The deeper into the devastated planet they go, the lighter they feel. Similarly, Garuda’s rockets reduce in intensity and eventually flicker out, letting the craft drift.
Streams of water from Earth’s oceans fall past them. Once in awhile, the crew of the flying wing can make out ships - microscopic specks upon the mightiest waterfalls in existence. But like the craft itself, they and the water now seem to fall only due to inertia.
“What’s happening?” Maury asks.
Several scientists speak up at once. Alycia-25 wins out by having the voice that cuts through babble most sharply. “The center of gravity - the place we’d be pulled by Earth’s combined mass - hasn’t changed. It’s still at the core. But there’s no nickel-iron core any longer. Instead, we’re in what amounts to a very thick donut with a hole at the center. The actual mass doing the pulling isn’t below us, it’s around us.”
The interior of the Earth is truly black. The only light they have comes from Garuda’s exterior lamps, and from the stars behind them, shining through the gap. Everything else is occulted.
That’s why it’s so surprising to see shadowy projections emerging out of the gloom. They don’t produce their own light, and don’t reflect much of Garuda’s floodlamps, but their tenebrous solidity somehow contrasts with the lack of light elsewhere. The impression Charlotte gets is that of a cave, in which a narrow beam of sunlight is only seen through its reflection off the dust particles in the air.
The flying wing descends past the first of the projections, and into an increasingly complex maze of more.
“It looks like some kinda superstructure,” says Leah, after a few minutes of inspection. “Pretty sure this is not a normal geological feature.”
“It’s not,” Charlotte says softly. “We have crossed over into a spiritual reality.”
“The city of the dead at the Earth’s core?” Daph asks. “The one the ghosts talked about.”
“The first and last city,” whispers Charlotte-65, of the mystical parallel.
Maury doesn’t ask questions. She’s got a camera out and is intently filming.
Leah reorients Garuda with a nudge on the maneuvering jets. The craft rotates, and what looked like projections forward are now understood as extremely tall towers. And upon some of them are symbols.
Vermillion reaches into his coat pocket. He produces the card on which was the symbol thought to be associated with the Timeless Tower, and wordlessly presents it to Bodark and Charlotte for inspection. The symbol he has matches some of the symbols on the towers. They, in turn, look at each other in mute curiosity.
“There’s an open space below us,” Leah reports. “I’m setting down. No idea if this stuff is solid or not.”
Garuda rocks ever so gently upon touchdown, and Leah shrugs.
“Shall we go out?” Charlotte asks.
“Must we?” Harold the Fleet inquires wryly.
“I’s fine, I been to all kinda strange places,” announces young Jason proudly. “Leave this ta’ me.”
He marches for the hatch, which opens, and the others reluctantly disengage their safety straps, rise, and follow suit.
The city of the dead is lit, but it’s impossible to know how or from where. Every hallway is devoid of lamps, torches, or other forms of illumination. Every light comes from around corners, or shines through cracks, or is seen through lazily curling mists. The hues range from blood red to sickly yellow to corrosive green.
The expedition stalks through corridor after corridor. Leah has a high-tech inertial navigation system she’s holding tightly onto, while young Jason’s eyes unerringly catch sight of unique features of the architecture, or landmarks the group passes. The theme is consistent, at least. Despite the local flourishes, the individual details, and the idiosyncratic arrangements of things, the group is walking through a necropolis - a memorial for the departed. There are urns, small buildings, headstones, and more. There are flower pots made of some jet-black metal, but no flowers.
The group stops short at the sound of footfalls. Charlotte-65 and Charlotte-25 begin weaving spells of unmaking in readiness, while Alycia-25 readies her guns. Astra draws forth a starry barrier of protection. Resister, of Multi-50, is suddenly nowhere to be seen, and Charlotte realizes that it is only with great effort that she can remember him at all - but this is normal and expected.
The footfalls come at a languid, hypnotic pace. In a moment, their source becomes visible. A group of red-robed figures, faces concealed under horned masks of bone and brass, come into the strangely ambient light.
