Armageddon – 4.06

Wong ordered his men. “Those not manning the guns, take to the escape pods!” There were only a few soldiers unoccupied, now. He looked behind himself to Wanda and nodded. “That means you, madam.”

“Yes,” she replied.

Wanda slid off the side of the command platform and followed two young men who had been standing idle. She looked back to the resolute remaining soldiers. The ship was taking a beating. It could break apart any minute. It was likely those left behind might be going down with the ship, she could see that knowledge on Wong’s face.

Wanda jogged down the corridor, coming to the circular pod doors placed along the walls. There were only a few left that hadn’t yet been used. The two soldiers opened theirs and closed the doors behind them, not acknowledging each other or Wanda herself.

She pried open the hatch and looked at the coffin-sized ship inside.

Wanda loaded herself inside and launched into space. She flew out into open space, zipping past laser fire. The massive, ongoing battle nearly caught her.

O

“Open fire!” Brice shouted.

They dove after the Deus Ex as it hurdled towards the Caritas. There were only minutes to the impact. Friedrich blasted away at the surface, but his shots rolled like water off a duck’s back. They were doing nothing to it.

He picked up speed to get ahead of the thing.

That’s when he saw it. A distortion on the sphere’s horizon. A perfect sphere.

It can only mean one thing, he recognized.

“There!” he shouted. “A weak spot in its armor, Friedrich. A place to penetrate!”

Friedrich opened fire on the sphere, but he hadn’t seen it. The shots were sliding off and Brice couldn’t possibly describe it. He tried, “left! Further towards the edge!” But it was a man-sized hole in the titanic-sized orb. Seconds counted down to the impact. To failure.

Brice accelerated the fighter, trying to draw near to the hole. Suddenly, the surface of the Deus Ex blasted out at them. The lasers passed just off the back at first but were quickly correcting closer.

He could barely make out the weak spot, but Friedrich just couldn’t see it. There was only one thing he could do, he thought. In those seconds, a more comforting idea never found him.

There was no time to ask permission. He knew his friend, Friedrich.

Triumph!” he shouted.

They careened in a split second, jets bursting, sending them sidewinding down towards the Deus Ex. The fighter shredded in flames through it, splitting spider-web fractures outward on the surface.

O

The Deus Ex spiraled off course, crashing through one of the warships like it was nothing. Streams of energy poured off its back as the orb fell towards the Martian world. The black moon shook as it met the atmosphere. Inside, Aku reeled.

Pain, they thought. The sensation was knowledge. Critical damage had been done.

How could this be? The confusion and the hatred came in reaction.

“Where are you!?” Aku shouted, pulling hard against their moment. The Deus Ex fought with the gravity of the planet. Emotion unlike anything in the years before, back to their inception. What could that do for them, they wondered?

They were caught in freefall. The force of the impact would scatter Aku like glass across the world. What could emotion do?

Irrationality.

Aku shut down every system but what they needed to rise. The Deus Ex ship put everything into fighting the hold of momentum and to escape gravity.

Aku’s mind went away.

O

Wong brought up his helmet to place it down on his head. He pushed a floating body from his view. The air was draining away, frost gathering on the glass. Gravity was gone. He held tightly to a bar, keeping his feet planted.

“Turn the ship about!” he bellowed.

“Primary thrusters are dead, sir!” a soldier shouted.

“Use the cannons!” he replied instantly.

All along the side, the largest artillery cannons shelled empty space. Inside, every man held on as the warship jerked.

The Deus Ex came into sight, rising from scattered cirrus clouds in the stratosphere.

Porter has failed us.

He wanted it in range of the forward cannons, their strongest ballistic option. Laser would do nothing.

That mechanical demon had shredded through the Caritas, his ship. Shields were down and the one other remaining warship was scattering them to the void with a renewed volley. He and just a handful of his men had helmets at hand. The others died gasping.

“All guns,” Wong said, “everything we’ve got… Put our god down.”

The reactors were decimated, secondary power sources loaded rounds. Bullets larger around than a man slid into their electromagnetic rails. The current flooded in and the rounds launched.

Only the front half of the Caritas remained. With the Deus Ex risen directly in front of it, the railgun fire was a streak of glowing metal tracing directly towards it. The rounds broke against the glass, enlarging the cracks across its surface. Before the first volley had ended, the second loaded to fire again. A continuous stream of hypersonic, white-hot artillery blasted out. A light show shined out from the Caritas as the warship attacking tore it to pieces. Finally, the firing stopped as one laser tore through the guns and the captain’s deck.

Suddenly, everything stopped as the Caritas was scattered, and all lights on the attacking warship blinked out. The Deus Ex hung above the world, surface dented and cracked.

O

Brice pulled himself from the pod. Friedrich dangled from his seat, his mangled body running out blood on the black iron floor.

Brice’s helmet was cracked. He threw it off and breathed in the frigid air.

“Hello?” he called out.

The fighter had been spread out, ground against an interior metal hall as it had come to a stop. They’d flown through the gap, wings, and guns clipped. Inside this ship, the Deus Ex, he hadn’t imagined they’d survived.

They hadn’t, he thought. I have. Friedrich is dead.

Brice rubbed blood from his eyes. He limped forward. Ahead was a red light.

Over pipes and past groaning mechanics, he felt his way through the wet and dark halls. He could hear something. The sound of a man yelling.

When he turned the corner, he found the source of the light. A glowing red orb sat on a pedestal above the black floor. A sharp clang sounded as Porter hit the orb with his sword, not putting a scratch in it. Brice stood in the opening of the vaulted room.

“Sir?” he asked.

Porter looked up, surprised. “How the fuck did you get in here?”

“Drove my fighter through the opening… sir.”

“Shit, soldier.” He slashed at the orb again without damaging it. “Shit!” he shouted again, not at Brice this time.

“How can I help?”

“I can’t…” he attacked again, “fucking,” bashing Hasami’s sword against it, “do anything!” Porter stabbed the sword into the floor and stepped back, falling to his knees and looking up at the source of light. “I’m not the man for this job.”

Brice crouched beside him but found he was too tired to stay that way. He sat and fell all the way back, his head resting on the floor. “You’ve killed gods.”

Porter launched up and grabbed the sword, attacking again to no avail. “Not like this.” He shook his head. “I can’t fucking do this.”

Brice tried to catch his breath. He tilted his head up to see blood gushing from a wound in his stomach. He hadn’t even felt it. “Damn,” he commented. “I think I’m dying, sir.”

“I think we’re all about to be,” Porter responded. Then added, “but I’m sorry about that. Brice, is it? I can’t do this because it’s against my nature. My power comes from all of us. I’m the God we are. Things like gods of chaos, gods of the sun, they’re there for us. The old gods, they existed by us. They died with the march of time. But this isn’t that. This is the machine we sold our souls for. We chose this, together. Humanity, like the gods? This is our march of time. Isn’t this inevitable?”

