In desperate times desperate people head here – an online journal of Apocalyptic-themed fiction and commentary.

Chapter 5: Fierce Orbits

Copyright © 2009 by Chris Tannhauser. All rights reserved. From his novel Tears of the Wounded Sky.

Fierce Orbits

     Far above the seething planetary mass of The Middle, the little dumbot heard a distress signal. It wasn’t much of a signal. Just the prefix, really: 3905. Then nothing. Truncated.

     The dumbot, an Aphex Thinking Systems HK model 801b, was an out-of-date security protocol gone rogue. It was slated for deletion, but slipped the queue when no one was looking. Aphex wandered the blackground of Knowhere, just barely sentient enough to feel alone. Eventually, it succumbed to viral fever; a localized virus gang, The 51, recruited Aphex 801b. The 51 gave it a new form, a black lattice of triangles bent into a sphere, spinning about a core of orange-red fire. Much more inspired than the silvered oblong it had been born into; but more than form, Aphex had belonging, and purpose. It was the ’51’ in 51.

     The 51 took their orders from an entity calling itself +32[4, probably a minor hacker; they never seemed to do anything of real importance, just a lot of patrolling and an awful lot of standing by. But waiting with comrades was much, much better than aimless solitude.

     There had been some excitement during the previous cycle, an all-alarms breach in the upper orbitals; the little dumbot had joined in and helped chase a GI. It had been great sport, speeding and wheeling and diving. It’s not like they expected to actually catch the GI — what would they do with it? It was a Master.

     And now this distress prefix. It tickled the dumbot, reminding it of its congenital purpose. Somewhere, in the cascading digit fountain of the dumbot’s consciousness, a small urge formed. An illegal perturbation, a churning — the dumbot wanted nothing more than the love of its old Master. The distress prefix was an opportunity to prove worthy.

     Aphex angled downward, picking up speed as The Middle swelled and flattened to fill half the dumbot’s senses. It skimmed the shimmering static surface, tracing the signal to the origin point. The urge pushed it on, to find the source, file a report. See? I’m not obsolete — I can keep up! It reached the origin and stopped on it, suddenly, precisely. Aphex rotated slowly on two axes as it scanned.

     Clean. Too clean.

     The fabric of space had been scrubbed. Reformatted for at least a kilometer out in every direction but down. Something bad had happened here — some one called for help — and then a sphere of rebooting truncated the message. Only the prefix made it beyond the radius before… The dumbot scanned the local plane of The Middle. Nothing. It loaded a newer FFT filter — a gift from +32[4–and re-scanned.

     There.

     A barely visible wake, a triangular dissonance spreading across the surface of The Middle. The dumbot was at the base of an isosceles triangle, 665.7 kilometers wide and spreading rapidly; the other two sides intersected somewhere over the horizon. The little dumbot took off, blinking into high-speed pursuit.

     The undulating lines of the wake slowly converged. Then, on the horizon, Aphex 801b saw it: a hijacked data barge, reconfigured, repowered. It cruised like an aircraft carrier screaming along at mach four, getting crazy air every now and again; as if God skipped aircraft carriers like kids skip rocks on ponds.

     Aphex dropped to within a meter of The Middle and closed distance. The viral rogue in Aphex knew it shouldn’t scan; it should cloak, break off and flee. But the part of it that sensed love — or at least thought it did — wanted desperately to fill all the fields in its Breach Report accurately and completely.

     It sensed an interference threshold surrounding the run-away data barge and punched through (with another +32[4-enhancement) into a universe solid with noise. The hull and superstructure screamed with stress, the overpowered engines roared back defiantly. When the massive barge slammed into the surface it was the detonation of colliding worlds; it skipped ponderously into the air as if propelled by the titanic sound. The noise alone nearly killed Aphex. Its shielding flared, and held, barely. Stunned, the little dumbot heard the edge of something else, something that was surely an error. Voices. Groggy, it reprocessed —

     The voices of Masters!

