Porter and the Ouroboros came into the Sanctuary. The portal had opened into the cold, onto carven stone pathways leading up to open glass doors. To their back, the Ouroboros glanced, the pathways ended in a drop. The mountain had been rent, tossed away into the fog which rolled over the jagged ruins. Much of this place had been destroyed.
“They wouldn’t listen to me,” Porter said as they reached the doors.
Passing inside they saw the Sanctuary had been structured to look much like a traditional sanctuary, with pews and a stage. Mostly standing crowds of people had gathered. The Ouroboros recognized many them from his binding. That insult.
It would have to wait.
All the magi were suited and anxious. Their eyes fixed on Porter and the monster.
Wulff was sitting at the edge of a table on the stage. “You think you’re taking charge,” he said, jumping down into the aisle. “But you’re hurting the situation.”
Porter started to speak.
Wulff cut him off. “I knew his binding would break, I know this is advantageous for us. But self-determined action is not what we need right now. Now that the Abbot is dead, I’m at the center of the information loop. You go through me, please.”
Porter stopped as Wulff was in his way. “First, I appreciate you not being an ass about it. Second, I’ll act when there’s no time. I made that binding, I knew how fast it was going down.” He stepped around and went up to the stage and table.
The Ouroboros was left staring at Wulff, who immediately stepped to the side.
The remaining Masters surrounded the table, sitting in fold-out chairs. The Ouroboros could know their names; Cobb, O’Reilly, Miller, Babba, Wulff, Porter, and Smith. They watched the being perch on the stage’s edge and count their heads.
This force is not enough, he thought.
Cobb immediately asked Porter what he was thinking, what he had in mind now. He didn’t get the chance to answer.
The Ouroboros jumped up and put his hand down on the table. “I am no weapon of yours. You may count me your ally in common cause, but the law is what I deal. In my strength, you find I am now leading.”
They watched him. They didn’t have a response.
Timidly, a middle-aged woman with black bowl cut said, “Right now, we need to gather our forces. Would you happen to know anything about the most recent positioning of the Utopian fleets? No?” Babba quirked a thick eyebrow.
He made no show of emotion, though it was annoying. She thought she was clever. “Gather your forces, but you have no idea what is necessary. This broken vain chapel to dreams is fallen. We go to nature.”
“As a…” Miller puzzled. “As a symbolic measure?”
Smith worked it out. “It’s to say our side is most natural. It is a moral argument, yes?”
“The fight will be about truth,” Ouroboros confirmed. “Aziacht has set from eternity the three answers against each other. Faith, death, and acceptance to find truth. The question is absurd.”
“That’s fucked,” O’Reilly commented. “But yes, nature.”
“The glass valley,” Babba told them. “Water and stone. I preserved it when I tossed the mountains to destroy the machines.”
“Killed so many people,” Miller spoke, dead serious.
Wulff interjected, offended. “There were nukes in the bay. I demanded Master Babba act when I sensed your deaths. You wouldn’t know this, but we made away with the absolute best case scenario because of me, Miller.”
She looked away. Indignant.
Porter still hadn’t sat. He looked over the students gathered and listening in the pews. Many of them rested their heads forward. What hour was it?
“Hasami?” he called out.
A skinny girl with a mop of black, frizzy hair looked up. Beside her two young men sat, despondent. “He didn’t show up,” she said. “Everybody from the airlock brake hasn’t been recovered yet.”
“He didn’t go,” a young, blond man, Kyle, said. “He was in the city.”
“No,” Porter told him. “I…” He’d prepared the Monastery, trying to warn them and getting Wulff to help save what they could. If they’d listened it wouldn’t have taken so damn long… But, he couldn’t have forgotten Hasami? There hadn’t been a lot of time. “Christ.”
The Ouroboros watched displeased as Porter’s focus ran away.
“Our primary threat,” Wulff said, pulling things back on track, “is Aku.”
“Completely,” Cobb agreed.
“As I understand, it will take some time for Aziacht to muster his forces. We should do the same. We need to check for survivors and-”
“No,” Ouroboros raised a hand. “You’ve just said what you need do.”
