The pheromones lay thick in the air. Sergeant Tanner stared at them, a beautiful color over top of atomized blood and the end of the world itself, and ignored how their contours danced seductively atop the bones that had once been the rest of his brigade.
Six hours into the fighting, and the sun itself had forgotten how to move in the sky. Tendrils drifted off the long lances it drove into the earth, living beings of light watching and waiting, bright and black and crackling red. Thousands of eyes peered down his battered body, across where the last of his antennae twitched, bruises and cracked chitin making every movement ache. Ghosts. They were ghosts. It was his only explanation. He was the sole living creature in a field of ghosts. At his back sat the Kind Lord, and at his front sat Bismarck’s armies, and he had a broken arm and he was dying and
The world shook. Rhythmic, like the slow and steady beat of a drum.
They were coming for him. They could smell the lymph, the injured signals rising like smoke from his wound and-
He could remember the last Christmas. His mom had been there, barely surviving her latest bout with cancer, the wrinkles in her face so pronounced that he thought they were more like topographic projections of combat areas; he remembered serving his tour in Italy when the ocean subsumed the land and devoured the innocent, helicopter rotors dancing behind his eyes, and his boyfriend was there; he’d given him a new blanket, a hand on his shoulders.
His sister had made pumpkin pie out of a can, and she’d been so proud of how it’d come out, and he was so grateful to eat something other than rations that he didn’t comment on it. There were empty seats at the kitchen table and tiny gifts wrapped in paper so bright he thought that the stars themselves ought to be jealous even though they only contained t-shirts and-
That was his only real memory of the time before. A bare fragment. In times of trouble, it spooled up, bright and beautiful, and it told him that there had once been a world worth fighting for.
He knew they were all gone now.
He knew it.
But there had been beauty in the world, and there had been pumpkin pie in a can, and there had been stupid t-shirts with bad puns on them, and there had been mothers and boyfriends and sisters, and there had been military deployments to kill the fuckers in the world who wanted to take that from him, and Tanner wouldn’t let that happen. He had never let that happen.
They’d turned to ash.
But Tanner had survived, and he curled in cover with a radio in his hands, shaking, listening to the passage of the Others approaching. Their eyes held no trace of the old memories in their heads, no trace of the old human sickness of wanting something better for themselves.
Tanner turned, pressing the rifle into his good shoulder, and pulled the trigger with a mostly broken hand, the pain less intense than how much he wanted to survive. Lymph dripped from his open wounds, and the Fey creature lurching overhead took a flurry of bullets through the chest and slumped backward, losing lymph faster than it could take more than a lazy swing at him.
That lazy swing was brutal enough to carve through his cover, leave notches in the barrel of his rifle, leak acid on the little hollow he’d hidden out in, and with the smell of acrid smoke in the air, finally, Tanner’s nerve broke and he spoke into the radio.
“Delta down, Delta down, Delta down,” he hissed. “S-sergeant Tanner requesting extraction. Please,” he whispered. The Other’s eyes looked just like his own, staring dully. Some old spark in the limbs made the dead thing twitch, and he pointed his bayonet at it, listening to the drum like thumps of the tank creatures off in the distance. “Please,” he voice broke. “I don’t want to die out here, I don’t want to die out here, please, please-”
In the far distance, a mushroom cloud, and Tanner could only wonder if he was ever supposed to live this long. He lifted his broken thumb up to it and swallowed. He was far enough away that-
The shockwave hit him, rattling his cover, and he threw up his protective totem, watching the shockwave lance across the barrier (an old paperclip he’d found in the depths of an old factory populated entirely by smoke ghosts) and hoped it held one more day, one more day.
The radio buzzed and crackled in his hand and he clutched it, careful not to crush it, and curled up, listening to the rhythm thumping of tank creatures. His barrier held for a few more seconds, then failed, lancing fractalline cracks sputtering to life as the internal math of the universe once more reasserted itself, and the wandering eyes of the universe turned once more upon his position. He could hear them thinking.
“A single set of eyes upon the end of these ranks.”