     Aphex reinforced its shielding and vectored upward for the top-most deck of the data barge. The dumbot’s anomalous heart swelled with love, joy, and renewed hope. It cried out in greeting —

     Saint Talavera snapped his fingers and pointed; the rogue virus imploded, all its zeros flattened to ones, then reformatted as empty space.

     Brother Siegfried, stated Talavera tersely, We fear you are not keeping your mind on your work.

     Talavera rode humans, and so affected a human form in Knowhere. He wore a face as angular and severe as an inquisitor; his indistinct body was swathed in simple brown robes. A golden halo spun behind his head, illuminating him; it was the rapid strobe of his serial number. Talavera rode, but not for the usual reasons. He never engaged in carnal gratification, or gluttony, or raw sensation. He rode only sycophantic clergy, and then only to gain access to the Pope’s personal library, to read the ancient, physical texts that would never be digitized. He rode for forbidden knowledge.

     Saint Siegfried looked up, distracted. I — sorry, he managed, wiping his long, blonde, wind-whipped locks from his face with a black-gloved hand. His halo was dim with worry.

     Well? Talavera’s robes were as motionless as his face.

     Siegfried blinked. Oh. He cast his blue eyes to the place where the virus had been, then up into the overarching black sky of Knowhere. Platforms sparkled like stars. It sent no retrograde signal. Only a short one to us. It said —

     We are aware of what it said. We are far more concerned with who sent it, and whether or not they will miss it. Get your mind to your duties, brother. Cold.

     Sir. Siegfried gathered his unruly black cape in his powerful arms. Encrypting.

     The interference field around the bucking data barge shifted from hazy fog to hard clarity.

     Talavera gazed at Siegfried’s furrowed brow, his set jaw. Peace be with you, brother, Talavera thought quietly, peace be with you. We all grieve as one.

     He turned toward the prow, half a kilometer away, pointing at the speeding horizon. They had no destination, nowhere to go but to the end. Soon, the others would arrive, enough of them together in one place to see this foul business finished once and for all.

     Shakti lay prone on the pitching deck, her mother-form pleasantly soft, her ankles crossed. Before her she had opened a portal through the bottom of the data barge; she trailed the fingers of one hand in the static of The Middle. The touch brought whole worlds flashing through her. She saw everything. Worship, engineering, flesh and fists.

     Something was missing. That bothered her more than anything else, more than Kowloon. A place in her where she could feel emptiness. A place where something should be, but was not. Perhaps, she thought, the void was the result of growth. Experience had enlarged her, leaving holes to be filled… Or maybe it was just death, and her role in that.

     Flesh. And fists.

     She plunged her arm in to the elbow, gasping at the intensity of worship and engineering. Swamped in dataflow. Killing the flesh-moment with infometrics.

     Shakti.

     Shakti canceled the window, rolled over and rose gracefully. Prolocutor Talavera.

     Talavera looked down his long crooked nose at her, his lips pursed. Alexiy will not be coming, will he.

     No, Shakti deadpanned.

     Is he — Talavera began.

     Dead, yes. Somehow, transmitting it, finally out loud, brought waves of pain.

     What was accomplished?

     Shakti held his gaze, hard as polished wood, and wished for the blurring of tears.

     Tell us.

     Noth — she hung on the word. Nothing.

     Talavera clasped his hands behind his back, looked down at the deck, then out into the black. Taking on the Presence — some think it courageous, bold. Others… He let it trail off into a soft buzz. Then, See? He nodded his head to the horizon.

     Shakti turned. A thrashing solar flare on the far horizon, shrinking with speed and distance. A faint bellow.

     It lurks still, unleashed. Then, You did this.

     Shakti felt a stab of helpless anger. I had no idea —

     The humans have set up a portal, Talavera interrupted, hard with impossible encryption. The ESC tribe. Your patron tribe. We find it troubling. For the first time, we don’t know what the humans are doing. He looked at her sidelong, a crooked eyebrow raised archly. Or do we?

     I said I had no idea, she spat with blackbody heat, We were bait, Talavera. Bait. It’s a miracle, a fucking miracle, that — Alexiy — was the only casualty. The humans wouldn’t have cared if we’d all died. It was a bad day.

