In college, Ryan had read Dante’s Inferno. The part that had struck with him, more than anything else, had been the description of the gate of Hell. He’d actually been disappointed to learn, upon going to Hell, that no such gateway had existed.
Apparently, Dante had been inspired by Tartarus instead. Their doorways opened onto a shore of grey sand, with an endless sea of brackish water stretched behind them. In front of them was a massive wall, one that stretched from beach to sky, an expanse of stones the size of houses broken only by a single gate. On the door was inscribed.
I stand locked against the fetid ocean.
I stand locked against the stopped clock.
Through me lies death that ne’er ends.
Through me lies night everlasting.
Forgotten I was by my Creator,
Forsaken by Mortal and Divine.
Before all that is I was made
And after all I will endure.
Mourn me not for my fate is suffering
Forget me not for I am betrayal most foul.
These halls are not meant for ye.
Turn back, lest they become thy home.
He adjusted his pack as he hear Isabel let out a low whistle behind him. “That’s not ominous at all.” Ryan grinned at her, as Crystal and Athena came out of their nanoverses as well.
“I still don’t like you being here in the first place,” he said.
She shrugged. “And I don’t like that you were born first. Guess which one is more likely to change?”
Crystal and Athena exchanged an amused look as Ryan shook his head helplessly. “I could just drag you back to Earth.”
“Physically? Yeah, you totally could. But you can’t, because you haven’t, so I know you won’t.” Isabel stuck out her tongue at him as he parsed that, and he sighed in acceptance.
“It’s not like she’s going into the Labyrinth wish us, love.” Crystal said.
Ryan could only grunt at that. He’d been outvoted, and he knew it. Didn’t mean he had to like it. “Guess your family has a flair for the dramatic,” he said to Athena, pointing at the gate.
“Well, they do, but not in this instance. That was here when we imprisoned the Titans within. We build the Labyrinth behind it, though.”
Ryan glanced at it, then back at Athena. “Then…who did?”
“We don’t know who,” Athena said, “it just…was.”
“I do have a theory about who,” Crystal said. It drew all their attention – it was the first any of them had heard of it.
“Well, we’re still waiting for Anansi and Dianmu, and Horus is going to the Curators, so fill us in?” Ryan said, setting his pack down.
“Well, it assumes a pretty big thing. That we live in someone else’s nanoverse, yeah?”
Athena put her pack down as well. All three of the gods had them, laden with food and water for when their hungers needed filling. At least Ryan understood why you couldn’t just pull some out of your nanoverse – it was like filling a well with water from that well. “Go ahead.”
Crystal shrugged her pack off. “I think this was made directly by whoever holds our nanoverse, countless billions of years ago. See, whoever is in charge of our universe made a bunch of other planes. Heaven, hell, Olympus, Sheol…all of that, yeah? Well, maybe he or she or whatever tried that before. Places like Tartarus, the places we can only go to the edge of, are leftover bits of the Universe before the last Big Crunch. It would also explain why anything we do out here, any twists to reality that don’t change a living being, stick until someone else undoes them. There’s no default state of reality, because we’re not quite in reality.”
“Like places on the map in video games that were not fully removed during development, but aren’t part of the game,” Isabel said, looking at Ryan who nodded in agreement. Athena looked lost and Crystal was giving her a blank smile, so she continued, “you can technically get there sometimes if you find the right glitch, but they’re buggy and messy since no one finished them.”
“Exactly,” Crystal said. Ryan couldn’t tell if she had understood the entire time, or was just rolling with it.
Athena looked at the sky, which was actually a giant cavernous roof, giving the whole thing the appearance of being underground – and yet was still as well-lit as day, with no visible light source “That…makes a great deal of sense, actually.”
“Do we need to worry about falling through the map, then?” Ryan asked, attempting a joke. Crystal smiled, Athena looked confused, and Isabel rolled her eyes. “Nevermind, over your heads,” he muttered.
Isabel turned to Crystal, “So…why did this place last after the Big Crunch?”
Crystal didn’t look directly at her, instead studying the inscription on the gate again. Ryan noticed now that the letters weren’t in English, but for whatever reason, all of them – even Isabel – could read it. “I think because they didn’t want it to go away. I also don’t think they wanted it to be found.”
Ryan felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. “Well…then should have locked it better, then.”
Crystal gave him a faint smile. “Fair enough, love. Give us a hand with these other boxes, yeah?”
It took a half hour to set things up, even with all four of them. When they were done, Ryan stepped back to admire their handiwork.
They had set up a desk, one with three sides, on top of a board so it wouldn’t sink into the sand. On the desk was a bank of five monitors, a keyboard, and the most powerful computer tower they’d been able to acquire on short notice. Apparently Crystal and Athena had accumulated a lot of wealth over their lives, so it was top of the line. You’d be amazed what flashing a roll of hundreds in someone’s face could accomplish.
