Read a sample from AUGUST KITKO AND THE MECHAS FROM SPACE by Alex White

Expect giant robots, explosive battles and lots and lots of feelings in this queer space opera from Alex White

Chapter One

Our Final Hour

August Kitko doesn’t want to see the end of the world—which should be any minute now.

He leans over the stone railing and gauges the distance to the jutting pediment of the cliff face below. A couple of sharp rocks poke up from beneath the choppy surf to say hi.

We’re here for you, buddy, comfortable and quick.

Gus grimaces and waves back at them.

He stands at the very edge of Lord Elisa Yamazaki’s estate, one of a few dozen lucky guests brought in for this momentous occasion. Behind Gus lies the famed Electric Orchard, full of algae-spliced fruit trees: cherry luxes and pearshines. They waver in the night like old diodes, dropping off in places when the breeze rustles them too much. Over the course of hours, their inner lights will fade, and they’ll lie upon the grass, gray as a stone.

The taste is ultimately underwhelming. It’s a glowing pear. It doesn’t have to be good.

Gus was drawn to this place by the long stone wall with crystal lanterns, the cliffside overlook, and the patch of soft synth grass. This part of the estate has probably stood since the Middle Ages, though the lanterns are obviously new— concentrated vials of the spliced algae Plantus glowname.

Gus missed the taxonomy twice when the lord gave everyone the tour, and was too embarrassed to ask for a third repetition.

As final resting places go, this one won’t be so bad. The estate has a commanding view from the eastern rise, so he gets the best sunset he’s ever experienced. Monaco’s slice of the Mediterranean glitters in the moonlight like no other gem. The city is a thousand icicles jutting up from craggy mountainsides, lining the hills all the way down to the artificial land extensions in the harbor. The Nouvelle Causeway stretches seaward, a big tube atop massive struts, its iconic boxy apartments encrusting its underside like ancient pixels. The Casino de Monte Carlo’s searchlights are on full blast in La Condamine district by the harbor—because of course there’s a type of person who wants to spend this once‑in‑a‑lifetime night gambling. Gus wonders: Why is anyone hanging around to take their money?

SuperPort Hercule, stretching between Monaco’s two artificial mountains, is a relic of another era, when single-​terrain vehicles were more common. Rich people still hang on to their water-based yachts, and rows of white boats nestle into slips like suckling piglets. Beyond these exotic antiques, a long expanse of water lily landing pads remains dark— the unused starport. Towering craft loom in the evening, engines cold.

The last ship from Earth launched three years prior. No one else dares—not with the Veil across the galaxy.

Gus blinks at the waves. The fall is going to kill him either way, but for some reason, he’d rather hit the water than the rocks. It mostly comes down to a choice of who gets to eat him—the seagulls or the marine life.

And seagulls are assholes.

Gus needs to wrap things up; he doesn’t want to be here when they arrive. He’d once been a bit more single-​minded in his suicidal ideation, and he finds this last-​minute attachment to survival annoying.

It seems unfair that life could get so fun right before the end. He’d forgotten the taste of good times, and a dram of happiness has made him too exhausted to complete his morbid task.

If only Gus can make himself climb onto the railing, he knows he can take the next step.

Other “bon” vivants cavort nearby, drinks in hand, some clumsily pawing all over each other. Gus straightens up and stares wistfully at the sea. He can’t be seen moping like he’s about to jump. They might try to stop him, and then they’d all waste their last few minutes of life trying to calm him down.

Or maybe they’d actually let him do it.

Then he’d spend his final second offended with them.

Perhaps instead, Gus could go to his rock star lover, apologize to them, and pull them in close for the literal kiss to end all kisses—except Ardent Violet is on the veranda, holding court for their adoring public. People and holograms no doubt sit rapt before them, listening to some captivating speech. Ardent isn’t about to even talk to Gus, much less peel themself away from a scintillating evening of compliments and basking.

Not after Gus screwed everything up.

The drunken revelers flop down on the nearby grass to step up their make-​out game, hands going for buttons and clasps. Another team of horny fools joins the fray, giggling and gasping. Maybe Gus’s cold stare will shrivel their resolve.

They don’t even slow down.

There must be somewhere Gus can find a blissful moment of peace. He thrusts his hands into his pockets and wanders back up the estate grounds toward the main house. The lonely path winds past botanical oddities and designer plants of all shapes and colors, vibrant like the coral reefs of old. Lord Yamazaki says she takes her inspiration from Dale Chihuly, but to Gus, she just seems like she’s really into jellyfish.

La Maison Des Huit Étoiles rises out of the Electric Orchard like an enchanted castle, its eight glossy blue spires a stark contrast to the archaic walls surrounding the grounds. Atop each spire is a bright light, for the Yamazaki family members who . . . something. Again, Gus wasn’t paying full attention during the tour of the place. He’d had his mind on other things, like being surrounded by the best musicians on Earth.

The bay breeze this evening is unbelievable, the kind of night best spent at an open window with a piano and a drink. The piano still exists, but the booze is all gone, guzzled by the revelers, the staff, and the talent. The staff can’t be blamed; they’ve got their own partying to accomplish, and it’s not like Gus is doing his job. Few people are—for any reason. Whole swathes of the world are going unwatched, on the verge of collapse, and it doesn’t matter.

