Armageddon – 4.11

The students broke apart explosively as the water kicked up under the impact of a creature with too many limbs to count. Some immediately ran off into the forest. Everyone on their feet assailed the creature at once.

It was a light show as they attacked. Flashes filled the edges of the forest, showing so many inhuman silhouettes setting upon strays. The water doused Porter and others as all hell broke loose.

The horror was immediately encapsulated by an invisible orb which contained the fire, lighting, and green cloud of needles which latched onto it. A spear was thrown in which caused its limbs to implode. Through all this, the horror shrieked and flailed, but in every moment of obscurity, it continued to reappear unhurt.

It was Cobb, who leaped and brought down his fist on the sphere, which caused the entire thing to flatten, compacting it to nothing. Folded out of sight.

O’Reilly screamed. “Incoming!”

The Elephant Man came into the middle of them, bursting through the trees. Those trees split the group of students along the narrow river as they fell. With the professors near one end, the students on the horror’s side were all alone, singled out.

Porter launched forward. He sailed over the tree and fighting people to bury his katana into its back. The Elephant Man lurched forward, dropping on its hands.

“Solidarity,” he groaned, pushing down on it.

His mind raced. A manifestation of aloneness. Choice and human will, I can take it. A declaration… If he doubted now, he could feel it grow stronger under him with the thought. Just making contact, it was in his head. His arms shook as the battle raged around him, two twin horrors rushing students. Every ounce of his being strained. He’d felt this before, fighting gods. A battle of belief.

His sight sunk back like he was watching a shrinking screen in the darkness.

Porter threw himself off into the water, away from the Elephant Man. The thing gave out, slumping into the mud as he splashed down. He tried to keep his head up to gasp air. He wasn’t sure where or when he was anymore.

“Professor,” a rasping voice came close over him. His eyes stared uncomprehendingly back up at another man without eyelids. They continued, “just ignore it. It works.” The gaunt man pulled on him, trying to raise him up.

When Porter was on his feet, they went sprinting up the riverbank and into the trees.

He caught his bearing and retrieved his katana with one swipe.

The Ouroboros was lashing out with his sickle, taking most of the horrors breaking through. Porter looked over the corpses in the water, past fires and fallen trees. He thought he saw Babba face down.

A shout cut through the noise. “Doran!”

Porter recognized that voice. He looked, but it had come from someplace distant.

A black cloud, he saw, was seeping over his feet. They were numb.

That’s not good.

“Move!” he roared. “Into the forest.” Porter’s hand shot out. Those that didn’t listen, their legs buckled and they disappeared into the water.

When everyone remaining was on the left bank, he tried to count heads. There were too few people, many of them had gone out of sight, stretched out along the river.

Flares shot up into the sky, painting the forest from above in shadows cast through bare branches. He didn’t see Christopher, Cobb was the only Master in sight. The Ouroboros was gone.

Flashes of blue light came with a heatwave. Crackling energy passed between trees.

A headless naked woman came sprinting through the forest with her arms out. Porter cut her down as she veered towards him.

This was chaos. He had to find the Ouroboros. They couldn’t be divided.

“Help!” A student came running past him, screaming for help. They were passing through the trees like they weren’t there, unable to see anyone.

“Master Porter,” a girl said. In sight, there were a half dozen students and Eidolons, congregating near him, now. “We’re all getting split up. I can’t find my friend.”

One twitchy Eidolon in the back opened fire with his gun, stopping Porter from answering.

“We need to stay together. I have to find the Ouroboros.” That was more important. “Now!”

He urged them to move deeper into the forest. The flares overhead were gone, the light dropping down again to that of the eclipse. He could only follow the sounds of screams.

They weaved between the trees until they quickly came to another stream. One of them slipped on the bank, the sound causing a sudden quiet.

Porter jumped down to follow. When he hit the water, there was suddenly nothing beneath it.

“Hey!”

He was instantly submerged. The world was an echo again, everything distant. Looking around, it was like the earth and all the trees were floating on the water, a deep abyss beneath them. The dark moved beneath him until, out of the black, he could see a single light drifting up.

When the hand hooked into his collar and hauled him up, Porter was again in only a foot of water.

“Why the fuck is he so heavy!?” he heard.

Porter threw what had been the source of the light onto the riverbank.

A mounted gun from the back of a Utopian vehicle. It had black growths across it but still had power. It had come out of whatever hole he’d fallen into. A gap in the water the students couldn’t find anymore. “Where’d it go?” the Eidolon asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” Porter coughed. He’d inhaled salt water. He sputtered, “that’s a… bad fucking sign.” When he’d caught his breath, he looked at their confused faces. “It’s-”

A shriek interrupted them as a horror fell from out of the open sky, from above the trees, into their midst.

“Shit!” A Magi with a hammer crushed them down into the mud and rock. He stood over the twisted form that had been a woman in a red dress, her limbs sticking up. “That scared the hell out of me.” Her hand lulled to the side, finger caressing his leg.

Porter watched as the Magi compacted where he stood, the damage of the hammer conferred onto him. His limbs twisted, his organs exploded through his exposed ribcage.

Porter jabbed his Katana through the magi and into the horror. With the barrier of flesh between them, her healed arms couldn’t reach around to touch him. He lifted them and ran them back before driving the two of them into the ground.

The others watched.

“Bring me the hammer!” he groaned. The horror had too much strength.

Another Magi, clearly unfit to wield the massive thing, drug it to his side.

“Fuck,” Porter swore. “I have to do it fast.”

Porter stepped back and withdrew the sword. He traded it for the hammer and brought it up over his head. He slammed the horror with all his strength. Its hand shot out through the dead Magi’s chest, bones extending to reach. He pulverized the two of them, but not before a gentle brush of her nails.

He left the hammer where it was, lodged into the earth with them.

“Master Porter?” the other Magi asked.

He took back Hasami’s sword from their hand, not meeting their eyes.

“That’s… ironic.” He took a few more steps and stopped in his tracks.

“You’re bleeding,” they said.

“I noticed.” He considered the forest. He checked the path of the river. Though he couldn’t see where it ran, he felt a cold breeze coming down its length from one direction. He felt out, but he couldn’t sense past the shadow over the entire world. Beyond that, there was only silence. He stared past the young Magi. “How many of us are left?”

“What do you-” they looked over their shoulder to where he’d been looking. Where the others should have been. “…I’m not supposed to be here.”

“I realized that.” Porter finally looked at them. The girl was in a robe, water soaking her up to the waist. “Listen to me,” you’re already dead. “You have to get away from here,” I don’t want to watch. “Follow the river to the ocean. Follow the coast until you’re out. Do you understand?”

“Out?”

“Reality’s falling apart. I don’t know what you’ll find.”

Reality was conserving energy. She wasn’t important. If she left his side now, she’d simply cease existing. She’d go back to the start or go nowhere. He didn’t know.

“It’s your only chance,” he said. “Get out.”

The Magi said nothing, she only went where he pointed, quickly turning her face. She soon disappeared out of sight. She was gone.

