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By THOMAS STEVENSON

 

“Great time for a break; this is completely busted.” Jovumi threw a sizzling corundum laser before us as she plonked herself down on the grass. She winced, for although her arm was finally out of the sling, it gave her pain that we no longer had the medicine to treat.

Two weeks had passed since the Order of Silence collapsed. We were resting in a circle by the foundation of the new church – Gafra, Chiara, Pyrrhen and myself. All of us bore fresh scars and gaunt faces, especially Chiara. Everyone else was either working on the rebuild or sorting things out over in New Auckland. The patchy, mottled fields around us were charred and littered with rubble. It was a considerable mess we’d been left to fix up.

Pyrrhen asked us, “Have you heard who the new vicar will be?”

“Nope,” said Gafra. “Has he been elected already?”

“Not quite,” the music man replied. “They’re sayin’ the next vicar will be a woman! Your mother, no less,” he said to me. “What an honour, eh? Yip!”

I hadn’t heard anything of the sort… but then again, Mother had been too busy in the wrecked Guild of Engineers to chat about it. Then I remembered how Bikral’s clan had devastated our piece of paradise. Only twenty locals were still alive when the Battle of New Honolulu ended. “There’s not much choice for the job, is there?” I said. “Might as well pick a name out of a jetpack.”

“You have a point,” Pyrrhen muttered.

“But hey, son of the vicar,” Gafra grinned. “Ain’t a bad place to be! You might even get an above-ground house to sleep in.”

“Nice. I’ve been helping with houses myself. The breloom keepers are helping us dig trenches and salvage what we can from the old homes.” That was Chiara. She hadn’t been talkative lately, but she still hung around with us when she could get a break. Her wounds were particularly deep and she had lost some nerve function in her right arm. The image of her own knife impaling that arm was still very vivid in my mind.

The two of us had been awed to find, upon landing the rickety hydrogen balloon, that the fight was over. Folks cheered us as we dismounted next to the smashed bulk of the machine that had torn the Void open. They tended our wounds and rushed to stop the bleeding in Chiara’s arm, for she was becoming faint.

When I knew she was in good hands, I told the eager survivors of how we had beaten Bikral and sent him soaring into space. Anlin, the only engie left, paused from his mourning long enough to speculate on the beast’s fate. He was the first person ever to exit the Void. Even if he hadn’t been noodlified by the extreme gravity at the wormhole’s opening, he wouldn’t be having a good time.

Then I heard of the incredible courage of the breloom keepers, whose electric Paralysers made short work of the enemies stunned by Pyrrhen’s acoustic blaster. I was told of how the mountain itself had begun to fall, faster and faster, as that colossal eye opened up in the sky and the terrible orb of Earth was revealed. Those who fell in the final skirmish kept fighting to their last breath. For a while, it seemed both sides were evenly matched, but still the coilguns lanced across the landscape.

When the freefall eventually slowed and the wormhole closed up again, the Order of Silence surrendered. They all knew Bikral had been defeated. More than that, he had failed in a mission from God. His remaining followers, I was told, had given up their weapons and decided they had been wrong to place their faith in him. Bikral had been misled all along, they said. Extinction could not have been God’s will if He had let two young daredevils prevent it.

The questions that had since gathered in my head didn’t concern Bikral, only his cause. Only now was I comfortable enough to verbalise them. Half-baked plans had manifested themselves. “Earth,” I mused, “that weird place where the air is thin, the ground goes on forever and the sky is lit by a star.”

“What of it?” Pyrrhen enquired.

“We must go there,” I replied. “Not to destroy it… I hope no more lunatics are gonna try that in our lifetime. I think we can save the Earth.”

“And save our species,” Chiara added. “Assuming there’ll be somebody left to save when we get there.”

Gafra looked delighted for half a second. Then her smile dropped and she scratched at her chin, as engies did when they were confused or had crumbs in their beards. “How’d we do it? Unfreeze Earth? Clear the atmosphere?”

“Yeah,” I said timidly. “I have some ideas… sort of.”

“You really think it could be done? A lotta people have said it’s impossible to reverse the Cryocene freeze!”

“We’re Voidese. We don’t accept ‘impossible’.” My friends were silent for a moment. No doubt they saw the merit, but with only one surviving engie, figuring out transport to our icy homeworld was a big ask. Luckily, we had something we hadn’t given Bikral much of – time.

