"Jesus Christ," Agent Usilov said. "Khalif, come take a look at this."
Agent Aziz walked over to the other man. They were now standing in front of a two, two-and-a-half meter tall statue. And a damn ugly one, to boot.
"Did you ever see Dark Knight Rises?" Aziz said. "If you look at it at the right angle, does it not—"
"Holy shit, it's Bane," Usilov said. "A big-ass statue of Bane, with horns."
"Why the fuck would somebody ha—"
Aziz was interrupted by an enormous stone fist crashing into his side, breaking five ribs and knocking him to the ground. The Minotaur ground the concrete joints of its legs to move it towards Aziz's supine body, where the agent was coughing blood onto himself. Agent Usilov's safety was already off and his rifle was on full automatic.
"Die, motherfucker!" he shouted, blasting five-fifty-six rounds into the statue-thing's upper torso at point-blank range. The rounds bounced off, taking a few stone chips with them. The statue rotated its upper body along the place where its waist should have been, spinning its upper half without moving its lower half. It reached out with its fist once Usilov's head was within range and knocked Usilov down like a ragdoll with one concrete right cross.
Usilov's neck broken, he lost consciousness instantly, blood streaming from nose and ears. Aziz's breath ran ragged, trying to suck in air through a collapsed lung as he dragged himself across the ground away from the stone creature. The Minotaur stalked towards Aziz.
"Wh…wha…" Aziz wheezed.
A voice boomed from the stone…thing, from no place in particular. It seemed to exude from the creature's entire body at once.
"He bled so much, Aziz," it said. "I wish it was you. I want it to be you. Suck air and scream, hominid. Die for me."
David heard a sound behind them as he and Olympia walked down the hallway. MTF Rho-1 agents had largely secured what was left of Site 38 proper; while the infected creatures were devastatingly intimidating against untrained researchers and scientists, they stood little chance against armed Foundation infantry units. The footsteps behind them came from Major Lopez, Rho-1's commanding officer.
"Now just wait a goddamn minute," he began.
"There's hardly time," Olympia said. "The infected in the building may be gone, but the thing controlling them isn't, and it'll keep spreading infected creatures around to propagate itself. We have to move quickly before it starts again or escapes."
"I've already ordered the bombers to come level this place to the ground. We're securing all surviving personnel and evacuating," Lopez said. "Whatever the thing is, it'll be another stain in the middle of a big-ass crater in about forty-five minutes. If you really want to help, help with that effort."
"You want help evacuating civilians? Fine. There are two living, uninfected individuals in the basement; your men will overlook them if you don't search it specifically. A researcher named Storm and a prisoner named Nexer. It is…specifically vital that you rescue these two individuals. I am not at liberty to discuss why."
Bullshit, Olympia, David thought; you have no idea why, any more than I do. But the Intruder was very specific that these two had to survive. Maybe more than we do.
David pondered that last part. Well, especially more than some of us do…
"Awfully quiet there, Eskobar," Lopez sneered. "You going along with this dumb shit?"
"You dddddddon't have to understtttttand it, Commander," David stuttered, "but that's what's ggggoing to happen."
"We are going to the woods outside the Site," Olympia said. "I suggest you keep evacuating. Additionally, I would suggest you equip—"
"That's about goddamn enough from you," Lopez said. "I don't have the manpower to arrest you, but I sure as hell won't sit here and listen to you tell me how to do my job. Our equipment is more than fine for these little fuckers."
"You might be surprised at what you're about to have to deal with, Major," Olympia said. "Consider getting rocket-propelled grenades and other explosive ordnance from the armory. You have bigger fish waiting."
An aide ran up beside the commander. "Sir, Third Platoon is reporting losses from the courtyard," the aide said. "They're not making much sense, to be honest. Something about statues with horns? Radio communication has been lost with two fireteams. Should we send in reinforcements?"
"Yes, of cour—" Lopez turned and looked at Olympia, then back at the aide. "Statues?"
"That's what we heard over the radio before communications were lost," he said.
Lopez looked back at Olympia. "RPGs?"
"Explosives in general should be effective," Olympia replied.
"Pejor, get on the line with the team closest to the heavy munitions locker and tell them to start equipping with RPGs and grenades. Pull all units back into the building."
"Yes, sir," the aide said, walking away. Lopez turned and saw Olympia and David turning a corner away from him.
Chancellor Anaxagoras felt ridiculous wearing the "hat". It was remarkably effective. Even underneath the traditional robe of a second-order University scholar, he knew he would be recognized by nearly any free Citizen walking on the campus. As well he should be, under other circumstances; this was his University, he was their Chancellor. Or should have been, rightly. But this was Milephanes' territory now, and so he needed the hat.
