Beneath the Clouds of Venus

A short story challenge by Melody Kazey

For the viewers of The Virtual Write In who share their creative spirits with me daily. Thank you for taking me on adventures out to the stars!


Ward clasped his hand around the cold mug of coffee and brought it to his lips. The unsweetened drink coated his throat. Some drips caught in the dangling hairs of his unkempt moustache, while an old chip in the mug peeled a forming scab on his chapped lips. He slammed the mug back down on his desk and groaned as brown spots stained his scattered notes, blurring one of the words he had been eyeing. All that could be read was 'SER-'.

With another groan, Ward pushed away from his desk that creaked under the weight of his research, newspaper clippings, and photos. He grabbed the driest towel he could find from the half lit kitchenette that still reeked of stale coffee grounds he hadn't discarded that afternoon. The humidity in the office after the janitors shut down the fans made the walls feel closer and his own sweat more pronounced.

Ward returned to his desk in a corner of the office. His boss liked to comment how it was hard to believe there were really four walls beneath the pictures of old destruction and accidental still life art of men and women mid scream. They were mere feet below jettisoned metal plates. No one was ever smiling in the photographs he took.

Ward blotted a damp page, staining the bundled white towel to a faded gray. The word vanished with it. Ward wasn't concerned; the missing text appeared throughout the tilting stacks of papers across his desk.

Seraph.

It was an old word from and old world. Before the future grasped humanity in its technological clutches, sending the mere mortals to the far reaches of the Sol system, people once believed only gods and angels could touch the stars. Some even worshipped a devil who was said to bring sin to mankind. Ward could have laughed, but it would only turn into another yawn. After the eighth straight night of working late in his office, his limbs were slowing down, but he had to keep his mind sharp before anyone else was hurt. Even on days he left early to get back to work before dawn he still felt his mind slipping.

"You've spent too much time chasing ghosts, Ward!" his boss scolded time and time again. "'Course you think you've got the Cloud Crazies."

But Ward still wondered. This woman swaddled in flames had appeared at a number of recent attacks against the corporate giant VenGlobal. They were the only attacks with casualties. Regardless of the snickers as his co-workers left with the five o'clock whistle, he had a job to do, and he would chase his answers to the ends of Venus if he had to. He would search dusty old books from the library and remember-even deign to believe-legends that were better forgotten. The planet couldn't handle much more from these vandals against VenGlobal before they turned Venus back into the toxic cloud it once was.

Ward took another sip from his mug as he picked up the picture that led his search. It showed the wreckage of a VenGlobal plant from two months ago. Rain cut through the smokey air, which helped the Bucket Brigade quell the fires. The rubble covered the torn and broken limbs of tragic victims from the sudden explosion. Ward remembered the mix of heat on his face as he snapped the photo beneath the hood and the chilling rain on his back when he pulled the cloth from over his head. The choking air bit into his lungs. The screams of those trapped inside tore at his eardrums.

Then there was the woman who calmly watched the devastation. Ward remembered the soft glow along her skin, the artistry of her makeup, her curling eyelashes that could have men waiting on her hand and foot. Her bodice cinched her waist like a python constricting its prey. He hadn't seen the color of her eyes. They were cast on the destruction, unwavering. Even as men rushed past her hoisting their metallic buckets on notched poles, acting as though she weren't even there, she seemed to bask in the light of the fire. If such a thing as gods had ever been real, Ward would have sought her brand of Heaven.

The storm sent a sharp wind that snapped up her parasol. Her lean arms didn't budge. The soft white gloves kept their grip on the handle, but the material puckered for just a moment. Cold rain threatened to unveil the mystery beneath the layers of creams that smoothed out her face. Instead, Ward was caught off guard by what he thought was a second explosion. A sudden burst of warm light crackled in the haze. A new heat singed Ward's cheeks as if that woman reached out and pressed his face to her now ignited body. He couldn't look away, couldn't turn his neck for any relief from his bubbling skin.

A sudden shuddering pulled Ward back to reality, clutching his cheek that felt so warm to the touch. He sputtered on his coffee again as palpitations took hold. Dropping the mug, he fumbled for wherever his top hat had rolled and snatched it up. It was weighed down with a bulbous metal pill snapped into the lining. It encased a glass bottle with misty contents and the smoking planetoid logo of VenGlobal. As the room stopped quaking, Ward popped a thin tube from the side of the bottle, pressed it between his lips, and inhaled. A cool flow of an oxygen compound poured into his lungs with a hint of fading mint, reminding him that his cartridge needed replacing. His chest eased, and he returned the bottle to his hat lining.

