The driver of the Space Foundation SUV honked the horn as they crawled through the masses of people assembled on the road that led up to the summit of Mont Ventoux. Riding in the back of the vehicle were Archer and Lloyd. The police escort that cut them a path up ahead did nothing to stop the throngs from returning to the road and banging on whatever part of the vehicle their fists could access, and Archer found it unnerving.
Geek had deployed himself to the city of Nimes to oversee the mounting of the Attachment to the old Hind Mi-24 Helicopter Gunship that was going to intercept the Lance above L'Ermitage. The only other member of the Axiom Few, Davey, was stationed on La Luna, to get the best view there was of the approaching destroyer of worlds.
The Giant of Provence stood at an altitude of almost two-thousand metres and on this beautifully clear day, news of the destruction of mankind had brought millions to the mountain to get the best view of the end of the world. It would undoubtedly be spectacular.
Archer wore one of Geek's ComArcs, a low latency headset that provided beautiful voice clarity within an encrypted subnet. Davey paged him from his own ComArc on La Luna.
'Archer this thing is beautiful. We're tracking it through telescopes and it's coming for us at one hell of a lick.'
He thought of the images and videos he had seen of the Lance. A dark, almost organic looking V-shaped structure with immense shifting panels on all four sides of its elongated pyramid shape: menacing in its relentless journey towards Earth's delicate surface.
'I hope Geek and his Space Foundation buddies have got all their calculations right,' he said, unable to keep a quiver from his voice.
Geek interjected. 'We've run the calcs a million times. I have faith in the mathematics and the best minds on the planet have verified the sums. This is going to work. But I have work to do so if you guys will stop talking and let me concentrate,' he chuckled at his own irony, 'I might be able to save a few lives today.'
One hour later Archer and Lloyd were at the summit of Mont Ventoux, surrounded by huge crowds, but held within a fenced compound set up by the Foundation and protected by guards to keep some of the rowdier people at bay. A row of telescopes had been set up to enable them to see all the way across Provence, beyond Avignon, and some eighty kilometres to where Geek's plan would play out. All they could do now was watch with the world as a thousand cameras pointed at the area of blue sky above L'Ermitage de Collias.
'Trois minutes!' boomed a voice over a PA system that had been installed for the occasion. Archer's heart pumped thickly in his chest and he looked down to see Lloyd was gripping his hand. He hadn't even noticed the boy take it. Everyone else was looking at the sky but there was no sign of the Lance yet. Archer knew that the giant object would not be visible until the last few seconds, and then it would all be over in an instant, one way or the other.
He started to feel sick. 'Geek, talk to me.'
Geek responded instantly, his breathing was laboured, 'The Gunship is in place above the marker stone. You should be able to see it.'
Archer looked through the telescope, which had been previously trained to the precise location the remote-controlled Gunship would hover. A little tweaking of the focus brought the bulky helicopter into view. On top of the Gunship was Geek's Attachment, the wide funnel that protruded from the top of its forward rotor. It made the helicopter look top-heavy.
'Where are you now?'
Geek was out of breath. 'I'm on the Tour Magne. It's a Roman hill-top tower in Nimes. We’ve just climbed about three hundred steps to get a better view.'
The familiar sound of a cane clicking behind Archer was soon followed by the appearance of Goddard. Lloyd looked up at him and said, 'I want you both to know that if this all goes wrong, I won't hold it against you.'
Goddard smiled and put his hand on the boy's shoulder, looking at Archer he said, 'Nice to see that the dry wit runs in the family. What I want to know is, do you still hate me Archer? We could be two minutes away from extinction, so I thought now would be a good time to make peace.'
Archer regarded him for a handful of seconds before shaking his head, cursing himself for even considering extending an olive branch to the man, 'Geek's plan will work Dad, and then I would regret it. It’s you that needs to make peace.'
'One minute!' and then all eyes found their way to telescopes and binoculars. Archer, Lloyd and Goddard looked to the skies. There was a rise in the commotion of the crowd and some people started to yell and scream and even cheer and sing as their hysteria escalated.
Archer heard Geek say, ‘Gunship position holding. Davey, what do you see?'
'I’m glad I’m not down there with you. This thing is massive. I don't know what else to say. It's beautiful, but it's coming straight for you. And I can see France and Spain and the Med and it looks like the flight plan the Messenger told us about tallies and... this is... the biggest damned thing that ever went past me. Whoa! Hang on. Did you see that?'
‘See what?’ said Archer and Geek at the same time, but Davey was already speaking over them.
‘There are creatures on this thing; living creatures. A seething bloody mass of things. Crawling across. They’re disgusting. We can see them. I thought you said this thing was inanimate.’
