The others were already at the compound’s doors. The gates were set at the end of a trench dug into the rock. Walls had been erected on either side to break the wind and funnel any would-be attackers into a clear line. The grey-suited figures, androids for those that knew better, had already begun moving to intercept us.
“Halt,” Aku’s voice reached me. It was pitched low, more masculine.
The four of us stopped. With the howling overhead, I caught up to the back of the group. They approached Odessa, the closest android putting away its weapon.
The android looked at each of us. They stepped past her to glance at Ash and Anna, I pulled back my hood so I could be seen easier.
“Please wait. Kendall is on his way to confirm your identities.”
“We’ll be glad to see him,” Anna said.
I had mixed feelings.
“There’s a lot to explain,” she continued.
The machine didn’t respond.
The gate parted, the two doors sliding back into their walls. The softly lit room beyond was for decontamination, I remembered.
I’d spent two months here before Kendall had sent us away on an errand.
We were led through the walls, the door closing behind us. One of the androids accompanied us in to sit us down on the benches inside. The walls were glass, possibly one-way. There was only one exit, an even tougher looking, smaller door at the back of the room.
“I’m not optimistic,” Ash said. “Through no fault of mine, we’ve fucked it up. You know, just a tiny little bit, by getting nothing done.”
“We met a Primordial. Well, Doran did,” Anna countered. “That’s significant.”
“Claiming to have met a philosophically relevant thing, does not a successful mission make, darling.”
“What are you trying to achieve?” I asked.
“I’m just preparing everyone. I plan ahead. Watch.” He looked to the door.
After only a short moment, it opened. Kendall came through.
He was in an Eidolon suit, a dark green, and his hair was back in a bun. He was pale from the lack of sunlight. His brown eyes had a new look. There was something else about him, something visual that I was missing. In his right hand was a large leatherbound book clutched to his chest.
“I thought you all were dead,” he said to us. To the android, “I’ll take them from here. Follow me, you four.” He gestured for us to follow and didn’t wait to start off down the hall.
“We were unable to break the ward,” Odessa said.
I started to speak but nothing came out.
Still muted in his presence from all those months ago, I remembered unhappily.
Kendall slowed for a moment, then continued on. “I know.”
Soon we came to a door with his name beside it on a placard. Passing through, I saw his study. Bookshelves, a metal desk, and computers and runes. It was almost exactly the one I’d woken up in a year ago, at the start of all this. There was something new, though. Weapons and trinkets sat on surfaces and racks. The chalkboard had names written across it.
I was beginning to comprehend.
He had disposed of his cards when we’d come to the hellscape. He was on the verge of refining his craft when we’d left.
He sat down in his chair, leaving us standing. He threw the tome down and put his elbows on his desk, steepling his fingers. “Report, Doran.” It was an order.
“We went to the end of the road. Found the ward’s general location, but weren’t going to be able to take it by force. It belonged to a Primordial.”
“Is this the truth?” I could feel him levying his power again.
“To my knowledge.”
“Do you all corroborate this story?”
They all did.
Kendall sat back. “You can understand why this is disappointing. Not the Primordial, that’s interesting. But the mission.”
“We greatly underestimated the range and power of the ward. That’s why the journey was so long, Kendall,” Odessa said.
“This…” he trailed off. “I was studying, just minutes ago, and here you are. You’ve been beyond my senses and I thought… I thought that you guys were dead. I’ve had to take measures. I needed a to stay relevant without you. I’ve gotten on without you, I mean. I’m glad to have you back, but I need to make this clear. Things have changed. I don’t even know why I’m explaining this, really.” He frowned deeply.
“You-” I forgot and my voice faded out again. Dammit.
“What?” he allowed me.
“You took extensive ethics like all Utopians, Kendall. You can’t defend this direction you’re taking,” I said.
“You actually inspired it. You told me souls were just metadata. You got me thinking about that. About where I’d failed with you four’s bindings.”
“And?” I asked.
“I now know the soul has no value. You know it too. Everything changes beyond identity. Everything ends and nothing does. Hell taught me. I accept it now.”
No. “The soul is not consciousness,” I said.
“Heresy,” Odessa added.
“What does that even translate to?” Anna asked.
He raised a hand, I felt silence on me again.
“It’s already done and I won’t be persuaded. I’ve had to make choices, me, about my future. You four weren’t a part of that. I’m sorry…”
We left him alone. His self-hatred and drive changed him. More than we know.
I still couldn’t figure out what, visually, was so wrong. It was unsettling. What he’d done, though, I wasn’t sure it could be undone.
“I need to return to my reading, now,” he said. “It is good to have you guys back. You should take a day to rest before you go back to work. Dismissed.”