And they spoke in a language he could not understand and yet he knew full and well, garbling things of metal on metal and paint on canvas, and he curled tighter, tighter, he was freezing cold, he was leaking lymph, he was dying, he had to be dying. He wanted that last Christmas again, he wanted to see his mother’s face, wrinkles like supply lines on a map, he wanted to see how proud his sister was of not burning the pie in the oven for the first time, he wanted to see that stupid sweater with the cat on it in military fatigues talking about the italian crater, he wanted, he wanted
“Seargent Tanner?” a buzz came through his radio. Tanner fumbled with it, his three remaining arms shaking, and held it up. That voice. There was no way that voice was-
“A-admiral?” he quivered into the radio.
“Tanner,” The Admiral said, calmly. “Salvation is here. It is very important that you are not present. I need you to run to the north west as soon as possible.”
“North west?” he parrotted and turned to the mine field, devastated and covered in the bleeding and the dying of the enemy, their Otherness providing no protection from gun powder and the positioning of guns. “S-sir, that’s-”
“If you can’t,” The Admiral said. “The commander of your battalion had a special pair of glasses on him. Find those and wear them.”
“I can’t make it to the North-West, sir,” Tanner said, steeling himself, wishing his heart didn’t flutter quite so much around the bullethole lodged.
“Congratulations,” The Admiral buzzed. “You’ve been promoted.”
Tanner swallowed. “With all offense, Admiral, I’d rather live than-”
“Half a mile down the line,” The Admiral said. “You can find the remains of your commanding officer. She had a pair of glasses. Put them on and-” The radio faded into crackling static and Tanner swallowed, turning to stare down the remnants of the line. Thousands, hundreds of thousands of dead enemy soldiers formed half of a barricade of rising twisting pheromone trails sliding high into the sky.
“Put them on and what?”
“Archive history,” The Admiral repeated.
“I’m bleeding,” Tanner said. “I’m down an arm-”
“Sergeant!” The Admiral thundered, and Tanner snapped to attention, adrenaline reminding him of his training, forcing his nerve back together more than he thought it ever had in his life. “This is the only way you make it out of this alive! We have nobody who can report that far behind enemy lines!”
Nobody. Tanner was alone. How? How had it happened? “I’m alone?!” Tanner hissed.
“We’ll come for you as soon as we can,” The Admiral said. Tanner thought he was lying. They were at the end of the world after all. He’d been briefed just like everyone else had and. “There’s a few more signals along the way.” He gave out a series of coordinates and Tanner’s three working fists squeezed together. “Pick them up. You’ll do better in a group.”
The Admiral laughed with his clicking insectile noises. Tanner knew the modifications stretched far deeper into his body than Tanner’s own, and knew, knew, knew that-
“Salvation approaches,” The Admiral said. “ You are the highest ranked soldier who has reported in and my Broodnest craves an audience. Go. Behold the end. Stay safe. Archivist.”
Stay safe. Archivist.
The word Archivist triggered something deep inside of Tanner and he thought that maybe, just maybe, he could make it out of this after all. He could see his Last Christmas again, though it might be in a bunker surrounded by mutated soldiers, and he thought maybe, maybe he’d be fine with that. Maybe.
The radio crackled off and Tanner tucked it into his belt, feeding a new magazine into his rifle. He peered out of cover, listening for more battle but even the thumping of tanks had grown distant and soft. He counted backwards from 100 by 7s, drew the last of his medical supplies and bit down on pills containing undiscovered exotic substance whose names he couldn’t pronounce, then lurched out of cover.
He panned back into his own frequency. “This is- This is Ser- This is Archivist Tanner,” he said. “I’ve been put in control of this battalion,” he said. “Rendev- Rendezvous-” he broke off coughing, tasting Lymph, but no, he’d been put in charge, he would not die here, he would see his mother’s face again, dammit all he would, he would! HE WOULD! “Rendezvous on last coordinate of command staff, immediately! SALVATION IS HERE!”
The first few steps were awkward, unsure, terrified. The chitinous hairs on the back of his neck stood up like the fronds of a cockroach, but a cockroach could move faster than he could with a bullet in his leg. The combat cocktail took over and he started to jog, then run, then sprint and he was moving faster than he ever had before, rifle on his back. He heard the last pitter patter of automatic fire whizzing by his position, but from the trenches of the fields of the dead he could see soldiers emerging from cover, buoyed up by his orders, all dancing through what had been entrenched positions and land mines.