The office looked no worse for wear. A few pens and papers were drifting across the floor. Some chairs collapsed to their sides. Ward was about to attribute the rocking to one of Venus' tremors until he heard the bells of the city's emergency personnel. A fleeting thought was all Ward needed to jump from his seat, gather his camera bag, and race from the mostly abandoned office.


VenGlobal had its fingers in every large business across Venus, Ward was certain. The conspiracies were largely ignored that perhaps it was too large for its own good. That it could be too helpful. Some people called the CEO Nicholas Strom 'Saint Nick' based on more old tales not believed since Earth. Something about a jolly fat god who visited the good children and burned the bad ones with hot coal ash. Ward never paid much attention to the stories when truth was stranger than fiction.

As Ward drove behind the emergency cars towards the outskirts of the capitol, puffing out great globs of acrid black smoke, he could already see the dark column rising towards the bruised sky and blocking the distant glow of the Night Satellite. The smoke was right where he feared it would be according to his map of Fuebos and its suburbs. It was true. Another attack. The vandals were becoming ruthless and no one, not even VenGlobal, seemed overly concerned.

If they had seen the seraph…

But of course they hadn't seen her. Even as he showed the picture to everyone in his office six months back, all they could think was that he had caught a perfect moment as another blast went off. If he couldn't get the story past the editors, he certainly couldn't get the news to VenGlobal. They would continue to do nothing else than their slow repairs and quick pushing of newly fitted and fashionable OxyPills.

They couldn't see the seraph…

...because seraphs aren't real!

A silent half hour drive down Highway Delta that veered into the industrial sector of Claonus, brought Ward right within sight of the familiar chaos. His cheek burned again as if he stood within the spewing ash and smoke, as if the toxic clouds of the pioneers' day had returned.

Ward parked a few blocks back from the wreckage on one of the streets by what he hoped were stable structures. The street lights still buzzed overhead where he was, painting the air greenish-yellow. The haze wouldn't allow him to get much closer whereas the emergency vehicles with their caulked windows and VenGlobal brand masks were consumed by the smoke.

Ward stuffed his notes into his camera bag, slung it over his shoulder, and took another long puff from his OxyPill before slamming the rusted car door shut. The echo was swallowed by the sirens, bells, and screams. He jogged through the warm cloud of smoke and felt small showers of still falling debris mixed with some hissing raindrops. The air was getting worse. The new line from VenMen's Warehouse wasn't withstanding the changes well.

More cries of pain filled the air. Ward stepped carefully as he reached the square block that housed the remains of the VenGlobal plant. People shouted archaic pleas of "Dear god, help us!" from beneath sizeable chips of metal and stone that had blown off the building. Men's cries like feeble children scratched at Ward's ears and froze his lungs. Stone shifted out of place and crashed, igniting something lost within the smoke. Ward snapped his head towards the gout of fire that persisted in the increasing rain. It silhouetted some broken metal that swayed. It turned, caught his eye for a moment. Then it was still.

Ward shook his head, and when that didn't feel like enough he slammed his fists against his forehead. The vandals weren't on his schedule, but he wished he could have stolen just a few hours of sleep. His boss' voice thrummed in his ears.

The Cloud Crazies…

Ward growled and beat the side of his head once more for good measure. His mind was clear. His photo was his proof. It was his burden. His lifeline.

At the buckling metal gate up the gravel drive, security guards were blocking the only viable entrance to the plant from a few men in long white overcoats that stood out through the smog. Any other way around the gate led to flames or unstable walls of broken stone and twisted metal. The security was a handful of gruff men in black coats and top hats with the VenGlobal logo pinned to their chest like a boutineer. They held their muscular arms out awaiting identifying papers or sending people off to the row of long white vehicles. Ward crept closer, ducking behind another wall of debris, and heard some confused arguments from one of the arriving staff.

"I've been working with VenMedical for decades," the man screamed. His voice couldn't carry far before the clouds consumed each note of his anger. Even the beads of sweat from the increasing heat seemed to dissolve from his cheeks. "These are new recruits. Of course I have to go in with them!"

