Small Worlds Part 190

The battlefield Arachne had chosen had changed a great deal in the last five thousand years. Wind swept over rocks that had once been towering spines, but were now smooth and worn from millenia of rain. Oddly enough, humanity had largely left this field untouched. As close as it was to a city as large and old as Athens, Athena had assumed there would be some sign of modernity – a road, a sign, something that showed that this place was still part of the modern world.

In hindsight, it shouldn’t be too surprising. The field was far too rocky to ever be used for farmland, and there were easier places to build a road. Still, it was somewhat unnerving seeing Arachne here in this field out of time. If Athena had been been wearing a peplos and chiton, like Arachne was, it would have been almost like their last fight had happened just days ago.

But time had passed. Athena was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt, the rocks had been worn down, and Arachne’s eyes burned with a determined hatred that Athena had never imagined seeing in her former student’s eyes. “We don’t need to do this now,” Athena said, her voice quiet. “You just got your nanoverse back. You can take time to acclimate to it.”

Arachne’s eyes flared. “I have watched worlds worn to dust in stellar winds. I have wept without the tears you denied me as stars went cold and died, all light and heat lost. I have seen entire solar systems consumed to build spheres bound around singularities, syphoning off the last bit of energy in a dying universe. I have shuddered as the pathetic remnants of civilization tossed what matter they had left to feed the rotational energy of those spheres to extend their existence for a few more eons. And then I have watched everything compressed so it could happen again. And again. And again.”

Arachne thrust her finger against Athena’s breastbone in accusation. “I have waited more years than you can possibly imagine, and the only reason I am even slightly sane is because I imagined this moment. As the universe turned black around me, as entropy reigned supreme, this moment, this battle, was the last bastion of my sanity. I will not delay it for one more attosecond, do you hear me?”

Athena nodded mutely.

“Good.” Arachne turned and counted off ten paces. “The Trial’s rules were quite clear. Twenty paces apart when we started. Count your ten. The battle ends when one of us yields.”

Athena began to count off her steps.

“Oh, and Athena?” Arachne said when Athena reached her destination. Athena turned to face her. “If you don’t give this your all, if you think to ‘let’ me win, I will kill you. I’ll kill you, and I will wait for you to resurrect. Then I will drag you into my nanoverse, and you will spend an eternity as a lizard. I’ll be kinder than you, I’ll turn you into a vertebrate, but you will endure what I endured. And, incase you decide to allow that because you believe you deserve it, because you still arrogantly believe you get to choose what you deserve, I’ll do it to whoever you love most in this universe.”

That last line cut through Athena’s guilt. She clenched her hands into fists. “I thought you didn’t want to wait another attosecond. Or do you intend to taunt me into submission?”

Arachne nodded, as if satisfied with that answer, and then raised her hands and reached out to grab hold of the elements. Athena plunged her hand into her nanoverse to draw a sword, only to find that a thin band of air had clamped around her wrist. How – Athena started to think, but there was no time. Arachne had reached into her nanoverse, pulling out a Gladius, and was charging her.

The weaving Arachne had around her wrist was impressive. It barely used any power, but had Athena firmly clamped in place. Athena was forced to draw a shield from her nanoverse with her free hand to parry Arachne’s blow. Sword clashed against wood bare instants before impact, ringing out with a dull thump in the cool air. Athena stopped trying to break free of the ring around her wrist and instead pulled herself up by it, bringing both her feet off the ground for a double-heeled kick to Arachne’s chest.

Arachne stumbled back, rolling to take some of the impact from the blow. Before she could get her footing back, Athena hurled the shield like a discus at Arachne’s chest. Arachne deflected it with another delicate weaving of air, hardly using any power to create a weak ramp for the shield to ricochet and fly into the air.

It bought Athena the time she needed to break out of the initial clamp on her wrist, freeing her hand and pulling out a sword of her own. It was clear what was going on now. Arachne had barely any raw power, but eons upon eons of running over the lessons she had learned before being locked away. She was like a frail old master who had studied the martial arts for years, no longer able to overpower those younger than him, but knowing exactly how to use what strength he had to maximum effect.

Athena charged Arachne, trying to force this into a melee battle. Arachne could have mentally prepared herself to weave, but wouldn’t have the muscle memory for hand to hand combat. That was the only place Athena would have an advantage.

Arachne had thought of that, however. With a delicate twist of her wrist, she tugged bonds of earth and flame. Athena threw up a barrier of air as the rocks at her feet exploded. Athena felt stone shrapnel bite into her legs and arms – her barrier was weak and hastily formed. It took the brunt of the force, but still sent her staggering to the side. Athena rolled with the impact as best she could, but Arachne kept tugging tiny threads, causing more stones to explode. Athena was battered by the impacts, and couldn’t stop herself from crying out when a splinter of stone embedded itself in her kneecap.

Mere seconds into the fight, and Athena was already falling behind. The fury Athena had seen before in Arachne’s eyes was gone. There was still hatred, but Arachne was not acting out of rage. This was coordinated, controlled. “Get up,” Arachne hissed, stopping the explosions of stone. “You cannot lose this easily. Get up, stop playing games, and fight me.

Athena rose to her feet. “I am fighting,” she spat.

“When I was studying under you, you fought harder than this. Don’t you dare try to tell me this is the best you have.”

Athena reached down and pulled the stone out of her knee, fighting back a cry of pain. “Arachne-”

“Fight me properly or accept the consequences,” Arachne spat.

Athena’s eyes narrowed, remembering Arachne’s threat. Without bothering to continue the banter, she reached out and grabbed threads of Earth and Flame and Fire. Lightning streaked out of the clear sky to strike Arachne, using her sword as a focal point. The flare of light blinded Athena for a moment. “As you wish,” Athena hissed.

Her vision cleared. Arachne stood where the lightning had struck, her free hand raised towards the sky. Between her fingers sat a ball of lightning, the same energy Athena had hurled at her. “That’s better,” Arachne said as Athena gaped in shock. She just caught lightning. How is that even possible?

Athena lept to the side as Arachne hurled the electric sphere. It streaked to the side, passing through the space Athena had just vacated, before it curved through the air and struck Athena in the back. She couldn’t hear her own scream of pain over the thunderclap that followed.

A realization began to settle in as the pain faded. In Athena’s mind, there had been no risk that she would die here. Arachne had never been close to her equal, and even if she was, Anansi would easily be able to step in before things went bad.

That was before she had learned Arachne was fast enough to catch lightning.

Athena rose to her feet and charged with a ferocity she hadn’t expected to feel. As badly as she wanted to atone for what she’d done to Arachne, she realized she wasn’t willing to die for it.

Let’s hope it’s not too late for you to have a choice in that, Athena thought as their swords rang with the clash of steel on steel.

Small Worlds Part 189

The trip back to the core world was done in silence. Anansi attempted a couple times to engage Arachne in conversation, but she just stood there, tensely watching Athena, not saying anything. Athena didn’t think she could blame the woman. Last time they had been in the staging area together, Athena had turned her into a spider and left her trapped. I can only imagine what she’s thinking right now, Athena thought.

“We’re here,” Athena said.

Arachne practically ran out of the staging area. Athena had brought them to Athens, feeling taking Arachne to the city that had once been her home was appropriate. Arachne took a deep breath, then immediately scowled. “What did you do to the air?” she asked, looking over her shoulder at Anansi.

The trickster shrugged and answered. “Assuming you mean ‘you’ in the general sense, a lot has changed while you were gone. Technology has advanced greatly. With it has come pollution.”

Arachne’s scowl deepend. “I’m familiar. It happened whenever a world industrialized in that hell. I just thought it was a reflection of how toxic the universe’s mistress was, not a natural phenomena.”

