

    That evening, I could barely keep my attention on the prayer service I led for the few prison staff who bothered to attend.  When I went to bed, I tossed and turned for hours before I fell asleep, only to dream that I walked through golden streets filled with beautiful music and throngs of angels.

    When morning came, I had no appetite for breakfast.  Instead, I went straight to the coffee room and sat there, counting the hours as I waited for Shalan to appear.  Around ten o'clock, Frank came into the room, looking more tired than I had ever seen him.

    “What happened to you?” I asked.

    “No sleep, Barbara.  Last night, there was an accident in the mine.”

    “Oh, no!  What happened?”

    “Well, you know how this damn company cuts corners on safety. Part of the north drift face wasn't shored up properly and it collapsed, burying two miners.  Luckily, the rest of the pit crew dug them out, but they're both injured badly.  I've been up all night with them.”

    Suddenly, I felt ashamed of being so preoccupied with my own desires when people around me were suffering.

    “I'm so sorry, Frank.  Is there anything I can do to help?”

    “Not right now, thanks.  The woman has two badly broken legs. I've splinted them and she'll recover, but she may never walk properly again.  The other miner worries me more.  He's bleeding internally.  I'm no surgeon, but I'll have to open him up and try to stop the blood loss.”

    “Can't you ship him back to a hospital on Earth?”

    “No chance.  The next supply shuttle wont be here for almost a week, then the jump back Earthside will take another two weeks.  He would be dead long before then.”

    It was at that moment that Shalan appeared.  He still looked radiant in his white robe, but he had dispensed with the halo and wings.  

    “Good day to you.  Have you decided between yourselves about who will come with me?”

    Suddenly, I remembered that Shalan told us that, if Frank and I could not agree, he would choose one of us.  I panicked, not knowing what argument to offer so that Shalan would choose me.  Please, God, let me think of something.  Before I could speak, Frank pointed at me.

    “Take her,” he said.

    What was Frank doing?  Was this some kind of devious trick?

    “Why do you say this?” Shalan asked.

    “For one thing, you can see that she's desperate to go. Besides, I have two patients who need me badly and I'm the only doctor within a few million miles.  I can't go anywhere.”

    “Do you realize that staying here means giving up immortality?”

    “If living forever means letting my patients die, then the price is too high.  I'll stay here and take my chances.”

    Shalan nodded and pulled what looked like a glowing cube of crystal from inside his robe.  He moved his fingers over it for a moment while it emitted a melodic tone, then he put it away again.

    “What you have said has made my choice clear, Doctor.  You are the one whom I wish to take with me because you have the most to teach us.  Do not be concerned about your patients.  When you check them, you will find them to be well again.  Also, I promise you that, if anyone here needs medical attention before you can be replaced, you will be returned immediately to treat him.  So, you see there is no impediment to your coming with me.”

    “Well, I don't know ....,” Frank started to say.

    “Excellent.  You will not need anything while visiting my realm, but you may want to take some personal belongings with you.  Please select them and I will return for you after three hours.”

    Shalan turned to me and bowed. “I am sorry that I cannot take you also, Reverend Hastings. Now, I bid you both a pleasant morning.”

    With that, he vanished.

    I sat in my chair, unable to comprehend what had happened. Shalan was going to take a profane womanizer like Frank and not me. How could that be possible?   I fought to keep back the tears.

    Frank left the room and came back, a few minutes later.

    “Barbara, I never believed you before when you talked about miracles, but this is the damnedest thing.  I've just been to sick
bay and my two patients are completely cured.  Not a mark on either of them.  This Shalan fellow is really something.  I think I would like to see his home, after all.”

    Frank sat down at the chess table and began setting up the pieces, whistling in that maddening way of his.  I picked up a heavy soapstone statue of a bird from its pedestal in one corner of the room.  I hefted the carving in my hand, feeling how balanced it was. Like a club.

    They've locked me into my room now until I can be shipped back to Earth.  The warden misses the irony of sending me back there for trial when I'm already in a prison.  When one of the guards found me standing over Frank's body, I tried to explain to him about Shalan.  

The look on his face told me everything I needed to know.  I'm sure my defense lawyer will tell me to plead insanity.  She may be right.

    I know I've sinned terribly, but I pray that God will forgive and that He will understand why I was driven to do what I did.

    I haven't seen Shalan again.  Perhaps he existed only in my imagination.  After all, how could such a superior being be real and not recognize real goodness when he saw it?

The End

Email: George Condon

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