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.

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Interlude IV

Anna was coming up over the hill when she felt as if she was shoved into the dirt. Her face buried in the mossy ground, she quickly recovered to look behind her. Her father was on his hands and knees, floored by the shockwave, now looking back as well.

The white flash of light came from the cities. The flat earth surrounding them let the shockwave rip outward. She couldn’t believe her eyes as the mushroom cloud formed.

“OH,” she stuttered. “Oh, my God.”

Her dad covered his eyes. She just looked on. She could feel her corneas singeing, but she knew she could heal. The pain couldn’t pull her away. The twin white cities gone in a flash, dashing white light against the sky and earth and moon. That was everything. Every person, every place she’d ever known. Her mother.

The trees at the forest’s edge had fallen. They’d been ascending the hill, able to see most of the flats and encircling mountains. The grass and trees swayed violently for a while longer until dead air came. Everything was silent as the plume continued to rise and the shockwave had passed.

 

“Anna,” her dad called. “We need to keep going!”

Not everything, she remembered. She nodded mutely, peeling away her eyes.

The skin on her cheeks was bubbling, she felt. He was right. Parts of the forest were burning and they needed to get to the cabin and the snow. Must keep going.

The forest shook with an earthquake. Snow roared in an avalanche out of sight somewhere far ahead. The temperature was already dropping again, now that the heat wave had passed.

They both trudged through the heavily inclined forest for a long time. Snowflakes fell. The lush green trees reminded Anna this wasn’t hell. Looking back at the desolation, she wasn’t sure. It was a nightmare. This was what Doran had predicted. He’d never fully disclosed, he always held back. She could never have imagined such an end to her whole world. Apocalypse.

She looked up to her father, the greying back of his head as he hiked. He looked back briefly, breath fogging, and made a concerned face. “You okay?”

“I am,” she replied.

Both wore the dark grey Utopian clothes, hers fitting very loosely. She had hooked a finger in her belt loop to hold them up as she walked. They’d not packed for this walk. Her father had used a spell of concealment to get them into the desert and they’d walked for hours in the heat. He was more exhausted than her, she could tell.

Back in Hell when Doran had led her, Odessa, and Ash, she’d learned her body’s limits. When the burning started, her mind would dull but her body would keep going. Sometimes she would lose memories, but she couldn’t die. Not even if she wanted to, which sometimes she had. Like now.

The path twisted up a steeper rock and Anna watched her father look for a way up. He reached down for some of the snow now on the ground, packing it against the burns on his neck. “I can go around,” he told her. “It’s going be a moment. The cabin is up there in a clearing. You could start the fire. I’d appreciate it sooner than later, please” he smiled weakly. “Don’t worry about me.”

She wanted to make sure he made it safely, but she knew he’d made this walk before. “Okay.” She crouched and jumped in a flurry of snow.

Anna came up and drifted down on the ledge some fifteen feet above. In a clearing, an open view to the forest and flats behind her, the cabin rested ahead. The pines swayed, she saw, the cratered earth still smoking beneath the ash cloud now hiding the sun. She turned away.

Her bare feet crunched on the thicker layer of snow, here.

The small cabin’s windows were black. Anna approached and raised the door’s latch. Dirt floors inside and mud packed log walls surrounded. A single room, a handmade cabin. The metal stove nestled into one corner had a stack of cut wood beside it. She found them and with numb hands filled the stove. No need for kindling, she stuck her hand in the stove and breathed deeply.

She thought about the flash. The sight of all that death.

The fire started quickly burning hot.

She closed the stove’s door and grabbed up a blanket folded on the back of one of the two chairs in the room. A small cot occupied one corner, the kitchen, and counters on the adjacent wall, beneath the window. A rifle was propped aside the bed, up against a locked chest.

She looked back at the door for a moment, then checked the fire again. She needed to go back out and see about her father.

Suddenly, the door opened behind her.

Her dad came in. She turned to hand him the blanket as he took one seat beside the fire. He set it down on the ground and gestured to the other chair as she stood staring.

“You may not be able to tell, but it’s Christopher,” he said. The faceless man’s suit was covered in crusted blood down his chest, his voice flowed through clenched, lipless teeth. “Sorry to intrude.”

Anna’s eyes bored into him. She realized her dad wasn’t coming.

Christopher ignited where he sat. A torrent of fire swallowed him, blackening the wall by the woodfire stove. Tears welled in her eyes as she kept them open, staring into the blasting flames scorching the cabin. She blinked and they cut off.

In a charred chair, himself nearly burnt to the bone, Christopher sat unmovingly.

“He’s dead,” Christopher said flatly.

Anna sat down on the ground, legs under her. She looked up to Christopher in the chair. Doran had said he would destroy everything, that he was almost as old as time. He looked down on her.

“Why?” she pleaded.

“I need you to do a thing. I couldn’t have you leaving the game, Anna.” He shrugged his shoulders, skin cracking and welling up blood. It streamed down his arms for a moment before he added, “Sorry. It’s your part still to play. Destiny is the architecture of greater men.”

“Fuck you,” she said, quietly. She was terrified, but she would say it.

“Doran is dead, the Ouroboros is working with Porter, Aku is homicidal, and Kendall and Ash are out of the game. You’re all caught up.”

“Doran is dead?”

“Yes. He resurrected Aziacht, who’s trying to kill the Ouroboros, which will effectively kill reality. We’re going to kill him before he can do that. Understand?”

Anna didn’t speak.

“This is really very awkward.” Christopher pointed over Anna’s shoulder. “You’ll know what to do,” he said.

She didn’t look, only staring him down. She wanted to burn him again.