Athena winced but didn’t try to argue.

“I hear…vehicles?” Arachne frowned. “Yes, vehicles. Once that still burn fossil fuel, from the smell.” Arachne sighed, and shot Athena a glare. “You would bring me out during the worst era of a civilization’s life cycle. At least tell me vaccines are around?”

“Uh,” Anansi said, clearly thrown off his feet a bit by Arachne’s concerns. “Yes, although there’s a movement right now claiming they’re bad.”

“Of course there is. Of course.” Arachne sighed. “Good to know we humans are still capable of immense stupidity. Oh well. Maybe I’ll enjoy this era more being able to participate in it, as opposed to watching it from a web. Have we split the atom?”

Anansi nodded.

“Then we can’t be too far from cold fusion. Things always get better after cold fusion is discovered.”

“Well, we might not get to that point.” Anansi said with a grimace. “It might be the last age of the world.”

Arachne frowned. “Explain,” she said.

“The world is facing a unique apocalypse. The last nanoverse has been found, and the Eschaton has to end the world or the sun will explode. We’re trying to find a way to preserve humanity in the process.”

“You jest,” Arachne said quietly.

“I wish I did.”

Arachne turned her gaze to Athena. “It wasn’t just guilt,” she said softly, studying Athena. “You…you were worried you were out of time. You thought you might not survive, and didn’t want to die with what happened to me weighing on you.”

“And I didn’t want you to die if my nanoverse was destroyed,” Athena said between dry lips.

“Of course you told yourself. Stars of Olympus, is there anything you don’t do out of guilt?” Arachne asked.

Athena turned away, unable to meet Arachne’s gaze anymore. You didn’t do this because you thought it would be easy, she reminded herself.

“What did you tell people happened to me?” Arachne asked.

“I told them…” Athena took a deep breath. “I told them that you outwove me. That you challenged me and bested me, and for that I transformed you into a spider. I wanted to look like the arrogant one, the wrathful one.”

Arachne studied her for a moment, then shook her head. “I’m impressed. You’ve actually convinced yourself of that. Tell me, Athena, when people tell this story, is it a story of your wrath? Of your arrogance? Was the story told with the moral of ‘do not draw Athena’s ire, she’ll turn you into a spider’? Or was the story about my hubris. How I challenged a goddess and was punished for it?”

“I tried to keep the lesson-”

“You are a goddess! I refuse to believe you ‘tried’ to keep it anything and failed.” Arachne’s hands were clenched into fists, the knuckles turning white. The trembled in rage, and Arachne’s back was stiff.

Athena again looked away. Anansi was still nearby, watching with a neutral expression. He probably thinks I deserve this, Athena thought. He’s probably right. Why had it taken her so long to free Arachne? Why had she just left the woman to rot?

“Do you remember my Trial, Athena?” Arachne asked.

“Of course,” Athena whispered, her voice hoarse. “I wanted to teach you…I was trying to teach humility, so I gave you an impossible Trial, to defeat me. You found another way to win.”

Arachne gave her a nod. “I never completed my Trial. I want to, right now. I will not have any ties remaining between us. I will fight you, I will defeat you without any external aid. Then – and only then – do I want to hear more about this supposed apocalypse.” Arachne looked around. “We’ll have to go somewhere else. Are there still empty spaces in this world, where we can fight without collateral.”

Athena nodded. “There’s somewhere nearby. You won’t need to use my staging area to get there.”

“Where is it?”

“The same site of your first attempt. It was always too rocky to be worth building on.”

Arachne nodded and began to set off on foot in the direction Athena indicated. Athena turned to follow, but felt a gentle hand on her elbow before she could start to walk. “Are you sure this is wise?” Anansi asked in a low voice. “Arachne has every reason to want you dead. Or worse.”

Athena calmly shook her elbow free. “It probably isn’t. But it must be done. It’s only right I deal with the consequences of my crime.”

“As you wish.” Anansi turned to follow. “I’ll officiate this fight. Someone needs to. And you will give me your nanoverse to hold for the fight. I refuse to allow you to risk your life, especially right now.”

“And if I don’t?” Athena asked.

“Then I’ll shall chastise you until you eat your heel.”

That got a glimmer of a smile out of Athena. “Very well. Thank you.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out the black sphere, giving it one quick squeeze for power before handing it over to Anansi.

Then she left, heading to a battle that was five millenia overdue.

Small Worlds part 188

Athena raised her hand, putting a barrier between herself and Arachne. Here in her nanoverse, it wasn’t a barrier of anything. It was just a barrier, a spot in the universe through which matter could not pass. A fundamental law. Inviolable for anyone who was not Athena.

Which is why she was completely unprepared when Arachne tore through it like it was paper.

Anansi danced out of Arachne’s path, swinging for her gut with the butt of his flint dagger. Without even pausing, Arachne’s hand snaked down to catch his wrist and fling him aside. When Anansi struck the wall, the stone turned soft to encase him, leaving only his face exposed.

What? Athena thought as she teleported herself out of reach of Arachne’s hands. “Arachne, stop!” she commanded. She erected another barrier, this time encasing Arachne in it like a cocoon. She didn’t just let it stand as before, pouring her will into it.

Arachne strained against the bonds. Athena could feel pain build up behind her eyes, a headache from the effort of restraining someone within her nanoverse.

“No!” Arachne shouted. “You won’t kill me!”

“I’m not here to kill you, I’m here to free you!” Athena shouted.

The pressure against the barrier stopped. The headache began to fade. Athena’s heart did not stop pounding. For as long as she had lived, she’d never imagined anything threatening her in her nanoverse. “What?” Arachne asked, blinking.

“I’m here to free you,” Athena repeated. “It’s…it’s been too long.”

Arachne took a deep breath. “Then release me.”

Athena did so, and at the same time removed the stone barrier from Anansi. Arachne stood there, taking things in. She looked at her hands, flexing the fingers she had not known for trillions of years. “I haven’t had an endocrine system since you locked me in here. Emotions are stronger than I remember.”

Athena relaxed. “I understand.”

Arachne shot her a withering glare. “No, no you do not. Lock yourself as a base animal, one that can barely even reason, for several lifespans of a universe, and then you can say that. Know what it’s like for a single thought to take millennia upon millennia to form, and then you can say that. Endure one tenth of what you have done to me, and then you can say you understand.”

“I…” Athena started to say, and she was grateful for Arachne’s interruption, because she had no idea what she could possibly say.

“I had to relearn how to think, Athena. I have no idea how many millennia, how many universes, I spent as mindless beast. Even once I did figure out how to think, that brain was so weak, so pitifully dominated by instinct, cognition was an effort that took longer than you can imagine. How long has it been, Athena? How long did you lock me in hell?”

“Five millennia,” Athena whispered.

“Five millenia for you. Nanoverses need to be reset every few hundred years or so, don’t they?” Arachne took a deep breath. “Ten universe lifetimes, at least. Hundreds of trillions of years. And now…what? You want to release me? You want to let me go out there, live a mortal life for mere seconds of what I’ve endured, then die?”

“I preserved your nanoverse,” Athena said. “Locked it in temporal stasis in here. It’s unchanged over the time. You’ll still be a goddess.”

Arachne studied Athena, then looked over Anansi. “Who are you?”

Anansi bowed. “I am Anansi. I never was in your land while you were there.”

“And you’re friends with…her?” Arachne asked with a sneer, gesturing towards Athena. “You let her bring you into her nanoverse?”

“Yes,” Anansi said simply. “I trust her.”

Arachne sneered. “So did I. I hope you never learn how foolish that is.”

“I came in here knowing your fate, Arachne,” Anansi said calmly. “I came in here to provide support for Athena as she undid the crime done to you – and to chastise her if she wavered in doing it.”

