Ryan woke up slowly, his body being shaken by something. He swatted his hand at the source, a pathetic blow that carried as much force behind it as the beating of a gnat’s wings. “Five more minutes,” he muttered, rolling over. The motion shifted the rocks that were stabbing into his back to his side, and the pain forced his eye open.
Athena was looking down at him, her normally olive skin the sallow color of a dried corpse. Given her injuries, it was frankly amazing that she’d managed to crawl over here to wake Ryan up. “Get to your feet, Ryan Smith.” Her words were hissed between teeth clenched in pain, and Ryan nearly threw up when he noticed he could see the bone poking out of the skin of her leg.
“Athena.” It wasn’t a question or even really a statement meant for her. Ryan felt the exhaustion clawing at him gave purpose to his wakefulness, a reason to fight himself awake. “Crystal?”
She nodded at the question. “I think she is alive. Ryan, you have to get Enki’s nanoverse. We need to destroy it.”
The statement was so ludicrous, Ryan felt a flash of annoyance. “We nuked him, Athena. I’m sure it’s shattered into dust by now.” He studied her face for a moment, saw the genuine concern that lurked beneath the pain, and felt himself grimace. “Right?”
“No.” Athena was swaying slightly, and it suddenly occurred to Ryan that he was not the only one barely clinging to alertness. “We have to take it into one of our nanoverses to destroy it. Where we’re omnipotent. Nothing else will do it.”
The sound that escaped from Ryan’s lips was a primal thing, a sound from the deepest bowels of the human soul. It was the sound of the supremely exhausted that must not sleep yet, a plaintive sound that rested somewhere between despair and frustration. We won, he thought, knowing as soon as the thought form it was stupid and childish, but he couldn’t shake it. We won. I’m supposed to be able to rest now.
He looked again into Athena’s eyes, and in there he saw the response to his unvoiced complaint. No, Ryan. We haven’t won until the nanoverse is destroyed, until we can be certain he will not return. He found himself nodding, both to agree with the thought and to prevent himself from nodding off. He rose to his feet, swaying drunkenly. “Keep an eye out. I’ll go get it.”
She gave him a weak thumbs-up, and Ryan walked to the edge of the pit that had swallowed Enki. It was a yawning abyss, far too deep for the faint light that managed to slip between the clouds above to provide any illumination. He reached into his nanoverse, groping for a light source.
Thankfully, Daasti’s utopia had plenty of light sources, and what he pulled out was a small orb. When Ryan activated it by giving it a solid squeeze, the light shone with the brightness of a high end flashlight and and the surface became sticky. He pressed it to his shirt, right over his heart, and when he pulled his hand away it stayed in place.
Without knowing how deep Enki’s nuclear-powered descent had pushed him, calling rope out of his nanoverse could end up being far more effort than a simple twist. He reached out to the equations gravity the speed at which gravity pulled on his own body and shifted a decimal place – instead of causing him to accelerate at 9.8 meters per second squared, he could now leap in and instead it would pull him at a much more comfortably sedate 0.98 meters per second squared. He made a mental note to zero out his velocity every few seconds so he wouldn’t find himself falling too fast.
He wanted to leap into the hole and make a superhero-style three point landing when he hit the bottom, an idea his sleep addled brain found immensely appealing, but instead he tripped over his own feet from the effort of trying to place them correctly, so found himself tumbling end over end. He passed through a few feet of rock, then found himself entering the abyss that had ultimately claimed Enki.
As soon as his surroundings got darker, the light attached to his shirt got brighter. If Ryan had anything interesting to look at, he would have appreciated the increased clarity. As it was, however, all it did was show him a fairly large, artificially square cave – and draw attention to the tendrils of darkness trying to creep across his vision. He reached down and thumped his thigh with a fist a few times, the pain driving those tendrils back. They didn’t completely vanish, instead lurking at the edge of his vision like snakes waiting to strike the moment he let his guard down.
No air flowed down here. It was a blessing, since Ryan suspected that with his decreased gravity any such gust would send him tumbling aside, and right now his path took him directly towards the hole Enki had left in the rock below. Ryan was surprised with how small the hole was – he’d expected the impact to have created an underground crater, but instead Enki had left what looked like a bullet hole.
Ryan idly wondered if it was a quirk of divine power or just a physics oddity, and during that distraction the tendrils began to cross his vision again. Am I safe from radioactivity? The thought brought with it a streak of white hot panic that forced him to full alertness as he realized if he passed out down here, he’d likely die of radiation poisoning alongside the atomic dust that remained of Enki.
He couldn’t say how far he fell, given how slow the fall was, but eventually he found himself standing in another underground chamber, one carved out of Canadian bedrock when the containment barrier had finally failed and let the nuclear explosion release its remaining energy. The air down here was oppressively hot, like he had fallen into an open oven, and his divine sight informed him of exactly how dangerously radioactive this chamber was. Ryan actually found himself crossing his fingers in a childish gesture of good luck, hoping he’d find Enki’s nanoverse soon after touching down.
