Although faced with a grim decision, Lumin found it impossible to hold on to a coherent thought. With her world spinning into a vortex of absurdity, all she could do was laugh. When her brief fit of hysteria subsided she wiped the tears from her eyes and caught her breath. “How the hell did we get here, Eldridge?”
“Lumin?” asked Eldridge, raising an eyebrow.
“If you could only fathom how much I regret not joining that nonprofit conservation group. God help me, I was so sick of scrounging and scraping to survive. I had no defense against the $50,000 signing bonus Ryan Lumb was offering. I chose Louboutins over Doug fir seedlings only to end up wrecking every pair of fancy heels I bought.”
“I’m not sure I’m following your train of thought,” said Eldridge.
“Somehow, I never questioned why someone with so little experience would be considered for a management position. You were pulling Lumb’s strings behind the scenes all along.”
Eldridge shrugged a bit. “Only in regards to the tournament. Soon after Mr. Lumb suggested the contest to Kengi Sato I took the reins of the project. Later on I provided full funding to the American team so I could have more direct involvement in the project without raising too many questions.”
“You’re the one who hired me, aren’t you?”
“After the original Project Manager proved to be a failure, I chose you from a packet of replacement candidates provided by Mr. Lumb.”
Lumin took a deep breath and stared at the floor. “I was so young and hungry. You knew I’d work my ass off and do any outlandish thing asked of me simply to prove myself.”
“I hired you because you were the best person for the job,” Eldridge retorted.
“You hired me because you thought you could mold me how you saw fit, you psychopath!” said Lumin, her muscles tensing.
Eldridge shook his head. “No, that’s absolutely—”
“I choose option number two,” said Lumin with resolve. “I’m going to fight on like I always have. I refuse to lie for anyone…and this time I mean it.” Her tone was adamant.
Eldridge sighed. “Lumin, you’ll be killed. Your friends…will be killed.”
“Bullshit. We’ve taken out everything you’ve thrown at us, Eldridge…and don’t dare say it all part of your plan, because I know we’ve thrown you for a loop on multiple occasions. You never expected us to catch on to your conspiracy so fast, did you?”
Eldridge ran a hand through his thick, silver-streaked hair. “You’re absolutely right. Miss Lynch’s quantum vibration blade along with your unusual battlefield tactics threw a large wrench in my original plans. Still, it’s nothing I won’t ultimately overcome. In fact, the quantum technology will be incredibly useful to maintain order after the war. But, I digress…I admire your confidence but you’ll never defeat Andrew with eight battered robots.”
“We’re going to try,” said Lumin.
“What’s better, Lumin? Sacrificing yourself for your pride, or sacrificing your pride for the greater good? You’re risking the lives of not only your teammates but the entire human race. Think about what you’re doing!”
“My team won’t turn their back on me, not even if I ask them to.”
“A fair assumption,” said Eldridge, “but Andrew won’t back down either.”
“As far as humanity is concerned, like I said, I have faith in the human spirit to solve the problems facing us without devastating the whole of society.”
“What you call faith I call naivety,” said Eldridge, dismissively.
“Eldridge, deep down you know your plans are already falling apart. End this madness now or I’m going to have Skip release his findings from the behemoth’s ‘autopsy’ to the world.”
“As soon as Mr. Pantheon discovered the truth I made sure to cut off all of Z’s internet and cell access. Unless he’s had the foresight to drop a thumb drive off with a journalist on the way to rescue you, his evidence will remain unseen. I’m sure coming to your aid was his top priority…it would have been mine.”
Lumin shook her head. “But like you said, I’m the figurehead of this fake resistance. I won’t need any evidence once I reveal your crimes to the world. The people will believe me…they’ll see I’m telling the truth.”
Eldridge turned away and walked toward his fireplace. After stoking the embers he dropped another log on the dying fire. He dropped the iron poker to the slate hearth and turned back around, his silver eyes reflecting the flickering flames. “Come with me.” He walked to a nearby bookcase and pulled on its edge. It swiveled out from the wall, revealing a secret doorway.