A wonderful gift from his friends across the space-time continuum, he thought. The hat rendered its wearer unrecognizable; it was impossible to focus on individuals' faces or identities regardless of the amount of effort put forward. Mysteriously, it even obscured its own presence; nobody noticed the absurd headwear atop his head, any more than they recognized the man himself. This worked to his advantage.
The men Anaxagoras met with outside the Natural Philosophy complex were loyal to him. There weren't very many of those around, but Milephanes was by this point overrelying on technology just as much as the Primarch's government was. Men like Anaxagoras, who understood the value of personal, human loyalty, were going to decide this war.
Sixty Loyalists were going to gather here, though most were still lying low in the surrounding quadrangle. A crowd would be suspicious; they would not move until the order was given. Milephanes had recently ordered classes to begin again, hoping to inspire a sense of "normalcy", to send a message that the war was already won, or both. Either way, the opportunity was almost here.
The gongs rang out over the campus. Anaxagoras saw his "class" gather behind him as he walked over the stream towards the building. Robes were convenient for hiding light plasma carbines and counterform grenades.
"Alea iacta est," he said, crossing the bridge, his army behind him.
Awaken, child, a voice said behind Agent Eastman's ear. Don't move.
Eastman hurt approximately everywhere; not moving was remarkably easy. He took in a breath, began to breathe out a groan.
No, stay quiet, the voice said. This will help you feel better.
Eastman felt the creaking, stabbing, and burning engulfing most of his body begin to abate. Since he wasn't moving, he didn't have much opportunity to explore how extensive this effect was, but he was guessing that whatever was doing this was doing it well.
I released endorphins into your bloodstream, the voice said. Now, listen carefully. Anesidora believes you're still asleep.
It all came rushing back to Eastman; the attack at Site 38, being captured, the trip to this…place. His heart began pounding; there was almost certainly someone, or something, watching him. Ready to hurt him more. Eastman had been hurt enough today.
What Anesidora intends to do to you is unspeakable and incomprehensible, the voice said. Now, listen carefully. You are in an antechamber to the central throne room. Soon, an opportunity will arise to strike back. When it does, do not hesitate. Another opportunity will not be forthcoming.
Eastman could do nothing but lie still, but he acknowledged what he heard. Good luck, the voice said. Eastman felt it "leave" him.
"Are those the Minotaurs?" David asked as they walked through through the Site 38 courtyard, seeing the statues beginning to circle them.
"Yes," Olympia replied. "Did you have any idea the Apollodorus concrete could do this?"
"Be programmed to turn into enormous quasi-sentient abominations against God?" David asked. "Nah, cccccan't say it crossed my mind."
The Minotaurs began to close in around them. Their demeanor, insofar as stone can have a demeanor, became more aggressive; they were clearly preparing to hunt. Olympia withdrew an object from her belt, about the size of a golf ball. She pressed the single button on it and rolled it in the direction of two Minotaurs walking towards them, comparatively close to one another. The ball beeped quickly, then stopped.
The explosion from the antimatter grenade completely destroyed one of the Minotaurs; the other was slightly farther away and lost only a leg and an arm, falling to the ground. The other Minotaurs stopped in their place.
"I'm told the human expression is 'take us to your leader,'" Olympia said.
As the two walked towards the concrete palace of Anesidora, four unmarked stealth fighter-bombers were en route to Site 38, Major Lopez's task force was carrying on the evacuation, and a box opened in a room. In the chaos of the evacuation and the Minotaur's onslaught, she had little difficulty sneaking out of the building.
"The hominids did what?" Goddess Anesidora, Her regal fury dripping down Her flesh, demanded of the Servus instance.
The Servus twitched. Anesidora was not overly communicative at the best of times, and Her wrath was severe when she detected failure among her subordinates. This instance was bleeding from every orifice in his face. She had detected a significant amount of failure.
Anesidora continued to dig through the Servus's mind. She saw images of the hominids who had the temerity to approach Her home. One she recognized, the callow ape left in charge of the nearby human facility. The other one…
Anesidora felt pain, looking at the image of the other entity. Similar to the hominids, but different, in some imperceptible way. Anesidora was birth in a different universe, and her perception of this one was subtlely different; things around Her shimmered with an alien nature, seemed unclean, wrong in some way. She would work on that once She ruled over this world. But the other creature here seemed…detached from this world somehow. Universal. Unbound by the space around her.
Beautiful, in a way.
But a threat. Anesidora did not tolerate threats. She instructed the Minotaurs to let the intruders in.
