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 198

Crystal was lost in a sea of math.

Typhon was focusing one hundred and nineteen heads on her right now, a tangled mass that she could barely sort out. If she’d tried to watch the heads themselves, she’d get distracted in short order.  Based on previous attack patterns eighty nine point three percent probability of strike on lower left side in next point two seconds shift stance nine point three degrees clockwise and lower left blade and –

The calculation didn’t need to finish. Crystal could feel the impact of the serpent’s snout as it impaled itself on her blade. She flicked her wrist to bring the sword up to catch the next attack, this one from the upper left, while swinging her right sword in a wide arc to catch the merged strikes that were coming from that side.

Three more serpents reared back, bloody and confused. At least, the math told her they were reared back, and the impact up her arms told her she’d cut into their flesh. She did her best to only watch the math directly.

It was less distracting than the writhing mass of serpents surrounding her.

Ninety one point seven percent probability of strike from directly above. Crystal raised her sword and was rewarded with a snake bifurcating itself along the point of the blade. She was immediately leaping to take her path over another snake coming for her ankles, swinging her sword to free it from its gory sheathe. A quick spin in the air caused a serpent head that would have plunged its fangs into her midsection to snap shut on her hair. She had to jerk her head to tear a few strands loose.

She’d lost sight of Isabel some time ago, but the occasional shrieks of a bird of prey told her that her companion was still alive and fighting.

Above it all, Typhon was still bringing the massive dragon heads to bare on Crystal. He moved with agonizing slowness when he wasn’t relying on the serpent heads. That’s for the best; Crystal reminded herself, ducking beneath two incoming heads and managing to decapitate one with a quick scissoring of her twin swords. If he was fast, we’d already be dead.

Of course, the problem was they weren’t even coming close to accomplishing their goal. Typhon – even though it technically was just “a typhon”, Crystal struggled to not think of it as a name – was barely even winded, and had Crystal and Isabel fighting for their lives. One point seven percent chance you are not struck within the next ten seconds. That particular probability had been dropping steadily throughout the fight.

And right now, she still had no way to strike at Typhon directly. Come on Crystal, she urged herself. Think. Think of something!

Before she could, a pair of fangs sunk into her left arm. Crystal grunted in pain and tore away, swinging the sword wildly to decapitate the head. It fell to the ground with an audible thump, and ichor began to flow freely from the wound. The toxin’s an anticoagulant, Crystal realized with a start. That was in some ways better than it could have been. It meant she wouldn’t have to contend with a neurotoxin attacking her brain.

It also meant a clock had been put onto the fight. Crystal could cauterize the wounds, but the fangs had sunk deep. Cauterizing would only stop the bleeding on the surface.

Nothing like your impending death to get the mind going.

Crystal grabbed onto threads of reality and twisted. A dome of air sprung into existence around her, and with another twist to reality, she set it up to fling all negatively charged particles out into the mass of snakes. One of the serpent heads struck towards it, and was met with a blast of electricity. It convulsed and hissed in pain as it withdrew.

She’d bought herself a reprieve, but it was a brief one. If she stayed in here for too long, Typhon would shift his attention to Isabel, and this hastily erected barrier would do nothing to stop those intense flames from the dragon heads. At least they’re so slow…too slow.

Typhon was playing with her and Isabel with its snake heads. Otherwise they’d have been surrounded and completely consumed by now. But if it didn’t want to kill them, it wouldn’t have bothered with the dragon heads at all. So why was it moving so damn slowly?

The answer presented itself as Crystal opened up her divine sight. The pillars that were built into the room were buried into the largest masses of Typhon’s flesh. Complex equations ran through them, too complex for Crystal to figure out exactly what they were doing to him, but their broad purpose was clear enough. They were inhibiting Typhon, weakening him. This entire moon base was a prison for the creature, not one built with divine power, but with Lemurian technology.

Crystal launched herself into the air, orb of lightning still surrounding her. Snake heads reeled back from the onslaught, hissing in agony. Typhon himself roared in agony. Enough charge had built up where he could feel it coursing up his body.

