A/N: Happy belated Canada Day, people! I was intending to post this yesterday, but cars breaking down and almost-broken hands and tow trucks got in the way. I'm fine now, and the next chapter will be up by the start of August.
Chapter Eighteen – Children of Armageddon
Sunlight streams down in lazy dust-filled ribbons over the rows of books, pouring in through the banks of windows below me. The Library is beautiful at dawn; the clouds, colored by the rising sun, paint the books in shades of rose and purple.
I take a second to marvel at the fact that even with everything going on that will most likely end with nearly everyone I know dead, I can still find the time to wax poetic.
I take The Annals of Paracelsus and scramble down from the beam I slept on to the floor of the building. It is early in the morning, and the Library is silent. The other stitchpunks are all asleep, tucked into nooks and crannies throughout the old building.
If you can make a plan to save the Coven from the Great Machine, I think, now is the time to come up with it.
Dragging the Annals with me, I walk up the flight of stairs to the Library's balcony. My master is creating more machines to kill the Coven. I am running out of time. If there was only some way to remove one from the other, put them both out of harm's way...
I open the Annals of Paracelsus again and reread pages with blank eyes. The Soule is less an intrinsic Parte of ourselves than simply the giver of Life. Our Person and Being are not a result of the Soule, but rather who we think ourselves to Be.
I stare out into the courtyard filled with shattered stone angels, blinking the sleep from my eyes. Less an intrinsic part of ourselves than simply the giver of life. Our person and being are not a result of the soul.
Then I understand. The "Soule" Paracelsus had found was not a person's disembodied intelligence, as others believed it to be. What he had discovered was...life force. Consciousness. Something that separates rocks from animals from people.
And apparently it is fungible.
Wind rustles through cloth behind me. I wheel, and tucked against the door is the body of a stitchpunk.
• • • •
The Man with Two Heads trudges through the muck and mire of the Dead City in the light of the rising sun, stopping every so often to brush his already-filthy coat with long razor-sharp claws. He is singing a song his mouth was not designed to sing, metal fangs and red thread grating against each other. "Daisy...daisy...give me your answer true..." It feels familiar in an unfamiliar way, a snatch of memory from some alternate life the Man with Two Heads has never lived. It feels vibrant, colorful and alive in a way that the Man with Two Heads does not understand.
"Smashing," says the Man with Two Heads. Then it stops and shakes its head. It would remind itself to tell its father when it returned to remove the unusual memories. They are worthless, and distracting him from the task at hand.
The Man with Two Heads glances at the sun, then clambers to the top of a trash-strewn hill and whistles.
Several minutes pass. The city is silent but for the whistling of the wind.
Then the asphalt behind the Man with Two Heads is plowed up, and the Burrowing Machine crests the hill and coasts to a stop with its head resting alongside the Man.
The Man with Two Heads pats its riveted armored skull with a clang.
"Good boy," he says.
The children of the Machine sit on the hillside and wait.
• • • •
I run to the limp form, its striped skin sodden, its hands clutching something to its chest. 6's body is huddled against the wall, one leg bent at a sickening angle, a long sliver of wood lying next to it...
The little stitchpunk shivers, and I feel a spasm of relief. 6 is alive. Shards of glass are jutting out of his foot – the leg is obviously broken and will probably never fully mend – but he is alive.
"9! 5! 1!" I scream. "Come quickly!" I roll 6 over onto his back, checking for – dreading – other injuries. It is only then that I notice the folded up-letter tucked between his clenched hands.
I ease it out of his grip slowly. It is dirty, pulpy paper of the worst quality, already torn a bit at the edges and crumpled as if thrown out in disgust. I turn the folded paper over.
Someone has inked a crude drawing of an great red eye surrounded by machinery and flailing limbs. The Machine. The letter is for me. I cannot let the others see this. Panicking, I shove the paper into the Annals as 5 and 9 run out.