Gus Kitko, renowned jazz pianist, was flown here to play during the victory party, but they canceled that two days ago.

More accurately, his job was to play during the victory party after-​party. His style doesn’t exactly draw the millions required to headline, but he’s a musician’s musician. Some days, it’s like his fans are all more famous than he is.

Gus has almost reached the sprawling manse when he detects Ardent’s musical laughter. He doesn’t want to look—he knows it’ll stop his heart—but he glances out of pure masochism.

The rocker stands resplendent in a flowing robe, textiLEDs luxed up like a bird of paradise. Their hair is an anodized red this evening, cut short with an edge like a knife. They’ve painted their exquisite face in jewel tones, pale skin traced into captivating shapes. Electric-​blue lips remain quirked in a smile—until Ardent claps eyes on Gus in return.

They don’t rage or scowl. They simply note him with a neutral expression and move on. Ardent Violet lives in another world of packed arenas and coliseums, of paparazzi and nightly jaunts to the most exclusive clubs out there. Gus will never run in their circle again after Monaco—they’re above him.

But there is no “after Monaco.” Every last person dies here tonight. Even the beautiful, fabulous Ardent Violet.

Yep. Looking was a bad choice.

As it turns out, Gus won’t have to feel bad for much longer. A pale streak bisects the sky—a superluminal brake burn and the crackle of lightning. A flaming comet falls from the heavens, and the SuperPort’s harbor erupts into a geyser in the wake of a towering splashdown. All eyes travel to the site of the crash, and even the raw magnetism of Ardent Violet can’t continue to hold their attention.

A titanic exoskeleton rises from the waves, interlocking armor plates a sleek purple. It unfolds its long arms, each sheathed in an ivory gauntlet, and stands atop a pair of legs. It’s humanoid, bilaterally symmetrical. A fission halo encircles its faceless head, spitting plasma sparks in all directions. A pair of silver handles jut from its rib cage like knives buried up to the hilt. It has no eyes, only a smooth purple dome, reflecting all around it.

This titanic disaster could have landed anywhere else on Earth. There was an entire planet of perfectly apocalyptic locations, and a huge pantheon of faiths to satisfy with a melodramatic entrance. But no, it had to show up at the exact spot where Gus was trying to get comfy for his own doom.

Juliette the Vanguard, destroyer of six colonies and two worlds.

Soon three—counting Earth.

*  *  *

Two days prior, Gus had hope—tangible hope for the first time in five years. The remnants of the Sol Joint Defense Force had just deployed the unfortunately named Dictum, the “solution to the Vanguard Doom.” It was a big fancy battle cruiser that could drag travelers out of hyperspace, yanking them into its firing line. That seemed to Gus like a meaningless achievement, but there was a sudden surge of hope among the populace.

The United Worlds leadership were eager to tout their coming success. The plan was to intercept any Vanguards and sucker punch them with the most powerful particle cannons in existence. With defense figured out, the Sol system—last bastion of the human species—could finally go on the offensive.

Gus had dropped his toast when he checked the news that first morning: “Ghosts Massing, Vanguard Incoming, Dictum Will Destroy in Sol System.”

The harbinger of humanity’s end was on its way, and the superweapon was going to stop it—foregone conclusion. Nothing in the news articles indicated this was an “attempt,” or that it could fail. Every content outlet talked about the Dictum like it had already vaporized all fifteen Vanguards. Anything less spelled the destruction of Earth.

Gus reacted to this news in much the same fashion he handled all his problems: He sat down at his piano and began to play. The ivories calmed his nerves like a gentle rain, and he wrestled with the mortality that everyone on Earth faced. Young or old, they were all in the same boat, tomorrows potentially truncated.

Then came the holocall: General Landry and a cadre of USO coordinators, looking to put on a star-​studded concert to celebrate their forthcoming first Vanguard kill. They offered Gus immediate passage to Monaco and accommodations at Lord Yamazaki’s, asking him to be ready for the big party.

Gus agreed, and when he terminated the call, a swish Brio XR idled in front of his Montreal walk‑up. Its swept nanoblack form absorbed all light, coppery windows and lines of chrome the only reflective surfaces on it. A team of smiling assistants hurried Gus from his house, promising to send anything he needed to Monaco. They even gave him a carte with a few thousand unicreds to load into his account, in case he wanted to relax ahead of time.

It was a hell of a lot nicer than government work was supposed to be.

A stratospheric jaunt later, he was brunching on the deck of a yacht with musical luminaries from the top of the charts. He had one piano song that had been sampled and remixed into a hit, so he felt a mild kinship with these gods. They’d all been summoned by their governments to boost morale, and they were excited to meet August Kitko, “the guy behind that one sample.”

Everyone talked about the various battle watch parties they’d be attending that night. People spoke to Gus like he’d already been invited to one. He would’ve been glad to clear his busy schedule of clipping his toenails in his bedroom and staring wistfully out the window.