“Impudent little godling!” he bellowed in that voice that shook the room like an earthquake. Moonquake. Don’t waste time pondering correct terminology, Crystal told herself.

Those pillars were her primary focus. In the last days of Lemuria, her people had made a concentrated study of the mythological creatures spawned from the deaths of gods and their offspring. Typhon was still alive because he’d been a research project. But her people would have put fail safes in place. A way to permanently put the monster down if it managed to break free.

“Pathetic worm!” Typhon bellowed. He spoke in the tongue of long forgotten Mu, which told Crystal how old the being was. Enough divine energy still lingered in his massive form to where even Isabel would be hearing it in English. Crystal kind of regretted that was true. At least she wouldn’t have to understand the creature’s inane taunts.

Why’s he keeping us alive? That question still tugged at Crystal’s mind, but she put it aside. As important as it seemed, there would be time to ponder it when he was dead.

“I will feast on your flesh,” Typhon growled as the snake heads closed in on Crystal’s field again. Enough of them to overload the electric charge and push through. She reached out and twisted equations again. The field exploded in a sudden burst of increased electricity. Typhon’s roar this time carrier real pain.

She’d turned the air surrounding herself into plasma, which combined with the earlier equations had sent every electron flying outwards. The resulting electricity had carried millions of watts of power, and she’d only managed to just hurt the creature. “You will suffer for your impudence!” Typhon roared.

“You need a bloody dialogue coach,” Crystal shouted back.

Some of the snake heads following Isabel broke off their pursuit and started to chase Crystal. Typhon had heard her taunt and was not amused. It had bought Isabel a bit of breathing room, but made Crystal’s job harder. Worth it, Crystal thought. She just had to hope the kill switch was still working and figure out how to activate it.

If not, she and Isabel would suffer everything Typhon promised and more.

 

Small Worlds Part 197

Isabel watched as Crystal threw her hands out, arresting her fall midair. Before Isabel could even think about what form she was going to shift into next, Crystal twisted reality to raise the ambient light seeping into the room.

Isabel nearly fell out of the air at the sight. The chamber was immense, easily the size of a football field, and circular. Wires and electronic devices hung from the ceiling, of a make and purpose Isabel couldn’t begin to deduce. Five immense pillars, arranged in a pentagram, jutted down from the ceiling, covered with walkways and more electronic gadgets.

At the bottom of the pit was the Typhon. It was so immense that, at first, Isabel’s mind refused to believe it was a single coherent creature. It covered the entire bottom of the chamber, a sprawling mass of tentacles that writhed maliciously. In the center was the creature’s torso, one that looked almost like a giant torso of a man, although covered with red scales. It turned a head that was eerily human upwards to look at its new visitors, and Isabel realized that each of its eyes were as large as Crystal. It was slowly raising its arms, two immense masses of flesh that ended in dragon heads the size of school buses. Along its back were another series of tentacles, each of these ended in a serpentine head like the one that had pursued them into the pit.

How can we possibly kill this thing? Isabel thought in despair. It was too big, too powerful. It was too much for them to destroy.

“Move!” Crystal shouted, startling Isabel out of her reflection. Isabel banked to the side just as the snake head that had reached all the way up into the shaft above snapped its jaws shut. It caught a couple of her tail feathers, but missed ending her life in a single bite. The dragon heads were now aimed firmly at Crystal, and each of them took a deep breath. Oh no, Isabel thought, flapping to get as much distance between herself and Crystal. Crystal’s eyes widened and she allowed gravity to reassert its hold on her.

The dragon heads let loose a torrent of fire. The temperature in the chamber leapt like a blast furnace. Even the creature’s own snake head broke off pursuit of Isabel.

When the flames cleared, Crystal had landed on one of the walkways of the pillars. Typhon bellowed a laugh that shook the chamber like peals of hateful thunder. “Good. I have not killed anything in far too long. I look forward to this, little thing.”