“Really, a secret room? You have to be fucking kidding me,” said Lumin.
“Clearly, there’s nothing left I can say to change your mind. As much as it pains me I must respect your decision to fight. However, there’s something that would pain me even more.”
“And what’s that?” asked Lumin, walking closer.
“To see you killed.” Eldridge started slowly walking down the stairs behind the passageway.
Lumin felt compelled to follow Eldridge. “Trying to escape? I’m not going to let you leave this cabin.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” said Eldridge. The spiral stair case opened up into a large, concrete chamber below the cabin. A series of orange shop lights dangling from steel rafters flicked on, revealing a mauve colored robot standing in the middle of an otherwise barren room. The robot was 30 feet all at the most, sleekly designed with very humanoid features. A large sword was sheathed on the machine’s back and a pair of cannons jutted from its forearms.
“This is more of an augmented armored suit than a true robot. Machines like this will serve as peacekeepers after the war. The C-X model sacrifices defense for maneuverability, but the armor it does have is coated with a state of the art layered surface that redirects the energy of impacts electromagnetically. Under extreme stress each armor cell crumples away to in order to protect the pilot inside. For offensive purposes, the C-X uses a compact version of the quantum vibration blade that is just as destructive as the scaled-up version. Additional armaments include a plasma rifle on the left forearm and a rail gun on the right. I’m particularly fond of the rail gun; it features ceramic conductors coated with a self-healing nanotech polymer allowing for a relatively quick cool-down time between rounds. It fires projectiles with three times the velocity of more traditional, explosively-discharged ammunition.”
“Damn,” Lumin steeped closer, touching the hand of the robot. She didn’t want to admit how impressed she was. “Why are you showing me this?”
“This is Kengi Sato’s masterpiece, a perfect hybrid of American and Japanese technology. I think he’d want you to have it.”
“Lumin, the only way to defeat Andrew’s model C-A2 is with the C-X.”
“Why are you helping me?” asked Lumin.
Eldridge turned and looked her in the eye. “I know I can’t alter your decision to step away from this battle, but I also can’t send you out there to die. You deserve a fighting chance.”
“You expect me to believe you’d gamble your utopia just to keep me safe? What’s your trick this time? You’re probably going to power down the thing as soon as I get inside, leaving me trapped in there until my friends are dispatched.”
“No…no tricks. Is it so hard to believe I don’t want you to see you hurt? I once believed I could totally divorce my feelings for you for the sake of my mission…but I can’t. Please, take the machine.”
Lumin wanted to rebuke Eldridge’s offer. She wanted to call him a fraud and a murderer, but all she felt was pity for the misguided man. He had become sick with an idealism that had rendered him insane–if incredibly functional. Every horrible thing he had done was for “the greater good” in his mind. Saddened, she put her hands on Eldridge’s shoulders and kissed him softly on the cheek. “Eldridge, I forgive you…but it’s time to stop this.”
“I…I need some time to think.” Eldridge backed away slowly, unable to look Lumin in the eye. He grabbed a dangling switch and pressed it with his a thumb. An iris at the end of the room opened up into the night. “Go, do what you need to do. Piloting this robot should feel second nature to you. Once inside the machine you’ll be able to hail your team on its radio.” Eldridge walked into the darkness and disappeared.
“Eldridge?” Lumin wasn’t worried he’d try to escape–the defeated look on his face spoke volumes. A loud hum directed her attention to the robot. Running lights lit up along the C-X’s body and a long hatch on its back opened with a pneumatic hiss. The hatch lowered to the floor and Lumin climbed it to the robot’s interior. She slid inside the cavity, fitting her arms and legs into snug spaces that tightened around her limbs as the hatch sealed behind her.
“Awesome,” said Lumin with a gasp.
A virtual screen in front of her eyes flashed the message “COMMAND NOT RECOGNIZED.”
Okay, voice commands. I get it, thought Lumin. There’s got to be something else, though. After some quick experimentation she discovered a small slider bar on the underside of the robot’s left forearm that allowed her to scroll through an array of options on her virtual screen. Saying “HF radio” brought up a signal selector which allowed her to hail her teammates on the open channel they shared.
