Small Worlds Part 274

Both sides of the fight had thrown up barriers to cut the other one off. Crystal was maintaining a complicated wall of water and air that was being backed by a field Ryan had created, an entire region of air where the equation for velocity had a negative sign slapped into it, so anything that got through Crystal’s field would head back in the other direction. He couldn’t see the equations the super soldiers were using.

“We can outlast them,” Horus said. “My and Crystal’s power can be used more efficiently, which will bring their Hungers into effect first.”

“I don’t think we can count on starving them out,” Ryan gasped. He wrapped a bandage around his hand. “I can barely concentrate with my hand like this.”

“That is why I said it would be up to crystal and I.” Horus shook his head. “You need to quit the field. Before you die.”

“Can’t,” Ryan said.

“This is no time for grandstanding, Eschaton.” Horus snapped the words, and his eyes narrowed into a firm glare. “You may be more competent than I thought, but you are badly injured and are still Nascent. If you die-”

“I don’t need the reminder!” Ryan didn’t mean to shout, but he was getting tired of people reminding him that at any moment he could die permanently. “But right now I’m the only thing keeping that nuke from going off, and if I let go of that twist it’ll be armed again.”

“Nuke?” Horus asked.

Crystal started to respond, but she was drowned out by a hail of gunfire from the other side. Equations were backing these bullets, and they came at Crystal’s barrier so fast that by the time they reached the water, they were blobs of superheated plasma. The particles detonated upon impact with Ryan’s impossible laws, sending force pouring away but still allowing heat in. Horus’ quick thinking and twist stopped them all from catching on fire.

“Nuke,” Ryan repeated. “Can you hit them back?”

Horus raised his guns into the air and let loose, the huge slugs flying away. He was already twisting himself. The bullets, now drawn to the super soldiers as their direct ‘down’, began to fall from the sky. “You didn’t mention a nuclear weapon.”

“If I’d known, I promise, that would have come up sooner.” The super soldiers had to take power from their front facing barrier to block Horus’ ballistic strike. “I’ve turned the firing mechanism into a block of carbon, but if I stop that twist…”

“I understand.” Horus thought for a second. “What about-”

“Not until Kali shows,” Ryan said, growling the word. “The whole point was to flush her-”

“Nice try!” Evans shouted from the other side of the park. “But you can’t hide there forever. In fact, I don’t think I’m going to allow that to happen.” Ryan could barely make him out through the twin barriers, but it was enough to see him turn towards the crowd and raise his weapon.

“No!” Ryan shouted, twisting. The barrier of negative velocity condensed into a sphere, and Ryan hurled it towards Evans. It warped the air like a heat ripple as it flew, air molecules suddenly finding themselves going the other direction when they impacted it. That negative direction meant the barrier the super soldiers had erected offered no resistance as it passed through. If it had hit Evans, it would have done the same to his torso.

If. Arnold had been watching the attack, and he shoved his commander out of the way. It flew past Evans and Ryan had to let it disperse before it hit the crowd.

Munoz opened fire with hyper-accelerated rounds. This time, without Ryan’s barrier, all they had was Crystal’s water to blunt the attack. Water that turned to plasma upon impact. Everything went white and Ryan howled in pain as the flames washed over him.

The world started to clear. Horus twisted reality again to put out the lingering flames. Crystal was still standing, defiant even as wisps of smoke curled from her clothes and her cheeks blistered. Horus shook himself free of ash, the back of his hands cracked and burned. Ryan could feel the burns were worst on his shins, and looking down he could see that the denim of his jeans was fused to burnt flesh.

“We can’t wait anymore!” Horus growled.

He was right. “We need backup!” Ryan shouted.

Evans sneered. “You already pulled in your support. You’re alone and-”

His were drowned out by a flash of light and clap of thunder. Spots danced in Ryan’s vision, and when they cleared he could see Evans standing stiff, his hair standing on end. Thin bands of smoke curled off his uniform.

Lakshmi on a rooftop, wearing a functional jeans and t-shirt combination, electricity dancing from her fingertips.

Munoz whirled to face the new threat, unloading a new barrage of gunfire that accelerated into plasma. Lakshmi whirled and ducked, a graceful motion that sent the plasma balls flying over her head as she dove from the roof and lowered herself to the ground on a twist that slowed her fall. The plasma balls streaked into the sky, and then curved as a new set of twists intercepted them. Munoz had to dive out of the way as they streaked back to the point of origin, the plasma detonating when it struck the solid earth she’d just been standing on.

Ryan’s eyes went to a different rooftop where a figure stood, clad in red and gold silk. He held a staff that ended in three rings with his nanoverse fixed firmly into the center. Even from this distance the elongated jaw and hairsuite nature made it clear this wasn’t a human. In spite of his upright posture, this was a member of Pan troglodytes, also known as the common chimpanzee. One of the few sentient non-humans to have ever found and claimed a nanoverse.

Son Wukong, the Monkey King.

He raised his staff in acknowledgement of Ryan’s gaze, and his eyes glinted with mischief. A cloud gathered above him, twist that he and Lakshmi had arranged together, a combined storm that sent hungry bolts of lightning towards the super soldiers.

Now it was their turn to be on the defensive. Horus unleashed a barrage of gunfire to add to the hungering storm gathering in the air, and Crystal pulled knives from her nanoverse and hurled them towards their opponents in rapid succession, adding a variant of Athena’s sword accelerating toss to each throw. The super soldiers threw up a three-pronged barrier of air, stone, and inverted equations to blunt the force of the attack, but now it was five on three in Ryan’s favor. Well, four on three. Much as he wanted to join the assault, Ryan was already feeling his stomach start to growl form the effort of keeping the nuclear device contained. He could cause the bomb to disassemble and turn the fissile materials into a gas so they’d dissipate, but as soon as that was over there would be radioactive materials spread across the park – possibly even into the panicked, densely packed crowd. Ironically the bomb was the only thing preventing the harmful radiation from spreading.

No. He had to maintain his hold on it for now.

And what if your power runs out? 

It was a terrible question to have to ask himself, but in the reflected glow of his allies’  attacks slamming into the super soldier’s barrier, he had to ask it. As terrible as it would be…given the option between letting them detonate a nuke and risking irradiating the crowd, Ryan would have to choose the latter.

He could only pray it wouldn’t come to that.

That terrible thought was what kept him from giving his full attention to the battle, so he was the only one who noticed it when the air was rent asunder. This was no normal doorway to a nanoverse, but an actual tear in reality, a sucking wormhole that blotted out all light. Air began to rush into the exposed vacuum, tugging on Ryan’s shirt.

A wave of impossible black fire leapt from the torn place. Ryan threw up a hasty barrier to stop the attack, but when it met his equations the fire burned them away, he howled as a burning sensation crept into his mind through the twists.

Kali stepped out of the wormhole, the Staff of Ra held forward.

“Well. I do believe this is finally everyone,” she said. “Cease fighting and surrender, Eschaton. Do not make this harder than it has to be.”

Small Worlds Part 273

The firing mechanism of the nuclear warhead turned to simple carbon under Ryan’s manipulation. He barely finished the twist to reality before Munoz levelled her rifle at Ryan. Where did that even come from? The thought was irrelevant and barely started before Ryan dove to the side, rolling away from the hail of bullets. He threw out another twist with the roll, and a barrier of solid air stopped the gunfire from punching into the now panicked crowd. He pulled the barrier with him as he moved, intercepting gunfire that was just barely missing him.

Crystal lunged at Munoz, her sword swinging towards the soldier’s neck. Munoz ducked under the blow, but had to stop shooting at Crystal pressed the attack. Ryan flicked his wrist, turning the wall of air into a blade and sending it streaking towards Munoz. She held out a hand and casually caught the air blade with a twist of her own, but couldn’t respond in kind. Not with Crystal’s blade always just inches from her body.

Ryan began to gather another twist, but was driven to the ground when something slammed into his back. He felt the air knocked out of his lungs and tasted dirt before he could properly register what had happened, and by then there was already a foot on his spine, pushing him into the ground.

“Nope,” the owner of the foot said. “You’re not pulling any crap right now.”

Ryan recognized the voice. Arnold. He stopped trying to push his face out of the dirt and instead grabbed threads of reality, desperately twisting. I really hope that shoe has a rubber sole, Ryan thought.

A deafening crack split the air, and the pressure on Ryan’s back lessened. He pushed himself up, the smell of dirt being replaced with ozone. Arnold was still standing, but smoke rose from his body and his hair was standing up wild, making him look like a mad scientist with a machine gun. He was blinking his eyes, trying to clear his head. Ryan didn’t give him the chance. He lashed out with a quick kick to Arnold’s stomach, sending the man stumbling back.

He would have followed up the attack, but once again his attention was diverted by the arrival of a new attacker. This one came in the form of a fireball streaking towards Ryan. Ryan twisted had, pulling water out of the air to form a barrier. Steam erupted from where water and fire met, and Ryan cried out as superheated steam worked its way up his arms.

