The Solidarity’s bay doors groaned, metal screaming as the platform came down. A salty ocean breeze hit Porter as the sun did. He raised his hand to cover the sight.
The ship had set down automatically, here, its descent stirring up a wild spray of water, crunching down on trees.
Armageddon, he thought.
“Don’t look at the sun,” he said.
The sky was a brilliant red and black, over the treetops. It was the Deus Ex, standing between them and the light, hiding the sun. The vault of the sky, stretching back around the horizons, was a deep, starless black. Aziacht had taken them. Porter couldn’t even spot the moon, now.
Cobb approached the open, brisk air, looking up at the eclipse. He scowled and jumped first into the water below. O’Reilly was close behind him.
“It’s us he’s coming for,” the rootless voice of the Ouroboros came to Porter’s side.
“I know,” he replied. “I met him up there…” His eyes scanned the trees. Barren grey, dead woods that stretched on for a long way ahead until a sudden and complete stop. “Screw this. It’s his game, now.”
“It always was.”
Porter turned to look at him. The Ouroboros eyed the eclipse, feint frown lines on his face.
“That’s not what I wanted to hear.”
“Porter,” the Ouroboros said, looking down at his own bare feet. “It’s not death that must justify itself. Understand that.” He jumped from the platform down to the water looking up.
The students were behind Porter. Those that remained were well under a hundred, he saw. He didn’t recognize a face among them. Not until Babba came forward.
“Come on, children,” she called.
The mechanism had come all the way out now and a safe path forward was laid out. The procession of students descended the ramp that had come out.
Porter stepped off first, staying ahead.
When he came down, he found a foot of seawater under him. He looked forward into the dark forest. It was a flooded flatland, islands of rock and dirt forming rivers in the landscape, shallow, dense trees clinging to stone atop them. All of them poisoned by saltwater. A dead place.
The Students were told not to stray far. They left the ship behind, moving as a large group into the forest along the still rivers. The noise of water breaking under footfalls was the only sound. No one spoke.
They stopped after the ship had been put far enough out of sight.
It was useless to stay with it. Solidarity couldn’t offer them safety.
People were sitting along the riverbank, now. Leaning on tree trunks on the forest’s edge. Porter took a breather, staring down the river’s path and seeing nothing beyond the bend. He looked back up to the sky. Still eclipsed.
“This place will do,” the Ouroboros declared.
“Good,” O’Reilly replied. “I don’t want to go any further from the ship.”
The Ouroboros said nothing in reply, but Porter knew what they were thinking in that moment. It doesn’t matter. This was where the end was going to happen.
“Yeah,” he said. “We’ll need to do a sweep for survivors after all this is over. Some smaller settlements will have survived. Probably.”
“Not likely,” a distant voice said.
“Oh, God.” One student wretched. “What happened?”
Someone recognized the mangled, charred husk which stepped down into the water a few yards past the group. Christopher’s exposed face muscles contracted. “Hello, my friends.”
The Ouroboros produced his sickle and started forward.
Porter drew back his katana. “Why are you here?” he asked.
“Didn’t you get the memo?” Christopher spoke. “I’m not the bad guy!” he slurred, blood and spit running down his chin. “I was concerned for a while that I was, but then I remembered… I’m everyone’s friend. So, in short,” his humor suddenly ran away, “we’re going to work together. That’s the way it’s going to be. The easy way, that’s what people take. We’re going to work together.”
Porter thought back to the first day they’d met. Christopher descending the court steps, a small smile on his face. For a moment, he was in two places at once, seeing so clearly how this was all laid out. By him, by Aziacht. He didn’t know anymore.
“Why shouldn’t we kill you?” He genuinely couldn’t come up with a reason.
“Because,” the corpse replied, looking bemusedly at the Ouroboros’ furious expression, “that’s the way it’s going to be. As it’s always been. Isn’t that right?”
The Ouroboros drew out his sickle, charging until it was inches from the Primordial’s neck. “Count your seconds to live, lie.”
“The easy way,” Christopher repeated, unfazed.
The sickle shook in his white knuckled grip. “Porter,” the Ouroboros called back.
Christopher’s smile twisted bigger. “Yeah, Quinn, do it.”
Porter approached, ready to gore Christopher. He wanted to do it.
He stole Utopia. He pulled it right out from under us, he told himself. It would be so easy to kill him for that.
