Fictober, Prompt 26 – “I’m sure this has never worked, ever.”
Original fiction, sci-fantasy/technomagic. Continuation: part one (Day 1), part two (Day 5), part three (Day 7), part four (Day 15), and part five (Day 22). This the sixth and final part of this story.
Warnings: monster/eldritch horror, technically suicidal ideation (characters prepared to sacrifice themselves).
Vivi and I stared at the console screen, torn between horror at what Lin’s original plan for the world-eater had been and the first kernels of hope that we might still have a chance after all.
Lin seemed to have believed that a newly hatched world-eater could be led…if you could control its nearest source of food, namely, the planetary shell that it had hatched out of.
“So, she was going to guide the remnants of the planet, via magic, to get it near enough to the Phean system worlds that it would naturally devour them next, thus enacting her revenge for…something,” Vivi summarized, voice flat.
The further writings we had found deep in Lin’s encrypted files had finally shed light on her goals, though even here she did not seem to list the specific wrongs for which she had wanted revenge.
Regardless of what they were, I could not imagine any crime for which the destruction of an entire planet would be the appropriate punishment.
We had put a stop to that much of her plan, at least. But that would only mean that some other random worlds would be devoured instead, unless we could find a way to use this to our advantage and somehow do what no one (to our or Lin’s knowledge) had ever done before: destroy a world-eater.
“That seems to be the short version,” I agreed with Vivi’s summary, pulling up a map that Lin had created of her proposed route. It was another reason for the spellwork within the planet’s crust, and the extensive and so far astoundingly effective shielding that had sprung up around the whole facility after that first enormous earthquake as the world-eater started to hatch. Lin had intended to be around for this part, so she had ensured that her compound could survive the hatching.
That was good news for us, at least temporarily. It was giving us the time to look for more information, and even the possibility that we could lead this thing somewhere was more of a plan than we had ten minutes ago.
But it wasn’t enough.
Something about the map was niggling at my mind, but I could quite pin down what it was. It was a pretty straight shot from here to the Phean system, without too much else in the way—
A straight shot…except for the way her planned route deliberately curved out and around the two largest-mass stars along the way.
“Vivi,” I breathed, “Vivi, look!” I zoomed in on that section of the map, highlighting the curves.
She saw what I was thinking immediately, but still looked skeptical. “Really? Don’t you think someone would have figured that out by now?”
“They didn’t necessarily have the magic or the technology that we do now, the last time one of these things was around,” I argued.
“She could just have been trying to avoid letting the shell pieces get pulled in. It’s not necessarily a danger to it, just to the food supply.”
That was true, but it didn’t change the fundamental point: “Is there anything else we can try?”
Vivi met my gaze, then slumped a little, closing her eyes. “No.”
“Look,” I told her, and pulled up a separate, clean map of surrounding space, and then started typing in criteria as fast as could: active, minimum mass, proximity to habited planets… The computer dimmed stars that didn’t match the growing list of specifications, more and more growing dark on the map. “We just need to find…here.”
An active star, its mass just a little larger than those Lin’s route had avoided, and as far as we could get from any habited worlds while still being within her estimated radius of how far the world-eater could be led. Whether it would be far enough, I wasn’t sure, but it was our best shot if the first part of this plan didn’t work.
“I’m sure this has never worked, ever,” Vivi grumbled, but then nodded, only a little reluctantly. “I suppose it can’t have worked if no one’s tried it.”
“It may have occurred to someone, but were they able to do anything about it?” I asked, and she conceded the point.
I pulled up the programming that would allow us to get the shell pieces moving through space, but paused to meet Vivi’s eyes again.
She looked back at me, steady.
Our chances of survival had already dropped to zero when the ships were destroyed, or so we had thought. Hope was a difficult thing to balance against that earlier certainty…but really the only hope here was that we could destroy the world-eater before it could destroy any habited planets.
Plunging into a star would not be my first choice of a way to go…but I supposed we didn’t need to wait quite that long, just long enough to get the world-eater where we needed it.
“Do it,” Vivi said, confirming our joint resolve. We would attempt this, whatever the cost.
I settled down to the spellwork, glad that Lin had written up notes for herself. They weren’t quite as good as full instructions would have been, but I wasn’t completely in the dark. Vivi settled at a nearby console to try sending another tight beam of data out with our expanded knowledge.
Just in case.
Accompanied by the almost-disturbingly light tremors that rocked the facility within the bubble of its shielding, reminding us of the cataclysmic hatching happening beneath our feet, we set to work.
Watching the newly hatched world-eater open its…its maw to chomp into the nearest piece of planetary crust, now floating free, was not an experience I could ever fully put into words. It was certainly alive, and equally certainly was not any kind of life as we knew it. It seemed to be mineral in its composition, almost rock-like, but its three limbs moved smoothly to hook chunks of shell toward the protruding mouth, with some kind of body beyond that.
Vivi and I stared at the vidscreen for long moments, too long, attempting to comprehend it.
She shook herself out of it first, then prodded me. “We’d better get all this moving, or it will eat everything and we won’t have anything for it to chase.”
I sat down, set my hand on the integration pad, and started pouring magic into the spell.
The drain surged, and I gasped against a spike of pain…but then it steadied, and the lines of magic within and between the floating remnants of the planet’s crust began to move, the one in which this facility remained first, the others slowly dragging along after.
