First person; lines of hot Command Tongue lanced across the surface of my eyes, drifting like clouds over a starred scarred sky. Omoi rang of warnings. Gunshot wound to the stomach; possibly fatal without treatment. It dug in, ached through my organs, chitinous plates split wide. Ichor spilled free.
The ambush hadn’t worked out. Half dead, pain looped behind my eyes like errors in codes, closed paren dancing back and forth with the laugh of the great god who had us caught between pages like a prized flower.
Isaac had answered my implicit offer with a bullet. So much for dragging him back.
I dulled the pain with a thought. The modifications to Omoi worked just as intended, cutting off the nerves. I’d have to fix the wound later. It wouldn’t do to die to a traitor’s bullet.
Isaac stepped forward and drove the heel of his boot down, twisting the gun out of my hand, mashing and mangling fingers against the dirt. I glared up at him.
“I said no,” Isaac said. A few scars wrapped around his head. Shrapnel; he’d been busy. No matter how long he’d been gone, we knew he’d been busy. A few steps ahead of what I needed.
“You can’t say no,” I said. “We made a deal. We were all in it together.”
“You told me that if I ran the numbers, if I did the busy work, the world wouldn’t die like this.” Isaac gestured at the world around. Verdant green hills. Blooming flowers. Pristine skies. A garden of eden, without man to frolic in it. “Look around. Man’s not here.”
“It should have worked. It worked,” I said. “We’re still here. We shouldn’t be here if our gambit didn’t work. We’d be a melted puddle. Total reality failure. You ran the numbers, you knew what you were getting into.”
“They’re dead, Prince,” Isaac said. “Equations or not, we missed something. We failed. Or worse, we succeeded, and HUMANITY DIDN’T COME WITH THE DEAL.”
“We had a deal, Isaac. We can finish the process, and we can make it all like it never happened.”
Isaac flicked his head up into the sky. “You see that up there?”
I looked up. The sky was an off shade of dull blue, like a healing bruise, and the sun hung half obscured behind a crumbling building. I was silent.
“I don’t see any gods there,” Isaac said. “There aren’t any witnesses to what we promised. Jess isn’t even awake, and Bismarck won’t come out of hiding to even talk to me. There aren’t any gods left to make deals with. Tell that to her.”
“I didn’t come here for Bismarck,” I said. “She’s going insane.”
“Then why did you come, Prince?” Isaac asked. “You programmed this,” He gestured at the wasteland. “You tried to bargain with the gods.”
“I did everything right,” I said. “I-We did everything right.”
“You were with us,” I said. Blood bubbled across my lip. How very strange to feel it hot and wet, up from the back of my throat. Omoi danced and flickered warnings. I ignored her. What did she know? How curious to be free of pain. “You made deals as well.”
“You promised me the world, Prince,” Isaac said, bitter. “I don’t see any pay off. So far as I’m concerned, it was a bad deal. Contract over. Those plans? They didn’t work, Jess and I…” Isaac said, flat. “They were never going to work., I know that now. We failed the ascension event. Just lay down and die, and leave me alone. The world was going to end, and you and your lot deciding to end it early… disgusting.”
A pause. “That I helped… even just running those numbers, I feel filthy. Disgusting.”
“So you’re just giving up?” My eyes drifted on top of the muted pain. Omoi would give me comfort even on my deathbed.
This wouldn’t be it.
“I’m passing it onto them,” Isaac said. “They have the world now.”
His gun was still smoking. Long languid trails of it. How lovely. How utterly lovely.
“You’re passing it onto the damn monsters?” I asked. “They crawl across the corpse of our world. Are we supposed to just let them desecrate everything we worked for? This world isn’t even real!”
“It’s their world now,” Isaac said. “We don’t have a place in it. Me, not at all, and especially not you. What’d you do to yourself?”
A flash of a creature bigger than a man, long tendrils and trying clicking teeth, eyes as radiant and red as radiation. A whispering promise that there would be an ending, and a beginning. Lines of eyes as wide as the stars, watching down over the planet. Choices, choices, an ending to each and every perspective. Why should one be favored over others?
His child, his child, an end to endings; a final culmination to the misshapen story that our author had carved into our skulls, etched in our dna; the grand finale. I had begged… we had begged… his voice had been bigger than my head, had buzzed beautiful lines of prose across my bones, had danced with my skeleton and made a muddle of my mRNA.
A plea that cessation itself was a paradox; as how could the concept exist of Ending, when endings could not end? Ways to escape cessation, a compass spinning endlessly, hourglasses turning turning turning without ever being full. Hands, but many hands, a thousand hands grabbing across orbital gravitational wells.
They’d planned it so well; the end of days was coming, a negotiation could be had. We’d planned it out, but it had gone wrong. We were running out of time. We’d ran out of time.
We’d known how to do it, we just had to, we had to-
Isaac’s gun pressed in against my cheek. “I should kill you,” The scientist said, kneeling down close. “Knowing you did this to yourself That the lot of you did it to yourselves, willingly. What did the Queen offer you?” My many eyes flicked over to look at it. This close of range it might even be fatal.
