Iris took a step back, breathing rapidly – despite the fact that she needed no air. She required no oxygen to function, and yet her body was reacting in this strange manner, where she breathed quickly and with shallow breaths. However, while she was aware of her body behaving in this unusual way, she neglected to run a self-diagnostic. Her thought processes and emotional core were prioritising the understanding and evaluation of Sarah’s statement, and the question of possible malfunction was subconsciously stored as a secondary concern.

Next to her, Lily drew in a sharp intake of breath as well when Sarah mentioned Iris’ name – a name which apparently she had been christened with twice, for the same reasons. Iris detected a substantial increase in Lily’s heart rate, as well as a number of biological reactions symptomatic of confusion or shock. As she did, her system’s self-diagnostic finally executed, and she was surprised to find that her own body had been emulating the same reactions. A number of possibilities to explain the irregularity were present, but Iris attributed it to what was simultaneously both the most likely and the most unlikely explanation: She was confused. Confused, shocked, afraid, curious.

Sarah had paused after delivering that line, perhaps for dramatic effect, perhaps to watch their reactions, perhaps because she herself was recalling the times long past with pleasant nostalgia. Whatever the reason, it caused a heavy silence to hang in the air, a silence which was filled with the implications carried by Sarah’s recount.

Iris noted Lily’s heart rate slowly returning back to normal, noted her breathing returning to a calmer, consistent rhythm. When she was sufficiently calm, Lily broke the silence.

“…She was named Iris, back then, too? Because she had beautiful eyes?”

Sarah tilted her head and cast a bemused glance at Lily.

“Indeed. Now you understand why I was shocked when you introduced her.”

Broken out of her trance-like silence, Sarah sighed and continued her tale.

“Anyway, putting the matter of her name aside for now, when I first saw her, I was understandably surprised. Anyone would be surprised if they found themselves in front of a stranger who was completely identical. Just as you were surprised when you saw my face, Iris. Surprised, huh…”

Sarah trailed off and bit her lip, her expression one of deep thought. Iris said nothing and simply looked on in anticipation. Lily began tapping her foot on the floor impatiently, the sound of metal against metal echoing throughout the deserted facility. After a while, Sarah continued.

“Anyway, Liliana said that she made Iris so that the two of us could have a child. That reason was hardly surprising. Even after we started seeing each other, she would constantly mention that she wanted the chance to be a mother, even as she affirmed that she loved me too much to leave me for that reason. When she presented this ingenious solution, I was surprised and uneasy at first, but those emotions quickly turned to joy. This allowed me to stay with her, without forcing her to give up her dreams of being a mother. It was a perfect solution. I enthusiastically agreed with her idea of raising Iris as our child. As an angel, I never thought I would ever have the chance to experience motherhood. The idea intrigued me.

Back then, when we first started raising Iris, she wasn’t as clever or capable as you are now.”

She punctuated her narrative with a nod in Iris’ direction. Iris found it odd that she was being referred to in both the third and the first person in the same sentence, but she decided to leave that question to after Sarah had completed her recount of the narrative.

“Magical Artificial Intelligence was still in its infancy back then. There was no way to generate enough magical energy to power a fully functional artificial intelligence. As such, all the newborn Iris could do was respond to commands and answer questions. She was a machine, with no emotions, no independent will. And still we treated her like our daughter, showering her with love. I found the whole notion a little silly, but I was fine with it, because Liliana was happier than I had ever seen her. Liliana made a promise on Iris’ first birthday, to both of us, that she would develop a new magical core, one capable of drawing in large amounts of magical energy, enough to power a full AI with emotional capabilities.

This declaration was… troubling for me, to say the least. Liliana may have been my equal in intellect, but I knew far more about magic than she did. I knew that what she wanted to do was impossible. Magic core research, up to that point, had its basis in reverse-engineering the magical core of the messenger angel which the humans had captured. By examining and studying her core, they were able to create the theoretical basis for a replica, which Liliana was then able to realise. However, the angel they had captured was but a messenger – she was one of the lowest in our ranks, lower even than the footsoldier. She had a magical core, but it was far less refined than that of her higher-ranked sisters. The core of a lowly messenger such as her would not be able to generate the output that Liliana desired. Yet, since all their research was based on the messenger’s core, it was impossible to further the field beyond the limits of that messenger’s magic.