Olympia and David stood at the doorway to the "palace." It was more like an enlarged concrete shack, not even the size of a regular home. David was not inclined to be impressed in particular, and this didn't do the trick. They stepped across the threshhold.
David had seen the film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Too Afraid to Ask) three times in his life. For this reason, his vision of the sight before him was that of an enormous, pale breast, lying on a similarly enormous concrete slab. Six individuals stood around the slab. David didn't recognize any of them, and they weren't in uniform. Judging from the age and gender mix and their general similarities in appearance, David guessed these were two or three civilian families. One individual, a boy David estimated to be about seven, lay in front of the slab bleeding.
What the fuck is wrong with these people, David thought. He knew what was supposed to be happening, and this was roughly in line with the plan the Intruder showed him, but the actual sight of all of it was still horrifying. And the Intruder hadn't shown him quite all the little details.
"HOMINID ESKOBAR COMMA DAVID CARTER, UNKNOWN ENTITY, YOU STAND BEFORE THE GODDESS ANESIDORA," a voice boomed. Several voices, David realized. The people around the slab were speaking in unison. Including the bleeding boy.
David looked at the thing on the slab again. Porcelain white, at least four meters tall. Roughly spherical but sunken, like a deflating beach ball. The outside of it, whatever the hell it was, rippled like the thing was made of gelatin.
Two of the individuals standing around the slab, a man and a woman, walked to the bleeding child. Seeing them next to each other, David could tell he was their son. They stooped down and lifted the child up, the father holding him to his chest. They walked up to the slab, kissed the child on the forehead, and pressed the child against the white form on the slab, back first.
"YOU WILL NOT OBJECT TO MY DINING IN FRONT OF YOU," the individuals said in unison, before white tendrils exploded out through the boy's chest. The tendrils wrapped themselves around the child's limbs, pulling him in closer. The boy's eyes floated up in his head. The child's body began to be absorbed by the white blob.
"YOU HAVE DISTURBED ME," Anesidora said, through the civilians' mouths. David couldn't help but notice the boy was still speaking as well. "I APPRECIATE IF YOU ARE ATTEMPTING TO DONATE YOURSELF AS NUTRIENT SUPPLIES, BUT AS YOU CAN SEE, I AM QUITE WELL FED AT PRESENT. WHAT IS YOUR BUSINESS HERE?"
"You are going to die in eighteen minutes," Olympia began. "Several air vehicles carrying what are known as fuel-air bombs are going to descend on this particular piece of terrain and completely sanitize this area. Your present form, as well as the forms of most of your Servus instances, will be burned into oblivion. Your Minotaur servants may survive temporarily, but they will be badly damaged, and the cleanup operation sent in by the Foundation will eradicate them one at a time with explosive ordinance, if need be. And you will be dead regardless."
The boy was almost completely absorbed at this point. Other than the sucking sound coming from his corpse, the room was silent as Anesidora pondered.
"PRESUMING THAT I AM MORTAL, A PRESUMPTION FOR WHICH I WOULD DESTROY ANY INDIVIDUAL WERE I TO HEAR IT, YOU ARE SPEAKING OF A CERTAINTY. YOU PRESUME ADDITIONALLY THAT I HAVE NO MEANS OF ESCAPING THIS FATE."
"You do not. The bombers have been specifically instructed to target this building with multiple thermobaric warheads, and to continue bombing to a radius farther than any of your servants can travel. I'm sure you are aware your Servus inside Site 38 have all been terminated. Your attempt to colonize this world has failed."
Further pondering. "THIS ALLOWS ME THE POSSIBILITY OF KILLING YOU NOW IN A SINGLE, ALBEIT PETTY, ACT OF VENGEANCE. A FINAL SATISFACTION BEFORE MY DEATH."
Olympia paused, sighed. She knew what happened now as well as David did. David thought he detected some hesitation, which was admirable, but pointless. This event was unfolding in real-time. There was no way to avoid it.
"Say it, Olympia. Say your next line," David said. "I'm ready."
Olympia had no reason to feel sorry for David, had no particular reason to like David for that matter. Yet her next, predestined words did seem to come out strained. Fighting fate, David thought. I'm flattered.
"I…" she began. "I cannot help but notice you have no armed Servus here."
Here we go, David said, taking a last deep breath.
"LET ME CORRECT YOU,'' the voices said.
There was a new voice that time, one from behind Olympia. David turned and looked, knowing already what he would see. Jaime MacGilligan stood at the threshold to the palace, holding a pistol. Aiming the pistol at Olympia. David snapped around, ran towards, then in front of Olympia. MacGilligan squeezed the trigger. The bullet left the gun.