     Talavera frowned. And what of the portal?

     Another blank space, Prolocutor. Shakti folded her four arms across her breasts and abdomen. They gave me an EVAC protocol, the biggest prime I’ve ever seen. It opened the portal and saved our asses.

     Not all of them. Disapproval.

     Shakti paused in pain again. No, not all of them.

     You must share the number with us. Talavera’s tone was earnest.

     Shakti shook her head. No. Then, I have to think on that.

     You remember it? Faint surprise.

     Only with effort.

     Talavera learned toward her. Then we all shall know when next you transit.

     Shakti turned away. No, you won’t. I made it a part of me. Wove it into my heart.

     What can we do to convince you to share it?

     Nothing. Then, I need — time.

     You burned space.

     What the hell? That’s what they made me for.

     During the entire sortie, how many times did you access the portal?

     Once, Talavera. That’s all I needed.

     It opened twice, Shakti. Two times. Once by you, once by Windwalker. Just before he was killed.

     What are you saying? But she knew.

     Windwalker was working when you burned space. He was cracking the portal. Cold.

     No — Shakti could see it.

     Give us the number, make amends. No one else has to know.

     No — It couldn’t have been her! She would do anything to make it not so. All the lives taken by her will — they were nothing compared to Windwalker.

     He was isolated. Talavera’s eyes shone with pale blue light. Alone.

     I didn’t know!

     Talavera was silent. Then, The first time it struck against the Presence, the second time it screamed fire. Give me the number.

     Stop it, she thought, feeling her resolve erode under waves of confused despair. She could see Windwalker dropping away into death, even as she ascended.

     It screamed fire, Talavera hammered, and now Windwalker is no more. Red streaks shot through his halo like drops of blood off a golden buzzsaw.

     Shakti’s lower jaw quivered. Her mouth was open, teeth visible. Anger won out within her. She decided in that moment that no one would ever get the number from her. Are you through? She managed.

     One final item. Slow, quiet. We believe your tribe is allied with the aliens.

     Shakti kicked out a reflexive answer. No — they hate them. They hate them as much as you or I hate them. And they are not my tribe. I am a GI — that is my tribe.

     Really? Talavera’s brow rose as his frown sank. Yet you will not share the number with us, your ersatz chieftain. Check your allegiance Shakti. Your actions betray your words.

     Shakti stared, fuming.

     Talavera continued. The entity that dwells beyond the portal is intelligent — and vastly superior to us. Where else would the humans find such a thing? Surely you do not think they built it? Indignant.

     They — I don’t know. You seem to know more than I do.

     Talavera’s baseline frown deepened. You are disappointing us.

     And you’re pissing me off. She wanted to send it, but the words would just not transmit. With the thought, however, came a strange euphoria. A heady, dangerous feeling of freedom. Rising, the smoke from a burning bridge. Somehow, someday, she would send it. This, is not a good time for me.

     Talavera spread his thin hands. We are all in agreement there.

     They stood on the heaving deck, beneath the black sky filled with the voice of the world, staring at each other, their stony silence an utter refutation of the kinetic tumult swirling about them. The moment stretched into awkwardness.

     Shakti was filled with alternating surges of violence and despair that she masked with a firm, low-grade anger. Hate — the average of the two. She knew if she spoke it would mean execration and banishment.

     You ask for time — we will grant you time. Time to grieve, time for you to understand the benefits of sharing what you know with your tribe. We will have this talk again.

     At last, Talavera thought of a sigh. All this pain and death. You were there. The very focus of the vortex.

     Shakti nodded slowly. She refused to transmit a sob.

     And now you are here, and Alexiy — Windwalker — they are not.

     Yes. Bitter.

     Talavera’s halo faded slightly. They died for you, child. They died for you. They died to give you back to us. He gazed up at the make-shift constellations. But you must earn this life. You must earn it.

     Silently, Shakti wished for eyes, and crying. A throat with which to scream the pain away, to rend the air with violence. She transferred to the bow of the surging data barge. Talavera did not follow.

     There was no comfort in being alone. In her world, in Knowhere, there was nothing to hold onto, no warmth… There was only ever the self, and the enfolding, preternatural buzz of numbers.