It was rather heart-wrenching, to hear Liliana make that well-intentioned promise even though I knew it was an impossible dream. I pictured how her face would look when – not if, but when – she accepted that the promise was impossible to fulfill. The look of despair and disappointment I imagined upon her face – it tore my heart to shreds.

As I tried to come up with some way to help her, a possible solution came to me. It would allow her to achieve her goal, to have a way of granting life to Iris, but it would also mean turning my back on the mission I carried with me. Until that point, I had been neglecting the mission, but not betraying it – I constantly told myself I was just waiting for the perfect opportunity. However, with the solution I had discovered, I would be completely and fully betraying my mission – I would no longer be able to call myself a servant of the gods.

See, I was one of the Hidden Flight, created personally, individually crafted, by a god. As far as angelic hierarchies went, I was pretty much all the way at the top. The only entities that ranked above me were the gods themselves. Reflecting my position, my own magical core was far more powerful and complex than that of the messenger angel. If anyone else had a chance to look at it, they would have been mystified, confused. It was a magic far beyond what humanity could comprehend.

But I knew Liliana would be able to understand it. Only Liliana, whose intelligence so far surpassed humanity’s supposed limits, would be able to understand the workings of my core. If Liliana were to create a replica of my magic core, or even an inferior copy with only half the output, it would be more than sufficient to power the AI that she wanted to install in Iris. The path I had found was to reveal my identity to Liliana, to allow her to cut me open and examine my core.

If it were just my life in danger, I would not have had such a difficult time deciding – so deep was my love of Liliana that I would have willingly traded my life for her happiness. But the option of allowing her to reverse-engineer magic based on my core had severe ramifications beyond our little sphere of love.

Thing about angels is, we’re divine. Mortals cannot kill us. We can only die by two means: the first, at the hands of a creature with demonic blood. The second: at the hands of another divine, of an equivalent or higher rank. That’s just how divinity works. If you’re divine, you can only be killed by someone who’s at least as divine as you. Thing is, what identifies us as divine, is our magical core. You can probably see where I’m going with this.

If I gave Liliana the chance to examine my core and perhaps reconstruct it, it was equivalent to handing her a weapon with which she could gain a decisive advantage against the army of the gods. As a member of the order of angels higher than any other flight, an attack made using my magical energy would be able to kill any divine, excepting the gods themselves. With her gentle disposition, I doubted Liliana would ever attempt to weaponise my magic, but there was the risk of the government finding out about it and weaponising it in her place. That was the source of my indecision.

The purpose I was born with, or the love I bore for Liliana? Which was I more willing to betray? The choice was a hard one to make, but eventually, my love for Liliana won out.

One evening, after dinner, in the privacy of our room, I showed her my wings. I told her my origin. I explained my mission. Never once did I consider the possibility that she would reject me after finding out my identity – I trusted her enough to know that she was not such a person. And I was right. Upon finding out, you know what was the first thing she said to me?

*’I always thought you were a gift from heaven.’*”

As Sarah recited this line, tears pooled under her eyelid and began to run down her cheek, tracing a line from her single eye to her chin.

“It took a bit of persuasion on my part, but I eventually got her to agree to cut me open. It’s not like the procedure would have been able to kill me, anyway. I extracted a promise from her not to tell anyone about me or share her research, which she readily agreed to while vigorously thanking me. She sedated me, started operating on me.

When I woke up, my wings had turned black, my eyes had turned red. It was the sign of becoming a Fallen angel. It was proof that I had fully and completely turned my back on the gods. Liliana loved it. Black was always her favorite colour. And since Liliana loved it, I came to love it too. But at first, I was rather shocked. Becoming Fallen was the worst thing an angel could do. It was a complete rejection of our purpose for existing, an absolute betrayal of our creators. So when I woke up and saw my black wings, I was shocked and humiliated by this display of my immorality. But that shame quickly faded when I saw the people who were waiting at my bedside.

On my right was Liliana, quietly slumbering, having fallen asleep while holding my hand. On my left was Iris, wide awake, looking at me with a marked curiosity that I had never before seen on her usually expressionless face. As I made eye contact with her, Iris smiled. And that smile instantly dispelled all my regrets.”