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 – 4.09

“Keep your eyes peeled,” Porter warned them.

They cleared corners and stalked the halls. This place was old, he knew. Beneath the civilized lunar colonies had been the original network of tunnels. Beneath the ground, you could keep air pressure and spread out without too many extra materials.

The network was big. Access to the surface would be limited.

After all, you couldn’t have anyone letting out the air.

They had a bigger problem. “Can any of you survive the vacuum?” Porter asked.

The Sorcerer spoke. “I can give the others that ability. You’re good?”

“I am.” But it wasn’t that he was worried about. They weren’t alone down here.

The Sorcerer was having the same thoughts. “You helped bind the Ouroboros, didn’t you?”

“I was the lead on that, yes.” He knew his line of thought. “But that doesn’t mean we can do anything. Not against something like this.”

The halls were nearly pitch black. They turned into another room, what looked like a cafeteria. The chairs were upturned on the tables, the air like a sludge of dust.

Porter explained in a strained whisper as they walked. “I don’t know what we’re up against here. We had time to design an antithesis with the Ouroboros. All we know this time?”

Wulff picked up his thought. “It’s a cancer. Some runaway metaphysical element of the human experience that was common and potent enough to seep into the framework.”

“A Horror,” he agreed.

They all froze as the sound of a chair crashing broke the quiet.

The Sorcerer’s hands flew. Porter reached out to stop him, but before he could, they had summoned a fire which spread out across the floor like the ignition of a heavy gas. It gave light to the outer corners of the room. It crawled over dead bodies which had been out of sight between the tables. When it had reached the wall it quickly burned out, leaving them in darkness again with maladjusted eyes.

Porter dropped his arm and exhaled deeply.

“Let’s just keep movi-”

A wet and deep, hot breath doused the back of Porter’s neck.

Time stretched out as he pushed away and spun around. Catching a glimpse of glassy, reflective eyes, two heads taller and leering over him. He jutted out his hands, trying to put the hulking figure at arm’s length.

Instead, his own push shoved him back with the others. Touching it, icy chills shot up his arms, pinprick tingles crawling over his skin.

The elephant man breathed raggedly.

The five of them backed up as far as they could. The elephant man was so still.

Quinn,” Wulff hissed, a terror in his voice. “Don’t let it near me.”

He didn’t reply. Porter clenched his hands, trying to dispel the coldness settling in them. It was like he could suddenly feel the weight of the rock burying them. Everything was distorted. Like watching a stone dropped down a well, everything was shrinking around him.

“Christ,” his voice quivered. He beat his forearm against the tables beside them as hard as he possibly could. The pain shocked him back, steadied his voice. “Don’t let it touch you,” he said.

The elephant man tottered forward, seemingly off balance. Like a drunk.

It swung its trunk like arms and sent a table end over end. It wailed, trying to form syllables in a shrill noise.

Wulff hurdled the tables. “Run!”

The other four followed him, jumping the tables and trusting him to know which way he was going. If there was a way out of this, it would be him.

The elephant man broke into a lumbering run. It barreled through obstacles, knocking them aside.

They hit the back wall and sprinted. The elephant man had fallen to all fours, loping after them. Porter’s eyes locked on the exit further away. An unlocked door and beyond a half-lit kitchen. Wulff was in the front, the Sorcerer in the back.

As they burst through the door, the Sorcerer caught his foot in the doorway. Arms flew out with a shout, “Crush and chill of the deep, force of ocean depth!

A blue light filled the cafeteria, ice forming on every surface. The thin metal of the tables crumpled under an invisible weight. Suddenly, looking back, Porter could see the elephant man unhindered. A human tank, eyes recessed and no discernable neck.

“Back!” he bellowed. Porter dove.

The elephant man threw itself into the doorway. The Sorcerer’s eyes widened as he realized he’d done nothing to stop it. The behemoth burst through the doorway and half of the wall aside, rolling over him and through rolling metal shelves.

The four of them pulled themselves up and started running across the kitchen.

They ran through a large door and closed it shut behind them. A soft white light filled the place. Porter counted heads. Wulff, the Eidolon, and the Healer. The Healer looked shaken.

As his eyes darted for an escape, he realized.

Oh, fucking hell.  

“This is a freezer.” Wulff kept backing away from the door until he hit one of the room’s pillars. The shelves were empty. He looked desperately for an exit. Freezers had only one exit. It was pointless.

“Wulff! Focus!” Porter barked.

“No!” he cried. “He’s coming for me.

“Why you?!” the Eidolon asked, deeply disconcerted.

Porter grabbed Wulff’s shoulders, slamming him against the pillar. “What did you do?!”

“I…” he looked nervously over Porter’s shoulder at the locked door.

“Speak!”

“I’m helping Elicht.”