Finally his feet reached the ground. Enough time had passed where the rock was no longer molten, but he could still feel the soles of his shoes start to melt upon touching it. I could probably make them heat-resistant, Ryan thought, but he decided to just purchase new ones when he reached the surface. He’d have to get out of this pit, after all, and needed to conserve his strength for that last twisting of equations.
He looked at the ground and noticed two things. First, Enki had been far stronger than any of them had imagined. Nuclear blasts were supposed to completely atomize matter caught at ground zero, but at Ryan’s feet were small slivers of blackened bone. None of the bones were recognizable, so much so that without his divine sight he couldn’t have told what they were. Still, the fact that any part of Enki had survived made Ryan’s blood run cold even in the heat of this radioactive cave.
Fortunately, the second thing he noticed was Enki’s nanoverse. Or, to be more accurate, his nanoverses. To Ryan’s eyes, the fusion looked less like cells dividing and more like one nanoverse was a cancerous mass growing out of the other. It was something unnatural, something unholy. Ryan found himself wishing he could just leave the hideous thing down here, collapse the island on top of it and let tons of rock and seawater shut it away from the world.
Because that works so well in the movies, Ryan reminded himself as he bent down to grab it. If there was one thing Hollywood had taught Ryan, it was that leaving something dark and terrible buried beneath the Earth was a good way to make sure it became some future generation’s problem. And since you’re immortal now, it would probably be your problem then, too.
The diseased nanoverse safely secured in his pocket, the opposite pocket of his own nanoverse, Ryan looked up to make sure he was standing under the hole that lead to the surface. That confirmed, he reversed gravity’s pull and just let himself float up and out of the radioactive cave.
He looked back as he ascended. Beneath them he saw those bone shards, the final pieces of evidence that Enki had once walked this world. They seemed, to Ryan’s exhausted eyes, to twitch as their owner’s nanoverse taken away. It was almost as if they realized their last chance of ever being whole again was vanishing.
Then again, maybe they didn’t. After all, they were just bones. Bones that had no more agency than the stone they laid upon, so they could do nothing about their fate. Still, half expecting them to rise up and attempt to spear him in a last desperate act of spite on Enki’s part, Ryan kept his face on them until the darkness swallowed them completely, and only then did he allow himself to look upwards to the surface he had almost reached. When he passed into sunlight again, the light globe attached to his chest dimmed back down to flashlight levels. He felt a hand grab his ankle and tug him away from the pit, and once he was clear he let gravity return to normal, dumping him unceremoniously near Athena.
She gave him a questioning look, and he nodded, patting the pocket that held that cancerous nanoverse. “Right here,” he croaked.
A sigh of genuine relief escaped Athena’s lips. “Good. The varcolacs withdrew while you were down there – passed right by us. I think Moloch is cutting his losses.”
“I’m fine with him being a problem for another day. You?” He did his best to give her a confident smile, but the overwhelming desire to sleep tugged at him again.
“Honestly? Same.” Athena gestured to her leg, which was now splinted. Ryan thought of that bone jutting through the skin and then of the shards of Enki’s bones left in the pit below. He let out his own sigh of relief – not at Athena’s agreement, but at not having had to watch the process involved with that splint.
“I’ll third that, loves.” The voice startled both of them. Crystal had woken up and crawled her way over to them. Her face was twisted into pain much as Athena’s had been, although Crystal attempted to keep a grin plastered across it.
“You okay?” Ryan asked, knowing the question was stupid but unable to help himself.
Crystal gave him a dismissive gesture. “I think that last blow broke my sodding hip. You look half dead, love, and Athena…” She pursed her lips. “Athena, you look three quarters of the way there. I don’t want to know how bad I look.”
After a moment of studying Crystal’s face – taking in the way sweat beaded her forehead and cheeks, the sunken cast of her eyes, the small cuts where Enki’s blow had sent her bouncing across the rock, Ryan could only nod. “You really, really don’t.”
She gave him a good natured middle finger as she resumed talking, “So why don’t we wait for Astaroth to check on us like he’s supposed to and just hitch a ride back to the castle with the demons?”
“I think,” said Athena, glancing at Crystal and then at Ryan in turn, “I think that’s an excellent idea.”
Ryan opened his mouth to agree, but the banter with his two companions – his two friends – had distracted him long enough for the tendrils of darkness to slip back in. He raised his fist to hit himself in the leg again, but Athena reached out to grab his fist. “Rest, Ryan. We’re safe.”
Or at least, that’s what Ryan thought she said. The word after “we’re” had faded rapidly into darkness, and Ryan passed again into blackness.