He shot up from the chair. She jumped to the side as he went to the kitchen counter and grabbed up a heavy tome there. He threw it in the unburnt chair. “Your father’s book of spells. No one was better at hiding than him. The council sent a lot of magi to retrieve him for an inquiry over you. It never happened… You know what to do,” he repeated. “We’re the good guys now, Anna.” He spread his blackened and bleeding red arms. “You didn’t know it, but I’m the good guy.” His face cracked into what Anna thought was a smile.

“Fuck you,” she spat.

Christopher nodded. He walked over to the stove and opened the door.

Anna crawled quickly over to the gun beside the cot. A shotgun. She hoped it was loaded.

She turned around, pumped the gun, and fired. The slug tore into Christopher’s back, opening a hole which quickly let out a flow of red. He didn’t react, instead finishing putting wood in the fire and closing the door. She fired again and again until it wouldn’t fire anymore, sending tremors and putting holes in his body. He finally looked down at her, pressed into the corner between the cot and chest.

“You’re owed that,” he said. “I hope it’s some consolation. Just know it was always necessity which drove me. For Love.”

Anna stood up and clubbed him with the gun. It hit him like he was a steel pillar, the impact jolting down her arms. She threw it aside. “What did you do to him?”

“I broke his neck.” No remorse.

He suddenly looked off into space, listening.

He barged out the door and into the snow. Anna followed, pushing through the rebounding cabin door. She shouted at his back, “fuck you!”

“Places to be,” he said, not looking back.

Christopher walked off the edge of the cliff, dropping out of sight.

Anna ran after and looked over, but he was gone.

The black cloud had spread out overhead and snow was falling heavier. The cold had intensified. Behind her, the cabin had warmth and little food. Somewhere down below her father’s body would be accumulating a layer of white. She couldn’t bring herself to cry. She didn’t make any noise.

Anna had her father’s texts. With them, she could easily recall what she knew about magic. She could figure it out. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t human.

Here she was with all the freedom she’d always wanted. She could go anywhere, she could try to outrun all this. The Omniverse was too big to destroy.

If reality is native… if I could integrate into another system. I…

She knew she couldn’t escape.

Doran couldn’t have wanted this.

She could run. She could go. But now she had nothing to run from she could escape. This was how it had to be. The last crumb stolen right from her fucking hands. Everything gone. She’d always just wanted to go and be away. But now? She had to know. Everything was wrong just as it’d always been. It wasn’t okay.

She needed to know. All of this? It’d been done to her.

I don’t deserve this.

“I don’t deserve this!” she bellowed. “Christopher!”

He was gone.

Anna breathed in the cold. There was only one way, now. Forward to the end.

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 – 3.06

Akio came over the bridge sprinting. His arms pumped as he crested the overpass, over the road below, and quickly passing to the other side. He began to slow, coming to a setting of iron tables outside a storefront. At the tables and gazing into the glass-front display, a white family picnicked. Six children, a father, and mother, all eating a meal after church.

The youngest children watched Akio. He huffed heavily as he entered the store.

He pulled back his hoodie, looking over the store’s contents inside. Fresh cheeses, chocolates, bread, and fruits, all there to be taken freely. No attendant or price at all.

No food from home, however.

They keep us segregated, only to demand I live in the capitol?

Akio smirked, spotting a sandwich which looked good.

It was all just insanity, worry, he knew. The fear left over from a bygone time. He would keep his history, they would write theirs. He only wished he could travel to see his parents more often, in Japan. He bit into his sandwich, sitting down at a table by the window.

In every corner, cameras watched. He reached into his pocket, holding up a phone.

Messages, nothing.

“Tell me the news, Aku,” he said, mouth full. He threw his phone onto the table.

“Earlier today, Quinn Lee Porter requested a council audience. In it, he revealed that he’d been contacted by the entity Doran. A being conjured by Kendall Blackthorn…”

“What happened?” Akio grabbed his phone back, looking over the pictures Aku presented. Pictures of Porter, Kendall, and Doran.

“Doran’s intent was allegedly to give warning. A city-wide evacuation was considered.”

“Continue.”

“With no compelling reason to evacuate, the council ruled Kendall authority to track and detain the entity Doran and any with him. Then another of Kendall’s former summons, the ghost Odessa, attacked the court. She was neutralized by mister Blackthorn.” The girl’s face came up on Akio’s phone. Street video was available of the fight. He didn’t touch it.

“Anything else?”

“As a student with experience, you are a candidate for the detainment team, if you would like to apply. The effort has been put on priority after Doran and the demon Ashmedai were found armed and dangerous, targeting the council building. Two Magus were killed. Citizens in city one are being advised to stay inside.”

Akio threw his sandwich away, heading for the door. “Put in my application, Aku.”

He was available. He’d known those four, Doran, Anna, Odessa, and Ash. If he could help Kendall and maybe even them, he would. There had to be a reason for this.

“Application sent, Hasami.”

O

The silver man touched down.

The council building’s surrounding lot was like a wasteland. A huge parking lot completely empty, only three dark figures by the stadium’s doors.

Sebastian had landed some ways off, so he walked. As he did he looked up. A front was approaching from the east, he saw, past the space elevator. A wall of clouds.

At the doors, those three people were waiting for him. A young man in a black suit with red tie. Kendall, who he’d been briefed on coming in. And lastly, someone in Eidolon-armor and helmet. Kendall was talking to the suited man but stopped to extend his hand to Sebastian.

He dropped his hand as Sebastian ignored it, towering over him. He knew what Kendall was. Even if it was well masked, he could smell the sickness.

Sebastian wasn’t wasting time with handshakes anyway.

“I am the Sentinel. I’ll be overseeing this operation. Understand that. First, are the dead recovering?”

“Healers aren’t here yet, but they will,” the red tie told him. “Now that you’re here, that’s my cue to leave.” He patted Kendall on the back. “Keep your head.”