“Who?”

“Christopher! I knew! I knew when he came to my class. He taught me.”

“Damn.” Porter pushed away. He ran a hand through his hair, hanging his head. “Damn,” he repeated. “That’s not okay.”

“Guys…” the Eidolon said.

Wulff slid down to the floor. “He wanted me to help him. He saw the work I was doing in causal manipulations. He showed me the truth of metaphysics, of everything. He’s just bringing on the inevitable, Porter.  All intelligent life externalizes its desire for comfort to the point of entropy. All the struggle is to end the struggle. To bring the final form.

“Something’s not inevitable if you have to make it happen, you fuck.” Porter stared off into space, trying to think of a way out. He couldn’t teleport now, not when his place in space mattered. No, that was cheating. A small smirk found his lips.

“Rory!” the Eidolon yelled.

The healer had pushed a hanging meat hook into his eye socket. He went limp, the chain snapping taut and his body spinning in place.

Porter didn’t know why he’d smiled. “He tripped,” he said. “It must have brushed him.”

“If it touches you?” the Eidolon asked, horrified.

“Yes.”

The freezer door jumped on its hinges, the center deforming.

If it wanted in, it would be in. It was knocking.

Wulff started bawling. He knew he was going to die. He knew it for a fact. Like it was happening before his eyes, Porter knew.

“You,” he motioned to the Eidolon. “Press up against the wall beside the door with me. It’s going for Wulff. If it breaks through, we go behind it. Don’t let it touch.” He crouched beside Wulff. “Is there a point to trying?”

Wulff knew what he’d meant. He shook his head, forcefully.

Porter stood. The two of them pressed against the wall. As the freezer door fell flat, they slumped down. The naked, pale elephant man lowered its head to come through. It walked straight past them.

Wulff heard their footsteps disappear out of range, into the kitchen.

He buried his face in his hands as he felt the shadow of the horror come over him. The only sound its heavy, deep breath.

A finger touched his chin. His face was raised up.

Aziacht’s scrutinizing gaze searched Wulff’s eyes for something. “You’re not a brilliant man,” he said.

Wulff’s mouth opened, but he couldn’t bring himself to speak.

“Not a brilliant man, but an effective piece.”

“You’re going to kill me.” He could see it with his waking eyes. All the ways it could happen. A thousand deaths all at once flashing before him. Then, they all just became one.

“You’re going to do it. I’m going to watch.” Aziacht pointed to the hooks. “Because you got something wrong,” he told him. “All the struggle is to survive. To fight entropy. It’s survival that has no point. And that’s something you’re about to experience.”

O

Porter and the Eidolon came running through the door and into the light. Soft, reflected light from off the earth.

They crouched down to catch their breath, the Eidolon looking back, worried to be staying still.

Porter stared up at the glass ceiling above. “It’s alright,” he said.

“But the… thing… It’ll be following.”

“No.” He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “They were just after Wulff. This was a trap for him, Christopher’s ace. He doesn’t care about you. And he wants me in the fight.”

“Gee, thanks.” He wheezed. “I thought you were… a problem for him.”

“I’m part of his trilemma. I’m part of his game… Get on the radio, soldier.”

The Eidolon found a terminal, plugging in his device to broadcast for Solidarity.

Porter continued to stare, baffled. Every star in the sky above. Gone.

He’d boxed them in. Every universe, every star, and planet. The Monastery. He’d stolen them all from the sky. Like they’d never mattered at all.

There would be no retreat. Porter could see it, now. Somewhere on the surface of the world, Aziacht would have them prepare. The location would be waiting for them.

“I’ve got them. Teleport incoming.”

That place would be where time ended. Porter felt, now. He wasn’t sure. But he thought it might not be that truth was on his side.

“Good.”

There was nothing left between it and them, now. No stop along the way. No trials or procrastination. The end of time, clearly in sight. He wasn’t ready.

Armageddon – 4.08

The Solidarity pushed away from Mars and into open space. Without a proper captain, only a host of Magus that crowded the command deck, it was left to the few remaining pilots to plot a course. Porter had a better knowledge of some of the controls, but he hadn’t known how to plot their course. A young Eidolon had done it for him.

He loitered by some of the sensor modules. All through the dim chamber Utopians sat staring into space. No one was talking. The bodies had been cleaned, but a gory scent still lingered on the air. As he turned his eye to the nearest console, he saw the feed from an aft exterior camera.

“The Deus Ex is following,” he said.

“What?!” a nearby student asked, terrified.

“Just out of cannon range,” he added.

Wulff leaned over the console to see the feed. He checked the sensors as well. “I’m not feeling a single potentiality featuring an attack,” he told them. “It’s no threat.”

“I find that a little hard to believe. We should mount an attack,” Porter said.