A quick twist chilled the steam to mist, and Ryan dove into the protective covering it offered. Evans. That made all three of the surviving super soldiers, already here. He could hear the sound of steel on steel that indicated Crystal and Diane were still fighting, and after reactivating his divine sight he confirmed that with his own eyes. Arnold was still in the cloud with him, brushing off his shirt.

“Nice moves, kid,” he said, looking around blankly. He doesn’t know how to use his divine sight yet. Ryan dropped into a crouch and began to creep closer to Arnold. If he could get him while he was blind, he could even the odds. “You’ve gotten better since the last time we fought.”

Oh, you have no idea. Ryan reached into his nanoverse and pulled out a sword. This one was unnaturally heavy, with a core of some substance that weighed it down. For a human, it would be near impossible to swing. For a god, it was just about perfect. Ryan tensed his legs and then sprung forward silently, sword raised over his head.

Arnold whirled and stepped forward into the blow, so instead of the sword coming down on his head Ryan’s elbow landed on his shoulder. Before Ryan could react to this change of pace, Arnold’s hand closed in around his neck. “But you never did learn to stay down.” He picked Ryan up and, still holding him by the neck, slammed him into the Earth. “Or how to tell when someone’s bluffing.”

Ryan could feel the need for air building up in his lungs. So many twist in such a short time, he was already at the first hunger. He flipped his grip on the sword and, to Arnold’s surprise, rammed the blade into his opponent’s forearm. Arnold screamed at the pain and let loose his grip on Ryan’s neck, and Ryan stood back up, his back a mass of pain, gathering together threads of reality for a new twist. “You still talk too much,” Ryan said.

Or at least, he tried to. He got out “you” and “still,” but in the brief instant between that and “talk,” his hand exploded in pain. Ryan screamed dropped to the ground, not driven by any combat reflex. His knees just refused to let him still be standing, and for the third time in under a minute, Ryan was down. He looked at his hand, trying to figure out what had happened.

It took a moment for his brain to process what it was seeing. The ring finger on that hand was gone, completely obliterated by an attack Ryan hadn’t even seen coming. He gritted his teeth against the screams and twisted a surge of heat to cauterize the wound.

“About now would be really goddamn good!” Ryan shouted.

That seemed to puzzle his opponents, or at least make them stop short in their advance. Evans had come out of the crowd and switched to a sword of his own. Arnold was pulling Ryan’s sword out of his arm, a movement that made a horrible sound. They were both focused on him completely.

Which meant Evans was completely off guard when Horus descended from the sky, talons outstretched. Those talons raked red lines across Evans’ face. Horus didn’t quite manage to take out one of the super-soldier’s eyes, but blood still poured from the injuries, blocking Evans’ vision.

“Took you long enough,” Ryan growled, his vision still blurred by pain. That will grow back, right? My face grew back after Ross shot it off. The stump where his finger had been throbbed in response.

Horus shifted to human form and skidded to a stop, pulling some kind of high caliber automatic weapon from his nanoverse with one hand and twisting reality with the other. He didn’t target either of the distracted super soldiers, instead setting his sights on Munoz and opening fire. The guns roared like thunder. Munoz was able to dodge out of the way, forcing her apart from Crystal, and the bullets were caught on the web of air Horus had woven.

“Ryan!” Crystal said, taking the break to rush over to him. She was sporting a black eye but otherwise seemed unharmed. “Shit, love, your hand.”

“I’ll live,” Ryan managed to gasp. “Thanks for the save, Horus. It’s good to see you again”

Horus just gave him a curt nod. “I count three,” he said.

“Yeah,” Ryan muttered the word. Where is she? 

Three on three. Last time they’d fought the super soldiers, it had been six on four and Ryan and co had barely made it out alive. If Ryan didn’t have another ace up his sleeve, he’d be panicking right now.

Instead, what he felt was a growing terror that even that wouldn’t be enough.

Small Worlds Part 272

“They should have showed by now,” Ryan said in a quiet whisper to Crystal. Well, as quiet as was possible with the bustle of humanity around them. It had been hours, and the crowd had barely begun to diminish. Even with Isabel’s Lotus Eaters keeping them calm, they were hardly being quiet. There was a general sense of subdued panic running through the crowd, as if all of them were holding back from becoming a shrieking mess by sheer collective force of will. It carried in the buzz of their conversations, the tension in their shoulders, the way almost every person that walked through the wormhole would look back over their shoulder one last time. A child was crying somewhere. More than one, but there was one Ryan couldn’t help but hear. He or she – at that age, it was hard to tell – was muffled, their face pressed into their fathers chest. They were repeating a single word between sobs, over and over. It was in German, but Ryan could still understand it.

“Goodbye…goodbye.”

Ryan took a ragged breath as the sound of their cries faded through the wormhole. He had a feeling that, decades and centuries from now, when he pushed himself to the point he needed to feed the need for sleep, he’d hear that child’s cry in whatever dreams awaited him. “They should have showed by now,” Ryan repeated, a bit louder, trying to drown out the thought. “It’s been six hours.”

“They might be waiting for us to drop our guard,” Crystal said, squinting at the mob. She had been oddly quiet the entire time, and Ryan had left her to her thoughts. Given everything, he couldn’t imagine there was anything good going through her mind at the moment. Was she picturing Leumrians and Atlanteans and the rest of the people she couldn’t save, going through like this? If she wants to talk about it, she can. Instead, Crystal continued her earlier thought. “Kali doesn’t need to rush. If she uses the wormholes to destroy Earth like we fear, where’s that molten rock going to go?”

Ryan staggered like she’d dropped a heavy load on his back. In way, that’s exactly what she had done. “That…hadn’t even occurred to me.” He could see it now. The people they were evacuating, standing near the wormholes, waiting for more people to come through. Instead, molten rock began to pour through, slow at first, but faster and faster as it reached the high pressure points at the Earth’s core. Then, even liquid metal would flow like a geyser, flooding the new world and encasing it in Earth’s remains. The immense heat would cook the atmosphere clean, suffocating any survivors.

“Sorry to be the bearer of bad news,” Crystal said. She smiled, but it was painfully forced. “Cheer up. The more people we get through, the less viable that plan becomes. Worst case scenario we can all fall back through the portals and seal them on that side. She knows that. So she’ll be here. But for the moment, time is still on her side.”

Ryan laughed, a short and harsh sound. “Oh, good, at least there’s that.”

Crystal raised an eyebrow at him. “Want to tell me what you’re really thinking?”

“Sorry, I just…it feels like it never ends. There’s always one thing after another. I just want it to get easier. But every time I turn around theres some new horror waiting for me. It’s…I don’t know how to handle it.”

“We’re almost there, love,” Crystal said, putting a hand on his shoulder and squeezing. “We’re gonna get through this. Just have to hold up a bit longer. You’ve done a bloody good job keeping it up since we started this. Just a little bit more.”

Ryan nodded. “Thanks. I just…no, you’re right. Thanks.”

The two gods lapsed into silence again. Minutes ticked by. People shuffled through the portal, their eyes hollow and fearful. Mostly. Ryan made himself focus on them more. Put aside his own fear and worry. Focus on what was actually happening.

Yes, there was fear. Yes, there was anxiety. But there was also determination. A few even held excitement. The unknown loomed in front of these people, but not all of them saw it as a bad thing.

It was a reminder Ryan desperately needed. No matter how it looked sometimes, humanity was not some monolithic entity that stood for or against anything. It was a collection of people, full of their own individual hopes and dreams. “Humanity” was nothing more than a statistical artifact from looking at a large group. “People” were reality, and the people in front of him were going to be okay. Humanity would change. These people would change. But they would still be here.

As long as he had anything to say about it.

The newfound focus on individuals let Ryan see something. A woman ahead. He would have overlooked her only minutes ago, just another refugee in the crowd. She wore a dark green jacket, military colors. She had a similarly colored cap down low over her eyes, and a dufflebag thrown over her shoulder. Nothing in particular stood out about her…except for that dufflebag.

Everyone was clutching their luggage like it was a lifeline. Knuckles were white around handles. People were holding bags to their chests. Even people wearing backpacks had fingers wrapped around straps for extra support. These people were carrying everything they could safely bring to this new world, the relics of a life they would never have again, and they were protective of them.

Not this woman. The dufflebag was idly draped over her shoulder, just two fingers through the straps. It didn’t look like she was carrying the sum of all her worldly goods, it looked like she was taking out the trash. “Crystal,” Ryan said, already moving towards his target.

Crystal set off after him, scanning the crowd.

“Hey, ma’am?” Ryan asked. “Ma’am! Frauline?”

The woman came to a halt. “Damn. Was almost there, too. You don’t need to attempt german, by the way. I can understand no matter what language you speak, and your accent is atrocious.” She had stopped moving, but she also didn’t turn around.