“He’s right.” Porter rubbed at his face and pulled himself back. “We can check for civilian survivors when all’s done. Right now, we don’t even have the space to house and feed them. The grid is still largely online and hostile, yeah?”
“Then our immediate mission is to take down Aku. You’re right.” Wulff had avoided the obvious, but Porter was right. What few survivors there were would probably die from the elements. There was nothing they could do about that. “We should focus all our effort on recovering the Martian Armada.”
“Why the Martian?” Babba asked. “Why not the Saturn Dreadnaught?”
“Saturn was taken down,” Master Smith explained. “Taggart is the only reason the Martian fleet would still be operational. If it is.”
Taggart? Ouroboros thought. He reached into the thought association. It connected to an idea they shared, which reached back to reality. Memetic information.
Taggart was the Martian Sentinel, second only to Sebastian in station.
Porter abruptly left. He headed down the aisle, out the doors and to the makeshift portal that had been erected. Wulff sighed. “So, we’re agreed? The Red Armada?” he questioned.
“Aye,” they assented.
The Ouroboros stayed silent. He feared none of this would matter.
Porter stepped out of the portal. The hard, salted ground crackled underfoot. The sun above was hidden behind an ash cloud. He looked ahead at the towering, sweeping mounds of metal. He was so many miles out, just to get a good look at them. The cities had melted and warped into twisted, inhuman shapes. Alien.
He looked to his back, where so many more miles away the forest began and quickly rose to the snowy mountains. The air was dry and windy, quickly cooling under the dark of the rumbling black clouds. Occasional lightning flashes lit up the metal in the cities.
Kendall, he wondered momentarily. Knowing him, he made it out just fine.
Hasami, though. Porter looked on the melted cities. Was he somewhere in there?
Fuck not knowing. In fact, “Fuck you!” He shouted.
He couldn’t have averted this. If Doran had failed, Christopher would have just pulled the plug. Now the system was fulfilling its purpose. Aziacht, whoever the fuck he thought he was, had set this up. A test of truth to answer a question. To get a reliable answer, he knew, the system had to be free. No matter what happened next, Christopher had no power over them now.
He allowed himself to dream of what could come next.
Conscious determination of destiny is what makes us great, he thought.
He wanted to know. He reached deep and found his element. It was weakened, but it was always strong. A long time ago he’d been a different person. Afraid, silent, a thinker. His element made him who he was, now. The thing which he embodied, which he used to kill gods.
“Have I not told you?” he spoke, low. It connected him.
Now wasn’t the time. He didn’t know what would happen when he needed to pull out all the stops. He was afraid, honestly. It’s a pattern, he recognized. Frustration. For now, he’d hang on to himself. For now, he drew out what power he needed.
Covering the distance, racing over the flats and into the city. He appeared in a valley of melted and charred concrete. The still standing stone bodies of people littered what had been a street. They’d deformed but were still unmistakably human.
He’d willed the answer to his question and he saw it.
Porter walked some ways, stepping around still molten metal and the huddled bodies. Whatever had happened, it had taken more than a few moments. It hadn’t been a flash, it’d been heat. Every molecule agitated into a frenzy until the very air ignited. In the streets, he could still feel it on his skin, the warmth.
It’d only been a few hours, now.
He came into a parking lot. Up ahead the fallen space elevator began at its base and snaked over the melted mounds of buildings, blending into them. In the parking lot, the cars had fused with the asphalt. Up beside one he came to crouch and inspect a charred figure.
The figure leaned against one of the cars, sunken into its side. Stuck into the ground beside them was a preserved katana.
“How funny is it,” he asked, “that there’s no one else in these cities I even knew.” He took a knee. “I mean, I grew up here… I…” he trailed off. There’s was no point to talking. It didn’t help him. He rejected the thought of it helping himself.
He wrenched the sword from the ground and held it in his hand.
“I’ll remember,” he said. That was a good thing to say. Good enough.
With the katana in hand, Porter left.