Chapter 16: Walter Makes His Choice

I opened my eyes to the smell, thick and cloying, of burnt oil. My heart stopped in my chest. I squeezed the hilts of the two swords that the boy had given me, clinging to them for dear life. This smell had been described to me many times, though I had never been the one to smell it.

In a strange kind of way, it made sense. What was that smell but the essence of death? Death that had come countless eons ago, death that had buried jungles, forests, oceans. The death that had lingered, and rotted, all of that energy with nowhere to go. Baked down and down into a syrup that smelled foul, that burned the nose. I gagged on the smell, retched, and only through supreme control, and decades of suffering, did I keep from vomiting up the strangely tangy elixir that Horace had given me. I took several deep breaths, trying to acclimatize to the smell of death. Then I opened my eyes.

Unending sun above, lighting up a world that was all darkness. In the infinite distance, I saw a mountain range. Then my eyes shifted, and I realized what I’d taken for white peaks and black sides was actually the rib cage of some unimaginably large, unimaginably distant creature- fish-like, and rotted.

All around me lay the Dead Ocean, Yam Hamawet. Stretching out to every horizon, past the point of visibility. The air was dry as a bone, and hot, the bubbling heat of the Dead Ocean suffusing the atmosphere. But I was on dry land.

I looked down, and shock grabbed hold of my heart with ice-cold fingers. I had always wondered where it had gone, what had happened to it. I thought it had been left in Atlantis, but of course, they would not allow such a thing. No, their pure fatherland could not be besmirched. I gritted my teeth as I saw the last resting place of the K-129. Broken in half, here, on the endless black expanse of Yam Hamawet.

It had all gone wrong, somehow. I had wound up here, back where my life had turned into a nightmare. Perhaps the portal had gone wrong for me. Perhaps I did not have the guiding light. I stared down at the two swords, and squeezed them gently.

Horace had said that they could become people. Even with all I knew, that sounded like madness. Tsukumogami were not real. They were a myth. But then, how long had I spent believing the exact same thing about the creatures now trying to kill me, trying to take away my world?

There was, I realized, no weather in Yam Hamawet’s world. No slow cycle of moisture and heat and cold. The only sign of anything beside the endless black tarry abyss were those distant bones, and the craft I now stood atop. There was no way for me to reach those mountains. So what else was there to do besides enter the submarine? I gently opened the hatch, spinning its wheel until it yawned open. The smell of fresh air emerged from within, and I climbed down slowly, not sure where it would take me.

“Hello, Walter,” said Yuri. Clever Yuri. Smart Yuri. He leaned up against a wall, his legs and arms splayed like a ragdoll, his head tilted to one side, a smile on his face. The wrench pinning his skull to the wall. “How did the commissariat take your news?”

I stared down at Yuri. “Not well,” I whispered, voice choked, as the tears filled my eyes. “They blamed me for it. I spent a long time in Siberia. And I deserved every minute of it.”

“Oh, Walter,” said Yuri, his voice soft, warm, forgiving. “It wasn’t your fault. Your only crime was being just a little bit tougher than us. Just a little bit faster. Surviving’s not a crime. It’s just a punishment.”

“How can you be alive?”

“I’m not. I’m dead.” He waved a hand at his hollow skull. “How could a man live through something like that?”

“I will confess,” I said, my tone turning wry, “I had wondered the same. But goodness knows that if anyone didn’t need their brain to talk…”

Yuri chuckled, slowly pushing himself to his feet. “Come on. Everyone’s been waiting for you. We all hoped you’d come back someday. We knew you would, eventually- It was inevitable. Our world’s fate was sealed long ago.”

I followed him, deeper into the ship. The hull was split open, but the inky black tar of Yam Hamawet did not spill inside. It seemed to treat the K-129 as a sacred place, and it did not violate that sacredness. It was, in other words, better than most things I had met over the course of my life.