"What's going on?" 5 catches sight of 6 and pales, as much as a stitchpunk can. "Oh – oh god. Is he still alive? –"
I nod. "He has a broken leg. At least. Please, take him inside. He needs help."
5 and 9 gently lift 6's huddled form and ease him through the door. "What did you do, 6?" I can hear 5 muttering. "I'm a...a tinker, not a doctor. Don't die on me."
I listen to their voices receding down the hall, then carefully shut the door. With a feeling of apprehension, I slip the letter out of the Annals of Paracelsus...
"0? Open this door! What the hell's going on?"
I shove the letter back into the book and open the door. "Hello. 1. How are you."
"What's all the fuss about?" The old stitchpunk's angled eyes light up. "Is it 6 and 8? Are they back? They're back!" he crows, dancing around the balcony. "I knew they'd make it! Knew it all along!"
I hesitate. "...1," I say. "6 is back."
His face falls. "What," he says hollowly. "Where's 8?"
I shake my head. "We only found 6."
He tries to push past me. "Ask him where 8 is! We're not leaving one of the Coven in the middle of the Wastes –"
"Then wake him up. Get out of my way this instant."
"6 has a broken leg," I growl. "He's exhausted and starving and there are probably a dozen other things wrong with him. And the way I see it, you sent him out to forage near the Factory, so I am holding you directly responsible. 5 is unsure whether he will live or not. If you wake him up and interrogate him, it will not tip the scales in his favor. We don't know if 8 is alive or dead, and finding that out might cost 6 his life. He stays asleep. Unless you want another 2 on your conscience."
1 purses his lips. "You are not sleeping in the rafters anymore."
"Fine," I say. Too late. "But 6 sleeps."
"Yes," 1 concedes. His shoulders sag. "Damn 9. Damn 9. Dammit." He kicks the wall with enough force that I wonder if something in his foot will snap. "We were supposed to be rid of the Machine. RID OF IT! The Scientist promised us. And now – dammit!"
I cannot understand. "Promised what?"
"He killed the Great Machine. At least, that's what he told us. And now this. Why 8? Why did it have to be 8?"
This did not fit in with what I had been told at all. "Why would he kill the Machine? How would that solve anything?"
"Why –?" 1 peers at me. "Oh. Oh. You really don't know."
"Know what?" I try to say, but 1 bursts out laughing.
"You don't know! You don't know! Hah! And I thought you were one of them!"
The old stitchpunk grabs my shoulder and spins me around to face the ruined courtyard and the broken world beyond. "Look! Look! Bombs and poison gas everywhere! Us and the Great Machine, we're the only sentient creatures left on the planet. Whose fault do you think that is?
"I'll explain," 1 assures me, before trotting off down the hall. "3! 4! He doesn't know. He doesn't know! Haha!"
I do not want to know what 1 wants to teach me. I do not want to know. I think I am beginning to guess it already.
that is monstrous no that makes no sense
But it had already wanted to kill a few stitchpunks.
this is on a whole different order of magnitude no no NO THAT CANNOT BE RIGHT.
With fumbling fingers, I fish out the letter and open it.
Brother dear, it reads,
Found this one wandering in the Wastes – not a good place for such a frail creature to be. A lost sheep, indeed. I must take responsibility for the damage, as my new pet was feeling peckish, but you really must learn to take better care of your flock.
Brought him back as a sign of good faith. Deal with them.
One more day, brother.
Below is a scribbled drawing of a stick figure with two heads. I tear up the letter and throw it over the balcony, and watch as the fragments fly off into the Dead City.
I have one day to save the stitchpunks, and now this..thing. 1's revelation. WHY.
There is a clatter in the hall. "Still standing out there, 0?" 1 gibbers. "Come in! Come in! Don't ponder on your own. You must be enlightened!"
I turn and walk with heavy steps to the door. The day is grey and bleak and overcast, and everything on earth is dead.
1 waits for me with the two blue-cowled telepaths. They cling to his legs, but he does not seem to notice. I barely do myself. My mind is swirling with bits of nothing, only passages from the Annals cropping up now and then.
