One hundred fifty-four

One hundred fifty-four

They came at a steady pace.

They were shapeless at this distance, and completely black. Thanks to the sacrifice of the Queen of Hearts and the Expert system of the abandoned planet of Clerestory, the odds had changed from thousands of warships against them to hundreds of these black monsters (well all right, maybe thousands: it was too soon to tell). Victory and/or survival was no longer ludicrously impossible--but neither was it likely.

Jeanette could come up with a few miraculous last-minute rescues: the army of toon Exiles that had gone to fight Deep Chaos (of which there had been zero evidence of up until now) could unexpectedly show up in force, as could the hollow asteroids of the Cowards, in a completely inexplicable change of behavior. It could keep despair from overwhelming her--and frankly, she hadn’t expected the annihilation of ten metric tons of antimatter.

She checked the power on her gun, and it was still reassuringly at full, even after all that firing. She looked across what was now Lend burned clean of any vegetation and could now make out the black shapes. They had two legs and two arms but didn’t seem to have anything thaat could be considered a head. The most significant thing was that they didn’t seem to be carrying any weapons. That was the first thing that made her actually feel better.

She fired and hit one of the marching things. It exploded into a rain of black chunks, which made her queasy almost as much as it made her triumphant. The others still came forward, and she saw something that chilled her: as soon as the others had passed, there was not a trace of the black stuff left on the ground. It could only be that that the substance had been absorbed. If the others were now bigger it was impossible to tell, but this was not going to be the fight she thought it was going to be.

The others had seen what happened, and went into conference.

“If there were a way to lay down a fire barrier, or even a force-barrier wall, it could be effective, but there’s nothing left to burn, and there’s no time to lay down a generating cable,” said O Tse.

“We’ve encountered Deep Chaos entities that reassembled themselves. These don’t seem to be anywhere near as tough as the one that attacked Jeanette, though,” said Ransom.

“I’m going to try something,” Senhor Capoeira Capybara said, and he ran on all fours over to the power packs. He could be seen calling up glowing screen after glowing screen, pulling gun after gun from beyond the sixth wall, and throwing them down to the ground, where they vanished.

The foremost creatures were only a couple of hundred yards away. “Fire projectors might work, but heat at a very high level might be the best. Maybe they can’t reassemble when they’re vaporized.”

Jeanette and her father both threw down their weapons, got new ones, and connected to the power banks with their chapsticks. Jeanette fired immediately, since the monsters were closer. She hit one of them, but had to stay connected: even though she was throwing as  heavy a heat beam as she could, the things were tough. It started to soften, then bubble--no queasiness this time--but neither what she wanted. She kept beaming until the thing glowed, and finally vaporized. She frowned: she had done it, but it had taken almost a minute.

She felt heat on the side of her head, and turned: O Tse had lowered his pike, and the beam came out of its head. The Weasel-Bear connected with one of the monsters, and it vaporized in seconds. He swept his pike and hit a second, with the same result. Then the beam stopped, and he raised the pike. How long would he take to recharge? The things turned towards him.

Jeanette had not stopped firing, and it worked every time: they weren’t quick or agile, but there were still hundreds of them. Then Senhor Capoeira came up to the center of the group, hoisted his gun, and fired.

The monster he aimed at vanished. The capybara whistled through his big teeth and hit again. “It struck me, that since the power banks are basically warp cores, that maybe I could just plain power a space warp. It’s a tricky set up, and drains power like crazy, but it neatly folds the target 1 light second normal to the surface--about 300,000 miles. To the moon, if this place had a moon.”

He continued to fire. “Can’t seem to broaden the beam, which is a pity. It also has all the problems of warping in an atmosphere--lots of radiation events.” He didn’t stop firing while he bragged, and was racking up the hit points faster than the rest of them.

Still it was not enough. As the things came closer, it seemed that they were becoming more heat-resistant. Still, Jeanette’s power readout registered full, so she kept firing.

Then Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone charged forward. The monsters didn’t seem to be liquid when confronted by the tiger’s longsword: when he slashed into a thing’s body, it broke like flesh and bone. Such was his reach that he would break three of them with one flashing stroke. Even though the arms and legs started push themselves across the barren ground, they were falling like wheat before a scythe.

But the central things began to close ranks, and in truly disgusting fashion, they began to merge. One very big creature began to form, with ropy detail along its torso and arms, and it had a twisted distorted thing that could be called a head in the abstract. The capybara’s warp gun only carved holes in it--holes that filled up with writhing tentacles and then smoothed out. The heat beams did nothing at all.

They had beat an armada down to one single beast, but they had no more time and no more defense. “We have to retreat!” Dr. Ransom shouted out.

Jeanette ran to where the incomplete portal had been drawn on naked stone. Lord Elphinstone joined her, kneeling as she turned on her shield, encompassing them both.

Despite everything, a pang ran through her: the thing could easily follow them through the portal. It was way to close and if even a part of it was near them the portal would admit it too, Just as it had done with Jack Shift. And what place of her friends could she visit this monster on? Who would die before even the powerful defeated it? How could she do it?

The tiger put a paw on her shoulder. “I have an idea,” he said.

“What?” She blurted, more angry than she intended.

“The bugs.”

“Yesss,” she said, drawing a crude picture of a bug with the purple chalk, and then the Decision Tree.

She released the shield to bring the others, and when it came down, screamed.

The big monster had her father in one ropy hand.

“Go,” he said sadly, as the monster crushed Dr. Terence Ransom in two.


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