Both goddesses looked at him in shock. “Chastise?” Arachne asked coolly.

Anansi shrugged. “In here, there was little else that I could do. But I am very good at chastising. I once lectured a python so thoroughly, it swallowed its own tail. I imagine I could have gotten Athena to at least taste her ankle.”

Arachne looked at him, her eyes widening, and then she let out a harsh laugh. “I’d like to see that.”

Athena was at a loss for words. Arachne glanced at her with a raised eyebrow. “I’m not done with you, Pallas Athena. But I am sick to death of this cave. Take me out of here.”

“Of course. My staging area is right outside this cave.”

“My nanoverse?” Arachne asked.

Athena gestured and summoned it to her hand. “Right here.”

Arachne snatched it out of Athena’s fingers and held it close to her chest, starting to walk out of the cave. “Why didn’t you kill me?” Arachne asked, not turning back to look at Athena. “Why this hell? You had every right to slay me permanently under the laws of Olympus. Why did you instead lock me away?”

“I couldn’t kill billions,” Athena said, watching the back of Arachne’s head. “I couldn’t kill all those innocent people in your nanoverse. They did nothing wrong. And…and I failed you. I didn’t believe you deserved death, because the fault was partially mine.”

“Death would have been a kindness,” Arachne said, her voice harsh. “Don’t you dare claim you did it for me. You did it to assuage your guilt.” She glanced down to the nanoverse in her hands. “And for them. I can believe that.”

“I’m sorry,” Athena said.

Arachne whirled on her, pointing a finger at Athena’s face. “No. Your guilt grew strong enough that it forced you to action. You didn’t do this for me. You’ve done none of this for me. I don’t want your apology, Athena.”

“Then what do you want?” Athena asked, her voice soft. “Revenge?”

Arachne glared at her. “And if I did, would you have any right to deny it to me?”

Athena shook her head.

“Good. At least we can agree on that. For now, I want honesty.”

“You will have that,” Athena said.

Arachne spun and talked out of the cave again, seemingly too furious for words.

In silence, Athena followed.

Small Worlds Part 187

 

The locals called the island that housed Arachne Hina’ka’nati, the Island of Broken Night. As they drew close, Athena could get a feeling for how it had earned its name. It was about as large as Sicily. Some ancient meteorological event, a comet or asteroid that had slammed into the island, had carved it into a large crescent. Fitting, Athena thought with a grim expression. The island that had driven Athena to make so many mistakes with Arachne had also been carved by forces powerful enough to crack the land. Those had come from within the earth, though, and this had come from above.

Also, unlike the island Athena knew so well, this one was densely forested. The world being broken up into constant island allowed for a high degree of speciation, and on this particular island a different kind of tree life had evolved. The leaves weren’t green, like on much of the world, but a deep blue bordering on black. They were also covered with spider webs. Huge white strands that stretched across every branch and wrapped every tree. Athena could see spots where the webs were clumped together, holding some meal for later. “There,” Anansi said, pointing to a spot on the island. Athena glanced where he was pointing and nodded.

A cave of dissolved limestone. Webs encircled the entrance, leaving a yawning black hole in the center. It looked like an eye, with the thick circle of strands forming a teardrop shaped iris.

Athena landed her staging area outside the entrance. “Look at those,” Anansi said, his three eyes widening in surprise.

Athena followed his gaze. There were several spots where stones had been deliberately stacked, eight high, and food had been placed at their bases. The stones were painted, and simple wooden designs had been put atop each one. They looked like stylized spiders and were woven with some of the silk from nearby trees. “They’re altars,” Athena said softly.

Anansi glanced at her. “Arachne is just a spider, isn’t she?”

“I thought she was,” Athena sad. “Last I checked she was. But…that was several crunches ago. Things might have changed a great deal.”

“Well,” Anansi said, rubbing his hands together. “This promises to be even more interesting than I expected.”

Athena shot him a dirty look. “I think you should stay here,” she said. “You could be in danger.”

“Oh, I very much doubt that. I’m walking with the literal goddess of this reality.”

“And you go to meet a woman who’s spider form may have gone beyond my supposed omnipotence.”

“Yes.” Anansi’s face grew grim. “One who has a great deal of reason to lash out at you. I think it would be best if you two had an intermediary for your reunion.”

Athena grimaced, but didn’t see a flaw in his argument. “Fine. One thing before we go…” she blink, and Anansi’s clothes changed. He was now garbed in the armor of a warrior from the nearest group to their location, sheets of wood from these black leaved trees that, when shaped and treated with the blood of a fish that swam in the nearby seas, became almost as hard as iron. A flint dagger was strapped to his side.

Anansi nodded in appreciation, unsheathing the dagger from the carapace that contained it. “You are fairly paranoid about this meeting.” he said.

“I’m paranoid about a lot of things. This is one of them.” Athena willed similar armor in existence around herself. “Shall we?”

Anansi answered by heading to the door.

The air outside was crisp and warm, a pleasant breeze keeping the temperature just short of creeping into hot. Waves lapped at the beach in the background, hidden from sight by the webs and unnaturally dark foliage. There was a disconnect to the scent and sounds with the scenery. There won’t be down there, Athena thought, looking at the cave. Now that they were closer, she could see it wasn’t as pitch black as it had seemed from above. There was a bioluminescent blue light emanating from deeper within. It would have been too faint to provide much light to human eyes, but the Skabin had better vision in the dark. Athenea nodded to Anansi, and they headed into the cave, ducking through the teardrop hole in the webbing.

The floor of the cave was covered in additional silk. Athena could feel the way it clung to her feet with every step, individual strands tearing away with every step to follow her feet. The bioluminescence was coming from a moss that was growing in patches along the ceiling, winding its way down stalactites. And on the walls…

…on the walls was art. Not the early art that Athena expected from the Skabin, but beautifully woven pieces of multicolored spider silk. The details were far more fine and intricate than anything Athena had seen before. That wasn’t what made her stop to stare at them.

It was what they depicted.

Here was one that showed the Titanomachy, the moment when Zeus made the final leap that would drive his spear directly through Chronos’ eye. The details were beyond what Athena thought possible to accomplish with mere silk. She could see the mingled pain and rage on Zeus’ face, she could perfect make out Chronos’ astonished fury. The silk behind them even implied the great windstorm that had been raging during that battle, its subtle lines evoking a sense of movement to the air. It was gorgeous, and it shouldn’t have been here.

Athena was so engrossed in it that it wasn’t until Anansi tapped her arm that she realized they were no longer alone in the depths of these caves. A chittering sound came from deeper in the cave. A single chitinous leg emerged from the shadow, a glossy black covered  in fine hairs and as wide as Athena’s leg. A second one followed, and behind them emerged the spider that had once been Arachne, her eight eyes gleaming with an inhuman malice. Venom dripped from her mandibles which clacked together as she drew closer.

“Now would be a good time-” Anansi said, a note of concern creeping into his voice.

He needn’t have bothered with the warming. Athena gestured, and the spider stopped, its eyes widening in surprise. Exoskeleton began to melt away, dissolving into human flesh, human legs emerging from the monstrous ones that had crept out of the darkness.

The whole process took less than a second. Standing there now was Arachne, exactly as Athena remembered her all those millenia ago.

“It’s been some time,” Athena said awkwardly, changing her shape back to one Arachne would know. “Welcome back, Arachne.”

The woman took a deep breath when she saw Athena. Then, with a shriek of primal rage, she hurled herself at Athena’s throat.

Small Worlds Part 186

Stars danced as Athena and Anansi stepped into Athena’s staging area, the doorway clicking shut behind them. “There’s something I don’t understand,” Anansi said as they wove between the pillars. “If Arachne has been in here since the age before even ancient Greece…well, haven’t you had to reset your nanoverse since then?”