Before Isabel could fully process that this monstrous thing could speak, let alone speak English, The serpent heads hissed and struck towards Crystal and Isabel. Isabel lost sight of Crystal in the mass of attacking snakes, and was forced to duck and weave. Each one was large enough to kill Isabel with a snap of those jaws; even ignoring whatever poison they had dripping from those horrid fangs.

The parrot brain offered little guidance in how to avoid this many incoming attacks. It had spent its entire life around humans, and the closest thing it had ever encountered to a predator was when its owner was cat sitting. Isabel’s erratic, panicked flapping made her a wild enough target to keep her safe, but she knew that couldn’t last long.

If she was going to survive, she needed something that could handle this. I can’t even try to land! Isabel thought in panic. The snakes were swarming around her, forming a web of scaled flesh that threatened to envelop her even if she managed to avoid being bitten. The parrot was panicking now, which didn’t help at all. It knew they were in danger, it knew it was going to die, and all it wanted to do was to fly away, a frantic thought that would make them sitting ducks for the serpentine heads.

Another one snapped shut just above Isabel’s head. She could actually feel the scaled mouth of the serpent brush through her feathers.

That was too much for both Isabel and the parrot. In desperate fear, she began to flap furiously, trying to put as much space between herself and the viciously hungry heads.

A gap opened in the mess surrounding her as the snake heads began to pursue her. Crystal was down below. She’d drawn a pair of thin sword out of her nanoverse and was fending off the Typhon’s attempts to bite her with preternatural grace. Isabel had never seen anything like it. Crystal seemed to be reacting to threats before Typhon even knew where the next attack would come from, like the monster was fighting with two seconds of lag behind the goddess.

It also was apparent that it wasn’t enough. Crystal was drawing thin lines of blood from the scales of the monstrosity, but she was just cutting the hundreds of snake heads. She couldn’t pause to hurt Typhon directly.

And right now, I’m no help to her, Isabel thought. If anything, she was a distraction. She had to do something. She had to not just evade. She had to fight.

Isabel pushed the parrot’s body to fly downwards, away from the serpents that struck all around her. The parrot didn’t want to. The parrot wanted the freedom of the open sky. Isabel just wanted space to shift.

The moment she had it, she banked as hard as she could. The next snake that came striking towards her was met with talons that sunk into its neck.

Isabel let out an instinctive and triumphant shriek.

The harpy eagle was native to the rainforests of the Amazon, and was built to fly in between the thickly packed branches of those tropical environments. It was perfect for flying between the grasping snakes heads Typhon was throwing at Isabel, and its talons were more than strong enough to actually puncture the thick scales of the serpents’ hides.

This particular harpy eagle’s mind was strong in the back of Isabel’s brain. It was confused by the threat they were against, but it wasn’t frightened. It was an apex predator in one of the most dangerous places on the planet. It was an apex predator that shared its dominion with jaguars and anacondas.

So, with Isabel’s heart pounding and her brain demanding that she choose between fight and flight, the harpy eagle strongly felt that the second option was for prey. He was not prey. He was the predator.

Isabel went along with that instinct, hoping that the harpy eagle’s soul would have a better idea how to survive what came next than she did.

 

Small Worlds Part 191

Athena and Arachne’s swords rang out in the warm Mediterranean air. Arachne was fast, but all those years had a spider had done nothing to teach her better swordplay. With each blow, Arachne was forced back, step by step. Athena pressed forward, not relenting. A high blow met an angled parry, a low blow forced Arachne to leap back to avoid the sword rising up to meet her stomach. Come on…Athena thought, egging herself onward. Maintaining the anger at Arachne to drive herself to not hold back was hard. Arachne’s threats were terrible, but to really get the most of them, Athena had to believe she would really do it. Would she?

That distraction gave Arachne an opening. She pushed downward with a weaving of Air, propelling herself up and back away from Athena. Athena tried to counter by pushing herself into the air, but Arachne deftly wove a correcting twist in Athena’s attempt. Reality, as if glad for the excuse to return to normal, struggled against Arachne.

