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In a daze, his chest feeling constricted, Edgar wandered out onto the main dirt road.
"Sir!" his advisor called after him. "The peace summit begins in forty minutes!"
He registered the words, but continued forward on numb feet. His floating tread guided him sharply away from all passersby and down a minor path toward Concord Farm's nearby river. Field after field full of Death Oathers with spikes in the backs of their heads rolled by on his left and right; they waved, but he could not respond. He managed to make it to his favorite thinking spot before the white haze circling his vision became too strong to continue. The boulder was right at the water's edge and allowed him to trail his feet in chill burbles; he threw his fancy shoes in the grass and dunked his toes. Groups of women washing clothes and children playing lurked on nearby bends, but it was the most privacy he could expect in a world of refugees-become-homemakers.
Three hundred and fifty billion people had set out on foot as part of the New Exodus; nobody knew how many survivors of that number remained, although the best guess was that about half had been lost and another half had become undead. Their two-year-old fledgling government's amateur attempts at a census had found at least fifty billion people both alive and undead on Concord Farm's ideal Earth—spread throughout all six habitable continents (and a few on Antarctica, as he was often reminded)—which meant a full quarter of the Second Tribe now lived alongside him, fighting every day to expand vegetable gardens, snow wheat fields, and other arable lands.
Despite that overpopulation, it took her less than seven minutes to find him.
He kept his gaze on the clear and coursing water. "You're always there for me."
Mona laughed softly and then sat down beside him. "It's my job."
"How's the outbreak?" he asked, trying to delay the obvious conversation. Her other
job, Surgeon General, meant she was the one that had to manage the inevitable disease outbreaks that had resulted from half of the human race walking around dead and openly wounded.
Her sigh sounded exhausted. "It's under control." She held up her cellphone. "Erich said the summit starts in half an hour, but you ran off after reading something in that book."
He looked under his arm, surprised-but-not-surprised that the book was still with him. "I've lived my whole life thinking there's always a way to win," he finally forced himself to say. "That if you're just clever enough or fast enough you can find a way to survive no matter what. It's the only reason I have the ability to wake up in the morning and face the world. That belief is my only strength in a multiverse where every corner hides some new nightmare that can instantly kill you."
"Not your only strength," Mona replied. "Come on."
"It is." Edgar gripped the rock below hard enough to turn his knuckles white. "I've felt this way before."
"Yeah. Having to watch someone you care about die like that and knowing that there's nothing
you can do just hit home the fact that I might be wrong. Maybe there's not always a way forward. Maybe sometimes you just lose.
"She was eight hundred years in the past," Mona countered calmly. "That's different."
"It's not. Now we're
the doomed ones long in the past." He freed his hands from stone to bring the book forward and open it. "Sorry for the delay, Kumari. Please continue. Mona's here now, too."
Text appeared on the open blank page: "Are you alright?"
Edgar gave a slow nod. "Yes. Please tell us again what you told me."
"I don't know if I should. It's not really what I meant to—"
"Please. I can't be the only one that knows. Please don't make me be the only one that knows."
"Alright." Readjusting awkwardly in her seat, Kumari hesitated.
Mona peered closer at the text. "It actually tells you all of that? That people move awkwardly in their seats and such?" She began to worry that it might transmit her private thoughts as well. Her frown deepened upon reading that.
Despite the intense weight on his shoulders, Edgar smiled.
"In two weeks, the Second Tribe will be destroyed," Kumari blurted, unsure how else to put it.
Edgar's smile faded. Mona drew her face into practiced medical neutrality. "How?"
"Growing up, we had bits and pieces, nothing more. Only a few million of us survived, and none of us knew exactly what happened. But reading about the past through this book, I've seen it. In about two weeks, a young boy will ask his ruby cube friend to activate itself over Concord Farm."
Nothing changed in her expression, but Mona's face flushed slightly darker brown. "Why would he do that?"
"A wounded Senator will order him to do it as a last resort."
"And one ruby cube can bring about that much devastation?"
Kumari lowered her head slightly in apology. "I don't know exactly. I was very young at the time, but I have a single vague memory of the day it happened. It was bad. Very bad. After that, growing up, we had no home and no resources and people were able to die again, so it only got worse. There are just a handful of us left now, a subculture among other human civilizations."