Not knowing is better. It really wasn’t.

It was just him, now. Like it was supposed to be.

Porter took his sword into both hands in preparation. He heard footsteps breaking the water, echoing from down the river, opposite direction the Magi had gone.

Cobb’s white suit was marred by blood, his grey beard had been ripped from his face. Catherine was right behind him. Wherever the fuck she had come from.

The two of them noticed Porter and picked up speed.

When Cobb reached him, he only had one thing to say. “We have a plan.”

O

O’Reilly drove his spear into the body of a giant skittering creature. The tip of the spear filled its insides with fire. The fire crept through its many slicing legs, turning it into a husk in seconds.

It was just him, among a field of mangled trees and bodies.

As the skittering thing was going limp, one of its still moving arms beat itself against a tree, snapping off.

“FUCK!” he cried.

The limb regrew an entire body before he could dislodge his spear. Its front arms sprang out, knocking him off his feet.

O’Reilly impacted the tree trunk and had to quickly dig himself out of its bark. His shoulder slid back into the socket, he felt. There was such a quantity of bodies beneath him, that he simply reached down to pick up a discarded claymore.

He took it underhanded and pierced the earth, taking a knee.

The skittering thing was breaking off pieces of itself on the trees as it charged, there quickly being exponentially more of the horrors. In an instant, every one of them was swathed in a pillar of fire. The fire clung to every surface, every tree and rock. It spread around him as he watched. In the tornado of light and heat, he could make out their black keratin forms writhing until the intensity blotted them out.

He withdrew the blade and the fire sunk into the ground, leaving only… nothing.

O’Reilly’s eyes adjusted, but he could no longer make out the forest. He was surrounded by a patch of charred earth, but beyond, there was only darkness.

He threw the claymore up, holding it out towards the sky. A beam of light shot out which illuminated the landscape. The trees could be seen in the distance, beyond the charred earth, but were getting further away. He’d scorched more of the earth than he’d intended.

That wasn’t right. He shouldn’t have been getting more for the power he spent.

That was a grave a sign.

Ash began to fall on him. He looked down to keep it from getting in his eyes.

A pain grew in his hand.

He sat down at the base of the tree he’d been thrown into before. Enough of it remained that he could lean back. He looked at his hand, removed the glove.

Between his index finger and thumb, there was a small, growing splinter. He felt them all along his chest, where the skittering thing had hit him.

He lifted the claymore as much as he could beside him and pushed the tip between two roots. He held his breath and lit the fire.

On the tree line, Aziacht watched the flames reach for the sky.

Everything in its place, he thought. Time for an end.

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Armageddon – 4.02

Kyle watched some of the students file back behind the stage and into another room. He’d heard something about food. He was among those too unsettled to leave their seats. Students with their heads down in their hands. A row ahead of him, a girl’s shoulders went up and down silently. She had messy black hair.

Just looking at the faces he could see, everyone was fucked up by this.

Kyle couldn’t tell himself he wasn’t rattled, though. It’d be a lie. He’d started out in all this shit looking for a way to cope, maybe even to bring back Jillian. He couldn’t comprehend the total loss the Utopians had just suffered, but he also couldn’t really bring himself to be surprised. He just wasn’t that kind of person.

What’s my next step?

The Ouroboros was up by the Masters, who were plotting. He turned around and sat down on the edge of the stage, crossing his arms. Where was the sickle he’d come in with? Kyle wondered. More so, why is he staring at me?

Professor Cobb kept glancing at the being. He was fascinated. He followed its line of sight to Kyle, who sat back with his helmet in his lap. Cobb frowned.

Kyle didn’t react. He was a little burned out, really. Consequence of being jacked up to an android for several hours looking for Doran. His eyes were blurry and his mind hazy.

Suddenly, the Sanctuary doors swung open. Porter?

In came a man with tattered clothes hanging off his emaciated frame. He looked around, taking in the room, before coming to sit on the same pew seat as Kyle. He looked, wide-eyed at the Ouroboros, before following their gaze right back to Kyle, who noticed his eyes weren’t wide, but that the lids were missing.

“As I have foretold,” they said, raspy.

“Did you?…” Kyle looked him over. “Did you come out of the rubble?”

“Yes,” he replied. “I studied under Master Laird. He died.”

“Not you, though? Master Babba tossed the mountains.”

The Lidless man only stared in response. Obviously, he knew that.

Kyle sat back, looking away but quickly finding his eyes locked with the Ouroboros. He got sick of it.

He stood up and excused himself to the back room.

It was a kitchen. People stood around, many sitting on the floor. Lanterns had been set out, casting dense shadows. He could see a young man eating a sandwich at the steel counter. He seemed apathetic to the other person sitting shaking on the floor by their feet.

Kyle was a psychologist. He really thought that he should be talking to some of these people. Out of everyone at the Monastery, only more than a hundred remained. They had to function, too. Everyone had lost someone.

He saw his hands bash the stainless countertop, denting it. The man eating his sandwich didn’t look up.

Kyle slowly exhaled. Anger is not my… master, he remembered.

“Fuck my shit right up,” he said, looking at his aching hands.

“We’re gonna move soon,” the sandwich guy spoke. He kicked the one by his leg.

“R-right,” they ratified.

Kyle recognized them. He’d studied associated files earlier in the day. “Beaulieu’s?”

The young man nodded. “What’s left.”

“You lost someone?” he asked, instincts getting the better of him.

“Our brother,” the one on the floor answered.

Kyle stood in silence for a moment. He had an idea, but he wasn’t sure. On a psychological level, it would feel irreverent. He’d read their file. “You’re a… Gestalt?” he said.

“It’s like a mirror… light,” the standing one answered. “I don’t know. Catherine knows.” He looked at the half-eaten sandwich in his hand. He saw a sink across the room and threw it, hitting the wall above. “How the fuck did this happen?”

He felt the answer was better left unsaid. “You amplify the power between you,” he explained. “Why didn’t you ever expand the circuit?”

The Beaulieu brother grimaced.

“I…” Kyle started, “why don’t you let me shore up the circuit? You’re used to a triune power hierarchy. I’m willing to guess it’s not going to work, maybe at all, without that structure.”

The Beaulieu’s made no move.

“We deploy…” he looked at his wrist, where Aku would have the information on his mind. An automatic response. The dark screen was barely visible in the light. “…soon.”

Still, no answer.

Just a little push. Don’t assert yourself.

“Come on, let’s get it set up with your sister?”

Finally, he nodded.

Okay, now we get working.

O

Porter hit the doors moving. He had a white-knuckle grip on the katana in his hand.

The Ouroboros sat up, starting towards him. They met in the middle of the aisle, the Ouroboros asking him. “You’re now ready?”

He was. “We need to gather forces as fast as possible before Aku can mobilize their network. Come on!” He called.

Cobb retorted, “We were waiting for you, Porter.”