"Pardons, sir," a taller security guard said. He refused to lower his arm even as the medic stepped back. His lips were thin slits whenever his mouth was closed, and when it opened, he revealed two rows of crooked, yellowing teeth. "Those are orders. We are keeping this area secure."

Ward, well trained with his equipment, shuffled his bag from his shoulder and had his camera out and hooded in seconds. He snapped a picture of the confrontation and ducked behind the rubble, dragging his compact camera set up with him and praying no one minded the flash. He waited, heart pounding a nauseating cacophony against his ribs.

"It doesn't make sense!" insisted the sniveling medic. "There are injured civilians inside! I demand you let me in!"

Ward peeked back around as silence persisted. The security guard stood his ground until the medic returned to his vehicle and kicked at a wheel in frustration. A few more men in white coats and red cross lapel pins meandered around him, older looking sorts who continued to hold their hammocks and metal rods at the ready for when the security guards came to their senses.

Ward tucked his camera under his arm and grabbed his bag before peeking out of his hiding spot once more. Shadows moved about that Ward imagined were further security or lucky medics. He snuck across the grounds in search of another section of downed fence to get into the facility. Security guards were stationed in every area with obvious damage, patrolling like hungry lions awaiting an unaware beast. All of the men had muscles that threatened to tear at the seams of their VenMen's jacket sleeves.

Another crackling flame licked up splintered wood behind the men in spite of the rain that continued to fall. It sizzled against their polished shoes, but the men took no heed. Even as the fire behind them grew, casting their shadows like spears through the smoke, they stood their ground, eyes focused out into the cloud, spying for intruders. They looked like abandoned soldiers fulfilling a dying request.

Ward wanted to call out, to warn them that their orders surely weren't more important than their lives, but the flame had grown to such a height and stature, he couldn't form the words. An arm reaching out, engulfed by the flames, gently caressed the cheek of one security guard. His eyes grew wide as each finger left a smoldering trail of bleeding, cracking skin that sloughed off to his singed shoulder. Soon the scalding boils overwhelmed his entire face. His scalp peeled and shredded. In moments, he was no more than a blackened coal adding to the smoke that stung Ward's eyes.

The arm struck out to the side. Seeing the devastation seemed enough to awaken the second security guard and set his body in motion to flee. The burning hand gripped his neck, piercing nails sinking through his blackening skin. His scream was stoppered by smoke and blood as the rest of his body became a belching pyre that crumbled to the stained grass below him.

Ward saw the flaming arm rescind as the entire shape stepped back into the shadows of the crumbling facility. For just a fleeting moment he could see a lacy parasol drag behind the flames, scratching against the concrete foundation like nails against a chalkboard. Ward's blood ran cold in spite of everything around him. The piles of research on his desk, the words circled in ink that may as well have been his own blood, all of it shunted to the front of his mind, vying for his attention, his sanity.

Seraph.

The flickering edges of the fire started to fade as the Seraph vanished further into the heart of the VenGlobal plant. As if possessed, Ward grabbed his bag and ran towards the decrepit building, stomping through the ashes of the security guard and ignoring the plume that clung to his pant legs and pressed into the soles of his shoes. He ran down a corridor, lost in darkness and without the Seraph's light to guide him. She must have extinguished her unearthly glow. Only the faint cast of the Night Satellite provided any relief.

Ward followed the charred floor with scattered ash like someone dragging her skirt's train to politely cover her boot prints. It flowed down cracked and caving hallways, through research laboratories with various bursting meters and shattered tubes of colored liquids. All in ruins. Tossed about remains of human corpses were left pinned beneath metal work desks or crushed under collapsed brick. The walls seemed painted in red.

The ashen path led to a flight of stairs left to rubble, continuing over the strewn boulders sprayed with blood and flame, Ward saw the charred markings continue at the bottom of the stairwell a full two stories down. How could she move so fast? If he believed the hours of research on the archaic old gods, he knew they could have all manner of ability for flight or strength. Assuredly for death and chaos. He, however, needed another path down.

But there's no time. He cringed and gripped his camera bag tighter. What's a broken ankle if you can stop this destruction?

Ward's heart slammed in his chest as he slid his feet over the crumbling edge. Jagged debris tore through his pant legs and stabbed into his skin. He hissed, but slid closer, eyeing a section of metal that could have just enough support left between the screws in the wall and the pile of brick stacked below it, crushing what remained of the bottom ramp. Ward grabbed a fistful of his greasy hair and shook his head again. The metal platform suddenly looked much further down.