Edgar glanced over at Mona. "What about Ken? Do you know a Ken?"
"Ken Brace? Yes, he's here. He's a little younger than me, but I know him."
Mona put a hand to her mouth with relief. A heartbeat later, that hand moved to her abdomen, and she worked up the nerve to ask, "Is he alone? What I mean to say—does he have a brother or sister?"
Kumari blinked away unwanted moisture in her eyes. "Look, you have to understand that you have all been dead and gone my entire life. I don't believe even for a second I can change that disaster. I just—"
Mona's expression sharpened unhappily.
"I just—the way Ken talked about his father, about you—I guess I started all this because I don't have any family either. I was just curious about what kind of person my
dad was, and then I found out that he was the absolute best man. He wasn't Vanguard or a leader or a hero and he didn't have any special abilities or meaning to anyone, but he made tough choices the right way—the right way for me, and for those around him. He was brave, for me. He was a good person. He would have been a great father."
The veins made visible in his forehead and jaw by stress, Edgar said roughly, "Yes."
Mona looked out at the children playing downstream. "I wouldn't be here if not for him."
"And I need his advice now," Kumari continued, holding back tears with all of her might. "We're fighting a war for the fate of humanity, for all of the multiverse; whole universes are being destroyed every minute of every hour of every day, but all the sentient beings of the cosmos have been united under the most vile man I have ever known. The Emperor is a tyrant in ways I can't even begin to describe to you. All personal freedoms are gone. Every single waking moment is spent in support of the fight. We eat when he says, we sleep when he says, we go to the bathroom when he says. He's caught me as a counter-sentiment rebel, but instead of execution he offered me a deal to work for him, and I don't know what's right anymore."
Mona squeezed her left hand against Edgar's right; their fingers had found each other while reading about Kumari's plight. Breathing out and returning to medical neutrality, she asked, "What can we do to help?"
"I've been trying to save my father for so very long, but it always ends the same way." Kumari looked away from the console for a long moment, trying to choose her words. "But I've never managed to speak directly with you before. This is the first time."
Edgar leaned forward slightly. "So maybe we have a chance to change the future?"
This was the part Kumari had dreaded. "We can't. It's very important that the disaster happens. The War of Wars would already have been lost without me here."
His laugh was short but sincere. "I knew it. I thought it was your father, but it was you
. As long as you were with us, our luck was absurd. We were always showing up at the right places and times or escaping danger we had no business surviving. I still think back on those times and wonder how the hell we made it."
Mona studied his strained humor. "What do you mean?"
"Maybe it's a luck aura," Edgar elaborated. "I don't know. But it was a distinct phase of my life. We just got lucky over and over."
Above her console, Kumari let out a long breath. "Yes. That's why the Emperor hasn't just outright executed me. He needs me. I have the power to alter probability fields."
"Seriously?" Mona stared at the page as if it might produce answers. "Why not just have the Emperor trip and fall and die then?"
"The Emperor leaves nothing to chance," she responded unhappily. "Besides, I'm not sure we could do this without him. We work ourselves to the bone every waking minute, nearly a trillion of us, and we're still just barely maintaining parity. As he always puts it, our obstacles are exponential, but we are merely geometric, so we must work that much harder."
"You can't help us stop the end of the Second Tribe," Mona said with grim understanding. "Because it is how you came to be where you are."
Edgar nodded, confirming. His face was red, but not from the morning heat. "Kumari, I haven't seen him in two years, but I still consider Neil a friend. I'll help you find him—if you help me get Mona out of the region in time."
Mona glared. "Belay that. I'm staying right here."
"No. Ken and his brother or sister are going to need you. You have to make a run for it now. Two weeks has got to be enough time to escape. It has to be."
"I was done," Mona shot back. "We were holding on for dear life in the abscess of massive tooth in the mouth of a beast the size of a continent and that man handed me his ticket out—the ticket you gave him.
He made that choice knowing full well what it meant. Checking in on Rani and Kumari a few times a month doesn't even begin to make up for what he did for me; what fate he spared Ken."
