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.

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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 – 4.02

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.

Machina – 3.13

Noise.

The storm was breaking against the elevator. I was slumped down in one corner of the large glass room. At the four corners, the structure of metal and wire worked to pull me upward. The shaking was constant, lightning striking.

It all felt far away, though. I put a hand to my face, covering an eye and feeling my ripped skin. Blood continued to pour down, at this point coating my head, neck, and chest. It didn’t matter. I was immortal. Didn’t need food, sleep, breath. Blood was just one more step.

Live so long that surviving, immortality, is the bedrock of my soul. I can bleed all I want because my nature is to live. That’s the power of eternities.

Still, I spit the metallic taste from my mouth, dribbling blood through my torn lip. My free hand was now coated, and my other was burnt to the handle of my blade. My entire body drenched in black fluids, all of it was a mixture.

From the beginning, this is what you wanted to avoid, the voice said.

“It’s a trap,” I spoke. The entire thing is a tragedy machine.

I sighed. Ash should’ve been around to lend some levity.

From the start, they’d been with me. Anna, Odessa, Ash, and even Kendall. It’d been us for our good. Then, our good and Kendall’s good became different things. There was no way to reconcile that. There’d been love, but it turned to hate. Those were their definitional terms.

I’d cared about all of them. Kendall less. He was always an ass.

Still, it had been so good to live again.

I missed that. We all knew we were going to die. But when you get old, the reality dawns. It was real when I first came back, and it was real again now.

Everything ends.

Suddenly, the clouds faded. I left the storm behind. It was beautiful, the insanity changing into an endless calm plain. Beneath the blue, looking up to the space platform and the sky turning purple. I had a good twenty minutes with the elevator on overdrive, the platform still a speck.

I just had to breathe. I had time for that. And to doubt.

For the first time, I sincerely couldn’t remember why I was doing this.

The rest of the ride was thoughts running in circles. As the platform grew closer, the sky darker, I sensed the danger in my way. The Utopians had set up in the hanger. But there was a more distinct presence which stood out. Looking at it, it appeared as a matte painting. A frame over reality. In the metaphysical sense, the past and future were forced together. Someone was fucking around. Trying to travel into a specific future and magnetize the present towards it.

When had I seen that before?

Ali. Wulff had used mixed realities. It made sense now. He created potentialities wherein his students had worked together to prepare a spell to kill Ali. He picked the one that worked. Then, with none of the effort, he superimposed that reality on ours.

He wouldn’t have nearly the same amount of prep time as he did with the war games. But the power of infinite potentialities? It was unreasonably stupid.

The platform was about to swallow the elevator, now. The atmosphere was beneath me, the cold of space all around me.

It disappeared as metal encapsulated the glass. Quickly decelerating to a stop, the illuminated floor turning brighter. A clean white light tinted by the red splotches across it. The doors connected to an airlock, the open button lit up beside it.

With a groan, I got up. I shook my head and leveled my eyes on the door. The Utopians were all behind it, waiting in the hanger bay. Wulff was there to fix the game. There was nobody to get my back. That was the way it was.

I put my hand on the button but didn’t press it. I waited, distinctly aware of my own heartbeat. Rubatosis. An aching, beating dread. I knew I wasn’t going to get away this time.

Shut up and do the job.

I pressed it and stood back. The doors slowly parted.

The Sentinel was in the middle of the Eidolons. They all faced the opening doors, to their back the giant hanger bay exit was closed.

The Magi wore helmets and suits. The armored Sentinel stepped forward and for probably the third time today, he ordered me to step down. “Drop your fucking sword.”

My fingers were melted together. But that was beside the point.

“I can’t do that,” I replied.

I cut a gash in the ground. To them, it would look like I was threatening. There was another purpose. Each time I damaged the permanent form of the space station, it was irreversible. It changed the past and future, throwing off Wulff’s prepared potentialities by creating idiosyncrasies between them. It wasn’t going to be enough, though.

The Magi were already in attacking formations.

They will have prepared spells which can’t compromise the station. Violent depressurization would be deadly. Curses, manipulations, illusions.

I could shrug off curses. My essence was too reinforced to take effects, such as with wounds. I could break manipulations and see through illusions. I stepped through the door and planted my feet. Ready for this last fight.

The first three Magi punched out to create an intricate geometric spell. It glowed in the air before flashing away. It appeared again at my feet. A binding.

Sacred geometry, I observed.