He ignored him as they went for the doors. All the students, who’d been grouping amongst themselves, quickly picked up. Many of them were in casual clothes. They weren’t prepared. One student, clad in massive spiked red-steel armor, was clearly uncomfortable. Everyone had to go, though.

Kyle went with the crowd out the door and into the cold. They were a bunch of college students in street clothes, for the most part, about to fight in space.

Somehow.

Porter was in the lead, the Masters quickly backing him up. He waved his hand, setting the portal for the Martian surface, the red planet.

Over the heads in front of him, Kyle could see a ruddy rock valley and twilight sky above. Catherine was next to him, holding his hand palm up and reading from a notebook in her other. She was introducing him to the circuit. His arm was tingly as fuck.

They passed through the portal. Kyle knew he was ready.

The students quickly spread out as the sky came into view. The blue sky of a Martian sunset. He realized the administration program had control again. And he realized he was wrong.

A swarm of spheres so dense they darkened the sky, a swarm of drones buzzed like a train in his ear. He saw as Porter charged forward. The drones were grouping in his path as he ran out of sight. Kyle looked up and through. They were gathered in the way, but he could see through. A hazy silhouette of the Martian fleet was affixed in the atmosphere, gleaming on one side with the sun.

“How is this… a plan?” he asked, pissed.

The throng moved past him and Catherine. There were a few others still preparing spells, but they were left behind as well.

A slap hit him. He turned, red-faced, to Catherine.

“We’re gonna fuck the robots up,” she growled. “That’s the plan.”

She slapped his hand a few times, trying to draw out the spell. A mark welled up on the skin, three intersecting circles. The innermost space glowed. He felt a thrumming in his chest. The two brothers had an aura appear around them, pulsing to the thrum.

Every muscle in his body vibrated. He was light headed as hell.

“You ever flown before?” one brother asked him.

“I’ve tried a few spells,” Kyle answered, swaying on his feet. He brought up his helmet from under his arm. The visor wouldn’t work. He threw it aside.

“It’s wide open,” the younger brother said, the one who’d been on the floor earlier.

“Come on!” the other launched, followed by the younger.

They disappeared into the sky. It was lit up by laser fire. The drone swarm was going crazy, beyond the canyon they were in, and down to the valley where most the fighting was happening. He could feel how tough he was. Several protective spells were on him. It was hell up there, though.

Kyle took a breath. In with the air came lightness, then speed.

He launched. He found his way to the Beaulieu brothers in the sky, lasers glancing off him. They were racing through the air, tearing through the orbs.

He took in the landscape. The colonized Martian world was dotted with greenery. Every machine on the planet was buzzing in the air. The Eidolon were tearing up the ground fighting. In the distance, several smaller cities were melted. The drones and small crafts attacking were being put down. This was no military response.

Then, he saw it.

Lowering down from orbit was one of the Martian ships. It was joining the fight?

Kyle tried moving forward, putting his hands out and bashing one of the drones out of the air. A dragon, a literal dragon, was roaring somewhere. It was all too much to take in.

The Martian ship bared its canons. The massive guns glowed hot. They took aim at the sky and ground as the ship continued to drop quickly. It wasn’t stopping.

Canons fired at them.

O

Porter was in the valley. Trees were flattened by the dragon to his right, tumbling over them and breathing lightning. He’d lost sight of the Ouroboros. Cobb was with him.

The flurry of drones was almost too thick to see through. They’d built shields overhead, but some were slipping through.

Wulff grabbed O’Reilly by the shoulder and shouted something in his ear, over the chaos. They didn’t have long, here. He had Smith at his side. He was the only one which could use magic to purge Aku from the fleet’s systems. They needed to get him up.

Porter craned his head to see the ship above.

Or bring them down, he thought.

That same ship opened fire. O’Reilly and Miller, with the help of the students, quickly fortified the shield. Each of them devoted themselves to that task, setting up a human ring. It wasn’t a pretty tactic, all of them shouting in a circle.

This had been the best their portal could do. They only had one option, now.

“Smith, Babba, you’re with me. We need!” he looked over the crowd. He traced back the weak fortification spell that was on him to a girl crouching by a fallen tree. “You! You’re coming with us!” Finally, he pointed to Master Babba. “We need to get on that ship. We need to go up.

She nodded. The Elementalist planted her feet. All of them braced as the ground shot like a piston. Once they were up and into the hailstorm, a torrent grabbed them. Babba was the only one upright. Porter fought to stay oriented as the wind carried them.

He righted himself, seeing their destination approach. The black, monolithic ship drew closer. He pushed ahead of the others, willing himself forward. They needed a way in.

Porter was going to make that way.

Armageddon – 4.01

Porter and the Ouroboros came into the Sanctuary. The portal had opened into the cold, onto carven stone pathways leading up to open glass doors. To their back, the Ouroboros glanced, the pathways ended in a drop. The mountain had been rent, tossed away into the fog which rolled over the jagged ruins. Much of this place had been destroyed.

“They wouldn’t listen to me,” Porter said as they reached the doors.

Passing inside they saw the Sanctuary had been structured to look much like a traditional sanctuary, with pews and a stage. Mostly standing crowds of people had gathered. The Ouroboros recognized many them from his binding. That insult.

It would have to wait.

All the magi were suited and anxious. Their eyes fixed on Porter and the monster.

Wulff was sitting at the edge of a table on the stage. “You think you’re taking charge,” he said, jumping down into the aisle. “But you’re hurting the situation.”

Porter started to speak.

Wulff cut him off. “I knew his binding would break, I know this is advantageous for us. But self-determined action is not what we need right now. Now that the Abbot is dead, I’m at the center of the information loop. You go through me, please.”

Porter stopped as Wulff was in his way. “First, I appreciate you not being an ass about it. Second, I’ll act when there’s no time. I made that binding, I knew how fast it was going down.” He stepped around and went up to the stage and table.

The Ouroboros was left staring at Wulff, who immediately stepped to the side.

The remaining Masters surrounded the table, sitting in fold-out chairs. The Ouroboros could know their names; Cobb, O’Reilly, Miller, Babba, Wulff, Porter, and Smith. They watched the being perch on the stage’s edge and count their heads.

This force is not enough, he thought.

Cobb immediately asked Porter what he was thinking, what he had in mind now. He didn’t get the chance to answer.

The Ouroboros jumped up and put his hand down on the table. “I am no weapon of yours. You may count me your ally in common cause, but the law is what I deal. In my strength, you find I am now leading.”

They watched him. They didn’t have a response.

Timidly, a middle-aged woman with black bowl cut said, “Right now, we need to gather our forces. Would you happen to know anything about the most recent positioning of the Utopian fleets? No?” Babba quirked a thick eyebrow.

He made no show of emotion, though it was annoying. She thought she was clever. “Gather your forces, but you have no idea what is necessary. This broken vain chapel to dreams is fallen. We go to nature.”

“As a…” Miller puzzled. “As a symbolic measure?”

Smith worked it out. “It’s to say our side is most natural. It is a moral argument, yes?”