Kendall gestured to the armored one. “This is Kyle.”

Kyle nodded.

“Is that all you’re bringing?” Sebastian asked.

“No. He was fast to apply, but there’s one more confirmed. He’s not here yet.”

“I can see that, Blackthorn.”

Kendall looked away from Sebastian and to his phone. “Kyle is a seer, battlemage. Hisami is an old acquaintance. We don’t need anyone more. They’d slow us down. Ashmedai and Doran should be working quickly at this point, so we can’t afford that.”

“Do you know why I’m here, Blackthorn?”

“I- what?” Kendall looked up, unable to see Sebastian’s face. He’d heard his voice turn dark.

“I wouldn’t be necessary if not for the surveillance failures. The one’s you’ve caused.”

“Allegedly.”

The silver man leaned in. “Don’t,” he warned.

Let him know his place, he thought. Scare in some respect of the law.

Sebastian continued with Kendall silent. He pointed to the council building, then past it towards city two. “They left out of the rear, moving away to the second city.”

Kyle spoke up. “I’m getting certain. They’re nearby.”

“They’re shrouding themselves,” Kendall stated.

Kyle shook his head. “A shroud of perception. Strong tactic. But doesn’t sufficiently mask essence. They’ll be a difficult find. Not undoable.”

“A shroud of perception weakens under direct assault. Aku is too divided in attention to find them, but from the sky, I can spot them if they’re under the sun,” Sebastian said.

The Eidolon nodded.

Kendall raised an eyebrow. “We’re done here, then?”

Sebastian lit up his thrusters in Kendall’s face, kicking up dust and ascending.

He was left with Kyle, who, once the dust had cleared, was facing him silently. Black visor staring.

“What?”

He shoved a thumb at the building behind them and started off for it.

Kendall followed. “What is it? Are you mute?

“I’m going to get a feel.” He pushed through the doors.

Kendall went with him into the main hall. They looked past rows of seats to where androids were strewn over seats. Bullet holes littered the lower isles.

Kyle ran his hand over the scorched walls. Suddenly, he jumped up onto the seats.

Kendall looked up at him. “What the fuck are you doing?”

Not answering, he walked on the tops of the seats, moving down the rows. Kendall walked the steps beside him. Kyle jumping onto the concrete at the very bottom of the room faced up to the glass barrier above. It protected the zenith council seats at the center of the court.

There was a tiny ledge between the shield and the stage which he stepped on to reach up. He reached to touch the spot where a concentration of shots had been fired, a charred dent. He craned his head back around to Kendall. “See this?”

“Yeah.”

“The… the guy, that guy,” he pointed back at the parking lot. “Him.”

“Christopher. Christopher is his name.”

“Yes. Christopher. He stood here?”

“Yes.”

Kyle hopped off with a thud. “That’s inhuman accuracy. The demon? With that accuracy, he could have killed a lot of androids. But he wasted his time testing the glass.”

“Please tell me you’re not a psychologist.”

He paused for a moment. He decided against responding. “What could be his motivation for doing that? A desire to kill Christopher?”

“You are,” Kendall decided. “Great.”

“I have to build a profile. Get a sense. Half science, half magic, really.”

They went back up to the top of the court, then around to the exit door. They came through and to the base of the ramp beyond. Two androids stood watch over a dead Magus there.

Kyle squatted beside them, waved a hand over the body. “Bobby Nolan, twenty years old. Smaller caliber.” He pointed back up the ramp at the lightning scorches on the wall. “He was aiming at the demon. The other one shot him.”

“Doran,” Kendall corrected him.

“Doran,” he repeated. “He didn’t hesitate…” Kyle checked the visor in his suit. It built a crime-scene for him, but it was lacking. “There’s not good surveillance here.”

Kendall again went after the Eidolon as he led him through the kitchen, over the wreckage, and into the loading bay. Another body was there, a woman.

Kyle reviewed the footage. “He checked her body. Face is determined, not cold… Where is it?”

Kendall noticed the dent in the truck ahead. “This really gives you enough to work from?”

“I just have to understand him. You can see a person in their eyes.”

“But is that enough?” Kendall asked again.

He was pacing but suddenly stopped. “No. There’s a lot I need to know.”

Kendall heard an intensity in his voice that he didn’t like. “Like what?”

“What are they doing? What was Christopher doing? What are you hiding?”

“I’m not hiding anything,” Kendall categorically denied.

He saw his own face in that black visor. His stilted expression.

“Of course. But what about Christopher?”

“He’s not hiding anything either.”

“What was he doing here, Kendall?”

He grimaced. “I don’t know what he does. Why didn’t you ask him?”

“They’ve all got a reason, Kendall. They were expecting each other.”

You’re a pretentious bastard, Kyle. He could turn this around on him, now.

“And you? Why are you here? You practically jumped on the application.”

That set him in the opposite direction, out the loading bay doors, and onto the road. Kendall caught up to grab him by the shoulder.

“Personal involvement,” was all he said. He repeated it, “personal involvement.”

“That’s not-”

“I don’t have enough,” he interrupted. “You can track them.”

Kendall gave him an evil look. “I might can catch their scent. It’s a hell-smell.”

The Eidolon was frozen for a moment, thinking. Kendall was visibly annoyed.

Finally, he swept his arm out towards the alley they’d gone. “Good.”

“Kendall!” Hasami called, running out from the building, sword rattling at his hip.

“Hasami,” Kendall acknowledged him.

“It is pleasant to see you again.”

“Mm.” Kendall started off, motioning for them to keep up. “We’re going.”

They could catch them. Kendall had the smell.