Small wings fluttered as they leapt like fleas, their arms and legs fluttered back. He could remember the joy of the transformation, of being more than mortal, moving at double the speed of a sprinting soldier, though his wings were cracked. One turned, raising a rifle and sprayed tracer rounds down at the ground in the distance, scoring a hit as wound pheromones raised from some enemy somewhere down wind, bright and hot in the air in colors he held no name for and Tanner, Tanner, Tanner-
Dozens of them under his command and his heart leapt with it all. They descended like wild creatures upon the old commanding structure, macerated with an enemy shell, the old crackling force fields of their totems unable to withstand a direct impact and-
“Sir!” Saluted a woman missing two arms and a wing. “Medic reporting in.”
“Get to work!” He barked. There were barely a dozen of them. “Defensive position!”
“What’re we holding out for?” came a gurgle from another soldier, a line leaking down his throat where he’d nearly had his neck sawed off. The medic dashed to his side, pulling out a small totem, a doll with half of its hair scorched off. It gleamed in her hand and she pressed it against his throat. As the doll’s hair burned the wound sealed shut. Tanner turned away.
“Salvation,” Tanner said, raising an arm in the air.
“What does that even mean?” a woman asked, fully intact, but her rifle was half melted. She tossed it into the hollow made by the direct hit in disgust. Around her, sandbags and enemy bodies were made into barricades, and rifles were sorted through for working parts and quickly assembled.
At least it was quite as bad as Italy. Tanner could admit that. In his fingers came down into the mash of bone and chitin that had once been his commanding officer and he pulled forth a pair of sunglasses. “I don’t know, alright?” Tanner hissed. “But the Admiral’s guarding the Kindlord, and we’re about a million miles away, so we’re holding out as long as we can while Salvation comes.”
“We’re dead,” The woman said. Tanner glared at her. The woman glared back with her compounded eyes and Tanner slipped the glasses on his head. In an instant the world swam into place, red and yellow and oranges, and words slipped from his mouth.
“Reinforce there and there!” He shouted, pointed at holes in their defenses that he hadn’t even seen before! If they sent the Crawlers out, this place wouldn’t hold for more than an instant.
What the Crawlers were, he couldn’t say, but he knew they had to defend from them. Now he could clearly see the Watchers burning in the horizon. It was not the sun that lit up the battlefield, no, it was a great gleaming red eye, a million miles long, and the tendrils were long… arms, bristling with cameras?
The battlefield was being recorded by the creature, whatever it was, but it was not Bismarck’s and it was not the Admiral’s, which only left one explanation. The Watcher himself was here, and the Watchers were also him and-
“MOVEMENT!” Roared one of his soldiers, a second before bullets lit up, tracers lighting a patch through the evening sun though the battlefield was lit up like it was still noon, frost crackling and melting beneath hot red incandescent lights, beautiful and ornate. The wounded pheromones danced as the wild enemy soldiers burst open like ripe watermelons, and yet, through the glasses, Tanner stared into the distance.
The earth rumbled.
But it wasn’t from Tank creatures. No, the earth rumbled because walking in a straight line towards the Kindlord, Bismarck moved. He had only seen pictures of her but she was larger than he’d ever been told she might be, larger than buildings, swollen like a tick upon the corpse of humanity, and he could see she was smiling. He leveled his rifle at her and the glasses gleamed bright red.
No. Shooting her would doom them all. He was here to save himself and his crew and survive. “HOLD FIRE! Don’t shoot the enemy commander.”
A dozen rifles that’d been trained upon her jerked away.
“It’ll only make her angrier,” he finished.
“Then what are we supposed to do?”
“Watch,” he said.
Because it wasn’t just Bismarck. The ground rumbled, and he turned to look to the North West, where they were defending, and something brushed the tip of the clouds. A great gleaming mess of black feathers and red eyes stepped into play, blooming with fire. Wings, seven of them, one for each of the birds that had given up their individuality, he thought, bloomed out, serrated and etched like blades, bullets, war itself. A corona, a crown decorated the creature’s great head, and held in three arms, mottled and rotting with feathers and wounds, a sword that brushed through the clouds themselves dragged burning furrows into the earth.
They were in the middle of the field of kaijus. Tanner’s hands shook once more.
“Watch,” the medic muttered. “Okay. I can do that.”
“Hold this position,” he said, softly, though all heard it. It was a time beyond mere audio, it was a time that they could just hear his voice in their heads like he’d always been there, a hollow that the world had waited until this very moment to fill. “It’s time.”
“It’s the King,” the uninjured woman said. “Is that, is this the end?”