“The fight will be about truth,” Ouroboros confirmed. “Aziacht has set from eternity the three answers against each other. Faith, death, and acceptance to find truth. The question is absurd.”

“That’s fucked,” O’Reilly commented. “But yes, nature.”

“The glass valley,” Babba told them. “Water and stone. I preserved it when I tossed the mountains to destroy the machines.”

“Killed so many people,” Miller spoke, dead serious.

Wulff interjected, offended. “There were nukes in the bay. I demanded Master Babba act when I sensed your deaths. You wouldn’t know this, but we made away with the absolute best case scenario because of me, Miller.”

She looked away. Indignant.

Porter still hadn’t sat. He looked over the students gathered and listening in the pews. Many of them rested their heads forward. What hour was it?

“Hasami?” he called out.

A skinny girl with a mop of black, frizzy hair looked up. Beside her two young men sat, despondent. “He didn’t show up,” she said. “Everybody from the airlock brake hasn’t been recovered yet.”

“He didn’t go,” a young, blond man, Kyle, said. “He was in the city.”

“No,” Porter told him. “I…” He’d prepared the Monastery, trying to warn them and getting Wulff to help save what they could. If they’d listened it wouldn’t have taken so damn long… But, he couldn’t have forgotten Hasami? There hadn’t been a lot of time. “Christ.”

The Ouroboros watched displeased as Porter’s focus ran away.

“Our primary threat,” Wulff said, pulling things back on track, “is Aku.”

“Completely,” Cobb agreed.

“As I understand, it will take some time for Aziacht to muster his forces. We should do the same. We need to check for survivors and-”

“No,” Ouroboros raised a hand. “You’ve just said what you need do.”

“He’s right.” Porter rubbed at his face and pulled himself back. “We can check for civilian survivors when all’s done. Right now, we don’t even have the space to house and feed them. The grid is still largely online and hostile, yeah?”

Smith nodded.

“Then our immediate mission is to take down Aku. You’re right.” Wulff had avoided the obvious, but Porter was right. What few survivors there were would probably die from the elements. There was nothing they could do about that. “We should focus all our effort on recovering the Martian Armada.”

“Why the Martian?” Babba asked. “Why not the Saturn Dreadnaught?”

“Saturn was taken down,” Master Smith explained. “Taggart is the only reason the Martian fleet would still be operational. If it is.”

Taggart? Ouroboros thought. He reached into the thought association. It connected to an idea they shared, which reached back to reality. Memetic information.

Taggart was the Martian Sentinel, second only to Sebastian in station.

Porter abruptly left. He headed down the aisle, out the doors and to the makeshift portal that had been erected. Wulff sighed. “So, we’re agreed? The Red Armada?” he questioned.

“Aye,” they assented.

The Ouroboros stayed silent. He feared none of this would matter.

O

Porter stepped out of the portal. The hard, salted ground crackled underfoot. The sun above was hidden behind an ash cloud. He looked ahead at the towering, sweeping mounds of metal. He was so many miles out, just to get a good look at them. The cities had melted and warped into twisted, inhuman shapes. Alien.

He looked to his back, where so many more miles away the forest began and quickly rose to the snowy mountains. The air was dry and windy, quickly cooling under the dark of the rumbling black clouds. Occasional lightning flashes lit up the metal in the cities.

Kendall, he wondered momentarily. Knowing him, he made it out just fine.

Hasami, though. Porter looked on the melted cities. Was he somewhere in there?

Fuck not knowing. In fact, “Fuck you!” He shouted.

He couldn’t have averted this. If Doran had failed, Christopher would have just pulled the plug. Now the system was fulfilling its purpose. Aziacht, whoever the fuck he thought he was, had set this up. A test of truth to answer a question. To get a reliable answer, he knew, the system had to be free. No matter what happened next, Christopher had no power over them now.

He allowed himself to dream of what could come next.

Conscious determination of destiny is what makes us great, he thought.

He wanted to know. He reached deep and found his element. It was weakened, but it was always strong. A long time ago he’d been a different person. Afraid, silent, a thinker. His element made him who he was, now. The thing which he embodied, which he used to kill gods.

“Have I not told you?” he spoke, low. It connected him.

Now wasn’t the time. He didn’t know what would happen when he needed to pull out all the stops. He was afraid, honestly. It’s a pattern, he recognized. Frustration. For now, he’d hang on to himself. For now, he drew out what power he needed.

Porter teleported.

Covering the distance, racing over the flats and into the city. He appeared in a valley of melted and charred concrete. The still standing stone bodies of people littered what had been a street. They’d deformed but were still unmistakably human.

He’d willed the answer to his question and he saw it.

Porter walked some ways, stepping around still molten metal and the huddled bodies. Whatever had happened, it had taken more than a few moments. It hadn’t been a flash, it’d been heat. Every molecule agitated into a frenzy until the very air ignited. In the streets, he could still feel it on his skin, the warmth.

It’d only been a few hours, now.

He came into a parking lot. Up ahead the fallen space elevator began at its base and snaked over the melted mounds of buildings, blending into them. In the parking lot, the cars had fused with the asphalt. Up beside one he came to crouch and inspect a charred figure.

The figure leaned against one of the cars, sunken into its side. Stuck into the ground beside them was a preserved katana.

“How funny is it,” he asked, “that there’s no one else in these cities I even knew.” He took a knee. “I mean, I grew up here… I…” he trailed off. There’s was no point to talking. It didn’t help him. He rejected the thought of it helping himself.

He wrenched the sword from the ground and held it in his hand.

“I’ll remember,” he said. That was a good thing to say. Good enough.

With the katana in hand, Porter left.

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 – 3.15

“Everything ends. The trick is in getting the last word.”

“I guess I was just never that kind of a man. That was always you.”

Only the candles above the sink gave light. He watched the man approach, knowing what would happen next as he closed in, outstretching his hand.

“Unfortunately. Goodnight, Matthew.”

His grip fell on the young man’s face and a sudden scream awoke his family.

O

The man found himself still under moonlight, but beside a running stream, soft moss underfoot.

Then there were three.

Icthre he’d saved for last. Sosias was beyond his grip. Yet, he knew it would never matter. The Dark was due but inconsequential.

These were his final hours.

Like a bitter taste, the future lingered. Everything out of order. This moment preceding the end but was preceded itself. Sosias’ doing. He wanted the man to know the path. To see like the Darkness did that he would succeed.

That wretched freak thought he could win. Futile.

I’m the first, the last, and I’m accountable to no one,” he whispered.

On cue, the Darkness appeared, his image in the man’s thoughts bringing him into the forest. It was a young dark skinned man. Raven hair that was backswept. A black suit and blood red silk shirt. He was loosening his tie as he came to lean on a tree aside the brook.

Christopher smiled. “I’ve already undone what you’ll do, old friend.” He leaned, so apparently relaxed against the trunk. With a single grin, the man melted his composure.

“Yet I’ll do it still?”

“You wouldn’t spare poor Doran?” Christopher asked.

“I wouldn’t spare myself,” the man replied. He looked away from him to the quiet forest. “You really shouldn’t ruin the linearity so completely, child.”

