(Episode 9 is Here)
Washi did not know where he was. This was exactly the situation for which Tarse gave him a GPS system. A shame that using that required establishing a satellite uplink, and Tarse locked him out when they cut him loose.
The Defeds had unleashed a lateral whirlwind of tracers after him. They were so obsessed with gunning him down that he managed to take dozens with him by weaving past them as he came to them. There must be a whole new trench-line dug just by the ordinance thrown at his retreating back. A few spots of that trench were moistened dull-red, he knew. The self-repair nanites Tarse invested in him worked well enough, if slower than the new stuff, but they still had to obey the laws of physics. They couldn’t create something out of nothing. Sealing the wounds took energy, and replacing the lost blood took energy, and running the nanites themselves took energy. Washi had given just about everything he had to stay alive.
His legs were moving underneath him, but he barely felt them. Strangely the shuddering of his own footfalls up his hip-bones seemed magnified. His senses were muddled all the way around; he was dimly aware of passing through a landscape, but it made only fleeting impressions on him. It felt like walking through one of the paintings his grandmother used to make, the ones she claimed showed parts of Earth. That’s not right, Washi thought. These paintings clearly showed Savar. Only Savar could make the color black seem diseased and oily, as on the rocks around him. Only Savar could make discarded clothing and abandoned weapons feel so filthy. Only Savar could take thick pink water and mix it with pussy white and yellow residues from the fungal columns towering above him, clinging to the dark rocks, and grow them into that massive arch ahead. Washi knew he should stop and look for landmarks, or stars, or the position of the sun, or anything that would tell him where he was.
The trouble was, if he stopped walking, he’d sit down, and if he sat down, he wouldn’t stand up again. Every step felt like moving the weight of five people. That’s not good. Normally I don’t even feel like I’m moving my own weight. Washi looked down at the last two wounds, one through his right pec, one through his right hip. Both were still open, trickling slowly. The nanites aren’t working, and they’re only programmed to stop when my condition’s gone critical. Something leaped up through Washi’s body and swelled in his stomach, an awful cringing empty feeling, like a rat scrabbling for escape. But the cage was his own body. His heart rate spiked, and red warning text scrawled in his vision. What fucking idiot put that there?! What fucking idiot thought people in shock should see objective proof that they’re dying?
Washi was a young man, and like any young man, he’d always thought he was invincible, he realized. Oh, he told himself he understood what it was to die. He told himself he’d able to take it when it happened, that it wouldn’t be that bad. But he never really believed he’d need to take it. And the truth was, he hadn’t understood. He’d thought death was just a clear head and easy breathing, and a slow warm slide into nothing. He didn’t bargain on this clawing, grasping feeling that made him see how slow and clumsy his steps were getting, or the horrible rubbery feeling all over, or that he wouldn’t be able to breathe. He’d give anything for a breath of fresh air, anything for someone to kill if it would just let him live that much longer. But there was no one, and nothing, and each step dragged a little slower.
Hot streaks ran down his cheeks; some fell on the tattered remains of his Raptor gear, tainting themselves with dried and new blood alike. I’m going to die out here, alone. I’ll never know if Peregrine and the others got away, I’ll never even meet this shitty Lieutenant. His faltering gait took him underneath the fungal arch. The pale, dripping stalks above him, bloated and swollen in places with blue and orange, or green-yellow patches sloughing off a foot at a time, looked like rotting fingers reaching out for… nothing, really.
—Would you like to come with me, then? It’ll be easier.— The voice wasn’t precisely loud. It wasn’t precisely male. It wasn’t precisely there at all. It was the loudest thing in the universe, reminded Washi of his father, and resonated in every cell of his body. —You have things you might do. But you don’t have to. It will be harder, continuing on.– Every time Washi turned his head to see it, it was just at the corner of his eye. Shreds of fabric hovered and wove and darted from his turning gaze, but they weren’t fabric at all, they were holes in… holes in everything. Something long and tapered and wickedly pointed gleamed and danced and hummed, and every so often Washi saw a dull bone color.