As worried as he was for himself, of being a victim to the morals of the council, this wasn’t about him. That worry was satisfied for now. Christopher had filled him in. He knew the consequences of Doran being allowed to succeed. Trillions of lives would be lost if he did. Kendall could avert that. If he could stop that, he was obligated to try, even at the cost of his life. He accepted that.

After everything, though, he wouldn’t stay here. He was sick of Utopia, of all their law and order. He would go someplace far away when he was done. He would escape.

Put that thought aside. I’m in control. Now, to kill a monster.

Machina – 3.05

With haste, Ash and I crossed the street to the police station. At the front, it was me who pushed the plywood aside. Into the building and I knew instantly. In the murk of that place, there was only dust. Odessa wasn’t here.

“She’s gone,” Ash stated.

“Yes. She’s gone.”

She’s been gone for a long time.

Kendall. She must have went looking for him. I knew how that would end. I could only hope she hadn’t been taken alive, as horrible as that was. I hoped it was quick.

I pinched the bridge of my nose, hanging my head, taking a moment.

People had begun to die.

“Time to go, Doran.”

I quickly rotated my wrist around to show the time. 8:03.

“Give me a moment.”

“We haven’t got one of those. What’s the plan?”

“It’s…” I looked up and around. Ash was lingering by the door. “Find Christopher. Kill him… He’ll have been summoned to the court along with Kendall. If Odessa hasn’t changed things, he should be waiting for us there.”

“If he was where Kendall is, he ain’t there anymore.”

“You mentioned…” I tried to recall the plans. We’d had months to work this out. “You said you considered escape for a long time, you learned.”

Ash knew my thinking. “I got into the emergency protocols, yeah. If he’s not there in one of two,” he held up his fingers, “count em, two courts, two cities, then they’ll move to the council’s voting chamber. Giant parliament type building. Increased security. In city one.”

Fantastic.

“Then that’s where we go.”

We were out the door. I could sense now that the shroud I’d cast on Odessa was broken. She was predictable. It was the last thing that had been on her fading mind that she would pursue. Her honor. And who had taken it from her.

The plan was still in hand. Christopher would be forced out of hiding by his summons.

The worst-case scenario could still be avoided.

O

I checked my watch again. 9:29.

People on the street would pass us without a second glance. Ash, armed to the teeth, both of us in grimy suits. They simply didn’t notice.

It was Sunday, I’d seen. There were bulletins all around, holographic street signs and directories. Most were in church so we had the roads to ourselves. We were closing in, now.

Up ahead, past a useless parking lot, was the massive stadium.

Ash led the way across the expanse of concrete. What few people out had vanished. That was convenient for us but troubling. I didn’t want collateral damage, but I was expecting more. Perhaps some were already in hiding?

The council would have advised them to stay indoors, I hoped.

Ash reached the glass doors and held them open. I entered past him, pulling one pistol from its place, arming myself. The lobby was empty.

“How do you want to enter?” he asked.

“Fire off a few shots, but if you see Christopher, fire at him first,” I answered.

Ash nodded. He was the superior shot, so he rushed past me to the heavy wooden door which marked the stadium’s entrance, resting against them.

“Here we go,” he smirked.

Ash pushed open the door with his body and raised the gun.

Blast shields raised on the glass behind us.

He opened fire.

“It’s a trap!” I shouted.

Ash rattled off shots still. “Forward!” he ordered me, stepping through his door. I followed.

Into the stadium, Ash blazed away at the dozens of androids which sent a volley of red bolts our way. I ducked down behind the seats with the wall behind me turning to slag. Not able to look, Ash and I moved low leftward around the stadium.

Had to circle around, try to find a way out.

“The fuck happened?!” he demanded.

“Porter didn’t come through.” It had to be. Without Porter to implicate Christopher, he was still in the game. He would be predicting every step.

He wants to force us. Not to kill us.

We can’t let him win. I won’t give him the chance.

“There!” We were nearing the back of the stadium; an emergency exit was ahead. With no cover between the seats and the exit, though, Ash had to give me an opening.

He came up and fired, I made my dash.

As I ran, I looked. Christopher was standing at the lowest point of the stadium, behind a shield, directing the androids. We made eye contact over the long distance for a moment.

I saw that pleasant smile.

I hit the exit and pushed through, breaking the lock. I turned back and aimed. My little pistol buzzed with automatic fire, eating its ammunition. I could only hit two androids.

Ash ran the gap, red lighting the air around him. He fell through the open exit door.

I closed it and looked to him. “Are you alright?”

He checked and on his side the armor had melted away. His skin had healed back, though, and he was left without clothes there. “I can take a lick, son.”

The exit came out onto a ramp which descended to a hall that circled behind the building, small windows running the hall’s length. A person came around the corner.

They were wearing brown cloaks, their hood back. The guy, stopping in his tracks as he saw us, threw up a hand. Lightning arched out.

I pelted him with bullets, spraying up a mist of blood. He twisted and fell.

I replaced the empty clip. “There’s Magus in the building,” I said.

“Really?!” Ash asked, astounded. Smartass.

At the bottom of the ramp, I checked the Magi. He was a young red haired man. He was dead, but I didn’t have time to think about that. It wasn’t a first.

“Left again,” I pointed. We didn’t want to go towards Christopher.

All we needed was a window wide enough to fit through.

We sprinted for a long way. 9:43, I checked, in motion.

The hallway ended on double doors. I kicked them open wide, shattering the lock.

Ahead in the kitchen, every android turned and fired.

I planted my feet and bellowed, “Leap!

With that command, the stoves, the counters, and everything jumped. A storm of objects intercepted their shots. Huge pieces of metal throwing themselves across the room, colliding and crashing. For a moment, the entire kitchen tossed violently.

In an instant, though, it settled. The surviving androids dug themselves out.

Ash fired at the ones he saw. He took a shot in his left shoulder, bone vaporizing, one arm falling, but not dropping his gun. Finally, he finished them up.