Athena pursed her lips. “Yes.”

Anansi waited for Athena to elaborate. When she did not, he sat down on one of the chairs and rested his head on his hands. “How is such a thing possible? I’ve seen and created plenty of impressive life forms in my nanoverse, but never one that could survive the Crunch.”

Athena approached the altar that served as her console, running her hands over the lettering. Ryan had told her that she should modernize the display, take advantage of familiarity with videos and touch screens and keyboards to give her a more flexible control option. He hadn’t understood. Athena had been using this method for controlling her staging area for thousands of years. Trying to learn a new system was like trying to believe a river would flow uphill without a twist to manipulate it.

“I made her existence a fundamental law of reality. She was woven into the fabric as intrinsically as gravity. When the Crunch happens, her experience stops, and it begins again as soon as life has evolved.”

Anansi let out a low whistle, watching the stars begin to move around them with more purpose as Athena navigated them. “That would make her as much as part of your nanoverse as you are.”

Athena nodded. “Before we can recover Arachne, I’ll have to change that. It will be…delicate work. I was very careful to make sure she lived.”

“As a spider this entire time?” Anansi asked.

“Yes.” Athena was glad she could look down at the console to avoid her companion’s gaze. “It’s been…trillions of years from her perspective. She’s lived through dozens of Crunches. A spider’s mind was a filter, a way to keep her mind from snapping. If I hadn’t she would have gone mad.”

“Of course,” Anansi said, and Athena was relieved to note there was no judgement in his voice. No agreement either, just a calm statement of fact. She’d take that right now. “Is that the planet?” he asked as one zoomed into focus.

Athena nodded. It was a beautiful world, a paradise. It always was. This time the world was a mostly oceanic world, peppered with hundreds of islands covered in dense forests. Carefully laid out currents in the oceans carried warm water across the globe, keeping the tropics from becoming too hot and the rest from being too cold, with a few vertical currents carrying cold water down to thermal vents deep in the sea where it would be heated back up. Single biome worlds were the hardest to maintain, but every iteration of her Nanoverse, Athena made sure there was at least one where the entire globe was perfect for spiders.

“Local sentients haven’t developed too far technologically,” Athena said, “although their boating is far ahead of where humanity was at the same technology level. Unsurprising, I suppose. We shouldn’t need to interact with them much, however.” Athena dropped the ship into real space, and the planet’s orbit slowed as they synced up the time streams. She pointed to a tapestry on one of the pillars, that was now showing a vaguely humanoid form with purple skin, long prehensile tails, and a third eye in the center of its forehead. “This group is the dominant ethnic group of them. The Skabin. I’m going to adopt one of their forms.”

“Change me into one, too?” Anansi asked. “I’d like to blend in.”

Athena nodded and changed them both with a simple thought. She could still see hints of Anansi’s features in the three eyed face, and had left traces of her own in her adaptation of the shape. “I’ll also translate for you if we need to interact with them.”

 

Anansi nodded in thanks. “So what do you need to do to…unfix Arachne from the fabric of your nanoverse?”

Athena gave a shaky laugh. “Honestly? I need to be ready for what comes next.”

She earned a sympathetic look for that comment. “Athena. You did a terrible thing to Arachne. You know that.”

“Thanks for that, Anansi.” Athena said with a frown, unable to keep the sarcasm from her voice. “I feel so much better now.”

Anansi held up a finger. “I started that poorly, but wasn’t finished. Yes, you did a terrible thing. But you’re here to make it right. You’re here to correct the error that you made. There is an honor in that.”

Athena drew a ragged breath. “What was I thinking?” she said quietly. “Why did I think this was just?”

“Did you ever, truly?”

Athena paused to consider, then shook her head. “I suppose not. I didn’t think it was just, but after what she did I was supposed to kill her. I couldn’t do that to her, and I couldn’t end all those lives in her nanoverse. This seemed like the gentler option.”

“Then you did it with a good reason, and you did it to protect the innocent. There are worse choices one can make, Gray-Eyed Athena.”

Athena stared at the world, a tropical paradise she’d created over and over again in a variety of forms to ease her guilt. “I don’t think I get to say what I did was okay. I think only Arachne can decide that.”

“I think there is wisdom there,” Anansi said with a kind smile. “However, you have every right to decide that you will not be haunted by what you did, so long as you improve.”

Athena nodded and took another deep breath. “Let’s go planetside.”

 

“Don’t you need to correct how she’s woven into your Nanoverse?” Anansi asked, then nodded in sudden understanding. “No, of course. You just wanted to make sure you had time if you weren’t ready.”

 

“Yes,” Athena said. “I fixed that the moment we entered. Are you ready?”

 

“As long as you are.” Anansi said.

 

“I’m not. I don’t know if I’ll ever be. But I’ve made her wait for aeons for this. I’m not willing to wait any longer.”

 

Anansi nodded in approval, and they headed into the atmosphere to find the lair of a spider who had been a goddess.  

Small Worlds Part 185

Reverend Jeremy Howard pulled himself up, risking another glance out the window. Billy and Sally were still out there, heads closed together, having a whispered conversation. Whatever they were talking about it, it didn’t seem to be going well, not based off of the way Sally was gesturing towards the building that held the refugees or the firm shakes to Billy’s head.

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” Someone said inside.

The Reverend turned to face the speaker. It was Nelly, sitting with her knees curled up to her chin, the shotgun resting across it. “We’re going to die,” she repeated. “We survived the goddamn mummies and the goddamn Antichrist and now we’re going to die to whatever these things are.”

It wasn’t her words that scared the Reverend. Nelly had always been prone to complaining. No, what scared the Reverend was the dull, flat tone. This wasn’t Nelly griping, this wasn’t even Nelly scared. This was Nelly utterly resigned to what was going to happen. Looking around the room, the Reverend saw more of that in the eyes of the huddled mass in the police station. Not fear, not anger, just a hollow look to their eyes. These people had been through hell, and had hit the limit of what the human spirit could endure.

“No, we won’t,” Jeremy said, his voice firm. Those hollow eyes all turned towards him.

“How can you say that, Reverend?” Nelly asked. The Reverend had hoped her voice would pick back up some of that fire at being contradicted, but it was still lifeless. “They’re picking us off that their leisure. We’re…we’re cows, Reverend. They’re keeping us alive because they’re not hungry yet.”

“Better die than become one of those things,” a voice said from the back of the room. There were nods around. The Reverend focused his eyes on the speaker.

“I’m not going to say you’re wrong, John, but you make it sound like there are only those two options.”

“What else can we do? We can’t fight those things, Reverend. We can’t even hit them.”

“We can have faith,” The Reverend said, his voice firm.

“Faith?” Nelly snorted in disbelief. “How can you talk about faith right now? We’ve had faith, Reverend. Lord knows how much faith I had. And look what it brought us!”

“We’re still alive,” The Reverend said.

“So, what?” Nelly snapped, and the Reverend felt relief in the face of her anger. At least she was caring. “You’re trying to say the people who died out there didn’t have strong enough faith? You’re blaming them?”

He shook his head. “No, Nelly,” he said softly. “I’d never dare suggest that. The Lord may be omnipotent, but he does not shield us so directly. We were granted free will, and that means men and women may choose evil.”

“These aren’t men and women!” Nelly stood up now, her eyes blazing. “These are monsters, Reverend. They’re supernatural creatures, they’re demons. They’re beyond us!”

“The Lord works-” Jeremy started to say, and Nelly cut him off with a harsh laugh.

“I swear to God, Reverend, if you say ‘in mysterious ways,’ I’ll shoot you myself.”

