“Simmer down, folks, I know you’re excited to see the show.” Yalda’s face grinned over the Jumbotron. “We’re just waiting for your guys to get here and, believe me, they’ll show.”
Yalda caught a glimpse overhead of a familiar, soaring, Parthus security jumpsuit wheeling overhead.
“As a matter of fact, here’s one now,” Yalda said. “Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls of all ages, please welcome to the ring, your champion, that blast from the past, that self righteous Seraph himself: The Archangel Raphael.”
Past Ray landed and tipped his head smirking at Yalda as he walked to meet him. Yalda aimed his pistol.
“Slow down, Ray Ray,” he said, “We’re still waiting for the others.”
“You have to make a big show out of it, don’t you?” Ray said.
“It was always a big show, Ray. Did it always go the way I wanted it? Hardly. But that’s the fun.”
Yalda looked behind Ray and saw Sophie enter through a hole in the security he had made. Alongside came Hunter. Ian and Carl followed.
“Here they are. You know them, you don’t particularly love them, but they’re the only thing standing between me and you. It’s Miss Ellers menagerie. First up, weighing in at more than she’ll admit, the Nuisance from the Northeast: The High Priestess. Next up, they spell it with a ‘p’ for some reason, but it’s pronounced just the same, your silly, Philly Psamurai. Next, he’ll play you a tune that will put you to sleep, you know him as the Piper. Then we have… whatever you call the big one.”
“Carl,” the crowd yelled in unison.
Yalda frowned and flipped them the finger.
“We’re here, Yalda,” Ray said, “Knock it off. Let’s get this over with.”
“Wait, I feel light on Rays and Rosenkreuzes.”
“The present Ray and the Joneses have been dealt with, Demiurge,” Vijeda said over Yalda’s communicator.
“They went to join Miss Ellers? At least this will be easier.”
Wolf was swearing, in every language he know, at the recalcitrant engines. His hand slipped off the tool he was using and slid across the sharp edge to the housing, cutting it open. He swore again to the point he was making up his own words. He kicked the engine with everything he had, and the Starcrossed chugged to life.
“Ehhh,” he raised his thumbs and nodded.
“Not a moment too soon,” Ray called back to him.
“What do you mean?” Wolf said entering the cabin.
“Look at that?” Luna pointed out the window to a glowing, white hole in space.
From the hole emerged a massive fleet of ornate vessels, covered in elaborate filigree. They all bore a familiar and friendly symbol, the Great Seal of the Seraphim of Parthus.
“Ray, you son of a bitch,” Wolf laughed and slapped him on the back.
“Remember,” Ray said, “We’re just buying time for Abby and Cletus to finish the spell. Then Sophie, you’re on.”
“Do you still think I’m letting him walk away?” Sophie said.
“Do not kill him. Stick to the plan.”
Sophie looked away and huffed, “Fine. We’ll stick to the plan.”
She fired a barrage of arrows around his feet.
“I guess we’ve started,” Yalda said and the crowd rose to its feet, roaring as gladiators ran to meet each other.
A melee raged, as blows and arrows were traded, with Yalda shaking them off.
“You’re holding back, guys,” Yalda said, “Or are you just this terrible at your jobs?”
“Abby,” Ray said. “How are we doing?”
“Not long, we’ll let you know,” her voice came through Ray’s comms.
“There’s a Rosenkreuz,” Yalda said, “Smart move keeping her hidden. I’ll find her, you know?”
Ray and Yalda grappled. Yalda threw him off and shot him in the leg. One by one his assailants fell. Ian was disarmed, Carl knocked cold and Hunter was pinned to the ground, with his katana through his thigh. Only Sophie remained. Yalda stalked her like a hungry tiger in a Roman arena.
“Don’t get a big head about being the last monkey standing,” he said. “I saved you for last.”
Sophie and Yalda circled each other. She held her bow aimed and nocked, but she shook and the bow shook with her.
“Ray Ray, you watching?” Yalda said. “I want you to see this.”
Yalda approached Sophie and pushed her bow aside. She was too frozen to fire. He slapped her and she dropped to one knee.