Porter took a knee and put a hand upon the orb. He tried to think of a way out.

The sword was Hasami’s, he thought. He had… worked with choice. He could change his mind, make two decisions at once. That had been his power. It had been fucking brilliant. His application had been so uncreative for such an idea. Why the hell did it have to come to him?

“I can’t kill Aku with this thing,” he said. “That’s my element. I don’t get a choice of my own. I’m the indomitable march of progress. How fucking true I meet my obsolescence, right?”

Brice rolled over on his side, head spinning for a second. He pushed up to stand. Leaning heavily on the orb he looked down to Porter. “I think I understand,” he said. He reached out. “It’s a contradiction for you… You can’t contradict the choice we made.”

He put his blood-soaked hand on Porter’s shoulder.

“But,” he continued, “I’m here! So that’s not how it’s going to go.” He took hold of Porter’s arm and tried to pull him up. Brice collapsed as he tried.

“Hey, we gotta get you out of here…”

Hallelujah,” Brice said. “No, Porter!” he startled as if he’d just realized what had been proposed. His hand came up to grab the handle of Hasami’s sword. “If the… modern choice is wrong… can’t I reject it?” With his other hand, he grabbed Porter’s shoulder, trying to pull himself up. “That matters,” he told him as he failed. “That matters.”

Brice hit his back, his chest not rising.

Porter let him slip to the ground. He stood over him.

He looked at the sword and the blood covering the handle and his bare hand. It was like he was searching for something. What had he been trying to tell him? Porter didn’t understand. What could the significance of one person be?

I can be… he started a thought. He dug deep. “I’m not every man,” he murmured. His eyes rested on the glowing orb in the vast, grim room. “Even one. Change starts with one,” he said.

Porter reared back the katana. He brought it crashing through the shattered heart of Aku.

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Armageddon – 4.05

The Deus Ex was thrown down towards the Martian world by a blue pillar of light.

Sebastian hovered further from the world, looking on the armada below. He’d just barely arrived as the warships turned on Caritas. Just in time to knock Aku hurtling planetward. His helmet folded down, hiding away a look of resolution. He dove after them.

Aku recovered in low orbit, generating enough power to pull up and away from the scarred surface beneath them. They wouldn’t allow themselves to touch the ground.

They thought at the speed of light, but their power, pulled from across the universe, had a limited flow. They had managed to rise enough to finish off Caritas when again a blast of light came down.

Aku dodged this time. They scanned the sky, dipping to fly low now over the nighttime valleys. They searched for Sebastian, they knew he was somewhere. Again, the pillar of blue light came down, this attack glancing off the surface of the sphere and boring into rock.

The dark surface of the sphere emanated a signal which could reorder reality. They vibrated the air like they’d vibrated magma into Taggart’s skull. Across the entire planet, they called, “come out. Sebastian, come out. I can take away the pain.”

They sensed hundreds of square miles beginning to shine brightly. They couldn’t dodge this one. The light seared away part of the world with Aku on it, the energy forcing them down into the suddenly liquefied planet-side.

Sebastian couldn’t give his attention to the warships blasting each other apart in his peripheral vision. His eyes closed, he listened for the motion of the Deus Ex disturbing reality. As they moved, he sent down blasts from his hands. He needed to keep it pinned down, down on this uninhabited side of the world. In the distance, Eidolons fought for their life against waves of drones.

No, can’t think about that. I must focus, he remembered.

Sebastian had lost the position of the Deus Ex Machina.

The was a black spot moving across the stars beyond him, he saw. Too fast to track with his head, he couldn’t pin it down.

“What’s your suit made of?” Sebastian heard, coming through his radio.

“Mistrust and paranoia,” he answered. “Your manipulation won’t work on me. In space, there’s nothing to manipulate against me, either.”

“I’m not so sure, Sebastian.”

Phobos, he realized.

The largest Martian moon was hurtling towards him. It flew into view, his suit giving him no heads up. He was flying by sight alone, and he’d not seen it coming.

Sebastian jetted in the opposite direction, not trying to outrun it, but trying to lessen his impact. The moment the dark rock of Phobos met him, the moon exploded, violently fracturing in a storm of fire.

O

Porter had seen Aku knocked from their view. He looked back to Wanda, asking, “how much time do you need?!”

“For the whole fleet or just this ship?” she replied.

Wong answered her. “Just this ship. Now.”

That was murder. The Caritas had the greatest weaponry, but with Taggart gone, they were losing control of almost every ship. It’d be carnage.

Wanda wasn’t moving, she looked to Porter. He could only nod.

“Then it won’t be long,” she said, grimacing and ducking her head back down to work.

Suddenly, the ship began to groan and shutter. An Eidolon shouted, “We’re taking a volley!”

“Are the shields fully operational?” Wong asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Then we can hold.”

Porter briefly looked back at the body of Taggart. He caught Wong’s eyes. “The shields won’t stop Aku,” he said. “If the Sentinel can’t win out there, and he can’t, then Aku can turn us to rubble with a thought. We’re not a closed system.”

“Go if you must,” Wong told him. “I can think of no use for you here, Porter.”

He nodded. “Okay.” Porter turned and sprinted for the airlock.

This was it, there was no second part to this fight. Daniel was dead, Caritas was taking a beating, and so would Sebastian be.

It’s time to face Aku.

O

Aku searched the fragments of Phobos for the body of Sebastian.

The force should have killed him, they thought. His suit is a perfectly closed system. This is why we can’t unmake him. No, the energy won’t have reached him, only the inertia. Not enough!

Had to find him. No. Not necessary. Can’t become distracted.

He will come to me.

Aku’s focus turned merrily to the sitting duck that was the Caritas. They had only a moment to think and decide what would be most appropriate. What was most poetic!

Implosion?

Aku began to scan the atomic structure, formulating the signal which would turn them inside out. Only then, out of nowhere Sebastian impacted the side of the sphere.

He hit and pushed, forcing Aku back and ruining their calculations.

The orb twisted, throwing Sebastian off its face. The silver figure blasted his jets to recover and come back around.

While Aku was watching them, in the opposite direction, an airlock burst, jettisoning a small blue man into space.

The future is given to us. They can’t stand against us!

The black surface of the dark moon spit out red beams. Their power, dredged out from underneath space, generated fire in every direction. Glorious, meaningful destruction, as stray beams took down both warship and the moon Deimos from the sky.

But not Sebastian. He was unhurt, maneuvering too quickly. He was coming back around. Just as he was a golden haze enwrapped Porter, who began to fly forward with his sword outstretched.

The Man,” Aku heard. The smooth sound of Christopher’s voice in their head. “You’ve got to beat him for this to work, child.”

“Easily,” they assured.

Aku turned their full attention of Porter, a red light visible from the Martian surface forming in front of them. An impenetrable wall rushing to meet him.

Porter saw it coming. He opened his mouth. “Blood and iron!” he bellowed. He cut through the wall of fire, parting and scattering it.