Finding that its next piece of meal had drifted out of range, the world-eater performed a shifting of its form that made my head ache to watch, and then was following us. One limb still reached forward toward its nearest source of food, the other two now behind it, doing something to propel it into motion.
It seemed wrong, somehow, that something so large could just drift through space, silent and dark, a mere shadow against the black unless you were already too close.
Vivi’s hand closed around my shoulder in a tight, supportive grip, and I nodded, but didn’t pull my eyes away from the console, monitoring the spell as the steady drain on my magic continued. Vivi could take a turn if needed, but Lin had intended to do this herself, so I should be able to manage it.
“I’ll see if I can find anything else useful,” she said after a few more minutes, and left me to it.
So far, the plan was working.
I tried to vary our speed between “fast enough to get somewhere” and “slow enough for it to keep up and occasionally get another chunk of shell to eat.” It needed to feel that these pieces remained its closest and best source of sustenance, or it would leave in search of something closer and easier.
That I nearly lost it once, the first time I tried going a little faster, left me sweating and nauseated for hours, in spite of Vivi’s assurances. She forced us both to keep to our regulated rations of water, but I could no longer remember when either of us had last eaten.
Neither of us was hungry…and it was unlikely to matter, anyway.
We didn’t have long.
The spell moved us and our tethered string of bait ever closer to our destination.
The world-eater, driven by hunger and instinct, followed.
“Demir!” Vivi’s startled cry jerked me out of meditation (the best compromise I had found between powering the spell and getting needed rest).
“What?” I asked, a bit groggily, turning my chair as best I could without taking my hand off the integration pad. “What is it?”
“Demir,” she said again, still staring wide-eyed at her own console screen, “there’s a ship.”
Alarmed, I jolted upright. “A what? Where? Did those pirates follow—”
“No,” she said, turning toward me apologetically. “No, I didn’t mean— I meant, there’s a ship here. It’s- It’s kind of disguised, I guess, or built into the facility, but it’s definitely a separate ship.”
I blinked at her, uncomprehending.
“It looks like it was an escape plan,” Vivi explained, triggering a standard spell to pull a three-dimensional schematic out from the screen, a lower part of the facility highlighted in brighter blue. “I’m not sure she was necessarily intending to survive, but it looks like she wanted the option to watch her revenge be enacted if she made it that far. So, there’s a ship built in here, where it would be protected until she wanted it.”
“Oh,” I breathed. “We could…”
“We might be able to get away,” she confirmed, her voice tight to control the emotion in it.
“The timing will be tricky,” I admitted. We’d have to get close enough that a surge of magic would keep the spell and the crust pieces and the world-eater moving past the point of no return, but get out before this little ship would be caught.
But with a ship, then the worst case scenario was that only one of us (me) would have to die: Vivi, at least, could escape with our data and get home.
And maybe, maybe we could somehow both make it out alive after all.
“I’ll go make sure it’s still flight-ready,” Vivi said then, her eyes narrowing as if she knew that I might try to send her off alone and didn’t like it. Time enough for that fight if it came to that, though, so I let her go with a grateful smile.
Stomach tight with hope and nerves, I turned to the vidscreen that pointed behind us, toward the leviathan still following in our wake.
We cut it almost too close.
Vivi had run almost a hundred simulations, all of which said that a reservoir spell tied into the guide spell and filled with every last bit of magic both of us had in us would be enough to keep everything moving after we got away in the boxy but space-worthy ship stored as a lower part of the facility.
She had shoved the simulation results in my face, and had refused to entertain the possibility of leaving me behind.
Still sick with fear that something would go wrong when neither of could fix it…I still had to concede that I did not want to die here, and gave in.
At the last possible moment, with everything else prepared by Vivi beforehand, we drained ourselves dry of magic into the reservoir spell, waited for three heart-stopping breaths to make sure that it was connected and draining properly to the guide spell, and then ran, gasping, for the ship.
The engine whined against the pull of the star’s gravity. Unable to boost it with any additional power, we held our breaths until it at last pulled free, speeding us away.
Would the world-eater notice our escape and its own imminent (we hoped) danger? Would the reservoir last long enough? Would—
Vivi took us out and out and out, far enough, and then slowed and turned, switching on the video feeds, making sure they were recording.
I wasn’t sure anyone would believe the footage (I wasn’t sure I would believe it if anyone else brought something like it back), but we couldn’t not capture this, whatever actually happened.
We saw the moment the world-eater grabbed for one of the last pieces of planetary crust and then shied back from the proximity of the star, saw it turn, shifting all three of its limbs to propel itself away—
It turned out that the way you destroyed a world-eater was with a star.
When it was done, and we were sure that it wasn’t going to somehow reemerge, Vivi started us for the nearest habited system.
For three days, neither of us spoke a word.
Some things, it turned out, were too big. Too big to have seen. Too big to have survived. Too big to know, at least for a time.
I thought we would both be all right, in the end. But right now…it was too big.
Once we seemed to be within range of the nearest sector law enforcement communication relays, Vivi sent out an encrypted emergency call, and we braced ourselves to deal with other people once again.
Whatever happened next, the two of us knew what we had seen, and that there were others out there who knew more than they let on, and that they did not seem to be on our side. Mysteries still to be solved, but…
Whatever happened next, we could be sure of one thing: world-eaters were not a myth.
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