Everything was as clear as crystal: sharp-edged and slightly fractured. Natalie knew she wasn’t whole, but she was close. She couldn’t go back, but if she gathered up all the pieces, she could go forward.
She squeezed Ajax’s hand as Hatherly came around the corner, his two cambions trailing him. “Can you distract Surge? And maybe the other one? I need to talk to Hatherly.”
“Just talk?” He flexed his scarred fist.
“Well, I’m not going to kiss him,” she said, and she thought her voice was very carefully controlled.
He squeezed her hand back. “I’ll keep them away from you.” Then, slipping away from her, he called, “What did you do with Seth?” as he accelerated away.
Hatherly flicked a hand dismissively and Surge paused, fixing his leonine gaze on Ajax.
Seth, thought Natalie with a pang. She’d felt the despair engine flick on, then off, followed by the low thrum of Gate’s absolute focus field. And Hatherly looked annoyed, as only Seth could make somebody. Seth was tough. He’d hang on. She didn’t dare think he wouldn’t.
“I see you’re feeling better,” called Hatherly. The ugly expression of annoyance was replaced by the pleasant, benevolent expression she’d come to hate. “You’d gone too far for a while, but young Ajax helped you recover your balance. I knew he had potential.”
“I’ve regained more than my balance.” She moved toward him, stopping at the curb.
His smile flickered. “Ah, I always felt that way when returning to myself after a deeper journey into the chaos.” His head twitched. “I wish I could see the shore again. But come here, girl, and we can fix this wretched world.”
“No,” Natalie said calmly. “We can’t. Not that way.”
Hatherly frowned. “You’re being irresponsible. It’s the only chance we have. Otherwise we’ll just trudge on through our own muck until we finally slip into oblivion.”
Natalie caught her breath. Then she shook her head. “It’s not a chance. It’s how we come to oblivion. Giving up on each other.”
Beyond Hatherly, Surge moved to protect him from Ajax. But it was a feint, and Ajax danced away from Surge’s paw, luring the cambion after him. But Gate remained, watching Natalie with heavy-lidded eyes.
“If that’s true, then what does it matter? It’s hastening an end of a timespan that is only measurable to those who remember it, and there will be nobody left to do so. And the end is inevitable, if we don’t do this. Where are the Antecessors now? Look at us, playing in the shadows cast by the light of a dead star and thinking there’s more there. There’s nothing to hang on to unless we can finally reach beyond.”
It was all so sharp and clear and sad. Natalie said, “Not we, though. I. And I don’t want to do it without a ‘we’. Humanity is more than one person, Hatherly. You can’t burn everybody to thrust one person beyond. You must know that on some level. You said it yourself: you haven’t seen the shore for a long time. You know something’s wrong.”
“That doesn’t matter! I have goals, I have methods and tools. I have a system.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Even if I’m not what I was, the legacy I left myself still guides me.”
“Your legacy has become corrupted,” she said, as gently as she could. A small part of her wished he could be restored. He’d turned parts of himself into amazing things, into beautiful, sensitive things. And he’d turned other parts of himself into true monsters.
He’d turned Malachi into a monster, and Aya. He’d found Tainter and used him like a scalpel. He couldn’t see the difference anymore between monsters and everything else.
A small part of her wanted to save him, but mostly, sharp-edged and fractured, she wanted to kill him. That would be giving into the darkness, but what else did he expect, unable as he was to tell a savior from a monster?
Ajax shouted at Surge, and she trembled and relaxed.
Hatherly glared at her. “Don’t be ridiculous. I know myself better than you, young lady. And everything is still perfectly clear to me. I just have to get my perspective right. Now, are you going to take up your responsibility or not?”
“No,” she repeated. “I’m already doing that, right now, talking to you.” She buried her disgust and hatred, and held out a hand to him. “You can come back again. It’s hard but it’s possible. You know it is.”
But even as she said it, she realized the problem with her words. He’d spent years, maybe decades thinking about this, and he’d fooled everybody. Whatever he saw from the shore was what had driven him into the depths.
He scowled at her, and put his hand on Gate. “I’ll do it, then. Something enduring will be better than nothing but the darkness, forever and ever.”