“Stop… moving like that…” he gasped. If the clawing would just stop… please just make it stop for a moment…
–I can make it stop forever, if you like.– Washi felt the… the thing pause. –Are you sure you want to see me?–
“If you’re going to be here,” Washi said, “I want to know what I’m looking at.”
–Ah, of course. Soldiers especially hate unseen enemies. I am no living thing’s enemy, but I respect your wish.–
All at once He stood there. Washi was never the religious type, but he knew a He when it stared him in the face. His robes flowed and wavered and rippled into reality’s fabric. They were every shade of black there had ever been, and they were star-fields and empty skies and thunderheads and most of all they were that solemn blackness beneath freshly-turned earth. They never precisely ended, though they were thicker somehow right against the figure’s torso; they just faded or tore into strips and seeped into the air, and Washi knew somehow they were everywhere at once. The bare bones were only bare bones; His hood covered His eye sockets, but there would be nothing in them. The scythe was every scythe there had ever been; it was rusted and mirror-polished, dull and sharp, its haft fine lacquered wood and filthy coarse unfinished oak. Flickers of light caught and split open on the edge as the figure shifted, bursting into celestial streamers and fading away. Washi saw and heard the whole course of lives from birth to… the end, from those streamers. He held the scythe loosely in both hands by His hips, pensive. His reality-eating robes pooled and spread between them, wavering into tendrils, into wisps tearing loose, into nowhere.
“Am I hallucinating?” Washi asked.
–No. You’re not the type, Yamai Hirosuke.– He said, almost laughing. –But if this interpretation comforts you, I encourage it. Walk with me.–
“That’s a shit metaphor,” Washi said. Just because he says I’m not hallucinating doesn’t mean I’m not hallucinating. Washi clung to that idea while he stared at the figure and felt the scrabbling in his stomach again. He shook himself. I’m just near death, and hallucinating.
–How fortunate that I am being literal,– He said. –Walk with me. It is not the same as coming along, do not worry. Humans lie and cheat and give pain enough; I have chosen to be better.–
“You’re the Grim fucking Reaper,” Washi said, and felt better for getting the words out.
–It is not I who arranges the harvest,— He said. –I only gather it in. I am as you say, but not as you imply.–
“Is Jesus next?” Washi demanded.
–You’re not Christian. And the poor boy’s caught in a paradox.– Somehow, the fleshless lips were smirking at him. –He can exist. His Father cannot; you may ask another when you meet her why this is. Walk with me.–
“Fine, for fuck’s sake,” Washi sighed, and stepped forward. He felt… better. “What did you do?” He glanced behind him, but there was no dead Washi on the dark path behind them. That doesn’t mean anything. They were underground now, in a cavern lit by fungi glowing green that caught rainbows of crystal in the walls. Even the pink water looked less garish here; a placid stream burbled between Washi’s boots and the Reaper’s bones. Death didn’t clatter, but there was something like a continuous exhalation flowing from him. The scythe couldn’t seem to stop humming.
–I have delayed your decision. Panic attacks are terrible things; I felt you should not make this choice until yours was past.— The Reaper fell in beside Washi.
“What?” Washi demanded.
–Panic attacks. They are inevitable, sooner or later, when a human soul is pushed too hard. A spirit can only take so much of mortality. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.–
“All this…” Washi felt the dampness on his face. “I felt like I was dying. You’re telling me it was just a stupid fucking panic attack?!”
–Not just a panic attack.– He said, and seemed irritated. –Give the strongest warrior enough of those without succor, and he will seek me. Do not let yourself believe you are weak now that it is past; that is the cruelest lie the others teach you.–
“Why are you here?” Washi asked, feeling desperately tired. The clawing was less, somehow. Talking helped. Even talking with Death helped. Or is that especially? a small, traitor part of him asked. “I don’t know for sure how it was on Earth, but I’m pretty sure you never actually appeared to anyone there.”
