Illumination 10.8: By The Light Of Dead Stars (double length!)

When the Hellgate spoke, Jehane and Malachi were moving in the direction Jehane had last felt Hatherly’s presence. They’d felt the distant brush of despair, and the activation and deactivation of the absolute focus field, and Jehane had felt Hatherly’s presence melt away. So she wasn’t in much of a hurry. Something had happened. She’d find out when she got there, and meanwhile she was with Malachi–

But a distant voice boomed from the Hellgate. “Assault detected. Retaliating.” The shape of the giant portal shivered. Jehane groaned. “That thing. We still have to deal with that.” She reached out, finding Ajax. He had the box Elian had provided, the box that might work better if she was nearby. “I need to go find Ajax. Do you want— do you want to come with me?”

Malachi watched her . “I don’t want to leave you again.” He caught her hand. “Let’s go.”

Part of the way to Ajax, she felt him start moving. He was moving fast, too, up and away, closer to the Hellgate. She raised her eyes and tracked a helicopter flying low over the restricted part of the city, in to the zone between the inner and middle barricades. That part of the restricted zone was swarming with soldiers and scientific personnel.

Dismayed, Jehane said, “How do we get in there?”

Malachi shrugged. “Let’s find a patrol.”

That wasn’t hard. When Jehane had zeroed in on the ragged, untidy music of a troop of soldiers, Malachi tugged her after him as he stalked directly up to them. As he approached, he raised his hands, still holding onto her. “I would like to surrender.”

“Who are you?” barked one of the soldiers. The others seemed distracted by staring at the Hellgate.

Malachi cocked his head. “An ally of the one who brought this upon the city. The King of Hell?”

One of the soldiers looked away from the Hellgate. His eyes widened and he said, “The drinking devil, sir!”

Malachi sighed. “Yes.”

“I’m sure it’s growing, sir,” said another soldier.

Jehane blinked, then turned to stare at the Hellgate herself. “What did it mean by ‘retaliation’?”

“That is what we are all wondering, young lady. Are you also surrendering?”

“We’re not really surrendering,” Jehane felt obliged to explain. “I need to get closer to the Hellgate. And find my friend, who I think just went by in a helicopter a few minutes ago.”

“Oh,” said the chief soldier, glumly. “You’re one of them.” He spoke into a radio for a moment. Then he said, “Yes, it is growing. And faster than it looks from here. The front lines are retreating. And they’re sending a vehicle for you, young lady. Apparently your friend is looking for you as well.” He looked Malachi up and down. “I think I would like to keep you, though. My country needs something from this mess.”

Calmly, Malachi said, “You’re welcome to come with us, then.” He was still holding her hand.

The chief soldier eyed their clasped hands. “Yes, I imagined you’d say that.”

A helicopter landed in a blast of wind. Malachi and the soldiers hustled Jehane onboard. Then Malachi sprang up beside her. Jehane didn’t look to see if any of the soldiers followed. She didn’t care.

The Hellgate was huge, and becoming enormous. Ajax and Natalie were standing with a cluster of soldiers beside the helipad. Jehane leapt down and went to hug Natalie. The other girl’s arms closed around her, hesitantly at first, then so tight she could barely breathe.

“I knew it,” Jehane said simply, when Natalie finally released her. Then she looked around. “I thought I heard Seth?”

Natalie’s face tightened. “He’s in there.” She pointed at the hospital tent near the helipad. “Hatherly hurt him… a lot.”

Ajax said, “He survived. He’ll heal.” He nodded at Malachi. “Nice to see you again, man. Wish it could be under better circumstances.”

“Maybe. If that thing doesn’t swallow the world.” Natalie’s voice was harsh as she nodded toward the growing Hellgate.

“Is that what it’s doing?” Jehane looked at it, fascinated. Natalie only shrugged.

Ajax turned to his soldier friends. “Hey, Martin. Now that she’s here, can we get closer?”

The one who was apparently Martin said, “How much closer do you need to be?”

“Pretty damn close. And I’d rather stop it before it gets here where Seth is, you know?” All around them, soldiers and scientists were shuffling gear around as trucks drove up and deposited both personnel and supplies from closer to the gate. Some of the trucks weren’t stopping, heading back to the city proper.

Martin took a deep breath. “Well, conveniently, it’s stopped puking up monsters, so if we can escape being swallowed by it, this is the best chance we’ve had in a long time to get near it.” He jogged over to a Jeep. “Hop in.”

The drive was slow, going against the flow as they were. There were obstacles everywhere: abandoned equipment, piles of supplies, piles of monster bodies. And in the end, the Hellgate came to them, because as it was growing bigger, so it seemed to be moving closer. Distance became confusing.

It sounded awful as it grew, like the tearing sound of slow thunder, and weaving over and under the roar was the delicate voice of the broken spirit that drove the portal. The voice could be loud; they’d heard it announce its ‘retaliation’, but now it was barely audible, just on the edge of hearing, just on the edge of madness. Jehane couldn’t tell how much of the noise was real and how much of it was her own specialized sense.