“Guys, it’s Lumin, do you read?”
“Lumin!” shouted Katerina.
“Loud and clear!” said Skip, with enthusiasm which quickly turned to concern. “Are you alright? Are you in danger?”
“I’m fine. Skip, are you really able to pilot a robot in your condition?”
“I’m 100% now…well, more like 85…but I’m good.”
“Who’s up there with you?”
“Dezzie, Richard, Ako, Kanazawa, Spotswood and Katerina are with me. We’ll be there in five minutes.”
Lumin started running for the exit. C-X responded to her movements with incredible accuracy. “Everyone, listen up…when you arrive, make sure to keep your distance. Eldridge’s man-servant, Andrew, is piloting an immense new robot and it’s armed to the teeth. The guy’s shown his true colors and has no qualms about killing any and all of us. Your seven BZ-X units will be completely outmatched by the tech he’s carrying. He has a plasma cannon that could flatten a small building.”
“Shit,” said Spotswood. “Can you get away so we can regroup? Figure out a way to beat him?”
“No, I’m staying. I’ve…commandeered…one of Eldridge’s prototype robots. It’s tiny compared to the other models, but powerful—far more powerful than Biz. I want all of you to keep me covered with concussion rounds from a distance while keeping your machines on the move. Do not, I repeat, do NOT approach Andrew’s machine. Maintain a perimeter 500 yards back.”
“If you think I came here to fire pot shots from half a mile back you’re crazy!” complained Skip.
“Goddamn it, Skip…holster your masculinity and do as I say!”
Dezzie Lynch laughed.
“Fine…but where’s Eldridge?” asked Skip.
“Ako-san and I are fighting over who gets to kill him,” said Kanazawa.
“He’s in the cabin still…but no one is allowed to engage him! He’s harmless. Once Andrew is dispatched we’ll deal with Eldridge.” Lumin dove out into the night and sent the C-X somersaulting through the mud. Andrew immediately took notice and turned his robot to face her. She accepted his incoming transmission.
“Why the hell are you in Eldridge’s robot?” asked Andrew, raising his plasma cannon. “What did you do to him?”
Lumin said nothing. She walked toward him calmly, trying to buy time.
“Loomz, speak up or I’m going to toast you inside that tin toy.”
Lumin stopped walking. She scrolled through her option bar and primed her thrusters.
Andrew laughed. “You have to be kidding me! Eldy told me that thing wasn’t even fully operational.”
“He lied. He didn’t trust you to pilot the C-X, Andrew,” said Lumin. “He saw what kind of monster you become when you get in that damn thing.”
“Bullshit,” said Andrew, firing his cannon.
Lumin’s felt a tremendous G shock as her thrusters activated, rocketing her away from the incoming plasma bolt. Her robot’s feet skimmed just a few inches off the mud as she moved 100 yards laterally from her original position almost instantaneously. “Holy shit,” she said, as she watched a blue shockwave dissipate from Andrew’s plasma blast in the distance.
Andrew was flummoxed. “What the hell?”
Lumin wasted no time and fired a round from her arm-mounted rail gun. The resulting recoil was tremendous but the shot hit its mark and ripped away a large section of the roll cage surrounding Andrew’s robot. She tried to fire again, but the cannon had a 30 second cool-down time.
“I could have dodged that but I wanted to see what you’ve got. It’s not going to be enough, Loomz. Bummer,” said Andrew.
Lumin kept moving and fired her rail gun again as soon as she could. The impact blasted more of Andrew’s cage away but did little else.
“Nice try,” snarked Andrew. “Maybe you’ll eventually put a scratch in my armor. They were going to take all this extra scaffolding off when they finished building the CA-2 but I thought it made it look mean, right?”
“This fight is pointless, Andrew. I’ve nearly talked Eldridge out of his insane plans. No one has to die today.”
Andrew chortled. “Eldy’s just telling you what you want to hear, babe. He knows how to get what he wants. His silver tongue opened up your thighs easily enough, right?”