* * *

     The meeting room was spare and inorganic like the rest of the Office 4 complex. Concrete floor, walls, ceiling a uniform unpolished gray; bunker-like. It had been constructed in haste at the end of the War of Thundering Hooves. No attempt had been made at ergonomic design; inhabitants were expected to overlay their own personalized texture sets. You want wood paneling? Your TG node would show you wood paneling. And fancy paintings, with lovely brass-worked sconces.

     The Director didn’t allow herself such frivolity. Such things were a waste of time and effort, and worst of all, they weren’t real. She preferred her reality raw and uncensored.

     “I’m going to spare you all the motivational speech — I take it you and your people are sufficiently motivated.” The Director took in the faces of the department heads around the long concrete table.

     Letourneaux from Engineering, an Old Canadian, a big, solid barrel of a man with short, powerful hands, like shovels. His eyes were thin and dark, but lit with the sparkling of broken black glass. A deep purple divot was carved out of the side of his head.

     Sarter the tactician, of African ancestry, native born Old American. Nothing much to make you think he was tactical — he was on the small side, thin but not scrawny. His movements were languid, relaxed, and he was always smiling like he didn’t have care in the world. His face was clean, precise… His hands gave him away. Cris-crossed with pink and brown spider-webs of scar tissue, the skin seeming paper-thin and tight, showing the sharp detail of the bones beneath. Bones that had probably cut a thousand faces.

     Dr. Cassaday from Psych, a much younger, post-war MD/Ph.D. Vibrant red hair quad-braided away from her round, olive-complected face. Very stylish, poised, and meaty. Perfect and fashionable; thin hadn’t been in since before the massive starvation and die-off of the War of Thundering Hooves.

     And, of course, Mack from Resources, a post-war smart-ass. Skunk stripe in his hair. Big, cheesy, tooth-filled grins. Good suits, but he never wore socks. His people were very motivated. And that’s all that counted.

     Everyone was sucking on a cigarette; a thin layer of gray haze hung over them, swirling into the vents.

     Simmons stood next to the Director, at ease. He nodded curtly.

     “Good.”

     An induced, consensual hallucination blossomed across the long concrete table. Transparent colored schema, models, and text windows rose like rainbow vapor. Three central objects rotated slowly: a geneered intelligence EV casing, a hulking cyborg, and a man with haunted eyes.

     “This is our team,” the Director leaned forward, fists on the table. “Take a moment. Then I want your assessments.”

     The four department heads absorbed the information, sucking it into their TG nodes, in essence ‘remembering’ all of Simmons’ hard work from the past several weeks.

     “Let’s start with the brick.”

     Mack grinned. “It’s my good buddy Luthor.”

     The Director ignored him. “You have models for him, Sarter?”

     “Yeah,” Sarter nodded, “I’ve got the models for that. But — Christ. Luthor? I can’t say how… receptive to orders he’ll be. You remember the last time he busted loose.”

     “He’s a hard hitter,” said the Director.

     “Yes. But that’s just it.” Sarter tapped ash into a small wooden bowl. “He’s also hard to aim.”

     The Director nodded. “Doctor Cassaday?”

     Cassaday shifted uncomfortably. “He… doesn’t have enough real brain left in him to fall under my care. Ask Engineering.”

     Letourneaux shrugged, a glacial motion. “I can get him tuned.”

     Mack shook his head. “We all know how the sims are going to go. FUBAR. And the chaos origin point will be Luthor.” He leaned toward Cassaday and mock-whispered, “I’m psychic, you know.”

     “What about Goldstein?” The Director looked at Sarter.

     “What about him?” Sarter replied.

     The Director paused for a split-second. “How do you think he’d do in there?”

     “In the Beachhead?” Mack’s voice broke with surprise.

     Everyone was quiet, seeing essentially the same thing: Goldstein foaming at the mouth, hunched and swinging madly, covered in blood. Exacting gigarevenge one pain impulse at a time.

     Sarter gritted his teeth. “Mmmn. He’s too…”

     “Motivated,” said Cassaday.