David couldn't see the bullet, of course; his brain couldn't work that fast. But he had seen it, before. When the Intruder showed it to him.
When the Intruder showed David his own death.
The bullet lodged in David's chest, barely missing the heart. The pain was excruciating, but David remained conscious. The dive in front of Olympia, straight from an action movie, had saved her, just in time for—
Two more gunshots. MacGilligan had seen something out of the corner of her eye and had fired at it, hitting Agent Eastman in the upper leg. Eastman had gotten his own shot off, catching MacGilligan in the head. Both fell to the ground.
"THAT…" the remaining voices in the building chorused, "…THAT IS IMPOSSIBLE. WHAT ARE YOU? HOW ARE YOU DOING THIS?"
"You are now completely out of options," Olympia said, shaking with rage. "Murdering my colleague has gotten you nothing. There is one, precisely one, chance for you to survive the next half hour, and it is with me."
"WHY WOULD YOU SAVE ME?" Anesidora asked.
"I have need of you. Or, that is, a part of you. I know you came here in some sort of larval form, did you not? When you traveled here?"
"I…" Anesidora paused. "I DO NOT RECALL THE FULL DETAILS OF MY ORIGIN. I HAVE A VAGUE MEMORY OF MY EXISTENCE IN THAT WORLD, LITTLE MORE. I RECALL EXISTING AS A SMALLER ORGANISM, YES. I RECALL A HOMINID EXPLAINING MY IDENTITY, MY ROLE AS THE DESTINED RULER OF HUMANITY. I WAS OFFERED THIS PLANET AS A GIFT. I…I AM REALIZING THIS HOMINID LACKED THE AUTHORITY TO MAKE THIS EXCHANGE."
"To say the least," Olympia said. "If you reproduce this larval form, if you can install your consciousness into a mobile form, I will take you with me. You and one of the Minotaurs. But you must act quickly."
"WHERE WOULD YOU TAKE US?" Anesidora asked.
"To have a conversation with the man who sent you here," Olympia replied.
Milephanes stood in the counterform reactor room. "So this is where the magic happens, hm?"
Antigonus of Alexandria nodded. "Yes, First. Is this your first visit here?"
"Not quite, but this counterform reactor was not yet complete when last I visited," Milephanes replied. "I was but a student here then. This was the talk of the campus, the talk of Alexandria. Clean, nearly infinite energy." Milephanes paused. "Of course, we had no idea what that energy would do."
"Certainly," Antigonus said. "We have begun to determine the pattern of porthole openings, the portholes between our world and the alien one. The seemingly random pattern to their openings actually has a geographical pattern operating in a Pingala spiral centering around this location."
"So the Primarch's government has been conducting technology transfers at these spots? Meaning they've decoded this pattern already?"
Antigonus paused. "First, this appears unlikely. Had they made this discovery, we would have found evidence of it when we took control of the lab. It is a discovery that only *could* have been made from this lab. I worked in this lab before you…liberated it, First, and I can assure you, Methodius had no connection to the Primarch's government. He despised Primarch Nerippa at least as much as…well…"
"As he despised me, yes, I know," Milephanes responded. "But if the government had no knowledge of when and where the portholes would open, how could they exchange technology with…"
A pause, as Milephanes recognized the depth of his error. "The other universe. They weren't helping Nerippa at all, were they?"
"It seems impossible, First," Antigonus replied.
Milephanes thought of Anesidora, of the sabotage of the other world he had committed. Of the fate he had condemned them to.
"That is…unfortunate," Milephanes replied. "I had already—"
Milephanes heard gunfire off in the distance. Wait, not very distant. Within the building. The distinct sound of plasma carbines.
"What is that sound?" he asked over the longwave transmitter.
"Incursion within the building, First," a voice replied. "Loyalists. We believe Anaxagoras is leading them in person."
"Call for reinforcements and bring backup into the counterform chamber!" he shouted. This was not an opportunity he was going to miss.
"First, increased energy discharges from the reactor," Antigonus said. "I think a porthole is opening."
"WHY HAVE WE STOPPED," the Minotaur asked, channeling the goddess it held in its hands.
"This is the spot," Olympia replied. "This is where the wormhole will open. Organic tissue would be damaged by the radiation of this endeavor, but we should be fine."
Thunder. No, not quite thunder. A booming sound from above, deep at first, then growing high-pitched. Not above. Around them, all at once. Olympia looked around; the world distorted itself, like looking through glass in a rainstorm. The distortions intensified around her, then the world grew brighter and brighter. White light, white noise, then—