“Abby,” Ray said.
“Finishing touches, Ray,” Abby replied.
“It won’t matter if she finishes it,” Hunter said to Ray, “Yalda’s not just going to let her do it.”
“We have to keep him occupied a little longer.”
Yalda had Sophie on her knee, his hands wrapped around her throat, choking and gasping.
“Are you watching, Ray Ray?” Yalda called to him over his shoulder, “She’s almost gone, you’ll miss it.”
Hunter pulled the sword from his leg and drug himself behind Yalda and ran the blade through his foot. Yalda howled and released Sophie, who fell to the ground. He pulled out the sword and beat Hunter on the head with the hilt. Sophie clawed herself across the grass, panting, greedy for air.
“She can start. It will just be a minute or two before it’s complete,” Abby said.
“Sophie,” Ray couldn’t be heard over the din of the crowd.
Sophie felt something in her head, a rush of new information. She pushed herself to her feet and turned to Yalda, who was still clubbing Hunter. She lifted her bow and fired off a bolt that hit Yalda square in the back, burning a hole in his sport jacket. He turned to her, biting hard on his lip and cracking his knuckles. She held up her hand and he slapped it away.
“The long this takes, the longer your agony will be,” he said.
Sophie stumbled and fell on her rear, panting. She dropped her head as Yalda stood over her. He pulled her up by her collar and struck her with the back of his hand, knocking her back several feet.
“She can’t do it unless we get his attention,” Ray said to nobody in particular as her head lolled back.
“Time for a characteristic last minute entrance,” Wolf’s voice drifted from Ray’s comm. Ray rested his head on the ground and smiled.
The Starcrossed whirled into through the open stadium roof and set down on the field. The hatch opened and Cheryl emerged flanked by Wolf and Luna. The crowd was deafening as they walked to meet Yalda, Cheryl’s coat flapping against her ankles.
“Are you three here to haunt me? Because you’re ghosts,” Yalda chuckled.
Luna struck Yalda in the mouth.
“That’s for carjacking my mom, asshole,” she said.
“I knew I recognized that look,” Yalda wiped the blood from his lip. “You’re making it too now.”
Cheryl ran over, knelt beside Sophie, and rolled her onto her back. Sophie’s eyes met hers and she smiled.
“You’re alive,” Sophie said and hugged her.
“There’ll be plenty of time for hugs later. You’re on,” Cheryl said helping her to her feet.
There was hail of laser fire as the Joneses were swarmed and overtaken by Draconian soldiers.
Sophie froze and tears ran from her cheeks as she watched the Draconians line up her friends on their knees, hands behind their heads. In front of it all Yaldabaoth appeared through the smoke, approaching.
“Not that I don’t appreciate the opportunity to kill you a second time Ellers,” Yalda said, holding his blaster.
“I can’t do this,” Sophie said, grabbing Cheryl’s arm. “We’ve lost.”
“We’re still breathing. We haven’t lost,” Cheryl replied.
“He’s too much, you won’t be able to subdue him long enough to cast the spell.”
“Sure I will.”
Cheryl walked to meet Yalda and traded smirks.
“What are you doing, Ellers,” Yalda scoffed.
“Something I wouldn’t have been able to do without you.”
She held out her hands and wrapped Yalda in arcs of electricity. He fell to his knees, unable to vocalize his pain. Cheryl looked over at Ray with narrow eyes and Ray shook his head. She rolled her eyes back.
“Ray still wants to do it the hard way, Soph.”
Sophie took a deep breath and held out her hand.
“Fischer,” Yalda’s voice crackled, “If you kill me, the Draconians are under strict orders to lay waste to your planet.”
“That sounds like you’re bargaining for your life,” Sophie said. “I want to see you get to begging.”
Yalda’s vision darkened.
The next thing Yalda knew was that he no longer felt the pain of high voltage coursing through his body. It was dark, hollow, and cold all around him. He felt as though he was standing, but there was nothing solid beneath his feet. It was empty, but not lonely. He could feel a presence.
“I know that’s you, Fischer. Where are we?” Yalda asked.