Crystal held out her hand. With a quick twist, the air around the three of them shot up to a brisk one hundred and fifty degrees. People started to shout and push away. “I know that voice,” Crystal said through gritted teeth.

Ryan nodded, his mouth dry. He held up his hands, adding a high pitched hum to the air, encouraging people to move away even faster, and turned on his divine sight.

He saw exactly what he expected to see. It was wrapped around her chest and back, same as he remembered, coiled like a serpent. The harness that he’d seen so long ago. The equations around it were different, however. There’d been upgrades. That wasn’t what drew his attention though. Nor was it the strange equations that rolled in the center of her harness, equations that seemed familiar but corresponded to no math Ryan had ever seen before.

No, what drew his attention was the contents of her duffle bag. Complex machinery aside, what he couldn’t miss was the atomic numbers of the element at the center of the mess.

Ninety two protons for one, ninety four for the other. Uranium and plutonium.

The ingredients in a nuclear warhead.

Ryan’s blood ran cold as Diane Munoz turned around and raised her head to smile at Crystal and Ryan. She dropped the dufflebag to the ground carelessly. “Heard you used a nuke to wipe out Enki. Let’s see what this one does to you, yeah?”

Ryan didn’t waste time with banter. He was already moving, twisting, desperately trying to disable the nuke before it could go off.

And, in the back of his mind, he couldn’t help but wonder where the rest of the super-soldiers were.

Small Worlds Part 271

Ryan and Crystal watched the stream of humanity pouring into the wormhole from the only empty space remaining in the Volksgarten, a stretch of grassy field that was perfectly manicured and would by, by the end of the day, the only part of the entire park not crushed under millions of footsteps. Well, Ryan was watching. Crystal was twisting, pulling up stone from beneath the dirt and welding it in place to create barriers to try and keep the damage of the impending fight away from the crowd.

“Are you sure you don’t need my help?” Ryan asked.

“I’ve got this, love, don’t worry. You just keep an eye out for our dance partners, yeah?” Crystal wiped sweat from her forehead and took a deep breath, giving lie to her words.

“You’re going to be drained by the time they get here at this rate,” Ryan said.

“Nah. I’m just needing air right now, not even at thirst yet.” Crystal gave him what he was sure was meant to be a reassuring smile, but her eyes betrayed her. They was a haunted look behind them.

“Crystal…” Ryan started to say, but Crystal cut him off.

“Ryan, you’re still Nascent. Remember? Kali shows up and you’re not at full power, you could die permanently. I die? As long as you get my nanoverse out of here, there’s no risk of permanence. I’ll be out for the rest of the fight unless I get a really clean death, but I’ll be fine. You…this could be it for you.”

“That’s been the case since we started,” Ryan said. Crystal did a double take, and Ryan couldn’t stop himself from letting out a genuine smile for the first time in what felt like days. “I’m not saying I want to die or that I’m okay with dying, I’ve got a lot left to do…but that isn’t new. Every fight we’ve been in, I’ve been nascent. At least this time the wormholes are made. People are going though. Hell, we’ve got millions through already. If I go down-”

“-I won’t let that happen,” Crystal interjected.

“Crystal, please, let me finish.” Crystal looked surprised, and Ryan couldn’t blame her. Since they’d met, had he ever asked for that? If he had, he couldn’t remember it. “I’m not saying I want to die. But it doesn’t matter on the big, planetary scale at this point anymore. If I die, the rest of you can keep the fight going. They can keep evacuating people, save as many people as possible.”

“So…what are you saying?” Crystal said, after giving Ryan a moment to make sure he was finished.

“That you don’t need to be afraid for me anymore. That, if anything happens, we did it. You did it. I never could have gotten this far without you, and humanity isn’t doomed anymore. So…you don’t need to stress about my well being anymore. Let me worry about that, okay?”

Crystal studied Ryan’s face with an unreadable expression. “You said everything about that?”

Ryan nodded and smiled.

“Good. I just want to make sure I’m not interrupting you when I do this.”

“Do what?”

Crystal answered by smacking him in the back of the head, hard enough to sting but not too much to hurt. “You’re a bloody git, Ryan Smith.”

“Ow, what the hell?” Ryan rubbed the back of his head. “I thought you’d be glad about all that!”

“I am,” Crystal said, but her eyes flashed with anger. “Bloody hell, it’s the biggest relief I’ve had since…since everything died last time. But I’ll be damned if that means I stop worrying about you, you absolute wanker. You think I’ve just worried about you because I wanted to finish the job? That hasn’t been true since…well, I won’t say the first few days, because I’m not going to lie about that, but at least since Graham Island. I worry about you dying because I don’t want you to die. So that means you conserve your power to decrease the chances you die until you finish Apotheosis, and you get my nanoverse out of here if I end up dying. I need you to get out of this alive because I care about you, even if you’re a twit.”

Something in Crystal’s anger got through to Ryan, and he found himself having to blink back tears. Outside of Isabel…Ryan didn’t think he could remember the last time someone had straight up told him it mattered if he lived or died. Not on his own merit. For months now it had been about if he was going to save the world or not. Hearing this…he wanted to give her a hug. Instead, what he could give her right now was a joke. “And because Isabel and Athena will kill you if you let me die.”

Crystal studied his face for a moment. Apparently, she liked what she saw there, because some of the tension drained away. “And because of that, yeah. I honestly don’t know which one I should worry about more.”

“Honestly?” Ryan said. “I’ve seen Athena take down a Linnorm and run a sword through a downed foe because she was pissed off. Having seen that, I’d say…you should absolutely be more afraid of Isabel.”

Crystal snorted. “You’re probably right. Athena could only kill me. Your sister is bloody creative.”

“Damn right I am,” Isabel chimed in on the comms. “Sorry, I came back just in time to hear I was scarier than Athena for some reason, and had to comment.”

“Isabel,” Ryan said, his heart spiking. “How’s it going elsehwere.”

“Good news is, no sign of Kali yet. Bad news…the Asgard has jumped in. Anansi’s pinned down by Loki in Accra, Freya and Athena are going at it in Tokyo, and Dianmu and Cassandra are dealing with a quintet of Valkyries in Hyderabad. They’re just sending one person per portal, though. I think they’re just trying to keep us from being able to focus on one place. The good news is that means they’re not concentrating their forces yet either. Chernobog and the Slavic deities are hopping around to provide relief, and a few portals are pretty much untouched. We can’t take the Olympians or Caaninites away from them though, otherwise we’ll leave something wide open. We’ve got it under control for now, but…”

“…but it’s exactly what we were afraid of.” Ryan finished for her. “Any signs of the super soldiers?”

“Negative.”

“Which means they’re probably with Kali. Great. Isabel, what are they targeting?”

“The portals and the gods,” Isabel said, knowing where Ryan was going with the questions. “Civilian casualties have been minimal. I’m not sure if it’s just because they are focusing on the biggest threat or aren’t interested in wholesale slaughter, but either way it’s been pretty contained. With crowds this dense though…” Isabel’s voice hitched, and Ryan didn’t want to try and imagine what horrors she’s seen through the unblinking cameras of her drones.

“Thank you for the update, Isabel.” Ryan knew his sister. If she wanted anything right now, it would be a few quiet minutes to process or a chance to talk to someone one on one. “Let me know if you see any of the soldiers – and if anyone’s portal clears up and they’re still fit to fight, send them our way.”

“Will do,” Isabel said, and he voice cracked on the words. “Crystal, can I borrow you for a minute?”

“Sure thing, love. I’ll switch to private channel.” Crystal gave him a quick nod and stepped away. She was working on the barrier again and Ryan did his best not to eavesdrop, but overall he could still make out her reassuring tone.

“Ryan!” a voice shouted from the crowd, drawing his attention.

Ryan glanced towards the voice. Jaqueline. He jogged over to her. “Hey there!”

“Ryan, this is my husband, Kevin. Kevin, this is Ryan.”

Kevin was a good looking guy. Clean cut, wearing jeans a T-shirt. The kind of guy whose mere presence helped make it look like this line was to get into a football game, not an evacuation for an entire planet. He offered Ryan a hand. “Thank you,” he said. “For getting us out first.”

I’m using you as bait for a trap for a monster again, and I’m going to leverage you for political benefit if this goes south. Ryan shook Kevin’s hand. “I’m allowed to make things a bit personal, even with lives on the line.”

Jaqueline smiled and mouthed her gratitude as well, but the crowd was moving, and Ryan didn’t want to hold up the line. The meeting Ryan had been hoping for had served its purpose. People had seen, so if Ryan needed to leverage them, there would be people who were able to back his claim.

The fact that it was a huge relief to see they were going to be safe was just a coincidence.

He could almost convince himself of that if he really tried.

Small Worlds Part 270

“I don’t like this, Ryan.” Isabel’s voice was coming in loud and clear through the radio device resting in Ryan’s ear.