When I looked at him, the joint had reformed. “Only a flesh wound.”

We climbed over the wreckage and made it to the room’s other side, Ash’s arm fast returning. The passage there opened into a loading bay. The large descending bay doors were up.

From around one of the trucks parked there, another Magi appeared. This time a woman, she threw back her hood. Her determined eyes narrowed.

Ash didn’t hesitate. He fired on empty air.

What?

He was propelled across the room, denting and bouncing off the side of a truck. I whipped around and there she was, lowering her leg from a kick. No gun in hand, I jumped onto one foot, bringing my other leg around. She caught it beneath her arm, quickly punching me in the kneecap.

I cried out as it nearly broke.

I jumped up, hooking my foot on the side of her neck and swinging. She was thrown to the ground. I rolled back, away and onto my feet. She vanished off the ground.

Behind you.

I elbowed where I thought she was and missed. Somehow, she’d put a delay on her reappearance, and came back where I had been facing. She clocked me behind the ear, sprawling me.

With me out of the way, Ash fired. The girl was thrown back.

I stood up and looked at her. Her cloak had grabbed one bullet by the collar bone, but the other had struck her face. She was dead.

“Fuck me!” Ash yelled.

He was on the ground by the loading bay’s doors, his legs twisted. He’d pulled himself up just enough to fire, but couldn’t stand. I could hear the bones crackle as they knit.

“You need a moment?”

He got up, standing crooked. “No, do you?”

We started slow and picked up speed as he healed. We came out onto a shipping road, highways above, faceless buildings to the side. A black alley.

We took that alley and ran. We got ourselves lost as fast as possible.

I slowed for only a moment to check my watch. 10:13.

Taking the break, Ash stopped me from continuing.

“Where are we going, boy? What’s the plan now?

“We-“ I gathered my breath, “…I was wrong. Porter didn’t force Christopher in, so there’s no inquiry, no time waster, no vulnerability. Kendall will get dispensation and help to come after us now. We’re fucked up, Ashley. I fucked us up with Porter. I tried to smoke Christopher out with him, an inquiry. But he turned that back on us. With Kendall applying pressure, we can’t just go into hiding. We can’t wait for Christopher to show his belly. We have to toss the board.”

“How do we do that?”

I pointed up, through a gap in the skyline, to a line piercing the atmosphere. “The only thing left is a mad dash. The space elevator. Christopher won’t fight us. We’re going to make it. We can make it there.”

Then, to the moon.

God help me.

Machina – 3.01

Kendall rested back against the foot of the bed. In the black room, all that could be heard was the labored breathing of the girl on the bed. Her foot had fallen off and rested on the floor to his left. He looked for a moment at her bare leg.

She was fine.

He licked his teeth, trying to get out the copper taste.

Have to reinforce the binding, he told himself. Human essence was essential.

With a groan, he pulled himself up and straightened his clothes. He looked to the far wall, which was glass, out onto the city. It was night and the moon was full, sending down silver light. He walked the length of the room, sliding open the glass wall’s door and stepping out onto the porch.

The air was crisp and carried no sounds of sirens or traffic. Everyone was simply asleep for the night. Just like it was supposed to be.

He did the last button on the banded collar of his grey shirt, then rolled down the sleeves. With the elastic circlet on his wrist, he tied back his long brown hair.

Kendall, with a hop, stepped up onto the railing of the balcony. He angled his feet and slipped off the end, dropping. The apartments bellow rushed past him, floor after floor. He decelerated to touch down on the ground without impact, not even bending his knees.

Down on the street, no lights buzzed, only a few mellow strips of LEDs lining the sidewalk illuminated his feet. Pillars of metal jutted through the buildings at this level, where the construction was older, unused. It’d been built over a long time ago.

He snapped his head to the right, cracking his neck, then the left, doing the same. He started walking and the way began to darken. The lights dimming out. He traveled faster in darkness, moving abstractly. Without his form visible, he could relax the binding and take advantage of the other just beneath the surface. Light.

Light made him weaker. More human.

“Hey there,” a familiar voice appeared. Kendall whipped around, caught off guard. The figure gingerly approached with arms behind their back. “It’s good to see you again, Kendall. Old friend.”

“Christopher?” Kendall asked.

“In the flesh,” he smiled. He wore the same suit that he always had, only he had aged. Kendall had not. Not in the three years since they’d last met.

“Where the hell have you been?”

“Biding time, quite frankly,” he replied. The lights along the road were coming back on. With the area lit again, Kendall couldn’t vanish.

His doing, Kendall sensed.

“Well, what do you want?”

“A much better question, much better, is what are you doing, Kendall? Finding you wasn’t so hard, a simple trick, really. But I’m curious.”

That wasn’t a question he was going to answer. He didn’t speak.

Christopher did. “You see, I think a lot of people would be curious. Between friends, you know, I think they’d want to check into what you’ve been up to. Because you’ve officially ceased practicing after Porter dismissed you. So what reason could you have for shrouding yourself, hm? And that is a nice shroud.”

He was referring to the masking aura he kept. Disabling Aku’s eyes.

“What do you want?” Kendall asked more forcefully. He couldn’t stand this veneer of passivity. Of friendliness.

“I know you’re not happy to see me, Kendall.” He raised a hand, defensively. “But it really is great to see you again.” His smile was genuine. “I’m just concerned that you’ve started some immoral practices, Kendall. Engaging a slippery slope.”

Kendall didn’t respond, again.

Christopher waved his hand as if dismissing the subject. “Another time. But I’m sure you want to know why I’m here.”

“I’m about to tell you to fuck right off, actually.”

“Before you do that… It’s Odessa.”

That name broke his defenses. “What?”