No invites were forthcoming, however, and Gus was too shy to ask. He could only hope someone would take pity on him so he wouldn’t spend the most stressful news broadcast of his life alone. The pundits figured the Dictum’s interdiction would come sometime in the next twenty hours, pegging the likelihood at eleven p.m.

Victory event details to follow.

To compensate for Gus’s lack of friends, government handlers arranged activities and meetups. Every minute of the day leading up to the night was mind-​blowing goodness. Champagne and croissants, wandering the casinos, staring into the seaside sunset from the little park at Point Hamilton.

Even though the greenway was just a couple of statues and a few bushes crammed between two luxury high-​rise condos, the place had a peaceful air. Gus’s hiking buddies, a pair of rockers from a town named Medicine Hat, said they wanted to call a friend to bring some wine. That friend turned out to be the multiplatinum-​record-​selling Ardent Violet, who showed up with a block party in tow. Food, liquor, and drugs followed, and Gus found himself ensnared by the wildest rave he’d ever attended in a public park.

When the throng became unbearable, Gus pushed out to the street for some fresh air. He wound down a few side alleys, trying to get a little space from Ardent’s many admirers.

Instead, he ran into Ardent Violet themself.

They sported a forest-​green pin-​striped suit, its edges given careful folds like paper animals. A few fresh flowers bloomed on their wide-​brimmed hat. The whole outfit looked like it cost a fortune, which was why Gus was surprised to find Ardent sitting on the old stone curb, flicking through the Ganglion UI on their bracelet.

Gus wasn’t a fan, but he knew a member of the pop music royalty when he saw one. He was always wary of speaking to the big leaguers like them; half the time, they turned out to be nightmare humans with disturbing views.

“You okay?” Gus asked.

Ardent rose and brushed the dust from their butt. “Yeah. Just had to come up for air.”

Gus glanced back the way he’d come, toward the party in the idyllic park. It was too much for him, a person whose scene was quiet piano bars, but surely Ardent could handle it. The rocker regularly flounced about circus-​ring stages with all sorts of holograms, drones, strobes, tractor beams, and earth-​shattering bass.

Gus frowned thoughtfully. “You brought the party.”

“I always do.” A bitter note flavored their voice.

“That sounds difficult.” Gus sauntered over to a parked CAV and leaned against it. It squawked a warning at him, and Ardent jumped. Thank goodness, they both laughed.

“Uh, sorry about that . . .” Gus resettled himself against an aging wall near a historical marker dating it all the way back to the 2150s. The building’s moneyed architecture bore the hallmarks of the Infinite Expansion—right down to the streamlined, printed flagstones flecked through with precious metals and gem shards.

“Gus Kitko.” He raised a hand in a brief wave, then crossed his arms.

“Kitko,” they repeated.

He pushed off the wall. “And I should go, because you said you were out here to come up for air.”

“Aw, whatever.”

“No, no! I shouldn’t be taking up your time. Being Ardent Violet looks, uh . . .”

A raucous roar from the party wafted by on the breeze.

“Exhausting,” he finished.

They fixed him with their gaze, and it was like staring into the sun. They’d tinted their irises an inhuman red to complement their dark green suit. What was going through their head? Had his comment crossed the line?

When the silence grew too painful, Gus reached into his pocket and pulled out his battered old mint tin. Its contents jingled softly as he flipped it open. Ardent immediately perked up.

“What do those do?” they asked.

“Taste like mint,” Gus replied. “Would you like one?”

“You’re probably the only person here who carries candy instead of drugs.”

“Then you need me around, for when you’d rather have things sweet and calm.”

“Is that what you are?” Ardent asked, red eyes boring into him. They drew close and plucked a mint from the tin. “Sweet and calm?”

“My friends would say so.”

Ardent cupped the candy in their gloved hand and keyed their Gang UI. They closed their fingers around it, and the glove flashed inside: a chemical analysis.

“No offense,” Ardent said. “I’m a target for kidnappers.”

“None taken. Sorry you have to deal with that stuff.”

Ardent popped the mint into their mouth, and Gus took one of his own, savoring the evolving fizz of classical molecular gastronomy, the flowing of spearmint tendrils in his mouth.

Ardent let out a happy sigh, resting their hands on their hips to stare down the hill. “Pretty good mint.”

“Straight from Old Town Montreal. Local delicacy.”


“Nah. Bought them at Trudeau. What kind of a town would have a local delicacy like that?”

Ardent let out a short laugh. “You’re proud of poutine.”

“Well, where are you from?”

“Atlanta,” they said, and he could almost pick out the accent.

“Ah, biscuits,” Gus said. “So simple, yet so perfect.”

Ardent cocked an eyebrow. “You need to get in the kitchen if you think biscuits are simple.”

A few of the celebrants from the park made their way around the corner, screaming “Ardent!” the moment they saw their leader. Gus had fans, too, but they mostly held listening teleparties and talked about whether a seventh or a ninth was a more appropriate resolution to the end of Guy Keats’s “Too Blue a Bird.”

Teleparties were easily escaped. Real parties could hunt one down, as this crowd did to the unfortunate Ardent Violet.

“You’re coming, right? To the prince’s tonight?” Ardent asked.

“Secret military watch party.”

“I don’t think I’ve got an invite.”

I’m your invite.”

