The Tread of Angels

A Supernatural Short Story written by Bob Johnston

The Tread of Angels

by Bob Johnston

More TTTV stories by Bob Johnston:
Bob Johnston lives in Scotland where he writes, works, and enjoys riding through the wonderful countryside. In ‘The Tread of Angels‘ he has adopted a deliberately stilted conversational style, wondering just how he would speak to an angel if such a terrifying thing ever happened to him. He has had stories published recently by Sci Phi Journal and Red Cape, with another due out in November from the Black Hare Press. A sample of his work can be found on his website


Hans Christian Andersen wrote that “Whenever a good child dies, an angel of God comes down from heaven, takes the dead child in his arms, spreads out his great white wings, and flies with him over all the places which the child had loved during his life. Then he gathers a large handful of flowers, which he carries up to the Almighty, that they may bloom more brightly in heaven than they do on earth.”

The assumption the child is a boy is very much of its time but a remarkable and surprisingly accurate description, nonetheless. But what of a bad child, and what of that bad child now fully grown and nowhere near death, natural or unnatural? Might it be argued that the intervention of angels into such a life is rather pushing the natural order? Well, to answer the first first and the second second, creation is interested in all of itself, good and bad, and the natural order is subject to all manner of outrages pretty much all of the time.

John Clemens was a bad child who grew up into a bad adult but the angel that had been troubling John’s dreams these past weeks was beyond distinctions of age. For the angel John was simply a human embarked on a course of action that had to be stopped. Their first and only proper meeting, outside of dreams, was on the roof of John’s research facility and John was not surprised to see the tall creature step alongside him.

Your presence in my dreams was alarming to begin with but I have done some reading. I assume I have the honor of speaking with Azrael.” He turned and looked up into the handsome hooded face. The angel shook its head.

None so grand I am afraid. I am simply here to persuade you not to fire up this engine tomorrow. It has the potential to destroy this world.”

Or provide free energy forevermore.”

The angel smiled indulgently, and then they were travelling. John looked around at familiar sights from his past and present. At his side the tall being had its dazzling white wings stretched out fully. They beat to a cycle that had nothing to do with powering through air. Each powerful sweep of its pinions seemed to conjure another image, or sensation, or memory, sometimes a smell.

John remembered fizzing ginger beer from his childhood, then for a few moments he was with himself as a ten-year-old sitting through a never-ending school lesson on a stiflingly hot day. He recalled the afternoon and remembered the moment when he had thought a man was standing beside him but when he turned there was no one there.

Suddenly they were in an apartment John had rented when he was poorer. It was empty but he remembered the old steel desk fondly and fingered the spines of the carefully kept diaries on a nearby shelf.

You have read these, angel?”

No, but I know that they contain detailed records of events in your life, and I also know that they are ruthlessly honest. If I were to take you to heaven right now which of these would you take to add to the libraries there?”

He chose a year and slid it out a little, remembering the evening so long ago when he had returned home and found it moved. He smiled and left it in its disturbed position.

This was an interesting year. It was the year I gave up being scared of worldwide war, or worldwide plague, or social collapse. It was a year I met someone and thought the future must be terribly bright.”

I understand things worked out badly.”

John turned and looked up at the angel, a small smile on his face. “Well our borders weren’t overwhelmed and the world is still limping along but, yes, my youthful hopes morphed into other things.”

They were travelling again and John relaxed into it. There was nothing he could do to overpower the angel. His dreams over the past few weeks had warned him over and over again that his visitor was far more dangerous than it looked. And John Clemens was nothing if not a practical and realistic man.

Playing ghosts in someone’s basement as a child, a concert from some years later, a lonely time in his life condensed into an evening at another desk trying to write about pain, and finally a small fire on a beach. He looked at himself placing diary after diary into the flames and carefully ensuring that not a letter would survive.

Your interesting year is among those, so it would be impossible to take to heaven in any case.” The angel looked around the beautiful landscape, empty save for John and a friend. The friend said something quite profound about truth and ashes but John remembered they had both been drinking that day so it was likely typical gibberish.