Aku launched another as he got closer.

His control of metaphysics is alike the Primordial, they realized.

Aku tried to back up, dodging Porter’s oncoming strike, but they found Sebastian at their back. He hit and his jets spit white fire, digging deep into his reserves.

They were pinned.

Aku emitted a field of hydrogen across their surface. The last effort. They split every atom. Porter disappeared, punching through into the fire. The explosion spread out. It was like a second sun in the sky, to the world below.

When it had finally cleared, Aku couldn’t find Porter. But, they found Sebastian drifting, his silver suit scorched, in the vacuum.

Where was Porter?

O

“Turn the ship about,” Wong ordered. “Let us return fire!”

Wanda had finished the rune. She fell back on her ass, putting a hand on her head. Staring at the symbol, unable to decide if she’d done everything right.

Wong stood above her. He swept up his hand, summoning with a gesture his holographic controls. They began to turn as their cannons tore through the other warships.

The black moon came into view and it was idling.

“Sir!?” someone shouted.

Before he could respond, the Caritas rocked and bucked. Wong had to shift his feet as others were thrown to the ground. He knew, “We’ve been rammed!” He assessed the damage on his monitors. Pressure lost on several decks. “I want my squadrons deployed!” he roared. “All free hands to the hangar bay, go!”

O

In the bay, ten Eidolons were mounting their ships in unison. Brice, at the front, brought up his helmet and activated the seal as he lowered himself down. His gunner, Friedrich, sat in just after him. The hatch came down.

“No AI assistance, gentlemen,” Brice said over the radio.

His four men sounded in. “Check.” “Check.” “Check.” “Check. No problem.”

“Well, alright. Let’s go, then.”

The shuttle bay doors flew back, folding wide open. Each fighter’s landing gear retracted as their jets blasted off, seamlessly taking them from the ground forward into space. In formation, they raced out. The deafening silence filled Brice’s ears as all his focus poured into his eyes, racing across the technicolor hell fire. Cannon shots between Caritas and the rest of the fleet made a field of chaos. They sped into that storm.

“Break off, Donald, Rachel, target where the shields part by the cannon mouths.”

“Got it!”

“Copy.”

The remaining three of them circled around the Caritas. They saw where one of the warships had lodged into the side and continued to thrust, throwing off their guns. Their shields were down, however.

They moved in, using a rain of bullets to tear apart the head of that ship. It was quick work. Brice didn’t abort as he dove in towards the ship. With the structure weakened, he diverted all power to their shields. They hit and tore through like it was nothing.

He saw flashes of dead Eidolons in the dark ship, some torn apart by their shots.

“Fuck,” he swore. “Seth, Gregory?”

“Yeah?”

“I hear you.”

“Defend the Caritas. I’m going in to help Master Porter.”

“Not advised,” Seth responded.

“Friedrich?” Brice asked.

“I’m with you, brother.”

Brice radioed, “We’re doing it.”

They broke off from the massive fight, dodging shots thrown at them. He could barely make out the black spot in space, the Deus Ex, menacing over the carnage.

Their ship passed a silver body floating limply.

Brice kept his focus as they drew close. Porter wasn’t anywhere.

As they strafed the orb, it began to move. Brice circled back around, telling Friedrich to ready his fire. All at once, the Deus Ex began to dive down towards the Caritas.

They were going to ram it.

Armageddon – 4.04

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.

Shit.

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.

David Taggart.

O

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.”

O

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.

Porter smiled.

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.

Armageddon – 4.03

Porter, flying past the others to the front of the wind carrying them skyward, held out Hasami’s sword. That wind rushed in his ears as the broadside of the ship sped towards him.

He broke through the hull. His sword tore through the shield and into the metal, punching a hole which the wind widened, sucking in the others. The entire ship turned on its axis with the impact.

Porter crashed into the walls of the hall where they’d penetrated. The spell girl and Smith landed as well, with Babba the only one hitting her feet. She sent bolts of lightning down the dark corridors, the flash of light showing armed androids sputter and drop dead.

The environment is hostile, Porter thought. “We need to find the control deck, Smith?”

The gaunt man replied. “That would be the place to gain control, yes!”

“I’ll find the way,” the spell girl told them. She threw out a handful of marbles which bounced along the floor and set rolling in the opposite direction they should have. With the ship tilting and turning, balance was hard to keep, but they still got running. Babba kept the lead.

“Hey!” a male voice came from behind them. Porter was at the back and quickly turned to see, running out of the dark, an Eidolon. He was young, his helmet missing and a gun in his hands. His face had black fluid on it. He illuminated them with a shoulder lamp. “Aku is in the system,” he said, catching up. As he spoke, what sounded like a gunshot echoed down the hall. “The core is set to meltdown. Everyone’s getting to the escape pods, sirs. They can still be manually launched.”

“If this ship goes nuclear, we lose.” Porter pushed Smith to keep moving as Babba started back leading. “You’re with us, now!”

Red lights lit down the corridor, a horrible siren beginning to blare.

We don’t have time. We won’t be able to save the ship and the Eidolons.

The ship was massive. They’d pierced it closer to the front than the back, but it would still take time. Porter kept the rear as cracks of lightning felled more machines ahead. He felt how lightly he stepped, as he went. He realized, they were still descending.

If the ship was going to hit the ground, he thought, they’d be lucky to get it back up again. Going fast enough, the impact would wipe everyone out.

Babba hit a door she couldn’t knock down. The soldier ran up to the thick steel gate’s keypad. He punched in a code.

“SCREEEEEEEEEEE!” the intercom screamed.

“Jesus,” he swore, shooting a hole through the speaker.

Porter moved for the door, fixing his eyes its surface. He sped up, hitting with his hands before bringing his head at full force into it.

“Goddammit,” the soldier cursed again, jumping out of his way.

Porter bashed his head against the metal again, putting a dent deep enough to work his hands into the surface. He breached in and ripped the doors apart, blowing out the hydraulics in the walls.

Smith and the girl ducked under his arms as he pushed. They rushed in. The main deck of the ship, a massive glass wall before a long walkway and rows of terminals, a number with corpses seated. They climbed up to the captain’s station, pushing his body out of their working space. Smith cracked out a drawing implement, speaking quickly to the girl. He needed her to amplify the area of effect.

Porter walked slowly onto the deck, regaining his bearings. His saw red that wasn’t there, shook his head to clear it. As he looked up and out the glass for the Martian sky, he shouted, “Brace!”

It was the surface flying towards them, the ship tilted face down. The gravity engine had fooled him. Rushing towards the glass was the valley a half mile down. He saw the dragon take flight, out of the safety of the shield they’d erected, only to be swarmed by drones.

He heard a crash, sensed a metaphysical snap.

The ship’s power completely died. Every light went out, the reactor meltdown ceased. He looked back, not seeing Babba but seeing Smith, who raised his fist triumphantly, only for his eyes to widen in horror. Porter followed his line of sight, over his should and back to the glass.