“Nowhere,” Sophie replied, “Surrounded by nothing and no one. That’s the only thing that terrifies you, right? No throngs of enthralled sycophants. Nothing you can lay claim to.”
“Cute, but I wouldn’t say no one. You’re here. And if you want to keep me locked in here, you’re going to have to stay or the construct will collapse. I know how this shit works, sweetheart. I’m seraph. Are you ready to spend an eternity with the Demiurge? Can you? What’s the average human lifespan? 70 years? I can wait you out. I could take a certain pleasure in watching you waste away. Never having a life beyond my being my jailor. Never having a family of your own.”
“I’m doing this for my family.”
“No, not a sappy, metaphorical family. Literal, like the one that includes Wolfram and Holly Jones. Do you think a vacuous little twat like you could have gotten to this point without them?”
“I did it the first time.”
“With what? There’s no light in here. Are you going to shoot me with a bow you don’t have arrows for?”
“I’ll figure something out.”
“Are you prepared to spend the rest of your natural life with me? To die in hell, because that’s what I’ll make this. You will not rest, you will not sleep, there will not be a fraction of a second where some agony or indignity isn’t being visited upon you,” Yalda grabbed her by the hair and yanked her head back, “Are you ready for that? And you know as well as I do there is nothing you could pull from my head that will keep me at bay.”
“I stopped looking in you,” Sophie held up her hand. A cold and burning, white light emanated from her palm and filled his eyes. He shouted, staggered back and fell to one knee. She stood over him pushing the light into his eyes. He covered them and bent his head down, “I started looking in me. Are you prepared to spend an eternity with me?” Sophie said softly, then shouted, “Look at me!”
Yalda kept his head down. Sophie pulled his head back by his hair.
“Don’t turn away from me,” she growled.
“It’s blinding me,” Yalda gasped.
“You were always blind. You were born blind and in your blindness you assumed you were the only one. You assumed yourself the master of the space around you and all those around you were in complete agreement. And here you are, at the end as you began, blinded by the light and crying into the emptiness, alone. But you’re not alone. Who am I?”
“A bitch,” Yalda spat.
Sophie jerked his head back and intensified the light, “Who am I?”
Yalda panted and mumbled, “The High Priestess.”
“Who am I?”
Yalda’s face twisted and he shook his head, “…Sophie Fischer?”
“Who am I?” Sophie’s voice was louder and fuller, like a golden voice had joined hers in perfect unison.
Yalda stared into the light, sobbing and blinking, his eyes darting. Desperate to see a color or a shape, he howled, “Sophia. You are Sophia.”
“And this is the truth that blinds you, but now you’re going to see. Look at me.”
Yalda lolled his head and squinted into the light. There was an array of spiked rainbow spears radiating around a center point, in which Sophie appeared, looking like Kali by moonlight.
“Sophia,” the corner of Yalda’s mouth began twitch, like failed attempt at a smile, “Is that where you went?”
The moonlight ghost form of Sophia leaned forward and got down on one knee, leaving the corporeal Sophie still standing with her palm alight. Sophia put her hand on Yalda’s face and he turned away.
“I was shattered, Yalda, I went everywhere,” Sophia said. “I’ve seen what you’ve done. I’ve seen it all, I was there. Everything you’ve done to punish Ray, you’ve done to me.”
“What happened to you?”
“After I was disintegrated, I managed to maintain cohesion long enough to establish a symbiosis with the indigenous primate population. Through the symbiosis I regained my strength and their brains doubled in remarkable time. They had knowledge, I gave them the wisdom to apply it. When I was strong enough, I removed a piece of my heart and prepared a special spark from it. That became the family you so desperately love to hurt.”
“Oh, you’re just another one of Fischer’s constructs?”
“No, it’s more like she’s videoconferencing us? She is my High Priestess.”
“Your High Priestess? So what’s that make you? A goddess? It’s okay for you to be a goddess but my aspirations are pure psychosis brought on by grief? I got over your death a long time ago, sis. Now I do what I do because I like it. I take what’s mine and that’s everything. Rosenkreuz, Fischer, Jones? Are they little pieces of your heart? Well, I’ll take that too.” Yalda stood to his feet. “Nice try Fischer, you delayed your hell by about five minutes. Gold star.”
