Where could Mechron be hiding?
Smashing through blast doors and steel walls, Leonard Hargraves felt something wrong in the atmosphere. Space itself bending and twisting. Something created powerful magnetic fields inside the base, tearing apart the very fabric of reality.
As he had thought, Mechron’s fortress also counted as a particle accelerator. Did the Genius activate it? For what purpose? How could it help repel the army at his door?
“Pythia, where do I go?” Leonard asked, but he only ‘heard’ psychic static. Whatever happened inside the fortress interfered with the telepathic contact.
He was on his own.
Leonard eventually made his way into the fortress’ collider, a closed circuit of steel inside which particles moved at an astonishing speed. A stream of unknown, blue energy raced through the superstructure, the Red Genome entering it like a fish swimming inside a river. He didn’t identify the particles inside the collider; perhaps they were undiscovered by modern science, or not native to Earth’s reality.
Much to his surprise, Leo started to see things inside the stream. Bluish phantoms of strange, inhuman figures composed of raw data, blinking in and out of existence. These mirages never settled in one shape, constantly changing.
What was going on?
The living sun could tell the ambient energy focused in one place at the facility’s center; the point where the two loops making up the infinity symbol joined. He followed the blue stream towards its endpoint, eventually crashing through more steel walls. The blue stream leaked out behind him, dispersing into fine particles.
Leo’s crash course ended at the very core of the fortress, a command center straight out of H. R. Giger’s nightmares. The entire room looked like a gothic cathedral of steel, whose walls were alive; veins of metal coursed through them, pumping the building with thick black oil. The structure seemed capable of breathing, while coiled tin spines formed the pillars keeping the roof. Eye-like screens projected images of the battle outside, while loudspeakers screamed warnings.
Six giant, biomechanical brains the size of elephants formed a circle around a tiny blue spot floating in the midst of an energy pillar; the focal point of the entire superstructure. Each of the brains were protected from the outside world by reinforced glass tanks, and connected by thick wires. Leo guessed they were biomechanical supercomputers, housing the AIs piloting their master’s entire war effort.
Mechron was there, standing on a platform below the blue spot. The wizened old man wore nothing but simple white clothes and needed a black cane to walk. He was the only creature of flesh in this ghastly iron heart, giving orders to his AI servants in Bosnian.
“Transfer all data to the back-up base.” Mechron’s voice sounded so calm, so small. So human. “Activate all remaining units outside, and open the gate.”
“Data transfer initiated.” A robotic voice answered through loudspeakers. “Warning: dimensional coordinates incomplete. High-degree of instability expec—”
“Don’t care if we destroy Sarajevo! Open the gate!”
Mechron suddenly noticed Leonard, who had his palm raised at the man.
Now that he could take a good look at the Genius’ face, the living sun realized that the battle had taken its toll on him too. Already past his seventies, Mechron seemed like he hadn’t slept in days. His eyes were blackened by fatigue, his hands shaking with stress.
He looked so… so normal. He didn’t wear a costume, nor was he a larger-than-life, charismatic dark lord. Mechron was a mere man, straight out of a retirement home; one who had killed millions, perhaps billions.
And yet... he looked so very tired of it all. Broken by a decade of endless warfare.
The living sun’s hand wavered.
“Make your shot count,” Mechron said, glaring bitterly at Leonard. “You won’t get another.”
Instead of blasting him, Leonard Hargraves stared at the hateful dictator straight in the eyes. “Are you happy, Mechron?” he asked in Bosnian.
The question took the Genius aback.
“Are you happy living like this?” Leonard asked. While he didn’t unleash any plasma blast, he kept his hand raised. Pythia would flay him alive if she knew. “Alone in a bunker, surrounded by machines, killing people left and right? Was that your wish? Are you happy living like this?”
The fortress shook, while the Genius mulled the question over. He looked away, before focusing back on Leonard.
“No,” Mechron admitted, sounding exhausted. “No, I’m not.”
“Then why won’t you stop?”
“Why do you care?” the Genius snapped back.