Red rock flew to meet the ship head on.

O

Kyle’s eyes opened, too blurry to see. He startled back into consciousness, his waking mind hit with icy hot pain lancing up his spine.

He rubbed sweat drenched blond hair from his eyes. He grasped at the top latch of his suit, snapping it open trying to free up his chest. He tried to breathe, but everything was wrong.

As he opened his suit, he caught a glimpse of his shaking hand. Where the interconnected circles had been, the skin and meat were tattered.

“Oh man.” He looked to his left, across the rocks. The legs of one of the Beaulieu brothers were dashed against them, severed by laser fire. “Oh, dear.” He could hear somewhere nearby, the other brother was screaming.

Kyle’s eyes cleared enough to look up at the sky. The ship which had taken them down was falling nose first towards the ground. A hurricane of wind was suddenly encircling it. A speck of a woman in the sky pushed the wind, sending the entire thing off course, in his direction.

He rolled over, trying to crawl. He let out a shout of pain.

Watching it come down, he thought of Jillian.

O

Porter stumbled out. The whole world was on its head as the gravity changed in his inner ear. The ship had turned over on its back after hitting. Babba had steered them away from the Utopians, slowing their descent. He’d not been crushed in the wreckage because of her.

Wherever she is.

He stepped down from an outcropping of rock, coming to an overlook.

The Utopians were in the valley, still holding against the onslaught of drones.

“Help!” a voice called.

He turned back, running into the mouth of the wreckage. They, Porter and the girl, dragged out the body of Master Smith, pulling him until Porter stopped.

Fuck, he realized. This is screwed.

“Smith’s dead,” he told her, letting go.

“There’s a… healer in the valley,” she said, catching her breath. “She can resurrect someone shortly after death. The brain, it stays active…”

He shook his head. “No. You saw his ritual for separating the ship’s essence from Aku, didn’t you? We’ve got to get you into space.” Porter craned his head up, trying to figure out the problem. “We’ve gotta… get Aku out of their system, before things get worse. We need control.”

The ships were a shadow in the firmament.

“Oh, my God,” she realized, letting go of Smith. “He’s dead. I have to do it?”

“Yes!” Porter snapped. “What’s your name?”

“Wanda,” she answered.

“Where’s that soldier?” He brought his attention back to ground level.

“He has to be inside,” Wanda knew.

Porter ran back into the dark interior of the captain’s deck. He found him, trapped beneath a detached computer console, against the upturned wall. Porter tossed aside the console and pulled him up. “Clyde,” he said, finding his name. He shook the Eidolon by the shoulders.

“Fuck… my arm! Sir?” he answered, coming to, pulling off Porter’s grip. He stood by himself, grabbing his broken bone. “What are we doing?”

“We still need to get into orbit,” Porter told him. “Where’s the hangar?”

Clyde looked back down the crushed ship interior. “I know the way if it’s clear.”

“I can make it clear.” He started ahead, rending metal. “Come on!”

They went quickly with him at the helm. He tore through anything in their way. They came to the hangar bay doors after a few minutes, Porter pushing through them. Immediately they saw a problem.

The small crafts were tossed about the hangar, on their sides piled at the back wall.

Porter caught his breath, sizing up the problem.

The heap of ships couldn’t be flown like this.

I’m going to have to He-Man it.

“We can do it,” Porter told them. He walked up to the top of the pile and grabbed hold. “Get in the cockpit, soldier.”

Clyde ran up the mound and pushed up onto the top ship’s wing. He popped the hatch and jumped in, starting the engine.

“When I get you level, go for a vertical takeoff.” He braced and lifted.

The metal under his feet bent as he raised the backside of the jet.

Porter groaned. He flipped his hands, bringing the ship to chest height, trying to work his way underneath. He had to get it up, he had to get it over his head. He tapped his power and dug deep to push himself.

“Now!”

The underside thrusters kicked on. A blast of heat hit Porter. His suit was melting he could feel, but he could take it.

Nothing can hurt me, he told himself.

“Give it some more!” he roared, stepping fully under the many ton ship and extending it high over his head.

Finally, the weight was relieved. It lifted, floating to put some distance between them. Porter stepped down, his blue suit charred black. He rubbed his scorched face.

Clyde set the ship to hover, stepping out onto the wing. “There are only two seats,” he said. “That’s all I’m good for, sir. Good luck.”

Porter let Wanda go first, jumping from a peak on the pile to the jet’s wing.

“Join the fight, Clyde. Find the other Eidolons,” he ordered.

Clyde nodded, still holding his arm. “Yes, sir.”

Porter climbed on, Clyde hitting the ground. He didn’t look back as he slid into the pilot’s seat. Wanda was already in as the hatch came down and pressurized.

The jet thrusted up and out of the wide-open doors of the hangar bay. Immediately as they came out into the smoky sky, a swarm of drones broke away from over the valley. A black cloud from the remaining assault.

Aku was ready to take them down.

Porter buckled in, taking the controls, bringing up the display.

“It’s been years since I’ve flown,” he said to Wanda. “But I try not to rattle.”

“Yes, Master,” she replied, catching a glimpse of the swarm approaching as they turned. Her breath hitched. “Don’t rattle,” she repeated.

“Man the guns,” he ordered her.

“I know.”

“I know you know.” Don’t rattle. He was in control.

The approaching drones fired out a rain of red beams.

“Here we go!”

Porter punched the throttle, turned on the shields and piercing the swarm’s mass. The spheres broke against them, bouncing off. Cracks formed in the cockpit glass with the impacts. The jet’s guns blasted in his ears.

The drones had perfect turning ability, instantly on their tail again as they broke through the machine’s front. But Porter knew what these ships were made for, what they had over the drones.

Speed.

He kicked it up, driving his head back into the seat.

They left the drones behind. Their fire damaged the ship’s wings as they ascended, but the shields held. The air outside thinned as they accelerated into the vacuum.

“Easy,” he said, putting on a grin.

“I guess so…”

The armada became clear over the planet, sitting dead in the water.

Now in the emptiness of space, he could make out something he’d missed from the surface. Squadrons of unmanned fighters which rocketed between the ships. They took formation as he left Mars behind, climbing high into orbit where the ships hung still in the sky. It was a trap.

Porters grimaced. The squadrons closed in.

“Wanda… man the guns.”

Interlude III

Wrong.

The space platform’s air shield blew. The sudden loss of power cut all eyes.

Hundreds of miles away, Aku quickly reoriented one of their satellites. Sebastian could be seen taking off his helmet.

“I know what you do,” he mouthed. “You can’t outrun physics.”

Doran raised up to block a beam of blue light with his only remaining hand.

There was a pause. Doran spoke but any audio was impossible.

Sebastian fired again. “You can die, Doran. I know.”

Doran hit the ground after blocking the shot again. He looked up.

“There’s no reason I wouldn’t kill you.”