“Really? You don’t? I wouldn’t have picked that up from the last dozen types you’ve mentioned it.” Ryan couldn’t help himself with the sarcasm. “Look, Isabel, it’s a risk, but it’s a calculated one. We can do this phase without the military cooperation we wanted. It’s just a couple dozen cities. Tomorrow we’re doing almost a hundred. We need the UN’s support. If Lakshimi’s on the level, her help will come in handy. If she’s not, this is the ideal time to stab us in the back, prove it, and convince the Secretary General that we’re the ones she should be trusting. Either way, it’s a win for us.”

“Except for the part where the backstabbing happens,” Isabel said. “You do get that’s a pretty big flaw in your plan, right? Also the part where she might not betray us today?”

“For the first part…we’ve done what we can to mitigate that risk.” Ryan looked around. He’d never been to Austria before. Prior to becoming a god, he’d never been out of America even. The Volksgarten in Salzburg looked like it would be a beautiful place normally. The park was well maintained, and the fountain in the center of the lake sent shimmering droplets dancing in the sun. He was certain it was normally a place of peace.

Normally.

“For the second part…with the portals today, we’re getting a hundred million people offworld. Tomorrow, we’re going to be close to five hundred million. Kali isn’t going to want to risk giving us that chance. If she has Lakshimi as some kind of, I dunno, double agent mole thing, she’s going to pull the trigger on it.”

It was hard to hear Isabel’s response over the growing shouts of the crowd, mixed in with the barking of dogs and the yowls of cats and the wails of children. Austria’s population was close to nine million. The easternmost part of the country would be evacuated tomorrow with Vienna, the westernmost part with Liechtenstein was going later when they evacuated Switzerland through Zurich. That had cut down the number of people significantly, closer to five million, but there were still five million people being held back from the park by what looked like every police officer in the country. The military was further out there, keeping order throughout the city. The crowd stretched back further than the eye could see.

“It’s a miracle we haven’t had a riot,” Ryan said, more to himself than to Isabel.

“Not a miracle. You can thank me for that.” Isabel said.

“Isabel, is that smugness I hear?”

“A bit,” she admitted. “Idea came to me at the eleventh hour, and Artemis was able to make it happen. We have Lotus-eaters, from the Odyssey, out there in the crowd. The sleep lotuses? They’re dispersing it as an aerosol. Low grade magic dispersed like that, muting everyone’s panic with a peaceful drowsiness. We’ll have to get more peace inducing creatures for the future, but for right now they’re at every wormhole.”

“You’re drugging everyone with magic flower people?” Ryan asked.

“What? Would you prefer that I let normal human nature take over and have a mass panic on our hands? Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures and all that.”

“No, no, I’m not mad. I’m impressed. I was kind of assuming the panic would happen at some point.”

Isabel laughed. “Well, I think of everything. Speaking of which, we have soldiers and police in place around the park with the scanners checking for culture icons. Assuming we operate at about three fours of our ideal speed, we should be able to process about seven thousand people every minute. That means we’re going to get everyone here through the wormhole in twelve hours. Are you ready to start?”

Ryan nodded, then reminded himself Isabel couldn’t see him. Feeling stupid, he said, “I’m ready. Are the others in position?”

“Yes,” Isabel said. “And…Ryan, are you sure about the other two?”

“I’m sure they’re on our side,” Ryan said. “Beyond that…no, not really. And since I’m not, that means no one else will be either. Right now, we need that chaos. It’s the one advantage we have left. Still, I’ll feel better when Crystal gets here with that wormhole.”

“Give it just a moment…” Isabel said.

At that moment, a second doorway opened in the park, and Crystal stepped out. The shimmering wormhole trailed behind her, bound to her movements by some simple twists. She’d already armed herself, a straight edged sword strapped her back. At the sight of the wormhole, the crowd surged forward against the barricade. If this was what happened now, Ryan didn’t want to imagine what would have happened if it hadn’t been for the Lotus eater’s calming influence.

“Cheers, love!” Crystal said with a wave, detaching the wormhole. “Just dropped the other ones off.”

“And you’re sure this will work?”

Crystal squinted at the crowd. “There’s so many…”

Ryan waited for a moment. No response. “Uh. Crystal?”

“Sorry.” Crystal shook her head. “She’ll come here. I’m sure of it. The hardest part is going to be containment. This is…this is going to be ugly, Ryan. Even with Isabel’s clever little trick. We didn’t drug them so much they’ll just stand their docile when a divine fight breaks out, and Kali is not going to care about collateral damage. We’ll get plenty through before she figures out this is where you are, but it won’t take her twelve hours.” The crowd surged again, the shouts growing louder. “What about the people who didn’t come?”

Ryan sighed. “What I said earlier stands. Anyone who doesn’t come, we can’t drag out of their homes kicking and screaming. Even if we had the manpower, it wouldn’t be enough.”

Crystal studied him for a moment. “She’ll be here, Ryan. Her and her whole family. Even form the one time we’ve met, I got that impression. She’s stubborn and strong-willed, and she trusts us. Trusts you.”

“I know. It’s just…did I make the right call?”

“You don’t have many people out there you’re close to, love” Crystal said quietly. “At least, not humans, and we can’t spare Isabel. When people figure out you set this up as a bloody trap, there’s going to be backlash. Revealing you were willing to risk someone you care about…it’ll help mitigate the backlash.”

“Okay.” Ryan took a deep breath. “You ready?”

“Ready when you are.”

Ryan nodded. “Isabel, tell the police. It’s time.”

“Uh…you have Glossolalia, right? I’ll patch you through – I’ve been relying on gods to translate things. Do not want to risk any of this getting garbled by me doing a google translate attempt at austrian-accented German.”

“Go ahead,” Ryan said.

“You’re on in three, two, one, go.”

“Police of Salztburg,” Ryan said, doing his best commanding voice. “My name is Ryan. Please do not forget all citizens must be checked for cultural artifacts. Art, books, movies, technology – all of them must be left behind. Beyond that, we don’t care who comes through. Everyone gets one of the survival packets. Don’t waste time checking for IDs, or things are going to drag out. You can check them on the other side. I know you are sacrificing a great deal to be the last through. I promise you, no matter what, we will hold this portal until you are able to cross over. Start letting your families in now, then open the gates.”

It had been the best bribe they could offer for the police. Their families got to go through first. Well, not first. The first people through had gone through were a UN peacekeeping force, who had started approaching the portal the moment Ryan had started speaking. They nodded to Ryan as they passed, but they had a job to do. They were on crowd control on the other side – crowd control, and pacifying any immediate hostile lifeforms.

They were wearing kevlar, but armed with bows and arrows and swords. State of the art versions of each, but still – technology low tech enough Nabu didn’t believe they’d cause a huge risk. That, plus the survival packet that contained some basic supplies – similarly vetted by Nabu, food that would keep for long enough for the first crop to come in, and seeds that would provide that first crop, was everything they could safely bring.

It was the best they could do. It was everything they could do.

Now they just had to wait for Kali to show up.

Small Worlds Part 269

Hey everyone. First of all, thank you for your patience and understanding. Second, minor retcon to last post, because I realized it was a bit preemptive for Ryan to go straight to Salzburg. Last scene would instead end this way.

“So. Let’s get this party started. Where’s first?”

“Not so fast,” Isabel said. “I have a request that you stop by and speak to Secretary Rajan first. She wants to go over some things before she authorizes the drone access I’ve requested.”

Ryan grimaced. “Okay. That’s going to screw up our timetable, but okay. Crystal, let’s get the wormholes out of my nanoverse. Isabel, tell everyone they need to come here and pick up the wormholes, we can’t take them to everyone individually. Nabu can coordinate it. I…have to speak to the Secretary General of the United Nations.”

And now, onto today’s part. 

Compared to what Ryan had expected, the office of the Secrety General was a rather modest affair. Books lined the back wall behind the desk, the spines displaying text that was mostly in Hindi – it still disturbed Ryan that when he focused he could understand words in a language he’d never even studied – and the chairs weren’t particularly luxurious. They were the kind of chairs that one would expect in a normal office environment.

Secretary General Rajan was sitting behind the desk. Her hands were folded in front of her, and she gave Ryan a small nod as he stepped into her office. If she seemed surprised by the fact that the door into the hallway beyond seemed to now open into an endless expanse of stars, it didn’t show. “So good of you to meet me,” she said.

“Madam Secretary,” Ryan said by way of greeting. He debated if he should bow or offer his hand, and settled for twitching for a moment before thrusting his hand towards he. Two suited men near the door tensed up at the gesture, but the Secretary took the proffered hand  warmly, which at least told Ryan she had more grace than he did. “I understand you wanted to speak before we put things in motion?”

“Yes, Mr. Smith. It seems I’m not entirely comfortable turning over access to military drones offered by member nations without speaking to you personally. I can’t imagine why that might be.” Her tone was still warm, but her voice was a dry as sandpaper. Ryan found himself liking her.

“I guess I can think of a few reasons for that,” Ryan said, taking a chair. “And please, call me Ryan, Madam Secretary.”