Swearing loudly, Ward pulled himself back from the edge and dusted off his pants as he ran to find another way down. He recalled what the outside of the building looked like and considered there could be another stairwell, hopefully less damaged, on any edge of the building. He had kept many thick, dusty books on or under his work desk about the history of the major VenGlobal plants once he knew they were being targeted. He had visited a few by train, doing his best to make the weeks-long trips worthwhile and glad no one was waiting on him at home.

Praising the smog sky hidden above, Ward found another stairwell down a lengthy hall with more casual offices left in ruin. Through an enormous chasm left by the explosion, he could see straight to the other side of the building where he had come from. Ward tried not to think about what would have happened if he had taken even one wrong step.

The metal steps rang out under Ward's scuffed shoes. The twang echoed in his skull, and he wished it would shut up, but he still had a few dozen more steps to the bottom. He pounded his fist against his ear as if hoping to catch a buzzing gnat. Ward paused and looked over the edge. There were still a few more platforms and so many steps like gnashing teeth awaiting him. Again he considered how much quicker he could reach his mark if he simply leaped over the edge. Bodies healed with time. The Seraph couldn't escape him again.

A twinge shot across his forehead.

Ward plunged forward, covering his ears with the hems of his sleeve. In an agonizing minute he reached the bottom and met another dark maze of hallways with silent offices and dripping walls. Ward stopped for a moment and pulled out his mobile camera set up. He took a few pictures of the blood stains and the destruction. As he turned to reconnect with the Seraph's path, he felt the heat again like someone lit a flame against his face. It was sudden and violent. A short scream and gasp escaped his cracked lips.

Run. Find.

Against all normal inclination, Ward threw his gear back into his bag and ran towards the south end of the building until he found the trail of ash once more. It led down a lone corridor with offices that looked unused for quite a while. Chairs and tables had fallen, shelving toppled and splintered, but no one was in those rooms that Ward could see through the windows. His heart grew heavy for a new reason as he watched the smoldering path lead to a solid metal wall and then vanish.

"Damn it!" Part of his anguish came from his lost chase. Part was from fear that this proved more than he wished. A woman who could become fire. Or was she always fire and hiding herself from the probing Day Satellite? If she was truly as old stories claimed, if Ward would really say the old angelic name to her face, how could he stop such devastation?

Everything has a way to die.

Ward clutched his chest as his palpitations returned. He stormed up to the wall and threw his fists against it, again and again until they were raw. Then his head. One solid crack against the metal and he stumbled back, reeling from the force. He fell, smoothing his palm over his bleeding face.

"What the hell…" He looked at the wall, and just a foot beyond the stain he left was another mark, darkened like soot and in the shape of a slender hand with too long fingers. Ward pushed himself to his wobbling feet and laid his hand, wide and hairy, over her print, pristine and foreign.

A nearly invisible metal panel burned his palm. He hissed and drew his hand back already seeing red blotches appearing.

You're so close.

Ward braced himself and slammed his hand against the print and the metal. He pushed forward, and an otherwise invisible seam cracked the wall from ceiling to floor. The two visible doors swung loose inward, and on the ground the fiery trail burned bright down a flight of stone steps lit by fat glass bulbs. Ward took the steps two at a time as they curved towards a dim light. But the further he reached, the more heat filled the enclosed space. He was walking straight into a furnace, but all he could see as he finally reached the bottom were perfect walls and an untouched foyer.

And a woman. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Even indoors her white gloved fingers laced around the curling handle of a faded yellow parasol. The silky material hid her from the white spray of light from each dangling bulb overhead. The small train of her white dress glossed along the floor as she slowly turned towards the stairs. A smile bent her velvet lips.

"Persistence," she said, her laden words draped around Ward's entire body like a decadent winter quilt. "It has always been your blessing and your vice."

Ward was frozen in the fire of her eyes he could finally see. Hooded lids and spiraling lashes coated her cloudy gray eyes. Where he expected to see endless black pupils, he was washed away in a white glow. A throbbing ache behind his eyes left him clinging to the wall of the stairwell.

"You're…" He coughed and grabbed tufts of his hair as if he could reach his skull to wipe it clean that way. The ache bore holes through his eyes that nothing could fill. "You're killing us. You're behind this."