Edgar accepted that, but still spoke. "I know that this hasn't been an ideal romance, and that we both work basically all the time, and if we were back home you probably would have chosen someone else—"
She put a finger against his lips to silence him as she reminded him of conversations they'd already had long ago. "We don't live for ourselves anymore. Duty takes precedent over all. There will never be anybody else." Her dark eyes were utterly calm as she added a new oath. "I'm not leaving my posts—any of them. We go right to the end."
Nothing more needed to be said.
The day was bright, warm, clear, and cool. The day was peaceful. As Edgar let the stress of accepting what was about to happen flow past him like the water flowing around his bare feet, he could detect no trace of the cloak of doom descending upon the world.
"There's something else," Kumari wrote. "I'm not sure what to make of it. This didn't happen before, either."
From a place of pure logical readiness, Edgar asked, "What is it?"
"A parasitic infection of some sort. I don't want to say anything until I know more."
Mona watched the appearing text with concern. "Sounds like a job for the Surgeon General."
"Maybe." Kumari took a deep breath as she judged what to reveal and what to hide about the future. She read text that described Edgar's and Mona's concern as she thought about the limited information of her perspective. It was not just what to say or not to say; it was that she couldn't yet be certain what was happening. There was one thing, however, that she was certain of. That thing was a person she now felt she knew dearly. "Edgar, my father is back in the region, but every time we reached this point things went awry very quickly. I think you should find someone who I know
can make a difference. You need to find Venita of Amber Three."
"The Angel of Battle?" Edgar read aloud, eyes widening. "The girl who supposedly took out Her Glory's artificial intelligence mountains all by herself?"
Mona reeled internally as she recalled the snow-covered aftermath; that ruined battlefield and that cave-wound in a fallen purple amethyst in which Edgar had lay dying. After that, the Vanguard had told the craziest of tales—a lone helicopter crewed by unknowns, a lone redhead calling for the hopes of all who saw her, a lone run and a fight for the ages—but it had never sounded quite real having not been there herself. On another note, she wondered if that modified transmorphic sphere was still in her husband's stomach. It had been programmed to heal instead of harm, so they'd more or less forgotten about it.
"But she died," Edgar said, thinking as he always did of his stories rather than his own life.
Kumari sat a little taller to counter that.
Edgar continued, "The mountain exploded with her still inside."
Kumari sat a little lower. It did make sense that the men and women on the ground would have believed that to be the moment Venita had died. They wouldn't have known about the events on Amber Three.
"What events on Amber Three?" Edgar asked, confused.
"The book, it's—" Kumari sighed with frustration. "Venita survived that, but then died on Amber Three."
"Then how am I supposed to find her?"
"No, I—she's back now."
Mona leaned in over the book, eyes narrowed. "But we've determined that Grey Riders don't resurrect. We held Grayson's corpse until it was lost in the titan beast attack, and he never—"
"No," Kumari interrupted, trying to remember all the elements in a head filled with shifting memories. Which timeline was the current one now? "Grayson wasn't a Grey Rider. Well, he was. But he joined under false pretenses. In every time line, he was a tremendous coward and liar."
Edgar wanted to leap to the man's defense simply out of misplaced loyalty to those he had once traveled with, but he could not forgive what Grayson had done. "He was a complicated man."
"Yes. But I don't have time to get into what he did, or the doomed sister Earth he was running from." Kumari pressed her index fingers into her temples and tried to sort out what advice to give. "Venita did resurrect like you, but I can only guess it has something to do with her ancestry. Even though her mother was a human Amber citizen, her father was a brownshirt."
"Oh." Edgar looked at Mona.
Mona looked at Edgar. "Oh!"
That meant something.
"But I never have managed to figure out why people in that era stopped dying," Kumari continued, her headache intensifying as she forced her neurons to give specific memories rather than multiple vague outcomes for any given remembrance. "I'm nearly out of probability flexion points. I can only influence the past a few more times before it's all over. I've been helping you survive, but it's nearly out of my hands now. You have to find Venita of Amber Three."
Edgar felt the call. "How?"