Jeremy shook his head. “No. You know I hate that line. It’s a preacher giving up on trying to explain, trying to mollify when no other words will do. The Lord’s ways may be mysterious to us mere men and women, but what I was going to say was that the Lord works through good men and women. The Lord works through our strength, our determination, our faith.”

“So, what are you suggesting? We go out there, guns blazing, and hope because we’re faithful a bunch of demon cat monsters that used to be our friends run away.”

Jeremy shook his head. “We can’t do that. What we do is we hold out, and we trust the Lord to provide the means of our salvation.”

“And what form do you expect this salvation to take? A chior of angles with holy swords? A bunch of knights in shining armor? A goddamn bolt from Heaven?”

“The last time we faced a supernatural threat, the Lord provided.”

That got a stir from the entire crowd. “You’re telling me that you expect the Lord to save us through a false god? Through the damn Antichrist?” Nelly asked.

Jeremy gave her a wide smile. “He did so before. Maybe not Ryan again. Maybe Athena this time. Or that friend of theirs, Crystal. Or maybe it will be another one of these false gods. Perhaps it will be a choir of angels with holy swords.”

The Reverend began to pace, the way he did when he was on the pulpit. “We may live in a time of horrors, unimaginable horrors. But we also live in a time of miracles. The ‘gods’ were men and women, once. The Lord absolutely can still work through their actions, even though they claim to be things they should not. And I don’t believe he’s the Antichrist. I don’t believe any of them are. If any of them were, I believe Enki was the most likely one, and he’s dead now.”

The Reverend began to lock eyes with some of them in turn. “John, when the mummies began to swarm our town, you were up in the bell tower on that old radio of yours, letting people know where the safe zones were. Nelly, you were right there with me. Jim, you held one of those things off with a carving knife and a frying pan. Karen, don’t think I didn’t hear about what you did with that chainsaw, that was mighty impressive and mighty stupid. We were able to hold off long enough for the Lord to send us help.”

“Well, they’re not here,” Nelly said firmly. “I’m not too keen on waiting around for the…for whatever they are to show up and save us. I don’t believe they were sent by the Lord, Reverend. I think we got lucky they showed up for the mummies, and didn’t show up for us. I think if we wait for the Lord to send help, we’re all going to die.”

The Lord helps those who help themselves, the Reverend thought, but didn’t say. He didn’t want to give Nelly the answer. He wanted her to say it herself. “Then what would you rather do?”

“Damnit, Reverend, I don’t know. But I know I’m not going to sit around and wait to die.”

Nods were going around the room, and the Reverend had to hide a smile. The fire was back in their stomachs. They weren’t waiting to die anymore.

He didn’t know if he believed the Lord would sent those false gods to save them. He didn’t know if there was any help coming. But he knew these people had hope again.

For now, that would be enough.

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Small Worlds Part 184

Rear Admiral Dale Bridges was dead. The creature that inhabited his body now vaguely remembered who he had been before, a distant dream of a life spent serving an idea higher than himself. That was still true from the wretch Dale, but that ideal had changed. Now he served Bast, and he loved her with as much passion as he loathed her.

Dale couldn’t remember what the Rear Admiral had served. It was something…something big.

Someone screamed on the street below, drawing Dale’s attention. It was a male, somewhere in that awkward stage between boy and man. He must have been in bed when the assault had started, as he wore only a tank top and flannel pants. The pants were already ripped in places, and the tank top stained with flecks of blood.

The boy was running from some of Bast’s new children. Dale watched as they loped after the boy, swiping at him with claws that could tear flesh and bone with disgusting ease. The boy tripped, and the Children swarmed around him, snarling and biting. He whimpered and swung his hands wildly at them, trying to bat them away.

The Children backed off, letting their prey think it was having some effect. “Please,” the boy said, tears streaming down his face. “Guys, please. It’s me.”

“Guys, please, it’s me,” one of the Children repeated in a high pitched mockery. “That’s how you sound, Jimmy.”

Another one of the Children let out a gagging sound. “Fuck’s sake, Jimmy, did you piss yourself? You smell like piss.”

 

Jimmy’s face scrunched up, and tears began to stream down his face. “Greg, Sammy…c’mon. Don’t…please?”

The third of the Children laughed, a low, growling sound. “You know, Jimmy, we were going to turn you, but…I mean, you pissed yourself. Are we supposed to show you to Bast covered in piss?”

The first, the one Jimmy had called Greg, snorted. “Bryce, you haven’t gotten to eat yet, have you?”

Jimmy turned towards the third Child, the one called Bryce. “No…is that you?”

Bryce shifted, turning into a human. He was well muscled and wore only a pair of boxers, and looked to be four or five years Jimmy’s senior. His skin was wet with blood. “Yup. You were so busy running while these two were eating mom and dad, you forgot to shout a warning to me, Jimmy.”

“Bryce…” the boy sobbed, “Bryce, I didn’t…I was scared, and…”

“I was scared,” the remaining Child, Sammy, repeated in another mockery. “Oh no I was scared. I’m so scared I’m going to piss my pants like a baby.

“Shut up,” Bryce growled, his voice a sharp snap. “I’m talking to my brother.”

Sammy and Greg backed off so Bryce could walk closer to Jimmy. The child looked up at his brother, eyes wet with tears and wide with hope. No, you fool, Dale thought. “Bryce?” Jimmy asked in a voice that waivered.

“You’re my brother Jimmy. I’m gonna give you a choice. You can join us, or you can keep running.”

Jimmy’s eyes widened. “You’ll…you’ll let me run?”

Bryce nodded. “Absolutely, little brother. You can run. It’s night. No one’s on the highway. Other Children might find you. But you can try.”

“Uh…Bryce?” Greg asked, his voice full of confusion. “This isn’t what She want-”

Bryce snarled at Greg, and the feline creature backed down. Even though Bryce was the youngest of the group, it seemed that social bonds from their previous life still held. “It’s my brother. He gets to choose.”

Jimmy stood up to shaky feet. “I’m gonna…thank you.”

Bryce pursed his lips. “You sure about this man? You have no idea how good it feels.”

Jimmy nodded again, tears streaking down his face.

Dale stared at Bryce, shaking with rage. How dare he? It wasn’t just the defiance of Bast. It wasn’t just the gall to believe he knew better than a goddess. This was not supposed to happen. If the boy got to the highway, he might be picked up. He might get to a phone. These days, someone would absolutely believe the boy’s wild claims about monsters in Grant.

Jimmy started to run. Sammy and Greg looked up at Bryce with feral, furious eyes. “She won’t be happy,” Sammy growled.

“I don’t care. I’m not going to eat my own brother.”

Dale didn’t listen to the rest. He pushed his legs against the roof, propelling himself into the air, hurtling like a cannonball. The three Children gaped at him as he flew, but they took no action. Jimmy didn’t even know Dale was coming, not until Dale landed on the pavement in front of him.

Jimmy screamed as Dale reached out and clutched him with fingers far longer than they had once been. Inhuman hands that Dale didn’t recognize anymore.

“I said to let him go!” Bryce shouted.

“Yes,” Dale hissed, holding Jimmy close. “Damn you. Damn you. I didn’t want to this. I didn’t have to do this!”

“Do what?”

With a quick twist of his hands, Dale snapped Jimmy’s neck. The boy fell to the ground, and the three Children looked at him with eyes wide with shock. “What the hell!?” Bryce snarled, stepping forward and shifting into his animalistic form. “He was my brother.

“Yes,” Dale said, his voice quiet. He reached down to brush Jimmy’s hair. “You can still hear his heartbeat, Bryce. I know you can. He’ll live for a few hours before fluid build up kills him…unless you save him. Or feed.”