Wulff shook his head, thinking hard a moment. “We move into range, it’ll back up.”

“We can’t waste time on that.” O’Reilly, coming out of the crowd, tapped the screen. “We’ve got just a few minutes to Earth at max speed. Then we can immediately set up a portal to move any survivors to the Monastery.”

“You’re forgetting about the moon,” Porter corrected. “Lunar colony will have survivors.”

“Damn,” O’Reilly swore. “You’re right. That will add hours to our timeline.”

“How do we want to do it, then?” Porter asked.

Wulff tapped his shoulder. “You and me. Let’s not land the Solidarity.”

“An away team?” Porter looked to the Eidolon manning the warship’s helm. “Are the teleporters operational?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then okay.” Porter stood up. “You need to get suited for a vacuum. We’ll take a few students. Anyone with healing specialties, any general sorcerers! Show of hands!” He picked three out, “you, you, and you. Get suited.” Finally, he looked back to Wulff. “What could go wrong.”

“Something fairly horrific, actually,” he replied. “Let’s be careful.”

“Let’s be quick,” Porter added.

O

The grey dust stirred when five figures appeared on the lunar surface. Porter looked high above into space, seeing the dim stars. He could make out the silhouette of the Solidarity, but only barely. By the time he’d looked down, the dust had settled and they were moving forward.

One student, the healer, stumbled in the low gravity. “Shit. Sorry fellas.”

“Try to be cool,” his friend admonished him. A sorcerer, jack of all trades, Porter remembered.

The last, an Eidolon, said nothing, only carrying his gun and backpack tightly. A tech expert.

Porter saw ahead the broken domes and half buried inflatable corridors of the surface level colony. He knew it went deep into the ground, and he could see further structures poking up far out of sight. Not a light was on. No one, it seemed, was home.

“Blackout,” he said. “But it’s not been long. Air won’t have run out, yet.”

“Yes,” Wulff agreed.

“Tag em and zap em,” the Eidolon spoke for the first time.

All they had to do was get a location on them and then the Solidarity could grab any survivors. Granted that they weren’t too deep into the rock for the signal to penetrate, that was.

Porter walked up the first dome inset in the moon, coming to a shattered opening. He gestured back to them before going first. His fall was down through dust clouded open air until he landed in the center of a street. Looking around, what he could see resembled a shopping district.

The others landed shortly after him, their impacts heavy but not injuring, even from their height. The last of them fell spinning, landing on a shop booth and falling through. A massive piece of glass shortly followed them, having broken out from under their feet. Porter stepped out of its way.

Cool, man,” the sorcerer sarcastically said.

“Shit!”

“Come on,” Porter ordered.

They had to move cautiously. Wulff was on edge and that seriously bothered Porter. Through the shopping district, there was nothing but the frozen bodies. At the far edge, a wide tunnel led into what looked like a row of apartment doors. The total lack of air compression, it seemed, went on.

Porter really hoped Aku hadn’t simply let the air out. There’d be no one left.

That’s what they would do, though, he worried. That’s what I would do.

“You,” Porter pushed the Eidolon ahead. “Get into the sound system if you can. Anywhere with air, let them know our signal.”

“Will do.”

Porter pried back the door into one of the apartments. It was pitch black inside. He flipped on his night vision and gave it a look. Nothing. Only green hued darkness, the back of someone’s head sitting on the couch. Dead.

Wulff clasped a hand on his shoulder and Porter startled.

“You’re on edge?”

“I’m not feeling good about this,” he told him. He turned his head to the side, peering to the end of the hall. “I see a closed door. Could be a sealed airlock.”

“Could be,” Wulff agreed.

Suddenly, a foreign voice sounded in their ears.

“Hello? Please help,” they said. A girl? No, sounded more like a young boy.

Using the radio?

“Got a fix on it,” the Eidolon said. “Straight ahead.”

“I’m gonna ward us.” The Sorcerer’s head darted around. “I’m pissing myself, here. And I’ve been to Hell. This is something different.”

“A different metaphysical profile from Hell,” the healer agreed. “There’s a gateway just hanging open somewhere around here. It… doesn’t feel like it’s got a destination?” He visibly shivered. “That’s some element of despair. It’s really potent.”

“Nihilism,” Wulff told them. He pressed the button aside the door they’d reached. When it opened, they could see that it was an airlock with another closed door. “It’s not a magical element you’re feeling, just an inevitable conclusion.”

“Stay focused,” Porter chastised.

Stepping inside, the door closed behind them.

Air flooded in and the lights flickered. Systems were half functional and their tech expert was having to finagle them at every juncture. He carried a small device with an interchangeable tip and holographic screen. He stabbed it into the terminal of the next door and swore at the data that came up. “Everything is bogged down. All the RAM is being dedicated to processing screams. Listen.”

