Black Mountain

Nale and Hona stood in front of a large warehouse. It was an unnerving place; the entire area was suffused with a strange smell, and there was absolutely no action, movement or sound detectable in the surroundings. The doors in front of them, the height of a five-story building, were locked with complicated electronic safeguards.

"Are you sure it's here?" Hona asked him.

"It's here," he said. "This is the end, and a new beginning."

"She's going to kill you," she said.

"I've died twice already," he said. "One more time won't hurt."

"Twice?" she said.

He nodded. "Once when I found out about the illness and joined the Sisters. And once on Black Mountain."

She was about to respond when the locks turned off in unison, and the massive doors creaked open.

They walked into total darkness, and the doors slowly closed behind them. The smell here was far more intense. It reminded them part of the sea and part of badly cleaned space ships.

A vast light blinked on overhead, and they saw what was in front of them. The room was dominated by a huge, open pool of pod liquid, and stretched over an expanse so vast that even with the light above they still couldn't see to the room's other end.

In the ectoplasm floated various pieces of regenerated humans, or some things that at least seemed within shouting distance of humanity, including various organs, half-formed rib cages, spines of varying sizes, and yellowish, mottled limbs. There was a square grid marked on the floor of the pool.

Lights flickered on in the entire hall. It was circular, with only two ways to get past the pool and to the other end. Across from them, a faint sight in the distance, stood Draea, with something box-shaped beside her that was covered in wires and glowing with red lights.

Speakers on the wall buzzed into life, and her voice echoed through the hall. "When I got here the pool was covered with plexiglass, and each sample was kept in a separate compartment. A few commands to the control system and all that glass slid aside. This place is so adaptable. I love it."

On her shoulder she had slung a large gun. "One of my men is busy with his hobby, but the other I've lost contact with. And I see you brought a friend, someone who looks suspiciously like I met them in the past. How did you find me, by the way? And no need to shout; there's sensors that'll pick up your voice."

"The same way I found Zetyn. I just followed the path," Nale said. Behind him, Hona, who'd shivered at the word 'hobby', slowly drew her gun.

"What path?" Draea asked.

"My own. Have you forgotten what you saw at Black Mountain?"

"I try not to think about it too much."

"Then you are lost."

"Big words coming from a-" Draea said, then stopped in mid-sentence and threw a knife at him. It hurtled through the air, aimed not at Nale but at Hona, and even at that great distance it moved so fast that she could not react in time. It speared the gun out of her hand and kept right on going. On the wall behind them there was the sound of steel breaking.

Hona looked at it, then over to Nale, then back at the remains of the knife. "Nale, she broke the knife's blade."

"We'll be fine."

"You don't understand. There's a dent in the wall. She threw that knife hard enough to break its blade."

Nale turned to her. "Don't lose faith. She was only testing us. We're doing the right thing here."

There was a sigh in the air and Nale bent almost imperceptively. The knife headed for his neck missed him by a hair's breath and, like the last, broke against the wall.

Sounding completely unperturbed, Nale asked. "Is that the Book beside you? Did you bring it here?"

Draea pointed to the box beside her. "That's it. I could wire it up from practically anywhere in this station, but I liked this place. Keeps people at a distance."

Nale visibly tensed. "Wire it up?"

"You didn't know? We're supposed to destroy it. The Society didn't trust us to do it on our own, so they made us find the thing and bring it all the way here. I've got it plugged into their system so that they can verify it hasn't been tampered with, opened up or copied. Once I give the command, those same systems will disintegrate it, to the point where there'll be nothing but atoms floating on the breeze. I'll be done with my mission and will go get my reward."

Nale stared slowly walking around the pool and towards Draea's distant form. "I saw you there," he said. "At Black Mountain. Why would you ever want to destroy the Book?"

"It's what I'm here for. Why do you want to keep it?"

"Because it can save the world."

"From what?"

"Blood. Violence. Hatred. We can change the world, Draea."

"That's nice," she said. "Tell me about Black Mountain."

"You saw it, same as me. A walk through a desert, surrounded by spirits. A hike up a steep cliff, where the spirits begin to meld and rush forth. And, beyond that, the sea of dreams, overseen by the stars."

"Why did it change us?"

"Because we were ready. I was hoping that you would also be ready for the next stage. We're getting closer to ascendancy."

"And that includes dying, does it?"

Nale stopped short at that. "What?"

"In the vision. I realized that you were dying. Is that part of this grand plan of yours?"

Nale smiled, and began walking again in her direction. "We're all dying. Just some faster than others."

Draea sighed. "Over the last few days I've gained incredible focus. I can hit harder, move faster and aim better than I ever could in my life, and believe me, I was no slouch before. I was hoping that you could cast some light on this. I'm not in the mood for religion."