Bronski was leaned up against a wall. The coral sword still protruded from his chest. His eyes lit up when I approached. “My sister- Is she-”

“She died, Bronski,” I said, as gently as I could bear to. “She died in the hospital while I was in the camp. I never had the chance to tell her what happened to you. That you died a hero.”

“Well,” said Bronski. “At least you didn’t have a chance to lie to her, then.” He smiled, a fragile expression like a teapot held together by glue- seemingly whole, but if you tried to use it for what it was made for, it would simply fall apart. “That’s something.”

“I’m sorry, Bronski. I couldn’t make it right,” I said, and squeezed his shoulder.

“But you still can.”

I turned. We had arrived at the captain’s room, though I wasn’t honestly sure how. It had been in the part of the ship that we’d lost when we’d gone through the portal. Had they both ended up here, somehow? It didn’t really matter. The captain sat behind his desk, a pipe in his mouth, slowly puffing on it. Smoke slowly blurred up out of the gash across his throat, turned bloody red in the dim light of the submarine’s running lights. How were they still working, after so many years? But again, that didn’t matter. I stood straight, heels knocking together, and snapped off a salute. “Captain.”

“You can still make it right, Walter. You were sorry that you survived. You were punished for your strength, your determination, with survival. You have suffered for a very long time because of that, Walter. Come home. Stay with us. Be with us again.” He held out his hand. “You can be with us forever, here. All you have to do is pull the trigger.” He was holding his gun.

I stared down at it. “I can’t.”

Can’t you?

I looked up. Bronski, Yuri, and the Captain were still there, but they weren’t… themselves. They were coated in black slime, now. Bulbous, malformed humanoid figures, with burning yellow eyes, staring at me madly. The smell of burnt oil was filling the room, as the soft feminine voice echoed in my head.

Can’t you, Walter? Haven’t you had such a hard time? Haven’t you earned the right to rest?

“This isn’t rest,” I whispered softly. “It’s becoming a monster. I swore I’d… I would never be a monster. It was… important…” I rested my hand against my head, trying to concentrate. Why was life like this? Why had they all died? Why had I survived? “I can’t yet. I have… I have to do…” I stiffened my back. “This is a lie. They died. Everything they are is gone. Left. You’re just trying to trick me.”

I am the preserver. What I offer is stasis, true… But how many humans wish for just that? For things to stay the same. For each day to be like the last. Isn’t that a sweet dream, Walter? That things should stay wonderful, forever? That the halcyon days of childhood should never vanish? That your mother always be there for you, that she never grow old and wither and die? What does change bring that’s worthwhile? Just sink into my embrace. As your comrades did. They still live within me… after a fashion.

I stared as the black sludge slowly congealed out of the walls. Forming itself into a shape that was feminine- More than that, womanly. Busty, with wide hips, skin the color of tar, no features, but long hair that draped around a body that tempted and offered absolute comfort. It was so hard to resist. And really, why was I resisting? I should have died a very long time ago. I should have joined my comrades in this tomb, in this place, become just another fly in amber. I took a step towards her.

And felt myself held back. Tiny hands, wrapped around mine, squeezing them. I looked over my shoulder.

The two were not quite human. They were proportioned like children, but there was something subtly off about their faces. It was disquieting, but not entirely unpleasant. They looked… cold, as though they weren’t feeling anything, but not unkind. I might have fancied that one was male, and the other female, but they were so elfin that I couldn’t be sure which was which from one moment to another.  The only sure difference was that one of them was a bit shorter.

“You can’t,” whispered the shorter one. Its voice was soft, sweet, gentle. Its skin was the color of mahogany, brown and smooth, and its eyes were gray. “You can’t give in. You can’t go to sleep. The others need you. They’re fighting, and they’re being overwhelmed. They need you to help them, Walter. They need you. You have to make sure that people don’t die for nothing. You have to keep fighting. I know it’s hard, and I’m sorry, it’s not fair to force you to do this. But please…”

I turned my head away, and took another step towards the feminine figure. Another pull came, but this one was savage, merciless, tugging me all the way around.