“Oh! I would love that. How will I get in if we’re separated?”

“You won’t. Better hang on to me, Kitty Kitko.”

They gestured for Gus to follow, and—though he hated this sort of loud affair—he did.

*  *  *

That night, they gathered in the prince’s palace to watch the action unfold. The atrium gardens were a labyrinth of wonders, each turn hiding another botanical curiosity. Torches slow-waltzed over the silent, somber processional, and Gus kept close to Ardent. At last, they came to an expansive amphitheater, like a small stadium for the prince and his friends.

Coats of arms flew from above, overing in suspension fields. The prince considered it gauche to holoproject his country’s flag instead of using the real deal, so he had actuweave banners up everywhere with recordings of wind playing into them.

Gus found all the magical fanfare silly, but wizardry took over the royal aesthetic a few hundred years prior and never quite let go. Perhaps it was their way of explaining their place in the world, which was esoteric at best, borderline arcane. Either way, Gus preferred his tech interactions a bit quieter, with fewer moving paintings and enchanted chandeliers.

A set of crisp, tasteful numbers counted down atop the central dais amid swaying droplets of crystal—a timer on humanity’s final trial.

Gus settled into his fluffy polyform chair, happy the prince was a man of comforts. Ardent took the seat beside him, which expanded to fit them both, and wiggled in close.

Very close. Hitting-on-him close.

The place brimmed with dignitaries and important folx.

“I am definitely the least cool person here,” Gus whispered.

“Should I move? Are you not good enough?” Ardent pulled a stray hair back behind their ear. “If you could sit beside anyone in this room, who would you pick?”

“Ardent Violet, hands down.”

While they all waited, the prince’s fountains played a poignant water ballet by Maddie West, Sins of a Civilization. Holographic dancers flitted between fountains, seamless illusions immersing Gus into the thesis of the piece. It reflected on the evils that’d shaped their world, and expressed the desire that their reality exist long enough to be fixed. Too many, it argued, will be cheated out of their justice if death takes everyone.

Forty-​five tearful minutes later, the ballet ended, and the Dictum appeared abruptly in their midst, white hull shining in the light of Sol. Gus figured there ought to at least be a bit of fanfare since the superweapon was their only salvation—maybe a logo or a clever jingle.

Just boop—starship.

The Dictum certainly didn’t look like humanity’s only hope. It was mostly cannon, with a little bit of ship appended to the ass-end for control. A couple of engines salvaged from the remains of a wrecked fleet provided propulsion, and it was escorted by Sol Joint Defense Force ships more appropriate for towing and rescue than countermeasures.

But it was humanity’s verdict, one way or another, so they all looked on in reverence.

Ardent’s fingers found their way into Gus’s in the cool night air. They leaned in even more as they rubbed a thumb over his knuckle. Perhaps, after five years of watching humanity crash and burn across the galaxy, this day would be the start of Gus’s renaissance.

The Dictum worked precisely as promised, drawing Earth’s would‑be destroyer, Juliette, into the center of the fleet near Jupiter—but they’d only sprung the trap on themselves.

A swarm of golden robots erupted from Juliette’s superluminal braking path like glowing dandelion seeds. These choked out the meager starfighters of the Sol Joint Defense Force, murdering the human pilots with superior reflexes, awareness, and maneuverability. Gus couldn’t make out any details, just a lot of small pops and the murmur of the crowd.

Juliette blasted out of the kill zone like an avenging angel, slicing up Earth’s dreadnoughts with its glowing whips. The Dictum didn’t even get a shot off. The Vanguard and its Gilded Ghosts took one minute and thirty-​eight seconds to finish everyone, saving the observing ships for last. It would take some time for the Vanguard’s folding reactor to recharge, but after that—

—Earth was  inished.

When Gus understood, he looked to Ardent. Every other eye in the crowd remained fixed on the holoprojectors, but he was curious. He wanted to know what the most beautiful person he’d ever met looked like in this singular moment.

The whites of their eyes had gone pink as cherry blossoms, and tears spilled over their pale cheeks. The smooth lines of Ardent’s otherworldly mask of makeup glowed faintly in the dim light, contorted into an awkward rage. They pulled a handkerchief out of some hidden pocket and dabbed their eyes and nose. It came away with the luminance of their highlighter.

“I’m going to bed,” Ardent whispered, gaze falling to the ground.

Gus nodded.

“Will you . . . will you please take me there?”

Gus nodded again.

*  *  *

They went back to Ardent’s room and fucked like there were only two tomorrows.

Gus had expected to be thrown out the next day. He wouldn’t have blamed Ardent if they’d had places to be, other people to do. Surely there were folx in the rocker’s life who needed them.

But Ardent let Gus hang around, thank heavens. The pair had a natural chemistry that kept them together in one way or another for a blissful thirty-​six hours. Ardent was an excellent conversation partner, and let Gus ramble on about pianos whenever it was his turn to talk. Gus felt bad going on about his favorite instruments, but he’d essentially been holed up in his apartment looking at music sites for the past five years. At least Ardent was a good sport about it and tried to ask questions.

They didn’t have a single disagreement until it came time to discuss their end‑of‑life intentions.