He let the signal into their speakers and they immediately heard the screeching and wailing. Dozens of voices, each similar but different from Aku’s, shouting and whispering gibberish.

“Cut that,” Porter barked.

“You get the point,” they said. “I’ve never touched a system this slow.”

He got the point. He wasn’t happy about it.

The airlock door opened out into a partially lit hall which quickly met open air. They came through it to the railing overlooking an Orpheum. They saw the stairs leading down and took them. Once at ground level, standing in the theater aisle, Porter looked up to the glass overhead.

Where the fuck were the stars.

It was dim enough that he should have been able to see them. The Earth wasn’t in view to obstruct. With his head tilted back, staring into space, the others passed on unnoticing.

“Wulff!” he said.

“What?”

“Where are the-”

Gone.” He was interrupted. That voice.

Porter’s eyes widened, his head whipping to see a shadowed figure standing in one of the unlit exit halls of the Orpheum. Out of the dark came a hanging face framed in heavy black dreads. “You can feel it,” they said. “Can’t you?”

Porter ripped off his helmet. He needed to see with his own eyes.

Doran,” he realized, horrified. “You’re here…”

“That’s the feeling of your lie dying. That all those stars mattered, that you had anywhere to run. It’s the walls closing in and the lights going out, Porter. It’s me, Aziacht.”

There was a moment of silence as he raised the helmet mic back up to his lips, their eyes still locked. “Porter to Solidarity…”

Before he could finish, Aziacht’s hand reached lazily out, fingers snapping. The floor of the Orpheum crumbled, falling with them. Porter lost sight of him and grip on his helmet as they flew downward into an abyss.

The fall felt like an eternity. When they hit the ground, the floor of the Orpheum flattened out. Porter landed back first on a seat and bounced off into the deformed remnants of the aisle. The others were on their feet when he achingly found his way up, standing in the wreckage.

“Is this what you saw?!” he demanded.

Wulff detached his helmet and threw it away. The other three did the same. “Display fried,” he said absently. He shook his head. “No! I just saw a possibility of…”

“Of what? Spit it out,” the Sorcerer butted in.

“A no-win scenario.” Wulff looked up to the opening they’d fallen from, hundreds of feet above. He looked around them at the encompassing darkness. Some kind of storage space? “A walking, no-win scenario…” He ran a hand through his thinning hair. “I don’t see a way out.”

Porter stepped away from the scattered wood floor onto cold, damp concrete. He could faintly see the walls of this vast storage room. “There’s a way out of here,” he said. “Let’s start with that.” He got walking.

“Hey!” the Sorcerer called. “You knew that guy?”

He grimaced, still going. “No.” He could see what looked like a door. “I never knew Doran. But I knew he wasn’t right. He’s had too much time to think.”

When he made it to the door, the others had caught up with him. He pushed it open came into a hall. Red emergency lights lit the way. He took the first right turn he came upon, immediately assaulted by the sight of dead bodies.

That’s not good.

They were all laid out. Purposefully, like a pattern. They couldn’t have suffocated that way. He paced around them, trying to make out the shape in poor light.

“No life force,” the healer said. “But not long dead. They came down here to escape.”

The bodies formed a word.

“It says hello,” Porter told them. He squinted at the dark corners of the room before his eyes fell on the others’ faces. “They were killed by him. Aziacht. By a personification he made, as powerful as the Ouroboros. Not a truth, though. Something else given life. It was a Horror.”

“Are we… predetermined to die here?” the Eidolon asked, looking at Wulff.

“I don’t know,” he answered.

Porter kicked a console. “Fuck!” he cursed. “There’s not a single survivor on this rock.”

There was only one thing they could do now.

We have to make it to the surface.

Armageddon – 4.07

The fighter fell into an even approach. Thrusters slowed and guns fired. A hole was blasted through the hanger bay doors of the warship. The one remaining ship called Solidarity.

Seth brought down the landing gear, turned up the shields, and forced his way through the ragged gap in the metal. The pitch-black interior of the hanger lit up as he switched on the headlights. As they set down he quickly blew the hatch.

Gregory was first to put boots on the ground.

Grabbing the handgun tucked beside his seat, he exerted some force to lift, catching himself on the capsule’s rim so as not to float away. “Mag boots?” he asked.

“Got mine,” Gregory replied. They stuck and walked, doing a short spin and looking around the hanger.

“Go night vision, then,” Seth told him. He reached down to power off the fighter’s lights.

“Check.”

They left the fighter behind, moving by memory towards the hangar exit. They’d both been here before. The layout like any of the other ships Seth and Gregory had been operating space marines on for years. They’d been stationed on the now destroyed vessel, Schaden, originally. Lately, it had been hectic, to say the least.

