Monthly Archives: November 2022

Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Interlude 6

Grenslaw and Ryschild

The fighting was over, and yet the war had just begun. Grenslaw was glad to be getting back onto familiar territory. Ryschild was delighted to have more reasonable constraints on troops could be moved and apportioned. Thanks to them both, the mood in the [Apocaypse Revocation Office] was one of relative harmony and good natured complaints, despite the fact that at least half the nations of the [Risen Kingdoms] seemed intent on treating the post-apocalypse landscape as open land rush.

“This is all your fault,” Grenslaw said, offering Ryschild the carafe of [Dwarven Deep Mountain Brew] coffee.

“Is it?” Ryschild asked, accepting the carafe. “I would love to think so, but it seems an immodest claim, and likely unsupportable. If anything, credit likely belongs to Her.”

He didn’t have to give a proper name to ‘Her’, only Azma could hold that distinction as far as either one of them were concerned.

“Insofar as she entrusted this work to us? Yes, I suppose,” Grenslaw said and took a small pull of [Dwarven Deep Mountain Brew] before it could get cold and solidify. “That would make you merely the one immediately responsible for all this, rather than ultimately so.”

“Even there, I cannot help but feel that some portion of the responsibility lies on your shoulders as well,” Ryschild said, swirling the coffee and seeing strange patterns emerge from the ripples. The [Deep Visions] the coffee sometimes induced hadn’t been a problem yet, but the longer one relied upon it for the wakefulness it provided the more profound they became.

 “In what sense?” Grenslaw asked. “I’d rather not claim credit for work that was not of my own doing.”

“Yes. The grades from other’s works are always inferior aren’t they?” Ryschild said, offering a smile to go with the old, familiar joke between them.

“With one notable exception,” Grenslaw said, a nod and a return smile completing the memory.

“In answer to your question though, while it’s certainly true that no one would be massing for war had my strategy deprioritized the survival of the non-adventuring forces, it was your logistic and deployment plans which translated that strategy into an actionable reality,” Ryschild said.

“That was little more than basic workmanship,” Grenslaw said. “Without a flawless foundation, the entire enterprise would have come to ruin.”

“Flawless? Certainly not. I am fairly certain that She will be able to point out more than a few cracks in said foundation. I see several myself with the benefit of hindsight.”

“Such as?” Grenslaw said, sounding fully offended at the notion that anyone, Ryschild included, would cast aspirations on the plan they had implemented. A plan which had, in point of fact, saved a world that was not at all their own.

Or, not at all their own yet.

“The obvious failing was, of course, not sufficiently accounting for the current state of the [Risen Kingdoms] that would be as the result of my strategy. With armies of the [Great Kingdoms] mostly intact and the [Lesser Kingdoms] having borne the brunt of our initial invasion, it was relatively simple to predict that the [Great Kingdoms] would take the opportunity to grow someone what ‘greater’ at the expense of their former neighbors.”

“I distinctly recall you mentioning that in our initial planning session,” Grenslaw said. “Also, I feel compelled to point out that given that other constraints we were placed under this turn of events is still trending towards the most optimal outcome possible.”

Kashiren, one of their [Senior Communication Staff] members, paused on hearing that. He’d brought them a [Secured Crystal] with updated battle summaries and was decrypting it into the [Grand Tactical Table] Grenslaw had assembled.

“You had constraints beyond ‘save the world’?” he asked. “Are you telling me each of you did this with one hand tied behind your backs?”

“A closer analogy might be with one hand severed and the wound unstaunched so it could bleed out freely,” Grenslaw said.

“But we were facing the end of the world. No, scratch that, we were facing many different ends of the world. How did you have slack to account for anything but ‘fix things no matter what it takes’?”

“Fairly simple,” Ryschild said. “The ‘fix things’ part of the mandate negates the ‘no matter what it takes’ rider all on its own. We were already operating under many different constraints in terms of how we could approach solving the situations which had arise.”

“The key,” Grenslaw added, “was that we were able to leverage the constraints placed upon us to become strengths we could use to augment the whole enterprise.”

“I’m afraid you’ve lost me there,” Kashiren said.

“Me too,” one of the other nearby staff members agreed.

“The constraint we were requested and required to labor under was to preserve as much of the Fallen Kingdoms population as possible,” Ryschild said.

“Had we been able to consider the value of the various factions and group based on their capacity to contribute towards the effort of ending the apocalypses, many other paths would have opened to us,” Grenslaw said.

