It was five days until the end of the world and Val was trying to punch a volcano into submission.
“This isn’t working as well as I’d planned,” she admitted as a lava flow escaped over the left side of the fire break she’d put up.
“Keep going,” Sarah said. “You’re buying us time, even if the barrier fails, we need those seconds.”
Val looked at the grumbling mountain about her. It was more than a pile of hot rocks. It had a slow and implaccable will and it did not like her.
“Sorry there big guy, but you picked the wrong day to wake up cranky,” she said as she slammed a fist into a boulder twice as high and wide as she was tall.
Physics both on Greenglim and Earth agreed that the proper response to such an action would be for the bounder to be moved minutely in one direction while Val either shattered her hand or was hurled backwards a much longer distance in the opposite direction. The Rune of Undeniable Gravity on Val’s left hand had other ideas though.
It wasn’t just that she hit the boulder with enough force to launch it into orbit. On its own even that wouldn’t have achieved the desired effect. Since the force was concentrated in an area the size of Val’s hand, it would have simply punch a fist sized hole into the rock, possibly splitting the boulder into shards.
Instead, thanks to the Rune’s ability to tell physics to go sit in a corner and keep its opinions to itself, the boulder was flung as an intact structure into the side of the volcano with enough force to collapse the top of the mountain into the caldera to form a temporary and imperfect plug. Physics complained about that too, but quietly, so as not to draw too much attention to itself.
“That should buy us a minute or so,” she said, tapping the communication pin in her earlobe.
“Good,” Sarah said. “I think I can keep our two new friends from coming to blows for at least that long.”
“Two new friends?” Val asked. The mission they were on was supposed to be for the last minute rescue of a group of spindly aliens who looked like walking stick figures. Nothing in the mission briefing had suggested that they’d have more than a few thousand refugees to worry about.
“Yeah, turns out the situation’s a little more complicated than it appeared,” Sarah said. “The Vielii aren’t the only sapients on this world. In fact, they’re not even the only ones in close proximity to here.”
“How many more are we looking at?” Val asked, trying to do the logistical planning for the added rescues in her head.
“In the area being threatened by Mount Disaster here? Something like thirty three thousand,” Sarah said. “World-wide though? Around four billion from what the leader of the Growing Ones says.”
Val had no idea who “The Growing Ones” were but even that basic of a question was secondary in importance to the most pressing problem they presented.
“Four billion? But James said there was only a small population left here. One trip. That was all we were supposed to need.”
Even if they spent the rest of their time ferrying people off of the Vielli homeworld there was no chance they’d complete an evacuation of four billion people in five days. Val knew what the math looked like, and knew what short cuts they could take to speed things up. None of them, not even the suicidally dangerous ones, were anywhere close to transferring a billion people to a new world in a week, much less four times that amount.
“Let’s just say that for as fantastic as a caster as James is, there’s a reason we usually leave the mission detail work to Tam,” Sarah said.
“How did he miss four billion people though?”
“He was looking for life as he knew it,” Sarah said. “To be fair, I didn’t think of this either, but the part of the spell where we exclude the life signs of things like shrubs and trees? Turns out that’s not always the right thing to do.”
The volcano belched and heaved. A long sigh of toxic gases emanated from a series of fissures in the mountain’s top. The forces building within it were not going to be contained by anything as trivial as a collapsed mountaintop for long.
“So you’ve got talking trees to deal with?” Val asked, trying to make sense of what Sarah was saying.
“Yeah, that’s pretty much how my day is going,” Sarah said.
Another rumble saw a jet of pressurized lava squirt into the air from the top of a volcano and the fall back to the ground as a shower of glittering crystals. It was pretty, but also, probably a pretty bad sign Val decided.
“I’ve got diamonds or something like that raining down here,” she said. “It’s not as great as it sounds though. They’re sharp and they hit hard about hard enough to pierce stone.”
“What I’m getting from our new friends is that Mt. Disaster is different from the other mountains in the area. They’re saying it’s alive and it can feel what’s been done to it.”
“Wait, is this thing actually named ‘Mt. Disaster’ or is that just your name for it?” Val asked.
“It’s what the translation spell is coming up with,” Sarah said. “I could tweak it to use the original word but given that the Vielii and the Growing Ones have reached the ‘screaming about old wrongs’ stage of the negotiations, I think I may give that a pass.”
“Give me a sec then and I’ll head over to provide some backup,” Val said.
“Hold that thought,” Sarah said. “It sounds like we’ll you need you where you are if the volcano makes another move. I’ll put my audio pickup on omnidirectional so you can hear where things are going with our friends.”
There was a squeak as Sarah adjusted the spell on her earring.
“The disasters won’t be satisfied until your people are dead,” a voice that sounded like a great gale blowing through an empty canyon said. The name “Greygast” popped into Val’s mind courtesy of the translation spell.
“We’re not the ones who did this,” said a speaker whose voice vibrated like a guitar string. The translation spell named this one “Qui-vell”.
“Always you say this, always you claim no responsibility, no need to put right what you made wrong,” Greygast said.