“No,” he said.
Aside the King of Crows, The Ending of their Kind, the ground split open, a massive furrow cut free by the Blade of Endings that the monster carried, and something else emerged. Thousands of arms, human insectile, everything in between pulled something large and massive out of the earth.
Tanner had never seen the full of his Broodmother emerge, but she was a beautiful creature of eyes and limbs, and more and more of her pulled out of the earth, a colossal creature that had decided that it would not remain underground. The Hive, the last of her kind perhaps, untainted and unruined, and she was laughing, she was singing, and he knew all the words and in fact everyone knew all the words already and they were all singing along, some song with only noise and scents, running together wildly.
Tanner’s wounds sealed themselves shut and the glasses highlight something small atop the Hivemother’s back. The Admiral clung to the very stop, and his lips dripped with golden light, highlighting his mutated body. It was time, it was time, it was a time for endings. Five thousand years had built up to the point.
And from the east, at last, came the howl of beasts, and the earth didn’t shake so much as the ash of the battlefield joined the song in the air and danced, dozens, no, hundreds, or a bare thousand of monsters, mutilated fur and tumorous growths lurched through what had once been Tanner’s friends and family, for the time had finally come for the ending of what had been his life’s story and finally, Tanner understood what had been meant by watching Salvation.
Someone had to record this moment. Someone had to. Bismarck was the last of her kind, and the last of the great empires had arrived to do battle in tarnished armor and wielding their own blood instead of bullets. The Crows, the Admiral, the Beasts. Perhaps it was not that the world had answered Tanner’s prayers, but every force he yet knew of it had arrived to halt Bismarck’s progress.
The Admiral’s voice crackled through the radio. “If this is my last moment upon this world,” he said, his voice mutilated from living through eras as nothing more than a puppet of war. “Then let my soldiers know that you were my children from the start, and I die as a parent does, ensuring that there is a world left for them to inherit. TODAY WE DIE SO THERE IS ANOTHER MORNING!”
“Another Christmas!” Tanner barked into the radio.
“Another birthday!” Came another voice.
“Another day!” came another, hoarse, husky, bestial.
“Another discovery,” came the voice of a crow.
“Another story,” came Isaac’s voice, soft and persuasive.
“PURGE!” The Admiral roared, and the universe answered the leader’s call, striking her with a rod from the heavens. The full wrath of an atomic bomb struck Bismarck, atomizing her where she stood, painting the ground with her blood and cracking her chitin. Where once stood a colossal towering pile of chitin and hatred stood only a corpse.
Tanner held his breath. Had that been it? Was it over? Had that been it? Had it only taken a single word from their God-Admiral?
The chitin shuddered, and from the highest parts of the sky, the Audience lurched forward. That wasn’t a good enough death. Their fingers, hundreds, squirming and knotted together like worms, brushed the ash that had once been Bismarck back together, pressing her like clay in an oven, and then she squirmed back to life, bursting from the shell they’d molded for her, slick and fresh like it’d been an egg instead of her own corpse.
He swallowed. He didn’t like that. The King of Crows strode forward, leaving toxic irradiated particles in his wake, and pointed his blade at the corpse, waiting patiently as Bismarck reformed, chitin sealing itself shut and organs sublimating back into existence as the universe reasserted itself.
“I’m the main character,” Death’s chosen whispered into the folds of Tanner’s brain and he shuddered, clamping his broken hands over his ears. “Don’t you understand? You cannot win. You made me this way. We agreed that I would be made this way. There’s nothing left, there are no armies that can destroy me, there is only the end to this story entirely. You do nothing more than waste the boon of life that has been given to you. And so you shall.”
And things died. Tanner’s vision went utterly black and his heart stopped and-
His eyes stopped working. He blinked, rapidly, tears, blood, sweat, all dripping past them as a third or so eyelid burned and sizzled, but the main organs remained intact. Thank his horrific anatomy for that! They slid out of the way, and smoke billowed from his clothes.
He stood there, listening to the silence of war, unsure what had happened until his ears rang and his body rapidly repaired itself, drawing on the last of the cannibalistic ration supplements that the Admiral’s soldiers had been given to keep them on their feet until their last hours. Then finally, with popping noises like distant automatic fire, he could hear again, he could see again and-
Tanner blinked rapidly, losing track of exactly what had happened. His nose bled, more lymph joining the puddle beneath him and his crew shuddered and shook blinking spots out of their eyes and he- he stared at a crackling barrier in front of him, smoldering, a smokescreen off a shield and it all clicked together. Tanner had once been a soldier of USEC, after all.