“And Doran, and Anna, and the demon Ashmedai. They’ve survived.”

Kendall couldn’t believe it. He looked up at the sky for a moment, far above, and collected his thoughts.

They’d broken his binding. He remembered the day. Sitting in the hell outpost. He’d had to concentrate for those six days as they’d drained his strength from afar, testing the binding. When it’d broken, it was like a rope snapping as he pulled. He’d fallen, knocked back. And he hadn’t fully recovered.

And they’d survived? Down in hell? It couldn’t be possible. Ash would’ve left them, he wouldn’t have protected Anna. Odessa couldn’t manage her.

A more disturbing question reached his mind.

“Where are they?” he looked to Christopher.

“In this dimension.”

He wanted to shout, curse, but he restrained himself. Don’t test the shroud. Don’t give in to your humanity.

“Are they in this city?” Kendall calmly asked further.

Christopher checked around. “Is this-? Is this city A or city B? I teleported here for you, so I honestly have no idea.”

“They are in one of the cities, though.”

“Yes. Here, now, with us. That’s why I’m here. To tell you. And to get your help. You’re going to find them.”

Kendall reacted to that. “I’m not doing anything for you.”

A pleasant smile appeared on Christopher’s face. “I wouldn’t expect you to do anything you didn’t want to,” he said.

Kendall grimaced at that wording. “Why would I want to get involved. Odessa is the only one I have any connection to, anymore. And she doesn’t want to see me. The Council can dispatch a team of Magi to bring them in. I don’t need to be there.”

“We don’t want to get the court involved. Not with your illicit activities. They’d come to light under the inquiry launched for Doran.”

“There’d be an inquiry?”

“Yes. I conjured him, and I can absolutely say so.” Christopher held out his hand. “Come with me. It’s time I brought you up to speed on this.”

O

Porter was nursing a bottle of rum at the counter’s far end. He was wearing the same dark grey shirt and pants that all Utopian citizens seemed to wear. There was little variation in fashion, I’d noticed. His hair was longer and his face unshaven. He slouched, planted on his stool, leaning forward to stare at the dark.

The bar was completely unlit except for a lantern which he had set down. Some street light came in through the open door, along with a midnight wind.

I knocked twice on the metal of the counter, breaking my shroud.

“You think I didn’t know you were there?” he said, sliding the bottle my way.

I pushed it away. “You could have said something.”

“I was waiting. Thought I’d see how long you took.” He motioned me over.

I moved to a closer seat, keeping one between us. By the lantern, I was a bearded, bald-headed, and stern visage. Exhaling slow, I tried to relax some.

“So,” I asked, “how’ve you been, Professor Porter?”

Porter laughed. “It’s not Professor anymore. I gave up my position almost a year ago. I realized my… folly. Yeah, folly.”

“Mhmm. No hope for a reversal of the council’s decision?”

“It was a false hope. I was waiting for them to need me. For calamity, right? Which- I’ll admit – that sounds kind of bad,” he slurred just barely. “But I knew it was going to happen. You saw how fast they involved me when they needed to. I bound the Ouroboros. That was me.” He trailed off, suddenly morose. He realized the bottle was still at the other end of the counter. He went, retrieved it, and sat back down in the seat just beside me.

“You thought the binding wouldn’t hold.”

“I couldn’t’ve known. I thought I had the metaphysics straight. Nature can’t be truly overcome, right?”

“The binding held. Man overcame the Ouroboros. I hear the plan is to set up a self-perpetuating machination which builds on his binding forever. They’ve already moved the planet to a pocket dimension. They’re going to beat him with expansion. Evolution beats nature, I guess. Who could’ve seen that coming.”

“It still can’t hold forever,” I said.

I should know. There’s no such thing as forever.

“Well, if I feel like waiting a few trillion years, sure. Then maybe I’ll be needed to redo the binding.”

“It’s less time than you think.”

He raised his eyebrows and looked real closely at me. “Where have you been?”

I was still wearing my suit. It was singed on the right side from where Amanda had shot me. “In hell. I’ve been awol, you could say.”

“I certainly would, soldier,” he admonished jokingly.

“I’ve defected.”

Porter took a swig. Then he grinned. “Who wouldn’t.”

We sat in silence for a while. I checked the watch on my wrist.

Porter spoke before I could. “I never much liked you.”

“Oh?”

“You were out of place. Wrong. And generally suspicious.”

“I can get that.”

“So the question is; why are you here? Could’ve gone anywhere, I assume. Maybe Anna’s with you, maybe you’re just passing through? I don’t get the sense.”

“Mm. It’s really complicated, honestly. I can hardly keep it straight.”

“Try me.”

“Well, it’s Christopher. We’re going to kill him.”

Porter was unimpressed. “How about why?

 “He’s going to try to kill me. I figured I’d get the jump on him.”

“Why are you telling me?”

“Because it involves you. Everyone. I’m a Primordial, Porter.”

He looked off into space for a moment, thinking about that. “Sure, why not.”

“Very few people from my era survived. One of them, they got out of control, and they’re still around. They got so out of hand that I had to do some desperate things to put them in check. They’d become a consuming Darkness.

“Spooky,” he sarcastically commented. Drunk Porter.

“I know what you do, Porter,” I said. “And you couldn’t fight this thing. No one can. It’s like a flood. Noah’s flood.”

“But you stopped it?”

“Yes.”

“How?” he insisted.

I thought for a moment, not answering.

Aziacht. The old name felt fresh. Inexorable truths. You set things in motion, you knew how they would end. And they always do end.

“I’m here to warn you, Porter. Your catastrophe is a lot closer than you think. And it’s not going to be what you want, I worry.”

“Did I say I wanted catastrophe? That’s awful.”