The other objects on the desk had been harder to get, but when a roll of hundreds hadn’t worked, a briefcase of cash and reminder of what eternal gratitude could mean from someone like them had. Eleven quad-rotor drones, so state of the art they weren’t even on the market yet, and five bracelets to go with them.
“I still think the old ways are best,” Athena muttered as she snapped a bracelet on.
Crystal rolled her eyes as she and Ryan did the same with their bracelets. “I couldn’t find several hundred kilometers of string, sadly.”
Athena opened her mouth to retort, but at that moment two more doors opened on the beach, and Anansi and Dainmu stepped out. Dainmu regarded the set-up and glanced at Anansi, who shrugged.
“What is this?” Dainmu asked.
“Oh!” Isabel answered. “It’s how we’re going to navigate the Labyrinth. See, each of you wear one of those bracelets. The drones will follow you, and they’ll send video, location information, all that back to me. I’ll be able to make a map out of the Labyrinth as you pass through it, stay in communication, provide light, and if you guys get separated guide you back to each other. Maybe even scout ahead, although Crystal said that’s a good way to run out of drones quickly.”
“Marvelous,” Dainmu said with genuine excitement.
Isabel beamed, but Anansi regarded it with the same mistrust that Athena did. “And what about the signal? Or the battery life? Or…power at all?”
“That was my idea,” Crystal said. “Since things don’t snap back, I can just do this-“ she reached down and tapped the generator they had hooked the computer up to. They could all see the equation she had woven, although Ryan had to wonder how the other three interpreted it – but she had caused its battery to replenish energy as it expended it. Violating pretty much every law of thermodynamics in the process. “Which solves the power issue. We can do the same thing with the transmitter to make sure they stay in communication, and then just recharge the batteries when they get low.”
“And if all ten get destroyed?” Athena asked.
Ryan shrugged. “We’ll still make marks and such old school so if that happens, we’re no worse off than we would have been. But I’ve already changed their casing to be graphene over a layer of carbon nanotube-reinforced Kevlar – they’re not indestructible, but they’re the next best thing.”
They both relaxed at that reassurance, although Ryan suspected it was more the fact that they were going to have non-tech backups instead of the armor.
“What about Isabel?” Dainmu asked, directing this question at Ryan.
“Well, it’s not perfect, but we’ll each create a layer of defense around her. If something comes along, they’ll have to get through all five layers – and in the time it’ll take them, she can dive back into Crystal’s nanoverse and close the door.”
“And believe me, I’ll run.” Isabel said brightly. “Not to be all whatever, but I’m not going to pretend I can fight gods and monsters and all that. Which will leave you guys without your mapping stuff, but it leaves me with my head attached so…”
Anansi chuckled. “A wise choice. Very well – shall we depart?”
No one had any objections. Packs were distributed, and they reached into their nanoverses to draw out a couple weapons each – no way to re-arm once they were in, although Athena assured them there were plenty of weapons littered about from others who had tried to make the trek. Not…really as assuring as she meant it to be, Ryan thought as he walked over and give Isabel a hug as Crystal did the lasts twists needed for this set up to work. “Be careful, okay shrimp?”
She smiled. “Hey, you’re the one going into the deadly maze of deadly death. You be careful. And come back, okay?”
“Of course. If I die, you’ll never let me hear the end of it.”
She stuck her tongue out at him again. He chuckled and walked over to join the rest of the gods, giving her a friendly middle finger as he did.
Together turned around, putting their defenses in place around Isabel. Crystal created a field of gravity ten thousand times as strong as Earth. Athena pulled from the sea a barrier of water with the pressure of the deepest depths of the ocean. Ryan turned the sand molten and pulled it up into a wall of glass that he turned into the same graphene-kevlar with nanotube barrier he’d put on the drones. Anansi covered that with an inverse field of gravity to Crystals, pulling any who dared enter it into the ceiling to splatter them across it. Finally, Dainmu condensed the air into a wall of wind as fast as those found on Neptune at fifteen hundred miles per hour.
Athena glanced at Ryan’s face and smiled. “She’ll be fine. Even a god would need time to undo all that – plenty of time for her to escape.”
Isabel’s voice came through the drones. “And with lucky number eleven, I’ll see him coming.” The drone in question was hooked up to a generator that Crystal had also modified. “So quit worrying and get moving!”
With a nod, Ryan turned to face the door to Tartarus. “These halls are not meant for ye. Turn back, lest they become thy home.”
He took a deep breath. “Let’s do this.”
Together, they pushed open the great doors and headed into the Labyrinth.