Kumari held a hand under her nose as blood began curling under her top lip. The warm stream from her nostril had made itself apparent. "She's coming to you."
"How will I convince her to help us?"
At that, despite the pain in her head, Kumari smiled. "You two have already met once before." Venita stood by as her commander raised a hand and ordered the Vanguard finder known as Clint Alvarez to be hoisted high by the rope around his neck. It was a slow rise, not a neck-snapping hanging, and Clint began to turn red in the face as the rope pressed around his windpipe. It was against every rule of war she had ever been taught, but Beatrix of Amber Three, the mask she now wore, was a servile bureaucrat who would never countermand her superior.
Casey—also a mask, secretly Cristina Thompson, the woman who had pushed the button and sent the Amber Worlds to their various dooms—stepped nearer to Clint. As always, she asked about those who had used amethyst zygotes. Once believed to be suicide devices, it was now understood that the tiny amethyst pyramids sent their wielders on an unknown teleport to some extremely distant location. Only the Vanguard finders, men and women who could sense the path to any person or object they had previously interacted with, could find them now, and Clint's squadmate Bill Nash had used just such a device. Wherever he was, Nash would be at the same place as Cristina's lost husband Conn. Where are they?
Clint held his peace despite the growing redness in his cheeks. Two years of alternating lavish living and horrific torture—the carrot and the stick in repeating sequence—had never managed to break him or any of the other finders. They had been given a single chance to talk amongst themselves during the first few weeks, and that had been enough to form solidarity.
This time was different. This time, a voice had come across the radio and promised to get the finders to cooperate. Let him be an example to the others, Cristina said as she left the dimly lit and rust-walled room.
Venita—Beatrix—remained in place as the other black-helmeted Grey Riders departed. Clint did not know she was there, for she'd remained silent, and she watched as he began to fidget, squirm, and cry openly as the choking restraints shot redness up his face and down his neck. He'd held out valiantly for two years, but to be left to die alone and in the dark surrounded by rust was a lonely and pathetic end beyond all others. Why didn't he cry out? Why didn't he beg? Why didn't he break?
He just cried. As asphyxiation began to take hold, as his body spasmed this way and that, he just silently let tears run. Venita watched with utmost empathy, but total inability: she could not blow her cover for one random man.
But this man had no idea he could not die.
Cristina Thompson knew.
But Clint Alvarez did not know that men of the Empire were unable to die.
He just hung there letting tears flow down his face and intermittent choking sounds escape his throat.
She only became aware of the single tear flowing down her own left cheek as she spoke. Why won't you give in?
He reacted with more violent spasms, clearly surprised by her presence. He managed to choke out a single word with two pain-spaced syllables: "Du—u—u—u—ty."
Her combat knife was already in her hand before she made the decision, and her hand was moving back and forth near the rope as she consciously reaffirmed her choice. It didn't matter what cover need to be maintained. This could not go on.
The wiry red-faced brown-haired man fell to the rusty floor in a pile of snot and sweat.
She leaned down and whispered from behind her black visor. Run.
He visibly couldn't believe two years of torture had come to an end. He writhed on the floor until he managed to free himself from the ropes and then crawled for the door.
Get up, she insisted. You can't get caught or we're both in trouble. Run left, right, right, left, wait until the guards pass, and then swim.
"Left, right, right, left, wait," he rasped, his throat still raw.
And then swim! she hissed.
"And then swim."
She pushed him out into the hall.
He rolled, staggered to his bare feet, and then ran with only a single look back.
She waited in place for a time, but no alarm followed. It had been a risk, but a risk that her very soul had not allowed her to deny. In recent months, her superior had turned blacker and more brutal than ever before. It was... unsettling.
These thoughts remained with her as she returned to the underground base barracks and geared up. One base had blurred into another over the past two years as they had moved from ancient facility to ancient facility; the war was cold now, but the life was always one of edge and readiness. Her beloveds were the only steady strength that kept her in her carefully calculated position to manipulate both Cristina Thompson and Conrad II, husband to the Machine Empress of Mankind. Each of her three beloveds bore a ring under their black gloves, a ring in the Amber style of marriage that none could know about, but the same anonymity that was used to control all Grey Riders was also their cloak of privacy. Cristina knew her assumed name, Beatrix of Amber Three, but not her face—not even after two years of service. High commanders and officers did not unclothe in the same EM-shielded tents or concrete-surrounded bunkers.