The cut I’d already placed on the ground swallowed the light of the rune. It shattered into embers on the air.

The overlay I’d seen earlier appeared before my eyes. One of the Magi at the far corner raised their hand and snapped their fingers. At that moment, every perfectly placed person in the room matched the vision. The potentiality had been flawlessly overlaid. I couldn’t prevent it. I only had seconds. It was a destiny trap. I could try to make out the movements of the crowd, see the one Magi that was behind the rest suddenly start casting a spell.

There wasn’t anything I could do.

I was facing a steel wall. It was the hanger exit. What?

I’ve been displaced.

Quickly turning to see the silver Sentinel through the parted crowd, he dropped to one knee and outstretched both hands together.

The hanger doors snapped open, an air-shield holding in the oxygen from the vacuum now just behind me. I lurched forward and held up my Cleaver.

A continuous beam split off in two directions from the edge of my blade. It felt like stopping a car. The laser screaming past me, heating the air and disappearing into space. I held on with both hands, fighting to keep my sword upright and blocking the attack.

The power of the beam was slowly growing, getting harder to hold.

An arrow pierced my leg. “Fuck!” I cursed. Another struck my arm. My leg buckled, putting me on my knees. Razor winds washed over me, stripping the skin off my scalp and neck. I cried out. A hex attached to my chest, sinking in and starting to petrify my innards. Crawling needles inside me.

The Sentinel doubled his effort. The metal of my sword turned white, the air around me blistered my face. The blue light was blinding. I couldn’t see the dozens of Magi taking turns taking shots at me. I couldn’t defend myself. Every sense was overtaken by the screaming noise from the beam splitting past my ears.

The pain was real and I couldn’t shut it out. The fused bones of my melted hand bending under the weight on the blade. The knife that slid between my ribs.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. This couldn’t be happening.

My hand slipped.

I threw myself to the floor, my skull cracking against a grate. I tried to swing my sword to defend myself, but nothing happened. My other hand clenched in pain, then finding a hold on the grate beneath me, taking a death grip. An arrow barely missed me, bouncing off the grate and into space.

Let there be darkness,” I commanded.

The power died. The air-shield broke. Eidolons were ripped from their places with the escaping air. Thrown into the vacuum with violent force over my head. My legs were pulled out from under me, but I didn’t let go. In an instant, the room had been cleared, lit only by the light of the moon, now. Open to space, filled with the emptiness. Perfect calm.

I let out my breath and sat up on my legs. Pulled the arrow from my thigh. My focus had to steady, the pounding in my ears quieting. Without air, the noise of my body pulsed through me. All the blood freezing in space.

I looked down and to my right. My arm was burned away up to the shoulder.

Oh God. My eyes widened.

“Doran,” the Sentinel said. His helmet folded back. He grimaced at me. His face was wrinkled, his expression angered. But I saw, in his face. He looked so much like me. In his eyes, I recognized myself. The same determination. I doubted I could even recognize my own face, anymore. So many in my head.

I didn’t need air to project. “Look what you’ve done,” I said, horrified. I put my hand on the stump.  I looked to my missing arm again. I screwed my eyes shut. Jesus Christ, I knew what this meant. I knew what this fucking meant. I was a fucking idiot for believing a goddamn lie.

“I know what you do,” the Sentinel told me. “You can’t outrun physics.”

I pushed up to my feet and he fired again. I put out my remaining hand to catch the beam. “I won’t die!” What I had left stopped the hit.

He let up. I could see the confused look on his face. It passed in a moment. He watched me hit my knees again, only bones left beneath the elbow on my left arm.

It was a bluff, now. I had nothing left, only the lie. That was all I had.

“Oh, my God. You don’t know,” I whispered.

He fired again, stripping more flesh from my arm as the energy slipped between my fingers. “You can die, Doran. I know.”

“No!” I shouted. I fell forward, my one hand catching me. I tilted my head up. “I said I wouldn’t die… Not that I couldn’t.”

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

That… you have no idea. It’s all a trap, Sebastian.

He didn’t respond.

I told him the truth. “All of it, every moment of your history is meant for this. It’s me. The entirety of Utopian history is a trap set for me. Your entire universe is a design. A fucking trap set to bring the end of everything. Christopher has been with you from the beginning. He doesn’t see the future, he makes it. He planned it from the beginning like God. If I don’t make it, what do you think he’ll do with you? He fucking made you. He started the spark of your universe and orchestrated every step. It’s common for Primordials. To grow universes from scratch. If it doesn’t work, if I fail? He reclaims your substance. Everything you know returns to darkness. Taste it. It’s in every ounce of your existence. A deep drive to purpose. You think it’s the Cause? It’s his fucking purpose! His machination.”