“Why…” He cursed himself, but he had to. “Why can’t he do it?”
Christopher raised up a finger to push the Sickle’s point away. The Ouroboros was frozen. “Neither of you can. You-”
Porter lunged forward. His own feet froze in place, the point of his katana just short of the bastard’s head. Every muscle in his body locked up.
“-As I was saying…” Christopher took a deep breath through his nose, looking around for a moment. “He’s not far off.” He reached past the katana, reaching in to wrap his fingers around Porter’s throat. “As I was saying!? Anyone!?”
“You can’t do it either,” a girl answered.
Christopher pointed to her with his free hand, not breaking his staring contest with a defiant Porter. “Exactly. Now’s not our time. He wants the three of us fighting, Aziacht, but it’s not my right to kill you. It’s Nihilism’s. Abhorrence to reject the notion of fair and just nature. I fill the vacuum, the promise of artificial equity. My job is done for me. Because what are we all, if not certain that death is unpleasant?” he smiled. “Maybe you’d have a chance were it just the two of us.”
“You fucker-” Porter swore.
Christopher threw him aside. He reached out for the Ouroboros.
“Touch me,” they warned, their voice crawling over his skin, “and I’d have us both die, wretch.”
Christopher backed off. “Typical of you.”
Porter pulled himself up from the streambed. He slicked back his short blond hair, water dripping off him. “Then that’s it.”
“Yes,” the pale man admitted.
“We’re working together,” the charred young man said gleefully.
“Wonderful,” Babba threw up her arms. “We’ll cavort with Lucifer.”
Cobb sneered. “Hardly.”
“Are we okay?” An armored student asked.
Porter looked back at them all, standing, watching, on edge as Christopher leered back. “Yes,” he said. “We’re okay, here.” They didn’t need to worry.
He counted the heads. So many students. Kids in a fight that would come down to just a few. He didn’t know what they could do, why they were even here.
He remembered Kendall, Doran, the girl with them. Ashmedai and Odessa. They’d held their own. Hasami had. He could only hope it wasn’t a slaughter.
“Why am I here?” He stood behind the Ouroboros, lowered his voice. “Why even involve all of us in this fight, Ouroboros? I know we were part of the set-up, but why are we here, at the end of everything? Are we witnesses? Tell me.”
He stared at his back. That was not what Porter wanted. He wouldn’t take it. Not now. “No.”
“Then learn, man. Death and the shadow come to all. There is knowledge of them written inside you. Those who would will them would not need understanding of them. But one who would will good? Truth? I ask you who can know my ways. The ways of nature and time are to be in the world…” The Ouroboros turned, pushing Porter’s chest, “and in the will. Twofold.”
Some trees crashed over in the distance. Porter looked into the dark woods but saw nothing. He grimaced and turned back to the Ouroboros. “I understand.”
“Then there is nothing else to be said,” he told him.
Christopher chuckled. “Damn… Damn! Goddamn!!” he shouted, ecstatic. “I have been waiting all eternity for this.” He clapped once loudly, startling some of the students who looked ill. “Cry havoc! Stir the Valkyries! Sound the seventh trumpet and look alive! How loooong it’s been, my children! My time is come!!”
Porter felt it, a sinking in his chest. Aziacht was in the forest and every horror with him. The Elephant man and a thousand more. They were without count, a field of darkness beyond sight. The empty, black firmament brimming and spilling over onto the earth its every unknown crawling thing. Every monster. The abyss emptying out itself into the forest around them.
“He’s here,” he said. He flagged the three professors. “Get them all together. They’re going to break against us like waves.”
His eyes were wide. The darkness around them in the trees was coming alive.
The horrors were limitless. An ocean.
“We will stay strong!” the Ouroboros proclaimed.
Porter raised Hasami’s katana one more time. His heartbeat thudded in his chest. The wind picked up, suddenly ripping over the surface of the waters. The trees crackled.
His expression darkened. Seconds passed as he watched many of the students trembling. Time was running out before his eyes as death set in. So many of them would die. His doubts flared. He could see every one of them turning the rivers here red.
He hated it. The face of every person who’d died because of him flashed before his eyes. So many missions done recklessly. He hadn’t cared. He fucking hated it. He wanted every choice back that had led him here until… all at once he didn’t. No, his resolve hardened.
He wouldn’t change anything. He would see it all made right.
He had faith it could be done.
The tree line broke apart, a horror crashing into their ranks.