But high commanders and officers did ride together, and Venita stayed close as their five squads totaling fifty men and women crossed jungle, flat clay, and open fields to approach the peace summit. Concord Farm was clearly an old moniker that no longer did justice to the thousand-mile stretch of snow wheat fields that the Empire undead had managed to plant as part of their Oath. It was a strange thing to see half a society walking around with spikes in the backs of their heads to keep them dead, but it was understandable through the lens of duty. The dead did not require food, and food was the key element that had determined all of their fates. How much food could the Empire produce after the Crushing Fist? Not enough, therefore three hundred and fifty billion had had to go. How much food could Amber Three produce? Not enough, therefore its leadership had retracted in favor of its own survival—therefore its leadership had forced its own elimination.
As she rode, she touched her grey jacket above her heart. No scar remained from Legate Blue's sword, but the remembered sensation of being stabbed unto death had never left her. She glanced left at her black-helmeted grey-clad beloved Celcus, right at her black-helmeted grey-clad beloved Flavia, and behind at Sampson in the same. A strange sense of time winding down told her that not much was left, but two years of renewed life after dying once had been more than enough as a gift. Not everyone got to live twice, and not everyone got to have three soulmates. She could feel the end coming upon her as a vague shadow of time, perhaps chapter one or two of the final series of her era, but all she could do was smile alone inside her dark helmet, for the final fight would reveal itself soon.
And soldiers were flaring spirits upon the void of existence most when fights were needed; candles in the dark when violence and action were the only answers. Of this sense, she said nothing, not out of fear, but out of respect for the rivers of time. Some part of her ancestry told her that any personal pain she held was fleeting in the face of the Truth of eternity; her father and his kind before him had sworn an Oath, and, though she was not completely bound by it by virtue of also being part human, she understood why it was important.
Therefore she did not scream to Flavia and Celcus and Sampson to run.
Therefore she did not point her bike hard to the right and veer away from that region forever.
It was a song of sorrow and pain and Time that she heard on that ride, but she let that single tear run down her left cheek continuously. Because she was part human, she had let that man Clint Alvarez run for freedom despite Time telling her that, in its original flow, he had suffocated to death in that room and been left to continuously revive and suffocate over and over for two weeks alone. Because she was part being of light, she did not allow herself to run despite Time telling her that two weeks hence held nothing but a plunge over a cliff. Because she was a soldier, she remained steadfast.
There was work to be done.
And a massive vortex of grey seemed to be rising at some point ahead from some strange device to some unknown woman in the future. Nobody else saw it; could see it. The cycling vortex of energies that should not have been able to whirl let alone move now roared from land to sky to future, and she understood purely by father-given instinct: all of this had already happened. It was a curious sensation to feel oneself as part of the past rather than the present.
But that father-born feeling was overshadowed by the grin her mother-born drive had instilled in her. Peace with one's fate was one thing, but the ambitious human drive to overcome every obstacle—even fated Time—filled her with excited anticipation.
That was what human beings brought to the multiverse. It was a question her father's people had never been able to truly answer, for they had never truly understood it. This was a unique power in the cosmos: tell a human being he had Ten bearing against him, and that human being might summon the will inside himself of One or maybe even Two or Three; but tell a human being he had a Thousand or a Million or a Billion or even a Trillion coming down on him, and that same man or woman might flare with equally proportionate strength. Tell a woman of Amber Three that Time itself and Infinity and Fate were uniting to destroy her?
Her grin widened. The horizon was dark purple, but the rift to Concord Farm was closer, and she rode on through with blue flames burning higher along the edges of her soul.
Fifty-two other Grey Riders climbed down from their bikes with wary apprehensiveness, but she and the three that were always in tune with her walked with complete confidence toward the promised peace summit. Inside that basic wooden building and across the absurdly large circular table stood she of the promised Enemy, but not she of the white skin, for the same forces that had resurrected men and women of the Empire had apparently brought her back to life as well: Gisela, the Machine Empress of Mankind, stood opposite with flushed living skin that could even be described as tan. Flanked by a jade-armored white-skinned woman with ivory hair and a man scarred by horrible burns, the Yellow Empress watched with reserved regard.