“A chance,” a bitter glimpse of many moving hands, a great being with a mightier mind, tendrils digging into skin. A chance to survive. How easy the flesh had separated from muscles. How distant the pain felt, knowing I had a chance, a chance, a chance.
I couldn’t let the world die just because I had a mortal life span. I had to save it. I’d give anything for that. We all had. I’d given everything for it.
Isaac was being selfish. Why couldn’t he see? What was a few centuries of subservience to immortality? A chance to make it right? A chance to find everything, get it all together?
And we’d found it all. Had found every fool that had joined us in our bargain. How many bodies had we thrown into the furnace?
There were tears rolling down my face. Isaac laughed at them.
It was hard for me to move. Despite the nerves being dulled from pain, the muscles refused to budge. Was this shock moving in?
Omoi confirmed it was shock. Wonderful.
The Queen’s last request danced behind my eyes. An end to the wastelands. A return of humanity. A gleaming citadel atop a ruined world, a thousand workers to build the skeleton of America back up.
“I should kill you.” Isaac repeated.
“You should,” I agreed. The gun metal was cool against my skin. What would death taste like? Disappointment? I hadn’t felt that in years. Free will was new. Dread was just as tasty. “I deserve it.I’ll admit that.”
“But I won’t,” Isaac said.
“You won’t,” I repeated. “Why?”
“I’m bitter,” Isaac said. “Do you feel that pain?” Isaac asked, and threw his left foot into my stomach. Water trailed down the edge of my eyes. Blood trickled out of the hollow of my stomach. Green. Gore.
“That bullet digging into your gut? That’s what you put us through. The gods would’ve let us die off slowly, and you and your ilk… my ilk, we had it happen at once. There were thousands of people who looked up and didn’t know the world was ending. Millions of people who didn’t have a chance to live out the Rapture before we became gods ourselves. Billions of people who are gone.” His voice broke a little. “And you made me help.”
We both stared into the distance. I could taste my own gore. It was nothing to the somehow pain of the past apocalypse, forever entombed into our augmented perfect memories.
“I didn’t make you do anything,” I said. “And it would’ve been a total reality failure, Isaac. All of the signs were there. It’d’ve made Alaska look like a pancake house.””
“There was another theory that we would’ve ascended,” Isaac said. “I ran the numbers on that, too.”
Isaac laughed. “The variables we knew… well, I chose poorly. Everything’s gone.”
“We were just trying to stop it.”
“Hollow words,” Isaac said. “And you didn’t stop anything. Look; our species is gone. We lost. The gods won. We knew they were going to win. And we’re not even gods for it. Six species died before us, and they became gods! Look at us now!”
“We wouldn’t have become gods,” I croaked. I could taste blood now. Concerning. I would get out of this. The Watcher’s blessing had yet to fail me… no matter how many times I had tried to test it. “We would’ve died regardless. This way… we gave ourselves a chance to make it out. You know full well that nothing of the original species survived in those star beasts.”
“You decided to get around that. By killing everyone.”
“Clearly, not everyone,” I said. “We’re still here.”
“How is that any better than what happened?!” Isaac hissed. “Accept that we ruined it! There aren’t any gods watching us anymore, we learned already we shouldn’t make deals with gods! That was what USEC was for! Who do you think is even going to save you? The Kind Lord is DEAD! That means Humanity. Won’t. Come. Back.”
“The failsafe,” I croaked.
The gun jerked away from my head. Pointed at the ground next to it. He was listening. That was all I wanted. “That was never completed.”
“It needed time to finish.” I said. “It’s been five thousand years, Isaac. That’s time enough. I just need to know where it was sent.”
“Jess is dead,” Isaac said. “And even if she weren’t, the failsafe was a fool’s errand to begin with. Just because Jess worked on it doesn’t mean anything.”
“She’s asleep,” I said. “One day, that pod will wake her up. You know it will. And it will work. And I’ll still be alive years after your bones are stolen by the animals you’re swearing with.”
“Those Omoi-cursed pods have killed far too many people for me to believe that Jess will end up spared,” Isaac ground out, baring his teeth like the beasts I’d found him among. He’d gone hard, stranded, hunting for food. His Omoi nodule still sat in his head.
He’d refused my attempts at contacting him through that medium.
“And if she is?” I asked. “She can fix it all.”
“She won’t,” Isaac said. “She won’t remember a damn thing that happened, you know. And she’ll never support you.”
“You’ll find that she’s not what you think she is. Stop lionizing her. She knew what would happen. Why do you think she programmed Omoi the way she did?”
An expression flickered across Isaac’s scarred face. One of the scars was less random, but rather resembled a brand. A burn mark, gleaming. A symbol of lord knowledge.
Lord Inquiry; the god who had never intervened.
“And besides,” I said, hauling myself up my by elbows. “You’re within my range.” The old words spun across the surface of my mind in gleaming arcs, sigils forming in my mind’s eyes and dancing across my imagination. It didn’t hurt, and that wasn’t even from my nerves being dead.
I’d learned this one by heart. Omoi protected my mind as it flared out from my tongue.
Isaac stood in place. The command fell on deaf ears. A golden sigil spooled under his skin, embedded in the deeper tissues. Command tongue written down was far more beautiful than the mind was meant to contain; the emanations of lord inquiry dappling human flesh.