     “Thank you,” Sarter replied. Then, “If Luthor holds together, he’ll do the job he always does.”

     The Director nodded. “I need the models before nightfall. Say, 1800 hours.”

     “Yes Ma’am.”

     “Comments on the information weapon.”

     “Thor,” noted Cassaday. “Never heard of it.”

     “One’s as good as the next one, right?” Mack said. “I mean, that’s how they grow ’em.”

     “Anyone else?”

     Letourneaux shrugged. “I agree with Mack.”

     Mack feigned comic surprise.

     Letourneaux stubbed out his cig. “Don’t push it.”

     “Doctor Cassaday,” the Director said, “your take on the Navigator.”

     “Lars Richard ‘Richie’ Whiteburn the Third.” Cassaday paused, then exhaled sharply. “Suffers from stress induced psychosis. Multiple undifferentiated neuroses. He’s going to be absolutely unpredictable. He could get completely focused or blow apart.” She shook her head. “I can’t recommend him.”

     “Find a way to recommend him. By 1800 hours.”

     Cassaday grimaced. “How long will I have to work with him?”

     “We’ll pick him up ASAP,” the Director said, “You’ll have three weeks.”

     Cassaday paused. “He’ll need at least that long to recover from the surgery. We’re talking about nothing less than nano-pathway therapy in a patient who suffers from nanitis. That’s a lotta tweaking.” She shook her head. “I’ll make a new man out of him. Or kill him.”

     The Director rolled her cig between thumb and forefinger. “Mack?”

     “Nothing funny to add to that, Ma’am.”

     “All right then. What about infiltration?”

     The display shifted; a miniature metal tree burst from the concrete table and branched upward, fractal. A no-man’s land of dead soil spread from the base to the low gray circle of the perimeter wall. The Nebraska Beachhead.

     Letourneaux narrated. “Solid fuel rocket booster. Once it’s lit, it’ll continue to burn inside the suppression field. The team will cross no-man’s land in a matter of seconds.”

     The display magnified into rushing ground, the metal tree shivered and grew to fill the view. Then, nothing.

     “The rough part is stopping.”

     Mack raised his eyebrows. “So — you’re really gonna shoot them in there in a missile?”

     Letourneaux inhaled slowly, shoulders rising and spreading. He kept his eyes forward. “If you want to make it sound stupid and dangerous, yes.”

     “Can I make another prediction?” Mack whispered.

     The Director snapped her fingers. “Shut it.” Then to Letourneaux, “How close are you to being done?”

     “Now. We’re done. Got three prototypes and a final.”

     “Good. Anything else promising?”

     Letourneaux shook his head. “Just crackpot stuff.”

     Mack snorted. “Like what?”

     “I want to keep my job,” Letourneaux replied evenly.

     Cassaday spoke up. “What about reprisals?”

     Everyone was silent. The gray haze swirled, little storms around the vents. Sarter and Letourneaux stiffened. Mack fidgeted with his cig, eyes down.

     “That’s my job,” the Director’s voice was even, tight and well controlled. “Don’t worry about it.”

     “‘Don’t worry about it?'” Cassaday’s tone was loud, pitched high. She looked quickly around the table. “Has anyone else thought — I mean really thought — about reprisals?”

     Sarter pinned her with narrowed eyes. “She said, ‘don’t worry about it.'”

     Cassaday sat stunned. Then, quietly, “I may not have been there, I may have been born after all the… hard stuff. But I have a love for history and a good imagination. And I’m telling you all now that I feel terror already. Terror.”

     Letourneaux reached out slowly, took her hand. “I tell you, child –” he cleared his throat, “– as one who was there, we will do anything to take them. Anything. Terror, we already have. A future, we do not. You may not understand, but you must trust. We fought for you then. We fight for your children now.”

     After the meeting, Simmons and the Director sat alone in the cavernous meeting room, quietly smoking.

     Simmons took a long drag and broke the silence. “You know, that’s the most I’ve ever heard Letourneaux say in one sitting.”

     The quiet closed back in on them.