Archer yelled into the ComArc. ‘The shifting panels weren’t mechanical. Geek you said you recalibrated for inorg…’ Archer couldn’t get the words out. Terror swept over him as he realised the implications of having altered the Epoch Bridge to bounce only inanimate matter into the future. It was beginning to look like Geek’s Attachment would be completely useless. He yelled Geek’s name into the ComArc and he yelled it again but Geek didn’t respond. His colleague was too busy shouting at someone next to him. ‘Establish the connection. Get the old code ready. Dammit! Hurry, we’ve run out of time…’
Archer looked down at Lloyd. Lloyd said, ‘Are you okay Dad?’
‘Thirty seconds,’ came the voice over the loudspeakers.
Archer stumbled over his words. ‘Lloyd, Dad, I’m so sorry. I think we’ve made a terrible mistake.’
Geek was shouting in his ear. ‘Connect, for the love of… Please connect.’
‘Twenty seconds,’ shouted that persistent voice, calling away the seconds to their inevitable death. Archer’s hands rose to his damp sweaty face and he barely heard himself whispering. ‘How could we have got it so wrong?’
Then Davey said, ‘I’m sorry too,’ and Archer realised that at least one member of the Axiom Few would survive this day of doom. But for what?
Geek was shouting ‘Yes! Yes! Now upload it. Now!’
And those remaining seconds slowed down to nothing. Archer stared into the distance through the hazy sun and wondered if the replacement code would get to the device in time. The taste of impending death rose like sick bile in his throat. His heart ceased to beat, and his eyes focused to the tightest tunnel. A dark tunnel of shame and defeat.
Then a flare of fire burst into the sky above the Gard and it all happened in moments. The Lance dipped out of the blue on its relentless downward plunge. The screams grew to hysterical levels as the object crashed through the stratosphere, awash with flame. The dark spike glowed red as it fell to the Earth, ripping the day apart with a brutal, ear-splitting rumble.
The ComArc channel had been silent. Archer knew there was no point in even speaking to Geek or Davey during this final fraction of time. Either the Attachment would work or it wouldn’t and there was nothing he could do about it now. He barely heard Geek whispering through tight teeth, his voice riddled with quivering fear, 'Now execute! Good God Almighty.'
Archer leaned into the telescope eye-piece just in time to see the fine tip of the Torre do Desafio connecting with the Gunship’s Attachment. For a split second Archer visualised it crashing right through, disintegrating the Gunship and impacting with the delicate green planet, but then he saw the reality. The Voidant Lance winked out of existence.
The air that rushed in to take the place the huge threat had just vacated buffeted across the vineyards of Provence in a chorus of mini tornados. Apparently it spoiled the grapes and eliminated that year's wine harvest.
After all the planning, the mistakes and the terror, the spectacle was over in the shortest moment, and Archer began to breathe. Seventy-eight minutes later, the Voidant Lance and an unmanned helicopter Gunship reappeared out in space and continued on a journey to nowhere.
Planet Earth was untouched by the Voidant attack this time. But Archer wondered if there were more threats on their way. He already knew that there were intelligences out there with harmful intentions. And he supposed that provided humanity had sufficient warning, they might just be able to do enough to stop it wiping life off the face of the Earth.
Standing on a pier in the seaside town of Brighton in the lonely dawn hours, Lloyd said, 'Thanks Dad. Thanks for giving me a better chance. Now I can remove myself.' He cocked a thumb towards the wintry English Channel. 'I can jump off like you once did.'
They were both silent. Archer wanted to say so many things to the boy, but nothing came out.
Lloyd continued, 'It's not fair that your Dad blamed you for your Mum's death. She died giving birth to you, but it wasn't fair for him to hold that against you. I can understand why you fell out. I understand why you fought. But can't you ever forgive him?'
'I'll try to do it, for you. I'm beginning to see the importance of family.'
'You don’t have to go,' said Archer. 'I don't want you to leave.'
'You have to let me do this. You will fall in love in a few years time and you will marry her and have me again. But I can't be here twice. I'm not needed anymore.'
Archer nodded. 'What's her name?'
'Come on Dad,' Lloyd was grinning mischievously. 'You know I can't tell you that.'
And with that, Archer's son turned and leapt into the unforgiving sea.
Before the boy had even hit the folding turbulent water, Archer’s mobile phone started to ring. He let it be for a few moments but it was persistent. He eventually raised it to his ear.
‘It’s me…’ said Goddard at the other end.
‘Look Dad, I…’
‘Listen to me. Listen to me carefully. We’ve tracked another two-hundred and seven Lances, all inbound.’
‘Is Geek with you?’
‘Then get him. We have no time to spare.’