“Because… because I want to believe human life should be cherished. Even yours. I will kill you if I must, but call me naive… if there is the slightest chance of ending this by the book, I want to try it.” Leonard paused, trying to find his words. “I don’t know what made you what you are, but you must realize deep down that hurting other people won’t help.”
He did. Leonard could see it painted all over his face.
“Please surrender peacefully,” the living sun asked. “Tell your machines to stand down, and we will give you a fair hearing. Nobody else has to die; not even you. You started this, and you can end it.”
Mechron’s expression suddenly morphed from sadness to wrath.
“I didn’t start anything,” the man snarled, his voice dripping with venom. Anger bottled up for years roared to the surface. “You did. The Serbians murdered my sons at Srebrenica and you people… you people just watched! If you want this war to end, then stop getting in my way!”
Leonard got his answer in the man’s intense, hateful gaze.
He would never stop. It didn’t matter how many had to die to fuel the fire burning within him; it was an inferno that could never be extinguished. This bitter, hateful man would never stop until he had brought the whole world to its knees.
A demon born of war.
Leonard regretfully opened fire.
A crimson force field activated around the rogue Genius, deflecting a stream of plasma. Metal and electrical devices around Mechron melted, but the warlord remained completely unharmed. Similar fields protected the giant brains, protecting them from danger. Leonard flew towards the Genius, intending to smash through the forcefield and end Mechron’s life.
A roar echoed at his left, a wormhole opening. The biomechanical dragon from last time emerged from it, claws raised at the living sun.
A powerful gravitational force pushed Leonard against a steel wall, sending him crashing against mechanical panels. The dragon kept the gravitational force active, attempting to break the Red Genome’s heart-core apart.
“It could have been beautiful! A new Eden!” Mechron’s face twitched in anger. “I could have eradicated diseases, solved world hunger, brought peace! Increased life expectancy, everything automated! Everything would have been perfect!”
The rogue Genius raised his cane at Leonard, gritting his teeth in impotent rage.
“If it hadn’t been for you…” He hit the ground with his cane, his hands shaking. “If it hadn’t been for people like you, I could have saved the world!”
“Look through your window, Mechron!” Leo replied angrily, trying to break free of the battle-beast’s gravitational field. “You didn’t save the world, you killed it! You’re living among the dead!”
The Genius visibly flinched, his fingers clenching around his cane. By now, he was so furious he couldn't make coherent sentences. “If politicians had any imagination, I wouldn’t have... I wouldn't have fed all the killing data! Had to make them stop! They never listened! Couldn't understand!”
Leonard ignored that maniac and blasted the biomechanical dragon with plasma. The creature’s scales and flesh melted away, leaving only mechanical implants and seared bones. Yet astonishingly, it kept moving and didn’t release the pressure.
Meanwhile, the blue sphere started expanding inside the energy pillar, turning into some kind of energy lens. A spatial anomaly leading into a place of bright blue light. When Leonard looked at this reality tear, he felt something brush against his mind. He thought it was Pythia for a second, before realizing the telepathic signal came from the spatial anomaly.
Images formed inside the living sun’s mind, like in the blue stream. Vivid pictures of his childhood in Hackney, surrounded by criminality; of his first day in the London Fire Department, helping a family evacuate from a burning building; of finding the strange box in the mail, and the crimson potion within; of the day he and Alice founded the Carnival...
“What is this?” Leonard asked, mesmerized by the portal and the images it sent him. Even the burned dragon stopped attacking, entranced by whatever power came from beyond this blue wormhole.
“The Akashic Records…” Mechron muttered, his eyes widening in triumph. “The universal compendium. All data, all information, all knowledge, all intent, and emotions, it all comes from this place. The source of Blue powers, of all Geniuses’ knowledge… a Blue World of pure intellect.”
Mechron raised his cane at the portal, his fury replaced with excitement.
“It’s all here! All the world’s secrets, everything that can fix it! It’s all here!” He turned his back on the Red Genome, chuckling to himself. “Even you must see its beauty!
The mental stream of image continued, but instead of showing pictures of Leo’s own life, they shifted to stranger sights. Of alien worlds covered in massive oceans, ruled by fishlike creatures; of supernovas illuminating the darkness of space.