“Understood,” she said, and Ryan noted the lack of reciprocal offer. “I’m confused about the placement of some of these portals. New York, Beijing, Mumbai, Tokyo, Lagos – the major metropolitan areas – those  make sense. They get the largest group of people through in the first wave. That is the reason, correct?”

“Mostly,” Ryan said. “We were also worried that if we only had one major city, it would pose a tempting target for Kali. By spreading out the big cities, we hope she’ll focus on the real target.”

“And what might that be?”

“Ma’am, begging your pardon, but I’d rather not say. We don’t know where she is and what she’s able to listen in on, so if I do say it aloud, I run a real risk of her – or one of her agents – overhearing what I’m saying.”

Secretary Rajan leaned forward, her eyes narrowing. “Ryan. You are asking me to take a great deal on faith. Access to the drone’s cameras. The fact that this other world is even accessible, let alone not a death trap. The very end of the world. Right now, I’m inclined to tell you to take that real and gaand ma ghal.

The blessing of glossolalia made sure Ryan knew that the Secretary General of the United Nations had just told him to stick it up his ass. Ryan blinked, activating his divine sight. The very real possibility that it was not secretary Rajan, but Kali herself, sitting across from him made his heart pound.

Thankfully, it was her. She was human, and there weren’t any bugs in her office Ryan could see. What there was however, was a twist to reality. One with an equation Ryan couldn’t read, but as large as a human, and sitting in the chair directly next to him. His blood ran cold. “I understand your concern, Madam Secretary,” Ryan said, moving his hand slowly. “But spies could be everywhere.”

With the last word Ryan lunged, drawing a sword from his nanoverse and thrusting it towards the twist on the chair next to him. The ring of steel on steel filled the room, and Secretary Rajan leaned back away from the sudden conflict. The men in suits reached for their guns, but with a gesture the Secretary stopped them from drawing.

It wouldn’t have done them any good regardless. Ryan twisted the blade, trying to get it past the defenses he couldn’t see, and the surface he’d struck shifted. He nearly fell out of the chair at the sudden lack of resistance, and his momentum brought his sword arm into the twist. He could have turned it into a slash, but not without bringing his blade around towards the Secretary. As large as this office was, it wasn’t quite large enough to allow for him to slash wildly. He went with the momentum instead, and a hand like  vice clamped around his wrist.

Ryan bowled himself towards the attacker, kicking off the ground and thrusting his free hand towards his attacker. He punched something solid and steel.

“Enough of this!” a voice said from within the twist, and it vanished. Sitting in the chair was an Indian woman with the sort of ageless appearance Ryan had come to associate with some of the divine. She let go of Ryan’s wrist, and he landed on the other side of her. “I’m not your adversary.”

“No, you’re just listening in to my conversations,” Ryan said, growling and rubbing his wrist.

“Lakshmi is here on my invitation,” Secretary Rajan said firmly. “I wanted someone to verify you were who you claimed to be.”

“I did warn you the moment he got suspicious, he’d see through it,” Lakshimi said, nodding to acknowledge Ryan. “Apologies for the deception.”

Ryan surreptitiously rubbed his wrist. “Sorry for lashing out.” Under his divine sight, he could see that Lakshimi was not actively shapeshifting – she was exactly what she appeared to be, which meant she wasn’t Kali. “Why the game though? Just wanted to catch me off guard?”

“In a manner of speaking.” Lakshimi gestured, righting his chair with a twist. “I wanted to see how you’d behave if you weren’t aware of my presence.”

“So it was a test,” Ryan said, taking his seat.

“That is what I just said, yes.” Lakshimi quirked an eyebrow at him.

Just when I thought I was done with this kind of crap… Ryan sighed. It was to be expected, he supposed, but he’d gotten used to the idea that he was going to be taken seriously. In hindsight, he had no idea why he’d gotten that idea in his head in the first place, but Lakshimi had handily debased him of that notion. “So, did I pass?”

Lakshimi nodded, then looked at Secretary Rajan. “I don’t think he’s a threat to you, or to us. As best as I can tell from the brief interaction, at least. He had an opening, but if he’d taken it, it would have turned his blow towards you. He chose against that.”

Secretary Rajan nodded. “Lakshimi had kindly been advising me on matters of the divine. Including how to deal with you.” Ryan wasn’t sure what to say to that, which was for the best, because the Secretary continued as if his response was irrelevant. “Lakshimi has assured me that this conversation is private. So, I ask you again – where are you trying to draw Kali?”

Ryan shifted in his seat and looked at Lakshimi. “Forgive me, Madam Secretary, but it’s not that simple. Lakshimi, your pantheon hasn’t yet declared where they will fall in the conflict. I believe that Kali isn’t listening, but I don’t know what side you’re on.”

Lakshimi gave him a small smile. “Consider this. If I was on Kali’s side, I would not have waited for you here alone. I would have waited with a small group of gods, and we would have subdued you the moment you arrived and brought you to her.”

“Maybe.” Ryan shrugged. “Or maybe you’re playing a deeper game. You’re millennia old. I don’t know you. More importantly, I have no idea if I can trust you.”

Lakshimi’s smile soured. “That does make things difficult,” she said.

“Yeah, it does.” Ryan sighed. “I don’t mean to be a pain in the ass, but if I make a bad judgement call, we’re all doomed. The entire human race. I’m the one holding onto the wormholes. Kali gets a hold of them, she can use them to end the world preemptively. She gets the end of the cycle she wants, and humanity? It’s gone.”

“Then how do you propose we resolve this dispute?” Lakshimi asked.

Ryan leaned forward in his chair, a smile tugging at his lips. “You know what? I think I know exactly how you can.”

Small Worlds Part 268

Ryan woke up to a mouth full of ash and a stomach that begged for food. He could feel tears trying to stream out of the corner of his eyes, but in the grips of his dehydration, all they could do was form little flecks of salt on the edges.

Crystal was there in an instant with a bottle of water. “The Hungers from that are the worst,” she said, a sparkle in her eyes. Ryan barely nodded in agreement as he sucked down the water with desperate greed. The water was sweet on his tongue, even sweeter than dehydration could account for. “It’s sugar water,” Crystal said, presumably seeing the way his forehead creased, “it’ll help take the immediate edge off the hunger. Usually not needed, but given how I remember that twist affecting me, I figured it would be a good call.”

“Thanks,” Ryan said, finally finishing the bottle. She was already handing him a stick of beef jerky, and he shoved it into his mouth with the dignity of a small child. “Did it work?” he asked between bites.

“See for yourself,” Crystal said with a wink, and for a moment Ryan was struck with how beautiful she was, and he wanted to reach out and hug her, hold- stop it. Ryan chided himself. That’s just the social Hunger speaking. The shame of the thought helped drown the fleeting feeling, and to distract himself, Ryan looked in the direction of the wormholes.

Half the original number remained. Each one was a white ring hovering in the air, and in the center of the bubble they left behind Ryan could see the impossible. Plants that looked akin to trees but with leaves that splayed out like stretching fingers and bark that shimmered like steel, dotted with tiny colorful patches that blossomed like stars. They grew above vast green fields of grass that ended in miniscule ferns, each blade as tall as a man’s waist. Through one portal he could see a mountain range that stretched far higher than any ever seen on Earth, with snow forming a middle ring around the slopes and the peaks barren from being so high they jutted out of the planet’s atmosphere. On the other side of that range was another portal, this one on the very edge of a vast desert formed in the mountain’s shadow. Another portal was near cliffs that were coated in emerald-green lichen that stretched off into the horizon over an ocean that was the purest blue.

Yet another was situated on a grassy field on the edge of a badlands that were crossed by a complex maze of hundreds of stone arches, a natural field of doors carved by some ancient and long-dried up river. Still another was at the edge of a forest, only these trees had no leaves, just a single solitary leaf that spread out like the head of a mushroom. They hung close to the ground, and small strands of some amber-gold organism stretched from the leaf’s underside to the forest floor below.

The only things that moved were the waves and the plants in the wind. There were no insects buzzing about, no birds overhead, no creatures creeping through the underbrush. It was a world teaming with life, but with no animals for mankind to displace from their natural environments. There was only the vast, primeval wilderness of this world, dominated by analogues to plants, fungi, and other, simpler forms of Earth life.

“It’s beautiful,” Ryan said, wrenching his eyes from endless rolling hills of amber grass that was dotted with incandescent seeds floating in the air to where they would grow next.

Crystal nodded in agreement. “A new home for humanity. Let’s hope you lot don’t wreck it too hard. But…the world’s got a better land to sea ratio, and it’s a bit bigger than ours anyway. I think you’ll do fine.”

Ryan winced at her words, and Crystal raised an eyebrow. “Something bothering you?” she asked.

After a moment’s consideration, Ryan laughed. “You know, I guess there is. I know this is stupid, but…I kind of feel like a pig. I’m looking at this new world and practically drooling, and outside the door is the world I’ve known my entire life. Can you feel like you’re cheating on an entire planet?”