The woman's smile dropped and somehow she was still more beautiful. She tilted her head and raised her delicate shoulders in something akin to a shrug. Turning from him, she walked towards another metal door across the room. Her skirt left the metal warped and crackling, curling into itself and shedding black ash. She paused before the door, hand aloft towards it. Nothing seemed to happen, but the door began to smolder, soft wisps of smoke rising towards the low ceiling.

An alarm blared. Small rounded plates evenly spaced along the ceiling clicked as they swung aside revealing a tube that dropped sprays of water into the room. Quickly it pooled around Ward's feet, smearing the black of his shoes to create black ripples around him. He jumped up to the first step of the stairwell.

The woman didn't move. The tip of her finger that seemed to reach into eternity sparked and ignited into a blaze. Her entire arm was swallowed in the ravenous fire and her skirt was a mere wall of Hell that licked up towards her bodice, It was the opposite of the image Ward had taken. Now her steady face was an angelic vision while the rest of her was swallowed by the Hellmouth.

"Do you think I am discovered?" she asked, baleful and yet like a mother teaching her willful child, but she didn't turn towards the steps. "That I am halted? Pitiful." She flicked her finger towards the door, and it smoked quicker. Soon the origins of the damage became a blackened spot that puckered inward, bending the rest of the metal plate with it until it was crumpled like a discarded page. The water flowed past the ruin and down another short flight of wide metal steps, bubbling and hissing.

Below sat another room, more brightly lit than the foyer and smaller still. It was more compact with walls of built-in drawers, chests with windows clouded over by condensation, A long desk smothered in pages, maps, and books overshadowed the majority of the room in a familiar way to Ward. Cool air escaped up the stairwell and chilled Ward to the bone, but something else left him entirely frozen.

Three men all stared up with a mix of horror and loathing on their faces. They held two revolvers each aimed directly at the fiery beauty. Their hands were covered in blood dripping from their perfectly hemmed coat sleeves, and all of the papers across the desk were further marked in red, especially the maps.

One of the men stepped forward, a balding pale thing with gaunt cheeks and wire frame glasses. Sweat dribbled down his face and pooled at his chin despite the cold. The Seraph stood her ground.

"You are discovered, demon!" he said. Ward inched closer, disregarding the wearing on his shoes and laces. The water seeped into his socks and stung at his skin, but he peeked down at the men, not sure if he could trust his eyes. The man speaking was Harvey Deshon, the CEO of VenGlobal's Fuebos plant. He was one of the most powerful men on Venus, just one step below Saint Nick himself, and he knew the Seraph. In fact, he was prepared for her in ways that never occurred to Ward. "Your futile reign of terror ends now! Kill it! In the Old One's glorious name!"

The two other men, one stocky with a thick moustache masking his thin lips and the other tall with slick hair and bright blue manic eyes, lifted their weapons and pulled the triggers without hesitation. Ward dove to the ground behind the wall, sloshing in the water and ignoring its bite. He couldn't count how many bullets tore through the air. Each one echoed as it released and again as it ricocheted against something hard. Ward closed his ears to the barrage like an army regiment stowed away in that room.

Finally the air cleared, and Ward lifted his head. The Seraph stood still, arm still aloft towards the men below. Her dress no longer burned as the water stopped dropping from above. It had tattered holes and dangling threads in the delicate lace and silks.

A chortle, low and smoldering, escaped the Seraph's mouth. It grew into a girlish giggle and then an outright laugh that she attempted to hide behind her gloved hand, but a half inch hole in the stray glove fibers revealed her shining teeth beyond. "It matters not what your gods deliver unto you," she said, stepping closer.

The executives scrambled to reload their weapons, but the clinking of metal on metal halted as the Seraph clenched her fist. Ward pulled himself to the edge of the stairwell just as the men froze in place. The silver revolvers started to hiss and glow red. Wide eyes and soundless screams grafted to the men's faces as their knuckles turned white, holding on with every ounce of unwanted strength to the superheated metal. Vents of cool air carried the stench of charring flesh that left Ward's eyes watering. The Seraph approached each man, laid a carressing finger against his cheek, and kissed him, uncaring of the lapping flames that erupted under her touch.

"You couldn't hide from me in your little bunker any more than you could hide from them when you knew you had forfeit your lives. You will not bring back their devastation."