“With it, I can begin again!” Mechron boasted. “Fix everything! Once I get there, I will know everything!”
Leonard looked at the blue with divine fascination, until he spotted a tiny taint of blackness.
The telepathic signal instantly ended, the pictures turning black. The screens in the facility turned red, and the loudspeakers changed their tune. “Warning: anomaly detected. Warning: anomaly detected. Warning: unknown dimension converging.”
The blue hole seemed consumed from within by darkness. Black spots slowly grew from within the blue portal, tainting it entirely. The room seemed to freeze over, the temperature dropping at an alarming rate.
Even Mechron had no idea what was happening. “It’s… it’s not the blue world… it’s somewhere else… it’s…”
Within seconds, the blue star had turned into a black hole, a sphere of darkness from which no light could escape. It wasn’t a door to a dimension of pure information, but one of void and nothingness.
“It’s all black,” Mechron muttered, gazing into the abyss.
The abyss gazed back.
A pulse of darkness erupted from the portal, vaporizing the dragon, the artificial brains, and most of the room. Mechron barely had the time to scream as his forcefield vanished, and the void devoured him.
Leonard felt the dragon’s gravitational field disappear, only to have his own overwhelmed by darkness too. An alien force threatened to consume him, the way a black hole ate a star.
Something was looking at them from the other side.
The dark gaze was peeling Mechron layer by layer, like an onion. Skin, flesh, bones, and then working its ways down. Within the seconds, the Genius had been erased from existence, his atoms torn asunder and annihilated.
Without his heart-core keeping his body whole through a powerful gravitational field, Leonard would have suffered the same fate. Even now he felt the outer layers of his solar body disintegrating, its molecules annihilated into nothingness. The sustained gaze of this thing would tear him apart in minutes, destroying his heart-core as it did with Mechron.
His human mind simply couldn’t comprehend what he was looking at. A shape vaguely reminding Leo of an eye, surrounded by a cloud of dark, empty space; a sentient hole in reality, a living darkness that devoured light instead of being banished by it. A colossal entity, so powerful, so almighty, that it destroyed their reality simply by looking at it.
And it was trying to get in.
The black portal slowly widened, the radius of the baleful gaze increasing. The entity behind the gate kept looking, unaware, or perhaps uncaring, of the damage it caused. If the particle accelerator continued expanding the portal...
“Mechron will somehow kill everyone in Sarajevo.”
As Pythia’s words came to mind, Leonard immediately unleashed a stream of plasma at the portal. Flames as searing as a nuclear detonation.
They quickly stopped to exist.
They weren’t absorbed by the hole or extinguished. They disappeared, leaving neither heat nor smoke behind. The dark force on the other side of the portal hadn’t even noticed Leonard’s counterattack; its mere presence erased his flames.
Compared to this entity, the living sun looked like an ant trying to attack an elephant.
If he couldn’t destroy the portal directly, what could Leonard do? If he did nothing, this thing would erase him from existing within minutes, and then do the same with the fortress. The particle accelerator’s destruction would probably cause the portal to implode, but Sarajevo would be wiped out.
The particle accelerator’s destruction…
If Leonard could sufficiently damage the fortress, he could collapse the portal before it could grow larger. But the explosion needed… it might cost him his life.
Leonard thought about the hundreds of people outside. Heroes fighting to make a difference in this bleak, devastated world. Friends like Pythia, with families at home; soldiers trying to rebuild a kind, democratic civilization. Good people.
Leonard didn’t hesitate.
He gathered all his remaining energy, calling upon whatever power fueled his heart-core, and caused his heart-core to implode on itself. His body turned white, his radiance incinerating the room. The black hole absorbed most of the heat, but not all of it.
“As they say…” he muttered, staring defiantly at the darkness beyond. “Better to go out with a bang, rather than a whimper!”
His last thought towards his comrades outside, the Living Sun went supernova.
Leonard’s light consumed the world in a cataclysmic explosion, and the darkness returned from whence it came.
It was all darkness. A pitch-black nothingness. He couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t smell, couldn’t taste. He could barely think.