To the right of the circular table stood what must have been the Senator Brace who had called the summit; beside him was a brown-skinned glasses-wearing woman whose eyes exhibited a blatantly sharp intellect. Beyond her and her aides was a red-haired woman at which Venita stared for the space of nine heartbeats. The red-haired woman stood at the back of the group representing Concord Farm, but it was she that seemed familiar most of all. Again that haunting song of Time chimed at the edge of her senses, and she tried to place who that woman could possibly be. A man stood behind her with a blonde baby girl in hand and a teenage son at his side.
"Why do I feel like I've seen you all before?" she wanted to ask, but she kept her words to herself behind her black visor. These people—these people—this was her Doom, her song of Time, her harbinger of the end.
It was the scarred man to Her Glory's left that spoke first. "We've also invited a representative of the Gemstone Hegemony, if that's alright with you guys. We met him a few months ago, and he's, well, rather unique."
What strange gem-born creature might that entail? That song of Doom and Time became overwhelmingly loud in her ears as Venita watched a young human boy clad in self-made clothes walk into the building. He was not gemstone at all, but red-cast light outside his door hinted at the ruby cube that waited above. It was this boy—and that family—and Senator Brace's face had gone completely white as the blood drained from his cheeks in masked abject horror.
But the man himself said nothing of the sort. After a gulp, Senator Brace spoke. "Welcome to the regional peace summit."
The boy clutched his walking staff and gave no overt reaction.
Venita slowly turned her helmeted head to the right and stared at Senator Brace. His voice had been the one on the radio, and his voice had again reminded her of someone she had met once before. The pieces were all aligning for the ticking of the doom clock, and the weight was beginning to crush her.
"I gathered you all here today to discuss hope," Senator Brace said, beginning the summit. "I have on this table before me, in that plain wooden crate, a Seed of Hope that can grow a new Shield and thus create a homeland for all of us that is safe from the terrors of the multiverse at large." He looked to the brown-skinned glasses-wearing woman at his side, who nodded with determination, and then he continued: "But this morning's events have also forced me to bring another option to the table. This morning, the Waystation fell to forces unknown."
The Grey Riders shared black-visored glances; Her Glory looked to her jade-armored companion and her scarred advisor; the boy representing the gemstones made no move at all.
"I am forced to offer an overriding imperative," Senator Brace said with no small uncertainty. "I am advising that we run."
The grey-clad form Venita knew as Cristina Thompson had made no move the entire time. In her stead, far to her right, Conrad, the leader of her opposing faction, asked, Run?
"Evacuate," Brace reaffirmed. "By our model, this whole region will be destroyed in two weeks."
"By what force?" Her Glory's ivory-skinned, ivory-haired, and jade-armored escort asked.
The Senator looked both crestfallen and resigned. "Unknown."
"Then how could a two-week decimation possibly be predicted?"
Conrad spoke again: What force could possibly overcome our combined might?
The woman at Brace's side asked immediately, "Does that mean you're not opposed to the idea of alliance?"
The Machine Empress of Mankind spoke for the first time. "If he is not, then we are not as well—only if my husband is willing to remove his helmet."
It was a momentary power play, but it had been played perfectly. Venita watched as one of her two superiors slowly unclasped his black helmet and revealed the short-cut brown hair and solemn face she had not seen in quite some time.
Conrad gazed steadfastly across the large round table. "Wife."
The Empress was, for a moment, just a woman. That blonde Germanic woman replied, "Husband."
More than words could express passed between their resigned and hopeful gazes, but Venita failed to grasp any of their private unspoken exchanges. The conversation slipped between her mental fingers and merged with the rushing waters of Time as they began to approach the coming cliff.
Senator Brace placed his closed fist on the table as those centuries of conversation receded. "We need to evacuate nearly two hundred billion people in two weeks if we can. At minimum, the fifty billion on this world. Whatever we save will be all that remains of this culture and these people."
