Tam stood in the last refuge as it fell, fire roaring up to light the world in brilliant shades of yellow and orange, while smoke rose to choke out the last sight of the sky above.
“We’re out of time,” Jen said, wiping sweat from her brow as she huddled behind the waist high chunk of fallen masonry beside Tam.
“Not yet. I can hold the Overseers off for a bit longer still,” Tam said. A trail of blood ran down her nose and her eyes were flickering from human to endless pools of inky night.
“No, I mean we’re out of time to get back home,” Jen said. “The High One’s forces are making their move. The apocalypse is starting now.”
“Can they hold it off?” she asked, looking at the field of rubble that remained of the ancient edifice where the last of the Burrowers had huddled to escape the Overseers.
“They’re working on it,” Jen said. “Jimmy B think we might be able to make the transit back in time but we have to get going now.”
“The Burrowers behind us won’t make it if we leave now,” Tam said. “If I let the shield drop, the Overseers will hit this place with enough ordinacne to turn it into a lava filled crater.”
“I know, and I’ve got a plan to handle that,” Jen said, counting the remaining Burrowers by pointing to the locations where they were huddling away from view.
“I’m not going to like it though am I?” Tam asked.
Behind them, a shell burst against the barrier than Tam had in place. It failed to pierce the mystical forcefield but the fire that it left beyond screamed as thought it was alive and yet dying a horrible death.
“I’m going to stay,” Jen said.
“Oh, this is one of those plans that I hate. Got it. And no. That’s not happening.”
Tam waved a hand and vanished the whole building. It was a great effect. Also an extremely tiring one. And also ultimately fruitless. The Overseers wouldn’t be fooled by it. They had plenty of counters for invisibility spells, but it would take them time to deploy them. Time Tam intended to use to knock some sense in her teammate.
“I’m not going to stay forever,” Jen said. “I’ll hitch a ride back with the Burrowers.”
“Then I’ll ride with them too,” Tam said.
“You can’t. We need you back on Earth now. You’ve got a part to play there.”
“So do you!”
“I’ve done what was really needed of me,” Jen said. “You’ve got the best plan I could come up with. Beyond that, I’m just another fighter for the front lines.”
“That’s a lie and you know it. You know our plan is going to go up in smoke about ten seconds after the fighting starts. We need you there to adapt it on the fly.”
“Anna can handle that,” Jen said, shaking her head.
“And what if she doesn’t make it back on time?” Tam grabbed Jen’s shoulder but refrained from shaking her only by force of will.
“You’ll be fine,” Jen said, lowering her voice. “Charlene’s there after all. This is her show and you know she’s never led us wrong before.”
Thunder cracked above them hard enough to rattle their bones. The invisibility spell was broken and the bombing resumed.
“Charlene needs us though,” Tam said. “We do the field work. We make things happen. Or stop things from happening, and for this, she’s going to need all of us.”
“She wouldn’t want us to abandon the last of the Burrowers,” Jen said.
“Right, which is why we should both stay and get them off world as fast as possible.”
Time was not their friend but they had the slight advantage that in the Burrower’s world time ran much faster than in their own. A conversation of a few minutes for them would be less than seconds on Earth. When an apocalypse was nigh though, it was impossible to tell whether seconds could make the difference or not.
“The longer we both stay here, the longer the other Burrowers are in danger,” Jen said. “You’ve got to get the one’s we’ve already rescued back to Earth, or the the Overseers will catch up to them and drag them back here, and then all this work will have been for nothing.”
“If I leave you here though, you won’t be able to get away,” Tam said. “The ones that are left are the old and the infirm. They can barely cross between the realms that are side by side with each other. If they can make it across the gap between the worlds at all, they’re going to be painfully slow, and that’s not going to be enough to outrun the Overseers.”
“I know,” Jen said, offering Tam an unconcerned smile.
“You can’t fight them alone,” Tam said. “You need me here.”
“And Cynthia needs you there,” Jen said, her smile softening into seriousness.
It was a low blow. Tam had been mad with worry over the woman she loved. Cynthia wasn’t going to be on the sidelines of the apocalypse either. As a first responder, she would be in the thick of things once the world started to burn.
Part of Tam knew that she couldn’t let personal sentiments outweigh the needs of the entire world. She’d struggled to listen to that side for so long that rejecting Jen’s assertion came as a knee jerk reaction.
When she went to form the words of protest though they died on her lips.
Jen wasn’t wrong.
Cynthia needed her, and Charlene needed her, and the Burrowers they’d saved from the Overseers who were waiting just beyond the reach of the Overseers best sensors needed her.
It was hard to leave Jen behind, but, looking her comrade, Tam saw not a young woman who was missing one arm and had a half working prosthetic on the other. She didn’t see an accomplished martial artist and a world class tactician either. Framed against the backdrop of bombs bursting, Jen, in her tattered clothes and smudges of dirt and oil was a hero. Not because of what she could do, but because of what she chose to do, and because of what she would inspire others to do.