"That's a shame." He began to walk faster. At that, she pulled out another knife and, without even turning her gaze away from him, threw it into the air. There was a ping as the knife ricocheted off a wall, and a scream shortly after. Far away, Hona dropped to the ground, clutching her leg.

"One more step and your girlfriend dies," she said. "Stop trying to sneak."

Nale said, "If it's necessary, then so be it," and kept on walking.

From far behind they heard Hona choke and cough. Draea grinned wide. "I'm surprised," she said. "I didn't think you had it in you."

"She's just another spirit," Nale said. "But why bother? It's me you want."

"It is?" she said, still grinning, but the grin had turned cold.

"We've had a melding of consciousness. The spirits flowed past us, participants in an endless cycle none of them can break out of. None except you and me. We stood there, on Black Mountain, and we saw the dream-sea. I accepted and joined it, I drowned, and gained an oversight over the entire world."

"And that talent allows you to dodge everything in sight."

"Yes. And it uncovered the truth of the Book and of everything surrounding it. This is something we need to do. This is what's right. You had the same experience; surely you've come to the same conclusion. We need to save this world from itself."

"No."

"No?"

"Your focus widened, fine," Draea said. "Mine narrowed. What I saw in that unconscious moment was not some hyperextended superconsciousness, it was a shrinkage. I stood atop this Black Mountain of yours, and the entire world narrowed to a point, reduced, brought directly into my aim. And now I've got you in my sights, you and your craziness."

Nale stopped cold at that.

"I would never be part of this world you want," she continued. "This grand design of yours, this satellite view, it's nothing to do with me. I am the focus; I am a laser. And all I want is to get better at what I am and what I do."

"You are hyperfocused. You are alone of your kind. You are alone in this world," he said, in a dead voice.

"You lie," she said with a smile, remembering a similar lie so long ago. "There are others like me. And now you've made up my mind."

Nale started walking again, a determined expression on his face.

Draea quite relaxedly raised the veinshredder. "Not only have you made it amply clear that you're perfectly useless at helping me improve my skills or explain what happened, but you want to rid the world of all people who harbor hatred, rage and war in their hearts. People like me. We really can't have that."

Nale was running now, far away from her but still close enough to aim at.

"So all the reasons I let you in here are no longer valid, and you've become nothing but a weak, sad opponent with delusions of grandeur," Draea said. "You're wrong, and you're probably insane. I hurt and murder and kill for my own personal reasons, but I never dream of thinking that it's morally right or just. It's what I do, nothing more or less. Some might say that it makes me a lesser monster than you, but I suppose it doesn't matter. Any last words?"

"Die," Nale said.

Draea smiled, and fired the veinshredder. The spheres zoomed towards Nale, curving gently in the air so as to compensate for his moving heat signature, but he easily slipped past them. Draea emptied the clip, but none of the shredders touched Nale's moving form as he zipped and weaved on the wide walkway. She reloaded and kept firing, her deadly missiles pinging off the walls and falling into the ectoplasm below. Nale bobbed and dodged as he ran, sweating madly, his eyes unblinking as he approached. Draea's smile faded as she concentrated on hitting him, but every shot, even as it curved towards his head and body, managed only to whiz by him and hit the walls around his running form.

At last he got too close for safe range, so Draea tossed the gun, pulled out a knife and set her feet. He lunged at her, she ducked and swiped the knife, and he wasn't quite quick enough to turn out of range, the blade leaving a bleeding surface trail on his torso. She turned, intending to plunge the knife into him, but he'd already pirouetted and now went for her knife hand, clamping on to her forearm with both his hands, stepping outside it and violently turning his shoulder into hers. She got levered down and for a split second felt like her shoulder was going to be wrenched out of its socket. He started kneeing her in the thigh and ribs, and she dropped the knife, spun around and punched him in the throat. She had little weight to put into the punch, and it was weak and flailing, but it was enough; he gagged and let go, and she yanked the arm back and started backing away, on instinct pulling out a gun and aiming it at his momentarily still form.

It was too late; he spotted it and launched after her. She dropped the gun and barely managed to put her hands up before he was on her, bowling her down to the ground, sitting on top of her with his hands closing around her throat. She buckled, rolled him over and managed to break his grip, but as she started punching and elbowing him, he was able to dodge every blow with ease. She jumped up and looked around for a weapon, any weapon, but he rose with her, more in tune with her motions than any practice partner had ever been. They exchanged blows, most of hers missing him by a hair's breath but visibly tiring him when they connected; his hitting her, but her years of work in the violence of the mining colonies had left her well-prepared for body blows.

