Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Interlude 6

Pete and Starchild

The blasted runway had been destroyed long before anyone currently living on After Earth had been born. Under a purple and red sky though it still managed to capture a spark of the lost magic humanity had once held. At its far end, the skeletons of a mighty metropolis rose to catch the fading sunlight, age blackened metal and windows long since shattered to dust no longer glinting in the last rays of the day but still lit well enough to frame the memory of a skyline. 

At the nearer end of the runway was were the shadows lurked. Dark, ever growing things which cloaked the strange new vines and bushes of After Earth. The transition to a more natural setting should have been comforting but the vegetation which crept over the land was as much circuitry as plant life. 

“We should not be out here. Not now. Not ever,” Kevsmot said twisting the new Disintegration Lance in his hands like the world’s longest worry bead. 

When Pete had found him, he’d been trying to fighting building sized mechs with a rifle from the Before Earth. Getting the team fully equipped with the top end gear After Earth had to offer had been Pete’s first order of business and, happily, the caches he’d known about from the game had been mirrored in the actual After Earth as well.

A lot of his knowledge from the game had come in handy like that. Their current mission though benefited from none of his out-of-context knowledge. Not when what he needed was a miracle.

“It has to be here,” Pete said, motioning Kevmot and the others to hold their position. “This will only work at a boundary.”

He’d been with them for all of four days so far. Four days of standard Earth Time that is. As it turned, time on After Earth was a little different than on Pete’s Earth. After Earth’s days were 48 hours long, due to the weird science calamity that had transformed it into what it was  but they passed in just 2 hours of Earth time due to some weird dilation effect between the two.

The net result of that was that it had been almost four weeks of weird subjective time since Pete had left his Broken Horizons team and wound up fighting for the future of humanity on After Earth. 

There’d been victories and losses but none of them had worried him as much as waiting at the end of a runway, sheltered by the remains of a rotted and broken down Piper Cub, hoping beyond hope that something ‘not-of-this-world’ would be able to tear through the fabric of reality and manifest before him.

“I’m reading a power surge,” Kevsmot said. “A really big one.”

That sounded perfect to Pete’s ears. The power surge he was expecting would blow this world off its (metaphorical) axel.

“Multiple targets confirmed and closing from the city,” Kevsmot added and that did not sound perfect to Pete’s ears. That was not at all the direction the power surge was supposed to be coming from.

“What? How? From the city?” Pete whipped around and saw the bright sparks of afterburners blazing the darkness away from the ruined metropolis. “No! We cleared District 6 out yesterday! There aren’t supposed to be any machines left within a 20 mile radius of this place!”

He had fought so hard. They all had. The fifteen of them who were left were more a collection of wounds bound together by medkit gel and sheer tenacity than actual specimens of humanity anymore but the one redeeming grace had been that all their suffering and injuries had cleared them a safe refuge at last. They had desperately needed a spot they could regroup, rest, and replenish themselves, and they’d won it. He was sure of that.

So why was the sky rapidly darkening even though the sun was still hours from setting? 

Pete looked around for the cover that would shield them. The cover that had to be nearby. The cover that he certainly hadn’t walked them all away from on a foolish hope.

“Good news,” Kevsmot said, starring at the scanner. “They’re only Mark 3s.”

A Mark 3 Doombringer was manageable by a well trained squad, but Pete’s heart knew better than to unfreeze. It wasn’t going to be just one Mark 3 in the attack wing.

“How many?” he asked.

“Multiple,” Kensmot said, the nervous titter in his voice presaging some kind of fundamental breakdown.

Pete yanked the scanner from his hand.

It said “Mult.” in place of a number. 

One possibility was that the scanner had finally broken thanks to the miserable conditions they’d subjected it to. Glancing at the shadowed cityscape, Pete knew that wasn’t the answer. Beyond a hundred active contacts the scanner was simply incapable of reporting reliable results.

He laughed. It was infectious. They’d come so far, beaten a frankly ridiculous number of death machines, and this was going to be the end of their road. So close and yet still a world away from hope.

“Well folks, it’s been a fine run. Can’t say I’m happy dying here with you, but if they scrambled this many units against us, you know we had to have hurt Control One pretty damn bad,” Pete said, a wonderful calm falling over him. 

“Hey, upside, if Control One’s this pissed off at us, there’s not going to be anything left when those things are done to turn us into Revenants,” one of the troopers said.

That was a blessing. Pete wasn’t sure if his consciousness would wind up bound to a cyber-zombied version of his body and had no interest in finding out.

Raising his Disintegration cannon to his shoulder, he took aim at the rapidly closing machine, picked a target and began firing. He considered trying to world hop away at the last moment, but After Earth was a tech setting, not a magic one and he didn’t have the tech to make a jump out. His only hope had been to import some of the magic he’d used to reach After Earth in the first place and the dark and silent forest behind him suggested that the gap between the worlds had widened too far for that to happen again.

When the missiles arrived their aim was as lousy as ever. The first five fell so far short that Pete was only thrown ten feet back by the blast. Through the soot and smoke though he heard the next wave coming though. The familiar scream of the missiles tore through the air but this time there was no cover to hide behind, and no jammers to force the missiles off course.

This time there was only a bright light and then silence.

As deaths went, it wasn’t by any means peaceful but it was quick enough that Pete didn’t feel any pain.

Or he shouldn’t have. 

He’d been dead before.

A lot in the [Fallen Kingdoms] in fact. 

He knew what being dead felt like and it didn’t involve abrasion burns from being pitched across a rough patch of broken asphalt. Nor did it involve additional explosions. 

Or battle cries.

He blinked to clear his vision. Something was very wrong.

“I’m sorry, we would have been here sooner but the transit spell was blocked by something on this side,” the voice of an angel said. 