“Fuck you!” shouted Lumin. She launched ten shots from her plasma cannon in rapid succession while jetting across the pastureland in a zigzag pattern. The resulting impacts sent Andrew reeling backwards a few steps.
“That was fun,” said Andrew. Four puffs of smoke rose from the top of his robot.
“PROXIMITY WARNING” yelled Lumin’s screen. Barely reacting in time, she launched her robot backwards just enough to avoid a direct hit from Andrew’s mortars. The explosion flipped her end over end before she careened into the dirt. She coughed and rose up again quickly, grimacing through her pain. I never thought I’d miss the ferrofluid, she thought.
“This is way better than shuffleboard,” said Andrew. “Oh look, more fun has arrived.”
Lumin’s heart raced as she saw the seven robots of her compatriots landing in a wide circle around Andrew, staying hundreds of yards back as ordered. Lumin cut off Andrew’s transmission and hailed her teammates. “Everyone, keep your machines moving! His weapons are hot and accurate as hell!”
“We read you…it’s nice to see you too,” said Richard. All seven robots began evasive maneuvers as Andrew began firing a minigun mounted on his robot’s right shoulder.
“Everyone, fire your concussion rounds!” yelled Lumin as she tried to circle behind Andrew. Steel orbs started striking his robot from all directions, denting and warping its plating.
More plumes of smoke blew upward from pipes on the CA-2’s back.
“Incoming mortars!” warned Skip. Explosions rattled the valley, knocking several robots to the ground. Andrew fired plasma bolts at the machines left prone in the dirt. Lumin shook in horror as she watched a teammate’s unit sever at the waist.
“Katerina!” yelled Richard, running to cover her.
“I’m…I’m alright,” Katerina finally said. Richard scooped up what was left of her robot and slid behind a berm of soggy, desert clay.
“Richard, keep her safe,” said Lumin. She strafed the C-A2 to take out its cannons from behind, but Andrew recovered from the concussion rounds quickly and nearly engulfed her in a wall of fire from a hidden flame thrower. Lumin back-flipped and activated her jets, retreating to a safe distance. “Shit! Too close”
“Screw this!” said Spotswood, igniting his quantum blade. The remaining four BZ models that were still upright followed suit.
“Slice him to bits, for Sato-sama,” growled Kanazawa.
“For Miu!” shouted Ako in return.
“Cut the bastard up!” said Skip. “Rush him!”
Lumin’s team found their rhythm in dodging Andrew’s attacks, deftly maneuvering through explosions of thick mud and swarming particles of blue plasma crackling through the air. Just when it seemed they could get the upper hand, a blinding light blasted from the hulking C-A2.
Lumin instantly knew what was causing shafts of white light to stab through the surrounding gloom. “Everyone, stop! Turn off your swords and retreat!”
“No way!” yelled Spotswood, blinded.
“That’s an order!” screamed Lumin. “Turn off your quantum tech NOW and retreat! We can’t risk contacting that mesh with the chain swords!”
“Do as she says,” said Skip. “It’s too dangerous.”
Andrew’s robot was shielded with the same quantum vibration mesh that had covered Hayashi’s robot in the tournament. Lumin knew if any of her teammate’s quantum blades hit the mesh, it could mean disaster far beyond anything Eldridge had planned.
Andrew blasted a booming laugh through his robot’s loudspeaker as he fired mortars in random directions, mocking his opponents with waves of munitions fire as they backpedaled. “Thanks guys, this has been great training for leading Eldridge’s security force.” A well timed plasma bolt blew the left arm off Spotwood’s robot, but he recovered quickly.
The pasture was clogged with black smoke. Andrew’s gleaming robot pulsated energy from the center of the haze. “Come on! Aren’t any of you brave enough to risk a quantum singularity? Maybe a black hole?” asked Andrew through his loud speakers. “Cowards!”