Crystal looked like she was about to laugh, her lips curling up at the edges, and Ryan was glad that gaping at the natural beauty of this new world had helped take the edge of his Social hunger. Instead of feeling that annoying surge from earlier, he just waited for her to share in the joke. Instead, however, the laugh was strangled before it ever escaped her throat, and only half her lip curved upwards, turning amusement into a wistful smirk. “I know what you mean, really. If we could stay, if we could fix Earth, we’d be terrible for just packing up and leaving. But…the only thing we can do to save Earth is to leave. She’ll be better off without us, anyway – we were pretty terrible to her at times.”

“Yeah,” Ryan said. “Let’s hope whoever comes after us treats her better, you know? If it’s the crows or the elephants or the racoons, let’s really hope they do right by her.”

“Who knows,” Crystal said. “Maybe someday it’ll be safe for us to send messages to whoever comes next. We can check up on her, make sure they’re treating her well.”

Ryan looked at those alien vistas and shook his head. “Maybe. But…we’ll probably just have to trust it. I mean, would you ever send messages to your ex’s new significant other to make sure they’re less of an asshole than you were?”

At that, Crystal did throw back her head in an earnest laugh. “No, I suppose no,” she admitted, wiping at her eyes. “A million years trying to save this world, and at the end it comes down to a bad break-up metaphor. That’s bloody perfect. Come on,” she said standing up before he had to figure out how to respond to that. “You got some actual sleep in there, so you should be good for that Hunger. Social’s all you’ve got left, and we can finish filling that with some planning.”

Ryan nodded and followed her at. Isabel was still at the computers, studying them furiously. “What’s the good news, Izzy?”

Isabel turned and shrugged, and Ryan sighed. “What’s the news, Izzy?”

“It’s not all bad,” she said, and Ryan couldn’t help but notice the way her eyes lit up when Crystal followed him out. “The Shinto deities aren’t willing to fight, but they’re more than happy to go through early and start setting up structures for people. Same goes for a lot of individual deities. Hephestus, Ptah, Tvastar, and Ikenga are going to coordinate with Kagu-Tsuchi – all of them are forge gods  and help with overseeing it and working on some of the more complex bits, like doors and windows. Neith is going through as well with Mama Ocllo, and Zhinü to start setting up some weaving stations so we can start making clothes, and Thoth, Anahit, Wenchang Wang, and Ogma are going to be working on getting libraries going so we can start working on preserving knowledge. Kuebiko is going to be working with the agriculture deities we’ve got as well, trying to get some basic farmland figured out.”

“That all sounds like good news,” Ryan said, not wanting to admit he didn’t know who the majority of those gods were.

“It is, but it’s kind of being overwhelmed by the bad. No word form Aesir, but it sounds like they’re probably going to giving Kali a helping hand. Something about not wanting to ruin Ragnarök. The Canaanite deities aren’t willing to risk getting into direct combat. Same with the Slavic deities, although they’re at least going to protect the innocent, so that’s something. The Jade Emperor has decided they’re sitting it out, although if we win they’ll be happy to help with building on this new world. The Aztec pantheon has made it abundantly clear they intend on joining in the fight, but Quetzalcoatl wanted to make sure I understood they were still debating the proper side. So that’s a coin toss.”

“You spoke to Quetzalcoatl?” Ryan asked.

Isabel rubbed her eyes. “Yeah, he called me. I have been trying very hard not to think about how he got my number. Arthur called too. Uriel is absolutely wiped out from ferrying the wormholes. She’ll join in if she can, but our one angel is out. And none of that’s the worst of it.”

Ryan swallowed hard. “What is the worst of it?”

“Michael has said we’re interfering with the Creator’s plan. Kali is going to have some angelic backing. Arthur said that since the angels are going to be getting involved in the Eschaton cycle, they are going to be majorly depowered for going outside their mandate, but he doesn’t know how depowered they’ll be.”

“Well…I mean, we’re going to have some allies, right?” Ryan asked.

Isabel sighed. “Some. Papa Legba is willing to join the fight, and he’s talking to the other Loa. We’ve got the Slavic gods on defense, which is something, but it might not be enough. Dianmu and Cassandra are going to meet Sun Wukong, and Dianmu does not sound happy about that. We can’t count on Arthur’s demons, either – the moment they enter the field, the angels get their full power, and we’ll be overrun. Anansi is taking Horus to the Egyptians, and Horus thinks it’s likely the ones that haven’t spoken up yet will join in our side, but…we’re going to be spread thin, Ryan. Really thin. The upside is, as far as anyone who knows her is saying, Kali is probably going to spreading herself thin too. She won’t want to let any portal go unattacked. But even if she goes wide, we’re badly outnumbered.”

“Okay,” Ryan said, taking a deep breath. “That is bad. But we could still get the Aztecs, and you didn’t even mention the Hindu deities. They might still join us.”

“Might,” Isabel admitted. There were dark circles under her eyes. “Ryan…we have to be ready for the worst. We might not be able to save everyone.”

Ryan took a deep breath, steadying the surge of anger. “If we don’t, it sure as hell won’t be because we didn’t try.”

Isabel nodded.

“Loves,” Crystal said, finally speaking up. “You’re forgetting one thing.”

They both looked at her.

“Twenty-four hours ago, we weren’t sure we were going to save anyone. No matter what, as long as we get people to the other side, enough people that humanity will be able to keep going…we win. That’s all it takes. Enough people to get to the other side, and us closing the door before Kali gets through. We do that…and we stopped humanity from being wiped out. So stop being all doom and gloom. We have one job, and we’re going to get it done.”

From her smile, it at least made Isabel feel better. Ryan was too nervous to hope right now, but that was a personal problem. “You’re right,” he said with cheer he didn’t feel. “So. Let’s get this party started. Where’s first?”

Isabel checked her computer. “You two are meeting Athena and Dianmu in Salzburg. Let’s get some Austrians to space!”

And hope Kali doesn’t kill us in the process, Ryan thought, forcing himself to keep the thought off his face.

Small Worlds Part 267

“There are concerns,” Xuanzang said, “about the Eschaton Cycle.”

“About the cycle as a whole?” Dianmu asked, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees. She fixed Xuanzang with an intense gaze. “I was expecting you to say this is about me.”

“Because you’ve repeatedly ignored imperial decrees to cease your activities among Humanity and return to the Jade Palace?” Xuanzang smiled, but this time it didn’t quite reached his eyes. “While  your actions there have been a source of consternation, no one was really prepared to fault you for what you were doing there. You were quiet, you were discreet, and you were helping people. And you were in mourning, and that is something everyone believed afforded you a great deal of leeway.”

“Believed?” Dianmu asked. “I’m not sure I like the implication of the past tense there.”

“I’m telling you what others are saying,” Xuanzang held up a hand in a placating gesture. “You are not without allies here. I count myself among them. But you need to know of your reputation. I just ask that you don’t shoot the messenger.”

Dianmu settled back some. “Apologies.”

“None needed.”

Someone – or, Cassandra assumed, something that was humanoid – came in with a tray containing a pot of tea and three cups. Xuanzang smiled up at the figure, and conversation paused as drinks were poured. The aroma was heavenly, and Cassandra did her best to enjoy it. It was hard. The way this conversation was going had soured her appetite.

“Now, where was I?” Xuanzang said as he placed his tea on the table. “The view now is that you have become somewhat…erratic. Your refusal of past summons does you no favors there. Working with…Crystal, I understand she calls herself now?” Dianmu nodded in response to the question, and Xuanzang continued. “Well, working with Crystal has made things worse. Her reputation is still that she is a source of trouble, a destabilizing influence on her fellow gods.”

“We’ve been friends of millenia,” Dianmu said, and Cassandra noted the defensive tone.

“Yes. Tell me, Dianmu, how often have you wondered about my judgement when it comes to Sun Wukong because of our friendship?”

Dianmu nodded in assent of the point. “It is different, I’d argue, but I imagine you’d say the same if our positions were reversed.”

“Oh yes. Quite loudly.” This time, the smile was more genuine.

“I don’t understand why that’s still a problem. We know now that the Eschaton Cycle is real. Or is that still in question?”

Xuanzang shook his head firmly. “No, I know of none here who still doubt that it is real. The world is coming to an end. The age of Man is drawing to a close. That is now seen as inevitable. The problem now, however, is if it’s something we should or could avoid.”

“It can be avoided,” Dianmu said. “We’ve uncovered a way.”

“Yes. This plan to create portals, evacuate the entire planet. I have to admit, it’s an inspired choice. Meeting the letter of the law while absolutely violating the spirit. I have a friend who would approve a great deal of that course of action.”

Dianmu’s lips tightened into a thin line. Cassandra didn’t need to wonder who Xuanzang was talking about. Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. While Cassandra knew that time and retelling had probably distorted the story a great deal, it seemed Sun Wukong’s reputation for being a troublemaker had not been inaccurate.