Conrad peered at the boy that represented the gemstones, and, failing any response but an equal glare, he turned his sights to Senator Brace. "You speak as if disaster has already been assured. Why not go out, at the minimum, in a blaze of glory?"
The brown-skinned woman at Edgar's side spoke again. "We know who you are, Conrad."
"Oh? What advantage does that give you over me?"
"It's been two years, and a few defectors have told us more than enough. I don't pretend to understand what it's like to live for eight hundred years, but even you have to retain some understanding of sympathy for children. The coming nightmare will sweep them up as it will us, and they will suffer worst of all. Only a handful will survive what's coming. I can't believe any exciting battle is worth knowing that a generation of babies and children will be eaten alive and digested in the bowels of their enemies while they're still alive and unable to die."
For the first time in Venita's recent memory, Conrad had nothing to say. His braggadocios manner and cavalier attitude toward human suffering had been put on pause by the words of Edgar's partner. Conrad's usual quips and uncaring grin had been muted by a falling frown, and he glanced solemnly to his wife across the table. "The Machine Empress will have thought of something. She always does." The Germanic blonde seemed unhappy until Conrad elaborated, "The people could always count on her."
The very slightest hint of a smile crossed her expression, and Her Glory the Machine Empress of Mankind spoke again. "I have been working on something."
The rest of the room seemed relieved, but Venita already knew, no matter what it turned out to be, that the plan would fail—or, at the very least, not be nearly enough.
"It can hold a few million people if we really push it," the Empress said hopefully. "Maybe we can fight and use what I'm building to evacuate the wounded."
Senator Brace ran a hand down his face while his gaze remained fixated. "A few million."
"So a few million will survive."
"Yes, that is the intention."
Gisela did not understand the absolute sorrow on that man's face.
Conrad did not understand the absolute sorrow on that man's face.
Under her helmet, Cristina Thompson still did not move.
But Venita had learned the lay of emotions from a friend who could read them directly, and she understood that Senator Brace's expression masked complete resignation. Could he somehow sense the same thing that she had? The grey vortex of intermixing Time had come from this place, but had evaporated some few minutes before the summit.
One of Brace's advisors ran in and whispered something; Senator Brace waved the others after him, and the Machine Empress, the human gemstone boy, and dozens of Grey Riders followed to hear the radioed news about what was emerging from the Waystation.
Venita waved on her squad, and then waved on her beloveds, leaving herself alone in the wide empty building with the stock-still Cristina Thompson.
Beatrix, Cristina finally said. Did you see?
Cristina reached up and unclasped her own helmet. Alone in that wooden building, she revealed her face for the first time in two years. It was then that Venita understood. Cristina had once chosen on a warm day by a river the name Casey, after her grandmother. Cristina had once chosen to dye her hair red after her pseudo-daughter at the time, Venita of Amber Three.
And Senator Brace also had a red-haired Casey behind him—a red-haired Casey with the same face.
"That was my husband," Cristina breathed, grasping a wooden chair to keep herself up.
Venita offered, Perhaps a doppelganger from another reality?
"That was my adopted son," Cristina forced out. "A brownshirt. There is no other."
Giving pause at realizing there was another like her nearby, Venita then offered, Perhaps a fluke?
"No." Her commander seemed to shake with confused dark pain. "Beatrix, my life—my life doesn't make sense—"
Genuinely concerned for someone she thought of as a mother, Venita could only grasp her commander by the shoulder.
Cristina Thompson shook bodily.
What can we do? Venita asked.
But there was no easy answer. A woman with the same face and same assumed name had her adopted mother's family—the same family whose supposed distant location had prompted two years of increasing Vanguard finder torture. Had Cristina's family been here at Concord Farm this whole time?
Cristina Thompson did not cry. It would have been easier, Venita thought, if she had. Instead, the fire of war that had burned a multi-year split among the Grey Riders now burst into an inferno in the plane of the mind to match her own blue flames. Once among the caves she had seen Cristina Thompson make the decision to go to war, but this was far, far, far beyond that.
It was at that moment that Venita felt the two-week clock of doom begin to tick.
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