–Because I can be.– He answered. –Earth is humanity’s domain. Humanity has decided I am an abstraction, and may not physically appear. These are the rules. Savar is far from Earth, and closer to my Kin.— Washi didn’t want to ask what it meant to be the Grim Reaper’s kin; there was no answer to that question he’d like. He could hear that capital K, and that bothered him too. He’s afraid, Washi realized. Just a little. But Death is afraid of these… “Kin.”
Washi jerked back to the present. They stood at the entrance to a broad five-sided chamber, made from slabs of some blue-streaked black metal, with strange fixtures polished into thousands of gem-like facets around the room. The doors lay before them in pieces that gleamed between heavy dust. Something about those pieces was just… wrong. Against many of the walls were long troughs with… guns, Washi realized. Ancient guns. There were old tables overturned and riddled with holes, ragged banners draped on tortured girders.
There were bones heaped here beyond number. They were oddly knobbed and formed, thicker in some places than a human’s, thinner than others, with spurs and attachment points for different muscles. Segments of faded bone plates in every hue added to the bones, dotted and stripped and speckled and striated. The skulls were strange, almost lizard-like but bulgy and far thicker at the snout. The whole skeletons here and there showed tails, arms, and two legs; bipeds. Something about them kept catching Washi’s eye. Something about the way the bones lay was orderly and completely random at once. Then he saw:
None of the bones were broken or even cracked. They were damaged only by cutting, but what awful cuts. Every one was perfectly straight, perfectly crisp. Punctures through skulls and even the gouges where blades pierced ribs were exactly geometric. It was damage too perfect to be damage. The blast doors they’d walked through were the same, cut perfectly straight, so too the tables and the pieces of guns and all the plate segments–armor, Washi realized–scattered among the bones.
“What kind of army does this? This is a last stand, right?” he asked. Death nodded. “Against what?”
“His Kin, as he told you,Washi.” Again, Washi knew a She when She stood in front of him. She stood ten feet tall, graceful in flowing robes of Her own. They were every shade of green, faded to blue here and there and along their hems, which were in black and gold. Her own scales gleamed dark green, with bands of black around the eyes and outsides of Her forearms, olive on the inside scales of the neck. Gleaming tears slid down Her bony cheeks and drizzled on the bones beneath Her: she hovered in the center of the room, waiting. Her voice was soft and thrumming warm, with an underlying musical warble. Her mouth hung slightly open in a sad smile, exposing crystalline teeth, and didn’t move with Her words. Intermixed blood and warm white light streamed from a wound in Her right side; robes and flesh alike frayed and wavered around yet another too-perfect cut.
“The Grim Reaper and now a goddess,” Washi said. “Is this… is this a chosen one thing?”
“Idle chance, little human,” the goddess said. “No more. I have waited here because you are the last living thing I will have a chance to help.” That started Washi crying for some reason. You find out gods are real from one who’s slowly dying in a mausoleum above the dead worshippers she couldn’t save. That’s why you’re crying, idiot.
“Good,” Washi said. “I always fucking hated that. If you’re going to arrange everything to fate, there’s no excuse for suffering.”
“I agree,” she said. “I would add there still is not. But, perhaps it is easy for me to talk. Approach, Washi. Walk carefully. I would not have you harm the bones of my children.” He obeyed, slowly. For all the destruction around him, the room felt peaceful. The dead here rested in peace. Also in pieces.
–That’s terrible.– The Reaper said. But the goddess actually laughed.
“It’s accurate,” She said. “I am Trekatu, once called Keeper of the Hatchery, and last goddess of the Vamok.” She paused, considering something. “It’s odd my children’s name is five letters in this English of yours. So too is the name of the Enemy.”
“I’m not fighting this Enemy,” Washi said immediately.
“Indeed you are not. They would annihilate you before you ever saw them,” Trekatu said. “Time is short, Washi. I know you’ll go mad later in life if you don’t ask some questions, so ask them, but you must decide quickly if you are to be where you’re needed.”
“And then everybody lives?” he asked.