We enter a darkened room where all the books have been taken, leaving the shelves bare. A projector lurks in the back, all gears and hard cold metal. 1 sits me down on a stack of papers.
"3, 4," he says. "Show him."
The twins turn the projector handle, and images blossom on the wall. An old wild-haired man presents a round machine with a single red eye. Rows of posters display a different knife-faced man with greying temples and an angular black-and-red symbol. Stills of spidery two-legged machines tromping alongside soldiers and marching through towns in parades, then a chilling clip of the Great Machine like a spider in its lair, spinning the walkers out at a breathtaking rate.
"The Scientist built the Great Machine," comments 1. "It was just a leap in A.I. technology to him. But the Chancellor got hold of it. Decided that the best thing to do with an intelligent machine was to turn off its empathy and turn it into a general of sorts. He got it to make him war machines. For a time, it worked."
The scenes on the wall run amok. Machines break free from parades and gun down the very soldiers they had fought alongside.
"At some point the Machine decided humans were inferior," 1 says. "The Machine's creatures were already on the battlefields, and they destroyed the military in a matter of days. The people tried to lead a resistance, but it failed. The Chancellor was never seen again. Our father survived, but his entire family was murdered. And then – this."
no this isn't right THIS ISN'T RIGHT
On the wall, bombs rained from the sky and from walkers and exploded in clouds of glowing green gas. Soldiers in gas masks ran down the streets and choked and died anyways. The gas filled the city and swallowed its people. It drifted up into the sky and shat airplanes and zeppelins, all hands killed. Where the gas touched, nothing survived. People and animals and plants collapsed and did not rot because the bacteria had died too. Roots shriveled up and crumbling dirt broke free and blew dust through the empty cities.
It was not fire and brimstone. It was slow and methodical and monstrous. The Great Machine had lied to me, and now I was seeing the real Armageddon.
"People called it the Ragnarok Strain." 1 speaks in a hushed voice. "Though the name didn't matter much, because pretty soon there wasn't anyone left to call it anything. The Great Machine had been hiding it in satellites and machines all over the world. It happened too fast. They didn't stand a chance."
From the edge of the atmosphere, a bulky metal airship drops hundreds of metal canisters. They tumble through the air, falling towards a patchwork country far below. There is a long plain in the middle of the country, and in the centre of that plain are thousands of rooftops, an immense city. Millions and millions of lives. The canisters dwindle away as they fall, then blossoms of green phosphorescence appear in the streets, rippling outwards like raindrops on a still pond. Just above the city, too far away to distinguish as anything but specks, tiny shapes wheel and spit fire at each other. When they fall from the sky, flames leap up in the city and distant sirens blare.
"Where is this?" I breathe.
1 gives me a sad smile. "It used to be known as Conurbation. The second-largest city ever built."
The view changes. This one looks like a handheld camera, being carried along as the owner fled from machines. Buildings are burning, and people are screaming and running through the streets with firearms and broom handles. As I watch, a group of them charge a walker, firing at its feet and beating the spindly pistons with such savagery that its legs snap and it topples over. As its single red eye dims, it exudes a billow of green gas. The victorious humans fall and do not rise.
Another walker seems to notice the cameraman, and he flees to a main square where an enormous statue's upper torso has been blown away. The camera shakes, then looks up, where enormous iron-coated blimps are swarmed by human dogfighters. Shots bounce harmlessly off the blimps' armored skins, and swiveling artillery on the zeppelins' undersides effortlessly pick off planes one by one. One plane bursts into flames and falls into the city, exploding against the side of an old cathedral –
"Is that –" I say.
1 nods. "Sanctuary. You see now why we call it the Dead City."
A troop of machines round the corner and rush towards the cameraman. He turns to run, but canisters fall in front of him and green gas billows out. The camera jerks around, and we can hear screaming. It falls to the ground and the screen cracks.