“In all likelihood however utilizing those safe and more conservative strategies would have resulted in the loss of sixty five percent of the global population,” Ryschild said. “The remaining thirty fix percent would have been the ones most optimized for fighting apocalypses and would have been at their peak strength for doing so.”

“That has a rather significant drawback however,” Grenslaw said.

“Yeah, two thirds of the world winds up dead,” Kashiren said.

“There are many warfare doctrines that would consider that a reasonable and acceptable casualty count given the situations that needed to be resolved,” Ryschild said. “There would have been far deeper problems that simply the diminished population however.”

“For example,” Grenslaw said, “a world full of apocalypse fighters is rather lacking in other essential professions.”

“Even more critically than that, had we attempted to reinforce the power of the strongest by sacrificing the weakest, we would have changed the internal tenor of the armies. Fighting for one’s own survival can yield optimal results, but with the challenges we faced, optimal efforts would have fallen far short of what was needed.”

“We needed people to go beyond their limits, to rise above what they were in the moment and grasp onto something greater,” Grenslaw said.

“Saving each other was a far more inspiring endeavor than allowing tragedies to compound,” Ryshild said.

“Grim resolve played a role too, to be sure,” Grenslaw said. “Those who died were still tragedies. That was unavoidable.”

“What they were not however, was victims,” Ryschild said. “Those who chose to fight against impossible odds? Their futures weren’t stolen from them. They spent all their tomorrows to buy the hours, minutes, and seconds we needed to ensure tomorrow came for those they left behind.”

“I wonder what they would think of the world now?” Kashiren asked. “It seems a poor memorial to them for so many nations to be intent on spilling the blood they died to save.”

“Some would be disgusted, some would be in favor of it, some would be unconcerned so long as the conflict didn’t affect anyone these cared about, and some would probably rise from the graves to protest the aggressive actions in a spectacularly violent manner,” Grenslaw said. “While it is tempting to canonize them as saints, those who fell in defense of this world were still just people, with all the variety and foibles personhood breeds.”

“Also, there won’t be any bloodshed,” Ryschild said. “Thanks in large part to my colleague.”

“That is certainly not true,” Grenslaw said.

“Yeah,” Kashiren said. “Take a look at the latest intel on the troop positions. We have sixty seven armies posed to invade forty three territories as soon as local conditions allow for a full offensive advance. By this time tomorrow, the entire world will be plunged into open warfare.”

“Sixty seven? I’m impressed,” Ryschild said. “I’d only projected forty two would be in place by now.”

“Your projections were correct,” Grenslaw said. “You were counting [Grand Armies]. The armies in this report count the fissioned segments of the [Grand Armies] as their own forces.”

“An understandable mistake,” Ryschild said.

“It’s going to a bloodbath around the world whether its forty two or sixty seven,” Kashiren said. “And this time we don’t have most of the [Adventurers] around to mitigate it.”

“Oh, they won’t be needed,” Grenslaw said. “Or, not for this at any rate.”

“They could at least cut down on some of the dying though, couldn’t they?” Kashiren asked.

“There won’t be any dying,” Grenslaw said. “I wasn’t objecting to that part of Ryschild’s claim, only that I should be allowed to take credit for it.”

“But…how? That doesn’t make sense,” Kashiren said.

“Trust us that from an external perspective, this entire world has only a passing acquaintance with sensible behavior,” Ryschild said.

“Accepting that was, admittedly, harder than it should have been, but once we got past that particular mental hurdle, working with the world’s nature rather than against it became relatively straightforward,” Grenslaw said.

“Uh, I’m still lost. What did you do?” Kashiren asked.

“It’s not what we did, which is why I feel I don’t deserve the credit for what is about to occur,” Grenslaw said.

“To provide some clarity,” Ryschild said, taking pity on the increasingly confused Kashiren, “In about ten minutes the [Pax Deus] will begin. It’s a rather complicated effect, and one which I suspect will be refined significantly in the weeks to come, but the simple statement of its intent is that no combat or assault of any kind is possible between those sapients who choose to accept the favor of the [Reborn Gods].”

“To begin with all sapients are opted in to the [Favor of the Divine], though renouncing it is as easy as saying so with a true intent in your heart,” Grenslaw said.

“What does having [Divine Favor] mean?” Kashiren asked.

“Aside from being protected from violence by other sapients, it’s also a necessary token for beneficial divine spells to affect someone,” Ryschild said.