The door controls were unresponsive so Seth moved to the front with an expander. Sliding it into the seal, it cranked and crunched to pry it open. Doing that, they collected the expander and moved forward.

Gregory had the lead with his handgun forward. Now, in the unlit corridors of the Solidarity, they moved ahead briskly.

There were too many angles to clear effectively. Crewmember rooms and droid storage offshoot from the main hall which they tread. Any number of places for a surprise attack.

The power is out, Seth thought, it could be a feint. A trick.

It could be that Aku is offline. What that would mean, though, he had no idea.

The suspense of hidden danger loomed.

Seth’s hand rested on Gregory’s shoulder as he checked alternate doorways as they walked. The Commanding deck wouldn’t be far.

All the machines were conspicuously absent as the primary hall’s end approached.

The heavy double doors were clamped shut hard. Wouldn’t be a problem.

Seth latched the expander and Gregory watched their back. As the metal of the doors ground, they parted to show a crowd of androids.

Each with their alabaster faces revealed, they rested, almost posed, across the room. Starlight from the vaulted glass backlight their pale, twisted expressions. Slowly as the doors parted, their eyes moved free of their statuesque bodies to fix on the two of them.

They stepped through and Gregory collected the expander, the door snapping shut behind them. All at once console lights came on in the dark. They had to switch off their night vision, choosing the dim over the blinding LEDs.

With the androids unresponsive, Seth cautiously moved on. He had in mind the flight controls. If they could activate the emergency landing protocol, the Eidolons could secure the ship. He was sure they had a way.

The first step he took had every android shoot up. Gregory clasped down on his shoulder, pulling him back. He radioed to him, “we have to try.”

Gregory responded, “they’re unarmed.”

“So?”

“About ten yards between any of them and us. Let’s trash them.”

They charged. Clambering over each other, faces lighting up with rage, every android rushed.

“Shit!”

They lit up the crowd, pulling the trigger as rapidly as they both could. Some two dozen androids broke against their shots like a crashing wave, those at the back rolling over those downed in the front. It was an instant realization that they couldn’t stop them all.

Gregory pushed Seth forward into the remaining androids. They tore him apart as he tried to fire into them. With the added space between them and the distraction, he could fire through Seth and the remaining machines. In a few split seconds, the laser fire had tentatively ceased.

Greg stared at the mass of bodies, his back suddenly hitting the wall as his retreat ran out.

His own ragged breath was the only sound in his suit. Pulling his eyes away from Seth’s pieces, he caught sight of the captain’s controls. He went around the androids, thinking some might be playing dead. As he climbed up to the controls, he kept looking over his shoulder back to them.

The display was complex but familiar. He swiped through protocols, quickly seeing the auto-landing command. His finger flew for the button.

Gregory’s face smashed into the floor as his foot was ripped away from him. He kicked at whatever had a hold on him as he was thrown off the platform. He spiraled through the air, set spinning by the android which had pushed off while keeping a grip on his leg. He fought the centrifugal force to aim down at the androids climbing up his leg, their mechanical hands biting into flesh as easily as fabric.

Without thinking he blew off both the android’s face and parts of his left leg.

His own screaming echoed in his ears.

When Gregory stopped to catch his breath, inhaling sharply through clamped teeth, he couldn’t find his bearings. He was spinning on an upward path, on every rotation catching a glimpse of the oncoming ceiling.

“Gahh!” He shouted as he landed. Gregory quickly tried to push off using only one foot but bashed his stump in the process.

His vision was going black.

Welling up from his suit was a foam sealant, but the loss of his limb and the open vacuum meant his blood pressure plummeted.

As he tried to guide himself down towards the control panel, he stuck out his hand. With his thoughts slipping, Gregory could only hope he hit the button.

O

The Deus Ex was dead in the water, it seemed. Porter dusted himself off as he came up the hill. The impact had been a little rough. Hasami’s sword was attached to his back.

Over the Martian hills and far away, the valley where they’d begun rested between two grand rocks. No more cloud of drones flew overhead.

He traveled the distance quickly. In this instance, he could teleport it.

Then, looking down from one of those grand rocks, he could see the forest valley, every tree felled below. Disturbingly, he could see no living people.

Porter leaped down off the rock, hit a hill and slid to a stop. Sprinting the rest of the way into the valley, he could see more clearly. Among the fallen trees and hundreds of unmoving black spheres, there were quite a few dead Utopians.

But not enough.

There would be survivors. With every drone dead, they would have moved on, he reasoned. Porter’s eyes scanned the horizon. He remembered, there had been a nearby settlement reduced to rubble. They might have gone there to look for survivors.

He traveled again, out of the valley and to the grassy Martian plains.

They hadn’t gone back to the Monastery? He wondered.

