Small Worlds part 211

No one spoke on the walk out of Officium Mundi. Ryan couldn’t say what was going through Nabu and Dianmu’s heads, but for his part, it was a mixture of lingering rage at the Curators and shock at Nabu’s about-face. He didn’t know what to say to the man – if that was even the right word.

Thankfully, once they were back in his nanoverse, Dianmu took over the silence. “What was that glowing orb you were given?” she asked.

Nabu gave her a small smile. “It’s all the power I had before, condensed. I can access it to a point, but I’m far more limited now – and it’s a finite resource. Once it’s gone, so am I.”

“Thank you,” Ryan said, finally finding the words. “I…I didn’t expect that. Or anything like that.” Ryan motioned to raise some chairs from the staging area floor for the three of them. “Thank you,” Ryan repeated, knowing how weak it sounded.

“I’ve been considering it for a few hundred thousand years,” Nabu said. “We – or I supposed when talking about the curators I should say ‘they’, now – lost our way at some point. I knew that protocol allowed for rules to change when the Council was in recess. When I realized that’s exactly what they were doing, it was the final straw.”

“And you didn’t warn us?” Ryan asked, careful to keep any accusation out of his voice. Nabu had just given up true immortality, beyond what even gods had, for their sake. The last thing he wanted to do was act like an asshole. Am I even still angry at him anymore? Ryan wondered.

Nabu shook his head. “I still had hope that I was wrong. I filled out the form to make sure I was ready, but I still held hope.” Nabu’s lips curled for a moment into a bitter grimace. “It was a foolish hope.”

No, I’m not, Ryan realized. Thirty years of being followed by Nabu had done damage to Ryan’s life, sure. It had cost him any chance at anything close to normality, and now Ryan had a terrible burden looming over him. But…but the later part hadn’t been Nabu’s fault. Nabu did nothing to guide Ryan to the nanoverse. And having a normal life wouldn’t have left Ryan any better prepared for what he was dealing with now.

“Well,” Ryan said, “foolish hope is pretty much our entire stock and trade, so you’ll fit right in.” He gave Nabu a lopsided grin.

Dianmu nodded and smiled. “I don’t think, since I’ve started working with Ryan, I’ve experienced any hope that wasn’t foolish. It’s worked out in the end each time in the end, though.”

“Thank you,” Nabu said, settling into one of the chairs. It was still weird for Ryan to see Nabu doing anything even remotely normal, like sit in a chair, or have his tie loose, or look tired. “Tell me. Is hunger a sharp pain in your stomach, followed by a rumbling sensation?”

Ryan couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, that sounds like it. I’ve got some emergency food for if my Hungers flare up – what sounds good to you.”

“I have no idea,” Nabu admitted. “I’ve never eaten anything before.”

“Never?” Ryan asked, freezing and looking at Nabu with incredulous eyes. “I mean…you have a cafeteria in Officium Mundi, right?”

“For visiting gods,” Nabu said, raising one hand to rub at his stomach. “The last thing we want is hungry gods running around Officium Mundi. You all can cause all sort of problems when you get up in your needs.”

“He’s not wrong,” Dianmu said.

Ryan nodded. “How about an Italian sub, then?”

“I literally have nothing to compare it to, so whatever you suggest,” Nabu said. “I do remember you enjoying those though.”

Ryan got up and went over to the console. Moments later, a refrigerator was rising out of the floor. “Go ahead.”

Nabu grabbed the sandwich and took a bite. His eyes widened. “Hmm. It seems there are unexpected benefits to mortality. Also, my tongue seems to be reporting pain.”

Ryan chuckled. “Peppers.”

“It’s an interesting sensation,” Nabu said. Dianmu motioned Ryan over while Nabu finished his sandwich.

“As amusing as it might be to watch Nabu learn about mortal life, we do have an objective here,” she said, her voice low.

“I haven’t forgotten,” Ryan said, shaking his head. “Was thinking about dropping into my nanoverse fully to give us plenty of time.”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” Dianmu said. “He’s not human, and his power source isn’t a nanoverse itself. We don’t know what it would do to him. He might not be able to exist in there – and even if he is, he just lost countless eons of power. Then you want him to give up what little he has left?”

Ryan pursed his lips. “Damn. Didn’t even think about that. But yeah, good catch. Although we probably should figure that out – otherwise we’ll have to know at the worst possible time.”

Dianmu laughed, a light and unamused sound. “I do wish I could tell you that was inaccurate.”

Ryan glanced back at Nabu, who had finished the sandwich in a horrifyingly short amount of time. “Hey Nabu, if we needed to drop into my nanoverse, would that…do anything to you?”

Nabu considered for a moment. “It probably wouldn’t be immediately harmful. Probably. I’d rather not experiment right now.”

Ryan glanced at Dianmu, who gave him the politest ‘I-told-you-so” look Ryan had ever received. “Fair enough. In that case, I hate to rush things, but…”

“But time is running short. You need to know the rules, and you need to know before the sun explodes next week.”

Ryan froze at Nabu’s words. “Next week? Next week?” Ryan shouted, his voice cracking. The old anxiety, so long absent, rose up in his throat like an unwelcome house-guest and threatened to strangle him.

Nabu nodded slowly. “Take a deep breath, Ryan. There’s things we can do to postpone, and I’m hoping that – once you know the rules – you’ll be able to figure out a loophole I’ve overlooked.”

Ryan walked over to one of the chairs and slowly slid into it, taking the deep breath that Nabu recommended. “Alright. Tell me everything.”

Nabu leaned forward and prepared to exactly that.

Small Worlds Part 209

In the chaos that erupted after Hermes arrival, Athena and the others used the ability to phase to exit the cafe before it completely erupted into a full blow riot. Three of the people at the cafe suddenly vanishing into thin air did very little to quell the panic, and the cafe emptied around and through them in a cloud of panicked screams.

“Is that who I think it is?” Arachne asked as Athena and Anansi picked up Hermes, Athena taking his shoulders and Anansi taking him by the knees.

“If you think it is Hermes, you are correct,” Athena said with a grunt. It was that Hermes was heavy, it was just awkward to carry him without grabbing onto any obvious existing injuries. Anansi seemed to be having a similar struggle carrying the unconscious messenger god. We can’t risk hurting him worse, Athena reminded herself.  If Artemis had sent him even through there was so much danger, the fight must be dire indeed.

“And he said he was battling…Poseidon?” Arachne’s eyes were wide as she lead them down the street.

Athena grunted again, and shifted her weight as she realized the shoulder she’d been using to support Hermes was fractured in no less than three places. A soft moan escaped from the unconscious god’s lips.  “A few centuries ago, the Olympians retreated to a paradise they’d built in the heart of Tartarus. Most of them, at least. Hades was trapped in his realm, and I was exiled.” She could see Arachne bite back a sharp comment at Athena’s exile, and appreciated the woman’s restraint. “A little over a week ago, we went into Tartarus to hunt down Moloch. Don’t worry about who he is, it’s not relevant right now.”

Arachne pursed her lips but let that go.