“Asshole,” said the taller one, its gray eyes flashing. “Are you fucking kidding me? Did you forget why you did all of this?” The creature leaned closer, its eyes furious. “It killed everyone you loved. That fucking monster killed everyone that mattered to you, twice. It did it in that fucking ghetto. It did it on the submarine. And it’s going to go for the hat trick. Aren’t you sick and tired of being worthless? Aren’t you sick and tired of being ‘too weak to go on’?” The creature’s eyes blazed. “YOU HAVE TO MAKE HIM PAY!”

That last word swelled, grew larger, louder, distorted, turned into a howling shriek that rose into the sky, it became bigger and bigger until I could barely stand it, the sound burning out my eardrums, I pulled back and howled in response, and the creature slapped me hard across the chin-

“-ke up! Please wake up!” A slender, pale hand rose again, and I reached up, fending it off in mid-air. I sat up, and gasped at the cold.

The ice spread out in every direction. In the impossible distance were mountains, but so far away that they were merely shades of gray against an endless winter sky, barely distinguishable from the ridges of clouds. The sun was barely lighting the land through the heavy clouds, as flakes of snow continually fell. They gathered occasionally, but the ferocious wind cutting across the endless ice continually scoured them away.

The ice was all around me. Like a lake frozen into perfect tranquility, it lay from horizon to horizon. It was not quite reflective. Great bands of white were visible beneath it, some quirk of the way it had frozen, and stretched out far and wide, warping the perspective strangely. I took several hard breaths, and the air was bitter-cold and bone-dry. I rubbed my face. The memories- Yam Hamawet- “Where are we?”

“Atlantis,” said the woman standing over me. The snake demon. She stared at the middle distance, her eyes focused on something I could not see. “It has been fractured. Broken. Changed into a world of dreams. I saw…” She was quiet for a moment, and her gaze flickered over to me. “You are the last of us to awaken. Markov and Jormungandr were the first. I awoke just after. Wendy just after me. You’ve been out for nearly fifteen- Shit!”

There was a terrible sound. The ice around us splintered, vast cracks spreading out across the lake. Something surfaced. My eyes readjusted their expectations, once, twice, three times, each placing it further away. Those cracks were almost invisible where it was bursting free of the ground, and near us, they were titanic fissures, the kind of things that could swallow cities. It was the size of a mountain, pitch-black and terrible. Coated in oil. I realized, with a horrible start, that it was familiar.

“I’ve seen that before,” I whispered, staring up at the mountain covered in oil. “It’s from Yam Hamawet.” I felt my arms go weak.

I had fought many things. I was a big, powerful man. I had rarely in my life felt helpless. I don’t think I had ever felt so helpless as I did right now.

Against something as big as that, what could a single man do? With a pair of borrowed swords at my side, and borrowed blood in my veins, what could I do to stop that titan? What had all of this been for? I knelt, staring, waiting for its vast and terrible attention to turn on us.

“Get off of your knees, Walter,” said Li Xue Zi.

“Yam Hamawet is ready to manifest fully. That’s the only way something so… huge, could come through.”

“I said off your knees.” Li nodded her head. “There.” She pointed, and I saw it. A tide of black figures. And at their center… Him. The titanic fish-oil-thing was moving towards them, and I saw two small figures charging the army.

“We’ll never make it. It’ll kill us all.”

Li took a deep breath. “If I were Horace, I would know just the right words to say for this moment.” She set her jaw. “We are not without monsters of our own, Walter.”

The terrible fish thing kept moving closer. I stared as it swelled, moving at a titanic rate towards us, growing larger, and larger.