A final shot is from just past the outskirts of the city, a monument in the foreground. A bronze statue of the Chancellor sits astride a horse, looking calmly towards Conurbation. TO A BRIGHTER TOMORROW, the monument reads.
In the background, gas settles over the city as thick as fog and buildings collapse.
The reel sputters and hacks. The room goes dark.
"It took us years to piece the film together," 1 comments. "Finding broken cameras in the Dead City. Artists painting the end of their world around them just before they died. We lived through it, of course, most of us – but we needed some way to remember. A way to remind ourselves that this is why we stay hidden and safe and keep ourselves sheltered from the outside world. Because there are monsters like the Machine out there, and we are the only people left."
"I – I didn't know." The Great Machine lied to me. Demons had ruined the world, and it was there as the earth's new god to make it good again.
"No," scowls 1. "Of course you didn't." He hauls the projector away, back into the shadows. "9 didn't either. Of course." 1 turns to me. "But now you see why, with the Great Machine awake once again, I fear we are all doomed."
"I am the god of this new world, risen like a phoenix from the ashes of the old. I am the giant who escaped the fires of Ragnarok and made the shattered earth green and beautiful again. I was created for this – to take this hellish place and make it a paradise, free from sin...But before I may do that, you must help me do something."
It is no god. It is a demon itself.
And I had trusted it, of course. It had created me and it called me its son. What else would I have done? Listened to the nagging doubts in my head?
"0?" 1 has been talking to me. "Are you alright?"
"Fine," I manage. "Fine."
"The demons of the Old World are not all dead. Some still live on, blackening the world, marring the very earth on which we live. I dream of a perfect world, my child...but that cannot be until all the demons are gone."
The Coven are not demons. I had realized that on my own. But what they were instead...
"1," I say. "What is the Talisman?"
He frowns. "Why do you ask?" he says, then sees the Annals. "Hrm. It's what the Scientist used to create us. I know it's why we can reason and the Machine's creatures can't. I..." He frowns. "I may not be an expert on the subject, but it's hardly important, is it? What good is some old relic going to do?"
I smile. "Yes. I suppose you're right. I should...go."
1 seems to understand. "Of course. Take all the time you need." He puts a hand on my shoulder. "Just...remember what I've just showed you. For the whole Coven's sake."
"I will." You have no idea, I think.
And I walk.
I walk down the sunlit halls of the Library and down its sweeping marble steps. I walk out the grand front entrance, flanked by statues of Paxian kings. Rossum's Forest extends dead branches to greet me as I walk among its trees.
The Coven are not demons. The Coven are the last remnants of humanity. The Scientist had followed Paracelsus' research and built his own Talisman, and as the Ragnarok Strain ended the world he used his own soul to bring the Coven to life. And the Great Machine is not wrong, or misguided.
It is evil.
And I will do everything in my power to stop it from harming my friends.
• • •
The sun beats down through the sickly clouds on the Dead City and on me. I have been walking for what seems like hours, trying to sort out my new allegiances and work out a plan to save the Coven. Though I am against the Great Machine now, it has become far too strong for me to attack it head-on. It cannot be fought with force. So...
My greatest advantage at the moment is that the Great Machine still believes I am working with it. If I had to...I could face it again, if I had to. It would be difficult, now that I know what it has done, but the Great Machine has taught me well at lying.
I think of the Great Machine and its creations, mimic stitchpunks and metal worms and airships. I climb to the top of a hill and crawl up a cracked slab of pavement jutting out of the road like a spike. Turning in a great circle, I take in the Dead City around me and the Shards to the south, hiding the ocean, and the Wastes in every other direction, a desolate wasteland.
I remember 7 telling me about the Wastes when I first found the Coven. "They might go on forever."
And I think, that's not possible, there must be something beyond them.
Just like that, I have the beginnings of a plan.
• • •
It is high noon. The Man with Two Heads stands, stretching his creaking joints. He looks at the sun and smiles.
"Half a day," he says.