“Poseidon cut some kind of deal with Moloch. Artemis was dealing with it from within the Olympians retreat. He killed Zeus and Ares, possibly others. After Moloch was defeated, Poseidon fled with a few loyalists, and Artemis is in charge of the Olympians until Zeus resurrects.”

“Artemis?” Arachne asked, her forehead furrowing. “You mean your old friend Artemis, the hunter goddess that skulked about and told most people to leave her alone?”

“Yes,” Athena said. They were approaching a hotel, and phased straight through the door to the stairwell. There would be an empty room that could serve as a makeshift infirmary until Hermes woke up, or one of them was able to move their doorway.

“Things must be dire then,” Arachne murmured.

Athena didn’t bother trying to defend her old friend. Artemis wouldn’t care what Arachne thought of her – in fact, she’d probably be livid at Athena for having brought her out – and there was no benefit in contradicting the truth. Artemis was many things, but leadership was not a role anyone had expected from her. What you don’t understand is that Artemis gives any task she has everything she can. She’ll become adept at it because she has to. 

All of that Athena kept to herself, responding only with a grunt.

“Those are shark bites,” Anansi said, almost contemplatively as they climbed the stairs.

“It makes sense,” Athena said. “Poseidon is lord of the sea. It would be in his best interest if he’s angered all of Olympus to hide beneath the waves.”

“And makes engaging him infinitely more dangerous,” Anansi added.

Athena didn’t have an answer to that. Just like tricksters found illusions easier, storm gods could command the winds and lightning with more ease, and war gods were stronger and faster, sea gods could command any manipulation regarding water – or any fluid – as naturally as mortals found breathing. Fighting Poseidon in the ocean wasn’t as dangerous as fighting Enki or Moloch had been, but it was the best analogy for those things before Athena had learned dual nanoverses or millions of years of stored power were possible.

“We’ll be able to help,” Athena said. “By the time we show up, everyone will be deep in their Hungers, including Poseidon. We’ll be fresh and ready.”

“If we help,” Arachne said. Athena nearly lost her patience and barked out an argument – right before she saw Anansi nodding. That put a pause to her tongue.

“We have bigger things concerning us, Athena,” Anansi said softly. “We don’t know how long we have, and we don’t know how great the dangers could be. Wouldn’t it be wiser to conserve our strength until at least the others returned?”

Athena pursed her lips at the subtle barb Anansi had placed in the word “wiser.” Athena had once been regarded as the wisest of all Olympians, but the past few centuries Athena had felt like that wisdom was being eroded under a constant barrage of…well, of life. “No,” Athena said, her voice firm. “You two can do as you will. I won’t pretend it’s smart. I won’t pretend it’s wise. I certainly will not pretend it’s even a good idea. But I will not stand by while Poseidon reaches victory. I won’t lie and claim that I’m doing this because, if Poseidon wins, he could pose a real threat to us during the last days. I believe it, but that’s not why I’m doing it. I’m doing it because my gut tells me it is the right thing to do.”

Anansi nodded. “Then I will go with you.” Simple agreement, and if they hadn’t been carrying Hermes unconscious body up a flight of stairs, Athena would have hugged him.

“I wouldn’t miss it, in that case,” Arachne said with a small smile. “The only Olympian you ever let me meet was Artemis. I think it’d make a good impression if I meet them for the first time by coming to the rescue.”

At that moment, Athena could have hugged her former pupil too.

Small Worlds Part 208

Arachne sat across from Athena, tapping her fingers on the table in rapid, staccato bursts. Her lips were as thin as her eyes. “You honestly believe this?” she asked.

Athena nodded. After the battle, Arachne had a dozen questions, and they’d needed a place to talk. Athena would no sooner enter Arachne’s nanoverse than Arachne would enter hers, and Anansi had been the one to suggest they talk somewhere comparatively neutral. After discarding various divine realms for a variety of reasons, they had settled on a small cafe that overlooked the Mediterranean. Arachne had never had coffee, and Anansi had been eager to introduce her to this particular wonder of the modern world.

The amount of cream and sugar she’d used to make it palatable had horrified Athena, but she’d kept it to herself. Given that this was the first thing she’d had since returning to the core world, Athena was hardly going to judge.

“The sun’s been getting hotter,” Athena said in response to Arachne’s questions. “I think it’s pretty irrefutable at this point. I don’t know how long we have.”

“So, you brought me back to the core just so you could tell me the world was going to die?” Arachne sighed through clenched teeth, her fingers still beating out a frustrated rhythm. After the fight, Arachne had been more tolerant of Athena, though she still regarded her former mentor with a furious wariness.

“No. The impending destruction made me-”

Arachne cut her off with a frustrated wave of her hand. “Athena, I’m not even close to forgiving you, but this thing – if you’re telling the truth about it, and I see no advantage to you lying – is bigger than even what happened between us. You don’t need to explain yourself or apologize again every time I snap, so long as you understand it’ll be some time before I can stop snapping. Until then, just ignore me when I comment on it. Agreed?”

Athena considered for a moment, and then nodded. “As you wish,” she said. In truth it was a relief.

Especially given how frightening Arachne was to Athena. Athena and Anansi had beaten her to the cafe under the pretense of wanting to make sure that there would be no threat lying in wait, but it had given them a much-needed chance to discuss the fight. Once she’d convinced Anansi that she hadn’t thrown the fight deliberately – which had not been an easy task – Anansi had come up with a chilling hypothesis.

Arachne had been able to resist Athena’s power within Athena’s nanoverse, where Athena was supposed to be omnipotent. Somehow, the trillions of years had worked Arachne partially into the fabric of Athena’s reality. Athena’s power, directed against Arachne, would barely impact her, while Arachne’s power, directed against Athena, was able to cut through her defenses like they weren’t there.

In short, if Athena were to ever face Arachne in a battle to the death, Arachne would almost certainly triumph. Anansi had called Arachne Athena’s personal kryptonite, a pop culture reference that Athena had understood and dreaded.

The threat she posed to Athena directly was the primary motivation behind telling Arachne everything. If she understood, she’d hopefully agree to at least leave Athena be until after this was over.

“Glad we have that established,” Arachne said, taking another sip of her coffee. “So what are you all doing to prevent it?”

“We can’t,” Athena said, shaking her head. “At least, probably not. Ryan and Dianmu are in Officum Mundi right now, trying to get information out of the Curators-”

“The what?” Arachne asked.

“The Curators,” Athena repeated, fighting back again an urge to apologize, an urge to make amends for thousands of years of life stolen from Arachne. Athena had to remind herself that Arachne’s crime had been horrible, that she’d deserved punishment for what she had done. It helped her fight back the impulse. “A group of celestial beings that watch over knowledge and keep track of it. No one really knows what their true purpose is, but if anyone has the answer, they do.”

Arachne nodded and motioned for Athena to continue.

“So, if the Curators have a way to prevent it, we will. If the Curators do not…then we need to find a way to end the world without killing every person on it.”

“Seems a bit of a difficult task,” Arachne said. “How can I help?”

Athena gaped at her. “You want to help me?”