“I just wanted to see you cry,” Sophie laughed and put her hand down. “You didn’t disappoint.”
Yalda approached her.
“Oh don’t bother, I’ll show myself out,” Sophie said.
“You leave, I leave.”
“It used to work like that,” Sophie smiled, “But we found a workaround in those five minutes I bought, while you were weeping for your sister.”
“Fischer, I will tear open your chest and rip out your heart. It’s the remains of a dear departed family member so it’s technically mine, anyway.”
“Shitty bluff. Even if you found a workaround, you would need decades at least to master a procedure like that.”
“How about three decades?”
“Three decades of study. I’ve prepared my whole life for this.”
“You only met me a few days ago.”
“Well, through the magic of time travel, anything is possible. Five Hours and three decades studying something written in book 600 years ago, but really only a few minutes ago. Give or take waiting an extra five minutes for the cherry on top. You know what? It doesn’t make a difference.”
“Goodbye, Yaldabaoth,” Sophie waved as she began to fade.
“Get back here. You can’t keep me in here, you fucking whore.”
Sophie faded. Yalda was left alone, afraid of nothing and no one.
On their orders the Draconian warship powered up their weapons, ready to render the Earth a scorched hellscape. Sophie came out of her trance and saw the vessels lowering themselves into range. She and Cheryl began a frantic search for their friends, as the Draconians filed out of the stadium. Sophie continued her search, amid the frantic criss-crossing of the frightened. She spotted Hunter cross legged on the ground holding his head; she ran to him, knelt down and embraced him.
“It may be our last minutes alive,” Sophie said, “And you’re who I thought of spending them with.”
They looked at each other and laughed. They became aware of the strange silence as the entire crowd looked to the sky. The glow from the cannon of the warship grew in size and intensity. One might have been able to hear the proverbial pin drop, if it weren’t for Wolf’s brisk whistling rendition of the part of the 1812 Overture that nobody knows that comes right before the part everybody knows. Everyone turned their heads to see Luna and Wolf sitting in lawn chairs drinking beers. Sophie and Wolf made eye contact across the field and Sophie gave him a curious head tip. He held up his hand, fingers splayed. One by one he curled his fingers to his palm. Only his index finger remained. As he whistled the part with the staccato horns, he gestured to the sky with his finger and Vijeda’s warship exploded, giving the cannon blast Wolf needed to continue to the part everybody knows. The Draconian ships popped in the sky like fireworks in perfect tempo to Wolf’s whistling, his finger guns marking out every explosion. Sophie turned to a puddle of relieved liquid and Wolf gave her a big smile and thumbs up. She broke out in hysterics and flopped on her back, with her palms over her eyes, convulsing with laughter. She removed her hands from her eyes and giggled as new warships filled the sky, catching the debris from the explosions in their tractor beams. She watched a single corvette appear and land on the field. A familiar figure emerged. She propped herself up on her elbows and squinted as the figure embraced the Joneses.
“Huh, the Joneses’ Ray is here,” she said.
The gang stood around chatting and laughing as paramedics tended to their wounds. Holly followed close behind the paramedics, administering far superior treatment. Future Ray worked the crowd, catching up with all the faces he hadn’t seen in centuries, some for millennia. He was assuring them all they’d be returned to their proper timeframes.
“Whoever’s going with me, the plane leaves in ten,” Wolf shouted from the hatch of the Starcrossed.
“You’re not leaving without saying goodbye to your Grandmother,” Sophie said.
“Of course not,” he hugged her. “Take care of your crew, Sophie. And Present Ray, too. He needs all the friends he can get.”
“Absolutely. Take care of your wife and my granddaughter.”
“Pfft, they take care of me,” he laughed.
Wolf boarded the ship, “Oh and tell Gramps it was blast working with him.”
“What?” Sophie’s face flushed.
Wolf blew a raspberry and disappeared into the ship.
Luna put her hand on Sophie’s shoulder as she passed, rolling her eyes and shaking her head. Sophie grabbed her and hugged her.
