Ryan and Athena watched as Crystal returned from her nanoverse – she’d been gone for only a handful of seconds, barely enough time to do much more than feel relief the dual nanoverse was gone. Ryan noted she didn’t look like she shared their relief. Her omnipresent smile was drawn and didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“Are you alright?” Athena asked, and Ryan was glad to know she saw it too.
Crystal shrugged. “I just snuffed out two nanoverses worth of life and started the Big Crunch on my own, love. I’d have to be a sodding psychopath to be perfectly alright, yeah?”
That made sense to Ryan, and it should have put his mind at ease. Should have. Instead he couldn’t help but note how her eyes flicked up and to the left as she said it. She’s hiding something. He considered pushing her on it, but instead decided to let it slide.
“Fair enough,” he said, his eyes drifting to Athena. By her frown, she wasn’t fully buying Crystal’s explanation either. “As long as you’re sure.”
The nod she gave them was a bit too eager as she changed the subject. “We’ve got a lot of work to do still, loves, so I figured this was the last chance I’d get to do the Crunch for a bit. After all, we still need to find a way to end the world without killing all the people on it.”
“Right.” It had been so long since he last worried about the impending apocalypse that the reminder was like a bucket of cold water being splashed across his face. He shook his head. “I’ll be honest; I have absolutely no good ideas about how to do that.”
Athena perked up at that, and for a moment Ryan dared to hope she would have some miracle cure. Instead she asked, “Well, we can work with bad ideas, perhaps improve them.”
“Sorry, I’m out of those too. I’m guessing you two are in the same boat?” Their looks told him everything he needed to know, and he let out a deep sigh as Crystal took back her vacated chair. “Guess that would be too easy. Crystal, how long do we have?”
“Hate to have to say this, love, but no way to know for sure. We’ll know when it’s close – the sun will start pulsing – but that could be in a matter of weeks or a matter of years.” She shook her head, a clearing gesture, and her smile slowly became more natural. “And best part is, Moloch and Bast are still out there, and hells only know what those two wankers are up to.”
Athena’s lips tightened into thin white lines. “I actually think I can make it worse than that.”
A groan escaped from Ryan’s mouth, and she looked at him, a glimmer of sympathy behind her eyes. Crystal just regarded him curiously as he slumped in his chair. “We won. We should be celebrating! Going back to that bar and getting hammered or something.”
“I know.” Athena regarded him steadily. “And I think we should after we’re done. But it is important to debrief after a victory, while the details are still fresh.”
He looked over at Crystal, but she was nodding in agreement with Athena. He let out another breath of air. “Okay, hit me.” The punch Athena landed on his shoulder had no force behind it, and the gesture got an appreciative laugh out of Ryan.
“Glad to see you haven’t forgotten how to be amused. Unfortunately, the worse news?” Ryan motioned for her to go on; putting his nose in the air and every ounce of royal arrogance into the gesture he could manage. It got a snort from Crystal and the ghost of a grin from Athena, though that vanished quickly as she began to speak. “We must assume that Enki taught them how to fuse nanoverses as he did. If they begin hunting down other gods and empowering themselves, we will find ourselves vastly outmatched.”
Ryan wanted to slam his head into the table, instead leaning forward and resting his face in his palms. “Christ, Athena, you weren’t kidding when you said you could make it worse.”
The next voice was Crystal’s, “but she’s right, love. It’s a bloody shame that we have to worry about it, but we’ve got to find out what they’re up to.”
“Can’t we have Nabu send the other gods messages?” The silence that followed lasted long enough for him to pull his head up out of his hands. Both Crystal and Athena were giving him nearly identical patient looks. Beyond patient, really. The expression was the exact same for both of them, a face that said We understand why you’re not thinking clearly right now, but you’ll feel better if you figure out why that’s a terrible idea without us needing to spell it out for you.
It was a very specific expression, but once you’ve gotten that face, you’ll recognize it anywhere.
Slowly, he caught up with them, and was glad to have figured it out for himself. “You’re worried about other gods knowing it’s possible.”
“Bingo,” Crystal said, leaning forward slightly. “Even if they don’t know how, they might figure it out if they know it’s not a waste to try.”
“So if we can’t warn them, what do we do?” Ryan did his best to keep the despair out of his voice. This whole thing was starting to feel increasingly hopeless.
“Well, we kill two birds with one stone.” Both Athena and Ryan looked at Crystal, and the smile didn’t just light her eyes now, they gleamed. “We tell them it’s time to get off their arses and get to work. We head out and find them, be they on Earth or if they’re in their own realms. We hit up Asgard, Olympus, Kunlun, Tir na Nog, Mictlan, Penglai, Takama-ga-hara – all of them, every bloody one.” She actually stood up in her excitement.
“We tell them it’s the End of the World, and they sat out round one, but round two won’t give them a chance for that. They’re going to have to take a side because you don’t get to just sit on your thumbs when it’s the Apocalypse, yeah? And then, once they sign on, we ask them for help in finding a way to do it that doesn’t require six billion deaths. One of them is going to have an idea, or know where we can look for it.”
Ryan felt the tension begin to ease. He didn’t know what half those places were or how to get there, but at least it was a proactive step. Athena nodded in a more measured, calmer agreement. “So…party first, then we head to recruit?”
“Sounds like a plan to me. Athena, you in?” Athena voiced her agreement and Crystal continued. “Great. Come on, loves! First round’s on me.” She practically skipped towards her nanoverse, and Ryan rose to follow. Athena put a hand on his arm as he did, and he looked at her.
“You sense it too. Something’s off about her.”
Ryan flicked his eyes towards Crystal’s doorway, confirming it was already closed. “Yeah, I do. Any ideas why?”
Athena didn’t actually say no, but her eyes spoke volumes. “I suggest we keep a careful eye on her.”
“I’m not too worried about it. After all, if it was really important, Crystal would tell us, right?” He watched Athena closely, and suddenly felt his confidence drain away. “Right?”
“I don’t think it’s worth risking.”
“Fair enough.” Ryan sighed, then shook his head to clear it and gave Athena a grin that was only slightly forced. “But not tonight, Athena,” he said, pulling her to her feet, “tonight we drink and dance and celebrate winning, okay?”
That got a genuine smile out of her. “I think that’s an excellent plan.” Ryan offered her his arm, and she slid hers through with a wink.
They headed towards his nanoverse, not worrying about anything other than how to enjoy the night as best they could.