“No, then if you do everything right, your mission will succeed,” Trekatu said. “I promise no more than this. The odds do not favor you. And, as we’ve discussed, there is no fate to shield you.” At Washi’s glare, She said, “If I let you think otherwise, your confidence would doom you. Our universe is fair, at least that way.” How is it fair for me to die for being confident? Washi thought, but didn’t say.
“Where are all the human gods, then?” he demanded, eyeing Death.
“Non-existent,” Trekatu answered without a pause. “All of your religions demand they be two things at once, if not more. A god can be anything else, Washi, even omnipotent, even omniscient, but we cannot be contradictory. At least, not in this universe. We can offer eternal salvation, or eternal torment, but not both. Humans are strangely terrible at picking the right one.” She waited a beat. “It’s salvation. It’s always salvation.”
“What about punishing the guilty, then?” he demanded.
“This could be arranged if humans agreed what ‘guilty’ was, and didn’t insist that faith let you sidestep it,” Trekatu said. “Really, I think you’re all best off just assuming an afterlife and leaving gods out of it. You’re not suited to religion, nor it to you. Besides, you could hardly let gods and science coexist before you took to the stars.” Washi wasn’t sure that was fair.
“The Enemy you mention, are They one of those precursor races?” Washi plowed on.
“The last of them, yes,” Trekatu said. “Well, They were, along with one other race.”
“So They’re not going to return?” Washi asked, feeling distinctly like it was the wrong question.
Trekatu smiled sadly at him, and he knew it was the wrong question. “No, dear child. They cannot return.”
“And one of Them did that to you?” he asked.
“No, all of Them did,” she said. That seemed like it bore a lot more explaining, but Washi could tell already there wasn’t going to be any. There seemed to be a whole lot of rules at work here no one felt inclined to tell him. “One Enemy of my people’s day could not do such things alone. But it is done, and as I think you know, this wound will kill me.” Her features hardened, bones actually shifting into a stern expression. “Now you must decide. You can go with him,” she gestured at the Reaper, “See your family again, all the rest. You’ll feel no pain.”
He realized all at once that he wanted nothing more than to escape Savar. This ugly planet with its ugly people and its ugly wars, its ugly fauna. All the hate he’d seen growing up, all the other children he was terrified to play with because they might be gone the next day. Poverty, misery, selfishness, terror, and violence. Always the violence. And Peregrine, and Duman, and my kid brother still out there somewhere. And Alita. “None?” Washi asked.
–I told you, there’s enough pain to living,– He said. –Dying shouldn’t hurt into the bargain, and it was not I–
“–who decided it should, yeah, yeah.” Washi shook his head. I can take him up on it later. What am I doing, jumping right into this? “Sorry, pal, we’ll meet again some other day.”
–I thought so,— the Reaper smiled–somehow–and started to unwind into the emptiness where He waited, always.
“Wait a minute!” Washi said. “Reducing people to their hair and toenails–is that you?”
The Reaper thought for a moment. –No. I may not say more; these are the rules.–
“No more questions, little Washi,” Trekatu said, and suddenly her right hand was on him, and the wounds closed, and he felt better than he had in years. “I should warn you this is the only deus ex machina you will receive,” She said. “It is granted me to know these things. And, as I am dying, to tell them.” She took him by the shoulders. “The hair and toenails are offerings, Washi. A corruption of my children’s funereal rites. It’s the Enemy’s work.”
“One of Them?” Washi blanched, looking at the bones around the room.
“No, no,” Trekatu said. “Be thankful it is not. Only a shred of something They forgot to finish.” She smiled at him. “You must go now, Washi. Every minute you delay worsens your chances. Farewell, dear child. We will not meet again.” Washi bowed deep–it seemed like the thing to offer a goddess–and charged back the way he’d come. He felt light again, and tried not to think too hard about the forlorn figure behind, waiting for immortality’s end.
Let’s hope it’s enough. Basilisk is still out there. And if he knows I’m out of the picture, whatever game Tarse has been playing… that’s just too good to pass up.