No, they had to be around here somewhere. He sensed it.

Where would they go? They had a better sense than him, what might they be waiting for, then? What reason would they have to stay?

Porter craned his head up to see a massive blackened warship descending from space.

That’d do it.

He traveled one last time.

The crowd was gathered out in the open of a Martian flatland. A perfect landing space.

They gave the ship some distance as it set down, a massive groaning and dust cloud billowing. Porter let the wind wash over him before catching up to the crowd and flagging down the first Master he saw.

Wulff was by his five or so remaining students. Cobb was somewhere nearby and Babba too was around. He didn’t see O’Reilly, but he thought he would be there. That was it.

No Smith, nobody else. Only a couple dozen students remaining. He counted among the crowd a few suited Eidolon, military men. He could see in the distance one running over the hills towards them. They will have dotted the landscape with their escape pods.

“Porter,” Wulff acknowledged him. “What’s the situation?”

“You first,” Porter replied, still counting heads.

“The drones were an onslaught, Porter. What you’re looking at was the best case scenario. Harrison wasn’t making it. Smith wasn’t making it. I knew that going in. You were supposed to die too, actually. What happened up there.

Porter grimaced. “Hasami,” he said.

“I can’t account for the highly unlikely.”

“You take the safe option,” he accused. He wasn’t happy. The soldier, Brice, had shaken him a little. He’d exerted a different form of power and it changed him. “You calculate. Not the long shot, the one with the most variants you can see. That’s what you picked.”

“I could have tried for Harrison if that’s what you’re saying. But it became exponentially statistically unlikely. So yes, I chose a plan with a number of fallbacks.”

Porter stared at him for a moment as the Utopians broke off towards the now settled ship. They were climbing up to a hole in the hangar bay doors.

“The future you were least likely to die in,” Porter said. “I know how you set goals, Wulff, it’s not hard to see. You planned for her death and for mine.”

Wulff narrowed his eyes. “You remember, Porter, the time the Anarchists won the War Games? The only time they did. You were on their side, I know, and everyone knows you don’t take a hit. You’re a metaphysical tank, but you ran into the same problem then that I know you did today. You couldn’t be Anarchist because society can’t be. You remember it now as your defining badass moment, Quinn, but you forget how ineffective you can be when the fight is against anything the least bit conflicting. You forget that I was on your side, then. And that you haven’t won a game since.”

Wulff started off for the ship, calling back as he walked away. “Don’t forget it again, please.”

Porter was tempted to kill him but didn’t think it was quite justified. Yet.

He fucking hated it. Wulff and Christopher. Manipulators. He wasn’t built for it.

Porter belatedly followed along. With the Utopians having already having gotten the engines running, a shield purge initiated. The laser burns were cleaned off by the warship’s surface and the metal could begin its self-healing process.

As he walked he could see appearing on the ship’s side in bold white letters the name, Solidarity.

Armageddon – 4.06

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

“Yes,” she replied.

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

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

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

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

O

“Open fire!” Brice shouted.

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

He picked up speed to get ahead of the thing.

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

It can only mean one thing, he recognized.

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

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

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

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

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

Triumph!” he shouted.

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

O

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

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

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

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

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

Irrationality.

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

Aku’s mind went away.

O

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

“Turn the ship about!” he bellowed.

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

“Use the cannons!” he replied instantly.

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

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

Porter has failed us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

O

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

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

“Hello?” he called out.

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir?” he asked.

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

“Drove my fighter through the opening… sir.”

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

“How can I help?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, we gotta get you out of here…”

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

Brice hit his back, his chest not rising.

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

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

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

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

Armageddon – 4.05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastian had lost the position of the Deus Ex Machina.

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

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

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

“I’m not so sure, Sebastian.”

Phobos, he realized.

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

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

O

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are the shields fully operational?” Wong asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Then we can hold.”

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

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

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

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

It’s time to face Aku.

O

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

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

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

He will come to me.

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

Implosion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Easily,” they assured.

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

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

Aku launched another as he got closer.

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

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

They were pinned.

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

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

Where was Porter?

O

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

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

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

The black moon came into view and it was idling.

“Sir!?” someone shouted.

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

O

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

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

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

“Well, alright. Let’s go, then.”

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

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

“Got it!”

“Copy.”

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

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

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

“Fuck,” he swore. “Seth, Gregory?”

“Yeah?”

“I hear you.”

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

“Not advised,” Seth responded.

“Friedrich?” Brice asked.

“I’m with you, brother.”

Brice radioed, “We’re doing it.”

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

Their ship passed a silver body floating limply.

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

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

They were going to ram it.

Armageddon – 4.04

Porter’s hand flew, throwing the pitch and yaw stabilizer switches down. His feet found the auxiliary peddles and he floored them. The hail of the squadron’s fire formed a wall.