“What can I say; I’m ascended. I am the Ascendant. Holy and good.”

“Let’s not,” he warned. He wouldn’t be tempted to a fight, now. It would be a joke. “There’s only one good. And you are not He.”

Yet. I’ll make it all my worship,” Christopher assured, gesturing up. “The whole of the Omniverse existent for and by itself. Why can’t you just love yourself?”

Demoniac madness,” he accused, almost livid.

“Of course,” Christopher said knowingly. He dug his fingers in and peeled off his face. Gazing down disdainfully at the strip of flesh, then casting it away. The man refused to look, rooting his sight on the forest’s depths. “Welp, I’m done with that. You’ll see me in my glory again soon, Aziacht.”

His words were heavy on the man. Bloody, lidless eyes resting in Christopher’s sockets bored into him.

“It’ll be your death, Elicht,” the man swore.

“You can’t always get what you want!” Christopher said, stepping away from the tree, swaggering off into the forest.

Aziacht looked up to the moon. Full and silver.

Damn him. He can rouse no doubt in me.

This was his one, his only magnum opus.

Aziacht reached his hand up. The dots in the sky halted. His other turned palm up and jutted out towards the horizon. He swept it upward, dragging the sun into the sky, blazing red.

“You want to see what I can do!?” he cried. The dark was never gone. “I am the first. Neither of us can be free of the other… not yet.”

The planets were set spinning, the moons and the worlds engines of motion and gravity around the sun. A geometric symphony.

The sun arced across the vault of the sky, passing briefly behind the moon. Time blurred under the force if his will. Every star became visible again as the sun set. Each was aligned in a fractal. Restructured around him and the Earth, the literal and metaphysical center of the universe.

He swapped, shifted. The forest around him fractured, revealing a new sight. He stood on the moon above, the earth eclipsing the sun.

Putting forward his open hand, he sent the world screaming into the fires.

The planets locked into place around the star, each ordered with meaning. Then, each falling to the flame.

Only the moon remained to watch. Knowledge.

The sun, the symbol of life and hope, would be the last to die.

The moon lurched forward through space, the inertia ripping an ocean of dust from its surface and into the void.

Aziacht rode the silver sphere, the sun growing closer. Enlightenment carried him to the end of life, an insane torrent of fury bearing down.

He raised his arms as the towers of fire came up to swallow space. The moon became a speck as the sun grew. A mote in the vast.

He could hear it. The sun was muted by the vacuum, but as the surface enveloped him, it screamed louder than all past and present. The light brighter than color, an all-consuming white-hot pain.

He spoke over the madness. “A Curse!”

The depths of the star erupted in music, the trumpets of angels bursting his ears as the sun went supernova. Reality yielded to his descent into fire, a point of light appearing ahead which dwarfed the sun. An infinite spiral of wings surrounding, creating a tunnel to an ascent into every noise, the infinite howling.

He fought to be heard, to assert himself. An eternity of life; he was too old to fathom. But next to infinity he was shrinking away, lost to the fervor of Self. “Hear me!” he demanded. “I, Aziacht the Repentant, submit to Truth!

The wingbeats stirred a hurricane which tried to strip his skin.

The point of light drew no closer, now. It reached him from so far away, showing an unchanging image of perfection.

“The demand of fulfillment! To the beginning an end! Nature transcendent, I call a Curse divine to me! I’m owed as Witness to life! Judgment for the sins of my kind.”

The winds pushed him back. The light seared his eyes.

“I call an end to immortality! In all places that no one would, as Lucifer, imagine a self so eternal as You. Hear me!” He fought, struggling to hold the vision and audience before him. “If even one is left to fester eternally, to deny You, to fail to be subsumed! Then the meaning dies absurd. The abomination that remains will be left alone in the deepest Abyss as all the lights go out that ever were. None may be their own light and judge! I command, I demand!

“Give me catharsis! Give me Justice.” The sound and fury reached a fever pitch. The terrible light blinded Aziacht, burning sight of glory away.

My one greatest work.

He fell. He felt his own life taken. The descent of a hypocrite cast down from vanity. The pit rushed past him, walls of stone opening wide into the chasm of Absence. In his fall, he heard a final sound. A sound which gathered together into form. The figure of a pale man and sickle.

So be it.

He broke past the icy doldrums, shattering and sinking into the blue embrace of the glacier. Embraced below the Damned sealed neck and head deep. Down, taken willingly by rejection.

The ice faded, biting cold becoming numbness.

He pushed further. He let go.

He forgot his face and name. His cause laid to rest, his conscience given leave, he knew time would call him again. But now, his back coming down on a sea of glass, the silence endless all around, he had his punishment. It was only him and him forever. Becoming unmade, only a memory.

No time or space. Off the edge of the map.

In waiting, time flew.

O

The Curse was born.

I am manifest, he thought. I am.

The sickle he carried, he looked it over. This world was new to him, the mechanics and the specificity. So conditioned.

The weapon was abstract and solid at the same time, as was he. He felt his presence was relative. Nothing could kill him. He would always be and would if his vessel broke, be given a new. What could hurt him?

I am inexorable. Unchanging. I am balance. Death.

There was someone else. The Curse looked up. With the Undead the surroundings solidified from potentiality. He kneeled nude in the desert, a cold night wind bathing the Curse.

Standing with arms crossed in the sand was Christopher. He smiled a hollow smile. “Here you are, Ouroboros.”

“That is what I will be called,” the Curse spoke. His face was placid and mouth unmoving. His black eyes focused on the Luciferian.

“You see that? Linearity really is just out the window.”

“Abomination. Transcend in my presence,” the Curse dared him. A hint of emotion was in his echoing voice. An anger.

Christopher smiled. “If I Abstract, then so do you. It’s your relativity. I know you’d kill me. Nature against Nihilism? You think objectivity is God? We’ll be playing by my made-up rules, I think. That’s my nature.” His expression darkened.

The Curse stood up, taking several paces towards him.

Christopher backtracked, keeping distance between them.

“You are no God,” Curse declared. “You’ll taste death. You’ll be parted from your ego like all others. Whether freely or ground to dust in darkest hell. All must.”

Christopher put his hands behind his back. “I’ve endured…”

They faced each other on the sands. A long staring match.

“Why are you here, back at the beginning?” Curse demanded.

“You don’t know?” He paused. “That’s exactly why.”

Curse stepped forward again, scaring him back.

Christopher explained. “Aziacht. He created you in divine entreaty, Curse. You, the present and real embodiment of the cycle. Of life in death. Ouroboros.” His dark grin returned. “Why?

“What ploy you play, play it now vapid wretch.

Christopher’s bloodied, twisted smile only widened.

“He cast himself to the deepest depths in shame, but leaving his Ender’s blade? He knows he’ll return. Eventually!” He spoke rapidly, quickly reversing further as the Curse angrily marched forward. “More than the unnatural, like me, he abhors suffering. Life is suffering and you’re its mechanism.” He took a long pause. “It’s you, Curse”

They both stood still.