It happened quicker than Natalie could have imagined. The cambion stepped into Hatherly’s body, but instead of melting into him, the man and the monster merged together into an impossible grotesque. A limb smacked angrily at Natalie as sparkles of light gathered around the creature. She ducked and rolled automatically, thinking, Is this it?
And then, as she came to her feet, as she still had feet, she thought, Apparently apotheosis takes time. And special effects.
A hiss, a wail, and something went boom. Red light flared around Hatherly and he staggered to one side, a shocked expression on his face. Behind him, standing at the corner of the building, was one of Ajax’s soldier friends, with a long tube on his shoulder and a fierce expression on his face.
Hatherly screamed in rage and turned to leap at the soldiers. He didn’t seem to have been seriously hurt, but he’d been hurt. There was still hope.
But only for a few moments. Natalie could already feel her energy sapping away, as the absolute focus field focused exclusively on one anima. She pulled her katana into her hand and moved.
Surge howled, clawing at the ground as Ajax held him by the base of that snapping tail. The cambion desperately wanted to get away, but whether to defend Hatherly or to flee she couldn’t tell. She didn’t know how, but Ajax was containing him.
Hatherly landed in the midst of the soldiers, half-crumbling the corner of the building. A man screamed, and then there was another explosion. The light didn’t fade this time; Hatherly was becoming incandescent.
Natalie dashed up behind him, started to swing her weapon, then paused. Hatherly was some kind of hybrid now, with four legs and two arms and a face in his torso, but he was still wearing the clothes he’d been wearing all along.
Hatherly turned and caught her in one arm. “Changed your mind?”
Natalie didn’t answer. Instead she pushed her hand inside his jacket. What was beyond was unpleasantly gooey, not cloth, not flesh, and extremely hot as well. But her fingers closed around a little box. “Got it,” she said. She pulled it out and flicked the lid open. Something small and glowing brightly rose from the box, into her other hand.
The little star burned into her skin. It hurt; it felt sweet; it felt like everything. The crystal edges of the world softened, just a touch. “Got it. I win, you poor bastard. I’ve got myself back again, all the way, and you could never do that.”
Hatherly stared at her, then his expression, almost hidden in light, twisted up and he shrieked, throwing her aside like a broken doll. Then he flailed around, stomping and hitting everything he could reach.
Natalie lay where she landed, smiling a little. She didn’t have much energy left.
But the soldiers, those who remained, were still fighting. How? Ajax said they’d mentioned drugs before. She thought of the soldiers, and the Awakened Darkness that had fought for them once. They’d trained themselves that well. Humanity could be more, even without lumination. And Ajax was fighting with them, and beyond them, Seth–
So she stood up again, and she threw herself on what remained of Hatherly, cutting at what remained of the cambion. As she thrust her katana into the head in the middle of Hatherly’s torso, the light flickered, and her strength surged.
“Here! Here!” she screamed, and drove the sword in deeper. Ajax stepped beside her and slashed his scythe across the spot.
Hatherly screamed. It was a very human sound. It was like the soldier who had screamed earlier. The light vanished, leaving spots of blindness behind. And life flowed back into the world.
When the purple and blue glows faded, Natalie realized that Hatherly was melting into water along with his cambion. She wondered if that was what happened when you made too many cambions, if you became one yourself.
Then she went and found Seth, stepping over a little case full of syringes that lay between the burnt and bloodied soldiers and the medic crouched beside her brother.
Hatherly hadn’t tried to make certain he was dead. He hadn’t cut off his head, or slit his throat. But she’d never seen anybody so damaged before, not and still be alive. “Is he…”
The medic gave her a bright-eyed, feverish look. “We have emergency transport incoming. And there’s a lot of very talented people over in the camp. Keep your fingers crossed.”
Ajax came up beside her and took her hand. “I think we’re under arrest,” he said mildly.
Natalie made a sound, halfway between a laugh and a sob. “As long as they let me stay with Seth, that’s fine with me. What happened to Surge?”
Ajax looked up at the sky. “He kind of got away from me. When I, uh, came to help you. Sorry.”
“I wonder if he melted like Hatherly?”
“Would he? I mean… you probably know more about cambions now than anybody else.”
Natalie hesitated. Some cambions definitely seemed more independent of their creators than others. She remembered her cat, as if through the veil of a dream, and a conversation with Surge in darkness. “I don’t know. But… I hope so.”