“Oh, stars of Olympus, no!” Arachne said with a bitter laugh. “But I just got the world back. I refuse to sit idly by while it burns around us.”

Athena glanced at Anansi, who had been silently observing Athena throughout the conversation. “We thank you for your aid,” Anansi said with a warm smile. “Right now, however? Athena and I are on standby. Another route is being sought by Crystal and Isabel, one that will hopefully yield other results.”

That was where they had drawn the line. Trusting Arachne to know about the end of the world was one thing. Trusting her with the knowledge of the Staff of Ra had been a risk too great. It would have changed Arachne from being a threat to Athena personally into a threat to the entire endeavor.

“I see.” Arachne chewed her lip in thought, a gesture that was so familiar to Athena it was almost like looking through a portal into another time, and a wave of nostalgia and regret struck her. “In that case, I suggest-”

Arachne’s suggestion was lost in a sudden eruption of screams from the cafe. The three gods stood and whirled, each of them preparing to face this new threat.

A bloody, badly beaten man had stepped out of the bathroom. His left arm was missing, and he only was not fountaining blood across the floor because someone had cauterized the wound. His body was covered in scratches and the unmistakable patterns of shark bites. He had a bandage wrapped around his head, covering one eye, and was so badly beaten that it took Athena a moment to recognize him.

“Athena!” he said brightly. “Hello. Poseidon is a right bastard. We’re in a bit of trouble at the moment.”

And then, his message delivered, Hermes collapsed into unconsciousness.

Small Worlds Part 207

Crystal blinked as her eyes clear and the robotic voice said “cleansing complete. Radiation neutralized.”

A lump formed in Crystal’s throat. Isabel… She’d believed this entire time that the security protocol to deal with the Typhon would be something rooted in divine powers, but the Lemurians who built this facility weren’t gods. They were beings of science and had found a scientific solution to the problem. One that killed every living creature within the chamber.

The dome retracted and Crystal wiped the tears burning on the edge of her vision. I never should have brought her here, she thought with a fierce anger. Crystal knew that was foolish – she would have died against the Typhon without Isabel’s help – but the fact remained that if Isabel had remained behind, she’d be alive.

Crystal forced herself to her feet again. She just wanted to sleep, sleep for years, but she wouldn’t let Isabel have died for nothing. I’m sorry, she thought, looking over the edge. If the staff of Ra didn’t hold the key to saving the world, then…then she’d deal with that later. It has to help, Crystal thought, knowing how irrational that conviction was. But she didn’t feel she had anything else to hold onto.

The Typhon’s body was unmoving, the tendrils that connected its head and snakes to its body laying discarded on the ground. Tumors had formed at the edges of the wounds. The radiation must have caused it to be unable to regrow. It was an effective method of control, Crystal had to admit. Irradiate everything to hell with neutrinos. The beam must have blasted out the far side of the moon, given how insubstantial the moon was, but at close proximity they would be dense enough to have killed pretty much everything not protected by one of those domes.

The Tyrannosaurus that had been Isabel was…Crystal’s forehead furrowed. Where the bloody hell is it? 

As if in response to the question, a lump began to form on the floor, a lump that grew rapidly until it was a young woman, looking tired and bruised, but very much alive. “Did we win?” Isabel shouted up to Crystal.

“Isabel?” Crystal asked, her jaw dropping. “How…what…how are you not dead?”

Isabel flashed Crystal a grin. “Water bear! I heard your warning and shifted to it. Expelled most of the poison too, although I cycled back through the woodrat to make sure.”

Crystal started to laugh, feeling the tears forming again. “You scared the bloody piss out of me!” she shouted.

“I thought those snakes got you!” Isabel countered. “Fair’s fair, right?”

Crystal could only laugh, right up until the shaking caused her arm to give her another reminder how very broken it was. It was hard to see through the tears, but it looked like Isabel was grimacing.

“How badly are you – you know, screw the shouting,” Isabel said from the bottom of the pit. “Can I get a lift up?”

“I couldn’t lift a piece of paper up here, love,” Crystal countered. “I’m completely drained.”

Isabel nodded and turned into a hummingbird, flitting her way up to the platform. Crystal watched the tiny jewel of a bird flutter up and hover in the air before shifting back to Isabel. “Damn…what happened?” She motioned to Crystal’s arm.

Crystal shrugged with only her good shoulder. “I kind of ran out of power while going forty sliding along the ground. Real physics weren’t particularly kind to me when the power dropped.”

Isabel winced in sympathy. “Stay there, let’s get you a sling.” She pulled off her shirt.

Crystal’s Hungers were in full effect, and she had to fight the urge to stare as Isabel ripped a strip off the bottom of the shirt before replacing what remained of the garment. “We’re going to need to move your arm back up,” Isabel said, flushing faintly as she noticed Crystal’s gaze. “It’s going to hurt.”

“Right,” Crystal said, getting her focus back on the task at hand. “Can you help with that?”

Isabel nodded and stepped forward, looping the strip of cloth over Crystal’s neck and shoulder. “You’re going to need to get it properly set when we get back to Earth. If it heals badly…” Isabel looked up and met her gaze. It seemed she was as aware of how close they were as Crystal was. “Well, you’ll probably be fine. Divine everything, right?’

Crystal smiled. “Too bloody right, love. Let’s get this over with?”

Isabel nodded and gently placed her fingers on Crystal’s injured hand. “Clench your good first. It’ll help.”

The blinding pain of having her arm lifted to be placed in the sling completely killed whatever mood had been building. Crystal threw her head back to scream at the agony, and following Isabel’s advice caused her hand to clench so hard it dug deep furrows of blood in her palm. “Sorry, sorry,” Isabel said repeatedly, pushing Crystal’s arm into the sling and then giving it a careful tug to make sure it was straight. “Sorry,” she said again as Crystal’s pain levels went from unbearable and wound down to agonizing.

“It’s alright,” Crystal panted. Sweat beaded her forehead, and she felt like she was about to pass out. Against everything her body wanted to do, she forced herself to smile. “Just need some food, some drink, some sleep, and some fun. Then it’ll heal right up.”

Isabel nodded and gave Crystal a mirror of her reassuring smile. “Absolutely.” She pointed down towards the bottom corner of the room. “We should get down there. I saw a doorway when I was fighting the Typhon. It’s the only other door I’ve seen in here, so it has to lead to the staff of Ra.”

“Right,” Crystal said, tearing her eyes off Isabel to follow the direction of her point. “Any idea how to get down there without me blacking out? I can’t lower myself, and I don’t look forward to riding you with a broken arm.”

Isabel flushed at the choice of words and coughed. “I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve got a T-Rex, so I’m guessing I have some kind of sauropod. I can get my head up to the bottom of the platform, you step on, I lower you down.”

Crystal nodded. “That makes sense. But first?”

Isabel looked at her, and Crystal reached out to take Isabel’s hand. “Last time things were desperate, and I didn’t ask. But I’m Hungry, and if anything’s waiting, I need any kind of strength, and beyond that I’d bloody love to kiss-”

Before she could finish the sentence, Isabel leaned forward, carefully avoiding Crystals arm.