It came to a stop so sudden that it made the ice shake, a wave of wind flowing over us, thick with the burnt oil scent of Yam Hamawet. The creature’s titanic face, fishlips wide, eyes flaring yellow, lifted slightly. It began to rise up, as though trying to leap free of the water, which even now bulged beneath it, massive plates of ice breaking away and slamming into the lake surface around the fish.

The serpent’s head appeared from out of the rising water. It rose, higher, and higher, lifting the creature bodily, like a python with a trout- The trout was big, barely able to fit into the python’s mouth, but the difference in size was comical. The serpent tossed its head, once, and hurled the creature into the air. It spiraled up, and up, and up, moving with a deceptive slowness and grace. When it struck, just on the edge of the horizon, the ice buckled and rippled, nearly throwing me from my feet.

This was a scale beyond human capability. It was just too big. I couldn’t do anything of meaning, here.

That was what Nachtka Wai wanted me to believe. It was what all of the gods wanted me to believe. It was what gods wanted, was for men to stay small, insignificant, meaningless. It was what evil things always wanted. It was what predators wanted. When your prey did not think it could fight back, it was so much easier to kill. And when it began to believe that you couldn’t fight back, it became overconfident.

I took a step, and then another. Li ran ahead of me, swifter, inhumanly fast, but I kept close, falling no more than a step or two behind. The elixir Horace had given me made me feel like a young man again, strong, fierce. All of the loss and pain of the past fifty years gone, for a precious few moments. Youth was wasted on the young. When you grew old enough to know how to use it, it had deserted you. But the elixir- for just a moment- pushed all of that back.

We struck the line of Ateroleum creatures like a cannonball. They rose up in a great wave as we struck them, flung back by the sheer force of the impact. Rache and Recht swept out, knocking the Ateroleum creatures back.

“The troops!” I yelled, above the hissing gurgles of the shark-like Ateroleum creatures, the clash of weapons. “What happened to John’s soldiers?!”

“I don’t know! We were supposed to have them with us! Maybe they…” She grunted as she caught a clawed fist, and twisted her arms, snapping the Ateroleum creature’s arm in three separate places. It kept swinging the arm at her, bent in strange and disquieting ways, until she shoved her fist through its stomach.

“Shit,” I murmured. “Something’s gone wrong. Nothing for it but to push through.” I deflected a blow with Recht, and drove Rache through the creature’s heart. Putrid white oil ran out across the ice, sizzling, as we kept pushing forward.

We broke through the press very suddenly. Like passing through the eye wall of a hurricane. Wendy stood, smiling, and drops of sweat beading on her forehead, in a circle perhaps a hundred feet wide, holding a small pouch in one hand, and chewing on a piece of what I very much hoped was beef jerky. Half a dozen oil-smeared bodies lay around her. “I can hold them back for now. Some of them are more determined than others. Li. Please help me deal with them. Walter.” Her eyes turned to me. “It is time to face your destiny.”

Past her, Lorickson stood. The blonde man was fighting Nachtka Wai, carrying a claymore that he wielded with inhuman lightness. He was a good fighter. A great one, even. Who knew how long he had been fighting, alone, while I was unconscious. He was a credit to our species. He was not, however, Nachtka Wai’s equal.

Half a dozen cuts were visible on Lorickson’s hands, his face, his knees, where the chainmail he wore did not cover him. His stance stayed strong, but there was the slightest tremor in his movements. Nachtka Wai turned his head towards me as I approached.

“Another one of you?” He sighed, and shrugged his shoulders. He carried a sword in one hand. Long, nearly six feet long, a spiral horn- the tusk of a narwhal. He flicked aside one of Markov’s blows with a contemptuous flick of his head. “Send as many as you wish. Send your whole race. I will exterminate you, like the filth you are.”

“You don’t remember me, do you?” I asked, my head tilted. I stepped forward, moving to cover Lorickson’s open side. “Everything that you did to me, and you don’t remember me.”