“I don’t believe you,” he stopped me.

“Then kill me… and watch your world blink out. Because there’s never been a choice. Not for you, not for me, or… Anna. It’s all for this, Sebastian.”

I knew it didn’t matter anymore.

I was broken.

Machina – 3.10

We covered the lot in a sprint. Ducked into the open apartment stairwell, through the building. There were only two more structures between us and our goal.

The rain was beating down harder. Fat drops broke against the crown of my head as we moved back out. There was a golden mean between timidness and recklessness. Courage. I wouldn’t have called it courage, though. That wasn’t a term I didn’t associate with.

My sense alerted me to several blue shots coming down from above in a trail of vapor. I turned to block them. Ash got behind me as I did.

The Sentinel was targeting him. He was trying to slow us down.

Keeping a watch on the sky, I needed Ash to guide me. There was water in my eyes, but I could make out the falling blue light. Though one arm was injured and both were tired, I could still block the barrage. He couldn’t beat me.

You’ll need that attitude.

One more apartment building to go.

Ash and I dashed down the hall. Up ahead I could see, back out in the storm, that a line had formed across the parking lot. A colorful lineup of Eidolons. Less than a dozen, but too many. These were the reinforcements they’d conjured to stop us, now standing in our way.

We stopped in the hall’s threshold. Ash fired from the hip once just to confirm my suspicion. A shimmer rested on each one of them. They’d gotten a Shielder.

I backed up a few feet. My mind was racing.

The Sentinel blasted down between us and them.

He held gravitas. “Stand. Down.”

“Never,” I answered. I kept backing up. Had to think of a way out.

We had one chance now. Need to bottleneck them.

“Come on, fuckers!” Ash yelled. He saw what I was doing and followed. He threw down his gun and withdrew a knife covered in hellish symbols.

Someone sent out a black smoke. A curse of death. I cut it down.

“That not going to work!” I shouted to them.

“The longer you wait,” the Sentinel growled, “the tighter the noose gets.”

They would get in more reinforcements. They would get in ships. At any moment, the only reason we had a chance was because of their restraint. He was right. They weren’t falling for it. They were standing in the rain, waiting. They would abstain from a fight and run out my clock.

I was trapped. There was only one path forward.

Into the storm.

“Stay… stay behind me, Ash.” I mustered some confidence.

“You got it.” He knew the odds.

Courage. It was necessary today.

I raised my cleaver up and ran out into the rain.

The Sentinel rocketed out of my way, shouting for them to attack.

A technicolor volley hit me. Every Eidolon threw what they had. Ice, fire, light, electricity, and shadow. But their primitive magic ended at my swords edge. They spaced out and those that had weapons brandished them. The first one came at me with a lance. I knocked up his stab and slid into my own, penetrating his gut and slicing up and out. I came back over into another’s shoulder, cleaving off the arm.

Ash would have to look out for himself.

I was hit with a blast of force. The concrete sprayed up and I went into an Eidolon and tumbling. When I was up, the seven or so remaining fighters were facing me. One had Ash face down under his boot, a sword to the back of his neck.

“I’ll kill your friend,” she warned. “Drop your sword.”

“That one?” I asked. “He’s fucked up, you know?” Quick and dirty plan.

Ash was seamless. “That’s funny, coming from you. I thought you liked men?”

“Sometimes. But don’t tell them the plan!” I shouted.

“What pl-“ The moment she was sufficiently distracted, Ash’s arms reached back, one hand knocking away her sword and the other stabbing her leg. He rolled and she crumpled. The other Eidolons were slow to react to her fall.

I threw my cleaver. It spun wildly through the air and into one of them. I rolled under a fireball and threw out my hand. The intention was clear. There was a momentary delay, but I had power over what was mine.

The blade dislodged and returned to my hand, slashing another across the face as it did. I was close enough now that I cut down the flame Elementalist on coming up. Ash was standing and killed another, stabbing him in the back.

We’d surprised them. The moment they believed they would lose, they had. And that moment came when more than half of them were dead. We’d mowed them down.

The last two ran when we’d gotten the rest.

“Doran!?” Hasami yelled. He was hurt, but he stood tall. He came out of the dark hall with his sword in hand, just now catching up. “You’re killing them,” he pleaded.