I thought the word impossible didn’t apply in heaven.”

Don’t be foolish. No one can remake a thing from ashes. You did this again some years in the future. Why?”

Because of my honesty. The truths were just too raw and difficult to deal with and I didn’t want to die someday and have someone close to me read them and think I was…” He stopped, lost for words. The angel waited for a few moments and then spoke.

Honest?” John made a small dismissive noise but the question had hit him like a punch in the gut. What was he so afraid of in those diaries? Sure there was pain, sure there was questioning, sure there was anger but there was also joy, fun, happiness and hope.

They were travelling again but John just let the scenes fly by him. His first lab with its eccentric power supply, the larger facility where he and his partner had first seen that their project might just work, and then it was night. They were standing in a narrow alleyway beside a pile of household waste. A small well used desk had been pushed against the wall and other items laid out on top of it. Beside it a couple of steel bins overflowed with ashes and kitchen refuse.

The angel opened a small drawer in the desk and lifted out a pouch from which he took a compass, a ruler, and a small brass planisphere. John’s interest was piqued by the instruments which were a cheap, cobbled together set of the sort of things he had owned as a child. As a scientist he knew that, in the proper hands, these could be very useful.

If I were to take something to heaven,” said the angel, “it would be this.”

He pointed at the wall behind the desk. “In this house there lived a sick boy. Doctors had a raft of fine sounding names for what afflicted him but the important thing was that he was weak and never going to be strong. He would sit at the window at night and look up at the stars and imagine travelling among them. A family friend gave him the planisphere, explained that it showed the visible stars up above, and named a good many of them. After a night of gazing from constellation to constellation, from star to star, north to south and east to west he would feel like he had been on a fine adventure. His father gave him the compass and he found the ruler someplace or other and it was to these instruments, a gateway to the stars, that he turned when he died and went to heaven, where he has been a whole year now. His parents have now moved on and these instruments have been forgotten. I would take these things to heaven because they gave the boy more happiness than any expensive astrolabe or sextant would have. These tools are finer than anything in your grand laboratory, John.”

How would you know any of this, angel, and where to find this stuff?”

The angel wrapped the instruments in their pouch and slipped them into a pocket on his robes. “I knew of your diaries, but only in a general way. But I know these because they are mine. I was the sick boy who escaped to the stars.”

John blinked and he was back on the roof of his great facility with its vast engine and its ingeniously interlinked banks of wheels and gears. Powerful, and gently ticking over in neutral at the moment, it waited, all ready to be started up tomorrow, bringing either liberation for humanity or utter destruction. The angel was beside him.

Your evil, John Clemens, is in your desire for ashes. You never feared the ironclads and the great shells, you welcomed them. You did not find meaning in the ashes of your diaries, you found release from the responsibility of staying honest and reporting on your life as it happened, good or bad. And you are correct. There is a chance tomorrow that this great machine you have built might power the world forevermore, but there is a greater chance that it will finally give you your world of ashes.”

John looked out across the forest that surrounded the facility. The sun was casting scattered rays through the clouds and a cool, sweet breeze was blowing. But superimposed on this image, as it was superimposed on everything John ever looked at, was the wasteland he had worried about since childhood and which he might just manage to bring about now.

The angel lifted an object out of a pocket and handed it to John. It was a roughly made crystal sphere about the size of a baseball, a failed experiment from the very early days of his work.

If you were to be taken to heaven right now I would suggest taking this.”

John turned it around, following the interior mechanism as it slid in and out of the many gear slots.

It only ever almost worked. It was the most frustrating thing Phil and I ever worked on. Why this?”

Because it proved that there are no easy answers, John Clemens. I will not stop you tomorrow but if you create your world of ashes I promise you that you will be no happier in it than you are in this world.”

The angel turned to John, spread its great wings wide and thrust itself into the sky and out of sight. Across the forest the sun was setting.

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