Welcome home. Nothing’s changed and everything’s changed.
We exited to the hall, his door locking behind us.
“I don’t understand what he’s done,” Odessa spoke the moment we were out.
“Me either,” Anna said. “The philosophy didn’t equal a practicable magic, as far as I could tell. Means he’s knocking on some pretty extreme stuff, I think.”
Ash met my eyes. He knew as well the danger this put us in.
She won’t be able to handle it, his eyes said. Only me and you. Anna can’t.
“He’s made himself powerful,” I answered them. Leave it there.
This was my fault. It was my rambling that had led him down this path. But he’d made the choice. Including the ones which had distanced him.
Odessa had put that behind her.
We started walking down the halls. Anna thought aloud. “I don’t think I could sleep right now.”
“I never have,” Ash commented.
“Like, I feel like I should want to rest, but I’m really too restless. What’s everyone else going to do now that we’re back?”
“I’m going to go take some time, I think,” I said.
Ash pulled out a knife. “I’ll find something to stick this in.”
“I will clean and sharpen my sword,” was Odessa’s answer.
Anna smiled weakly. We four had been together nonstop for a long time. None of us, Ash likely excluded, felt well. She especially looked like she didn’t know how to cope. “We’ll meet up later, yeah?”
“Yes,” I assured. I poked her shoulder playfully.
Ash was first off. Odessa next. I left Anna standing as I went on my way.
I stumbled into the locker room. Only the lowlights were on.
I struggled out of my clothes, every move causing pain. There were showers in the back. I stepped in and turned on the water. It rained down on me, pulling months of grime off and darkening the floor. It was warm and comforting. Still bleeding wounds on my head stung with the heat. I imagined we must have been quite a sight for Kendall, filthy and injured.
We’d made it. I almost couldn’t believe we were back. By now, I had lived longer in the wilderness of hell than Utopia. It really didn’t feel like home, honestly. Nowhere did. There was nowhere I wanted to be.
There were friends. They felt like home.
The tile was hard but I sat anyway into the nook of the shower’s corner, steam still bathing me. I ran a hand over my almost nonexistent hair, coming away with grit and blood. I sighed. This wasn’t a sustainable thing, this life. Nothing was permanent, as Kendall had said. No anchor lasted, not friends. They all had risks.
Kendall had become a danger. His power was now an abstract one, like mine. A destabilization of his very being, though? It was nuclear.
Anna, I worried for her. She healed wounds, we’d learned; burned the hurt away. But pain she held on to scarred, fears she couldn’t part with.
Odessa was an enigma. Too collected, predictable. Almost hollow.
Fuck Ash. He was as paranoid as I was.
All these risks? What can go wrong, will.
Murphy’s law is divine law. Immortality only worsens it.
This was life. Every inch of it a thing in wait to fall apart. The potential was made all the more real by the ache in my muscle and bones. Reminders that you couldn’t decide, couldn’t opt out of, suffering. It all fell short of solace.
Your death, the thought popped back in.
It was a portent, his prophecy. It couldn’t mean what you’d think, though. Death was a word that captured nothing. Death, as I’d witnessed, was not understood. It couldn’t be, not by the living mind. The Primordial knew this. It cast a blacker tone on his words.
My knowledge crawled back to a blurred darkness, like the edges of my vision. I couldn’t know exactly what he meant. But I remembered. I had a path.
“Fuck me.” I hated this.
I sat for a long time, thoughts going nowhere. They were useless.
The cold of hell was a bitter one. It bit at my face with an intention to gnaw.
I hadn’t felt like going back to my room, small as it was. I’d found my way up to the wall, instead. There were towers at the five corners of the compound and turrets along it. I meandered down the walkways, passing them as I did. I’d seen the sights, the valleys, and dead forest vistas, but I walked the wall again the same. It was something to do.
The Eidolon suit I’d put on was form fitting, warm, and a black grey. I had a cloak on over it anyway, to hide my arms in. Didn’t keep me from crossing them, however. I needed to do something with them, couldn’t just let them hang.
I followed with my head the ship which flew in from the impenetrable haze that obscured the horizon. Dead silent, it set down in the courtyard. Androids filed out, escorting the pale damned that they’d been out collecting.
Going to processing, then to a relocation world. No choice in the matter. Not a right.
Though looking away, I’d kept walking. When my eyes returned to the way I saw a chair aside the wall’s rail, and a man holding a book open with one hand out over the drop. His face, frowning while he concentrated over the wind, was a familiar one. I stopped beside him.
The Bible, I noticed. How ironic.
“Welcome back,” he said, not looking up.
“Thank you.” I waited, standing over him and looking out.
He said nothing more, so I went on my way. I had nothing better to do, now.