Athena rolled to the side as Arachne hurled a lightning bolt across the battlefield. “That’s more like it!” Arachne shouted. “Come at me with everything! No more games, Athena!” Stones began to explode again near Athena’s feet, forcing her to take to the air or be impaled on splinters of stone. This time, Arachne didn’t risk the high power cost of breaking Athena’s manipulation, instead magnetizing the spines of rock she’d already created to come flying after Athena as she rose into the air.

With a flick of her wrist, Athena threw an air bubble between herself and the stones. A few punched through, and Athena fought back a shout of pain as one embedded itself in her calf. She saw her opening here, however. Reaching out, she grabbed bands of Air and Aether.

The sky grew dark, and Arachne looked up in confusion – just in time to see the sunlight gather into a shaft of pure light to come streaking out of the heavens towards her.

The old trick of Tyrs was one of his favorite battle enders. Being struck by the concentrated power of the sun had a way of making opponents simply stop existing. It had one major weakness – the way the sky went dark before it struck, alerting its target that the laws of physics were about to break down in a very lethal way.

Athena had been counting on that. Arachne had throw herself to the side with a powerful burst of air just before the light struck stone with enough energy to vaporize it into plasma. Arachne stared at where the beam had impacted, sweat running down her face. “Now…now I believe you’re taking this seriously.”

Athena gave her a grim smile as she settled back onto the ground, throwing forth a wave of fire that rolled along the ground. Arachne countered with a pressurized jet of water, powerful enough to sear flesh to the bone and easily dousing the flames in front of her. Athena threw up a stone pillar between herself and the jet of water, then – with a twist to give it direction – punched the back of the stone. It went flying at Arachne, slowed by the water jet but given added strength by Athena’s additional twists. Arachne easily leapt out of the way when it got too close to her, and swung down at Athena with a whip of molten rock.

Athena lurched to the side as the whip seared the earth she had just vacated. Coming up from the roll, Athena used one of her newer tricks, one Arachne hadn’t seen before.

She threw her sword. A quick twist gave the blade the mass of an elephant and hypersonic speed. It was the same twist she’d used to punch a hole in a hecatoncheires. Even divine reflexes weren’t enough to save Arachne completely. She started to dodge, but the blade still drew a thin line of blood from her cheek. Arachne’s hair whipped about in the in the shockwave of its passing.

Arachne grinned fiercely and threw her hands towards Athena. Another wave of lightning crackled from her fingertips. Athena twisted Earth, grounding the lightning before it could reach her. She dashed past the lightning to close the distance between herself and Arachne. Swords clashed again, but Athena could tell she was slowing down. Arachne barely seemed tired. The sound of steel on steel rung through the air, each of them putting everything they had into the blows. This was the kind of battle that had made mortals once fear gods, the kind of clash that created the rumors of gods with swords of lightning, bellowing thunder. The each had to weave Earth into their blades to prevent the steel from shattering under the repeated impacts.

Even those couldn’t hold forever. With one final downward strike from Athena, the swords shattered against each other. Arachne was quicker, and with a twist of Air she sent a hail of steel shards flying into Athena’s face.

Athena screamed as the splinters cut into her cheeks and forehead. An upraised hand saved her eyes from being pierced, letting steel embed itself in her palm. Before she could even begin to recover from that. Arachne’s knee shot up to meet Athena’s stomach. It hit with enough impact that it sent a shockwave cracking through the air. Athena rode the impact and the shockwave into the air.

Before she hit the ground, Arachne hurled a bolt of lightning from the sky, drawing it to the metal in Athena’s face.

Athena was too far past pain to scream then. Her vision went white, and her body seized up as white hot electricity lanced through her veins. She collapsed to the ground, the distant sound of thunder echoing in her ears.

Arachne was walking towards her with a slow deliberation. She’d pulled another sword out of her nanoverse, one that trailed the ground at her side. “So, Athena, this is how it ends.”

Athena held up a hand that twitched with the leftover pain from the lightning. Before she could speak, another bolt of lightning flew down from the sky, again drawn to the metal in her face. This time Athena did find the pain the scream. When her vision cleared, Arachne was standing over her, the sword raised and ready to bring down.