My heart pounded. Blood went cold. He’d… he’d found a few more interesting things than I had.
Certainly had more guts, to embed himself with an anomaly beyond what the Queen had given me before her demise.
“It’s a cheap trick,” Isaac pronounced. He fired a round next to my head. My ears rang, bled, a high pitched squeal of tinnitus. “I studied it, I was the one who learned how to make all of that work. Idiot. Only one better than me was Jess.”
“You’re asking us to commit suicide,” I said. “We could bring it all back. We’re on the verge, we made plans. We can make it happen.”
“Fuck your plans. They’re dead,” Isaac laughed. “Just accept it.”
“You’re asking me to let my children die,” I begged, staring at him. “My son, my daughter…”
“They’re dead,” Isaac repeated. “They died in an atomic ashcloud, the same one your precious Watcher stole.”
Our trade with the Watcher. The ashes of civilization in exchange for time. We’d begged it to not let humanity die. We’d made deals. Why hadn’t it worked? All of the numbers made sense. All of the equations had been run, the runes read, the laws, the binding ideas… The stakes were madness.
What choice had we had? All of the numbers said the dying time would come soon. Every time line. Every analysis of the future, it all spoke of one thing.
We had to offer everything we had to fight it off.
The gods were leaving us behind. They were going to take their laws with them.
“You’re asking me to let humanity die. There’s still a way to bring it back.” I said. It had to work. It was the sole thing that had kept me going through years of killing and fighting. What was empathy to saving them all?
“We don’t need to be brought back,” Isaac said. “The world’s already been inherited. Stop being selfish.”
“Selfish?” I rasped. “There were billions of us. To not try and bring that back is absurd.”
“To try and bring that back is lunacy,” Isaac corrected. “They’re dead, Prince. Our window’s passed. The world’s covered in new species, new creatures. We can move on knowing they’re our children.”
“They’re monsters,” I said. “They’re beasts. They’re disgusting.”
“They’re better than we were,” Isaac said. “Thousands of years, and they’ve never come close to extinction except where your ilk was involved. How many decades did we spend pretending that our future wasn’t a week away from ending, Prince?”
“We were sculptors, artisans, Why are you going to throw that away?” I said. “We were so close to ascending on our own terms. We would’ve explored the galaxy! Not be scythed down like wheat.”
“YOU KILLED US!” Isaac flashed the gun. “YOU STOPPED US!”
“It’s only human nature to try and avoid death. How many devils were you willing to deal with?”
“We died dealing with devils,” Isaac pointed out. “The fact we’re alive is mere statistics.”
“Is it?” I asked. “It’s not statistics that every person who could save the human race emerged in some form or fashion. This is a chance! Someone gave it to us! Now we just wait for Jess, and she can save us all.”
“She’s not your savior,” Isaac said.
“She will be. She knows where the god is. The god we made. We can be great again, Isaac! We can still do it. Can’t you see that we could be gods?”
“We already lost our chance, now there are new creatures that can do that. They have all of our works, all of our technology. One day, if they want, they can find the stars themselves.” Isaac said. “They don’t need us. Let us be as we are; gods to them. They don’t need to know their gods bled, not yet. Let them figure that out themselves when they find our corpses. We can go gracefully into that sunset, Prince.”
I made my decision.
“We can do this without you,” I said.
“No you can’t,” Isaac said. “But you’re welcome to try with Jess. She’ll turn you away no matter what you do.”
“Isaac,” I said, staring at him. “We’re the last, best hope for humanity.”
Isaac turned away, letting the last lances of the dying sun glance across his skin like arrows off of plate armor. “Fuck humanity. Fuck the bugs that cling to the corpse. Humanity’s dying. Let it die instead of keeping it on life support. Maybe the world will learn a lesson instead of dealing with gods.”
Omoi cried out again and again in my head, pounding against my brain. My nose bled from the Command tongue. It didn’t hurt anymore.
“Traitor,” I rasped.
Isaac had studied Lord Inquiry. I’d thrown in with the Watcher.
We both knew what had happened to the Kind Lord.
That only left Jess. Undeclared, pristine, perfect Jess.
“Let the Crows win. They’re better heirs than we are.” Isaac chuckled. “Their King was a better Warden than any of us ever made. Let the beasts win. They’ve been far better company than mankind ever was to me.”
“We’ll do it anyway.”
“You won’t,” Isaac said. “I’ll stop you. You need me.”
We didn’t. Not if we were lucky. It all came down to Jess.
She had to know where the missing god was. She was the last key to the entire matter.
I signalled for rescue and Isaac turned away, leaving me on the ground bleeding. Some vague respect for the plans we’d made when I was mortal. When I was still human. He stepped away. Turned a corner, left.
So it’d be a race.
It didn’t matter. I already knew we’d win it.
Trellis had seen it, after all. And everything she saw would come true, if we played our cards right.
There would be ships in the sky. Gleaming chrome colonies. We’d have our worlds shining shimmering in the broken cosmos.
Humanity would return from the grave, as was equated.
Even if I died getting it there.