Porter’s hand flew, throwing the pitch and yaw stabilizer switches down. His feet found the auxiliary peddles and he floored them. The hail of the squadron’s fire formed a wall.
His hands grabbed the stick as tightly as they could. Every muscle in his body fought against the inertia.
The ship spiraled, turning Mars into a tumbling blur over him.
Wanda’s head cracked against the hatch glass, her body snapping against her restraints, hands loose in the air.
Porter groaned as the spiral kept on, his vision fuzzing. The thrusters of their ship could compensate for the spin as they slingshot past the squadron, for the underbelly of one of the armada ships.
“Fuck,” he said. His neck muscles gave out, his head thrown to the side.
The AI squadron couldn’t track his roll and spin, their shots were barely missing.
There were no aerodynamics in space. He could force himself to stay conscious. There was only the limit of what the ship could take from inertia.
He started laughing. The armada ship was finally close enough.
Porter threw on the thrust-brakes. Wanda’s head beat the wall again.
The jet leveled its belly to the ship’s underside, pulling in as close as he could get. Faster, faster. The ship was almost cylindrical, staying close enough to skid, it acted as revolving cover.
He was playing looser, faster than the machines. Reckless.
With Wanda out, he only had front facing guns. The squadron was on his tail.
Porter broke away from his ship, moving through empty space to the next. As he did, he turned one-eighty, flying backwards.
His guns went off, anticipating the jets coming around the ship’s other side. Three of them couldn’t possibly turn fast enough, torn through by his shots, batteries bursting into fire. The remaining two jets dashed through the dust over the others, firing at Porter.
He couldn’t maneuver, not going backwards. There was still space between them and the cover of the next ship. He threw the jet into a tumble, but he couldn’t change course.
The two machines blasted through them. The noise was deafening as the wings tore from their ship. They spun out, thrown towards the broadside of the armada ship.
“Y-!” he tried to call.
The crash knocked the breath out of him.
He recovered to see through spider web cracks an oncoming onslaught of fire. The two remaining pursuers were ready to finish them off.
“Wanda!” he tried to wake her. She didn’t respond.
Nobody should sleep through it.
Their shots broke against an invisible barrier, only inches past the glass separating them from the vacuum. Porter howled. “The shield’s up, motherfucker!”
They’d embedded into the ship’s surface, letting its shield reform over them. Its function was to stop energy weapons. It had let them pass. The two jets couldn’t touch them.
A grin almost reached Porter’s face, but his eye caught something.
The adjacent ship’s guns were aiming at them. The shields wouldn’t be able to stop them as the armada turned on itself.
Porter pulled Hasami’s sword from where he’d stowed it beside his seat. If he had to, he’d bail out. He could take it, but Wanda wouldn’t survive. No. Without her, he couldn’t do anything. His eyes darted around the cockpit.
If he abandoned her, it was all over. If he stayed, he’d be dead with her.
The ship’s broadside cannons fired.
Porter pulled the ejection trigger.
Red pillars punched holes into the huge ship as they parted with it. The cockpit separated, a two-man glass capsule thrown off into space. As they spun he watched the armada ship be torn apart. It had been full of trapped soldiers. He could see some of their bodies rushing out with the air.
Their pod continued tumbling into the open. Aku’s sensors picked them out from the carnage and the guns tracked on again. They were a sitting duck, now. An easy target.
There was a man in space. A red figure.
Taggart was being dared to move. Aku hadn’t thought he’d leave the ships behind. The electromagnetic field he produced was the only thing keeping some of the ships from their grip.
The guns focused on Porter and the girl.
“Prideful,” Aku’s voice came through into his helmet. “Move and they die, sweetie.”
“I know what’s at stake, Aku,” he replied. He felt the mechanisms in his suit try to work against him, Aku testing his control of the systems. He had control.
“Let’s play a game, then.” The cannons loaded their rounds in under a second, Taggart’s awareness stretching time out. In that instant, they readied to fire superheated rounds at hypersonic speed.
Zugzwang, a distant memory hit him. No choice.
His eyes shot wide open. Fast as light, white beams of sunlight turned the side of the warship into slag scattered to space. His gaze traced over the ship, severing it in two. His vision’s power decimated it instantly.
Aku hadn’t expected that. “There were Eidolon aboard. Murder was cheating.”
He reached up and took hold of his helmet. The unbreakable metal rent as he pushed. The seal broke and Taggart threw it away, silencing Aku. He let the air out of his lungs. His heart was pounding. “Porter,” he projected. “I’m coming in to pick you up.”
Wanda stirred. “My head,” she murmured. She pulled herself together enough to notice the massive warship torn apart outside the capsule.
“Porter,” he heard. “I’m coming in to pick you up.”
“David?” he asked.
“What?” She’d not heard the projection.