The last Burrowers were weak, and tired, and unable to fight for themselves anymore.
But they would fight for Jen.
“Ok,” Tam said. “I’ll go then, but not before I give you this.”
Without waiting, she clasped Jen’s remaining prosthetic hand in her own. Metal twisted back into place. Gears spun, revving to unobservable speeds. A glow arose from the joins which washed out everything else about the mechanism.
“What is this?” Jen asked, feeling power surging through her entire body.
“My magic,” Tam said, “All the power I’ve gathered from this world. Don’t worry about being subtle with it and don’t worry about saving it. I’ll gather more on the trip back home. This is all for you.”
The Overseers saw the sphere containing their escaped quarry for only a flicker between the time when it’s cloak dropped away and it punched into trans-real space.
“We have them locked!” the gunner’s mate on the newly christened Space Battleship Obligation said.
“Confirm their course,” the captain said.
“Course is charted on a direct path to the trans-world designated ‘Earth’,” the gunner’s mate said. The screens for evaluating things that could fly outside of standard reality were a new invention, or really a gift if anyone in the Overseer space navy was feeling honest. The gunner’s mate had been given what training anyone knew how to give, which was almost none since no one among the Overseers truly understood how the mysterious tech of their allies worked. That it did work was all that mattered, and that it was intuitive enough to use out of the box meant no one was concerned with asking too many questions about it.
“Lay in a pursuit course and engage at maximum safe speed.” That the captain didn’t call for the ship’s true maximum speed was an indication of how little anyone in the navy wanted to be the ones to discover the limits of the alien technology they were relying on.
“Course laid in and engines engaged Captain,” the helmsman said.
“Target appears stationary,” the gunner’s mate said and then corrected himself. “No, wait, that was a ghost image. They’ve jumped to a velocity beyond our sensor detection capability.”
“We’re not going to catch them then,” the captain said, mostly for the benefit of the official log the ship’s systems were automatically recording. No one on the bridge had any illusions that they would, or even could, take their ship to a similar speed. “Establish communications with the fleet task force which has jumped to the target world. Inform them of the impending arrival of our quarry.”
“Communication link open sir,” the comm tech reported.
“Obligation, Durance here, report status of rogue realm tunnelers,” the fleet’s impossibly distant flagship transmitted.
“Durance, Obligation. Rogue Burrowers have been identified and their destination verified as your location,” the Obligation’s captain said. “Just as we suspected. We are in pursuit now, but they will arrive before us.”
“Can you overtake them Obligation? We are setting up a cordon now. The last thing we need is those stupid worms digging through our defenses and letting in an forces that chose to ally themselves with the Earth.”
“Negative on overtaking the Burrowers Durance,” the captain said. “They are moving faster than our sensors can track.”
“What? How is that possible?”
“We cannot say command. Perhaps our allies gave us a limited version of their technology? Or maybe the Burrowers have allies who are more powerful than they are.”
“We know that’s true, but we can’t blame everything on their mystery saviors. We let too many of them escape. Our ground forces did a miserable job preventing this from getting out of hand.”
“The report I read…” the captain began to say before the fleet commander cut him off.
“Were all written by people looking to keep their jobs. Nothing in them is even vaguely credible.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter. No one is powerful enough to get past our blockade. We’ll begin landing troops in five minutes, once the last link in the blockade is connected. I expect that you and your contingent of marines will be here for the second landing wave Obligation.”
“We have a clear path to you command. We will be ready for deployment the moment we drop out of trans-real space.”
The captain waited for a response, but after a few breaths he turned to his comm tech.
“No signal from the Durance, sir,” the comm tech. “They have stopped transmitting on all bands.”
“What? That’s not possible. What about their automated beacons?”
“They’re gone. All of them.”
“But the only…” the captain started to say and trailed off. The only cause for the automated beacons to be silent was if the ship had suffered a total system catastrophe.
Nothing was powerful enough to do that to the Durance though. It was the pride of the Overseer’s Navy.
“We’re getting reports from a communications relay ship, the Informant,” the comm tech said as he put the broadcast on the bridge’s speakers.
“Durance is lost. Repeat. Durance is lost. New arrival has penetrated the hull and ship systems are dead. No signs of power from anywhere on Durance.”
“What could possibly do that?” the captain asked.
“Image enhancement shows multiple breeches in the hull. It’s like…” the Informant’s comm tech’s voice cracked. “It’s like something is eating it. From the inside.”
“Informant, this is Obligation, what was the new arrival. Report.”
“We don’t know. It was like a sphere of light. It came out of trans-real space at an impossible velocity and headed straight for the Durance.”
“Informant, get the image crews on analyzing the hole and tracking the trajectory of the things that might have exited from those points.”
“We’re getting that report now Obligation.” the Informant’s comm tech said. “We have images coming in. It’s the worms. The Burrowers. They’re coming out of the Durance. They’re coming for us!”
“Evasive action!” the captain called, knowing it would be far too late for at least a quarter of their fleet.