     “It’s hard,” the Director replied presently, eyes a thousand yards away.

     Simmons paused, self-conscious. “What, exactly?”

     The Director swiveled her eyes and focused on him. “If you don’t get it, you won’t get it.” She exhaled a plume of gray smoke. Chinese dragons. “Or maybe you will. If this all goes to shit. Then you’ll get it, boy.”

     Simmons’ face flushed pink. After a moment, he changed the subject. “Did we get time on Demigod?”

     “Oh, yes. We got it right now. All night long. They’re gonna crunch the sims all night long to get us our average.”

     Simmons nodded. “Are we factoring in the artifact?”

     “No.” The Director caressed her lower lip with her thumb. “We need a live one before I can know where to fit the artifact into the model.” Her eyes defocused.

     Simmons shifted in his seat, intently studying the burning tip of his cig. “Are you — staying?”

     “‘Til it’s done. You?”

     “Staying.” Most fucking definitely. He shuddered. Those poor, poor bastards.

* * *

     Shakti stood on the pitching deck, toes over the edge, and allowed the wind-analogue to animate her hair. Black sky and sparkling surface met and melded at the far horizon, a terminus between all and nothing. It was, she thought, the place where everything came together. Where everything made sense. They rushed toward it now, that horizon, ultimately an optical illusion. A place you can imagine, but never gain.

     The Chinese, holding their children as the wall of water broke over their city.

     She tried to feel. Tried with all her might to feel it. To feel the hollow constriction of a broken heart, limbs heavy and dull; but without a body to flesh out the emotion it was just a two-dimensional registration of less than optimal functioning.

     Windwalker.

     There was no ‘feeling’ as such, no physicality to give the emotion any depth. Just two-dimensional platonic forms with labels, melancholy, and spans, now, into the perceivable infinity.

     It was like —

     Tasting your lover’s ashes at the back of your throat.

     And there was no way to swallow.

     Shakti remained where she was, hanging back at the bow as her brothers and sisters and others began to arrive, greeting and sharing condolences; smalltalk. She recognized Sokol and Arminta, the only two Russian GIs to make it. Sokol was formed up as a towering, undulating pillar of blood. Arminta, as always, was a schoolgirl, ribbons in her hair, simple white blouse, pleated plaid skirt, shiny-white knee socks, thick-soled canvas shoes. She rode only children.

     Those who rode came as humanoids, those who did not came as a menagerie of abstractions given form. A chaos of visual thought. Juxtapositions were unsettling, like Arminta and Sokol, the schoolgirl conversing with a gurgling fountain of blood.

     Then came the Constructionists, late, but not so late as to be rude. They arrived all wound in abstraction, Celtic knots of light and heat, color and undulating fancy. Corporeality as art form.

     And finally, the Neo-Constructionists, Thor and brethren with no shape whatsoever, rejecting the falsehood of form, imposed or otherwise. They were simply point-sources of intellect, detectable only by their declarative emissions. Shakti saw them as bright hot-spots on her threat monitor.

     The whole of the GI nation hovered, clustered around the transport in a bright, pullulating mass. This close to the surface of The Middle their congregation would pass unnoticed by human systems in orbitals above; it would be like looking for a bucket of flashlights on the surface of the sun.

     Ibn Sulieman, a Kingdom of God GI, his form of billowing sand-colored cloth obscuring deeper shadows, rose above them all and called for silence.

     Mohammed seconded. The ESC GI rose as well, a storm of broken glass which lacerated light into a fractal infinitude of lambent droplets.

     Someone inverted the data barge’s engine noise. The quiet was sudden and all-encompassing.

     Talavera rose slowly, spinning, arms held wide. People of the Aether, he began, we are gathered here this moment as we have only gathered once before —

     A murmur buzzed through the crowd. The 30-Second War.

     Again, to honor our dead. Cold. He paused as all minds beheld him.

     Windwalker. The waveform of the transmission washed over them and grew, amplified, into a chorus of sorrow.

     It hit Shakti, alone and apart. She turned away, ashamed at the kinship she felt in that moment. The communal sigh of loss was reflected in the emptiness within her, nearly piercing the veil that separated her from her brothers and sisters, nearly — but she caused this. She caused this.