• • •
Imagine an ant hill, if you will, three times the size of any building, creatures swarming up its sides and through the grass around it. Imagine these are ants of the worst kind, that will kill and eat anything near them just for the sport of it.
Now imagine you personally knew these ants' queen and she was expecting you.
I stand perhaps half a mile away from the Factory, the glowing red window in its face seeming to wink knowingly at me as I trudge down the barren hill towards the building's grounds. I am approaching the building from the back. The fewer of the Machine's creatures I have to deal with, the better. It seems all too likely to me that one would mistake me for a stitchpunk and attack.
Or, I think, maybe the Man with Two Heads has just ordered them all to attack me anyways.
From what I remember when I left the Factory for the first time, a section of the chain-link fence surrounding the complex has been torn out at the back. The Machine's blimps will no doubt be guarding it, but I should be able to –
The chain-link fence comes into view, a gleaming straight line stretching from one end of the complex to the other.
They fixed the fence.
And that is not all. Beyond the fence, inside the walls, I can see a group of metal walkers. They are even bigger than they seemed in the video, red eyes peering out from beneath iron shells. Huge gatling guns swivel from side to side as they patrol the area.
Breathe, I have to tell myself. Breathe. Very well. This is not going to work. I can circle around and just go in the front gate. These are creatures of the Great Machine and though the Great Machine is a monster, it wishes me no harm.
At that moment, I hear a growl behind me.
Something is moving towards me from out of the city, hunching its shoulders as it stalks forwards. "Stop," I say, a note of panic in my voice. "I'm one of you. I'm one of you."
A rat's skull surveys me with blank eyes. It growls again, and opens its mouth to reveal rows and rows of red-lit teeth. Clawed feet tear up the ground under it. Its back is covered in fishhooks and knife blades.
"Stop," I say. "Stop!"
Rearing up on hind legs, it roars. Its claws retract and rusty curved blades snick out.
I turn my own wrists, but only one sword comes out, slamming into place with a thunk that imbalances me and sends me falling into the dirt. The rat-thing comes closer.
Holding up my near-skeletal left arm, I remember that 5 had removed the blade mechanism.
Retracting the blade, I stumble to my feet and run for the fence. I am climbing as fast as I can when the creature bellows and charges into the chain-link mesh below me. It jumps and grabs my foot in its jaws, metal teeth digging deep into my skin. I scream and kick down with my free foot as hard as I can. There is a splintering of brittle bone, and the rat-thing releases me.
Still climbing, breathing hard, I risk a glance behind me. My kick has broken the creature's skull down the middle, though the internal workings seem to be fine. It stares up at me with a grin too wide for its face now as it drops to all fours again and surveys the fence.
Then it leaps at the mesh and clumsily begins to climb, snarling at me.
I climb for dear life, hands and feet scrabbling desperately at the mesh. From the growls below, I can tell that the rat-thing is gaining on me. The top of the fence is lined with rings of barbed wire. The walkers inside the fence seem not to have noticed us yet, but I am sure that is only a matter of time.
If I survive this, I think, I am going to do things the easy way from now on and call ahead.
The rat-thing yowls as it claws slice through the fence and it slides down a few inches. I reach the top of the fence and hurtle over the barbed wire.
Lunging forwards, the rat-thing catches my foot again. I tumble into the wire.
Spikes dig into me from every angle. I thrash around in the barbed wire, tangling myself further. My arm catches a taut wire – a tripwire, I think, too late – and alarms blare throughout the factory. The steel walkers turn towards us.
The rat-thing drags on my foot, trying to pull me down the fence. I can hear myself screaming distantly. The machine looks up and me and snarls with that loathsome grinning face.
Unsheathing my remaining sword, I lop its arm off.
It tumbles back, shrieking, but its feet catch in the barbed wire too and save it from falling. I hack apart the barbed wire holding me and stab at the creature as it struggles.
The barbed-wire slides away under our feet, revealing a metal groove running the entire length of the fence. In the distance, I see a long, sharp metal sheet beginning to push its way through the groove, coming towards us. I try to jump off the fence, but the rat-thing is on me, tearing at my back. As I turn, it grabs my skeletal left arm in its jaws and yanks.
