The nukes didn’t work. Berlin burned, the skies were covered ash and soot, the hope of millions ended in a blinding light, but the creature rampaged on even stronger than before.
The last live transmission from Berlin was broadcast by a young Muslim man. His final words were in German and were a prayer spoken from the heart, not for himself but for the world he was leaving behind and all of the people who would have to carry on. When the end came, Hanna thought he would greet it with tears or rage or pious zeal but instead he offered the camera a gentle smile that she couldn’t understand. He had spoken of the wonder and beauty of the world he had seen, of his faith, and of the family he loved and was about to leave behind. And then, after his prayer, there was only silence as the video feed cut off.
No one spoke in the command center after Laura, their translator, finished speaking.
Minutes passed and a new set of images began transmitting from Berlin. On Mauna Kea, the assembled observers continued to watch in silence as the creature stepped from the obscuring clouds and stomped the city into a wasteland resembling the other Effect Zones.
“Those lines in it’s side?” Kimberly asked, her voice weak with shock, “Are those weak points?”
A fresh set of observer drones were providing a continuous video feed of the creature’s rampage. Their high resolution views of the creature revealed a series of luminous yellow lines on its skin. The lines whorled and formed complex patterns which sent scholars around the world, professional and amateur alike, scurrying to find any similarities between the strangely intricate designs and any glyphs or iconography in recorded human history. Hanna wished she was in their field. She wished there was anything she could do besides stare at the unabating horror that was playing out in real time half a world away from her.
“They don’t seem to be,” Kalia said. “The third sorte tried targeting them with conventional weapons and the creature barely reacted to them.”
There’d been another attack on the creature, but Hanna had been lost in the shock of seeing atomic fire roll off the creature.
“But it did react,” Dr. Tishone said. “That’s important. It means that it’s interaction with terrestrial matter and energy isn’t a one way street.”
“We need bigger guns,” Kimberly said.
“If we do that the Lightning Planet will just send bigger creatures,” Hanna said, her voice came out far calmer than she thought she had any right to sound. She’d expected bad news from the third collision, but nothing like what she was seeing. The unstoppable devastation was so at odds with the still and quiet Effect Zones from the previous two collisions that only the live video feed was enough to force her into believing it was real.
“Don’t jump to conclusions,” Dr. Tishone said. “This is horrible enough. We’ve got to stick with what we know. Build theories from the facts that we’ve observed.”
Hanna wanted to scream that it was not the time while Berlin dying in front of them to be dispassionately considering the facts. She wanted to scream that, and a dozen less verbal things and then she wanted to lay down and wake up from this nightmare.
There was no waking up from the nightmare though, so she did the only thing she could. She excused herself.
“I need a minute,” she said and without waiting for anyone to give her permission, Hanna walked out of the central control room.
She didn’t have a destination or a goal. She just knew two things. First, that Dr. Tishone was right. No more than ever they needed to approach the problem with unflinching clarity of vision. Wishes, hopes and fears all had to be cast aside. The creature was whatever it was. No amount of dreaming was going to make it something that was convenient for humanity to deal with.
The second thing Hanna knew though was that she couldn’t be the person she needed to be. Not right away. What she’d been witness to was beyond her ability to reason to handle. She needed to be able to think without fear, but her mind was a maelstrom, blown on winds of terror and shrieking gales of revulsion. She wanted to be what Dr. Tishone needed her to be, but that was out of reach.
So she walked, and she left the fear and sorrow and despair wash over her. When she was far enough away from the others, she started speaking aloud, giving voice to all of the crazy ideas and insane fears that were swirling in her mind.
“This is a punishment on us,” she said. “We’ve been wicked and now we’re being judged.”
True to form, another voice rose in her head though. The contrarian. The one who would pick apart everything she thought and said.
“Yes,” the contrarian said. “And the Germans are extra wicked, so that’s why judgment started with them. Beer doesn’t just make you drunk, it’s the Devil’s Brew! And don’t even get me started on bratwurst!”
“Ok, but we’re doomed anyways, there’s no way to stop this creature!” she said.
Again the contrarian responded.
“Because if at first you don’t succeed, just give up. That’s always the path that winners always take,” the contrarian said.
“But this thing is impossible! It’s like it’s engineered specifically to destroy us!” Hanna noticed she was making her primary voice sound almost cartoonishly whiny. It shouldn’t have made a difference but somehow it planted a laugh in her chest that shook loose some of the fear that had gripped her heart in a thorny prison.
“Of course, I mean you know so much about how exotic matter acts that of course you can say only an Intelligent Design could have created something that’s basically an oversized dinosaur. I mean you’re practically an expert on alien biology aren’t you?” the contrarian asked.
Normally Hanna was not a fan of how she picked apart her own ideas, but literally hearing herself point out how ridiculous her thoughts were was enough to get her laughing at herself and with laughter came the first threads of healing. Each chuckle helped her knit the fractured pieces of her mind back together into something that felt like a workably coherent whole.