I want to meet him. Cassandra had fallen in love with Journey to the West in college, and had read the entire thing when the course had only required selected readings. Given that she’d been working on her pre-med program, sparing time to read that much had been a luxury she really shouldn’t have been able to afford. She’d been so engrossed though, it had just been a matter of sacrificing some nights when she would have been drinking instead. She’d considered that time well spent. Something in the impulsive Monkey King had spoken to her in a way most fictional character’s didn’t. However, they weren’t here so Cassandra could fangirl over one of her favorite characters in literature. No matter how much she wanted to.

Besides, Dianmu might actually kill her, given how unhappy she was at any reference to Sun Wukong.

“It’s a solid plan,” Dianmu said, her voice firm. “It even has a curator’s blessing.”

“A fallen Curator,” Xuanzang said politely.

“He filed the proper paperwork to fall,” Dianmu countered.

“And I am glad to hear that. Yet…” Xuanzang held up a hand to forestall Dianmu’s counterargument. “Dianmu. I’m trying to prepare you for what’s waiting for you.”

“Then can we focus on that?” Dianmus said. “I’ve dealt with attacks on my character before.”

“Of course. Your domain has made you enemies, and many of them are taking this opportunity to speak against you.”

“Storm goddesses aren’t popular here?” The words were out of Cassandra’s mouth before she could stop herself, but now that they had cleared her lips she was glad to have spoken. The two gods seemed to have forgotten she was there, or at least that she might not understand everything they were talking about.

“Dianmu also have dominion over hidden crimes,” Xuanzang said, when Dianmu motioned for him to explain. “It’s made her less than popular among those whose secrets she’s brought to light. Although it has made her excellent at rooting out Anthropophages and other monsters that dwell among humanity.”

Cassandra was very grateful for the tea at that moment. It would have been difficult to avoid fidgeting without something to distract her from the conversation going down this path. “I see,” Cassandra said, once the tea had given her adequate time to cover her discomfort. “No one likes a cop.”

Xuanzang barked out a laugh. “Something like that, yes,” he said, his eyes still sparkling with amusement. “Very well,” he said, turning back to Dianmu. “Allow me to speak plainly then.”

“I certainly wasn’t stopping you,” Dianmu murmured.

Xuanzang waved away the reproach. “Kali has sent messages to us, and to other pantheons. She acknowledges the Eschaton Cycle, and insists that it is a natural part of the universe. That it staves off Entropy. Is that true?”

Dianmu grimaced.

“I feared as much. There are many among the Heavenly Court that do not believe we have a right to try and change something so fundamental to the order of the cosmos. If, as long as the Eschaton Cycle is allowed to continue, the universe will endure forever, who are we to place humanity above the rest of the Universe?”

“We aren’t, though,” Dianmus said. “This plan will fulfill the requirements of the cycle. Human civilization as we know it will end. The sun will be restored, and Earth will continue and, eventually, evolve new sentient life to repeat the process.”

“And in that time, the knowledge stored in human minds will be re-created. We are on the verge of, in just a few generations, leaving our Solar System. This will set humanity back, but it will still allow them to reach that before the next step in the cycle. We will spread across the stars, and in the process disrupt the natural order of things. What if that is the catalyst for the march towards Heat Death, or for Dark Energy to accelerate to the point where it will eventually overcome gravity and even the bonds within atoms? What if, in doing so, we sentence the universe to death?” At Dianmu’s expression, he shook his head. “This is not what I believe. If we are not meant to save Humanity, I believe we will fail in attempting to do so – but that does not mean we should not attempt. Even the gods are not stronger than Destiny, so there is no risk in trying.”

“But…”

“But the Jade Emperor disagrees. Given the source, given that it is you coming here, and given that there is a risk of sentencing the universe to a slow death…he has forbidden anyone to aid you.” Xuanzang put down his tea. “I’m sorry, Dianmu. So long as the fundamental order of reality is threatened, we have been forbidden from helping.”

Dianmu sighed. “His decision is final?”

“It is possible his mind could be swayed, given enough of the one thing you are soley lacking.”

“Time,” Dianmu said.

“Time,” Xuanzang agreed. “The only ones who would follow you…well, they’d have to be someone who would defy the Jade Emperor. Someone who has proven they care little for the decrees of Heaven. Someone who is a bit of a rebel themselves.”

Dianmu rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Please…please tell me you are not going to suggest what I think you are going to suggest.”

“I am not fond of lying,” Xuanzang said, and Cassandra had to fight back an urge to smile as Xuanzang continued. “So tell me. How desperate are you?”

Dianmu sighed. “Very. Fine. Tell me…how do I reach Sun Wukong?”

Cassandra couldn’t contain her smile any longer.

Small Worlds Part 266

Xuanzang lead them up an impossible bridge to one of the sections of the Heavenly Palace. There were people up here – other gods, Cassandra guessed, and probably some other beings that didn’t fit into the normal categories of God, Monster, or Human. She’d known from Bast that demons and angels did exist, and Nabu was a Curator – a concept she still didn’t fully understand – so these people were probably in a group like that. I’ll just think of them as Spirits until I get a better word. They couldn’t all be gods, that Cassandra was sure of – there were far too many of them. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.

It was a city contained in a palace, and Cassandra felt like she was an intruder among this sea of serene faces. Cassandra took a step closer to Dianmu, waiting for someone to see her, recognize what she was, and cause an uproar. How could they not know what she was? She could hear all their hearts, couldn’t they hear how her own was pounding. Try to relax she told herself. You’re being absurd. Dianmu wouldn’t bring you here to let you get torn apart, and if something happens, you’re not helpless…and Dianmu will protect you. 

Something in that thought rang a bit hollow, and Cassandra had to turn the thought over to contemplate it further. In truth, Cassandra was realizing she knew very little about the goddess she’d followed to this beautiful land of floating palaces and impossible bridges. Bast hadn’t mentioned Dianmu, and all Cassandra had really seen Dianmu do is annihilate a host of Cardiophages with sunlight.

Cassandra’s heart started to beat even harder. Ryan had promised her protection, but what if this was Dianmu’s way of getting rid of the Anthropophage? Bring her to the Heavenly Palace, out her to the other gods up here, let them tear her apart, and then go back sad to Ryan and say “So sorry, I did everything I could, but I was outnumbered?”

Stop it, Cassandra told herself. It wasn’t impossible, but if Dianmu wanted to do kill Cassandra, there were about a dozen better ways to do it – including having told Ryan he had to choose between helping Cassandra and Dianmu’s support, and then cutting her down when Ryan chose Dianmu. Why wouldn’t he? With the entire world at stake, every bit of aid mattered. The fact that they were going to work with Horus again, knowing what he was and what he had done, made that abundantly clear. There was no reason to believe Dianmu was that vicious or petty.

And yet, Cassandra worried. It must have shown on her face, because Dianmu gave her a curious look, and slowed down slightly to let Cassandra catch up to her. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I just…feel exposed,” Cassandra said, after a momentary hesitation.

Dianmu’s forehead furrowed. “Because of your condition?”

Your condition. Such a delicate way of putting it. You have an insatiable hunger for hearts. It’s a condition. “Yes.”

“I understand. I think it’s good that we encountered Xuanzang first. He’s a very understanding sort. He spent centuries standing up for…him, after all.”

“Sun Wukong?”

Dianmu nodded. “He’s impulsive, reckless, and an absolute pain to deal with for any extended period of time. He aided Xuanzang on the Journey as a penance for everything he had done in the Kingdom of Heaven. Xuanzang made no friends defending him, yet he did anyway. He has this absurd belief that with patience and understanding, even the most monstrous being can be reformed.”

Cassandra’s heart sped up further. “Absurd belief?”

“Yes. Absolutely absurd that he holds onto it, in the fact of so many people insisting he is wrong. And yet he’s been proven right, time and time again. It’s almost like the belief is absurd not because of what he believes, but because those that refuse to believe it create self-fulfilling prophecies for themselves. Treat someone like a monster and watch them act like a monster. Treat them with respect, and they often live up to earning that expectation.” Dianmu gave Cassandra a level gaze. “I’ve never heard of an Anthropophage reforming. Yet I’ve also never heard of one trying. I’d have faith in any who attempted.” Her eyes slipped over to Xuanzang and back to Cassandra, and Dianmu winked. “If such a being existed, I’d like to meet them.”

“It would be…interesting,” Cassandra said, knowing how weak her voice sounded. Can she read my mind? Or perhaps thousands of years of knowing people had given Dianmu some insight into how people thought.  Given that Dianmu didn’t respond to Cassandra’s mental inquiry, it seemed like that was the more likely option. But one data point was hardly conclusive.