They said nothing; the words had run out and all they had now was grunts and actions, sighs and gasps and blood. His eyes, already wild, opened even wider, and his nostrils flared. He backed up, but before she could think of what to do he ran at her again, not jumping this time but instead clamping his arms around her and running towards the open pool of pod fluid, and in sheer terror she realized that he intended to drown her. Her arms were trapped, but at he drove her backwards she managed to kick up a knee and hit him in the groin. It wasn't dead-on, impacting right above his thigh, but he stumbled, and she used that same leg to stamp down hard and spin them in the air as they fell into the pool, Draea landing on top of him.

Sounds disappeared. The liquid was viscous and warm. Nale loosened his grip and resumed hitting Draea, but the ectoplasm reduced the power of his punches. She hit back a couple of times, but he dodged so easily that she changed tactics, going instead for the throat, trying to crush his windpipe. His eyes were so wide open they nearly bugged out, and as she grasped harder, and the veins in his throat pulsated and throbbed, his lips parted, revealing teeth gritted in madness. A tiny trickle of blood weaved its way from his mouth, as if he'd bitten his tongue.

She hardened her grip but he kept hitting her, and now his blows were coming in with more force, whether from desperation or pure anger. They roiled around in the liquid, spinning in a downward helix. She was so focused on crushing his throat that she didn't immediately realize they were at the bottom, so it was his feet that got planted first, and they gave him enough pushback to hit her hard, in the temple and on the jaw. The two blows rocked her, and she realized that she was almost running out of breath. She was out of knives, too, out of weapons completely, and the look in Nale's bloodshot eyes indicated that he was really no longer there as a human being.

She made a desperate choice, letting go of his throat with one hand and punching him hard on the nose; he didn't even shirk, and kept pummeling her even as he bled freely. She felt her feet touch the floor now, and out of the corner of her eye, through the mist of blood and encroaching blackness at the edge of her vision, she spied something floating around. She grasped hold of Nale's clothes and, putting all her strength into the motion, yanked him with her towards the floating object. Nale was oblivious, pounding away, and with her receding consciousness Draea realized that he truly enjoyed this, that he believed not only that he had won but that he was right, and in his eyes and in his frenzy she saw a mind she recognized so well. The recognition echoed in her head as she got close enough to the object, half a spinal column that tapered down to a point where the sacrum should have been, and it was with infinite sadness and a fading glimpse of understanding that she reached for it, grasped it with all her might, and, before Nale could realize what she was doing, plunged it deep into his eye.

He immediately let go, pulled back and screamed, air bubbles mixing with the spurts of blood from his face. She pushed herself off the bottom and floated languidly up, too shot from adrenaline backwash and oxygen depravation to paddle with her arms. Her head was covered with goo as she rose from the pool, and she barely had enough life left to gasp for air before paddling sluggishly towards the edge.

Once she had a handhold on the pool's plexiglass border, she looked back. Nale was surrounded by a cloud of blood, but appeared to be moving towards her, like some amphibious carnivore. Her adrenaline surged and she hauled herself out of the pool, coughing and wheezing as she stumbled towards the machine. She had no illusions any more of stopping Nale, of playing with him like a toy, of grabbing a gun or a knife and facing off. He was a monstrosity, almost beyond her comprehension. Her life was secondary; all that mattered was that the Book not fall into the hands of this madman.

She reached it just as he hauled himself out of the pool, and even through his wheezing and gurgling she heard a throaty, phlegmic sound and realized that he was laughing. It stopped just as soon as he apparently saw where she was headed. He screamed incoherently, a string of almost glossolalian words, and gave chase.

She grabbed the catalyst sitting beside the Book and slammed it on top of the machine, rolling its sphere back to green and holding it there. It jittered for second, and then the sphere spun out of her control. Both it and the sensors on the Book itself rolled through their scheme of colors, blinking green, red again, then yellow, orange, blue and indigo, and just as Nale reached her with his hands going for her eyes, the sensors hit purple.

There was a loud hum, and the last thing either one of them ever saw was each other's face, Nale looking like the maddest of prophets, Draea content and grinning like a harpy. For the last time she looked deep into his eyes, and she saw him realize, at the same time as she herself did, that the reason the Society had brought them all to this prepared, pre-wired place that nobody would ever miss or wonder about if destroyed, was that this was the end, the place where they would bring armageddon to being. In that infinite moment Draea acknowledged to herself what she'd always known, what she'd been told so long ago, that all her life she had wanted to be caught, and to be caught in fiery, destructive glory.

Beside them, the machine began to glow, smoke rising from its innards. There was a rumble far away that slowly turned to a roar; the floor began to quake and the pod fluid sluiced up out of its pool; and if either one of them had hesitated in their death-dance, they would have heard the walls start to come down.

Metal tore, and plastic melted, and stone turned to glass.

And in a flash that blinded everyone in the instant before they were vaporized, the end of days arrived, and the entire station exploded like a nova.





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