There in the Typhon’s chamber, on a platform built by a species thirty million years gone from this earth, they kissed – and for a moment, Crystal forgot about everything else that surrounded them.


 

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Small Worlds Part 206

Crystal felt a tug on her hair as one of the serpents managed to find purchase. She yanked her head forward and felt tearing in her scalp as a chunk tear loose in the snake’s maw. Crystal stumbled from the pain and the tug. The stumble turned into a fall, and Crystal saw the ground rushing up to meet her. The snakes surged forward in anticipation of her hitting the ground, fangs dripping with venom.

Crystal dropped the coefficient of friction in the tube into the negatives. She could feel reality push back hard at the violation of every law of thermodynamics, but she held the twist in place. Instead of skidding to a halt, she accelerated as she slid across the tube of air.

Her face pressed into the clear air gave her an excellent view of Isabel and the Typhon. Isabel had bitten into the Typhon’s neck stump and was now rolling with the body. Monstrous flesh shredded at the motion, and the Typhon shrieked at her in blind fury. New tendrils worked to reattach the parts Isabel shredded as quickly as she could tear them apart.

Isabel also bled from dozens of places where the fangs had managed to work their way past her scales, the anticoagulant venom making each pinprick as ticking clock towards her death. Crystal could still feel ichor running down her arm from the earlier bite, hot and sticky. It bounced oddly on the unnatural friction Crystal had created.

The effort of violating so fundamental a law was wearing on Crystal as she sped towards the end of the tunnel. Her mouth was painfully dry, and she could feel her lips cracking from the need for moisture. The pain in her stomach far exceeded the other injuries from the battle, and a heavy tiredness was settling in around her joints, so intense she almost feared she’d collapse before reaching the end of the tube.

On top of it all was a loneliness so crushing it brought tears to her eyes, a desperate need for some kind of contact. A tiny voice whispered in the back of her mind that she could get that contact – all she had to do was let the serpents catch up. She wouldn’t feel alone anymore then – and shortly afterwards she’d feel nothing at all.

She pushed the treasonous thought aside and focused on the platform growing closer in her vision.

Then her divine power winked out. Immediately, the normal friction of the air tube resumed. Her slide had increased to nearly forty miles per hour when the power vanished. It was falling out of a car at those speeds onto a fairly smooth road. Crystal was sent tumbling end over end, flopping along the tube in an undignified roll. Divine resilience left her as well, and she felt something snap in her arm. The pain was more than enough to draw a scream from her lips.

She’d left the snakes behind as she slid, and as she skidded to a halt, mere feet from the platform, they surged forward with ravenous anticipation. Crystal could barely move. So close, love, she thought, glancing at Isabel’s slowing form. Isabel would probably last another few minutes before the Typhon overcame her, then she’d die. Crystal would find herself the Typhon’s plaything, dying and reviving over and over, until her nanoverse collapsed from heat death.

We tried, she thought at the snake heads opened.

They halted mere inches from sinking their fangs into into her face.

Crystal stared at them, dumbfounded, as the serpents began to scream and were dragged out of the tunnel. Slowly, Crystal lowered her eyes to Isabel and the Typhon.

Isabel had turned back into the Tyrannosaurus Rex, and her massive jaws were wrapped around all of the Typhon’s serpents on one shoulder – the ones that had been chasing her. Instead of severing them, Isabel was dragging them back through her own immense weight and size.

It came at a cost. Virtually every other serpent on the Typhon’s back were now latched onto Isabel, pumping their venom into her. Isabel’s footsteps were growing weak, and she stumbled slightly with every footstep. She’d be dead soon.

Don’t waste this opportunity, Crystal thought fiercely, forcing herself to her feet. She was able to take two steps, just enough to get onto the platform where the control panel waited, before another lance of pain from her broken arm sent fracture lines of darkness across her vision, and she stumbled to her knees. Moments later, a massive crash signified that Isabel had collapsed. Don’t waste her sacrifice! Crystal screamed internally. She risked a glance back as she rose to her feet.

Isabel had managed to sever the serpents before her legs gave out, and now the Tyrannosaurus lay on the ground, barely breathing as blood pooled beneath it. The snakes were coming for Crystal again, moving at impossible speeds she couldn’t hope to match – but they had a ways to travel still. Crystal had to only move another four feet.

Crystal brought one leg up under herself, planting the foot firmly on the ground. Another wave of pain, this one accompanied by nausea, and Crystal fought down bile that rose in the back of her throat. Everything in her body was screaming at her to surrender, to lay down and accept it.

Instead, she forced her other leg forward and rose to her feet. The serpents were halfway to her now, hissing in excited fury. Crystal could see the emergency button, red and yellow.

She took a step, her uninjured arm outstretched. It shook with the effort, and Crystal felt like she was walking through molasses. She started to stumble again, and the button began to rise above her head.

With a lethargically frantic flair of her hand, Crystal managed to press the button and collapsed to the ground.

A dome sprung up over the platform, and the snakes broke their fangs against it. A few had been past the barrier, and they were cut in half as it rose. “Isabel!” Crystal shouted with the last of her strength as the walls of the chamber began to glow with sudden light.

“Cleansing initiated,” a robotic voice said.

Then the world went white as the energy of a star going supernova only quarter of a light year away flooded the chamber.


 

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Small Worlds Part 205

“Login successful,” the touchscreen read in a bright, cheerful font. “Please select your operation: Facilities Maintenance, Current Schedule, Contact Supervisor, Policies and Procedures, Union Messages, Contract.”

Crystal blinked at the screen as a sudden pang of familiarity struck her. She was certain she’d never been to this place, but clearly whatever she’d done before the end of the world, she’d worked for the same organization that had owned this place. Contact supervisor? What was I?

If time had permitted, Crystal would have spent hours exploring the menu. She wanted to, but Isabel’s life was in danger. Her hand flicked over to Facilities Maintenance and tapped that icon. Behind her, she heard a series of deep crashes and a bellowing roar that couldn’t have possibly come from the Glyptodon’s throat. Isabel had shifted again. Crystal fought the urge to glance over her shoulder to see what new form was tearing into the Typhon. Focus.

“Facilities Maintenance: Please select your operation: Life support. Fire control. Climate control. Incident Reports. Open Tickets. Pending Tickets. Closed Tickets.”

Crystal stared at the screen, her forehead furrowing. None of those seemed to cover what she needed. She could turn off Life support, but she’d only kill Isabel if she did. Fire control, perhaps? Crystal reached out and tapped that icon.

“Fire control: Please select your operation. Extinguisher Health Check. Sprinkler Health Check. Emergency Suppressant Health Check.”

Nothing that actually lets me control anything, Crystal thought, her frustration deepening. Behind her, the Typhon’s continued laughter took on a deeper, more resonant note. He’d managed to reattach his throat. It was cut off with a sickening crunch of bone and tearing of flesh, but Crystal didn’t need to look to know Isabel was lagging behind. If he reforms…Hurridly, Crystal tapped the back arrow and selected Life Support.