“I…yield,” Athena managed to croak out.

Arachne’s face hardened, and she brought down the sword. Distantly Athena could hear Anansi cry out, but he was too far away, too late to prevent it, too late to stop from Arachne from driving the sword through Athena’s heart.

The sword struck the earth next to Athena, sinking into the ground without even touching her. Arachne regarded her coolly as she stared at Athena. Then she nodded slowly. “I accept your surrender.”

Then, with careful deliberation, she turned away from Athena. “Get up.”

Limbs trembling from repeated electrocution, Athena did.

Small Worlds part 188

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Athena relaxed. “I understand.”

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

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

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

“Five millennia,” Athena whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My nanoverse?” Arachne asked.

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” Athena said.

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

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

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

Athena shook her head.

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

“You will have that,” Athena said.

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

In silence, Athena followed.

Small Worlds Part 185

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now, that would be enough.

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Small Worlds Part 184

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmy nodded again, tears streaking down his face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small Worlds part 183

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It still hurt.”

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

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

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

“And if we get hungry?” Sally asked.

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

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

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

Right now, it was their only hope.

Small Worlds Part 182

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you tried the bookstore?” Carl asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sally started to scream.

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Small Worlds part 180

Weird Theology is now available as an audiobook! Click here to check it out! Or here for Amazon! (It just got approved for whisper sync) And if you could leave it an honest rating or review, I’d really appreciate it.

Officium Mundi was exactly the sort of organized chaos Ryan remembered from his last visit. As he and Dianmu left his nanoverse, they had to step quickly to avoid being struck by a filing cabinet that ambled along on its own, chased by a curator in the brown suit they seemed to favor. Another curator, almost the mirror twin of the one that had just dashed by, stepped up to them. “Paperwork?”

Ryan and Dianmu shared a glance. Last time Ryan had been here, they had not asked for paperwork as soon as he arrived. From Dianmu’s expression, this was an entirely new concept to her as well. “We don’t have any?” Ryan said, his voice rising up on the last word, turning it into a question.

The curator nodded briskly and pulled a stack of papers out of the air. “Temporary regulations. Initial paperwork must be filled out before any mortal, immortal, demon, non-Euclidean entity, post-mortal being, or quasi-divine being can petition for questions, knowledge, or investigation. Do you need a pen?”

Ryan patted his pockets and realized, to his chagrin, he had forgotten it. Just as he was about to ask for one of those damn Temporary Pen Allocation forms, Dianmu reached into her pocket and pulled out two black pens with a small smile. The Curator nodded in approval. “You can use room 235x, instance 67 to fill out the requisite forms.” He pointed to indicate a bank of rooms. Ryan peered at them, and on instinct, activated his divine sight.

It hurt his brain to look at. The rooms were a hallway that stretched on for seventeen miles, stacked three deep, like a bank of motel rooms. However, each room was also, at the same time, two hundred rooms. Each one was slightly out of phase with the others, allowing them to occupy the same physical space while also permitting multiple people to enter without ever seeing each other.

Ryan felt warm liquid on his upper lip, and the tangy, coppery taste of blood on his lips. He turned off his divine sight and brought two fingers up to his nose. Blood. He’d given himself a damn bloody nose looking at that. The Curator gave him a sympathetic look and pulled out a tissue from his pocket. “Should have warned you. You’re still Nascent, right? Divine sight and things like that don’t mix well until after Apotheosis.”

Ryan reached for the tissue and dabbed at his lip, then twisted the tissue into a small sphere he could put in his nostril to stem the flow. As a child, Ryan had dealt with almost daily nosebleeds until getting a humidifier. They’d last for hours at times, and this trick had been his favorite to allow him to do school work or play with friend. It made him look absurd, a tail of white tissue sticking out from one nostril, but it at least would leave his hands free to fill out the damn forms. Like the one the Curator was now adding to the top of the stack. “Acceptance of Celluloid Based Self-Cleaning Product used to clean Blood, Mucus, or Other Bodily Fluid, 20-G (For Nasal Bleeding if Product Offered Prior to Form.)”

