My brother was on the couch, legs crossed, balancing a bowl of popcorn. Tv played meaningless noise, a rerun from a half decade ago about a man and his crackshot team of investigators solving crimes in rural Ontario.
Outside the window the city played hopscotch with cars, weaving in and out of veins as heavily situated with rot as they were filled with fat and blood. Omoi played chirping music about young love and happiness, and the smog for the day was just barely above mask levels of pollution.
I didn’t want to be back here. It was a lie. It was a sweet sweet lie.
I stumbled out of the kitchen, staring at his face (but it was just the tattered edges of the picture in the watch he’d given me, clamped inexpertly on a whim, how sad was it that I only had that left) and he smiled back at me, tapping the bowl of popcorn. “About time you showed up. I was starting to get worried about you.”
“You were?” I slipped in towards the TV. Static blared from the speakers from memories not found, but for a moment, his voice was all that played. Echoing out of some deeper recess.
“Yeah,” he said, swallowing. Voice clearer now. “You’re busy with work, I get it, but I’m glad you showed up.”
“There was a lull,” I lied. “Machine we were using to run tests is broken.” Less of a lie. It didn’t taste like ashes so much as everything else was getting blurry around the edges.
“It won’t be broken forever, right?” he turned off the tv, and the static stopped. “You can always go back.”
“I… I don’t know if I want to go back.”
I remembered this now.
A few months before the end.
Thinking of quitting. What the man was sampling.
He shook his head. “Come on, Jess. I know you like your work.”
I took the seat next to him, and he looked out the window.
“You know what happens next already,” He muttered. “So why are we still here?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Aren’t I dead?”
My brother flicked his eyes towards me, yellow, half baked irises. “Do you cling to some forgotten ideal? The world is dead, and you are a relic of the past.”
The tv was back on. Static. Smell of blood in the air. Dust. Dry. Pain from a lingering concussion. Blood trickling down the back of my neck, a sticky trail made worse by the hair tangled up inside of it.
“It’s like the commercials,” he said. “Right? You do your jobs because-”
“USEC; For the Greater Good.”
“I’m just a scientist,” I said, tears rolling down my face.
My brother was gone, faded like the rest of the words, true, false.
“We can make the world a better place. We really can. There’s a world out there worth fighting for, we just need to get there. We can’t stop, because to stop is to let the world win. The Watcher Lays Blinded In A Field Of His Own Making. Rotting. Filth. Dead Worlds Boil Under Foul Suns. Make The World Better For All. OMOI Guards.”
They were counting on me back in the real world. My family was dead. But they’d been dead before I’d left. Hadn’t talked in months. Long conversations about maintaining contact, psych evals piled up in the corner of my desk. Pressure. Strain.
I knew I was cracking. Everyone had known it.
They might as well have been dead by the time the world ended.
Small cramped apartment, devoid of decor. Lab Partner my sole interaction point.
Be real, be truthful.
“I love you,” Jay said, looking up from the couch. “I just want you to know that. When I died, I was crying because I couldn’t find you. Days after the bombs fell, I cried out for you. A ghost in the darkness.”
“You’re not real,” I whispered.
“I’m not,” Jay agreed. “But you know what I’m saying is true.”
“I love you too,” I said. Breathless.
“I can’t offer you much,” Jay said. “But I can offer you just enough.”
Prince’s mind pressed against mine, and this time there was no riposte. There was only the attack of mine against his.
Snatches of distorted figures. The horrendous screeching whisper of the god of cessation, of the end of systems and circuits and routines.
Old memories of green parks and children, a girlfriend, never got beyond fiance. Tender touches.
Wrapped around his heart like a vice, some final form of insulation.
Passwords, discrete knowledge. His mind was already mostly shredded, and connected as we were…
The Radio codes. Strewn in random numerals, but entombed, memorizable.
Then deeper. Classified documents about the projects I’d been attached to. Omoi.