I am pulled off my feet and fall, draped over the chain-link mesh. Along the top of the fence blades are springing up, forming a smooth wall of sharp metal coming closer and closer. The rat-thing howls and tears at my arm, mangling my fingers. The blades are almost upon us, coming closer and closer and CLOSER –
At the last second I try desperately to pull away, to catch the rat-thing by surprise. My arm slips away – then I feel its teeth crunch through my hand. The wall of blades is upon us.
I know what happens next.
I am falling, alarms blaring silently in the background and pistons cranking in a smoldering sky. Wind rushes past me. It is peaceful. Pitch-black holes begin to eat away at my vision. I blink, but they remain. It is so cold.
I hit the ground. It hurts, but I do not feel it. Is this happening to someone else? I am facing up. Above me is a chain-link fence with a wall of blades at the top. A huge smear of black dribbles down from the sharp edge at the top. More black is spattered along the fence all the way down to where I am laying.
It is very peaceful here, but it is too cold. I see the alarms flashing red still and realize I cannot hear them anymore. Where is the black coming from? I wonder. Something wet oozes along my back, and I see a puddle of black spreading out from where I lay.
Me, I realize. The black is coming from me. Interesting.
My left arm feels funny. I try to move it and find I can't. I am shivering, but I turn my head and look.
There is a hole in my torso where my left arm should be, wires and black oil and other things spilling out of it. I think this is probably not good, but it is too cold and I find I am too sleepy to do anything about it.
Something big lands beside me. I look and see it is an enormous iron foot. It is hard to move my head now, but I follow the foot up and see an enormous metal walker staring at me. I try to wave. But it is too cold and I cannot move. The black spots are swelling over my vision, blocking out the walker for me.
Walkers, I think. Bombs and green gas. Machines. It is so cold. Everything is going dark.
The black spots blur together. The last thing I see before they close over my vision is a single red eye looking at me.
Then I cannot see any more.
The cold multiplies, and I let it pick me up and carry me away into nothingness.
• • • •
The Machine works inside the Factory, repairing a broken blimp machine. As it works, as is its habit, it thinks. It makes plans about the future and remembers its past.
Firstly, it thinks, it is getting tired of chasing the little stitchpunks. It would be better to end this quickly. The Machine does not especially want to kill the creatures, but it would not do to have them around. The best solution is to pull out all the stops, send out swarms of more able creatures like the Burrowing Machine, and eliminate them all as soon as possible.
This will be easy to do, at least. The Great Machine has more and more resources at its disposal with every passing day. It has armies of creatures to find it materials in the wilderness, armored plating and engines and once even an entire zeppelin envelope, almost unscathed. It can build most any matter of creature it chooses to, now. The Great Machine is pleased by this. It is God, after all, and gods should be able to create as they wish. And as soon as the stitchpunks are gone, it will be able to remake the world as it sees fit –
As well as the last world?
Better than the last one, it tells itself. Better in every way. There will be trees again, and the sun will shine like it should, and its creations will be happy, and –
The Great Machine can no longer hold the memories back. They come flooding into its iron mind all at once, burning villages and a knife-faced man and the bombs and the gas and THIS ISN'T HOW IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE
What was it all for, in the end? Could it have stopped what happened? This entire venture is eating away at its soul, taking away its time, escapism –
No. No, it is cleansing the world so life can begin again. Its own created life, where there will be no war or hatred. On Earth as it is in Heaven, and sacrifices must be made. It is the only one that can achieve that now.
The Great Machine cannot allow itself to forget. It is a god – no, it is God – and the earth is its now. It has responsibilities. Regret has no place in its perfect world.
And yet –
The Great Machine thinks of all that has been done and the ruining of the world, and it weeps. It claws at the air, in the middle of its grand lifeless castle, as its body racks with sobs and it cries tears of lightning.