“And It enables access to the [Heart Fires], even for non-adventurers,” Grenslaw added. “Apart from violence, people will still die to environmental hazards after all. On this world however they will no longer stay dead from such misadventures.”

“There is a wide variety of non-sapient ‘monsters’ as well, especially in the world’s hidden places,” Ryschild said. “The [Pax Deus] is meant to remove the perils of a population which has just been subjected to a cataclysmically large traumatic event. There is no shortage of other perils in the world though.”

Kashiren blinked.

And blinked again.

And fell off the seat he’d been sitting on when he tried to rise.

“Are…are you telling me, the wars are over? War itself is over? Wait! Are you telling me you have the GODS THEMSELVES on your payroll now?” he stammered as he tried to regain his footing.

Ryschild and Grenslaw both stood and offered him their hands to help him rise.

“Payroll? No of course not,” Ryschild said.

“We expect our budget to be slashes quite thoroughly once word gets out of the new global effect.”

“Okay. Okay, that makes sense, but, uh, why are you still here then? Shouldn’t you be off celebrating or something?”

“This is how we celebrate,” Grenslaw said flatly. Ryschild nodded agreement with perfectly seriousness, before they both cracked a smile to show they were joking.

“We’re using these last few moments before our irrelevancy is discovered to facilitate some logistical issues that will be time consuming to work out later.”

“What sort of issues?”

“The [Lesser Kingdoms] need resources to aid in their recovery,” Grenslaw said. “Thanks to Ryschild, the armies of the [Great Kingdoms] will be delivering those resources in the supply trains for their armies.”

“Some of the supplies will make it to the armies of course,” Ryschild said. “Don’t want to starve them, not after the fine work they did for us, but the majority is being directed to the cities and towns that need it the most.”

“People are going to love you for this,” Kashiren said, awe writ plain on his face.

“Oh, I very much doubt that,” Grenslaw said. “We’re the horrible Consortium invaders who used our ill gotten influence in order to undermine the [Great Kingdoms] so that we could take them over as soon as the [Pax Deus] ends.”

“Okay, yeah, there’ll probably be some of that too,” Kashiren said. “Still. Wow. It’s going to be hard to top this. Or impossible maybe. So what are you going to do now?”

“I suppose this is the point where we turn and kill each other before the [Pax Deus] can make that impossible,” Ryschild said, drawing an ebony dagger from a sleeve that should not have been able to hide it. “It is the Consortium’s modus operandi and certainly inevitable between any two people of equal capability.”

“Indeed,” Grenslaw said, drawing a similar dagger from a similar sleeve. “If we don’t kill each other, we’d likely be stuck together forever.”

They stood at attention for a moment before raising the daggers in a formal dueling salute.

“It was always going to come to this wasn’t it?” Ryschild said.

“For the longest time, I wasn’t sure,” Grenslaw said.

“And now?” Ryschild said.

“I am quite certain of this now,” Grenslaw said.

“Good,” Ryschild said and relaxed out of the dueling stance.

Grenslaw relaxed at the same moment and both gave secret smiles whose meaning was known only by the other.

“To forever,” Grenslaw said and drew a rune on Rychild’s offered palm with the tip of the knife.

“To forever,” Ryschild said and drew the same rune on Grenslaw’s palm, sealing the [Eternal Pact] between them.

Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Interlude 5

Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Interlude 5

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.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Interlude 4

Marcus

Marcus stood in a ruined wasteland, the smoking remnants of once great buildings cast down around him as far as he could see.

“You know, the bay looks pretty nice like this,” he said, taking in the stark beauty of it all.

Normally ruined cityscapes were synonymous with mass gravesites. There were very few methods of wrecking a modern city thoroughly that didn’t involve massive fatalities. The ruins before him though held no ghosts. 

Or no new ghosts at least.

“You know I didn’t use to be able to see ghosts,” Anna said, as a parade of spectral figures passed by them. “What do you think they’re doing?”

“Admiring the view?” Marcus guessed. “[Gaia] said that most of them spend their time doing things they missed out on in life. Can’t imagine the last time when any of them would have had a view like this available.”

“It still feels unreal that we’re not marching along there with them,” Anna said. “When you straight up vanished with that monster I thought we’d reached the end of the line.”

“From what I gather we came real close. Very ‘cut the green cord one second before the bomb blows’ kinda thing,” Marcus said.

“What was it like being on the other side of thing?” Anna asked. 

“Ever been to Niagra Falls?” Marcus asked. “It was like being at the bottom of that. You have this sense of this massive, constantly moving thing and you are so, so small in face of it.”