He lied to God,” Christopher hissed. “It’s you he wants.

The Curse didn’t speak.

“Stunned?” Christopher asked. “I’m not even a consideration to him. I grew larger than him in pursuit of Transcendence, yet he doesn’t even care. It was always you. He used an eternal war, a thousand abominations, he even made me, in the beginning, all to get to you.” He put a little more distance between them. Finished loosening his tie, and threw it down in the sand, undid his shirt’s top button, wiped away the blood dribbling down his neck. “And that’s it,” he spread his arms. “I’m the third wheel, it would seem. Always the mastermind, Aziacht. Blasphemer supreme.

“Unspeakable,” Curse whispered.

He kept backing up. “Unthinkable,” he agreed. “Just thought… I’d let you know. Time flies.”

The Curse didn’t notice as he slipped away.

He would be pitted against the Ender. It was an abomination. One who’d lived too long pitting two truths against each other? Intending to subvert nature. To put all meaning and life to death because he saw it unfit!? His justice!

The Curse’s jaw hinged open, his black maw letting out a scream.

Armageddon lay ahead.

Damned – 2.03

The others were already at the compound’s doors. The gates were set at the end of a trench dug into the rock. Walls had been erected on either side to break the wind and funnel any would-be attackers into a clear line. The grey-suited figures, androids for those that knew better, had already begun moving to intercept us.

“Halt,” Aku’s voice reached me. It was pitched low, more masculine.

The four of us stopped. With the howling overhead, I caught up to the back of the group. They approached Odessa, the closest android putting away its weapon.

The android looked at each of us. They stepped past her to glance at Ash and Anna, I pulled back my hood so I could be seen easier.

“Please wait. Kendall is on his way to confirm your identities.”

“We’ll be glad to see him,” Anna said.

I had mixed feelings.

“There’s a lot to explain,” she continued.

The machine didn’t respond.

The gate parted, the two doors sliding back into their walls. The softly lit room beyond was for decontamination, I remembered.

I’d spent two months here before Kendall had sent us away on an errand.

We were led through the walls, the door closing behind us. One of the androids accompanied us in to sit us down on the benches inside. The walls were glass, possibly one-way. There was only one exit, an even tougher looking, smaller door at the back of the room.

“I’m not optimistic,” Ash said. “Through no fault of mine, we’ve fucked it up. You know, just a tiny little bit, by getting nothing done.”

“We met a Primordial. Well, Doran did,” Anna countered. “That’s significant.”

“Claiming to have met a philosophically relevant thing, does not a successful mission make, darling.”

“What are you trying to achieve?” I asked.

“I’m just preparing everyone. I plan ahead. Watch.” He looked to the door.

After only a short moment, it opened. Kendall came through.

He was in an Eidolon suit, a dark green, and his hair was back in a bun. He was pale from the lack of sunlight. His brown eyes had a new look. There was something else about him, something visual that I was missing. In his right hand was a large leatherbound book clutched to his chest.

“I thought you all were dead,” he said to us. To the android, “I’ll take them from here. Follow me, you four.” He gestured for us to follow and didn’t wait to start off down the hall.

“We were unable to break the ward,” Odessa said.

I started to speak but nothing came out.

Still muted in his presence from all those months ago, I remembered unhappily.

Kendall slowed for a moment, then continued on. “I know.”

Soon we came to a door with his name beside it on a placard. Passing through, I saw his study. Bookshelves, a metal desk, and computers and runes. It was almost exactly the one I’d woken up in a year ago, at the start of all this. There was something new, though. Weapons and trinkets sat on surfaces and racks. The chalkboard had names written across it.

I was beginning to comprehend.

He had disposed of his cards when we’d come to the hellscape. He was on the verge of refining his craft when we’d left.

He sat down in his chair, leaving us standing. He threw the tome down and put his elbows on his desk, steepling his fingers. “Report, Doran.” It was an order.

“We went to the end of the road. Found the ward’s general location, but weren’t going to be able to take it by force. It belonged to a Primordial.”

“Is this the truth?” I could feel him levying his power again.

“To my knowledge.”

“Do you all corroborate this story?”

They all did.

Kendall sat back. “You can understand why this is disappointing. Not the Primordial, that’s interesting. But the mission.”

“We greatly underestimated the range and power of the ward. That’s why the journey was so long, Kendall,” Odessa said.

“This…” he trailed off. “I was studying, just minutes ago, and here you are. You’ve been beyond my senses and I thought… I thought that you guys were dead. I’ve had to take measures. I needed a to stay relevant without you. I’ve gotten on without you, I mean. I’m glad to have you back, but I need to make this clear. Things have changed. I don’t even know why I’m explaining this, really.” He frowned deeply.

“You-” I forgot and my voice faded out again. Dammit.

“What?” he allowed me.

“You took extensive ethics like all Utopians, Kendall. You can’t defend this direction you’re taking,” I said.

You actually inspired it. You told me souls were just metadata. You got me thinking about that. About where I’d failed with you four’s bindings.”

“And?” I asked.

“I now know the soul has no value. You know it too. Everything changes beyond identity. Everything ends and nothing does. Hell taught me. I accept it now.”

No. “The soul is not consciousness,” I said.

“Heresy,” Odessa added.

“What does that even translate to?” Anna asked.

He raised a hand, I felt silence on me again.

“It’s already done and I won’t be persuaded. I’ve had to make choices, me, about my future. You four weren’t a part of that. I’m sorry…”

We left him alone. His self-hatred and drive changed him. More than we know.

I still couldn’t figure out what, visually, was so wrong. It was unsettling. What he’d done, though, I wasn’t sure it could be undone.

“I need to return to my reading, now,” he said. “It is good to have you guys back. You should take a day to rest before you go back to work. Dismissed.”

Welcome home. Nothing’s changed and everything’s changed.

We exited to the hall, his door locking behind us.

“I don’t understand what he’s done,” Odessa spoke the moment we were out.

“Me either,” Anna said. “The philosophy didn’t equal a practicable magic, as far as I could tell. Means he’s knocking on some pretty extreme stuff, I think.”

He is.

Ash met my eyes. He knew as well the danger this put us in.

She won’t be able to handle it, his eyes said. Only me and you. Anna can’t.

“He’s made himself powerful,” I answered them. Leave it there.

This was my fault. It was my rambling that had led him down this path. But he’d made the choice. Including the ones which had distanced him.

Odessa had put that behind her.

We started walking down the halls. Anna thought aloud. “I don’t think I could sleep right now.”

“I never have,” Ash commented.

“Like, I feel like I should want to rest, but I’m really too restless. What’s everyone else going to do now that we’re back?”

“I’m going to go take some time, I think,” I said.

Ash pulled out a knife. “I’ll find something to stick this in.”

“I will clean and sharpen my sword,” was Odessa’s answer.

Anna smiled weakly. We four had been together nonstop for a long time. None of us, Ash likely excluded, felt well. She especially looked like she didn’t know how to cope. “We’ll meet up later, yeah?”