His hands grabbed the stick as tightly as they could. Every muscle in his body fought against the inertia.

The ship spiraled, turning Mars into a tumbling blur over him.

Wanda’s head cracked against the hatch glass, her body snapping against her restraints, hands loose in the air.

Porter groaned as the spiral kept on, his vision fuzzing. The thrusters of their ship could compensate for the spin as they slingshot past the squadron, for the underbelly of one of the armada ships.

“Fuck,” he said. His neck muscles gave out, his head thrown to the side.

The AI squadron couldn’t track his roll and spin, their shots were barely missing.

There were no aerodynamics in space. He could force himself to stay conscious. There was only the limit of what the ship could take from inertia.

He started laughing. The armada ship was finally close enough.

Porter threw on the thrust-brakes. Wanda’s head beat the wall again.

Shit.

The jet leveled its belly to the ship’s underside, pulling in as close as he could get. Faster, faster. The ship was almost cylindrical, staying close enough to skid, it acted as revolving cover.

He was playing looser, faster than the machines. Reckless.

With Wanda out, he only had front facing guns. The squadron was on his tail.

Porter broke away from his ship, moving through empty space to the next. As he did, he turned one-eighty, flying backwards.

His guns went off, anticipating the jets coming around the ship’s other side. Three of them couldn’t possibly turn fast enough, torn through by his shots, batteries bursting into fire. The remaining two jets dashed through the dust over the others, firing at Porter.

He couldn’t maneuver, not going backwards. There was still space between them and the cover of the next ship. He threw the jet into a tumble, but he couldn’t change course.

The two machines blasted through them. The noise was deafening as the wings tore from their ship. They spun out, thrown towards the broadside of the armada ship.

“Y-!” he tried to call.

The crash knocked the breath out of him.

He recovered to see through spider web cracks an oncoming onslaught of fire. The two remaining pursuers were ready to finish them off.

“Wanda!” he tried to wake her. She didn’t respond.

Nobody should sleep through it.

Their shots broke against an invisible barrier, only inches past the glass separating them from the vacuum. Porter howled. “The shield’s up, motherfucker!

They’d embedded into the ship’s surface, letting its shield reform over them. Its function was to stop energy weapons. It had let them pass. The two jets couldn’t touch them.

A grin almost reached Porter’s face, but his eye caught something.

The adjacent ship’s guns were aiming at them. The shields wouldn’t be able to stop them as the armada turned on itself.

Porter pulled Hasami’s sword from where he’d stowed it beside his seat. If he had to, he’d bail out. He could take it, but Wanda wouldn’t survive. No. Without her, he couldn’t do anything. His eyes darted around the cockpit.

If he abandoned her, it was all over. If he stayed, he’d be dead with her.

The ship’s broadside cannons fired.

Porter pulled the ejection trigger.

Red pillars punched holes into the huge ship as they parted with it. The cockpit separated, a two-man glass capsule thrown off into space. As they spun he watched the armada ship be torn apart. It had been full of trapped soldiers. He could see some of their bodies rushing out with the air.

Their pod continued tumbling into the open. Aku’s sensors picked them out from the carnage and the guns tracked on again. They were a sitting duck, now. An easy target.

There was a man in space. A red figure.

David Taggart.

O

Taggart was being dared to move. Aku hadn’t thought he’d leave the ships behind. The electromagnetic field he produced was the only thing keeping some of the ships from their grip.

The guns focused on Porter and the girl.

Prideful,” Aku’s voice came through into his helmet. “Move and they die, sweetie.”

“I know what’s at stake, Aku,” he replied. He felt the mechanisms in his suit try to work against him, Aku testing his control of the systems. He had control.

“Let’s play a game, then.” The cannons loaded their rounds in under a second, Taggart’s awareness stretching time out. In that instant, they readied to fire superheated rounds at hypersonic speed.

Zugzwang, a distant memory hit him. No choice.

His eyes shot wide open. Fast as light, white beams of sunlight turned the side of the warship into slag scattered to space. His gaze traced over the ship, severing it in two. His vision’s power decimated it instantly.

Aku hadn’t expected that. “There were Eidolon aboard. Murder was cheating.”

He reached up and took hold of his helmet. The unbreakable metal rent as he pushed. The seal broke and Taggart threw it away, silencing Aku. He let the air out of his lungs. His heart was pounding. “Porter,” he projected. “I’m coming in to pick you up.”

O

Wanda stirred. “My head,” she murmured. She pulled herself together enough to notice the massive warship torn apart outside the capsule.

“Porter,” he heard. “I’m coming in to pick you up.”

“David?” he asked.

“What?” She’d not heard the projection.