Each suited man became a column of deadly flames that set off another alarm and more water poured through the sockets above. They only served to make the flames brighter and soon the men were consumed, only leaving a drifting pile of ash in their wake.

Seraph's skirt train knocked one pile into the murky water as she crossed to the desk and picked up a few of the papers that somehow remained intact under her flaming touch.

"You come for a story, yes?" she said. Her dreamy voice shattered the silence.

It took an entire minute for Ward to realize she was addressing him. He clammored to his feet and carefully traversed the steps.

"I thought you were my story," he admitted. "You are, but...you're not the same story it seems. You killed those men."

"They were long dead," Seraph said with a sigh. She held a damp page to Ward. He dared to step closer to her despite the flames licking at her legs and crawling up her outstretched arm, anywhere the water splashed against her skin. The heat was immense, but if she meant to kill him like the executives, she could have done it ten times over.

Ward took the paper and scoured it. He quickly realized it was the ravings of lunatics written in crusting blood. They were prayers to Old Ones. Promises for rebirth. Giving all they could in Their name. It was the same ravings of the old religions from Earth. No one had seen madmen like these for centuries, not since the early disasters from which Venus had rebuilt.

Ward looked up, and Seraph had more sheets in her hands, politely waiting for him with an unassuming expression. Further details of the vandalisms lay before him. Executives picking particular successors in VenGlobal, those who were chosen by the Old Ones. Only allowing those vulnerable to the Old One's blessings to be near the sites of the Awakening. Decades of planning. Awaiting the Chosen Day. The Awakening. Awakening. Stopping the Angels. Destruction of Them on sight.

They praised their completed work.

It was the biggest break in the case he could have imagined, and it was simply handed to him.

By whom?

"Go then," Seraph said, and Ward knew he had labeled her correctly. "Live as you will with your remaining days. I will take my leave now. There are other sites where these mortal zealots have plans."

"This is huge," Ward said. His eyes scrambled across the discarded pages and the maps that circled each attacked site as well as dates of the attacks. He started bundling them together, ready to sort them out back in his office. When his boss saw this, when the world knew the lunatics were back, it would be the story of a lifetime.

Seraph clicked her tongue. "The things you find intriguing."

She started walking back towards the steps as the water shut off. The only remaining flames danced at her feet as they sloshed across the hissing metal floor.

"Where will you go?" Ward asked. "Are the executives attacking all of their own plants? Who are these Old Ones? Do you know how high this goes? Back to Earth days?"

Seraph waved off the questions. The hole in her hand slowly knitted itself up. "While my time is boundless compared to yours, the Old Ones won't wait. They awaken. The zealots were successful. Successful enough."

"Enough? Aren't you stopping the vandals? You're...more powerful than they are, clearly."

"My people do not compare to yours in power by any means," she said, shaking her head. "The Old Ones are an ancient race that inhabited this world long before humans were even stardust. This planetoid housed them, and they waged war against any and all who dared defy them. Anything else was simply devoured. My people, it seems your stories call us Angels of high rank, fought the Old Ones. We were nearly devastated ourselves, but we overwhelmed them at last. Left them in a deep, dark slumber from which we prayed they would never wake, trapped on the planetoid from whence they came. And then your race, you parasitic mites, did what you do best: you spread. You let nothing, not even raging warfare among brothers with stones, axes, or ballistics, stop you from spreading. Your one world could not house you any longer and so you spread to another. To this one. And in doing so, you didn't realize your presence would bring about the end of days."

Something in Ward's mind tingled as she spoke. The words were perfect with only an exotic lilt to give away anything foreign about her. But whatever she must have said in truth, it was something that strangled his mind. The sting behind his eyes returned, and for an instant, Ward thought some expression had fallen over Seraph's face beyond her nonchalance.

"The early frontiersmen kept humanity alive," Ward said. He wasn't one for patriotism, but he could believe in those men and women who brought life with them between planets.

"And in doing so, brought the downfall of so many more. I don't expect a human to understand such scope as it reaches beyond the tips of your noses. Well enough. The Old Ones have already become restless in their slumber. They will awaken to take back this planetoid. It agrees with them. But I will not allow them to feed. We will strike the moment they rise."

Seraph continued her ascent. Ward couldn't let her walk away. There were too many questions. She needed to tell him everything. If he had to follow her to the ends of the globe, he would. Ward shouldered his camera bag off and quickly snapped a photo. There, as it slowly spat out a filmy image, he could see Seraph's face half turned to him, the fire consuming her feet.