Ardent wanted to spend their final hours saying goodbye to fans. Gus wanted to be alone with someone special. It’d started off a hypothetical discussion, but without realizing it, they’d both drifted into actual plans. Gus hadn’t meant to get emotional, but these were to be his last moments. He’d be damned if he squandered them.

The whole argument tensed up before the sprain.

“You’ll have a front row seat at the fan party,” Ardent said. “At least we can be together at the end that way.”

It’d been an offer.

The answer came out completely wrong: “But I’m not a fan.”

“ ‘Not a fan’?”

“No, like I’m just . . . I don’t want to spend my last few hours playing the game. Doing the celebrity thing.”

“And I live for it, so you know where I’ll be.”

Ardent returned their attentions to the mirror cams, touching up their already flawless makeup.

“Ardent, I feel like we’ve got a real connection, and besides, I’d be out of place. I’m not like . . . a pop person.”

Ardent’s then-​emerald eyes narrowed. “Just because you fell in love overnight, my little Kit‑ko, does not mean you get to own this.”

“I meant I’m not just a fan. What we have is more.”

Ardent’s expression went from bad news to blaring warning sirens.

“More than the people who care about my art and identity? More than my wishes for how I want to spend my life?”

“I didn’t mean that—”

“I know what the fuck you meant, and some of these people have devoted the last five years to my career. They’re my friends now. Even if they do worship me, I worship them right back. So far, we know two things about our relationship: I’m a great lay, and you like to talk about pianos a little too much.”

“I didn’t . . . only talk about . . .”

But he had.

They prosecuted him with a single question: “What’s your favorite Ardent song?”

“I don’t normally listen to pop—”

“Mine is ‘Get the Hell Out.’ Want to hear it?”


“Get the hell out.”

After he’d been dismissed, Gus looked the song up, just to be sure the godforsaken tune existed. It was catchy, with a great piano solo in the middle. To his surprise, there was a lot going on in the composition.

Gus was allowed to remain on the grounds, but Ardent’s people made it clear he needed to stay away. With only a few hours left to live, there was nothing to do except wait to die as Lord Yamazaki’s guest.

*  *  *

Juliette, Vanguard giant, hums like a tuning fork, and Gus has regrets.

He should be standing on the veranda with Ardent, hand in hand as they take in the end, not gawking from the garden path. They might be the most captivating person he’s ever met, and they stand before him like a phoenix, wreathed in the misty, shattered holograms of SuperPort Hercule. Even with a world-​killing giant crashing behind them, he’s transfixed. It’s profoundly unfair that this is how he met them; he wanted more time.

Ardent is swallowed by the crowd—folx rushing to see Earth’s executioner.

Juliette draws up to its full height, vibrating in Gus’s vision like ultraviolet light. He has to squint to look directly at it. The robot raises a white gauntlet, and every harmonic overtone seems to fill Gus’s mind—possibilities even beyond human hearing. The atoms of his body thrum in time with unseen oscillations. He’s aligning to something—attuning.

All around him, activity slows to a halt. Other people’s hands drop to their sides, and they stare, wide-​eyed, at Juliette’s forming energy field. It’s a thing of beauty, pulsing and beating with a thousand dancing lights.

This feels amazing. I—

Conscious thought begins to fade.

Another superluminal brake burn splits the air like an elephant’s shout, this one close enough to send a colorful borealis of solar particles rippling across Earth’s atmosphere. The shock wave throws sailcraft against their slip walls, its force rushing up the hill, flattening every potted plant and partygoer like a ripple of dominoes.

Gus can’t do anything about it.

The hit knocks the daylights out of him, and he goes sprawling across Lord Yamazaki’s lawn. Others weren’t so lucky, and a lot of terrified screams go up all at once. People broke bones, hit their heads and split them like melons. Pained cries join the cacophony as yet others come to grips with new injuries. In all his years playing concerts, Gus has never heard a crowd make a noise like that—but then, he’s never been in a bomb’s blast radius, either.A jump that close to Earth’s atmosphere is beyond illegal, so that means only one thing: another Vanguard.

A second titan comes streaking out of the sky in a ball of fire, pile-​driving Juliette into the dark waters. Some bright soul has the idea to use a holoprojector as a searchlight, filling the bay from the top of a high-​rise. The newcomer thrashes in the water with Juliette, forming a maelstrom of whitecaps.

That collision wasn’t an accident.

The Vanguards are fighting.

The city booms with joyous voices like an arena. Horns blare. People set off fireworks. They’re all happy.

Except Gus recognizes the sleek, jet-​black form of Greymalkin—destroyer of seventeen worlds. That bastard has taken even more lives than Juliette, so it’s not likely to be helpful when it’s done beating its comrade to death.

Greymalkin’s body is a symphony of black lacquer and sleek lines. Torrents of water pour down its head, running along a pair of vertical green slits where its eyes should be. Wicked claws tip its fingers, engine nozzles on each knuckle. The jets spit and hiss like a pit full of pissed-​off cougars, and Gus has to cover his ears.