“So not so different from here then,” Anna said. “I thought living through a few earthquakes meant I could handle natural disasters like a pro. Turns out I was not right.”

“To be fair, there wasn’t anything even vaguely natural about the disasters you lived through,” Marcus said. Behind him the ‘Egress Entertainment’ sign that had been mounted over the buildings main entrance lost its battle against gravity and clanged to the ground.

“I suppose not,” Anna said, wrapping her arms around herself. “Or about the rebuilding.”

In the distance, a gleaming spire of quartz glass rose into the sky as a parade of faerie winged creatures danced in a triumphant circle around it. From its base, flowering vines sprouted, enwrapping the spire in a myriad of colors.

“I gather we don’t have that long to enjoy treats like that,” Marcus said, nodding towards the building.  “The worlds are already settling back into their comfort zones, so all the magic we picked up from everything colliding is going to ebb away and leave us nice, and normal, and boring again.”

“I don’t think we ever were any of those things before, or that we ever will be either,” Anna said with a chuckle.

“Yeah. We’re never going to go back to what we were,” Marcus said, searching for some twinge of nostalgia for the ‘old days’ and coming up surprisingly empty.

“Would you really want to?” Anna asked.

A gravity in her tone made Marcus turn to her. They’d been casually chatting up till now, waiting for one of the Egress Entertainment IT staff members to find a truck or bus they could use to head to Las Vegas so they could connect with Anna’s team. In the wake of the Earth’s near destruction, the two teams, along with many others, had found themselves the nearest custodians of the dwindling gates between the worlds.

Where the Egress Entertainment servers had once stood there was only severely flattened rubble, and rising above it, thirteen wondrous gates to the [Risen Kingdoms] and various points on Earth (Las Vegas not being one of them, unfortunately). One of the QA leads had come up with the idea of cross-pollinating the teams so that the attempts to understand the gates, which seemed to be composed of code to some extent, would have as many talented perspectives as possible to draw on.

There was another idea lurking behind Anna’s eyes though. Marcus caught a glimpse of it and shuddered, though whether out of longing or fear he wasn’t at all certain.

“Would I really want to what?” he asked, knowing what her question really was and what his heart’s answer would be. Hearts were stupid things though, and denial rose as a shield to buy his brain precious moments to think.

“Go back to what we were before,” Anna said. “The long nights, the lack of respect, the endless whining from the executives and the customers?”

“You paint such a rosy picture,” Marcus said. “Are you sure you weren’t working on our team?”

“Am I wrong? For any game shop? Or software company at all?” Anna asked.

“There are better places,” Marcus said. “You just need to get the right boss.”

“And then hope they don’t get fired, or leave because they can’t deal with their higher ups,” Anna said.

“Maybe this is our chance to built it back better than it was?” Marcus said.

“Maybe. Probably even I guess,” Anna said. “And we know people will be doing that. I mean, you’ve heard the stories right?”

Marcus knew exactly which stories she was referring too though he didn’t know if he could actually believe them. 

There had been fatalities during the apocalypses. Hundreds of millions of people were dead across the globe, but not randomly as it should have been during a worldwide calamity. No, from the reports that Marcus had seen the Angel of Death had played favorites quite strongly. Prisons still held plenty of people but certain sections of them hadn’t fared well. Billionaires, as a class, were nearly extinct, as well as the ruling parties and their supporters in many countries across the globe. Smaller scale problems hadn’t been overlooked either. Crisis centers for domestic violence, hotlines for all sorts of violence, and even calls for the police (those of who were left) were showing a pattern that spoke to the most predatory and harmful members of the population having been effectively deleted from existence.

That didn’t mean the world was in perfect shape, or that the people who’d been victimized and abused were magically good to go with their lives, but it did seem like a more hopeful place to start rebuilding from than Marcus had ever expected he would see.

“Do you not think that’s a good thing? Assuming those stories are true?” Marcus asked.

“I think it’s a fantastic thing,” Anna said. “In fact I think without that the Earth would be empty before the end of the day.”

“Because everyone would jump at the chance to go to one of the other worlds that wasn’t full of enormous assholes?” Marcus said.

“There’ll always be people we don’t like on any world,” Anna said. “The key, I think, is being able to find a place where you can be who you most want to be.”

“Is that what we do?” Marcus said. “Make places where people can be, at least a little bit, someone else?”

“You’ve been there though. You know what its like to actually live it rather than just imagine it. So that’s what I’m asking. Would you go back to what we were? Could that really be enough anymore?”