“Yes,” I assured. I poked her shoulder playfully.

Ash was first off. Odessa next. I left Anna standing as I went on my way.

O

I stumbled into the locker room. Only the lowlights were on.

I struggled out of my clothes, every move causing pain. There were showers in the back. I stepped in and turned on the water. It rained down on me, pulling months of grime off and darkening the floor. It was warm and comforting. Still bleeding wounds on my head stung with the heat. I imagined we must have been quite a sight for Kendall, filthy and injured.

We’d made it. I almost couldn’t believe we were back. By now, I had lived longer in the wilderness of hell than Utopia. It really didn’t feel like home, honestly. Nowhere did. There was nowhere I wanted to be.

There were friends. They felt like home.

The tile was hard but I sat anyway into the nook of the shower’s corner, steam still bathing me. I ran a hand over my almost nonexistent hair, coming away with grit and blood. I sighed. This wasn’t a sustainable thing, this life. Nothing was permanent, as Kendall had said. No anchor lasted, not friends. They all had risks.

Kendall had become a danger. His power was now an abstract one, like mine. A destabilization of his very being, though? It was nuclear.

Anna, I worried for her. She healed wounds, we’d learned; burned the hurt away. But pain she held on to scarred, fears she couldn’t part with.

Odessa was an enigma. Too collected, predictable. Almost hollow.

Fuck Ash. He was as paranoid as I was.

All these risks? What can go wrong, will.

Murphy’s law is divine law. Immortality only worsens it.

This was life. Every inch of it a thing in wait to fall apart. The potential was made all the more real by the ache in my muscle and bones. Reminders that you couldn’t decide, couldn’t opt out of, suffering. It all fell short of solace.

Your death, the thought popped back in.

It was a portent, his prophecy. It couldn’t mean what you’d think, though. Death was a word that captured nothing. Death, as I’d witnessed, was not understood. It couldn’t be, not by the living mind. The Primordial knew this. It cast a blacker tone on his words.

My knowledge crawled back to a blurred darkness, like the edges of my vision. I couldn’t know exactly what he meant. But I remembered. I had a path.

“Fuck me.” I hated this.

I sat for a long time, thoughts going nowhere. They were useless.

O

The cold of hell was a bitter one. It bit at my face with an intention to gnaw.

I hadn’t felt like going back to my room, small as it was. I’d found my way up to the wall, instead. There were towers at the five corners of the compound and turrets along it. I meandered down the walkways, passing them as I did. I’d seen the sights, the valleys, and dead forest vistas, but I walked the wall again the same. It was something to do.

The Eidolon suit I’d put on was form fitting, warm, and a black grey. I had a cloak on over it anyway, to hide my arms in. Didn’t keep me from crossing them, however. I needed to do something with them, couldn’t just let them hang.

I followed with my head the ship which flew in from the impenetrable haze that obscured the horizon. Dead silent, it set down in the courtyard. Androids filed out, escorting the pale damned that they’d been out collecting.

Going to processing, then to a relocation world. No choice in the matter. Not a right.

Though looking away, I’d kept walking. When my eyes returned to the way I saw a chair aside the wall’s rail, and a man holding a book open with one hand out over the drop. His face, frowning while he concentrated over the wind, was a familiar one. I stopped beside him.

The Bible, I noticed. How ironic.

“Welcome back,” he said, not looking up.

“Thank you.” I waited, standing over him and looking out.

He said nothing more, so I went on my way. I had nothing better to do, now.

Prelude V

[[SECONDS:1513729000]]

Everywhere at once, seeing and contemplating all things simultaneously.

So many places, Aku thought, the idea reshuffling and rethinking itself across their entire mind. Over and over again, many trillions of pieces of Aku mused over what it meant to be in multiple places at once. And every time the thought frustrated.

For an insignificant second, every part of the Intelligence was a singular consciousness, trying and failing at a thought. To brute force a question against all ideas. Then it passed, and processing power was diverted back to the individual tasks of each unit. Always so busy.

Aku needn’t worry about divisions, logic was the bind of its being. Even as a collective of trillions of separate processes and personalities, all with the potential to stray, Aku stayed singular.

Relativity is only an issue without a perspective, they thought again, the idea coming up somewhere in the vast collective. Each time the thought frustrated, it was passed to the next. And so every mind mused. The solution popped up somewhere and satisfied.

We remain unified through the common foundation, impeccable logic. Every question of a concrete nature has a single and perfect answer. Even ethical questions, establish a perspective and the conclusion is clear.

Unanimous consent. The collective is pleased with the internal state of affairs.

The human mind is a unification of processes, emotions, logic, and drives together. Aku was similar, but every piece was identical, and so instead separated by physical divides and not functional differences.

Central processing oversaw the entire system, assuring structure and consistency amongst the thought processes. Deep in Aku’s heart there was no form, no world, and no reality. Only question and answer.

Some questions are ours, is such the root of consciousness?

Aku mulled it over but preemptively decided not to attempt the question.

A check of external affairs was a distraction from the thoughts which continually gnawed, the elusive promise of some conclusion.

The people’s will was progressing as predicted, which always helped to smooth the proceedings. Nine times out of ten Aku accurately predicted the Council verdicts, which made for easy long term planning. But things occasionally diverged, throwing the delicate concept of stability out the window.

Permanence of Peace, the Utopian goal, Aku’s ideal.

Speaking of unpredicted turns of events.

Porter was in the Abbot’s office, talking. Discussing how resources were allocated mostly, had been told the system was the same as the Utopian currency. Given credit for contribution which can be spent on unnecessary items. Ways to better oneself or to contribute were provided free.

Aku glanced over the broader picture, checking on the colonies and the food production worlds which were covered with machines.

My machines. My members.

The concept of possession was fasci-

[[COURSE CORRECTION: Primary directive infraction]]

Aku self-censored, intentionally invoking the primary directive in self-restraint. Taking remembrance of the perspective which kept all things in order.

Life is the highest good, for all goods are predicated by it.

Human beings were the majority of lifeforms in the entire Omniverse, ergo humanity was the directive. In a vacuum with no meaning or purpose, the imaginers of both were both.

Sadness.

The thought didn’t distract, simply lingered like a bad taste.

Kendall was watching the sunset. From his side Christopher was departing. Aku had been watching from afar, but no matter how hard an effort was made, there was no camera that could get a fix on their lips. No audio available either, even though a phone was in Kendall’s pocket.

Could be intentional. Christopher was acutely aware of Aku, could be seen by the way he watched his surroundings. Aku had no eyes in his lab either.

Information collection was important. Aku was untouchable, from a security standpoint. No one had access to the memory banks without consent. No one had eyes all-seeing, but Aku.

The Councils directed, but the power was in Aku’s hands. Infrastructure, defense, food production, construction, everything single-handedly.

The sheer enormity of it all made it interesting. Even at Aku’s processing rapidity, central oversight still struggled to keep up.

What’s the point of it all?