Fists ablaze, Greymalkin assails Juliette into the waves, sending pillars of steam up to join the clouds. Juliette uppercuts from beneath the water, knocking its assailant loose. In a flash and flurry of rain, the purple Vanguard is back on its feet. Greymalkin coils and strikes, but this time, the bots are more evenly matched.

Still, more hopeful whoops and gasps go up from the assemblage of people. Gus isn’t sure why they’re so excited.

They’re probably just fighting over who gets to kill us.

The Vanguards’ musical ululations fill the city’s glassy streets, bending Gus’s mind. It’s a language, and whatever they’re saying to each other, he can almost understand it. The sound resonates in his bones. These are gods, and they speak with infinite choirs.

He quickly picks out the key—F Dorian, a favorite of jazz musicians everywhere.

With a perfect view of Juliette’s havoc, the elevated veranda becomes a choked throng. Celebrities, wealthy elites, and ladder climbers—not particularly considerate in the first place—run one another over to get a good look at the two monsters clashing. Gus hangs back, because if he’s going to spend his last minutes on something, it’s not gawking.

There’s always the piano. It’s deserted now.

Gus swims upstream against the revelers pouring from the house. It’s a gauntlet; they’ll trample him if he falls, and they won’t even have time to feel bad about it. Gus isn’t into going out like gum on some well-​heeled heels, so he ducks and weaves until he’s through the door into the Maison.

He heads to the Crystal Parlor, its interior holoed over for a performance that will never occur. Jagged patterns throb gently on every wall, awaiting musical cues. The room’s many interactive facets and light shows would’ve made for a fantastic concert venue back in Montreal. Gus knows a bunch of promoters. He could probably scrape together enough venture capital to get a club off the ground and—

Even at the end, he often forgets he has no future.

The abandoned setup of Lord Yamazaki’s house quartet sits on the neon stage: a grand piano, an upright bass, an electric guitar, and a drum kit. The ones hired to play the lord’s private party already quit, so the instruments sit idle.

Cups and bottles lie strewn across the floor where they’d been dropped in everyone’s haste. Some asshole spilled their whiskey across the piano bench, but Gus situates his rump on the leather cushion anyway. No time to tidy up.

He taps the F‑zero key, and it’s like heaven under his fingertips. The Roland Grand Alpha tunes to the ambient noise of the clashing Vanguards, and Gus lays in a gentle pad of fifths. A light glissando carries him up and down, and he shifts modes to keep in sync with his new playmates.

He doesn’t want to dance with these monsters, but they’re the only game in town. He can face them and make music where it’s possible, take the party to the very end—or he can hang it up and wait to die.

Hit it.

Gus unleashes a flurry of hammer strokes across the board. His sweet music intertwines with the Vanguards’ hypnotic melodies, subverting them, patterning their voices into a trio under his command.

The Crystal Parlor comes to life, facets dancing in the lamplight. This is Gus’s favorite room in Lord Yamazaki’s house—the way it seems to breathe with his song. Surfaces align, creating impossible illusions of expansive spaces unfolding into nothingness. Gus plays a deceptive cadence, and the electropolar glass responds in kind, translating tonality into color. The room becomes a cathedral to craft Gus’s remaining opus.

He dances over the Vanguards’ sounds with his own, playing for life, attacking the attackers, snapping back at them with triplets made from their own chord progressions. If they want to end the world, fuck them. At least he can make it catchy.

No one else troubles Gus’s line of sight. They’re all too excited about the robot devils duking it out in the bay. Alone with the ivories, Gus isn’t performing for anyone, and it’s exactly what he wanted for an ending.

The titans shift musical modes again and again, and it takes everything Gus has to keep up. A smile tugs at the corner of his mouth; this might be the most fun he’s had in a jam session since he lost his bandmates in the Gus Kitko Trio.

He plays for them, too.

Lisel and Gerta were his bassist and drummer—a wonderful couple, and the best friends he’d ever had. They’d been killed in an attack on the nomadic preservation cruiser Paradise. It was supposed to be safe there, hidden, but the ship hunters found them. The dark behemoths caught every spacefaring vessel, eventually.

Gus pushes the Vanguard chord progression into an accusation. Fuck you for killing my friends.

He parts ways in deliberate dissonance, shoving in Lisel’s favorite bass lines to the beats Gerta always laid down. They might be dead, but he has them in his head, ready to jam. They’ve got something to say to these Vanguards, too, and Gus hears them loud and clear. When he shifts key to bring their harmonies back into line with the Vanguards, it’s like slamming the accelerator. He shakes his head, smiling like the Trio is playing together again at last.

The mirrored hall gasps in delight as Ardent strides beneath the archway in their glowing robes. It scatters their splendor up its oscillating crystals before bringing itself back into tasteful alignment with the song.

Ardent breezes past the piano without a word, stopping at the guitar. It’s a metal-​flaked red Strat with scintillating white accents, but against Ardent’s wardrobe, it’s positively bland. When they wrap their fingers around the instrument’s neck, their textiLEDs steal colors from the guitar body, erupting in a bloody display of light.

Far from being a distraction, Ardent’s presence completes the need. Gus feels whole, like he can truly cut loose and play humanity off the stage.