Or something was incredibly right.

“Starchild? Starchild!” Pete was on his feet despite rather more bloodloss than he could account for and hugged her for all he was worth.

A small army stood behind her, Specifically Lost Alice’s original guild, the [Army of Light], and around them all the dome of an [Unbreakable Aegis Shield] flared with brilliant light as thousands of rounds of ammunition slammed into it to no avail.

“Why don’t you take care of the the folks here,” Cease All said. “We’ll handle the bots out there.”

Pete let Starchild go and stood there slack jawed.

In his wildest dreams he hadn’t been able to hope for more than being reunited with her. The sum total of his plan had been ‘have Starchild get to After Earth, have her ferry people to literally any other world, end of plan’, and instead she’d brought a fighting force that was capable of taking on a hundred Mark 3 Doombringers like they were swatting a swarm of gnats.

“[All Life’s Embrace],” Starchild said, noticing the grizzly stomach wound Pete had acquired, and he felt every wound he’d ever experienced vanish as the high tier [Druidic] healing spell left him roughly twice as resilient as he’d ever been.

The spell spread out as Starchild maintained it, touching each of the members of his After Earth troop, and whether they were still living, hovering on the edge of death, or recently deceased, brought them all back up to as perfect physical condition as he was.

“What…how…who?” Kevsmot spoke the whole troop who were staring at the seeming goddess who, Pete noticed, was converting the forest around them from a techno-organic nightmare to a lush and almost disturbingly vibrant nature preserve.

“I think I mention I had a surprise I wanted to show you?” Pete said. “Well, here she is.”

“Only thanks to you,” Starchild said. “And almost not soon enough.”

“You’re timing was perfect,” Pete said. “How did you get the [AoL] to come with you though?”

“A lottery,” Starchild said and at Pete’s quizzical look. “We couldn’t take that many people and there were a lot of volunteers.”

Pete blinked again. Maybe he had died and this was what heaven looked like? Except After Earth’s heaven was a data storage center and it definitely couldn’t replicate what was happening around him.

“You look like yourself again?” Starchild asked, bringing his thoughts back to the present. “I was expecting to have trouble identifying you.”

“Oh, yeah, in the game this world is based on you play a fairly blank slate character and there’s no real customization options, so I’m just me here I guess,” Pete said. “A bit tougher than the regular me. And I know how to field strip a Disintegration Cannon in twenty seconds, but otherwise nothing special.”

“I’m pretty sure ‘nothing special’ is not even in the same kingdom as the truth, but it’s nice to get to see the regular you again,” Starchild said. “I was afraid I’d have to fight for you with your alternate self from this world.”

Pete chuckled, “it sounds like you ran into some of my other characters in the Fallen Kingdoms…huh, why doesn’t ‘Fallen Kingdoms’ sound weird anymore?”

“Because they’re the [Risen Kingdoms] now,” Starchild said. “And, no I haven’t managed to find any of your other selves in there yet.”

“I’m not surprised,” Pete said. “I don’t think we’re the same as Lost Alice and Pillowcase were.”

“Because we have our own memories?” Starchild asked.

“Yes but no,” Pete said. “I was thinking about it after I got here and wound up like this, with no ‘other me’ here at all, and how you weren’t ‘another me’ either, not like Pillowcase and Tessa seemed to be. They were the most obvious case because we saw them switch back and forth a lot, but some of the others like Lost Alice and Rip Shot were the same, I think. More like two different expressions of the same person than fully distinct beings. Pillowcase was Tessa and Tessa was Pillowcase, they were just different points of view I think?”

“But that’s not us?” Starchild said.

“I don’t think so? I mean, I’m not a metaphysician, I’m really just a gamer with a silly imagination, but with you it feels like we really are two distinct people but we make a greater whole as a result. Kind of like rather than one times one equaling one, we’re one plus one equaling two, or maybe even more.”

“Because together we’re greater than the sum of our parts,” Starchild said, her gaze going distant as she considered the idea.

“That and I don’t think it’s limited to just us two,” Pete said. “We clearly have the strongest bond at the moment since we’ve spent enough time together for you to do this.” He gestured to the army that she’d brought to After Earth. 

The army that was smashing through the largest horde of Doombringers that Pete had ever seen assembled.

He liked that army he decided.

“And the others then? Your earlier characters?” Starchild asked, some dim nervousness fading from her eyes.

“I think we can share the same kind of bond with them,” Pete said. “My characters have never been ‘me’, but they’ve always been my friends. The people I wanted to explore strange new worlds with, or fight alongside, or just hang out with.”

Starchild wiped at her eyes.

“I don’t know why, but that helps somehow,” she said. “I think I’ve been afraid this whole time that we hadn’t joined the same as Pillowcase and Tessa did because I was lacking somehow, or it was too uncomfortable for you to be seen as me.”

“Absolutely never,” Pete said. “Being you would be amazing beyond belief and I would jump at it in a heart beat except for one thing – if I was you, then you wouldn’t be. We’d just be me together and I’m so, so happy that you’re free to be the person you want to be, because you’re awesome in ways I never could be.”

“I’m glad you’re you too,” Starchild said. “Though I must confess it has been somewhat lonely not hearing your voice when I needed someone to talk to.”

“I think you saw just how much fun I was having without you,” Pete said. “Bleeding out on a runway gets zero stars from me, would not be blown up by death robots again.”

“Well if being blown up by machine isn’t your favorite passtime, what would you like to do next?” Starchild asked.

Pete looked up at the stars burning above the ruined world.

“Explore,” he said. “I’ve played a lot of games, and made a lot of friends. What do you say we go find them all.”

“I became a [Druid] because the [Wilds] called to my heart,” Starchild said. “And I can think of no more exciting wilds than the worlds you can lead me to.”

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