He felt cold.
He felt numb.
And more than anything, he felt alone.
Was this… was this death? Had the darkness beyond that portal been the afterlife? Or maybe it was all a hallucination, his brain’s last hurrah before the final end?
He had never truly believed in any god or afterlife. He thought he would just vanish, cease to exist. Compared to an eternity in the dark, it would have been a mercy.
He had always lived through others, as far as he could remember. He might have looked like the sun, but he never felt warm when alone. So he had filled the void with his fellow human beings, their happiness becoming his own. Loneliness had always scared him more than death.
Now, he was alone with his thoughts. Alone with his regrets.
He would never have a wife, never have children. He hadn’t written that urban fantasy book he always said he would. He would never return to London and see the people he left behind. He would never get to make up with certain friends, whom he had parted with on bad terms; he would never avenge the Costas or bring Augustus to justice. He would never know if his sacrifice had made a difference.
So many things left unfinished.
He was okay with it.
He had tried.
He had done his best.
He saw light in the darkness. He felt like driving a car to the end of a long tunnel, though he couldn’t see what was beyond the exit. Was it Heaven? Was it the last door? Were the Christians right, or the Muslims? The Hindus or the Buddhists? All of them, or none at all?
He didn’t know, but whatever awaited him beyond… he could live with it.
He entered the light.
Leonard opened his eyes.
Instead of facing angels, he could only see a white ceiling.
He had returned to his frail human form, though with some changes. His black skin was somehow hairless now, and all his muscles felt sore. His dark eyes struggled to adapt to the light, though he noticed two people looking over him.
“Easy, Leo.” The roguish teleporter Ace smiled down on her friend. “You come back from Hell itself.”
“Good to see you awake, sir,” Stitch said. This strange Genome always wore a plague doctor outfit, to the point Leonard had never seen how he looked underneath. “You had us worried.”
“Where…” The living sun’s eyes acclimated enough to allow him to see. He seemed to be in some kind of hospital, laying on a bed and hooked to machinery.
Clearly, death hadn’t claimed him yet.
“Visoko,” Stitch answered. “A few dozen kilometers from Sarajevo. We evacuated here after the battle.”
“We won!” Ace beamed with happiness. “We won, Leo! We fucking won!”
“How long was I…” Leonard struggled to form words. His throat felt dry and sore. “How long was I out?”
“Three days,” Stitch answered.
“And Mechron’s fortress…”
“It’s all gone, a crater of molten steel and glass.” Ace smiled at him, happy to see her friend alive. “You blew up that place good.”
“Truth be told, we believed that you had perished in the explosion,” Stitch said dryly.
“Me too,” Leo replied with the same tone.
Ace elbowed the plague doctor for his insensitivity, before looking back at Leo. “We found your core in the wreckage, reduced to a white sphere the size of a hand. It took days for your power to recreate your body, even with Sidekick’s help.”
“Sarajevo has been taken, though the city lies in ruins,” Stitch explained. “Shining Knight and her group are busy destroying the last surviving robots, but the production factories have been dismantled. The Genome Wars have ended.”
It was the end.
The words took a weight off Leonard’s shoulder. He had originally co-founded the Carnival with Pythia to fight dangerous Genomes and help mankind recover from the Wars. Mechron had been the greatest threat to all of humanity, and now… now he was gone. It had taken almost ten years, but maybe mankind would finally rise back from the old world’s ashes.
And through some miracle, Leo had lived through it all.
Maybe… maybe he should reconsider some of his beliefs. After having seen that creature beyond the portal and his near-death experience, he wondered if religions were onto something.
Stitch cleared his throat. “However…”
“However?” Leo repeated.
“The Bahamut is now in orbit deep in space, far beyond our reach,” the plague doctor said. “The Cossack tried to bring it down, even breaking half his bones from the g-force, but he wasn’t fast enough.”
“Who cares?” Ace asked, far more optimistic. “There’s no one left to activate it.”
“Some of Mechron’s bases remain,” Stitch replied with pessimism. “And while our foe and his allies are all dead, there’s no guarantee nobody else could find a way to hack into the satellite. I believe we will live to regret that failure.”