“The Lady will see you, strangers,” one croaks out, in a hoarse voice.
“Which Lady?” Charlotte inquires carefully.
“Queen Charlotte Palmer, the Lady of the Labyrinth, Mistress of Pandemonium.”
The Charlottes in the party all glance at each other in extreme wariness.
“It is not a request,” the robed leader emphasizes.
“It would be polite to refuse, regardless,” Charlotte says with a forced smile. “Lead on.”
The Lady is dressed in the grandest of raiment, but the impression Charlotte receives is that she is wearing her very throne room. When she turns and walks, the features of the room - the texture of the floor, the position of the marble columns, the skull-like decorations that separate the arched ceiling from the walls - all shift and follow, as though merely printed on the fabric of her funerary finery.
Like her acolytes and priests, she wears an elaborate mask which covers the top half of her face, and features horns which twist and curl around it. It is adorned with jewels that would sparkle, if exhibited in authentic light rather than this hollow mockery.
“I am she who held the souls of this world against oblivion,” the Lady announces, in a voice that throbs with power. “I command the legacy of this grave-world. Speak, travelers, and I shall consider your request.”
Charlotte glances at the others, who silently nod assent for her to speak for them.
“We come hoping to learn what befell this world,” she says. “What happened. And how to fight it.”
The Lady raises a pale finger. For a moment, it looks much too long to be a human digit, and the fingernail looks much too talon-like for Charlotte’s comfort. In response, her priests or acolytes retire from the chamber, and return in moments with three goblets. Each brims with a red, viscous fluid.
“Drink, and know,” she commands.
“What is this?” Maury asks, tepidly.
“Drink!” the Lady says, and the room trembles. Charlotte can see wrinkles and seams forming in what otherwise looks like marble flooring, and again thinks of the room as a dress worn by the Lady.
“A mystic, a scientist, and an analyst,” she proposes. “One of us Charlottes. Leah or Resister - if he’s around. Jason or Alycia.”
“I am here. I will drink.” Resister’s sudden presence doesn’t alarm her too much, not after her experience with his counterpart on her own world, but the others startle.
“I’ll do it,” Alycia volunteers.
“I will as well,” Charlotte-65 says.
Astra speaks up too. “I’ll network your minds with the group. Nobody should miss out on whatever this experience is.”
After a moment’s consideration, the trio of volunteers down their goblets. As the taste of human blood fills their mouths, memories fill their minds.
The only way to see the death of this world is through the eyes of a speedster.
Harry Gale, and his parents, are moving at peak speeds. Their perception is cranked to the maximum possible - their brains fully process every new sheet of photons that enter their eyes, as fast as they come. Light itself moves at a comparative crawl. There is nothing to hear - sound waves are moving glacially slow at this rate.
Even then, the speedsters cannot move quickly enough to do anything. Through their memories of this moment, the Garuda expedition can see the yellow lightning descending from space, striking the ground, throwing up rocks as it tunnels into the core of the earth, all as fast as a real lightning bolt might seem to an ordinary human being.
The bolts come, again and again, magnifying and compounding the effect. A pit - a hole - a tunnel - a crater - a gap - the Earth itself is thrust aside by the unmatched power of the mysterious attack. But the bolts don’t come after each other. Somehow, it’s like one is replacing the previous one, performing a cosmic retcon of the last bolt and replacing it with something bigger.
A strange distortion hangs over the most distant parts of the bolt, far up in the sky. Through the connection provided by Astra, the others can feel the three chosen minds - mystic, scientific, analytic - considering the ramifications of this.
The vision ends, leaving the group pale and sweating with the exertion of experiencing so much, in such short a time.
“You have found your answer?” the Lady inquires calmly.
The group begins conferring immediately. Leah and Resister talk about gravitational lensing. The Charlottes consider what the distorted vision might suggest. Jason and Alycia think about motive, direction, and other properties of the attack.