His weapons aren’t protected by the quantum netting. Lumin took advantage of the thick smoke and dashed at Andrew’s robot. She launched into the air and unsheathed her relatively tiny quantum blade; igniting it just in time to slice through both barrels of Andrew’s shoulder mounted cannons with one chop. As soon as she stuck the landing she was forced to roll away from another wave of fire from the wrist mounted flame thrower. Forgot about that one!
“Damn you!” yelled Andrew. “It doesn’t fucking matter…one slap of my mesh covered hand will slice your action figure to bits. Come on, try that again!”
Lumin reassessed the CA-2’s capabilities and had a revelation. “Everyone! Fire your rocket fists…now! Knock him on his ass!”
The five robots still standing upright on Lumin’s squad fired their detachable fists. The projectiles punched through the smoke and slammed into the CA-2 with a echoing clang. Although every hand was immediately cut to ribbons by the mesh, they still connected with enough force to cause the robotic Goliath to stumble and fall. Andrew’s robot collapsed into a turbid pool, sending a geyser of steam shooting into the air as the quantum mesh contacted the muddy water.
Let’s see how nimble you really are, C-X. Lumin soared over the brown wave of sludge and landed atop the chest of Andrew’s machine. Her feet were carefully positioned between the openings of the quantum mesh–something the larger robots couldn’t do. She drew her sword and ignited her blade.
Lumin took a deep breath and started stabbing the CA-2 mercilessly between each opening in the glowing net—strike after strike plunging deeply into the robot’s chest. A wave of nausea hit her every time she brought down her blade; there was barely enough clearance to keep the two quantum weapons from touching.
“Stop! Stop!” cried Andrew through his speaker, flailing helplessly. He tried to swat at Lumin but she jumped over his sweeping arms with ease, landing deftly between the spaces in the mesh each time.
Lumin hailed Andrew as she pierced through his crimson armor, sending sparks flying. “I can do this all day, asshole! Eventually this sword is going to split your scrawny body in half. Shut your machine down…now!” She sent a gouging cut through CA-2’s upper torso. When she pulled out her sword she could see Andrew’s trembling eyeball peering at her through a white-hot hole in the thick armor. The mesh shut off immediately.
“There you are, Andy!”
Lumin sunk her saber into the defenseless robot and started running up and down its body, dragging the blade in a continuous line through its shell. Andrew stiffened, remaining motionless in his cockpit. Burning hunks of the once-mighty machine fell to the mud.
Lumin chopped out CA-2’s cockpit like a block of ice on a frozen lake and dragged Andrew out. She extracted the trembling man and held him aloft in front of her, her robot’s hand squeezing tight around his body. “Don’t kill me,” he begged.
“What, out of quips?” Lumin threw him 30 feet into the thick mire below. “Cool off!” She could hear cheering in the open channel. “Is everyone alright?”
Skip chimed in first. “Yeah, I think we’re all okay. Ako, are you alright?”
“I’m fine, just disappointed with myself,” replied Ako.
“Is it over? Fucking…finally?” asked Spotswood.
Skip laughed. “I think–”
Without warning each of the black BZ-X models started topping to the pasture one by one. A white blur was jetting between each robot, unleashing a sequence of brilliant slashes until all of the machines were lying flat on the ground, rendered useless.
Lumin gave chase, but she wasn’t able to catch up with the mysterious attacker until the last of her friends had fallen. She blasted ahead and swung her sword but was forced to suspend her attack when the blur turned to face her holding an ignited quantum weapon of its own. Christ! That was too close! she thought as she rolled away to regroup.
Lumin’s new foe was a C-X unit much like hers except for its pure white armor. It maintained a defensive stance as it slowly circled around her. The machine’s glowing blade kept her at a distance.
“Who the fuck are you?” Lumin sheathed her sword and lifted her rail cannon to fire but the white robot attacked before she could get off a shot, slicing both cannons off her robot’s wrists with ease.
Lumin nearly wet her suit, thinking she had just lost her arms. Quickly, she redrew her sword and ignited it, locking herself in a standoff with her mysterious foe again. She hailed her teammates. “Is everyone okay? I’m really tired of asking that.”
