“Bullshit,” Ryan finally managed. Bast was still standing there with that small, mocking smile on her lips. “You want to save humanity?”
“Is that really so hard to believe?” Bast asked. “I’ve lived among them for thousands of years. Is it really impossible that I want to spare the species that birthed me.”
“You want a food source,” Dianmu said, drawing both Ryan’s and Bast’s attention. The storm goddess held her glaive down and to the side, an angle Ryan had seen before. It was a relaxed stance that could become battle-ready with a flick of ehr wrist. From the way Bast’s eyes narrowed, she recognized the stance as well. “Quit playing games, Bast. You’re a humanitarian in the same way a vegetarian wants to save vegetables.”
“Well, it is hard to deny that.” Bast fixed her gaze back on Ryan, although she subtly shifted her stance to keep her guard up against Dianmu.. “You don’t know what it’s like. The anthropophagic hunger. Even if I don’t use my power, it still gnaws at me.”
“You want sympathy?” Ryan asked. “Don’t try to tell me your Hunger made you do all this!” He gestured to include the town. “You didn’t have to make these people into monsters.”
“No, I didn’t.” Bast said, almost quietly. Then her smile returned. “As I have stated, I needed to make sure I had your attention. You are going to save my people, Ryan – and in doing so, you’re going to save the human race. Or at least, it’s legacy – we will be humanities inheritors.”
“I wouldn’t even know how to, even if I was going to,” Ryan said. “And even if I did, what good would it do to you? You’d starve without humanity, right?”
“We can survive through other means,” Bast said. “Animal hearts aren’t nearly as filling as human hearts, but it’s preferable to extinction. Of course, that won’t be a problem when you’re done.”
Above Bast, on the rooftops, one of the cat creatures shifted back into human form. She was a young woman, probably in her late twenties, wearing a blood-spattered lab coat. She was mouthing something, and it took Ryan a moment to figure out that she was repeating Bast’s words to herself. Once she’d finished, she glared down at the assembled group, her hands balling into fists. Worry about that later, Ryan told himself. “I already told you, I don’t know how to save ‘your people.’
“Fortunately for both of us, I know the solution.” Bast’s smile took on a predatory tint. “You’re the Eschaton. You have a single manipulation that goes far beyond what anyone else can do. You’re going to use it to remove our Hunger. We won’t need to feed anymore.”
“You want me to undo what you’ve done?” Ryan asked, frowning. “You did all this…just so I can undo it?”
“Oh, no,” Bast said. “Perish the thought! No, you are going to just remove the Hunger. Not the rest of it. Then I’ll create enough of my children to have a sustainable population after the world ends. We’ll go into my nanoverse, and I’ll take us to a nice, stable planet.”
“That would damn the entire planet,” Ryan snarled. It was his turn to clench his hands into fists. “You want me to sacrifice humanity just to save this handful?”
“Yes.” The response was simple and blunt. “I don’t believe you can save the planet, Ryan. Even if you could, I’m not sure you should. Even if you should, I’m certain I don’t care. I want a future for me and my children. The memory of humanity will live on in them, which is what you want, isn’t it?”
“I want to save humanity, not ensure their memory!” Ryan said.
“It’s good to have things that you want.” Bast’s eyes hardened. “I don’t care, however. You can want to save humanity, but tell me something Eschaton – have you found a way to do it yet?”
Ryan froze. He didn’t want to admit the answer, but it was written all over his face. He’d been desperately hoping that Nabu would provide him the answer, but Nabu had only given him rules that seemed insurmountable. Their wasn’t an option.
“I didn’t think so.” Bast shook her head in a mockery of sympathy. “It’s time to grow up, Eschaton, and let go of childish dreams. Save my people. You’ll save a fraction of humanity, but you’ll be able to die secure in the knowledge that you did something worthwhile. As my immortal people span the stars, you will be remembered. What else could you ask for?”
That’s it, Ryan thought, a sudden surge of hope shooting through him. That was it. That was the answer. A pure, crystalized moment. “Thank you,” Ryan said simply.
Bast sighed. “I see. You think you’ve figured it out. Well, that’s just wonderful. Unfortunately, it doesn’t change the situation. I want my Hunger removed for myself and my children. You’re going to do it.”
“No, Bast.” Ryan shook his head, a smile forming on his lips. “I figured it out, and there is no way in hell I’m sacrificing the world to save a bunch of man-eating monsters. Even if they didn’t ask for it.”
“I was afraid you would say that.” Bast sighed again, an over dramatic sound laced with sarcasm. “Very well. Then let me incentivise your cooperation. As we speak, a dozen of my children are running towards nearby towns and cities. When they get there, unless I tell them to stop, they care going to start creating as many spawn as they can. They are also going to instruct their new spawn to do the same. I’ve seen the slowest of my children exceed one hundred miles per hour. We can create, each of us, about ten spawn per minute – depending on population density.
“Given time for adjustment and initial feeding, I expect the number will increase by a factor of ten every fifteen minutes once they reach a town or city – and the first wave will always be running to a new population center. America and Mexico will fall to my children in the next six hours. Canada and the northern parts of South America in the twelve hours after that. It might take a bit to reach Eurasia and Africa, but once they do….Even your pet Curator won’t be able to stop them all. Either you cooperate, or humanity dies.”
“You’re a monster,” Ryan said, dread replacing the momentary spot of hope.
“Yes,” Bast said. “And I have all the cards, as they say. So, what will it be, Eschaton? Are you going to save my children, or are you going to doom the world?”
Ryan just stood there, completely frozen, trying to find a solution to an impossible problem. Then he felt a sudden weight on his shoulder. Nabu’s hand. “You and Dianmu take care of bast. She’s wrong. I can stop them all.”
The certainty in Nabu’s voice was unmistakable, and Ryan nodded. “Go.”
Nabu vanished in a flash of light, and Bast’s contorted with rage. “Leave the Eschaton alive,” she commanded.
The cardiophages surged forward.