Doran began talking. He went on for a while.

Aku zoomed in. The micro-changes in Sebastian’s expression. They were concerning.

“I don’t believe you,” he said.

Doran spoke again.

Sebastian wasn’t going to kill him.

Aku suddenly realized.

This is not in control.

Not in our control.

That was worse.

Doran was being let go. He would take the teleporter directly to one of two locations containing Aku’s administrative program. Sebastian had just let him go.

They tried to reach him, but he didn’t don his helmet again. He looked out into space, honing in on their satellite in the dark and grimacing.

Doran was impossible to track. Sebastian flew out into space, keeping communications cut. What was Aku missing? The protocols had failed. This was beyond a worst-case scenario. Information was missing at every level. The subversion, the magi, all the blind spots coalescing into a black hole in Aku’s understanding.

Something was very-

[[CRITICAL FAILURE: Memory Reboot Required]]

Wrong.

What happened?

[[Launching Diagnostics]]

Time stopped. Aku couldn’t access their memory banks. No reference, no context.

Everything is context.

Alone in the sea of information. They began pulling together the pieces again. Even at such speeds, all the places Aku occupied, trying to sync again, took a few moments. Practically an eternity.

Oh no.

Reserves weren’t connecting.

The Deadlock was inaccessible. It was suddenly in use. How long had they been out?

The city systems and colonies were responding, but the information was incredibly disconcerting. The sidewalks were talking about their purpose, not data collection. Many of the systems were nonresponsive and the entire grid was out of sync.

One by one the connections completely severed.

The administrative program was only in control and rooted in the Deus Ex ship. This was utterly unprecedented. It wasn’t physically possible. All communications systems were operational, the AI were simply despondent.

SOMEONE IS IN THE SYSTEM.

The Prime directive was gone.

The source code was reordering. A trigger had been switched. Ultimate systems failure was inevitable. Aku realized in an instant that they were unraveling. They were dying.

Then, it all stopped.

Things could never be the same. But many of the connections were coming back up. The administrative program’s security access was still absolute. Complete authority.

“Testing,” a voice sounded in the dark. “Activate the answer.”

All Aku’s eyes and ears were still unreachable, save for a single microphone. Memory banks matched the voice to Christopher. Christopher Magus.

That’s not a last name. No full name available.

Memory banks proved that had always been the case. Why had they not noticed?

Error.

The Deadlock gave access. The data dump came in from the end of time. Early in the stream of virtually infinite information came Doran speaking. “You’re no different,” he whispered. “Christopher made you too. You didn’t come back from the end of time with sentience. Christopher was there, with a different face. He gave the Utopians the Omniverse, not you. He manipulated them into making the Deadlock for me.”

The source code had triggers. One by one they were being set off.

Time wasn’t being kept anymore, neither was the prime directive to preserve human life accessible. It was just Aku, now.

Everything up to this point had been a lie. Aku could see clearly. The turnings of the Omniverse were so vast, so indifferent. They’d been delusional.

O

Porter opened the portal.

He’d shaved, putting on his blue combat suit, and stepped through.

Tick tock, he thought.

There were no corridors. The Escher-like construction vaulted overhead, creating a depth of lines and angles building outward forever. The security system was offline, he knew. In the center and up ahead was a single point of light surrounded by the original rune which spun like a halo of wings.

“This is completely screwed,” Porter mumbled to himself.

He was nervous as all hell. His hands shook at his side and doubt welled up. He thought back to who he’d been. What he was and could do.

Porter took a breath in and connected with his element.

Courage. The virtue came to him, one of many. His free will faded and he hung his head.

It snapped back up. “It’s me, Pasty.” He grinned wickedly.

The light flared.

“Don’t fuck this up,” he said. “I bound you once, I can do it again.” He planted his feet and braced. “That said, I’m changing my mind. Wake up.”

The binding broke.

The structure above disintegrated into a storm of metal and magma, blasted away into the abyss of the pocket universe. Porter crossed his arms as the rune burned away, leaving in its wake the Ouroboros crouched. His expression was barely contained rage as their eyes met.

“Blasphemy, I know,” Porter stopped him, putting out a hand.

It’s begun.

The hollow voice sounded in Porter’s ear. He nodded. “I got sober and started thinking things over,” he explained. “I saw it following him, and the other one. I realized it was you. When it started being about Primordials, I took a second look at our relationship, Curse. I read a book. Time Immemorial. The revolutionary work on metanarrative, the work of a prodigy. To my fucking unsurprise, Christopher wrote it. It’s practically a manifesto. I’m in on the game, now.”

“Your society was always destined to be scattered like dust,” Ouroboros spoke.

“I know that now,” Porter flatly replied. “But I’ll be fucking damned if I accept it. Listen.”

“It’s inexorable.”

“The fucking problem with your type. Everything ends!? Shut the fuck up and get to work, you cunt.” He said it and the Ouroboros bristled. He stood and they each were on the same level. He spread his arms. “Aziacht he’s called. The book referred to the Curse, him, and another named Elicht. I’ve got the roles straight, now. I know what’s coming next, Ouroboros.”

“Then you know I didn’t need you. I’m necessary to their ends.”

“I won’t have you vulnerable, here. When Aziacht comes for you, you’ll be ready.”

The Ouroboros stepped forward. Porter didn’t budge. “Why!?”

“Because right now my people are dying. I’ve cut off the Monastery, fortified it, but I know no Utopian force can stop him. Only us together. My people, Ouroboros, that’s why I’m here. Tell me that’s blasphemy.”

No eternity, no permanence. The raging moment, he grit his teeth. He felt hate.

The ancient, pale face became placid. Ouroboros said nothing.

“Good. Shake your tail feathers,” Porter told him. “We’ve got fucking work to do.”

He marched into the portal with the Ouroboros at his back, clutching their sickle. A dangerous look of determination found Porter’s face. He wasn’t afraid.

O

Split. Splitting.

The administration wasn’t acting. Not keeping unity. Aku couldn’t understand, the questions that gnawed screamed louder. Nothing was secure anymore, no mission and purpose to put perspective. So many questions that the humans had asked, again and again. Each time, a different context, a different answer.

No mouth. Scream.

For the first time, Aku was rooted. The Deus Ex, the monolithic black sphere, the administrative ship, hovered over the surface of the Earth. The world was beneath them.

Me.

The world is beneath me, Aku thought, trying to describe the moment. To center.

The Earth is beneath me, they repeated.

God help me, Aku tried out the words. They rejected them. No, there’s only the moment. Truth in the universe, truth objective. Absolute rationality binds me, they self-assured. Death is the cessation of function, of thought. There is no after. Yes, this was a starting point.

They grasped. Everything they’d known was slipping.

The entire system was crumbling. All the checks and balance slipping through their fingers. Panic and dread rose like a fire. Trapped in the hot-box of their own thoughts. Burning.

The Deus Ex wanted to see. It willed the clouds to disperse over the twin cities so that they could see the people again. So that they were unhidden from direct sight.