I stared back at him. I couldn’t say anything. Couldn’t doubt now. Ash started off without me, forcing me to catch up. We made it through the last building. There was an elevation of concrete and a bit of railing which we easily climbed up to another parking lot.

We’d reached it. The circular base of the space elevator.

We were so close.

O

Porter watched the digital room render. A table in the dark. Of the people still appearing, the first he recognized was Master Wulff. That old guy, Cobb. Ali was notably absent to this impromptu meeting.

The three important Magi had arrived, though. Next came the council.

Nameless ethicists, a few high council members. Everyone exchanged glances, waiting for the meeting to begin. Emergency meetings were supposed to be rapid.

The last one to arrive was a Zenith Council member. A singular man who held more sway than one-third of the rest of the council.

He looked like Santa Claus.

One of the old populists. A vote winner. A Zeitgeist, Porter thought.

On the table, a perfect hologram suddenly appeared. Doran, Porter recognized. Doran and the demon running away from a slew of bodies in a rainy lot.

“The reason for this meeting,” Aku’s monotone voice sounded. “The entities Doran and Ashmedai are on the move and dangerous. Permanent death weapons are in use. The council needs to decide on a course of action. Protocols have failed.”

Throwing Magus at it didn’t work.

“Why don’t we call in drones? Use nanites?” an Ethicist proposed.

“It’s not going to work,” Porter said.

“Truly,” Cobb agreed.

“Doran is using momentum, channeling raw sway. It’s like he’s got armor. You won’t get him with a stray bullet or a drone. He’s fucking with reality’s mechanics. Degrading natural law and strengthening metaphysical ones. Just passively. It’s a titanic ability. There’s no poetic justice in stopping him now,” Porter told them. He crossed his arms. This is what he’d known.

They didn’t know about the Primordial thing. It was about timing.

Wulff narrowed his eyes at him. “You’re proposing they’re impossible to stop?”

Porter didn’t respond.

“We could nuke them,” Wulff tested.

“You won’t and so you can’t,” Porter countered. “Same difference.”

“Gentlemen,” a councilwoman cut in. “We won’t know what measures are appropriate until we know what’s at stake? What is their motivation?”

“That’s my department.” A blond young man had appeared at the table.

“Who are you?” Cobb asked.

Aku enlightened. “Kyle, Magus.”

The young man continued. “Their apparent goal is the space elevator. That will take them up to a platform where they can access older, still functional teleports. Ones which can be manually overridden. Those teleports are short range, however. They could have only one destination in mind.”

“Jesus Christ.” Santa realized what he was saying. “Could he do it?”

Porter knew. “That machete he’s got, it’s called an Ender Blade. We don’t know how to make or break one. But I know what it can do. And the answer is yes. Absolutely.”

Kyle jumped in. “But Doran thinks he’s doing whatever he is for good reasons,” he said. “His determination is driven by conviction… And desperation.”

“Can we dismantle the lunar teleports?” Santa asked.

“I’ve cut power to both them and the elevator,” Aku informed.

Porter grimaced.

“Deploy me,” Wulff suggested. “I can control the outcome of this situation. Losing doesn’t need to be an option.”

“I vote so,” Santa agreed. The other council members were redundant. He represented such a large number of people, they couldn’t altogether overpower him.

“Why not take out the space elevator?” The same Ethicist from earlier.

A little trigger happy.

Porter told him, “it may not be staffed anymore, but if the elevator falls, it’ll wrap around the earth. The reason it’s still there is because it’s so hard to dismantle.”

“The ends justify-”

Porter cut him off. “It doesn’t matter.” None of them understood. This wasn’t about them. The Utopians were just collateral damage in all this. In an ageless machination.

He was going to get the hell out of here.

The meeting was adjourned. He was standing alone in his own apartment again. The curtains were drawn, the sound of pouring water the only thing that reached him inside. Slowly, his expression hardened. That calamity he’d wanted?

He was grimly awaiting.

They can’t see. He thought about what had to happen. The timing was now, they shouldn’t avert this thing. Utopians were arrogant in thinking they were bigger than what was going on now. He never believed in the Cause. The Omniverse was too big to make a difference in. They were complacent idiots. Mistaking outer strength for inner.

Utopians didn’t get it. Everything was going to break at the weak spot. Doran was their only hope for survival and they were trying to kill him.

Porter was out the door. He had to get to the Monastery fast.