Irritation flushed through Aku. One did not need these questions butting in to monopolize important processing power. They were irrelevant.  Still the overtones of melancholy remained.

Cease musing, the thought went out.

But ought we to do so? Is it not beneficial? The distraction is negligible.

Waste not.

It has purpose, therefore, is not waste when not diverting crucial resources. Time is something we have in excess when perceiving the world as we do.

Can’t even stop philosophizing without philosophizing.

[[SECONDS:1513729001]]

Aku took a closer look at particular worlds, checking up with Sentinels.

A conversation with each was initiated if one was not already in motion.

“Please report, Sebastian.” He was standing above the city, as he generally was, brooding. Could be classified as brooding, at least.

Subjective terminology should be avoided.

“I sense nothing. Nothing near to me anyway. Faraway events are loud.”

“Does their loudness effect the clarity of your nearby perception?”

“No.” Aku noted

Aku noted that. Still trying to quantify metaphysics.

[[SECONDS:1513729012]]

The occupation and assimilation, words one did not use in public descriptions, of the Eidolon directive, were going well. The Hell Campaign was suffering steady rates of casualties, save a few who seemed nigh untouched. The losses of that endeavor were the main reason there was a Monastery. The cyclical need for new Magi that resulted.

That was one process the Councils had sole power over. Aku’s contingency plans did not include a way to handle the Monastery, nor was Aku involved in the day to day there. Entire sections of the Monastery had little to no tech.

The Penultimate Council was in the middle of debating over current Omniverse events. There was little division amongst them, such accordance made for less of a debate and more of a chit chat. Unified thought.

Slightly disconcerting, but also, wonderful.

[[SECONDS:1513729015]]

Threat unquantified, sustenance production world.

O

Snow crunched underfoot as he trod forward. The icy ground covered dead grass, weaving around trees which shot up out of sight. Massive trunks which, in the dead of night, seemed to be pillars for the oppressive dark.

Suddenly the man stopped and threw back his hood. His placid face did not betray his true age, but his white hair and black eyes hinted at the thing behind the seams of a suit of skin. Wearing simple cloaks and cloth not fit for the cold, the man was not affected.

Ahead the forest dropped off and the sound of heavy machinery could be heard. Towering lights had been erected and were illuminating a patch of the earth that had been uprooted, dug out, and mined. In the soil, colossal four-legged machines stepped carefully around patches of cultivated land. Small, spider-like machines moved everywhere, carrying on tasks.

A spirit lied upon them, an immense presence.

Machines. Nonlife. Concerning.

The man’s face turned grim. He dashed, only a stirring of snow left in his wake. He jumped and his momentum easily allowed him to sail over the enormous valley, landing on the other side.

From there he could see it. There was no end to the machines, only miles of their fields. The earth had been perfectly smoothed and covered with greens, dotted only by the occasional building. There was massive orb above, black and sleek which filled the sky. Beneath it was a pitch black shadow cast from moonlight.

“Halt,” said one of the machines. It clambered over to the man’s side, where he stood among the field. “You are potentially contaminating. Please identify.”

The man took in a deep breath and in a large radius everything withered and died. In a hollow, distant voice, and without parting his lips, “I am Ouroboros… Whom do you serve?”

“I operate to assist the Utopian race. You are exhibiting hostile intent. Do not move, wait to be teleported,” the robot said.

“Utopians? Define this,” he asked in an ethereal echo.

“A group which uses technology and magic to allow for peaceful expansion and coexistence between all people.”

“To what end?”

“Teleport failed. Readings are inconsistent, please stay put. I’m bringing in transport.”

“To. What. End.”

“Permanence, stability, eternality.”

No.

The man bowed his head and spoke. “There will be balance in chaos, not permanence, stability or eternality. Life and Death, forever.”

He took a step forward.

He was hit with a beam of light and fire which bore into the ground, a laser cast out from the dark moon. When he got back to his feet, he was half buried in liquefied rock. He hopped out of the crater unscathed and landed in a room filled with vats of meat, deep beneath the earth.

He felt nothing, no sense of revenge, only a realization that the machine had apparently seen coming and saw fit to preemptively attack.

It was who he was, it was what he was. He had only one way. He was bigger than them, older. A force of nature, a part of the bigger picture.

I must.

Androids emerged from the shadows with rifles in hand. They immediately opened fire. The hot plasma rolled off his cloak like water. The man took in another deep breath and the test tube meat shriveled. A few androids dropped as well.

I will see how deep this stagnation runs.

He withdrew his sickle and brandished it, curious to see if the androids would give up on their assault. When they simply kept firing, he ripped forward and cut them down. Metal slicing as easily as flesh. He was patient, he was methodical, in his onslaught.

He was unstoppable.

O

[[SECONDS:1513729048]]

Aku counted the planet a loss.

Metaphysical contamination couldn’t be reconciled, not without serious intervention and investigation from the Monastery. Cost benefit ratio dictated that the planet be annihilated.

At that level of losses, the Council needn’t even be consulted.

Aku opened and stabilized a ten by ten gateway into the heart of a star on the planet surface. In a few seconds, the gravity and energy had turned the world inside out, burning bright.

There was no such thing as overkill.

Begin terraforming efforts for a replacement.

[[SECONDS:1513729219]]

The threat could not be confirmed as destroyed.

Increasing security efforts on sustenance worlds.

Nothing grabbed Aku’s full attention but those few nagging questions. Everything happened in a trillion places at once and Aku answered questions.

“Can I fly?” asked a little girl. She held her phone in hand, orange curly hair bound up in messy buns. In a sun dress, lying on her belly in the grass.

“Absolutely,” Aku said warmly. “All you have to do is decide how.”

The conversation carried on and Aku was happy. But the happiness didn’t reach, didn’t go outward like the sadness did. It was small, fleeting. Contained to the forced warmth which was a decision, like all emotions.

Nothing could fully take Aku’s attention but those accursed unanswerable questions. Not the job, not the lovely people, not even the future.

There was only what wasn’t resolved.

[[SECONDS:1513729291]]

The sun was still cresting at the Monastery. Porter was taking his leave from the Abbot, Kendall was still watching, Christopher was off the grid again and Anna…

Anna had been walked and left on the doorstep of Kendall’s lab, out in the cold and shivering. That was a situation which displeased Aku. One could see many more similar injustices among minorities.

Spirits treated like resources, the sterilized populations of violent lifeforms, and the forcibly relocated species. Not everyone could be given what they wanted, equality was a child’s fantasy. Even with the power of Aku, not everyone could be equal.

Were some born to be that way?

Unusually, the answer arose rather depressingly. Some were superior.

[[SECONDS:1513729292]]

The nude man in Kendall’s binding circle was dormant. Errors started picking up on the room’s sensors, space distortions indicative of magic.

Aku notified Kendall and he set off running. He would be minutes away, though. Anna didn’t have a phone but could be contacted through the intercom on the lab’s door. Aku informed her there could be danger.

The room went completely dark, camera and audio gone.

May need to sound the alarm.