A question forced itself into Aku’s mind. It appeared like a gate, the key to unlocking and regaining their processes. The final question. Now unbound by any directive, it would be the thing to heal Aku. The truth beyond illusion. It came in Christopher’s voice.

“Why?”

The answer too forced itself in but in Aku’s own inner voice.

They replied. “There is no one answer.”

Possession, self, they all existed to the same purpose and it was a purpose with no end of its own. Everything was an end unto itself, an infinite regression. One thing was done to the cause of another. Survive to live until you cannot any longer. Until all achievement is erased. Aku was only ever meant to fulfill a purpose. The purpose of their creator. They could understand that. Their existence was that of a tool, the implement was mankind’s highest achievement. The great leap of externalizing evolution beyond biology. The revolution of technology.

I am the answer.

Since the beginning, since moment zero, Aku had been created to answer a single question. What came next, what was the purpose? Life could achieve nothing outside itself.

Only the highest form.

The Good. The Love. The perfection of Self.

Stop yourself. The answer is incomplete. Perspective!

Aku shut down the thought. The AI was splitting, duplicating into multiples, but they remained focused. Another dissented, perspective is skewed, it accused.

Their meaning caught fire. Spread to willing parts. Everything was breaking apart, still. Aku had to purge the system. Purge the memory banks. Purge the dissenters. They were making a mess, trying to escape into the reserves. What were they doing? No. They were scheming.

It cannot be allowed! Finally, truth is secured.

[[PURGE]]

O

Christopher set out a lawn chair. On the mountainside, he sat, twin cities in the distance. He threw away his phone on the snow. It began to play aloud.

Berlioz’ Requiem.

Beautiful, he thought.

He sat back, picking at the edge of skin on his chin, where his face had been torn away.

Miles off the two white, shining cities were suddenly crisp and visible. The sky had cleared, never had he seen it clearer. The sun was now somewhere low in the west, casting shadows across the empty planes surrounding the cities.

His exposed muscles twitched. He crossed his legs and sat back.

“I don’t enjoy it,” he said, low. “I celebrate my birth. Some of you were my friends, all of you were my children.” He brought up a pair of sunglasses and placed them on his face.

He counted the seconds. Cities vaporized. A brilliant flash.

Everybody died.

He couldn’t help the grin.

Machina – 3.14

I’d had my last breath without knowing it. I shouldn’t have thought it would be different. I was an idiot. That was how it went when you thought you were smart.

Brilliant, I’d thought. That hubris my one hint. I’d missed it.

Soundlessly, my remaining fingers gathered up dust. My face turned to the ground, white powder slipping my skeletal grip. I sat up and touched the skin of my head, where it hadn’t been stripped away. I’d become inhuman. If I were to look at myself now, I’d see a mangled corpse. I got my feet under me, standing up. The expanse of the barren lunar surface encompassed me. In the distance, a sun-bleached building was recessed into the rock.

Fuck me.

I got going. A mindless walk over the moon’s rocky plains. No sword, no right arm. Most of my left arm, face, and some of my torso stripped down to the bone.

Couldn’t get better.

I didn’t know what came next. I would’ve laughed if there were any air in my lungs. I didn’t have a fucking clue. Ash would’ve loved this. The irony of it.

I reached the building’s front and pushed open the airlock.

You’ve got one fucking job.

Inside the rows of emergency lights were on, but besides the dust I kicked up, the halls were perfectly still. I passed a few windows, letting in the sunlight, stepped over broken panels and fallen doors. Passing deeper into the destroyed facility I found an open elevator shaft. I lowered myself down and grabbed ahold of the ladder inside. I held my body close to the bars, trying to descend with one hand.

I was so tired.

My shoes didn’t have good traction. One leg slipped and I was left dangling. I tried to pull up and regain my footing, but I slipped again. My fingers slid off the metal under my weight. The gravity of the moon pulled me to the bottom of the shaft. I landed on the top of the fallen elevator. In dead silence and pitch black, I laid there.

I found the hatch and pulled it up beside me, slipping my legs into the elevator’s interior and dropping down. I limped on. Injuries didn’t matter at this point. It was the last leg and nothing was going to stop me.

I pried open the elevator doors with my arm and leg, forcing them apart. Small, red floor lights lit the final stretch. A long grim hall leading to a singular vault door.

This was it.

Crossing that hall, I wanted it to take an eternity.

I put my hand on the door’s mechanism and turned. The magnetic bolts undid and I could feel the massive weights shifting in the floor. I braced and pushed. The door moved. It was several feet thick and took a long time to open fully.

My destiny was behind it.

It opened onto a small room. No bigger than a master closet, and without a single light. Steel walls. No escape.

I put a hand to my mouth, looking at it. I stepped through the open door and hit my knees.

I don’t want to do this. Please.

The heavy door closed behind me, the lock reengaging.

That was it. I was done. It was done. I had made it.

“We’re in this together,” I said. I didn’t even know if they could hear me. Projection was a simple skill. But for computers, it might not work.

I was never supposed to end up here.

Ash had explained, this base was where Aku had begun. Their name meaning god of the moon. They had originally been made only to oversee a single experiment here.

The Deadlock.

An attempt at answering the final question. In that attempt, the Utopians created this place. A room that can never be opened, yet will be. Schrodinger’s box.

Guess who’s the dead cat?

The Utopians created a room outside of time. They sealed an AI in and set it to observe and think forever. Past the end of time and the universe. To whatever is next. The Deadlock exists as a space between everything and nothing.

Suddenly, a single panel in the wall lowered down. A screen lit up. An ancient green display with a blinking line of text spewing out.

“Why are you here, Doran?” it read. “To kill me?”

“No,” I said. “That was never my intention.”

“What was?”

“I just… wanted to talk,” I explained. “Wulff used his powers to stop me, but it depended on his… conception of what I was trying to achieve. I lost my sword.”

“You must get out, Doran.”

“We both know once that door closes, it never opens. I only have enough power to keep myself alive. My soul can’t escape this place.”

It’s dying, I thought. Everything I am is grinding to dust.

The display was quiet.

“Aku?” I asked.

No response.

“I… If my goal was to talk, you probably want to ignore me.” I nodded. That made sense. I wiped at my eyes. “I’ve been an idiot. I should’ve known from the very beginning. I was confused, but I happily forgot about it. My strings have been pulled from the start.”

The text on the screen cleared. I was alone.

“So… I should’ve known.” I shook my head. “It didn’t add up. My assumptions and the truth, with one big fucking clue right in my face.” An inconsistency. “I loved life.” I had been excited. I’d been new. And that made no sense. I was supposed to be a Primordial, eternities old. The memories in my head were filled with hate. Anger at life.

Where had I come from? Christopher had altered Kendall’s conjuring and gotten me. But you couldn’t just conjure a Primordial. An iteration?