“Life Support: Please select your operation. Carbon Scrubber 1 Health Check. Carbon Scrubber 2 Health Check. Carbon Scrubber 3 Health Check. Carbon Scrubber 4 Health Check. Inorganic Waste Disposal Unit Health Check. Organic Waste Disposal Unit Health Check. Bodily Waste Disposal 1 Health Check. Bodily Waste Disposal 2 Health Check…”

It went on like that, listing health checks for various subsystems needed to maintain the life support. Desperate for some answers, Crystal tapped on Carbon Scrubber 1.

A list of readouts appeared. Filters. Power capacities. When the last manual check had been done – this one showing a date in a calendar format Crystal hadn’t seen in countless eons – and when the last automated replacement had occurred. That, at least, was last week. A red icon informed her that she was thirty million, two hundred and twenty three thousand, one hundred and seventeen years, three lunar cycles, one interval, six days, sixteen hours, three minutes, and nineteen seconds behind schedule, and accordingly, her pay would be drocked by a two hundred and seventeen million percent.

That last bit of information, that detail she’d be docked pay for being behind schedule, put the final piece of the puzzle into place, and memories started flooding back. She had worked for this company. She’d been working on their facility in the Blasted Desert when she’d found her bloody nanoverse in some new excavations. She’d left that day without even quitting.

She’d been working in maintenance, but not of the equipment. Not in a technical role.

She’d been a janitor.

Isabel roared behind her, and Crystal snapped back to the present. Celebrate knowing what you used to do later, she thought, backing out of the menus. She knew this system like the back of her hand, and with the memories back at the surface, it wasn’t hard to know exactly where to go. Policies and Procedures, then the big red icon she knew to expect: Emergency Procedure. A second tap brought up a holographic map of the room, with several points labeled. Fire alarms. Life support failure alarms. Ozone alarms. And one, clearly labeled: “Subject Containment Breach Response.”

It was on the other side of the room. Crystal didn’t bother with trying anything even remotely fancy. Instead, she wove a bridge of pure air between her platform and the switch’s location. Without even a glance back, she dashed across the bridge.

It gave her an excellent view of the fight. The Typhon had mostly reassembled, although Isabel was doing an admirable job of keeping its head from reattaching fully to its neck. She’d transformed herself into an immense crocodile, easily forty-five feet from nose to tail.  Sarcosuchus imperator, the largest crocodile to have ever existed. It’s scales were far too thick for the Typhon’s fangs to easily penetrate, and it offered the bite strength Isabel needed to keep the monster at bay.

The Typhon’s face had flipped over at some point, and his face was a mask of frustration and rage. Several of the snakes were trying to wind their way around Isabel. Whenever they got a secure grip, she’d start to trash and roll, and they would be ripped from their moorings on the Typhon’s back. It was a stalemate for now, but the Typhon showed no signs of tiring, while Isabel’s movements were increasingly sluggish.

Unfortunately, his face being turned upwards gave him a perfect view of Crystal running across the air. His frustration vanished to be replaced with cruel amusement, and dozens of snakes broke free to lunge for her.

With a quick flicking of equations, Crystal wove the bridge into a tunnel. Snakes battered against it and began wrapping around it, constricting tightly. Hunger rumbled in her stomach, and she didn’t dare try the electricity trick again.

Come on, come on…just a bit bloody further. Crystal’s feet pounded on the platform. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she could feel her breath hitch with every step. Behind her, she heard a hissing sound as the the snakes began to force their way through the ultra-dense air, and the tunnel filled with the sound of scales sliding against the smooth surface.

The sound of hissing grew louder with every step.

Small Worlds Part 204

“Damnit!” Crystal shouted, fighting the urge to bring her hands down on the screen in frustration. “Damnit, damnit, and damn the whole sodding thing a third bloody time.”

The swearing didn’t help clear her head or make her feel better. Crystal usually couldn’t remember her password after a couple days, especially since she usually used a random collection of numbers and letters that she could just store in a notebook in her staging area. Trying to remember a password from a year ago was a lost cause – a password from a million relative years ago, and thirty million actual years, was beyond what any sentient being should be expected to do.

I have to try something. Crystal risked a glance back. Isabel was getting tangled in the tendrils slowly pulling the Typhon back together. She was thrashing about, stamping her talons, biting, and even slashing with those tiny arms, but the tendrils were just reforming faster than she could destroy them.

To make matters worse, Isabel’s movements were becoming lethargic. The stomps were increasingly uncoordinated, and her eyes had a wild look to them that Crystal couldn’t attribute just to ferocity.

“Vocal tone indicates swearing,” the screen said. “Do you need assistance resetting your password?”

“Isabel!” Crystal shouted, inspiration striking. “Woodrat!” She twisted reality with the shouts to carry her voice to Isabel’s ear. Then she whipped her head back to the keyboard. If Isabel understood, and had a woodrat in her bag of forms – I swear if Arthur included bloody dinosaurs but didn’t include a woodrat I’m going to beat him to death with his own arms – she could shift into it long enough to neutralize the venom, then shift into something better suited to combat the Typhon. If she didn’t die while shifted. If she doesn’t shift, she’s dead either way.

“Response not understood. Do you need assistance resetting your password?”

“Yes!” Crystal shouted. “Yes, I need bloody assistance.”

The screen winked out for a moment, processing, before the screen repeated, “Response not understood. Do you need assistance resetting your password?”

Oh bloody hell, I have to speak Lemurian. Divine translation allowed her to read the words on the screen and speak in a way any living creature could understand. This machine couldn’t understand her though. “Uh…ghrat!

Again the screen winked out to process. As it did, a foul stench reached Crystal’s nose, like rotten eggs and spoiled milk mixed with rotten meat and left in the sun for a week. The Typhon began to bellow in something other than anger or triumph. Oh no, love, you didn’t…Crystal risked a look back over her shoulder. The tendrils had momentarily halted, and the Typhon’s head was actually trying to worm away from its neck. In the center of the mess sat a white a back blob, only a couple feet long, with an upraised tail.

Crystal couldn’t help but laugh and look back at the screen. It had bought Isabel some time at least.

“Acknowledged. Please select your security question:

Name of the first to hatch from your clutch?

Name of the last to hatch from your clutch?

Sod off, I don’t have a third question?”

Crystal desperately wished divine power allowed her to travel back in time so she could slap her younger self hard enough to knock some sense into her. She’d been trying to remember the names of any of her siblings for millenia, how was she supposed to put it together now? And then the third one…Okay, think. You would have had to put in an answer. What would it be?

Behind her, the battle had resumed. The Typhon had decided that the scent of a skunk was something it could bear, and Isabel had shifted forms again. Whatever she had turned into didn’t roar like the Tyrannosaur, but it certainly was making an unholy racket. Crystal glanced back at the battle, unable to help herself. She tapped the third question as she looked.