Each pilot said yes, some sounding more distraught than others. Skip was the last to check in. “I’m good…but we’re all fucked. None of us can move. I’ve never seen anything move so fast in my life. It stabbed through our power cores. We’re all running on emergency reserves.”
The white robot forced a transmission through to Lumin. “I hope you’re not too impressed. Those combat maneuvers were all A.I. assisted. I’m afraid I wouldn’t fare as well on my own.”
“Eldridge. Forgive me if I don’t seem surprised by yet another one of your lies. Your boot licking flunky is somewhere rolling around in the mud like the pig he is. You’ve underestimated us yet again,” said Lumin.
“I won’t be able to linger here long, Miss Mira.”
“You’re sick, Eldridge. You need help. I’m not letting you leave,” said Lumin, fed up with the entire ordeal.
“As you’ve seen, this robot is quite a bit faster than your prototype model. Once I choose to take my leave you won’t be able to catch up with me. I just wanted a final chance to say goodbye…forever.”
“You can’t hide. I’ll make it my mission to find you. You have your obsession, now I have mine!”
“You were right, Lumin. I now see that even without a shred of evidence, the strength of your character will suffice to convince the public that I orchestrated the invasion.”
“It takes a big man to admit he’s wrong,” said Lumin. “Eldridge, it’s time to stop this.”
“I was foolish to think I could find a way to win back your heart and somehow proceed with the reset. When you left me in the cabin I realized I had to put my selfish desires to rest and make a difficult decision of my own. I’ll always love you, Lumin…but humanity must have a chance to survive. I’m sorry, but I cannot allow the truth to leave this valley. I cannot allow you or your friends to leave this place alive.”
“You’re a complete psychopath!” Lumin shouted, dumbstruck. Until hearing Eldridge’s evil intentions she was honestly starting to believe she could sway him to abandon his devastating dream. Hopelessness began to chip away at her resolve, little by little.
“I’m not insane, Lumin. If anything, I am cripplingly sane. I tried to walk away from my mission many times but it is far too important to abandon. The reset must come to fruition, no matter how much pain it causes me.”
What are you going to do, Lumin? You have to kill him before he gets away. You’re not going to get another chance.
Eldridge held out his robot’s hand as the storm rumbled back to life, pretending he could somehow feel the raindrops. “While we’re being honest…of course I retained the nuclear stockpile I worked so hard to collect. There are several warheads stockpiled deep beneath my cabin. They’re set to detonate in minutes in an explosion that will make Hiroshima look like firecracker. My C-X unit is the only machine fast enough to escape the blast radius in time. You and your compatriots will not be able to get awa—”
Something inside Lumin’s mind snapped. Her vantage point suddenly shifted. She felt as if she were floating above her robot–helpless to do anything but witness the conflict happening on the ground below her. She could hear garbled voices but couldn’t understand the words. Every second seemed to stretch incalculably.
Lumin, don’t, she tried to tell herself as her robot lunged at Eldridge, raising its gleaming sword. You can’t. You can’t let the blades touch.
She could sense Eldridge’s heart pounding. Feel his sudden panic. He was not expecting her to attack. He instinctively lifted his sword to defend the blow but his quantum tech was still ignited. Doesn’t he realize?
Eldridge, she’s not going to pull back this time. Eldridge! Lumin’s scream fell apart inches from her lips.
The quantum blades made contact, fusing into a cross hotter than the heart of a star; shining brighter than a thousand lightning bolts shredding the sky.
Oh god, what have you done?
There was no escaping the light and the heat. The smell of crackling ozone permeated the air. The horizon was obliterated. The world went silent.
Lumin opened her eyes wide. She was surrounded–not by the dark of night but by absolute nothingness. She was drifting alone through a silent void. Too afraid to speak. Too afraid to move. After forcing herself to observe her surroundings she could see what looked like the swirling rainbow of an oil slick hanging in the emptiness. The colors collapsed into crumbling fractals that lured her closer. Somehow she knew if she looked inside their patterns they’d draw her even deeper into the void, never to return. Above her, shafts of light were accelerating along the edge of an immense mass; a floating plane that stretched infinitely in two directions. After seeing one plane, she could suddenly see more, cutting through each other perpendicularly. They were endless in number. The sense of scale she was facing was immeasurable. She had never felt so insignificant; so vulnerable.
