Chapter 28

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The desperation could be tasted in the air. The truck was silent but for the soft hush of the wind outside. Caroline gazed through a window with hooded lids, watching one of the serviceman as it withstood the blowing sand. A small dune had formed around it, but still the soldier stood, impervious. She was half delirious. In the hours since the eruption, she had inexplicably developed flu-like symptoms. Her head and flesh ached, and she found it difficult to focus on anything.

Behind her, the other survivors suffered in their own microcosms. Hernandez was in the best condition. He was resting after being outdoors for several hours, looking for more survivors. Nadya had never regained consciousness, and was lying nearby in an improvised cot. Her wheezing was the loudest thing in the cabin. Somewhere in the back of the truck, James sulked, in a condition like Caroline's. The sun shined through the truck's windows, harsh and bright.

A million kilometers away, near a small orange star, Gaea readied herself. Blind and deaf, she felt the warmth of the sun nearby, inside her, felt the tendrils of plasma trailing away into the dark distance. She twisted and prodded the sun beneath her fingers, feeling it ripple and burn and spit.

Work, there was work to be done. Carefully, Gaea lifted away the light of the fire, molding the sun into a pleasing shape. She felt her sculpture tremble and strain under its own world-ending power, felt layer upon layer of the sun lift away and into the spindles of light that she so carefully teased and lengthened.

For a while Gaea was content to feel the little clay star as it vibrated and suffered within her. Then, she grabbed it roughly and balled the delicate structure within her fist, feeling the scream of the cosmos reverberate through her as she squeezed the sculpture into an ever-smaller cage, felt the tunnel yawning open, threatening to tear further and bring all reality down with it. Quickly she released her grasp and felt the cool emptiness of a very different place.

So Gaea began to ease herself through the puncture, transferring herself to this far distant place.

Caroline made a pathetic sound when the sun began to flicker. Hernandez was the only one who responded, but he didn't say anything. They watched as the impossible happened before their eyes, and were content on silence. The spectacle ended with an underwhelming abruptness. The sun was noticeably dimmer, its light cooler and less substantial.

When Hernandez turned around, he found a tall figure smiling down at him. He screamed.

"Nice evening, isn't it?" said the puppeteer.

"How the hell did you get in here?!" cried Hernandez. The others stirred in confusion.

"Did you lock the door?" Hernandez realized he hadn't.

"I can see you're going through a rough time, so I won't take much of your time. I just want to know which one of you ordered the use of the towers."

No one understood what he meant at first. Then Caroline spoke, her throat inexplicably raw. "You mean the biotowers from the Facem? Why do you want to know about them? Are you a survivor from the colony?"

The puppeteer sighed and sat down on the floor of the truck. "So many questions, and so very little time. Did you order them down or not?"

"The whole colony's gone! Why the hell is this the most important thing on your mind?"

"Yes or no, admiral. A simple question."

Caroline was groggy, and found it difficult to focus on the puppeteer's face. She steeled herself, glared at those yellowed eyes and said, "Yes, I ordered them down."

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