“I am sorry,” said the swordfish man, his wounded eye quirked, the pearly orb glinting in the winter light. “It is nothing personal. You all look the same to me. I recognize those swords. But the man I feared… He is not here. Just you.” The Atlantean chuckled. “Just you, some fool who thinks I should remember him.”

“Oh, I think you will. Do you remember the empty rooms I left you, Nachtka Wai? Do you remember the people I killed? The Atlanteans?”

He froze, staring at me.

“I killed quite a few of your people, over the years. It’s ironic, isn’t it? All of that happened because of what you did. I murdered your people, I butchered them- in the truest sense of the word- because of what you did to me. Because your people had been butchered. We live in a mobius strip. Each of us justifying our atrocities with the atrocities done to us.”

“You were the one who stole my people. Why? What has happened to them?! Where are they being held?!”

All of the pain this man had caused me meant there was nothing I could do to his body that would ever match what he had done to me. What he had done was bigger than any one person, too big to be taken out on him. I couldn’t simply kill him and be done with it. I needed him to know. I needed him to suffer, the way I had suffered. My right hand burned as Rache seemed to pulse between my fingers.

“They’re dead, Nachtka Wai,” I said, softly. “We cut them apart. We butchered them. We made them into food. That’s going to be the fate of all of your people. The Atlanteans are going to be cattle. Meat. I’m going to kill you. Bastet will kill Ku-Thule. And John is going to butcher your people, and serve them as food, to make humanity stronger. Because of what you did.”

“You could have stopped this,” said Nachtka Wai, his voice very soft. “If you had forgiven me for what I did… Perhaps it never would have happened in the first place.”

“Yeah. Cycles of vengeance are kind of like that.” I smiled. “You know what’s the truly terrible thing, Nachtka Wai? You could have stopped it, too. If you had been better. Just one of us had to be better. And you’re angry that it wasn’t me.” I held up Rache and Recht. “I’m going to kill you.”

It wasn’t true. Not a word of it. There had been a time when I’d believed in it, when I’d been ready to kill every last one of the god damned fish monsters for what Nachtka Wai had done. I had blamed them all for the actions of one. I could blame them for not stopping him, for not being stronger, not being better- But that was before I saw one stand up. She’d saved my life. And she was the one who wanted to lead them.

I had to believe that a single person could matter. That it wasn’t just that Germans, or Atlanteans, or humans, were evil. It was that they were led. That the people who led them mattered. I had to believe that people could be good, with a good example.

And I needed to bait him.

He lunged, with an impossible power. My eyes widened at the speed, the fury in his movements. He sank his bill into Markov’s right shoulder, moving past me in a single impossible movement. The man let out a choked gasp, and the sword dropped from his hands. He raised the narwhal tusk in one hand, flipped it into an overhand grip, the tip pointed at Markov’s throat.

“No!” I lunged towards him with Rache. The sweep was clumsy, overcommitting. Nachtka Wai swept the tusk around in a single arc, knocking my arm up and to the side, opening up my guard. He lunged for my heart, his bill piercing through the ribs, sliding forward through my chest. His eyes were close to mine. “I’ll kill you all. It’ll be like it used to be. Yam Hamawet will take us into her bosom.”

He never saw Recht coming. My left hand rose, and it hurt like hell as it struck the underside of that bill, snapping it. Nachtka Wai let out a scream as the skin tore in jagged lines, breaking off at the nose as I stood up straight, wincing at the pain, the bill sticking out of my chest.

“How?! I stabbed you clean through the heart!” He screamed, clutching the bloody stump, his eyes wide, wild.

“I am an immortal,” I said, cheerfully. “Why do you think you could not kill me? I am going to pursue you forever, Nachtka Wai. I am the spirit of humans. The spirit that will devour you whole. Your people, on the other hand, shall live a long and glorious life under their true queen.” I smiled, my teeth bloody, and I knew that I was a fearsome figure like this, the terror that he had been running from for who-knew-how-many years.

He turned, and dove down through the ice. I winced, and stumbled, falling down onto one knee. Markov grabbed me.