A figure appeared before Lumin, as if it had always been there she just hadn’t thought to acknowledge its presence. It was Eldridge. He was floating freely just as she was with a look of supreme terror on his face. She wondered if she shared the same look. “Eldridge?”
“Lumin!” cried Eldridge, having just noticed her as well. “My god, such sacred geometry surrounds us. Do you see it? Tell me you see it!”
“I see it,” said Lumin. “Where are—”
“The Consecrated Planes!” Eldridge’s eyes went wild as he stared past Lumin’s shoulder. She had never seen him look so crazed. He started laughing, louder and louder as his body contorted. His flesh began tearing apart; blood and bones compacting into thousands of tiny spheres, orbiting around him like satellites as he continued to disintegrate. His laughter never ceased.
Lumin screamed and covered her eyes. When she opened them, Eldridge was gone. She blinked then looked to her side and he was suddenly returned; looking calm, collected and completely unscathed. “Eldridge! What the hell is happening?”
“Lumin!” Eldridge wore the same look of surprise as the first time he materialized in front of her. “My god, I thought I just watched you…it was horrible.”
“What is this place?” asked Lumin, desperately. “Are we dead?”
“I don’t believe so,” said Eldridge, “although we probably should be. Being at the edge of a quantum singularity should have ripped our entangled atoms across the cosmos, yet somehow, we are intact. Something is holding us together. A supreme intelligence? A controlling force we don’t yet understand?”
“I just watched you die,” said Lumin, confused.
“Yes, and I’ve watched you die three times now,” said Eldridge. “Completely torn asunder. I think multiple dimensions are bleeding into each other. We’re trapped at the precipice of reality. These planes surrounding us mark the separations between untold numbers of dimensions. I believe we’re seeing multiple versions of ourselves, or at least hints of them…projections of infinite possibilities.”
“I’ve heard of this. Multiverse theory?” asked Lumin.
“Yes, or something similar. The catastrophic warping of space-time when the quantum blades connected must have folded us through the barriers between dimensions. I don’t think our brains are able to process the information around us properly. This place is literally incomprehensible.”
“Are we stuck here?” asked Lumin, panicking. She looked to her side and gasped. Mirror copies of herself were staring at her, in an endless row. She closed her eyes tight until they went away.
“I’m not sure. There’s a chance that if space-time manages to return to a stable state we may ‘unfold’ and end up back in our original dimension. However, if this singularity we created collapses it could mean our atoms will be crushed on the event horizon of a new black hole.”
Lumin pushed herself closer to Eldridge. “I lost control. I was swinging the blade before I knew what was happening. It was like I couldn’t stop myself. I felt completely outside of my body.”
“Some say our fates are predetermined–that what we perceive as free will or chance is simply the product of mathematical equations we cannot fathom. Maybe this moment was destined to occur.”
Lumin shook her head. “I believe that as much as I believe any of this is really happening. I’m probably broken and battered in a hospital bed, fever dreaming while trapped in a coma. If the worst happened and this is the afterlife…I’m not impressed.”
Eldridge smiled as he moved closer and held Lumin’s hands. He leaned in and kissed her gently on the lips. She did not recoil, just stared at him as he pulled away.
Lumin felt somehow at peace. Her anger had been extinguished. “Eldridge?”
“Whether it was free will or fate…I never deserved your affection,” said Eldridge. “I hope one day you’ll find a way to forgive me, Miss Mira.”
A shaft of light shot down between them and began to steadily expand. Something was pulling Lumin backwards. Her vision was blurring. “Eldridge? Don’t leave me! Eldridge!”
Light overcame the dark. Nothingness abated as reality unfolded itself.
Lumin opened her eyes and saw Skip hovering over her. She coughed violently and rolled to her side with a groan. After rubbing her face she sat up. “Jesus! I’m back! I’m… Skip, what happened? Tell me what happened!”