Then she died of embarrassment.
“I’m thinking if someone did engineer that thing, we find them and we shoot them in the face until they tell us how to stop it,” Kalia said.
“Oh my god! You heard all that?” Hanna asked, covering her mouth with her hands.
“Sorry,” Kalia said. “I know it’s not cool to eavesdrop, I just…You didn’t look like you were doing too good.”
Hanna felt tears running down her face. They’d been doing that since she walked out of the command center but she tried to brush them away anyways.
“You’re very observant,” Hanna said. “I’m sorry, I’m just…”
“I know,” Kalia said. “This is…I don’t even have words.”
“You can borrow some of mine,” Hanna said. “Apparently, I’ve gone crazy and I’m giving them away for free now.”
Kalia gave a small chuckle to that, and sat down on the sidewalk curb a few feet away from where Hanna was standing.
“You know, I learned a whole new language worth of swears when I joined the army,” Kalia said. “So many options for saying exactly how screwed up a situation is and not one of them is enough to cover this.”
“I think we need a made up language to cover this,” Hanna said, sitting down beside Kalia. “End-of-the-World-glish, or Apocalyopsese.”
“I guess that’ll give the linguists a hobby then,” Kalia said. “For a little while at least.”
Both women were silent for a moment after that. Hanna gazed up at the heavens, wondering how many more times she would get to see the Milky Way in all its glory. It wasn’t exactly a comfort that for all the destruction that was occurring on Earth, the galaxy would go on unchanged and unharmed but somehow the vastness of space made her feel a little less small.
“Do you think it really is the end of the world?” Kalia asked, her voice softer than Hanna could remember hearing it.
She looked over at her military liaison and saw Kalia staring straight ahead, her chin resting on hands that were clasped as though in prayer.
“I don’t,” Hanna said, laying her hand on Kalia’s shoulder. She was surprised she said those words, and more surprised to find she believed them.
“All I can keep thinking is how glad I’m here, on the other side of the world from that thing,” Kalia said. “When I signed up, I was sure I could make it through basic. No one was going to be tougher than I was.”
“How did that go?” Hanna asked.
“Drill sergeants are tougher than anyone,” she said. “I got out of there though and I thought I was ready to take on anything. Now though? I don’t see how anything can take on that monster.”
“That’s how things always go,” Kalia said. “Humans everywhere go through the same process over and over again. It starts with ‘That’s Impossible!’, then someone fails at it enough until they finally get lucky and it becomes ‘That’s Incredibly Difficult!’, then we fail some more and win some more and eventually it becomes routine.”
“You think fighting that thing will become routine?” Kalia asked.
“Of course not,” Hanna said. “That thing’s impossible to kill!”
Kalia turned to look at her and saw the encouraging grin waiting on Hanna’s face.
“You know I came out here to make sure you were ok,” Kalia said. “You’re not supposed to be the one cheering me up.”
“I’ve gone crazy remember,” Hanna said. “I’m liable to do all kinds of things I shouldn’t.”
Kalia looked away and smiled a goofy grin. Before Hanna had a chance to widen that grin further though, Kimberly caught up to them.
“Dr. Tishone wanted me to see how you both were doing?” Kimberly asked.
“I think we’re ok,” Hanna said. “How about you?”
“Not so great,” Kimberly said. “But, you know, that’s what screaming into your pillow for hours before you fall asleep is for right?”
“Simon’s supposed to be flying in tomorrow morning,” Kalia said.
“Oh good, my pillow can get an entirely different kind of workout then,” Kimberly said.
“You know, I used to tease you about your boyfriends,” Hanna said, “But in this case, I say go for it.”
“Thank you,” Kimberly said, relaxing as the change of topic gave her mind a respite from the images the command center had been pumping into it. “It’s going to suck waiting for that though.”
“We should see if Dr. Tishone really needs us,” Hanna said. “If there’s work we can do, I’m fine with hanging around here, but if it’s just going to be hours of watching Europe get reduced to paste? I don’t need that and it’s not going to help me work once there’s something I can contribute to.”
“Oh right,” Kimberly said. “That’s the other reason I came out here. Dr. Tishone can use our help.”
“What’s happened?” Hanna asked.
“The creature’s bedding down I guess?” Kimberly said. “You’ll have to see it. It’s sorting of squatting and it looks like pulses of energy are flowing into the ground at it’s feet.”
“Ok, that can’t possibly be a good thing,” Hanna said.
“It probably isn’t,” Kimberly said. “And it’s probably not a good thing that we’re seeing gray crystals starting to sprout up around it.”
“Oh that’s definitely not good,” Hanna said. “What does she need us to do though?”
“The crystals are curving as they grow,” Kimberly said. “Dr. Tishone thinks they’re aligning to point at a single spot in the sky, and it’s on us to figure out what that is.”
“It’s gotta be the Lightning Planet right?” Hanna asked.
“Maybe,” Kimberly said. “If so the question is where on the Lightning Planet and if not then the question is what else is out there?”