Cassandra gave Dianmu a smile, and very determinedly imaged the poised goddess shoving a finger up her own nose and rooting around. It was difficult to get the mental image to form, but once it did, she watched Dianmu’s eyes carefully. There was no reaction. If she’d seen what Cassandra had thought, she was impossibly good at hiding her reactions.

“Thank you,” Cassandra said, realizing she’d been staring blankly at Dianmu for the last dozen steps.

Dianmu cleared her throat and gave a nearby being a sideling glance before turning her gaze back to Cassandra. “For what? Idle speculation?”

Cassandra bit her cheek and nodded. “It’s an interesting intellectual exercise,” she said, a bit too loudly. Xuanzang didn’t turn around, but his head tilted to the side.

“Mind if I intrude into the discussion?” he asked.

Cassandra flushed, glad he couldn’t see them.

“Perhaps later,” Dianmu said smoothly. “Girl talk.” She winked at Cassandra.

“I see.” Xuanzang did look at them now, and there was a sparkle in his eyes. “Well, in that case, I suggest you table the discussion for now. We’re here.”

“Here,” apparently, was home that was comparatively humble to the splendor around them. Comparatively was a relative term – it was still a mansion in the Tang dynasty style, six smaller buildings that wrapped around an open courtyard with a four pointed pavilion in the center. But unlike the other buildings they’d seen so far, the walls were simple wood and relatively unadorned, the roofs green tiles and nothing fancier, and the jīnzhuān bricks were replaced with simple clay ones. It was still gorgeous, but it had a humble beauty.

Perfect, in fact, for the man that was leading them now.

Xuanzang led them to one of the buildings. There was a place where they could take off their shoes before entering, and inside were simple fabric slippers to cover their feet. Cassandra did so and sat on the floor next to Dianmu when Xuanzang motioned for them to do so.

“The Jade Emperor has concerns,” Xuanzang said, the human fading from his eyes, “about your recent activities, Dianmu. You are developing a reputation as being somewhat of a rogue, and there are…concerns.”

Dianmu leaned forward. “Tell me everything.”

Cassandra settled in to listen.

Small Worlds Part 265

I’m still alive. Apologies for the delays. It’s probably going to be erratic until the holiday season is over, and I appreciate everyone’s patience.

 

Cassandra knew she was staring with her mouth hanging open, but at the moment couldn’t bring herself to care. The Heavenly Palace of the Jade Emperor was beyond her wildest imaginings. It was built on a series of seven floating islands that rested within clouds, connected by vast arching bridges that spanned over a perfectly green field of grass below. The buildings were built in the style of the Forbidden City – or more likely, Cassandra expected, the Forbidden City had been built in the style of the Heavenly Palace – although on a scale no human builders could have managed with the technology on the time. Under the floating bridges were rivers that wound through the sky, flowing over nothing and filled with iridescent fish that glimmered in the sunlight.

Dianmu’s gateway had opened in a pavilion on that perfect field, paved with golden bricks known as jīnzhuān. This place is so magnificent, Cassandra marveled, even the entranceway is paved with gold. 

It was a far cry from the dark and terrible realms Bast and Vlad had shown her – his nanoverse is crawling citadels the size of planets, hers of twisted terrors transpiring under the baleful gaze of pyramids that housed hateful suns. This place wasn’t twisted and evil, it didn’t fill her with dread. It was the first place she’d since she’d gotten involved with these gods that was full of pure wonder, untainted by anything darker.

A being was descending from one of the islands, leaping off the edge and descending as slowly as a floating feather, his robes billowing out behind him. Dianmu squinted at the approaching form and smiled. “Tang Sanzang,” she said to Cassandra. “Better known in English as the Golden Cicada.”

Cassandra had to suppress a surprised gasp. She didn’t do very well at it, and Dianmu’s eyes twinkled. “The Golden Cicada?”

“You’ve heard of him?” Dianmu asked.

Cassandra nodded firmly. “I took a class where we analyzed The Journey to the West as for a literature credit. Tripitaka was the reincarnation of the Golden Cicada and we learned he was based on a historical monk, Xuanzang, and…wait. If gods are created by finding their nanoverses, does that mean that he is Xuanzang?”

Dianmu laughed. “Oh, he’s going to like you.”

“I mean…crap. Should I bow? Kowtow? What do I-”

Dianmu put a hand on her shoulder. “Follow my lead, Cassandra. Bow as deeply as I do, and slightly more. But do not worry – Cicada is friendly, and understands that you are showing respect, so long as that is what you are doing.”

“But…I’m an anthropophage,” Cassandra said, her voice small. Dianmu squeeze her shoulder reassuringly, but it was too late for her to anything else to put Cassandra at ease. Golden Cicada had touched to the ground and was approaching. “Dianmu,” he said.

Dianmu bowed, and Cassandra imitated the gesture, following Dianmu’s advice and going lower with the motion than Dianmu did. Cicada returned the bow, and Cassandra noted his bow was not as low as either of theirs – it seemed that he outranked Dianmu. “Xuanzang,” she said as they all straightened, her voice warm. “It is good to see you again.”

Now that he was on the ground, Cassandra could get a better look at him. He was somewhat plain, a far cry from the beautiful and handsome gods Cassandra had grown used to, but that was offset by a welcoming warmth to his eyes that seemed almost grandfatherly. Remembering what she could of the mythology of Journey to the West, Cassandra thought that perhaps a Buddhist monk would consider the overblown beauty of most Gods as a vanity he wanted to avoid.

“I welcome your return as well,” Cicada said, and Cassandra had to wonder how she should think of him – was Cicada right? Or should it be the full Golden Cicada? Or Xuanzang or Tang Sanzang or even Tripitaka? She silently wished she’d been given more time to ask Dianmu questions, and decided to follow the storm goddesses lead and start thinking of him as Xuanzang. “You’ve been away from the Heavenly Palace for far too long. I’m glad you’ve returned to us in these trying times.”

“So you know?” Dianmu asked.

Xuanzang nodded. “We do know. And we know why you are here, what fear drove you to return.” The warmth in his eyes faded somewhat.

“Do you know the Emperor’s answer already?” Dianmu asked.

“I do not,” Xuanzang said. “But I do fear it will not be to your liking.” He smiled. “But we can talk of such dark things later. For now, we can celebrate your return. You and your guest – we have not been introduced.”

“Apologies for my lapse there,” Dianmu said. “This is Cassandra.”

“Cassandra,” Xuanzang said. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I have heard a great deal of your affliction, and I hope your burden has grown easier to bear.”

Oh crap he knows, Cassandra thought, her mind racing. How did he already know? Could he see it on her? Was she obviously an Anthropophage to everyone who saw her? Was he going to-

Dianmu was laughing politely, a hand covering her mouth. “Forgive me, I should have been clearer,” she said. “This is not the Cassandra. This is just a Cassandra. It has become fashionable on Earth to name children after some of the figures from myth, and Cassandra is one of the names that has endured well into modern times.”

Xuanzang smiled. “Of course, I should have asked.” He turned back to Cassandra. “It is still a pleasure to meet you. I understand this has become a more common greeting among your people?” He offered his hand.

Cassandra took it, her mind reeling still from the whiplash. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m a huge fan.”

“A…huge fan?” Xuanzang said, looking her up and down. “You seem to be human to me.”

“No, I mean…I…” But Xuanzang had a glint to his eyes, and Cassandra flushed. “You were making a joke, apologies.”

“No, my apologies,” Xuanzang said. “I think I spend too much time with Sun Wukong still – his sense of humor has rubbed off on me.”

Dianmu’s lips curled down in the barest hint of a frown. “Sun Wukong isn’t…here, is he?”

“Of course not,” Xuanzang said. “You know how much he dislikes spending time here. Last I heard, he was off on another adventure on one of the worlds orbiting Proxima Centurai. I doubt he’s even heard about what’s going on.”

Dianmu’s face relaxed. “I know he’s a friend of yours, and yet…”

“He can be trying,” Xuanzang said smoothly before Dianmu could finish whatever she’d been about to say. “I know that all too well, believe me.”

Cassandra realized she was staring, and shook herself out of it. “Sun Wukong is real. So that means you were Tripitaka?”

“Among other names,” Xuanzang said. “Allegory and myth and truth blend together in so much of the old literature. It’s hard to keep track of myself sometimes, and I lived it.”

“I can imagine,” Cassandra said.

“Perhaps you would like to dine with me?” Xuanzang asked, his glance indicating the invitation included Dianmu. “You’ve come a long way, and I’d love to answer your questions – while asking my own about Earth. It’s been some time since I was last there.”

“I’d love to!” Cassandra blurted out before Dianmu could speak, then turned red and glanced over at the storm goddess. “I mean…if that would be all right.”

“It would be,” Dianmu said after a pause. “I have questions about the Heavenly Palace of late, old friend – and why you think the Jade Emperor will reject my request.”

Xuanzang nodded somberly. “Then come with me. I hope I can answer some of your questions – and prepare you for the worst.”

As excited as Cassandra was, even she couldn’t miss the way that statement hung in the air.