“Who the hell do you think you are?” Bryce snarled.

“I am our mistress’s favorite chew toy,” Dale spat out, not trying to hide his bitterness. “She’ll never forgive you for killing me.”

“He speaks truth,” said another voice, a voice Dale knew, a voice Dale loathed and loved as much as he did his goddess. Cassandra. “This one is off limits.”

The three cowered before her. She did not look half feral as they did. Cassandra had been a Child so long, and in many ways was something else. Something greater. Her bestial form was as beautiful and terrible as Bast’s. They knew where they stood relative to her.

As Cassandra passed Dale, she patted him on the head like a favored dog.

“Chose, Bryce. Does your brother recieve Her gift, or is he your first meal?”

Dale didn’t wait to see what Bryce chose. Dale didn’t care. He loped off on all fours, horrified at what he had done, horrified at what he had become.

As he ran through the streets, he saw something blowing in the wind. A piece of cloth, red and white stripes with a blue field of stars, attached to a pole. It tugged at some memory, a memory of the Rear Admiral’s, a memory that Dale forced to back to the back of his mind.

Bast had ordered this town be turned or dead, and had ordered that it not be allowed to happen to quickly. Dale would see it done. He would serve. He would obey.

And maybe, if he was very good, Bast would finally grant him the release of death.  

Small Worlds part 183

“Are they still out there?” Ron asked, crouched down beside the window. “Are they still out there?” he repeated, his voice more frantic, not even giving anyone time to answer the first question. The shotgun he held between his legs shook with fear.

Nelly pulled herself up to peer out the window. “Yeah,” she said through gritted teeth.

Ron just moaned in fear. The interior of the Grant, Texas, police station looked like a war zone. Filing cabinets had been pushed up against windows, desks had been moved to bar doors, chairs shoved to the sides. The people inside had hollow, sunken eyes. Reverend Jeremy Howard couldn’t blame them. They’d endured an unimaginable horror earlier this year, the dead rising and razing the town in a war between gods. Just when things were starting to get back to normal, just when people were starting to heal, the horror had come back.

And I don’t even know what it is this time, he thought through gritted teeth. The first time he hadn’t known, not really, but it had been something that he had seen in movies and on tv before. The dead rising and attacking the living. That was a thing that you could think about, something you could understand. This? Whatever it was, it was something worse. He crept closer to the window and peered out.

Two shadows stood under a street lamp, regarding the building. “Come out, come out, wherever you are…” one of them said in a singsong voice.

A voice that the Reverend knew, a voice the Reverend had heard singing Hymns every Sunday. It was Sally. He could almost make her out from here, although it was hard to be sure with the front of her shirt stained with blood, hard to be sure with the massive wound in her chest where something had been torn out of her.

“We should just go in,” the other figure said, a lower, gruffer voice. It had taken a bit longer for the Reverend to identify the voice. Billy, he thought sadly. He’d baptised both these children, and having them standing out there in the night, taunting the figures inside…

The sound of gunfire sent everyone to the ground. Everyone except Ron, who had been the one to shoot. The panicked shot had gone horrendously wild – the Reverend couldn’t even see what he’d managed to hit, but it certainly wasn’t Billy or Sally. “Get down, you idiot!” Nelly said, pulling on the back of Ron’s shirt.

“It’s not right,” Ron said through tears. “It’s not right!”

The reverend tuned him out. Ron was barely holding it together. His wife was still at home, and as far as anyone in town knew, everyone outside this little police station was already did. God, please, if you grant me nothing else ever again as long as you live, please grant that it’s not so, he prayed quietly.

“They’re trying to shoot us,” Billy said to Sally. “We need to,”

“No,” Sally snapped, a harsh note to her voice that the Reverend had never heard before. Sally was a kind girl, a gentle soul. She didn’t snap, and she certainly didn’t sound like that when she was angry. “We wait for her.”

“But I’m hungry,” Billy whined. “You already got to eat, Sally. I still haven’t.”

“And I promised you food, did I not?” said a new voice, prompting the Reverend to peer up over the window again. A woman had joined the two. The Reverend couldn’t make out much about her. Her hair was up in a bun, and she wore some sort of coat, but that was about all he could clearly make out. Her voice, though – it didn’t have an accent the Reverend associated with anyone he knew. It was more Midwestern, with a bit of a clip to it. Somewhere up north, then.

“Who the hell is that?” Nelly asked, peering through the window.

“How the hell are we supposed to know?” Ron snapped. “Some psycho bitch, what else matters?”

“Calm down, Ron,” The Reverend said, motioning for him to lower the gun. “We don’t know what’s going on out there.”

“Calm down?” Ron shouted. “Calm down!? They ate Chaz’s heart, Reverend, and you’re telling me to calm the fuck down!?”

If the figures outside heard or cared about Ron’s outburst, they gave no indication. “Yes, Ron. We can’t do anything for him.” Or for the others. The Reverend had seen the corpses, seen the way their chests had been torn open. He wondered what made Billy and Sally special, why they were still up and walking around. There were others like them, he was sure of it. There were also many more dead.

“You can have one,” the woman outside was saying, causing the Reverend to tense up. “The rest, let them run.”

“We have a whole town to eat, Cassandra,” Sally said. “I don’t know why we have to be careful.”

“Because She commands it.” The Reverend could hear the emphasis on the pronoun. That was why he kept everyone holed up, why he was encouraging them to wait. There was someone else out there, someone behind all this. Just like the Mummies. Why did they have to come back?

“Of course,” Billy said reluctantly. “But…I can get one?”

The woman – Cassandra – nodded. “Only one.”

“Get ready!” The Reverend said firmly. “Billy’s coming.”

The idea that those two words could cause a ripple of fear through the people inside would have caused the Reverend to laugh once upon a time. Billy was about as intimidating as a wet kitten. Or at least, he had been.

When the Reverend glanced up to the street, Billy was gone. “Where is he?” Ron asked. He turned the gun inwards, pointing it around. “He could be anywhere.”

“Jesus, Ron, don’t point that shit at us,” Nelly hissed, ducking when the barrel swung her way. “You want to kill one of-”

A thump came from the roof above them. Ron jerked the shotgun up and fired into the ceiling. Everyone inside screamed and ducked. Ron’s hand shook as he began to reload. “Did I get it? I think I got it! I think-”

Two hands burst out of the ceiling above Ron’s head. They barely looked human – the fingers were too long, and the tips of them ended in hooked claws like a cats. The skin was tight and gaunt. Half of the figure they were attached to came with them, and although the face was grotesquely distorted, like someone had stretched a human face over a cat’s skull, the Reverend recognized Billy’s green eyes.

The hands latched into Ron’s chin, and Ron screamed, a high pitched sound. Several people inside opened fire now that they had a target. Bits of the creature that had once been Billy blew away, and Billy hissed in pain, but he didn’t let go of his prey. Instead, he flew back into the ceiling, dragging Ron by his face.

A few more gunshots were fired, but there was no more target. No one knew where Billy was. Ron’s screams cut off.

In the silence, they could all hear terribly suggestive sounds of something being chewed. “Oh God in heaven,” Nelly said, crossing herself.

Another series of thumps, and more gunfire erupted from the panicked people of the town. They needn’t have wasted the ammo.

It was just Ron’s body, being thrown back into the room. He stared up at the ceiling, his face a wordless scream of pain, a gaping hole torn into his chest.

Billy was back in the street, shifting back into something recognizably human. “They shot me,” he growled at Cassandra.

“And you were able to feed. Don’t worry. We’re not going anywhere anytime soon.” Cassandra reached over and gave Billy an affectionate pat on the shoulder. “She has a plan.”

“It still hurt.”