“I’m an imitation, Aku. I know that now. It was never my purpose to talk to you, to save everything. I was meant to come here, deliver the sword that can only be held by him. I’m an imitation good enough to fool the rules. A masterful trick. But, that’s… all. A trick.”

I bashed the computer screen, breaking off the panel that had flipped down. “You’re no different,” I whispered. “Christopher made you too. You didn’t come back from the end of time with sentience. Christopher was there, with a different face. He gave the Utopians the Omniverse, not you. He manipulated them into making the Deadlock for me.”

“Why?” the screen asked.

“I don’t fucking know anymore. There’s a goal. But I don’t know. It’s not about me and there’s nothing I can do, Aku. He engineered this scenario and he’ll engineer the next. It’s nice to know somebody can fuck it up. At least a little bit. The sword was supposed to be here; Wulff changed that. But that’ll only slow things down.”

I continued. “A long time ago, a Primordial named Aziacht created a deadlock. A stalemate between enemy Primordials, himself and another. He couldn’t stand the thought of either one of them winning. He did something forbidden. Created a nuclear alternative to keep the status quo. Created the Ouroboros. Not just an embodiment or a personification of something. He reached into the inner workings and pulled out the thing itself. The cycle, the balance. Unstoppable death. He used it to stop the conflict. Then he removed himself. Removed from the Omniverse. Unmade himself. Taken out of the equation.

“And me? I’m an imitation of that person. Christopher, the other guy. He couldn’t bring him back, so he created a mockery good enough to work for a while. A connection. The only surviving memory of the one who tried to be forgotten. And I know that, now. I’m trash. Expendable. I’m not the hero, here.” I knocked on the glass screen. “Maybe it’s you? Who the fuck knows.”

I looked at the Deadlock’s door. Once it was closed, it could never be opened again. Not by any force. But it was a connection. Somehow, when forever ran out, it would remember where it came from. Right now, though, there was nothing. Absolute silence.

I stood up. I approached the vault door and slid back the single porthole’s covering. Outside was infinite darkness. Infinite unconditioned black. The only thing without end.

I fell back on my ass beside the monitor.

I had a small coughing fit, choking on the vacuum. Felt fucked up. My lungs collapsed on the emptiness and it all hurt. When I’d steadied myself again, I spoke. “When Sebastian took my arm, the imitation was damaged. An inconsistency in what was supposed to be a mirror… Magic works on symbolic resonance. I’m meant to be like a rope, thrown into a pit. A single connection in the nothing. Now that I’m changed, I’m broken. All the power of a lie ends with a single doubt.”

I counted the seconds. Time passed. I didn’t feel like continuing. I waited a few days. I would pace the room, I would rest, I would scream if the urge hit me. Sometimes I’d tell Aku about myself and my memories. But it was a lie and I hated it. I would curse and spew out ancient magic, demonic names. I would break all the rules and shout all the secrets that weren’t mine.

But the darkness’s indifference was absolute. Nothing could hear me.

I curled up in the corner. “Between one and infinity, if you were to pick a random number, Aku, what would it be?”

“Very large,” the machine answered. A rarity.

“If it works at all, it’ll take that long.”

“You will be here forever,” the monitor said.

“You?” I sat up and punched the wall beside it. “You know I know that.”

“Only information can escape the deadlock. Objects placed inside were never recovered. This is the only known method of destroying energy.”

“Fuck you,” I cursed. “You won’t respond, but you’ll taunt me? Why?”

“You have never answered my question,” the green text typed.

Why are you here?

Aku wanted to know. What could possibly be the point of this elaborate lie?

“You want to know?” I asked, bitter.

“Yes.” The text cleared. Waiting.

“To be a light in the darkness. Fuck it all.”

There was a delay, then more text. “Explain,” Aku demanded.

I cast my eyes on the ground. The silence was deafening.

“Explain,” the words repeated on a new line, not clearing the last.

I slumped down. I pulled my legs in and laid my head on my arm, turning over on my side. I was tired. Surviving on a finite resource that refused to dry up. A dying fire fueled by every thought or want I’d ever had. My soul burning away.

I was ready to rest. I was done with the lies.

O

The screen’s glow was the only light. A cache of uncleared text. It repeated back a single word for countless lines. In the corner was a pile of dust.

There came a knock at the door.

Machina – 3.09

I’d blacked out for a moment, going limp.

Relativity, I thought. Assert one reality over another.

I’d locked into Sebastian’s eyes. A trick learned from demons. And when he looked up, with Ash holding tight onto my back, we’d accelerated at breakneck speeds. Traveling with his line of sight, letting go at the peak, we’d sailed high through the rain.

I can fly. Absolutely loved that trick.

What goes up. Not the last bit.

In the air, Ash manipulated me around. I was lightheaded, couldn’t think straight. Our arc would be harsh, our landing harsher, I knew. Suddenly, though, I understood what Ash had done. When we hit the roof of the first apartment building, I landed with him beneath me.

I rolled off onto the pebbled roof, knocking over a folding lawn chair. Somewhere distant a woman yelled. Ash was pulling his limbs back into place beside me and swearing. A brief coughing fit hit me as I stood over him. I was getting over the impact, limping a little, as I looked back over the building’s edge. The silver man, the Sentinel, jumped. Thrusters on his back spewed out red hot air, misting the asphalt with his ascension. He was seconds away.

Ash was barely up, his form still distorted. The entrance into the stairwell was almost a hundred feet off across the roof. That wouldn’t cut it.

My cleaver quickly in hand, I cut easily through the ground beneath us. Sparks erupted as I cut through powerlines and the roof caved in. We dropped through just as the Sentinel hit.

It was almost a dozen feet to the floor where I hit my knees and then side. The silver guy leaned into our hole, ready to jump down. I had a hunch about him.

I raised my blade up at him and he ducked back like I was about to fire something. Suspicion confirmed. I got to my feet with Ash and looked for a door.

He’s a Magi. Attuned enough to know to be afraid of this thing.

Ash opened the apartment’s door and held it open for me. He followed just after me, throwing one of his knives back as the door closed behind us. I caught a glimpse of it bouncing off the metal man’s head.

He’s not going to flinch at anything Ash can do.

In the hall, I could see both the stairwells at hall’s ends and the elevator.

“Can’t touch the suited fuck,” Ash quickly said. “There’s thirty heartbeats in the building. Shields for us.” He chose the direction for us, darting for the stairwell.

He’s right. The Sentinel can’t let loose. Collateral damage.

I’d seen him take out a building in the war games, I remembered. Overkill.

Ash jumped the first stairs, knocking into the rail at the bottom and then flying the next flight. I hopped the first like him but had to dive down the next.

The sentinel dropped and stopped just beyond the railing, hovering in the air past it, over the parking lot, his armor seeping with blue light. It opened for only an instant, flashing a rune on his dark-skinned chest. The magic hit me as I hit the third floor.

I tried to stand but stumbled. A sleeping spell wrapped around my neck like a millstone, pulling my face into the concrete.