Dreading the answer, Ryan asked, “Can I borrow a few more in case I need them?”

The Curator smiled and pulled a few more out of his pocket in a clear plastic wrapper. He offered them to Ryan, along with a new form, “Acceptance of Celluloid Based Self-Cleaning Product used to clean Blood, Mucus, or Other Bodily Fluid, 20-B (For Nasal Bleeding after Initial Blood Flow Staunched.)”

Ryan did his best to accept the aid and paperwork graciously, the he and Dianmu were off to their room. They had to weave in and out of ambulatory cabinets and rushing Curators. “Can’t they do anything without a form?”

Dianmu laughed as they stopped to let a filing cabinet zip past their heads. “Not here. They have a bit more freedom to act outside of their home plane, but here everything is done with forms. Can you imagine the chaos if they didn’t have paperwork?”

“We do it just fine without that much paperwork,” Ryan protested.

“We don’t have an office the size of a planet,” Dianmu countered. “Ryan. Look at them. Really look at them.”

Ryan stopped and watched, trying to see what Dianmu was pointing out. Two curators crossed each others paths, one handing a file to the other without even looking. Another walked directly under one of the floating cabinets without ducking as it passed millimeters over his hair. Ryan compared that to Dianmu and his own path, stopping for curators that bustled by, stepping quickly to avoid being struck by a filing cabinet… “They know where everything is going to be. At all times,” he whispered in awe.

“Exactly,” Dianmu said, resuming her walk with a satisfied smile. “The forms make sure that’s possible. It’s almost beautiful in its efficiency, isn’t it?”

“I was going to say creepy,” Ryan said as he followed.

“If humans were doing it, I’d agree with you,” Dianmu said. “Or gods, for that matter. But Curators don’t operate on the same logic that we do. Free will…it’s a concept they understand, and it’s a thing that they have, but they view it the way most humans view having an anus. Something that they’d rather not think about.”

Ryan let out a shocked laugh at the analogy. They reached their room, and Dianmu pushed a button labeled I-67.

The room itself was what Ryan should have expected from a private office in Officium Mundi. Two desks, facing each other, each adorned with a single lamp and no other decorations. The desks were made of some kind of metal – Ryan considered looking at it with his divine sight to figure out what kind, but decided that opening it up inside one of the impossibly ‘stacked’ rooms would be even worse than looking at them from a distance – and the lamps were utilitarian shades of white canvas. At the back of the room was a small metal door that looked like it belonged to a dumbwaiter with a simple sign proclaiming “Insert Paperwork Here When Completed.”

Dianmu headed over to one of the desks, taking a stack of paperwork from Ryan. “Hey, question for you,” Ryan asked as he sat down. “Crystal said, back when this all started, that she couldn’t explain some things to be because it would fry my brain unless I’d undergone Apotheosis. Later on, Athena said that Crystal was probably just deflecting questions with that. But now…I mean, just looking at this gave me a bloody nose. Do you have any idea which one it is?”

The small smile that spread across Dianmu’s lips told Ryan he’d just revealed his ignorance. It had been awhile since a goddess had to explain something to him that she found to be a basic concept, however, so it didn’t sting the way it used to. “There’s nothing that can’t be explained to you that would hurt your brain, Ryan. However, until you undergo Apotheosis, some concepts – like how this room is made – are difficult to understand, let alone perceive. So in a way, they were both telling part of the truth.”

Ryan thought about it and nodded in acceptance. “Why couldn’t Crystal have just said that, then?” he groused.

“Because she was probably just deflecting questions,” Dianmu said.

Ryan chuckled in agreement and sat down at the other desk. Paperwork, Ryan thought as he looked at form “Request to Petition Curator for Information 119-C.” Why did it have to be paperwork?

With a sigh, he began to write.

Weird Theology is now available as an audiobook! Click here to check it out! Or here for Amazon! (It just got approved for whisper sync) And if you could leave it an honest rating or review, I’d really appreciate it.