The Typhon’s tendrils were rapidly reconnecting to its neck. Many of the serpent heads had reconnected, and were trying to bite into Isabel with frantic desperation. For her part, Isabel was much smaller compared to the Tyrannosaur, less than three meters – if you didn’t count the massive tail that ended in a spined club. The most heavily armored mammals to ever walk the Earth – the Glyptodon, an ancient armadillo. Far too thickly armored for the Typhon to bite into her, and much better suited to snapping the tendrils as the tail waved back and forth.

“Please input your answer.”

Crystal’s hands flew to the keyboard. At least divine translation made typing easier. “Sod you too,” she tried, hoping for the easy answer.

“Input incorrect. Two attempts remaining.”

Crystal felt her heart pounding in her chest. “I don’t bloody know!” she tried.

“Input incorrect. One attempt remaining.”

The Typhon had finally gotten enough tendrils attached to drag its head back towards its body. Isabel was repeatedly smacking the Typhon’s head with her armored tail, knocking off huge chunks of flesh and bone with each blow, but it didn’t seem to be doing more than annoying the monster. Isabel let out the glyptodon’s version of a roar, a deep bleating sound that was almost goat-like. It would have been funny if Crystal couldn’t hear the edge of desperation in it.

Serpent fangs kept striking against the glyptodon’s armor. By pressuring her with those, the Typhon was keeping her from being able to safely shift again. The moment she did, the instant that armor went away, Isabel would be right back to bleeding slowly to death. What would it be, what would it be…it doesn’t relate to the question. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I’m not under pressure? The first thing I think when I look at that?

As soon as the thought crossed her mind, the answer followed. Of course. Fingers flying over the touchpad, Crystal typed exactly what she knew that question wanted.

“Roll with it, love.”

The answer was immediate. “Input correct. Please set your new password.”

This time, Crystal picked something she was certain she’d remember for quite some time.


 

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Small Worlds Part 200

Ryan walked back into the Council’s chamber with leaden feet. The sensation was similar to what he’d felt in high school, when he’d finally worked up the nerve to try weed, and the next day had been called to the principal’s office. Every step had been torture, and he was certain he’d be expelled or arrested. For a few wild moments, waiting in the office, sweating and shaking with anxiety, he’d been certain that somehow Nabu had rattled him out.

It had turned out someone at the school had found his angsty LiveJournal and wanted to set him up with a counselor. Since he’d still been seeing a psychiatrist at the time, it had been a short visit. He’d never touched any kind of drug again after that. Every time the opportunity had arisen, he’d felt that same sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

This time, the stakes were infinitely higher, and he didn’t see any chance of a last minute misunderstanding saving him. Jegudiel believed it was humanity’s time to die.

He’d talked about it with Dianmu and Nabu before going back in. Dianmu had grimly agreed it was unlikely the Council would relent after that discussion. “It’s still worth trying. Anything is worth trying. The worst case scenario is we are no better than we were when we came here.”

Ryan had nodded and looked over at Nabu. The curator looked worse than Ryan felt, like he might be sick at any moment. After decades of seeing him placidly observe everything, up to and including Ryan’s near death in a car accident, the idea that he was shaken so badly was the last thing Ryan’s nerves could handle at the moment. Nabu had excused himself and left. Ryan hadn’t resented him for that.

No one wants to watch hope die.

“Esteemed members of the Council,” Ryan asked, his voice clear in spite of the sick pit of worry that was gnawing at his stomach. “What did you find with the discrepancy in documentation?”

The robed figures were silent for a moment. Jegudiel had replaced her hood, and Ryan wanted to scream at her for that, call her a coward for refusing to look him in the eyes as she condemned an entire species to death because of the rules.

“Upon careful review of the documentation,” Jegudiel said, “we find that the six hundred and sixty seventh edition of The Handbook for Handling Requests from Fiends, Devils, Daemons, and other Infernal Entities…contained a misprint that leads to this confusion. Per the Thirty Eighth Edition of Documentation Errors, and the Handling Thereof, misprints are not grounds for policy changes so long as intent is clear. The Handbook for Handling Requests from Fiends, Devils, Daemons, and other Infernal Entities clearly meant to refer to the archangel Lucifer, not the human King of Hell Arthur. Therefore, no discrepancy exists.”

“Objection!” Dianmu shouted from where she stood. “The most recent edition of Documentation Errors, and the Handling Thereof, was the Thirty Seventh edition. I reviewed it extensively during our research process. There was no mention made of misprints!”

“I’m unsurprised you were unable to locate the Thirty Eighth edition,” Jegudiel said smoothly. “It was only recently published. But as I’m sure you are aware, the most recent edition holds precedent, regardless of publication date.”

By the way Dianmu’s face fell, Ryan knew that she was aware. “When was it published?” Ryan asked, a terrible anger forming alongside the dread in the pit of his stomach.

Even though Ryan couldn’t see her face, Ryan was certain the look Jegudiel was giving him was sympathetic. “Seven minutes and eleven seconds ago.”

“That’s absurd!” Ryan shouted. “You made changes to the rules halfway through a hearing to make sure you got the desired outcome.”

“Yes,” Jegudiel said simply. “There are policies outlined for doing exactly that.”

“It’s unfair,” Ryan said, hoping he sounded more righteous than petulant.

“The universe often is, Ryan Smith, Eschaton of Earth.” While there was still a hint of sympathy in Jegudiel’s voice, there was no sign of yielding. “We do not exist to make sure that loopholes can be exploited. We exist to make sure things run smoothly. You are commended for bringing this error to our attention, and your name will receive credit in the next forty editions of the Documentation Errors, and the Handling Thereof.

“You can take that book, turn it sideways, and shove it so far up your ass you choke on it,” Ryan said, spitting the words between clenched teeth. The council members began to murmur at his outburst, but Ryan was unrelenting. “You wasted twelve hours of our time –  more – so you could change the rules at the last minute just to fuck us. You could have at least bought us dinner first.”

“Technically, you declined our offer for food by not filling out the required forms,” Jegudiel said.

“Seriously?” Ryan shouted, his voice full of sarcastic fury. “That’s your defense? Damn you all to hell. I know the guy in charge, I’ll ask him to make it especially nasty for you.”

“Your outbursts are out of line,” one of the other Councilmembers said, his voice firm.

“This council is out of line! This whole damn situation is out of line! You know what?” Ryan pointed an accusatory finger at Jegudiel. “Humans may be average. We may be unexceptional. We may be just another species in your eyes. But we are better than you in one important way. We would never sentence an entire species to death because of paperwork.

“Perhaps you would not,” Jegudiel did. “But we are not doing that either. We do not issue the death sentence. Time and the Creator do. We simply ensure the rules are followed.”

Ryan sunk back, fury fading to be replaced by despair. It was over. The Curators would tell them nothing. They had only managed to lose time. I still have no idea how I’m going to pull it off…oh god, I can’t kill humanity!

The door burst open behind Ryan. Nabu stood there, his tie undone, his hair wild, and a piece of paper in his hand. “Esteemed council!” he shouted. “I have one more form to submit.”

Nabu strode forward and slapped the paperwork in front of Jegudiel. Ryan saw the title on it, and he felt a sudden surge of hope he had been certain was dead.