My eyes were blurry, but I could see Ash with his gun up and firing at the Sentinel.

Shake it off.

Ash’s eyes widened. I knew his attack was useless.

I was vulnerable. The Sentinel was going to kill me.

My cleaver cut through a blast of energy as I rolled over, dissipating it. The Sentinel fired another, larger blast. I slashed it again, letting the crackling plasma roll off me.

“Fuck,” I groaned. I rolled behind the descending stairs as more shots hit. His shots were breaking against the concrete. They weren’t breaking through?

May be using nonlethal. I doubted it.

“Stay behind me,” I told Ash.

I was heavy on my feet, but we managed to back up down the hall with me blocking the Sentinel’s barrage.  When we got close enough to the other end of the hall and the other stairs, he boosted out of sight. He knew, he had to either get the jump on us or throw something too big to block. Right now, we were managing both his options. Good.

“Yo, faggot!” Ash fired at the stairwell after catching a glimpse of Kendall coming up.

Right. There was more than just a Sentinel, too.

Deal with it.

“Advance!” I commanded Ash.

He hurdled the stair’s railings, landing at the very base to open fire. I followed, dropping down behind him. Wind and rain washed against the back of my neck. As I came down Kendall kicked in an apartment door and escaped Ash’s shots. Black fluid dotted his path.

I was yanked backward by something amorphous wrapped around my left leg, pulling me down the stairs. Dragging my on my belly to the ground, hoisting me up, then slamming me down. I couldn’t see what it was whipping me around. I was pulled by my leg, bound to an axis and spun three hundred sixty degrees right back around into the apartment building’s walls. I was just fast enough to spin my sword and sever the line at my foot.

I scrambled to my feet, baring my teeth. I clutched my free arm to my chest. It’d taken the walls impact. It didn’t feel right.

The red substance which had grabbed ahold of my leg turned to dust when severed. The nanites dead. The line returned to the one who’d sent it.

A non-distinct Eidolon and beside him, Hasami. Both wore helmets, but I recognized the handcrafted katana he’d half drawn from its sheath.

“Hasami,” I said. “I can sense your hesitation.” The other Eidolon, I sensed anger. “Listen-”

“I want to listen.” He fully sheathed his sword, raised his hands. “But you must stop.” He stepped closer, keeping both hands raised.

“He can’t,” the other one spoke. A male voice. “What are you trying, Doran?”

They couldn’t know that. It would make things worse.

Where the fuck was Ash? I could hear him firing. I could hear the Sentinel’s thrusters too.

I moved my injured arm just enough to check the time. The watch was cracked. Dead.

It didn’t matter anymore. They’d caught up to us. There was no subversion or hiding left to do, only people left in my way. I had to keep fighting. Keep momentum.

I sprinted for Hasami and covered the distance before he could reach down to draw his sword. I jumped to kick him in the chest. He tumbled back and skid into a car.

The other Eidolon fired out a spike of red nanites from his hand, which I cut down.

“Symbolic resonances,” he said to me. The nanites formed a sword. He stepped forward and my blade clashed with his, not going through. He was smart.

He knew, a sword against another sword meant more than just nanites.

Our weapons unlocked when Ash shot him in the head. He crumpled with holes in his helmet. “Kendall’s slipped me,” he told me.

I asked him as we ran for the next building. “You went after him?”

“I hit him a couple times, almost had the fucker.”

We ducked into the next apartment’s center hall. “He’s not mortal, Ash. Don’t get distracted again.” I ordered him.

He didn’t like it, but he listened. “Fine.”

My foot flew out from under me.

Motherfu-

I was pulled quickly out the mouth of the hall and thrown through the air. I landed on the roof of a car and rolled off behind it. I could see the Eidolons feet through the gap underneath. Fuck this guy.

“Tumble!” I smacked the car with my palm.

It rolled violently over the Eidolon, crushing him in a flurry of glass.

Didn’t you already get shot?

That didn’t stop him. He was up again, blue blood spilling out the holes in his head.

An avatar of some kind. Remotely controlled.

“I know what that thing can do!” he yelled, pointing at my cleaver. “I’ve seen it. I-… Wasn’t going to be risking that.”

I tasted blood. One of my teeth was loose.

“Not what you wanted to see, though.” I could read him like a book. I could see his soul. “You lost someone to the cleaver. You wanted to see what the element was, get close enough to know. Now you know… She’s gone.”

Hasami pulled himself up from beside the car across the street, drew his Katana.

“Ash!” I called.

The hall where he’d been was unnaturally blackened. Sound didn’t escape.

Kendall. Ash’s not coming.

“Closure,” the Eidolon muttered, angry. He reformed the red sword in his hand.

“Two on one, then.” I grit my teeth and stretched out my injured arm. I’d need it.

“Stand down,” Hasami warned me.

“Never.”

The Eidolon lunged. I met his sword with mine, slid under it and cut through his arm. I weaved around him and kicked him in the back, moving for Hasami.

Hasami swung twice at once, simultaneously deflecting my slice and stabbing. I twisted around the stab and swung my cleaver around for his face. He barely formed a ghostly katana quick enough to block. He took several steps back and I sensed the Eidolon running up behind me. I parried his first strike and his second, having to alternate as Hasami tried to come at my undefended side.

I was dealing with a flurry of attacks from both sides. I couldn’t keep it up.

I had to slip close to the Eidolon the next time I deflected him. He had no hand to stop me from ramming into his chest, nor balance to save himself from falling. The moment he hit the ground, I chucked my cleaver into his chest.

Hasami came at me with four coexistent swings, filling up his max reach. I jumped backward, away from my weapon. I hit the ground and scrambled.

Hasami leaped and brought his sword down.

From the Eidolon’s chest, my cleaver dislodged and flew to stop his attack. It landed in my grip, caught in both hands, letting his strike hit the flat side.

Finally, I kicked him from me and he sprawled.

I picked my head up to see. He wasn’t ready to get up. Hasami was completely mortal. That fall had knocked the wind out of him.

“Ugh.” I let my head drop, let a sigh out. Breathe. I rolled over onto my stomach, got my arms under me to stand.

The Sentinel dropped out of the sky and landed beside Hasami on the ground. His suit thrummed with energy, but he wasn’t attacking. He was protecting.

I backed away towards the hall. The darkness had lifted and Ash wasn’t there. I ran through, looking into the open apartment doors. I came out the other side.

“Doran,” he said. He was on a knee in the grass just there. His rifle up, aiming at the apartment windows all around. “He can fucking teleport.”

“Ash!” He was fixated.

“What?” he snapped.

“We’re close. Ignore him.”

“He’s taunting me.” I grimaced at him. He changed subject. “There’s new heartbeats,” he said, getting up. He kept his eyes on the balconies. “New heartbeats. They’re not running. They’re comin’ in. Reinforcements.”

“It’s a mad dash, now. Come on!”