“You’re the only person I could safely contact, Porter. Tell the councils to evacuate the cities. Be very clear. They have to get every person they can under Magus protection. You can’t stop what’s coming, none of them can.”

“We’ll see.” He raised the jug to his lips.

I knocked it out of his hands, sending it bouncing off the counter and onto the floor. Spilling everywhere.

“Tell the council,” I ordered him.

He grimaced deeply. “Fuck those people.”

“People will die if you don’t.”

“Just get out.” He shoved his thumb back at the door.

“I’ll see you again Porter.” I patted his back. “And it’s good to see you.”

I walked out onto the street and into the night. Checking my watch again, it was four in the morning. I should get back.

We were so close. So much time had passed. Uncounted time. And I was so, so close. There was more work to be done. Had to get back.

Motley – 1.13

I came up just in time to see the hammer’s impact breaking up the ground and knocking near every Utopian off their feet. I popped off shots, sending down thunderbolts on their heads. Their flashes were hard to trace back and cranked up to the max, they took down multiple targets.

The two swordsmen came down with the bow and seer on a hardlight platform which the shielder had created. Once near to the ground, the shielder erected barriers which the others jumped down and took cover behind. The horde of Students was quickly scattering as I fired into their masses.

Choked into one wide passage, the only cover for the opposition were those they rose. There were no exhibit alcoves because all that hung on the walls were art and the like. Some had taken to building defenses from hardened blood, it looked like, but they were still exposed. The others made a frontal assault, attacking from where the crowd had been thin, inward into the mass, and I from the back, firing down.

Someone raised a spell, I sensed, at me. A connection had formed, looping back from me to them, back to myself. It was to reroute my attack, back at me. Clever, but I avoided hitting it, shooting around. I jumped back as a handful of tiny glowing razors dashed through my cover. The shrapnel had passed, and I resumed.

Hammer guy barged through their defenses, with the swordsmen at his side actively cutting down anything thrown at them, he remained unstopped. Our bow girl fired her shot, and when the arrow struck its mark, a student’s head, a string of light reached out, and the shot continued towards another cranium.

We were dominating this fight. We could do this.

A male student jumped up and landed on the platform with me. He had a laser sword, which as I fired, intercepted my bolt. He was nearing, and I couldn’t allow that. With no options, I made the decision to retreat onto the light rigs.

Somebody hurled a boulder at me, missing narrowly and putting a hole in the ceiling. More pressing matters, though, as the laser sword swung haphazardly, blocking my shots and cutting down our supporting wires.

Yes.

I stepped back onto another suspended walkway, and let loose at him, intentionally missing. The metal under his feet swung out and away as I hit the last wire keeping it up. The space swordsmen dropped like a stone and met the marble with a solid smack.

I kept on the move, avoided an arrow. Not everyone realized I was up here, due to the nature of my weapon, but more were following the attacks thrown at me.

There was another route back to my cover, which I tried to hurry across.

Coming around, I was near to safety when without warning or effect, a human appeared in my path. Blocking me, with a pleasant smile on his face, stood Christopher.

Fuck you.

I tackled him when he had been expecting me to flinch, right back and over the railing, onto the platform. He was too quick, though, and I was weak. He slipped out of my hold and rolled away. We both got to our feet, but with his speed, I was unable to raise my rifle fast enough. He kicked and knocked my gun away, it skidding off.

He’d undone the strap when we’d been on the ground.

He’d known I would tackle him.

Decided before they’ve begun.

I took a stance, hand outstretched, ready to receive anything he dished out. I wasn’t strong, or fast, but I could see him weighing his options. I could counter any move he made because I could foresee them. So can he.

We were in a deadlock.

“Look at you,” he said. “Big things.

“I refute that,” I replied, catching a short breath. “The cosmos is beyond you.”

“You know more than you let on.”

“You know less than you let on.”

We took a short pause, our eyes not breaking, as someone did something deafeningly loud below. That would have to wait.

“Whatever you’re planning,” I said. “I want no part of it. You should end this while you still can. Stop this.”

“Will is free. It’s free to dictate that of others’, I’m afraid.”

“You have no idea. There’s a price. You can’t ascend that.”

“I refute that.”

“Then the toll will be bigger than you alone can pay,” I promised.

My gun had slid my way. If I dived, I might beat him to it.

“I’m afraid that when everything falls together, it’ll be too late,” he said. “The conditions are fixed, Doran, and the game is set. You’re a piece, not a player.”

He’s predicting your moves. It’s not pure intelligence, he’s not trying hard enough for that. It’s a cheat, a skill, a trick. Causality. He’s fiddling. But the focus is far too wide. 

It’s not based on choice. He’s above that. He’s too good.

I didn’t dive for the gun, instead, I went on the approach. I struck out, expecting and receiving a deflection. He wasn’t abnormally strong, but his reactions were instant. I changed my footing, and he changed his. I jabbed, and he blocked. He struck with his non-dominant hand, out of nowhere, and hit my chest. It hurt me, but not as much as it hurt him.

He grits his teeth and clenched his hand which had struck the fabric of my cloak. The same fabric that could stop bullets.

Not omniscient.

I capitalized on that and dived for my gun. I stopped short when he pounced on me, halting my momentum and driving me into the floor. My chest crackled.

With his knee on my back, he kicked the gun, and it slid underneath the gap in the railing, falling out of sight. It had been bait.

He turned me over, redirected my haymaker as I flipped, pinning my arm against my chest. He beat me in the face. There were… lights? No, blotchy vision.

Something about pain.

My head. Concussion.

With me pinned, and retribution for his busted hand received, I was beaten. He sat down on my chest and slapped some sense into me.

Tunnel vision,” I said, half conscious. My eyes were literally out of focus.

“Hmm?” Christopher asked.