“Statement of Intent by a Class 3 Curator to Go Renegade, 23-P”

 

Small Worlds Part 199

“You seem nervous,” Jegudiel said, giving Ryan a warm smile. “Would you care for some tea? I find it’s very relaxing.”

“Uh…do I have to do paperwork for it?” Ryan asked, trying to discreetly run the palms of his hands on the side of his jeans to rid them of sweat. He’d seen what an archangel could do now. If Uriel’s fight with Moloch was anything to go by, the short woman in front of him could kill him before he could bat an eyelash. Been awhile since you felt like this, hasn’t it? Even against Enki, even against the Super Soldiers, even against Moloch…Ryan hadn’t felt powerless. Overwhelmed, under prepared, or not quite strong enough, sure. But powerless? That was new.

He didn’t particularly like it.

Jegudiel laughed lightly. “Yes, but they’re very simple. Just a Waiver for any Injuries Sustained from Hot Beverage 19-C and Consent to Imbibe Caffeinated Beverage 30-J. Just need your signature.”

“Appreciate it,” Ryan said, “but if I have to sign one more form I’m probably going to tear out my eyeballs and try to use them as pens.”

“Not without an Authorization to Use Bodily Fluids or Substances for Ink or other Writing Implement Special Request – Non-Blood 11-J.”

Ryan stared at her. “You’re serious. You actually have a form for that.”

“Of course we do,” Jegudiel said, her tone full of sympathy. “It may seem odd you, but there are rules and processes for everything. And there a reasons for them.”

“If you don’t mind my asking…what possible use is there to a form specifically for requesting bodily fluids to be used as ink?” Ryan kept his tone as polite as possible. Do not piss off the lady that can break time in half.

“If you were to do so, you’d be leaving behind your DNA and a bit of your essence. Such things could be used against you. The form ensures that you fully understand the possible repercussions for doing so, to make sure you don’t accidentally expose yourself to risks you couldn’t have predicted.”

“Okay,” Ryan said after a moment, “I guess I can see the logic of that. And a form to Consent to Imbibe Caffeinated Beverages?”

“Caffeine is a diuretic. Even the law enforcement on your world gives people caffeinated beverages to increase the need to urinate, which is an effective – if debatably legal – interrogation technique. Again, it’s about making sure you understand the consequences of your actions.”

“Uh-huh.” Ryan frowned. “And the temporary pen Allocation forms?”

Jegudiel’s face darkened. “People kept stealing my pens. I hate it when people steal my pens.”

Ryan couldn’t stop himself from barking out a laugh. Jegudiel gave him a raised eyebrow. “Sorry,” Ryan said. “I just…that’s the first thing you’ve said I can relate to.”

Jegudiel’s smile returned. “As I said, a purpose for everything. But for most of them, it’s about informed consent. Understanding that actions have consequences. Such as, for example, trying to circumvent the natural Eschaton process.”

“Ah,” Ryan said, settling back into his chair. “I see where you’re going with this.”

“I doubt it,” Jegudiel said, although politely. “I think it’s very likely that, if you did understand, you would be apologizing and leaving my office.”

“Maybe,” Ryan said. “On the other hand, I’m pretty attached to my species.”

“You and every other Eschaton, Ryan. Do you know how many Eschatons have come to Officium Mundi, this year alone, requesting some way to circumvent the process. ‘Please, make this one exception. Tell me how I can save only my species.’ It’s understandable, but it’s also painfully selfish.”

“Selfish?” Ryan asked with a start. “How could it be selfish? I’m trying to save the human race!”

“And only the human race,” Jegudiel said. “Other races can burn as far as you’re concerned, yes?”

Ryan blanched. “No, I don’t mean…I just can’t do anything for them. I have to focus on what I can control.”

“Mmm,” Jegudiel said. She motioned and out of the air, formed a perfect cup of tea to take a thoughtful sip out of. “Tell me, then, Ryan. What makes the human race worth saving, out of all other races. What makes your species special?”

“I mean…” Ryan stared at her. “I don’t know. I don’t know what other races are like, so I can’t make a case for humans being exceptional without a comparison.”

“Fair.” Jegudiel tapped her lip. “Would you like to know? Would you like to know what makes humans exceptional?”

Ryan nodded.

“Absolutely nothing.” Jegudiel’s smile took on a wicked bend, although Ryan had to wonder if it was his own mind adding that at the way his stomach dropped. “You’re more violent than fifty-five point three percent of species. You’re more artistic than forty-six point eight percent. You’re lifespan is within median ranges for sentient species. You’ve destroyed your home planet quicker than sixty one point four five percent of species. You’ve engaged in genocide more frequently than forty nine point two. You commit acts of kindness more frequently than fifty five point seven. You achieved space travel quicker than sixty two point seven percent of species. There is nothing about humanity that stands out, nothing that makes them exemplary for good or ill.” This time there was a gleam in Jegudiel’s eyes that Ryan was sure was, if not malicious, a least smug.  “That’s also true for sixty five point seven percent of species, so you’re not even exceptionally mediocre.”

“Well, maybe that’s because species keep dying before they can accomplish anything!” Ryan said, anger replacing fear in a burning rush. “Maybe this whole Eschaton cycle just prevents any species from reaching its full potential.”

“Maybe.” Jegudiel said, her voice firm. “But there’s no reason to believe humanity will manage to achieve any degree of exceptionalism. There’s nothing about your species that suggests you are anything other than an average species, from an average world, around an average star. You had an average civilization. Take some pride in that you avoided destroying yourselves before now, which is true of forty point five percent of species. At least you weren’t in the upper percent of that range.”

“It’s not just about math,” Ryan growled. “It’s about individuals. Anything becomes average when you look at a large enough groups, but individual people have lives and hopes and dreams and potential. We could still do so much.”

“Yes, you potentially could have done so much,” Jegudiel softly. “But it’s time for the world to end, Eschaton. It’s time for humanity to die. I’m sorry. Leave aside this debate, go back to your world. If you want, take a few humans into your nanoverse to live their lives out in the space of a cosmic blink, if it eases your guilt.. But let go.”

Ryan stood up sharply. “No. I’m going to keep pushing. I’m going to keep fighting. Right up until the last second, as long as I draw breath, I’m not giving up.”

Jegudiel sighed. “You are going to regret that, Ryan Smith. It’s best to accept that there are some things that cannot be fought. Give up.”

“Never,” Ryan said firmly. “Never, ever give up.”

“As you wish,” Jegudiel said. “You do understand that, in this debate, I make the final decision, correct?”

Ryan nodded.

“And you still wish to argue, knowing my stance?”

“Sure,” Ryan said. “Because there’s still hope I can change your mind.”

“You won’t.” Jegudiel said simply.

“Maybe,” Ryan said. “But I know one thing for a fact.”

Jegudiel arched an eyebrow. “And what, pray tell, is that?”

Ryan smiled at her. He knew how bitter the expression was, but was past caring. “That I’ll never convince you if I don’t try.”

Jegudiel sighed. “Very well, Ryan. I’ll see you back in the meeting chamber.” She motioned to dismiss him.