"The evil that men do lives after them,” Leonard quoted, looking back at the white, lifeless ceiling. Was the Bahamut looking down on them, far above their heads? “The good is oft interred with their bones."
“Was that from Shakespeare, sir?”
“I don’t know,” Leo admitted. “I only ever memorized the famous quotes. I thought it would make me sound smarter.”
“It doesn’t,” Ace chuckled, though her smile didn’t reach her eyes. Something weighed on her mind. “By the way, he’s dead right? As in, no last-minute escape, or a clone hidden somewhere? Mechron is really dead?”
The memory of the Genius’ disintegration flashed in Leonard’s mind, much to his unease. “Yes,” he said grimly, though his allies let out a relieved sigh. “He is dead for good, and I don’t think he will come back from that.”
The memory still sent shivers down Leonard’s spine. There had been no malice or benevolence in this entity’s actions; only curiosity. That godlike being had simply noticed the breach and looked through, the same way a child did through a keyhole. Leo could have just easily switched places with Mechron, had he been less lucky.
No, he shouldn’t think like that. He had been given a new chance at life, and he would spend it looking forward, rather than back.
Though, if creatures so powerful were out there, waiting…
“How many casualties?” Leonard asked, trying to fend off the existential dread with down-to-earth news.
“One out of four,” Stitch replied. “It was a good day.”
“Jesse died,” Ace replied with a frown, much less optimistic. “Her brother is heartbroken. I think he’ll retire.”
The news saddened Leonard Hargraves. Due to regularly picking fights with the most dangerous Genomes, the Carnival experienced a lot of turnovers, losing people in almost every engagement. Leonard had buried far too many good people. “Mr. Wave? Pythia?”
“Mr. Wave is… well, you know him. He’s boasting about his Killer Robot Killcount to everyone who will listen.” Ace’s expression harshened. “Pythia though…”
She glanced at another hospital bed, Leo following her gaze. His eyes widened in horror at what he found.
Alice was in a bed near his own, heavily sedated and linked to intravenous medical devices. Her skin had turned pale as death, and her gaze was empty.
“Alice!” Leonard attempted to rise from his bed but lacked the strength to lift himself up. Ace put a hand on his chest with a frown, to force him back to his bed. “Shit!”
“Hey calm down,” Ace said with a frown. “You’re still sick, and you can’t do anything for her.”
“She’s been like this since the battle’s end, sir,” Stitch explained with clinical coldness. “Her symptoms fit those of extreme brain damage.”
“She overtaxed her power,” Leo realized with sadness. He had warned her, but she had been willing to risk it all.
Maybe she had always known it would end this way.
The plague doctor nodded. “Nidhogg could cure her if given time. He said that considering her pivotal role in today’s victory, it was only natural he helped her recover.”
Leonard shivered. “Considering the man’s methods, we need to warn her husband and son. It’s their choice, not ours.”
“I already called them.” Ace shook her head. “Poor Mathias.”
“Miss Martel left something for you, sir,” Stitch handed Leonard a USB key. “I apologize for the indiscretion, but we already took a look.”
“What does it contain?” Leonard asked with a frown.
“Precognitive analysis of the next few years,” Stitch explained, “Calculator and her compiled a database of the greatest threats to human civilization before the battle. I believed Pythia anticipated her fate and wished to help us beyond that point.”
“I suppose Augustus is on the list?” Leonard asked, his tone turning venomous. He had been given a second chance to see justice done, and he wouldn’t waste it.
“Yes,” Ace nodded, her expression turning grim. “But someone else has taken the top spot.”
This surprised Leonard. Who could be more dangerous than an invincible, megalomaniacal warlord? “Who?”
“Some Psycho called Bloodstream,” Stitch explained. “According to the data, there is a high chance that he will cause an extinction event in 2017 if not slain beforehand.”
“Something about his daughter dying, I think,” Ace added with a frown. “You will have to wait for Augustus, Leo. That Psycho comes with a time-limit.”
Leonard looked at the USB key, wondering what grim prophecies it held.