“I know it’ll be a huge challenge,” I continued. “We just learned that we can break out of this wormhole. Not safely, but I’m sure there’s a way. It might take years to find it. Or generations. As for actually unfreezing the planet… well, we can work that out too. What do you think?”

“Even if this scheme proves possible,” asked Pyrrhen, “why should we leave the Void? We have everything we need right here!”

“It’s not about us,” muttered Chiara.

“No, it’s about the survival of humanity. They’re worth saving, all those folks stuck on the ice.” I looked around at the centre of New Honolulu. To the untrained eye, it would have appeared as a smouldering heap of rocks and shrubs, a floating monument to chaos. To the trained eye, it looked just as bad. Until I focused on the people.

Locals old and young worked alongside strangers from a forest mountain, marching through burnt grass, clambering over rubble, carrying salvage upon their backs, sitting back and sharing stories. Life outside Earth was once considered impossible… until we came along.

“Before he dropped me, Bikral claimed humans were a plague that could only destroy wherever they spread. But do you see these folks? Every day, they show the best of humanity! They have shaped the Void into this amazing place. Here we can be safe… most of the time. We can be happy.” I turned to Pyrrhen. “Why shouldn’t Earth be like that?”

“I hear ya. Yip, yip!”

“Well said! Your father would sure be proud to see you now,” smiled Gafra.

A woman’s voice called to us from afar. Although I couldn’t make out the words, the tone was clear enough and Gafra seemed to recognise the caller. “Better get back to work. Are you coming, guitar hero?”

“Yip!”

Pyrrhen bounded off alongside her, his toolkit swinging in his grip. Chiara and I were suddenly alone… almost. As our friends’ boots crunched on the gravel winding uphill, a faint whoosh reached my ears. My head snapped around, the same way I’d reacted many times to coilgun discharges. This time the predator I perceived was of a more welcome nature. It was the resident falcon.

Chiara whispered, “What’s it doing here?”

I had no answer. Birds, as far as I knew, never needed a reason to be anywhere. The falcon just stood there in an oasis of green some metres away, its wings folded and its talons hidden by grass blades. We looked deep into each other’s eyes. Its gaze was just as piercing as its hooked beak. What exactly it saw in me, other than a bag of meat and bone, I could only guess.

“Hey Kopra,” said Chiara, “this is going to be awkward for you, but-”

“We handled the near-end of the world okay, so I think we can handle awkward.”

She giggled. It was a sound I sorely missed. Cleared her throat, adopted a neutral expression. “The thing is, um, you haven’t looked at me the same way these last couple of weeks. It’s okay… I know why.”

I hadn’t noticed such a difference, but thinking about it, I realised Chiara was right. When I smiled at her, it was quite forced. When there were others around, I’d find myself concentrating on them and turning away from her. Even then, with just the two of us talking, I found my gaze drawn away from her face and down to the scorched ground. Events that had taken place in the sky two weeks earlier were still raw in my brain. The truth became abruptly clear. She scared me.

“You know I’d never do anything to harm you, right? I’m still your friend,” Chiara implored. “And even though Earth is a horrible place, if you really want to get there, I will help you.”

“Yeah, I know. It’s just…” I couldn’t find the right words to express my feelings, so I lowered my eyes to the ground again and idly scratched at my arm. Only later, when I was much older, would I be able to tell Chiara exactly how I felt about her. Right then, having seen both sides of the woman who fell from Hell, I was somewhat conflicted. My friend had taken the lives of others to prolong our own. She’d kept both of us alive with the blood of Bikral’s followers, who had since repented. It simply didn’t sit well.

“Oh, Kopra. I’m sorry,” she said as she threw her arms around me. I was startled and clearly the falcon was too, for I heard it squawk and flap back into flight. Chiara rested her chin upon my shoulder and nudged my neck with her nose. Finally my brain decided there was nothing to be worried by. I hugged her back and she hummed happily in my ear. We squeezed each other until we couldn’t breathe and held it, letting the moment stretch on and on so we could savour the wondrous warmth of each other’s bodies.

And that is where I shall end the tale I call Downfall, for a hug is always the best way to end.

 

Follow Thomas on Facebook (@tomthecatsnake) to catch all his latest work, including behind-the-scenes looks at Downfall!

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