“Don’t think I won’t miss you too,” Sophie said.
“I know,” Luna said.
Holly ran up behind and jumped on Sophie’s back and repeatedly kissed her cheek.
“I’m glad I met you, Grandma Sophie,” she kept kissing her as Sophie giggled.
“Me too. I’m proud to have such a smart granddaughter.”
“Careful, Holly,” Cheryl said coming up behind them, “Don’t hurt Grandma’s back. She’s old you know.”
Holly jumped down and hugged Cheryl, “I’ll miss you too, Aunt Cheryl.”
“You can take that Aunt shit back to the 24th century with you,” she laughed.
“Heh, Aunty Cheryl,” Sophie said, “That’s your new code name.”
“If Holly wasn’t watching I’d end you right here, Fischer.”
Sophie felt a hand on her shoulder. Behind her Abby and Cletus were smiling.
“It’s not everyday someone meets distant relatives,” Sophie hugged them both.
“I’m proud of you, Sophie,” Abby said, “Very proud that you’re my family. And very happy to see it continues long after me.”
“Alright, rubberneckers,” Wolf bellowed, “Ride’s leaving.”
“I guess I have to get back on that thing,” Cletus frowned. He leaned into Sophie and spoke in her ear, “You take so much after Abigayle. You’re a far more powerful wizard than you’ve demonstrated today. We’re going to make sure you have everything you need.”
He tapped the Principia, winked and headed for the Starcrossed with Abby.
Ian, Hunter, and Carl joined Cheryl and Sophie. They looked at each other and sighed in unison. Cheryl’s face was tight as she looked at each of them.
“I can’t believe I’m about to say this,” she kicked the rocks by her feet. “I love you guys.”
“Group hug,” Sophie cheered.
“Look I’ve been through a lot and I had a moment of weak…”
Carl pulled Cheryl into their group embrace.
“I’m going to kill you, Fischer.”
Future Ray stood watching Yalda, who was staring ahead unblinking, his face limp and expressionless, a puddle of drool forming on his lower lip.
“What did you do to him?” Future Ray asked Sophie as she approached.
“I didn’t kill him.”
“Ray, I’m sorry,” she put her hand on his shoulder, “But there’s a point where a line has to be drawn. Mine probably would have been somewhere before time travel. When the choice becomes him or everybody else, the choice is clear.”
“Believe it or not, I’m not shedding any tears over him. There’s a sense of relief in this. I’m mad because I couldn’t make the call. I relied on you all to make it for me.”
“See, you knew we’d come in useful someday,” Sophie laughed.
“That’s not the only reason I kept my eye on you.”
“I know. I met Sophia.”
“You found her, huh? What did she say?”
“Honestly, it seemed like she was just there to keep Yalda busy. Who was she?”
“I distinctly remember telling you that story,” Ray started walking away.
“You never told me any stories.”
“I guess you’ll just have to wait. I’ll be seeing you, High Priestess,” Ray boarded the Starcrossed and the hatch closed.
The ship lifted off the ground, whipping up eddies of dust and debris. It turned in the air like it was on a lazy susan and shot off into the sky.
“Now that we’ve met actual space cadets, you may no longer refer to me as one,” Hunter said behind her.
“Did I ever call you a space cadet?”
“Can’t remember, but you did call me a homeless samurai.”
“The night we met.”
“I was just trying to get rid of you. Maybe spare you all this.”
“Please. What else would I be doing? I wouldn’t trade this weird shit for the world.”
“Neither would I.”
They regarded one another for moment. Hunter looked over her shoulder.
“The sunset is doing some trippy shit with that collapsed building,” he said.
“Holy cow, it is. Want to sit and watch it?”
They sat down on the caved-in hood of a Honda, leaning against each other, watching the burnt out husk of a once vibrant insurance office, turning pink and purple in the fading sun.
“Do you have plans tomorrow?” Sophie asked.
“Want to scare the shit out of some muggers?”
“It’s a date.”
Billy giggled as he watched the events unfold on the news.
“Could you turn the channel?” Blaylock said, “This show sucks.”