Ryan gave her a stiff bow and walked out.

 

 

Small Worlds Part 194

The heroic walk into the Hall of Curation was somewhat spoiled by the receptionist desk waiting for them. Ryan had quietly been hoping that he would be to stride directly to the Council and present his case. I should have known that the Curators wouldn’t allow people to go prancing in there without permission, he thought, forcing his expression to change from determination to something more affable.

The receptionist, a male Curator with short dark hair, glanced up at them. “Do you have an appointment?” he asked.

“Ryan Smith, Eschaton of Earth, with Dianmu, Goddess of Thunder, and Nabu, our Curator Representative.”

The receptionist tapped away on a computer. “I do see you are here. Excellent. Their last meeting is running behind schedule.” From the way the Curator said those last three words, one would think someone had rerouted a sewage outflow pipe directly into the Council chambers. “I have some paperwork you can fill out while you wait?”

Ryan fought back a sigh and held out his hand for the paperwork. Thankfully they still had pens so didn’t need to deal with a Temporary Pen Reallocation Form. Ryan fought back an urge to curse when he saw the headings on these forms. “Authorization Form For Wasting Time 19032-G?” he growled at Nabu. “We have to wait, and because of that we need to fill out forms?”

Nabu chuckled. “No. We Curators don’t do well sitting idle. These forms aren’t required, they’re just a way to pass the time.”

Ryan and Dianmu carefully put their clipboards aside. It earned them a disapproving look from the receptionist. Apparently the idea of someone sitting quietly without doing paperwork was alien to him. Then again, how often does someone get to speak to the Council? Ryan wondered. He thought to ask Nabu, but the Curator was engrossed in the Authorization Form For Wasting Time 19032-G, and Ryan didn’t want to disturb him.

They didn’t have to wait long at least. Not fifteen minutes later, the door was opened, and the receptionist motioned for them to head inside.

This room, at least, lived up to Ryan’s hopes for this excursion. The walls were hidden in shadows, and atop five podiums sat five hooded figures. Each one wore a robe of the plainest beige, which somewhat ruined the effect in Ryan’s mind. They looked like the grim reaper for people with no imagination.

Ryan decided to inspect them with his divine sight.

The pain was immediate and immeasurable. He didn’t scream. It was more like a paralysis struck him, like grabbing a live electrical wire, seizing up every muscle in his body. He blinked away tears as the final vestiges of that glance faded from sight, but what he had seen chilled him to his core.

The Council of Curators were beings fundamentally woven into the fabric of reality. They were forces of nature in the same way that gravity was, or electromagnetism. Ryan had seen exactly one thing like it before.

Uriel.

The Council of Curators were archangels. The Curators were angels.

Ryan felt a weight fall into the pit of his stomach. I really, really hope they don’t know about what I helped Arthur do… he thought, his palms suddenly sweaty.

“The Council of Curators will hear the argument of Ryan Smith, Eschaton of Earth, Slayer of Enki, Ally of Hell and Invader of Heaven,” they intoned in unison.

Oh…shitblossoms, Ryan thought as he swallowed against the sudden lump in his throat. []

Nabu coughed, and Ryan realized they were waiting for him to speak.

“Esteemed Council of Curators,” Ryan began. He could feel sweat beginning to condense on his forehead. You faced down Enki. And the Super Soldier. And Moloch. You can handle this. Ryan wiped his forehead and cleared his throat before beginning again. “Esteemed Council of Curators, I come to you today to request permission to read or learn in any fashion of your choosing the precise rules and regulations governing my duties as Eschaton. I seek to know exactly what parameters must be met to satisfy the criteria that the world has ended to prevent Earth’s sun from detonating.”

“And why do you seek this information?” said the Councilmember at the head of the semicircle. The voice was firm and powerful, with a slightly higher registered that Ryan assumed was feminine. Not that he could be sure with those beige robes and deep shadows obscuring all features.

“Because I have a job to do, and I want to do it right?” If Ryan was hoping for laughter from the lame joke, his hopes were doomed to be dashed. “Because I want to find a way to save the human race,” he repeated. “I don’t want to condemn them all to death to save a star.”

“If the star detonates, everyone on the planet will die,” said the Concilmember on the far right end of the table. “You do not care about saving humanity. You care about avoiding guilt.”

“That’s not true!” Ryan objected. “If I allow the star to detonate, I’m still guilty of the crime of letting humanity die! I want to know if there’s a third option.”

The Councilmembers shuffled in their seats, looking at each other. “Ryan Smith, do you understand why the cycle is so important?” the middle one asked. Even though Ryan couldn’t see her eyes, she could feel the intensity of her gaze upon him.

Ryan nodded. “I think so, at least. It keeps the universe young. In theory, it could extend the lifetime of the universe indefinitely.”

“Yes. In theory. However, every time Eschatons start arising, some clever Eschaton gets it in their head they can cheat the system. That they can save their people. Every time it happens, the star in question explodes. The Universe falls a bit more into Entropy.”

Ryan swallowed. “If you do this, if you give me this, you have my word that if I cannot save the people of Earth, I will not allow the sun to go supernova. I will end this.”

The far left Curator snorted sourly. “An easy promise to make. You believe you’ll find a loophole in the system.” His voice was unmistakably male, and unmistakably completely tired of Ryan already. “You’ll promise your own head on a plate, but when you fail? You’ll run.”

“I won’t!” Ryan objected.

The middle Councilmember pulled a book out of her robe. In gold letters across the front lead “The Pre-Divinity Life of Ryan Smith, Eschaton of Earth, Abridged.” Ryan glanced at Nabu, who was shifting in discomfort.

“You have, in your life, made three hundred twenty eight promises,” the Councilmember read. “In that time, you have violated a promise one hundred and eighty three times. This is a fifty-five point four nine percent failure rate of your promises, if we round up. The odds of a coin coming up heads are better than the odds of you keeping a promise.”

“I can’t…three hundred twenty eight promises?” Ryan blanked. He couldn’t recall anything close to that number of promises.

“April seventeenth, 2001. You swore to your parents you wouldn’t drink until you were twenty one. October third, 2005, got drunk you freshman year of college. Swore the next morning you would never drink again. October eight, 2005, got drunk again.”

“Oh come on, everyone-” Ryan started to object, but the Curator was relentless.

“November twenty sixth, 2006. Promises your sister you would still take her to Moonburger ever wednesday even though you were in college. December thirty-first, 2007, cancelled because you were “too busy.” spent the entire day watching the extended edition of Lord of the Rings and eating Pizza.”

“I had just broken up with-”

“February third, 2000. Confirmed in the Catholic Church. January 7th, 2018, lead an army to the gates of Heaven in service of the King of Hell.”

The sweat broke out again in earnest. “My parents made – “

The curator slammed the book shut. “Excuses. Always excuses. Your promises, Eschaton of Earth, are meaningless. We have agreed to hear your arguments, Ryan Smith. However, you will no longer waste our time with your promises.

Ryan stepped back and took a deep breath, trying to steady himself.

He had a very bad feeling this wasn’t going to work out.