“Let them hurt,” Cassandra said. “Let them thrash, let them howl, let them scream. They can’t do anything to us, not permanently. Not as long as She protects us. And when this is done…we can finish off the lot of them.”

“What do you want us to do for now?” Sally asked.

“Keep them in there for now. Wait for your new siblings.”

“And if we get hungry?” Sally asked.

“They’ll eventually try to run. You can eat some then.” That last sentence Cassandra said a bit louder. She wanted the people inside to stay right where they were, to know they were safe so long as they didn’t try to run.

Yeah, the Reverend thought grimly, as safe as a lamb in the slaughterhouse.

Backing away from the window, the Reverend started to pray again. It was not right for a man to ask the Almighty for a miracle, but he still did.

Right now, it was their only hope.

Small Worlds Part 182

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There are stretches of highway across America with relatively few rest stops. Places where you can drive for miles upon miles and, if you missed your opportunity to stop, you’d have to wait for quite some time before your next chance arrived.

Grant, Texas, had been home to one such stop. A gas station at the side of the road, one with pumps so old they didn’t even have credit card machines. You had to go in and pre-pay, or you could pump before you paid. A large, red and white sign warned that failing to pay would be met with prosecution.

That sign was now hanging drunkenly off one of the pumps. It hadn’t been fixed, not since it was torn off by one of the Mummies of Ys rampaging through the town. The pumps were dead, and wouldn’t be fixed for months most likely, the hoses torn to shreds by the same mummies and then the wires fried by the Eschaton throwing around balls of lightning that should have, by all rights, burnt the town to the ground.

The military had been through here, some fancy pants Admiral promising to pay to make sure things got rebuilt. Billy remembered that promise well, and had remembered at the time thinking that it was a bunch bullshit. The military didn’t pay for small towns like Grant, and the Government sure as hell didn’t. The town was going to be fine – there’d been enough tourists playing lookee-loo and reporters chasing that Gail woman’s coattails for  a scoop on the gods to bring in hundreds of times the tourism money the town had ever seen – but it was going to be a long time before anyone did any rebuilding here.

At least they’ve gone away, Billy thought. News about these ‘gods’ was the biggest thing to hit the country in his eighteen years of life, and everyone wanted a piece of the action, but most people weren’t willing to drive way out to the Texas sticks to look at the aftermath of the destruction they could wreak when they went all out.

It suited Billy just fine. Damn tourists had trashed the town almost as bad as the damn ‘gods’ and mummies had. And while the gas station wasn’t making any money these days, Billy was still working there, and still making honest money helping get the place cleaned up. “Evenin’ Carl,” he said as he came in. “Any business today?”

Carl shook his head, his face fixed in his perpetually mournful frown. It did seem a bit longer these days. When the tourists had started showing up, Carl had done a brisk business with getting the generator hooked up to keep the fridges running, and selling a bunch of random scraps of cloth as being “genuine” fabrics worn by the Mummies of Ys. Billy hadn’t told anyone that any actual artifacts of the mummies had turned to dust alongside the creatures they’d been attached to, and Carl had given him a dollar an hour raise for his silence. “Looks like the boom’s done, Billy,” Carl said with a sigh.

“Yeah, but between that and the insurance, it wasn’t all bad, right?” Billy’s heart began to skip with sudden fear. “You’re…you’re still gonna be rebuilding, right?”

“Don’t worry, Billy, we’ll be back up and running soon. In fact-” Carl cut out as the bell over the door – an actual brass bell – rang. Sally walked in, and suddenly to Billy, it wouldn’t have mattered if Carl was telling him that the gas station was literally on fire at that exact instant.

Sally Newman, the prettiest thing to happen to Grant Texas – at least as far as Billy was concerned, but he believed it with a fervent passion fueled by teenage hormones.  “Hey Sally,” he said, swallowing a lump in his throat. The door swung open behind her on a gust of wind, and Billy stepped in and caught it before it could catch Sally in the back of the head.

“Thank you, Billy,” she said, giving him a smile that was pure friendship. Some dust blew into the gas station, and a small part of Billy noticed it and knew he’d have to sweep it up later, but for the most part he was fixated on that smile. It was so…dispassionate. Sally, as always, thought of him as nothing other than another nice boy in town. “Daddy, did we get in any of the new magazines?”

That was the other reason things with Sally were difficult, besides Billy being the redundancy that is a socially inept teenage boy around teenage girl. Her dad was Carl, and Carl did not like the idea of any boy from town sniffing around his baby girl. As far as Carl was concerned, Sally was going to be the first Newman to leave Grant and never come back.

Billy might only be eighteen, but he didn’t think that was likely. No one left Grant. Oh, sure, there were exceptions, but they were few and far between.

“Not yet, sweetheart,” Carl said, his face lighting up in warm grin. He only ever seemed to light up around his daughter.

Sally gave an over dramatic sigh. “The cell’s down again. I need something to read.

Somehow, to Billy, she managed to complain prettily. He pulled out his phone to see what she was talking about, and fought back a swear. The attack on Grant had left only one cell tower fully functional, and it wasn’t supporting the load of even a small town particularly well. It went down at least twice a day, sometimes for hours. NetWall was still providing internet to individual homes, although their fiber lines had been badly fried by the electrical storm summoned during the fight, so it was spotty all around.

“Have you tried the bookstore?” Carl asked.

Sally rolled her eyes, and Billy agreed in his soul. Grant’s only bookstore had fallen on hard times with the rise of online books, and Kathy, its owner, was a bitter old woman who did not much care for people who came to browse and not buy. “I’d rather not,” Sally said.

“My truck’s working,” Billy interjected with unexpected boldness. “The Walmart is still open, we could go there.”

“Oh really?” Sally asked with sudden excitement. Billy tried to ignore the daggers Carl was glaring his way as Sally stepped forward. “That’d be amazing.”

“Hang on now,” Carl said in a firm voice. “I think I might have something in the back.”

Billy fought back a sigh as Carl went into the back of the store. He wouldn’t have anything, Billy was sure of that, at least not for Sally to read. He would absolutely have something to keep Billy busy late into the night.

“Well, maybe another time?” Billy said hopefully.

Sally smiled. “Oh, that’s sweet of you. I’d still like to – it’d be nice to get out there anyway.”

Billy felt his heart start to pound with excitement. Was it his imagination, or was her smile a bit less ‘just friendly’ than before? “You think so?”

Sally laughed. “I mean, what else is there to do around here?”

Billy couldn’t argue with that logic. Grant was a boring town. It had gotten pretty exciting for a little bit, but now it was back to normal. At least, as normal as it could after an invasion of mummies swarmed the town.

The silence stretched between them, and in that silence wormed something dark. It happened quite a bit these days. Sally had lost her mother when the mummies had swarmed across the town. Billy had lost his brother and his best friend. No one in town was really processing it, really grieving. In a town of twelve hundred people, a hundred of them dying was too much to process. “So, uh…” Billy started to saying, trying to push back that yawning blackness.

Carl came to the rescue. “Hey, Billy, I…”

His voice trailed off. Billy turned around to look over his shoulder at Carl, and Sally gave her father a curious look.

Carl was standing in the doorway to the back of the station, holding a box. He’d stopped mid speaking, and his mouth hung slightly open, his skin looking ashen and pale. The box was trembling in his hands. “Daddy?” Sally asked, a note of fear in her voice.

Carl’s mouth was moving, like he was trying to form words. A tear formed in his eye, and began to make its way down his cheek, where it joined a thin droplet of blood that was flowing from the corner of his mouth.