Fire licked at the edge of his uniform and he hit the ground just as quickly, rolling about until the muck and decay and ash put it out. Breathing rapidly, heart pounding, he peeled down the first layer of military fatigued and stared at the stupid shirt he was still wearing and watched smoke and ash lick at the edge of it. He was wearing it. He was wearing his lucky shirt, a present that had come for him from his Last Christmas, and he thought he heard his mother’s laughter across the years, protecting him even this far removed from what she knew, and his fingers curled. The smoke cleared, and he prayed there would be another Christmas, another holiday, and that he would remember it.
Then he did his job and looked out into the world around him.
The land around them had been pulverized. Reshaped into a mirror sheen of salt and boiled bodies. Beasts pulled themselves up on broken legs, unburied themselves from the reflections of molten salt and bones and scrap metal.
The hollow they were in was now the largest structure left, held in bay only by the shield that’d saved him. He stared at the soldiers around him, watched smoke curl up from the totems they’d savaged, their individual trinkets and old world charms and he thought he’d finally figured out what he had been meant to do with his life from the very beginning.
And from the mirror sheen he could see a million fey soldiers peering back up at him, and he swallowed.
“Death itself is no barrier to me,” Bismarck whispered into the minds of the thousands of people left. “RISE!” and the universe obeyed the commanding tongue, and the fey creatures trapped on one side of the mirror rose to join the real world. And they sat there in millions, and in a thousand different forms.
Now, suddenly, Tanner understood what the glasses had been warning him about. Crawlers, too many legs, too many eyes, smoking, smoldering, bristling with chitinous weapons. He’d seen them before in the battles between the fey, but he’d been off handling other matters and only seen their after effects instead of personally involved and-
“DEFEND THE ARCHIVIST!” The uninjured woman yelled, and the field of battle was joined by his little group of defenders. But now, their magazines didn’t run out, their guns never overheat no matter how bright red they became, and they move and swam less like soldiers and more like superheroes and he realized, as he watched Beast lurch into combat, scything through mirror soldiers and the laughter of something high and hot in the distance, a chuckle like a planet, that he was not in the real world anymore.
He was trapped in the pages of a novel, and he was staring into the soul of the Audience, watching something they’d waited so many years for, and the Audience stared back at him, wondering what had made this one creature so important a perspective.
A colossal creature wearing the skin of another strode through, bones protruding from his skin like a porcupine, and he, (Thorn, the glasses supplied, OMOI chirping happily) punched a tank creature in half, roaring and bleeding as acid ate into his tumored skin and bubbled back together, and the Admiral brought explosions down upon the world and the King of Crows stepped forward, bearing his sword and-
Wasn’t this supposed to be the end? Why were they still fighting?
He swung his blade, and Bismarck died, and in an instant the hands of the Audience threw her out from the otherside of the mirror they were all fighting upon, and the King swung again and she died died died and then she was awake again, standing up, drawing her arms back, and one of the King’s wings fell off, hitting the ground, crushing a hundred thousand enemy soldiers and Tanner’s defenders kept firing and firing and-
It wasn’t working.
The plan wasn’t working. They were like children, slaughtering each other, unable to make progress except for the dying of Beasts and Fey alike. What was he supposed to do? Was this really it? The culmination of everything tied up into the mere amusement of a cosmic eye? The Audience got what they wanted but- but he could feel it. This wasn’t good enough of an ending for the Watcher, for the artistry, it could never end with just the crows and the Fey doing a last war, it couldn’t end like this.
Another wing sliced off of the King of Crows and it howled, blood as angry and black as the feathers on the creature spilling onto the floor, a cosmic radioactive contaminant blotting out the surface of the mirror. What was Tanner supposed to do?
He was just supposed to watch. Watch as they lost.
Because Bismarck’s armies simply stood back up again and again, forever, eternally, and even the HiveQueen that Admiral stood atop was only flesh and well wishes.
So what was his point in his narrative? What was he supposed to do? What was he supposed to-
He picked up his radio, smoldering and barely working, and called it in. “This isn’t working!” He hissed. “Archivist Tanner, this isn’t working. We need- we need-”