“The gates are closing though,” Marcus said.

“If what we had was good enough, then we should let them. If going back to the lives we lead is where we can find our selves, then we might as well walk away right?” Anna asked.

“Yeah,” Marcus said, drawing a deep breath for what was coming next.

“And if it’s not? If the worlds out there hold something precious?” Anna asked.

“Then someone needs to keep them open. Or find a way to cross over even without them,” Marcus said and as he spoke, all the denial in him fell away. With a smile he offered Anna his hand. “Would you like to go on a bit of an adventure?”

“I thought you’d never ask!”

Claire

Walking through a new hospital wasn’t an unfamiliar experience for Claire. She’d worked in three different states in her nursing career so acclimating to a new facility was almost old hat.

Of course those hospitals had been ones where she was an official staff member and none of them had been research hospitals.

“Excuse me? Can I help you Ms…?” the nurse at the central station wasn’t quite sure what to make of Claire, or rather wasn’t quite sure what to make of Lady Midnight. Vampire’s were exactly common at Earthly hospitals even if fiction had them buying or stealing blood from blood banks as an alternative to killing random people.

“Yes. Can you direct me to any of your research staff. I have a limited window of power here, and I’d like to use to provide the data we need to eradicate a disease or two.”

“Oh, of course,” the nurse said. “Please follow me.”

That was not the response Claire had been expecting, and a hundred counterarguments died unneeded on her lips.

Instead, she followed Nurse Gaylor into the elevator and road up to the 5th floor with her.

“I’m not the first one to think of this, am I?” Claire asked as they passed the 3rd floor.

“Thankfully no,” Nurse Gaylor said. “We’ve got a central data clearinghouse running in Stuttgart that’s coordinating efforts from people like you.”

“That’s…that’s excellent,” Claire said, stunned at what a worldwide effort backed by magic and ultratech science would be able to accomplish.

“I’m hoping it puts me out of a job to be honest,” Nurse Gaylor said.

“Me too,” Claire said. “I was working at Conroy General before all this stuff started.”

“Really? Oh that’s fantastic! A lot of the people showing up to help are new to actual medicine. You’ll be a big help there.”

They exited the elevator to a scene of oddly controlled chaos. Whiteboards were everywhere. Autoclaves were running at a fever pitch. Microscopes seemed to be strewn out as far as the eye could see.

“Another one?” someone said the moment Lady Midnight stepped off the elevator.

“Yes, and she’s got nursing experience!” Nurse Gaylor said.

“Oh thank god!” Doctor Kevins said. “We got a new assignment in five minutes ago and everyone’s tied up on the other projects.”

“What other projects?” Claire asked.

“Cures,” Kevins said. “We’re finding cures for things that we didn’t even think could be cured.”

“Cancers?” Claire asked.

“Nearly wiped out,” Kevins said. “The first couple hundred people that we had show up were quite adamant about eradicating every form of cancer we knew about. We’ve made more progress in the last hour than we made in the last century.”

That was far beyond what Claire had expected to hear. She’d been hoping to help the science leapfrog ahead by a few years to maybe a decade at most, but the best projections she knew of put unlocking full cures to most cancers as either unattainable or decades away still.

“How?” she asked.

“Analyzing [Remove Disease] spells has yielded us cure after cure after cure. Especially when that analysis is done by nanotech swarms that can write the information on the effect and suggest non-magical analogues directly into our brains.”

“That’s…” she was tempted to say ‘impossible’ but far too much of her experience argued against that word having any meaning at all. She also remembered the lore from the Crystal Stars game where players could pay for ‘Instant Skill Upgrades’ for their characters. In game it was just a mechanism so the players didn’t have to wait a realistic period of time when their characters improved in their abilities, but drawn into the real world it had become a copying machine for miracles.

“Which other diseases do we have cures for?” she asked, trying to imagine what might be left for her.

“Lots,” Dr. Kevins said. “Heart disease is a thing of the past now. Same with three different forms of Chronic Fatigue. Oh, and Alzheimer’s? Full and complete recovery. In fact we have treatment for nearly all forms of Traumatic Brain Injury too.”

“Wow,” Claire said, feeling a bit woozy on her feet. “What do you have me then?”

“You missed Malaria by about ten minutes, but I just got in a test pack that we’re hoping will unlock the common cold, specifically the coronavirus variants.”

Claire imagined a world were no one ever got another coronavirus. That sounded like a world she wanted to see.