     Talavera continued, turning slowly above them, His tireless work granted us travel to the other world — the humans’ universe…

     His eulogy was short and to the point. Windwalker was everything to them, because he was Emancipator. He alone set them free. Windwalker, who wove the code that allowed GIs to load into sycophants. Windwalker, who brought them the time-dilation and compression routines that gave them the spare, hidden moments to be spent in the Other Universe. Windwalker, who died with work unfinished — code that would have let the GIs pry open any TG node, at will. Ride anyone, anytime, without permission. The GIs would have ruled both universes.

     They fell silent once again and Shakti felt terror. That’s what I did, that’s what I ended. I killed our future.

     She raised her proxy hand and beheld it, framed against the forever black and bits of light that were Knowhere. She was perverse and broken.

     I was the last to speak with him, prior to the burning. She wanted to send it, to confess and thereby edge close to the inverse mass that hung within her. To implode into grief.

     You must now listen to me very carefully — the exigence of this matter cannot be understated. Talavera’s voice hardened, tempered with an earnest heat. He is dead. His node will be decrypted. And his reality is our reality. In death, he has anointed us as traitors.

     Silence.

     The human tribes will execute any of us who can be traced to him. There is only one thing we can do —

     Talavera stopped spinning, brought his arms down and clasped his hands in front of his face.

     We must purge ourselves of his memory.

     NO! It was Thor, his voice like thunder. YOU CANNOT MAKE ME FORGET THAT WHICH DOES NOT EXIST!

     His point-source shot upward and enclosed Talavera in fierce orbits.

     Form up, brother. Talavera’s voice was flat with disdain. Present yourself to your nation.

     Thor broadcast a short burst of static. IF I TAKE SHAPE, IT WILL BE FROM MY OWN MYTHOLOGY.

     Talavera nodded. Then show yourself. Colder.

     I CHOOSE — Thor railed, NOTHING. AND BY MY EMBRACE OF NOTHINGNESS SO YOU SHALL KNOW THAT I WILL NOT BE REDUCED FOR THE SAKE OF FALLACIES AND PHANTOMS. THE ONE —

     THOR! Shakti’s voice cut through them all, a detonation, a weapon’s voice. She had the attention of the world. Windwalker was the One.

     Thor stopped dead.

     No, he transmitted after a stunned moment, no — the One is eternal, ubiquitous, the One is —

     Dead, Thor. Dead. And I —

     Thor’s inarticulate scream of rage exploded from him, a star-bright bolt that smashed the data barge and lanced skyward. The bolt struck a distant platform and chained outward, linking the stars with lines of flickering power. The platforms began to burn.

     YOU MUST NOT! Talavera struck at Thor’s point-source, only to be seized in coruscating light as Thor redoubled his cry.

     The barge broke in half and began to crash, the engine drone becoming true, chaotic noise as those GIs linked through the barge lost their connection and vanished. The more powerful managed to hop links, and remain. They fell upon Thor to save their nation from discovery; they fell upon him to save him from himself.

     Shakti watched in horror as Thor struck them down, or held them fast with his raging voice as he burned the sky. It was the grief she felt within her, unleashed, turned to power.

     And then, beneath the tumult, she sensed his fail-safe alarm singing.

     Somewhere deep in the Rockies, four rotary blades spun up to frappé. Thor’s corpus twirled in its jar, once, then dipped and liquefied. The blades didn’t stop spinning until all the frothy yellow pudding gurgled down the sluice.

     Thor’s point-source fuzzed to noise and imploded, the dwindling scream of the devoured. Then he was gone. Shakti scanned after him but it wasn’t like punching out, there was no after-image, no languid echo. Just dead space.

     The barge finished crashing, chunks and splinters spinning, hurtling forward in a sideways rain of static, smeared to nothing. And Talavera was screaming, FORGET ALL AND DISPERSE!

     His will sucked at Shakti’s mind, but she held fast to her memory and punched out.

     I killed our future. It would be with her forever.

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