“It’s Taggart,” they replied. “Please.”
The red figure swooped in. He hit their pod, jostling them both, but they were okay. Taggart had his head down, using the thrusters of his suit to push them to safety.
Let’s hope they made it, Porter thought. He knew that with Taggart here, the Eidolons had no supernatural protection. As if because he’d thought it, Taggart started going faster. They went over the ship which they’d impacted the side of, around to the greater fleet.
“Is Wong alive?” he asked.
“Last I saw. Nobody can kill that bastard,” Taggart answered.
He’d been under General Wong during his time in the military. Taggart had gotten his start as a Magi during the same time, as a lesser rank. He’d been one of the few who could really stand toe to toe with Porter against gods, as the longest running member of his team. He’d stayed with him until the offer reached him and he wouldn’t refuse. He became a Sentinel.
Now, he was carrying them into the open doors of the warship’s hangar.
This was the fleet leader, Caritas.
Taggart set them down and, as the airlock sealed and a few moments passed, he punched a hole in the pod.
“That’s-” Porter hit a button and the hatch flew off, “-not necessary.”
Taggart motioned them to follow, ignoring him.
Porter jumped out, casting a glance back at Wanda.
“Hey, I’m fine,” she said. She jumped from the pod too and wobbled on her feet.
It was a quick walk to the command deck through empty halls.
Taggart stepped through and Porter saw it, like the one they’d last seen. Only, this deck was fully manned. At every station, a soldier stood, and up above an older Chinese man watched his disabled fleet beyond the wall of glass.
He turned. “Porter!” he recognized. “How nice!” Wong never mumbled. “Join us on the deck, son! It’s time to retake my ship.”
“This is Wanda,” Porter said. He pointed her to the stairs leading up to Wong. “She can separate the essence of Aku from the ship, giving you back full function.”
“Full function! To battle our abomination.”
“I need something to write with,” Wanda told them, finding where she wanted to work.
“Yes!” General Wong shouted, looking to one of his men. They darted from their post. “I’m antsy,” he said. “Antsy! Do you hear that, Porter?”
“No, sir.” He looked out into space. Wong was a practitioner with one focus. Foresight. Porter liked to think he was well Attuned, but he didn’t know what he meant.
“It’s racing! He’s coming. Not the Aku we knew, but a true God. Our greatest challenge.”
“Aku practically raised me,” Taggart said to Porter, just for him to hear. “This fucks me up.”
Danial used to be an orphan. The AI had been his caretaker. His mother.
Porter didn’t regret this, though. Everything to happen had to be. A flat circle.
The intercoms suddenly screeched with static.
A voice like grinding mountains of metal came through. “Hark. I am the end of all things,” he roared. “I do not fear the Pilgrim for he is abhorred by strength. I am life.”
“Got one!” a soldier shouted. He threw the drawing implement to Wanda from across the room. She worked faster than Porter had ever seen when she caught it. Deft hands.
General Wong reared his head and cried over the speakers. “All men are afraid in battle!” He beat his chest. “The coward is the one who lets his fear overcome his sense of duty! Duty is the essence of manhood!” He laughed at the demon in the sound system.
The soldiers, men and women, hollered in assent. Wong joined them.
Porter grinned beat his chest too. He’d missed this company.
“How long will it be, Wanda!” he called.
“It’s going to take-” her voice ran away.
The other warships in the fleet moved aside, giving a view of the Martian world’s horizon. From the planet’s dark side came the black sphere, the Deus Ex. It came directly up to the ship, Caritas, its surface black beyond a sense of depth.
“Does your courage persist, Chen?” it rumbled in their ears.
Porter couldn’t hear Wong’s reply; his voice fell so low.
“Time,” Wanda belatedly finished her sentence.
The other warships turned their guns on them.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” Wong chanted at the dark moon, “I shall fear no evil: for I am the baddest motherfucker in the-”
Taggart caught fire. He screamed for only a second as he hit his knees, magma pouring out his eyes. He threw back his head, hands clenching tightly and body wreathed in flames. Wanda had stopped working as everyone stared horrified.
“Porter!” he gurgled, coughing up molten iron.
Porter tried to reach out to him, but he didn’t touch him. He’d known Taggart for years. His thoughts ran away at the sight.
That wasn’t supposed to happen.
He shouldn’t be able to just do that.
He snapped back. “I’ll fucking end you!” he shouted. Porter jumped up to the captain’s walk as Taggart fell over behind him, dead on his face. He walked past Wong towards the glass where the sphere grew larger in their view than the planet below. He bellowed, red in face, “Watch me!”
He could fight, but he couldn’t save anyone if he did. He might not care.
“Necessary courage!” Aku spoke gleefully. “Necessary carnage!”
A blue light covered everything, a blinding flash.