"You think you will follow me?" she said. "Do you act against me as well?"

Ward flapped the picture in his hand. "I think we're on the same side if you're bringing down these executives who are sabotaging our planet and our very lives."

"Then you misunderstand, human. Your executives are finished as are you. The planet will return to its previous state, and the Old Ones will awaken. It is a simple enough task to continue the destruction of these structures as the zealots did...only quicker." She gestured above where the plant lay in ruins. "Without humanity on the surface when they rise, they will have nothing upon which to feed. I will not allow Them sustenance. Before they rise, and I'm afraid your people have ensured this, I will ensure humanity falls."

Seraph continued up the steps as the dreadful decree pieced together in Ward's mind. He started running towards her, unsure of what he might do when he caught her, but she lifted her hand, and the crumpled metal door flattened out, not a single bend to be seen along the solid charred panel. With another flick of her finger, the door rose and wedged itself into the frame just as Ward's hands reached it. He slammed on the metal, bruising his fists.

"Wait! You can't do this!" He searched for a handle, but it lay useless on the top step. He shoved his shoulder against the door. Anything to even make it wobble in the frame. Nothing. "You can't kill billions of people like this! Seraph! Come back!"

Only the far off buzz of little lights dangling from the ceiling behind the door answered him. Ward slid to the ground in a heap of uncertainty. Was it all a terrible nightmare? He looked at the photo he had dropped as the door sealed him in. The breathing fires at the destroyer's feet mocked him. Ward ducked down to feel for a gap beneath the door, but even that was planned out for this bunker. Surely the executives didn't anticipate their hideout to become their tomb.

Ward dragged his feet back to the bottom of the stairs where the men's ashes were nothing more than swirls in the smoky water. A page floated past him, smeared in red and puckering from the moisture. Ward lifted it and saw ink below the trails of blood. There were drawings, symbols he didn't recognize as either executive shorthand or chemical equation involving what it was VenGlobal created in their labs. They churned in his mind as if the slashes of black demanded to be read.

A shooting pain tore through Ward's skull. Maybe the oxygen was already running low from Seraph's flames inhaling what was in the room. He couldn't say. His head was already getting foggy. Ward stepped back into the water, letting the pigment of his shoes mix with the ash and turn it black. He righted a chair and sat down.

How do you live out your remaining days in solitude? he wondered. His eyes turned heavenward. Perhaps Seraph could see him. Or the Old Ones she said would rise.

They can save me, he thought. Where had that thought come from? Even if they were real and not the drug induced daydreams of executives with too much power, the piles of ash told nothing of salvation.

From the wall behind him came a static crackle. Ward spun around, daring to quirk his cracked lips into a smile. The executives must have been communicating with a secure radio signal to put their plans in motion. Maybe he could get word out after all!

He knocked his chair over from his excitement and tore open each drawer, finding nothing but a few folders, some small knives, cups, and cigarettes. No radios, not even survival equipment in this bunker. The static continued.

We can reach you.

The pain behind Ward's eyes worsened. He slammed his fist against his temple and shook his head to free it of the ache that shackled his mind. White specks crept along the edge of his vision. Ward reached out to the table, but his hand slipped, failed to find purchase, and he splashed back into the water. A few more pages fell from the table and floated beside him that told of how mankind could withstand air degradation for a certain length of time. Enough to awaken. The black ink was bold beneath the dribbling blood that pooled at the edge of Ward's nose and spotted the otherwise clean areas of the page.

We can find you.

Ward lifted his trembling fingers to the creases of his face. As he drew them back, they were coated in droplets of his own blood. His mind raced. He had to get out. Whoever was on the radio could get him out. Ward slapped at the water until he found his camera bag. It was open, all of his notes were crumbled and melted in their soggy casing. The camera lens and bulb were shattered and stained with the tacky redness.

We can save you.

The ache in his mind overwhelmed even the terrible cramping in his stomach and the sting of his bleeding, parched lips. His breaths were shallow, but the writing on the wall would set him free. Each line, each curve of those beautiful, unknown symbols would revive him. Awaken him.

Ward's head slipped back against the blood smeared wall, eyes unseeing, pale arms too feeble to move. The distant voice from the radio kept him company.

We rise.