“Still got to catch him,” I growled. “He’s going to make a break for it.”

“Walter, how the fuck are you still alive?” Markov gave me the hairy eyeball, and in that southern accent, he whispered, “You’re not really a god, are you?”

“Hell no,” I said, and laughed. It cut off in a bloody cough. “It’s a congenital condition. Dextrocardia. My heart’s never been in the right place.” I pushed myself back to my feet, using Recht to hold myself up. I took a step forward, and then another, and dove through the hole in the ice, into the ink-black water.

A moment of endless icy cold that seeped into every joint, that plunged into my chest and froze my lungs solid through the hole, and then-

We stood in a small room. A child’s room, where a coral altar sat, shaped like a hexagon when viewed from above. Three smaller hexagons were placed inside the first, each one smaller than the last, concentric, each edge linked to the ones inside by carved channels in the surface. Like… a web.

Nachtka Wai stood at the wall, his eyes on me, mad, furious, a hand over his broken bill. The wall swept aside as he dragged his hand over it, revealing a beach-side.

“I will kill your people. This is only a momentary setback. I will see every last stinking ape exterminated,” he growled, taking a step towards the portal. I moved towards him, lifting Rache and Recht. And they pulled suddenly, violently, from my hands.

I spun. She hung there from the ceiling, a smile on her face. “Ah ah ah. Run now, Nachtka Wai.” Grandmother Spider hung from the ceiling. “You have a choice before you, Walter. You can go, run, chase after him, or you can stay here, and fulfill the promise you made to that boy, to bring his swords back to him.”

I stared up at her, and then over my shoulder. Nachtka Wai stood before the portal, tensed.

If I let him go, if I let him run, he would do this again. He would be a threat again. He would probably kill again. But… he might not. Maybe, just maybe, he would change. If I went after him, I would be giving up the lives that Horace had placed in my care. The chance of preserving lives, weighed against one another.

In the end, the choice was selfish. Horace, and the two swords- they had done far more for me. Maybe Nachtka Wai would kill again. But it would not be someone I cared for. I would make very sure of that.

I smiled. “Run away, Nazi.”

“Nachtka,” he said, his eyes narrowed. He stepped back, through the portal. He turned, and his expression became quizzical. Then, the beach shore melted. Black oil welled up all around him, and Nachtka Wai turned towards me, his eyes fixed on the spider. “Betrayer,” he whispered. Then the oil touched him, and he began to scream. The spider swept her hand aside, and the portal closed.

“That all depends on which side you were standing on, doesn’t it?” She said, her voice cool. Then she looked over at me. “Oh, darling. Your chest.”

“Grandmother Spider,” I said softly. “What are you doing here? I thought you said you would not help us any more.”

“Well, of course.” Her eyes twinkled. “When John gave up his scheme, I did not have to help you anymore. When you stopped being a threat to my world, I didn’t need to help you anymore. And aren’t you fortunate? If you hadn’t had that change of heart, I would have let you chase him, right into that trap.” She leaned down lower, her human upper body stretching out until her lips were very close, that great spider body clattering its claws against the walls, the blue hourglass shining bright against the snow-white shell. “Aren’t you grateful that you realized what a mistake you were making?”

“A mistake that we could not have made without your…” I stopped, and stared at the wall. “You were the one who let him through. Who put him on the path to madness. You started all of this. You let it happen.”

“Oh, no. All of this was set in motion by a greater power than I. I simply… brought it to a head.” She smiled. “Our world is full of avenues to power, and ruin. Things like Nachtka Wai, and like you,” she said, adding an extra emphasis, “cannot be allowed to seek them out unimpeded.”

“It’s entrapment,” I said.