“We’re looking at something that doesn’t move through our time dimension,” Leah says, after the discussions wind down and conclusions begin to gel. “It’s like… a fracture in a tea cup. The break happens here, at some point around the edge of the cup. Maybe you’ve drank all the tea down to that line, so none leaks out. Maybe there’s tea above the line, and you lose some. But the tea goes down, like regular time, while the break goes across. That’s… actually a weird analogy, sorry.”
“You are saying that from our perspective, its passage occupies a single quantum of our time,” Alycia prompts. “The effect may experience its own causal chain through its own time dimension, but to us it’s not here, then here for the shortest possible amount of time there can be, then gone again.”
“It is not lightning, either,” Charlotte-25, Alycia’s teammate, explains. “It more closely resembles what Summer called the ‘rhizome’, or the roots of our branching world-lines. We may be looking at, essentially, loose strands of reality itself.”
“How do we stop it?” Daph says at last.
“It already happened,” shrugs Jason-41. “How do ya change the past?”
“So it’s not going to happen again, ever? Can you guarantee that?” Daph asks, more sharply.
Young Jason has no answer to that, other than to kick the ground in frustrated annoyance.
The Lady speaks now, and the group turns to listen.
“You have received the answer to your question. Now you must decide. Half of you will stay, and become residents. The other half may leave.”
Leah bristles immediately, and Daph isn’t far behind her. “What? Hey, we like our Charlottes, sure, but we got places to be and lives to lead. Why do we have to stay?”
“It is my pleasure that you shall remain,” the Lady says calmly.
“Yeah, no, not happening.” Daph turns about and starts walking.
She is confronted by a sudden influx of the red-robed and horn-adorned priests.
“It is not a request,” the Lady says sweetly.
Bodark, who until now has been quiet and stayed out of the way, holds up a thick, hairy hand to get the group’s attention. “You all will go. I will straighten this out. I will return to your airplane soon. Wait for me until then.”
Vermillion lays a hand gently on the werewolf’s arm, and leans in, looking worriedly at him. Bodark shrugs it off and starts walking toward the Lady, who awaits his approach with a curious sneer on her ink-black lips.
With that, Vermillion turns and flashes a charming smile. “Perhaps it would be best for us all to leave,” he says.
“If there’s a fight–” Leah begins.
“Perhaps Bodark does not wish you all to grow to fear him,” Vermillion counsels. “You may, if you remain. Perhaps we can respect his wishes.”
Astra frowns in sympathetic concern and looks to the stocky Russian man, who is fishing a cigarette out of his pocket and looking up at the Lady through narrowed eyes. Charlotte wonders what the girl thinks, or sees, but now is not the time for such questions.
The priests part at a gesture from the Lady, and the group hustles.
Alycia scowls. “We’ve fought Pandemonium before. Not when it was powered up with the souls of the planet. That guy isn’t coming back.”
“Have faith,” Charlotte finds herself saying. “He, like Vermillion, have surprises in them.”
“How long do we have faith for, before those red-robed weirdos charge Garuda?” Leah asks, scowling. “If I see a gang of them with fuckin’ wavy daggers or something, I’m launching.”
But none of the priests come. The group waits in apprehensive silence. Only Astra, for a moment, seems pained by some distant sensation, and Charlotte isn’t quite sure whether it would be better to ask out of empathy, or say nothing out of consideration. She opts for the latter.
To most of the group’s considerable surprise, Bodark comes out of the shadows, hands in pockets and still smoking his cigarette. He throws it away with a flick of his fingers before boarding Garuda.
“What could you possibly have said to her that would influence her?” Alycia demands.
The werewolf only shrugs. “Все боятся волка у своей двери,” he says to her.
Garuda flies, out from the darkness, toward the distant disc of stars.
It’s Daph who breaks the silence.
“We can’t let this ride. What are we gonna do about this?”
“What are our options?” Leah asks softly. “Fuckin’ go back in time and divert a huge chunk of spacetime away from a planet?”
“Yeah,” Daph says, matter-of-factly. “We got a ship full of mystics and geniuses. Gonna tell me it can’t be done?”
Nobody is quite courageous enough to either volunteer to do the impossible, or to tell Daphne Palin she’s wrong to want justice done.