The box went tumbling out of his grasp. In the center of his chest, previously hidden by the box, was Carl’s heart, held in the grasp of a blood soaked hand. Billy stared helplessly as the owner of the hand stepped forward, pushing Carl’s body with her, and brought the hand up to her lips. In growing horror, Billy watched as the woman behind Carl took a huge bite out of his heart, her arm still shoved through Carl’s chest cavity. “Oh my,” she whispered as she swallowed the fight bite. “So sweet.”

Sally started to scream.

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Small Worlds Part 181

“Shouldn’t being a god means my wrist doesn’t cramp up from writing?” Ryan said, breaking the silence after what felt like hours. He was getting to the bottom of his form, currently working on the “Urgent Request to Petition Specific Curator 834-G” which was different through forms A-F because of some arcane reason Ryan couldn’t divine. He’d still had to fill out forms A-F even though they didn’t apply to Nabu.

Dianmu grimaced. “If only. Repetitive motions are one thing we aren’t protect against, since it’s about our own strength. At least you’ll never develop a permanent injury from it.”

“Small favors,” Ryan grumbled, signing his name on the bottom of the form. “I think I’m done with my stack.”

“Same,” Dianmu said. She got up and walked over to Ryan’s desk, grabbing his papers off it and adding them to her own. “Now we just have to wait to be processed,” she said, sliding them in the “Insert Paperwork Here When Completed” doorway.

“At least it should be quicker since we’re not standing in line, right?” Ryan asked hopefully.

Dianmu gave him a flat look.

“At least it…won’t add any time since we’re not standing in line?” Ryan tried.

Dianmu’s expression didn’t waiver.

“Goddamnit,” Ryan muttered. “Why have us do extra paperwork if it doesn’t speed anything up in the long term?”

“Paperwork does not exist to make things quicker, Ryan, and certainly doesn’t exist to make it more efficient for the end user. Paperwork exists to do two things – to make things easier for the people at the top, and to make more paperwork. Haven’t you ever had an office job?”

Ryan sighed. “I did, but…I kinda hoped the Curators would be better?”

Dianmu shrugged. “So we’ve got some time to kill. Any Hungers bothering you?”

Ryan shook his head. “You?”

“Not at the moment. Which is probably for the best. You do not want to try to order food on Officium Mundi.”

“Sounds like you speak from experience.”

Dianmu sat back dwn, and wheeled her chair over so they didn’t have to talk across the room. “I do. I was here one time, not long ago, after a fight. I needed information, but I was Hungry. I decided to go to the food court.”

“They have a food court?”

Dianmu nodded. “A few levels down. I decided to get something simple, or so I thought. A hamburger. It required filling out Requisition forms. For the Hamburger as a collective unit. And the cheese. And the bun. And the ketchup. And the mustard. And the oil the burger was cooked in. And for the heat that was being put into the burger. Then I had to fill out a form to authorize assembling the ingredients into the burger.”

Ryan gaped at her. “You’re joking.”

“I wish I was.”

“But…if you already filled out the collective unit form, why the bloody hell was there a form to assemble the ingredients?”

“So they could make sure that what constituted a hamburger also was the same thing I was assembling. So that I couldn’t do anything unsavory with the ingredients and cause mischief. I ended up getting a lukewarm hamburger that I was too Hungry to heat up myself, and there was no way I was even trying to do paperwork for the microwave.”

Ryan shuddered at the thought. “I thought you admired their efficiency?” he asked.

“Oh, no. I just understand the purpose. But I’m still a human, deep under the divinity. You honestly thought I didn’t find it maddening?”

Ryan chuckled in agreement. “So what do you think? An hour? Or two?”

“If we’re luc-” Dianmu started to say, but was cut off by a knock on the door. Ryan and Dianmu shared a glance. “Who is it?” she asked.

“Nabu,” came the voice from the other side. “Mind if I come in?”

Ryan tried not to think too hard about how they were talking through the door when the same door lead to two hundred instances of the same room. “Please, if I don’t have to fill out a form giving you permission,” Ryan said.

Nabu chuckled and opened the door. “I wouldn’t make you do that, Ryan. I think I’ve put you through enough.”

Ryan’s returning laughter wasn’t nearly as warm as Nabu’s. “Thank you for seeing us,” he said, forcing himself to untense. You came here to see him, Ryan, he reminded himself. Why would you flip out the moment he arrived?

Of course, that question had a very obvious answer, at least to Ryan. He’d finally gotten used to Nabu not being there all the time. Not just gotten used to it, he’d started to love it. Some part of his brain was convinced now that, since Ryan was seeing Nabu again, he’d end up stuck with him. That Nabu would never, ever leave, and resume following Ryan silently for the rest of his life – only since Ryan was immortal now, it would be for hundreds or thousands or millions of years. He saw himself in the distant future, the last survivor, as old as Crystal, trying to explain to some new creature what being the Eschaton meant…and Nabu standing there, taking notes in one of those damn notebooks.

Dianmu must have noted his distress, and she took the lead. “Thank you for expediting our forms, Nabu.”

“Like I said, it’s the least I can do. What can we help you with?”

“We’re lost, Nabu,” Ryan said, finally finding his voice. “We don’t…we don’t know how we could possibly end the world without killing everyone on it. I was hoping you could tell us.”

Nabu went stiff. “Ryan,” he said gently. “You know we are expressly forbidden from interfering with that.”

“Yeah, I do. I just think it’s bullshit,” Ryan said, more bluntly than he intended to.

“What Ryan means,” Dianmu said, stepping in diplomatically, “is that while it may be against your regulations, you already did act by sending messages for Enki and Crystal at the beginning of Ryan’s tenure. It’s hard to believe you couldn’t make another exception.”

“Like I said,” Ryan repeated, settling back into his chair, “I think it’s bullshit.”

Dianmu shot him a glare before turning back to Nabu.

“I know it seems that way, Ryan, but that was to discharge a debt. One that you gave to Crystal.”

“She gave it back to me,” Ryan said smoothly. He actually couldn’t remember if she had, but he figured she’d be fine with the lie if she hadn’t. Crystal might have had more time to get used to the Curators than Ryan, but she didn’t seem to tolerate their particular brand of bureaucracy much better.

Nabu pursed his lips in thought. “Nonetheless, there are still limits. Even for that debt.”

“Bullshit,” Dianmu said, drawing startled looks from Ryan and Nabu. “You set precedent, Nabu. Not only that, but you started observing him far earlier than most of us ever had to deal with your kind, and it took him longer to find his nanoverse. That’s different.”

“Not always for the Eschaton. We usually identify candidates for that right at birth. It’s easier since there’s only one nanoverse left to find.”

“You were a lot more helpful last time I was here,” Ryan groused. Nabu regarded him impassively. Ryan frowned in thought. “I…somethings different from last time. What is it?”

Nabu smiled. “And that, Ryan, is the right question. I want to help you. I’m willing to stretch, maybe even break the regulations to help you. But…but I don’t have the answers you need. I don’t know how it’s possible. No sentient species has accomplished it in my sector.”

Ryan sighed. “Great. So we’ve come all this way for nothing.”

Nabu shook his head. “No, not for nothing. You have twelve hours.”

“Twelve hours for what?” Ryan asked, cocking his head in confusion.

Nabu reached into his jacket pocket. “I pulled every string I have left. Here’s all the relevant regulations. All of them. You two need to study them, try to find a loophole.”

“And then?” Dianmu asked, cocking her head in confusion.

“Then you get to argue your place with the High Council. If anyone can assist you, they can. But they won’t listen to pleas from the heart. Before you go and speak with them…we need to find a loophole.”

The stack of papers Nabu pulled of his jacket was impossibly large. Thousand upon thousands of pages. Ryan took a deep breath, and nodded. “It’s a good thing we don’t need to sleep. Let’s get to work.”

The three of them settled in to do exactly that.