Ardent tosses the strap over their head and slips a silver guitar pick out of a hidden pocket at their wrist. They lean back, letting the instrument’s body rest against their hips, as if testing it, before squaring up to play. Their electric fingernails arc along the strings, infusing the instrument with a rising drone as they capably run a hand up the fretboard. They nod in time with Gus, keeping a beat with quick palm-​muted strums as they wait for the right place to jump in.

Gus digs this improvised jam like he’s never felt a song before. If this were a performance, it’d be one of the proudest moments of his life. This should’ve been at Lincoln Center. It should’ve been in a big arena, even.

Stay in the moment, man.

His fingers go faster and faster. People are screaming outside. Ardent raises their hand for the first rocking strum; their pick shines like a guillotine blade.

“Here we go!” Ardent’s shout is a bolt of lightning into Gus’s soul. A jet-​black robot fist punches through one side of the room, covered in gore and broken stone. It slams into Ardent, and they go flying toward an open window. The hand stops short of Gus, sweeping aside the baby grand as easily as dollhouse furniture. He staggers backward, trying to get away, but it digs out more of the house and catches him like fleeing vermin.

Unyielding fingers close around Gus, and he beats on Greymalkin’s wet armor plates to get loose. He thought he wouldn’t panic at the end—he’s known he was going to die for a long time—but it’s still terrifying. It’s crushing him. Breath won’t come.

The fist draws Gus out through the smoking remains of La Maison Des Huit Étoiles, revealing only bloody devastation in its wake. The world careens, and Gus’s head lolls atop his neck. When his view rights itself, he’s face‑to‑face with Greymalkin.

Its twin vertical slits fill the dripping night with venomous green light. Up close, the Vanguard’s hum is all-​encompassing, and Gus’s hair stands on end. So many lives have been taken by this thing. Why did it come all the way from the darkness of space to terrorize him, specifically?

Greymalkin’s armored breastplate opens up, and electric-blue muscles flicker along connective tissue. There’s a gap in the middle of Greymalkin’s chest, a yawning nest of pumping tubes and the heartbeat of lights. Probes and wires slither about the entrance, and Gus screams in horror as it plunges him forward.

He’s encased in goo, and the whole world goes dark and quiet. Every wriggling motion meets with blubbery resistance, and his muscles burn within seconds. It’s trying to exhaust him, suffocate him.

It’s definitely going to work.

The mucous wall suctions to Gus’s body, slurping away the remaining air bubbles, plastering his hair with lubricant, smearing his face. Gus makes fists, trying to grab on to something, but the gelatinous material squishes out between his fingers.

His lungs burn and stars dance in his eyes. He can’t take it. Gus’s body is about to breathe whether he wants to or not.

This is where you die.

A pair of protrusions slither up his nose, and Gus reaches up to pull them out. Those aren’t tubes; they’re the goo pressing into his sinuses.

There’s a popping noise inside his skull, and air flows into Gus’s nostrils, cold and fresh. He shuts his mouth and breathes hungrily, coughing with each exhalation. The whistling hiss of air dies down as the pressure evens out, and he’s oddly comfortable.

Gus stops struggling. He doesn’t see the point. Maybe this is the afterlife, and he’s actually supposed to be super snuggly and fall asleep.

Something tickles Gus’s scalp.

That something turns out to be a brain drill.

His pain ratchets from terrifying, to explosive, to personalityskewing. His vision whites out as the drill bit chews skin and bone, and he smells rainbows. A spike of lava burns up his insides, threading along his backbone. Probes stab through his whole body, and he hopes it will end soon: the suffering, his life, everything.

A cool mist trickles from the back of Gus’s neck into his form, and all fear vanishes as his extremities pleasantly tingle. Something alien, yet familiar, creeps into his mind. Thoughts are being forced into him.

It’s like learning the parameters of a dream, changing the truths of his world. All at once, he understands that his pain is an illusion created by the body to illustrate danger. With the right modulation in perspective, illusions can be destroyed.

Gus’s pain vanishes. In fact, he feels great.

Perhaps a little too great—there are definitely some drugs in his system.

“What’s happening to me?”

Concepts filter into him, the language of an advanced intelligence. Gus’s mind isn’t exclusively his anymore. Greymalkin and Gus are connected.

Light fills his vision, the water and sailcraft wreckage coming into ultra sharp focus. He’s seeing through Greymalkin’s optical sensors, and a thousand colors he’s never glimpsed come smashing into his nervous system. Radiant heat and gamma rays fluoresce in his sight, rendered in fresh clarity by ultra-​powerful sensors across the Vanguard hull. He could count the fish in the sea if he so desired. Monaco is even more beautiful than before, but when Gus looks into space, he’s floored.

A million destinations spread before him, clouds of possibility scattered across the sidereal firmament. Even background radiation stands out, remnants of the Big Bang cast into distant nothingness. Nebulae swirl across the cosmos, thickening into a panoramic arm of the Milky Way. Curiously, two other lights stand out in the darkness.

Those are other humans, Greymalkin explains, pushing more thoughts into his mind. Not everyone is dead.