“Well. I am a spider.” She smiled. “I do not give warnings. I leave that to Bastet. She is the face of justice. She would have disapproved of your plan for genocide, and I think that you knew that in your heart. If I had told you not to do this thing, if I had said I would not help you… Do you think, for a moment, that it would have stopped you? You thought better of it. That is why I spared you. Nachtka Wai did not. And now, he is frozen, like a fly in amber. He will spend the rest of eternity, trapped within his goddess.” She hefted the two swords, gently bouncing them in her hands. “You should be grateful to that boy. His trust in you saved you.” She laughed softly. “It would be so nice to meet him someday… But we don’t always get what we want, do we?”

“Were you the one who let him through? From Earth, into Atlantis, so he could save us from Ku-Thule?”

She smiled at me, a mysterious expression, her eyes glittering. “Who else could have?”

“That isn’t really an answer,” I said.

“Exactly.” She smiled, hefting the swords. “Someone else here needs these. Will you let me take them to him? I swear to you that they will be returned to Horace by the end of the day.”

“Do I have a choice?” I asked, wryly. She looked at me, her expression bemused.

“Of course you do. That was the entire point of this all. You always have a choice. You can always be better. The question is whether you trust me.”

“No,” I said. “Not for a second.” I paused, more for dramatic effect than anything else. “But you can take them. I believe you’ll return them.”

“Good man.” She smiled, and approached me. “Here. Let me fix up that little punctured lung.” Her fingers flashed, and there was a sharp pain, as thread shone in her shadow. Then, my chest felt abruptly better, and blood was no longer pooling around my legs. “Now. Go give the signal.” She pushed me gently backwards, and there was another icy sensation.

I found myself lying on my back on the ice. The Ateroleum creatures all around us lay, flat, lifeless on the floor, oil slowly dripping off of their bodies, revealing the corpses of Atlanteans. Li was tending to Markov’s shoulder, and the bleeding was slowing, the elixir helping to heal his body. It was closing the stitched-together wound on my chest at the same time.

“Is he dead?” Asked Jormungandr, standing with a foot on top of one of the corpses, spitting occasionally. “Disgusting things. Bleh.” She spat again, a bit of black oil spattering the ground. “Like biting into a nice big bag of garbage. Being a hero is awful.”

“He’s… taken care of,” I said. “He won’t be doing any more harm. We can signal.”

Li nodded, and took out the small transmitter at her side. She pressed a button, and one of the three lights on it flickered to life, a bright and steady green.

“Are we sure that thing’s going to be able to reach the others?” Asked Markov, frowning. Li shrugged, and then gagged. Once, twice, three times- Then, she retched, spitting up the small cylinder, rubbing her mouth with a disgusted look. Jormungandr made a similar sound, hacking like a cat, until she spat out something significantly larger, the egg-shaped device about the size of- Well, me.

“I can’t believe you’d swallow something like that,” said Markov.

“The hydrogen bomb won’t go off without the fission warhead,” said Li, rubbing her mouth. “Had to make sure that they didn’t catch on while they could still do something, right?” She placed one hand on the bomb, and stared down at the transmitter, her expression tense. “Come on, you two… Come on.”

“And if it doesn’t go on?” I asked, softly.

“We wait until it does,” said Li, her voice firm. “We hold here as long as we possibly can.”

One of the Ateroleum twitched, and its hand raised into the air. Jormungandr’s foot came down on its skull. “Well,” she said. “That’s another desperate last stand I’ve got to make. Horace’s cooking had better be as good as you said, Li.”

I looked out as the ice cracked. More of those titanic fish-things were rising out of it, Ateroleum-coated figures pouring off of them in great numbers. “We’ll hold out as long as we can. Then you make your escape. I will hold out here to my dying breath, and activate the device.” I smiled over my shoulders at the others. “I always wanted to die like Major Kong.”

Then one of the other lights flickered to life on the transmitter. Moments later, the third did the same.

“No heroic sacrifice today,” said Li, and she smiled. “I knew they could do it. Let’s go home.”

One thought on “Chapter 16: Walter Makes His Choice

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