He screeched in pain. Agony. Failure.
Because I knew how to escape.
The Kind-Lord bloomed breathlessly across a thousand stars, the remnants of an ancient empire spawned out of the ancient cosmos, a thousand beings of shimmering anomalies, a thousand nodules made from shimmering anomalies, a thousand minds made of shimmering anomalies, and I heard the being in my mind scream from the memory, from the pure recollection, unfiltered from Omoi.
Petty memories of the dying world.
It wasn’t okay I couldn’t
I had to be honest and
Why the hell would I want to live there for the rest of my life?
It’s a lie.
The world is dead, but you don’t have to join it.
It would’ve been nice to cling to the other side. It would’ve been nice to cling to the otherside.
But I wasn’t one to dream of old things. I was a scientist.
I observed. I extracted truth.
The truth was a gun, cool against my hands, the truth was a weapon to be used, the truth was
The world shattered under the smell of gunpowder, and shattered under the sound of a single round decorating the floor on impact.
The pistol sat heavily in my hand, splayed out fingers. Smell of oil in the air, smell of something oily and direct. Immobilizing. Muscles ached. Tongue numb, bleeding. Seizure, perhaps. Twitching roiling muscles.
Mouth was filled with blood, but for once, for once, I could feel it, feel something other than… the static screeching in
Symbolic dangers in the world, mind thrown into other places. Military base. Crumbling radio station.
Teri sat glazed in the corner, form flicking back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
Boss was silent, staring at nothing at all
Prince loomed over top of me. And I knew what he was. Knew by the blossom of human blood from his chest, his eyes drifting down to stare at the gun in my hands.
Wasn’t Isaac’s gun. Not anymore.
But I was back. A taste of Omoi, a taste of safety. A military base with Boss, Teri. Radio station. Reality. Dead, dead reality.
Eyes snapped open. It was staring down at me. Pain.
At one point it had been human. The hair was about right. The facial structure was right. There was no false hood here; this had been a human once. This was no mimicry.
Merrill military base.
The thing standing over top of me had three sets of human eyes, stacked over top of each other, covered in viscous fluid. Skin pulled back over a gaunt skull.
Blood dripped from an open mouth, teeth plucked out of empty jaws, abscessed sores all that remained. It stared into my eyes, all three pairs of them. Corneas scratched, hazy out of focus. Tears rolling down his face across skin stretched too taut.
“Why wouldn’t you crumble? Where is she? Where is she? I don’t, I don’t! You don’t understand, I have to do this, Bismarck will, she will, Trellis will.”
My head roared with pain. Blood trickled out of my nose, but Prince was crying, he was crying because- he had seen
A slow flick of all three pairs.
“USEC. Does not. Suffer. Lies.” I whispered. Blood was sliding down my lips, drooling past my chin. “Why’d you forget that,” I slurred.
“We are the last best hope for mankind. We have to find the; the kind lord who made us in her image, a thousand bouncing neurons interacting with each other, a thousand stars interacting with each other, and you, we I our sin, we made it, we made her again, but where did you put her?”
Blood drooled from the open mouth.
I pulled the trigger again.
At some point, the gun clicked empty, and the thing stopped moving. Red blood poured out of wounds. Bones floated in the creature’s skull, mashed out of recognition. A human brain, destroyed.
Took a few stumbling steps away, reached into my pocket and fumbled for other magazines I’d snatched earlier. I fired a few more times, opening the chest up as well. Human heart. Human organs.
A sigil danced behind my eyes, some memory of Omoi, gleaming guardian of the new world, and I knelt down, dragging my fingers through the viscous gore left behind and painted it properly on my hands, some vague protection against the old demons that fluttered behind my eyes.
Then reached over the corpse.
Knew what I’d find.
Exactly what I didn’t want to find.
And gripped the edge of the Omoi nodule buried in his skull.
Then wrenched it out, pulverized bone still clinging to it.
A Warden was dead.