“It’s Taggart,” they replied. “Please.”

The red figure swooped in. He hit their pod, jostling them both, but they were okay. Taggart had his head down, using the thrusters of his suit to push them to safety.

Let’s hope they made it, Porter thought. He knew that with Taggart here, the Eidolons had no supernatural protection. As if because he’d thought it, Taggart started going faster. They went over the ship which they’d impacted the side of, around to the greater fleet.

“Is Wong alive?” he asked.

“Last I saw. Nobody can kill that bastard,” Taggart answered.

Porter smiled.

He’d been under General Wong during his time in the military. Taggart had gotten his start as a Magi during the same time, as a lesser rank. He’d been one of the few who could really stand toe to toe with Porter against gods, as the longest running member of his team. He’d stayed with him until the offer reached him and he wouldn’t refuse. He became a Sentinel.

Now, he was carrying them into the open doors of the warship’s hangar.

This was the fleet leader, Caritas.

Taggart set them down and, as the airlock sealed and a few moments passed, he punched a hole in the pod.

“That’s-” Porter hit a button and the hatch flew off, “-not necessary.”

Taggart motioned them to follow, ignoring him.

Porter jumped out, casting a glance back at Wanda.

“Hey, I’m fine,” she said. She jumped from the pod too and wobbled on her feet.

It was a quick walk to the command deck through empty halls.

Taggart stepped through and Porter saw it, like the one they’d last seen. Only, this deck was fully manned. At every station, a soldier stood, and up above an older Chinese man watched his disabled fleet beyond the wall of glass.

He turned. “Porter!” he recognized. “How nice!” Wong never mumbled. “Join us on the deck, son! It’s time to retake my ship.”

“This is Wanda,” Porter said. He pointed her to the stairs leading up to Wong. “She can separate the essence of Aku from the ship, giving you back full function.

“Full function! To battle our abomination.”

“I need something to write with,” Wanda told them, finding where she wanted to work.

“Yes!” General Wong shouted, looking to one of his men. They darted from their post. “I’m antsy,” he said. “Antsy! Do you hear that, Porter?”

“No, sir.” He looked out into space. Wong was a practitioner with one focus. Foresight. Porter liked to think he was well Attuned, but he didn’t know what he meant.

“It’s racing! He’s coming. Not the Aku we knew, but a true God. Our greatest challenge.”

“Aku practically raised me,” Taggart said to Porter, just for him to hear. “This fucks me up.”

Danial used to be an orphan. The AI had been his caretaker. His mother.

Porter didn’t regret this, though. Everything to happen had to be. A flat circle.

The intercoms suddenly screeched with static.

A voice like grinding mountains of metal came through. “Hark. I am the end of all things,” he roared. “I do not fear the Pilgrim for he is abhorred by strength. I am life.

“Got one!” a soldier shouted. He threw the drawing implement to Wanda from across the room. She worked faster than Porter had ever seen when she caught it. Deft hands.

General Wong reared his head and cried over the speakers. “All men are afraid in battle!” He beat his chest. “The coward is the one who lets his fear overcome his sense of duty! Duty is the essence of manhood!” He laughed at the demon in the sound system.

The soldiers, men and women, hollered in assent. Wong joined them.

Porter grinned beat his chest too. He’d missed this company.

“How long will it be, Wanda!” he called.

“It’s going to take-” her voice ran away.

The other warships in the fleet moved aside, giving a view of the Martian world’s horizon. From the planet’s dark side came the black sphere, the Deus Ex. It came directly up to the ship, Caritas, its surface black beyond a sense of depth.

Does your courage persist, Chen?” it rumbled in their ears.

Porter couldn’t hear Wong’s reply; his voice fell so low.

“Time,” Wanda belatedly finished her sentence.

The other warships turned their guns on them.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” Wong chanted at the dark moon, “I shall fear no evil: for I am the baddest motherfucker in the-”

Taggart caught fire. He screamed for only a second as he hit his knees, magma pouring out his eyes. He threw back his head, hands clenching tightly and body wreathed in flames. Wanda had stopped working as everyone stared horrified.

“Porter!” he gurgled, coughing up molten iron.

Porter tried to reach out to him, but he didn’t touch him. He’d known Taggart for years. His thoughts ran away at the sight.

That wasn’t supposed to happen.

He shouldn’t be able to just do that.

He snapped back. “I’ll fucking end you!” he shouted. Porter jumped up to the captain’s walk as Taggart fell over behind him, dead on his face. He walked past Wong towards the glass where the sphere grew larger in their view than the planet below. He bellowed, red in face, “Watch me!”

He could fight, but he couldn’t save anyone if he did. He might not care.

Necessary courage!” Aku spoke gleefully. “Necessary carnage!

A blue light covered everything, a blinding flash.