“Shh, Lumin! It’s okay. It’s okay,” said Skip, trying to calm her. “There was this burst of white light, and then…I woke up. And this…Jesus, what is this?” Skip pointed over Lumin’s shoulder.
Lumin turned around and lost her breath. A gaping chasm lie a few yards behind her; a perfect, angular cut through the desert stretching endlessly to the north and south. She stood up on wobbling legs and moved closer to the immense gouge.
“Don’t get too close!” yelled Skip.
Lumin looked over the side. The chasm was deeper than she could see and nearly 40 feet across. “What the hell?” she muttered as she noticed Eldridge’s cabin sitting on the other side of the ravine, teetering on the edge–at least most of. It looked as if a gigantic saw blade had sliced the structure cleanly in half. She could see furniture dangling out of the cabin’s many rooms, giving it the appearance of a gigantic doll house. Wires were sparking and pipes were gushing water into the rift. Half of a couch fell out of the cabin into the gouge as she watched. “Holy shit.”
Dezzie Lynch walked up. “I’m glad you’re alive, Lumin.”
“You too, Dez. What caused this?”
“Well, if I had to guess, I’d say when the quantum vibration blades touched each other they warped space-time a little bit.”
“A little bit?” said Spotswood, stumbling up. “I’d hate to see a lot bit.”
Dezzie rolled her eyes and continued. “We all went unconscious as soon as your swords made contact. I have feeling the singularity somehow jostled the nukes Eldridge was stockpiling and they exploded. Fortunately, because reality was warped at the time, the force of the blast was redirected across a single plane, pushing the destruction across two dimensions instead of the usual three. The energy of the ‘stretched’ explosion was so intense it cut through the cabin and the valley floor like a nuclear guillotine. Pretty fucking cool.”
“What?” asked Skip. “I mean…what?”
“I think I get it,” said Lumin.
“The radiation is a little elevated around here but not as much as you might expect. Still, we probably shouldn’t hang around too long,” said Richard, looking at a Geiger counter.
“The quantum singularity probably saved our asses, good job boss,” said Dezzie.
“Eldridge? Where’s Eldridge?” asked Lumin. No one seemed to know.
“I’d ask Andrew but I punched his ass out on the edge of a mud pit,” said Katerina.
“It was badass,” said Spotswood.
“I pulled you out of your robot but Eldridge wasn’t in his. His hatch was still closed. He just…disappeared,” said Skip.
Lumin sighed and looked up into the starless night. Even though the sky was dark she was thankful it was still there. “Eldridge,” she whispered, “I hope you’re still alive…somewhere.”
“Pretttttty sure he’s dead,” said Dezzie.
“Good riddance!” said Katerina. “This has been fun, but I’m kind of ready to get the hell out of here.”
Lumin ran up to each of the seven pilots and hugged them intensely, one by one. Kanazawa blushed the hardest. Ako patted him on the back, laughing.
“Thank you…all of you,” said Lumin, wiping a tear from her eye.
“Who wants pizza?” boomed Samuel’s voice through a loud speaker.
Lumin looked up as two huge spotlights fell to the ground, blasting them. She heard a familiar hum…it was the Cloudskim airship.
“We’ll have you out of there in no time,” announced Yasamin through the speaker.
“How’d they know I was hungry?” asked Richard, smiling.
Skip hugged Lumin tightly. “You look dazed. What did you see? Where were you?”
Lumin shook her head. “I’m back, that’s what matters.”
“Do you think they give group discounts on psychotherapy?” asked Skip. “I think we’re all going to need some couch time after this.”
Lumin smiled. “I don’t know, but full-priced therapy is preferable to bulk-discounted tombstones.”
Skip kissed Lumin intensely and held her as close as their bruised ribs would allow.
Lumin was joyous to be alive but a sense of melancholy was still tugging at her. It would take time to process everything that had happened. Humanity was still heading toward slow disaster, but if nothing else, Eldridge’s mad quest had renewed her resolve to open everyone’s eyes to the truth. Her world may have been insane, but at least it was still solid beneath her feet.