Juliette’s fist plows into Gus’s view, sending Greymalkin backward into the SuperPort starship pads. He goes stumbling into the dry-​docked Zephyr’s Rest, supposedly the most luxurious starliner in existence. Greymalkin’s claw snaps out to catch itself, and Gus’s arm follows suit against his will. Nails dig into the silver hull and rip a huge gash down the side. Bundles of wiring, metal, nanocomposites, and a thousand other things tear loose from the Zephyr’s Rest like whale fat, and Gus seriously doubts it’ll ever fly again.

“Oh my god! I’m so sorry!”

His jaw hurts like hell from taking that last punch. Bones clacked together across his face that he didn’t even know he had; Greymalkin’s armor plates—acutely sensitive to the tiniest vibration—took a hit with the net force of a hypersonic missile. If it weren’t for the Vanguard throttling its sensor input, the shock of a full-​impact strike would’ve burned Gus out like a tiny fuse.

Juliette goes down on all fours, scrambling toward Greymalkin. It clambers along the starliner’s roof, punching another half dozen holes before leaping onto Gus’s Vanguard host. Gus feels Juliette’s ivory gauntlets around his neck, and it brings another fist across his face.

Greymalkin wants Gus to know: He will not survive a third hit like that. Its neck has taken too much damage, and needs time to regenerate.

They must work together to create an advantage.

“I’m in control?”

The answer comes through in a flash. Gus is a Conduit, and Greymalkin contains the Fount: the universal database of all harvested human memories.

The bargain: Gus will give Greymalkin access to the knowledge in the Fount. Greymalkin will give itself over to his control.

“You want to put other people’s ideas . . . in my mind?” he asks, flinching as Juliette comes at them.

Gus’s arms once again move against his will, blocking blows that could’ve cratered mountains. Greymalkin rolls and throws Juliette at the fuel storage depot, but it catches itself on the traffic control tower, clambering down the side like a spider.

If Gus consents to be connected with the Fount, he can be of some use to humanity before he dies from his grievous wounds.

“Wait, what?”

In the interest of speed, Greymalkin had to jam everything into him without anesthesia. There’s a good chance he’ll perish after this; Gus’s body has suffered an inordinate amount of trauma.

Panic scratches at Gus’s thoughts, but Greymalkin twists his mind—keeping him in the moment. His Vanguard needs his explicit agreement. Perhaps he would rather be dead, Greymalkin suggests. Gus’s choice not to help would damn humanity, but it would also be understandable. Most humans do not enjoy having their minds manipulated.

Juliette shoulder-​checks Greymalkin, sending it skidding off the coastal shelf, into the depths of the Mediterranean. The Vanguard sinks deeper, beyond the reach of Monaco’s lights. Its armored back comes to rest against the seafloor, kicking up a swirl of silt. Radars render the 23,168 fish-​sized life-​forms nearby.

“Will it hurt?” Gus takes a dry swallow.

He can save humanity. Who cares if it destroys him?

He nods and makes a tight fist. “All right. Do it.”

His viewport fills with the words Deepsync in progress . . .

A thin ray of light spreads through his head, scattering across his many nodes and subsystems. Greymalkin’s psyche fuses with him, the connection snapping them together like two droplets of water.

Middle C, played on Gus’s childhood piano, comes through the connection first. A sparkle of notes form the backbone of a song, and his limitless imagination provides dozens of branching paths. An illusory drummer follows, a snare in a swing time march, then a horn section hums a tense pad before going sforzando.

The full orchestra builds in Gus’s mind: loud, clear, and soulrattling. Memories spill into him at the crescendo, and he becomes multitudes.

It’s electrifying. Countless warriors of all shades, genders, backgrounds, and beliefs fill Gus with a battle cry, and his breath comes in panicked, wide-​eyed huffs. They’re so loud—every thought he has seems to belong to someone else. He feels their lives and motivations, the core of what taught them to fight. These were the people who laid down everything to stop the advance of the Vanguards, and they only ended up being absorbed by them.

Greymalkin informs Gus: He can only withstand five minutes at a time.

“What happens then?”

His personality will dissolve under the weight of all others. He’ll be nothing more than a drooling amalgam, unable to think or speak for himself. In that instance, Greymalkin will do him the favor of termination.

“Aw, thanks, buddy.”

When Gus sits up, so does Greymalkin. It crouches on the seafloor, preparing to launch its counterattack.

“Looks like we’ve only got five minutes to dance.”

Gus pounds his fists together and slogs up the shelf. He breaks the surface, and Juliette is waiting, whips at the ready. It draws back to swing and—

Elation as she steps forward to preempt her master, taking him by the wrist and hurling him to the mat.

The memory of another life takes over Gus’s being for a split second, and he executes a perfect hip throw. Juliette careens overhead before kicking loose in a tangle of limbs. It lands hard, but not enough to damage it. It rushes at Gus and—

They spread their feet to receive the linebacker, because they’re going to teach this motherfucker about inertia.

Greymalkin goes low, grabbing Juliette by the waist and directing its momentum into the sharp cliffs of the land extensions. The purple Vanguard rolls into the water, buying Gus a moment to catch his breath.

Gus looks down at his dark claws, lined with hissing jets. He has become what he must to save the Earth. He has every memory he needs to kick this thing’s ass.

Now he just needs to get lucky.