Ajax pulled out the box Elian had given him and flipped it open. It buzzed, and a light flashed inside. Then Elian’s voice emerged, tinny and distant. “I’d like to say something like, ‘Finally!’ and catch up with what you’ve been up to but I can see that we’re running out of time. But I’m glad this much worked… Accessing the portal from both sides simultaneously now.”

“It’s growing, Elian,” said Ajax.

“Yes, I know. It’s working on birthing something quite large.”

Jehane stopped breathing for a moment, gazing at the gate. “Uh, how big?”

“You don’t want to think about it,” Elian assured her. “Please stand by.”

They stood by, Jehane shifting her weight nervously. The others all seemed confident that Elian was going to handle the situation, although their driver was looking at the talking box curiously.

“Damn it,” said Elian. “Let me try something else.”

Dread came crashing over her. It was like an orchestra tuning up, overwhelming even the roaring of the gate. It was getting closer, and closer.

“There’s just not enough of a mind left,” said Elian. “I can’t force what’s left to respond. Jehane—”

Everybody was looking at her now. “What?”

“I can’t do this without you.” Elian’s voice was very gentle.

“What do you want me to do?” she asked, but oh, she knew. It should have been her in the first place, but it wasn’t. And oh, that turned out to be a good thing because now, she was here.

“Are you sure?” said Ajax, because he knew too. She could tell from the look in her eyes.

“I don’t think anybody else has what it takes to make sense of the chaos. She could go in, do what I did, and then I could help her shut this thing down for good.”

“No.” Malachi pulled her closer to him.

“It’s getting closer,” said their driver.

Just to add some completely unnecessary pressure, thought Jehane bitterly. She looked at the gate. It was hard to not do so. As it moved, a dust cloud churned around its base. She watched as it approached a wrecked car, and the car toppled into it. Somehow she didn’t think everything was just arriving intact on the other side. The edge of the portal seemed to have teeth.

“Jehane?” said Elian.

“I don’t want to,” she said. “I’m sorry, Elian. I’m sorry it was you when it should have been me, but I’m glad it wasn’t me. I don’t want to be… nearly immortal and know almost everything. I want to try to be a real girl. I want that.”

“I don’t know if it will stop, even if the creature it’s making comes through,” said Elian. “It could grow and grow. Once it got big enough, both worlds would collapse.”

Malachi grabbed at the box that Ajax held, but Ajax snaked it away just in time, and stepped back. “Elian, man, there’s got to be another way.”

Elian sounded a touch sulky as he said, “You tell it to me then.”

“I don’t want to do it,” Jehane wailed. Then Malachi’s sword was out, and pointed at their driver, who had moved a single step closer. She heard a click in the distance, heard the shadow music of other soldiers. It was all going to go very bad, even before the Hellgate reached them. She gabbled, the words falling out of her mouth without passing through her mind first. “Please, don’t. I’ll do something. There’s another way. I’ll make a cambion. I’ll give it what I have, please.”

Natalie, silently watching the portal, snapped her gaze to Jehane. “Make a cambion… Do you know how? Do you know what’s involved?”

Jehane looked at her, surprised at the question, then thought about her own words. “Yes, I think so. I think I… remember? It starts…” Words failed her as she cast her mind back to a time before she really had language.

A new voice said, “It starts with a seed.” There was a puff of dust as a huge form landed beside them, leaping down from a high place.

“Fuck,” said their driver, who scrambled behind the Jeep. The voice belonged to Surge.

“You see the way, little listener,” said Surge. “But I will do it, if you please. My maker wanted to save the world, in the beginning.”

“He did this,” said Ajax sharply.

The leonine face smiled. “Did he? I thought it was a broken mind left by the children of a dead star. But there is no time to argue about that. Perhaps… later. Will I be acceptable, hybrid soul? Can you mesh with me as you could the little listener?”

Elian said, “I don’t know. And I don’t know if we can trust you, either. From what I can tell, it was you who set this off.”

“My maker wanted to save the world,” Surge repeated.

“Go,” said Natalie abruptly. She exchanged a look with Malachi, who nodded. “Go,” she said again. “Do it.”

Surge bowed his head to Natalie, then leapt the scant handful of yards to the oncoming gate. He paused, then ducked his head as the gate enveloped him.

Jehane sagged against Malachi, waiting.

Nothing happened. The gate kept moving.

Their driver said, “Let’s get back in the Jeep and get out of here. At least it’s moving slowly.”

Ajax said, “Elian?”

“Put me down and do what the nice man says, Ajax,” said Elian, sounding distracted.

Ajax scowled, and did so.

“Aha!” said Elian, as Ajax straightened up. “Cover your ears.”

The shimmering dark portal stopped moving. Jehane covered her ears.

Then, with a boom so loud that it was painful, the portal vanished, leaving the wreckage of a city behind.


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