“Go-” I started but began coughing. My lungs were well and truly ruined.

I found a tether in the darkness. There were two of them. One holding me up, and the other holding me in place. I focused on the second. Finding its source, there were a number of extensions. One of them to a dirty thing, a dark thing.

“G-” I tried again, but my breath was even shorter. Christopher frowned.

As it was in a world of information, the economy became about relevance, and because knowledge is power, relevance was. But at the heart of that, was the ability to leverage relevance. The truly powerful were not those that had power, but those that could use it, and if the stars aligned and one was both, then a god was born.

By wisdom, power is wielded. By intelligence, gained.

I could exert the power that I had, the relevance, by understanding. I reached out between myself and that dark thing, forged a line through our mutual connection.

Christopher shifted quickly, planting his foot on my head.

“Now, say again?”

Gozo. 

His composure broke, and he turned his eye away. Under the railing, I could see, with my head turned to the side. The walls of the museum melted to make way for him. The giant gnarled demon manically bounding into the Utopian forces.

I had leveraged Kendall’s power as my own, and my call had carried.

The Utopians were being decimated. Christopher was distracted.

I grabbed his leg, and it reflexively locked. With the other arm, I brought my fist into the side of his knee. It bent. He shouted, stepping back, and I tripped him. As he fell to his back, I scrambled to my feet and went after him. He didn’t attempt to stand, instead he drew up his legs and before I could stop myself, his feet caught me.

He propelled me over the railing.

Damn.

My flight was fun but short lived. I hit the tile and a lightning strike stabbed every inch of me. A coldness followed. Unfortunately, I wasn’t dead, though.

Laying limp with my face turned towards the ceiling, my body became heavy. It was increasingly restful, I found.

I had fallen among other bodies, those of the Utopians. I strained, with great effort, to see what was still going on. One of the swordsmen had survived, and the shielder, with all the rest dead at their feet.The remaining Utopians, just like the remaining Anarchists, were fleeing the demon, with only one succeeding. The Utopians were being supernaturally hindered, by some effect, which left them inept as the demon tore them apart.

I gave up on watching and tried to relax. Everything was either too numb, or too sensitive, though. Waiting to die was uncomfortable.

Christopher, looking displeased, leaned over my body, looking down.

“Stay the course.” It was an insult, I thought, but then he continued. “Please, Doran.” He was sincere, frightened even. “This isn’t a game.”

Irony. 

To my chagrin, the bastard walked off without helping me out.

Noises carried on but became distant. I don’t remember at what point they blurred into obscurity. But there was no sleep, no true death.

A jolted awakening sent me upright. My body was whole, and I was wearing my same clothes, sitting alone in a small, dim room. I took some time, testing my lungs and foot, distancing myself from the emotions which wracked me. I needed to think straight. Emotion, it… gets in the way. I didn’t want to think about it.

That never works.

I put my head in my hands.

Please. Shut up.

After one long exhale, I called for Aku.

“Doran,” Aku soothingly replied. “You’re free to leave the room at any time.”

There was a door. It had slipped my mind.

“Right. Thank you, Aku.”

“My pleasure.”

After exiting, I came upon hundreds of people intermingling in a dining hall. An open ballroom filled with tables seated players from both sides of the game, eating a meal of reconciliation. Along two of the walls were rows of doors, on multiple levels, which undoubtedly had private rooms behind them, as the one I’d emerged from. This was to be where everyone went, after the game to cool down and eat a meal.

I didn’t feel like eating. I should find Kendall, but I didn’t want to do that either.

Weaving between tables, I made eye contact with a few people. There were so many tables, and people standing, that searching the crowd yielded nothing.

Suddenly a hand reached out to grab my arm. I pulled it away before I recognized the person at the table. It was the Seer.

“Hey,” she said. “You want to join us?”

“No, thank you, though. I’ve got to get back to my… master.”

“Heh, kinky.”

“No, I mean, I’m a summon.”

“Oh! That’s… I don’t know what to think about that,” she said.

The bow girl was at the table. “I wouldn’t have guessed it. What’s your name?…Well, you were cool Doran. Nice meeting you, working with you.”

“The same to you both.”

After that, I passed Hasami, and we nodded in acknowledgment of each other. The Beaulieu siblings were nowhere to be found.

I spotted them. Ash, Odessa, Anna, and Kendall at the table. They didn’t see me until I was close. I patted Anna on the back, she looked generally ill, I’d seen and sat down at the end of the table.

They reserved a spot. Aw.

“Hey guys,” I greeted them.

“What happened?” Kendall asked. He was on edge.

“After the trap, I teamed up with a small group. Ash took out the guy who took you lot out, and things unfolded from there. I kind of led my little group on a surprise attack and things went… weirdly,” I said. “…We killed them.”

“All of them?” Odessa said.

“Kind of?”

“Wow.” Anna gave me a thumbs up. Her smile didn’t reach her eyes.

Something’s different. Changed, visually?

“Things should be wrapping up then?” Kendall kept up his line of questioning.

“Yes. Christopher showed up to kill me, ironically. Gozo was massacring the remainder, and he got away, last I saw.” I lowered my forehead down onto the table. I had a killer headache.

“Gozo-” Kendall started and stopped. I knew why. He suspects. “You did well. Everyone did. But, they’ll announce the winner soon, and there’s not a lot of question about who it’s gonna be.”

Ash was quiet, I noticed. I peaked to see him with his back against the table, looking contemplative. I wondered what he could be thinking about.

“I understand,” I told Kendall. “But things will turn out alright.”

“Porter told us not to come back,” was Kendall’s response. “You believe that?”

Yes. “Yes.” No.

The conditions were fixed. So was the outcome. As it will always be.

No one spoke after that. I closed my eyes and let time pass by.