“Because we didn’t do this,” Qui-vell said. “The poisons that kill the world, the ones that are waking up the disasters, we didn’t unleash them. They’ve always been there.”
“Not always,” Greygast said. “You’re people placed them here. For millennia the poisons have built, unseen, but now there is nowhere for them to hide. Now they poison everything.”
“None of us are like you,” Qui-vell said. “We don’t live thousands of years. We couldn’t have done what you’re claiming.”
“Not you who are here, but you who came before,” Greygast said. “You parents, and theirs, and theirs before them.”
“Not even them,” Qui-vell said. “My parents fought to clean up the toxins. We have too.”
“It was not enough,” Greygast said.
“We know that!” Qui-vell screamed.
The mountain punctuated the scream with a howl of its own as more superheated gases escaped through the rapidly shifting plug Val had formed.
“I don’t think my stopgap is going to hold much longer,” she said. “I think we need to try Plan D.”
That they were only on their fourth contingency plan so far was a promising sign in Val’s book. Normally their missions either went roughly as they were supposed to go or they went so far off the rails that all existing plans were tossed to the wind and everything came down to improvisation.
“Are you sure you’re ready for that?” Sarah asked. “Greenglim’s not home. I don’t know how long your enchantments are going to hold.”
“They’ll hold long enough,” Val said. “Can you get the squabbling under control though? Even best case this isn’t going to last more than a few minutes.”
“I’ll have to,” Sarah said.
“We’ll probably lose contact once I get started,” Val said. “Bail out the moment things look untenable ok?”
“No,” Sarah said. “Not ok. I’m not leaving you to drown in lava or be blown to bits by a pyroclastic explosion.”
“I appreciate that, but we need to get word back to home about the three point nine billion or so people James missed on his original overview of this place so the others can dream up a solution for the ones who are outside the blast range of Mt Disaster here.”
“You know if I come home without you, Aranea will eat me right?” Sarah said. “And that’s not metaphorical.”
“She knows how dangerous my work is,” Val said. “It’s why she helps out once in a while.”
“So why isn’t she here now?” Sarah asked. “This would be a lot easier with some divine might backing us up.”
“She’s a goddess in our world, her powers outside that are more limited,” Val said. “And at the moment she’s away on god business. And it doesn’t matter, because I’ll be fine. Just go and talk your peoples there into burying the hatchet for now, and then get them out of here.”
“Sure, they’ve only got a few thousand years of baggage to work through. How hard could that be?”
“You know Anna could have them on the Rainbow Bridge already right?” Val teased.
“Yeah, like anyone can measure up to her.”
“Do your best, you’ll be fine,” Val said.
Sarah grumbled more.
“I’m the small group handler. She’s the one who’s supposed to sway the masses. Yeah, fine, I’ll manage them. Just don’t get fried.”
“Will keep it frosty,” Val said, as she invoked the Winter’s Heart glyph drawn in the center of her chest.
An icey blue rime spread from the point where Val touched the glyph, growing thicker and heavier as she bounded up the crumbling slope of Mt Disaster. By the time she reached the summit, she was encased in a clear crystal shell of ice which leeched heat from everything within a quarter mile of her.
“When did my life get like this?” she wondered as she plunged through the stone cap and into the center of the roiling volcano.
The heat of the volcano couldn’t reach her, in part because the ice had grown too thick but also because she fell through the lava her frosty armor froze it back to solid, and even chilly, stone.
“Iceling! Why do break the ancient compact?” Mt Disaster asked her.
“You can speak?” Val blurted out before regaining her composure. “Of course you can. Ok, first thing, I’m not an iceling, and we don’t have any compacts. Not yet anyways. Second thing, do you have to explode? It’s kind of putting a lot of people in danger.”
“The heat must rise,” Mt Disaster said. “The world drowns in poison, the air is choked, the seas are dying. For life to return, the heat must rise.”
“And by heat, you mean lava?” Val asked.
“Yes. The fire within must cleanse the world without, or only death absolute shall remain.”
“What happened here?” Val asked.
“There was war. There was greed. They lasted too long. Now the world is dying, despite the efforts who have inherited it.”
“Will their deaths change anything though?”
“Death always changes the world.”
“For the better?”
“Rarely for the better.”
“Then can you hold off for a bit?” Val asked. “We want to get them to safety. To another world, until this one can heal.”
“This world will not heal while they live,” Mt Disaster said. “Not even for those with the longest lives among them. If they are to find a new home, then it will be the only home they will ever know.”
“Better that than dying here,” Val said, wondering how she’d wound up as a diplomat when even Sarah, who was exceptional at handling people, was feeling out of her depth.
“Is it?” Mt Disaster asked. “If they journey to a new world, they will leave behind the lives they have, but they may bring with them the poisons which destroyed this world.”
“That’s not what any of them want,” Val said. “Starting over is never easy, and maybe they will make mistakes in their new homes. They’re people, and that means they’re not perfect, but they deserve the chance to try for something better. That’s the promise my world is meant to offer. A second chance to make a better life for anyone who need one.”